Good News in Ghana

In an attempt to make amends for my Halloween Grinchiness, here are some heartwarming images and information about the NGO in Ghana that rescues children from child labor and slavery, and Semester at Sea’s involvement in supporting their efforts. Give yourself a dose of good news during this difficult week.


City of Refuge Orphanage – A Day in the LIfe

By: | Date: 11.02.2012

The City of Refuge Children’s Village outside of Tema, Ghana is a safe house for children rescued from child labor camps. Began in 2007 by Johnbull and Stacy Omorefe, the Refuge is steadily filling with children who once worked as modern day slaves for fisherman in the Lake Volta region of Ghana, where child slavery is rampant. “Children were everywhere we looked. In every canoe on the lake there were two or three young boys casting nets or pulling them in. Their eyes hollow, their stomachs distended and their muscles overdeveloped.” Children are often sold into slavery on the lake by single mothers who simply cannot afford to feed them. They grow up without education, without love, and without hope. For a few fortunate children all that is beginning to change. With organizations like the growing City of Refuge, which has a history of support from Semester at Sea students, young boys and girls sold into slavery are being rescued from the labor camps and given an opportunity to live childhood as children.

Painted children greet the sun as laundry dries on the line. The day begins at City of Refuge, a home and school for children rescued from slavery.

From a boats to a bunk beds, many of the orphans at City of Refuge come from Lake Volta where they are enslaved as fishermen, generally performing such duties as gathering nets from the bottom of the lake after they became tangled in sunken trees.  This is Gabriel.  He is one of the newest children in the City of Refuge.  Gabriel was orphaned when his father’s canoe flipped in a storm on the lake.

Armed with a new toothbrush from Global Grins, a young girl stands next to her clean clothes laid out on a rock pile to dry in the rising sun.

Chores are done around the house each morning before school. These young boys wipe down the table after a breakfast of boiled eggs, bread and milk. They don’t need direction or reminders.

Gabriel can’t yet read the books in his backpack as he has just begun the first grade, but he brings them to class because he is eager to try.  Many of the rescued children, like Gabriel, have received no education prior to their arrival at City of Refuge.

The classroom is empty this early in the morning, but it doesn’t matter. Life is much more precious to him here than on the lake. Gabriel takes full advantage, patiently waiting for the other pupils to arrive.

Holly Stewart, and American volunteer schoolteacher, sips her morning coffee and prepares her classroom for the day. She initially came for just a visit, but has stayed for the love of it.

What the school may lack in computers, overhead projectors, and microscopes, the teachers, like Jacob Atsu, make up for with hard work, skill, determination, and strength of spirit.

Mid-morning sees the arrival of Semester at Sea students. They don matching Global Grins T-shirts and boxes filled with toothbrushes to give away.

One of the founders of City of Refuge, Stacy Onorefe, teaches the Semester at Sea students about the child trafficking and child slavery problems faced in the Lake Volta region of Ghana.

Johnbull Onorefe, husband to Stacy and co-founder of City of Refuge, gives a tour of the village to the visiting students.

Semester at Sea students became tutors when they get the opportunity to help in the classroom. Matthew Poundstone (CA State University Chico) is clearly enthusiastic about his pupils correct answer in math class.

Ashleigh Mason (Va Wesleyan College) has her arms full.  A young girl sits quietly in the back of the class.  New arrivals to the Refuge often feel a bit out of place, but they warm up quickly in its’ friendly and loving environment.

The school does have electricity, but it really isn’t necessary as each room is filled with large windows. Katherine Saffelle (Elon University) sits in the soft window light of the classroom tutoring a young boy.

Sara Santomauro (Ohio State University) listens intently to the children’s stories. English is taught commonly in every school, with most teachers leading each class in english.

Jolina-Rose Blier (Western New England University) was “inspired to see how happy a child can be after going through so much in their short life.”

Yan Benink (U of Co Denver) comments, “this felt less like a service project and more like a trip back to Elementary School.  But better, because everyone is nice to me and I knew all the answers.”

