Whack! Whack! The sound of an ax smacking into wood rang in my ears as I walked up to the farm only a quarter mile down from my house. A woman dressed in her colorful Ghanaian dress effortlessly picked up the ax again and swung it at her feet into the old tree. The large neem tree had finally blown over in one of our last wind storms, and was being used for the last of its resources. Like an old broken body, the huge tree lay crooked on the red dirt with no bark left and chips all in its side. Two other women climbed up the log with their axes, gripped their tough bare feet around the tree’s base and chipped into its main body. As I walked up, they greeted me in Dagbani, but unfortunately that is where the talking ended. I have only met a couple of women in Gbuluhagu who speak English, but somehow I still wanted to communicate with the group of ladies. As the wood chipped off the ax and hit the ground, two other women in their late sixties or early seventies, but still fit, picked up the pieces and placed them in their large stainless steel bowl before looking up and grinning at me. I have been in the village long enough for them to know that I am willing to do any job, but they still find it humorous when I do it. They continued to work and attempted to speak with me more, but after frustrating attempts of being able to translate, I grabbed the ax the eldest woman was handing me. Desperately trying to remember what my brother had taught me when I was a younger, I gave it a firm swing. It has been two winters since I helped my dad chop wood for our wood stove, and my rustiness showed when they giggled behind me. At the same time one could see the pride in their eyes as they watched the somewhat scrawny, “white girl” chop wood. Our words were no longer needed; we had connected on a different level that they appreciated, and then kept on working.
A few swings later, a thin old lady with her hair wrapped up in African fabric and a stick she had nearly chewed in half sticking out of her mouth, decided it was time she take back over. I stepped back and watched as the ladies worked to get fire wood to cook for their families later this evening when I finally noticed one of the three women on the tree had a lump tied to her back. As she swung the ax around her shoulder and over her head, her small baby slept sound asleep tightly tied to her mother’s back. I took a few photos and stood back in awe of these strong women.
Strength comes in many forms, and the form of physical strength somehow does not compare to the mental and emotional strength these women carry. In the past nine months I have learned a lot of tangible and abstract things, but learning about mothers has been the most gratifying and humbling of them all. Out of my parents three children, almost anybody would agree that I was the most difficult to raise. According to my sister, I cried for the first few years of my life. My brother didn’t help by contributing to make me mean as a snake as a kid who only wanted to hunt, fish, and do other tomboy things. By the time I got to high school my rebellious ways began to be even more difficult to handle. Ever since then I have made life decisions on my own that have sent me across the country and world to anywhere but the safest of places, which has only nearly given my parents a heart attack. After being engulfed in the life of motherhood for nine months from working alongside Ghanaian women, I can tell the best bet for me would be to not have children at all. The minimum statistic that says my child could act like me is enough to make me start worrying and praying for myself as a future mother, now.
What have I learned? That being a mother is difficult! In fact, I am convinced, even over being yelled and cussed by drill sergeants for months, doing college in three in a half years while working in the summer, and volunteering in a rural village in West Africa for a year; being a mother will be the most difficult job I may ever have.
Why does it take some people (like myself) twenty- three years and some a lifetime to realize what a big commitment being a mother is? For me, I think it is because my eyes were closed and my mouth was open. In this instance, I mean it quite literal because women in Gbuluhangu do not speak my language; therefore, it forced me to close my mouth and keep my eyes wide. I am not an introvert, and must admit keeping my mouth closed and ears open has always been a challenge. But when you become silenced, it is amazing what one can discover from watching alone.
The first Ghanaian baby I held was not willing. It was the first time I used public transportation in Ghana after only being here a week and still looking like a scared baby deer. When I sat down in the fifteen passenger van, a full figured woman in her Ghanaian dress walked up with a baby on her back, a bowl of goods on her head, and a two year old on her hip; then she did not think twice before she swung her two year old onto my lap. I think I was in more shock about a random child being placed in my lap for the next half hour ride than the small child was about my white skin that he had never seen before. Out of respect, I didn’t argue with the mother and silently accepted the situation. As the months in Ghana went on, I have watched mothers walk miles while carrying gallons of water on their head so they could cook and bathe their children for the day. I have visited worried mothers after their child has gotten sick or snake bitten. I have seen them patiently wait outside the one- room health clinic behind my house for hours in the heat with a crying baby. And unfortunately, I have consoled them as they have no other choice but to continue cooking the next meal for their children, despite just losing one that morning to sickness. On the other hand, I have also had the pleasure of seeing the smile on their face when a beautifully dressed mother introduces her brand new baby to me at a traditional naming ceremony. And that same smile has knocked on my door with pride as they hand me a Ghanaian dish cooked to perfection. The list of motherly sights goes on and on. I am aware that not all of these gestures pertain to western world mothers, but the concept is the same. All of what they sacrifice, all of the hard work, and all of the continuous worrying is done because they truly and unconditionally care about their children.
Will I really never have children? This has not made me change my mind about the responsibly it is to have children, but it does make one value mothers more. It has made me realize that out of all the challenges I have overcome and will face, this would be the most difficult. Most importantly, it has made me appreciate all the work and worry that mothers do.
So, on this day and every day- thank you, mothers! Especially, to my mom who has graciously loved and cared for me even when I was impossible, or living half way across the world. Mothers are truly a special gift from God.
Kelsey Barnes is an Agriculture Science graduate from Mississippi State University. Before becoming an AgriCorps Member, Kelsey interned as a crop and soil consultant.