Friday, July 31, 2009

The Engagement

Yep, that's right, we are engaged.

We were in Burkina Faso, in the Sahel region (it borders the Sahara desert) in a village called Oursi. After sleeping out under the stars on a large sand dune with only our mosquito nets and a mat to sleep on, we woke up at 5:30 am to watch the sunrise.

The sun came up and Karin was furiously taking pictures of practically everything as I was down on one knee on the top of the sand dune, patiently waiting for her to turn around. About twenty minutes later, she turned around (ok, it was probably thirty seconds, but it felt like a while).

When she turned, she said 'really'? 'really'? I said, 'Karin Alexandra'... and she again said 'really'? 'really'?

I said 'Karin, why don't you just come over here.' Then finally she came over and I proposed. She said yes, and we sat and watched the rest of the sunrise alone for another hour or so.

Telling people our good news has been a bit more difficult. Our phone was broken and there was no internet for miles. Eventually we borrowed someones phone and called our parents. Several days later, we got to an internet and could email a few people. But we are still trying to tell our friends and family!

A friend of ours told us to be prepared to answer the same questions about the wedding for the next 30,000 conversations. So, I'll preempt at least a couple of those by saying that we don't have a place or date yet, and wont until September at least!


And now for Karin's take on things...

We were up in Oursi, a village in northern Burkina, north of Gorom Gorom- a city famous in West Africa for a colorful market- colorful because people come in on camels and donkeys from Mali, Niger and surrounding villages in the desert, all dressed in their colorful clothes and head coverings. Oursi also has a very colorful market that draws those same venders and shoppers.

Our last night in Oursi, we slept out on the sand dunes. Now, these sand dunes dont really compare to the sahara, but they are the biggest dunes in Burkina and close to the border with Mali, so very much the sahel, hot and dry, and ever so sandy. We had a mat and a couple of sheets as our mattress, and had a mosquito net held up by 4 sticks dug into the ground. Luckily it wasnt too windy that night, and so the mosquito net stayed up most of the night.

We slept relatively well, and woke up with the sunrise at 5.30 am, and watched it from there a bit, and then walked up to the top of the biggest dune, and watched as the sun slowly rose.

I was taking photos, quite distracted. And when I turned around Ray was down on one knee... all I remember sayin was 'really, really, reallly!' He was like Karin just come over here... he proposed, and I accepted. The ring is a basic handcrafted silver ring that he bought in Togo at an artisanal store (I can now pinpoint the time he must have bought it).

We spent the rest of the day at the Oursi market and then on transport back to a place with running water, electricity, and internet...

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Mercy Ship

Docked in the port of Cotonou is a ship that will be here for a while, 9 months in fact. Its not delivering any cargo, but instead takes aboard ordinary Beninise in order to perform free, basic surgeries.

Mercy Ship is a Christian, US based aid organization. All of the doctors, nurses, and other staff on the ship volunteer their time. They each pay a monthly fee to be there, but it usually is paid for by their church or another sponsoring organization. One of our friends here in Benin works as a translator on the ship, and he and several of the crew gave us a tour one afternoon.

When they get ready to go to a country, Mercy Ship sends out advance teams to do pre screenings of possible patients. Sometimes, the teams have to go deep into the villages, and they are always building awareness about the organization so that people will trust them and come to the ship.

Most of the surgeries are basic ones. Here in Benin, we were told of one of the most common procedures. For many women who do not receive pre natal care, after having a child, they will have continuous bleeding. Because of the bleeding, their husbands will often leave the women, and they will be ostracized in the community. A simple, low risk surgery can stop the bleeding and allow them to reenter the community.

Even though it is a Christian organization, Mercy Ship treats all people, regardless of religion. And, its not just nurses and doctors who volunteer. On the ship they need cooks, cleaning staff, translators, mechanics, and many other kinds of volunteers. They also have different teams that go out into the country, building schools and homes.

