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.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

July 16 Dr. Eric Ananga

Saturday I had the pleasure of meeting with Mr. Eric Opoku Agemang and Madam Brittni Howard, who had kindly arranged the meeting after we met at the Ghana Studies Association meeting a week ago.  Mr. Eric heads an organization called Patriots Ghana that works to help children who have been trafficked to the fishing industry.  As so many problems are both cause and consequence of child trafficking, Patriots Ghana works on a host of other issues, too, from economic development to training teachers how to work with students who have suffered severe trauma to how to persuade children how to go to or stay in school.  It’s a remarkable organization, and we hope for Yo Ghana! collaborations in the future.

Then it was off to Winneba for a long meeting with Dr. Eric Ananga, the busiest person I know, and his research assistant, Madam Berthy. 

I met Dr. Eric nearly two years ago and was immediately drawn by his unassuming passion for and dedication to education.  Everyone who had met him attached to Yo Ghana! was delighted when he joined our board, and it was his vision and dedication and connections that made the first Yo Ghana! conference happen in the first place, let alone for it to be so successful.  Eric likes to move behind the scenes to get things done, and he had to be prompted before he would agree to speak at the conference.   He is a delightful person to spend time with, though after doing so I go away feeling like I should be doing more to make the world a better place.

Friday, July 15, 2016

July 15: Anani School Donors and Angel's Academy Oral Histories

The day began at Anane Memorial International School, where I got to do one of my most favorite
tasks: distributing letters of recognition to some of the many parents and school members who contributed goods or services to the school over the past year, such as Madam Joyce who volunteers as a cook.  Nima is a place of both widespread poverty and determination, and the school staff confirmed that these donations, which Yo Ghana! matches, have raised morale considerably.  The community feels much more ownership of and commitment to its school when they are giving time and other resources to it.

I then had the pleasure of watching the Kindergarten students practice their dancing.  They are very dedicated, and the school regularly performs in a variety of venues, such as the airport, to help raise funds for the school.

Then it was off to Angel’s Academy to follow up on Tuesday’s visit by seeing what the students had learned in their interviews of elders.  The reports were much longer and more detailed than I had anticipated.  We started with having the students pair up and deliver their reports to each other, then each read to the group.  We then had a long discussion of how to elicit longer, more
interesting answers, with reflection on what had worked or had not worked in the interviews, and why.  All of the participants seem eager to do a much fuller life story of an elder starting in September, with the assistance of their very dedicated teachers.  Back in the U.S., some students at St. Andrew Nativity School will be doing the same sort of work, so we are excited to see how these two pilot projects work out and what sort of stories the students are able to share with each other—and hopefully the rest of the world.

This oral history project is an example of our desire to go deeper into our exchanges, and it expresses our belief that transformative exchanges can occur not only between nations, but also between generations.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

July 14

Today was one of those days when your camera stays in the bag—not because there was nothing of interest to photograph, but because stopping to take pictures would have interrupted the flow.
Mr. Frank’s taxi brought us to Dannacks Senior High School and a meeting with its head, Mr. Justice, teacher Madam Aborgeh, and their students.  Mr. Justice had told me about Dannacks during a meeting a few days ago.  It works with students who struggled in junior high school and would otherwise be unable to attend senior high school.  A high proportion of them then do well on the exams that determine whether or not they can go to university, and many have gone on to excel at university and beyond.  I enjoyed meeting the students, many of whom are keen for the school to join Yo Ghana!  Mr. Justice is also very interested in developing in students a love of poetry in a nation in which rote learning is still emphasized.

We then made our way to my favorite place, Ashesi University, where I had the pleasure of meeting with Madam Carolina and the inspiring students who constitute the very first Teach for Ghana cohort.  This September they will go, in pairs, into fifteen rural, low-performing schools in Ghana and work to transform them.  We are hoping to partner with them, as the prospect of writing to a friend in Ghana can be a great incentive to learn to write for students in such schools.  It was an honor and a privilege to speak with and listen to this band of pioneering educators talk about how they intend to go about the work of providing an excellent education for every student in Ghana.  You could feel the trajectory of Ghana education shift under our feet.

I also had the pleasure of meeting Mr. TK, an Ashesi administrator who in his spare times brings Canadian university students to Ghana to help to activate in them a desire to serve their communities back home and started Future of Africa, a program serving about fifty of Accra’s many street children.  More about that soon.

The long day ended with a nice long visit with board member Dr. Williams, who is also a dear friend.  Years ago Wendy told me that the best way to start and organization is to invite the people you most respect to join it, and when Dr. Williams agreed to join us, it was a wonderful day.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

July 13

Today Madam Lucy and I had the pleasure of visiting Kwahu Taho Senior High School.  It was a
long day trip, but definitely worth it!

We learned of the school from Dr. Seth Asare, who grew up in the town and has lived in the Portland Metro Area for many years.  He assured us that the school has a reputation for excellence, and that was certainly the case.

We had an excellent meeting with Madam Alice, the Headmistress, and Mr. Phillip and Mr. Prince.  Mr. Phillip has already started a Yo Ghana! club in the school, even before the school has been paired with U.S. one for the coming year.  That’s the sort of initiative suggestive of a long and dedicated relationship, as is the fact that so many staff members at the school are enthusiastic about our program.

We also got to meet with the students.  There are about two hundred per level or grade, with many coming from villages in the area, others from far away.  The great majority board at the school.  We hope it is the first of many visits.