Friday, May 25, 2007

In Burkina

after a slow crawl north, which involved archbishops, anthropologists, italians and hernia surgeries (not my own), I have made it to burkina faso. My number here is +26678022119. My physical address is take the second six meters, after the pont, on charles de gaul, take the first right and the second house on the right. there are no street names or house numbers here, and this is the best i got. Any mail sent here probably would not reach me before i move again..

more to come

I have alot to catch up, but i have just arrived in Burkina, and this is the first time in a while my access has allowed me to update.... enjoy!
Yesterday, I once more packed my bags, said my goodbyes, caught a taxi, found myself a bus and left again. I have gotten fart too good at inadequately saying goodbye. I have perhaps taken too much to heart the advice that Ignatius once gave to his society and, quite the revers of the son of man, I leave like a thief in the night. I was only just beginning to get my feet on the ground there. It is quite funny, in fact. Just the day before I left, I got a call from one of the other fellows mother in laws, who is a Ghanaian. Her son even lives on campus, just around the corner from where I live. Time was too short for me, however, and this local connection remained unexplored and unenjoyed, as I departed Accra. It is only my experience at the Akrofi-Christaller Memorial Research Center ( that just might call me back, to even live here in fact. Their Masters to PHD program is attractive and their professors (particularly their director Dr. Kwame Bediako) are inspiring. Who would think that the country that seemingly left the least relational appeal for me, could become a 2-8 year home.
Anyways, the other aspect of leaving, which is not easy for me, is packing. I have done remarkably well in not collecting too many things as I travel. The exceptions being those times when I knew I had an opportunity to ship something home. I have once again, enlarged my already heavy traveling library and have added another 10 books to be placed on my bookshelf at home. I am an intellectual packrat and my collecting will put me into an early grave, or at least an early wheel chair. My back started hurting even before, I finished packing, just from the thought of carrying this around two more countries. Every time I pack, I encounter this strong desire to throw out half of everything I own. Maybe this hails to my Irish roots more than anything else: packing grows in me the desire to follow the spirit of the wandering ascetic monk. Unfortunately, foresight holds my hand, for I know that a simpler mike might regret it when he has worn the same shirt 4 days in a row a week later. Upon leaving Burkina, however, my last long term country, I will happily jet to the left and right items which have long been worn through or which will have no use for me in the comfortable life of Oregon.

It is funny how I can write two paragraphs on leaving without even mentioning where I am going. I began yesterday my overland journey north to Burkina Faso. I am currently in Kumasi where I am visiting The most Right Reverend Archbishop Peter Sarpong, who has been spearheading the issue of inculturation in Ghana. The bus ride to here, which was supposed to be 4 hours, ended up being closer to 7 after 2 breakdowns and a very slow engine (think of the steam engine that could going up the hills…. I think I can, I think I can). I am spending a few days here, visiting kumasi with the bishop, attending mass with him and then moving north once more towards tamale. From Tamale I head to Navrongo, where there is the largest mud cathedral in Ghana. Then on from there to Ouaga. It would seem I have a whirl wind of experiences ahead of me.


At the zoo we are always told not to feed the animals. What do you do when the animals try to feed you? I visited the kumasi zoo yesterday. The lack of variety of animals living there is made up for the proximity that you get to them. Indeed, I spent a good 10-15 minutes hanging out on the otherside of the bars of a chimpanzee. We had the most basic of hand gesture mimicking going on between us. I would put out my hand, he would put out his hand. I would point to the right, he would point to the right. Then at one point, he grabbed some papaya off the ground, lifted it and offered it to me. What do you do? Well, I did the best thing that I could think of, put out my hand and took his offer.
So what next? I had a piece of papaya, gifted to me from the zoo floor by a chimpanzee. I pretended to eat it and passed it back. He then sniffed it, and perhaps seeing that I didn’t eat any, passed it once again back to me. This activity went back and forth perhaps three times before I decided we had reached our language barrier and I walked on. It was nice to visit something normal.

While in Kumasi, I also attended the military museum. Typically I find such places to be generic and repetitive, but I was in for a real treat as the guide led me through and explained the entire history surrounding the 1900 Asante war, a conflict between the British and the Asante. The war began surrounding issues of the golden stool, the symbol of the Asante people. This stool is one of three artifacts that are sacred to the people, and it is said to hold the soul of the asante people. The british govenor at the time, having already deported the asante king to the Seychelles islands, demanded this stool, so as to “break the will” of the people. One woman stood in defiance, when the elders themselves were ready to fold, and began a war that lasted for 9 months.


