Living in Ghana I tend to read a lot of blogs, some of our colleagues in the field, others from people who just moved here. It’s almost an expectation, move to Ghana, start a blog.
Somehow I had ended up (mostly likely some enticing clickbait) on www.desiringGod.org, and was reading “What’s Wrong with Western Missionaries” [click here]. It’s a great read, but the cliff notes version is that they are too self-sufficient. Self-sufficiency is a quality admired and encouraged by Americans, and especially by men but when author Nik Ripkin wrote about the missionary who was known as “The man we love,” the reason leading to that love was “because he borrows money from us.” He borrows money from the people he came to serve.
I’ve done a lot of things here in our time in Ghana, and I’m constantly looking for more experiences to add to our bucket list, but borrowing money was never on, nor a candidate for that list. It never would have occurred to me, and so after reading it, I prayed a silent prayer for an opportunity that I might be open to.
Next day a final year student invites me to lunch and as we get near the front of the line to order, he says, “this lunch is on me.” Now I know he is a full scholarship student, and my unconscious reaction was, “Oh, no, you can’t buy me lunch, it should be I who is buying you lunch,” but then the words from yesterday’s silent prayer come back to me, and I said, “Okay, that would be great.”
To talk and share a meal is something our students learn when they come to Ashesi. Talking while eating is not part of the normal culture of Ghana, and you can tell what year group a student is in by what she/he does at lunch. The first years are mostly silent; the final years, won’t hardly shut up.
Outside Ashesi, rarely have I observed Ghanaian families eating together, and when they do, they eat in silence. Sometimes I have been invited to dine with them, and that means sitting in another room, eating by myself while the rest of the family is off working, cleaning the kitchen or watching TV. It is a strange and lonely experience.
Now it wasn’t as easy as just buying lunch, as the accounting system in the canteen isn’t set up for such generosity, but they figured it out, and we had an interesting conversation over a lunch of RedRed, plain rice and fried chicken. [Here is my RedRed’s recipe]
Mostly we talked about his summer internship, and if it involved doing what God created him to do. I love these conversations because it will not enough to just do what you are already good at, it has to lead toward that which the creator created you to do in this world. While he was good at what he did last summer (and secured an open job offer), he did not feel this was his purpose. That is the great value of a college internship, to try–in a low-stakes environment–how something fits, and learn early on if it will be enough.
You know, I have trouble accepting help, not only in Ghana, but back in Texas too. The past month when I was helping to care for my mother-in-law, so many friends and people I didn’t even know offered to help, and I couldn’t always accept. I won’t be a candidate for “the man they love” anytime soon if I don’t learn to be as accepting as I try to be in giving.
So be patient with me, and keep asking and when I offer, be a good example and accept.
PS: Even if you are not a missionary, I recommend reading the blog on “Whats Wrong with Western Missionaries” [click here].
Last fall we began a journey to buy a new bed frame and mattress and in the process, enacted our own version of the story Goldilocks story, minus the three bears, chairs, and porridge, of course.
After months of investigating carpenters who made bed frames, we found one we both liked and ordered a custom four-poster bed frame. Then we set about finding a new mattress to put in it.
The First Mattress
Suzanne ordered mattress #1 while I was out of town, a new mattress from Latex Foam Mattress. When Suzanne ordered it, the salesman argued with her about ordering a soft (turns out he was right). She figured it would be OK since Ghanaian mattress’ have a reputation for being hard (totally deserved). By hard, I mean their mattress’ should come with a Rockwell Hardness Scale rating. Think concrete blocks covered with flowery fabric and you have the basic idea of their softness and comfort. I’m not kidding, laying on a tile floor feels softer.
Then she lay in the first bed, but it was too soft.
True to its name, our first mattress was soft. Really soft. So soft that over time it developed a memory, making me wonder who thought having a mattress with a memory was a good thing? I mean this mattress remembered exactly where I had slept the night before, saving an ever deepening indention compounded by the serial effect of the nights previous. Wouldn’t forgetfulness be better quality for a mattress; forgetting where I slept, so that each time I laid down, it was like the first time?
