Connecting Across the Continents

Today, it felt like Ghana – hot, sunny, and a little humid. No, actually it was very humid. Yesterday, Chris wondered where all that hot weather was that I had promised her, so today Ghana delivered it. Ah, this feels like the Ghana I know and love.

This was a day to catch up with old and new friends and to share greetings from our friends back in the U.S. We brought photo albums for our Income Generation women with postcard greetings, letters, and photos of women in the U.S. We love connecting women and families in the U.S. with families here. Here are photos to show you how the connections in the U.S. made their way here.

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Joyce and Ama looking at her letters and photos from women in the U.S.

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Never underestimate the value of these connections. On both sides of the ocean, they are a blessing. Joyce and the other Income Generation women know that they have new friends in the U.S. who really do think of them and pray for them.

Today, we talked with a mother of two young boys in Nantan who had just been evicted from her house by her mother-in-law. Her husband has left and she has no idea where he is. It’s so hard to know what to say. So we just hold a hand.

Everyone can do something to make a connection. We promise that we’ll do our part on this end to facilitate the connection.

We’ve just finished a delicious dinner of groundnut soup and rice balls. Chris lost. She didn’t clean her plate. On the other hand, I went in for a second helping. We’ll give her another chance tomorrow night when we introduce her to red-red and fried plantain.

So, we’re getting ready to welcome the staff back for another evening – this time for an official staff meeting. It looks to be another late evening, so I’m finishing this post and turning off my WiFi.

Goodnight from Ankaase, where there is a beautiful full moon this evening!

 

We’re Back in Ghana: Half of Day One

This is last night’s post, but the WiFi was not cooperating, so I’m once again posting after the fact. Just pretend it is about 3:29 p.m. yesterday, which is when you would have been reading this if all things technical hadn’t fallen apart. 

We’re here! Four hours of sleep in 48 hours makes for one exhausted team. But we can’t complain. Our only delay was a turnaround in the air when we were in the process of landing in Kumasi. After about 35 hours of travel (and four hours of sleep in a guesthouse in Accra), we were so ready to be on the ground and on our way to the mission house. But the president of Ghana was landing at the Kumasi airport just as we were about to land, and so we were not allowed to join him. I guess when the president’s plane lands, the airport has to be cleared. So,we flew back to Accra, waited the requisite amount of time – which turned out to be an hour – then flew back to Kumasi.

We unpacked our seven pieces of luggage, then went to Esther’s seamstress shop where we picked up ten more Ankaase bags and five more tote bags. The quality of these stitched items is very good quality, and Esther is really helping the apprentices learn to make these products. They are so excited to be sewing and earning income for the work they are producing. The more opportunities we give them to stitch, the better it is for them and their families. We’re looking forward to bringing quite a few items back, just in time for Christmas!

Tomorrow, we’ll be visiting all the apprentices and bringing greetings to them in the form of letters, postcards, and photos from those of you who have connected with them in the U.S. On Thursday, we’ll visit the IG women, Ama and Helena, and bring those same greetings. It makes these visits much more special when those of you who have made connections enter the picture and join us in encouraging and walking alongside these women.

The power was out when we arrived, so we were able to use some of the solar lanterns that we’ll leave when we return. These are the same lanterns that Isaac and the staff delivered to Dumakyi village in September. We realize that when it’s dark and you are eating a delicious dinner of Jollof rice and chicken, it’s good to see your food. So we dined by solar lanterns, which seemed fitting.

I’m turning in early so this is a short post with no photos, but we’ll be rested and full of energy tomorrow. So now, the moment I’ve been waiting for: crawling into bed for a full night’s sleep.

Goodnight from Ankaase, Ghana.

It’s Orphan Sunday: Rise and Go

 

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It seems perfectly fitting that on Orphan Sunday we are boarding a flight to Ghana – a country I was introduced to through the faces of five orphans. Three years ago I looked at photos of the children taken in their orphanage, and a few months later was on a plane to meet them. At the time I thought that adoption might be in the plan, but it wasn’t. That was difficult for me to accept until I realized that there was another reason I was led to Ghana.

Orphan Sunday is a day to learn about, speak up for, and find ways to care for the millions of orphans around the world – including the ones in our own city. I am somewhat familiar with the plight of orphans, since thirteen years ago we adopted a daughter from China, and my husband directs an international adoption agency. But I wasn’t as knowledgeable about what all this looks like before a child is abandoned in a crowded market or brought to an orphanage. What are the circumstances that lead up to someone handing over their child? And what happens to children who are shuffled into the home of a relative after the death of their parents? Now I know the stories of some of these children, which is why I keep going back.

We began Rising Village for the purpose of identifying parents and caregivers who have little resources and find it difficult to provide for their children. It’s these families who are often at risk of placing their children in a local orphanage, or worse, being targeted by child traffickers – of which there are many in Ghana. We also decided to come alongside the families who have taken in orphaned children so that we can help provide education through high school and beyond. We want these families and the children to have every opportunity to remain intact and be a strong and vital part of their community and their country. It’s a big goal, but one that we believe in. We’ve seen the other side of it. Each one of us who is traveling today has visited orphanages, brought orphans into our family, organized orphan awareness events, sponsored children all over the world and participated in Orphan Sunday in years past. This year we will participate by boarding a British Airways flight that will take us to Ghana. We go without fear and with resolve.

We will spend time with orphaned children who live with relatives. We will continue to work with single mothers who have started businesses and entered apprenticeships so they can provide for their children and become strong, purpose-filled families. We will visit those who have received bedding to help prevent malaria – a disease that kills parents and children. All of these things help us fulfill our mission of transforming villages through family preservation. It happens slowly and not by our hands only. The people who live in Ghana are capable and ready to join in this mission – we simply bring resources, encouragement, and love to our brothers and sisters who are there. And we go with the blessing and support from all of you who have joined in the mission here. Your prayers and generous giving of your time and money have allowed us to begin and expand this work. We are grateful and humbled.

So this begins my travel journal on this Orphan Sunday. As always, I’m praying for reliable Internet connection so I can send the stories and photos back to you. We have seven pieces of luggage, so I’m also praying for a joyful reunion with that luggage in Accra. We’ll be staying in the capital city for one evening, and then we’ll fly the short distance into Kumasi, then drive to Ankaase. So you and I will meet up again in a couple of days when I’m able to post again.

Thank you for joining us on this adventure. 

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Would You?

I’m posting this because we set a goal and it would be so wonderful to reach it before we leave for Ghana on Monday.

I’ve been thinking about this for a while and wondering if it’s appropriate, but I’m taking the risk and praying that you don’t run the other direction when you see me coming. So here is my ask: We’re looking for 20 people who will make a commitment to give $25 a month to Rising Village Foundation.

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I could tell you that $25 a month is such a small amount that you wouldn’t notice if it was pulled from your monthly budget, but that’s not true for everyone. What I can tell you is that the $25 you give each month will be used to change some stories for families in a part of the world where life is hard.

My blog is titled One Good Story, but it seems that it is easier to focus on the negative. Sensational, frightening, fear-inducing stories seem to be everywhere and cause us to worry and lament where our world is headed. As a news junkie, I can easily fall into this, but I think we need voices that call us to something different. What if we told those stories with hope? And what if we used our resources to become that hope for those who desperately need it? I don’t know about you, but I want to live in a way that actually changes stories for someone besides myself.

I want to tell Yaw’s story with hope. He is a father of four children who was injured two years ago and did not have the financial resources to seek medical help. What little money he brought in to care for his wife and five children was gone. Yaw’s wife, overwhelmed by her inability to be the sole source of income, fled. She had little education and perhaps feared watching her children go hungry. Yaw was left alone with his three sons and daughter.

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For two years, he has depended on the charity of other impoverished family members in the village and this has left him drained of the energy to take care of his children. They attend school sporadically in worn uniforms. Yaw needs medical attention. His children need education. The entire family needs better healthcare and improved living conditions to become strong. We want them to be the kind of family that can make the village a better place to live. And yes, this is possible.

