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Χαίρω πολύ! Nice to meet you.

Me: “Συγνώμη, καταλαβενεις αγγλικα;”

Man selling cotton candy: “Ehh…οχι. No english.”

Me: “Okay, ευχαριστο! Γεια!”

It was my first rejection. I kicked myself for not yet memorizing some of my questions in Greek. The issue is that I tend to stray from the template based on who I am talking to, and our Greek class has only studied up to first person, present tense. Try asking strangers meaningful questions about their lives with that vocabulary.

If you have an Instagram account, you may be familiar with @humansofny, a concept born in New York City by a photographer who made it his mission to capture the abbreviated life stories of strangers on the street. The mini-features are little windows into the souls of people you might typically pass without a second glance. The project humanizes the city by letting those that live in it speak for themselves.

We all live in our own worlds, filtering out information that is relevant to us and living our lives with each of us at the center. But what does the world look like through the lens of another? What is the woman on the bench thinking about? What is running through the mind of the man on the motorcycle?

Because of all the amazing people I have been fortunate enough to meet around the world, I have developed a bit of a habit of talking to strangers and asking them about their stories. I believe there is a way for us to connect with every single person we meet. I love the challenge of knowing someone, of connecting with them, of making their eyes light up as they share with me their passions.

When I started interning with Athens Insider Magazine, I was given almost complete freedom in deciding on a project. To me, Humans of Athens was a no brainer.

So far, I have met George, the man that lowers the flags at the panathenaic stadium after big events. I spoke with Katerina, the local bakery owner, about the store that she loves like a child. I met Martina, an Argentinian traveler selling alfajores on the street, and we talked about passion, the world, and Workaway.info.

I spotted Arkadiusz, an amateur street photographer, kneeling on the steps of the Parliament building, and he told me about the freedom he feels with a camera in his hand. Kostas, the owner of a nearby artisan chess store, admitted that he prefers backgammon. I found Aziza, a Syrian refugee that had been in the city for one day, sitting on a park bench surrounded by her loved ones. She speaks no english, but her daughter introduced me to the whole family. I was surrounded by hope and mutual curiosity, laughing loud and holding hands with strangers while everyone around us stared.

I ran into Christos playing music in the square, and he told me about the time he placed second on The Voice Greece, and now plays for everyone because he doesn’t ever want to feel too famous, too important, to play in the square. Maria stopped me to ask me about my running shoes, and we spoke in English, Spanish, and Greek about her work as an Athenian tour guide and her travels all over the world. Diana, a Russian student who has been in Athens for three years, admitted she much prefers cold and rainy cities to this one, and she is looking forward to heading to the UK. I guess not everyone can be as in love with Greece as I am.

It has become part of my daily walks to keep an eye out for new friends. I have learned never to interrupt people while they are clocked in, people sitting alone are much more likely to speak with you than those in pairs and groups, and kind eye contact is the beginning of every good conversation. Next step, learn more Greek.

To stay updated on the Humans of Athens project, sign up for the Athens Insider Magazine’s weekly newsletter. Read a bit about some strangers in the first installment of the project here.

A few mistakes and “Συγνώμη”s later

“Συγνώμη, umm, how do I get out of here?”

I had been out of mandatory self-quarantine for exactly 7 hours, and had covered almost 13 miles of ground. I felt like a wind up toy at max velocity, hurdling myself into Athenian life as fast as I could.

The first morning of freedom, my roommates and I took a long loop around the city to finally stretch our legs. We stopped at Kékkos bakery to meet the owner, Dimitris, who is incredibly fond of study abroad students from our program, College Year Athens, or ΔΙΚΕΜΕΣ. He filled our empty hands with pastries and sent us out into the city, fueled by the aroma of Greek coffee but without the ability to take off our masks and drink it. It was the first cloudy day in Athens since we had arrived, but everyone kept promising the íιιοσ would be back soon, and by the time we left Athens, we would be bored of the sun.

After eating at our apartment, we set off towards the Panathenaic stadium and the CYA building where 30-something of us will be taking classes this semester. We walked through the National Gardens to the Temple of Zeus, watching bright green birds called Monk Parakeets fly between the trees that line the path. We looked up through the archway, pointed ourselves toward the Acropolis, and wandered through the beautiful historic neighborhood of Plaka all the way up to the most magnificent view of Athens from someone’s back porch. Said someone waved at us to please step down from her bench. Σιγνομι, ma’am.

After we returned from our adventure, I couldn’t keep still. The previous week, I had spent hours doing jumping jacks and air squats in my bedroom and meeting the (concerned) neighbors from our respective balconies. Once the dam broke, all my patience flooded out.

I slid on my running shoes and took off, powering up the first hill I saw in hopes of finding another view. I came out on a neighborhood street behind the Panathenaic stadium. In front of me, a woman carried her dog into the park through an opening in a gate that was no more than two metal bars pulled apart by some incredible Hulk of a person. The park was almost certainly closed to the public, but there was a steady flow of patient traffic allowing each person to climb through the fence to enter and exit the park.

Once inside, I joined the Athenians running and walking on the trails. I may have missed my Spartan race in April, but now I ran along the outer rim of the stadium that was used for the Panathenaic games (566 BC to the 3rd century AD) and the 2004 Olympics.

I felt weightless winding through the trails and popped out at the top to see the stadium from above. Once I started to run down, I realized that the main stairs from the upper level of the stadium to the street were gated on both ends and manned by police. I was totally turned around, with no idea where the bent-bars-secret-entrance was. No way was I waltzing down a marble staircase right into the palm of a police officer – at least not on my first day out. I took a deep breath behind my mask and gave up on blending in. I approached a woman and told her I had no idea how to get out without blowing the whole operation. She burst out laughing so hard she couldn’t answer, and then started walking. So, I followed her.

