Some Days are Harder Than Others–Thank God for Ice Cream

About a week or so ago I was chatting with my close friend and old college roommate Aley about life here in Ghana. I was telling her about the adjustments in life and everything going on. Then we got to talking about transitions in life in general and maintaining relationships and balance in our lives. I realized during our conversation, and expressed to her, that some days are just going to be harder than others.

It truly is just the nature of the type of things that I am currently doing with my life. When you are somewhere new, without any of your usual familiars around you, even when you start to have firm footing on where you are, those days still come. And it doesn’t mean that I don’t remember why it is that I am here. Nor does it mean that I feel like I have no friends or family here. This is just life. Wherever we are, we are always missing someone or somewhere, even if we are not always actively in our minds dwelling on it.

Some people tell me that they bet I am so busy that I have no time to think about feeling homesick or miss things. I do keep busy, but life here is a much different pace. In much the same way that my hometown is a place where time does not reside, life takes place at a slower pace here in Ghana. It gives you the time to appreciate the people and things around you, but it also gives you time to think about those things that aren’t around you as well. When you move around a lot, when you love to travel and meet new people, you leave a little bit of yourself in each place—bits of your heart. Not to say that it becomes impossible to be wholeheartedly in one place, but rather, it’s almost like magic: the lives you have added to your own, in all the different places, call you into mind, and you in turn feel those connections from wherever you are, and you miss them. We feel most life-like when people remember us.

The most important thing is to not ignore those moments that are harder than others. I’ve learned to acknowledge them, assess what it is that might be triggering them, then dealing with the emotions so I can move towards the effortless and easier times here. And there are so many more of those. Last Sunday when I felt this way I was surrounded by my friends from church and they understood the mood I was in. They just made sure I was included but did not press me to talk or interact more. They just let me sift through all the feelings, and I felt myself come alive again in my present setting. And Emma bought me ice cream. Not much a little bit of ice cream can’t solve for me at the end of the day.

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Peace Does Not Simply Mean the Absence of Conflict

While writing the program manual for my project over the last several weeks, I have been wrestling with the question of what exactly does peace—more specifically living in peace and peaceful societies—mean to me. What would it mean for the children I am here to work with to grow up in peace? Peace, I have come to believe is like love. It is a word of action, not simply emotions.

Dorothy Thompson said that, “Peace is not the absence of conflict but the presence of creative alternatives for responding to conflict.” Martin Luther King Jr. said, “True peace is not merely the absence of tension: it is the presence of justice.” Recently I read in an article about the origins of the Hebrew word ‘Shalom,’ which is often translated as simply ‘peace.’ However, it is not simply the absence of conflict, but rather takes in the ideas of harmony and a sense of wholeness.

My mother always told us children growing up that ‘prevention is better than cure.’ When Colman McCarthy, the founder of the Centre for Teaching Peace, said that if we do not teach our children peace, someone else would teach them conflict, I believe he meant that we have to be active about pursuing peace. It does not simply come naturally after wars are over, guns are put away, or overt unrest is settled. When asked what was the most important act of peacemaking, McCarthy answered, “Your next one,” which again indicates his belief that peace means actions that we have much control over.

If one were to ask me, I would say that in my heart I believe humans were and are meant to live together in peace. I believe that love is a natural feeling, while hatred is learned over the years. Love has a better soil to sow itself in when there are no forces putting up walls, pointing out differences, but instead has the natural forces that draw us together in companionship and community, as ‘no man is an island.’ But for so long, and arguably more than ever today, those forces that put up the walls, point out differences and whisper in ears the language of hate and destruction have been at work. We, as human beings, cause the most pain and the most suffering to each other. Yet we also have the power to say something about it. In An Imperfect Offering, James Orbinski states: “Over the last twenty years, I have struggled to understand how to respond to the suffering of others. I have come to know perhaps too well that only humans can be rationally cruel. Only humans can choose to sacrifice life in the name of some political end, and only humans can call such sacrifices into question.” Anything is possible in human nature.

