“So, how was Africa?”
The question I heard most often after my trip was the most difficult one to answer. In normal casual conversation, my answer would be too long, and my short answer never felt sufficient.
In August of 2015, in the middle of my busiest wedding season of the past decade, I traveled to Ghana to take photos for a non-profit organization. I was gone for a total of 10 days including travel and a day stopover in Amsterdam. To describe the trip as a whirlwind would be an understatement!
So many words come to mind when I describe my experience in Ghana, but the best way I can explain how I feel after my trip is GRATEFUL. I live a comfortable life. I work hard, I have the luxury of being able to travel and socialize, I have a fairly low cost of living, and I have family and friends who love and support me. Going to the heart of the poorest neighbourhood in the capital city of Accra shocked me, and all I could feel was gratitude for the life I have.
I think that in North America we know that poverty exists in the world, we hear about third world countries, we see movies and TV shows and infomercials, and even photos like mine. Until I physically stood there, and met people, and witnessed an entire neighbourhood getting their ‘clean’ water with a bucket out of a dirty hole in the ground I don’t think I really realized what it meant. And even after seeing my images, I don’t expect any of you to truly feel what any of us felt by going there.
The truest statement I can make about my experience in Africa is that I felt helpless, and I wanted to do more. Here is a little bit of information about my trip, and what you can do to help if you are interested.
I went to Ghana with a non-profit called Truth x Vision. This organization was started with the goal of helping local Ghanaians to help themselves through micro-farming projects and clean water drilling.
There is much more information on the website than I can explain, and I implore you to visit it. What I like most about Truth x Vision is that it embraces the “teach a man to fish” mentality rather than just providing handouts to the poor. Teaching people to help themselves with support and supplies is the best possible approach, in my opinion, as it is the most sustainable.
My goal through my trip was two-fold; one was to highlight the actual work of the volunteers who had traveled there, and the other was to showcase Ghana as a country. While some of the emotions that I felt while I was there were negative and depressing, I was able to see the beauty of Ghana, the warmth of the people, and the natural rugged beauty of the terrain and wildlife. I had the opportunity to go on a safari as well as exploring some of the jungle areas. Being able to dive into the neighbourhoods and interact with locals was a wonderful experience.
Truth x Vision plans ‘Mission Month’ where volunteers can travel to Ghana to support the projects there, and partake in some tourism as well. I can honestly say that I want to go back. I want to help, and I want to continue my experience.
So how was Africa? It was heartbreaking, primitive, welcoming, eye-opening, and shocking. And I am so grateful that I was able to go.
I covered a lot in a few days, so I’m going to break the post up into a few parts! I kept a notebook on the trip to help me remember everything.
Part 1: Safari in Mole National Park & Northern Ghana
On my first day we woke up at 4 am and immediately piled on to a ‘bus’ (basically crammed 10 of us into a mini van) and drove for 12 hours North. Along the way we passed a lot of towns and villages and drove over many many speed bumps. As someone who gets motion sick at the best of times, I can’t say the drive was my favourite, but I was fascinated by the scenery.
I slept a lot along the way but every time I opened my eyes it was like we hadn’t moved. Streams of people walking along the roadside, women carrying huge bowls and baskets on their heads, and often babies on their backs, street markets, goats and dogs running in the streets, half-finished buildings. For hours and hours. As we got further North there were herds of cattle and the villages became further apart. There were fewer cars. We ate plantain chips and ice cream offered to us by street vendors selling them at the car window. We arrived at Mole National Park at sunset.
The safari was cool, honestly not quite what I had pictured from other photos I had seen, but this isn’t the Serengeti! I still got up close and personal with an elephant which was amazing.
After the safari we drove to Tamale and shopped in a street market, and enjoyed a fun dinner. I discovered the joys of drinking alcohol that’s served in plastic bags…the gin there is pretty strong! There were a few things along this trip I can’t believe I got used to, like cold showers (sometimes just using a bucket), female urinals, exposed wiring in just about every room, and ‘wildlife’ like snails, cockroaches, and bees.
