Chris Johnson: These African folks are Ghana win you over

September 8, 2013 

Outside of a couple of cruises to The Bahamas, one night in Windsor, Canada, and a few visits to Ladonia, I'm not exactly a world traveler. So it might come as some surprise to you that my first real overseas trip this month took me to Africa.

You're surprised? I thought my ticket was for Paris!

Actually, I've arrived in Ghana to rendezvous with a bunch of women -- basketball players, that is. I'm here to meet up with the Mercer University women's basketball team, which is building homes with The Fuller Center for Housing, an ecumenical Christian housing ministry based right here in Georgia.

The Fuller Center has this habit of helping poor families build their homes, which means that if you work internationally with them, you wind up in a remote African township, some mountaintop Peruvian community or rocky area of Armenia still recovering from an earthquake that struck 25 years ago. They've yet to say, "Hey, Chris, how would you like to check out the housing conditions on the French Riviera or Monaco?"

So, that's why I've landed in Accra, which is as chaotic and loud as you'd expect from a Third World metro area of 4 million people. But after 10 hours in a plane, I don't even care what country I'm in. So long as it's solid ground, I'll kiss it. Well, maybe not, because then I'd have to wash my mouth and you're not supposed to let your mouth touch the water here despite the many vaccinations I had to get before coming.

I'm met at the airport by Jones Akoto-Lartey, director of The Fuller Center's operations in Ghana. He's holding a sign that says "Chris," which is somewhat surprising because I'm told he usually holds a sign with his own name. Of course, I can't get out of the airport until I clear immigration, which is a bit of a struggle since they need to know the address where I'm staying. I'll be staying in Dowdowa, outside of Accra -- and outside of Accra, there are few streets with names, much less addresses. So, I lie, give them something that sounds good and move on … to catch a ride in the taxi Jones has secured.

I don't catch the driver's name, but I'm pretty sure it's Something Something Earnhardt. Taxis in Ghana break down regularly and don't have air-conditioning, but, by golly, they've got horns and good brakes. They have to because these fellas accelerate to near light speed every chance they get -- even if it's for only 50 feet before they slam on brakes and miss other vehicles by millimeters. There are no lines on the road, and everyone jockeys for position and drives like we're on the final lap at Talladega -- if Earnhardt and Harvick and Gordon honked at each other every three seconds.

As we leave Accra and get closer to the Dodowa township where I'll be spending the next five nights, the landscape changes dramatically. Though it's usually a blur of produce shacks, mountains and ladies carrying baskets on their heads, every now and then I get to really soak up the lush green rural scenery as our taxi breaks down five times on the roughly 35-mile ride.

We arrive at the Royal Sikafutu Hotel in Dodowa, which sounds fancier than it is. It costs about 60 cedis a night, or roughly 30 U.S. dollars and is every bit what you would get for $29.95 in America -- except that it's down a washed-out dirt road with chickens and goats running around and naked children being bathed in the alleyways outside their shack homes.

The Mercer team arrives back from their day of work at the same time I get there, and I see the coach, Susie Gardner, head out into the village, whose streets are lined with trash. Lack of sanitation is an

issue here. Smiling children run from all corners yelling, "Mama Susie! Mama Susie!" They love Americans. They love everyone. They even love me. Talk about deprived children!

Several kids run to me and my camera. They want their photographs taken. More importantly, they want me to say I'll be their friend. I will come to realize over the next few days that Ghanaians place a huge value on friendship and give that affection freely and sincerely. One of my new friends tells me she has a dream: One day, some how, some way, she will have a bicycle. Meanwhile, a boy runs past me rolling an old bicycle tire. It's as close as most of these kids will get to owning a bicycle anytime soon.

Dodging skeeters, boiling pots

I join the team on the bus to a village outside the township of Agomeda, about a half-hour's drive from our hotel. Though we are much closer to the equator here than in Georgia, August is the coolest month of the year here. Highs are hitting about 81 degrees each day with a steady breeze that blows through this valley between mountains. It's also the dry season, so the mosquitoes aren't bad. Nevertheless, I accept some malaria pills a professor has given me. At least, he said they were malaria pills. They could be LSD for all I know. I'll either prevent malaria or find the mosquitoes strangely fascinating.

During a break in the construction, I meet yet another new friend. He tells me his name is "Lowery."

"How do you spell that?" I ask.

"MBNDZ," he says. English is the official language of Ghana, but almost everyone speaks a tribal dialect first. Everyone here speaks Twi. Some of the players are tutoring these kids during their down time, and MBNDZ shows me a math sheet with his real name: Ibrahim Raphael.