Business Administration Professor Mark Peters (University of San Diego) gets back to the basics by tutoring the children in spelling.  Professor Peters is inspired by City of Refuge and encourages “SAS alumni to give serious thought to how they can support their good work and spread the word of the urgent need to combat modern day slavery.”

Schoolteacher Holly Stewart breaks up a little tiff between two boys in her class as they wait outside for lunch to be served.

Enoch was working 12-14 hours a day on Lake Volta prior to his rescue. Sold into slavery, children work for many years to buy back their freedom, by which time they are too old for school. Uneducated, unable to read, they are destitute and will spend the rest of their lives as laborers. Enoch is now learning to read, learning math, and living a new life filled with promise.

City of Refuge is a place where children are allowed to be children once again, not child laborers. Bryn Valaika (U of Colorado Boulder) plays a little football with the youngsters.

The sun goes down in the west; the students whom live in nearby villages have gone home; what is left are children, free from labor camps… free from enslavement… free to live, free to play, and free to still do chores like young men should.

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Bitter Truth about Halloween

I might as well start with a confession: I am a Halloween Grinch.  I’m not proud of it but it does feel a little better to own up to it. Where do I start admitting all the reasons why I wish we skipped from the last glorious celebration of summer, Labor Day, right through all the desiccating and dying of autumn, to my very favorite holiday, Thanksgiving?

The most acute phase of my problem probably began when the boys were little. With apologies to all the amazing women out there who know I’m talking about them, it was those super crafty, bubbly and uber-talented moms who made me truly hate Halloween. They spent months making incredibly creative costumes for their little darlings, my sons’ classmates in preschool and elementary school. All those hand-dyed witches’ robes, meticulously sequined fairy skirts, and six-foot long papier mache dragon’s tails that required a parent to carry them, following along behind like a royal attendant? They made we want to hurl with humiliation. I’m the last thing from crafty/creative/patient enough to pull that kind of costume off. Also, my boys were famous for changing their minds at the last minute. With my way of doing Halloween, an hour before the start of trick-or-treating, we had a flimsy Target Superman costume that stayed in the box and a linen closet minus a sheet that was frantically and miraculously transformed into an acceptable version of a Storm Trooper. I also adopted the conveniently high road position that a Halloween costume should display the child’s, or occasionally an older sibling’s, cleverness and creativity, not mine. The results were usually quite adorable.

But it doesn’t stop there. Sharp knives, slimy innards, candles dripping hot wax and excited little children never seemed like a good combination to me. I’m not a fan of the flavor of pumpkin and can’t wait for all that ubiquitous October pumpkin-ness – lattes, muffins, ice cream, soup – to just get over itself already. I don’t even mind the early start of Christmas decorations and TV ads because they remind me that Halloween’s days are numbered. I love going to movies but I can’t wait for this month’s batch of schlock to rotate off into DVDs and Netflix. Why would people pay good money to go sit in a dark theater and watch unspeakable gore and horror for two hours? And please don’t invite me to an adult costume party, see above.

Then there’s the candy. No matter how hard I try to buy candy that I don’t like very much, I always fail and am left with decimated bags long before October 31st. The stresses of election season just make the temptation worse. As Anne Lamott recently posted on Facebook, “My grandson Jax asked where so many of our candy corn packets had gone, just in the last 4 days, and I told him Dick Cheney had taken them.” I love candy corn as much as she does but chocolate is truly my sweet drug of choice. A little devil sits on my shoulder as I stand in the candy aisle and makes the irresistible case that ALL KIDS LOVE CHOCOLATE! I’m filled with dread that I’ll be that despised little old lady who gives out boxes of raisins or even toothbrushes for crissakes! So I load up with those yummy little bars of deliciousness, vowing once again that they’re just for the children. Lucy and Charlie Brown’s annual ritual with the football is classic because it’s so true. Once again I fall for the temptation, right onto my enlarging bum.

