20 October, 2013

North Takes On A Whole New Meaning (And then some...)

This post is perhaps a tad bit late. Perhaps a whole month late. But let's ignore my tardiness for now and talk about the 'north', shall we? The word 'north' before this trip has had a couple different associations.

In the context of the United States, the north is where I consider myself originally from: Columbus, Ohio even though I was actually born in Texas. The north is where snow is, where real winters actually exist. The north is where you can see distinct seasons, enjoy the colors of fall, the chill of winter, fresh rains of spring, and heat of summer.

In a global context, I think of the global north, the western world, Christendom (if you can still argue that it still exists as it once did). I think of the complex global issues that can be traced back to every starving child in each "third-world" country, every struggling village farmer, every education aspiring child whose family can't afford it, every person living on less than a $1.25 or $2 a day. When I think about the international poverty line and imagine having only one or two dollars a day to meet needs, I'm awestruck, I'm flabbergasted, I'm angry that in this world we live in, just above 20% of the world's population falls under the $1.25 line and if you merely raise it by ¢75 a day, it jumps to about 40%. Now, if that were distributed evenly across the world's countries, then it perhaps would be more manageable, less scary, but to put things in perspective I snagged this nice chart to just depict the global inequality between the global north and global south. To add just a bit more perspective. The percentage of the world population living off of less than $2.50 a day is 50%. Half of the world is either in poverty or less than ¢50 a day away from being in poverty.

Map of world poverty by country, showing percentage of population
living on less than $2 per day.  Based on the 2009 UN Human Development Report.
Mind you that I got my numbers through the statistics on poverty through the world bank website, and that they do not even list the poverty by percentage of population in North America when comparing different world regions. We hear people complaining and debating poverty levels in the US, and we're painted a bad picture, but that's according to our own standard; we aren't even comparable on the global level. And Europe is only considered because of a select few countries. This isn't to say that there aren't Americans, Canadians, Australians, New Zealanders, or Europeans who aren't in poverty. However... all this is in hope of shifting and opening up perspectives, just as mine are being challenged and shaped.

Now if you know your African geography, you can tell from the image above, that Ghana is red, meaning it is only in the 41%-60% range of population in poverty. My use of 'only' seems inappropriate there, but if you compare it to the rest of Africa, Ghana is holding its own fairly well.

It seems I may have gotten slightly side-tracked, but it all ties together, I promise. With this excursion to and through the northern territory of Ghana, we were finally exposed first-hand to the developmental gap we have been hearing about in lectures, from daily conversations, and from historical presentations having to do with colonial era practices of slavery and the relationship with the northern part of Ghana.

This is how it all ties together, with a thin string of irony. In much of Africa, especially coastal countries that became major colonies, there is this trend of high development more southerly and near the coast, and a seeming lack or at least significantly lower level of development in the northern regions. When we think of global development, the north is always the winner; first world countries, wealth, power and influence in the global economy, comfort in daily life for the average individual. But in Ghana, the "north" takes on a whole other meaning. The "north" means more traditional religious practices, the "north" means poverty, the "north" is not the place to be in Ghana. There is still a constant flow of workers coming from the north to the south, in search for better livelihoods, higher education, even just to escape traditional practices. Now just to be clear, traditional is not always bad, there is always some good to be found in tradition and tradition must be preserved, however, in today's global and trans-continental culture, tradition can often times be inhibiting.

The "north". In the northern territory of Ghana, we visited several NGOs to see what kind of work they are doing, and what are their needs for meeting the needs of those they wish to help. It was interesting to visit different villages, meet different chiefs, and talk to and interact with folks who were just so excited and intrigued at our very presence in their own communities.

To highlight this reaction and attitude, I'd like to share a little story of a gift we received in Bolgatanga. We were visiting a village that the NGO, TAWODEP, is and has been working with for a while now. Our Calvin semester groups have been there to visit for the past four years now and this year we will for the first time be sending students up there for a month long service-project.

Now, we had just spent about maybe 1-2 hours with men, women, and children of the village, trying our hands, quite literally, at shea butter processing as well as dancing and playing with the children. As we were leaving, Stephanie, our trip professor, was informed that they wished to present us with a gift. Now, the last year's professor had received a guinea fowl, so Stephanie had no idea what to expect but, had a feeling it might be another guinea fowl. After about 15 minutes of us waiting on the bus for departure, not having any clue as to what was happening, Stephanie came onto the bus, looked at us and said, "They gave me a goat..." The reaction was unanimously partway between awe and confusion. Laughter broke out over the entire bus as Stephanie explained the situation to us and the goat was brought over and leashed to the railing on the top of our bus. And so we took off... with our new gift goat.

