After spending a month in the village of Have, Ghana, my departure was highly emotional. I had become so close with one particular family that leaving them tore my heart in two.
My new sister Salomey often prepared a variety of local dishes for me with incredible care, a voluntary gesture since my meals were already provided for. It was over those meals on her porch where she, her husband Emmanuel and I shared cultural insight, dreams, desires and a whole lot of laughter. These were treasured experiences that grew into a valuable friendship.
After dinner, I’d play clapping games with the children and, one night, I judged thier dance contest to the tune of Jingle Bells chirping from a cell phone. Before leaving, I also had the chance to paint with the children who produced some beautiful watercolors (thanks to the gifts left by volunteer Denise Ward). There was nothing better than spending time with these little gems. Their curiosity was insatiable. I’ll never forget the day Kofi (in the stripes) was holding my hand and, when I wasn’t looking, quickly stuck my fingernail between his teeth and bit down. I never knew what to expect but they all made me laugh at every turn.
Through it all, I was accompanied by Jimmy, my 16 year old friend who met me in the morning, went with me to work, walked me home for lunch and guided me down the dark paths at night. I would let him practice typing on my laptop so he, in return, typed me a language guide in Ewe (pronounced Ay-way). Jimmy was one of my favorite companions and will always be my little brother.
My only comfort from the sorrow of departing my new family stemmed from the ways in which they had become so tightly woven into the fabric of my being. They had changed me forever, become a full-fledged part of me. We have shared several phone conversations since my return to the US and I’ll be looking into a cheaper calling plan to always keep in touch.
I had the opportunity to engage with several programs while in Have. My first day, when told to rest and “feel free,” I asked instead to help in the tea house. There I immediately learned the greatest lesson of all time. Before lunch, a young boy named Julius taught me to glue boxes together and afterward, I learned to pack them. The more I thought of productivity and profit, eager to help as soon as possible, I’d all-too-quickly cram the tea bags into my box. The end result was that some didn’t fit and I would have to start over. Watching Salomé work with patience, grace and pride in the end product, I tried to emulate her style and found that it went a great deal further. Slow as that process may have first appeared, it was twice the pace I had been keeping.
Regardless of my learning curve, Salomey never lost her patience with me. Instead she would nod her head and say with a voice as thick and sweet as molasses, “Good! You are trying!” I had thought my technique was improving and that “You are trying” meant that I was getting better. I was wrong. It wasn’t until heaps of teabags were placed from the bin into my lap without comment that I knew I had finally found my stride. The prize was drinking that very tea for breakfast the following morning.
With that lesson under my belt, I took it to the farm at EDYM Village the following day. There I spent most of my days sitting on a log weeding the newly sown lawn installed to avoid erosion in front of the new office building, tending to the clean-up of the nursery by clearing out old seedlings that never took, recycling the plastic planters for reseeding, and preparing recycled water sachets for more plantings by tediously cutting holes in them with a dull, double-edged razor. By the fourth day I brought 4 pair of scissors from my bag of school donations. Here I offered my own lesson: Sometimes patience and tenacity can use a bit of mechanical help.
Inspired by the recycling of the water sachets from the farm, I met with local chiefs, a queen mother, three linguists and advisors. In conjunction with Denise Ward, a nutritionist volunteering at the clinic, we were able to deliver a message about the dangers of plastic whether it be leaching toxicities into food (as in the way hot porridge is served to the children in plastic sachets), polluting the air when burned in the trash heaps, or littering the landscape when scattered among the streets. On my behalf, she talked about placing recycling bins throughout town (perhaps even decorated with slogans and murals by the children), reusing the sachets as exemplified on the farm, and her own message emphasizing the pride that local people should feel in the healthy food they grow themselves rather than aspiring to the appearance of wealth by buying unhealthy processed foods that come in plastic.
The chiefs had a great deal of questions on topics such as freezing vs. heating food in plastic and they chuckled in agreement about the ways in which certain products indicate wealth, not health. Overall, they were grateful for the insight and the care with which it was delivered. They then offered to spread this message to all the surrounding areas of Have. It was the most amazing and productive hour of my entire month.
After our message was delivered, Denise and I were taken outside where the linguists ceremoniously poured libations into the earth in our honor. Returning inside once more, we were asked to drink gin (at 11 in the morning, eh!) from a communal glass and our wrists were then decorated with a bracelet and scented powder to symbolize peace. It was wonderful to see that some traditional rituals had survived a widespread erasure of culture in the name of Western beliefs.
As for the last few items on my list of my duties, I’d classify them under the field of education. I had planned to assist with the RC Primary School kindergarten class all month, but Paul Kpai, EDYM’s program director, was away for two weeks and unable to properly introduce me to the school officials. By the time he returned, exams had begun and we decided it might be a distraction for me to embark on this task at such time.
I learned just how distracting a visiting white person could be when I delivered 70 pounds of school supplies donated by family and friends (the other 50 lbs. of medicine and books were distributed to the library and clinic). I was greeted with the most beautiful smiling faces eager to see what I brought as well as the images of themselves on my digital camera. Interestingly, after the children burst into song, touching my skin and holding my hands, I learned that they were eager to see me too. (I invite you to watch the video of my visit with the children.)
Spending a day at the library, I helped to clean the shelves after a termite infestation had destroyed a number of the books. EDYM’s Director, Paul Kpai, had already arranged for the fumigation but the clean-up was now underway. It was a stinky and tedious job until Felix arrived and we had a few good laughs. He and I had already said some difficult goodbyes at the farm after I had worked with him nearly every weekday. It was through him that I learned a great deal about the customs practiced in the region. Seeing him at the library just before I left was not only a pleasant surprise but a real treat.
