Since my last post, my world here has begun to feel more familiar. I liken it to living in a new town for just long enough that you know how to turn before the traffic light which creates a delay, and choose a route that circumvents the back up. Things feel familiar when I can create options, when different paths overlap and new possibilities naturally surface. I drifted off on the tro-tro early one morning and realized that we were passing the king’s palace – which I then remembered is 2-3 stops after the station I wanted, but delightfully only one stop before a lovely French bakery! “Mate, next stop…” At 6:25 in the morning when my appointment was at 8:00 a.m., finding my way to Des Amies felt much more significant than getting off at the station I was aiming for. (And, oh, was that chocolate croissant amazing!)
Here in Ghana, I walk down the dirt road on Sunday mornings to a church that meets under a tent in a construction parking lot where we sit in plastic lawn chairs and worship and sing in Twi, the local dialect. I don’t speak or understand Twi, but it’s a Presbyterian church with a familiar flow of worship and I understand the basics – “I pray,” “we pray,” “God,” “Christ,” and names of books of the bible. Sometimes we’re singing in English and I don’t realize it because the accent is so heavy; other times when we sing in Twi I read along in the hymnal using phonetics I’ve picked up learning to pronounce my students’ names.
Only a few people have hymnals so singing is an echo process where by a vibrant, grey haired woman who they call Gramma speaks the line quickly, and then everyone sings it with music. My ear is not tuned to this tonal language, and so the entire process was performance for me until an elderly gentleman one day said “I could share my book with you, but you wouldn’t understand it.” Wanting to belong, I replied, “I could try to read it…” He shared; I read and sang phonetically; and at the end of the hymn he smiled broadly and said, “that was right good!” He has opened his hymnal to me every week since then. (Plus, I’m getting better at pronouncing my students’ names on weekdays as a result.)
The first time I went to this church, I saw the coordinating minister confer with Gramma; then the coordinating minister escorted me to a lawn chair circle being created “for English,” he said. Each person who joined us in our little English circle for bible study that morning got the welcoming explanation: “fsfdasdf asdfsdf asdfsdf white lady asdfsdf asdfsdf English safdsdf asdfasdf for today. Okay?” I could infer the meanings in between the words I recognized. Now, that English circle emerges even when it’s only me and the minister; young people in their 20’s and 30’s join over the 20 minutes and we always finish and return into a community with the same sized group as the Twi speaking groups.
I have been away for two Sundays. Last week at my church, Gramma greeted me warmly with a gracious and loving smile, “it’s been two weeks for this one!” I have become familiar enough that she had noticed each time I was gone (my absence remains relatively easy to notice; I am still the only white lady). I feel like an “acceptable other” in their midst, especially because our stories are overlapping over time. Vivian’s father, from my first tro-tro excursion into the city, comes to the same church (I think I saw Vivian one day spying on me from a back line of folding chairs with her quiet rich smile – the children meet in another tent just beyond the main one). “Do you remember me?” he greeted the first day we were there at the same time. One evening, I got out of a shared taxi at the same junction. A young man who also alighted said he would escort me home; I didn’t know who he was and yet he knew me from the church.
With open air, no walls and by the side of the road, people seem to come and go in waves, the service process itself lasting often 3 hours or more. I’ve only once stayed for the full service, maybe it was my first visit. But I don’t feel a pressure to behave by the rules of church at home where everyone is silent until the order of worship says we should speak or sing. The experience here is far more organic, though not at all unplanned. A cell phone rings, and the receiver either steps away to answer or reaches to silence the sound. I watch people at the taxi stand beyond our tent dancing to our music even though heading to their own destination. Cars come and go. The children sing and clap and grow quiet and erupt in laughter, just out of sight but still within the dirt lot of our tent.
Ministry is more evangelical here, a stronger rhetoric woven into people’s daily lives, than in my congregation and social circles at home. Last week, I went to school quite early most days to catch up on things needing internet – we’re in the same rhythmic period here as I know from my academic semesters in America, the time when teachers are swamped with grading, students constantly seek feedback on papers returned and guidance of final projects due soon, and all trying to finish community obligations as the days speed by. To go to school early, I need to travel separately from my normal carpool. Getting transit into the city at 5 a.m. is established, but going further into “the bush,” where Ashesi is, doesn’t happen at this hour. But I find that the Bethal Kwabenya Ministry Project has a bus that passes my junction going the direction I want – further out of the city, through Berkuso, and to the bottom of the Ashesi road which then climbs a steep hill to the college’s campus. The back of the bus reads “The Welfare Bus,” and it passes the main junction at 5:25 a.m. with more timely precision than anything else except the morning roosters. It lumbers along needing 25 minutes to cover the distance to the outer end of Berkuso, nearly twice what the carpool car needs. Still, by 6 a.m. I can be sitting at my office computer with a cup of tea.
Each morning, I see the same two junior high school girls on The Welfare Bus, one of whom is holding her textbook up to the bus window attempting to make out letters and sentences in the pre-dawn light. I hand her my flashlight as I board. She smiles enthusiastically, and dives back into her textbook for 10-15 minutes until we pass her school. (I need to find and buy two flashlights soon, one for each of them.) Friday, the bus was in for repairs and yet at the exact same time as it might have passed my junction, a dusty white tro-tro lumbered up the hill – the mate called out warmly, “is that you?!” He laughed as I tried to make sense of it in the dark, and he opened the tro-tro door for me to join the ride. The tro-tro’s horn is broken (a horn is a central piece of auto-equipment here! To cars it says, “move over,” “get out of my way,” and “go, there’s an opening in the traffic!” To people it says “look out, I’m behind you,” “want a ride?” or “sorry, my taxi’s full.” I’m still learning the horn language; like Twi, it is a tonal language.) And so as we lumbered through Berkuso Friday morning, the mate was leaning out the window calling out in a high pitched shout, “beep beep!” and then he’d laugh and wave to one person at a time before calling out again, “beep! Beep beep!” He seems to celebrate life every single morning; his smile alone is enough to make me enjoy the dawn ride to school.
“See you on Monday!” he and the woman who tells each of us where to sit and makes sure the children are safe told me; “we drive Monday to Friday, we see you on Monday.”
It’s just past 8 a.m. now on a Sunday morning. I’ll fold the laundry, comb my hair, and walk down the dirt road to the tent. My church service starts again soon – 8:30 a.m. I was told on my first visit, 9 a.m. according to the sign by the road, and sometimes as late as 9:15 a.m. in ritual. Indeed, some things are feeling familiar.