Monday, July 22, 2013


There comes a time in every girl's life when she has to decide whether lifting the lid of the outhouse toilet and seeing a small cockroach hanging out on the seat is a good enough reason to hold it, or should merely be accepted as a matter of course.

Ok, well, maybe not every girl's life, but that time has come and gone in this girl's life at least. I'm proud to say that I've been in Africa long enough to accept such things as a matter of course. (For all of you secretly wondering, I did move it before I sat down though.) My paranoia about finding creepy crawlies in my room/bed/etc. is quite low and my tolerance for actually finding them in those places is quite admirable. I am not some silly, squeamish tourist, thank you very much.

I sit down at the table in my room to do some more foundation work and keep hearing a rustling sound, which I assume is coming from outside. (Let me emphasis this: the movements of the unidentified marauder were loud enough to hear.) Then I glance down at my feet and catch a glimpse of movement. Up go the feet for safety, down goes the head for inspection.

Then I see it: I've met rottweilers that would be intimidated by this cockroach.

I'll admit it- I screamed. From the living room, Victoria shouts "What? WHAT??"
"BAGBLAJAAAAAA!" I scream back, launching myself across the room. (Victoria spends the next half hour in a helpless fit of delighted giggles because I answered her in Ewe.)

Worfa, Victoria and Christian come bursting in just in time for the beast to climb up the wall, on to the table and take a flying leap. I start shrieking at a frequency only dolphins can hear. It lands on my computer- not on me, like I'd expected, but this is just adding insult to injury now.

Worfa approaches, ready to kill. It crawls to the edge of the table and launches itself into the air. I dive behind Worfa, in full panic mode now. "I'm under attack!!!" I howl. Victoria is laughing hysterically by this point, and at the same time trying to apologize. For the cockroach's presence or his actions, I'm not sure which.

The fiend lands on the floor and starts making a mad dash for my bed- my BED of all places- and I am still screaming and trying to get as far away as possible and have my hands pulled up to my chest like little T-Rex arms.

 Worfa finally crushes it with his bare foot, picks it up by one leg with his bare hand and marches it outside. Danger over, I start to feel just a little bit foolish for reacting that way to a creature that doesn't bite, sting, or transmit diseases, and suddenly looks about the size of a large matchbox rather than a large dog.

Perhaps I need to spend a little more time in Africa after all.

Sunday, July 21, 2013


Karina and I took five of the kids to Denu beach yesterday. I wanted to do something special for Sonia's recent 13th birthday, and give the boys a break. Kids work HARD in Ghana. Christian, Sampson and Sylvanus (approximately 13, 10 and 9 respectively)- the three nephews that live with us- help wash clothes and dishes, prepare food, run errands, sweep the compound, etc. When they're not helping out, they're expected to stay quiet and out of the way, but on hand for when they're needed. I'm not trying to suggest that the boys are mistreated in any way. They have clothing, food, shelter and a safe home where they are treated kindly. The tough expectations put on children are part of Ghanaian culture and part of living in a place without many of the modern conveniences we Americans are generally used to. Still, I thought they deserved an afternoon off.

At the appointed time, Karina and I emerged from our Constitution-writing huddle in my room to find five children (our neighbor Felix joined us too) dressed in their Sunday best and ready to go. Hesitantly, I went up to Worfa and tried to explain, "You know, they don't have to dress up. I want them to be able to run and play in the water..." So they were sent back to put on shorts under their stiff, swanky blue jeans. Getting them to ditch the jeans completely was probably a little much to expect, and the kids probably enjoyed the chance to dress up anyway.

Sampson and Sylva in their Sunday best
We arrived at the beach and set up camp...and then they just stood there. Five kids, dressed to the nines, trying desperately to figure out how to behave in this situation. For many parents in Ghana, something as simple as taking their children to play at the beach is not a realistic option. The kids in Awakorme are very comfortable with me; they know I am a playmate and a pushover and don't generally mind being poked or prodded or climbed on. But suddenly these five were trying very hard to act grown up and well-mannered for me in public. As if I could ever be ashamed of them.


Karina and I realized we needed to set an example, so we took off whooping and hollering towards the water and made a big show of kicking our feet in the surf.

The kids crept closer.

Another wave came and Karina and I pranced around ankle-deep in the water, motioning for them to join us.

With a lot of encouragement, they shed their fancy clothes slowly to reveal shorts and undershirts.

