Sunday, February 28, 2010

Hear Us from Heaven

My tummy is feeling a little weak right now, and for once I am confident that my malaria medicine is not the culprit.

Rather, I think my tummy is hurting due to my own lack of self-discipline. After doing some touring around Accra today at various museums (the National Museum and the W.E.B. Dubois Memorial Center), we stopped for a midday meal at Maxmart. Let me explain to you, Maxmart is a very nice store to go to for groceries. It's quite upscale for Ghanaian standards, with groceries costing significantly more than at other places. They also have a coffee shop above the store—something that is also a luxury, so it seems. We went there today and I ordered the following: hummus and pita bread, cheese pie (essentially, similar to a calzone), and a cafĂ© frappe. Needless to say, my diet has been acquainted with beans, rice, and an occasional dish of banku so this is a lot foreign to my stomach right now. Oh well, so worth it, right?

I just was craving familiar foods, something different from the typical Red-Red, Jollof Rice, and Plantains.

It's kind of been one of those weeks. I just miss America.

I got to play field hockey this week! It was wonderful. No doubt about it. The mosquitoes attacked my legs since they hang out in the grass during the day, but ultimately I was just happy to have a stick in my hand again. Playing on the actual team is still up in the air, and I would be surprised if it actually happens, but they did check me out a stick that I can play with by myself until then. Luckily, I met a girl who plays hockey at Swarthmore in PA, so I have a buddy to hit around with! It felt so comfortable to do something I have loved to do for so long, and to be able to do it thousands of miles away from home. Still, as I played on the grassy field, with red dirt sticking to me like glue, I couldn't help but appreciate my team back home even more. I have always loved being able to play on such a fun and close-knit team, but being here has opened my eyes to how important that support system has been for me at college. Hendrix field hockey is such an important part of my college experience, and I think being away from that has made that more apparent.

Last night we went to a sports bar in Accra, Champ's, for Friday night Karaoke. I was so ready for a night out—we have been traveling practically every weekend since getting into Ghana, so it was nice to stick around town. Not to mention, I spent 6 hours with Lindy on Friday getting our hair done. Yes, it's true; I got a WEAVE in my hair. It's a different look mind you, but it is so much fun. After I put on a cute black dress, with my long, new braids, I knew that karaoke was exactly what I needed for a Friday night out on the town. The minute you walk into Champ's it's almost like being back in America again! There are sports channels playing on flat screens everywhere, a crowded bar, and tables to order some food (even Tex Mex!). I was enthralled at the chance to even watch a sport other than soccer for awhile. We watched rugby—France vs. England—and chatted for awhile awaiting the chance to sing some good ole American tunes. The minute the song book came around I knew there was really no other choice of song for me to sing. I mean, hello, how could I not sing Sweet Home Alabama? I got up on stage awhile later and tried to be as good as of entertainer as possible. I think what made it even better was that following my rendition of the Lynyrd Skynyrd classic, more of our group got on stage to accompany Mitch as he sang Take Me Home, Country Roads. We must have looked like crazy country lovin' American folk…oh wait, I kind of am…so it all works out J. My night was filled with singing, meeting people from South Africa, England, Australia, and Ghana, and enjoying time with my friends—a nice reminder of how much I love dancing, eating, and karaoke-ing with my friends at home. I think there's a great chance that from living in Ghana for 5 months, I am going to find a greater sense of appreciation for my life as a whole, especially when I return home. Already, I am balancing learning a new culture, with sharing my own, and thus growing to understand what beautiful blessings I have in my life. It's overwhelming at times, but very much an important part of this whole experience.

In addition to missing parts of home more this week than before, it's also been emotionally challenging as I have had to really dig deep in trying to understand how I am feeling. At bible study, before we began to reflect as a group, we meditated for 20 minutes. In those 20 minutes, surrounded by the soft noises of the breeze in the wind, and the hum of the bugs in the grass, something finally hit me, something that I had not been ready to face before. In the last couple weeks of being here, for whatever reason, I feel like I have "numbed" myself to the brokenness around me. It's hard to say why or how, but I think deep in my heart, I have been overwhelmed by the poverty, by the hunger, by the brokenness. Never in my life have I struggled with empathy. Never before have I not tried to really feel the suffering of others. After all, as a Christian, isn't that what following Jesus is all about? Yet, here I was in Africa, and struggling to feel the pain around me. I think I am afraid for how much I might really feel it. For how much it might break my heart. I know I need to be vulnerable. But, I guess it's just harder to let go. It's much harder than I ever thought it would be.

