Our Stories | St. Michael’s Magazine: Natalie Zinko 0T8, Fiona Clarke 0T7, Alison Lenoura D’Souza 0T9

Going Places

Ghana: Natalie Zinko 0T8

Entry 1

“I have arrived at the school where I am supposed to be teaching for the next little while, Covenant Preparatory School, in a small town called Tefle.The school is quite big – some 1200 staff and students, and they all seem very warm and friendly. I am quite excited about this place! Upon my arrival, the kids in ongoing class outside by the tree all cheered really loudly, so I thought that they must be learning something very exciting.Then I learned they were cheering for me (apparently they were told ahead of time that I would be arriving). Looking around, I suddenly realized that I’m the only white person here, so I kind of stand out in the crowd, to say the least.

When I visited the classes, the kids stood up and unanimously said aloud “You are welcome, Madam!” (“You are welcome” is something I have been hearing repeatedly ever since I got to Ghana!) I felt genuinely welcomed and excited for what the months ahead hold in store for me.

Not only am I the only white person in the school, but I am the only white person in the whole town, and that requires some getting used to. Some people look at me twice just to make sure that they are not seeing things. The town kids just follow me and jump up and down and giggle; if they see me approaching, they call out “Yewoo! Yewoo!” (“white person” in the local Ewe language, the latest of the dozens of Ghanaian languages that I am trying to pick up).The other day I was walking down the street and the kids – trying to impress me with their English – called out “White man! White man!” which I am still laughing about.

Madam Rosemond is the person at the school who is helping me settle in. She’s taking really good care of me. She even asked a seamstress to come in and take my measurements to sew me a traditional Ghanaian dress. If this is not hospitality, then I don’t know what is! “

Entry 2

“Time for another quick update: teaching is going well—as well as it can be considering that I have no formal training. The students in my Grade 4 class are super! They are really excited about having someone from abroad come visit them. I am usually quite impressed at how they help one another when one of them does not understand how to add or subtract fractions with unlike denominators and such. (I’ve been teaching a bit of everything: math, religion, English, environmental studies, science, etc.) They are quite obedient and respectful, which makes my job a lot easier.

After school, the students and I play games, or read, or sing.There is always something fun to do.They really love the camera, and I let them take photos with it—it seems they can never tire of that!

Recently, I have been visiting a lot of local villages. The children served as my tour guides. At one point we had to cross a huge muddy part of the “road,” and one of the 10-year-old girls actually wanted to carry me across on her back—the children here are really sweet (I didn’t let her do that, of course.)

Village life here usually means mud huts, so I saw quite a lot of those. It’s amazing under what circumstances some people live. They all treated us really warmly, however, and served us whatever they had available. One family offered us some smoked (or maybe it was fried…) fish and cooked cassava (and that was so yummy!), then the kids climbed up the coconut trees and got us some coconuts. I had a great time there and almost didn’t want to leave.

At another place I met the chief of the village—that was quite an honour. He chatted with us for a while, gave us Coca-Cola to drink and invited us to come back another time to hear the full history of the village…”

Entry 3

I went to a 2 1/2-hour Pentecostal worship service on Sunday with Madam Rosemond. It was an interesting experience.There was the usual Scripture reading, and some singing and…some very lively dancing! The atmosphere was quite celebratory.

On another Sunday, when I went to church, Pastor Jacob gave me five minutes to introduce myself to the congregation, which I did. I told them a little about where I’m coming from, what I’m doing in Ghana and how it has been so far. I wasn’t sure how this would fit in with the 3-hour service since the only things I usually understand at Mass are “Amen” and “Halleluiah!” But by the nods, smiles and applause, I’d say that it went well.

Madam Rosemond is insisting on me learning traditional African dancing, but I told her that for her own sake it’s best that she not see me dance 🙂 Towards the end of the service, Pastor Jacob asked: “Do we have any new worshipers here today?” As soon as he said the words, the congregation turned to look at me (I was sitting at the back.) That was quite obvious to everyone! Madam Rosemond stepped in and introduced me as coming from Canada and teaching in Tefle. The whole congregation then welcomed me into the community.

I also went to a funeral. One of the staff members died; she was only 29 years old and leaves behind two kids, a 5-year-old and a 2-year-old. While we were walking to the cemetery, I had a 10-yearold, Emelia, clutching my hand all the way. Thinking about the young woman in the coffin, I could not help wondering what kind of fate awaited the child holding my hand along with so many kids like her. “Why did she die?” I asked.”We don’t really know” is the answer I got.”She was sick and then she just died.” Far too many, like this woman, die without a decent chance to live a life, and yet the people at the funeral celebrated her short life, by singing and dancing… this was one among many ways in which they paid their respects.

Nicaragua: Fiona Clarke 0T7

Last summer, as my Intercordia placement I went to Estelí, Nicaragua, where I had a mother, a brother and two sisters. We lived in a close-knit neighborhood called a barrio, with lines of houses in clusters, separated only by red dirt or narrow paved roads. Estelí was a place where you could sit on the sidewalk outside a shop called a pulperia, and enjoy sugary-sweet bubblegum or too many bags of spicy chips or just miss home. There was always a lot of time to just sit on a stoop and enjoy life, and I think there was something about Nicaragua, about the green mountains that surrounded you, that made you want to.

