Sunday, March 06, 2005

I think that my trip to Mole National Park was the last you heard of my saga in Ghana. So even though I am home in Seattle and have jumped from Coeur D'Alene, Missoula, Moscow and San Diego, I want to send out a closure email on the Ghanaian chapter. My memories are already fading. I have these vivid pictures in my mind but they are like iceburgs rising out a sea of vagueness. It's depressing really. So I need it, even if you don't.

For those of you who haven't seen me yet, my hair is a bright blue and blond Rasta, a hair style where fake hair is braided into your own hair in many dangling plaits. I added some silver cuffs and super glued cowry shells at the ends. Corn rolls are similar in that fake hair is added but instead, the hair is French braided tight against the scalp. I had my friend Lily plait my hair. It was quite and ordeal and I had to sit for five hours while she braided and he brother chattered on and on about wanting to come to the US, liking my smile, liking my skin, liking my eyes, liking my skin, liking my skin, liking my skin. After having Rasta for about a month, I have grown attached to them. At first they were incredibly itchy and I would walk around slapping my head but now they are comfortable, at least for the most part. I will be sad to remove them because they are great conversation starters, I don't have to wash my hair and it is physical tangible proof that I was actually there. After my braids are gone, all I will have left are memories and a Teva tan.

I went to another church service with my friend, Christopher who I profiled in an earlier post on my journal. The priest was engaging, funny and inspirational. He cracked jokes and made the congregation laugh. The sermon was about living in the light instead of darkness and I felt like I was listening to a motivational speaker. I really could identify with his message on a personal level. In sharp contrast to my earlier Ghanaian church experience, I felt truly motivated and inspired.

I reached a zenith in dealing with Ghanaians when I returned to the post office. If you will recall, my first trip to the post office was miserable and unpleasant. So when I received another package notification I cringed and actually decided to wait for my post office parents to return from South Africa in hopes that they would pick up my packages for me. My curiosity and my general get it done myself attitude won out and I ventured into town as the very picture of Jeanette, my post office mother. I was oozing with goodwill, sugary smiles and generosity. I called each employee by name and I spoutedTwi. I gave them toffees and little gifts for their children (everyone has children). As a result of my selfish generosity I gained two packages full of goodies whose taxes cost a fraction of the taxes of the first post office trip. I walked away from the smiling employees in a wonderful mood. There is no question that I played the system or sucked up but I have to say that approaching the whole ordeal in a positive manner was much more effective then frowning and complaining about the fees. Thank you to my post office parents and Auntie Teri for showing me how to interact and react with/to Ghanaians in a positive rather than a negative manner.

My last week was a flurry of activity; developing pictures, meeting friends for final goodbyes and spending every spare moment at the school or orphanage. I realized at that point that I had made somefriends that I really didn't care to say goodbye to. It was the friends that eventually brought me to the bright side, as it were, and made my time memorable, enjoyable and a learning experience. For the first month, I was miserable and I seriously considered going home early. As I reflect upon the feelings I had during that time, I realize that they were a complex mixture of culture shock, heat shock,and isolation. While I had Cynthia to commiserate with about the dismal tree planting affair, the heat and the vast cultural differences and my host brother to escort me and get my feet under me, I was feeling trapped in a hole of cultural isolation. It wasn't that I wasn't accepted or even welcomed. In fact, it was quite the opposite. I was met with enthusiasm on all sides and people eager to talk about the US. However, I didn't blend in, and that is what I wanted most of all; I wanted to experience Ghana as a Ghanaian does, not as a sensationalized Obruni.

Gloria, the teachers and the children at Tuskegee International Schoolshared themselves and their culture with me. At TIS, I wasn't ananomaly for long and the kids and teachers, after their initial awe (Iwas the first white person many of them had ever seen including television and pictures), relaxed into their normal behaviors and routines. At the school, I think I was able to interact with them as a person and not a "mystical" American. Gloria and I fascinated each other and she delighted in teaching me about her Ghanaian culture. We spent countless hours in the shade of a lime tree exchanging ideas and describing our customs and traditions. She taught me Twi and explainedthe traditions surrounding marriage, child birth and rearing, politics and sexism. We delighted in comparing our cultures and picking out the similarities and their gaping differences. The children, too, sharedtheir games, songs and dances with me. I'll never forget our feet sending up clouds of powdery red earth up around our ankles as we giggled and played Ampe in the school yard or their hysterical laughter as they watched me "shaky shake my body."

The last day at the school was a crazy and I was pulled in every direction. A photographer took pictures of me with each class and then all the teachers. I was trying to teach class 1 how to write andillustrate their pen pal messages and I was teaching class 2 how to weave with construction paper. I never knew that writing a simple ten line letter could be so excruciating and time consuming. I really didn't help matters by telling the kids to put bus stops at the end of their sentences instead of full stops (their word for period). Emmanuel, the poor kid, desperately drew Xs at the end of each sentence and looked at me with wide eyes for approval. I was frustrated and growled "no, bus stop, bus stop, mark a bus stop here."I finally realized that I was saying the wrong word and futilely tried to explain to these kids who are afraid to speak up when they don't understand that teacher is not always right and they should say something if they are confused or the teacher is wrong. I don't think they will remember my message for long but I did get them to laugh.

