Jessica Festa discovers that saying goodbye can sometimes be the hardest part of saying hello.

“JESSIE…JESSIE…I’m coming to get you…!” I am lying in bed reading as the voice growls from outside my window.

I tighten my throat, trying to sound scared, “Who’s there? You’re scaring me!”

In reality I haven’t moved a muscle, as I know it’s just Isaac and Obeng. They love thinking they are playing a practical joke on me, and I will do anything to put smiles on their faces.

If my parents could be with me in Ghana, Africa, and see how playful I am with the children at the orphanage, they probably wouldn’t believe their eyes. I’m not exactly what people would call “motherly” or “nurturing,” and having children was never something I envisioned in my future. But working at the Achiase Children’s Home in Ghana has changed my perspective.

I get out of bed, hesitating. Right now, I am pretty sure that Isaac and Obeng are flattened up against the wall outside my bedroom door, ready to jump out and frighten me as soon as I walk out. Well, I’ll just have to scare them first.

Creeping towards the door, I silently count to three, and then throw the door open while hurling myself out of the entryway and shouting, “Boo!”

The hallway is black and quiet. Nobody is there. I guess tonight they decided to quit early.

I make my way towards the kitchen, hoping nobody ate my Fan Ice. As I’m lost in thought, daydreaming about my chocolaty ice-pop, I suddenly find myself on the ground screaming as two figures jump out at me from under the kitchen table.

*

“Me! Me! Me!” shouts baby Kwesi, lifting his arms and begging to be picked up. His chubby cheeks and one front tooth are irresistible, and I immediately scoop him up and place him on my lap.

“You! You! You!” I yell back, poking him in the belly.

That is when I notice one of the tougher boys, Nana, beating up his brother, Wofa. What strikes me about the fight between them is that even though Nana has Wofa on the ground and is kicking him mercilessly, the beaten child does not shed a tear.

“Nana! Leave Wofa alone!” I scold, putting Kwesi down to break up the fight.

Nana not only doesn’t stop, he kicks harder. I notice Wofa’s eyes roll back in his head for a moment and my heart stops beating. That is, until Wofa erupts into manic laughter.

When I am finally able to pull Nana off his brother, Wofa still hasn’t shed a tear. He is already up and dancing to a Ghanian song that is blasting from inside the orphanage. I watch as he moves his feet and swings his arms better than Chris Brown himself.

There is something special about this boy.

*

“Let’s go to town,” suggests Francisca, finding an old tire and pushing it around the orphanage yard, pretending to be driving a car. “Vroom! Vroom!”

“Okay, I want to buy some food to make lunch anyway.”

Even though I know you’re not supposed to give individual children toys unless you have something for everyone, I decide just this once to break the rules.

We act like we are walking around a store, grabbing sand, rocks, orange peels, and anything else we can use to make a mud pie. As I am putting a piece of cardboard into our basket, I notice Wofa watching.

“Wofa, help us make some lunch. We’re thinking mud pies.”

He runs over, and starts grabbing sticks and pebbles. We find a tin can and he and Francisca begin furiously mixing and blending, until Wofa tells me not to look.

“Why can’t I watch?” I ask, feeling hurt.

“Don’t look,” is his reply.

I walk away and go over to the swing to play with some of the other children. Suddenly, I feel a tug at my shorts. It’s Wofa, holding up a plastic bag topped with mud, rock, and even some flower petals.

“I made you lunch!” he says, a broad smile on his face as he pushes the concoction towards me.

My eyes well up with tears. No steak in the world could compare to this mud pie.

*

At 1pm, it is time for the volunteers to go back to our house to eat our real lunch. There are seven of us, all from different areas of the United States. We have all traveled to Ghana to help out at the orphanage by building classrooms, tutoring, and playing with the children.

Stirring around my plate of Udon noodles, I decide to tell the others what I am thinking.

“I want to adopt Wofa,” I confess. I like his optimistic spirit, that he never cries, that he loves music and dancing, that he’s sweet and affectionate, and that even though he’s only seven, I enjoy spending time with him.

The other volunteers have mixed opinions:

    “Can you afford it?”

    “He’s the future of Ghana. You can’t just take him away.”

    “What about his culture and the life he knows?”

    “Do you think that’s in his best interests?”

I realize I haven’t thought this through, that the thought of adopting Wofa is more of a fantasy than a logical plan. I have pictured the clothes I would buy him and the delicious meals I would cook him. But, I haven’t really thought about the consequences.

First of all, I am still kind of a kid myself. While my dreams involve buying Wofa gifts and giving him a wonderful life, would I even be able to feed him? And even if I could, would separating him from the other children at the orphanage really be appropriate? These children are like one giant family. Not to mention that he loves his culture.