After a few months, we started calling it the bed hammock. There was a 7” drop from top to my bottom drop on my side. When the bed hammock could drop no further (my derrière and slats were becoming friends) and, Suzanne’s parking space was millimeters from hitting bedrock, we knew it was time to find a different bed mattress.
The Second Mattress
So while Suzanne was out of town, I ordered an Orthopedic mattress, but this time from Ashfoam. On the Ashfoam website they advertise 10 different degrees of hardness in their mattresses, but like the menu in a typical Ghanaian restaurant, this Ashfoam list was purely aspirational. Just like you’ll never find everything on a restaurant menu available (or ever actually been served or prepared), so it was with their list of different types of mattresses. There have three different models, and the showroom had two for me to field test.
Standard Density – meaning really hard, like max out the Rockwell scale hard. I later learned they “make” several models that are harder than this one; how is that even physically possible?
Orthopedic – they actually didn’t have this one in stock for me to test, but it was their recommendation.
Comfy – This is the one I tested, but truthfully, I thought I was laying on the Orthopedic model, so that is what I ordered and a week later it showed up.
After our first night on the new mattress, I thought Orthopedic…that must be Twi word for supernaturally hard like they had put some Juju on it to make it this hard because no thing of this world could be this hard. We even tried putting a mattress topper on it, and that Orthopedic mattress sucked the softness right out of it. It was bone cracking, neck paining, hard and the week we tried to adjust, we couldn’t. Wimps, I thought and truthfully I’ve slept better on the floor…its softer. So we went back to the bed hammock and finally,to sleep.
She lay down in the second bed, but it was too hard.
A few calls to the showroom and Ashfoam offered to switch out the Orthopedic for the Comfy if I would pay the difference. Pay The Difference?! – I was ready to buy a whole new mattress just to get that Juju between a rock and a hard place mattress out of our house. $25 to get rid of it and replace it with a softer model? “Yes Please,” I said wondering how many people had already rejected this particular mattress?
The Third Mattress:
Strangely, we were both in the country when the third mattress arrived. Suzanne was still skeptical after that first night (and maybe still is) but I think we have found the mattress for us, here, now. It was hard, but not too hard; it was softer, but not too much so. It was just about right.
Then she lay down in the third bed and it was just right.
Goldilocks (Suzanne) fell asleep
It has been two years and three days since Suzanne and I moved to the place we call home…
“So where’s home?” the usher asked as in the foyer of the church in Iowa. Suzanne and I had flown in early that morning and were still were bundled up like ticks against the 20 degrees and a blue northerner outside. The usher was new here (or new since I had moved away some 40 years ago), so he didn’t know Ames was my childhood home, and this was my home church.
[Steve * Suzanne outside in the snow]
Suzanne and I look at each other nervously, never certain how to answer the question our global nomad kids hate. “Maybe I should have asked, where are you guys from?” he asks, saving us.
“That’s easier,” I sound relieved. “I grew up in Ames, Suzanne is from Connecticut; we lived in Texas for 30 years, and now in Africa.”
That is our answer, however, ask a Ghanaian, and the answer will be to a nearby question.
“Where are you from?” I asked a student one day. For some reason it never occurs to ask about home.
“I am from Burkina Faso.” A French speaking country just north of Ghana. I hadn’t detected the trace of a French accent in her voice.
“Really, what is it like there?” I ask.
“Oh, I have never been to that place.” She was telling me where her family comes from.
“Your mother moved here from Burkina?”
“No, she stays in Nima.” A Muslim region of Accra; stays means grew up there too. Who knows when her family actually moved to Ghana, but that is where they are from.
“So you were raised in Nima.” I say, thinking I should remember to start with that question. It does get me thinking about the concept of home. Is it the place one grew up, or where your family came from? For me, I grew up in Iowa, but my family came from Kansas. Iowa formed my genetic dispositions into this person I became; and had it been another state, I would have grown to be a different person. That is where I’m from, but is it home?
“Home is the closest place to where you are not?”