OK, fun is fun or not so much, in this case. Please don’t get whiplash but I have to get serious for a moment. I’ve just discovered a devastating issue about Halloween chocolate treats that is the actual reason for this post. Did you know that child labor and child slavery are huge problems in the chocolate-producing countries in West Africa? Maybe I’m the last to find out about this but the BBC produced a documentary about it  (!) and a mommy blog I’ve discovered, Rage Against the Minivan, posted an excellent summary of the issue ( I’ve been to Ghana and am familiar with an extraordinary NGO there that rescues child slaves from the fishing industry, as well as the US non-profit that was started by Semester at Sea students to support it: It makes perfect sense to me that child labor and child slaves are also prevalent in a Ghanian industry that is the world’s second largest supplier of cocoa. Neighboring Ivory Coast is the largest. The much more impoverished and rural Burkina Faso, just north of both these countries, is the source for many of the trafficked children.

The takeaway message is this: If you are concerned about this issue and haven’t bought your Halloween treats yet, please choose chocolates made by Mars (Snickers, Three Musketeers, Mars, Milky Way, Twix ) or Kraft (Cadbury, Green & Black’s, Toblerone) because, according to the sources I’ve checked, these companies are taking beginning steps to start using more sustainable, ethical cocoa in their products. Don’t choose chocolates by Hershey’s and Nestle because they are currently the worst offenders. You can look for fair trade chocolate at stores like Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s or you can skip chocolate altogether and buy those candy corn packets. Just make sure not to invite Annie Lamott or me over to your house before next Wednesday.

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Remember those kids’ Choose Your Own Adventure books? Here we have a Choose Your Own Excuse blog post.

1. Whiskey Tango Foxtrot! I haven’t posted since June. Where did the summer go? It went to some glorious places as it turns out, or at least I did:

  • Costa Rica, Peru, Ecuador, Panama, and Belize on my favorite vehicle, Semester at Sea’s MV Explorer, in the company of smart, eager, compassionate students and talented faculty, new friends and old;
  • The peaks and shorelines of the magnificent state of Washington, accompanied by my son the newly minted Stay At Home Dad and emerging writer, his gracious wife the Starbucks VP/VIP and ferry commuter who actually tolerated the presence of her mother-in-law in lovely but somewhat close vacation quarters, the Old Soul five-year-old girl child, and the curly-headed grandson continuously muttering the color commentary for the Mariners game being played in his head;
  • Shreveport, to enjoy the warmth of extended family, scorching heat of July notwithstanding;
  • West Hartford, CT to scoop up and fly home the two youngest granddaughters of another son’s family as they began a long anticipated, heart-warming transition back to Colorado;
  • And finally, Jackson, WY to reconnect with longtime friends as we jointly celebrated 65 years on the planet from a vantage point several thousand feet above it in a hot air balloon and splashing and squealing through some gorgeous white water on its surface.

How is a person supposed to sit at a computer and update a blog with so much fun going on?


2. The Procrastination Monster has once again ravaged my best-laid plans and intentions of blogging regularly.  The theme that has bedeviled my retirement years is “Why do today what you can put off until tomorrow?”

Other stages of my life have been wall-to-wall deadlines. I had to show up for work on the Labor Deck, not because I feared being fired but because I knew in my gut the hell of working short-staffed and I couldn’t do that to my colleagues. I also remember asking myself at 2:00 am one Christmas morning: “How did I not get these gifts wrapped and toys assembled before now?” Scrolling back in my memory through the last month, I realized that all of that time had been taken up with meeting other imminent deadlines like the last day to mail packages, the last day of school to take the gift to the teacher, the evening holiday party that necessitated spending the afternoon buying stain- and hole-free dress-up clothes for three boys, etc.

My current life certainly still has deadlines but far fewer and that makes all the difference. I procrastinate because I can. There are probably a number of other reasons why – I’m workin’ on those.  Check back with me later.


3. It’s an age-old writer’s thing: How can my work possibly be good enough?  My stories are boring, my insights clichéd, my skills and talent are meager at best. Woe is me. I suck.

I’ve also been told that “real writers” just do it, while it’s crystal clear that I do not. They sit down at the computer and write, regularly, no matter what. Then they put it out there. They don’t fuss over its imperfections for months on end. A techno blogger I follow wrote this from a different lane of the creativity highway:

“I could tweak the hell out of it, but as the coders say, real developers ship. Real musicians have to ship as well. The big problem with working digitally is that the temptation to tweak is so great and so easy to do that it takes a great deal of restraint not to want to dive right back in.”

