Wednesday, January 27, 2010

My day as a "Colonial Master" and Public Servant

"I am not the same having seen the moon shine on the other side of the world.” - Mary Anne Radmacher Hershey

It is challenging to be foreign. I often feel torn as to exactly what my role should be while abroad; should I sway toward assimilation or should my goal be to share my culture with the Ghanaians? I’m pleasantly surprised by the flexibility exhibited within my colleagues, after just three days in Ghana everyone was sporting new African dresses and wearing their un-styled hair proudly. As my body and mind have began to adjust to the climate and environment of Ghana I am beginning to think of Ghana as being home. I see so predominately the unity and similarities between people of all races and backgrounds that when I discover stark cultural differences I am a bit shocked. I live in a country where families take young daughters to surrounding countries to mutilate their genitals. I live in a country where the majority of the citizens do not speak the national language and where fewer than 50% of the population is literate. I live in a country where most of the roads in urban areas are made of gravel and where open sewers continue to line the streets. I live in a country where homosexuality is illegal. I cannot escape evidence of the group focus in Ghana; some of the people here have scars implanted in their faces to denote their tribe such that if they were to be misplaced as children they could have a better likelihood of being found. Since I’ve been here I have found some degree of difficulty in relating to friends in England at the United States; as they relate to me the gossip from the latest party my idle thoughts are dedicated to questions such as “will the water work today?” It really is a completely different life.

The food in Ghana is some of the best I have had in my life. I love having access to a wide diversity of tropical fruits and natural foods! More mornings I eat a whole pineapple and a handful of nuts on the way to class. For lunch I enjoy a scoop of white rice, tomato sauce, a bean dish called “redred,” and steamed vegetables. I generally have pineapple juice as a snack and then enjoy vegetable skewers with paprika and a mango for dinner. Food is incredibly inexpensive, the meals mentioned above total around four U.S. dollars. Though very few Ghanaians are vegetarian, I have found finding vegan choices to be very easy.

I continue to enjoy each of my classes. My classes are taught as a two hour lecture and a one hour tutorial. Many of my lectures have upwards of 300 students. The department is very understaffed and students must take almost identical schedules so as to make the best use of professors’ time. When a Ghanian student applies to University they are administered an exam that accesses their capacity for success in University. Based on the score that they receive they are placed in a degree programme over which they have no control. Students must stay within their degree programme for two years and pay for an education that may not interest them. I have heard stories of students intentionally failing their exams so as to be kicked out of a programme in which they have no interest. I am so fortunate to attend a school in the U.S. that allows me to serve as the locus of control in regards to my education. The Missouri State University Political Science department has been incredibly generous in the ways that my courses will be transferred back to Missouri State; I wouldn’t find the same flexibility in Ghana. My time in Ghana has called me to really interrogate the idea of individual liberties that is ever present in the United States. As an American I have so much control over myself and my actions.

Each of my classes carries with them a certain awkwardness in regards to the colonial history of Africa. Each professor approaches issues of the past in a different light, some are very careful to avoid offending Western students, others are unafraid to call us “you people” and refer to the “colonial masters,” and yet others talk around the subject as though slavery is a dirty word that shouldn’t be mentioned in class. I recognize the sensitivity of the issue but believe that a comprehensive investigation of the negative elements of world history is the only way to prevent future evils. The approach that I took toward colonialism prior to my arrival in Africa was very anti-Western but I am coming to see that the struggles that Africa has faced cannot totally be attributed to Western follies. Though the Americans and the British are often blamed for the slave trade it was the leaders of tribes throughout Ghana who agreed to trade goods for people. It wasn’t my ancestors who foraged through jungles for human flesh to transport to the Americas but it was their African brothers and sisters who sold people as property. There is much evidence of the benefits of colonialism within Africa: colonialism brought about the construction of African railways, imperialism fostered international trade with Africa, and globalisation makes Western products available to those in the East. The United States has historically acted in ways that are detrimental to African nations, but I believe that African nations made many key mistakes that contributed to their current instability and underdevelopment. In a country where a high percentage of infrastructure carries with it a sign denoting its donation from the United States or the United Nations it is obvious that the U.S. and the U.N. are channeling a lot of money and human power into Africa. The Ghanaians at times seem content with underdevelopment: no one seems fazed by the open sewers that run throughout the country, the Ghanians recognize that the water will rarely be available and so they collect water in buckets to prepare for dry days, and I have yet to hear a Ghanaian complain of the heat. Acceptance of living circumstances fosters complacency which is the detriment to progress. My professor explained today that, “Ghanaians don’t buy Ghanaian made goods.” Many of the items I have purchased in Ghana have been of dismal quality. The cell phone that I purchased consisted of tens of pieces that had been affixed together with the aid of superglue and at no point functioned properly. I’m quickly losing faith in Ghanaian goods and am looking for imported products that I feel I can trust. The scope of imported products available in Ghana is demonstrative of the lack of multi-layered economic systems in the country. I am not sure what the solution to African underdevelopment might be but I believe that it involves a Pan-African recognition of African involvement in her own underdevelopment and a commitment to create new, potentially vertical, markets that will be internationally competitive.

