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.


  1. Heather,
    I am so excited for you to spend time with your dad, I cannot believe he is there, in Ghana. Your story about your trip and Theo is amazing. The pictures make the story real; there is someone who is so willing to help a group of strangers. I love you, and I can't wait to hear about more adventures!

  2. This is truly amazing. I'm so glad you were taken care of. I'm so glad you're safe and that you get to spend time with your dad. I love you very much and if you ever see Theo again, tell him thank you for me- for taking care of two of my best friends.