OUT OF AFRICA

“If I know a song of Africa, of the giraffe and the African new moon lying on her back, of the plows in the fields and the sweaty faces of the coffee pickers, does Africa know a song of me? Will the air over the plain quiver with a color that I have had on, or the children invent a game in which my name is, or the full moon throw a shadow over the gravel of the drive that was like me, or will the eagles of the Ngong Hills look out for me?” 

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It’s hard to know how to bring this whole Africa adventure to an end.  I feel like there should be some closure – in my mind, in my heart and in the pages of this journal.

Vacationing in Tanzania with my family, I have such a profound sense of disorientation.  I am a tourist now as opposed to a citizen of Africa, I am anonymous rather than the focus of everyone’s attention and I have no work to do other than spending time with those I have been away from for so long.  Eight hotels in sixteen days is the kind of brutal travel I would have run from in Ghana but here we stay in real luxury with plentiful food, arranged transport and an open tab.  I have to stop myself from eating everything on my plate so it’s not wasted and from worrying about the staff who has to work on Christmas day and be away from their families.  Jumping from the world of the ‘have-nots’ to the ‘haves’ isn’t as easy as one might think.  I keep a light on at night to orient myself when I awake.

Still….seeing Tanzania has been such a glorious experience.  From the splendor of Kilimanjaro to the sweeping views of the Ngorogoro Crater, from the palm-lined white sand beaches and jewel-colored waters at Matemwe to the hustle and bustle of historic Stone Town (the heart of Zanzibar) where Oriental, Islamic and Western cultures have somehow blended into a rich tapestry of music, food and architecture.  Exotic seems like such a tame word for Tanzania because it’s so much more than that – wild, free, ancient, colorful, sensual, full of wonders.

Mount Kilimanjaro

Mount Kilimanjaro

I don’t think I can write about all we’ve seen and done in Tanzania without sounding like a travelog.  So I will just try to capture some of the highlights with photos.

Ed and Spencer climb Mt. Kilimanjaro

Ed and Spencer climb Mt. Kilimanjaro

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Beautiful Hikes

Beautiful Hikes

Sunset over the crater

Sunset over the crater

Elephant in the acacia

Elephant in the acacia

Lions on safari

Lions on safari

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Flamingoes in Ngorogoro Crater

Flamingoes in Ngorogoro Crater

A trio of zebras

A trio of zebras

Dance of the hippos

Dance of the hippos

 

Remains of the water buffalo

Remains of the water buffalo

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Beach bum

Beach bum

Matt enjoying the local brew

Matt enjoying the local brew

Paradise on Zanzibar Island

Paradise on Zanzibar Island

St. Joseph's Catholic Cathedral

St. Joseph’s Catholic Cathedral

Stone Town Harbor

Stone Town Harbor

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Exploring Stone Town

Exploring Stone Town

Tanzania has proven to be a perfect counterpoint to Ghana and an excellent opportunity for me to begin my transition to the ‘real word’.  In spite of the busyness of touring and visiting, I was able to carve out some quiet time for myself and reflect on some of the lessons learned while I have been here in Africa.  Lessons that I have attempted to share with friends and family over the past 28 months.  Lessons about the good and bad, the rich and poor and about life and death.  Lessons about the way the world works and about spiritual clarity.  It does seem that the more I know, the less I understand. But then the only truths that really matter are the ones we can never understand.

“When in the end, the day came on which I was going away, I learned the strange learning that things can happen which we ourselves cannot possibly imagine, either beforehand, or at the time when they are taking place, or afterwards when we look back on them.” 

I remember the book I was reading when I left America back in October 2011 – ‘This Our Exile’ by a Jesuit priest who spent two years in Kenya working with refugees from East Africa.  I wrote that it was the perfect book about how leaving the world one knows to explore a new and different one can help us catch sight of ourselves in a different light and thereby get to ‘the heart of the matter’.  That ‘the heart of the matter’ is really our common humanity no matter who we are or where we call home.  And that we sometimes have to leave home to find home; leave our lives to find them with the help of others.

I believe that I now have a better sense of what home is and what matters most to me.  Ultimately whatever teaches us to talk to ourselves is of value; whatever teaches us to sing. And finally…….

“Difficult times have helped me to understand better than before how infinitely rich and beautiful life is in every way, and that so many things that one goes worrying about are of no importance whatsoever.” 

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 Quotations courtesy of Isak Dinesen

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“WHATEVER HAPPENED TO………?” PART TWO

“We are each completely unique yet completely connected with the entire universe. There will never be another person like any one of us in all eternity, so we are absolutely original beings. At the same time, since our existence arises from and is woven into the deep ecology of the universe, we are completely integrated with all that exists. Awakening to the miraculous nature of our identity as simultaneously unique and interconnected with a living universe can help us overcome the species arrogance and sense of separation that threaten our future.” Duane Elgin

There have been so many amazing individuals whose lives were woven into the tapestry of my experience in Ghana.  I can’t begin to name them all but I know that many of you will be curious about those I have written about before.

HOMESTAY – My homestay family in Anyinasin in the Eastern Region has become part of my extended family.  Emma, Sandra, Priscilla and Philipa are so dear to my heart that it brings tears to my eyes just thinking about them.  Emma is younger than I but has always been ‘mama’ to me.  On my last visit to homestay as we were preparing to leave Ghana, I became quite ill with severe gastrointestinal discomfort.  I took to bed for a while until I felt better.  When I rejoined the others, I asked where mama was.  “She’s gone to church to pray for you”, the girls said.

So it was very gratifying to be able to help mama make sure the girls get a good education by paying for them to attend boarding school in Kukurantumi. The Bright Basic School is a lively place with many dedicated teachers.  Academics and religious study take up most of the girls’ day and they are encouraged to do well by their interaction with others.  We’ll see how it goes for one school year (the vice principal emails me their reports).  If they study hard and keep improving, we’ll find a way to keep them in private school.

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DELPHINA was a part of my daily life in Lawra on so many levels.  I met her on my first trip to Lawra back in November 2011 and we were friends from day one.  She is the kind of person who takes you under her wing and never lets you go.  She helped me in so many ways – making meals for me, my friends and my programs; making sure I didn’t get cheated by vendors, kids and drivers and translating for me with women’s groups, random phone callers and passersby.  She advised me on all of the cultural nuances and even chose me (along with her daughter Irene) to be godmother to her granddaughter, Margaret Mary. I would like to think I helped her too with training on moringa soap production and soy meat kabob preparation.  When ill-health forced her to quit working at Ideas Restaurant, I helped her start Delphina Enterprises and she is now producing all kinds of things in addition to soaps and soy meat – ointments, shampoos, specialty baked goods – just to name a few.  God willing, her business will continue to grow and prosper and she (along with her family) will enjoy good health, personal satisfaction and financial security.

