As you know, last week I was so dispirited that I thought about leaving, but I knew that giving up would only lead to regret. How would I frame the experience when I looked back on it? Would I think of myself as a failure? Or would I blame Africa, thinking the whole thing an expensive mistake? Or an experience that made me cynical, caused me to lose faith in human nature or changed my values?
None of these options appealed, especially since I had felt moved to come here in the first place. Instead I had to see this crisis of conscience as part of the learning that was waiting for me here – and come out the other side. This is why I asked for your support. And I was brought to tears by the wonderful support I received.
Overwhelmingly, your comments came from a spiritual perspective, whereas I think my despair was coming from a political perspective. Thinking politically, you have to consider what system or structure you might be inadvertently supporting by trying to make things better. For example, when volunteers come from the West to help in places like this, does it simply enable these places to continue, when we would be better to campaign for them to be closed down? Should I support Mme Rose’s little empire by helping out with money or gifts?
From a spiritual perspective, these questions become irrelevant. Instead, it’s the spirit of what you’re doing that counts. The outcomes cannot be measured by size; instead each act of kindness or love is part of something greater and is worthwhile simply for itself. Many of your messages focussed on the children and what difference a seemingly small act of kindness might make in their lives. This gave me a focus and a reason to stay.
I was also brought to thinking about having a ‘mind of love’ and that this ought not to be reserved only for those I deem worthy by my standards. I resolved to accept the situation here. This is Africa; everyone knows there’s a long way to go before society is fair and organised. The people here are doing their best.
So I decided on a few strategies:
– I will tell Mme Rose that I would like a regular job to do each day. That way my work will come to be recognised, rather than just my presence here
– I will look out for opportunities to create a role for myself
– I will be friendly and compassionate even to the people I suspect of ripping me off
– I will find ways of extricating myself graciously and with good humour from situations where people are asking for money or wanting my phone number
– I will bring such gifts as I know will benefit the children eg a packet of nappies every few days, some chairs for the nursery class, other little things that come up
– I will carry sticking plasters with me for the times when children hurt themselves. (Madame Rose has a first aid kit but it’s a performance to get her to get it out. Any small scratch in the tropics can get easily infected, so bandaids are important.)
– I will think about what experiences I might be able to give the children, rather than what material things I can give. (For example, my friend Prue who has been to Africa talked about once taking a load of children to the beach. There are some beautiful beaches here and I suspect the orphanage children have never seen them. What if I could organise a bus trip? It might take some doing, but it would be something they’d never forget.)
– I will get away from the hostel every weekend and travel around to see the country
– And of course, I will be sensible and not leave myself open to being ripped off or taken advantage of
Having made these resolutions, I felt a lot better on Saturday morning when I set off for Kokrobite beach. Rose the cook had been hinting heavily that I should go away for the weekend – which would of course give her the weekend off – and she was most helpful in showing me where I could go and where to change buses etc. I had been nervous about travelling alone but I suddenly appreciated that Ghanaians are extremely friendly and helpful, so there was no way of ever getting lost. People will go out of their way to show you or even escort you to where you’re going.
So I was both proud of myself and in a better frame of mind when I arrived and booked into a lovely resort , complete with open air bar and restaurant under thatched roofs. My accommodation was in a dormitory in ‘the loft’ – an open air arrangement on stilts with a thatched roof, situated right beside where the reggae band would be playing for the regular Saturday night party until 2 or 3 in the morning. It was all quite idyllic, with local arts and crafts for sale alongside colourful fishing boats on the beach. A tourist spot, so there were a few more white skins scattered amongst the black.
I chatted to all the people who approached me and managed to move on without buying anything or giving out my phone number. One of these encounters turned into a real conversation, with a Rastafarian guy called Richard. He talked about his beliefs, which include being totally honest so that you are not a slave to other people or to harboured bad feelings. He also said it’s important not to hurt anybody because you only hurt yourself, and if you’re good to people you’re being good to yourself. It was so good to hear these ideas expressed by an African. I ended up telling him how desperate I’d been feeling over the last couple of days, and he had lots of encouraging words and good advice.
In the evening we danced amongst the lively throng to the booming reggae band and when it got too hot you could go and stand on the beach, where a cool breeze, swaying palm trees and splashing waves made it truly a tropical paradise. That’s when I thought, “I’m so glad I’m in Africa!”