Matthew Cutler

Matthew Cutler

Matt is the pulpit rabbi of Congregation Gates of Heaven in Schenectady NY. Matt is married to Sharon and they have 3 children: Ben, Micah and Julia.

The Last Posting From Ghana

 Posted by Matthew Cutler at 9:23 am  Ghana  Comments Off on The Last Posting From Ghana
Feb 142013

This is the last night in Ghana. The plane leaves tomorrow at 11 AM and what an incredible 6 weeks it has been. The teaching and the learning, the building of friendships and toilets, the dedication of the spirit and the rejuvenation of the soul– this were experienced in ample measure. So now let me frame the experience and try to bring closure as the bags are packed and farewells have been said.

Earlier in the week, I went to the WEB DuBois Center. I knew of Dr. DuBois as a leading African American educator and scholar. But did you know that he moved to Ghana in at the age of 93 to start work of the Encyclopedia Africa? This leader of Pan-Africanism was undertaking a huge task. He died at the age of 95 and is buried in Accra. The tour began, the site guide started his presentation: “Born in Great Barrington, Massachusetts…” What? Really? The father of modern day African nationalism was born near Camp Eisner. Why didn’t I know that? o wait– I sorta did; there is a plaque on Rt 71 when one drives from Schenectady to Great Barrington. The guide continued: “the museum in Great Barrington has a timeline…” A Museum? Where? O I promised the guide that I find it and send him pictures when I got there.

This story is frames my Ghana experience. like most Americans, I knew Very little about African history and culture. I knew where to find Ghana on a map. I knew the capital and with some coaching from Richie Weiskpof, I learned to pronounce it correctly before I left. But I was grossly ignorant of so much. I read a guide book, a biography or 2– but still, so much was unknown to me.

So what did I learn?
Hmmm.. It was all taught to me by people who left a great imprint on my soul:
1. Africans don’t have much, but what they have– they will share with you: The people of PramPram and in particular, Pastor Manu and his family embrace a blefono with love and encouragement. They welcomed me with open arms, not expecting me to give but rather for making the journey to share life with them. The “stuff”– books, computers, printer, sports equipments and toilets were secondary. It was very appreciated and they graciously accepted those elements that supported their lives, but they did not demand it!
2. Building a better world is a team effort, not an individual that succeeds when one person gets the best. It is not a competitive environment in that regard. Take for example Prof. Rabi Musah’s invitation to look up her family, which I did. What I found was Blanche, the “Cake Boss” of Ghana who employs 45 people who share the work load in turning out beautiful cakes and pastries. Well respected by everyone, she needs her people to be dedicated to the job. They call her Madam, but their children call her Auntie. And when I left the bake shop, I dare not tell you how many bags and boxes of goodies I received!
3. Not everything is perfect in Ghana. I learned this from 2 groups of foreigners I met at the hotel toward the end of my stay. Terry and Ann retired from Nottingham England and spend 3 months in the far north of the country every year. North of Tamale, near the Burkina-Faso border, they saw a different Ghana than I experienced. Their region is far poorer than mine with limited agriculture and water resources. the south is 75% Christian, but the north is 90% Muslim. There is a dividing line around Kumasi which separates which religion is dominant as well as the economic growth potential– it doesn’t exist beyond a few hours north of Accra, which is the city of Kumasi. There is far greater need in the north for social services and financial support. terry and Ann run a nutrition center which saves children– not only from malnutrition but from the custom where malnourished children were taken into the forest and hacked to death because they were seen as possessed by an evil spirit.
The political ugliness of West Africa were described to me by 2 Swedes who were “consultants”. I am not sure what they consulted but after a few drinks, it became clear that these 2 were former military and were well versed in issues involving “security” and the flow of trouble in the region. The armed conflicts in this region has brought Chinese and Eastern European weapons into the area that only intensify tensions. the arms seem to float from one region to the next where there is conflict. Mali is a perfect example, but the French pushed the al-Qeda rebels back but now they are heading in mass to Darfur in the Sudan. Then there is the drug problem– Africa is the transit point for Cocaine cartels of South America. Most cocaine in Europe and a significant amount of the cocaine in the US passed thru an African port. And then there is the problem human trafficking and the issue of piracy which is now being done more and more by “westerners” and not Somalians. Hanging with these guys was like reading a Tom Clancy novel!
4. America has held Ghana back as much as it has encouraged it to move forward. The first president of Ghana, Dr. Nykrumah did a lot to move the country forward– the work on infrastructure and the vision for the future, especially a Pan-Africa,is impressive.However, he worked closely with China and the USSR in the early 1960’s to do it. It is not a tale out of school to say that the CIA was involved withe coup that toppled his presidency in 1966. The result was a stagnation in moving Ghana forward, indeed all of Africa, for decades. Ghanaians in the South credit Flgt Lt Jerry Pawlins
5. Wherever you go there is always someone Jewish! Rabbi Larry Milder was right when he penned a song with that phrase as the title. There are about 300 Israelis here, ChaBaD comes twice a year. The Israelis are supportive of each other as they build their lives here. Unlike the Ghanaians, most Israelis have come as individuals and have soughtheir fortune and build a comfortable life for themselves; then go back to Israel.
There is a group of people who claim to be Jews who live in Sefwi Wausa 2hrs from Kumasi. They are a “lost Jewish tribe”, who have some Jewish rituals and read the Old Testament as well as having a small Torah scroll. It was fascinating to see them– their story amazes me: the chief had a vision that they were Israelites a bunch of years ago. and because of their rituals, it was plausible. As Jews, they petitioned the government for their own school which was neither Christian or Muslim and it was granted. The Joint Distrubition Committee in Israel also supports them.
6. Food tastes better when it is home cooked! Now I doubt that I can get Banku or Fufu in the States, but I hope to find a good West African grocery store so I can try to recreate the foods I found here. Now– I just gotta figure out what Palava is!

So when I leave here in a few hours, some things will come with me. First is the strong bond I have with Pastor Manu. I pray that we will be friends for years to come. I want to build that connection and the connection that is beginning between Gates of Heaven and The Bethel School. I want to take those core values of care and concern for people that is so communal in Ghana and replicate them back in the States. I also pledge to keep learning and sharing the stories of Africa that needs to be told!

My pledge to myself is not to forget what I learned here. I promise to tell the stories of what I gleaned and experienced. I resolve not to forget the need to support the people in PramPram. And I intend to keep learning about Africa, so that it will not be just a place on a map, but a place in my soul!

The Lion King Experience

 Posted by Matthew Cutler at 9:39 am  Ghana  Comments Off on The Lion King Experience
Feb 122013

Cue the music from “The Lion King”. Scene is set– as the lone African voice starts that well known song for Pride Rock, Cutler ascends to the edge of Mogo rock in the savannah. As music reaches the point which is synonymous with Rifiki holding Simba over head, Cutler does the same move. Instead of elephants trumpeting and animals of all kind bowing their heads, Cutler turns and sees the site guide and the driver just gazing at him… With that blank Ghana stare that says: “what the hell are you doing? Hey, I waited months to do this and I will be damned if I have to explain this. I smile– mental note: cross one more thing off my bucket list!

Mogo Rock is in the Shai Hills, an hr or so north of PramPram and 2 hrs north east of Accra. It is in the stereotypical savannah– waist high sharp tall grass, with hills doting the outside of the empty land. In the middle of the grass is a rock, raising about 25 ft in the air. This is MY Pride Rock. But the rock is now known as Baboon Rock because in the morning the rock is full of wild baboons (many greeted me when I entered the area and for 2 cedis, I bought 6 bananas and they ate out of my hand– well, one did, it seems the dominant baboon eats until he is full and then the next will eat; 6 bananas didn’t cut it for the big guy!) Now, Baboon Rock has piles of remnants of baboons presence on the top but still it was cool to stand there. I ascended thru ropes attached to the rock.

As I stood on the top, I noticed oval carvings into the rock. That was the previous inhabitants– the young women of the Shai tribe who went there once they started menstruating to “learn the way of women” and stayed for 6 months there. Old women taught them.. And though I could not get a straight answer, I think they were circumcised there. After the 6 months, they sat on antelope skin at another rock to test if they were virgins. If they failed, o man–

You see, the Shai tribe was the bad-ass tribe of the savannah. They believed in human sacrifice to appease the minor gods. And those who failed the antelope test were offered up to the gods… As were the enemies of the Shais: other tribes and a few Brits. In 1892, the “colonial masters resettled the Shai”.. I.e. the British invade and carted them off. (side note: I think that some of the rituals are still practices in the area, not circumcision but young women going to an area for a weekend once they start menstruating to learn how to care for themselves and get some sex education; certain grabs from the Shais are worn– the number of girls who go is small but all the girls know about it)

