Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Back from Africa: Now What?

After 10 days in Ghana with a CRS Fair Trade program delegation, I am facing a familiar post-trip "now what do I do?" sensation. Some of it is typical daily life decision making--which comes first: doing the laundry or going grocery shopping? Other reactions are physical: what's the best remedy for jet lag, besides forcing yourself to walk around the block like a zombie when you'd rather be sleeping in your own bed?

The real challenges for me, though, are related to how to cope with easing back into my middle class lifestyle after visiting a place filled with poverty and struggle. Not that there aren't wonderful aspects of travel to a place like Ghana. The kindness and hospitality of locals, with their trademark "You are welcome" that greets arrival at any destination, infused the trip with a sense of care and comfort. The range of landscapes, from rainforest to dry savannahs, made for occasional surprises, especially on the tourist elements of my trip. The bright, beautiful splashes of color in batiks and kente cloth inspired me to jazz up my wardrobe, especially when I visited Fair Trade shop Global Mamas in Cape Coast. Even spicy food, which I really don't like, was welcome with fun names like "foo-foo" and jollof rice.

But upon re-entry to my spacious apartment in a clean, safe neighborhood, to my reliable water and electricity sources, even to my real creme and coffee (no Nescafe!), I think about the people, in their shacks or their huts, that I passed by, and left. I am fortunate to travel internationally a lot, mostly to econmically-poor countries and sometimes to corrupt governments (and we think OUR vice president is bad), but I always get to come back home. Its a privilege of the navy blue passport...I always return home to a democracy (current troubling administration not withstanding), to my partner whom I can't marry but whom I can at least talk about publicly without fear of imprisonment or national witch-hunt, and--of course--to loads and loads of consumer options.

I lost my cell phone in Ghana. I gave in to the temptation to send a text message during a wave of homesickness and left the thing behind. No worries, as the Ghanaians say, first thing this morning I headed to the cell phone store, debated calling plans and functionality options, whipped out a credit card, and "tah dah" I am wired again.

But that's the kind of thing that triggers in me something like survivors guilt. Could the people I met, who I eat with, danced with, and joked with do that? Certainly not the weavers of Trade Aid Integrated in Bolgatanga who spend 2 or 3 days weaving a basket that they sell for $4.50, at a Fair Trade price. Come to think of it, $4 is about the same amount I'm going to pay a month for insurance protecting my new fangled phone.

I'm not berating myself for the life I have been given. I just would like more people to be able to live it.

Somebody on the trip asked me if I had ever considered living abroad, and I have. But I've decided I like my life and all the opportunities it offers me. I want to try and be moderate, and even humble, in a materialistic, individualistic society. I want living simply and authentically to be my life challenges, not hauling unclean water 2 miles a day on the top of my head. When it comes right down to it, I don't want to trade this lifestyle for any other, either up or down the economic scale (although I have to say I have never refused a raise in salary, so perhaps I'm deceiving myself a bit on this last point).

What I want is to keep hold of this renewed awareness of just how much I have. To be grateful for the reminder of how many people need the opportunities I have. And, of course, I want to be recommitted to creating a world where my lifestyle is the norm, not the exception.

Photo credits: Me, Catholic Relief Services driver Ringo, and Steve White, soon to be of MIT. Thanks to CRS for use of the photo. See more.

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