First off, the elephants pictured above have nothing to do with the post, but I thought they looked cool, soooo there ya go. Enjoy!
The acacia branches hung overhead, basking in the late afternoon sun. I was in Damongo, Ghana at a Catholic Homestay. In front of me was a shrine to Mother Mary that curved up about 8 feet, looming over her statue. Planted in basins in each side of the arch were more acacia trees extending upwards. I sat down on a fallen bench, really just a slab of concrete and closed my eyes, feeling taken by the energy of the special place. As I closed my eyes, I took some deep breaths welcoming in gratitude, compassion, love, and excitement into my life and releasing boredom, frustration, anger, and doubt. With my sight forsaken, I found my sense of hearing vastly improved and became aware of the plethora of sounds around me. There were birds calling in languages I had never heard, the quietness of the breeze settled around me. I could feel the energy of nature in every direction, without interruption by modern day distractions.
I was sitting peacefully in the sanctuary letting grace fill my soul when I heard a shuffle in the distance and was called to look. I saw a young Ghanaian man, maybe 5 foot 8 inches, dressed in light blue athletic shorts, a matching t-shirt, and a pair of black flip flops. He meandered his way closer to the shrine in front of me, his gaze catching mine. I gave him a smile and a wave and closed my eyes again in respect for his space. Immediately after closing them though, my curiosity got the best of me and I winked one open to observe his prayer. He closed his eyes and touched his heart, his head, and some other places. I’m ignorant to this type of prayer but I’ve heard of it before. Following his prayer he gazed at the statue, as if pleading for something that I could not name. I closed my eyes again and left him to his peace, sharing the space in commune with that which I cannot name.
After a moment my attention returned to the sounds around me. The birds still chirped and the breeze still blew. The air was warm and I felt beads of sweat forming on my forehead and dripping down my face. My shirt began to stick to me. I struggled to listen to and feel everything without focusing on anything in particular. As the peace of the moment took me, a familiar sound burgeoned into life, jolting me back to reality. I placed it as the ground being swept with a broom. I opened my eyes completely and watched the man bend at a ninety degree angle and sweep the shrine of fallen flower petals and dirt with a makeshift broom of straw. He carefully made his way around the area of floor finding each petal, pausing every now and again to assess his work. I watched the whole time, letting the peace of the moment course through me.
I wondered if I should stay and watch or leave him be. For some reason, I felt I should stay. After he finished his sweep, he cleared the petals and put them in a bucket. He took the bucket and walked a distance away to give them back to nature. Then, he returned. The man sat down at the bench in front of me, beckoned by my smile and our eye contact. I said hello and introduced myself to him. He did likewise and said that his name is Bernard. He had a light accent and I could tell that his English would be good enough for us to talk.
Now that Bernard was close, I could see that he had warm eyes, a genuine smile, and a calm demeanor. I placed him at about my age of twenty-one, maybe a bit older. I assumed he was a priest or of some such position at the church and after our introductions, I asked Bernard where he lived.
He turned to me, his knees and feet facing forward, toward the shrine, and his body twisted back to look at me. “I am studying at the nursing school near here.” He pointed at a nearby building, his campus, saying “God has graced me with the opportunity to study here and for that I am grateful.” He came off as a very gentle human, especially after watching him spend his time sweeping the ground. I was surprised that he was not a priest and had no affiliation with the sanctuary, because that meant that he had swept the ground of his own volition. I felt grateful to be sharing space with him. He said that he would finish his education in three months and will have finished three years of studying.
I was curious to know more about this mysterious man in this unknown place and so I asked him what he does for fun. He looked at me, a sad smile in his eyes and said, “Oh not much. After class I will leave campus and go for a short walk, then come here and pray, and then return.” I felt unsure of how to respond, awed and impressed by the slow pace of life in rural Ghana. I didn’t think I could do it. Striving to bond with him, I asked if he played football (soccer). He said that he did in primary school but that he hurt his knee and hasn’t since, but that he loves to watch. With this connection, I settled down into our conversation.
I asked him his age and he said “twenty-five. How old are you?” I said my age, his junior. This is when our conversation became more interesting. He smiled at me with a look I could not read.
In explanation of his expression, he spoke. “Here, sometimes we have to drop out of school because we do not have the financial backing to continue. It can take many years to finish because every year we drop out, help our families, and then hopefully return the following year.” I told him that it can be similar in the US but that most people are able to finish at least high school.
I looked back at him, remembering his injured knee, and asked, “Bernard, why did you become a nurse?”