In order to dock in a country, the host government agrees to provide a docking place and water to the ship for free. It also agrees not to charge the ship any taxes. The volunteers live on the ship, which has game rooms, a small school, jungle gym, free internet and computers, and even a Starbucks. Volunteers can serve for several months, or, as in the case of a man we met on the ship, 21 years.


Monday, July 27, 2009

Facial Scars

The faces of many here in Benin, Togo, and Burkina Faso are scarred; scars that distinguish one's tribal association and sometimes even social rank. The placement, number, and length of the scars each have significance. The scars are often below or beside the eyes, and some even run the entire length of the face from hairline to chin. A particular scar in Burkina Faso that falls from the corner of the eye is meant to show that this person cried alot as a child.

The scars are given at a young age, and are made to heal in such a way that the scars are more visible. While visiting a particularly remote village in the sahel of Burkina Faso (arriving on camel), I noticed a child who had dozens of short scars across her forehead- apparently the scarring resulted from a blood letting that is thought to remedy some problem she had in her head. Here this scarring, both for medicinal and tribal purposes, and female circumcision is done by the same woman and with the same knife. HIV/AIDS could easily be transmitted.

We learned that scarring and female circumcision was made illegal in Burkina in the last decade. And yet today there are children, even babies, who are visibly scarred (and who knows how many with their genitals mutilated). If a woman is caught performing female circumcision she is thrown in jail. The legal situation isnt all that clear though, because apparently the government has had some leniency with scars made strictly for tribal purposes- they arent ready to stop tradition.

But scarring for beautification is not accepted by the law. One woman had what looked like a basic leaf etched into both cheeks, others have the area around their mouthes covered in short repeated lines. This is beautiful, and not necessarily a sign of tribe affiliation.

Back in Benin we talked with friends in Cotonou- why are some and yet others not scarred? They explained that the tradition lives strongly in the rural areas, and is gradually loosing ground in the cities. Some young parents do not want to scar the faces of their children, and deal with pressure and trouble when returning to their family's village with their unscarred children.

Can you imagine having your social rank boldly, and permanently, etched into your face?


Friday, July 24, 2009

Being a Minority

This probably wont be a news flash for any of you, but having whiteskin in Africa makes me a minority here.

So what? Well, first of all, its not something I am used to. BeforeI go deeper into this subject, I want to say that there are many waysto be a minority, and race is only one of them. But, based on my experiences here, this post will be about being a racial minority.

It isn't always easy or comfortable being a minorty. Let me tell you about some of our experiences here.

Being white, people call you Yovo, or blanche, both of which mean 'white person'. These are not necessarily meant to be deroggatory names, but consistently being called 'white person', instead of Ray, isn't very fun. I feel that it takes away a part of who I am and lumps me together with all the other white people in this world. For better or worse, I cannot exist separatly from my race.

Kids in the streets consistently sing a song about Yovo's every time they see us. Our friends know of our arrival several minutes before we get to their door because they hear the children singing the yovo song. Walking in the city, we are constantly asked to buy something or to give someone money.

Let me be clear- I am not trying to get any sympathy here. In fact, every conversation we have had with regular Africans is a pleasant andenjoyable experience. But, when it comes to anyone involved in the tourism industry or in commerce, we always have to be on guard.

When we do come to a store, we are often given a ridiculously high price, because we are white, or a foreigner, or both. People assume that because we are white we dont know the real price or we are willing to spend the larger amount. Any taxi or bus ride also inevitably ends up in a fight, because we are charged more than the other passengers. How can someone, with a straight face, tell us that the ride cost 1000 CFA when we know the price is only 500, and ourAfrican friend paid the lower prices?

In addition, people come and greet you in a friendly manner. Many times, this nice conversation quickly turns into a sales pitch or someone who insists on being our 'guide', only to ask for a tip later. Or, the conversation moves to someone asking us to help get them to the States.

