Johannesburg, Days 13-15: From Soweto to Rosebank

There are moments walking around the Rosebank neighborhood of Johannesburg when it’s easy to forget that you aren’t in the U.S. any more.

The streets are clean and well-maintained, the traffic no worse than any that you might find in most major U.S. cities. The buildings are modern, the streets bustling with sharply dressed men and women in suits and teens clad in ripped jeans and graphic tees. A walk into any Woolworth’s feels like stepping into Whole Foods. The local Pick and Pay feels like Target’s doppelganger.

A trip to the local Rosebank mall only deepens this overall sensation that I’m visiting some nearby city rather than walking on sidewalks halfway across the world. There’s an Aldo, an H&M, a Forever 21 counterpart called Forever New. It’s midday on a Tuesday but the mall is bustling with shoppers.

The shoppers are largely – a good 90%, at least – white.

The workers, as far as I can tell, are all black.

Our boutique hotel is all staffed by black South Africans. The patrons who dine in the high class restaurant attached to it are mostly white.

A conversation with a white South African yields such phrases as, “I like that the further away from apartheid we get, the less entitled these people are,” and “it’s hard to find people who are actually willing to work hard and be disciplined – that’s why I like to hire from outside South Africa.”

Now, I’m not completely without awareness. I realize that the states aren’t some sort of bastion of equality – that similar racial and income inequalities still exist back home.

Perhaps the reason that it’s so disconcerting to me in South Africa is the fact that it stands out in such stark relief.

Enter my visit to the Apartheid Museum.

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Apartheid is at least a cultural literacy point worldwide. But other than the basics of it – that it existed, primarily, and that the world boycotted South Africa because of it in the late 80’s/early 90’s – I know embarrassingly little about it. I honestly have to admit that most of what I learned stems from movies – a Steve Biko biographical film I watched in 10th grade World History, Invictus with Morgan Freeman – and a brief unit on it one of my history classes.

So I was glad to pay a visit to the museum, to perhaps help me understand the context of this beautiful yet disconcerting country.

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The entrance into the museum provides you with a ticket that labels you either as white or non-white. So, if you enter with a friend as I did, you’re immediately separated as you enter the museum.

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You walk down a corridor, with ID cards surrounding you on either side and signs proclaiming where whites and non-whites could stand suspended above you.

These are real life prints of ID cards that everyone had to carry, which designated you as “white” or “coloured” or “black.” They dictated where you lived, where you could go, what kinds of schools you went to.

I read the history of ‘classifying’ individuals living in South Africa when the law was passed in the last 1940’s. Just a bunch of your local, uneducated whites going around, trying to figure out who what.

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This is my last photo of the museum. No photos are allowed inside.

The history of apartheid is a disconcerting one. Not because it’s so recent, though it is, but because it seems so eerily familiar.

Not of our past, though that too, but of our current time.

The National Party was a pro-white party that came to power in 1948 with promises of a hard line policy that would benefit whites and disenfranchise non-whites. They won a surprising victory – surprising even to them – with only a minority of the overall vote, bolstered mostly by rural whites who were scared of the non-white population taking their jobs and precedence on the national stage. They very quickly enacted a whole bunch of very stringent executive decisions that eventually hardened into the system of apartheid we’re familiar with.

Gulp. 

Other than the closeness to our current events, the other thing I was struck by at the museum was just how recently apartheid ended. While there are photos of legal segregation in the American south and clips of the widespread protests that eventually brought an end to it, they’re all grainy, sometimes black and white things that are sometimes difficult to make out. In contract, there is some footage from the protests of apartheid that are painfully clear, the punches and hits from the police officers presented in such sharply rendered pictures that you flinch each time a blow lands.

By the end of the museum exhibition – a journey through the perilous, violent time post apartheid in which thousands more people died than in all the corresponding years, then the painful, heart wrenching testimonies of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission – I found myself thinking about just how young of a country South Africa really is. It was only 26 years ago that apartheid was officially ended; only 23 years ago that they had their first true democratic election.

The American democratic experiment has been ongoing for two centuries, our own legalized segregation ended half a century ago, and still we have so much strife and inequality. Racial discrimination and unofficial segregation that still keeps a high standard of living and quality education out of the hands of blacks and other minorities.

And despite the scenes of racial and social inequality, it’s not all this surreal, funhouse mirror version of America. Walking through the apartheid museum, it was clear that the scenes that I had witnessed outside of it spoke to progress, despite how jarring and backwards it might’ve all been to me.

For instance, yes, all of our Uber drivers are black. But one of them – Tshebo – tells us of how much better his life is now that he drives for Uber. Uber is run a little differently in South Africa, it seems. Whereas in the states, you’re required to own a car, in South Africa it seems that those with some capital have a fleet of cars (mostly Toyota Corollas, if our many Uber trips are any indication) and they lease them out to Uber drivers. The owner of the cars takes a cut, the driver takes a cut, and Uber takes it cut. Perhaps it’s not ideal, but Tshebo tells us that since driving for Uber, he’s been able to put all three of his kids in a good school. He’s done enough business and saved up enough money to soon buy his own car. He has plans to save up enough to buy five cars and lease them out to others.

See, he moved from Rustenberg, a mining town, to Midrand, a town just outside of Johannesburg. Mining is a hard, dangerous job that he was glad to not have to spend the rest of his life doing.

He works hard for Uber and likes his job, takes pride in taking care of his car. He keeps it clean, services it more regularly than I’ve ever serviced a car I’ve owned, takes his family out on trips during the weekend.

He works hard as a driver, he tells us, so that his children will never have to. They won’t have to do what he does, he says. They love school. They’re all going to go to university and they’re start their own businesses and employ so many other people.

We visited Soweto, a township of Johannesburg which once housed Nelson Mandela. It was also the site of some of the most famous protests against apartheid, including the Soweto Uprising. What had once been a neighborhood filled with of cheap housing and scrapped together aluminum shacks, was now filled with middle class housing and popular, well-maintained restaurants. Because a population of individuals who had grown up there, who had left to pursue education and other avenues, who had the opportunity to do so, had also returned. These individuals came back and chose to build a home and a life in a place their parents and grandparents had been forced to relocate to after leaving their homes and lives behind.

The menu in our restaurant in Soweto had this to say:

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We visited a number of college campuses where black South African students were walking, attending in class in a place where just 50 years ago they wouldn’t have even been allowed to come on campus. We spoke with a start-up business in which the majority of the employees were black. The concierge at our hotel had his masters in accountancy, had traveled to over fifty countries, and mostly worked weekends at the hotel between his time in class.

Even that woman I spoke to earlier, the one who spoke about entitled individuals and apartheid, gave her sincerest sorry that our country had voted for Trump. What a vile man he was. She loved Obama, she said, and loved all that he had done for our country and all that he stood for.

She ended our time together speaking with such obvious love for Africa – not just South Africa – but the whole of the continent. How much she believed in it, how great she believed it was. I’m honestly still not quite sure what to make of her. If this were a novel, I’d struggle to discern what lesson or point I was supposed to take with my interaction with her. Perhaps the closest thing is that people are complicated and context matters.

And of course, there are other questions to ask.

Is it enough progress? Has the country moved forward at a fast enough clip? At a good enough pace? What’s next?

I don’t know. And I have a feeling that the answer, if there’s one to be found, might be for people smarter than I, more thoughtful than I, with more understanding of history and context and political movements.

At the end of my time in South Africa, I’m left with this: it’s a beautiful country filled with beautiful people, a place with a violent history, a complicated present, and a future that the citizens are optimistic about.

And I hope that I have the opportunity to return some day, to visit Cape Town and to see what other progress gets made.

Pilanesberg, Days 11 & 12: Adventures in the bush

Our first two days in South Africa could only be described as an adventure.

We arrived at the Johannesburg airport at around 4:30 pm on Saturday. After a relatively easy time doing the requisite errands (grabbing luggage, exchanging money, getting a new sim card, and renting a car), we were off to Pilanesberg National Park, which was about a two and a half hour drive from the airport according to google maps.