Today was my first day at Prima Academy where I am volunteering as a teacher. My primary role is to serve as the English teacher for students aged 12-15. I will create lesson plans and operate three classes independently. I don’t intend to become a high school teacher but I believe that this will be an excellent opportunity to interact with impoverished youth and to experience another side of Ghana. My first class began reading a play using the “popcorn” system that I remember hating in elementary school. I taught the students to summarize, make inferences, and to use context clues. The kids laughed at my attempts to pronounce their names and I giggled a bit when they referred to me as “Auntie Juliette” which is easier for Ghanaians to pronounce than “Judith.” In my second class a taught a few grammatical principles including the use of infinitives and collocations. The student’s textbooks are provided by the government of Ghana with the exception of some story books donated from American schools. The governmentally provided resources contain predominately articles about the prevention of STDs and articles that promote Western lifestyles. The students and I read together some passages in their textbooks including a story about the prevention of syphilis and a passage about gender issues in Ghana. Following the story about gender issues in Ghana we created a chart on the board of tasks generally assigned to men, to women, and to both genders. The students suggested tasks to add to each list. The final product looked very similar to what I would imagine in the United States; women were designated as the cleaners, cooks, and child care providers while men were assigned to “pound the fufu,” carry water, and collect wood. We discussed how men and women are both capable of each of the tasks on the board. Before leaving the class I asked each student to list something that they had learned. One student said, “I learned that women can be good politicians- like Hillary Clinton, and you will be a good president someday.” I hope that he is correct.

In another class exercise the students asked me to explain the concept of “disabled.” After providing a definition I asked the students to contribute examples of disabilities. I was a bit taken back with the easy in which they spewed titles of diseases I’ve only read of, “ebola” “HIV/AIDS” “Syphillis” “Malaria” “bowed legs” “amputees.” Their fear of diseases like typhoid that have plagued their friends and family members makes the division in our living circumstances all too clear. I took home with me at the end of the day a smile I could feel throughout my body, a bit vision of the world that is a bit more loving, and a stack of curriculum and textbooks from which I can develop lesson plans. This is the life.

I discovered today that one of my closer friends in Ghana, Theresa, is in the hospital being treated for malaria. I’m taking every measure I can to prevent malaria but am all too aware that I am not invincible. As a resident of a foreign land I reside in a body devoid of antibodies against malaria. My bed net, medications, and bug spray are all that stand between me and malaria.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Sunday at the Liberian Refugee Camp

"Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature's peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves."
--John Muir

My childhood as a land-locked Missourian made trips to the beach a special treat. Despite tens of trips to oceans while in Europe I have yet to lose the childlike glimmer in my eye at the sight of a beach. I spent the mornings of Friday and Saturday at the beach in Accra relaxing with a few friends. The water was very clear and the waves were some of the biggest I have ever seen. For several hours I forgot that I was in Africa; the inevitability of a lack of water and electricity slipped from my mind as I dove into wave after wave. Waves are powerful; regardless of how emphatically I tried to stay standing I always found myself buried within the salty water. Humans may be capable of great strength but we will never be able to defy some of the laws of nature, sometimes we must release ourselves to external forces in recognition that we cannot control our environment. I need to be more easygoing. Ghana is just another big wave of which I have no control, I need to surrender to its force and fall giggling into the water. I’ll come up sputtering for air, but I’ll probably be okay.

