I’ve been working on a project to take me back to West Africa. I’ve been there twice, in 2007 and 2010. Each time, I spent a few months in a village not far from the coast -- a joyful place.
In 2010, I lived for ten weeks in a single room with no temperature control, kitchen, or water. The room opened onto a courtyard full of roaming goats and noise and women cooking fufu. The neighbor’s eight children liked to run into my room to demand impromptu dance parties to a techno song on my laptop. At night, I would eat dinner with my friend Joyce and play with her three kids, the youngest of whom was then aged four. Life was good.
The story of how that happened, and why I am going back, starts in 1998 and involves people from three continents. Despite that, it’s a simple story. It’s about friendship.
In 1998, when I was 16, I sat near Kristin, a Norwegian exchange student, in a high school history class. Early in the year, the teacher pulled me aside to ask me to switch to the AP section. I refused to go. I had a feeling that staying near Kristin was more important than academic ambition.
Kristin returned to Norway in 1999, and in 2002, she traveled to Ghana to volunteer. She landed in a rural village, helping out at a little school.
Joyce, then in her mid-twenties, was the lone teacher at that school. Unfathomably, she taught some four dozen preschool children in a borrowed, unfinished building with no roof or flooring. (Years later, she told me parents would sometimes drop off toddlers without paying, saying hello, or telling her the child’s name.)
Joyce’s work ethic impressed Kristin. Her desire to reward Joyce was part of why she committed to helping the school construct its own building.
Soon she was in Norway again, raising money for the village. The local chief managed construction while Joyce continued teaching. When Kristin returned in 2005, the town gave her a ceremonial post in the traditional village council. Dressing her in kente cloth and carrying her on a palanquin, they named her Nkosoa Hemaa – Queen Mother of Development.
In local parlance, members of a generation are often called siblings. In 2007, I, the Queen’s sister, joined her for a trip to the village. I did an internship at a local hospital, and soon began working with the school.
The real achievement, though, was meeting Joyce. She had three children by then, two girls and a boy. She was still hard-working, trustworthy, and patient. I could see why Kristin remembered her so fondly.
Eventually, in 2010, I returned to the village to do more work. I had a good summer basking in tropical heat, eating delicious Ghanaian food, and working on improving schoolchildren’s nutrition. But again, the real achievement seemed to be knowing Joyce and her kids.
I’d long held the ambition of becoming a doctor. But after going to Ghana in 2007, I realized global health was what I loved. By 2010, I was completing a master’s in public health. It felt great, but I wondered if I should get an MD too. (By then, Kristin was a doctor.)
One day, I was sitting outside Joyce’s house, talking to her oldest girl, then aged thirteen.
Out of the blue, I had a thought. As soon as it occurred, I was sure it was right. I’m not a doctor, my mind said as I looked at Joyce’s daughter. She’s the doctor.
To be clear: Joyce and her children live on a dollar a day. The four lived in one small room, furnished with little more than a single bed. (Two children slept on the floor.) In many ways, it was far from a prestigious education.
Yet Joyce was exceedingly bright, and M. was a serious, studious girl. She had an acute interest in technology, and she’d told me straightforwardly that she was intelligent. I knew M.’s father had left for Canada at age 20 to enter medical school. Given a chance, I thought M. could do it too.
The idea of helping her reminded me of the day in 1998 I turned down that advanced history class. Both involved forsaking my academic ambition in favor of friendship. Both were driven by inner joy.
Both, in the end, seem to be leading me to my true purpose. Without Kristin's invitation to Ghana in 2007, I’m not sure I would’ve found my love of global health. Without giving up on becoming a medical doctor, I'm not sure I could have begun the journalism I love so much.
Sixteen years after that first decision, it's clear friendship with Kristin has been one of the most pivotal relationships of my life. Joyce, too, is an axis around which our world moves. Kristin has spent 13 years working with this village, all of it as Joyce's friend. I now help cover M.’s school tuition. (It still makes me smile.) We three women live on three different continents, yet our friendship feels stable.
My investment in this small spot on the map is not the sole basis of my upcoming work in West Africa—not by a long shot. My global health and journalistic backgrounds prepare me to do much more, and the work will not let me linger in any one village.
But the perspective I gain from this deep investment is unique among foreign reporters. I don’t see West Africa as a dark, disease-infested place. I know how hard life there can be; I’ve seen that close up. But I know people are resilient, hard-working and intelligent, and I remember joyful days with them. The stories one can tell are far more than what we've seen so far.
I am looking forward to returning.