Friday, January 28, 2011

Three P's In A Pod

When I first held Prince, I couldn't stop staring at his peeling skin and withered legs and the web of raised lines on his back that betrayed the presence of parasitic worms. I have never seen a baby look so thoroughly, genuinely hopeless. Not just his physical condition, but his expression. It was disturbing- eight months old and his eyes told me he didn't think there was much left worth living for. My heart ached. All I could think was, "Oh God, no. Not again. I can't lose another kid. Please God, don't let him die." I was terrified of the day I would walk into Good Shepherd and learn I had to go to another child's funeral.

But each day he got a little stronger,

cried a little less,
weighed a little more.

If you're looking for the miserable, half-starved baby that showed up in November, you won't find him at Good Shepherd.

Meet Prince 2.0 the chubby-cheeked, thunder-thighed charmer whose constant smile is already knocking the ladies dead. His transformation is nothing short of a miracle.

Literally overnight, Esther (the orphanage social worker and one of my closest friends) became the mother of triplets and I saw the toll it took on her. She was visibly exhausted, haggard. But never have any babies been more fiercely or lovingly cared for. It was textbook Esther, pouring herself out for the sake of her children.

Princess, once silent, has finally found her voice and uses it incessantly.
Mawuto- recently renamed Philip to complete the P trilogy- is starting to crawl. Well, sort of...His legs haven't quite made it into the equation yet, but he's getting there. He's mobile in any case :)

Sometimes the greateast blessings come in the smallest packages.

Me and Philip



Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Very Deep Water Please

The trick to eating extremely spicy food is DON'T STOP. The moment you finally give in to that desperately needed first sip of water, you're a goner. After that, you won't be able to go more than two bites without gasping for more. I've been known to go through more than a litre of water in a single meal for some of Victoria's more...enthusiastic dishes. But it's either deal with the fire or get totally bland food because Ghanaians don't do anything halfway.
Welcome to the teeter-totter, the land of extremes.

Something about this place seems to evoke equally extreme emotions. I've suffered homesickness so intense that I felt physically ill. I've also been so outrageously happy that I really thought I might explode, or implode, or maybe both at once.
I asked Hannah what compelled her to come back to Ghana only months after her four month volunteer placement here. Her answer was simple:
"I feel things here I don't feel back home."
Everything seems somehow sharper here. As if the layers have been stripped away right down to my nerve endings themselves.

No buffer. No coddling. Life as it is.

For me, it's been the ideal environment to experience my first true rite of passage into adulthood.
Ghana will show you what you're made of without pulling any punches.
I can't honestly say I was ready for that challenge, but I certainly sought it out. I knew right from the beginning that if I was going to postpone college and take a gap year, I was going to do it right. I guess maybe that's a big part of the reason I turned down Kentucky last minute. I just didn't seem...hard enough.

I firmly believe we rise as high as we need to in order to meet the situations we find ourselves in. If I had gone to Kentucky, it probably would've exhausted me and challenged my limits. Just like if I'd gone straight to NMU I probably would've experienced homesickness and learned a lot about what it means to grow up. But I would've handled it, so why not push the bar higher? I've seen it with volunteers a lot. All the volunteers who come when others are already here say they can't imagine if they'd had to be alone for some time. All the volunteers who came and had to be on their own for a while realized that you can endure a lot more than you think you can.

I wanted to swim in the deep end
without floaties.

Not because I thought I could, but precisely because I thought I couldn't.
I know myself, and when it comes to a lot of things, I'm a quitter. If I give myself an out, eventually I'll take it. So this time I didn't give myself an out. I bolted 6,000 miles from home as soon as it was humanly possible to a completely foreign world where I didn't know a soul. To prove what?

That if I gave myself no other choice, I'd be able to tread water for nine months.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Hermit Day

My best friend and I have two types of coping mechanisms when life becomes too much for us:
Five Scoops Days and Hermit Days.
Five Scoops Days are days that are so stressful, nothing less than five scoops of ice cream- and usually far too many episodes of Spongebob- can make it better.
Hermit Days are the days we simply get burnt out and need to crash at home alone, turn off the computer and the cell phone- and probably watch far too many episodes of Spongebob.

