Friday, October 10, 2008

Convent life

Oh, yes. I live in a convent. What is that like, you might ask? Allow me to explain.

Great, I thought to myself when I first discovered they were putting me up not in my own place, but in a convent. Not only would I be living in a foreign country, teaching a foreign language, all alone, but also, I’d have the added strain of adjusting to life in a convent, possibly my worst nightmare. I envisioned a big, scary building with hundreds of rooms filled with grouchy, menopausal women splashing holy water on my head every time I said something wrong. I pictured a huddling alone in a tiny, lonely bedroom after silently eating dinner around a long, solemn table, something like Sound of Music or Sister Act. No wonder I was apprehensive about living in a convent!

I arrived in Accra, hoping for the best but preparing for the worst. I’ve found that living in an African convent is NOTHING like anything I expected. First of all, I don’t live in a big, scary building with hundreds of rooms. I live in a house. It’s a big house, with about six or seven bedrooms, and it’s painted PINK on the outside. Inside, the walls are white, with random pictures of nuns and Jesus hanging on the walls. My room is like a dorm room, except there is a picture of Jesus on my closet and a priest calendar hanging on the wall. I have my own bathroom down the hall.

There is no silently eating dinner around long, solemn tables. The table is set for eight, but usually only three eat there. It’s never solemn. Either we’re talking, laughing, or watching TV. I’ve watched more TV in the past week here in the convent than I’ve watched in the past year in the US.

The sisters here are nothing like the nuns in the movies or any nun I’ve met. Almost all of them are really nice. They don’t talk about God all the time. They don’t pray all the time. They’re just like normal people, except they sometimes wear veils and they never have sex. There aren’t hundreds, either. There are only five. They’re the new characters in my life story, and let me tell you, they’re quite characters.

Sister Juliana is the headmistress of the school, so she’s kind of in charge of the house, too. She’s big and sometimes loud, and I could see how she must be intimidating to the students and even the other teachers who make her mad, but she’s always very nice to me. We get along surprisingly well. I think this is because we both like to dance, and I say things to make her laugh. She lives upstairs, too, in the room next to mine.

Sister Dorothy is more of a grandmotherly figure. She’s supposed to be retired, but she teaches art and religion at the school. She’s very kind to me, although she seems to be the strictest of them all. She amuses me so much. She the kind of person who is really funny without meaning to be. She makes random comments about what’s on TV or what’s for dinner that make me laugh. Usually, at meals, only she, Sister Juliana, and I sit at the table. I’m not sure why.

Sister Bibi, the pretty Nigerian, always smiles and welcomes me when she sees me. She rarely wears her habit, that is, nun uniform. She usually wears a simple dress and a green, knit hat with a big pom-pom on top. She appears to be the most domestic nun, for I often see her in the kitchen, or cleaning, or doing laundry. She does all her chores with a smile, and is very good-natured. I’ve even heard her singing in the kitchen before.

Sister Anne is the bursar at the school. I don’t think she likes me very much. She seems almost suspicious of me. I feel like we haven’t had a real conversation. Every time we talk, it feels like an interrogation. She just asks me weird questions about where I’ve been or what I’m about to do. I’ve only seen her smile maybe twice. I wonder if I did something to make her mad at me. Maybe I took over her room or her place at the table. Maybe she doesn’t like Americans very much. Or maybe it’s all in my mind. Maybe she does like me, but just has a strange way of showing it? I think I can break her. Every so often, I don’t have a good first impression of someone, but I’ve learned not to trust negative first impressions. If I have the feeling someone doesn’t like me, I’m usually extra nice to him or her, and in the end, we end up liking each other. I’m going to try this with Sister Anne. I wonder if it will work.

There’s one more nun, who is very sick. She stays in her room all the time. I haven’t met her yet, but I’ve seen Sister Bibi bring her meals on a tray. She’s a very mysterious figure to me. I hope she gets better soon, because it is no fun being sick! I’m curious about her so I’d like to meet her, but at the same time, what if she hates me?

A sixteen-year-old girl named Hanna lives in the room next to mine. She’s a student at the school, in seventh grade. She’s very sweet and obedient, and seems to be something of a helper to the nuns here. She helps serve the food and clean up. She’s helped me a lot this week by showing me around the school and introducing me to the teachers. It’s really nice to have a non-religious person here to help me adjust to convent life. Hanna’s favorite color is yellow. Her favorite animals are dogs. Her favorite subject in school is science, and she wants to be a nurse when she grows up. She always seems quite surprised that I like Ghanian food. I’m quite fond of her.

The last character is Didi, the cook. She doesn’t live here, but she comes every day to cook for us and to clean the kitchen. She’s quiet, but she always smiles back at me. She is quite a good cook. I think we’re very lucky to have her.

So, I live in a house with six other women. During my senior year of college in Ohio, I lived in a house with four other women. We didn’t have a cook or television, although we did have running water. You know, according to city ordinances in the town where I went to college, it’s illegal for more than two non-related women to live in a house together, because they were trying to discourage prostitution. Technically, according to Steubenville law, our college house of five non-related women was considered a brothel.

So, if that’s all it takes to make a house a brothel... basically, I live in a brothel. The only difference is that we don’t sell ourselves for money, and the only two men in the house I’ve seen in the house so far were a priest and the refrigerator repairman. Oh, and there’s a chapel across from the kitchen.

Living in a convent really isn’t that bad. You should try it!

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