At first they wouldn't even come close enough to actually let the waves touch their toes.

Then they got brave enough to join us and dunk their feet.

I swear you could see their uncertainty cracking off of them in pieces like a visible shell. Slowly, laughter started breaking out. Then Felix darted out farther and got caught in a wave up to his knees. Then Sampson had the bright idea of throwing Sonia on the ground right as a wave came so that she got completely soaked. Then Christian figured out he could dive right as a wave came and belly surf for a couple of feet. Then all hell broke loose.

Just as I'd hoped it would. 

Digging for crabs
Karina and I relaxed nearby like watchful parents while the kids spent the next couple hours playing, splashing, digging and chasing crabs. They were soaked and covered in sand head-to-toe by the time we left the beach. Those five, quiet, well-groomed kids I showed up with?
                                                                                          No where to be found.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Share the Story

Yesterday was a long day for me. I left the house at 7:00 a.m. and spent the next four hours going all over Aflao to visit other private schools in our area. I'm collecting salary and tuition information from these schools so we can determine if SISCO is indeed charging a lower rate for students while paying a higher wage for teachers in comparison.

I heard the same stories over and over:
"The parents aren't educated. We have to fight to get them to understand its importance."
"The parents don't think school matters."
"I used to go to private school, but the fees were too high."
"The children don't come because their families can't pay."
"Only about 40% of our students actually pay the school fees."
"We charge as little as possible, but how else can we pay our teachers?"
"Change is slow."

Some of the headmasters talked to me readily and shared their own struggles, some of them eyed me suspiciously and hesitated to give me the information.
But out of nine schools, not one refused to help.
The truth is, as I made my pitch to them and they responded, we were all telling pieces of the same story. To different degrees and with different approaches, we are all fighting for the same outcome.
Often, that is inspiring. One headmaster outlined his vision for his school to me before I'd told him anything about SISCO. He wants to keep school fees as low as possible so all children will have the chance for an education. He's trying to help the parents understand why even the smallest of fees is worth the often large sacrifice they represent. He's struggling with the careful balancing act of trying to pay his teachers a living wage despite collecting barely any income. ...Sound familiar? This same headmaster then took me to the next six schools on his motorbike, which is the primary reason my morning was as successful as it was in the first place.
Sometimes, though, it is frustrating to see other schools take a radically different approach to solving the education deficits in Ghana, compared to how SISCO has chosen to operate. At one school I visited, the sound of the cane swishing through the air and smacking against human flesh didn't stop once in the ten or so minutes I was there. Not once. Sitting through that brief meeting and attempting to listen to the headmistress with a calm expression took strength I wasn't sure I had. Every muscle in my body was tense. That ugly sound was all I could hear. But I am playing a delicate game of diplomacy, and I cannot walk into a stranger's school and tell them how to run it if I want to maintain SISCO's positive reputation in the Aflao community.

So why the sudden need to find some cold, hard, factual evidence about SISCO's rates?

Well, that's another piece of the story.

Wednesday night Worfa and I decided to begin the process of creating and registering a non-profit organization in Ghana based on our work at SISCO.
I never intended to start a non-profit; that wasn't the plan even once SISCO and its scholarship program were born. I never wanted to start one either. And I will be the first to admit that I am not qualified for the job. I wanted to register SISCO through an existing organization, thus lifting the burden off my shoulders... instead I find myself undertaking a lengthy and complicated process I know- well, knew- nothing about.

Wednesday night I didn't know the difference between a Board of Directors and an Advisory Council. I didn't know which departments of the Ghanaian government oversee the creation of NGO's. I didn't know anything about writing a Constitution, or a Vision and Mission. Two and a half days later, I can tell you all those things. And what's more, our hopeful foundation has the seeds of all those things.

Students of Success Foundation is on its way to legally existing at a speed as fast as humanly possible. Meaning I have eaten, slept and breathed this process since the moment I made the decision to do it. I have never spent ten...twelve...eighteen hours a day on a single project before. Nothing was ever quite that important (or pressed for time!). So why am I doing it now? Much less for something I neither wanted nor intended to do period. Well... Karina tells me I'm too afraid to take credit for things. And although I can't rightfully take credit for all of the lightning-quick progress we've made since Wednesday- Karina herself is responsible for a large chunk of it- I will take credit for this: When it became clear that starting our own non-profit was our best (and essentially only) option, I stepped up because it was asked of me.
I will do whatever is needed to make sure our story gets its happy ending.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Fight or Flight?

