Cape Coast, Ghana

There is nothing quite like the sound of the ocean. I stand at the shore, legs sinking further and further into the soft sand as wave after wave – over 1 m high – crashes down on the beach. Intermittent sun coupled with cool breeze off the open Atlantic hits a perfect balance. The sea is vast, extending out all around me. My mind goes blank, as a particular big wave drenches me head-to-toe; only for a moment though, as it recedes quickly with awful force. White foamy water remains, rapidly flowing across my feet. I taste salt in my mouth, sparking memories of countless summers on the beach. I turn around and walk back to shore where some of my EWB colleagues are spread out on the sand. Large, jagged rock faces can be seen not far from where I stand, in both directions. There are old remains of castles embedded in the rocks, in stark contrast to the lodge ahead of me. Castles that are remnants of the busy slave trade this very shore used to harbour. One of North America’s gateways to West African labor. This is definitely one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen.

It has been 24 hours since a bus sped us out of the Northern Region of Ghana. An expansive plethora of thoughts and feelings have been spinning through my head over the last 3 days. My mind and heart now all feel like mush. Homogenous. It feels like nothing. Yet to be sorted out.

I stand here, beach sand crusting every part of my body, and a mix of betrayal, relief, sadness, and excitement surround one thought in particular that reverberates through me:

It’s over.

“You did not keep long.”

It was Friday. Both literally, and figuratively: it was the Friday of my placement.

Pictures. A meeting with the heads of the district assembly. Running through files and reports with various people. The district chief executive putting a traditional Ghanaian smock on me, the customary send-off. Goodbyes. Goodbyes. Goodbyes.

I put my laptop and a host of other papers into my backpack. I walked around the planning office, doing one last survey for any leftover possessions. Heart in my throat, music playing from the computer one of the interns was using, Patience and I slowly walked out of the complex. It was around 11:30. Perfect timing.

I hopped on my bike, looked around at the district assembly for the last time, and slowly pedalled away.

Over to the Ghana Education office, to tie up another loose end: helping Ben change the classifications of Technical and Secondary schools. And of course, yet another goodbye. Work has not ended; EWB will continue to work in Saboba; it’s only my time that has elapsed.

The sun was pleasantly warm as I biked back towards town, knowing this was the last time I was doing so. I had goosebumps. It was market day in Saboba, ideal for some last gifts: some shirts for Elijah, a watch, lots of goodies for the kids. I had already bought cloth for Dana and Hanna.

Suddenly the sky became dark. The temperature plummeted. A storm was coming. A mass exodus began, with people rushing home or rushing for cover. Knowing the drill, I ran back to my bike and started speeding home. Through the throngs of people, light drizzling whipped at my face, and earth-shattering thunder echoed in all directions.

I got home, biking all the way into the compound successfully navigating the narrow entrance. Janet ran to me as usual, excited and playful. Elijah was sheltering from the storm in one of the huts, and I joined him for my last plate of T-Zed. Everything was so… normal. An aura of anticipation and anxiety hung in the air though, as we sunk our fingers into the fiery hot maize. Dana hadn’t said anything to me that day. She broke her silence with one heart-leaping statement: “Don’t go.”

3:45 am. Duncan and I waded through the sewage water that had flooded Saboba because of the rainy season. We slowly walked away, just having said very difficult goodbye to our families.

“It would just be so easy to turn back. Go back to bed. Wake up in the morning, drink tea, bike in to work. It would just be so easy…”

It would be easy. There is so much work to do. We finally have hit a stride and know how to work in the Ghanaian system. We have friends, who we spent 4 hours saying goodbye to the previous day. We have homes…

But there is also lots left to be done in Canada. We have school, families, and a life waiting for us. I’m excited about going back, but I’m not happy to be leaving Ghana.

The conflicting feelings are brutal. Add to all of this the ridiculous level of personal development, pushing for change, questioning, working, and learning… I wont lie: I’m exhausted.

How does all of this apply to Canada? How do I take from this experience and internalize the learnings? What will be my role with EWB going back? How do I avoid reversing some of the changes in me, knowing that familiar environments are a breeding ground for reverting to familiar habits?

