Sunday, February 18, 2018

A Moment of Pastoral Privilege

I’m going to take a moment of pastoral privilege here. Please, grant me your patience and grace.

I think that it ought to be impossible, this week, for preachers across our country to address the good news of Jesus Christ without also addressing the matter of mental illness, and especially the matter of mental illness combined with the ready accessibility of military-style firearms.

Here is how I am facing the matter of mental illness in the light of the gospel, today. This I offer as a person of faith – and by that I mean not only faith in God but also faith toward other human beings as children of God. I also offer it as your loving pastor.

You can imagine, because you have probably heard from me before, that I strongly question the right of a very few individuals to keep and bear firearms that are designed either for killing large numbers of human beings at a time, or else for killing only a few in a spectacular way. (Well, you know what I really question, but for now let’s stick with this.)

We are seeing over and over again in the media what happens if an opportunity to do serious harm to others is not prevented. We see over and over again in our personal experiences what happens when mentally ill people decide to do harm to themselves. We are repeatedly broken and heartbroken on the individual, communal, and societal levels.

Statistics have proven futile for making this point. And the present blaming of the FBI for the incident in Florida rings of scapegoating societal sin rather than facing our actual problem. Furthermore, more accurate recordskeeping and registry, by now, will likely only create another futile bureaucracy. So, to me, much of this moment in history seems simply absurd.

If mounting numbers of dead schoolchildren and churchgoers and countless others in public venues only serve to polarize us, making the resolution of our collective problem still more improbable, then perhaps we deserve what we are facing. But concerns should not remain unspoken.

We organize educational opportunities around what to do when an “active shooter” enters our schools, public spaces, and places of worship. Meanwhile, newscasts report about mental health professionals active in our schools, seeking to soothe the anxiety students are having just showing up for class.

It is incumbent upon Christians that we offer mercy, compassion, and healing. These are the qualities given example in the Pioneer and Perfecter of our faith; indeed, these are examples of faith itself – not belief, but truth, faithfulness, mutuality, love. However these qualities may take form in any of us – as simple comfort and the binding of wounds, or as personal examination and action, or as advocacy for political and societal change, or even as ones preparing our communities for what feel like inevitable emergencies – our consciences should be telling us that such suffering as we are witnessing on the part of victims and perpetrators needs to come to an end.

The potential gifts of troubled people should not be underestimated. Poets and playwrights, preachers and activists and politicians, indeed the foremost among us in every walk of life, have often been the same who have experienced or are experiencing challenges with perception and acuity, or depression and addiction.

As I have spoken with many of you in the past, and as I found myself mentioning to one of you, this very week before the incident on Wednesday took shape, our religion has such a rich history of the positive contributions of people who obviously experienced serious episodes of mental illness, breaks from what the rest of us consider reality, but who were brought back from the brink not only by their faith in God but by the faith of their God in them and by the love of their families and friends! I refer to people like Noah the alcoholic and Abraham who heard voices telling him to do harm to his own child and Mary Magdalene who was relieved by Jesus of seven demons. How can we refuse to make our world safer for such people and our care of them better?

The obvious answer to me is that, if our rights and privileges are endangering ourselves and others, then we make sacrifices of those rights and privileges for the sake of ourselves and those whom we love, or at least of those for whom we are responsible. You may draw other conclusions, and I am prepared to understand that some compromise would be necessary, but – in the interest of mercy, compassion, and healing – at this moment I say, I am prepared to part with a right that, admittedly, I have never exercised in order to protect the innocent.

As a private citizen I will pursue this course. As a person of faith I will persist in that faith based in mercy, compassion, and healing. As a clergy person I will invoke the Spirit of God to act on our behalf to help us together discover the path through this valley of the shadow of death. And as your pastor pledge to you that I will keep and bear you, lovingly and without judgment, for neither of us can live without the other... at least not genuinely.

So, now I’ve mentioned the matter, I’ve taken my moment of pastoral privilege, and that is all for now, except my request of all of you that – no matter whether or not you agree with me, please treat one another gently in speaking of this together, bearing in mind your oneness in the Holy Spirit, the loving heart of Jesus Christ, and the grace of the Creator in whom you are working out your salvation.

Saturday, October 28, 2017

Sabbatical Day 15

Monday, 19 June 2017

A Day on the Volta - River Tour and Akosombo Dam


Denoons on the Volta
Sunday night at dinner, the hospitality manager of the Holy Trinity Spa and Health Farm noted to me that the Denoons had not yet had the pleasure of a boat tour of the Volta River. I knew that Gwen had been looking forward to it and we adults were interested. But I also knew that Gershon wanted to get on the road early on Monday, because on our way to his hometown of Hohoe we were scheduled to tour the Akosombo Dam - the first hydroelectric power plant in West Africa which yet today provides electricity to almost all of Ghana and Togo.

I told the observant staff member that we had hoped to have a boat tour, but that we needed to be able to eat breakfast early and get on the road immediately, to our next destination. He then suggested that we combine breakfast with the boat tour. So, how could we say no! We packed our things on Sunday night and rolled our baggage out to the Reception Desk by 7:45. We skipped the coffee machine so that we could get underway by 8... and we were.

The pilot of the catamaran and the manager seated us and wedged a table between us with three English breakfasts, fruit, three liter-size bottles of Bel Aqua (the local drinking water), and a tea service equipped with many packets of coffee.

Next, Amos was properly introduced. He would be our pilot. He was a native of Sogakope and had grown up on the river. He appeared to be about 60 or 70 years old. If he wasn't, then his knowledge of the river and the state of the local environment downstream from the Akosombo Dam must have been gained from the lore of those who were that age and older. Once we were out in the river and a mile or two south of the Spa, Amos cut the engine, stood from his seat at the wheel, and offered us a natural history of the Volta.

It is not certain, he said, how the Volta River got its name. The word volta in Portuguese means "twist" or "turn." But most think that, in this case, "turn" is actually "return," since the Volta provided the only navigable way to or from the trading posts and villages that provisioned the Portuguese merchant ships in the days when the Portuguese were the primary Europeans in West Africa. It is fed by three major tributaries - the White, Red, and Black Volta rivers. The headwaters of all three are in Burkina Faso (formerly called, Upper Volta);

A floating island of seaweed makes its way downstream
Amos reminded us of the series of tilapia farms we had seen along the way to our current location. Tilapia is the favorite freshwater fish of Ghanaians, he said. It is easily reared and bred, and grown and fed cheaply, and so it is very popular as well among those who farm them. Sadly, tilapia is not grown in the best or cleanest environment, since the Volta after damming became muddy and, in places, infested with strains of bacteria that can be harmful to animals and plants. "There was a time before the dam when, anywhere along the river, the water was so clear you could see straight to the bottom at any depth. After it became muddy, the English brought the water plants you see floating in the river to prevent erosion and absorb the toxins from the bacteria. These plants included or attracted species of snails that kept the weed from overwhelming the river but which brought with them new, more virulent bacteria. The English also set up water treatment plants, but these have not been maintained to the highest standards. You may notice that there is an odor to the Volta, and this is why. This is what the Dam has done. The other problem the dam has brought us is sudden flooding when rains upstream make it necessary to open the sluice gates. Entire villages have been washed away at times, but every rainy season somebody suffers."
Gwen enjoys a piece of fruit near the expanse of the
Lower Volta Bridge at Sogakope

This bleak natural history at an end, Amos resumed his seat at the helm, piloted us past "the longest bridge in Ghana," turned us around, and headed us back to the Holy Trinity. Despite this sad testimony, we had to admit that this was nevertheless a lovely day and that the sights and sounds around us were fascinating.

