As far away as I am, there’s not terribly too much I can do for my wonderful mother on Mother’s Day aside from grant her her one wish: “No more dirty feet.”
So for starters, here’s a lovely picture of us.
It’s a special brand of mother that can not only be at peace with a child’s wanderlust but fully advocate it. She’s always the one helping me tie loose ends together as I prepare for another stint in yet another far away place, and she does so with quiet yet unrelenting support that inspires me in times of uncertainty. She is the last face I see when I leave, and the first one I see when I come home, rounding the bend at the arrivals terminal at O’Hare in our trusty black Honda Pilot, headlights illuminating my squinty face as I struggle to make out the license plate. Yes, it is my mother. Yes, I am home.
So, for all that she does for me, I can at least hold up my end of the bargain and provide her with a snapshot of my life as it is. I’ve spoiled everyone with routine blog entries in the past, and it seems some of you are hurtin’ for updates.
In a word, the past four months have been a blur. Sleepless nights drowning in seas of fabric, negotiating contracts, managing the production of 3,000 pieces of clothing in a little over a month… Here’s a sentence or two from a blog entry I started in March and never finished, entitled “a season of firsts”:
Nothing has changed and yet everything has changed. The ropes I thought I knew have been restrung and I’m taking care not to fall. I’m living and learning and experiencing more each day than I imagined I would as a returnee — I guess even a six month veteran has room to grow.
And grow, I have. A comment from my father provoked some introspection but I can see it now. I’m no longer only the soft, playful, adventurous Rachael of the past — Della has morphed me into the makings of a savvy business woman that people take seriously. Some days, I can count over eighty calls going through my phone from different people needing different things in different places. I feel a bit like the Don. So yes Dad, I agree. To both your dismay and delight, I’ve seemingly crossed the threshold into adulthood and workhood.
So now the reason behind the blur, the silence, and the growing up. Thank you, Urban Outfitters. By now most of you have heard that a Della X UO collaboration comprised of jackets, shorts, crop tops, rompers, backpacks, hats, and headbands is on sale and ready for purchase. I like to refer to the collection as my blood, sweat, and tears, because that is exactly what it is. I can safely say I’ve never worked so hard for something in my life and the end result is rather rewarding. The fact that each article of clothing that came to life in Ghana and passed through so many knowing, weathered hands is hanging on a rack ready to be purchased in a store that I frequent is surreal. If I ever see someone walking down the street dressed in one of our pieces I think I’ll either faint or throw up on myself.
Now Della is getting a lot of positive attention from all around, and I can only foresee great things coming our way.
So anyway Mom, there’s your update, the first of many. I love you and am thinking about you, today just like any other. Happy Mother’s Day.
Two and half months ago, I left. For Parisian drizzle and orange skies, smoked salmon and roquefort, and bittersweet reunions with faraway friends. For Irish hospitality, drunken harmonizing, and doors left ajar. For my mother, my father, my sisters, and my brother. For snuggling and stocked kitchens. For a Christmas I missed last year. For the comfort that a true home brings to one who has set up house in distant lands.
One month ago, I returned. To hugs, beaming smiles, kinetic mobs of children and adults, twinkling eyes, scorching sun, and moist air. To taxi horns and bicycles. To the slightly malfunctioning, can’t-keep-it-clean place where I lay my head each night. To dirty feet and bucket baths, powdered milk and dreadlocks. To goats, turkeys, and stealthy pigs the size of small boats. To the rhythm and careful dance of the bursting-at-the-seams market. To clown car-esque travel. To beautiful mangos, generosity and savage green. To home for now.
I like to measure the success of a day by my feet. How many roads did I walk? How many people did I see? How many things did I discover? The cleaner they are, the less I accomplished. These days, my feet are the filthiest they’ve been in a while, which can only mean that I’m doing pretty well.
Let me start by announcing that I’ve decided to return to Ghana in January of 2013 to continue my work with Della. The past six months were incredible, and I’m not ready to close the book on it all just yet. I’ve many more things yet to both learn and contribute.
I’ll admit I was a little bad with keeping you up to date during my final few weeks, but I was busy making the most of the days I had left and certainly trying to minimize computer time. So allow me to catch you up on my last month.
