Walked right into that one . . .

There’s an ever-rotating crew of men who hang out in a wooden road-side stand that sells lotto tickets. They like to try out their English on me, and I test my Fantse on them each time I pass.

One of the men – Isaac – is a friend of mine from my first time in Ghana. He has always taken a fatherly interest in me – particularly in regards to cooking, speaking Fantse/Effutu, and getting married/birthing children (all very important achievements, I can assure you!).

Today as I walked past he poked his head out between the shoulders of two of the men and called out.

Isaac: “Hey, Sarah!”

Me: “Hey, Isaac! Ete sane?”

Isaac: “Bo-ko! Hey, you are looking more and more beautiful!”

Me: “Medase paaa! That is the Ghana made. This place is good for me-oh!”

Isaac: “Oh, fine! And how do you see the climate?”

Me: “Eh?”

Isaac: “The weather – is it good?”

Me: “Eh, I like it-oh! Except in the evenings and nights. It is too cold. I am even shivering. I want the warm to come up small.”

Isaac: “That is because it is you alone sleeping in the house.”

Me: “Eh?”

Isaac: “You alone are sleeping in the house.”

Me: “Oh, yes! It is just me.”

Isaac: “That is why you are shivering. I think you must to get someone to accompany you. Then you will be warm.”

Other Men: Plenty nodding, smiling, and thumbs up.

Me: “Eh!? Not till I’m married-oh!”

Isaac, grinning big at the mention of the “M” word: “Oh, fine!”

Unforgettable Moments

Sometimes, when you least expect it, you’re walking down a dirt road in Winneba and something happens that hits you hard.  In a good way.  Like a slap in the face from a friend :-)

The time I was heading towards Penkye and saw the guys with the shark was one of those moments.  As was the time the naked boy playing football with an orange turned Adam-and-Eve (after the Forbidden Fruit episode) on me.

It’s a moment that takes you by surprise or makes you laugh or turns your ordinary day into something delightful.  Whatever it is, you don’t forget moments like that – especially because they are so small – nothing of worldly importance at all.  By most standards, completely valueless.  And yet . . .

I was walking back from the bank and using my brilliant multi-tasking skills, managed to get myself lost because I was paying more attention to the phone calls I was making than the paths I was traversing.  I ended up at Water Works (near Atetoo – which is not in Winneba) and was rescued by Josephine, a lab technician and her taxi driver.

But it was totally worth it because along the way I passed a grove of palm trees.  7 little ones, wearing knickers and not much else, were entertaining themselves by banging sticks on a small wooden table.

“Obruni!”

Me: “Ete sane?”

“Eye!  Ete sane?”

Me: “Nyame Adom!”

“Bye-bye!”

Me: “Bye-bye!”

“Obruni!” one little guy suddenly shouted out, “Are you happy!?”

I stopped in my tracks and looked at him, this skinny little guy with a huge grin, banging a stick on a table at the side of a red dirt road out in the bush outside Winneba.

“Yes!” I responded joyfully, a huge smile on my own face.  “Are you happy!?”

“Yes!” he called back and we grinned and waved at each other in Happy People Solidarity before he returned to his drumming and me to my trekking.

Are you happy!?

I am!  Because every day in this here Ghana, God gives me Heaven.

Say-oh!

“Say what you wanna say . . . and let the words spill out . . .”

Brave – Sara Bareilles

One of the most charming and disarming characteristics of the Ghanaian male is their total transparency.

Take this conversation I had with Alfred:

Alfred: “Oh, Madam Sarah, I had to urinate very bad but I was tired so I just went to sleep and -” Cue dramatic Pause.

Me: “Oh! Did you wet the bed?”

Alfred: “Nooo, I did not wet. When I woke up I went and urinate but now – my stomach is paining me paaaa!” Cue facial contortion, dramatic clutching of stomach, and dash out the front door.

Me, to empty verandah: “Sorry, okay?”

Urination, education, defecation, qualifications – all are considered equally appropriate subjects for conversation.

And if you want to know something, just ask. We bar no holds here.

Off Line, 21-year-old I met at the beach like, 5 minutes ago: “Have you had sex in this here Ghana?”

Me, without blinking an eyelash: “No, I haven’t.”