Part 2: Village Drill in Korlebu, Accra
This neighbourhood in the capital city of Accra has about 2000 people, and only a small stream as a clean water supply for the whole community. Truth x Vision is installing a drill to provide clean water to the community in the middle of the neighbourhood courtyard. It’s a project that employs local Ghanaians as well. This is a pilot project, that will hopefully be expanded. When I was there, the drill was just being installed.
The neighbourhood children were quickly fascinated with me and took me on a tour. One girl took me to her ‘house’ which was basically an open-air porch. The number of people and the poverty in the area was just astonishing. Some of the smaller children were touching my skin and hair in amazement.
The drink water out of plastic bags and just toss the empty bags on the ground. There is so much garbage everywhere.
After working on the drill we did some sightseeing in Accra, and went to Independence Square, built in 1957 when Ghana became democratic. Then to a mausoleum of the first president of Ghana, Dr. Kwame Nkrumah.
We visited the Jamestown lighthouse and encountered an art festival with thousands of people crammed into the high street. We could barely get through. There were a lot of photographers, musicians, and artists on the streets. The energy was amazing.
The lighthouse is in an area called Jamestown or ‘British Accra’, established in the 1800s. A lot of the old buildings are still there but haven’t been maintained. It’s right on the waterfront but unlike any waterfront I’ve ever seen. Shacks and garbage is the best way to sum it up, although I have to admit it was eerily beautiful.
Afterwards we walked back through the back streets of Accra and I felt like crying. So much sheer poverty, and children everywhere with absolutely nothing, crying and begging. People cooking in pots over fires on the street, and living in makeshift structures. So many people that it’s almost impossible to do anything. I just felt helpless.
Part 3: Farm in a Barrel
We started the day visiting the church that is partnered with Truth x Vision, with a lot of singing and dancing! A few members of the congregation have been using Farm in a Barrel and after the service we got to visit two of the properties. At the time of my visit they were having some issues with bird flu, so we didn’t actually get to see any chickens, but the project has been working well and was set to be back running in a couple of weeks. Afterwards the team constructed a new one! This is a pilot project, and there is a lot of information on the Truth x Vision website. It helps support local farmers and local families.
Part 4: Kakum Rainforest and Cape Coast
I still remember the fresh papaya in a plastic bag that we bought from a vendor at a random highway intersection. Breakfast! We did a hike through Kakum rainforest on a hanging bridge canopy built by Canadians in the 90s.
Our trip to Cape Coast was brief, since my flight was leaving that evening. We visited Cape Coast Castle, which is one of several “slave castles” built along the coast and used for the slave trade to North America in the 18th century. At any given time, about 1300 slaves would be held in the most atrocious conditions in the dungeons beneath the castle, chained together in a line. They would be loaded on to ships and sent to America. It was an absolutely sobering experience to stand in the dungeons and learn about the gruesome history of this place.
Some final thoughts…the last thing I wrote about Ghana in my notebook is that it feels like a country at the beginning of its life. I’m lucky to live where I do in such a developed world with all of the amenities and opportunities I have. The people of Ghana that I met are friendly, welcoming, spiritual, and hard working. Going through these photos and re-living the experience solidified my desire to go back.
I don’t have the words to say thank you to everyone on the trip, they all know what an amazing experience it was. I would like to thank Kris, who started Truth x Vision and I randomly met in Maui, for reaching out and asking me to come. For having the faith that my wedding photography skills would translate into this project. And for becoming a valuable friend. I can honestly say when I left Ghana I didn’t think I had very many usable images, but after letting the experience sink in for a few months, I’m proud of everything I’m showing here.
If you made it to the end of this post you get a gold star! Thanks for reading along!
Haley Shandro is a wedding photographer based in Edmonton, Alberta. You can visit her website here to learn more about her.