Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Important People I Would Not Know Without YES, Day 9: Sakina


It is not easy to go to school in a new culture. Any exchange student could tell you that what we do is not possible without support from our peers.

When I showed up in KSTS, I was intimidated by the new place. I didn’t show it, but oh, I felt it. I didn’t understand anything, not where to buy food, not where to go to the bathroom, not how to behave in class. On top of that, everyone was staring at me. I don’t blame them—I would have stared at me, too. Still, it drained my energy.

Sakina sat beside me on the first day of school. She approached me with boldness and compassion. Sakina thought of my every need. At break, she marched me down to the canteen and bought me kenkey. I would have been satisfied with her showing me how to buy kenkey, but before I could say anything, she’d paid. I asked her where the toilet was, and she dropped everything she was doing and walked me over there. I tried to ask the class how to take a taxi to “Owhimasi,” (a mother of a word for an American to pronounce) but no one understood what place I meant. Except Sakina. She figured it out and took me to the station I needed.

I followed Sakina around like a puppy at school, watching what she did. I must have seemed like such a baby at first. I couldn’t eat with my hand properly, and I’d get food all over my face. Sakina would wipe it with a washcloth.

Only a few weeks in to school, I asked her to come home and meet my host family. She agreed, and made fast friends with my brother Kofi and my sister Martha. Kofi and I went to her house the following weekend. Her family was so kind. They had me laughing. Sakina and I would talk on the phone after school almost every day. It’s common for friends in Ghana to spend so much time on the phone.

In November, I took a trip to the Northern Region of Ghana, and so I missed school for a few days. When I came back, Sakina threw her arms around me, held me tight, let go, jumped and shouted for joy. I remember feeling at a loss. What had I done to convince Sakina to love me that way?

As the year went on, I learned the answer. I did nothing to convince her. Sakina took one look at me on the first day of school and decided she was going to love me.

If you were to zoom out from the Earth and look down at all the people, you would not find two young women more different than Sakina and I. I am tall and pale (even for a white person); Sakina is short and dark (even for a black person). I speak one language, Sakina speaks at least three. I am a Christian, Sakina is a Muslim. I am well-off; Sakina’s family has seen hard times.

But if you looked inside us, if you put our hearts under microscopes, I wonder if you wouldn’t find two people more similar. Our differences are not trivial. It has not always been easy to navigate them. However, Sakina and I both go out of our way to help others. The way she welcomed me and incorporated me into our class was awesome. In high school, I always reached out to the outcasts, trying to find what made them special.

Sakina told me recently that she admires my work with Enliven Mama Africa. When I remember the way she made everyone in our class feel valued (especially me, the outsider of all outsiders), I admire the way she gives people her all.

Sakina, continue blessing people with your determination to love.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Important People I Would Not Know Without YES, Day 8: The Adinkras

This post deserves an entire series. My host family is the best host family in Ghana. (This is not my bias speaking; they won the AFS award for “Best Host Family.” The American president of AFS came to meet them).

Maa Aggie and Me
The first day I arrived in Kumasi, sick and jet-lagged, my host mom gave me a hug and said: “Sarah my daughter.” She didn’t wait to get to know me, she just decided to love me however I was. My host dad gave me a tour of the house that first night. They showered me with love, filled me with food, and did everything in their power to help me adjust to living in Ghana.

I don’t know how to say thank you, because saying it once won’t do it. My host mom, Aggie, and my host dad, John made me feel safe amid the confusion of a new lifestyle. Martha and Bridget gave me the experience of having sisters for the first time. The youngest son, Kofi, showed interesting similarities to my brothers at home. Kwame, the middle son, has hosted me in Accra several times.

Kwame and Me
Joe (a school friend), Kofi, and Me
The relationship I share with each member of my host family is unique and precious in its own way. The Adinkra parents are so giving. My host dad and I shared many conversations during my exchange year, and we still talk on the phone often. He can make me smile whenever. Daddy is the best breakfast chef in Kumasi, no doubt about it. My host mom is one of the kindest people I have ever met. She cooked so many meals for me. She cared for me when I was sick.
When I arrived in Ghana, my host brother, Kofi, was ill and had to be taken to the hospital. I remember being afraid that my family would have to give me up because of it. However, they called their cousin, Martha, and she spent hours with me, laughing and listening to music. Martha spent time with me before I had started school and before I had the confidence to go out on my own. The Adinkra family was tough and kept me through all kinds of times.
Bridget, Me, and Martha

Kofi and spent countless hours walking through Boko and greeting friends. Kofi has similar quirks to my brother Tyler, and that was interesting to see. Bridget and I shared a good many laughs. Kwame impressed me with his hospitality even when he lived on his own. He also introduced me to the Big Bang Theory. (I love Sheldon!)