Sometimes for inspiration I read other writers I admire, like Anne Lamott or Cheryl Strayed. Mostly that effort backfires because they are just so damn good I feel even more strongly that I suck. Sometimes I manage to get my butt in the chair and then get distracted; what else is new? I actually have ideas I want to blog about fairly frequently and even get them started in my head in the shower or during a walk. Later when I try to go back to that tapestry of ideas and emotions I want to create, I grieve that the colors have all faded or I’ve lost hold of the thread entirely.

Blah, blah, blah. I’m boring even myself with this excuse.

Rewind back to the beginning of this blog, the “sitting with the questions” intention. It feels important to me to figure out why I don’t write, to tease apart the complex ball of emotions and behaviors that underlie this whole effort. Most days I feel no closer to straight, understandable strands so I’m forced to sit with the mess in my lap. This much is clear: I love the feeling of having written. So for today, with apologies for my absence, I’ll just hit “Post”.

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Wonderful News!

Oprah has chosen to restart her book club with Cheryl Strayed’s “Wild”!! So excited for Cheryl, couldn’t happen to a more deserving author. Many of you may have heard about this fabulous memoir here first so, yeah, I feel quite proud and vindicated.

Keep an eye on My Nightstand for future entries after I return from my Semester at Sea voyage. Meanwhile, hope you’re checking in with Marsea at Sea at The Peru post should be up soon.

Ciao from Quito, Ecuador!

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Where the Boat Leaves From

The MV Explorer (a proud ship, not a boat) leaves from Puntarenas, Costa Rica on Monday for the 2012 Short-Term voyage of Semester at Sea. Zac Brown always gets me up for the journey: “Don’t grab your coat. You won’t need it where we are going…You got worries you can drop them in the big ocean.”

I sometimes physically ache for the sea from my otherwise perfect home in Denver. I have a fabulous, small balcony on the ship where I marvel at the myriad colors and surfaces of the water, watch funny little flying fish jump away from the wake, contemplate the line where the sky meets the ocean and feel very small but enormously grateful.

The voyage will take us to Peru, Ecuador, Panama, the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica, Belize and then home to Ft. Lauderdale on June 15 – old favorites (I lived one winter in Belize and fell head over heels for this amazing country) and intriguing new ports of call. I will be studying “The Social Roots of Health and Disease” with a brilliant woman who helped write the UN Millineum Development Goals and has worked for my all-time favorite global NGO, Partners in Health.

I will be posting on my travel blog so here’s the link and an old but timeless piece that fits well today: See you back here in late June.


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#4: Saving or Savoring?


I am trying to take small bites of Terry Tempest Williams’ exquisite new book “When Women Were Birds: Fifty-four Variations on Voice,” but I am failing. I am devouring it with unashamed gluttony. Fortunately her words, her voice, time and again, make me pause and become mindful of her eloquence and provocative wisdom. Often what resonates for me lies in a deep place where I can’t readily give it voice. But sometimes her words evoke an accessible, familiar refrain.

Terry writes “Age has given me arias.”

I remember that I have been saving classical music for my old age, like a small treasure I might hide from myself to be discovered later, a smooth river rock in the pocket of a seldom-worn jacket. Immersing myself in that music will be a treat in a time when other pleasures may be dimmed. Failing hearing can be amplified, especially by the outrageously expensive Bose headphones I plan to buy! The question is shall I continue to wait or is that time now? I am not guaranteed even one more birthday. But I like enjoying the anticipation, the knowing that something beautiful lies waiting for me when I’m older.

Is there anything you have saved for your elder years? What treasures have already shown up in your pocket?

