My friends — I’m happy to launch my blogging from Bawjiase! It’s been an absolutely absurd two weeks of long flights, poorly-timed car breakdowns, hot nights, weird blends of sweat/sunscreen/bug spray, and kids. So many kids.
After 20 hours of flights, hanging out in airports, and long customs lines, I was ready to be done traveling. Sleep deprived and overheated, I rode quietly in the back of the car dreaming of my bed in Bawjiase… but those dreams were forced to wait when on the drive from Accra to Bawjiase, our car decided it was its turn for some sleep and broke down. The car breaking down really only meant waiting a couple extra hours to get home, but you can imagine how I was feeling sitting on the side of a highway at a gas station with my new friends from United Hearts (who of course were complete strangers at the time) for what was maybe the longest two hours of my life. This story echoes a very important lesson I’ve been forced to learn in the past two weeks: be surprised by nothing here. Each day brings something wild or an unexpected twist you really have to see to believe.
Things have been much smoother since even if they haven’t been perfect. I’m happy and healthy and safe. Of course, there are small things that take getting used to (mosquito nets, my deeply embarrassing “Burg sweat” in the middle of the day, and unafraid lizards are some examples). And there are moments of homesickness that I think come naturally as a result of this big lifestyle change. Thanks College Gameday. You’ve been a big help. Enjoy it, my friends, I’m very excited for you.
But overall, I can’t complain. I’m learning so much. The past two weeks have already given me stories for a lifetime and the people I’ve encountered have already left an indelible impact on me. I should reassure everyone that the same excitement, curiosity, and joy I had when starting the Global Advocate Program with Mama Hope is alive and well with me today.
Akwaaba means “welcome” in Twi, the local language here in Bawjiase. It’s pasted in big cut-out letters on the wall of the United Hearts volunteer house and virtually everyone I’ve met here has greeted me with a warm “akwaaba”. The United Hearts team has been especially good to me as I make my initial transition. Nana, the Programs Manager (also my housemate!); Isaac, the volunteer house staff member (another housemate — pictured to the left); Benedict, the school’s headmaster (nicknamed himself “The Pope”); Madam Monica, a 5th grade teacher; and Jacob, the Godfather (I’m not exactly sure about Jacob’s role at United Hearts because he kind of just sits outside during the day and keeps an eye on the school, but Benedict called him “The Godfather of United Hearts” and that is ALL I needed to hear) are just some of the characters who have made sure I’ve been taken care of every step along the way. I really couldn’t have asked for a better akwaaba.
All that being said, there are some major challenges to becoming a member of the Bawjiase community. One of them is that I don’t look like anyone here. And another is I don’t (yet) speak Twi (the most common language in Ghana, even though the official language is English). But there is a word in Twi already cemented in my limited vocabulary: oburoni. Oburoni is a word in Twi meaning “white person.” And as the only white person in Bawjiase, I hear it all. the. time. Many adults use it casually before learning my name. But the little kids. Oh man, the little kids. They yell oburoni at me like whoever says it the most wins a lifetime supply of ice cream. No matter where I go, who I’m with, or what I’m doing, I promise you every single child in ALL of Ghana gathers to bombarde me with a choir of “oburonis.” “Hey what is that word everyone keeps yelling at me?”, I nervously asked Nana on my first day. “White man,” he responded, way more casually than I was expecting. It was that moment when it hit me that integrating into this community wouldn’t be as easy as I had dreamed about it being in the months leading up to my stay in Bawjiase.
