Life got hard last week. It wasn’t so much that anything bad happened to us, life just wore us down. Maybe it was the wonderful week-end at Elmina (near Cape Coast) at the Coconut Grove Resort, or maybe the car trip back where we spent two hours in traffic just a few miles from our home. It was one of those times when you pass bicycles an hour earlier and they pass you and hour later. You’re trapped and everyone is trying to cut you off. Then Suzanne got sick, at first thinking it was motion sickness, and later figuring out it was a bad cup of tea. Then we had a house guest from the US, and then Anna was sick all the next night. Add to this our already complex life, and we were pretty much overwhelmed.
It is the problem with the highly connected lives we live here. When one thing goes, the whole of life is affected by it. One of the things that I’ve heard people say about Bill Clinton is how they admired his ability to compartmentalize. Even when his personal life was falling apart he was still able to govern effectively. Bill Clinton is well thought of in Ghana. I have seen pictures of his visit, he is dressed in local garb, as a chief, and I think it makes Ghanaians proud he visited. Seeing his picture makes me wonder if I was better able to compartmentalize my life, could I be more effective? What would life be like if I was able to stop the leakage from one part of my life clouding another?
It is like traffic here. Some say, it is crazy, but I think there is an elegance to it, at least most of the time. People drive in relationship to each other, and use the law as a guideline, where as in the States, we tend to drive in relationship to the law, and oblivious to how it affects each other. The other thing I’ve noticed is that people don’t get their egos wrapped around their vehicle. Getting cutting off is not an insult or affront, and when that happens, people don’t get mad at each other. I’ve had to calm myself a few times when I’ve been outmaneuvered or cut off, and it feels personal. It isn’t, and I struggle to keep my American car-ego in check.
I remember how segmented my life felt in the States: I had my work time, my family time, my staff time, and went so far as to assign Tuesdays as “staff day,” when my office door was open for staff, assuming that problems would only pop-up on Tuesdays, or that they would wait until the next Tuesday to speak to me about it. It didn’t work that well.
Last week-end, before we got sick, the family toured Elmina Castle, the oldest sub-Saharan European building that dates from 1482 (10 years before Columbus). Historically, it was built by the Portuguese, captured by the Dutch, sold to the British and turned over to the Ghanaians. Over the years, it served as gold trade fort, slave trade fort, prison, and regional house of government.
The tour at Elmina Castle starts with the museum, which is housed in a building the Portuguese built for a Catholic Church. It is a two story affair that stands as the focal point of the castle courtyard, but only served as a church until the Dutch captured the fort in 1637. Then it became the officers mess, and slave auction hall, and under the British rule, a school house for half-white children who seemed to be popping up in the village.
Being protestant, the Dutch built a non-catholic church in a different part of the castle and worshiped there. This protestant sanctuary, which has part of the Dutch text to Psalm 132 above its door, was build directly above slave holding cells which led to the door of no return. Alex, our tour guide stops to ask the question: “What kind of men could do these things, and then worship God here?” He asked this question standing in the protestant sanctuary, and involuntarily we looked down at the floor imagining the horrors that occurred beneath us.
On Monday, we woke to the news of a coup in Thailand, and it served as a reminder of Ghana’s tenuous changes of government. In its 49 year history, Ghana has had no less than five successful coups, and at least that many unsuccessful ones. Actually, I had been thinking about its history before the news of Thailand reached us. I had been thinking about the Robert Redford movie, Havana [movie link]. I guess it is the radio broadcasts I hear at night around the city. In the movie, a radio is playing in the background and the voices are getting more angry. There is this one scene when Redford hears something on it, and says something like, “My Spanish is not so good…did he just say revolution?” He is trying to understand the angry voice, yelling out of the radio in Spanish, and I hear those same sorts of voices from the radios here at night. I hadn’t really given it much thought until we were at the resort, and I heard that same angry voice on the radio there coming out of the kitchen, and then later at the pool, and then later back in Accra. These broadcasts are in Twi, I think (the majority local language), so I don’t understand it, but I do recognize the tone. The night we return, I hear the same angry voice coming out of the guard shack, and I’m thinking of the movie Havana, about Ghana’s five coups, and our safety in a place where we don’t speak the language of the angry voice, and in the morning I hear on the BBC of a coup in Thailand, and Suzanne is sick and we have a guest coming that afternoon, and there are these angry voices on the radio in our guard shack.
“It sounds political to me.” I say to Emmanuel, our day guard. It is his day off and we are walking around town picking up household items. I see a poster celebrating the fact that Ghana is in its 4th Republic. “It is a very angry voice, and I want to know, what is he saying?” Emmanuel does not know what I am talking about, but says he will look into it. Several days goes by and he has no answer. More details of the coup in Thailand come in, and I wonder, how long we will be safe. Why do we live in a house with a guard behind windows with strong bars?
Then it is Thursday night, and Emmanuel is at work, waiting for his relief. It is dark, and I hear the angry voice coming from his radio. “That is what I’m talking about!” I say. “What is he saying?”
“That?” he asks astonishingly
“Yes, what is he angry about?”
“Mr. Steve, that is football.” Soccer for all you Americans. It isn’t an angry political speech trying to stir the nation into revolution, it is sports, and this is the broadcast of the Black Stars, Ghana’s national team, the one that beat the US at the world cup.
“Football?” I say, and feel foolish. “Football? No revolution?”
As I’ve said, it has been a long week, made longer by sickness, worry over revolution, and things not always working out perfectly, which in turn affects all the other parts of our lives. Our lives are not so complicated, or for that matter compartmentalized, and I think that is good, at least for the long run. Compartmentalization is OK for emergencies, but when it gets to be a way of life, I think the soul develops stress fractures, and there is leakage. Our lives long to be connected, to be whole.
I think about Bill Clinton, and how parts of his life got so disjoint. I know people who admire him for his ability to handle that kind of stress in his life, but I think that even his soul longed to reconnect. When events spun out of control, and there was compartmental leakage, it clouded his final years in office and legacy, and made a lot of people like myself lose hope. I wonder if he behaved that way because his life was too compartmentalized – he didn’t see how the dishonorable aspects of his life affected the other.
Walking through slave castles, it is hard to imagine that people like us could be capable of such evil, but today, at least in the tours we went on, the focus was not on slavery so much as it was on education, to hope that it would never happened again. At the beginning of the Elmina Castle tour, we paused as the guide read these words:
of the anguish of our ancestors.
May those who died, rest in peace.
May those who return, find their roots.
May humanity never again perpetuate such injustice against humanity.
We the living vow to uphold this.