God brings things into your life at just the right moments. I needed a wake-up call.

On Thursday, I got one.

I was volunteering at Kissemahn, like I do every Thursdays, and things were going surprisingly well. Even amid the normal chaos of yelling, fighting, and noise there were genuine moments of learning. I really believe there was. We were getting ready to close for the day when one of the young girls, Precious, around the age of 7 showed us her back. On her back were several lashes that looked excruciatingly painful. They were on her legs too, some that looked fresh, and some that looked like they had been healing for awhile. What I found even harder to face was hearing her cries. It was time to go home, and this darling child did not want to go home, for the fear of being beaten. As I held her and felt her sobs exit her small body, I had to pray for control as to not break down right then and there. We walked her home, myself along with 2 other volunteers, and the director of Mauhvio's Outreach, to talk with her mother. As Kwame, our director, talked with her mother I felt rather uncomfortable watching a mother being told not to beat her child. I don't agree with putting any harm on a child, but at the same time, I am 21 years old. I am still trying to understand this different culture, a culture that doesn't look down upon beating in the same way America does. There isn't a social services program, these things happen. And, while I don't agree with them, I also have a limited role to play, especially when telling a mother how to treat her child. The only thing I could really do was just love this child. And, I was able to do that. I held her hand, squeezing it the whole way to her house, praying that she would know love in this world. I can't exactly change all of my emotions in understanding the immense poverty here in just one moment, but I can confront the feelings I have been facing. I have been feeling numb to the brokenness here in Ghana, but maybe that's because I have been thinking about it on such a large scale. Because, in that small moment, I did feel Precious' pain. I could see her hurt. And, I wanted more than anything just to love her. I can't change the world. I can't eliminate poverty.

But, I can love.

Tomorrow I am going to church for the first time since being in Ghana. It couldn't have come at a better time. My eyes are getting heavy, it is time to sleep. For now, my prayer is from a song I hold dear to my heart:

Open the blind eyes

Unlock the deaf ears

Come to your people

As we draw near

Hear us from Heaven

Touch our generation

We are your people

Crying out in desperation

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

The Way I See It #21

When you purchase a warm, delectable cup of coffee from Starbucks, there are often little somethings spewed across the cup.

They are called "The Way I See It," and whenever I read them, they always bring a smile to my face. No matter what it says, it always provokes some thought about this world, about life, and maybe even just about coffee. These little quotes, sayings, and proverbs are just one of many reasons why I thoroughly enjoy Starbucks coffee. I am in Legon, Ghana—far away from a nearby Starbucks. I am away from Venti Chai Lattes, away from Blended Ice Tea Lemonades, and away from Starbucks espresso.

Yet, I do have a little piece of Starbucks with me.

It's a little piece of home, reminding me of why I am here.

When Michelle and I took down our decorations from our room this past fall we laughed and commiserated at our pictures and even our "Jesus Loves Feminists" sign. Michelle had put up part of a coffee cup that she had saved, one particular The Way I See It—and before putting back with her pile of stuff she told me that I should have it. I read it over again and smiled and gratefully accepted it. I figured that these words of wisdom may just come in handy for my experience over here in Ghana.

Next to my pictures that always remind me of the amazing support system around me, to the right of a note I have from a special child I have tutored in Menifee, Arkansas, and directly above my well worn and hearty desk hangs this piece of a Starbucks coffee cup. It reads:

People need to see that,
Far from being an obstacle,
The world's diversity
Of languages, religions, and
Traditions is a great treasure,
Affording us precious
Opportunities to recognize
Ourselves in others.
Youssou N'Dour (Musician)

 Up to this point, I couldn't really find better words to describe what this experience has been like for me.
Every day, I find something new, something different, and it is so utterly invigorating.
And yet, the diversity of this culture, of the traditions, has still afforded me the chance to understand myself, and my own life experience.

