Wednesday, July 20, 2016

An End

From the very first time I stepped off a plane into the West African heat, I have been led time and time again down paths I never could have imagined as an eighteen-year-old drawn to a continent I'd never set foot in, but already knew I belonged to. With each unexpected turn, I have felt the pull of that internal compass shift, assuring me of the next phase of the journey.

In the last year, navigating those next steps has become considerably more difficult. My relationship with the country and community I love so much has been challenged in every way possible. While my most recent visit to Ghana served as an incredible affirmation of my personal strengths and growth, it also demanded a high personal price. Until now I have avoided writing about the most difficult of these challenges, but the story is incomplete without them.

Last summer I experienced the breakdown of my Ghanaian family. Although I had always known it was an unhappy marriage, it came as a shock. The deterioration of Worfa and Victoria's relationship has likewise impacted my own relationships with them. I will always love my African parents, but I'm no longer sure what type of bond we will have. Although I expect I will continue to visit the little gray house in Awakorme, I doubt it will ever be my home again.

Karina and I were simultaneously restructuring SSF, which included our decision to end our sponsorship of the school Worfa and I built. It is hard to describe how devastating that choice was for me. But I did it with the hope that I could save my NGO, and with it my ability to support my community in the long-term.

From the beginning we have continuously struggled with all the typical hurdles of a grassroots NGO, in addition to the cultural and logistical challenges of working across borders. But with two years of experience on our side, Karina and I fought to rebuild SSF as something more realistic and sustainable, with simpler parameters and a stronger team.

But less than three months shy of our three year mark, we have made the decision to shut down Students of Success Foundation.

Despite the genuinely good intentions of all involved, we consistently failed to follow our internal protocols or maintain legal standards. This culminated in losing our placement with Global Giving recently. Karina and I realized it was less a matter of giving up, as of recognizing there was nothing more we could do.

I never wanted to start an NGO. How many hundreds of times have I said that?
It was true to the very end. And yet I am heartsick.
Not just because the life I have built in Ghana - my family, my school, my organization - has fallen apart piece by piece like a neat row of dominoes.
I am sick because I don't know how to tell my team that, although I can't blame any one of them individually, we have collectively failed.
I don't know how to tell my friends and family that their generosity and support and steadfast belief in our mission has ultimately come to this.
Above all, I don't know how to return to my community on Gomashie road and look them in the eye. They will welcome me back with open arms and hearts the way they always do - because they won't even know anything has happened. How could they? Nothing on their side of reality has shifted.

And therein lies the true heartbreak in all this.

Although it is sad that the organization I struggled to create has finally fallen apart, the fact is I can have a second chance. A third, a fourth, a fifth even. There was never any doubt I get to take this learning experience and refine it as many times as needed for it to be successful.
But what about the people who weren't born with the door propped open?
What do I do now that I've lost my last tool with which to fight for them?

Ghana will always be a part of me. I will always be drawn back. That is why, no matter what has happened over the last six years, I have always found a way to recover. Get back on my feet. Keep fighting.
But this time...I stand here empty-handed.
This path has ended, and I'm way too far off the map to consider going back.

Ghana may be the last thing I want to think about right now, but all I can think to do is book a ticket as soon as I can.
Go home, where that magnetic pull is strongest.
Let my meerkats run full speed into my arms. Sit under the rustling palms that have always reminded me of a church. Savor a bowl of fufu and groundnut soup.

Hope the needle of the compass shifts again.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Battles Won

The most current battle won is actually getting a post through! The internet connection frequently goes out with the power and thanks to the resulting backlog in maintaining my blog, you get two posts in one day!

I had a baffling/fascinating conversation with a stranger in a tro the other day. It went something like this:

Without so much as a preceding 'hello,' the man next to me opens the conversation by asking if I'm married. I say yes for reasons of self-defense. Then he wants to know what my nosering is for. Decoration, I say. Don't I know that the Bible forbids that sort of thing? I gently inform him that I am not a Christian. It would make him happy if I was a Christian, he says. I apologize that he is not going to be happy in this case. We spend the next five minutes evangelizing and refusing to have any more religious discussion respectively. Then he wants my number because he wants to be my friend. Five more minutes is spent on me justifying why I won't give him my number. Then he wants to know what my tattoo is of. A butterfly (representative of Ghana, somewhat ironically). Am I sure? (Ghanaians have a curious habit of saying this when they want to indirectly emphasize a point, and usually I find it humorous. I mean...obviously I'm sure that the permanent mark on my body is of a butterfly and I'm sure he could see that himself without asking. But I realize that's not literally what he meant.) Yes, I'm sure. He shakes his head. He just doesn't understand whites sometimes. I, wisely, do not open my mouth. We arrive at his destination, and part ways with friendly wishes and a wave.