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GLORIA – I can’t claim any credit for Gloria’s transformation.  God and my good friends Sharon and Don were the architects of Gloria’s future.  You may remember that things looked pretty bad for Gloria back in 2012 – expelled from high school for attempted suicide and financially unable to take her final exams privately.  Well, Sharon & Don stepped in to help and one year later, Gloria is enrolled in the Health Assistants Training Program in Wa and learning keyboarding on her new laptop.  The future is bright for this young woman and I know she thanks her lucky stars (and Sharon and Don) every single day.

Gloria (in front)

Gloria (in front)

SIMON – Here is another example of a life transformed although Simon’s future is yet to be determined.  These days Simon is living in his own place in Lawra and working at an electronics shop nearby.  Norman Head, a friend from the UK, donated a laptop to Simon as a graduation present last summer. Simon walked every day on his prosthetic leg quite a long distance to take computer instruction at Lawra’s Community Information Center.  As a result, he is now proficient on all aspects of the computer and is only waiting for applications to come out in January for teacher training and health assistant programs.

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My friend and former neighbor, Moses Bawre, is assistant principal at the Krobo Nursing School near Techiman and has promised to keep in touch with Simon and help guide him through the application process.  I wrote this haiku for Simon back in August 2012 when he received his ‘bionic’ leg:

To walk sets you free,

Hills and valleys make you strong,

Jesus knows your name.

MARY, VIVIAN, JOSEPHINE, MATTHEW and EMMANUELLA – I couldn’t ever have imagined a family more vulnerable and disadvantaged.  The females epitomize the plight of uneducated women who are used and then abandoned by male family members, shunned by their community and cast off by social institutions.  Josephine and Matthew have mental and physical disabilities that make their situations especially challenging.  But here’s the good news:  Josephine is currently schooling in Accra under the sponsorship of Mabel Dawson, Matthew is receiving biweekly physical therapy and tuition assistance thanks to my brother and sister in law, Dan and Julie Ambauen, and Vivian will be starting back to school in January now that Emmanuella is one year old and can be weaned. Vivian understands that education is the most powerful weapon she can have in her personal arsenal.  Friends at Peace Corps have promised to keep in touch with her to offer support and encouragement.

Emmanuella - may her future be brighter

Emmanuella – may her future be brighter

JAMES ALBEBOURE AND SUABIR ALHASSAN were both early friends in Lawra as well as the founder and president, respectively, of the Lawra Youngsters Association.  James is currently working as a conductor for Metro Mass but teaches in his spare time.  He informed me recently that teaching is his true calling so he will be pursuing that vocation diligently.  Suabir is a young man who has matured greatly over the last two years.  He was at loose ends when I first met him, still in JHS at 19.  He lost his father in 2010 and the family struggled financially so he was not able to start senior high school until he was 20 years old. His father was the right-hand man to Chief Karbo before he died so Suabir still has ties to the palace.  I know it pleased the chief tremendously when Suabir was accepted to the Peace Corps Leadership Training program – STARS – back in May of 2013.  He performed well and has since shown his leadership aptitude in many areas.  He helped me coach the recent Grassroots Soccer SKILLZ camps and I had to smile when he quoted Nelson Mandela in his coach’s story.  He was my cameraman when I interviewed Chief Karbo for the Peace Corps’ HIV/AIDS documentary, which was a huge help.  I presented him with a new digital camera (thanks to Chuck and Marilyn McKenzie) as a parting gift.  He says he’s going to use it to take passport and Facebook photos of his fellow students to help pay his tuition fees.  Sounds like a future entrepreneur to me.

James Albeboure

James Albeboure

Chief Karbo III and Suabir Alhassan

Chief Karbo III and Suabir Alhassan

PEREY YANBEPONE – Perey was working for MOFA in the Fisheries Department when I first met him.  He facilitated my interaction with the fishermen and farmers, conducted HIV/AIDS workshops with me for the Lawra Youngsters and JHS students and also helped me coach the Grassroots Soccer SKILLZ camps.  He finally gave up on MOFA after working unpaid for several years and is now doing his National Service with the District Assembly.  He recently received his second certificate (Youth Development) from the Adult Learning Program at Legon University.  His first is in Accounting.  He has a wife and three small children and he’s not yet 30 years old. I know that I benefited greatly from my association with ‘Anoche’, as he’s called locally.   I hope he feels the same.

Perey and Suabir

Perey and Suabir

SISTER AGGIE – I wrote about Sister Aggie, the Queen Mother of Gbengbee, in my blog posting ‘From Nobody to Somebody’ in May 2013.  Shortly after her installation, Sister Aggie asked me for help with her Widows Group.  It seems that the relatively small farming community of Gbengbee has over 70 widows with very little means of support.  So I wrote a grant for moringa seeds from the Permaculture Institute in Techiman via Peace Corps’ Food Security Program.  Sister Aggie secured land from the chief near the borehole and the widows proceeded to clear the land, plant the seeds and build a fence. They have managed to harvest a pretty good crop of moringa leaves but are challenged, as I was, by the goats.  So I have applied for a micro loan for the Gbengbee Widows Association so that they too can build a proper fence.  It’s been pretty cool to work with an actual Queen Mother, especially one who truly has her community’s best interests at heart.  Gbengbee is lucky to have her.

Sister Aggie

Sister Aggie

A sampling of Gbengbee widows

A sampling of Gbengbee widows

KOBEE – It’s hard to write about Kobee; his story has been so multi-layered and complex.  But it’s a fascinating tale (you can’t make this stuff up!) so I will try to relate it as succinctly as possible.

When we were unable to establish Kobee at Acacia Shade back in August due to a bureaucratic snafu, everyone told me to give it up, it was just too difficult to manage the intricate maze of the Social Welfare system in Ghana.  But as I continued to watch him struggle in school with teachers who threatened to cane him when he couldn’t speak or perform like the other children, I knew I had to try again.  It was also becoming increasingly difficult for Delphina to care for him; she really didn’t understand what she was getting into when she took Kobee into her home back in April.  Although he was no longer having epileptic seizures thanks to medication, he wet the bed and ran away at any sign of discipline.  Wayward youth were urging him to steal things for them; one night he was beaten badly by a night watchman at an electronics shop.  So I went back to Social Welfare and asked them to reopen the case.  With the help of Eric Coomans at Child Support in Wa, we were able to kick it up to the Regional Director.  After weeks of frustration, I was told that a social investigative report had been completed and filed and the way was clear for taking Kobee back to Acacia Shade.  A Social Welfare officer was assigned to travel with us to Accra and ensure that Kobee was safely situated.  However, once in Accra we discovered there were a few more hoops to jump through which I won’t elaborate on here.  Suffice it to say that the system is in upheaval as a result of recent administrative changes.  It was nothing short of a miracle that at the eleventh hour we were finally given approval to place Kobee in the home.

Hallelujah!

