Keep your chin up and watch for cows

I had a kind of quintessential Ghanaian moment the other day.  I had just left Madamfo Pa which is the organization that I work with here in Ghana.  It is located in the Baba Yara community of Madina, which is a suburb of Accra, the capitol of Ghana.  It is a unique community because it is so contradictory.  It is in an urban environment but it does not feel urban at all. It feels quite rural. When I get off the public transportation on the outskirts of Madina, I walk for good ways before I get to work.

What I walk through is a very different kind of neighborhood than I am used to. Which is the point of studying abroad I suppose, to expose oneself to a different life and culture.  Anyway, I walk down a long road with open sewers on the side of the road.  There is a small stand where car batteries are sold, there are stacks of them on the sidewalk out front.  There are several broken down cars in various stages of deterioration along the sides of the road. There are a few open stalls where basic necessities are sold however, there is very little traffic on this road, pedestrian or otherwise.  I find it most amusing that among the very sand colored, cement buildings along the dirt road is a bright purple beauty shop with a giant speaker out front that plays very loud afro-pop music.  I have never seen a customer or even a proprietor there but the music is always on. The shop keepers along the street are generally resting on benches or on a piece of cloth draped on the ground, trying to keep cool during this very hot and dry season.  There are goats and chickens running about but it is a pretty quiet street otherwise.

In general, I have just been keeping my head down and walking with purpose to and from my workplace, looking forward to getting out of the blistering sun. Lately however, I have decided not to keep my head down.  I make a point of greeting people as I pass by. I have discovered that even though a passerby may look very intent on getting to their location, much as I have been, when I say, “good morning” a whole new person emerges. It is so lovely.  I am accustomed to that greeting being perfunctory and maybe receiving a nod in return.  Here however “good morning” is an opening to a conversation.

Which brings me back to my leaving work the other day.  I was making the trek down the very hot and dusty road to the trotro pick-up spot and I saw two women coming toward me.  They were dressed in the typical attire of very brightly colored African print cloth wrapped around them like a toga over a plain t-shirt.  Both women were carrying large bins on their heads with the goods that they were selling.  I said, “good afternoon” to them.  Both of their faces immediately brightened and they stopped to greet me and I knew a visit was in store for me.  I have learned there is no point to being in a hurry in Ghana.  As a matter of fact, to really experience life here and enjoy it, being in a hurry simply won’t do. They wanted to know where was I coming from and where was I going.  One woman told me that her name was Ama efua (at least I think that is how she pronounced it).  She said that meant she was Saturday born (they day of week you are born is important here).  She was so delighted when I told her that I was Afia Theresa (Friday born) meaning that I understood at least a little of their culture.  She got the biggest smile on her face and asked me where I was from.  She said that she liked me very much and wanted my phone number.  It was the most pleasant exchange.  In the end, I assured them both that I am frequently in their neighborhood and would most likely see them again.

I was struck because while I was walking I had been thinking how difficult it must be to eke out a living here.  I wondered how many hours and days did the shop keepers spend resting on a piece of cloth on the ground trying to keep cool.  What I had been doing though was seeing the view in front of me from the eyes of my own experience. Which to be honest has been fairly limited until I came to Ghana.  Meeting those two women reminded me to recognize the universal humanity of us all. Just the smallest of moments of me taking the time to raise my chin and say hello made all the difference in my walk home that day.

I was smiling and thinking over the whole experience with those very kind ladies when I finally made my way to the trotro.  I was lost in thought so I was more than a bit surprised when a herd of cattle walked up right behind me through the bushes on the side of the road and one cow gave me a nudge while I was boarding the van.  I whooped in surprise turned around and could think of nothing more to say than, “that is a cow”, stating the obvious.  The locals got quite the laugh from my reaction as did I.  Lesson learned, keep my chin up and watch for cows and you may just have a pretty good day.

Peace to you,

Theresa

 

Get Off of my Lawn!

