Wrap Up Blog from Ghana

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Maybe it’s a generational thing, but there is an overwhelming majority of friends and people my age who have this burning desire to change the world. The flipside to this, however, is the overwhelming majority of the general population who thinks that people like that are overly ambitious and set unrealistic goals. But, the truth is, our team of five – Jean Driscoll, Marissa Siebel, Jennifer Scott, Tom Cameron and myself, went to Ghana and changed the world. Even more so than that, the world changed us.

I waited a few days after returning to write this wrap-up blog of our trip, because there was a lot to process; a lot to think about. The best way for me to explain what these nine days in Ghana meant for the athletes, for Paralympic sport, for Ghana, for me, and ultimately for the world is to explain, or begin to explain the impact on all of those levels.

For the athletes.

For the athletes, the impact of our trip was felt on many levels. The athlete who got to feel the wind in their faces for their very first time as they whizzed around the track on a handcycle, or the athlete who had never previously seen an airplane other than a small speck in the sky (the track was located quite close to the airport, so we had some low-flying planes overhead while training). The athlete whose family now talks to them because of her athletic success. There was the athlete who received a used everyday wheelchair who came up to me and said, thank you for one of the happiest days of my life. I wrote about the story of him receiving this chair on my own website blog, www.anjaliforberpratt.com/blog However, when that was written, there was a critical piece that was missing. Yes, those words that he said to me were absolutely heartwarming, especially since he was receiving my old wheelchair! But, I feel I need to explain the rest of the story.

In the middle of Accra, Ghana, you do the best you can with what you’ve got. It’s a good thing that I’m a person with a disability, with a natural tendency to adapt. Something disabled sports has taught me is that there is absolutely nothing a little duct tape and foam can’t fix…though maybe in my wiser years I may add a few other things to that list including zipties. Regardless, without this mentality and attitude, this sense of adventure, this sense of engineering and ingenuity, very little can get accomplished. It’s the moments where you have this out of mind, out of body experience and for me, I just start laughing in my head thinking to myself, gosh, if only people back home in the U.S. could SEE what we are doing right now, or how we just fixed that wheelchair or how I just made a pair of hard gloves with boiling water that was carried on someone’s head from a village restaurant… if only…

In the moment, it is sometimes hard to appreciate these times, but I have learned to just let that laughter in my head happen, and then I struggle a few days later to explain it in my blog here! The other part of the culture is that nothing is absolute. There is no predictable process or order to how things get done. I know that sounds vague, perhaps hard to comprehend, but it’s true. As humans, particularly as Americans, I feel we naturally look for patterns and predictable ways of being. Guess what, that doesn’t exist in other cultures. For example, even something as simple as ordering a meal at the hotel restaurant, you would think that if the menu says “vegetarian pizza” and lists all the ingredients that if you order it for one meal and perhaps order later that same day, or even the next day that it would be somewhat similar. Nope. Not a chance! That vegetarian pizza came out the first time with a spicy sauce, some veggies on it… the next time it came out with some sweet sauce, some cabbage, other vegetables…the third time it came out with hardly any sauce, some potatoes and onions. Perhaps some of it is artifact of unique cooks, but this prevailing lack-of-consistent-process permeates all of daily life and business. And so, it becomes a lesson in patience.

Coupled with this lack of process is the bartering system, you barter for everything. Alan and Patsy, two Missionaries who are with Joni and Friends and Wheels for the World, shared numerous stories of how a business deal ended with being paid in chickens. It’s just the way of life. So, back to my friend who received my old everyday wheelchair and it was the happiest day of his life…

The last day, we were stripping down his old chair, that only had three functioning wheels because we were missing a critical nut that only costs about $0.10 in the states and couldn’t create something to make it workable, so we did the next best thing and use the parts from it to help improve the functionality of other chairs. Poor Marissa has stripped everything down, is covered in wheelchair grease head to toe, and then my little friend pipes up saying, no we can’t give his frame to one of the other athletes, he has to give it back. What? Give it back?? Mind you, it has no bolts on it at this point—give it back, what do you mean? We then find out that in order for him to come to the training camp in Accra, he bartered with a guy in his village to use that wheelchair for the week, because day to day, he just crawls on his hands.

Well, now that made the “happiest day of my life” comment take on a whole new meaning! And, our team members had to work furiously to return this borrowed wheelchair to working order! (Which we did!)

The athletes were broken into an elite group and a newbie group, and let me tell you, the potential these athletes have is incredible. Their sheer strength is impressive, largely from having to crawl around, push on rough terrain just to get around--- there’s your built in strength and conditioning component! But, broader than that, training at this facility at El Wak Stadium, Ghanaians took notice of what we were doing, able-bodied athletes, coaches, military, the general public. The interest was there, people would gather to just watch us training, to ask questions, to come and see it for themselves. We created a Paralympic buzz! Even that scene itself was chaotic--- I was training with the elite racers, dodging runners, coaches, discuses, javelins, futbols (soccer balls), the curious onlooker who was in a dazed state of amazement that they just happened to wander onto the track without looking… and we didn’t have any major accidents!

For Paralympic Sport.

