My dad, who sailed in when he was in college, had been encouraging me to sail with Semester at Sea for as long as I could remember. When I finally took the plunge, I know he expected me to have a life-changing experience. What he hadn‚Äôt expected was that I would find a whole new family on the other side of the globe! Well, not really. But as soon as we arrived at the Atomkwa Village near Elmina, Ghana, everyone in my group found a new family (if only for the next 24 hours).
Right away, my Semester at Sea field program group was ceremoniously welcomed into the village by receiving a Ghanaian name and, more importantly, a new family. With my new name, Adwoa, I became an official member of the Suleiman family. My friend Jill and I were paired together and had the whole rest of the day, night and next morning to eat, play and hang out with our host family. We started out by walking through the village, on dusty paths lined with tiny huts. The nearby fields were filled with chickens and goats…a lot of goats.
Our house was on a hill next to the town mosque. Our dad Aliyu took us into his small, dirt-floored home, sat us down, and gave us a bowl of peeled oranges (which you suck juice out of for Ghanaian style orange juice–It took Jill and I a little while to figure it out). Slowly and patiently we worked through the language barrier. Aliyu talked to us about how to be a good person and what he believed it takes to live a good life.
As I expected, this visit was point where I had to step out of my comfort zone. I was a little surprised that our first topic of conversation was a philosophical one, but it was really something special to hear Aliyu tell us over and over again:
It is very hard. It is very hard, but you must do much more good than bad.
He asked us if we were Muslim. We said we weren‚Äôt. ‚ÄúWell,‚Äù he said, ‚Äúwe all have the same God. We are all the same. Rich and poor. Black and white. Muslim and Christian. It is hard, but we all must do good.‚Äù As odd as it felt to be having a conversation like this with a complete stranger, we knew that Aliyu was right. While staying with our new family, Jill and I agreed that we were all the same.
We spent the rest of the day touring the village with our family, petting their goats and teaching our new little sisters just about every game we knew. Although it was a wonderful day in Atomkwa, by nighttime we would have been happy to return to our familiar air-conditioned ship. Instead we spent the night with our family in this unknown and remote village.
When we returned to our home on the hill, Jill and I offered to sleep on their couches. Aliyu wouldn‚Äôt hear of it. ‚ÄúNo, no! You will sleep with my family in the bedroom. I will sleep on the couch.‚Äù With his family? We were touched that they offered one of their two beds to us, but this meant we would have to step even further out of our comfort zones.
Jill and I walked through the roofless kitchen to the sinkless bathroom to prepare for bed. We slept with one of the three daughters under a mosquito net. Despite the heat, endlessly crowing roosters and the booming call to prayer coming from the nearby mosque at 4AM, it was a pretty normal night of sleep. Somehow this was the best kind of discomfort. It was the discomfort of experiencing someone else‚Äôs ‚Äúnormal.‚Äù This was no tourist activity; this was real life.
We woke up the next morning and our mom served us some strange spicy porridge along with some Ghanaian donuts. We watched our dad help the girls get ready for school. We said our goodbyes, gave our family a few small gifts we had brought. They gave us bracelets and a little sheet of paper with their address.
As we left I felt a twinge of homesickness. This sweet family in a small village living in this modest hut in a country on the other side of the world reminded me of the home that I left behind, not for any other reason than that they were just a regular family. One of the best parts of the home stay was watching them interact with each other. Their sense of normal is so completely different than mine, but Aliyu was right. We are all the same, and this home stay was the best insight into the universal feelings of family, love, and generosity.