The Difficult Road to Reconnect

This is installment #12 about my experiences in Ghana, West Africa, as a Peace Corps Volunteer working with cashew farming families from December 2011 to December 2013. It’s part of an essay collection Kabile, which starts with an introduction here.

Stephen loads about 40 kg of raw cashew nuts onto his bicycle to take home for drying.

The plan was to leave early in the morning. But now Stephen says he wants to leave after church. It’s late for the amount of travel we have to do, but he’s giving up almost an entire a week for this trip, right during the cashew harvest season, and that’s no small sacrifice for him and his family. So who am I to argue?

We have to go to the “Reconnect IST” (In Service Training), a meeting for all of the volunteers in my group and their village counterparts. It’s the first time we can officially travel after our three-month site quarantine. At this conference, we’ll get Peace Corps training on actually planning and implementing projects. The first three months is supposed to be devoted exclusively to getting to know the community and their needs.

I’ve looked forward to the trip. I’m rarely happier than when I’m on a grimey tro-tros, watching the passing scenery and taking it all it.

But after church, there no cars moving on the road through Kabile. And if we can’t get to Sampa, we can’t get to Kumasi.

It doesn’t take Stephen much effort to convince me to ride on the back of a moto he flags down. He’ll meet me in Sampa after he finds a second one to ride in on himself.

Travel by moto: cheap if you can get a ride, but not sanctioned by Peace Corps Ghana because of the huge risk of injury.

Volunteers are not allowed to ride motorcycles except in the most dire emergencies, but most everyone does it. To get caught is to risk being sent home by Peace Corps, and for good reason…it can be an extremely dangerous way to travel. I’ve done it once before, with my supervisor, who went so slowly and carefully that I was embarrassed.

It’s not the same ride today with this fellow. I hold on and hope he won’t show off too much with oboruni on board…he clearly loves the attention we get on the way out of town, waving to everyone we pass to be sure they see he is carrying the white woman. As we speed over the potholes, I literally close my eyes and pray.

I get to Sampa in one piece, buy tickets to Kumasi, and Stephen arrives about ten minutes later.

Of course, we must wait for the tro-tro to fill before it will leave. It is too costly to operate a half-empty microbus here. The minutes turn into an hour. In that time, we could have walked to Sampa, though we’d arrived sweaty and dusty. I doubt we can get to Kumasi before dark.

Finally, with diminishing returns piling up as the day wears on, the driver leaves with the passengers he has, and will try to pick up more in the towns along the way. Off we go. I put on my headphones and watch the landscape roll by, and think about things.

Purewater sachets, created in small water purification plants like this and sold throughout Ghana.

In Wenchi, the driver pulls into the station and waits for more passengers. I lean out the window and buy water sachets carried by a girl on her head. She and her friend stand next to the car and stare at me, smiling, watching me drink. I try to practice Twi to talk to them, and realize how little of it I’ve used over the past three months among the Nafana.

A Muslim man gets into the car and we take off again immediately, even though the car is not nearly full. But we turn off the main road and Stephen, in the seat in front of me, turns to explain that we were going to the man’s house to pick up more people.

The scene at the compound is chaotic. Many women milling about, with various large packages and baskets. It’s obvious that several of them are wives of this man, though some might be extended family. They are beautiful, in graceful veils and exotic prints. Clearly wealthy. Stephen has to move to a front passenger seat, because the women are not allowed to ride in the front.

Now packed completely full, the tro-tro turns back onto the main road. We roll through Techiman. The driver stops to drop off a car battery at a store next the road, and the sun drops lower in the sky. I lose myself in the infinitely interesting scenery again.

In one small town, traffic slows. I hear exclamations, and then I see, too, and rip out my headphones.

It’s an auto accident. A bad one. At least two totally demolished cars, one on each side of the road. On my side of the road I see two bodies laying next to the car, and a crowd of bystanders standing a short distance away from them. I can tell by the muslim women’s reactions that there is carnage on the other side of the road, too.

The bodies are wearing black and red, which means they were traveling either to or from a funeral celebration. I know what I’m seeing, but it is surreal.

A few miles ahead, we pass through the town where the funeral celebration is being held. I wonder if the people here know yet. They must, the news would travel faster than our car. We continue on.

