Volunteering at a local school

Today I gained a new found appreciation for teachers.

One of the things that I wanted to do while I was in Ghana was volunteer, so when a member of our group said that she had found an opportunity to work at a school in the area, I decided to join her. Many of our colleagues were being turned away from orphanages and hospitals because there were actually too many volunteers (at least locally), so I knew that this might be my only chance to volunteer. As I have volunteered at schools before, I figured that I would simply be a teachers’ aid and help to control the class, answer questions or anything else that fit into the teacher’s lesson plans. When we arrived we found that their need was much different. After talking to us about our interests, they asked if we would be willing to teach. Although hesitant about my ability to actually teach my own class, I said yes figuring that they wouldn’t ask college students to teach these kids unless there was truly a need.

Before I continue, I should mention that we were initially greeted with hugs by the principal of the school and invited into her office and offered cold water after a long taxi ride in difficult traffic. We introduced ourselves and met many of the different people that we would be working with throughout our time with the school. During this meeting, the students were all assembling in courtyard in order for us to be introduced to them. Never have I ever been greeted so warmly in my life—-I felt like a celebrity! The kids were clapping and screaming and cheering with such joy, I was nearly in tears because it was so sweet. We then formed a line at the front and all took turns introducing ourselves as “aunties and uncles”. After each us said our names, the entire school would repeat it, but sometimes Africanizing our names a little, such as pronouncing my name as “Auntie Christiana”. Following introductions we went to the staff room to begin discussing our placements.

While they tried to work on placing us, we were sent to different classrooms so that the kids would have a chance to interact with us. I went to classrooms for children at about a kindergarten age level. They were, of course, adorable. As before, they were very welcoming and the teachers were very friendly. First, I introduced myself and talked about where I came from and what I was doing in Africa. Then the teacher translated, not into another language, but retold what I said in their accent so that the kids could understand. (On a side note, I have just started saying that I am from Chicago simply because it’s easier and with that of course I add that it is President Obama’s hometown which just gets everyone riled up because they love him here.) After a brief introduction, I asked the teachers to ask the students if they had any questions for me. They were very shy at first, but finally one of the brave ones asked me if I was from “Obama place” (meaning America) and I laughed and said yes. Once this student had finished, several others were now raising their hands. Probably the next five questions were either, “Do you come from ‘Obama place’ or America” and the occasional, “Do you come from London?” A few times students raised their hands and then when the teacher called on them, they became mute. Once I made the mistake of crouching down to the kid’s level and asking him if he had a question for me, which just scared him I think. I was also interested in hearing what they thought America was like, but when I posed that question to them, the crickets you could hear in the background were deafening. When no one said anything, (and it seemed like the teachers expected me to say something) and I asked what they thought we ate in America. The teachers translated this to the kids and they were a little more responsive. While I expected to hear universal cries, of pizza and McDonald’s, I was surprised that they mostly named popular dishes in Ghana, like jollof rice and chicken. Not sure if I should play to stereotypes or not, I think I ended up giving a well rounded list of dishes focusing on what I would eat in the Midwest. The teachers then asked me to talk a little about America. This was surprisingly difficult-—I had no idea what to say, especially trying to be culturally sensitive and not ethnocentric. I started by first talking about my family and describing what my neighborhood looked like, pointing out that there were no street vendors or markets everywhere. I also remembered that we treat pets very differently than they do here, so I explained that many Americans have dogs that live in their house with them and that are like members of their family. I particularly enjoyed hearing the teacher translate this one, because she knew what I meant and expanded upon what I said. She told the kids that Americans often have dogs and cats that live in their houses, sleep in their beds and that we will even kiss our pets. The kids’ faces were priceless and laced with disgust; they laughed ridiculously. The teacher even added (note: avid animal lovers should consider skipping this sentence) that if the students saw a dog or cat on the way home they should refrain from kicking it for Auntie Kristina. Just so there isn’t confusion, most dogs here are wild and not domesticated, unless they are a guard dog. For most Ghanaians, they have as much attachment to dogs as Americans do to raccoons. (Again, animal lovers don’t read this: Some villages, as one of my classmates studying nutrition has discovered by going to some of the more rural areas, will even eat cat and dog as a part of their diet.)

The kids were also very kind to perform for me a few different songs. The most memorable song was the “Barack Obama song” which is about 2 minutes of the kids singing his name and dancing around. It was absolutely adorable! They sang a few other songs and then it was time for me to move on to another classroom. When I was in the other classroom, it was fairly similar, however a few things struck me as being a little odd. First, when the children would get a little rowdy, the teachers resorted to two main “threats”. Either they would say something along the lines of “If you are not quiet, Auntie won’t take you back to America with her” or “Be quiet or Barack Obama will not come back”. I was quite taken aback by the first one, worried about what 4 and 5 year olds thought about having a stranger take them to America (or what they would tell their parents) and the second one, I just found funny.

Upon leaving the classroom, I wandered around a little, unsure of what I was supposed to do. For a while, I stood with one of our group members simply admiring the view of the mountains and the towns. Within a few minutes, however, I was approached by one of the instructors we had met with earlier who handed me a book and asked me if I could teach the lesson listed there. “Right now?” I asked. And he said yes. Hesitantly, I said that I could and he led me to the classroom. With little instruction, no knowledge of what time the class ended and no experience, I was left by myself staring at twenty 6th and 7th graders. I was told that the primary objective of the class was for English language practice, so I figured that just about anything we talked about would be satisfactory (if nothing else to help calm my nerves) and decided to begin my introducing myself and having them introduce themselves. This went fairly smoothly, aside from the fact that these students talked at volumes comfortable for dogs, but not for someone trained to loud Americans and that most of their names had indistinguishable sounds (to me) causing most of them to only use their English names in hopes that I could better understand. Used to typical American teenagers, when one student told me that his name was Prince (someone who had already been testing the waters slightly by moving around to sit with his friends) and the rest of the class laughed, I figured that he must be playing around with the silly obroni teacher who can’t understand anyone. I turned to the rest of the class and asked, if that was, in fact, his real name and they said it was. Later, it seemed appropriate as we continued with introductions where others had names such as “Rejoice”. After this, I asked them what they thought America was like or if they had any questions about America. Crickets, yet again. I asked if any of them had ever been to America, by their silence, I assumed this meant no, but I repeated the question anyway. When I was yet again met with stares, I told them that we would just have to start their lesson then.

I looked at the page and the assignment was for the students to practice describing things around them. Since many of the students had already tried to move around and sit by their friends, I figured that having them get into partners would be at least trigger some emotion. They seemed to like this idea and quickly formed into groups of two. As I walked around, I quickly realized though that none of them were doing the assignment and many of them weren’t even speaking in English. I pulled out a teacher line and said that since they weren’t doing the assignment, they must be ready to present. Thankfully, they were. As it turns out, most of these kids had known each other since birth, so describing a friend was no big deal and for the most part, they all spoke fantastic English, so this assignment seemed to be a breeze. Most of the descriptions were pretty entertaining too. Many of the boys described their friends with, for lack of a better word, charisma, almost as if they were placing an ad on behalf of their friend on eHarmony or something. Although, like any other group of middle schoolers, they were prone to talking while others were presenting, but overall, they were very respectful. Plus, this short activity got them to emerge from their shell, just a little.