Today and yesterday have been incredibly stressful.
For a long time now, my Dad and I have been working with an online fundraising platform to find a nonprofit partner for SISCO, so that we can be registered with an official nonprofit and have a tax-deductible, legally recognized, online way to fundraise and continue our support of the school. With the recent financial ban on West Africa, our former way of continuing the scholarship is no longer an option anyway, and the situation has become more complicated. I was supposed to get into contact with two men involved with the organization while I was here, to go through this registration process with Worfa in person, but both numbers ended up being dead ends. This process that I understand so little about had ground to a halt yet again. And I went into a downward spiral of frustration that ended with me laying on the floor of our living room crying. If that sounds like a three-year-old's tantrum, just ignore the similarity. It was a perfectly rational adult reaction to discouragement.

You see, nothing can make you feel quite so crushingly small as trying to take on the problems of the world. Too often I focus on trying to do it all, instead of focusing on doing what I can. There's no quicker way to feel beaten down. I have always believed that there is a reason I came to Aflao and the Gomashie home instead of someone else, but I question whether I am the right person for this job nearly constantly. I don't have the benefit of age or experience or special skills. I come with nothing except a whole lot of love for the people in my African community. I wish that were enough, but what good is a bleeding heart without the strength and practicality and resources to support it? The responsibility I feel towards this school and its students seems overwhelming. The obvious solution is to get SISCO registered as part of the nonprofit so I can just do the fun part- fundraising!- without worrying about trying to manage everything directly. But when this process has been so frustratingly slow, even the solution to my problem seems too problematic, and it takes everything in me not to go into full-out avoidance mode. How many times have I wanted to shake my fist at the universe and say, "I am just a college student! Find someone better qualified!"

I was in such a funk yesterday and the better part of today that even being at the school and witnessing everything that we (and this is a grand 'we' that includes hundreds of people, including many of you reading this right now) have accomplished so far was only more discouraging. The decisions that Worfa, the nonprofit organization, and myself make will affect nearly a dozen jobs, and several hundred kids' educations. Thoughts kept racing around my head, "What if it all falls apart? What if we can't give these kids everything we've hoped to? Everything they deserve? What if the partner doesn't work out? What if we wait too long and by the time I go home, the ban prevents me from doing anything with SISCO's money? What if we use that money now when we should have waited??" What if...what if...what if... It's one of the most magical phrases in the world, but it has a dark side.

It took a lot of desperate praying and some quiet time with my loved ones to clear my head and bring back some of the stubbornness I typically have in spades. "Ok," I told myself, "It's time to fight. The living room floor will always be here when you get back."
A half dozen emails and phone calls later- and with the help of a Dad in shining armor- I have a phone appointment with our prospective partner tomorrow, a meeting with a trusted mentor who is the headmaster of a successful school on Friday, plans to get estimates for some potential projects...and a little bit of hope back in the reserves.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

A Mama's Heart

I asked my mom to share a little bit of her perspective. Her involvement with my trips to Ghana has matched my own on multiple levels, and I know so few parents who would support me as fully as she has from the first moment I told her I didn't think Kentucky was the place for me. Enjoy!

What do you do when your 18-year-old daughter tells you that she is applying for a position in Africa and leaving at the end of the summer? You sew a sleep sack, apply for a travel visa, buy vitamins, take lots of pictures during the last week she’s home, drive her to the airport and then wave good-bye. That’s what I did anyway. Ok, I did a lot more than that, but seriously- when it comes to Katherine, the best thing anyone can do is just to get out of her way. She’ll find a way to go over, around, or through if necessary to accomplish her goal and I knew from the time she was a very young girl that one day she would live in Africa. It was just happening much sooner than I 'd expected. I thought I’d have at least four more years to prepare, but Africa was calling and Katherine was answering. 
As I am writing this, Katherine is once again in Africa – the home she loves so dearly – but this time she is three years older, wiser, and away for a much shorter period of time.  In some ways, this trip is much easier because I have a better idea what to expect, but it is in no way easier on this mama’s heart. She is so far away and there is virtually nothing I can do if she calls to tell me her luggage didn’t show up, or that she’s stranded in a strange city, or that every man she passes wants to marry her, or the ATM machine ate her money card or sadly, that one of her students has died. So while my heart aches, all I can do is cry with her over the international phone lines.
It was a lot of work to get her ready to go when she left three years ago. I spent hours on the computer googling everything I could think of from necessary vitamins & over-the-counter medications, clothes to pack, required vaccinations, how she would get money, as well as permethrin.  Don’t forget the permethrin! I soaked and sprayed her sleep sack and clothes in permethrin insecticide to ward off mosquitoes.  I prayed that the chances of keeping her from getting malaria were much higher than the chances of her growing an extra arm or leg. 
This time the research was much easier. I only had to find out how she would get money because Ghana has been placed on the financial watch list since the time Katherine lived there. That meant the Visa travel money card from AAA she used the last time would not work. Katherine’s travel visa and mandatory Yellow Fever vaccination are still good, so I didn’t have any international calls, emails or mailings to make. She also had her own idea about what clothes she would wear and medications she’d bring, so it cut down on my shopping trips too.
I once read that when a woman becomes a mother, she spends the rest of her life with her heart walking around outside her body. Little did I know how true a statement that would be in my life. Right now my heart is walking around Africa…..beating strong to the rhythm of the Ghanaian people, while my body is thousands of miles away.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Back To The Orphanage

