Monday, December 17, 2012

20 Children

Now We Are Six

When I was one, I had just begun.
When I was two, I was nearly new.
When I was three, I was hardly me.
When I was four, I was not much more.
When I was five, I was just alive.
But now I am six, I'm as clever as clever.
So I think I'll be six
now and forever.

        - A.A. Milne

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Spirit of Unity - from Ghana

Phoebe, the poet who is taking a gap year before leaving Ghana for university, returns to us with a poem inspired by the death of her nation's president.

This poem is timely, not because of John Atta Mills' passing (which occurred in July of 2012), but because Ghana has just completed a peaceful election and named John Dramani Mahama as its new leader.

Ghana holds a lauded place in post-colonial African history.  One of the few countries to find political stability after imperial powers released their grip, the country is very proud to be free and self-governed.  Each election since 1957 has served to establish a stabilizing democracy.

The journey has not been trouble-free, and John Dramani Mahama's recently published memoir "My First Coup d'Etat: And Other True Stories from the Lost Decades of Africa" speaks to challenging times.

But Phoebe's poem, which has shades of Walt Whitman's "Oh Captain, My Captain" is a lovely elegy for a leader she admired.

10th August 2012: 
Tunes of the Atentebbe*

the whole of Ghana mourns to the tunes of the atentebbe,
 hear the dirge that wafts through the air,
the mood is somber; there is mourning everywhere,
the nation is at a standstill; our president is dead,

even the trees are clad in black and red,
in the spirit of grieving the dead,
chief mourners are over-playing melodrama in their show,
even your rivals have lowered their heads,

for your sake, we have joined our hands in grief,
for a while, we have put our dirty politics to sleep,
together, with one heart, we will weep,
hot, and heavy tears for the cherished memories we keep,

Even in death, we are possessed with your spirit of unity, Damirifa due*, until we meet in eternity.

* Atentebbe- A wind instrument of cultural significance, often played on the occasion of one’s death.
*Damirifa due- An expression of one’s condolences in the Twi, an Akan dialect

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Seven Letter Stranger

The underground, New York City me is a jaded straphanger who rarely makes conversation or even eye contact with my fellow subway riders.  
When I first moved here I loved people watching while commuting. I surreptitiously studied those who sat across from me, read books and magazines over their shoulders, and shamelessly eavesdropped on "private" conversations.  

Over time, however, I stopped paying attention to the details of my world.  As a teacher, I would grade papers while squished between sleepy travelers, and when I had no deadlines to meet I think I just daydreamed.

But now? Now I have Scrabble. With a hunched back and a furrowed brow, I lean over my iPhone, compete with my computer foe (he calls himself CPU and I swear he makes up words), and I shut out the rest of the world.  If Johnny Depp sat next to me these days, I wouldn't notice him.

But, as it turns out, those people I used to study are peeping over my shoulder and reading my words.  While waiting for the 2 train at the 14th St. station last week, I was startled when a woman who looked a lot like Eryka Badu leaned into my left ear and said, "reverie".  

Actually, she said it twice.  I ignored her the first time.

"Reverie," she said.
"I don't have a 'y'" I responded as I searched the screen for a letter I may have overlooked.   "You can spell it with an 'ie'.  It's a seven letter word.  I play a lot of Scrabble."   She pointed to the place on my virtual board where I needed to arrange my letters.  As she stood up and gathered her things she admitted,  "It's embarrassing, but I do play it a lot.  It's kind of an addiction."

And as Eryka's doppelganger boarded the downtown 1 train I crushed CPU with one, fanciful move.

I don't need Words with Friends, I've got New York City.  

Thursday, December 6, 2012

The Birthday Girl

Today is my mom's birthday.

She one of those unique adventurers who seeks and often invents challenges for herself.  Before marrying my dad, she traveled to Ireland and stunned all of our relatives with her scandalous mini-skirt, and just two years ago she flew to Ghana and spent a week with me at the SOS Village in Tema.

With a PhD in Education, she taught school until she and my dad decided to move from Montana to California to attend law school.

Thus far, she's been a nun, a teacher, a lawyer, an investor, and a telephone operator.

Born and raised in Butte, Montana, she's never lost the true character of a feisty Mining City girl.    I don't know anyone who enjoys good books, political debates, and red wine more than Mary Kay.

