Updates from Ghana - March, 2010
By Kathleen Ryan
Picture life in a medium-sized African village in Ghana. What do you see? Hear? Smell?
If someone had asked Nick Ricci, Jessica Haley, Aria Miles, Kathleen Ryan, or Cole Freeman those questions before January 11, 2010, all of them would have struggled. After more than 70 days in the village of Oguaa, Sekyere East District, Ashanti Region, Ghana, however, each of these Princeton Tigers could give you vivid, vivacious, and more-than-amusing answers. What’s more, the responses would be far from what any of them had in mind on January 11, 2010, and even farther from what an average American might have in mind today.
When questioned about their tentative hypotheses, Nick Ricci revealed that he had imagined sleeping on a dirt floor. “I thought I would have to purify all my water, all the time,” said Jessica. “My daydreams always seemed weirdly dim,” remarked Kathleen. “I suppose I imagined a small lantern as the only source of light. That or I just repeatedly imagined being scorched and rendered slightly blind by the impossibly hot, noon-day sun.”
For better or for worse, all three students were wrong. It turns out that in Oguaa, all the Princeton students have the option of a foam mattress, there is water to drink that doesn't need to be zapped with radiation, and the sun rises and sets normally (although at noon, it is still very hot). Oguaa has gone from just a figment of five students’ imaginations to a real, tangible place. A place called home. After a long, hard day at school in villages scattered around Oguaa, Nick, Jessica, Aria, Kathleen, and Cole traipse through dust, sand, and more to spend their hours here, living in this wonderful, Ghanaian village.
It’s 2:00pm and Cole is currently making his daily commute home from Senchi. He is pounding the dust of a dirt road that winds through farm lands and light, tropical forests. After the pot-holed and eroded road slopes down a hill, Cole turns left towards the Oguaa water pump. Surrounding the pump are twenty children, ages 4 to 16, with water receptacles ranging from small plastic bottles to very large silver basins. The kids shout and run to greet Cole. A handful of much older women also bow their greetings. Today, one of these women, who is easily as strong as the average American male college student even though she is older than Cole’s grandmother, is barking orders at the small children. Nonetheless, she stops to yell, “Kwame Donko, ma haao!” (Cole, good afternoon!)
Housing structures line this single-lane road, which is the only truly defined path in Oguaa. Other parts of the village are scratched with fractions of footpaths that naturally meander through people's homes and courtyards where they may be washing clothes, preparing food, scrubbing dishes, or even sleeping. These spaces seem to serve as a universal go-zone. Put simply, if a person wants to get someplace, they just walk directly through any courtyard or living area they need to. All space is community space, so all are allowed to pass at any time.
The houses are a mix of mud-brick structures, concrete-brick structures, and mud-brick-plastered-with-concrete structures. All are one story, and they are usually thin rows of rooms arranged around a central outdoor living space. Imagine the houses as square doughnuts, with sleeping occurring inside the “dough” (bedrooms), but all other living going on in the empty hole in the middle.
Some of the houses are the rich red brown color of the mud they are made of, while others are painted a bright, Lily-Pulitzer pink and green. Outside the houses, people sit on benches, stools, or plastic chairs. While passing through a courtyard, Cole greets another one of the young teachers in the village. The man is dressed in a well-ironed blue oxford button-down and sharp black pants and loafers. After this, Cole greets the old woman on the next bench, who is wearing just a geometrically patterned cloth wrapped around her waist.
Children, also clad in an incredible variety of dress, are running seemingly everywhere. Every door, if there is one, is wide open. Anyone can enter any living area at any time. As Nick has so elegantly stated, “The village is very much one big family... living so close together really affirms that sense of community, one family...it doesn't matter if you are born in the village of Oguaa, move here, are merely passing through for a bit, or even if you are from a different country. You are here, and you are part of the family.”
Cole continues to meander through houses and he continues to greet, chat, and casually joke with the children. Being just one more in the family, he is on easy terms with everyone, but due to this closeness, he is expected to give each person his or her due. Being in a family has joys and conveniences, but also responsibilities.
“It is the custom that when anyone walks into your presence as you are eating, you invite him. My food is my brother's food.” says Nick. It is also customary to engage in conversation with a person as long as they please. The Bridge Year students have unanimously agreed on two things: The village family is lovely and supportive and always fun, but has also caused them to discover the importance of, as well as their need for, private time and space. Kathleen puts it this way: “it’s awesome to live in a big family, but all families can get really sick of each other sometimes, and the family of Oguaa, and the Bridge Year family of tigers is definitely no exception.”
The head of the family is the village chief, or, in the case of Oguaa, Nana. The role of the chief in Oguaa, like in many other Ghanaian villages, is to resolve the day-to-day disputes of the people living in the village as well as establish a sense of structure within the community. The chief decides when to do community service, when to farm, when to turn the central water source on or off, what the punishment for petty theft is, and so on. He sets the rules of the community, lends support, and maintains peace and order.
After greeting all his family members in all the village houses, Cole makes it to the unofficial Bridge Year Program headquarters, which happens to be one of the chief's houses and is affectionately known as 'Nana's house.' This is where two of the Princeton students have their rooms, as well as Clara, one of the incredible Ghanaians charged with supporting participants while in Ghana, and also where the students eat their meals, cook, clean, wash clothes, and just hang out.