He brightened as he told me of his passion. “I love to help,” he began simply. “I see people struggling in hospitals and I want to help, so I became a nurse. It feels good to do good and when you help someone, they say thank you.” I felt a smile rise to my lips as I recognized a human walking down their unique path in life. An unshakable conviction gripped me. Maybe, despite all I have known, this man is living life the way it is meant to be lived. Doubts were extinguished and others awoke: What did this mean for America? Why are people so busy? Why do they chase money and power? Where does the ever-present anxiety come from?
I thought for a moment longer on my newfound understanding and then ventured, “you are lucky, you know. Many people chase what doesn’t matter: money, a new car, a bigger house. Many people are born, they strive for things that do not matter, and then they die. Not everyone has found a way that they like to give back, to make an impact.” I felt uncomfortable telling this poor man from rural, northern Ghana that he is lucky, but I felt the truth resonate with me and was inclined to share. I am glad I did. There is always a tipping point in conversations and relationships when the depth of connection extends beyond the surface to what really matters. Bernard and I had reached the tipping point.
After I said this, he began to share many things about his life and the lives of the people in his community. He told me how this community is a mix of many tribes and that people immigrated from far away. He continued and told me how there is not enough money and that people can only farm to live, making no money, trapped in a cycle of monetary poverty. I realized that without external connections there is no entrance for opportunities to come to these people. As an American I am surrounded by opportunities, constantly, to the point that it becomes overwhelming and yet these people have none.
Beyond money, he told me that the town nearby has many issues with water. The town is on a hill and thus a well can’t be dug because there is so much earth between the surface and the water. He told me that no money comes here because there is no water here and for life to thrive there must be water. He explained that when only the native tribe lived in the area, they could maintain health and balance with nature, but as more tribes immigrated, the balance shifted. Now the water in the lakes is undrinkable because the cattle of the new tribes poop in it. There are too many people and there is no water. He seemed to think that there was no hope, no solutions, and I reluctantly agreed.
A light suddenly clicked on as my favorite kind of question popped into my head: one of immense proportions, one with weight. I excitedly asked “What is your dream, Bernard? Would you aim to be a doctor?” As soon as I said it, his eyes betrayed a deep sadness and I realized that I had touched a wound. I caught my innocent mistake too late. I have found in my conversations in poor villages in Ghana that people sometimes don’t get the chance to dream. He sighed and slowly looked up into the trees.
He watched nothing for a few moments, gathering his thoughts and his emotions, and then said, “When I was young, I wished to be a doctor. It has always been a dream of mine; to travel and help people.” He paused and I could feel his thoughts aligning in his mind, coming together, drawn from ancient memories. “It can’t happen,” he said as he dipped his head in resignation. “There would never be the money for it. It’s simply too much, too vast a number.”
“Have you ever looked to see how much it is?” I gently questioned, unable to let go of my attachment to dreams coming true. I have always longed for people who dream to achieve them and I have been especially adept at helping people open their eyes to bigger possibilities for their lives. I hoped to do the same with Bernard. I was still too innocent then and, honestly, part of me hopes to always be so.
He sighed again, this time a small smile rising to his face, as he laughed and said “I have not. I fear the number to be too high.” I could feel his unspoken belief come through. He didn’t believe that it would ever be possible for him to pursue his dream.
I did not relent. “What about scholarships?” I asked enthusiastically.
“I cannot access them.” He pointed at his phone, an old one and definitely not a smart one.
I felt my assuredness in dreams coming true slipping away but would not yet quit. “Do you have computers in your school?”
“We do, many actually. But in my three years at this school I have used them only once. We have no network to connect to.” Finally my confidence was depleted and I was forced to acknowledge his hard truth: perhaps dreams cannot always come true. I felt my privilege weighing on me like a ton of bricks, crushing me. I wanted to help this man who I knew had a soft, gracious heart, but I simply did not know how.
I let my emotions guide me and shifted the subject of the conversation, asking him if his people are sad. I explained my question to him by referencing food, water, and shelter as the essentials of life. I was wondering if people here could be happy with only the simple things, the necessities. I needed to believe it for my own sake. I needed to know that despite it all, despite the isolation of rural life, that he and others could still be happy and fulfilled.
