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Saint Mary’s alumnae share service experience in Ghana

Megan O'Neil | Monday, February 27, 2006

When a classmate approached Leah Gillock at lunch one day during their senior year at Saint Mary’s to ask if she was interested in doing service work in Ghana, Gillock expressed interest, never expecting the trip would actually take place.

But Claire Higgins, who proposed the idea, had already started using her connections from the College’s “Friends with Sisters” program to explore options for the two women.

“Prior to my junior year of college, I felt this calling to go to Africa and ever since, I was thinking there has to be a way for me to go to Africa after graduation,” Higgins said at an slideshow presentation at St. Joseph’s House on campus Saturday.

Higgins originally intended to travel to Uganda, but after working with Sr. Madeline Theresa, coordinator of the international service office for the Sisters of the Holy Cross, “everything fell into place” and she and Gillock decided they would finance their own trip to live and work with Sisters of the Holy Cross in Kasoa, Ghana.

After graduating in May 2005, the pair began to read up on Ghanaian history and to research social and political issues. They made ambitious goals for the trip and collected “loads and loads” of school supplies to distribute, Gillock said.

“Claire and I had gotten together and talked about things we could possibly do when we got there,” Gillock said.

When Higgins and Gillock arrived at St. Martha’s Catholic Church and Basic School in September and saw how bad the situation was for Ghanaian children seeking an education, they found themselves modifying their “radical notions,” Gillock said.

The two women spent their three-month trip living in community with the Sisters and teaching English at St. Martha’s. Higgins said her class of 90 students was noisy and often difficult to control. Ages and abilities within the class varied widely because financial constraints often required children to leave school for varying periods of time.

Physical discipline was the norm at St. Martha’s, Higgins and Gillock said.

Higgins described how she tried to quiet her class by asking for their attention, with little success.

“One of the little girls came up to me and was like, ‘They’re not going to respect you unless you cane them,'” Higgins said.

Another time students were told to bring machetes – a household item in Ghana – to school to help weed, Gillock said. Those who didn’t were lined up outside of the building and caned on both sides of their hands.

All students in Ghana, those attending both religious and government-run schools, wear uniforms and are also required to shave their heads.

“There were times [at the beginning] unless they were wearing earrings I couldn’t tell if they were girls or boys because when they were sitting down you couldn’t tell if they were wearing skirts or pants,” Higgins said.

Higgins and Gillock also traveled to different regions in Ghana and visited various schools, many of which were in much better shape than St. Martha’s. Despite rich natural resources, the country’s infrastructure remains very poor, Gillock said. Roads are in disrepair and there are few economic opportunities even for the educated.

One of the most powerful images Higgins and Gillock showed was of a mountainous garbage heap called the “bulla.”

“It is very sad,” Gillock said. “It is this huge land fill that cows walk on and defecate on … and there are also children playing on it and [trying to collect things].”

The pair said their fair skin and light hair often attracted attention.

“[Ghanaians] would come up to us and touch us, touch our skin and touch our hair because it was something new, something different,” Gillock said.

Higgins called the trip a “humbling experience” and said she came to realize that before one can change the world they first must change themselves.

“It was just an awesome, incredibly wonderful experience,” Gillock said.

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