Our model is one family at a time. So I’m asking 20 of you to help us by clicking this link on the Rising Village website. It takes you to our partner page, where you can sign up for a recurring payment of $25 a month. If that seems like too much, we have an option for $10 a month. Or, $50 a month, and on up. Every little bit helps as we continue to walk where God is leading us. He provides, but He does this through people whose hearts have been moved by the stories we tell. And we believe these are stories of hope.

I know I’ve been making lots of asks these days, but we all give in different ways. Some donate school supplies, some write checks, some give their time to help direct and volunteer, some pray. I am grateful for any way that you choose to join in the work we are doing.

I’ll be posting here while we’re in Ghana, so don’t leave the blog because I asked you for money, promise? You won’t want to miss the stories  we’ll be sharing. And now, I’m off to the packing room!

The Art Auction: How Did We End Up Here?

I met an artist in Kumasi, Ghana who sells his work on the street. We were shopping for items to take back to Dillon’s Lunar New Year fundraiser, but I was open to buying a little something for myself. After a small amount of price negotiating with this very motivated artist, I purchased a beautiful painting of an African mother and child. It’s too expensive to frame (maybe someday), but I am still proud of it and bring it down from the upstairs gameroom pool table to show people every now and then. About four days after I met the artist, Emmanuel, I was in the lobby of the hotel praying over my Wi-fi connection and who do you think walked in the door with an armload of art? What a small African world it is. A group of college students and their adult chaperones from the U.S. had descended on our peaceful Miklin Hotel the previous day and Emmanuel and his artist buddies had gotten word. They were there to sell.

We immediately recognized each other and he sat down beside me and listened to me whine about the Wi-fi connection for a while. Then he said, “Have you ever seen string art?” My mind immediately flashed an image of the old kids’ craft yarn art, and I nodded. “I think so.”

As it turns out, I had never seen string art. This is what he was talking about:

It’s a very specific type of art that takes skill and practice. The craft is handed down to an artist from an apprentice (in Emmanuel’s case, his grandfather). Each piece takes about four to six weeks to complete. The artist first sketches a figure onto canvas, then traces over the figure. The canvas is glued multiple times, and then the process to complete the artwork begins by hand weaving the details toward the right-hand side, one after the other. Details and background are woven into the canvas with colored silk thread and the artist must give careful attention to maintain color consistency throughout. The colors that are used to dye the thread are created from plants, which are cooked for days over a very hot fire. This craft originated and remains mostly in Ghana and Nigeria. I was immediately taken in by string art, but I was out of funds and space in the suitcase so I shook my head at Emmanuel’s offer to sell me a piece. In Ghana, people love to exchange phone numbers and email, so I gave Emmanuel my card when he asked for my contact information. The next day we boarded a plane for home and I didn’t think about our exchange again until I received a phone call from him about two months later. He wanted to send me some string art to sell. I really hate it when I’m skeptical about people, but I assumed that he was simply asking me to send him money and he would send me a piece of art.

“I can’t buy anything Emmanuel,” I said, yelling into my cell phone, which is what you do when there is an enormous language barrier. We were on the phone for at least 30 minutes as he explained to me about his art, his dreams of having an art studio and eventually an art school. And he kept asking if he could send me art.

“Please don’t use your money to ship me art,” I yelled. “There isn’t a guarantee that it will sell and it would cost us both money because I would have to ship it back.”

“Just keep it until you see me again,” he yelled back.

That made no sense, so I ended the conversation politely. Why would he spend the money to send the art over and then trust me to return it to him? Then the emails from him began to pop into my inbox, with the same request.

And for about a month he asked to send me art and I gave him a lot of reasons why he shouldn’t. Then, after tiring of his pleas I said, “If it’s what you really want to do, then it’s up to you.” Apparently that was the equivalent of shouting, “Send me six pieces of art!”

I received the string art in ten days. Six pieces. Absolutely beautiful.

With the string art in my possession, I immediately phoned my cousin who works for Tulsa’s Arts and Humanities Council. It was an SOS call. “I have this art,” I told her. “And I don’t know people who buy art.” A few days later we met so she could take the art into her possession. She knows people who buy art. By the end of the day she had sold a piece and by the end of the evening she had arranged to have the pieces in an art auction the following night. Which is how Emmanuel, who was still back on the streets in Kumasi trying to sell his art, ended up being featured in an art auction in Tulsa, Oklahoma. And he had no idea. I didn’t want to get his hopes up so I didn’t tell him his art was being auctioned at a fancy event. We attended the auction because this story was just way too good and we wanted to be right in the middle of it.

Every story does not have a predictable ending and you’re probably expecting this one to end with a big finish. No, we didn’t make big money at the art auction, but it was first-year event and most people came to window-shop. I stood at the table for a while and watched as people walked up, stared at the pieces, and declared that they had never seen anything like it. After I explained the process they were amazed, so I believe Emmanuel might have a possible future as an artist here in the U.S. But he isn’t here. He’s still in Kumasi peddling his beautiful art on a crowded Ghanaian street to people who don’t have the money to buy it.

There is a fabulous ending to this story, but I’m not sure what it is yet. In the meantime, if you would like to buy a piece of authentic African art that is like nothing most people have ever seen, I’m selling.

My Sankofa Bird

It was a sweltering afternoon in Ankaase Village and the temperature in the schoolroom was even hotter, but at least we were shaded. The sun in Africa is like a different star than it is here: closer, brighter, with the kind of heat that reminds you how small and vulnerable you really are. I grabbed a bottle of Coke (not Diet Coke, not Coke Zero, but sugar-ladden Coke) and drank it like water. It was a gift, brought to us as part of a goodbye ceremony. We were spending our last day with the children in the SDA school – giving and receiving parting gifts, taking photos, giving short speeches, and drinking our Cokes. At the end of the ceremony, Daniel, the school headmaster and our new friend, handed Erin and I a gift: a carved bird with it’s head turned back toward it’s tail.

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“It’s Sankofa,” Daniel said as he handed it to me with both hands. “It means we wish you will always remember us and come back to us.” I accepted the gift, but didn’t fully understand what I had been given. I carefully packed my carved bird, brought it back to the U.S., and put it on a shelf that housed my knick-knacks. And I kind of forgot about it.

Several months ago, I began considering a return to this small village. As I continued to learn more of the children’s stories and hear of the needs that existed there, I realized that there was something else for me to do in Ankaase. Maybe more than one something. There are those seasons of life when you feel that things are completely out of your control and I am right in the middle of one of those. Everything that has happened in the past four months feels carefully orchestrated, placed, and planned. And not by me, thank you God.

Most of the time, I have difficulty discerning what is God’s idea and what is mine. I have so many good ideas, or so I think. I have so many plans that make sense to me. I work hard to orchestrate events to put these great ideas and plans into place. And I think God sits back on most days and watches with a bit of amusement. “If you want to make God laugh,” says Anne Lamott, “tell her your plans.” Whether you like the gender switch of God or not, there is truth in this. We spend a lot of time and energy working out our own deals.

I can say with no small amount of certainty that the events propelling me back to Ghana have not been planned by me. I couldn’t have put any of this together in a hundred years. Here is an example: My friend Peter, who I am working with in this small village, brought me a beaded bracelet from Ghana. I had never seen beads like this, so I got online to research them. They are called Krobo beads and they have been made in Ghana for hundreds of years. The process of crafting these beads is extensive and requires hours of crushing glass, mixing it with dye, placing it in molds, firing the molds in homemade ovens, painting the designs by hand, more firing. A simple cassava stalk inserted in the center during the molding process gives the bead a center hole. I was mesmerized as I watched the process online. It’s an art that is handed down through the generations.

I love bracelets, especially culturally unique bracelets, so I pulled Alison into a project with me: “We’ll find these beads and make Krobo bracelets to sell and raise money for the village.” And because children understand the beauty of a crazy idea, she was on board from the first word. And we did it. We bought our Krobo beads from two women who head up sustainability projects in two Ghanaian villages. The beads are authentic and fair trade. We’ve made 43 bracelets and sold 28. And we haven’t even begun to market them yet.

