Even in London or New York or Paris, Africans do not easily lose the habit of catching your eye as you pass. Raise an eyebrow in greeting and a flicker of a smile starts in their eyes. A small thing? No. It is the prize that Africa offers the rest of the world: humanity…Amid Africa’s wars and man-made famines and plagues, I have found people getting on in life, rising gloriously above conditions that would break most of us. In Africa even in the worst of times you do not hear the tones of doom and despair that characterize some Western media reports on the state of Africa. Africa always has hope.
– Richard Dowden, Africa: Altered States, Ordinary Miracles
During the summer of 2010, I spent three weeks in China, and several of those days were spent at the World Expo in Shanghai. It was a great experience with some unforgettable pavilions. The one pavilion that made arguably the biggest ‘splash’ was the North Korea pavilion. It was wild. They had decorated the inside of their pavilion with serene creeks with cheerful bridges. There were rainbows and unicorns and videos of people playing and having a good time. They went for the vibe that North Korea was open, fun, and a page out of a storybook. It was laughable. But this is how they chose to represent themselves to the world at the Expo, even though almost everyone who went knew it differently. Sometimes there are the worlds we wish to live in that compete with the world that actually exists. Experiences such as the North Korea pavilion at the World Expo, force us to be called back into reality.
When we view Africa, the reality of the continent appear to be civil wars, famines, hunger, underdevelopment, disease, poverty, and other words that frequently make the nightly news or front cover of newspapers. When I arrived in Ghana for the first time in 2009 the trigger questions rose up in my mind: ‘Why this, God? Why these people?’ I would get angry teaching in schools that consisted of cement blocks, no modern toilet, and splintered bench seats and barely existing chalkboards. I would get a tight feeing in my chest when I saw forgotten children, brutalized handicapped persons, and begging children. It just did not seem fair to me, and comprehending it made my head spin.
I am often told that these effects will lessen in time. That I will wake up one day to find that these types of pain and atrocities do not affect me in quite the same way. I am told that time and exposure will do this. However, I pray that I will never wake to that day. I pray that every moment that shakes mankind will shake me as well. It seems like a horrible wish upon myself in a world that often seems to be imploding, but there are few other ways that humanity can truly understand the depths of the explosives and help one another stoop to build things up again.
Perhaps, however, those were the wrong questions, the wrong reactions, or not the whole idea behind the conflicts. Maybe the reality is that there are multiple realities to Africa.
There are different ways of living, different ways of engaging with the world. My friend Allie calls them currencies in life—what people exchange for and spend their life moving towards. There is an interesting movement in Africa of a divide between those who idealize Western lifestyle and those who do not. I cannot turn a blind eye to the fact that in this corner of the world, there are those who have taken the worst aspects of Western life—trying to grab at money by any means possible, with greed, exploitation, and corruption being words to throw their way. They miss the best aspects of Western life though in this attempt—the hard work, the ideologies of freedom and equality. Even more distressing, however, is they miss a reality of the life around them. It is a reality that could give them the type of life whose currency is based on love and a fount of hope.
I love the quote attributed to Mother Theresa that says, “I know God won’t give me anything I can’t handle. I just wish he didn’t trust me so much.” I often feel that way when life’s tests rise up. And when I’m in a place like Ghana, I think that God must have incredible belief in the faith and strength of His darker children. The type of faith that finds ways to endure even in the harshest of environments, no matter how deep it has to bury itself in order to bloom to its fullest beauty again one day. We miss this so many times because we often only see the image of Africa as symbolized by the warring states, the starving child, and the land destroyed by lack of rainfall. Because that’s the story that “sells.” That’s the story that makes people decide to volunteer, donate to a cause, or just simply care about the plight of people an ocean away. I’m not saying that those stories are not important, especially when we approach the telling of them in ways that preserve their dignity, as my friend Roxanne writes about. However, those are not always the whole stories of the land. I believe that there is a lot to be gained from telling the heartbreaking stories of hardships, disease, and war, but there is a lot we can gain from realizing that within those stories also lie stories of giving more than one has, endurance in the face of adversity, and a spirit of never giving up, even when there seem to be no easy answers or solutions.
James Oblinski, a former director of Médicins Sans Frontiers and co-founder of Dignitas International, who spent many years in the field in Africa, noted: “I have witnessed the good of which we as human beings are capable: the good that calls a mother to feed her child, regardless of how unbearable her own suffering may be; the good of a mother and a grandmother who carry their sick boy to a clinic in South Africa. The good of those who refuse to remain silent as another is violated, and who act to right a wrong. It is the good we can be if we so choose.” This brings me back to Dowden’s words that ‘Africa always has hope.’ Maybe we don’t always recognize it and talk about it, the way we do other things, because not everyone’s lives call for this type of hope. But we can learn a lot about what humanity is capable of through this type of hope. Everyone can take away some message from the type of hope that says that life can go on and be good again, no matter how dire the situation.
One of the reasons that I feel so blessed to know and work with George is that he has such a beautiful vision for the future of Ghana. When he talks about what he believes Ghana is capable of becoming, I not only believe it, but I can close my eyes and see it too. I know that when he looks around he sees things that make him sad; things that are changing about the ways of Ghana that he would like to freeze before things get too far. But I also know that even when he sees those things, he always holds on to the hope that they can change, and the land with it too.
There is something very precious here that I am beginning to unearth. A friend of mine wrote that because of tragic life circumstances, she had begun to lose hope in herself, and nothing mattered anymore in her life. She said that she only began to regain a belief in herself and the beauty of life—the fact that she was not alone—when she moved to Ghana. Throughout all the things that shake the core of who I am, as well as who we as humanity are, I also pray that I will look to Africa for my lessons of hope—born of suffering and cemented in the lives that move forward with dreams of a better tomorrow.