Essay and photos by Janet Grace Riehl
A post on Facebook inquired “How many countries have you been to?” Okay, let’s count.
Europe = 11
Mexico & Colombia = 2
St. Vincent & Barbados = 2
Asia = 4
Africa = 16
For a grand total of 35
Top photo: high school year book photo Bottom photo: the world traveler sets forth
Some of these countries I merely passed through on my way to somewhere else. In some I was a tourist. In a handful of countries, I was really there.
Now we come to My Life in Passports. In my collection I hold 8—including my current passport. These contain untold stamps and multiple extension pages. I have 3 of the older, bigger, green ones which I used from 1968 to 1977 as I went to Europe twice and then later lived and worked for 5 years in Botswana and Ghana. I have 5 of the newer, smaller, blue ones spanning 1982 until now.
It’s the 3 green ones that draw me most strongly, for between 1968 to 1977—20 years old to 29—I grew more fully into my womanhood as I morphed from Janet G. Thompson (my maiden name) to Janet Grace Clark (my married name) to Janet Grace Riehl (my grandmother’s maiden name, and the one I’ve kept since 1975). Only three things stay the same. My hair and eyes remain recorded as “brown.” My height stays 5’4”. And the emergency contact is always my father Erwin A. Thompson always living at R. R. 2, Box 117, Godfrey IL, 62035. Through all my meanderings it’s family and the home place which anchor me.
Of these three green passports the 1975 one is my favorite. It records my journey into the unknown—a true leap of faith—as I left Peace Corps after 3 years of teaching in secondary schools in Botswana and Ghana—to strike out on my own. Alone. I traveled on foot, public transport, and hitchhiking equipped with a small canvas rucksack holding one change of clothing and an orange nylon tent strapped to the top. The tent was secured with Ghanaian strip cloth I’d sown on in preparation for my journey.
I would travel from West Africa to Southern Africa where I found my calling back in Botswana working with villagers to set up a sewing center. In Fall of 1975 I set off from Ghana traveling through Togo, Dahomey (now Benin), Northern Nigeria, and Cameroon in West Africa where I then caught a plane to Zambia. I continued overland through Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) entering Botswana on foot through the northern Botswana border gate of Kazungula on December 19, 1975. Then, my adventure began in earnest. After my work was done of launching the village sewing center (which later became a multi-village vocational-technical college), I went back to the United States via Malawi, Kenya, and Ghana. From fall of 1975 to fall of 1977 I lived on my Peace Corps re-adjustment allowance designed to cushion me during my transition back to America. I carried this money in my “bank.” The sheaf of travelers’ checks snuggled in a hidden pocket sewn into a long skirt of my design.
No wonder my parents worried about me. No wonder that they arrived to visit in 1976 begging me to come back home. In the 1970s security and job stability with a pension was real, not an illusion. How could I carry on in my adult life if I didn’t get started on that? And, most compellingly, my father told of his difficult adjustment coming back from World War Two. If I didn’t come back to the United States soon, I never would be able to come back in any real sense inside myself. That clinched it, and I agreed that when my work was done I’d come home.
The 1975 passport photo shows a saucy young woman looking off to the side at someone outside of the frame. I no longer know who that was. She is wearing an outfit she designed and sewn by a local tailor made from traditional Ghanaian waxprint cloth. On the outside of her blouse she wears a necklace made from beads bought in an outdoor market. We can see the cord of a leather pouch tucked inside her bodice. She did well, this young woman. I send her my love across the years. She lives in me still. She shaped me into the woman I am today at nearly 66. She stepped out on space. She lived on love and fresh air. And, most importantly, this country girl who roamed the world found her way back home.
Janet’s blog “Riehl Life: Village Wisdom for the 21st Century” is dedicated to creating connections through the arts and across cultures at www.riehlife.com