African eyes {weeks 6 & 7}

I work with three Ghanaian social workers named Stanley, Leo, and Collins (dubbed the Three Musketeers), and nearly every day I see them they ask if I’m wearing my “African eyes.” With my African eyes, I can see monkeys swinging from the ceiling fans and elephants traipsing around outside the office. African eyes are eyes for adventure. African eyes remind you to stay lighthearted amid a lot of heavy work.

For the past two weeks a hundred different worries were running through my mind. I was looking at the year ahead of me and wondering how all my bills were going to get paid. I was thinking of graduating next June and wondering kind of job I would be able to find. I was missing my family and friends. I was sick and sure I was dying (I wasn’t). I was missing rock climbing and hiking and worrying about needing to rebuild strength and endurance when I get home (Petty? Yes).

I was thinking about a hundred things I needed to do. Buy books for my fall class, pay cell phone bill, remember to get my oil changed when I’m home. Schedule a doctor appointment, buy plane tickets to weddings, buy more iCloud storage. Replenish my supply of vitamins because the humidity here ruined all of mine. Respond to 30 emails, write another blog post, study Spanish for my proficiency test this fall. And the list goes on and on…

And amid all the worry and stress I piled upon myself, I wondered if wearing my African eyes meant more than monkeys and elephants. What if it meant a perspective change in how I was handling my worries? Because while I’m sitting here missing my friends and family, every week I’m working with people who don’t have families or who have been abused or abandoned by their families. While I’m worried about my final year of grad school, I’m constantly having to adjust the empowerment program I’m working to accommodate the high rates of illiteracy in Ghana. While I could’ve afforded hospital treatment if I had needed it, one of my seamstresses can’t afford $7 malaria medication. While I’m missing rock climbing, people in Africa don’t even understand the concept of recreational activity because why would you spend time or money to do something so frivolous, that doesn’t serve any function??

So. I’m going to try to keep on my African eyes.

City of Refuge

Kokrobite, Ghana

City of Refuge

castles & canopies {weeks four and five}

In my frenzy of writing hundreds of pages of lessons for the women’s empowerment curriculum I’m working on, I somehow didn’t get to posting a blog last week.

I struggle with blogging this time around. I struggle with the line between sharing stories and experiences I’m having here, because while sometimes the cultural differences are hilarious and/or frustrating, they’re nothing that thousands of people haven’t experienced before me. I struggle with wanting to share more about what I’m working on but also wanting to protect the names and faces and stories of the people I’m interacting with. How do I interact ethically, not exploiting the very personal experiences of the children and ladies I work with? Experiences and stories that belong to them, not to me or to the rest of the world? How do I raise awareness, not just for awareness’ sake, but in order to create change?

So I don’t blog much anymore, because I don’t have answers to those questions. And because I’d rather err on the side of silence than sharing too much. So instead, here’s an update on the general Ghanaian goings-on, in case you’ve been wondering what I’ve been up to…

I work Monday through Thursday and some Fridays. Mondays through Wednesday I’m typically out at City of Refuge’s main campus (which is essentially in the bush), Thursdays I’m at the 7 Continents (microfinance enterprise) location 1-2 hours (depending on traffic and/or rain) in the opposite direction, and Fridays I’m either working from home or traveling. Of course, this is all subject to change because, as we say daily, this is Africa, and very few things go exactly as planned.

When I travel internationally I tend to explore one country fully rather than flitting around to a bunch of different ones. You get to know a country and its people and its culture in a different way when you plant yourself there. In the last month I’ve been to a resort on the Volta River, a beach camp in Ada Foah, further north and across Lake Volta to the tallest waterfall in West Africa and an awesome monkey sanctuary, and this past weekend to Cape Coast.

In Cape Coast we toured the Cape Coast Castle – a British fortress that facilitated the transatlantic slave trade. This was on my list of must-sees in Ghana…my first couple weeks of grad school were spent doing a fairly intensive study of the transatlantic slave trade and Great Britain’s abolition movement. It was kind of surreal to stand in the dungeons that held thousands of African slaves and to hear the tour guide talk about slave traders I’d read about in books. Surreal and so sobering.

