Wednesday, January 22, 2020

One Year

I vividly remember the day my sons, Joe and Paul, drove me to MSP airport, sending me off with their loving hugs and kisses.  As I turned and walked to the security line, big tears filled my eyes and ran down my cheeks, knowing I might not see them again for three years, as I set off on the first leg of my journey to Damongo, Ghana for mission work.

One year later and I have so much to be thankful for!

First and foremost, I thank God!  I thank the Father for putting the call to mission in my heart.  I thank Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, for speaking to me through the people I am encountering on mission and I thank the Holy Spirit for the gifts of courage, patience, humility, understanding and peace that have helped me to maneuver through the differences in culture, tradition, food, beliefs, and way of life.
I am so grateful for my children, in-laws and grandchildren:   for their excitement for me in taking the major step in following my dream, their emotional support, their sacrifice in giving up three years of family holidays,  eating brunch or dinner together, visits to the beach or going out for ice cream, birthday parties, my homemade cinnamon rolls and French pancakes, or just dropping by to say HI and catching up on each other’s lives.

I thank Lay Mission Helpers Association, for accepting me into their program, for providing me with a comprehensive formation and training program, preparing me spiritually and culturally.  I am thankful for the classes that helped me to understand myself, who I am and how I interact with others.  I thank my co-missionaries and LMH Veterans who helped me through formation and for ongoing support throughout mission by sharing stories and experiences.  
I can’t express adequately, how grateful and thankful I am for my co-missionary, Karen Hunka, who is here in Damongo with me. She has helped me navigate through this first year – which I have been informed is typically the most difficult year of the three.   We experience together the different types of food, the tribal languages, cultural differences, extremely dry, hot weather, large and numerous bugs and insects, tiny ants that seem to invade everywhere, and the lizards that decide they want to make our living room their home. Karen is always available when I need some one to talk to or to run a problem by.  I can count on Karen for her creative ideas, hard-work and generosity.

I thank my siblings, nieces and nephews, aunts and uncles and cousins for their love and communications via Facebook, email and letters.  I thank them for their many prayers and unconditional love and for believing my mission is a call from God and supporting me throughout, though it might not be something they would ever do.
I thank my friends:  my Church friends, my family friends, my work friends, my neighbors, my Cameroonian community friends, my Facebook friends.  I thank my friends for understanding why I had to leave and follow God’s call.    I thank them for their spiritual and emotional support – via prayers and for their social support via Facebook posts to keep me abreast of what is going on in the United States.

I thank everyone who has helped to support my mission financially, through donations to LMH and sending of care packages. 

I thank the people of Damongo for welcoming me with open arms, open minds and open hearts.  I thank the Diocese of Damongo, Bishop Peter Paul, many priests, religious brothers and sisters for their friendship and spiritual guidance.  I thank the Bishop for providing me with a comfortable home, for placing me at St. Anne’s Girls Senior High School (SAGISS) as a teacher, secretary and storekeeper.  

I thank Headmistress Pauline, who is not only my boss but also my friend who explains the “Ghanaian way”  to me.  I thank my fellow teachers, the non-teaching staff (bursar, matron, security, cooks, laborers, drivers) who support my daily life, and of course, I love the wonderful, sweet students who are always smiling and who make me smile. 

It is amazing to think that one-third of my time in mission in Ghana has already passed.   I have had so many new experiences.  I have encountered many wonderful people; they have welcomed me and have accepted me, allowing me to become more comfortable in their homeland. I have seen the beauty of God’s creation here in Damongo – the diversity in the landscape, the animals, the people. 

2020 is a new year and I have dedicated this year to the Blessed Virgin Mary, my spiritual mother.  I will strive to grow in my relationship with her so she can guide me to make decisions that will help me grow in holiness, humility, purity and love.  She will draw me closer to her son, Jesus Christ, so I can radiate His light to those I encounter.
 Year 2 ……the adventure continues……

Monday, December 16, 2019

End of Year Events and Reflection

In 7 short weeks, my first year in Ghana will have been completed.  Hard to believe!  So many new experiences; so many blessings from God.