Well, Alex, I finally get a Hermit Day today! (No Spongebob though, Ghana can't be perfect.)

I have the house completely to myself today, an extremely rare occurence. My host parents went to Accra for the day to visit some people and none of my neighbors have discovered I'm awake yet. I have a huge pile of laundry to do, but I'm scared they'll see me if I go outside so I'm putting it off. Don't get me wrong, I love my aunties and their meerkats dearly, and I love the tight family community I have become a part of. It's just I'm NEVER alone and it drives me crazy sometimes!
I'm among the socialest of social butterflies. But then I moved to Ghana and suddenly five days out of the week became Five Scoops Days, and the need for Hermit Days significantly increased...right as the possibility for Hermit Days significantly decreased.

The initial stresses that go along with a cross-continental move- homesickness, culture shock, etc- have long faded. But teaching TAKES IT OUT OF ME.
For a long time I wondered if I was just being a wimp. I mean, really, how hard can it be to teach? I've done lots of teaching- I've worked with ESL kids and special needs kids. Alex and I were peer leaders in our church youth group for three years. I was an aid for one of my high school Spanish teachers.
Being in front of a classroom, correcting papers and coming up with lessons on the fly (sorry, Jen) are all nothing new to me.
Yet every day I leave Good Shepherd simply exhausted. My attention span is shot. My patience is shot. My people skills are...what people skills?
I wondered what was wrong with me. Why couldn't I handle it?

Then Britta came along.

Britta and Theresa are the other volunteers in Aflao currently. Theresa is an 18-year-old German girl here for 8 weeks working at the Central Aflao Hospital where Julia, Lula and Hannah worked, and living in Laura's old host family. Britta is a 19-year-old German girl. She's only in Aflao for 6 weeks, but she is by no means an Africa newbie. She's been working at an orphanage in Togo for the last 5 months, and Ghana is just her stop-off on her way to Mali for another 2 1/2 months. She's living in Lula's old host family and works at Good Shepherd with me. She's a tough cookie. Extremely nice and friendly, but not easily phased after the stuff she went through in Togo. Yet Britta is walking out of school going, "Oh my God, I had no idea it would be this hard! I'm so tired!"
YAY! I'm not crazy!
There are so many unique challenges to working here, not only in a foreign country but also in a school as poor and unorganized as Good Shepherd.
Teachers frequently just...don't show up. Leaving me (and Britta too now) in charge of several classes. Ignoring the abandoned classes isn't an option because there aren't physical divisions between the classrooms; we're all spaced out beneath the same pavilion and each class gets one side of the free-standing double-sided chalkboards. So when the other classes go wild, it's impossible to keep them from distracting my kids. And Ghanaian kids don't go wild like the American kids I've worked with. They're throwing rocks, throwing tantrums, chasing each other and screaming, etc. There are many days I have yelled myself hoarse- not because I have to scold my kids anymore, but because I'm trying to make myself heard over the roar of the other kids. These challenges seem to have increased since the start of second term because Good Shepherd lost four teachers over winter vacation, so we're in the midst of acclimating to a completely new staff in House of Norway, the pavilion where our older students (everyone older than my kids; I teach the oldest primary class) are. And our headmaster is content to use that as an excuse to disappear for entire days at a time on "business" shaped like a beer bottle.

Yet as the rest of the school is steadily falling apart, my class and I have got it together better than ever before. Where this "five scoops stress" used to come from my class, now it's coming from the rest of the classes and my students are the ones keeping me sane.

