Monday, December 21, 2009

Suspending Our Fear of Heights

Twas the Week Before Christmas and All Through the Canopy...

The kids are on Christmas break and even though Renita and I have daily duties, we didn't allow that to stop us last Thursday. Renita asked for an unusual birthday present-- she wanted to be serenaded to in the clouds by those most dear to her. She had to settle for the three of us and Noah's friend chortling out "Happy Birthday" at tree-top level, but it was the best we could muster.

At 6:30am, we headed off for Kakum National Park, a rainforest preserve in southern Ghana. It took us two hours to get through Accra, and an hour and a half to get the rest of the way on very good roads. The 370 square kilo park is the home of rainforest elephants, leopards, crocodiles, pangolins, monkeys, hundreds of bird species and much more. It also offers an attraction unique in Africa and famous world-wide-- a 350 meter rope bridge, suspended 40 meters (130 feet) above the forest floor. The bridges are anchored to trees that towered another 30-40 feet above us, the majestic kapok, or silk-cotton tree.

Kakum National Park is a well developed and maintained place, with professional managers and guides, as well as a nice cafe, museum and gift shop. There are trails and even places for tent camping, but it is the canopy walk that draws tourists in from all over the world. As for Yers Trooly, I had mixed feelings about the excursion. On the one hand, I wanted Renita to have a great birthday, and I love getting out into nature anytime. On the other hand, the rainforest canopy is an incredibly humid place by 11:00am, and a rope walkway requires some effort, especially for a fat 55 year old. Not only that, the walkway itself is very narrow, and one never forgets that one is swaying twelve stories above the ground. I mean, as I tipped and tilted, squeezing along the walkway, I was looking down on the tops of 90 percent of the trees below. The pic to the left gives you an idea of the view down.

Anyway, we walked the canopy, and it was lovely in spite of how tired it made me. The highlight of course was being able to grant Renita's wish, and sing to her while in the canopy. Hannah caught it on video, and if you are a brave soul, it exists for your viewing pleasure below. It was clear we were only getting a bare introduction to the park. The area demands to be explored at length, and with the Cape Coast and Elmina castles nearby, one could easily spend weeks immersed in this part of Ghana's history, geography, zoology, and botany.

We left in time to visit a local restaurant that served up crocodile-- not on the menu, but alive on the patio. They'd come up out of the pond that almost surrounded the restaurant and the waiters would toss them some chicken. Real touristy, but they are beautiful in the water. We left the area by 3:00pm, made good time until we hit Accra, and covered the remaining 10 miles in two and a half hours.

A stretch of the Kakum National Park Canopy Walk, with a supporting Kapok tree in the middle.

Looking out at the forest from the canopy walk. Really beautiful. Most of these trees are about 60 feet tall, or about 20 meters. Notice how the Kapoks dwarf them.

Our Birthday Gal.

A good view of that narrow walk, with Noah and pal Philip trying to make it rock.

Hannah, Yers Trooly starting on another section of the walk, with Noah and Philip behind on the platform. Love those platforms!

Yers, lumbering, puffing, and oofing his way across. You use your arms and shoulders as much as your legs to make your way.

One of the crocs at the restaurant. Bread brought fish, fish brought the croc. Note the nostrils on top of the snout.

Noah and his new friend. I know, I know, its a touristy pic. But we were tourists. And the croc was real, and alive.

A beautiful animal.

On the way out, a glimpse of Cape Coast Castle. Built by the Swedish around 1655, it was seized by the Danes in 1663, then by the British in 1664. Initially it was used for general trade with various local groups, but eventually became a central location for trafficking thousands of men, women and children as slaves. In 1844, it became the seat of British colonial rule.

Captured on Film: Human Ceremonial Chortling

Matriarch and fam 120 feet up in the Ghana rainforest, Kakum National Park. (Note Patriarch climbing the rope "Stair of Testing" to offer worship.)