Until I was saved by an administrator who said that our lunch was ready, they asked me all sorts of questions about American history and pop culture. First, they tested my knowledge of American history asking everything from who the first president was to who was the first man on the moon. Luckily, I enjoy American history, so I smugly told them each answer. Once they were satisfied with my ability to come up with historical facts, they moved on to what kind of music I liked. I told them about favorites like Jason Mraz and Michael Bublé, but they wanted to know if I had heard of Jay-Z and other hip hop artists. My favorite though was when they asked me if I knew any Michael Jackson music. Upon the mere mention of his name, I think about half of the boys in the class stood up and showed me one of his many famous moves, but mostly the moon walk (it reminded me of a story my mom tells about her early years as a teacher where she would have to go into the boys bathroom and end the break dancing parties they would have there). After I saw the other volunteers leaving their classrooms, I ended class and just left them alone (which they insisted was okay) so that I could go eat my lunch.

From then on, we sat in the teacher/staff room waiting for our meal. During that time, we exchanged stories about our experiences and the students we had encountered. Although our stories of confusion (and having no idea of what to do) were similar, one of my classmates had each of the students write a brief short story, so we spent some time enjoying those. While most of them resembled fairy tales or plot lines of soap operas, most were very original and creative. Also while we were waiting for our meal, we continued to figure out what we were going to teach. Pulling out the semester requirements and textbooks, they showed us what they hoped for us to cover. For me, I was supposed to focus on spoken language while also incorporating English grammar lessons and required readings by the government including topics such as Guinea Worm, HIV/AIDS and the natural resources of Ghana–nothing of which I felt qualified to teach, nor which I felt like I had adequate resources to prepare, especially considering the reading level for what I would presume to be relatively technical articles. Left with our assignments, our meals arrived and we were treated to the best jollof rice I have tasted so far, fried chicken, some sort of salad and amazing fruit juice. That meal left me the most satisfied I have felt throughout my time here. After our meal was finished, we piled into a taxi and the car of the principle and rode back to our dorm.

Note: In the end, I decided that it would just be best for me to help out in a classroom with the younger kids. They are wonderful to work with and I look forward to seeing them every week.

Trip to Cape Coast

Day 1: Cape Coast Castle and Festival

We started out our journey early in the morning with our favorite bus driver and our favorite tour guide. It was a relatively peaceful drive considering our last trek to the north. After approximately 3 hours, we started seeing the remnants of old European forts and a clear European influence in both urban design and architecture. Driving through winding streets, we passed preparations being made for the festival and people already celebrating and dancing.

Quickly thereafter, we arrived at the Cape Coast Castle, a beautiful white-washed majestic fort, home to some of the greatest horrors man has ever inflicted on his fellow man. It rests on the cliff perched innocently over the Atlantic looking serene and pristine against a backdrop of sea foam and simple homes surrounding a forgotten church. Although as I walked through the door, almost immediately, a heavy load of guilt perched on my shoulders.

The tour started in one of the rooms where they had a museum-like displays set up to explain the history of Cape Coast Castle and how it transformed from a Portuguese fort to a slave trading post. After browsing through old maps and miniature reconstructions of the castle, we were met by our tour guide. He gave a brief background of the castle and pointed out the plaque in honor of President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama before we descended down the stairs into a black abyss. It was around noon, but without the added artificial lighting for tourists, we would have seen nothing. Directed through a few different tunnels, we waited in a small room, no bigger than a standard sized classroom (but with higher ceilings). The tour guide explained that in this room hundreds (close to 1000) of men would be shackled together awaiting to be loaded onto a ship for the Middle Passage. This tiny room served as the bedroom, cafeteria, bathroom and morgue for these captives. There were two small barred windows, too high up for anyone to climb out, one where the smallest sliver of light could escape into the room and the other so that the soldiers could keep an eye on their captives. It was particularly difficult to comprehend that the ingrained into the floor that I was walking on was blood, human waste and remnants of decomposition. (Note: Its not that they don’t clean this area for tourists, its just that there is only some much they can do about what has been soaked into the concrete for years.) We moved into an adjacent room also used to house male captives. Here however, that they have since used for traditional ceremonies to honor those who suffered at the castle. In honor of the festival, they had recently sacrificed some animals (and the smell lingering in the air solidified that). So that we would understand some of the traditions and the traditional practices here, a priest showed us one ceremony that they perform here. Some of the members of our group got a video, so I will try to post a copy on my Picasa account (there is a link to it on the right side of the blog) if anyone is interested in watching it.

We were next taken outside to the open areas of the fort. On the deck area (I’m sure that there is a more technical name for it, but this is the best I can do), there were many old long-range cannons, once used to protect the fort. Here the tour guide explained how the fort functioned generally. There was a missionary school for the children of the soldiers and those running the fort. We also learned about some of the first government officials who lived, and died, here. Looking at a couple of grave sites at the castle, we also discussed why this area was also once known as the “white man’s grave.” The most difficult task during this period was trying to refrain from pictures because the view here was just simply gorgeous. Between the individual fishing boats to the frothy water, many of us felt an internal battle trying to decide if it was disrespectful to take pictures because of the history. Once the tour guide finished talking, he told us that it was okay to take pictures and we did so respectfully.

Next, we went down another corridor where we passed the female quarters. They were very similar to the male quarters in their oppressive nature, but one key component was different. Although it would difficult for someone to escape, it wasn’t too difficult for soldiers to enter these quarters (hence the need for the school here). As horrible as this reality was, at this point, I felt kind of numb. The stacking inhumanities were no longer shocking, just disheartening.

From these quarters, the infamous “Door of No Return” was just down the corridor. Between white washed flowing arches illuminated by sunlight, men and women were herded like cattle to ships to take them from their home across the ocean to a life of slavery. Just like the name suggests, upon exiting the castle through this door, they would leave their home forever, very rarely to return. Our group too, filed out of the door where it was closed to give us a better understanding of the reality of what this meant for thousands only a couple hundred years ago. Today, as part of a healing process, people will walk through the other side of the door to symbolically represent returning home (we too participated in this ritual). Even President Obama commented about the power of seeing his daughters walking though that door during his trip to Ghana this past summer.

Our final stop on the tour was visiting the most horrible place in the entire castle. For those disobedient or disruptive captives, being confined to this room was the ultimate punishment and typically a death sentence. This room was a little larger than a standard bathroom in a home, with no windows, no lights and no connections to the outside world. Our group crammed into this room and upon shutting the door, I personally have never had such a desire to escape before. With stagnant air, choking humidity and unbearable heat, I immediately felt claustrophobic and was counting the seconds until our tour guide would open the door again. Upon hearing that people spent days in this room, I felt tears welling up in my eyes–I just can’t adequately express how completely horrible that would be, except that a captive may simply be grateful to die.

Its very difficult to express the emotions you experience while touring a place such as this. Visiting one of these places where the history is just so devastating affects everyone, often in ways that we can’t understand. While some of my classmates were stifling tears, most of the rest of us were just very silent. Whether it is knowing that our ancestors likely played some part (no matter how small) or that humans have the capacity to do this to others period, certainly has some affect on everyone. After the tour, many of us walked around the beach and on the outside of the castle. We may not have recognized it, but I think we all needed some type of therapeutic release after we left. Even after a period of walking around, a handful of us went to restaurant to order food and found that after at least 10 minutes, no one had said anything. I personally felt exhausted already when there was nothing exhausting about the trip.