(Stephen) John, Jonathan, Mawuko

It took an entire term, but I've finally earned their respect- and with that, their obedience. We enjoy working together. We've got a groove going. I know each of my student's strengths and weaknesses, what assignments will make my class groan and what will make them cheer their signature, "Yo, yo, yo!" Likewise they know when I'm just blowing smoke and when I'm getting legitimately angry. They know they can tease me or come sit at my desk when they're done with their work as long as they stay relatively quiet. It took an entire term, but they finally know that they can come ask me questions when they don't understand the work. After I give each assignment I end with, "And if you don't understand, you should..." and I get a thundering, "ASK!!!" in response.
Oh yes, I am unbelievably proud of my babies.
We've worked incredibly hard to come as far as we have. There's been a lot of mistakes, frustration and even anger on both sides. But here we are. After a killer first term, I'm finally seeing tangible progress.
You see, I spent all of first term reinforcing material they arlready knew, primarily past tense verbs, irregular plural nouns, and carrying/borrowing in addition and subtraction. And I mean literally ALL term on this.
We spent hours chanting,
"Run" "RAN!"
"Go" "WENT!"
"See" "SAW!"
"Buy" "BOUGHT!"
"Bring" "BROUGHT!"
"Think" "THOUGHT!"
and so on.
But dammit if they don't know the difference between past and present tense now.
And they certainly didn't in September.
I'll brag a little bit more and tell you that they got exam scores 3, 4 and even 5 times higher in their final exams than they did in their mid-terms.
But none of that is a testament to my skills as a teacher. That's the most beautiful part of being a teacher: the realization that it's not really about you. My kids' hard work and motivation have taken them this far. All they needed was someone who cared enough to review the same lessons 100 times and answer the same questions 1,000 times. And that, I am proud to say, is me. As a teacher, you may function as the key, but the kids are the one turning it. And there is nothing like watching the pride and confidence that blossoms in a child when they finally master an exercise. Nothing compares. I am completely humbled by the opportunity to be part of that process.

So second term has started and now that my students finally have the foundation they need, we have begun tackling completely new material for the first time. (Currently division, patterns, and future tense.)
And my babies have happily risen to the challenge.

Wednesday I gave them an assignment to make up three patterns of their own and tell me the number of units (repititions). I got an overwhelming cry of protest. Not because they didn't want to do it. Oh no, no, no- because three wasn't enough. Slightly flustered, I changed it to six. Again, an outry: "Madam, we want ten."
And this coming from kids who on Monday didn't even know what a pattern was.
Ghanaian kids have gotten somewhat of a bad rep for not being particularly strong students. I'd like to turn that finger away from them and point it toward the developing educational system and the need for passionate teachers. My kids are eager to learn in a way I've never experienced before. They're hungry for the knowledge, and hungrier still for someone willing to feed that hunger and finally give them the affirmation they deserve.

For the first time in years, I'm asking myself if I really want to be a teacher professionally in the future. Not that there's a rush to decide by any means, it's just that I've never seriously considered doing anything else since I wanted to be a school bus driver AND a librarian when I was four, so this is unexpected for me.
But whether or not I continue teaching in the future doesn't really matter.
What matters is that I'm here for my kids now. And if I need a Hermit Day to be able to come back to them Monday will fully charged batteries, so be it.
They deserve nothing less.

Saturday, January 15, 2011


I find endless humor in the fact that my brother's name - Andy- became "Andrew" because the Ghanaians aren't familiar with the name Andy. That quickly became "Andrews", which then turned into "Brother Andrews" and finally ended up as simply "Brandrews." Hahahaha.
Thursday night Andy was sitting outside with all the extended family while I worked on some college stuff (ok, I was actually writing emails, but in theory I was doing official work). He said that Victoria and the aunties kept periodically pausing in their Ewe chatter long enough to give him a tragic look and  mournfully say, "Brandrews...Saturday!" Heartwarming that my whole family was so sad to see him go, but their rather funny exclamation turned into a running joke the last couple days.

I just dropped him off at the airport about 2 hours ago, so now I'm currently sitting in a restaraunt in Accra, whiling away the evening before I can go home to Aflao tomorrow morning.