We decided to grab dinner on the way there and either were stuck in a weird time drain or, more likely, just didn’t realize how long dinner took because we didn’t really get on our way until closer to 8.

No problem, except that it was raining fairly hard, the signage to the park was confusing/sometimes non-existent and we were essentially driving out to the middle of nowhere. We got lost and drove out into total darkness about four different times. I wouldn’t exactly say that the journey was harrowing…but I might be tempted to if I were the type of person who was prone to hyperbole…

Which I am, so yes, the journey was harrowing.

It was pitch black, raining hard, and we had to drive on the opposite side of the road. Even though in my brain I knew that driving on the left side of the road was correct, about once every three minutes I really felt like we were about to run straight into oncoming traffic. There were also stretches of road where there was no one else around, seemingly for miles. At various parts in the journey, the thoughts that this was like the beginnings of a horror movie did indeed cross my mind. Especially when at one point we drove off the tarred road into a super dark, bumpy dirt road and the map had trouble locating us.

However, armed with google maps, a positive spirit and Lisa’s ten year old yet surprisingly good memory of the area, we finally drove into the park at about half past eleven – a full two hours later than we had initially told our accommodations

Also the park is rather large, and there are multiple places that you can stay. We had made reservations at the Tented Safari Camp, which we were both excited to stay in but were having trouble finding. After driving around what felt like the whole of Pilanesberg (it wasn’t, but after spending half the day in transit, it certainly felt that way) and probably waking up multiple people by shining our headlights at them, we finally happened upon our campsite.

…Only to find that the check-in tent was dark and empty. There was a brief moment of panic where I thought we might have to sleep in our car, which certainly wouldn’t be the worst thing ever but wasn’t ideal after a long day of travel. However, to our great luck, one of the other resident guests was still awake and helped us find our tent with minimal pain or embarrassment. (We did accidentally unzip a tent that already belonged to someone else, but it was only once and I don’t think we woke them up, THANK GOD, because that would’ve made for some really awkward late night/early morning conversation).

Now, I keep saying the word ‘tent.’ I’m sure you’re thinking, Lelanie, a tent, really? Which, 1, rude – I can totally camp. And 2 – this wasn’t really camping, it was definitely more like glamping.

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Behold, the inside of our safari tent

We settled in and I took a shower (I told you it was glamping). Despite the long day and the comfortable beds, I was so wired that I tossed and turned for quite some time. I finally fell asleep probably around 1.

And was awakened at 5am for our game drive! Now, I haven’t been getting great sleep overall – and I had only slept about two hours the night before – but I sprang up out of bed, ready for the day. And honestly, it’s really not so bad to get four hours of sleep when you’re greeted by this upon waking:

I mean, there are certainly worse ways to wake up, right?

So, we got up and had some tea and a biscuit, then loaded up into our truck to find some animals in the bush.

First off, even if we had literally seen no animals, the day still would’ve been completely worth it for the views of the scenery alone.

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Unfortunately, I’m not a talented enough photographer to really capture the insane beauty of the park, but the tranquility of driving through such awesome landscape could’ve been enough for me.

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But, I was fortunate enough that I was able to view such breathtaking beauty and see an abundance of wildlife.

First off – and I don’t have a picture because it turns out predators are really good at staying hidden – we saw two leopards. Our tour guide could hardly believe that it was my first game drive and I was able to see two leopards in the wild. She said that it was two years into being a game driver – meaning she looked for animals in the wild as a living – before she ever saw a leopard. Perhaps I’m not just an elephant whisperer, but a leopard whisperer as well.

Anyway, between the arranged game drive in the morning and our solo drive in our car, I saw a vast number of animals.

We had to break for a herd of wildabeest crossing the road:

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Traffic in Pilanesberg

Saw a pod of giraffes mixed in with some kudu and wildabeest:

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We came upon a large herd of zebra and watched as many of them paired off and nuzzled one another:

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We saw herds of impala everywhere:

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And my personal favorite – we watched a large bull elephant cross the road right in front of us:

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I am definitely an elephant whisperer

We ended our day with this elephant sighting, which I want to point out happened about five minutes from our exit gate. We could’ve gone back around the park and looked for a pride of lions, but seeing the elephant right there in front of us was such an exhilarating high that we figured we’d end the day on a high note.

All in all, despite the trouble of getting there, I really enjoyed my time in Pilanesberg and really liked the tented camp experience. My only complaint is that we were only able to stay one day and not two, but perhaps an experience for the next time I’m able to come to South Africa – whenever that might be.

Our time here in Johannesburg has mostly been taken up by meetings and eating the ridiculously delicious food at our hotel. The food is so good that I pull an angry face every time I bite into it. Angry at what, I’m not quite sure. Perhaps that this food exists and I’ve only just now eaten it and never will again? Who knows, my emotions are sometimes a mystery.

I have some thoughts about Johannesburg and South Africa as a whole ruminating around my brain, but I’m trying to sort them out a little bit more before committing them to written word. Tomorrow we have a work day and a meeting with an employer, but then we’ll head to the Apartheid Museum in Soweto. I think I’ll have a better handle on my thoughts and emotions after that, so I’ll just wait until tomorrow to get it all down.

For now, I’m going to take a benedryl and head to bed. We’ll see what day 14 of this trip brings!

Nairobi, Day 10: Giraffe Kisses and Elephant Handshakes

My final (full) day in Nairobi took me to the national museum, a giraffe sanctuary, an elephant orphanage, and ended with a delicious meal and a cold, local beer.

After a very productive meeting with a mentor, we headed over to the Nairobi National Museum.

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It’s been fun going to the museums on this trip because I am rather woefully ignorant of the culture and history of the places that we’ve been visiting. In addition to the evocative and informative tour at Cape Coast Castle, they also had a museum exhibit that was very well put together and gave a pretty detailed and broad history of Ghana from it’s earliest days as The Gold Coast all the way up to present day and the diaspora.

The Nairobi National Museum was a good mix of information about Kenya’s culture, wildlife, and history.

After the museum, we also stopped by a few shops, where I picked up a bunch of gifts to bring home! I’m very pleased about these gifts and excited to bring them home to the recipients. We even stopped by a local crafts store and I tried my hand at haggling for two Maasai woven blankets. I did alright, but I did dearly wish that my mom were there. Her haggling skills are legendary! The minute the shopkeeper said that all the money goes back into the community, I was pretty much suckered and he knew it. Ah, well.

From our souvenir sojourn, we headed out to the Giraffe Center and the David Sheldrick Elephant Orphanage.

For a scant ten dollars (1,000 Kenyan shillings), you got to get up close and personal with some very friendly giraffes.

After the giraffes, it was finally off to the elephant orphanage.

Here’s the thing about the elephants – I’ve probably mentioned it at least once a day since we got to Africa. I was very, very excited about these baby elephants.

So the thing about the elephant orphanage is that it’s open to the public for exactly one hour (11 to noon) every day. You get to see all the 26 elephants come in and watch as they play and the keepers feed them. Which sounds amazing on its own. However, for a one time charge of $50, you can ‘adopt’ an elephant. Obviously the money goes towards caring for the orphaned baby elephants which is so very not cheap. However, as a ‘foster parent,’ you also have the opportunity to visit the elephants at 5pm without the general public there and watch the elephants as they come in from spending time out in Nairobi National Park and visit with them as they settle down for the night.

Best $50 I ever spent!

Not only do the elephants all seem very well taken care of, but you get to get up close and personal with the baby elephants!

The first thing you do is all stand out beyond the elephant orphanage and watch as a parade of baby elephants heads in for the day.

It is amazing and adorable and the elephants are so incredibly cute. Unfortunately, I didn’t spring for the premium wordpress account, so I can’t upload videos, but you can check out the video of the elephants parading past here on my instagram.