Gershon was waiting for us when we came ashore and, after having a good laugh when the hospitality manager offered hospitality to the Spa's flock of ducks, again in the form of a large loaf of white bread, he spirited us away to Evans and the waiting van already loaded.
The Holy Trinity Spa from out in the Volta

A resort named "Eden" on the opposite bank from the Holy Trinity Spa and slightly downstream
(I thought that colleagues at Eden Seminary near our home in Webster Groves
might appreciate the idea of a potential international campus!)
Ducks enjoying their breakfast

Three hours later, we were upriver enjoying lunch at the Volta Hotel on a bluff in full view of Akosombo Dam.


This would set the scene for the next portion of our day - a tour of the very dam Amos had been damning, that morning.

After lunch, Evans drove us to the offices of the Volta River Authority (VRA). The VRA is an independent company established by the government of Ghana for the purpose of administering the Akosombo Dam (and other energy projects throughout the country). It was established in 1961, when the dam project was in its early stages, and has a multiplicity of roles. One of those is the oversight of the population displaced by the creation of Lake Volta on the north side of the dam. Social workers are therefore a primary human resource of the VRA, and one of them - Kweku - provided us a tour of the dam.   - see FOOTNOTE ON NAMES, below -

Akosombo Dam with Lake Volta beyond it
Kweku told us that Akosombo Dam was one of a number of water-powered projects along the rivers Volta conceived in the early 20th Century by the geologist and naturalist Sir Albert Kitson who had just previously also discovered bauxite deposits in the region and imagined that the dam could be used to power an aluminum smelter. Interest in such a project was invigorated during the 1940s when Kitson's notes were rediscovered by the Gold Coast government, Ghana's British colonial administration. Just after independence, Ghana's first president Kwami Nkrumah discussed with our own President Eisenhower the potential for an American aluminum company to work with Ghana to fulfill Sir Albert's imagining. The company Kaiser Aluminum was eventually recruited, forming a new company, Valco, which built the smelter at Tema. When the turbines began turning in 1965, eighty percent of the power was directed at the smelter. The remaining twenty percent was distributed through high tension wires across southern Ghana, Togo, and Benin. Ghana's portion provides about sixty percent of the electric power required by the country.

The road atop the dam is built on the rubble that is
the primary component of the dam structure.
Kweku told us all this, while seated beside me in our van. The rainy season of Ghana was having its way. There was a gentle but persistent downpour, and we decided to wait it out before touring the top of the dam - a road across which light vehicles and maintenance equipment could travel with ease but which we had to traverse on foot. About twenty minutes later, the steady rain became a sprinkle, and we proceeded out, to see this wonder of engineering.

Sir Albert Kitson had recognized that the steep and narrow gorge formed by the river at Akosombo, if dammed, could harness the power needed to industrialize the Gold Coast. Some enterprising Italian contractors recognized that this could be achieved cost effectively and simply by filling the river's channel with rubble blasted from the walls of the gorge.

Water intakes are visibly active at two of the generating stations.
The power plant includes six turbines that when combined can generate as much as 1,020 megawatts of electricity. Customarily, only two or three are online at any given time, to allow for maintenance on the others. Kweku noted that low water levels may sometimes limit output and observed further that global climate change, including diminished rainfall in West Africa, has contributed to this decrease.

I wondered at this, since Amos that morning had indicated that high water levels on Lake Volta were what had triggered approximately annual spills into the lower Volta and had frequently ruined villages downstream. Kweku responded that the last massive spill had happened after an unusually heavy rainy season in 2010, followed by the highest Lake Volta water levels ever recorded. This had done some harm especially to the villages where displaced people had relocated - a painful irony, since they had been moved to their new settlements in order to avoid the flooding above the dam. But the VRA, he insisted, was on the job, and the spills since had all been done in a carefully controlled fashion, to avoid the kind of hardship that was created in 2010.

Kweku told us that his primary job as a social worker with the VRA was to help people get the best educations they could. Because most of those displaced had been farmers or fishers, and the economy was already (shall we say) awash downriver with people who were similarly employed, virtually all the inhabitants of the upriver towns now had to be trained for new fields of work... or else placed on the government dole. The latter had been mostly the case for the generation immediately affected, but now their descendants are growing up in crushing poverty. (According to the American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene in 2010 the mean annual household income in Accra was $950, while the median income was $730.)   - see FOOTNOTE ON POVERTY IN GHANA, below -

Osagyefo Dr. Kwasi Nkrumah
As we walked the road across the top of the dam, Kweku pointed out a number of things visible from our position. There was Peduase Lodge, a presidential retreat built on the mountain that was facing us in 1959 for Osagyefo Dr. Kwasi Nkrumah - isolated and accessible only by a military road or by helicopter. Peduase Lodge fell into disrepair with disuse during times when reform was the central focus of government, but in 2001 it came to be recognized again as a potential resource for diplomacy (as it had been in 1967 the site of negotiations to end the Biafran War in Nigeria) and as a safe retreat for Presidents and their staffs. Kweku said that he very occasionally sees the presidential helicopter alighting there and knows "the eagle is in his nest."

There was a bright yellow pier jutting out from Dodi Island just north of us. It was emptied about five years ago of its pleasure boat, the Dodi Princess, which would cruise Lake Volta full of tourists and party-goers. Sadly, the boat caught fire while docked and had to be towed away for repairs. All the Ghanaians in our group spoke of their high hopes for its return soon.

After our tour, we returned Kweku to his office and continued on our journey, to Hohoe - our host Gershon's hometown - where he would be united with his bride Pamela and we would be introduced to her, and the Kikis Court Hotel would our next home away from home.


FOOTNOTE ON NAMES
In some countries, the practice is often to name your children according to birth order (Primo, Secondo, etc.). In Ghana the practice is to give your children names that you wish to name them, but more often than not everyone calls them according to the day of the week on which they were born. Thus, our VRA tour guide Kweku we knew had been born on a Wednesday. The first president of Ghana had been born on a Saturday, because he was called Kwame. Born on a Monday, I was sometimes called Kojo and Gwen, who is also a Monday birth, the feminine Jojo. Here is a helpful list of names, according to days of the week:

  • Sunday: Akwasi, Kwasi, Kwesi, Akwesi, Sisi, Kacely, Kosi.
  • Monday: Kojo, Kwadwo, Jojo, Joojo, Kujoe.
  • Tuesday: Kwabena, Kobe, Kobi, Ebo, Kabelah, Komla, Kwabela.
  • Wednesday: Kwaku, Abeiku, Kuuku, Kweku.
  • Thursday: Yaw, Ekow.
  • Friday: Kofi, Fifi, Fiifi, Yoofi.
  • Saturday: Kwame, Kwamena, Kwamina

  • FOOTNOTE ON POVERTY IN GHANA
    A bit more about the intractability of poverty in Ghana: Ghana's economy has not exactly skyrocketed since the completion of Akosombo Dam 1965. Instead, this first constitutional democracy in the movement of sub-Saharan African independence has been repeatedly thwarted at almost every turn toward post-colonial success, despite their corner on the market for electricity. (Indeed, in the most recent presidential election (December 2016), the incumbent John Dramani Mahama was defeated by Nana Addo Dankwa Akufo-Addo, in part because of a series of blackouts that struck the Ghanaian power grid in 2015 and 2016. In response, a Turkish-owned temporary generator for the sake of keeping the aluminum smelter online was set up on a barge in Tema harbor, at the government's expense.)

