“Obroni!” It means white person or foreigner, during my 5 month stay in Ghana I heard that word more than I heard the word ‘Arete’ in 2007. I recently returned from studying abroad at the University of Ghana, Legon in West Africa. I didn’t know why I was going or what I would find but I was ready for an adventure. I stayed on campus in an international student dorm with other US students, Ghanaians, Nigerians, Germans, Gambians, students from all over the world. A month into the program a friend of mine who runs track at UC Santa Barbara and I were approached by a girl on the track team at UG (University of Ghana) to join her hall’s track team. Practices were to be held at 5am on the track before classes, that created a bit of hesitation for me but I adjusted. After a few weeks of practice we had our first race, the Fresher’s Games, a track meet between all the halls on campus to welcome the new members on the teams. I ran over to the track after my classes on a Wednesday afternoon to find the dirt oval track packed with students supporting their halls clad with drums, horns, flags, and cheers. I was thrown into the 1500m without enough time to comprehend what was happening.
There were 7 other runners and I was the only white girl. We were escorted to the start line just as a light warm rain started to come down. My baby blue jersey proudly represented Legon Hall. I looked over at my competitors, some were experiencing serious nerves and it brought me back home to the Drake track. I remembered how familiar it felt to look by your side at your competitor who, for a moment, is on your level and feeling the same nerves. I smiled at myself realizing how universal the running experience is; we share nerves, pain, sacrifice, celebration. The gun went off and the rain started to come down. I started slow in the back of the pack, each time I ran past the crowds their “Obroni!” and “white girl!” chants got more intense, I picked up the pace and reminded myself of where I was, running in a track meet in Ghana. I was far from home, yet it was all familiar and I was home on the track again after three years. I passed the final girl in front of me on the last lap just as they rang the bell and my legs took off flying through the rain to the finish line. I won my first race.
Track continued as such with two more meets on campus against the other halls and our hall, Legon took the championship. From these races the University Cross Country team was chosen based on our individual performance. I just made the cut along with my friend Sarah from UCSB. It was the middle of October, and we were to run at the Inter-University Games against six other universities in Ghana. The meet was held in Tamale the largest city in northern Ghana about 375 miles away, a 14 hour bus ride through the bush. We continued our training throughout the week with some weekend practices to nearby hills, during this time I became very close with the team and was continually pushed to thrive and experience life way beyond my comfort zone. One day on the bus drive home from a workout I was asked to lead a prayer (Ghana is predominantly Christian, and everyone takes religion very seriously). I froze, mumbled some words about Jesus being our savior and thanked him. I don’t follow a religion but telling Ghanaians that you are not religious is equivalent to claiming you can breathe without oxygen. It’s tough for most Ghanaians to understand how one could possibly not be religious, it is an integral and expected part of life there.
We were scheduled to leave for the race in Tamale at 3am on a Wednesday morning to arrive that evening. Time, another aspect of life that took a long time to adjust to in Ghana because it doesn’t really exist. Most events start about an hour or two after the scheduled time. As an example, one weekend some friends and I went to watch the Ghanaian national soccer team (the team that had just competed in the world cup and beat the US) play against Sudan. The game was scheduled to start at 3pm, I thought that for an official national event, it might actually start on time. When we entered the stadium at 2:45, it was nearly empty and the sprinklers were watering the field. Nevertheless, two and a half hours later the refs blew the whistles and the game was in action with a full house and thousands upon thousands of fans. So I wasn’t surprised when we ended up leaving campus around 5:30am.
We arrived in Tamale late that evening and found the hostel where the others schools participating were also staying. Not surprisingly, Sarah and I were the only white competitors thus we got unlimited attention and questions from our opponents. We had two days of rest to see the course and prepare, and luckily for me I got to see Northern Ghana a completely different world from where I had been studying. It is a peaceful city, calm, quiet, and beautiful, and the sounds of the Muslim call to prayer brought me back to my first nights in Cairo and the tranquil days in Istanbul on Arete three years back. I was pulsed with feelings of homesickness for places I don’t call home yet reminded of why I love travel and have new experiences despite the discomforts.
The race was an 8k through small homes and farms on dirt paths finishing at the teaching university in Tamale. I felt nervous about how I would perform and let go of everything when the gun went off. There were three checkpoints throughout the race and at each one was a man with a colored ribbon to put around your shoulder to make sure everyone was on the correct course and not taking short cuts. The final mile was a straightaway and our coach on his mo-ped caught up with me and cheered me with a bright smile to push harder. I caught two girls and placed 12th out of 64 and overall the Univeristy of Ghana got second place (the gender of the winning girls’ team was questionable). That night was a banquet to honor all the teams; we were showered with amazing food and of course great dancing.
The friends I made on the team became a valuable part of my experience in Ghana. I didn’t learn anything new about running, but I learned that running is a common experience wherever you are. The differences in their training, preparation, and strategy were interesting but I found it more impactful that none of those differences mattered in the end. I feel grateful that I was able to experience being on a close team while abroad. It kept me running, it kept me curious, and it kept me grounded. Everything came full circle when I realized what motivated me to want to go on this adventure in Ghana: my Arete experience instilled a curiosity and desire to travel that I wouldn’t have gotten had I not done track and cross country in high school. And there I was doing cross country in Africa.