“Open your windows, get a taste of our air,” demanded our bus driver as he turned off the air conditioning, forcing us to obey him. To the left of our road was the Atlantic coast, so I assumed the air would be warm and inviting, the kind of tropical air that makes you feel lazy. That wasn’t the case – I nearly choked on a foul mixture of burning trash, human waste and humidity. This wasn’t the fresh, salty Atlantic of my childhood home on Long Island at all.
After dismounting from our bus, the full weight of the heat struck, and I felt cool beads of sweat forming on my legs and arms. The coastline was in sight, but the beach was littered with wooden debris and other unidentifiable garbage. The Jonestown Lighthouse, constructed by British settlers during the 1920s, looked sad and worn out, its colors muted by the bleak, cloudy sky.
I thought this melancholy scene to be an indicator of what lay ahead for us, while we, a group of middle-class, mostly white, American students prepared to walk through a Ghanaian coastal slum. I prepared myself to encounter sadness and desolation, the kind of emotions elicited by children’s charity commercials on television.
I studied international development for three years before taking this month-long trip to Ghana. I’ve written papers on microfinance, on malaria and on HIV/AIDS. I’ve watched films depicting life in slums and ghettos. My studies gave me only the smallest preparation for what I encountered in Usshertown – it was as if someone explained the rules of football to a newcomer, gave them a helmet and some pads and dropped them on the starting line of the New York Giants. I thought in readying for sadness I’d be prepared; I was wrong.
Our tour guide was born in the slums, but had been one of the few to escape, eventually gaining a university-level education. He now conducts “poverty tours” to show the effects of destitution and to bring some money into the community. While walking, we had to be careful to avoid human and animal waste, not to mention the free-roaming goats and chickens. Scooters and broken-down cars whizzed passed us, dancing to a traffic routine I couldn’t understand.
Little children came up to touch our exposed arms and legs; it’s a myth among them that touching white skin brings good luck. That kind of myth speaks volumes about the psychological impacts of colonization. The colonial legacy sticks with a place for generations, the impact never fully washing away. The Usshertown community was once a thriving station of British expansion, now it’s been forgotten by almost everyone, save those that live there.
“Jackie Chan, Jackie Chan!” yelled one almost-naked child, mistaking me for an Asian traveler, as he showed off his kung-fu moves and gave me a high-five and flashed a bright smile. How unexpected that smile was! Here in the slums where I expected such melancholy, here was a kid just being a kid: happy-go-lucky, trying to impress me as I passed.
We stopped at a small shop selling snacks, pens and other small items for the locals. The shop was simply the front of a shack, which the owning mother and 4 of her daughters called home. One of the teenaged daughters made eye contact with me, she looked tired and worn-down. The mother said that she was able to buy her goods from a wholesaler and sell them at retail to try to make a profit to support her family.
We bought boxes of biscuits and gave them to the children around us; our gifts were met with bright smiles and more high-fives. We tried to continue on through the small alleyways crowded with yet more goats, but children were appearing from every direction, some naked. Word spread that cookies were being given out, and our supplies dwindled quickly even as more excited, cookie-craving children appeared.
We were welcomed into another home by an aging grandmother. She appeared frail and brittle, and moving around was difficult for her. The small, metal-covered shack she called home had no air conditioning and no windows to provide the brief mercy of a passing breeze. While we were there, I felt myself close to passing out more than a few times. The woman’s daughter was there; she explained that her mother had recently suffered a stroke and become dependent on her family for support. The daughter’s husband left Ghana for the United States, taking one of their children and sending back only small, unpredictable remittances.
After only five minutes in that house, I was drenched in sweat and covered in dust. I wanted badly to leave, but I wanted to show respect for the people that live in the slums and experience life there every day. How could I be so rude to excuse myself from a life that I’ll never have to lead.
The impact of the smell only grew stronger as we walked through the village. At one point, I had to suppress the tremendous urge to vomit in the streets. The smog of Los Angeles could never compare to the thickness and harsh complexity of the air here, with its brutal assault on the senses. That’s something you’ll never get from videos or textbooks on poverty – the smell and the heat.
We found a nineteen-year-old woman outside her home, doing laundry in metal bins filled with brown water. She was in a central square where lots of women and children gathered to work, the adults were engaged in conversation, the children playing happily.
The young woman was wearing a pink shirt and had her hair up in a bow, she looked bored with her task. She told me she’s finished with her primary education, and wants to go to the university for a degree in journalism. For the time being, though, she said she was happy to help her family in any way she could. If that meant delaying college a while, so be it.
I was blown away – I never expected a woman so close to my own age and living in an urban slum to have such aspirations. I felt awful about myself for a while. After high school, I set out to study journalism but changed my major, and all that took was some pink-colored paperwork.
Everyone here in the slum has as much potential to grow as anyone else in the world, but they lack access and opportunity. That’s what poverty reduction has to be about – access.
We made our exit from the slum through an area crawling with teenagers. They were riding scooters, playing table tennis set up outdoors, and enjoying pick-up soccer games on dirt and mud fields. As we left, I realized I found something I never expected to discover in the slums of Accra. It wasn’t a sight, but a sound – laughter. It didn’t hit me until the end of our visit, probably because it was so completely opposite to the emotions I expected to encounter that my eyes and ears weren’t in tune to it at first.
Laughter! It was everywhere!
Children playing in the streets, teens organizing soccer games despite the trash-and-glass ridden mud fields on which they played. Mothers telling jokes, whole families laughing in response. I felt such sadness in the slums, as I’m sure those living here do as well – but it’s a testament to the human condition that laughter could be found even in the thick, almost impossible-to-breath air of the Usshertown slum.
The Lighthouse premonition was wrong. This was no dreary and bleak hell-on-earth, this was home to families and friends and neighbors and little kids who want to be Jackie Chan. Their spirit was a testament to the triumph of the human spirit: after two hours in the slum, I was ready to cry, while the lifelong residents were laughing at jokes and playing sports. Some encounters were deeply saddening; I will the carry the image of the elderly stroke victim with me everywhere I go. But ultimately, I found exactly the opposite of the sorrow which I was preparing to encounter.
On the bus ride back to our very comfortable hotel, I made two new rules for myself: Always Remember to Laugh; Always Remember Usshertown.