Wednesday, September 8, 2010


Note: This entry is inspired from and a response to Nigerian author Chimamanda Adichie’s speech which can be found at:

I stopped blogging in Ghana because I didn’t know what stories to tell. During my semester in West Africa I experienced a great deal of pain and at the same time saw some of the best of humanity. I recognized very quickly that for most of my readers and friends I would be the sole “inside look” they had into Africa and I took my responsibility rather seriously. In blogging and telling stories I felt that people want to reconfirm their ideas that Africa is full of poor starving orphans who have never before seen white people. I met several orphans while in Ghana but I doubt that I saw more than five children who were in danger of starvation. The world just isn’t black and white.

One question that I commonly faced was “how were you treated in Ghana”? Lots of stories come to mind. I remember having nearly 1,000 marriage proposals. I ‘ll never forget being called “Madame Vanilla” at the Benin border. I remember being chased by beggars and vendors who assumed that I had money. I remember the many many times that I was called a “colonizer”. There was almost a binary that Americans were both better and worse than Ghanaians and I could never figure out which label applied to which social situation.

As humans I think that we are conditioned to make generalizations. In the field of International Development we are called to observe cultures x and y and make predictions about the plausibility of success of a project in culture z. In Puerto Rico I noticed that the first person I spoke with ended a conversation with “cuidate” [take care] and when a second and third person did such I started saying “cuidate”. This has gotten me into trouble before- my friends in England used the term “bell end” as an adjective implying that someone was a jerk. I heard “bell end” so often that I assumed everyone said it and I said it in front of a group of adults and was quickly told that it is an offensive term.

My experiences bring to mind the story of the blind men touching the elephant and each describing a different piece of the elephant as being a description of the whole elephant. What I experienced in England, Ghana, and Puerto Rico has been a collection of relationships and stories that give me a glimpse into what that elephant may look like.

My solution to combat the problem that Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie describes is to feel lots and lots of parts of the elephants. By travelling extensively and really listening to the people that I met I hope that the generalizations that I am forced to make will be well reasoned. As she suggests, I’m not going to listen to only one story. My experiences in my time abroad have shown me how complex are people and cultures. If we really want to understand we have to listen.

My First Hurricane!

When I think of “hurricanes” I think of the devastation that I witnessed and helped to clear the week after Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast. I probably got a bit white in the face as Angel Rivera, the director of International Programs at UPR-Cayey, warned me to not travel outside of Puerto Rico during hurricane season. Puerto Rico is expecting about twelve hurricanes over the next few months, all of which will have some impact on the mountainous city where I live. Last week we received notice of Hurricane Danielle headed toward Puerto Rico. I panicked, envisioning being without electricity for weeks and with a dilapidated house for the remainder of the semester. My mother’s primary concern seemed to be whether the stray dogs around my house would have a safe place to stay.

On Monday morning around 11:00 we began to get heavy rains that immediately flooded the roads around campus. Within an hour the school had lost power and we were rushed home through five inches of water on the streets. Mr. Rivera gave us the option of going to a shelter or remaining in our house. As the other residents of our neighbourhood were evacuated my first reaction was to go to the shelter. Dr. Rivera assured us that hurricanes aren’t really a big deal and sent us home. We had already lost power in our house and our lawn resembled a lagoon. Gabriel, the Canadian that lives in the other half of our duplex, was panicking and was driven to Wal-Mart to purchase a grill on which we could make food during the storm. Gabriel came home with a small Bar-B-Q grille that he set up in his house. After calling a variety of friends to ask, “How do we use a Bar-B-Que grill” we finally were able to create a flame. I think Gabriel used too much gasoline because our food smelled of gasoline fumes.

After dinner we went to bed early. I was awaked around 3:00am by the 85 mph winds that had picked up a chicken and carried her into my bedroom window. There were feathers everywhere and she looked distressed. Eventually the power came back and we went back to class. My recounts of sitting in my house scared to death were met by the laughter of my Puerto Rican classmates. Hurricanes happen here all of the time. Much like Missourians think little of tornadoes and Ghanaians think little of Malaria, hurricanes are just a great excuse to get out of class in Puerto Rico.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

The Day I Lost Nearly All of My Hair

I relish being different. My 6’1 large frame and pale skin will always make me stand out in the southern hemisphere. I’m willing to think progressively and stand up for beliefs even when I am standing alone. My general demeanour got me into some trouble in Ghana: If a Ghanaian colleague said something sexist I would point it out to them. I vocally but respectfully disagreed with the illegality of homosexuality and the way that Western volunteers treat African children. Though I was true to my values, I found it difficult to merge with the culture. In Puerto Rico I decided to do something that I have never done before- I decided to be quiet. I wanted to “sit idly by”. For me, this meant that I was going to merge as best I could with the new culture in which I was living.

My experiment began with analyzing everything I could about the behaviour of my colleagues. I eliminated the “s” sound from my Spanish so as to sound local and I began to carry a side rucksack like all of the Puerto Rican girls. I took every sip of the kool-aid that I could find. As I’ve mentioned before, Puerto Rican females naturally have very curly hair but use chemicals to relax their hair. I smeared this “potion” all over my hair and after 12 minutes of setting, had almost all of my hair fall out in the shower. I now have about ¼ of my normal head of hair and am nearly bald in the front sides of my head. I do not look Puerto Rican.

As elementary as it sounds, no matter how much we evolve there is still a part of us that will always be the same. I can’t change my hair texture any more than I can change my height. I really don’t want to wear skinny jeans in 115 degree heat like everyone else is doing. As much as I try to “be quiet” injustice still makes me squirm. I think that that is just who I am. I am a melting pot of the things I’ve learned in Springfield, Europe, Africa, and Puerto Rico. I am an amalgamation of stories and ideas and thoughts that I’ve found in the faces of the people I have loved.

And… I’m going to stay away from potions.