October brought with it new neighbors!  Francis, Paulina, Anne and Nathan moved in to Mary Shaw’s bungalow next door. 

It is wonderful hearing the sound of young children laughing!  Nathan bangs on our gate door, calling “Granny, Granny, Granny”, when he wants to visit.  The other day, he started calling me “Granny Diane!”  Very cool!  We kick the soccer ball in the courtyard, which always brings back great memories of kicking the ball with Joseph and Paul in their young years. 

October also brought my 60th birthday, which fell on World Mission Sunday.  Saturday evening, Karen and the girls planned a surprise birthday party for me, where all the girls sang to me and we had jollof spaghetti and cake.

Sunday morning, we travelled to Sawla to celebrate a special Diocesan Mass with Bishop Peter Paul, where I was introduced to the packed church and specially prayed for.  Lunch with the Bishop and a number of priests and religious was enjoyed. 

We closed out October, the Month of the Rosary, with a special Mass at the Grotto.

Francis had some young men from the high school he teaches at come and dig us a garbage pit.  Anne had to jump in before any garbage was dumped in!  

SAGISS was also blessed to receive some special American visitors.  Carol Hofer and three of her friends, Dr. Irene Allen, RoseAnn Morrow and Kari Green from Michigan, are with a group who sponsor six girls’ education at SAGISS per year.  They have been sponsoring the girl-child’s education in northern Ghana for many years.  Carol taught at Damongo Senior High back in the 1970’s as a Peace Corps volunteer.  They educated the girls on certain health and hygiene matters and gifted them with hygiene kits and Rosaries.  The girls greatly enjoyed their visit, and welcomed them with some tribal dances.  Karen and I had a great time visiting with people from back home in the United States!

My Food and Nutrition Form 1 class ended up with six girls.  

The teacher for the Form 3 Food & Nutrition class ended up transferring to another school, so I picked up the Form 3 class to end the term.  There are only 3 girls in that class.  It isn’t easy picking up a class in the middle of the term, but we are managing.  The girls are taking their end of Term exams and will be leaving for Christmas vacation December 20th. 

Karen and I spent a weekend in November in Tamale to attend a Diaconate Ordination.  The ordination was beautiful and inspiring.  Seventeen men who will be ordained priests in the next year came from both a Diocesan seminary and a Divine Word Missionaries (SVD) seminary.  We celebrated with two young men from the Diocese of Damongo, Rev. Maclean and Rev. Clement.

We were excited to reunite with the SVD seminarians we spent the 12 day TICCS Cultural program with a couple months earlier.  See previous blog. 

The weekend included a visit to a restaurant that served stone hearth baked pizza!  I hadn’t had pizza since I left the United States, more than 10 months earlier.  I ordered the Hawaiian – pineapple and ham.  It was totally delicious!   I ate the WHOLE thing!  So, so good!

Thanksgiving came.  I had to work that day.  Karen cooked us baked chicken, mashed potatoes and gravy, stuffing, pumpkin bread and apple crisp.  We topped it off with some sweet red wine.  It was tasty!  It was definitely not our typical Thanksgiving; missing our families even more than we do typically.  However, it was a day of Thanks!  I thanked God for my family and their understanding and support for my mission, I thanked God for the courage He provided me to follow His call to Ghana, and I thanked God for the many graces and the mercy He has blessed me with.

The Damongo Diocese WUCWO (World Union of Catholic Women Organization) Celebration was November 29 – December 1.   My boss, Headmistress Madam Pauline, is the President of the Damongo Diocesan Council of Catholic Women (DCCW), so I was involved in some of the preparations.  She made sure Karen and I bought our CCW “cloth” so we could wear the uniform with the women from the various parishes that gathered for the weekend at the Unity Center.  It was a special weekend, meeting women from many villages.  It was surprising to me that the majority of them did not speak English.  There was a lot of communication done simply by sharing smiles and laughs with one another!    

