Monday, May 4, 2009

A day to last a lifetime in the Jamestown slum

Saturday Dec. 13, 2008

The last time we were in Jamestown was during the first week of orientation. We toured Accra in an air-conditioned charter bus – it could barely fit through the streets on the outskirts of Accra’s largest slum town. I remember sitting with the side of my face pressed up against the window watching life go by. Women hanging laundry – torn and tattered yards of fabric to dry. People cooking over open fires – black smoke dancing with the trash and dirt picked up by the breeze. I remember seeing a small schoolgirl in a blue and yellow uniform trip and fall – scattering her books in the street. I was an observer that day – removed from the emotions, passions, and monotony of every day life in the Jamestown slum. We weren’t allowed to get out of the bus and even if we had been I’m not sure if I would have been able to shed my bystander skin. After spending almost 5 months in Ghana, I had learned there was a significant emotional difference between observing and engaging.

Miriam and I decided that with only a couple days left in Ghana it was time for us to go back to Jamestown and explore a part of Accra we had not yet seen. We took a tro tro to Jamestown and wandered around until we found the Jamestown lighthouse (one of the landmarks mentioned in the tour guide). We ran into a man that said he had keys to go to the top. It looked closed, deserted even – except for a group of small kids playing a game of foosball right in front. But we followed him anyway. Sure enough our new friend found the woman in charge. After collecting her fee, she let the man lead us to the top of the lighthouse. What a view.

We could see all the way down the main road and the shanties by the water. A strange juxtaposition – the small confined spaces enclosed with scrap wood and metal. The infinity of the ocean. After observing from the sky, we agreed it was time to engage on the ground. We decided to walk around the slum fishing village right on the water. Everyone stared as we stepped over fishing nets and under hanging sails and tarps, moving further into the heart of the small fishing community. It was uncomfortable and not all of the stares were friendly. I felt out of place and a bit nervous. I couldn’t tell if it was because of my prejudices or theirs. Probably both. I was entering a world i will never completely understand with a life and a background they too do not know. I tried to escape my prejudices and my differences. I smiled at the men repairing the nets and made small talk with the women we passed. Wo ho te sen? Ye fre me Abeena. Once again our limited amount of Twi served us well. I began to feel the tension between my shoulders slowly disappear.

It was as if the more relaxed I became, the friendlier the people treated me. Word spread that there were Obrunis in the village speaking Twi. Before we knew it we were in the middle of the small slum village and approaching the peer. We asked the group of men sitting near by if we could walk on it and “come right back”. They laughed and smiled. Permission granted. Once again we dodged piles of nets, distracted by the young men running and jumping off the small wooden peer. They did flips and tricks, each one flashing a smile before catapulting their naked bodies into the air. We sat on the edge with our feet dangling over the water. Some boys our age came to chat with us. I was no longer uncomfortable or nervous. It constantly amazes me what a smile and an open heart can do.

After about 15 or 20 minutes an older man came over and explained that women were not allowed on the peer. Miriam and I looked around and then at one another. There wasn’t another female in sight. Oops. There are two important things that are relatively easy to forget but that we will never be able to escape: We are white and we are women. We apologized, said goodbye to the boys and left. As we walked out of the slum people smiled and waved. Yebeshia Bio - We will meet again soon. Despite the unlikelihood that their greeting would hold truth, there was warmth in their smiles and sincerity in their eyes.

love from Berkeley.

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