Saturday, December 20, 2008

What Africa Has Done For My Work.

My wife and I just returned from our first visit to Egypt and Ghana, West Africa. In Egypt, we cruised the Nile visiting many temples & tombs from Aswan to Luxor and witnessed the progressive innovative & engineering progression that is the Pyramids from dirt piles and steps in Saqqara to the Great Pyramids in Giza. In Ghana, we visited friends in Accra, a child we sponsor through World Vision in Saboba and slave castles in Elmina & Cape Coast. It was an amazing trip and has certainly left an impression on me that will impact my work for time to come. Here are my observations!

1. Happiness Is Not Made Of Stuff - When in Ghana, I witnessed an economy transitioning from agricultural to pre industrial lacking many of the conveniences I take for granted like running hot water, centralized convenience stores, big box retailers, trash pick up, broadband in every home, spacious and pristine homes, easy credit (debt), numerous (and big) cars, etc., yet Ghana is one of the happiest nations on the planet. My Ghanaian friend reminded me that what they have going for them versus the US is that they have "no debt" and "each other". This jolted me as we spend lots of time in the US working to get and keep our stuff while others have less stuff but have each other (family & community). I have to admit that I am not disavowing my stuff outright but I am changed by this insight and committed to moving more and more toward a relatively stuffless, yet more relationful lifestyle over time.

2. Our Work Affects The World's Problems Via Solutions & Investment - Our visit to Saboba, in the bush of northeast Ghana to visit World Vision and our child, Nakoja Lampo, reinforced for me the importance of my work in tackling the world's problems and the impact of my income invested in programs that tackling problems I care about. During our visit, we saw well drilling projects that are eradicating typhoid and guinea worm, lake irrigation projects that enable the cultivation of crops during dry season, school construction that is bring literacy to communities and Mringa tree cultivation and education projects which are providing alternative pharmacological resources to these communities. We experienced the appreciation of World Vision, Nakoja's family (of 2 parents, 5 siblings, grandparents, uncles and cousins) and even the village regent and elders for our contribution and visit. We saw first hand what a little investment over a long period of time can do for many in need. This motivated us to consider how we might do more both qualitatively and quantitatively in our work and investments to affect those problems in the world that we care about. When I go to work and invest my pay check, I see this connection more now than I did before the trip.

3. I Am Grateful And Challenged To Be Less Wasteful - Nothing reinforces who you are more than visiting someplace else and while I am proudly African-American, my visit has reinforced that I am truly more American than African. I am simultaneously grateful for the wealth of America and ashamed of how I waste that wealth. I am challenged to do more with what I have and to complain less about what I do not having seen what more the Egyptians and Ghanians get done with their relative lack of material wealth and convenience.

4. I Value More The Way Others Get Things Done And How Much Can Be Accomplished With Less - In further consideration of my last statement, I admire the economy and ingenuity of the Egyptians and Ghanaians as I witnessed people getting on with their lives and quite productively, less daunted by their poverty than I expected and more industrious than too many Americans I know. Again, leaving home opens your eyes to the value of how others get things done. I am not saying that other places are relative heaven, but I also observe that they are not always in as much relative hell as we might think they are.

5. My Work Must Honor The Suffering & Hope Of My Ancestors - Visiting the slave castles of Cape Coast & Elmina in Ghana were moving for me as you can imagine. I walked through the dungeons and pitch black prison areas that were the last destinations of my ancestors before coming to the Americas. I also walked through the infamous " Door of No Return" that led out of the castle onto the beach and the slave ships. During this visit and since I reflect on the journey that started in those dungeons which has led through many generations of brutality, hardship and discrimination to my life and work. I recognize that through all those generations my ancestors were working and hoping for me and I have to feel some obligation to upholding, advancing and rewarding that hope in how I conduct my work and the impact it makes on the world. In this way their suffering is not in vain.

6. Society Can Achieve Anything When Pursuing God & Immortality - Visiting the ancient temples, monuments, tombs and pyramids of Egypt amazed me for their innovation, engineering, design and attention to detail. An underlying principle in all this work seems to have been the pursuit of God(s)' favor & protection and their own immortality, or at least that of their leaders. It occurred to me that we are not so different in our own pursuit of God and immortality as manifest in our work. Our work, and its contribution to this consumerist society we inhabit in the West, is by degrees the same pursuit to appease our God, our puritan work ethic, our capitalist/socialist aspirations, our families and ourselves. In this we seek a degree of immortality in what we produce for others to consume as well as in what we consume. I love to identify these parallels in culture and history whenever I travel. Though culturally different, we are not as different and evolved in some areas as we might think, eh? I think this point speaks to the merit of good work being about someone/thing larger than ourselves. With this merit, we can indeed achieve the seeming impossible, together.

You can see the pictures from our trip at: