The past few days have been a whirlwind of meetings and spending time at the school and making our final arrangements as we prepare to leave the village tomorrow morning to explore northern Ghana. Amid all of this chaos and scribbled notes page after page in my journal, I was lucky enough to be part of an experience that will linger with me through my entire lifetime.
Grant, Sophie, and I were sent for an overnight visit with the children who attend the school in Akatim to record a “day-in-the-life” documentary to show America what life is really like for rural, African children, in and out of school. Accompanied by a former rural school student and now Accra police officer, Asomah to translate for us, we began walking in the hot, dry sun down the endless orange road “home” with about fifteen kids in tow.
The entirety of the walk ended up being an hour and a half, until we at least reached the outskirts of Akatim where we sat as the villagers gathered, craning their necks to see the white men, as we asked if they were willing to house us for the evening. They roared with laughter, with disbelief, that we were willing to stay in such desolate conditions. But despite the dirt-crusted, simple cluster of houses, we assured them that this is what we had signed up for. Children gathered to greet us, or glimpse us, or
hide behind their parents as we tried to approach them. Many of them were school-aged but did not attend classes Tuesday for a variety of reasons – they did not want to, they were not allowed to, or the walk was simply too long and tiring for their little legs.
We doubled back down the road and walked the remaining children back home as some of the new children followed us. Their contrast was stark in their shredded clothing and dull eyes against the brightness of the green and white school uniform and sparked minds. The path to their house branched off into the jungle of cocoa trees, and we reached another cluster of houses where we were greeted by the parents and encouraged them to encourage education. They brought up the same problem of
transportation; many of their children were far too tiny to walk three hours to and from school five times a week. A few of them had not been in school to receive their issued uniforms and did not feel comfortable going to school in their ragged clothing.
Further we plunged into the jungle, and we came to the last house where two of our students live. Their mother greeted us with an entire cluster of bananas, a powpow (a melon fruit) and a sample of her home-brewed palm gin after Asomah gave us a “tour” of her “distillery”: barrels of palm extract that flow through an electric tape straw into a giant wooden crate, 75% alcohol, 150 proof. Between the hours of walking, the unforgiving heat of the sun, and the half a shot that Asomah poured, we were
adequately tipsy for the walk home.
The villagers were waiting for us and eagerly preparing our dinner of fufu. It was a dish we were familiar with though we did not particularly have a taste for: pounded lumps of either cassava and plantain or cassava and yams mashed into warm, doughy balls served over chicken soup. Our first serving we dug into our communal bowl, gnawing on the rubbery chicken and savoring the familiar tomato chicken broth that tasted just like my mother’s homemade chicken soup that has healed hundreds of
colds. Little did we know this was only the beginning, and just when we thought we had stomached an acceptable amount we were served again. Still fufu, but this serving included the entire chicken, from it’s spiky, scaly feet to its stiff, severed head. Asomah laughed as he closed the lid, but I was not mistaken when I saw an unfaltering chicken eye staring at me darkly. This fufu was slightly more difficult to stomach. We were then served fufu once again, our third and final helping. Asomah explained that each of the families served us and we had to at least try each of theirs as a sign of politeness and gratitude, so that when we left each family would be satisfied that the white men tried their food.
We groaned, and explained to Asomah that we felt strange being constantly referred to as “the white men”; the stares we constantly receiving say we’re white enough. That if we walked up to him on a street in America and called “hey, black man!” we would probably walk out of that conversation with at least a black eye. He laughed, and simply told us, “but you are the white men.”
Perhaps these people – men, women, and children alike, have never experienced a single white person before. We were truly in the heart of Ghana, meeting the children who have been left behind, the men and women who may have never left their farms and ventured to the outside world. Yet as unfortunate as they are, with their walls made of dirt clay and sticks and their clothes torn and feet bare, they were the most generous people in this world. They offered us more food than we could ever fathom of eating
in one sitting, and accepted us into their village completely unannounced and offered us a room to stay in just because we walked their children home from school. The strangeness was pronounced, but so was the generosity.
After dinner we were set to have a meeting with the village elders, which ended up being the entire village gathering in the darkness to discuss our mission for coming to Ghana. The villagers debated back and forth, each talking in an orderly manner of garbled Twi, over the main problem that the school was facing. Because the children are often unable to walk to school, they would like transportation to be provided. Some wanted us to build another school for them in this remote area so the children did not
have to walk as far, but others debated that by drawing away their students the Akatim school would collapse.
One young man stood and addressed us directly in English that he was able to complete Junior High School but lacked the funds to attend Senior High School. He pleaded for a job, for funding, for any way that the white man could help him receive his education.
Another child stepped forward and his parents explained he would not attend school because he felt discouraged. He loves to run, and would excel on a track team, but when he tried out for sports he was turned down because he was too small. Because of this, he no longer feels comfortable attending school.
Another young girl with a baby strapped to her back stepped forward. She wants to attend school, but with all of her chores and responsibilities she knows her mother will punish her for going to school. We spoke to these children as well as the girl’s mother, and pleaded for them to attend school with us the next day, to which the children shook our hands in agreement.
We said we would do what we could; that we truly heard them and though we cannot help now we will bring back their problems and raise awareness in America. These are the children left behind. Those half-educated. Those who want to be educated but do not have the means or money. Those who are scared of the school system, who seek comfort in the familiarity of farming.
They showed us to our bedroom: a foam mattress on a table surrounded by a canopy of mosquito netting. We curled up and slept three to a bed, occasionally awaking to the bleeting of a goat through the dirt wall, loud enough to sound as though he were standing right beside us.
The night was restless with Asomah’s echoing, crackling snores, our minds racing with the enormity and yet the simplicity of what we had just experienced.
We rose with the sun to escort the children to school on time. Eleven new students joined us this morning down the orange dirt road, sprinting and squealing and excited to share the hour walk to school together. If these shining, excited faces do not deserve the best opportunities in education to shape their futures, then I don’t know who does.