Friday, October 14, 2016

Not Quite Fifteen Minutes of Fame

I was pleasurably shocked a couple of months ago to be perusing the book section of Costco and come across a stack of my textbook on Oregon's history. I bought a copy, since the price was good, and I figured that, well, someone had to do it.

A few weeks later I returned to find that it was gone. Maybe I should have bought more than one.

Being an author is interesting. It tends to bring one a lot of respect, deserved or not, and even status. But it's very rare for many people to read one's book, and if I were to add all the money I've earned from my books, it would come to less than $20,000. If I were to add up all the time I have spent on those books, it would be the equivalent of about five years of full time work. So you can do the math. And I doubt that the few thousand books of mine have been passed around, from person to person. I remember the words of a fellow graduate student many years ago, at Northwestern University, who summed up the life of the scholar with this observation: "You'll spend many tedious years researching and writing books that no one will read."

If I had it to do over again, I might well spend those five years on other things. But every year or two, there's a little unexpected surprise--a warm email or, once in a lifetime, a cameo appearance at Costco.

Saturday, October 1, 2016

Miss Farida: Loss, Determination, and Inspiration

A few months ago Elizabeth, Wendy, and I had the honor of meeting Miss Farida at ECG School in Tamale. Farida had recently lost her father and seemed very sad. But the school has a fund for such students that was helping her to stay in school.
A few days ago Mr. Joseph, our fine coordinator at ECG, sent us a photo of her with her new books. It's good to see her smile.

I have some friends in developing countries who believe that the only way to get people in the West to pay attention to their problems is to feature children who look forlorn and hopeless. Certainly I have been tempted to use such tactics when trying to raise money that Yo Ghana! uses to help such schools.

But the reality is that Miss Farida, her family, and ECG School are doing the hard work here. She is determined in school and refusing to let sadness overwhelm her life. Her family, despite losing its main wage earner, is paying most of her school fees. Her school had a fund for helping such families long before Yo Ghana! came along to contribute to it.

And it's really not accurate to say that Yo Ghana! came to ECG School. Rather, Yo Ghana! has emerged from ECG and other schools in Ghana and the Pacific Northwest, a family of inspiring people and institutions. There's not really a "we" and "them" here.

Farida is as much a part of Yo Ghana! as anyone else, and her determination and smile are an inspirational gift to us all.

Friday, September 16, 2016

Turning Dreams Into Reality In Dambai

Two years ago Brando Akoto and I visited Dambai Demonstration School in the Volta Region and heard about how the school had become so popular that they were expanding to include another three grades--a junior high school.

But where would the classrooms come from? A big NGO had built them a classroom some years ago that had not met their needs, but they hoped that Yo Ghana! might come to their assistance. Mr. Brando, who had worked in community development for many years before coming to the U.S., said, "why don't you you start something, create a building that will meet your needs, and Yo Ghana! will help." Not only that, but "twenty years from now, Yo Ghana! will still be visiting with and working with you."

So last year the school had laid the foundations for a new block of three large classrooms.  When we visited this June, three months ago, the block had a concrete floor and a sound roof, and the walls were creeping up. So at our last board meeting, remembering Brando's promise, Yo Ghana! awarded the school enough money to just about finish the walls. The school and community will provide doors, windows, and interior finishing. When done, the community will have donated thousands of dollars of money and untold hours of labor to create three large classrooms that meet and express their own priorities. Yo Ghana!'s role will be significant, but secondary.

Brando passed away about fourteen months after visiting Dambai. But not before teaching all of us a lot about how to promote development in a way that respects and encourages local initiative.

One of my life goals is to visit Dambai regularly until at least 2034, twenty years after Brando visited. Each time I'll be fondly remembering a dear friend and mentor.

Monday, August 29, 2016

The Awesome Responsibilities and Opportunities of Being Wealthy

Few people I know in the U.S. consider themselves wealthy. But consider the story of Criscent Bwambale, the boy pictured here, as related by the BBC..

Criscent was born with cataracts and was unable to see. The photo was taken as he's on his way home, looking out the window at a delightful world he is seeing for the first time.

The cost of the surgery? According to the website of Sightsavers, the NGO that funded Criscent's surgery, it's $75.00.  $50.00 for adults.

Yes, that's $75.00.


None of this is to say that people with $75.00 to spare should start throwing it at the health problems of developing countries. It is important to choose organizations that have leadership from the nations they are serving and that have a strong record and reputation for spending money ethically and effectively.

But there are plenty of organizations in Uganda, the rest of Africa, and the rest of the developing world doing this sort of amazing work. And the complexity of trying to help is no excuse for not helping.

And look at Criscent's face. Wouldn't you give much more than $75.00 to play even a small role in transforming someone's life like that?!