It started with a lovely motorcycle adventure to the seaside west of Accra with my friend Brendan —
(highlights include skinning my knee really badly in the ocean, finding this abandoned, crumbling fortress on a hilltop, and eating delicious and enormous seafood),
Zyad and I made a cushion out of Della scraps for the seamstresses,
and decided to run around the neighbor’s compound with it, Chinese dragon-style, which they all found quite entertaining.
We took on a third manager named Pious. He’s only 3 years old, but very qualified. Here he is, hard at work.
My surprise photography distracted him momentarily from the task at hand,
But he got back to work pretty quickly. Not easily distracted. Very diligent.
We had our own version of Thanksgiving dinner, albeit turkey-less,
saw the most beautiful mountaintop, waterfall, and greenery in all of Ghana,
witnessed many a downpour,
emptied our stock room,
and I learned how to ride a manual motorcycle.
As you can see, it was a busy month!
My final day in Ghana was spent with my coworkers and the seamstresses at the famous Wli Falls, a popular tourist destination in our region. Although it is a mere 30 minutes drive from town, many of the women had never been. We thought it’d be a nice way to say goodbye.
The bus ride was…animated, to say the least. It reminded me of a field trip in grade school. There was no lack of noise as the ladies filled the air of our rented bus with songs and laughter.
Upon arrival, a few of the women looked on in awe at the powerful falls as one said, “God has done well.”
Individual shots of every woman followed, as is custom at any gathering in Ghana. Here are two of my favorites. Stoic Edith,
and Rose, queen of the Volta.
Here we all are, before deciding to swim in our clothes.
And here are the bats.
One wasn’t so lucky. This man took him home to eat…
After witnessing the bat man retrieve his afternoon snack, we all decided to get wet.
It wasn’t easy, but we eventually got everyone out of the water, dried off, and ready to head back to the bus. Here I am with Leticia after she braided my hair.
And here is Mama Christie, known around the workroom as Mama Christ (she’s a saint). After I took this photo, she said this: “I want to thank you people for taking us here today, to witness this beautiful place that God has made. I did not know it before.”
After a short walk, we were on our way home.
The last time I saw the women was as I got off the bus that day.
I can’t wait to see their smiling faces in January.
I bet if you survey 100 random Ghanaians, each of them will tell you they’ve fallen in a gutter at least once. When I say gutter, I’m not referring to what you put on a roof to collect leaves, but rather what lies on either side of any given road here in Ghana. We have drains, they have ditches filled with rainwater, trash, animal droppings, resembling something I might call gook. It is all too easy to walk into one and fall, as it is to ride your bike into one, especially in the dark. I now know first hand that even a 31-year-old street-wise man who has been living and driving in Hohoe for many years can end up with a front wheel in the gutter.
As you know, I’ve been making the most of my free time by scooting off to sights and new heights. Equally important is investing time in the people around me, like my neighbors, my friends, and the Della seamstresses.
Upon returning from Burkina Faso, I spent the afternoon with the kids on the porch. They met me with towels as I returned from town, soaked to the bone after a surprise downpour. They helped me fix the gutter to help harvest some grey water, they taught me some hand games, and I taught them how to step. Yes, I know how to step.
Aggie, my little darling, got all worked up because she was too young to play with the big girls and I, so I strapped her to my back the way that all women here carry their children and she immediately mellowed out. I didn’t hear a peep from her the whole time. Works like a charm. Do you think people will look at me funny if I start doing this in the US?
It was a lovely afternoon.
Check out Justine’s account of our makeshift Ghanaian Thanksgiving on the Della blog.
My time in Ghana is coming to a close. The days seem to fly by as we work away, slipping through my fingers like grains of sand. In an effort to avoid the woulda, shoulda, coulda’s that often surface at the close of a voyage, I’ve jam-packed my remaining weekends with getaways and adventures to waterfalls, mountaintops, and seasides.
Two weeks ago, we took a moto-taxi along beautiful winding back roads to the base of Mt. Afadjato, the highest peak in Ghana topping off at a whopping 885m. Seriously, what a joke. After summiting 3,080m to Piton des Neiges in Réunion, I thought it would be a breeze but I was huffing and puffing the whole time. I guess 885m is still significant.
