The Buchele Adventure

This is record of the Buchele Adventure, as reported from West Africa.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Christmas Thoughts from Ghana

It is hard to believe it is Christmas, but then we’ve been hearing Christmas music in the obrunie stores, and see the fake trees since September, and even in church singing the Christmas carols, and at all the parties we’ve been invited to, singing of a white Christmas, or Frosty, or about dashing through the snow. The only dashing we’ve been doing is to all those who we have come to depend on, like our guards, house help, vegetable stand ladies, taxi drivers, and finally we are done, or at least Christmas is here.

God is so good, for months Anna, our youngest, has been campaigning for a Christmas Tree, the plastic kind they sell upstairs in the obrunie market starting at $20, or along side the roads, or at the highway corner trade markets, or pretty much everywhere we go. All along we’ve been very clear, we’re not planning to be here that long, and at least for a while we were not planning to be here on Christmas at all, but traveling (as it was in ’68 when my family went on a trek up north). But then plans changed, and it turns out we here, and almost without a tree. In steps Mrs. Bright.

Mrs. Bright is Fox’s English teacher. Mrs. Bright is teacher from the old school, demanding, and doesn’t try to be cool, or her kids’ best friend. She has challenged Fox, not letting him get by on sheer talent alone, but requiring hard work of him. I’m thrilled to say he has risen to the occasion. She’s been here since 1982 and so his American ways seem brash and arrogant to her. For awhile he thought she hated him, but now I think she has earned his respect. The week before school was out, Mrs. Bright offered us her classroom Christmas tree, one she usually put up, but this year didn’t get a chance to. We told the girls that if they wanted a tree, it would be their responsibility to see that it made its way home. Being car-less, we’re not at the school much these days. So on the last day, the girls stop by her office and pick up two boxes and bring it home in that afternoon’s taxi, and by dinner time Anna & Suzanne had it set up, and Anna spent the afternoon and into the evening making ornaments.

We didn’t know what kind of Christmas we were going to have, but I must say, as several of my kids have already said, it was the best Christmas ever. Maybe they say that every year, I don’t know. Usually, I’m so exhausted from the Advent schedule of extra services, parties, and expectations, that I’m barely present for the day. The porch light is on, but that’s all I have the energy for. How interesting to be fully present for this day and my family. It again makes me wonder about the high cost of pastoring, or at least the high cost in the way I practiced it. I had to laugh when Suzanne gave me a carving of an antelope, reminding me of how wonderful life is when I’m wearing my antelope skin. (if you don’t know what these means read: Ted Haggard & the story of a Hunter and his Antelope-Wife )

Since it isn’t the tradition to have Christmas Eve services here, we stayed home, played games, watched a movie, and ate homemade peanut butter- chocolate balls (thanks Jamie Ratliff). Right before bed Fox read the Christmas story from Luke, and we sang some Christmas carols with the guitar. It was nice, simple, and wonderful, though I must say I did miss the magic of singing Silent Night in a room full of candles and loved ones.
On Christmas Day, I’m told there were services at the Ghanaian churches, but at the international churches we attend, there were none, so we stayed home and cooked breakfast tacos (with real bacon!), and turned on the A.C. or air-con, as it is known here[1]. We are in the dry season now, it almost never rains. The water in the Lake Volta is dropping, so the days of weekly load shedding are numbered, soon it will return to every three days, and nobody is looking forward to that again.

Last week the weather changed. People who have been here longer tell us its the beginning of Harmattan, when for several months the wind changes direction to blow dust off of the Sahara. All we know is that for several weeks now people have been coughing and sniffling, and the night air has been still. Disturbingly still, especially on light-off nights. Mostly we all sleep with fans, these three foot off the floor fans that blow air through our mosquito netting. On “light off” nights, it is a hot and sweaty night, especially now that there is no breeze, but thankfully is it much cooler. During the day, the blue skies have been replaced by white and grey, and the sun has a fiery glow, obscured by the dust. We are told it will get much dustier, where we won’t even open our windows, and can’t see half a block down the road. But those days are not yet.

I read of a program called “Nothing but Nets,” a collaboration of the NBA, The United Methodist Church, and other organizations to collect money to buy mosquito bed netting for Africa. Reports are that every 29 seconds a child dies from this parasite, and if our recent experience with Grace is typical, it can be a frightening experience. We were not the only ones, that same week Grace was sick, Ruth, Emmanuel’s younger daughter was also very sick with Malaria. We went to a private clinic where they kept her for 48 hours, Ruth went to the public military hospital, where she was treated and released only to return two days later, sick. Today both are well, and we know it was because we could afford treatment.

It will be interesting to see how Nothing but Nets gets administrated here. I mean the NBA and UMC are not the first people to try to give out nets. In October, the government gave out nets in conjunction with a country wide vaccination effort to families with children under the age of two. The newspapers reported a rash of mothers falsifying their children’s age, and urged them not to. We hear reports of earlier government net giveaways, only to discovered that later these very same nets ended up for sale at the local pharmacies for $10 a net. Its not the people’s fault, it is poverty.

There seems to be three economies here in Ghana. There is the top level, of which we are near the bottom, there is a small middle class (at the top is the small-shop owners and mid-level managers), and then there is everyone else. Emmanuel and his family are at the top of the lowest level. These economic levels define where you live, how you get around, what school your children attend, and where you shop. I would like to say I don’t know how I feel about these inequalities, but I do know how I feel. I do know how I feel spending in a day what our guard or our house keeper makes in a month; put another way, we out-spend them 30:1. Ghana can be a wonderful place to live, if you have the money, and so that makes me wonder…is that why we love it here? I always get this way after Christmas, when the lines between the have and have nots is so clear.

