#25. En Route To The Commonwealth Games

The dates 24th January to the 3rd of February 1990 will remain in my memory as the period when I was part of the Commonwealth Games held in Auckland, New Zealand. This is amazing because I have never done any serious sporting activity in my life. In fact, when I told a colleague that I had a commonwealth games medal he asked whether it was in a Bow and Arrow competition (Traditional Archery). Those who know me well know that the only game I play is Scrabble.

The circumstances leading to my being part of this sports festival in New Zealand are very intriguing. In January 1989, the Ghana Office of World Vision International received an invitation from the New Zealand office of the organisation to be part of an innovative fundraising programme. The Commonwealth Games that brought together athletes and sportsmen and women from former colonies of the British Empire to compete was going to be held in Auckland, New Zealand in January 1990. World Vision New Zealand wanted to bring together young people from around the world to perform in the opening and closing ceremonies of the games. They would also hold concerts around the country with the aim of raising funds for immunization against the six killer diseases in developing countries.

I must say that this is one of the most innovative fundraising strategies and plans I have seen in my development career. Sources of funding for projects and operations of Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) include major donors such as The Bretton Woods Institutions (The World Bank and International Monetary Fund), the UN body, Bilateral Donors, Foundations and Individuals. For funding from individuals, several NGOs use an approach called Child Sponsorship. With this approach, donors are enlisted with the organisation and promise to give a certain amount of money to the organisation every month over a period of time say 5 to 10 years. The amount could just be $20 every month. In exchange, the donor is given the photograph and background information of a child from a developing country. The donor is made to understand that the money is directed towards the development of the community in which the child lives. This was the model of child sponsorship in operation when I worked for World Vision International, Ghana between 1981 and 1994.
It is possible that this model has changed over time. The important part of the model is that a donor gives a very little amount of money to develop the community of a child and has constant updates on the welfare of the child. The donor or sponsor receives at least three forms of communication each year including a Christmas letter and Easter letter and an annual report. Several sponsors communicate once a while with their children but I have seen a few sponsors who write a letter to their sponsored child almost every month.

The arrangement by World Vision New Zealand to participate in the opening and closing ceremonies of the Commonwealth Games in Auckland was a very well thought through. And it was also very strategic thinking to find out how to take advantage of a big global festival. The Ghana office of World Vision, therefore, had a task to select six young people and a chaperone and take them to New Zealand to be part of this programme. I was privileged to be given the task of implementing this programme. It involved finding six young people between the ages of 12 and 16 with skills in dancing and drumming and preparing them for the programme. I accepted the task and waited for detailed instructions from New Zealand.

I wrote out a detailed work plan on what to do from day one until the end of the games and the return to Ghana. This was a real test of operational planning. I took several days to outline all the activities and sub-activities that had to be done from the planning stage, participation in the programme and return to Ghana including follow-up activities after the programme. It was outlined in a spreadsheet with five columns. The first column had the activities and sub-activities in chronological order. The second column had detailed timelines and the third and fourth columns had the exact completion date and comments. I got this detailed plan reviewed by my boss and approved for action. It was also shared with the New Zealand Office. This Operational Work Plan was going to be the main document for my monthly report.

The first step was to ensure that this programme was known by the Ministry of Education and the Ghana Teaching Service because children of school age were involved. The ministry kindly gave us a letter of introduction to any school we wanted to engage. This was easier said than done and the back and forth visits to collect the letter of introduction took a whole month. I anticipated this delay and it did not distort the timelines in my work plan.

Since we did not have in-house expertise in dancing and drumming, the next task was to find out where we could outsource the training of the young people. Naturally, we went to the Performing Arts Faculty of the University of Ghana. With my boss Edward Opare Saforo, we met Professor Nketiah who kindly agreed to ask his senior staff to assist us in the project. We were assisted from the University of Ghana by Nii Yartey and his assistant Mr Amu.

Next was the identification of young people in the age bracket specified with skills in dancing and drumming who were in schools within Accra. With the very long timeframe for required training, it only made sense to select participants from within the city of Accra. We noticed that we had taken the right step by seeking external assistance because these experts were deeply involved in the selection of the participants. We carried out auditions in the Presbyterian Junior Secondary school in Osu, Accra Academy and Bawaleshi Junior Secondary School near Legon. After a long and successful series of auditions, we ended up with seven participants made up of four boys and three girls. We thought it wise to have one extra performer until two months to departure from Ghana as a backup.

We received a package of detailed instructions containing the music to be played during the opening and closing ceremony of the festival as well as choreography instructions on the dance moves to be performed by the children. Indeed this was the first time I saw dance choreography written on paper. It looked completely meaningless to me and I believe it will look the same to anybody who did not have professional training in Performing Arts. I was amazed when our experts in the university read the instructions and turned what looked like unintelligible marks on paper into dance moves in step with the music on the cassette. I remember the song on the audio cassette was “Man in the Mirror” by Michael Jackson.

Parallel to the selection and training of the children I had to raise funds from both the public and private sector to pay for all the expenses involved in the preparation and travel to New Zealand. The fundraising lasted all the way to the end of the year. The acquisition of passports for the participants was a major item in the activity list as this took more than a month to be completed. Air New Zealand agreed to carry the participants either from London or Johannesburg to Auckland. This was during the apartheid era in South Africa and therefore transit from Johannesburg was out of the question. There were no flights from Ghana (or African for that matter) into South Africa because of sanctions. This was one of the hidden impacts of the apartheid regime in South Africa on non-political events. We got support from Ghana Airways to carry the participants from Accra to London. We also received support from World Vision Great Britain to take the passports of the participants and process visas for New Zealand.