Vivian and Kobee at Acacia Shade

Vivian and Kobee at Acacia Shade

However, within the week, Kobee had run away from the home!  We had visited him on Saturday, December 7th and he seemed subdued but happy to see us.  I was a bit concerned that the caretakers’ children were not around so there was really nobody for Kobee to play with.  This is a home for children with special needs and Kobee is actually at a higher functioning level than any of the other children.  So he was lonely.  We looked at a school nearby and discussed getting him enrolled for socialization until further steps could be taken for special education opportunities.  But the situation must have been too difficult for him to understand and security at the home is minimal (most of the children couldn’t escape if their lives depended on it).

God was still with us however.  We were scheduled to fly to Tanzania on Monday, December 9th.  Meanwhile, Delphina and Meghan Bailey (Oxford researcher) were on their way to Accra. God kept Kobee safe for three days and nights while he wandered in unfamiliar neighborhoods searching for food. Thanks to kind hearts, police cooperation and sheer determination on the part of Meghan, Kobee was found at Osu Children’s Home.  That’s the good news.  The bad news is that he will have to go back to Lawra.  There is just no way to keep him in the home if he doesn’t want to be there.  Needless to say, I am disappointed. I felt like it was his best chance to escape a bleak future but it wasn’t meant to be.  Delphina will do her best to care for him and Meghan will return to Ghana in February to reassess the situation.  Meanwhile, Kobee is back with those who know and love him.  Maybe that’s the most that we can ask for under the circumstances.

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There are so many other individuals – students, children, women and men -who have touched me deeply over the last two years.  It’s impossible to write about them all but they all have a special place in my heart. I have learned so many lessons from each and every one of them. Knowing them has forever changed me.

“Instructions for living a life.

Pay attention.

Be astonished.

Tell about it.”

Mary Oliver

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“WHATEVER HAPPENED TO………?” PART ONE

“Love in action is what gives us grace.”

Mother Teresa

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Now that I have left Peace Corps service and am decompressing in Tanzania within the sanctuary of Mt. Kilimanjaro, I feel like I can catch my breath and reflect on some of the projects and relationships that consumed so much of my time and energy in Ghana.

So in Part One of “Whatever happened to…..?”, I will recap some of the projects that were both rewarding and impactful, even if they did not always result in the outcomes I imagined for them in the beginning.  Most of these projects would not have been possible without support and encouragement from friends and family back home in America.  You all know who you are and your generosity will be forever remembered.  This posting is a tribute to you.

Mabel Dawson

Mabel Dawson

BRIDGE FEMALE MISSIONS – The Sewing Project – started with my colleague Mabel Dawson as a livelihood empowerment program for unemployed, rural women.  We started sewing groups in three communities – Lawra, Tabier and Babile.  Mabel taught sewing basics and I talked to the women about nutrition, moringa, solar drying, butternut squash and HIV/AIDS.  Friends back home donated funds for sewing machines and there are many women who are now able to not only mend and sew for their own families but are earning some small income sewing for others.  Our sewing women also contributed to the fabulous Peace Corps World AIDS Day 2012 quilt, which is now displayed at the American Embassy in Ghana. We fell short of our ambitious goal of creating a small-scale cottage garment industry in the rural environment of the Upper West.  This was due to the interference of farming obligations, weather and lack of facilities among other things. But Mabel is left with enough training materials to maintain the project in Tabier and Babile.  Our slogan – “Never underestimate the power of a woman with a sewing machine” is still a source of pride today.

The Sewing Women of Tabier

The Sewing Women of Tabier

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LAWRA YOUNGSTERS ASSOCIATION – this project started out as an HIV/AIDS club and became so much more.  We developed a constitution and objectives, elected officers and attempted to open a bank account (a learning process in itself):  The association’s objectives:

1)  To educate youth

2)  To organize community improvement activities i.e. clean up exercises

3)  To help train the youth to become future leaders

4)  To help sensitize the youth against diseases such as HIV/AIDS

5)  To organize HIV/AIDS clubs in various basic schools in the community

6)  To reduce the stigma against HIV/AIDS

Measuring the success of this program is difficult but there is no doubt that lives have been changed.  At the time of my departure from Lawra, the association had over 50 card-carrying members with hordes of ‘wanna be’s” in the wings. Having these youngsters on my team (as troublesome and unreliable as they could be at times), made it possible to facilitate so many other programs that benefited the community – Grassroots SKILLZ, Computer Literacy, Girls’ Empowerment, Camp Opportunity, etc.  I enlisted these young people for assistance with SNAP (Special Needs Awareness Program), PLWHA (People Living with HIV & AIDS) and WORLD AIDS DAY observances.  As a result, I would like to think that they have become more compassionate, respectful and caring of those less fortunate than themselves.  I became quite close to several of these youngsters and was able to encourage them to continue their self-improvement with leadership training, tuition assistance and laptop donations.  I would like to think of them as future leaders and teachers: the gifts that go on giving.

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Speaking of Grassroots Soccer, I have to mention One World Futbol in Napa, CA who donated 10 soccer balls to my community (they are free to Peace Corps volunteers, you just have to pay for the shipping).  They’re indestructible and never have to be inflated.  They made wonderful goodbye gifts for schools I was associated with.

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SNAP (Special Needs Awareness Program) – this program started in collaboration with Sarah Gardner, VSO volunteer and Sue Kolljeski of The Mission Society.  The highlight of this project for me was the one-year anniversary celebration where Chief Karbo III invited these shunned and ostracized families to the palace. He gave a speech of such compassion and empathy that tears were flowing.  The fact that he invited his sub-chiefs and elders, queen mothers and district officials gave evidence to his intention of on-going support.  Going forward, local Ghanaians are a big part of the advisory team and will have financial assistance from ATE (Action Through Enterprise), Sarah’s NGO, and The Mission Society so I am hopeful that this program will be sustainable.

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STEP TO HEALTHY GROWTH SUPPORT GROUP FOR PLWHA – I wrote about the work we did to improve the meeting hall for this group in one of my recent posts – S.O.S. Stamp Out Stigma.  I had been attending their monthly meetings for some time and observed the wretchedness of their facility – walls falling apart, no privacy, no protection from the rains, no place to sit, dirt, filth, rats.  It was so depressing; I had to force myself to go.  It seemed as if it was adding insult to injury.  So now the meeting hall is a happier place, clean and bright with plenty of uplifting messages.  The incredible quilt that was constructed by my friends back in Seattle is safely packaged under the bed in the room where my replacement, Sydney Henderson, will stay.  Madam Fati, one of the key members of the group, will collect the quilt and hang it at each monthly meeting to remind everyone of the community’s support to stay strong, take their medications and avoid reinfection.

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Working so closely with this group, I was able to interview many of the people living with HIV for a documentary that Peace Corps is developing.  I was even able to interview the Paramount Chief of Lawra, a big coup.  I felt like Barbara Walters! The purpose of the film is to relay knowledge about HIV & AIDS and to instill a sense of awareness and sensitization to the disease amongst the Ghanaian population.  The primary goal of the film is to gain a better understanding of Ghana’s current knowledge level in order to dispel myths and reduce stigma.

