Friday, September 02, 2011

getting my head on straight

In 2005 or 6, Steve decided to “take the lead” back to Liberia, leaving his wife and kids in Buduburam while he went to check everything out. Things were supposed to be calmer, people were trickling back home, and Steve wanted to take his family back – but he wanted to see for himself how it was, set things up, get life going a bit before bringing everyone. He traveled overland, passing through Cote d’Ivoire and then in a small vehicle – 4 passengers and a driver – crossed into Liberia. Soon after passing the border their car broke down, and within minutes they were attacked. Steve ended up in the hospital, having received more blows with a cutlass (machete) than his fellow travelers. He had received deep cuts up and down his back and around his upper thighs, which have healed over time, but the doctors were unable to save one of his legs. After a couple of months in the hospital he returned to Ghana, where, through my involvement with Harmony over the past couple of years, I’ve come to know him. He’s too old to receive any assistance from Liliane Fonds (they have a cut-off age of 25 years), and he’s been struggling to keep his two daughters in school, get a leg that fits properly and doesn’t give him boils and blisters when he puts it on, and make sure there’s food in the pot and a roof for his family to sleep under. From time to time I’ve helped him out a bit with the leg troubles, thanks to donations I’ve been receiving.

But now the end of my time in Ghana has come and I’ve been wondering what to do for him so that he can meet his and his family’s needs in a more independent manner. Recently when I visited the camp Steve met with me and expressed exactly the same concern. I asked him what suggestions he had – and was impressed, but not surprised, that he was ready with a great idea in mind. He had recently completed the baking course that the Harmony Center offers. He had an oven and gas, but he needed assistance to get the initial stock of supplies so he could start his home-baking business. I advised him to put together a list of what was needed and how much it cost, and "we’d see what to do."

Around the same time, Henry also talked to me about helping him get an oven for his baking business. He was planning to soon return to Liberia and wanted to take the oven back with him and set up a baking business in his homeland. Henry has almost always been at the Harmony Center over the past couple of years – in the back room where the baking and cooking classes take place. He’s the one who’s been responsible for the fabulous aromas that are usually filling that small lime-green building. Sometimes they’re sweet smells, sometimes savory – every time they make my stomach rumble. Usually, Henry has brought me a sample – sometimes to eat on the spot, sometimes to take with me – corn bread, meat pies, donuts, spring rolls . . . (ooooh – lunch is still an hour, at least, away for me . . . time to move on from the food topic). I thought Henry was the teacher; he always was there, knew what was going on, seemed to be advising the people, and had a kind of authoritative presence. But recently, I found out from Elizabeth that Henry was one of the students, not the teacher. However, he knew it all, she said, could easily teach the class, and often takes over for the teacher when she can’t make it. I asked Henry to find out how much the oven would cost, and, in the manner that I’ve learned over the years, didn’t make any promises, but said the usual, “and we’ll see what to do.”

Joe is someone I don’t think I’ve written about – he’s a relatively new SMA Lay Missionary from the US who’s taking over my work in the camp and also some of the work I do in Winneba. He recently helped a young woman who’d completed the baking course to get her starting supplies (just as Steve was asking me to do). Joe was telling me how it’s a loan and she’s going to pay it back over time. It would go into something like a revolving fund so that a future graduate could benefit in the same way. And I thought, of course, that’s exactly what our role should be about. It’s not about giving financial assistance, but giving a sense of pride in earning what was received, giving a sense that the person on the receiving end has the power and dignity to get her life into her control, that she can do it on her own, that she is not dependent upon the rebels or the UN or the missionaries to run her life for her, but that she has the power and ability to run her life herself – that she has earned that right and is not dependent upon someone who was generous and has made a donation of food, money, or clothes. She was given a loan, and she could and would pay it back because she wanted to and deserved the opportunity to show that she now had control of her life – not the UN, not the rebels, not the missionaries.

I know this way of doing things and the value of building people up on the inside – it’s what the project Hope for Life in Accra is all about, it’s one of the basic principles of my education, and it’s also a significant part of our training in the US to be lay missionaries (Training for Transformation) and yet, sometimes it would slip my mind. I’d think, hmm, I received a donation to help someone out, so I would help someone out by paying their education, helping with medical bills, topping up the money lacking for rent or for rebuilding a shop that had been torn down years ago, etc. (It’s easier to just go about giving the money/whatever and not worry about setting up some system of earning that assistance – and sometimes I’d forget - or be lazy or too tired to want to deal with working out some form of earning the assistance - and just take this easy route.) But by following this route, I was neglecting the most important part of the assistance being offered – the part about building up a person’s self-esteem, dignity and feelings of control in her life. I would get caught up in all that was going on in my life and forget to take a breath and a step back before taking the step forward. I’ve been blessed to be surrounded by people (like Joe) who give me those reminders, often (as with Joe) without even realizing that they’re giving me a much needed shaking to get my head back on right.

So, as usual with people I’m involved with on the camp, I turned to my beautiful friend and advisor Elizabeth. I talked to her about Steve and Henry and how they’ve asked me to help them. I asked her thoughts about giving the assistance to Steve as Joe had done for the other woman. Steve could pay it back to Harmony over time, and then after the next baking course the person who did the best and had the most need could then also get set up. She liked the idea and when Steve came by we worked out the details, and he had no complaints about the plan.

Some of the assistance Harmony has been receiving has recently been cut, so after the current baking class finishes, they can no longer afford a baking teacher. I suggested that maybe Henry could be assisted with his oven and in exchange repay a part of it with cash that would go into that fund for future graduates, and the balance he would pay it back in kind by becoming the baking teacher for the next class and not receiving any monthly pay – with the understanding that the oven was his pay. Elizabeth was happy with the idea, but Henry wanted time to think about it. It would delay his planned return to Liberia. I respected his disappointment and request for time to think it through. And after a week, he agreed.

All of this happened just as I was receiving some donations sent with the 3rd quarter living allowance. As always, it seems timing works out perfectly – a need comes along, and as we figure things out here, a donation comes along to make it possible. I had told Steve and Henry “we’ll see what to do.” And we did, thanks to the people who surround me – people who sent donations at the right time, people who shook me up and helped me get my head back on straight, and people who want to build up their lives, not just sit back and receive another handout.

Steve, me and Elizabeth in front of one of the Harmony ovens

Henry with one of the Harmony ovens


At 4:38 PM, Blogger MJ said...

Oh my gosh Steve, what a fantastic idea this was and how wonderful it is that there are people there with the same vision you have of turning it into something that not only enables them to get the help they need, but also gives them a feeling of usefulness and pride in that they are also able to be paying back the help they receive by helping others who also need it and will in turn help others and on and on. There's a Christmas song-don't remember the name of it right now-one of my favorites and part of the lyrics are "and the gift goes on"--how true in this case.


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