Sunday, March 21, 2010

Pay it Forward

I am too excited to sleep. My dad is coming tomorrow!

I remember thinking just over 8 weeks ago that I wanted my family to come right then and there. I wanted familiarity, I wanted my safety net. I was worried, wondering if I could manage everything. I was scared, honestly. I experienced so much emotional, mental, and spiritual overload in the first few days and weeks that I didn't know what to do.

I made it through these past two months now feeling a little lighter (I've managed to lose a couple of pounds!), a bit braver, and quite a bit changed. I am not the same person that arrived in Ghana just a couple months ago. And yet, I still have about 2 months left here, so there certainly is more change to come, more experiences to have.

 Luckily, the next week will be spent with my dad, showing him the ropes around Ghana. Of course, I am still learning and discovering everything about Ghana myself, so it will be an adventure that we can have together. I think he's going to love it here. I really do. I've been telling him to prepare to not be prepared—it's true! Ghana is just unlike anything you can really expect.

At 9:30 pm he will be touching down at the Kokota International Airport in Accra. We will spend the first couple of days in Legon. Unfortunately, I have to go to my African American Literature class on Monday to give a presentation, but I certainly plan on skipping my classes for the rest of the week. On Monday, after my class, we will probably have a bite to eat at the night market, and then head to the school in Kissemahn! It's been a very special place to me while I have been here, so I really want him to see it. He is bringing school supplies from a school drive he did at Overland High School, and boy, we sure need it. After meeting the kids and seeing the school, we will probably hit up the only Irish Pub in Ghana, because, well my dad loves Irish Pubs. Who doesn't? We will then be traveling the rest of the week! We will split our time between Cape Coast, Elmina, and Takoradi—all in the Southern part of Ghana. We'll spend the last couple days of his time here around Accra, visiting various markets, and important places that you have to see before leaving. I am just so thankful that my dad can come here and visit. It's a place, an experience, that can't really be encapsulated by words alone, so for him to be able to come and see for himself, I feel blessed.
I've been feeling blessed a lot lately. This week was just such a good week here. More than that though, I think after last weekend, I can't help but be thankful and appreciative for all the good around me. I've seen lots of brokenness, lots of hardship, and I have cried many tears. But there is good too. There really is.

 We went to Togo last weekend. Rachel, Chrissy, and myself.

 Our trip was rather crazy and epic...I can't even begin to describe the chaos involved in us getting there! We started planning the trip weeks ago, with the intention of going into Benin to see a national park with big cats (lions, cheetahs, etc.) but we didn't really have the time for it and I couldn't really miss class. So, we decided to stay at a monastery and convent in the mountains of Togo...only Togo had elections a couple weeks ago and riots broke out. The problem was that we needed to renew our visas for Ghana, and we missed the deadline to do it through the embassy, so we HAD to leave the country to get it updated. So, some of my friends made other arrangements, like going to the capital of Togo where the riots were taking place, but we decided against this. We just didn't think it was worth the risk, and decided to enter Togo from the Ho (a safer area) and immediately come back into Ghana once we got our stamp.

Getting to Ho was an adventure in itself—especially since we wanted to see a beading factory on the way there. We had a few wrong tros, a miscommunication taking us to the annex of the factory, and trouble catching a tro when we found ourselves on a long stretch of road and not much else, but we did make it to Ho relatively unscathed.

The man who helped us catch a tro when we were in the middle of nowhere!

 When we got to Ho, we found a 4 x 4 that was going to Kpalime, a town in Togo, and we got our tickets! I chuckled to myself and wondered about why on Earth we would need a 4 x 4 to cross the border. We certainly found out later. We would be crossing the border in a mountainous area, complete with pot-holes, and rain-storms too. Yes, a 4 x 4 was absolutely necessary to cross the border from Ho to Kpalime.