Maria Elena went on and on, “Imagine if you had just walked down! To the street! With all those police!” More laughter. She was incredibly friendly, and happy to help me escape total mortification, but wouldn’t let me go without poking a little fun.

The only way to navigate Athens, a sprawling (OG) metropolis of 5 million people, is to get lost over and over. I could use iMaps to find myself (unless I *cough* forgot to buy data *cough*) or I could keep stopping strangers from at least six feet away, messing up my Greek, and wholeheartedly committing myself to every vague finger-point in the general direction of my neighborhood.

I keep mixing up the timing of the greetings: until noon, you say “καλιμερα,” for good morning , from 4PM-bedtime, it’s “καλισπερα,” for good afternoon, and “goodnight” is “καλινικτα.” Noon runs from 12PM – 4PM, and during that time the only appropriate greeting is “γεα σου!” or “hello!” Each time I try to start a conversation, I can pass myself off as Greek for a total of one line: “Υα σου, Τι κανεισ;” before I then receive a response, and have to admit that I don’t actually have any idea how to speak Greek.

After quarantine, Rachel, Anna, and I were thrilled to finally be able to pick out our grocery items instead of ordering online and receiving a tiny bag of rice and a gallon of honey. I didn’t realize that one perk of online ordering is the “translate” function. I asked a dozen different people to help me find chickpeas, and then finally realized that they are definitely not called chickpeas in Greece, and they are only sold dried and in bulk. Οξε, there is no canned food in the Mediterranean. I asked another woman to help me navigate between cow milk yogurt, goat milk yogurt, sheep milk yogurt, and all three corresponding origins of milk. She stood in the dairy aisle with me for fifteen minutes until we both found what we were looking for.

As I finished up my run this afternoon, my eyelashes were caked with snow and I could hear my feet sloshing inside my soaking wet shoes. I went up to Philopappos hill to take in one of my favorite views of the city with the snow still coming down. On the way home, I rounded the corner and ran into two boys building a snowman on the sidewalk and picking bitter oranges from the trees to use for the eyes, mouth, and nose. A chunk of snow came hurdling toward me, and I realized that a snowball fight with strangers is a universal language.

Athens is in official lockdown until February 28th with the potential for extension, but Greece has managed COVID a lot better than many other countries. As for COVID precautions, we are being tested weekly, holding classes over zoom, and only existing mask-less with the 1-2 other people that live in our apartment. Nevertheless, I recognize the incredible privilege that I have to be able to travel and study during this time.

This week, classes begin online and we will all try to fully settle into the city. We just figured out how to heat our apartment, but we still don’t understand how to use our Greek SIM cards. We text the government every time we want to leave the apartment, sending a number that corresponds to exercise or grocery shopping. All shops are closed except for take-out and delivery, and we are doing our best to connect with people safely and behind masks.

Personally, I am looking forward to many more mispronunciations, tips from helpful strangers, and hopefully some more pastries from Dimitris at Kékkos.

Personally, I am looking forward to many more mispronunciations, tips from helpful strangers, and hopefully some more pastries from Dimitris at Kékkos.

Arizona, Utah, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming

When I last posted on this blog, I was wholeheartedly and unabashedly excited about taking a gap semester and learning (strictly) from the world. A few days before UNC classes began, the world decided not to take American travelers anymore.

In an effort to salvage the semester, I enrolled in the fewest credits I could to make myself feel like a legitimate student, and packed a bag. Rachel, who I met on TBB and who has no doubt made an appearance here before, welcomed me and Lex (another #cgyg) to her house in Heber City, Utah, and we have been full speed ahead ever since.

The last three weeks I have seen more of the American west than I ever have before, and that many Americans see in their lives. We spent this past weekend in Yellowstone, which re-excited me about my choice to be a Biology major. We saw wolves, elk, and bison, and I am positive at least one bear saw us. We watched thermophiles color the landscapes and geysers angrily spit out water and steam. We were completely enveloped by a landscape that can take your life in 100 different ways, and yet I felt completely at peace.

The earth has always been medicine for me, as cheesy as it may sound. I knew Heber City was a good idea on that first morning jog, when I rounded a corner in the fog and stumbled upon a mother moose and her baby. My first instinct was to run towards them both, but then I realized that the reason my dad is nicknamed Moose is because of his fierce protection of his food. I slowly backed up at her first huff, and walked the other way.

From the sand dunes of Morocco to the Great Salt Lake, the magnificence of the planet we call home cannot be denied. As I look out my window, the sunset is colorful and hazy against the newly changing fall colors. That haze, however eery and majestic, is smoke.

On our way out of Yellowstone, we drove through Grand Teton national park. What is usually a grand display of rocky mountains topped with snow was a faint outline in a gray sky. We passed road signs warning of fires ahead and Rachel gripped the wheel a little tighter and periodically asked me if I had service to look up where they were. I didn’t.

Thousands of residents of California, Oregon, and Washington have evacuated their homes, whisking away their pets and favorite things. Never did I imagine I would actually seriously consider that age old question, “if you house was on fire and you could only save on thing, what would you take with you?”

At the moment, we are not in the path of any incoming flames. The humidifier in my room and an occasional bloody nose reminds me that the air is dry enough to be dangerous. It is a small reminder that our magnificent planet is equally as fragile, and we must accept responsibility for taking care of her. No matter what your backyard looks like, take a deep breath of fresh air and recognize that it isn’t getting any cleaner.

