Our Talking Hands

11 Oct

All photos via Scott Davis Anderson and Our Talking Hands.

Scott, an old(ish) friend from my days at OU, has been living in Africa for a couple of years, doing great work with a group called Our Talking Hands. For the past several months, I’ve been following the group’s progress and Scott’s stories of living in Hohoe, Ghana, via Facebook and Twitter. This summer I reached out to Scott to see if he’d have time to conduct an over-the-net interview for my blog. Not only did Scott oblige, but he sent me a boat-load of great information about his new community, his students, the friends he’s made, and most importantly, the incredible work that’s being created by Our Talking Hands.

In full disclosure (as always), Scott sent me his awesome interview weeeeeks ago. I’ve been terribly busy at work, etc., and while I’ve had some time here and there to post to HJR, I really wanted to wait to post about Our Talking Hands until I had the time to do it justice. So… sorry for the delay, Scott!

Also in full disclosure, my knowledge of Our Talking Hands pretty much begins and ends with what Scott’s shared with me. I think the group is doing amazing work, and I can’t wait to make a few purchases of my own. But I of course want to provide readers with as much information as possible. If you’d like to look into the group on your own, please do! You can find more on their website; you can learn about the group and the Leadership Camp for the Deaf without having to reach (much) via this video; and you can check out this article for more info on the work they’re doing to recycle sachets.

As always, please leave questions or comments below!

HJR: The last time I saw you, you were a recent grad with a printmaking masters… why the Peace Corps? What lead you to that decision?

SDA: After grad school, I was looking for ways to broaden my perspective. I spent the majority of graduate school focusing on myself. I made work that was mostly therapeutic in attempts to rid myself of demons that had been haunting me. I saw grad school as a cathartic experience, titling my thesis exhibition “Virtual Construct: A Catharsis.” After grad school, I found myself free to refocus the direction I wished to take my art, as well as the path I wished to lead with my life. Grad school lifted a tremendous weight from my shoulders, freeing me to explore, and to live my life feeling more content.

Soon after completing grad school I joined AmeriCorps, a national service program that gave me the opportunity to meet Americans facing their own haunting realities. I was compelled toward national service because I wanted my life to have more meaning. I saw myself as fortunate to have so many opportunities, and wanted to help others. As an AmeriCorps member, I served with the Louisiana Delta Service Corps as a construction assistant with Project Homecoming. Project Homecoming is based in New Orleans, Louisiana, and focuses on helping families rebuild their homes and reclaim their lives following the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina. Working with Project Homecoming helped me to see the happiness that can be gained through focusing my efforts on others.

I spent a year working in New Orleans, learning about the culture and keeping my hands busy as I learned about home construction. Toward the end of my year, I began thinking about joining Peace Corps. It seemed a natural progression, as I enjoyed domestic service, but wanted to learn more about the rest of the world, especially Africa.

So did you choose to go to Ghana, or were you placed there? What was that like initially?

SDA: Living in New Orleans made me more curious about African culture. The music, dance and visual arts were most appealing. When I applied for Peace Corps, I chose Sub-Saharan Africa, but there was no guarantee where I would be placed. I did not know where Ghana was until receiving my invitation to serve as an art teacher. When I initially arrived in Ghana, I was enthusiastic and very much naive. I had been forecasting what my service would be like long before arriving in country – in preparation for Peace Corps, I joined up with World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF) and learned how to build mud huts and water-filtration devices from spent coffee grounds. I was determined to hit the ground running and not be without skills upon arrival. I prepared my mind and body by riding a bicycle across the United States. I rode from San Diego, California, to Saint Augustine, Florida, raising money for The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, Project Homecoming (Katrina Disaster Recovery), and The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society.

When I finally landed on African soil, the idealist in me knew what I was there to do. I was going to work in Africa through art, meditation and logic. I was going to channel my ingenuity, strength and discipline to provide solutions to imagined problems. What I didn’t realize was the extent to which Ghana was already developed. Over time I learned about its culture and traditions. I saw a pride, strength and resilience in Ghanaians that overshadowed the images of poverty and disillusionment that I had grown accustomed to watching on television. It is true that there is poverty, and some have grown lethargic, but I was surprised by the prosperity and optimism, as that did not match up with my expectations. Ghana shook some of the idealism out of me. Today, I realize that Africa has a lot of the same joys and problems that I grew familiar with back in the US. I had lumped Ghana in with so many other countries deemed “third-world” by the media. I was surprised when I began to see with my own eyes the people, culture, and sophistication that make Ghana a proud country.