We packed our days like it was a can of sardines. There was not a single moment of the day where we weren’t doing something—even if it was just processing or thinking about the next meeting or thinking about how to fix that wheel with what we had with us. In between the 6am and 3pm training session, we had meetings with various government and local officials, organizations and representatives. I cannot even begin to describe the power these meetings had. First of all, it was getting people to talk to each other, to talk about Paralympic sport, to talk about disability, to talk about the Olympics and Paralympics. We used this analogy a lot within our own group --- we were the connectors in a giant life-size game of connect the dots. We are not the answer for a sustainable Paralympic sport program, and we knew that going into it. And, to be honest, we can’t be—that would be wrong and unethical to walk into a country and just create what I want. It has to come from within, it has to have roots and a foundation there.

Our diverse team of expertise was able to fill this void, however, and to really be helpful connectors for these organizations serving people with disabilities in Ghana, for the government, for the National Sports Council, for various athletic associations. We had Jean Driscoll, an extraordinarily accomplished Paralympic athlete, successful business woman, a truly exceptional leader and ambassador for sport and for disability. We had Marissa Siebel who is a trained athletic trainer with exceptional knowledge of additional Paralympic sports, a passion for life that you could just taste in the air. We had Jennifer Scott, a former dual sport U of I wheelchair athlete herself who also has the ability to help us all to think a bit more out of the box. We had Tom Cameron, wheelchair race organizer for the Bloomsday 12k in Spokane, WA, an engineer with a keen eye and tremendous skill in fixing anything, even using rocks to bang some fenders out in place of the rubber mallet that, sadly, did not make it on the trip!

And, while Jean was involved with Paralympic sport in the past, I was able to provide some clarity and guidance to current operations within the International Paralympic Committee, the nitty gritty nuts and bolts for how to move on to the next stage and ultimately to the world stage. Together, our team was a unique blend of talents, expertise all uniting around the same passion.

The meetings we had were, in my opinion, hugely successful. We met with the President of the National Sports Council, for all of Ghana, multiple times. He took such an interest he came to observe the training sessions and followed up multiple times with us! Some of the highlights including meeting with the President of the Ghana Society for the Physically Disabled, the entire board from the National Council on Persons with Disability, the Minister of Education, Youth & Sport for all of Ghana, the President of the Ghana Paralympic Committee and also representatives from the able-bodied cyclist associations and athletic coaches. In each of these meetings, the morale was high and the passion and drive to develop Paralympic sport prevailed. A huge asset to help move this forward is the amazing masterpiece that sits in Tema, the All Africa Disability Center that was built by Alan and Patsy. When we walked into this beautiful facility, we could literally hear the crowd roaring, see the scoreboard lit up, picture the wheelchair basketball tournament going on. This will be a Paralympic Training site for athletes with all disabilities in Ghana, and for all of Africa! When we showed this facility to the athletes, they were awestruck and honestly didn’t believe that something so beautiful could exist for them, as people with disabilities. I encourage you to just take a moment to think about that.

For Ghana.

By now, you should be able to see what these endeavors have the power to do for Ghana. Having these meetings, getting the general population with and without disabilities excited about Paralympic sport was amazing to be a part of. One of our last meetings was with the Board from the National Council on Persons with Disability, and it was in that meeting where I feel everybody began to realize what the power of sport truly is. Sport unifies us all. Sport provides an opportunity for individuals to come together regardless of race, political background, ability status, gender. Sport is unique in that it transcends these boundaries and barriers imposed by society and allows for the focus to be on the activity itself, the sportsmanship, the finish line, or the end of the match. Deeper than that is the honor of representing one’s country that sport can also provide. For people with disabilities in Ghana, who have previously been excluded from many affordances of society such as an education or pursuing a career, sport is one way where this can change.

For me.

Thankfully, I have some amazing mentors in my life. People who take me for me, who tells me like it is and who are supportive of all of my crazy endeavors and dreams. To all of these people, thank you.

The two main takeaways I had from this trip are the power of the ripple effect and the importance of being true to oneself.

The power of the ripple effect, was something my advisor, Dr. Aragon, had to help to point out to me. The most memorable moments of this trip were being able to ignite a fire within people –athletes with disabilities to realize they have athletic potential in sport and in life. It is absolutely, indescribably cool when you are there to witness that fire igniting deep within somebody or to even be that fire-starter. And that’s what I get to do so naturally in a disability sport setting just by being me. However, there is an element of not wanting to sell myself short by working only with disabled athletes around the world---this is something that I feel is true for me personally. Though this is certainly not true for all, and I admire very much those who are able to work with one population every day, it’s just not something I would be able to do. I learned that in fact the effect of our work is so much bigger than just that. It is the power of the ripple effect at work. It was something we talked about when we were there, even this Ghana project evolved from something bigger than just Jean to include our team being there. The power of one person’s dream becoming bigger than any one person is overwhelming. But, the truth is that we all need people to help to point out our impact sometimes, the effect of the fire that is started or of that ripple effect is often hard to fathom or even recognize ourselves. Looking back, I realize now that the impact of what we were doing in Ghana was so much bigger than just helping athletes with disabilities. We were changing the world by changing perceptions and educating others about disability and about Paralympic sport.

Lastly, intertwined with all of these amazing experiences in Accra, is the reminder of being true to oneself. This goes without much explanation, as I feel this message comes through just by being able to articulate and describe these experiences. But it is something that is important to be reminded of!

Medasi Ghana, for a life changing trip!

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