Duncan and I loaded our backpacks and plastic bags into the bus, and sat silently and we looked out at the dark outlines of Old Market Square. Normally I itch for the bus to start moving, but this time I didn’t really care. Ironically, it started moving pretty much immediately after we got on. It gained speed, zooming past the small stalls and shops, turned the corner… past the police station and the district assembly… the small stretch of paved road that is Saboba town ended with a bounce, and the unkempt red dirt road began rattling the bus.

I looked back, through the dust clouds our bus was forming. I watched the cell phone tower in Saboba shrink. Then we turned, and with a swoop, Saboba was gone.

That was 5 days ago. I got to Tamale, and was thrust into immediate debrief meetings with the Governance and Rural Infrastructure team. 6 of us were leaving, so as much as possible our experiences and knowledge had to be sucked out of us. It felt like someone had opened a dam.

I had one more loose end to tie up: Yousif. Yousif and I hopped on a bus, and headed to Buipe, a city in the Central Gonja district, where his family lives. Spent Sunday in Buipe, returned Monday morning. I spent all Monday running like a mad man around Tamale, finishing all the last minute things I had to do. I met with my director to discuss the way forward for Saboba.

Early morning on Tuesday, after a sleepless night, all 15 of us loaded our luggage into taxis and began our journey home. Dirt roads became paved highways. Mud huts became concrete, square complexes. Frocks and gowns became jeans and t-shirts. Buildings became higher and higher. Road markings appeared. More cars were visible. There was no more maize growing on the side of the road. At 5 am on Wednesday morning, we arrived: in the harbour city of Cape Coast.

I can picture Saboba in my mind. I can picture Elijah going to the farm in the morning, the women fetching water, the smiles everyone gives you in the morning. I can picture my co-workers at the office, chugging through their regular days. A reality I’m no longer a part of.

Now I’m sitting here, in a much more developed city. Southern Ghana. Running water, widespread education, shopping malls, supermarkets, beaches, industry, traffic jams, and expensive restaurants. I have trouble believing I’m still in the same country. There are elements that remain though, small things that assure me: this is most definitely still Ghana.

What is it going to be like when I return to Canada? Do I go back to just living my life as before? So many things seem so unnecessary now; so excessive. I suppose I will have to. It feels wrong. Many things just feel off to me right now. Something is missing inside of me; I think it’s understanding. Maybe clarity.

And what about school? Sitting in a classroom learning about theoretical engineering concepts… Will I just forget about the last four months? Will it just become a memory as I fall back into my routine ways? I can’t let that happen… how will I find a balance?

I started this blog – in March – with a post called “Crossroads.” This was because at that time I felt I was at a crossroads, ready to dive deep into an experience that would supposedly have lifelong impacts for me. But I have had no choice to come back to where I started: I’m now at a crossroads.

What’s next?

I commit to investing in people at my EWB chapter at U of T. I commit to honestly sharing my thoughts, including letting everyone know when I don’t have answers. I commit to staying up as long as needed, making myself available whenever I can, if someone wants to talk. I commit to searching for ways to improve what we’re doing, and continuing to question our goals and approaches. I commit to questioning and learning from everyone at the chapter, who have life experiences and knowledge that I may not.

I commit to striving for humility. I commit to continue learning, and know the limitations of my own experiences. I commit to provide constructive feedback and critical opinions in the face of uncertainty, and to be okay with being wrong.

I do have a fear. The fear is that people in Canada that I talk to will take what I say at face value. It immediately scares me into not even say anything. Development is complex. People who have worked in this field for their entire lives haven’t figured it out.

This experience is a snapshot of one example of one approach to one sector of development. I am not coming back with answers. I’m not coming back with expertise. I am coming back with a perspective. I am willing to share it, but most of that is my interpretation of that one example of an experience. Feel free to challenge me. Feel free to disagree.

I don’t know what the future holds. I do know, though, that this is only the beginning for me in the field of development. I don’t think I can turn back anymore. One thing is for certain, though: this is not over yet. I don’t know how, I don’t know when; but what I do know is this: I’m coming back.