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Christmas and into the New Year

Posted Jan 27 2009 8:23pm
I find I must make a conscious effort to remember the approach of Christmas outside the US. In the States, whether Christian or not, you are made aware of the approaching holiday months before by decorations, lights, Christmas trees, music, and Santa Claus in stores and on street corners. It is easy to begin to associate the holiday with the fluff. In Kumasi I did not notice much change. There was the addition of people selling tinsel on street medians in town and the occasional American Christmas song broadcast from one of the many sidewalk sound systems, but not much more. I recognized just how deeply I have been programmed by American commercial Christmas when I felt a spontaneous flicker of excitement upon hearing “Oh, the weather outside is frightful . . . .” or “I’m dreaming of a white Christmas . . .” in the midst of town despite the ridiculous context where temperatures soared to 100F and everyone moved about with handkerchiefs in hand mopping their faces and drinking water from sachets.

Tuesday, December 23rd I went to the hospital. In the morning I did not notice any additional buzz but while in the labor ward it was at times difficult to auscultate the fetal heart because of the number of cars driving by outside with loudspeakers blasting. I’m not sure if was due to Christmas or the election run offs which were to be held on the 28th. When I left the hospital grounds it felt as though the population of the city had doubled. The nearby streets which cut through the market no longer accommodated cars and as I made my way to the minibus I found I had to be even more vigilant than usual to avoid physical collisions or being inadvertently pushed into gutters. During my third year in college in Rhode Island we had an incredible memorable blizzard (a new experience for a girl from Texas). I was wanted to visit a friend who lived two blocks from me in the evening, so I layered up and set out. The power was out and branches lay in the middle of the road. The snow reached my knees and continued to fall, obscuring everything. I leaned deeply into the wind and labored with every step. When I was just twenty feet from my dorm I began regretting my decision imagining that I could easily die just feet from warm dry shelter. Walking through the crowed market in Kumasi elicited the same feeling. I finally stepped into the minibus and slumped in my seat so happy to allow someone else to take it from there.

In this country where Churches are on every block and services often carry on through the night I expected Christmas to be a notable event. Christmas morning Clement and I woke up and prepared for church. I imagined the women lining the streets waiting for transportation dressed in outfits outshining their usual Sunday glamour. But, when we walked to the curb it looked more like a normal Thursday. The corner shop was open, and vendors were positioned in their usual spots already selling bananas and porridge to the regular crowd. Halfway through the mass the church was full. Mass was relatively simple and brief concluding again with a prayer for peaceful elections. In the evening Clement and I shared dinner with Pamela and Atta. I recently learned that there is an organization for expats married to Ghanaians. The group was formed years ago as a means for political advocacy during a time when foreign spouses were not granted residency and had to regularly fight to stay in the country. Members continue to meet but most are now in their 50s and above. I have met three women and two of their Ghanaian husbands; all are lovely people and are satiating my friend starved appetite. As it turns out Pamela and Atta live just a short walk from us in a simple house/art studio with a beautiful garden. They are the type of people I have long aspired to be - people living fully, but also simply and humbly, enjoying life and adding to its beauty. Pamela filled the table with the most delicious food I have tasted in months – curried prawns, grilled fish, spiced stir fried vegetables, homemade yogurt and chutneys, fruit cake, and miniature mince meat pies. Preparing such a meal is a feat anywhere but more so where ingredients are scarce and kitchen facilities are extremely basic. After filling ourselves beyond full Atta pulled out his computer and a pile of art magazines to show us some exhibitions, his own and a sample of inspirational others. Though it was only my second time with them and Clement’s first time meeting them, it felt incredibly comfortable to be in their presence. When yawns began spreading we said our goodbyes and as we walked home gleeful and grateful we were shocked to see it was already 11pm.