I do want to take a moment though to talk a little bit about the way that slavery is discussed here by native Ghanaians. Clearly slavery had affected the country here, but it is interesting to hear what different people (especially those of different ethnic groups) have to say about slavery. There are two comments in particular that have really stuck out in my mind. When talking about slavery with a Ghanaian student, they told me that they joke about it, to an extent, saying that they “sent the ugly ones” to America. On the other hand, a professor that was discussing slavery talked about an instance where his ancestors escaped a plot to be captured and enslaved, but after condemning the circumstances he joked that if they had been enslaved, he might be teaching at some prestigious American university today. Whatever the comment or case may, I found it interesting that slavery could be talked about so lightly, especially since that deeply contrasts the way that we talk about it in our history courses in the United States.

After we finished our tour of Cape Coast Castle and lunch, we went to the main street to catch some of the last bits of the festival. We gathered in a crowd where we watched the different chiefs from all over Ghana parade through the street throwing not candy, but little packets of gin. These certainly attracted a reaction from the adults who dove after them without regard to the parade like children often do in pursuit of candy. Each chief that went by had his own entourage including guards of all sorts, those who were carrying his chair, dancers and the groupies following behind. Our favorites were those who chose to shoot off rifles right next to where we were standing. I can’t quite remember if I jumped out of my skin, or made a noise like I did, but either way, I wasn’t expecting that at all. Throughout the parade, there were also people walking about on stilts, who wanted you to throw them treats after taking a picture of them (I can’t quite get used to that) and others walking around dressed in all kinds of costumes reminiscent of court jesters. There was even someone, by accident or design, that vaguely resembled a slightly demented version of Michael Jackson. I’m guessing that this was an accident because it seems that there are quite a few fans here. As the parade wrapped up with gold encased King of the Ashantis and Queen Mother carried on the streets, our tour guide told us that if we wanted, we could follow the parade down to the durbar grounds where eventually the President of Ghana would speak. Thinking that was a pretty cool opportunity, we separated from our tour guide and left as a group to continue down the street with the parade. At first, the locals seemed excited that we were partaking in the festivities, encouraging us to dance, talking to us and dancing with us. However, the scene quickly changed as we continued down the streets. As the men on stilts approached, they were protected by guys carrying our favorite types of rifles. Presumably drunk, they started pointing them at people who weren’t leaving ample room for the men on stilts to pass. They weren’t too threatening, so we were only mildly concerned. The next thing I knew, was one of the guys in our group was being lifted up by a large group of locals and being carried down the street. Unfortunately, that also made him a target to be pickpocketed, which he watched happen to himself (luckily they only took an empty camera case). That’s when a group of reasonable locals pulled one of the guys in our group aside and begged us to turn around and go back. Earlier, someone had pulled me aside and said, “Obroni, its too dangerous,” referring to the guns, so I took care to be out of the way of the men in stilts, but thought it would be worse to actually be separated from the group. However, once we were approached this second time, these people explained that the crowd was too rowdy and all that would come of our going to the festival would be the loss of everything on us to pickpocketers. A little frightened and our senses completely overwhelmed, we weren’t upset at the idea of turning back at all. Collectively and led by a local who had taken an interest in our group, we headed in the opposite direction of the parade and went back to a neutral place, not far away from where we had watched the parade an half an hour earlier. There we counted and realized that one of the girls was missing. Now she has a little habit for being friendly and ending up getting separated from the group, but we knew that this was different. The majority of us stayed at this parking lot, while one of the guys in our group and our local guide went back into the crowd to try to find her. Luckily, it didn’t take long before they all returned. Apparently, as we were walking, she ended up being towards the front of the group and was pulled away from the group by a bunch of guys who we think were interested in dancing with her and also protecting her from the guys with rifles surrounding our friends in stilts. Although she said she was scared about being separated from the group, she didn’t seem to think that she was in too much other danger.

At this point, we were all too happy to get back to the bus and head to whatever hotel they had booked for us. While we waited on the bus for other group members to return—-a different group member had wandered off earlier in the day and no one had seen her since lunch–our bus was mobbed by an interesting array of street vendors. There were the typical ones selling FanYogo (frozen yogurt) and knickknacks, but we were also entertained by a few other interesting characters. The first was a man, likely homeless, who approached a girl on the bus and tried to sell her a nice seashell. She wasn’t interested and politely refused. Then, this gentleman walked away, picked up a stick off of the ground, picked some weeds and then approached her again. For this “bouquet” he asked for 5 cedi (equivalent to about $3). This group member, who is usually very composed, couldn’t help but laugh hysterically at this ridiculous sales proposition. She couldn’t even hold it together long enough to tell him that she wasn’t interested. Eventually when she calmed down, she did tell him that she wasn’t interested and eventually he went away from the bus. But because she left her window open, she was approached by another man, who called himself the “Gold Coast Kente Man”. He begged her several times to go to his shop and have her try to guess his name (“Gold Coast Kente Man”), but she refused. Eventually he brought over some different things to try to sell to her, but she politely told him that she wasn’t interested. However, as he was trying to show her these things, he demanded that I not look at them. He was so adamant that I not see what he was trying to sell that he asked the guy sitting in the seat next to watch and make sure that I didn’t look. He would continue to say things until my hands were over my eyes making it clear that I couldn’t see whatever he was doing. Long after I thought he was gone, I would look up, only for him to return to the bus and ask the guy sitting next to me if I was looking. We still have no idea why he wanted me to do this, especially considering that I wasn’t really looking at the products and I hadn’t said anything to him. Then he walked over to my window and was trying to tell or sell me something. I, however, couldn’t understand a word he was saying and I didn’t want to attract any more attention from other vendors, so I didn’t open my window. He then tried to write with his finger on the window, but it was backwards for me and the word was longer than the window, but he continued writing on the frame of the car anyway. So finally, I tried to have the guy next to me interpret (because the “Gold Coast Kente Man” was determined to tell me something), but he couldn’t figure it out either. At that point, our final group member returned to the bus, so we were getting ready to drive away.

Once she returned (because we had a meeting time, she decided to go off on her own and actually returned earlier than the start time), we started off to our hotel. However, as Martin, our bus driver, was forced to back us up a hill for probably one fourth of a mile on the main street in Cape Coast because someone was going the wrong way down the street and no one could pass causing the whole line of cars to have back up, we exchanged war stories from the day. Here are some of the best:
• One guy was asked by someone if he was Osama bin Laden (we think because of his beard, which is a strawberry blond color)
• A 14 year old boy asked if he could buy one of the female group members
• A kid approached another girl and their conversation went a little something like this:
“Give me 20 peswas.” (kid)
“No.” (group member)
“Give me 20 peswas.” (kid)
“NO.” (group member)
“Give me 20 peswas.”
To which the group member replied with a funny face and an unintelligible
screamish type noise scaring the kid half to death (who then promptly ran away).

Safely in our bus, we headed to our hotel. Now, each time we are on a trip, collectively we have had low expectations of what our accommodations would be like. Not because we thought that they would plan anything poorly, but just because we knew that we didn’t need much in order to be happy with our rooms. To our great surprise and immense pleasure, the hotel we were going to be staying at was a beach resort where each of us stayed in fully furnished rooms designed to resemble grass huts and had private access to the beautiful Atlantic Ocean. That night we enjoyed burgers and fries while watching the waves roll in. We spent the rest of the night, walking along the beach, chatting, but mostly just in utter bliss appreciating our great fortune to be in such a beautiful place.


Day 2: The Beach and Kakum National Park

Although the goal was to wake up for the sunrise, most of us enjoyed sleeping in and relaxing in the morning. We were entitled to a wonderful buffet breakfast while sitting under the thatched roof of the open deck restaurant, and enjoyed looking over the Atlantic Ocean while munching on everything from cereal to oats to eggs. After breakfast, many of us decided to get into the water and enjoy riding the waves. It was cold, but felt good in the Ghanaian heat. For many of our Californians, riding the waves seemed to be just another part of life, but for me it was a little challenging. The waves here are a lot rougher than anything I am used to, so I watched in awe as others seemed to just glide as the waves came tumbling in. It was a lot of fun, but with a mouth caked in salt, I decided it was probably time to go and change so that we could head on to their next destination.

Our next stop was Kakum National Park a rain forest reserve that you can tour from the canopy by walking across a series of seven rope bridges hundreds of feet above the ground. As scary as that sounds, it was a lot of fun. In order to get to the bridges, there is a little bit of a hike, mostly made up of stairs, but also of natural trails too. Before we began, our guide introduced himself as “Still Alive” and guided us along the path to reach the starting point. Given the time that we arrived and the noise level of our company, we didn’t really see any animals, even though they would typically be there. That was okay, because our primary goal was to just cross the bridges.

When we got to the first bridge, our group split into those who were scared to death of the bridge rocking and those who wanted to jump on the bridges. I erred slightly on the “these bridges are made of rope and are 500 ft+ above the ground, so I’m just hoping to make it across, thank you very much” side, so I was one of the first ones to go across. Of course, one of the guys after me wanted to jump, so I guess that I got the best of both worlds. While others’ fear seemed to intensify as we found ourselves higher and higher above this rain forest, I felt surprisingly calm. In spite of all of the questions some of my classmates started asking, “When do you think they did maintenance last?” and “What types of safety regulations do they have in Ghana?”, I was having a lot of fun. Although, for my parents sake, I will mention that I didn’t join one of my classmates as he held on the railings and hung from them, or went backwards—-I still had a strong enough sense of my own mortality not to do that. For those in our group that remained terrified, we tried to copy one of the other groups, who, as they crossed were loudly singing gospel hymns (to distract or to pray for their safety, I’m not sure). It seemed silly to sing the national anthem, and we couldn’t think of another song that we all knew, so that idea was shot down pretty quickly.

After tiptoeing across all seven bridges, we finally made it to the end. Waiting for a group member that had gotten separated, we conversed with other tourists, getting a particular kick out of one poor woman, who was scared out of her mind. With snails racing ahead of her, she jumped at every creek, shake, snap, and breath as she finished the final bridge. When our final group member arrived, we started the trek back down the trail to enjoy our final American lunch provided by the local restaurant.

Following lunch, we piled back into the bus to head to Accra. However, this time we were accompanied by two poor people who were sick. Both girls had very similar symptoms with one of them describing everything as being bright and vivid and that she felt nauseous, but that she liked it. Their stomachs were expanding and emitting heat and they both seemed to be just a little delirious. While one was sitting in the back getting sick, the other seemed to be enjoying every bump as if she was on an amusement park ride. Once she got over her initial feelings of sickness, she kept us entertained for nearly the rest of the 2 hour car ride saying many things I think she would not have otherwise said. Needless to say, we dropped them off at the hospital upon our return.

Trip to the North

Day 1: Driving to Kumasi

We spent most of the first day driving to reach Kumasi. The journey is between four to five hours between Accra and Kumasi. The drive is not always easy. There are certainly times when the road is either unpaved or although paved, there are many potholes that must be avoided. In spite of the driver’s best efforts, it was still very bumpy making it a little bit difficult to sleep. (Although I still managed to fall asleep.)

There are a few things that made this drive very interesting though. First would be the views of the different villages. Driving in the car, we had a unique opportunity to be able to observe the way many of these villages along the way functioned. Seeing the way that these small, isolated villages lived offers a perspective on lifestyle that we don’t find in the United States. These quaint villages seemed self-sufficient and very relaxed. The emphasis (as can be found most places in Ghana) were clearly on family as most of the people we passed seemed to be simply enjoying spending time with their families and others in the village. For the most part, they were very receptive to seeing us and waved as we would pass. Probably one of the most interesting sites was seeing a gentleman walk by our bus balancing a large, probably 32-inch, analog television set on his head as if he was wearing a helmet.

After a long journey, we finally arrived in a beautiful hotel, clearly designed for foreigners. Among the incredible accommodations, were internet access, a pool and spacious suites each with several rooms and a balcony. That night we enjoyed playing American-style drinking games (I observed, but did not drink), sleeping in air conditioning, watching American shows and playing limbo outside the pool, while some of our colleagues swam. After a long day, it was perfect to relax.

Day 2: Kintempo Falls/Mole National Park

That morning, we woke up to beautiful prayers of a local mosque. I found it very interesting to realize that for once in my life, I was staying in a primarily Islamic area, something that I had never experienced before. Then it was time to shower, a hot shower that I had been craving ever since I arrived. Quickly, I realized that as I didn’t turn on the water heater, there would be no hot shower for me. (Although by this time, another cold shower was really just another cold shower.)

We had a full breakfast of omelets, toast with a ginger-flavored jelly, pineapple and instant NesCafe Coffee. After that, we quickly checked out in order to start on our next leg of the journey, probably the most difficult part of our entire trip. This trip was broken down into two parts. First we were to stop at Kintempo National Waterfalls and then after a brief tour of the falls we would continue on to Mole National Park.

The first part of the drive to Kintempo falls was not bad. It was certainly bumpier than we are used to driving on our highly paved roads throughout the US, but nothing like what we would face later. Kintempo Falls is a national park where visitors can see the three stages of the waterfall. Also, it served as a rest stop, probably primarily for tourists, but for travelers to relax and use a restroom. Although there are some rest stops between Kumasi and Kintempo, they are a little bit of a novelty and often having one questionable restroom (which we were absolutely thrilled to use!). Anyway, we were met by a young guide who took us on the trails to the different stages of the waterfalls. The first stage was the source of the waterfall where the water started and was only 10 feet or so off of the ground. Water gracefully cascaded over large, rectangular, onyx-colored rocks amidst lush green trees and other vegetation. Need I say anymore? Our group climbed onto the rocks to capture every angle of the waterfall, beneath, directly in front of and behind in a semi-open cove. While we were exploring, our tour guide found a millipede. Chocolate brown in color and about 2 inches long, everyone was a little squeamish about holding it. Eventually most of us, including me, got over our fear and held it just long enough for a picture. When you held it, all of the feet tickled and gave me shivers. After a little bit, I got used to the feeling and it didn’t bother me, not that I was too disappointed to pass it along to someone new.