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After Cape Coast we headed to Kakum, a rainforest and national park. The main attraction here was a canopy walk – essentially wooden planks suspended by rope webbing 125+ feet in the air. This places you on top of the rainforest canopy, with the sort of view you probably can’t find anywhere else (likely because of safety regulations, but oh well…).

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The whole weekend was made more interesting due to the fact that nearly all of Ghana’s gas stations were shut down because the government hasn’t been paying its petrol bills…so we were never quite sure if we’d be able to find transportation home. And then when we thought we were headed home, we happened to get on a tro tro (a van/minibus used for public transit) headed in the wrong direction (we mistook the town “Shaima” for “Ashaima,” where we were headed). So when I realized the ocean was on the wrong side of the road (we were going east instead of west, toward home), the tro turned around to take the clueless obrunis (foreigners) back to to the station. One guy on board got really upset but all the other Ghanaians were protective of the silly white girls who didn’t know where they were going. Oh the adventures of international travel.

This week my fellow intern and friend Ashley went to the market in central Accra (Ghana’s capital) to buy materials for 7 Continents. We wandered through the rain to several different “stores” to get fabric, thread, zippers, edging, foam…all the pieces necessary to make our products. Then, because the Ghanaian we were with thought it’d be funny (and so we wouldn’t have to hire someone else to do it), we carried the supplies back to the bus station on our heads, African style. You could say we got a lot of attention. But hey, when in Africa…

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the Estuary {week three}

I spent last weekend at the estuary of the Volta River, the place where the Volta meets the Atlantic. I stayed on a finger-like sliver of land separating river from ocean, and each morning I sat on a weathered wooden chair gazing out at the river while I listened to the ocean’s waves crashing against the shore behind me.

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And I thought about that sliver of land I was sitting on, this sandy separator between the chaotic, crashing ocean and the peaceful, winding river. I sometimes feel like I’m straddling that line between the ocean and the river, between the adventure and the calm. I crave the wild, strong adventure found within the open sea, all at once furious and beautiful. But other times I long for the river, for its gentle, peaceful, soothing rhythm, its predictability and grace.

Ada, Ghana

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Sunday morning I walked to the end of that sliver of sand separating river and ocean. To the Estuary. To that space where the river meets the ocean and the lines blur and you can’t quite tell which body of water is which. It was as if in that brief space where ocean met river (or river met ocean) there was a pause. An oh-so-fleeting moment where they coexisted, where you couldn’t tell where one ended and the other began. Where safety and danger met. Where the water was all at once wild and calm, furious and beautiful, strong and graceful.

And I thought that maybe God is a little bit like that sliver of land I was standing on, this Holy Separator between ocean and river, the Mediator between wild adventure and peaceful calm. This place of safety, where I can retreat to when the ocean’s chaos is too much or can escape to when the river’s predictability begins to wear at my soul.

And I realized maybe I could have both the winding river and open sea. Maybe I just need to find that brief space where they meet, my own Estuary.

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I forgot {week two}

This week I was reminded of how small I am in the face of the very real problems that exist in this world. Overwhelming problems. Dangerous problems. Complicated problems.

I study human trafficking, so I’m completely aware problems exist. I’ve seen some of the world’s worst problems firsthand. If there’s an innocence spectrum, I’m on the opposite end of naïve. But for the past year I’ve only been researching these problems. Reading about them. Writing about them. And while reading and writing and research have a completely necessary place in the world of international development and I don’t for a moment regret my decision to go back to school…somewhere within the papers and books and academic journals I was beginning to forget.

I was beginning to forget that these “problems” have names and faces. That they are twice-abandoned, single mothers who can’t afford a $50 a year school fee to send their kids to school. I forgot how difficult it is for them to save even 50 cents each month. I forgot how hard the cement floor must be to sleep on when you don’t have a bed. I forgot how difficult it is to encourage women to dream when for their whole lives their dreams have been stifled.

