Volunteer rule number one was not to drink water from unknown sources.
A woman I did not know and I could not ask offered me a glass of water. That was the custom. The road being hot and dusty, visitors would be first offered a glass of water before they were to speak.
Cultural rule number zero was only evil spirits would refuse to accept water.
I had taken a tro-tro to a junction and then hiked up an unused road in the hills above Nkurakan. I was headed to a small village nestled up in the hills that I had not been to, well off any beaten track. Stephen had said he had a cousin teaching at the elementary school up there.
I had made my way to the village and was easily recognized as an outsider, although unusual for foreign visitor I was traveling in my local cloth, not in western clothes.
The children only stared at me – for the first time in a year in country the children were not singing the “Obruni koko, maakye…” song. I made a mental note to teach the children the song that some foreigners seemed to find annoying. Armed only with a name, I asked the children where I would find the cousin.
Led to a home by the children, I sat and faced the water test. Custom was water before speaking. Had I come for good or evil? I took the water and drank. I always did. After the antibiotic resistant shigella dysentery had knocked me down to 118 pounds my first week in country, I took a rather careless attitude to what I consumed and drank. Local rule zero always bests foreigner rule one.
Although I was not evil, who was I and why was I there? In my best stumbled and broken Akuapem accented Twi I explained I was Kwaku Donkor, son of Clara Donkor, traveling on the recommendation of cousin Stephen from Nkurakan. Smiles and warm hand shakes broke out all around. My identity was defined by to whom I am related and connected. I was family.
Family is always welcome, and always welcome back. Family does not need a pre-arranged invitation to visit. Dinner was fufu and I was given a bedroom to sleep in, undoubtedly displacing other members of the family for the night. I was in no position to refuse the hospitality.
The next day I was invited to give an impromptu science lesson at the elementary school, and I did so.
In country I did not travel much. Other volunteers traveled to distant places. I made short trips usually staying with relatives or friends, and did not usually go where there were no relatives or friends. I would simply show up and find myself welcomed. In turn I welcomed those who visited me. I always tried to keep a healthy supply of coffee for visitors and guests.
I still keep coffee on hand to welcome family and friends – none of whom need an invitation to visit. I have tried to also raise my children to share in this understanding, although the assessments are still pending on whether or not I will have succeeded.
Thirty years ago this spring I was invited to a Center for Assessment and Stateside Training (CAST) as a prelude to a possible invitation to join Peace Corps Ghana. I had put on my application that I would serve anywhere but Africa. In 1983 I knew only that there was a drought affecting a wide swath of Africa. When I get stressed out I tend to eat, I thought that a drought and food shortage might be stressful and that I would have the wrong reaction in the midst of a food shortage. So I naively put that I would serve anywhere but Africa.
When I filled out the application I was not seriously considering Peace Corps, I was looking at a number of possible post-graduation options and at a job fair day in 1983 I had filled out the application along with many other inquiries. The “recruiter” noted that I checked childhood allergies and said that would probably knock me out of consideration. The months went by and I never heard back, so I did not think again about the forms I had filled out.
Then in 1984 an invitation to a CAST for Ghana came in. The CAST would be a week long session of evaluation and assessment in Harper’s Ferry, Virginia, at the end of which Peace Corps would decide whether to invite a candidate and a candidate would decide whether to accept that invitation. Ghana had received volunteer groups every year except 1983. By 1983 Ghana was considered a difficult posting with a high early termination rate. No new volunteers were sent in 1983. Usually a new group overlaps a pre-existing group by a year, but with no 1983 group and the 1982 group finishing up in 1984, the 1984 group would have few other volunteers in country. The CAST was intended to pre-select a group that was ready for the challenges that Ghana was thought to pose.
I had no real intention of going to Africa, but I thought a free week’s vacation in Harper’s Ferry would be fun and so I traveled to Washington DC and then on up to Harper’s Ferry for the CAST.
The assessors at the Harper’s Ferry CAST were, as I recall, all Americans. I do not now recall clearly, but my recollection is that some, if not all, were returned Ghana volunteers. There was one Ghanaian among the assessors, the in-country nurse for Peace Corps Ghana, Clara Donkor.
Clara decided I was trouble based on my being a Kwaku and informed me that she was adopting me as her son. When she did that I realized that if I was accepted into the Ghana program at the end of the CAST, I would at least have to go to Ghana out of respect for this woman I had just met.