So as we sit around our borrowed Christmas tree, in air-con, opening wrapping paper wrapped presents, listening to Christmas music from home, I ponder these things in my heart. Outside, the air is dusty, and the streets are empty (except for the meat pie guy - guards need to eat, even on Christmas). I don’t hear our neighbor’s goats, there seem to be fewer roosters crowing (I assume because both are Christmas Dinner). We don’t leave our compound, and only go outside to bring food to our guards, and touch off a few firecrackers. We almost go to an ex-pat Christmas gathering – Steve and Fox really want to go, the girls prefer to stay home. As it would be time to leave, we find that the taxi driver we thought would work Christmas Day isn’t working after all (his car got “spoiled” last night), and Suzanne’s family in Texas calls and different combinations of parents, grandparents, grandchildren, aunts, nieces, and nephews chat for an hour. Afterward we pass another quiet evening at home, fully present with our family, playing games and watching a movie. Tomorrow we depart on an adventure, so you may not hear from us for awhile.

[1] AC sounds just like a common Ghanaian name (Esi) here for women born on a Sunday, like Suzanne.

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Thursday, December 21, 2006

Buronya Y'all!

Its beginning to look a lot like Christmas, the song goes, and now we hear Christmas music everywhere. How funny to hear Bing dreaming of a white Christmas, or Burl sing of Frosty the Snowman, or of the slay bells that go jinglely jangley, in the winter wonderland when none of that is going to happen here. It is not going to snow six degrees north of the equator no matter how much we sing of it. It is hard for me to know if this music has become a part of Ghana's Christmas tradition, or marketing, to get obrunie into the Christmas mood. In the local language, Christmas is translated as Buronya – from obrunie (white man), and nya (to get or obtain), and so the literal translation is “White Man got something to celebrate.”

So these days find me wondering, "What is it about this place that makes us love life so?" I’ve been asking the ex-pat community that question this week. Some attribute it to Ghana itself, the “black star” of West Africa, some say it is the people, be it the Ghanaians who are a happy, funny, and hopeful bunch; some say it is the community, and those who are drawn here, and how they spend there time.

For example, on Sunday night we attend a good-bye/house warming party of sorts for the Ashesi community. It was at the Bat. Pad, or bachelors residence. A housewarming in that this was the first time they had invited the community over, a good-bye, to one of the lecturers (or professors) who lives there is returning to Guatemala. Life is like that here. People are coming and going, and even in our brief four months, we see that. For example after Church we meet missionaries who have been here over six years and are two weeks away from returning to the states for six months, and then its off to Kenya. Meeting them I wonder, should I even get to know these people, I’ll never see again? I wonder how many 1000s of folks they have met and said good-bye to since 2000?

Yet life is like that, and strangely, it is OK. There are (as they say) "plenty, plenty" parties here. My Dad remembers this from '68-'69 and that hasn't changed. I was talking with our soon to be going-home Ashesi-Guatemalan friend, who said, "it is not like there is much else to do here." There are no movie houses, no malls, no commercial gathering places except maybe the bars at night and Accra changed characture at night. So we obrunies hold parties, or invite people over, or go to their house, and how much better it is to Buronya (white man got something to celebrate). I think about what we would be doing in the states on those evenings we're visiting. I wonder if we would be watching TV, or playing on the internet. But not here, at least in our house, there is little of that. Oh, we have a video rental place down the street, and we gather, as a family to watch one or two a week, but mostly it is people, and how much better. We talk about books we’re reading, or the latest adventure someone has been on, or those quirky Ghanaian ways.

Tonight at the Bat. Pad., we learn that one of the staff, who has been at Ashesi from the beginning is royalty, the son of a chief, and so we start calling him our “chief.” On Tuesday our “Chief” will take us to the land that Ashesi owns outside on the hills of Accra. Its 100 acres that will someday be their permanent site, currently they are spread out over three buildings, really converted houses, roughly a block or two away from each other. When we go to the future site, we will greet the chief of that village, and bring him schnapps. Not just any schnapps, foreign schnapps.

[Casper, our chief leading us to new site]

“Why schnapps?” I ask, and no one seems to know the answer, but together we conjecture that it is the Danish influence, after all the Danes were huge slave traders in Ghana. The castle of Accra, once called Christianborg Castle, and now the seat of government, was a Danish fort. Schnapps is so popular that it is made locally, but made stamped with across the bottle, are the words “Made according to the Holland recipe,” so it at least seems foreign. The local schnapps would never do for a chief, he would expect the foreign one, so on Tuesday we will bring him two bottles of foreign schnapps.

“Why two bottles?” I ask. I find I have a lot of fun asking questions of Ghanaians, the why behind what goes on here. I find it is best to ask several people, just to see if the why is consistent. For example, I’ve noticed that our neighbors have goats. We don’t live in the kind of neighborhood that has goats. Much of Accra is that type of neighborhood, and it is not uncommon to see herds of goats being driven down its streets, but not ours, and yet our neighbors have goats, or at least have had them for the last few weeks. Tonight we learn they are for the Christmas Dinner.
[Future site of Ashesi University]

“So how does that work?” I ask. We learn that Buronya, or Christmas Day, starting about 5am, our “chief” will have a man come to slaughter the goat(s) and make them ready to roast. At 9am the family will go to Church and when they get home around 12:30 or so, the goat is ready. Its their Christmas Day feast. The day after Christmas is Boxing Day, and the tradition is to cook up much food (mainly rice) and deliver it to our neighbors along with cans of Coke. Imagine our surprise if we had not know to box the food up, hence its name, Boxing Day.
Another tradition is the "hamper" what we would call a wicker basket of food items, like fruit, dried goods, and canned ham. About a month ago these backets, er, hampers began appearing in the stores, and they are not cheap, costing $50-$60 each. Sometimes the hamper comes without the basket, which looks like a really large Easter Egg basket. One showed up on our doorstep, two enormous frozen chickens, and 50 pounds of Thai rice. What a great gift, especially since I was going to have to stock up for Boxing Day.

