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Archive for December, 2009

Yen’s story

Yen’s Story

He is deceivingly old for his appearance. He stands at easily under 5 foot, a slender body as most people here. But what raises question as for his correct age, is the fact that he has scarification on his face, which is a discontinued birth ritual practice. Up to probably the later 1990’s it was common to put special tribal designs on the face of a child in the first months of life.  This is done by making cuts resulting in a scar design. Yen is likely ten years older than most other members of his 4th grade class.  Yen is a dwarf, a type of dwarfism where the proportions are the same as people with normal growth; he will just never get any bigger. He is 19 years old. He speaks English reasonably well, however some concepts  will always be beyond his ability. This does not imply he is dull; far from that.

Lisa and I have been an acquaintance of Yen since our first visit back in 2005-06. He was a cow herder; ‘cowboys’ do not attend school. Now he goes to school, but questions are raised as to what he learns. It seems the headmaster continually requires him to go on errands during school hours. So when his attendance is  marked ‘present’ he may be off a good share of the day bicycling from errand to errand. He will always be a ‘small boy’ as defined by African society. Here, a ‘small boy ‘ is expected to do various  work requests by actually any adult  community member. If you are a small boy you learn who to avoid. But you can’t avoid your headmaster.

Yen is poor. We can tell this by his rag-like cloths. He is cared for by apparently no one. His father died ‘some five years ago’ and his mother ‘maybe four’.  He says his auntie cares for him, but we have no evidence that shows. He seems to survive on his own. Friends tell me he is a very  good worker within his limited strength. He sometimes goes to the gold mines a few miles away to wash clothes for small cash. For us, he is very willing to pick up garbage for an hour and receive some compensation  to be used for food. He has sharpened hundreds of pencils for us. But recently I discovered a talent that has until now been hidden.

Yen can make toy trucks out of evaporated milk cans. I saw him pulling  one attached by string. I admit I thought he was not the engineer of this fine toy that was spring loaded, giving it a comical bouncy movement.  I needed proof. “Come to the Mango tree tomorrow , and make one for me. I will pay you for it!” says I.

Along with some same-size assistants, I see Yen cutting and punching evaporated milk cans , transforming them into an authentic enough pull toy. A true craftsman has been found. He produces a second truck that moves as nicely as the first.

I pay him half of the 10 cedis agreed upon. I warm him “Tell no one you have this money”. Despite that he shows up the next day to account the theft of his money left hidden in his room. Tending to believe this, I arrange for a fair-minded business women to act as his banker, so when he needs money earned, he can ‘withdraw ‘it.

I am thinking of ways to assist Yen by either selling his toys in the U.S ( though transporting could be a big added expense) or better yet, offer Yens’ Milk Can Truck Design, so others can attempt to make one of their own.

Readers input gratefully accepted. -David Stone

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Sleeping Beauty

Sleeping Beauty, a good name for my seemingly un-trainable, but much needed 19 year old Nabt language assistant.  She is my mouth and my ears as we see 20-30 patients per day.  On a good day we might have one patient that speaks any English at all.  Schools were very few and far between until 20 years ago, making western education an impossibility for nearly all adults in the Nabt region.

First thing in the morning while I dust, sweep, and straiten the treatment room Olivia sits on a bench with the patients, resting her head in her arms.  Keep in mind, she is getting paid while I am not.  When asked to move to the treatment room so we can begin to see patients, she makes a call on her cell phone and then lays her head on the desk and doses off  momentarily.  After a patient enters her job is to ask them to stand and show me where they hurt, five seconds later her gaze loses focus and her head jerks as she catches herself before falling out of the chair.  She misses the patient response and, inevitably, needs to make another call (or two) on her cell phone. 

Being a thorough doctor, I check her inner eyelids to see if she is anemic-a lovely and normal deep pink.  I ask about fever, diarrhea, stomach pains, headache, a boyfriend – no luck.  I ask her to be sure and get a good nights sleep, alas no impact.  I even give the old tried and true pep talk on treating each patient as you would like your mother to be treated.  I do believe she is sleeping with her eyes open during that one.  Toward the end of most workdays, she no longer lifts her head off the desk to talk to patients, but merely turns her neck a bit toward the patient, speaking directly into her own forearm.  I ask her to sit up straight in her chair, the response is a slight lift of the head off the desk with the next patient.  It occurred to me that maybe she doesn’t like me, but then she did ask if she could have my bike when I leave which is surely a sign of familiarity, if not affection. 

With only one day of working together remaining, I consider myself victorious to have survived the “assistance” and still be able to wish the young lady well in the future.  I could not have done the patient care without her language assistance, and it is even a little humorous as I look back.

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November and Thankgiving

One week ago the weather in northern Ghana made an about face, bringing a conclusive end to the regular farming season. The pervasive heat, humidity and occasional rain shower of October and early November resulted in a steady temperature of 89.5 degrees in our room, not the most pleasant conditions for sleeping. At these temperatures bedtime conversations tended to degenerate into “move over, your leg is touching my leg,” even among us affectionately married folks. But, those days are over! The sudden advent of dry breezes from the Sahara to the northeast is bringing refreshing cooler nights and somewhat lower daily highs. The upper atmosphere is vaguely hazy with desert sands to varying degrees during the day, blocking some of the sun’s intensity. We are now scrambling to locate the chap stick. This season in sub-Sahara Africa is called “harmattan” and us Oregonians find the lower temperature a welcome change, in spite of the dryness and dust. Ghanaians on the other hand “fear the cold”, defined as temperatures in the 70s. Many of those discarded down jackets you gave to the Salvation Army are now being used by people with icy hands on 75 degree mornings in West Africa. The change in weather marks the beginning of traditional harvest festivals in Ghana, which leads me to reflect on the differences in how we celebrate Thanksgiving vs Harvest Festival: American Thanksgiving-Holiday at the end of harvest with emphasis on a large number of people sitting to eat a large amount of deliciously prepared food, followed by watching TV/talking about professional football. African Harvest Festival-Holiday at the end of harvest with emphasis on an entire village joining in syncopated clapping with the women dancing, men playing drums and shaking calabashes while also dancing , followed by groups of children of all ages adding their own drumming, and then repeating it all. In a major departure from American culture, food is not part of the celebration. This year, seeing as how we are somewhat deep in the heart of Africa, our harvest celebration consisted of the highly entertaining drumming and dancing option. At 3:00 pm Saturday we traveled by moto on a dusty 12 miles of mostly decent, though unpaved, road for the best harvest festival in the Nabdam area; the Sakote Harvest Festival. In addition to the usual entertainment, the remote Sakote village is particularly well known for the “Sakote Boys,” a dancing and musical group of fantastically strong, flexible, athletic leaping men drumming/singing/playing flute and 2-string guitar, that travels all over Ghana to perform.

Musical calabashes

We were not disappointed, the two white people were greeted in the most friendly manner and immediately given front row seats. The village drumming and dancing were exactly the kind of African cultural experience that I would hope everyone could have at least once in their lives. It was simply superb in every way.

The end of harvest season

As dusk approached, we meandered north and west on the moto, back to our home in Kongo. Along the way we passed a contented family of five, also headed to their home, but in a donkey cart. The palpable sense of affection and harmony among the parents and children as the father guided the donkeys along the trail seemed to truly exemplify the spirit of a Thanks giving that comes at the end of a decent harvest.

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