Friday, 28 November 2008

Home Sweet Ho

After a month of traveling nearly every square mile of this country, I was so looking forward to getting home. I couldn’t wait to get up for my 5am run (the only time it’s cool enough to manage). I was excited about establishing some routine to my day now that I had some idea of what life was like here. And I really just wanted to mow the law. (I know, it sounds crazy. But it’s my favourite new workout. It’s one of those old ones that have gears to spin the blades (no motor or anything fancy like that) and it’s really heavy, but if you don’t push it fast enough, it won’t cut properly. So you are pushing this heavy piece of machinery at a jog-like pace in plus 30 degree weather for about an hour and a half to two hours, and in the end, you actually feel like you accomplished something. I love it! So simple!)

But instead, I’ve spend my first 7 days back home, in bed, with a massive headache, back and gut pains and nausea. No, not from the Typhoid, from the Ciprofloxacin that is supposed to cure the typhoid. I’m even having the craziest dreams (as I’m sleeping between 12 and 19 hours a day) about the most random things – like my ex-boyfriends investigating the death of a friend of mine from elementary school who died in drunk driving accident in high school or, for some reason, ‘tree climbing’ is an actual event that IF now promotes. I seriously don’t know how I’m going to sell that one. Seriously. So random. I think I’ve had almost every side-effect possible from this drug. And I’m drinking so much water that my stomach constantly has that ‘gushy’ feeling (if you don’t know what I’m talking about, down two liters of water on an empty stomach and then try and go for a walk.)

Anyway, between the antibiotics for my prophylaxis (against malaria) and the one to kill the typhoid salmonella, I’m sure I’ve wiped out all the good bacteria my body stores. I’d normally down all the yogurt I can find, but dairy isn’t exactly common around here (in fact, I don’t think you can even buy real yogurt in Ghana). I’m relying on my mother to send me acidophilus tablets as soon as she reads this.

I’m holding hope in the fact that I have only 2 more days of this medication, so maybe three more days of intolerable headaches, and then I’m back at the wheel, and hopefully, back to being able to get out of bed for more than an hour at a time without feeling weak and needing to lie down. I feel like I’m 90. Ugh.

Somewhere along my travels, my PEN drive picked up a virus and the anti-virus wiped out half my un-posted blogs while restoring it (including the one I had written just for Kevin :-( ) Sooo upset.

On a more exciting front, I’ve met a photojournalist who has invited me to come and take some lessons from her, which is amazing, because writing and photography have always been a passion for me. She came over for Thanksgiving on Thursday (I was able to crawl out of bed to enjoy a small portion of the feast.)
And I met a Spanish Priest who is going to give me Spanish lessons as soon as I’m feeling better!
I think Darrin and I are going to be painting the women’s dormitory next week as well – I’m just excited to be doing physical labour again. And I was super jealous watching him mow the lawn last Wednesday…
Alright. Going back home to crawl into bed with the house's new kitten - Coco.

Tuesday, 25 November 2008

I shall do so much in the years to come…

But what have I done today?

I shall give out gold in a pricely sum…

But what did I give today?

I shall lift the heart and dry the tear,

I shall plant a hope in a place of fear,

I shall speak with words of love and dear…

But what have I done today?

I shall be so kind in the after while..

But what have I done today?

I shall bring to each lonely life a smile,

But what have I brought today?

I shall give to truth a grander birth,

And to steadfast faith a deeper worth,

I shall feed the hungry souls of the earth…

But who have I fed today?

Yes, yes. I'm obviously doing alright and have seen a doctor if I'm able to drag my sick butt down to the internet cafe... No need to worry :-)

Monday, 24 November 2008

Oh Shit

I’m not sick.

It’s not part of the plan. I’m not sick.

The diarrhea/ constipation – it’s all just a part of traveling. Everyone gets it. And it’s normal that it’s painful to go to the bathroom when you are suffering with those.

