first impressions by david fenchel [August 19, 2014]

Day 01

While sitting in Boston Logan Airport I had already been transported to a far away place. Corralled into undersized Terminal E, numerous delayed flights were simultaneously queued up to make their departures to Frankfurt, Unites Emirates, London and beyond. Burkas, babies and weary travelers were all pushing their way to board their plane. When I had finally boarded my flight, sitting at the gate ready to push off, I glimpsed out the window to see a familiar sight, one I had long forgot, the Boston skyline.

I arrived in Accra an hour late and after an anxious waiting-game of roulette, my bag popped out from behind the metal curtain and onto the conveyor belt. A quick dash through customs, and the customary gauntlet of peddlers, swindlers and chauffeurs, I saw my wife's smiling face - Phew!

The next morning we left Accra and headed to Cape Coast. Our driver, Kofi, narrated much of the trip pointing out all the roadside wares, "see, see that's grasscutter", or "see, see those are coffins", or "see, see those are giant snails". Every town seems to specialize in something different, and the larger ones have them all.

We arrived at Fairhill Guesthouse and were warmly welcomed. After dropping my bags we headed to town for a quick overview of Cape Coast. Hopping out of the shared taxi at Kotokuruba Market, almost immediately I hear, "Habiba, Habiba!" and two smiling face children waited for the familiar response "Hi!"

The market area was full of life, people browsing, buying, selling, or just hanging out. Cars and motorcycles weaved through the sea of people, using their horn more than their steering wheel to get through the crowd. I learned immediately that it's my responsibility to get out of the way if I want to avoid being struck! The smell of food was everywhere- smoked fish, fried chicken parts, grilled maize, and many brightly colored fruits such as watermelon, pineapples, bananas, tomatoes, and oranges (with green peels). These delicious sights and smells were occasionally interrupted with a shift in wind and a brief reminder of the open sewers not too far away.

We turned a corner and I was suddenly being introduced to Saeed and Baba Haruna, of the Zongo Water Committee, as well as a Yusuf and a local shop owner who was so incredibly welcoming. Saeed and Baba Haruna were quick to discuss business with Emily- they had a big day in front of them with the Zongo Sanitation Exercise the following morning. They assured Emily that everything was in place, but that didn't ease her uncertainty that the people would show up.

We ended the day in a familiar place to the ending of many of these journals, Hammad's shop. It was an incredible place to be and having heard so much about Hammad, a wonderful person to finally meet. Gracious, generous and kind, he welcomed me like a brother.

Day 02

We hit the ground running before dawn. We quickly made our way to the Zongo to commence the Sanitation Clean-Up Exercise. This was my first introduction to the Zongo and the municipal representative in charge of sanitation was watching.

Emily and I swiftly moved through the Zongo, ascending the eroded landscape and straddling the open drains, we arrived at a small gathering of people wielding rakes and shovels and ready to work.

I hesitantly put on a pair of rubber gloves and began collecting trash. I cherry-picked my work, not exactly sure what I was collecting and slightly offended by the disturbed sludge that was being shoveled out I the open drains. We eventually settled into a groove and the mounds of trash were piling up. We worked our way around a corner and much to my surprise there were other residents cleaning up too. It was amazing, at least 2 dozen people had been hard at work and when I turn another corner, another dozen people. By the end, many of the various groups working on different sections of the Zongo had gathered to finish the biggest open area. Without a head count, I'd estimate over 60 people of all ages were working together. It was really an amazing experience to be working side by side with so many wonderful and welcoming people. Plus, I have the honor of being the husband of Emily who has earned much respect from the community over many years. While thinking about my wife in this role and her given Muslim name Habiba, I found myself being introduced to Anatu Mohammed, the elder who gave Emily this name. She smiled and expressed how pleased she was to meet me, gave me a warm welcome to the Zongo, and proclaimed me as Mohammedu!

Exhausted from the clean up exercise, we still spent the afternoon working with the children on their script and rehearsing. Afterwards, Awal, the youngest member of the Water Committee and teacher at the Quranic School, also played the role of tour guide and friend. He led us to Cape Coast Castle where we learned more about the region’s horrific past in human slave trade to the West. In the fading daylight we parted ways until tomorrow.