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.

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