Monday, October 28, 2013

The Power of a Story

Please enjoy this wonderful write-up by Book Club International Program Director Sue Ron-Gonzalez about the empowering programs run this summer in Ghana, West Africa.

"This summer I had an amazing opportunity, thanks to AllPeopleBeHappy Foundation, Tomorrow’s Stars and ISABT, to launch the Adehye Girls Club in Elmina, Ghana.  Adehye means “royal” in Fante. The name was chosen because we want the girls to take pride in their lives. For four weeks, 50 girls, ages 10-16, learned about teenage pregnancy prevention, health-related issues and many other valuable life skills.

One of the highlights of the summer was the field trip to Kakum Rainforest. The day started with each girl receiving their own Adehye Girls Club shirt. They filled into the school library to change their clothes, brush and decorate their hair with barrettes and spray themselves with perfume! You could feel the excitement buzzing in the library! We rented a van and a huge diesel truck to take the 1 hour trip to Kakum. To get into the truck you had to climb a ladder and then grab a seat on a bench. As we bounced around in this truck, the girls sang and danced for the full hour. It’s difficult to put into words the positive energy I felt inside that truck. Being surrounded by beautiful music and happy faces filled my own heart with joy. We began walking through Kakum, listening to the guide speak about its history. When we reached the canopy walks, 400 ft. high amidst the trees, the girl’s nerves began to show in their faces and movements. We talked about the importance of overcoming fears, bravery and pride in accomplishing challenges in life. I was so proud of these girls as they made their way through seven canopy walkways! This trip provided an important bonding experience for the group that will help to cement their friendships and support for each other. On the bus ride home, the girls giggled with bright smiling faces as they talked about how they overcame their fear of walking the canopies. Within 15 minutes of the bus ride, most of them fell asleep! It was truly an uplifting, fulfilling day.

Although I have been writing stories with students in Ghana for the past few years, this summer I came to understand just how valuable this process is. Since most of the educational system in Ghana is rote learning and call and response, the students feel a sense of autonomy and pride when they are allowed to write creative stories.  In addition, with class sizes often at 40 or more, students do not often have the opportunity to share their thoughts and feelings. When I tried to discuss sensitive issues with the girls regarding how they felt about challenges they face, they were often silent. They weren’t accustomed to sharing their feelings in a classroom setting. But through their written stories, I learned about their worries and fears of what may happen if they became pregnant as a teen. Their stories often did not have a happy ending.

Portia is one of the students at Bantuma who has been writing stories for me for the past few years. A year ago, she completed her schooling at Bantuma but hadn’t been accepted to any high school. She told me that she desperately wanted to go back to school, so I accompanied her to the district office to see if she could get an application for high school.  Another young man who had also written stories for me, Emmanuel, was also waiting to get an application. When we finally got to meet the person in charge of the applications, he told both students that they weren’t smart enough to attend high school because of their low test scores and that they didn’t try hard enough to learn. Despite being humiliated by this man, Portia and Emmanuel walked proudly out of the office. I turned to Portia and asked her why she wanted to attend high school and college.  She looked intently at me and said that she wanted to be a story writer, a journalist.  It was at this moment that I understood the power of a story. Portia may not have had the highest test scores or grades, but she felt empowered enough to continue her education because of her positive experiences writing stories for the international book club. Emmanuel then went on to tell me how much he loves to go on  to read the story he wrote two years ago. He doesn’t have access to a computer so he uses his small cell phone to read his story.

For our end of the summer celebration, we had our traditional feast of Eli’s meat pies with soda. Each girl was given a copy of her story, and laminated stories were given to the Bantuma School library. The students had the opportunity to read each other’s’ stories and share their feelings about what it meant to be a member of the Adehye Girls Club. At first, the girls were reluctant to speak. Cecilia was one of the first girls to speak up. We told her that she was a warrior because it takes courage to stand up and share a part of yourself with your peers and teachers. Slowly, other girls also began to take pride in speaking up. The teachers reminded them of the importance of finding your own voice in life and speaking up for what you believe in.
Teaching these extraordinary girls in Ghana that their stories are important and need to be told can have such a profound impact on their education and life. Every year a girl stays in school, she delays pregnancy and marriage. These girls may not have access to many educational materials or opportunities, but they do have their own stories that they can share as a way to create growth, learning and a sense of connection in their lives. I recently read somewhere that a story is data with a soul. This summer, I was overjoyed to get a glimpse into the beauty of these girls’ souls through their stories."

-Sue Ron-Gonzalez