Semester in Ghana


Read by Date --> June

June was for tying up loose ends: I saw parts of Ghana I had not yet seen, said good-bye to the people and places I was leaving, and reflected on what I had learned from my semster abroad.

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June 1

Yesterday, Leonie visited again. She arrived midday, stayed the night, and left this morning. It was, once again, incredibly enjoyable. She has about seven weeks left in Ghana because the European program length is longer than the American one.

Leonie frequently travels and has visited most parts of the country; thus, she is quite well-versed in the Ghanaian transportation system, which remains confusing and slightly mysterious to me. Tro-tros are used for both short- and long-distance travel, so they are populated by commuters and vacationers alike. The names of stations sometimes refer to their location yet are sometimes derived from the destination of tro-tros that stop there. For instance, there are “Tema” stations in both Accra and Tema. Main stations are usually paved parking lots clogged with vendors, some strolling and others stationary (pun intended). Smaller stations, such as the one a 10-minute walk from the house, are merely bends in the road where commuters wait at rush hour to cram onto tro-tros headed for town. Large roads in Tema have bus shelters every couple hundred feet. At a station, one simply asks random loiterers to ascertain which of the indistinct, rattling vans in the area is headed for one’s destination. Tro-tro attendants collect the fare once on the road. Costs are not posted, but I believe the government sets them, and there is always another passenger who knows how much the fare is. Inbound, there are only a couple stops to drop off before arriving at the nearest large station. Anyone standing on the side of the road holds up the number of people in their party, and all tro-tros with that many empty seats pull over. Outbound, people get off whenever they want. The closest stop to the house is on the Ashaiaman Lebanon route at an intersection, at which is located a bar called “Checkpoint”; the stop is dubbed accordingly. There, one finds a collection of taxis to hire for the final leg of the journey, though I usually walk back to the house. No tickets are bought in advance, and departure from a station occurs whenever the tro-tro is full. There are no prominent signs or parking garages. And as odd as it feels to me, I can only imagine how weird the online ticket reservations, etc. of American transportation would seem to a Ghanaian.

“How popular is soccer?”

Soccer is very big here. Land without structures is often converted to a field for boys to battle it out on. Sometimes there are goal frames, but I have yet to see lines on the sand marking the boundaries. Chemu’s soccer field is the space between our block and the next, and a rusting, net-less goal rests under a nearby tree. As with most, it has little grass—although the rainy season is slowly changing that. There is a rut down the middle where Canteen workers drag their cart in every morning and out every evening. After school on Fridays, boys hang around for several hours, playing soccer. Many of those same boys approach me for my thoughts on the June 16 US vs. Ghana game that will open the World Cup in Brazil. The conversation usually starts with a question about which team I will be supporting—to which I still do not know the right answer. Then, they assure me that the Ghanaians will win. Gradually, it becomes clear that I have little to say on the subject. I attempt, unsuccessfully, to explain that Americans are not as interested in the sport and that my family does not have a television, so I rarely watch games.

June 6

Yesterday provided me material for another chapter in my unpublished work “Commuting in the Rainy Season.” The daytime storm had been strong enough to discourage all but one teacher from coming, and that exceptional one happens to teach a class I do not take, so I had a school-less school day. Far more exciting than the day itself was the evening’s drive back to the house. My host father’s old car rattled over terrain I might not have approached in an ATV. One area on our route was particularly bad because water from other places drained there. Streams gushed along compound walls and flooded houses that were not sufficiently elevated. The craters in the street brimmed with muddy runoff. Trucks and busses trundled through triumphantly. But cars hesitated before sinking into the lakes, churned the fluid with their wheels similarly to how a clumsy dog enters a pool, and accelerated as much as they dared to avoid getting stuck. If his or her car gave out in the basin, the driver shook his or her fist at the honking followers and gunned the engine. Once, so much water got seeped into the engine that it refused to restart. Other vehicles edged around ours as my foot well became a real well. My host father told me he would carry me to the side of the road, so he and another passenger (one of his employees) could push the car. I scrambled over the console to the driver’s side and onto his back. Inconveniently, my school uniform is a calf-length skirt with no spandex in it, so I don’t think I can accurately describe the ride as piggyback. My knees pressed against his broad back, my lower legs suspended comically. I dismounted at the side of the road and stood with some of the audience members of this latest performance. As the car was pushed out of the pond, red water spewed from cracks at the base of the doors. I got back in the car and we continued on the journey.

