At first light, a flock of birds broadcast their sandpaper calls from the tops of two tall palm trees next to the house. Soon after, the neighbors begin sweeping the shared courtyard, the swish-swish of twig brooms insisting that we get up, too, and start the day in the relative cool of an African dawn. There will be no lie-in today: in the little village of Saltpond on the Ghanaian coast, I have no choice but to live on Ghana time.
Fellow volunteers Jess and Juliette emerge from mosquito nets hung from the ceiling like spotlights. Rachel, co-founder of the UK-based charity Saltpond Education Project, is next to stir. The kids in the village used to have occasional lessons in the dust underneath a mango tree; now, they have classrooms, exercise books, and wear bright, yellow and green uniforms from the local seamstress. Now, they play in the shade of the mango tree at recess.
Gathered in the windowless kitchen to make tea on a portable gas stove, we eat crackers and small and sweet green bananas, and discuss the day’s tasks. ‘You can give us more to do than that,’ we assure Rachel, ‘we’re not here to be tourists!’ But Rachel is used to the languid rhythm of Ghanaian days and the brief to-do list remains as it is.
I spend the morning at the school, observing lessons and sorting though donated books. My entire afternoon is to be occupied with dinner: without a fridge, food must be bought fresh from the market each day. Mike, school principal by day and willing chef by night, hands me a scrap of paper: tomatoes, shrimp paste, palm oil, beans, plantain. Used to cooking for delicate western stomachs, Mike will make red-red stew, minus the usual lip-numbing chilies.
The walk to market is slow and hot. As a lone female abruni ¬– a sort-of affectionate term for a white person – I attract a fair bit of attention, including a tag-along group of kids chanting English stock phrases over and over:
‘Hello sir, how are you? I am fine, thaaaank yoooou!’
Those who speak a little more English stop to chat:
‘Where are you from? Why are you here? When is your birthday?’
In this part of Ghana, there are fourteen names: a male and female version for each day of the week. When I tell one woman that I was born on a Saturday, she reacts with a delighted, ‘Oh! I am also called “Amma!”’ as though it is a one-in-a-million coincidence. The child sleeping in a patterned sling on her back is called Amma, too.
At the market, skinny, scruffy dogs weave through the maze of stalls. Vast wooden platters of fat tomatoes and glassy-eyed fish attract clouds of flies; I attract more giggling children, calling, ‘abruni! abruni!’ as I work my way through the list, haggling gently over each item. Everyone takes their time; they have nowhere else to be and, actually, neither do I. It’s a rare and vaguely worrying thought; I always have somewhere to be.
The return journey is through air as hot and thick as soup: I have never sweated so much from moving so slowly. We help prepare dinner sitting in the concrete yard, where the day’s dust gathers ready to be swept up again in the morning, and the evening hours melt into a darkness still heavy with the heat of the absent sun. Later, back under the mosquito net, I try to remember the last time I went to bed at 8pm and think of all the things I would usually do in the evening. But this is Ghana, and on Ghana time, evenings are for dreaming.
About the author: Katherine Walker is originally from the UK, but moved to Cologne, Germany in 2013 after stints in Austria and Argentina. She is just starting out in the travel writing business whilst trying to master the German language in her spare time.
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