Farewell Ghana, my dear friend

Written on the plane coming home, 8/7/2012, and recent

I’m on my way home, and wish more than anything else I  could rewind time and land back in Ghana.  I am not ready to go home, and face the craziness of it all. I can’t believe it’s over. I feel like the time flew by so fast. I have such a conflicting mix of bittersweet feelings… both really happy  it happened and went well, and sad that after all that planning it’s all over. (I wonder if it’s similar to what my newly married friends feel after all the planning of a wedding!)

One lost luggage for a week, 4 sick volunteers, 1 lost handbag…but we made it!!  I have to say I had such a great time. This experience only reassured to me that I love what I do, helping people and giving to others; it also showed me how much I enjoy working with communities and working in collaboration with leaders from other countries. Also, it really showed me how much I love to watch other adults share the same joy in the things I do; watching my volunteers work hard, grow and learn about themselves was something I really enjoyed being a part of. I feel SO grateful to have been welcomed so graciously into the lives of those I worked with, for a second year in a row. Words cannot express my gratitude!!

I always liked challenges, and this was perhaps one of the biggest ones I’ve faced in a while. We had some bumps in the road, but in the end, we came to Ghana to give to 3 communities, provide days filled with activity, fun and learning, and that’s exactly what we did. I am so proud of the volunteers for making it happen,  and for doing an amazing job! Happy as well that I was able to ensure the programs at each school ran smoothly. At the end of the day, we didn’t just meet our goal, we excelled it, and I think that’s an achievement for both myself and my team to celebrate. We had never worked with two of the communities before, and as with anything new, there’s always that chance of it not going as planned. Working in a team, also comes with it’s own challenges. You may come across personalities with whom you clash with, or have trouble getting along with. Though there’s always going to be differences, I have to say that I think my team did an excellent job trying their best to work together, and enjoying each other’s company. On this trip, as team leader, I learned not only  about myself, but also, about  teamwork and people in general as well. 

At times I had the volunteers come together to reflect on their experiences, to help them learn about themselves as well. We did one in the beginning, the middle and the end of our program. I think it’s always helpful to stop and think about what you are doing, how it makes you feel, especially for a team of adults working together. The girls did a great job really thinking about the program and how it was affecting their own personal feelings and growth, mostly in positive ways. I loved it most, when volunteers would share new things that they’ve learned about themselves. That’s the only real way to grow.  From my own last year, I know that an experience like this really makes you think, and in a way, forces you to learn more about yourself..what you enjoy working in a team, and what you don’t, how volunteering can impact you differently than it does to others, how it affects your own life back at home, what challenges are the hardest to face, and most of all, how powerful it is to try something new. I think reflecting through out the program was a great opportunity for the volunteers in so many ways;  If nothing else, it helps to remind ourselves what we were in Ghana for, and that we all had one common interest…helping and giving to others, working with kids, and trying something new (for some). I felt so proud hearing what some of the volunteers have shared. (Made me think back to some of my teachers, and thought ‘I bet this is how they feel when some of their students get really into class assignments’!) Overall, it was great. If you know me, you know I’m a thinker, a processor, and am always encouraging others to write, journal, and just take a minute to think about things going on around you, when life moves so fast. I can only hope that the volunteers found it as helpful as I intended it to be for them.