Is it the Chinese who say “Home is the closest place to where you are not?” For example, if I say I’m going home when in a city that is not where I live, it means I’m going back to the hotel. However, if I’m at the hotel, it means Austin, but in Austin, it means Ghana or Iowa, unless the hotel is in Ghana, and then it means Ashesi. But if I’m at Ashesi, it could mean Texas, or Iowa.
Home: the place they have to take you in
Another definition: Home: the place they have to take you in. Suzanne and I learned this definition a few months ago, when our son moved back into our house in Texas, a move his mother and I had not encouraged, and yet did not prevent. It is his home, so it has to take him in.
Home: the place you take responsibility for.
Another definition: Home: the place you take responsibility for. When one takes care of the place they stay in, it becomes home. Even the animals know not to soil the place they sleep (well not chickens, but who credits them with much intelligence).
home is where you know where the silverware is kept.
Another definition: home is where you know where the silverware is kept. This came from my niece Mary Lynn. So home implies familiarity, which I understand. A few years back my father sold my childhood house and built a new one. While being filled with furniture familiar, this new house does not feel like home; it always takes a few drawers to find the silverware.
[Mary Lynn and our snow shovels]
What was weird about being back in Ames was the amount of Africa stuff I saw in the local food coop.
[so secret we don’t even know about it in Africa]
[African Black Soap (right next to Dr. Bronners)]
[Baskets for $39. We buy them for $7]
[yep, they are from Ghana and have the cool tag we don’t get for $7]
[The food co-op my mom helped start, now called Wheatsfield, then the very 70s Mutual Aid Food Association, or MAFA)]
Suzanne stayed a week longer after I returned to Ghana, giving me airplane time to think about that question of home. I should have told the usher, “Home is wherever Suzanne is.” For me, she is what makes a place, home, and her staying that extra week has me thinking about where our home is. Perhaps, home is the place that needs you most. I know we certainly felt that being back when Suzanne’s mom and our daughter’s faced major and minor surgeries respectively, and our Texas house needed some work.
home is the place that needs you most.
I’ve been thinking about home a bit because Suzzy Phonecard is homeless….(read about Suzzy). Right before we left for the States, Suzzy moved out of her home, suffice to say there were family issues, and she felt safer to be out on her own. I helped her move to an uncompleted abandoned house in the next village over. Ghana is filled with uncompleted construction, half built structures of concrete and cement blocks that look like an active worksite but truthfully, no work has been done since the money ran out. Workers just dropped their tools like it was Pompeii and the volcano just erupted.
I meet the main family
squatting staying there and the mother is quite pregnant. Suzzy shows me her room and by room I mean a windowless closet and she asks me to buy her a door. The current one is cardboard. “How much will that cost?” I ask but she doesn’t know. I leave it to her to figure out the details and get back to me. She is disappointed I won’t make the problem go away and we play this game for weeks, she telling me about needing a door, and me asking some stupid question like where do they sell doors, or how much will they cost, or what happens when you move, and finally she just figures out a different solution, and that door closes without me.
[Christmas on the Hill, we left for Texas the next morning]
Home is that place that feels like you belong. As I was waiting to board the last leg of the flight back to Ghana I see two different sets of friends from Accra and wonder if maybe home is the place where you know people on the flight back.
home is the place where you know people on the flight back.
On our first Sunday back at Asbury-Dunwell Church, Auntie Pamela greets me at the door and gives me a deep hug saying “Welcome Home,” and I almost tear up. Home is the place where the people there claim you.
there is no adventure in home; and no home in adventure
Ghana is our home now, but so is Texas, so is Iowa for me, and Connecticut for Suzanne and who is to say there can be only one home? I so appreciate what Lisa McKay wrote in her grand memoir of travel and romance Love at the Speed of Email about the relationship between home and adventure, that there is no adventure in home; and no home in adventure. Maybe that is why we like Ghana so much, because here, we really can have them all: adventure, home and each other.
[At the Zilker “Tree” in Austin, Texas, one of our many “homes”]
[Drum Troup from the village of Berekuso play before the celebration began]
Ghanaians have a wonderful way of celebrating important events. It is part of the culture to mark a day and come together at an important milestone, invite a lot of people, dress up, give speeches, and have snacks. And of course, no Ghanaian celebration would be complete without drumming and dancing, and the chief in attendance. Such was the launch of the engineering program on October 3, 2015.