Around town, especially around the market, you will often see mothers carrying their children on their back using intricate fabric to hold them up. They take them everywhere and you can see the bond right away. Usually the child has their head leaning on their mother's back, maybe they are sleeping, and they are connected together. It's a moving thing to see, a sight that I always am marveled by. When I see this, I am reminded of my own family. Everyone takes care of each other. Maybe my mom has never carried me on her back with colorful fabric holding me in, but she has looked out for me and kept me safe for my entire life. It's different, yes, but at some level, it's also the same.

Sometimes even talking with people here proves to be difficult. Yes, English is the official language, but there are about 50 other languages that are spoken, just in Ghana. Imagine all of Africa. At Mauhvio's Outreach Program (the school I have been teaching at) we have been working with the kids to help them with their English. It's been an experience; one that has opened my eyes to what I see myself doing with my life a few years down the road. During our lunch break, we take some of the kids back to their homes. One day we crossed the street into an area called Christian Village to take Belinda and Benedicta to their mother, and I was taken aback by how kind and welcoming their family was to me. And yet, she wasn't even speaking a language that I could understand. In Kissemahn, many of the Ghanaians speak Ewe, while at school in Legon we are being taught Twi. Talk about lost in translation—there I was trying to speak the very bare minimum of Twi that I knew, and they don't even speak that language. You can imagine the looks I got from the girls' mother and the rest of the family. Still, it didn't really matter to them that I couldn't speak their language; they were more concerned with the fact that me, a white girl, brought their girls back safely. The mother, Polina, told me she would look forward to seeing me again and she appreciated my kindness. One of the younger girls translated this for me, and it made me smile. It made me grateful for that moment, for the language barriers, because ultimately, it truly was an opportunity to recognize myself, and the beauty that differences provide.

It's been hard catching tro tros. It's been difficult understanding how relationships work over here. It's been challenging getting to know Ghanaians. It's been interesting in understanding how Ghanaians worship and pray.

But, it's been a great opportunity; far from an obstacle, but rather a "great treasure" that I can't even believe I have the chance to experience. This past week I have continued to ask myself,

"Why am I here?"
"How did I end up here, in Ghana, of all places?"
"Do I really deserve this experience?"

I don't have the answers yet, but I am just so so grateful to be living in Ghana. I have wanted to come here since freshman year. It's overwhelming sometimes, just to fully realize that yes, I am here.

Like The Way I See It #21 says, this diversity that I am immersed in, is a gift. A beautiful, incredible gift. And for that, I am grateful.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Give us clean hands, give us pure hearts

The still of night took me by surprise. There were few places lit, few noises at all. All I could really hear was the breeze blowing softly through the grass outside. Still, I could feel the peacefulness rising up inside of me, and I knew I was exactly where I was supposed to be.

I wrote this the morning I woke early to attend a morning service with MPU (Methodist Presbyterian Union). I was unsure of what to expect, but because the service was at 4:30 am, I was ready for anything. The morning worship went peacefully and I realize that in that moment, worshipping with the body of Christ was exactly what I had needed since my arrival in Ghana.

It even hit me the night before when I was attending a bible study with a bunch of international students. Upon reflecting on that night after bible study I wrote,

We crammed into a small room and talked about fellowship, Jesus, and the community we are looking for in Ghana. More importantly, we talked about building relationships with those at the night market. No, not going into the night market looking to convert; rather, going to the night market and listening to those providing us with goods. We want to build relationships; we want to treat the workers in the night market as friends and come to know them as our brothers and sisters. This makes me full of excitement—this is what fellowship is all about—just loving one another. This is what Jesus is all about.

It was such a great feeling—to know that I had found a spiritual community here in Ghana. We sang songs at the beginning, introduced each other, read over the Word, and got in smaller groups to pray together. Ever since my plane landed I have been relying on God more than ever before, and it was good to share my heart with other people. This entire adventure is testing me, challenging me, and I can feel myself more and more relying on God. This is good—great even—because it has always been hard for me to follow God's plan for me. Instead, I have often chosen to go my own way, forging my own path, and making my own plans. I have decided that from here on out, I want to allow myself to be more vulnerable. I have already stepped outside my comfort zone so much, but I want to be pushed a little more. I want to follow God, going where He wants me, and to do so, I think I need to put myself out there, and see what happens.

