What a week it was in Ghana. Coming onto Semester at Sea I would frequently get the question: “What port are you most looking forward to?” The first time I answered this question I automatically said “Ghana” without a doubt or second of thinking. Once I thought about it I was equally excited for each port but every since then I would say Ghana. Yes I was very excited to go to Ghana, but I’m not sure why it was subconsciously the one that I was most looking forward to. However, the five days I spent in Ghana did not disappoint, in fact, they changed my life forever.
We began our journey of Ghana on March 27th. 15 of us loaded the bus and headed two and a half hours to the St. George’s d’Elmina Slave Castle in Elmina, Ghana. I had learned about this slave castle in my Travel Writing class prior to arriving in Ghana so it was really interesting to see what we were learning about in the classroom first hand. The slave castle was interesting and offered an opportunity to learn a part of the rich history of Ghana. Although it was overwhelming at times in the castle due to the intense smell of body fluids and odor still present in the castle, it was a really nice experience to visit the slave castle. We then headed another five or so hours, with just a few stops, before we got to the City of Refuge. We were greeted by countless smiling children and a humble bunkhouse to settle down into. Shortly thereafter we headed to dinner where we would meet the kids for the first time that would change our lives. I saw a group of eight older girls sitting in the corner of the outdoor dining area so I hustled over and made myself at home with them. Most of the other students that I came with ran over to the little kids so it was just me and eight of the older girls eating together, it was an amazing first meal. I figured that since they were older they wouldn’t be as enthusiastic, but I was up for the challenge. They were more quite at first but once I cracked one of them, Mary-O, the others quickly followed and opened up. After we finished up eating we headed to the open area of the tin roofed concrete slab that was quickly converted to a dance floor. We stayed and danced with all the kids for at least two hours, it was an absolute blast. From that first night I knew it was going to be an amazing and exhausting week.
The second day was Paige and my birthday and let me let you know that a Ghanaian birthday is nothing short of fabulous. We began the morning with breakfast and a competitive pick up game of basketball. Of course by the end of the game it was five other boys and I drenched in sweat from deep competition. We had just a minute to cool down and relax before heading to the orientation for City of Refuge Ministries where we learned what they were about, got a tour of the property, and decided what we were going to be doing for the next few days. During that orientation the director of CORM found out it was our birthday and began the birthday celebrations, Ghanaian style. When it’s your birthday in Ghana there is a tradition that you get water poured on you. I’m not talking a little sprinkling; I’m talking buckets and water bottles being directly dumped on you. So JohnBull, the director of CORM, began the birthday ritual in the middle of the office building during orientation and we remained soaked for the rest of the day. We had some free time once the children got out of school and some of the girls that I sat with at dinner the night before found out it was my birthday so they ran up to me and said “Auntie Rebecca it’s your birthday, isn’t it?” and before I could reply about five of the girls ran up behind me with pots filled with water and dumped them on me. The school, the church, the recreational area, and the houses are all on the property so it was very convenient to find the kids and hang out with them. The sky was overcast and we could see a storm coming so the girls that I sat with at dinner the night before invited me into their house to hang out. The girls were very thankful that I was there and they told me that they don’t get a lot of “Aunties” my age that want to hang out with them because there are so many other little kids. This really made me sad for them so I made it my mission to connect with each of these girls and let them know that I care about them. Little did I know that it wasn’t me that was going to impact them in those five days, but they would be the ones impacting me. It was time for them to study, as they have exams next week, so I ran outside and played another quick pick up game of basketball before dinner. The night was a little mellower as we had dinner, did the dishes, and played a few short night games before heading to bed.
