In addition to my duties at the health clinic assessing and treating patients, I had come to Ghana to teach. To share health skills and life skills for women to improve the quality of life in the communities they lived in. The day had finally arrived, after two months of preparation and we set out to begin the program.
By the time we arrived in the maroon Toyota pick-up, jolting between first and second gear along the deep ruts of the unpaved road, the women were all sitting together. They sat side by side loosely in a circle. One woman sat with her back outstretched to eat her oatmeal, slopping it up with the soft white bread and letting the ground catch the dripping remnants. Another woman stared at the ground, eyes averted as we walked towards the group. On the day I met this group of fifteen women I struggled to recognize them as individuals. They were an anonymous group, dark brown faces illuminated by bright teeth. I did not know on this first day that Alice, with the beautiful clear, smooth skin and sparkling eyes, would be gentle and strong, speaking scarcely and wisely so that when she shared, people would listen. I did not know that Enyonam would be the loud and boisterous student, the class clown. Who during the final presentation would perfectly enact a jealous husband, slumping her shoulders, speaking in a loud voice with a swagger in her step, using a large plantain to drive home the imagery of her manhood.
After months of teaching about hygiene and sanitation, reproductive health, malaria and other topics pertinent to community health, they would eventually recognize me as friend. They would embrace my pale skin and long dark hair, and forgive me that I could never finish my portion of starchy fermented akple served alongside dried fish. This group of women would laugh at me as I tried to demonstrate how to interact with the chief, using wide sweeps of my arms and puffing up my chest to hold the ground of an esteemed chief, gently mocking the patriarchy that is alive and well.
On that first morning we gathered the women together in a circle once breakfast was complete- the entire pot of oatmeal consumed. We huddled the women in towards each other to explain the name game. Emperor served as the translator as we explained to everyone how to say their own name then call out the name of another in the group, who in turn would call out the next person to continue the game. We added in the rhythm of clapping, bringing our hands together first in front of us then down onto our thighs. “If you miss the beat, then you’re out,” we instructed. Multiple blank stares greeted our instructions but we proceeded anyways. Soon everyone was clapping in unison and smacking their thighs and the game began. Once the women caught on they loved it, pointing and laughing at each other, as one by one people were out and it was whittled down to the three women with the best recall. By this point everyone was cheering and animated, moving around the finalists and daring them to forget, mess up, and join the losers on the outskirts of the circle. The three finalists were intense, dressed in bright prints that were tailor made and form fitting, beads of sweat already standing up under the early day sun. One misstep and the women roared and pointed at the woman who had stuttered her own name twice. The two winners were declared.
I did not know how to live in Ghana well, how to appropriately navigate use of the outhouse and the bucket shower and unknown meals. I did not know how to work in a clinic treating tropical disease with limited resources, but I knew how to do this. I knew how to stand in a group of women and laugh alongside them- to laugh at myself as I forgot the name of the woman across from me and fumbled my way out of the circle. I smiled that morning and I laughed, forgetting myself and my sorrows and the thousands of physical and emotional miles I was from home and who I knew myself to be. I was Olivia, all four distinct syllables of myself.