One major item in the activity plan who was the acquisition of local musical instruments such as xylophones, drums and various percussion instruments. Another item was the purchase of Ghanaian dance costumes. As part of the preparation, the children were trained to perform various traditional dances from across Ghana. The drummers also learnt the different drumming styles to match the dances. The dances learnt included the Bawaaa from the Upper West region, Takai and Bamaya from the Northern Region, Booboobo and Agbadzaa from the Volta region, Adowa from the Ashanti region as well as Gawu and Kpaaloogo from the Greater Accra region. It was really impressive to see how the two drummers developed their skills in drumming for the different dances across Ghana. We had to purchase all the musical instruments and the costumes required to perform these dances.

Everything went according to plan with a few adjustments here and there. In the second week of January 1990, I found myself in the International Airport in Accra with four young men and two young ladies waiting to board a Ghana Airways flight from Accra to London. The departure from the Kotoka International Airport in Accra was a very emotional one. Parents and relatives of the children came to the airport to see them off. They were allowing their children aged between 12 and 16 to travel abroad accompanied by one man they have just come to know.
During the last days of the training, the trainer and I made efforts to explain to these children that the weather would be cold in Europe and in New Zealand. I have come to learn that temperature cannot be imagined. It can only be experienced. This thinking became reality during our trip.
Two of the young men were drummers and two were dancers while the two young ladies were also dancers. With a metal trunk full of dancing costume in a wide array of drums and the musical instruments we boarded Ghana Airways and started our long journey to Auckland.
We arrived in London Heathrow Airport, to be greeted unkindly by the winter cold of the UK. The temperature was in single digits. I cannot remember whether it was 4 or 6 Degrees Celsius. The children turned and looked at me as if to say “Is this what you meant?” Yes. This is what single-digit temperatures feel like. The only habitable place in Ghana where one could experience anything near winter temperatures is Abetifi, the highest habitable point in Ghana, in the Kwawu Mountains.

The first drama started in London. A World Vision UK staff member called Claire cheerfully met us at Heathrow airport. Her cheerfulness was great but I am not sure it had any impact on the winter temperature and my group of children who were shivering all over. We got into the London underground expecting to make the necessary connections to our hotel in Central London. We agreed that our host should be at the front of the party while I remained behind to ensure that we kept the children inside. At the first attempt to change in an underground station our host got out of the train followed by four of the kids and the door of the train closed leaving me in it with two of them. The train was gone in a flash. I experienced the use of the London and Paris underground systems in 1980 so I had a bit of a clue as to what to do next. I simply took out the reception package I was given located the hotel we were supposed to go to and the nearest tube station to the hotel. With this information in hand, I made my way with the two children to the hotel. In a panic mode, our host telephoned the World Vision office in London to report that she had lost me and two of the children. She was told that I had some experience in the use of the London Underground system so she should head back to the hotel and wait for me. By the time she got to the hotel, I was there within the two other children.

We had two days of rest in London before starting the long flight to Auckland. We had four rooms in the hotel. The six children paired up in three rooms and I had a room to myself. In reality, all of them crowded into my room and the heating was turned up to create a room temperature that was almost equivalent to the temperature of Accra. These were Ghanaian children, who had lived in Accra all their lives, in the middle of London for the first time. They were understandably in a state of bewilderment and panic. The World Vision Office in the United Kingdom made an effort to entertain the team with a visit to Madame Tussauds Wax Museum in London and Buckingham Palace to see the changing of the guards. This gave the children a lot of exposure.

The day of the travel from London to Auckland arrived. These children had never travelled by air before and now after a six-hour flight from Accra, they were going to get on a 25-hour flight to Auckland with a two-hour stopover in Los Angeles. The Air New Zealand Boeing 747 aircraft lifted off from London Gatwick Airport with nearly 500 passengers on board. Onboard, the same flight was the Scotland and England Commonwealth Games teams who started the journey quietly but increased their noise levels all the way to Los Angeles.

The 2-hour stop in Los Angeles was my first time of stepping foot on the soil of the United States of America and it quickly told me one big difference between the USA and the rest of the world. At the airport, there was this cafe with the sign “we serve a bottomless cup of coffee”. There I discovered that a medium-sized mug in the USA is equivalent to the large-sized mug in the UK. Everything was just bigger in comparison to what I knew. A waiter made sure I never saw the bottom of my mug. The coffee was indeed bottomless.

After the two-hour stopover, we had the next leg of our journey of 13 hours and 10 minutes flight from Los Angeles to Auckland. Two or three of the athletes were celebrating their birthdays and they made sure that they enjoyed it to the fullest assisted by the Air New Zealand Crew. Flying over the International dateline was very confusing. I tried as hard as I could to explain this to the children during the stopover in Los Angeles. I am not sure I was successful and I wish I had listened more carefully to my geography teacher in Ghana College. We flew out of London on a Friday evening and flew into the night. We arrived in Auckland on Sunday morning haven’t passed only one night during the flight. Saturday had simply disappeared into oblivion.

The arrival in Auckland presented the second dramatic moment. Skin and wood products are not normally allowed into Auckland but one cannot talk about Ghanaian drums without skins and wood products. My drummers were not prepared to let go of their instruments and the New Zealand immigration was not prepared to let them into the country. The letter of introduction from World Vision New Zealand helped a lot and we came to a compromise that the skin and wood products will be quarantined in the airport for 3 days and fumigated before being released to us. The drummers reluctantly agreed to this but after three days in Auckland, they were reunited with their darling instruments.

Participation in the opening and closing ceremony of the Commonwealth Games and in concerts across the country was a whole new experience with expert organisation by the World Vision New Zealand staff. The details will be in my next blog.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s