“There Is Always A Way”

Being back in the U.S. after traveling to Ghana has been interesting. I’ve been more annoyed than ever with the daily stresses in life that in the grand scheme of things just aren’t important and should not take up so much of my frustration. The minute I landed in Newark I was bombarded with rude and unhelpful attitudes of airport and transit employees. I missed the laid back and friendly culture I had left where you would never see such negative attitudes over anything in life. Now that I’m back, it almost seems like my trip was a dream. I can’t believe that I went and that it was over. Then, I’m awaken as my phone rings and I hear my kids’ voices on my voicemail as a lump forms in my throat. I’m never good with endings, and this one was hard especially because I felt that our time together was too short and we could have had more together than we did, even though it was enough for us both to learn from each other.

It’s frustrating to me because when I tell people where I have traveled I get a lot of pity expressions. People feel sorry those who are living in any African country without even really knowing about it, and it’s sad that our society is morphed into that thinking without looking further. I also feel extremely awkward when people try to tell me how good it is that I went over to help them, to help “these poor people”. However, when I left I didn’t really feel sad or worried about the wellbeing of any of the children I left. And by no means did any of them need to be “saved”. In fact, I’ve come to think even more than I have before that maybe they are the lucky ones. Sure they don’t have a lot. The kids that I worked with mostly lived in shacks, had torn clothes, and minimal toys to play with. However, they were so appreciative and respectful. They enjoyed learning, they found fun in simple games that didn’t involve a television screen or gaming system. Sure, we waited 3 hours for our dinner sometimes, but in Ghana, why stress? What is the point in stressing over these day to day things? Here we are in a developed country with our health problems caused from stress or from not getting enough exercise and eating processed or fast food. Our children aren’t sweeping dirt to make their school look as nice as they can because they are proud to show you, they aren’t carrying chairs over for their new guests. We have so much more here in a materialistic ways, but our schools are filled with kids who turn to drugs, bullying, suicide, etc. It’s like we create these problems for ourselves.

I guess it frustrates me most because I feel I learned just as much from them as I’m sure they learned from me if not more. If ever an issue, the motto rang through “there is always a way”. Don’t worry, there is always a way to get something done if it needs to get done. So what’s better? Is it better to have the money, the things, the technology, the high-tech games? Or is it better to live simply, appreciate your family, friends and community, be a little dirty, a little poor, but be an overall friendlier and more positive person? Laid back with less stress to allow yourself to enjoy life? Who has the better quality of life? It’s true that developing countries can learn to further themselves in areas that the western world is excelling, but do they want to? I think that teaching about job creation is extremely important and showing them what else is out there and creating positive cultural exchange experiences. However, I think it’s equally as important for those in the western world to realize, they might not be the best off. And as much as we are teaching the world, take a minute and let other cultures teach you and open your mind to how they are living. It might be more important for someone to learn patience, life skills, survival instincts, love, respect, and appreciation of what you do have than to learn the competitive fast paced nature of the western world. So, never think “oh those poor people in Africa, how good it is for you to help them” because really, I think we might be the poor people that need help to become rich in other ways than money, power, tech, and business in the long run. If I had the people in my life that mean the most, I think that I could very much live in Ghana or a similar culture for more long term.

Smiles all around at Nkroful

Junior showing off my sunglasses

Vida and a friend after practicing our Azonto

My beautiful girls, always filled with smiles

Not only were they always smiling, but even though they don’t have a lot, they are so quick to give. Especially on the last days everyone wanted to give things to me so badly in fear that if they didn’t I would forget them. One group asked what I washed with. When I told them soap, they were in complete shock that someone with my color skin could use the same thing that they use to wash. They didn’t understand. Before I knew what was going on, a group ran to their home to get soap and bring it back for me to take. They are very obsessed with complexion as well. They think that white skin is better and they think hair type like mine is better than their’s. It was frustrating to me, they would say “your hair is so nice!” and they I would reply “YOUR hair is so nice, it is beautiful!”. But they are very quick to think that white is better and more dominant. Which leads me to my next blog I hope to write about empowerment as an area to focus on. If anything, I hope I left them feeling more special than anything. I wanted them to know that I was saying was truly what I thought. It was hard to tell if it went in one ear and out the other, or really helped them stay motivated to keep working hard, studying, and focusing on what they were so good at. I had the most amazing artists, runners, high jumpers, kids that could list tons of countries from every letter of the alphabet, and who could write the most creative and interesting stories/poems. I hope they don’t lose that. Though roadblocks come along the way such as kids who are forced to work instead of go to school, death, illness, and pregnancy. One school had a 14 year old girl who was pregnant. We did not know until the end and it was hard because she had one of the greatest personalities and was so easy and interesting to talk to. Of course, the fact that the boy have any responsibility wasn’t even a thought in anyone’s mind. I was so frustrated that someone with so much potential would not have the opportunities. I hope the world will transition to understand what a difference focusing on women and girls can make in situations like that. Where someone so special could have a large hand in helping their community build itself up, but instead will fall back into the cycle of life that is hard to dig out of. Not just in Africa or a developing country, but very much so in the U.S. as well. Which, my plug, is why women’s reproductive health is so important. It took the U.S. too long to make it a priority, as a powerful country we should be setting an example to make the change worldwide that could make a large impact. I got very much off topic, it’s so easy to do! My mind is constantly flooded with thoughts and side stories from the trip. I thought going would clear up for me what I wanted from life, but honestly, I’ve never been more confused. There is a lot to process, but I’ll try to share along the way.