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Spending Season

Both Renita and I have been getting a fairly regular stream of gloomy financial news from our respective home offices for about six months now, and after cutting and reducing, there may even need to be personnel layoffs. It’s a sign of the times, but as hard as we get hit personally, we are ok. We are grateful for past tough times that have convinced us without doubt where real security lies. Living in West Africa also helps keep things in perspective, and we have good support from co-laborers who sometimes have a way of saying things that clarify and give courage. What follows is from Renita:

Every Tuesday morning, I join the rest of the LEAD team on the phone, and for a half hour all we do is pray together on a Skype call joining folks from the US, Liberia and Ghana. David Graf is the leader of this call and has been part of LEAD Grand Rapids since the beginning. He is passionate about prayer and has pushed us to pray regularly as a team (for those of you who know David, you know what this means - cajoling, demanding, pleading, imploring, whining, teasing:-).) The time has become precious and dear to those of us who regularly call in.

Yesterday morning our list of prayer requests (which we receive every Monday) included praying for the children in Liberia. UNICEF tells us one in every nine will die before the age of five, that 40% of kids are stunted in their growth due to malnutrition, that one in three young women between the age of 15-19 has a child, and one in seven of those children will die within the first year. We also had some specific medical concerns for persons with whom we work in Liberia. All in all, some pretty sobering prayer requests.

Then we prayed about the loss of Christmas, a season that once celebrated the free gift that we have received, forgiveness, grace, salvation -- and has become a time when we overspend, overeat, over consume. While Christian humanitarian organizations have to cut back, and the children they serve continue to struggle without basic nourishment, millions of relatively wealthy Christians carve out another obliviously happy moment of family excess. Even in West Africa, the season ruins our priorities. The streets are filled with plastic toys that will break after a few days; we marvel at how much people go into debt over this season even in ultra poor Liberia, a place where men are ashamed to go home because they don't have their children or spouse's “Christmas.” Another incongruent picture. Stark needs. Innocents dying. Stark waste. Insane priorities.

So we prayed. And as we prayed, David said something that spoke very powerfully to me: "Father, give us the courage of Abraham, to walk up the mountain with nothing to sacrifice but our own."

Initially, not very comforting words. Abraham, the Hebrew patriarch, was a very wealthy man. For years, he had no children, and then, miraculously, God granted him a son, Isaac. Isaac would inherit Abraham's wealth and carry the promise God had given Abraham into the next generation. Isaac was Abraham’s Treasure. And then, God told Abraham to sacrifice Isaac on a mountain alter. Think about that... this man of great wealth, this patriarch of all, so close to God... walking up the mountain, with nothing to sacrifice except his very own, his only son, in whom he had placed his entire future. (Of course, God was only testing Abe-- Isaac was spared. But that's a another blog.) Suddenly there came the realization for me that despite my initial reaction to David’s prayer, I found great comfort there. Life has always really been simple when I remove the distraction. Life is about allegiance and obedience to the only One who offers true security. I can't control what other people spend, how others treat Christmas, what people give or keep for themselves. In the end, I need to walk up the mountain with my sacrifice. In the end, it’s about spending my treasure on the Word of Love. If I’m doing that, nothing else matters.

Monday, December 7, 2009

An Exercise in Incongruity

ReedNews Update: Holiday Faux-Orphan Edition

We have certainly rounded the seasonal corner and are beginning to experience the Accra dry season. Or should I say the hot season, because unlike the rest of Ghana, in Accra it seems dry all the time. Although not as hot as it will get in March and April, it is already plenty hot enough. Back in Michigan, I remember complaining when it was still 75F by 10:00pm. Here, the coolest it gets all night outdoors is 80F, and in our bedroom, we haven't seen it below 85F in weeks. So, we start every day at around 85, and usually it reaches 95 by the time it begins to cycle back. The beloved breeze of the wet season is pretty much over by night when we need it most, but it blows nicely throughout the day. Bedtime is bearable with fans, but when the power goes out at night, there is just no sleeping. The humidity, while moderate most days, is nothing, and I mean nothing, like the palpable and stifling air of Monrovia-- and therein lies the saving grace of this place. As I like to say, "No matter how bad it gets, at least its not Monrovia."
The 1st semester of school for Hannah and Noah is just about over, and our two A students are looking forward to three weeks off. As a family, we'll travel a bit around, and have some neighbors over for dinner, while the kids-- especially the Hannah kid-- will have a pretty full social calendar. Both of them have developed a nice circle of friends, so we will be doing the teen transport thing a lot these three weeks.