Yesterday I went to visit the Baptist school and orphanage where I was a teacher. To be honest, I was more nervous than excited. Especially after the news about Constance, I was a little scared to find out what has happened to my students over the last two years. And a corner of my mind couldn't stop worrying that they wouldn't remember me, or maybe just wouldn't care.

Two of my former pupils appeared before I'd even made it into the compound. The shorter of the two girls was staring at me with these huge eyes as I walked up. Her mouth popped open, but she didn't seem to be able to make a sound. "Grace?" I asked incredulously. One of my brightest students, she's grown up a lot since I last saw her. "Katherine!" She yelled. Next to her, Jackline, my deaf student, started clapping. I will never forget the look on Grace's face. Like she couldn't believe I was actually standing there. 
I went inside and the energy skyrocketed. However, there was a new restraint in my kids' behavior. They're young teenagers now and they seemed to be aware that they couldn't mob me and start screaming like they might have done two years ago. But there's no doubt that they were thrilled.
One reaction touched me in particular: Mawuko was one of my troublemakers. He was an oversized boy when I first met him, too tall and gangly for his own good. He was constantly cracking jokes and causing distractions, but he was so damn funny about it. There's always been a heart of gold under that joker's smile, and he knew he could get away with anything. Now he's even taller- if that's possible- but he's got the new grace of a young man now. He jumped to his feet when he saw me, but I could see the self-restraint kick in and he simply nodded respectfully and said, "Madame."

Richard, another of my strongest students, has been adopted to America. Others, like Peter & Paul and Edem, have moved to other schools. The orphanage is booming with babies, but Esther and I's three little P's have also gone to families in the US. Only Mr. Quarshie and the nursery teacher are left from my days there. Can't say I'm sorry to see the other staff members go. I met the new headmaster, Joseph. I can't be sure what kind of man he is, but he's got to be better than someone who would pride himself on the nickname Saddam Hussein, right?

The growth in all of my remaining students is astounding. Wonder... Jonathon... Eliezar... Emmanuel... Gabriel... Constancia...Victoria... Francis... Constant... They are taller, calmer, more sure of themselves. Gabriel's jawline has decided to make an appearance; his face looks so different I could hardly believe it was actually him. Stage 2 & 3 when I taught them, they are now Stage 5 & 6. I taught a brief math lesson out of their textbook at their insistence and I was blown away by how far they've come in their education. Even better, they started quoting things I had taught them. They made me sing "One Dark Night," a camp song we would sing as a reward when they were good. They started chanting, "Buy-bought, see-saw, go-went..." I spent hours upon hours drilling them about the past tense. I don't want to sound hokey, but it brought tears to my eyes. I won't pretend that I had the strength to give 100% every day I was there, but I worked hard for those kids. I cared about them and struggled to give them the education they weren't going to get otherwise, but it felt like chipping at the tip of an iceburg...with a Q-tip. But here they are, more mature and still working as hard as ever. And the things I did made a difference. All those times I was frustrated and homesick and angry with my own shortcomings seem validated; they were actually worth something. I can't adequately describe the feeling of that realization. I have never been more proud of anyone than I am of them. They make me feel truly honored that I was their teacher for a little while.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

In Loving Memory of Constance Akapo

In the middle of all the joy of being with my friends and family again, I received the news that one of my little Meerkats passed away sometime in the last two years.