Then, after all the elephants are in their respective pens, you get to go and visit with them and just generally marvel at how adorable they all are.

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One of the younger elephants with a blanket to keep her warm

Some of the elephants stayed towards the back of their pens, but some came right up and didn’t mind nuzzling your hand a bit.

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My new elephant friend

Now, unfortunately, I did not get this on camera – you can’t plan for magical moments! – but I want everyone to know that not one, but two different elephants reached out with their trunks and held my hand for a bit. It was magical and wonderful and I loved every moment of it.

After the lovely time with the baby elephants, we headed off to a local restaurant for some authentic Kenyan food. Our driver, Bernard (who has been really, really wonderful and I would fully and enthusiastically recommend if anyone ever heads off to Nairobi), ordered a dish for us that was roasted chicken, greens of some sort, and ugali. We also had his beer recommendation of Tusker, which was a good way to end the day (and wash down the bitterness of the Trump Inauguration that I somehow couldn’t escape even all the way in Nairobi).

I initially picked up my fork and knife to tear into the meal, but then Bernard informed me that the meal was usually eaten by hand and asked if that would that be okay with me. Little did he know that Filipinos are nothing if not pros at eating with their hands, and I tore into my meal with gusto. It was super delicious, very filling, and cost a mere $19 for the three of us.

Tomorrow (actually, later today since it’s 3:10 in the morning because I don’t think I’ll sleep normally ’til I’m back stateside) we just head out to the airport and are off to Johannesburg. All in all, I’ve really enjoyed Nairobi. I do wish that we’d had more time here – especially so that we could’ve seen places outside of the city – but I’m still really glad with what we’ve done and all that we’ve seen. It was a successful trip both personally and professionally. On to Johannesburg!

Accra and Nairobi, Days 7 – 9: From West Africa to East Africa

I had my last Ghanaian meal, met with teachers in Nairobi, and ate ox testicles! Here’s a recap of my last three days.

So, our seventh day in Africa and last day in Accra was very low-key. We got up slowly around nine and ate breakfast, then finished packing and did some work. At noon, we went to a place that was highly recommended a few times for us in terms of authentic Ghanaian food – Azmera.

It was a lunch buffet (Ghana seems big on these) and it definitely had the most expansive spread that I’d seen on the trip.

One of the servers went through all the different dishes and explained them to us, also pointing out the ones that were very spicy (which I appreciated as someone who has trouble with spicy foods). Next to every dish were the ingredients it was made of, to give you a better idea of what went into everything.

I want to point out that the biggest picture shows three different types of plantain – essentially a plantain fritter on the left, kelewele in the middle, which is fried plantain with spices, and regular ole’ fried plantain on the left. The introduction of fried plantain to my diet is one of my favorite things about Accra and something I’m sure to bring back to my eating habits in the states. The prevalence of rice, the proliferation of fried plantain and the fact that you can get hot tea any and everywhere was one of my favorite things about eating in Accra.

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My final Ghanaian meal

After Azmera, we headed back to Global Mamas to pick up a few more souvenirs, then hung out at our hotel to do work before heading to the airport.

All in all, I really enjoyed my time in Accra. I didn’t get to really walk around the city or the towns as much, but visiting all the different places was a joy. Here’s a quick rundown of my favorites:

From Accra, we took a five and half hour red eye flight (9pm – 5:30 am local time) to Nairobi. I didn’t get any sleep despite knowing that we’d have a very full day when we landed, but I did watch Me Before You (sappy and predictable, but still enjoyable/wtf that ending?), Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates (I did literally LOL but I was ashamed of it), and two episodes of “New Girl” (which I was mostly charmed by but did not especially miss watching), so at least there’s that, I guess.

Now, I don’t know if it was because we flew in so late or what, but it the Nairobi airport was the easiest, most stress-free airport experience I have ever had. Getting through the gate, immigration, baggage collection, customs and then out the door literally took half an hour, tops. Getting to our hotel took longer than going through the airport.

Due to traffic, what might’ve taken maybe 30 minutes to get to our hotel instead took close to an hour and fifteen minutes. However, the hotel is very nice and relaxing and, I suppose as an added bonus, is right next to the Israeli Embassy, so the security around it is very, very tight. I would take a picture and show you, but there is absolutely no picture-taking allowed near or around the embassy for whatever reason.

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The garden below my room

Lisa and I had about an hour and a half to set our stuff down, shower, and get ready before we went off to our first meeting.

It was about an hour away with traffic and lulled by the pleasant hum of the car and the absolutely gorgeous weather, I fell asleep almost immediately.

I woke up just as we were pulling up to our destination – the Kenya Technical Trainers College. I am actually very, very upset that I was too brain addled and sleep deprived and bleary eyed to remember to take pictures because the campus grounds were really pretty. Apparently the nice weather makes for some very lush and verdant surroundings here in Nairobi.

Our meeting was with about 7 different heads of different departments, plus a school administrator. It was one of my favorite meetings we’ve had so far. I have enjoyed hearing about school and school systems from teachers (most of them young) and students, but here I had the opportunity to hear from college professors who had long been in the educational system and were all obviously passionate about their jobs and helping their students. It was so interesting to learn about the Kenyan education system and the perceptions and standards of education in the country. I especially liked hearing about and thinking about all the ways that the Kenyan and American system of education is the same (a reliance on standardized testing, a large and recognizable gap between the rich and the poor, a system that frequently teaches knowledge but not skills) and all the ways that it’s different (there’s a nation wide test that students complete to see where they will be placed in secondary school and if they will be accepted to university being the biggest factor).

If it weren’t almost guaranteed to be an essentially useless PhD, I might really consider getting a doctorate in something along the lines of international comparative education. It’s been so fascinating on this trip to learn about the histories of the respective countries, their schooling system, and to think about how one affects the other. I’ve also enjoyed comparing what I know about the US educational system, the Filipino educational system and what I’ve been learning here in Ghana and Kenya. Alas, it’s hard to defend going to school for that long for something that I’m not sure I’d do anything with.

Anyway, enough about my useless, pretend PhD. Lisa and I made it through our first meeting with no sleep and, I think, giving little to no indication of having had no sleep, so that in itself was a victory. Add to that the fact that it was a very productive and informational meeting, and our first day in Nairobi was starting out pretty good.

After running some errands around the city and a second meeting, we finally headed back to our hotel to rest some more and relax around the grounds.

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The view from the lobby

Lisa and I decided we were too tired to go any where, so we decided to dine in one of the four restaurants on site. Of course, we decided to go with the nicest one because why not.

It was a decidedly non-African meal since the hotel seems to cater to mostly foreign/mzungo (a Kiswahili word I learned tonight basically means “white person”) guests.

It was delicious, though, and Lisa and I thoroughly enjoyed ourselves and ordered three different courses.

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Dessert, of course, being the most important course

I went to bed full, satisfied and finally, finally got an entire night’s sleep! It’s only been my second full night’s sleep, so it feels like a victory.

This morning I got up groggily and slowly and we made our way to the sports stadium to do a workshop similar to the one we did with CAMFED in Ghana. This time, we were meeting with EGF, which does similar work to CAMFED in that it provides scholarships for high school students to attend high school. I thought it’d be very easy since we’d already run through the workshop once and, as any teacher can tell you, the second class always gets a better lesson than the first one.

Boy, was I wrong.

Now, I do want to say that the day went well, the students all did well and were well-behaved, and I think we did a good job. We also learned a lot and got most of the information we were looking for.

However, a key difference is that instead of having a mixed group of teachers, college students and high school students like we did in the previous setting, instead we had an entire group of students who had recently graduated from high school – so about a dozen 18 and 19 year olds. Add that to fact that some of them had traveled long distances to get there (one had traveled ten hours the night before) and that they were missing out on hanging out with a bunch of their friends (EGF was holding a ceremony that invited 2500 Scholars to Nairobi) and you can understand how it might’ve been different.

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I vastly overestimated how tall I was.