Ibrahim asks me to come to his home in the village, down a dirt path and then through a field to a clearing with mud and block shacks. A black cauldron is sitting outside on rocks, boiling over a fire. I realize I've been taken here to be cannibalized. No, wait, we're not there yet, he says. Ah, we've come to get a ball, although it's already been taken by someone else. Ibrahim sadly walks me back to the work site and tells me how much he loves football.

"Me, too!" I say. "I think the Dawgs have a good shot at the BCS title this year!" He just looks at me funny like other Ghanians and I realize he must be a Gators fan. So we walk slower to make sure he gets that whole left foot/right foot thing down.

Like many Africans, these Ghanaians have heard decades of empty promises and seen grandiose plans never come to fruition. To see these safe and decent homes going up, one by one, in the middle of nowhere, gives these people real hope. And kids like Ibrahim will have a decent place to eat, sleep and learn how to spell their names.

I am Kofi

Later that night, I walk the streets of Dodowa looking for insect repellent, just in case the professor has me on a steady regimen of LSD. I find one pharmacy about as big as my master bathroom, and the proprietor wonders why in the world I'd think they'd have skeeter spray there.

When I'm leaving, she asks my name.

"Chris."

"No, your Ghanaian name."

I tell her I don't have one, so she asks what day I was born. I say June 20.

"No, what day of the week?" I tell her I don't know. "OK, you Kofi."

I tell her, "Kofi must mean stupid." She just laughs heartily, either because I'm one really funny American guy or because what I said is true.

One thing is for sure, though: I've never felt safer in any town or city, and Dodowa is home to several thousand people. I will not see a single police officer my entire stay, yet these incredibly poor people are the kindest and most generous I've ever met, so I never worry.

"These guys are always happy," the coach tells me. "You don't see much sadness or depression. They don't need material things; they just need each other."

These people need our material help, but we may need their emotional help. They don't have traffic flow or sanitation figured out, but they seem to have a grip on that whole happiness thing. Maybe we Americans are looking in the wrong places.

Of course, I will finally meet someone who isn't happy. While eating some kind of meat on a stick (don't even want to know) that costs me 1 cedi (50 cents) on the street, a couple of girls approach me and one tries to take a bite of my mystery meat on a stick. So I buy her one of her own. Meanwhile, her friend asks me, "How come I haven't seen you here before?" Who'd have figured the only white man in Dodowa would stand out so much? But then when she asks for my number and puts a bracelet on my arm, her boyfriend shows up out of nowhere and yells and drags her away. I decide I'd better chow down on this meat on a stick and go back to having a quiet night at the hotel. Something tells me that if anything did happen and police were called, I just might be easily picked out of a lineup.

Quiet, though, is a relative term at the hotel as all the village roosters crow at 3 a.m. Every night. The sun doesn't come up until about 5:45 a.m. here, so I don't know what their point is. I've made many friends in Ghana, but the chickens here are not my friends, and I'm suddenly craving KFC.

Coming to America

I'm glad I get to experience Africa in this way -- although dodging goats and chickens isn't exactly a Kenyan safari. But I get to see what real poverty is. Yet, I also get to see what real happiness is. I get to see people's lives changed -- not just the ones getting homes, but also the ones building them.

I get to go to the top of a mountain to a real crafts village and barter. I get to explore the colorful local food market and wonder why anyone would buy that stinky, dried-up fish. I get hugs from people I don't know. I can spend the equivalent of one U.S. dollar on a trinket here, and the vendors act as if I've made their week. I'm lucky at some American fast-food places just to get someone to verbally acknowledge I'm standing there.

Still, I'm just another selfish, spoiled American -- but at least I recognize that now. I want my air-conditioning, a cold diet soda, dinner without rice, a soft bed and no deranged roosters waking me up at 3 a.m. I'm even willing to sit through another 10-hour flight for such luxuries.

All I have to do is clear about 47 immigration hurdles and lines at Kotola International Airport, which thanks to my 200-kilometers-per-hour taxi ride, I'm able to get a jump on hours early. At the airport, I learn a very helpful Ghanaian word, "No-this-way!" This allows me to make the necessary reverses and spins through this crazy airport to eventually reach my airplane.

I'm back home now. I miss the people of Ghana. I miss people who appreciate the important things in life -- like the value of a friend. I miss my meat on a stick, and if I had a recipe or knew what animal it came from, I'd grill it myself. I even miss the weather that was so much more comfortable than home.

Still, I'd rather have the luxuries of home, and maybe I can instill just a little of that Ghanaian friendliness into my home country. But, right now, you'll have to excuse me.

I have a meeting with Colonel Sanders.

-- Connect with Chris Johnson at Facebook.com/KudzuKidWriting, where you can find more photos from his trip to Ghana.

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