Humanist Service Corps News

This article is part of a series written by FBB volunteers detailing their experiences in the Humanist Service Corps. The opinions expressed in this article may not necessarily express those of Foundation Beyond Belief as a whole, its staff, or donors. 

August 2019. 

On June 27th, I left Salt Lake City with three suitcases and a backpack, as ready as I was going to be. Earlier in the year, I had applied for and been accepted into the Humanist Service Corps (HSC). My first stop was in Houston where I would meet the FBB team, and prepare to live for a year in Cape Coast, Ghana. We would be a small team: myself, one other American, and our team leader from Ghana. 2019-sept-unpacking-by-judit-kleinMy previous travel experience was limited to the western United States and a very “touristy” trip to Cancún. The longest flight I had ever taken was fewer than 5 hours, and I had never lived outside of Utah. My adult life consisted of moving from one side of Salt Lake City to another, mostly working office jobs in hospitality and tourism without having much of the tourism experience. When I saw the call for HSC applications and was subsequently called for an interview, I thought “there's no way they would pick me.” And then they did.

The reactions I got when I told people I was moving to Ghana were very mixed, but a lot of people seemed to think it was equally as absurd as announcing I was moving to Mars. “You're going where??” “You are going to go without internet for a year?!” “But... diseases!” The reality is that Cape Coast is a gorgeous, lush beach town where people still spend way too much time on social media—myself included. The issue of getting devices to work on the local networks turned into a little bit of a headache, and internet may not be as fast as the Google fiber I left behind, but it's just fine. Yes, I had to get extra vaccinations to come here; and yes, I take an antimalarial pill every day; but there was also a case of West Nile virus in SLC this summer, so maybe people shouldn't try to scare others out of travelling to Africa by saying “diseases" like the boogeymonster. 

The trip here took us from Houston to DC, and then DC to Accra. It was my first time flying over the Atlantic Ocean, my first time getting served full meals on a plane, my first overnight flight in the biggest plane in which I’ve ever flown, the first time I left North America, and my first real move. The mixture of stress and excitement meant that I didn't really sleep; instead, I drank free wine and watched movies while we travelled through the dark. I got up several times to do stretches in the airplane bathroom.

2019-july-ghana-volunteer-training-day-4The trip here took us from Houston to DC, and then DC to Accra. It was my first time flying over the Atlantic Ocean, my first time getting served full meals on a plane, my first overnight flight in the biggest plane in which I’ve ever flown, the first time I left North America, and my first real move. The mixture of stress and excitement meant that I didn't really sleep; instead, I drank free wine and watched movies while we travelled through the dark. I got up several times to do stretches in the airplane bathroom. 

When we arrived, the first thing I noticed was the smell of the ocean. Coming from a landlocked state, I missed this salty-sweet scent, and it reminded me of vacations to the beach. We went through airport customs with ease and got all our bags, and were happily greeted by Yvonne, our new boss, who was much shorter than I thought she’d be based on our video chats, but every bit as friendly and excited to have us here. She explained we would be taking a taxi to a shuttle bus, then another taxi after the 3-hour bus ride. I was completely overwhelmed by my new surroundings. I was certain we were about to die in that first cab ride, but I soon realized driving here was an entirely different world, and I would just have to get used to it. I wanted to see everything possible on the way to Cape Coast, to take in all of the colors and animals and shops and vendors, but once we were out of the main city, the rocking bus ride put me to sleep. 

Our first weeks  in Cape Coast were full of more exciting firsts. We set up our apartment, which is significantly larger and nicer than the one I left I in Salt Lake, although harder to keep clean. We met with our partners at SAPID (Services and Advocacy for Persons with Intellectual Disabilities), and began to plan out our projects. We had a full week of orientation to get us adjusted to life here: things like how to use the transportation options, how to get cooking gas, which stores are good for different groceries, and the history of Ghana including a visit to both the Cape Coast and Elmina castles. We started learning Twi, one of the more universally used languages here, but we have not made a ton of progress, since everyone in Cape Coast speaks English. A good problem to have, I suppose. 

2019-sept-ghana-beachWe also spent time going to the beach, watching the US National Women's team win the World Cup, and celebrating both Yvonne’s birthday and mine. It was my first birthday away from home and I was mostly missing some of my favorite places to eat, but that night I got to eat pizza by the ocean and slid into age 30 as happy as a clam. 