As we were leaving the beach an elder Ghanaian man approached me and stood just a few inches from my face and began asking me questions about the States and school. I am always a bit intimidated by the Ghanaian tendency to stand within what I consider my “personal space,” I took a step back which was interpreted by the man as an effort to rebuff him. The man followed me for a few minutes asking if I would marry him and take him back to the States. Even after assuring the man that I was engaged and could not live with him he continued to follow me. My colleagues asked him to leave me alone and after following us to the highway I think he finally realized I wasn’t interested. Instead of walking away he asked the only male in our group if he would, “give him one of the girls?” I am so frequently offered marriage proposals that I have grown accustom to inventing elaborate stories about my love life back at home. On Thursday I told a potential suitor that my husband’s name was Walter and that he is a dairy farmer in Missouri. The man replied, “but yesterday you told my friend that your husband’s name was George!?!”

As a society based around a communal focus Ghanaians refer to all people as their “brother” or their “sister.” Ghanaians do not use the word “cousin” as all individuals of familiar relation are of equal importance to Ghanaians. My understanding of sisterhood stems from my own experiences with blood siblings and my time in a sorority. When my Ghanaian friends refer to me as their sister I feel that they really mean it. My friends here have some me some of the best hospitality that I have ever experienced. As I begin to consider all humankind as brethren I believe that my relationships with my friends and colleagues are becoming stronger.

Saturday night was the Durbar for new students offering another opportunity to enjoy Ghanaian food and to listen to student music groups perform. Some students from NYU performed a satirical song about being white (obruni) in a black (obibini) world. Following the musical performances professional dancers came out to lead the international students in traditional African dance. Probably 90% of the students were up and dancing to the first song. I would never imagine that 100 very sober college students could dance so confidently to music we had never before heard. As we threw our hands in the air I could feel myself falling in love with Ghana, I felt that if I tried I could pull the moon to the ground out of shear jubilation

This morning some of my colleagues and I went to the Pentecostal church on campus. The service began at 7am and didn’t end until 10am. The service consisted of an hour of praise and worship, an hour of prayer, and an hour of message. I had to leave at 8:30 so I missed most of the praise and worship. The message was very similar to sermons that I have heard in Haiti and in churches that reach out to African populations in the States. The sermon was focused on introducing the theme for the semester which is “exploits of love.” The preacher used a lot of repetition to stress that love is the most important element in the trinity of faith, hope, and love. Several people in the service spoke in tongues and many danced in the aisles of the church. During my time here I hope to taste many different church traditions with the goal of finding one that is the best fit. I really miss singing church hymns at National Avenue Christian Church.

After church I went to the Liberian refugee camp to volunteer for the day. To get to the camp we rode in two separate tro-tros and took a special bus to the camp. When we reached our terminal stop I didn’t realize that we were in a refugee camp; the area looked like any other part of Ghana. I expected to find malnourished children dressed in dirty clothing like so many of the images of refugee camps that I have been privy to see. We were taken on a tour of the camp and educated as to the programmes available within the camp. The camp was established by the United Nations and provides a refuge for peoples displaced as a result of the conflict in Liberia. Many of the people I spoke with have been in the camp for fifteen or more years. The United Nations provides the infrastructure for the camp but all inhabitants must pay for electricity, housing, and to use the toilets. Unfortunately, this is not practical for many of the residents who have very limited funds after leaving their homes. A non-profit was created within the camp to provide scholarship money for children such that they can afford to attend the schools that were established by the United Nations. The non-profit also has sewing classes for women such that they can sell their wares to make money for their families. I purchased several inexpensive coin purses that I look forward to giving as gifts.

Outside of the school facilities I met some young boys who were kicking around a rubber ball with a large hole that caused the ball to deflate each time it was kicked. A few of my colleagues and I joined the game and were immediately impressed by the David Beckham-like skills of our young friends! One of the boys was named Equis and was probably around nine years old. Equis was careful to remember who had been passed the ball recently such that everyone might have a turn to kick the ball, possessing a sharing and kind attitude that I don’t remember having when I was his age. Occasionally the ball would be kicked too hard and would land in the nearby trash piles in which roosters were searching for a meal. Equis was always quick to retrieve the ball for us. I don’t think I can ask for more from life than the opportunity to kick balls back and forth with refugee children. I have never before been more sure that I have taken the right paths in life. This semester in Africa is the start of the rest of my life.

