Friday, January 29, 2016

Brando's Idea of a Dinner: May 14, 3:00 to 5:00

One of the most enjoyable parts of last year's inaugural Yo Ghana! gathering was seeing some 230 people from such diverse backgrounds come together to learn about Ghana and each other.

That was what Brando Akoto, the man whom the May 14 2016 dinner will be in honor of, had in mind.

When I think of nonprofit dinners I have been to, three things stand out: 1) High ticket prices: 2) Lots of flashy auction items; 3) Plenty of alcohol to jack up the bidding on said auction items.

Brando had a different set of essentials: 1) Low ticket prices so everyone who wants to come is able to; 2) Honor teachers and other people who make Yo Ghana! go; 3) Provide great Ghanaian food and music and an experience that encourages friendship among people of all ages, income levels, and cultures.

So that's the sort of experience that we'll be striving to again provide from 3:00 to 5:00 p.m. on Saturday, May 14, in the big hall of the Immigration and Refugee Community Organization (IRCO), 10301 NE Glisan, Portland.

We also hope to make some money for Yo Ghana!  But we also remember Brando's counsel whenever the question of fund raising came up: "If we take care of relationships, everything else will take care of itself."

More details to follow, but please plan on being part of the party and a chance to pay our respects to Brando, our guiding light and best friend to everyone who knew him.

Friday, January 22, 2016

The Secret History of Missionaries to Africa

Few topics are apt to generate such a negative response among academics and intellectuals in the U.S. as the subject of missionaries.  One of the interesting parts of traveling to Ghana has been discovering that most people there--and history textbooks--are generally enthusiastic about missionaries.  Of course the major reason for this is that most academics in the U.S. are hostile to Christianity--particularly the variety that entails conversion--and most Ghanaians at least give the appearance of being enthusiastic Christians.  It's often a subject of great puzzlement to both sides of the cultural divide.

So it has been with a certain amount of trepidation that I have begun studying accounts by missionaries from the U.S. in Africa in the early twentieth century.

There is plenty of material to offend modern sensibilities in the accounts of missionaries such as Jean Kenyon Mackenzie, pictured here.  These missionaries were far from being cultural relativists.  They frankly regarded many if not most cultural practices other than their own as savage if not demonic, usually conflated Christianity and modern Western norms.  They also seemed very comfortable being toted around Africa in litters or on carts and other privileges of whiteness that they enjoyed.

But the missionary women, especially, often showed a deep respect for African Christians.  Missionary periodicals in the U.S. featured articles by black Africans long before mainstream secular magazines did.  Truth be told, missionaries were about the only Americans in Africa who were more interested in African people than in African animals.  Teddy Roosevelt, Ernest Hemingway, and the great white hunters were there to prove their masculinity through hunting, though they occasionally wrote about the "boys" who made the safaris run.  Naturalists such as Carl Akeley or the Johnsons were there to collect animal specimens or film.  The best friend that Akeley's first wife, Delia, made in Africa was a monkey that she took back home with her.  She hired an African to take care of him while in East Africa and wrote an entire book about the animal, whose death left her shattered.

Mackenzie wrote many lyrical letters and observations about the remarkable people she met and worked with in Cameroon.  Here is a sampling from 1913, as she recounts talking about God with a group of villagers who are working at various tasks: "The hands of the women bruising green leaves in wooden troughs and the grinders at the stones were idle.  Men laughed with a kind of wonder.  One woman flashed with interest behind her mask of purple tattoo and bright beads. . . . I see this thing in my heart like a thing shut in from time and change, and I wish I may never forget it."

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Brando's Abundant Love

Brando Akoto, who passed away in late October was the most generous person I've ever met--and his generosity continues to resonate.

Before I knew Brando well, I made the mistake of answering honestly a couple of questions he posed before we traveled to Ghana together: how did my laptop function in Ghana, and what did I eat while in Ghana?  I told him that my laptop was getting up there in years but worked fine and that I was pretty flexible about eating in Ghana but liked to take along a couple of packages of granola bars for emergencies.

A few weeks later he gave me not one but two laptops he had reconditioned, and while we were in Ghana about a hundred pounds of granola bars magically appeared.

When it came to giving, Brando was anything but temperate.  If he cooked for you, there was enough to feed ten, not one.  If you asked for five minutes of his time, he would give you an hour.  He made me realize that people were capable of much more love and generosity than I had thought possible.

So I should not have been surprised a couple of weeks ago when Lilly, his wife, dropped off a check for Yo Ghana! for a very large amount, by far the biggest donation we have ever received.  It was, she explained, a love give from Brando.

We miss you so very, very much, dear friend.  But you shape and enrich our lives every day.

Friday, January 8, 2016

Ending an Emotional Relationship, 1977-2016

Yesterday I made a phone call that ended a relationship that had lasted most of my life.  I called a large international charity I had started donating to in 1977 to support a child in a struggling country.  I vaguely remember being moved by a TV ad with suffering children.  I used to write regularly to "my" child, but then was taken aback when that child was abruptly replaced by another.  Many years later I would learn that donations for such charities actually go into a big pool, that there really isn't a one-to-one correlation between a particular donation and a particular child.  The idea of supporting a particular child is just part of the emotional hook.

Anyway, I felt badly ending such a long relationship.  But I guess that was the point, the reason why after nearly forty years I stopped supporting the organization: my relationship to this charity had started out based on emotion, and I was sustaining it not because I thought that this charity made the most efficient use of my money, but because I was nostalgic for my young, idealistic self.

