Slightly sleep-dazed and nervous, but very excited I stepped off the plane and walked into the terminal. I walked straight into a different world. For the first time in my life I was uniquely aware of the paleness of my skin. And yet I seemed to go unnoticed by those around me. As if I was beginning to sink in quick sand of feeling lost I grabbed at the one thing I knew I must do upon landing - change a little money. I can't remember now how much it was I exchanged, but I know it couldn't have been more than $40 USD. The expressionless woman behind took my bills and began to make stacks of money in front of me. Immediately the warnings of hiding all my valuables flashed in my head. Where was I going to hide all this money without anyone seeing?! But to my luck, I was still going as unnoticed as before.
The next two days were spent journeying to Akatsi, with short lessons in culture and customs as we went. We arrived at the compound that would be home for the next three weeks. It was composed of three rooms extending back from the kitchen room, all whitewashed with rough cement floors. Bunkbeds draped with mosquito netting gave them the appearance of floating. We had the fortune of electricity in the rooms and a fan to cool us on the warm nights. The toilet facility was not quite so plush. A tank filled with water rested high above the shower stall providing good water pressure and icy water. The "toilet" lacked a seat, but was as close to resembling a "real" toilet as 1/2" plywood can. The non-existent light made trips to the bathroom in the middle of the night, ummm, interesting.
From this home in the mornings I had the luxury of a chauffeured ride to the school where I taught. My ride was in a bare bones, blue and yellow taxi-cab. It bounced along the red dirt paths that with a strong stretch of the imagination passed as roads. We drove through a maze of little buildings, past open trenches of sewage along side the road and out to the edge of town.
That first day of teaching sticks out plainly in my memories. We were introduced to the principal of the school first, a large smiling but stern lady. The plan was to rotate through several classrooms that day and the next we would be assigned a room to work in. The first classroom I sat in the teacher was a strict disciplinarian. He kept the children in line with a stitch made of a long skinny stick. In minutes of sitting down in the class room I began hoping I wouldn't be placed in this room. There was no way I was going to be able to abide by these teaching tactics and I found myself a bit intimated just like the students. I was rescue though, by the young teacher in the next classroom I went to. His misunderstanding of the plan for me to observe for the day became my opportunity. Instead of furnishing a chair for me to sit on when I walked into the room he handed me a short piece of chalk, smiled shyly and said, "Teach". While English is the national language of Ghana the children begin speaking the regional dialects and level of English comprehension varies in the adult population. I wasn't sure if it was my place to correct the teacher's mistake, so I took the chalk and asked, "Math ok?" He smiled and nodded. Before I classroom of 30 eager faces I began by writing the numbers on the board. And when it was clear these first graders knew their numbers I quickly moved on to addition. I wrote equations on the blackboard that they copied to their little slates and moved among them as they worked out the answers. Interruptions came in the form of chickens wandering into the open aired classroom. At lunch time each child pulled their lunch out from their desk. Most had variations on the theme of rice with spicy red sauce. The fortunate kids had meat in their lunches and a few had little biscuits. Some days there would be a child sitting quietly chewing the insides of their checks watching the other children eat. Quietly, the teacher would give them a coin to buy a package of biscuits. I know, even in the US, parents can forget to send a lunch to school with their kid. I hoped that it was just a lapse in memory and not underlying poverty that sent these children to school without lunch.
But, there was no getting around the high level of poverty in this part of the world. This was worlds away from the comforts I had known growing up. The people lacked so many of the things I took daily for granted. And yet, they simply went about their lives. They didn't rush around and were some of the friendliest people I've ever met. I didn't get culture shock when I went to Ghana that summer after my junior year of high school. Everyone had warned me that I might, but even though the poverty surprised me I wasn't in shock of the way these people were living. What shook me more was returning to California in seeing how much we took for granted. The people I met in Ghana had so little but were happy and back in California I saw people with so much that were very unhappy.
A journey is to travel far. It took traveling halfway around the world for me to travel away from everything I had known. And it took coming back to discover how fortunate I am.