Friday, April 27, 2012

Day 4--The Night

After an already very full Day 4 we arrived at the fishing village far up Lake Volta.  This is where our new friend, Tetee was rescued seven years ago.  We were exhausted but ready to sort of "settle in" to the place where we would stay the night.  There was no dinner so, as needed, we ate more protein bars and drank bottled water that was becoming less and less cold as the ice it was in understandably continued to melt.  We were not allowed to eat the food the locals eat for sanitary reasons and the literally weak intestinal fortitude of our American digestive systems.  No longer looking at protein bars the same way now is a small price to pay for this experience but seriously I haven't had one since returning to the States and if a few more years go by before I do that will be fine with me.

These are some of the sights that greeted us to our "home" for the night.
Little ones checking out the strange guy with the camera.

One of the nicer homes in the village.

Typical scene in the village

After we set down our small bags of toiletries, clothes, and food in the outdoor area where we would make camp for the night we were invited to take a walking tour of the village with one of the nicest men we met on the entire trip.  (I am embarrassed that I can't recall his name now but I will never forget him!)

Love these faces!
It was a real kick to go from section to section of the village and see how the people there lived.  As you can tell from the pictures it is a rough existence there where day-to-day survival is top priority.

Starting our tour.
In the midst of this reality it was so gratifying and certainly one of the highlights for me personally to be greeted with big smiles by so many children and often their parents.  The kids would just follow us wherever we would go.  Some would try to speak English to us to see if what they had learned at school would really work.  I am happy to say that it did...mostly.  Many would reach out to hold our hands and sometimes I was holding hands with 3-4 kids at once.  It was very sweet and I was so happy to share that closeness with them, albeit temporarily.

Our tour guide (back) and Jen with one of the elders of the village.

My daughter, Mika, with a beautiful baby boy.

Recharging station.
After our 45 minute tour that turned into about 90 minutes we came back to our spot and just sort of hung around watching the villagers get ready for the night, trying not to think about the heat and dirt and setting up our sleeping arrangements.  The local team was very helpful in schlepping our stuff up from the boat 200 yards to our spot in the dirt.  They set-up the generator, recharging station, lights, cots, and mosquito nets for us.

Eric, in his true greatness as a humanitarian, spent probably an hour handing out clothes that his own children has outgrown over the year to the children of the village.  He took great care to find something that would fit these children--usually with a little room to grow into.  There was some jostling in line for sure but generally they were well-behaved especially considering their opportunities to get anything new, let alone something as important as clothes, are very rare.

Our set-up for the night.
The downside of having light in the dark is BUGS!

As the darkness set in we tried to get comfortable and waited for bedtime.  Our team set up our mosquito nets for us over our cots on which we laid a thin mattress.  I didn't find out until the next day that the nets weren't just for mosquitoes but for the swarms of bugs that were present in the village and apparently attracted to the lights we had hanging over our beds.  Shocker!

The villagers planned to have a "durbar" that evening starting around 9PM.  A durbar is a ceremonial party with lots of tribal music and dancing.  I stayed up taking pictures and "hanging out" with everyone for a while waiting for the durbar to start but I ran into a problem or two

#1-I was exhausted.
#2-I was wearing a white T-shirt--thinking white is a cool color and that would be smart to wear during the hot days of Africa.  However, in addition to picking up dirt everywhere it was also quite attractive to the bugs, in addition to the headlamp I was wearing.  Smart guy that I am ;-) I realized quickly my high-tech headlamp was nothing but a bug magnet and target and its usefulness rapidly diminished.

This little guy is up past his bedtime.  So is Jen!
Again, not realizing that the bugs swarming around me weren't actually malaria-carrying mosquitoes, I sort of got freaked out when one of the children started brushing bugs off the back of my shirt.  I thought if this little guy is worried about me maybe I should be too and decided to retire to my cot and the safety of my net.  I felt bad to miss the durbar which I heard later was quite the party (of course my cot was only 10 feet away from the festivities so I did get the audio portion of it.) but I was seriously ready for a break.  This was probably the only time on the trip when I was disappointed in myself and felt like a bit of a pansy. 

--Petting a crododile?  No problem.
--Shooing away the young hustlers trying to get our money?  Check!
--Dealing with the scare of a near fatal van accident?  OK.
--But dealing with a swarm of bugs while dead tired running on warm water and protein bars? Guess I hit my limit.  Oh well.  So, I am no Bear Grylls.  No surprise to those who know me.
The Village People (not those guys) preparing to play music for the dancing and partying that carried long into the night.

Lastly, I have to just say that my night in our little cocoons was the longest night of my life.  I am a big guy, 6'3", 220, and the cot I was on was clearly built for smaller, shorter people.  To keep the bugs out you tuck the net under the mattress on the cot but I was afraid that the cot would close up like a taco and put me on the ground so I was very careful to not move around at all.  I was deathly hot and humid and frankly miserable.  I remember waking up pretty much every hour on the hour checking my watch.  You could hear the chickens, goats, and people all through the night, in addition to a loud snorer (ironically not me this time probably because generally you have to be asleep to snore) who seemed just fine with our accommodations.  I was so bored and agitated that I couldn't sleep but knew I badly needed it that I even broke out my Blackberry and checked email from my work. (Yes, I was able to get service way out in the sticks.  Sort of amazed me, too!)  I remember around 2AM just laughing with Mika and Jen as we were all miserable.  Laugh or cry sometimes, I guess.