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GHANABRIDGE MORINGA GARDEN – At the height of the rainy season, we were harvesting moringa every 7 – 10 days thanks, in large part, to my solid wire fencing.  It was glorious.  Now that we’re into the dry season, growth is more challenging due to sporadic water, poor soil and infestations of pests (mites and caterpillars).  I was lucky to find an unemployed cocoa farmer, Abu, who became my personal gardener and handyman.  He helped me fetch water when there was none, dug trenches to retain rainwater, sprayed the plants with my organic neem pesticide and composted with sawdust, manure and groundnut stems.  Thank goodness, Sydney is an expert gardener so she will take over these duties when she arrives.

Abu, my personal gardener

Abu, my personal gardener

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Bawa, a National Service worker at MOFA, helping out with my garden.

Bawa, a National Service worker at MOFA, helping out with my garden.

Meanwhile, we have stockpiled bags of dried moringa leaves for soap and powder production.  I was also able to nurse and transfer hundreds of moringa seedlings to a number of rural communities.  By utilizing intensive cultivation, these communities may realize the potential benefits of future moringa export as well as enhanced nutrition.

BUTTERNUT SQUASH – not much need to elaborate on this as I have written about it extensively in previous posts.  One of the most satisfying aspects of this project was that I was able to combine two passions – good nutrition and good food – in my promotion of this delicious crop.  As I left Lawra, people were clamoring for seeds, showing off the fruits they were growing in their backyard gardens and begging for copies of the recipe book.  Very gratifying.  Food security wise, MOFA and SADA are supporting at least three major butternut squash operations in surrounding communities for the growth, harvest and export of butternut squash to the UK.  Very exciting.

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Babile women preparing butternut squash.

Babile women preparing butternut squash.

SOLAR DRYING – this was not such a huge project but I believe it’s one with a lot of potential.  I was able to build and distribute about six of the solar dryers that I designed for the drying of mangoes, vegetables and even moringa.  Post harvest losses are a huge problem in the Upper West due to lack of proper storage.

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Hopefully, this is a small step towards better preservation and nutrition.  Again, one of the driving forces behind this project was my passion for dried mango.  I dare say there are quite a few Lawra residents who are now equally addicted.

Stay tuned for “What Ever Happened to….?” Part Two that will focus on some of the amazing individuals that were part of the rich tapestry of my Ghana experience.

NELSON MANDELA – ‘THE FLOWER WITHERS BUT THE SEED REMAINS’

I have been inspired by Nelson Mandela for as long as I can remember.  He ranks right up there with Martin Luther King, Ghandi, the Dalai Lama and Mother Theresa in exemplifying the ideals of peace, love, equality and social justice that I have aspired to all my life.

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World leaders are paying tribute to him at this time of his passing in words more eloquent than I could ever dream of.  He was the pride of the African people and his death is being felt here most acutely.  He gave Africans hope where there was none and was an example of peaceful resistance to hate, discrimination and injustice that stands to this day.

Mandela

I believe my first awareness of Mandela was reading about the injustice of apartheid and ‘Invictus’ the poem by the English poet William Ernest Henley (1849-1903). Nelson Mandela had the poem written on a scrap of paper on his prison cell while he was incarcerated for 27 years.

Out of the night that covers me,

      Black as the pit from pole to pole,

I thank whatever gods may be

      For my unconquerable soul.

 

In the fell clutch of circumstance

      I have not winced nor cried aloud.

Under the bludgeonings of chance

      My head is bloody, but unbowed.

 

Beyond this place of wrath and tears

      Looms but the Horror of the shade,

And yet the menace of the years

      Finds and shall find me unafraid.

 

It matters not how strait the gate,

      How charged with punishments the scroll,

I am the master of my fate,

      I am the captain of my soul.

 

Mandela’s non-violent protest always impressed me deeply.  The world has lost a messenger of peace.

I was reacquainted with Mandela on the occasion of my son’s graduation from Santa Clara University.  His quote about ‘letting our own light shine’ was printed on the program and seemed the perfect focus for the day.

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”

I have used this quote and the song ‘This Little Light of Mine, I’m Going to Let It Shine” in my Peace Corps work with vulnerable women, children and families.  It is so uplifting.

Mandela, John F. Kennedy (‘Ask not ….”) and Ghandi urged us to “be the change we wished to see in the world”.  These sentiments were so much a part of my motivation to join the Peace Corps.

“We can change the world and make it a better place.  It is in your hands to make a difference.”

When I felt despair over the impoverished lives of the people in my community and all over the world, Mandela’s words gave me hope.

“Poverty is not an accident.  Like slavery and apartheid, it is man-made and can be removed by the actions of human beings.”

Recognizing the lack of compassion, resentment and hatred felt by the ‘haves’ towards the ‘have nots’, I remembered these words of wisdom.

“No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion.  People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”

Mandela showed me what was possible in my own life.  The world will not forget him; nor will I.

Dear Madiba, may flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.

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S.O.S. – STAMP OUT STIGMA

This was the theme of WORLD AIDS DAY 2013 observed on Sunday, December 1st, in Lawra.

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The Lawra Youngsters and I had been gearing up for this day for months.  After being disappointed during the Kobine festival at the hospital’s inability to secure HIV test kits, I was determined to host a testing event for World Aids Day.  When Peace Corps told me there were none available for the general public anywhere in Ghana, I desperately started sending emails to every organization I could think of – Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, WHO (World Health Organization) The Global Fund, etc.  Amazingly Irina Tokatly of The Global Fund in Switzerland responded:

“As you say, testing is an essential part of fighting AIDs, preventing spread and saving lives.”

She arranged for 100 testing kits to be made available for our event (of course, everything had to be cleared through Peace Corps and the National AIDS Control Program in Ghana).  Those who agreed to be tested received free condoms and a pamphlet on Basic Facts about HIV & AIDS. We were able to do 82 tests the day of the program and all were negative.

A reluctant testee

A reluctant testee

With the help of money from home, I was able to arrange for repairs to the meeting hall for the People Living With HIV & AIDS.  We repaired the walls, painted the exterior and interior and built benches.  Since we were painting the exterior, I asked for permission to use the building which fronts the main road in Lawra as a billboard for HIV & AIDS slogans.  We used adinkra symbols for words like “care, compassion, support, respect” and painted a huge condom with the colors of the Ghana flag.  Lawra youngsters helped with the painting. Needless to say, it attracted a lot of attention.

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So our World Aids Day program started out with a dedication of the meeting hall.  We displayed the quilt from America, passed out bracelets “Protect Your Dreams – Use Condoms” and then paraded with red heart-shaped balloons to the Community Center.  Mary Mwinsigteng from the District Assembly Gender Office spoke on “Getting to Zero” and reducing stigma.

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The day also presented an opportunity to recognize the Lawra students who were finalists in the PEPFAR 2014 Calendar Contest.

The PEPFAR CALENDAR CONTEST is sponsored by Peace Corps on behalf of the Ghana AIDS Commission.  The theme for the 2014 calendar is ‘Care, Compassion and Respect’.  This theme was chosen to address stigma and discrimination against people living with HIV and AIDS.

Hundreds of drawings from all over Ghana were submitted to the Peace Corps office in Accra from youngsters under the age of 18.  The drawings were supposed to promote the acceptance of people living with HIV and AIDS.

Finalists were selected by a committee consisting of representatives from Peace Corps, USAID, and other government entities.  Seven Lawra boys were selected as finalists:

ARTIST – Emmanuel Nangku

SCHOOL – Lawra Methodist JHS

AGE: 15 years old

THEME – PRAYER – “Let us include people living with HIV & AIDS in our daily prayers.”

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ARTIST – Albert Naabegfaega

SCHOOL – Lawra Pentacost Primary

AGE: 12 years old

THEME – WORSHIP – “Let us invite people living with HIV & AIDS to visit our churches and mosques.”

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ARTIST – Paul Binne

SCHOOL – St. Peters Roman Catholic in Lawra

AGE:  14 years old

THEME – LOVE – “Father, I know that you have AIDS but I will always love you and care for you.”

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ARTIST – Rapheal Yagle

SCHOOL – Lawra Methodist JHS

AGE:  14 years old

THEME – SOCIALIZATION – “Let us make sure we visit people living with AIDS and their families.”

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ARTIST – Joe Alex

SCHOOL – English/Arabic Primary in Lawra

AGE: 12 years old

THEME – FRIENDSHIP – “Friends can still be friends even if they have HIV or AIDS.”

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ARTIST – Peter Binne

SCHOOL – St. Peters Roman Catholic in Lawra

AGE: 14 years old

THEME – COMPASSION – “We can show compassion to people living with HIV & AIDS by preparing meals for them.”

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ARTIST – John Sonaa

SCHOOL – Lawra Methodist JHS

AGE: 13 years old

THEME – EDUCATION – “AIDS is not a spiritual disease – It can be prevented and controlled.”

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I am very proud of these young artists and especially proud that one of them was chosen for the final printing of the calendar – Joe Alex.

So our World Aids Day program was an appropriate opportunity to recognize and reward their achievements while at the same time conveying the message of increasing education and reducing stigma.  We closed the program with the ever-popular Azonto Dance competition, refreshments and drinks.

MAINTAINING THE MOMENTUM

THREE GOALS OF PEACE CORPS 

 TO HELP THE PEOPLE OF INTERESTED COUNTRIES TO MEET THEIR NEEDS FOR TRAINED MANPOWER (MEN & WOMEN), PARTICULARLY IN MEETING THE BASIC NEEDS OF THOSE LIVING IN THE POOREST AREAS OF SUCH COUNTRIES 

TO HELP PROMOTE A BETTER UNDERSTANDING OF THE AMERICAN PEOPLE ON THE PART OF THE PEOPLE SERVED

 TO HELP PROMOTE A BETTER UNDERSTANDING OF OTHER PEOPLES ON THE PART OF AMERICANS

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I am very fortunate to have a young Peace Corps Volunteer assigned to replace me in Lawra.  Her name is Sydney Henderson.  She is 22 years old.  She has two sisters and parents younger than me.  Her parents are both science teachers back in her hometown in Minnesota, very near to Fargo, North Dakota.  She has a degree in Environmental Studies and did her senior thesis on community gardens.  She spent 7 months studying in Perth, Australia and speaks Chinese.  Her Dagaare is already better than mine.  She loves children and enjoys working with women’s groups.  I couldn’t have asked for a better replacement.

Sydney, Mama Sue and Leahy Winter

Sydney, Mama Sue and Leahy Winter

She arrived in Lawra on November 16th after attending the Peace Corps Counterpart Workshop in Kumasi with my colleague, Madam Mercy.   We were able to spend two full days together in Lawra so I could introduce her to the community.  It was market day on November 17th so she was able to experience the color and chaos of that weekly event.  We walked the town so she could get her bearings and greeted hundreds of people.  There is no way she will remember everyone but she will at least know the faces of those who are nearest and dearest to me.

We did the formal introductions – Paramount Chief, District Chief Executive, Director of MOFA and the Chief of Police.  Chief Karbo was very interested in her environmental background and invited her back to ‘chat’ about agriculture.  Lucky girl.

Her primary assignment will be to work with MOFA (partnering with Madam Mercy) on butternut squash, moringa, shea and alternative livelihood projects.  She loves to garden so was thrilled to see my moringa garden and start imagining the possibilities.  She brought all kinds of seeds for planting fruits and vegetables and will be applying her practical experience and Peace Corps training in organic techniques to improve the garden.

Fortunately for the Lawra Youngsters, she has a background in Youth Development.

Due to time constraints, she was only able to meet a few of the youngsters but they are looking forward to working with her.  She will bring lots of energy and new ideas to the HIV/AIDS Peer Education program.

Moringa will continue to be grown and harvested in the garden.  Sydney and Delphina will collaborate on the soap making operation and she will work with  Madam Mercy on continuing to spread the good word about moringa, butternut squash, and solar drying to the women’s groups in the various communities.

 

Sydney and Delphina

Sydney and Delphina

 

Sydney Henderson – Lawra UWR Ghana welcomes you with open arms.

Mabel Dawson and Sydney Henderson

Mabel Dawson and Sydney Henderson

 

CORE EXPECTATIONS FOR PEACE CORPS VOLUNTEERS 

In working toward fulfilling the Peace Corps Mission of promoting world peace and friendship, as a trainee and volunteer you are expected to:

  • Prepare your personal and professional life in order to make a commitment to serve abroad for a full term of 27 months.
  • Commit to improving the quality of life of the people with whom you live and work; and, in doing so, share your skills, adapt them and learn new skills as needed.
  • Serve where the Peace Corps asks you to under conditions of hardship, if necessary, and with the flexibility needed for elective service. 
  • Recognize that your successful and sustainable development work is based on the local trust and confidence you build by living in, and respectfully integrating yourself into your host community and culture.
  • Recognize that you are responsible 24 hours a day 7 days a week for your personal conduct and professional performance.
  • Engage with host country partners in a spirit of cooperation, mutual learning and respect.
  • Work within the rules and regulations of the Peace Corps and the local and national laws of the country where you serve.
  • Exercise judgment and personal responsibility to protect your health, safety and well-being and that of others.
  • Recognize that you will be perceived, in your host country and community, as a representative of the people, culture, values and traditions of the United States of America.
  • Represent responsibly the people, culture, values and traditions of your host country and community to people in the United States both during and following your service.

SKILLZ & GRASSROOTS SOCCER

In August I attended a 3-day workshop on PEACE CORPS SKILLZ/GRASSROOT SOCCER in Kumasi.