Dora, one of the Freedom Centre girls, (the group of girls that I sat with at dinner on the first night and hung out with all afternoon) invited me to a morning devotional on the third morning so I had to take her up on it. I woke up at 05:15 in order to be at the Freedom Centre house by 05:30. When I knocked on the door it immediately opened to Dora, Mary, and Agnes’ smiling faces. They seemed to be so joyful that I actually came, which was a great way to start my morning. The devotional lasted until about 06:00 but breakfast wasn’t ready until 07:00 so the rest of the group wasn’t up yet; this hour gave me a great time to do my own devotional and watch the sunrise. We ate a quick breakfast and then headed to the school in order to start our work early. Since the school is on the CORM property it was just a quick walk from our bunkroom. Upon arriving to the school I was put in charge of giving assessment testing to a group of students. This was very interesting to me because back home there are specific rules that teachers are required to follow when testing students. However, I was just a 20-year-old volunteer who has no real background in education, yet I was in charge of assessing these students. Once we finished the testing we had a quick lunch and headed back to the school. In the afternoon I helped Paige and her group work on sponsorship letters. There was no surprise that Paige was in charge of this as it was right up her alley. We would pull students out of their classes and have them write their sponsors letters. Paige is so great with all kids and this allowed her the opportunity to hang out with kids while maintaining the office organization, something else that she is very good at. Paige and I have always been leaders who like to get stuff done so it was no surprise to us, or our friends, that we took charge of our own things and got it done. Once school got out it was time to stop working for the day and hang out with the kids; my favorite time of the day. No surprise again, I hung out with the Mary-O, Agnes, Dora, Mavis, Mary A., Abigail, and the rest of the girls. Since the girls were older we only hung around for about two hours, as they had to study and prepare for the exams to come again. Since it wasn’t time for dinner yet I was able to play basketball, soccer, and other games with the boys for another two hours. I really enjoyed the outdoor time with the boys because it allowed me to hang out, get rough, and play sports, which I loved. Once it was time for dinner I knew that the night would wind down quickly. Similarly to the night before, we ate dinner, did the dishes, played a few games, and headed to bed.
I figured that since I had such a great start to my morning the day before, I would again head to the 05:30 devotional with the girls, and I’m sure glad I did. That morning I was able to experience and be a part of the everyday life of these girls yet again. However, something was different; the girls were very excited that I showed up again and this time greeted me with a suffocating bear hug and a genuine morning smile. The devotion was great again but there was a sense of raw authenticity in the conversations that we had. This was the first time that I really began to comprehend and understand the strength of these young ladies. We were past the façade stage of friendship and straight into the genuine connection. It was a feeling that I was not expecting to have but I am very thankful that the girls opened up and encouraged me to do the same. After that I again did my own devotional, watched the sunrise, and headed to breakfast before starting the days work. Somehow again I was put in charge of another task: painting the rooms at the Freedom Centre with special wall paint to ward off the mosquitoes. Of course, Paige was still in charge of the work at the school. Somehow neither of our duties were surprising as she was in charge of the organization and office work while I was in charge of the painting, I guess our strengths and weaknesses are very evident. There were three rooms that needed to be painted so we quickly went to work. Halfway through our work we had a group of day-trip Semester at Sea students who were there to help as well. This was really great because it allowed us to finish all but one of the girls room on the first day. When the kids got done with school the walls were still drying but they were so excited to see their new rooms that they constantly came in to sneak a peak as we were finishing cleaning up. Once the walls dried we moved all of their furniture back and they couldn’t have been happier. Since school was out it was time to play with the kids again. Paige and I were standing together when Abigail, one of the Freedom Centre girls, ran up to us and handed us some earrings. She demanded that we take them so we could “remember her forever.” She continually told us how grateful she was that we painted her room and she never wanted us to forget her. In order to understand Abigail you need to understand that she is extremely tough on the outside and acts like she’s hard to love but if you try hard enough, she is one of the most loving and genuine women out there. She has these designs scared into her face from when she was branded as she was sold into slavery, but if you look past the scars and her tough outer shell, you can understand that she’s got a great heart. She may not be physically affectionate and give an overwhelming amount of hugs and smiles but if you spend enough time and look at her heart you can see that she is more than capable of loving and being loved. So, believe me, I will never forget Abigail, or any of those girls. I was honestly so taken back that Abigail wanted to give me one of the few things that she had in order to thank me so I wouldn’t forget her. The afternoon and evening was very similar to the previous ones as I played outside until dinnertime, did the dishes following dinner, and played some short games and chatted before bed.