    President Nkrumah was unseated in a 1966 military coup, and the resulting government was propped up by Western powers bent on profiting as much as they could from the country's raw materials and natural resources, like the bauxite, manganese, and diamonds Kitson had discovered but also the gold, tropical fruits, exotic animals, cocoa, coffee, and sugar for which Ghana was already famously exploited. The corruption in government grew to such an extent that only a reform-minded military officer could have hoped to overthrow it, and Jerry Rawlings did exactly that in 1981. But Rawlings has repeated, in and out of office, the lament that Western industrial countries have consistently through economic isolation prevented Ghana (and the rest of West Africa) from developing profitable working economies of their own.

    Jerry Rawlings, President of Ghana, 1981-2001
    African countries may sell raw materials, President Rawlings has noted, but these sales are at prices the Western companies set. And when manufactured goods made of those same raw materials (fabric, appliances, automobiles, canned goods, and so on) are sold to Africa, they come at steep prices associated with the labor and other manufacturing costs of the West.

    Between Africa's precipitously low wages and cost of materials and the contrastingly inflated prices associated with manufactured goods they must buy if they expect to go from place to place, communicate electronically, or even just to wear clothes, the people of these countries which make possible the rest of the world's useful goods are crippled in their household finances and their governments hobbled and their economies left in ruins.

    Then, any corresponding step Africans may take to remedy the situation (for example, restructuring their systems of government and consolidating or centralizing economic power through the nationalization of commodity production), President Rawlings continues, is interpreted by Western governments as totalitarian or communistic and therefore anathema to democracy or capitalism. Cries of corruption are lodged and African states are destabilized by globalist corporations, and truly corrupt politicians or military leaders are ushered back into power for the sake of maintaining stability of Western businesses.

    Wednesday, August 30, 2017

    Sabbatical Day 14

    Sunday, 18 June 2017

    Worship at the Evangelical Presbyterian Church at Sogakope

    Prelude - Breakfast on the Pier
    The dining pier in background,
    the hospitality manager
    prepares to feed some ducks
    with bread from the fridge
    visible on the pier.
    Breakfast at the Holy Trinity Spa and Health Farm, just as at the Coconut Grove in Elmina, is served at an open-air dining space. Unlike the Coconut Grove, however, the Holy Trinity's dining area has a television mounted on a bracket just inside the entryway and, while we were there, piping CNN news or the Federations Cup. Also unlike the Coconut Grove, breakfast was always pre-assembled and waiting for us under cover.

    On the Saturday we arrived we had not yet had breakfast, so the hospitality manager asked us what we would like, perhaps a full English breakfast. We said yes then, and on Sunday and Monday also, sensing by then that we really did not have very many options. The Holy Trinity full English breakfast would include a two-egg omelet seasoned with what appeared to be scallion and bell pepper. This was served beside baked beans and what passed for sausages but looked like hot dogs that had been scored for effect. As I write this now, some weeks later, I seem to recall there being a small serving of sauteed mushrooms also.  A side plate included a selection of fresh mango and orange slices, sometimes papaya or watermelon.

    Additionally on the main plate would be two perfect slices of white bread, slightly stale, as if stiff bread was somehow the same thing as toast. Driving about we would almost always see at street corners women selling the kind of loaves from which these slices had been cut - long and rectangular (or square if you looked at them edge-on) and with a faint yellow crust in clear plastic, stacked in piles impossibly deep either at the roadside or in massive basins on the women's heads. The Holy Trinity had a refrigerator situated on the pier between tables overlooking the river and facing the television. Its top shelves were populated by loaf after loaf of the stuff. I only ever saw it served for breakfast until this morning, so why they needed so much was a bit of a mystery.

    Nestle breakfast beverages
    Then, there was the matter of the coffee. The day we arrived we had been greeted by an office worker who asked whether we would perhaps like an espresso or cappuccino after such a torturous night and subsequently long morning on the road from Tema. Coco and I gratefully accepted, and Gwen was provided hot cocoa, from a machine that seemed very similar to the coffee machine that had greeted us at our hotel in Paris. It took a while for the beverages to arrive, though arrive they did and happily. Strangely enough, we learned that the pause was due to the fact that the machine had not been turned on until we arrived. This morning, as we passed through the lobby on our way to breakfast, I asked whether we might again enjoy a cup of cappuccino. After a similarly long period, it was served - again, I presume, because they had not turned on the machine before I made the request. Once we were on the pier and seated, we discovered that our table was supplied with a plate full of Nescafe packets and a pot of hot water. A small pot of semi-skimmed milk was there also and a bowl with sachets of sugar. From this moment forward in Ghana, this sufficed as coffee.

    Each morning but this one, we would have breakfast as a family alone on the pier. This morning, however, a rather important looking man appeared. He wore a white dress shirt open at the collar, slacks, and loafers. Attending him were two members of the staff. Once he had been seated, at the table on the other side of the refrigerator from us, the first staff member exited after a quiet exchange of words. As soon as the first was gone, the second - a man who did not appear to be Ghanaian but, rather, Indian or Sri Lankan as I observed his skin tone and hair texture - produced from behind his back a small tray with items for shaving on it. There was a soap for making foam and a brush for mixing and applying it, as well as a straight razor and a towel. He placed the towel over the other man's shoulders, mixed the foam, and applied it to his head and face. He then proceeded to shave the important looking man. When he was done, he wiped the remaining foam with the towel until the man was gleaming and stood aside at comparative ease. In a moment, the first staff member appeared with the important looking man's breakfast.

    As you may have seen from yesterday's post-ending video, there are ducks - white and mallard (?) - that live at the Holy Trinity. They are very interested in the human breakfasts that happen on the pier, since, it appears, one of the reasons for having meals in that open-air, watery setting is to provide for an easy method of waste disposal. Servers empty unfinished plates over the railing of the pier and into the Volta River. These ducks are very fond of this practice. I noticed, they seemed very well acquainted with the important looking man, and made quite a fuss in the water while he was being shaved. During his breakfast, he looked over at me with a twinkle in his eye and said something in the local dialect to the first man, who went to the refrigerator and withdrew two of the loaves of bread from it. He handed one loaf to the important looking man and unwrapped his own, as the important looking man unwrapped his and stood up from his chair with his napkin still attached at his collar. This now got Gwen's attention because the waterfowl were making such a racket. Each of the men broke their loaves and chucked first one half and then the other as far as they could out into the river. A huge commotion ensued as the ducks swarmed upon sinking loaves. Laughing at the sight, the important looking man sat back down and returned to his breakfast.

    Gershon arrived, a moment later, to take us to church with him. We lingered for a bit, waiting for Gwen to finish her breakfast and Coco and me to empty our coffee cups. Then, Gershon said that he learned worship had already started at the church in Sogakope. So, we exchanged waves with the man and his attendants, and off we went.

    "By the way. Do you know who that was having breakfast on the pier?" I asked Gershon when we were in the van.

    "No, I haven't any idea," he said. "But he seemed to recognize me."


    The important looking man, dressed
    more formally than when we saw him.
    Source: starrfmonline.com
    Pres. Akufo-Addo
    Source: www.ghanaweb.com
    I said that I had thought he might be a local chief or, perhaps, a government executive. His round features and gleaming face reminded me of President Akufo-Addo. "No, I don't think so. I don't know who he is, but I am pretty certain he isn't in government," said Gershon, and we continued on to join Sogakope's Evangelical Presbyterian Church already in progress.

