Friday, November 20, 2015

Yo Ghana! and (Real and Imagined) Terrorism

Whenever Americans perceive there to be a threat from abroad, from Ebola to terrorism, we tend to panic.  This occurs even though the odds of being killed by a terrorist--or Ebola--in the U.S. are infinitesimally small.

Indeed, some people argue that our reaction to threats of terrorism may create more terrorists than it eliminates.  This is not just about drone attacks that anger people by killing the innocent along with the guilty.  It also has to do with the belief that Americans are only interested in our own well being, are indifferent to the rest of the world.  And in fact terrorism can easily make Americans so afraid of "people different from us" that we make bad and cruel decisions.  Today most every historian and legal scholar concludes that the internment of Japanese-Americans curing World War II was not only inhumane and illegal, , it also hurt more than it helped the war effort.  But very few voices were raised against it at the time.

So, what does this have to do with Yo Ghana! and Ghana, a place were terrorism and other forms of violence are rare?

First, many of our Ghana schools provide hope to families who might otherwise give up.  Turning to violence and crime is commonly a last resort, when working hard and playing by the rules seems like a fool's game.  Hope depends on institutions that offer hope.

Second, administrators, teachers, and students in Ghana also tell us that having a friend in the U.S. and being visited by Yo Ghana! is a sign of respect.  America is often viewed as a sort of utopia, where everyone is rich and happy--but also as a place that does not care much about the rest of the world.  Letters and visitors from America challenge that stereotype.

Third, American students' fears of the unknown, the alien are dissolved by the warmth and consideration communicated through the letters they receive from Ghanaians, many of whom are Muslim.  Hollywood and our news media often portray Africans and Muslims as threats.  It is hard to feel threatened by someone who writes to tell you that he is praying for your family or that she hopes you can visit her home some day.

When we visit classrooms in Ghana and the the Pacific Northwest we tell students that we need them for important work not after they graduate from graduate school, college, high school, or their present grade level, but right now.  We need them to tell each other what life in their country is really like and to show the rest of us how to know and respect each other.

Friday, November 13, 2015

Welcome, Komi Kalevor, and Thank You, Leeann Bronson

The board of Yo Ghana! is delighted to welcome aboard Mr. Komi Kalevor, who has not only accepted our offer to join the board but is also assuming the Treasurer position. 

Komi moved to the U.S. from Ghana in the early 1980s and earned an MBA at Willamette University.  He has worked for many years in a variety of management positions in housing development finance, program management, and banking, including many years with the Portland Development Commission.  He is currently the Assistant Director of the Housing Authority of Washington County.  He has served on the boards of Portland Habitat for Humanity Metro West, the Portland Guadalajara Sister City Association, Portland Community Reinvestment Initiatives, the PSU Alumni Association, and the Ghana Association of Oregon.

Komi joined us “to do my part to help Yo Ghana! achieve its mission, which I am in full agreement with,” for “meaningful cultural exchanges can go a long way to break down barriers and serve to educate today's youth to be become 'citizens of the world.'”  In fact Komi himself participated in a high school student exchange program between Ghana and Oregon in the late 1970s, so at a young age he was living out our slogan: exchanges for transformation, was doing Yo Ghana! four decades before there was a Yo Ghana!

Komi and his wife, Judith, reside in Vancouver, Washington.  Son Selali, is a senior at Washington State University, Pullman, daughter Shika a sophomore at Seattle University.

Our board is saying farewell to one of its first members, Ms. Leeann Bronson. 

Leeann joined our board more than two years ago, before we became a 501(c)3, and immediately began serving as our Treasurer, a crucial position that is notoriously difficult to fill.  She never missed a meeting or a deadline.

I think what inspires me most about Leeann is that she stepped forward to do crucial and demanding work for an organization that she had no particular attachment to.  She had never been to Ghana or had an interest in letter exchanges.  But in her unassuming way she became passionate about our work and was one of our rocks.

We are most grateful, Leeann.

Friday, November 6, 2015

Brando's Seamless Faith

Part of what I most appreciated about Brando Akoto, my dear friend and Yo Ghana! board member who passed away barely a week ago,  was how he lived out his faith.  Like many
educated people in the U.S., I'm wary of discussing religious beliefs in a general forum like this.  Being a Christian is, I hope, at the center of my own life, but I work for a secular institution and head up a secular nonprofit.  And I notice that many people flinch at the mention of Christianity or faith, fearing--often with good cause--that Christians are prone to "trying to ram their religion down people's throats."

But I'm going to plunge ahead precisely because Brando was so comfortable living out a faith that was fundamental to who he was, and doing so with great consideration and respect for others.

I never sensed that Brando drew a distinction between his religious and public life.  Like many Christians from West Africa, he emphasized the healing and forgiving power of Christ's blood.  But Jesus was both example and redeemer to him.  Like St. Francis, he believed that Christians should "preach the gospel at all times, and when necessary use words."  With God's grace came a call to put one's life at God's disposal.  For Brando, that meant showing love and care to everyone he met as well as battling more abstract evils such as poverty, ignorance, hopelessness, racism, and other forms of oppression.  He gave himself to others with a sort of Christ-like recklessness.  I once asked him why he was devoting so much of his time to Yo Ghana!  He replied, "Prof., you give me no choice."  I took this to mean that he believed that if you saw someone doing something you respected, you were obligated to help her or him.  It did not matter how tired you or how many items there were on your "to do" list. Certainly he never seemed too tired to help a friend or a stranger, from spending three weeks of his vacation visiting schools in Ghana to encouraging a street vendor to do better in school.