Since I have come back to Ghana and I find that I am in full blown curmudgeon mode. I thought at first that I was having some culture shock/re-adjustment issues but I have been back here for 5 weeks now and that is not it. My fellow students and I were given both a lecture and reading material on what culture shock is and how to deal with it when we first arrived here. I know I experienced some culture shock when I first came to Ghana last August, so know what it feels like. Right now, however, I am grumpy, I am irritated, I am hot and sweaty, I am in a constant state of hot flash hell and I miss home, my family, my dog and especially my bathroom. I get that looks a lot like culture shock but it could also be menopause… an especially fun combination.

I don’t know if you have seen the movie Fried Green Tomatoes but there is a scene where Kathy Bates goes nuclear in a parking lot of a grocery store when a young and snarky fellow customer steals the parking spot she had been patiently waiting for and then tells her “Face it lady we are younger and faster”.  Kathy Bates character takes her car and rams the rude girl’s car repeatedly and says, “Face it girls I am older and I have more insurance”.  I remember watching that scene some 15 years ago or so and thinking how amusing it was in a kind of abstract and disconnected way…..I totally get it now.  I find myself feeling that way all of the time. I am irritated by the girls who do not understand that we all share the communal toilet and should treat it as such. It drives me crazy that there is somebody who parks their car not far from my window whose alarm goes off 10-30 times every single day, I have counted, it goes off at all hours.

When did I become the iconic old man version of myself screaming “Get off of my lawn!”?——–I think I need some paradigm shifting here. I choose to view this from a different angle, one much more empowering. To be fair, I am 50 and I find myself with a decreasing patience for BS in my life.  I want my life and the people I choose to share it with to be a positive experience.  I am shedding toxic relationships in my life for a good reason. Which to be honest is a healthy thing.  I am also in the final semester of my bachelor’s degree and am doing so 8000 miles away from home.  It is like having a major case of senior-itis on steroids. I think it is hilarious that as I achieve my life goal of getting my BS, I have little tolerance for BS……Ha!

I read a book over the 6-week break while I was home in California between semesters called Love Warrior by Glynnon Doyal.  There were some aspects of the book that really annoyed me (not difficult to do these days) but there was one thing I really liked.  She described herself as being really tired of having what she called JAFGO’s.  Which stands for Just Another F****ing Growth Opportunity.  That girl is speaking my language on that point.

I have had my fair share of JAFGO’s in the past 5 years. My dad passed away. I lost my job. I have been re-negotiating my marriage.  I am at a major life transition in the work that I do.  I have been diagnosed with MS.  I turned 50. I am in Ghana thousands of miles away from home.  As much as I would like to say that I am so done with that kind of change and upheaval, I realize that is not how life works.  I can choose to live in a constant state of annoyance at every challenge in my life…or I can breathe in the water of what is a natural and normal part of life, change. I find that change is the one constant you can always count on in life.  So I embrace the lessons I am learning along the way. In the best sense of the word change is growth, and if I am not growing, what is the point?

So, in the spirit of looking at the glass half full, I am embracing the remaining 3 months that I have here in Ghana.  This time will fly by and I am fairly certain that my time here will leave an indelible mark on me.  A spiritual tattoo of sorts. One that I will proudly bear.  I imagine it will be kind of like giving birth…with time you forget how really uncomfortable the whole experience is and you see the beauty of it all and want to do it again.  That is probably a good analogy because in going through this whole cultural immersion I have given birth to a whole new me…at least a whole new aspect of me.  A good thing for sure.

Peace to you,

Theresa

One Wild Ride (well actually two)

To live in Accra one has to get used to the local transportation.  True there are Taxi cabs and even Uber but if one commutes, as I do twice a week through Madina Market, then cost wise the public transportation, at about a tenth of the price, is really the only way to go.  As such, I take the local public transit, the trotro, to and from my work on the outskirts of Madina.

Being a small-town girl, and not a big fan of crowds or lack of personal space this has been an adjustment for me.  I have tackled more than a few personal phobias navigating my way to my work this way.   This probably says more about some of my neurosis than I realize.  Last week however my level of comfort with the trotro system was challenged (monumental understatement here).

Let me explain how the trotro system works.  Trotro’s are essentially stripped-down vans which hold between 12-20 people. The seats are sometimes wobbly.  Occasionally there is no rearview mirror and frequently there are wires hanging from the roof. In my experience. they are in varying states of safety and decline but it is how the locals travel so…why not?  I know I have explained before but each trotro has a driver and a mate.  The mate’s job is to attract riders and collect money. There is stiff competition amongst the mates to attract riders to their van and as such selecting a trotro can be a somewhat intense experience. Last week I had quite the wild ride, well actually two, let me explain.

