Elephant Poop

We lounge on the bed, the gentle breeze of the ceiling fan fueling our indifference to ambition.

Elephant steps out of the bathroom, pantless yet unconcerned.


Yeah buddy?

Toilet paper is divided into two parts

He precisely pries the two ply plys, then proudly prizes the pried paired plys for our proud prying eyes.

I acknowledge his accomplishment with an understated nod. It’s the little things, when you’re six.

Heck, it’s the little things when you’re a grownup.

Like ceiling fans. And alliteration.

Did you wipe?

Not yet.

Was it a healthy one or a bit runny?

We’ve been passing around yucky tummies this week, the question is timely and urgent. His reply is perfect.

Not runny, just a little chicken nugget


Driver’s license.

He takes the gray tri-fold pamphlet with showmanship befitting his immaculate, neatly-trimmed uniform. He studies it carefully, a matching hat tipped slightly, shading a corner of his face. He means business.


Yes, please. I don’t correct him.

You’ll need to accompany me to the courthouse. I need to write this up.

I play my expected role and bristle. By all accounts, a trip to the courthouse is a bureaucratic nightmare. Hours, and hundreds, in the making. He doesn’t want that, and neither do we.

Oh, no sir, I’m very sorry for overspeeding. I don’t want to waste your time going to court, you are a busy man. Please, there must be some way we can work this out.

Hold on, I’m coming.

He saunters away, confident, likely weighing his transactional opportunity, sizing us up. Making us sweat.

He checks in with the truck driver, stopped meters in front of us, to inspect cargo, an ocean of green and yellow. Hundreds, thousands of sweaty bananas, heaped throughout the half-open trailer. The doors, walls, and sides of the too large truck are a brilliant orange, blasting the sun back towards us.

The lanky trucker offers a lone banana to the detective. They exchange words, share a joke (orange you glad I didn’t say banana, perhaps), and a laugh.

They reach agreement. The trucker ambles back towards the cab, his limp slowing him, only slightly.

He knows he has us. We were at 66 in a 50 zone. His proof taunts us in the handheld gun’s dated gray calculator font. We’re not the worst offenders, but he’s got us, just the same. We take out some money.


Nah, that’s way too much!

Okay, keep 50 handy. Let’s see how it goes.

I try to ignore all the cars blowing by at what for sure is 85 out of the corner of my eye. <Be the adult, not the nine-year old> I remind myself.

He returns to the car, pauses, tsks, and looks to his left, my license still firmly in hand.

Give me 50 and you go.


During our first days, a local professor in sociology assured us that distance to authority is high in this country; you don’t joke with Johnny Law.

At checkpoints, we have a go-to routine: smile, greet, ask after their health, act like we know them, as old friends would. They hold the chips, but they’re human, and being polite usually wins the day.

<we smile broadly, and remind the boys to look up, make eye contact, and do the same>

Hallo sir! How is your day? Everything good?

Where are you heading?

On this day, our destination is met with a cringe.

Axim, please.

He knows how long the day before us in the car will last. His sympathy wins out and with a nod and a smile, he waves us along.

Thank you, all the best!

And we’re off.

That’s how it generally goes.


Time to time, we meet an officer with something different in mind. He or she will quickly size us up and determine whether there’s value in posing the question.

My friends! What do you have for me today? It’s very hot.

We have a 5GHC bill handy and that is usually enough. About a dollar, it buys a cold beverage, earns a hearty smile, and passage forward. The cost of doing business.

This time, though, for some inexplicable reason we offer something else. J rifles through our bag of snacks and I suggest, meekly,

Would you like some peanuts?

He bristles, chuckles, and refuses politely, probably saying to himself, these people have no clue, but his refusal concedes that we now have the upper hand. His bluff has been called. This is not a toll station, and we have broken no laws.

There will be no money changing hands here. So we borrow a line from departed colleagues.

We can offer you…our blessings?

He bursts into laughter, gives the side of the car a gentle tap, and sends us on our way.


Today it is his turn to dive.

Loaded with netting, a threadbare hull scarred by sun, deeply worn by wind and wave, the canoe is nightmare fuel for one who does not understand or respect the ocean.

But clearly, these men do. Oars in hand, synchronous, attuned. A six-person canoe that, for now, holds seven. They push off, move past the break, and swing the bow parallel to the shore.

The journey for him will be quick. He perches on the stern, sturdy, twine coiled and ready around his shoulder.

He’s the only one without an oar, and seemingly the only one without purpose. A stowaway, tagging along for the ride with a steadfast grip on the line that only hints of what’s to come.

When they reach the perfect spot, he must swim.

Now they have. And now he is the one who coils.