The stomach pains, I’ll admit they are unbearable at times, but I’ve always had a sensitive stomach. I just don’t digest food well.

I’m just not used to the heat. It’s not a fever. Maybe I’m just not well-hydrated. I’m sure there is some perfectly logical and healthy reason it feels like I’m burning from the inside out. No, it’s definitely not a fever.

I’m not sick!

Don’t be silly, that’s not a rash. It’s, umm, from swimming in the ocean. It’s hardly even itchy…

I have allergies. The dog, he has a skin condition and there’s lots of dandruff. That’s why my nose is running. I told you. I’m not sick.

It hurts to swallow. Just a little though. Nothing major. The sores in the back of my throat were only bright red for a couple days. I’m sure it will all clear up soon. Maybe some weird form of heat rash? Inside my body? Ok, unlikely.


The heat is totally killing my appetite. Many people get that in the summer time, too. It’s just too hot to eat.

And that’s why all the weight loss. I mean, everyone loses weight in Africa, right?

No, I’m not sick. No, it’s pure coincidence that all these symptoms add up to….

… oh, Shit…

…I have Typhoid.

Wednesday, 19 November 2008

"God has spoken... and the rest is just commentary"

So I'm back in the South of the country. Research is all wrapped up. I'm still trying to sort through my thoughts on it all to try and conglomerate what I learned and how I feel about it all. It was probably one of the most obvious and significant learning experiences of my life. I'm not sure that I can articulate all the details of the impact quite yet so I'll save that talk for another day.

I spent Saturday with some friends and went to the Miss Malaika Ghana pageant (Ghana's 'Miss USA' equivalent) and then went out clubbing until 4am. It was pretty hilarious being one of the only white women walking into the theater for the pageant. There was 3 or 4 photographers snapping photos of me and my friend Sheila. They need their token white chick in the photographs I guess...
I have to admit its quite a strange feeling to go from interviewing the poor of the poor who have diseases like TB, AIDS and Guinea worm with no money to pay for their drugs, to driving around in my friend's Audi and hitting up the dance floor in a ritzy new club. There is this huge gap of middle ground that you can feel yourself stumble into and out of when you jump from one socioecomomic status to the next; it doesn't sit quite right in your soul. Nonetheless, I had an amazing weekend and I'm heading back to that city for some New Years fun.

Met up with Darrin Sunday evening and we are now in this little village on the ocean called Ada Foah. Yesterday just before dusk, Darrin and I went for a walk down along the ocean and waded out into the water up to our waists.
The ocean here is warmer than any swimming pool I've ever been in, which is depressing because I was really hoping it would cool me down. It was so beautiful to just stand there and take it all in. The soft, off-white sand under my feet; the nearly-violent splash of warm waves on my legs; the sound of the forceful wind muffling out all the other noises; sand coloured crabs scattering across the ground trying to find their holes before the lapsing waves catch them; the softly setting sun, sliding behind the clouds right at the point where it seems the earth might drop off; the wrapper from the water sachet... alright, so the beaches are far from kept clean and you have to see past the waste and garbage to see the beauty of God's creation. But it's still there, still visible, and not difficult to appreciate.
Sitting in that sand, just watching the world, was one of those moments in time you wish you record and replay over and over and over again. Just so much in peace in this one place.

It's interesting. In most respects, I should feel homeless. I have all my mail being sent to my mother's house. My stuff is scattered at my friends' homes all over Vancouver. My valuables are at the Madonna House in Ho here in Ghana. My 'basics' are the only things I have on me. I guess my place of residence, where I have a bedroom and such, would be in Ho. I was with Margaret for the last three weeks staying in different hotels or at her home. Now I'm with a couple of priests on the ocean.
Shouldn't I feel homeless??? Shouldn't I be missing some sense of stability by all of this? But no, I feel quite the opposite in fact. Everywhere feels like home. I'm so comfortable and secure with every bed I crawl into. Where ever God is, I'm happy to be.