Today was my first day of summer break, but that milestone feels worlds different when one is alone in that boat. Everyone else I said good-bye to today will be going to school Monday, even though I will not be. There was no palpable excitement that I associate with the last day of school. That is not to say that is was unpleasant. On the contrary, I had a great time snapping photos with friends and roaming the campus with the freedom brought on by an impending departure. I included some of the pictures. I hope they give you a better sense of what the school campus looks like.

“What have you missed the most while staying in Ghana?”

Unsurprisingly, anonymity comes to mind. People take note of my every move—walking in the rain, eating, going to the bathroom, etc. That is completely understandable, and frankly, I find myself doing the same thing to any other white person I see. Nonetheless, it is a bit wearing to feel like everyone is keeping tabs on me. More than that, though, I miss the aromas of America. Partly, that is brought on by food cravings (i.e. I want to smell bagels because I want to eat them.). But I also long for the scent (or lack thereof) of well-maintained cars and clean buildings, pine trees and fresh snow. I suppose it is logical that the immersion in all things “home” is what I most look forward to.

June 8

Yesterday, Abigail visited in the afternoon. She braided my hair in cornrows, which have yet to fall out. It took about three hours, partly because she needed to redo about a third of them because those braids had fallen out by the time she completed the rest.

Today was “Youth Day” at church, so the youth combined with the adults in the main sanctuary. We processed in and sung our anthem at the front of the room (I am not familiar with the song, so I stood silently.). The service agenda subsequently returned to its standard form. The praise music was deafening, but I was charmed by the dancing congregation. In Africa, dance in an integral part of worship. Dances are impromptu and consist mostly of rhythmic shuffling backwards and forwards in single-file lines, while shaking handkerchiefs in the air. Announcements follow praise; today, a newlywed couple in matching vanilla-colored lace outfits went up front, and the wife expressed her thanksgiving to the microphone in Twi. Next, the offering was collected. The sermon succeeded Offertory. The stated topic was “God of Possibilities,” and the major Scripture passage was from 2 Kings 6-7, when a Samarian doubts Elisha’s prophecy that a famine with terminate the next day, yet the prophecy is fulfilled.

Tonight I assumed the role of head chef in the stew preparation (because my host mother was making her fufu). I used only a couple teaspoons of oil to sauté the chopped onions, of which there were maybe a little more than a cup. A teaspoon of ground spicy pepper later, I dumped in half a dozen small, chopped tomatoes. Next came a small can of mackerel in tomato sauce as well as a mixture of spices that smelled faintly like crab spice. I kept in on the fire until enough water had boiled off that it was hard to keep the tomato pulp from adhering to the pan. The stew is served with plain rice and cabbage. As you may have noticed the protocol mirrors that for jolof rice. Whether to eat rice & stew or jolof rice only needs to be decided after the stew is completed.

“What will you miss about being where you are? Will you long for anything Ghanaian, be it rain on roof or shape of trees?”

I will miss the unhurried nature of conversation. I enjoy the attentiveness with which people listen to one another. For example, if I am telling Priscilla something, and her mother calls her, she screams, “Coming!” to her mom and encourages me to finish what I had been saying. In most cases, an initial discussion takes precedence over a requested one. Crucial to this custom is the patience with which a newcomer waits for his or her turn to speak. Even though there is a threshold at which point the waiting person will become frustrated, that event generally occurs later here than in the US. An American child’s request for her mother to wait might gain her 15 seconds to finish her conversation, whereas Priscilla gets closer to a minute. A similar pattern can be observed when I wish to accompany a classmate to the Canteen but need half a minute to put my notebooks away. I would expect irritation to develop at the 10-second mark in America; however, in Ghana, I easily get my full 30.