So throughout this whole conversation, the American in me wanted both to laugh and also to bop him on the nose. From my cultural perspective, it is COMPLETELY inappropriate to comment negatively on a stranger's appearance... Much less pass moral judgment on it. It is inappropriate to ask for a stranger's number or to try to convert them to a religion, except occassionally in specific situations. At times I really, really wanted to snap at him that no one asked his opinion and I really could not have cared less what he thought about my nosering, tattoo or religious beliefs. But the fact of the matter is that we are not in my culture, and nothing he said was culturally inappropriate in Ghana. He wasn't aggressive or unfriendly about any of his comments, and I'm quite certain he had no intention of offending me. I am grateful that (for once!) I had enough awareness in that situation to preserve the positivity of my interaction with this man... even if I couldn't internally suppress the nose-bopping urges.

On a different day, our new Executive Director Dennis brought Karina, two Danish Advisory Council members and myself to see an area chief in Sogakope. That's close to two hours away from Aflao, for the record. What we were led to believe was a personal visit ended up being a foundation business ambush. We were brought to meet headmasters at a school, where they and the chief immediately started explaining how they were arranging a durbar in our honor to crown us 'development queens' of the school.
"You mean this school?"
"Umm...I don't think that would be very deserved since we haven't done anything for this school..."
And that's how we learned that, without a word of discussion with any of us, they had decided Students of Success was going to extend its sponsorship to this random school in Sogakope. So we were put in the extremely uncomfortable position of explaining that SSF only operates in Aflao, and no, we were not expanding our range just because they told us to. I was furious with the chief for his presumptuousness and unprofessionalism. Why he thought he could bring us to this school and expect us to use our funds there without any preceding discussion or formal procedure is completely beyond me. (More desire to bop noses.)

But, I was ten times more furious with Dennis, who just smiled and nodded throughout this whole process like everything that was happening was hunky-dory. The fact that my new Executive Director didn't feel the need to prepare us for this or see a problem with the multiple Constitutional violations it represented was beyond alarming. I fully intended to let him have it on the drive home, but - fortunately, as it turned out - I didn't have the opportunity to confront him until the following evening.
That gave me enough time to cool my jets enough to decide I would ask him what his thought process was for doing that before I said anything. I started the conversation by asking him for confirmation that he had been aware of what was going to happen (meaning for it to be a rhetorical conversation starter)... only to find out that he had not had a clue either, felt equally ambushed and furious, and was embarrassed that he had unwittingly facilitated the incident.

I cannot even describe how thoroughly grateful I am that I had not had the opportunity to talk to him right away. Fate truly stepped in and saved me from my temper on that one. I very much respect and like Dennis, and all my interactions with him have built my confidence that he will be an excellent Executive Director. So, needless to say, I'm very relieved my impression of him was not wrong and that I didn't follow my first impulse and end up wrongfully attacking my righthand man.

 Both these incidents were reminders of how much Ghana has and continues to change me. My third visit to Ghana has revealed a lot of internal resources I didn't realize I have. I find myself having a lot more patience, especially for the more frustrating aspects of the cultural gap. I see myself holding my temper and weighing my words more carefully in difficult situations, almost like it's an out-of-body experience. There have been many moments of sadness and frustration when I know the me of not-so-very-long-ago would have been in tears, and instead I am finding I can tap into an inner strength I had no idea was there.

None of this is to say I have magically transformed into superwoman, never cry and have not made any mistakes. (Would be nice, though!) My point is actually not to comment on my own character, but to emphasize the amazing transformative power I have discovered in taking on the challenge of this NGO. What an amazing thing to think that a place and your experience there can shape you so profoundly. What a powerful thing - whether for better or worse - to look back on your series of decisions and realize they made you a completely different person than you expected to be...

I never wanted to be part of an NGO. In fact, I very pointedly did NOT want to be part of an NGO. The idea of starting and heading my own NGO actually would have been put in the category of "you could also become a professional knife juggler or live in a shark tank for the rest of your life." That is to say, very uncomfortable and not well suited to my talents. Students of Success Foundation and my permanent role as Founder... that was never my dream. Helping my Aflao family was something I set out to do, but it was never supposed to take this form. In fact, I arrived at the crucial decision point in pursuit of supporting Worfa's dream of owning a school; it had almost nothing to do with my personal aspirations.