View from the 4x4

Unfortunately, after we loaded into the 4 x 4 we were told we couldn't leave until the whole car was filled. At this point it was around 2:30 and we were the only ones in the car. We ultimately ended up waiting around 2 and 1/2 hours and finally left at 5:00 for Togo. We were pretty much freaking out at this point---we thought that surely it was going to get dark, and should have we waited until the next day to cross the border? It was already raining...and getting dark...but we decided to keep going. I, just like Chrissy and Rachel, seemed to experience every emotion you can experience in the time that we waited. I went from happy, to anxious, to scared, to irritable, to antsy, to apathetic, to delirious. Literally, we felt it all just waiting for that car to fill.
Eventually, we reached a checkpoint with Ghana Immigration. Right away, we felt relief as we expected this to be the border. As far as we were concerned, we would just hop on in, get our visas stamped and renewed and head back to Ho all before dark. Wrong. We couldn't get the stamp until we actually went to Togo. Dismayed, and realizing we would have to spend the night in Togo, not Ghana, we were scared. Especially when we loaded back in the car, with no lights on the side of the road, headed to the border in the dark. Togo is beautiful, but in the night you feel like you are trapped within the canopy of the forestry. I felt vulnerable, trapped, and so nervous. So nervous, that I couldn't even verbalize my emotions. I just sat there, watching the darkness close in around us, holding onto Rachel's hand when I could, just to know she was there too. Our program director told us to get our stamp from Togo and then get back to Ghana...and yet, here we were doing two things we didn't want to happen: we were traveling at night and staying in Togo. We reached the border, and they had us and one other passenger sit at a bench. There wasn't any electricity, only a couple small lanterns. The border officials wore no outfit or uniform to signal authority; rather they waved around flashlights in our faces, speaking French. The time seemed to go so slowly when we were waiting for approval to enter the country, but eventually it happened. We got back in the car and headed into the country, unsure of what to expect.

When we had to get out at another checkpoint in Togo, we huddled close together trying to take in everything that was going on. All of the doors in the car were open, and it was being thoroughly checked through, likely to be sure that the driver wasn't trafficking anything into Togo. It was at this moment that one of the other passengers in the car greeted us and told us to stick with him. He had been warm to us earlier in the day when we were waiting, and he assured us that he would help us and I instinctively trusted him. Even from the beginning of this journey, I could feel the positive vibes from him. This man, Theo, told us not to go to a hotel with the driver (who told us to go with him and we could leave with him in the morning), and instead to follow him, as he would arrange our stay at another hotel for us. Not only did he do this, but he negotiated our stay, translated for us, checked our room for us to make sure it was okay, and then proceeded to make sure we were fed for the night. He helped us get motorbike taxis (yes, like a motorcycle!) and led us to eat dinner at one of the hotspots in town. Theo is originally from Kpalime, and like he would say, "this is my town!" We ate fufuo with him, had a delicious beverage called Cocktail de Fruit, and talked about life. Theo shared of his experience in Australia—he was unable to make it through customs, when a total stranger helped him. He reached out to Theo, making it possible for him to get around. He said he vowed to do the same whenever somebody needed help, and that this is what he believes humanity should be all about. It's really that simple. Pay it forward. That's what he subscribes to, and it was so wonderful to meet someone who wanted to help just to help. No strings attached. Just love. It was then that I could literally FEEL prayers from around the world...I think he was the answer to our prayers. And, it didn't even stop there.

We spent the night back at our hotel, overjoyed, overwhelmed, and ready for bed. Our hotel room was more than enough for us, as we paid a good price for a comfortable triple room. We even had a fan, and access to toilets that flush, very much a luxury in this part of the world. Theo came around 7:00 to take us to breakfast. We were expecting to eat and talk over a meal at a nearby restaurant. No, in fact, he led us on a short walk to his home where he had breakfast ready for us to eat. Yes, he literally opened the doors to his home so that we would feel safe and comfortable. Over bread and coffee, he talked eloquently about Jesus, about his view of life, and how we must be free from fear. He is a Reverend, and you can tell. He genuinely has a heart of God, and I honestly felt like I was his daughter for those few hours. It was Sunday morning, and we may not have entered an official house of worship, but by all means we had church. Theo's wisdom, love, and faith engulfed me like a lingering hug from someone you love dearly, and I felt so welcome, so loved, and so safe. This man was taking care of us. It was incredible.
Our hotel room in Togo

The driver from the night before had promised to take us back, but as it turns out, was going to cheat us by charging us over 35 dollars. Theo wouldn't have that, and after a failed attempt to try and arrange a bus ride for us at the station in Kpalime, he decided he would take us back to Ho himself. He told us in the car that people trying to cheat us are representing Togo badly, and that he wanted us to know the good people of Africa. He went out of his way and got motorbikes for all of us again, took us to the border, and then arranged for a safe car to take us the rest of the way. We then got to Ho, got a bus to Accra, and made it home safely. Riding on the motorbikes back to the border was probably the moment I could absolutely feel myself feeling restored again. The previous week had been difficult, and then to experience everything from the night before…I had every reason to feel utterly drained. But, then to meet this man, who for no reason other than love decided to help us, made me realize that even amidst struggles, pain, and difficulties, there are angels. Theo, I believe in my heart, was an angel. I can't accurately express what I felt that night as we crossed over the border into Togo. We may not have encountered any imminent danger, but by us three young white girls crossing the border into a country experiencing political instability—complete with riots—we were in a very susceptible situation. Without Theo, who knows what would have happened. None of speak French; none of us knew what we would do once we got into Togo. Theo was our ambassador, our representative, our angel.
Theo showing us around his neighborhood

