Friday, February 26, 2010

Billie B Brown Comes To Town!

Woo hoo! Just got advance copies of the new series I have been writing for Hardie Grant. There are four books so far, due out in April, starring Billie B Brown, a fiesty tom-boy, who I'm hoping will provide a refreshing change for little girls (and parents) sick of princesses and fairies! Billie's best friend is her next door neighbour, Jack, who is good at building cubbies but not as good as Billie on the monkey bars. The books are for 6-8 year olds who are just learning to read and they are illustrated by the wonderful Aki Fukuoka. Very excited! Hope you love them!
Check this out for a taster:

Monday, February 22, 2010

I think it's time I had another child...

Yes, that’s not a typo. I already have three gorgeous sons but after visiting my sponsor child, Elizabeth, during a recent trip to Ghana I have now made the decision to add another child to my brood.

After having sponsored Elizabeth since she was four and having watched her grow in yearly updates and photographs from World Vision, I was excited to finally meet her in person and also to meet her family. However, what I hadn't anticipated in preparing for my visit to Ghana was how moved I would be by the World Vision staff themselves.

I have been sponsoring Elizabeth for over six years now and, in all honesty, I don't even notice the money come out of my bank account. It is less than I spend on tram tickets each day, less than the coffee I buy at the café down the street, less even than the spare change that rolls around the bottom of my car for parking meters. Sponsoring Elizabeth costs just a little over a dollar a day. It seems like almost nothing and, at times, I wondered whether my meagre contribution could possibly be making any difference. But it has. And I was able to see that difference first-hand.

I was picked up early Monday morning by Raphael, full-time driver and mechanic for World Vision in Takoradi, which is two hours away from Accra, the capital of Ghana. We chatted a little about his life: he was born in the North of Ghana, grew up in a mud hut and had enrolled in an engineering course at university, which he had to pull out of when his father died so that he could get a job to support his mother and siblings. He told me that he now has three daughters, but when he showed me a photograph of his family, there was also a little boy in the picture.
‘Who’s that?’ I asked, ever curious.
‘Oh, he’s the son of my neighbour,’ Raphael replied. ‘We look after him because his parents can’t afford to.’
‘Is that common?’ I asked.
‘Oh yes,’ Raphael replied. ‘If you have money left over after feeding your own family, you take in another child. We just pay for his food and schooling, that's all.’

This was the first of many humbling conversations I was to have with Raphael that day.

We arrived at the World Vision office just outside Takoradi where I was greeted like royalty. Christina, the head of the Ahanta West Project, sat me down in the boardroom and apologised that as there was no electricity that morning, she wouldn't be able to show me the power-point presentation she had prepared. Fortunately, she had had the foresight to print it out a few days earlier and sat down next to me and went through the print-out, showing me exactly where all the money I had donated (along with other sponsors for the area, all Australian) had been spent. For almost an hour, seated in the boardroom with all the other local World Vision staff, Christina went through the statistics of how much the community of Ahanta West had been improved over the last twelve years that World Vision had been in the area.

I will pause here to explain something I had already been aware of but many other sponsors may not know; the money I donate in Elizabeth’s name goes into a pool for her whole community rather than directly to her as an individual. In this way, the World Vision staff decide how it can best benefit the largest number of people. Their motto is that you can give a man a fish and he will not starve for a day, but if you teach him to fish he will eat for a lifetime. So, naturally, a large part of the money is spent on education. This education ranges from teaching mothers about nutrition through to how to avoid AIDS (ie; it does not come from the gods) and, most importantly, educating the next generation of children. But there are practical things the World Vision staff put into place, too, before the children can even be educated. In the past, Elizabeth and her friends couldn’t go to school because they had to walk for miles to fetch water, which was often polluted anyway causing illness and disease. Now their village has a well, which provides fresh water for the whole community and World Vision has also provided vaccinations for all the children against major diseases.

Christina went through the statistics with me methodically, continuously thanking me for my small part in changing the lives of this entire community. She also explained that in October this year the community would be considered self-sufficient and able to fend for themselves without the continuing support of World Vision.