The next part of the waterfall, stage two, was a little less impressive. Essentially the water trickled over a few rocks creating a very small waterfall.

Stage three was by far the most impressive. To get down to the bottom of stage three, we climbed down close a lot of steps (between 50-100 maybe?) that basically hugged the side of a steep hill. As we walked down the stairs, between the foliage, you caught glimpses of the top of the waterfall (that looks a lot more picturesque than what was captured by my camera). However, it wasn’t until you reached the bottom that you could see the waterfall completely. The water started maybe a hundred feet or so above us and trickled over three main sets of rocks, forming a pool at the bottom and then creating a babbling brook of sorts that continued into the trees beyond where were able to be.

While many of my classmates enjoyed swimming in the pool, I enjoyed documenting the experience with my camera. A big part of why I never got into the water though was because I had been advised by several people not to go into fresh water because of parasites. I don’t intend to get any sort of parasite or worst of all, the dreaded Guinea Worm, just so I don’t hear any I-told-you-sos when I return.

We stayed for approximately 30 mins swimming and enjoying the scenery and then got back on the bus to begin the journey to Mole National Park.

This part was, well, educational I guess. In the United States, I think the drive would have taken approximately 2, maybe 2.5 hours based on the distance between the two places. However, because the roads were not well taken care of, our journey took between five and six hours. Because I wanted to take pictures out the window, I chose the remaining window seat in the back for the ride. This seemed like a good decision, until we actually got on the road. The roads often times during this journey are hardly navigable—-these were dirt roads where there were more potholes than road. I doubt our speed surpassed 30 mph for most of the trip, but required some professional maneuvering on the part of our driver who had to drive a Volkswagon bus on both sides of the road and negotiate traffic patterns with the other cars also trying to drive on these roads. Like I noticed when traveling to Italy a couple years ago, traffic is like a social dance and all of the drivers know just the right moves. While the rest of us stressed multiple times about driving situations, it seemed almost like a game to our driver and he would just laugh after every difficulty we faced. This not to say that it wasn’t a long bumpy ride where you wouldn’t be able to sleep at all, especially in my seat where you were airborne after clearing every pothole, it just gave a whole new meaning to “off-roading”.

This night was the first time we really got to see a sun set amongst untainted, natural scenery. As many of us desperately tried to capture this moment with our cameras, the trees became really thick and it disappeared. It seemed to be the quintessential sunset over African savannah, and offered a nice break from thinking about the long drive.

After several bumpy hours of travel, puppet shows by one of our classmates and eventually scary stories as it became dark (not a ride for anxious young children—-this was enough to drive 20+ year olds crazy), we entered Mole National Park, home to different animals such as elephants, antelope, warthogs, monkeys and baboons. We quickly checked in to our hotel and then went to enjoy a dinner complete with American-style French fries (this never gets old)! Tired from a long drive we primarily enjoyed a quiet dinner and enjoyed briefly talking to some other foreign students (obronis!) eating at a table not far away.

Throughout the last 15 minutes of our drive and while we were eating dinner, we noticed lightning beam across the sky several times. Because we couldn’t hear thunder, I personally assumed that it was heat lightning as it didn’t seem to be approaching and it was a hot evening. As most of us settled into our rooms, it became very clear that this wasn’t just lightning. Slowly, the lightning and thunder did get closer and rain followed, steady at first and then monsoon-like. The rain roared on for most of the night dwarfing the sounds of the thunder. Although there was nothing we could do, our group had two primary concerns, would we be able to go on our safari/hike tomorrow and would the roads that we came on even be passable?

Day 3: Mole National Park and Larabanga Village

We met the next morning at 6:30 for our safari at 7:00. We were quickly informed that due to the rain storm, some of the trails had been flooded and that they wouldn’t be taking anyone out this morning. They would monitor the conditions and reevaluate in time for the 3:30 safari. From there, we all went back to bed for a little while until breakfast was ready.

Tired and a little disappointed we ate our typical breakfast of omelets, instant NesCafe Coffee, and toast. As they placed our food in front of us, we were met by some sneaky baboons intent upon stealing food from unsuspecting guests. Although we were not victims of their thievery, a baboon jumped onto the tablee of other international students where it snatched something and then ran off. Shocked and surprised, we all laughed at their experience, while secretly paying more attention to our own food.

After this, we were met by a speaker who told us about the history of the north and explained to us why it exists as it does. From the underdevelopment of the area to the establishment of Mole National Park, we discussed the effects of colonialism, religion and natural resources and the impact that they had on these regions.

During our time before the next chance at a safari, we took the opportunity to visit a nearby village, Larabanga. In Larabanga we were able to see the oldest mosque in West Africa and then also saw the mystic stone, a large stone that they have tried to move several times, including when they were trying to build roads, would always end up back in the spot where it is now.

Although these were fun, little touristy things for us, the whole experience of being in the village is more worth writing about. By this point, we are used to having the bus surrounded by people selling us stuff when we stop. With an unreasonably heavy load on their head, they come up to the windows and try to get you to buy something. There were certainly people trying to see us stuff, but everything was not what anyone expected.

The lucky members of our group were met by little kids. Children under the age of 5 who simply wanted to hold your hand and talk to you (if they were brave enough). These kids were so precious, and seemed to have some admiration for many of the students. This sounds horribly conceited, but what made me think this was that there were two little girls who were walking with one of the girls in our group. When our tour guide was trying to tell us about the history of the mosque, she decided to crouch down in almost a catcher’s position. Two little girls that had been walking with her, noticed this and did exactly the same thing, checking periodically to ensure that they were crouching just so. Although not initially, but eventually, a young girl came up to me and just grabbed my hand. I asked her what her name was and she replied almost inaudibly.

Those of us who weren’t so lucky, including myself were approached by others closer to our age. They were on a mission. The guy who approached me started by asking questions about me and saying things like he wanted to be my best friend in Larabanga. Having been proposed to already, I wasn’t too phased by such false flattery. He was nice enough to explain some of the history of the mosque and even explain to me the meanings of some markings on a wall—-a calendar of sorts. However, after catering to what he believed were my interests, he told me that he wanted to tell me about a little problem that their village encountered. He explained to me that football was a crucial part of the community and they had a very important game coming up. Sadly, their ball had either popped or was lost and they wouldn’t be able to play without it. He then asked me if I could buy a ball at one of the nearby markets and bring it back to him. Although I was slightly offended and annoyed, figuring that this was quite rehearsed and that was done to every tourist group that came by, I tried to be diplomatic and said that I would think about it. This person then asked me for my contact information which I declined to give him and he followed me to the bus, where he watched me from the window. When we got onto the bus, it turned out that everyone had been approached for the same thing—a soccer ball from many different people, including five captains of the team.

While some of the girls in our group came prepared with little toys and school supplies to give to villagers, I felt bad that I didn’t even have trinkets to give. However, as they continued to hand stuff out, they were quickly rebuked by our tour guide. His voice raised louder and louder as he lectured them about giving stuff directly to the villagers. According to our guide, by having us give stuff directly to the villagers it only encouraged them to approach visitors expecting gifts and then often times, the gifts may not end up in the right hands and not benefit the village outside of one person. At this point, we were all a little frustrated and overwhelmed, primarily because we had just become so accustomed to the overall generosity and unbelievable kindness of the Ghanaians we have been meeting. I think to be bombarded with requests in the way we were here, was just so contradictory to our experience thus far that we weren’t quite sure what to think, but nonetheless, we agreed that we were glad to have visited the village anyway.