There is nothing wrong with emotion and idealism, but if we want our money to do the most good, we have to look at hard facts and numbers such as the amount of money spent on overhead and staff and the degree to which local people are included in projects.  And although pity is a powerful weapon in opening people's pocketbooks, it doesn't provide a strong foundation for working with and helping others.  I am excited to spend the money that once went to that charity to ones that do more with less.

Friday, January 1, 2016

2016: Year of Decision for White Americans

White America is pulling up its drawbridges, stopping its ears, and retreating to the comfort of the familiar.  We are, as Governor Chris Christie puts it, “scared to death.”  Despite the infinitesimally small chance of being attacked by people unlike ourselves, we are more and more frightened of them.  Despite stark racial and global inequalities, we are less and less interested in hearing about them.

 My experience suggests that white isolationism harms more than world peace and racial reconciliation.  It diminishes the lives of white Americans.

I grew up so far out in the country that Astoria seemed like a big city.  I seldom encountered black or foreign people.  A quarter century after graduating from high school my friends were more interested in wine tasting and yoga than in beer drinking and hunting.  But they were still overwhelmingly white.

That changed when my wife and I adopted a black infant.  Our adoption counselor told us that black Americans would sort of adopt us, would help us to raise our son—and that we would need their help.

So we moved to the cosmopolitan neighborhoods of Northeast Portland and its interracial schools, churches, and other organizations.  Peter and I even visited West Africa.  Our counselor was right.  Black friends and strangers have helped us every step of the way and are as responsible as we are for Peter becoming a compassionate, resilient, and delightful adult who makes himself at home where ever he finds himself.

But something else weird and wonderful happened while orchestrating our son’s multi-racial childhood.  Black Americans and Africans greatly enriched my life, too.

First revelation: black people didn’t expect me to fix or even apologize for racism.  Through both friendships and structured dialogues I’ve learned that most people of color just hope that I’ll listen to and be honest with them.  In doing so my own sense of humanity and community has deepened.

Second revelation: working with diverse people to make the world better is a blast.  Going to Africa introduced me to school administrators and teachers who fight impossible odds on behalf of their students every day—and at the end of every day thank God for that opportunity.  Their joyful dedication presents me with a choice: do I treat my privileges as entitlements to be protected or as gifts to be shared?  So I now head up a nonprofit—Yo Ghana!—that links some 2,000 students in Ghana and the Pacific Northwest who are learning from and about each other first hand.  A student from a mostly Muslim school neatly sums up our mission: “If we choose to, we can make the world a smaller place.”

What will you choose to do with your fears and your privileges in 2016?

Monday, December 21, 2015

"My name is in America"

There is a bit of a back story to this photograph, taken four months ago at Anani Memorial International School.

I met Mr. Abdullah four years ago.  He has taught French at the school for close to forty years.  He is one of the most dedicated and energetic educators I have ever met.

Anani School is a small private school that serves the children of many struggling families in the slum of Nima.  The parents often make about $2.00 a day, and many of the pupils are orphans who are being raised by grandparents or others.  Parents make big sacrifices to send their children to this school, as the available public schools are overwhelmed.  But they are not always able to pay the fees, so the school often struggles and the teachers, such as Mr. Adbullah, often suffer.

We believe strongly that Yo Ghana! should always help in a way that encourages local initiative, so our board decided that the best way to assist the school was to ask parents and other community members to donate goods (such as onions) or services (such as music lessons) to the school, and we would match their contributions with cash.

The project was very successful.  It not only raised goods and services and money for the school, it also increased parents' pride in and commitment to it, and they loved the certificates.  Madam Samira says that she hung hers in her room "so that I can see it every morning and tell myself to contribute more because my name is in America."

I tell  you this story because I think it illustrates how careful we are with the money that you donate to us, and how hard our partners in Ghana work to do their part, often against great odds, in giving their children and their students a chance at a better life.

We are trying to raise $5,000 in December, about 25% of our budget for the coming year.  So far we have raised $1,100, so we need your help.

To contribute, just to to -- or e-mail and ask for my mailing address.  As we are a 501(c)3, deductions are tax deductible.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

The Secret About Mormons

I recently ran across an article on how Utah is attacking homelessness in Mother Jones, the radical
magazine, that reminded that educated people like me are often blind to all the good things that conservative churches and people are doing.

Mention the word "Mormon" or "Utah" around most well-educated liberals, and you'll soon be hearing about their sexism, racism, intolerance toward gays, and all manner of other cruelties.

If you happen to be one of those rare liberals who actually has some Mormon friends, you might notice that they tend to be very family oriented and generous.

Now Mother Jones tells us that one of the reasons that Utah has done such a fine job of reducing homelessness is that they have drawn on the Mormon principle of charity.  Rather than insisting that someone first get sober, drug free, and otherwise get their lives in order before getting shelter, it turns out that once homeless people have a home, they have a much easier time fixing the rest of their problems, so much so that it is costs less to give homeless people a home than it does to deal with all of their problems while they are living on the street.

In this world in which radicals, liberals, and conservatives are so often insulting rather than listening to each other, I find it pretty cool that Mother Jones is pointing out some excellent and humane work coming out of Utah and the Church of Latter Day Saints.

So I invite you to seek out some good news about a group whose politics or theology makes you uncomfortable.