I am around the right people who will be there every step of the way as this journey unfolds.

I am experiencing a great fellowship of believers, something that is described in Acts as,

They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and prayer. Everyone was filled with awe, and many wonders and miraculous signs were done by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts. (Acts 2: 42-46)

Ghana is very much a Christian nation. Practically every vehicle has a bold display of "God first" or the common symbol meaning "God" embellished on the front of the cars. Many of the people we are meeting are nice, caring, and welcoming. As we intermingle with Ghanaians, and I meet more people from this beautiful country, it is my hope that this fellowship I am lucky to be with does not stick only to each other, but reach out and give thanks to this new environment. Part of being a Christian is to love, and it is important to love our fellow Ghanaians. It might start with listening to a woman at the night market, or maybe smiling at the cab driver, or even striking up conversation with those you pass by on the streets. I don't really have a particular way of envisioning what it looks like, but I know it is possible.

Let's break bread and share our hearts.


Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Elephants, Warthogs, and Crocodiles, Oh My!

Wild Elephant
My two best buds: Rachel and Rusty the Elephant (I named him!)
Making Fufu--a traditional Ghanaian dish
WARTHOGS!!! (a.k.a. Razorbacks!)

For almost a month now I have been in Africa.

And I've felt it. Adjusting here has been one of the more challenging things I have had to do as of late, and things here are just so very different. People talk differently, act differently, and still more important, live differently. It's been an adventure trying to adjust to Ghanaian culture, an adventure that I feel so blessed and grateful to have.

Yet, even with all this adjustment, with new foods, new people, new everything, I still hadn't really grasped that I was in AFRICA.

Finally, it really, truly, hit me this weekend.

Maybe it was the villages we saw alongside the road as we passed by. Watching women pump water from the well, seeing young women carry bowels, buckets, and baskets on their heads, and witnessing these remote communities gathering for a communal meal. These communities were different from what I have seen before on my travels through Ghana, these communities were rural, remote, and what I imagine that most people think of when they think of Africa. There were huts, no signs of electricity, and the wide open spaces of the savannah to bring these communities together.

Maybe it was the 14 hour drive. More specifically, the parts of the drive that were spent on unpaved roads, bumps everywhere, with red dirt flowing by the window.

Maybe it was the bathrooms that we used when we needed to take a bathroom break. Whether using a public bathroom that luxuriously provided toilet paper, or bathrooms that were merely a hole in the ground, or even the side of the road that was used for a make shift bathroom, you really could expect anything.

Maybe it was our morning hike, that moment when we first saw a wild elephant, only feet away from us. I felt the excitement throughout my whole body; here I was, in the habitat of wild elephants.

Maybe it was returning from our hike in Mole, drenched in sweat and dirt, only to find a family of baboons on the doorsteps to our hotel. They were digging through the trashcans, looking for some food, relatively oblivious that they were the objects of our cameras and laughter.

Maybe it was sitting in Amanda's hammock, overlooking the pasture, the trees, and the elephants in the northern part of Ghana. Sitting in this hammock between the trees felt so free, and so perfect. You can only dream of lying in a hammock in such a beautiful place.

Maybe it was visiting the first mosque ever to be built in Ghana (built in the 15th century), greeting the chief of the village, and getting the full history of this mosque.

Maybe it was having a chance to pound the dough in efforts to make fufu, a staple dish in Ghana, and walking around with the small children to their homes in the village of Lebanga.

Maybe it was our safari, cramming in the 4 x 4 with new friends to see the terrain and go deeper into the national park. We saw a herd of elephants and a family of warthogs, and I didn't think the day could get any better after that moment. I couldn't wait to tell people back in Arkansas that yes, Razorbacks do exist.

Maybe it was coming home to Legon and having a heart to heart with Rachel and then later trying to comfort Evan as he threw up on the bus into a blue bucket that had a hole in it. More so, maybe it was taking him to a hospital over 2 hours away from Accra for him to stay overnight and get treatment for Malaria.

