Yesterday was my first full day in Ghana, and it was filled with both highs and lows. My day quickly yo-yo'd from good, to bad, to worse, to even worse, to better, to worse again, to better again, and then ended on a high note. Let me apologize in advance for the length of this post--I am hoping they will get shorter as I've spent more time here!
My journey began when my plane touched down in Accra at about 8PM (on day -01) and this time my luggage was not lost--thank god. Though it took me a while to find the head master of the school, I eventually found him and took a taxi with him back to the school. Upon arriving at Brainbirds Academy, I was surprised, firstly, by the location of the school/my apartment. Though the address of the school is in Accra--the capitol city of Ghana--the location is actually about half an hour out of the city. While a quick Google image search of Accra will yield results filled with sky scrapers, that is not at all what this section of Accra looked like. Instead, this Accra felt more like a village.
After arriving, I was surprised again by the conditions of my living situation. Though I was told I would be living in an apartment with a bedroom, common room, and air conditioning, I quickly found my "apartment" to be one large room packed with six sets of bunkbeds. No air conditioning, no common room, no kitchen. My roommates were three young students, three teachers, and a cleaning woman. I was told that another volunteer from Brazil lived there as well, though she was not there when I arrived (around 9PM now). I was given a bottom bunk with a very thin mattress, a mosquito net, and a hard decorative pillow. Thankfully I had swiped a blanket from the airplane because I was given no sheets or blankets.
I fell asleep quickly and awoke at 5AM to the sound of chatter. Though the school day starts at 7AM, all of the teachers and students wake up at 5 to get ready for the day. I asked one of the teachers where I could shower, and I was told that the shower in the apartment had actually been broken for quite some time now. In its stead, I was given a bucket of water and told to strip down outside, lather my body, and then toss the water onto myself to bathe. I was a bit freaked out to shower naked outside, so after some brief prodding I was allowed to wash myself inside the broken shower stall. When I got back inside around 5:30 or 6AM, the sun had just started to rise and roosters began to crow. I couldn't believe that roosters actually crow when they wake up at sunrise (I'd only seen them do this in cartoons), and that I had somehow beaten them to it.
School began with a morning prayer--a ritual I chose not to take part in, and was subsequently questioned for. While I knew that Ghana is an extremely Christian country, I didn't fully understand how religious everyone would be. Though "I'm Jewish" normally gets me out of praying in Jesus' name, the excuse did not go far here. The topic of religion was brought up several more times throughout the day, with teachers asking if they could bring me to their church services the next night and explaining that their whole weekend is usually devoted to church activities. It was then that I started to notice how frequently I saw biblical themes in the area. The children's uniforms had a bible quote on them. The local shop had a large picture of Jesus above its door. Every car on the street had Jesus bumper stickers and rosaries around their rearview mirrors. Ghanaians are crazy about their boy Jesus, man! After prayers, I sat down with the headmaster of the school to plan out my class schedule. Our meeting was followed by breakfast--a group meal of "porridge," aka mashed maize. I thought it tasted awful. I had a few bites to be polite, but then couldn't eat any more.
When breakfast was over, I left the school to try to get a Ghanaian SIM card for my phone. I was accompanied by Rebecca, the school cleaning lady, who showed me how to take a tro tro. Tro tros are privately owned vans that function as a sort of group taxi. The idea of the tro tro is very cool--you just pay 2 cedes for a ride (less than 1USD) regardless of where you get off--but the concept is foreign to say the least. Tro tros are not regulated in the routes they take, so you only know where they are headed based off of what a local boy screams out the window. What's more, there are not bus stops or street names along the way, so you have to know your surroundings well enough to understand where to get off. We took two different tro tros to get to the store, which was a small, unkempt shop run by a few teenage boys. These boys insisted that the SIM card would not work in my phone and attempted to charge me 500 cedes (about $130), which is about 3x what the price should have been, because they assumed my skin color to mean I was very wealthy. The whole interaction was a frustrating one as I could not understand why they were saying the SIM card would not work, and also because Rebecca confided that most other shops would probably be the same. I was worried that I would never be able to contact anyone from back home and that, coupled with my lack of sleep and culture shocked morning, caused me to burst into tears on the crowded streets of Accra. Not a good look.
