Friday, December 24, 2010

Almost Merry Almost Christmas

In America, I spend Christmas Eve with my family. We have this funny tradition of having a fast food lunch to commemorate some Christmas Eve mishap I was too young to remember. We read "Twas the Night Before Christmas" and do our Secret Santa gift exchange, and usually go to a late-night Mass.

In Ghana, I spend Christmas Eve in the hospital.

I got a mosquito bite on my ankle that got scraped open when I bumped my leg a couple days ago, and yesterday it began swelling and hurting when I walked.
By this morning it had swelled so much my anklebone had all but disappeared, and I was limping badly. So I went to Hannah, a former volunteer who is back to visit, since she's a nurse. She took one look at it, goes
"This is not very good." "So it's very bad?" "Yeah."
And off we went to the hospital.

It took five tries for the nurse to find a vein in the back of my hand to give me an IV injection of antibiotics. That was my own fault though because I was so freaked out I refused to let them use a larger needle until they'd already stuck me four times without success. IV injections HURT, man, and unfortunately in my desperation to make it less painful, I made the whole ordeal a lot harder than it might have been. Lesson learned...

The good news is that the doctor said it should be better in about three days - just in time for my Cape Coast trip with Andy and Karina :) Infections happen and with antibiotics I'll be back on my feet in no time.
And like Andy said, "Well I'm glad it's not a flesh-eating disease or something like that." Yeah. That makes two of us.

So if I spend Christmas Eve in the hospital, where in the world will I end up for Christmas Day?? Uh oh...
Merry Christmas, everyone!

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Bushbuks And The Door Of No Return

I'm playing a little bit of catch-up here, so sorry things are a bit out of order.
The week of November 27th, Julia and I took off for a week of much-needed vacation after what I like to  refer to as my "Crash and Burn Week." Everything seemed to go wrong that week, both at here home and there home. When it rains, it pours, right? But of course I made it through and got to escape my worries for a week right afterwards, so there's something to be said for the timing at least.

Our first stop was Accra to see Laura off to the airport before heading further west (I still have to do the little "Never Eat Shredded Wheat" rhyme while I point my finger to figure out directions...but at least I can finally do left and right without really thinking about it now, so that's progress) to Kumasi the next morning.

Kumasi is one of the largest cities in Ghana.
We saw the Manyhia Palace Museum, which was pretty fascinating. Kumasi is where the King of the Ashantis lives. Since I live in Ewe territory, I knew barely anything about the Ashantis even though they're by far the largest tribe in Ghana, so it was nice to get another aspect of Ghanaian culture.
We had the opportunity to go to Mass in Twi at the St. Peter Cathedral Basilica before spending the afternoon at the Culture Center. For my Ann Arborite readers, the Culture Center is like the Diag but....cooler. I'll deny saying it, but it's true. It's a huge, quiet, grassy area with lots of nice paved walkways where university students go for study groups and moms take their kids to play away from the busyness of the city. It also happens to have some of the coolest artisan shops in Ghana and I spent a disgusting amount of money on presents.

On Wednesday, December 1st- my 3 month anniversary with Ghana! yay!- we took a 4 am bus to Takoradi. Shockingly it left on time! And by that I mean 4:15. From Takoradi we caught a tro-tro to Axim, a little run-down fishing village that we visited because it was (inexplicably) the setting for a book Julia had read. We ended up staying in this awful little hotel run by the sweetest old guy who we fondly refer to as "little old deaf naked man" because...well, he was short, old, mostly deaf and only wore a mid-thigh-length, mostly transparent wifebeater...

Axim's one tourist draw is Fort Anthony, the second oldest of Ghana's 29 forts and castles. I believe Osu Castle in Accra is the oldest, but I wouldn't swear to it.
Fort Anthony is a dingy, sprawling white fortress overlooking a gorgeous harbor and the lighthouse that sits about half a mile away on an island.
The Portugese built the fort, finishing it in 1515. It passed to the Dutch and then to the British before Ghana gained independence in 1957.

Our tour guide took us through the whole process the captured slaves underwent- from the small chamber just inside the door where the goods were traded for human beings, to the Door of No Return.
Fort Anthony held 100 slaves for 3 months at a time, the amount of time it took for the slave ships to deliver their cargo and return for more.
Many of the slaves regarded the Americas as a sort of Promised Land. In any case they had to be better than the cramped, dirty cell...right?
Several hundred years ago, the lighthouse island wasn't an island; it sat on the coast. Unknown to the European settlers and the Africans, an underground tunnel ran from the fort to the lighthouse, so slaves could be smuggled out and directly loaded onto the ship. Not a bad system- gave them better control over the slaves, minimized the possibility of interference and allowed them to conduct their business in relative secrecy. Unfortunately the slave traders were a pretty smart lot (with one exception, but we'll get to him shortly).
The Door of No Return is a five-step staircase and a ladder that lead down into the tunnel (which has since collapsed as the water eroded its way closer and closer to the fort). Once all the captives had descended into the tunnel, the ladder was pulled up, leaving a smooth seven-foot wall behind them.
There was no turning back.
Anyone who decided last-minute that the Americas might not be paradise after all had no choice but to continue on towards their miserable fate.
Staring down into the pit through the Door of No Return was like staring into a huge, gaping mouth. Perhaps an old mouth, toothless and powerless with age now...but sinister nonetheless.
I couldn't stop myself from wondering how many people it had consumed before it was finally satisfied.

Our rather intense tour did include a little comice relief though.
In the form of a grave.
In the early 1700's, the fort was in the hands of the Dutch.
The Dutch governor had been waiting months for his wife to arrive from Holland. So when he finally got the news that the ship was sailing into the harbor, he ran onto the staircase outside his quarters with his telescope to watch. The staircase, by the way, didn't have a railing until the British took over the fort.
The governor apparently got so excited at the prospect of seeing his wife that he forgot where he was, or forgot he was looking through a telescope or something - and stepped right off the edge, falling to his death on the stone courtyard below. Oops.
They buried him right where he landed, and Mrs. Governor turned around and went back home.
I probably shouldn't find that just a little bit funny, but it makes a good FML story doesn't it?

After seeing the fort, Julia and I went to swim at a resort beach, where we met Bambi the bushbuk. Bushbuks are a type of small deer, native to Africa and imported to Ghana as pets.

At one point I was petting both Bambi and the managers' dog and I had to laugh to myself. Probably the only time I'll pet a dog and a bushbuk at the same time!

From Axim we went even further west to an amazing place called the Green Turtle Lodge. (I didn't have to do the rhyme this time! I remembered from before.) It's actually pretty close to Coite d'Ivoire, so when we told people we live on the border we had to clarify that we meant the Togo border.
I'm gonna do a little shameless product placement here for Green Turtle:
It was started 7 years ago by this really amazing British couple named Tom and Jo, who are just some of the friendliest, neatest people I've met in Ghana. Green Turtle is an eco-lodge, which the happy little Ann Arborite tree hugger in me loves. It runs on solar power, has self-composting toilets, etc. It also has some of the best food (and cheapest cocktails) of all the lodges, hotels and restuarants I've been to.
The Green Turtle's biggest project is, not surprisingly, green turtle conservation. Guests can take a guided turtle walk in hopes of seeing some of the turtles nesting from a safe distance, and Tom and Jo have hired locals to begin patrolling the beach at night to discourage poachers. However more recently they have also begun a project to fund the Aqidaa school, the village the lodge lies just outside of.
After three days of lounging on the beach at Green Turtle, it was finally time for Julia and I to go back to dusty, ol' Aflao.