I have been reflecting on my life here in Damongo and my relationship with God.  The Liturgy here in Ghana is very lively and upbeat.  Throughout my life, I have encountered a number of different types of liturgy.  The church we attended as a family when the children were growing up, (Church of St. Gerard Magella in Brooklyn Park) had a liturgy supported by modern Christian music, including piano, guitars and drums rather than an organ.  For many years, I loved the music in that church.  I listened to popular Christian artists on the radio and in music videos.  It was uplifting and gave me a positive, sunny disposition for the day.  It fit where I was in life and in my spirituality at the time.  As the years went by, at some point, that Church was not providing me with what I needed.  I needed quiet, reflective time before Mass – to pray and connect to God, not people in the pews talking; I needed kneelers (which the church did not have) during Consecration; I needed some solemnity, some reverence.

I eventually found my way to the Cathedral of St. Paul, which gave me what I was yearning for.  The music took a 180° turn.  Suddenly, I was listening to choral organ music.  The Church was quiet and peaceful.  There were numerous side chapels with kneelers.  They offered two daily Masses – one in the evening that worked perfectly in to my work schedule. There was incense, kneeling and reverence. In time, I met many wonderful, spiritual, like-minded people and enjoyed time with them doing various service projects.  I felt at home at the Cathedral, it was like a family. But sometimes when we get too comfortable, God decides it is time for something new.
When God called me to mission, I was praying the following prayer:  “I wish that all I have be Yours, and I put it in Your hands:  My soul, my eternal salvation, my liberty, MY SPIRITUAL PROGRESS, my life my health, my family, my possessions, my work, and whatever good deeds I can accomplish, so that You will arrange these things according to your will.”

The first time I said that prayer, I was actually scared to pray it.  Could I actually trust God with all these very important things?  Could I give up control?  Could I accept God’s will in these areas of my life, rather than my own desires?  Was I praying for something I would later regret?  Would I be able to handle what God decided to give me?

My SPIRITUAL PROGRESS.  Sometimes, I wonder if I have progressed spiritually since coming to Ghana.   I do not doubt that by the time my three years is up, I will have grown closer to God.  I trust God has a plan and as long as I trust Him, I will be closer to the person he created me to be.  I really miss Eucharistic Adoration.  It was such a blessing to be able to be in the Blessed Sacrament Chapel with our Lord in the early morning hours – just Him and me.  I could talk to Him about anything.  I could feel His presence. 

Sometimes I long for Eucharistic Adoration.  Sometimes I wonder how I could have given that up.  It was such a blessing.  So wonderful, I can’t even put it into words.  But then I remember the prayer – I am putting my Spiritual Progress in God’s hands.  I am trusting that God knows what He is doing in my life.  I know God loves me so much that He wants only the BEST for me.  He wants me to know He loves me.  Even though I might not understand how or why certain things happen in life, I know in the end it is all for my best.  As long as I let God be in charge of my eternal salvation, my liberty, my spiritual progress, my life, my health, my family, my possessions, my work and good deeds, then I know all will be fine.  God loves me and wants only the best for me.  He can do so much better for me than I can myself.  I trust Him.  I will continue to strive to turn over control of my life to God, because “no eye has seen, no ear has heard, no heart has conceived the things He has prepared for those who love Him”.  

“Only in God is satisfaction to be found….. I am allowing God to bring me the most thrilling plan existing, one I cannot imagine…… 

The adventure continues……

Friday, October 4, 2019

White Woman

The 2019-2020 academic school year has begun.  Girls trickled in slowly at first, but most all of our returning students are now on campus.  We have 16 new Form 1 students so far, though the list of those who signed up to come was over 40.  I have been told it is common in Ghana for first years to arrive up to a month after the start of the year.

 I will be teaching the Form 1 Food and Nutrition class again this year.  Out of the 16 students, only two are Home Science Program students, so my class is currently very small.  We are expecting quite a few more in the next two weeks.  Pray they are able to find the money to come.  Being a Catholic school, it is a fee-paying institution, and many families find it very difficult to come up with the necessary money to send their daughters to senior high school.  Education of the girl-child in northern Ghana is still lagging behind other parts of the country. 

Along with teaching the one class, I am also the school Secretary and the school Storekeeper.  These three functions keep me very busy.  Outside of the school, the Headmistress is the President of the Council of Catholic Women Association, a world-wide organization of Catholic Women.  She has talked Karen and I into joining and helping her with a big Diocesan-wide event coming up at the end of November.  More news on that at a later time.

