Reality Ramblings…

A few months ago an internet video went viral among Peace Corps Volunteers. The short animation featured two points of view: an idealistic future volunteer imagining a dream life of service in another culture and a somber voice identifying the realities of living in a developing country.   

One vignette stuck in my memory. The idealist  ic PCV said something like, “I will eat freshly harvested organic fruits and vegetables grown by local farmers.”
The you’ve-got-to-be-kidding counterpart responded, “You will see a woman selling hard-boiled eggs that have been sitting in the hot sun for eight hours. You will tell her, ‘I will buy two. With some peppe.’ You will devour the eggs and spicy sauce.”

I also thought I’d eat healthy foods living in a farming community. I didn’t know that local farmers grew mainly yams and cassava – two root veggies similar to potatoes. I’ve eaten plenty of starches and more than my share of questionable protein. But I figure hard-boiled eggs – no matter how long they’ve basked in the sun – are a safer snack than (who knows what kind of) meat on a stick. 

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Loading yams at Kpassa market

As I prepare to end my Peace Corps service, I consider the contrast between my pre-service mental images and the reality of living in West Africa.

I will live in a small round mud hut with a thatched roof. I will share my space with mice and spiders. 

I live in a three-room mud-brick house funded by the Carter Foundation for Guinea Worm eradication. I collect rain water gushing from the corrugated tin roof during rainy season. The floor of the house is uneven; the western side of the house is a few inches down hill from the eastern side. The bed, desk, tables, bookshelves and sofa each have a leg or two propped up with chunks of wood to keep the sleeping/sitting/writing/storage/cooking surface somewhat level.  The screens on the five windows keep out the malaria-carrying mosquitoes but not the dust. The mice and bats stay in the space above the ceiling. I share my living space with small lizards and several varieties of spiders.

I will walk miles to fetch a bucket of water from a shallow stream. I’ll boil the water for ten minutes to kill visible vermin and destroy micro-organisms. I will be frugal with the scarce resource; a single bucket will meet all my needs for a day.

Children vie for an opportunity to fetch water from the borehole (machine-dug well with a hand pump) that’s less than 50 yards from my front door. When a child carries and dumps five water buckets to my blue 250 liter barrel, she washes her hands with soap, comes into my kitchen and pours oil and popping maize into a pan. When the corn is popped, she adds salt and transfers the white snack into a clear take-away bag. She carries the treat home to share with her family. Although the borehole water has been tested and is safe to drink, I filter water through a two-reservoir desktop filter before drinking. I try to conserve water, but I use half a bucket for each of my two-a-day baths and I share “fridge water” with guests.

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Donkwa's popcorn treat

I will live without electricity or running water.

Like everyone in my community of 1,600 people, I have electricity (“lights”) but no running water. I could survive without lights – even though days and nights are equally long eight degrees north of the equator. But I enjoy electricity. I love being able to sit in front of my fan, keep fresh fruits, veggies, leftovers and water in my fridge, and bake bread in my toaster oven. (Today’s yeast bread features powdered cheese and Italian seasoning.)  

I will ride my bike down a dirt path to remote villages where I will teach captivating health and nutrition lessons to mothers in their local language.

I ride my used six-speed bike a couple miles down the main road to market and another mile to the vocational school where I tutor. Whenever I teach, someone who speaks English and the local language translates for me. My health and nutrition lessons may not be captivating, but only the babies sleep through the sessions.

My toilet will be a hole in the ground.

My toilet is a hole in the ground – surrounded by a mud-brick outhouse with a tin roof and a wooden door. I squat over the key-hole shaped hole and use t-roll (toilet paper) purchased at the local market. A tall metal sprinkling can filled with plastic sunflowers decorates the inside of the latrine.

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Being thousands of miles from family and friends, I may be lonely.

Today’s electronic communication options makes my Peace Corps experience completely different from the experience of the first Peace Corps Volunteers in Ghana over 50 years ago. Although I miss seeing and interacting with family and friends, I am not isolated. I stay connected to individuals via email and phone. At last count, 170 individuals read my blog and 75 people receive my daily four-word emails.  Although I’m generally out of touch with news unless someone posts something on Facebook, I feel incredibly connected. I look forward to connecting face to face in a few weeks. 