In the camp I met Alex who left Liberia in 1996. Rebels killed Alex’s father and then burned his house to the ground. Alex knew that if he was to escape he would need to run then and there, leaving his family and possessions behind. With the smell of his life in ashes Alex took off into the bush and has been in Ghana since. Alex has regained contact with his mom and sends what money he can back home to pay for his siblings to go to school. Alex is in University to become a dairy farmer and wants to study computer science in the future. Alex told me the two-hour long version of the history of the Liberian Civil War. When I say my prayers tonight I’m going to pray for Alex and his family. I hope that he someday gets his poultry farm.

I was so moved by my time at the refugee camp that I promised to return frequently. I will spend weekends wherein I am not travelling at the refugee camp tutoring children who have received funding to attend school. “How much does it cost to sponsor a child’s education?” I asked our leader. For only 82 U.S. dollars a refugee child can be afforded the opportunity for an education. As I was informed of the resources that would be made accessible to a child who gained an 82 dollar scholarship I heard one of my favourite hymns , “God of Grace, God of Glory” being sung at the Methodist church down the street:

Cure Thy children's warring madness
Bend our pride to Thy control
Shame our wanton selfish gladness
Rich in things and poor in soul
Grant us wisdom, grant us courage
Lest we miss Thy kingdom's goal
Lest we miss Thy kingdom's goal

Save us from weak resignation
To the evils we deplore
Let the gift of Thy salvation
Be our glory evermore
Grant us wisdom, grant us courage
Serving Thee Whom we adore
Serving Thee Whom we adore

I believe I have been granted the wisdom to know that I need to invest myself in this refugee camp and I will pray for the courage to shame my wanton selfish gladness so as to become rich in soul. I want the God of Grace and Glory to be as evident in me as it was in the refugees. I have never been more inspired and called to action in my life. I have not a moment to waste.

Friday, January 22, 2010

An Evening in a Ghanaian Hospital: Week One in Ghana

I think I like it here. During my morning run I watch the mango trees greet the warm morning sun. I hear children laugh as they set up the vegetable stands that generate barely enough profit to feed their families. I smell a peculiar fusion of freshly baked bread and exhaust fumes. I am careful to hop over each of the open sewers the line the paths of Legon, Ghana. I jog along the uneven layers of red sand that form the top soil of the Ghanian savannah, stopping to say hello to the lady from whom I purchase pineapple each day. I’m finding a great sense of peace in the simplicity of the lifestyle that I lead in Ghana; the mop of blonde curls I wear on my head no longer phases me, I’m not bothered by the inevitability of the presence of sand on the floor of my bedroom, I’ve grown accustom to sleeping in a very warm environment. My idle thoughts consist of questions like “Where will I get water?” “Will I find a protein source today?” “Do I have malaria?” By the end of each day I am physically exhausted by the mental energy that it takes to become one with the Ghanaian environment.

The day after I moved in the limited electricity that powers my building and facilitates our water supply became out of service for five days. At first it was a novelty to figuratively return to my days in Haiti and teach my colleagues to take “bucket baths.” After carrying water to the third floor a few days in a row I was praying that the water might someday work. Unfortunately, our water system was not repaired and the source near my building became dry. I was up a creek with… no water. Later that night I woke to the sounds of loud banging on the doors adjacent to my room. A voice I did not recognize came to my door pounding and screaming “everyone get out now!” In my 3am stupor I was convinced we were undergoing a political coup. In the United States if someone knocked on my door and told me to evacuate I would trust that there was a natural disaster, but in Ghana I’ve been told to trust no one. I yelled back to the man on the other side of my door to reveal his identity and to explain why we are to evacuate but got no answer. I locked myself into my room and peered out the glass windows waiting to see if my colleagues had evacuated. Eventually a voice I recognized came to my door and I willingly left the building for what was an “earth tremor” warning.