Saturday Clement and I left Kumasi with our friends Ethel and Ernest to visit the Coast. We are all foreigners in this country. We have all have had a difficult period of adjustment but we are ready to love this country and it is time to see more beyond our frequently traveled route in this city. My parents sent us some money for Christmas with explicit instructions that it should be used for travel. Without any income at the moment - just the hope of a 3-month nursing contract in Austin next summer - and the knowledge that AMHI in Malawi is still underfunded, I find it difficult to spend money on anything apart from the basic necessities so I was grateful for the condition placed on their gift. Our first stop was Cape Coast Castle – built by the Swedes in 1652, then transferred to the Danes then on to the Dutch and ultimately captured by the British in 1664. Elmina Castle which lies in a town just west of Cape Coast was built by the Portuguese in 1482, then captured by the Dutch who eventually sold it to the British in 1872. It is estimated that 30 million slaves passed through the dungeons of these two castles, many not surviving to even reach the slave ships, all who passed there experiencing, at minimum, the death of their former selves.

It is common knowledge that most religions have been used at various times to oppress and vindicate often violent ethnocentric marches across the faces of other cultures and people. To know this is one thing but to stand in a dungeon and then climb to the chapel situated directly above is jarring. The walls of the dungeons are made of thick stone and our guides informed us that the floor which appeared to be packed earth was in truth layers of excrement, blood, and vomit from those who occupied the space over hundreds of years. In some areas the original stone floors had been excavated six feet below. To imagine holding in your hands a tool for enlightenment and spiritual transformation and wielding it as a weapon of mass suffering and destruction is deeply disturbing. To stand in the light of today and measure the depth of blindness of others long gone is a powerful experience but also tempts us to quickly turn the page. We try to separate ourselves from such horrors by demonizing the offenders, placing everything we can between us - time, distance, defining factors inherent in them which led to such atrocities. However such atrocities are not unique to Christianity or Islam or any particular religion or race or ethnic group or political group. Unfortunately the ability to twist something good into an evil force is uniquely human. As long as we deny our shared humanity and our shared weaknesses, we allow that darkness a foothold in a corner of our selves.

Thank God that at least we no longer sanction such overt atrocities but our world is far from free of them and many times they are much closer to home than we would like to imagine. It seems the source of our blindness is our ego. Seemingly benign, our human ego is a disruptive force bent on its own survival. Why do we go to such great lengths to prove our righteousness? to justify our actions? to highlight the faults of others so we shine in comparison? All major world religions are founded on love, compassion, service, and forgiveness and in their purest form strive to unite but so often we struggle against these messages. There are few opportunities were can stand close to a monument of exceptional human failure and know that this particular chapter is closed. But, we should take more than comfort with us when we walk away. Let’s not forget that everything is a gradation of something else. The moment we begin to accept the alluring whispers that “we” are better than “they” is the moment we begin to fail.

With the castle walls looming over us we walked through the sand and shallows below, breathing in the space, collecting shells, and watching fishermen sail by. For a few days we toured the towns, and visited the corner of a nearby protected rainforest. In the evenings we sat by the ocean, shared meals, conversation and laughter, and watched the local boys perform acrobatics on the beach for their own amusement.

The December 7th elections went smoothly. In Ghana in order to be elected president a candidate must win a majority of votes (a minimum of 50% plus 1). With numerous parties and candidates running no single candidate was able to obtain that number of votes on the 7th so, a run-off between the two largest parties, NDC and NPP was scheduled for December 28th. Again people worried about peace as the party leaders each took turns vowing not to recognize a win by their competitor. On the 28th there were a few reports of problems – in one constituency 1,000 ballot papers were missing so no one in that area was allowed to vote; there was a story of a man who attempted to steal ballot boxes; and, a story of a reporter beaten after trying to record people stuffing ballot boxes. Yet, overall the elections went smoothly. While touring Cape Coast we listened to the regular updates as the votes were tallied on the 28th and 29th. The final count had NDC leading by 30,000 votes. The constituency which had not voted included a population of just over 30,000 and, though it was in a stronghold of NDC, NPP insisted that these people should vote before the results were announced. Nonetheless many NDC supporters began celebrating on the 29th. Meanwhile NPP supporters never imagined that NDC could win, and the NPP party leaders continued to make accusations of fraud and threatened to take legal action.