As a team leader, I have learned so much. I’m a planner. I usually have a busy week and know what day I’ll be doing what. That is my sense of calm. This summer, helped me to learn and stretch my boundaries of planning. As my role of team leader, I was constantly emailing, on the phone, coordinating all our services…our drivers, school work, the kid’s meals, our meals, our hotel stay, etc. etc. The list goes on! As many phone calls it took to make things work, things were always changing..and more phone calls had to be made. There were days I thought, ‘Ah hah! I got it nailed, it’s all planned and things will be perfect when we get there!’… and then we’d get to a school and everything was switched around! It felt wierd at first, it was frustrating at times.  There were so many things up in the air and shifting…breakfast and lunch times at the school were sometimes moved last minute, volunteers had to swap scheduled with someone else, dinner plans were delayed, and sometimes messages got mixed up and lost in translation due to  language miscommunications. Those were the best! But, in the end, I embraced this lifestyle, and  I learned from the Ghanaians that even when things aren’t planned, or unorganized, or delayed..it still always works out. As one of my friends from there always tells me, “There is always a way”. I hope to take some of this Ghanaian mindset with me into the next year, and wonder if I may grow at least a little bit more faith in that things will just work out in the end even amongst chaos. It makes me wonder if our overall definition of “chaos” in America, is just different from those in Ghana as well.

I also learned how to be a successful leader (at least I hope so!).  I can now check off ‘lead a group of adults in a foreign country’ off my bucket list! I know I was always a natural leader in activities when I am with friends, or when I was younger, but I never had an opportunity to be one for adults. Well I did this summer, and am really happy to say, overall it went well. I’ve always been good at being calm when things are stressful for others, so that was one characteristic that played as a strength in my role as leader. We had a few stressful situations; one volunteers luggage was lost for a week! I was on the phone or texting to get updated every hour of the day, and ensured to update her whenever I heard news. I was SO excited for her when we found it, as I can imagine she was as well. I have to say she did an excellent job staying calm and being patient.(You rock girl!) Everyone was so generous in sharing their things with her as well! I also had a few sickies; I hate talking myself up, but one thing I’ve always been is giving to everyone around me. I gave the girls as many of my meds as I could, while trying to leave 1 or more to spare in case I got sick. So glad I ended up buying that cough syrup at the airport last minute! (Hope that cough is gone by now Soph!)  One of the other volunteers had to go to the clinic, but it was also a very smooth process and I made sure to wait with her every step of the way. She got better in no time! (Hope you are feeling better Steph). Another volunteer got sick and had to stay home one day..which killed me. I felt so bad. The show had to go on though, as her group was waiting for her, so I jumped in and worked with her group for the day. (MaryBeth, they didn’t stop asking about you!) I’m glad she stayed home though, the rest was definitely needed and helped her recooperate. There were also moments that the volunteers were frustrated with some of the program logistics, and this was definitely hard on me. But, I wanted to make sure they felt heard and held a group meeting to discuss the difficult topics, with the hopes of alleviating some of their frustration and other feelings. I wish I was able to do more to have made it a better experience for them, in those areas which they may not have been satisfied, but I at least feel happy knowing that most all of the volunteers felt a high level of satisfaction with the actual time they spent with the children in our camps.

This job required multi-tasking on a whole new level! I’ve also always been good at multi-tasking, but I even impressed myself with the amount of daily tasks I had this summer. I actually looked forward to each new task and embraced every new task with excitement. There were so many tasks on my to do list each day, and at first I thought it may be daunting…but in the end, I loved it, and it felt easy. I also learned that I can indeed get over my (silly) fear of talking to locals, being on my own, and that I actually really enjoy it. My trip was that much more special to me because of the fact that I got to work with so many different community members… they were all so interesting and I learned something from each and every one of the people that I had the honor to work with..the chiefs, the principals, amazing Adamus staff, etc. They were all so friendly and conversations were endless when it came to learning more about their own backgrounds and stories. As a team leader, I also learned that I can handle multitasking more than I ever thought was possible! I learned how to be firm with Ghanaians, when you need to be (because otherwise we’d still be sitting at breakfast waiting for our juice and fruit!) 🙂  After having one summer experience in Ghana under my belt, I finally mastered how to understand the local English as well as how to have the locals understand me the first time rather than the 4th or 5th 🙂 I learned how to constantly get used to changes, and work with things not going as planned- and still seeing positive results and learning to trust that everything will be ok. I learned that as a leader you are going to have people not like you, or listen to you, as much as you have said something over and over…and how not to take that stuff personally, because most often than not it’s not about you. I learned that sometimes you can’t please everyone but the best you can do it be yourself and know that you’ve tried your hardest. That perhaps was the hardest for me; I tend to be someone who likes to make people happy but I’ve learned to accept that with a large group of people, it’s just not realistic.  When there were some group frustrations, all I wanted to do was make everyone feel better and alleviate the upset feelings. If you know me well, I hate more than anything in the world, when people are upset and will try to do what I can to make them feel at least a little better. In this type of position, I learned sometimes no matter what you do may not help, and sometimes you have to let things be. Settle with the uncomfortable feeling that I can’t fix it all….it’s really hard for me to do that, even in my professional social work world. However, from this experience, more than ever before I’ve learned that it’s just going to happen that you can’t please everyone, realistically.  And, I’ve learned to settle with that feeling and accept it as it. I’ve also learned what it feels like to have pride in a team of hard working adults. Finally, I have learned what it’s like to feel a sense of pride to watch something you have put so much time and effort into, take off and be successful!