The top was breathtaking albeit shadeless and scorching (a common theme here in West Africa). Some genius child hauled up ice cream and was selling it at five times the price. I would’ve purchased had it not been melted.
We took an alternate path on the way down because we heard it led to some waterfalls. What they did not tell us was that the path down was steep, slick, and void of roots. A group of five rangers actually escorted one woman to the end, installing ropes and supporting her. So, what did I do to avoid falling down the mountainside without the help of gallant park officials? I slid down on my derrière.
After reaching ground level, we hiked to Tagbo falls for a swim. I was pleasantly surprised to find that the water was not frigid like in La Réunion. The walk back to Liate Wote was peaceful and accompanied by a light drizzle. I walked alone for the most part, with Zyad far ahead and the girls far behind, singing songs and taking it all in, thinking about how lucky I was to be there in that moment, in the middle of nowhere Ghana, a place I never imagined I’d be, all the while wondering what is to come.
Meet our trusty, diligent, hard-working sewing machine repair man, Grave. He does a good job, but likes to take naps wherever possible. Don’t worry, we do not pay him an hourly wage.
You haven’t heard from me in a while because I’ve been traveling!
After 20 grueling hours in a bus and 2 hours in a taxi, we arrived in Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso. It’s a mouthful to say, and I think I left with a mouth full of dirt. It’s a shadeless, breezeless, roasting city bursting at the seams with donkeys, zooming motorcycles, and artists! We went to participate in a trade show called SIAO.
It was something like a carnival. There were cotton candy stands and children in paper hats running around with stuffed animals and balloons. There were more white people that I’ve seen in a while. There were four or five rooms filled with vendors selling beautiful sculptures, furniture, jewelry, clothing, shoes, and hand-loomed cotton. Others shared innovative solutions to common problems, like weaving baskets out of garbage (see third photo!). We stayed for three days displaying Della goods and meeting with possible buyers. It was quite the experience, but I was definitely ready to leave by the end. After deducing that no amount of “ice cream” (frozen chocolate milk) would cool me down, I decided the only answer was to move south toward the coast and back into Ghana. I was homesick for Hohoe!
Instead of taking a bus from the border to Accra, we made our way down to Hohoe slowly but surely, sightseeing along the way. We stopped in Mole National Park hoping to see elephants, but had no luck. Now that we’ve entered the dry season, they’ve moved into Togo in search of water. We did see our fair share of warthog during a walking safari. The baboons came in the afternoon when we were poolside, audaciously strutting around on the hotel grounds, drinking chlorinated water and attempting to get dinner from the kitchens. Later on while stargazing, a herd of gazelle walked past me to feed, their white spots illuminated by the light of the moon. No amount of words can describe what I witnessed or how I felt the whole while, but suffice it to say it was magical.
It was a whirlwind of a trip filled with new people, new places, and too much public transportation. I’m happy to be back in home and stationary for the time being.
For the first time in a while, I was concerned about the dirt under my nails and my bizarre gladiator sandal tan lines. No dress fancy enough, so I set out to sew one. When I wasn’t sewing, I was running around town like a chicken with it’s head cut off trying to find a pair of high heels that were simple, stylish, and rhinestone free. It’s not an easy task, believe me. “If only I would’ve packed a pair,” I kept telling myself, but I never thought I’d have an excuse to wear them on the muddy back roads of Hohoe. But then again, I never thought I’d have the honor of representing Della at the screening of USAID’s launch of The Ghana Multimedia Branding Campaign at the renowned Labadi Beach Hotel in Accra.
What a classy affair. It started with a red carpet and photos, was followed by wine, snacks, and socializing, and ended with a round of applause for Tina, Della’s founder.
The documentary featured Della as a shining example of a successful business venture in Ghana, with the hope that others might take the leap and invest in this bountiful country. It was a proud moment for all of us. We only wish Tina could’ve been there as well!
Now we’re back in Hohoe and I’ve traded my high heels for barefeet. While it’s admittedly much more comfortable, I’d be more than happy to don it all again in the name of Della!