(with permission)

(with permission)

I forgot the pain that must follow kids who are the sole survivors of their families. I forgot that kids who have been trafficked, abused and abandoned need more than effective anti-trafficking legislation because anti-trafficking legislation doesn’t work in a country as corrupt as Ghana. They need education, they need a place to live, they need someone to care and to make sure they are encouraged to survive and dream. They need someone to listen. And they need someone who is committed to making sure the situations that rendered them exploited or abandoned are prevented in the future.

(with permission)

(with permission)

I forgot that there are no easy answers, that poverty is a complicated beast of a problem that can’t be fixed overnight. It can’t even be fixed by the most well-intentioned Millenium Development Goals. Because even when your goal is free, universal, primary education, you don’t realize that there are families who still can’t afford the school uniforms. You don’t realize that a primary education doesn’t even ensure an individual will be able to read and write. You forget that even the best theories often don’t work in practice, and what works in America may not work in Thailand and what works in Thailand may not work in Ghana.

photo 3

I forgot how privileged I am. “Woe is me, I’m a poor grad student.” But the reality is I’m getting an education most Ghanaians aren’t even able dream about. I eat three meals a day and have enough water to drink. I have a car and a bed and a closet full of clothes. The computer and phone I carry in my backpack cost more than most Ghanaians make in an entire year. And yet I complain. Yet I complain.

When I got home from Thailand I promised myself I’d never forget, but somehow I did.

Remembering is never easy.

This is Africa {week one}

At first I wasn’t sure I would like it.

Africa, that is.

City of Refuge

It was hot and humid and when the power went off (a regular occurrence) the fans went off and I could feel every inch of me glisten in the heat. It was very different than Southeast Asia and I felt like I was betraying Thailand, a land and a people I love so much. There were no rocky crags to climb or mountains in the distance and oh how my constantly sticky skin missed the dryness of Colorado. And I was tired and burned out and this laid-back African pace was difficult to adjust to after ten months of nonstop chaos.

But I’ve quickly come to appreciate even the briefest surges of power that allows me to charge my computer and cool my face. I’ve met the Ghanaian “Three Musketeers” trio of my co-workers Leo, Collins, and Stanley who never fail to provide entertainment and encouragement. I’ve been directed to a brightly painted room and a desk next to two windows overlooking the expansive City of Refuge campus, where I can see the kids playing soccer at recess and hear the teachers’ bells ring when it’s time for class. I’ve visited an oceanside shanty and met the beautiful Millicent, Monica, Janet, Joanna, and Alice, some of the artisans I will be working with weekly.

7 Continents

The kids. Oh, the kids. I’m here to work primarily with the women in that oceanside shanty but I can’t help but make a little time each week to hold hands, take pictures, and read books about happy worms and hungry caterpillars. These kids are overcoming such odds – some have been rescued from trafficking, some from abusive homes, and others walk miles just to attend this school that promises a sound education.

Faith roots international academy

So as I’m sitting at that desk in this big empty room, as the afternoon breeze drifts through the windows and the low-hanging clouds promise more rain, as the fan spins and the internet runs, as laughter floats from the school to the east and roosters crow from the coop down the dirt road, as I (almost) forgot the chaos that is life back in America, I am happy.

This is Africa.





Home is an interesting concept.

I’ve written about that before, but it’s hitting me again.

I’m in Ghana, West Africa.

Akwaaba to Ghana

It’s been awhile since I’ve left the States for any significant portion of time. And I’m only here for ten weeks – which is actually on the short end of how long I like to be gone. And while it’s no secret that I love to travel, it was difficult to leave Denver…

…to leave home.

What is home? Home is my family and my friends. It’s is my own comfortable bed. It’s coffee in the kitchen upstairs. It’s my running and my climbing shoes. It’s my (way too many) clothes in the dresser. It’s an air conditioner and a heater to keep my house a bearable temperature. It’s a washer and a dryer. It’s fast, reliable internet and wifi everywhere I go. It’s all these things and a thousand more.

And I’ve gotten used to having all of these things at my oh-so-American fingertips. But I’ve been in Ghana for 18 hours (two of which were spent waiting on my luggage and 12 of which were spent sleeping), and I’ve realized I need far less than my oh-so-American fingertips want.