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GRASSROOT SOCCER is an HIV prevention organization that uses the power of soccer to educate, inspire and mobilize communities to stop the spread of HIV and AIDS.  GRS trains coaches, teachers and peer educators to deliver an interactive HIV prevention and life skills curriculum to youth, providing them with the knowledge, skills and support needed to live healthier lives.  GRS and its partners have provided comprehensive HIV prevention and life skills education to over 500,000 youth in 25 countries since 2002.

So Peace Corps has now partnered with Grassroots Soccer to provide a toolkit for volunteers called PEACE CORPS SKILLZ to be used to each young people about not only HIV and AIDS but malaria and general life skills as well.  Its approach encourages young people to have meaningful and relevant discussions about life with ‘coaches’ or mentors that they trust.  The goal of course is to help them start to take steps to achieve their goals, stay strong when faced with challenges and protect themselves and others from life threatening diseases such as HIV/AIDS and malaria.

I almost didn’t sign up for this workshop; I was worried that with my service ending in December, there wouldn’t be enough time to implement the training.  But fortunately Peace Corps wisely invited Ghanaian counterparts to attend the training along with the volunteers.  I knew that with my colleague, Perey Yanbepone, involved, we would find a way to make this training sustainable.

Peace Corps Volunteers, Ghanaian counterparts and GRS coaches in Kumasi in August

Peace Corps Volunteers, Ghanaian counterparts and GRS coaches in Kumasi in August

Our first challenge was to come up with a program schedule for the 11 practice sessions in the curriculum.  I had a built-in group of participants with my Lawra Youngsters but since they all come from different schools, scheduling is always a problem.  We decided to split the program into 4 Saturday sessions of 3 practices each (plus graduation).  Participants needed to attend 8 out of 11 practices to graduate.

We ended up with 32 participants over the course of the program and 8 graduates.

Mandatory Saturday classes at some of the schools, illnesses and farming responsibilities challenged attendance.  Of the 8 graduates, 6 were female. The male participation dropped off dramatically after the first session (I suspect some of the intimate conversations were a bit threatening).

Lawra SKILLZ group  October 2013

Lawra SKILLZ group
October 2013

So there were many lessons for both participants and coaches.  In retrospect, I believe we should have had one, maybe two, days of full-on participation to sustain the momentum.  But that is a lesson for future programs.

I was very fortune to have not only Perey to assist me but Suabir Alhassan as well.

The two of them make a great coaching team and I’m confident they will carry the program forward into 2014.

Perey Yanbepone and Suabir Alhassan - SKILLZ coaches

Perey Yanbepone and Suabir Alhassan – SKILLZ coaches

Here are just a few of the Key Messages from the 11 practice sessions:

You cannot tell if someone has HIV just by looking at him or her. 

The only way for someone to know his or her HIV status is to go for HIV testing.

There are many risks in life that can lead to HIV including:

  • Unprotected sex
  • Multiple sexual partners
  • Older partners
  • Mixing sex with drugs/alcohol. 

HIV has serious consequences for you, your families and friends and the whole community. 

You can avoid getting or spreading HIV by:

Abstinence

Being Faithful

Condom Use

If you have less power in a relationship (as with an older partner), it is harder to make healthy decisions, like using condoms or being mutually faithful. 

The immune system protects the body from germs and diseases. 

HIV weakens the immune system, allowing germs and diseases to attack the human body. 

Without treatment, HIV usually progresses to AIDS within 2 to 10 years and eventually kills the human body.

Your sexual network includes all your sexual partners plus all your partners’ partners.  The bigger your sexual network, the greater your chance of getting HIV.

 HIV, STIs and pregnancy are consequences of sex.  It is important to consider how each of these would affect your life before choosing to have sex. 

Having sex is a choice.  You can choose when you have sex, whom you have sex with, and how you will protect yourself during sex. 

We should care for people with HIV because they need our love and support to stay strong. 

Stigma and discrimination impact the spread of HIV because people are less likely to get tested or follow treatment

The program makes teaching these messages fun by activities such as Find the Ball, HIV Limbo, Break Away from HIV, Red Card, Juggling My Life and Shoot-out.

HIV Limbo

HIV Limbo

 

Coaches are encouraged to use the Big 5 facilitation tools:

1) Share Information about HIV and AIDS – the curriculum provides everything that is needed but if someone asks a question that we don’t know  the answer to, we just promise to look it up and discuss it later.

2) Create Safe Space – it’s important to have an environment that encourages participants to honestly and openly discuss sensitive, personal and challenging issues.  So the venue should be safe from noise, distraction and even casual observation.

3) Build Personal Connections – Research has shown that when youth involved in a caring adult relationship are more likely to resist bad influences and practice safer sexual behavior.

4) Give Powerful Praise – praise builds the self-confidence that is needed for  youth to make healthy choices.

5) Spark Vital Conversations – a vital conversation is the free and natural sharing of thoughts, ideas and opinions.  I have found that Ghanaian youth, especially girls, are disinclined to think for themselves.  One of our more  meaningful activities was called ‘Take A Stand”.  Participants had to agree (hands on head) or disagree (hands on hips).  I found that we had to have everyone close the eyes and even turn around because everyone wanted to see what everyone else was doing.  The best part – once they agreed or disagreed, they had to explain why.  Some sample statements:

  • I would go for an HIV test – agree or disagree.
  • It is common for people in my community to have more than one sexual partner – agree or disagree.
  • People with HIV can still achieve their goals in life – agree or disagree.
  • People should talk about sex before having it – agree or disagree.

Needless to say, this activity initiated many lively conversations.  The other thing that really brought depth to this program was the activity called “Coach’s Story’.  This is a personal story that the coaches share about their own experiences with sex, taking risks, peer pressure and choices about drugs and alcohol.  My coaches told some amazing stories that touched everyone deeply; I even told a few myself.  This really seemed to open the door to questions and discussions about truly sensitive and private issues – exactly what we were hoping for.

So now that it’s all said and done, I’m glad I accepted the Peace Corps SKILLZ challenge.  I believe this program helps to counteract the fatalism that we find so often with Ghanaian youth.  We can show them that they actually have choices and how the decisions they make every day can change the direction of their lives and destinies.

 

 

 

SAYING GOODBYE

Unfortunately, the goodbyes have begun.

“Never say goodbye because goodbye means going away and going away means forgetting.” 

J.M. Barrie―Peter Pan 

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*****YIERLIEB DERY*****

We had to say our goodbyes recently to a dear man from Kasalgre – Yierlieb Dery.  He is gone but not forgotten.

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He was the father of Simon and he leaves behind many sons, daughters, grandchildren and a wife who will be missing him seriously.

Simon with just a few family members.

Simon with just a few family members.