His name was Constance Akapo.
He was about two or three years old when I first came to Ghana. He was Abla's son, the middle child between Gracious and Lucky. Worfa and Victoria explained his death simply by saying, "Sickness." Here, that usually means malaria, although it's really anybody's guess.
It'd be impossible to pick a favorite, but of my Meerkats, he was one of the most precious to me. He was quiet, almost shy, but could get wound up just like any little boy. He was the biggest fan of "This little piggy" of any little kid I've ever met. He would come up to me and announce, "Weeweewee...home" and plop down on my lap, content to stay there for as long as I was willing to repeat it, offering me one foot and then the other and then even his hands if it would keep the game going longer.
Ghana is not an easy place to grieve. I rarely have anything resembling privacy, and open displays of sadness are among the least accepted emotions. Sometimes I will catch sight of little boys about his age running up to me in the dim light and think they are him for a split second, and I feel the loss all over again. Finding out that another kid I love is gone has not gotten any easier with repition. Many Ghanaians seem to accept death as a matter of course, at least externally. I don't feel that calm acceptance on any level, inwardly least of all. I am angry that Constance will never get the chance to grow up, to learn and to experience life. I am sad that I've been cheated of the chance to see him again, that I didn't know that I was saying goodbye for the last time. My heart aches for Abla. And I'm struggling with the fact that I am forced to grieve alone. So, please, do something for me: take a moment for this little boy. I know you never met him, but he meant the world to me and I will never forget him. Since you cannot be here with me, please take a moment to be here for me.

The Big Man With The Computer

When I gave Worfa my old netbook, he was thrilled- even as he tried to open it upside down and backwards at first. (His computer lessons will begin shortly.) Beaming, he said, "I'm a big man now!"

This is the man gave up going to the university to pay for his brother's tuition instead. The man who fought for his wife's acceptance into his family despite the heavy stigma of being cihldless in this culture. The man who dreamed of creating a school for the children who need it most, and made that dream a reality. It doesn't take exagerration to see that Worfa is someone who stands larger than life.

I told him, "Worfa, you were always a big man. Now you're just a big man with a computer." He grinned hesitantly, looked at the computer and just nodded.

The morning after I arrived in Aflao, I went with Worfa and Victoria to see SISCO at its new location. They found a plot of land here in Awakorme, easy walking distance from the house, with good cinderblock walls and enough space for the kids to run around during breaks.
I can't believe how much the school has grown.

It started as a dream. Just Worfa sitting down with Andy and I and saying, "I have an idea..." Now I look at this school full of children running around and playing and doing their lessons, and I can't even wrap my head around the fact that this is something we started. This is the same school that we opened a month before I left, proud of our thirty-some students in their three tiny classrooms. Now we have more students than that just on scholarship alone.

The school employs about half a dozen teachers, incuding three other members of the Gomashie family. Victoria cooks for the students, Worfa's nephew Prosper teachers stages P2 and P3 (the same stages I taught!), and his brother Robert is also a teacher. My mind isn't made up about two of the women yet, but I like the older woman who teaches the play group and the French teacher is absolutely fantastic from what I've seen so far.
Six of my Meerkats are in school there- Christian, Sonia, Daniel, Xorlali, Gracious and Lucky. The best part of being here has been seeing how they've grown. Christian and Sonia- both approximately 13 now- have matured SO much, and their English is much, much better than it was two years ago. Lucky was only about two years old when I left, and it's fun to see her coming into her personality now that she's a bit older. Of course, she's just as outrageously outgoing and devious as ever, but some things shouldn't change.
I have two new Meerkats too: Gracious and Lucky's mother, Abla, had a daughter named Blessing, who seems to be about a year old now. And Sonia and Daniel's mother, Rose, had a baby girl named Catherine two months after I left. Sonia thinks it's great that every time she calls "Catherine!", she gets both me and her little sister running.
All of these kids are the reason I was so willing to commit to being a part of this school in the first place. I wanted them to have a chance at a better life. The senior class (the oldest class at SISCO), which includes Christian and Sonia, will take their exams before too long. Their scores will determine if they have a shot at going to a J.S.S. school to continue their education.
I, for one, am rooting for them. They've come so far already.


