My Experience in Ghana: Father Neil

From the moment I was presented with the opportunity to go and visit our Sister Parish in Ghana, to wheels down in Accra, I was very excited about this trip.  I've traveled internationally, and been to developing nations before, but with was my first trip to Africa!  

My first goal, of course, was to spread the love and name of Jesus Christ, and of His Blessed Mother Mary, in every step I took.  My purpose in traveling to visit our Sister Parish was multifaceted, but it centered around connectivity.  I very much wanted to find ways to connect the communities of Our Lady of Grace Catholic Church in Edina, Saint Joseph's Catholic Parish in Mampontang, and the students at Our Lady of Grace Senior High School.

*No...I did not use the pool.  :-)

*No...I did not use the pool.  :-)


Ashesi Visit

We spent the first two nights in the capital city of Accra.  There we visited an important University, named Ashesi University.  It's important for many reasons, but most of all because of the synergies we see being formed between our school and this institution.  Ashesi means "beginning," and the students who come to this University truly do experience a new beginning when they walk in the door.  Our combined hope, is that one day many of our students would end up going to Ashesi for Higher Educational opportunities.

Ashesi was founded by Patrick Awuah, a former program manager with Microsoft and graduate from Swarthmore College, with an MBA from UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business.  Patrick's leadership has made Ashesi a top private University in Ghana, producing some of the finest graduates in the entire country.  Our Lady of Grace Senior High School has two graduates applying for entrance this coming fall!


Sanford Visit

Another important meeting we held while in Accra, was to meet with the President of Sanford International Clinics in Africa, Mr. Kojo Taylor.  A Minnesota native, born and raised in Bloomington Minnesota, Kojo decided to move to Ghana (where his parents were from), and build clinics with Sanford.  The company has built many clinics in the country already, and has a plan to build almost 300 in the years to come.  We went and visited a clinic in the nearby town of Mankessim.

Our hope is to one day soon, build a clinic in Mampontang, very near our school, which would serve both our school community, as well as the broader community living in the greater Kumasi area.  Our meeting with Kojo was very productive.  He and his team are excited to come up and visit our High School, and learn more about the area's needs.


Saint Joseph's Parish Schools

After traveling from Accra to Kumasi and settling in, we visited our Sister Parish, Saint Joseph Catholic Church, and the many "out-post" parishes connected to that Church, as well as the many schools that Father Paul and Father Dominic cover.  

The Basic Schools, or what we would call Elementary Schools in the US, were overflowing with kids.  Father Paul has recently built two new schools in one of the out-post parishes, where before these new buildings, the schools were just open structures with a simple tin roof, cement floor, and no walls.  

These beautiful children are eager to learn, and take great pride in their education.  They love coming to school.  We found that many of the young ones did not have workbooks in front of them when we walked into the classroom.  When we asked the teacher, she said "we do not have enough for all the students; we cannot afford enough."  When we inquired how much they were, we found out they were about $0.25 a piece.

While their classrooms are very basic, their attitudes toward learning and self-development are none of the sort!  These children radiate the love of Christ.  You can see hope in their eyes.

While we were there, we had the opportunity to hand out many gifts we brought along.  I alone checked four suitcases full of books, school supplies, computer programs, and most important - SOCCER BALLS!  When the kids saw those, they started screaming with joy!

Our parish also includes Junior Schools, or what we would call Middle Schools.  These kids all know about the Our Lady of Grace Senior High School, and are working VERY hard to try and get into the school.  They have heard about what a tremendous Senior High school it is, and this has motivated them to work extra hard to get their grades up so they can pass the entrance exams to get in.  This residual effect has been very pleasing to all those in the community.  All the boats are rising in the community because of our presence there, not just those directly benefiting from an education at Our Lady of Grace Senior High School.

This past year, parishioners from Our Lady of Grace donated money to purchase playground equipment for the Basic school at Saint Joseph's Parish.  The kids were very happy to show off, for me, how much they loved it!


Our Lady of Grace Senior High School Visit

Over the next 4 days, we had meetings and various other activities at our Senior High School.  During that time I learned about the schools mission, visited classrooms, took many photos, hours of video, interviewed students, staff, and teachers, and even flew a drone over the campus to capture the current status of construction!

One thing that I had on my list of to-do's, was a conference call with Google while I was on-site, so that I could get our School "on the map!"  Google requires that all businesses be verified, and with really no way to do that other than a video conference call from the actual location, I had to actually be there on premise and talk to one of their support people and prove that our school existed.  But we are now on Google Maps!  Check it out!

I also brought along a drone to fly above the campus, so that we could capture the current facilities, as well as the status of the construction of the new buildings.  Right now there is new construction happening on a high-capacity, multi-use auditorium, as well as the sport courts.

