I learned this custom one of the first days in Jukwa, when the children gathered around while I was taking a shower. Just as I finished and shut off the water for the last time, I heard the distinct sound of giggling right outside the door. Urgent whispers in Twi floated through the crack between the wall and the door, punctuated by an exclamation in thickly accented English of, "There’s a bruni in the shower!"
I dried off and dressed while the whispers continued, then opened the door to find six pairs of wide eyes staring at me. It occurred to me that these children had probably never seen a bruni (colloquial word for "white, foreign woman") before. They continued to stare as I emerged, dripping wet with a towel wrapped around my head, a bucket in my hand, and my bag of shampoo, conditioner, and soap in my arms. I smiled awkwardly and said, "Hi!" but received only a collective giggle in response. They crowded around me, examining everything from the sandals on my feet to the rings on my fingers. Then I felt someone tug at the bag I carried, which held my dirty clothes and toiletries. I looked down at a boy I guessed to be about seven or eight years old. He pointed at my bag then tugged it again, and this time his surprisingly strong voice said, "I carry for you."
"Oh, that’s okay. I've got it, but thanks," I replied.
"No, no, let me carry," he persisted as he lifted everything out of my arms.
"Um, alright. Thank you," I responded. "What’s your name?"
"I am Nicholas. What is your name?" I watched as he placed the bucket on his head, balancing it perfectly, then swung my bag around his shoulder.
"Emily," I replied.
"Em-i-ly." I repeated it more slowly as Nicholas and the other children struggled to pronounce it, then as an afterthought gave my day-name instead. In Ghana, everyone has a second name that corresponds to the day on which they were born, and whether they are male or female. "Akosua," I said at last.
"Ah! Sunday born! I am Sunday born also!" A girl who looked to be about ten years old exclaimed. She pointed to herself and said "Victoria. But day-name Esi." I remembered hearing that Esi was an alternate name for girls born on Sunday.
She put her hand on my arm and gazed up at me. "Can I have address?"
The other children stood nearby and eagerly awaited my response. I knew if I gave one child my address, I would end up giving it to all six of them. I agreed anyway.
"Do you have paper?" I asked. "Or anything to write with?"
None of them did, so I went into our crowded room and retrieved what I needed from my own suitcase. The children’s big eyes grew even wider when they saw me emerge with an entire pack of pens. I’d brought out the unopened pack with the intention of just using one, but the excitement and exclamations brought about by the abundance of writing utensils I carried surprised me, and so I ended up giving each child two pens and a few sheets of paper. They were delighted by the gifts, then pestered me even more for my address, so I copied it six times, one for each of them.
A day or two later, I along with the other members of the group were hit with a much larger onslaught of children asking for addresses. This occurred on our visit to the schools across the street from the house we stayed in. The primary and secondary schools were situated on either side of the library we had been building.
The first classroom we visited was full of eleven and twelve-year-old children. The teacher introduced us as "the Americans." Immediately, the children’s eyes lit up. I glanced at the board and saw they had been learning math.
Then the teacher said, "See, you must get smart. You learn add, you can go to America. You don’t learn add, you must stay here." He paused. "Who wants to go to America?"
Every child raised his hand.
"Will you take them back to America with you?" the teacher asked us. I knew he was kidding, but something in his voice sounded serious about his request.
We said goodbye and began to walk toward the secondary school to visit the older students. The younger children crowded around us, wanting more addresses, more pictures, and more time away from their math class.
As we pulled away at last, a very thin little girl ran up to me and tugged on my skirt. I looked down at her, smiled, and said goodbye again.
"Please, ma’am, please," she begged, "I need a new school uniform. Will you buy it for me?"
Her uniform had many rips and tears, and the color was faded. Despite her tiny frame, it still seemed too small on her. It must have been bought years ago. At some point, I had become numb to this type of request, and somehow I managed to tell her I was sorry, I had no money with me. Of course, I did have money, and I could have easily given it to her, but then what would I tell the rest of the children who would surely approach me with a similar request?
We moved on to a classroom of fifteen- and sixteen-year-olds in the secondary school. The notes on the board showed they were learning about HIV and AIDS – very similar to a sophomore health education class in any given American high school. I introduced myself to a girl named Harriet, who after a few minutes of simple conversation, paused and gave me a contemplative look.
"You are from States?" she asked.
"Yes, I am," I replied. Harriet broke into a wide grin and sat forward in excitement.
"Ahh! So you drive Rolls Royce?" she exclaimed.
My eyes widened.
"No, no, no," I corrected her. "I ride bus."
One evening at dinner, I was helping Christina (our cook) clean the plates after the meal. We had peanut soup, with a small piece of beef on the side and watermelon for dessert. Nicholas had been hanging around, but at the time I didn’t give it much thought. It wasn’t until later, as I scraped the bits of tough meat and pieces of lard that were leftover off the plates, that he came closer to me.
"Can I have that?" he asked. I looked down at the plate I was holding and saw the chunk of beef fat he was pointing to.
"Um, sure," I replied.
Another boy came over, and pretty soon the two of them were vying for the bit of meat. In their struggles, it fell to the ground, into the damp mud from the rain earlier that day. They picked it up and ate it anyway. Every piece of discarded meat, rind of watermelon, and residue of soup I tried to scrape into the pot was quickly scooped up by Nicholas.
I thought that Nicholas was a thin 7-year-old--a young child. Later on, Christina told me that he was actually twelve.