At the edge of the savannah field was some mountains with a series of caves. This is where the Shai lived. It was kinda cool– climbing thru tall trees and thick brush to find the cave. The enterance way was marked by a baobo tree which has been there for 400 years. Climbing up the pass, cluttered with rocks, (rocks thrown down from on high in case of invasion) I had to push thru vines and roots of a fica tree. The cave was big with chambers. One rock was the chiefs throne, one hole was made by the elephant spirit and served as the sleeping area for the chief. When entering the chief’s area, tradition had it that you put a leaf in your mouth so yours would not bother the chief. Above the chief’s area, soldiers perched on ledges to watch for invaders. If they were attacked, the women and children hide in a bat cave! The site guide threw a rock in and well, there was lots of bats– felt like I was in the Louisville Slugger factory! (get it? That company makes bats!… O don’t groan!)

Why do I tell this tale? Because African history is old, very old. It’s map is defined by the colonial European empires. But before them, there was a rich history of dynasties, migration and conquest. That history is not taught inthe US or anywhere else outside of Africa. It sure makes the Lion King seem realistic!

Being Gay in Ghana

 Posted by Matthew Cutler at 7:29 pm  Ghana  Comments Off on Being Gay in Ghana
Feb 112013

Yesterday, I went to Boti Falls. it was a 2 hr trip north and east of Accra. It was in the Eastern region thru some very different terrain that I have seen in Ghana; unique because of the lush forests and mountains as well as a new ethnic group of Ghanaians. When I got there and paid my 10 cedis, the site guide took me to the Falls. But when I got there, the Falls were dry. “it isn’t the season,” he said. I laughed and I asked him to walk me around anyway. He said that most westerners get annoyed or angry when they hear that the Falls aren’t flowing except thru the rainy season. I guess that is the American way, we expect things to be working when we get there. If not, we express our displeasure. The African way is to go with the flow (if the was a flow–) and the American way is a sense of order and perspective as well as continuity and justice.

I have run into this internal culture clash between my beliefs and what I experienced on occasion. It was the cause for personal reflection of what is going on here and asking why is it so, rather than outrage. There was no greater sense of that then some conversations about homosexuality. Gays and lesbians are viewed as criminals and social deviants. That is appalling to me– considering how I firmly believe that gays and lesbians deserve equal rites and should be extended every sense of equality that a heterosexual is bestowed. But this is Ghana, they operate with a different core essence.

This issue of homosexuality was retweeted by Nick Kristof on Sunday. It seems that the issue has made the US press. Here is the back story: President John Mahama appointed 2 controversial candidates to his ministries– both women and both outspoken on the issue of homosexuality. The first was a woman who was nominated for the office of women and children’s services. She said that gay individuals deserve services because they are human beings. The other is the head of the ministry of justice, a woman who has fought in courts to overturn the laws making homosexual acts a crime. The issue played out in America. It made the NYTimes. President Mahama is being accused of advocating Homosexuality. His political opposition charges him as being pro-gay because of his contacts with a certain Andrew Solomon, a political fundraiser who is gay. Mr. Solomon hosted the then Vice President Mahama over the summer when Mr. mahama’s book came out– excellent book, I read a copy thanks to the Moshbachers! President Mahama has distanced himself from Andrew Solomon and Mr. Solomon wrote a piece about this in the NY Times.

To understand this issue from a Ghanaian is not a justification I offer just an observation. Forget the concept of separation of church and state. This is a highly religious country with a strong Evangelical Christian bend. The Ghanaians are very literal and what they see is what they expect– remember my butterfly posting? They interpret the Bible literally and their constitution as well– as the new minister of justice said, if Ghana wants to address the rights of gay Ghanaians, it must be thru the courts since the constitution is silent on the issue. The standing logic is that since it is not mentioned, it must be forbidden. Hmmm, I don’t agree with that logic– especially as a liberal American and a Reform Jew!

My disapproval represents my American Jewish perspectives. But I am cautious not to assert too strongly these opinions because it is not my country. There is a difference between sharing my perspective willingly and judging the other side. We liberal Americans can do the latter so easily here– think of the tour guide’s attitude about Boti Falls.