It all started simply enough.  I was traveling back to the university from work through the market. Traveling this way has been a challenge for me because it is an assault on the senses and I am evidently a bit sensory sensitive.  It generally is quite hot, noisy and there is lots of shouting going on. When I cross the street to choose one of at least a dozen trotro vans heading in the direction that I need to go, I am bombarded with mates asking me where I want to go and they are pulling on my arms to get me into their van.  Occasionally there is a kind of tug of war going on to get me to choose their van, with mates tugging at my arms in two different directions. It is not at all uncommon for mates to get into fights if they think someone has unfairly ‘stolen’ one of their customers. Overall, though I travel without incident.

Last week, through a very crowded market and across a six-lane highway, I successfully navigated myself to one of the less intense and quieter trotro’s (thinking this was a safe choice). I was proud of myself for becoming so adept and comfortable with this. I waited in a long line of vans and sat patiently for the vehicle to fill up and head out.  While I was waiting however there was a commotion at the trotro in front of us.  Two mates had gotten into a fight over a customer.  This was pretty common but the next thing I knew there were between 30 and 40 men on the sidewalk, right outside the trotro I was sitting on, in a full-scale riot. I have no idea where they all came from or why they were even there but they were punching and screaming and many had sticks and clubs and whatnot.  They were banging bats against the fence, light poles and our van. Where the men and the weapons materialized from, I haven’t a clue.  The mate from the trotro I was on evidently was caught up in the fray, so the driver proceeded to honk his horn continually to get the mates attention so we could pull away from the fighting, which only added to the chaos. I was terrified!  Then as quickly as it had started, it was over, like smoke in the wind.  Our mate hopped on board and off we went, all a bit rattled but unharmed.

The following Thursday, I had this incident fresh in my mind when choosing a trotro to take back to the university.  Trying to be smarter this time, I chose one that was newer looking and fairly full so that we would not have to wait long to depart.  I thought we would take off soon and without incident.  I thought wrong.  The mate and driver of the trotro I had selected evidently had some sort of rivalry going on with another trotro nearby.  I watched as they interacted with each other and thought they were being a bit aggressive but brushed it off as normal competitiveness.  About a minute after I got on there was shouting and our driver took off like a bat out of hell from the curb.  Before I could process what was happening (shouting and waving at the other van) we were hurdling down the highway, weaving in and out of traffic, in a high-speed race with the other van, while the mate was laughing maniacally, which was even more unsettling than the driving. We were easily going 90 mph and the locals on the van were shouting at the driver in Twi, I assume they were being critical of his driving tactics (again I really need to practice my Twi), while I clung to the seat in front of me for dear life. The race finally ended though and I obviously I made it back, safe and sound, rattled again but okay….and with a story of one wild ride under my belt.

God only knows what adventures await me next week….Now I am going to have ACDC’s Highway to Hell running through my mind all night 😉

Peace,

Theresa

 

 

 

 

Under the Mango Tree

Surrender is a beautiful albeit terrifying thing in life.  I cannot speak for anybody but myself but I have spent the larger part of my adult life living under the delusion/illusion that I have had control over my life.  Over where I lived, how I lived, my marriage my family, even my own body.  The illusion that we have any control over what happens in life is a difficult thing to let go of.  But once I surrendered and realized that I never really had any control in the first place (aside from how I respond) a whole new world opened up to me.  I feel strongly that I spent my first semester here in Ghana learning that lesson.

As such I returned for my final semester of college to the University of Ghana and this beautiful country with as few expectations as possible.  I knew I was here not only to experience the culture of this country but to finish out my degree in Women’s Studies. But that is it. I had no real idea what classes I was going to take (I have finished all of my major requirements). I figured it would all work out. I did not know what experiences I would have, so decided to go with the flow. Or how it all was going to play out. Kind of fly by the seat of my pants mentality.  If any of you know me this is most definitely not how the old Theresa operated by the way.  If you recall though, that girl is finished.