Nevertheless, I was given the opportunity to start SSF and I willingly said yes. It wasn't a peer-pressure thing and it wasn't some sort of hero/martyr complex. It was just one of those moments in life when I knew the answer needed to be yes (even if I didn't know why), and the second-guessing and self-doubt and personal discomfort that were inevitably going to follow just couldn't be considered in that moment.

And follow they did.

I have spent the last two years actively fighting this identity as Founder. It has never sat comfortably on my shoulders. I have felt inept... unworthy... helpless, clueless, angry, resentful - you name it. This isn't self-deprecation; it's just the straightforward truth of my beginning experience in the non-profit world. I have wondered agonizingly from the moment I decided to take this on whether I would ever feel capable. How many hundreds of times did I ask myself if I would ever stop actively hating this responsibility? I don't think I have ever loved and committed to something I simultaneously thoroughly detested. It is a very difficult experience to describe.

But my moment of ownership happened.
That underlying sense of peace and certainty I have been desperately waiting for finally introduced itself to me. I will undoubtably continue to feel all those negative emotions about running this NGO at times, but I am confident they are not going to dominate my experience anymore.

A week ago, SSF finally became MY dream.

I didn't ever want to be a non-profit founder, but I am one. An imperfect, inexperienced one, but hey - no one learns to be a professional knife juggler in just two years.

Two things happened in the last week that reinforced this pervasive epiphany I've had:

One, several of us on the SSF team met with a consultant and were given a very tough but fortunate wake up call. In hearing a lot of things that were very scary and hard to swallow, we were given many of the tools we're going to need to make this foundation a sustainable one.

Two, we made the difficult decision to end our support for Success International School and dramatically restructure the organization, both in terms of what it does and how it does it.

The last few weeks have been a seemingly never-ending series of crossroads. Do I even want to keep doing this? What am I willing to do to sustain this work? Is SSF really worth fighting this hard for? I am in the perfect position to lay down this responsibility and finally be rid of it. I mean, after all, it needs the non-profit equivalent of a heart and lung transplant and I can no longer justify it because it sustains my host father's dream. I thought I'd be relieved to take a blameless escape route, but to my own surprise I have found myself reacting like a mama bear instead... The kind of mama bear who is only too happy to keep eating the hikers who get in between her and her cub.

And that's how I know that somewhere along the line this did become my dream.

Two years ago it's a very good thing I was ignorant of the full extent of the turmoil my 'yes' would cause me, or I never would have had the strength to accept.
But I'm not the same person who said yes two years ago. SSF has taught and shaped me and better equipped me little by little for this job so that I can say yes all over again - even knowing the pricetag attached.

Yes yes yes yes yes.

Mama's Windchime

Ghana is a gift-giving culture, and my mom got dragged into the stressful process of trying to figure out what to bring for all my African loved ones. This involved a lot of pacing Target and Meijer from end to end, while I either harrassed her for not giving me enough ideas... or for giving me ideas I didn't like. (Unfortunately, it is well documented that sometimes you just can't win with me.)

Even so, we slowly pieced a gift roster together. Everyone essential had been checked off the list, when she stopped in front of a rack of windchimes. "Do they have these in Ghana? Maybe Worfa and Victoria would like the novelty," she suggested.

It proved to be a brilliant idea.

Worfa and Victoria had, in fact, never seen a windchime and were instantly enamored with it. It hangs outside our house in the mango tree, where it is carefully brought in each night and when no one is home to protect it. Children sneak into the yard to ring it when Victoria isn't looking. Even the adults can't resist catching my eye and then jingling it quickly as they come and go from using our well.

We used to have a winchime hanging from our porch at our house on Fourth Street, where I lived for the last two years of college. The porch was unanimously the favorite room in our house. We used to regularly eat roommate dinners there in the warm months. (Did I say months? Excuse me, it was the U.P. - I meant 'week.') A favorite house pasttime was sitting on the porch late at night and watching drunk arguments between people walking home from the bars. Many of my favorite moments with my Fourth Street family involved sitting on our porch couch on brisk mornings, drinking coffee before the day kicked off. I associate the tinkling of the windchime with all those memories - so much so that when we moved out and had to divide up the community belongings, I specifically asked if I could take the windchime.

