Saturday, September 20, 2014

Ever Wonder How Joan’s Dad Felt....?

People, especially ones with children of their own, frequently tell me how shocked they are that my parents allowed me to move to Africa as a recent high school graduate - not to mention that they helped me start the school and sent me back two years later to create the foundation. While most parents were struggling to cope with their children going to college out of state, mine were researching antimalarial drugs.
I'm sure I will never fully appreciate the depth of that sacrifice until I am a parent myself.
With his dual role as a parent and as a founding Advisory Council member with SSF, I asked my dad, Thomas Niemann, to share a little about his experience of my adventures in Ghana.
As he often does, my dad's response surprised me. But read for yourself...

That would be of Arc.

Imagine how the 15th  Century conversation begins, “Hey Dad, I've had this vision with St. Michael the Archangel. I’m supposed to lead the king’s troops to victory. And don’t worry that  I’m only 17 years old. I got this.”

Flash forward to the 21st Century. Your precious baby girl, who was supposed to spend a relatively innocuous “gap year” in Kentucky, now tells you she is fulfilling a lifelong dream and “calling” by going to Africa instead.
Like many dads, I have an over-active sense of protectionism. Like Joan’s dad most certainly had, I had a laundry list of items of why this was a “bad” idea.

You’re too young.

You’ll be with strangers.

Who will watch out for you?

You have no experience with leading troops into battle - oops, I mean, teaching orphans in a foreign country...

But your daughter is this remarkable, incredibly articulate, stubborn and amazing young woman.
She has her fears and worries, but also the conviction of a crusader. She is resolute in doing what she knows with all of her heart is what she has been called to do. So I did what any father would do when faced with the insurmountable will of his extraordinary daughter, backed by the faith of a similarly extraordinary mother, I got out of the way before I got steamrolled; and hit my knees.

So if you know Joan’s story, with a borrowed set of armor, she marched off to join the king’s army in Orleans, France. Katherine, with a full complement of vaccinations and bug repellent treated clothing, flew off to Accra, Ghana. As history tells us, Joan faced many obstacles and naysayers following her dream. So too did Katherine, but like Joan, she persevered in the face of heart-wrenching tragedies and organizational politics. And like Joan, she carried the day.
With a courageous heart and undefeatable spirit, both of these remarkable women achieved what they were called upon to do, and the world is a better place because they believed and would not be deterred.

And like the father of any remarkable child, daughter or son, we stand in awe of what our progeny can accomplish in spite of our limited abilities to grasp how they can accomplish the inconceivable.
And when it is all said and done we breathe a very proud sigh of relief. We thank God that Katherine’s story had a much happier ending than Joan’s. But like Joan’s father, we’re also eternally grateful for having been allowed the inestimable honor of being their father; and we share with pride the abundant crop of new gray hair the experience has brought us....

Thursday, September 4, 2014

History Lesson

I was sitting in my Sociology of Minority Groups class today, only half listening while my professor rambled on about global population changes throughout history. In passing, she mentioned that the first slaves to arrive in America were a group of West Africans brought in a Dutch ship.
And suddenly she had my full attention.

I had a startling realization that it is extremely likely I have stood in the very same cell where those people were held before making that horrific journey.

Elmina, in Cape Coast, is the largest and oldest slave fort in West Africa, the center of the slave trade for the Dutch for decades.
And I've been there.
I've been in the prisoner cells. Listened to the story from the other side of history.

Suddenly the world seemed like a much smaller place. It was shocking for history to become so immediately and unexpectedly real for me with just that one offhand comment. I may have learned about slavery since grade school... even visited the slave forts themselves... but oddly, it had never seemed more real to me than it did in that moment. Perhaps it took the two coming together for me to realize how interconnected our lives can be. To know with sudden clarity that history isn't just names and dates, but the stories of real flesh and blood humans who lived and breathed in places where I too have lived and breathed.
I felt a genuine sorrow for them. Not an abstract reaction like history lessons might normally generate, but a true sadness, as if I'd known them. I also felt gratitude, that I have been fortunate enough to have these life experiences that give me this perspective. I do not take for granted that the things I have seen and touched and tasted have allowed me to personally identify with so many varied situations.

Sometimes things aren't as far away or as irrelevant as we might like to think they are.