This isn't to say that I'm not a little homesick. For about an hour once a week I'm struck with the longing to be in Vancouver and miss all my friends and my job and my apartment and the organization of the Canadian culture.

I think homesick is the wrong word.

I feel...
... disconnected.

But something about sitting by that ocean yesterday reminded me of all the long walks Kristina and I would take along Wreck Beach in the cold spring before the nudists arrived. And all the nights after work or church that I would head down to Kits beach and take pictures of the sunset just to have an excuse to sit next to the water, no matter how cold it was.
Being at the ocean again, it seemed to reconnect me. I realize how corny that must sound, but I also knowthat some of you know what I'm talking about. That symbolisim is just so strong that you connect to it on a level undescribable to those who have never experienced it.

Wednesday, 12 November 2008

Freshly Roasted Nuts

I bought these ground nuts (commonly known as peanuts) from a hawker while we were driving to Bawku and I don’t think I’ll ever look at peanuts the same way again. They were still warm from being roasted – no skins, no salt, no seasoning. Just plain ground nuts, pulled from the ground, peeled by hand, roasted in an oven, and served to me for 50cents through the window of the backseat of the SUV. Probably one of the most memorable snacks I’ve had (and will have) in my entire African trip, only because I don’t think I’ll ever find peanuts that taste that good ever again.

So I’m munching away, re-living in my mind the numerous interviews we’d completed during the day and trying to word things for my summary for Dr. Price. I’m thinking about all the nurses and doctors we met with, I’m thinking about the patients’ stories we were told, and the tears I shared with that last girl I talked to who was diagnosed 4 months ago. And I’m also thinking about how much this driver’s need for control is getting on my nerves...

I combine all these thoughts in my head and find them a huge distraction to actually writing the summary as they begin to draw me to the sexism that I keep seeing all around me. The male domination in this society seems like a much less treatable infection than AIDS.

This is a story (and unfortunately, an all too common one) about a widow. She has 6 children her husband worked for the government. They built a house, and had a car, she worked as a nurse and made decent money. They got 3 of their kids through school before her husband passed away. Let’s say he died of sudden heart attack around the young age of 48. Well, after the extensive funeral services, the husband’s family has the right to come in and take everything that was his. So the widow’s in-laws raid the house, take everything they own. In fact, they even take the house. They could take the children if they wanted to, but they won’t, because they cost money, and leave the poor nurse with her 6 children, no home, no money, and all their hard earned belongings gone. And there is no legal policy in place to stop this.

From a very young age, girls are taught to do work. They cook, they clean, they farm, they carry, they fetch, they go to market, they work, they… do whatever is asked of them. The boys are, in a lot of cases, not allowed to do anything. This is obviously subject to different regions and tribes. Boys also get priority in school. Women should just marry well, right? However, educated men (especially the families of educated men) want educated women, so it doesn’t work that way.
“can you tell me how to get here?”
“I will show you”
“I don’t want you to show me. I want directions”
“I’ll take you there.”
“That’s not what I asked you. Can you just tell me how to get there?”
“No, no. Follow me.”
Ok, that might seem like me just not wanting to walk with him, but what it really comes down to is the need for control. Control of information. Feelings of being in control. Feelings of other people being out-of-control. Doctors do it to. It’s not common practice to be told what’s wrong with you, they just give you medicine and laugh if you ask what it’s for.

My driver hates when we know where to go and he doesn’t. He’ll actually stop and ask other men just to confirm with them. If none of us know, and we stop to ask a woman, half the time he calls them over in rude manors, tells them the name of the place we are looking for and says “where?” and then drives away without saying thank-you. Even the way he talks to Margaret is getting on my nerves. We want to go to this internet care. No, he thinks we should go to this other one. We say, No, take us to ours. He takes us to his. Why? Because he likes the control. We bought a knife and left in the car and can’t find it. He goes out to look for it and comes back claiming its not there. I tell him to check under his mat in the front seat because I saw it fall there while we were driving. He gets mad and me and says he looked. I go out to look. He gets even madder that I’m going to look and shouts “I already looked.” I say “that’s fine, I’m going to look again.” I find it under his mat in the front seat. He didn’t talk and/or look at me for a while after that. Petty, I know, but when you’re swimming in sexism all day long the little things add up.