And you know what? I was actually happy to go home!
A week earlier I sort of kind of hated Aflao's guts and couldn't wait to get away...
But then...I sort of kind of found myself missing it. Worfa and Victoria, and Keta, and my Meerkats and my friend Charlotte were all so happy to see me and the feeling was very mutual.
Sometimes you can't appreciate something until you have the change to miss it a little bit.

The Average No

There are times when I get discouraged as a volunteer. I see the infinite need all around me and I can't help but feel that I could be doing so much more. But I get burnt-out or unmotivated or just plain selfish and don't have it in me to give 100% every day. I know expecting that from myself would be completely unrealistic, but that doesn't stop my conscience from nagging at me occasionally.
However I've learned to keep this particular struggle to myself.
It only prompts a phrase I've heard a thousand times in the last 4 months from people back home:

"You're doing so much more than the average person."

I appreciate the sentiment- which is undoubtably supposed to soothe my conscience- but there's just one little problem...
What in the world does that actually mean?
Not to be harsh, but it's a nonsense statement.

Who is the average person and what are they doing? What makes someone average anyway? Can you add together Superman and the lowest criminal, divide by two and somehow come up with a calculable Average Joe?

I don't believe in the average person.

We all have our part to play, and I vehemently disagree with the mindset that my role as a volunteer is somehow elevated above someone else's.

Is your 9 to 5 businessman the average person?

Or is it the middle-class stay at home mom?

Maybe it's kindergarten teachers.

Or a kid who grows up without a fuss, goes to a good college, gets a good job, marries with two kids and a dog and eventually retires.

Yet I know people who fit all of those descriptions and not one of them is someone I could label "average."
Besides, I wouldn't be the person I am - doing what I'm doing and living where I'm living- if it weren't for all those people and the effect of their various roles on my life. And someday, I might be one of them myself. You can't be a volunteer forever after all (...Or can you? Hmm...)
The minute I sit down and convince myself that "Why yes, I have been doing so much more than the average person. I've finally stored up enough credit that I can take it easy", I've begun undermining what I came here to do. I've planted the seed of apathy into my work.
And I'll admit it- I'm biased when it comes to this issue:
I hate apathy more than almost anything else in the world.

But even if you're still sitting there rolling your eyes, there's not much doubt that an apathetic volunteer has no use except as an oxymoron.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Auf Wiedersehen Deutsche Freundin

** Pardon my potentially mispelled/incorrect German. I don't speak it, so I did my best. Freundin apparently means girlfriend, but I can't figure out how to just say friend in female form (the German word for amiga, haha). It's the thought that counts? **

I've known since the day I met Julia that she was going home on December 17th, but now that she's actually gone it seems to have taken me completely by surprise.
Where did the time go??

Having my older brother Andy here with me has definitely distracted me,
but when I think about what happens after he goes home and life returns to normal...
Well, I can't imagine Ghana without Julia.

She wasn't my best friend or my mentor or my roommate or my coworker...she was more like some wonderful combination of all of them...

Andy made a comment to me after meeting both Julia and Karina, saying he was happy to see that I hadn't just found people who I could have fun hanging out with while I was in Ghana; I'd found people who I was genuinely friends with.
'Cause I mean, let's be honest - even if Julia had been annoying or something, I still would've hung out with her all the time because I didn't really have a choice. My pool of potential friends in Aflao was Julia and... Julia.
But even if I'd had other choices, I still would've chosen her. She was probably the perfect friend to have in a situation like this. She's incredibly kind, and has a very similar sense of humor to me. She's friendly and adventurous and laidback, nice almost to a fault (I was definitely the designated jerk of the two of us) and very smart. In other words, she's one of the few people I could happily hang out with every day and one of the fewer people who could happily hang out with me every day.

Julia taught me how to put roots down in Ghana.
Not just how to hail a cab or how much to pay for a coconut, etc - although stuff like that is extremely useful information.
But more importantly she showed me that it was possible to feel at home here.
She taught me to be patient with the men who harrass us on the street and to tell persisent vendors "Next time, next time" to make them go away. She got me to travel on the weekends, something it actually wouldn't have occurred to me to do, at least as often as we did it.
She approached Ghana with a kind of open-minded gratitude that I have been constantly trying to imitate.

I won't get another friend like her while I'm in Ghana.
Other volunteers will come and go, and some of them will be people I'll really connect with and enjoy being around.
But you only get one Julia.
And somehow...I'm ok with that. I only need one Julia.
I'm established here now, and if I end up somewhat on my own between February and May, that thought no longer terrifies me the way it once did.

And if I get the chance, I'll try to be someone else's Julia.

Summer 2012, Julia! It's gonna be SIGNIFICANT!

Reunited! aka Almost Turned Away aka Brother Brother Brother, Five Weeks

My brother came to visit me!

Virtually all of Aflao has been waiting to meet him for the past month and a half because I couldn't stop talking about it. About half a dozen people have commented that they've never seen someone so excited by the thought ot seeing a sibling. Clearly that was half a dozen people who have never moved out of the country and been visited by a family member...

Last Monday I waited outside the terminal for more than 30 minutes anxiously waiting for him to come out.
When he finally did, I don't think I've ever been that happy to anyone before.

It's amazing the difference it makes to have him here.
How can I describe what it's like...for the first time in 4 months I have someone who understands all my cultural references and knows all the people I talk about and can understand me even if I speak "quickly" (aka normal speed. I didn't realize how slowly I'd gotten used to speaking until he got here) or use slang. We have similar senses of humor. We talk about future plans and childhood memories and rag on each other, of course.
Somehow it's comforting to know that some things never change. He'll still be my big brother no matter what country we're in.
Several times we've been sitting around outside my house with everyone, and it's hit me: He's really here. I'm still in Ghana, with all my crazy aunties chattering in Ewe and the palm trees rustling overhead... but here's Andy in the middle of all of it with me. That's so weird, but at the same time perfectly natural.
He's been fitting in wonderfully. My family likes him more than me I think, and he can already wash his clothes and snap a handshake better than I can. My Ewe is still better but who knows if that will still be the case at the end of his five weeks! I'm proud to say my brother is a Ghana natural :)

Our first week together has passed in a blur. We've spent most of the time in Aflao just hanging out with my family and introducing him to all the people/places of my everyday life. We went to Ho one day to visit this crazy rasta artist, and visited (revisited, on my part) the Tafi Atome Monkey Sanctuary.
I have a feeling the next couple weeks are going to fly even faster.
Our plan is go (back) to Wli Waterfalls, celebrate Christmas in Aflao with my family and take off on the 26th with Karina to see Cape Coast until we fly to Egypt for a two-week tour on the 30th.
That's right- I'm spending New Year's Eve in Cairo with my brother.

