Thursday, July 23, 2009
XI. The Whole Truth
By Kathryn Taubert
I know what you’re wondering. “What’s she not telling us?”
Well, lest ye think I haven’t cleaned my rose-colored glasses and have fallen victim to the Noble Savage construct, fear not. I may have my head in the clouds, but my feet are always on the ground (well, almost always).
So, what’s the whole truth, nothing but the truth, so help me Mawu?
The bugs, paralyzing humidity, extreme poverty, 24-hour roosters, horrible roads and teenagers.
The bugs are, frankly, the least of it. Mosquitoes never liked me much anyway. Some say it’s all the B vitamins I ingest, imparting a subtle odor humans can’t discern but bugs can.
Covering food is a must if you don’t want an ant farm on the table.
You could mount guns on the termite’s wings, which is why it’s a good thing that houses are poured concrete. I walk past a 10-foot mound daily, wondering if it’s as busy inside as quiet on the outside. What few books the Ewe do have are secured to keep termites from eating them.
I haven’t seen much “wildlife” beyond domesticated ones. Some interesting birds and lizards, but there aren’t spiders the size of dinner plates or snakes in the house (perish the thought). They tell me cobras and pythons live nearby, but I’ll pass on the opportunity to meet those neighbors.
Temps are in the upper 80’s but the humidity has to be pushing 100% all the time. The good news is that it’s great for the skin, and probably one reason why elders have few wrinkles.
Never make the mistake of thinking roosters crow only at dawn. Roosters crow round the clock if they think another rooster’s around. These are trying to usurp each other’s territory all hours of the night and day.
And then, there’s teenagers. Actually, most of the ones I’ve met are great. But you know “that look.”
“Yo, who are you, what are you doing here, and why should I care?” It’s a developmental trait that some kids go through. Kids up to about 16 and older people are the most friendly.
There are those few in the middle, however, who aren’t particularly enamored with me in their midst. I think they have reached the point where they realize their limited options. Unlike younger kids who still hope and play, and the older people who have grown philosophical, it’s those in the middle who suffer most the extreme poverty.
Disappointment when they realize they can’t make enough money to get education, get jobs, get out, and will probably spend the rest of their lives laboring on farms, sitting along the roadside selling peanuts or beads.
Here I am, a citizen of the richest country in the world with multiple pairs of shoes and two baseball caps and all sorts of high-tech gadgets. They look at me like I’m rich and maybe here to mock them. After all, why else would I be here, but to remind them of what they cannot have?
The hardest part is dealing with the extraordinary need you meet everywhere. People think Americans live on streets of gold. Metaphorically speaking, we do. I see the look on the face of one youngster as she eyes my red baseball cap. I know she’s thinking “You have two and I have none, why can’t I have one?”
I found myself wondering the same thing. But where does it stop? I’ve been instructed by my handlers not to give in and hand out because I’ll be setting an example that forward-thinking Africans do not endorse. The “handout” mentality is not what Ghana is about, although there is plenty of precedent, some of it promulgated by well-intentioned organizations that write checks without ensuring accountability. It’s human nature to take when offered. And in some cases, it may mean whether or not you eat that day.
Villagers in Kloe are luckier than many. They have government-built concrete homes and limited electricity. But they have poverty unlike anything you and I generally see. No matter how bad off you are in the U.S., there is ALWAYS help somewhere. Ghana isn’t there yet, but she’s trying. The longer I’m here, the more I appreciate what she’s trying to do.
To harden my heart when a 10-year-old says “Give me money” or an obviously sick adult begs to sell me a scrap of cloth to tie my hair are among the hardest things I do. I admit to weakening now and then and try to make it look like a true trade is going on. It’s hard when I hold all the chips. When I leave I’ll give some things to those who have been most kind. A few small bottles of shampoo, lotion, a small “torch” (flashlight), mosquito net, all that unused bug repellant, etc. And maybe even that red baseball cap, although it means a lot to me because of its origins. But I can only imagine how much more it’ll mean to a certain little girl. I can always buy another, even if I have to go back to Panama to do it. But at least that option is available to me. She’ll probably never have that choice.
There is cynicism here, and jealously, and envy. But it all comes from the same place: fear.
Not having enough to be frivolous when one wants is one thing, but not having enough to survive is, indeed, another.
The majority of people here are gracious, hospitable. But they are, after all, human too. We’re not so different. What amazes me is that these people aren’t MORE cynical, jealous, envious.
What they lack in “stuff,“ they more than make up for in heart. One can never have too much of that.