June 11

It’s raining. Water is falling in front of my window in graceful strands, thanks to the corrugated sheet metal roof with its evenly spaced hills and valleys. Wet laundry on the clothes line is getting wetter. Displays in the store have been packed away a safe distance from the edge of the canopy. The amount of daylight filtering through the clouds indicates it is evening, even though the clock has not yet hit 2pm. Thunder crackles hesitantly, complementing—rather than disrupting—the peaceful white noise of drops hitting the roof. All have withdrawn, sought shelter. They have been replaced by rain. A brilliant stroke of lightening is accompanied by an impatient boom, suggesting close proximity. Instinct speeds my heart a little. Then, the racket starts to lessen. Scrubbing can be heard as Grace cleans her body; she is taking her shower outside rather than in. She enters the house in search of clothes, singing.

Earlier today, the children from next door were playing in the street. At breakfast, one of the miniscule twins could be seen swinging her spoon threateningly at her fleeing older siblings. As their mother counted the bananas she had purchased to sell throughout the day, the kids dashed around the dilapidated fruit stand, chasing one another. Once she finished, the mother rounded up her half-naked little ones and dressed them in secondhand dresses from the Western world. Later on, the four siblings and a couple of neighborhood peers inexplicably bolted in front of the store and down to the house on the corner, around which they loitered until returning home. Another source of morning entertainment came in the form of a visit to my host mother’s store. After learning that her coin was not enough to buy a small pack of crackers, a twin proceeded to experiment with how much of her body she could fit through the metal fence in front of the store. Today was just one more productive day in the lives of children too young—and possibly too poor—to go to school.

I taught Grace how to properly hold a pen this morning. She had previously copied the word “type” as she saw it in full caps on the battery box. She learned (by ear) that the batteries were of the brand TigerHead, so she thought she had written the word “tiger.” I pointed out the letter “t” in both words, as well as in a number of brand names on products in the store. I wrote her name for her, spacing out the letters, and she duplicated the five characters passably after a few tries. Her uppercase “G” was a bit unorthodox, and I had to point out that the vertical line in an “a” belongs on the right side—not the left. However, her “r” did not look too much like an “n,” and she got the “c” on her first try. I think Priscilla has showed her one or two things in the past, but I got the feeling that most of what I covered was new material.

June 15

As planned AFS took us on a so-called “study tour” over the past couple of days. Attendees were AFS participants and chaperones. Thursday, Ernest picked me up from the house and brought me to the nearest major road, where we met the AFS bus. I joined Jenna, Lance, and one of the Belgians, in addition to a handful of AFS staff and volunteers, on their journey from Accra to Ho, the capital of the Volta Region which is located in the far east of Ghana. The region is named after the Lake Volta, the largest man-made lake in this part of the world. Due in part to the lake, the Volta Region is comprised mainly of lush rainforest and steep hills. The area is in sharp contrast to Tema’s dust and flat expanse. The drive took us through increasingly less urban towns and villages, separated by stretches of vegetated land. Rain impacted both the weather and scenery on the trip. At one point, the bus boarded a ferry to cross a wide river that I suspect can be bridged in the dry season. Inside the vehicle, conversation flowed easily until most people decided to take naps. After several hours, we arrived at the Sky Plus Hotel, a hilltop resort with a phenomenal view of the surrounding lowlands. Mist and sub-80 temperatures greeted us. The Germans and other Belgians later arrived in a taxi.

Friday saw the meat of our trip: a strenuous hike down to, and back up from, a waterfall. The entire group boarded the bus after eating the hotel’s breakfast. We drove through countless tiny villages. In each, the church appeared to be the sturdiest structure with smoothly painted walls made of concrete blocks, while houses varied from small concrete structures to mere shacks made of scraps of wood and sheet metal. Between villages were banana and other farms, and isolated compounds and houses could be seen. It was on this drive that I took the village, etc. pictures in this update’s collection. Following a few steep, twisting climbs, the bus reached Mountain Paradise Vane, a hiking outpost. We rested briefly before meeting our tour guides and setting out on the road to the head of the trail—a muddy track through brilliant rainforest. The path was narrow and slippery, and there was rarely space to walk beside someone else. It winded up and down shaded terrain, gradually descending to a brook. Approaching the banks, we held on to ropes for support because of the steep grade. The immediate shore was made of slick rocks from which we could observe the stream slide gracefully down a waterfall into a large pool, from which it funneled into a tight ravine and out into another pool. After several deep breaths and copious picture-taking, we returned to the trail, which took us through more forest, up a couple exhausting slopes, and across the creek twice more. Our group eventually scaled the last few inclines and emerged in the open air at the back of the outpost building. I calculated that we were gone from the outpost for nearly three hours. It was clear that I was not the only one who had been struggling to get enough aerobic exercise in Ghana, but despite the physical effort the hike required, the outing was most welcome. Clean, forest air is, after all, something that Tema lacks.