If I'm dreaming, don't you dare pinch me for another four weeks...

No Place Like Home

When Julia and I were on vacation at the Green Turtle Lodge, we had the chance to go into the nearby town of Busua to hear some live reggae music at a hotel owned by a Canadian expat.

This guy managed to be the most abrasive, rude man I've met here...which is really saying something considering Ghanaians are infamously blunt. After calling me naive and insulting my work within the first five minutes of meeting me, he told me that he was originally from Canada but after forty years here he thinks of Ghana as home. I lightly answered, "Ah, maybe someday I hope!" Instead of taking it as the positive, complimentary comment towards Ghana it was intended to be, he snapped that I wasn't allowed to even consider thinking that until I'd lived here at least several years.

I rode in the back of the pick-up as we headed back home several hours later.
It was an exhilarating experience in more ways than one.
First off, trying to balance on the edge of a pickup bed while rattling over one of Ghana's signature washed-out, pothole-y roads is an adventure in itself - one I was a little convinced I might not entirely survive.
Yet I couldn't ignore my surroundings even as I hung on for dear life.
The African bush is an astoundingly beautiful place at night. Above the roar of the wind I could hear the frogs and crickets trilling their deafening symphony- a sound that will always remind me poignantly of laying awake at home on summer nights with my window open, listening to the spring peepers sing in our neighborhood pond. My gaze rose above the blurred silhouettes of the tall grass and gnarled trees to the sky, where I could see Orion, my favorite constellation, straight ahead. Orion and I have a bit of a love affair going on. I named the first song I ever wrote after him. And when I learned that Ghana was north of the equator, my first thought was one of relief: "Oh thank God, I'll still be able to see Orion!"  
I've struggled at times to find my place here, and it's made me think a lot about what home means to me.
I've begun referring to things as "at home" (in Ghana) and "back home" (in Ann Arbor)...but still the distinction is blurring. Sometimes I feel like someone with a dual citizenship. I am standing with a foot in each world, neither fully part of nor fully separated from either place. While that initially caused me a lot of confusion and loneliness, I have gradually learned how to better bridge the gap and draw those two halves of my life closer together. 

And as I sat there listening to the frogs and looking at Orion, two things that have a lot of significance to me, an extraordinary sense of rightness washed over me- the simply incredible feeling of knowing that somehow, against all odds, I am at the right place at the right time.
No offense, Mr. Expat Sir, but you've got it all wrong: there's no time limit on feeling at home.

I've struggled since the day I got here with the knowledge that eventually, the adventure has to end and I will have to go back home to Michigan. With that has come the intense fear that I won't have a place there anymore. Long-term volunteers in foreign countries often experience something called "reverse culture shock," the struggle to reacclimate to their home culture and find a way to reconcile who they are post-volunteering with who they were and the life they lead pre-volunteering. That can be unbelievably difficult; it's no secret that an experience like this changes you.

But if there's one thing I've learned from my first 4 months in Ghana, it's to reject fear.

So I've begun fighting against my dread of going home.
After all, coming to Ghana entailed a lot of sacrifice and has challenged me in every way imagineable, yet I still view my experience here in an extremely positive light because I want to enjoy and benefit from my precious time in Africa. So why shouldn't I approach returning to America with the same open-minded positivity?
If I expect to go home and feel isolated and miserable, I will.
However if I expect to go home and live a more enriched life as a result of my year in Ghana, I will be able to work through the loneliness and Ghana-sickness (There is a word in Danish for reverse homesickness, missing a place you've left after you return home. Why don't English speakers have a word  for that!?) and focus on the positive aspects of going home.

For me, May 23rd means both leaving home and coming home.

Looks Like I'm On My Own

Let me just say upfront that I'm not very good at being PC.  But for the sake of diplomacy, maturity and internet responsibility (once it's out there, it's out there), I'm going to try my best.

After months of discussions with my parents, my host family and the two men who run VARAS, I made the decision to leave the organization and stay in Ghana independently. I will continue living with my family, working at the same school and will fly back home at the end of May just as planned. The only difference is that I will be the one arranging my food, schedule, etc. instead of using a middle man.

I left VARAS because of a lack of clarity and financial responsibility on their part, and it was not a mutual decision.

So, folks, it looks like I'm on my own.

...Except not really.

As a young adult fresh out of high school, on her own for the first time and in a VERY foreign country, I can tell you that there is no greater blessing than a good host family.
"Good" doesn't even begin to do to justice to Worfa and Victoria though...
Worfa and Victoria aren't my parents- no one could imitate that role in my life- but they are without a doubt my family. I trust them, and that is the anchor I have relied on more times than I can count. In Ghana, finding people I can trust has been challenging at times. But Worfa and Victoria have always provided a shelter for me to come home to no matter how bad the storms have gotten outside our front gate. I trust them to take care of me, to be honest with me, to help me learn how to function in Ghanaian society- and they've never let me down in any of those respects. Worfa teaches me songs in Ewe and gives me advice when I have trouble at work. Victoria is always willing to play a cutthroat game of Ludo and loves to cook my favorite foods for me.
As the relationship between the VARAS coordinators and myself became more and more turbulent, it was Worfa and Victoria's loving, unwavering support that has made it possible for me to stand up for myself and get away from an increasingly negative situation.

I am more grateful to them than they could possibly ever know.

In the words of one of my best friends:
At times I may be by myself in Ghana,
but I'm never alone.

PS: For those of you who had the PO Box 218 address in Ho, please do not use that one anymore! If you would like to send me any letters (I love mail. Not that I'm dropping hints or anything. I'm just saying that mail is more valuable than gold and there's nothing better on a bad day.) please wait until I've gotten my new address from Worfa. :)

Saturday, December 18, 2010


Whatever the opposite of an SOS is, that's what this is.

As fun as it is to watch my big tough guy friends turn into mother hens- everybody can stop worrying about me! I am safe, healthy and happy!

The biggest issue that seems to be worrying people back home is the men here. But I have never once felt genuinely afraid or threatened by the overly flirtacious behavior of many Ghanaian men. In all honestly, I'm 100x more likely to get hurt in a vehicular accident than to get attacked by someone. (And I minimize that risk by not travelling at night and not taking motos very often now that I've seen at least 3 crash right in front of me.) Besides, I've developed very strong self-defense reactions to being grabbed by the arm or elbow when the more persistent men want my attention a little too much. I actually smacked my friend once when he did that because I didn't realize who he was at first, heehee.

I know there's a lot of concern about malaria as well. Thankfully that's the only somewhat serious disease I'm at any realistic risk of contracting. What most people don't know is that with treatment, and especially when you've already been taking preventative measures, malaria is rarely worse than the flu. Malaria is (I believe) the #1 killer in Ghana, but that is a bit of a misleading statistic. It poses the biggest threat to the sick and the very young/old- not a healthy young adult like me- and kills because most people fail to seek treatment in time, if at all. One of the volunteers got it, got meds, was sick in bed for 3 days, and then felt just fine. It's nothing to panic about! I got tested 3 weeks ago and I'm malaria-free so far anyway!

