In 2000 I received a Fulbright grant through Yale University to travel with 11 other teachers to Ghana, West Africa. As a volunteer religion teacher to children with special needs in my parish (St. Mary’s in Greenwich, Conn.), I was an anomaly in the group of high school and grade school teachers and one college professor. I returned to the north of Ghana in 2008 and again in 2011, where I have been working on a girls’ education initiative.
I meet David for the first time when we are ushered into his office in Bolgatanga where he works for an American-based nongovernmental organization. He is wearing a white “smock,” a loose, skirt-like garment worn as a shirt—formal attire for men in northern Ghana. Tall and thin, speaking in British colloquialisms, he reminds me of an English aristocrat, except for the scar on his left cheek that resembles the scratch of a lion claw across his dark skin.
Later David (not is real name) will tell me that the mark is the imprint of the Nankani people for identification in times of war. His father had insisted on it, fearing his mother could take him one day to her people, where he would be mistaken for a Dagomba rather than a Nankani prince. His father, from a royal family and ashamed to be so poor, left his rural village at 18 with no formal education. Eventually he found a job as a policeman in a gold mine near where David was born and lived until he was 2 years old.
When David’s mother became seriously ill, his father took him to be cared for by extended family back in his home village where, in the mornings, “mamas” might offer him five or six peanuts and a cup of dirty water for breakfast. Often the contaminated water gave him worms, he will later tell me, rolling up his pant leg to show the scars where the worms had finally broken through the skin. He had nothing to eat until supper, a bowl of mush made from ground maize and okra.
At 17 David received a scholarship to a Jesuit boarding school for boys located a fair distance away. When he arrived at the school, barefoot in tattered shorts and shirt, the other boys teased him mercilessly, and after a few days he went to the headmaster, a Catholic priest and a native of Ghana himself, to say that he was going home.
The priest said to him, “Look up. What do you see?”
“I see the ceiling,” David said.
“No, I mean, if we go outside at nighttime, what do you see?”
“I see the moon and the stars,” David answered.
“Just so. That is you,” said the priest. “Your purpose is far beyond what is contained here in this little room.” Then the priest opened the cupboard, took out a clean cotton shirt and gave it to David. “Put this on,” he said. “Every morning you are to report here to me, and I will accompany you to the assembly,” the headmaster said. “But under no circumstances, for any reason whatsoever, are you to leave this school.” It was a turning point in David’s life.
David went on to earn a master’s degree in economic development in England, but always wanted to return to help his people. He is working now in the regio n where he grew up, where two out of three people fall below the poverty line, which is about $98 a year. Of these over 80 percent are women with dependent children.
The purpose of the nongovernmental organization he works for is to help create and manage farming collectives. During one brief rainy season the collectives can produce food for the year—groundnuts (peanuts), beans, soy, millet, guinea corn and rice. The N.G.O. lends money for seeds, supplies and equipment to about 100 women farmers who participate in the cooperative; they pay back the money as the farms become productive.
“Giving handouts is an emergency measure, but it doesn’t solve economic woes in the long run,” says David as we sit in a circle in his office at the N.G.O.
David is making arrangements for us to spend the following day working alongside the farmers. “You will come away with a better understanding if you work in the fields,” David tells us. “Wear long sleeves and long pants, and wear a hat. It will be hot.”
The fields in Navrongo lie a few miles from the border with Burkina Faso, with the arid Sahel not far off. It is hot, hot. Through an interpreter we talk with the farmers, who are dressed in wonderfully bright colored cloth, with turbans wound around their heads. I ask one her name.
“Howa,” she answers.
The women are enjoying our presence, laughing as if it is a great joke to watch us bend over, our fingers thrust deep in the dirt. But we will not be here long enough to become bone-tired or so hot that we are dehydrated or so hungry that we develop splitting headaches. We are, after all, only voyeurs of poverty.
Later, in an e-mail, I ask David why he chose to live so close to the bone himself, why he did not remain in England. He wrote: “No doubt life could have been easier for me had I remained in the West. I do relish the ‘good things’ of the West, but I realize that one may not have it both ways. The trade-off would be the loss of some part of myself. This work among my people is a work that I love.”
When we are back in Bolgatanga after working in the fields, David sits beside me at dinner. When he asks me what I do in the United States, I tell him about teaching religion to children with Down syndrome, discovering how gifted they are, even though in the eyes of the world they are seen as inadequate. “This is a work that I love,” I say.
“You don’t need to tell me that because it is written all over your face,” David says.
“Lyn,” he will later write, “I remember in our first meeting you talked about your work with ‘other-abled’ children. What touched me most was your emphasis on their being different, even unique, in such a way that the concept of diversity was not twisted to imply that one human being was inferior or superior to another.”
In his culture the handicapped are seen as cursed by God, less than human. But David realized that after speaking with me, he began to see disabled people differently. To illustrate his point David told me the story of how, a day or two after we had left Bolgatanga, he drove to a nearby village. When he parked his car under a tree, several mentally and physically handicapped adults approached him, he said, holding out their hands to beg. Instinctively, David reached into his pockets. “Let me share my poverty with you,” he said, distributing his money.
The next day, when he drove to the village, the same people were waiting under the tree. “Oh no!” he called out to them. “I gave you all my money!”
“We don’t want your money,” they replied. “We just want to shake your hand.”
David realized they were waiting to shake his hand because they were feeling a difference in the way he perceived them. There they were again, yearning to be seen as valuable human beings, just one more time. I believe we all have this deep craving to be seen. But perhaps it is felt more acutely by the physically and mentally disabled people, who for many reasons seem to be invisible to the rest of us.
David wrote me to say he experiences “the poorest of the poor” much as I experience my children with Down syndrome. He said that both groups “seem to have received a life sentence to remain ‘invisible’ to the rest of the world. We both share the pain of those who are so thoroughly discounted.”
I cannot help being struck by an overwhelming irony. From my perspective, David seems only slightly less poor than those he serves. No mere voyeur to poverty, David remains nearly invisible to many in more affluent circumstances, along with those he is trying to rescue from invisibility.
It has been said that we are enlightened not when we get a great idea, but when someone truly sees us—that is, sees us with God’s eyes. When we see each other in this way, we not only ensure that we are all are visible, but that we are loved and valued.