It is currently October, both the Month of the Rosary and this year, the Extraordinary Month for Missions.  We started October 1st, the Feast Day of St. Therese of Lisieux – (The Little Flower – St. Therese of the Child Jesus), co-patron of Missionaries along with St. Francis Xavier, with a Mission Rosary and Mass at the Grotto in Damongo.  It was a beautiful way to start the month.

My long-time friend, Augie Ambe, came upon my blog via Facebook last month and spent three hours going through all of posts from the beginning, reading, watching videos and looking at the many pictures.   He enjoyed it and asked me to continue, however, he also had a question for me.  “How does it really feel “standing out” as a white woman in Africa?”

Those of you who know Augie, are not surprised he would delve in and ask this question.
First, for me, I have been a part of a large Cameroonian community in the Twin Cities for many years.  It was not unusual for me to attend a large Cameroonian gathering, and be the only white person (or one of just a couple white people) at the event.  Therefore, it is not an altogether a new experience for me to be a white woman standing out amongst Africans.

What is different for me, is that in Africa, it is an every-day, all day occurrence.  There is no way around it or out of it.  Here I am definitely a minority, I am an “outsider” and it is readily apparent by simply glancing at me.

The question really poses two – even three issues – being WHITE in Africa, being a WOMAN in Africa, and being a “WHITE WOMAN” in Africa.  Then there is the whole “STANDING OUT” idea.   They are all very interesting topics.

I oftentimes forget that I am WHITE in Africa.  It is not really something I think a lot about. I oftentimes forget I am a different color than those around me.

Standing out by being WHITE in Africa mainly comes to my attention when young children are around.  Their expressions range from big smiles, waiving and wanting to touch me, to looks of confusion, not really knowing who this odd-looking person is.  The fact that people are noticing me – brings the fact I am white back to my attention.  I am typically in the SAGISS compound during the week, so my whiteness really plays little into my thoughts.  It is on weekends when I go to town to Saturday market and Mass on Sundays that my “whiteness” come into play.

I have never felt discriminated against or felt treated badly because I am white in the land of the black man.  The people of Ghana, most specifically those at SAGISS, and those in the Diocese of Damongo have treated me with honor, respect and kindness.    Sometimes, I have felt uncomfortable by the fact that I was being placed in a position of honor when I really did nothing to deserve it, other than come to live amongst them to spread the love of Jesus Christ to them through relationship with them.

There are, however, other things that do make me uncomfortable or self-conscious.  Those things are LANGUAGE barriers and RELIGIOUS differences.  These two things play a much larger role in how it feels to “stand out” in Africa.

Living in Northern Ghana, there are a large number of people who do not speak English.  We are in Gonja land, and most people I meet in the market or even the day laborers at SAGISS were not taught English when they were growing up.  Language is a barrier for me.  I have never learned a second language, and at my age, I admit it is both a struggle and not something I originally wanted to do.  I liked the fact Ghana was English speaking, just for that reason.  But a nation having English as one of its official languages, unfortunately does not mean everyone speaks it.

Every time I greet one of the day laborers, cooks, or security men at SAGISS, I struggle to communicate effectively and it reminds me I am an alien in this land.  Every time I go to market to buy fruit, vegetables, bread, etc., it is a reminder that I am different and “stand out”. 
I live in Damongo – which is Gonja land, yet the Diocese of Damongo is heavily populated with Dagaari people, from the Upper West Region of Ghana.  Then you can add in the Fra-Fra and the Fulani and multiple other tribes and you have a myriad of possible tribal languages to deal with.  It makes my head spin, so I just smile sweetly and say ‘Good Morning’ or ‘Hello’ or give a big wave.

Northern Ghana is also predominantly Muslim.  There are mosques everywhere – every little village has a mosque.  With the Muslim culture, come some beliefs regarding how men and women relate to one another that are very different from our Western ways. (For that matter, many of the Ghanaian traditions are very different than Western ways as well – in relation to male/female equality.)  As a white woman in northern Ghana, I need to learn these beliefs and tradition to try and avoid unknowingly offending people.  These are the more difficult things that remind me I am different from everyone else.