Aside from that, Ghana is politically stable, there are no big, scary animals in Aflao and no natural disasters scheduled. I drink plenty of water, use sunscreen when forced, eat 3 meals a day, sleep way too much and rarely feel homesick.

As the rastafari would say-

No worries in life. 'S all cool, man.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Good Things Come In Three's

I spent most of Monday hanging out in Esther's office.
I'm pretty sure I've mentioned her- she's a social worker from Accra who moved into Good Shepherd a month after I got there and we've become good friends. She's an amazing woman and as been my biggest moral support/ally at school.
We were talking about how Esther wants twins and somehow it turned into this big joke about how she's going to mail me one, but we got stuck because I said I wanted a girl and she wants twin boys.
Tuesday morning, Esther calls me up to her office and goes, "Well, problem solved."

Three babies showed up at the orphanage overnight- two boys and a little girl.

They're not related and they were all found at different times, but Esther's only response when I asked how they all happened to come to us at the same time then was, "Social welfare knows I'm a strong woman."
No arguments there.

The newly-dubbed Mawuto (meaning "God's own") is the oldest at around 9 months. He's starting to teeth and can sit up and roll over by himself. He's the smiliest little guy who makes these ridiculously adorable faces with his turtlelike, toothless mouth. He spends most of his time babbling away to himself.

Prince is younger by maybe a month or two. He's slightly underweight and his skin is peeling all over, as if he got a bad sunburn. Between his physical condition and his excessive fussiness, he's the hardest to deal with, but he's become my little buddy.

Princess is the youngest at 5 or 6 months, and she's an absolute angel. She never cries. She just looks around with her huge, sweet brown eyes and will happily wait for you to feed or change her as long as you need. You can hear her across the room slurping on her fingers, but otherwise she barely makes a sound.

I love babies, and I've had so much fun with them the last couple days.
But, of course, infants are the last thing you want to see at an orphanage. Kids of any age are really the last things I want to see at an orphanage, but there's something particularly heartbreaking about staring into these little faces and knowing neither they nor us will ever know their exact birthdays or their original names or who their parents were, much less why they abandoned them.
The injustice of it makes me so helplessly angry.

As I said, Prince is by far the fussiest of the three. Esther is exhausted from caring for three babies and her thirty other children literally around the clock, and, understandably, she is beyond frustrated with him. We can't figure out what's wrong with him - he seems to want to cry simply for the sake of crying.

So Prince and I have spent a lot of time together to give her a much-needed respite.

In the rare times when I can calm him enough to lay quietly in my lap, he stares up into my face for as long as he can keep him eyes open. Finally, every time without fail, before he will give in and let himself fall asleep, he reaches out for my hand and hugs my arm to his chest, latching himself on to me with both of his frail little arms. Even in sleep, his grip doesn't fully relax.
It's as if he's afraid I'll be gone when he wakes up.
Certainly enough people have already walked in and out of his short life.

Just keep hanging on, kid.

Monday, December 6, 2010

I Put A Spell On You

I was walking down the road to the beach the other day, when a man on a motorbike crashed into a goat not 10 feet in front of me.

It was a simple matter of the goat and the guy swerving in the same direction at the same time, and somehow he managed to tip his bike and trap the goat in between the front wheel and the body.
Fortunately, the goat- a big, black specimen appropriately enough- wriggled out from under the bike and ran away without so much as a limp, and the man and his moto seemed to be fine. However, it took less than a minute for one of the onlookers to start screaming,  "The goat's a witch!"

Adjusting to African superstition has gone hand in hand with adjusting to African religion. Even the most devout Christians believe in juju and are wary of it, although they believe they are completely safe from it as long as they call on the name of Jesus and have a strong prayer life.
My host mother, for example, is a dedicated Christian, but when one of my friends wanted to visit me from Keta, she told me in no uncertain terms that he could not come to our house and I should tell him not to call me anymore, because there's no guarantee that he wouldn't try to put some juju spells on me. Of course I think the real threat in her eyes was that he was a black man and a stranger because she didn't start saying any of that until she had determined that he was male and not a yevu...
But still- from an African perspective, an active and often dangerous spirit world is not a myth but a reality.
I have not met a Ghanaian yet who has not had at least one personal experience with ghosts or spells or possession- and usually they've had multiple experiences with all three.

It's easy to scoff at. And certainly I approach the issue with no small amount of skepticism.
When I visited the voodoo market in Lome, for instance, I got to experience juju up close and personal...but all I saw was a bunch of fascinating rituals and some very adept conmen.
And yet...being here makes me wonder if perhaps there are invisible forces, both good and evil, that interact with our tangible world. It's a belief so basic to African culture that it's difficult to be part of this place and reject the idea completely.
I should explain that better though, because, as a Christian, I have already believed my whole life in a "spiritual world", if you will. But Western religion tends to portray a somewhat watered down version of that world. I know many Christians who even shy away from the idea of there being a Devil, and no one who would openly talk about being tempted by a demon. Even if that's what they really meant, they're not likely to say it in those terms because to us, that sounds a little bit nutty.
Can't even tell you how many times I've heard phrases like that here though.
Perhaps the further a country develops, the more antiquated the idea of God becomes as we ourselves rise to that status, so the Western world has learned to ignore that intangible reality. Then again, perhaps this type of raw superstition simply appeals to Africans because it aligns with their traditional beliefs - it certainly wouldn't be the first time Christianity has cross-bred with native religions, in any case.
I don't have an answer myself, I guess I'm mostly just musing.

I was there when Esther, my friend the social worker at Good Shepherd, gathered the other children together to speak to them after Nyamekye's funeral.
I expected her to finally give them the details about why and how she died.
And I suppose, from Esther's perspective, she did.
She told them how Nyamekye had been having dreams every night about witches coming to take her spirit away and offering her rice and fruits and blood to eat. According to what Nyamekye told Esther just a few hours before she died, that previous night she had accepted the food and blood from the witches, who stole her heart after she had eaten. An angel came and fought them, but wasn't able to get her heart back.
Chilling, isn't it?
But no less scary than the fact that not a word was said about Nyamekye's sickle cell anemia, or about how
taking her to the hospital several days earlier may easily have saved her life. That was all secondary to the fact that from that moment, Nyamekye had been spiritually dead, and therefore physical death couldn't be long in coming too.

I consider myself very open-minded about juju and the role of a spirit world, but I can't accept witchcraft as a replacement for what was obviously medical negligence on the orphanage's part. However that's a bitter tangent I'll avoid going into further.

When bad things happen, such as Nyamekye's death, the first response many Ghanaians will give you is "It was God's will; it was supposed to happen that way." In other words- get over it and don't question the Big Man.
But I can't help wondering if that response comes out of deep faith and a genuine belief in the truth of their words...or if it is more of a knee-jerk coping mechanism.
Misfortune is a little bit easier to swallow when you can blame the goat witch.

Eau...Eau...Etsi Lasiwa?