Ghanaians often tell me that I made the right choice in African country to reside in because their country is peaceful. “Ghana is peaceful, no?” is the rhetorical question I hear often. I smile and give a slight nod because Ghanaians are proud that they do not have the type of problems that are seen in their neighbors, such as the Ivory Coast or Liberia. But what I have become to think and to witness is that Ghana is a country that knows how to handle its issues without blowing something up or picking up weapons—a country free of war or chaos—but, it is also a country that bubbling, under the surface unrest. And if peace is an active state of existence, in which one is attuned to the needs of themselves as well as linked to the needs and lives of those around them, then perhaps peace is something even a country with a relatively stable democracy needs to find time to talk about too.

In Ghana, I have heard and felt the unrest of the growing youth population about the older generation. The older generation still holds fast to their beliefs that the younger generation must hold their tongues. They don’t often respect the younger generation’s opinions and one sometimes finds it hard to be recognized for a job well done if you are young. The culture does not easily make a platform for the young to gain respect or bring their own innovative ideas to the table. And on the other side, the older generation is frustrated with a younger one they believe have forgotten to respect all matters in which their elders speak on and idealize the West too much. Sometimes old traditions are so embedded that people don’t even realize it. Before George became my boss, my first boss at AMPCAN in 2009 told me that I would probably never get married because I asked too many questions and was too educated, all the while heading an organization that works in part to empower young girls. Furthermore, many in Ghana are tired of the games that politicians play that stall the building of infrastructure in the country. I feel the pain of politicians at each other’s throats, but here in Ghana it reaches different heights; ones in which roads don’t get built and buildings go unfinished because of political party games. Ghana has the passion for peace, but still searches for the right actions to make it a complete reality.

Winner of the UNESCO Prize for Peace Education in 2000, Swee-Hin Toh lists what he views as the components of peace education as the following:

  1. Educating for human rights and responsibilities
  2. Educating for personal peace
  3. Educating for environmental care
  4. Educating for inter-cultural solidarity
  5. Educating for living with justice and compassion
  6. Educating for dismantling a culture of war

These components emphasize that peace education is not just about building peace with oneself, but also interconnecting and relating that to everything else. Bringing in the ideas behind peace and peace education to my project was very important to me. This program is not just about teaching children about the rights that they have, but also about helping them find a voice concerning the issues, as well as a vision concerning their community and their place in this world. It involves the components I believe that every child needs to grow up with a foundation for peace, from my own experience and research. First, they need to feel a sense of worth and love themselves, finding peace with who they are and want to be. Second, they need to realize that there is no “Superman” complex in which someone will fly in and radically bring sustainable change to their lives. They need to take responsibility for their own community and environment and bring about the changes themselves, although they can always look to the greater communities around them for assistance. And third, they should be given the tools, ability, and knowledge to express themselves in the globally interconnected world that is becoming closer and closer around us. This makes them think more about their rights and responsibilities as a citizen of the world, and not just a citizen of their community.

I believe that teaching children the actions of peace means taking care of them. And if we care for them today, and teach them to love and care about one another, there is no doubt in my mind that those seeds that are planted today will one day be watered enough to bring about a better future. We fight in wars for numerous years, yet try peace for only days, weeks, or months. All good things take time. Gradually the healing takes place, and the more things change.

Perhaps, though, peace itself is scary. The idea of living in harmony with one another, with the reality before us that we were not all that different after all. Who would exercise control? Who would we blame when things go wrong? Who would we hate? Who would be ‘the Other’?

A week and a half ago, I finished the program manual. It is 75-pages of teaching resources, handouts, surveys, worksheets, lesson outlines, but most importantly, it is 75-pages of what I hope to be the start of such conversations as this one in Ghana. This is just the beginnings of my own such conversations and wonderings about peace. We have to keep having these conversations.

Africa, Humanity, and a Fount of Hope

Even in London or New York or Paris, Africans do not easily lose the habit of catching your eye as you pass. Raise an eyebrow in greeting and a flicker of a smile starts in their eyes. A small thing? No. It is the prize that Africa offers the rest of the world: humanity…Amid Africa’s wars and man-made famines and plagues, I have found people getting on in life, rising gloriously above conditions that would break most of us. In Africa even in the worst of times you do not hear the tones of doom and despair that characterize some Western media reports on the state of Africa. Africa always has hope.