Now for pretty much everyone not quite used to goat gifting, this is a humorous situation... but when you look past the humor, the unfamiliarity, it's easy to recognize the weight of their gift. This is from a community which is partaking in a goat exchange program, through TAWODEP, in order to bring elderly women out of poverty, because goat raising is not too strenuous. According to their website, the goats cost approximately $20 usd which doesn't sound like a lot, but for anyone living off less than $2 usd a day, that's 10 days worth of living expenses. To this community especially, these goats are a form of livelihood and needed income. A gift goat is definitely not to be looked in the mouth.

While preparing to leave, with every group, village, and people, I would get this slight nagging in my heart, a tugging, as we promised to endeavor to send students in the future, promises which may as well be as empty as the palm of my third hand. It's not that we don't want to send students there, but we have so many other relationships already started and going with different organizations, that the logistical difficulties make it hard for us to create even more partnerships, and beyond that, there just aren't enough students that would go to Ghana each and every year. Still, that doesn't mean there isn't hope there, perhaps I'm just being a little pessimistic and cynical.

This got me considering why I felt so negative about these situations. I know for a fact that many of the other students felt very similarly, with the desire and urge to just spend another thirty minutes, at the very least, to just have some time to get to know the people more on a personal level rather than just as mere guests. It was obvious that they were very willing to cross the line, and let our educational visit, not just be a cursory visit, but one with some depth and relationship building, even if just brief. I wanted to not feel like I was lying to them, I wanted to drop the visitor status for just a second and share the priceless gem of a moment with some of these individuals, in which we could come to some sort of understanding of each other that transcends the social, economic, ethnic, cultural, worldview-based, and seniority-based dimensions of our lives that act as boundaries from deep kinship, unity, and mutual understanding... even if it were just a fleeting, evanescent interaction.

I came to an epiphany.

I was, am, had been, and have been for all of my life searching for that type of deep kinship that can only come through mutual vulnerability, understanding, trust, and love. The truth is, the one thing I fear the most is interpersonal relationships. I have always sensed or imagined and perhaps even at times created a disconnect and distance between me and the people around me.

I wrestled with this and how it was affecting my interactions with those people we would visit and meet. I found myself quickly considering long term missions work. Not necessarily evangelistic in nature, but perhaps just working, learning, and learning within a communal culture how to break though, past the wall I put up around myself and just let myself be fully part of a community. There was even one group of farmers we visited in which a couple women invited a handful of us to come back sometime and stay to live and work with them. I was among that handful. It touched my heart that they'd be willing to just let a stranger into their homes, to take part of their lives and livelihood, let alone me. There are just so many people I've been meeting that have stirred up this desire to be just as open and inviting. Perhaps this semester is meant to be another growing point in my life, not just as a film maker, or student, or multicultural individual, but as a social being. But, before I get ahead of myself, I think I need to see those directly around me at the moment. I'm hoping very strongly to get closer to my peers on this trip. I haven't let those walls down for most of them yet... but I think I'm getting there, albeit slowly. Even typing this now and putting this out there as publicly accessible, is quite a stretch for me. But I think it's a crucial step in this process.

These feelings and thoughts have been submerging and resurfacing through the layer of homework and daily life over the past month. I'm still not sure what to make of it, but one conclusion can be clearly made. This is one of the struggles that I am being called to face, not just the contemplation on long-term mission work, but my deep, raw struggle with interpersonal relationships. This is part of the Behemoth. I know I have to rely on God to break this Behemoth, but unfortunately stubbornness against submission and reliance is another struggle in my life. If you are reading this and are a person of faith, prayer would be greatly appreciated, just a short-but-sweet telegram would suffice.

Mole National Park at sunset...
even this super cloudy one was absolutely beautiful
Now, it's time to move on to a lighter and more exciting topic. Our short stay at Mole National Park(also a game preserve).

Here we saw antelope, warthogs, all sorts of birds, and other animals while down on the game grounds which we got to go on a walking tour of.