After the final votes were tallied John Atta Mills, the candidate for the opposition (NDC), was officially declared the president elect. Thankfully I have not heard any reports of violence. NDC supporters celebrated enthusiastically by painting their bodies the party colors - white, green, and red - and dancing in the streets. I’m sure the grumbling from NPP will continue for a while but at this point it seems Ghanaians have successfully experienced another peaceful transfer of power. As one Ghanaian noted, with each peaceful election the roots of Democracy grow stronger as does people’s confidence in their own power to effect change. Slowly people are beginning to understand that politicians should and can be held accountable for their actions. Atta Mills is not a new figure in Ghanaian politics however and whether his election will lead to any positive change for Ghanaians remains to be seen.

The morning before we headed back to Kumasi, I woke up early and moved outside to read the last few pages of my book. A short distance in front of me over thirty men and a handful of women pulled on the ends of a giant U-shaped net, coordinating their efforts by the deep chanting of one man “o – ei – he – yu . . . . o – ei – he – yu . . . .” A small boy stood between two men, the rope at their waist level was taut above his head. He grasped it with both hands and leaned with the men as they pulled. At the breaking point two men treaded water diving under the waves and tying the net into small sections as it was hauled in. The progress was slow. After twenty minutes the buoyed end of the net still floated freely over deep water. The adults strained and the chanting continued, harmonizing with the sounds of the waves and the calls of the birds. I returned to my book. When I looked again the net had been gathered on the beach and the women were emptying the sections into large aluminum basins. Once full, they overturned the basins on the beach revealing six or seven shimmering silver heaps. Women negotiated with the fishermen as the men coiled the net. A few hundred meters from the shore men dove from their wooden fishing boat and swam to land. On the beach, three men lassoed the net over their bodies and walked to their village in a line, the weight evident in their labored steps through the sand and the tension of their muscles. The women returned the fish to their basins, lifted the basins on their heads, and carried them away to begin their day of selling.

As we headed back to town and then on to Kumasi, we passed through a village and Clement pointed out an astonishingly small lamb. In front of a house where excited children shouted “obruni” as we passed, the lamb struggled to find his balance, legs splayed, his mother’s nose gently touching his side as if giving a word of loving encouragement. I saw a wet line of umbilical cord still dangling from his abdomen. These are images to savor; a holiday enjoyed thoroughly and joyfully concluded.

We arrived in Kumasi happy but exhausted, cleaned the heavy layer of dust left by the Hamatan from the room, ate a minimal dinner and fell into bed. The next morning Clement woke up with a fever and body pains – sure signs of malaria. I cooked some porridge, went to the pharmacy to buy some anti-malarials, washed three large loads of clothes by hand, prepared a simple dinner and then the day was finished. In the morning Clement seemed better though still weak so after a few hours I left to visit Pamela, check emails, and buy groceries. The time passed unchecked and it was dark when I returned. As I walked in the door Clement told me softly that he missed me and when I leaned down to him on the bed he hugged me as though I had been gone a lifetime, the heat from his body no less than that wafting from an open oven door. He said he was feeling terrible but had been even worse a couple hours before. I should have expected another exacerbation and was upset with myself as I imagined him suffering alone. He had recently taken another dose of medicine but the Tylenol did nothing to diminish the pain or quell his fever so, for the next few hours I traded damp towels between his body and the refrigerator. In this life here there is little room for comfort but so much space for gratitude. Life is always fragile and precarious but here it is a fact of which everyone is made perennially aware. I woke this morning and touched my lips gently to his arm so as not to wake him. The coolness of his skin sent a wave of joy through my entire being.
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