I will learn to cook native dishes and surprise my friends and family with unique delicious recipes when I return to America.

I have perfected multiple variations of beans and rice and make an awesome groundnut soup (with peanut butter, garden eggs, onions and tomatoes). I use local ingredients to make two delicious snacks – groundnut toffee (candies peanuts) and banana bread – using recipes I adapted from internet.

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Sorting groundnuts for toffee

I will be on call 24×7 and have no time to myself.

My day sometimes starts before daybreak with roosters crowing, children calling, and mothers chattering as they fetch water. But I have lots of time to myself. Time to read, write, and think. Time to do craft projects and cook. Time to think about how my life in Ghana is different than I anticipated. Time to contemplate what to do with the next phase of my life.

I will love my Peace Corps adventure. I will learn as much as I teach. It will be difficult to say goodbye.

I love my Peace Corps adventure! I’ve learned much more than I have taught. I have started to say goodbye. The goodbyes are challenging. The hellos will be exciting!

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Saying goodbye at Kpassa Technical High School

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Boti Falls

Enjoy the new lyrics to an old tune (B-I-N-G-O).

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We went to Boti Falls Sunday,
Saw Ghana’s natural beauty.

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B-O-T-I Falls. B-O-T-I Falls.
B-O-T-I Falls. We went to Boti Falls.

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We hiked, and laughed and took pictures,
In Eastern Region’s forest.

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B-O-T-I Falls. B-O-T-I Falls.
B-O-T-I Falls. We went to Boti Falls.

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We took a break at ancient cave
And marveled at the hist’ry.

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B-O-T-I Falls. B-O-T-I Falls.
B-O-T-I Falls. We went to Boti Falls.

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We climbed atop Umbrella Rock
And felt a bit like Simba.

B-O-T-I Falls. B-O-T-I Falls.
B-O-T-I Falls. We went to Boti Falls.

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We sat and climbed the Triple Palm
Perhaps to have twin offspring.

B-O-T-I Falls. B-O-T-I Falls.
B-O-T-I Falls. We went to Boti Falls.

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We ate our lunch and then returned
To families in Masse.

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B-O-T-I Falls. B-O-T-I Falls.
B-O-T-I Falls. We went to Boti Falls.

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Cooking Yams

Cooking Yams

“Yam!” Magawiny holds up a two-inch thick slice of recently harvested yam above his head. I use a permanent black marker to write my interpretation of his name on the dirt-encrusted peel.

“Yams!” Pomba cradles six end chunks of yams in the pouch made by the tattered yellow t-shirt he wears. The small soft yam pieces are discards from yams destined for market. He writes the number “6” on each of his yams.

“Anggh! Anggh!” Ilando who cannot speak words gets my attention and holds four yam ends in his cupped hands. One of his friends writes “Ilando” on each tennis-ball-sized yam treasure.

“Madame. My yam. Big!”  Joshua smiles as he shows me the end portion of a four-inch diameter yam. He writes a large “J” on his big yam.

It’s yam season in the northern Volta region of Ghana. Men return from farm each day with six or eight yams strapped to their bicycle carriers. Women balance pans of yams on their heads walking to market. Trucks transfer tons of yams to Accra. Children bring yam discards to my house. 

Their parents mark their yams with a thumb-print sized colored dots or lines to indicate who receives the money when the yams are sold. The children mark their yams to indicate ownership. They’ll peel and slice their own yams. I’ll cook the yams. They’ll carry the cooked yams home in take-away bags.

I collect yams during the day. Late in the afternoon, nine children claim their yams from my kitchen floor and sit on my patio. Using knives no child below the age of six in America would be allowed to touch, the Ghanaian youngsters peel their yams and cut them into slices.