Whatever it was, we pulled up to our hostel and I needed some time alone. I walked to the night market to grab an egg sandwich for dinner. I had planned to go to the Superbowl party at the American Embassy, but I too got a little sick and decided to stay in. I had the room alone and tried to write down everything I was feeling, trying to process the entire weekend. It was by far, my favorite trip, and yet I couldn't shake the notion that something was different. Finally, I went out on my balcony to get some fresh air. As I stood out and looked at the stars, at the market, and at people I realized something had changed this weekend.

I am in Africa. I still have over 3 months here. I have time to travel, to learn the ropes, and to fully adjust to Ghanaian society. This is good, wonderful actually, and I feel so lucky to get this chance. It has been a month, and now I can fully say that I get it. I'm here, and I'm experiencing things that I never thought I would. I'm building a life here, and temporary it may be, it is what I have now. I am enjoying every second. I am trying to soak up every day, and to really experience Ghana.

I have been stuck in my room all day because I am still not feeling very well at all. We took Rachel to the hospital last night but she should be okay, Taylor was admitted this morning, Judith was there last night as well, and Evan has malaria. Despite not feeling well, this has allowed me some extra reflection time—much needed reflection time. As the fan from my ceiling whirls the air around my bedroom, so do my thoughts. I am really beginning to soak this all up, and I like the way that feels.

Our trip to Mole National Park solidified everything for me. I can't really pinpoint that moment; rather it may be a mixture of them all. I am grateful for this weekend. Grateful for friends and long talks with laughter, elephants, sunsets, macaroni and cheese (a nice and welcomed change from our Ghanaian diet), our tour guide on the safari, and grateful for the opportunity to venture around Ghana. Even when things are a little tough or frustrating, we are fully beginning to embrace that.

We just laugh and smile and all yell, This is Africa.

Monday, February 1, 2010

The only way to really know is to really let it go

Kamke National Park

It has been difficult to understand my place here in Ghana.

On one hand, I am a white. Because of the color of my skin, I cannot escape that. I am marked as a tourist, as a visitor, as someone separate from Ghanaian society. This couldn't be more obvious when I am taking pictures of locals moving around in markets atop a huge, air-conditioned, tourist bus. It doesn't help that when visiting a busy market or anywhere around town you know you are being called when you hear the simple phrase Obruni (meaning "white" in Twi). Or maybe when I stumble over various phrases and words in Twi, a language spoken as a first language by 50% of the population, I feel increasingly isolated from real Ghanaians. Even today, before our canopy tour in Kamke National Park, I was given a name tag that read "Non-Ghanaian Student." There are different rates for different people, and the rate for a non-Ghanaian student is higher than the rate for a Ghanaian student for the tour in the park. While this is fine, I couldn't help but think to myself, "wait, aren't I attending the University of Ghana? Shouldn't I also be a Ghanaian student?" On a lighter note, I think I felt most American when our group went to Chez Afrique for dinner. Chez Afrique is a nice restaurant, with a pretty chill vibe. When the band starting playing tunes such as "I Will Survive" and "Murder She Wrote" many of us just belted out singing and dancing near the stage. This charade of singing certainly did not end at the restaurant. As we piled into the International Programs Bus we sang the whole way home. We sang anything from Grease, some Beyonce, classic Journey tunes, and to Sweet Home Alabama. While I did feel quite American, I enjoyed every minute of it. I mean, just because I'm in a different country doesn't mean I can't continue to embarrass myself.

