For years, my short vacations from work or school have been escapes to places where cares are few and comforts are many. This year, I went where cares are many and comforts are few. I may never lie on a chaise lounge by a pool again.
This summer I took a trip with Global Volunteers, a non-governmental organization that sends volunteers to developing nations to help with the daily tasks facing poor and hungry people struggling for a better life. Far from politics, boardrooms or budgets, volunteers lend a hand in simple activities such as keeping records in a medical clinic, assisting with construction of school buildings, or teaching English conversation to children -- tasks that require no special skills, just a little patience and some good humor.
I chose Ghana, the original starting place for the United States Peace Corps, where 50 years of democracy make it a stand out, the "jewel" of West Africa, with no ongoing violence and a welcoming attitude toward outsiders who so rarely visit this corner of the world.
It is neither inexpensive nor easy to travel to West Africa. You cannot even enter Ghana without a certificate confirming a yellow fever immunization; my own doctor insisted on updates of tetanus, polio, typhoid, and hepatitis A as well -- hundreds of dollars of vaccines, none covered by ordinary insurance. I also took malaria pills, choosing between the weekly dose, which is known to cause paranoia, and the daily pill, which is so much easier to forget, and render ineffective. Malaria is the #1 cause of death in Ghana but one doctor warned a fellow volunteer that rabies is so rampant that if you are so much as scratched by a cat, your vacation is over immediately and you must airlift out of Africa for competent treatment. With my pack full of mosquito netting, a small pharmacy of drugs and remedies, and enough protein for three weeks, I set out on the long flight from Los Angeles to Ghana.
No hot water, ever; intermittent electricity; lizards everywhere; and baby kittens about whom we warned each other by shouting "death kitty" in the dark.
On my first full day in the capital city, I walked for hours through the national museum, the open market, and residential areas, without seeing a single white person. The next day, I joined my group of volunteers and we took a bus to the coastal town where we would pass the next few weeks together as the only Caucasians for many miles.
Although our accommodations were nicer than any of the local residents', they were still a far cry from any "hotel" most people would consider. No hot water, ever; intermittent electricity; lizards everywhere; and baby kittens about whom we warned each other by shouting "death kitty" in the dark.
The table in my room became the "staging area" for the beginning of each day. There, after climbing out from under my mosquito net in the morning, an array of malaria pills, mosquito repellant, antibacterial scrub, spring water, sunscreen, jungle hat and other preventatives greeted me as a sobering reminder that danger to life and health was ever-present. My private stash of tuna, protein bars, multivitamins, Cipro, Zithromax, Sudafed, Tylenol, matzah and even more water formed a further protective barrier between the natural environment and me.
Ordinary morning activities were complicated by the dangers of water (we were fortunate to have intermittent running cold water in the bathroom, but it was not purified): brushing one's teeth required bottled water on the toothbrush -- the simple act of running one's toothbrush under the faucet rendered it forever unusable.
When I left the sanctity of my private room, I was slathered with layers of liquid protection, and shielded with long sleeves, long skirt, and a hat. Once outside, I went nowhere without a pack filled with further protections: antibacterial facial wipes (so that wiping sweat off my face would not transfer germs from my face or fingers into my eyes), antibacterial hand wipes (to be used before eating anything, particularly if you have touched anyone), rolls of toilet paper, tissues, and always, more water.
We spent considerable time and funds protecting ourselves from Africa. Ironically, traveling to the poorest country I'd ever visited became the most expensive vacation I'd ever taken!
Thus girded for battle against the elements, and aware of the dangers, I walked outside the hotel walls toward the elementary school where I was to work as an English teacher for two weeks. Goats mingled freely among young, barefoot children, both avoiding the open sewers that line the road on either side. Schools close when it rains, as muddy ground could lead to children sliding into the sewer trenches. Women stride, heads held high, balancing huge bowls of food or consumer goods on their heads and babies strapped on their backs. Rudimentary construction moves forward intermittently along the road, as need competes with cost to keep the projects going, but slowly.
I couldn't move forward for several minutes until I shook the hand of each child and exchanged local greetings.
On the first day, I was filled with trepidation wondering how the local people would react to these outsiders appearing in their streets. I needn't have worried. We were welcomed like visiting celebrities. The first child who saw us called out "Blufono! Blufono!" ("White man, white man!"). Then, small children came streaming out of doors everywhere, running toward us like the dearest family member returning from a long absence. One brave three-year-old boy grabbed me by the legs for a hug, and then dozens of others mobbed on, so many that I couldn't move forward for several minutes until I shook the hand of each child and exchanged local greetings.
When I set foot in the school on the first day, the headmaster took me to each of the classrooms for grades one through six. The students jumped up and down and looked to their teacher for the signal to sing the welcoming song they had prepared. As I toured each class, I was serenaded with songs and dances.
One classroom sang "Rise and Shine," a song I knew well from camp. The kids knew the chorus, but not the hand motions or the verses to this well-known American song about Noah and the Flood. Days later I would teach them the rest of the song, and sing it with them until my voice cracked from tears, overwhelmed by their ecstatic and joyful chorus in response to my verses, as we crossed the barriers of distance, race, poverty, language and life experience to unite in a song which cries out, at the top of your lungs, "Rise and shine and give God your glory!"