November 22, 2010

I realized this weekend that I speak significantly more Ewe than French.
I love my life! :)

I've lived within walking distance of Togo for almost 3 months now, and I decided it was finally time to see Ghana's Canada. (The comparison is almost perfect: the English-speaking country's French-speaking neighbor that they are on good terms with but still make fun of.)
Togo is the country directly to our Eastern border. They were a French colony up until 1960 when they gained their independence.
The separation between Ghana and Togo is a classic example of the effect of European colonialism in Africa...and I really feel like I should be writing a college paper right now... The Ewe territory lies partly in Togo and partly in Ghana. Similarly the Togolaise capital, Lome, and Aflao, where I live, used to be the same city until the artificial border was imposed to differentiate the colonies. It's all too easy to condemn the Europeans for how they manipulated Africa, but the present day results aren't entirely bad. For instance, because they share the same language, ancestry and root culture, there is a very strong bond between Togo and Ghana. But unfortunately, what started as a separation in name only has yielded some very real and tangible present-day differences.
It's hard to imagine Lome and Alfao as one fluid city now. Aflao is essentially a sprawling ghetto: the largely unpaved road is full of potholes that put even Michigan's to shame and the air is visibly thick with dust. The buildings are low, badly maintained and surrounded by numerous dumps. It's an inner city outer city?
In contrast, Lome is sleek and least on the outset. A smooth paved highway, complete with traffic lights and sidewalks, winds through the shiny highrise buildings. Many of the numerous hotels, cafes and restaurants could pass for Western establishments.
But turn off the main road onto any of the sidestreets, and the glitzy veneer wears thin. Poverty will be waiting to take you on a tour of the real Lome.

My first trip to Togo was on Friday with Laura and Paul, a Ghanaian guy my brother's age who I have recently become friends with. The first two hours were stressful as we went through the agonizing process of changing our money, buying our Visas and debating about whether or not to charter a car.
My least favorite part of Togo is the money.
The exchange rate between cedis (Ghana money) and US dollars is 1.44, and I've gotten pretty good at estimating how much I'm spending. Plus I know how much things should cost in Ghana now, so I know when someone is ripping me off.
Togo money is called cephas and 10,000 cephas is 30 cedis. Ok, I could get the hang of the cepha-cedi conversion (knock off 3 zeros and multiply by 3)...but that didn't give me an accurate idea of what anything should cost because prices in Togo are more expensive. Very frustrating.

Our first stop was Holy Child International School, where my host father works. It was really nice to see where he spends his days and meet his class, etc. Then we went to a voodoo market, the art market and then to the beach for a little while.
It was a nice introduction to Togo, but Laura and I felt a little restricted.

So, against the advice of every Ghanaian we know, we returned to Togo on Sunday with Karina and without a Ghanaian guide. Although Ghana and Togo have a good relationship, Ghanaians are still convinced that, unlike Ghana, Togo is extremely dangerous for unaccompanied yevus.
However, our trip on Sunday was extremely relaxing and fun. Shockingly, no one tried to mug us in broad daylight so Togo didn't really live up to its reputation after all.

From the border, the three of us decided to walk towards some church spires we saw in the distance. We walked for close to an hour with the city to our left and the beach on our right, just enjoying the sights and rhythms of Lome. The cathedral was gorgeous, very European which surprised us.

Our next stop was a return to the voodoo market!
Full of skins, heads and bones from every African animal imagineable, the voodoo market is pretty high on the morbid list. However, for me, it was a valuable experience in traditional African beliefs. We were introduced to the gods and they explained many of the basic juju charms and amulets. It was fascinating, and one of my favorite experiences so far.

We went to a lunch at a cafe that was so Western I could pretend I was in Ann Arbor if I didn't look out the window.
Afterwards, as we walked back towards Ghana (I still get a kick out of the fact that I can walk to another country) we saw horses on the beach! For a couple cephas, I got to ride around once with Laura and then once solo so I could trot. Riding horses along the beach...Now if only I was wearing a flowy white dress, my life would be a perfect B movie.

I thoroughly enjoyed my brief adventure to Lome- and hey, now the number of African countries I've been to has doubled! Yet for all it's glamour...I was strangely relieved to get back to Aflao's dust and potholes. Togo may have milkshakes and traffic lights, but Ghana is home.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Light Off

I was sitting outside last night journaling when suddenly -- light off, a power outage swept through Aflao.

In the blink of an eye, the world became dark and quiet.
After the initial (somewhat humorous) cry of dismay echoed throughout the entire city, everything fell eerily silent. I hadn't realized how loud the sound of a dozen different radios blaring gospel music was until it cut out. I hadn't realized how bright our house lights were until they were gone either.

It was the most breathtaking moment I have had in Africa so far.

The shock of the sudden light off jerked me out of my self-absorption. I was totally engrossed in my journal, concentrating on writing down everything so I wouldn't miss a single detail- but that moment forced my chin up and said,

"Look at what you're missing now."

There was a split second I was tempted to grab my flashlight and keep writing,  but I realized that would've been sacriligious somehow.
Instead I gave in and let myself be in the moment.
For a long time I laid back on the benches in front of our house and just soaked it all in- the dancing black silhouettes of the coconut trees, lightning flickering in the distance. As the darkness saturated the night, I watched the stars appear one by one.

My host father returned from some errand and we talked for a long time. Some of my best moments in Ghana have been simply sitting with Worfa in front of our house. There is no doubt that the relationships I have made have defined my experience here. He taught me a song in Ewe and told some old Ghanaian stories that were neither history nor legend, but something in between. My host mother Victoria returned from market and some of our neighbor women came over. We sat eating Triscuits and laughing uproariously at nothing.

After they left, my host parents and I spread our mats in the sand and laid down to marvel at the night in comfortable silence. Several airplanes flew overhead and I wondered what Aflao looked like from the air. Was it even visible without the glow of electric lights?

It was a moment of exquisite freedom.

No Nollywood movies spouting their drama on the television.
No emails to answer.
No texts buzzing in my pocket.
No Holy FM blasting hiplife on the radio.
No light to tempt me to lose myself in a book or a crossword puzzle.

Light off.

Flower Mode

After our rough week, Julia and I decided we needed some serious R&R. We headed off to Mountain Paradise, a lodge near the Tafi Atome monkey sanctuary that touted beautiful mountain views and organic coffee.

The tro-tro dropped us in the little town of Fume at the base of the mountain. A sign at the junction informed us that Mountain Paradise was "4 km -- uphill." We briefly considered walking, then came to our senses and asked some locals to call us a couple of motorbikes. While we waited, a nice pick-up drove by. I happened to notice a hand emerge from the window and, with a subtle upward flick of the wrist, make the Ghanaian gesture for "where are you going?" I pointed up the mountain. The truck stopped and we got in.

Our good luck had begun!

The hand belonged to John, a high-ranking government official from Accra who had come for a friend's mother's funeral and was on his way to spend the night in his hometown. He was with Patrick, another government official, who I came to think of simply as John's sidekick.

The road up the mountain was steep, in bad condition and full of sharp curves; I can't imagine having ridden it on a motorbike...yikes.