America and most of western countries are very progressive in their attitudes on this issue. But remember how we got here– debate, campaigns, court decisions. And all over years and years of discourse; we are still not at a point whe Gays and Lesbians are given equal rites and they are still not at a point where they face discrimination. Pastor Manu sees the issue thru a religios lens as most Ghanaians. It is not a scene Asa human rites issue here.. Well, at least not yet. Even in America, there are those who shutter at such a concept. I think back to 2008 and Preisnt Obama’s election. Tha same election brought the issue of same sex marriages in California to the forefront because of an amendment to the state constitution banning gay marriages. The African American religious community vote for the amendment in a large percentage– giving Comedian/poltical commentator Jon Stewart the ability to chastise by saying to the Black community “Free at last, free at last.. Except for you” and then inserting a picture of Star Trek actor and gay advocate George Takei.

So let’s not judge Ghana too harshly yet. Let’s encourage President Mahama who appears to be a social reformer. The issue is now raised because i believe Mahama is taking baby steps and maybe he is doing so a bit too discreetly here. But culture change is hard, harder when they are rooted in religious values. Let’s applaud the efforts to educate about non discrimenation — such as the thru te campaign on domestic violence and HIV testing and not alienating those who are HIV positive. Let’s encourage people to see this as a human rights issue. And we should live up to this standard ourselves, then we can hold it up to Ghanaians.

Being gay in Ghana is not the crime. Society says the act is. It is a clear cut issue here for Ghanaians. Thus we who a liberal and who want to see this issue change here should start not thru confrontation but thru education and supporting small steps that moves a culture in a new direction.

The Slavery Encounter

 Posted by Matthew Cutler at 8:37 am  Ghana  Comments Off on The Slavery Encounter
Feb 102013

3 hours west of Accra, that is 5 hours from PramPram, is a series of buildings doting Ghana’s coast.They are old– some almost 500 years old and they are refered to as the castles. On the Cape Coast region, there are 3 prominent ones, but there were many more. Time has taken them down, but not their impact nor their pain. Built by Colonial empires of Portugal, Denmark, Sweden, the Dutch and England– these places helped unload the products of West Africa on to ships that went abroad– to Europe and the Americas. The main product was human beings, though those Europeans would never refer to the slaves as such. The Africans that were brought to the castles where shackled, treated with such disregard to any sense of humanity, abused/raped and separated from their kin and sent on boats, never to return.

Let me preface this by saying, that Ghana was originally known as the Gold Coast. It wa sknown as such when it received independence from ten British in 1957. That was the main export, originally– just like Ivory Coast was known for its transport of Ivory and Liberia which was known as the Grain Coast was known for its product. But slavery quickly became the major export. Slavery was brought to the area by the white Europeans. A variation was known thru the tribal system for centuries– variation because it was not harsh inhumanity that we know of slavery but rather a type of indebted servitude– still harsh but nowhere as inhuman as what American slavery was known to be. The Muslims brought the idea of transporting slavery to the region and were ten first to transport them to the Mediterranean coast for European transport. But the colonial powers brought it to a new level as a business and as a form of inhumanity that is painful to admit.

Note that Europeans usually didn’t hunt for their slaves. African tribal leaders brought them to the area for trade, not knowing the fate that awaited their subjects. In return for these people, tribal leaders got European goods.

The slaves were shackled and placed in dungeons that lacked ventilation, light, food, water and toilet facilities. They slept in their own feces and vomit as they waited for up to 3months for transport. Women and men separated.. Women faced rape and sexual abuse. If they became pregnant– their fate after they delivered was to be separated from their child and if they we lucky, these mothers could see them from afar as they became domestics. Some were shipped off. And God forbid, if a women was pregnant when she was enslaved. She was seen as dmaged goods and usually thrown into the sea as fish food. When ships arrived, they we branded by companies, separated by the administrators and walked thru an underground walk way– to the door of no return. Then they shifted sideways as they walked thru a narrow door onto small boats that took them to large ships. The door of no return– they were not going to return to their land or their families.

As a Jew this was especially painful– humanity seems to have a way of repeated it’s ugliest moments. The Holocaust was our variation of this theme of degradation that treated us as less than human beings. While there should never be a comparison between atrocities, we must remember Ellie Wiesel who has made it is his life mission to remind us: “never again!”