Being in Ghana for a week without actually going to Aflao or seeing any of my friends and family convinced me beyond a doubt that they are the only real reason I have come back.
The reason I have missed this place so fiercely.
The reason my longing to be in Africa never lessened with time, and only grew stronger.
Yes, I like Ghana as a country. I think it is a beautiful, fascinating, amazing place. But without the people I love, it is just one of many beautiful, fascinating, amazing places I have been. If it weren't for seeing the people I love, I would have preferred to put the money I spent on this ticket towards visiting a new place instead. But- thank God- there are people that I love here.

Evans drove Karina and I from Accra today. By the time we reached Dzodze, Karina and Evans' hometown, I was getting fidgety. By the time we reached Denu, the neighboring town to Aflao, I was sucking in air so forcefully that Karina kept looking back at me. I recognized the junction that led to Rudy and Julia's place, the path I took to buy cloth at the Denu market with my Julia. We reached the outskirts of Aflao and I felt like someone had punched me in the gut- in a good way, if you can imagine there being a positive side to being punched in the gut. I was so tense with excitement that I could hardly breathe. I directed Evans down the Awakorme road, and he kept asking me, "Are you sure? Are you sure?" Evans, I'd never been more sure of anything in my life.

My house is at the end of an alley-like path off the Awakorme road. Waiting at the entrance were three little boys. I immediately recognized one of them as Christian, Worfa's nephew who frequently helps around the house, wearing a t-shirt my brother left him after he visited. "LET ME OUT!" I bellowed. I was tugging on the seat release before Karina was even out of the car. I didn't care if I was embarrassing him or if my overt show of affection was entirely un-African, I gave Christian a bear hug. This is the boy who was so upset the day I left that he refused to say goodbye to me, and here he was with a grin at least as big as my own. I paused only long enough to register that his voice has already deepened from the little boy timbre I remember- and took off running.
It's nighttime and Aflao doesn't exactly have streetlights, but I sprinted down the alley. There were twists and turns I had completely forgotten about, but my feet knew exactly where they were going. I neglected to notice two or three steps leading up the foundation of an unfinished house and stumbled on them, but managed not to fall. I'm not sure I was running so much as skimming about six inches off the ground anyway. I threw open the gate to my house and as I ran across the courtyard I wanted to call out, but no words would come out. Instead, I just opened the door at the same time as Victoria, who must have heard my footsteps, and got tackled by my host mother.

Victoria is not a person to be trifled with on multiple levels. She is physically imposing, a no-nonsense type woman, and the greatest champion a girl alone in Africa could ever ask for. The day I left, she scolded me mildly for crying and said simply, "I will miss you, but I will see you again." No muss, no fuss.

As soon as I came through the door, she scooped me into her huge arms, picked me up, twirled me around, and crushed me to her chest- only to set me down, scoop me back up and repeat the process all over again. She eventually paused long enough to let Worfa hug me, and then was back to waltzing me around the room and laughing. She walked arm in arm with me back to the roadside to collect my bags, let go just long enough to let me hug Karina goodbye, then firmly gripped my arm again and marched me home. As if there was any chance I was going to hop back into the car and zoom away... She asked about my family and I told her how much I'd missed her cooking, and then we settled for saying "I missed you!" "I missed you too!" back and forth for the next half an hour. She just stood there and kept saying it while I dug through my suitcases for the presents I'd brought them. I had painstakingly picked out the most glitzy, sparkly watch I could find, and after I gave it to her she spent the following half hour telling me how much she liked it, taking it on and off, opening and closing the box, etc. And occasionally throwing out an additional "Oh I missed you!"

I brought Worfa a huge stack of newspaper comics, Guideposts magazines and Reader's Digests that my mom saved for him. While Victoria and I continued our womanly babbling in broken English, Worfa had already settled himself on the couch with his nose in one of the Guideposts, munching on an Oreo. Worfa is well-educated, but more importantly he is voraciously curious and loves nothing more that to learn about new things. It would take at least a library to satisfy his hunger for knowledge, but my mom's carefully collected pile of small magazines is more appreciated than she may ever realize.

I couldn't tear my eyes off either of them. I have loved and missed these two people every day since I last saw them, and now here I am: Drinking hot tea in a stiflingly hot room that I couldn't have stopped Victoria from making if I'd begged, a Nigerian worship service blaring on the TV, telling them all about school and my brother's upcoming wedding and the trip to Mole. It feels so natural that it's hard to believe the last two years of separation even happened. Sitting here on my mattress on the floor of my room, I can remember stepping out of this room, saying goodbye. But now I'm back and it's still my room where I have slept and read and blogged hundreds of times before. The fact that I have spent the last two years wishing to be back in this room so intently seems unreal now that I'm actually here.

