Ghana Half 2: One obruni’s West African journey

This post is divided into three sub-posts:

1. Culture – memories and observations from living in rural west African;
2. Travel – stories and sights from travels around southern Ghana;
3. Right to Dream – descriptions of my involvement with Right to Dream (RtD) Academy.

Feel free to skip around to the sections that most interest you, or check out all three at your convenience. Comments, shares, and insights welcome. Thanks for reading!

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– Culture –

“Obruni! Obruni! WHAT IS YOUR NAME?!”

Far and beyond any other name during my time in Ghana, I was referred to as “Obruni” – which in the local tongue Twi technically means “foreigner,” though is probably most often intended as “white person.” The village kids especially loved it.

For instance, dozens of times I heard an excited shout – “Obruni! What is your name?!” – from the same elated little ten-year-old boy while strolling passed on my daily walk to catch the canoe across the Volta River. My ears perked to the sound of laughter, as I turned to find the bouncing boy leading the charge to greet me beside the road.

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“Obruni, take a picture!”

The boy with his hand up in the middle is the one who’s shout I knew all too well.

Witnessing his enthusiasm and colossal smile always brightened my mood. Though this is simply one example of a rather common occurrence for obrunis living in Ghana.

Members of a political parade shout “Obruni” as Liam and I pass through by taxi.

After “Obruni,” I was most often referred to by my real name; that is, only if you include each time Fati (one of the Right to Dream student-athletes) and her teammates rhythmically repeated my name in passing – “Alec. Alec. Alec. Alec. Alec…” – like the backbeat to a top-40 track.

If you don’t include the chants, then I think second place goes to “Erik.” Nearly every local I introduced myself to – “Hi, my name is Alec” – would respond with, “oh, hey Erik.” I have since worked on my pronunciation!

Then came (in order from most often heard ­– followed by who said it):

“Sir/Coach Alec” – Right to Dream student-athletes
“Aleco” – Vivian, a student in my Year 9 maths class
“Mr. Baldwin” – King ‘Solomon’, the RtD alum and Executive Assistant

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Royal Senchi Resort

“Mister Alec” – Mr. Eric, a bartender at Royal Senchi Resort
“White man” – people I didn’t know trying to get my attention
“Alec-man” – Shane-man, a RtD physio
“Homie,” “dude,” “home-slice,” “G,” and other ‘hip’ American stereotypes – Frazer, a RtD coach
“America” – Jeremy, a RtD scout
“Mr. White” – people I didn’t know trying to get my attention
“White” – person I didn’t know trying to get my attention

Amidst the well-intended name-calling, I was able to learn a few words in the local language, Twi. The most useful phrases proved to be “ete sen,” meaning “how are you” and “EyE,” meaning “fine.” When asked, everyone in Ghana is “fine.”

This minute mastery of local lingo proved effective in connecting with West Africans, and oftentimes brightened their mood. Furthermore, it would disengage those who might be interested in taking advantage of a foreigner, of which unfortunately there were some.

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Selfies with Obruni Erik who spoke Twi

You see I found that many Ghanaians – especially rural Ghanaians – typically didn’t expect to hear Twi from an obruni. As my friend Shane-man would say, “you just gotta hit ‘em with the Twi,” and they won’t mess with you. However, beyond it’s pragmatic purposes, learning to speak some Twi taught me a valuable lesson: making the effort to speak another’s language, however slight, can have an impact.

The last thing I’ll note about language is how the locals used the phrase, “you are welcome” – or in Twi, “Ayeko.” Different from being used in the U.S., the phrase is not most commonly found after “thank you.”

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Nora, Roberto, and me crossing the Volta River

Rather “you are welcome” was most often used as a warm gesture to physically welcome someone into your space. For example, when I would walk from the Academy across the street to Madame Lucy’s shop, upon reaching her fence she would greet me with “you are welcome;” or when I returned to the house after work, my housemate Nora would sometimes do the same. The clear message is a testament to the kindness of many Ghanians.

Language aside, living in rural Ghana was fascinating: lizards behave like squirrels, checks at restaurants must be asked for, tribal chiefs are well respected, and pragmatic child labor is part of life.

New Akrade Festival of Chiefs talent show

The West African environment offered constant reminders of material privileges mixed with common humanity. For the most part – in spite of certain voids I was used to having in the US – I was materially better off than my neighbors simply because of my accommodation: doors and walls; power outlets and indoor pluming; a fence and food security – which dismissed the need to raise chickens or goats.

img_2952Though even without many things I often take for granted, folks in the village went about their lives in similar ways as I was used to: families gathered for meals and conversation; playful kids were bundles of joy while at times being pains in the rear; vendors prepared to supply needs to customers; schools and religious centers offered development for youth; people like to share in a smile.

A favorite story of mine involves an experience with my kid neighbor. Earlier in the day, during a taxi ride back from Accra, I bought a battery powered toy lazar gun for 20 cedis (five bucks) from a street vendor walking through stopped traffic; a great investment, I know.

My neighbor saw me on the front porch trying it out. Next thing you know, he’s walking over to join the fun. As I’m taking the batteries out to sneak inside, I turn to the familiar sound of, “obruni.”

The shy kid, no more than three feet tall, stares up at me and says “give me the gun.”

Now, my still fresh liberal arts education, coupled with recent controversy involving guns, encouraged a instantaneous, seemingly obvious response of, “sorry, I don’t think so.”

He walks away. Then a few minutes later comes back with his older brother who shares that today is his 5th birthday. Excited for my neighbor, I smile and fork over 20 cedis along with a high five. Though with an awkwardly shy smile, the kid continues to stare up at me, demanding, “I want the gun.”

I turn him down again – “There’s no way I’m going to give this kid a gun,” I thought to myself. After re-entering my house, I began to have a change of heart, reflecting on the joy I had playing with toy guns as a kid, often gifted by or belonging to my neighbor Uncle Tommy. But I first needed to check with mom.

So I opened the door, ran down the two boys and asked for their mother. Our conversation was brief, followed minutes later by the kid neighbor sporting the biggest smile I had seen in all of Ghana, firing the toy lazar gun on his fifth birthday.

One thing I wasn’t used to in Ghana was the traffic culture; particularly the high volume of car horns for such a rural area. It was convention for passing vehicles to beep at virtually anything, about virtually anything – from saying “hello” to a fellow taxi driver or pedestrian, to telling a goat or chicken to “get off the road!”

I also wasn’t used to the tro tros, the mimg_2521ost common form of public transportation in rural Ghana. Tros are basically beaten down 1970’s ‘church vans’ with three or four rows, fit for 12 passengers but often cramming around of 16. Of course there’s no a/c (if you were curious), nor smooth suspension.

My first tro ride was going to church with Fafa nearly three weeks after arriving in Ghana.

Though as time went on, I frequented tros for trips throughout the southern part of the country.

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– Travel –

By the time I left Ghana, the tro tros had become commonplace. As for many people living in Ghana, Tros served as the main source of transportation to different cities, destinations, and landscapes throughout the country. I visited the nation’s capital of Accra, West Africa’s tallest waterfall, a slave castle that the Obamas visited in 2009, a canopy walk bridge in the trees of a national park, and a mountain top not far from the academy.

Though my first journey was not really to a destination, but a person.

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Blair and me at Right to Dream Academy

A lifelong friend was arriving in Accra to begin the second half of her experience as a Peace Corps volunteer, addressing food security with a community in rural Togo. I excitedly agreed to pick her up from the airport and show her around my area. Though I spared Blair and her luggage the two-hour tro ride, commuting by taxi instead.

During her short stay, we enjoyed touring Right to Dream Academy and meeting some of the players, eating at the Royal Senchi Resort, and even taking a couple canoe trips across the Volta River.

Live music at Royal Senchi

The next day, she was back in the taxi with George (a loyal driver to RtD staff) en route to Togo.

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Sipping coconuts with George

A few weeks later I took my first real tro trip to Wli Falls, West Africa’s tallest waterfall.

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Again, I found myself struck by a blatant blend of material privilege and life’s necessities.

About halfway through the hot, crammed four-hour trip, our tro was trekking along a vacant construction zone by means of a two-way, one-lane dirt road. When, suddenly, we stopped for a scene all too familiar during certain family vacations – the 5-11 year old car sickness. As my Granny would say, “you see, we’re not all that different after all!”

Alas, we got off in Hohoe where I piled into another tro destined for the Togolese boarder and Wli Falls. Upon arrival I found my way to the Waterfall Lodge, owned and operated by a nice German couple for about $20 a night.

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After a refreshing nap, I explored the rural valley town before preparing for the next day’s venture to the falls.

Joining me for the hike was a local twenty-year-old male guide and a late-twenties Italian woman who was working in Ghana. There are two main waterfalls. The path to the lower falls was smooth and level, taking about 30-minutes in total. While the trail to the upper falls consisted of a steep, narrow 2-hour climb through brush and over boulder.

Of course, we went up and up.

As our tired hamstrings began taking a mental toll, we were encouraged by our guide’s joyous army song and the good fortune of finding a wild magic berry, I kid you not, called miracle berry, to boost our spirits and sweeten our taste buds until we reached the upper falls.

I marveled at the sheer force of the crashing cascade.

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After cooling off by getting pummeled in the waterfall we began our way down.

For me and my tractionless running shoes, the descent proved more difficult than the climb. But it worked out, and we eventually arrived at the slightly more aesthetic lower falls where my co-climber and I devoured half-dozen tiny African bananas.

Hybrid Video: Hiking Wli Falls

I tro’ed back to the academy that afternoon.

The following day, after watching morning matches involving youth players from Right to Dream’s Danish club FC Nordsjælland, Shane-man the physio and I loaded into a tro towards the nation’s capital, Accra. That night we attend the Ghana Peace Concert, produced to encourage non-violence during the ongoing national presidential campaigns and subsequent election.

The experience was unforgettable. Complete bonkerz. Just to get in to the stadium, we had to bulldoze through a crowd so dense that every part of my body felt compressed by the surrounding mass of people, whose wave-like force better determined out movement than the will of our own legs. After 10-minutes of crammed progress and a few wavy stumbles, we finally funneled through a narrow gate no wider than Shaq’s shoulder length.

Such an atmosphere would never pass US regulations: the crowd was overcapacity; fans were constantly shooting off fireworks; the performances went on well until dawn.

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Ghana Peace Concert Music and Fireworks

My buddy Kristoffer and I only lasted a few hours, until 1:30 in the morning. But Shane and the fourth member of our group lasted the night, arriving back to the hostel around 6:30 am. They even somehow made it on stage during the main performance by Ghana’s mega mainstream artist, Shatte Wale. Good times.

The following weekend was the most impactful trip during my time in Ghana.

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In the rear corner of a tro tro with knees slammed against the back of the seat in front of me, I couldn’t help but reflect on my tight cabin compared to the conditions once common for many who inhabited my upcoming destination – Cape Coast Slave Castle.

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Cape Coast Slave Castle

The whisping West African wind blowing through my hair (which hadn’t been cut for 4 months) reminded me that there was nothing to complain about and plenty to absorb over the subsequent hours.

I had learned about the slave trade in textbooks and novels. But it is something completely different to walk through the dark dungeons, untouched layers of crystalized waste for floors, and hear how crowds of people over ten times the size of our tour group shared such a hellish space for months, surviving only to pass through the Door of No Return destined for life as a slave or death on a boat. Our tour emerged from the dungeons only to pass through the accommodations, courtyards, and the church built directly above for use by the imperial slave masters.

There are two things that stuck out most distinctly during my visit to Cape Coast Slave Castle. One is disgust at the cruel, twisted reality that was the slave trade. While the other is wonder and conflicted appreciation of how the past shapes the present. I thought about my African-American friends, their strong culture, and the progress that was achieved as a product of slave-labor, shaping my life experience and that of countless others.

Hybrid Video of Slave Coast Slave Castle Tour

CNN Coverage of Obama family visit

The following day I took a taxi about 45 minutes north from where I stayed at The Oasis (evening entertainment at The Oasis) – a stone’s throw away from Cape Coast Slave Castle – to Kakum National Park and its famous canopy walk.

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Upon arriving, we were put in a group to hike through the forest and up towards the canopy. I was all decked out and ready to go with my Davidson Tilly Hat, Steph Curry T-Shirt, kaki shorts, and tennis shoes. Halfway through the uphill stretch, our guide halted the group to allow for some of the members to catch up. Taking the opportunity to rest my legs under a shelter, I heard a voice carrying a rather unexpected message: “hey, did you go to Davidson?”

Instantly I was thrown off guard. But then remembered the hat and t-shirt I was wearing, quickly becoming curious about how this person knew of my alma mater. “Yes I did,” I replied, smiling and looking up at my inquisitor.

“Oh okay,” she said. “Were you a Hall Counselor?”

Woah! Now that was a completely different type of question, which really threw off guard. Why yes, I was.

Turns out, the curious person was a current student at Davidson (only two years behind me) who happened to be studying abroad in Ghana, on the same tour of the same national park at the same time as me. It was a fun, friendly, refreshing connection to make.

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Me and Shanice at Kakum National Park

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And proved to be a useful one as well. Thanksgiving was just around the corner, and since I was the only American working at the Academy I had to look elsewhere for compatriotship. When I asked Shanice for advice, she kindly invited me to Thanksgiving dinner with her study abroad group.

The food was a bit different than what I was used to on Thanksgiving, but it sure felt nice to be in the company of those who recognized the significance of the United States Holiday.

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During the trip, I was able to walk around the public college in Accra with Shanice, as well as spend the night at the air-conditioned guest house – which was a godsend after several months sleeping without such luxury – where I skyped home for the holiday.

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Skyping with the fam

One of my last trips in Ghana was with about ten days left. The creator of the character program Paul invited me to climb a mountain nearby the academy, accompanied by a couple locals who worked security.  I jumped at the opportunity, as Paul had been very helpful and welcoming to me during my time in Ghana.

We began by following a trail. Though realized we must have taken a wrong turn when we discovered the trail we thought we were on had turned into a seemingly limitless crowd of six-foot tall thick, sometimes sharp grass.

We swam our way through the brush and our conversations, eventually finding our way back onto the trail until we reached the rocky summit with a large metal cross upon it.

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While appreciating the view, we eventually realized that we weren’t alone. A troop of maybe 20 baboons lay watch on the summit about 50 yards away, occasionally sending a scout to make sure we weren’t up to no good.

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Fortunately the troop didn’t feel too threatened by us and kept their distance. So we took a few pictures then beat the sunlight downhill, making it back to the academy before dark.

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– Right to Dream –

I had a great experience serving with Right to Dream Academy; over fifty employees contributing to developing some of West Africa’s top soccer talent through recruitment, coaching, treatment, innovative education, character development, nutrition, and health. Eighty boys age 11-18 and twenty girls age 11-15 strive everyday towards the ultimate goal of being the best they can be and giving back to their communities.

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They follow opportunities seized by numerous Right to Dream graduates who have developed into professional footballers in Europe’s highest leagues, top picks in the increasingly competitive MLS draft, scholarship recipients to elite UK and US institutions (including Wake Forrest, UCLA, Georgetown), and executive assistants of quality international football academies. Each player has a dream of her own, and grows in confidence to chase it.

Similar to the student-athletes, I faced unexpected challenges while at academy that developed my skills, confidence, and relationships with others. My role was to teach two math classes, while involving myself further to gain a broader understanding of the organization for my fellowship project.

As discussed in an earlier blog post the math teaching got off to a turbulent start, but grew into quite a joy. My understanding of the skill progressed so that by the end of term I saw all my students working together and feeling accomplished through their learning.

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Year 7 field trip to Fergal’s Irish Pub to identify geometric shapes

Right to Dream is exploring innovative ways to develop young people through affiliations with Google and LEGO.

Student’s exploring the Arctic through Google Cardboard

I also regularly participated in the character program, which this term focused on ‘give back.’ Each Wednesday, the entire academy attended an interactive lecture led by Paul, the creator of the program, and Isaac, the incoming leader for the program in Ghana.

Right to Dream student-athletes giving back to the local village school

Immediately following the sessions, we left the Barack Obama Library spreading across campus to convene in our mentor groups: consisting of one or two staff members and about eight players of all different ages. For 45 minutes, the groups discussed take-aways from the core lecture, personal goals, challenges, and potential solutions in their lives.

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Further, one more time during the week, each student, along with a group of about 15 peers the same age, would have a smaller character session led by Paul, Isaac, or King depending on age. This session involved personally applied engagement of the theories that the core sessions had exposed.

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Filming give-back project presentations for the 11-13 year olds

If the students’ behavior was any indication of the program’s success, I’d say it’s working quite well.  In total, the student-athletes formally engage in character-based meetings and discussions for two hours a week.

Thanks to King’s help, along with coaches Addo and Frazer, I was able to spend the final month of term helping the football department on the pitch. With each of the four boys’ teams, I served as an assistant for one week. It was insightful being able to observe and help coach. I even had the pleasure of playing with the boys during a few of the sessions.

Several times during the term, I heard from veteran staff members that it should be part of staff training to attend a first-team away match. So I did. I attended two actually. They weren’t the best of conditions – uneven pitch, inconsistent competition and officiating, overzealous supporters ­– but occasionally a goat (yes, the actual animal, not the “greatest of all time” acronym) or chickens made their way onto the field, making for a memorable image.

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The home team’s number 10

Hybrid Video: Right to Dream away league match

To round off my experience with the football department, I attended a recruitment event in Accra to learn about a key component to Right to Dream’s international success – talent identification. The new media director Liam and I joined scouts Jeremy, Prince, and Kusi for a weekend observing hundreds of central midfielders, defenders, and goalkeepers ages 9-12.

Saturday’s midfield event was held on a dirt pitch being overlooked by one of Ghana’s largest mosques and surrounded by cows.

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Hybrid Video: Right to Dream recruitment event in Accra

Afterwards, Liam and I spent the night at a hostel called “Somewhere Nice.” For dinner we went for a burger where I couldn’t resist ordering “le big mac,” a tribute to the Tarantino classic Pulp Fiction.

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About halfway through the term, my housemate Nora – being the kind person she is – began organizing a Ghana-themed going-away party for me at our house. I think nearly 50 people showed from the Academy and neighborhood to enjoy company, homemade Ghanaian cooking, drinks, and music.

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What a fun night it was. When the crowed thinned, I found myself going back and forth between playing vuvuzela with the neighborhood kids, dancing to Ghanian music and Coldplay, visiting with the small crowd that remained, and (sort-of) helping clean up.

That night turned out to be the beginning of a festive final ten days of term. There were celebrations of Paul, Emma, and Victor’s combined 17 years of RtD contribution – the Paul Testimonial Football Match between the football and non-football staff, a surprise party for Emma, plenty of smiles and hugs for Victor – as well as a pro alumni vs academy match, end of year meetings, and a ceremonial party to inspire next steps while celebrating the good work of those who had contributed during the past year.

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From one generation to the next

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Founder Tom Vernon speaking at end of year ceremony

As one of the departing members of the team, during a final staff meeting we revisited some of the my contributions and bonding moments of need – how do I teach? how do I take video? what is a tro tro? – as well as many good times shared during school hours or after-hours at Wednesday Club – the weekly get together involving friends, Ghanian beer, pizza, street food, and, for one evening, lots of Celine Dion.

Fortunately I was able to express my gratitude towards the many who had helped me through friendship and mentorship. I was also able to share how the Right to Dream experience is a testament to the conviction that if you believe in yourself and believe in those around you, much is possible.

I’m inspired by the work done by Right to Dream and am extremely grateful for the development I had while contributing to it.

From Ghana, I went on to spend Christmas with family in Rome, followed by New Years in London with a friend. After London, off to Mumbai, India with the OSCAR Foundation. Thanks for reading!

Please share or leave a comment!

#kickingallovertheworld

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