Our packed jolof rice was most welcome after the workout. We discovered a small souvenir section in the outpost with a great selection of clay statues that had been purchased at a local market. (On the way back to Tema/Accra, we tried unsuccessfully to find such a market.) We returned to the hotel and swum in the pool a little before dinner.

June 17

I suppose I have been putting off major retrospection until the fact of my impending departure became more real to me. Well, the latter has yet to happen, but the superficial part of my mind recognizes that I can count my remaining days here on one hand, so I guess it’s time to look back on my exchange.

Perhaps the most coherent reason I came to Ghana was to gain perspective, or to resist the temptation to be conceited. I think it is fair to say that I have, by spectating, acquired a measure of world perspective. My semester here has surrounded me with the realities that were all too easy to ignore when I sat on my Pittsburgh couch reading Dickens for English Class. Here are a few images that will likely stick with me for a while: a man climbing out of a sewer in which he had probably been sleeping, three children sleeping on a mat next to a mother who clearly had nothing to feed them, women sifting through landfills, and a girl at the tro-tro station trying to prevent a man taking a bag of water from the container on her head for which he had not paid her.

That is not to say that Ghana is a desolate land, vacant but for poverty and hardship; I have seen tremendous generosity alongside correspondingly great need. Middle-class men and women sometimes buy snacks for neighborhood children with hungry eyes, someone in the vicinity readily helps a seller lift her heavy tray back onto her head, custom dictates everyone else present must be offered food whenever anyone eats, and a Chemu uniform is the only necessary ticket for a seat in my host father’s car on a rainy morning. Moreover, Ghanaians exhibit overwhelming courtesy and friendliness to all they encounter. Smiles and greetings are the cheapest commodities in this country.

To put it succinctly, Ghana has a different quality of living—not a definitively better or worse one. Children’s morning bathroom runs consist of squatting over gutters, but think of how many flushes-worth of water that saves! A “good” road boasts one lane, yet few people own private cars anyways. The observation of healthy clients is the closest one gets to a restaurant inspection certificate; however, this setup allows uneducated mothers to support their families by opening and operating fast food joints. My host father’s employees undoubtedly earn a fraction of what American tradesmen do; on the other hand, they can clock in two hours late on a rainy morning and suffer no worse than a bit of grumbling from their boss. Bribes are accepted in spheres ranging from law enforcement to post-secondary education; then again, it is…well, I’m still looking for the bright side of that one. Regardless, my point is that things we might be quick to call as “problems” are usually tied up with causes and effects that we do not see. For the most part, Ghanaian infrastructure fits the Ghanaian lifestyle. Something I find intolerable (i.e. toilet-less bathrooms) might not be too much of an issue here. (To be clear, the vast majority of the locals are unhappy with the conditions in their country, but where is that not the case?) I have learned not to assess a place by looking only at the landscape/amenities, or by predicting how an American would feel there. After all, the most pressing concerns in a country are those which cause the most harm to the nationals, not to me; I’m not the one affected! It is essential to see the people as well as the place. Logically, different people live differently.

Being the American that I am, though, adjusting was not a breeze. More than anything else, I attribute my successful transition to the love I received, especially from my school friends. However, there were a few personal qualities that I found and depended on in myself in order to survive psychologically. One was resilience. As awful as I felt at some points, I typically bounced back within an hour or two. Mood swings are exhausting, but they beat a stable level of depression. Resilience is fueled by optimism, another trait I needed a lot of. Sometimes, having conscious optimism borders on the impossible, but I think I possess a decent amount of subconscious optimism that kept me going through the rough patches and helped me resist the temptation to make ultimatums. Lastly, this exchange required a good deal of stubbornness and grit. Pigheadedness is a powerful force, and it stopped me from throwing in the towel on a couple of occasions.