The house is a little different. The original three SISCO classrooms were at our house, but the school has grown enough to need a new location, and those have been disassembled. They installed new ceiling tiles to cover the sheet metal-and-wood skeleton of the roof and beautiful floor tiles that look and feel like marble. A large framed portrait of my family wearing our SISCO shirts is hanging above the door to my old room.

Tomorrow I will see all my neighbors and Meerkats and the rest of the Gomashie family. Tonight, I am content just to be here. Home.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

THIS IS NOT A TEST. this is an adventure.

I was absently brushing my teeth when I realized that the hotel sink was crawling with ants. I quickly pulled my toothbrush out of my mouth and spit out my toothpaste…along with several living and dead ants.

I don’t come to Africa for the luxury, in case you were wondering.

Getting out of Kumasi was just stupidly complicated. Several expensive taxis and wrong sets of directions later, we were on a bus to Techiman. From there we caught another bus to Wenchi and then a tro-tro to Bui. True to form, they stuffed the tro to about 300% capacity, so I ended up sitting facing backwards on top of the engine cover with my knees jutting into Karina’s. Talk about being literally in the hot seat. Despite the discomfort, there’s something about tro-tro rides I find irresistible. They’re probably the most dangerous thing in Ghana, second to motorbike taxis (love those too), but hey…you know…whatever…I love sticking my head out the window and watching the miles and miles of beautiful African wilderness slide by, waving to people when we pass through the intermittent villages.

The tro-tro dropped us off at the Bui National Park headquarters, one of the few places in Ghana where you can hope to see hippos.
Incidentally also the middle of B.F. nowhere.
The Bui headquarters is a small group of trailer-like wooden houses- one of which is the tourist guest house- in a stand of trees. There was not so much as a fan to break the oppressive heat, only a hole in the ground serving as a toilet, and not a single place to buy food of any kind. I begged through the village for pure water sachets and Karina and I dined on a half package of cookies (“biscuits”) I luckily had in my bag. The cherry on top: due to the construction of a dam, the hippos have migrated into unreachable territory. We tried to sit outside under a pavilion where we could hope to catch a breeze while we played cards, but the light attracted so many flying ants that I was unintentionally killing them every time I shuffled. We slept on the one bed with a semi-intact frame, but both woke up periodically from the sensation that something was crawling on us.
Needless to say, we left for Mole National Park first thing in the morning.

A 45-minute motorbike ride through the bush took us to a main road. It was an occasionally nerve-wracking ride, especially with my pack on my back, but I loved every minute. The morning air felt amazing after our stale night in the mildewed guest house. And the bush is breathtakingly beautiful. It’s a tangle of gnarled tree trunks, vivid green foliage and bright red dirt against a brilliant blue sky. Low mountains rose on our left, which I’m kind of wondering might have been the border to Cote d’Ivoire.
At the main road we caught a tro-tro to Sawla, and from there a second one to Larabanga, and from there another motorbike into the park.
At the park gates, we had the stomach-churning realization that we were virtually out of cash. The Mole Motel accepts credit cards, but at an exchange rate of 1.5 instead of the actual 2.02. So Karina set off on a 40 km round-trip journey to the nearest ATM in Domongo. I don’t even know what would have happened if we hadn’t had enough money to even do that, or if the ATM had been farther. I think it was hands down one of the scariest moments I’ve had in Ghana…until the next day, anyway.

The next morning we went on a driving safari with a Peace Corps worker and two Dutch volunteers. They’ve installed actual seat on the roofs of the Jeeps since the last time I was there…which I’m half-convinced made it less safe rather than more…
The safari groups the day before had been completely out of luck, but we came across seven elephants at a waterhole - six adult males and one baby male. The guides let us approach them on foot to within about 50 feet. It was MUCH closer than we were allowed to get when we saw three elephants on my safari two years ago. The adults formed an obvious wall between us and the baby, but otherwise just kept going about their business of eating and splashing themselves with mud. Eventually the leader started ambling towards us with the rest of the herd trailing behind him. We immediately started backing up, but the way he was angled he was quickly pinning us between the herd and the crocodile-inhabited waterhole at our backs. Let me tell you, elephants suddenly seem a LOT bigger when they’re trapping you in a rapidly shrinking space. The guides assured us that it was unintentional; if they were going to attack they would give a warning call. Still, it was a tense couple of minutes. They passed less than 30 feet away and went on to graze farther from the water, unsettling a small group of antelope that started calling to one another in response. I didn’t know antelopes could make noise, but you could see them heaving their rib cages and emitting this weird, shrieking whistle back and forth.

