Monday, June 22, 2009

Five Weeks and Counting

Musing on Ghana


The US citizenship appointment Renita has for July 1 has dramatically changed our outlook on this extended stay in Michigan. With one letter, we've gone from an indefinite stay to a definite exit window. Each of the Reeds react differently to this change of perspective: Hannah, forever the trooper, is enjoying every minute of her fleeting weeks with many friends-- while at the same time bravely believing (against normal uncertainty) that the new school in Ghana will bring good things; Noah, the wry introvert, avoids thinking about all the changes and gets a bit surly when we bring any of them up; Renita is focused on all the work that can be done and is already driving me into the basement to decide what gets packed; and Yers Trooly is moving as slowly as possible, illogically convinced that moving slow is the best way to make time pass quickly. But fast or slow, we’re certain to get there.

I’ve been thinking about Ghana, our soon-to-be home, a lot—I guess it’s to be expected. Along with planning and preparing, I compare Ghana to the other West African home I’ve known: Liberia. There is so much the same about these two countries, yet they are worlds apart—or maybe I should say decades apart. I’ve said before that they are far more alike than they are different, but it’s the differences that jump out.

Ghana and Liberia are both English-speaking countries in a region that is predominately Francophone, both largely Christian in a region in which most countries are overwhelmingly Muslim (although both are heavily influenced by traditional spiritual beliefs). Culturally, they share the same welcoming, open-armed hospitality, and both share the same love of singing, dancing, and celebrating. In the larger villages and especially the cities, vendors selling anything/everything and open air markets ladies hawking hot peppers, fish, and palm nuts give the streets an added bustle, and certainly if you are not careful, an added hustle.

But one only has to look out the Land Cruiser window while traveling through Ghana and Liberia to see what fifteen years of civil war, trauma and economic collapse looks like next to the same period of peace, stability and steady growth. Ghana ranks 140th out of about 180 nations in terms of economic health, but along side of Liberia, which ranks 177th or so—she is the rich, healthy, big sister. And it shows. Ghana’s infrastructure is intact and in good condition. Her roads are relatively well-maintained. She enjoys fairly reliable electricity, running water, trash and sewage removal in her cities. Her architecture in many places is new and boasts an integrated, thematic quality. Her school system is the best in the region. Liberia, by sad contrast, is broken, dysfunctional and run-down. Except in a few sections of Monrovia, there is no running water, electricity, or effective sanitation system anywhere. Many buildings in the capitol are covered with mold from humidity, burned out, gutted, and shot up. The school system, destroyed by the war, has left an entire generation without an education, and a new generation without teachers to teach them. The roads of Liberia make short work of the most sturdy 4WD vehicles.

If you dast venture out of your air conditioned chariot, you’d be hit by the same wave of humidity in either country, especially along the coast, and as I mentioned, you be welcomed by your host with open arms and big smiles. In both countries, the kids would stare, especially in rural areas, but would laugh easily if you pretended to conk their heads or squeeze their hands. What you would not see readily is the difference 14 years of displacement, war trauma and extreme poverty have done to the insides of people. Compared to Ghana, Liberia is populated by the walking wounded. Ghana has never suffered the devastation of civil war. In Liberia, everybody over the age of 15 has a personal horror story to tell, and thousands of young men have been taught by war to survive by victimizing the innocent.

As for us, we anticipate grappling with these contrasts. The Reeds in Liberia lived in a cramped, open, five room cement block structure, sharing our quarters with bugs, spiders and lizards. We hauled our water, relied on three hours of generator power and batteries for electricity, cooked on a coal pot, sweltered night and day, and buried our non-burnable trash. Yet we lived like kings compared to our neighbors. The Reeds in Ghana will likely live in a home with most of the comforts of the West, including in-home internet access and air conditioning. And compared to our neighbors, rather than being kings, we will likely simply blend in.

Musing about Ghana, about leaving Liberia, I have disparate feelings— probably related somehow to—or maybe paralleling-- the disparity between these two West African sisters. I’m excited about living in this modestly growing (about 6% annually) nation that stands as a beacon of hope to its region. Ghana is a picture of Liberia’s future. While poor by US standards, it is nevertheless a peaceful, safe place for its citizens—and us—to live. Ghana is a better, wiser choice for Renita and I as we begin our regional work, and better for Hannah and Noah, especially for their schooling. But as I say, the feelings are mixed. I’ll miss the “right-next-door” immediacy of the poverty in Liberia. I did not have the choice to insulate in Liberia, and some part of me was happy about that. In Ghana, I will more easily be able to insolate myself from someone's daily struggle just to eat. Living farther away from the profound challenges faced by the poorest of the poor makes me uneasy— I feel I benefit from from their resilience, resourcefulness and desire. Sure, I think it’s possible that maybe we can help alleviate some of the pain. But to be honest, some of it’s about me. I just want to be with people who teach me so much about how to live. In Ghana, I'm afraid I’m going have to work a bit harder to do that.

In Ghana, shopping centers and malls.

With a nice clean look-- in places.

Nice shops and everywhere, our friendly street vendors. Rolex watch anyone?

Looking forward to cruisin' down this road.