From the time a girl is born, to the time she dies a woman, men will make all the choices for her. From her Dad, to her brothers, to her husband. She doesn’t know how to make any decision on her own. Not such a good situation for my friend the widow who just lost all of her belongings to her in-laws and has to make some hefty choices in order to keep life functioning. It’s kind of like tossing a zoo animal back into the wild and expecting it to survive. If you’ve never done it, chances are you won’t pick it up atthe drop of hat…

Then comes the talk of fidelity. You know in the bible how it says the only reason to allow for a divorce is marital unfaithfulness. Apparently that only applies to women here. Men can sleep around all they want and the most they get is an angry wife. Women almost never divorce their husbands here. Turn the tables, and a man sees it as a free ride out of commitment town…
So I sit here, eating my peanuts, and thinking about the destruction that all the pride and control and sexism is doing to parts of this culture.

And then I realize, you know, it’s not singing a song that out of tune from my own love affairs in recent past.

Control, manipulation, pride, unfaithfulness, testosterone driven shouting matches… yep, sounds like familiar territory to me.

I promise I’m not turning cynical. There are still lots of men I think very highly of and love dearly – but it’s just so freaking frustrating!!!!

...I can think of some other nuts I'd like to see roasted right about now...

Monday, 10 November 2008

Wait - did you just say that I'M the coloured one???

So I'm walking out of the guest house parking lot on the way to the internet cafe and this 12 year old girl starts following me asking to be my friend and wants my email address. She obviously is looking for some money, but I call her on it and say I'm not friends with 12 year olds (sounds harsh I know, but believe me, she really just wants money.) She starts asking me if I know this girl Alaina who is from where I'm from.

I say "where I'm from? How do you know where I'm from?"
She gets a little embarrassed and says "oh, you know, I mean she's coloured... like you"

That was the weirdest thing to me. I'm thinking, I'm not coloured - I'm white. You're the coloured one.

I thought about this a little more and realized it's really all a matter of context (people who's skin colour is not like yours is coloured.) And in thinking about it a little more, I realized in all logic, she's right.

I'm the coloured one. She's black. Black is the absense of colour, the absense of light. She has no colour.

I'm white - all the colours rolled into one, absolute light.

I guess I'm the precise definition of coloured...

Friday, 7 November 2008

... In a while Crocodile.

I was excused from one of the less exciting policy interviews today and my driver (yeah, I know, I have a driver, kind of outrageous) took me to a little village called Paga right next to the Burkina Faso/ Ghana border. There are all these crocodile ponds in the area and some of the villagers make money by taking pictures of the tourists with them. It was a pretty cool experience. I can’t really say I wrestled the thing to domestication or anything exciting, but I got to pick up its tail and feed it without being eaten! That was exciting enough for me!

The three of us (two villagers and I) approach the pond at a pretty casual pace. Three crocodiles start rushing out of the water. They throw one Guinea fowl to the side and two of the reptiles chase it into the water, and they wave the second fowl at the third crocodile and it turns towards us. Not gonna lie, even though I trust that they’ve done this many times, I keep thinking, “what if this one time, the crocodile is really hungry and just runs at me with the guy next to me holding this live bird?!?!” Needless to say, the crocodile doesn’t run at me. The guy told me to go around it and picked up its tail. I pretend I have a small amount of courage and approach the creature. Immediately, the man with the fowl grabs my arm – “NO! walk behind it! You don’t want it to see you” Ohhhh, now I was wishing I had listened a little more in Grade 5 Biology class when we covered reptiles…

By that time my nerves were shot from being yelled at so I had the guide pick the tail up for me and hand it to me. After a billion photos were taken, they let me throw the live fowl into the crocodile’s mouth. For some reason I thought that was the coolest part… I know, I know, how masochistic, right?

