Sunday, July 12, 2009

So We Saw Obama

And it was awesome.

We knew Obama was going to be in Ghana for a couple of days, it's huge news here, but didn't know if there was going to be any chance to see him. On Thursday we got a last minute call that if we could hustle ourselves down to Accra (for most of us that is a trip of significant length and expense) there would be an opportunity to be in the audience for some "brief remarks" as he was boarding Air Force One to return to the States. I didn't really know what to expect, but since I was planning on doing a little traveling anyway I thought, "Hey, get to see the President? Yeah!"

So I jumped on a tro Friday morning and endured a bone crushing twelve hour day (it's the rainy season and the roads are destroyed) traveling down to the Eastern Region, stayed with some friends, and the next morning came into Accra with them. I haven't been in Accra since my first few days in Ghana, almost 9 months ago, and it's difficult to describe what a completely different world it is from the Ghana I know. Accra is a developing, cosmopolitan, capital city, and it's a real city of two million working, consuming, studying, dealing, teaching people. The diversity of the work people do, the things that are available, etc is more like being in a city in the U.S. than it is like being in the rest of Ghana. To a certain extent, that's a slight exaggeration.

Anyway, we congregated at the Peace Corps office and it was reunion central. Most of the 150 strong current volunteers serving in the country came down, including most of the 40 from my group. Keep in mind these are my brothers and sisters that I haven't seen, in some cases, in 7 months since I left training (I don't often travel away from my site). We made our way over to the U.S. Embassy, picked up more people, and got on buses for Kotoka International Airport where Obama would be speaking on the tarmac. The current group of Peace Corps trainees came down and we got a chance to mingle with our incoming friends who are still centralized in the training community rather than dispersed throughout the country at their sites.

We finally get into the grounds and get ushered into the crowd of U.S. Embassy, USAID, and Ghanaian VIPs that are in front of the podium. And then it starts to hit me that the podium is close, that he's going to be like 25 feet in front of me, for real. We stand around talking and whatnot for a couple hours, and then as it starts to get dark the car pulls up and Presidents Obama and John Atta Mills (Ghana's currently serving leader) walk down to the carpet and up to the dual microphone podiums. The history of the moment started to hit me earlier in the day, that this was an African American President speaking to Africans, in Africa, for the first time (he'd addressed Parliament earlier in the day, but this was a true public address).

It was way cooler than I had expected, being in the presence of this person that, honestly, I've invested a big part of my hopes for some kind of a more equitable, fairer, more honest world. And he was right there, looking exactly like all the photos from the campaign, but...there. And then he began to talk and gave not one but TWO shout-outs to the Peace Corps volunteers. One thing about Peace Corps is that we work pretty independently, and don't necessarily have as much contact with our supervisors as you might expect. Everyone needs a pat on the back from time to time when they're doing something difficult, and to get a couple genuine words of thanks and encouragement from Barack Obama...well, that means a lot. We went crazy, of course.

It was cool that evening, and the mics were working very well, and his short speech came across as clear as a bell. He really is an amazing speaker in person, I'd never caught him live on the campaign trail, not just in terms of timbre and delivery, but in giving the words a sense of honesty and genuine feeling. Cuts right through my cynicism every time.

It was a very brief, ten minutes or so, address, but it didn't need to be longer. He talked about coming to Ghana, about visiting the castles at Cape Coast where many of the Africans sold into slavery were held before being transported to the West. As I mentioned, he gave solid recognition to the Peace Corps, always important, and then he talked a bit generally about the relationship between Africa and the United States. It was good, he didn't patronize, and he didn't talk about "aid" of which I've grown increasingly skeptical. He talked about the strength and possibility of African democracy and the growth of true civil society and the stability and commerce that can bring. And he talked about America being a partner in that kind of development. He spoke directly to young people in Ghana and Africa, and about their responsibilities to build the public and private institutions that will allow Africans to develop Africa, and for her people to share in that growth.

It was the right message. And then he said that if they would take on those responsibilities, America would be there to help. I believe him, because I think that Americans, despite our endless missteps and tendency to shut out the rest of the world in service to our own desires, are fundamentally a compassionate, generous people who want to see others succeed. For me it got a little personal at that point because lately I've really been changing a lot in my relationship with Ghana, becoming much more accepting of aspects of the culture that have been difficult, and becoming more comfortable living and working here. That's another story in of itself, but suffice to say some of the work I'm doing is exciting enough that I am considering (considering, we'll see how it goes) extending my service for a period of time if a couple of my projects turn out to have legs. Long story short, some of the moringa work is taking on a regional as well as local focus, and another agroforestry project doing natural fertility work with another tree species is taking off.

I like Ghana, I like Ghanians. Some parts are frustrating as hell, and I miss home, that will never change, but...I don't know. I move very comfortably through this culture, which has for the most part welcomed me with open arms. It's mainly something I think about to sort of try the idea on for size rather than a decision I'm making now, I'll reassess in a year, but it seems like a possibility at least. So when Barack Obama shouts out to the Peace Corps and says America will be there, that hits a part of me that loves the work we're trying to do in my community (no guarantees of success, that goes for granted), and it's like...yeah. I think we will be, and maybe if I can help I'll be around a little longer than I originally thought.

Peace out my friends.


Catelin Lindsay said...

Isn't it funny Sam when we are young we want to change the world, then the cynics say you can't, what they don't realize is you can definitely make your dent with a bit of effort! Keep up all your hard work and keep changing your little section of the world and I will keep changing mine. Peace and happiness, Catelin

Anonymous said...

What an incredible two days you had, Sam. And what stories you'll have to tell your kids some day...

Peace Corps has fired you up like nothing else I can remember.