It is strange to be white; I wear my status as a foreigner on my skin. Through orientation we were taught to stick with the other foreign students who happen to be predominately white. Any orientation should help a group to gel together, but this orientation was particularly strange because I feel that bonds were created to cement together what are here called “abrunis” (white people). During particularly stressful moments in the markets, seeing another white person began to trigger in my mind a sense of relief… “oh, she can help me.” It is dangerous. I feel like I am sitting through the American Civil Rights Movement when I attend class each day. Female students do their best to not look me in the eye, male students look for every opportunity to find an abruni girlfriend. In Arabic yesterday my professor had only five copies of a syllabus for a class of fifty. The professor approached me first saying, “you may have the first copy, you have priority.” I don’t want priority. Access to that syllabus was too dear a reminder of my white privilege that I passed the syllabus down the row in an attempt to absolve myself from guilt.

One evening my colleagues and I saw a group of male students dancing outside their dormitory waving flags. One of the ring-leaders shared with me that there is a longstanding conflict between the two main male dorms. Commonwealth, one of the dorms, believes that they are the strongest and has colonized some of the other dorms. The tension between the dorms often manifests itself in broken noses and black eyes but a few years ago my friend describes that a “war took place between the two dorms” Commonwealth lost the “war” and the other dorm gathers each night to wave their flag and dance to celebrate their victory. A few of us joined in their dancing and singing. The use of the word “colonize” reminded me of the psychological principle of reflection, that we reflect in our relations with others the ways that we have been treated.

I am consistently asked whether Ghana lived up to the expectations that I had placed on the country. There are moments wherein I forget that I am living in the developing world but there are also moments that I am confronted with the harsh reality of my living circumstances. I met a girl in class and had the following conversation:
Me: Hi, I’m Judith. What is your name?
Lucy: Lucy. How are you?
Me: I’m fine, how are you? Where are you from?
Lucy: The Volta Region.
Me: What tribe are you a part of?
Lucy: [insert tribe here], so… do you have facebook?
It is absurb to me that someone who lives on the other side of the world can be obsessed with the same virtual site as are millions of Westerners. My Ghanaian colleagues dress similar to me and my Western friends and in social settings it is sometimes difficult to recognize that we are part of very distinctive cultures. People really are just people.

Perhaps the most distinctive element of Ghanaian culture is the focus on the group over the individual. There is a definite presence of “group think” and “majority rule.” I’ve noticed a lot more assimilation here than I have witnessed in America and Britian. Also distinctive is the focus on oral tradition over that which is written. There is only a 50% literacy rate in Ghana so information is generally disseminated through word of mouth. Walking around campus it is rare to hear students speaking English. Though English is the national language of Ghana, Ghanaians learn the language associated with their tribe at birth and speak English predominately at school. More than half of Ghana’s population has never learned English. My inability to speak much of the dominant tribal language in Accra, Twi, makes trips to the market very difficult.

In Britain I always had my nose in a book. I was looking forward to my exposure to African literary classics but have had difficulty thus far finding books to read. The school bookstore is very limited and I have found only one bookstore in the city centre. The school library will not allow students to check out most of the available books and I had difficulty finding resources written after the 1990’s. Because books are so expensive and infrequently available many of my professors do not assign an extensive reading list. As opposed to purchasing books students visit department offices to buy a photocopied packet of journal articles and excerpts from books to read for class. In my Spanish Linguistic Theory class our work books are handwritten and photocopied which makes them very difficult to read. Like any other goal-oriented American, I am concerned that my textbook for Political Research Methods was published in the 1970s and that I wont be able to access the supplemental reading materials that I feel would be critically important to my academic experience. I have a mini-heart attack every time I realize that the library no longer carries a book that I have been asked by my professor to read for class. “How will I learn?” I wonder to myself. The most important lesson I have learned while abroad is that books can impart only a small amount of information about life. As a student of International Development I will learn more from experiencing development than I ever could from reading.

