Friends in Equatorial Places: Our first day in Somanya.

Matt, waiting for our first tro-tro.

We arrived in Somanya on the 17th, via tro-tro. Tro-tros are old (mostly cargo) vans outfitted with four added rows of seats to carry between 15-18 passengers. This is a very common way to travel in Ghana; we could have taken a bus or rented a car or hired a driver, but traveling by tro-tro allowed our plans to be flexible, cost a lot less than other travel options, and immersed us into Ghanaian culture. Pumping Hiplife beats and covered in religious window clings and stickers, tro-tros reminded me a lot of Guatemalan chicken buses.

A view from the middle seat.

You can pick up a tro-tro on the street or at a station. The first tro-tro that drove by our hotel was headed for the station we needed, which we knew because of the mate hanging out the window, yelling “Madina-Madina-Madina!”

Most tro-tros have a mate. He lets you in and out, he keeps track of how much everyone owes and how much change he owes everyone, and he hangs out the window yelling destinations. He sits in one of the jump seats adjacent to the door.

The mate.

Madina Station: a view from inside our tro-tro to Somanya.

If you pick up a tro-tro at a station, first you must wander around a vast dirt yard full of vans and exhaust and vendors and ask around until you find the tro-tro that’s headed to your destination.

Once you find your tro, you must wait until it’s full before it’ll go anywhere. To get to Somanya, we didn’t have to wait for too long- maybe 20 minutes for it to fill up.

A man waiting for the tro-tro next to us. He was wearing the perfect shirt for March 17th!

Our tro-tro was full of folks in church clothes- their Sunday bests. Everyone looked really nice. One thing that constantly amazed me in Ghana was how fresh and put-together Ghanaians look while temperatures hover between 90 and 100 with 60% humidity. I was basically a sweaty, grimy mess during our entire trip, except in the 20 minutes immediately following my twice-daily bucket baths. Somehow, women wear long dresses and men wear jeans and no one seems to sweat even a little bit. Impressive.

Anyway, it took just under an hour for us to reach Somanya. The road was well-paved and the many speed bumps meant we never went too fast or passed many other vehicles. Probably 30 minutes into the drive, an old croaky voice started crowing. Everyone giggled and looked around for the culprit- first we thought it was a bird, then maybe a baby goat, but we finally settled on chicken, just chilling in the back seat.

My first glimpse of Somanya! This road leads out of town and to Yikrosec, Matt’s former school.

There was so much to look at as we drove out of Accra and into rural Ghana: mango trees and huts and people. Ghana is a pretty Christian country (which is not to exclude the ~20% of the population that is Muslim- more on this later), as evidenced by shops named things like (and I swear these are all real) The Lord Is My Shepherd Designer Wear, In His Name Hairdresser, Rosary Radiator Specialists, and Trust God Photo Shop. 

Mango tree and Matt.

After we jumped out of our tro-tro, we walked about a kilometer from town to Yilo Krobo Secondary School, or Yikrosec. We passed a few churches, some very quiet houses, and very few people. It was nearly noon, and many folks were inside or at church. Except for the singing coming from Mass and our own shuffling feet, we didn’t hear anything. I am a fast walker but on Matt’s advice slowed down considerably. One thing I loved about being on vacation in Africa: we were never in a hurry to get anywhere.

The gates of the Chief’s house, near the school.
Entering the Yikrosec grounds!

The school was very quiet, too. About half of the students board on campus, and the rest were home. We also weren’t sure, with the imminent strike, if more of the students had gone home.

But a man at the gate remembered Matt immediately: “Kwabena! You are bigger now!” I laughed and patted his stomach. Sidebar: when Matt was in the Peace Corps, he weighed something like 40 pounds less than he does now. Just this side of emaciated. Though he is by no means overweight, every single person we met who knew Matt in the Peace Corps exclaimed some version of “Brother Matthew! You are so fat!” Sounds funny to our American ears, but they were true compliments.

We asked the guard to show us Mr. Gabby’s house- he’s moved since Matt left, but he still lives on campus. The school opened up as we walked: many one and two and four-story buildings, some open-air, most accented with bright green and yellow paint. Screened-in windows open. Roomy courtyards. The students we saw were wearing their Sunday uniforms, their church clothes. The girls are not allowed to have long hair (and truly, in that heat, I was mystified by the women who chose to have long hair and wigs), and they looked very pretty in their white cotton dresses with sweet cap sleeves and peter pan collars. I instantly wanted one.

Suddenly, we saw Gabby, in front of his house and talking to some older male students. He saw us, and even from a distance, I could see his enormous grin. He was wearing an ankle-length tunic with no collar.


Gabby in Real Life is even more animated than Gabby in Pictures. He is really handsome. He has wide-set eyes and a healthy, trimmed mustache that stretches with his impossibly wide smile. He smiles when he talks.

We hugged and shook hands and hugged some more, and then Gabby introduced us to his wife, Jay. She is tiny and very strong-looking. They have a son, Enam, who is 18 months old. He has huge dark eyes and crazy corkscrew hair. Jay was holding him naked on her hip and told us that he was just getting dressed. Gabby said Enam loves to climb and wants to be everywhere Gabby is.

Beautiful Enam! I could not get enough of this kid.
Gabby and Jay invited us in, and we sat in the shade of their breezeway. A student took our bags and brought us cold sachets of water, which we opened with our teeth and gratefully sucked down. My first water sachet! I held it carefully with both hands.

When we felt a little rested and rehydrated, Gabby and the student took us and our bags to the bungalow we were going to stay in. It’s the same house Matt lived in when he was first in Somanya. It has a living room, a kitchen, two bedrooms, a bathroom, and a shower room. No running water, but a rain barrel-sized container in our kitchen was filled to the brim with water we used to bathe and to flush the toilet. It was warm inside, but breezy and shady. I asked Matt how much it was going to cost for us to stay there, and he said, “Nothing.” Gabby had filled our fridge with mango juice, water, and Malta (nonalcoholic drink made by Guinness with “Goodness, Energy, Vitality,” which tastes like a chocolate Tootsie Pop). I felt like we were home.

Paper blog, underway.

Our bedroom. No blankets needed- just a ceiling fan.
Kitchen with a full fridge, thanks to Gabby.
Shower on the left, toilet on the right.
We spent much of the first day wandering around campus and reuniting with the staff- the Kitchen Ladies, who barreled into Matt; Auntie KB, the teacher who mothered Matt when he was at Yikrosec; and another teacher, Paul, and his wife Celestine. 
Outside Paul and Celestine’s house. I was utterly charmed by the livestock on campus.
Mother goat and kids.
It was laundry day. Everyone hand washes and air dries.

Around campus.

I loved meeting Matt’s friends, and I loved being introduced as his wife. We could not have been given a better welcome at Yikrosec. He was missed, and each reunion was full of genuine happy surprise.

But it was really Gabby and Jay who stole the day. Jay made us lunch and had their “girl” (student helper) bring it over to us: jollof rice and chicken. Savory and filling, especially since we hadn’t even realized we were hungry.

After we ate, we gathered up some of the gifts we’d brought and headed over to Gabby’s. He asked us if we wanted to go for a stroll. Why not?
Soon, we were in the back seat of Gabby’s white sedan, a new purchase since Matt has left. He has a Ghanaian flag suctioned to the windshield. Jay sat in the front seat and Enam stood on the consul and just stared at us with his most serious face. We headed north, towards Lake Volta. There was talk of a boat, but neither Matt nor I were sure of the plan.
The afternoon sun made everything look golden and soon, the low mountains came into view. Periodically Enam crawled into his dad’s lap and nestled his head against the door, body tucked under the steering wheel. Matt asked what languages Enam was learning: Dangme, Twi, English? Jay told us that he’s learning all three. Then Matt asked what “Enam” means, and Gabby told us, “Given by God. A gift. It took us a long time to get him.” And then he said, “At school, he will be Matthew. His Christian name is Matthew.” He smiled at us in the rear-view mirror, and we were both awed.

We drove for probably 45 minutes. Sometimes the road was paved, most of the time it was dirt, and occasionally it was washed out to shallow pits of sharp rocks. The mountains got closer, and soon we pulled off into the parking lot of a beach club. This, Gabby said, was new since Matt left. Built in 2010.

At Sajuna Beach Club, there are two big pools, a restaurant that promises “Nice African Food,” a trampoline, and an outdoor seating area next to a jungle gym. It’s all on the Volta River, just south of the Volta Dam that powers the entire country and parts of neighboring countries.

Gabby and his friend, phy-ed teacher Mr. Danso, led us to the dock where they determined the price of renting out one of the nearby pontoons, whose banners proclaim that they are “for happy people only!”

Suddenly, we were all wearing life jackets, including Enam, whose life jacket was adult-sized. Because the boat can hold 14 people, Gabby invited two South Africans who were looking with interest at the boat. “Come with us!” he said. “Let’s make it a party!”

Mr. Danso, Enam, Gabby, and Jay.

The Volta Bridge is really the only way to get from southern Ghana into the Volta Region.

Our new South African friends.

The river banks were crowded with lush forest. We passed tilapia farms and huts and naked kids waving. We waved back. We saw a fancy resort patio with two white people who waved at us. We disturbed many flocks of cormorant-like birds, and Enam entertained us with his dancing.

Tilapia farm.

After we returned, we sat outside and ordered a round of drinks: Malta for Jay and Enam, Smirnoff Ice for Gabby, and for us, Ghana’s special Guinness- it was St. Patrick’s Day, after all! It’s still a stout, but it’s strong- 7.5% ABV. Delicious but dangerous in the heat. When it got dark, I thought we would head back, but Gabby led us to Nice African Food, where he ordered us palm nut stew with banku and grasscutter (Gabby pronounced it “grass-cuttah”)- fancy bush meat. When the food came, everyone left us alone! “We are satisfied!” they insisted. Matt told me that’s pretty common- to be left alone while you eat. He said what I was thinking: “It’s hard to get used to all of the pampering.” So true. But the food was fresh and fantastic, and even though I’ve pretty much stopped eating red meat, I did try the grasscutter. It was tender.

On the drive back, we passed a student on the street in Somanya. Gabby pulled over and called out the open window, “Don’t forget! Study session tomorrow.” As we drove on, he leaned back and told us, with a smile, “We had one tonight, but I didn’t go.”

It was a really good day. I took another bucket bath before bed and slept until the roosters woke us up at 4am.


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