Tired, we went to go see the mystic stone. As we approached our tour guide told us more about the history of the stone and its significance to the village. When we went in, it was very simple, a brick encampment with the stone propped up in the middle. We all touched it and got some cool pictures of our hands and stuff, but only spent about 10 minutes looking at the stone and enjoying the serenity of the area. When we decided to return to the bus, we noticed that the children from the village, giggling and adorable, had followed us all of the way from the village to the stone and then ran behind the bus as we approached the village.

After that little excursion, we returned to Mole National Park and the Mole Motel for lunch. Since we were able to order lunch on our own, most of us chose American dishes because we knew that we probably wouldn’t have many more opportunities to eat them for a long time. I personally chose Spaghetti Bolonaise while many others chose fries, club sandwiches and salads. Thoroughly enjoying our American cuisine, we finished lunch quickly.

At this point, many of the animals in park had begun to wander into areas where tourists would go. For instance, as we went back to our rooms to rest, there were a couple of warthogs just chilling in front of my doors (and I should note that they don’t have the most appealing scent). However, we were nonetheless excited to see wildlife in our midst. Right after many of us went to our rooms, we were called by others to let us know that an elephant had wandered near the starting point of the safari. Not expecting to be able to go on the safari we quickly headed over to see the elephant. First I ran back to my room to grab my camera. When I exited my room, there was several girls from our group standing around. Apparently, I had just missed one of the funniest things that has happened during the whole time that we have been here. So, one of the girls decided to offer a baboon one cracker, while holding a whole package of crackers in her other hand. The baboon decided it didn’t want the one cracker, so it slapped her across the face causing her to drop the entire package of crackers. The baboon snatched the packet of crackers and ate all of them at once like a sandwich. This same baboon was later caught on tape eating a butterfly (gruesome, but also really cool to watch at the same time). On our way to see the elephant, we ran into another pack of baboons, but more specifically a baby baboon and its mother. The combination was adorable. However, we got way too close to the both of them and the baby started screeching a little, showing that it was scared. Initially, this seemed okay because the mom just picked it up and walked on. Since some other tourists (not in our group) continued to pursue the mom and baby, they quickly became annoyed until the mom jumped out at the group and began to make noises at us. I took that as my cue to leave.

We then went a little bit further down the trail to see if the elephant was still there. It was! Standing very close to the safari welcome center, it was just chomping away on some bushes. While some other tourists told us that we should get closer to get good pictures, once the tour guides saw how close we were, they yelled at everyone for being too close. I wasn’t able to get any pictures. At that moment, the elephant raised its ears slightly and started walking a little closer to the welcome center. Our guide for the whole trip, who had been chased by an elephant before, became very nervous and started to walk away. Considering her experience, I thought that it would be best to follow.

After a couple hours, they decided that they would make an exception (I guess they don’t normally do any safaris after it rains) because we and the other foreigners wouldn’t be able to stay an extra day in order to go on the morning safari. Our group separated into two and we parted. The safari was very cool, but mostly very relaxing. Walking on trails throughout the park, we saw some animals, but mostly had the opportunity to enjoy the scenery. We crossed paths with warthogs, bush pigs (which kind of look like warthogs), antelope, another kind of deer-looking creature and different kinds of baboons. The highlight of the trip was the end where we saw a family of baboons and then three elephants crossing the street approximately 50 meters away (that’s supposedly how close it was recommended we be). After that we changed and went back to our rooms to prepare for a quiet dinner.

Day 4: Driving to Kumasi

We woke up the next morning for an early breakfast because we knew that we would have a long drive to get back to Kumasi. Although we were planning to take a different road, it would still be a long and difficult journey. The best part of our typical breakfast was the visit by our lovely baboon friend to our German friends. Having had something stolen during almost every meal, they were ready this time. Our German friends faced the monkey head on, standing in karate-like poses holding large 1.5 liter water bottles which they banged together. The monkey didn’t seem too scared, but for the first time it didn’t steal any of their stuff.

Throughout our journey back to a new hotel in Kumasi, we encountered a couple of interesting things. As we drove through one town there was what we believe was a graduation in progress. However, it looked like the best graduation ceremony I had ever seen in my life. The “graduates” were in the front of the line and then what seemed to be the rest of the city was following close behind them dancing and singing as they walked down throughout the area. Needless to say, they all seemed to be having a blast!

We also spent some time at the craft center where we were able to go into a few select shops that were open and also just walk around. In a pavilion, there apparently was a Nigerian wedding going on too. It looked very interesting and different from what any traditional wedding. There was a lot of shouting (joyous I believe) so we would have never guessed that it was a wedding when we first passed it.

What was probably the most interesting encounter we experienced was walking around the square and having a chance to talk to some of the people there. First, when we were sitting, a palm nut farmer came and sat down next to us wanting to share the word of God with us. Now, let me break just a minute to explain that Ghana is a very religious country. Particularly in the southern parts of Ghana, people are generally very Christian and faith is something that is commonly talked about. In fact, it is so commonly discussed that a large amount of little shops and businesses incorporate something about God in their title, such as “By God’s Grace Bakery”. So, it really isn’t that surprising that someone would come up to us and talk about faith. Anyway, after the girl that I was sitting with said that she wasn’t really interested in talking about faith, he asked us if we liked the food here. We told him that we did and that most of it we couldn’t get in the United States and tried it here for the first time. He seemed to really enjoy talking to us about that, especially since he grew food that we were eating here.

Later, while we were walking around, we met another small group of people. They were all well-dressed as if they had just gone to church and seemed to be relaxing in the square. We didn’t say much, but a lady holding a baby jokingly asked if we would take her child back with us to America. She was joking, but, as always, there seemed to be a slight bit of remorse that it wasn’t possible for us to do that. We refused joking that we just couldn’t however, its these experiences that really make me grateful for the fortunate lifestyle that I was born into.

Also, one of the girls in the group separated from us for about 15 minutes or so and got three phone numbers and a marriage proposal.

We spent the rest of the day driving until we arrived at the lovely Engineering Guest House where we spent a nice relaxing night. For dinner, I enjoyed fries with sweet and sour pork—-nothing like what you would have at a Chinese Restaurant (not very sweet or sour, just spicy) and the pork was very fatty and not of the caliber I am used to eating in Iowa. That night, I also enjoyed watching Spanish soap operas and CNN. And, this time, a hot shower.

Day 5: The Craft Villages

We left the Engineering Guest House early so that we could visit the market and the different craft villages. We left after a full breakfast to begin the drive to the craft villages. Before we left though, one of the girls in our group got a spider bite overnight and her knee swelled up so much that she wasn’t able to walk. Luckily we have our own resident medicine man, who knew what to do and how to monitor it.

