The beauty of belonging

I wish I could tell the story differently. I wish I could say that when our family moved to Ghana, sight unseen, I skipped the classic responses of foreigners to an African country – so typical they are often parodied. I wish I could say that I wasn’t overwhelmed by the things I was fearing, such as poverty, disease, and, truthfully, difference. These were the things I first noticed when we arrived in this country which was to be my family’s home for the next two years. Should I have turned right back around and headed home within the first few weeks, as I wanted to, this would have been my only impression and I would have perpetuated a half-truth about Ghana. I didn’t yet have the eyes to see Ghana as she truly was – it took time and intention to see her beauty.

Of course there were the resorts along the coast that cultivated the country’s natural beauty. Ecologically, Ghana is known for its tropical rain forest, beautiful beaches, lakes, waterfalls, rolling hills and rock formations. It is, as the ads say, “a nature-lover’s paradise.” Such rich territory also yields rich crops, which is tied to a dark history – and still a dark present – of slavery and greed. Which is to say where there is beauty, there will be those who wish to exploit it.

Tills Beach, Kokrobite, Ghana, 2007
My daughter, Mallory, running on the beach in paradise (Tills Beach, Kokrobite, Ghana, 2007)

The tourist might see a different Ghana than I did at first; they aren’t as privy to the backstreets as I had signed up to be as a missionary. I enjoyed playing tourist from time to time, to experience Ghana’s physical beauty. In those moments, I’d think Ghana is this close to being paradise. But it was behind-the-scenes and through the people that I encountered true, life-giving beauty.

One way, the first way, beauty unfolded to me (or enfolded me) in Ghana was through sisterhood. The Ghanaian women were so connected and near to each other, demonstrated physically in how they would sit together or walk together, often touching or holding hands, even in the hot, hot heat. The Ghanaian women did their best to welcome me, though language was a barrier between us. If they couldn’t talk to me, they would still gesture for me to sit with them, to draw close. Those who could speak English would translate from time to time. The important stuff, like where to sit and when it was time to stop sitting. It would have been an imposition for them to include me, an Obruni (foreigner). Even so, they didn’t hesitate to welcome me into their sisterhood. Akwaaba! (Welcome!) is the Ghanaian way.

My second week in Ghana, the church’s women’s group, asked me to accompany them to the home of one of their sorority whose husband had passed away. I agreed I would join them, feeling completely out of my element and fearful. (I hadn’t gone anywhere in Ghana without my husband and children prior to that point.) I walked with the group about half a kilometre down a dusty road from the meeting site to the home of the woman who was in mourning. The women had all agreed to wear the same outfit in solidarity. I’d missed that memo. They all brought food to share. I came empty-handed. I stood apart from the group in more ways than one.

The women’s group presented me as an honoured guest and the woman’s grieving daughter told the story to me, through a translator, of how her father had passed away in her care. There was concerted tongue clucking in compassionate response to her story. Then they all turned to me. Now, she said (they translated), tell me a story about yourself.

I had no story to tell. Instead, I mentally grabbed at any information I might share. I sputtered out a weak bio: where I came from (Canada), what the weather was like (brrr… cold), that I was living there as a missionary, which has already been shared. I had no comfort to offer the widow and her daughter, I had no narrative wisdom to console their pain and suffering, no thread of hope to tie to their sorrow.

Ghana Funeral Ladies

I’d missed a monumental opportunity to connect. I would be projecting on the women to say that there was a collective sigh of disappointment. They thanked me for my words – I can’t presume it wasn’t genuine.  They moved on to share memories and thoughts with the grieving family and then to eat and sit together, closely, in the heat until the day drew to an end. I wallowed in my seat of honour, which felt more like a seat of shame, realizing I was completely unequipped to offer anything of value, undeserving of their invitation of inclusion, unworthy to be in their company. This, I thought, is what it feels like not to belong.

Ah, but that was the wrong, fearful thinking I’d brought with me. Over the next two years, the women would continue to invite me to sit, to eat, to tell stories. They graciously allowed me to make all kinds of mistakes. This was not a lost opportunity as I had measured it. It was a way of life to be learned.

Leaf border


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