When we arrived back home last weekend, I was spent. I was tired, in disbelief that we met Theo, and also so happy to be back in Legon. It's a good feeling to love coming home. It's even better that Legon, and ISH (International Students Hostel) feels like home now to me. As we recounted the story to our friends, it was hard to really describe what Theo did for us. Because ultimately, it was a lot more than arranging a place for us to stay, feeding us, and helping us get around. He exuded a strong presence of protection, and I knew I was in good hands. More than that, he demonstrated a good lesson of what we should all be for each other. We should all be motivated to pay it forward. We should all feel inclined to help someone in need, if only because someone has done the same for us. It's good to be helped, you know. And it's good to pass that along to your friends, your family, but especially a stranger in need. You never know what someone could be fighting, what someone could be going through. I am going to pay it forward. After meeting Theo, and receiving the love he had to give, I know how meaningful it can be. I have met a few angels in my life. One of them lives in Togo, and I know that everything that happened last weekend was meant to happen, so we could meet him.

I believe that, I know that, and even a week later, I am still in awe about the love one human shared with us on a dark, stormy night on the border of Ghana and Togo.

Friday, March 12, 2010

My heart is all over the world tonight

Let your face shine on your servant; save me in your unfailing love. Psalm 31: 16

We are all feeling it here in Ghana.

We are all just finding this week a little difficult.

I can't exactly pinpoint why it's been especially hard this week. I can't tell you why I feel the way I do. It's just been hard.

I wouldn't say I am homesick. I mean, I do miss my home. I miss my family, I miss my friends, and I miss America. But, by no means am I ready to go home. I think because I am officially half way through this experience, the "honeymoon" period is over, and I am starting to fully adjust to living here. I want to fully embrace that, but it's hard to be vulnerable and attach myself here when I know it's temporary. I think I might be afraid too, because I know I'm attached, and I'm afraid of how it will feel to leave.

But you know what?

I just can't be afraid. I can't keep how I feel inside, because that just isn't me. I've always worn my heart on my sleeve, and I don't want to miss on being vulnerable because I'm scared. There is just so much more to living in Ghana than that.

Maybe this week has been hard because the emotion is finally catching up with me.
I'm burnt, I'm worried about the Kissemahn kids, I am disappointed that we can't spend time in Togo because of the riots, I want nothing more than a hot cup of coffee, I am frustrated with how my classes have been going, and I wish to see the faces of people I love. I've been more negative this week than I usually ever am. I had to end class in Kissemahn early on Tuesday because I was practically in tears. I was teaching all alone, the kids were fighting, and I felt like it was completely out of control. I felt like a failure, here I was, trying to teach, and in over 2 hours I barely helped the kids learn anything at all. I try so hard to find the positive in everything. Yet, this week I felt only exasperated, anxious, and stressed by the end of the week. It hasn't been a good feeling, and I absolutely dislike negativity. It's an emotion that sucks you in so easily and then proceeds to take you absolutely nowhere. Negativity is not what I, nor anybody else needs right now.

This is Africa. And that's a beautiful thing.

It hit me today after we were leaving the Accra mall and attempting to catch a tro back home to Legon. We looked ridiculous. Utterly ridiculous. The mates usually scream out the window where they are headed, but instead today they barely muttered the direction of their tro. That left me, Taylor, and Rachel running around like idiots. It took us well over 30 minutes to catch one home, and we were laughing the whole time. It was what I needed. A moment to ground me. To help me relax. After all, this is Ghana. At the end of the day, I can't have what I want. Nor do I need what I want. I am here to experience this place, this wonderful country.

After this, and talking to my best friend over skype last night I have been feeling better today. No, I'm not leaping for joy. But that's okay. I've realized I don't have to be shouting, laughing loudly, and being obnoxious to be happy. I can be content. I can be working through the challenges, doing the best I can, and still be happy.

I've taken a leap already, just by coming here. I thought about this earlier in the week at Kokrobite Beach. The sand, the people, the sun, it was just a genuinely pretty day. I felt so lucky, and I knew, somehow, that I was going to be challenged the upcoming week. I was.