After our board meeting, it was off to meet Elizabeth. We drove to her school, which consisted of three basic buildings in a field of flattened dirt. Obviously, our arrival caused much excitement and disruption throughout the whole school, and children ran to the windows to peer out at us. I have to say I was very impressed with how healthy all the children looked, and at how beautifully clean and ironed their uniforms were. I’m embarrassed to admit that I have often sent my children off to school with runny noses and crumpled clothing, looking far worse than any of these children did.

Elizabeth’s classroom consisted of two long rows of desks with approximately fifty children seated around them. The teacher was in the middle of an English grammar lesson when we arrived, writing on an old blackboard in chalk. I was amazed to see that the students didn't appear to even have pens or paper so were reciting everything he said by rote. Elizabeth and I were told to stand at the front of the room with the teacher and had hundreds of photos taken while I donated pencils, paints and posters (all bought from my local two-dollar shop, as suggested by the Australian World Vision staff). Elizabeth stood beside me like a startled rabbit, doing her best to smile for the cameras as instructed. After signing the school visitor's book with great ceremony, the World Vision staff took me, Elizabeth and her older sister (who is also a sponsored child) back to their community to meet her family.

Before I was allowed to meet her family I had to meet with the community chief to ask for his permission. The chief was away that day so four other people who represented him received us instead. We sat in a room, all the officials and Elizabeth and I, and one by one stated our name and purpose and also a little about ourselves. This was translated not only for my behalf but also for Christina and her staff as the Ahanta West community speak only the language of the area.

Finally, after the all formalities were finished, and prayers were given, we were taken to sit in front of Elizabeth’s house and meet her family. Once again, we went around the circle, explaining who we were and our relationship to Elizabeth and said a few more prayers (me with my eyes closed, pretending to know what I was doing). I was introduced to everyone as Elizabeth’s ‘mother’, which made me feel awkward, as Elizabeth’s own mother was there, as well as her grandmother and great-grandmother. But when her mother called me ‘sister’ and my own sons Elizabeth’s ‘brothers’, I understood the symbolism of the title and its deeper meaning.

‘How do they feel about me swanning into their community, like some rich white woman, handing out presents?’ I asked Raphael later when I had finished the tour of the area, seen the water pump World Vision had put in and had hundreds more photos taken with Elizabeth and her extended family. ‘Do they, you know, feel resentful or patronised by me being here? Is there any stigma attached to being a sponsored child for Elizabeth and her family?’
‘No,’ Raphael answered, genuinely shocked. ‘It’s just normal. They are just grateful to you. After all, in Ghana if you have money you share it.’

Of everything I heard that day, this is the comment that moved me the most. Of course. It really is as simple as that. If you have money, you share it. If Raphael can do it earning less than a hundred dollars a month as a driver and mechanic, it is a given that I should do it too. Already the little I donate feels like nothing to me but means everything to the World Vision staff in Takoradi, as they reminded me often that day. Their work in these communities is completely funded by people like myself, lots of little donations that add up to make a difference. Enough of a difference that in only twelve years a severely poverty-stricken community, completely dependent on World Vision to survive, has now become self-sufficient, proud and strong. On less than I spend on coffees.

Now that I know for certain that my money is not just a drop in a vast ocean of poverty, I am going to sponsor another child. I have seen with my own eyes how much it can help. And, even if you have never have the fortune to meet your own sponsor child as I did, you can take it from me that somewhere in the world someone is grateful for your existence, which is sometimes more than we can say for our own children!

Go on, you know you want to. It's so easy you don't even need to get up from your desk. Plus, if you need any more incentive, you know you can claim it as a tax deduction.

