Let's use our experiences to make the world a better place

Here are some memoirs of my years in Africa. I spent the lesser part of 5 years there as a Peace Corps Volunteer and working for salary in Ghana and Sudan. To say that those years, between July 1982 and December 1986, affected me in a profound way is a gross understatement. This blog is an effort to collate those experiences in ways that are factual but also creative. I hope you enjoy them.

Beauty and the Beast

I arrived to fix the village’s hand pump in the early afternoon.

The women were still not back from the river. The pump was their only source of clean water. A large pond sat about 400 yards away but because it was filled with crocodiles, the women had to walk 5 miles for dirty water from the nearest river. So it was just the men and boys that came out to help me fix the pump.  Evidence of the dirty water they drank whenever the pump broke down could be seen on their legs and ankles. 

Guinea worms are insidious parasites.  Their larvae are taken into the body through dirty water and migrate to the muscles of the legs.  The worms grow into long thin ribbons and may take weeks to eat their way completely out of the muscles.  Pulling them out before they do often results in infection and sometimes gangrene. So the victims roll them up day by day on sticks rather than let them hang. Most of the children had several of them.  

Before we started work on the broken pump we cleared away the scorpions. Then, several of the young men took spears and took up position between the crocodiles and us.  I doubt we were in any danger being so far away, but I was glad they were there.  As we worked, one of the villagers told me that his son was bitten by a cobra and died. 

Snakes, crocs and worms weren’t the only problems.  The young children who came out to watch us suffered from Kwashiorkor.  Last week, I was told, a woman died when her uterus burst as she started her second trimester of pregnancy (there was not enough protein in her diet to keep herself healthy).  As I remember, the infant mortality rate for Ghana in 1984 was one in three.

There was one small boy there that seemed to epitomize it all.  He sat in the shade of a mango tree while files that buzzed around him like a storm of black snowflakes.  His belly, swollen with fluid, protruded past his knees and about ten sticks with glistening white threads wound around them marred his legs.  

When we finished I felt tired and depressed.  That village was the last stop of four I had made that day. But, I had witnessed similar scenes many times during my stay in Africa. Even so, it was hard to get used to. As I rode my 125 CC motorcycle, I kept thinking about that little boy. 

I joined the Peace Corps because of children like him.  One development worker among many I came to Ghana to help in whatever way I could. 

Anyway, I riding along a dirt path, wishing I could do more to help and wasn’t paying attention. Somewhere along the way I must have taken a wrong turn.

I found myself riding through a teak forest with the road rising steadily.  The tall straight trees blocked out the view of everything.   So when I got to the top of the hill and the forest ended the view I beheld shocked me awake.  Breaking hard, I locked my wheels and skidded to a stop.

My first impression of the view was that I was looking at a three dimensional picture painted by God himself.  A plain of infinite size in three directions spread out before me. There were no cities or factories spewing plumes of steam or smoke, no noisy cars throwing up dust, no bridges or sirens; nothing glinted. As the road went before me, it narrowed into a thin brown thread and vanished about half way to the horizon.  I saw a few villages, their round, mud huts with their thatched roofs looked more like stylized mushrooms than houses.  No sign of modern farming did I see, no quilt effect that is so commonly seen from the air in the U.S.   

There were no planes in the sky, nothing at all but small cotton ball shaped clouds stamping shadows on the earth here and there.  To the west a brush fire advanced, a thin line of red line of flame spewed a massive wall of black smoke that rose high into the sky where it feathered and streaked further west. In the east a thunderstorm marched towards it.   It's massive clouds nearly touched the ground and in the tiny gap that remained, the rain looked like rubbed pencil lead.  They were two giant armies moving toward each ready for battle.  

It was a masterpiece. I truth, my description is woefully inadequate to describe the profound beauty of the scene – I simply lack the necessary skill. All I can really say is that it was one of the most magnificent views I ever beheld; I was alone so you will just have to take my word for it and I didn’t take a camera to Ghana.  What I remember thinking most was that I was being shown a picture of the earth, the way it looked thousands of years ago.  I thought that this is what Abraham might have seen when he looked down on Canaan, his promise from God. 

Since then I have often thought this question: How can such great beauty co-exist with such pain and suffering?  Africa is a beautiful place but it is filled with disease and dangers.  I was there, along with many other development workers to help as best we could.  We were somewhat successful in helping but we could never be so totally.  That’s because Africa ultimately had to take responsibility for its self. Some countries like Ghana have.  Others, like Somalia or Afghanistan, haven’t.  

The same principle applies to us as individuals, but on a smaller scale. Each of us experiences conflict, turmoil, times of sickness and death as well as moments of joy and profound beauty in our lives.  And we are masterpieces, fearfully and wonderfully made. For profound beauty, nothing matches the human body and soul.
vBut, too often we neglect our bodies and our souls. Maybe it’s because the problems we face seem overwhelming that we develop bad habits that turn into self-destructive behaviors or become mentally ill.  So, where do we get the help we need? Are there tiny development workers that can scurry around inside us fixing what’s wrong? No. Ultimately we are responsible for taking care of ourselves. But we can’t do it alone.