There were plenty of times that we had to pivot or even completely change the trajectory in our lesson. Fortunately, I’m quite good at coming up with a new lesson plan on the fly since so many of mine have failed in the past. While the students were less actively enthusiastic than our previous group had been, they were still willing to participate and, as I mentioned earlier, we ended up with a lot of good information from our session with. It was, actually, very similar to a day of teaching I might have had in my own classroom in the states, which made me both miss teaching and not miss it, ha!

For dinner tonight we headed to Carnivore, which you may guess from the name, is all about meat. It is literally an all you can eat meat buffet. Now, I don’t think it’s very decidedly Kenyan since most of the meat dishes were cooked in a way that I feel like wouldn’t be out of place in America, but basically every Kenyan we asked for food recommendations told us we had to go there, so who are we to go against them?

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Why would you go here if you were a vegetarian? What about the name is confusing?

Essentially what happens is you sit at a table and people bring by slabs of meat continuously until you give up on life/tell them to stop. We had about half the meats on regular dinner menu and all the exotic meats. Of the regular meats, the lamb chop was especially delicious. On the exotic meat side, the crocodile was delicious (the texture was similar to calamari), though I will admit I slathered it in garlic sauce so who really knows. The ostrich was in a meat ball, so it tasted like any other meatball I’ve ever had. Ox ball, contrary to what you might think, is not ox meat balls, but is instead ox testicle. I had one bite of that and it was enough to (dis)satisfy me. It kind of tasted like something that wanted to be a hardboiled egg yolk, but somehow didn’t quite get there. We left satisfied and even kept enough room in our stomachs for some delicious dessert!

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Hello, grand pit of roasted meat

Finally, some quick observations about Nairobi:

  • Nairobi feels like a city as I’m used to in the states – a prevalence of skyscrapers and huge buildings, a large number of shopping areas and malls, and lots and lots of traffic. One of the things that was pleasantly surprising about Accra was the fact that even though it was the biggest city, the roads were always pretty clear of traffic.
  • The weather is absolutely beautiful. It was maybe 83 degrees at most, no humidity, the first day we were in and people kept apologizing for the hot weather. I had to stop myself from laughing at them.
  • There is security everywhere. Almost every place we’ve been so had a guard and partition that has to be lifted up. Our hotel and every shopping area we’ve gone to requires you to go through a metal detector and have your bags checked.
  • Hakuna matata is not just a phrase from your favorite childhood movie.
  • They drive on the opposite side of the road and my brain is still trying to get this sorted out. Sometimes I look up and panic because I think we’re about to run straight on into a car.

Tomorrow we have a meeting in the morning and then essentially a free day which includes SEEING THE BABY ELEPHANT I ADOPTED. How much do you think I’m going to enjoy that (it’s going to be A LOT).

Cape Coast, Day 5: Above the treetops and into the past

Today has mostly been a catch-up day for work and we spent all of it in the hotel, so nothing of note to report for day 6 in Accra.

However, yesterday was our day off, so we decided to make the most of it and take a day trip down to Cape Coast

After a rather pleasant and traffic-free 2 hour ride, we began the bumpy ascent up to our first stop was Kakum National Park. The condition of the road this last hour of our trip was similar to the one we had to take up to Ashesi. It wasn’t unbearable, just uncomfortable, and mostly I spent a lot of it cringing in secondhand worry for Christian’s (our driver this week) car every time I heard a questionable bump or scrape.

But, finally, we rolled up into the national park and paid 50 cedi (roughly 12 dollars) to do the canopy walk. There were other options, including a nature hike with a guide around Kakum that we might’ve taken, but we also wanted to have ample time to explore Cape Coast Castle and head home before traffic got too bad, so we decided to stick to the main attraction of the canopy walk.

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The holding area while we waited for our tour guide.

We took a fairly easy hike into the first part of the forest and up a few flights of stairs. It probably took no longer than 30 minutes to get to the entrance of the forest proper and the incline wasn’t steep, but it was also probably more exercise than I’ve gotten in quite some time. I was at least glad to have worn comfortable shoes and brought a water bottle.

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From the entrance, it was an easy 10 minute walk to the entrance of the first bridge. Being the intrepid explorer that I am, I jumped at the chance to be the first to cross.

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Ok, not really. I mean, I did want to be the first to go across, but not because I’m an especially intrepid explorer. Mostly it was because I wanted to get away from two other American tourists in our group who were very loud, very annoying and very embarrassing. “We’re not all like that!” I wanted to say out loud to the group around us – but instead I just ran away onto the rope bridge first.

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I thought it might be more frightening than it ended up being, especially since I have a very intense fear of heights. However, even though the rope bridge sways as you walk across it (and one of the seven bridges very memorably tips to the side) and you’re very cognizant of how high up you are, they also seem very structurally sound. The rope walls are also high enough that you don’t fear tipping out and over. There were seven rope bridges in total, strung across very large trees in the forest. There were landings attached to the trees where you could take a moment and admire the view around you.

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It’s exceptionally peaceful…or rather, I imagine that if you are lucky enough to go with a group that doesn’t include two loud Americans talking about the cocktails they had in Accra and what a bore it is to get henna tattoos in India, then it’d be exceptionally peaceful. I was told that there are animals in the forest but that they are mostly nocturnal, probably to avoid insufferable tourists.

However, other than the loud tourists, it was a very enjoyable experience. The forest itself was cool to hike through. Given the climate of Ghana, I expected it to be more like the tropical forests of the Philippines, but it’s decidedly less so – mostly deciduous looking trees with a few tropical ones thrown in here and there. We learned that there’s a literal tree house that you can spend the night in and then take a night walk with a guide to see all the mostly nocturnal animals. Had we known this, Lisa might’ve planned our weekend differently in order to take advantage of such an opportunity but, alas, it was not to be.

From Kakum we headed back down to the Cape Coast proper and visited the famous/infamous Cape Coast Castle, a former British castle and one of the largest slave ports in all of Ghana and West Africa.

We entered and were able to walk around the castle and look at the surrounding area for a bit, which I enjoyed because it afforded us a beautiful landscape to look at and a way to view the surrounding area’s town.

Prior to the start of our tour, we went into the the second floor of the castle and walked through the museum that was housed there. It was a very impressive little exhibit and I learned quite a bit about the history of Ghana, including the slave trade, the African Diaspora and the culture of the peoples of Central Ghana – specifically the Akan peoples. I was about 3/4 of the way done with the museum exhibit when we were called back to the entrance of the castle to begin our tour.

We gathered around a doorway at the far end of the castle, the ground sloping down into complete darkness.

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I have no photos of the interior of the castle. It seemed disrespectful, somehow, to take photos of places that had witnessed so much suffering and misery.

As you walk slowly down into the darkness, you can feel the air pressing in closer, the heat settling against your skin. The path slopes gently downwards and turns to the right. Our group gathered together on a slope just beyond the light of the door, barely able to see three feet in front of us. The only light before us was one small shaft of light from a roughly hewn window far above us, no more than six inches across and a foot high. Despite the faint glow of daylight from the still open door behind us and the sliver of light from the window, the darkness still felt heavy and oppressive.

Then, our guide, Oscar, began to speak.

We were in the slave dungeon for the male slaves. Men would be held in these very rooms for at least six weeks at a time, sometimes as long as three months. Imagine, he told us, being trapped in this room, shackles around your neck and wrists and ankles. The door behind you is barred shut, the only air and light coming from that small window far above you.

Even just the thought of it felt suffocating.

He turned on the light and we descended further into the room, a dank stone room perhaps the size of many people’s living rooms.

And it was there, in that room, that nearly 500 men were held. They would be awaiting a ship that would send them to parts unknown and where they would live out the rest of their lives as slaves. There was a groove in the middle of the stone floor that made its way around the edges of the room and wound its way out. This, our guide told us, was the only toilet to speak of for these 500 men. A ‘toilet’ that archeological evidence shows would contain human waste that came up nearly to my waist.