Brief pause.

Me: “Have you had sex in this here Ghana?”

Off Line: “Umm, yes, some time ago when I was 18.”

Me: “Oh.”

And then we started talking about our favorite Ghana foods (fufu and banku were among) and the challenges of getting an education.

And when it comes to giving unsolicited life advice? Hey! As for that one, they are tops-oh!

Joseph, to me and a co-worker: “Do you know that the two of you are wonderful people? I’m even happy that you are walking together.”

Me: “So it is all right if he takes me as friend and walks with me?”

Joseph: “Yes!” turning to co-worker, “She is 100%. I don’t stay with her in the house, so I don’t see her character there. But at the school and out in the community – she is the best! In fact, I am even praying the two of you should get married.”

Co-worker: “Eh!?”

Joseph: “Hey! I will prophesy right now that you will get married. Somebody say Amen!”

Me: “I think we should start walking,”

Joseph: “Oh! But somebody must to say Amen!”

The Ghana males . . . with them life is funny, embarrassing, awkward, hilarious – but never boring.

I love them-oh!

Togolese

My housemate Dana and I crossed the border into Togo this weekend – ostensibly to re-set our visas for another 60 days but really because we’re travel addicts and any excuse to add another country to our respective lists is going to be met with loud cheers :-)

Togo, a French African country, has a completely different flavour than English colonised Ghana.

Yes, there are dirt streets, but the houses and hotels lining them have cozy looking 2nd story balconies.  Flowering bushes spill over the walls.

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Elegant, non?

Then you head inside to the bathroom:

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Eh-woah!

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And – Where can I get one for my very own?

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Couldn’t have said it better myself :-)

Heading over to the beach, we had a close encounter with the local wildlife:

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Upcycling at its finest:

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Uprooted palm trees often litter the beaches but with a little creativity, the beaches are cleaned up and anyone can have a one-of-a-kind yard ornament.

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One of my favorite parts of being in Lome, Togo was soaking in all the art:

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On the buildings,

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the boats,

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and the walls.

More to come!

All the single ladies . . .

Ought to head to Ghana. There is no shortage of suitors to be had, believe you me!

Take what happened on my way home for lunch Wednesday afternoon:

I was nearing Rabbi Sam junction when two older gentlemen greeted me. I stopped to shake their hands and the elder of the two asked (I thought) if I would take him to US.

But no, he explained that he wanted to take me to Apom (a small town about 30 minutes from Winneba). Would I go?

Well, maybe.

Eh-heh! In fact, he would like to marriage me.

Eh!?

Yes! Did I like twins?

Um, yes?

Heh! Then that one-eh! If I went with him to his place within 3 months I would be having twins.

Eh-woah!

At this point, his “younger” friend intervenes: He is too old!

Oh, dabi! He is not too old. He is seventy-two but he is very strong! Would I like boy baby or girl baby?

Boy-eh? In that case, I could birth two boys. Simple!

Again, youngster interjects: It’s true. In his family, twin, twin, twin, twin! If I was so inclined, I could birth pleeeenty!

Yo! Hey, he will be very happy to marriage me. Do I like?

Friend speaks up once more: Ah! He don’t want to pay the head price but he want to marry me.

No! He will go to my place and buy the drink – everything! He will do it very nice and then when I go with him in one, two months time I will call my family and say, Hey! We have conceived! And they will be sooooo happy that they will send me big money! Is it nice?

Really, I feel I ought to consider this proposal quite seriously. I mean, how often does a girl get a guaranteed birthing arrangement like that!? All the twins I could possibly want (and then some, no doubt). Risk of single births low – by 72 years of age, his track record is surely proven.

But on the other hand, I’m not sure how my parents would feel about having a son-in-law 10 years their senior.

Hmmm . . . it is a problem-oh! It has even been worrying me!

How old are you now?

My second birthday in Ghana (fourth outside of the US) got off to a bang at 3:44 am on Sunday morning :-) The birthday texts began rolling in and didn’t stop until everyone went to church around 9:30 am:

Winneba United FC under 10, 12, 14, 17 says Happy birthday to you, Amen.

Madam Sarah happy birthday. May God be with you every year. Thanks to God.

