Further Experiences in Oyarifa
Sartorial pleasures and a visit to a school
We used to have a saying here: “The days go slow, but the weeks go fast.” Having been here just shy of a week now, I can say that this is still the case.
It is a supreme pleasure to have this private room with private bathroom at Hopeful Way House. I’m free to spend my mornings dressed (or not) as I like, drink coffee, and move between reading, writing, and thinking as much as I like without interruption. (Though I should have brought two pounds of coffee rather than just one!)
In my last update, I wrote about the role of being an observer, and it makes me consider my role as the observed in new light. This can be a real issue for a foreigner, and I note how relieved I am to have this abundant privacy.
I’m usually lying in my bed awake before a neighboring mosque gives a call to prayer at about 4:45 am, accompanied by the roosters who have been crowing already for some time. My window faces east, giving me views of the sunrise. The sun rises at about 5:45 am and sets around 6:15 pm here, near the equator where the length of daylight never changes much. The adjoining property includes chickens and at least one large boney dog, who barks often in the night. The first night I was here, I heard something that sounded like a chicken being attacked, and the dog barked for hours.
Later in the day, I typically enjoy the luxuries of being in an urban area, making it far different than my stay here a decade ago. On Thursday, Adwoa takes me to visit a seamstress she had found near her home—in her own car. She is an utterly fearless driver. To imagine driving here, imagine that every intersection is a four-way stop, but without the stop signs; that vehicles and pedestrians share the roadway; add huge rain-filled potholes of unknown depth.
We are trying to complete our tasks before it rains again, but the usual small obstacles appear. The first ATM is not dispensing cash. We have better luck with the second. I had thought I might visit a telecom office to try again for some local data, but quickly tell Adwoa that we should cross that off our list. I’ll pay the Verizon overages and try to limit my data use as much as possible. You probably won’t be seeing more video from me, at least for now.
We stop at a fabric seller where I have the treat of picking out fabric for new dresses. This is one of my favorite things in Ghana. I find three patterns that I like—one is only available in a 3-yard piece, but I get it anyway, thinking I will just take it home as a gift or to use for something later. I want 6 for each dress…more than will be required, but better than having too little (seamstresses find it challenging to make a long dress for this large white lady with just four yards.)
Every fabric pattern has a name—hopefully I will be able to find these names before leaving. I ask about a funeral cloth I saw once in Kabile, red and covered with crying eyes—the fabric seller tells me “it is finished”, which probably means it was discontinued. I was never able to find it while I was here, either. The blue “eye” fabric I loved and had a dress in before is not available here, either—there is a multi-colored version that I pass on. It’s best to approach fabric buying with an openness to chance—I’ve never gone looking for a specific pattern and color and been able to find it.
A quick downpour happens just as we are passing a modern supermarket, so I dash in to get some snacks. To get out of the parking lot, Adwoa has to maneuver carefully with the direction of the lot attendants, seemingly coming within millimeters of other cars but successfully making it out without any dents. On the streets, people wear thin plastic raincoats that look like something out of Blade Runner.
The rain subsides as we arrive at the seamstress at our appointment time, but she is not there. Adwoa discusses my Kente dress with the assistants; I’ve brought it in the hopes that they can let it out to fit me better, as I am larger than I was at the end of two years in Kabile. They set to work on this right away. Fortunately, as is the case with many Ghanaian-made garments, the seam allowance is large to accommodate this somewhat embarrassing situation. But it’s important to be able to wear the Kente when I visit Kabile
We look at magazines with dress patterns while we wait for the seamstress. The patterns shown are quite beautiful, showcasing the work of amazing designers who mix patterns artfully in traditional silhouettes. This is not, however, what I’ve after; I’m hoping to get “straight dresses” that I might also wear back home. When the seamstress arrives, she helps me select two patterns that we can adjust for my needs. One is a straight dress, but I’m taken with another more traditional pattern and decide to ask for it.
The seamstress suggests that she make a top out of the 3-yard piece, and I agree. Because we are asking for “express service”, I did not think I should press my luck to ask for it. For the alterations, two dresses, a top, and the fabric, I end up spending about 680 GHS or $85 US total. The number of cedis I am handing over raises my pulse until I do the conversion—during my Peace Corps Service, I was given 330 GHS per month for expenses. I think fabric plus a dress at that time would have been about 80 cedi, very roughly $40.)
Adwoa tells me that my Kente dress will be ready for me to take now, a lucky break because I am going with Father Nick on Friday for a presentation to Junior High students on addiction. “You can wear it when you go tomorrow,” she tells me. In Ghana, it is always better to dress up much more than you might in America. Ghanaians notice every speck of mud on your sandals, every wrinkle in your cloth, and while I have never known them to be judgemental about it, they will sometimes go out of their way to help you correct these defects that you never noticed.