What’s the story behind Our Talking Hands? How did you get it started? Where did you get funding?

SDA: In Ghana, clean water comes in plastic bags called sachets. Each bag usually contains about 500 ml of water. Sachet water is subsidized by the government, so it is affordable to most of the population living in Ghana. Unfortunately, the sachets litter the gutters, streets and national parks. The rubbish has become a health concern and an eyesore that is of continued concern to those in government as well as many private citizens. We’re looking for solutions in a wide range of sectors, with artists being among the most visible in the fight for a cleaner Ghana.

At the Volta School for the Deaf, we are bringing attention to the menace of sachet rubbish by educating students and teachers with sachet creations. It was during the early months in Ghana that I saw the talent my students had for working with their hands. I challenged them to come up with original ideas, and to utilize resources that were readily available in the surrounding environment. Our school lacked funding for creative arts, so the students began using water sachets to learn how to sew and weave. Visitors to the school began noticing the coin purses and messenger bags, and offered to buy them. I saw this as an opportunity to reward students for their hard work and ingenuity. I saw this as a way to teach students how to apply math, business, and vocational skills so they can grow into independent men and women. The students producing these bags are learning to become more responsible citizens. Many believed there would be no market for such an item – why would anyone want to purchase trash? This question was answered when sales of these recycled bags led to the purchase of computers for a brand new computer lab, clocks, and various equipment that has benefited the school.Working with recycled materials has been one of the many projects I have found so rewarding here in Ghana.

Soon, a means for funding these programs was born, as was the beginning of Our Talking Hands.

Early in my service, I was taken in by a local family. I became close friends with the oldest daughter, Promise, who had a keen eye for fashion and had gone to school for accounting. Promise had many ideas about starting her own business, so we worked together to establish the mission of Our Talking Hands. The family was very supportive of the work being done at the school and assisted by offering advice and many warm meals. The family became so involved that they rented a small location on the main road of Hohoe. We decided to form a partnership where Promise would operate the local store, selling work produced by the students, and I would continue to help the students learn their vocation. On July 14, 2011 the Our Talking Hands Store held a grand opening.

By this time, I had begun purchasing computers with the funds we had raised. In total, eight computers, two printers, and various supporting equipment were purchased to create a new Information, Communication, and Technology (ICT) lab at the Volta School for the Deaf. Wireless Internet was later introduced through a generous donation by a private individual in Columbus, Ohio. The students celebrated their achievements, as they were the reason for their school’s development.

Around August 2010, I met fellow Peace Corps Volunteer and founder of SKY Children Foundation Chris Massie. During a Small Enterprise Development training event, I realized we had a lot in common and soon we began sharing ideas. Chris visited the Volta School for the Deaf and helped with product development. He also helped me focus my ideas so they could have the biggest benefit toward the overall mission of Our Talking Hands. Chris worked with both me and Promise on book-keeping, and was integral in getting the articles of incorporation filed.

Chris had been working with a school for the deaf in Monrovia, Liberia, prior to joining with Peace Corps. With funding from SKY Children Foundation, Chris was able to bring to Hohoe David Worbalah, the head of Hope for the Deaf in Monrovia. Chris, David, and I traveled throughout Ghana, visiting four schools for the deaf. We later reunited in Monrovia, as Chris and I visited Hope for the Deaf and worked on developing their vocational department and teaching students to make water sachet coin purses. It was
during this time that Our Talking Hands began to expand its mission to include a larger community of deaf living in West Africa.

What is the mission of Our Talking Hands?

SDA: Our Talking Hands has two primary goals: to provide our customers with unique, high-quality, handmade apparel and to afford Ghana’s deaf community with sustainable livelihoods.In Ghana, the deaf are at an economic disadvantage. Deaf people are marginalized by stigmas rooted in traditional beliefs and are often relegated to the outskirts of towns. Those lucky enough to be placed in schools are given hope, while many do not have the opportunity to attend schools and remain in their villages and left to a life of hard farming and manual labor. Many people believe that the deaf cannot learn and, therefore, there is no reason to send them to schools. Others believe that deafness is a curse, passed along as punishment for past transgressions. At Our Talking Hands, the deaf and hearing work side by side. We seek to dispel harmful myths while producing some of the finest arts and crafts in the community.

Our Talking Hands is rooted in the deaf community, but remains open to any artists or groups that commit to working with the deaf community as educators, employers, or mentors. We value independence and wish to empower individuals, but we also strive to promote interdependence through collaboration and inclusion. Proceeds from our sales assist in the development of schools for the deaf in Ghana, with the hopes of growing our mission to include neighboring countries in West Africa. By supporting the local schools in Ghana, we hope to equip the students with the necessary skills to gain employment and become economically independent.