We left the next morning on the 4 a.m. bus, and made our way back to Evans’ house in Accra. Thankfully my luggage showed up during the week we were traveling, and by tomorrow night my two suitcases and I will be in Aflao with Worfa and Victoria!

Small Things

Layover in Amsterdam
 The first time I sat at a gate waiting to board my flight to Ghana, I was overwhelmed by the experience of being the only white person in a sea of dark faces for the first time. Now I realize that I’ve waited two years to be that strikingly out-of-place yevu again. Even sitting in the airport in Amsterdam, a little bubble of Ghanaian culture was already forming around me. As more people arrived for our flight, the chatter around me filled with snippets of Twi and Ewe and the little noises and expressions that set Ghanaian English apart from American. It’s a melody I’ve missed since the day I last heard it. One moment at a time, a sense of rightness and comfort has settled over me. This time, I didn’t feel like the awkward outcast. I wasn’t wide-eyed and nervous, just jittery with pent-up excitement. 

It took forever to get through customs and wait for the luggage- longer because my luggage never even showed. I was more than 24 hours without sleep and the two suitcases of things I brought for my host family and friends were already MIA, due to transferring flights last minute to avoid storms in Chicago. It was all worth it the moment I saw Karina and Worfa. Ghanaians are normally very stoic, but Worfa’s face broke into a huge grin. A tiny display of affection, but I know that it meant a lot.
Unfortunately, I only got to see him for about an hour. Karina’s friend Evans provided us with a car and a place to stay, and Worfa headed back to Aflao once we realized we had no idea when my bags would finally decide to show up. After a day in Accra with Evans, Karina and I headed off on our trip to northern Ghana.

First stop: Kumasi, Ghana’s second largest city after the capital. It took us a LOT of searching, but we found an amazing hotel. AC, a huge clean bed, a functional bathroom, a pool, complimentary breakfast and a laundry service for 40 cedis, or just under $20. Traveling here makes you extremely appreciative of the small things, and we were ecstatic to find such a great place to stay. Shabby, perhaps, by typical American standards, but it was a palace to us.
I wanted to find a place to eat fufu, my favorite Ghanaian dish, but we had to find a place that also served rice because Karina is allergic to the pepper that is part of virtually every Ghanaian meal. A complete stranger walked us nearly a quarter of a mile just to show us a nice chop bar that fulfilled our requirements. It’s the rainy season, and started pouring just as we stepped inside. Since Ghanaians avoid going anywhere in the rain at all costs, he sat with us while we ate, expecting nothing for all his trouble (although we bought him a drink anyway). A woman heard us talking while we ate, and came up to talk to us because she’s a soccer player living in Italy and wanted to know if we were European. We had a great conversation and ended up with an invitation to her house to have an Italian meal with her. It was still raining decently hard when we left, but not five minutes into our walk a man in an SUV pulled over and offered us a ride. I’d never even consider getting into a car with a strange man at night in America, but here it’s natural. How can people not see the beauty of this place? In one evening, three complete strangers went out of their way to befriend and help us without any expectation of something in return. We’re traveling without a guide book this time, which has made things a little more difficult at times, but overall you hardly need one anyway. Practically every random person on the street is more than willing to play tour guide. The Ghanaians themselves are a richer source of information and advice than any guide book could ever hope to be.

The next day we toured the Kumasi zoo, which just recently relocated from Accra. It showcases entirely African animals, each one with a sign on the cage with information about their habitat, diet, etc. -- except for one single pen of geese with a sign that simply said “GEESE.” …Self-explanatory, I suppose. We also visited the Mansyiah Palace and the artisan market at the Culture Center, both of which I had been to with Julia previously. 

I enjoy seeing the tourist attractions, both old and new, but for me, this trip is about the small things. It’s about eating my favorite snacks, like FanYogo and bissop and fresh coconuts. Watching the baobabs pass by the window of the bus. Getting so dusty from traveling for hours down red dirt roads that Karina is literally drawing on me. Snapping at the end of handshakes and hissing to get someone’s attention.
These things may be small, but they’re anything but insignificant.