Sunday, May 27, 2012
HER FAMILY LINES TRACED straight back to Ireland, on both sides. Yet it was here that she had always been drawn to, from earliest remembrance. She didn’t know why and had never much cared to. One possibility, suggested by others, was that her affinity sprung from an inherited understanding of what it meant to be second-class citizens in one’s own country. A corner of her was loathe to disavow this notion, even though it had nothing to do with her personal experience.
Growing up in a small Pennsylvania town inside a stodgy Victorian house with a much older brother, doting parents, and an indomitable Irish grandmother, one thing she always knew was that she would not stay. They all loved one another, but the house, three floors or not, was too cramped for the personalities. She was desperate to outshine them all from the moment she arrived, her brother in particular. He greatest frustration, however, was not him nor her grandmother, but the town itself. People there grew up, went to school, returned, and settled in for life. Not her.
When she was eight her brother left for college at Swarthmore, then UPenn for medical school. After that he went off to Hong Kong and then to Indonesia. Everyone was terribly proud of him. Even after he left, however, the house got smaller and smaller still. It was like he was still there, in every discussion, only larger, hovering over each thought, spoken and unspoken. And this certainly did not diminish after the events of October 2002. Quite the opposite.
That was some time ago, but he was gone now. She was here, swaying in a chipped rocking chair on the edge of a courtyard under a canvas awning. Marinating in thoughts of the past, but not alone. A raincloud advanced over the grassland beyond the yard, and the tiny baby stirred in her arms.
The midday flight from Tangiers was every bit as terrifying as she had anticipated. A rickety prop-jet that looked like an overhauled C-130 - a craft she knew because of her father’s one-year stint with the 82nd Airborne in Vietnam. This one had probably been around since the time he was leaping out of them, too. But somehow it carried her to Accra, and she didn’t even have to bail out over the top of it.
Before leaving, her grandmother, all of 93, had invoked the protection of Saint Patrick, whose feast day she would mark while in Africa. At 24 herself, Penn State University three years behind her, she had lived almost all of her life in her parents’ house or Happy Valley. But that did not mean she hadn’t experienced anything.
From the time she could board a plane she was in the habit doing so. A year of babysitting money had bought her a round-trip ticket to Ireland (the first time) at fifteen. Her mother accompanied her to the old homestead in County Meath. She visited two other times in her teens alone. The summer before college she paid her own way on a service trip to Nicaragua and Honduras with their parish. She spent half her junior year at Penn State “studying” art in Barcelona.
No, she was not afraid of unknown locales. Now that she was on the ground in Ghana, out of the skies, her courage was replenished. She felt ready.
Inside the airport it was all crowds and chaos, shouts of African dialect and heavily accented English, a tinny British woman’s voice chirping from a loudspeaker somewhere. Yet she managed to find her bag, which had miraculously arrived. Pausing next to the huffing baggage claim, fielding stares towards her pale skin and auburn hair pulled back tightly in a pony tail, she quickly peeled the windbreaker off that had helped on the freezing puddle-jumper, glad she’d known to wear the capris, white tank top and field blouse, and LL Bean sandals. She fixed protective sunglasses on her nose and her Nittany Lions cap up top, and exited the sliding glass.
Once outside she was assaulted three ways: heat, smells, and noise. To her front older European cars, many of which were taxis, jostled between miniature, box-like buses, or tro-tros. Horns blared. There were people on bicycles everywhere her eyes wandered.
The walkway was jammed with people, many clambering for taxicabs. Within a minute she was panhandled four times. Every other person seemed to have something balanced on their head, including a woman right next to her carrying a basket-woven cage with two large roosters inside, chattering away, half a foot from her ear. Somewhere, someone was riffing on a woodwind instrument at full tilt, giving it all they had. In spite of the general melee, she was impressed by the vigorous performance.
Then a hand tapped her shoulder. She swiveled around to see two small men, both shorter than she although she rose to a middling 5’7”. The white-skinned man was slight, mousy, with a very small mouth, clean-shaven chin, and a pair of perfectly round black sunglasses covering his eyes. He wore a white Panama hat with a wide brim and seemed to be chewing something. She thought he looked exactly like that guy in most James Bond films who delivers a message early to 007, and is then quickly dispatched.
On his left was an even shorter, very dark African man wearing jean shorts and a retro-style Adidas shirt, the kind she remembered from grade school. He grinned widely, his teeth shockingly and unexpectedly white.
“Miss Porter?” the white man inquired. “Arriving for LLCC?”
“I knew I would be easily found,” she answered with a smile, and introduced herself to both.
