Gratitude and the kola nut: the end of the road in Ghana


There is a saying in the Northern Region of Ghana that says, “Kola nut lasts in the mouths of those who value it.” Kola nuts come from a tree in the rainforests of Africa and are used in many ceremonial traditions, including guests visiting a chief in Ghana. You are expected to bring kola nuts to the chief whenever entering a new village to make your presence known and request permission to be working there. The kola nut is broken into pieces and chewed by many in the group. It’s known to have revitalizing qualities. It also has a good deal of caffeine in it.

The saying pertains to the belief in Ghana that anyone who takes part or enjoys something will find it much more meaningful if it is something they truly value. When it comes to my time in Ghana I can say that has definitely been the case for me. Yes, there have been many set-backs, but I’ve also found experiences that have broadened my horizons and set me on a path that will be guided by a better understanding of the world around me.

This journey I am on began 30 years ago when I was only seven and living in a small mobile home with my mother in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains in north Alabama.

At the time I had no idea of the world around me outside of the months-old magazines my mother would buy me at the Goodwill store – a thrift store full of things from second-hand clothes, to board games that were missing pieces, to old televisions, to antique typewriters, to piles of old magazines. On one visit my mother scraped together enough change to buy me an old typewriter. On every other trip she would buy me copies of old National Geographic magazines for 25 cents each. It ended up being a way she could reward me for high marks in school or for good behavior. My mother had no idea what direction she was setting me off in when she purchased that old typewriter and those magazines covered in rings from coffee cups.

In my bedroom I would read of Jane Goodall and the Gombe Stream National Park animal preserve and of Dian Fossey and the gorillas. I got to know each animal as if they were my own. I would tear up at the loss of a baby chimpanzee or the killing of an alpha male in battles of dominance. My world was school and the forest surrounding our home, and that was it. With those old magazines, though, I could travel around the world without ever leaving my room. With my typewriter, I would craft stories of adventures on far-flung shores in cultures I had never experienced. My dreams kept me going in the dark times of watching and hearing my parents fight the few times my father came around. The pop of the keys on the page became my catharsis, and a dream was formed in my head. I would go to these places one day – these places so brilliantly described by the anthropologists of the National Geographic Foundation.

I became Thor Heyerdahl sailing the raft Kon-Tiki in the Pacific. Other times I was Roald Amundsen and a hardy crew of men seeking the South Pole. What was ultimately a survival mechanism for me at the time became an undying part of who I was and who I would become. At times on our thrift store visits I would find subjects that interested me in fifteen to twenty year old volumes of the Encyclopedia Britannica. Most of the sets were missing but each individual book was fifty cents. I didn’t have a whole collection, but I had the ones that interested me and allowed me to further research the things I learned about in my growing collection of magazines. Many times I was lucky enough to find a ten cent book on West Africa or the ancient tribes of Central and South America.

I unknowingly honed my writing skills and ended up taking part in competitions years later. Without even knowing it I was giving myself an education on other countries and cultures that, at the time, were only known by university professors. I vowed one day I would experience these cultures first-hand.

Then life, as it often does, happened.

Somewhere along the way my focus became on the day-to-day things, and the focus I once had drained away. It never died, though. It sat there in my core, like an itch, continually reminding me of a dream I had never lived. I got married; we had a child, and life ticked along just fine. I thought it was fine. I was a square peg attempting to fit myself in a round hole, however, and it wasn’t working out for me. While my family life with my wife and son was amazing, there was always this feeling of something missing in my life, something unexplored.

In 2016, at the age of 37, I finally made the decision to do what I once vowed to do, and I volunteered for a year in West Africa.

I’ve told my wife in my time here it’s like watching color fill in the lines of black and white photos. The villages and people once so distant became a part of who I am. The people like those in the photos became my friends and treated me with so much kindness it’s hard to articulate. The culture of Ghana welcomed me in as a brother. I had once dedicated myself so much to learning about places like Ghana that, in a way, it was a bit of a homecoming for me. I am so unbelievably fortunate to have been selected to come here, and I will always treasure the time I’ve had. Like the kola nut, it will truly last.

(Photos from Wikicommons – top left: a kola nut, bottom right: National Geographic magazine cover)