Marquette is the only other place that has come to occupy an equal status in my heart with Aflao. They are the two cities where I became an adult, the two places that firmly shaped the person I have become and brought me many of the most important people in my life.

My mom has always seemed to understand this. Just as she collects Reader's Digests and Sunday comics to send to Worfa, she would send my roommates care packages - even if I wasn't there and she barely knew some of them. It was enough for her that these people and places were important to me. My mom loves indiscriminately, and if there is one quality of hers I try most to emulate, it is that.

My African mother is another woman I respect and love. But she is nothing like my mom.
My mom is quiet, undemanding, and instinctively knows how to let people be themselves. She is willing to let me make my own mistakes. She has always believed that the best way to be a good parent was to teach me as much as possible not to need her. She has never hesitated whenever the time comes to let me go, no matter how far away I go or how scary it is for her.
Victoria, in contrast, wants to shelter me from the world. In Worfa's words: "Victoria would be most happy if all you did was stay home and eat all day." She worries about me travelling to and from Dzodze (40 minutes away), talking to anyone she doesn't know, and not finishing every heaping plate of food she lovingly prepares for me. Victoria knows no way to love except possessively and uncompromisingly. Even knowing it comes from the right place, the unaccustomed amount of meddling can chafe on me, especially compared to the attitude of the woman who raised me.

So here I sit, listening to the windchime in the mango tree, ringing in the breeze coming off the nearby Atlantic. And as I listen, it reminds me of another windchime, hanging on the porch of a green house in Marquette, ringing in the breeze off Lake Superior. And it brings to mind my mom, studying a rack in Meijer, contemplating how to bring a little bit of joy to people she has never met, half a world away.

It was a brilliant idea.
Not just because it was something new and fun for my African parents. But that sound has come to represent all my homes in one, and hangs outside like a sort of dreamcatcher for warding off homesickness. Every time I hear it, I think about the open-handed love my mom must have - not just for me, but for everyone in this community - to send me off to Africa every couple of years without complaint. I know I am lucky to have the type of mom who loves people by letting them go. My mom's windchime reminds me of the responsibility I have to make the most of this opportunity, and to use this chance she has given me to love the people around me with that same selfless spirit.

Monday, July 27, 2015

My Religion

I had a quiet Sunday afternoon in my house while the Gomashies were at church. I played a game with one of my neighbors and her kids in the sand. I read under the mango tree, and snapped photos of some of the children playing with a balloon I'd given them.

It was here, more than four years ago, that I had the turbulent realization I no longer wanted to practice Catholicism. In that sense, I suppose it would be accurate to say I lost my religion in Ghana.

It is also accurate to say that I renewed my faith here.

The change in my personal belief system, while difficult, never felt like a loss of faith to me. In contrast, although many of the external practices were falling away, my sense of connection to God and the world around me was becoming more and more real.

Even when I was still practicing a formal religion, I have never been comfortable in Ghanaian churches. The uninhibited, long-winded and noisy worship style that is so common here only seems to unsettle me. The harrowing experience of speeding through the Ghanaian countryside in a tro, on the other hand, never fails to instill me with an unspeakable awe at its wild beauty - and I am always reminded to say a word of gratitude for this place and its people.

Today, I did not sing any hymns or listen to a sermon or sit in front of an altar.
Today, my church had sand and rustling coconut palms and lizards darting up the walls.
And I found God in my neighbor's obvious joy and love for her children, even as she confessed to me that she is upset because she is three months pregnant and doesn't know how she can provide for another baby. I saw God in my host brothers, Samson and Sylva, when I scolded them for grabbing a struggling baby bird, only to find out they were trying to put it back in its nest. I saw God in four-year-old Catherine, who recently learned I am a source of kisses, and clambers into my lap and mashes her little face into mine every time she sees me. I felt God when I took my chilly bucket bath underneath the wide open African night sky.

Ghana reminds me daily to be grateful for the smallest of things, from the simple joy of eating a mango to one-year-old Richmond finally deciding today that he isn't scared of me anymore. It reminds me to be conscious of my decisions and the effect they have on the people around me. It reminids me to ask for help, to say thank you, and to say I'm sorry - both privately and to others.

Nothing about my day was religious. But it was sacred.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Husband Collecting

Typical (and factual) tales of being a yevu woman in Aflao.
I leave SISCO and start walking to the roadside to catch a taxi to the beach. A man I don't know immediately takes hold of my arm.

