It was the first African word I encountered as I set foot on the continent for the first time. A white sign with one word in plain black font next to the entrance to the airport terminal in Ghana. It was a sentiment that would be repeated with almost every encounter over the following ten days. Each time we were introduced to a new person, he or she would smile and gently say, “You are welcome.”
Two faculty and fifteen students from the Kent State University College of Nursing Kent and Salem campuses set out on a 14-day trip. As guests of Webster University, we spent three days in Geneva, Switzerland, and ten days in Accra, Ghana, to examine healthcare in a culturally diverse world. In Geneva we learned about humanitarian efforts at the United Nations and the International Red Cross/ Red Crescent Museum. In Ghana, we visited the #37 Military Hospital, Nyaho Medical Center, the Willows Foundation and the School of Nursing and Midwifery at the University of Ghana. Sightseeing excursions included Lake Geneva and Old Town in Switzerland and the Elmina and Cape Coast Slave Castles, The Kokum National Park Canopy Walk, and Coconut Grove Beach Resort in Ghana. We found that considering the oftentimes glaring lack of resources, there was no shortage of caring! Nurses are creative and committed to their approach to providing the best possible care with the equipment that is available.
I enjoyed the people I met. Emmanuel, a lifeguard at Coconut Grove asked, “do you like Ghana? Will you come back?” He gave me a kind of a sideways smile and asked what it was that I loved so much. I replied, “the friendliness of the people,” and his immediate response was: “Ghanaians look at all people with love. You cut me, I bleed. I cut you, you bleed. We are the same. Should we not treat each other with kindness?” Makes me smile every time I tell it.
I was fortunate to meet Mary Efua Odeba Ashley, the former Deputy Director of Critical Care, now retired and working as a labour and delivery nurse. As we approached one another in the hallway she greeted me with a loud “akwaaba!” and an enthusiastic Ghanaian handshake. It’s an intricate thing, with a finger snap at the end that I’ve not yet mastered! After a tour of the unit, she explained the process of naming babies in Ghana. For the first few days of life, a baby has only a “day” name, one that corresponds with the date of birth. Mine is Yaa for Thursday. Mary’s is Efua for Friday. All the girls in her family have the given name Mary, so Odeba, designates her as the ‘third girl.’ A laboring mother, Abena, for Tuesday, joined the conversation from her cot. I felt amazed at the richness of this tradition and began to look at other people and wonder…who are you? What will your name tell me?
The Willows Foundation is a group of volunteers who counsel women about family planning. In Jamestown, the oldest part of Accra, each family graciously opened their homes and asked me to sit, with a young girl vanishing behind a curtain, returning with a wooden bench. No one questioned my presence. I was welcome. I met girls as young as thirteen with sweet babies who are not yet one-year old. Grandmothers, mothers, aunts, and daughters talked with me through translation while they continued with laundry, cooking, or cleaning. Unhurried. But busy. Two young mothers accepted appointments at a local clinic for long-term birth control that day.
I miss the soft-spoken voices from Ghana. The shoreline with pounding waves and warm dry air, filled with colorful fishing pirogues. I miss the food and architecture of Switzerland. The relaxed lifestyle that we encountered in both places. I will continue to travel, but my heart will remain with my first overseas adventure. I appreciate this opportunity to interact with other cultures. People who make a living that is very different from mine. But, as Emmanuel said, we are the same. Parents who love their children. Communities who work together. All with challenges and obstacles, but always working toward a better life.
The biggest surprise of this trip? I never felt my color. Never felt like the only white girl on the street. Or the only one trying on African dresses. I was one of the girls. With the store clerks in their African dresses, it wasn’t until I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror that I even remembered. No one treated me differently. Children and adults smiled.
I believe in the kindness of people. As an American I am largely isolated from most of the things that are going on around the globe. I can’t really imagine what some people are going through. But now, I feel a little closer to the humanitarian efforts in those areas. I feel closer to those who are getting by with so much less than we do. We can all do more. No matter where we are.
I was initially very nervous about leaving the U.S., wondering how I would be treated or whether I even wanted anyone to know. Now, I believe more than ever that peace and kindness exist. My advice: Travel the world. Learn. Try the food. Make new friends. Use your experience to make the world a better place.