 – Richard Dowden, Africa: Altered States, Ordinary Miracles

During the summer of 2010, I spent three weeks in China, and several of those days were spent at the World Expo in Shanghai. It was a great experience with some unforgettable pavilions. The one pavilion that made arguably the biggest ‘splash’ was the North Korea pavilion. It was wild. They had decorated the inside of their pavilion with serene creeks with cheerful bridges. There were rainbows and unicorns and videos of people playing and having a good time. They went for the vibe that North Korea was open, fun, and a page out of a storybook. It was laughable. But this is how they chose to represent themselves to the world at the Expo, even though almost everyone who went knew it differently. Sometimes there are the worlds we wish to live in that compete with the world that actually exists. Experiences such as the North Korea pavilion at the World Expo, force us to be called back into reality.

When we view Africa, the reality of the continent appear to be civil wars, famines, hunger, underdevelopment, disease, poverty, and other words that frequently make the nightly news or front cover of newspapers. When I arrived in Ghana for the first time in 2009 the trigger questions rose up in my mind: ‘Why this, God? Why these people?’ I would get angry teaching in schools that consisted of cement blocks, no modern toilet, and splintered bench seats and barely existing chalkboards. I would get a tight feeing in my chest when I saw forgotten children, brutalized handicapped persons, and begging children. It just did not seem fair to me, and comprehending it made my head spin.

I am often told that these effects will lessen in time. That I will wake up one day to find that these types of pain and atrocities do not affect me in quite the same way. I am told that time and exposure will do this. However, I pray that I will never wake to that day. I pray that every moment that shakes mankind will shake me as well. It seems like a horrible wish upon myself in a world that often seems to be imploding, but there are few other ways that humanity can truly understand the depths of the explosives and help one another stoop to build things up again.

Perhaps, however, those were the wrong questions, the wrong reactions, or not the whole idea behind the conflicts. Maybe the reality is that there are multiple realities to Africa.

There are different ways of living, different ways of engaging with the world. My friend Allie calls them currencies in life—what people exchange for and spend their life moving towards. There is an interesting movement in Africa of a divide between those who idealize Western lifestyle and those who do not. I cannot turn a blind eye to the fact that in this corner of the world, there are those who have taken the worst aspects of Western life—trying to grab at money by any means possible, with greed, exploitation, and corruption being words to throw their way. They miss the best aspects of Western life though in this attempt—the hard work, the ideologies of freedom and equality. Even more distressing, however, is they miss a reality of the life around them. It is a reality that could give them the type of life whose currency is based on love and a fount of hope.

I love the quote attributed to Mother Theresa that says, “I know God won’t give me anything I can’t handle. I just wish he didn’t trust me so much.” I often feel that way when life’s tests rise up. And when I’m in a place like Ghana, I think that God must have incredible belief in the faith and strength of His darker children. The type of faith that finds ways to endure even in the harshest of environments, no matter how deep it has to bury itself in order to bloom to its fullest beauty again one day. We miss this so many times because we often only see the image of Africa as symbolized by the warring states, the starving child, and the land destroyed by lack of rainfall. Because that’s the story that “sells.” That’s the story that makes people decide to volunteer, donate to a cause, or just simply care about the plight of people an ocean away. I’m not saying that those stories are not important, especially when we approach the telling of them in ways that preserve their dignity, as my friend Roxanne writes about. However, those are not always the whole stories of the land. I believe that there is a lot to be gained from telling the heartbreaking stories of hardships, disease, and war, but there is a lot we can gain from realizing that within those stories also lie stories of giving more than one has, endurance in the face of adversity, and a spirit of never giving up, even when there seem to be no easy answers or solutions.

James Oblinski, a former director of Médicins Sans Frontiers and co-founder of Dignitas International, who spent many years in the field in Africa, noted: “I have witnessed the good of which we as human beings are capable: the good that calls a mother to feed her child, regardless of how unbearable her own suffering may be; the good of a mother and a grandmother who carry their sick boy to a clinic in South Africa. The good of those who refuse to remain silent as another is violated, and who act to right a wrong. It is the good we can be if we so choose.” This brings me back to Dowden’s words that ‘Africa always has hope.’ Maybe we don’t always recognize it and talk about it, the way we do other things, because not everyone’s lives call for this type of hope. But we can learn a lot about what humanity is capable of through this type of hope. Everyone can take away some message from the type of hope that says that life can go on and be good again, no matter how dire the situation.