Island School and Braving the Gap (again)

Kick, kick, pull. Kick, kick, pull. An hour and a half into my snorkel and I seem to be the only person left on the planet. My eyes fixed on the ocean floor, I watch as the sun rays pierce through the surface and light up coral, conch shells, and a school of cuttlefish.

I am totally zoned out, watching a stingray glide over the reef with fish riding its wings Finding Nemo style, when BAM. My forehead hits a wall. In the middle of the ocean.

My heart falls into my stomach. I jet backward and look up to see two equally startled eyes staring back at me. The woman takes off her snorkel, gives me a look, and swims away as I swallow my laughter to yell, “I am SO sorry!”

As quarantine dragged on through May and June, I felt myself skimping the social distancing guidelines – grocery shopping more than I needed to and seeing friends from less than 6 feet away. I finally put my Workaway account to use and booked a flight to St. Thomas to help renovate a home damaged by the hurricanes. In exchange for a room, I worked four hours a day, five days a week alongside five other Workawayers. While getting on a plane is not an isolating activity, living on St. Thomas drastically cut down on my human contact. We went to the grocery store twice, but spent the rest of our time working at the house, hiking trails, and snorkeling in the bay.

On the island, I learned how to paint home interiors, exteriors, and myself.  I became well acquainted with the caulking gun and the oscillating saw. I learned how to spackle, dig a trench, and scrape paint stains off of any service, but these are not the practices I will continue at home.

From the five other volunteers on this project, I learned a lifetime of skills. Kelsey taught me to not take life so seriously and to follow my heart towards the things that make me scream “HELL YES!” Dan could write an entire novel of one-liners, but it would have to be an audiobook because his Australian accent is half the joke. Taz showed me strength, grace, and how to handstand four different ways. Tyler exemplified the “professional hippy” life, a military man with a kind heart and incredible wanderlust who insists that there are very few people that actually improve traveling. Brooks, my travel buddy, is one of my few people.

Liz and (bossman) Tyler were our hosts on the island. Their nonprofit allows them to teach yoga classes (currently virtual), run sailing camps for local kids, advocate for recycling on St. Thomas, and hold mindfulness, meditation, and breathwork classes for the community. They led a breathwork session in our living room, and I cannot describe it as anything other than otherwordly. I have a third eye?

When I started this blog, I was embarking on the adventure of a lifetime. Since I got back from Thinking Beyond Borders, I have been itching to get out and explore again. I am incredibly lucky to be able to do so, especially at this time. However, the value I have found in traveling is not in how many places I can scratch off on my map, it is in how many lifelong friends I can make, and what they can teach me.

In all of our work, whether it was digging a trench or making vegan pizza for ten, the more hands involved, the lighter the work. The more shovels in the dirt, the faster you get a lemonade break. The more snorkels in the water, the more likely you are to find a beautiful blue lionfish and a spotted eagle ray. The more threads of conversation in the air, the easier it is to hike home from Hull Bay.

As the fall looms and UNC continues to send me emails reminding me to confirm my enrollment, I don’t think I will. I took my online Chemistry final exams on St. Thomas. During those three hours, while I fulfilled my traditional online education, I missed a plethora of lessons that the island and this little family could have taught me. Without access to the in-person resources that UNC’s incredible campus offers, I do not believe I will be able to fully be present, to be the student I know I can be.

This fall, all of my classes will be online, and out of state tuition isn’t budging. If I learned anything from TBB and Workaway, it’s that there is no right path, no set timeline, and no rush. There is no one way to reach the finish line, nor is there one finish line, and I am incredibly lucky to have a family that supports my winding, wandering path. I hope to return to Chapel Hill in the spring a fully engaged student. Until then, I will learn from the world for one more semester and do something that makes my heart say “Hell yes!”

 

Standing Wisely, not Standing Down

I’m surrounded. People are swirling around the room speaking a different language. Libby is petting my head. Rachel is picking up my leg. Hands are tangled in my hair and wrapped around my waist. I’m suffocating. Is this the end?

BafaBafa is a cultural awareness game we played during TBB orientation to prepare us to travel the world, but I learned something else entirely. These students, my new peers, the people I would spend the next 6 months with, were not afraid to get close. “In Colombia, we hug!” claimed Francisco, after a surprise side hug from him sent me a foot in the air. “Alright. Nevermind,” he backed away.

A few days later, Rachel did my Tarot card reading. At first, I thought, “Psh, she thinks she can see into my soul from some Pokemon cards? good luCK!” Fifteen minutes later, she told me there was something I was avoiding and needed to deal with in order to get everything out of this experience. I left with my game face on, but I was rattled.

My aversion to all things touchy-feely has proved to be a challenge on this trip. During our “rivers of life,” we were asked to spill our life stories to a bunch of strangers. Everyone kept petting me and talking about love and compassion; I was nervous! First of all, this was nowhere on the program’s website. Second of all, if it had been, I probably wouldn’t have signed up.

Early on in the trip, we learned the 10 Principles of  Teaching and Learning. Number six is that these are intellectual, social, spiritual, cultural, and emotional practices. My whole life, I have completely ignored the spiritual and emotional sides to my education. TBB hasn’t let me do that.

I was an angry kid. I threw violent tantrums. I kicked a hole in the drywall. My mom told me my “terrible twos” were actually “terrible 2s, 3s, 4s, and 5s.” I never lost that energy, but I did stop kicking things … for the most part. I competed really hard in school, on the volleyball court, and in the gym. Everything I did screamed “INDEPENDENT.” I hid behind my “leave me alone, I’m fine” attitude, keeping everyone at arm’s length and denying most human emotions.

