Sunday, February 20, 2011

Hello...My name is Araba Nyame (Ara ban ya mey)

Ghana Days 4&5 Cultural Immersion

I walked toward our meeting spot wondering what the hell I was thinking signing up for this trip. I thought I had decided that I would not be doing any home stays on this trip because I have been there, done that, and don’t especially enjoy the awkward silences that come regardless of whether you speak the same language as your host family or not, but surely there will be more with the language barrier. Too late to turn back, I’ll have to make the best of it. Rumors started circulating the minute we got with our group that it would be a” four hour bus ride”, “no six hours”, “wait, I heard it was a different village than last semester” etc., so I ran back to my room to collect my ipod in preparation for the long drive ahead only to find out when I got back five minutes later that we were only looking at an hour and a half long bus ride. Time to board another bus, actually, lets refer to it as the ice box because they keep the buses in Ghana freezing cold, which feels great right when we get on because we have just been in the muggy sweaty weather, but after the sweat dries, I’ll tell you, it is freeezinggggg!

We arrived in the village of Atonkwa in our big green bus which looked so out of place in this small village with little houses, no cars in sight, and no paved roads. Before the bus doors opened there were kids waiting for our arrival. As we walked off there were kids grabbing at all of us from every direction and our guide had to try and guide us all away from them to take our seats for the naming ceremony. That was our first activity of the day. We would all be receiving African names. We were called up to the “stage” in alphabetical order and the elders would say a prayer then we would have a sip of water, they would say another prayer and we would have a sip of Fanta, then we were presented with a medicinal leaf, a bracelet which was a gift (not something received in normal naming ceremonies)and then handed a certificate with our name on it. My African name is Araba Nyame. Araba means born on a Tuesday and Nyame means a God/Goddess. They called people up to the front in groups of ten and there were dancing performances and drumming by people from the village between each group. It was really cool to see this ritual even though it wasn’t completely authentic considering we obviously aren’t babies or members of the community.

After the naming ceremony we were free to play with the kids. One of the guys from SAS ripped open a bag of plastic whistles that he had brought to give out. Oh shit…In my frenzy to get ready to go I forgot my little toys that I had brought for kids in this exact situation. Although I didn’t have presents, I did have a camera. And as I had found out in the fisherman’s village a few days before, these kids LOVE pictures. As I snapped away they couldn’t have been happier and then, one of them asked for the camera… I reluctantly handed over my nice SLR making sure that the neck strap was securely around this 12 year old boy’s neck, and let him play photographer. After mingling in the main area of the village, we were told it was time to head over to the school so the kids grabbed our hands and tugged us in the right direction. The 12 year old boy, James, still had my camera in hand and continued to take pictures on our walk towards the school which made me nervous until we arrived at the buildings where he saw his friends and then I just saw a bunch of hands reaching at my camera, grabbing the lense, trying to take the whole thing so that they could have their chance to take the pictures, and after a few minutes I had had enough. Most of the kids had their chance to take pictures and I took the camera back to safety around my neck and asked the kids to show me there school.

I followed them to their library. Concrete floors, two big wooden tables with benches around them, and two walls lined with shelves covered by disheveled books. By the way, at this point I was drenched in sweat and my white shorts were no longer white, they now blended in with the dirt ground (which had so much soil and sulfur that it was a reddish color). James, the boy who had pretty much adopted me for the afternoon, grabbed a book and sat down on the bench and beckoned me over to sit with him so he could read the book. I took a seat and was immediately surrounded by kids n both my sides, behind me, and climbing on the table next to me. In the loud room it was hard to hear but he attempted reading the English book as best he could and before I knew it our time at the school was up. Our group would be getting back on the ice box and taken somewhere for lunch. James and his friend had been with me for the better part of the 45 minutes we spent at the school and as we walked back I received my first real culture shock. James asked me if I was going to buy him shoes tomorrow. Feeling speechless and not understanding how I would buy him shoes tomorrow regardless of whether I would have or not, I mumbled something like “I don’t know we’ll see” and the next thing I heard was James’ friend say “you’re a liar”. I just wanted to disappear and knowing that was not possible I started walking faster towards my only relief which was joining the crowd and redirecting conversation before getting on the bus. I mumbled something that I don’t even remember in response to his accusation and we continued walking to meet up with everybody else. As we approached the crowd and it was obvious we would be parting ways James asked me if I had any pens. A request which was much easier to meet, and I still had to say no. I told him I would check my backpack which was on the bus but I knew I didn’t have any because I had cleaned out my bag before packing it. I felt awful and helpless I waved goodbye and boarded the bus, hoping that I could find some pens where we would be eating lunch and if not, praying that I could avoid having anybody else asking for something that I was not prepared to provide.

We drove through a small town and past the dungeons and slave castles (which I didn’t get the opportunity to visit) till we arrived at the Coconut Grove Hotel. In an isolated spot on the beach it was easy to see that this was one of the, if not the nicest hotel anywhere nearby. We had the usual rice, chicken, fish, and plantain, meal with our choice of soda or water and enjoyed the breeze eating at the beach. This was our last chance to collect ourselves because when we got back to Atonkwa we would be meeting our host families and spending the rest of our time (aside from dinner) with them.

When we got back to the village it was much quieter than it had been when we left. The kids had apparently dispersed to their own houses and the only people who were around now were the host families. We sat back down where we had previously been seated for the naming ceremony and waited for our names to be called with our corresponding families. As I sat waiting to hear my name, I prayed I would be staying with someone else from the group. “Samantha …. And Alisson”. THANK GOD. I didn’t know this Allison yet was still incredibly relieved. I would have a companion to struggle through the language barriers, answer the questions that I couldn’t, and hopefully fill the awkward silences that I so dreaded. Not to mention remember the details and fill in the blanks where I had forgotten things that I wanted to include in my blog. Lucky for me, Allison proved to be all of those things, and a much better journaler than myself because she carried her notebook and paper with her writing down everyone’s names, ages, conversations, and observations. We stood up to meet our host mom, Runkuwa . as she led the way back to her house, I felt like it was very tense. It could have just been me being uncomfortable but aside from the usual trading of names and where were from, it was hard to find a common ground to talk about. We got to the house which had a courtyard and then rooms surrounding it. One room was the kitchen, one was Runkuwa room, one was where he brother and his wife and kids lived (I don’t know it I was a room or if there were multiple rooms beyond the front door), and another door that I don’t know what was behind it, and the door to where we would be sleeping which opened up to a room that was attached to another room set up with mattresses on the floor and a ceiling fan. After we put our bags down we were greeted by Runkuwa’s sister in law and her children, and Runkuwa’s other sister Comfort who was 17. I asked comfort if she had gone to school earlier that day and she told me no because she had a toothache and my immediate reaction which I kept to myself was what if she has to have her wisdom teeth or molars taken out. In retrospect I could have asked but I was worried that they didn’t have access to dentistry like that and didn’t want to scare anyone that it might be necessary but not possible. Then again, a lot of things that we find “necessary” in the US are probably not top priorities in other countries or cultures where access to things are limited and unreliable.

We sat in the shade in the courtyard and looked at each other awkwardly, just as I had suspected but the mood lightened as Runkuwa ‘s sister in law started investigating my hair. Karissa had pig tail French braided my hair that morning which was apparently something very unfamiliar to this woman who was the hairdresser of Atonkwa. With her baby wrapped in a scarf on her back, she stroked my braids examining them intensely and then moved on to Allison’s blonde hair. She had her take it out of the pony tail and began to play with it, then started braiding it in tight little braids across her head, kind of like corn rows but not as tight. As Allison tried not to wince in pain I could see the strands of thin hair being pulled from her scalp because she didn’t realize that our hair is a lot finer than the thick hair she was used to working with. I was extremely thankful that I had opted to have my hair braided the way I like it which seemed to satisfy the girls I was staying with because they let me keep my braids. When we had exhausted the hair conversation Runkuwa took us on a tour of the village. We walked passed their church, the cassava plants, the day care center, and the nursing home.