Back to the schnapps. When you visit the chief of a village, it is the custom to bring two bottles. Sometimes (or maybe both) will be opened, and a small amount will be poured on the ground to honor their ancestors who are buried, and remembered. Sometimes this tradition is told to honor the local gods, but as our “Chief” tells the story, it is to give them something to drink, but not too much, “we don’t want to get them all boozed up.” As to why two bottles, he asks, “Does not the chief have two legs?” But when we go to visit the chief of the village where the Ashesi land is located, we gather in his living room, listen as he asks, “What is your mission?” and our chief tells the story, we introduce ourselves, and then present him with two bottles of foreign schnapps to put under his stool, for the next time visitors come.

As we leave we shake his hand, and his elder and junior brothers, but the chief comes first, then the elder, then the younger brother so it is a bit of a center, left, then cross over to the right shaking exersize.

[Picture of Suzanne meeting the chief]

So Buronya Y’all!, because we have much to celebrate: That our family is healthy and happy, that we have so many friends (both here and around the world), that life is good, and there is so much to hope for for this Christmas. Thanks to all who have been praying for us, sending us letters and care packages (thanks Nelda!), and even reading this Blog. We feel blessed. Buronya Y’all

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Good-bye Patrol

On Wednesday we said good-bye to The Patrol, our main source of transportation for the past three months. Its owners, the Jernigans, had been in Liverpool since September 1 for a certification in tropical medicine. Before they had left, Andrew offered us the use of this fine vehicle in their absence. So on Wednesday night, we met them at Kotoka International Airport, return the Patrol, but not without some last minute excitement.

Over the past few months Suzanne and I have made many trips to the airport to either meet people, or drop them off to catch a flight, and every experience has been different than the one we had, that is until Wednesday night. While we were waiting, Suzanne and I were discussing how bad the experience had been for us when we arrived at the airport.

You have to see this place, Kotoka International Airport. Its named after a beloved general who died in a failed counter-coup attempt in 1967, shortly before we were here the first time. I remember then the country being in a state of mourning, and wonder now what affect it has on a country to have famous places named after beloved heroes who were killed. Places like Danquah Circle, named after Dr. J.B. Danquah, one of the Big Six, Ghana’s freedom fighters. Dr. Danquah ran against Dr. Kwame Nkrumah, the founding father of Ghana, in the county’s first election in 1960. Danquah lost, but not unlike our own election in 1960, it was a contested race. In the end Nkrumah was sworn in as Ghana’s first president, but power, or ambition took its toll, and by 1963s he had Dr. Danquah (along with most of the other big six) imprisoned. Dr. Danquah died of a heart attack in prison, and today his name is given to one of Accra’s main traffic circles. Danquah Circle. I wonder what affect this name has on people who know the history. Is it a reminder to them, a word of caution, a testament to the high price of freedom? Nkrumah has his own circle, and for that mater a motorway, but both are a traffic nightmares. I wonder if this is some standing testimony to Nkrumah, that landmarks associated with his name are troublesome, and corrupt.

Dr. Danquah, left

Dr. Nkrumah, right

But Kotoka International Airport is a well run place, and good introduction to Ghana, at least on the inside. It is a two story building, an up and down, the up is for departing flights; the down for arriving. Since no one is allowed in the airport without a ticket and passport, family and friends wait outside to welcome, behind the waist high temporary fence. Only now do we understand there are actually two groups, or rings of people waiting. One group is waiting for a specific person, they watch each face that exits, or hold up signs with names on them. Outside that group, is a second ring of people, and these are the “helpers.” The helpers want to “help” you with your luggage, in fact they insist on helping with your bags, and even if they are all nicely stacked on the free push carts, they will lay a hand on each bag, just to “help.”

Now Andrew is very clear with the collection of helpers, he even speaks Twi, and tells them he has just arrived, and has no cedis and will not pay them, and if they still choose to stay with him, he will not dash them. They do choose, and so the four Jernigans, the two Bucheles and about six helpers head toward the parking lot with two push carts of luggage.

Suzanne is having trouble fending them one particularly aggressive helper. We feel like bags will soon start walk off, an experience we remember well when we arrived with our 13 bags. Even the Embassy folks who met us, our three kids, and Suzanne and I could not keep back the helpers. “Steve,” she says, and I see what is happening, so I stop and plant myself like a screen, while she wheels past, and the men peal off the cart, only to be replaced by a new set. It is not fun, and the longer it goes on the less fun it gets.

I go to get the Patrol from short term parking, my last time driving it, and when meet them, we start loading luggage, along with the helpers. I keep watch while Andrew helps the helpers, and finally he just lets them do what they are going to do, about the time everything is loaded up, a TroTro arrives, and a bunch of people start getting out, heading for us. We had been there maybe all of five minutes.

One of them is carrying a spiky thing, like a large metal club and I still don’t get it. “Steve, I need the keys, NOW!” Andrew says. On the other side of the Patrol (where I can’t see), a team from the TroTro is assembles to “boot” the rear wheel. Andrew starts the Patrol up, pulls away fast. It is then I see this group for the first time.

It is Ghana police, maybe, or Airport Security, maybe. It wasn’t a TroTro, or maybe it was. All I know for sure is the “boot” was just a three inch steel pipe about 18” long with 2” pieces of rebar welded at right angles to it to create spikes. Attaching this “boot” to the wheel prevents movement without puncturing it, and to remove it, someone would have to dash the police, and I’m guessing that would be me, as I’m the guy with cedis.

That’s the bad thing about a cash economy where the largest denomination is worth about two dollars. You can’t carry $20 without it poking out of your pocket. A few weeks ago I paid the insurance on The Patrol for the year as a gift to the Jernigans, that and it would have expired before they returned. The insurance agency doesn’t accept checks, or take plastic, so my options were cash or cash. So when I walk in with this large bag of bills, nobody on the street is thinking I’m carrying around cartons of milk. They know it is cash, 800 bills. So much so the bank doesn’t even bother to break the shrink wrap on the brick of bills.