Slavery didn’t end in 1837 when the British closed the castles to slave traffic. Nor did they end in 1865 when the Civil War ended. Human trafficking still exists and is thriving. So let me ask you to make this pledge with me: Never again will we allow people to treat others created in God’s image as anything less than human beings. Never again will we turn a deaf ear or a blind eye to the plight of workers who are slaved by cruel bosses who grow rich off their work. Never again will we turn the TV channel when we hear of human trafficking being the source of the underground sex industry… Never again, never again, never again….

Thursday February 7

 Posted by Matthew Cutler at 11:31 pm  Ghana  Comments Off on Thursday February 7
Feb 062013

Just a few little ramblings from me today:

1. Ghana lost the soccer match to Burkina-Faso [yeah, take out the atlas and look where it is located.. It is just north of Ghana and south of Mali]; so they are out of the tournament. Burkina-Faso will play Nigeria for the championship of Sunday.

2. Toilet construct is now really on the way. The crew poured the concrete– a small cave in on the end required some clean up work. The metal pillars are in and the cinder block work has commenced.  Watching the making and pouring of concrete– I thought of the Israelites working to build the store cities of Pithom and Ramses: large bins being lifted on shoulders with rocks and some with sand and some with water– all being poured in to a mixer with cement and some other bag of stuff which I could not identify. Then the mixture was poured into other bin and then down into the hole. Lots of workers, doing heavy labor. They start at sunrise and work to sunset. But unlike the Israelites, they are not complaining– at the end of the day, the contractor stands and pays them ALL as they leave. That line from somewhere in the Jewish tradition about not holding the wages of the laborer over night echoes loudly in my head!!!

3. Heading to Accra for the weekend– spending shabbat with Gerry and Irit Magnes’ nephew. Saturday and thru-out the week, I wil visit other friends of friends: Judy Brown’s exchange student from the 1960s and the family of Eric Block’s coleague’s {Professor Rabi Musah} family as well… Hmm– wasn’t it Scarlett O’hara who said: “I have always relied on the kindness of strangers”?.. wait– it might be Blanche Dubois in “A Street Car Named Desire”… Regardless– I hope no one will say to be that they don’t give a damn nor will I stand in the streets of Accra and yell “Stella!!”

4. Great breakfast conversation– who is your favorite Biblical figure? Pastor Manu said Abraham– his faith guided him where ever he went. So true for that man– his faith is strong and his energy limitless. His passion for soccer is intense– boy, can he yell at the TV set!! Mine was Betselel– the holy artisan who build the Tabernacle with a wise heart. I am no artist, but the work of my hands thru social justice is certainly a manifestation of my faith.. Who is yours?

5. Speaking Bible– I have thought a lot about Rebecca at the well. I am gleaning new understanding of why she watered Eliezar and his camels.. and why she was willing to go with him to meet Isaac. In fact, many Genesis and Exodus naratives have taken on new meanings for me as a result of this experience…

6. I do have one fear. In an episode of “The Big Bang Theory”, Howard returns from space and constantly talks about it to everyone he meets. “You know I was in space”.. “When I was in space”…. “That is funny, it reminds of this time when I was in space”– got a funny feeling I will be like that with my Ghana stories. But my friend Seth Limmer told me that I should not worry, it sure beats having to listen to the same old stories over and over again, at least now they are new stories!  

7. I am amazed that children are so respectful of their elders here. Children jump when they are asked to do things– no eye rolling  or the comment “later”. They do!.. A word to the third or fourth born at home: there is a hierarchy in a family. The first born does not have to do things if teh second born is around; the same holds true for the third or fourth born– they do more to sustai the household… Hmmm– maybe that is why Jacob in the Torah was doing more housework than his brother Esau who was out in the field? Next year’s sermon idea!!!

8. What have a gleaned from this experience? My faith has grown stronger, my appreciation for what I have has been more secure, my love for my family more profound and my commitment to to tikkun olam more define… Yeah I got a lot to think about when I get home in 8 days!!

The Construction Has Begun…. well… sorta

 Posted by Matthew Cutler at 9:49 pm  Ghana  Comments Off on The Construction Has Begun…. well… sorta
Feb 052013

I did a bad thing. I introduced junior high age students to “the 3 Stooges.” I thought it was a good idea. After school, I invited one of classes to go to the internet cafe and watch video clips fromYouTube of this comedy team– pastor thought it was fine, the internet cafe was ok with the idea [he was happy– he got 1.5 cedis… roughly $0.75]. The laughed at the slapstick, chuckled at the silly sounds and roared with each  “nya, nya, nya”….. But I didn’t count on them to repeat the antics afterwards– that is when I had to scold them about proper behavior. Oy!