 

His story is common and yet unique.  He was always a farmer, making his living off the land.  His sons describe him as the strongest man they ever knew and a hard worker; until the day he fell off a truck taking yams to market and injured both of his legs.  He was never the same after that.  They said his age when we first met him was early 70’s but he looked 90.  His knees were swollen and sore; he said they pained him all of the time.  I tried to supply him with moringa, ointments and pain medication.  They say it gave him some relief

He was unique in that he understood the value of education.  He made sure that the family sacrificed so that Simon could go to school.  Unfortunately, Simon had his accident with the snakebite about the time he entered JHS and lost his leg.  The family’s resources were stretched to the limit with medical expenses.  Once things stabilized again for Simon and he was back in school, the father began encouraging some of the other sons to further their education, even though it meant losing valuable farm labor.  Fortunately, they are hard workers and in Joseph’s case he has been doing correspondence courses at home while continuing to farm in Techiman. Another brother, Emmanuel, has become a teacher and works in Kasalgre.

 

Joseph and Emmanuel

Joseph and Emmanuel

Mr. Yierlieb was a devout Catholic.  As his disease progressed (the paperwork I saw said prostate cancer), he always wanted to pray the rosary when I visited him.  I was with him shortly before he passed away and he kept saying he wanted to go home.  His daughter thought he meant back to the village but he was reaching his arms up towards heaven and making the sign of the cross over and over again.  I left him with my rosary and that seemed to give him some comfort.  I told the family they could bury him with it if they thought he would like that but they’ve decided to give it to his wife instead as one of the last things he held on to before he passed (she was not able to be with him).

So Yierlieb Dery’s legacy will be one of education and I’m sure that he is proud of the fact that his children will have a better life than he had.

Simon and father

Simon and father

 

“Oh heart.  If one should say to you that the soul perishes like the body, answer that the flower withers but the seed remains.”

Kahil Gibran

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*****FATHER GAETAN*****

On a happier note, this past Sunday we said goodbye to our parish priest, Father Gaetan (or Father ‘PP’ as he is known to the children – ‘PP’ standing for parish priest). There were lovely speeches of thanks by several parishioners for the wonderful work he has done for the parish these past seven years.  He did his sabbatical in Canada years ago and as a result has become a bit of an Anglophile. He has always been a wonderful support to my programs and to me from the Christmas Eve Children’s Carol Service to the Girls Leadership Camp hosted by St. Peters last February. Father is being transferred to Jirapa, which is fairly close by so we haven’t seen the last of him.  He told us he plans to be back for the 50-year Golden Jubilee celebration at St Peters in 2016.  He is also uncle to my good friend and colleague Delphina Bonaa so I know she will keep close tabs on him.  The word that was used over and over to describe Father Gaeten was ‘humble’ and that quality is rare in priests, at least in my experience here in Ghana.  But the main reason I admire him so much is that the children love him and he always allows them to sit up on the altar all through his masses.  I pray that God continues to bless his work wherever he may be.

Mabel, me, Father Gaetan and Delphina

Mabel, me, Father Gaetan and Delphina

“And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” Philippians 4:7

*****JULIAN AND VIDA*****

I just made the trip to Adeiso in the Eastern Region to say goodbye to my dear friends, Julian and Vida.  They have just returned from 5 months in Toronto, Canada to their lovely home in Ghana.  They consistently travel back and forth each year to maintain their Canadian health benefits, which they admit, is becoming increasingly more difficult.  (We agreed that much as we hate to admit it, we’re all aging whether we like it or not.)  I asked Julian where they will finally settle and he said Canada.  That surprised me at first because they seem so at home here in Ghana with property both in Adeiso and the Volta Region.  But Canadian health care is impossible to duplicate here plus they have grown up children in Toronto who miss them when they’re gone.  We had a lovely time chatting it up about science, politics, childhood experiences and everything else under the sun (and the stars – Venus was spectacular with the crescent moon glowing that night).  Getting to know them has been one of the most providential experiences of my time in Ghana.  I don’t know what I would have done without Julian’s expertise and extensive knowledge not to mention Vida’s sound advice and insight into Ghanaian culture.  God willing, our paths will cross again somewhere down the road.

Thank you, John, for introducing us.

Julian and Vida

Julian and Vida

“Like a comet pulled from orbit,

As it passes a sun. 

Like a stream that meets a boulder, 

Halfway through the wood. 

Who can say if I’ve been changed for the better? 

But because I knew you, 

I have been changed for good 

 

It well may be, 

That we will never meet again, 

In this lifetime. 

So let me say before we part, 

So much of me, 

Is made of what I learned from you. 

You’ll be with me, 

Like a handprint on my heart. 

And now whatever way our stories end, 

I know you have re-written mine, 

By being my friend… 

 

Like a ship blown from its mooring, 

By a wind off the sea. 

Like a seed dropped by a skybird, 

In a distant wood. 

Who can say if I’ve been changed for the better? 

But because I knew you, 

Because I knew you, 

I have been changed for good.” 

― Stephen SchwartzWicked: The Complete Book and Lyrics of the Broadway Musical

 

 

SHARED HUMANITY

“Compassion becomes real when we recognize our shared humanity.”

― Pema ChödrönThe Places That Scare You: A Guide to Fearlessness in Difficult Times

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Lately I have been thinking a lot about the haves and have-nots and ‘entitlement’ (having a right to something).  In Ghana, it’s a matter of your status (high rank or social standing, often based on education) that determines whether or not you are a V.I.P. who will enjoy wealth and privilege. I see this dynamic play itself out every day.

I recently watched Season One of ‘Downton Abbey” on DVD and loved it; I can’t wait to see more.  Wikipedia calls it a British period drama following the lives of one aristocratic family and its servants during the reign of King George V.  It reminded me a lot of Upstairs, Downstairs, which I enjoyed for so many years.  Talk about entitlement! The aristocrats were the ultimate ‘haves’ and the servants….well, not so much.  But it makes for great entertainment.  I think the reason these shows are popular is because everyone wants to see how the ‘other half’ lives.  But the reality of income inequality is serious business; it’s here and it’s now.

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I understand there was a recent film in the States called ‘Elysium’, a sci-fi action thriller starring Matt Damon.  It apparently explores political and sociological themes such as overpopulation and class issues.  One of my favorite columnists, Leonard Pitts Jr., wrote that it is a ‘perfect tale for these political times.  It is an allegory of income disparity, a cautionary saga of what happens when more and more resources are concentrated in fewer and fewer hands.”

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The problem of income inequality (the gap between the rich and the poor in a society) has become a global problem but not one confined to third world countries. In fact, in a recent survey, the United States ranked 44th out of 86 countries (one spot below Nigeria).  The United States is the most unequal of any developed country measured.

(And as my Peace Corps friend Dennis Callahan likes to point out, those of us who live in first world countries are actually the minority of the world’s population.)

The countries with the highest income inequality are, of course, those in Latin America and Africa. We read that these countries have been seeing economic growth over the past few decades but much of the wealth ends up in the top social stratospheres. The problem then tends to be self-reinforcing: the rich are able to secure better education and political access, making it easier for them to stay rich and harder for everyone else to get a share of the pie.

Even Ghanaians are saying things have gone too far – in a recent opinion piece entitled ‘Why Ghana Needs an Extreme Makeover’, the author says “We appear to have a permanent policy of giving more to those who have something while we ignore the needs of those who have the least or nothing.”