So these four police, or security, or entrepreneurs are standing on the otherside of where the Patrol was, holding the boot, and wondering what to do now. All eyes shift to us, the two obrunies. “How about our dash?” the luggage helpers ask. “How about my dash?” the parking lot attendant says. The boot guys, start walking toward us, and I give out a quick few dashes, and then we see a taxi trolling. He is in a no stopping zone, but it is a bump, so he slows down and we hop in. He ends up charging us twice what he should charge at night and four times what it would cost during the day, but hey we’re talking all of $4, and we’re getting away from a potentially dangerous, and dash-ous situation, and besides, I’ve paid more for a cup of coffee at Disneyland. So I’m just glad to be out of there.

Saying good-bye to the Patrol was easier than I thought it would be. Our kids went back to taking Taxis to school, and I’m riding my bike around town, and like always, Suzanne walks to work. The only difference is that now we have to think ahead, leave earlier, or call a taxi instead of just hopping in the Patrol and driving there. The Patrol changed our relationship with Accra. I feel like I know its streets better, know the shortcuts, the traffic patterns, and where things are in relationship to everything else. It opened it up to us, and for that am grateful. It takes a lot of trust to just hand over a car to someone you just met. Andrew and I had exchanged a few emails, and then when we arrived, we learned that they were moving to Liverpool for three months…would we like to borrow our car? WOW! I get the feeling that Ghana this happens a lot. People who serve here are just like that, and I hope that we become that way too.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Cross Culturalism - when worlds touch

On Friday, we went to Champs, the sort of American Sports bar, run by a Brit. It is a hang-out for ex-pats, and on Friday its karaoke night. We were there because it was Grace and Anna’s Science teacher’s surprise birthday, which ordinarily would not have garnered an invitation, except Mr. O., happens to also be good friends with some of our Ashesi friends, and so we’ve seen them socially in a context other than the Lincoln School. It was in intersection of worlds, and that tipped the balance enough be among those who yelled “Surprise,” and sang “For he’s a jolly good fellow.”

Four worlds have emerged for us here, four worlds from which we draw our friends. These worlds are Elim Church, Asbury-Dunwell Church, Lincoln School, and Ashesi University.

So on Friday, we’re at Champs, and I see the nervousness of our kids teachers (or was it What are THEY doing here?!) as we walked in. I went over to the superintendent of schools and said, “This has got to be weird for you.” Yeah. “I mean I’m a pastor, and this would be like going out with my staff, and some of the parish shows up.” Yeah. “But I want you to know that we’re here as friends of Mr. O., and not as parents of your students…and that’s why we left the kids at home.

“That’s when it does get a little weird,” he said. “When students, or ex-students walk in, and there is this awkward moment.” That’s how it feels when worlds collide, or at least touch. When one set of friends that are completely distinct from another, mix. What my wife would call a set intersection. I’m so used to changing who I am to fit a particular context, and when two worlds touch, or collide, I’m not sure who I am, because in some respect, I feel like I’m defined by the people I’m with.

But not tonight. Who wants to be defined by people singing “I’m on the Top of the World,” or “I’ve got you Babe?” The experience is surreal, even more so than karaoke usually is. I mean here we’re doing a Japanese invention, singing American pop music from 70s, 80s, in Ghana, Africa. So the singers alternate between ex-pats and Ghanaians, and each are trying to be something they are not, musicians. Still it was fun, interesting, and oh so surreal and the birthday boy, Mr. O., turns out to be a surprisingly good singer, and entertaining to watch.

On Saturday night, we hosted Ethnic Food Night, with our Ashesi friends. Our Ashesi friends have a quarterly tradition of an Ethnic Cook-in, where they gather and all cook an amazing dinner from scratch. We were invited to a Cuban Cook-in the first month we were here, and what fun it was. Several weeks ago, Suzanne floated several options for this week, and the Ethnicity that was picked was an “American Thanksgiving.” One of the staff, who had gone to the US for university and graduate school, had always wanted to go, but had never been invited to a Thanksgiving. She put it this way, “I’ve heard so much about Thanksgiving, and always wanted to experience it, so please, please…” Personally, stories like that break my heart, for her to have spent eight years—and eight Thanksgivings—in our country, and never sat at the table…shame on us. So Saturday we held Thanksgiving, on December 9.

It made me think of one of my favorite Thanksgivings that happened my first year of college when I was out east at Berklee, and my folks were overseas. This much older woman (she was 30) from the college gathered us lost sheep together, and cooked each of us a stuffed Cornish game hen. We brought all the fixin’s and what a great memory. We were an international crowd of nomads who live too far to go home, so in her small apartment, eating off borrowed card tables and plates, we gathered, and gave thanks. How I wish our Ashesi friend could have had that memory.

We ordered (and cooked) a large local turkey—it came with its feet so we know it wasn’t butterball; had real mashed potatoes; homemade stuffing; carrot-pineapple jello salad; baked pumpkin; hot apple pies; cheese potato casserole; all made in our kitchen from scratch. Not only was the food amazing, and it really did feel (and taste) like Thanksgiving, but the conversations while we cooked them and then after dinner, were amazing.

I think that is one of the things we appreciate most about being here is the many cultures. I mean growing up in Iowa wasn’t exactly the most culturally diverse experience.

At the pastor’s conferences I’ve attended over the past few years, many have emphasized the need for churches to become more culturally diverse. The world is changing, they tell us, and our pews need to reflect that change. Consider my adopted home state of Texas, where the once predominate white culture is now just the largest of the minorities…there is no majority. In my lifetime Hispanics/Latinos/Mexicans are expected to become the largest minority, and someday the majority, and if our churches don’t start getting that soon, then we’re just latest a bump on the last wiggle of the dinosaur tail.