What possessed me to introduce them to these icons of American comedy? Simple– we were watching the construction crew start building the new toilets. 

The project required Pastor to hire a contractor. There seemed to be a very component one in a fellow pastor, who was very clear on what had to be done and how. He seemed like he knew what he was talking about; but Pastor hired someone else. You see in Ghana, Pastors cannot hire each other to do work– they are obligated to spread the wealth. Pastor hired someone who I will refer to as “Moe”. He came to the site with his 2 chief assistants– guess what I will call them? “Curley” and “Larry.” After hearing the other pastor/contractor explain the work, they started.  I don’t thinke they heeded his words. They brought in a small army of laborers who started to dig the hole by hand. Mind you, there was maybe 4 shovels and pick axe between them. After a day, they dug in about 1/2 a foot. That night, the pastor/contrctor spoke sternly and the other workers agreed– they needed a back hoe.

The back hoe arrived and started to dig. Scooping out the dirt and placing on the side of the hole. It was too near the side– at the end of the day, it caved back in. So “Moe”, “Curley” and “Larry” dug out the dirt again; never moving the dirt from the lip of the hole. On the third day, it caved in again– now it was clear; a truck was order to cart off the dirt. End of the first problem.

The hole was 10 feet deep. Ready for the concrete to be poured. “Moe” ordered the crew to dig down a little further. They hit the water table. There was a water now seeping into the hole. So the 3 laborers started to bail the water. They would fill a bucket or 2 and “Larry” would  climb the ladder and dump the pails. A lesson in futility– the water was coming in at a constant rate. So they brought in a pump. After hooking it up, “Larry” ascended the ladder. Not realizing that the ground shifted from being in the mud, “Larry” and the ladder started to tip over. “Larry” thought that if he went up the ladder faster, he would avoid the ladder falling on its side– he was wrong. Wrong was also “Moe”‘s stance. He watched the ladder fall; and it fell onto him with “Larry” coming along with it. “Moe” was hit by the ladder; “Larry ” hit the ground and splashed mud all over “Curley”… Classic 3 Stooges scene?

I must admit that I didn’t laugh at first. I remembered my first Sukkah in Schenectady 18 years ago. I got the cinder blocks and the wood from the JCC and erected it on my deck. My neighbor, Vern, and 2 friends watched. These 3 retired GE engineers shook their heads– “that is not going to stay up for more than a wek” I told them it didn’t have to; but when the first winds came, he fell over– maybe 4 days into the holiday. Poor construction can happen to anyone!!

What is the status? The pastor/comtractor came this morning and told the main contractor what to do. He shook his head and threw his arms up, but laughed. “This is Africa.. It will be built. It must be built. But we need to have patience.. and faith!”

Great words for one of the fastest growing economies in the world. Great words to reflect to determination and commitment. Try again– you will get it to work. After all, some Rabbi in Schenectady still builds his sukkah the same way and the engineers no longer shake their heads; they nod.. It has to be built!!

Henry Got Malaria

 Posted by Matthew Cutler at 10:30 pm  Ghana  Comments Off on Henry Got Malaria
Feb 042013

Henry is one of those students who makes teaching a joy. This young man has a radiant smile and he is full of life. He is smart and bright and he asks good questions. Class is never dull when he is actively participating– he asks questions, challenges the other students to do well and he is funny. He usually has lots of energy. For these reasons and because he is such a nice kid, his classmates elected him “class prefect”, which is like the class president. Every day, Henry chooses who will be the “duster”– the one who erases the chalk board [less than glorious job]; he is the one who brings bags of water to the class thru-out the day; and he gets there early and stays late to make sure the classroom is set up just so. Ah, Henry– what a great kid.

Last week, Henry looked lethargic. He came to class with a look sleeve jacket, even though it was very hot and humid. He was shivering; obviously he had a fever. He looked pale and a bit pasty. His head was down on the desk during class and he fell asleep. “What’s wrong with Henry?”, I asked. Eunice responded: “He has malaria…” Malaria? Really? Wow. Henry piped up with his symptoms: fever, chills, vomiting, achy feeling, zero energy, etc. He went to the doctor and it was diagnosed. Wow– don’t people die from malaria? They do– but it is usually the very young and the very old or those who are not in great health before they contract the disease.

