I’m going to begin my reflection about my time in Bolgatanga, Ghana with a story in the first person to illustrate exactly what it felt like to be there.
It’s about 95 degrees Fahrenheit outside–HOT. Sweat drips down my skin as I feel every bump of the dirt road under the Kandu I’m in. Mahama Kandus are three-wheeled vehicles. In the front seat is the driver and my co-worker Percy. He turns back to look at Andrea, my teammate, and me and smiles at our apparent discomfort. Percy is from Bolgatanga (Bolga). He’s about 35 years old, muscular, and has a friendly face. Andrea groans with discomfort and I turn to her, joyful on the inside and outwardly compassionate. I have always been the one to get incredibly car sick and often do in Bolga but today is my lucky day–the gods of carsickness seem to have avoided me for once. I turn away from Andrea to look out the open side of the kandu. As I turn my head, I can feel the hot breeze flowing through my hair and cooling me down ever so slightly. Outside the kandu are huge Baobab trees, a sacred and community-shared tree. Baobab trees are a crucial piece of my experience in Bolga and really all the trees.
Whenever I travel, it’s the nature that most loudly speaks to me. As I look out over the flatlands, almost like a savannah but with more scrubs and smatterings of trees, I am overcome with gratitude to witness a world so unfamiliar.
Each brush is different. Each tree is different. Each building, different. It’s all new. We drive by a school and the children turn and stare at us until we smile and wave. Once we’ve shared a moment of acknowledgement they scream, “White people!!!” in their local language of Frafra. The frafra language is slow, with lots of “z” sounds and vowels. The language flows in stutters (watch a video here). As we pass by the school, I feel a frown tugging at my smiling face, it’s as if smiling is harder than normal, as if I’m holding back. This feeling has been with me for much of my time in Bolga, but more on that later. Continuing down the dirt road, the road thins out and there are fewer and fewer buildings. Outside, I see only bushes, trees, and farmland. I suddenly look up and see a bird flying in the sky, probably one of the many vultures. As I watch it spiral around above I see another floating object wrangled in the wind. “Ahhhh, I think to myself, another plastic bag. They should call this the land of the birds and the bags.” It strikes me that trash in developing countries is so in one’s face but that there is actually far more trash in the developed world. An inkling about the grand scheme of things starts to form in my mind.
Finally we’ve reached our destination: the village. Each village has a name but for the life of me I can’t even remember learning this name. We get out of the kandu rather awkwardly acknowledging the members of the weaving group in front of us. Andrea and I are reserved as we step out towards the crowd. The first thing I see is the giant tree reaching out in every direction (I later found out that these are mango trees and that Andrea and I just missed prime mango season… bummer). The mango tree has leathery, dark green leaves and a gnarled, rough trunk. It climbs up a few stories and covers the whole group of weavers, maybe 25 people. As I look around at the weavers I see women of all ages, from children of maybe 12 to women as gnarled and ancient as the mango tree itself. The women look at Andrea and I and one steps forward and says loudly, “Obliga obliga!” which to me sounds more like “Obligabliga!” Obliga is the classic greeting, meaning “you are welcome.”
Since the moment Andrea and I landed in Accra, Ghana, we both felt welcome. The first thing we did when we got off the airplane was find a bathroom. As I walked out of the bathroom, the attendant (surprise number one) smiled at me and said, “You are welcome.” I was so confused and thanked him awkwardly. We walked down the hallway towards customs and the baggage claim. At the customs line I remember feeling overwhelmed and sleepy. We travelled for something like nineteen hours and I only slept a bit. I was jet lagged and at the same time invigorated to be in a new place, among new people. As we waited in the customs line, urgently scribbling down our details on our immigration card a government immigration officer came towards us and said friendly “You are welcome to Ghana!” Now, let me just preface by giving some background into my other immigration experiences. In China, I had to wait for hours with no idea what was going on and eventually track down people to help me. There were long lines and it was scary and seemed dangerous. In Vietnam, I had to wait an hour at the immigration office and eventually pay off the worker to let me through (I can’t remember if I had to pay extra or just the normal amount as I was extremely tired). Even in New Zealand, I remember my immigration experience being stressful. Ghana was already so different: the people were warm, compassionate, and giving.
From the day that I arrived and throughout my whole experience, the most standout part of my time was the warmth of Ghanaian people. To illustrate this in a more vivid sense I’m going to tell another story (in present tense!!). Remember back to the mango tree and the weaver group. Over and over again I had this one experience with weaver groups that pushed me out of my comfort zone and brought a huge smile to my face.
The women start clapping, synchronized and yet out of synch, as if there are multiple groups counting claps in rounds. There is no way I could copy them. And then they start to chant and sing. One woman seems to melt away from the crowd. She is small and seems frail. Her skin is wrinkled and her teeth are yellowed and have gaps. She wears a yellow bandana around her head, a colorfully blue synthetic polo shirt, probably donated by some non-profit, and a skirt wrap. She is barefoot. Then, in a blur of color, she starts bouncing up and down, leaping on one leg and stomping with her other leg. Her arms are flailing in rhythm with the desynchronized clapping and she has a stern look on her face. Her feet strike the ground in time with the beat and she turns her face up to look at Andrea and me. Her gaze is intense and powerful, beckoning, yet almost fear-inducing.