It was astounding to think of. There were only perhaps twenty five people in our group total, and the room seemed still rather small. To imagine even a hundred seems impossible; 500 seemed unfathomable.

We moved on from the room and passed two other dungeons that would have held men. We entered a room with an awkward wall jutting out from the middle of it with something that looked like an altar coming out in front of it. At the far end of the room was a stack of ribboned wreaths with various organizations listed on them.

The awkward looking wall with the altar in front of it had once been the entrance to the tunnel that slaves would take to get to the door that would lead them to the ships. See, almost the entire time that these slaves were in the castle, they would never see the light. They would be held in the dungeon, then travel through a tunnel underneath the castle until they squeezed through a door at the end of the castle that would take them outside and into a canoe, where they would then be loaded into a slaving ship.

The entrance of this tunnel, then, was the beginning of their journey into slavery. And as bad as the holding cells had been for them all, what awaited on the other side of that tunnel was much, much worse. So, the tunnel was sealed off, a symbolic gesture that represented the sealing of the slave trade, the end of this chapter in Ghanaian history. And today, there was an altar to a native god – one of fertility – where people would come and speak with their god.

The ribboned wreaths – including one from Michelle and Barack Obama – that littered the ground had been brought from people all over the world, members of the African diaspora who had paid a visit to Cape Coast and thought perhaps some of their ancestors had been held there.

We walked on to the women’s dungeon. Here, the set-up was the same – 300 women packed tightly into a room made for half that amount, the only light two small windows far above the ground. Women would be taken almost nightly by British soldiers and raped, the especially beautiful ones handpicked by the governor that ran the castle.

It was a horrifying picture, more so because every part of it was true.

From there, we went back outside, the light seemingly blinding after even that small amount of time in semi-darkness. The sunlight was on our faces, a breeze that smelled like the sea blew across our skin; it was already hard to imagine the oppressive darkness and heat of the dungeons below. Oscar then pointed to the building directly above the dungeons, a plain white structure built on top of that place that held so much suffering and human misery.

That building, Oscar told us, was the church. While men groaned in the dark, British soldiers sang hymns to God right above them. While men slowly suffocated in the heat and smell of their own waste, the governor enjoyed the feel of a cool breeze and the view of the expansive blue ocean in his rooftop room.

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The view from the Governor’s living room

It was an abhorrent thought.

The end of the slaves’ time in this castle had them going through what had been dubbed the “Door of No Return.” It was the exit that slaves would take that would place them outside the castle and onto the ships that would carry them to slavery. This door was the end, the doorway that guaranteed that you would never again return to the place of your birth. Once you passed through that door, you knew you could never again look on your homeland.

The door, we were likewise told, had been widened from its original size. It was now the size of double doors, rather than a small hole that one man would have to nearly crawl through to get to the other side.

We walked out of the door as our guide painted the picture for us: the men and women would emerge one by one into the blinding light, nothing but forest around them and a great big ship before them. They would be loaded into the ship, still shackled, pressed together as tightly as possible and spend another four, five, six months in the dark hold of a rocking ship.

But, Oscar said as we stood on the other side of the door of no return, looking at into the vastness of the ocean and imagining the horrors that awaited the slaves on the middle passage and beyond, look at the sign on the door behind you.

We turned and looked.

door-of-return

The plaque had been put up, he told us, as a way to commemorate the return of the diaspora. It was a way to show that though the slaves themselves forced through that door and were never able to return to their homeland, their ancestors could and were now returning, were now completely free to do so.

The tour ended where it began – at the entrance to the male dungeon. Beside it, Oscar pointed out a plaque that had been installed by the chiefs of the major tribes. Here, he made one last poignant observation and plea to all of us who had been so affected by the tour. That while slavery as it had been described on this tour was long over and done with, modern slavery continued all over the world – human trafficking, forced labor, educational segregation and systemic racial discrimination.

It is up to us all to work towards justice, he exhorted, to put an end to man’s inhumanity to man. Let us not be like the British soldiers, eyes bowed in morning devotion as men beneath their feet bowed under the weight of their chains. Let us reject living like the Governor, who looked out every morning to admire the beauty of the sea while perpetrating the injustice and torment beneath him.

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It was a moving experience, and timely given that today in the states is Martin Luther King, Jr. day. It was difficult to think about the brutality that mankind has and continues to bring upon itself, but I’d rather be forced to look at it and confront the reality of it than pretend it never existed.

All in all, Cape Coast was a great place to visit and completely worth the six hour drive (combined) that it took. While Kakum made for great picture opportunities and fun storytelling, I know that I’ll never forget my visit to Cape Coast Castle. I’m grateful that I was able to visit and that I’ve been able to share it with all of you.

Accra, Days 3 and 4: CAMFED Scholars and Ashesi University

These last two days in Accra have been busy ones filled with work. Or rather, “work,” because it was all so enjoyable that it felt like anything but.

Yesterday, we presented a workshop to a mixed group of individuals who are all part of CAMFED, which is one of our partners. CAMFED is an organization that is dedicated to providing secondary and tertiary scholarships for girls so that they can attend schools. Girls’ education, especially in more rural parts of the country, is not necessarily seen as a priority for maybe families. CAMFED provides scholarships, uniforms and mentor support to thousands of girls across Ghana so that they can continue on in their education.

We were able to present secondary students, college students, teacher mentors and staff members of CAMFED. I was a little bit worried about this workshop because I hadn’t ever presented it before and there’s an old and, unfortunately, very true adage about the fact that teachers make the worst students. During professional development days, you’re liable to see teachers exhibiting all the worst behaviors of their students – scrolling through their phones, not paying attention, working on other work or talking while you’re talking. I’ve been guilty of it plenty of times myself even as I also try to curb the instinct.

But I think that this adage may only apply to American teachers. The teachers that attended yesterday’s workshop were all lovely – attentive, participatory and open to learning new ideas.

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The lovely teacher-mentors of CAMFED-Ghana

I think we also might’ve gotten a unique population of teachers – those who are mentors to students as well as being teachers. It stands to reason that teachers in this role might be a lot more engaged in learning opportunities in general.

In my previous post, I mentioned how fun traveling can be because of the fact that it makes ordinary things extraordinary. The same goes for new experiences in general. I’ve taught dozens of children hundreds of different times, but, again, I’ve never facilitated with adults. I’m also terrible with small talk and introductions, which is a lot more important in wide group facilitation than it is in teaching. So, I was initially very nervous and it definitely showed, especially as people trickled in little by little and I did my best impression of a normal human being who is not at all shy or anxious.

The impression, unfortunately, wasn’t very good. I mostly just came off as twitchy and awkward.

Luckily, Lisa has a natural charisma and warmth that comes from being extroverted and, I think, hailing from the South. She immediately made people feel comfortable and welcomed, taking sure to ask them about themselves and making them smile as soon as they came in the door. Observing her allowed me to let go of my anxiety some because I realized at least one of us wasn’t going to be a fidgety mess.

The actual facilitation part, which is very much like teaching, came a lot easier to me. First off, my anxiety at teaching teachers faded almost immediately, when I realized that no one in the room saw me as an imposter or incompetent, but actually regarded me as an expert in the subject. Secondly, everyone in the room was so engaged and respectful. Both the secondary and tertiary students showed an initiative at being helpful and useful that I was frankly envious of all the teachers in Ghana; I only had to pick up a stack of papers and a student would jump to pass them out. Finally, once I actually got into the teaching part of it all, I slipped into it quite easily. Even if I didn’t know the material as well as I might’ve liked, and was running on three hours of sleep, some things have just become muscle memory. Facilitation is a bit more involved than teaching, at times, but the basic mechanics are the same. I really enjoyed the day . The workshop as a whole went really well – we had great participation from all involved and I think (hope) that everyone got something useful out of it.

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Notice how cool I am in matching those secondary scholars’ school uniforms.