Volunteer Maia Warchol, a librarian from Maryland, organized the books into their Dewey Decimal categories and catalogued them into lists. I then labeled the books by section (from children’s books to a young adult section to adult fiction) and replaced them on the shelves. Together with the young boys from the village, Jimmy, Fidel, Sampson and Richard, we finished a large portion of this task just in time for a meeting of school headmasters in which decisions were made on how to sustainably fund the library’s electrical bills and pay for the services of a librarian.
Lastly, I had asked Jimmy and his friend Christian to collect discarded water sachets from the school yard where a full day of sports had ensued earlier in the week. (I bribed them, of course, giving away Mini Mag Lights as incentive.) Not only did they come back with plenty to recycle at the farm, they also had cleaned up what trash had been left to fly around for days. I had been asking any villagers I knew to save their personal sachets for seedlings but the response was next to nil. Thanks to Jimmy and Christian, there were enough bags to do an entire planting.
Then, just before I left, I was approached by Raymond, one of the teachers at the school. He came to me in the morning before work to delivered three water sachets. For two weeks, when I’d ask if he remembered, he told me that he had not. That day he said, “It has taken me some time to change my thinking. No volunteer before has asked to recycle these. Today I remembered. Please, take them.” I had never been so happy to accept a piece of trash in my life.
For fun, I spent weekends touring the Brong Ahafo, Northern, Central and Volta Region. Gunadiish, the in country coordinator, and his assistants Eric and Raymond (yes, the teacher) were fantastic guides and, more importantly, we became friends. Between them all, as well as the gift of a personal tour from Paul Kpai, I fed monkeys, saw elephants, warthogs and fields of antelope. I also visited the Mystic Stone and the oldest mosque in West Africa. I hiked up the top of Gemi Mountain, over the hills of Tano Sacred Grove, through the rainforest and over the network of rope bridges in Kakum National Park. I stood under two gorgeous and very different waterfalls, Wli and Kintampo, and basked in the sun on the ocean shore of Cape Coast. The guides at both the Elmina and Cape Coast slave castles gave two very distinct tours so I had no regrets about spending time at both. I also saw the large, old, pained tree at the slave center near Techiman where I cried as I heard the story of what had taken place there. Finally, during my last day in Ghana, I went to the Accra Art Center and took two drumming lessons. I played until my hands moved beyond pain and well into numbness. I bought a DVD from my teacher and drum to take home so I could continue without killing myself. Overall, I could never choose one tour over another. They were each special and awe inspiring in their own way (and with a different brand of travel adventure for each, to be sure).
I also did a bit of exploring on my own. On my independently arranged mini-tour, Paul’s wife, Comfort, took me to Kpandu to visit the fishermen at the river, the grotto’s Stations of the Cross, the Fesi potters, wood carvers and to buy batik fabric. As an added bonus, we stopped off at the secondary school where the children there care for a crocodile. Jimmy also took me up the mountain behind my house to see the village of Have from above one morning. It was a spectacular sight under the fresh morning mist, leaves glistening in the gentle rain.
My last evening in the village is one that I hold dear to my heart. A gorgeous dinner was held in my honor (made by Salomé) and I was presented with the special hand-woven Kenta sash that all volunteers working in Have receive. I had known to expect that from reading previous volunteers’ blogs, but it was a delightful surprise when I received two for taking part in activities to do with both the school and the farm. Paul also presented me with a wood carving of The Thinker so that I would always remember Have and, in return, I presented both him and Emmanuel with wood carvings to remember me by. We took tons of photos and I was tearful in just about every one. The gifts were lovely but the people were what I really wanted to take home. I love them all.
What was most special that night was the shimmering blue, sleeveless dress that Salomé had made for me. It had a matching bracelet to go with it. This was certainly not part of the protocol so I was unbelievably moved. After the party, she walked me home where we hugged, cried and couldn’t bring ourselves to say good-bye. Salomé suggested that she bring breakfast to me in the morning and walk me to the tro-tro so we could simply say “goodnight for now.”
I was leery of trying the dress on in front of Salomé in case it didn’t fit, afraid of disappointing either one of us, but once she left I couldn’t wait. I quickly undressed and snapped it down over my head. It was absolutely perfect.
The following morning, along with Jimmy and Raymond, Salomé arrived in her own blue dress of the same fabric. I ate, did my last packing and asked them to wait outside for just a minute. Quickly, I dug my dress out and slipped it over my head. Making my appearance outside, I asked Salomé, “How did you make this to fit so perfectly??” She had never taken my measurements. Salomé smiled devilishly and said, “The clothes you left for the church… I measured those.” I asked her to accept my favorite hat and scarf in return, the only things I had left to give that were American. We took pictures together saying that she and I even matched like sisters now.
I knew when I left that I had been deeply affected by this place, its people, its culture, but I was never so sure of it than when I returned home. There were the small things, of course, like being startled each time my spigot produced hot water, or any water for that matter. It also took time to instinctively trust my tap water when brushing my teeth, automatically reaching for a water bottle that wasn’t there. What affected me most though was the independence, excess and the attitudes of entitlement I was confronted with immediately after landing back in the US. I had become spoiled with the Ghanaians’ unending generosity, humility and the empowerment that comes from being a necessary ingredient to the full function of the community rather than a disposable or interchangeable cog in a capitalist machine. I was tied directly to my labor, knew my place, and felt wholly appreciated. My entire experience, a culmination of things both great and small, was an incredible gift.
East Nassau, New York, USA
EDYM Village, Have Library and RC Primary School
July 7 – August 2, 2008