Back at the house the kids had returned from where they were playing earlier in the day; two five year old boys and a five year old girl. My roomie for the night went to go relax in our room and I stayed outside with the kids and proceeded to have a photo shoot. It didn’t take much for the pictures to come out well because these three kids were so adorable. I just wanted to bring them home with me. After awhile I noticed that one of the boys was wearing a Boston Celtics shirt and I got excited. Not because it was the Celtics because I of course am a Lakers fan, but because this rivalry is usually a topic of conversation not too mention the Celtics have become a sign of Boston which is now a sign of my friends, etc. But as I tried to explain the significance of the shirt he was wearing, the kids and their mothers didn’t really understand what I was talking about or who the Celtics are. That’s when I realized that we often leave our mark in places whether we mean to or not. This shirt must have been given to the little boy or left behind by a traveler or a visitor in the village who was from Boston and even if they just left it behind because they wanted to offer clothes to a child who needed them, they still left their Boston mark in this small village in Ghana.

We sat around outside for awhile and I noticed Comfort looking at my shoes. She looked up at me and asked me if she could have them. Once again I was caught off guard and didn’t know how to respond or how I wanted to respond. I needed time to process the question, it is such an unfamiliar thing to have people ask you straight up for things especially right off your body. I hesitated and said that I didn’t know if my shoes would fit her but maybe she could try them on later. Part of me was hoping she would forget because I had a feeling that if she didn’t I would be giving my shoes away in the morning. Time progressed and Runkuwa invited me into her kitchen to watch her make dinner. The SAS students wouldn’t be eating dinner with our host families because the program was having our dinner brought in from the restaurant where we ate lunch ( I don’t know if this was because they didn’t want to worry about anybody getting sick or if they did want to put the pressure on the families to cook for us). I watched her mix maize and water in a pot over a fire until it became a thick sticky substance. As she mixed the concoction she looked over at me and asked “what did you bring me?”. Again, speechless. I wonder if questions like this ever get easier to hear or to answer. I told her that I didn’t know and I would have to look in my bag. In my head I knew I didn’t have anything, I was hoping to get creative because I know better than to go to a home stay without a gift. Unless I could think of something in the next 12 hours, I knew I would be saying bye bye to my tennis shoes. I would have to talk to Allison at dinner and find out if she brought anything and what we should do.

It was dinner time for us. Runkuwa’s daughter walked Allison and I through the village, past where we knew dinner was, and to an open field where older kids were playing soccer and her friends were there with our friends playing games. It looked like summer camp. It’s weird because we don’t do that at home, we don’t just go out on an empty field with all the kids from our neighborhood and play soccer and games just for fun. We hung out there for a bit and I was re –introduced to hand games that I hadn’t played since elementary school, these girls just used different words but the movements were familiar. Rockin’ Robin, Miss Mary Mack, double double this this double double that that double this double that double double this that, down by the banks where the bullfrogs jump from bank to banky, etc. any girl roughly my age should remember these. As the sun started to set we walked back over to the center of the village, you could hear the electricity running through the electrical wires above us. I had made a new friend at the field. She was my name sakes daughter, aka the real Araba Nyame’s daughter. One of four and as sweet and talkative as can be in her adorable pink dress and gapped teeth. She held my hand as we walked to the community center where dinner was served and we got there before they would let us in so we were all lingering outside and she didn’t leave my side, just cuddled up against me in the crowd. When it was time for us to go in I told her I would see her later hoping it was true but not sure I would be able to find this little girl in the pitch black later that night especially since she wasn’t part of my family, but after dinner, there she was waiting at the door to grab my hand and lead me back to the house. I realized she was with Runkuwa and asked her if she would be sleeping over because she was friends with Runkuwa’s daughter and she said yes, so I happily accepted her guidance along the dark road back to the house.

