The past week has been the longest of my life. I flew to New York on the 5th, navigated the airport with significant savvy (one would think I flew alone long before becoming a YES student!) and passed a somewhat lower than expectation Gateway Orientation. It was loosely organized and the most valuable information came from young exchange student alum.
September 6th was a long day at the hotel because our flight didn't leave till 11:00 pm. Our flight to London was strange...they decided to feed us a full meal at 1:00 am. Lydia and I woke up when the carriage passed, and we ate in confused stupor.
The Heathrow Airport was even crazier than JFK. But I enjoyed everyone's accents, and also the fact that seven students from Belgium Flanders joined us on the flight to Accra. (Did I really only meet them a week ago? It feels like a month, at least...)
We landed in Accra, greeted by the Ghanaian humidity and the vivid, varied smells of urban Africa. Jamirah, who was our group leader in Washington, met us at the airport, to the delight of all the YES girls. That night, we stayed in a guest house in Accra, joined by two French students and several AFS volunteers, including my host brother, Prince. Before we were fully, cognitively awake the next morning, we were on a bus to Elmina, a beautiful beach town with the oldest castle in Ghana. We toured the castle, which was a heart wrenching place. West African castles were not for kings, queens, knights and the like. They were prisions for thousands of men and women who were part of the greatest forced migration in history: the Atlantic slave trade. They were kept in very crowded rooms with little provisions and no means of hygeine for months. Hundreds of years later, those castles still stink of vomit, urine, and blood. It is an anomaly, really, that any of them survived to face the next hardship: the middle passage of the Atlantic.
At the castle, which many foreigners visit, we became targets for money for the first time. People would ask us cordially for our names and then write our names on seashells, demanding large amounts for them. The AFS volunteers were annoyed, and made sure we got back in the bus and ignored these crazy (and likely bored) teenagers. I did, however, meet some kind university students who were impressed with my red hair!
We checked in to a beautiful beach hotel. I have never stayed anywhere like it. We ate at a nearby restaurant, shedding our shoes and running on the sand. Like twenty best friends. And really, we'd only been together twenty-four hours. But I think, whether you are French, Belgian, American on the YES program, or American on AFS, it is only a certain type of person who chooses to be an exchange student in Ghana for a year.
When our food came, we shared, as if we'd known each other our whole life. I have two new families, my host family, and my AFS family.
The next day was packed with even more adventures! We walked on a canopy over the rainforest in Kakum national park, and then toured another slave castle. When we returned to our guest house in Accra, it felt like we'd been away weeks and weeks.
Our next day was really the only day of orientation. We visited the US Embassy, which was very welcoming and happy to give us advice. We rode the tro-tro (essentially a van converted into public transportation, if you've ever been to Central America, think of the "chicken buses") to a market in Accra. It was there that I experienced real culture shock for the first time...it was a beautiful feeling...and scary. I was surrounded by so many new sights and smells, and everyone was staring at me like I was a chicken with no head or something. But it was more beautiful than scary, because I knew this country would become my home.
The rest of the day passed in orientation session. The night passed in being sick. Americans seemed to think I caught some bacteria. Ghanaians seemed to think I "took too much spicy food". Either or both is possible, at any rate, I'm better.
We drove over the hills and forests for hours to Kumasi the day after that night. It was so beautiful to see students united with their families. I was dropped off last, but Oliver and Zaza, the Belgians hosted in Sunyani, came inside to see me off.
And finally, after a week that lasted a year, I met my family. They are the kindest folks around, and easy to talk to. There are many family members who live nearby, and I've already meant uncles, aunts, and a great-uncle. At home, I have a brother, Caleb (or Kofi, because he's Friday born) and a sister, Bridget. I love my new family, and the neighborhood. I went for a walk yesterday, and all the little kids swarmed the obruni (Twi for white person) and begged me to take their pictures. I did, and showed them, and they squealed with glee. They tried to talk to me, but my Twi consists of Hello, How are you?, and Thank you. I talked to a few kind teenagers who spoke English. They were worried I was lost!
I am very happy here, and I look forward to sharing my experiences here on this blog.