Leadership Camp for the Deaf

I know, I know….it’s been a REALLY long time. Here is an article I wrote for our Peace Corps Ghana newsletter about the leadership camp I hosted. By Sunday you’ll also get a full update about the progress in the vocational department I’ve been working on creating at the school. Stay tuned!

I was a ball of stress as the overcrowded bus struggled two hours late up the bumpy dirt road towards my school – The Gbeogo School for the Deaf in Upper East. Inside that bus were my fellow Deaf Education PCVs, their counterparts and four exceptional students from each of their schools specifically chosen to attend the first (hopefully annual) Leadership Camp for the Deaf. Many of them had been traveling two straight days, coming from all over Ghana, to arrive here, at my school, packed like sardines in a hopelessly unglamorous school bus. I’d spent so long working towards this moment and now that it was here….well, all I could think about was how hot it was, how the dorms were uncomfortable and that there was no running water. I held my breath as the bus heaved to a stop in front of me, the dust settled and the engine let out a sigh, the first students stepped down from the doorway and- to my surprise -smiled.

The idea for the camp started during training. With only seven Deaf Education volunteers in the country, all working at Primary/Junior High schools for the deaf, we realized early on that we could achieve a lot by collaborating. We also noticed that despite a relatively large population of deaf in Ghana, there is still very little awareness about deaf culture and extremely high levels of stigmatization. Often ignored or rejected within their families and villages, the deaf in Ghana lack an overall sense of pride and belonging and thus have no foundation on which to build a powerful and unified community and fight for their rights. After noticing this trend throughout our schools, we decided to hold a camp geared to create confident, capable leaders throughout Ghana, who can then encourage their schools to become more vocal in their cause and create a national correspondence. We wanted to motivate our students to take a spotlight in their communities instead of being shunned to the corners. Most importantly, we wanted to allow students and teachers from all over the country to meet each other and feel what it means to be part of – to belong to – a nationwide community.

The camp itself took place from July 29 through August 3, and was organized into a variety of events. We started with two days of leadership, goal-setting and confidence building workshops. The tone of the entire week was set by guest speaker, Robert Sampana, who was born deaf and is now incredibly successful working as Head of Advocacy at the Ghanaian National Association of the Deaf (GNAD) in Accra. His presence at the camp was crucial to inspire the young, brilliant and, obviously, deaf campers. He was able to relate to the campers and communicate with them in ways that would have been impossible for a group of hearing, American PCVs. He started conversations about how the deaf are viewed in Ghana, how each of them can help fight stigma and stereotype, and the importance of the deaf community’s actions in igniting change. He also gave examples of opportunities available for the students, and the steps he followed himself to get to where he is now. Another deaf counterpart, Emmanual, gave a presentation on what “Deaf Pride” means, and how each camper could help spread the word to their peers using Deaf Pride Clubs when they get back to school. It was incredible to see our students active and inspired during these discussions, and we often talked well past the scheduled time for the session.

Interspersed among these sessions were crafts, games and ice breakers, meant to get the campers comfortable with each other and give them a chance to relax, socialize and have fun. We had two half-day excursions to the Upper East tourist destinations, Paga and Sirigu, to allow students who had never been to UE or even north of Kumasi to get a feel for a different part of Ghana (and, of course, to allow them to practice their ever-so-creative poses). To continue this trend, we ate all local northern foods, however, T.Z. got mixed reviews from those southern students who had never tasted it before.
The evenings were filled with entertainment. Our second night at camp was a talent show which highlighted the campers’ talents in dancing, acting and even talking and singing (honestly, proof that the “deaf can do anything except hear”*).
The next night was movie night, followed by a night of trivia from facts and questions taken from every session in the camp. It was during the trivia that we were able to assess just how many of our lessons the students actually absorbed, and it was amazing. We were hard pressed to find a single question they didn’t know the answer to, and finally were only able to stump them with questions like “What is Lauren’s father’s name?” (If you know the right answer, I’ll give you toffee).

We ended with a bonfire and glow stick party, and as the students ran around with each other, smiles on their faces and glow sticks in hand, it was impossible to tell who had come from which school. They were enjoying their last night with all the new friends they made, stopping only to tell the councilors we needed to have another camp soon. And so, at an ungodly hour of 4:30 am the next morning, the PCVs, counterparts and campers boarded that dusty old bus again to make another long and uncomfortable trip home. But they left a different group than they had come. They left as one community: proud of their uniqueness, confident to mobilize their peers and united in a goal of spreading deaf advocacy and pride.

Thank you very much to Austin and Paul with PCV media, who made an absolutely incredible movie of the camp. Check it out online at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yX4nUqwGcKE

*quote: Dr. I. King Jordan, President of Gallaudet University

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