Then, again she’s back into the group of women and another woman, younger this time has taken her place. The new woman does a similar dance with her baby on her back. And then there are women behind us pushing us forward. Andrea steps into the circle first and bravely gives the dance a college try. The women smile, whoop, and laugh as Andrea flails her arms and legs in time. I find myself smiling despite the fact that I know I’ll have to jump into the circle too. When it’s my turn I leap as powerfully into the circle as I can and begin to thump my right leg, trying (failing) to match the beat. I weave my hands forward and then launch them behind me, attempting to match their movements. I feel myself slipping away from rationality, my walls come down from the shaking earth. And then I feel the biggest smile on my face, my eyes are glowing, and my face hurts from laughing and smiling. What an exhilarating feeling.
Every time we left a village, the women would insist on dancing. Only at the end of our time in Bolga did I find out that their dances signified gratitude for us being there–they were dancing in thanks. As I sit here writing this, I am smiling and crying at the same time. The memory touched a special part of my soul. There are so few moments in America when people are so unabashedly outward, fun, warm, and genuine. I feel like I am always comparing myself to others in the US, never good enough, always trapped behind my walls, afraid to break down barriers. In Bolga, in these rural villages, I found genuinity that I had never seen before. These women, who have never ridden in a car, seen a real grocery store, or even experienced electricity in their houses, are so real. They were so powerfully alive, it was hard to look away as they put their lives on the line every day. People in the villages surrounding Bolga live on a dollar a day, far below the poverty line. They are subsistence farmers and weavers.
When I began writing this I was expecting to write about how unfulfilling my work was, how I realized that I didn’t want to go back to Bolga, and how I would focus my efforts on domestic issues. But, as I write, I can’t help but recognize how special it was to focus on helping these people who are, truly, at the margins of the world. There are very few people who live on less money per day. A distinct memory I have is of the children in one village. My co-workers were having a discussion with weavers about something that I wasn’t interested in so I moved off to sit on a boulder. As I sat there, I watched the children mill around the circle of weavers. There are so many children in Bolga, perhaps because of low birth control availability. These children were eating grain–millet I think–out of a plastic container. They would lick their fingers and then dip them into the millet to stick the grain. Then they would suck the millet off their fingers and repeat the process. I was touched by how little these children had to eat and how much they treasured something that I’m 100% sure my sisters would vehemently avoid. Raw millet is not tasty, and not even that nutritious and yet it was all they had.
Before I went to Ghana I was prepared to change hundreds of lives in only a few months. I thought that by going, I could have a huge impact and change the world. I had the right intentions and yet was so naive to reality. Even now, as I write, I realize how truly out of touch I have been with how substantially difficult it is to change the world, even on a small scale. Social entrepreneurs are a unique breed of people. It takes truly understanding how difficult it is to help a community and a passion to do it anyway, something that I thought I had until actually experiencing the reality.
Looking back at anything, I will have rose-colored glasses, I’m an optimist after all. That being said, as I look back at my experience in Ghana, I can’t help but remember how hard it was for me. The first thing I will say is that challenge is subjective and that I’m fully aware and so grateful for my privilege. With that out of the way, I can get to the nitty gritty details. Every day I took a cold shower because there was no hot water, had either diarrhea or was constipated (never in between), and was too hot. The power would frequently go out, leaving me melting into a puddle in the humidity. I couldn’t find food that I liked and was always hungry, grumpy, and out of touch with my surroundings. We only got to go into the field sometimes, when weather and other conditions permitted it, and I was profoundly bored. All these little things, which may seem insignificant to some added up to make me constantly grumpy. But, reflecting on my experience, the hardest thing by far was the gap between what I wanted to accomplish and the reality of what I could accomplish.
I never really understood how hard it is to have an impact, especially somewhere as different and rural as Bolgatanga. While I was in Bolga, I turned a blind eye to the suffering and pain around me. It was too much to handle and I avoided feelings that might signal to me that I should do something drastic to change the world. Every day was a day to escape reality. I dived into fiction, reading 21 books over seven weeks and watching entire TV shows. I was distracted and afraid to admit that the reality of the world is truly tragic. I didn’t want to have to stand strong and face the inequity. My biggest takeaway is about how many problems there are to solve, everywhere. Life isn’t about finding the right problem to solve based on necessity, but on finding out who I am and applying myself where I fit. Everyone has unique potential and can solve problems anywhere in the world, in any field. I learned not to limit myself to what I should do and am instead leaning into what I must do to be who I am.
As I write, I feel a profound sense of grace landing in my life. Since coming back, I have been wrestling with my privilege and with the inequity in the world. I have been distracted by my own situations and I haven’t wanted to sit down to write and reflect. I’m still not sure how my experience will affect the rest of my life or even the next few years, but I do know that I will never forget to be grateful. I know that I will never forget the towering baobab trees. I will always remember the smiling faces of the women as I danced (very badly) in the middle of the circle. I will carry my experience in Bolgatanga with me forever.
Enjoy some more photos below!