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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.

Road Trips, Starbursts, and Ram: A Technology Crisis

At the risk of redundancy, I’m writing again about technology. My last post (too many days ago) was about my father’s typewriter, which he believed was great technology. This post is about my own devices, the greatness of which I’m beginning to doubt.

Five days ago, my laptop had an accident that resulted in a busted screen. This produced an interesting right angle starburst effect that made me want to weep. The laptop is awaiting repair but unusable until the part comes in, which the Apple guy said would be “Friday-ish.” It’s Sunday, so he knew what he was talking about. The day before this tragedy I lost my cell phone for a day, then found it. It was rough. Now, the good folks at Apple tell me that I can’t upgrade the operating system on my desktop computer (which is my backup computer) because it doesn’t have enough mojo. I can’t afford more ram, however, because I have to pay for the busted screen on the laptop. Woe is me. I’m writing this on my IPad, which has so far escaped the week of technology disasters. But the Pad is jittery, sensing that perhaps its number is coming up.

Only last week, I confessed to a group of friends that perhaps my dependency on my devices was becoming a bit obsessive. This is a tired, familiar story. Everyone seems to be lamenting their phones, and pads, and laptop love. And we’re remembering (fondly?) the days when we communicated by letters and phones with cords. But our laments are insincere. No one wants to go back to those days, including me.

But I do want some balance. Some moderation. Perspective, perhaps?

Last night, as I was telling my oldest daughter to be sure and text me from her camping trip,  I was mentally reminding myself to charge my son with the same task. I want him to text me from the road trip he is going on, and then from the beach once he gets there. Really? Is that necessary? I think so. And they won’t mind because it’s easy. Just a quick text to say, “We’re all awake in the van,” or “We made it here safely.”

In 1987, I drove to Virginia to begin graduate school. I was on my own in a strange city for the first time, which was both exhilarating and frightening. The latter emotion won out when someone tried to enter my apartment four days after I moved in. I was home, listening to the doorknob jiggle and hearing the would-be intruder call me by name. He made a few threats as he continued his attempt to open my apartment door. I put a dining room chair under the doorknob and began to pack. A series of unfortunate events had culminated in this, and so I heard the clear message that I had chosen the wrong school. In a panic, I loaded up my car and headed to Athens, Georgia to enroll in school choice #2, only to find that they had no space until the spring semester. Crushed, I decided to take the long way home.

It took me two full days to drive from Athens to Tulsa. I took backroads, not because I was especially adventurous, but because I was lost. I passed through small town Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and then north to Arkansas. Yes, there were shorter routes, but I didn’t care. I was meandering in a state of sorrow. I stayed in a cheap motel one night – racing into my room in a thunderstorm and then listening to the crackle and explosions all night with a chair under the doorknob – again. I called my parents from a pay phone the next morning because it was the only way I knew to make a collect call. (Remember those?)

Last night, as I was thinking about my college kids on the camping and beach trips, I forced myself to imagine what my parents must have been going through during those two days I was making my way through the southern states. Only one phone call before I left, and then one after the thunderstorm. I admitted to them I was lost. I dismissed my father’s directives on how to get back to the interstate. I told them I didn’t know how long it would take me to get home. When I finally pulled into the driveway, my mother had every justification for unrolling herself from the fetal position she should have been in so she could grab both my shoulders and shake me silly. But instead, she hugged me and cried sloppily, which I now realize is because she had spent about 16 hours since the last phone call wondering if I was dead or alive.

When our older children travel, we can call them at any moment to ask, “Are you alive?” It’s a wonderful feeling of control in a world that gives us little. My cell phone provides me with this illusive feeling, and so do my computers and my IPad. The world is at my fingertips. I can learn, communicate, make plans, create, set alarms, plan meetings, organize my life in photos, make new friends and keep the old. Whatever would I do without all this? Now I know: I would fidget. Which is what I have done for exactly six days. I’m not sure what my mother would say about this. She never touched a computer and at the end of her life she did use a cell phone, but she was one of those people who didn’t understand that you need not yell into it. I am certain, however, that her faith was strengthened every time I walked out her door. She put me in God’s hands, knowing that there was no real line of communication. If I wanted to contact her, it was up to me. There was no pesky texts or annoying phone calls from her asking, “Where are you?”

I wouldn’t trade her life for mine. But I do wish I could release the control button a bit and stop thinking that the chair under the doorknob is going to protect me and mine from all the chaos in the world. My efforts to keep my children within my reach won’t keep them from harm. The technology that I think keeps me sane is probably rewiring my brain cells in frightening ways. So I’ve decided that when my laptop is finally returned to me, my software is upgraded, and all is well with my devices, I shall put them down for a spell here and there. Perhaps I’ll read a novel, take a walk in the sunshine, stand in line at the check-out while resisting the urge to check my email…just to see if I can do it. And then, of course, I will blog about these things, post them on Facebook, and send a tweet to let everyone know I’m resisting technology.