We are getting ready for Christmas, although Christmas is even less visible in the Ghanaian culture than it was in Liberia. But we got our little fake tree up with stockings, and we play Christmas music all day long. We'll have more on this as we get closer to the Day.

Now, to a more serious item. As most of you know, Renita and I have an interest in the problem of orphanages throughout Africa, and how children are abused and exploited all over. Many are used as pawns for organizations to raise funds from ignorant but kind hearted Westerners. Now a report from Save the Children is out, shining an authoritative and international spotlight on orphanages in many developing countries. To begin with Save the Children states that 4 out of 5 "orphans" are not orphans at all, but have at least one parent available. In addition, the treatment of these "orphans" is often deplorable. The BBC reported that Save the Children found that West Africa and in particular Liberia was one of the worst offenders, with orphanages involved in fraud, child trafficking, and the abuse and neglect of children. Renita and I saw this from the first week we arrived in Liberia back in 2005, and worked to close orphanages and return kids home, while at the same time trying to find reputable facilities.
If you go to Google Images, and type in "African orphanage," you will discover what may be near the heart of the problem: hundreds of photos of white people-- virtually all white women--holding a black baby or child, most of them smiling much more broadly that the children. I constructed the collage on the right just from from the first four pages of my Google images search. There were 180,000 pages. Why would an "African orphanage" search produce so many of these images? (You may click on any of these small images to enlarge them.)

The Save the Children report identified North Americans as unwittingly contributing to the rapid growth of orphanages in recent years. In Liberia, while there is no evidence that the number of orphans have increased over the last decade, orphanages have multiplied ten-fold. Orphanages have become economic opportunities, ways of earning money from naive donors far away. The reasons parents release children to orphanages are complex and not necessarily in bad faith. Some honestly believe they cannot take care of their children and they trust orphanages to help them out. But many orphanages are not only unequipped to provide care, but they exploit the children in their facilities for economic gain. North Americans-- particularly white Christian women-- are so moved by the raw humanity of the children, they often neglect to look deeper, to engage what I call their "crap detectors." No one can fault the compassionate desire to touch and hold these kids or to provide funds for their support. But for so many, it really doesn't work out that way. After the touching, the holding, and the photos, Westerners return to their homes and the children return to hunger, squalor, disease, abuse, and worse. Reactively sustaining and sponsoring most orphanages as they exist today amounts to enabling one of the great humanitarian scams in history.

I guess by starting this blog off on a light note and ending with orphan abuse I'm being incongruous. I usually stick to a theme. But the truth is, the world is an incongruous place. We laugh and prepare for the holidays, and around us millions suffer in silence. We pour our time and money into orphanages, only to discover there weren't any orphans after all and we were scammed. We hold a child today, and tomorrow she is sold into slavery. I'm not trying to ruin anybody's holiday moment by talking about this. Really that is not my intent. It's just on my mind.
But on the other hand, if the only thing that comes out of reading about this stuff is that somebody gets knocked out of feeling all Christmasy, maybe it's the least I can do.
For a moment at least, the world will be more congruent.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Parting Shots

Weather: Hot, hazy and humid, although the evening haze coupled with an occasional northern breeze suggests an early Harmattan. Otherwise, daytime temps in the mid 90sF (mid 30sC) and lows at night around 80. In the house, it rarely gets below 85F at night, and last night we lost power so-- no fans! Mid day breezes mostly out of the SW at around 10MPH. The breezes die down at night now.

A Few More Images from The Coast of Ivory

Renita is home after visiting our western neighbors for a couple weeks. Its good to have her back with us. I said last week she had a successful time. She strengthened new relationships and enjoyed her longstanding friendships with others. She came up with a few more pictures, and even a couple of her spirit-and-body numbing night motorbike ride through the back roads of Liberia.

