Look Up

“Look at the moon. It’s bright.” Kojo says. 

He always notices first. His neck is used to being bent looking up at the adults towering over him all the time.

The moon is claiming its space in the cloudless early evening blue sky. We’ve been watching for a few days now. It’s been growing quickly. On Saturday it looked almost perfectly cut in half. Today it looks like it will soon be a full moon. 

As we travel down the new road past Amazing Grace’s and the tiny mosque, we feel it following us. It reminds us of our position in space and signals to us that time is passing. I’ve thought about a lot of things today. I’ve worried about the busy week ahead. I’ve been looking down for most of the day. 

“Look at the moon. It’s moving.” Kojo points up again. 

We pass the dripping water spout, a little boy running with an empty fabric spool, the armless mannequin in the shop window, and the goatless blue house on the corner. The moon brightens a bit against the slowly darkening sky. 

It’s still there as we climb up the stairs to our front door. I help Kojo take off his dusty shoes before entering the house. It’s time to fix dinner, feed the cat, take a bath, and think some more. 

“Let’s sit outside for a little bit longer.” I  suggest as I drop his shoes one by one on the worn down mat by the metal chair.

We watch the light reflecting off the moon’s surface making it look like it’s coming in and out of focus. One edge looks brighter than the other. It’s so perfectly round. There is nothing interrupting our view. My breathing and my mind slow down.

Reflection

I walk slowly. So does Kojo. Neither of us have a choice.

He walks slowly because he is almost two and a half years old. His legs are short, he’s still perfecting all the components necessary to walk with confidence, and there’s so much around to stop and look at.

I walk slowly because 24 years ago, when I was 23, I jumped off a 40-foot cliff into a peaceful lake in Austin, Texas. Instead of hitting the placid cool spring water as I had intended, I landed feet first on the rocks. I shattered my heels, then fell onto my back and broke my tailbone and the vertebra on my spinal column called L5. 24 years ago yesterday, I vividly remember falling knowing that things were not going to be good. A rescue boat was called that took me to a spot where a helicopter was waiting for me. The paramedics took me to an emergency room where I was quickly assessed. They poked and prodded and asked if I could feel anything. I only felt pain in my back and remember asking for an aspirin.

They called my brother who was 3 hours away and he spent the night driving to the hospital just to wait for me while I underwent surgery. They told him honestly that they didn’t know if I’d be able to walk again. When he first saw me in the recovery unit after the metal rod was placed in my back and three vertebrae were fused together, he smiled widely. What I didn’t know at the time, thanks to the pain medicine, was the extent of the damage. He wasn’t smiling about the tubes or monitors attached to my fragile self. He was smiling at the toes he saw wiggling underneath the blue hospital sheets. This was the sign of hope he had been envisioning as he waited uncomfortably for hours far from home, alone, answering the call from his little sister.

Over the difficult months that followed, I learned to walk again with the incredible support of my mom, dad and my other brother that came from even farther away. I was transferred to a spinal cord rehabilitation hospital and taught how to survive in the world in a wheelchair. I remember startling the nurse one evening when she came to turn me over and I moved on my own. My hospital roommate and most others I met there are still confined to wheelchairs today.

Some, who don’t know, think I have a temporary sport’s injury, or think maybe I’m sore from an intense workout. Some sigh because I walk too slowly and can’t keep up when there’s a need to hurry. Others, don’t notice my heavy steps, bent over back, or unsteady hips because they never really look hard at things.

As I walk with Kojo, my perfect walking mate, I see my reflection clearly in the window of a darkened clothing shop. I am immediately taken from the distraction of the world around me to the reality of my imperfect self. I see my leaning posture, the ungraceful pounding of my heels, and my hips moving exaggeratedly back and forth. Kojo doesn’t notice. I will tell him the story one day.

There’s so much I want to change about myself and it’s not my pace, gait or posture. I want to look at my reflection and be able to smile from deep within. I want to see first not my injury but the love from those around me that helped take me from wiggling my toes in the intensive care unit to walking in Ghana with my young boy. I want to be thankful for being given the opportunity to walk slowly every day in order to notice the beautiful imperfections of life around me. I want Kojo to grow up seeing my strength and power but also my vulnerabilities. I promise myself to smile widely each time I pass by that shop window not just for me but for all those who are watching.

I walk slowly. So does Kojo. We both choose to do so.

Wax Print

Amazing Grace’s Fabric Shop sits two doors down from the Tiny Mosque. When I ask the grey-haired woman sleeping with her eyes open about the mosque, I find out her name is Margaret, not Grace, and she surprisingly knows nothing about the mosque sitting at her footsteps. What she does know a lot about, however, is the collection of fabric rolled up neatly inside a glass display case by her side. Each piece is a brilliant array of lines, colors, and patterns. You see, there are two ways you can dress in Ghana: regular, like everyone else in the world, or original, displaying your own creation made with an infinite variety of Ghanaian wax print fabric. We can’t walk far in our neighborhood without passing in front of a fabric store or a tailor.

“How much for a yard?” I ask.

“It depends on which one,” she answers.

My eyes jump from flower to circle to raindrop to leaf to star. This is going to take awhile. I look at Kojo who is happily exploring the faces of the women standing around him and say, “Could I see this one, that one, the one on top, and these two in the back?”

She begins the process of pulling each one out. I can’t appreciate or evaluate the fabric unless I open it up to see the pattern extended over a few yards. Then I begin to imagine it flat over my chest, gathered around my waste, bundled up around my wrists or flowing over my legs.  

“This one,” Margaret explains, “is called Water Well, it teaches us that actions have consequences. This one comes in green, blue or purple and is called Cluster of Trees it means that the community is greater than the individual. If you look here, this one is called Cow Dung it refers to the fact that outward appearance does not always reflect the true character of something.”

It strikes me that I’m standing in the presence of a teacher who loves her subject matter. I listen intently as Margaret comes to life. I have many yards of fabric at home over pillows, baby blankets, bags and bibs. I wear it often yet have never realized the lessons and stories hidden in each design.

This is a story telling culture. We learn from the experiences of others told by others in the hopes that we can make our own connections. What we find is that there are certain universal truths or common human traits and virtues that we all strive for. In Ghana, people wear their beliefs, values, and history. They walk proudly in the hand-sewn interpretations of their best selves.

“I’ll take four yards of these five.”

It’s a small price for all I’ve gotten. Kojo helps put the folded cuts in a bag and together we carry our stories home.

Note: As I learned about the meaning of the wax prints, I realized that many of them would fit well with the stories I’ve written so far this month. You are invited to visit the archived slices to see the image and meaning of the fabric I’ve selected for each one.

What’s that?

“What’s that?” Kojo asks.

“Barbed wire.”

“What’s that?” Kojo asks.

“It’s a big gate.”

“What’s that?” Kojo asks.

“A thick wall.”

“What’s that?” Kojo asks.

“He’s a security guard.”

Kojo’s questions come at me in rapid fire. At his age, he is still only asking whats and not whys. I think about how I will answer. 

“To keep people away.” 

“To protect your house so nobody takes your things.”

“So nobody can get in.”

“To make sure bad people don’t hurt you.”

Today, he just wants a label. He doesn’t want to know more. 

One day soon, he’s going to ask why. This hits me heavily as we pass by another house hidden behind a large protective wall. 

Today, all people are still good. Today, there’s nothing to worry about. I take a slow, deep breath, feel his small hand in mine, and try to stay in the moment. 

This Ghanaian wax print fabric is called “Letters.” It means be knowledgeable.

Lime Green

It’s a strange color for any building especially a Catholic church. Its 14 wooden doors break up the illusion of a wall. When they are all open, they fill the body of the church with fresh air. Although we’ve never been there on a Sunday, I can imagine that every seat is filled and the air is heavy and hot over the dressed up and perfumed congregation. 

We are there to listen to the church bells ring. We can hear them from our thinly paned windows at home and we set out to find out the source. As soon as we pass through the gate unsure if we should enter, a boy comes running toward us. He‘s curious to find out who we are and what we are doing at his church.

“It’s almost six and we are here to listen to the bells ring this evening.” I say.

“My name is Samuel. I am an altar boy here and I know everything about this church.” He points up to the lime green building on the small hill. “People travel from far on Sundays to come to our church. The bells were donated to us by one of our rich members.” 

I look at my watch and see we still have five minutes to go before the hour. He invites us to stay and suggests we sit on the bench under a tree a few feet away. He follows us and sits right next to Kojo. We sit quietly together with our guide and wait.

The bells begin to ring at the lime green church.

“Have you ever heard bells like this before?” Samuel asks eagerly. 

I have been to St. Peter’s Basilica and heard the bells echo through the the piazza San Pietro. I’ve listened to the sacred bells of the grand Cathedral marking the end of the Camino de Santiago where St. James is reported to be buried.

I look at Kojo’s feet dangling from the wooden bench under the shade of the mango tree. “Never.” I reply. 

This Ghanaian wax print fabric is called “Cow Dung.” It means that the outward appearance of things are not always a reflection of what they are really like.

Shortcuts

In order to get from Swaniker Road to Archer Road we can either walk all the way up Swaniker on the newly paved street up to Village Inn and then all the way back down or we can take the alley way. It makes much more sense to take the shortcut and save 15 minutes than to go all the way around.

In order to get onto the alley way, we must cross the open gutter that may or may not have a piece of wood to help us walk over it. Often times, the plank falls in or gets carried away. This means that we must take a wide step over the gap. 