My parents came to meet the Adinkras at the end of my exchange year. It blew me away to see both my moms laughing and both my dads talking. That was a picture of unity.

Dad (John Adinkra and Jeff Bibbey)
I am immeasurably lucky. Not only was I placed with the “best host family in Ghana,” I was placed with a family that fit me like a glove. Because of Enliven Mama Africa, I have seen most of my host family again. I returned to Ghana in 2014 and stayed with Maa Aggie, Daddy, and Kofi. Kwame picked me up at the airport. It was a beautiful homecoming. I had been afraid it would never come. To think, I only had to wait a year…

And I only had to wait two years for something even bigger to happen. Just last week, I welcomed my Ghanaian mother into my own home. She's been in Georgia for a few months, and was able to make it out to Colorado. Maa Aggie is an American lady now, just as I am a Ghanaian lady. I am so honored to be the daughter of Agnes Adinkra, a woman who goes out of her way to be a mother. We had such a wonderful time exploring Colorado. Maa met my brothers for the first time. She was teasing Tyler and dancing with Griff. In such moments, I am aware of the heart of what it is to be an exchange student.

I did not gain a second family from the YES Program. My own family just got bigger.

Maa Aggie, Me, and Mom IN THE USA!!!
PS: Please look for a blog post all about Maa's visit...after I finish the series.

Sunday, May 31, 2015

Important People I Would Not Know Without YES, Day 7: Nans Riffart

I mentioned, before, that a few blogposts will leave me at a loss for words. Nans Riffart, the last “obruni” (white and non-Ghanaian) person I will write about definitely captures that. By nature, Nans is one of the most caring, affectionate people I have ever known. In Kumasi, he was my best friend, and I look forward to the day we will meet again.

The first time I met Nans, I was jet-lagged and my adrenaline was crashing fast. We were in the AFS bus at the Ghanaian airport, and I had ask his name about ten times before I decided it must be something like “Naunce.” I do not speak any French, and I am honored to have a friend who was willing to speak my language to get to know me. As I spent some time with him over the next few days, I was touched by his open nature.

Nans and I were placed at the same school. I don’t think either of us could have realized the impact this would have on both of us. We weren’t in the same class (we wanted to make Ghanaian friends, after all), but we were able to meet during breaks to process our experiences with Ghanaian culture.  As time went on, we talked about many pieces of life, physical and spiritual. We shared countless laughs and I had the privilege of teaching him English words.

Before Ghana, I was a private person. Not in the sense of introversion—I am an extrovert and always will be. In high school, I kept secrets from my closest friends. I wanted no one to see my weak points or my fears. I created myself instead of just living as I was. Maybe that’s why I had so few close friends in those days.

It was Nans who changed that for me. He learned things about me I was afraid to admit to myself. Because of that, I found myself telling him things I hadn’t told people before. Perhaps, according to the laws of social interaction in America, we weren’t supposed to talk about such things. But Nans and I were not governed by rules.

He memorized my facial expressions. (I recall him saying once: “Sarah, you’re wearing the expression you do when you want me to think you’re happy, but you’re not. What’s going on?”) He was verbally affectionate in a way none of my American friends had been since we were kids.

We traveled around Ghana together, Nans and I. I especially remember our trip to the monkey sanctuary in the Brong-Ahafo region. We got stuck in a city called Techiman during a pouring rainstorm and made the best of it. Then we went out to the sanctuary, where we spent two days scrambling around the forest, reading Biblical poetry, and practicing meditation. Seeing wild monkeys up close for the first time was extraordinary. In that place, I felt close to the Earth and to God.

Nans gave me a gift from that place, which I will treasure forever. We were young, and strived to keep each other happy that year in Ghana. I won’t pretend we always succeeded. We had our misjudgments and our failures to support each other. But we tried so hard, coming from a place of love.

Nans Fabrice Riffart, Kwame Agyeman, lover of nature and humankind, you showed me how to be a friend. Whenever I find myself missing you, I remember that you want me to be happy where I am.

Important People I Would Not Know Without YES, Day 6: Logan Smith (who helped an acrophobic go cliff jumping)

This is not a picture of my friend Logan. This is not a picture of me, either. In fact I don’t know this guy at all. I snatched this from the internet.

This is a picture of how I felt on the day I met Logan. I was leaning over the edge of the cliff, about to fall. I had left Colorado and was sitting in some weird New York hotel preparing for the ride of my life. I was overwhelmed. Ten months felt like forever in that moment.