Those most difficult times were frequently characterized by personal conflict that I had no available outlet for. Anger and shame were triggered by a concurrence of internal and external stimuli, each of which could look quite minute by itself. Partly self-concocted and partly well-founded was my notion that no one in my immediate vicinity could understand the struggles I was going through. Thus, I sought comfort elsewhere—usually in memories of or contact with home. Generally, this pattern—pain from Ghana followed by relief from America—reinforces negative feelings toward where I am. In order to combat this ominous tendency (and I am not the first to discuss the following solution), it is crucial to find emotional outlets inside the host country. Fortunately, I was and am surrounded by a wide range of caring people, from AFS staff to school friends to host family members, and I could, in most cases, work up the nerve to confide in someone in one of those groups. By doing so, I not only helped to resolve my own issues but also to embrace Ghana a little more.

The best times, on the other hand, were probably strolls through the neighborhood I took to buy lunch, as well as visits to the market. Walking along the dirt roads around the house, one can experience the incredible warmth of Ghanaians, and it is also an opportunity to flex one’s Twi muscles. The calls of “obruni” can get irritating, as can the exclamations from strangers when I order my food in Twi, but I loved exchanging greetings with mothers I knew. Although visits to the market were typically exhausting, I got a number of excellent opportunities to watch. African markets (when one has a decent vantage point) are fascinating and colorful. Without sounding insensitive to the suffering these people endure in pursuit of their daily bread, I hope I can express how purely intriguing it is to see men unloading trucks of canned goods, women calling shoppers to their stands, young girls stampeding to the windows of tro-tros with thirsty passengers, and barely-pubescent boys slinging 50 kg (110 lb.) bags of rice on their shoulders in exchange for a few coins from buyers (like my host mother) who cannot carry their bulk purchases.

If I could give one piece of advice to Americans journeying to Ghana, it would be, “try to take it all it.” As I have said, I learned a ton just by watching. Visual conspicuousness can make it difficult to observe, but it is necessary to not let oneself get so annoyed by the lack of anonymity that one loses all curiosity in the place. For me, the discipline of keeping a journal encouraged me to focus meticulously on the sensory images of this country. Journaling is not a one-size-fits-all solution; it is simply one that has worked for me. Of course, the ultimate goal of a student exchange is to be involved in a different culture—an achievement that requires open-mindedness on the student’s part and the host community’s part, in addition to a little spark of magic to make it all click. I should not be held accountable for the latter two, but I am responsible for my own attitude, even if it feels slightly out of my control. I found that aiming to take in as much of Ghana as possible helped me to maintain a positive attitude.

June 21

Yesterday, I left my host family around 11am. I said goodbye to Priscilla, Richard, and my host father in the morning since they needed to leave for school and work. Ernest hired a taxi and escorted me to the AFS office. I hugged Grace and my host mother before getting into the car. We fought through Accra traffic, making the trip in a little less than two hours. The Belgian students who had spent the entire year here, some of whom I had seen at the AFS event a few months ago, left on a flight last night and were at the office when we arrived. Lance accompanied them to the airport because he knew them well, but Jenna and I relaxed in our miniscule hotel room that AFS had gotten for us for the night. I repacked my carryon bag as she and I agreed that our impending departure had yet to sink in. Lance returned shortly after Jenna and I got dinner at a nearby restaurant, and the three of us settled down to watch the movie Frozen on Jenna’s laptop and eat my remaining junk food. Following the movie, Lance left for his own room so we could all climb into bed for the last time in Ghana.

The hotel’s breakfast was a few pieces of bread and a small omelet, together with copious dishware to accommodate tea. I like neither omelets nor tea, so I bought a can of baked beans next door to supplement my bread. Then, we grabbed our bags and headed to the AFS office for our End-of-Stay Orientation. That consisted of four pages of reflective question-answering and a discussion about the pros and cons of school, host families, transportation, etc. Now we have free time. Abigail is on her way here, and she will stay with us until we reach the airport for our 10pm flight.

