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.