Wednesday, March 9, 2011

How Far We've Come

March 6th marked Ghana's 54th Independence Day!
My host father, Worfa, and I got up at 3 am to catch a tro to Accra so we could see the official ceremony in Independence Square.
It was hard for me to choose between spending my only Ghanaian Independence Day at home so I could see my kids march in the local parade or spending it in the capital to see the celebration on a national level. However Worfa's excitement at being in Independence Square on March 6th for the first time confirmed that I ultimately made the right decision.. (That and my kids didn't even end up marching after all, but I didn't find that out until after the fact.) Some of my most memorable and meaningful moments in Ghana have been spent with Worfa, simply sitting in front of our house eating Oreos and talking, so it was very special for me to be able to take a trip with him for the first time.
The center of Independence Square was filled with hundreds of children, from elementary age to adolescents, standing stiffly at attention. They were from metro-area schools and youth groups, such as Ghana's co-ed version of the Boy Scouts and a Muslim Youth Association. They had been standing at attention since long before Worfa and I arrived just after 8 o'clock, and continued standing at attention when President John Atta Mills arrived and drove up and down the rows, waving from the sunroof of his black SUV. They stood stiffly at attention throughout the medley of drum and dance performances, the ceremonial torch lighting and the President's admirably brief speech with only a half hour respite in which they got to move as they marched in formation around the square. The militaristic display was on one hand a little intimidating in its precision and uniformity. On the other hand, though, it looked almost a little silly and I had the very irreverent urge to start belting, "BE PREPAAAAAAAARED!" from that scene in the "Lion King" when all the hyenas are marching.
All this standing stiffly at attention in the Ghanaian sun without rest, shade or water predictably took its toll. In other words the kids were dropping like flies. (I've never quite understood that phrase. Flies are EVERYWHERE in massive swarms, and they seem to do every but die.) The seats we found initially were out of range of the speakers, so since I couldn't hear anything anyway I made a game out of trying to be looking at kids at the exact moment they collapsed. Ok, that sounds a little heartless, but how could I have helped in that situation? The only movement out in the square was the constant running back and forth of the first aid teams as they ferried the fainters to the makeshift infirmary.
Worfa could hardly sit still, which ended up paying off in the end because he pestered me into hunting for new seats just in time so that we were within range of the speakers when Atta Mills gave his speech. I have now heard both Ghana's President and First Lady give live speeches, which I think is kind of neat.
They finished the ceremony with a Presidential Salute (aka big guns go boom) and three Air Force jets zooming overhead.

I have moments where I am reminded- and subsequently amazed- how far Ghana has come in such a short time. Ghana has only been an independent country for the span of my dad's lifetime, after all. Living in my much-loved Aflao, where there are extremely high poverty, unemployment and illiteracy rates, I tend to get a skewed view of Ghana's state of affairs. But then I go to Independence Square in Accra or the cathedral in Kumasi or the regional hospital in Ho (just a tour, not for treatment) and I'm reminded that there really are families here who go out for ice cream, men who wear a suit and tie to work, kids who get to be part of extracurricular activities and go on field trips. Of course I'm speaking from a ridiculously strong bias, but I don't think it's any accident that Ghana has some of the best health care, education systems and public services in all of Africa either. Ghanaians themselves are the driving force that has shaped this amazing country into what it is in little more than half a century. America may be a couple hundred years older, but it's certainly not a couple hundred years ahead.
As I stood in the middle of the square after the ceremony ended, I was filled with an overwhelming sense of hope. I want my kids to know what it's like to do science experiments, to go to a museum, to blow out the candles on a birthday cake, to get spoiled by their parents with a new toy for no reason. I want them to grow up wearing socks and seatbelts- and maybe hating both. I want them to experience the oddly satisfactory feeling of back-to-school shopping. Sometimes it's hard for me not to get lost in my sadness, and even guilt, that they may never know those things. But in that moment, much of the discouragement I battle every day seemed to melt away. I like to think volunteers are people who do what they do because they never fully stop believing it will someday make a difference, despite all indications to the contrary.

So here's to you, Ghana. And hoping we're made of the same stuff.

"But I believe the world is burnin' to the ground/ Oh well, I guess we're gonna find out/ Let's see how far we've come, let's see how far we've come/ Well I believe it all is coming to an end/ Oh well, I guess we're gonna pretend/ Let's see how far we've come, let's see how far we've come" ~ Matchbox Twenty


  1. I laughed really hard at your lion king reference