It was surprisingly hard to leave him there at the terminal.
I mean...I'm used to being away from Andy for long periods of time. He went to college 8 hours away (NMU, baby!), and he was usually gone for most of the summers to work, so separation is nothing new.
But today after we'd said our goodbyes and hugged our hugs...I couldn't seem to make my feet move.
Which is kinda shocking. My mom will tell you that since my first day of kindergarten I've never had a problem saying goodbye... But apparently leaving is a heck of a lot different than being left. Heading to Africa was a lot easier than staying behind in Africa.

Which is not to say I'm unhappy here by any means or overly eager to go home- not the case at all.

It's just...I saw Andy become part of my family, and it's hard to let that go.
Ok, he's my older brother; he's technically been part of my family longer than I have. But I mean part of my African family, if I must make the distinction. He played Ludo with Rose and Victora (which takes a truly courageous soul, let me tell you. Those ladies are CUTTHROAT.) and had long conversations with Worfa. He learned most of the names of the 500 little Meerkats and won Donet and Christian's love by playing bottlecap soccer and cards with them. He took bucket baths, helped water our crops, complimented Victoria's cooking, learned how to kill my roommates the crazy fast spiders, pounded fufu and washed his clothes by hand. He was one of us.

Because he couldn't see Worfa and Victoria this morning, Andy sat down with them last night when we were all in the living room to thank them and say goodbye. Believe it or not, watching their interaction was one of the most powerful experiences I've had in Ghana. This might sound silly but I felt like I was watching the two halves of my life come together. The two halves of myself, really. I watched Andy struggle for the words to adequately express his gratitude and feelings for my host parents- something I've done myself many times. (He did a very admirable job at finding those words, by the way.) And I watched Worfa and Victoria humbly accept his thanks and return it a hundredfold as they sent their love and greetings to my parents and assured him that they would continue to take good (excellent!) care of me. As Worfa said,
"Send our greetings to your mom and dad. We have never met them, but we love them and thank them for sending us (me). We have made a relationship that will last forever, for the rest of our lives."
I've worried so much about how I'm going to bridge the gap between America and Africa, Michigan life and Aflao life, blood family and Ghana family, Katherine Louise and Nana Adwoa (that's me ~ the Monday-born princess!). Yet in that simple goodbye, I watched the gap be bridged.
And not just in the fact that Worfa and Victoria got a better glimpse of my roots- seeing me bantering and talking with my brother definitely brought out my inner American- and "Brandrews" got to experience my daily life and observe the ways I've changed, the Ghanaian mannerisms I've picked up.

It was more about the fact that those two halves fit together perfectly. Seamlessly.

I don't know how to properly convey the incredible relief that has brought me...

I knew Ghana would change me.
I knew Ghana would change me big time.
I never realized how much Ghana would change me.
I didn't realize until Andy came that those positive changes don't have to have negative effects when I return home.

There a million ways my experience in Africa has changed me, bettered me. But, although I am incredibly grateful for those changes- and actually came to Africa hoping be changed- I was always worried about what would happen when I returned home.
I love change; I respect it and I seek it.
That doesn't make it any less scary though.
What if I didn't get along with my friends anymore? Would there a be a wedge between us after nine months of evolving our separate ways? How would I feel when people were surprised or even upset by the changes they saw in me? I couldn't be sure how or if I'd fit back into my old life anymore.
I've spent almost half my time here obsessing over this.
You can tell me "You need to focus on being in Ghana, don't stress about coming home." "Don't think about it." "Don't waste your time worrying about what's going to happen in (insert number here) months." All of them words of wisdom, and I agree. But let's face it... it's impossible not to think about going home. I do live in the moment. I am present in Africa and focused on taking full advantage of my all too brief time here. That doesn't mean I don't imagine what going home will be like every single day. And I don't regret that fact in itself because I think anticipating my return is part of the whole mental/emotional process I need to go through. That said, I do regret spending so much time viewing that part of the whole process as such a negative thing.