So here I am in a culture overwhelmingly African, and yet there is a minority of us that is quite culturally diverse, especially on Sunday morning. In October I taught the 10-11 year olds Sunday School class at Elim International Church. It was a group of anywhere from 20-35 kids, about half Ghanaian, and the rest a mix of British, South African, German, Syrian, and the five American boys (these were the wild ones). There is even a kid named Hunter, and I have to laugh, because like the one he reminds me of, this one can be quite a handful sometimes, but has a heart of gold. Must come with the name.

So here I am with this culturally diverse group of preteens, and I am reminded that this is just the kind of church the pastor’s conference has been encouraging me to work toward. It is a lot of work. I don’t know if all 10-11 year olds are this way, but when you mix in what is going on with their hormones, and take away a predominate culture to teach from, all you’re left with is wild.

Multi-cultural[1] is a word that is bantied around a lot. Multi-ethnic or multi-racial is what I think most people are actually talking about. The difference is huge. Multi-racial (or ethnic) is when there are several ethnic groups represented, but one predominate culture. Like the idealized church that I once served in Texas, it was multi-racial, and mono-cultural. Multi-racial in that it ranks included a few Hispanic families, a few African-origin American families, a Native American, two Germans, many Yankees, and even a few Texans. It was mono-cultural in that we related to each other in the dominate white culture. Meetings, worship and most other functions started and ended nearly on time. I mean not to the standard that Germans start and end on time, but much closer than the more fluid understanding of time that defines many Africans countries.

I’ve been reading a book lately, “Why MEN HATE going to church”, by David Murrow. This book speaks into the multi-gender (and I would say, multi-cultural) aspects of a church. Murrow writes that men and young adults tend to be challenge oriented, and value adventure, risk, daring, independence, change, conflict, variety, pleasure, and reward.[2] Women and older adults, on the other hand tend to be security oriented, and value safety, stability, harmony, cooperation, predictability, protection, comfort, responsibility, support and traditions. Broad generalizations, but where women tend toward relationships, men are drawn toward action/adventure.

So I’m a Elim Church youth group, we start with prayer and some singing. It is being lead by a group of young ladies and they pick songs like Meet With Me, Breathe, All in All, Tradin’ My Sorrows, and I look around and see rows full of boys, bored out of their minds.

Murrow’s words haunt me: “Almost everything about today’s church—its teaching style, its ministries, the way people are expected to behave, even today’ popular images of Jesus—is designed to meet the needs and expectations of a largely female audience. Church is sweet and sentimental, nurturing and nice.”[3]

I realize these are all songs are just that, sweet, sentimental, nurturing and nice. They are songs about relationships, and completely missing the culture of the teen-age boy. I think back to years earlier, how that boy called Hunter would come to life when the children’s choir sang songs about God’s strength, power, and courage, and how he would almost die of boredom when the songs described relationships. A child’s face doesn’t lie in the children’s choir.

I’ve seen that look in my Sunday School kids when I’m telling the story of the Woman at the Well, and then watched how they come to life when we have a race to write out a particular verse in Jeremiah. Who can write it out fastest? Even the girls get excited, and the room buzzes with energy, enough to carry us through the rest of the morning.

The night before Champs, we went to the Christmas Program at the Lincoln School, and the concert opened with a number performed by the whole school. What a diverse group of kids, I’ve included a brief musical clip just to show the diversity. I find that we connect to the international community more than we do the West Africans. Part of me feels like we’re missing an experience, part of me feels relieved, that at least we’re connecting to something different than ourselves.

But on the Thanksgiving celebrated on December 9 in Accra, Ghana it was all about an American tradition and we have no trouble connecting. The food, the company, and the conversations are great. There are people from Ghana, Guatemala, Ethiopia, Canada, Texas, and Washington State, and we find there is much to be thankful for. For friends, both here and abroad, for food enough to eat, and for families, who gather to share a part of their lives (and their culture) together.

Just how many PhDs does it take to make stuffing?

[1] Perhaps a few definitions would help:
Cross-cultural - one (or more) cultures relating to one another. For example when I go out on adventures with our day guard Emmanuel, it is always a cross cultural experience as I am trying to learn about Ghanaian culture, and he, American.
Multi-cultural - many in cultures, using many cultures to relate to each other. Multi-cultural means the different cultures are not represented (or valued) equally.
Multi-racial/Multi-ethnic - many races (or ethnic groups) are represented, it makes no statement about how the different cultures relate to each other.
Pluralistic - all cultures are valued and used equally, irregardless of their percentage make-up. For example, a pluralistic church service would have 5 minutes of white music, 5 minutes of black music, 5 minutes of Hispanic music, 5 minutes of Native American music… same would go for preaching. In reality, the pluralistic church can be pretty legalistic because the predominate value is representing each culture equally.
Mono-cultural – one predominate culture. It makes no statement about the racial make-up.
[2] Murrow, p18
[3] Murrow, p14

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Sankofa, Ghana Days, & The Dash

There is an Adrinka symbol here that looks like a bird with its head reaching behind. When you ask vendors about it, they say “return to your roots,” as if you should know what that means. You see this symbol at the same stands where the vendors loudly hank the trinkets that have the Gye Nyame symbol. They will point at Gye Nyame and say, “Except God”, and then to a Sankofa and say “Return to your Roots!” I wonder if they are talking to me, or just trying to sell me trinkets. As I have begun understanding these Adrinka symbols, I decide that the Sankofa symbol could be my symbol, because our time here in Ghana feels as much about returning to who I was, as it does about discovering what this county has become.

Visually and symbolically "Sankofa" is expressed as a mythic bird that flies forward while looking backward for an egg (symbolizing the wisdom from the past) for its mouth.

There is another story who’s representation looks very much looks like Sankofa symbol, it is a story that is woven into one of the paraments at my Seminary, a more visible echo of the story that is carved into the back of the wall in the chapel, above where the altar might have been if the seminary were not of the reformed tradition. As is, there is a sort of mini half built-in altar that is never used, nor referred to as an altar, and above it is this large relief carving of a pelican. The story behind it has to do with the male pelican, who tradition holds in times of great famine will tear at its breast to bleed so that its young will not starve. In my mind I have this vision of the young birds crying out, mouths open pointed up, like funnels, vying for every drop, crying and pushing each other loudly. I have no idea if pelicans do this, but it is a metaphor for Christ, how He shed his blood for us, and that is why, I suppose, the seminary chose it for the chapel.