So in the midst of doing even more research on the beads, I ran across a YouTube video that included an interview with a bead seller in Ghana. “For a while, we shunned the beads,” she said in the interview. “People thought they were archaic, or unfashionable. But we have a culture of Sankofa – go back and retrieve what you have left behind – and now people are returning to the beads.”

Sankofa. Where had I heard that before? Suddenly I remembered my carved bird. I jumped up and pulled it from the knick-knack shelf. “Go back and retrieve what you have left behind,” or the literal translation: “It is not wrong to go back for what is at risk of being left behind.”

I got the message.

So I’m going back to Ghana on October 17. This time, Erin will stay here and I will travel with our friends Peter and Anna Osei-Kwame. I’ll be staying in the village in a cool little African bungalow with a cat named Tooles (forgive me kitty if I have the spelling wrong). I’ll be blogging here and praying that my cable modem will work in the village. I hope you’ll join me as I go back for what is at risk of being left behind.

I’m keeping my Sankofa bird in a more prominent place these days to continually remind me of all that is unfolding and how it is so out of my hands. I stand amazed, but why should I be? I’ve known all along that God loves a good story.

Exactly Two Months After 9/11: New Life

While the world was still reeling and the dust still settling in the wake of the 9/11 tragedy, we boarded a plane to fly across the world. Many people we knew who had booked overseas flights canceled after the terrorist strike, but we didn’t. We couldn’t. The clothes – size 12 months – had been laid out on top of the suitcase for weeks. We had bibs, shoes, toys, and an endless amount of paperwork ready to pack. For those six weeks between the falling of the twin towers and the day we stepped on the plane, I listened to the grieving families and survivors in television interviews and endured the angry tirades of people around us who believed that we should go “kick some butt” (can’t count how many times I heard this). It was a confusing, angry, frightening time. We all wondered what the world was coming to, while at the same time mourning the reality that it would never be the same.

And in the middle of all of it, we packed our bags and left our grieving country for two weeks. Our world would never be the same either.

Not once did we think about sending only one person from our family to pick up our daughter. The four of us were going, and we would fly across the ocean with that one beautiful face in our mind’s eye. It’s still amazing to me how love has the power to cast out fear, even when fear is completely justified. September 11, 2001 will always be inextricably linked to that joyous time when we met our daughter and sister. It swirls together and reminds me that life continues, even in the pitch black hours. Exactly two months after 9/11, on 11/11, we celebrated her first year of life – a day early. This little girl had been born in a world where the odds were most certainly stacked against her, in a country where it would require resilience for a female baby to survive. And survive she did. She fought her way to that first year and so we strapped a little party hat on her and celebrated. She loved the cake and clapped her hands to the birthday song. I was so proud of her and so certain that whatever ugliness the world might throw at her – at all of us – that there would always be the promise of new life.

And I still believe it.

The Beauty of a Crazy Idea

“One hour of life, crowded to the full with glorious action and filled with noble risks, is worth whole years of those mean observances of paltry decorum.” – Sir Walter Scott.

I met Hajar on a Tuesday afternoon in 2008 in the courtyard of a hospital. A psychiatric hospital. In Azerbaijan.

A month earlier, some friends and I had this crazy idea of giving makeovers to the patients in the women’s ward of this hospital. “What if?” we said, which are two words that you should always avoid if you like to keep things simple and safe. But we weren’t in the mood for simple and safe. Instead, believing that the most absurd ideas are often the ones that make the most sense, we lifted our feet and stepped out of the box.

“What if we give the women makeovers?”

We looked around at each other – five of us on the team who were traveling to Azerbaijan the next month – as we imagined how that might work.

In Azerbaijan, the roles of most females are defined with narrow intention: marry and have babies, preferably sons. These two aspirations drive everything from superstitions to beauty regimens. When visiting Azerbaijan, I’ve been chided for sitting on bare concrete because it produces sterility and an unmarried friend was warned that her pencil thin eyebrows would cause men to mistake her for a married woman. A female who declares she desires to remain single shames the family, but a woman who marries and isn’t a good wife is worthless. Proper behavior and subjugation is required. Women who are defiant risk being swiftly diagnosed as schizophrenic and placed in a government run psychiatric hospital. A humanitarian worker who coordinated the painting, music and sewing classes in the hospital estimated that 75 percent of the women who live there had no mental problems upon arrival. They were, quite literally, dumped like yesterday’s rubbish.

For two years, we had taken ten days in the month of October to visit the city of Ganje, and on each trip we spent at least one day at the psychiatric hospital. The women there were eager to see anyone from the outside world, especially other women. The first time I visited the hospital two years earlier, my camera had caused the women to swarm around me, begging to be photographed and then roughly gesturing to view the image on the LCD screen. The hospital, a soviet-era building with gray cement walls, dark rooms, had a smell that defies description.

“Maybe we should think about a do-it-yourself project or something more tangible,” one male team member said and the other men seemed to sit a little straighter in their chairs, ready to start brainstorming. But the female team members were already miles ahead.

“We can give them each a ziploc bag with make-up so they have something that belongs to them,” a female team member said. Then the ideas started popping. “We can help them apply the make-up.” “Give them mirrors so they can see themselves.” “Give them a few beauty tips.” The table was evenly divided by gender enthusiasm-level. The men looked skeptical. The women were beaming.

“And what if we finish the makeover session by taking a portrait of each woman, get the photos developed that afternoon, and deliver them to the women in small frames the next day?”

By this time, the men were beginning to look less terrified, more resigned, and the crazy idea was a now a plan.

The next month, we packed 35 Ziploc bags, each filled with lipstick, eye-shadow, mascara, a mirror, and a comb. We had frames ready to slip the photos into. I had my camera. And six days later we were standing in the courtyard of the hospital with a crowd of women handing out the bags.

Mass chaos ensued.

Hajar was the first to grab her bag, and like most of the women, she had no idea how to open it. It seems that many of the women, including Hajar, had also forgotten how to apply the make-up. Lipstick ended up on cheeks, and mascara became eyeliner. The bags were ripped open quickly – the zip-lock mechanism ignored. I watched a gleeful young girl with blistering sores on her lips smear sultry brown lipstick across her mouth. Her head had been shaved but oily black hair was growing back in sprouts and tufts that shot out in wild angles despite the colorful scarf wound around her head. I shoved a bag into the hands of another bald woman, this one almost toothless. She ripped the bag open from the bottom and held the three items of make-up. If you saw her on the street you might not recognize her as a woman. She wore a baggy green sweat suit that gave no hint of shapeliness beneath, but she clasped the makeup in her fist triumphantly, victoriously, which gave me all the evidence I needed to know that she was, indeed, a woman. Some of the women hadn’t bathed or changed their clothes for days, but it didn’t matter. As soon as they had their lips painted and their eyelids slashed with shades of blues and greens, they were ready to be photographed. Their smiles were genuine, and they seem to be lifted out the medicated haze or the shuffling gait that had been characteristic of many of the women. Hajar, along with the other women, were not the only ones who were transformed.

These days, I’m thinking about the Ziploc bags and the lipstick on the cheeks as I remember the women of the Ganje psychiatric hospital. I wonder if somewhere, along with all the other possessions tucked between the thin mattress and the metal springs of their bed, is a photo in a frame. And I wonder if they take it out every now and then and gaze into the beauty of their own eyes.

I’m thinking about risk these days. And how it stretches our faith, makes our hearts pound, and makes the craziest ideas absolutely beautiful.

Children Here and There

Just so you know, there is a video at the conclusion of this post, but it’s cheating if you scroll to the bottom first.

It’s been almost three months since Erin and I boarded a 777 bound for Ghana. In Accra, the welcome sign in the Kotoka Airport boasts the country as “The Gateway to Africa,” and this may be true.  Economy Watch listed Ghana as the fastest growing economy in 2011, citing a GDP Growth Rate of 20.146%. The GDP is forecasted to grow by at least 8% in 2012. The country also has one of the strongest democracies in Africa, and President Obama’s travel there in 2009 was viewed as endorsement of Ghana’s stability. It’s younger urban population has a growing middle class that is smart, educated, and committed to improving conditions in the country. The airport sign may not be a far-fetched boast.

