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Building Bonds of Understanding

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Building Bonds of Understanding

Sometimes questions are more important than answers.

On September 11, 2012, Ambassador Chris Stevens was slain in an attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya. Stevens spent his life, and gave his life, to bring good will from the United States to the people of the world. We may never know all of the circumstances of Stevens’ death, but we do know this: ongoing protests against the U.S. in other parts of the world mean that we have not yet succeeded in building strong bridges. We don’t understand them, and they don’t understand us. Some even harbor resentment, which we also don’t understand.

My work in Africa has been humbling. I have six years and 13 trips’ worth of experience building bonds for Bentley with the people of Ghana. In Ghana, one asks permission before entering a village, and each village chief asks the same question: “What is your mission? For what purpose have you come?” The first time I took students, I stumbled through a longish response, which often had an element of “we’ve come to help.” But I knew it was a muddled mission, and that I wasn’t crystal clear myself on why I was there. The frequency of the question caused me to think about it a great deal.

It didn’t take long to recognize that I suffered from “white knight syndrome.” I was going to “help” through a one-way transfer of knowledge and experience. Then I put myself in their shoes: Would I open my door to a stranger appearing suddenly in my neighborhood, offering to help? Not a chance.

Were we going to Africa as the self-assured missionaries of Poisonwood Bible went to Africa: to impose our values on others? It was disturbing, prompting more reflection. My compelling reason for going to Africa? I was curious. I wanted to know more, just for the sake of knowing more. A desire to understand other people and other cultures and other ways of looking at the world was reason enough.  To propose that I could “help” was not only futile, but insulting. Now my answer is more clear: “We are here to learn. To learn from you.” And I mean it.

I work very hard to cure students of “white knight syndrome” before I ever take them to Ghna. I have seen for myself how much damage can be done by good intentions. We are taught to “give back,” but I’m not so sure that we have that right. The more we learn, the more capable and competent we become as a human being. So give me learning.

I have learned that I have a lot to un-learn. Ghanaian ways lead people to live lives of calm and kindness. Generosity and hospitality inform their everyday life. Puzzled by our hypercompetitive, acquisitive culture, the Ghanian people I know don’t establish their value in relation to me based on a comparison of possessions. They believe people have intrinsic value simply because they are alive. Since I, too, am alive, we are equal — both granted the gift of life. We build bonds of friendship by sharing life: peeling palm nuts, pounding cassava, breathing the same air, no conversation necessary.  

And when the time for conversation comes, may we be the ones asking questions. Seeking understanding. Wanting peace, in honor of Chris Stevens.

Diane Kellogg is associate professor of management at Bentley University

Comments

Hi Diane, Thank you for expressing what you've learned from your Ghana trips in this post. It was really wonderful to read and reflect too. I hope we can all post something on this blog. Best, Malini

Talk about "going to learn," Malini. Your natural curiosity made you one of the best question-askers around. And for you, it was never just intellectual curiosity. The "caring" behind the questions you asked Isaac on that very first day at the clinic in Ada-Foah laid the foundation for long-standing ties you have with that community.

Hi Diane, I really enjoyed reading this article and some of points you have raised, specifically what are mission and our purpose is when we travel to Ghana. I do agree that curiosity to learn through questioning is important but one also has to accept and respect the the way the culture is built and practiced. From my personal experience accepting their values and costumes has had positive outcomes in keeping my relationships I created strong.

Loris, You may have meant "customs" but you had quite a wardrobe of Ghana "costumes" too. I was impressed that you dressed Ghanaian. You didn't just talk about cultural acceptance.....you lived it. I met Tony and GAPNET in 2006, but it wasn't until 2010 and your summer with the women of Asutsuare that I genuinely felt that we were true 'Partners in Learning" with GAPNET. Because of you, Rose and Tony trusted Bentley. They knew we would send them people who were flexible, adventurous and open to new experiences. Rose was so proud to tell me how well you understood the language by the time you left Asutsuare. I didn't even know until she told me that you often crashed on floors in the village to save yourself the cab ride back to Star Villa. Rose felt you "became one of them." " Bano," she says "How is Bano?" She describes you as curious and open. I told her about your essay--carrying the chicken on the tro-tro in Ghana and imagining how that would go over if you carried a chicken on a bus in New York City. That got lots of laughs, and you know for sure it meant that they felt you fit in better in Asutsuare then you would in your hometown of NYC. Quite the compliment.

Loris, You may have meant "customs" but you had quite a wardrobe of Ghana "costumes" too. I was impressed that you dressed Ghanaian. You didn't just talk about cultural acceptance.....you lived it. I met Tony and GAPNET in 2006, but it wasn't until 2010 and your summer with the women of Asutsuare that I genuinely felt that we were true 'Partners in Learning" with GAPNET. Because of you, Rose and Tony trusted Bentley. They knew we would send them people who were flexible, adventurous and open to new experiences. Rose was so proud to tell me how well you understood the language by the time you left Asutsuare. I didn't even know until she told me that you often crashed on floors in the village to save yourself the cab ride back to Star Villa. Rose felt you "became one of them." " Bano," she says "How is Bano?" She describes you as curious and open. I told her about your essay--carrying the chicken on the tro-tro in Ghana and imagining how that would go over if you carried a chicken on a bus in New York City. That got lots of laughs, and you know for sure it meant that they felt you fit in better in Asutsuare then you would in your hometown of NYC. Quite the compliment.

Thank you for sharing! I can really relate with your thoughts of "learning" as oppose to "helping" during your visits to Ghana. It's ironic that every time I go on a service trip, my friends and myself will at first assume our purpose is to help others. In the end, however, we realize that we end up learning more from those we tried to help. During my trip to Ghana in January 2011, the Mmofra Trom children and the Ghanaian Universities students taught me so much about their culture and perspective of life. From the trip, I realized that no matter how different our upbringings can be, there were many parallels to our lives, such as love for music, dancing and dreams as children. In the end, I am very thankful for the Ghanaian willingness to open up to me and teach me about their history, culture and way of life.

Diane, I loved reading this blog and will never forget our first trip there together, when we really did know so little. It truly taught me the meaning of patience and helped me understand the Ghanaian culture - the days we sat waiting for Olan to pick us up! I still cherish that time. I will come back one day.... Katie

Hearing from you evokes such good memories, Katie. I'm picturing Seth so proudly spelling his name in the dirt for us and running into our arms for a hug. And cramming al 24 plus us into the van when we went to the market to buy new used shoes? They're teen-agers now. No hugs. Naomi asks how you are and remembers you well.

Dear Diane, am so excited to read your blog about African for that matter Ghana.we have really learn a lot from the Bentley Community.I and Loris became brothers and sleep together in the same bead which may not be usual in the US.You have made a great impact in Ghana and I Hope you will be made a Queen Mother in Ghana. Gapnet have learn a lot from you program and i have personal not only learn but have gained so much.

Congratulations on finishing your degree and starting your teaching career, Moses. You were assigned to a school in Cape Coast? So you may have learned already that it's always the so-called "teacher" who learns the most. I treasure what I have learned from so many friends at GAPNET.

We are a group of volunteers and starting a new initiative in our neighborhood. Your site provided us with valuable information to help us get started|.You have done an impressive job!

Glad to hear this, and do send news of your project. There's always plenty to learn about how to "do it right" when it comes to making the world a better place.

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