After giving it more thought, and crying a lot, I admit that adopting Wofa and bringing him back to America would not be in his best interest. And, as much as it hurts to think that soon I will have to leave him, I know it is for the best.

*

Lying in bed that night, I hear a familiar voice come from outside my window.

“Jessieee…we’re going to get you….”

I try to feign terror. “Who’s there? I’m scared!”

I hear running noises, then silence. I wait three minutes before pretending I have to use the toilet. But I don’t even have time to open the door, as Wofa runs into my room with Isaac and Obeng trailing behind.

With each embrace, I can feel myself slipping further away, as if I’m already at the airport, already out of the country.

“Why didn’t you try to scare me?” I ask.

“Wofa couldn’t wait to see you,” Isaac explains.

As Wofa jumps into my arms, I can’t stop my mind from wandering back to my fantasies of bringing him home to America with me. Since I have decided this isn’t possible, I craft another plan.

Isaac and Obeng leave to go back home, and I tell Wofa to stay behind a minute. Reaching into my suitcase, I pull out a toy. It’s a small, clear rubber ball with a dead cockroach inside. On the bottom there is a switch to make it light up.

Even though I know you’re not supposed to give individual children toys unless you have something for everyone, I decide just this once to break the rules. It’s important for me to show Wofa how special I think he is. “I want you to have this. This way, you can remember me whenever you turn on the light.”

I tell him he can’t show the ball to anyone else, and he hides it away. Turning to leave, I see him flick the switch in his pocket, his shorts lighting up like a lamp.

“What are you thinking?” I ask him.

“I love the light,” he grins.

*

The music is blasting inside of the orphanage and the children have formed a dance circle in the middle of the room. Usually I would be right in the middle, jumping around and making goofy faces. But it’s my last night in Ghana, and I don’t really feel like dancing.

I still remember planning the trip, getting my vaccinations and filling out my visa application. I still remember getting off the airplane, the mix of apprehension and excitement. I still remember my first day at the orphanage, the way the children all ran up to me. I barely knew them then, but now I love every single one of them.

Wofa, my little dancing king, is sprawled out on my lap. He looks so sad. His dead weight pushes into my thigh and although it’s painful, I’m afraid to move because I don’t want him to get up.

One hour goes by, then two. Usually Wofa would be asleep by now, but he seems to be fighting it. His head rolls forward and then snaps back at the last minute as he pretends to be alert.

At ten o’clock I decide to put him to bed. He doesn’t protest, doesn’t even make a sound as I place him on his top bunk.

“Goodnight, Wofa,” I say, petting his head. “I’ll be back in the morning to say goodbye.”

Still, he says nothing, just lays on his back staring straight up at the ceiling. Then, I see a single tear roll down his right cheek.

I am shocked. “Wofa, are you crying?”

He rolls over to hug me and begins sobbing into my neck. Although I try to hold back, I can’t help but cry, too. Breaking away, I take a piece of paper out of my purse and write down my name and address on it.

“Write to me,” I say. “It doesn’t have to be words, it can be drawings or anything you want.”

The gesture seems to make us both feel better.

As I’m tucking him back in, I notice something flash in his pocket–the light from the ball.

*

Packing my bags that evening, my thoughts and my emotions are in turmoil. I have had the most incredible experience here, and I feel as though leaving these children at the orphanage is the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do. They mean the world to me. I have helped them read, tutored them, showed them how to play basketball, taught them new card games, spoken to them about what is going on in their lives.

And I know it’s difficult for them to have volunteers constantly coming and going. I know that, having taken the time to connect with the children, my leaving will hurt them. But I hope I have had a positive impact on their lives, helped them along the way towards realizing their full potential. I like to think that part of me will remain here in Ghana forever.

*

The next morning, I walk over to the orphanage to say goodbye to the children before I leave for the airport. Usually they are all sprawled across the yard, throwing balls or playing hopscotch. But today, everyone is huddled in one big group. Some children are crying and others, like Isaac, can’t even bear to look at me. The more composed give me a hug and tell me to come back soon. With each embrace, I can feel myself slipping further away, as if I’m already at the airport, already out of the country.

I see Wofa standing by himself looking sullen. As I walk over to give him one last hug, he hands me a piece of paper. Opening it, I see my name and address written numerous times. Many of the letters are backwards and words are spelled wrong, but he did a pretty decent job, and I can’t hold back my tears.

“I stayed up all night practicing so I can write to you,” he says, though for once he’s not smiling.

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