And then, you enter the villages.

Suddenly all the talk of a bourgeoning economy, foreign investment, and a strong democracy seem irrelevant. Many roads are impassable and houses are crumbling because of erosion. Schools are under-resourced and often lack basic supplies and trained teachers. To be fair, these conditions exist in the cities, but the cities are also where things get noticed – and perhaps addressed. The villages are harder to get to, have few resources, and feel far removed from the booming economic growth that is taking place in both Accra and Kumasi. But it was in the villages that we met the children. We spent time in after-school tutoring sessions with six beautiful boys and girls ages 7 to 18.

There is a familiar sentiment that goes like this: “children are children everywhere.” I can almost agree with that when I watch a 10-year-old Ghanaian boy stuff three pieces of pink bubblegum in his mouth, knowing that given the option, that is exactly what my 11-year-old daughter back in the U.S. would do. On the roadside in the village where we worked, I saw two little girls in tattered dresses sitting cross-legged in front of a small fruit stand where, hopefully, their mother was scratching out some kind of existence to feed them. They were facing one another and happily doing one of those little-girl hand clapping games while chanting in the regional language, Twi. And in an orphanage, I saw chalked hopscotch squares in the courtyard and inside found children sprawled in front of an old console television set. Children there are really just the same as children here, people like to say. But they’re not. Yes, they love bubblegum, hopscotch, and hand-clapping games, but then there is the reality of life in a developing country.

Consider this: Children there have impoverished parents who sometimes feel desperate enough to sell them into servitude. Children as young as four years old end up on Lake Volta untangling nets from beneath fishing boats in cold, dark waters. And sometimes they die in those cold waters. It’s called child trafficking and it’s prolific in Ghana.

Children there are fortunate if their parents can pay for school supplies and uniforms through their high school years. And in the rural villages, transportation is not provided for children to and from school. After primary school, the dropout rate in Ghana is high. Children who leave school are put to work to help feed the family, hoisting bowls on top of their heads to carry water bags, SIM cards, fruit and other items to peddle, or they work the family farm (which usually consists of one or two crops of vegetables and fruit). Sometimes, they are just needed at home to provide care for younger children, which ends their childhood far too early.

Children there are not given names as infants until they are 10 days old. If they die before then, it makes it easier to bury them and move on.

It’s overwhelming and much easier to revel in the “children are children everywhere” sentiment than to admit that there is a deep and wide injustice at work in the world when it comes to those who are the most vulnerable.

What to do?

We asked the same question, and came up with what seemed like a small answer, but we’re going with it.

We found a village. Actually, it found us. Ankaase is located in the Ashanti region of central Ghana, and the name means “under the orange tree.” It’s a place with streets and fields of red clay dirt, houses that have been cobbled together with tin and boards, and families who will welcome you to their home by pulling up chairs in the front dirt and asking you to tell your story. This is the place where we met our six children and their families. This is where we laughed with them, cried for them, and realized that our hearts will forever be intertwined with this village. We want to get creative, courageous, and maybe a little crazy about what we can do in this place. We returned home with more than sweet sentiments for the children there. We brought home in our hearts a village, and the resolve to make a difference for the children who live in this small corner of Africa’s gateway.

The Vacation Breakdown

I’m here:

It’s a vacation, and I’m taking it. Finally.

My ability to shift into low gear is hampered by my brain’s inability to stop circling around tasks and projects like a ravenous dog. I create them because I’m deathly afraid of boredom, so for the first few days of this beautiful Colorado vacation I was still in busywork mode. On Day Four I dumped the vacation tasks and projects. I decided to read books, take walks, enjoy naps, and sit on our patio table and have conversations. These are good things, and while they don’t allow me to point to tangible accomplishments (although I can list for you the books I’ve completed, but I won’t) they just might be doing me some good.

I used to think that boredom was a sin, but now I view it as an art. If you can do it without having a nervous breakdown, you’re getting somewhere. I’m viewing my boredom as a good thing – a kind of vacation breakdown. There is a rhythm to our days: lazy mornings of nothing, hiking, nothing, dinner and an evening walk, nothing. Now that our vacation is halfway through, I’ve stopped dreading the “nothing” segments of our day. Am I welcoming them? Maybe. I’m in the midst of one right now, so I really shouldn’t drag out this blog post. I’m going to upload a few photos and hop off. I have something else that I need to be doing right now. Nothing.

The Waves Break: My Deal With the Beach

For no good reason that I can think of, I’ve never been a beach person. There is no beach trauma in my childhood. I’m not afraid of water. I like catching rays. There is no explanation for my ambivalence, and I end up sounding snooty when I try to be honest and say, “There just isn’t that much to do.”

I realize this is a problem.

The other night, we were talking with a couple friend and the husband agreed with me, but he couldn’t really explain it either.

“It’s nice for a while-”

“-and then you have to go find something to do.” I finished his sentence for him and our spouses looked as us with pity as we nodded at one another.

do know how to relax. I’m just particular about where I do it.

But for the next couple of days, we’re at the beach. Alison has never been to the beach (she’s been to Galveston but she isn’t sure that counts) and she’s giddy and goofy with excitement. We ate dinner at a beachfront restaurant last night, and she was very patient until the meal was over. Then, finally, for the first time in her life, she was able to run on the beach with the sand between her toes and the waves breaking a few feet from her while she dashed in and out of the water. She’s been begging to visit the beach since she was six (she’s 11 now, poor kid) and I’m certain this is the fantasy picture she’s conjured up in her head. Last night, she was living the fantasy. And I was trying to plan how I was going to spend my time today when we were at the beach. I began to think about taking a journal and a pen, a paperback book (had to go buy one since I only packed my IPad), my phone for emailing. All of that  would probably only last me about an hour. And then it hit me: what about playing in the ocean?

How exactly, does one go about playing in the ocean? The first that comes to mind is that the water is really cold. I’m not into that. Also, those waves can be brutal. While we were eating our seafood dinner last night, I watched two men working their surfboards and they were having a rough time of it. I wasn’t eager to enter those waters.

Again, I realize this is a problem.

For those of you who are really into the beach, there’s no judging here. In fact, I’m a little envious. So how did it end up today? I took my purchased book, my phone, journal and pen and found an empty chaise lounge. The waves crashed noisily and then quieted to a whisper over and over again. It was beautiful. I never cracked the book and left the journal and pen in the bag. I did flip around on my phone for a while, but mostly, I watched this:

I discovered the secret to the beach – at least for me: a husband who loves it. This may be a wimpy way out of it, but it worked well for the three of us. Kyle taught Alison how to dive into the breaking waves, and I found something wonderful to do on the beach all afternoon. Am I beach person yet? Probably not, but I’m leaving the book, the journal, and pen back in the hotel tomorrow. I’ll take the phone though. You never know when I great photo opportunity might come along.

This Time Last Year


Two years ago, I purchased this photo display from Pottery Barn. Disclaimer: I don’t shop Pottery Barn anymore and I pitch the catalogs in the recycle bin as soon as I get them. I don’t have anything against Pottery Barn – or Eddie Bauer, Lands End, Chaco (I do send my sandals in to be re-strapped), or the stack of catalogs I used to receive. Fortunately, after enough seasons of not purchasing from catalogs, they stop sending them to your house on such an annoyingly regular basis. I’m almost catalog-free. It’s amazing how much time a person can spend in a given day browsing through the catalogs, choosing items that are suddenly deemed necessary, justifying the purchases, and then placing the orders. I’m keenly aware these days of how much energy, money, and time I spend on fluffing my nest. I’m not judging. If you catalog shop, have at it. I’m just a person who is easily sucked in by consumerism, so I’m learning to dash in the other direction and be content with the fluff I’ve already purchased.

