Friday, April 26, 2013

What Ghana Taught Me About Giving

If there’s one thing I've noticed over the years, it’s that Ghanaians have a wonderful knack for giving.

Usually it's simple: someone’s time or help, their opinion about the culture or their advice; and it’s hard to pinpoint exactly when these times will be. There are days when no one seems to want to give an inch and, just as quickly, everyone seems to be giving something (and giving it freely). I've often been completely surprised, knocked off of my guard by someone’s kindness. Usually this happens on the worst of days and exactly when I need it; a reminder that, in the heat and exhaustion, I can continue - one foot in front of the other - because the world is good.

There’s no end to the kinds of things I've received: American coins, sea shells, drawings of trees and real, delicious popsicles;  people have paid for my travel, taken me (completely out of their way) to the location I'm so unfamiliar with, fed me and carried my bags; there are always kind words and smiles, curiosity and conversation, and an over-abundance of marriage proposals. Though I attribute some of this to my 'visitor' status, Ghana is of a communal mentality; centered in traditionalism, family homes, and village life Ghanaians take care of each other because their well-being is dependent upon one another.  (What’s to say that tomorrow they won’t need help, in turn?)

As a rule, giving is only satisfying when it’s wholehearted and honest, completely void of expectation. Generally, there's no reason for kindness other than the kindness, itself. And, though it seems such a simple thing, it tends to fill the biggest holes, heal the largest wounds, and is quickly contagious. After three years, much of it spent dependent on the kindness of others, I've come to understand that life is about giving. Whether it be the heart, kindness, creativity, or capital, the world is meant to be shared. Too many adventures and stories would cease to exist, too many simple fulfillments would go unnoticed, if no one opened their hearts and minds; if no one gave an inch.

And, really, there's a simple reason philanthropists are happy: they help make other people happy. While it’s strange to think of myself as a philanthropist, I guess that’s what I've become (though most of what I give seems meager); a smile here, a hug there, my undivided attention and compassion. The best reward I've received isn't payment or recognition, either; it's a smile, returned. The shy kind of smile that lets me know I've made someone feel special for a moment, and that's all the reward I need.

As Ghana is more ‘Westernized’ and cities get bigger, this will undoubtedly change. It’s an unfortunate reality  I've begun to witness; as people modernize they become autonomous (maybe this is why Ghanaian hospitality is so pleasantly surprising). In the modern world we cling to our pennies, covet our time, and pine over our privacy; we grow farther and farther apart, orbiting each other like satellites, attempting to find solace in social media outlets and iPhone applications that connect us to some form of community. 

The longer I’m in Ghana, the more I realize that giving is exactly why I came here; it became my philosophy, a philosophy I think many of us need. I can honestly say that there’s nothing more satisfying than giving a kindness, no matter how small; a smile, the taxi fare, the simple acknowledgement that a stranger is important and recognized and loved. In all of this I've found that I, too, am recognized, often receive more than I give, and am happiest in the simple happiness of others. It's kind of fantastic.

So, go on … give in and give a little. Ten bucks says you won't be disappointed.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

A Little Malaria

April 25th is World Malaria Day and, while for some it is a problem of the past, countries all over the world are still affected by it every day. The most vulnerable are children - every 60 seconds brings about the Malaria-related death of child - and though it may be easily prevented and treated, Malaria is one of four major causes of death in Ghana.

Ironically enough, I'd caught Malaria in the med-unit, at our Home Office, underneath a mosquito net (I'd apparently been sharing it with a very smart mosquito). Looking back, I should have recognized the signs: cyclical symptoms, joint pain, a very high fever, but my anti-Malarial medication suppressed the symptoms and I was too excited about coming home. As I shivered violently in my airplane seat and managed the splitting pain behind my eyes, I thought I might have caught a cold from one of the ninety children I hugged goodbye as I left the village behind. It was persistent though, whatever it was, and as that first week went by I started to wonder if something was seriously wrong with me.

In addition to an ebbing fever - peaking at 104 degrees - I'd developed a shortness of breath that left me gasping for air, a sharp, light-sensitive pain behind my eyes, joint and muscle aches from the base of my neck to my knees, and a complete lack of appetite. At one point a friend witnessed my lips turn blue, but I barely noticed as I struggled to keep my head from splitting in half. I was clearly in rough shape. The catalyst came when my mum, leaving me fully-dressed and relatively well for an errand  down the road, returned to find me face down in the basement. I'd fallen asleep face down because it made my head stop hurting; I was fully dressed because it took all of my energy to crawl down there; I crawled down there because it was the only place that seemed cool enough for comfort. My Malaria logic was sound, but it still felt like I was dying.

And it turns out I was. After talking to a medical officer who, listening to me struggle between breath and speech, told me to get to a hospital immediately, I found out that I'd contracted the deadliest type of Malaria (the most common form in West Africa). I'd been living with the parasite for over two weeks and it had done its work patiently.

The treatment was simple enough - we flushed my system with the strongest anti-malarial we could find and I was interviewed by the Center for Disease Control. For about a week I was zombie-like and listless. It was like waking up from the worst hangover I'd ever had, but no one around me understood what it was.

627,000 people died from Malaria in 2012, alone; most of them were children. Many people, if not all, are perfectly capable of preventing Malaria, but lack the education or the motivation to change their behavior. When people are sick in Ghana it's often referred to as 'a little Malaria.' As if Malaria is an innocent, passing infection instead of something that can swiftly carry away a life. Additionally, people get and treat Malaria multiple times, which only leads them to believe that it isn't something to be feared or prevented. Educating them is key.

Many organizations all over the world are taking a stand against Malaria and while Malaria may not  directly affect you, now you know someone's story. The good news is that you can save someone's life today. To learn more about Malaria and how you can help organizations take lifesaving actions, click on the links below. Because Malaria doesn't always have to end in tragedy:

Be sure to check out Stomp Out Malaria at for more Peace Corps stories in the fight to end Malaria.