Him: I want to marry you.
Me: Good for you.
Him: You don't want to marry me?
Me: I don't even know you.
Him: So? I want to marry you and you can take me to your place.
Me: You don't know me either.
Him: Yes I do; you stay with my uncle.
Me: Just because you know something about me...
Him: So, will you marry me?
Me: I'll see you around.

I arrive at the beach and go to the bar to get a beer.

Me: Good afternoon, are you open?
Bartender: Oh beautiful woman!
Me: Thanks, are you open?
Bartender: Yes, yes. Very beautiful woman!
Me: Do you have Club?
Bartender: I want to marry you! ...What? Oh, yes.
Me: Great, I'll take one.
Bartender: What do you say? Will you marry me?
Me: How much does it cost?
Bartender: I own this place. We can run it together. Four cedis.
Me: Uh-huh, I'll just be over there then.

Having successfully drank my beer without acquiring any more husbands, I get into a taxi to go home.

Me: Awakorme, please.
Driver: Hey! I want to marry you; you go take me to your place!
Me: Sounds good. Be ready August 4th.

Thursday, July 16, 2015


I dated a guy during college who told me once that he does not think he is privileged.
I stood in front of this heterosexual, white, American male in the process of completing his university education, and just gaped.

I think a lot about privilege when I am in Ghana.
The obvious comes to mind: I grew up in a spacious suburban home with two parents who read and sang to me, gave me a private school education, and saved for my college education before I even had a name. People have asked me for as long as I can remember what I want to be when I grow up, and I have always known that the answer was only dependent on the conclusion of my own judgment.
I have had everything I needed and many of things I wanted my entire life.

But there are other types of privilege.

In this dusty, hot, often uncomfortable environment, I find myself feeling fortunate even over the smallest things. Sleeping in a room with a fan - which only happens when I visit Karina and the others in Dzodze - as one example. Enjoying a quiet cup of instant coffee with condensed milk before my busy day starts and I have to start fielding the inevitable attention I attract simply walking down the street. A piece of ripe mango.
It's easier for me to maintain a mindset of gratitude, to feel rich in even the smallest things, on this side of the ocean.

And my personal favorite type of privilege: The incredible opportunity I have to work with all the people this non-profit endeavor has brought to me. SSF is growing; in our upcoming election we have enough candidates to potentially put our Board of Directors at it's full capacity of five members, and to put the Advisory Council from it's current 6 members to 10 filled seats out of the possible 20. Not that the number in itself is indicative of anything. What's amazing about it though is that all the people seeking active seats in our foundation are impressive and likable and talented in so many ways.
Even as I slowly (slowly) learn to have confidence in the gifts I myself have to offer our organization, I am no less impressed by those of my teammates. They are experts in education, business, technology, fundraising, law, medicine, and dreaming big. The fact that I have ended up as their spokesperson constantly amazes me.

Few people have the opportunity to work with and learn from such a diverse group in a collaborative effort like this. I have had the chance to grow through my relationships with them in ways that might never have happened otherwise.
At the end of each day, when I again have the opportunity to take the rare quiet moment to myself, that is a source of privilege that continues to stand out.

Monday, July 6, 2015

Home Again

I will be getting on a plane tonight for my third trip back to Ghana in five years.
Five years already since this wild journey started!

I'm going back now with a brand new B.A., instead of as a recent high school graduate. I'm in my twenties now instead of my teens - something I appreciate as that seems to carry just that much more weight in the world. I've learned a new language, held three jobs and found yet another city to call home since I first stepped on a plane to Africa.
I will become a first-time aunt right about when I get back from this trip. And soon after that, fall will find me moving to Spain for a six-month job as an au pair before I mosey on to grad school.

Ghana has changed a lot since 2010 too, which I'm about to discover for myself. As an example, the dramatic changes in the exchange rate - a point of concern despite being increasingly in my favor - mean I won't know the prices for anything anymore. I have always found Ghana exciting as a place that is evolving so rapidly, and the comfort of returning to my other home always comes hand-in-hand with reorienting myself to what I've missed in the last two years.

Now that we're at the two year mark since the start of Students of Success Foundation, we'll be doing some major overhauls. Time to read through our Constitution again, decide needs revision, hold our first elections, etc. etc.
It's going to be a busy month on the other side of the ocean!