Marianne Williamson once said, “The moment of surrender is not when life is over.  It’s when it begins”. What a beautiful sentiment that is and I feel like it is true in my life. I spent last semester surrendering, and with no preconceived notions of how it would look I find that as this semester is unfolding, a whole new life is beginning for me.

Since I have been back in Ghana I find myself regularly pinching myself to see if what I am really experiencing is actually happening to me. For example, the international program that I am a part of took a trip to Northern Ghana. Part of that trip was the option to go on a Safari. (Is that really an option?!) I was not about to miss this once in a lifetime chance so as a result I found myself not only seeing antelope, monkeys, baboons, warthogs and mongoose and all kinds of wildlife but also standing in the Saharan bush at a watering hole with a herd of bull elephants standing right across from me…… Me! Theresa, who grew up in tiny Camino California, standing closer to crocodiles than I cared to (there was also a park ranger with a very big gun behind me), watching elephants getting a drink and splashing mud on themselves. Hands down the coolest thing I have ever done!

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After that trip though it was time to get back to school and the business of actually “studying abroad”. I have that in quotes because this entire experience is about so much more than studying for my degree in my major. Anyway, I am really excited because I have found a way to take my passion for fiber arts and make studying and teaching that a big part of my research and degree, both in my service learning class and an Independent Study class that I am designing here with a professor in the Social Work Department.  Both of which seem to be kind morphing into my post college career. Again, in letting go of what I thought I should do (get a marketable degree), what I love seems to be bubbling up right before me.  Cool! And yet another pinch myself experience.

And in the spirit of trying on new things I also am taking a Traditional African Dance class, which, to be honest, I was a bit nervous about but so far am really enjoying it. I join about 90 other students, most of whom are at least half my age and I sweat like crazy and do my best to get my middle-aged body to move in ways it is most definitely unaccustomed to moving.  I joked with my 21-year-old son that I was worried about throwing my back out and how embarrassing it would be.  He replied, “That’s the fun part! I am not so sure about that but I get his sentiment and appreciate it.

One of my most pleasant surprises this semester however, has been the seperewa class that I have begun.  I had no idea what a seperewa even was a few weeks ago. It is a stringed, harp like instrument.  I have never played a musical instrument before and up to this point in my life have been convinced that I do not have a musical bone in my body. I was worried I had bitten off more than I could chew.  My program director here in Ghana assured me that every student that has taken the class had really enjoyed it.  So, I jumped on in.  I met my instructor this week.  His name is Osei Korankye and he is evidently quite famous in the seperewa world.  Here is a link to see him and the seperewa in action should you be curious.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=36EPLeJfHMI

He is a kind and lovely man who teaches classes one-on-one.  The first day we met there was a very loud drumming and dancing class next to his studio so we took our chairs and seperewas out behind the building and sat under the shade of a beautiful giant mango tree.  The morning was still a bit cool (for Ghana during the dry season that is) and the breeze was gently blowing. Professor Korankye proceeded to tell me the history of the seperewa which has been around in the Ashanti kingdom since the 1700’s, and the story of how his grandfather taught him to play.  As he was talking he continued to gently strum on his seperewa and encouraged me to mimic his playing. By the end of the session I was playing scales like I knew what I was doing and I had become thoroughly enchanted with the instrument.  I was quite taken aback at how it unfolded so naturally and organically.  I think it is a testament to his unique teaching style. Who would have thought, certainly not me, that I would find my musical self, sitting under the mango tree?

Life is just full of surprises if you are willing to be open to them. I can’t wait to see what is next 🙂

Peace to you,

Theresa

Sometime you eat the bear, and sometimes the bear eats you

As I gear up for my second and final semester studying in Ghana I am full of mixed emotions.  I am very excited for the classes I will have this semester.  I have my service learning class, where I will be working with an organization to teach them how to use scrap fabric to make baskets and rugs and bags.  The fiber arts teacher in me is thrilled!  I am also taking an independent study class doing research into the community outreach benefits and empowerment that happens when women gather regularly to create.  Again, right up my alley.  And I am going to learn to play the Seprewa, a West African stringed instrument, which is pretty cool too.

