On Tuesday, the first stop for the 2013 Ghana Pilgrims is at the offices of ADDRO (“Anglican Diocesan Development and Relief Organization”); and our new friends greet us warmly. Our growing impression is of the overall peacefulness, even happiness, of the Ghanaians we meet.
I ask Bishop Jacob if he knows the name of the gorgeous shade tree we are standing under. It is a Nim tree (or Neem tree), and Jacob shows me how he used to brushed his teeth with a small sprig of it, “before the days of Pepsodent,” he said. During the day, he has an answer for every tree I ask him about: the Bobba, the Kapok, an Accacia-type tree, the Mango tree, the Shea tree.
As we drive out to Binaba, I see more road-side shops, and then more of these beautiful trees. Again the road becomes quite chopped up, and, again, we drive through a lowland Teakwood grove. These trees really are marvelous.
We are on our way to Binaba, but first we will visit the area of Asapaligu and see some examples of the use of mosquito nets. This project, “NetsforLife,” is one of the more well-known ministries of Episcopal Relief and Development. The bus stops under one of the largest bobba trees I have yet seen. In fact, its middle is decayed out, but its leaves and outer bark are perfectly handsome. The bark seems to fold over on itself like the skin of a middle-aged man, all piling up and spilling over at the ground – or maybe at the waist.
We divide into two groups, which is a sensitive idea, since we will be inviting ourselves into homes and sometimes asking to see the mosquito nets being used there. These nets, distributed by Episcopal Relief and Development, through ADDRO, are highly effective. The statistic I hear is that some 22 percent of children between the ages of 1 and 5 die of malaria in this region. If they survive childhood, adults may still develop malaria; but it is not so deadly then.
At that point, I am glad for the generosity of my seat-mate, Jennifer Baskerville-Burrows. Along the drive, I had remembered that I had forgotten to take my daily anti-malaria pill, and I had asked her if she might loan me one of hers, and that I would give her back one tomorrow. She gladly obliged. It felt like I was bumming a cigarette that I would repay later.
So, with the assistance of our various volunteers and project managers, we make our way inside these small structures of walls and thatched roofs, the very structures that Jennifer and I were wondering about as we drove through the morning. We were curious as to what was inside.
Well, what was inside was a series of walls, without roofs, forming a living quarters. The animals were in the front areas, and a large common space was in the middle. Thatched, small, bedroom structures dotted the outer walls. Piles of millet cobs were in one corner, and a stack of ground nuts seemed to be in another corner. They were being mashed, probably for soup.
A lovely woman allows us inside her room to see the net. Rob acts as a sort of inquisitor, asking about how often she cleans it, and whether conditions are better now, and how many people sleep under that particular one (three: herself and two children). Another beautiful bobba tree stands outside their compound. Stacks of new straw are drying outside, too.
We visit a couple of other compounds, among the millions in this country and on this continent. Here, the roofs are usually thatched, except that the roofs seem to become tin as one gets closer to urban areas. In and around the compound are chickens, guinea hens, pigs, goats, even a cow maybe, all participating in family life.
Next is certainly one of the highlights of the trip; we drive into Binaba to meet the chief. I cannot say exactly how kingdoms and chiefs and government officials and bishops all designate their various authorities at Binaba, but I do sense they respect each other. And all the people seem to respect all of them. But the people especially respect the chiefs.
We are gathered in pre-arranged plastic chairs and benches under some sort of aluminum awning structure. A beautiful shea tree stands right outside that. We sit politely as three of our group – Gay Jennings (President of the Episcopal House of Deputies), Bishop Jacob, and Rob Radtke, enter the small hut for a quick private audience. A few minutes later, they emerge; and we wait a few more quick minutes.
Then the chief is escorted in by a serious and formal cohort. They place his plastic chair at the top of the gathering and bow before it, with their hands securing it to the ground as he sits. To his right, we learned later, are the princes of the kingdom – those he cannot fire, he said—and to his left sit members of his business- those he could fire, he told us later.
His entry reminds me of many a small Episcopal church processional I have witnessed in rural Georgia. The chairs and furniture and walls and roofs and design and decoration may not look opulent and exquisite; but the intention and ceremony are just as intentional and honorable as anywhere. It is simple, earnest, and lovely.
With the help of translators, we present ourselves; and then he welcomes us with a translator. Again, Bishop Jacob is gracious. When an opportunity for questions is opened, it is mostly Rob who asks questions for us.
Then, as the questions become slightly more substantial, the chief does a curious thing. He asks his circle of elders for their permission to speak in English, outside the local language. Of course, many of us are suspecting he was understanding our English perfectly well, especially because English is spoken almost everywhere as the official language of Ghana. He smiles as he tells us he must ask permission of the elders to speak in a non-native language in such formal gatherings as these. We all understand. It is like being permitted to say something outside of the usual formal liturgical formula.
At any rate, he is clear and thoughtful in his remarks. He tells us how he has appreciates the work of the Anglicans, and the Americans, especially in the construction of an irrigation dam, in fortifying food security, in developing good drinking water, and in combatting malaria. He thanks us, too, for helping them support women and children, especially by supplying micro-credit loans. When one of us asks about problems, he replies for Ghana that, “we like peace more than violence or war.” That seems to say it all.