Before TBB, it worked. Easy smiles and small talk have kept people from digging. I genuinely believed that everyone was dealing with their own issues and no one really cared about what was going on in my head. When I voiced that, people were offended. “How dare you! Of course I care!” I’ve always been willing to listen, just not to speak. I didn’t realize that this attitude would inhibit my learning, and TBB was determined to shatter it.

In our vulnerability seminar, we watched a Ted Talk by Brené Brown. In it, she talks about her own struggle to find vulnerability. Through research, she learned that while it is necessary, it is not always comfortable. The people that she found have the ability to make the most meaningful connections, to access the good stuff: joy, love, and belonging, have the courage to be imperfect. They are brave enough to let go of who they want to be in order to be who they are. Another student, Sasa, was my partner that day, and I told him I didn’t really see the point of vulnerability. Why ask for help with something I can do myself? He replied, “That’s stupid, it’s not about not being able to do it yourself, it’s about relationships.” He told me vulnerability is the opportunity to learn, grow, and change. If you push everyone away, you lose their potential impact on you.

I wasn’t sure I was willing to give up my self-sufficiency, but I wanted to connect with people. In high-school Journalism class, I fell in love with people’s stories- stories of hardship, loss, triumph, joy, and the human experience. I love meeting people from every country, in every language. However, I have always been content with interviewing. I want to be a student of the world and all its cultures, but I had to learn that its unrealistic to expect meaningful relationships if I am not contributing.

My homestay family in Guatemala touched my heart. Laughing and joking with them around the table, I let my guard down without even thinking about it. We had conversations about everything from Marvel superheroes to immigrant rights and environmental conservation. My homestay sister Naomi and I opened up our lives to them, for better or for worse, for criticism or for praise. We had slightly uncomfortable conversations about our privilege, bouncing between lighthearted, when our host mother compared our gap year to The Lizzie McGuire Movie, and thought-provoking, when she told us about the intellectual debt we would take back home to the states, our obligation to raise awareness of global issues. Beyond the dinner table, Naomi encouraged me to “turn my very real feelings into big fat jokes,” but that still means we talked about our feelings! Going into Thailand, I expected that same connection with my host family, but I didn’t get it. Emma and I were in a constant state of confusion as our family paraded us around their beautiful country solely to take photos of us. We endured family dinners out every single night that were really more like one-on-one dates because we were the only ones not sucked into our phones (we didn’t have phones). I thought I had my bubble airtight, but Emma always knew more about how I was feeling than I thought she did. We leaned on each other, sharing our discomforts. She’s still observant as hell, and will pretend to be surprised if I come up to her like “Emma, I need to tell you something.” Ghana was challenging for different reasons, and Adia pushed me every day to take more personal time and to be in touch with how I was feeling. Francisco threw chanclas at my walls until they cracked. He has taught me how to slow down, to go with the flow, to relax. He literally bought me a book called How to Relax. How’s that for a hint?

Gradually, after all these very different, very emotionally advanced teenage hippies broke me down, I realized that dragging my feet through vulnerability uses up a lot more energy than giving in. Kelly, my mentor, told me that now, she has noticed instead of groaning and running away from opportunities to be vulnerable, I groan and allow myself to be pulled in…that includes hugs.

It’s exhausting. Being vulnerable is like cliff jumping – that moment when you hit the water and you’re paralyzed for a second. Being vulnerable is hearing about the death of a friend back home and trying to grieve alone, silently, before you realize you can’t, and the group you’re with won’t let you. Being vulnerable is when Emma says “Close your eyes and open your mouth,” and you can see she is smiling slyly and holding something in her hand, but you do it anyway. It was a goldfish. I never know how people will react when I put myself out there. There are no guarantees, and sometimes it ends up hurting, but I have to remind myself that putting trust in people does not mean that that trust won’t be broken. It only means that I have to be okay with that possibility and know that I have the capacity to rebuild. It means I commit to the idea that it’s worth the risk, because that uncomfortable, sometimes painful space is where connections are made.

Letting my guard down, risking that fall, has always been my worst case scenario because it means the situation is out of my control. Every time we travel to a new place,  I am up with the sun on the first morning to orient myself with my surroundings- where am I? Where is the food? Where is the gym? Not having my phone meant not having Google maps OR Google. I learned to love being lost, and to be content when a question comes up in conversation that no one has an answer to- content with best guesses, with not knowing for sure. I don’t like to be late. One morning in Ghana, my watchband broke. A message from the universe? Stop checking your watch! Let go! Go with the flow! BE LATE TO SOMETHING! I considered it, I reflected on it. I borrowed Francisco’s watch for 6 weeks. But, I checked it less! I am not saying I am cured, but Cisco, Moriah, and I were all late to the World Bank in D.C. because we stopped at Starbucks. You call that irresponsible, I call it healing.

Part of this aversion to letting go is because I’m a woman. For a long time, I have been unrealistic about my ability to protect myself. In Ghana, I FaceTimed my dad in a moment when I was very frustrated with the treatment of women in the area. We were being constantly catcalled, teased, even grabbed. It was obnoxious and frustrating. Without considering his reaction, I complained to him about cars slowing down and about the gym trainer asking me to be his wife. Of course, he was alarmed. However, he was mostly concerned that I would be the one to provoke a dangerous situation. Would I try to prove a point? React in a way that would  put myself in danger? I had certainly considered stomping around and throwing up my middle fingers. I could not understand why all the women in Ghana and Guatemala and Morocco didn’t just do that. I learned that it’s because they are much wiser than me.

