February 1, 2010

Giving Back on Shaky Ground

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“Wake up! You must get out! You must get out of the house!” It was 4 a.m. in Humjibre, Ghana, a small village in the estern region of the country. I had been in Humjibre for almost two weeks now with Cover Africa, a student group at Cornell which seeks to combat malaria and its intimate connection to poverty. We were working with a local NGO, the Ghana Health and Education Initiative (GHEI), to carry out Humjibre’s first ever malaria intervention. Abruptly awoken from a deep sleep, my heart was racing — was there a fire? A civil war? Would we be evacuated from the country? What was happening?

After my initial 30-second freak-out, I ran outside to find Joyce, a 13-year-old girl I had been working with in GHEI’s youth literacy program. Only 12 hours earlier we had been dancing to Rihanna and pounding fufu — a traditional Ghanaian dish of pounded cassava and plantains. It had been a wonderful, blissful day — my best yet. But the rhythmic thumping of the mortar and pestle now seemed far, far away, drowned out by Joyce’s panicked sobs. “The land-shake is coming!” she screamed, terrified for her life as much as ours.

It had been five days since the devastating 7.0 magnitude earthquake hit Haiti. With no internet or newspapers to keep us updated on the catastrophe across the globe, we were largely in the dark, unaware of the extent of destruction which plagued the Haitian people. Though a news junkie at heart, there was something ironically liberating about my temporary ignorance. What I did not know could not hurt me, or make me question everything I’d come to believe about development, poverty and justice. Yet as much as I tried to protect myself from the unfair realities of our world in my beloved Ghanaian sanctuary, simply knowing disaster had struck was enough to make my heart wrench and make me feel incredibly small and helpless.

In the pitch-black night, hundreds of villagers gathered outside the Humjibre community library, built by GHEI. It was one of the few libraries in the region, stocked with over 4,000 books and even a few computers. Inside, I would often find three children sharing one chair, sounding out each word to each other, letter by letter. With few to no books available to children in schools, this library was truly a haven — a diamond in the rough.

Outside, women and children were wrapped in their sleeping cloth, having fled from their homes immediately after word of the “land-shake.” Others had brought along all of their belongings, anticipating the full-fledged destruction of their homes. Apparently, rumors of an earthquake had spread throughout Ghana. The vast proliferation of cell phones enabled word to travel from Takoradi, a seaside town 100 miles away, to Bekwai, a nearby village, to the assemblyman in Humjibre. Upon hearing the news, the assemblyman announced over the community loudspeaker that an earthquake was coming and to evacuate immediately. The land had shaken in Port-au-Prince and over 100,000 people had died; wasn’t it only logical that the land would shake in Humjibre too?

About 30 minutes after the initial land-shake warning, another announcement was made over the loudspeaker — the earthquake was no longer coming to Humjibre; God would make the land shake in Bekwai instead, as punishment for the human sacrifices they performed years prior. Satisfied with this explanation, everyone returned home for another hour of sleep before heading to farm.

I stood in the dark unable to wrap my head around what had just happened. For the first time in my life, I was experiencing what it was like to be a minority, both physically and mentally. I was one of a handful of abrunis (Ghanaian term for white/Western people) in a village of 4,500 Africans. Walking in the streets of Humjibre, children would wave and scream, “abruni, abruni!” eager to touch my hands or feet and watch my skin turn white. Others pointed to me and cried for their mothers, terrified at the ghostly being before them.

Yet far more distinct than the color of my skin was my intellect — my basic understanding of science and the way the world works. Though I met many individuals endowed with profound wisdom and intelligence far beyond my own, the vast majority of people lacked essential deductive reasoning skills. Cause and effect was a foreign concept, one which could not be developed or taught overnight, no matter how hard we tried.

But was it my right to share this knowledge? Could I — an outsider — tell the people of Humjibre that despite common belief, earthquakes do not spread like wildfire across the globe by the wrath of God? Could I explain that malaria is not a curse, but a mosquito-borne infectious disease, which kills one child every 30 seconds, perpetuates the cycle of poverty and hinders economic development? Was it my place to tell women that if they use family planning, they will have less children, be able to educate more of them and improve their family’s standard of living? What was my role? Where do you draw the line between aid and intrusion?

It was not until the land-shake false alarm that I fully realized how complex development and humanitarian work really is. I had come to Ghana with few expectations. I did not think I could “save” the people of Humjibre, nor did I want to; I simply wanted to observe, learn and do good in some way. Yet the longer I was there, it became clearer and clearer that despite the best intentions, doing good was not simple or easy.

In Ghana, greetings are extremely important. Whether meeting the village chief or buying bread at the market, I was repeatedly asked, “What is your mission?” Totally caught off guard, I wasn’t quite sure how to respond. Did I have a mission? A purpose? What was my role? I did not know.

Coming from an academic setting, we’d been extremely focused on numbers and results — how much money could we raise; how many bed nets could we hang; how many lives could we save? I wanted to maximize our resources and make the biggest impact possible. Upon my return back to the States though, I realized that my mission had little to do with bed nets, but rather, the people beneath the bed nets — the people of Humjibre. They are my mission.

Carolyn Witte is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. She may be reached at cwitte@cornellsun.com. Wit’s End appears alternate Tuesdays this semester.

Original Author: Carolyn Witte