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On the Frontier of Justice in Ghana

About this article

Catholic Relief Services sponsors a program for teachers called "Frontiers of Justice." Diana Turney is a teacher from Houston, Texas, who participated in a trip to Ghana. Her reflections in this article are challenging and timely. We are all called to live in solidarity with our brothers and sisters all over the world.

"Africa has been the land of hope, salvation, and redemption. Abraham had come to Africa, Joseph from slave to savior. It was the land of refuge for Jesus and helped to carry his cross. Will we continue to dismiss Africa as hopeless, helpless, an 'irrelevant appendage'? Africa is now the robbed, wounded man at the side of the road; will we be the Samaritan or the Levite?" As we prepare to land in Accra, the capital city of Ghana, those words of Ghanaian bishop Charles Palmer Buckle, heard last night, return to me. . . . I wonder: what, then, will Africa be for me? What will I see and what am I going to do with what I learn? As the wheels touch down, a group of Ghanaians bursts into song in their native tongue: "Praise God, for he never sleeps!" It is the most hauntingly beautiful landing I have ever experienced.

We had come from all over the United States, Catholic educators bound together by our desire to acknowledge the call of God in our life and to enhance our abilities to teach through this firsthand experience of the developing world. As Frontiers of Justice participants, we were being offered a glimpse, in microcosm, of the mission of Catholic Relief Services in eighty countries around the world: "Promote the alleviation of human suffering, advance full human development, and foster charity and justice in the world."

At a recent CRS world summit meeting, a key vision emerged: Solidarity will transform the world. The organization supports what is already in place for development, focusing on empowering poor people. A CRS program officer explained to us that CRS enters communities through its partners: local churches, agencies, and organizations. The process of building relationships within the community is slow but essential. No one enters with solutions; together the partners identify and prioritize problems and develop a course of action. The community is involved in every step of implementation: monitoring, evaluating, generating alternatives when necessary. The local partners, as the CRS program officer explained, then realize that they have resources they never knew they had. Frontiers of Justice is one component of CRS's effort to build solidarity. Partnering with NCEA, CRS provides teachers and administrators with a connection, an opportunity to build relationships so that we in turn can help our students make a global connection.

Encountering Suffering and Hope

At the Shekhina Clinic, a CRS supported facility for people who are sick and destitute, we learned that everyone who works here is a volunteer. The building was built with funds provided by Ghanaians in the United States. A new AIDS hospice is being built, also paid for by donations. A parish in Chicago gave $20,000 to build a laboratory that will incorporate a blood bank, x-ray lab, and clinic.

I can't hold back the tears when one volunteer explains that the clinic is divine work. The workers have no technical expertise but love and care, knowing the Supreme Being loves everyone. "We crave your prayers."

We traveled to a nearby village to talk with the Attributu Peace Building Committee, trained at the Unity Center of the Catholic Diocese of Damongo. Through workshops and seminars on the underlying causes that contribute to injustice, participants learn how authentic, peaceful conflict resolution can be realized. They travel to other towns to share what they have learned, for there is always conflict in the north. They face real risks in doing their work, from imprisonment to life-threatening situations, and have successfully resolved conflicts where the courts and the chiefs could not. One woman shared a story of resolving a conflict in the market; another told how a family, bent on retaliation for a murder, was persuaded to recognize that two wrongs don't make a right. The wise chief of the village shared with us his belief that conflict comes out of poverty. The lack of opportunity and ability to realize dreams causes great frustration and tension. Conflict results. Today is the most gut-wrenching and uplifting thus far. I try to reflect on the enormity of what I encounter; my heart and psyche have been pummeled. I physically ache. The poverty and suffering are so absolute and yet so is the hope. Just when I think that I need to turn away, the sheer burden of witnessing such horrific conditions overwhelming me, the women and men speak, sharing their life of dignity, courage, and strength. I recognize that I have been feeling pity. How arrogant that emotion is.

Collaborating with the Ghana Education Service, CRS operates Food Assisted Education, the largest program in Ghana, which takes a holistic approach to educational support. The program serves approximately fifteen hundred schools throughout the three northern regions, where illiteracy and malnutrition are rampant. The objective is to increase enrollment in rural schools through school feeding, and to retain girls through a take-home ration for those with good attendance. The obstacles facing education are daunting: lack of teachers, lack of adequate teacher training and pay, negative socio-cultural practices, and poverty. At Saint Thomas Primary School, we met the cook in her kitchen--a mud hut. She volunteers to make the food every day. Her day begins at 7 a.m. when the children bring water and firewood, and by 12 p.m. she finishes making what looks like large grits. Sometimes parents take up a collection for her. Back on the road, I wonder about the volunteer cook. What work waits for her at home? Does she also have a farm to work and her own family to feed? Staring out the van window, I am captivated by the women I see. Enormous amounts of material balanced on their heads, babies tied to their backs. Many of the women are pregnant. Could I carry such a burden? How can I help carry their burden?

Discovering Joy and Connection

Sitting majestically under an enormous tree, the women soybean farmers waited for us. They have received training, as well as marketing and credit support, from CRS. Dressed in multicolored dresses, babies at the breast, they made a beautiful sight. We had learned in our travels that women do not have a voice here; they work the land and are solely responsible for providing food and education for their children. These women told us that they have increased their yield of soybean, an environmentally friendly crop that has been introduced recently to the area. They described how they have helped their households by earning extra money. They said that they are learning how to bargain and negotiate prices for their crops, and that they have learned how to incorporate soybean into local dishes.

