I’ve told you a little bit about what exactly I’m doing in Ghana, and eluded to the fact that why I’m here is still a mystery. How I arrived in this West African country is its own story worth telling.
“You should visit me in Ghana next year while you’re traveling the world,” she suggests nonchalantly as I sip my tea and share my plans with her. I nod and smile, “Sure, why not? I’ll see if I can work it out somehow…” We were both in Ecuador at the time and honestly, Ghana was the farthest thing on my mind. I went along with the idea like every solo traveler who sincerely likes the idea of someday, somewhere, reuniting with a traveling friend to relive old experiences and make new ones. A few weeks later I went home and continued making travel plans leaving out all intentions to visit Ghana or Africa, for that matter.
Adeline and I were treated to amazing home cooked meals and hospitality by this missionary family. Ecuador, 2012.
Then a funny thing happened. My mom came home one afternoon and handed me a pamphlet from a couple raising funds for a mission in Ghana. “I think you should contact them, they need nurses to help with their project” she told me. “I’m not planning on going to Ghana, Mom” I reminded her, but took the pamphlet anyway. A few days later an advertisement for a Workaway in Ghana popped up in my sidebar while I was researching volunteer opportunities in Europe. “Well that’s sort of weird,” I thought. “I’ve never given a second thought to Ghana and twice in one week it’s randomly appeared.” I clicked on the link and read about an organization rescuing children from child labor and putting them in school. I was intrigued, but unconvinced. I tucked the information away in a secret corner of my mind and continued looking at pictures of French cottages and dreaming of quaint seaside villages.
Essaouira, Morocco 2013
Still, for some reason Ghana persisted in my thoughts. I mentioned the strange coincidences to my Dad and he shook his head. “I don’t know Mariah, maybe it means something, maybe it doesn’t.” A week later he called me excitedly. “Guess who I ran into at church today? Guess where they’re traveling to for a mission trip in October?” A family friend had casually bumped into my Dad and shared his plans to visit…you guessed it, Ghana.
I’m not a huge believer in signs, but I do think God can design seemingly random coincidences to grab our attention. He suddenly had mine. “Why does Ghana keep coming up? What’s waiting for me there, why am I supposed to go?” I couldn’t answer any of these questions but I had been praying that God would direct and lead my path during my travels. I couldn’t exactly ignore the fact that He was apparently answering my request, even if it wasn’t the way I had anticipated.
It’s not that I didn’t want to go to Africa. I’ve always felt a special calling to this continent. It was just that I didn’t want to go right now.
For years before I first stepped foot on its rich red soil, I knew that Africa was going to play a significant part in my future. It first appeared on my radar when I watched the movie Hotel Rwanda in high school with a friend. I remember crying and feeling a sense of injustice and shame at how the international community had responded (or failed to respond) to the genocide. I had never focused on Africa before, but after watching this movie, it suddenly had my interest.
When I went to University my passion for Africa grew. As a college freshman I organized a group of students to travel from Chicago to Washington D.C. to march on the Mall and raise awareness about the genocide in Darfur.
I cried my eyes out after watching Blood Diamond, and listened in awe anytime a guest speaker from Africa arrived on our campus. I completed a research paper about HIV and AIDS in the Sub Sahara and interviewed a pastor from Zambia who told me something I will never forget. “People always describe Africa as ‘The Dark Continent.’ Africa is not a continent of darkness, it’s a continent of light!”
One year later I had the chance to fully understand what he meant for myself. I traveled to Zambia and participated in a short-term mission trip with Hope Ministries, working with the same pastor I had interviewed earlier in Chicago. I remember crying joyfully this time as I was welcomed by a group of singing and dancing students. As part of their welcoming ceremony the younger boys sang an old hymn, “We are soldiers, soldiers of the Lord.” As they marched in place I remember laughing and smiling with such a feeling of content satisfaction thinking, “Finally, I’ve arrived.”
Hanging out with my host family during my first trip to Africa!
So why was I hesitant and fearful to return to a place I knew was intertwined with my destiny? “I feel like Africa is my black hole. I’m going to get there and it’s going to suck me in and I’m never going to leave” I explained to my sister. I wasn’t sure I was ready to be sucked into the black hole of Africa, even if it wouldn’t be a completely negative experience!
“Mariah, don’t you think that when you are in the center of God’s will, that’s where you’ll want to be?” My mother’s wise words made sense in my head but they failed to penetrate my heart. I reluctantly penciled in a small space for Ghana in my travel itinerary, begrudging time away from my first priorities of touring Europe and Asia.
Fast forward nine months. I was in the middle of my year of travel and had just finished spending three months backpacking through France and Spain like I’d wanted to. I met new and old friends, drank wine, and went to museums. I practiced my French and took photographs of important monuments. I ate macaroons on my birthday in Paris and went to more beaches than I can count.
Arcachon, France 2013
On the surface I was experiencing everything I had dreamed of and more. I was enjoying my freedom and having my fun. Except it wasn’t really all that fun. I struggled more than I’d like to admit. I had a challenging first Workaway experience, spent more time alone than I would’ve liked, and had my heart broken. After weeks of traveling from place to place, eating pastries and looking at old buildings, I was starting to feel depressed. I was tired of saying goodbye, tired of feeling a lack of purpose.
“I think you have to go to Africa,” my friend told me. “You’re not going to find the life changing experiences you want while you’re in Europe.” At the end of my time in France, I was starting to agree with him, but I was still dragging my feet. I resented God’s directing me to Ghana. It felt like an obligation, a pit stop on my road of self-discovery and fun, a place to pay my dues and then move on.
Like a willful child who knows their parents know best, but still insists on ignoring their thoughtful instructions, I failed in every way to make preparations for my trip to Africa. I bought my roundtrip plane fare to Ghana before applying for the visa and mailed the application with my passport back to the States only weeks before I was scheduled to leave. When my passport got lost in transit between France and Spain two weeks before I was supposed to be in Ghana, I started to panic. I knew God was calling me to Ghana but I truly believed my failures would get in the way. I felt frustrated and angry with myself for being so stubborn and resisting the very direction I had asked for.
Sitting outside of the U.S. embassy in Paris, still lacking a passport and visa, I finally gave it back to God and admitted my own defeat. “God, You are Good and Faithful. You are bigger than my mistakes, bigger than my failures. You are a Redeemer.” I didn’t know how the details were going to work out, but I suddenly had a sense of peace about the whole situation. If God really wanted me in Ghana, He would prepare the way.
I finally recovered my passport but the Ghana embassy in the U.S. had failed to process my visa application. After making several appointments at immunization clinics and failing to go to each one, I didn’t have the required documentation I needed for the yellow fever vaccine either. I left Europe and boarded the plane for Ghana, still unsure if I’d be allowed entry into the country. I knew I had an emergency visa waiting for me at the airport, but all I had was a slip of paper to show for it. I nervously arrived at the airport and told the immigration officer my story. After a small bribe to the lady checking for everyone’s immunization record, I was allowed in.
I shouldn’t be surprised that it took several small miracles for me to get here. Not to mention several nudges and shoves in this general direction. Coming to Ghana has never been my idea, and I truly believe God wanted to show me that there was nothing I could do to ruin the plans He has for me here. From the very beginning He has been in control of this journey and I can’t wait to see what He has planned next!
I love this candid shot one of my students captured!