Two women that have been incredibly influential in my growth are Elba, my homestay mother in Guatemala, and Nunana, my sister in Ghana. They are my new definition of strong. They are genuine, kind, hard-working people. Elba is the principal of an elementary school in her area. She is tough as nails on those kids and her own, promoting education and discipline as a fast-track out of the strawberry fields. Nunana is technically the niece of my Ghanaian homestay mother, but she cooks and cleans for them in exchange for help financing her classes, trading an early marriage and lots of babies for an education and the foundation for a more independent future. Their bravery is in their ability to refrain from frustration when dealing with injustice. They battle sexism with grace, patience, and solidarity, by leaning on other women. They taught me to recognize my limitations, to stand somewhere safe, but to never stand down.

During TBB I learned a lot about what I am not. I am not a professional. I am not a farmer, a teacher, or a doctor or nurse. However, I think the hardest lesson to learn was how to let go of who I thought I should be and be who I am. I am not invincible.

I got my nose pierced. My hair is longer and blonder. I still exercise when I am overwhelmed or upset, but I journal now, too. I don’t always flinch when people hug me. I am a “chill gap year girl.” I put hot sauce on things voluntarily. I put my retainer in my mouth when it was covered in ants by accident …and then ate a scorpion on purpose.

I feel more spiritually connected to the world and the people in it than I ever have. Some African witchdoctors told me I have mermaids in my ancestry. I will never stop being excited about that. I have found and solidified passions for travel, the environment, women, animals, justice, writing, reading, and doodling in my notebook. If anyone can think of a profession that encompasses all of those things, let me know!

I have cried, and more than one person on this trip has seen me do it. Those people are my best friends. They know me inside and out- from banana pancakes to cautious side hugs, to a mermaid-themed birthday and the best present: a journal full of letters that I flipped through with my eyes squeezed shut because it almost made me cry (but it did make Emma cry). They have made lasting impacts on me because I let them see me. It was scary as hell, but it is so worth it. TBB has strengthened my learning in every aspect: cultural, social, intellectual, spiritual, but especially emotional. I survived vulnerability bootcamp, and because of it, I am a better student, a better friend, a better traveler, and a better person. I am not invincible, but I am curious, and I can stand wisely without standing down.

Abodam: Mental Health in Ghana

Hi guys! This is the post I wrote at the end of Ghana after we finished our media project. I linked the podcast below.

For the past five weeks, we have been working with different types of health care providers in Ghana, mostly health centers and CHPS centers  (community health planning services). On the one hand, healthcare is a very well respected profession in Ghana. The Ghanaian government is famous for its NHIS (National Health Insurance Scheme) that is supposed to ensure free healthcare for all. Many nurses go to school for degrees and are more than happy to be stationed far from home in obscure villages for their entire careers. However, we found out that mental health care in particular is extremely stigmatized. There is a history of human rights violations, overcrowded and unclean facilities, and poorly trained professionals darkening the sector.

Because our work placements had us around patient care, we thought we would have easy access to media project interviews and information if we chose to study mental health. It turns out, CHPS centers usually lack any kind of mental health unit. The Kpetoe Health Center has one around the corner of the building with a single nurse, Lomasi, in charge of her community and all the communities surrounding it. There are less than 15 psychiatrists in the nation, and 3 psychiatric hospitals to serve the entire population. How can a country that takes so much pride in health care completely write off mental health- allotting only a potential 0.4-1% of the budget that rarely shows up?

Because of the traditional religions of Africa as well as a current devotion to Christianity, there are many stigmas about illness in general. If you are suffering from a mental illness, many believe you have done something bad that you are being cursed for by someone else in the community. Those who instead practice Christianity will encourage you to pray the illness away. Neither of these beliefs make any type of healthcare extremely easy, but it is hard to see some nurses so widely respected and in demand in their communities, and then see mental health nurses called “abodam,” mad nurse, or told that their children will probably “catch” mental illness because of their profession.

For our media project in Ghana, Corey, Naomi and I made a podcast about what we learned that includes the voices of four mental healthcare professionals in the community. Their insight includes stigmas in the workplace, struggles they face financially under an unresponsive government, dangers of aggressive patients due to lack of infrastructure, and the relationship between institutionalized and community healthcare. (Link below;))

 

Extraordinary is Not Extra Ordinary

Is getting sand out of your ear the same as getting water out of your ear? Are you supposed to turn your head to the side and shake? Is a Q-tip a good idea or a dangerous one? Should you…rinse it? I was sprawled across my bunk in the dunes, and had just realized how much of the Sahara I would be bringing back to Azrou. Red sand lined my jacket pockets and filled my shoes. Granted, we had spent a few hours mounting and dismounting camels,  “snowboarding” down the dunes, and just rolling around yelling, “IT IS SO SOFT.”

At sunset, we sat at the summit of the dune we had claimed and looked out over the desert. How did we get here? How did this become real life? How is it going to be over so soon?

This trip hasn’t been easy. Guatemala was littered with clinic visits for parasites, E. coli, tapeworms, and intestinal bleeding. Thailand and Ghana were so hot we often forgot that the sweat dripping down our backs came from us and instead looked up to see if it was raining.  We have pulled all-nighters without even realizing it on time-zone-hopping travel days where the only way to make it through 17-hour plane rides is a lukewarm plate of airplane food and a personal movie screen. We have all tackled personal crises, realizations, changes, and big fat questions like “What is development?”, “What is poverty?”, and “What the hell are we going to do now?”

In Ghana, there were a few times when I caught myself sweating buckets underneath the weight of my human-sized backpack, shoveling yogurt into my incredibly lactose-intolerant body, and thinking to myself, “I am so tired. It would be so nice to be with my dogs on the kitchen rug, bundled in my bed in the A/C, or even just in my kitchen with… vegetables.” Program fatigue is real. In a time of particular struggle, our program leader Isaac quoted a TBB founder. He told us, “Don’t let the extraordinary become ordinary.” Sure, it hasn’t been a walk in the park, but it has been a walk through the ruins of Tikal, to the giant golden buddha in Nan, or along the ridges of the Saharan dunes. It has been extraordinary.

