ms. Amos & ms. Humpherson: thank you

I overpaid for the cab. I had never been to Kalpohin before, hadn’t heard of it until the day previous, and the driver had obviously made note of it. Adisa had me tell the driver to bring me to the last stop, which I figured was as far as he was willing to go. And then he screeched in front of a little blue storefront called Last Stop, which sold toothpaste and tin tomatoes. The sign for Africa2000 wasn’t much further.

There is a shea butter mystery for the centuries, and I was going to solve it. A small pink building with several shea butter producing machines had been locked for years. The district, adorned in traditional smocks, threw the community a massive celebration for the opening of the factory five or six years ago, I’ve seen the faded photos. There were sodas and tents and everything. The thirty-woman strong shea butter group were trained and trained again, a few even sent to Tamale. But the factory was never used. Africa2000, an NGO that has been empowering people, especially women, to be self sustainable for decades stepped in. Seeing that the district lost interest in the factory after the celebration music died down, they brought the women two bags of shea butter, some money and more training to get started again. They made a couple barrels of shea butter and locked the doors yet again for another three years. Shea butter continues to be whipped by hand under trees, an incredibly long process, before it can be cooked with or made into soap. For over a year, the women have been asking for my help to get this group back on their feet. It is difficult to help people who don’t know what kind of help is actually needed. “We need money,” they keep telling me. “Lot’s ’o money!” My thinking was that Adisa, from Africa2000 may have a better idea.

I walk into the office, and am greeted with a smile mile wide. The creases in here eyes prove that she smiles like this often. Do you remember another volunteer named Michael? He lives in the Upper West, and he is the one who gave me your number. “No, I’m sorry, I don’t. I meet a lot of people.” Her smile is still there. She speaks slow, but with purpose. She is wearing a traditional dress and head wrap, and typing on a new laptop. Her English is perfect. “Maria, I have sons and daughters from all over the world. Hundreds of sons and daughters,” she tells me. “Hundreds.” I was hoping she would extend an invite to be my mother also, she looked like the kind of woman that would fatten me up and give me great guy advice. She pulls up pictures of some Japanese volunteers that she just traveled to Yendi with.

“Where are you from in the States?” New York. “Where in New York?” Oh, from Queens. “I’ve been to Queens,” she says dreamily. “Usually they have us stay in these fancy hotels in Manhattan, but I had a daughter whose parents insisted I stay with them in Queens one year.” Do you travel to the US often? “Not anymore. I’m near retiring, I don’t have the energy for it anymore. But I used to go about three times a year. They send me all over the world.” I’m impressed that this Northern native has landed a career that brings her all over the world, collecting sons and daughters as she goes.

Do you like America? I ask. She tilts her head, squints and grates her teeth. That was answer enough. “Americans aren’t very nice. You know, they were nicer after September 11th. They had to be.” A shame that New Yorkers are the only America Adisa knows.

I got right to the point, and explained the tricky case to her, and it turns out she knew all that was happening with the shea butter group in Sankpala. “Your community has more shea nut trees than any village I know.” She says, shaking her head. “Maria, here is the problem. Making shea butter is a social event for these women. All day, they are in the house serving their men and children. They can’t discuss their problems, because the men will hear. They have no privacy. But when they are under the trees making shea butter, the men won’t mind them. That’s when they can talk and talk and talk. They give advice to their daughters, they share ideas and discuss all their troubles. They cherish that time. Those machines are incredibly loud, and only a few can use them at a time. The process ceases to be social. You can keep bringing in more machines. They will never use them. They won’t tell you why and you will think they just don’t care. But they are smart, they know. ”

I wouldn’t have conjured that up in a million years, but it made perfect sense. Case closed. 

This was worth an overpriced cab ride.

Adisa won’t let me leave until she feeds me lunch. She leaves the spoon next to her laptop, and eats the greasy rice and beans with her fingers. “Americans are very special to my heart,” she tells me. I nod, not knowing where she is going with this. “I have had a few Peace Corps teachers in training school.” Really? “Yes, in the 60’s.” These had to have been one of the first groups of volunteers, ever. “Ms. Amos. She was my literature teacher. She had us translate Shakespeare. She loved me. And Ms. Humpherson, she was a geography teacher. None of our teachers took us seriously in the North. Can you imagine, when I was in teachers training college, I had never seen a map. I told Ms. Humpherson this, and she took an interest in me. She taught me everything she knew about geography, and now I’ve been to many of those places.

If it weren’t for Ms Amos, I wouldn’t have fallen in love with languages. That’s what I was for years, a language teacher. They both told me I could be something. And now look at me. I am something, I have been trying to reach them for years. Even if they have passed on, a family member at least. They need to know I made something of my self, because they told me I could.” She gave me that eye-creased smile again.

I thanked her for lunch again and for the insight on the shea butter group. I caught a cab, who charged me the right fare home.

I have had some rough days in Ghana. I could tell you a number of times I was ready to pack up my bags and head home, to the land of sushi, espressos and reliable electricity. I know Ms. Amos and Ms. Humpherson had those days. I know they looked at the students before them, many of whom had never seen a map in their lives, or had even heard of Shakespeare, leaving them to think “What am I doing here? This is such a lost cause Kennedy! You don’t even know!” They may have no idea the woman Adisa is because of them. They probably don’t know the number of lives she has touched, in her own corner of the globe and all over the world.

On behalf of Adisa, and all the other women Ms. Amos and Ms. Humpherson have touched: thank you.


Acrewood said…
Well said! Hoorah, Elyse's Mom (Elyse is in Jirapa, Ghana PCV)
Anonymous said…
'This is such a lost cause, Kennedy' sums up everything about Peace Corps in Africa and the rest of the so called Third World. When the American government overthrows serious nationalist regimes and replaces them with corrupt generals and politicians, all in the name of anticommunism, things like the corps become very hollow. These generals have no interest in organizing their own people for development and, of course the US always pays lip service to 3rd World development otherwise they won't rig the world market and put these countries into serious debt. This has nothing to do with the women being afraid of retribution from their husbands. They are victims of world politics. But you are doing your best. Keep on trying.
Wuntera said…
thanks anonymous. I'll keep trying-o.

Popular Posts