We finally woke up like 5:30AM or 6:00AM--about 2 hours after the rooster crowed, what's up with that?! Who ordered the 4AM wake up call?!  We woke up to a village radio broadcast of the day's news and updates on what was happening in Ghana.  No shower, obviously, and I was in bad need of one, but we used our baby wipes to clean up a bit and had some water, licorice, malaria pill, and oatmeal:  breakfast of champions.  I was glad to be awake,  not to mention alive, and ready for a great day.  Despite the physical and mental challenge I was shaken by the thought of these trafficked children who live and sleep in conditions worse than I had it and then have to get up before dawn to go and work under threat of physical violence.

I know I am complaining but my one night of difficulty gave me precious perspective on the value of the mission we were on for which I will always be profoundly grateful.

Day 5 soon...

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Day 4

Waking up isn't generally something I look forward to but Mikaelyn and I were glad to wake up and leave the hotel to start the mission on Day 4, Tuesday March 20, 2012.  We were the first ones ready to leave so we got in the Land-Crusier with Eric and took a short 5 minute drive to the shore of Lake Volta.  The little town was bustling and vibrant with color and people getting ready for the day.  Check out these beautiful pictures of the people making their way in the world that morning.  Seeing them again makes me miss being around their indomitable spirits.

Freshly brushed teeth.


Yes, she is rather pregnant and yes, she filled that entire basin with water from the lake and took it away.

Breakfast on the go!

Wish we could have taken her home.  How beautiful is she?!

After a lot of milling around and truly enjoying the many people and things we saw at the the markets while our crew loaded up our boat for our overnight mission way up Lake Volta we were finally underway. Here is the boat that took us about 3 hours north on the lake to the various villages we visited this day.  It was so muggy and hot that moving in the boat was the only, and I mean only, time we had a break from the relentless heat as the speed of the boat moved the warm air on us so that it actually cooled us down...a little.

 As we journeyed toward the north of the Lake we weren't entirely sure what we would run across but at the first turn we took to visit one village we had lost the film crew so we stopped the boat--felt the heat come back immediately--and waited for them.  As soon as the film crew caught up to us after some minor motor problem, Eric directed our captain, Patrick, to a fishing boat near us.  As we got closer it became evident that we had run across our first trafficking case.  There was one young boy (maybe 12 years old?) and 5 grown men all fishing.  Before we even realized what was happening Eric had boarded the boat and was busy making friends and talking to them about child trafficking and trying to negotiate the release of this boy.  As you can see in the pictures this little guy was scared because the men apparently told them that we were the police and he was going to be taken away. Eric calmed the boy down with some candy and kind words.

 The men agreed to "discuss" his release the next day and gave us their location.  We were hopeful that we could get him released the next day and went on our way to the first village.

Before moving on to the next village I must interject here that I truly have never met anyone in any country with the calming and engaging personality that Eric possesses.  He showed that personality every second I was with him and I know this is the key to his success of releasing over 700 trafficked children since he started this vital work.  It is an honor to know him and I feel like I have made a true friend for life.

We visited the first fishing village where Eric had arranged for one boy to be released the previous year but unfortunately the master wasn't around.  We did see some mobile phones on the remote islands we were on but there was no contact we cold make with this master so we moved on.  The village here looked like something out of a Disney Jungle Cruise set and we met a little boy named "Obama."


We had better luck at the next village.  Again, Eric had discussed the release two boys in this village the previous year.  The master ended up releasing only one to us, Kwojo, because he said the other one was sickly and that Kwojo was smarter and had a better chance of making something of himself. 
Kwojo minutes away from freedom.

Eric negotiates with Kwojo's master.
Eric writes up the contract as part of the release.

The film crew capturing the release.
All smiles once the deal is done.  Kwojo with all of his worldly possessions and his smile!
While the film crew was finishing some shots on the shore and after all was said and done and the smiles were recorded the master actually came up to our boat where Kwojo was seated next to me and looked as though he was going to try and take Kwojo back.  Several of the many kids on the shore watching Kwojo onboard jeered at him and things got a little sketchy for a few minutes.  We yelled for the film crew to hurry up and started to leave while keeping Kwojo safely in back and close to us.

We were delighted to have our first rescued child on board and it was a touching experience to watch him as he began to wake up to what had just happened to him.  He was free and about to start a brand new life.  We were running out of daylight and still had a good hour or so to get to Tetee's village where we had more children to rescue and where we would stay the night.