Well, if the crocodile didn’t kill me, the crackers I just ate might (I’m fully aware of how horrible that sag way is). I didn’t even think about the fact that the box of the cream crackers I just finished eating is covered in Chinese characters. Guess I just got my daily dose of melamine.

Thursday, 6 November 2008

Reaching out through Research

I will admit completely that I had no idea what I was getting myself into when I told Dr. Price I would go with her on this trip. Something in me just said “go!” and wow, am I glad I did. I never dreamed I would be learning so much not only about this country and the disease of HIV itself, but about conducting research, working with people, and establishing professional relationships. It was late this afternoon that I realized what an incredible opportunity it is that I waltzed mindlessly into. It is seriously the experience of a lifetime. I’m assisting a well-know, well-established, well-respected black female doctor with a PhD in nursing and public health administration who studied in England, Canada and the US and has conducted research all over the world. I’m completely involved in the interview process, attending and recording all of them, and able to meet numerous people from professionals in the National Health Care system, to public and private working doctors, nurses and other medical professionals, to everyday patients (obviously numerous ones who are HIV positive, as well as those who are not.)

I stated this before, but I’ll try to do a better job of explaining what kind of researching we are conducting to those who are not so up on the terminology I’m using. Up until late last year, everything to do with HIV/AIDS in this country was isolated from the rest of the health care system. Starting at the top with financial aid specified to ONLY HIV/AIDS departments and the boards, directors, and officials that governed that department of the medical system, all the way down to the nurses, counselors, doctors, and clinics that the patients visited. The patients not only went to alternative clinics, they went on specific days to see specific people. One hospital even used the term “Isolation Ward” to describe where they sent the recently diagnosed. How great would that be to hear? “I’m sorry, you tested positive for the HIV virus. Please follow the red arrows to the right of the gift shop. They will lead you directly to the ISOLATION WARD!” What a great way to make you feel normal…

I wasn’t entirely aware of all the problems that a seclude system causes, but after a few days of interviews, I see why there was a need to change. I’ll start with stigma, because I’m sure while reading this you are conducting thoughts in your head about it, and if you haven’t thought stigma, your thinking reducing the spread of infection (which, by the way, means you are contributing to the stigma.) Understanding this male dominated culture will help with this explanation: Men make all the choices within families here and they don’t cook - period. Alright, so say you are a faithfully married female, and your husband is very traditional. You are really sick and a nurse suggests that you get an HIV test. Here is what is running through your mind:
  • “If my husband finds out, he’ll think I’m thinking badly of him and that he’s unfaithful.”
  • “If I’m positive, and my husband finds out, he’ll abandon me."
  • “If I’m positive, my husband must have it, which means he’s been unfaithful.”
Without being educated about this disease and its treatments, sometimes death seems like a better option than even knowing you might have it. Now take this same situation and apply it to the wife of a polygamist family. The issues just multiplied. You know, it makes it really hard to hide the fact that you are getting a test/ have HIV/ are picking up HIV drugs when everyone knows that the building you are walking into at the specific time is scheduled for the “infected.” I mean, come on! How do you uphold patient confidentiality with constructs like that? The above situation is just one of many that I thought you might be able to easily wrap your head around to see the surrounding issues. On top of stigma, the financial aid is a big developing issue now too.
People have learned that there is money in this department. Overseas funding hands over the cash with extreme stipulations on what it is to be spent on. You can’t imagine the frustrations of a public health director who watches 10s of thousands of dollars being poured into seemingly repetitive procedures when the rest of the medical system is hardly satisfactory. 3.2% of the population [reportedly] has AIDS. 96.8% [reportedly] does not. People are dying from a lot of things that aren’t HIV related and there is not a lot of money in this country for the “other” category.

