Traveling to Kpando, Ghana

I have countless explanations as to why I am grateful for my time in Ghana, Africa, but I think that I am most grateful because I procured a new perspective from visiting Africa. Rewind to my time volunteering in Kpando, Ghana to discover just how my life changed. My life was transformed from this experience because my perspective about the world expanded.

Late on a Monday evening in July, I paced up and down the aisle at the Washington, Dullus airport while I waited to board the plane to go to Accra, Ghana. I had that butterfly feeling in my stomach before I boarded the plane. I ended up at this airport heading to Ghana because I decided that I wanted to travel to Africa. I had always loved to travel and I remember after one of my favorite screen writers gave the advice to travel and see as much as you could, I then made it more of a priority to travel to places that I had never been – places diverse to my subculture back home. I had concentrated on graduate school the prior summers and I now wanted to dedicate this summer to service.

I did not know what I really meant by that and as friend of mine said to me when I told him my plans to go to Africa, “I think you are using serving as an excuse just to see a new place and check it off your to travel list.” I don’t know why it was that I decided to volunteer that summer at an orphanage in Ghana, Africa, but that’s where I was headed that July evening.

I remember texting “I love you” one last time to all of those close to me before I had to turn off my cell phone for take-off. While on the flight to Africa, I met a monk who was doing missionary work in Africa (I wasn’t sure that monks actually existed in this modern world). My upcoming volunteer work would introduce me to a plethora of distinctive perspectives. Speaking with this monk was the beginning of these new perspectives that I would harvest while in Africa. After conversing with him in flight, I was touched and inspired by what he and the Catholic Church were aspiring to do with their charity in Africa. This is just what I needed while on the flight too. We had a tremendous conversation.

I did not realize it then, but some of his words would speak to me in the months to come as the Interview Girl Foundation became an actualization. As he was describing his missionary work, at one point I asked him what was the best thing that I could do to “help the Africans” (yes I used these general terms). He replied, “to help anyone, you need to listen to them. Ask them, not me.” His inspiriting words took my mind off the nervousness of what I was really doing – heading to a strange country where I did not know anyone and would be living without running water, electricity, a cell phone, or the internet for a month.

After ten long hours, the plane touched down at the Accra airport in Ghana. As I descended from the airplane, I found myself walking down the stairs of the aircraft onto what seemed like a dirt road with cracked and broken cement and then walking into the airport. No gate to get you from the plane to inside the airport when you get off a plane was the first of many differences that I noticed in Africa from how things are done in the United States. I entered the airport to find chaos and the smell of sweat, I stood in a long, crowded line leading up to a desk with a glass-encased box. When I finally made my way to the front of the line, I was instructed that I had to place my passport in the box.

I could not understand what the man in the uniform behind the desk was saying, but through hand motions and gestures, I figured out that he was indicating that I had to pay some sort of fee. I did not understand, I paid for my VISA and completed everything else that I had to do before entering Africa before I left Chicago. Confused, I took out the little bit of money that I changed to Ghana cedis before I left the United States, the man then took whatever fee I needed to pay and shortly after, he stamped my passport.

I entered the frenzied Accra airport and after finally retrieving my luggage, I came across a row of about 18 to 20 African males holding signs with various names. They were obviously all waiting to pick up foreigners who arrived in Accra. Before boarding the plane, I read an article from the U.S. travel alert website about how people pretend to be an airport pick up service and then abduct people. So, as I saw a young man with a sign that said my name, I hoped it was actually David, the young man that the organization I was volunteering for told me to expect and not a pseudo phony who hijacked the “Victoria” sign pretending to be David. I stood there in an unfamiliar environment, gazing at the line of guys, one who had a sign with my name, I said a quick Hail Mary and then decided that there was nothing left to do, but to walk up to the guy holding a sign saying “Victoria.”

I approached him and he warmly greeted me, “Victoria from Chicago.” I smiled and acknowledged that I was Victoria. We walked quite a ways from the airport as we made our way towards a parked car that another man was driving. We got into the dilapidated car and drove to what seemed like a bus depot. People were everywhere. They had baskets of food on their heads and were wearing long robes and dresses wrapped in various ways. It was a hot, sticky afternoon.

I heard unfamiliar languages, constant chatter, car horns, animal sounds and I kept noticing all the people in bright colors carrying baskets of various items on top of their heads. We waited at this busy center for what seemed like a very long time. I stood there mesmerized watching the women walk past as their hips gracefully swayed in their flowing dresses all the while balancing these baskets of bananas on top of their heads. I waited amidst my various roller luggages and could not even keep all of them standing upright. I thought that the women who were balancing baskets of food and other goods on top of one’s heads possessed an impressive skill which was foreign to me.

Eventually, David pointed towards a large van and told me that it would take me to Kpando. I entered and sat with about 12 other people. It was so tight in there – I mean indubitably tight. The smell of sweat infiltrated the van. It was hot, and with all of the people close together and sweating, it did not smell great. The what I was told would be a four hour commute to Kpando began.

I stared out the window and to me, it seemed like we were just driving across wide open dirt roads and fields at various times. It was not a highway with paved roads and lanes like I was used to driving on if I had to make a four hour commute at home. After about two hours, the van pulled over and I overheard someone in front of me say something about a bathroom break. It took some time for all of us to descend from the van, since we were packed so tightly inside the van. I stepped down from the van onto the ground outside.

My legs were tight from being cramped and sitting. I looked around wondering where the bathroom was. All I could see was nature; I didn’t see any buildings in sight. I noticed my fellow passengers going off in different directions and squatting and urinating.

As I stood there in my long pants, socks up to my knees and tightly tied gym shoes observing people using the washroom by spreading open their legs, this was one of those moments where I was introduced to a new perspective. I now understood why the women wore long dresses and sandals. My outfit was not conducive to urinating with people all around me. I really had to pea. As a modest American out of her element, I would not dream of pulling my pants down and revealing my bottom for strangers to see, no matter how bad I did have to pea.

I stood there feeling really uncomfortable as the only white person in the van, the only individual in long pants, and everyone around me was urinating. I just stood there. It was one of those moments in my life where I was not sure if I should smile. I’m a huge proponent of smiling and I try to do it as much as possible. In this particular case, I did not know if it would seem weird if I was smiling at people as they were urinating, so as I said, I literally just stood there attempting to emote no emotion.

Eventually everyone got back into the van and the commute to Kpando continued. After a few more hours, the van dropped me off and I was told to wait for James. By now my needing to pea was almost intolerable. I felt as if I was going to burst. It was now dark outside. I was on the busy street (which was a dirt road) with all my luggage just waiting. People were staring at me. I was so terrified of dying of malaria while in Africa because of all the travel alert warnings that I had read. I was given every shot imaginable, I had my bed net, and about 15 bottles of various insect repellants in my luggage.

I was wearing a baseball cap with my long blond hair coming out the back, socks up to my knees, a long sleeve shirt, and long pants. Mind you – it’s very hot in Africa which is why none of the locals dress this way, but I was scared of becoming sick with malaria that despite my full body sweating, for the first week, I wore long pants and long sleeves every day. Eventually James came and before he could finish introducing himself, I was practically in tears pleading that I had to use a bathroom. He calmly assured me the Children’s Home was close and that I could go to the bathroom there.

He escorted me to the children’s home where I would be volunteering for the next month. When we arrived, I was ready to run to the nearest stall, but James pointed to the field on the other side of the gate that was the entrance to the home. I hurried to the field trying to get out of visible sight and pulled my pants and underwear down, holding my pants as far forward as possible, so the urine that at this point was now gushing out of me would not hit my clothes.

After relieving my bladder for what was now about 8 hours of not using the washroom, I went back to the children’s home and met James. Probably because he could tell without me ever saying so that peeing in the dark field was awkward and uncomfortable for me, James assured me that there was an outhouse in the place where I would be sleeping. I kindly smiled while sarcastically thinking in my head, “An outhouse? Much better.”