Friday, January 30, 2009

Doing Our Homework for Ghana 101

Ghana History, Part One: The Original Ghana

As the Reeds get ready for their important move, it would be irresponsible of us to do so ignorantly. One of the things that make infamous caricature "the Ugly American" sometimes all too accurate is our ignorance and insensitivity to places we visit or go to live. If we do a bit of homework, our hosts are usually respond with surprise and appreciation that we took the time to learn about them. Beyond that, the more we know about a place, the more we can understand and value the rich heritage underpinning the way others do things. So let's start our study of Ghana by looking at some history.
First, geographical Ghana as it exists today is only about 50 years old. The former "Gold Coast" became an independent nation in 1957, the first sub-Saharan African nation to do so as colonial influence waned. Dr. Kwame Nkrumah, the nation's first Prime Minister, selected the name Ghana, after the ancient empire of the same name.

However, regardless of its name, the ancient Ghana is not geographically, ethnically, or in any other way, related to modern Ghana. It existed about four hundred miles north west of modern Ghana. Ancient Ghana encompassed what is now modern Northern Senegal and Southern Mauritania. The following information comes from the BBC site titled The Story of Africa. If you would like to conduct more research, link to the address at the bottom of this post. Or type "Ghana history" into a search engine like Yahoo or Google.

Nobody is sure when Ghana came into being. But some time at the beginning of the first millennium AD, it is thought that a number of clans of the Soninke people, (in modern Senegal) came together under a leader with semi-divine status, called Dinga Cisse.

There are different accounts of who he was, but all reports emphasise that he was an outsider who came from afar. It is likely that this federation of Soninke was formed possibly in response to the attacks of nomadic raiders, who were in turn, suffering from drought, and seeking new territory. Further west was the state of Takrur in the Senegal valley. It was linked to the north via a coastal route leading to Morocco via Sjilmasa. What is clear, is that the Empire derived power and wealth from gold. And the introduction of the camel in the Trans-Saharan trade boosted the amount of goods that could be transported.

Most of our knowledge of Ghana comes from Arab writers. Al-Hamdani, for example, describes Ghana as having the richest gold mines on earth. These were situated at Bambuk, on the upper Senegal River. The Soninke also sold slaves, salt and copper, in exchange for textiles, beads and finished goods. The capital of Kumbi Saleh became the focus of all trade, with a systematic form of taxation. Later Audaghust was another commercial centre.

The route taken by traders of the Maghreb to Ghana would have started in North Africa in Tahert, sweeping down through Sijilimasa in Southern Morocco. From there the trail went south and inland, roughly running parallel with the coast. Then it curved round to the south east through Awdaghust, finally ending up in Kumbi Saleh - the royal town of Ghana.

Inevitably traders brought Islam with them. Initially, the Islamic community at Kumbi Saleh remained a separate community some distance away from the king's palace. It had its own mosques and schools. But, the king retained his traditional beliefs. He drew on the book-keeping and literary skills of Muslim scholars to help run the administration of the territory. The state of Takrur to the west had already adopted Islam as its official religion and evolved ever closer trading ties with North Africa.

There were a number of reasons for Ghana's decline. The King lost his trading monopoly. At the same time drought was beginning to have a long term effect on the land and its ability to sustain cattle and cultivation. But the Empire of Ghana was also under pressure from outside forces.

There is an Arab tradition that the Almoravid Muslims came down from the North and invaded Ghana. Another interpretation is that this Almoravid influence was gradual and did not involve any sort of military take-over.

In the 11th and 12th century new gold fields began to be mined at Bure (modern Guinea) out of the commercial reach of Ghana and new trade routes were opening up further east. Ghana became the target of attacks by the Sosso ruler Sumanguru. Out of this conflict, the Malinke emerged in 1235 under a new dynamic ruler, Sundiata Keita. Soon Ghana was totally eclipsed by the Mali Empire of Sundiata.

There were many great African kingdoms before and during the European exploration period.

Ghana, then and now.

One of the few old Ghanaian ruins still standing.

