So… How was Ghana?
It’s such a funny thing when friends and family ask me about my trip to UIlo. “Oh my goodness! How was Africa?! That’s where you went, right?” My usual answer is simply, “amazing.” But every now and then someone really looks at me asks about my experience. That’s when I tell them to pull up a chair. There is no passing way to describe the world in which I lived, even if only for a blink of life. Through this I’ve realized I can sugar coat the experience or I can be honest.
Traveling to Ghana with EWB has been the most influential experience of my life. I have read published articles, textbooks, watched the documentaries and even talked to people who have been to Ullo and traveled to Ghana. No matter the preparation, there is nothing that really gets you ready for all that you see, all that you smell and mostly, all that you feel. My expectations were wide open when the wheels touched down in Accra.
I was greeted with the biggest, happiest smile and embrace by a man I had only ever heard of. Zach is the chief’s son. His embrace left all my worries at the customs counter. From that moment on there was nothing we did without this man. He took three weeks off of work as a nurse to be our confidant throughout our travels to make sure we were safe, comfortable and that we had everything we could need to be successful.
Buzzing through the unregulated traffic and humidity of Accra in a small van of people who are still half strangers, I found myself oddly content. Doing the daily tasks in the city was an adventure in itself, never a dull minute. Little did I know what was yet to come. We moved north through Ghana via plane and trotro. After only a few days I felt overwhelming lucky to have the companions that I did. Smart, funny, patient and kind. Every one of them. Wheels fell off, goats ran free, and the story of my life was being written hour by hour. What a time to be alive! All of this before we even put the trotro in park in Ullo.
I stepped out of the sliding door into the night and my foot lands on the burnt orange sand of Ullo’s streets. With both relief and excitement running through my veins we are taken to our quarters where we will be staying for the next two weeks. No time for settling in though, the community has been waiting. I have been waiting. Waiting to discover the ultimate reason I am here. Them. These people. The community of Ullo. It would be pitch black if not for the single light that illuminates the area that is filled with people. All in a ring that encompasses chairs meant for us and a group of dancers that perform their traditional dance around a xylophone. Clapping, chants, music and laughter. That night, with great embarrassment, I danced the dance with my travel team and the people who would inevitably change my life.
When I arrived in Ghana I thought I knew what work ethic and endurance looked like. I had seen it practiced plenty of times, sure. Thought, keyword. It takes zero seconds of observation to see the unshakable work ethic this community has. Through struggles or celebrations, this community is in it together and leaders rise for change. Paul, another one of the chief’s sons is one of these great leaders. Paul stands a tall man. Towering over those around him, not with intimidation, but enthusiasm for life. He is light in his step and word. He always seems to have a smile on his face and I swear this man carried smiles in his pocket to hand out to those around him. Above all, pun intended, Paul is an information warehouse. The history, politics, people, traditions and superstitions are all at the tip of his tongue. He, with his brother Zach, filled in any gap of information we needed to make our assessment and experience a success.
I cannot talk about Ullo without talking about the women. They are strong people. Physically, spiritually and absolutely, emotionally. To say they are crafty would be an injustice to their creativity. The women of Ullo have ambitions and they see solutions. They utilize resources us travelers may have never considered, and they are relentless with hope. They pump the water, raise the children and, through our surveys, we found that they already have a microeconomic plan to boost household income with access to an additional water supply. One woman in particular will always hold my heart. Mimina came back to Ullo from Accra during our visit. Why? So that she could care for us. Not just prepare our food and clean up, but to care for us. She looked out for us, our Ghanaian mama. She came with all the bells and whistles, kisses on the cheeks and hugs as often as you’d like. I don’t think Mimina and I ever had a “real” conversation. She does not know much English and I certainly don’t know the local dialect. Somehow, without ever sharing any intimate detail of each other’s lives, when the time came to leave my heart was filled with sadness and tears ran down her cheeks.
It’s a complicated feeling, looking around and seeing such bright and talented minds all around me, but to now see their struggle. I can’t explain the feeling of watching kids around you show physical repercussions of mal nourishment, but in that same moment give you the biggest smile and look at you with the most hopeful eyes. This community welcomed us into their homes and into the details of their life, without second guessing our intentions. This opened the gates to really connecting and caring for people and being personally touched by their obstacles. The biggest insight to Ullo’s struggles with water came towards the end of our time in the community. We were asking students about their relationship with water. How much do you get to drink during the day? How long does it take you to fetch the water? What responsibilities do you carry with that water? I heard a figure as low a half a cup of water to drink during the day. These students are sometimes late for class because of how long it takes to collect the water. So instead of getting in trouble for being late, they skip. The water they fetch is used for bathing and washing clothes. In the United States we filled up water by the liters in a matter of minutes. Chilled, distilled water ready for drinking, all at our fingertips.
One of the hardest feelings was coming back to the U.S. I ate breakfast lunch and dinner with the same people for 21 days, I missed them greatly. I missed the feeling that my day to day routine was directly impacting those around me. Alternatively, though, I came back with an unwavering passion to move forward. We left Ghana with a plan. We worked with the Water Research Institute of Ghana and found two possible locations for bore holes. This December we will drill and run tests for capacity verification and moving forward will lay pipe and build a water distribution tank near the school. Our goal is to provide water so the students are no longer drinking half a cup of water a day. They will no longer be skipping class because they had to wait.
There was one piece of insight given that stayed true through my time in Ghana, “No matter what discomforts you may experience, the people will make up for it.” For those whose names will be on the plane tickets this December: I couldn’t be more excited for you. Your faces will be a tangible hope for this community. You are the commitment we made the community. Your presence shows our dedication, your assessment and implementation are the great steps we have been striving for. Your trip will be the one to break ground. Your trip will be the cornerstone of years of planning, logistics and building this indispensable relationship. I have nothing but faith in your abilities. One last thing: With whatever blank canvas you may arrive in Ghana, you will leave with the most colorful experience. I promise.