Ghanaians have this beautiful way of handling life that I continue to admire. I know I spoke of it a bit last year in my blog, but it’s just so inspiring to me. Ghanaians make the best out of everything and genuinely are happy and positive people; they deal with problems as they come, and never stress too much about anything. I spent time with so many different Ghanaians..some old, some young, some who spoke Twi, some who spoke Nzema, all from different places, and with different stories. Amongst them all, I noticed an inspiring sense of calmness. There was always a way, things were always worked out, nothing was too big of a problem or too much trouble for anyone. I found all the Ghanaians I worked with, to be so generous and always willing to help. I love that about the Ghanaian culture as a whole.

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I love that most places you visit in Ghana, are filled with the friendliness people. They say Ghana has a reputation for being one of the friendliest countries in Africa, and I completely see it. The ones I have come across, are just amazing people with warm hearts and sensitive souls.

After my trip to Ghana last year, I felt a life change. Slowly, I instilled this sense of calm into my life the past year and I noticed it made such a difference in all my interactions with the things and people around me..the way I’ve dealt with my own stress, and that of friends, the way I deal with friends’ drama or with arguments. I found myself at the end of this year, realizing that I have handled things a lot better than before I went to Ghana. I also changed so many of my priorities. Things like Facebook and shopping, lost it’s appeal after returning. Naturally, the new perspective I had when I returned wore down a little bit over time. So many people told me, it won’t last a whole year. My answer is that it lasts as long as you want it to last. Realistically, there are definitely things you just have to adjust to, living in a city as crazy as NY, but I definitely noticed a big change in my life over the past year; I hope to be able to do the same thing, after this trip. I hope to be able to pass this on to some of my friends and family at home as well. It makes me hate coming back to NY where things are moving so fast and everyone is on the go but if  I take the Ghanaian love for life and sense of calmness with me, I know that I will be able to practice that way of thinking no matter where I am.

I know for sure, that this summer with our Summer Camp Team, we made an impact that goes beyond the kids. We affected families, teachers, principals, Adamus workers, and so many kids. We made friends along the way, left some lessons behind, and walked away having learned ourselves. We taught kids things they never knew before, and gave teachers new ideas of alternative ways of learning. We enhanced lives. I’ve mentioned this before, and will again..people wonder what kind of impact you can make with such short time. I myself struggled with that idea this trip because we were only with the villages of Anwia and Nkroful for 3 days each. I went back and forth about whether it would be successful. Though I do think if we stayed longer it would have been even more powerful, I believe strongly that we still left something with those kids that they will hold on to forever.

