Shot glasses and fridge magnets have never appealed to me. Something that everyone else could have gotten from a far away locale just doesn’t seem like a worthwhile travel memento. My trips are unique to me, unlike any other traveller’s experience even in that same place. From Vegas to Venice, and now most of all in Ghana, I’ve been collection my new souvenirs, stories and photos. The calzone stolen on the Grand Canal by a seagull, the snowfall in Central Park, the dewy morning on that rocky beach in Mexico; all of these pale in comparison to any one experience I have had on these few trips to Ghana. This place has taught me to cherish what I have, made me realize how fortunate I am, and has perpetually renewed a commitment to help those less fortunate.
Everyday I am fortunate to meet people that inspire me. Isaac is a man of firm faith and a great father, extremely honest and happy, even when he’s got the stomach flu! Kweku is someone who could have used his talents and practical knowledge for a comfortable life abroad, but instead stayed in Ghana where he is most needed. The mother of 4 who, in any other country, could be a member of parliament or a CEO, but instead smokes fishes to make provide for her family. But of all the wonderful people I’ve met in Ghana none has left more of an indelible mark on me than my friend Muftawu Muhammed Abubakari.
Like any first time traveller to Ghana, the initial few days are overwhelming. Sights, sounds and smells come at you with fire hose intensity, leaving even the fastest mind ill equipped to process it all. After long days out exploring I would often come back to the little apartment I stayed at and spend a few hours talking with my new friend Muftawu. We would ask each other questions about our very different lives and the responses I got have done much to shape who I am and who I’m trying to become.
What’s your favorite food?
I eat whatever I can afford.
Do you like to swim?
Yes, I went to the beach once with 3 friends,
2 of them weren’t strong swimmers and they died.
What do you do when you get bored?
Bored? What is bored?
But perhaps the most impactful story I’ve heard has been about his childhood and the great lengths he has had to go to for an education. At a young age his mother passed away. His father felt he would be better cared for by extended family who lived 7 hours to the north, a great distance to the average Ghanaian. Muftawu says that he liked living with his cousins and having new friends but his uncle was mean and didn’t allow him to go to school. After 12 years of living away from his father, and only 2 years of school under his belt, he ran away. By gathering scrap metals with a friend he was able to buy a bus ticket that would take him back to Accra where his father lived. Although he hadn’t been to his house in over a decade, or even seen his father for that matter, he found where his father lived and was welcomed back home. He finished Ghana’s equivalent of middle school but then didn’t have any money for High School. A friend acquainted with Lybia promised him steady work and a safe place to live if he could only get there.
After a dangerous trip on a hired bus he made it through the desert into Lybia where the streets weren’t exactly paved with gold as his friend had suggested. No work, no food, one room for far too many people, and no visa would be his life for the next 3 years until he had earned up just enough money for school. He returned home and started buying the books he would need for his classes. Nearly all his money went towards school supplies, until he saw a young boy who he thought needed them more than him. So he gave them away and started again.
There are so many details and intricacies in his life’s story that I am just incapable of writing about. But the skeleton of a story presented above makes me question how someone can go through so much for something most people see as a hassle? It’s funny to me how much of a curse school is to most of those fortunate to have it and how sacred it is to those without it. Muftawu says of his childhood, “Sometimes it makes me happy, sometimes it makes me cry.”
Not everything we talk about is morbid or macabre; most of it is happy and enlightening. We talk of our beliefs, our families, school, work, and stories from distant memories or about the future. Last week we were talking about Halloween. I described it as a night when kids get dressed up in costumes and go from door to door collecting candy. Muftawu said, “Oh, that’s just like a festival we have up north where people walk around with torches and beat each other and fire guns.” Ok, where’s the candy come in? After devouring an entire pizza one Saturday afternoon I began expounding on the different types of pizzas, who makes the best, the difference between thin crust and hand tossed and deep dish and all the toppings. We got to olives and I remembered a cherished childhood memory:
“When I was younger I used to put the black olives on my fingers and pretend I was a monster. I’d run around roaring like a lion and then I’d eat them off my fingers until I was sick.” To which Muftawu replied, “Me too, except with goat intestine. My hands would smell like meat all day.”
Who else gets to bring home that experience? I guarantee they don’t make a shot glass or magnet with this kind of stuff on it!