Thursday, August 19, 2010

A helping hand in Ghana

His distinct laugh won me over right from the start. One look at him and he would burst into chesty sounding hysterics, oblivious to the harsh surroundings. Kwame was about nine months old when I first met him at Osu Children’s Orphanage. No one knew his exact age but he was by far one of the healthier looking children in the ward packed with babies and toddlers.

Osu Orphanage was where I chose to do my volunteer work with my sister as we combined a holiday in Ghana with a chance to do some volunteer work. Our initial plan was to work on the street kids programme but as this proved impossible to organise at short notice, we signed up to voluntary work at Osu instead. During our introductory tour of the orphanage the baby unit cried out to my sister and I, where two American volunteers were visibly swamped by a lack of resources and hands to help them with nappy changing and feeding time. Once assigned to the cotful of babies the reality of a third world orphanage hit home. It didn’t help that we arrived just after lunchtime – which means babies from five months old are placed on potties all around the corridor, their heads unable to support themselves. I dared to ask why these babies were not still in nappies. “We don’t have time to be cleaning all their nappies all the time,” was the candid response from one of the aunties running the ward. My heart wrenched as dozens of forlorn eyes looked up at me whimpering to be saved from the potties that they were propped up on. We were told by the aunties to push their potties against bins, walls, cots and even each other for support. When one fell – which was inevitable - it was a dominos effect as all of them would tumble to the ground, with the consequences of upturned potties and hurt babies. I swiftly realised there was two ways to react to this situation – sob hysterically at the tragic set-up or to hold back the emotion and make the time to hug and cuddle these unwanted children. There was only one baby who seemed unperturbed by these tough surroundings: One little child who was propped up in his blue potty with a large bin to support him when I first caught eyes on him. He chuckled when I made eye contact. I did a peekaboo gesture from behind the bin and his protruded belly shook with ripples of laughter. “Who is he?” I asked Auntie Missy, intrigued by the sheer contentment of this baby. “Kwame,” she replied, her smile showing she was just as enamoured by this adorable child.

From that moment Kwame became “my little boyfriend”, the child I secretly wanted to adopt if I could and the baby that I would sneak out of his cot for a cuddle at any opportunity. My actual boyfriend laughed and raised his eyes as I told him about Kwame later that evening. “Oh god you want to do an Angelina on it,” he joked. Deep down, however, I knew he could see the impact this nine month old was having on me. Along with Kwame I had never seen so many children in one room in need of a cuddle. Without volunteers in these orphanages these children stuck indoors all day and there aren’t enough people to clean them, never mind give them quality playtime. I felt both queasy and excited at returning to the orphanage the next day. Sure enough Kwame was there to give me my morning pick me up with a heart warming smile. He had already been fed his porridge mix so I moved on to the smaller babies, letting them glug down their bottles of formula before lying them on the large playmat where they scratched and kicked at eachother for space. Meanwhile the older children at the other end of the corridor would be calling out “Obruni, obruni” (white person) arms outstretched and begging to be picked up for a cuddle. There wasn’t enough time, however, as babies were crying to be washed, changed and fed. The aunties were telling me I needed to speed up my rota of washing babies, while my heart cried out to each of them as I wanted to cuddle them for hours instead of seconds. Hours later once we had washed every baby and pinned their cloth nappies on them and had them back in their cots; I focused on the other children who ranged in age from one to two years. We would take them outside for a run around, play games under the shade of the trees, sing them songs and buy them bananas and juice from the market close by. The rush for second and third helpings of bananas was overwhelming. They would clamour over each other to get one more taste of the sweet fruit.

On my last day at Osu it was unsurprisingly difficult saying goodbye to the children, especially Kwame. I sneaked a cuddle and a picture with him promising I would be back next year. The next day, however, I got a surprise call from one of the volunteers to say Kwame was gone from the orphanage. He had been adopted a few hours after I had kissed him goodbye.It made my departure from Ghana a little easier knowing that the future can be bright for some of the babies like Kwame, despite their tumultuous start in life.

To volunteer at Osu Children's Home visit

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Keeping up appearances

Dubai may appear cosmopolitan and modern to the outsider, but Muslim traditions still prevail in the Arab emirate. Break the rules and you'll pay the price.