But when I think about those metaphors, the story that connects with my time here is return to your roots. Return to who you were created to be, to what Suzanne calls, “the old Steve”, and not the one I had become. Sankofa. Literally meaning "it is not taboo to go back and fetch what you forgot".

In an email last April, Andrew (the Methodist pastor who has returned to Ghana, and reclaimed The Nissan Patrol) asked what I was going to be doing, while Suzanne taught. I think Andrew was trying to recruit me for the mission field and I wrote back:

> As I have been prayerfully exploring my purpose during this next year, I feel it is,
> first of all, to recover from a pretty stressful seven years of ministry. Like the land
> laying fallow on the seventh year, (Ex 23:10-11), I hope to heal, to be useful to
> the Kingdom again. … Some days I feel like I've been strip minded, and now
> that all the coal had been removed, I'm just a toxic waste site. Its not that bad,
> but I know this pace is not sustainable, and something has to give.
> So I believe it is God's timing that will bring me to Ghana, where my family spent
> the year 1968-69. I was 8, and came back a different person.

"Sankofa" teaches us that we must go back to our roots in order to move forward, and so I believe that is why I am here. Sankofa, I must reach back and gather the best of what the past has to teach me, so that I can move forward with its knowledge. Sankofa teaches that whatever I have lost, forgotten, forgone or been stripped of, it can be reclaimed, revived, preserved and perpetuated. I feel I am on this road, but there is more journey ahead of us.

[This sign means road bumps again.]

Now I’m in the car with Anna, driving and she says: “There is always something wrong with Ghana roads.” We’re at the intersection once known as Spaghetti Circle, officially Tetteh Quarshie Circle. Tetteh Quarshie is the 19th century blacksmith who brought cocoa to Ghana. You can still visit his farm and, so the tourist books say, see Ghana’s first cocoa tree. This intersection was one of the worst intersections in Accra until it was completely rebuilt last year (lucky for us!) so that it is no longer one large traffic circle, but a series of clover-leafs, circles and over-passes. There are even big red warning signs to tell you that the traffic lights are working. I have to laugh at that, warning people that the lights are working, when so much of the time here, the lights are not working. Anyway, my daughter Anna has an amazing ability to sum complex concepts in a single sentence, “There is always something wrong with Ghana roads…and if there isn’t,” she says, “they make one.” She is talking about the bumps. It seems that Ghana has two ways of controlling the speed of traffic, and neither of these is a speed limit sign. The first and most popular is letting the roads deteriorate to the point that it is impossible to go faster than a crawl even in four wheel drive. The second is to take a perfectly good road and install bumps in the road. Think residential speed bumps, and then place them on I-35. Sometimes in the city they use rumble strips, but they are not as effective and I have got to wonder, what is it like living next to these sets of rumble strips, as people buzz right over them, making a loud, boom, boom, boom, all through the night. Just add it to the already full array of night noises, I guess.

Night noises, the sound of Ghana: like roosters who start crowing at 4am (and then go strangely quiet at 7am), like the meat pie vendors who walk the streets, pushing a cart, honking a black rubber bicycle horn, or the shoe shine guys. I can understand the roosters, and even the meat pie guy, he sells to the night guards, but the shoe shiners, they bug me.

The shoe shiners don’t just walk by, they carry a box full of shoe shine supplies, and on the side of the box is a flat hard piece of black plastic, which they strike a wooden brush against. WHAP! It is amazingly loud. They do this as they walk, holding the brush in their right hand, swinging it from front to back with the box in their left. At the end of the ark in back, the brush strikes the hard black plastic attached to the shoe shine box, Whap! Step, step, Whap!, step, step, WHAP! I get it, this is how they announce their services. What I want to know is why at 3am in the morning? I mean is there a lot of business at 3am? Are people lying awake waiting for their shoes to be shined? Waiting for the shoe shiner so they can rush out there and have their shoes polished? Or are they lying awake waiting for the meat pie guy, honk, honk, honk. Either meat pie guy or shoe shiners wakes the roosters, and they start going off, about every 9 to 11 seconds (yes, I’ve calculated it). Then there are the planes, but thankfully they don’t start until 5:20am.

We live close to the airport, close being a relative term, it is not like you could walk there, but we are near enough that the planes fly close overhead. The joke is we can see what people are reading. It is not like they always fly, it really depends on wind direction, but when they do, they do so about every hour. I just learned at the dinner table, that everyone has dreams, or thoughts about one of these planes crashing. When they come this close, you can understand it. Oddly, nobody thinks about them crashing into our house, in their dream it crashes in the next block, tearing a big gash into the land, and then the story (or dream) becomes how we help, people living in our house, no school, treating the wounded like a makeshift MASH unit. When they fly overhead I find myself—as the conversation has paused and everyone is looking up—listening for a crash, and relieved (ok admittedly sometimes disappointed) when I don’t hear one. It’s the adventurer in me (and I’m not the only one who does this either). But after a few weeks you get used to it and you don’t notice the meat pie guy, honk, honk, honk, or the shoe shiners WHAP, step, step, WHAP! or the roosters. The planes are a different matter, you just don’t get used to them, like the bumps they put in the roads.