Now that we've been here for a little while, the newness and excitement has waned some, and there are certainly times when I feel homesick and/or frustrated. Doing laundry here is an exhausting event, whether you are lucky enough to do it in an electric washing machine or do it by hand. Frequently, the clean clothes get soaked in the rain while on the dry line, and I'm still paranoid that my underwear will fly away into the neighbors’ yard or something equally embarrassing. I was significantly more prepared for times without power than I was for times without water. I have backup chargers, and plenty of entertainment that does not require electricity, but I don't have solutions for when the water is off for days at a time. I really hate to say it, but I do miss hot showers, even in the peak of summer. I don't think I will ever take running water for granted again, and the next time I see a functioning washer and dryer I might give them a hug. A dishwasher might make me cry. Like I said, it's really nice where I get to live, but much harder to keep things clean. 

I feel so lucky to have been given this opportunity and sometimes feel like I might wake up from this dream and be back in my boring office lady life in Utah. But then I hear all the chickens and goats around me, feel my hair frizzed from the humidity, and I remember that I am home in this strange but beautiful place.

2019-sept-ghana-chicken-conference-by-g-lish-foundation

By Chiemi Maloy, HSC Volunteer

This article is part of a series written by FBB volunteers detailing their experiences in the Humanist Service Corps. The opinions expressed in this article may not necessarily express those of Foundation Beyond Belief as a whole, its staff, or donors. 


The 2019 HSC volunteers arrive in Ghana

August 2019. 

How do I sum up my last three weeks? Well, for starters, I will say that this has been an experience unlike any I’ve been a part of before! My time in Ghana has been a weird mix of invigorating, yet sobering; stressful, yet laid back. It’s given me new perspectives on a country far from home, and at the same time has helped me to better understand my own corner of the globe. 

I was initially attracted to joining the Humanist Service Corps because they understand that we shouldn’t take the forefront in someone else’s story. We support local organizations on the ground that are already making a difference, and we try to do it in the most ethical way of which we can think. 

2019-july-ghana-volunteer-training-day-5One such partner organization is SAPID, or Services and Advocacy for Persons with Intellectual Disabilities. Our mission is to help them become self-sustaining so they can continue their mission. Personally rewarding is the random assortment of skills I have collected while being of use to SAPID, such as computer repair, grant writing, and website design. Part of helping them continue to be self-sustaining is showing them how we do whatever we do. Some of the teachers have asked me to give them classes in computer repair after watching me fix a few of their computers. It was unexpected, but I’m thrilled. 

I have always believed in giving back, but after work for the day is done, frequent trips to the beach remind me that service need not be a sacrifice. Since Ghana is close to the equator, at different times of the year we can see both the constellations in the northern hemisphere and the southern, and the beach is the perfect location to do so. At the beach and at the school during P.E., I have played soccer against the kids in a friendly match. It's mind-blowing how talented the youth are at soccer here.

Part of the orientation process was to get us familiar with Ghanian culture, but that didn’t mean we wouldn’t continue learning or wouldn’t experience culture shock. Ghana, in recent history, was once the most religious countries in the world. Even though we were told this, discovering just how religious Ghana is was shocking. It is not something as simple as how many people believe in a religion or how many churches there are. Religion is invoked in the names of many, if not most of the stores, and on almost all of the taxis’ stickers inside the cars or on their rears. Almost every few feet in town there is a poster of a religious leader. Living in the Bible Belt and Utah didn’t prepare me for just how visible religion is here. However, I thoroughly enjoy learning about the traditional religion and the lesser gods that are part of it. I just found out there is a lesser god supposedly near where I live. It is supposed to be a dog god, which is why dogs aren’t allowed in my area.


Driving is another culture shock. I used to live in South Korea where I thought I saw the most extreme version of driving, but the drivers in Ghana easily take the cake. Spurning traditional rules of the road and local laws to instead form a driving culture, I am quite impressed with how skilled the drivers are here. I honestly consider them the best in the world. 

Another aspect of learning the culture here is learning the language. There are more than a dozen languages spoken in Ghana, but the most prominent one where I am—outside of English— is Twi. I try to speak the language every chance I get, even when the conversation would flow better in English, just so I’ll remember what I learned and can grow in pronunciation. Twi is harder than languages that are more familiar to me like Spanish, but easier than Korean and Japanese. The locals seem to enjoy hearing me speak it. It has helped me haggle prices down on many occasions, as well as give direction to drivers. 


