7 55 5 6 5 7 5 6 5
Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot,
nothing is going to get better. It's not.
-_Dr. Seuss, The Lorax
t's flat-out awkward for two people to share a pair of sewing scissors among their ten right-hand fingers, but Hannah and the tribal chief are trying their best. After a few seconds of what looks like thumb wrestling, they evenly control the scissors' gray plastic handle, then carefully move toward the sky-blue ribbon stretched across the door in front of them.
Forget Oscar Madison and Felix Unger. This is the oddest couple I've ever seen: a grinning fifteen-year-old white American girl in her wicking REI khakis and an earnest seventyish African tribal chief in gold and brown ceremonial robes worn like a toga across his left shoulder. She speaks English and has come six thousand miles for this. He speaks the tribal language Twi, and I'm guessing he has never left the West African nation of Ghana, except for maybe a vacation journey to neighboring Togo or Burkina Faso.
Yet here they are, pairing up for the opening ceremony of this new hand-cranked corn mill. For all their differences, they share a goal of helping this rural community on its path out of poverty, the chief because these are his people and Hannah because she is so eager to make the world a little better that she has uprooted her family and pledged more than $800,000 to help villagers in a country she couldn't locate on a map a year ago.
Their eyes meet for a second, the chief's gray goatee and mostly bald head contrasting with Hannah's auburn hair, which falls to the middle of her back and is frizzing in the July West African heat. The chief is silent as Hannah quickly and quietly counts, “One, two, three.” Her plan is for them to squeeze the scissors at precisely the same time. As usual, Hannah is striving for fairness.
I am standing on the other side of the ribbon, swelling with pride in our daughter. For months we've been talking about moments just like this: How doing with a little less ourselves can improve the lives of people surviving on less than a dollar a day. How we can enable opportunity for African girls who otherwise would carry corn for hours, missing school while their parents work in the fields. How humble structures like this simple cinder-block building will keep more young women pursuing education, creating much better life options for themselves. Now that dream is happening right before my eyes. And Hannah, the girl who so often crawled into bed with my wife, Joan, and me when she was younger, is fully in charge, almost an adult in her own right.
Only an hour ago our family had arrived here in Abisu Number One, which we were thrilled to find on our very detailed, two-sided map of Ghana. Amazingly, in a country no bigger than the state of Oregon, we have spent two days visiting village after village too insignificant to be mapped. That said, Abisu Number One doesn't even get its own name, instead sharing it with nearby Abisu Number
But that's part of why this mill is such a big deal. If your community is too insignificant to merit its own name, you're not going to have the political muscle to get any resources. Forget rising to the top of the list for the food processor, school project, or health-care facility. In Abisu Number One's case, it hasn't received electricity or running water
As we emerged from our vehicles in Abisu Number One, Hannah, her brother, Joseph, Joan, and I might as well have been wearing neon arrows screaming “Look here!” Like it or not, we are the center of attention. We are the outsiders_-_not just people from somewhere else, but the most foreign people for miles, miles uncrossed by villagers who don't have transportation. Small children point. They call us obruni (white person) as they see what they've never seen before, people with pale skin. They want to touch us, shake our hands, feel our arms, understand whether we're
For our teenagers, it's a new world being the “other.” For all of Hannah's and Joseph's lives, they have been the majority: white kids in a mostly white world, English-speakers in an English-language society, a±uent in an a±uent community. Now we are the di¬erent ones, the ones with the name that the majority calls us.
“It was really awkward to be put in the spotlight and kind of frightening at first to be the odd one out,” Joseph told me later. “It gave me kind of a fish-out-of-water experience.” Our five-foot, ten-inch redhead was about to turn fourteen, so there was no shortage of awkwardness in his life, but it was impossible to deny how much he stood out as the white kid with braces (a dental procedure, coincidentally, that cost as much as this corn mill we're dedicating, about $6,000).
Hannah and the chief are poised at the ribbon, and she has reached the count of three. Snip, cheer, and the race is on.
Scores of cheering villagers sprint through the cut ribbon to the building's front door and pass under the hand-painted sign that announces the grandly and awkwardly named Improved Food Production and Security Program Food Processor. They are eager to see the mill, which will grind the corn used to make kenkey, a sticky, polenta-like food that serves as the staple for each day's meals.
I don't realize it, but Joan doesn't race in with me. Always the reflective one in our family, she pauses to ponder the ribbon now dangling outside the building's front door. Hannah and the chief had cut the strip almost perfectly in half. Half, Joan was thinking. How appropriate.
Inside the mill, a villager attaches the crank to the machine, which looks like a large supermarket meat grinder. One turn, a second turn, then the mill whirs to life. A cheer reverberates off the peach cinder-block walls and corrugated metal roof. Jubilant men and women grab handfuls of corn and toss them into the intake bin; others grab the powdery meal coming out the bottom and fling it into the air.
“The energy in the room was amazing,” Hannah later wrote in her diary. “I'd never seen people so happy, and especially for grain! Unbelievable.”
Not surprisingly, this moment had quite an impact on our fifteen-year-old. As Hannah told me later, “I couldn't believe that something taken completely for granted in our society could mean so much in another. We don't even realize the measures that these people go through to make huge changes in their community that seem insignificant in ours.”
She gets it! Is it parenting? Or are Joan and I finally catching up to what Hannah has long known_-_that our little band of four has the power to make a difference?
We're a long way from home in every way. It's not just that Ghana is across the Atlantic Ocean from where we live in Atlanta, Georgia. It's more a frame of mind.
I'll explain. I grew up in Brooklyn, the youngest of three children and the only boy in our Jewish family. My parents, as the expression goes, put the dys in dysfunctional, bitterly battling for years until they split for good when I was fourteen. My solution to all this was simple: just disappear. As I was graduating from high school, I figured a thousand miles was about far enough to leave the set of the real family feud behind. So I headed to Northwestern University, outside Chicago.
When I think back, charity was nowhere on my family's radar. I can't remember a single day of volunteering anywhere. I can't remember making any contributions, except the day in the 1960s when my family gave away an old winter coat to “a bum” (the common term back then) on the Bowery in lower Manhattan. For my mother, a desire to hold on to what she had wasn't surprising;