[Another Sankofa design]

The Japanese Government is replacing the main road out to Cape Coast. Apparently the thought is that if they build better (or more) roads in Ghana, people here will buy more Japanese cars. So they are replacing the first type of road with the second, replacing the old crumbling road with a new one, and as soon as they are finished with the smooth, well designed and built road, the first thing the Ghanaians do is place bumps on it. It is enough to make you cry because here you are in rural Ghana, not far from the coast, cruising along on this wonderful road, doing all of 100 Kph, (62 mph) and then you see the sign, and hit the brake—bumps. Worse yet, you’re cruising along on this fine, wonderful, glorious road and you see them, actually see them tearing up this newly finished highway, putting in bricks, and the ramps up to them, and next time we’re out here, we will have yet another bump. Fox wants to stop and bribe (or dash them) them not to do it, imagine bribing someone to NOT do something. Kind of like the US farm subsidy program that pays farmers not to grow wheat.

The Dash. So on Monday, Emmanuel and I are trying to get our cooking gas cylinders filled. There is a cooking gas shortage in Accra, and so there are “gas lines”. There is a long row of cylinders and about half way through the line there is a sign that says “NO GAS”. Silly me, I’m thinking they are about to run out, and this is where they figure they will run out. Nope, it’s the dash line. The man speaks something to Emmanuel in Ga, his native language. “Lets go,” he says to me, and we put the cylinders back in the car. “That man, he said something to me in our language,” Emmanuel pauses, “he wanted a dash, he saw you coming and wanted a dash before he would sell us gas.” As we are talking, I see the sign move, I guess someone was willing to pay to get to the dash line.

“How much did he want?” I ask as we’re driving away. “I would not pay him,” he said not answering the question. Emmanuel already thinks US People try to solve all problems with money. “I know that, I just want to know how much, how much did he want?” He thinks about it, ¢20,000, roughly two dollars. Now to fill the whole container would have been ¢106,000 ($11), so he is extorting 20%, not bad work if you can get it. I think it is interesting the whole calculation of dash, or bribe. Emmanuel puts a great deal of thought into it, like when the power company comes buy and wants to trim the trees, but won’t do so unless you dash them. “How much?” I ask. The man says something to Emmanuel in their language, naming his price, and Emmanuel tells me “Lets go,” and back inside the compound he tells me the amount. Or yesterday, after our garbage has sat out front for two weeks (the garbage men are on strike), the neighbors have hired someone to haul theirs off, and for a dash they would haul ours off too. How much, I ask. ¢50,000 ($5), OK, I say, and when I come home the garbage has been taken away.

So I don’t go back to “dash-gas” and the next week, I’m trying to fill the containers at dash-gas’ neighbor, there is a long line, 37 gas containers ahead of us. I calculate it takes 3 minutes each, and so we’re talking at least 90 minutes. We have a back-up cylinder for cooking, but Emmanuel doesn’t and so they have been using a coal pot for two weeks. The line is moving, there is a camaraderie developing with people moving other’s cylinders up the line, and then as I am just 5 away from being next, a man shows up with three small cylinders and cuts to the front of the line. People object, naturally, since we’ve been there more than an hour standing in the hot sun. There are loud words, shouting, and people moving his cylinders out of line and him moving them back, and then someone decides to allow him to do this, and they fill his containers (but get this…he has trouble paying, so they let him walk). Anyway, when I am two containers from being next, the gas runs out or as they say “It is finished,” (meaning they just ran out of LP gas) You just have to laugh at the situation. There will be days like this, when the country or its customs work against you, and then you have a choice to make.

Right now I’m laughing, shaking my head. I think that is the first thing that Sankofa has brought me. There was a time not too long ago that I might have let this thing ruin a day, or a week, but it hasn’t, or I have not chose to let it. I used to say “There will be days like this,” but now I call them “Ghana Days.” “Ghana Days” are when the culture, or the people, or just bad luck works against me, because I’m a obrunie, because I new here, because I don’t understand the culture or history. Maybe Ghana’s roads don’t have the monopoly on having something wrong with them. Maybe it is the days spent on life’s roads, when there will always be something wrong with them, and if there isn’t, there soon will be.

“Pastors aren’t called to make everything right,” I heard our conference preacher[1] say this summer at Annual Conference. She is talking about the things pastors don’t understand.

She was right. Too often I think, I got confused, or the people I served got confused, and Sankofa has begun to teach me this. I had thought as pastor, I should be able to make things right; but in fact, I couldn’t do that–I had “Ghana Days” myself, days that no amount of dash could fix. Days that really, only the cross could help, and so maybe that’s what we pastors are called to do, like the conference preacher said, pastors aren’t called to make everything right, we’re called to point to the cross, only that can make everything right.

[1] Gail Ford Smith, in a sermon “Who Will Be a Witness?” 1 Co. 1:26-2:5

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Happy Farmer's Day!

Happy Farmers Day! In Ghana, the first Friday of December is set aside as a national holiday to honor all farmers, and to award the “National Best Farmer.” Schools are closed, shops have reduced hours and 1000s gathered for this annual celebration. Twenty-two years ago, the top award was a pair of Wellington boots, and a new machete (or cutlass, as it is called), but today and for the past several years the top award has been an oversized “key” to a yet un-built three bedroom house. Second prize was a new SUV, and third prize, a tractor.

Thanksgiving passed us by, but not without giving us much to be thankful for. Grace is all better now, in fact over the week-end she played in a two day varsity soccer championship tournament, and her team preserved their undefeated record. Over the week-end was Fox’s play, a British comedy form called “pantomime,” where he had one of the lead parts in Sleeping Beauty. He did a great job and we were the proud parents, one of us being there each night. On Friday, Anna had her “best ever” sleep-over with two friends, one from Peru, the other from Guinea. Since it was a load shedding night, we took the girls to the pantomime, and then it was home for sleeping out on the screened in porch (we had moved two matrices out there). So now the play is over for Fox, soccer practice is over for Grace, the after school pick-up games have tapered off, and Suzanne’s teaching load is beginning to ease our family is back together again, and it is wonderful.

This Saturday, we gather with many of our Ashesi friends for an “American Thanksgiving,” which will be a cook-in of international types who have always wanted to experience an American Thanksgiving (last time we cooked together it was food from Cuba). I’ve ordered a turkey, and we’ll make all the fixin’s at the party so the only thing I’m wondering about is where we’re going to get a football game to watch afterwards so we can fall asleep.

