Travel & Day 1 in Ghana

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Travel & Day 1

The journey was far shorter than it is to go halfway across the world to China or to India. All equipment and wheelchairs made it in one piece, thankfully. Having become a pro at those uber long flights, this one was a breeze, and we lucked out being able to travel direct from Dulles over to Accra. I can honestly say that this was the easiest, most least stressful travel experience I’ve had in a while! I was a bit frustrated with technology in DC because I was supposed to seamlessly be able to log on for my online course, and there were all sorts of internet issues. The backup plan of the backup plan failed and it was just a frustrating experience trying to get technology to work in my favor. However, with my sweet iPhone, and in true Anjali-fashion, I was making the most out of every second of 3G knowing that in Ghana it is like jumping into the unknown abyss of technology world. But, traveling itself was a breeze and I got to sit next to Marissa one of the folks who is here on this trip. I slept for the majority of the flight. Woke up feeling refreshed and ready to go, which was good because we hit the ground running the moment we landed! We landed, were warmly greeted by many enthusiastic athletes with disabilities right there at the airport. We loaded up the truck and van and came to check in. There is a story about that, which I will share in a moment.

But first, how to describe Ghana… it is more modern than I had anticipated, and that is because we are in the capital city and not in the outskirts/rural areas. We will get an opportunity to go experience “real” Ghana later in the week. I know that we are in the more well-developed, wealthier part of the city, but just from the drive to the airport to our lodging, I was taken aback, in a good way, by the scene. There are paved roads, actual construction, English billboards, with a splash of “other”. We were warmly greeted by so many familiar faces and new faces at the airport, athletes with disabilities who are so genuinely excited for this week. It’s less intense from India—by that I mean, it’s not the same invasion of the senses, chaotic beauty that defines India, but it’s more subtle, you have to be looking for things. For example, there were at least five individuals I spotted on our drive from the airport who presumably had polio and had makeshift scooter boards using flipflops on their hands to maneuver around. And of course there was the streetside vendor who had an array of walkers, crutches and even a pretty decent looking quickie-esque chair for someone with more severe disabilities.

Back to the story of arriving at the hotel. This hotel is fairly new construction, and the folks at Jonie and Friends worked with them to include access in the design and construction of the hotel. The interior has ramps built right in to go from the main lobby through the hallways, to the adjacent dining room and to the courtyard etc. However, a small oversight was an actual ramp into the main door of the hotel! This was a topic of discussion upon our arrival, because naturally, yes, we could rely on the assistance of the two able bodied individuals who have accompanied us on this journey, or on the helpful assistance from the security guards or receptionists themselves, however, if the goal and the point is to improve access and awareness about disability in Ghana, then this seemed like a very teachable moment to all of us. And so, it was.

We discussed options for how to build a ramp. The workers scrounged around and found some temporary solutions, though some of the first prototypes were a bit…sketchy to say the least. Like the piece of wood that was meticulously balanced, with no support in the center…we were slightly concerned that one use of this early prototype it would snap in half. We explained the benefits of a permanent ramp, instead of getting assistance each time so that the hotel could do business with other guests with disabilities, that workers with disabilities might come to work here too. You have to put everything in terms of what people can related to. If working with a business manager or a hotel manager, put it in terms of how can access help them to improve their business. We discussed, and then were off to scope out the track figuring that we could revisit this issue later, but we had begun the process of educating. To our pleasant surprise, after about an hour of being gone at the track, we came back to find two beautifully constructed, perfectly fit, ramps there at our disposal!!!! Unbelievable. If only it were that easy with certain places in the U.S.! We thanked everybody, took pictures and considered our first teachable moment a success. We do hope that in future months or years to come that these ramps to the main entrance still exist. But, for now, small victory #1 was accomplished.

With any overseas adventure, it is just that, an adventure. Despite all the best planning in the world, Plans A-Z including the back up plan for the back up plan, some things don’t go quite as you expect. The motto we had coming into this week was to go with the flow, you just have to when you are up against so many factors working against you. Our obstacle, the slow boat that we sent three boxes of equipment, including racing chairs, for the sole purpose of this training camp is held up in customs. It needs some signature and you must have the original documents. My feeble attempt at understanding the process is such that, if and when the cargo arrives, it gets held at port until it is cleared by a customs agent. But until this piece of paper is signed, and the person who has the authority to sign that piece of paper comes to work, the boxes are inaccessible to us. What a let down to come all this way, HAVE equipment for the Ghanaians but to not actually have it. However, this is one of those things that is quite simply, beyond our control. And so, we wait. We adapt. We get creative. We do the best we can with the resources we have. Thankfully, our amazing team, comprised of Jean Driscoll, myself, Marissa Siebel, an athletic trainer with the U of I, Jennifer Scott, former athlete with Illinois and Tom Cameron, wheelchair race organizer for Bloomsday and engineer by trade, we are quite skilled at adapting.

Our first day of the training camp we had no equipment with the exception of my own and the few who did have their own equipment. So, in true fashion, we adapted. We assessed the situation, the ability levels of the athletes, the state and workability of the equipment available to us etc. My trusty toolkit will be getting good use this week. It’s a good thing I brought extra sets of allen keys and have an outstanding team here who are all able to work a wrench and get a little greasy!! We had a welcome meeting with some dignitaries and officials who came to greet us, along with local media outlets who came for the occasion. The positivity at this meeting was absolutely incredible. The tone was truly set for the week, as one that is very open, receptive, welcoming, and collaborative. The three guests who were there in the morning to officially welcome us included the President of the National Center for Persons with Disabilities, the President of the Ghana National Paralymic Committee and President from the Ghana Society for the Physically Disabled. The message of this meeting was one of hope, and one of commitment from top officials who see the potential of the disabled athletes of Ghana, and of the hard work that Jean and Jonie & Friends have put in for the past 9 years. It literally brought tears of joy to the room. After this welcome meeting, we went over some rules of the track and camp and introduced ourselves and met the participants.

The afternoon training session, I was able to train with five of the athletes who have racing chairs and gather some baseline data for the rest of the training camp. The other group, without racing chairs still, spent the time learning about the lines on the track, the rules of the track, and some basics on stoke mechanics. We also had a wonderful meeting with the Minister of Youth & Sport and the Chief of the National Sports Council for all of Ghana!!! These are two top top government officials, and gaining their support for the Paralympic movement is HUGE. They were very receptive, very forthcoming, very positive. They not only entertained questions from us and from the Ghanaians, but made the promise to send a TEAM of Ghanaians to the Paralympic games, not just two athletes on wildcard. They also made the promise to allocate funds specifically for Paralympic Development and requested a 2-year plan and budget as soon as possible. These are enormous leaps and bounds for this nation. The influence of support at this level is huge. The empowerment we witnessed of local Ghanaians with disabilities to speak up and ask questions to the top officials and challenge them, was incredible. Many years ago, when I first met my now friends from Ghana in Illinois, we heard about how oppressed people with disabilities were in this nation, and saw firsthand how they had never had a voice. To have a gathering of individuals to have these discussions has such deep meaning and potential. For the government officials to rise up to the occasion and say, we value you, as people with disabilities, and we will show you this through our support, is huge.

More to come soon.

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