We get in Adwoa’s car and prepare to leave just as a young boy comes up to speak with the seamstress. His manner is grave; I keep expecting her to rush off somewhere. Then he puts the back of his hand on his head and I realize he is probably sick. There is some exchange between her and Adwoa, and we continue to Adwoa’s home. “I have something for this boy,” she says.
Adwoa gives me a tour of her beautiful home. She spent several years in the United States with her husband and children, first going with him as he pursued a higher degree at Iowa University, then getting degrees in the United States herself. I kind of marvel at her story; knowing how difficult it must be to navigate all of these things, I can only imagine the level of persistence and resilience it must have required.
The seamstress arrives at Adwoa’s home while I investigate ways to get back to Hopeful Way. I don’t imagine Uber will work for me—I deleted my account in disgust months ago. But the app is still on my phone, so I tap it. It asks for my info, and I enter it, expecting some obstacle at any moment. Not only are there no obstacles, but Hopeful Way House is actually listed as a destination. I book the ride, using the “Pay Cash” option, and a drop taxi meets Adwoa and I at a hospital near her home. We watch the miraculous process of the car coming to us, and soon I am on my way back.
It won’t be easy for the driver, though. The streets are jammed. He needs to stop for petrol, causing a re-routing that at first seems to be faster but lands us on a severely damaged street. It takes about an hour. I am content to watch the passing scenery and listen to the radio. A DJ is broadcasting scandalous jokes and aphorisms.
“Sister, if you can’t cook, get a big ass and big breasts. They will do the cooking themselves. Welcome to Africa!”
The rate for my car goes up 10 GHS to 49 GHS total during the drive—with a dash to the driver, it comes to about seven bucks. It is unimaginably convenient.
I have mixed feelings about this (including the feeling of gratitude that we did not break an axle, which seemed to be a real possibility at times). The apps that I rejected in the US because of their detrimental effects on the greater good are incredible conveniences here. They are being absorbed into the fabric of the culture, leap-frogging my own experience of a very different internet of the past—one that held dear a mature concept of freedom and privacy. And I realize that it has been another privilege to have the freedom to pick and choose who I am willing to be a product for.
On Friday, I prepare to go to the school presentation with Father Nick, and am relieved and happy that my Kente dress fits fine now. It is made to be tight, but I can actually breathe and not worry so much about splitting a seam.
I go downstairs to the lobby and the staff exclaim over what I am wearing. I can’t say I didn’t expect—or necessarily dislike—this attention. They know it is to honor them an represent them well.
Wearing this dress is an experience. The fabric is very thick, made of hand-woven strips. My Kente has unusual colors—light blue, bright green, bits of orange, shot with silver thread. The colors and patterns weave meanings into the cloth, but I don’t know what they are. The tightness and stiffness of the fabric requires me to walk and stand in a more dignified manner. It is one of those kinds of garments that is capable of transformation.
Wearing this dress in the United States would be fraught with social peril—a faux pas in almost any situation—but here I am free to wear the gift of my community with joy and pleasure. It’s a long way to go to wear a dress…but it might be worth it. This dress was a gift from Kabile to me. Wearing it, I feel enveloped in their love—and responsible for at least trying to live up to the impossible responsibility it represents.
We arrive at the school; Father Nick cautions me that they are the noisiest kids he’s ever encountered, and I see his point as soon as we enter the building. It’s deafening. I think it’s partly the space that contributes to this; it’s a small multi-story building with a central courtyard which seems to funnel all of the sounds of the kids on their lunch break. During the course of the day, they sometimes need to move their desks and chairs to different classrooms or into the hall, which further adds to the din.
In the classroom, Father Nick walks the students through a presentation about the facts of alcohol and drug addiction. In Ghana, drug addiction seems to far outpace “simple” alcoholism. As these are junior high students, the presentation focuses on the dangers of drugs and how to avoid situations where there may be pressure to try them.
The presentation runs long, but Father Nick hands me the microphone and asks me to speak. I tell the students a little of my own struggles and subsequent recovery, and try to describe some of the help they might seek in Ghana if they find themselves in this situation. I don’t know how much of any of this is actually understood by the students until the presentation ends and they are allowed to ask questions. Their questions are very good.
A student is invited to close the season with a vote of thanks, and she speaks with grace and poise. Then the students are free for the day. At first, none of them talk to me, but then a few do. On seeing this, the others crowd around to take selfies or ask questions.
While getting photos, some ask for help getting copies of the photos or help in using them to make their own music videos. I tell them I cannot (but maybe I can find a way to send the photos to their teacher at least).
“How did you recover?” another one asks—it is even more difficult it is to give a quick, concise, yet helpful answer to that. It is clear that these issues are touching their lives, but I am encouraged by their mature outlook and interest.