I remember Harper’s Ferry as a week of group cooperation games and occasional mind games. When we were asked what lasting impact we hoped to have in Ghana I replied that I hoped to leave behind at least a pile of rocks. I do not recall how that went over, but I did make that pile of rocks in Akropong. Just last month I very intentionally piled up some rocks in area where I was planting some local medicinal plants. Wherever I go, I make sure I pile up a few rocks, my homage to that commitment I made in Harper’s Ferry. I have changed the lives of so many rocks over the years!
Although I had thought I might be rejected by the assessors, I suspect Clara put in her support for me and I found myself invited to the next stage of training in Mount Carroll, Illinois.
In Mount Carroll a different team of returned Ghana volunteers gave us a crash course in teacher training with a focus on the educational systems of Ghana. There was also a fellow from South Africa who had a role in the training. The training used a site that had been the home of Shimer College at one time.
After stateside training in Mount Carroll, the group flew to Accra for an initial week of in-country training, followed by village based training in Akrofufu, Eastern Region, and then another round of teacher training in Nsawam. The training was so long that at least one candidate terminated due to the length of training. Another volunteer terminated in the first week because conditions in country were “too dirty” for her.
I recall watching Mars, prominent in the southern night sky in Mount Carroll. That first night in Ghana when I looked for Mars, the planet was not there. We were outside performing libation, but my eyes were on the southern skies. Where was Mars? The change in longitude meant a shift in time, but I knew that should not affect the position. I tilted my head back and looked straight up. Mars. Straight overhead. I knew in an instant I must be near the equator. That was the moment I realized I was no longer in Kansas.
A day or two in country, I recall joining an excursion out towards Winneba, happily eating and drinking whatever I was offered. By the fourth day I was hit hard by shigella dysentery. The cramping was intense. Clara prescribed Donatel but the assistant nurse heard Tylenol, which did nothing for the insane cramps that hit every nine minutes. I eventually moved into the dark and rather dismal Accra elementary school bathroom, spending a night on the seatless porcelain toilet in the dark, in too much pain and discomfort to seek help. That experience was so powerful that years later when I had amoebic dysentery I ignored it for a month. The cramps were no where near as bad and I could could for far longer than nine minutes before needing to find a toilet.
The rest of the volunteers went on to Akrofufu for village based training. I was down on the order of 18 pounds at that point. I do not think they expected to see me again, I was a probable medical termination. Clara moved me into the Peace Corps office and I recovered. I did not want to be medically terminated because there might be times during a journey out of country that I would not be able to get to a toilet fast enough.
Before I left Accra I met with a doctor who informed me that the shigella strain I had contracted had tested as resistant to the anti-biotics available in country at that time. He essentially congratulated me on recovering on my own.
I think some of the other volunteers might have been somewhat surprised when I showed up in Akrofufu. I, on the other hand, felt rather bullet proof. I had survived a dysentery that was not treatable, why quit now?
Summer 1985, inspired in part by a Ghanaian French teacher who had traveled the Volta region with only a change of underwear, I traveled in a portion of the Eastern region for a few days wearing only my Ghanaian cloth and carrying nothing. No backpack, no change of clothes, wearing only my cloth, my teacher’s identification card in one pocket, some Cedis in my other pocket.
I stayed with relatives of my roommate for a night, and then headed up into an area off the main routes, into the hills to the east of Koforidua, north of Nkurakan. I wound up spending the night in a small village with a family who insisted I sleep in the only bed in the house.
The next day I was asked to teach at the local elementary school, and I did so.
I headed back towards Akropong the next day.
Although my journey was brief, I have never again traveled so light, so minimally. I also remember feeling comfortable. That was one of those moments in life when one has a new understanding of oneself. Walking along a road I had never walked upon before, wearing only a traditional cloth, carrying nothing, and feeling completely at home. Feeling that this is the most wonderful place to be at that moment. In the one place I had once said I did not want to go.
As a student in elementary and secondary school I had failed to learn French (elementary school), German (middle school), and Spanish (high school). In response to some question a foreign language teacher asked, I said that I had no plans to go anywhere outside of the United States, would never need to function in a foreign language, and had no desire to function in a foreign language nor in a foreign culture. Walking along that red clay back road above Nkurakan I changed everything.
Thirty years ago I began the process that has led to a life lived abroad.