Wednesday May 22
There is an Akan symbol called “Sankofa,” here in Ghana. It’s a simple shape, similar to a heart but with open ends at the bottom. Fairly ubiquitous, it is found on prints and clothing, carved into stone for houses or metal plates for compound gates, and painted on store signs and the back of taxis. I myself have a poured metal pendant bearing the symbol I wear at home. The symbol comes from the Akan, later Ashanti people, a centuries-old tribe that still represents the largest ethnic group in modern Ghana and which continues to dominate much of the southern part of the country culturally and politically. This particular symbol means “to go back,” or “to return.” The meaning is grounded in the idea that you can always go back – whether back to your roots, back to fix your mistakes, or to start again.
Returning again a year later to the same place has been an experience of mixed feelings. It is all familiar, but not quite comfortable; all unnervingly the same, with a few changes.
I arrived late on Sunday evening after airport delays and a long, long line at Immigration that I almost wasn’t allowed through! But all was well, and once my passport was stamped and bags collected, I received the most welcoming hug from my host father Patrick, with a wonderful “We have missed you!” Likewise, after the next hour and a half of driving, we arrived back at the new house, where I was trampled by both my young host brothers Jeho and Methu, and hugged by their older brother Arnold. It was a long-awaited “Akwaaba,” welcome, from my Ghanaian family.
After 30 some-odd hours of little sleep, I slept through the night and most of Monday. At the end of the kids’ school day, though, I walked the familiar turns to the small compound and selfishly interrupted their last class… I first saw the eldest children in Class 3 – now Class 4, actually. Joshua, Augustine, Evans, among a few. I just about cried seeing Joshua’s gentle and sweet smile again, and simply watched him and his classmates do their schoolwork for a few minutes, marveling at the odd and uncertain fact that I was back again.
I refrained from giving out too many hugs during class, instead making my rounds to all the teachers, my host mother Mamma Pat who I hadn’t seen the night before, the house mother Aquia and her beautiful daughter Liz, as well as the rest of the children in the lower Classes. When Bernard from Class 3 rang the bell – still his duty a year later – I was bombarded with hugs, and laughs, and whispers among the kids, with the repetitive question: “Madame, what is my name?” – a test to see if I remembered each of them. Of course, I remembered them all.
It is a blessing to be surrounded by these children again. Last year I stayed for such a time, I honestly got to know each of the children living in the home, and we all now seem to have picked up right where we left off – with a game of football where I got my butt kicked by a bunch of 10 year olds, followed by dinnertime and dishes, and me sitting with five or six kids in my lap and a book in my hands. I am surprised – though perhaps I shouldn’t be – by how much of it is exactly the same as I left it. Eaxctly still, babies are bathed at near dawn, Psalm 23 is recited before each meal, Deborah throws a tantrum every hour, Joshua and Evans still walk me home when I stay too late after dark, and Aquia still runs the place with an iron fist, keeping them all in line.
Things have changed of course, and improved for the better in many ways. I have seen just in these past few days how much so. The classrooms are now more complete, with a cement floor, four walls, and roofs. The kids have block shelves and bags for their belongings and a few more beds have been bought to sleep more kids. Everyone gets double the servings they used to, with fruit once or twice a day, and meat and protein each day. Moreover, Jennifer, a girl aged 10, can now read an entire storybook on her own – something she struggled with last year. Elijah has come out of his shell and laughs at every turn – and what a beautiful laugh he has! The triplets, who arrived halfway through my time last year simply terrified, not even able to speak the same language as the other kids, now speak both Twi and English – baby Mercy is teaching them, Christiana tells me. Much has changed, and I am thrilled by all of it.
Again, this has been an experience of mixed feelings so far. When returning somewhere you have spent much time and grew to love, I think it is both easy and natural to look forward to what you’ve missed after having been gone, while forgetting the more minor ills and unpleasantries you decided not to take so completely back home with you. Culture shock, naively unexpected on my part, has hit me pretty hard, worse than the very minimal amount I felt last year. I had forgotten the largely unwarranted feelings of isolation, the heat exhaustion that horribly effected me last year, the chlorine or silt tastes of the water sachets, and the excessive attention from everyone I pass. There are things about this temporary life in Africa that are not easy, and are even more difficult to return again to a second time.
My kids, though, are farthest as could be from those difficult things. I came back to see them, for Patrick and Mama Pat’s vision, and because I love this incredible country. Whatever it is I hope to accomplish in my time here, both personally and for Patrick’s family, I know it will be only a small part of what is clearly a growing support for these kids. It will not solve all their problems, and while they still live in difficult circumstances, I have no doubts a little service can always go a very long way. That sounds like a feeder line, I realize, but give me a day or two to fully write up the history of this Foundation. A little bit many times over does go a long way.