Photo above: Theresa (Child Sponsor Co-ordinator), Me and Raphael.
Photo below: I am in the middle (easy to spot) Elizabeth is on my left in the brown school uniform, then her mother and uncle next to her. Christina is on my far left in the white shirt. On my right is Elizabeth's grandfather, and on his right is her grandmother. The others in the photo are other World Vision staff or other people who live in the Ahanta West community.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Day Four - Out on the street

Wednesdays at Lincoln Community School finish up at 1pm. The younger students go home but the senior students must participate in a program called CAS (Community Action Service) which goes towards their end of year marks. Students volunteer to help out in several places around Accra and I jumped on a bus that was headed to a childcare centre. The childcare centre was set up by a German woman who saw a need to help "Street Girls" - young women who were selling things along the roadside with small children in tow. The centre was established not only to look after the Street Girls' young children but also to help provide education and training to move these women off the streets and into more stable jobs. The centre is tiny and looks after between 120 and 130 small children a day - with only six full-time staff and a cook. The children were overjoyed to see the LCS students arrive. I sat with a little boy on my knee and caught up with my cuddles while I watched the teenage students play, read to or tutor the children. (The photo is of a five of the little girls at the centre in their hand-made uniforms.) For me, this has been the most impressive part of a most impressive school. I've had the most wonderful time here but my workshops are done. Long weekend trip to Lake Volta and then off to meet my sponsor child Elizabeth on Monday. I'll post again when I can!

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Day Three - 5 things I love about Ghanaians

1) They laugh. Lots. On the whole Australians can take themselves way too seriously. When was the last time you saw someone let out a great big deep belly laugh? Ghanaians laugh like it's a gift. Pure and rich and simple. If wealth was measured in laughter I imagine Ghana would come up as one of the richest countries in the world.

2) They are not unattractive to the eye. I'm sure they are out there but I have yet to come across an ugly Ghanaian, and some of them are just jaw-droppingly gorgeous. I think this might also have something to do with the above.

3) They are SO polite. Call me old-fashioned but I LOVE manners. This Ghanaian attribute has obviously influenced the students at the international school here where I am running workshops because just about every student I pass offers me a friendly greeting or a smile. Anyone who has wandered through the corridors of an Australian high school recently will get why this is something I find so impressive.

4)They can carry things on their heads. Along with the baby wrapping I wrote about in an earlier post, carrying a full load of groceries on your head is utterly impressive to me. I had a little practice in the privacy of my room with a single text book and couldn't even keep it up there for three minutes let alone try to cross the floor. This also means Ghanaians have beautiful postures. See note 2.

5) They don't raise their voices. Ghanaians regard someone who loses his temper and shouts as childish and so doesn't deserve to be taken seriously. Anger in Ghana is show in three ways. Here they are in order of gravity.
A little bit angry: 'Ooh! Ooh!' This is a warning that you've displeased them.
Very angry. 'Tsk! Tsk!' A gentle clicking of the tongue
Absolutely furious: Slapping your hand into your palm. Not even slapping someone else but slapping your own palm.

I know I risk sounding like my own grandmother but all the same I will come right out and say: What is there not to love about a straight back, level temper and nice manners? Does it for me every time.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Day Two - Trashy Bags

What is there not to love about a shop called Trashy Bags? On our way home from school yesterday, my hosts made a detour past the new Trashy Bags store in Accra for me to do a little souvenir shopping. Essentially Trashy Bags employs over 60 people full-time to collect plastic bags off the street, sort them and then recycle them into these SUPER groovy hand bags, shopping bags and wallets. Impressed? I was! We pulled up outside a brand new two-storey building where out the front two women sat amongst a pile of plastic bags sorting them into colour and design. Then, inside the building the first floor was full of men and women on sewing machines turning rubbish into art. And, really, the bags are pure Art, with a capital 'A'. (see pic) Upstairs is the showroom, where all the bags were on display, and before I knew it, I had bought more recycled bags then I could ever know what to do with. (Yep, anyone close to me will know what presents they have coming to them!) I was so impressed not only by the work and design but also the concept. Streets in Accra are unfortunately littered with plastic bags but I was so inspired to think that this kind of intiative exists. If you think you're doing well getting your old milk cartons into the recycle bin on time you really should check this out: Now, if someone could only organise Posh Beckham to be photographed carrying the latest Trashy Bag tote - just imagine...