She and her three brothers are planning to meet up in Vegas later this month.  They will be seeing some shows, but the true goal is to play some slots.  She will win big.  She always does.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Surfers, Sandy, and talking to your neighbors

The Surfrider Foundation is a non-profit organization made up of surfers who advocate for clean water initiatives, etc.  But in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, the east coast branches of Surfrider have shifted their focus to humanitarian efforts.

I recently joined a group of volunteers organized by the foundation  to help with post-hurricane clean-up efforts in Long Beach, Long Island.  
We took two vans from Manhattan and Brooklyn to the destroyed, coastal neighborhoods.  At 8am I didn’t know anyone in the group, but by the end of the day I felt I’d met a unique collection of kindred spirits.  Urban surfers, as it turns out, are almost as laid-back as those who spend their days closer to the shore.  They are working to help restore not only the beaches they love, but they are also aiding people whose homes were ruined by sand, saltwater, and rain.

When we arrived in Long Beach, I partnered with two strangers, Erin and Annie.  The three of us stood in the corner of a windy, bayside parking lot, huddled beneath a rented tarp waiting for instructions.  Our assignment at first seemed a bit pointless.  We were asked to go door-to-door, gathering information about how people were doing and what we could do to help them.  Tyler, the group organizer, had given us specific instructions, “If you go into the houses, wear your masks; never do anything that makes you uncomfortable; write down any needs and send your lists to Joy.  And really, what most of these people want you to do is listen.  They just want to talk.”  My initial reaction to this assignment was to assume people would find us invasive and sort of weird.  The prospect of wandering around asking vague and probably unanswerable questions made me nervous.  I’m a bit of a loner, and barging into the homes of people who are at their most vulnerable made me feel like a Peeping Tom with a clipboard.  I wished I’d been assigned to something a bit less intimate, but I wasn’t willing to speak up and ask for a different task.

Throughout the day we walked up and down East Chester Street knocking on doors, and we did make lists of items people needed in attempt to rid their houses of mold, debris and even sewage that had flowed into their lives.  We filled ten massive bags with the sodden walls of a destroyed basement and we helped one family find the location of a community lunch.  Some residents we met were resilient, “We’re just lucky to have each other,” said a middle-aged man whose wife admitted that the one thing she missed most was her “overpriced, but super soft bed”.  Others gave in to defeat.  One woman angrily told us she was packing the last of her things with no intention of ever coming back.  Most people, however, did just need to talk.

An old man who likes to read about great American presidents spoke at length about Harry Truman while the four of us watched a machine with a giant claw lift all of his belongings high above, dragging ruined clothing and treasured photos from the sidewalk and into the bin.  When chairs and fence posts fell onto his new Toyota, none of us shuddered as Sandy had already ruined his and almost every other car in the neighborhood.  

It was hard to know what to do about the broken hearts.  Cramming heavy detritus into trash bags was easy when compared to the weight of sadness we couldn’t carry away.  

When the van came to collect us, I felt comforted by its familiarity.  Everyone inside, those strangers from only a few hours before, seemed like old friends.  We swapped stories and drank cold beer, and though the Saturday night traffic made for a long journey home, the conversation never waned.  It was good to have someone to talk to.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

International Bright Young Thing

“Nobody can discover the world for somebody else. Only when we discover it for ourselves does it become common ground and a common bond and we cease to be alone.”  
- Wendell Berry

Olivia Muwereza is a determined and independent adventurer.  She has a charming smile and a true gift for poetry and kindness.  In person, she is so quiet and so still her fearlessness and her intellectual intensity are easy to overlook.  But Olivia is, in the words of her high school biology teacher, “single-minded” in her pursuit of knowledge.

Raised in an SOS Village in Uganda, Olivia attended high school in Ghana and is now a first year student at Kalamazoo College in Michigan.  Amazingly, she’s already learning Chinese in preparation for her next undertaking.

What thoughts, hopes, or fears did you have about leaving Africa for your university studies?
I am usually a resilient person when it comes to moving away from home but I still had a few concerns about moving to the USA. I was basically worried about the social aspect of College Life in America. I thought I wouldn’t have people to hang out with since I am very introverted and I am also not used to partying or going out. When you are in high school you think this is what students do in college especially in the USA. However I was glad to find people of various races who related to me. Besides I have a roommate who enjoys going out but she still respects my decision not to go out with her and she has never considered it ‘uncool’ or anything of that sort.