    The next night at dinner, the hospitality manager asked me, "Are you a pastor?"

    I said, "Yes, I am. And so is Rev. Dotse who has been showing us around."

    "My boss thought you might be," he said. "He thought you had the look of a pastor."

    "Your boss? Dr. Anyah? How am I acquainted with him?"

    "Why, you and he both had breakfast at the same time, yesterday. That was when he saw you and your friend. He said to tell you he is honored to have you stay at the Holy Trinity."

    "Well, please tell him that I am sorry we had to leave in such a hurry. But we are honored as well, to be here."

    Worship
    We did indeed arrive about fifteen minutes after worship had begun at Sogakope's E. P. Church. Music was playing and the congregation singing as we approached the building's covered porch. Deacons stood at either side of the door to the worship space which was barred with a two-by-six plank until they saw us and removed it. The custom is to hold the crowd during the individual movements of the service, but to seat latecomers only when an informal moment arises after the opening of worship; hence, the board. Gershon said that he did not plan to ask for a place of prominence since we were late arriving, but did I want to be seated in the chancel? I said no, I agreed with him, and so one of the deacons showed us to a pew slightly more than halfway up that was empty enough to accommodate us. It had three women seated in it, who moved to the other end as first Coco, then Gwen, then I made our way in. Gershon sat next to me near the end.

    Evans had dropped us off in the lot and then gone on to find parking. He appeared, a few minutes later. But by this time, our pew had taken on a couple more people at Gershon's end, so he stepped up to the next pew, where he was invited to sit between a couple of apparently eligible women who seemed delighted to have our handsome young driver crowded in the midst of them. At one point in the service, one of them even put her arm around him over the pew back, one supposed in order to make more room but maybe not.

    The congregation was singing a hymn when we arrived which seemed familiar. When it ended, I remarked to Gershon that, had I been singing it back home, it would have been "Higher Ground." He said that, had I been able to sing in Ewe, I would have been singing that also.

    A tall young woman stepped to the lectern and read a prayer. Gershon told me all the different purposes for which she was praying. After she said "Amen," Gershon told me that she was inviting the choirs of the church to sing. The first choir to assemble was the chancel choir - about thirty men and women, all in liturgical robes. Some of the women wore turbans, some scarves, and some wore mortar boards. I asked Gershon whether they were students. He said, "No. In the E. P. Church we try to emphasize the equality of all people regardless of gender. As a result we have many women in prominent positions in the church. You noticed that the liturgist here is a woman, and her head is uncovered. But we have not been able to shake the idea from some that, despite Paul's admonition in First Corinthians, they do not have to have their heads covered. And in every church choir I know, the women wear head coverings. If they do not arrive at church with something on their heads, we always have mortar boards available for them to put on. And so that is why they're wearing mortar boards."

    "No kidding," I said.

    "No, no kidding," he said.

    And, I will tell you, sure enough: All but two church choirs I heard and saw which included women did indeed have every female member with her head under wrap. The two choirs that did not were contemporary music choirs whose female members, in their twenties, had forgone either scarf or mortar board. A recording of the contemporary music choir at Sogakope is included at right. You can't see them, but these women are uncovered.

    During the anthem, a tall thin woman suddenly appeared in the aisle at the other end of our pew. By now, most latecomers such as ourselves had arrived, and most of the seating was taken but not all of it. Certainly, our pew was full. She nevertheless indicated to the three women at the far end that she desired to take a seat between the nearest of them and Coco. She was quite insistent, wedging her thin self into the scant space and practically sitting on my wife as a result. I scooted closer to Gershon and Gershon to the men at his right, and Coco with a look of bewilderment and frustration did her best to make room as the woman proceeded to assume as much space as she could.

    When the chancel choir had finished, four more choirs were invited to sing their portions of the service - a junior women's choir, a mixed choir of young women and men, a senior women's choir, and a men's choir. In the case of the first, not only did they sing, but as they sang, the congregation came to their feet, clapping the rhythm along with the drum and tambourine. And then one of the senior women began dancing. Others stood and joined her. First, they danced in their places, then they emptied out into the aisles and danced in front of the choir. Before long, they persuaded a young couple dressed in white and seated on the front row to get up up and dance with them. Soon, more people in the pews were dancing and making their way into the aisles. For ten or fifteen minutes this went on. The dancers returned to their seats after this, although much dancing ensued during the time of offering as people brought gifts forward.

    Looking to my left as I stood with my fellow pew members, I saw what I expected: Gwen overwhelmed with the volume of the song, as surreptitiously as she was able, working her hands up to her ears to dampen the sound. Seeing this too, Coco drew her close so that only one hand might be needed. When the song was over and we were seated again, Gwen seemed a bit more comfortable, but I noted to Gershon that when an opportunity presented itself we ought to see if Gwen and Coco might be able to observe the rest of the service from outside. It was heating up with all the energy and the process of the day toward noon, not to speak of the unwelcome worshiper who was practically on Coco's lap, and even with ceiling fans turning at full I knew Coco probably would need to step aside too. Gershon said that the offering, which was coming up after the men's choirs had sung, would provide such an opportunity. We would walk up with our offerings, and we could exit out the side.

    The E. P. Church is not a big denomination, and it suffers from a lack of ordained ministers according to the number of churches there are to be served. This combination of circumstances results in the fact that, when an ordained minister visits a congregation, it is not unusual for him to be recognized. Here in Sogakope, if the Rev. Gershon Dotse was hoping to avoid notice he was bound to be grossly disappointed. For the pastor of the Sogakope church was a classmate of his at Trinity Theological Seminary in Accra. Therefore, proceeding to the front for the sake of making an offering, Gershon was noticed. The pastor, who also arrived late for the service (He had been elsewhere for the morning, present at one of the three other churches he also has charge of.), was entering as Gershon and I were escorting Coco and Gwen out to a shade tree in a courtyard near the church. To Gwen, we offered the chance to attend Sunday School in a nearby out building, but she elected to stay with Mom in the shade. Meanwhile, Gershon and his friend were falling all over each other with joy at meeting again. It appeared that our host's return had not been much publicized. Now, it would be impossible for us to return to the row behind Evans and his bevy of interested eligibles.

    The pastor insisted that we must sit up front with him. Chairs were brought, and there we sat, as the music for the offering ended and the stands for the offering were removed from the center. The liturgist announced, by Gershon's translation, that scripture would be read. As she announced the names of the readers, four rather confused looking people came forward. "Apparently, they didn't know they were expected to read," I was told, but I was also assured that, finally, I would be able to hear something in English, since the third reading of the day was to be in a biblical version other than Ewe. The confused readers persevered through their readings, even the one who was not reading in Ewe. Unfortunately for me, however, the passage was not in English but in Twi.

    As the readings continued, more chairs were added to the chancel, and now people who looked like dignitaries were seated with us - a middle aged man in robes of kente cloth, an older woman decked in pale blue whom another man presented almost ceremoniously with a paperback book that had his picture on the back of it.

    Now, the preacher - a lay member of the congregation - arose. And, although his sermon was surprisingly brief (perhaps ten minutes) and although he infused his message with much humor, and although Gershon said that he thought for sure there would be some translation provided, the Spirit's guidance was offered in Ewe only. "I will tell you later what he said," Gershon promised.

