Hope has feathers, that reason is a plank, that life is a loaded gun that looks right at you with a yellow eye.
Disclaimer: There is nothing altruistic in the following words.
My time in Ghana felt like the spiritual equivalent of losing a bar fight. It was an utterly disruptive experience with the psychic tables and chairs in my neatly ordered world trashed and me sitting in the road wondering what just happened and how to make it home.
I had gone to Ghana on an American Jewish World Service service-learning program with a diverse group of rabbis to a school called Challenging Heights in the coastal fishing village of Winneba. And it was against a backdrop of children playing in the dusty school grounds that we learned that many of these very children had been rescued from 17-hour days of forced labor. They had been rescued by James Kofi-Annan, an escaped child slave turned activist and savior to these children.
With false promises the children are purchased from struggling families in the village and transported far from their homes to endure ongoing physical and sexual assault. Any concept of childhood is utterly annihilated. Lashings replace allowances. Theirs is a world where a child is worth $40 and a fishing net $200; in the economy of slavery, it is cheaper to replace a drowned child than a snagged fishing net. The chasm that opened between the stories being told and the image of the children playing was staggering and unbridgeable.
And to put this children’s oasis — this sanctuary, which it truly is — in perspective, imagine a couple hundred children roughly between 4 and 12 years old playing more or less unsupervised in a big empty lot where rains have gouged deep undulating rivulets and fun includes the daily ritual of burning used toilet paper. Where the playground is an active construction site and rusted metal or a plastic bottle is a plaything. That is not to say there isn’t much joy and laughter. It is just that there is virtually no safety net. No safety.
At Challenging Heights, words like “childhood,” “innocence” and “safety” are built on the unreliable foundation of words like “rescue,” “survival” and “luck.” Without the luxury of infrastructure, children and adults alike improvise, innovate and pray. Water and power come and go, sewage flows or it doesn’t. Politicians are corrupt or unreliable. Parents might be forced to sell a child to feed another. Teachers teach complexity amid instability.
It was against this backdrop we spent our days working, waiting and occasionally complaining — always reflecting on the concrete and theological meaning of privilege and poverty. I doubt the stones we moved, the cement we mixed, or the bricks we laid had much of an impact on the community at Challenging Heights — we were there and we were gone, one more group of Westerners passing through. It is dubious at best.
While it is true we helped build a building, the real structure that was created was far less tangible and far more nebulous — more of a scaffolding for our souls. A bridge not quite linking parallel universes.
Hearing the stories, briefly experiencing the rough exposure of poverty and the inescapable awareness that the diary of violence and this chronicle of scarcity is so pervasive in the world set up an inescapable tension — and a challenge. The challenge is to ensure that the agitation and disruption are not fleeting, and to bind them to our psychic and spiritual DNA. It must change how we make decisions, how we encounter the face of poverty, and what we do with the privilege that results from randomly being born in the West and not like the 1.4 billion people around the world who live on less than $1.25 a day.
It is not enough to be appalled by the fact that children are still sold into slavery. Nor is it enough to be inspired by the dedication of those who work to rescue and teach them. I’ve been wondering about the shelf life of our experience at Challenging Heights, and how long before global injustice gives way to a more personal injustice — some inane narcissistic wound.
On the last day we were asked to construct a small brick garden along a wall of the building project. I found it totally absurd to imagine a time when dainty begonias or delicate pink tulips might blossom among marauding goats, rummaging chickens and playing children. But maybe there is something to it. Perhaps the act of building a space for a garden is a way of creating a picture of a future not yet realized. A compass pointing to what may be and not what is. A seed planted to challenge the meaning our work begun, but not complete. A final disruptive memory upending one more table as we boarded the bus and drove away.