Malaria is a disease that runs rampant thru the African Continent. It is passed from mosquitoes to human beings. Not every mosquito is a carrier, thus not every bite or sting will lead to those symptoms. But it is a good probability that if you have malaria– that is how you got it. According to Evans Charwey [the master teacher], he believed that 60% of all students will get malaria while they are students. It is serious, he says, but they don’t die from it in PramPram– they just get really sick for a week or 2 or 3 or a month. They take some medicine and let the disease run its painful course. I wonder, is it really malaria or is like the flu in the US–some get the flu, others assume that they have the flu because they are just really sick. Regardless– malaria or not; flu or no flu– people get sick and sometimes they get really sick.  According to Ghana’s governmental reports, there were 442,000 reported cases in 2011 and it was down 350,000 in 2012. Most of the fatal cases were in the very young and the very old. This disease is serious stuff!

My physician back home was adamant about my protection from this disease. I take a pill daily — some of the side effects are kind of funky {nocturnal hallucinations– or better yet, really, really graphic nightmares; feelings of fogginess and lack of clear clarity are the big ones– I am lucky that I didn’t get any of those} and I need to take the pills each day and even after I get home for about a week or so. I put on bug repellant with attention to get every place– behind the ears and knees and wrists, anything that is expose. I do this 2 or 3 times a day. It is the serious bug repellent with a DET level that around 30%— view it as Deep Woods Off plus! I sleep in a mosquito netting. My windows have very secure screens and so does the screen door [which is outside the room door]. I sleep with a shirt on and make sure that fan is blowing on me thru-out the night [mosquitoes can’t land on you if they are being blown around]. All these preemptive measures have made my “malaria obsessed” and for got reasons, I don’t want to end up getting sick.

A few years back, NFTY [the Reform Jewish youth movement] and the Union for Reform Judaism became active sponsors in the “Nothing but Nets” drive, designed to provide mosquito nettings to children in Africa. It is amazing how few of the people here use the netting. I mentioned this to Pastor Manu– he agreed that it is surprising. He has one over his bed and his 1-year old grandson has one for his crib and one that covers him when he naps of the floor {it looks like he is a piece of cake under a glass covering– the ones you see in a bake shop!}. But his sons chose not to use them and his daughters say that they get tangled up in them. People around here told me that it is part of life in Africa, one lives here and one has to deal with it. But what about prevention? In a small fishing village, that means costs and that means people have to  choose to buy them.

This time of year, mosquitoes are not a huge problem. They are around, but not in large numbers. There are other bugs that sting and bite; there are ants that can nibble at your ankles if you are not careful. The really bad time for all of these bugs is during the rainy season– May and June, September and October. During those months, longs sleeves are worn and people become more diligent– some break out their nettings then.

Poor Henry…. he cannot stay home and be sick. He drags himself to school. It is alarming when I look at him and how sick he. It is reminder to take care; it is a good warning to me and to others. I just hope that he feels better soon and that others will heed the warning.


 Posted by Matthew Cutler at 11:59 pm  Ghana  Comments Off on Clothing
Feb 032013

Let me preface my remarks by saying that the Internet is slow and unreliable in terms of its server. I haven’t been able to communicate much since Friday.Today I had change internet cafes, hoping for better service. Well, it is not so great– maybe a little better.

The big city of Tema is bustling, people moving back and forth– shops looking like the shuk in Jerusalem, with a variety of goods being sold– very little touristy stuff [other than the Methodist church in town which is smack in the middle of Greenwich Mean Time– kinda cool for 30 seconds, mind you]. There shops selling kitchen goods, plastic goods, construction material, …. and second hand clothing. Many people here are wearing those second hand clothing that we dropped in bins all over our communities that are then sent here and SOLD.

I must say, after celebrating a birthday and feeling nostalgic, the second hand clothing is like a trip down memory lane. I mean, I remember when Frankie really said relax! [come on, you know those shirts from the 80s band “Frankie Goes to Hollywood”?]. I smiled as I saw the Acton-Boxboro lacrosse jersey and the  Stubenville Rec Soccer t-shirt. I was hoping maybe I would see a “Savage, Gordon, Eidens For Schenectady County Legislature” t-shirt– but to no avail. However, “Vote for Joe Smith for Sheriff” was around [not sure if that was real or a joke, though]. And there were no bar/bat mitzvah t-shirts to be seen, thank goodness! I am not sure how  would explain that to peopel here!