But I digress in a big way, so back to the photo display. I got it on sale and it holds twelve 8×10 photos. It’s one of my favorite purchases and I’m forever grateful that at the time I found it I hadn’t yet been convicted about my shopping habits. My intention was to change the photos out every couple of months, but it’s been almost a year since they’ve been replaced. I couldn’t bring myself to remove the China photos. It took a trip to Ghana to force them out of the frames. I’ve stacked the photos on the dining room table because I am still not sure what to do with them. So I’m posting a few here in honor of where we were this time last year.







The 2012 Dillon China Birthland tour group leaves this Tuesday. My friend Dana, who was in our travel group eleven years ago, is taking her daughter back this year. I’m so grateful that Callie will get to see her birth country and the orphanage where she lived for a year. I want her to see the people, hear the language, eat the food, and walk the streets of the country where she began her life. If I could say five things to every adoptive parent, the second thing would be this: Return with your child to their birth country at some point. For an adopted child, every piece of his or her story is crucial. If you are an adoptive parent, you should know that there will be a moment (probably two, three, or more) when you will be asked to fill in pieces of this story. I’m not saying that a birthland tour is the only way to do this, but it’s one of the best ways. Start saving now. It’s not cheap, but it’s a much better way to spend your money than, say, catalog shopping.

This time last year we were in Beijing, gearing up for the whirlwind two weeks of visiting the cities of Xi’an, Guiping, Guangzhou, and Guilin. That’s four different provinces in two weeks. Be impressed. I loved every minute and cherish every memory of our trip. Honestly, I’m a little envious of the group that leaves Tuesday. I would do it again, and in fact I’m planning a return trip with Alison after she graduates high school. Alison is ready to go back, but she made me promise one thing: no pig’s feet.

Ghana Day Nine: Goodbye

Sometimes I really hate that word. Today, it was a horrible thing to have to say. These kids have really messed me up so I wonder if perhaps I’m not cut out for this sort of thing. At the same time that my heart is all wrapped around the kids, my brain is frantically trying to come up with solutions. I am reminding myself that I don’t have to find the answers for all of the world’s problems. I am reading Richard Stearns Hole in the Gospel, and he says this: “It is not our fault that people are poor, but it is our responsibility to do something about it. God says that we are guilty if we allow people to remain deprived when we have the means to help them.”

Ouch.

Okay, so I don’t have to find answers for all of the world’s problems, but I didn’t come face to face with the entire world over the course of this week. I came face to face with five children (okay, I know I started with one, but now it’s five). So that’s how we leave Kumasi – with children in our hearts and a commitment to do something to make life better for them. I think I have a t-shirt with those words printed on it. I don’t want that to be just a slogan. I want to feel it and find a way to make it happen.

So enough of sad goodbyes. I want to finish out my blog posts here in this amazing country with a few observations about Ghanaian culture:

#1. Ghanaians do not smoke. At least not in public. In Ghanaian movies (we watched three on the bus ride from Accra to Kumasi), the villains smoke. They’re always lighting up and and then producing a sinister laugh as they walk around with the cigarette dangling from their lips in the most unappealing way. And in the movies, to the extent I could understand what was happening, there seemed to be several breaks in the plot so the good guy could lecture the bad guy on the dangers of smoking. Fact: I haven’t seen a single person smoking since we’ve been in Ghana.

#2. Ghanaians do not eat dessert, nor do they celebrate birthdays with cake. In fact, rarely do they celebrate birthdays because they aren’t really sure when they were born. So when the meal is over, it is over. No sweets to top it off. Restaurants do not have dessert offerings, although those that cater to folks like us do. The Miklin has ice cream and fruit on the dessert menu. Chocolate is a big staple here, but it’s a snack and you can buy a bar from one of the many vendors that sell their items in the middle of “go slow traffic.” Which brings me to my next observation…

#3. You can sit in your car and buy any of the following items: toilet paper, mobile phone chargers, fried plantains, sim cards, fruit, shoes, and sardines. Many of these items are in crates or large bowls that sit securely on the head of the sellers. They can’t bend over to peer into the window of the car, but they can stand at the window and wait for you to acknowledge them – which they do. You only need to shake your head slightly and they will slowly walk to the car behind you. They have no need to stand and plead with you to buy something from them. An endless string of traffic supplies them with customers day and night.

#4. Almost every business has a catchy, spiritual name. I suppose it’s the equivalent of having a fish on your yellow pages ad. Here is a sampling:
Hope of Glory Beauty Salon
In Thee Hotel (love that one!)
Seek Jesus Key-cutting Service
Trust in Jesus Special Pork
Nearer My God Construction Company
Lord’s Winners Investment Services

#5. Every Ghanaian realizes the value of education, but not everyone has the means to educate their child. That’s a problem. It’s election season in Ghana, and for two hours in the Kia cab a few days ago I listened to a presidential candidate make a speech in Twi. No, I didn’t understand most of it, but he did use the word “education” over and over. I assume he was making promises that just might not be kept. Politics is politics everywhere. I love this quote that I heard on the radio yesterday (we spend a lot of time in the Kia cab): “As Ghanaians, we live as if we are going to die tomorrow, and we learn as if we are going to live forever.” I wish the second part of that quote could be a reality for every child here. In the lobby tonight, I saw a guy who sold me some paintings over the weekend. He had walked in from the center of Kumasi to sell his art to a big group from America that has descended on the Miklin. “I wanted to be a lawyer,” he told me as we sat on the steps together, “but there was no money for that, so I taught myself art and now I try to make every day better than the day before. I did well in school and learned what I needed to know. Now I’m just trying to survive.” It’s the same story everywhere. Just surviving.

Two weeks ago, before we left, a friend wrote me a note and said, “I’m so excited to see how Africa soaks into you.” How has Africa soaked into us? In a hundred different ways, with a hundred different faces and voices. I will carry with me the smiles and the beautiful lilting accents. They are a part of me now. We were given a gift today from the headmaster of the village school. It is a carving that’s purpose is to remind us to look back on our time here, and then someday to return. I accepted the gift and told him that we very much want to return. And we want to do our part to make life better for the people we have met here. As we say goodbye, Erin and I feel blessed beyond words and soaked with the beauty of the people of Ghana.

So, for the last time, I wish you goodnight from Kumasi.

Ghana Day Eight: One More Boy


He appeared at my side yesterday as soon as I stepped out of the car at the village school and he did not leave it all day. He stood beside me while I took video of the boys playing soccer at recess. He carried my bag into the classroom where I would be tutoring Osei and Adu. And then, when we were back outside listening to the girls sing, he looked up at me and asked, “When you come back, would you please bring me a bicycle?” I’m ashamed to say that I sort of dismissed him and shook my head. “No, if I brought you a bicycle I would have to bring all the other children a bicycle.” That’s always a good answer, and so I thought he and I were finished with our conversation. But he was not about to be done.

“Could you take me to U.S?” He asked about 15 minutes later. For the first time, I turned and looked into his eyes. He was serious. “Please auntie?”

I am going to need to get away from this kid, I thought. I didn’t have a good answer for this request, except to shake my head and say, “I can’t do that. You have a mommy here and she wouldn’t want me to take you away.” I should have given more careful thought to that answer. I walked into the tutoring room, certain that he and I were now finished.

A few minutes later he appeared in the room and Anna took him aside while I worked with Adu and Osei. Anna and the boy were having a nice little chat, and I thought nothing of it. When we finished our tutoring, he was still hanging around so I gave him some bubbles and waved goodbye to him as we left the school.

“You have a new little friend,” Anna said to me after we were in the car. “He wants to be adopted and go to the U.S. He’s says he’s going to bring his mother to the school tomorrow.”

“Excuse me?”

“He told me his family story,” Anna continued. “It’s very sad, but he seems determined. He said that as soon as we drove up that he knew something special was going to happen to him. I told him that it doesn’t work that way, but he insisted that he is bringing his mother. He told me his parents are divorced and his father doesn’t want anything to do with him and the other children. Father doesn’t give any support and doesn’t have any food for him when he comes to his house.”

“I do not think his mother will be coming to the school tomorrow just because he asks her to,” I told Anna.

Anna shrugged. “He said that she will want to meet us. I don’t know.”