Cote d'Ivoire's 18 Mountains Region, around Danane'. These roads are the main arteries connecting village to town, town to city. In the Northwest region, they are dusty in the dry season, an often impassable in the rainy season.

Some roads, which the locals know so well, are barely wide enough for a single vehicle to pass.

Nice evening shot of one of ACLCP's demonstration farms. Farmers come from all around for training in better methods for a variety of crops and livestock-- including snails and large rodents called grasscutters.

In the neighborhood, boys pounding something. Where's mom? Daily life in West Africa.

The roads never let you rest. While you are trying to enjoy the sights, the jarring and rattling never stops. A trip of more than an hour becomes something of an ordeal.
You never know what you'll face coming the other way. These guys almost didn't make it. Simple physics: the higher you stack the truck, the higher the center of gravity, and the easier it is to tip. Note the guy up top leaning with his arms to his right. He'd be much more helpful if he jumped off.

Much of Renita's travels around Danane was in the back of a pickup truck.

It afforded her some over-the-side shots. This wall becomes mud in the rainy season, then collapses together with the wall on the other side, making the road a three-foot deep lane of sticky muck.

Renita, leaving Danane' and heading toward Ganta-- three hours away-- last week. She handled a really dangerous ride with her typical plunge-in style. At one point they had to follow a tanker for miles, throwing up thick dust, at another point they almost flipped on one of Africa's famous log bridges-- the front tire almost wedged between logs.

As darkness falls, one last shot of our intrepid saint, bouncing and banging, sputtering and coughing into the sunset. This is maybe my new alltime favorite picture of Renita. Few shots capture her determination, passion and courage so well.

Monday, November 16, 2009

She's gone, oh, still gone

3 Hours of Bad on a Bike

If Renita's journey from Ganta Liberia to Danane' in Cote d 'Ivoire was a tiring ordeal, her return trip to Ganta was truly exhausting. Leaving Danane' from long farewell ceremonies, she arrived at the border after a jostling ride only to find there were no taxis at the border. She was in the middle of West African nowhere, it was getting dark, and she was lugging a large suitcase. The only vehicles around were small motorbikes. So for the next three hours, over some of the worst roads we are willing to travel, holding her suitcase with one arm and the bike with the other, Renita traveled the 40 or so remaining miles to Ganta. In the total darkness and choking dust of the Liberian wilderness, stopping and starting through bone rattling holes and bumps, she and her driver bounced on. I'm sure no one needed to tell her how vulnerable she was. In an area where borders don't mean a lot and Ivoirian rebels and Liberian rogues watch the roads, a little motorbike is an obvious target. But she made it. She arrived in Ganta around 9:00pm, filthy, probably a bit angry, and too exhausted to be relieved.
When writing about our work, I usually don't focus on us. The work and our activities are not about us. We are not in West Africa to have adventures, though an adventure it has been. When I tell our story, or in this case Renita's story of her battering trip, I'm really hoping the reader gets that this is really just everyday life in West Africa. The motorbikes and taxis are there every day, every night. For Liberians and Ivoirians living in the area, the dangerous, dusty, joint jarring travel is the norm. As proud as I am to part of a work that takes us to forgotten places, sometimes even hazardous places, I remain deeply in awe of the people that live in places like Danane', Ganta, and especially in-between. So many are profoundly resilient, flexible, adaptable, and strong. We are just traveling through, and these places kick out butts (literally). Yet our West African friends call these places home.
The five days of workshops in Danane' were successful, as were the many meetings that went late into the night. Renita and the board and staff of ACLCP worked hard at reaching deeper levels of understanding-- sometimes through sharply different viewpoints. When it was over, she had the sense that she had made new friends.
As I write, on Monday 16 November, Renita is on the road again-- first the three hour trip from Ganta to Gbanga, then the three hours from Gbanga to Monrovia, where she will spend another week. She'll be meeting with the folks from LEAD, visiting new business sites, and hopefully, getting some rest.

