Students of Semanhyiya

It takes eleven school days to fall in love.

In eleven school days—three Mondays and two each of the rest—I fell so deeply that I swear my heart was left behind at Semanhyiya. Slivers of it mixed into the paint that now coats a wall-turned-garden. Shards of it pressed into the new classroom bricks that I scrubbed on a humid Saturday. And great hunks left in the hands of a hundred incredible students.

Whom I love.

I’m back stateside, have been for a few weeks now, but so many things here remind me of those kids.

When I eat my morning cereal, I miss spoon-feeding solemn Francis, who would only take bites if I counted them aloud. Who lived across the road and had eyes as round and bright as my second week’s full moon.

When I have a moment of peace, I think of Ebenezer—Ebbie—with his wise man’s forehead and killer dance moves, who wants to be everybody’s best friend. Who was always at my elbow whenever I was in the schoolyard.

Sonia 1
Prisca 1

When I ride the 76 on Diversey, I recall morning bus duty that begins at 6am. I wish, at every stop, that Sonia would climb aboard and gift me with her bright-as-the-sun smile, tongue pinched between her teeth.

I remember the girls, beautiful and patient Kezia, teeny Anas with her drippy nose and ferocious high fives, charming Peggy who caught everybody’s attention and Aubriana the perfect sweetheart who could give rib-crushing hugs.

Lisa 1
Jonas 1

Once again, I’d like to rehearse with my drama cast and hear Jonas recite his lines with the confidence of a Broadway lead, “I am going to be a doctor!” And again I want to witness Lisa’s sharp memory as she learned choreography, this little first grader becoming a confident dance leader I could—and frequently did—rely on. And Macdonald! What I would give to see this five-year-old in front of the classroom again, with all his charisma and exuberance.

I miss Justice and his tricks, so clever that I let him get away with them. I miss Denis always working hard for praise, his cleft lip scar giving him the cutest crooked smile. I miss Boatemaa, who might have been the smallest in the school but had the ferocity and quiet stubbornness to take on kids twice her size.

Anas Kezia 1
Kezia (left) and Anas
Justice 1

I miss Nastu, who can be distinguished from her twin sister Najat by the little scar under her left eye, who we crowned Miss Semanhyiya on Field Day in recognition of her unbridled enthusiasm and impressive participation.

I want to go back to Ghana so that I can laugh as true and as hard as I did during Francisco’s field race, when his default state of bewilderment was for a moment tempered with intense determination to win. His eyes piercing the opposing team, he had run faster than a bullet—straight past the flag he was supposed to be capturing for his team.

Boatemaa 1
Francisco Fierce

I miss seeing Prisca’s braids swishing behind her as she runs toward an adventure. I miss Christabel’s endless sass and desire to impress. I miss Martina taking my breath away as she exceled at everything.

All of them and their eighty classmates. Eleven days to fall in love.

I was not in Senase for very long—barely three weeks—but it was long enough to want to stay forever. The other volunteers, some of whom had been for months—I don’t know how they ever managed to leave. I could barely get myself to board the bus back to Accra.

The only thing that kept me warm on that hyper-air-conditioned bus was the knowledge that I’d be back. Within three years, I promised myself. And Francis would eat breakfast without prompting. And Ebbie’s dance moves will have gotten even better. And they will all be half a foot taller with a few less baby teeth.

I can’t wait.


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