The students at Our Lady of Grace Senior High School have recently switched from a 4 year term, to a 3 year term, but without a change in curriculum.  That means, they are packing in the same amount of work into a shorter time period!  These kids work very hard.  I witnessed them leave their classrooms at the end of the school day, which lets out at 3:10pm, go back to their dormitories where they would change clothes and do chores for a few hours, only to return back to their classrooms in the evenings for individual and group study.  We came on Saturday, and all the kids were in the classrooms.  I asked the Headmaster, Stephen, "do the kids have class on the weekends as well?"  He said, "no.  They come, on their own, and study together on the weekends."  These kids work very hard to make sure they are learning the material well!

They are responsible for taking care of their own facilities as well.  They clean their own dorm rooms and bathrooms, and must take ownership of their school.  It is their school, and they are instilled a sense pride and dignity that they own a piece of this special place.

On Friday morning, we had Mass at 7:00am at the school.  The kids were all wide awake and ready to go that early - I was shocked! :-)  They sang, for me, their school song.  Click below to hear it!

One day, I was sitting on a chair outside the school Library, waiting for a meeting to start, and a gentleman approached me.  He told me he was a father of a student there, and that he'd walked for three days to come and visit his son.  He hadn't seen his son since September, when he entered school, and he was very worried that he wasn't going to be able to afford the tuition for the rest of the year.  He was a Coco farmer, the main industry in Ghana, and he said that he gets 1 Ghana Cedi for every bag of Coco he produces.  It's about a 4-1 exchange rate, and yearly tuition at Our Lady of Grace Senior High School is about $600 per year.  That would be about 2,400 bags of Coco, which the man said is almost impossible for him to produce, in addition to the other expenses he has for his family.  He looked me directly in the eyes and said, "do whatever you can to make sure my son stays in school.  I don't want him to have to work like I do...he's just too smart."

While we were there, the board of governors met in a special session, to discuss the status of the school and it's mission forward.  It was a fruitful conversation.  I was very impressed both the quality of the conversation, as well the varied and impressive experience on the board.  There were experienced educators, high-level bankers and investors, who had great financial acumen, and other industry leaders, who have devoted their time and talent to this important endeavor.  

On our last night at the school, they threw a big celebration dinner!  The kids dressed in their "formal wear," which they are very proud of, because they designed, sourced from China, procured, and found the right people to stitch it together.  There was lots of great food, and all the kids gathered in the dining hall.  After dinner, there was dancing and music!

It was hard to say goodbye to Our Lady of Grace Senior High School.  It's a very special place, and you feel that when you set foot on the campus.  I told them that I wasn't saying goodbye, I was just saying "until next time!"


Saint Joseph's Parish - Sunday Mass

Before departing for Accra, we had the Sunday celebration of Holy Mass at our Sister Parish, Saint Joseph's Catholic Church.  This was a wonderful Mass, and gave great Glory to our God, who brought us all here together!

During the Mass, there are many processions.  After the collection is taken up, the people process forward the gifts.  There are many gifts that are brought forward - far more than just an offering of money.  There is food, salt, canned goods, and all kinds of other offerings.  This is a very important part of the liturgy, because it represents the offering each person is able to make to God, in thanksgiving for the many gifts and blessings God has bestowed upon them.  Even in their poverty, I saw people give so much.

The mass lasted about 3 and a half hours long!  You think Mass is long at Our Lady of Grace in Edina!  :-)  It was a wonderful celebration, and it really didn't seem that long.  There was a second collection after communion, where people come up when the day-of-the-week is called on which they were born.  So if you were born on a Tuesday, like me, you would go up, and put in a little offering.  Of course, when you go up, you have to go up dancing, in thanksgiving for having just received our blessed Lord in the Eucharist.  And yes, even yours truly danced!  When I did, the kids all stood up and started screaming with joy! LOL! :-)

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Just before the final blessing, there are many groups that come forward and ask for a special blessing.  I gave a blessing to a group of people celebrating their birthday, and their wedding anniversaries.

Mass is not so much an obligation for everyone here, it's a great celebration and something they look forward to each week; so they spend all Sunday morning just hanging out in Church, and outside of Church.


Cape Coast

On our last full day in Ghana, we visited the town of Cape Coast, and the Cape Coast Castle.  This ancient slave castle, housed and processed thousands of slaves sold to the Americas, especially the Caribbean area, and is one of about 40 castles in the "Gold Coast" of Africa.  This was considered the "gate of no return," before you were put on a ship to either live a life of slavery, or die at sea on the way.  It was a hopeless place.  Slaves would spend anywhere from 2-6 weeks in these dungeons, packed together so tight they couldn't even sit down.

This was a grim reminder of another connection our two countries had in the past.  As I reflected, I was edified to see how our new connections are about lifting each other up; about enabling, and recognizing the great dignity and purpose God has instilled in each one of us, rather than tearing down, and demoralizing.

The town is now a bustling fishing village, with boats painted in vibrant colors and the smell of salt in the air.

Fr Neil Bakker

Our Lady of Grace, 5071 Eden Avenue, Edina, MN, 55436