One of the reasons that I feel so blessed to know and work with George is that he has such a beautiful vision for the future of Ghana. When he talks about what he believes Ghana is capable of becoming, I not only believe it, but I can close my eyes and see it too. I know that when he looks around he sees things that make him sad; things that are changing about the ways of Ghana that he would like to freeze before things get too far. But I also know that even when he sees those things, he always holds on to the hope that they can change, and the land with it too.

There is something very precious here that I am beginning to unearth. A friend of mine wrote that because of tragic life circumstances, she had begun to lose hope in herself, and nothing mattered anymore in her life. She said that she only began to regain a belief in herself and the beauty of life—the fact that she was not alone—when she moved to Ghana. Throughout all the things that shake the core of who I am, as well as who we as humanity are, I also pray that I will look to Africa for my lessons of hope—born of suffering and cemented in the lives that move forward with dreams of a better tomorrow.

Togo and Benin: The Story of a Blessing

My trip to Togo and Benin this past weekend with my friend Mette was filled with the kind of crazy adventures that places such as West Africa alone can give. We raced down wet sand paths on the back of motorbikes after getting caught in torrential rainfall, we shared taxis fixed for four people with seven people, we watched crocodiles at one of our hostels, I held a python around my neck, and lounged in a man-made wooden motorboat while watching a town on stilts, and I had to give a border official a 300 CFA (rough 60 cents) bribe to get through the Togo border, just to name a few highlights. But in telling the story of this unforgettable trip to two of French West Africa’s smallest countries, I must frame it through the story of a blessing.

Mette and I hired a tour guide for our trip named Isaac. He turned out to be one of the best decisions we made, as he was a wonderful person, was full of wise sayings, and even treated us to some traditional Benin beer on our first night of the trip. After we enjoyed the beach town vibe and local foods of Lome, the capital of Togo, we took a shared taxi to Ouidah. The morning we began the approximately 5 kilometers walk along the slave road it was a cloudy day, but we were perky from our breakfast of local coffee and omelet in baguettes (food in Benin is heavily influenced by it’s French background). One of the first main stops on the route was the site of the Tree of Forgetting. It was here that those who had captured the slaves and were taking them to the boats on the coast performed a type of ritual to make them forget about their life in their homelands before they were taken overseas to be slaves. Later, a special tree was planted there that is believed to aid in cleansing and providing blessings for the individual who washes in the leaves of the tree. At the time we reached the tree, it had begun to rain a little, so there was enough water running from the leaves. So, I put aside my umbrella and washed my hands in the rainwater flowing from the trees, closed my eyes, and prayed that God, from whom all blessings flow, would remember me and continuously cleanse and bless my life. Immediately after, the sky broke open and buckets of torrential rain fell from the sky. Isaac looked at me and said that the cleansing had begun, the rainfall was a blessing, and more would follow for me.

The heavy rains flooded the sandy path, and we struggled forward through the rain and the mud, feeling a little closer to the people who had made this journey under far more tragic circumstances than we did. When we got to the end, Isaac informed us that the only way to get back besides walking (which was not really an option at this point) was to take a zem. A zem is a motorbike that operates as Togo and Benin’s main form of transportation through towns and oftentimes in busy cities as well. I had told myself I would not get on one, as they usually are going fast and there are no helmets involved, but it turned out that this would be the point in which that fear had to be put aside. Isaac told me that it would be fine because of my blessing. So I hopped on the back, closed my eyes to protect them from the dagger like rain and held on for dear life.

Afterwards, we went to the Python Temple, which was a site of voodoo practice in Ouidah. Mette and I had been talking about which one of us would hold the python, and neither really wanted to. However, I felt like this was too unique of an opportunity to pass up, and I willingly allowed the priest to drape one of the hundreds of pythons in the temple around my neck. I even felt brave enough after to hold one, although that was the limit to my boldness. We then headed out to Abomey, which was the capital of the old Dahomey civilization. It was still raining a lot, and when we got to Cotonou, the capital city, we barely missed a bus. We then were forced to take a tro-tro, but they were not filling up. Isaac told me he believed my blessings would continue, and less than ten minutes later, our tro-tro was filled and we were on our way. We saw many wrecks on the road, even the body of a dead man, but our tro-tro arrived safely in Abomey, and we again took motorbikes to get to our hostel. Our hostel was a bit of quirky establishment, filled with thin trees everywhere with wooden carvings. The owners had a pet antelope and three pet crocodiles. As my blessings had become a source of conversation now, we talked about how we hoped my blessings would bring sunshine in the morning. Our bags were soaked, and we were all forced to wear the same clothes the next day, as they were the only dry ones we had. And the next day came, and it was gloriously sunny. We visited the palaces of two of the Dahomey kings, and walked through hut-like structures made in part of the blood of women. Apparently if you are on your menstrual cycle, you are not allowed to go inside.