It had been a long but rich day and it even though it was only about 4PM it was about to get longer ahead of an even longer night.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Digging out--Please pass the shovel! DAY 3

With huge apologies for the long delay in posting many more details and pictures from our incredible trip let me just say that the last two weeks or so since we returned feel like two years!  I have been trying to dig out from my day job, family time on Spring Break, and frankly just letting the whole experience sink in to my head and heart has been MUCH more taxing than I anticipated.  I truly am sorry for the delay and am excited to post the entire experience starting now.  No more excuses or apologies.  Here goes...

Thankfully the team and I took several thousand pictures on the trip and I will use them to start telling the story of the rescue itself and share with you (don't worry not ALL the pictures!), what I learned and what's next.

The last detailed update I gave was the day before we left for the rescue when we visited the village of the boy, Never, who was rescued in the Oprah show featuring the child trafficking story in Ghana that started all of this--see Day 2 below.

Let me now tell you about Day 3.

Day 3: March 19, 2012

The team with Eric, Tetee and Mabel with a pre-mission photo outside our hotel.
After a late evening getting back from an amazing day in Never's village we all rose fairly early to check out of the hotel, load the vans and embark on the mission to Lake Volta.  Our new, dear friend Nancy (in white shirt) had to return home to help her young son through a serious soccer injury and we sadly said goodbye.  The film crew showed up to document our departure as we left our hotel--which turned out to be Hakuna Matata time of 1.5 hours later than planned--and a whole lot of comfort and amenities we didn't realize we had in this hotel but were about to sorely miss as we headed north to our next "hotel" 9 hours away. 

Drove for a grand total of 11 hours after bathroom breaks, food, gas, etc.  We spent the car time mostly bonding with our team and Eric's two helpers, Tetee and Mabel. They both were rescued from trafficking as kids but now work with Eric to help rescue other kids.  Talk about giving back and paying it forward!

Mabel, Tetee, and Tyler

Tetee watched a documentary video Eric showed us in the van to get us ready for the mission and got really angry.  He went on a somewhat indiscernible rant against his master and the other men who traffic children.  He showed us his ankle where he had marks from being beaten and burned—it was a quick glance but no doubt 7 year-old scars.  Jenik was sweet and calmed him down and told him that he needed to try and let go of the rage and anger to help himself move on.  It is certainly hard for him to even return to his village and to visit his master.  I asked him why he was going to see his master and even take him a gift and he said "To say thank you for setting him free."  What a great example of trying to move on from something so awful while working hard to give other kids the same chance to experience a new life of freedom.

Our driver, Patrick, picking up the pieces.  We left him there and never saw him again on the trip.
Near the end of our trip today we were driving along the highway somewhere between "Timbuktu" and "Podunk" as we had been for hours prior with the two Land-Cruisers carrying the film crew behind us when our van driver swerved suddenly, briefly went off the road to the right and then sharply to the left to correct and then came to a quick stop.  Scared us all very much and we were very fortunate there was no car in the opposite lane.  I should mention we were riding Ghana style with no seatbelts on!  Could have been a real disaster in the middle of nowhere.

I thought it was a blow-out but actually the bearings blew out and the van became inoperable.  So, we consolidated all of our stuff onto the tops of the Land-Cruisers and squeezed 9 of us in one and 8 in the other.  I somehow got lucky as the tallest in the group and got to ride shotgun which enabled me to get a badly-needed 45 minutes of sleep.
We had to unload everything and abandon ship, er I mean van.

The film crew delicately put their equipment on top of the Land-Cruisers to make room for their new best friends.

Despite our potential disaster, the locals seemed to enjoy meeting some new friends, and it helped lighten our mood a bit.

We finally got into the town of Yeji around 7PM.  Most modern city we saw all afternoon.  Partial electricity and lots of open air shops.  We stayed at a “hotel” there.  I think we all were more than a little surprised at the set-up.  Felt like 90-degree heat inside the hotel and pretty sketchy amenities--no towels, no soap, etc.  Some of the rooms had AC units that worked a little—luckily we did.  But the hotel is open air and fully susceptible to bats, mosquitoes, and cockroaches.  Sweet dreams!

My daughter, Mikaelyn, and I brought our own sheets and slept on top of all of the linens provided by the "hotel" in order to avoid bedbugs.  Some of our team didn't do that and were bitten.  Good news is that it was so stifling that we didn't need, or want, a blanket!

Upon arrival the hotel owner was kind enough to fumigate our room for us and I got to watch two little friends die a painful death on the bottom of our shower.

As we all tried to relax in the dark, muggy, dirty hotel as we drank cold Cokes from a little shop down the street to wash down our melty protein bars I recalled my time as a missionary in Japan in 1987 riding a too-small bike down the highway in an absolute downpour wearing my suit and tie under a Richard Simmons-style sweat/rain suit that actually made me hotter and wetter than wearing no rain gear.  I was absolutely miserable with my physical condition but then realized clearly and emphatically that this was an amazing chance to see what I was made of and just started laughing.  I felt the same way this night and was reminded that attitude is huge in the results we get in life.

I am grateful for this day of travel and experience and went to bed anxious to see what the next day would bring.