Ghana: Step-wise

This is a trip down memory lane.

This is a trip from Sydney to Accra.

This is the sort of trip that changes who you are.

December 30, 2011 I left my home. The first place I have ever lived that has really felt like home - a safe place to rest, to recuperate, to share my soul with the world, to smile no matter what the day has held. Leaving the house was an exhausted, 6.30am adventure with a zipped-buckled suitcase, three boxes of glasses (plus the one in my suitcase), a carry-on bad and my handbag. When you have so much to bring, it's easy to feel just a little bit like you must have left something behind.

A hug from my housemate. See you in seven weeks! A taxi ride to the airport, stressful text messages from my travel buddy, a new friend made chatting to the driver.

It will be at least 28 hours until I get out of an airport. I am entering the Twilight Zone.

Bustling streets, arms reaching to grab you, people constantly shouting out to us. "Obruni! Obruni! Buy some food, buy these pants, give me some money, fly me to your country." Voices and people everywhere and humidity and heat and the air is perfectly still. The air is suffocating, the streets overwhelming. Step off the kerb and quickly rush back. The cars travel on the other side of the road.  Ushered into a tro tro, squeezing into a seat obviously meant for someone half my size. Forced friendship with whomever I'm sitting next to - we better be friends if we're going to be sitting in each other's sweat. The world flashes by...

Goodbye, 2011. We've had a wonderful time together but I'm ready for 2012.

The road rules here seem a strange metaphor for the inner workings of Ghanian culture. Where Australian driving (for the most part) complies with very specific rules that are sometimes policed through patrol or cameras, Ghanian driving is about getting where you're going regardless of the vehicles around you, overtaking and then slamming to a halt as you approach a pothole, swerving around it and speeding up again only to stop at a police barricade that is somehow meant to prevent armed bandits from going from one area to the next.

When I was in primary school, we had this chant we would call for those that got to the classroom door first. We had to stand in pairs and those who got their first and could squeeze their tiny feet under the door claimed "zero the hero," then those that followed were "first the worst," "second the best" and "third the golden princess." I found myself remembering these titles when I was in feels like adaptation to the cultural and physical environment is a step-wise process.

Zero the hero: preparation. A time when we thought we would be bringing desperately needed supplies and assistance to people in need. To people who couldn't afford a trip to the doctor, let alone the pharmaceuticals, medical devices and surgery that may then be required. People whose livelihood, in this agrarian and industrial economy, depends almost entirely on being able to be mobile. Mobility that requires sight. Sight that is required for the children to go to school and get an education, the catalyst for so much positive change in this country and so many like it. Zero the hero, the sense that we will be saving the world a little bit at a time.

First the worst. We arrived and I suddenly wondered what right we had to be there, imposing our Western values upon people who were not demanding our visit. Arriving into a new country is always difficult because understanding a different culture does not come from a textbook or website. The only way to understand completely is to immerse yourself in it. We arrived without much of that background but a wealth of ophthalmology knowledge. We arrived and I was suddenly unsure of my purpose in Ghana. And I felt wrong. I felt dirty for thinking that a 1st year Medical Student could possibly ever save the world, even one bit at a time.  Why hadn't I donated stacks of money instead to paying teachers in Ghana, to building roads, to installing sewerage pipes, to building mobile phone towers? That money goes a lot further when it's not spread across paying for me to get safely to Ghana.

Second the best. We couldn't spend 25 days sulking about how inappropriate it was for us to be in Ghana. It only felt that way to us - and it only felt that way because we didn't want to be like 'those people' who act like Western ideals are somehow better than those possessed by locals. We listened, we learned and we tried to come up with new and fresh ideas for how to improve health outcomes (among other things) here, using resources available. How could we produce ophthalmoscopes that don't need the hardest-to-find batteries, how could we educate people on good eye health maintenance while we have a captive audience, how can we harness mobile technology to inform those who wouldn't consider eye health important, how do we improve nutrition, how do we reduce motor vehicle accidents and the pothole population? How do we make Ghana a safer, healthier place to live through change instigated by locals? These thoughts constantly bubbled out of our mouths, onto pieces of paper and into hours-long conversations. We toyed with ideas, we ran them over again and again in our heads until we had something that sounded accessible and then presented them to our local mentor, an optometrist. She was always encouraging. She was always impressed with our ideas. Supportive. And took us down a notch when things were definitely impossible.

Third the golden princess. This stage was contentment - the stage when the culture shock has completely overwhelmed me so I become subservient to it, accept it and move on. Unpartitioned toilet paper, cold showers, spicy foods, language barrier, I accept you. None of these factors are barriers to happiness. To education. To safety. I will be okay. This is me now. Obruni in Ghana. Culture enthusiast. Hot weather natural. Dusty, sweaty and never-quite-clean human being. Writer. Internet un-user. Twi attempter. Compassionater.  This stage is what I need to help locals make change. Small, sustainable but significant change. Hopefully so that they can change their world.

One step after another.


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