Some people can sit and reason through their fears and stress. I am not one of those people. I am a crier. I cried all day during that orientation.

Logan was the group leader sent to prepare us AFS students to live in Ghana. By the time we arrived in New York, it was too late to pack anything else or say goodbye to anyone else. Logan’s job was to be with us as we prepared in deeper ways.

I did a pretty good job, that day, of hiding my tears and my sadness and my nerves. I think, though, that Logan had some idea we were all freaking out. (However, Sarah freaking out does not look like Emily freaking out or Ann Elise freaking out. Lydia freaking out does not look like Jeneni freaking out and neither of them look like Sarah freaking out.) In spite of that, Logan was wonderful at calming us down without admitting that that was what he was doing.

Fast forward ten months. Our group was completely different. Instead of five YES students, there were three of us. Instead of being new friends excited to get to know each other, we were sisters who knew each other like the back of our hands. (And sisters who were in the middle of a heated squabble over what was right. Honestly, we might have rather made the long flight from Ghana alone than spend so much time with our siblings.)

And who met us in the DC airport but Logan. He was there to prepare us to jump off an even larger cliff—flinging our new selves into our old homes. He laughed at my funnier statements (“This place is full of white people.” “It’s eight at night; the sun should have been down hours ago.”). Logan was there to validate our experience. When we’d tell a story, he’d come up with a similar one from his experience in Ghana.

Some of my peers may say that having the same group leader to send us off and welcome us home provided closure. However, I was not seeking closure. I wanted to be transformed as a result of my experience, to see my life never be the same again. In that orientation, I felt like Logan was telling me: “You did not dream this experience. You have permission to be different than you were before.”

In September 2014, I had the opportunity to be a group leader myself. When I arrived in New York, I kept in mind that the students may have felt like they were falling off a cliff. As Logan did for me, I was present with them as they prepared for the ride.

I will not be with this year’s YES Abroad students at their return orientation in Washington DC. I get to do something crazier—be at their return orientation in Accra. I am blessed to maintain strong links to Ghana.

When someone is there to help you, moving across the world is not like falling off a cliff, it is like jumping. I’ve never been cliff-jumping (I’m kind of acrophobic), but I hear it’s fabulous.

Logan, thank you for being with me as I made those jumps.

Picture links:

PS: I know the cycle is broken, and this isn't really a "14 day blog series" now, but life happens. Finals, closeout duty, ministry camp, special guests, etc. I still plan to finish.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Important People I Would Not Know Without YES, Day 5: Jamirah Ahmed

When Lydia, Emily, Ann Elise, Jeneni and I landed in Washington DC in June 2013, we were varying degrees of ecstatic. I was flattered to be chosen for YES. I was full of questions about Ghana. Fortunately, we had the lovely Jamirah to help us understand what to expect and how to handle Ghana.

I don’t think I realized how much I appreciated Jamirah until we were reunited in Ghana. For me, the experience of landing was stressful. I had just finished the longest plane ride of my life, and entered the noisiest place I’d ever seen. Someone tried to carry my luggage for me, and I was so exhausted and shell-shocked I almost let him. I felt like I was in a haze, wandering through a dream. Trouble was, we were in the middle of a busy airport, where you need to be on your toes. When we finally arrived at the AFS bus, Jamirah was there to greet us. My heart soared to see a familiar face in a strange land. I felt safe amid my bizarre surroundings.

In Kumasi, Jamirah was always there for us. We went through some bumps as we adjusted to our surroundings, and Jamirah was willing to help us process them. On perhaps the lowest moment of my year, when Morgan Lide passed away, Jamirah calmed me down and enabled me to continue with a good attitude. 

Jamirah and other YES alumni play a special role in the life of YES Abroad students. They understand the transitions we go through because they have lived it themselves. I was able to visit Ghana again in 2014 (see: When I returned, my visit with Jamirah was one of the highlights. She connected me with Ghanaian students interested in my project. I learned how much she does for exchange students, and I am impressed by her hard work.

One thing that strikes me about Jamirah is her sense of humor. During my year in Ghana, she could make me laugh at anything. To live in Ghana, you must have the ability to laugh. Also, Jamirah puts incredible energy into her interactions with people. I find that inspiring. 

I am so glad to know Jamirah.  

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Important People I Would Not Know Without YES, Day 4: Emily Simpson

Emily Simpson is tall, wild, and unforgettable. She leaves a distinct impression on people wherever she goes. These days, she doesn’t seem to stick around one place for too long. She’s always looking for a new adventure.

We are strong personalities, Emily and I. Both of us in one room makes sparks fly.  In Ghana, we spent time together every few months, but we lived far apart. We had distinct experiences on our exchange, partly because we sought out different kinds of opportunities than each other. However, spending a year in the same country equipped us to understand each other on a deep level.