For as many people as I've expressed my concerns to, no one was able to set my mind at ease as completely as Andy. Not that he had any spectacular words of wisdom or some magic solution. No, the comfort came out of the simple fact that my own brother didn't see me as a different person. I wasn't getting strange looks or the dreaded "Who are you??" reactions. Did he see changes in me? Yes, of course. Did it hurt our relationship or cause any conflict? No, of course not.
I realize that my brother and I have had a lifetime of shifting and changing and growing up together, so we're pretty used to adjusting to each other's various metamorphoses. And, since he's at a different point in his life than me and my peers, he's probably changed less himself than my friends will have.

But that's not the point.

The point is that I'd always assumed that because so many of these changes have gone straight to my core, they had altered my core. Well Andy inadvertantly made me realize that none of the changes I recognize in myself- I am more patient, more confident and independent, I have a fuller perspective and even higher ambitions- have changed my original content. All those character traits existed before, Ghana has just helped develop them further.
Of course some of the changes in me might make people do a double-take. I have a tendency to hiss at people when I want their attention and I can't tolerate weather colder than 60 degrees and I always try to snap after I shake someone's hand. I can sleep through anything (this is truly miraculous, I used to wake up if someone sneezed three houses away) and drink half a liter of water in under 30 seconds. But unless my friends are offended by being called "yevus," I don't foresee any of that having any negative effects :)

I am finally able to view my eventual return home as something positive, rather than something to be dreaded.

It will truly break my heart to leave. I didn't know it was possible to love a place as deeply as I love Ghana, and, despite having a million other places I'm dying to go, I sincerely hope I will make many return journeys in the future. But I'm excited to go home at the same time. There are so many people I miss very, very much and a lot of aspects of American life that I look forward to.
Everything in its time, right?

This peace about going home is the greatest gift my brother's visit to Ghana ever could have brought me. Thanks for the new perspective, Brandrews.

Friday, January 14, 2011


Ghana's seasons consist of rainy season, dry season and Harmattan.

All I knew is that Harmattan is when winds from the north carry sand from the Sahara. It lasts about a month and makes the mornings chilly (by Ghanaian standards) and overcast. That much didn't sound too bad to me considering temperatures have been steadily climbing since the rainy season ended around the beginning of November and we routinely have 90 degree weather by mid-morning. But then Worfa told me that sometimes the air is so thick with dust, you can hardly see someone coming in the gate if you're sitting outside the front door. (I wanted to tell him, "Worfa, this is Aflao. It's always so dusty that you can hardly see anything." but I refrained. America's dustbowl ain't got nothin' on Aflao.) I've also heard over and over that the constant rubbing from the sand makes your lips and skin chapped and cracked. I got the impression that Harmattan is basically the Ghanaian Apocalypse, and I've been warily awaiting its arrival.

It snuck in while we were in Egypt.

We got back to Accra and the whole world was foggy. Except unlike fog, which only covers a relatively small area, the gray haze lasted all 185 kilometers from Accra to Aflao.

Andy and I looked at each other and said, "I think it's finally Hammertime."

I expected strong, abrasive winds that would turn everything (even more) brown. Instead it looks like Ghana has fallen into a dream. The sky is a flat, pearly gray and objects near the horizon are shrouded in mist. The ocean in particular looks very strange; several hundred feet off the shore it's as if it simply disappears. The commercial fishing boats that have become such familiar sights to me where they sit anchored off the harbor at Lome have vanished. It's perpetual pre twilight - not the point where it's actually getting noticeably dark, the point right before that where everything starts to look flat and a little strange. If Ghana didn't feel removed from the "real world" before, it certainly does now...

"What's it called again? Hammertime?"
"It's Harmattan."
"For some reason I can never remember that word."

Happy New Year!

Around 8 o'clock on New Year's Eve, the evening of our first full day in Egypt and the day before our tour officially started, the front desk rings up informing Andy and I that we are invited to a complimentary dinner at 10. So we troop downstairs two hours later, still in clothes rumpled from travelling to Alexandria during the day, to check it out...