There is little fanfare to his departure. A curt nod from a shipmate and he is below the waves.


But essential.

He knows these waters well, grew up learning to swim, watching the fishing boats. He peeks above the waves to see his crew leaving him behind.

They make for open water, tripling the intensity of their stroke. They are oblivious to him, he is an afterthought.

But their indifference signals trust. They have faith that he’ll do what is needed. And it is clear, so does he.

He swims a steady, confident path into the uproar of wave. Yet unable to touch, he pauses. Another look back towards his mates, perhaps with longing.

He is the one left behind.

The once-tightly wound line is now a snake trailing. The boat a distant beetle, wriggling six legs in perfected, rhythmic cadence. Snake chases beetle, agonizingly close, always in pursuit, never a satisfying taste.

He persists.

If his grip on the line is lost, so too is the day’s work for his crew, his family, his village. And also, their trust.

He knows the stakes.

With one last powerful push he crests a wave and welcomes the sand between his toes. He steps confidently toward the shore and again turns his gaze to the distant vessel.

They too have reached their destination. A crew, acting not as six, but one, offload the netting over the sides of a craft now drifting. Beetle has tired of the chase, and snake, it seems, has too, straightening to warm itself in the blistering sun.

He steadies himself on the beach, digging his heels into the sand. His well-worn hands steady the now-suspended line as his grip, his stance, and his resolve kick in.

Now the real work begins.

Where we stand

Atop the ridge

The fishing boats in the village below swoon. At rest, for now. Their bright flags stand taut, and ready. 

The boy begins to climb.

He expertly navigates the swarm of boulders piled hundreds deep. Barefoot, agile, he ascends to greet. He’s done this before.

Clearly, so too have his friends.

Word is out that he’s heading up. And in the truest nature of unspoken agreements between children, naturally, so must they.

Two more, then five, then another group of three, and on. They make their way to the top of the ridge to investigate and assess the interlopers.

A standoff with what must be twenty sets of smiling eyes, steadily emerging from behind the stones. Most, under the age of seven, their curious stares not unfamiliar.

But he’s clearly the leader. Tallest and therefore most important, he is the first to speak.


he offers with a smile.

Hi, how are you?

A nod. And you too?

One of the younger girls, no more than four, shouts with a smile


He scolds, warning her to be polite. We have business.

Please. A ball.

Say again?

Can you give us money for a ball?

You need a ball?

We need a ball. Look there! We have a pitch but no ball.

What happened to your ball?


And so I remember that where we stand is often an uneasy place. Living where we live, coming from where we do. When we talk, we speak to each other of needs, when what we’re really talking about are wants, comforts, pleasures, distractions.

Where they stand, these children are problem solvers, behaving with perfect logic in how they’ve seen the world. And how the world has seen them.

They spend their days near the sea, in a school just meters from the water. They have the beach, shelter, friendship.

And today, all they really need is a ball.


There’s a moment in The Good Place where our protagonist Eleanor chooses from a limitless array of frozen yogurt flavours, finally landing on Fully Charged Cell Phone Battery. “This really is satisfying.” she proclaims with a nod.

It’s an incredible bit of social commentary, pointing directly at where we are in place and time. Of course, as with all humor, the joke’s only funny if you’re in on it.

Sadly, most of us are.

In the paragraphs that follow I’ll outline why our rampant addiction to devices is a problem but first I need to go plug in my

On the Ground

We’ve made a terrible mistake

Bags quietly hit the floor and we remove our shoes.

She gently draws the curtains and we peer through accordion bars at a yellowish-gray wall, neatly crowned with spiraling barbed wire.

Nobody getting in here

Or out

Light filters in, but it’s a musty, flaccid light, with little soul, or flare.

We exchange a silent glance and survey the room. Fresh paint, clean enough, but uninspiring, at best.

The boys run up and down the endless hallway, a burst of nervous, shouted energy.

look at this room!

this place is so big!

There’s an inevitable moment in every transition, prerequisite to finding peace with a move.

Sometimes it’s subtle and understated, others it’s a hammer, knocking you for a loop, taking your reason and sapping your spirit. It usually visits once you’ve grabbed a sense for shocks and cultures, once you’ve encountered the realization that your life, as lived to this moment, is now,


Often, it comes calling about two weeks in.

This time, it happened in two hours.

I’m not great with transitions.

To wit:

I arrive home after weekly football a sweaty mess. I pull open the front door and step inside, and need a couple minutes to stand, survey the room, process what was and what now is.

Gentle coaxing from my family reminds me that I’ve done this before and know what to do. With concerted effort I manage to pull off my socks and make my way into the shower.

So, now.