We packed our bags at Abomey and headed to our last stop of our trip, which was Ganvie. When the slave trade started building on the western coast of Africa, tribes were desperate to save themselves from traders, both white and black. The ancestors of the people who live in Ganvie decided to move their town from where it was and build another one in the middle of a lake, creating a stilt village, so that they could live in peace. There are several stilt villages in West Africa, but Ganvie is one of the largest ones. The day continued to be gorgeous—beautiful blue skies and fluffy white clouds—and I could not help but smile from ear to ear as we stepped into a wood-carved boat with a self-installed motor and took our almost one hour ride out to the village. We grabbed drinks at one of the stilt restaurants and sat on benches on a dock, watching the happenings of the village, fascinated by this village. It was not like other stilt villages, where once you were in the village, you could walk around. Instead, here you had to take a small boat to your neighbor, or even to use the restroom. It was one of the most interesting things I had ever seen. On our way back on the boat, I closed my eyes, feeling the wind in my face, and thought about how I had indeed received a blessing and how truly grateful I was to experience places like Ganvie, and how perhaps, Isaac was right about my luck changing.

Racing back from Cotonou to the Benin border was a race against time, as Mette and I had only received 48-hour visas. We made it in time, however, and continued our journey through Togo toward the Ghanaian border. Once we were dropped in Lome by the shared taxi, we had to take motorbikes to get to the border. As we raced down the main highway, the beach on one side and the city on the other, I thought how lovely it was to have a trip where nothing unusual happened to me. I should have known to guard my thoughts…

Because that’s when it happened: as I swung down from the back of the motorbike, the bike shifted a little and I felt a searing pain flash through my right leg. I cursed under my breath, thinking that I had once again ripped my skirt and cut my leg on something sharp on the motorbike. I lifted my skirt up to inspect the cut, and could not see much in the light but what appeared to be an indentation and some weird looking skin. The woman next to me, however, immediately got the tour guide’s attention and warned him that I had been burnt by the exhaust pipe. I felt a flash of panic, and Mette and Isaac led me to a lighted spot so we could see the damage better. Indeed, I had burnt a part of the inside of my right leg, but we could not tell how badly yet, and they poured some water on the burn and then Isaac applied a layer of toothpaste on to it because, really, it was all we could do at the moment. Holding back tears, I looked at Isaac and told him that perhaps my blessing was only in Benin. He emphatically shook his head no and told me this was just something unfortunate and that my blessings would always continue.

It was Isaac’s words that drew me back to just several hours before and the beautiful moments and joyful thoughts upon the boat at Ganvie. And it hit me. The girl sitting on the side of a road in Togo with looks of pity from those around her, as the pain increased in her leg, was the same girl smiling from ear to ear on a wooden boat upon a lake in Benin. And while we all attributed all our good fortune to my blessings received by the Tree of Forgetting, it was in this moment that Isaac reminded me to think about it in bad times too. Because it did not mean that I was not blessed. Unfortunate things will still come my way, but I must always remember that the girl with the burn in Togo is just as blessed as the girl on the boat in Benin.

I arrived back to my home in Atomic Down Monday morning. It feels really nice to be back. I walk to the front yard and cut leaves from the aloe plants growing there and squeeze their gel on to my burn to alleviate pain and reduce scarring. And I remember that when those unfortunate situations arise, it will not matter, because my blessings are always tenfold.

 

Preparing to hold the python
Python around my neck
Just a sampling of the amount of pythons at the temple
Door of No Return on the beach at Ouidah
First zem ride in the pouring rain
Palace Museum entrance at Abomey
Boat ride to Ganvie
Tranquil means of getting around
Main street in Ganvie
Watching the daily happenings of Ganvie from a benchside
The streets of Ganvie
A beautiful mosque in Ganvie
What gas stations look like in Benin