Brando was a powerful speaker, inside and outside of church, and no one has been more important than him in drawing me into a deeper Christian commitment.  But his most compelling sermon was his life, a compelling witness of what a redeemed life, a soul on fire looks like.

I wonder what Christianity would look like and how Christians might be viewed if we expressed our faith as he did?

Friday, October 30, 2015

Brando Akoto, 1964-2015

I hardly know where to begin or to end in speaking of the life of our dear
brother, friend, and Yo Ghana! board member, Mr. Brando Akoto, who passed away October 28 after a long struggle with a rare form of cancer, at home with his wife and two sons, the family he loved so deeply and fiercely.  There are so many stories, so many memories.  I knew Brando for less than three years, but he left a deep mark on my life and the life of Yo Ghana!

Brando taught me that although there may be a million and one things to worry about in running a nonprofit or one's life, only one thing really matters: to love and attend to the person in front of you.  Whether he was talking to students in Ghana or Oregon, listening to the challenges faced by teachers, administrators, street vendors, a child at church or one of his countless friends, no one could doubt that he or she had his complete attention.  His solution to every problem seemed to boil down to taking care of relationships.  Once people cared about each other, everything else would work itself out.

There are so many ways to spend a life, particularly here in the U.S., countless hobbies or pastimes, no end of distractions to keep us preoccupied until the end of a day--or all of our days.  Brando illustrated that we are at our happiest, our best, when we elect to care for each other every chance that we get, that our numbered hours are best shared.

We are relieved that he is free from the terrible suffering that marked his last days and weeks and months.  But his absence is as deep a wound as his life was a blessing.  Thank you, dear friend, for lighting the way.

For those able to get to Portland, here are three events to mark Brando's passing:
Viewing of Body: Omega Funeral and Cremation Services, 223 SE 122nd Ave., Friday November 6, 5:00 to 9:00 p.m. and Saturday, November 7, 3:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m.
Community Remembrance: African House (IRCO), 10301 NE Glisan Street, Saturday November 7, 4:00 to 9:00 p.m.
Remembrance Church Service: Portland International Church, 22 NE 80th Ave, Sunday, November 8, 10:00 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.

Friday, October 23, 2015

Trevor Noah on Donald Trump

One of the themes that I am developing in my book on American
views of Africa is that it has become more and more difficult for Americans to imagine Africa without Africans making themselves heard.  African academics teach at hundreds of American colleges and universities, African writers are read more and more widely, African pundits take to twitter and the internet to contest movements like KONY 2012.  And then there's Trevor Noah.

Trevor Noah is the South African comedian who not long ago came to the U.S. (whereupon he finally became black) and recently began hosting The Daily Show.

So Noah's very presence in what has become an iconic American TV show confounds assumptions about Africa being completely "other."  But of course he doesn't settle for that.  One of his latest routines makes the case that Donald Trump would make a wonderful African president, that his megalomania, disregard for science, thin skin, and antipathy for immigrants evokes some leading African despots, past and present.

For believers in American exceptionalism, people who believe that the U.S. is simply better than and completely different from other nations, regardless of what we do or become, watching an African comedian draw parallels between the front-runner for the Republican nomination and African tyrants such as Idi Amin may cause some much-needed discomfort.

Friday, October 16, 2015

John Donnelly, A Twist of Faith, and Heroism

I just read a fascinating little book, John Donnelly's A Twist of Faith: An American Christian's Quest to Help Orphans in Africa.  It follows the struggles of  a North Carolina carpenter, David Nixon, to run an organization helping a community in Malawi, and it certainly serves as a cautionary tale of the dangers of good intentions.

Nixon, to be sure, is much more humble and flexible than are most Americans going to Africa determined to do good.  For example,  when a government official tells him to give up his dream of an orphanage because they are expensive and ineffective, Nixon is at first angry, but then sees the wisdom in adjusting.  Donnelly contrasts this approach with Madonna's nonprofit, which insisted, despite the government's objections, on giving very large grants to organizations unaccustomed to handling such large funds, a practice that often led to conflict and chaos.

But Nixon also faces a lot of troubles, from a spurned chief who threatens one of his worker's families to a supervisor who abuses his authority.  It turns out that running a small business in America is not sufficient preparation for running a large charitable organization in Malawi--though we should join Donnelly in giving Nixon props for his determination and flexibility.

Donnelly points out that problems inevitably occur when Americans start large projects in Africa before first understanding local cultures.  We see in Africa an opportunity to do something big, and we get in a hurry to become a hero.

The original sin of so many Americans, Christian and otherwise, is that we want to make a name for ourselves in Africa, want to star in movies of our own making.  So we often ignore or dismiss the fine work already being done by local people.

Yo Ghana! tries to avoid the pitfalls of western ignorance and individualism by: 1) Having a board of directors, a group of decision makers, that includes large numbers of Ghanaians; 2) Working with existing schools, with Ghanaians who have already been doing great things in their communities.

Africa can use the help of Americans such as David Nixon.  But it already has plenty of heroes of its own.

Friday, October 9, 2015

A Story with a Happy Ending

Last spring a friend of mine was really depressed about two things: the acute plantar fasciitis in her
right foot that made it painful to walk, and how difficult it was to get a good fish dinner in Portland, Oregon.

She decided that a vacation in Portland, Maine, on the Atlantic Coast might do her good.

And, sure enough, two weeks later, after an afternoon of pain-free walking and over a delicious fish dinner, she turned looked up with a big smile on her face, then pointed to her foot and then to her meal, and sang, with great enthusiasm: "It is well.  With my sole.  It is well, it is well, with my sole."