Monday, February 8, 2010

Day One - Snapshots of Ghana

Wow, I'm here. In Africa. My first time ever and I can't quite believe it myself. After an exhausting flight and suffering a complete reversal of my body clock, I still can't stop grinning just to be here.
My hosts are lovely. An Australian couple who just decided one day to pack up their family and explore the world with their two daughters in tow. Since then they have been teaching in international schools and travelled extensively for over fifteen years. Their zest for life and fascinating stories remind me just how important travel is to broaden your mind and how hard this can be when you live in a country like Australia. Especially when you live right down in Melbourne and it can take many hours (and many dollars) just to get out of the country. In Europe, Asia and Africa you can just jump on a bus or train and within a few hours be in a completely new country: new language, culture and completely different environment. I have a friend who lives in London who has been known to go to Italy on weekends just to catch an opera!
When I first came back to Australia after living in France, this is what I missed the most. Even though we were dirt poor I still managed to get to the Bologna AND Frankfurt book fairs just by travelling overnight on the train to cut down on accomodation costs. The thought of getting to the Bologna Book Fair from Melbourne nowadays seems like a pipe dream.
Anyway - enough about Europe. Let's get back to Africa. Here are my impressions after only half a day here. I will try to attach some photos as soon as possible but, until then, imagine these as photos in words.
Babies tied onto backs with a piece of fabric. (Unfortunately the above is not my photo - I never seem to have my camera at the right time!) Forget all those complicated backpacks and front packs with confusing clips and buckles and straps, I will never cease to be blown away by watching how simply and easily African mothers tie their babies onto their backs. I was fascinated to watch the woman in front of me on the plane, swing her sleeping baby up onto her back, pull out a large square of cotton and just tie him on. Imagine getting out of the shower and wrapping a towel around your chest, except with a baby tucked into the back. That's how easy she made it look. And the baby didn't even stir - just kept right on sleeping with his head lolling about in the most awkward looking angle.
The light. It is the end of the season called the Harmattan here, where dust from the Sahara blows into Ghana for about three months and covers everything. Even though the Harmattan season has officially past, the light is strangely yellow from what remains of the dust still in the air, bathing everything in a warm glow. Photos to come - I hope I can somehow capture this light despite my pathetic photography skills!
Speaking in doubles. Not a photo as such, more an expression I am fascinated by. What I understand by this is that instead of using the word 'very' Ghanians say a word twice to convince you of its meaning. Something very small is 'small small', something happening very soon is 'soon soon'. I'm guessing that this use of these double words provides a different emphasis depending on the context, because I had lunch at a school cafeteria today called Zoo Zoo. (Don't know if this is meant as a description of the school or the food - I will keep you posted on this. So far the kids have been delightful and I wasn't served anything that resembled zebra for lunch.)
But that's all I have time for today. So that I don't get into trouble trouble, I'd better log off and prepare my next worksop. Back soon soon!

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Into Africa!

Well, I'm packed and ready to go. Managed to squeeze a couple of pairs of undies and a toothbrush in around all the books and art materials and other stuff I need for my workshops. My request to visit my sponsor child has been approved, my visa has come back in time, I've bought presents, stocked up on anti-Malarials, and have even managed to get my suitcase closed - though god knows how much it weighs! So far so good. A mere 23 hours of flying (!) and I'll be there. Ghana is on the West coast and right on the Equator, so hot and sweaty, I'm guessing. That's fine by me - I love the hot weather. It's also almost exactly 12 hours behind so I'm hoping the jet-lag won't be too bad. Whatever happens, it will be an incredible adventure, I'm sure. Wish me luck!

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Book launches in February

The Race for the Chinese Zodiac
by Gabrielle Wang
illustrated by Sally Rippin
& Regine Abos
10.30am, Saturday 20th February
at Book Bonding
409 Keilor Road
Niddrie 3042
RSVP: Natasha 9374 4458
Bring along your kids to get their faces painted!

Peeking Ducks
by Krista Bell and Sally Rippin
Saturday 27 February 2010
at 2:00pm
Readings Port Melbourne:
253 Bay St,
Port Melbourne

Free, and no need to book.