The man in the hat chuckled. “Yes, quite. I’m Doctor Paul Minchin. I’m the pediatrician you might’ve been told about. I work in and around most of the orphanages in greater Kumasi. Pleasure to meet you.” They shook hands. “And this,” he gestured to the second man, “is Kwadzo, courier extraordinaire.”
The man beamed at her, bowed slightly. “Mo-hee-e! Welcome to Ghana!” he exclaimed.
“Mo tsumi,” she replied. It was one of only a few phrases she had learned ahead of time in Dangme, although this was only one of many languages spoken in Ghana. It served her well here. Kwadzo glowed even brighter, seized her slender hand in both of his, and bowed further at the waist.
By the time they were in Kwadzo’s “noble steed,” as Dr. Minchin called it, and making their way towards the outskirts of the capital city, it was nearly 2 p.m. The “steed” turned out to be a Volkswagon van, the really old kind that looked like a two-tone loaf of bread on tires so worn and and slender she thought they’d do better on a moped. The heat pressed in from all sides of the van, which needless to say had no means for climate control, and mingled with the powerful smells of exhaust and live cattle to form an invisible, encroaching miasma.
She sat alone in a bucket seat in back, her bag tossed on the dirty, carpet-less floor of the van next to what must have been an oft-used tire iron. The sun pounded through the windows. She felt sweat trickling down the knobs of her spine and was suddenly overpowered with a tremendous urge to lie down right on that dirty floor and sleep. Which she might have done, but for the steady chatter from the doctor, in front, on the passenger’s side. He seemed eager to impress her with his knowledge of the country and the capital. He spoke like a man that had taken an instant shine, a manner she recognized from some experience in other countries, most often with that hint of patronization that a lot of white men from other countries seemed to feel was appropriate when addressing young American women.
“I’m sure you’re bushwhacked, dear,” he said, “but we do have a bit of a journey ahead. Monika expressly directed me to bring you along the coastal route. It’s perhaps 70 kilometers of extra travel, but she believes you’ll find it worth your while. I agree.” He draped his left arm over the side of his own bucket seat and grinned at her.
“How long?” she asked, mostly out of curiosity. She was exhausted, true, but she didn’t feel rushed. In fact she felt she could use some time to allow her nerves to settle.
“Two hours at least, maybe more, depending on what we encounter along the way.” He left it at that. She nodded, and for at least a moment they lapsed into silence.
“Monika” referred to Monika Nickos, her new boss, you might say, within Let the Little Children Come International, or “LLCC.” She was the woman charged with running St. James Orphanage in the city of Kumasi, roughly 160 miles from the capital. This, according to her Lonely Planet guide. She’d actually heard Ms. Nickos, which is how she planned to address her until directed otherwise, referred to as the “Headmistress,” which seemed to her ear pretty arcane. But this was hardly the first thing since she’d landed in Morocco earlier in the week that seemed to lag behind the times. She was to find during her stay in Ghana that there were plenty of leftover signs of the country’s former British rule.
Monika Nickos, however, was Finnish, not English, and was a mystery to her otherwise. After the placement they’d had exactly one conversation by phone, two weeks before to the day in fact, and it was brief and polite. She’d never met anyone from Finland, but she worked for a company owned by the Dutch just out of college, and she had experienced something of European propriety and mannerisms. Not that the Dutch and the Finnish were the same sorts of people, but it was the best she could go on.
In her brief exchange, Ms. Nickos had said she was very welcome, they were anxious to meet her, and reiterated what she’d been told all along, which was that it was perfectly fine if she did not possess certain skill sets, such as education or medicine - she would be more than useful if her mind was open and she maintained a “posture of charity.” That was Ms. Nickos’ phrase.
The call had been both reassuring and slightly nerve-wracking. She never knew what people in these types of organizations meant when they used terms like “open mind.” However, small things like Ms. Nickos’ calm tone, elegant northern accent, and the use of that particular phrase communicated a strong sense that she was a woman who had her entire charge firmly in hand. This might not actually be the case, she cautioned herself, but that’s the way it sounded.
It seemed to her that the Headmistress would be an interesting woman to get to know. She hoped they would get along. But even if they collided here or there, she would not allow it to deepen into conflict. She’d had her share of problems working under other women, often older ones. Like many of her girlfriends, she preferred working for men, but doing so seemed more and more difficult these days. Maybe this is what made the older women she’d worked for in her short experience tougher to bond with: a resentment, right out of the gate, that she didn’t encounter quite the same resistance as they had during their own ascendancy.
She couldn’t say. She tried at all times to be honest with herself, and she knew that she brought as much “will” into any mutual endeavor as any woman - or anyone - ever did.
Just ask my mother, she’d joke with others, but the comment was never 100% joke. .... [continued]