    The service drew to an end. Community announcements were made, including an invitation, as I understood it, for people to remain for a talk by an inspirational author who was present. The pastor was introduced by the liturgist, and he then introduced "Osofo Gershon 'Doochay'" to the congregation, who immediately applauded with much enthusiasm. Osofo means "Pastor"; Doo-chay, it turns out, is how Gershon's surname (Dotse) is actually pronounced. Gershon, in turn, invited me to join him and introduced me, "Osofo David Denoon." This elicited a surprisingly widespread intake of breath and subsequent "Aaaah!" and a fair amount of murmuring. Gershon and the pastor both explained to me at the same time that there is a very popular minister in the E. P. Church with the same last name as mine. Now it was my turn to gasp and say, "Aah." I said that I had not known I had relatives in Ghana but that I would be interested to know him and find out whether we are in fact related. Then, I turned to the church and with Gershon's help (translating) told them the purpose of my visit - renewal and a bit of adventure. Everyone seemed very approving of my interest in adventuring, especially in Sogakope. Gershon then excused us, and we bade a hasty exit as the pastor introduced the speaker.

    Meanwhile, out under the shade tree, Coco and Gwen had been amused by a little girl who was playing near them. She was maybe three years old and, after much wandering around the grounds but refusing to attend Sunday School, she had become much enamored of a pile of rubble just on the other side of my family. Mother and daughter, it turned out, were seated just beyond the worksite where a new parsonage was being constructed in the church compound. So, the stuff in this pile were odds and ends from the building. Eventually the allure of the rubble wore off, and Coco caught her attention. Or, it would probably be more precise to say, Coco's relative pallor caught her attention. Coco says that, while in conversation with Evans who had managed to give the slip to the women in his pew, she suddenly became aware of a presence beside her. It was the little girl, staring at her arm with her mouth gaping. "Hello," Coco said gently.

    The girl now looked up at her face, still reflecting a fearsome awe. As she did so, Coco turned her right arm over to reveal the still more pale underside of it and stroked it with the fingers of her left hand. The girl seemed genuinely alarmed, possibly wondering what affliction would cause her to become so pale and her hair to straighten. Evans at first tried to explain that Coco was from a far away country where many people are her color, but he was speaking in Twi rather than the local Ewe. So his explanation made no sense to her.

    By this time, the girl had been in my family's vicinity for almost an hour, and no one had come to check on her. Coco wondered aloud whether her parents might be in the sanctuary but didn't know how to call for them. Evans tried to ask around about the girl, but no one seemed to know who her parents might be. At the same time, no one appeared worried, either, especially not the little girl... except about Coco's frightful lack of melanin! I, of course, want to be able to say that Christian community can include everybody, enough to rest assured that belonging will be a quality ascribed to all among you on any given day. Still, it would have been nice to find her parents or older siblings or somebody who knew her, just to ease our consciences from having driven off at the end of worship.

    Gwen would spend the rest of this day with her new friend Jennifer. Jennifer would take her around the grounds, showing her the stables and the snack bar (which includes a wet bar that not surprisingly overlooks a threatening-looking crocodile enclosure!). Jennifer even served her an orange Fanta - Gwen's staple beverage during our time away.

    Gershon offered to take me to an evening service at Sogakope's E. P. Church but, upon finding out from his friend that the night would just be a lay-led music service, elected instead to take advantage of the pastor's hospitality and grant me a quiet evening.






    Tuesday, August 29, 2017

    Sabbatical Day 13

    Saturday, 17 June 2017
    Sogakope, Volta Region, Ghana


    The Holy Trinity Spa and Health Farm


    I did not know this before I went to Ghana: It is a very ostentatiously religious country! I've called it religiose and pietistic at different times, but there was no moment we spent in Ghana in which we were not reminded of God's sovereignty and Christ's lordship and the Spirit's abiding presence... and the people's reverence in their regard.


    The right side of Evans' windshield 
    I have not mentioned yet that, wherever we drove with Emmanuel, his radio was usually tuned to a station playing Christian music. I recall, on the day we went to Cape Coast, he rolled the dial round to a program that sounded at first like someone preaching. Then the preacher began singing, and he sang and he sang and he sang! Belted, really. Emmanuel turned down the volume, but it was never lost on any of us that this preacher, who surely sang this same song for half an hour as we drove, was pouring out his heart in praise of the work of Christ and the Holy Spirit in his life. As I recall now, I think that this song also accompanied us for a long stretch, as we traveled that first night from the airport in Accra to the resort in Elmina.

    Evans did not have nearly as much religious music playing, but the windshield of the van was decorated with a decal portrait of Jesus and more decals expressing satisfaction with the workings of God. And an Israeli flag; I never got much of an explanation about that. Virtually every other car or taxi or bus carries some message of Christian encouragement. Those that did not, and they were few, expressed an Islamic sentiment.

    It is not unusual to hear Christian music playing at restaurants during meals, or at poolside. Everywhere we went were eateries (chop bars) and drinking establishments (spots) and shops with names like "God Is Good Grocery" or "God Did It All Fashion" and other businesses, like "Bride of Christ Aluminum Works" or "Blessed Assurance Car Repair." By far, one of the best I've heard of is in the image at right, "Jesus Is Above All Liquors."

    Source: Google Maps
    So, I guess it should have come as no surprise that the place where we would stay in Sogakope - a place that Gershon described as a spa and which we chose over the resort he also recommended - should have been called, "The Holy Trinity Spa and Health Farm." In the accompanying YouTube video (scroll to the end of this entry to view it) you will discover, as we did, that our home away from home for the next three days was not only dedicated to the pleasure, health and well-being of its clients but also to the glory of God. Our room, named rather than numbered, was the Royalty Room in the Queen Esther building, which adjoins the King David building. Nearby is the Bezaleel building, which seems to serve as their main storage unit. One lovely enclosed garden is called, the Vineyard of En-Gedi (Song of Songs 1:1). Other locations are the Valley of Beracah (2 Chronicles 20:26), a "block" featuring smaller guest rooms and apartments. And there is the Abishag building, notable for being as Abishag was for David, a comfort from the strains of life. This was where Gwen and Coco went for massages and facials and mani-pedis; it was also the site of the Ruth and Boaz Conference Rooms.

    In much the same way as music seemed to be constantly playing in the cars and restaurants wherever we were, at the Holy Trinity there was a constant loop of instrumental gospel music playing in the main courtyard. At first I had thought that I was hearing someone at a piano or electric piano, but - as with the classic jazz music playing in the lobby of our Paris hotel - I became used at certain times of day to hear the same pieces playing. This, I am sure, is intended to direct the mind and spirit but also to provide a measure of relaxation and healing.