Tuesday night I joined my colleagues for pizza night before the football game against Angola. The other vegans and I split a veggie pizza without cheese. Walking back to campus I became so engaged in conversation about poverty that I failed to see where I was walking in the dark and fell into one of Ghana’s many open sewers. I knew immediately that I was hurt and my friends Paula and Theresa ran off to buy something with which they could make a brace for my leg. I stayed sitting in the gutter until they returned with knives and tea towels that we affixed to my ankle with belts. We took a taxi to the hospital. After a thirty-minute wait I was seen by one of the few nurses who spoke English. She taught me to say “I fell into the gutter” in Twi and told me that, “Only the Americans fall into the gutter!” I became the laughing stock of the hospital for a few hours. I was told that the man next to me in the hospital was dying of Malaria and another man was suffering from Cholera. When I was given an examination room the nurse brought in a tray of injections and sat them on my stretcher. I was not expecting shots and asked what the shots were for when she explained that they were for another patient who would be sharing the room and the stretcher with me. The hospital did not have a wheelchair for patients to use nor an X-ray machine to check the damage caused to my ankle. There was literally nothing that the hospital could do to help me. The doctor seemed more concern with the gashes in my leg than with my ankle as the gashes could allow a range of bacteria to enter my bloodstream. I was given an antibiotic and encouraged to keep my wounds very clean. I was permitted to return to the hospital the following morning to receive a set of crutches and hobbled around campus with my crutches for a while. With so many potholes and uneven layers of sand it was difficult to maneuver my crutches in a non-ADA country. The realities faced by so many disabled people became a bit more clear to me as I was forced to forgo many things I would generally choose to do because they were physically inaccessible. I am so lucky to be young and agile, I can’t imagine the difficulties I will face as I begin to age.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Musing on my Upcoming Move to Ghana

One of the best books I read over the course of my winter break travels was Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat Pray Love. After a wrenched divorce and failed relationship Gilbert finds herself in a state of depression that she feels she cannot escape. Gilbert chooses to move to Italy, India, and Indonesia successively to explore pleasure, devotion, and balance. Gilbert’s Italian friend explains to her that each person has a word that defines his/her being; a word that permeates every level of that person’s identity. Gilbert struggles through much of the book to discover “her word.” If Springfield, MO had a word I think it would be “Do.” If Preston, England had a word I think it would be “fun.” But what is my word? I think I could best be described by the word “fusion”: I am a coming-together of an eclectic variety of ideas and traits and I believe my primary goal is to fuse people. I seek convergence in the world.

I believe that travelling abroad can be a wonderful opportunity to self-examination and to evaluate past relationships and situations and return to one’s life with a fresh perspective. I will not return to America the same Judith Rowland that I was when I boarded the plane to Manchester in September. England has been a spiritual blessing for me; I have never before felt as loved, happy, and balanced as I am in Europe. I question why I would ever leave such a utopia. But, as I travelled other winter break I discovered that England didn’t change me- I changed me. I am terribly upset to set aside the friendships that I have developed in this wonderful country but I recognize that staying longer will not benefit me more.

My move to Ghana awaits me. I am content to set aside my straightener, dancing shoes, and addiction to travel in favour of a bed net, Tevas, and a wonderful internship. Ghana will change me in ways that I cannot currently fathom. I am excited to release myself to this new country and to allow the voices of the dessert to envelope me. I am tentatively eager to lose my naivety and to understand a part of the world that carries with it the baggage of Aids, Malaria, poverty, and poor conservation methods. My life in England seems too frivolous in retrospect- why did I allow myself to be consumed with thoughts of “What am I going to wear?” when instead I could have considered what I would do that day to make the world a better place? I’m afraid. I’m afraid of what I will learn and the realities that I know will crush my soul. I’m afraid of what the Judith Rowland I am to become will think of the Judith that I am currently.

As opposed to making New Year’s resolutions this year I elected to make “Ghana resolutions” or promises to myself that I believe will enhance my experience in Ghana. They are as follows:

1) Begin each day with one hour of meditation. Meditation is a significant part of my spiritual life but I often become caught in the busy nature of my mind. Meditation is the only way I will truly be able to be changed by Ghana.
2) Write every day. I believe I have greatly developed as a writer this semester and I appreciate the records I have of my experiences. Writing forces me to place into words my emotions and thoughts. I will write in this blog or I will write for myself.
3) Explore something new each day.
4) End each day with an unorganized period of reflection. I want to move away from my tendency to let reason guide by soul. I do not want to be bound by goals for each day (ironic, eh?). I want to simply… be.

For four months I intend to allow myself to be directed by the world and not by my innate dedication to reason. I look forward to the person I will become.