Well, eventually people realized there was something wrong with this system, and the Health Services Departments in Accra developed a new policy that involves the integration of the previous HIV/AIDS care systems into the rest of the medical structure. Great move! And then they put it in a folder in a cabinet in an office. Not such a great move. Ok, that’s a hyperbole, the policy did get mailed out and it was ‘assumed’ that people would read it and follow it. I think anyone who has worked with policy knows how outrageous this assumption is. So a company called Ghana Health Partners and its founding doctor contracted Dr. Price to travel the north of the country and conduct interviews with everyone the new policy is supposed to impact and see

a) If they’ve heard of the policy
b) If it’s being implemented
c) How it’s being implemented
d) What are challenges to implementing it
e) Whether it is being accepted or viewed negatively
f) How it’s impacting them as an individual
g) How it’s impacting the health center as a whole
h) What can be done to improve the policy

So that’s a very simplified version of the research.

Like I said - experience of a lifetime!

The balance of Love and Suffering

I’m beginning to see the most magnificent blessings in these hardships and turmoil that hide around every corner – it’s in the opportunities these horrid situations provide for people to love each other. It’s no longer unbeknown to me how a place that is so pungent of deceit and greed could be strengthening my faith, hope and love for this world and God. These not-so-rare shining lights, radiating beings, that refuse to let the suffering take over. They refuse to give in. They refuse to accept what society says is the way they have to live.

From the Saki’s, who no longer charge their seamstress apprentices (very unheard of- apprentices here pay to work) in order to offer them an opportunity for a better life, to Dr. Price, who houses, clothes, and feeds vulnerable youth to keep them from heading down the wrong path, there are so many AMAZING people I’ve been encountering on my journey. Despite the corruption, these hope-giving individuals have taught me a lot about how much good a little sacrifice and selfless love can do for this world.

I met another such man during our interviews today. As per the research, we are interviewing numerous medical staff, doctors, nurses, pharmacists, patients, persons living with HIV (PLHIV) and policy makers to investigate how integrating the formerly sectioned HIV clinics and treatments into the rest of the medical system is being accepted.

I’ve met numerous really amazing individuals, but one in particular who I wish everyone could sit and talk with. I swear this man’s fingertips are capable of radiating more love than my whole body could. As the director of a clinic here in Tamale, Dr. David Abdulai says his organization is more involved with the social services than the medical aspects. Before the retro antivirus was ever developed to treat AIDs, he was housing, feeding and loving these people in a way that today still can’t be found in North America. He was giving them a way to live the end of their lives and die with dignity, as human beings and children of God, while the rest of the world avoided them and the stigma that followed.

With the retro antivirus now available and affordable, he helps the PLHIV live lives of hope and productivity. He encourages these people that with treatment, their lives are FAR from over; they are 100% capable of being fully integrated parts of society. He puts together income-generating projects which fund his self-made village on the outskirts of town behind his medical clinic. These mud huts house multiple PLHIV, lepers, and the mentally ill, and his staff. Some of his staff are PLHIV that have had miraculous recoveries and now help the newly infected deal with the physical, mental and emotional aspects of the disease. In our interview, he talks about how all these people want is what every person wants, whether they are sick or not, to be loved. With a disease that has so many stigmas, it’s horrific just to imagine the thought of being diagnosed let alone to go through it, and then be abandoned. His house offers a place for these people to come and be loved, no matter who they are, what they have and how many people have shunned them before.

David’s love for these people is so beyond what most of us have for each other that just sitting with him for an hour made me so excited about all the opportunities that could exist just by giving a little more love than we did yesterday. As ugly as the disease is, as ugly as poverty is, as ugly as violence and war are, as ugly as greed is, as ugly as lies are, as ugly as betrayal is, the love that opposes these acts of anguish is… absolutely and concretely beautiful...

Monday, 3 November 2008

A Brief Update

I thought I would just write a quick update on where I am. The Lord’s wish for my life to be as random and non-plan-able as possible is still being fulfilled. At least now I’ve come to accept it (embrace, is probably a better word.)