Our first stop was the biggest market in West Africa located in Kumasi. Not really interested in buying anything, we just did our best to weave in and out of the crowd. Over a period of 15 minutes we maybe walked through about 1/8 of the market and that was enough stimulation for us. Although nothing too exciting happened to us, two of the people in our group went off to find a place where a guy could get a haircut. Once they found a place on the street where he could get a trim, the girl with him wandered just a little to see if she could find something to eat. As she began to walk off, the women street vendors called to her (not frantically, but certainly with concern) that she was leaving behind her husband. Laughing, she explained that they were just friends. To which, these women asked if they were boyfriend and girlfriend. Again, she said that they were just friends, but didn’t think that these women really believed them or understood how a relationship could work that way. Eventually though, one of the women told the guy that she had a wife for the guy, her sister, very pretty (she said).

From there, our next stop was the wood carver’s village. I was a little nervous that I was going to be swindled out of everything I bought, but I really wanted to get a mask, so I knew that this was a fear I needed to get over. As we approached the village, it was clear that they were waiting for us. When they saw a big white bus full of obronis, I’m guessing money signs appeared in their eyes. As we walked out of the bus, each one of us was approached by about 5 different people all trying to talk to us and pull us to their shops. Immediately I went with one person, keeping an eye on my fellow classmates. I briefly looked around at this gentleman’s shop and then moved on to the next shop (or I should say was persuaded and nearly dragged there). I felt more at ease there because some of my classmates were lingering there. Throughout the rest of the time there, I wandered between shops trying to find something that spoke to me. Because the whole idea just really stressed me out, I told myself that I would shop for the first half of our time and then spend the last half of our time actually shopping. While I was there, all of them kept telling me that they would give me a good price, student price, but I had to be incredibly careful not to show interest in anything. If I picked up anything that was an indication to them that I wanted to buy it. They very much had the attitude that anything I wanted, I would buy, they just had to find the right price. Sometimes I just had to say, that I wasn’t interested unless they wanted to give it to me for free. I was constantly guilted into going to new shops that finally I had to distinctly walk back to the bus followed by a line of Ghanaian men all saying, “Christiana!” (since they can’t pronounce my name) and asking me to just visit their store. I also can’t tell you how many times I was asked where I was from, to which I replied Chicago (just because no one in the US even knows where Iowa is, I didn’t expect Ghanaians to know) to which they often responded, oh I know someone in the Bronx (for example), do you know them? To which, I usually just said, “the US is a big country”.

We left the wood carving village to go to another village where they make fabrics and stamp them with Adinkra symbols. In the beginning, they gave us a demonstration about how they make the dye. First, they peel the bark of special trees that grow in the area. The bark regrows very quickly, so it is a great source of material and it doesn’t hurt the trees. Next, the bark is ground using a mortar and pistal of sorts (a big wooden one) to release the liquid from the bark. From there, the material is boiled to allow the dye to thicken (I believe). Then, they use the dye to stamp handwoven fabrics. There are probably around 100 different symbols all with their own distinct separate meanings.

For those of us who were interested, we could purchase a fabric and have it personally stamped with the symbols of our choosing—-we even had the opportunity to learn how to stamp them ourselves. The next part was a little tricky. In this village, a lot of the weaving, seemingly, is done by 11-13 year old boys and they all have their own looms. While I was waiting for mine to dry, one approached me and wanted to give me a gift. I figured this was some sort of scam so I said no thank you. He continued saying that I was like a mother to him (they respect their elders, so I’m going to say that he was trying to complement me) and he wanted to give me a gift from his heart. He then wrapped a woven fabric around my wrist. It was pretty, but I wasn’t convinced that this was a gift. I tried to refuse, but he kept asking why I didn’t want his gift. Although I replied that I didn’t think that it was a gift, he insisted that it was. Finally I just said thank you hoping that he would go away. Then he said, I gave you a gift from my heart, so if you want to give me a gift from your heart…I then started to take it off and say that it wasn’t a gift and he again said no that it was, so in the end I just gave him a cedi so that he would go away (about 75 cents, so whatever). I should also mention while this was going on, one of the other guys in our group was dealing with the same thing. To satisfy those who approached him, he gave the kid some coins which apparently wasn’t a good enough gift, because the kids ripped the cloth off of his wrist and ran away laughing. He thought it was pretty funny, too, so I guess no harm done.

From then on, I made a point of talking to others in my group, and trying to look occupied, so I wouldn’t be approached again, which worked for the most part. When I was approached, all I had to say to these children was that I already had a bracelet. A little while later, I was approached by my little buddy asked if I wanted to try to weave. I asked him again if it was going to cost money and to which he replied that he just wanted to show you how to do it. He demonstrated the motions-—you slide a wooden stick with the string connected to it through the loom, then you use your feet to secure the string by switching the top and bottom lines and then you use a comb and push it against the newly formed line to ensure that it is tight. I was surprised at how much coordination and talent it took to be able to weave as quickly as these boys did! One of my friends took a couple of pictures after encouragement from my little buddy and then we switched places and she tried to weave. I took a couple of pictures of her and that’s when it started yet again. The boy’s brother came up to me and said that for his brother’s kindness, I should give him a gift from my heart. I was kind of playing dumb and said that I already had. He seemed satisfied and left me alone. However, my little buddy came up to me soon after and said the same thing, that for his kindness, I should give him a gift from my heart. I explained to him that he said he just wanted to show me and that I already gave him something for his “gift”. I told him I would think about it. He seemed satisfied for the time being and left me alone. At this point, I was ready to go.

While waiting for everyone else to finish making their prints, I paid the guy that I bought the cloth from (who I should note, was helpful, accommodating and nice) and chatted with my classmates doing everything possible to avoid the locals. I was approached a couple of times, but I wasn’t going to put up with any more of the scams. After a while, our tour guide gathered up the half-dried cloths and began to load them onto the bus. I practically ran to the bus because I was so excited to leave. Once I got on, I placed my cloth in a place where it could dry, and then most of the village appeared at the bus windows. My little buddy wanted me to give him something and safely on the bus, I just said that I had nothing to give. Others continued to beg for anything, pens, food, whatever. Many of my classmates obliged and gave them pens or crackers. When one of the guys showed that he had a package of crackers, a whole group crowded around him and the guy he intended to give the crackers, ended up not getting them. When the guy complained and asked for more, my classmate simply said, “If you want them, go and get them”. This was the sentiment on the bus, pure exhaustion laced with annoyance. At this point, we debated on whether we should even go to the next place, the Kente weaving village. Knowing that it wouldn’t be any different than the last two, most of us were ready to just go home. Eventually, we decided that we just wanted to look and that we would only stay 10 minutes max.

When we arrived, it was exactly as we expected, they were waiting for us and swarmed the bus the minute that we drove up. Some people didn’t even leave because they had no money or no interest in putting up with the sales people. For the rest of us, we walked by people trying to sell us stuff and simply walked into the one shop. As I was walking into the shop, one girl approached a classmate of mine and simply said, “I like biscuits.” (a biscuit is a cookie, that’s just how the British say it) I shouldn’t have been surprised, but I laughed because she was just so little and so forward with her intentions. Finding it hard to admire their work, not because it wasn’t beautiful, just because we were so tired, I walked quickly around. Now, here they really wanted you to buy their stuff, instead of even asking for prices, we just said that we didn’t have any money and we just wanted to look. After seeing the varieties of beautiful cloth they had there, I decided to walk back to the bus.