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#3: My Nightstand

The parade of birthdays through my life has left in its path a sprinkling of confetti-colored pairs of reading glasses. I need them readily at hand in all the places I spend time – on the coffee table near the bay window in my sun-drenched living room, on the kitchen island, on the end table beside the chair where I watch TV, and in the car. I have a pair in every purse. Well, let’s be honest, that would be in my one current purse which, much to the consternation of my more fashion forward friends and family, I persist in carrying for every occasion and through every season, often year after year. I browse airport kiosks, funky gift shops, and even Whole Foods for ever more playful frames as the magnification numbers climb steadily higher – 1.00, 1.50, 2.00 and soon 2.50. “A privilege of being on the right side of the grass” I remind myself.

The cheery frames perch on top of all sorts of reading material throughout my house: my journal, the most recent Sunday New York Times, a stack of catalogs, my grocery list, a recipe I printed out from, the latest edition of O Magazine, and any number of books I’m currently reading. Books are everywhere, even stuffed into my purse and the pocket behind the passenger seat of my car. The current favorites always migrate to where they’ll get my most focused attention, the place of honor, my nightstand.

These days, in addition to printed books, I also have an iPad with three different apps for reading and my iPhone with audio books from and iTunes. I suppose most people have just one book going at any given time but that would not be me. Familiar aphorisms become popular for a reason and none is truer than “So many books, so little time.”

Whenever I’m catching up with a friend, a question I always ask is “What are you reading?” I follow lots of literary blogs and websites and am an avid reader of all manner of lists touting exciting new works of fiction and non-fiction alike. Cathy Langer, the lead book buyer extraordinaire at our local world-class indie bookstore, The Tattered Cover, has never steered me wrong. A visit with her also means we get to catch up on what’s happened in our lives since we both worked on the now sadly discontinued Rocky Mountain Book Festival. Yeah, I’m a little obsessed with what’s new and wonderful in the publishing world.

Over the years, my friends and family have lovingly tolerated my spirited and often embarrassingly lengthy touts of my latest favorite book. Some have actually sought out my recommendations. So it seems natural to let you all in on the fun and include here a list of the books I’m high on right now. We may get into sharing favorite catalogs, cookbooks and magazines later, but for now, check out the books in My Nightstand in the right-hand margin of this page. If you click on the title, you will be linked to its listing on the Tattered Cover’s online site. You can have that little gem on its way to you with just a couple more clicks.

Here are some brief enticements for you to head over there and start clicking:

“Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail” by Cheryl Strayed – After her mother died quickly of cancer when Cheryl was only 22, all four wheels came off. Overwhelmed by her grief, she veered off into a perfect storm of bad decisions around sex, alcohol, drugs and the trajectory of her life. Without ever spending one night backpacking, she undertakes a 1,100-mile, solo hike with an 80-lb pack and boots a size too small in an attempt to take back her life. This masterful storyteller recounts her odyssey with unblinking honesty in a voice that convinces you she’s your new best friend. This is one of the hottest books out there and deservedly so – it’s going to be bigger than “Eat, Pray, Love” not only because it’s better written by several orders of magnitude but because you can feel Cheryl’s irresistible heart beating powerfully on every page.

“Contents May Have Shifted” by Pam Houston – I have been a huge fan of Pam’s since “Cowboys Are My Weakness.” I was privileged to take a workshop from her at a secluded retreat center in the Rockies many years ago and I’ve been faithfully using several of her writing techniques ever since. We are both travelers at our core and this latest book takes us along on her journeys from Texas to Tibet in 144 tiny jewels of brave, insightful, well-crafted prose. Her voice has developed a beautiful patina over time but her stories still spark with the frisson of exciting adventures and the clear ping of truth.

“When Women Were Birds: Fifty-four Variations on Voice” by Terry Tempest Williams – This book was just published two days ago and although I don’t have it in hand yet, I can unconditionally recommend it. I have known and loved my dear friend Terry for decades and have been following this book’s journey through her Twitter feeds. Beginning with becoming the caretaker of her mother’s journals after her death, which many of you will remember from “Refuge,” Terry explores the character, power and meaning of women’s voices.  Her actual voice is so special you might want to wait until the audio book is published, which I know she has already recorded. As usual with her work, I’ll undoubtedly have it in several versions.

There are more, so many more, but now it’s your turn. What’s on your nightstand?

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