The American pen pals sent Montana post cards and stickers. The kids were fascinated by the pictures and rightly so. They have never seen stickers much less snow capped mountains, conifer trees or wild bitterroots. They kissed the post cards and waved them around in the air, such joy from such a simple thing. I was whisked into the nursery for a surprise goodbye ceremony. The older kids performed a traditional dance and Auntie Josephina formally thanked me and adorned me with a Kent ceremonial scarf with my name embroidered on it in gold thread. They also gave me a corn husk basket with a tailored batik tie dress, a carving of a figure thinking (so that when I looked at it, I would think of them) and a wooden penholder in the shape of Ghana inside. I had a parallel experience at the orphanage in that I was able to assimilate myself into their community. Though it seems funny to be excited about this, they sometimes even ignored me or left me by myself. There were kids of all ages at the orphanage and while I spent a good deal of time playing with the 3-14 year olds, I "hung out" withpeople of my own age like Fatima, Agnes, Doreen, Aaron, Ricardo, Joe, Emmanuel and Jewel. This was very valuable to me from both a cultural and emotional perspective. It's amazing how desperately a human feels like they need to fit in and/or be accepted. As a more often than not loner, I was surprised at how relieving and comforting it was to have kids my age to laugh, chat and confide with.

One evening my friend Joe was walking me home and I told him how much I wished I had a white person to talk to. Cynthia had left a month ago and I really wanted to dissect my feelings and observations oncultural differences. I liken this feeling to when you are in agood/bad stressful situation. When you are alone, your perspective is warped and internalized. However, if you are with friends, the gravity you are able to joke and make light of the situation. In addition, you can say "remember when" ten years down the road and laugh about it. Anyway, Joe was perplexed and I futilely tried to describe some of the more obvious differences like temperature, sun rise and sun set times, the info structure (or lack there of), poverty, food, school system and transportation system. Hell, even the moon is sideways in Ghana. There are more fascinating and amazing differences to point out than negative ones.

In many cases, the differences are so subtle. It's like Plato's theory of forms and the subsequent perversions of said form in each earthly medium. For example, the perfect form of a chair exists in the eternal ether. The carpenter constructs a chair based on his vision of the eternal one and then the artist paints the chair as he interprets it from the carpenter's. So there is the eternal chair and then there is a Ghanaian chair and an American chair. Both chairs are made for sitting in, made from the same materials and even look the same but they are still interpretations of the eternal. They are inherently different just like the physical chair is inherently different from the painted chair. I guess I could use transportation as a better example. Both USA and Ghanaian transport get you to the final destination, if you know how to work the system, but the method is so different. Ghanaians go by tro-tro or shared cab whereas Americans goby bus or taxi. Both are perversions of the eternal transportation system in the ether. The same is true for cuisine, English language, manners, washing clothes, retail, music…etc. Joe was genuinely sympathetic in a non understanding way and encouraged me to exclaim to him like he did understand. So I went off for at least a half hour, marveling, complaining, declaring, questioning and generally creating a monologue of a whole list of things that were different and amazing to me. Joe laughed and listened and I was purged.

Saying goodbye to the kids at the orphanage was perhaps the most poignant and sudden farewell of all. Instead of talking about my leaving and saying goodbye over a period of time, goodbyes occurred all in a flurry. They sang "thank you and goodbye from the kids at the orphanage" at evening prayers. I gazed at their faces as they sang and realized how small my impact on them had been compared to their impacton me. I managed to hold back my tears as they sang but when they dog piled me, arms encircling every part of my body and faces smiling, I just couldn't keep my tears in anymore. They laughed at my tears and hugged me tighter, pulling me to the ground and sobbing fake tears. I hugged Emmanuel so long that I thought that my arms were going to break and Eben clung to my legs. As I hugged each child good bye individually, Abraham decided to give me a kiss on the cheek. All of my boys followed suit and some even lined up for seconds. I swear there is a little smear mark still on my cheek where they each kissed me. *tear* They are too young to realize or really care that they will never see me again and just as quickly as they surrounded me with their love, they scattered to do their homework and respective chores.

As I sat on the courtyard bench underneath the sideways moon, I thought about how easy it is love and what an amazing impact their love had on me. Granted, life doesn't start and stop with every volunteer that comes and goes at the orphanage and the kids' memory of me will fade into a blur but I do hope that they remember deep down that they were loved and played with and read to. I, on the otherhand, will never forget my kids, their smiles or that Christmas Eve, full moon glowing, choir voices ringing in the humid stillness, when my boys crowded around me and called me mommy, small words to them but big words to me. I am amazed at how much I attached myself to these boys and how they attached themselves to me. Suddenly it was cleart hat life is sharing not consuming and criticizing. Humanity had a purpose and being at the orphanage was all I cared about.