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They rinse their yam chunks in water and dump the dirty water near the drainage hole in my patio wall. We measure the yams in a large cereal bowl; I record their name and a number to indicate their relative quantity of yams. Matali gets a 2; her sliced yams cover only the bottom of the bowl. Mejanya gets a 5; her yams almost spill over the bowl’s rim. 

They sweep up the yam peels and place them in the blue compost bucket. Enoch will dump the future-soil into my compost pile.

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The sliced yams fill two cooking pots. I add some salted water and bring the yams to a boil.

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The yams finish cooking in fifteen minutes. I divide the starchy chunks into clear plastic take-away bags.  The children run off to eat their yams. Most of them will share their food with siblings or friends.

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And most of them will return tomorrow with more yams. 

It’s yam season in Jumbo.

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Making Yellow

Twelve-year-old Seelow called “Hall-o-o!” from my yard early Friday evening. “Me cook?” she said hopefully. Our schedules finally matched. Seelow wasn’t at farm, caring for her younger sibling, or cooking for her family. I wasn’t working on a report, planning a training class, or weighing babies.

I invited her inside.

It was already dark. I had already eaten. We needed to a fast cooking option. Reciting and performing the actions for “Wash your hands many times a day. Always use soap to keep the germs away!” gave me time to think.

I retrieved a small cardboard box from the cupboard. “We will make Jello.” I announced, introducing a word she had never heard. “We will make strawberry Jello.” I pointed to the picture of a fruit she had never seen.

“Yellow” she repeated, pointing to the red berries on the box.

She opened the box and the tan inner liner. The humid rainy season and the hot African temperatures had transformed the individual crystals into a block – similar to solid-packed brown sugar. She peeled off the paper and sat the small red block into a bowl.  I handed her a whisk that once had a handle and demonstrated how to break the brick into separate granules. “Toffee!” she declared as sweetness filled the air.

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The electric teakettle boiled water and turned itself off. I poured one cup of hot water into a lime green plastic measuring cup. Seelow added it to the bowl and used the whisk to dissolve the gelatin.  She stirred for a full two minutes before adding a cup of frige water to the warm sugar-water.  Seelow continued stirring. Her sister arrived and washed her hands – just in time to help with the bananas. Seelow peeled some local bananas – much fatter and shorter than bananas available in most American supermarkets. As she cut each slice into quarters, her sister transferred the banana chunks from the apple-shaped cutting board into the sweet red liquid.

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After adding three bananas, Seelow pointed to the stove and the burner switch assuming it was time to cook. She looked confused and disappointed when I cleared a spot in the fridge. But she placed the bowl on the waiting shelf.

“Come back tomorrow.” I said after the two preteens washed the knife, cutting board and measuring cup.

Three young children joined Seelow on Saturday. We ceremoniously followed the instructions in the “wash your hands before you eat” chant. I retrieved the jello from the frig. I tipped the bowl toward Seelow slightly to show her the congealed mass. She jumped back – away from the spilling liquid we had placed in the fridge the day before. “Jello!” I reminded her, jiggling the bowl a bit to show her the new texture.

“Yellow” she parroted back.

I sat the bowl on the counter. I added a smaller bowl and a spoon to the counter so we could transfer some strawberry-banana jello to a separate container. Seelow took the spoon and started stirring the jello, breaking the congealed mass into smaller chunks. (What else would you do with a spoon?)  She pointed to the propane stove. Her eyes said the words she could not voice, “Now do we cook it on the fire?”

“No fire.  We eat.” I grabbed a blob of jello with my fingers and plopped it in my mouth. “Yummy!”

The four children looked a bit surprised, but followed my lead.

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“Toffee!” they declared as soon as the sweet treat touched their tongues.

“Yes,” I expanded. “Jello is sweet, like toffee.”

We ate half the “yellow toffee” standing in my kitchen. Seelow divided the leftovers into two plastic containers. She carried one container to her family compound; Dankwa took the second container to his family. “Eat it tonight.” I told them as they headed home.

The children loved the red yellow.
I love red-red (fried ripe plantains).

