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Stitched up at football in a playground in Accra

Mud splashed everywhere, covering my arms and legs, as I dove sideways to block another ball from the net. It was pouring rain, trash coated the grass to my ankles, my hair was full of mud and rain, and I was ready to play ball. At Bob School in Accra, Ghana, Friday was games day, rain or shine.

“Thanks, Madame Mara,” shouted Atta, one of my students. He gave me a handshake—complete with a snap of the fingers— while Kelvin and Hawa hugged my body so tight it was impossible not to smile. Though all of my ten-year-old students could dribble the ball past my feet any day, they insisted I join in the fun as goalkeeper.

I had only been working in the small school for about two weeks, but I already felt connected to the students. Sarah was the teacher’s pet – smart, attentive, confidant, and always smiling. Mary loved to dance, Bernice had a big heart, Suzy was sassy, and Akoto was incredibly shy. I couldn’t take two steps without someone holding my hand, and although I stood out immensely, I had never felt less alone.

Getting my head back in the game, I called out encouragements to the kids. “Great pass, Ester! Keep up the good work, Sam!” In a culture where teacher-student relationships were based on respect and punishment, I hoped to show the kids that I was also a teammate and a friend.

Suddenly, the ball was flying towards the net. I lunged to the left to grab it, when I heard a very strange sound: shhhhhhhhhhppp. I stood up proudly, ball in arms, and was greeted with a roar of uncontrollable laughter from all the kids. “Madame Mara,” choked Atta Junior, “your pants.” I looked down to find the source of all the giggles. My blue pants— which had faithfully covered my legs for nearly three weeks — were ripped from the crotch all the way to the ankle.

Surrendering to the ridiculousness of the situation, I let out a huge smile and shook my head. I lived a two-kilometer walk away, I definitely did not need any more attention, and a needle and thread were about as foreign to me as the local language, Twi. Thinking quickly, I removed my bandana from my head, and tied it around my upper thigh. It looked like more like a poorly tied tourniquet than anything else, but ruined pants were not about to ruin my fun.

To the contrary, my fifth grade class seemed to be having a lot more fun. “Pass me the ball!” had become “Sarah, don’t rip your pants while you kick the ball!” Furthermore, five kids had surrounded me in the net to “protect my other leg,” and everybody’s spirits were higher than they had been all week. I learned quickly that ripped pants were all it took to be unanimously referred to as “the funniest teacher ever.”

Interrupting the game, Rosalie grabbed my arm and led me across the field. She told me that her mother was a seamstress and was really good at fixing things. I pulled back, hesitant to accept anything from people less fortunate than I. This only caused Rosalie to pull harder, and we walked across the field and down the road. Though strange looks from strangers had become a norm, the looks I got walking down the street were twice as outlandish as the day before. The customary shouts of Obruni – or white person in Twi – were accompanied by offers by men to loan me their pants, and taxi drivers honking an exorbitant amount. At least these people will have a story to tell their families, I laughed to myself.

When we reached the small place, her mom was ecstatic to “have the Obruni in her house.” She began to rummage through her fabric scraps to find something that matched, and told me to sit down. I sent Rosalie back to play with her friends, and took a seat uncomfortably on the stool in the corner. Her mom smiled at me, and told me directly, take off your pants. Stunned for a moment, I soon obliged, and found myself sitting in the home of a stranger in only my underwear. My pants ripped in front of everyone, I am now pant-less, and this woman seems to find everything completely normal, I thought. Could my life get any more awkward?

As she sewed, I became more and more impressed. Her dexterity was amazing, and the pants were beginning to look brand-new. My own clumsiness was even more apparent, as my awkwardly swinging legs hit a chair, nearly knocking over an entire shelf. Apparently I can embarrass myself even more, I mused. But the woman just smiled.

“Rosalie loves school now,” she told me. “She says you make it more fun. And you are so nice to her. She doesn’t have many friends, and she tells me you are her best friend. This is the best gift that you give.” Forgetting where I was and how uncomfortable I felt, my eyes filled with tears. My presence in the school was not about money to this family, it was about compassion.

Suddenly I realized why Rosalie’s mom – who obviously couldn’t afford to spend time sewing up my clothing – was helping me so much. We were like a family now. I helped her child, so she helped me. This was really the best gift anybody could give.

Twenty minutes later, with my pants on, I left her house, hugging her goodbye as I walked back to school. What had started as a comical misfortune had ended up teaching me more about these kids than I could ever teach them. I sprinted through the rain, just in time to catch a final ball in the net. “Good games day, guys!” I shouted, as I high fived every child. Then Rosalie walked over to hold my hand, and I enveloped her in the biggest hug I ever gave.

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