The House of Terror

On our last night in Hungary Sahara and I went to the “House of Terror” which is a museum that remembers Hungary under Nazi rule and communism. The museum is housed in the former headquarters of both the Nazi and the Communist parties. We stood on where gallows that the enemies of communism stood prior to execution and saw the prison cells in which victims were tortured and left to starve. It is very striking to see images of tanks rolling down the streets that I had explored just the day before. History is viewed through a lens of the present; I will never see Budapest in the way that someone who lived in the city under communism can. During the Nazi regime all of the bridges over the Danube were destroyed so as to prevent Soviet encroachment on Nazi territory. It is hard to imagine military leaders commanding the removal of the world’s historical markers to advance a political goal… yet I know it has happened and happens under a diversity of regimes.

I will never forget the first time I saw images of Hitler standing aside the Arc of Triumph in Paris, I sight that I had admired just a week prior. The tourist traps of modern Europe occasionally allow the onlooker to forget that the Arc of Triumph means something different today than it did during the dreadful months of Hitler’s reign. I sometimes forget that monuments are more than just pieces of marble but a tangible representation of a country’s spirit, history, and identity.

I realized at the House of Terror that the fear that I have experienced in my life can never compare to the fear that so many of my brothers and sisters throughout the world experience on a daily basis. I fear things like losing friends, my teeth becoming crooked, and death- but not the loss of the American sovereignty. I can go to bed each night relatively certain that my countries will remain democracies. The only time I have ever really been afraid was September 11, 2001 when I remember asking my mother if our family would survive the Saudi bombings that in my mind were sure to occur that evening in Springfield, MO. I feel very guilty to be a citizen of a country that outsources its wars so that Americans can pretend that peace exists in the world. I feel guilty that I have never been called to military service. Yet, viewing images of World War Two creates within me a great sense of solidarity; I may have little personal relationship with Hungary but my grandfather and his brothers were fighting the same war as the Hungarians. Some of the prison cells of the museum featured photographs of the inmates who spent their finals days in each cell. One of the images looked very much like photographs I have seen of my great-uncle at a similar age. The death dates of the inmates revealed that many of them were my age; had I lived in an earlier generation they could have been my boyfriend, or my brother.

World War 2 so intrigues me because I believe it to be the last just war in history and a huge contradiction of my understanding of human nature. I wish that human abilities could be more rudimentary. With great power comes a greater sense of responsibility than mere humans can comprehend.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Slovakia, Austria, Egypt, Turkey, Romania, Hungary

I seem to have the most interesting adventures in hostels! In Slovakia I went to bed at 7pm to be woken at midnight by a drunk who peed on the floor and then threatened to urinate on my belongings. After coaxing him to bed, I was later awoken by someone trying to steal my purse from within my sleeping arms who then stuck his fingers in my mouth. A few hours later, someone escaped from a Bratislava prison and decided to spend the night under my bed. The Bratislava police interfered and kicked the man about the room and forcibly returned him to prison. I was surprised with the brute force that was applied against this man- I hope that that doesn’t happen in the United States.

After Slovakia I traveled to Vienna to meet my friend Sahara. Vienna was very nice but bone-chillingly cold. We visited the Vienna ballet to see a performance of the Nutcracker for which I paid four euro for standing room. I could hear the pitter-patter of the ballerina’s feet on the floor as they moved and I became so engaged with the production that I had forgotten I had been standing for hours. The production was set for a younger audience incorporating modern elements into the traditional Petipa ballet; the mice were replaced with ninjas and the toys were replaced with video games. Attending the Vienna Ballet was one of the best things I've done in Europe.

From Vienna Sahara and I flew to Egypt where we toured Cairo, Giza, Aswan, Kom Ombo, Luxour, and Alexandria. On our first night in Cairo I was so surprised by the way we were treated; I was consistently pegged as being Dutch and the citizens of Cairo were very welcoming. As we walked through the streets surrounding our hotel we were greeted with “Welcome to Cairo” and even given free guavas! Other areas of Egypt were not so welcoming. On the cruise ship and in the southern parts of Egypt people tried to buy us and to marry us. I was valued at a million camels! We regularly had to tell people that we would not be their "habibis" (loves) and that they couldn't marry us.

I had imagined the Middle East to have more of a desert appearance and to be a less American-friendly region but was surprised with the acceptance that we felt in Cairo. The Pyramids of Giza were of course impressive, Sahara and I rode camels around the pyramids. I was very afraid of the camel and not impressed when it began “dancing” and insisted on sucking himself and nearly knocking me off his back.