During the workshops, Renita takes a break.

Blue Boy.

I'm unfamiliar with these small, tart, grape-like berries. Any ideas?

The whole team, including the Kollenhovens, a Dutch couple from Canada, and in the green in back, Dea Lieu, director of ACLCP (Roughly translated from the French: Christian Association Fighting Poverty)

This was Renita last week enjoying a motorbike ride from one of ACLCP's board members and a pastor. After her recent nighttime trip to Ganta, she'll never look at these bikes the same way.

Accra Weather: While thunderstorms rumble just to the north, Accra remains dry and dusty. Daytime high typically in the mid 90sF, with a light 10mph SW breeze all day, then temps drop to the upper 70s to lower 80s at night. The breezes are quieter in the evening than in the wet season.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Gone! Oh, gone...

She Left Me

Renita is gone. Left me Saturday. I can't really blame her. I know I'm kind of a bum. Of course, she didn't leave because of that, but I miss her anyway. She's gone for two long weeks, back to the works in Liberia and Cote d' Ivoire. In her role as regional director, she needs to maintain frequent contact with the activities in Ghana, Cote d' Ivoire, Liberia, and future West African Partners Worldwide collaborators. Our jobs both will take us away, individually, about six to eight weeks each annually. Unfortunately, though both of our jobs are regional, we never cross paths. Maybe someday back in Liberia.

This week, she is working in the northwestern hinterlands of Cote d' Ivoire, with her friends from ACLCP. ACLCP provides economic development assistance for the people in and around Danane and the 18 Mountains region. Once a center of Cote d' Ivoire's culture, the West of the country-- now governed by military groups or "rebels" operating under the banner French Nouvelles-- is becoming more stable after the recent troubles. ACLCP is a national NGO dedicated to giving Ivoirians the resources and tools necessary to stabilize communities and families as well.


Renita's part is to provide the same exceptional training that has proven so successful in Liberia with LEAD. The trainees will be community leaders, pastors and business people about managing and running a profitable venture. The full days of workshops run from today (Tuesday the 10th) until Saturday. The hitch-- Cote d' Ivoire is Francophone. The national language is French, so the entire training, including handouts, curriculum, visual aides, and power points had to be translated into French. So for the past few weeks that is what she's been doing. My wife, whose French is choppy at best, the French translator/trainer. Fortunately for her voice, a businessman from the states who is fluent in French will join her, plus the ACLCP staff will be doing the hard work of making it practical with follow up.

So back home, we muddle through without the Rock of Red Deer. I'm lonelier without her, but good things happen. I think I've mentioned it before, but when Renita's gone, the three of us seem to draw closer. We seem to look out for each other more. Predictably, we are less tidy around here with Mom gone, but the way we look at it, loosey-goosey is one of the compensations we get for being without her for so long. (Its very nice having Douglas here for three days each week. He covers a multitude of sins.)

Renita heads to Liberia next week, for all day meetings and planning with LEAD, the now model NGO she helped birth. See, she's got family all over the place, so I need to be thankful to get her when I can. Here are some shots of her world.

Rice. Nice.

In Danane. This hill is probably made of near solid iron ore.

Her host 's homey home.

The workshop opens. Next week, she's back in Liberia.

Extra! This just in! Her first Email!

Hi hon. Hope you are doing well. I got in last night after a loonngg drive from Ganta to Danane. The road was very bad, we had to wait for the taxi to fill up, the taxi had no brakes (thankfully got them fixed on the way), dealt with many immigration stops, had some issues at the border, and then had a very bumpy ride in Cote d'Ivoire. Today's training was okay - about what I expected. Some good things, some frustrating things.

There is a line up for the internet - it's 10 pm now and everyone is weary so I don't dare hog it too long.

Hope you are all doing well. I miss you and love you very much.

Hopefully I can write more tomorrow.



Weather: Mid 90sF-- Mid 30sC. Hot and bright Tuesday, less humid with a light breeze from the SW. Nighttime lows in the mid 80sF. Thunderstorms to the north, but very little rain here.