Back at the house we were joined by my new friend’s sisters who were roughly the same age, and little brother who was one and a half or two. The girls pulled out a book from school that had pictures and words in Fanti, their language, and they attempted to teach me a few random words. As some of them walked me through the book, another one was playing with my hair. At first I was worried about her messing up my braids because I had no intention of taking them out until we got back to the ship the next day, but then decided what the hell, it’s probably already a mess, and let her go for it. A little bit later Runkuwa’s brother Osmond, who we had learned earlier goes to school in the morning and then to work in the evening, arrived home. He is a student and his ultimate goal is to become an accountant and move to the US. His English was great and for the first time we were able to have a fluid conversation with an adult where the language barrier wasn’t such an issue. It was the first time in the village that I felt like I was having a candid conversation. Although there wasn’t such a language barrier per se, there were still struggles with understanding not words but attitudes. For the first time my eyes were really opened to the difficulties that most people in Ghana struggle to overcome. Yes, it is common knowledge that the poverty level is disturbingly high and education is not prevalent Ghana, but I hadn’t yet had the chance to discuss some of the hardships that people go through. We got to a point in conversation and I could see that Osmond was trying to figure out how to word his next question about America. He looked genuinely confused and proceeded to ask me how black people are treated in America because he has heard from Ghanaians that have been to the US that they get there and they are harassed and not treated well, but he didn’t understand because when white people come to Ghana they are so friendly to us and open up their homes to us and are friendly and want to talk to people and tell them about Ghana, etc. The best answer that I could come up with was that first of all, it depends on where you are as to how people of other ethnicities, cultures, backgrounds, etc., are treated. And second of all, that perhaps as a country American’s just aren’t as nice as Ghanaians. We don’t generally take the time to welcome new people into our Country because we’re too wrapped up in our own lives. Osmond nodded his head but the look of confusion didn’t go away. I don’t think those were good enough answers for him but that’s all I had at the time and am still not sure what the right answer to those questions would be, or if there even is a write answer. We continued the conversation learning about the education process in Ghana and explaining to Osmond how the process works in America. He told us how hard it is to get through school because of money. School is expensive and on top of the school expenses its hard to get through school without a computer which is an additional cost that most people in Ghana at this point cannot afford. He also commented on how we have the opportunities to travel abroad but people in Ghana don’t have the ability to do that because once again they cannot afford it. It was a very difficult conversation. A few months ago I saw the movie Waiting for Superman which is about the public school system in the US and since then, whenever I discuss education not matter where it is, I remember that movie because it really enforced for me that education is really the basis of intelligent people and therefore and intelligent and successful society. The fact that getting even a basic education past the 9th grade in Ghana is a struggle is just tragic. How can a country grow and develop if the majority of its people aren’t educated?

Mentally exhausted we all decided to retire for the night. I didn’t get away before Comfort reminded me that I had said she could try on my shoes, so I removed my tennis shoes and handed them over to her. She said they fit, whether they did or not ill never know. I told her I would leave them with her in the morning and that was that. The deal was sealed. Allison and I went to our room and discussed what else we could leave behind in the morning because she hadn’t brought anything to leave either. She decided she would leave her hat with the little boy and was debating between her shoes or her watch for Runkuwa, and I would leave my shoes for Comfort.
I slept much better than I thought I would, as a matter of fact I woke up because I was COLD in the middle of the night. The fan really worked, and the noise outside from the goats and the roosters also probably contributed to my waking up sporadically from about 5 am till 8 am when the kids woke us up. Runkuwa had made us donuts/fried dough and porridge. The donut was good, the porridge was not my thing. It wasn’t American porridge, I don’t think. I’ve never actually had porridge in the US, but this was a thick substance made from Maize and it had a tangy spice to it. I took a sip and panicked because I knew I would not be able to finish the whole cup. So I tried to divert attention from myself and I pretended to take a few more sips and then set the cup aside. Hopefully I didn’t offend anyone. The kids were all dressed in their uniforms and ready to leave for school I gave them all hugs and said goodbye. Then it was time for Allison and I to rejoin our group back at the community center. But not before I handed my shoes over to Comfort. Luckily I had packed a pair of flip flops.

So, with those tennis shoes, like the Celtics shirt, I left my mark. I hadn’t planned on it but I knew they would be appreciated by Comfort and maybe when she wears them she’ll be reminded of me.

They called the program cultural immersion. I think its difficult to really be immersed in a culture over night. I think cultural observation would be a more appropriate name. Most of us enjoyed our time in the village. We got to see how these people live and conquered the cultural differences in lifestyle for the 18 hours we were there, but the reality is that we all knew we would be waving good bye in the morning.

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