BCC Site: The Story of Africa

Friday, January 23, 2009

ReedNews Update: January

Weather: Heavy overcast and cold, with little snow in the past few days. About ten inches are on the ground. Slight breeze from the Northwest. Temps in the single digits at night, mid 20s in the day.

Wanted to get us all up to speed ala the Reeds on this frigid Friday morn. Some of you know that we left Liberia to begin new, regional responsibilities in Ghana. We remain in Grand Rapids, Michigan USA as we prepare for the move. Our work in Ghana will allow us to continue working with our friends in Liberia, as well as people in six other West African countries.

Renita will be the West African partnership manager for Partners Worldwide.(PW) She will support the existing work in Liberia begun by LEAD, and assist a group in Côte d'Ivoire as they begin the same kind of work. Partners also plans to work in Ghana eventually. The successful model for developing businesses that Renita helped to make work in Liberia has garnered interest in other West Africa nations, so being centrally located in the region makes sense.

Yers Trooly will be working with the Christian Reformed World Relief Committee as the Justice Education Coordinator for the West Africa Ministry Team. I'm still trying to figure out how the position will flesh out, but it at least means acting as a resource person for CRWRC field workers and partners in areas like good governance, conflict transformation, reconciliation, family and gender-based violence. The countries currently included as CRWRC West Africa Team nations are Mali, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, and Sierra Leone. I think both Renita and I will be traveling around the region as part of our work

Hannah and Noah, currently doing great at a school called The Potter's House, will attend one of several schools in Accra, the capital city. We probably will be living in Accra or very close so our school commute will be reasonable.

The Reeds-- at least Renita, Hannah and Noah-- will likely be in Grand Rapids for the next six or seven months. Renita is applying for US citizenship, and the kids will be able finish the semester. I will likely leave for Ghana a it earlier, but it looks like I'll have to hang around at least until US Immigration interviews Renita. It is a bit weird ironic being here, in a place so familiar and at the same time wanting to go to a place we've never been to make a home. But we have plenty to do as we ready ourselves for new responsibilities in Ghana.

The following are pictures of Ghana taken by other travelers.

Independence Arch, celebrating the end of British colonial rule. Downtown Accra. Ghana was the first sub-saharan country to win independence from a colonial power.

Road side market.

Kids are kids...

...where ever you go... are grandmothers.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

I'll Try to Keep it Brief

More Giving Stuff

Weather: Exceptionally cold, with temperatures around -5F (-20c) and wind chills of -20F and more. About a foot of snow remains on the ground. Wind steady from the west at about 10mph.

After my last post, I anticipated a few questions along this line: "So, if giving to poor people messes them up and messes us up, what are we supposed to do to help? Nothing at all? What about the hungry children?" Those kind of great questions came, and provided the opportunity for nice conversations with friends around here. I'm glad for questions like this, because it leads to greater understanding and better options. For those of you Loyal Readers who had similar questions, but don't live close enough for a face to face chat, here are more thoughts on the rich extending a hand to the poor.

There are two aspects of poverty hidden in my post and especially in the questions I've received. The first is the macro issue of poverty, specifically poverty in a specific country or region, like Liberia. By poverty, I mean severely limited access to adequate food, water, shelter, clothing and health care to people on a large scale. Because these social ills are often deeply woven into the historical and cultural tapestry of an area, and also because they are often accompanied by corruption, exploitation of vulnerable populations, violence, and racism, addressing poverty is profoundly complex.

But, if I may be so bold, many Americans loath complex problems. In fact lots of Americans believe there is no such thing as a complex problem. I think that's in part because most Americans like to fix things, and keeping the problem simple makes it easier to fix. So, we usually only deal with the complex and macro problem of poverty on a simple and micro level. A village needs a well, so lets give 'em a well. The kids look sad at this orphanage, so let's give 'em some toys and food and make 'em smile. There is no school in this area, so let's build a school. People live in hovels, so let's build a bunch of houses. Too many individuals and organizations drop some money or a couple weeks into a complex situation, look for that smile or that well or that finished house, and then they simply move on to the next problem to be fixed. But the question to this kind of "fix" is this: if those we are giving to didn't have it before we flew in (often without invitation), what makes us think they'll be able to keep it or maintain it after we fly out?

