The Return Trip (Ghana, 15 Years Later)

Stepping off the plane was, in one word, overwhelming. I thought I would be prepared for this – this was my true home, right? But I had been away from home for too long. And now, I did not recognize it.

Almost fifteen years later, I was not the same girl that once stood in this airport terminal.  And this place, forever written in my heart, had changed in my absence. I looked around the dark, crowded area full of loud men shouting at the television. None of my memories showed up to greet me; instead, sticking heat and exhaustion were waiting at the airport gate.

In America, I always felt such a strong connection to Ghana. “I’m going home,” I would tell people when describing this trip. But it certainly didn’t feel like home right now.

We stood in a long, unmoving line that wrapped around the unfinished concrete walls. We waited in the heat, and slowly, slowly, we inched forward, passports in hand. Inefficiency prevails, not to the fault of the workers, but to the fault of the system, and I realize that yes, I’m in Ghana.

We step outside the airport and the taxi cab drivers crowd around us. We settle on a price of 30 GHC ($7) and pile into a tiny Toyota. We pause at a stoplight just outside of the airport. I notice two boys, both about nine years old, lying in the median on the road. Blankets and food surround them and I drive the thought out of my mind that this is their home. A haggard looking woman approaches our car, with hollow eyes and hair standing in all directions. The sight is so shocking I look twice to make sure this is not some figment of my imagination. To my horror, I realize this woman is no more than sixteen years old and has a baby on her back.

Our driver rolls up the windows, but she is standing there, looking into our car, with her hands outstretched, begging. I stare at the red light, willing it to turn green, so that I can escape this place, this heartbreaking sight that has my soul bleeding and most of all, the realization that I can do nothing to help her.  This will not be the last needy soul that I come across on this trip, but this memory sticks with me, haunts me, as I see her desperate plight, and remember how I shut my eyes to escape it.

As the cab moves through the city, the sound of horns fills the air, and we learn that the friendly “beep beep” is a welcoming greeting to other cars on the road. They don’t honk to be rude or unkind, but to simply say, “I’m turning here,” or “I see your car on my left side.”

It turns out we didn’t actually know where we were going. And the driver didn’t either. There aren’t actual street signs anywhere, and so we wind around different streets, searching for the “SIM Guesthouse” sign. We find a house that looks similar, and start knocking on the gate. After ten minutes, a neighbor comes out and confirms that we are definitely in the wrong spot.

I try not to panic – after almost 28 hours of traveling, we are exhausted, in a foreign country in the middle of the night and have absolutely no idea of where our house is. We decide to try one more street before we give up, and by some divine grace, the “SIM Guesthouse” sign appears into view. The relief was immense.

I crash on the bed in the guesthouse, just as I did so many times as a child. This guesthouse always marked an ending or beginning for me – either coming back or leaving Ghana.

The next morning I struggle under jet lag, the clock tells me it’s 9 a.m. but my body is feeling like it is 3:30 a.m. I stumble to make breakfast, and to my very strong disappointment I realize that coffee is actually not a thing here. And neither is milk. Hello caffeine headache.

After some short exploring in Accra, we board our plane headed to Tamale. Handing over our handwritten boarding passes, nerves build up within me as I think about our By Grace meeting tomorrow. Sitting next to my best friend of over 10 years, I think of how hard Kelsey and I have worked to build this dream together. And this is the moment we will really start making an impact.

The airport lands in Tamale, and we step out onto a tarmac that only holds a single plane. The baggage terminal is one small concrete room with a small belt and ten seats. We grab our luggage and walk out to on a narrow concrete pathway lined with people, cheering. Quite the welcoming crew. This is probably the closest I will ever get to being famous, and I’m totally ok with that.

We realize that it’s not actually us they’re cheering for as we look over at this middle soccer group with green championship jerseys on. They’re piled on the Milo championship bus, grinning from ear to ear as their parents welcome them back. “They have been playing in Nigeria,” the person next to me says. “They won the whole thing.” I beam with prideI love seeing talent and hard work come out of the most unexpected places.

By-Grace-Designs-Under-13-Africa-Soccer-Champions

We manage to find a cab and I sigh with relief. Travel is exhausting and exhilarating at the same time.

The landscape rolls past me, and I feel a piece of my soul fit back into place. This is what I remember. Away from the crowded, filthy streets and the bustle of city life is the green landscape, filled with trees and grass and mud huts. I close my eyes and sit back, and for the first time this trip I sit in the memories of my childhood as the landscape that built them surrounds me.
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By-Grace-Designs-Tamale-Woman

We get to our hostel, which is unfortunately called TICS. But for $5 a night, we can’t complain. The room is small and dimly lit, complete with wood-colored plastic draped on top of the center table. Two beds are flanked on opposite sides of the room with “Honeymoon” mattresses. The coils pinch my back at first, but after the fifth night I don’t even feel it. The pillow feels like a lump of old flour, but soon becomes a welcome end to my day. The overhead fan becomes my saving grace to the sweltering heat that we endure. The bathroom is a strange design in that the toilet not only faces the shower, but is almost in the shower. The sink is situated so that you have to lean over the toilet to reach it. My dad says that this hotel used to be a treat for us, because of the electricity, but I choose not to believe him. 

We go to church, and memories start flooding back to me. As a child I used to sit through four hour-long services, but because I didn’t fully understand the language I read the complete works of C.S. Lewis instead. Book after book.

My father takes the stage now and starts speaking in the native tongue, and the crowd erupts. Chills wash down my arms as I swell with pride for my father. He spent two long years studying a language that was not written down because of his love for the Builsa people. And in this moment, they love him back.

He starts talking about me, as he often does when he speaks. All eyes shift back to my seat, broad smiles as they look at me. I can’t quite catch what he says but I know most of his jokes by now so I can give a pretty good guess. “We went over to Africa with two children, came back with four – must be something in the water.”

That one always gets a laugh, and endearingly, is probably one of my favorites.

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It is late, and we are hungry after a very long day so we decide to take a cab into town to try and find something to eat. The windows are down and the air cools my face. Flickering lights from businesses stream past us in a blur as I close my eyes and rest on the seatbelt. The radio is on, and a slow Johnny Cash song comes on. We are the middle of a village in the heart of west Africa, a place widely unknown and thousands of miles away from America, and a Johnny Cash song is playing. This, I think, is Ghana.

Until next time,

Emily

Emily and Kelsey at the TICS guesthouse. 

Emily and Kelsey at the TICS guesthouse.