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I loved Ghana after returning last year, and I think this trip only enhanced my attachment to it. The connection I feel is the type you may have with a friend who you don’t see that much, but think of often. Whenever you see them again, it’s like you never left eachother. It’s easy and effortless. There’s a sense of excitement yet also a sense of calmness. That is exactly how I feel. You know you’ll never have to worry about losing touch with that friend, because you know they’ll always be there. If there’s something you may ever need, they are suddenly right there by your side. You know even though you can’t see each other, you are both thinking about each other. Whenever you are with that person, life feels carefree and perfect. Cheesy, yup. But it’s how I feel. Ghana, is that friend to me. I feel so at home there. I’m always so genuinely happy when I am there. It’s comfort, happiness, excitement, and tranquility all at the same time. I honestly feel like some time in my future I would be perfectly happy staying there for a longer period of time. Some of the kids asked me if I’ll ever come back, if I’ll be back next year. I answered by saying I don’t know when, but I know I’ll be back. It’s true; I know it. I love it too much not to. It’s a part of who I am and always will be. Each and every person I had the honor to work with will forever be in my mind, and thoughts. I look forward to sharing all my pictures and stories with friends, because there are so many amazing memories!

Soon, my birthday is on it’s way. “The” birthday. As a single female in NYC, there is so much stress put on that number. Being in Ghana this summer, has helped me feel a lot more at ease, and ready for it to come. As I approach the dreaded 30, I am going to be positive and feel happy for all the amazing opportunities I have been fortunate to have in the 30 years of my life thus far.  I feel so lucky to have had this opportunity 2 years in a row; as with all my memories and experiences, it has made me who I am today and experiences like this continue to make me a better person. As I move on to this new period of my life, I am ready to embrace it and look forward to more exciting opportunities in my future. Before I left, I was really anxious about being 30, but after coming back from Ghana I realize…it’s only a number; kids in Ghana don’t even know their birthday. As I wrote in one blog, priority there is about health and happiness. And that is exactly what I am going to make as mine. Instead of dreading it, I am going to celebrate another amazing year of life, and instead of being bothered by it, will be happy I am healthy and alive. I miss Ghana and am still so sad, but I am ready to embrace the Ghanaian lifestyle as I take on this new chapter in my life, since it is a country that will always be close to my heart. I will continue to blog in the next week or so because I have so much to continue to share with you all! I hope if anything I have inspired some of you to pursue this dream that I have continued to live out for the past 2 summers. I know some people have shared with me that this was their dream too. Always remember, life is what you make of it, and anything is possible 🙂 To all my Ghanaian friends, you are in my thoughts every day, miss you SO much. I leave you with the quote that rings so much truth whenever I think of all the kids and adults I had the honor to work with in Ghana for 2 summers in a row..it’s a quote repeat from last year, but I don’t care..it puts exactly how I feel, into such perfect words..””Some people come into our lives and quickly go. Some stay for awhile and leave footprints on our hearts. And we are never, ever the same.”

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Happy weekend everyone.

A day at the market

A Day At The Market

For one of our days off, our group split into two; a bunch went to visit Busua, a beach town, and Sharon and I headed to Tacoradi, to explore some local market action. We weren’t sure what it would be like, and were excited to explore the unknown. We got dropped off, and soon realized Tacoradi ‘ is a very busy, bustling town. I had read that it would be as such, but it’s much different to experience it in person. It made me wonder if it’s what a tourist who visits NYC for the first time may feel like. There were people walking in all directions next to one another, making the sidewalk feel small. There were all types of different things being sold on the sidewalk, from clothing, to fruit, to cooked meat, to housewares. We thought ‘yes, we found the shopping jackpot!’, but then we broke out our map, only to find out that  what we were seeing was just the beginning the real action was inside of a huge circular building that was a block down. This building was called the Tacoradi Market, a huge building that almost resembled the shape of a stadium.There were two floors, and it seemed like there were vendors for miles. We started to walk around it, and then realized there were entrances to walk inside. We continued to walk until we found a small entrance, and there, is where the magic began. It felt like we had just walked into a cross between a labyrinth, and the Secret Garden…there were vendors to your left and right for miles, separated by tight walkways between them. Every where you turned, something was being sold.

