I’ve been dragging my feet in writing this blog post. I think it’s because I knew it would take me several hours to get my thoughts written out, and it has. I feel so grateful and blessed to have been able to travel to Ghana. It was a life-changing experience. Everyone should travel to Africa at least once in their lifetime. Few things in life will ever change a person as much. I fell deeply in love with the Ghanaian people, their charming villages and their way of life. I would happily take my family to live there with the dirt roads and the simplistic and uncluttered approach to life. I loved taking pictures to my heart’s content, hugging those sweet children who were so eager to love, and to briefly experience a way of life that is so vastly different than anything I’ve ever experienced before.
I think part of my hesitation in writing this all out is the whirlwind of convoluted and confused thoughts that I’ve had after coming home. Instead of a travelogue of details of our day to day coming and going, I need this space to write out some of the things that in the end matter more to me than what we ate, and where we went each day. I teach Sunday School at our church, and at the end of our lessons I often pose the question, “So what?” I ask, “Why did we just spend 40 minutes talking about this? Why does this all even matter? Where do I go from here?”
In the end, I think the “So what?” is what I want (need) to remember about my trip.
Part of my confusion came from things I’ve heard people say after returning from places like African countries and other severely impoverished places. They tell of the unimaginable poverty, how some people own only the tattered clothes on their backs, how they’re on the brink of starvation, how they watch their loved ones painfully die from diseases that in the U.S. would be easily treatable, and other tragic realities of so many places across the world. Your heart weeps just listening to their plight.
Because of all this, I went to Ghana expecting to witness the dire poverty, but to also find a people who were happy, almost blissfully so, with their lots in life.
And yes, the people there were poor. Very poor. Poorer than any other place I’ve ever been to. And I’ve traveled quite a bit. I lived the first 17 years of my life overseas, living in Latin America. I thought I understood poverty, that I had seen much of what there was to be seen, but I realized quickly that I understood very little about the level of poverty that exists throughout most of the world. We meet teenagers who were the size of 3rd graders due to malnutrition. Some children wore only one shoe because they didn’t have the luxury of owning two. It was heart-wrenching.
And then there were the people. What lovely, amazing people. If there is one thing I know for certain, it is this- I had met, talked, and associated with some of God’s most precious children. So many of the people, especially the children, had the most incredible auras about them- ones of faith, and strength, and love. How I loved them! As we walked around the villages, I felt flooded with affection for the children as they greeted, smiled, and played with us. As we drove away from Effiduase for the last time, I felt a pain in my heart and a lump in my throat at thinking of saying goodbye to these people.
Their smiles were infectious and genuine- none of the superficial courtesy smiles that as Americans we far too often give. But behind their beautiful smiles and kind expressions lies a heart-breaking and in some ways tragic culture that simmers beneath the surface. It was becoming aware of these dark realities that cast a grim light over the experience.
It was endearing but somewhat alarming at how eager the children were to give affection to us as complete strangers. The tragedy comes with knowing that this indiscriminate affection is often a result of a lack of emotional attachment. It was startling how many children we could have simply picked up and walked away with, without protest from the child. Such a sweet and endearing habit with such a sad motive.
One day my friend and I were sitting in the living room watching television when the news reporter, with as much casualness as if she were talking about reading to your children 20 minutes per day, encouraged mothers to become educated on the risks involved with giving their children away or selling them for money. Our jaws dropped. The mission organizer, who is Ghanaian, explained that this is a common problem among the poor who struggle to care for their children. I was speechless.
We learned the sex slave trade is alive and well. Child abuse is rampant. Children with disabilities or deformities are shunned from society or left to die at birth. Greed and corruption hold a firm grip on the hearts of many in authority. There’s so much tragedy, creating an underlying river with a current of misery and despair.
But there was an abundance of good… such an abundance. I admired how faith is such a central part of their everyday existence. My own understanding and application of faith pales in comparison to the faith it takes a mother to live from day to day, not knowing what the future holds for her and her children. I loved their constant expressions of devotion towards God and Allah. One of the most touching moments for me was when the pastor of the Presbyterian church we attended on Sunday prayed for us in front of the congregation, asking that our families be protected and that we be blessed for the sacrifice it was to come. I had to turn my head to hide my tears as I thought of the emails Dennis had sent me telling me how my little Calista had struggled with my absence. I knew God would bless my family because of his faith. I knew it because I had already witnessed the deep level of faith of the Ghanaian people.
I adored how they incorporated music into their life. As we watched the children dance, the rhythm pulsed through their little bodies from deep within their souls as they moved in perfect and enviable rhythm. Unlike the United States, where dancing is for young people, in Ghana people of all ages literally dancing to the rhythm of life. It was spectacular.
I loved their quick smiles and stunningly beautiful faces. When they laughed, it exploded delightfully from somewhere deep within them. I was amazed at their generosity in feeding and caring for us. I envied their sense of community and interdependence. It was a sad reality to return to the secluded life of a subdivision. I’ve never felt lonelier than when I’m surrounded by people on every side but am as isolated as an island. No one ever told me how lonely motherhood in the U.S. can be.
“Doesn’t it feel so glad to be home in the good ol’, blessed U.S. of A?”
“So, did seeing how poor they are make you feel guilty to have all that you have?”
Yes, it did feel amazing to do such a good thing, but it certainly wasn’t me who made the difference in them. I was the one who felt the change. So often as Americans we think we go overseas to bestow our goodness and virtues among the impoverished nations of the earth. But how much deeper a change is made when we realize how trivial and silly so many of our everday concerns really are? So often it is the cursed luxuries that rob us of so much of ourselves.
Yes, it does feel good to be back home. I love the United States and my quiet little Idaho town. I love the order, the security I feel, and the values people place on the things that matter so much to me. But my heart will always ache a little for the way of life that is found overseas- the smells, the music, the simplicity of life.
At the risk of sounding callous- no, I don’t feel guilty to have the things that I do, and it’s because traveling to these places helps me realize that the material things I have aren’t what make me happy. I am fortunate to have a hot shower and soft bed, but in the end, it’s my husband my children, and my faith that bring me real joy. Take away my SUV, my home, and my twenty pairs of shoes, and I’ll still be one of the luckiest women in the world. So often as Americans we mistaken convenience and comfort for happiness.
One of my biggest struggles has been the final portion of the question of “So what?”- Where do I go from here? I know God didn’t give me this amazing experience to perch myself back in my posh little corner of the world to keep pecking along as if nothing ever happened- to pretend like my heart hadn’t been changed.
To answer that question… I’m not sure where I should go from here, in all honesty. Maybe God’s purpose for me going was to plant a seed within myself for a time later on in the future. Maybe it was to plant a seed in others. I just don’t know. I saw the beauty of humanity at its finest, but I also saw a very dark side of that same humanity as well. But the truth, both stark and beautiful, is what changes us and motivates us to action, not whitewashed versions of what pacifies the conscience. And in the end, what I want is to act, not merely just to witness.