Listening to these women who have found their voice, who are changing the life of their families and thus changing their village, their nation, I feel euphoric. My eyes are constantly drawn to their feet; if they have shoes, the shoes are flip-flops. Their feet are calloused, scarred, and in various stages of healing. I cannot help but contrast them with my own, with what I have failed to do walking the paved streets and manicured lawns of my homeland. They inspire me. . . .

CRS works with the Ministry of Health to train health volunteers for the Nanyaare FACS (Food Assisted Child Survival) clinic. Clinic programs benefit pregnant and lactating mothers and children under the age of two, emphasizing preventative health. A CRS officer, himself a beneficiary of CRS school feeding as a child, described the clinic as a community-based venture that "works in the communities, with the communities, and for the communities."

The poorest, the neediest, and the marginalized are given a voice in all matters concerning issues of community health. When the most vulnerable are helped, the entire community is strengthened by the respite given to these people. The powerlessness of any member in the community wounds the entire community life. It interests me that a male is teaching the women about the importance of exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months. We find out later that male volunteers teach this so that it will be recognized as important; a woman teaching this would be dismissed as ranting. A woman lets me hold her baby. I hold this tiny baby who is feverish, malnourished, and lethargic, and think about holding my own boys when they were sick. I feel a connection with this mother that I cannot describe.

We met Monami, a man living with AIDS, who courageously travels in a region far from his family to let people know that AIDS is real. He has to tell his story far from home so that there will be no retaliation against his family. He has chosen to sacrifice being with his own family so that he can help other parents stay alive to raise their children. To fight the spread of HIV is to stand against a cultural mountain: polygamy is encouraged because manhood is measured by the number of children one has; people do not want to be tested for HIV because of the harsh stigma associated with HIV; female circumcision is still practiced in some places, the same knife used over and over; many people are in denial about the disease's existence; and many people receive a great deal of misinformation.

We also met kids involved with a program called Youth Alive, a Catholic youth group that uses music and drama to promote abstinence and to educate about AIDS. After witnessing their enthusiasm and energy, I was reminded of the African proverb, Many drops of water make a mighty ocean. I know that these young people are changing their world.

Witnessing Operation Rice Bowl in action was incredible! Rice Bowl funds directly support the Rural Women's Association, a village-based women's group that generates income for their families during the dry season (from October to July). The women, whose businesses range from pottery to hat making, told us that the loans they have received from CRS have changed their life. Once they got their businesses off the ground, they were able to repay the loan, save money, and invest in their children's education. They said that they were able to stay in the village more because they didn't have to travel to town to get work.

Bringing the Frontier Home

As our time in Africa draws to a close, we turn our attention to how we will bring our experiences back into our schools and communities. We all have our different strengths and spheres of influence, and so will be addressing different groups of people, but some key components emerge from our discussion.

Personal Conversion. In order for our trip to have authentic bearing on professional responsibilities, we must start with ourselves. "Solidarity is the conviction that we are born into a fabric of relationships, that our humanity ties us to others, that the Gospel consecrates those ties, and that the prophets tell us that those ties are the test by which our very holiness will be judged" (Rev. J. Bryan Hehir, CRS theologian and consultant). Everywhere we went, we were welcomed and called sister, brother, or mother. The shift from merely saying those words to living them is easier for having been in Ghana.

Education. CRS and NCEA have a wealth of resources, including lesson plans, to help teach Catholic social teaching. Operation Rice Bowl, Food Fast, and the NCEA convention in the spring are just some of the resources that these organizations offer to teachers. Partnering with the local diocese is another avenue. Most dioceses have a local migration and settlement office, a missions office, and a social action office. There are diocesan directors for CRS in every diocese. Consider partnering your school with a school in a developing country to establish a relationship. Without building relationships, we cannot ensure that interdependence and solidarity will be recognized. We have as much to gain from a school in Ghana as they have to gain from us.

Advocacy. We have a responsibility as Catholic educators to help our students be informed on international issues. They need to think critically about American policies in relation to human dignity and the preferential option for poor people. Explore whether youth in your area celebrate Lobby Day. You might join the CRS Legislative Network to stay informed about current national legislation affecting the people served by CRS throughout the world.

Consider becoming involved in Africa Rising: Hope and Healing, a campaign of the United States Catholic Conference that emphasizes health issues such as AIDS and peace-building for Africa. Bread for the World and Pax Christi are other great sources of information. To learn more about CRS programs and classroom-parish resources, contact Eileen Emerson, Church Outreach Department, 209 West Fayette Street, Baltimore, MD 21201; phone 410-625-2220, ext. 3231, or e-mail eemerson@catholicrelief.org.

A little boy recited this poem to us at Saint Thomas Primary:
If all the oceans were one ocean, what a mighty ocean that will be. If all the trees were one tree, what a mighty tree that will be. If all the axes were one ax, what a mighty ax that will be. If all the men were one man, what a mighty man he will be. And if the mighty man took the ax and cut down the mighty tree and it fell into the mighty ocean, what a great splash there will be. I am one of sixty-five million Catholics in the United States. What a mighty voice we will be if, united by our faith, we challenge structures and policies that contribute to injustice throughout the world. It begins with relationships. Solidarity will indeed transform the world.


Copyright © 2009 Saint Mary's Press. Permission is granted for this article to be freely used for classroom or campus ministry purposes; however, it may not be republished in any form without the explicit permission of Saint Mary's Press. For more resources to support your ministry, call 800-533-8095 or visit our Web site at www.smp.org.

Published October 15, 2001.