After the busy day in Tamale I made contact with John Alo, the director of the Garu Community Based Rehabilitation Center (GCBR). Garu is a village of 15,000 people located ten kilometers south of Bakino-Faso and ten kilometers west of Togo. It's 135 miles north of Tamale but the drive is broken up into two parts. You can easily cover the first 100 miles in two hours. This takes you to the village of Sakogu which is located on a 400 ft tall escarpment looking out over the plains that eventually lead to the Sahara. Once we started descending the escarpment, the roads become nearly impassable at points with creeks, boulders and huge chunks of cracked pavement reducing progress to a crawl. The last 35 miles also take close to two hours - and there is virtually no traffic on these roads. Only the occasional supply truck and random cyclists.
Along the way the villages transform from cement brick buildings to complexes consisting of several circular red-clay huts with grass roofs. Colorful, nearly psychedelic, traditional African dress is the norm with women carrying goods in baskets on their heads. The main streets are lined with shops selling everything from TV remotes to truck parts; dresses to cell phones. Nearly all these stores can sell you a small bag of cold water and there is usually a table where you can sit down, relax and gossip.
When we finally arrived in Garu Mr. Alo took me to the guest house operated by GCBR. This being the most remote location I've ever been to, I assumed I would be relegated to a sweaty bunk room far from an accessible toilet. But the GCBR takes disability advocacy very seriously and they have painstakingly made their guest house 100 percent accessible. Everything from the ramp, to the bathroom to the shower proved no obstacle to me at all. On top of that they had a 50" flat screen hooked up to a satellite dish with 40 channels including a 24-hour soccer channel (my guest house in Accra had only 4 channels of broadcast TV). My room had a huge raft of a bed encased in a mosquito net. Malaria is quite prevalent in the North and most of the bites come at night while people are asleep. Contrary to myth, Ghanian mosquitos are not gigantic aggressive winged demons with 8-inch long stingers. Rather they are small and soft and you barely feel them or their stingers - which, of course make them much more deadly. Also the stings last only a few hours so it's very possible that you are stung w/out ever knowing it.
I had a bit of time to kill before going to the local chapter meeting of the Garu Society of Disabled Persons so I went out into the neighborhood to shoot some standups. A person in a wheelchair is not an oddity here, but a big white guy in a wheelchair talking to a camera will draw quite a big of attention. While I was shooting a standup against a thatched roof house I noticed a group of about 50 blue-uniformed 3rd graders had stopped in their tracks trying to figure out what had just invaded their village. I turned off my camera, looked at them with a big smile and yelled, "Hello!"
This apparently was the signal for them to rush over and assume control of my chair. In seconds I was being whisked away with the kids chanting anything I said. If I said, "One-Two-Three" they would in turn scream "One-Two-Three!" If I howled like a wolf, they would howl like a wolf. I got them into a nice round of Johnny B. Goode as well as Franklins Tower. Mr Alo and his assistant Isaac were returning from their morning rounds when they came across me being escorted back to the childrens school where they wanted to show me to their teacher. Mr. Alo pulled up to me in his truck, and with a big smile said, "Well I guess you found your way to the clinic." Unbeknownst to me the clinic was right across the main road from the school. He then said something in the local language to the kids who dispersed and went back to their classroom. Then he told me that I may be one of only 3 or 4 white people they see all year - and certainly the first white person they've ever seen in a wheelchair.
Later in the afternoon Mr. Alo took me to the meeting of the Garu Society of Disabled Persons meeting where I was invited to speak. I told them about my film, but I was much more interested in hearing about their issues. Of course equipment is a big problem but most of them had solved their issues with crutches and hand bikes. Most of them suffered from birth defects and not spinal cord injury. So they could manage the short distances on crutches, but used hand bikes for getting from place to place. Eventually I saw more than a dozen hand bikes in this small community - all thanks to the work of the GCBR.
They also wanted to introduce themselves to me and tell me what they did with the organization. Again the depth of the Ghanian Society of Persons w/Disabilities blew me away. This group, in the most remote part of the country, was directly tied in to the national organization and was receiving the two percent of the annual local govt. budged that the Ghanian Persons with Disabilities Act insures them. The money is spent on education and mobility giving most of these guys not only a job, but a way to get there and back. Their leader was a blind school teacher who has also won two terms in the local assembly Oddly they seemed to be even more proud of the fact that he has two wives, who they were quick to point out, are not disabled! Cultural changes come slow. I'll take the disability advocacy for now and I'll leave the polygamy and women's rights issues up to some other group.
I had no more appointments left and a big long day in the morning so I watched some local football, had a beer at a local bar (actually got a great interview w/a male nurse at the bar!), then went back to the guest house to turn in early. Ghanians are very early risers. 5 a.m. is the norm and it is not unusual to schedule 7 a.m. events.
I woke up around 5 and rolled into the main room to watch the news only to discover the flat-screen was missing. I assumed one of the teachers needed it for a presentation, but that was not the case. It got pinched! In the middle of the night with a full house full of guests! So instead of meeting the GCBR staff, Mr. Alo and I were talking to local police. The house was locked and there was no forced entry so for sure it was an inside job - which made me quite paranoid about my camera equipment!
Eventually we made it to the GCBR center where the meeting started with a 30-minute prayer session. Ghana is HYPER Christian and everything starts with at least a prayer. After that I spoke to the staff about the film and how they could help me. We broke the meeting and I got to go on rounds with Isaac and two other staff members. For the next 3 hours they took me all over the region to interview disabled people who have been helped by the GCBR. I interviewed students, street sellers, farmers and garment workers, all with moderate to severe disabilities, all who now have a trade and earn a living.
But the most impressive was an elderly woman who even when she sat on her tiny useless legs was less than three-feet tall. Her daughter suffers from the same congenital condition and up until five years ago they only made enough money off their small farm to feed themselves. But with a micro-loan from the GCBR they bought sewing equipment and started making dresses. Neither of them are tall enough to take measurements, but all they need to do is size you up with their naked eye, cut fabric and start sewing. Their technique and quality are beyond reproach and now they both are making big profits and have more orders than they can fill. They too, have a hand bike so they can pack their finished goods in to a sack, climb onto the bike and take their wares to market.
The two-day stay in Garu was way too short. Oddly enough of all the places I've visited it was THE MOST accessible. Because everything was on the ground floor I could get into every house, business, school and government building. I was afraid before I left that I would need lots of help to get around, but in fact it was here where I was most independent.
Mr. Alo and I drove the 4 hours back to Tamale in the afternoon stopping off at his parents house for tea and sandwiches. Instead of taking the main road, Mr. Alo told me he had a short cut that avoided some of the big crowded villages during rush hour. We turned off on a dirt road and spent an hour driving through corn and melon fields. Occasionally we passed through tiny hamlets where young children locked eyes with me and often times screamed for their parents to take a look. Mr. Alo told me it was very possible I was the first white man they'd ever seen.
So from a land of no pavement and grass huts, I'm off to Beijing where the hyper-urbanization and caustic pollution will most likely take a chunk of my soul.