Tuesday, November 17, 2009


I have thought long and hard about whether to let this blog and thus my time in Ghana to end abruptly, or to do some sort of reflection post to close this chapter. Since I have tried to make to time to catch up with people since I got home, most have at least heard the summary of my trip. But an email from one of my good friends living on the opposite side of the country reminded me that I have not talked to EVERYONE and, in addition, I have not necessarily given my true thoughts about the experience to everyone that I HAVE talked to. So in short, this will be the last post of my Ghanaian adventures and hopefully an elaboration on whatever I may have said to you in person.

Since I have been home one of the most welcome and the most frustrating questions I've gotten has been the simplest: "How was Ghana/Africa/your trip/etc?" What most people don't know is that this seemingly simple question is the hardest to answer. Upon hearing it uttered a litany of additional questions runs through my mind: Where do I start? Do you want to actually know how my trip was? Or do you just want to know the watered down fun and exciting version? Do you have 5 minutes? Or 5 days?

I love to tell individual anecdotes from my 5 weeks there. It is by far the most enjoyable story telling I can do about Africa. Most of those tidbits have been posted here, but not all. Not the time I dressed up in every piece of Ghanaian fabric I owned and scared the living daylights out of some of the new volunteers. Not the time I ran home from the rice fields to get my laundry off the line, only for it not to rain at the house. Those and others are stored away waiting to be shared with whoever is interested, and probably many who are not :-)

But the question "How was Ghana?" implies so much more that individual stories. It is a reflection on the entire trip. The good and the bad. The simple and the complex. And that is much harder to vocalize than single stories.

Here is my attempt to verbalize what I have failed to do so many times since I've come home. Answer that frustrating question:

Ghana was, and is, complex. Every nation is and certainly a developing nation in Africa has it's own share of complexities that us Westerners can only struggle to understand. And so in consequence my feelings on my trip to Ghana are even more complex than they would ordinarily be.

I loved and disliked parts of my trip. I loved meeting a variety of interesting and unique people. Other volunteers and locals alike. Forever the foibles of human beings give even those meetings and interactions a depth. Most people on the trip I liked. However, a few were petty, disruptive, and uncompromising. I get frustrated when people have no respect for others and have no consideration. Living in a communal situation brought all those frustrations to the surface. It was frustrating to have my feelings and opinions walked over because I was the "nice girl" who didn't like to make waves. I was frustrated at myself for letting it happen and for not speaking up.

I loved learning from others and laughing at the ridiculousness of some of the situations we got our selves into. There were so many amazingly intelligent people I encountered in Ghana. It was great being able to hear their stories and piece together their life, personality, and outlook from their anecdotes. Getting to know new people is something I haven't been able to do in awhile. Living at home and interacting with those you've known all your life is not very conducive to meeting new people. I hadn't even realized that I missed that intense bonding experience that occurs when people who have never met before are thrown into a stressful and unfamiliar situation...freshmen year of college anyone?

Learning about and experience the culture was so interesting and unique. Some things are done so differently. There were many great cultural experiences: learning to dance; learning about, listening, and becoming addicted to hiplife music (if anyone wants a sample I have over 135 songs on my ipod); traveling to different areas within Ghana; being there when Ghana won the Under 20 World Cup; learning phrases of pidgin and Ewe; shopping in the market...etc etc.

But there were other things that I could not grow accustomed to. Being called Yevu (white person) gets old after about a week. After 2-3 weeks I stopped answering to anyone over the age of 10 calling out to me in that manner. Hohoe is a major town in the region, there are plenty of white people there. To call out to me in that manner is disrespectful and derogatory...yet it is accepted. They call out Yevu because they want me to buy something, yet if I was interested they'd charge me 10 or 100 times the price if I was Ghanaian. You get used to the white surcharge of 10% but those who thought they would charge us 100% or especially those who we had befriended and still thought they should charge us more were those that frustrated the most.

The education and health systems were also frustrating. Seeing the state of such important systems in one of the most developed countries in Africa made me weep for the other African nations. Especially the education. Leaving the issue of global competition aside, how can this nation provide better quality of life if their children are going without basic fundamental education. Oh, education is mandatory but the quality, to be put bluntly, sucks. Rote memorization without fundamentals discourages any form of creativity, of contextual meaning, of ownership of ideas. Caning makes learning a painful and humiliating experience for those children who need extra guidance or who minds don't function the way the current curriculum says it should.

There is so much that needs done. And even I, as someone outside the educational field, can see where changes need to be made. But to see such systemic problems makes the challenge of change daunting and seemingly insurmountable.

I went to Ghana wanting to get away from what I knew and explore what I didn't. But I also went because I wanted to make a difference. I knew that no matter where I was placed I would give it 110% and expect nothing better from myself than the best that I could give. Because that's how approach every important task in life. But, although I KNOW I helped make a difference in some children's lives, I feel like I failed. Because I did not give it my best. I did not put in as many hours as a could have, or even as I should have (only about 2/day due to scheduling limitations). I did not give to the fullest of my potential and thus leaving happened way too soon. I knew I wasn't going to change the world so all I asked for was my best. It hurts that I couldn't even give it that. Maybe if I had went in thinking of it as a vacation where I could help some people on the side I would feel more fulfilled. In fact it would have then met my every expectation. But that was not how I looked at it. Not what I expected it to be deep down. And so in the end I would not repeat this experience by going through CCS if(when?) I ever go back to Africa. If I ever go back it will be to either to sight see or to volunteer. This middle ground left me somewhat unfulfilled on both counts.

HOWEVER, I have no regrets about going on the trip. It was overall one of the most memorable and eye opening experiences of my life and will probably hold that status for many many years to come. I enjoyed to much of it: the great and the difficult. I changed because of it, even if I am still trying to figure out how and why. I would encourage others to do it, which I believe says a lot of any experience whatever it may be.

So hopefully now you understand why I might stutter, pause, and collect my thoughts when you ask "How was Ghana?"

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