My first journey to Ghana was a key chapter in my life for various reasons. This was my first time getting off an airplane into a world I knew little about and not knowing what to expect since I moved from Russia to Canada in 1995. I came alone – knowing I was to be greeted by family I had never met before. Prior to spending a week in Goi, my excitement was married with an equal amount, if not more, anxiety. I knew Goi was an even further departure from the world I was used to than Accra, where at least I was staying with family that helped me navigate and adjust to the Ghanaian life. I was travelling to Goi not as a librarian, a teacher, or a children’s educator of any sort. I am on my way to becoming a medical scientist –a profession which I’m sure most think has nothing to do with social interaction with anyone except other scientists. Those people are dead-on. Let me assure you – interacting with medical scientists does nothing to prepare you on how to work with large groups of children in a small African fishing village.
And so off I went – armed with a soccer ball, a few books on the Olympic games, and a love for sport that I hoped would carry me through the week. By now you may be asking what business a scientist from Russia has teaching sports to children in an African village. Fair question. My father, one of the most influential people in my life, started his life in a small village in the Volta region. This trip offered me the opportunity to learn where I was from. Children, all over the world, are the same to a large extent. They are excited to learn any new thing. As soon as you offer them an opportunity to learn, they will love you for it. They try – with energy that surpasses my own at least ten-fold. I chose to bring sports rather than textbooks. My own involvement in competitive running back home changed my life for the better, no doubt contributing to my academic achievements.
From the moment I stepped through the library gates to the day I left, I was constantly surprised and touched by the people around me. I may have come alone, but Vivian and all those at the library instantly took me as a part of their family. I wasn’t lonely for a second. I wasn’t an outsider. As soon as they learned I liked to run, the boy’s football team started showing up at my doorstep promptly at 6:00 am. Waking at 5:30, I was the last one up in the village. We ran to the next village and back – I almost died. I’m sure they politely withheld their laughter. I had no clue how I would organize a sports tournament for 200 children that barely understood me when I spoke. Before I could even ask, I had more help than I needed. The young adults became my team leaders. Together, we learned about the spirit of the Olympic games. We wrote poetry. And of course, we practiced. Every day, for three hours or so right after school let out until the sunset, we were in the fields. I coached what I knew about track and field, and we made do with what we had. I wasn’t doing any of the running and I was the first to be tired. Our numbers grew every day and everyone wanted to take part. I only had to introduce something new to them, and then the children took over. They jumped, they ran, they learned how to pass a baton, how to play ultimate Frisbee.
Finally, on Saturday, we held our big tournament. We made our own running track on the field by pouring white beach sand around the football field. It took a few hours. I didn’t even have to ask for help. We played sports all day – from 9 in the morning to 6:30 in the evening. We only stopped because we lost sunlight – otherwise I’m sure the kids had a few more hours of fight in them before they would decide they were tired.
When I left Goi, I left hoping that some of what these kids have was intertwined in my own genes. I met people who give without a second thought. I learned how to make your own problems seem very small, while those of your friends are very big. I met children who need not be motivated. They were motivated before I got there. They are just waiting for someone to teach them – to coach them – to help them make the most of themselves. To give such people opportunity is like watering a seed. Before you know it, it will grow for you a beautiful flower.