They scrunch up their noses and winced at “American rice” (rice pudding with nutmeg).
I try not to scrunch up my nose and wince as I tilt my bowl to avoid eating the red oil floating on top of Ghanaian soups.

Their parents pull out crunchy walnuts from banana bread.
I pick out crunchy fish bones from soups and stews.

Our cooking styles and food preferences provide glimpses into our cultures.

Wouldn’t it be fun to listen to a Ghanaian woman describe an American’s first experience making and eating fufu?

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Protecting the Children

A twelve-year-old boy in a red and white striped t-shirt watches his left arm as a nurse places a needle into position. An eight-year-old girl wearing a private school uniform – the next in line for the vaccine to prevent measles and rubella – peers over the boy’s right shoulder to understand what will happen to her. A mother with a simple head wrap and her ready-to-walk baby wrapped onto her back stands behind the girl. Eight more children create a haphazard queue looking at the camera or the activity at the front of the queue.

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The “National Mass Measles-Rubella Campaign” poster mimics a slice of life in Jumbo. Children across Ghana are standing in queues for vaccines during September. Children in the small village where I live received their shots September 11-12. 

Our queues were longer and a bit more loosely formed.

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A couple children selected a more interesting vantage point than a spot in the queue.

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A four-person volunteer crew supported the Jumbo nurse who gave the shots.

Three of us filled out a new yellow vaccination card for each child.

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I had the easiest job – writing the repetitive information on each card. I recorded our location (town, district, region) and date the card was issued on the front, then flipped the card over to write information about the measles-rubella vaccine (the date, the eight- and ten-digit batch number codes for dual vaccine, and “Jumbo” as the location).

Kingsford had the most challenging job – completing the personalized information on each card: child’s name, date of birth, gender, and mother’s and father’s name. Sometimes he could copy the information directly from the child’s green Ghana Health Services record booklet. But not all the children have booklets. Some mothers brought their child’s Ghana Health Insurance Scheme photo ID cards in a blue sleeve or laminated copies of an official birth certificate. The ID cards didn’t include the mother’s or father’s name; the birth certificate didn’t include the gender. He asked mothers questions to gather information. Several mothers brought scraps of paper with their child’s name and date of birth. Some papers only listed the child’s first name (e.g., Kwame for Saturday born) and age (11 yers [sic]). Some children arrived by themselves. A ten year old girl brought her three year old sister. She submitted two slips of paper – each with a first name and date of birth – to receive the vaccine.

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My counterpart Joseph was the final step in our “complete the yellow card” process. He recorded the child’s age in the appropriate column on an official tally sheet. (A man stopped by today for just a few minutes to witness the in-progress vaccinations; he signed the back of the tally sheet to make it even more official.) Ghana Health Services will know how many children in three broad age groups (9 months to 4 years; 5 years to 9 years, 10 years to 14 years) received the vaccine. Joseph handed the completed card to the mother who took it to another health volunteer who controlled the queue for the nurse.

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The Jumbo nurse gave vaccines to about 300 children each day. Shrill cries from just-vaccinated babies pierced the air and sometimes drowned out the girls’ clapping games, the boys’ shouting matches, and the mothers’ chatter.

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Yesterday we gathered under a tree by the church. We moved the tables three times as the sun crossed the sky and changed the location of the trees’ cooling shadow.

Today it rained; we held the all-day health clinic at the school in the open area where the Kindergarten class usually meets.

Tomorrow (or tomorrow next) 597 Jumbo children will be added to the nation-wide tally of thousands of children who will be protected from measles and rubella.

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A New Song…

… or some new lyrics to an old song. 

Clear your throat. Sit up straight or stand tall. Take a deep breath.

And sing the following words to the tune of “Are you Sleeping?”

Are we partners?
Are we partners?
Yes, we are!
Yes, we are!
Helping people help themselves.
Helping people help themselves.
To change our world.
To change our world.

The French nursery melody “Frere Jacques” was first published in 1811; the new lyrics were written last week. 

Each word was carefully weighed and measured. The modified words needed to fit the existing rhythm. The message (initially created as an ice-breaker for a joint meeting between Ghana Peace Corps and our host-country partners) needed to be succinct. 