A two weekends ago I went to the cape coast to visit the slave forts. Clean, sturdy and whitewashed, these buildings stand as a memento of the greatest tragedies to befall us in history, the mass transit of human beings sold as property. I had not done much research on the sites before going there, and found my own imagination to be inadequate to grasp the grave injustice that had been committed here. Attending a seminar for half of the week following on Christianity slave trade and anti-slave trade, I was able to better fill in the picture. Visiting the forts, the visitor unfortunately gets the idea that the story is black and white. The truth of the matter is that slavery and slave trading had long existed before the Europeans ever arrived to the continent. Arriving at the trading ports along the sea, they took advantage of this existing slave trade. Indigenous slave trade and slave holding has been maintained in Africa since time immemorial and exists today even still. People were regularly captured as prisoners of war and made into slaves to work in the ground or in the fields.
I am not trying to lessen the gravity of the tragedy of the slave trade. Within this mass forced migration, the gravest and most brutal offences against the human person were committed. Understanding slavery in its context, we can far better understand the long lasting ramifications of slavery. Indigenous slaves were kept here in Ghana, and many of them were attached to a family and became a part of it, with its own costs however. This person, attached to a family was devoid of privileges: they do not go to school; they do not inherit. This “stain” of slavery on a person still existed and is long remembered. It affects issues even today of chieftaincy and inheritance. I have even heard, though have not seen or experienced, that this form of indigenous slavery is going on today here in Ghana. Slavery was only outlawed here with british colonial rule.
The seminar that I attended did an excellent job in highlighting the impact that Africans in diaspora were having on the thought regarding the institution. For example, there was a free African brazilian catholic named Lorenzo in 1600’s who was quite influential within brazillian society and even spoke before the pope in italy regarding the plight of Africans. The pope responded by issuing a papal bull that forbade catholics from participating in any way in the slave trade. We followed more in-depth the movement towards the abolition of the slave trade in britian in 1807. I found it to be quite interesting that the initial stirrings of abolition as a movement came out of the Pennsylvania colony in the US.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Embassy: the Madhatter’s tea party

Embassy: the Madhatter’s tea party

I went to the Burkina Faso embassy the other day. I was happy to see that they only required me to fill one form and hand it in, rather than the typical process of multiple copies and the applicants expense. The process was moving along rather quickly and smoothly, a great contrast to my experience at the embassy of Ghana in Cairo. I was finally sent through to the representative of Burkina Faso to pay the final fees. He gave me a form regarding a reciprocity agreement between his country and mine. It seems that Burkinabe students can receive a five year multiple entry visa to the US. He then told me that he could not give me a 3 month multiple entry visa. Here I hit confusion.
“What do you mean?” I asked, “will I only get a single entry visa?”
“I have to give you the five year visa, otherwise it will be like breaking the agreement.”
Who am I to argue with diplomats. I now have a five year multiple entry visa into Burkina Faso. Maybe I should invest in some land there.

Letter home

Dear Friends and family.
It has been a long time since I have written a letter out to you. I have tried to keep my blog updated ( ), but with regular traveling, working and illnesses, even that has become difficult.. So here comes the big update. Below is regarding my current experience in Ghana, and following that is a longer email regarding my experience these past four months. Feel free to skip straight to the photos in my facebook albums at:

Well, let’s all take a deep breath and dive on in!

I have now been in Ghana for nearly two weeks and the country is slowly beginning to grow on me. I had some initial set back with my research, finding that every number and email address I had for theologians here were wrong, and I got diagnosed with three tropical illness at one time: slight cases of typhoid and malaria, and a whole nest of intestinal flagellates. While I am sure the first two were false positives, I took the meds regardless, and felt that this was one case where the cure was certainly worse than the disease. By the end of my first week, however, things for the research started to look up, and the health situation was in hand.

I am living in a wonderful place that is owned by the hospitaler order of St. John. This order was initially started during the crusades to help house and protects pilgrims on their way to Jerusalem. I can assure you that they know nothing about the holy grail or the bloodline of Jesus and Mary Magdalene. Seems that the interest of the knights templar as portrayed in the Da Vinci code was not transmitted to their peers.