Here I have the priveledge that I can easily leave Africa and return to Maryland. If I am a racial minority back home, in my church or in my city in the States for example, I can easily go somewhere else where Whites make up a majority of the population.

Soon I will be back home and will once again get into a routine whereI rarely, if ever, experience racism or being a racial minority. But what about all those other Americans who experience racism or some of the other difficulties of being a racial minority in their own home, which they cannot escape?


Going places without internet...

Hey everyone!

Sorry about the long delay. We have been desperatly trying to get to internet for almost a week now. Several places we stayed had no electricity, and two other places that had internet actually lost their connection. Anyway, we should be well connected from here on out. Karin just posted below. Thanks for continuing to follow us!


Tuesday, July 14, 2009

La Lutte- the fight

We made it to Burkina Faso's capital city of Ouagadougou a little over a week ago, complete with a 5am start time accompanied by a nonstop downpour, a 45 min taxi ride to the border with a flat tire some where along the way, 2 hours waiting for customs at the border, and finally a 5 hour bus ride along not so well kept roads... and without much of an option, I officially made my public peeing debut at the border, but I was savy enough to have worn a skirt this time (all the Togolese women wear skirts, and simply squat along side the road, not revealing too much-- normally on these long bus rides I hide away in the bushes). I tried to take care of business as quickly as possible, avoiding eye contact with the motos wizzing by.

Before crossing the border to Burkina we spent 5 days in the northern Togolese city of Kara, staying with the family of a Togolese friend of Ray's back in the US (David Lembo). In many villages around Kara there is an annual week long rite of passage for boys of a particular tribe, known as 'La Lutte' (the fight)-- wrestling matches that take place 4 at a time in a grass field in front of hundreds of cheering, singing, and dancing spectators. To marry you must 'fight' (even if you only ever loose) and once you have married you are no longer allowed to participate. The wrestling matches take place between boys of the same village, as matches between villages would only bring war, we were told.

We were told La Lutte would begin at 6am, but arrived only to find out it would be closer to 9, or maybe 10, because the President was expected to attend. The dirt road down to where the matches were to take place was lined with women wearing identical outfits covered with the President's face, clapping and singing for hours in anticipation. A heavy police and military presence tried to keep the crowd contained, as groups of people moved around the field singing and dancing (some wearing masks, and others covered in a white powder) in celebration for their fighters.

I lost interest in the actual wrestling matches (which entailed one man flipping over or pinning down his opponent to large cheers from the crowd) after seeing about 5 sets of 4 simultaneous matches in a grass/mud field, each which quickly followed the one before it. What was interesting was the sheer number of boys/soon to be men lined up on opposing hillsides ready for their turn.

We left before the crowds, and were soon on our way to the border town of Dapeong for our last couple of nights in Togo before heading to Burkina (and my public peeing).


Saturday, July 11, 2009

My Turn to Preach

Back in Benin, several weeks ago, Leopold informed me one Saturday night that I would be preaching the next day. I could preach on whatever I wanted (there is no set text for the day in the church) and I could go for over an hour if I wanted. So, the qustion was: what to preach on.

Almost every sermon I heard in Benin seemed right in line with the Prosperity gospel. In Africa, it goes something like this: You need to be a better Christian. You need to pray harder, go to church more, stop stealing from that neighbor of yours, and give more money to the church. Once you do this, then and only then, will God make you sucessful. You will get a job, get a lot more money, and life will be good.

I didn't want to preach that, because I don't think that is the Gospel- it certainly isn't good news and I can't find that message in the Bible. So, instead, I went with love and grace. God loves us no matter what, and it is not our works that save us but it is God that saves us.

Karin translated from English to French, and a Benisese friend Bruno translated into the local language (Fon). Since this is the biggest city in Benin, not everyone is an ethnic Fon, but because it is a poorer neighborhood, not everyone speaks French (which is the language used in schools and businesses). With the translating, the sermon lasted a little over 30 minutes.

