Imagine spending two hours a day carrying 40 pounds of dirty water in a bucket on your head, taking it back to your house to use for your cooking and cleaning.
Imagine having one doctor for 275,000 people.
Imagine your child's school having no plumbing, electricity, library or play structures.
Imagine sharing a communal trench between back yards for your garbage and sewage.
These are not imaginings for millions of people in Ghana. These are the realities of their lives.
Luckily, there is also joy and hope.
Like many, I had seen shocking images looking through National Geographic my whole life and heard people who had been there speak of it. But nothing prepared me for the astonishing experience I had as a photojournalist for two weeks in Ghana last year.
It had long been a dream of mine to go to Africa as part of a mission team. I had two main reasons - an unquenchable sense of adventure, and a desire to do more than just plaster a 'Peace is the Way' bumper sticker on my car and think I had done my part to spread goodwill in a world increasingly aggravated by American policy and actions.
My personal preparations included raising funds to cover my own expenses - something I am loathe to do - but I knew that I could not do this without support. I was overwhelmed by the response to my letter to friends and family - it seemed that a lot of people were eager to make a difference and generously supported me.
The trip was filled with shocking sensual experiences, starting with the smell on stepping off the plane - a swirl of perspiration, urine and burning rubber carried deep into my nose by the humid air. Mission veterans who had been all over the world laughed at my reaction - that's the smell of third world countries, you'll get used to it they said. In fact, I never did.
In fact, within a few hours of arriving, I had completely met my 'need for adventure' quotient. Part of me wanted to crawl under my bus seat and suck my thumb, or get off the bus and go back to the land of clean drinking water and Costco.
But, there was that other part of my reason for going that kept me on the bus and clicking away on my camera - the need to see what could be done to help these people.
This brought up a dilemma for me. What IS the definition of 'help?' These people had a good system of life before the Europeans came - they lived in balance with nature, and as I agonize over the complications and stresses of my 'civilized' life, I wondered if what we as outsiders have done - and continue to do - is really helping them, and the planet, in the long run.
For example, our team performed more than 150 surgeries while we were there, and has drilled more than 100 wells in the past year and a half. This will enable thousands of people to live healthier lives, which means adults living longer, families having 8 children instead of 6 with much improved life expectancies. Is it 'helpful' to enable them to have more children when they cannot feed the ones they have? And what about the additional strain on the limited natural resources?
I also agonized over American arrogance that our way is the best way for everyone. For example, we brought bags of candy from a country rife with obesity to people with perfect teeth struggling to get basic nutritional needs met. We have brought religions that sanctioned slavery to people who lived close to the earth and each other and caused chiefs to sell their own kind into slavery. On the other hand, these faiths also brought the hospital (Catholic) and the school (Methodist) that we were working in, and, based on the passion of their services, it also brings them a lot of joy and hope.
I pondered these things as I chronicled the team's extraordinary efforts. A library was built in sweltering heat for the school children and local community (the local library for 270,000 people was the size of my bedroom). The school team stocked supplies and worked with students and teachers. Two washing machines and dryers were installed at the hospital where all the laundry had been done by hand. The medical team performed surgeries and saw clinic patients, medicines and surgical supplies were stocked, the lab staff and nurses were trained in new procedures.
I continued to wrestle over our long-term impact on the lives of thousands of people and the planet after I returned, and talked with many people about it. It seemed to me that the most important thing we needed to give them was education - about how to grow their own food, about birth control, about taking care of our earth and each other.
Luckily, my friend Jay, a veteran of such trips, was able to set my mind at ease by pointing out that we cannot educate people who are starving, who are dying from the effects of bad water, who are spending their days carrying water from place to place. Yes, there would likely be a bulge in population until the education can start, but then, yes then, we can hopefully share with them the best of who we are with respect for the good that is in their ways. Together, we learn from each other and care for this world we all call home.
There is more detail and a plethora of photos about my experience at my Web site www.pixelegacy.com - click the Ghana link on the home page.