My little room is located on the room of this guest house, so I get a regular breeze, which is essential in this hot and sticky environment, and I have my very large porch, where I can read, stretch, sun or enjoy beers by moonlight with some of the other guests. I am living with three girls from Holland doing research here, one catholic priest from Eritrea finishing up a masters at Legon, another catholic priest getting a degree in music from legon and two other Ghanaian students, as well as two people on staff. We are nice happy little transitory family, even though it is few and far between that we are often in the same room. Regardless, I have plenty of chances for good conversation whether it be regarding theology, cultural experiences, food, or just regular chatting about the day.

I have had a chance to sink my toes somewhat into the religious scene here. Ghana is submersed in religion. Everywhere you go you will find tro-tros (minibus taxis) labeled with religious sayings, or shops named with some sort of religious affiliation. The Pentecostal charismatic culture seems to be the prevailing religious culture here, as many mainline churches respond to it and even adopt its techniques and practices. While many of the styles of music and preaching seems a direct copycat of the Pentecostal churches in the US, they play off the local culture successful, addressing fears of witchcraft and curses, while also including the more urban desires into their prayers of deliverance. I attended one of the prayer camps that is held three times a week during the night in my neighborhood. What an interesting experience. There were probably five different church groups in the area. The first one, the folks were shouting and yelling while standing in a circle. There was a “possessed” woman in the center, who one member and the pastor seemed to be regularly trying to exorcise. At two points she got up, pointed at me and called me a demon. Not exactly a hospitable environment. I just stood there pitying this woman, who, in my mind, did need some serious help, but it seemed that her own illness was being reinforced by this business. The second group I attended welcomed me to join their circle. Seeing that I didn’t understand Twi, another man came to translate for me. Once even the pastor asked to pray over me. While the prosperity gospel is not my style of Christianity, being there was reminiscent of other nighttime prayer services I have done with youth groups in the US. I was happy to at least be welcomed.

My interviews have continued to aid me as I discover what the role of the theologian is in this whole business of making the church relevant to people. It certainly can be difficult for the theologian here, especially with the widespread prevalence of the prosperity gospel, but they are hanging in there.

Today at the catholic church there was a fascinating blend of English, twi and even some latin. I went out of step when the latin came in, but the people around me didn’t and that is the real important thing. It was a beautiful service with a real diversity of music in it. More important for me, the preaching was excellent. It was engaging, challenging and theologically sound.

Ethiopia and Egypt:

The last three months have really been a whole other story in what started off as completely unfamiliar grounds. Landing in Ethiopia, a place where Christianity has existed since the 3rd century, I discovered a whole different and fully developed world of liturgy, theology, spirituality and lived religious life. Indeed, this Christianity pervaded every aspect of life. I certainly almost felt overwhelmed with the complexity and foreignness of it all.

I had intended, on arriving in Ethiopia, to attach myself to an organization so as to add a little more order to my life. That intention quickly dissipated as opportunity dropped on my plate. In my first week, I attended a symposium on religious life in Ethiopia that unveiled to me the many different identity issues facing the Catholic Church as it has often neglected the Ethiopian context as it has lived and worked there. It was a shock for me, who has been using culture and the necessity of inculturation as my paradigm for the past year, to see how my church, for which it should be so easy to inculturate given the vast resources and traditions available, failed. It pushed me to understand much more fully the history of this continent and to understand the psyche of the missionary. The former is much easier than the latter. I will spare you the details of this complex situation, but to paint a general picture, it somewhat suffices to point out two issues. To begin, there are, in effect, two catholic churches in Ethiopia. The first is the Ethiopian Catholic Church, whose historical roots lie in the mission work of Justin de Jacobis, and whose liturgy is based on the tradition in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. This church falls under the congregation for oriental churches at the Vatican. The second church is a series of Vicariates throughout southern Ethiopia. Their historical mission precedent would be Bishop Massaja, and their liturgy is a translated roman rite. They fall under the wing of propaganda fidem at the Vatican. The situation is further complicated as the Vatican itself has said that the Ethiopian Orthodox Church is a sister church, and is thus off limits to the proselytizing efforts of missionaries. The struggle between these two Vatican institutions is reflected in the different ideologies on the ground. It leaves one asking many questions about the church and about the role, purpose and limits of mission. That is all put rather broadly, and the situation is much more refined than described above, but, trying to keep even the general situation in my mind as I maneuvered through to understand this from a missiological perspective was enough to give anyone a headache.