I really start to worry when I read articles like the one recently written by Andy May entitled ‘African Billionaires Flourish as Population Explosion Starves Masses’ which predicts a bleak future if African and global billionaires do not start investing in family planning, long term contraception and women’s education in Africa versus mining and resource extraction.  The fate of the entire world seems to depend on the education and empowerment of women and yet progress is so slow.

So I have been trying to digest all of this data in an attempt to somehow understand what’s going on here in Africa when in fact the problems are much bigger.  How can so many people have so much when so many people have so little? Why is it that women and children seem to suffer the most? Is there any light at the end of the tunnel of poverty?

Then a recent article written by Seth Borenstein of the Associated Press about research that shows that IQ levels drop with worries over money brought a whole new perspective to my ideas about poverty.

In this study, scientists looked at the effects of finances on the brain both in the lab and in the field. In controlled lab-like conditions, they had about 400 shoppers at Quaker Bridge Mall in central New Jersey consider certain financial scenarios and tested their brain power.

In the New Jersey part of the study, the scientists tested about 400 shoppers, presenting them with scenarios that involved a large and a small car repair bill. Those with family incomes of about $20,000 scored about the same as those with $70,000 incomes on IQ tests when the car bill was small. But when the poorer people had to think about facing a whopping repair bill, their IQ scores were 40 percent lower.

Then they looked at real life in the fields of India, where farmers only get paid once a year. Before the harvest, they take out loans and pawn goods. After they sell their harvest, they are flush with cash.  The same 464 farmers in India were tested before and after the harvest and their IQ scores improved by 25 percent when their wallets fattened.

There is a whole lot more scientific gobbledygook that people smarter than I am can pick apart if they want to find the study on the Internet.  But here’s what I find significant:

The study’s authors and others say the results contradict long-standing conservative economic social and political theory that say it is individuals — not circumstances — that are the primary problem with poverty. In the case of India, it was the same people before and after, so it can’t always be the individual person’s fault.

“For a long time we’ve been blaming the poor for their own failings,” says Zhao, the study’s co-author.  “Now we are arguing something very different.”

As Leonard Pitts Jr. says “We have been conditioned by years of conservative dogma to view poor people with scorn, as too stupid, too lazy or too lacking in foresight to rise above their circumstances”.  The poor have been called “takers”, crippled by an ‘entitlement mentality’.  We tell ourselves that initiative, intelligence and planning are the necessary elements of success.  True – but isn’t much of it simply pure luck (or fate, or destiny)?  A matter of getting a good break or being born at the right time in the right place?

And if that’s true, then the line between the haves and the have nots is fuzzier than we think.  One can slip back and forth across that line very easily under different circumstances.

Maybe the ‘haves and have nots’ are like the yin and the yang – seemingly opposite or contrary forces that are actually interconnected and interdependent.

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Which means that our shared humanity is more of a reality than ‘entitlement’ or ‘status’.  And that fact should urge us to compassion for those less fortunate than ourselves.

“Compassion is not religious (or political) business, it is human business, it is not luxury, it is essential for our own peace and mental stability, it is essential for human survival.”

― Dalai Lama XIV

CELEBRATING PHENOMENAL WOMEN

“Pretty women wonder where my secret lies.

I’m not cute or built to suit a fashion model’s size.

But when I start to tell them, they think I’m telling lies.

I say, ‘It’s in the reach of my arms, the span of my hips.

The stride of my step, the curl of my lips.’

I’m a woman, phenomenally, phenomenal woman, that’s me.

I walk into a room, just as cool as you please. 

And to a man, the fellows stand or fall down on their knees.

Then they swarm around me, a hive of honeybees.

I say ‘It’s the fire in my eyes, and the flash of my teeth.

The swing in my waist, and the joy in my feet.’

I’m a woman, phenomenally, phenomenal woman, that’s me.

Men themselves have wondered what they see in me.

They try so much, but they can’t touch my inner mystery.

When I try to show them, they say the still can’t see.

I say, ‘It’s in the arch of my back, the sun of my smile.

The ride of my breasts, the grace of my style.’

I’m a woman, phenomenally, phenomenal woman, that’s me.

Now you understand just why my head’s not bowed.

When you see me passing, it ought to make you proud.

I say, “It’s the click of my heels, the bend of my hair.

The palm of my hand, the need of my care.

‘Cause I’m a woman, phenomenally, phenomenal woman, that’s me.”

 

Maya Angelou

Maya Angelou

We celebrated my friend Delphina’s birthday on October 20th with an American-style birthday party complete with ‘Happy Birthday’ paper plates, balloons and birthday cake.  She said it was the first birthday party she has ever had (she’s 48 years young).

Delphina and her daughter Joycelyn.

Delphina and her daughter Joycelyn.

Her best birthday present was the visit of her daughter Irene with granddaughter Margaret Mary (my god-daughter) from Tumu.   So we had three generations of Bonaa women gathered for the occasion.

Three generations - Irene, Delphina, Margaret Mary and Joycelyn

Three generations – Irene, Delphina, Margaret Mary and Joycelyn

Delphina’s brother, Father Gaetan, was also able to join us along with my sewing colleague Madam Mabel Asana and Delphina’s good friend and landlady, Maybelline.   The children carved a pumpkin (they just couldn’t wait until Halloween) and I made a spice birthday cake with Delphina’s new oven and Bundt pan (care of my dear friend Vicki Sensiba).

Father Gaetan and Maggie

Father Gaetan and Maggie

Maybelline

Madam Maybelline

Madam Mabel Asana

Madam Mabel Asana

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Surrounded by Beauty

By Tiauna Boyd – Peace Corps Volunteer

“It could be the way her smile

Is engraved with strength

Yet is gracefully adorned with a delicate light

Or It could be the way her hands…

Are decorated with exhausted scars of gripping heavily to hope

Yet effortlessly dance through the day, soft and swiftly

Or it could be her eyes…

Flooded with stories untold

Yet also perfectly hold an immeasurable amount of care

Or it could be her laugh…

That paints the air thick with satisfaction for the day

With a booming presence so saturated with joy it strips poverty of its sting

Or it could be her arms…

That are coated with marks of resilience

And rest heavy with a steady gentleness for her children

Ghanaian women

Have shown me

That beauty does not come in straight hair or white teeth

Beauty does not come in a size or an eye color

Beauty, Ghanaian women have shown me,

Is wearing life’s lessons with humility

Beauty, Ghanaian women have shown me,

Is making do with what is, and sharing every portion of what comes

Beauty, Ghanaian women have shown me,

Comes from enduring

It comes from creatively greeting challenges

It comes from understanding and acting on the belief that we are all worth it.” 

As Peace Corps volunteers in Ghana, we can see beauty in the smiles, eyes, hands, laughs and arms of the women who adopt us and love us, who care for us and cook for us, who learn with us and teach us, who greet us and invite us, and the women who visit us and sit with us.

This beauty surrounds us.

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