After I finished, Leopold decided to give a brief summary. He repeated the main message of God's never failing love and of God's free grace. But then he added how, if we were really Christians, we would stop sinning and God would love us more. And with that, the whole message I preached was lost.

Before I left I told them that the next time I was here, I would preach to them in French. They all clapped for that. I then told them that the next time Karin would translate the message into Fon. They stood and cheered for that. Good luck on learning Fon, Karin!


Thursday, July 9, 2009

Togo Bingo

Along the road to Kara, Togo- our current destination- Karin and I decided to play a little bingo.

For two hours, we each got points for calling out either: A broken down truck on the side of the road, or a person peeing in public. One point for each one, and minus one for a bad call. And, if you saw a lion you got 15 points.

By the end of the trip, Karin barely edged me out, scoring 33 to my 29. She tried to count broken down bicycles at the end (because she saw several) but I wasn't having any of it. Neither of us thought to call out our own van which got a flat tire (not surprisingly since the road is littered with holes, some nearly a foot deep).

Oh, and by the way, no one saw any lions- maybe because we were too busy looking out for broken down trucks and people peeing. Oh well.


Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Around Togo

It is our 8th day here in Togo, and we have already made our way north to the city of Kara (by way of several less than comfortable van rides).

We began in the capital city of Lome where we visited several UN offices to get an idea of what their work looks like here. A fellow Juniata alum from Cameroon was the director of the UN Regional Center for Peace and Disarmament some years back. We spent some hours reading in the Center's library and spoke with UN staff. In general, the office deals with arms control throughout Africa on a political level. We also spoke with a World Health Organization project manager and learned that their focus is on remedying the malnutrition of children. We are planning to visit some of their projects on the ground in the north.

From Lome we traveled to Kpalime, a small city in an area known for its mountains. We spent a day hiking with a botanical guide around Kluto, who showed us coffee trees, coco trees (that produce the beans we make chocoalte from), mango and avocado trees... and most interestingly a carnivorous plant that upon touching it with your finger closes its leaves to catch the presumed bug that has just landed on it. We luckily found shelter in our guide's village just before a tremendous rain strom came through, with lightening that was red (at least thats how I saw it) and thunder louder than any we had heard before. After nearly two hours of solid downpour, and thinking we may have to spend the night in the village, a taxi came driving through despite the rain and brought us back to the bottom of the mountain.

We also hiked up Mt.Agou- Togo's highest point at 986 meters. It was a five hour journey to the top and back, through dense forest, corn fields planted on a steep incline, two mountainside villages, and under the shade of the large banana tree branches. The view from the top was mediocre, but the view from the highest village is one to appreciate. We walked on narrow paths, past mud brick homes built on terraces, up and down steep inclines that would quickly get anyone in shape. Our legs were trembling when we finally got to the bottom, and honestly my calves are still a bit tender.

We then made our way here to Kara by way of one night in Atakpame. Here we were very warmly greeted by the family of a Togolese friend of Ray's from seminary. We spent the day visiting the Tamberman villages (I may be spelling this wrong). They are a people who still live in a remote part of the mountainous countryside of the North in homes constructed uniquely of materials they find around them. Their homes are small fortresses with multiple levels, traditionally built in a particular way to defend against intruders or dangerous animals (which have all been killed off at this point anyway).

We plan to be here through Sunday before we move on north to the city of Dapaong.


Wednesday, July 1, 2009

In Togo

We made it across the border this morning, and this time with no need for even a small bribe. Actually, we did tip the guy who pointed us in the right direction (although it was pretty obvious) as we made our way through Benin and then Togo customs officials and got our taxi to wait for us on the other side. Ray and I shared the front seat of the car, and four others squeezed in the back. Thankfully our driver was a cautious one.

We were just sitting on the beach enjoying some fried plantains and yams, watching lots of young guys plalying barefoot soccer. And since our place back in Benin didnt have water for the last 36 hours, we are looking forward to our cold showers tonight...