After everyone comes home from school, Nana's is where the students often spend most of their day. Despite the fact that teaching can be exhausting, it's after the school day ends that the real work may begin. Everyone gets home at around 2:30pm when a late lunch is usually in the process of being prepared. In order to get some food on the table (or the floor, or a stool) Cole, Nick, Jessica, Aria, and/or Kathleen may pound fufu, grind pepper, chop mushrooms, roll yam balls, boil ampesie, stir soup, or heat and mix stew. After the stress of school, eating is often a welcome relief. The act of sharing a meal is made even more intimate given the fact hands are used in lieu of forks and knives and everyone eats from a shared plate or bowl. “I really enjoy sitting in a circle with my friends... There is a special bond that forms and a unique form of fellowship that goes on when a family—because that is what we've become—has the back of their hands meet over a meal.” says Nick, using an old Ghanaian proverb. Aria agrees, “[we] come together to laugh and eat and share stories.” Cole puts it simply, “By two o'clock I have worked up quite an appetite, and I get really excited to eat.”
After the meal, the work continues. All the dishes are washed by hand and packed away neatly, and some initial preparations for the evening meal or lunch the next day have already begun. Clothes may be washed by hand, the porch scrubbed, pots shined, or some part of the compound swept. Additionally, all visitors to Nana’s house must be greeted and attended to, so every person who enters is offered water and a place to sit. Because the Bridge Year Program headquarters is in the chief's compound, there is a truly steady stream of guests. Anyone can come to the chief's place for anything at anytime, and in Oguaa this relationship between village and chief is taken seriously.
Helping out in the house, visiting friends, chatting with village elders, writing lesson notes, taking time for Twi study, or walking to the next village are all things that may happen between 2pm and 8pm. Some days, the work is overflowing and there isn't even a moment to shoo away the chickens that inevitably come to steal corn from the kitchen. But other days, the same Princeton student may have hours of leisure time. This can be liberating but also stressful. Each student wants to take advantage of every moment in the village, and they all try to do their best and live each minute to the fullest, by both Ghanaian and American standards. But even knowing those standards, or defining them for oneself, is a big challenge. Each student frames the task slightly differently.
“Of course there are days when I spend hours fetching water, washing clothes, washing dishes/other domestic duties... but these aren't consistent. A big question for me is how to spend my time. If there’s anything that ‘dominates’ [all] my days, it is thinking about what I want to/should be doing... each day comes and goes with many things done and many more not. That's life,” says Cole. “What constitutes the bulk of my days is just being, unfettered. Playing with kids, chatting with the wizened old women on the benches, learning to make brooms, tutoring kids in the subject du jour, or spending time in devotions—these are the activities that [help] make my days,” says Jessica
“In a place where nothing changes, every day can be so different,” says Kathleen. “Do I scrub this charcoaled pot, play games with the children, go for a walk by myself and recharge, study Twi, help one of the other Princeton students to wash their clothes, or just wander around and talk with the steady stream of people flowing in and around me? I don’t know!”
Night always comes though, and with it, the beautiful, clear, Oguaa sky. After a long day that probably began before 6:00am, and that included walking to school, teaching in both Twi and English, some labor-intensive domestic tasks, engaging and bonding with fellow villagers, helping children with their homework, singing songs, and possibly discussing the very real challenges of teaching with fellow Bridge Year students, everyone is always tired. When thinking about the future and what they have learned in the village, the reflections are overflowing—both simple and sublime.
Jessica has said, “I will miss brushing my teeth under the stars.” “Laughter and greetings in Twi,” comments Aria, “are going to be sounds that will be missed.” While reflecting on his changed perception of human necessities, Cole says, “Humans really do not need that much physical comfort to make them happy. Indeed, I seem to be recognizing that what is more important to happiness and well-being are the things like family, community….” And family and community are two things Oguaa is not lacking in the least.
It would be a lie to say that the Princeton students do not struggle in Oguaa. Everyone struggles in Oguaa. “Going without is just a fact of life,” notes Jessica, whether it’s shoes, a notebook, or a sense of control. “There is certain camaraderie to it.” This village is a big family, and we are all, Ghanaian, American, tumtum (black), and fitaa (white): we all share the joys and hardships of it. This oneness creates fun, laughter, spirit, and even love.
It is late at night when Jessica creeps through the crushed rocks and clay of someone's front yard when she hears that same greeting she hears 300 times a day. After finding the small figure in the semi-darkness, Jessica recognizes Akwesi Bismark, a child she gives homework help to everyday. Jessica engages in the usual, familial banter. “Ete Sen?” (How are you?) “Eye” (I'm good.) “Na wokoo sukuu nne?” (And did you go to school today?)... A feeling of easy affection pervades the night-time conversation, as an older sister, for all intents and purposes, checks on her younger brother before going to sleep. As Jessica wishes Akwesi goodnight and turns to walk the last paces to her door though, she is stopped by that same voice: “Akua,” (Jessica?) “Mmm?” (Yes?) “Mekoo asore a, meboo mpae ma wo.” (When I went to church, I prayed for you.) “Me nso, meko asore okyena a, mebo mpae ma wo.” (Me also, when I go to church tomorrow, I will pray for you.) “Medaase.” (Thank you.) “Aseda nni ho. Dayie! Okyena.” (It’s my pleasure. Good night, Tomorrow!) “Yoo, okyena.”(Yes, tomorrow.)
It is true that we may not always have personal space or privacy in the village, but everyone in the family has kindness, love, and support. Gifts here are greater than the gift cards, fruit baskets, articles of clothing, or other riff-raff you might get at home because even if they don't have wrapping paper, ribbons, or a dollar value, the gift—and the experience—is super charged with love.