“Are we associates?” seems too formal. “Are we collaborators?” is not only pretentious; it has too many syllables. The more friendly “partners” shows equality and a close connection – working together toward a common goal.

“Helping people help themselves” has an extra syllable. But if you mush the words together, the rhythm still works.

Substitutes for “people” were considered: “Helping others help themselves.” and  “Helping our friends help themselves.” Both have the right meter. But “others” seems too distant while “our friends” suggests no need to help casual acquaintances or people we’ve never met.

The final line started as a condescending “changing their lives.” Whoa. Not very partner-ish. Way too paternal.

“To change” is more action-oriented than “changing.”
“Our world” reinforces our connectedness, to each other and to our environment.
“We are all one child spinning through Mother Sky.” (A Native American proverb)

Thanks for partnering with me, for making my life more complete.
Thanks for helping me help myself. Thanks for helping everyone whose lives you touch help themselves.
Thanks for continuing to change our world.

Want to join me in a new anthem?

Are we partners?
Are we partners?
Yes, we are!
Yes, we are!
Helping people help themselves.
Helping people help themselves.
To change our world.
To change our world.

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One Story; Three Perspectives

The two-day journey of a heavy white bag deserves to be told from different perspectives…

Part One: My perspective

Melissa and I walked from the Tamale Peace Corps office to the Tamale Teaching Hospital. For the first couple hundred yards, Melissa looked like Santa with a huge bag of art supplies thrown over her right shoulder. She leaned forward so the heavy bag rested on her back; the bottom of the rice bag graced her hips. The white bag almost overflowed with scraps of fabric (future coiled baskets), a ream of white and colored paper (future thank-you cards), and other crafting supplies (needles, thread and scissors).

After taking a quick breakfast break to eat egg sandwiches, we continued walking. I supported the bottom of the bag while Melissa anchored the top knot against her shoulder. A tall man on a well-used bicycle offered to carry the bag on his bike. We said “No, thanks.” The zigzag trip to the hospital grounds would have been out of his way. We crossed the main road, walked through a side yard, and continued walking down a dirt path. We walked another quarter mile before changing our carrying technique; each of us held one end of the bag to distribute the weight between us. We lugged the bag by a large garbage dump on our left and a cemetery with two visible tombstones on our right.

A man offered to carry the heavy load on his motorcycle. We accepted his offer and helped him strap the bag to the his moto. A woman walking by translated our destination from English to one of the local languages. “The nurses’ school at the hospital. Turn left when the road stops.” We explained to the woman who told the moto driver our destination. We pointed to the dead end 500 meters ahead and made a broad sweeping motion to the left with outstretched arms. The moto driver nodded his head and started his moto. Instead of driving slowly beside us, he drove away.

At the dead end, he turned right – toward the main hospital buildings instead of toward the nursing school. “Hospital” was probably the only word he heard.

Melissa and I looked at each other in surprise; we wondered if we would ever see the bag again.  When we got to the T in the road, she turned left to see if he may have taken another route to the nursing compound. I turned right to see if he was a half-mile ahead someplace on the hospital grounds. I hadn’t paid much attention to his bike or clothing. I doubt I would recognize him unless he was standing next to the large white rice bag full of art supplies.

We searched the hospital campus and asked two security men to watch for the bag. We didn’t find the moto, the man, or the bag.

Lesson learned: Carry your own bag. It may be heavy. It may be uncomfortable.
But you’ll arrive at your destination with your belongings.

Part Two: The next day… Told by Cory, a friend and fellow Peace Corps Volunteer who initially posted the following on Facebook:

As you noted last night, God does work in mysterious ways Marjorie!

Yesterday 2 Peace Corps volunteers took an offer from a man on a moto to carry a large maize bag filled with fabric scraps to the Operation Smile patient shelter for craft day activities. The man took off on his moto and couldn’t be found; we thought he had stolen the bag.