“There is more to life than food and shelter. We may not be sad every day but when there is something that we want that we cannot have, then we become sad. When we live in a place like this, there is nothing we can do to get past this struggle for food and water.” He referenced again how no one comes here because there is no water. He spoke for his people, from a place of deeply ingrained, communal thought. I knew that there was more here than I could understand at the moment. I thought of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, returning to my seventh grade social studies class. Here, I felt the beginnings of the truth itching at my mind. I couldn’t grasp it yet but knew the truth would come fully, if I continued searching. As I thought, we sat in silence.
Finally I turned to him, understanding where my previous question had gone wrong, and said simply, “Are you happy?”
He smiled at me brightly, the question catching him off guard after our serious conversation, and said “You know, you wake up in the morning and you are alive. You eat some food and you are alive. Every day I wake up and for that I am happy. People complain and complain, but to who? Who is listening? They will not help.” He softly tossed his hands into the air above his legs where they had been resting and continued, “It is enough to just live. Your life is in your hands. Do not complain, be grateful.” I was struck by the simplicity of his answer and it made me happy to know that someone for whom life had been so challenging could find happiness in the fundamental aspect of being. I listened to my own heart and found it resonating with the sentiment. Something inside me had shifted. It was as if clarity had struck me suddenly. The world was loving and I was swathed in a blanket life. I sat for a moment basking in this magical energy and then felt moved to leave. I thanked him for explaining his life to me, a stranger. I told him I was going, smiled, wished him well, and walked away. As I walked through the trees on the dirt path I felt his truth overcoming my listless boredom and aimless unhappiness. I looked around, marveling at the magic of existence. I felt my whole being swell and merge with everything around me. Each leaf stood out to me, every smell was welcomed, each twig crunched under my feet. I was truly present.
As I have thought back on this experience with Bernard and my emotions leading up to it, I have thought more and more often about Maslow’s hierarchy. In his hierarchy, he proposes a pyramid. There are five levels to the pyramid and each corresponds to some genre of needs that a human must fulfill before they can move up to the next level, the final level being self-actualization, enlightenment. I have always taken it to be fact that the higher on the pyramid one is, the better off they are. It has always made sense to strive towards the higher levels of the pyramid, escaping the needs at the bottom. To rise from the first level to the second one must have the basic necessities of life: food, water, sleep, etc. Bernard and many of the people of rural Ghana are trapped in this first level, fretting over where their water will come from. In our conversations, I sensed a new question coming to light in my mind: Is escaping the first level of the pyramid even correct?
In the book Ishmael, author Daniel Quinn elucidates his theories about humanity. Since reading it, I had not been able to shake this feeling that all we do as humans is for naught. He writes of humanity’s history, of our journey from hunter-gatherers to agriculturalists, and of the effects wrought from this shift. He explains that people escaped animal culture by growing our own food. Once we were able to store food for later and avoid the constant hunger nipping at our heels, humans were able to expand and grow as a species. Because we could grow and store food, we could expand our border and explore without fear of getting too big to feed ourselves. Many might look at this innovation as perhaps the greatest human invention of all time, but Quinn cautions his readers. He begs the questions: What if we were not meant to escape being hunter-gatherers? What calamity has been caused because of it? Are we not using too many resources? Is the Earth not dying because we hefted the human race onto a pedestal, self-proclaiming ourselves gods in a world of animals? Were we wrong to escape Maslow’s first level?
All my thoughts are finally starting to click into place. Perhaps Bernard is the lucky one. Perhaps the stress and anxiety of modern day, fast-paced America is wrong. Perhaps Daniel Quinn wrote the truth. It seems that although Bernard longed for his dreams to come true, his happiness stemmed from the simple things in life. Humans always seem to want more. It is our cardinal sin. Even Americans, graced with all manners of privilege and opportunity, seek the quiet of the woods, the stillness of the olden days. The agriculturalists find an innate truth in the value of being a hunter gatherer, striving only to live through each day. Just as those who live day to day long to escape their horrible struggle and have abundance. It seems that all of us are destined to seek that which we cannot have, forever, no matter how the world may change. It is the destiny of humanity to be unsatisfied, always seeking, growing, adventuring into the unknown. But perhaps there is a saving grace. Perhaps we can all find respite from the tumultuous existence we share in the little things, in the small moments. As I finish writing this, I think back to the sanctuary. I can see the sun shimmering through the leaves of the acacia trees. I can hear the tittering of nameless birds above me. I can feel the stillness of the moment, the peace of being one with what is and always will be.
I finally glimpsed the truth through the eyes of a stranger. Perhaps it is possible to find balance in this wild life: Balance between the peace of now and the possibility of tomorrow.