We spent the evening with John and Patrick. We stopped to see the tail end of the Rice Festival going on in Biakpa, one of the lower mountain villages where Mountain Paradise is. Then we stopped to check out the lodge itself. Julia said it wasn't so bad, but I was deeply disappointed with our anticipated...well, paradise. It was small, dark and only about halfway up the mountain. John must've seen my expression, and kept insisting we needed to see his cousin's hotel further up the mountain. We proceeded to John's hometown, the village of Vane. He took us to meet a bunch of relatives and friends, who fed us dinner. Then we went to the summit, where, perched on the edge of the cliff, sat the Abraerica Hotel.

If you are ever in Ghana, GO THERE.

The view is astounding, the rooms are comfortably modern, and the food is delicious. And because John's cousin owned it, he arranged for us to get free breakfast the next day and a room for ridiculously cheap. Then, without further ado, he and Patrick left.

Julia and I dropped our bags in our rooms, looked at each other and did a happy dance.

It's common to meet Ghanaians who will do nice things for you - hospitality is very highly valued here. However it is less common to meet Ghanaians (men) who will do those nice things without any romantic overtures or expectations.

Julia and I luxuriously laid in bed and watched CNN for a while (TV that isn't in French! Woohoo!) before forcing ourselves to go back to the terrace and enjoy our surroundings. It was too dark to see much, but we happened to meet two Americans. They were NYU students doing a semester abroad in Accra and invited us to see the waterfall with them the next morning.

That night I took an actual shower and had access to the third functional flush toilet I've had in two months. We watched more CNN- which incidentally ran a feature about one of the Detroit Lions. Now the Lions are nothing to get excited about...unless you're in a hotel on some remote mountain in Africa and Detroit happens to be your 'hood :) - and had the best sleep! Cool mountain air made a fan unnecssary and it was SO QUIET! Aflao wakes up before 5 am, but there- no roosters, no gospel music, no screaming children, no Keta whining for breakfast. I slept straight through to 6:45...which is impressive. I haven't slept that long without waking up since August 30.

The next morning we met up with the Americans for breakfast and went to the Amedzofe Waterfall. The hike to this waterfall is significantly shorter than that to Wli, but in its own way much more treacherous if you can believe. It's lined with ropes that you have to use to lower yourself down or pull yourself up the trail because it's so steep and slippery. I'm pretty sure I almost died at least seven times, which makes it that much more impressive that Julia made the climb in flip-flops. Thatta girl, way to be Ghanaian. The watefall was worth the near-death experiences. (Everything in Ghana so far has been worth the near-death experiences......not that there have been a lot of those, Mom...)

We waded around in the water and climbed over the slippery rocks to stand directly under the spray. The thrill of it made us all euphoric. We were just laughing and prancing around like little kids.

Thoroughly soaked, we hauled ourselves back up the ropes. At the top we split off from our new friends and Julia and I hiked to signature cross at the top of Mt. Gemi. It was an easy 20-30 minutes hike from Vane, and well worth it!

We stood at the top in awe for a long time.

It seemed like the entirety of Ghana was spread out below us. Lake Volta sparkled in the distance. Vane could've passed for a painting if it weren't for the sound of drum music floating up to us from the church. Biakpa sat nestled in a valley lower down. Beyond the lush foothills clustered below us, rust-colored dirt roads threaded through a gorgeous patchwork of farmland and scrubby African bush.

My only regret is that there aren't adequate words to convey the beauty of Ghana.

Hunger finally drove us back to the hotel. I HAD FRENCH FRIES! Legitimate french fries, salted and everything. With ketchup no less! Talk about not having adequate words, heehee. I love, love, love Ghanaian food (too much), but I enjoy the chance to eat some American food occasionally.

Almost as soon as we were done eating, a man said he would take us to Ho in his private car because he was going to pick up his sisters and didn't feel like driving alone. So for the second time in one weekend, a man did something nice for us without expecting anything in return. Forget good luck - that is nothing short of miraculous.

I wore a seatbelt for the first time since I've got here. Blech. A road accident truly is the most likely way I will get injured or killed in Ghana, but I have to admit I hate how restrictive a seatbelt is. Then again I'm also very used to riding motorbikes without a helmet now too. (Pfft, they can't be more than 250 cc anyway...)

I get endless grief over the fact that my "pouffie" camera has a setting just for taking pictures of flowers. Which is admittedly a little stupid...then again I have some glorious photos. As Julia and I sat in the tro-tro on the way home, eating genuine chocolate chip cookies that we had found for unusually cheap, we agreed that if life has a flower mode- this was it.


November 3, 2010

One of my students died suddenly yesterday morning, from sickle cell anemia complications.

I don't know how to describe death.
I don't have the right words to tell you how the grief has affected all of us.

We hear so much about orphans dying in Africa from AIDS, genocide, human trafficking - catastrophes that play on the world stage and kill by the thousands. We do what we can, but such problems are so far beyond our personal capabilities to fix that our pity remains abstract. More so than the victims, we can only grieve the concept.

But this isn't some fundraiser to support Darfur.

This isn't a campaign to stop AIDS.

This is a real little girl whose head I stroked and told to feel better soon just two days ago.

Her name was Nyamekye Hanna. It means "God's Gift."

She was nine years old. She couldn't have even been four feet tall. She struggled in school. She had adorable chubby cheeks. She wanted to be a police officer when she grew up. And she had a family waiting for her in America.

As I sat with Esther through that terrible first night, she looked at me and said everything that was on my heart in one simple sentence: "It is beyond my understanding."

Thursday, October 28, 2010

19,000 Words


Africa has already forced me to grow up. I simply have no choice but to be self-reliant, because if I don't take care of myself, nobody will do it for me (except Julia sometimes). So I spent six weeks being very responsible and adjusting to my new position as an independent adult.

Then the real Katherine, the one who is a highly impulsive, typical eighteen-year-old, broke free.

In other words, I bought a puppy. With about the same amount of forethought I take to decide which color to paint my nails. And I'm down to one bottle of nail polish, sooo....

I talked about our trip to Keta. What I didn't mention was that when we were sitting outside Tony Blair's house after visiting Deborah's island, I saw some half-grown puppies chasing their mother in the distance. Being the animal lover I am, and missing my chihuahua at home, I said, "Awww, I want a puppy!"

Tony Blair disappears into the house for a moment and drops a little bundle of fur into my arms.

That was it. I was done for. Katherine on toast.

"Nene?" How much?

"Seven Gha'a"


In retrospect, I should've bargained- and they undoubtedly expected me to because I found out later that a dog here is 3 or 4 cedis, 5 at most. However, I didn't know that at the time and I would've paid much, much more. Roughly $5 for a puppy is nothing!

As far as I can tell, she is about 8 weeks old now.

In the week and a half that I've had Keta (named after the town where I bought her), I'm already amazed by how much she's grown! I swear she's gained almost a pound already.

At first she could only crawl a few feet awkwardly. After a few days she could walk with the clumsy, drunken swagger of someone who still hasn't gotten their sealegs. This morning I had to hurry after her as she took off across the courtyard with her humorous, bouncing run.