The official launch of the engineering program and inauguration of the engineering building came about a month after our first engineering students matriculated into Ashesi and about four months after our first official use of the building. We put aside all other things to celebrate the hard work that led up to engineering at Ashesi.
[The Inauguration begins]
The day also included the Friends of Ashesi, which is an annual trip organized and hosted by Ashesi for friends and donors. It’s an easy way to see some of Ghana and a lot of Ashesi, since everything but the flights (and things like passports and shots) is organized by Ashesi Foundation staff. (Aside: it happens each fall if anyone is interested!). We had some personal friends in the Friends of Ashesi trip this year, John and Christie Fisher.
[John and Christie at Holy Trinity where we worshiped in a most interesting way]
The Fishers arrived the week before, a day before most of the other annual trip participants, so we saw them fresh off the overseas flight, plus during several of the group events during the week leading up to the inauguration. They were also very kind to bring us lots of American goodies: footballs, vacuum packed smoked brisket and BBQ sauce, tortillas, some teas, and a mini fridge than runs off the car adapter, but I digress.
[Friends of Ashesi Tour, 2015]
The engineering inauguration was held in the University’s courtyard with an audience full of students, faculty, staff, and mostly outside friends of Ashesi, including those from the annual trip, but also including alumni and ambassadors, friends from local and multinational industries, University-related guests from other organizations, and local supporters of the Ashesi mission. Berekuso’s chief was also in attendance with his entourage.
[Arrival of the chief’s Oykeame/Linguist (carrying the staff)]
[dancing for Odeefoo Oteng Korankyi II (seated, 4th from left), Chief of Berekuso]
As the chief arrived, he paraded around the front of the gathering as is custom, so that all could wave their greetings. Then a period of drumming and dancing ensued, in celebration of the day and of the chief, within whose district Ashesi lays and who has ceremonial oversight of Ashesi. I was sitting next to Fred, our new Dean of Engineering up on the podium, and he explained how the dances being danced indicated that dancer’s position in the chief’s council. For example, the Oykeame dance illustrated that he was the speaker for the chief, while others’ dances spoke to their roles – pointing to the sky, the ground, the people around, as they danced in celebration. Afterward, the formal part of the program began.
[Patrick, Nana (the Chief), and the Vice President of Ghana]
An alumna and member of the Ashesi board was the MC. We were honored to have His Excellency the Vice President of the Republic of Ghana Kwesi Amissah-Arthur in attendance, who gave a speech that really honored Ashesi, the remarkable accomplishments Ashesi has made to date, and how if any University could provide a world-class engineering education in Ghana, it would be Ashesi. Then came a speech by U.S. astronaut Dr. Bobby Satcher, who flew in just for Ashesi’s engineering launch. He told some interesting and inspiring anecdotes about flying in the space shuttle. Next up, a student did an original reading, then the stage contingent went to cut the ceremonial ribbon in front of the building, and President Patrick gave a tour through the engineering building and labs to the Vice President, Chief Nana, and Bobby Satcher, which ended in a large reception. It was a great day!
[Sunset on the new Engineering Block]
photos 2,3,5 and last: Ashesi.edu.gh
A week before the Paris attacks, Steve hosted a town hall in the Ashesi main courtyard on the topic of Faith and Religion. It has been a discussion with leaders of Christian clubs on campus for months, and now it was time to open up the conversation. We had expected mostly Christian students but a significant number of Muslim students along with students of no religion showed resulting in a much richer conversation.
[The town hall was titled: “What is your Operator?”]
What is the relationship between Faith and Religion? In Ghana the words Faith and Religion are synonymous, ask someone their faith and they will answer with their religious affiliation. But what if Faith and Religion were not the same?
Faith is given by the creator
Religion was created by humans to express their faith
[what is your operator, after dark]
And we are a community that encourages critical thinking and higher reasoning; so let’s dialog on the relationship between Faith and Religion.
Steve’s Rules for Dialog:
This is a dialog – be open to having your mind changed.
Speak from your understanding – saying “this I believe” and let others speak about what they believe.
