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Need A Hand? Don't Worry, The Ghanaians Got Your Back

Hanna Barczyk for NPR

I finally reached the outskirts of my community after a 5-mile, uphill bike ride from the town where I go to buy groceries.

Hot, exhausted and loaded down with rice, bananas and mangoes, I didn't have the energy to go the final few hundred yards to reach the compound where I live.

Luckily, I didn't have to.

From the distance I heard cries of "n be Wumpini lo lo ni." That means "Welcome home my sister Wumpini." (That's my local name; it means God's gift.)

Soon a crowd of children swarmed me, deftly pulling bags off my bike to balance on their heads and literally pushing my bike home as I was still riding.

That's a far cry from just two years earlier, when I provoked nothing but catcalls and jeers during an oddly similar trek in Manhattan's Morningside Heights neighborhood. I was changing dorms, so I had to push a large laundry cart filled with my belongings up a sidewalk that climbs the seemingly never-ending hill from 110th Street to 119th Street along Amsterdam Avenue on Manhattan's Upper West Side.

It was a sticky, hot August day, which only added to the misery visible on my sweaty, crimson face. But rather than offers of help, laughter trickled from food trucks, construction sites and storefronts. A few drivers honked to add to the aural assault. I hoped in vain that a kind soul would pop out to help me.

During my six months in northern Ghana as a Peace Corps volunteer, I've learned that neighbors show up to lend a hand even when you think you don't need one. And it's not just a "help the foreigner" thing.

If you're building a house, just let the town crier know. On the morning of construction, the crier will walk through the village beating a drum and crying out for volunteers. Soon villagers converge on the building site to assist.

Men spend the day rolling mud balls that'll form the walls of the house. Another team of volunteers then carries the balls to the housing site, hands them off to even more volunteers to stack and form the walls. Later the various volunteers assemble to roof the house with dried grass.

After that, it's the women's turn. They gather to slap gloopy mud against the side of the wall and smooth it in an upward direction to make it "fine," as they say. As one of the final steps, the women emerge again to assist in a "zoɣa," the making of the floor.

Starting in the late morning when the sun still beats heavily on the dry dusty landscape, women stop their own daily routines and chores to carry buckets of dirt on their heads to the site of the zoɣa. After the volunteers have fetched enough dirt to cover the compound's central floor area in an even layer, the women begin to sprinkle water over the floor's surface and thwack it with heavy wooden paddles.

They do this for hours, repeatedly sprinkling and slapping to solidify the dirt's surface and turn it into a cementlike floor. As they pound the ground in unison — their bodies undulating up and down with the rhythm of their paddles — they sing songs together, ululating and cracking jokes. The sense of community is palpable.

The community spirit seems boundless. I told a friend here that I wanted to build a fence for my garden but didn't know where to find the wood. A few days later, 11 men showed up with armfuls of sticks they'd collected — not an easy task in this arid environment. They spent the next few hours tying the sticks together with string they'd also brought to build a fence to keep out the town's insatiable goats and sheep.

As thanks, I provided them with a jug of lemonade Crystal Light someone sent from the U.S. They'd never had the drink, which they promptly chugged as they applauded me for making such delicious tea.

I didn't want to spoil the moment by revealing that it came from a mix.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Kiley Shields