We finally approach the outskirts of Kumasi near sunset (always brief here, near the equator), and just as a thunderstorm unleashes torrents of rain. We reach the gas station that serves as a tro-tro station also, and sit in the dark, under the lightning and thunder. No one gets out of the car. Everything stops for rain here…no one carries rain coats or umbrellas. They simply stay under cover until it stops.

We wait almost a half hour. We’ve been in the car for about six hours, with no breaks.

Finally Stephen gets out in the downpour and comes over to my window (it’s far too loud with the rain for him to talk to me from the front seat). He tells me to stay; he will try to hail a taxi.

The first one he flags down won’t take us (I’m not sure if it’s an issue of where we are going or the price Stephen is trying to negotiate); he has to wait for another. He is drenched when he finally gets one. The tro-tro driver opens the door on my side and offers me a cloth to put over my head. I laugh and tell him I’ll just get wet, too; he helps me get my pack from under the seat and I run to the cab.

Stephen explains where we need to go, but I’m not sure the driver really understands. Yet off we lurch into the night, through an unfamiliar part of Kumasi, out to a suburb. It continues to rain, hard.

We’re stopped at a light when the taxi suddenly takes a violent jump forward. At first I think that the driver has let off the clutch accidentally, but then realize we’ve been rear-ended.

It’s strange sometimes, how fast things seem to happen, and how slowly the mind seems to catch up. It takes a while for the fear to settle in as I realize how hard I’ve been snapped against the back of the seat. I don’t seem to be hurt, but I’m scared that I might have an injury that will surface later.

The drivers exchange words. That’s about all they do here. It’s not like they have insurance information.

Eventually we reach the training center as the rain trails off to a drizzle. Stephen and I head for the dorm. My favorite PCV friend has already told me that we’re in room 3, so I just hurry there. It is so good to see her. And a bathroom, that I rush to first.

“I think I have whiplash,” I say, and we hug. Then I sit down on the bed and start to cry, before I even realize it it.

“I thought you were joking,” she says. I tell her about the bodies. The late leaving, the crazy moto ride, the tro-tro wait, the bodies, the rain, the taxi accident…on a normal day back home, any one of those could have put me into an anxious state. Here, they are all just part of one day that finally — and unexpectedly — overwhelms me.

In the morning, I feel ok. And there are many hugs as I see other volunteers I’ve missed. Care packages and mail from home are delivered, to much delight and sharing of treats.

Training, though, is almost unbearable. We are schooled in being “change agents.” We have painful discussions of community and counterpart expectations versus Peace Corps methods. We sit with dull eyes, then closed eyes, as bureaucrats go through powerpoint slides. Even our Ghanaian counterparts doze off.

Some volunteers are struggling, different ones in different ways. One is particularly scruffy and his eyes are dilated. He’s got a bandage on his forehead from running into a post, and scars from stitches on his hand where he whacked himself with his cutlass a few weeks ago. His comments are strange.

After lunch, I see him reading a magazine and he says hello. I sit down with him. He shows me pointedly that he’s reading Maxim. I see the other magazine inside of it.

“Looks like a double issue,” I joke with him.

“Yeah, it’s a big issue,” he says, not getting my joke, or realizing I caught a glimpse of the pages inside.
 
“I wondered if you’re ok,” I tell him. We talk for a while. 
 
I go back to training. They take us through the seven steps of yada-yada and the triangle of blah-di-blah and other concepts in international development.

We go to dinner. I watch the counterparts take their meals as we go through the line. Their faces don’t show any reaction, but I wonder what they think of these giant pieces of meat in the soup. Whole chicken legs and thighs…something I’ve never seen served to anyone in a Ghanaian home. A chicken leg and thigh would be meat for a meal for six people.

I suddenly feel old and I feel scruffy myself. Red dust outlines my toenails, maybe forever. My hair longer now, too, and with tangles that may never come out. We have been out in our towns and villages for three months. Now everything here feels strange. And it feels like a farce. I’m not sure the trainers with college vocabularies that our counterparts are pretending to understand can say anything to me anymore, either. Change? We are here to make change?

Even though I know that the truth isn’t this simple, I dare myself to stand up and yell, “It’s not Ghana that needs to change.”

But I don’t.