From this day going forward – not a debate over what might have happened in the past.
We asked students to “go to their corners” meaning they would go to one of four corners, depending on what they believed about their relationship.
These were the choices, based on their operator:
Faith = Religion
Faith > Religion
Faith < Religion
Faith != Religion (not equal)
We asked the students to find someone who believed differently from then, and then dialog.
[Students in their corners]
From groups of two, we asked them to find another two and then dialog about what they had discovered. Then from groups of four find another four to share what they discovered.
What the Students Shared with Us
· Faith is God given, religion is earth bound. Whatever comes after this life, it will not be a religious place.
· Before tonight, I thought that Christians were the only ones who had Faith, I now understand that all religions have Faith.
· We came to faith by religion.
· Religion can exist without Faith. (I am sure this was a critique of something)
· Faith cannot be expressed without Religion.
· What if we all share a common faith at our core, but express it differently?
· Religion comes from the culture; different cultures express their faith differently.
After the town hall had concluded, one of the Muslim students came up to me and said “Reverend, we were expecting to hear a lot more from you tonight. We want to know what you believe.”
“There was nothing I could add to what I heard you all tell us.” I said. “It is one of the things that I love about Ashesi students; give them a few definitions and time to figure it out, and they teach themselves more effectively that I ever could.”
Later I learned this had also been a topic of discussion in the Muslim community, and I was thankful for the relationship I have with their community.
[Steve helping with preparations for the Muslim Celebration of Eid, a few weeks earlier]
Suzanne and I sometimes wonder if what Ashesi is really doing is larger than educating “a new generation of ethical, entrepreneurial leaders in Africa;” but giving the young people of Africa a place to work out their differences peacefully, as an example to the world. As our students learned, at least in part that evening, that what unites us is much larger than what divides us .
[Steve thanks everyone for being there]
On Sunday, I was invited into an exclusive preacher’s club, the “You’ve preached long enough club” with the invitation coming in the form of a note passed to me in the pulpit.
[10 Minutes More Please]
“What about the Church?” was the topic for the day, and I had been speaking for about 25 minutes the
note invitation came. I was about to introduce the bride analogy St. Paul developed for the church, calling it the bride of Christ in his letter to the Ephesians. Now for many of us guys, this bride analogy makes us a bit uncomfortable, being called the wife of Jesus. It just doesn’t work for us.
Typically, I have heard this “church as bride analogy” explained as an ideal, where the God-church relationship is like the intimacy between husband and wife. The ideal is for a church to mirror that relationship, with God. Still not helpful.
Them, then ; Us, now. My mentor and pastor, Rev. David Gilliam taught me long ago when something in scripture makes you uncomfortable, seek to understand what it meant to them (who it was written to), to know what it could mean to us, now.
To know what it means to US, NOW
We have to know what it meant to THEM, THEN.
I looked at my invitation, smiled and explained how the people Paul was writing to might have understood a bride to be property, owned by her husband. Production of children was a primary value. If she did not or could not produce children, the bride could be dismissed, or replaced.
Instead of the seeing the church as a romantic love partner with God as his bride, the church could be the property of God, like a first century bride, who’s primary function was to create children of God, (aka new believers). If a church could not, or would not make and disciple new believers, could it too be dismissed I wondered?
Oddly, a few minutes later, it was time for announcements and we heard the third and final “Banns of Marriage”. For three Sundays in a row, we had heard these Banns for our worship leader, who is to be married in a few weeks.
Banns is an old word for proclamation and according to Wikipedia their purpose was to “enable anyone to raise any canonical or civil legal impediment to the marriage, so as to prevent marriages that are invalid.” These banns inform (or warn) the public via advert in the local newspaper, and three times read in their local church(es) saying:
If any of you know cause or just impediment why these two persons should not be joined together in holy matrimony, you are to declare it or speak with the pastor, or board of elders.
All according to the 1951 marriage ordinance of Ghana.
Therefore, it was interesting to me that on the last Sunday before Advent, we learned about the bride of Christ, heard the banns for the future bride to Fiifi, and I preached long enough to be asked to stop (in 10 minutes).