The morning was also similar to the mornings before as I headed to the 05:30 devotional early in the morning. Since it was my last day the girls asked me to do the devotional, which took me by surprise and made me a little nervous but I think it went pretty well. Again, like the other mornings, I spent the time before breakfast tp do my own devotional and watch the sunrise. We had another quick breakfast and got right back to work. Before our lunch we finished the last girls room and got set up in the boys rooms. As we were finishing the setup of the boy’s room, the other Semester at Sea day trip students showed up so I had to show them what was going on and what they would be in charge of. I was so busy that I forgot to eat lunch and once I realized that I was hungry I headed up to the bunkhouse to catch the tail end of our last lunch with everyone. After the quick lunch I headed back and continued to paint until the kids got out of school. Since it was unfortunately my last day I knew that I wanted to spend every last seconds with the girls that I could. Dora and I made eye contact as she was leaving the schools front entrance and she eagerly ran up to me and said, “Did you get to my room today?” Dora was in the room that we didn’t get to paint on the first day so I said, “Yes Dora, and it’s the best one yet. We had lots of practice just so we could make your room was perfect.” She then gave me the biggest grin, a huge hug, and said “Thanks Auntie Rebecca, I love you!” The joy that she had was contagious: it made every drip of sweat, blister, and every other unpleasant thing about the paint job worth it. Before I knew it, the bus was fully loaded and ready to leave for the boat. However, I wasn’t on the bus and I wasn’t ready to leave. In fact, the girls weren’t ready for me to leave either. A few of the girls had secretly been working on crafts in the house while I was outside hanging with the others but once it was time for me to leave they pulled me inside and wouldn’t let me go. The next thing I know the bus is fully loaded, racing down the dirt road towards the house, and honking for me to come outside. Amongst that chaos, the girls were all crowded around me with an overpowering group hug while shoving letters in my face that they had written and decorated. The bus was then right at the front door and blasting its horn in a warning that they were going to leave me. I would have been fine with that but instead I had to pry them off of me in order to escape. But before I could do so, sweet Abigail came out from her room and handed me two pieces of lined paper with writing on all sides and quickly ran outside. I was still prying the other girls off my side when I ran after her to force her to give me a hug. To my surprise when I called her back to me, before she reached the front door, she willingly ran back to me and knew that I wanted just one more Abigail hug. She did a tight squeeze for half a second and then ran away again with a soft yell, “I love you Auntie Rebecca.” The other girls were very similar in their reactions, as I continually had to hug and run as I headed to the honking bus that was waiting for me just outside the door. The only thing I could say to them was that I loved each and everyone one of them and that this wasn’t a goodbye, just a “see y’all later.” Once I finally got to the bus it was only about an hour drive back to the ship since it had moved ports since our first day. There were quite a few vendor tents in front of our ship so we figured we would just look in a few of the tents to see what they had. Well Paige had her headphones in her hand from the bus while looking at one of the paintings in the tent when this Ghanaian man comes up to her and asks if she wanted to trade her headphones for the painting. Paige, the bargainer that she is, told him to throw in a bracelet and it was a deal, so he did. The headphones were just an old pair of apple headphones that came with our phones forever ago so I decided to do the same; we had three more pairs on the ship to use so we didn’t see why not. With no more headphones to trade but two paintings and two bracelets in hand we decided to head back onto the ship and get ready for dinner. Dinner was a wonderful barbeque dinner where we sat around and chatted about our adventures in Ghana with our friends we hadn’t seen in five days. A lot of things can happen in five days in a foreign country so we stayed up at the top deck for dinner for quite a few hours and chatted with a few of our friends that we hadn’t seen. We were all exhausted from our time in Ghana so we called it quits at about 22:00 in preparation for the next seven days at sea.
Altogether, the young ladies of the City of Refuge Ministries have showed me more about what “love” is and what it really looks like than I can describe to you in this writing. The more than four pages that I have written only scratch the surface of my time in Ghana. There are countless other encounters and experiences that I had while in Ghana but I will leave it there for now. In a recap, I will never forget those girls and I have a little better view of what “love” is because of them. I will definitely be revisiting and staying in contact these wonderful Ghanaian ladies. There wasn’t one day of my five-day adventure that I didn’t thoroughly enjoy, Ghana changed my life in a way that I wasn’t expecting but I’m so thankful that it did. It’s crazy to me that I only have Morocco left on my Semester at Sea journey but this is just the beginning of the rest of my life.