As an African-American, coming to Ghana at this time also has additional significance. The year 2019 is dedicated as The Year of Return, a call to the African diaspora to return to Ghana. It was 400 years ago that the first enslaved African was taken to Jamestown, Virginia. Years ago, I did an ancestry test by 23andme, which confirmed I had ancestors in Ghana. In the last two weeks, I have been to Cape Coast Castle and Elmina Castle. Both of the castles were used as holding places for slaves prior to their leaving the shores of Africa forever. Outside of that, this week I have been watching the Pan African Historical Theatre Festival also known as Panafest. Speaking of which, I’ll end this blog here, so I don’t miss anything.


By Elroy Leday, HSC Volunteer

The following blog has been adapted by FBB staff from Wendy Webber's 6/7/19 speech at the American Humanists Association Annual Conference.

Decolonizing service is a huge topic. I can only scratch the surface today, so I’m going to focus on what "decolonizing service" means in the context of Ghana, because of Foundation Beyond Belief’s work there with the Humanist Service Corps program.

Ghana is an African nation with a black majority. I am a white citizen of the United States. These two identities give me an incredible amount of privilege in both the everyday world and in non-profit work. I don’t for a second think I can speak for Ghanaians or for their experience. But with my position, I can speak against the perpetuation of colonial legacies. I can speak against participating in modern colonial practices. And I can speak for the dismantling of colonial and racist systems and mentalities, especially as it relates to service.

I can also speak as to why humanists—especially white humanists—should engage the world with decolonizing intentions. We often talk about the humanist values of contributing to a more just and equal world. For that reason, humanists should be at the forefront of understanding the the factors that contribute to inequality and oppression. Otherwise, our work will only address the symptoms of inequality, not its root causes.

Today, I am going to discuss the ways that FBB as a humanist service organization is challenging savior mentalities, both in terms of how we do our work and how we talk about it.

First, some history for context.

HISTORY

2019-june-revolutionary-on-horseFor a lot of people, the word “colonialism” is a word describing history. Popularly, it's connected to tourist destinations like Colonial Williamsburg and its whitewashed colonial past (more so than its white supremacist mark in world history). In my high school history classes, I learned about the “Colonial Period,” which was 1492 until the US Revolutionary War ending in 1783— the period when the future United States was under colonial rule. This framing completely rewrites history. It describes the European settlers as the colonized people rather than the natives whose land they took. It ignores how the settlers participated in the colonization of Africa through the slave trade.

I learned that the end of WWII in the 1940s marked the beginning of the end of British colonial rule. That time until the 1960s was the height of the “Decolonization Period.” That was it. Colonialism was over. That’s what I learned in school, but is colonialism truly over?

No. The effects of the “Colonial Period” are still felt daily in the lives of people all around the world. Many of the world’s poorest countries today were once colonized by European countries who stripped those lands of resources, making themselves rich while ensuring the colonized people remained without the power bought by money. Many border conflicts being fought today are a result of colonial borders being drawn without any regard for pre-existing ethnic and political structures, favoring some groups over others during colonial rule. Many groups whose lands, rights, and resources were taken remain marginalized in modern societies.

Colonialism still exists; we just have different names for it. In the context of the historical period described above, "decolonizing” means no longer having direct governmental control over conquered nations. Colonial power is still very much present in today’s world. It exists in the form of structural legacies, ongoing economic exploitation, and mindsets such as the "savior" mentality in service.

A very abbreviated and incredibly incomplete colonial history of Ghana:

2019-june-the-gold-coastThe Ashanti people—one of the most influential groups in sub-saharan Africa prior to colonialism—had control of much of what is now southern Ghana when the first European country—Portugal—arrived in 1471. The Portuguese built Elmina Castle, which was later used to hold slaves before they were shipped to the Americas. Other Europeans followed suit including the Dutch and British, who set up robust slave trading industries in the region. Over time, the British consolidated their control of the region by taking over other European interests and continuing to invade Ashanti and other indigenous groups’ land. In 1867, they established the British Gold Coast, named for extensive gold deposits in the area.

There were four Ashanti-Anglo wars through the 1800s, but by the end of the century the British had incorporated all of the Gold Coast and its disparate kingdoms and tribes—including northern peoples like the Mole-Dagombas—into a single colony with Ghana’s current borders. During the decolonization period following WWII, these colonized people started restoring autonomy with many veterans leading the charge. They ended colonization in 1895, taking the name Ghana.

Today, the contrast between the north and south in Ghana is remarkable because of the specific colonial history in both regions. When one learns about the British occupation in Ghana, one hears about the schools, hospitals, infrastructure, and industries built by the British that remain important to the Ghanaian economy, like mining and cocoa. These lessons almost always omit the fact that this activity happened almost exclusively in the south. The north—which lacked natural resources the British wanted to exploit—was considered largely a source of laborers, taxes, and not much else, so they did not build infrastructure in the north like they did in the south.

