Monday, February 1, 2010

The only way to really know is to really let it go

Kamke National Park

It has been difficult to understand my place here in Ghana.

On one hand, I am a white. Because of the color of my skin, I cannot escape that. I am marked as a tourist, as a visitor, as someone separate from Ghanaian society. This couldn't be more obvious when I am taking pictures of locals moving around in markets atop a huge, air-conditioned, tourist bus. It doesn't help that when visiting a busy market or anywhere around town you know you are being called when you hear the simple phrase Obruni (meaning "white" in Twi). Or maybe when I stumble over various phrases and words in Twi, a language spoken as a first language by 50% of the population, I feel increasingly isolated from real Ghanaians. Even today, before our canopy tour in Kamke National Park, I was given a name tag that read "Non-Ghanaian Student." There are different rates for different people, and the rate for a non-Ghanaian student is higher than the rate for a Ghanaian student for the tour in the park. While this is fine, I couldn't help but think to myself, "wait, aren't I attending the University of Ghana? Shouldn't I also be a Ghanaian student?" On a lighter note, I think I felt most American when our group went to Chez Afrique for dinner. Chez Afrique is a nice restaurant, with a pretty chill vibe. When the band starting playing tunes such as "I Will Survive" and "Murder She Wrote" many of us just belted out singing and dancing near the stage. This charade of singing certainly did not end at the restaurant. As we piled into the International Programs Bus we sang the whole way home. We sang anything from Grease, some Beyonce, classic Journey tunes, and to Sweet Home Alabama. While I did feel quite American, I enjoyed every minute of it. I mean, just because I'm in a different country doesn't mean I can't continue to embarrass myself.

Luckily though, this hasn't been my only experience in trying to comprehend where I fit in here. At other times, I have felt completely apart of Ghanaian life. When visiting the school over in Kisema, just down the road, the kids are always thrilled to see you. Instantly, they will latch on to you, and hope that you never let go. While I don't find this surprising—these are kids after all—I did have an even more surprising experience this past week that made me feel more welcome not just to Ghana, but to this community. Ricki, a young girl, decided to take me to her home in Kisema. It was lunch break, so some kids were sticking around to play with us, while others had gone home to see their families. She got on my back for a piggy-back ride and headed to her home. She lives just down the road from the make-shift school we work in, and as I let her down from my back, I was hesitant to step any further. This was her home, and I didn't want to barge in or anything. Her home is comprised of several rooms and buildings that seem to house most of her immediate family. While I didn't step directly inside a bedroom or anything, her Aunt did invite me to sit on a bench with the other members of the family to relax. As I looked at my surroundings, I saw a young naked child running around with soap on him. Clearly, he was in the middle of bath and was not heeding to his mother's orders. Ricki's grandmother was also bathing herself, right in the middle of the pathway. It took me aback at first, but she felt so comfortable washing herself without a shirt on that I tried not to act startled. The notion of privacy seemed quite different in this particular community, so I decided to just go with the flow. As I sat with her family for just a few minutes, I remember feeling so welcome, and that felt so good. Here I was in the middle of a home, in the middle of a town in Ghana, and I was receiving some wonderful hospitality. Maybe they didn't have food or a cold drink to offer, but they had a bench and they let me sit there. It meant a lot to me.

I've also felt more apart of Ghana now that I am getting comfortable moving around and getting to places. It's still a work in progress, but being able to catch a tro-tro and not have a huge group of white kids around has made fitting in a little easier. As a student, I am feeling more a part of the campus community because many of the students have been so welcome here. I've met people who have shown me around campus, other students in class who have offered pieces of advice, and others who have invited me to do things around the University of Ghana. I like being involved as a student, especially outside of the classroom, so it makes a difference.

Living here for 4 months makes finding my place a little more difficult. Not quite a tourist, and yet not quite a permanent citizen of Ghana, I am somewhere in the middle. I think that's okay though, and I am just fine with that. I am happy I have the months ahead to do all that I want around West Africa, and I am also glad I have been here for almost 3 weeks because I am beginning to feel at home. I have a wonderful circle of friends, from all over, and we just have so much fun together. I love that I can talk with people here for hours and it doesn't even matter. All of us are slowly getting adjusted to Ghana time (you know, say you will be somewhere and show up 45 minutes late) and I think it's good for those of us are so used to different lifestyles. It's good to slow down, have a nice long chat, and enjoy the time we have.
At the Slave Castles in Cape Coast

I'm doing my best to just let whatever happens here, happen. I'm trying not to fixate on finding my place here, and rather, just let everything work itself out. I am here and here for a reason, and this is important to keep in mind.

I am ready for a new week, a week where I can finally get my class schedule straightened out, a week that brings new adventures and new opportunities. I am a bit tired from this weekend, I must say. This past weekend we visited Cape Coast! We drove a bus there, which took a little more than 3 hours, and we first went to the Slave castles. We saw where slaves were kept while being prepared for transportation across the Atlantic Ocean. After learning so much about the slave trade from my classes at Hendrix last semester, it was incredible to be there. To be at a place where it actually happened…it was intense. Cape Coast is gorgeous, and it seems ironic that something so hell-ish, like slavery, happened along the coasts of a place so beautiful. Visiting those slave castles was hard and still something I have wanted to do for a very long time. The pictures do not do the place justice, as the feeling of actually being in the dungeons is unparalleled by a lot of other emotions I have felt in my life.

We stayed over in Cape Coast, and unfortunately around the time we were at the slave castles, I had a bad allergic reaction that affected my eyes. It burnt to open them, they were swelling and it was quite uncomfortable. Still, my friends were good sports as I wore sunglasses to dinner and took allergy medicine that made me a little loopy.

I did get to eat spaghetti though, with CHEESE, so obviously I was one happy girl. I woke up the next morning and my eyes were much better. We spent this morning at Kamke National Park. We got to go on a canopy tour which was awesome and I loved it! Anyone afraid of heights had a more difficult time, but everyone got through it and had some fun. The trees and the brush in the rainforest is so green and beautiful that I couldn't stop taking pictures. Like at the slave castles, I had a hard time taking pictures that truly captured the essence of what we were surrounded by.

It's been a good, long week and I feel fulfilled. I really do.

Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in your ways acknowledge him, and he will your paths straight. Proverbs 3: 5-6



  1. I'm glad you're finding a place, having fun, and making a fool of yourself. I love you.

  2. Heather, every time I read what you've written, I cannot help but be so in awe of the fact that you are really in Africa. I loved the sentence about the bench that the people let you sit on. It was so beautiul, I even read it aloud to Ben. I love you so, so much. I can't even tell you, girl. I'm so thankful that two of my kindred spirits are experiencing all this. We are so blessed.
    So much love,
    p.s. I can't believe you saw the Slave Castles. I know how much that meant to you.