Note: I’ll be blogging about my time in Ghana over the course of the next few weeks. Some entries will cover the course of multiple days while some will cover the course of only a day.
Ghana trip – Days 1-2
Day 1 (6/13/13) – En route to Accra
Early in the morning on Thursday, June 13, 2013, I woke up from a light sleep. When I went to bed the night before I knew there was no way I’d sleep very well. Speaking in front of people, garnering attention and flying are some of the more terrifying things I’ve experienced in my life. So I guess it makes sense that I’m a teacher who talks every day, a person who is opening up through this journal and one who just went through multiple lengthy flights to a foreign land and back.
At about 3:30am on June 13 I went downstairs to the kitchen of my mom’s house in Evansville, WI. She graciously agreed to give me a ride to the Madison airport that morning. I was too nervous to eat or really do anything so I just kind of sat there for a bit before we left. The ride to the airport was a little quiet and I’m sure my mom felt my nerves radiating from my seat to hers. We arrived at the airport, said goodbye and I entered the airport.
I checked my large duffle bag and knew that it would be the last time I would see it until arriving in Accra, Ghana. This was very nerve wracking for me because I’m a child and don’t understand how these things work. Apparently checking baggage is normal but I had only done it one other time in my life, which didn’t turn out so well. I had flown from Nashville to Charlotte but my first flight was delayed, so I missed my connection to Milwaukee. I was then re-routed to Chicago but my bags flew to Milwaukee instead on a later flight. So I had reason to be skeptical of this whole checking baggage thing.
The flight from Madison to Atlanta was fine and I had a brief layover in Atlanta. At this point I was more concerned with navigating airports than actually arriving in a foreign country. I soon boarded my plane bound for JFK airport in New York, which was without a doubt the bumpiest flight I have ever been on. It was bumpy through the duration of the flight but I thought I managed pretty well (I didn’t sleep but I also didn’t grip my legs hard enough with my hands to begin bleeding, which unfortunately has happened to me before while flying scared). On our descent and initial attempt to land we touched ground and bounced back into the air for a brief moment. We then hit ground and people cheered while I let out a sigh of relief.
I was now in New York for a 10 hour layover. Instead of trying to see New York City for a few hours I had decided prior to the trip to just hang out in the airport to try and relax. Rachael bought me a pass into the Delta Sky Club for my birthday so I was able to relax, drink some free beer, eat some free snacks and nap a bit before my flight to Accra.
While in JFK my anxiety and fear rose sharply. About 90 minutes before my flight I became increasingly shaky, nervous and scared. I’m assuming this is normal for a first time international traveler. Luckily, Rachael was available to inject some much needed words of comfort. I eventually boarded the plane (after two gate changes) and then sat on the plane for about two hours while we waited for passengers from a delayed connecting flight to arrive at JFK. I think my nerves exhausted me and I was able to sleep on and off during this time. I even snored myself awake once, which was a big turning point for me. I am as self-conscious as anyone so regardless or what I say I actually kind of care what people think, for better or for worse. But I snored myself awake and actually did not give a shit about what other passengers thought for some reason, which was big for me.
We eventually took off and my nerves subsided. I was no longer in control of my destiny. No matter what, for the next 11 hours I was going to be on a plane and there were only three possibilities:
- We would land safely and I would walk on a different continent for the first time in my life;
- We would crash and I’d die; or,
- We would crash and I’d survive based solely on my knowledge from watching Tom Hanks in Castaway multiple times on TNT.
Day 2 (6/14/13) – Arrival in Accra/First night in Africa
According to me, the unlikeliest of the three possibilities above happened: we landed safely and I was officially in Africa. In all actuality, the flight wasn’t too bad but there were certain drawbacks (like minimal leg space and the fact that I never fell into a deep sleep). However, the fact that I slept at all was a minor miracle. I also made a contact with a native Ghanaian man who sat next to me on the plane. I had a lot of questions for him about the Accra airport, customs, immigration, etc. and he was able to answer them all, which really helped me out.
The Accra airport is actually really small (there are only about 10 gates total) so it was surprisingly easy to navigate. I just followed the herd from the plane to the bus to immigration to baggage claim to customs and finally out the door where I met Elena, the GHEI employee who was sent to pick me up.
