Yesterday Bob, Jeremy and I explored the territory behind our neighborhood in what is left of the Kumasi Forest Preserve. The area is divided by a concrete ditch flowing with dirty water. The ditch is at least 30 feet across and probably 15 to 20 feet deep. The sides are steep concrete inlaid with large rocks.
Both sides of the ditch are lined with piles of glass bottles, dump truck loads from the nearby Guinness bottling plant. As well as corn patches, banana groves, cocoa trees, cassava, market gardens, foraging hump-backed cattle, rice fields and subsistence farmers living in shacks with their families.
We walked for an hour, due east from our neighborhood, turning north to walk along the ditch, then east across the ditch over a concrete walk way, then south to another concrete ditch crossing and north again back to our neighborhood. Along the way we encountered and chatted with people we met. Bob spoke with a man gleaning corn from a harvested stand of corn. He told Bob he was hungry. We stopped to exchange pleasantries with a man shoveling smoking charcoal while his wife and baby entertained themselves on the ground nearby.
As we approached the wide highway traffic bridge to the north, we noticed small shacks on either side of the ditch and what appeared to be a community living underneath the wide bridge. Surely, these folks were squatters, the poorest of the poor. Yet all greeted us with polite smiles and took time to converse with us.
On the other side of the ditch, we couldn’t help but notice with a mix of horror and fascination, the piles of human excrement clinging to the top few feet of the steep ditch wall. This is real poverty, when you have to hang your ass off a ledge to relieve yourself. And yet, what amazingly strong leg muscles these people must have! Surely, there must have mishaps. The image of such an accident was sobering. Tumbling down fifteen or twenty feet of shit encrusted rock into the nasty water below would be a terrible start to any day. We tore our eyes and imaginations from this subject and pressed on.
We had an interesting conversation with Prince, a Nigerian in a colorful suit who was overseeing the bagging of glass for shipment to the coast and ultimately by barge for processing. He was tall and sure of himself, spoke frankly about his reasons for doing business here rather than Nigeria and had tribal scars on his face, a short horizontal scar on the top of each cheek.
We, or rather Bob spoke with a market garden farmer working with his son. He was growing cabbage, peppers and eggplant, working with his son while his wife and smaller children did chores around their small wooden shed of a home. In another conversation with a man named Peter, Bob got the lowdown on a fairly large rice operation. We learned that Peter harvests his labor intensive crop three months after transplanting seedlings, then threshes it and takes it to market to sell to the rice polishers.
Back on the dirt roads in our neighborhood, we walked the street that parallels Dr. J. G. Wood to the east for the first time. Outside the home behind our kitchen window, the one with the angels on it, we met an older man. He invited us to come visit him in his home. “We see your house from our kitchen window,” Bob said, pointing up at our house, “Does your house have angels on it?” The man said it did. His name is Samuel, he is a doctor with a practice near the airport and offered to make a house call any time one of us fell ill.
At home, we shared our stories with housemates Justin and Joanne. Joanne remembered something Mother Teresa had said regarding poverty in the United States. So, I looked it up. “Mother felt the need to serve the poorest of the poor in this rich country,” said Sister Dorothy, “because she thought poverty in this country was quite different from poverty in India.” The worst poverty in the United States, she explained, is “loneliness, unwantedness, not being loved.”
The quote rings true based on what we had seen that morning. Although the people we met during our morning walk were mostly dirt poor, they seemed content and connected to one another with enough social energy to extend warm welcomes and take the time to share a little about themselves. It is easy to contrast this observation with the isolation we have experienced in the comfortable and affluent United States. Perhaps the knowledge that you have everything you want and need makes it easy to build a wall. Surely, air conditioning helps keep people sectioned off behind the walls of their choosing. All the comforts of home serve to keep one at home. Without those comforts, people tend to socialize more.
I like to think one can have it both ways, have their basic needs met without sacrificing community. Back in Moncure, this is exactly what our neighbors are trying to achieve – a happy balance between self-sufficiency and inter-dependence. Kudos to our good friends back home. We look forward to resuming our well-balanced life at the bend next year.