And you’re going to believe a kid? I thought. I certainly didn’t want to patronize Anna, but things like that don’t just happen.

Well, actually in Ghana, they do.

When we pulled up to the school today, the boy’s mother was sitting on the bench under a tree between the buildings. She had been waiting all day for us to come. Peter sighed and pulled out his notebook.

“I will have to see what she has to say,” he said.

So, Solomon joined us for tutoring. “What’s one more boy?” I said cheerily as he scooted on the bench beside Adu. For the next hour and a half, the three boys and I played sentence games and learned more sight words. Most of the time, we made silly sentences because I let them choose the words. Today we learned about nouns. “What is a noun?” I asked them. Osei and Adu looked at me with blank faces.

“A person, place, or thing,” Solomon said quietly. And the afternoon sort of went that way. He is a smart kid and he is eager to please, a contrast to Adu who, I have discovered, is a tough little nut to crack. He’s a bit ornery and pretends not to know English. Solomon spent the afternoon translating for Adu, who stubbornly insisted on speaking Twi. When we were almost finished with our tutoring, Solomon looked at me and said, “Tomorrow we will go to U.S.?” I felt sick to my stomach. What would you have said? Honestly, I would have loved some help in that moment. Erin only looked at me with wide eyes and returned to her work with the girls at the table across the room.

“I can’t take you to the U.S.,” I said. “I just can’t do that.”

I really didn’t know what else to say. And then he just stared up at me in complete confusion. “But my mommy is out there. We can go talk to her. She says yes.”

“No, I can’t go talk to her. I can’t take you to the U.S.” I was firm.

By the time we walked out of the classroom my head was spinning. I had – and still have – no idea what I should have said. I took a photo and a video of him giving me his age and name, just like I did yesterday with Osei and Adu. “These are just for my friends,” I told him. “So they can see the boys that I tutored.” I tried everything to make sure he didn’t misinterpret any gestures or words. I even attempted to be a little cold.

The mother, as it turns out, would like for someone to take her son. She can’t feed him, she told Peter. She sat with him and told him all the details of her and Solomon’s life. It seems that she can’t find hope anywhere. She gets no support from the father, who is remarried and also struggling. He wants nothing to do with his children.

“The father would never agree to such a thing,” I said to Peter. “I’m certain.” What an expert I am. And then, the strangest thing happened. We said our goodbyes, bought all the children a water bottle at the bottom of the hill, and began to drive away. We had only driven a short distance when we saw Solomon walking with his mother. When he recognized us, he began to wave frantically. We stopped. He spoke rapidly in Twi and pointed up the road.

“Aaah,” Peter said. “That’s his father walking toward us.”

Seriously? He just happened to be walking by?

“I’m going to talk with him,” Peter said. “He should be supporting this boy.”

So Peter got out and talked to the father, who smiled and nodded throughout the entire conversation. Probably laughing about the silliness of the mother coming to the school, and the audacity of the boy to ask if someone would take him to the U.S. The father is a teacher in a nearby village, but he is not trained and makes barely enough money to live on. Teachers in Ghana are not paid well either.

Peter got back in the car. “He doesn’t want to have anything to do with the children,” Peter said. “He isn’t going to help support them. I told him about Solomon bringing his mother to the school, and he said he doesn’t care if the boy goes to the U.S.”

Just like that? And with a smile?

I’m not sure what to make of this story. It’s surreal. What is the best thing to do in this situation? So we’ve come up with a possible solution. We will find a sponsor for Solomon through ACEF and give his mother the help that she needs to feed him and pay for his school uniform and supplies.

“He will be very happy with a sponsorship,” Peter said. “I explained to him and his mother what we can do for them to give them some hope.”

I would like to believe that this will be the best solution for Solomon. Perhaps he will continue to learn and then break the cycle of poverty and abandonment in his family. Maybe? Those are tough odds to beat, but I’m praying for Solomon, Adu, Osei, Sarah, and Beatrice – that they will dig their heels in and win.

Ghana Day Seven: Let Us Give Thanks




Today, I decided that it was time for grateful thoughts. First, I’m so thankful for all your prayers during the seven days that we have been in Ghana. I can feel them and they are carrying us as we walk (and drive!) through each day. The top photo is our driver, Kaykay. It’s really amazing to put your life in someone’s hands like we do every moment that we are on the road. There are no seatbelts in our little Kia, there are no traffic laws on the streets, and many people behind the wheel here have never attended a driving course. It shows. Sometimes we drive on the right side of the road, and sometimes we veer over to the left if there are ruts on the right side. We create passing lanes over hills, around curves, and even when there is another car coming straight for us. Kaykay has impeccable timing, but I do my part by silently lifting up some prayers during our excursions. So thank you friends and family, for praying along with us.

I am also thankful that Erin is here with me. That’s her in the photo above with her students Sarah and Beatrice. Spending ten days in Africa with your child turns out to be a very effective way to bond. As we walked through the woods yesterday with the machete-wielding man in front of us (his purpose to clear the way and kill the snakes), we looked at each other and shook our heads. “Nobody would believe this if we told them,” I said to her. Africa is an experience that often defies explanation and description so the person you are with is really the only person who “gets” it. If for some reason she and I ever have a big fight, surely we can pull back together if one of us says, “Remember that time in Africa when…”

Here’s one that will surprise you: I’m thankful for the unrelenting and cruel heat. My body has found new ways to sweat, sunscreen only sort of works, and I can drink two water bottles and never have to go to the bathroom. It’s a shock to the system but this is my entrance to summer. There is no weather system in Oklahoma that could possibly bring around this kind of heat and humidity – even in the middle of August. Oh, and would someone please remind me of that when I begin to grumble about the Oklahoma heat?

Of course, traveling to another culture and country makes you appreciate your own even more, so I could make a list of things that I take for granted at home: brewed coffee, paved roads, reliable electricity, and other things that might make life easier here. But once you get used to what you don’t have, you make do. And I’m staying in the Miklin Hotel, so I have everything I need. The children that we tutor each afternoon have almost nothing. Adu has one corner in one room in a tiny house. He doesn’t own a pencil sharpener so he brought a razor blade to school today to sharpen his pencil (broken pencil leads drive him crazy). He has one pair of shoes. Every child in that same school shares that same story. There is an anonymous quote that goes like this: “Sometimes I want to ask God why He allows poverty, famine, and injustice in the world. But I’m afraid He might ask me the same question.” Those of us who have much to be thankful for also have much to decide about how we share those resources. What will we do with our time, money, and goods in order for others to be able to live as God intended? I believe God weeps for His children who do not have enough. I would weep if they were mine.

So tonight, I am closing my eyes with a prayer of thanks on my lips. It seems like a good way to end day seven in Ghana. So, goodnight from Kumasi.

Ghana Day Six: Will You Take My Baby?

The Miklin Hotel is starting to feel like a familiar little home and we’re getting adjusted to loose schedules, shifting plans, and unexpected delays. We had planned to go to church this morning, but it didn’t happen. We thought we were leaving the hotel at 1 p.m. to tour the villages, but we left at 1:45 p.m. We determined that we would be back early enough tonight to walk down the street to the “chop house” for dinner, but we ate dinner in the room. We’re learning not to get too attached to our own promises.

Today, we visited two villages. I am still stunned. Does anyone ever get used to seeing poverty? The second little community we went to was vibrant and lively – and completely impoverished. Groups of women had gathered their wares on benches between houses and were trying to sell everything from plastic shoes to plantains. Cocoa beans were drying on a large slab of plywood in the center of the village and colorful clothes were strung on lines across the front of drab cinderblock homes. Cooking fires were burning in front of most of the homes where dinner was being prepared. In the red dirt not far from our car, a little boy of about two was wearing (with only one arm through a sleeve) an oversized shirt and busily constructing a push car out of a large yellow plastic jug and a flattened cardboard box. He was intent on forming a seat from the cardboard and after he was successful, he began pushing his makeshift car around in the dirt. I snapped several photos until his mother walked up to our group. She glanced at me several times as she talked with Anna. At first, I thought she approached us because she was upset I was taking photos of her little boy, but she was smiling.

