Tilly Woodward, Grinnell College curator of academic and public outreach, received a staff fellowship to work with 2011 Grinnell Prize winner James Kofi Annan and his organization Challenging Heights. Woodward traveled to Ghana in August 2012 and volunteered with Challenging Heights for three and a half weeks.
Tilly Woodward has served as Faulconer Gallery's curator of academic and community outreach since 2007. She works to infuse art into the life of the community on and off campus through events and programs built to serve the educational goals of the Faulconer Gallery and partner needs. You can find her organizing an academic panel related to an exhibition or working with children to cover a pickup truck with Elmer's Glue and glitter. She has a long history of initiating arts outreach projects designed to help communities a
ddress specific social issues, foster creativity, build tolerance and compassion, and is well known for her meticulously detailed paintings which have been extensively exhibited and collected. Tilly has an MFA from the University of Kansas, BFA from the Kansas City Art Institute, and is a graduate of Phillips Academy, Andover.
Books, Bread, and Ghana: Making Art with Kids at Challenging Heights
I loved working with the children at Challenging Heights’ Hovde House and have never met students so hungry to learn and so delighted to be able to express themselves. It was a privilege — one of the best and hardest things I have ever done. It rearranged me a bit, and I’ve found it hard to write about because it was such a dense and rich experience.
Even though the children had lived through extreme hardships which I find difficult to imagine — being separated from family; sold into slavery; committed to hard labor, hunger, and other traumatic abuse — I was amazed at how well adjusted they seemed, and incredibly impressed with the work that Challenging Heights staff does with the them. When children first come to the shelter, the staff listens and supports kids in telling their stories, then helps them focus on moving forward, forgiveness, getting an education and making a conscious choice to be happy. The staff also coaches and empowers kids with a knowledge of children’s rights and responsibilities. The story of Sir James is a constant inspiration.
One of the aspects of the Challenging Heights program that remains most difficult for me to wrap my mind around is the idea of reunification — the goal is to reunite children with their families. The Challenging Heights program is remarkable in its holistic approach, involving education, social work, individuals, families, communities and legislation/policy. What it accomplishes is amazing. All but 14 of the kids I worked with were reintegrated within a week after I left.
I was at Hovde House for 18 days and worked with 43 kids ages 4–17 on a variety of activities: drawing, writing, painting, sewing, reading, math, printmaking, cyanotypes, and most especially bookmaking. During my time there, I helped kids make more than 300 books. One of the most important things I did with them was to make myself available and take time with kids. As soon as I walked out the door of my room in the morning, there was a cluster of kids tucked in around me, eager. This continued throughout the day until I went back to my room in the evening.
My first project was to establish a communal journal, and this continued throughout my stay. Kids lined up for a turn to do a page, and clustered around to watch their housemates draw, write dictation and do multiplication tables. Writing the alphabet or numbers from 1 to 100 was a highly satisfying activity for kids. It was interesting to see what they chose to draw — lots of boats: some very large ships, some small boats. Lots of fish, and also some very specific boat engines. The drawings revealed a lot about what kids knew and had experienced; they knew a lot about ships. Their writing focused more on gaining mastery and looking to the future. “I am happy every day” was a maxim that was frequently repeated.
When we started the first journal children were hesitant drawers — I don’t think they had much prior opportunity to draw, but quickly progressed to rendering more developed, detailed drawings. By the time I left, children were beginning to organize content into compositions rather than having a variety of floating non-related images on a page.
Bookmaking was a hit, and in fact it went viral. Each child made at least two beautiful, marbled books with me. I wanted kids to have a special place of their very own to write and draw; and the director, Madam Linda wanted a second book that could be sold to donors, giving children money for their schooling when they left the shelter. In addition kids collected every spare scrap of paper to make other books. I had to keep thread, needle, scissors and glue in my pockets at all times because kids constantly came up saying, “Madam, book! Madam, me!” The books were a hot commodity; in fact, one of the house mothers questioned one of the boys as to why he had a book with another boy’s name in it and was surprised to learn he had traded his bread for the book. Everyone at the shelter wanted and made books — the director, her family, the housemothers, the guards, the cooks and the cooks’ children.
