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.