And wouldn't you know we were greeted by a tuxedoed waiter who checked our name off a list and ushered us into an extravagantly decorated dining room.

Our tour group, Trafalgar, failed to tell us that they had made us reservations at the big New Year's Eve bash the hotel threw. They likewise failed to tell us that it was a formal event and that everyone else was dressed in suits and evening gowns...Did I mention that I had spilled some yogurt on my cardigan at breakfast, forgotten about it and wore it again? New rule: Don't wear breakfast to dinner.

So all the people look so elegant and ritzy and the waiters are at their shmooziest and the room is full of weird shellfish appetizers and fruits and vegetables that are carved into birds and fish and flowers and whanot. And let me tell you, this is exactly the kind of event YOU CAN NOT BRING ME TO. I can barely walk a straight line on a flat surface without falling flat on my face and probably taking half the wait staff out with me. And I cannot for the life of me figure out how to get all the little fancy shmancy finger foods from the platter onto my plate with the big spoons they provide because, for goodness sakes, it's called finger food for a reason, it's not designed to stay on a spoon! But, to my credit, it was NOT me who collapsed the pyramid of oranges... It was just me who stood there dumbly with one hand hovering uselessly instead of actually helping the poor guy catch them. Woops.
So the waiter leads me and Andy to a cozy little table-for-two with our name on it...Well, incidentally Trafalgar's motto is "Rediscover the Romance of Travel" and since as siblings Andy and I have the same last name, people generally assumed we were married. We took one look at this table and both lost it. Between all the gaudy decorations and overdressed guests it was like being at Prom. When I could finally stop laughing long enough to speak, I told Andy, "Well I'm pretty sure no one else is on a date with their brother tonight..."

The night ended up being fantastic. We drank red wine (I'm not a big fan, but I felt very sophisticated) and ate the weird little appetizers (felt more confused than sophisticated) while we watched a belly dancing show. The dancer counted down to midnight in Arabic and everyone went wild. I've never been in a group larger than 5 people for New Year's Eve, so it was fun to be part of the melee.

I'm so excited for all the things 2011 will bring- the remainder of my time in Ghana, my reunion with all my family and friends, my first semester at NMU.

But even without all that to look forward to, I'm pretty sure New Year's Eve in Cairo is something I'd never forget!

Cape Coast And, More Importantly, Karina

The last couple weeks have flown by, yet feel like an eternity. Andy and I arrived home from our two week Cape Coast-Egypt trip Tuesday night. There's no word that accurately describes that warm feeling in the pit of your stomach when you come home after being gone for a while and everyone is so excited to see you. My host parents and I rarely hug, but I got big hugs from both of them as soon as they saw me. The four of us (my brother included) just sort of stood around laughing and smiling at one another goofily for a couple minutes and periodically exclaiming, "I missed you!" I hoped for a good relationship with my host family, but I never expected to bond with them as much as I have. It's been one of the many unexpected blessings of life in Ghana.

First of all, my ankle was indeed healed in time for the trip. It was still swollen when we left on the 27th, but it didn't hurt anymore and the swelling went down by the morning of the 29th. I've made a full recovery and I have Andy threatening to wallop me every time I start scratching my new collection of mosquito bites.

So, Cape Coast is a decently large city several hours west of Accra. It's largely a resort town, full of gaping tourists and volunteers who need to recharge their batteries. Aside from good souvenir shopping and legitimate pizza (HEY-O!), Cape Coast's main attractions are Kakum National Park and Elmina.

Kakum is a huge chunk of gorgeous rainforest which boasts one of the only 4 canopy walks (of that type?? I'm not sure what the exact qualification for that statistic was) in the world. It's a series of 7 wood and rope suspension buildings with tree platforms in between, hanging 40 meters above the forest floor.
In other words, it's AMAZING.