Her teeth were just barely poking through and she wasn't even fully weaned when I got her. I fed her powdered milk with a spoon and worried obsessively that she wasn't eating enough. But now she has almost a full mouth of teeth and it actually hurts when she tries to use my ankle as a chewtoy. She attacks her bowl of bread and milk, comically bracing herself with her front legs while she devours the whole thing. So now I'm worried that she's getting fat...

Now I have a confession:

Buying a puppy with about 3.6 seconds of consideration was probably bad enough. But don't worry, it gets worse.

I didn't exactly...precisely...ask my host family.

In my own defense, I TRIED - twice even - but Worfa and Victoria were in Accra and didn't pick up the phone.

So I was counting on two things: Ghanaian culture and Worfa's personality.

In Ghana, animals aren't viewed the same way as they are in the western world. Animals here serve a purpose - food, protection, etc. A "pet" in the same sense we would use that word is very rare here. So my guess was that bringing home a puppy unannounced would not be the huge deal it would be back home.

And Worfa is an extremely easy-going man. I didn't think he'd mind.

I spent an hour sitting outside our house with Keta in my lap, waiting for them to get home and reassuring myself that I wasn't insane and they weren't going to freak out and really, it was all just fine. And for 30 seconds I'd believe myself and then I'd start thinking about what would happen if I brought a puppy to my parent's house without asking and I'd have to start my pep talk all over again.

Worfa and Victoria come home. Worfa looks at Keta. "What is this? A puppy! Oh, you like it? Very fine!" and continues walking inside to change his clothes.

MWAHAHAHA. It really was that first.

You see, the problem with my stupid decisions is that they always seem to work out ok. (One day I'm going to wake up with a tattoo of Brad Pitt on my forehead and realize this isn't always the case.)

Worfa loves her. He didn't hesitate for a second in letting me keep her. He's already blocked off a corner of our courtyard to use as a pen and helps take care of her. There's something very endearing about watching him sit on the ground and play with her, or just laugh tolerantly when she starts gnawing on his ankles.

In contrast, Victoria hates her. She is completely convinced that Keta is going to make her sick. I actually got scolded because I poured some porridge out of a plastic bag into Keta's bowl, and then stuck the bag in a mug so it wouldn't tip over and spill the leftover porridge. Now Victoria says she can never use that mug again. She keeps walking around the house muttering, "The sickness, the sickness" in her humorous if not somewhat frustrating Victoria way.

Ironically, I did get sick for the first time the Monday after I brought Keta home, which unfortunately has only confirmed Victoria's suspicions that we are all going to die of the dog plague. It was very mild- I ate something that didn't agree with me, threw up twice and felt fine. But, predictably, when I came home and said I didn't want dinner and was just going to bed because I didn't feel good, Victoria shot Keta a death-glare and muttered, "It's 'cause you touch dem thing." I swear Victoria mutters everything.

Things came to a head last Friday, when I'd had Keta for almost a week. Victoria approached me when it was just the two of us at home and spoke to me at length, telling me how she loved me like a sister and didn't think of me as someone who was simply living at her house. But she hated the dog, didn't want the dog, if she'd wanted a dog she would've bought one, etc etc. And she asked me to get rid of her.

What else could I do?

This is her house and even though the way she'd handled the situation really frustrated me, I value my relationship with Victoria more than Keta.

So I spoke to a couple friends and found a guy across the street who agreed to take her.

That same afternoon, Keta left for her new home.

I tried not to be angry with Victoria. I can actually understand why she doesn't like dogs and I respect her opinion. I tried to focus on how well Victoria takes care of me every day, and all the sacrifices she has made for me. But I was just so frustrated! You could say I got what I deserved because I brought a puppy into the house without asking. The problem is, even if I'd asked ahead of time, the same thing still would've happened: Worfa still would've said yes, I would've brought Keta home and Victoria still would've been unhappy with the situation.

Then Worfa came home and found out what had happened. In the deliberate, thoughtful way that is so characteristic of Worfa, he waited until I had eaten and was sitting at the table reading until he approached me. We ended up talking for about 45 minutes. I've never been so nervous at the beginning of a conversation, but by the end of it I respected Worfa even more than I did before- who knew that was possible.

He said we all need to be upfront with each other. He said he knows I have parents back home, but he still tries to be a good father to me in Ghana and sees me as his daughter. However that does not mean I am not obligated to do what they say if I disagree with something. He told me I have equal rights in this household, so If I'm unhappy about something they want me to do, I can just say so. He said that if I want a dog, I can have a dog. He didn't like that this had all happened without his knowledge. I told him I was worried about straining my relationship with Victoria or making her unhappy, but he assured me that she would get used to Keta and that once she was grown, it wouldn't be as much of an issue anyway.

So almost as quickly as she had left, Keta came back home.

And thankfully, everything seems to be alright with Victoria. She still shakes her head disbelievingly when she sees how much fun I have playing with Keta or how gently I carry her around. And sometimes she still mutters. But she doesn't seem to be mad.

For the first week I was able to take her to school with me. My students loved her and I was able to take care of her without neglecting my teaching. She's a little too active now though! She isn't content to stay in her basket anymore! I asked Worfa to get me a leash so I can start taking her everywhere with me again, because I feel bad leaving her in her pen for 10 or so hours everyday.

Plus, taking Keta around Aflao with me is good protection!

Instead of men asking me "White lady, what's your name? Will you marry me?" now they ask me, "Yevu, what's your puppy's name? Can I have it?"

She doesn't even have all her teeth and she's already a good guard dog!

Piece of Cake

Sunday, October 24

When I was 15, I went on a hiking trip with my Dad in the mountains in New Mexico, at a place called Philmont. About halfway through our two-week trip, as we ascended to the highest point of our trek, debilitating blisters forced me to seriously consider returning to base camp.

Now it's an unfortunate truth that I have no discipline when it comes to putting myself through physical discomfort. Like working out? Forget it. I will not run for more than 6 minutes at a time unless an angry rhinoceros or a yetti is chasing me.

Luckily, somewhere between sniffling in self-pity and blaming the world for my dilemma, I realized how much I would regret quitting. I started pounding the offending hiking boot on the ground and bellowing,
"You're not taking me off this mountain!"

This has become a legendary moment between my Dad and I, a sort of tangible proof that little by little I'm learning to stand on my own in the world.

Well anyway, the point is that I climbed a very difficult mountain today and couldn't stop thinking about that moment - though thankfully there were no blisters involved in this hike. My Keen sandals are by far the most valuable thing I brought to Ghana. Seriously, I do everything in them: run, climb, swim, think, eat, sleep.

Saturday morning, per usual, found me off on another adventure. Julia, Laura, Lula, Karina and I travelled from Aflao to Ho to Hohoe to Wli (Vlee) in order to visit the Wli Waterfalls.
We got the Waterfall Lodge where we were staying and went that same afternoon to see the lower fall, which is an easy 30 - 40 minute hike on a basically flat trail through the rainforest. Butterflies swirl in clouds around you. The air is filled with the sounds of birdcalls, trilling frogs and trickling water. The forest smells pleasantly of damp earth. And just as you reach the point where you can hear the awe-inspiring roar of the waterfall, you see...that the entire place is crawling with university students on a field trip from Accra, who have even brought an enormous sound system and are blaring hiplife music in the middle of our nature paradise...