We planned for me to stay with Dr. Margaret Price in Tema, just outside of Accra (Ghana’s capital) so that I could experience some city life and visit with some of the younger girls here. So when we came to pick up Father David from the airport (Yes, Christina, I’ll be living with a Priest for the next 3 months), I made myself quite at home at Margaret’s. She was asked to do a qualitative research project up in the northern regions for Ghana Health Partners investigating and evaluating the new integration policies of HIV education and clinics with Family and Reproductive Planning clinics. She asked me if I wanted to tag along. I thought ‘sure, spend a couple days up North and learn something new.’ It’s almost a two week long trip. Oh, what God has in store for me…

Doesn't matter though. I'm perfectly happy sitting in the back of my air-conditioned SUV, munching on my plantain chips, listening to my 250lbs, 5'8" African driver sing along to Chere's "life after love," while I pray that he doesn't kill Dr. Price or I, while he avoids the hawkers and bicyclists...

So I’m in a town called Tamale in the Northern Region, somewhat thankful our hotel room doesn’t have air-conditioning (it’s more of curse than a blessing here, I promise you) and I have no idea what I’m going to be doing tomorrow, the next day, a week from now, 3 months from now, 5 years from now, and I’m totally thrilled by it! Paul and Nate are probably far from impressed that all that work they put in helping me develop my planning skills are going to waste – I promise it’s not a total write off!!!

Not sure how much internet access I’ll have over the next few weeks, so if there is a hiatus in my blog postings, it’s only due to lack of resources, I will be posting when I can (yes Mom, I am safe and sound.) Darrin and I are doing some touring in the Southern and Volta region when I get back from the research trip, so I should have some exciting ones from that as well. The most recent one was long, but I hope you’ll take the time to read it and let me know what you think. I must have been trying to make up for the lack of postings over the last week and a half.

Much Love!

It's all about the Context - Part II

One of the reasons I was most excited to move to Ghana was the opportunity to view myself outside of the North American culture. To take me out of that overwhelming society that is so controlled by mentally polluting advertisements, achievement-driven role models, and greed-mongered media. How would I behave in a culture so monumentally different from where I grew up? I wanted to know what parts of me were really me, what parts would stick even though my context changed; and I wanted to know what parts of me were just society being reflected off of me into the mirror. Would I still care so passionately for things like fashion, achievement, male-relationship? All of those subliminal messages that advertising/ media/ parents/ friends/ strangers pump into my brain – would they glue to me forever as who I am? I guess this is how travelers (and I don’t mean sight-seers, I mean people who really submerge themselves in a foreign place) can learn so much about themselves.

Before Leaving Vancouver, I’d had a brief discussion with my roommate, Carlee, about how people continually change, learn and grow throughout their lives. I was trying to explain my thoughts on how you can never count of people being the same person they were when you met them, because over the years, their experiences will have such a strong impact on them, they can’t possibly remain static. Her argument was that the so-called ‘essence’ of an individual would remain the same (i.e. their values, personality and defining characteristics.) I had to agree that the majority of people don’t do a complete transformation and morph into a whole new person over time, but could not stand by the fact that peoples personalities and characteristics don’t change. I’ve seen it too many times on my short existence on this planet that those aspects of people do change. However, there is something that an individual will carry with them that will always mark them as ‘familiar’- and I don’t mean physical recognition. My brain rattled this; is it possibly a person’s soul that keeps them recognizable as they continue to grow and change? Interests most certainly change, as do opinions and standards. Morals and ethics tend to change with those opinions and standards, almost as frequently it rains in Vancouver. I’ve met numerous people who have even had their ‘core-values’ do complete 180s (for the most part, I consider myself one of those persons.) So if it’s none of these almost indefinable aspects that make a person “who they are,” then what is that familiarity?