Breaking news: I’ve been informed dat u are 2 receive some important visitors in d wee hour of d morning, namely: joy, love, happiness, blessing, favor, long lyf n prosperity. Hapi bday 2 you madam sarah. My intention was 2 send u a wonderful gift wrapped n package, but how do I wrap God’s blessing? How do I wrap God’s protection? Not 2 mention Divine health n sound mind? All dis in more 2u. Remain blessed. Hapi bday.

ABANGA, ADE, SHERIFF we wesch yu madam saery happy beithday to U.

H.B.D. Mad. Sarah. May God richly bless u and ur family. May u not taste defeat as ur family and swim under de shadow of death.

Happy happy birthday Madam Sarah. May the good LORD shower His blessings on you and strike back all your pursuers in order to realize all your aims. Thank you. Happy birthday. Enjoy to the maximum.

God our FATHER has blessed you and your family. Happy birthday to you.

From so many years past to this day, records of birthdays have been kept but 5th of July remains the greatest of all . . . “HAPPY BIRTHDAY”

Gudmorning madam sarah pls have a nice day byeeee

After church we had a football match (and a surprise “Happy Birthday/How Old Are You Now?” serenade from the U17 football team).

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(Thanks a lot, Kobby, for telling everyone that I was 41!)

One of my favorite parts of the afternoon is when I jokingly asked our U14 goalkeeper Justice if he was going to sing for me and he did – all the verses plus “May God bless you now” solo as we walked to the field together.

I headed home post-match and was greeted with a ”Happy Birthday Sarah!” sticky note message and a Pear Alvaro (!!!!!!!) from my fabulous roommate Dana.

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Then back to church for first Sunday Communion, after which the church prayed for me and presented me with a birthday cake and candles and sparkling cider.

Monday night housemates Dana and Kate and I went for dinner at the Summer Yard – a Rastafarian vegetarian restaurant near Sir Charles Beach. The Ital menu was delicious and it was great to find Jamaican vibes right here in Winneba!

And I can’t forget to mention all the wonderful e-mails and Facebook messages that came in, too.

Medase paaa to everyone who made the day special for me!

Lake Volta

My friend Madam Amy and I took a trip to Yeji, a fishing community that is one of the destination points for children who are trafficked into child labour. The main road to Yeji runs straight into Lake Volta – and the fishing industry that developed after the Akosombo Dam was constructed and flooded 3,000 square miles of land.

Working at Challenging Heights, I have often come face to face with the “after.” A sullen teenage girl who won’t allow anyone to comb her hair and doesn’t smile for weeks after being brought to the shelter. A re-integrated 10-year-old whose hair-trigger temper is constantly getting him in trouble at school. A too-small, too-calloused seven-year-old boy.

Now, I was hoping to get an understanding of their “before.”

We made arrangements with Uncle Isaiah to leave early Saturday morning to go on the lake. Or, to be perfectly frank, Aba made arrangements – “He is our uncle, soooo, he must to take you people.” Whether Uncle Isaiah had much say in the matter is doubtful, but he was kind and accommodating. Maybe Aba put the fear of, well, herself in him but I think it more likely that he’s just a really nice man.

With a steaming hot polyten of Tom Brown in one hand and an utterly delicious hunk of bread in the other, I boarded Uncle Isaiah’s wooden canoe. Aba, Ama, Amy, and . . . iiiii! I have forgotten his name! Anyway, Uncle Isaiah’s canoe assistant – let’s call him Joseph – completed our motley crew.

If you’ve never had breakfast out of a bag in a wooden canoe on a cloudy Saturday morning while enjoying the company of old and new friends . . . Hey! I’m recommending that one a lot.

Uncle Isaiah stood at the front of the canoe, his black and grey striped sweater and tan trousers blowing in the breeze.

Amy and I took turns bailing water out of the bottom of the canoe with a sawed off jerry can.

Ama sat quietly gazing out at the water.

Joseph operated the outboard motor, cutting it back and lifting it out of the water often so we didn’t accidentally severe the many fishing lines crisscrossing the surface of the lake.

Aba kept up a running commentary of commands, directives, advice, and observations.

