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Sunday, April 2

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Would you pretend to be Christian for a paid trip to Africa for the purpose of taking pictures? Such a question was posed to me last spring, but I couldn't answer immediately. "Let me think about it."

Some background: I renounced my somewhat lax Methodist upbringing by the time I was 14, and haven't looked back. Which isn't to say I'm an atheist, or anything else that can be labeled; I just look elsewhere, mostly within and without. But that's not what this piece is about.

I love to travel. It's been my goal to go as many places as possible in my lifetime. I believe that people grow in proportion to new experiences, and I have thus cultivated a history of seeking out new environments just to see what it feels like to be there. I also love to take pictures. Ever since acquiring my first digital camera a couple years ago, I don't leave my house without some kind of photographic device. Everywhere I go I see potential pictures. The world in a frame.

Ghana map

Fig1. In 1957, Ghana became the first African colony to gain independence.

So it should be an easy decision, right? Someone else pays for me to go to a place I've never been, might otherwise never go, with the express purpose of taking photographs, documentation. Still, I couldn't just say yes. The trip would be with a group of Christians who are building an AIDS hospital in a rural Ghanan town called Ankaase, which is definitely a good thing. But they'll also be teaching bible school, something that makes me faintly queasy thinking about it.

I can't ignore all the historical damage done in the name of Christianity, the imperialism and exploitation of almost every African country for the profit of white men and the Western world. And I cannot be a part of that -- at least no more than my lifestyle as an American involuntarily contributes.

But building an AIDS hospital in the middle of a pandemic can't be all that evil, right? If I went, I'd be doing construction as well as taking pictures and shooting video. Construction, something I have always loved. There's something so satisfying about using your hands to build something, watch it come together, the feel of tools in a callusing palm. I've missed it. If I spent all my time on construction and documentation, there wouldn't be room for me to teach bible stuff. Maybe I could do this...

So I said yes. I'll go to Ghana for three weeks and try not to out myself as a heathen. Hypocrisy? Yep. But what has been more historically hypocritical than the Church? I'm used to speaking my opinions; I stopped pretending to be someone I wasn't years ago, and have been much happier for it. Even so, I've come to terms with the fact that I have to respect the people who are supporting me in this excursion. My fellow travelers, my sponsors. I just hope I don't have to sing Kumbaya.

Also, I think that if I went to Africa on my own and saw the AIDS crisis firsthand, as well as the poverty resulting from years of exploitation by my culture, I'd want to do something about it. It could be pretty depressing to just go there for fun and not do anything to help. So I'm doing this thing, this small thing that probably won't make much of a difference, but I'd like to think that it's better than tourism.

Since making the decision I've been a bit uneasy with it, forgetting to tell friends and family, who are used to me talking excitedly about whatever destination I plan to visit next. "I'm going to Ghana." Four words that have been surprisingly hard to say.

Now that the decision's been made, the preparation is underway: filling out visa applications, making lists of supplies, and getting vaccinations. Growing up, I endured years of weekly allergy shots, so needles don't phase me. Immunizations are a bit different though: after receiving the first round of Yellow Fever, Typhoid, and Hepatitis A and B shots, I could not move my arm more than 10 or 15 degrees for two days. It was so sore that just being touched made me wince. And I have how many more vaccinations to go? Polio, TB/ Diphtheria, Meningitis, more Hepatitis...

Gotta love the health care system, and by "love" I mean "loathe": three shots cost me almost $400 because my insurance wouldn't cover it (and I consider myself very lucky to even have insurance). I could have taken pills instead of getting a shot for Typhoid, but decided against swallowing live salmonella. If I decide to get rabies vaccinations, three of those shots will cost me $600. I'll be in a rural village with a lot of dogs; I like dogs, and my instinct is to pet them. If I do get bit or scratched, I'd have to drive six hours to a facility and pay $1,000 for an emergency immunoglobulin shot made from human blood, which, in Africa, has a pretty high chance of containing HIV. I haven't yet made a decision on the rabies shot.

Then there's Malaria. I'll be slathering myself with DEET mosquito repellant and taking 300mg a day of vitamin B1, but will still need to take Malaria pills. I got a crash course on the various prescriptions available: Larium is most commonly prescribed, and while the "vivid dreams" seem like a cool side effect, the psychotic episodes and hair loss made me choose against it. Doxycycline is cheap, but usually causes yeast infections and stomach problems. So I settled on Malarone, which has the least amount of common side effects (only seven), but costs about $5 a pill.


Fig2. Five dollars, 10, 15, 20, 25...

The travel clinic gave me a thorough lecture on not drinking tap water (no ice in drinks, either), something I got used to when I lived in Sydney and the water supply was contaminated for six weeks. Also, no swimming in freshwater to avoid Schistosomiasis. No eating fresh fruit, since it's frequently injected with water to add weight. Plus a prescription for Cipro in case I do get traveler's diarrhea.

So much more to do before I leave: buy supplies, get additional immunizations, attend training in Alabama this weekend, shop for and purchase a video camera, find out about the power availability and voltage...lots to do but it's all quite exciting, even the mundane tasks.

Though part of me remains conflicted about the trip, I've made a decision: I'm going to Ghana.


Naz / July 25, 2003 8:29 AM

Jes, that sounds pretty damn intense. Though you had mentioned some of this before, I hadn't heard the whole thing that is intense. I respect you for it though, because it is bad-arse and it is doing something you believe in (not the Missionary thing that is). Salut!

Alex / July 25, 2003 9:13 AM

A few things:

1. I've got many friends who've lived in Ghana and other similar places, so feel free to contact me if you've any questions (I also specialize in putting up with Christians and can offer advice on this).