“Is it okay with her if I take photos of him?” I asked Anna.
“It’s fine. She just wanted to ask if you will take him with you,” Anna replied.

I put down my camera and looked at the boy’s mother. She was nodding and still smiling. Anna shook her head and said something to her in Twi, the local language. The woman pointed at the little boy who was pushing on his car, and continued to talk. Anna was friendly, and waved goodbye to her and the crowd as we walked toward the car.

This was the third time in one day that someone asked us to take their children away because they cannot afford to buy them clothes and food. Two of the children from earlier in the day had been eating the fruit that had dropped on the ground in the selling area. While they scrounged for food, their mother was walking through traffic with an aluminum bowl of watermelon on her head.

“They don’t understand why we can’t just put them in the car and take them with us,” Anna said. “The mothers know that we could feed them and give them what they cannot. They just don’t understand that it doesn’t work that way.”

What way does it work? Children living with mothers who would rather send them with any well-dressed stranger doesn’t seem to work either. I am sorry that none of us seem to have answers for these mothers. It’s easy to judge them as heartless, especially when they smile as they ask you to take the children off their hands. But I cannot possibly know what it is like to walk in their shoes. When people tell me that Chinese parents are heartless because they abandon their baby girls at birth, I also feel powerless to judge. I’ve never walked in those shoes either.

In each of the faces of the children here in Ghana, I see the one child that I can help. So we’re heading back to the school in Ankaase village tomorrow to tutor Samuel, Osei, Beatrice, and Sarah. For the time we are in Ghana, they are our children. And we are blessed to be able to sit across the table from them for three more days.

Goodnight, once again, from Kumasi, Ghana.

Ghana Day Five: A Day of Celebration

Guess what? Tonight, Chelsea beat Bayern Munich 4-3 in a penalty shootout to win the Champions League trophy. Do you care? Everyone in Ghana does. And now Erin and I are caught up in it and we don’t know even watch soccer (just like almost every other adult in the United States). We’re trying to figure out why the rest of the world loves soccer and why people in the U.S. only love it until they’re about 14. But tonight, we’re cheering along with the city of Kumasi. We attended a birthday party for Peter’s friend who turned 85 years old, and finally, we ate traditional Ghanaian food in a traditional Ghanaian home. The family was so gracious to us, which we have realized is the Ghanaian way. As an example: as we shopped this afternoon, each market vendor gave us a free gift AFTER we haggled the price down. About halfway through our shopping excursion, I stopped the game of going back and forth and paid what they asked. It seemed ridiculous in a country of extreme poverty to try and get our stuff on the cheap. And then to receive a free gift. For what? No. We’ll pay the asking price.

At the birthday party, after the well-wishes and three long group participation prayers, the men disappeared. And on our way home from an afternoon of shopping and the birthday party, every market stall we passed had a television on and a crowd of men sitting or standing in front of it. The streets were almost deserted, but each time Chelsea scored a goal, the entire city roared. Yes, folks, this is football in the rest of the world. Somehow, we joined the bandwagon and cheered for Chelsea although I don’t know the first thing about this team (now I know they wear blue and white and their owner is based in Moscow). For tonight, we are big fans.

Our host, Peter (in the bottom photo above with his wife Anna) grumbles about the football. “Why,” he asks, “in a country where people need to be learning and studying so we can better ourselves, are people so caught up in football? Why are they wasting their time with this? I want to know what the big deal is.” He might be the only man in Ghana who doesn’t care about this football game. Maybe in a country of people who struggle for enough money to feed themselves and their family every day, the excitement of football is a welcome diversion. I felt a sense of hope as we passed through the streets of Kumasi tonight. So what if it was a hope that a football team in a London borough might win a championship league game? It was hope. Anticipation. Joy. Celebration. And it’s still going on and the game has been over for about an hour. There is a party right outside our window in the courtyard of the hotel and I plan to lay awake tonight and listen to the laughter and the music and feel the hope along with everyone else. I would join the party but I’m white and I can’t dance.

Not only was today a big day for the football game, but Saturdays are funeral days. As we passed through several areas of the city, we saw people dressed in their fancy funeral clothing – dark shiny dresses, usually black, red, or a combination of both (center photo above). The deceased isn’t buried until about six months after death to give time for family members to make travel plans and save up to make the trip. All the family is expected to attend and the services are long and emotional, as is the celebration that follows. It’s a celebration of the person’s life, and the attendees live it up in their honor. “No one is on the streets tonight,” Peter said as we were driving home, “because they are either watching the game or passed out from the funeral celebration.” Whatever the reason, we made it home in record time.

We’re holding up well. Africa is soaking into us (more about that later). So once again, we wish you a good night from Kumasi, Ghana.

Ghana Day One: The Slave Castles

Here are two disclaimers if this post a)looks funny, B)reads like I’m in preschool: I am working on a PC (in the “Business Center” of the Miklin Hotel in Accra, Ghana), and I’m writing this using the HTML screen. I have no idea what that really means – it was just the button I had to push to be able to see the words.

This is Africa. That’s what they say when things are so very different that there isn’t any other way to describe what does or does not happen. There is no way to connect my laptop to any kind of Internet. Just not possible. We have NO outlets in our hotel room that are free except for the shaver outlet in the bathroom, which is where I downloaded my photos. On the toilet – the computer, not me. I was kneeling in front of the toilet. My Mac and I are now bonded like never before. Oh, and there will be no photos to accompany this post. There is no way to get them from my computer to this one, but I’m hoping I can figure that out when we get to the next hotel. I will try my best to describe the day with word pictures.

We arrived in Accra late last night and checked into the Miklin hotel, which is nice by Ghanaian standards and just fine for us. It has a bed and that’s all we really needed last night. It was an odd feeling. Just Erin and me at a hotel in a new city in a different country on a continent we’ve never stepped foot on. I laid in the bed feeling as if I was really nowhere. Hard to describe. A little lonely. But a little exciting at the same time. Erin is doing well. She’s been forced to go native and ditch her IPhone. Poor girl.

We slept in this morning until 8 a.m., then enjoyed a hotel breakfast that consisted of an omelet (just an egg actually), sausage (a strange link covered in peppers), beans (like pork n beans only with no pork), and some toast. Not bad. It held us until 8 p.m. this evening.

We visited the Salve Castle in Cape Coast. This was the holding place for tens of thousands of slaves that were taken from their homeland, across the ocean, and sold in slave auctions and markets across Europe and the United States. They were treated like animals, evidenced by the concrete rooms where they packed into before walking through the “door of no return.” The rooms had almost no ventilation and only three small openings at the top to let in a sparse amount of light. If they misbehaved before going through the door, they were held in separate male and female dungeons. The males who were put in the dungeon were there to die, serving as a warning to anyone else who might dare to try escape or revolt. The male dungeon was a concrete block with no ventilation. They people who were banished there lasted about 24-48 hours before dying inside. Even just walking a few small steps into the room was a stifling and confining experience.

On the top floor of the slave castle were the rooms where the Governor and his family lived in luxurious standards. Across from his residence atop another wing of the castle was the church. It took a while for that to sink in. A church? I guess no respectable English family could reside without a place of worship nearby. I’m still trying to wrap my mind around this one.

After this sobering afternoon, we headed back to Accra. The sights and sounds along the road back were enough to keep me awake and gawking. Most amazing: the women who carry everything on their heads: plantains, bottles of water, firewood, luggage, piles of clothing. I would say that it’s all a matter of balance, except that small children are somehow able to carry things as well. Not large items, but boxes of peanuts and pails of water. At some point I will have photos, but for now, picture a slim, tall woman walking down a dusty city street surrounded by honking vehicles observing nonexistent road rules. She walks straight, looking ahead and carrying on her head a tall box filled with bags of fruit stacked at least two feet high. She looks completely calm. She is weaving in and out of the traffic and waving one of the bags as she passes the windows of cars and buses. My camera was in my bag which is where it belonged. I couldn’t have imagined pulling it out and snapping a photo of her. She looked far too dignified.

