Tuesday, July 7, 2009

To whom it may concern

A letter to my family from far, far away:

Dear person I love,
This weekend I visited a Liberian refugee camp just outside of Accra, Ghana called Budaburam. I was asked to come by my fellow Californian, Charlie. Charlie is teaching at one of the schools on the camp as well as conducting his research project there. The camp, which was formed by the UN after civil war broke out in Liberia in 1990, has been home to as many as 50,000 refugees. The current estimate is closer to 20,000, however, because many have been ‘repatriated’ as the war is ‘over.’ Charlie is conducting research on why the remaining people have not yet left or do not want to go back to Liberia. The consensus: it is still not safe, no family left, or they left so long ago they don’t know the country anymore. The UN offers individuals $100 and $50 for children to relocate but that is not enough to start from nothing after barely surviving in Ghana for so many years. Charlie needed me to interview the women we randomly choose as it makes the women more comfortable to speak with a woman than a young white man. If I can put it so simply, it was a hard afternoon. Walking through Zone 7 of camp in the heat of the afternoon, looking for our arranged interviewees, hearing their heart wrenching stories, watching them sob as they were asked to give even the small details of their departure from their homes. Old women telling me of their family being raped and murdered, men of position stalked like animals for actions they carried out as statesmen, teachers murdered by failed former students; I heard all of these stories from only ten interviews each lasting roughing twenty minutes. After that long, physically, mentally, and emotionally exhausting day, while Charlie and I arranged sheets for ourselves on the floor of a local school teacher’s modest home, we made our attempts to process the experience; a new one for me but a repeat for Charlie. From this conversation, Charlie asks me how my family feels about my reasons for being so far away from home for so long. I explain that it is hard for me to articulate my intentions as I am not entirely sure what I will get out this experience; therefore, my family is left in the dark. Charlie pressed me to explain myself and this is what I will attempt to share with you as it is very important to me that those I care about might begin to understand my position here.
I have struggled continuously with the idea that maybe it is not the position of some to save all: the job is too great and people are meant to be their own keeper. Every day we are bombarded with saving the whales, the children, the trees, the Africans, the sweat shop workers, the culture, the world; because of this seeming ocean of campaigns, one might think that these issues are being handled and money and man power are being directed appropriately and efficiently. This is, however, not how I am currently able to see it, and have not been able to see it as such for some time now. In America we do a very good job of shooing away that which we desire to deny. Whether it is homelessness, racism, HIV/AIDS, or the negative effects of sky-rocketing consumerism; reality is in the eye of the beholder. As a nation, as a culture, as a planet there has been created a huge space for ignorance and individualism making it seem as though the masses of people at the bottom of the socioeconomic power ladder are much fewer and much less entrenched in their current state than is true. I don’t seek to assign myself the position of the enlightened, as if I am so much more aware than others because I am such a world traveler, and all. I travel for many reasons, not the first of which is an attempt to help anyone but it is through the gift of travel that I was slapped in the face with poverty and social, economic, and emotional oppression. For me, it was the kind of offense that left a mark.
My greatest fear as I write this is that it will be taken as the egotistical ranting of a privileged girl thinking she knows Africa. While I cannot help admitting that I am the former, I will never claim to understand more than a few facets of this place at a time. Really, I am here because I find myself learning and growing ever day, this fact being compounded by the refreshing novelty of daily life. I do understand that I am capable of finding such energy and growth living closer to home in America-California-Bakersfield-Irvine-Where ever, but this place has gotten under my skin and for now I will make the necessary allowances financially and in terms of comfort and contact with loved ones in order to have these career defining adventures while I still have the heart for it.
And now, for me. I am currently over 7,000 miles away from you and I want you to understand why. Before I left, I could not nail down my own reasons for leaving again other I had nothing else on my plate and was eligible for a bit more financial aid. These are poor reasons to give and I hope that I will make it up now. Living for those few months in South Africa nearly two years was a soul-rattling experience. It was like living in the rippling tide of a recent and devastating wake. Apartheid served to make concrete the idea of subjugation, that blacks were biologically, fundamentally, intrinsically lesser than their white oppressors. Seeing the passion cultivated by a lifetime of repression manifesting itself in anger and violence; being hated for my skin color just as narrow-mindedly as I was loved for my nationality. This was part of my experience. The other part was safer and simpler: academic. Under the supervision of the most experienced, active, forward-thinking professors I have yet come across, I was able to see for myself that there existed structures of unchallenged supremacy more universal than the white supremacy of South Africa. This structure exists throughout the world and defines the existence of many. It is established in such a way that just as I did nothing to gain the privileges I have been offered my entire life the Congolese woman starving to feed the mouths of 5 children did nothing to place herself so indefinitely in that position.
Third world countries have been historically raped of resources in exchange for the myth of an unreachable western ideal, and arguably the whole of Africa has been a part of this to an extreme. Shortly before I left in January, a person very close to me asked why I needed to go to Africa, pressing upon me the question of “why can’t they help themselves.” To this, I had no immediate response but I now wish to address the question. To put it ever so simply, it is because of the structure of misuse and underdevelopment by the government’s holding all the strings and carrying the coin purses that Africa is yet able to ‘help itself.’ The answer to this, however, is not to continue pumping billions of dollars of aid money in these countries. To me, this is like throwing ply wood over quick sand and attempting to build a home: without the establishment of a strong base there is no way to sustain your efforts and dependency is created. I have struggled through conversations with several Ghanaians who have commented on the need for first world countries to “help Africa more,” a sentiment fueled by ignorance and the illusion of the rich-western-savior. Everyone has a stake and their own interests to protect whether it is the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, USAID, or the UN. While this “problem” seems largely beyond my reach to combat, I do feel capable and willing to be a part of building Africa’s strength to sustain and develop itself, on its own terms, from within and with its own people. If Africa is forever looking to the outside for answers it will never be its own boss.
Addressing this puzzle starts with youth. The cliché that young people are the ‘window of hope’ is as true in Ghana as it is in any part of the world. From a childhood instilling a sense of empowerment to years of education cultivating critical thinking, the potential for change and evolution is forfeited when these elements are not realized. My ultimate career goal is to one day start my own NGO working with disadvantaged youth. Programs to get them involved in their communities, interacting with their peers in a safe environment, maybe even teaching a few lessons which school systems tend to ignore like creativity, sex education, or Ashtanga yoga =). Living in Ghana, I see have met some of the most polite, engaging, intelligent young people as well as come across a daily barrage of child labor by way of adolescent hawkers in the middle of choked capital city traffic selling water sachets and plantain chips off the top of their head for 8 hours a day. It is this gap that needs to be closed: there is no difference between these two groups except the difference in which Circumstance has glanced upon them. Circumstance is changing, I hope, and I want nothing more than to be a part of that transformation.
I must admit that I don’t really know if this hit the mark I was aiming at but I think it addresses something valuable to me. I would like to gain your insight on what I have written and encourage criticism, advice, or email love. I know I have been rather quiet lately and there is not really a good excuse except sometimes it is just very tiring for me to try to explain this place out of context.