“Let’s just say if your dress was any shorter you might be insulting the Arabs.” This was the advice an Irish embassy representative in the UAE gave me when I quizzed him about etiquette in Dubai. Fortunately I am not easily offended and heeded his advice in good humour, swiftly changing from my dress into more appropriate attire. Other foreigners, however, are not as understanding of the customs in Muslim populated holiday destinations. Most recently a British tourist stripped down to her bikini in a Dubai shopping mall after a group of Emirati women approached her to declare she was dressed inappropriately. Rather than respect the tradition (and the signs all over the public shopping areas) that covering up is obligatory, the infuriated Brit decided to make a stance there and then. She shed her clothes and stood in her bikini much to the shock of other shoppers and horrified locals. She was consequently arrested and taken to a police cell, where charges against her were later dropped. If she had any sense, however, she would realise in Arab territory you do not mess with the law, nor try to oppose it. After all this is a place where you can be sentenced to death for carrying drugs or stoned to death for murder. Prison terms are also handed out for situations that we may regard as genuinely sweet gestures in Western society. A kiss could be seen as an inappropriate display of affection and anything more amorous than this could land you in a prison cell for a night or longer. This was proven when the British couple involved in the infamous “sex on the beach” scandal in Dubai last year were charged, fined and given a month’s jail sentence.

The number of Irish tourists to Muslim tourist destinations like Dubai and Abu Dhabi is on the constant rise while the Irish ex-pat community in the UAE has grown significantly in recent years, now totalling four thousand. However all signs indicate the Irish have not caused much disruption since their take up in this Arab emirate. “We are aware of only a small number of Irish citizens who have been arrested in the United Arab Emirates since January 2009,” says a representative of the Irish embassy based in Abu Dhabi. “We are not aware that they concern a lack of awareness of local laws or customs.” Irish ex-pat Shane McGinley echoes this viewpoint. “I think the Irish are good at keeping under the radar and not offending. Our Catholic restraint meshes well with Muslim sensibilities. It is usually boozy Brits that make the headlines.” Shane has been living in Dubai for almost two years and swiftly realised the things you can and can’t do in Arab culture. “There are always the horror stories about people being arrested for kissing in public but if you are smart you can stay under the radar. It is important also to always be aware if Muslim families are around, especially if you’ve had a few to drink. I have also noticed Arabs are getting stricter on clothing lately so it is best to cover up, especially in shopping malls.”

Unmarried men and women living together is one of the main offences committed by ex-pats living in Dubai and the neighbouring emirates. “They can’t live together unless they are married, but everyone has mixed households and flats,” says Shane. When it comes to public displays of affection, however, this is not as easy to get away with. “Shows of affection do happen and you may get a tap on your shoulder from a bouncer if you are kissing in a nightclub,” says Shane. “That said there are certain bars and clubs that only foreigners frequent so they are usually more liberal and laid back.” While the Arabs dominate how the state is run, there is a noticeable hierarchy in the UAE. “How you are directly treated depends on what nationality you are,” says Shane. “In the west we try to be all PC and pretend that doesn’t happen, in the Gulf there is no such urge to pretend. If you are European in Dubai, you will always be treated better than an Indian. Arabs are on top and men get prominence over women.”

While the UAE boasts the typical holiday attractions of sandy beaches and warm weather to draw an international crowd of tourists and ex-pats, it shows no signs of relaxing its laws or traditions, especially with regard to alcohol, clothing and public displays of affection. In particular this month the rules become even stricter as Ramadan gets underway. The month of devout praying and fasting can be a frustrating time for ex-pats and tourists. “Ramadan means you can’t eat drink or smoke in public and you can be fined or arrested,” explains Shane. “Loud music is also frowned upon, so no music in your car or load parties are allowed. Clubs are closed too and there are no concerts or entertainment events.” While it is a less popular time for holidaymakers to visit Dubai and more ex-pats tend to leave the emirates for their holidays during this period, Shane is one of the few ex-pats that embraces the holy month, for ironic reasons perhaps. “Dubai ex-pat life is very drink led so in some ways the quiet month is a new time to detox and give your system a rest.”

For information on travelling to Muslim holiday destinations or relocating there visit the Irish embassy website .