I became dislocated by opportunity once more, as I was invited at the end of this week long symposium to join one of the French missionaries with his parents on a voyage through the northern part of Ethiopia to visit the rock hewn churches of Tigray. Joining us, would be this missionaries confrere, another French priest, and expert in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. Typical French scholar that he was, it seemed impossible to get any response to my questions, but another question. Sitting in that car, one began to understand why the Greeks put Socrates to death. Such a process goes far beyond unnerving. For two weeks we engaged in this religious tourism. Traveling with Fr. Emmanuel, however, we were able to get under the skin of these churches and better understand their meaning and purpose. Indeed, I had perhaps the most unorthodox but interesting exposure to these churches. Our trip ended with difficulty, as our car rolled off the road and we, all safe and unharmed, came a little closer to our maker that day. We were victims of the logic of local culture, as a man had crossed in front of our fast car three times as we were driving down the road. He escaped and killed those demons or shadows following him, thus ensuring his long life, and escaped from the long arm of the law for nearly killing us. Close as we became during our travels, my two priest friends invited me to live in their community.

With antsy feet, after a week in Addis, I took to the road again, this time traveling south to the borana people to visit with missionaries working down there. It was quite an interesting experience, for these missioners were first generation missionaries. They were the first Christian missionaries to leave the city and move into the bush. In a world that is increasingly becoming smaller and smaller, I went to see them and the Borana people, for whom the word globalization does not enter their vocabulary. The borana are a proud people, who have managed to maintain many of their strong cultural traditions. I felt like I had stepped out of the city and into the bible. Here I was amongst semi-nomadic pastoralists who have held onto their traditions because of distance and isolation as well as their strong pride for their history. I was able to discuss with Ide and to learn about what it was like when they first came out into the Bush, and how they initially approached the borana’s. It was wonderful encounter this situation of cultural rendezvous without it also containing the historical baggage of colonialism and cultural imperialism.

Returning to Addis, I was able, as I had wished, to lend a little more of my time away, aiding The Catholic Near East Welfare Association, a catholic development agency in the area, and adding some medical skills to my resume as I dressed wounds at Mother Theresa’s. The first certainly gave me another insight into the state of the Catholic Church in Ethiopia, as I learned how dependent this church was on foreign assistance. This unsustainable state becomes manifest in the congregation, as upon converting, they ask what the church will for them now. Thus the Catholic Church is viewed as an NGO. Indeed, there is much more to it, but for the sake of brevity, I will avoid the intricacies.

The work at Mother Theresa’s proved to be far more dramatic than I might have ever expected. In the US, an amateur as me would not be allowed near a patient. Learning on the job, I found myself irrigating flesh wounds my first day of volunteering. Soon, following the heels of my friend Paul, I was assisting him dress bed wounds, feed children with mental disabilities and visit those in the AIDS ward. It was a striking experience. The concerns here were not thinking of some creative way to introduce culture. It reminded me that if theology does not move from here, from people’s basic life issues, then it has no meaning. Compassion perhaps transcends these contextual boundaries.

I came closer at times to bloated and gangrene wounds that I ever thought my eyes or my nose could handle. I began to understand how a doctor could seem at times so dispassionate. For the simple sake of keeping my lunch down, I had to turn off, different parts of my brain, and approach a wound as a mechanic might. Scrub, scrub, clip, cut, clean and wrap, was my song, and finishing this final verse, I would send a patient on his or her way. Is this healthy? Perhaps not, but I was at least able to work efficiently that way, even if the sights and smells trailed back home with me in my mind.

Feeding the young girls with mental disabilities, I was perhaps able to reawake the compassion that was only living in my hands as I dressed wounds. Many of these girls were found abandoned on the street. At Mother Theresa’s clinic they had a home, food, and people around to care for them. Some were incapacitated, staring into the distance while wailing. A few other girls would run up to me, always silent, but grab my hand and keep me company. Feeding by hand one particularly rowdy girl, I found that singing to her slowly and softly the old song “Blue moon” she calmed down enough where I could place food into her mouth. It was an experience that calmed and rejuvenated me as well.

The Missionaries of charity, by the way, do no fundraising for their work. Yet across the world people are leaving work or school to volunteer ranging from a few weeks to a few years. Everything comes to them by donation. Even within the volunteer lounge, I found crackers, jams and cheeses that are donated from the airlines exclusively to the missionaries of charity.