What were your first thoughts/impressions upon your arrival in Michigan?
I might be wrong but I thought people here like meeting foreigners. Every time I told them where I am from, they would be like, “You are from Uganda? That’s so cool!” As far as I am concerned almost everyone I met was nice to me so I felt very comfortable in Kalamazoo.

Thus far, what has been the most difficult challenge in adapting to life in North America? (Food? Language? Culture? Etc)
At first I thought the food was fine but after one week I just couldn’t eat anything in the Cafeteria. The fruits and vegetables tasted different and I was tired of having fries for every meal. I am slowly adapting to the food since I am going to be here for four years. Another thing is that I feel like Americans speak really fast so I sometimes feel bad when I ask my friends to repeat themselves over and over.  Michigan is also very cold! What makes it worse is that people here are like “oh it’s going to get worse.”

What (so far) seems to be the biggest difference between life in Uganda (or Ghana) and life in the United States? 
I will say the weather because it gets so cold here unlike in Uganda and Ghana. The time difference is also quite huge so most of the time I have to wait until 2:00 am in the morning or wake very early to call home.

Do you think the experience of living and studying in Ghana has helped you adapt to living outside of your own country? 
Yes, I believe going to Ghana was good preparation for me. In Ghana I learnt how to deal with homesickness so even though I miss home, it’s not that bad. The fact that I met new people in Ghana also taught me to relate to people from various parts of the world. I was very shy before I went to Ghana so I am glad I can easily pick conversations with anyone I happen to find myself with. In addition, the academic program in Ghana has also enabled me to stay on top of my assignments in college. I feel like I do not struggle much to meet my deadlines relative to some of my peers.

What do you miss most about Uganda/Ghana?
The food and the music!

What do you (or would you) tell Americans about Uganda that they don’t seem to understand?
I think some Americans have what I would call a ‘stereotypical’ view of Africa which I would blame the media for. My roommate for instance thought that back home there are wild animals such as zebra’s monkeys etc moving around everywhere! So I explained that yes we do have those but they are not found everywhere. So what I always emphasize to my peers is that there is more to Uganda than what the media says. I would like them understand how a normal day is like for certain people in Uganda and why it is like that.

Why did you choose to come to the US for your university studies?
I chose to come to the US for university because there are not so many liberal arts schools in Africa. It’s like you have to know what you want to do before you go to university at home. I think I have a lot of things I am academically interested in and I simply couldn’t imagine myself combining all of them in one area of study. So I thought the system in the USA best suited the kind of student I am.

Were you always motivated to succeed as a student?  If not, who/what inspired you? 
I was not motivated as such until I joined junior high school. I was not a weak student but I cared only about the subjects that I liked and I succeeded at them very well. I did not like math and I never made an effort to perform better at it so in my national exams, I got distinctions in all the three subjects I liked and I got a pass in math. This affected my final points in the end. So in junior high school I decided to do my best in every subject including math. I think this new attitude contributed to my acceptance into SOS HGIC in Ghana as well as my excellence there.

You were the only student from Uganda in your HGIC class, and now you are the only SOS girl in your class to travel to the US for university studies. Do you consider yourself brave?  What gives you the strength to accept such big challenges and adventures?
Brave!! Wow to be honest I also ask myself the same questions. I am like “how come its only me?” But I would say that I am not afraid of being different as long as I am doing something that is good for me and it also makes me happy. I understand that this is all part of the learning process and it’s also part of growing up. I am also a Christian so I think God also has a role to play in all this.

You are a religious person; have you found a Christian community in Kalamazoo?  Are there any differences in the way people worship in America and the way people worship in Uganda or Ghana?
Yeah there is Christian fellowship every Wednesday on campus so I get to meet other Christian’s students and it’s nice to know people from different countries who share your faith. I would say the manner of worship is similar though the songs differ.

Do you have a class or a professor that really excites you?
I like my chemistry professor. His name is Dr. Bartz. He is very understanding and he has introduced me to various people who can help me in the subject. One time he said to me “It’s not as easy as you think, Olivia, you came across the ocean to learn from me and you have to get it right.”

What are your goals as a student?
I want to make my time away from home very meaningful. I intend to take advantage of the opportunities here. I am learning Chinese and I want to study abroad in China. I also intend to challenge myself by taking courses that I like not only those that I can easily excel in.     

“International bright young thing
Now you know for sure that you make the world swing
International bright young thing
Make it swing” 
– Jesus Jones