The center of the alley way is the beautiful color of Ghana’s red earth but each side is covered with discarded green broken bottle parts, black plastic bags sill holding unidentifiable things, empty cut up coconuts with accompanying swarms of flies, chewed up straws, charred remnants of piles of burnt trash, cracked abandoned shells of snails, and dried up goat manure.

If there happens to be another person crossing the alley way at the same time, one must decide who will step to the side to let the other one pass. That means one of us, will have to get closer to the unpleasantness. The smell sometimes can make me nauseous as I carefully carry Kojo over the dirt. 

The alley way is not claimed by anyone. It is the space between the walls around two houses. We disappear for a short time as we enter until we reappear again a few minutes later on the other side. It is the place between where we are and where we want to be.

This Ghanaian wax print fabric is called “Ladder.” It means that we all have a common destiny.

The Goat on the Corner

On days when we don’t have time for longer walks, we visit the goat that lives down the street and around the corner. She likes to stand watch on a raised platform in a home under construction. We have never seen any progress on the building of the house. It remains a concrete shell with holes for windows and doors. 

We don’t know the name of the goat’s owner. We only know that he has a bright white smile and is amazingly fit for his age. He lives on the long narrow lot next to the almost-house. We’ve never seen him idle. He is building a fire to cook dinner, or hammering something into place on the meager wooden shed that is his home, or moving piles of things from one spot to another. 

We go to look at the goat but spend most of the time looking at him. He greets us happily each time. We rely on hand signals and smiles because it is the language we have in common. Unlike most of the other houses on the street, there is no fence or gate surrounding his place. He has no secrets and invites all eyes who pass in. 

His goat stares with her widely spaced eyes and sometimes speaks to us if she is in the mood. Goats are strange creatures. She’s our excuse to stop and watch awhile. If there were any shrubs or small trees lining his property, she has eaten them already. 

Inevitably, each time we walk back, the wall around our home looks bigger and taller than before. 

This Ghanaian wax print is called “Snails.” It means don’t devalue me and can relate to people or nature.

Obroni

“Obroni! Obroni!” They yell as we approach. Two small children sit close to their mother as she hangs towels by a tree. They wave with excitement.

“Obroni!” the little boy announces as we pass the small grill and tables set up outside. He stops and watches us carefully until we wave to acknowledge his presence. 

“Obroni!” shouts the group of young girls playing in front of the wooden lottery stand. 

Kojo waves each time. He thinks obroni means hello. He said it to me himself for the first time today when he found me in the kitchen.

Obroni means white person. 

This Ghanaian wax print fabric is called “Tree Water.” It represents purity or cleanliness.

Abbayayo’s Place

Kojo sleeps most of the way home from our journey back from Abbayayo’s place. His eyes never quite close completely as if he doesn’t want to miss anything along the way. My own eyes are not entirely open and half of me is still in the kitchen where we sat around the small table and watched Abbayayo make faces as we devoured fresh eggs and crumbly magdalenas. From the kitchen we watched the mountains in the distance, the people gathering around the small pond, and the gaviotas gliding effortlessly by. Abbayayo knows how to listen and watches over Kojo carefully. Despite the years between them, they get along so well. 

“We’re home, Abbayayo, no need to worry.” I say to myself as I open the gate.

The time away was just long enough for me to feel transformed when we return home. My feet are tired, but I don’t mind. Abbayayo packed a little of the mountain, pond, and wind to take home with us.

This Ghanian waxprint fabric is called “Birds Flying Home.” It means that we all have a safe haven.

Listen

There are days when time or energy is less abundant. One thing or another occupies the space reserved for our daily walks. Instead we sit quietly close to the thinly paned window and listen to the sounds that permeate the wall. These used to be the noises that kept us up at night or made us long for quiet places far away. Silence and darkness used to seem like such a luxury. Now we sit and name the sounds we know so well:

the restless rooster from the neighbor’s fenced yard, 

the Fandango ice cream-vendor’s bubble horn,

taxi horns beeping at anyone to make their service known, 

heavy, big black birds walking on the roof above us,

the welding, sawing, and hammering from the metal workshop next door,

the crying baby in the open-windowed house below, 

the evening church event with choir and charismatics fully amplified, 

the treble-less drum and bass from the watering hole somewhere down the hill, 

the howl of a wild dog mourning the loss of a friend, 

the self employed young woman announcing fresh tea bread for sale,

the sound of an old car engine rattling as it slowly passes by,

the call to prayer from the big mosque,

the newly donated bells from the Catholic church,

the friendly wide-eyed goat on the corner and

the distant train traveling from Tema to Accra.

There will be a time for silence and darkness. Not now. Not yet. We sit still and enjoy our sound walk. 

This Ghanaian wax print fabric is called “Handcuffs.” It means be aware of what is going on around you.