Finding family a world away

Jennifer Bishop with her younger “sister,” Matilda, in Ghana. (Submitted)

It’s 2:30 p.m. and I just got home from school. My dad is outside and the rest of my family is nowhere to be found. I see my mommy’s flip-flops, kicked off in front of her door and assume she’s taking her afternoon nap. I go inside, change out of my school clothes and come back outside to sit with my dad.

This sounds like it could happen anywhere. Picture it now: my dad is sitting in the yard that is covered in sand – not grass – in the shade of a coconut tree. He weaves his traps for lobster – what would be called shrimp in Canada – using palm tree leaves instead of wood.

My sisters are still taking their time walking home from school. My brother is waiting for a boat to take him back across the river to the island. My mommy is napping in her house – made of mud with a grass roof – sleeping on a grass mat. I take a lawn chair outside with me to sit with my dad to just watch him work.

***

In May, I went to Ghana until mid-August with the Intercordia program. I lived with a family and taught English in the local school.

When I got to the island I was staying at, John, the island’s assemblyman, showed me to my house. It was made out of mud with a grass roof. My room was large with a double mattress on a frame my dad built from wood. My mommy was at the market and my sisters were all at school except Christina. She later came to greet me.

“You are welcome,” she said.

My mommy came home from the market shortly after. She was a quiet woman with a big smile and the odd missing tooth. She spoke little English. She asked me if I was sick or if I didn’t like something she cooked. I sat and nodded without saying much. I think we were both scared.

When the assemblyman left, Christina wanted me to go fetch water from the river with her. I was unfamiliar with the paths on the island and wasn’t sure where we were going. She sensed my hesitance and took my hand. We walked hand-in-hand until we reached the water.

When we got back, my mommy and Christina brought me into the kitchen. It was one of three buildings in my compound. The only furniture my family owned besides my bed were plastic lawn chairs, a few small hand-made wooden tables, small stools and one plastic patio table. We each took a lawn chair and sat and ate watermelon together.

When my three younger sisters Beatrice, Deborah and Matilda came home from school they ate watermelon with me. My mom introduced me to my sisters and brother as “sister Jen.” The youngest, Matilda, wanted me to play with her right away. I knew then that my best friend for three-and-a-half-months would be a six-year-old girl with spaced out baby teeth, a huge smile and a big belly laugh.

My dad got home shortly after the girls. He was a pastor and was at meetings for the church all day. He wore a gray pin stripe suit and a smile that said he was happy to see me. He extended his hand to do the customary Ghanaian handshake.

“You are welcome,” he said.

***

My second week on the island I got malaria. My mommy told me to go and rest. Later in the day, when she realized I hadn’t eaten lunch because I wasn’t feeling well, she made sure I ate and took my medicine.

Over the weeks, I spent more time with my sister Matilda and my dad. In the afternoons, I’d come home and sit with my dad while he worked. We’d have conversations about the differences between Ghana and Canada, animals, plants, foods and anything else he was curious about. Whenever he left the island to go to meetings for the church, he’d bring me and Matilda cookies as a treat.

“You and Matilda, you are the babies,” he’d say.

My dad is one of the hardest working men I’ve met. He fished in the morning and at night, went to meetings for the church through the week, attended church service Sunday, did work around the house and always tried to provide the best for his family.

One day when my dad was doing work on the house, he needed help to fetch water to break down hardened pieces of mud. My sister Beatrice was helping my dad get the water. After getting a bucket-full, she ran away to play with her friends. I got off my chair and offered to help him. After walking back and forth a few times to get water, he looked at me and said, “Now I can tell people that my Canada daughter helped me build my house.”

***

Every night after supper, my sisters put out a grass mat on the floor. Matilda and I would lie on the mat and have tickle fights. I’d lie on the floor and point to her and say, “Ready, ready, ready?” and she would put her hands up in the air and wait for me to tickle her. Her big belly laugh filled the room.

One night, I was sick and Matilda was lying on the floor on the grass mat. She looked up at me, put her hands out and said, “Ready, ready, ready?” I explained that I wasn’t feeling well and she said, “No me,” and put her arms in the air to wait for me to tickle her.

I was completely dependant on my family members the entire time I was in Ghana. My mommy and sisters washed my clothes by hand because I didn’t know how and they didn’t want me try. I was told when to eat, what to eat and wasn’t allowed to help with any meal preparation. If I came home from school without eating all of my lunch, mommy gave me an upset look and when I ate it all, she was happy.

And even though everything wasn’t always happy or positive, I grew in Ghana.

I learned that it is okay to depend on people when you need their help.

After going through some really hard times during my three-and-a-half-months in Ghana, I was more sad than happy to be leaving.

I carried Matilda around with me the entire day before I left.

When I did go, I had to give Matilda to my older sister. We cried together. We went from strangers who could barely communicate, to understanding each other without words.

My dad came from a meeting and met me in town. He prayed for my future, that I would return to Canada safely and that someday I would come back to Ghana.

It was then that I knew that I will always have a second family in Ghana.

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