Unchallenging challenge

Before I came here, I expected this to be quite the challenge.

I expected to face a lot of difficulty coping with the culture, language, environment, food, people, insects, work… everything lah basically.

When I arrived at Accra, the founder of the NGO that I am interning with (Mr. Smith) came to pick me up at the airport, then took me to his brother’s house to rest for a bit before our bus ride to Tamale. It was a dilapidated sort of house. Actually, it wasn’t even a real house. It was just an all-purpose room. Water-stained walls, exposed wiring, noisy fan, and very old furniture. While we were sitting, Mr Smith went, “You won’t be seeing nice houses like this in Tamale!”

I remember thinking, Ohmygod WHAT? Nice houses?!

Sure enough, I very soon found out for myself that Tamale houses are… not very luxurious. I mean, having a fucking toilet (hole in the floor) is considered a luxury.

The first time my host brother showed me to the toilet, he went, “Do you have toilet paper?”

I said that I don’t need it just yet, but in fact I was thinking, Whatthehell there’s no toilet paper in the toilet?

Then he pointed to the toilet door and went, “Have you used one of these before?”

Me: “What?”

He opened the door further and I saw, to my utter horror, a fucking hole in a raised platform.

I said I’ve never used it before. He said, well you just squat over it.

I asked, what do you do after you’re done?

He said, then you just leave. That’s all there is to it.

I think I was feeling a little woozy then. I mean, never in my life have I ever had to squat over a bucket to pee and poo, now I’ll be doing it for the next 2 months of my life. For the first few days, I tried to put off going to do big business for as long as possible. Two days later when I really needed to go, I took my roll of toilet paper, warily walked into the toilet, and did my thing in as short a time as possible.

At the time, the smell was unbearable. I covered my nose with my shirt every time I had to use the toilet. Now, 4 weeks later, the smell actually doesn’t bother me that much anymore.

And then there’s the bathing issue. There is no shower. Each time I want to bathe, I take a large bucket, draw water from a large tank, walk into the bathroom, and use a small pail to pick up water to pour over myself. Cold water. Morning or night, cold or warm weather, I always shower with freaking cold water.

And then there’s the laundry issue. There is no laundry machine. In college, waiting 30 minutes for my clothes to get washed in the washing machine and 45 minutes for them to get dry in the dryer is considered cumbersome, annoying, a downright pain in the ass.

Now, doing laundry means getting water in two buckets, and hand-washing everything I’ve worn. Tamale is so freaking dusty, everything I wear becomes a nice shade of dust-brown by the end of the day. Oh the joy in scrubbing dust and dirt off jeans.

I miss the luxury of being able to do laundry at 4 a.m., and 1.5 hours later, be able to have warm, freshly cleaned clothes to wear. Now, thanks to the rainy season here, I have to wash my clothes as often as possible, because there was this one time, I washed all my clothes at once, it rained all day, and I ended up not having dry clothes to wear. Bad day, that one.

Guess how I go to work? By motorbike. My co-workers from the NGO come to pick me up in the morning. I think that’s the coolest shit ever. I’ve never actually been on a motorbike before this.

Life here is so freaking different.

By now, I am actually used to the smell of urine, because little kids pee at the sides of houses all the time (not all houses have their own toilets). And a goat can walk into the compound of the house, and I wouldn’t even notice anymore. A chicken can start peeing in front of me, and I no longer even bother to step farther away.

Life here is so freaking different.

All the water I’ve been drinking come in small packets, you bite a bit off one of the corners and drink from there. Food is almost completely carbohydrates. Rice, noodles, rice and noodles mix, pounded cassava, pounded and fermented yam, fried yam, rice and beans. All carbs, with the odd piece of meat or two, if you’re lucky. Isn’t it ironic that I’m in one of the poorest regions in an African country, and I’m actually gaining weight?

Life here is so freaking different.

Roads are not always paved, so it’s normal to be walking on dirt paths, with a good sprinkling of little round goat droppings every few feet. It’s normal to have to step over sketch-looking puddles that smell of urine, most likely because it is urine. There are no shopping malls, people buy their shirts in roadside stalls, kind of like at the pasar malam. I feel like I haven’t seen a proper tall building in a long, long time.

Life here is so freaking different.

People do not have internet. Almost everyone, myself included, have to go to an internet café to use the internet. But you know what’s weird? Everyone has a Facebook account. My god, Facebook is freaking everywhere. In Malaysia. In the United States (oh my god America and Facebook!). In France, people would have their laptops out in lecture halls, but would be browsing Facebook instead. And now, in Ghana, everyone asks if I have a Facebook account. Facebook is fucking everywhere!

But life here is still so freaking different.

Children, 10-year-olds, are made to go to the market after school to sell foodstuff to make money. Children as young as 6 are sent to the market to buy foodstuff for dinner. All alone! Grown-ups are always sending little kids to go around running errands. It’s very normal. One minute a kid is there, the next minute he’s gone. When he comes back and you ask him where he’d went, he’d say something like, “My mother sent me to buy tomatoes.”

Life here is so damn different. I thought this would be a huge challenge, but honestly? It’s not. I’m loving it. This is honestly one of the most fun experiences I’ve had.

I’ve met a lot of really cool people who would happily bring me around when we’re free. Oh damn, the people. I swear, this experience would be nothing if it weren’t for the people.

The biggest difference between my time here and my time in France is that when I was in France, I hung out with a lot of Americans. I was there with an American program, and I found comfort among the Americans who speak my sort of English, and who speak French just as badly as me.

Here, I am alone. I came alone, and have no other white people to hang out with. I did meet some people from Hong Kong my first week here, and they gave me their phone numbers so that I could call them once I got a new Ghana number. I decided to not call them at all, and I’m glad I didn’t. The only people I’ve talked to in the past month have been blacks, and I’m pretty damn sure this makes all the difference between this sort of experience, and my France experience.

I’ve made some really good friends here. During weekdays, after work, I’d have someone to take me around town. On Fridays, we’d go to different restaurants to try out some new stuff. On weekends, someone else would invite me to the house and prepare a different local delicacy for me to try. I’ve had fufu, banku, TZ, and wacce, all completely homemade.

This past weekend, this girl from work took me to the market to buy cloth, then we went to the tailor’s to get a top and skirt sewn for me. I can’t wait to collect it this week!

When I don’t go out after work, the little boys would always come to my room. Four of them are regulars– a 6-year-old, an 8-year-old, and two 11-year-olds. Sometimes I’d have the extra guest or two. They’d come, sometimes we’d play a game, sometimes we’d watch a movie on my computer, sometimes they’d take photos and videos of themselves with my camera, sometimes we’d just talk (which consists of me asking them questions and them answering, or them telling me random stories). They always stay for a few hours, until they evening prayers (they’re all muslims).

Today, they were testing me on my math skills, because they were amazed at how fast I can calculate. After which they just sat around and debated on whose kung fu move is the best (Jet Li or Jackie Chan).

I’ve learned a bunch of Dagbani (the local language) from them. Words I know best are “chelah” (enough), “chammah” (go), “kulimiya” (go home), “ka zungo” (not today), “bihani” (tomorrow). Not surprising to know that I learned these from always trying to get them to leave my room at the end of the day so that I can write my internship reports in peace.

You have no idea how badly I wish I could stay here longer. I’d trade a semester at Grinnell for another half a year here. This place is super awesome. I’ve only been here for a month, but I’ve met people who are very enjoyable to be around, be they adults or little kids.

I can’t believe I was worried before coming here. This is easily one of the most enjoyable periods I’ve had in a long time!

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