2. Get hold of a copy of "Where There is No Doctor", read it now and take it with you. Important to be healthy and safe.

3. People in the US have REALLY fucked up ideas about antimalarials. LARIUM? You'd have to be insane to take that shit. Frankly I'd stay away from Malarone. Artimisin and it's derivatives are pretty good, but unavailable in the US. Best bet is to pick up pharmaceuticals when you're there. Read up on the web. Given the US health care system and malaria's exoticness, it's easy to know more about malaria than an american doctor.

4. Buy a book on the history of Ghana or Africa (or start reading web sites regularly). You may find that many in Ghana are deeply Christian, or have a different understanding of colonialism than you do.

5. Rabies? I wouldn't sweat it. But DO take the follow up shots for your other immunizations. Make a copy of all your immunization cards and leave them at home, then take the originals with you. Do this with all your documents, in fact.

6. You'll be blogging the trip, right?

7. Talk to Ghanians in Chicago (i.e. every 3rd cab driver) to get a feel for what Ghanians think about.

8. Accra ain't Sydney, baby ('tho it is our sister city)! Take care, prepare well and have a blast.

Andrew / July 25, 2003 10:16 AM

Speaking of Ghanans in Chicago, the Ghana Chicago Club [ ] could be a good resource for you.

Wiz of Odds / July 25, 2003 7:22 PM

Jes- With God, as Assyrians say. Travel is the perfect time to become that Perpetual Noticing Machine. Enjoy yourself, be safe, and, I guess, congratulations.

Waleeta / July 26, 2003 6:25 PM

Hey Jes,
With all the bad things Christians have done, they have done tenfold good, and if you think of it that way, you won't see this as a religious quest, but a human one. Don't do it in the name of any religion, do it in the name of mankind. Mistakes of the past don't take our right for amendments later. And take lots and lots of pictures.

pippa / July 27, 2003 8:42 AM

effectively, all you've done is "padded out" a job application for a job which you deserve. have an excellent time!

Cinnamon / July 27, 2003 8:16 PM

Jes, I can understand your reticence about associating yourself with a group of people who will probably do some preaching to people who may historically be unChristian. But, I think it is important that you be there to help a group of people who need so very much. Good luck, tell us all about it, and represent yourself.

j3s / July 28, 2003 2:48 PM

Thanks for all the input and support, you guys. The more time goes by (and the closer I get to departure) the more comfortable I get with my decision. I just can't say no to travel.

Corporate Groceries Rule / July 28, 2003 4:16 PM

First of all, it is really sad you are looking at the Christian Mission as your own personal travel agent.

Second, did you ever stop to think you are taking the space of a person who would actually go to Africa and try to reach the soul of a child? Maybe you are taking the place of a person who would not only build the hospital but also stay and work at the hospital. But as long as your photo album is full and you have stories to tell your friends of how wordly you are, some things just don't matter I guess.

Your justification of this trip only reaffirms that humans are inherently selfish. Your actions are nothing different than any action a king or queen or pope or president has done to glorify their legacy in the name of some higher power (or, in your case, lack of a higher power).

Andrew / July 28, 2003 4:33 PM

Um, they asked *her* to go. It's not like she infiltrated the group solely to get to Ghana. They specifically wanted someone to photodocument the project, she's not taking the place of a worker. So back off, chum.

kegz / July 29, 2003 11:43 AM

First of all, anonymous posters rule. No matter what you think, sign your name. If you can't stand up and be counted for your opinion on a message board, what do you do in real life?

Andrew, I'm a little confused then. If they asked her to go, why the false pretense of being Christian? Unless they are strict about their rules, I wouldn't think that Jes' religion would matter if her photo work was why they invited her.

Most groups are happy to have people who don't share their faith along with them. Just be prepared to be another faith conversion target.

j3s / July 29, 2003 11:52 AM

Thanks for the criticism, but did you even read the article? I acknowledged that I was selfish, as almost all people are. I discussed feeling no better than anyone else that exploited African people for their own personal gain. I almost declined the trip for those reasons.

As for "lacking a higher power," I said up front that I do have my own spiritual beliefs; just because they don't fall within a popular organized religion doesn't make them any less valid.

Andrew is correct: I was asked to go on this trip. They need someone to photodocument the project. I'm not looking at it as a portfolio builder, more as an opportunity for a new experience. Which, I hate to tell you, is how all of the Christians on this mission see the trip as well.

I also discussed my position on this trip with its organizer. I am not taking anyone else's place, no one else wanted to go.

But none of what I said probably matters to you. You seem to be set in your view of who I am, though you don't know me at all.

However, I asked for comments to be enabled on this post so I could have feedback, all kinds. Life would be pretty boring if all we had was positive feedback, so thanks for spicing up my day and providing another view.

miss ellen / July 29, 2003 12:14 PM

good luck, Jes! i truly believe in what you are doing & wish you the best. i hope that you can come away with an incredible experience to share with others; as i see this as something to learn from, and then teach others.

it's not as selfish as some might see it, because with knowledge comes power, and the world needs all the power it can get to remedy the AIDS pandemic.

jen / July 31, 2003 10:08 AM

empathizing with your religious conflict, i say it's the right choice. attending a democratic gathering in DC one week before war was declared on saddam, i sat through an honoring ceremony for Bono, the "patron saint" for the war on aids in Africa. although i never thought much of rockstars getting on their soapboxes about a cause, i think ANY help in the name of AIDS is better than none. so go Bono and go Jes!
good luck.
be safe.

Qeenmo / August 23, 2004 2:01 AM

Jes, what group is this. I like to go. I've being working with HIV/Aids group and look forward to using this experience to help in Ghana


About the Author(s)

Jesica Davis leaves for Ghana on September 3rd.

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