Crowd control was something I struggled with. We did make progress at the idea of taking turns or working group by group, but there was often a small riot when I introduced a new project, or a new part of a project. Even though I was supposed to be working with a group of four to six children at a time, I would find myself surrounded with kids pressing in against me calling out, “Madam, me! Madam ME! Not this boy, Madam! Madam, me!” It could be really intense. Learning to relax, go with it, regroup my original plan were all good strategies.
I ate meals with the kids in the dining hall. The food was wonderful, cooked primarily over charcoal. Lots of whole grains, beans, tomatoes, sometimes eggs, chicken or fish. No additives, no sugar. The portions were huge, and though the kids never had a hard time finishing, it was always way more than what I could manage. Nothing went to waste there — it was unthinkable for kids who had gone without food to throw food away — and one of the most difficult parts of my day was trying to figure out how to share my extra food. Sometimes I could manage it, and other times there would be a full on rush for my food.
Church on Sunday mornings was one of the most amazing parts of my visit. There was a lot of singing, some dancing, and the most fervent prayers I have ever heard in my life. I have been around prayer for most all of my life, but what I have known is timid by comparison. Children were on their knees, eyes closed, praying out loud with force and utter concentration, connected directly to God. The mingling of the individual words of prayers together made great waves of sound.
Hovde House is located about an hour north of the coast in a remote location up a rutted dirt road. There are plumbing fixtures but no running water, so all bathing, laundry, and toilet flushing is done by bucket. Drinking water comes in plastic bags called sachets, and electricity is done by generator. We usually had power from 6:30–9:30 p.m. daily. I had internet access twice, and really enjoyed being “off the grid” and having time to make art and build relationships with the kids. Reading by flashlight, soaking my feet in a bucket of water after a long day, listening to some music on my iPod (it worked intermittently after the ants took up residence in it) seemed like a huge treat.
On the day I left, I spent the morning working in the journal that I would leave behind, swinging Kofi Jr., Maayew, Kwesi and Offi around in the air, spending some quiet time with Kobina, reading some books with Abena, drawing out the alphabet one more time for Martah, sewing a last group of books with Richard and John, and repairing a sandal with Charles. Everyone gathered for a photo, and when the taxi came, all the kids and staff flooded around to say goodbye. My last glimpse was of Isaac B. chasing the taxi calling “Goodbye, Madam Tilly!” They are in my heart; and perhaps the hardest part is not knowing what will happen to them, and what their lives will hold.
Back in Winneba after 18 days at Hovde House Shelter, I walked back into the same hotel room I had stayed in when I first arrived in Ghana. The first time around I was taken aback by how sparse its accommodations were. Today I walked in and was taken aback by a tiled floor and shower, a toilet that flushed, a clean sink with running water. Quiet. A mirror bigger than my compact. A month later I am still taken aback by the luxury of things I took for granted before living at the shelter.
In the afternoon I walked down to the beach. I almost didn’t go, because I’m not altogether comfortable walking around on my own — it’s easy for me to get lost, and it’s hard for me to tell what’s a good part of town and what part of town I should be avoiding. I’m so glad I went to the ocean, though. It was perfect after the intensity of the shelter. I walked some, but mainly just stood and watched the light on the waves, the push forward, and especially the pull back of the ocean. There were only two or three other people, but all along the beach were boats like the ones kids had been drawing for me for the last couple of weeks. As I stood and watched I could see a number of them heading out to sea; I tried to imagine those boys I knew on board these long wooden boats in the ocean and wondered just how tense and frightening it was for them.
The next morning I headed back to the beach for one last look before I headed to Accra and the airport. The beach was fuller — the boats were busy with men and boys — and I wondered about those boys, making ready to put out to sea in those rickety vessels. I could see a boy with a bucket in a boat a ways out, bailing water to beat the band. How many of those kids were slaves?
On the shore, kids were doing work, but also what kids do — cartwheels, dodging in and out of the surf, running about. I wouldn’t have given it a second thought except for having spent the past several weeks with the kids at Challenging Heights/Hovde House, watching them draw boat after boat after boat.