It’s not that all the things that make up my life in America are inherently bad. It’s just that anytime you travel you are reminded that a) they aren’t all necessary and b) you have them because you have been incredibly blessed.

So yes, it would be nice to have a few percentage points less of humidity. It’d be nice to curl my hair or go rock climbing or wear my favorite jeans. It’d be nice to hug my family and my boyfriend. But I’m in Ghana and my bags are unpacked and there are pictures of friends and family on the wall and a cup of coffee on the table next to me.

I’ve got all I need. For ten weeks, this is home.

Organized chaos

I have a case of the crazies.

I stare at my planner each week trying to make an extra day appear in my schedule.

Because I’m on week eight of my third ten-week quarter of grad school. Since January, I’ve been in class every week except one (thank you, DU, for that one meager week of break). I’m surrounded by books and papers and research on labor rights and export processing zones and participatory planning processes.

Because I’m running from work to school to my other job to church to the climbing gym and every now and then, to bed.

Because yesterday I pulled my suitcases out from the closet – the worn one from Thailand and the red one whose wheel broke on the cobbled streets of Florence. Suitcases that have been around the world both ways.

Because my to-do list is a mile long and the days to finish its tasks are dwindling. Immunizations, visa, Target runs, research papers, statistical analyses, meet with Claude, see my friends, find a summer’s worth of coffee to bring to Africa (very important), and then try to eat and climb and sleep. All important.

(In case you’re wondering how I’m making time to write this, I wrote it during class. Multitasking at its finest.)

“I’m so stressed, I have so much to do, I’m so tired, school is so hard, I’m sick of research.” Oh, how I like to complain. My friends and my oh-so-understanding boyfriend know this well. But the truth is, a year ago when I was preparing to move to Denver for graduate school, I couldn’t have imagined the opportunities that are in front of me right now. Opportunities to study topics like forced labor, migration, microfinance, field methods, and human rights. Opportunities to work with DU’s Human Trafficking Center. Opportunities to go to Ghana this summer and work in human trafficking prevention. Opportunities that don’t come around simply by chance.

So I may be going crazy for the next for the next 17 days, and I may be absolutely unequipped for what I’ve been asked to do in Ghana, and I may not know exactly how I’m going to turn in all my finals before I leave the country, but I do recognize the uniqueness of the opportunities in front of me.

I always grow the most when I travel, when I live abroad and get to experience another culture and forget about the anxieties and complexities of American life. Don’t get me wrong, human trafficking is far from simple and the issues I’ll be engaging with are certainly complex. And I’ll miss Denver and my family and my friends and these mountains that have become home. But I need this summer, because sometimes amid the craziness that is grad school, we forget why we’re studying this, why we’re writing these papers, why we’ve taken on two years of sleeplessness and cheap food.

But today, I remember why. It’s because my perspective has grown tenfold since September. It’s because I’m surrounded by brilliant classmates and colleagues, who are on a trajectory to make amazing contributions to this world. It’s because I have a (mostly) grant-funded trip to West Africa where I will learn more from rural Ghanaians than I could ever learn from my books.

It’s a good life and I am thankful.


Highways and Off-Beaten Paths

There are so many voices in our heads.

Saying go there, do this, buy that. Saying be safe, be stable, stay on the highways.

Somewhere deep within, though, buried under those voices is a different voice, one telling me to exit the highway and forge my own way. Telling me to stop worrying about life making sense. Telling me it’s okay to be different.

The voice is small and fragile and a lot of days it’s completely drowned out.

But when I summon the courage to listen to that whisper of a voice, when I get off that paved road and cross the border from the known to the unknown, when I foray into new territories and go my own way and not the world’s, I find adventure.

I find my dreams.

I find myself.

And in some serendipitous manner, a path always appears where before there was nothing.

It’s so tempting to stay on those highways where we can set our cruise control and turn off our minds. The first step is the most difficult…the initial decision to turn off that paved road and take that remote-looking exist leading who knows where, to turn your back on the fear and doubt and the questions still ringing through your head.

The smallest voice is usually the wisest.

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