I have been in Ghana for 8 months and so far, I feel very welcomed by most.  I have not felt discriminated against, but sometimes I wonder if people take advantage of me in the market because I am from the West and they believe that means I have money, so they raise the price for me.  Nothing at the market has a price on it, you ask what it costs and either pay it or try to bargain with them.  I have bargained a couple times, but usually just pay the stated price.
So how does it feel “standing out” being a “white woman” in Africa?

“Standing out” makes me aware of the fact of how very important it is that I must represent Jesus Christ, Christianity and the Catholic Church with actions that are kind, generous and responsible, with honesty, integrity and courage, with thoughtfulness and peaceful, loving intentions.
The adventure continues… God continues to work on me…transforming me……...

Friday, August 30, 2019

Summer Adventures

I am back to share some of my adventures from the past two months.

As the academic years started winding down, we had one week full of cooking practicals.  The cooking was done in traditional kitchen setting for a couple reasons:  first and foremost, that is the method they will use for their cooking finals for the WASSCE exams at the end of their third year, and secondly, we have no electricity or running water in the practical room.  I know nothing about cooking with charcoal on a coal pot!  I didn’t know how to cook the traditional dishes -  I hadn’t even tasted most of them! How could I run these practicals?   Therefore, I had to enlist a couple other teachers to help us out.  Indeed, the girls all knew much more than I did.  They were teaching me instead of me teaching them!  In the end, everyone enjoyed the experience and we all learned something.  Many of the meals I enjoyed, though there are a few items that will take some getting used to.

One day we were shopping at the big outdoor market and I decided I wanted some material to have a Ghanaian dress made for me.   As it turned out, I was having so much trouble deciding which material to buy, I ended up buying four different pieces of material.  I now have plenty of Ghanaian dresses to supplement my wardrobe. 
July also marked the month that Karen, my co-missionary here, celebrated a birthday.  As it turned out, the Matron (head of the kitchen) of SAGISS, Sister Agnes’s birthday is on the same day.  We celebrated by inviting a few friends over for dinner and drinks.  We had a good time entertaining.  Oh, there was just one side issue.  As I was cooking, using some fresh red pepper, it was very hot in the kitchen, so I used a handkerchief to wipe the sweat off, some pepper seeds must have gotten on the hanky, because immediately my lips started burning, I could feel them swelling, my face started turning a red color.  My face became very hot.  It started working its way up my face and around my neck.  I ran to my room and took a couple benedryl  They seemed to stop the swelling and progression, but it took 24 hours before I was feeling fine.  I can tell you, I will NOT be cooking with those peppers anymore

 A week later, was the end of the academic year.  All of the girls left for home for 7 weeks until the new academic year starts on September 13th.  Sadly, it also marked the end of Mary’s two-year Peace Corps volunteer mission.  Mary was our next-door neighbor and my mentor when it came to teaching at SAGISS and getting along in Damongo.   She shared what she had learned the prior 18 months, keys about the Ghanaian education system, how they taught at the school, where to buy necessities in Damongo and Tamale, how to take public transportation, etc.   She was an invaluable source of information and comfort to me.  Mary is from New Mexico and is a retired college professor with a Ph. D. in Biology.  I will miss her. 

One of my co-teachers, Adam, is a Muslim and he was married in early August.  Karen, Sister Juliana and I traveled to Tamale via public transportation to attend the wedding festivities.  It was my first Muslim wedding.  We arrived at the home of his parents where all the men were sitting outside under tents.  No women in sight, other than those of us from the school.  We sat out with the men for a while and visited and took some pictures, eventually meeting his Mother and sister.  He then took us on a walk down the street for maybe 6-7 blocks where we came to the house of the bride’s parents.  Here, we saw many women outside, whom we greeted.  We were then led to a small room where the bride was sitting, where we met her and were able to have pictures taken with the couple.  We then returned to the groom’s place and were brought into the courtyard, where all the women on the groom’s side were sitting.  We greeted them, then were taken in a room where we ate and presented our gifts to the groom.  The bride’s family will bring her to the groom’ s family in the early evening, even though the ceremony took place in the mosque with a few family members earlier that morning.