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Today while carrying the large box of toys donated by Hamberger & Weiss to the shelter for distribution, I decided to take a “short cut” with 2 other volunteers. I got us lost (and people who know me know I have a good sense of direction and can usually find my way somewhere again after only being there 1 time).

While lost, we passed a man’s house who asked if we gave a bag to a man with a moto yesterday. Yes! We did! He took us to the man’s house and we got the bag of scraps back!! He hadn’t stolen it after all!!

We got to the hospital eventually with our heavy loads and told the others who thought we were heroes!! I even got a big hug from an Italian volunteer with Operation Smile who thought it was a wonderful story too!!

So I know my sister performed that random act of kindness for the volunteers here as well as the patients who will enjoy making fabric coil pots with those scraps today!!

I love and miss you, Jody!! 17 years have gone by but you are not forgotten!!

Note:  Cory will add a link to the three-part story on her blog: http://www.postcardsfromghana.tumblr.com

The Conclusion: from the moto driver’s perspective

I saw two Obrunis struggling with a heavy bag. The daughter held one end of the over-sized bag. The mother held the other. I passed them on the dirt road by the cemetery. But then I turned my moto around and offered to help. They didn’t understand the words I spoke. But I pointed to the heavy bag and the back of my moto. They understood. They looked relieved. Another woman walking by tried to help us communicate, but I didn’t understand her words. I thought the Obrunis were walking to the main Tamale road. They could get a taxi to move the huge bag to its destination.

They helped me wrap my rubber around and over the bag. We attached it my moto. I started the engine. They thanked me. I drove off.  It was about 7 in the morning; I was glad to be able to help.

When I got to the main road, I rode the short distance to the taxi stand to wait for the white women. I thought about getting them a good price for a taxi, but I didn’t know their destination. So I waited. I greeted those close by. I waited some more. The Obrunis didn’t show up. They didn’t arrive for a long time. I didn’t know what to do. I wanted to do what was right. The bag wasn’t mine to keep. I didn’t want to open it.

I took the bag to Kofi’s house. He drives the ambulance for the hospital. Maybe some of the Obrunis who work for him would know the women I helped. Maybe Kofi’s friends could help find the owners of the bag.

We went to the hospital and asked the Obrunis who work with Kofi. No one knew about a big white bag.  We walked around the hospital to see if we could find the Obrunis who gave me the bag. I wasn’t sure I’d recognize them so we talked to any Obruni we saw. No one knew anything about the big white bag.  Kofi walked around the hospital again at the end of the day. He couldn’t find the right Obrunis.

Kofi took the bag to his house. We called a community meeting to discuss what to do. We decided to open the bag at the meeting so everyone would see what was inside. Maybe there would be a phone number to help us find the owner.

When we untied the bag, we were surprised.  The bag had a few interesting things toward the top – a big folder with some white and colored paper, a couple pairs of fancy scissors, and a package of long sewing needles. But most of the bag was full of scraps of fabric – scraps too small to do anything with. The bag was full of very heavy trash.  You never know what people think is valuable.  We tied the bag shut and kept it at Kofi’s house.

I was relieved. The bag didn’t have valuable items inside. I didn’t want people to think I was a thief. We were surprised at what was in the bag. We were even more surprised at what happened the next day. 

Kwami was at the meeting and knew about the big white bag of trash and the missing Obrunis.  While he was taking breakfast, he saw three Obrunis walk by. One carried a huge box on her head.

“Did you lose a white bag?” he asked them.
“Yes! My sister did.” they told him.
“We have it. Follow me.” Kwami said. The leader of the Obrunis followed Kwami to Kofi’s house. They showed her the bag. The Obruni thanked Kwami and Kofi again and again. Kofi told her about trying to find the owner at the hospital. He also told her about the community meeting and opening the bag together.

I was glad I did the right thing. Doing the right thing feels good. And it makes others feel good. I will tell this story to my children and their children. I will remind them to always do the right thing.

Epilogue: I also plan to tell the two-day journey of the white bag to current and future generations. To remind me of different perspectives. To think of coincidences that alter our lives. To strengthen our faith in the goodness of our neighbors around the world. 

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