By Tara Dear, Yale-NUS ’17 – See bio
After my last blog, I spent two more days with perfect peace-of-mind, roughly forty-eight hours of continued gullibility, until the bombshell struck. It came in the form of an email from two volunteers who’d come to Wulugu two weeks before I was scheduled to leave, and who I’d gotten on very well with. Knowing that they had about a month and a half left in Ghana, I was surprised to hear from them that they’d already returned to Norway; that was not, however, the most shocking news they had to tell.
Turns out, the orphanage was a scam. Or rather, there was not, in fact, any orphanage at all, as the children we met there were not actually orphans. Silje and Morten, my two Norwegian friends, had found out that the building ‘loaned’ to our host-father Issifu was a place where thirty children gathered during the day to give the semblance of a busy and charitable children’s home, before going back to their own houses and families at night to sleep. This practice had been going on for at least two years, which was when Issifu began receiving his first volunteers. During that time, apart from the money exacted for accommodation and food, each well-meaning and generous volunteer had also donated whatever funds they’d managed to raise back home, most of which went to buy food for the orphanage. From the very beginning of our stay, Issifu had emphasised that the most important requirement was not teaching equipment, clothing, or furnishings, but that he preferred to be given money to buy food or to save up for some of his big projects – namely the new building I mentioned in my last blog, or a car he wanted to use to transport children to hospital when they were sick. Or at least, that was what he told us he wanted. That was probably a lie too.
The story begins with an unplanned visit from a Social Welfare team who turned up at the orphanage and asked to be shown around. According to Silja, the caretaker and cook (who were supposed to live full-time at the orphanage to care for the children) were very surprised and uneasy to see these visitors and wanted nothing more to do with them, so it fell to the Norwegians to explain as best they could about the workings of the orphanage – about which volunteers know very little, even when you ask as many questions as you can think of. We put that down to problems with the language barrier. The Social Welfare people demanded a meeting with Issifu and proceeded to enquire why Issifu had not yet registered the orphanage with the government. The volunteers had always been told that this was because such registration was very expensive and the government unreliable, and so Issifu argued that it was more efficient to look after the orphanage by himself, which added to his “good guy” character as he painted an eloquent picture of toiling on, feeding starving children from his own pocket with no support and no funding from the authorities.
I’m not sure what the Social Welfare group made of Issifu’s pitch – even if they were convinced, Silja and Morten weren’t, so in true Poirot-style they started digging around and asking innocent questions of the kids through a translator, say, about food. Airily, the children replied that oh yes, they did get fed at the orphanage; one meal a day, at lunchtime. And yet, when Issifu stipulated the requirements of the orphanage’s food to volunteers who agreed to buy it, he asked for three bowls of rice per day, per child! While walking back from a day at school, the kids pointed out different buildings as they passed, explaining “Hulela sleeps there, Matthew sleeps there, Meliga over there…” What a bizarre situation! The kids went onto explain that they had only slept in the orphanage once during the two years that they’d “lived” there – this was when the volunteers who’d come a few months before me decided to celebrate their last night in Wulugu by staying over at the orphanage. So Christian and Alexandra went away with fond memories of their night spent with the kids, for whom it was as much of an adventure as it was for the solmingas.
The Norwegians decided to see for themselves if what the kids were saying was true. So the next day, without letting Issifu or anyone else know, they got up very early in the morning and arrived at the orphanage before sunrise. Inside the compound they met only two teenage boys who were just beginning the day’s chores and asked them if the children were still sleeping. “No,” the boys replied, “we’re the only ones here.” A quick look into the girls’ and boys’ rooms proved this correct; there was even a motorbike parked in the otherwise empty boys’ room, as if it saw much more frequent usage as a garage!
Silja and Morten left Wulugu under the cover of a weekend trip away, from which they simply never returned. They spoke to Issifu once more over the phone, inviting him to explain himself; his defense was, “I’m a church leader, I couldn’t possibly lie to you.” They haven’t heard from him since.
It may seem amazing that so many people could have spent months in the orphanage and gone away without the faintest suspicion of the elaborate deception. If it was only me, I’d have to confess to optimism bordering on Pollyannaism and a naïve willingness to see the best in everybody. Still, it speaks volumes that the whole village collaborated against the whites, that this set-up could never have been managed by Issifu alone; it took the co-operation of the kids and their families, the chief, who dropped by now and then and genially inquired after our doings in the orphanage, and most heartbreakingly, Issifu’s family and especially his four lovely children.
I know I came away from Ghana a lot more cynical than when I first arrived. Many of my ‘friendships’ ended in a request for money or marriage. I guess I’m not so angry about the betrayal as resigned and saddened; I had gone to Africa expecting to see poverty and have my heart wrung. I was spared that, as willing and prepared as I was to deal with honest suffering. This, instead, gives me insight into what it’s like to really be poor, where in the most pragmatic sense, honour isn’t worth starving for. If they’ve grown up with the belief that white skin equals money, can I really blame these people for wanting to get as much out of these foreigners as they can ? Is it possible that the money they fleeced out of me went to better use in the community than if I tried to hand it out myself, that the village knew who to trust to manage it responsibly, even if it wasn’t obtained responsibly? But then, in the long-term, when the trickle of volunteers to Wulugu dries up after words gets around, how are the people going to manage then? And what effect does it have on the volunteers, whom the villagers only see as walking wallets: when you’ve come with a genuine desire to help and find yourself so badly betrayed, how do you summon the resilience to try again? Is it enough to make you want to lock yourself in your ivory tower and stay there?
Imagine it were you. What would you do?