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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.”


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.