We arm wrestled, read, roller bladed, played football, basketball and tag, wrestled, had thumb wars, tickle fests, spelling bees, hangman games and human acrobatics. They taught me to play Ampe and I taught them to twitch their fingers by probing tendons in their arms. They taught me how to swallow fufu without chewing and I taught them the Itsy Bitsy Spider. They read to me and I brought them toffees. They taught me how to drum and I taught them how to whistle and hum at the same time. They taught me how to eat with my fingers and I taught them how to make it look like their thumbs were cut in two pieces, how to do back bends, dance with chicken legs, make monkey noises, swing dance. They taught me playground songs and I taught them how to do secret handshakes…silly things, we exchanged… but that is all I have to supplement my pictures of them… memories and the things they taught me.

I am and will forever be changed by my kids and at this juncture I can't say how I will act on what I have learned but I am finding connections in America to Africa that I never knew existed. My friend Zach, who has been volunteering in India for the past couple of months, compared his assimilation of his experience to that of the art of photography. It's a process, setting up a picture, snapping the photo, developing the negatives by soaking them in chemicals and waterand hanging them out to dry. Who knows if the contrast will turn outor if the pictures will be centered? I think my pictures are still in the darkness of their film canisters. I can say that I have a renewed appreciation for many of things that I took for granted before. I have never been so delighted to have goose bumps, go for a run or chat freely with my friends face to face and on the telephone.

Today while I as running to Volunteer Park in the chilled breeze withthe clear sun in my eyes, I realized how wonderful it was to be free, free to run, free to open my eyes in the sun's glare, free to stretchin the park and drink in the ocean, skyline and green, green grass. I am free to soar down the pavement on my bike, wind in my face and time on my side, free to sit in a café, undisturbed and write away the day, free to leisurely browse the internet or dance to blaring music in my living room, free to cook dinner, turn on the light in the kitchen inthe middle of the night, and visit friends. I am free to make phonecalls, drop in on friends and family and be the one to approach new friends. The world is amazing and the diversity of my own world is amazing.

I am so lucky to have choices and my future at my fingertips. I am free to be myself and strive to stand out in the middle of acrown. It's amazing how normal my blue hair and bright green Converse shoes are in the middle of Seattle's freak scene. I am reveling in it. I love every shiver, every shower, hug, glass of water from the tap, every phone call and email and minute spent alone and unnoticed in a sea of white, black and brown.

(I do want to say that I'm sure that if I spent enough time in Ghana or even made it my home, I would find a way to make these freedoms that I currently enjoy in America a reality in Ghana. By the time I left, I could imagine and even wanted to live in Ghana for a longer period of time…still do. But it would be after I visit and explore more cultures. After all there are bikes in Ghana and green grass and air conditions and kitchens and radios; I don't know…it's that film coming out of the canister :) )

So how was Ghana? Ghana was a rollercoaster of emotions, a pallet o fcolors and tastes and smells and senses, a spectrum of poverty and guilt and struggle. It was an eye opener, an experience and collision of worlds. It was a dream come true, a goal accomplished and a personal battle won. It was hot, humid and uncomfortable. It was a lesson in humility, generosity, compassion and my own selfishness. I feel like I am being cliché but I desperately hope that I will takewhat I learned about my culture and the culture of the world and apply it to my life everyday, whether it's pausing to admire the beautiful blue sky like my host father or participating in random acts of generosity and kindness like my post office parents or sending metal pencil sharpeners to the kids at TIS.

I will never be able to thank my Ghanaian friends enough for their love and for sharing themselves sototally on so many levels. But Cecilia, Amanor, Dan, Eddie, Laud,Ishmael, Cynthia, Kingsley, Charity, Mary, Precious, Marin, Darrin, Prosper, Lily, Gloria, Charles, Clinton, Millicent, Linda, Josephine, Justina, Yaw, Bufa, Pearl, Christina, Veronica, Lisa, Teri, Baba, Florence, Evelyn, Oba Yaa, Emmanuel, Phyllis, Peace, Comfort, Mary, Bra Joe, Yaa, Eben, Joseph, Ricardo, Jewel, Baba, Doreen, Fatima, Agnes, Abraham, Selasie, Katdyatu, Prince, Kwasie Nanna, Mommy Essy, Stella, Gloria, Abinchee, Victoria, Grace, Bena, Peter, King, Adua, Esther, Rose, Patience, Abraham, Carlton, Caleb, Stella, Gifted, Lydia, Abigail, Pamela, Portia, Christina, Aaron, Moses, Daniel,Godwin, Musah, Sadik, Sena, Felix, Bafa, Archibald, Christopher, Frank, Junior, Zion, Lover, Bless, Belida, Angela, Beatrice, Anita, Michael, Amadu, Benedicta, Jeanette, Charles, Ben, Priscilla, Berther, Isaac, Mercy, Florence, Esther, Monica, Rookie, Adzo, Kwamie…you are amazing. Even though we will never physically meet again, I will hold you in my heart always.

No comments: