“Matteeee, Don’t Go!”

I’ve come a long way from that early August evening 139 days ago when I wrote in my journal while flying to Madrid, “I’m beginning to think that I have completely lost my mind” regarding my decision to study abroad in Ghana. Having these doubts was probably a healthy reaction; it’s easy to say, “I’m going to Ghana for 4.5 months! Bye!” Then you board the plane and the reality hits you and you’re filled with an overwhelming urge to run from the airport and go back home to the comfort of certainty that home provides. Maybe I’m not as spontaneous as I’d like to be; I like knowing what comes next and meticulously planning out every detail, diminishing the chance of a surprise or unexpected blip. When I’m thrust into new or unpredictable situations, I’m usually rendered temporarily overwhelmed or anxious, as was the case in the early days of this semester abroad.

That being said, my ability to adapt to situations, to do whatever I need to do to keep myself grounded and composed is something that has helped me each time I’ve traveled on my own. It’s one of my favorite things about myself (when’s the last time I’ve written about things I like about myself?), and something that has reassured me that if I ever end up working in a travel-intensive field, I’ll be alright. Finding a routine is key, as is keeping yourself busy and remaining focused and motivated.

Remaining focused and motivated has been a bit of struggle, at least academically, during my time at the University of Ghana. It’s hard when professors seem uninterested, assign zero assignments, and generally fail to inspire any interest in topics covered. Luckily my unnatural obsession with academic success hasn’t wavered too far off-track, but next semester is going to be a challenge. I had my last final exam on December 11, a 2.5 hour shitfest to conclude my semester of “Sucks That Y’all Were Born In Ghana.” It’s amazing how spending dozens of hours waiting or sitting in tro-tros in northern Ghana can make 2.5 hours seem like no time at all. Anyway, it’s over. Please, it is finished. No more talking about Ghanaian education ever again.

The next three days were spent at Beacon House, where I wanted to spend as much time as I could before going home. Christmas really came early for these kids, who were visited on Wednesday by 5th graders from a local international school. Their teacher attempted to have the kids participate in an interactive telling of the Christmas story, which involved them having to frantically pass a bag of cookies or candy to their left or right on cue. As expected, this didn’t really go too smoothly, but everyone had fun and I suppose that’s all that matters. The Beacon House kids performed a choreographed song that they’ve been rehearsing for weeks, which was truly beautiful to watch.IMG_3107

The gang!

The gang!

Thursday proved to be even better.  This group of girls from North Carolina who were part of some religious community service program came by and took all the kids to a field where they played a bunch of games. Activities included: limbo, Frisbee throwing, some crazed balloon popping battle, and, my favorite, sack races. I have a feeling having the kids under 5 years old do the sack race/3-legged race was more for the comedic benefit of the older kids and adults, but it really was hilarious. And look at how unbelievably excited Prince is! One of my favorite moments of my time here:

Mouth wide open in unbelievable joy

Mouth wide open in unbelievable joy

shit got real when the staff faced off

shit got real when the staff faced off

This was just silly

This was just silly

We also played “Duck Duck Goose,” which culminated in me chasing down the son of Beacon House’s owner, lunging at him like some starving wildebeest. Despite my body flop I managed to catch him, and was met with a comment I have unsurprisingly never had directed at me: “Boys will be boys!” Who, me? is pretty much what my first thought was. There was also so much Hokey Pokey. So. Much.

I think somebody's struggling.

I think somebody’s struggling.

It was one of my favorite afternoons at Beacon House; There was so much joy, so much laughter, so much…normalcy? I don’t know if that’s the correct word to use, but this was the first time I’ve spent time with the kids outside the confines of Beacon House, and it was a wonderful change. I’m really thankful that I got to be a part of it.

The most beautiful face in the world.

The most beautiful face in the world.

Things got even better that evening when this Italian couple came and cooked some pasta bolognese and garlic bread for all of us. After singing “Happy Birthday” to Jesus we were given apple cobbler! The fact that my body didn’t reject this influx of “normal” food was encouraging leading up to the food rampage I’ll be embarking on tomorrow. I failed in my attempts at showing Prince effective ways to consume pasta, but he just couldn’t get the hang of the noodle twirl. So. Messy. After dinner the kids were given Christmas presents by the North Carolina ladies, a wonderful conclusion to a wonderful day.

I tried.

I tried.

Friday at Beacon House was much more subdued, but as I was getting ready to leave to meet up with friends to see The Hobbit (loved it) I learned of the Sandy Hook school shooting. Maybe spending so much time with elementary school-aged kids sensitized me more than I was previously to US gun laws, but I don’t think I’ve ever been angrier than I am now about this. I wrote this post Saturday morning when my anger was still at its boiling point.

Saturday I began the costly task of buying Christmas presents for the Beacon House kids. My original hope was to get the kids a pet goat or lamb, since I thought the owner was, according to her email, “asking for a donation for the kids for Christmas.”  She even emailed a picture of the kids with a goat they were given last year. When I asked her if she thought it wasn’t too crazy for me to buy the goat, her response was, “No, but can it be dead? It’s for Christmas dinner.” WHAT. She sensed my confusion and horror before laughing at me for thinking she’d actually want a goat running around the house pooping everywhere. MY MISTAKE. So yeah. No goat from me!

I spent a lot of time at the mall buying candy and small toys that should keep them entertained for about 90 minutes. I was purchasing bibs for the infants at this baby store when two of the clerks expressed their desire to be my wife and birth my children. She insisted on having my Ghana and US phone numbers after expressing massive disappointment when I told her I’m leaving on Tuesday (sorry to whomever you are with the random numbers I gave). Look, Doreen. You seem like a really pleasant lady, although perhaps a bit too forward. There are few steps before marriage and baby-making that you may have skipped by mistake, but I’m still flattered. It’s just not going to work out between us, for more reasons than 1. Some of those reasons you might even find blasphemous. So I suggest seeking elsewhere.

I promised the children and house mothers that I would go to church with them, and after almost talking myself out of it mostly because I didn’t feel like wearing long sleeves and jeans in Africa, I got myself there on Sunday at 8:00 as requested. I figured we’d be leaving at that time, or by 8:30 at the latest. Looking back I’m not sure why I thought something would ever happen on time for me in this country, so the fact that we didn’t leave until after 11:00 shouldn’t have surprised me.

I had never been to a church service before, and this one was about as dramatic as I expected. The pastor often screeched the gospel he was spewing, since you apparently can’t effectively pass on the Lord’s message by any other means. Despite the drawn-out bellows of “AMEEEEEEEEEN!” that happened far too often and the singing and dancing that popped up on occasion, I still managed to almost fall asleep. Just like in my Hebrew School glory days. I also managed to avoid giving any of my money, partly because I didn’t have much money left to give, partly because I’m a bit of an asshole, but mostly because the pastor sugar-coated the purpose of the money request by saying the donations are “seeds needed to grow into trees.” Or something like that. Just say you want our money to pay the electric bill. Geesh.

After church ended by about 1:00, I went back to the mall to buy a few more presents. I miscalculated the amount of gift bags I needed and I still managed to not get the correct amount of everything, but I decided to just hope that the kids wouldn’t realize that they don’t all have the same gifts.

I spent as much time with the kids as I could during my final two days in Ghana. Some of the kids understood that I would soon be leaving, that I wouldn’t be coming back anytime soon. A few of the younger ones struggled with comprehending it, but then I remembered that I’m not the first person to have come and gone from their lives. A while ago I mentioned how difficult it would be for me to be one of those people, just one amongst many who the kids became close with just to leave them behind.

And then there’s Prince. God. There were times in the days leading up to my final day when I would tell him that I’m going home soon, that I won’t be coming anymore, and he would look up at me with his big eyes, really seeming to understand what I was saying, and he would say, “Nooo, Matteee don’t go!” The thought of him missing me when I’m gone fills me with indescribable sadness that’s almost overwhelming. I don’t want any of the kids to be sad when I go. Hell, I’m still trying to figure out what it is that the kids even like about me that they’d miss. We watched Ice Age my final night there and I had a moment when I realized, God, I’m just like Ray Romano Manny, stumbling across a child and pretty instantly becoming attached. I definitely had more of an emotional reaction watching this movie now then when I was 10.

My final hours at Beacon House were spent more or less how I started: jumping on the trampoline, pushing kids on swings, reading stories, and dealing with abnormal levels of cuteness. I ate lunch with them one more time, and started getting ready to go. I wrote a letter to Ben, giving him some advice and asking him to take care of the others, especially Prince. I also gave him my watch because he and everyone else is so fascinated by it. I left a letter for Prince that he won’t be able to read anytime soon on his own, but I hope that somebody keeps it safe. My mother might be a little sad when she learns that the stuffed bulldog she got for me as a parting gift is now in his possession, but I think she’ll understand that he’ll get more use out of it than I will.

"Matteee, I want to jump!"

“Matteee, I want to jump!”

Before I left I finally gave them their gifts, since that was really all they cared about.  I started saying goodbye to the boys (all the girls were going to Church), and held Prince one last time. I gave him a kiss, put him down, and he scampered away to take his nap after saying, “Mattee, goodbye!” I locked myself in the volunteer office to give myself a minute to compose myself, and left with the group going to church and said goodbye to them there.

Mama Irene and Prince <3

Mama Irene and Prince rocking the shades I bought him

My departure was far from the spectacle I was partially expecting, and I definitely prefer it this way. I’m about as adept at goodbyes as I am at hellos, but at least tears don’t normally accompany introductions. I don’t like fusses being made over me, and I know that about 24 hours from now I’ll be bombarded with an insane amount of it from my sister family.

If somebody told me 5 years ago that I’d be working with children again I would have deemed that thought as outrageous. I had seen the dangers of becoming attached to kids, I had felt the pain of saying goodbye to people that I became close with who I’d never see again. I promised my 15 year old-self that I would never put myself through that again, that no matter how much I enjoyed spending time with kids, having to leave them behind isn’t worth it. That summer in 2007, really this one kid, affected me in ways I don’t think I realized until now. You become attached and then one day it’s just over. Maybe part of why I’ve been so unwilling to form relationships with other people over the years has been partially because of this.

This time around, 5 years later, I think I’ll be alright. A major difference between me at 15 and me at 20 is that I’ll appreciate the time I’ve spent with these kids and not just dwell on the ending. I went in with an understanding that these relationships are only temporary, so I wasn’t hit with the unbearable realization that it was all about to end in the past few days. I opened up a part of myself that may have been locked away since that summer, and with that opening I exposed myself to so much love, so much renewed appreciation of the value of human relationships. I’m not sure how much effect this will have on me, but I suppose time will tell.

I want to thank everyone for reading these every week, for all the compliments I’ve received. People being interested in what I have to say is something I’m not really used to, and I really appreciate it. I’m not sure where this blog will be a month from now, but I’ll do the best that I can to make my life a bit more interesting so I have things worth writing about. I’ll definitely be back again within the next week to talk about what being home has been like.

One thing I can guarantee? So. Much. Pizza.

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