The problem with addressing the superficial, micro symptoms of complex social ills is that our "easy-in-easy-out fix-it" mentality often ignores one of the key variables essential in supporting quality, long term changes: quality, long term relationships-- relationships committed to mutual change and transformation. On the macro or micro level, organizations/individuals willing to engage other organizations/individuals over time, and willing to be changed by that engagement will make a difference. A key to making a real difference over time is in sticking around, or in partnering with trustworthy people who are sticking.

So what might be some wise ways to approach communities of poverty?

First, by all means let us commit ourselves to doing something. It is true that figuring out how to lend a hand is hard. But that point is also moot. Standing together to alleviate poverty is a matter of justice and righteousness. It is not ok to avoid engaging world poverty because it is too complex, or even because we might make mistakes. So congrats on caring enough to stick with it.

Second, we need to do our homework. The concept of "Do No Harm" is the fundamental principle of international humanitarian intervention, and it sounds like a good motto for all of us as we think of ways to serve the poor. Let's make sure funds and efforts go to trusted people and organizations.

We need to avoid knee-jerk reactions to our own feelings of guilt or pity. Instead, we need to respond to world poverty with measured, informed actions out of a sense of of simple rightness and goodness.

It is wise to commit ourselves over the long term to people or communities in poverty. We must insist that the relationships be mutual, and expect to be changed by the people we get to know. After some time, we may see we were helped more than we helped others. We must resist "easy in/easy out" approaches.

If we cannot commit ourselves long term to people in poverty, we can commit ourselves to organizations who do it the right way. We can find out which humanitarian and mission organizations serve the poor by establishing long-term relationships characterized by mutual impact and change. We can partner with these organizations by offering our time and resources.

If we travel to a community of extreme poverty, we need to listen and watch far more that we talk or act. The complexities of poverty require that we try to understand more than we "do something."

If we travel to a community of extreme poverty in another culture, we need to avoid going with an attitude of "helping Them." We need to avoid expressions of pity, or demeaning behaviors. (e.g. Showing up without invitation, initiating projects based on our assessment of need, photographing people without permission, handing out trinkets, snacks, or candy, uninvited touching or personal assessments to strangers.)

If we choose to participate in short-term mission trips or service projects, we can select those that focus more on listening and creating relationships of mutual benefit and less on the tasks, less on "helping." We need to avoid service projects that are really only about us "fixing" things and not so much about engaging people. (e.g. Staying in compounds, going out and focusing on tasks, then returning at the end of the day.) Ask about the day to day schedule of activities of short term service trips.

We need to be especially careful regarding orphanages. Find out what trusted child oriented humanitarian organizations are doing, find out which orphanages are actually operating with true orphans and children without access to family. There is no doubt that millions of orphans need all the support they can get. But not all orphanages are honorable or ethical. Find out before you give.

The pathway of living a life increasingly consistent with the implications of our faith is not always clear before us. The Reeds have made painful mistakes in attempting to walk with the poor. In some of our clumsy but well-meaning giving to others, we have actually put their lives in jeopardy. Armed robbers have attacked and threaten the lives of people to whom we have given, stealing the gift and more, leaving them bloodied and shaken. And that's only the really bad mistakes. Let's all not give up, let's figure out how to love our neighbor, and let's take our time doing it.

Monday, January 12, 2009

I was just thinking

Giving Stuff

A very dear friend contacted me last week. She is a teacher and asked about having her kids participate in a service project that would provide something "tangible" for some of the very poor Liberians with whom we lived and worked. Renita and I get these offers from time to time, and we always have mixed feelings about them. On the one hand, the offers come from generous hearts wanting to give from that generosity. What could be wrong with that? On the other hand, in some situations, giving out of our desire to give may have little to do with the needs of those we give to and everything to do with meeting our own needs. That kind of giving is not generosity. In my conversation with my teacher friend, it was clear she was aware of the complexities involved to giving to people in cultures of poverty. But not everyone is. It is often more important that those of relative wealth learn about the complexities of poverty and how difficult it is to find solutions, than it is for the person in poverty to get something "tangible." Ironically, both the "Haves" of this world and the "Have Nots" desperately need something intangible with regard to their condition, and it is often in providing the tangible that exacerbates that intangible need.

