For a long time this trip was just a dream. Although multiple people at Foundation Beyond Belief had put a lot of hours into its planning, in the end it seemed impossible. International laws and foreign immigration systems made it extremely difficult to get to Ecuador.
It didn’t matter that Ecuador is visa-free for 90 days for Ghanaians; with no direct flights from Africa to South America, my options were to go through Europe or the United States. Most western countries require transit visas from African travellers just to pass through their airports, and the process of acquiring one is the same as applying for a visitor or work visa. I would even have to go in for an interview about why I wanted the visa at an embassy in Accra (Ghana’s capital). The chances of getting a visa are really low in light of what’s happening with immigration laws around the world. I had to find the cheapest and easiest route to Ecuador from Ghana, and in the end that trip looked like 49 hours of travel through Istanbul, Columbia, Panama, and Quito with potentially 19 hours of waiting at the Istanbul Airport.
I had to keep my mind on the end result instead of the process. I remembered the purpose of my trip: a knowledge exchange with Ecuadorian non-profits which do work similar to that of the Humanist Action: Ghana Program (HA: Ghana) in Ghana. The goal was to come back to Ghana with fresh ideas on how to better improve HA: Ghana’s management and partnerships with locally-run non profits in Northern and Central Ghana by adopting some of the skills used by the Ecuadorian NGOs. I was also hoping to share some of our methods and build long-lasting relationships with these NGOs to help expand our reach outside Ghana. The dream was big, scary and exciting and we made it happen somehow despite all the obstacles that popped up along the way.
After a week with IDEA Dignidad, next was a three hour bus ride from Quito to the mountains of Otavalo to meet with Tandana Foundation. Getting a bus from the terminal was one of the hardest things I had to navigate as I didn’t speak Spanish. After my first bus left without me, a kind fellow traveller who spoke a little English finally helped me get on the right bus. The drive through the mountains to Otavalo was absolutely beautiful.
Unlike the other two organizations I met in Ecuador, Tandana was already an FBB beneficiary. They work within the Indigenous communities of Otavalo Canton. Tandana’s mission is to support the achievement of community goals and address global inequalities through caring intercultural relationships that embody mutual respect and responsibility.
I was lucky to catch the founding Director of the Foundation Anna Taft, on her last day of a visit from the United States, where she lives. Anna’s journey with the communities for which Tandana now works started in 1998 when she spent four months teaching English to local elementary school students. She built relationships within these communities and kept in touch with her friends there. In 2004, she founded Tandana Foundation. Anna told me about the kindness of the people who embraced her and welcomed her into their communities in 1998, and how that motivated her to want to give back.
One of Tandana’s many important programs is their Health Care program. Twice a year, Anna and her team organize a group of medical professionals from the United States and Ecuador for weeks of work inside the communities. The Indigenous people who live there don’t always have easy access to adequate healthcare; the practice of traditional medicine is more recognised in these communities. Each year, the medical teams come loaded with equipment and medicine for those that need it. They do tests, give advice, provide medicine, and make referrals. The program is very successful and the people who depend on it look forward to it every year.
However, only half the work is done after the medical professionals leave. A huge amount of people who go through the program need more care afterwards. Some of them need surgeries and others need further tests at big hospitals that have the necessary equipment. But getting to the big cities for these referrals is not easy for the people who live in these communities. The journey is expensive and hard when a person doesn’t know anyone there. Sometimes they have to stay for more than one day in the city. The tests and surgeries are expensive. Tandana’s Patient Follow Up Program ensures that people get the aftercare they need.
When I met Virginia Sanchez, I was in awe of her hard work and dedication. Virginia wanted to do something that would benefit her community after she retired from her previous job, when she heard about Tandana. Today, she goes to every doctor appointment, talks to government officials and other organizations to raise funds to cover expensive surgeries, advises and explains the healthcare system to the people with which she works. She is their guide through it all. When we met, Virginia had over a hundred patient referrals in a folder that she was working on. All of the names in that folder were people who needed some form of medical care, and she was going to get it for them. Virginia is always on the move and always doing something to help. Hundreds of people depend on Tandana’s Health Care Program every year and Virginia plays a huge part in its success.
During HA: Ghana’s first year in Northern Ghana, we achieved huge successes with our Medical Records project, through which we were able to provide records for the entire community of Kukuo. Learning about Tandana’s healthcare project showed me how much more we can achieve. Maybe in the future we can create a similar project to bring in medical professionals to help those who don’t have easy access to or can’t afford medical care. Maybe we can also get our own Virginia to make sure that the project is sustainable and that those who depend on it get the full medical care that they need.
Tandana also runs a Scholarship Program for high school and university students from the Indigenous communities who are brilliant but cannot afford some or all the expenses involved. The program’s very first beneficiary, Margarita Fuerez, has worked for the organization since completing university. She has built a home for her family, including her older sister who is also in university. In the Indigenous communities, a lot of emphasis is placed in a woman’s ability to bear children and be a wife. Margarita’s success story shows parents and other girls in the community that they can achieve a lot of other things.
Tandana hosts 15 volunteer groups each year through their volunteer program. The groups include people of different ages that stay with host families and are involved in Gardening, Education and Infrastructure projects. The volunteer groups help fund some of their other projects. It was really important for me to learn everything I could about the volunteer program because HA: Ghana has been planning since last year to start a similar project that can help raise funds to cover program costs and other expenses.
Nicole Melendez and Charlotte Ford are program coordinators who run the volunteer program. Their job is to make sure that each group has a culturally responsible, safe, and fulfilling experience while working in the community. They help the volunteers adjust to their new environment, and work with host families and the local community to figure out ways the volunteers can help. As HA: Ghana is a humanist program, my biggest concern with planning a “learning trip” (as we are calling it) has always been making sure we do it in an ethically responsible way. Through my conversations with Nicole and Charlotte, I learned some important tools and methods to achieve this purpose and others that make their volunteer groups successful. I am even more excited and geared up now for HA: Ghana to start planning yearly learning trips.
My final meeting was with the manager of Tandana, Diego Soto. Diego— who comes from Ecuador— manages all of Tandana’s programs. He and I talked about our experiences as managers of American-founded programs/foundations and how we manage the job of being the middlemen between two cultures.
I met so many people during my visit to Tandana who are truly dedicated to the work they do and I am really grateful for how everyone went out of their way to make time to talk and give help when I needed it. I was inspired so many times to do more and I learned a lot of things that will help HA: Ghana in our development and growth as a program.
Tandana Foundation is a beneficiary of Foundation Beyond Belief's Humanist Grants program. Support future Humanist Grants by donating at FBBgive.org.
Learn more about Tandana Foundation at tandanafoundation.org.