As I crossed the bridges, I forced myself to look around- up, to the sides and even down. I don't have a particular fear of heights, but swaying that high above the tops of the other trees was...let's say, thrilling. The rainforest stretched as far as you could see in every direction. There's something so majestic about the forest. The fluidity of the canopy is broken periodically by giant trees that soar nearly twice as high as the majority of the others. Staring at those king trees made me forget my nervousness. Just think how old they must be! All the things they've seen!


Elmina was as grim as Kakum was peaceful. 

Elmina is the oldest and largest castle in sub-Saharan Africa, devouring slaves 1,000 at a time.
At one point our tour guide ushered the whole group into a fairly large, ventilated cell with a grid of iron bars by way of a door. He shut it behind us and spoke to us through the bars, explaining that this was the cell they threw the soldiers in for a couple hours if they went into town without permission, got drunk and came back to rape the female slaves.

Then he herded us into a second cell, this one cramped and dark. An eerie carved skull and crossbones leered above the thick wooden door. Again the guide closed us inside and spoke to us through a small slit near the bottom of the door. This was the cell the male slaves were put into if they tried to rebel. They were left in there until they succumbed to the heat and lack of water.

And not a hundred yards away from that death cell is the site of the first Catholic church in Africa.

There are some things I will never understand. Not the least of which is how the missionaries could live with themselves knowing that their residence was one floor directly above the slave dungeon.

Cape Coast was my last hurrah with Karina, who went home on January 8th. Who ever would have guessed that some random yevu I met in front of Ecobank would become one of my closest friends here.

She motivated me to be a better a teacher simply by being a fantastic teacher herself. She encouraged her kids to be confident, coaching them in public speaking and giving class presentations. She encouraged them to be more creative and original (Ghanaian students have this tendency to copy everything, still puzzling that one) by having them design advertisements. As an amateur actress herself, Karina taught her students basic acting techniques and how to develop a storyline so that they could write and perform short dramas on parents' night.
And this is a woman who isn't even studying to become a teacher. Yet she still threw everything she had into giving her students the life and academic skills they so desperately need.

Opinionated, intelligent, hilarious and far more stubborn than me- Karina in a nutshell.

Despite vastly different personalities and life experiences, Karina and I got along famously. I already feel the hole she's left behind since returning to Denmark.

Two new volunteers have already moved in to Aflao - short-termers, just 6 and 8 weeks - so I'm not even the only yevu. Plus I've finally accumulated a group of genuine Ghanaian friends, which takes significantly more effort and discernment than befriending other volunteers. Still, I'm tryng not to miss her and Julia too much.

I've said it before and I'll say it again - Summer 2012, my friends!

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Happy Halfway Day

(This should have been posted yesterday, but my internet service crapped out on me. Thank you, Vodafone.)

I got a text from my mom as I was walking out the door today:

Today marks left 19 weeks ago today, you come home 19 weeks from today!!
Happy Halfway Day!! xoxo

I stopped dead in my tracks.
Halfway done? Not possible...

When I talked to my dad later I expressed my skepticism but my mom has been - as he put it - "wearing holes in the calendar" counting the days, so I guess it must be true. I don't know how it can be true, but it is.

Time has a strange, dreamlike quality here. It stands still.
I watch the dates change day after day. Occasionally the name of the month I have to write on the blackboard changes. But that doesn't mean anything to me. Maybe it's because the seasons here are not the ones I'm used to using to mark the passage of time. Maybe it's because I simply can't believe that I really, truly did it: I moved to Africa fresh out of high school for a gap year.
What an appropriate name, gap year.
I used to hate that term because I saw it as implying a wasted year. But now it simply seems like a year out of time. Like I will come home in May and it will still be the summer after senior year, I just took a little vacation. I'm starting to understand how Rip Van Winkle must have felt; I'll land in Michigan in May and realize that time stood still for me while it ran for the rest of the world.
In many ways, my stalled perception of time has worked in my favor. I don't feel homesick very often because I don't feel as if I've been gone more than a month. I'm not sad that I'm missing a year of holidays because it doesn't feel like I've missed them. For me it's still August- I'm in my ninth month of summer, baby!
In other ways, I can see how it will likewise cause some problems. It will be hard not to expect everything and everyone to be the same as the way I left them, but whatever my perception almost a whole year will have passed.