I never expected my year to take me to a clinic as such. I certainly never thought that I myself would handle, treat and dress wounds. I have been in hospitals with ministry to the sick before, but it has always been in a sterile environment. Death, illness and suffering are “clean” processes in the US, and we who are visitor and observant, are distanced from the suffering of the person afflicted. In Ethiopia, physically closer to such illness, I seemed to find my own ways mentally to distance myself. Living as a temporary resident in a city, I also find myself fighting to find my own place in my surroundings. Throughout my whole year, I have felt at times that my life can be consumed by the small battles that are fought, won or lost, and forgotten the next day. Where will my next cheap meal come from, what is the fair price from here to there, how can I keep ants out of my cookies, are examples of a few of these little issues that rarely in themselves carry on to the next day. It’s funny, because thinking back; I could easily afford fiscally to leave these questions and basic issues behind me. I could eat at the ritz everyday, pay whatever is asked, no matter how outrageous it would sound to someone living there, or consume rather than preserve. I don’t know if I would have cherished my experience as much as I do, if I were to live differently. I have the chance, because of my own make up (frugal fellow that I am) and because of the circumstances that I set myself in, to really put my foot in step with my neighbors and try to live as if I were really living here, and not just a passing tourist. Course, that doesn’t take away the sore back from washing my clothes in a bucket.

My time in Ethiopia culminated and ended with Holy week. Lent had passed by almost without notice for me, having left behind all the religious cultural markers that I use to make sense of this time of the year, but one could not help but fall into the rhythm of the week of Pain (translation from the Ge’ez of the Ethiopian equivalent of holy week). Indeed, I spent over 24 hrs in the church that week, in prayer, performing 200 prostrations and finally ending with the joyous celebration of Easter, heralded in with cystrum, symbol and drum. The feeling of joy at that final Easter celebration was palatable. For the Ethiopians, they starkly mark out the season of lent through observances such as abstaining from all animal products, fasting before church finishes at 3 pm, and excluding any musical instrument from the church service. For the first time in 50 days, drums were heard in the church and the people responded.

I left Ethiopia happy to be on to new experiences. My close friends (Jesuit novices who I knew from Tanzania, then volunteering at Mother Theresa’s in Ethiopia), had left the country to return to their formation in Tanzania, my employer friends were off in New York, and my regular moving had not allowed me to follow up on the few chance acquaintances I had made along the way. Furthermore, as interesting as the Ethiopian Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church were, I knew that a full dedication to the study of these would take years and not the few months I had left in my time. I traveled on to Egypt, for a little vacation time with my sister. She was flying over from Rome and it was the first time I would see anyone from home in 8 months.

Grace and I ran up and down the country, visiting ancient site upon ancient site, boating on the Nile, haggling at the market while diverting the more aggressive salesmen and finally finding ourselves too exhausted to see much of the night life. We were shocked at the age of these antiquated artifacts around us. The graffiti itself is older than most buildings one sees in the US! Seeing crosses inscribed in some of the different temples, it began to provoke in my mind questions about what sort of transition there was from the tradition pharonic religions to Christianity, and how did that prior religion influence latter.

My own plans to leave Cairo for Accra were delayed, as I got ejected from the airport. For once, my American passport wouldn’t get me a visa on demand at the airport in Accra. So I got stuck in Cairo for another week. Thus the bureaucratic struggles began. I found the embassy of Ghana to be courteous, but disinclined to being flexible with their spaced out consulate hours. With a week to spare, I did my best to further my research work and to pursue these questions provoked in the ancient temples turned churches. I visited Coptic churches, and after a brief inspiration, went to the cathedral to get permission to stay at a monastery. I was told this was a relatively painless process, but the three days I spent waiting for the bureaucracy to push through speak a different story. It further goes to prove that while the government has high claims to slow bureaucratic systems, religion invented it, and to this day is seeking to perfect it. I headed off for the monasteries, with an aftertaste of inhospitality in my mouth. I arrived and found a compassionate ear amongst one of the long-term guests at the monastery. He helped me find lodging in town. The following day, providence struck, and I was able to sleep in the monastery of Boromos. I did not have enough time to properly experience the monastic life, indeed that might take years, but my brief exposure to their desert experience left me curious and intrigued.

I am sure I have left you all a little exhausted if you have managed to read to this point. Please don’t be a stranger however, and send me news of your own lives. I certainly don’t expect the six page monster that you find here, but just a few words letting me know how life is getting on with you. I will be back in the US this August, and probably will be living in Oregon this coming year.

Sincerely yours,

Friday, May 04, 2007

more photos up

bit by bit