It is amazing to me how dates and events that would be huge in the US pass us by here, almost un-noticed. Dates like September 11, Halloween, Veterans Day, and now this week, Thanksgiving. It is about his time of year that I start humming that Joni Mitchell song, “Its coming on Christmas, they’re cutting down trees…” and if you know this song, then you are either dating yourself, or a regular Public Radio listener. Is the time when the stores start decorating for Christmas, except here the madness started September 1st. The obrunie market we frequent was invaded by Christmas Trees and ornaments, and all sorts of tacky decorations that would never make it into my house. I gather Christmas is a big deal here, which doesn’t really surprise me since special events are often bigger than life.

Take funerals. In our local newspaper, The Daily Graphic, several pages are devoted to the funeral announcements and memorials every day. In today’s edition, there were 12 announcements, the two largest being a half page each, one recalling Kwami Aidam, who’s life is remembered some 30 years ago after his death and the other Nana Kwame Ntaoa IV, who died in Cape Coast June 8, 2006. Funerals take time to organize, raise the money, make the arrangements, and make the cloths. In fact, in some of the more famous funeral towns, there are entire shops devoted to the creation of funeral fashions. Black for the day of the burial and White for Sunday and close family member wear red.

The events for Nana Kwame Ntaoa IV will begin Thursday, November 30 with a performance of traditional dancing and drumming at the family house. On Friday there is a non Denominational Church service; Saturday, there is a burial service and funeral rites (at the Methodist Church), and then Sunday a Thanksgiving Service at the local Catholic church. Protestant, Catholic and non- Denominational, services, so I figure they should pretty much have it covered.

In the announcement there are 27 children listed, each with their name, residence (including quite a number residing in London) and if it presidous enough, place of employment. Grandchildren (50), then Brothers & Sisters, Nephews & Nieces, and finally the longest list of them all, the Chief Mourners. Rachel Naylor, in a 2003 Oxfam report observes “Funeral announcements read as a who’s who in terms of which people the deceased is connected to, rather than what his or her personal achievements are. Their status is reflected in the positions of others within the clan, and the advertisement also reads as a clan roll call in a time when clan members may live in different places around the world.[1]

The next Saturday, there is a half page article about the life of Nana Kwame Ntaoa IV (also known by the last name Eyiah) written by a business associate who recalls that he “never allowed his inability to read and write to be a barrier in whatever he set out to accomplish…”[2] At times it almost feels like a eulogy, like when the author quotes a proverb Nana would share in challenging times “it is bent and not broken” or a word of caution, “the dead should not be a hindrance to the living”. I feel like Nana is not a complete mystery to me now, and wish I could have attended at least one of the events of last week-end.

David Maranz writes in African Friends and Money Matters, “It is difficult for most Westerners to understand the degree of importance that Africans place on attending funerals and other family ceremonies.” He observes that Westerners are seen as insensitive if they do not take a “day off to attend the funeral of a friend, or that a Western employer would not allow an employee to take one to three days off with full pay to go to his native village to pay his respects.”[3] I can relate. As a pastor I was frequently exasperated when a honored member of the congregation would die, and only a few members from the church would attend their funeral. As part of a church family, I taught that we are expected to attend the funeral, or Celebration of Life of people we know. It is how we support each other, and it is an important thing that we can do for that person, be there for them. Somehow, somewhere our society has lost sight of that communal aspect of attending funerals. We think it is optional, or that our work is too important for us to take time off from doing it. It is not. Even if you don’t know the person that well, it is still a chance to reflect on the larger issues that each of us will soon have to deal with in life. Issues like “who am I when I’m not doing what I do?” Funerals give us a chance to reflect on how others, and even ourselves may answer that question. But many folks couldn’t see beyond the own importance of their lives to the day when they might need others, and then there was Judy, who took time off to come to every funeral, “its just how we were brought up,” she told me once.

Here, the funeral, and even the funeral dinner on Sunday are important community events. “Akans (the largest people group in Ghana) believe that from the physical world the deceased would move to another world and he or she could carry the respect accorded him or her to that place. Funerals, therefore occupy a very significant position in the culture and tradition of Ashantis” and so they make them big.

Closer to home, Daniel (our night guard) asked for a loan of ¢500,000 (about $50) to help with the funeral expenses of his niece (or is it his daughter?). You see family members are expected to help with the funeral expenses. Daniel estimates the total cost to be around seven million cedis ($700). Repayment of loans is, in African circles, is the responsibility of the creditor, not the borrower, so we will see how this goes. About six weeks ago I lent Emmanuel ¢250,000 to repair his cell phone and today, as we were filling our LP Gas cylinders (for cooking) I wondered out loud “It seems you have forgotten your loan.” I was not sure if he had forgotten or was just waiting to see if I had.

While we may think that $700 seems like a relative bargain for a funeral, (and it would be in the US), here it represents seven months pay for the middle income wage earner, and more than two years pay for the average worker[4]. But total cost is not a part of the thinking process right now. “It is the belief of Ashantis and indeed all Akans that the departed need to be accorded all the respect they deserved since death is not the end of man”[5] and so it is understandable, at least from a culturally perspective, that even though this is not the end, the departed need all the respect the living can afford.

The dead are not alone, I think that Farmers also deserve all the respect the living can afford, so it is a great tradition that Ghana sets aside a day to honor them. So Happy Farmer’s Day!

[1] Naylor, Rachel, GHANA: the background; the issues the people, an Oxfam Country Profile. 2003, p39
[2] Daily Graphic, Sat. Nov. 25, 2006 p10
[3] African Friends and Money Matters, p95-96
[4] Average pay is $1/day. Our guards (middle income) make $3/12 hour day.
[5] Boadu, Kwame Asare Funeral dinner craze hits Kumasi,The Daily Graphic, Nov. 1, 2006, p29