Heather and Islando Sparks – 2015

From the time we arrived we were struck by the ongoing sense of warmth that greeted us at all times. From our first few days so generously welcomed into Joana’s home, to walking down the street and being greeted from all directions with hellos and friendly waves, we felt like already there was a place for us in the community and that people were willing to transcend language, race, and cultural backgrounds to connect in shared experiences.

Early into our stay we were introduced to Mark, an artist from the Jamestown area of Accra. On our first meeting he took us on a wonderfully winding tour through the Jamestown neighborhood where we met his family and friends and tried our first Ghanaian food, a local fermented corn dough called kenkey, served with spicy red pepper sauce and dried fish. It was oddly tasty! He also introduced us to his beach crew of plastic recyclers and showed us the mountains of trash they were attempting to deal with. This was the first seed of puppet making inspiration.

Recycled plastic feathers

Saddened to see the beaches in Ghana so heavily littered we realized one of the greatest legacies we could leave behind was the inspiration to turn this trash into treasure. We recognized the trash as a free resource that innovative people could put to use with a minimal amount of tools. We devised a plan to build one of the puppets out of the plastic bottles. Working with kids and staff of the library, local school teachers, and the beach clean up crew we collected, cleaned and cut 100s of bottles into feather shapes for the making of a 10′ tall puppet bird. The bird’s inner shape was made from woven cane sourced from a local furniture weaving shop. Its outer coat consisted of layers of the plastic feathers which glowed luminously in the sun. The bird was truly a community effort of transformation! We are hopeful and excited to see how this seed of inspiration will continue to grow without us.

Ready for the parade!
Fishing canoes rest along the Goi Beach

After a small amount of adjustment we settled into an appreciation for the landscape of sound that surrounded us at all hours in Ghana. Crashing ocean waves, greeting honks between taxi cabs, various sound systems, clapping games, singing, and parades of people playing percussive drum beats. Sunday we discovered is run day in Accra! Looking out at dawn one early Sunday morning we counted 55 people running down one street, before realizing people were running down all of the streets! Some running groups carried drums around their necks and horns that they used to play catchy rhythms to run to. We came to love these unexpected moments of celebratory sound! Sunday at church is also something to behold! Make way for the kerchief spinning grandmas and the lines of dancers streaming out one door and back into the other praising Hallelujah!

The highlight of our time was most certainly the one week we spent in the small fishing village of Goi. Over the course of our time we involved the kids in the making of various parade crafts, including newspaper party hats with gold pom poms, streamers made from beach trash, hula hoops, juggling pins, and of course the 50 foot snake inspired by the book “Fati and the Green Snake.”

Vivian, the vivacious and bright eyed librarian in Goi, was incredibly adept at channeling impending disasters (ie. several hours into painting and the kids are beginning to get a little wild with the paint splatters) into full choruses of song. In one of the daily favourites, three groups of kids would take turns singing (or more like shouting!) out the lines of the song: “London is Burning, Fetch me water, fire fire” each one attempting to outdo the other with the boisterous loudness with which they would deliver their line.

The enthusiasm of the kids, both in Accra and Goi, was boundless. There was always a friendly curious circle of faces surrounding us ready for anything! One memorable moment was when we had a face off, where we all tried to make the funniest faces possible at each other. This was just one moment out of many that demonstrated that language was rarely a barrier. With so much willingness to engage we found other ways to interact and communicate. Whether it was through simply demonstrating and observing an activity, expressing through body language, turning sound effects into songs or making funny faces, always there was a game to be played and a nice time to be had with a strong sense of togetherness.

Each day in Goi, Islando and I would walk the beach and collect colourful bits of trash to create art out of. It wouldn’t take long before we would have a crew of helpful kids loading up their dresses and shirts with colourful bits of trash to bring to us. Anything we were collecting they would collect. With my portable stereo playing I quickly realized that any dance move I made they would also make, so like a grand parade of “Simon Says” we would jump, wiggle, and high kick our way down the beach together collecting bottle caps and fishing rope for the next day’s activities.

From working at the library on art all day, to beach trash collecting parades, to the kids walking with us (their small hands in ours), to returning home to the library as dusk settled, to staying up late with the older students working on art until one by one they fell asleep across the tables, our artistic lives were entwined with the children and people of Goi. It was this that made our time there so precious and memorable.

There was lots of enthusiasm for OCLF’s 25th anniversary parade.

Back in Accra we continued the last of the work to prepare for the big 25th Anniversary Parade!!! Leading more art workshops we built a friendly tortoise, more party hats, and many many signs with the various students and staff of OSU. Many weeks of work and the finale of our stay was close at hand!

The day before the parade, November 20th, was my birthday! After a day of painstakingly hard work stitching the feathers onto the bird, Mark took Alastair, Stef, Islando and myself out to one of the boxing matches Ghana is so famous for. Far from being violent, it was finessed athleticism accompanied by an enthusiastic percussive band and a whole lot of sparkle fashion! The surprise of the night was that it was also Ghana’s lead boxer, Emmanual Togo’s, birthday. The whole stadium sang to him (and me!)

We enjoyed the boxing match and our night out with artist friend Mark so much we arrived home very late with only 1/2 hour of rest before we were to wake again for the parade. At 3:30 am we lowered the puppets by rope from the third floor of the library and piled them and ourselves into a pick up truck. Delirious and happy to begin with, the parade was a wonderful and heartfelt day! We walked, sang, and carried the puppets alongside the friends we had made and the kids we had worked with during our stay. The signs proudly promoted literacy and it was as if characters out of books had sprung from the pages to walk amongst us for a time.

We appreciated OSU’s dedication to education of all forms and the environment of learning available to all kids no matter what tribe, race, social class or religion they come from. We are grateful for the opportunity OSU gave us to sink deeply into the Ghanaian culture in such a meaningful way. We sincerely hope that our time in Ghana sent out a ripple of inspiration to continue creating art from recycled materials and that the kids gained new technical skills and innovative thinking that will help them along their life paths.

Thank you Kathy and OSU staff for the unforgettable experience!

With much gratitude,

Islando and Heather* Sparks

Vancouver, BC, Canada and Bellingham, WA, United States.