Because so many people didn’t even get off of the bus, there were a dozen or more people trying to sell bracelets through the windows. “Sister, sister, don’t you like my bracelet?” they kept saying. “No, thank you,” I usually replied. Since we didn’t even open the window in the back, one of the guys tried to convince a male classmate of mine to sell his bracelets to the two of us girls in the back. He laughed, asked us if we wanted them. We, of course, said no and he told them that we weren’t interested. The guy persisted, but by this time it was just funny to us. One person was so insistent that one of the girls, that she said, “I’m going to pinch your nose off.” (Meaning that when she closed her window if he didn’t move, he was going to get hurt). Once everyone piled back onto the bus, we started chanting, “Go Martin, Go!” Martin our bus driver laid on the gas and peeled out of there. Exhausted, we were entertained by one circumstance that happened while most of us were in the shop. Apparently a little girl, maybe three years old came onto the bus and said, “Give me all of your money.” Shocked, most of the bus laughed and one girl asked where she had learned that.

Although it had been a fabulous journey, after such a long day…well, let’s just say, I never looked more forward to a 4 hour “off-roading” bus trip.

Trip to Ada Beach

One of the first Sundays that we were here, the USAC program took us to go to Ada (Ah-dah) Beach about an hour or so east of Accra. This beach is actually the estuary where the Volta River meets the Atlantic Ocean. The drive was nice and peaceful allowing us to pass through several villages. We stopped once to pick up a tour guide in a city just outside of the beach and then continued our journey. As we came closer to the beach, we noticed several resorts. When we pulled up in front of a nice one, we joked that this resort was for us—then our director led us inside. We were then taken through a beautiful home, nicely decorated and very modern. From there, we were led outside to a beautiful deck, complete with pool, a bar, a sitting area next to the water and one suspended on the water. After having no water for several days, we were simply in heaven. Some quickly jumped into the water and began to play around, while myself and a few others took the opportunity to take pictures of the beautiful area. Shortly after our arrival, we noticed that they began to set up a boat for us. Because of that, I chose not to get in the water right away.

After a time, the boat was ready and we set off on a cruise to go from the Volta River to the Atlantic Ocean. Along the way we passed by many pristine fishing villages. They were incredibly beautiful in their simplicity. Most of the villages contained moderate sized huts with thatched roofs and the shores were lined with ships and clotheslines. (Pictures certainly do them more justice than I can describe)

The Atlantic Ocean was also incredibly beautiful, but the waves looked horrifically violent. We were advised that it wasn’t the best place to swim.

Later in the trip, we stopped at one of the fishing villages in order for someone from the resort to be able to buy so needed fish. While we were stopped we had the chance to walk around on the island just a little bit. Although we were able to watch the trade and the villagers interact with our guide, we were mostly observers. However, one of my colleagues made a great point to me—he said that one of the greatest things about the beach was that there was no extraneous sound. He was absolutely right. Often when we find ourselves at beaches throughout the US, they made be isolated, but there is still signs of life through the white noise of cars passing by or of something else. Here, it was nothing but us and the sound of the waves.

Once we had finished in this village, we continued on the Volta River back towards our resort, but before we returned, we stopped at another small village on the river. There we were met by friendly and welcoming faces of village leaders. They then proceeded to give us a tour of the island, specifically showing us the long and involved process of distilling sugar cane to make liquor. At the end of the tour, he invited us to try some of their homemade liquor. You could smell this liquor from a couple feet away and the slightest slip was just a potent. At that point, they invited us to have some fresh coconuts. To do so, however, required that the little children in the village climb the tall coconut trees so that they could pick the coconuts for us. This was incredible to watch! These kids had to be no older than 8 or 9 and they just shimmied up these trees nearly at a sprint and then just chilled at the top of the trees. Of course when they reached the top, they were desperately trying to tell us obronis with our cameras to move back or we would be hit in the head with coconuts, but we too much in awe to use our common sense and figure that out. Finally, one of the village leaders came over and told us to move. After we were out of range, these kids just started to kick the coconuts out of the trees like they were playing a game. The coconuts didn’t break, and were collected to be macheted so that we could drink the milk from them. The milk tasted nothing like what shriveled, dried up coconut we have the opportunity to eat in Iowa, so I was pleasantly surprised. The meat inside the coconut was even better! With so much milk and little appetite, I ended up giving my coconut to one of the little kids rather than let it go to waste. While I gave mine away, there was one member of our group who ended up drinking the milk of four coconuts. After this, we left to return to the village for lunch.

Lunch was incredible. Not only did they serve a tuna salad (a nice variation from our normal chicken and rice), but they were also nice enough to serve fries! Unfortunately, I didn’t notice the ketchup until long after I finished, but it was a nice taste of home, nonetheless.

For the rest of the day, we primarily spent our time swimming. Now, since there were no natives swimming in the river, we figured that there must be a reason that the resort built a pool. We just enjoyed the warm water and tossed a ball around until one of the guys was nice enough to fetch it from a little cesspool of algae and other fish, etc. Although we didn’t stop, we certainly cooled it a little. Soon thereafter it was time to leave and we headed back to campus.

Dorm Life at The University of Ghana

Living in the International Student Hostel, called ISH by foreign and native students alike, has been a relatively positive experience. The accommodations are very typical—possibly more spacious than many of the freshman dorm rooms that I saw when visiting friends at their home universities. Each room has a desk, a wardrobe, a bed and an armchair (not just a desk chair) for each inhabitant. Our rooms also have a beautiful balcony where we have a drying rack. The building itself is shaped like a motel, where the rooms all face inward connected by open “hallways” which surround a courtyard. Each floor has a TV room where there is a TV that receives Ghanaian television and some select American shows. There is also an internet café where students can use desktop computers or pay for a full semester of wireless internet. Although this is great, it is not the same speed and consistency of internet that we are used to using in the United States. On the ground floor there is a kitchen where students can order food and also a small shop where students can buy different commodities from Fanta to soap.
So far, I have really enjoyed living at ISH. Even so, there are a couple of things that create some challenges. For example, because the area is so open, any noise that is made, whether it is American students just enjoying each other’s company or workers trying to get a head start before the sun comes up, can be heard by all. However, what has been far more challenging is the spottiness in which we get our water. During the first week, on Friday night, the water stopped working and started working again on Wednesday. Now, it wasn’t as awful as it sounds (certainly being an awkward middle schooler at a coed summer camp during an Iowa August without any water was worse), but it was inconvenient. We learned very quickly how much we appreciate our showers (though freezing cold) and flush toilets so now we will be a little more conservative in our water usage. Basically, you know that it’s a good day if you wake up and hear the water running. Otherwise, I will be ready with my bucket so I won’t spend so many days without a shower.
Also, I have had few run-ins with the wildlife that inhabits the area surrounding ISH, aside from a couple birds. First, we have a resident rooster who crows at all hours of the day. Morning, midday, whenever. I don’t know if it is confused or what, but I hear it several times every day. Aside from our rooster friend, there is also a really annoying crow-like bird that enjoys squawking all of the time. I wake up to its lovely call, that no prettier than a dying duck. And, I hope this never happens to me, but one of members of our group woke up to find a lizard on his face!