Monday, August 15, 2016

Nicholas Kristof and Heroes

Nicholas Kristof is perhaps the only major newspaper columnist in the U.S. who writes regularly about developing countries. He long ago learned that writing a column about Africa or poorer areas of Latin America or Asia that people will actually read requires the presence of two stock characters: an attractive victim and a "bridge character" who saves the day, an American protagonist with whom readers can identify.

As Amanda Hess pointed out a couple of years ago in Slate, the online magazine, Kristof makes a good case for his approach, which has drawn tens of thousands of Americans to take a greater interest in problems such as human trafficking in far-away places. Many of these readers have donated time or money to combating problems they otherwise would have ignored. Sure, Kristof knows that local people have been and continue to tackle these problems, often with great success. But Americans are seldom interested in those stories..

One danger of this emphasis on Americans' agency in solving the problems of the developing world is the impact that it has on the people of the developing world. I have myself noticed that it is very easy for Yo Ghana! to do more harm than good if we slide into the role of Western Savior rather than doing the more time-consuming work of listening to, collaborating with, and recognizing Ghanaians on the ground who were identifying and solving problems long before we showed up.

It is very dangerous for Americans abroad to start thinking of ourselves as heroes because of what we have done for "our school" or "our village." That sort of thinking exaggerates our impact and can easily blind us to what we have to learn from our partners. It is even more dangerous if the people in the developing countries start thinking that heroes can only be outsiders. I am frightened by how easy it is for both sets of people--myself included--to slip into those roles. That is one reason we like to honor our teachers in Ghana whenever we get the chance, such as Madam Akoto of Akalove School, shown here, a woman who was instrumental in starting the school in the village a few years ago. Very few people in America may ever read about her. And that's fine. But it's important that the people of Akalove remember and honor their heroes--and remember that if they want great things for their community, they don't need to wait for outsiders to come to their rescue.

Friday, July 29, 2016

My Readjustment to America Problem

As the photo to the right suggests, life is different in Ghana and Africa than in Portland and the U.S. I am noticing this after having been back now for ten days after thirty-two days in Ghana. The roads are better here. People rarely carry heavy burdens on their heads.  The mangos don't taste as good, and they are much more expensive. The humidity is lower. You can't buy plantain chips, water, bread, belts, or a host of other items while stuck in traffic. Traffic moves more smoothly. Drivers are more apt to stop when people step onto a crosswalk. It is much easier to gain weight. I don't worry about keeping my phone and laptop charged in case the lights go out.

I guess these differences could be summed up by concluding that life in Ghana tends to be more challenging and engaging. While working on my history of the U.S. family I was struck by how Americans had gradually drifted away from societies and cultures rooted in an ethos of obligation toward a way of looking at and living in the world characterized by fealty to an Imperial Self. As it has become more and more easy to live without having to depend on others for our survival, we have become more sensitive to individual rights and privacy but also more lonely, defensive, and depressed--"awash in weapons and grievances," as a New York Times reader aptly observes.

So each time I return home, I find myself feeling less at home. I'm sure part of this is the somewhat artificial nature of my weeks in Ghana, which are full of meetings with astonishing people whose dedication to serving others delivers repeated shots of adrenaline and inspiration. But it also has to do with living in a place where the great majority of people are both struggling and happy--more or less the opposite of life in America, where everyone seems to feel entitled and disappointed. I love living in a place where everyone seems to understand that life is difficult AND that we can make it through if we help each other.

I don't think that the solution to my readjustment disorder is to move to Ghana. Rather, I would like to keep working to surround myself and collaborate with the countless people here who are determined to love and serve others, to to look beneath the veneer of comfort and apathy that seems so characteristic of American life to find stories and lives that are more compelling.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

July 17: The Hopes of an Accra Taxi Driver

Mr. Frank, who has driven us around Accra--and sometimes quite some distance from Accra--while
we have visited Ghana the past three times not only provides valuable services to us, he represents much of what Yo Ghana! is all about.

Mr. Frank was referred to us by a friend in Ghana who had entrusted his daughter's transportation to him.  In a city well populated with aggressive drivers, Mr. Frank is patient and careful, not to mention dependable, unfailingly polite and kind.

Driving a taxi in Accra is hard, hard work.  The hours are very long, the pay low, and there is more and more competition all the time.  It is also a dangerous occupation, and a vulnerable one.  Drivers are routinely pulled over or stopped by the police, who may, with varying degrees of subtlety, demand a gift of money before letting them proceed, whether or not they have violated any laws.  These are givens.

Mr. Frank puts his hopes in his children.  As someone who has studied the nature of the education system, I know that the odds are stacked against them, that the education system in Ghana, as across the world, is arranged so as to make the road to the top universities smooth for the children of the elite, improbable for the children of struggling parents.  But hope that through hard work one's children might exceed one's own circumstances is a widely shared sentiment in Ghana, one that propels Mr. Frank to make great sacrifices, a characteristic he shares with so many of the teachers and administrators in Ghana with whom we work.  The odds may be long, but there is always hope.