When I first moved to rural northern Ghana as a Peace Corps volunteer 17 months ago, nothing reminded me of my life back in the States.
There was no electricity or running water. Nobody spoke English — and I hadn’t yet mastered the local language, Dagbanli.
People behaved very differently than how I was used to.
One day, while teaching a fourth grade class, I looked out the open window. In the vastness of the dry plains that stretched beyond, what popped into view was a student who was “freeing herself” as they say here (in other words, engaging in open defecation). She’d positioned herself there so she could watch me as I taught.
I must have been as intriguing to her as she was to me. (I was the first non-Ghananian person, or “siliminga,” to live in their village.)
I was moved by the generosity of the massive groups of women, sometimes numbering up to 50, who would come together to help neighbors in need. “Such hard work. And they expect nothing in return!” I marveled, as I watched several women collect mud to smooth and slap onto the outside of a partially built house. In the U.S., I’d lived for years near people without ever learning their names.
And I was tested by the requirements of daily life, which include frequent trips to the village water pipe. I need water to bathe, do dishes, wash clothes, cook and drink — it’s a lot of water! And it’s heavy. Standing in line at the tap gave me ample time to worry about the other difficulties of living here: water constantly running out, a diet of unfamiliar foods, non-stop sweating and frequent stomach problems.
But I started to adjust. I learned to enjoy waiting at the water pipe, watching young girls play a Dagomba version of hopscotch and listening to the older women gossip and laugh. There are a few soups here made from fresh tree leaves that are so slimy that strings of soup stretch from the bowl to the spoon as it goes to your mouth — until the wind blows it all over your body. It’s hard to get over that. But once I did, I realized that I actually like them!
Eventually, the worrying withered away. Instead, I just lived.
These days, the family I live with often reflects back on when I arrived. They remind me of how little I used to fetch from the water pipe per trip because my neck wasn’t used to the work — about three gallons at a time. Now I can carry 10 gallons. When we’re all washing laundry together, they mimic how I would incorrectly and inefficiently swish my clothes around in water, rub them together a bit and call it a job well done. I laugh along with them. I really was a total newbie back then.
But now, they say to me, “a passeya.” That’s a Dagbanli-English smash-up meaning “you’ve passed.” I’m no longer a strange siliminga, but an accepted community member. They compliment me on my laundry skills and my neck strength.
Even I’ve surprised myself by how I’ve adjusted to things that would’ve brought me to tears months ago.
Recently, the water pipes in our community were dry for about five months. So we had to trek a mile and half to the reservoir (more like big puddle) that’s full of dirty water and animal feces. We wouldn’t waste the wood on boiling it for bathing, but would for cooking.
So when the pipes again filled with water a few weeks ago in the middle of the night, and I heard the sounds of women fetching water in their tin buckets, I too dragged my sleepy-eyed self out to wait in line with them.
And when later that same morning, I was awakened by two camel spiders running over my legs and into the crook of my arm, I didn’t move a muscle, let alone scream. I just lazily opened one eye to make sure they had skittered away and fell back asleep. And I think I can objectively say that camel spiders — large, quick moving arachnids with a painful bite that look like a cross between spiders and scorpions — are the creepiest of the creepy. In Dagbanli, they are called “the woman runs quickly” (pag’zoriyomyom).
Life here is comfortable now, which is something I’ve yearned for since I got here. Because as long as chores were difficult and I felt inadequate doing them, this place didn’t feel like home. Now it does.
Rather than constantly focusing on the present, as I used to do because everything I experienced was so brand spanking new to me, I can actually think about the future. I can consider how I want to spend the final six months of my Peace Corps service. I can plan more realistically for when I have to leave this cozy niche in my community here in Ghana.
A change that big is intimidating — I won’t wake up anymore to a steaming bowl of spicy corn porridge and the sound of the women I live with sweeping the compound. I won’t be able to harvest fresh honey from hives we built and installed and then gnaw on the sweet honeycomb together with friends. I won’t spend my nights lying on a mat in the center of my compound falling asleep under the open sky.
But I’ll be OK. After all, I came to Ghana to find a new normal and that’s what I’ve done. So maybe, in six months, it will be time to move onto the next normal.