Imagine this same guy, but instead of getting home from football it’s arriving in West Africa after ten hours onboard a restless overnight, plus two hours navigating immigration at Kotoka.

A surprising and unnerving transit to our new apartment

do all the street merchants walk right up to the car?

and we’re not quite right.

Jet lagged, overloaded, shaky.

But, together.

With the ones who matter most.

And slowly, steadily. It gets better.

We sleep. We unpack, sock by sock.

We meet our colleagues, destined to become our friends. We explore our new neighborhood, encountering locals with the warmest, brightest smiles.

They greet, tell us

you are welcome

and it feels true.

The boys adjust, twice as quickly as we do, and their happiness fuels our own.

We lean on each other, open our eyes to the beauty, fire, and abundance of love that is Accra.

We fight through the less frequent tears.

And as we grow into home, we understand.

We’ve made a glorious mistake


A sense of ground, a need for here

I don’t always have it at the end of the day. I’m flustered a sea of distraction maze of ideas that small hint of what was the thing I told myself to remember and take care of who was I supposed to email again oh crap I think the laptop’s still out on the desk.

I pedal and turn the corner.

And on the good days, I look up.

The sky is every shade as the sun expertly hides. Breezes build off the ocean and trees wave goodnight to one another. The call to prayer straddles the wind, serenading these corners, reminding us it’s time to look to Mecca, to take shelter before the oppressive, stifling dark.

But mostly, it’s bats.

Tens. Hundreds. Thousands of bats meander overhead. Effortlessly, with neither sound nor fury, but purpose and destination. Always purpose and destination. Always north.

But, where? Why?

Do bugs travel too?

And if they fly north each day at dusk, when do they return? I never see them in the morning. Do they know when light is coming? What do they do every night? Who do they do it with? Who’s in charge here?

I have questions.

Mainly, though, I pause. And realize the bats will be here, heading north, tomorrow too.

My sense of here, my ground

Returns to me when I look up.


This guy, I mean, look.

There was a time when he admitted I was a friend.

Doesn’t help that there’s an extra layer of weight on it all – this feeling that I’ve let him down because of what happened the day I should have been looking out, should have handled things differently. And now it’s all a bit too uneasy.

Mostly though, I’m leaving. So that’s weird. And uncomfortable. For him and for me.

It’s tough to leave in a way that’s graceful, that puts all the feels out there, that keeps his dignity intact. Because at the end of it, we all leave, and we are all left.

It’s not awkward if only one of us is feeling hurt. Is it.

Or maybe one of us is too much of a man to admit that it hurts.

So he leaves, before I get a chance to. Shuts me out, turns me off. But not in a courageous way. It feels cowardly, cold, calculated. I don’t think I should resent it, but I do. I won’t emulate it, I resent it.

I think I’m not being completely fair, though. Because at the end of it, we all leave, and we are all left.

Play Dough

Listen. I don’t care what has happened so far. What I do care about is that this is taken care of at her next school. In my shop if someone says they’re going to take care of something, they do it, or else. It’s just the way things get done and this didn’t get done. And I’ve asked for it 5 times. It’s incompetent.

The early morning meeting was heating. A visibly agitated father raised his voice, somewhat unexpectedly (his wife was a colleague). His irritation stunned us all into silence. A cramped, windowless, stuffy vice principal’s office on the second-last day of school. His daughter a beloved student for whom I’d worked so hard that year, who’d shown steady growth but still had some struggles. And an expectation that I thought had been met, but.

That meeting was six years ago now, but I can still sit myself down in that office, can still hear his words, can recall the pit in my stomach and the series of emails I sent in reply – some in direct response to his concerns, others to try to deflect blame or limit my vulnerability. Resolving it consumed my days (and nights, sadly) as I vacillated between resentment, self-doubt, and pity. My balloon had unmercifully and relentlessly been burst.

This is an unforgiving and thankless profession. We make ourselves vulnerable and the stories we tell ourselves cut to the core. Our persona and our identity as teachers is a tender balloon, and on some days everyone we see is brandishing a shiny pin.

Six years have passed and I’m (mostly) over it. Feelings of doubt that come with having let someone down are persistent and sneaky, resurfacing at the worst possible times (it’s always the worst possible times).

Now, it’s time to rethink the metaphor. Not a balloon, a fragile, disposable piece of rubber that can be poked and discarded. Instead, a lumpy, soft, multi-colored, malleable chunk of play dough – that can be shaped, prodded, molded into something better. It’s not always pretty, but it exists and endures, and it’s still there, even after harsh words, minor quakes, or windowless meetings. The work we do is an uneven, misshapen, playful dumpling, and it’s inevitable that someone will come along and give it a poke. But the dough abides.