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Meeting A Role Model of Mine, Nick Kristof

On Monday evening I got to meet someone who is toward the top of my list when it comes to people I want to meet in life. Currently a New York Times Op-Ed columnist, Nick Kristof has lead his life as an adventure to help others and also get the message out on problems going on throughout the world that need exposure. I look forward to reading his work every single week and strive to live the kind of life that he has accomplished. I was unable to take notes during his Lecture at NYU Monday night after arriving late because Washington Square is VERY confusing, the hall was already filled with people eager to hear him speak and honestly we didn’t mind standing to listen to every word. Though I don’t have any notes, I wanted to post on a few points that really stuck out to me and have stayed with me ever since.

Near the beginning of his lecture, Nick Kristof told a story about a girl who just needed $13 in school fees, but did not have the money to spare. The New York Times began posting about these girls and soon enough letters started flooding the office, many with $13 donations.  One day, a donation of $10,000 showed up. Thrilled at this generosity the money was quickly used to sent many girls to school enough years to graduate and support programs that help them as well. Turns out, the $10,000 donation was an accounting error and the man actually meant to donate $100. Oops. As an error of the bank, Kristof told a senior level employee that he could take back that money, pulling all of those girls out of school and having a column written about it, or he could stand with his donation. Without hesitation the man exclaimed that the bank was thrilled to match the amount to keep the $10,000 donation. This made me think, if this bank could spare that money which impacted dozens of girls lives for the better, can’t others? This mistake was fortunate, but what is unfortunate is that it took an error to get the money in the first place. With the impact that it made, think of other that could go to school and create better lives for future generations through corporate social responsibility.

Kristof also drove home the point that it is extremely important for people to travel and have the influence of local communities in the movements and causes they are working for. He mentioned that if a group of people here sat down at a table and found a solution that worked without ever setting foot into the community and talking with those who are there it would be pure luck.  I couldn’t agree more, I’ve been wanting to travel abroad myself to experience my passion for helping others and cultural communication first hand, though it’s usually easier said than done. I’m always open to suggestions for great volunteer abroad opportunities that won’t take my entire savings.

One thing I did not know about Kristof is that during his time abroad, he actually purchased girls living in brothels to take them back to their families. It was shocking to hear him say that he was actually given a paper receipt for the transaction, and the brothel owner was a woman. Sadly, in many cases including one of Kristof’s rescues, the girls will go back to the brothel voluntarily after becoming addicted to meth and knowing they can access it there.

Though people talk about many of these girl and women issues going on abroad, trafficking and forced prostitution is actually a very large problem in the U.S. as well. Kristof told a story of a Brooklyn girl who was taken in by a pimp and sold on websites such as backpage.com. This girl in particular was dropped off at an apartment for a John and as she made her way to his door and the pimp waited outside, she went to another door and began frantically banging. Luckily, someone answered and she was able to call the police. Most situations are never found however, and it’s very rare for a pimp to actually get caught and charged severely for a crime. The Johns who buy the girls often don’t completely know the violent scenarios that go along with forced prostitution. A recent solution is to send them to John school once caught where they learn what issues they are fueling, so far it has been affective.

Kristof’s work does focus a lot on women and girls. However, he believes men are not the main problem. Women often support many of these harmful practices do to cultural beliefs. This is true in many cases such as FGM, forced labor, and forced marriage. I learned a lot about this at the Women In The World summit where it was often the grandmothers who were the most severe when it came to forced marriage. To change these cultural customs, Kristof believes education is key for a different future. He then shared a photo of a Ugandan girl who received a goat and support from Heifer International and just recently graduated from the University of Connecticut.

Though of course women are not always the main problem. Domestic violence is an issue that is still commonly accepted in many cultures who think that women should be abused in order to understand their place. However, Kristof told a story about a woman who brought in more of an income then her husband. This trend is becoming more common now, and will continue to grow as more girls are educated and getting good jobs. Usually when the woman does make more money, there is an absence of the domestic violence.

To close, Kristof reminded us of how much is going on the world that is often unfathomable to those here in the United States, which is another reason he believes everyone should spend some time abroad. “We won the lottery of life,” he said, reminding us how lucky we are no matter how we might sometimes complain. He then told a story of his friend was was a humanitarian worker in Darfur. The woman stayed strong through all her time on the ground. It wasn’t until one day at her grandmother’s birthday party she looked at a bird feeder and had a complete breakdown. The bird feeder reminded her of how much we have here, even enough to spare to make sure birds don’t go hungry, when the people she saw in Darfur were suffering immensely, starving, and facing unthinkable violence. It just never seems fair.

After Kristof’s lecture we enjoyed a reception to do some mingling. My two friends and I even had the privilege of meeting and speaking to him, a moment I know I will never forget. As he shook our hands and listened to our questions and goals, he remained very open and easy to talk to. It was great to see someone with such a huge following so human to a group of young professionals striving to make a difference in human rights. He left us with this advice:

” It’s not about confidence, it’s about humility. The more you question yourself the more you will find the answers within others and your adventures of travel and learning.”

I highly recommend checking out Half The Sky. The organization, book, and soon to be documentary share stories that the world needs to hear.