When I get back on the bus, I ask Bishop Jacob about the state of Christian-Muslim relations; for I have seen a few small mosques, local ones, during our drive up to this area from Bolgatanga. There is no problem, he says; we get along. It sure looks that way. (Later, I asked other local people, just to confirm that answer, and they too replied that Christians and Muslims get along fine in Tamale.) Bishop Jacob says that Christian-Muslim relations are more troublesome in urban areas. “What causes the problems that do occur there?” I ask. He replies, “The problem of who will be chief.” Political power and authority, I think to myself. (By the way, the Binaba chief we met, to whom Bishop Jacob showed such sincere and honorable respect, is an Anglican Christian; apparently, at one time, he served as the equivalent of one of the church wardens.)
We drive over to one of the many family farms being supported by ADDRO and ERD. We see small fields, maybe an acre or two each, of millet, maize, okra, and ground nuts. Ground nuts, we are told, are like our peanuts. This time of year, the fields and crops are lush green and beautiful. I am told later that, come December, the landscape is brown and dry and very much a fire hazard. In fact, during the dry season, the people use sterno for fuel, instead of all this wood, in order to decrease the chances of a wildfire. Even in Accra, I smelled smoke in the air. I smelled smoke drifting through the breeze in Tamale and Bolgatanga, too. Only on the rural farms, outside, in the fresh atmosphere of this beautiful and simply country, did I not smell smoke.
One of my many happy memories of that day is having walked along the winding paths on the farms through the rather tall millet. We walked where the bare feet of Ghanaians walk every day. It was hard for me to determine any order to the paths, just as I remember walking meandering paths in the pastures where I grew up on a farm in Georgia. But, like my childhood, there is always some destination for these paths; I just don’t see it yet. A group of four girls crosses in front of us, travels with us a while, and then splits off in an entirely different direction; they know exactly where to go.
We see the colorful figures of people hoeing the millet long before we get to them. One of that number is the actual farmer of that land, and the others are his neighbors helping him that day. When labor is needed, neighbors assist neighbors; the next day, they help someone else. This farmer, too, has benefitted from the micro-credit programs of ADDRO.
From the farms, we travel into one of the small villages to visit some of the other beneficiaries of the ADDRO micro-finance ministries. They are delightful. At one shop, a woman is able to pay school fees with the money from her arrangement; her shop sells soybeans, salt, spices, and various other beans. Another woman has a very full shop of groceries and supplies. Meanwhile, school children flock to us. They love having their photographs made with us, especially if they get to see the photograph a few seconds later.
Our day is late, and we will not get to lunch until around 2:45 pm. Thus, it looks like we will be prohibited from visiting one of the last farms. I hear our volunteers discussing the need to go apologize to the farmer who was expecting us. Once again, I am struck by the solid and simple courtesy of the people of Ghana. They are civil people. The people we experienced are gentle and courteous.
However, I can’t tell whether we are actually skipping the last farm or not. For, a few minutes later, we are out of the bus, walking down more paths, and looking for two goats. They have wandered away, says our farm family, but we can go down that way and find them. We walk a slight bit, and then one of the keepers comes back not only with two goats but two sheep, too. School children find us there, too, and we have more photographs made.
From there, we pay our formal visit to the retired Bishop of Tamale, Bishop Emmanuel Arongo, at his nearby home. What a wise and peaceful presence he is, the first Northern Ghanaian to ever be made a priest in the Anglican Church. His seasoned face bears the marks of local custom. He retired from being bishop only recently, and he happily supports his successor, the ever jolly Bishop Jacob. In fact, he takes the time to make an appeal which he knew Bishop Jacob could not. “Bishop Jacob needs your financial support to help finish the new cathedral!” he says with a delightful smile. “He will not ask you through ERD, which does not build churches; but, individually, you can help.” Those aren’t his exact words, but the gist is similar. Several of us want to build the new cathedral that afternoon.
In fact, we sit in the shell of the new cathedral for lunch. It consists only of concrete and cinder block walls, two-stories high, and a roof, at this point, on a concrete slab. There are no windows, no doors, no ceilings, no interior walls, no wood of any sort – just a shell.
After lunch, we still have two places to go. Our bus lumbers on, and we grow even more appreciative of our deliberate driver, Emmanuel. At first, his incessant horn honking seemed intrusive, but his care of the bus has become downright tender. When we come to strange ditches, or tight turns, he knows exactly what his bus can do and what it can not do.
We finally arrive at our last village of the day, and the home of the Anglican Wood Works Training Centre. This is a training school in carpentry for the deaf. Their head master, a deaf man who started the school, comes bounding out of the gate, hugging us, and pouring affection all over us. Like many a deaf person I have known, he communicates quite physically and emotionally. When we sit down, we hear him tell his story, which is powerful. (He can speak fairly intelligibly to us, because he has not been deaf all his life.) Again, he thanks ADDRO and its director (the bishop), and he profusely thanks the Americans. The Americans have helped him add these additions to the school. It is hard to leave such profuse appreciation.
But the day is long, and we must leave. Our last stop, for a few minutes, is at Tilli Mango plantation. The trees are small, but they are beginning to bear fruit. ADDRO is trying to participate in the development of organic mangos, which have a much higher export value. One volunteer said that the local ones are quite small.
Back on the bus, we head back for our second night in Bolgatanga. We ride back, tired, on that pot-holed road and its teakwood lowlands area. We go back through the checkpoints again. We cross the Black Volta River again. It feels like we are getting accustomed to this place.