Sunday, July 31, 2011

Open Letter to Mom and Dad

As many of you know, my parents will be arriving in Accra this week to serve in the West Africa Area Presidency for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. In my two months in Ghana, I have thought a lot about them and what their life will be like for the next several years. Unfortunately, I haven't done a great job of communicating my thoughts to them (medical school applications and no/unreliable internet haven't helped in the matter). What follows are some thoughts I have had about what they can look forward to here in Ghana.

Dear Mom and Dad,

You have an adventure in store. Don't worry--from what I can tell, it is the good kind of adventure. You are lucky to be coming to such a dynamic part of the world. I mean, you could have gone to Idaho, and what is dynamic about Idaho? (answer: spuds) West Africa awaits you with colorful cultures, faithful members of the church, and a tropical climate.

While I have only been lucky enough to explore Ghana, there are so many moments that I have thought, "Mom and Dad are going to love it here." Granted most of those thoughts came either at church or the temple (not while eating grass-cutter and banku). There is so much to look forward to; Here are the top ten reasons why you will love Ghana:

10. The beautiful flora and fauna. When you think of Africa, you may think of lions, elephants and zebras. While you are sure to see some of these, your more common encounters will be with fierce pygmy goats (about 40 cm tall), free range chickens (Whole Foods would drool with organic desire), and lizards. The plants are amazing--the trees are diverse and beautiful and the flowers are bright. Be sure to take advantage of local "nature walks" to learn about the cultural and medical uses of the plants. The most beautiful flowers are near the temple. The climate is similar to Hawaii, so expect to see green.

9. The ubiquitous religious-pop culture references. Can there ever be too many cheesy sayings or inappropriate uses of scripture references? Whether posting titles on their cars that read "Not my wheel, but thine be done" or naming a salon "He Is Mighty to Shave Hair Cutting Salon," Ghana tests the limits.

8. The children. Most are initially timid, but they will move closer each minute. They are genrally well-behaved and will speak softly in the presence of an adult. I love going to villages and seeing the children--they are so happy and excited to see an "obruni." My favorite exercise is to have them do their times tables.

Maize and blue

7. Flessissomo. Ghanaians are flexible. Time is often called "elastic time" or "Ghana Mean Time." While it can be frustrating to get meetings started on time, Ghanians have learned to be very flexible, and they don't let things outside of their control (like time) stress them out. Maintain some of your Western timeliness, but don't let it hamper your joy.

6. Ghanians love America. While much of the world criticizes the USA, Ghana loves America, warts and all. Obama's visit to Cape Coast two years ago was nearly as euphoric as Ghana's success in the most recent world cup. American flags are everywhere, as is President Obama's name and image ("Obama biscuits," "Obama belt buckles,"...even a town named "Obama").

5. Fresh fruit and interesting dishes. Be ready for the best mangoes, pineapple, papaya, coconuts, bananas, and avocados you have ever had. Fruit is everywhere and it is cheap. Also, Ghana is the second largest exporter of cocoa in the world. Foods that you will enjoy include: fufu and groundnut soup (a dough made from casava and plantains that is taken with peanut soup), red red (fried plantains with stewed beans and tomatoes with a splash of palm oil), jollof rice and chicken (oily, spicy rice with grilled or fried chicken), ofo tuo (rice balls, usually taken with groundnut or palm nut soup), Milo and RichCoco and Royal (all types of locally grown and produced chocolate drinks). If you are adventuresome you may also like banku and tilapia (fermented corn dough taken with light soup and a whole grilled fish), kenkey (very fermented corn dough wrapped in a plantain leaf and eft out in the sun), grasscutter (wild rat), and antelope (antelope).

Mangoes galore

A small fruit stand

Banku and mudfish


Red red

Watch your fingers

Waayce: the breakfast of champions

My friend, John, and I taking fufu and grasscutter. Food is a very communal event in Ghanaian culture.

4. The scenery. Ghana has lush ran forests, Savannah plains, bubbly forested hills, waterfalls, and some of the most beautiful, undiscovered beaches in the world. Check out the canopy rope bridges near cape coast, the Volta estuary near Ada (great beach), Bodi waterfall (twin cascades with beautiful hills), and Nkawkaw (red cliffs...but I didn't see a lodge).

Near the estuary of the Volta

Fort Williams near Cape Coast

Me near the cocoa hills in Akoase

3. The people. Ghanaians are genuinely happy. They are very positive and pleasant. Think of them like Africa's Polynesians--just smaller and quieter. Like Italians, Ghanians are very dramatic and like to overreact, but they are charming and will eagerly try to be your friend. Church members are the greatest. They give very formal talks, and (usually) stick close to the gospel (though there have been some interesting moments (discussion on whether priesthood bearers can bless themselves or give blessings over the phone)). They men often out number the women in church (a peculiarity), and the 20-30 year olds are rock solid. They will be a great boon to church leadership in the coming years.