We walked along some game trails with our guide, stopping at any sign or glimpse of any wild animals nearby. Even if we hadn't happened upon the animals we saw, it was a nice long walk through some very beautiful scenery, through slightly forested areas, across open plains, and around a couple watering holes.

This game walk was in the first afternoon and usually the elephants do not come down toward the watering hole except for in the morning. I planned on getting up for the morning game walk, however I slept in on accident and was not able to go, to make things worse, I barely missed the group by about ten minutes. Coming up to this stay in Mole, everyone had been talking about all the rain, and worrying more when rain came in the day before Mole and on the next night, the night before the morning game walk. However, the elephants did not think the ground was too muddy, because sure enough, they were there in the morning and many individuals in our group were able to see them on the morning walk. As you can imagine. I was disheartened and very upset that I had missed the game walk, or more precisely, missed the elephants.

Now, before judgement and sentencing ensues, just hear me out. I'm pretty sure that the next thing I did was against the park policy, however, we saw one of the elephants bathing in the watering hole after breakfast. I grabbed everything I needed and within five minutes I was going down the trail behind our living quarters down onto the reserve grounds, ready to find and film me a wild African elephant. I did not expect the next hour and a half of my life to ever take place... I am truly humbled by God's providence and the poetic writing He has employed in the writing of the story of my life.

From the path down to the game reserve grounds

He noticed me standing on the bank of the watering hole

Then decided to swim away...
Suffice to say, I found a way around to follow him
At this point. I had spent maybe forty-five minutes just watching, photographing, filming, and getting gradually closer to the elephant. I spent maybe thirty of these minutes standing knee-deep in flooded grasses in order to get as close as possible to him. These were probably the hottest thirty minutes of my trip so far, standing as still as possible while filming and photographing, and then attempting to find my way through the flooded grasses without stepping into any holes, all under a relentless, beating African sun. This is where things get interesting. After his bath, the elephant decided to come back onto land for a snack, or perhaps lunch. Either way, I decided I had already spent this much time out there, was wet from the knee down, soaked with sweat on the other half of my body, I figured I might as well just stay out a little longer and follow the elephant into forest for a little while. What did I have to lose? Plus, when would I get this chance again?

I followed the wild African bull elephant into the forest and slowly and cautiously reduced the distance between the two of us during the next half an hour. He would stop every now and then to grabs some plants from the ground, or leaves from a tree, there was also the occasional acknowledgement of my persistent pestilent presence behind him with either a quickening of pace or a sudden stare-down. It took quite some time, making myself smaller (not that I can do much in this area), talking calmly, and a handful of determination to keep with him and after a half hour of this, I finally was within ten feet of the majestic beast. He turned to face me, and for about a solid minute or two he seemed to acknowledge my persistence, my effort, my presence in a sort of staring contest. I snapped a few photographs, filmed what I could on the last stretch of my battery life, and then stood there as he finally decided he was tired with me and turned to go even deeper into the forest. God had brought me out into the forest to meet the physical and symbolic representation of the Behemoth that I am facing this semester. It was both exhilarating and frightening, exciting and nerve-racking, awe-inspiring and speech-impeding. Here I saw just how massive the Behemoth is, the representation of the unconquerable nature of the land, a creature so insurmountable, so gigantic, so impenetrable, and larger than life. I met my Behemoth face to face in Mole. He came in the form of a lone wild African bull elephant. I learned how impossible and foolish it would be to take on breaking a Behemoth on my own would be. 

This was taken at that last moment before the elephant turned and left me

This has mostly been written in retrospect. With that in mind, that brings us back to the topic I started this entry off with. My tardiness. I am several weeks behind on my blogging. I will be hopefully making amends this week, by posting several times. The next blog post will be on the Odwira festival in Akropong. I'm looking forward to being caught up with this blog. We are all incredibly busy with school, exams, and papers, but that'll be saved for a couple entries down the road. So keep a watch out for the next couple posts in these next few days!

1 comment:

  1. Goodness, your photos are beautiful! I miss you bud! I am also praying for you. It seems as if our lives have taken a turn in similar interests! Learning about and getting to know refugees last spring and now your work in Ghana! Essentially you are living and experiencing my four years of ComDev studies at Covenant. Wish I had sent you with some of my books. Your musings also remind me of my internship in the Philippines. Love you. Our God is a big God. Big enough for your questions and the things that don't seem to make sense.