My feet kicked up dust as I shuffled across the dirt floor. Forty heads swiveled to look as they heard me approach the classroom. Their matching yellow shirts all moved in unison; the dusty, gray, cinder block walls providing a dreary backdrop for their uniforms, the clean color dazzlingly bright compared to the stark surroundings. The students rose behind their narrow wooden desks and shouted something I didn’t hear over the deafening pounding of my heart in my ears. Mr. Henking instructed the class to sit, gave a brief introduction of my purpose for being there, and asked me to tell the students my name and where I’m from.
“My name is Ellen Lupkes and I’m from America!” I rushed. The students, straining to hear me through my thick accent, erupted in laughter. Nasally renditions of “America” spread through the classroom as they tried to emulate my voice. Mr. Henking’s soft laughter joined theirs, followed by rapid Mfantse, the local language in Yamoransa. The students laughed even harder and I smiled like a fool, hoping someone would explain what was going on at my expense. Seeing my nervous smile and pink cheeks, he quickly explained what he told his students.
“I told them if they can’t understand the white lady, they need to start watching more BBC.” I chuckled and the color in my cheeks deepened. Two chickens wandered through the empty hole in the wall that served as the doorway. A pit formed in my stomach as I became very aware and slightly embarrassed of how many people told me they were proud of me for going to Ghana to “make a difference”.
It’s been a month since I wrote that description of my first day of school in mid-September. My intention was to post it right away, but something stopped me. Things just felt off and I began procrastinating, waiting for my description to be perfect. Or at least that’s what I thought. But I wasn’t actually waiting for it to be some grand example of perfect writing; I was simply waiting for the story to be joyful. I wanted to deliver this amazing feel-good story of how much my host family and I loved each other, how my students were blossoming, and how everything was just great. People had given me support of every nature to help me on my way and I felt like I owed them a warm, fuzzy feeling at the very least. But honestly, things weren’t warm and fuzzy.
My host family and I were having problems communicating with one another as the older generation isn’t fluent in English and my Mfanste vocabulary begins and ends with “How are you? I am fine.” While the other Fellows were teaching lessons and having 4-H meetings, I was struggling to navigate the waters of my school and find a place alongside the numerous NGOs that have ongoing projects in Yamoransa. I didn’t end up teaching my first lesson for almost a month and when I did, the progress we made at first was slow between the students not understating my accent and both of us adjusting to a different teaching style.
Things were (and still are) hard, but that’s ok. Not every day is going to be good. People think that when you move to an “impoverished country” to volunteer, every day is filled with blessings and a new wave of thanksgiving and joy for life, knowing in your gut this is exactly where you are supposed to be. Some days, when I’m walking across town with my host mom in the rain and laughing as we get soaked to the bone, that’s true . But other days are frustrating and patience testing. Moving across the world does not mean you immediately change as a person and that life somehow gets more purposeful in a flash. Life’s trials and tribulations are present wherever you are. Your struggles change as your environment does, but they never go away. So for now, I’m going to continue to celebrate the small victories (like the kid in the back who never participates knowing the answer during a review game) and pay my debt the best way I know. With an honest account and an open mind.
Ellen Lupkes is an Agricultural Communications and International Agriculture graduate from Iowa State University. Before becoming an AgriCorps Fellow Ellen studied abroad in Panama, Ireland and Australia.