When I came back from Ghana, I was a wreck. There were days I would think I had dreamed my entire experience, that the people I had known and loved were ciphers. If I couldn’t see or touch them, I felt they didn’t exist.

I started college and put on a brave face. Sometimes, during those first few months, I was pretending to be happy. My white-brick hallway didn’t really compare to my house in Atwima Boko. The fast paced schedule of a student wasn’t entirely compatible with the new easygoing “Ghana Man Time” I’d picked up. I felt like I had already accomplished my greatest life-dream, and that the way forward was all downhill.

Then, Emily waltzed back into my life, challenging me to re-center myself. We drove up to a Buddhist shrine in the mountains near Fort Collins. She saw right through my “brave face.” “Sarah,” she said, “Your body may be here, but your mind is still in Ghana.” Emily riled me up on that visit, and in a way, I was relieved to see her go back to Laramie.

A few months later, I had a trip planned to Snowy Range, a ski place near Emily’s hometown. The night before I left, Emily called me. I invited her along. We skied together all day, talking out our good and bad experiences. That was a turning point in our friendship, at least in my opinion. I trusted her on a new level, I saw she understood me, and I felt we would enjoy spending more time together.

After that day skiing, Emily and I spent the best times together yet. She came to Fort Collins to visit several times over the next month. In those visits, we sledded, hung out with my college friends, and frequented the Ally Cat Cafe. She went off to India, then to a job in New York, and she visited again on her way home. (That time we camped at Horsetooth...after the campground closed.) We still talk about Ghana, sometimes, but our friendship has broadened to many other topics.

Emily and I still make a room spark. Every time I look at her, I know the people I met that year continue to live, breathe, and grow. It is not our time in Ghana that I love Emily for, it is the way we keep going now. I don’t believe her call that night was a coincidence.

Monday, April 6, 2015

Important People I Would Not Have Known Without YES, Day 3: Lydia Larson

We were in a hotel. It was beautiful, but not much different than your average hotel in America. It wasn’t even in Denver. It was DIA, Colorado, which is its own place if you ask me. I was in a hotel in my home state with 89 high school students across the country. These weren’t just any high school students, though. They were like me. Students who cared about global issues and craved adventure. Students who weren’t afraid of going somewhere completely off most Americans’ radar.

Even for our similarities, I didn’t exactly blend in at the YES Abroad IPSE (fancy terms for interview and sleepover). I enjoy social interaction, but I can get lost in crowds. When I saw Miss Lydia Larson, I knew we would be able to connect. Lydia and I talked for at least four hours about anything and everything. We found we had more in common than our desire to go abroad. We were both from small towns (though Lydia lives much further from a city than me), we both valued our education, and we somehow…fit. During our first conversation we were never scrambling for “something to talk about.” We were enjoying each other’s company and viewpoints.

Little did I know that that conversation would be the first of hundreds. Yes, hundreds. Lydia and I were sent to Kumasi, Ghana together in the fall of 2012. After every day, we would call each other and process our experiences. Lydia and I saw each other at our best and at our worst. Before Ghana, I never really let people see me at my worst.

There will be a few of these blog posts that will leave me, the writer, at a loss for words. This is one of them. I can’t really express the kind of bond you form with someone when you, together, leave everything you know.

Lydia and I didn’t always see eye to eye, that is true. But friendships where you always see eye to eye are fake in some sense. My friendship with Lydia is real. We navigated Kumasi’s tro-tro system together. We celebrated Eid-al-hada for the first time (see the picture). We traveled cross-country. We played a sour game of pool on New Year’s Eve of 2013. We went on a running adventure where we burst into someone’s house (He didn’t care. In fact, he asked us if we wanted to borrow some chairs while we sat on his roof.) We laid the groundwork for what is now Enliven Mama together. (Lydia was the professional eye in the room. Had the website been left to my designs…let’s just say there would have been hidden jokes and nerdy cultural references.) After sharing a room several times on trips, we decided we should never be roommates and always be friends. Lydia was the first and remains the only person to notice the bizarre way I sleep – on my stomach, with my hand up at the pillow. (Yes, I sleep in that position every night.)

That is not even a sixteenth of what Lydia and I shared. Lydia and I…we grew up together. Not in the way that we knew each other all our childhood. We became adults together. We arrived in Ghana two American teenagers with a lot in common. We left Ghana two brave women, marked by our experiences. Ironically, I think we have less in common now than we did then. We have grown in diverse, beautiful directions.