Luckily though, this hasn't been my only experience in trying to comprehend where I fit in here. At other times, I have felt completely apart of Ghanaian life. When visiting the school over in Kisema, just down the road, the kids are always thrilled to see you. Instantly, they will latch on to you, and hope that you never let go. While I don't find this surprising—these are kids after all—I did have an even more surprising experience this past week that made me feel more welcome not just to Ghana, but to this community. Ricki, a young girl, decided to take me to her home in Kisema. It was lunch break, so some kids were sticking around to play with us, while others had gone home to see their families. She got on my back for a piggy-back ride and headed to her home. She lives just down the road from the make-shift school we work in, and as I let her down from my back, I was hesitant to step any further. This was her home, and I didn't want to barge in or anything. Her home is comprised of several rooms and buildings that seem to house most of her immediate family. While I didn't step directly inside a bedroom or anything, her Aunt did invite me to sit on a bench with the other members of the family to relax. As I looked at my surroundings, I saw a young naked child running around with soap on him. Clearly, he was in the middle of bath and was not heeding to his mother's orders. Ricki's grandmother was also bathing herself, right in the middle of the pathway. It took me aback at first, but she felt so comfortable washing herself without a shirt on that I tried not to act startled. The notion of privacy seemed quite different in this particular community, so I decided to just go with the flow. As I sat with her family for just a few minutes, I remember feeling so welcome, and that felt so good. Here I was in the middle of a home, in the middle of a town in Ghana, and I was receiving some wonderful hospitality. Maybe they didn't have food or a cold drink to offer, but they had a bench and they let me sit there. It meant a lot to me.

I've also felt more apart of Ghana now that I am getting comfortable moving around and getting to places. It's still a work in progress, but being able to catch a tro-tro and not have a huge group of white kids around has made fitting in a little easier. As a student, I am feeling more a part of the campus community because many of the students have been so welcome here. I've met people who have shown me around campus, other students in class who have offered pieces of advice, and others who have invited me to do things around the University of Ghana. I like being involved as a student, especially outside of the classroom, so it makes a difference.

Living here for 4 months makes finding my place a little more difficult. Not quite a tourist, and yet not quite a permanent citizen of Ghana, I am somewhere in the middle. I think that's okay though, and I am just fine with that. I am happy I have the months ahead to do all that I want around West Africa, and I am also glad I have been here for almost 3 weeks because I am beginning to feel at home. I have a wonderful circle of friends, from all over, and we just have so much fun together. I love that I can talk with people here for hours and it doesn't even matter. All of us are slowly getting adjusted to Ghana time (you know, say you will be somewhere and show up 45 minutes late) and I think it's good for those of us are so used to different lifestyles. It's good to slow down, have a nice long chat, and enjoy the time we have.
At the Slave Castles in Cape Coast

I'm doing my best to just let whatever happens here, happen. I'm trying not to fixate on finding my place here, and rather, just let everything work itself out. I am here and here for a reason, and this is important to keep in mind.

I am ready for a new week, a week where I can finally get my class schedule straightened out, a week that brings new adventures and new opportunities. I am a bit tired from this weekend, I must say. This past weekend we visited Cape Coast! We drove a bus there, which took a little more than 3 hours, and we first went to the Slave castles. We saw where slaves were kept while being prepared for transportation across the Atlantic Ocean. After learning so much about the slave trade from my classes at Hendrix last semester, it was incredible to be there. To be at a place where it actually happened…it was intense. Cape Coast is gorgeous, and it seems ironic that something so hell-ish, like slavery, happened along the coasts of a place so beautiful. Visiting those slave castles was hard and still something I have wanted to do for a very long time. The pictures do not do the place justice, as the feeling of actually being in the dungeons is unparalleled by a lot of other emotions I have felt in my life.

We stayed over in Cape Coast, and unfortunately around the time we were at the slave castles, I had a bad allergic reaction that affected my eyes. It burnt to open them, they were swelling and it was quite uncomfortable. Still, my friends were good sports as I wore sunglasses to dinner and took allergy medicine that made me a little loopy.

I did get to eat spaghetti though, with CHEESE, so obviously I was one happy girl. I woke up the next morning and my eyes were much better. We spent this morning at Kamke National Park. We got to go on a canopy tour which was awesome and I loved it! Anyone afraid of heights had a more difficult time, but everyone got through it and had some fun. The trees and the brush in the rainforest is so green and beautiful that I couldn't stop taking pictures. Like at the slave castles, I had a hard time taking pictures that truly captured the essence of what we were surrounded by.

It's been a good, long week and I feel fulfilled. I really do.

Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in your ways acknowledge him, and he will your paths straight. Proverbs 3: 5-6