I was assigned to work with FUNARTE, an NGO that works for youth outreach and empowerment through art. FUNARTE was founded in Estelí: La Ciudad de Murales (the City of Murals.) Unlike my home life in Nicaragua, which revolved around the house, my work life was nomadic. I would travel in and around Estelí in the back of a dusty pick-up, surrounded by rusty, paint-covered cans, paper and brushes and equally paint-covered muralistas—mural artists, whose talents were nurtured through the FUNARTE program when they were children and who now worked as grown-ups to keep the project going. I got to meet many different people living on the margins of Nicaraguan society and experience a social stratum that would have escaped me in the midst of my middle- class Nicaraguan family.

FUNARTE’s muralistas work with disabled, incarcerated and disadvantaged youth, and they would go to each of them—to the slums or the jailhouse— and let them paint: pictures, murals, whatever they were capable of, which I often found was a lot more than I was capable of believing they could do. Seeing someone with Down Syndrome, who was prey to abuse and cruelty at home, pick up a brush and paint some of the most colourful, hopeful pictures of happiness you could ever imagine to see, or standing silently over an allegedly hardened criminal while he paints a delicate garden scene, helped me to believe in the truth of what one of the young prisoners had said to me at some point. He had told me that he was free; that despite his sentence, his cell, he was free to change himself and his life, and so he was happy.

Looking at those children painting made me realize that they had eyes to see something totally different from what I saw. Despite their horrible surroundings, they were happy and free and could believe in life and all that it could mean. I started to wonder if maybe I could have the vision to believe that I was free, too.

Honduras: Alison Lenoura D’Souza 0T9

It was a bit more than a year ago that I received a dinner invitation to find out more about a newly introduced course within the Christianity and Culture Program called Intercordia. To be honest, I only went for the dinner and did not expect I would come away wanting to participate. At the dinner I learned that participants would go abroad in the summer to a country radically different from theirs and live among marginalized persons—because marginalized people have suffered so much, they have a magnitude of experiences through which they can teach us. “Wow,” I thought, “I have never thought that way!”

Thanks to Intercordia, I learned a few of those lessons last summer in a little town in Honduras, called Santa Lucia. I had a placement to work at a rehabilitation centre for blind adults, called CAIPAC, whose goal is to allow the blind students to realize that they can do many things and that they are worthy of dignity and respect. Morning classes included Activities of Daily Living, Orientation and Mobility, Braille classes, massage therapy, phys. ed., carpentry and handicrafts. In the afternoons, I taught computers, and after work I would visit my host grandmother, have long conversations with the locals or take a few of the blind students to a nearby field to play soccer with my special ‘ball of sound’— I had made a hole at the top of a plastic ball and put beans in it, then taped it up again, and voilà! a ball you can hear when it moves.

When I arrived in Santa Lucia, I felt alone. I knew no Spanish and none of the locals living or working near me spoke English. The most frustrating part was communicating with the blind adults, since charades and other visual communications were out of the question! In a funny way, I was the mute leading the blind.

Ironically, the fact that I could not communicate actually helped me build relationships. I remember once—just a few days after I had arrived—one of my students, Stanley, asked me for how long I was going to be in Honduras (at least that’s what I thought he was asking) and so I responded: “Three months”. He cracked up with laughter; he had asked me how old I was! Not only was I subsequently referred to as the three-month-old baby around the centre, Stanley and I also became inseparable friends.

I did eventually pick up the language, and I believe that a huge reason for that was the hospitality I experienced at CAIPAC. From the moment I arrived until the end of my three-month placement, the students would include me in conversations, knowing my Spanish was terrible, that I would always take a long while to reply. They made “eye-contact” with me by listening to me. They accepted me, a non-Honduran, someone with no apparent physical disability, and with a financial situation much different from theirs. It may seem little, but their hospitality confirmed to me my dignity and value as a person—how ironic, though, considering that blind people in Honduran society are often rejected by their families, left to beg or to die. What they do not often receive, they gave to me.

Last summer, a few SMC Christianity and Culture students became the College’s first participants in an experiential learning program, Intercordia Canada, which places students from five Canadian universities with non-governmental organizations around the globe. The aim is to promote cultural sensitivity and moral responsiveness in students and to encourage them to discover a more compassionate view of the world.

Intercordia believes students learn respect for diversity best from first-hand experience, living and working with others who are different. More often than not, they find themselves working with people discriminated against even within their communities for being “different” – the blind or mentally challenged, for example.

Current Intercordia partners include small, grassroots NGOs in South America, Central America, Mexico, the Dominican Republic, Ukraine, Bosnia-Hercegovina, Palestine and Ghana. These organizations are staffed by local people who know the country and the culture and can assist the students in finding their way. They welcome the students and provide a brief orientation, arrange a home stay with a local family, arrange work placements where students can use their talents and help people in need, provide ongoing support during the placement time and assist in any emergencies, keep in contact with Intercordia during each placement.