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Oh, Ghana.

2007 October 6
by Hélène Martin

Well, I’ve been back long enough that I can think about the trip without being debilitatingly sad to be back. The first week and a half back in Seattle has been a complete emotional roller coaster.

I promised pictures, but I don’t have the heart to sort through them. Yaw has carefully selected 101 of the most moving and put them in the Ghana gallery here. I’m just going to steal that and redistribute it. I think they’re really worth it.

So here’s how it went:

I had a 6 hour layover in Amsterdam which I spent drinking coffee by canals with a UW music professor who happens to be French. Another 7 hours later and I was in the crazy Accra airport with two or three phone numbers of Ghanaians who said I should call them and visit while in the country. One of those kind and welcoming souls was the mother of the cutest little girl ever, Maame, to whom I taught the incredible art of shoe tying. She is going to be the raddest person ever.

Only ticketed passengers can get into the Accra airport, so anyone meeting someone flying in waits outside in some huge mob. Yaw is at the front of this pack and I see him and I cry. It’s such an incredible relief to see him and there’s been so much emotion bottled over the last three months that I can’t hold it in. Any emotion can make me cry and I think that’s ok. We then proceed into the most intense traffic jam ever. Vendors are between the lanes selling anything from maps to handkerchiefs and from sugar cane to crucifixes. It smells of diesel. Most of the cars are either taxis or trotros, 15-seater vans on fixed itineraries holding as many people as will fit.

Yaw’s parents have a gorgeous home in East Legon on a bumpy red-dirt road used by goats, chickens and dogs as well as cars. We get there and are greeted by Fausty and Charlotte who promptly ask what I’ve brought them from America. These are two of the sweetest, brightest girls ever and they live with their parents and three brothers in the cramped boys’ quarters behind the house. If their father doesn’t get a job soon, I’m going to be angry. It’s not fair to have five kids living on $2 a day or some such ridiculous sum. The rain starts and it’s no drizzle. We head out to get food and I haven’t slept in some large number of hours. Peanut butter and jelly for my first Ghanaian meal; I manage to tear the bread’s bag in the store by holding it too aggressively.

From Accra, we went to Takoradi/Cape Coast, to Kumasi, to Kyebi and to Obo. The first two are large cities but most children in the latter had never seen someone white in person. Everywhere we went, people were carrying wares for sale on their heads or in carts. Amazingly, we only encountered three people who asked us flat out for money without any promise of service… that’s way fewer beggars than I come across walking from home to class every day and I live two blocks from campus. Everyone is working and working hard. There are furniture stores by the side of the road and coconut sellers on nature hikes. Also, everyone is beautiful.

We greeted some significant portion of Yaw’s extended family which was an amazing experience. All of his parents’ brothers and sisters have found great things to do anywhere from farming to business to emigrating. Their children are educated and enterprising and we had the good fortune of meeting many wonderful cousins. Our three main guides were in their mid to late twenties and completely charming. Each place we left I was heartbroken to have to say goodbye to friends. Even I, with my ghastly white skin, was treated like family and I never once felt like I didn’t belong.

They all were glad to learn that the obroni could stomach local foods. More than that, I loved many of the staples — fofo (pounded boiled yam, cassava and plantain — think play-doh to get an idea of the consistency) with nkate kwan (peanut soup), jollof rice, red-red (red beans with red plantain), kelewele (fried red plantain), gari foto, aponchenam (goat meat)… the only thing I was unsure of was banku/kenkey, both balls of fermented maize. Portions were extremely generous and so delicious. Hopefully we can find ways to make some of these dishes in the states. Yaw already makes a mean gari foto and claims to be able to put together a reasonable nkate kwan.

Markets are overwhelming — so many colors and noises and it turns out that I am the worst bargainer ever. I had a great time picking out fabrics, though, and look forward to making some colorful clothing. One of the cousins who is a seamstress also took my measurements, so I have three dresses to look forward to in the mail.

Although I joked about being deaf-mute quite a bit, it didn’t actually feel that way at all. Even though my Twi vocabulary is limited to farm animals, greetings and food, I was able to follow the general direction of conversations thanks to translated snippets and English words sprinkled throughout. It was always fun asking the kids what their names were and getting a response. Oh, children. I got two strange responses to my presence — three babies cried as soon as I came into sight and a few young kids rubbed my arm, presumably to see if my whiteness would come off. We visited a rural school where I literally got mobbed with young kids jumping onto me and screaming “obroni!”

I loved it. I felt safe and incredibly welcomed the whole time, but of course I didn’t quite have the usual tourist’s perspective. And I think my feelings towards the trip and the country were affected by my relief and pure joy at seeing Yaw again. It’s not easy loving someone thousands of miles away. In a way it’s even harder now, after we shared such an amazing two weeks… but I feel that I also understand even a bit better why it’s so important for him to be out in Rwanda doing what he’s doing. I was really inspired by Ghana’s energy and all the great things happening there on an individual basis. Of course, the roads are still broken and we pretty much never had both running water and electricity on at the same time and bureaucracy sounds awful and education at all levels encourages regurgitation over creativity… but there’s an incredible amount of hope and endless untapped resources, both human and otherwise.

I’ll be back. No doubt about it.

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