Laura turns to me and goes, "Look, we get a nightclub and a waterfall all in one."


After about 20 minutes of trying to ignore the rowdy teenagers, we finally decided to go swimming like we'd originally planned. So Lula, Julia and I waded into the chilly water, while Laura and Karina agreed to wait for second shift so they could guard the bags. We were happily shivering about 50 feet away from the waterfall when some random boy comes up, wraps his arm around my waist and goes, "Let's go." ...Uh, sure. So we actually went under the waterfall.

The lower Wli fall has got to be nearly 100 stories tall, and I'm truly awful at estimating so don't put too much faith in that, but the point is it's nothing to be trifled with. As we got closer, the spray hit my skin so hard it hurt. By the time we were directly under the falling water, I was getting pummelled so hard I went numb. Karina, who was waiting on the bank with Laura, said she could hear me screeching madly. I don't think I was making quite as much noise as she said- although I know I was making some- but I couldn't actually hear myself. I couldn't open my eyes either. Every single sense was deadened.

For a few minutes, the entire world was the roaring white water crashing on top of us.

Emerging from the Waterfall

It was exhilirating.
And a little terrifying.
The water under the fall is not even knee deep (and, irritatingly, I still had rando holding onto me), so I wasn't overly worried about drowning, but the sheer power of the waterfall inspires a healthy amount of respect.

A huge colony of fruit bats lives on the cliff face next to the fall, and one of the first things I saw when I shook the water out of my eyes was that an enormous cloud of them had taken off and was circling over the clearing, probably disturbed by the music. Pretty cool looking.

That night I had the rare opportunity to sit and hang out with my friends. We rarely stay out past 7 in Aflao, so it was nice to be able to sit outside at the Lodge and visit without any time restrictions.
I love this group of girls. Between the 5 of us we represent 4 different countries, and only 2 of us speak English as our first language, so conversation is always interesting!
This trip in particular, we kept mishearing each other all over the place.

"I need the banana money."
"Banana monkey?"

"Where's the bug spray?"
"What butter spray?"

"My mom sent me chocolate milk in my package!"

My favorite was Laura though, who kept inexplicably saying "Cake" in places where it not only made no sense, but there wasn't any word that even sounded remotely like cake.
Like, "We climbed the cake" instead of mountain.
So now whenever one of us mispeaks or can't remember a word, the others helpfully supply, "CAKE!"

We also have the best system of loaning money. People always make us pay as a group, and you can rarely get more than 5 cedis in change, so we have to get pretty creative.
Julia owes Laura 5 from the tro-tro, but Laura owes Lula 3 from dinner, so in the end Julia owes Lula 3, but they all owe me 6 from the waterfall tickets, except I owe Karina 12 for the hotel room, so they have to partially pay her instead...
It gets pretty hilariously confusing, but we haven't made a mistake yet!

We went to the upper fall the next day, which was the hike I was referring to.
Two hours of literally crawling up the mountain. The trail was so steep I had to pull myself up using roots and tree trunks and rocks. Every 100 yards or so my muscles would start shaking so bad I had to sit down. I was also sweating so much I began to wonder where my beer gut and 3 day stubble was...The air is so humid none of it evaporates, so everyone was just dripping.
After that we had a 30 minute descent to the base of the fall, which was less physically strenuous but equally challenging in it's own way becuase you had to watch every single step. I placed each foot very deliberately to avoid tumbling head-over-heels down the same kind of treacherously steep path I'd just so painstakingly dragged myself up.
You might not believe this, but it was actually incredibly fun.
You're swaying where you stand and trying to look at the view through the black spots in your vision and every possible pore in your body is sweating and you're still having a blast.

And the waterfall was worth it.

It falls into a sort of natural basin formed by the sheer cliffs that surround it. The force of the water crashing down creates a wind that fills the basin, whipping back our soaked hair and forcing the plants into a perpetual bow.


The way back down was obviously the opposite from before- a 40 minute climb and a 90 minute descent.
We were as proud as Everest climbers when we finally reached the bottom.

I'd do it again any day!
Piece of...what's the word again? Oh yeah-

Monday, October 25, 2010

Oreo Overdose

I got THREE packages from home last week!

My mom and I had given them up for dead, but then all three arrived super late and inexplicably all at the same time.

Julia and I went Wednesday (Oct 20) to pick them up. That ended up being pretty nerve-wracking because we couldn't find a tro-tro to Ho until 2:30, which means we got to the post office with only about 10 minutes to spare before closing. The parcel guy remembered me- fondly, judging by his expression- from my first trip when I went to pick up Ryan's package a couple weeks ago. I guess most of his customers don't sing and dance while they're filling out the handling forms...Hmm. The customs guy, on the other hand, did not know what to make of me. We had to open all the packages for his inspection and he was shocked by the amount of sweets jammed into those three boxes. I grinned at him, "Don't worry, I'll have eaten all of it in two days." His eyes got huge. I laughed, "I'm just kidding!" He looks relieved. "...Five days."

If there was ever any doubt of that, there isn't now.

She sent me a Halloween box with orange Oreos, tictacs, and Snoballs (my favorite!), themed napkins and stickers, and my weight in Halloween candy. The other boxes were stuffed with Nutella (!!!!!!), more Oreos, chocolate chip cookies bites, Propel drink mix packets, Nutrigrain and Nature Valley granola bars, graham crackers, cracked pepper and olive oil triscuits, gum, mints and other small usefull things like Ziploc bags and travel-size bottles of lotion.
I was like a pirate sorting his booty!
My entire bedroom floor was covered with piles of treats, dividing them up between what I want to share with my family/neighbors, what I'm giving to my students, and what I'm squirreling away for myself.
My host mom caught sight of it and her jaw dropped (as she snitched several rolls of Smarties from my student pile, tsk tsk).

It was like Christmas, my birthday, Easter, Halloween, MLK Day and 4th of July all squashed together. I was walking on air- and Oreo packages if I didn't watch where I stepped.

Her packages are even more useful than she probably expected. Like I'm using the empty Ritz Bitz crackers container as a pencil holder. And I stacked two of the boxes (the ones now containing my neighbor and my student piles) next to my bed to use as a bedside table. Haha, I'm getting very creative the longer I stay in Ghana. I'm probably going to go home and be one of those crazy people who saves every single paperclip and used staple because "It could be useful somehow!!!"

Thursday afternoon I brought some of the chocolate chip cookie bites to school. I explained that they were from my mother in America who sent them just for them. I gave out most of the package, but then- like a true teacher- I made them answer questions to earn the rest.
So now my kids absolutely love my mom and keep asking me if she can come to Ghana. I had them draw some pictures on the board for her.

Portrait of my Mom by Grace

So Mom, these are your thank-you's from my babies in Ghana! You have no idea how many smiles your very thoughtful packages have caused. : )