Read and comment on this op-ed from the New York Times by Adam Cohen who was in Africa at the same time as President Bush. It was heartening to see the president take an interest in Africa, and promise it badly needed aid. But it was unfortunate that he did not take the opportunity to push an idea he raised in his 2002 State of the Union address: the importance of ordinary Americans' volunteering in foreign lands. Read the op-ed at:
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Editorial Observer; Lending a Hand in an African Village (Don't Mind the Goats)
By ADAM COHEN ( Editorial ) 1043 words
PRAMPRAM, Ghana -- The first time a goat walked into the classroom, when I was going over some of the fine points of complex sentences, I was not sure exactly how to proceed. But by the second time, a few days later, I knew the drill: I was expected to keep teaching while a student in the front row quietly led the wayward goat out the door.
My lesson in goat protocol came in mid-July during a two-week stint teaching English in Prampram, a small African village on what was known, in colonial times, as the Gold Coast. I was there with Global Volunteers, a nonprofit group that sends people to work in needy communities worldwide. Our 15 team members, who ranged in age from a Yale premed student to a 71-year-old grandmother, included lawyers, nurse practitioners, a bank officer and an advertising executive.
We were in Africa, it turned out, at the same time as President Bush. It was heartening to see the president take an interest in Africa, and promise it badly needed aid. But it was unfortunate that he did not take the opportunity to push an idea he raised in his 2002 State of the Union address: the importance of ordinary Americans' volunteering in foreign lands.
It sounded simple when Mr. Bush said it, but I suspect that many people would be wary, as I was at first, of showing up in a place like Africa on a mission to do good -- worried that the local people would see them as overbearing, supercilious Westerners. But that wasn't what we found. Village residents, who are far more used to sharing and helping one another than we are, saw it as natural, and welcome, for outsiders to come lend a hand.
Prampram was, in many ways, as exotic as we could have expected. Whites are so rarely seen that the children ran into the streets pointing and yelling ''blofono'' -- ''white man'' in the local language -- when we passed by. There were dirt roads, open sewers and -- everywhere -- goats. But Ghana, a former British colony, still has a strong flavor of Mother England. The children of Prampram have first names that could be found in the starchiest British public school: Patience, Jonas, Victoria, Comfort. The education system is still dominated by the old Anglican and Methodist missionary schools. And Christianity is deeply entrenched: the cars and vans have decals proclaiming ''Trust in Jesus''; the shops have names like ''All Praise to God Beauty Salon.''
We were assigned projects on our first day. The medical volunteers worked in the village clinic and did outreach with a traveling well-baby clinic, which weighed babies in a scale hung from a tree limb. The construction volunteers helped a local crew build a septic system.
The teachers were divided among several schools. Mine, the equivalent of an American junior high school, was one of the smallest and bleakest: two grim classrooms in a building that lacked windows and electricity. There were 10 reading books for a class of 35, so when it was time for English, the students moved their desks into clumps of three or four, each group sharing a single book.
Little of the outside world reaches Prampram. My students asked about my eyeglasses, the purpose of which eluded them. When I showed them a book of New York photographs, they had trouble understanding that people lived on each floor of the tall buildings. The World Trade Center produced a glimmer of recognition. The students wanted to know why it had been attacked, and whether the attackers had been caught. One student had heard that Osama bin Laden was angry because America had reneged on a promise to pay him money.
Fifteen people working in a poor village for a few weeks cannot have much of an impact on a community. But Global Volunteers sends a continual series of teams -- groups have been coming to Prampram for three years. It is the organization, not individual volunteers, that provides the sustained effort. As we wandered around town, there were eerie signs of blofonos who had come before: children with limited English who inexplicably started singing ''Blowin' in the Wind''; first graders who ran up with palms in the air, squeaking, ''Gimme five.''
It is a cliché, in situations like this, to say that you learned as much as you taught, but it was still true. We picked up some of the local culture: we all learned a few key phrases of dangbe, and we could do ''the snap'' -- the Ghanaian handshake, which ends with the shakers making a snapping sound with their middle fingers. And we sat out under a star-packed African sky and debated, as local residents do, the relative merits of Star and Club beers.
We also learned about dignity in tough circumstances. The children of Prampram are poor -- some came to school barefoot -- but they are unfailingly polite. They call their teachers ''Sir'' or ''Madam'' and, as a sign of respect, never look them in the eye. And they have a communitarian spirit that American students lack: when one is struggling at the blackboard, the others quietly call out the right answer. Our Global Volunteers team leader, a Prampram native, said that one thing he wanted us to tell people back home was that despite the serious deprivation we observed all around us, the people we met were happy.
When President John Kennedy started the Peace Corps in 1961, he hoped that it would bring other parts of the world ''that decent way of life which is the foundation of freedom and a condition of peace.'' Volunteerism is about that, certainly, but also about smaller connections.
On my last afternoon in Prampram, one student, Joseph, came by to wish me a safe journey. He told me that in two years he had to take a test that would determine whether he could continue his schooling, but that he did not have any books to practice reading. He hoped I would be able to send him a ''storybook.'' Then he shook my hand -- his eyes averted -- and uttered the same phrase several other students had on my last day at school: ''Don't forget me.''
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