After a costly call home to my Dad, I set off for another phone store at the "Accra Mall." This seemed like a good option because I thought it to mean that we would be dealing with a more legitimate shopping situation. That's what I thought at least, though I found the mall to be much different than I had anticipated. After two more tro tros and several sets of confused instructions (apparently many people had never heard of this place), I found the "mall," which was really more of a bazaar. The venue featured a plethora of outdoors stalls selling live crabs, pigs feet, mops, nets, and necklaces. I somehow managed to find the ingredients for peanut butter & jelly: a familiar comfort that somewhat helped to ease my frustrations. I visited two more phone shops and had similar experiences to that of the first before finally finding a real store that allowed me to buy a wireless hotspot. Rebecca and I grabbed a late lunch of rice and beans, and with food in my stomach and a phone that finally worked, I was feeling much better.
When I got back to the school, things were going well until I realized what time it was. Though I thought it was later in the evening, it was only 3PM. School had just let out, and so my room was suddenly filled with a half dozen young, screaming girls. The girls wanted to play with me, climb on me, dance with me, and talk with me. I taught them how to play simple card games like Go Fish and War, but after several hours of this I was starting to feel drained. This is when I realized how limited my options for leisure time were. Besides the students, there were only several teachers that stuck around after school closing time. While all of the teachers had been very nice to me so far, their somewhat limited understanding of English resulted in most of our conversations consisting of small talk: something I was quite tired of after a full day of chatting. I sat around wondering "what am I going to do with myself? If I'm this bored now, how bored am I going to be every weekend when everyone is at church and I am even more alone?" These thoughts were immediately followed by a black out, which is apparently quite normal in this area. Due to the lack of power, I was not able to read my book (it was already pretty dark outside), and it seemed way too early to go to sleep. I ended up calling my Mom and getting even more upset, before Rebecca pulled me aside and asked me what was wrong.
Sitting with Rebecca, outside in the pitch black, I started to feel guilty for my way of thinking. Rebecca told me about all of the struggles that she had endured in her life and how she prevailed. She told tales of such selflessness and courageousness that I felt ashamed to have been complaining over such minor difficulties. If people in Ghana live this way every day, what's to say I cannot do the same? Speaking with Rebecca helped me to reframe my thoughts and understand how important it was that I understand my privilege yet suck it up and enjoy the journey for what it is.
My night continued to get better from this point forward. My laptop held enough of a charge for me to watch Shrek with my little roommates (which they loved, by the way), and right as the movie was ending I was finally able to meet my Brazilian roommate, Mariana. Mariana is amazing and told me that she struggled to get used to the cultural differences at first too. It was great to hear that it was not long before Mariana adjusted, and I was filled with even more hope than before. She also told me about a safari that she is planning to take in the beginning of August, and I am hoping that I will be able to join her for it.
The night ended with one last realization that I was so ignorant to have taken my first world conveniences for granted. Though I had grabbed a bowl of rice for dinner, I was not hungry enough to eat it and left it untouched on a bedside table. After Mariana told me I should probably place it outside so as not to attract ants, I began walking the bowl to the dumpster outside our door. After seeing where I was headed, all three students shrieked and ran after me. They begged me, "don't throw that out! Someone will eat it. You should not throw out perfectly good food." The girls all dug in and finished the rice in minutes, and this made me feel so. bad. I cannot even count the times I have said "think about the starving kids in Africa!" as an excuse to ignore my full stomach and clear my plate at dinner or eat just one more slice of cake. To actually be faced with starving kids in Africa made me feel so guilty in that I have always been privileged enough to throw out food without a second thought.
Though I have only been in Ghana for one full day so far, I have already learned so much. While there were several times in the day that I questioned what I had gotten myself into and kind of wanted to go home, I was able to realize at the end of the day that this adventure is going to be so important in educating and strengthening me. I cannot wait to see what the other days hold in store.