It was an amazing sensory overload to your senses; so many smells, sights, and sounds. Walking around, you smell everything from fresh cut vegetables, to soap, from fish, to spices. Some areas smelt so good it made you want to buy it all; others smelt so bad you had to move through them quickly. The sights were also amazing; pigs feet being sold, live crabs in buckets,  beans of all colors, endless bins of rice, palm beans being prepared, okra being chopped..and that was all in just one food area. The market seemed to be separated in different areas, so each one brought on a whole new array of sights and sounds. Sharon and I were loving it, and were taking in everything around us. We are both from NY, and the different sections reminded us of different parts of the city; as we’d pass each one, we’d call it out…’We now enter the garment center’, ‘This one is Harlem’, and ‘Definitely the Broadway of Tacoradi’. Ha. It was cool to see how the sections were divided up. We saw so many great things. Sharon was all about the patterned cloth, so we stopped at a few vendors for that. The prices range according to how nice the fabric is, usually ranging between 3-8 Cedi per yard.

We were excited to see this particular type of bean that we had eaten at our hotel for breakfast..it was delicious. (The rounder bean, in the 2nd picture below)

At the market, there was SO much fish. At times, not going to lie- I definitely got creeped out. I remember looking at a bin of shells thinking they looked really nice, until slowly I started to see one, two, three begin to squirm…they were snails! Gave me the creeps. I moved away from that bin fast! There were also tons of live crabs, and larger types of snails as well. Not my cup of tea, but I imagine it being a great place to go for the locals, who often eat fish as a staple in their meals.

The fresh vegetables were my favorite. I loved the smell as they were getting washed or chopped. I loved how colorful they were. There were bright greens, and reds, oranges and yellows everywhere!

Sharon and I also found one lady that sold beads. As most of you know, last year while visiting Cape Coast I got two strands of beads, one green and one white. They are still on my wrist today, and I wasn’t planning on getting anymore. Then I got to this lady’s stand. There was one gorgeous orange strand of beads that stood out. I had to have it. Welcome the new addition to my wrist 🙂 (I think soon I’ll be cutting one from last year off, so I will only have 2, 1 from each year. Was thinking of cutting the green, suggestions are welcome!) Sharon got really pretty blue beads as well.

I also have always wanted a waist band, so without hesitation I picked out a pretty blue strand, and had the lady place it around my waist. At first it was a bit too loose, so we went back and had her tighten it. I love it! It has definitely taken some time to get used to, but I love it. It’s a good reminder when I eat just a little too much ha…like I did RIGHT after getting it on. Sharon and I were starving after a morning of shopping. We had heard there was a lot of “chinese food” in the area, so we thought we’d give it a try. We found this:

It was a lot of food, but so yum! The perfecy way to end an exciting busy day in Tacoradi 🙂

A new perspective

In talking to a good friend today, I came to realize how much my perspective on life has changed, now that I am back home. I have only now really began the process of reflecting on my trip and how it has impacted me. More than ever before, I am realizing  that life is too short and that it’s so important to live to the fullest, because you only get one shot. I am such a believer that it’s possible to do anything you want to do if you put your mind to it. It’s a message that we often preach to children, but so often we as adults forget to take our own advice. I believe excuses can sometimes just be fear, disguised. In thinking about my own experience, I feel so lucky that this summer I was able to go to Ghana and live out my dream, and that with every day that passes, I am able to gain further perspective from my experience.

As some of you may know, at the age of 19 I lost a best friend to cancer, an experience that changed my life, as well as my perspective on life overall. There was so much Ali was not able to experience, and watching her lose her life at such a young age changed me as a person. I used to be somewhat shy, timid, afraid to try new things. When Ali passed it was one of the hardest, saddest times in my life-but it was also the moment I decided to take advantage of what life has to offer. As cliche as it sounds, I really understood that life is too short, and you really never know what lies ahead. From that moment on, I was determined to try new things and to live my life, and live the life Ali would have wanted to live herself. It’s what helped me gain courage in college to go abroad by myself, to try new things, and make new friends…and even in trying new things to this day.