Now, it's about what I do with that. I can certainly be negative and allow that to seep deeply into this experience. Or, I can learn from it, embrace it, and take every moment of being in Ghana as a gift. Few people get an opportunity like this. I took the jump. And it's okay if I fall. I can get right back up.

Michelle told me,
"That peace is God, and I know it is still inside of you, and I know it is SO hard to feel God sometimes. I know he feels SO far away sometimes and you wonder how you can ever pray or feel close again, but I just want you to know that he is inside of you and he's not going anywhere and he's with you and he's always been with you and every step you take in Ghana he is in your heart."

Thank you for being by my side. Thank you to my friends, my family, to everyone for just loving me. I know I'm going to be okay.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Sunshine in Africa

I’m finally home.

The last few days have been incredibly wonderful, and incredibly exhausting at the same time.

I just put on some of my country tunes to relax, water in the boiling pot to drink, and of course my fan on so I can get some cool air in my room.

Today, a group of my friends and I went to Independence Square to celebrate March 6—Ghana’s Independence Day! Today was the 53rd anniversary, and I felt honored to be celebrating with hundreds and hundreds of Ghanaians in Accra. I even got to see the President arrive in his motorcade and wave to everyone attending the march. Independence Day wasn’t as big as of a deal as I thought it would be, but still, watching the military forces and school children enter the square with precise marching movements was fascinating. After the ceremony, we spent some time in town at a few markets, and I came back home totally spent. Not only was I tired from a day of intense heat and lots of walking, but I only got 3 hours of sleep from the night before! Theresa, Chrissy, Lindy, Karlie, Taylor, Rachel, Patrick, and I crammed into Theresa’s room last night for an epic sleepover! We played apples to apples among other things and had a really fun time. I feel so grateful to have the friends I have here—I think there is a strong mutual understanding that we all have each other’s backs, and that we will all take care of each other while we are abroad here in Ghana.

Still, no other day this weekend, rather, no other day during my time in Ghana, or quite possibly my life was quite like Friday.

Friday was absolutely what life should be about.

We—the Kissemahn school volunteers/teachers—got to take the kids to the beach.

It sounds like a field trip, right?

And well, it was. Except, most of these kids LIVE 30 minutes away from the beach had never been before. It was a lot more than a field trip.

We arrived at Kissemahn close to 10:00 am. As we turned the corner to where we were to meet all of the kids, I outwardly gasped at the amount of kids I saw waiting on Kwame’s porch. I was thinking 15 kids would show up. 20 tops. Oh no, we had 37 kids, wearing the best clothes that they own, ready for the beach. I knew it was going to be a good time.

Kwame, the director of the school program, had a friend charter a tro tro bus for us. It was big and orange, and somehow, we managed to squeeze in over 40 of us! That is certainly the most amount of people I have ever been on a tro tro with. Before we left though, I went to one of the children’s homes to make sure it was okay with his parents that he came to the beach. Kwayze shyly brought me to his mother and she seemed excited about the opportunity for Kwayze to see the beach. They invited me into their home, and as I waited on a bench, Kwayze’s mother had him bathe, eat lunch, and put on his nice jean outfit, likely the nicest outfit he owns. It touched my heart. Once he was ready we quickly ran back to the tro tro bus—it was time to go!

We sang songs the whole way to the beach. My favorite, no question, is a song we sing with the kids almost every day. It goes like this:

When the sun shines in Africa

Beautiful people in Africa

Sunshine in Africa

Move around in Africa

Sunshine in Africa

Beautiful people in Africa

We give thanks to the Lord of Mighty.

We had an original plan of going to a free beach, but due to the beach being primarily rocks against the rushing ocean, we opted for Labadi Beach, which by the grace of some kind-hearted people, allowed all of the kids to get in free, and only the adults had to pay 1 cedi.

I was holding the hands of so many beautiful children as we approached the beach. One girl, Favor, looked up at me and asked if the pond nearby was the beach. I could only smile and assure her, “Just you wait, it’s so much better.”

Once they could see the ocean grazing along the sandy beach the looks in their eyes filled with utter excitement, happiness, and curiosity. They screamed and yelled as we got closer, running into the water for the first time. Eventually, many of the kids just took off their clothes and jumped in without any hesitation. They played in the sand, they screamed the entire day, and there was so much laughter. It was perfect. I couldn’t believe I was witnessing something so pure, a moment where so many kids could just be kids. They were happy. Those few hours at the beach, I am sure, are some of my most treasured memories already. Friday, was one of the most moving, incredible, and just great days that I have ever lived.

I wish I could express the emotions of that day better. But, the expressions of these children, the sounds of laughter, and joy that we all felt is really just completely beyond words.