Well, Hannah spared me the “I told you so,” moment and allowed me to be proven wrong gracefully. The truth is that Ghana is phenomenal in so many ways and, I can attest, it’s not the Africa you’ve been warned about. It’s not the starving child who (“for just cents a day”) you’ve been asked to save and it’s not a country wrought with war or civil unrest. It’s a peaceful, relaxed, and open nation that has truly impressed me. As we walked through the airport, we were greeted by countless Ghanaians, telling us “Akwaaba to Ghana!” Hannah let me know that Akwaaba means “welcome” in Twi, the most universally spoken native language in Ghana.
I’ve often wondered if Hannah’s friends in Ghana hold their time together as closely to their hearts as Hannah does. I know that she will remember her experience and all of her friends – but will they think about her as time moves on? The answer has seemed to be a resounding, “yes!”
As soon as we entered the airport in Accra, a small man standing excitedly close to the baggage claim lit up. His face broadened into a maniacal smile and his eyes began to glow as he raced over and, to my surprise, lifted Hannah straight off the ground in a spinning hug. Peals of laughter and gleeful cooing came from the giggling ball of Hannah and Oti, a dear friend, and it was hard to tell from whom exactly it was coming.
After Hannah’s reunion with Oti, it was time to for me to meet for the first time the person who kept an eye on Hannah while she was in Ghana during her studies in Dodowa and recently warned me (over Skype) to “keep an eye on my sister.” He came in for a big hug and we were instant buddies.
We headed out for our second reunion of the day. During Hannah’s time in Ghana last year, she lived in a guest house operated by the research center in which she worked. But everyone’s got to eat – and Hannah had quite the arrangment. She ate most of her meals with a family in Dodowa, where we were headed next. Charity, the woman responsible for Hannah’s love of Ghanaian food, has a huge family filled with energetic children – all of whom love Hannah.
We pulled up to a school and attracted quite a bit of attention. White people, called ‘obruni,’ are a rare sight and werever we go we can hear the word whispered, spoken, and shouted. People are genuinely excited to see us simply because we’re so different. School children are attracted to Hannah like little magnets. We were soon surrounded. Hannah, however, had her sights set on a few children in particular: Emma (pronounced “Eema” and short for Emmanuel), Elvis, and Gina, all of whom Hannah had grown close with through her relationship with Charity. Lovelyn, one of Charity’s daughters, and one of Hannah’s closest buddies in Ghana, was also at there at the school to meet us.
Hannah quickly found herself with quite the handful as the three children thrust themselves at her like little missiles of joy – all the while shouting “Hannah Banana!” at the top of their lungs. Hannah was in heaven. I made my own introduction, but I was told the children might have to warm up to me first.
Well, that didn’t take long. Both of my hands were soon grabbed by various children as I was led away from Hannah (who was meeting with school officials) to the playground. A new game had started: see how many children Zach can physically hold on his back before he collapses. I think I maxed out at four or five. As soon as one child would slide off of my shoulders, another would leap onto my back and shout, “Run, obruni, run!” and I would soon be racing against a small boy or girl (who wasn’t carrying anyone) that would scream excitedly when they inevitably ran faster than I did.
We picked up the children and headed back to the guest house, briefly, before heading out to meet Charity and, one of Hannah’s best friends in Ghana, Lovelyn. After more big hugs, we sat down for a dinner of egg stew with rice. My first Ghanaian meal was fantastic.
I should take a minute to explain where exactly we were based. Dodowa, a bit north of Accra, is a small town that doesn’t see much tourism and is largely off the beaten path. Hannah did her study abroad work here and has a great relationship with Charity’s family, Oti, and the local research center. She lived in the same guest house in which we’d now live and she couldn’t have been happier to share that experience with me.
The guest house is a nice house relative to it’s surroundings. While mud huts sit adjacent to the front gate, the guest house has tiled floors and thick screens on every window. Still, it’s best to use bed nets and, since some of the ceiling fans (there’s no air conditioning unit) were not functioning, I found myself rigging up my bed net over a small cushion on the ground on which I slept just fine. My paracord came in handy and I used zip-ties to puff out the net in the directions where more space was required. I should mention that there’s no reliable source of running water. Instead, water is saved up when the town turns on the taps and is stored in large tanks. We then bring water from those tanks into the guest house and use it to fill the toilet tanks when flushing is absolutely necessary and, of course, to take showers. Since it’s scarce, however, the best way to bathe is by taking bucket showers.