Every day we woke up, lived through the heat, and went to sleep in Ghana, we were lucky. I know this trip is a once in a lifetime experience, but I also know I can bring that mindset home with me. The incredible places we have been have definitely fueled new ways of thinking for me, but there are so many things that I have noticed here that I could have noticed at home.

I cherish every person I have met across the globe. That being said, there is no shortage of incredible change-makers in Richmond and the rest of the U.S. We are back in the states this week, and this afternoon, our assignment was to roam the streets of D.C. and ask strangers “What is poverty?” We got some very strange answers, but also some unique, inspiring ones from completely random people: a cashier, a barista, a police officer, a homeless man, and a man in line at Walgreens. We have already met with many change-makers here in D.C. working to end poverty just the same as there are providing vision tests and glasses to children in Morocco. Carly from RESULTS in D.C. is tackling TB, Malaria, and AIDs. Alejandro from Inter-American Development Bank is facilitating cross-cultural connections with Latin America and the Caribbean. Erin from RESOLVE facilitates meaningful discussions, using questions to bring more people and opinions to the table. Even the World Bank admitted it makes mistakes in development projects, and the Peace Corps really just wanted us all to join.

Living in the states does not disconnect you from the developing world. Having a say in government is one of the extraordinaries that Americans are lucky enough to call fundamental parts of life in the states. Others include flushing toilet paper down the toilet without clogging the pipes and not worrying about colliding with a sheep or a goat in the car, on a bike, or on foot. Granted, I miss markets that allow price negotiation, speaking English without a filter, and donkeys, but I also recently visited a CVS and oh my GOSH the snacks!

There are so many governments across the world that are so corrupt they completely ignore their people. Compared to many of those countries, the U.S. standard of living is extraordinarily high. Those numbers have to do with things like income and access to public services like healthcare and transportation. Americans have a certain expectation of leisure and freedoms. In our meeting with Peace Corps, Keith, a country director for the South Philippines, compared traveling and state-side lifestyles by saying, “Here, you are safe. Here, you can argue with the police.”

Coming back to D.C. was perhaps the biggest culture shock of all. Not only is it 70 degrees colder than Ghana, but there are so many extraordinaries that I had completely taken for granted before the trip. Carly from Results taught us how to lobby for issues we care about. I had no idea how influential meetings with congressmen are. While we are still unclear on how much say we have as non-paying constituents (as opposed to professional lobbyists), we, as students, met with our representatives and they listened to us in a government that from the outside looks like a labyrinth of loopholes and protocols.

At my meeting with two of Abigail Spanberger staffers, we discussed environmental policy, social justice, mental health in education, and TBB. They were incredibly friendly and attentive, notepads open and pens drawn the whole time. They answered every one of my questions and did not shy away from asking about the program. I felt heard.

Every day, whether you are state-side or abroad is a gift. Shout out to Nancy Roberts, Naomi’s mother, for telling her something she shared with us during one of our seminars. If you can wake up, exist, show one person you love them or recognize and receive love from one person, and then go to sleep, that day was worthwhile.

I wish I could backtrack and slow down some of the moments we experienced over the trip. Every minute was extraordinary, even the awkward, vulnerable, sweaty uncomfortable ones. I am incredibly thankful to my leaders and my group. You are my family. I am thankful for all the perspective I have gained over these past few months and how it is informing my decisions now. I choose to take advantage of every day and every opportunity whether I earn it or come upon it. I am determined to help make change, and I hope you will join me.

Yevu, Mia Dogo! We Will Meet Again.

As many of you know, our group called Ho, Ghana home for 4 weeks. We said “see you soon” to our homestay families last Saturday, and hauled our backpacks to a small nomadic village called Adaklu- Kpatove for the week. Picture mud huts, dusty feet, bleating sheep, and goats climbing trees.

Now, picture a massive two-story house with a European gate and a balcony, completely tiled, shiny, and wholly out of place.

After six months abroad, we have gotten used to standing out. The guest-house our leaders stay in changes their sheets every night because “white skin is more sensitive.” In Thailand, my homestay family never let us have any “ped” (spicy) food, not even “nit noi” (a little). In Guatemala, we were always being fussed over because the slight chill of the wind outside might get us sick. From “gringa” to “yevu,” the novelty of shouts after our cars and children running down the street to grab our hands has worn off. But, sometimes it is hard to accept this attention as curiosity without getting frustrated. There seems to be a general perception that our whiteness makes us inherently worthy of special treatment.

The mansion I mentioned earlier is our accommodation for the week. In a village dotted with mud-huts, they put us up in the biggest, flashiest complex. It was built by a former Adaklu resident to give his community a “facelift” and to show the children they can be successful wherever they come from. To many Ghanaians, this is success. When we visited a nearby school, we were not only allowed to observe a classroom, but encouraged to interrupt an English lesson. We resisted, saying we did not want to distract the children and would rather hang back, but the teachers urged us on, making comments about how the children were learning letters at 7 or 8 years old and how in America everyone is much more advanced and faster at learning. They were quick to judge their own systems and praise ours with little knowledge of the reality, and Naomi and I could barely conceal our discomfort.

The forcing of English in schools has been a point of conflict for us since Thailand. This week in Adaklu is education week, so every church service and soccer game stresses the importance of staying in school. Children dress up and parade around, beaming with pride to be on their way to a degree and to Ho or Accra or wherever else they picture themselves. But, the schools lack resources. When we show up, teachers see our skin and immediately come up to us requesting money or books or a number of other things they assume we have access to.