Still...halfway done....
Not possible.

If I could actually process that fact, I don't think I'd know how to feel about it.
I mean, there are more days than I like to admit where I wonder just how far Ghana can wear me down before I completely lose it. The girl with a near phobia of lice has had to hand-pick literally dozens upon dozens of them off the puppy she so foolishly bought. Some days, school is spelled "D-R-E-A-D." Ever since Nyamekye died, I've been convinced I will have to experience another child's death. At times I would sell my college fund for some Qdoba and a season of "Gilmore Girls" on DVD.
And then there are the days where I don't think I'll be able to leave. Days like yesterday when Andy and I came home from our two-week trip to Cape Coast/Egypt and my reunion with my host parents gave me that warm, fuzzy feeling all the way down to my toes. Days like the day my student Grace wrote me a scribbled little note telling me that she loved me and wants to be my friend forever. Days like the day I left VARAS and had the amazing revelation that I'm starting to learn how to be an adult, little by little.
To go home, I have to leave home.
I suppose the key is just to accept every phase of my life in its time. Much easier said than done of course.

I'm already only halfway done.
The past four and a half months aren't something I can easily sum up or draw conclusions on; too much joy and pain and frustration and wonder for me to define as either black or white or even a shade of gray.
And I can guarantee the next four and a half months will be the same.
So bring it on, Ghana!

Halfway done...
Not possible.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

An African Education

Hey, its me. Just not the me you expected.
After a month of being here in Africa, Katherine decided I should make a contribution to the ol' blog, so here I am.

Has it really been a month already? It is hard to believe as I am both sad to go and excited to get home. Certainly my time here has been well spent, of that I am certain. It has been a wonderful blend of copious travelling and an authentic home life. I have really gotten a taste and a feel of what West Africa and Arab Africa are like.

One of the more defining elements of my experience here is the growth I see in my sister. It is wonderful to see how confident and independent she is and how much she has matured since the last time I saw her in August. She did after all travel four hours cross country by herself just to pick me from the airport on my first day here. It has been especially neat watching her converse in Ewe; far more than I expected.

Of course she has taken much pleasure in the fact that she is the one with the knowledge to share and I have tried to be a eager student. Largely because of her efforts I can now draw water from the well in the dark, launder my clothes by hand, catch a tro-tro anywhere I need to go and even feed a Mona monkey while still retaining all of my digits.

Our recent trip to Egypt was hands down the neatest travelling we have done. Being in Ghana for nearly three weeks prior to going provided a unique comparative experience that coming straight from America would not have afforded. Where our travel companions saw pollution and maniacal drivers, Katherine and I took deep breaths and snoozed in the car. I am sure Katherine will elaborate more but the simple and seemingly universal fact that Egyptians do not consider themselves as Africans is an intriguing dichotomy with implications I am sure I do not even begin to understand.

The Egyptian sights were second to none and while I feel my pictures can't tell the whole story, I know my words cannot. All I can say is that if you ever get the chance to come, do it! The Great Pyramid at Giza, the Valley of the Kings and the Karnak Temple are all must see destinations.

It is quite difficult to sum up my time here in Africa and the blinking cursor is not helping to extract any more valuable tidbits. For myself I mostly just hope that I can keep things together in my head for a long time to come. I firmly believe that you really are the sum of your experiences (and how you process them) and thus in no small way, Africa is a part of me and for that I very thankful.

Now back to your regularly scheduled programming.

Brother Andrews (Brandrews) signing out.

New Address

I have had numerous requests for my new address and here it is, folks!
Thanks to everyone who has worked so hard to stay in touch with me across 5 hours and 6,000 miles.

Katherine Niemann c/o Livingstone Gomashie
PO Box 470, Viepe-Aflao
Volta Region
Ghana, West Africa