The first fisherman we met attended Isaiah and Aba’s church. He and his sons had gone out on the lake at dawn to check their traps: 4-foot long lengths of bamboo. Tied to fishing lines, the bamboo was submerged in water the day before. As each length was pulled up and tipped upright, fish flopped into the bottom of the canoe.

The next canoe used nets to haul in fish. Another used cages.

“Won’t you ask them any question?” demanded Aba. “We thought you people would have something to say so that is why we brought you here.”

Yes, Ma’am!

The fishermen showed us how they baited the cages with ground cassava bits mixed with oil. They answered our questions about how many fish they caught in a day, how many hours they spent on the lake, what they would sell the fish for at Yeji market.

Yes, the boys working with them were their sons.

Yes, they went to school. But on Saturdays, they came to help their fathers.

The answers were always the same.

There were stories that seemed true – like the three boys who told us they were brothers. Their father gave them free use of the canoe/motor/fuel on Saturdays and they were allowed to keep the profits of all the fish they caught and sold.

There were stories that you wanted to believe – the two boys who pointed off into the distance and said their father and other brother were working “over there” and they only came to the lake after school and on weekends.

There were stories you knew couldn’t be true – the fisherman who said his sons went to school, of course. Meanwhile, the three small boys working to painstakingly mend the blue-green net never once looked up, never smiled, never said a word.

Boys who were naked. Boys who wore tank tops and shorts. Boys who wore only small knicker or a dirty t-shirt.

Boys who looked you in the eye and smiled. Boys who were growing into men, unable to speak English. Boys who always, always kept their heads down.

Boys who were small and thin. Boys who were robust and active. Boys who looked exhausted.

Canoes that were rough, unfinished wood. Canoes that had been pitched to prevent leaks. Canoes that were brightly painted with Fantse phrases, pictures, or Bible verses.

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The fishermen were mainly friendly and willing to talk. They applauded our attempts to speak Fantse or Twi. They laughed with Isaiah and respectfully greeted Aba. Basket after basket of freshly caught fish poured into our canoe.

Could I have passed any one of on the streets of Yeji and said, “There – that one is a slave master”? Probably not. They didn’t look like cruel men. Some were work worn and sun weathered, yes. But they didn’t look “evil.” And yet, it’s almost certain that some of them were the causes of those “afters” I keep meeting through Challenging Heights.

“Are you the only one who can fish in this spot?” Amy asked one of the fishermen.

Yes, for now. But if the fish are not coming, and he decides to move to a different area of the lake, another man can come.

“Does anyone ever come and take fish from someone else’s traps?”

No, they cannot do! If they do that thing and they are caught, they will have to go before the chief. This, it seemed, was a code of ethics few – if any – fishermen would willingly breach.

Only one fisherman that day appeared to be intent on avoiding us. As our canoe turned towards his, he began paddling rapidly away from us. I don’t remember what he said to us when we caught up with him. But I do remember the small, naked boy who silently crouched on the side of the boat.

It seems wrong to say I had a wonderful time at a place that is the site of so much suffering, but I did. I feel guilty just typing that.

In spite of my knowledge of the dark side of the area, I can honestly say I fell in love with the place.

The entire morning was a case study for the sometimes tricky nature of abolition.

Is a child whose mother sent him to work for her brother a slave – or simply “helping out the family”? Is it so bad that he is learning a trade – gaining skills that can support him in the future? It can seem so clear from a distance.

A good friend is constantly reminding me, “We Africans – the more you look, the less you see.” Sometimes it feels that way – the closer I get, the murkier the issue – murkier even than the clay colored waters of Lake Volta.

But I will always believe that if you look hard enough and long enough you can find the truth. Does the child have the opportunity to go to school? Is he well fed? Does he feel safe enough to lift up his head and look you in the eye?

The reality will be there, as sharply delineated as a brightly painted canoe cutting across the waters.

Another Day . . .

Another Dollar. Or so the saying goes in US. But here in Ghana, we like to shake things up a bit. A more accurate proverb would be, “Another day, another marriage proposal.”

Walking home from Rabbi Sam Junction, I was stopped by Ema (my phone credit guy) and a trio of his buddies. After exchanging the usual greetings with Ema, one of his friends grabbed my attention.