I don’t have a sister by blood. My female friends are lucky because they become my sisters.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Important People I Would Not Have Known Without YES, Day 2: Fiona Racheal

I met Fiona, a YES student from Kenya, after school in one day in 2011. Her host father and my mother taught science together at Poudre High School. From the start, I could tell Fiona was a kind-hearted, love filled young woman. She always went out of her way to make me smile. We spent many good times together during her year in Colorado. Here are a few that stand out to me:

1)      Fiona’s first snow – It was just a dusting, just a tiny bit of snow. But we ran outside together, touching the snow, making little snowballs…only problem was neither of us had gloves. Our hands burned with cold for an hour afterwards
2)      Fiona coming to watch me in the Music Man – I always love it when my friends come watch me perform.
YES Abroad - It was Fiona who first told me about YES Abroad. I knew about YES (the inbound version), but one day I found myself talking to Fiona about how much I love exchange students, and how I wished I could be one. She pulled out a YES Abroad flyer from her bag. From the moment I saw the flyer, I knew the program was for me. Fiona watched me go through the process of applying, and cheered when I was awarded the scholarship to Ghana.
3)      Invisible Children – I remember when Invisible Children came to Poudre and gave us presentation. I know there have been concerns about this organization, but I remember the people I have met through it and maintain respect for them. Watching the presentation and meeting the people was a different when Fiona was with me, because she understood the area well. She helped me see that Africans of different nations often empathize with each other deeply.  
4)      Our faux Sadie Hawkins – Fiona, her host sister, and I made plans to go to the Sadie Hawkins Dance at Poudre together. Turned out we were three of about twenty with those plans. They cancelled the dance. Oh, well, we dressed up fancy and went to eat at The Beach House, a wonderful restaurant that has since closed down.
5)      Prom – Fiona and I stuck together like glue during senior prom. Oh yeah, I had a date. In our picture, we’re standing on either side of him with our hands on his shoulders. We danced in a sort of three person circle all night.
6)      The FCMOD show – Before the Fort Collins Museum of Discovery opened, we had a party there. It was for volunteers, their friends, and high school bands. I was honored to see many of my friends come, including Fiona. That’s where we are in the picture.
7)   Saying good-bye the day before I left for DC – My mom was not happy about me driving across town before I’d packed, but I had to do it. I had to say goodbye to my friend. I insisted, because I hoped my friends on exchange would do the same for me.

Kenya is far away. However, after my many experiences over the past four years, the world doesn't feel quite so big. I have no doubt that I will make my way to Kenya one day, and when I do, I will be thrilled to see Fiona. 

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Important People I Would Not Have Known Without YES, Day 1: Zahra Yousofi

When I saw Zahra sitting in the Poudre High School library over four years ago, something inside me was compelled to speak to her. I didn’t know, at that time, but I was seeing someone who would change my life. Zahra Yousofi was one of the members of YES Afghanistan 2010-2011, the last YES group from Afghanistan. I was a high school student unsatisfied with the day to day conversations of most of my peers.

Zahra and I, we talked. We talked about love, life, Afghanistan, God, women’s rights, and so many other things. We roamed Bellvue, Colorado, just west of my hometown, Laporte, admiring the beauty of the place. We really only hung out for a few months, lamenting, as exchange students often do, that we hadn’t connected earlier. But after going home to Afghanistan for the summer and spending a semester at boarding school in New Jersey, Zahra came to Colorado to visit. Inspired by her, I was on the application journey for YES Abroad. Ever since then, I’ve know that the end of an exchange does not mark the end of a friendship. Exchange is the catalyst for life-long friendships. After returning from Ghana, my American friends grew distant, in a way. I always knew I could call Zahra if I needed her.

Zahra and I have always laughed about the diversity of our backgrounds (one the one hand) and the alignment of our interests (on the other). Even our names are similar (people with certain accents call us both Sah-ra). We are both sophomores in college now in different parts of the United States. After not talking for a year, we decided to Skype two weeks ago. As I asked Zahra about her summer plans, she described her desire to start a women’s project in Afghanistan focused on trade education. She mentioned that if she could, she would buy sewing machines for the women. Zahra knew she had to do something for Afghan women, because she had made a promise. I froze, shivering a little. Not a week before, I’d written this blog post about my NGO in Ghana, Enliven Mama Africa: (The post describes my commitment to trade education for women in Ghana, and the promise that fueled it. Zahra had not seen any of my work related to Enliven Mama Africa.)

It seems that our different experiences over the past few years are driving Zahra and me in the same direction. If it were not for YES—

We might still be dreaming. Instead, we are working, with each other’s encouragement and blessing. I have a friend loves me and who is not afraid to challenge me.