Elena and I then took a cab from the airport to our night’s residence, the Starbow, where we had one room that was filled with 5-6 beds. There was one other person staying there that night, a Nigerian musician named Kunle, who had a gig at some place in Accra later that evening. At the Starbow I was able to shower and brush my teeth, which felt pretty damn amazing.
My first sights of Ghana included immense poverty, crazy driving (I think I’ll be fine driving in Boston after experiencing traffic in Ghana), absolutely packed streets with vehicles, motorcycles and street vendors who walk in between cars trying to sell things while cars are stopped, and camaraderie amongst cab drivers (who all seem to get pissed at the same person who messes everything up, even though I could never identify who the culprit was).
Note: It was important to me to not have any preconceived notions about Ghana before I left the U.S. Therefore, I did minimal reading on Ghana before my trip. I didn’t want to have any expectations whatsoever. I wanted to have the experience impact me as I was. I had what some philosophers call a tabula rasa (a blank slate) and I wanted Ghana to fill it. It was the first time in my life that I valued ignorance and a lack of education/knowledge. Maybe there is some true value in being naïve.
Elena then took me to an internet café where I was able to e-mail home, which was nice. We then walked through Accra and found a place to eat some dinner. This was my first experience in being a foreigner and a minority. I was stopped numerous times by solicitors, by children and even by some adults (this is a theme that would repeat itself on a daily basis in Ghana). It wasn’t too annoying at first but by the end of my stay I had almost had my fill of it.
That night it was nice to converse with Elena about what I was stepping into. I was there to volunteer for Ghana Health and Education Initiative (GHEI), a non-governmental organization, and assist the group in planning and preparing for the 2nd annual Quiz Competition. However, I was also there for a selfish reason: the experience of a lifetime. I was also seeking answers to the many questions I had about Ghana, the different cultures, the history and the Ghanaian education system.
I’m especially interested in education systems for obvious reasons. In Ghana, there are a few different types of schools: Lower Primary (LP; roughly K-2), Upper Primary (UP; roughly 3-5), Junior High School (JHS; roughly 6-8) and Senior High School (SHS). In Humjibre specifically, the village I lived in for two weeks, there are four primary schools (lower and upper combined) and two junior high schools. Attending these schools is free unless the school is considered private (which there are many). You may notice that Humjibre does not have a SHS. This brings up the point of barriers to continuing education in Ghana.
There are three main barriers preventing students from moving from JHS to SHS. The first is the standardized test that students have to take (and pass) that determines which form of SHS they can attend (more on this in a future entry). The second is the cost of SHS, which determines on the form (again, more on this later). The third is location, as since Humjibre has no SHS, if a student wants to attend SHS then that student must move away from his/her family.
The above factors can make it incredibly difficult to get students educated past Junior High School. However, organizations like GHEI are integral in changing people’s perspectives on education. Education in Humjibre is now a top priority, whereas before GHEI it was not.
There will be more talk of education in Humjibre and in Ghana in later journal entries. For now, I’ll wrap this entry up with a brief lesson that would serve as an important one throughout my time there. While talking with Elena and Kunle we talked about the perspective of Ghanaians and Nigerians (or, West Africans in general). There is a saying: “Smiling while suffering.” This basically means that even when one is struggling with anything in life (be in poverty, a crappy job, family issues, etc.) that there is still a smile on one’s face.
The example Kunle used is a Nigerian traffic cop. As I mentioned, traffic in Ghana is not the safest thing in the world. Nigeria is no different. Therefore, being a traffic cop is not a desirable job. But, just check out this traffic cop who is doing his best to enjoy life: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5c3oPe8ia3o.
Like I said, this “smiling while suffering” lesson would come up throughout my time in Ghana and it is still a lasting memory, for reasons to be explained later.
I fell asleep at the Starbow in Ghana under a different moon than I had ever seen before. The constellations were all misplaced according to my Midwestern eyes and the moon looked like it was tilted downwards. I fell asleep knowing that I would wake up early the next day, June 15, 2013, and travel to a small, remote, rural village in Western Ghana. I fell asleep knowing I’d wake up the next day and it would be my 25th birthday and I’d be in for the experience of a lifetime.