I felt compelled to write tonight, because of my newfound appreciation for the Ghanian mentality I observed, and the difficulty I am recently experiencing in  trying to have others around me understanding it . As I got to know the people and culture of Ghana during my stay I always saw such comrade, genuine compassion for others, and happiness all around. The school children may not have had  any toys to play with, a clean uniform, or maybe just enough money for  a small piece of bread for breakfast. The adults didn’t always have a pen or pencil to grade a test, or enough money to go to the college they wanted that year….but, they were all happy. They found happiness in the littlest things.

I started to take on that mindset while there-and it felt SO good. It’s not what we Americans are used to- especially in New York. Life moves fast. There’s high anxiety, a lot going on around us, people always on the go, places always to be- and in turn, a lot for us to worry and stress about. Then there’s extra drama that’s created by friends and people around us, adding even more “stuff” to our lives. It’s almost unnatural for us in our society to stop and find happiness from little things..to not sweat the small stuff..to look at the bigger picture. We live in a smartphone-obsessed, drama-frenzied culture. The next best thing. Bigger is better. Less is certainly not more. Facebook so actively a part of our lives. Drama constantly keeps us entertained, and clothes keep us stylin’.

In Nkroful, the small village in which I stayed, it just wasn’t like that at all. Adapting to this new mind-set at first honestly was a bit of a challenge. No blackberry and no internet at first was almost anxiety provoking. I felt naked. We are so used to talking to everyone, knowing who’s where and what is going on, that it’s like we lose focus of what’s really important..and right in front of us. You know what though? After 3 weeks of none of that, I LOVED it. It helped me really focus on what I was in Ghana to do. It helped me live in the moment, and not worry about silly little things I’d normally worry about at home. It made me feel more productive, and every morning I woke up with such a clear and positive mind. It was great! Every day I came home SO dirty from working with the kids. I gained weight from the carb-fest it was. My hair a fro, and quite knotty. I didn’t look at a mirror for days at a time, and sometimes, we weren’t able to shower every day-but when you work with people who are so less fortunate than you- you realize all those things don’t matter at ALL, and your priorities start to change.

I learned so much and gained such new perspectives on life, and feel so lucky to have  had the chance to do so.  I ‘ve had  a hard time coming back and adapting to New York, and work life . I don’t just miss Ghana but I also miss being around a culture who thinks so calmly and positively about everything. Because I won’t be able to go back to Ghana so quickly, I have been trying my best rather than being sad, to focus on the positive and realize how proud I am for the entire experience. I’m proud of myself for following my own mantra of living life to the fullest by taking a plunge and trying something new, living out a dream I’ve always had. I’m excited to share that I have applied for, and recently accepted the position of Team Leader for next year’s Ghana volunteer program! I couldn’t be happier knowing I will for sure be back to visit my new favorite place in summer 2012!!!  Though I miss it a lot, I am excited at the opportunities that lay ahead this year, in continuing my work with Ghana and it’s people.

Not a day has gone by where I haven’t thought or dreampt about one of the kids, or the teachers, or a place, or the food. Today I received a call from one of the teachers and it made my day! It’s such a nice feeling knowing I have made such special connections with both children and adults there; I have a feeling somehow, we will always stay connected.

I write this blog today to share with you how thankful and proud I feel to have been able to live my dream of going to Africa to help others-  but also  to encourage you to do the same. Do something you’ve always wanted to do. Try something new (be it a rollercoaster, or frog’s legs!). Try a new language. Eat a new food. Take that zumba class. Do something alone for the first time. Apply for a new job. Go on a trip. Volunteer. Take a risk. Be fearless. As my mother always says,

“Life is not a dress rehearsal. You only go around once.” 🙂

I leave you all with this great song that is really popular in Ghana, but that also has such a positive life message about living in the moment:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6etQIK4Y2Rc