By Lara Cornelius, Staff Writer
There I was. A 6 foot 2 inch tall, 18 year old blonde, and smack dab in the middle of a suburb in Ghana. I was the pink elephant in town. Women and men stared at me with curiosity, the “bruni” (white girl), like I was some sort of alien that dropped out of the sky and for some, I became their only opportunity for a US green card marriage arrangement. The total amount of proposals I received totaled to about thirty. Every day, I would walk several miles to hop on a “tro-tro” (Ghananian version of a shuttle bus) with a man shouting what was but didn’t sound like English out the window – the next destination. I had no guide to tell me exactly which shuttle to catch so I took several wrong routes before eventually catching the right one to the orphanage where I would work for just over a month. In Nungua, right outside of Accra, I was the minority for once in my life. But I had chosen this place, this experience. One I knew I would perhaps not have the opportunity to dive into for quite some time.
During my senior year of high school, my parents and I went on a trip to Oaxaca to practice yoga and dance salsa for six hours a day. At the time this wasn’t exactly my idea of a fun spring break. I was thinking more Cancun or something. But soon my adventurous, free spirit fell deeply in love with the city and the magic of a town so full of life and culture. So clearly, my logical response, was to sit my parents down over a cup of fresh cacao and let them know that I was going to drop out of high school and teach English in Mexico instead of continuing my education. After much rationalizing, I decided not to do that after all, as I didn’t know how long I could sustain myself there. But consequently, my mother decided, the next vacation I would take alone; somewhere where I could reflect on what life would be like without an education. I was instructed to do my research and I could chose any third world country where I would spend the entirety of my next break. Naturally, my risk-taking, confident-to-a-fault self chose somewhere unlike any other place I could imagine – Africa.
My Christmas gift was a sleeping bag and a mosquito net. 10 million vaccines later and off I went.
From the minute I got off the plane I felt different. Not any kind of different I had ever felt before. I was officially the minority. In the car ride, I soon found out that the volunteer organization was misleading as to how many volunteers would be there during my stay. I would be the only person living in a house with the volunteer leader and a nice, young woman, who cooked my meals and would soon become my only friend.
There was a church next door and it took me a while to get used to waking up to an uproar of a choir, which sounded like hundreds of men and women with angelic voices praising the Lord and singing songs of gratitude at 6 in the morning right before the rooster started cooing. I also had to get used to walking over to the well every morning to fetch a barrel of freezing cold water to shower with before leaving for the day. And when people say Africa is hot and humid, let me tell you, they are NOT kidding. My Russian roots struggled to adjust to the sweltering evening heat of a Ghanaian summer. Even with two fans on me, I kept my small Nokia close by the bed, using it to call my mother and tell her that I loved her, not to forget me, and that I was not dying of malaria. At the time, all of this seemed too much to take, and I couldn’t understand why I was being exiled from my family and why I had chosen to sacrifice myself.
This experience would actually create the opposite affect – It gave me new life. Once I started to regularly work at the New Life Orphanage, my understanding of my personal impact, my level or lack of gratitude, and the freedom that education offers were all put into perspective. It was a reality check that dug deep into my being and put a mirror to my face in a raw, yet hopeful way that I had never experienced before. The children would beam at the sight of a book and eagerly wait for me to teach them a new word or phrase. Their attitude towards learning inspired me and their curiosity was beautiful.
There was one morning when I was watching a group of boys play soccer with a deflated soccer ball with pure joy and love for the game. One boy in particular was very talented and I had seen him spend a lot of time alone, practicing, kicking the ball against the wall in the yard. I decided one day to go and buy a new soccer ball for the orphanage. When I came back, I pulled it from behind my back and handed the ball to him. He hugged me and started sobbing against my chest. It was moments like these where my heart grew bigger and my perspective began to change. I really I wish I could do so much more for him – get him into a league, for example – but for now this was enough to make even a little bit of an impact on his life.
Recently a picture of a couple enjoying their breakfast amongst giraffes in Kenya reminded me how much of Africa, such as the village of Nungua, does not live in the kind of reality that much of social media suggests exists. The orphans I spent time with and the villagers I passed by every morning live in extreme poverty, barely making enough to get by every day. Just 40 minutes away from the lively city of Accra, families live with restricted access to clean water and simple daily household items. The children at the orphanage did not know what the future had in store for them; they just lived day by day and respected everyone who came into their space, unconditionally. There was something so refreshing about being around this sort of gratitude, something a teenage girl my age was still learning to have.
Soon, every time I stepped foot outside of the house, I walked with a purpose. Knowing exactly where I was going. Not that it was necessarily a place, but I was on a mission. I was alone in Nungua, but I never let fear get in the way of where I was going. My passion for the children, whose simple laughter and appreciation for my presence, was enough to surpass any feeling of discomfort, loneliness, or discontent.
I would eventually adjust to the humidity of Africa and learn that the cold, bucket showers and the angelic chorus outside my window were all part of the story of my ongoing personal transformation into becoming someone that could contribute more than I ever imagined to the world I was living in. The lessons I learned from taking this risk, to be the minority and experience life outside my comfort zone, were invaluable in my personal growth. When you are so far out from what you know, you return to your primitive instincts as a human, and you surprise yourself in figuring out ways to survive. Since then, I have always walked with a purpose and tried to remember that passion and that short-term pain must always win over fear.
Some people may get all A’s in their classes. Some may rarely make mistakes in life. Some might be that perfect child. But is that enough for long-term fullfilment? From experience, I can say, as a human, as an individual, there is nothing more empowering than proving to yourself that you can handle any situation with your own mind, your own intuition, and your own self if you willing to take calculated risks in order to evolve further. Resourcefulness and resiliency are the core traits that have stuck with me 7 years later and have become central to my comfort in ambiguity. When you challenge yourself individually you are able to make changes collectively and impact other people’s lives for the better.
A quote by Oscar Wilde comes to mind: “To live is the rarest thing in the world. Most people just exist.” Before I went to Ghana, I had no idea the lessons that I would learn and the confidence I would gain by taking the risk to go outside of what was fun, or comfortable, for me. This experience inspired me to one day use the education I am receiving now in order to go back and make tangible changes to the community of Nungua and the New Life Orphanage. There is always room to grow as long as you’re willing to open your eyes.