The system is set up to teach classes in Ewe, the local language, up to third grade to preserve culture, and then only English for the rest of their schooling. Why? English is the language of their conquerors, of their darkest times, but it is still the language that gives them the ability to build houses like the mansion we live in. It is the language that is deemed neutral enough to keep the peace among all the tribes. Is this the government forgoing its own culture? Or is this a smart move to encourage success among its most marginalized members in a world that unfortunately thrives on English?

This attitude is not specific to Ghana. In Thailand, I met a few foreign teachers at my boarding school, but very few of them actually have training in education. Usually, they do not see issues with the way they waltz into classrooms with the single credential of speaking English as a first language (or in some cases second or third) and half-heartedly teach grammar without first teaching the alphabet, or mix up sentence structure without first going over consonants and vowels. When we arrived, we were expected to do the same. Thai teachers would see us and leave their classrooms, thinking we had the lesson covered for the day. Zach and I got in a fairly heated argument with a woman that insisted we teach her class for the day because she did not want to. No, we are not teachers. Yes, we know English. No, we cannot take over your class. We are here to learn and observe. No, we can’t come up with a lesson. What are they learning? Please teach your class. No, don’t leave. Uh oh. Zach, what do we do?

Many volunteer organizations have wrestled with these ideas of voluntourism and white saviour-ism. However, some still mindlessly facilitate unqualified teachers or untrained volunteers under the perception that any help is good help. However, it is possible for volunteers to do more harm than good. This is an idea I have wrestled with for this entire trip. The mindset of a volunteer is usually well-meaning, but, again, the impact is more important than the intent. For example, on the strawberry farms of Guatemala, we spent hours weeding strawberries. We really wanted to help. Did any of us know how to weed strawberries? Nope. Did we rip up a lot of strawberry plants in the process? Yes. We definitely did more harm than good, and the farmers were too kind to tell us to stop screwing up their livelihood.

A few days ago, we met a Peace Corps volunteer that has been living in this community for two years. It is always strange to come face to face with another “yevu,” and she was just as wary as Naomi and I. After what we have studied, approaching another volunteer is uncomfortable because you never know what kind of mindset they hold. She made it clear that she believed we were a group of well-meaning, ignorant teens here to go on excursions to the monkey sanctuary, paint a mural or two, and go home after a week with some new freckles and a few dozen cute pictures. She was visibly surprised when we engaged her in conversations about white savior-ism and our efforts to refrain from using the phrase “we are here to help” at our work placements, remaining behind the scenes when so many well-meaning locals push us to the front. We talked about the impact of our presence on the community but agreed that the biggest impact has been on ourselves.

The struggle to avoid perpetuating this standard of white superiority often feels internal. Many may think, “well, if it is such a problem, why does it feel like the local communities are the ones holding up this standard?” I have learned that it is the responsibility of the traveler to check this norm and ensure humility in themselves, even when the community puts you up in a fancy house or insists you teach their classes. It is so much messier to travel this way instead of visiting a community, building a school, and leaving, patting yourself on the back as you board the plane. But the long term impact, the way the community functions and develops, depends on self-sufficiency.

We learned a lot about the impact of foreign aid on developing communities. For example, mosquito nets. A local makes and sells mosquito nets to his community. All of a sudden, a giant shipment of free mosquito nets comes in from a well-meaning foreign nation. Everyone gets them, and the mosquito net maker goes out of business. After a decade, the nets rip and tear. People need more, but he has lost his business and moved on, and the shipments don’t continue. There is a short term positive impact, but in the long term, people don’t have nets and the skills have not been passed on.

Learning this is frustrating, but pivotal. Are there better ways to aid? An example of positive foreign aid is an investment in local businesses. That is, instead of buying the U.S. made mosquito nets and shipping them all to Africa for free, use that money to buy from that local and distribute them among his community. He stays in business, and everyone is covered. This is a very simple example, but it illustrates the point that development cannot truly occur in a country without building that country out of its own businesses, its own resources. Similarly, our short term time and effort will not truly assist any of the countries we have visited. Rather, it will impact us so that we can learn to help in the way that is most beneficial to them, even if it means we have the least involvement in it.

One of the realities TBB encourages us to confront, but also to come to our own conclusion about, is that we are here not for the communities, but for ourselves. Our presence is not a gift. We are not superior because we carry American passports and sunburn easily. But, the hospitality of the community is a gift to us, and any time spent away from home is a privilege not because we are “doing good” and get to feel warm and fuzzy inside, but because we are broadening our horizons and discovering some realities of the world.

Residents of Adaklu – Kpatove conjure plastic lawn chairs out of thin air for every visitor. Any time someone pulls food out of their bag, they say “you are invited” to eat with them. The kids warm my heart with their big smiles and their dirty fingers braiding my hair and wrapping their palms around my fingers. They jump up and down and chant “YEVU, YEVU” when they see us and chase us down the street. However, the reality is, we are leaving in a week. These connections that I have made, the friends I have found in James, Elijah, Sun, Peter, and Ishira especially will falter and crack. A different group of Yevus will show up next year, and they will probably forget my name. However, I will never forget them.

It is hard to turn away from “resource dumping” or quick aid that leads to a fast, positive impact. It is hard not to feel like a giant shipment of free water bottles or subsidized corn or wheat is the best option for the development of a country. The murals always look beautiful! I encourage you to explore this idea that I will continue to struggle with throughout my entire life, constantly checking myself and trying my hardest to be a responsible traveler.

Va Mi Dzo- Walking in Radical Love

“You are welcome!”