It is essential to consider what "providing" teaches the "provider" and the "providee." Throughout the developing world, millions of people have been taught to "look outward, whence cometh my help." For millions, "my life cannot possibly be better unless others keep giving me something. I have nothing to give." There might be some truth to this in some places, but not in most. Definitely not in Liberia, as bad as thing are there. But the sense of internal adequacy or self efficacy for many Liberians is very low. By contrast, throughout the industrial world, millions have been taught that they have what everyone else wants, and it is good to "lend a hand" to "give to the needy." They have been conditioned that problems are there to be fixed and that they can fix whatever is broken by sheer force of will. They may think, "The poor have nothing to offer. They will not live better unless I give them something."

Yet both the poor person who thinks she has nothing to offer and the wealthy man who thinks he has nothing to receive are profoundly self-deceived and in desperate need, a need not met by giving or receiving "stuff."

The result of these self deceptions are that when people of means simply give to people in extreme poverty, there is no development, no change in the way either party sees themselves. People of means like to give, and people without anything like to receive. Both the free giving and the free taking reinforce the idea that "You Give I Take" (or "You Take I Give") is exactly the way the relationship equation is supposed to be, and that introduces death to the human spirit on both sides of the equation. Without changing the way we frame the equation, the way we see ourselves in relation to world poverty, how can things possibly change? How will the "Powerful Givers" or "Powerless Receivers" ever see themselves as more than just that?

The challenge is to create opportunities for all involved to see the full "intangible" humanity, intelligence, character and dignity of people in situations of profound poverty, and to help all involved see any spiritual poverty, ignorance, oversimplifying tendencies of people in situations of wealth and access. The challenge is to see poverty of spirit wherever it resides-- in the poor or in the rich, and work to bring people afflicted with various forms of poverty (economic, cultural, spiritual,) together, so that each may enrich the other by what they share in common.

Case in point: If someone "gives" the community a well, who is responsible for the well when the pump head gets stolen and the base crumbles? "How nice. They gave us a well. How sad, the well they gave us is spoiled. Where is the water hole?"

When is giving to an orphanage not helpful? When 80% of the kids are not orphans, when parents are solicited by orphanages to give up their kids so the orphanage has a population of wide-eyed waifs that no compassionate soul with money can resist. To freely give to an orphanage without working to understand how broken the orphanage industry is and how much damage it is doing to Liberian society is to participate in the damage and to enable its continuance.

Friday, January 9, 2009

About the New Look

Somebody asked me about the new look of the blog and how it came to be. Well, it came to be because I finally figured out how to manipulate Blogger's templates. I'm sure I can do better, but this will do for now. The header photo was one I took on a windy afternoon in the Gambia as about seven pied crows were trying to fly in it. Using a photo editor, I cut the seven birds to four-- you know, to represent us-- and added the text. Let me know what you think.

The original photo, taken May 08, 08. If you squint, you can see the seven birds.

The pied crow close up. (Photo © Dan Marsh)

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Status Report

From the In-Between POV

Weather: Temps in the upper 20'sF in the daytime. with alternating bright sunshine and heavy overcast. Light occasional snow. Low temps in the teens. Light variable breezes.

As the Reeds frolic in Michigan's winter wonderland, we never get too far from the realization that we are living "in-between." Our friends and family don't get to far from it either. They, like we, wonder how long we will be in this active period of not knowing what we'll be doing three or four months from now. But we've been in-between before, and it seems to get less nerve-wracking every time.

Here is the current situation. Renita and I are are looking at position openings in four African countries, two north of the Equator, two south, with most on the eastern and southern part of the continent. We have offers, near offers, serious coversations and chats ongoing, but we remain in very tentative places so it is probably not prudent to say more. Hannah and Noah are in school, and doing their usual very good work. They both grumble about homework, so we know its not too much. If they were trying to prove a case for too much, they'd be preparing a presentation for us.

