Most of my classmates woke up to the sound of a rooster crowing. I didn’t, because I sleep through even tornado sirens. But our day began early, around 7:30 – after we flew in to Accra last night, we hopped on a bus to the Aya Centre, a cultural program that organizes, hosts and provides resources for students like us – in East Legon, a suburb of the capital. Winnie is our guide from the Aya Centre, and she taught us a call and response in Twi to get our attention when she needs to speak to us. I can say it, but am unsure of the spelling.
English isn’t a problem here – everyone speaks it, that I’ve interacted with, even with each other. There are so many dialects and ethnic groups in Ghana, anyway, and from what I’ve gathered, the capital is pretty diverse in this way.
Once we arrived to the Aya Centre last night, we had huge plastic bottles of water, sweet and ripe bananas and plantain chips waiting for us. And also showers and bunk beds, which were so appreciated – after 30 hours of traveling, it felt great to be horizontal. I had only slept two of those hours. There wasn’t A/C, and I can’t begin to describe the heat and humidity, even at 9:00 at night, but it didn’t stop me from falling asleep soon.
Today was mostly composed of orienting ourselves. Breakfast was a hodgepodge, but most notably, the pineapple here is white and more sweet than tart, and the mango is the best I’ve ever tasted. We had informal discussions with two professors from the University of Ghana, Samuel and Obadiah, who will be touring with us some throughout the rest of the month. The spoke about the history of Ghanaian government, slavery and society, current political and education systems, the economy, gender issues, customs and social etiquette. In the afternoon, we met with Michael, who is I believe the director of the Aya Centre and is originally from D.C. He spoke with us about security, safety, dos and don’ts and housing. We sat on the porch and listened to them, and, while they were around, I wasn’t bitten by any mosquitos thanks to the Off! I had sprayed on top of my sunscreen. This will be a very sticky month.
So far, no crazy dreams. Last night we roomed with a student from California who is in Ghana for the whole semester and said she stopped taking her malaria pills two months ago because of the crazy dreams. I found this really stupid, especially after Michael’s stories of students he’s known that have died from malaria just because they stopped taking their pills and contracted the disease, which is completely avoidable. I’ll take a routine pill and disturbing dreams any day over the risk of actual death.
Lunch was a Ghanaian meal I’ve had before – baked chicken, red-red (a paste made from tomatoes and black-eyed peas), jollof rice, fried rice with vegetables, and fried plantains. It was delicious, though every minute as our group trickled back to the porch to sit down and eat outside, you’d hear, “Wow, this is spicy!” “There’s really a kick to this rice!” I ate way too fast, and drank it down with a bag of water – yep, I said a bag of water. Bagged water is common here. You just tear off a corner of the plastic with your teeth and suck it out.
During lunchtime, a seamstress visited with more than 30 different cloths to choose from – we could pick out one of the brightly colored patterns and have her take our measurements for clothing. I’m getting overalls made out of an olive and lavender material, and I’m so excited. The conversion rate here is very low: 1 Ghana cedi is about 25 cents in USD. It cost 35 cedis, around 8-9 dollars, and she’s sewing it herself, custom-fit. I’m not sure when they’ll be ready. After lunch, we had a few minutes for a group of us to walk down the street to a vendor selling coconuts, about 2 cedis each. He cut them up with a machete and we drank the water on the walk back to the Aya Centre. They were too ripe and hard to eat the white meat inside, or else I would’ve.
In the afternoon, we took our bus to the mall in Accra and were able to see more of the city since we first flew in when it was already dark. We passed many small stores in East Legon, formed from aluminum siding, virtually everything one story. People of all ages, but many of them around my age, walk through the traffic to sell anything and everything: toilet paper, plantain chips, water, brooms. Many of them, both men and women, carry huge baskets on their head while selling them, and approach the buses and cars. When we were at a stop sign, these children came up to our bus after waving at us from the sidewalk and we waved back. They weren’t selling anything, but motioned asking for food when they approached us. We didn’t have any, but also the windows don’t roll down. When I grabbed my camera, the kids posed for me. Some of my classmates and I talked about what their situations could be – we didn’t think that they were being exploited for work, as I saw many of the kids in Vietnam walking around selling lottery cards were, since they weren’t selling anything or really asking for much. We guessed that maybe their parents worked nearby.
At the mall, we exchanged our money and I also got a SIM card to be able to use my calling, texting and data. The SIM card was only 2 cedis, about 50 cents, and 1GB of data for the month was only 20 cedis, about 5 dollars. Incredible.
Once we finished our orientation with Michael, it was time to move to our homestays. We loaded the bus and were dropped off in groups. Julia Hernandez and I are staying together with a woman named Dory, and her husband, son, daughter-in-law, Cena, 3 year old granddaughter, Makayla (or Ama, which means she was born on a Saturday — how nicknames are given) a domestic worker, Gloria, and another student from the University of Rochester. She has the biggest swimming pool I’ve ever seen at someone’s house, and probably 8 or so cats, some of them kittens, all of them too scared of us to pet. We greeted the family when we arrived – it’s respectful to refer to adults as “auntie” or “ma” and “uncle” – and unpacked our things. Julia and I are staying with Gloria in our own housing compound with single rooms, a kitchen, two showers, two toilets and a dining table. Auntie Dory brought us water and watermelon when we first arrived, and for dinner we had fried rice which had carrots, green peppers and sausage. She and Auntie Cena refused to let us wash any of our dishes and were so, so welcoming. It is beautiful here, and I’m blown away by this family’s kindness and hospitality. Given the people I’ve met so far, I can already tell that this is the Ghanaian way.