“Obruni, what is your name?” I introduced myself to Kwame, an adorable older man with a lazy eye and ears that stuck straight out from the sides of his head.

“Oh, fine! I want to marry you.” Then he spit – unnecessarily close to my feet, in my humble opinion – took my hand and kissed the back of it, and then raised his hand for me to kiss.

As for me, I did not do.

But I did thank him for the proposal with a (mostly) straight face before making good on my escape.

In Ghana, there’s no such thing as “too old.”

Aba-isms

On our weekend trip to Yeji, my friend Madam Amy and I met a fabulous Ghanaian lady who shares my day name – Aba (Thursday borns are the best!). Her family owns Ebenezer Hotel, where we lodged, and we quickly became “sistas.” All weekend long, she kept us in stitches with her outlandish remarks and take-charge attitude.

I can’t describe her any better than to say this: She’s the kind of Ghanaian woman who probably inspired the local Baptist church to take Judges 5:24 – 27 as their Mother’s Day 2015 text (true story).

So, without further ado, here’s a list of my favorite Aba-isms!

On Flatulence: Some is like schweee, some is pa-pa-pa-pa, some is shuuuuu, and some is boom. My flash is boom. It has vibration. If a small, small baby is sleeping nearby and I come to flash – hey! She will wake up and even be crying!

On Cross-Cultural Experiences: You can send me to U.S. I will go with you people. But not unless they are having Ghana food – the kenkey, the banku, the fufu.

Me: They are not having. It is very painful.

Eh!? Then why should I go there? If I have to eat the American food, I will become slim and it will not be good.

On Uncontrollable Excrement: Are you running? Have you come to ease yourself?

On The Ideal Footballer: My brother Prince is a very good goalkeeper. Have you seen how fat he is? Do you think any player who is coming to strike will get the ball past him? None shall enter the goal.

On Getting Your Full Eight-to-Ten: Aren’t you people sleeping?

My friend Amy and I are both 30-years-old, but when we heard Aba’s voice come booming through the window our late night chat ceased. Immediately. “I feel like I just got in trouble with my mom,” whispered Amy. “Me too!” I said, also sotto voce. We laid there unsuccessfully trying to muffle our laughter and I think both of us half-expected her to come bursting through the door at any minute. If she had, I don’t think we would have resented it in the least. Aba is the kind of person who makes you believe she is fully justified in any action she decides to take.

On Malaria Prevention: Auntie Sarah, what are you doing outside. I thought you would be indoors by now.

Me, stammering: Oh, um, I just though, um I would sit outside small. Because it’s beautiful – the stars! Yes, the stars are sooo nice tonight.

Okay, so you people don’t fear African mosquito.

Again, felt like I’d been caught out by my mom for sitting outside after dark without a mosquito net or spray. Sorry, okay?

On Health and Hygiene: Have you bathed?

“Yes!” Amy and I chimed in unison. Truth be told, we had bathed last night. Just not first thing in the morning before church. But do you think we were going to tell Aba that? No way, Jose! We’re not stupid ;-)

On Asking Nicely: Won’t you tell him to give you fish?

On Pre-Marital Sex: Have you seen this girl? She likes doing the thing. As for me, my own is closed. No man has entered.

Aba-Kakra, I love you pa paa paaaa!

Hoo-Ha!

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MA: Sister Sarah, have you heard what AS is saying?

Me: No, what did she say?

MA: She is saying she wants to take some of the ginger and grind it to put it in her buh-tocks.

Me, wide-eyed: Eh-woah! Why?

MA, to AS: Why?

AS: I want to become very strong!

MA: Eh! You see, she will be sweating paa! It will be very painful.

Me: Oh my gosh! That sounds . . . I don’t know.

MA: The buh-tocks – the a-noos – will be going hoo-ha! Hoo-ha! Hoo-ha!

Me, cracking up: Hoo-ha!

MA: Yes! Some are even come to put it in their vagina.

Me, no longer laughing: Iiiii! Oh, why?

MA: When they are come to give birth – after the birth there can be sore inside. So they just grind it up and put it in the vagina to kill the sore. Sometimes we even put it inside the a-noos of the small children.

Me: Eh-woah!