My favorite part, though, wasn’t so much the workshop itself, but sitting at lunch and talking with those involved in the program. As we broke for lunch, I was tempted to do what I always do and sit next to someone that I know so as to avoid the anxiety of having to make conversation. However, as I went through the buffet line, I realized how much I’d be irritated with myself at missing out on this opportunity to engage with people I’d never met before and learn about an experience that I’m completely ignorant of. So, I made myself sit with a group of people I didn’t really know: two tertiary students – one a junior, the other a freshman – as well as a staff member of CAMFED. I was able to learn so much about the Ghanaian school system (compulsory until 8th grade, at which point you take a, 8 subject! national exam to be placed into a senior high secondary school, then take another national exam to attend college), Ghanaian culture in general (the different ethnic groups and languages- such as the lingering beef between the Ewe and the Akan and ideas about Northern Ghana), the backgrounds of the three ladies I was sitting with, as well as the work that CAMFED does.

One of the fun things to notice, too, were just all the small differences in language. So you don’t major in something, you read something. It’s not college, it’s tertiary school. Instead of grades, it’s forms. Instead of scholarships, it’s bursary or bursar.

I also got some advice one what I absolutely needed to eat in terms of ‘genuine’ Ghanaian food – and was pleased to find that I’d already eaten many of them. Jollof rice, red red, plantain and fufu were all listed. The only one I’m still missing is banku, which I plan on checking off in the coming days.

All in all, a very successful day. Although, unfortunately, that night was not as successful as I did not get any sleep at all. I did, however, finish the Queen of the Tearling series and really quite enjoyed it (review forthcoming), so at least there’s that.

So onto day 4.

Oh! Before I talk about that, I’ve been really enjoying the advertisements and signs that I’ve seen around Ghana. First off, Lisa and I have asked a lot of Ghanaians about what makes them proud to be Ghanaian or what do the like about Ghana, and over and over again we’ve heard a lot about their peaceful elections or the fact that Ghana is a peaceful country. I thought this was so interesting because it definitely shows in the advertisements I’ve seen as we’ve driven around Accra.

There were actually two others that I really liked as well, but unfortunately I wasn’t quick enough in the car to get a photo of them. But they were just regular household products companies – I think one was a paint, the other a cleaning solution – who would advertise their products and the importance of peaceful, clean elections. That truly is something to be proud of, I think.

My other favorite sign I’ve seen around town is this one:

no-hawking

I’m fascinated by the use of “hawking” rather than soliciting or selling. I’m also quite tickled at the fact that these signs are mostly ignored, as you can see from this picture. In many places, there will be stalls and people with wares standing directly in front of this sign hawking their wares.

So, anyway, Day 4 (this morning) dawned and I had literally gotten no sleep. Ah, well, I’d done enough all-nighters in my time to know that I could power through it.

We woke up early and took the long, bumpy road up to Ashesi University. Our driver kept reiterating just how bad the road was and how often his taxi driver friends refuse to take people up it. About thirty minutes later, with a headache and a fair amount of nausea due to the amount of bumps and potholes that we hit in the road, I could see why.

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The view from Ashesi’s main entrance. That red dirt road in the distance is what we traveled along to get there. 

However, Ashesi itself is defintely beautiful and unique enough to warrant the trip. It was founded by Patrick Awuah Jr., a man who grew up in Accra but studied in the states. He left a very successful engineering career with Microsoft to come back to his hometown and found this university, with his overall vision being to educate the future leaders of Africa. Walking the grounds of the university, you can really see how much love, care and thought went into it.

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The view of the main courtyard from the second floor

But the beautiful campus wasn’t the reason we were there – or, at least, it wasn’t the only reason. We met up with two of our former interns from last year – Bridget and Sihle – and got together with a few other Scholars at the university to conduct research interviews on our project. I won’t go over the details here since I’ll write them up in a report on Monday, but again, it was such a great experience to sit down face to face and just talk to Scholars about their experiences. Like I mentioned a few entries ago, I think it’s going to be these conversations that I end up loving the most out of this whole trip. I truly love my job and I love the impact that we’re making and potentially going to make on this group of amazing students. Sometimes, though, it’s hard to feel connected to them when you’re sitting behind a computer screen all day, writing out content. These conversations helped me to get a fuller sense of the users of our project, put faces and personalities to names, and just really provided motivation and inspiration for what we’re doing.

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Some of the lovely Ashesi Scholars we got to meet with. Notice that Lisa and I are unwittingly matching. 

Afterwards, we drove back down this treacherous road with Bridget and Sihle and went to eat together and catch up in Accra.

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It was such a great time for both Lisa and I (and hopefully Bridget and Sihle). Managing the interns has probably been one of, if not my most, favorite experiences since starting this job and it was wonderful to catch up and just chat in a way that wasn’t about work or upcoming deadlines or projects.

These were a busy two days but incredibly fun and fulfilling, which you don’t often get hand in hand.

Tomorrow we have a day off, so we’ll be heading down to Cape Coast for the day and hitting up Kakum National Park and Cape Coast Castle. Hopefully I’ll get more sleep tonight!

 

Accra, Day 1: Jet Lag and Lunch Buffets

I’m officially on the African continent!

Nothing too exciting today. We built in a day of recuperating since Accra is seven hours ahead, so today was a pretty low key day.

The flight from Washington DC to Accra was 9 hours and relatively painless. Let it be known that South African airlines has very, very firm seats that hurt your butt after a while, but strangely nice lighting in the bathrooms. I got 30 min – 1 hour snatches of sleep here and there on the plane, but mostly just stayed up reading, writing and watching Queen of Katwe, which seemed a fitting movie topic for where I was heading. The movie was good and I cried about four times, but there’s a chance that general lack of sleep contributed to that (or not. I cry a lot in movies). I also had the foresight to download a few of my Spotify playlists onto my phone, which proved especially helpful when trying to drown out the noise of crying babies.

Stepping off the airplane and my glasses fogged up from the humidity. Weirdly enough, this endeared me to the country almost immediately because it made me think of stepping off the plane into the Philippines. In fact, a lot of my limited exposure to the city so far reminds me of one of the smaller cities that we flew to in the Philippines, although decidedly much less crowded than Filipino cities tend to be.

Our airport shuttle picked us up and it was about a five-ten minute drive to our hotel. We got all checked in and I collapsed immediately into a chair in my nice, clean hotel room.

I spent a few minutes stretching and marveling at the fact that I wasn’t elbow to elbow with a bunch of strangers, then unpacked and immediately set up my computer so that I could email/text Charles, my mom and post in my friend slack channel that I had arrived.

Unfortunately, I forgot that I was seven hours ahead and that a 10am sent email/text message here was 3am delivered message to Phoenix! I gotta make sure to be conscientious of that. As far as I can remember, it’s seven hours ahead here, 9 ahead in Nairobi and 8 ahead in Johannesburg.

After settling down, I took a nice hot shower and changed into clothes that didn’t smell like a plane. Lisa and I had planned to meet at noon and I figured I’d just lie down for a bit and rest my eyes.

Cut to an hour later and my alarm is ringing and I am woozy with lack of sleep and jetlag. I hobbled downstairs and proceeded to stare dumbly at Lisa as she tried to engage me in conversation. We made our way to the restaurant and sat down and waited while they set up the lunch buffet. Mostly, I stared bleary-eyed at my surroundings, blinking so hard that I’m sure it looked like I was in pain, and making what I’m sure was mostly incomprehensible conversation with Lisa in an attempt to wake up. I think I repeated the phrase, “I’m so out of it” about thirty times.

Once the lunch buffet was set I, as always, was the first in line. There was a good assortment of international foods – french fries, pesto tilapia, seafood paella. There was also plenty of white rice, which I appreciated. Lisa tells me that rice is big here in Ghana, which only serves to further endear this nation to me. There was also a fair amount of Ghanaian food, including boiled yam, a national staple called fufu, and two types of soup, one of them called Goat Light Soup and the other Groundnut soup (I think). There were other things – and they were all labeled – but I didn’t have the presence of mind to take pictures. However, I did try to sample everything that was available.