I found myself weirdly appreciative of a good bucket shower. I started by using nearly an entire bucket of water for a single shower, but have since reduced my water requirements to half a bucket. You use a single, large bucket to store your clean water. You stand over a small basin and use a hand-bucket to rinse yourself off. The water that rolls off of you is collected in the basin. You use this water, now dirty, to simply get yourself wet enough to apply soap and to scrub dirt from yourself. This process continues and, at the end, you finally rinse yourself off with the clean water (quite thoroughly) and you’re good to go.
After a good night’s sleep, we woke up in the early morning (as the roosters nearby don’t sleep in) and and spent the morning setting up my hammock on the porch, reading a bit, and snacking on fresh mangoes picked from the huge mango tree that sits a few feet from the guest house. We sliced open a few, put a few in the ice box for later, and I found a lime tree nearby from which I picked a few limes, sliced them into quarters, and popped them into my water bottle.
We headed to Charity’s for a delicious lunch of banku and okra stew. Banku, much like Play-Doh with a sourdough flavor, is one of a few main starches enjoyed in Ghanaian cuisine. Most of the food here is eaten with the right hand (no utensils) and the primary eating decision is which starch to enjoy. Along with banku is omotuo, a large ball of rice, and fufu, which is a soft, putty-like consistency. At a restaurant, you might order one of these starches along with a stew of fish, chicken, beef, or goat. You use your right hand to pick off a piece of your starch and dip it into the stew, soaking up the liquid and enjoying the meal slowly. Bowls of water and soap are provided before and after the meal for hand-washing.
Next, it was time for me to visit the research center where Hannah worked during her time in Ghana, and where Oti currently works as a Program Coordinator. It was great to meet Hannah’s colleagues in Dodowa and they were so glad to see her again.
We headed back to Charity’s, where we picked up Lovelyn and headed to Auntie Julie’s fabric shop. We bought a few yards of batik fabric and a few yards of Ghanaian wax prints. We headed to Millicent’s house near the market. Hannah is an old pro: she knows both Auntie Julie, an older woman who sells the fabric, and Millicent, a skilled seamstress, very well. She loves having clothes custom-made in Ghana and she was excited to have me order a few shirts for myself. Millicent took my measurements and our new fabrics and we were on our way. We’re excited to pick up our new clothes when we arrive back in Dodowa soon.
Dinner was one of Hannah’s favorites, ‘kele wele’, fried ripe plaintains with ginger and peanuts. It was delicious. I was able to meet Eddie, Charity’s son, who was incredibly enthusiastic about helping us find untreated clubfoot patients nearby. He spoke with us about talking to health researchers in the field who may have seen the condition during the course of their work. He also suggested that we try and film some part of a traditional medicine practice aimed at correcting clubfoot. While we’re not sure about the logistics of getting that access, we’re looking into it and it’s a great idea.
The next morning, Hannah and I walked down the road and bought a few rock buns off the street. Rock buns are a sort of mixture between muffins and corn bread. Along with some mangoes and a little strawberry nectar, it was a nice breakfast. We ate on the porch and Hannah read a little bit in the hammock while I napped.
We visited the research center once more, this time to visit with Dr. Gyapong, the director of the center who supervised Hannah’s work in Ghana. She was so happy to see Hannah again and wanted to know all about our project. Hannah was beaming as she sat in her office and explained our film.
After a quick lunch of red-red, stewed black-eyed peas with tomato sauce, fried plantains, and gari, or cassava powder, we were stuffed. I washed it down with an Alvaro – a malt soda to which I’ve become addicted. We swung by the guest house to pick up the hammock, which we set up outside of Charity’s house. When the kids arrived from school, they were in for a surprise.
Hammocks are fairly rare in Ghana, something I had never considered, and the five dollar hammock I bought in Saigon fascinated the children. I set it up between two small trees (which creaked nervously with every swing)and the kids went wild. They begged to be next in the fishing-net contraption and they pushed each other as hard as they could. There were a few bumps and scrapes, like when two-year-old Kojo pushed with all of his might and forgot to let go, but the laughter outweighed a few moments of dusty tears. After everyone had begun taking turns playing on what was now effectively an enormous swing, the rest began hopping up on my shoulders and singing to the camera. Hannah took photo and video the whole time and came away with some brilliant shots.
After a dinner of fried yams, which Emma turned into an eating challenge between himself, Oti, and I, we said a sad goodbye to Lovelyn. While we’ll be back in Dodowa very soon, she’ll be off to school and we won’t likely see her before we leave.
We headed to bed and prepared for our early-morning flight to Sunyani, where we were set to meet up with Jerry Barnes of CURE and begin our official filming schedule. It had been a long day and we slept soundly. We had a big week coming up.