What kinds of products does the group make and sell?

SDA: We make Kente cloth, a beautiful cloth that is hand-woven on a wooden loom and is used to create wallets, bags, blankets, table cloths, placemats and more.  The designs are unique and colorful. We also make Batik pillow covers, duvets, table runners, placemats, aprons, coin purses, messenger bags, wallets, laptop bags and more. Custom orders are welcome!

On occasion we support local hearing artists in an effort to strengthen community relationships. We ask that the artists help to support our mission by acting as mentors to our vocational students. Proceeds from the sales of art made by local hearing artists are used to further the mission of Our Talking Hands.

Where can people purchase your products? Do you have a “bestseller”?

SDA: On October 13, 2011, thanks to a whole lot of help from my mother, Our Talking Hands opened an online store to sell products to a larger audience. Sales have been steady, with proceeds going to support a Leadership Camp for the Deaf, purchase sign language books to help educate parents of deaf students, and to improve the conditions at the Volta School for the Deaf.

Products can be purchased at our local store in Hohoe, Ghana or online. Our bestsellers are our Kente pillows, blankets, and duvets. The wall-hangings and the messenger bags do pretty well, too!

You can also access us via Twitter, Pinterest, Facebook and YouTube.

What’s been the most rewarding part of working with this group?

SDA: Watching students gain confidence and develop pride in who they are is the biggest reward with this job. I have students who were being pulled from school because of failing grades, who transferred, as a last resort, to vocational training. Many of the vocational students are thriving now in their new environment and will receive government-recognized certification for their hard work. Students are learning practical skills that will allow them to function independently and give them a chance to manage their own lives.

I have one student named Fekpe, who transferred to the vocational program because he was failing in his classes. His parents wanted to withdraw him from school, leaving him to work out of their house with little independence. He would be farming long hours with no pay, and no hope of becoming self-sufficient.

More recently I had a student with multiple disabilities enter the vocational program. The traditional education system was not effective, and I am confident that the vocational program will be able to help this young man to develop skills, gain confidence and live a fulfilling and happy life. I am rewarded every day that he is able to make progress toward a greater independence, and grow excited for the day that he is able to show his critics that he can achieve aims far beyond the community expectations of him.

Also recently, three of our kente weavers took their certifying examination. Their exam was conducted by the National Vocational Training institute (NVTI) in September, and we are planning to make this a yearly event, as four more weavers are in preparation for the September 2013 exam. We recently added our first female kente weaver and have plans to further integrate females in to the program.

After two years of volunteer work, Our Talking Hands co-founder Promise Mensah is now receiving GH₵ 300 monthly salary plus a bonus every four months to pay for her daughters’ school fees.

Finally, I was awarded the National Best Teacher Award this past year in the “foreign teacher” category. I had the opportunity to meet the late President John Atta Mills. Mills died this summer while in office and the vice president of Ghana was sworn in soon after.

Do you have any plans for expanding upon this idea, and taking it to other communities throughout Africa/the world?

SDA: Our Talking Hands began in Hohoe, Ghana, to initially help fund programs at the Volta School for the Deaf, but has since grown to include support for eight schools for the deaf throughout Ghana. We are hoping Our Talking Hands can continue to grow and support the deaf throughout West Africa.

In the future we are planning to buy four plots of land in Hohoe. On this land, we will build a guest house, a vocational studio, and an accommodation for residents. The guest house will be used to house study-abroad students, an artist in residency, as well as other out-of-town visitors. It is our hope that these guests will provide continuous energy and ideas to fuel a creative exchange that will benefit all collaborators. We would like to utilize ties with the Ohio University School of Art, the Southern Graphics Conference, the Mid-American Print Conference, the College Art Association, as well as unforeseen partnerships to generate interest in traveling to visit us in either Ghana or Liberia.

The vocational studio will consist of space for kente, batik, tailoring/dressmaking, printmaking, and papermaking. As the interests of the residents change, the studio will also be flexible and accommodate the needs of those it serves.

The accommodation for residents will be for talented individuals from within the deaf community. These artists must be prepared to innovate as well as aspire to further develop in their craft.

We are interested in partnering with socially minded organizations that can further our mission by carrying a line of our products. We believe that the team of deaf artisans that makes up Our Talking Hands can meet the demands of any business if given the opportunity.


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