I will relate back to my previous discussion on context and the metaphor of words on a piece of paper. If the black ink really does lose purpose without the white of the paper, then it would be correct to say that it is impossible to see who we are without looking at what is around us. I.e. you can’t see yourself when there is no contrast, no background. It’s not that the words change as the context changes; who you are shouldn’t change every time you where you are does. Nina gave me a great and very popular book before I left as a going away present, Siddartha by Herman Hesse (if you haven’t already read it, I encourage you to.) It is so full of brilliant philosophical ideas, including one on the man’s search to find himself in the world.
‘Meaning and reality were not somewhere beyond things, they were in them, in everything. “How deaf and dense I was… If someone reads a manuscript, trying to find its meaning, he does not scorn the signs and letters calling them deception, happenstance and worthless peels. Instead, he reads them, letter by letter. But I, who wanted to read the book of the world and the book of my own being, I, for the sake of presumed meaning, scorned the signs and letters, I called the world of appearances deception, called my eyes and my tongue random and worthless…” ‘P. 37.

I try to combine these two thoughts in my head (it is almost more confusing that they both relate to words on a page.) So brilliant! You don’t find yourself by looking in a mirror, you look around you! You appreciate your context in its ability to show you who you are! Okay, enough exclamation marks for one paragraph. I’ll stop myself. I’m beginning to see Carlee’s theory in these philosophies. Do the words really not change? If they don’t change, I would be saying that we are who we are, no matter how much time passes, and how our context changes, and how much we learn about the world and ourselves, and I’ve already stated very clearly that I know that not to be true. We are only as static as our context. We are dynamic and ever-growing creatures. This puts a big whirlwind into discovering who we are. If we are on a journey to really know ourselves, we first have to admit that we will never fully reach a point of absolute clarity, because the journey is infinite and there are always new pieces of us emerging. God has created our beings to be bottomless.

I use the word emerging with a purpose. While describing my theories on this whole “context vs. knowing oneself” issue with numerous people, it was Beth’s words (a friend of mine at the Madonna House here in Ho) that struck a chord of truth in me. Maybe it isn’t, necessarily, that our context changes us. Maybe it is simply that our context causes (in some cases, forces) new and different portions of ourselves to emerge from this bottomless self I was describing. As these bits and pieces unfold from within us, it provides new and exciting (sometimes tormenting) information about who we are. Slowly, but surely, God reveals to us who we were created to be by the things and people we are attracted to in our surroundings. And with the same frustrations (and more emotions) we had when we were learning long division in elementary school, we sort through and analyze every scope of this new revelation until we LEARN. Until we learn on more feature that makes us unique, or makes us relate, or makes us… us. And that frustration is as never-ending as that jam-packed full, bottomless pit that we are all so eager to “figure out”.

Here is my advice (if you care at all about advice from a 22year old female sitting on a cot in 40degree weather in West Africa, eating an overly ripe papaya ,while she contemplates how the hell she ended up doing HIV research with a Doctor in Tamale, Ghana, when, according to her “plan”, she should be in first year med school and preparing to join the military. Who would have thought?): Never stop digging, but lose the idea that you will one day “figure it all out.” You’ll never completely make sense, the world will never makes sense, and as a 78 year old Irish priest recently told me, life will never make sense. You will never finish drawing all the streets on the city of “You,” because the roads are never ending.

To tie this back to the discussion I had with Carlee, this theory seems the best fit. Different parts of who we are emerge in different contexts, as we learn more about ourselves, we stop pretending that we are who society has told us we have to be, and begin to let ourselves shine through. It’s not that the words on the paper change, different backgrounds just cause different words to stand out and come forward. Our being is always our being, but the characteristics and aspects of who we are are as dynamic as our evolving surroundings.

So in moving to Ghana, I had the wrong idea. I’m not removing myself from my North American culture to see what will stick to me. I’m giving myself a new background to read myself on. I’m studying the same manual for the new signs and letters that stand out, and new messages that appear to me. I am who I am. Who that is, I’ll never really know, but I’ll never stop studying that manual…

I’m thirsty for more enlightenment on this topic, so please comment!