    The Holy Trinity Spa is, as it turns out, an outreach of the Department of Integrative Medicine of Holy Trinity Hospital in Sogakope. Both institutions are owned and operated by Dr. Felix Anyah. The Spa, for a great part like our own First Congregational Center for Counseling and Healing, is a ministry of healing. It is designed to offer treatments but also introductions to healthier living. Its Ten Health Pillars are announced throughout the complex:
    1. Regular and appropriate exercises (sic)
    2. Scientific relaxation and restful sleep
    3. Health diet
    4. Detoxification (including fasting)
    5. Management of stress and stress disorders
    6. Supplements
    7. Positive attitudes
    8. Spirituality
    9. Health through water (SPA) (C.A.M.)
    10. Medical, surgical, and dental treatments
    All but the last of these are provided onsite by a sizable, capable and competent staff. Probably our favorite staff member was Jennifer, a college student from Accra who was able to provide care and companionship for Gwen from lunchtime until bedtime daily. On the 17th when the two of them were introduced, Jennifer offered to put together a team of staff to play basketball with Gwen after Gwen said that this was her favorite sport (actually, softball at that point probably was her favorite game, but they don't play much softball in Ghana). Having seen the Holy Trinity bill of fare for various treatments and treatment programs, I worried a bit that the formation of a staff basketball team might be more than the Lilly Endowment might be prepared to provide for, financially. However, Jennifer just took Gwen out and shot hoops with her, later giving her a tour which included the building which housed a gym with basketball and squash courts. Tennis courts are outside, but Gwen doesn't play tennis. So they rambled round to the stables, where there are horses and camels, and to the bar which overlooks a crocodile pool and (separately) an enclosure with tortoises. After supper, Jennifer took Gwen to the gym building to play a couple rounds of ping-pong and some badminton. Before they left, I handed Gwen a GHc20 note to give to Jennifer as thanks for being Gwen's company. Jennifer delivered Gwen back to our room, looking a bit serious. Gwen reported, after Jennifer left, that Jennifer wished we wouldn't tip her. "She says it's her job to do that," Gwen reported, "and tipping her feels like we're paying her twice."

    Coco and Gwen enjoyed facials and mani-pedis, this day (the therapists providing these did not flinch at being tipped). Coco noted that the products used were not the high-end creams and polishes that one might expect at a salon in America or Europe; the most expensive products were by l'Oreal and Oil of Olay. Coco noted that the Holy Trinity Spa's merchandise at the gift shop was somewhat different than what one might expect to see in a typically evangelical place of business - including not only sunglasses, books, and supplements but also sex-enhancing oils and edible panties. When she brought these to my attention, I looked online at the resort's website and found that it is promoted as a honeymoon and marriage enrichment destination. And, certainly, among the very few guests there present with us were couples who appeared to be very much in love and taking full advantage of the provision for relief from the stresses of getting married (just as the website promises).

    It was the bathroom of the Abishag building that gave Coco her first clue, however, that the Holy Trinity at least had a different sense of humor from most evangelical institutions with which we are acquainted. There, she was greeted by a sign when she closed the door of the stall she was using:

    The Holy Trinity logo
    But such was the entire place, full of unexpected things. The cable television provided to our room had fourteen channels, of which eleven provided actual programming and only three of those non-religious programs. Of the religious programming, I discovered one channel with the symbol for the spa pasted in the upper right corner. It ran only the preaching of someone who seemed to be a popular speaker, talking about how just about all medical science agrees with the Bible. Of the few times I tuned in and watched for five minutes or more, I watched a channel with the Spa's logo on it and which featured the Singapore-based evangelist Joseph Prince. He seemed like a curious choice for Ghanaian TV viewers to be watching, considering that he is not even African, but the owner of the Holy Trinity may have found in Rev. Prince's sermons' blending of science and Christianity some resonance with Dr. Anyah's holistic approach to medicine.

    That said, Joseph Prince was just one more voice among many on television and radio and promoted on billboards spouting Prosperity Gospel themes and promising miracles. I'll try and address my feelings about this in another article, but let it suffice for me to say here that - seeing the conditions of life in Ghana, which are much like the conditions of its infrastructure and the practices of drivers and pedestrians there - people there as everywhere are simply wanting to make ends meet, and it may indeed require a miracle for most of them to do it!



    Sunday, August 6, 2017

    Sabbatical Day 19

    Friday, 23 June 2017

    An Open Letter to My Friends in the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church

    My dear AME Zion friends:

    Janice & H. E. Lane, foreground (from an article in the
    Evanston Round Table, 18 July 2014)
    When I was serving a congregation in Evanston, Illinois, I became aware of the amazing work of the Rev. Hardist E. Lane, retired pastor of the Fisher Memorial AME Zion Church, through his H. E. Lane Center for Positive Change. Rev. Lane and his wife Mrs. Janice Lane along with numerous friends and colleagues, eventually including myself, worked with ex-prisoners in order to reconnect them with society following their incarceration. It was with the help of Rev. Lane that I learned to refer to recently released individuals as "ex-prisoners" and not as "ex-offenders," since those who occupy prisons seem often to have been placed there more for the purpose of justifying the prison's existence than because they need to be separated from society because they pose a safety risk to the general public.

    Rev. Lane was succeeded as pastor by the Rev. Warren E. Smith, who has taken up work as a pastor as a second career complementing his service as a social worker. It was Rev. Smith who, upon learning that I was about to exit my own Evanston post, insisted unblinkingly that he hoped I would consider entering the AME Zion as a pastor next. And although I had wondered then at his encouragement, despite my own heart for justice and witness, upon reflection of his career(s) and the passion and work of Rev. and Mrs. Lane and what I have just seen today, I can say honestly that I should have taken his words more seriously. This is not to say that I am unhappy in the UCC or unsatisfied with my work now, but that with today I have a greater sense of the impact and vision of the AME Zion and its outreach.

    This morning, my family and I attended a cultural festival in Ho, Ghana. 

    Panorama of the (Ho) Sacred Heart Senior High School grounds as we gathered for the festival competition
    Such cultural festivals, I have learned, are often the culmination of the academic year, as elementary and high school students from across a locality participate in competition based on culture. Participants dress in their native clothing, singing familiar songs and choruses, drum or dance as groups, pairs, and individuals, and compose, memorize, and present poems and essays. Local winners go on to city or district wide competitions, then to regional competitions, and eventually they compete on a national level. The area schools represented at this local competition included, of course, our hosts' E. P. (Evangelical Presbyterian) schools, and the public, Catholic, Seventh Day Adventist, and AME Zion schools.

    Outstanding in every category were the AME Zion competitors. And this turned out for me not to have to do with the content... at least, not at first. All the content of each group presentation was the same, after all - the same dances were danced, the same songs were sung. This was necessary for the group competitions to be on a level playing field. Where the AME Zion children and their directors really stood out was in the pride and expertise with which they presented their pieces and themselves. 

    Throughout our time in Ghana, I have seen dedicated individuals who are determined to make a sincere and concerted effort to have an impact on their society and country. One cannot doubt the sacred conviction that lies in the hearts of the church leaders - both clergy and lay - whom we met. And the children and teachers we saw and with whom we interacted in a practice competition at the Seeger Memorial E. P. Church and School in Hohoe certainly impressed us with their abilities and talents. There was a moderating sense of caution among them, though. Maybe they just hadn't practiced quite enough to feel thoroughly comfortable and at ease.

    Until this moment, however, I do not think I had realized quite the fullness of spirit and purpose that are contained in the AME Zion's motto, "Black Liberation and Evangelism," or how completely this gospel call is meant by the church. But this is what I saw on display, today, in Ho. Your vision encompassed and encompasses the plight of Black people everywhere - those who were enslaved, yes, but those as well who were the subjects of colonial empires. The AME Zion has recognized throughout its history the damage that has been done, rendering Black folk powerless and oppressed, and the critical importance of making a stand by the grace of God through Jesus Christ and in the Holy Spirit. Only by accepting for oneself the power made available from heaven for one's work on earth can one hope to overcome the vast array of stumbling blocks in one's way.

    After the elementary and high school groups had sung their pieces, it was time for the girls' speaking competition. Most of the girls reciting stood front and center and presented pieces that offered unalloyed praise for traditions and practices that have made their culture a reflection of wider Ghana. 