While all of that is really exciting I also am feeling the heat wear on me.  Today for example I am particularly MS-y.  My hand is numb and every time I walk outside the glare notably limits my vision and while I knew in the abstract that heat would adversely affect me (Multiple Sclerosis and heat do not make good bedfellows), feeling it makes it harder for me to pretend that this is not really happening to me.  But it is….  Denial is not just a river in Egypt my friends 🙂 I am reminded twice a day as I swallow a medication that costs more per year for my insurance company than most people in the US make annually. Which serves as a reminder that the mere fact that I have insurance is a privilege. When that med hits me though, I get what is called the Tecfidera Flush (my sister thinks that this would be a great stripper name for me, HA!).  My arms, chest and face turn bright red and I itch and burn anywhere from 20 minutes to an hour.  Sounds fun, I know.

I do not often find myself in this space.  I am overall a pretty positive person.  But sometimes you eat the bear and sometimes the bear eats you.  It does not take much for me to snap out of this mood however.  I just look around me and know that it could be so much worse.  I have access to adequate health care.  I have a disease that is manageable, to a degree.  I am being educated in an area that I am passionate about.  I have the privilege and honor to be able to come to Ghana and see the world from a perspective that I wish everyone could, with the full support of my children and husband to boot.  And I am doing work here that will make a difference not just for those who I am reaching out to but to me too.

So, despite the fact that I miss my family and I am a bit uncomfortable (on multiple levels), I am reminded of a quote I recently heard on a TED Talk, I posted this on my Facebook page the other day so forgive me for repeating.  It goes like this, “Discomfort is the price of admission to a meaningful life”.  I concur.

Peace,

T

Don’t Believe Everything You Think

“Miss Theresa, I am so sorry but the chips are finished today”.  This is what the very kind gentleman, Daniel, who runs the mini-restaurant downstairs from my hostel room in Ghana says to me when he has sold out of French fries, which happens to be one of the few things I can eat in Ghana without becoming ill (I have a sensitive stomach so do not blame this entirely on the local cuisine).  When something is finished in Ghana, it means sold out, gone, no more.  Like many of the small Ghanaisms I have heard, I find it charming.  But as I get ready to head back to Ghana after a 5-week visit back home I have had some time to process my experiences thus far and that particular term is significant. I will explain why in a bit.

To be honest, when I left last August to begin this adventure I had no idea what I was getting myself into.  I felt like I had my life together but what I did not know or acknowledge was that I was coming apart at the seams.  I looked in the mirror and saw very little that I liked very much, but could not admit it.  I was 49 years old and twenty pounds heavier than I wanted to be (this I did know but was not really doing anything about it).  The main career that I have had as a work-at-home mom was drawing to an end (my youngest is a Junior in High School). My twenty-four-year “happy” marriage was slipping between my fingers like sand but I was in denial.  My father had recently passed away, which shook me more than I had realized.  I knew I felt unhinged a bit, but ignored it.  I was in school full-time studying for my BS in Women’s Studies but really had no idea why, other than I needed to take some steps toward doing something, anything to get myself out of the rut I found myself more and more entrenched into.

When I applied for and was accepted into the California State University International Program (CSU-IP) and it all started coming together I felt like it was serendipity because it had been a dream I have had since High School to study abroad.  I had thought when I got accepted that the universe was telling me that it was my turn to have something go well and my time to focus on me more than everyone else.  I knew that somehow, I would find a path forward by grabbing onto this chance. I just knew that I was part of something much bigger than myself, bigger with a capital B.  I was part of a plan alright but I did not know what it was, not yet.

The month after I was accepted into the program and a mere 8 weeks before I left, I began having problems with my vision.  My hand felt numb all the time and I was having difficulty typing and getting through my final papers for the end of the semester.  Since I had trouble with my vision in the past and this was my primary issue I went to the Ophthalmologist.  She ordered an immediate MRI for the next day.  I was a bit rattled by the urgency.  Three days later on May the 1st 2017 she called me and said that I had multiple lesions on my brain and most likely had Multiple Sclerosis (MS).  The Neurologist confirmed the next day.  For those of you who do not know what MS is, it is a degenerative disease of the central nervous system. It is not terminal but there is no cure and can affect any part of my body that my central nervous system controls (everything).  Attacks can strike at any time and each attack does a little more damage than the last. To say that this news rocked my world would be an understatement.