Tomorrow we drive the 4-5 hours to Kumasi where we will be for the rest of our stay. But for now I must say goodnight because there is a very determined mosquito that has feasted on my legs and now appears to want some computer time. Until tomorrow…

Inoculations and Inspiration

In preparation for our trip to Ghana, Erin and I received a slew of shots: yellow fever, typhoid, meningitis, and TDap. Neither of us are afraid of needles, so that part was a breeze. The actual scheduling of the shots is another story. Because Erin is in college in Shawnee, Okla., I decided to pick her up there and drive the short distance to Oklahoma City to the Visiting Nurses Association. That was fine, except on the first attempt the nurses and I got our wires crossed and I went to the wrong clinic. That blew an entire Saturday, so we tried it again the next weekend. I was still a little steamed at the nurses, thinking that they should have been much clearer about what location I was supposed to be at the previous Saturday, but I was determined to be nice – especially since they had needles.

When you are thinking about slipping a nasty note under someone’s door, here is why you should stop, count to ten, and take a different approach. The week that our wires were crossed I left a note that expressed confusion, but I was reserved and kind. And I’m thankful, because as it turns out I knew the nurse who was giving us our shots from years earlier when we attended church together. I taught her daughter in Sunday school. When she and I realized our connection, I felt as if I had been snatched from the jaws of complete humiliation and I breathed a sincere prayer of thanks.

Merlin (yep, that’s her name) was an expert at travel shots because she’s been all over the world. “I was in Uganda last month,” she rattled off, not in a bragging sort of way, but to let us know about a water bottle she had purchased that almost saved her life. And then, she proceeded to tell me that she takes her mother on many of her trips to Africa and remote parts of Asia. Merlin’s mother is 80.

So at this point, I’m starting to feel a wee bit wimpy because I had been on the edge of worry about some silly things: my feet swelling on the plane, contracting a parasite, jet lag, heat rash, ant bites. I’m embarrassed to admit these things but it’s relevant because I realized that, well, I’m not 80.

“Mom is so cute when she travels,” Merlin continued as she rubbed alcohol on Erin’s upper arm. “She has her little backpack that she carries all her things in.”

She has a backpack? That she carries ALL her things in?

We’re taking a carry-on suitcase each, a large backpack each (not little backpacks), and one very huge piece of luggage we’ll check. Of course, the checked luggage has the gifts for the orphanage, which is important to note. But we are not trekking to Africa with one small backpack. Gosh, we’re such rookies.

“So, she’s 80?” I asked, thinking that I should make sure I hadn’t misunderstood, but there isn’t really any reasonable number that sounds like 80.

“Yes,” Merlin said as she dispensed the typhoid vaccine into Erin’s arm. She was acting like her mother’s age was an unimportant fact. But it is not. Because if Merlin’s 80-year-old mother can travel to Africa and East Asia (she was there to do relief work after the Tsunami in Indonesia) with one small backpack, then what on this blessed earth am I worried about?

I didn’t ask Merlin what her mother’s name was, a definite oversight. What I would really like to do is carry a photo of her mother around with me in Ghana and pull it from my daypack for inspiration. I didn’t ask Merlin for a photo of her mother though because that would have been just plain creepy. So I’m creating a mental image of an 80-year-old woman trekking around Africa with a backpack and a whole lot of spunk. For some reason, that makes me breathe easier and reminds me that I am far more capable than I imagine myself to be. That’s important for me to remember because this trip has many unknowns. We’re not traveling with a group and our agenda keeps changing. In fact, at this point I don’t think we’ll know exactly what we’ll be doing until we get there. I told Erin last night that I can’t give her guarantees or promise her that each day won’t present tremendous challenges. We’re taking this one on faith, I said. But every day of life is like that, so perhaps we’re more prepared than we think.

So thanks Merlin. Your mother and mine will be my inspiration as I board a plane with my daughter (on Mother’s Day) bound for West Africa.

Nanti ye for now!

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To Ghana, For Mom

My mother died four years ago, on April 20, 2008. It was a Sunday. I was ordering shoes online when I got the call from my dad, and it changed my perspective on just about everything in my life. I have never liked those shoes.

My mother waged a long, hard battle with diabetes. The disease fought ugly and unfair, as it always does. My mother, however, battled with dignity and courage and in the end, she won. Why do I hail her the victor? Because I never once heard her complain, whine, or rant. She didn’t host pity parties, nor did she give us endless malady reports. In fact, she didn’t want anyone focusing on her. I think it was easier for her to deal with the uncertainty and the injustice of her health if she looked more “to the interests of others.” Maybe it was just diversion, but I don’t think so. I’ve found that my own problems seem to move to the back of the line when I’m paying more attention to the needs of others. It sounds simple, but it’s near impossible. Mother had it down.

That’s a long introduction to the reason why I am taking a trip to Ghana in honor of Mom. It’s not something she would have ever wanted to do – she didn’t own a passport and although she did it with grim determination, flying was simply a necessary evil. No, I’m dedicating this trip to my mother because there are things I learned from her that will serve me well as I leave the comforts of this world and enter the unknowns of another. It seems she was on that path most of her life. So on May 13, I’m taking along to Ghana three things from my mother’s arsenal:

Guts: I chose the destination because, well, it’s Africa. Who goes to Africa because they’re looking for a predictable, cushy trip? But that doesn’t mean I’m a courageous person. In fact, I’m usually pushing myself out past the parameters because I don’t tend to be terribly courageous. I’m just mostly stubborn to defeat things that make my hands sweat. Mom wasn’t a thrill-seeker, but she was gutsy in a kind of “take life as it comes” way. It seems there was always something unexpected around her corner: heart disease, the effects of her diabetes, breast cancer at the end of her life. But she wasn’t one to ring her hands over it all. Me? I’ve been known to have sleepless nights over speeches I had to give the next day. Please. Courage is sometimes nothing more than trusting that however things work out, things will work out. It allows us to look past our pain and suffering and believe that, as Dame Julian of Norwich said, “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.” It takes courage to have that kind of faith and I can think of no better outlook to take with me to Africa.

Generosity: Mother loved to give stuff, but she was mostly ambivalent about getting stuff. “It’s more blessed to give than to receive,” she quoted this often, and inwardly I repeatedly replied, “Yeah, right.” As it turns out, this is gospel truth. I don’t know how it works, but the blessings that come from getting are pitifully anemic when compared to the blessings of giving. Try it. It’s weird. I am reminding myself that this trip is not about me, my comforts, my thrilling experiences, or my ability to come back with dazzling photographs. I want to go with my arms full, and return with them empty. What I do know is that my acts of generosity will compare not one whit to the generosity that will be shown to me. My mother will be joined by many others across the ocean who will teach me about giving.

Grace: This is my husband’s word for 2012, but it was my mother’s word for life. She showed me grace every time I turned around and did something stupid or brilliant (less of the latter, more of the former). It didn’t matter. So here’s the deal: I’m going to Ghana with my 20 year-old daughter. And we’re a bit alike. And sometimes we drive each other crazy. We have lots of opinions and high expectations and low tolerance levels (we take after my dad, God love him, but we’re all working on it). So my first act of grace is to mute my opinions, lower my expectations, and raise the tolerance level to heights unknown. And I’m not even going to give Erin my opinion that she should do the same. Then, I want to enter into the country of Ghana with humility, extending grace as one who makes a pilgrimage to a place she has never been. That means I don’t grumble about the cultural differences, nor will I assume that my U.S. citizen ways are somehow superior. They are not. During our travel to China last year, I had to continually remind myself that our Chinese friends did not particularly need our opinions on how people drive, what they eat, or whether it’s better hygiene to squat or sit (it’s squatting, but feel free to host your own debate).

So there it is. My Ghana travel resolutions, honoring my mother, who would have been thrilled to see us taking this trip and extending our hearts to children we only know through photos. Will I fail at every one of these resolutions at some point in the trip? Most certainly. It’s a 14-day trip with a loose agenda, one 20 year-old college student, and lots of TIA (This Is Africa). But I’ve made the resolutions, and I’m not leaving home without them.