I think I probably enjoyed the fufu and the soup the best. From as far as I can tell, you’re supposed to eat the fufu (which google tells me is mashed cassava) in the soup. It was a lunch buffet at our Best Western hotel, so I’m not sure how authentic it all was, but it was a satisfying meal. The only thing I’m a little worried about is how spicy everything is! I’m not huge on spice but I do want to eat as authentic Ghanaian food as possible, so maybe I’ll just have to learn to stomach it while I’m here.

After lunch, I stumbled back to my hotel room and tried to stay up so that I could actually sleep at a normal hour. No luck, I was out about five minutes after my head hit the pillow (admittedly since I went directly to my bed, I didn’t actually try very hard to stay up). I woke up around 5ish and headed down to the lobby to do some work with Lisa and also to plan out what we’re doing the rest of our time here. My stomach was feeling a little upset, so I just got some boring ole’ tomato soup and a pot of green tea.

And now it’s 9:19 pm here (2:19 in Phoenix) and I’m going to try and force my body to sleep. I brought about eighty different medicines but forget to bring sleeping pills, so I hope my body is just exhausted enough to sleep through the night.

For the rest of the week, Lisa and I have planned the following (so far):

Eating at:

  • The Buka Restaurant,  Ghanian food that’s been highly recommend to us by multiple people and the googs
  • Azmera, Ghanian food place that looked cool on TripAdvisor
  • Santoku, Japanese food which, I know, seems lame to visit while in Ghana but it’s shown up in a couple of “best of” lists and we both love sushi

For work:

For fun:

Journey to Africa: Planning

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From Phoenix to Accra to Nairobi to Johannesburg and back again: ~21,000 miles

I’m jittery with anticipation and a little bit of anxiety as I think about our trip tomorrow. I’m excited to visit a continent that I’ve never been to before, see old friends and make new ones, and be immersed in a variety of different cultures. I feel so fortunate to be able to have traveled so much in my life and can’t wait to experience as much of Ghana, Kenya and South Africa as possible.

Number of: 

  • Days I’ll be away from home: 16 (the 10th – 26th)
  • Hours the entire trip that I’ll be in the air: 46
  • Partners/employers we’ll be seeing: 9 (so far)
  • Countries I’ll visit: Three – Accra, Ghana; Nairobi, Kenya; Johannesburg, South Africa
  • Bags I’ve packed: Three – one checked bag filled with clothes and things I’d be ok with losing; my trusty REI travel backpack/carry-on that’s filled with all the clothes I’d hate to lose; and, my new Patagonia messenger bag stuffed to the brim with the essentials
  • Books I’m bringing along: Three actual copies (apparently this is my number) + my trusty Kindle loaded up with five books from the library
  • Medicines I’ve brought along with me: at least 8 different kinds. I have been sick on every long term vacation I’ve ever taken, regardless of the climate (I got a chest cold in Argentina, the Philippines and Florida during the summer). I usually truck through it with a mix of rest, available medicine and sheer will – but it doesn’t hurt to be prepared.
  • Pictures I plan on taking: as many as my iPhone can hold

Expected highlights: 

  • Visiting two of our former interns while we’re in Accra
  • Touring around two of our tertiary partner schools
  • Visiting two of our Secondary partners
  • Talking with MCF Scholars about their experiences
  • Visiting the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust Elephant Orphanage in Nairobi and seeing the orphaned elephant that I fostered who was found STANDING VIGIL BY HER DYING MOTHER

  • Staying in this tented Safari camp for one night in Pilanesberg National Park in Johannesburg

My hope is to write every single day that we’re there, even if it was a relatively uneventful day. I’m not sure when I’ll ever be able to go back to Africa, so I want to make sure to make the most of it and remember as much as possible.

2016 Retrospective: Personal Edition

  1. Marriage
    love
    Marriage is wonderful. You get to come home every day to your best friend. You have someone who deals with all your quirks and idiosyncrasies and character flaws- perhaps even finds them cute or endearing. You have someone to share your successes, your failures, even the most mundane parts of your day.

    Marriage is also a lot of work. You have to learn how to navigate two separate lives into one. You have to understand how to balance the stress of work and family and life and love. You have to learn which battles to pick, when to compromise and when to put your foot down.

    Maybe because it’s been almost seven years or maybe because we’ve grown up a lot in the past year or maybe because we’ve gotten much more involved in the Church – probably it’s all three – but I truly believe that this was our best year of marriage (although, I do believe that I think this every year). It seems odd, because I know that we also had some of our worst fights this year – but we also worked hard to improve our marriage, to become better spouses for another and to treat one another better and better each day.

    What I really realized this year more than any other and that I don’t think people quite understand about marriage/relationships (I say as though after six years I’m an expert) is that it’s always going to take work. Even when it’s good and both of you love each other and everything is settled – it still takes work. So you don’t need to find someone who is perfect (doesn’t exist) or completely compatible (you’ll always be different people who will change as you both get older), but someone who likewise understands that it takes work and who’s always willing to do the work with you. And whether it’s luck or providence or forethought – I’ve absolutely somehow managed to find that.

    You know, now that I’m at an age where friends are getting married or thinking seriously about getting married, I almost always have to take a second and laugh and think about just how damn blessed we both were when we picked each other. We got married at 21 and 24 after knowing one another for about a year and a half. That honestly seems so crazy to me now. I look at 21 year olds I know and I think about how unprepared they are for marriage. Things could’ve gone so wrong in so many different ways. But they didn’t! In fact, like I said earlier, each year of marriage has been even better than the last. And it’s a lot of things – our relationship with God, the fact that we have strong marriages in our own lives as role models, our close relationship with both sets of our in-laws – but it’s also the fact that we recognized very early on (because both sets of parents told us this) that marriage was going to take work and effort in spite of how much we loved one another. So when we needed to work on things – as all couples inevitably do – we didn’t throw our hands up and say, this isn’t how it’s supposed to be! Instead, we just got to work. And our marriage is continually remade and improved and wonderful because of it.

    And now, God willing, I’m hoping that 2017 is once again our best year yet and that I’ll be writing my 2017 retrospective with a baby in arm or one on the way. 😉

  2. Family

    Charles and I always comment (/humblebrag) about how lucky we are that we get along with not only our own families, but with one another’s families. And at no time is this thrown into sharp relief like the holiday season. Every year, I hear countless stories about how other people I know are anywhere from reluctant to straight-up dreading spending time with their families.

    This is a very, very foreign feeling to me.

    If anything, I find myself feeling the opposite every year. I look forward to the prospect of spending time together as a family. And even when it’s kind of a hassle – like it is for Thanksgiving every year – the problem isn’t that we have to spend time with our respective families because they both live here, the problem instead is the fact that there isn’t enough time to adequately spend with both sides of the family.

    I come from a large family who has always privileged spending time together and who has almost always (with the exception of a few rough years in my late teens) enjoyed spending time together. When I got married, it was initially a transition to split the holidays, spending time with another family that I was not as used to seeing or comfortable with.

    But almost nine years of being together has changed that. Now I’m excited to see relatives from another side that I don’t often get to see. It’s a joy to be able to spend time with more family, to sit and catch up, to eat really, really good food that I’m not necessarily accustomed to. This year was a difficult one for Charlie’s family, but the holidays were anything but – they were warm and filled with love and generosity and kindness. There are a lot of benefits to being married. Getting to have even more family definitely ranks up there.

  3. Old Friends

    I don’t make friends easily. Not because I’m especially weird or off-putting or mean, but mostly due to a combination of introversion, laziness, and being really, really bad at making plans/keeping plans. But, what I like to think is that what I lack in quantity, I make up for in quality. The friends that I do make, tend to be friends that stick around forever. Or, at least, as long as I’ve been alive so far.