The past two weeks have been spent in Tamale at a place referred to as TICCS – Tamale Institute of  Cross-Cultural Studies.  It is run by the Divine Word Missionaries (SVD) and has programs to help missionaries and foreign seminarians and others coming to Ghana to live for a period of time, to understand the culture and Ghanaian traditions so that we can adjust and become integrated into their society.  It has been an eye-opening experience. We have learned some do’s and don’ts.  Karen and I, both being left-handed naturally, find a few things very difficult as use of the left hand in Ghana is looked down upon.  We are trying to be sensitive to their beliefs, but often have to remind each other – “use the other hand!!!!”.

The setting at TICCS is very beautiful and peaceful, with a variety of plants, flowers and trees.  Our class includes six seminarians two each from Kenya, Togo and Dem. Rep. of Congo, Karen and myself.
We visited a couple industries:  a water purification and bottling plant (water sachets) and a shea butter producing plant.  We have shea trees on campus at SAGISS and the girls love to eat them.  However, the pit is used to make the shea butter.   It is a very interesting and time intensive process.  The plant we toured allows women who have gathered shea nuts to bring them in and pay for the supplies they use  to process the butter and assist in selling it to provide income for their families.

Additional sensitive areas which we in the West eschew, are the Ghanaian beliefs in use of Diviners (African Traditional Religion) and the use of witch-craft.  One afternoon, we visited a Diviner.  It is a practice/calling, passed down from one family member to another. One must be chosen to be a diviner.  Not just anyone can choose to do it.  The diviner we visited is a teacher in his profession, but is a diviner as well.  He explained the process of how he was chosen to be the diviner; he showed us the special artifacts used in the divination process (which are also handed down through the family), and generally what they might mean.  We were given a chance to speak with him individually, but most of us, including myself, chose not to.

The belief in Witch-craft in Ghana, especially in the northern villages, can be very damaging to the women who are accused of practicing it.  In these villages, everything that might be negative in a person’s life, must have a cause.  If someone falls sick, they blame it on the witch-craft of another.  If someone dies, someone else must have used witch-craft to cause it. We in the West look to science to explain certain illnesses or deaths.  Or maybe, the bad thing is an “Act of God”.  Unfortunately, in these villages, there is typically an older woman who is accused of witch-craft.  Once one is accused, they run from the village in fear of having their life taken.  They are often threatened by beatings if they deny the accusations.
Ghana, I believe, is the only country that has some “witch camps”.  These are areas set aside for these women who are banished from their communities to live in some type of peace and safety.  We drove 3 hours to a town which allows these women to live there.  They come from a number of villages in the area.  Once we parked our car, we walked through some maize (corn) fields, through many  muddy puddles down a small path to where this “witch camp” existed. (I apologize for the picture where it looks like I was overly concerned that my dress not get wet!  Not too modest!  When I saw that picture I roared with laughter!  Hilarious!) 

Father Fanuel, who heads TICCS, was once the pastor of the Catholic Church Parish in the town and he worked hard at providing some better living condition for the women:  a bore-hole for water, latrines, solar lighting, more huts for housing.  They still struggle for their daily food, but it was amazing how well they lived together in community.

We were shown around their community and met and talked with a group of women through an interpreter as most did not speak English.  I asked what they did for entertainment/fun/ to find joy and they responded that they pray and sing together. A couple of the women proudly showed us the rosaries they had hanging from their necks.  Before we left, I asked if they would be willing to sing for us, which they did.  Singing and dancing go together, so we joined in the dancing with them.  It was a very emotional visit, one I won’t forget.  As I reflected on the situation these women were living through, it hit me that they have had to give up their lives as they knew it.  They had accepted their plight, even though being wrongly accused.  They were praying to find joy.  They are living their purgatory here on earth.

The information I have garnered from both the classes and the experiences provided by TICCS is very enlightening and has helped me understand some of the traditional practices that we in the West find very unusual.  I hope that now when I go back to Damongo and SAGISS, I will have a new perspective that will help me in forming my relationships with the people I encounter.

The adventure continues…….