Sunday, February 14, 2010

People in Africa

Dear All,

I'm writing this from my room at the Elmina Bay resort on the Atlantic coast in Ghana. All nine 4-room buildings are right on a pristine sandy beach fringed with coconut palms. The waves break quite a ways out, and then continue breaking all the way to the shore. The spot is totally secluded, apart from a few fishing boats (sail- or oar-powered - I haven't seen any motor boats) out past the breakers. Mom, you would love the setting. The resort has been open less than a year and it is lovely. The rooms are all non-smoking, nicely but simply furnished, with wifi access, tv, etc. The owner is a gracious, pleasant man. His staff are all young, friendly, anxious to be helpful and enthusiastic about the environmental consciousness of the hotel. And the food is delicious. I could stand a tad less humidity, but otherwise the place is perfect.

The makeup of our group has changed. We lost Sabrina :( as she had to return to work Monday. Sabrina, we miss you and talk of you often. However, we have been joined by Ashley, who is also wonderful. Ashley is the corporate counsel for Millennium Promise, but that is only one of the three-plus jobs she does for them.

John and I are so impressed with the people who do African development work. Ashley is a case in point - so passionate about helping people that she chooses to leave a big law firm in order to do it all the time, rather than do periodic pro bono projects. And I do mean all the time. Rustom and Lauren have spent each day working with us and each night working with the US by phone and email. And then there are amazing people like Dov Pasternak and most of the MVP staff, who choose to live here to be most effective. We could never do it, but John and I have the utmost respect for people who can.

For some time, I have been wanting to write to you about African people. But it's difficult to see how to do this without sounding naïve at best, or racist at worst. Of course, I understand that there are good and bad people here just as everywhere. And of course I understand that there are cultural differences within Africa. But I have never been anywhere where the people are so incredibly pleasant to be around.

So please forgive my naivete and/or racism as I generalize and list the adjectives in no particular order: friendly, sociable, gentle, affectionate, spiritual, eager to laugh, beautiful, helpful, respectful of personal space.

These qualities are apparent in people in all settings, not just relatively high paid people working in tourist hotels. We have met the poorest of the poor, who could resent us for all we have - from our ubiquitous water bottles to the fat on our bodies, not to mention our possessions and opportunities. And yet they interact with us warmly.

I know you're thinking about generalizations. Yes, people in Kenya rioted two years ago, killing their neighbors. Worse, what happened in Rwanda and what continues to happen in Darfur show that people here - as everywhere - can sink to unspeakable evil.

But the normal way people interact here is very different than in the States. People greet you on the street, strike up a conversation (with no agenda of getting you to buy something from them), and are comfortable sharing the details of their lives with you. We understand that they also are extremely hospitable, although we have not experienced that personally.

Wendy, from Rotterdam, thinks that interdependence - especially of the poor - gives rise to this behavior. In a context where you must depend on your neighbors, and they on you, it would be inappropriate (and stupid) to be selfish. She also points out that wealthy people ensconce themselves behind high walls here as much as they do anywhere else in the world.

As we talk to many of the development people, what motivates them most is their love of the people. Dov calls it "being bitten by the African virus."

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