Thursday, July 7, 2011

How It All Began

It's hard to pinpoint the beginning of something that never would have happened at all if so many other things hadn't occurred earlier to lay the groundwork for it. For example, my sister Carol and I taught ourselves to crochet when I was twelve. If we hadn't, I never would have begun publishing crochet designs some twenty-five years later. And if I'd never done that, I might never have thought to start publishing my jewelry designs ten years after that. Consequently, the issue of Bead & Button Magazine that somehow found its way into the little town of Somanya in the Krobo region of Ghana wouldn't have had one of my designs in it, and the email inviting me to come and teach jewelry-making to a group of Krobo beadmakers would never have been extended.

So maybe it all started when I was twelve...or even younger. (That's me on the right.)

But I'm not going to take you through every little butterfly's wing-flap that may or may not have started the train of events that eventually landed me and my 22-year-old niece in a rattletrap Ghanaian taxi, at the mercy of the group of young male strangers who had met us at the airport, queasy from our anti-
malarial meds, dazed with jet-lag, sweating like piglets, and (in my case at least) utterly devastated by the non-stop bombardment of nightmare images coming through our windshield like some streaming, sense-surround video depicting a level of poverty I never in a thousand years could have believed possible without seeing it for myself.

Yes, I'd viewed my share of disturbing photographs before coming. But let me tell you something very clearly right now: PICTURES DON'T GET IT. Pictures give you little isolated glimpses of a broken-down building here, a muddy hovel there; of one distended belly on one single, unfortunate child. What they don't give you is the panoramic view. It's not like here in the States, where poverty exists mostly in pockets, in distant rural areas or in certain urban neighborhoods that are sandwiched between thicker slices of affluent, or at least comfortably-off, communities. In West Africa, with the exception of a few pockets of ostentatious wealth where rolls of barbed wire top the walls surrounding every home, the poverty is everywhere, with no relief in sight. For first-time visitors, it can feel like an unbroken flow of images specifically designed to break your heart into tiny, unrecoverable pieces. I was swamped with a depth of pity that I was afraid would drown me and render me unable to do what I had come to do.

But these first reflections were quickly followed by a sense of shame. How could I be worried about how I was feeling when I only had to look at the poverty? These people had to live it! How self-absorbed could I possibly be? But the bottom line is this: If you have a heart, seeing for the first time how the people of West Africa live is going to make it ache for them.

The good news is that these early sensations and impressions tend to pass very quickly. Even on that first day, I was aware that, mixed in with the shabbiness and grime and tattered (though wonderfully colorful) clothing was a cheerful bustle and a vivacity of spirit that seemed entirely at odds with the
setting--a setting I would have sworn could produce nothing but abject misery. But the really big revelation came on my fourth day in Somanya when I was walking down that same main street that had so horrified me when we first drove into town, and I realized that a part of my brain was thinking, "This is the most charming place I've ever been."

WHAT? As the thought arose, I did a physical double-take, looking carefully around me. Had something changed? No, it was the same little pot-holed street, lined on both sides with open sewers and the drab, tumbledown shacks that serve as shops.

Well then, what?

The answer, of course, was that my perspective had shifted. And the answer to the question of why this had happened wasn't long in coming. Having spent those few days around the people of Somanya, and having experienced the cheerfulness--even joyfulness--with which they approach life, my view of the town had done a thorough one-eighty. Gone was my assumption of widespread misery, and with it the pity I had felt for 
these people. And gone was my dismay at the town's slapped-together dreariness. Now I saw Somanya as glowing brightly in the sunshine, admirable in its prac-ticality, endearing in its simplicity, and vivid with colorfully-garbed people who formed an ever-shifting kaleidoscope's view as they made their

way to market. The town had become a lively place for me, a place of friendliness and good cheer; a place where each day is lived fully, with great enjoyment, and at a pace that allows for an appreciation of life's many small pleasures.

In that moment, I was aware that I had received a great gift: My impaired vision had been healed, almost overnight. Later, I would make adjustments here and there to my new perspective on life in Kroboland. But for now, there was one thing I knew with great certainty. I had come home.

The View from Krobo Mountain

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