Like most new experiences things were first terrifying. After gaining some time away from the sweltering bus rides and frantic dashes to the nearest toilets the trip takes on a softer, funnier tone. I’m going to tell you about my trip just as I wrote it down in my obnoxious little moleskin notebook. This entry is sporadic and unconnected just as my thoughts were as I wrote them down.
I could tell you that when we landed in Ghana the air smelled like flavored tobacco the muggy night we landed in Accra but that sounds like a voice-over for a travel channel.
Each day began when a chorus of bedraggled cocks started to sing. Throughout the village you can hear each one auditioning, puffing to flap blissfully dirty feathers in their fifteen minutes of fame.
Along with my siblings I consider myself a seasoned traveler. Nights curled up on a Venetian train platform and cancelled flights don't faze me. But, I found navigating what little I saw of Ghana and Togo terrifying. At times I was truly scared which made Laura's streetwise French all the more impressive.
In Ghana we walked through the throngs of vendors, each approaching with a smile and beckoning us to their makeshift wood stands. They eagerly shook our hands and tried to steer us towards their goods. One especially forward man came up with the slogan "sista' sista' feed your eyes for thirty seconds", displaying his selection of hand-carved elephants. "Our eyes are not hungry," Laura replied as she led me away.
I often felt guilty. Felt as though I ought to avoid eye contact with the ladies dressed in vibrant prints walking through the stalled traffic selling salted fish and fried plantains. The plantain chips were delicious and starchy like sweet potatoes fries.
The family traveled to the gold coast; ironically the church at this slave trading port was located above the male dungeon where male slaves were kept before being shipped off. And also viewed the Dubois center and both locations left me with a sad sinking feeling. Precious documents and photographs are set behind normal frames yellowing beyond the cheap class. Books written by Dubois in his personal library decay away in musty rooms. In ten years many of these historical artifacts that ought to be preserved will be gone because there is no funding for such centers.
Religious sayings appeared on the sides of makeshift shops, vans, and rusting cabs. My favorite written on side of a tailor shop read “except God”.
We visited Kakum national park where we walked a trail in the upper canopy. Afterwards, we were stuck in traffic for five and a half hours on the way back. I trusted our driver but the car sped around in rural areas with little children and goats clambering on the edge of the pot-holed road. Laura bemoaned her earache, I was on my period, mom felt like she was having a heart attack and Jim focused on not losing his cool.
The hotel we stayed in Ghana was beautiful but “a gated community” seems appropriate. Beyond the walls of the hotel were signs of poverty- children running naked in the muddy red streets with fishermen pushing their peeling boats into the trash littered waters. Pigs and goats between the standing huts made from debris.
Actually seeing where Laura lived and the community that now thinks of her as their own really helped me. I got to see her take a place of honor when talking with the elders about her newest project. Laura’s success and passion for the project can be gauged through the constant flow of visiting in her house. I watched her counsel young girls with words of encouragement about their studies and discuss new agriculture techniques with local farmers all with the same graceful ease.
Laura told of how she accidentally killed off several of her neighbor’s chicken when she tried to take care of her rodent problem. She placed illeligible Chinese rat poison she purchased at the market around her yard only to discover a deceased chicken on her porch in the morning. Hoping that this was merely coincidence she took the freshly departed poultry to her neighbors. When she found yet another lifeless bird on her front steps she thought she better let the family know what was going on. Laura of course offered to pay the family for the loss and then tried to dissuade her neighbors from consuming the poisoned flock.
Many villagers explained to Laura the belief that if an animal hears you talking about eating them they run away. To the shock of her visitors, Laura lifted her runt of a cat in the air and announced that she planned to eat it the following day. Rather than disprove this belief as Laura intended, the cat actually went missing for two days.
Laura's lining in her lungs is inflamed. Every breath she takes in is accompanied by a jab of pain. If there were ever a time that she deserved sympathy now would be it.
I'm amazed by how much local women carry on their heads. Balancing loads that would send my tumbling to my knees. Avoiding clichés I can’t help but describe their beauty as regal. Their proud, straight posture and easy steps left me in awe.
Mom had to chase Laura’s errant chickens out of the kitchen.
Young girls laughed as I helped haul baskets of gravel atop my head as they do during chores. A woman discovered the coincidence of sharing my name and continued to beam at me as we passed each other, each carrying our own load. Her head wrap distracting as I precariously tilted the basket of gravel with each jilted step.
We crowded eighteen passengers, a chicken, and two babies into a 12 passenger van en route to Lome.
We had dinner with several of Laura’s friends who teach at the local school. They have all opened up their homes and plates to Laura but one in particular stood out. He at first sight resembled a patient Shepard, heading children towards knowledge. His kind smile and teeming patience struck me as soon as we met. I’m glad that he and many other families have come to think of Laura as their own daughter.
One teacher had an Obama poster on his wall. It spelled his running mate as “Piden”.
“Yovo” means white person. “Akpe-lo means thanks you.
“Akpe ka ka”- means thank you very much. To the amusement of many I kept trying to learn these few phrases but could not get the inflections right.
Laura explained that to truly see results of successful projects, it takes about ten years. It would take several years for the villagers to see the progress that can be made if they change their farming techniques. The insight that Laura gave in offhanded conversation has already become useful in many of the public policy discussions I’ve engaged in at my master’s programs. Laura said something that struck a chord with me that I wrote it down verbatim. “They don’t own their own land so it is hard to think about the future. They can’t make long-term plans for farming or selling their goods when their main concern is what they will eat tomorrow.” Lola unknowingly brought up a number of important sociological issues in our conversations but this statement continues to stand out in my mind,
I won’t talk about the generosity and lifestyle of the individuals we met. For although they offered what little they had in such benevolence that it was truly stunning; I don’t want to talk about the kindness of Lola’s community and how they welcomed us into their huts and benches with open arms. Relishing their good acts draws attention away from the gross atrocities of the destitution. Walking along I saw children playing in the street barefoot, their swollen bellies and orange hair a blaring sign of the poverty they live in. Looking into their big brown eyes I dare anyone to argue against the fact that the grain we Americans chose to feed cattle could be used to feed the world.
I feel I have no right to think that the skinny goats grazing on the roadside as quaint. I have no right to summarize a culture I cannot grasp as a visitor.
I loved seeing Togo. I loved visiting Laura but more importantly, I saw firsthand how meaningful the work she does is. Laura, I know there are days when you’re exhausted and feel like so little has been accomplished but I find hope for our generation in looking at what you’re passionate about and the life lessons you are learning.