Still though, I knew that I just had to go to Ghana. I was immediately put on medication to help reduce the number of MS attacks I would have in the future. I was concerned though about traveling for so long and so far away, so I discussed it with my Neurologist.  I asked him, what if something happens while I am there?  He just smiled and said, “Call me”.  Then I asked what should I look for, how will I know if I have another attack?—- I love my Neurologist because he is so Zen, he just smiled at me and said, “Theresa do not look for anything, just go and live your life”—-He had an excellent point. I could spend my life with this disease worrying about every sensation in my body, or I can just live.

I still had this unacknowledged growing internal panic feeling within me but packed my bags anyway, told my family goodbye and got on a plane to Africa.  I was terrified.  I cried from security check in at San Francisco airport, where my husband and two of my sons were waving goodbye, all the way to Ghana.  I wondered what on Earth did I think I was doing?  Why did I feel the absolute need to make this trip?  It made no sense for me to go given all that was going on. But went I did.

When I got there, I was quite overwhelmed.  Culture shock was in full swing and the first 6 weeks was a grueling schedule to complete a culture intensive class. There was little time to think or reflect on anything. Then school began and things began to settle in.  I slowly found a routine.  I had no friends to speak of beyond the casual relationships I had with my fellow CSU-IP classmates but I was not that surprised, because I was most of my classmate’s parent’s age.  Who wants to go to college and hang out with their mother?  As a result, I spent a great deal of time alone.  Alone with the panicky and frantic internal feeling that had traveled all the way to Ghana with me, alone with my thoughts more often than I cared for. Surrounded by 30,000 students here at the university I felt lonely. However, I needed that solitude but still did not know it.

I thought I had a handle on my disease and was coping well with that. I thought I was in Africa to fulfill a life-long dream. What I did not come even close to having a handle on however, was my personal dis-ease. Dis-ease with myself, my marriage, my path forward, with everything in my life. In this foreign and very uncomfortable environment I slowly realized that everything I thought I had going right in my life, wasn’t.

Not long before I left I got a bumper sticker on my car that says, “Don’t Believe Everything You Think” (funny how life sends you messages everywhere should you choose to see them).  Something inside of me knew I needed a major paradigm shift. That saying was more appropriate for me than I had realized at the time. That Bigger than me thing knew that I needed to be in an environment that was completely unfamiliar, I needed to be alone and I needed to get to know the me that I had buried under everybody and everything thing else in my life back home, where it was easy to hide from myself.

So, I journaled, I meditated, I began doing yoga several times a week and slowly I realized something about myself.  The Theresa that I had so carefully crafted, nurtured and worked so hard to maintain was finished.  I was not sure who the real Theresa was but I was never going back to the Theresa that left California months before. This realization spurred in me what I call the Phenomenon phenomenon.  I am talking about the movie with John Travolta made in 1996 (watch it if you haven’t because it is great) where the main character finds himself with his mind racing faster and faster.  He becomes more and more frantic until one day, he looks up and sees the trees gently blowing back and forth in the breeze and a calmness settles over him. He found his pace and his frantic racing mind calms down.  Realizing that the old Theresa was finished had the same effect on me.  It was like watching those trees blow gently in the wind.  Inside, slowly, I found my own pace and as such, my own peace.

I have no idea what the next four months in Ghana will hold for me, or even what the universe has planned for me, but it should be interesting to find out.

Peace to you,

T

The Journey Begins

While I have been working on this trip for over a year, I am now two weeks from departure to the University of Ghana.  I will be there for 10 months, living on campus in the International Student Hostel with fellow students from all over the world (most of whom will be my children’s age). I began my anti-malaria meds today and suddenly this feels all too real.  The application process, the essays I wrote, the interviews I went through and the endless hoops and hurdles over the last year are finally coming to fruition.  I am excited and terrified all at the same time.  While at times I wonder if I have lost my mind most of the time the mix of terror and anticipation is a pretty good place to be.  So I hope to use this space as a chronicle of my journey and as a space to process an experience that I can hardly fathom.  I sure hope I am up to the challenge.