    When I was seven, I was introduced to Sherrie and Trisha, who conveniently lived right around the block from me. Now, I might be romanticizing it all a bit, but we really had such an ideal childhood friendship. Even though there were three of us, I don’t feel like there was ever an odd man out, so to speak, like there sometimes are with three person friendships. Sherrie and Trisha had a unique bond because they had known each other since they were babies, since they lived across the street and had brothers of similar ages. Sherrie and I had a unique bond because we were both Filipino whose parents ran in the same social circles. Trisha and I had a unique bond of being in the same grade, while Sherrie was a grade ahead of us.

    We were able to grow up in such a way, and in such a time, that we could still act our age. We went to waterparks every summer and California once a year where we spent time acting like silly little kids while we were silly little kids. Sherrie and I often lament (and this really dates us, I guess) that kids today grow up so fast, always with an eye of being older. That didn’t really happen with us. We didn’t really talk about boys – like, real life boys, not The Backstreet Boys – until we all hit high school. Of course, we grew apart during high school. Trisha moved to Colorado, then Utah in high school. Sherrie and I ran in different social circles. But through it all, I’ve known (and I think they feel the same) that I could always rely on them.

    We’ve kept each other updated through the occasional text and social media. They both congratulated me when I got engaged. Trisha and I both flew to Costa Rica to be in Sherrie’s wedding when she got married. Then, this last summer, Sherrie, her two month old daughter, and I flew to Utah to watch Trisha get married. It was such a wonderful weekend for me. To be there with these two amazing women who I’ve known since I was seven years old, all of us married, one of them with a baby, was an almost surreal experience. Even though it had been years – probably not since Sherrie’s wedding two years prior – that we’d gotten together, we all sat in a hotel room and chatted about our lives with a comfort and an ease that made it seem like we’d gotten together every Sunday for the past ten years. There wasn’t any awkwardness or reticence – only the kind of joy and contentment that you find with people who have known you and loved you for a very, very long time.


    In my adolescence, I was what the kids of today would call ‘extra’. The intensity that now manifests as a bright sort of enthusiasm for what I love and for life in general was then an irritating tendency to just be generally over the top and dramatic. Every bad grade meant I was stupid. Every setback a sign that I doomed to failure. Every fight with a boyfriend was the worst thing ever. Every breakup was the end of the world.

    But somehow these two decided that I wasn’t the worst. They constantly assured me that I was smart and talented and capable. They stuck around through the late night phone calls where 18 year old me sobbed into the phone about boys that no longer even show up in my Facebook newsfeed. They made the last two years of high school more than bearable, they actually made them memorable, something worth looking back on (even though we’ve all agreed that we’d never want to revisit them). They got me through my Freshman year of college, when my life turned into a hazy drama that the CW would’ve loved to option as a show.

    And even though we three are now all displaced – one in Portland, the other in Colorado, we got together for the first time in years this Thanksgiving and – again – it was like no time at all had passed. We sat in Kendra’s parents house, raiding her pantry, a ridiculous tv show on in the background, and just talked about whatever came to mind. Just like we had ten years ago. And even though 18 year old us would’ve laughed with disbelief to see how we’d all ended up, I like to think none of them would’ve been disappointed, either.

  4. New Friends
    bookclub
    In the last six years, I’ve attempted to start a book club at least twice. They usually fizzled out within two or three months, mostly due to the fact that I was an unorganized mess without any sense of structure or long-term planning skills. Cut to six months ago, when Kendal suggested starting a book club with all (read: three) of my closest friends from high school. I leapt at the chance, emboldened by the fact that I’d spent three years as a teacher getting my shit together and organizing facets of my life in a way that could be deemed neurotic.

    And it’s honestly been one of the best parts of my entire year. What started out as a group of five old friends getting together to discuss a book has now become a group of eleven ladies – many of whom I’ve never known before this year – whom I all adore and consider friends. It’s not hyperbole to say that this book club basically constitutes my entire friend group. It’s so amazing to look forward to discussing a novel with a variety of ladies – some I’ve known for over a decade, some I’ve only known for two months – who are all interesting and fun and engaging and funny.

  5. Old Job/New  Job

    For the most part, I’ve been very, very lucky in terms of jobs and co-workers. This year I made the very difficult decision to say goodbye to teaching and transition into a less direct service job in education. While I never really regret the decision to leave teaching at this point in my career, I have to admit that I really, really miss it quite often. I miss the kids, the I miss creating a new way to teach a concept, I miss the looks on their faces when they finally get it, and I miss getting to interact and be with my fellow teachers. The last three years of teaching would’ve been so difficult without having such amazing, committed teachers around me to support me as colleagues, mentors and friends.

    When I started my new job, one of my biggest fears was about my co-workers. Not that we wouldn’t get along – getting along with different people is one of the few things I’m pretty good at – but that after spending three years with co-workers that were my friends as well as my colleagues, I’d suddenly be with a group of people that would only be co-workers. It seemed a very lonesome sort of prospect. Luckily, I needn’t have worried. I stepped into another team of like-minded, passionate, hard-working individuals who have quickly become friends as well as co-workers.

What we remember

A million years ago (read: fourteen years ago), I was an avid user of LiveJournal. I must have hundreds of thousands of words on there about, well, whatever it is fourteen to roughly twenty year old me found important (mostly this was: boys, boy troubles, books, movies, and school…I lived a very mundane life).

Then, of course, everyone migrated from LiveJournal to Tumblr. This also coincided with my increasing uneasiness at just “putting everything out there” for the world (read: the three people who followed me) to see and read. So, I stopped long-form blogging for the most part. I tried here and there, especially when I started teaching, to re-start the habit, but I’d always fizzle out a few days or weeks later.

So, for the most part, all of my blogging for the past eight years has consisted of microblogging as befits the Tumblr setup – graphics and gifsets and pithy one-sentence comments on life.

And there’s nothing wrong with this, of course. I’ve actually found a great community on Tumblr and interacted with some really fantastic people.

The downside, though, is that I don’t remember anything any more.

Like, what exactly was I thinking when Charlie proposed that night seven years ago? Or, what was going through my mind when I walked into my classroom for the very first time? What happened at Christmas or New Year’s three years ago?

Who knows? Not I, unfortunately.

Because the thing is that what I remember from ages 14 to 20 is largely a result of what I wrote about. All those moments that seemed important enough to write about are now the things that I remember the most. And it’s not just a snapshot of images here and there – I’m more able to fully step into memories from that part of my life, relive them in a fuller way. I realize now that what we remember is largely about what we take the time to write down. What we capture, whether that be in print or in photo, is what we take with us going forward.

Because memory is such a tricky thing. And I’ve realized now that what most of my memories from that period of time are shaped by what I wrote about, whereas most of my memories from the last eight years are mostly shaped by photographs I managed to take.

Which isn’t necessarily bad – they’re certainly better than nothing at all. But I don’t have any reflection or recounting of those events. So all I can remember now is that one moment in time, captured in that photo.

So what I hope to do here is to do a better job at capturing life as I live it – what happened, yes, but also how it made me feel and what it made me think. Things that draw my enthusiasm. And, yes, things that draw my ire (of which there are plenty).

Finally, in terms of writing about my life – well, there’s a reason I chose the name Consummate Enthusiast (other than the fact that it describes me to a T). See, when I wrote about my life as a moody adolescent, I had so many posts that would be these long, drawn-out ramblings dripping with anguish and melancholy. This is funny to me now because my life was (and is) largely carefree and uncomplicated (or, at least the normal amount of complicated). But it’s also annoying because how I wrote about those things is now how I remember them.

And I don’t want to remember my life as one long angst fest. Because it really isn’t. And has never really been.

So, my hope with this go around at blogging is that my years of experience and maturity will allow me to approach writing about my life with more enthusiasm and less angst. Not, of course, to ignore any angst that I might feel, but to try and keep things in perspective.

So here’s to 2017 – may it be filled with an excitement for living and a passion for all things great and small.