    Then came the last presenter. I don't know whether the Z in Zion brought the AME Zion school's students to perform last. But this was the final competitor in her category and the most memorable for me. She was a high school student mindful not only of the past but of her future. This I knew because I was fortunate enough to be seated beside a woman who had come to see my hosts Gershon and Pamela. She is Gershon's late father's third wife, who was also the mother of Gershon's youngest sister whom we had met yesterday in Hohoe. As the speaking competition began, "Mama" decided to interpret to me what the girls were saying.

    I noticed immediately that, in addition to folded swaths of cloth that formed a belt around the high school student's waist, she also had tucked a cellular phone. It was barely visible, and I haven't been able to locate a photo that reveals it; you'll just have to trust me. But it was curious and almost humorous to me that someone dressed so traditionally should have missed such an anachronism as that, or that her coach should have missed it.


    My interpreter told me that the girl was talking about how she had always been taught that the old ways were important and must not be lost. To know who we are, we must first know who we have been. Hence, the fabrics with their traditional prints and patterns. But, the young woman continued, we must not forget that our ancestors were young once, and the voice of youth then has formed our traditions today. Therefore, we must not reject new things like technology and other innovations out of hand (she now took the cell phone from her belt and made a grand, sweeping gesture with it, eventually setting it on a large stone near her). Now, she pointed a finger at the crowd listening and said, we must balance our traditions made by voices that were young once with the developments of young voices today. We must encourage our youth, not only tell them to respect the old ways.

    Her confidence and poise, her inflection and carriage, all communicated to those of us listening a sense of prophecy and purpose. I reflected with my interpreter how this was typical of the AME Zion clergy and communities I have come to know in the U.S. I told her that I had not previously known that the AME Zion had established missions and schools in Ghana but that it made sense that they should have. It seemed further to me in keeping with the witness of that church to inspire their youth to say that they must have a voice, and a voice respected, in the growing traditional future of their culture and society. 

    There was one moment in the speech when she took a long pause. I thought for a moment that she was simply composing herself in the midst of an impassioned address. But then something familiar became obvious, from my own high school recitations - and many since: she'd "gone up." She'd forgotten part of her speech. She paced, trying to remember. Then, I watched as she retraced her steps and what must have been sense memory loaded in, as the location and position of her decorated body, traditional dress, and fascinating belt (with respect to that cell phone) reminded her what came next. I imagine that the judges subtracted points for that, and, though we could not stay to the end of the competition to find out what her outcome was, I doubt she won... but maybe. Maybe the power and encouragement of that message and its messenger were still enough.

    I thought you would want to know what I saw, today. And I wanted to say that I know more about you now than I knew when the day began, thanks to a girl and her schoolmates at a cultural competition in Ho. I thought you should know (even though you undoubtedly knew already) about the legacy of witness and purpose you established with your schools and churches in Ghana. You deserve to know of the success being realized with your international outreach funds in Africa. All of these bear a very similar, empowering witness to the one I have experienced here. 

    "Black Liberation and Evangelism," preach on!

    Your friend and admirer,
    Dave Denoon

    Sabbatical Day 12

    Friday, 16 June 2017
    From Elmina (Central Region), to Accra and then to Tema (Greater Accra Region)


    Over-speeding and Standing Still

    The calls from Gershon began mid-morning, but by this time my cell phone was again needing to be topped up. So, the front desk sent someone down at 9AM to tell us that he had called to say, he and the driver had just left Accra. That should put them in Elmina at noon.

    About an hour later, another message came: Traffic was slowing them down. Much as they might try, Gershon did not think that they would reach us much before 2.

    Meditation on a Cash-based Economy
    We took the luggage to the front desk at 2 o'clock, and I settled up with the receptionist on duty. She told me the total, which accounted for the food and drink of our meals charged to the room over the last four days. I handed her the church's debit card, and she said, "Thank you, but I should inform you that using a card entails a five percent usage fee." Although I was a little shocked at the up charge, nevertheless I had no other means of payment, and costs otherwise were remarkably inexpensive, so I told her all right.

    It now began to dawn on me that I had paid in cash for literally everything else in Ghana, thus far. Furthermore, when I had received the bill for our first non-breakfast meal at the Coconut Grove Beach Resort, which included breakfast in the room charge, the bill had only listed the charges for food. There was a space at the bottom for one to calculate the 15% of taxes and any tip (unlike in Paris or London where the value added tax and service fee were calculated into the bill). So, I calculated 15% more and another 15% for Moses our server, signed it with our room number, and handed him back the folder with the bill in it. He looked at the paper in something like horror and said that, if I simply charged the bill to the room, he would not receive from the management the full amount of the tip. So, I subtracted out the tip from the total and told Moses that, once I had some cash on hand the next day, I would tip him. He served us at supper also, and I kept my promise on Wednesday with regard to both meals, after we returned from Cape Coast Castle.

    Having done so, I could not help but notice that the staff, which was already quite attentive and helpful, became much more attentive and helpful. My grandfather's old saying, that "tip" stands for "to insure promptness," began echoing in my head. But moreso than just the matter of tipping was my realization, at the front desk with the receptionist demanding five percent extra, that we were experiencing in its blooming fullness a truly cash-based economy. (By the end of our two weeks, it would be obvious that this was really a paper-based economy, but more about that later.)

    The Road East
    Gershon arrived at 2:45, apologetic and concerned about our timing for arrival at our next destination, a spa near the city of Sogakope which ought to be - in good traffic - about five hours away. The hope had been to arrive in time for supper, but obviously we were looking at a very late supper if that would be the case.

    Our driver makes a point.
    Gershon introduced us to our driver. "This is E-vonce," I heard him say. I repeated the driver's name and shook his hand. I imagined that his name would have been spelled, "Yvonce," but pronounced as if there is a plural to the Russian pronunciation of Ivan. Yvonce was about five feet and eight or nine inches tall, probably in his early twenties, and fit. He wore his hair close cropped (not shaved like Gershon), and looked neat in a t-shirt and jeans. Yvonce's command of English was arguable, and he was a bit shy about it. English is taught in school, and in most schools it becomes the language of instruction. I never asked Yvonce about his schooling, but I have come to assume that he must not have finished high school.

    Our transportation
    Yvonce came with a 9-passenger van, a 2008 Ford E-Series that had been made in the U.S. I'm sure of this, since its speedometer was marked in miles per hour, rather than kilometers. It had seen better days, and the interior was worn in places and not terribly comfortable, but the air conditioning worked and was zoned, according to the control panel, front and back. It seemed a bit large for our needs. But we knew that Gershon's wife Pamela would be joining us for a portion of the tour, and, besides, it would be nice to be able to stretch out should we need naps between destinations. It was also remarkably inexpensive, coming at a cost - including Yvonce's services, food, and lodging - of only $110 a day, plus fuel. (Gershon said that the merchant who rented him the vehicle was a member of his home church, so that may explain the bargain.)

    Once all our luggage had been loaded - Gershon and Yvonce very impressively making it fit in a space that seemed more designed for seating than storage - we were off!

    Yvonce took a different route away than we had seen with Emmanuel, through a more affluent-looking section of Elmina. As we rounded the first corner, in fact, we passed a palatial estate on a hill overlooking the resort. Gershon pointed out that this was the residence of a former Ghanaian presidential candidate, Papa Kwesi Nduom, the owner of the GN (Groupe Nduom) Bank from which I had conducted my first ATM transaction. Emmanuel, pointing at the home from a different direction a few days before, had noted that this was the home of the owner of the Coconut Grove Beach Resort but had said nothing about Mr. Nduom also owning the resort.