P.S. You can watch the feature here.
Now that I’ve completely recovered, my entourage is obsessed with maintaining my health. This includes telling me what to eat, how to prepare what I eat, when best to venture into town, how to dress when the weather turns chilly, and the list goes on and on. Raymon suggested I be more active, so he invited me out for a Saturday afternoon bike ride to the “Talking Falls.”
In the end, they weren’t exactly falls and they didn’t exactly talk — all I could hear were the faint whispers of a coursing river. The true highlight of the day was the gorgeous bike ride there.
After being cooped up in the house for so long, the rich hues of the outside world amazed me. The brilliant green of the rice fields, the ash blue mountains, the burnt orange earth, the bright blue sky. What a breathtaking combination. I only wish I could’ve shared it with you.
For those of you that don’t already know, I’ve been pretty ill these past few weeks. I threw in the towel after about a week of feeling crummy and went to the hospital, where the doctor diagnosed my sickness as malaria. Who knew? Despite all my efforts to avoid it, it won out in the end.
The worst part about the whole malaria experience wasn’t necessarily the pain but rather the fact that I was a bedridden, useless citizen of Hohoe for over a week. I felt so guilty staying up in my cozy top bunk, even though I knew it was the right thing to do. You see, I’ve been trying my hardest to become a part of this community, and I do so by investing time in the people and places that matter most. I genuinely try to make a few friends and see everyone I know each and every day, and this whole malaria business scrapped all those efforts. Or so I thought…
Seems as though all the time I’ve spent getting to know people really paid off, because I couldn’t count all the concerned visits, texts, notes, calls, presents, or prayers if I tried. When I couldn’t come to town, the town came to me. Raymon came to the house about once a day to see if I was “feeling strong,” the Della seamstresses would check in on me periodically to make sure I was on the mend, my friend Brendan brought me a piece of chocolate cake, 12-year-old Wisdom from Happy Kids found me on facebook and wished me a speedy recovery, Rejoice prayed for me, Enoch sent a concerned text, my roommates fed me and brought me tea, even the taxi driver that brought me to the hospital stopped me in town to ask how I was feeling. Not only did I feel better, but I felt pretty loved.
And you know what? Now I’m all better and I still feel loved so that means it must be real.
My good friend Raymon is an artist in every sense of the word. He paints, beads, weaves, draws, makes shoes, sews, and lives in his own world. I stop by his shop most days to say hi. The other day, I mentioned I was feeling a little stressed and in response, he handed me a canvas, paint, and some brushes. He told me art would make me feel fine.
I’ve only ever painted a portrait of Tony Blair for extra credit for my Comparative Politics class in high school, so I was a little nervous. When I finally ended up putting pencil to canvas, I sketched a lion. An hour or so later, it became what you see in the photo. I put some words (Raymon insisted) and I’ve given it to him to sell in his shop. I wonder who will buy my de-stresser masterpiece?
Della has taken on a new intern now that Heidi has gone to Rwanda and Alexa is back in sunny California. His name is Zyad, and yesterday was his birthday.
Although you are all familiar with Ghana’s birthday traditions, Zyad was none the wiser and we decided a good old fashioned water dousing would serve as the perfect initiation to working for Della.
Now that I manage to speak Ewe vide vide, I was able to communicate secretly with the women during a large group meeting to introduce Zyad, telling them, “Water. Plenty of water. Outside. Not now, later. At 4:00.” Zyad looked at me with confused yet trusting eyes while I explained that the women had just informed me that they wanted to take a group photo with him outside after the meeting. “Oh, ok.”
They armed themselves with water bottles, water sachets, and filled up from the water bucket outside the workroom while unsuspecting Zyad chatted with Grave, the sewing machine repairman, on the porch.
I readied the camera and called him over. He warily approached the chair they had set out for him, seeing right through their suspiciously wide grins.
Lydia and Esenam began the attack, and Vic followed with an impressively strong and steady stream from her water sachet. I was very impressed by their dedication, and told them afterwards that I was proud beyond words.
Speaking of words, Zyad learned his first in Ewe that day: akpe nami, meaning “Thank you all very much.”