Walking through the red fog on the streets of Ghana, mixed in with the shouts of “Yevu!” (white skin) it is not uncommon to hear “woé zɔ!” or “welcome!” from complete strangers walking through the market or in the clinics where we work. What have we done to be welcomed so effortlessly?

About a week ago, we returned from a 10 day trip to Cambodia. We visited the Killing Fields, the S21 prison camp, and learned about the Khmer Rouge and the Cambodian Genocide. We spent other free time visiting beautiful temples and splurging at the vegetarian restaurants that dot the maps of Phnom Penh and Siem Reap, but mostly, we were guided through the countryside by a man named Bun, who educated us on the hopeful reconstruction happening in his country.

In 1979, Vietnamese troops defeated the Khmer Rouge, ending the Cambodian genocide. 1979. S21 is a high school converted into a prison camp where an average of 100 people were tortured to death every day. The camp was liberated in 1977. Seven survivors were found. I listened to one of them speak at what is now a memorial. He saw torture, starvation, death. He is still alive. Thousands of wide eyes stared at me from the black and white headshots of the dead that lined the walls. I flipped through tourist commentary books, in awe of what was written on every page. “How can this happen?” “Never again!”

Aren’t those same phrases repeated after the news stories break of every tragedy or genocide? How can this happen? Ignorance and evil. Never again! That’s not true.

As we dragged our feet back to the van, Bun put a big smile on his face and announced that he was hit by a landmine before he was our age. At 15, his first girlfriend was an AK-47. He lost his dad and brother in the genocide. He preached the differentbetween light and darkness. He preached reconstruction. He preached that the only way to prevent these evils is awareness and radical love.

Thinking Beyond Borders strives to educate its students to be agents of change. To be an agent of change, you must possess three qualities: a purpose that you are passionate about, the willingness to ask questions about the world and yourself, and the presence of radical love. Radical love is the willingness to attribute evil to a broken system, not a broken soul. It is Nelson Mandela giving love to his captors. It is non-judgment. Humility. High order empathy. It is “I see you. I forgive you. It isn’t your fault.” It is how Bun lives every day of his life, smiling ear to ear and teaching his daughter that without compassion, there is no joy.

Coming into Ghana, I was not sure how we would be received. First of all, it is so hot. It averages in the 90s, with humidity just as high. Without A/C, we are all still acclimating. Meaning, we are all grumpy. In the first few days, we were coached not to wear revealing clothing, not to make eye contact or talk too much to the men unless we want to be proposed to (they literally propose right in the street), and to drink lots and lots of water.

Honestly, I was nervous how others would react to our swinging blonde ponytails as we walked down the street. With the dark, horrible history of colonialism in the back of my minds, I braced myself for finger-pointing (or worse, pointing or wagging of the left hand), yelling, insults in Ewe, and general discomfort. I was prepared to apologize profusely. For what? For everything? For the decisions others of my color have made before me on this land.

I was so wrong. At our clinics, toddlers walk up to us and rub our arms to see if the whiteness will come off. They pull at my curls and point at my eyes, but do so with warmth and curiosity. They laugh at our voices and play hide and seek behind cement walls.

Our families received us with immediate warmth and welcome. Within hours of meeting, we all sat in the yard around big buckets. They chatted in Ewe and taught us their laundry system. They had no obligation to sit in the sun and help two helpless, sweaty Americans scrub our smelly laundry for two hours. Yet, that is how they first showed us radical love.

Sunday morning, we went to church. More accurately, we went to Hand of God Church of All Nations: five hours of energetic singing and radical fabric patterns swinging around us. Dancing, clapping, yelling, and an exorcism. Our family raised their hands and praised God’s grace, shooting us glances and smiles to make sure we weren’t about to pass out from the noise, the heat, or all the radical love.

Walking around our neighborhood, I was called out many times. “Where are you going?” turned into 20-30 minute conversations, squatting in the grass in front of our neighbors houses as they cooked, braided each others hair, and sold goods out of giant baskets balanced on their heads. I heard so many people’s stories in one afternoon- Lucy, Mary, Celestia, Celestia’s pastor, Margaret, and all the Ewe names I cannot even try to pronounce, let alone spell. They call out to me now, “Adzo!” (pronounced a-jo) meaning girl born on a Monday (we looked it up).

On the way to the market to buy avocados, pineapples, and groundnut butter, we filled the car to the point that every pothole sent a scraping noise and dangerous vibration through the seats. Adia, my new homestay sister, and I both had siblings on our laps. Our older sister sang hymns with our mother, Gifty, and we chatted about tribal politics, voodoo, traditional clothing making, and the Minions movie. Even when the seats emptied out, our brother Delanio still opted to sprawl across my lap, holding my necklace in his hand in hopes that some magic from the “Heart of Te Fiti” would rub off on his palm.

I am surrounded by so much love. None of which I have yet earned from these warm and smiling strangers, but all of which I will cherish. I have yet to gain the acceptance of our guard dogs, Alpha and Omega, but I will proudly be led by the hand of my five-year-old sister past their snarling noses and low growls until they trust me as much as she does.

I curl up every night under my mosquito net tucked into the edges of the top bunk and feel so warm. Not just because it is a sauna everywhere there are walls and a ceiling, but because my heart is full of so much radical love. I lay there with the fan blowing straight into my face knowing that at 6 AM, I will wake up to our sister laying on the floor, curled up outside our doorway. I will wake up to clanging pans in the kitchen preparing some strange variation of porridge, to dogs barking, to roosters crowing, to naked children screaming, to sweet Christian songs filling the thick, humid air that always smells like butter. To “va mi dzo.” In English, “Come, and let’s go.” To home sweet Ho.

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