Akwaaba to the Real World

MANKESSIM, Ghana—“You’re my friend! Where is your cam-er-a?” clamor a horde of children around me.

“Oho. No. I don’t have one.”

Most walk away–suddenly, I’m no longer their new best friend!–and I take a look at my fellow volunteers around me. A few are snapping photos of the impressive, welcoming dance festival in our community in Ghana, and most of the rest, I know, have cameras in their bag–or are sharing snapshots with the eager kids.

I’m in Ghana for more than a month, doing a sustainable water internship and travelling around the country. I’m making tons of new friends in this humid and hospitable land. And, of all things to forget (got my malaria pills and quick-dry pants!), I left my camera at home.

I’ve never been more grateful for one of my careless mistakes.

Too often, while exploring and volunteering in new places, I’ve treated every moment like a snapshot waiting to happen. Did you catch that exotic bird flying across the sunset? Click! Oh my God, this jewelry merchant is so friendly – I want a picture with him. And then the harder moments – hiding behind a lens as I snapped hundreds of pictures of Auschwitz; photographing Honduran and Chilean orphans whose lives were vastly more difficult than my own.

Without my Nikon, I feel liberated. I picked up a 30-photo disposable camera in Heathrow, but I’ve yet to wind one frame. I am staring at the world around me and, for the first time, I can feel it staring back.

I always thought I needed photographs to fully remember experiences. Maybe I do – I won’t get results from my unexpected photo-free experiment until I’m back home. Somehow, though, my senses are sharper without my technological crutch. There’s nothing to hide behind, no other way to view my life. I am dancing and building and planning and learning every day; without my camera as a reminder of my normal lifestyle, I’m more immersed in Ghanaian culture than that of any other country I’ve stayed in.

Well, except for the language. I’ve dutifully learned “Abwaaba!” – “Welcome!” as well as a few other handy Fante phrases like “We fre me Leanna.” Yet I’ve only mastered that one because it sounds like “You friend me?” Without the thoroughly modern invention of Facebook, I wouldn’t remember how to introduce myself. Technology, it appears, can both help and hinder these experiences.

Leanna B. Ehrlich '14, a Crimson arts writer, is a Human Evolutionary Biology concentrator in Lowell House.

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