    Rather than taking us through Elmina, as I say, Yvonce circled around it. The point was to avoid delays. And, indeed, the moment an opportunity presented itself to hasten our journey on its way, Yvonce most certainly did! I am comfortable saying without reservation that I have never traveled at quite that rate of speed before. In areas in which there were no vehicles in front of us, our driver seemed to have no qualms at all increasing our speed to 80, 90, even 100 miles an hour!

    Yvonce was in the driver’s seat, of course. And although Gershon had offered me the front passenger seat (shotgun), I elected to sit in the first row in back. This was a couch designed for two people – one at the window and the other in the center of the vehicle (where I was). Gwen and Coco sat in the row behind me, also designed for two, while some of the luggage inhabited the final, three-person row and the rest took up the narrow space for storage between the back row and the back doors.

    When Yvonce would hit top speed, the second or third time, he did so passing another vehicle and with oncoming traffic visible maybe a quarter mile ahead. He would duck in front of the car we had just passed and continue on, his velocity unslowed.

    Now I will tell you, I have passed many a vehicle on a two-lane highway, and no few of those times I have accelerated to a speed I thought unwise – especially if there was oncoming traffic, but always I would decrease speed once past the vehicle I was rounding. Not Yvonce. No. And just when I would convince myself that, in fact, he had found a new, more reasonable speed at which to travel, the engine would surge and the pointer would swing round. And I would look back at Coco with a helpless look, as she looked at me questioningly and with maybe a hint of panic. Thankfully, Gwen either slept through all this or became so concentrated in a video game on her iPod that it seemed she was not paying attention.

    All the while, he and Gershon carried on what seemed like a carefree conversation in (I learned later) Yvonce’s native Twi dialect. (Gershon, it turns out, is quite the Ghanaian polyglot!)

    It may be helpful at this point to note a few things about driving in Ghana. The first is the sign I noticed on that night journey from Accra to Elmina. As I watched Emmanuel’s speedometer slip past the 80 kph speed limit, there came a roadside warning, “OVERSPEEDING KILLS.” (“Not just speeding,” said one American breathlessly when I spoke about it with them there, “overspeeding!”)

    The second thing is that one of the first stories I heard about Ghanaian drivers was in the documentary on PBS about Maya Angelou. There, it is told that her son was injured horribly in an accident in which he was the passenger on the back of a motorcycle in Accra. That someone might be injured riding a motorcycle comes as no surprise, considering the way bikers bob and weave through traffic whether it is standing still or moving. Trust me, that he survived was practically miraculous.

    The third thing that it is helpful to bear in mind is that Gershon’s father – and the loved ones of many with whom I spoke – died in an auto accident in Accra. In Gershon’s father’s case, his death came just three weeks before Gershon was set out for Eden Seminary.

    Needless to say, I suppose, between Yvonce’s overspeeding and an almost complete lack of police barricades, though speed bumps and humps tended to slow us somewhat near intersections and villages, we arrived in Accra in much less than the standard three and a half hours. On the east side of Accra, amid industrial sites and new home developments, the highway became four lanes, divided, and limited access, like an Interstate. And for about ten miles, it seemed as though we were going to make it to Sogakope in time for a late supper. In fact, Gershon called ahead for just that purpose. ("We'll arrive around 9PM," he told them when he placed the order.)

    Then, we began noticing that traffic was slowing and becoming heavier. Gershon attributed this to the usual Friday migration from out of the cities to the country, where Ghanaian funerals customarily take place. I had heard of the opulence of Ghanaian funerals, often with special, personalized coffins and celebrations that can last for days. Gershon lamented that funerals, even for poor people, will be like this. As we drove, he noted billboards and posters memorializing people with phrases like "A Life Well-lived" or "Gone Too Soon." Such words usually were accompanied by a photo of the deceased and occasionally a brief biography or obituary. The printing and display of these announcements could themselves run the family of the deceased hundreds of dollars. Add in the cost of embalming, coffin, transportation of the body, venue, catering, music, and sundry other additions, and a funeral could cost you a year's wages or more!

    The average life expectancy of a Ghanaian is between 66 and 67 years. Add to that the number of accidental deaths, and the desire to pay exorbitant tribute to the dead, and you have quite the funeral industry. And quite a migration on the weekends, when the celebrations of life would take place.

    At Tema, a major port and a city immediately adjoining Accra, traffic simply stopped. We had just passed through a toll plaza. Between that bottleneck and an unidentified event ahead, the road to Sogakope became a parking lot. Yvonce attempted to skirt the traffic on a couple of occasions. Familiar with Tema, on one occasion he followed an exit only to rejoin the standing traffic, entering again after crossing the road at the end of the exit. On another, he actually followed some other ambitious drivers through what may or may not have been an actual, designated roadway, then through the neutral roadside area of a filling station where he re-entered the roadway, a bit farther along. There is truly nothing like cutting off another driver (or two or three) on your way through a truck stop! But nothing worked to shake us loose of the standing traffic.

    An hour passed, and we had not moved. Yvonce dutifully kept the car idling and the air conditioning on. Eventually, at 8:45, he determined that he would take advantage of his knowledge of Tema's streets. Waving to other drivers, especially a couple of buses alongside us, Yvonce cut across the snarl of cars, motorcycles, trucks, and buses, from our position in the right lane. At the encouragement of some pedestrians in the median, he found a bit of pavement. Across, he waited for the westbound traffic to clear and sped off back in the direction of a major intersection we had crossed, a couple of miles back. Once there, he took us into Tema.

    I think I have mentioned before that the major thoroughfares in Ghana tend to be well-paved and fairly passable. Side streets, however, are another story entirely. And so it was now, as we bounced and rocked our way through neighborhoods on our way first to the north, then meandering to the east where Yvonce hoped to find another cross street beyond the traffic jam. The next one was blocked with traffic trying to enter the highway and backed up. And the one after that.

    It was now 9:30, and Gershon turned to me. "I think we need to stop for the night and try to get to Sogakope in the morning, because I am sure, no matter how we try we will not get there before midnight. And it might be later. Is that all right?"

    Coco and I shrugged, to say that if they thought that this was our best choice, that's what we would do. "Can we get some food?" Coco asked, as Gwen complained of being hungry.

    "Oh, yes. We will find a hotel with a restaurant," Gershon assured us. That turned out to be the Kowa Naso. And notwithstanding an unfortunate lack of sheets there, we were all grateful for the grace of a place to end the day and stay and sleep.

    The next morning, I spoke with Gershon before Yvonce arrived with the van, and expressed my concern about his speeding as lightly as I could. "You know, I noticed yesterday that Yvonce was driving much faster than I feel comfortable. I'm clear that the van must have been made in America, because it has a speedometer that measures miles rather than kilometers per hour. He is clear, isn't he, that the speed limit signs are in kph, not mph, right?"

    Gershon followed my jest and laughed. "Yes, I am sure he just wanted to make up for the lost time in traffic," he said.

    "I think if it was just me," I said, "I would have been concerned about his speed but could have overlooked it. But my family is with us in the car, and I'd appreciate it if he would drive what's posted, even if we are running late."

    There was no point at which I could identify that the two of them discussing Yvonce's speeding, and maybe Gershon was right and Yvonce simply wanted us to arrive on time. But I can say that he drove the posted speed limits, everywhere we went thereafter, and thereafter I think I have never felt safer or more confident in anyone's driving than I did Yvonce's.

    Oh. And it turns out his name is Evans.