Both Renita and I are fairly active each day. We continue to attend meetings and lunches with those interested in our Liberia work or in our future, and there is enough to do at home as well. A fair amount of our activity is in front of a computer, with presentations and reports to write, as well as our all important task of keeping in touch through emails and this blog.

Even as we look forward, I miss Liberia. By that I mostly mean I miss a small but but significant group of people and routines in Liberia. Leaving them is like leaving a part of myself. Even thoughts of pumping water while Enoch harrassed the kids brings a sad smile. Here are a few memories.

Hannah and Noah at that pump. Oddly, neither of them seem to miss it.
Odelle. She left the house next door about after Deacon Reeves died, but she had tremendous fire and heart.

Trokon. Someday I'm going do a post on this kid's face. We kidded him on how beautiful his face was. Enoch in the back doing his "sad act" so we'll give him something, anything. If we didn't, his sadness turned to acting out.

Vera spooning rice.

This is a favorite shot of mine that I did not know how to use. It was taken from the back of a Land Cruiser as we flew through a rubber plantation. Something about it evokes something deep inside.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Whistling in the Wind

Welcome to Our Experiment

Welcome, welcome, welcome, my friends. This is entry one in the Reed family's second blog. Like that first blog-- The Reeds in Liberia (you can access it from our links area), we intend this site to be a place where we can regularly update you with the current events of our lives as we go about our business, as well as give you a place to respond and interact. We of course will be using email as well, but this blog is an ongoing journal of sorts, and we will feel free to use it to observe, celebrate, complain, spin, and give you an inner glimpse of life from our perspective across the waves. If the past is any indication of the future, "we" means "me"--Bob Reed-- 95% of the time. But every so often, Renita, Hannah, and Noah will chime in with an offering.

If you are new to this site, you might ask, "why in the world would I be interested in the Reeds as they 'go about their business?' After all, who cares?"

Well that's exactly the kind of question I love.

Call this blog an experiment. Call it testimony. Call it evidence.

If you are at all like me, you wonder about the nature of things. You are not so smug as to think you have it all figured out, nor have you uncovered all the rocks under which truth dwells. Even if you are, like I am, deeply devoted to to a particular faith or philosophical orientation, you may acknowledge, as I do, that your devotion is regularly tested by your perceptions of reality.

This blog is an experiment in devotion-testing. My particular faith explicitly, implicitly and logically guides me to a certain way of doing and being, that I spend my time and my life consistently with the implications of my faith.

This blog is a testimony, for better or worse, of the kinds of things that happen when a family continues to say"Let's take what we say we believe to the next level of action." To testify is to bear witness; affirm as fact or truth; to declare, profess, or acknowledge openly. Our goal is to share our lives as openly and honestly as we can.

And so, this blog hopefully will be evidence. Evidence not only that humans can be increasingly successful at living true to the logical implications of their beliefs, but evidence of something more. Hopefully, if we pay attention--all of us who wonder-- will see evidence that something greater than our faithfulness or even "logical consistency" is here. Hopefully, if we pay attention, we will see evidence that something greater than our work, or ourselves, or even what we smugly call truth is here.

As I say, it's an experiment.

In the book of the Hebrew prophet Malachi, we are told that God is angry. God's people are not taking Him seriously. They are not being logically consistent with the implications of their stated beliefs. They give meagerly to His works. They do not push themselves beyond their levels of comfort. Their spiritual leaders are corrupted by greed. They do not understand the spiritual discipline of sacrifice. So God, understanding that unbelief is at the heart of their hypocrisy, tells them something remarkable. He makes a deal. He says, "Put me to the test. Live it like you say you believe it," He says, "and see if I don't show up." God apparently loves a good experiment.

I believe in God, and I believe He works like this. When we show up, He shows up. Hence this blog. Let's see if the Reeds are just whistling in the wind, or if they are whistling in the Wind.

Let's see if He shows up.

Some members of the Reed family, four weeks ago in Liberia. Standing: Renita (holding Little Renita), Hannah, Noah and Yers Trooly. Sitting are Eastman and Trokon.