June 24

Abigail arrived Saturday afternoon at the AFS office. She, Jenna, and I picked up lunch before Abigail got started on my hair: cornrows for my first week in the States. Around the 70-percent completion mark, the AFS bus arrived for us to pack our luggage and ourselves on. Despite valiant efforts, Abigail could not continue the hair-braiding operation in the vehicle, so we put it off until reaching the airport; after all, we still had five hours before our scheduled takeoff. There was no traffic, so that moment came more quickly than any of us expected. A bustling crowd was in front of the sliding doors to the Accra airport. We pushed our way to the doors, but the guards were only admitting travelers. Jenna’s, Lance’s, and my skin color were an automatic ticket, and Ahmed talked the officers into letting himself in, but Abigail was firmly denied access. She was forced to wait outside, alone, while the three of us checked in. Check-in involved a rather uncomfortable conversation with a scripted security man about the ownership of the contents of my checked bags. Once they cleared the ensuing drug swab, I was glad to see a smile on the face of the woman at the desk who loaded my bags onto the belt. Jenna and Lance went through security at that point, but a third of my hair was still loose, so I accompanied Ahmed outside to meet Abigail, who completed the task in an outdoor arrival hall located on the bottom level of the airport. Ahmed left after escorting us to the arrival hall. Once the braids were finished, we said our goodbyes and I once again entered the sliding doors.

I followed the signs upstairs to the Ghanaian Immigration Hall for embarking travelers. Located there were countertops and forms yet no pens. I spent a while convincing a woman to let me borrow her pen and waiting for her to finish the form. The guard at the door to the room with the Immigration officers, to whom the forms were to be delivered, clearly wanted one document or another. My guess of passport turned out to be incorrect; he was in search of boarding passes. Of course, he had already moved on to someone else by the time I exchanged my passport for my boarding pass. After that experience, I offered my boarding pass to the man at the end of the next line. He was positively nasty in demanding my passport in its stead. Finally, I made it to the security checkpoint. As I approached the front of the line, Ghana scored in its World Cup soccer game against Germany, causing all the security personnel to let out a great shout of triumph. Otherwise, the checkpoint was unremarkable, although everyone was given a brief pat down once clearing the metal detectors. I found Jenna and Lance in the next room.

After a little while, we heard an announcement that passengers on our flight were invited to proceed to the gate. That was a little strange because we thought we had already arrived. But, as it turned out, there was yet another security checkpoint coming our way. This time, officers completely dismantled all of our carryon bags and gave us thorough pat downs before admitting us to the official gate—a room with seats, air conditioners, televisions, and no bathrooms. Eventually, we were led to the plane. I visited the lavatory directly after depositing my carryon bags on my seat. Halfway through the safety presentation video, the whole plane went dark and emergency lights illuminated. There had been a problem, the pilot informed us, with the auxiliary switch, which controls the cabin lights, air conditioners, and entertainment system. Fortunately, the issue was resolved, although not before the people around us—a group of teenagers who seemed unduly proud of the 10 days they had just spent in Ghana, which (by the looks of their apparel) appeared to have been primarily spent souvenir-shopping—moaned and whined excessively that they would not get home on time. The provided dinner included, to my pleasure, jolof rice with my fish dish and fried plantain alongside Jenna’s chicken. Later on, we heard an ominous broadcasted request that “any doctor or nurse onboard identify himself or herself.” I presume that situation was also dealt with, since we received no further news about it. Jenna and I passed the majority of the flight watching movies—her chick flicks and me “based on a true story” dramas—and giggling discreetly at the vapid girls in front of us, who were members of the group I described.

Around 5am, I caught my first sight of the United States in over five months. My parents picked me up at the airport, and I devoured an Eat’n’Park Smiley Cookie as we navigated the maze of highway ramps around JFK airport. The landscape welcomed, rather than shocked, me. One thought I had had in Ghana was that it is in the forests and hills of the Northeast that I belong. My eyes feasted quietly on the roadside trees, New York skyscrapers, wide roads, fully functional cars, manicured bushes, and finished buildings. I ceremoniously used a hand dryer, felt heated water, brushed with an electric toothbrush, petted a dog, ate cornbread, and hugged my parents—all for the first time in twenty-two weeks. I noticed a difference in the social atmosphere that I could not put my finger on for a little while, but I soon realized it is with regards to the way people looked at me. I am no longer a circus animal; my remarkability dwells within me, not without. I fit here. I lived in and grew accustomed to Tema, but it is not the place that raised me. Pennsylvanian hills brought me up, made me strong enough to make it in Ghana. Wherever I go, I remain a product of this place. It is my home.