It's hard to explain how I learned to teach students to read who had, literally, no books at all. Grateful for school buildings (their older siblings learned under trees), the children take turns "sweeping" the schoolroom with bundles of sticks. The map I brought from Accra was the first they had ever seen. I was determined that I would not leave Ghana until each child could pick Ghana out on the map of Africa. I felt like Anna with the children of the King of Siam, breaking the news that their country was a tiny place in a big world. But unlike the Thai kids in the film, rather than being disappointed that their country was so tiny, they were excited to see that it was a real place on the map, and that its neighbors Togo and Burkina Faso were also on the map. The morning after my geography lesson, the teacher told me that the children had gathered early before school, excitedly mobbing the map and swapping comments about it in their native tongue. Although I had bought the map for myself, there was no doubt that it had found its permanent home on their otherwise blank schoolroom wall.
Most of the reading and writing occurred off an ancient chalkboard at the front of the room. With the exceptions of the section that had once gotten wet (and been rendered useless), this proved a fairly serviceable method. Without electricity, the teachers could not make copies of lessons or tests, so everything gets written on the board. Chalk was treated as a sacred substance and the children quickly rescued for future use the tiniest piece of chalk as it broke off from the piece I was using and fell to the floor.
The children worked together to make sure they all learned as much as possible. One small boy was writing dictation on the board. ("When I grow up, I want to be a doctor" was the hopeful sentence I gave him.) His slightly uphill scrawl eventually made the sentence too high for him to complete. Teetering on tiptoes, he tried to finish the sentence stretching up high. A bigger boy raced to the front of the class and lifted the struggling smaller boy on his shoulders so he could finish the section.
Nothing was ever wasted in our little town. At the end of each day, the trashcan in my room was filled with wrappers from food, water bottles, used paper products, old receipts, a sock with a hole, etc. However, I noticed that the trash cans in the classrooms never had anything in them -- in fact, the only time I ever saw a trash can get used at the school was when one of the children used it as a "basket" during some creative play. In a classroom where the students have one 20-page tablet to last the year, there isn't any paper being thrown away. Frugality is not a "movement" there; it is a necessary life skill.
One day I opened up a disposable camera package in my classroom, which came in an anti-x-ray metal foil packet and was wrapped in a cardboard protective lining. Eager to start taking photos, I ripped open the foil packet and set the cardboard aside. At the end of the school day, the teacher followed me out of the classroom with several students to return the torn foil packet and cardboard lining. When I said I did not want it, the teacher pocketed the foil wrap and gave the cardboard to one lucky student, who called out to his friends about the unexpected gift.
The children never tired of asking questions about how we live in America. "Do you have a telephone? A car?" they asked, in the same tone someone here might ask if you own your own jet or yacht. My affirmative responses resulted in many, many car drawings being given to me as gifts. I became known as the lady who lived alone and owned her own car, a layer of wealth and extravagance in a town where the only vehicles owned by families were shares in fishing boats.
When we packed to leave, all the participants in my group decided that we would leave everything we could do without in our rooms. We looked at our possessions in a different light now. The mosquito netting which might be saved in a garage pile of camping gear for years at home could save the life of a child here every night. The extra plastic bags could keep food fresher longer, or patch a leaky wall or roof. I devoted a few minutes to tearing the extra unused pages out of my travel journal -- some child may be able to practice writing on them. Of course, all medical supplies, down to the last wet wipe and aspirin tablet, were left on the desk, and my travel sheet and pillowcase, and most of my clothes.
Back home, my hot morning shower is like winning the lottery every day.
Back at home, with more rooms than inhabitants, I now know that God has provided all of my needs, and then some; for all the things I perceived that I lack, I see now I truly have more than enough. First, there are the books -- cardboard books for babies, children's books, my own college reading, classics of literature, books written by friends and colleagues, Jewish books, and perhaps most ironically, an entire shelf of books on how to live simply. Two bathrooms, with potable water you use to brush teeth or splash on your face. Not having to sterilize my hands after washing my hair in the shower. Hot water, flowing out of the spout!!! Lights that switch on and off at whim. Stacks of free pads of paper received as promotions from local businesses. Trashcans in every room for the disposal of paper used on one side, plastic bags used once, half eaten food.
My hot morning shower is like winning the lottery every day. I feel clean again, and leave the house wearing only my skin and clothing designed for modesty, not lifesaving. I hop in my private car and head off to a grocery store, where I am confronted by aisles of cereal, produce, and choices, choices, choices, all fresh, easily affordable, and safe to eat. At an ATM, I withdraw cash equal to an employed Ghanaian's salary for two months -- pocket money for impulse buying.
And yet, I cannot help thinking that if I had been 20, or 50, I would have stayed longer in our little town. While our days were fraught with challenges, they were purposeful, loving, gracious, and without rancor. The children were well mannered, appreciative, and always ready to jump up and sing and dance -- ready with joy simply when the moment arrived.
Every day for nearly three weeks, in a small town in Africa, the children showed me exuberant joy, sincere gratitude, ingrained humility, and open love.
One of our rabbis has said, "Kick up your heels, and your heart will follow!" Every day for nearly three weeks, in a small town in Africa, the children showed me exuberant joy, sincere gratitude, ingrained humility, and open love.
In letters they wrote on my last day, they expressed in their rudimentary English a lifetime's worth of feelings: "I am not happy that you are going." "Your songs and teaching are very beautiful." "We love you because you love us." "Thank you for showing us your kindness."
Holding the hand of each child, one at a time, I looked into their young hungry eyes and told them basically the same thing. "I am so happy I met you. You are a very special and wonderful child. I am sorry to be leaving you now, just when we are becoming friends. But I know that you will continue to work hard in school, and that you can succeed, and that someday I will hear great things about you."
Several of the girls, and one of the boys, accustomed to stoicism in a life of deprivation, let tears escape as they hugged me goodbye. "Don't forget me," they often said.
I couldn't possibly.