01 October 2010

Everywhere, All At Once

Starting my post-port blog just keeps getting harder and harder as the semester continues. In a sentence, my time in Ghana was rich, full, emotional, and entirely too short.

Walking up from the beach on our last afternoon we passed a little deserted apartment complex with a sign out front that read For Sale, Yours Now. I looked at the tattered and faded pink building, fairly amicable compared to its distant neighbors, and had a very dangerous idea: STAY. Stay? Are you kidding? You’re almost twenty-one years old and you think you can do this, now? The moment was fleeting, and soon interrupted by the myriad of wisdoms that took a vacation for that passionate split second. Ghana just had so much more to teach me, and saying a premature goodbye was difficult.

I’m staring a blinking cursor, thinking of what to share, and my (amazing) roommate Amanda says to me, “Kels, you’re stressing out about this way too much.” She’s probably right. I’m bombarded by not-yet-formulated ideas and conclusions about my time in Ghana so trying to lasso a good sentence together, let alone a report on the matter, feels impossible. Well okay, that’s what the perfectionist control-freak side of me nags at least. Amanda suggests I write something like: “Ghana was amazing, I’m alive and safe, not much to say yet, come again soon.” But I think that would be a cop-out because this blog is just as much for me as it is for any of you lovely people who might be reading it. When I look back in 30 years and cannot make any sense of what is written in my journal, I can turn to this and say, “Okay, there was a literate human being in that 20 year old body somewhere.”

So instead of trying to make something pretty here, I’ll give it to you in skeleton form. There are four things (of I’m sure many) that make up Ghana: poverty, community, resilience, and happiness (okay, well maybe gratitude but you can decide that). They’re everywhere, all at once.

Poverty: It’s everywhere. Despite the fact that Ghana has twice the per capita output of poorer countries in West Africa, at least 30% of the population still lives on less than $1.25 a day. Acquiring basic human needs like clean water, nutrition, health care, education, clothing, and shelter for many Ghanaians is a daily struggle. In Takoradi, most housing consists of scrap wood, concrete blocks, or corrugated tin – affluent areas outside the cities are rare and are still well below most Western standards of living. I spent two days in Cape Coast, two hours east of port, and took a cooking class from a women’s co-op called Global Mamas using Ghanaian staples like: yam, cocoyam, plantain, cassava, okra, canned tomatoes, onions, garlic, peanut butter, palm nut oil, and a few spices. Health note… I notice that these primary starches are easy to grow, but lack the nutritional punch of other complex carbohydrates that our bodies really need. What they do, however, is fill you up quick and keep you full for a long time – extremely important when getting another meal for the day is not always guaranteed.

Community: It’s everywhere. Not in my short life have I ever seen or taken part of a community so devoted to the welfare of each and every member. A Ghanaian university student sailed with us from Casablanca to Takoradi and she explained to us in pre-port lectures that if a child is out in public misbehaving, an adult does not ask who the mother or father are, they ask what village the child comes from. Villages raise children, literally, and each members contribution is a reflection of the community as a whole. There is no my house or your house – surpluses are spread to those according to their need so that everyone can be the most productive member of the community as possible. Theoretically, the college experience would support the “we’re in this all together” model, but so often we (myself included) get caught up in our own needs that we forget that we need to carry each other so that everyone can “survive” and be successful.

Resilience: It’s everywhere. I can’t tell you how many people I talked to who sang the same sort of tune “You know, life is hard but it is good, finding work is hard but I have my family and I have my health, I have freedom and I have justice.” This country was once the main hub for the trans-Atlantic slave trade where 12 million Africans were held captive in European slave dungeons on West African coasts and transported by ships to the New World between the 15th and 19th centuries. And even though the slave trade was officially banned in the mid-1800s, British colonial rule did not end until 1957. The people here are not angry though, rather grateful actually and hopeful for the future. Shaun and I share a magnet that says “Keep calm, don’t feed the pug, and carry on” and nobody epitomizes that better than the Ghanaian. They carry on all right, and they celebrate what they have with song and with dance and with light. I was in a cab one day heading to lunch or something and we passed by a church hosting a huge wedding. Attendees wore their brightest kente clothes and buzzed around the bride and groom cheering, singing, kissing, hugging. Life is hard, but there is always reason to rejoice.

Happiness: It’s everywhere. In my Global Studies class on the ship, we’re taught that prosperity leads to greater happiness around the world. On paper it makes sense – someone who makes $200 a day has a better chance at self-actualizing compared to the person who lives on $2 a day who struggles to meet his or her basic physiological and safety needs. But when you get down on the ground, this barometer is useless. If I’ve learned anything in life it is that everyone’s version of happiness looks different, so it’s absolutely impossible to judge. If you get your hands dirty or in my case get completely soaked in a rainstorm, you’ll meet people who have nothing and everything all at the same time. I spent my third day in Ghana trekking around the center of town, eventually winding deep into the cacophonous and pungent markets. The women at every shanty shop clamored over us, dropping buckets of shrimp or platters of plantain onto the muddy ground to welcome us. It was superiorly muggy when we left the ship and it didn’t take long for the equatorial rains to break the tension, ushering vendors and shoppers under the auspicious tin overhangs. We tried to keep walking; all decked out in our North Face gear, but were pulled by the arms to a fabric shop (F333) and scolded for “trying” to catch a cold. We were instructed to sit with her until the rain stopped, the women in the shops across and around F333 nodded in agreement. She began to tell us about her life and her family, asking us questions about school, about our faith values. She was so full of hope, full of gratitude, making us promise we would pray every morning and every night thanking God for our multitude of blessings. As the rain started to calm down she asked me, “where do you see God?” and I responded, feeling it with absolute certainty, “I think Gods light is right here, right now.” She smiled, hugged us both, and we went on our way. I’m not na├»ve enough to think that an hour spent with this woman in her lean-to fabric shop represents the spirit of an entire country, but the happiness she experienced was built upon the “attitude of gratitude” that literally everyone in Ghana was outwardly displaying for the world to see.

I loved Ghana. And not in the oh-how-precious, people-can-be-happy-with-nothing type of way that I’m witnessing a lot of my fellow sailors experience. I loved what it showed me about myself, and I loved how it pushed me to the edge of something big that I’ve sometimes tiptoed away from. That smack you up side the head reality check that says “you were lucky enough to be born into a situation where you can do anything you want in the world, you have the power to make a huge impact in whatever pulls at your heart.” I don’t love the poverty. I feel pretty strongly that people shouldn’t romanticize the struggle. But I’ll carry their experience, the struggle and the joy, forever. I’ll carry it and look at it and know that I can be as strong as them too.

Desmond Tutu, or Arch as he wants us to call him, has made several appearances in the past few days. I’ll log back on to share some of his stories and wisdoms about South Africa soon. He is SUCH a goofball, and on that note I’ll leave you with a funny encounter… some friends and I were eating breakfast in one of the dining rooms and he comes up to our table and asks “so were you glad to take your test yesterday, girls?” We laugh and respond “well, I’m not sure if we were glad to take it, but it went okay.” He giggles, looking off into the distance, “Well that’s good, at least you’re not a masochist!”

Much Love


  1. Kelsey,
    Thank you for sharing your experiences! I have enjoyed reading your blog and look forward to the next entry.
    Take care of yourself, enjoy it all, and I look forward to seeing you in December.

  2. Fantastic reflections, Kelsey. It's wonderful that you're being touched in so many ways - intellectually, spiritually, emotionally, and more. I look forward to reading your future posts!

    Cathy Lovejoy