Cool grandmama

2. The temple. Hands down the most beautiful building in Ghana--probably all of West Africa. The Accra temple is a pristine house of the Lord in a country where dust seems to be everywhere. The grounds of the temple are beautifully maintained with hundreds of species of flowers and trees (including these amazing fanning palms and bright birds of paradise). inside the temple is an exceptional peace. The workers are friendly, yet reverent, and the rooms are familiar, but with a distinct african flair (kente-cloth geometric patterns, symbolic colors and shapes, traditional signs, etc.). If you ever get homesick, go here...because it is home.

1. You are where the Lord wants you to be. Probably not what you were expecting for #1, but I think it is the most amazing assurance that a person can have, and you are fortunate to have it on a daily basis. The Lord has tenderly put you here, and this is where you can do the most good and also have the most good done unto you. I am so proud of my parents--not because of your callings or positions in the church or worldly success, but because of the continuous examples of faithfulness and kindness you have been throughout my life. There isn't a moment I can recall in which you were not doing the will of the Lord, selflessly and with complete faith. I am sure that God knew I needed angelic parents--I just don't know why I got such stellar ones--even cool ones (yes, you are cool). I hope you know that you have my complete support in this call. Jamie and I will do whatever we can to make sure that you can wear out your souls (soles?) in the service of the Lord without concern for temporal things. I am certain that we will be blessed (just as we always have been from your faithful service), and that the blessing gained from your service in Ghana will far exceed the blessings we could receive if you were still working in SLC. Yes, Jamie and I have big, life-changing events ahead that I am sure that you would love to help out with through time, money, or service; but those things will be provided for in even greater amounts through a loving Heavenly Father.When we add to your posterity, we will make it a priority that they know their Nonno and Nonna wherever you are. You are where the Lord needs you. You know that. All of your children know that. And we all know that we will be better because of it.

Now, I look forward to meeting you at the airport on Wednesday. Look for the guy with the long, canary yellow hair and bold glasses. Well, maybe just the bold glasses this time.

Until then, good luck with the packing. I have been collecting bottles of hand sanitizer and insect repellant from departing volunteers. You may be able to open up a side business hawking these things to travelers. I will help you get settled and show you where to find Mary Kay products and Barilla pasta.

Vi voglio tanto bene,


PS-Get your negotiating skills ready, 'cause we're heading to the market soon after you arrive. I will teach you the Ghanaian way of saying "Do you think I am fool?" All it involves is a sci-fi sounding noise.

Monday, July 4, 2011

The Outreach

Most days we travel to remote villages and set up our eye clinic. These outreaches are coordinated by the local eye care staff based out of the Crystal Eye Clinic in Accra, and patients are recruited in towns by trained local healthcare workers. Our coming to town is a big deal. The chiefs and elders (not the Mormon kind) come in their cloth, school is let out early (usually due to the uncontrollable ferver among the students with a bunch of "obruni"), and shops close so that workers can get their eyes checked.

Here is what a day typically looks like:

We leave Accra or another overnight location around 7:30 AM.

We all crowd into the van and travel along some rollah-costah roads for 2-4 hours.

We arrive at the village site (usually a church) that has 100-150 people waiting inside.

One of the local staff members gives a presentation on general eye health and the loigistics of the outreach.

We, the volunteers, set up the medication dispensing table and visual acuity station.

Following registration, the patients' visual acuity is assessed.

Next, the optometrist or ophthalmic nurse examines the eyes. Those that have mature cataracts, pterygium, or other significant eye issues are referred for surgery provided free of charge (thanks to the generous contributions of many of you--on behalf of hundreds of patients: madassi (thank you!)).

Patients move to the medication station where they receive drops and/or glasses as prescribed by the eye doctor.

My research involves patients referred for surgery; those that qualify are interviewed with the help of a local interpretor. So far, I have interviewed more than 120 cataract cases.

After nearly 200 patients and 7 hours of work, we clean up.

If we are lucky, the local village prepares a meal for us, otherwise we stop at a chop bar on our way home. This is banku and mudfish--it is a fermented corn and casava dough that you eat with your hands. Yum!

One of my favorite things about outreaches is seeing so many children. They are always timid at first (for many, they have never seen an "obruni" before). With time, they gradually encroach until they are holding your hand or staring over your shoulder.