2019-june-ghana-studentA good example of how these two regions differ today due to the colonial government's treatment is found in education. The first school in the north wasn’t established until 1908— about 100 years after the start of school systems in the south. (A few informal schools were set up by missionaries before that, but these were inconsistent and restricted by colonial policies, not having much of a historical impact.) The schools established in the north focused on basic education and trade skills as required by colonial education policy. In the 1920s, much of the money allocated for education in the north was “redirected” (read: stolen) by colonists to build an elite boarding school for students in the south. While that elite school went on to educate many African leaders—including the first president of independent Ghana—the north's first locally-educated high school student's didn't graduate until the 1960s after locals retook independence. To this day, communities in the north are still working to establish secondary schools.

In the south, the British did not allow substantial local participation in colonial economic or academic systems. In the north, those systems were simply not built.

DECOLONIZING SERVICE

What does all this have to do with service? Almost all conversations about service in the developing world—especially when it’s white people talking—don’t include the colonial history that created the need for the service. This allows white and western people to maintain the colonial mindset of saviors saving the helpless, validating their (our) sense of privilege and underwriting the colonial system.

If we are not confronting the legacy and mindset of colonialism in every aspect of our work, what are we doing? Most likely making things worse. At the very least, we are maintaining the status quo. To truly make the world a more just and equal place, we must confront the legacy and mindset of colonialism especially when talking about service.

What does it mean to “decolonize” service? In what ways does service work perpetuate colonial legacies and mindsets? To answer that, I am going to discuss how FBB is approaching our work in Ghana.

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For international service to actually challenge colonial legacies and "white savior" mentalities, we have to upend the way it has been done for decades. Whether consciously or unconsciously, we cannot think about this work as helping helpless people. Colonialists have claimed for centuries that only white Europeans have the answers. This idea survived through the decolonizing era—it just shifted to other arenas like business and international service.

2019-june-white-volunteer-with-black-ghaniansOne of the most apparent indicators of this legacy is how FBB's presence in Ghana has been received. Ghana has a long history of international volunteers looking for a superficial, feel-good opportunity to “help the poor Africans." (Online dating is rife with the cliche of white people using a profile picture of themselves with black African children.)

Local organizations go along with this because it is prestigious for Ghanaian orgs to have western partners and host white volunteers. This itself is a colonial legacy. Organizations also believe that a message delivered from a white person will be received more readily than when delivered by a black person. Studies have documented these 21st century beliefs held by international volunteers and their local hosts in Africa, and I have witnessed them in action firsthand.

Ghanaian orgs leverage this social capital to achieve their goals, but the systemic causes of oppression go untouched. So what is ultimately being accomplished?

FBB is committed to relying on local expertise and shunning the spotlight in favor of centering the work of our local partners. We will never put an international volunteer in a job a local can do. We are not the face of the work in Ghana; the local organizations we support are. We support what they do. Why should we take credit?

2019-june-hsc-in-ghana-blue-shirts

Our current and potential partners assume we will be like other NGOs, and we have found that they are very confused when we don’t want to take credit for the work.

Once, one of our partners took the initiative of printing some record-keeping books with our name and logo on the front, and were legitimately confused when we asked the books be reprinted without it. This was a learning opportunity for us. We had failed to express that we didn't want our name and logo on the materials and why. This has since informed how we’ve expressed our commitment to centering our partners' work.

classroomWhy should a partner trust us about our commitment to centering their work when all their experience is to the contrary? They shouldn’t. At least not at the start. If we want to support them and their work, we need to put in the time and energy to spotlight them, their work, and their solutions. We need to create partnerships where we are accountable to our partners, not where they are reliant on us. We create projects that are sustainable and designed for FBB to become utterly redundant. This is non-negotiable. We need to prove that we are different through our actions, words, time, and eventual departure.

At FBB we are committed to confronting the legacy and mindset of colonialism in the work we do. We are committed to centering local expertise and solutions. We are committed to seeking out, learning from, and standing with the people already doing the work of resistance in their communities. We are committed to fundamental inclusivity and cultural responsibility. We are committed to accountability to our local partners. We are committed to sustainable interventions that make us redundant.

We have more work to do to figure out how these commitments are realized in the unique circumstances in which we find ourselves year to year, but we are committed to making every decision regarding our work in Ghana and elsewhere within the framework of decolonizing service.

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By Wendy Webber, FBB Programs Manager

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