Good news is that it really has no negative meaning, as Nana went on to explain after he laughed off my concern about this unwanted attention. But the fact that even the youngest kids have already digested this phrase as part of their consciousness does point to a very ugly reality: my skin color gives me power here. Of course my whiteness affords me power even in my home country, but the horrifying colonial history in Ghana at the hands of the British left an especially strong legacy of light-skin obsession that teaches children whiteness as an ideal. Kids want to touch my hair, men have said they wished they looked more like me, and some women regularly apply whitening-lotion to their skin. The most unsettling feeling comes not from how colorism in Bawjiase affects me personally, but because it exists in the first place. Any personal discomfort I’ve experienced here comes as a result of my own privilege. The bubbles I inhabited in Phoenix, at Brophy, and at BC never put me in the position where I was conscious of my skin color for even just stepping outside my house — never made me feel like “the other.” But now, each “oburoni” I hear in Bawjiase, no matter how benign, reminds me that I’m different. I’m an outsider, even if the community has welcomed me with open arms. And the ways I unwillingly benefit from having white skin in Bawjiase, even as an outsider, provide a unique opportunity for me to examine what light-skin privilege means in this world.
Unfortunately I can’t root out these deeply ingrained forces by myself. All I can do is build relationships. Make friends. Be a little awkward. And all the tiny things humans do with one another form connections, even if we look a little different and talk a little different. These connections have provided some my most joyous moments thus far.
Me vs. the children. It was set up to be a duel unlike any other. At least that’s what it was built up in my head the first couple days as the “oburonis” rained down on me. How was I going to overcome the MILLIONS (the number gets higher every time I think about it) of little kids screaming oburoni and boldly hanging on me like ornaments on a Christmas tree? It felt like a battle I couldn’t win. But, and I’m an idiot for not realizing this immediately, kids are kids are kids. Once I started smiling, waving, giving high fives, fist-bumping, teaching new handshakes, playing Simon Says, and kicking the soccer ball around; I found their collective weakness. They, like basically every kid ever, just like to laugh and have fun. The effect (and this is still developing) is that the weird oburoni walking their roads and working at their school becomes a real person to them. I learn their names, and they learn mine. Now I hear “Oburoni!” a lot less and “Kevin! Kevin! Kevin!” a lot more. I’m altogether very grateful for the children, particularly the children at United Hearts, for injecting my transition with some much-needed life and energy. I will never again underestimate the ability for children to make connections, even if it happens through something as basic as a handshake and a laugh.
There are, in fact, some adults to bond with too! Although the language barrier still exists, with some more than others, the men and women of Bawjiase make for some great friends. It all starts with Nana and Isaac. My two housemates, Nana and Isaac have a million other things to do to fulfill their roles in the community. But, like good roommates, we’ve found time after a busy day to sit around the table and just get to know each other over some wine (evidence below). The teachers at United Hearts, mostly around my age or even younger (!!!), have also been lovely companions. “Pope” Benedict in particular, our fearless school headmaster, offers an unmatched warmness. Most days when I arrive, I ask him “Heyyyy Pope how’s the day going so far?” and he responds with a “Mr. Kevin the day has been good except we’ve been missing you!” then proceeds to laugh like what he said was the funniest thing he ever heard and gives me a big dap-into-a-hug combo. He leaves me no choice but to join in on his joy.
Strangers from the community along the way have become the source of many unexpected friendships. There are multiple evenings walking home from the orphanage when a family is eating outside around their pot of boiling yam that I hear a faint, “You are invited.” That is their offer for me to come and join them in their family circle, even if food supplies are low. Another evening when I was strolling down a Bawjiase road, two women randomly called me over and invited me to help prepare that night’s meal and Ghana’s most popular dish, fufu. I wasn’t there long, but the few English words they knew and the few Twi words I knew blended together to be an interaction full of laughter and joy made possible by my impossible awkwardness. Isaac snapped a picture of me working with the women. Please don’t laugh too hard.
All my jumbled thoughts aside, I’m incredibly excited to be joining this community for the next four months. The little sparks of human connection I just described to you have erased so much of my initial discomfort. They make me feel less like the strange oburoni from America and more like the strange oburoni named Kevin who lives just down the road. Hopefully I can start speaking a passable amount of Twi to break into Bawjiase’s strong social fabric more organically. But for the time being, I’m doing my best. It may be awkward, but I’m doing my best.
Thanks for making it this far! Don’t be shy to reach out to me over email or WhatsApp (just my normal phone number, +1 602–510–8932) to hear more stories and see more pictures! That way you can hear about some of the things I didn’t feel comfortable putting on the Internet.