I have dreamed about visiting Egypt for years and felt so accomplished and independent to have been able to fulfill my dream on my own volition. We spent most of our time in Egypt on a cruise which visited many of the important cities along the Nile. Each day we had a new tour guide which provided a unique perspective and insight regarding each location. On another of my favourite days we traveled to Alexandria to visit the library of Alexandria and other famous sites. In Alexandria Sahara and I went scuba diving amidst ancient ruins including a sunken WWII RAF plane and the table where Cleopatra killed herself. I love scuba diving and it was great to share this experience with Sahara.

One of the most interesting things I learned about religion in Egypt is that when Muslims find something truly beautiful they say “Allah.” God accordingly is represented in all that which is great. It is very inspiring to view religion as a way of celebrating that which is present on the earth. I think we should celebrate the godly nature of the world’s treasures.

I am very conscious of ways that womyn have been repressed through history and was interested to learn more about the roles that womyn played in Egyptian society. Though female characters generally represented ideals such as “beauty” and “dancing” the inequality in size between males and females is not representative of inequality in societal roles. Womyn are sometimes pictured very small to represent that they are far away, just as in ancient images where womyn are the central focus the men are depicted as being very small. Queen Hatshepsut independently ruled Egypt for a number of years and created her temple with her dressed as a Pharaoh; I suppose that this was the first example of what the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek calls “radical feminism”.

We spent Christmas in Egypt and from Egypt flew to Istanbul for New Years with Sahara’s friends Kit and Luz. Istanbul was one of my favourite cities in Europe. Notably, in Istanbul I saw the last of the eight obelisks located throughout the world in D.C., London, Paris, Cairo, Aswan, Luxour, and Istanbul. We had a relaxing New Years Eve atop a nice hotel in Istanbul where we could see the fireworks overall of the major mosques and bridges. We had a lovely time dancing to traditional Turkish music and to some of our favourite American songs. On our last day in Istanbul we visited the Turkish baths. The baths were very relaxing and it was nice to truly be able to rest after an exhausting semester and several weeks abroad. I bought a lot of spices and strange herbs in Turkey that I look forward to using as I prepare meals in Ghana.

When Ataturk took power in Turkey he pledged to make the country secular by enacting measures like during Hagia Sophia into a museum, banning head scarves, and detracting from religious focuses within the culture. Turkey felt distinctly different from Egypt as a result of these influences. “Secular Turkey” provided an interesting contrast to the United States which also aims at being secular. Despite the secular attitude of the country, religion seems to be written on the faces of the citizens. I'm not sure that it is possible to be secular. Regardless of the efforts that we may take to preserve both religion and the state by keeping the two separate I think that there is an intrinsic element of religion that calls us to promote certain political changes. The social justice missions of my religion are my politics.

Romania was also a beautiful country. We flew into Bucharest and from there explored five other cities including Brasov, Sinia, Bran, Signasora, and Tirgu. The countryside of Romania reminded me a fusion of Boulder, Colorado and Florence, Italy; the snow iced the mountains and the houses screamed of the colours of the Tuscan sun. The man who inspired "Dracula" was born in Signasora and lived in Bran Castle. Perhaps my favourite part of Romania was the delicious food. Sahara and I gorged on hearty vegetable soups, tender seasoned vegetables, and delicious salads. I'd like to take my parents to Romania sometime.

Now that I friends literally all around the world I can't help but picture their faces when visiting their countries. The Hungarian parliament isn't just "some other country's parliament" but is a place that I know my Hungarian friend Kaitlin cares about. On the Budapest walking tour today we passed the Hungarian coronation church and we told that it is popular to marry in the church and I couldn't help but wonder if Kaitlin will someday marry in that church. Cities are alive. Historical sights are more than just history, for some people in the world they are the present.

In Budapest today we heard of the bridges over the Danube being destroyed during WWII so as to prevent the Russians from reaching the German troops. I've studied the destruction of WWII in school but I feel different about wars when I can see the damage. I was very upset to know that the exquisitely crafted lions that once stood on one of the most magnificent bridges of Budapest were crushed into pieces and into the Danube. How can people have the audacity to destroy civilization?

I apologize for the disjointed nature of this post... there have been so many stories that feelings that I wish I could relate. I hope that my words can depict for you some of my thoughts.