Originally published on PassionPassport.com
In a cab en route from the Accra airport to a bus station in the city center, Clement Boamah turned around to face Lisa Weatherbee.
“What do you think of Ghana so far?” he asked. “What are your impressions?”
Lisa liked Clement, had known they would get along from the moment they met back at the airport, but his question took her aback. She’d barely been in the country for 30 minutes — enough time to notice how green Ghana was, but hardly enough to form actual opinions of the place Clement called home.
When Lisa applied for Photographers without Borders, got accepted, then paired with an NGO in Ghana called the Thaakat Foundation, she had a million questions in her head.
What would life be like there?
Am I going to be safe?
What are the people going to be like?
Will I get along with my host family?
Are the children going to accept me?
Instead of trying to preemptively answer those questions, Lisa told herself to go to Ghana with an open mind and as little expectations as possible. She knew she wouldn’t find the answers until she got there.
But if she’d had the answers to her questions, if she’d had the answers to Clement’s questions, this is what Lisa would have known.
She would have known that she would arrive at the house Clement shared with his wife, Bea, and daughter, Liz, in Techiman in the dead of night.
It would disorient her in the morning, when she woke in a foreign country, on a mattress in someone else’s living room and couldn’t remember where she was. But then Liz, a curious 18-month-old child, would have her morning bath.
Lisa would pick up her camera for the first time in Ghana and ask Bea if she could take Liz’ photo, and Bea would tell her, “Of course. You can photograph anything.”
She would have known that she’d spend her days accompanying Clement on his daily errands for the school he founded in Tanoboase, named Konadu Basic School after his mother. They’d go to the print shop for flyers, to the market for a goat, to and from the school Clement had helped build with his own hands.
In no time at all, Lisa would know about the school. About how Clement had woken up and decided he wanted to start a school. About how, in the beginning there had been one classroom, a handful of students, and Clement had taught all the classes.
But slowly, it had grown. From one classroom to six, a handful of students to nearly 100, no teachers to five or six. There started a mushroom farm and hired a cook and a principal.
She would have known that she’d stick out at the school, but only at first. Lisa and her big camera would fade into the background and she’d wait patiently for the perfect moments.
There would be portrait sessions with each of the teachers, a day entirely devoted to following one student, and photos of all the small details of the school itself.
She would have known that learning is a process that can be captured on camera. It’s possible to see comprehension on someone’s face, and Lisa would search for these tiny, universal moments in the classrooms every day.
Students would read their books, practice their writing, sound out words and learn how to read right in front of her — actions that looked the same in a school in Ghana or the United States. The schools may be different on the surface, but learning always looks the same. Teaching always looks the same. Being inspired always looks the same.
She would have known that when people said, “You are welcome,” they meant it in every sense of the phrase. Lisa would be welcome to anything and everything they had — their food, their home, their kindness.
But it would work both ways. People gave everything, but they expected everything in return. It was a genuine nature, a straightforward lack of awkwardness Lisa would come to appreciate.
She would have known that there would be a trip to a nearby waterfall on the school bus. Family, friends, and teachers would all pile in and they’d play drums and sing the whole way — 18-month-old Liz bouncing up and down on Lisa’s lap as Clement steered the bus down dusty roads.
There would be a day at Bea’s seamstress shop full of laughter as Lisa modeled a dress Bea had sewn right in front of her. She’d wear that dress to the 5-year anniversary celebration at the school later the next day.
She would have known that Clement would organize an African Naming Ceremony for her before she left. He would give her an African name — Adowa Agyeiwaa Boamah — that included his own last name because she had become part of his family and he would always be her brother.
They would spend a day or two traversing the coast of Ghana, Clement telling her about the history of his country with such enthusiasm and Lisa trying not to think about her inevitable departure. It was always destined to be a friendship with a deadline, but would become so much more.
She would have known that Clement and Bea and Liz, the school and the students, Ghana would stay with her long after she returned to New York City.
She would wonder if the students were any closer to getting a library, what kind of things Liz was curious about as she got older, and if Clement would help the school grow into a high school.
She would have known that she would always wonder when, or if, she’d see them again.
But Lisa didn’t know any of that yet.
In a cab from the airport to the bus station, Clement sitting in the passenger seat, Lisa sitting in the back seat, with the bright July sunlight streaming in through the windows, he would turn around, lean over his left shoulder, and meet Lisa’s eyes.
“What do you think of Ghana so far?” he would ask. “What are your impressions?”
Lisa didn’t have answers.