After the chuckles of seeing old American clothing being worn around town, the reality set in. Is this a good thing or a bad thing for our clothing to be sold in Africa? I mean– peopel are making money off our donations! It is a thriving business– and what we thought might be for noble causes, is actually being used for commerical purposes. Don’t get alarmed– if we didn’t drop them in those bins? Would we drive to the shelters and other sites to donate our clothing? Maybe…. maybe they would just get tossed.

My cynical approach about this is shaped from an African perspective– people make their living by selling these items. People buy them for very cheap prices and wear them with pride. They bought them– they are not hand outs, they are not charity… they are clothing they selected and paid with their own wages. That is a source of pride for many people here.

So here is the quandry– we in America want to do noble and righteous acts. We want to give so that the porr and needy can receive. But many here want to buy so that they can hold their heads up with pride– the are self-sufficent and provided for themselves. The nursery school teacher at the Bethel School has her 3 year olds repeat every morning: “Give a man a fish, he has food for a day; teach a man how to fish, he has food for a lifetime.” She has a point and thus buying teh clothes is something that is important for them– it teaches them to budget, provide and take care of what they purchase. The hand-outs, while noble, doesn’t build the self-esteem!

So in this quandry of what to do, I need to do some soul searching when I get back. i also need to investigate about the organizations selling these clothes. Do they operate as not-for-profits? Do tehy take proceeds and donate them back to the communities hee in Africa? That message probably won’t be posted on this blog– but it is food for thought.

Georgia is right– teach a man to fish and he can provide for himself. And Frankie was right– Relax! This is not a major problem– it is an industry that we may think was charity but it is not; it is a business.

So now what?

Birthday Posting

 Posted by Matthew Cutler at 11:12 am  Ghana  Comments Off on Birthday Posting
Feb 012013

It is finally here– that day I was trying to avoid. My 50th birthday! There is that line from the Reform Jewish prayer book that says something along the lines of where can I go, God, where You are not there? Same is true about a birthday– thanks to Facebook, birthdays cannot be avoided! But what I realized is that they shouldn’t be; they should be shared. It is the embracing of them that makes them so sweet. That is why I am honored that 70 people so far have supported what my friend Marji Karlin has dubbed “my birthday potty”, a campaign thru to raise $7000 needed to build a much needed toilet facility at the Bethel School Complex. It isn’t the sexiest campaign out there– but it will be valued by the 300 students who attend the school each year. So, let me make another pitch– if you haven’t contributed to this effort, please do so by either sending your checks to Congregation Gates of Heaven or pledge thru the following link:

So today, they broke ground on the project. I was a little skeptical because we have a little over $4000 in pledges for this project. But while I am confident that the money will be found, I am skeptical. Pastor Albert Manu said that I should have faith and God will provide. Hmmm.. he hasn’t spoken to synagogue treasurer in America, has he? But using a pun from Rabbi Don Cashman of Albany who said that this is a way of  building in “increments for excrement” removal… [I can hear the groans of disapproval for that line from all the way back home!!– but I thought it was funny. In truth, there some really funny lines about this campaign but my mother warned me as a child about the proper use of bathroom humor!– what, more groans?]

Any building project has challenges, right? One challenge is that one of the classrooms would have to be relocated because the project would come close to the room. Now with a metal roofed building and planks for sidings, this was no big deal– in a few hours, the new room was constructed. The digging was going on as this was being done, as school was in session. The 15 foot deep hole was excavated– the team of workers spoke loudly and with disapproving tone in Dangwe because the work wastoo  hard and should be done quicker with the right equipment; not with 6 guys, 4 shovels and a pick axe! Sure enough the back hoe did its job– albeit a little too close to the classroom building as the dirt floor in the last  classroom did crack and cave in a bit. And the truth was that it was a great teachable moment– to talk about machines for the little ones; the oldest kids got a lesson in the physics of the back hoe, the math class had to calculate the mass of dirt being removed.. me as the English teacher [and the brother of an attorney], I had them write releases and disclaimers– absolving me and the school of any guilt should they fall into the hole during construction or step on a nail or get hit by a beam! Ok– I was kidding about the release forms; but I am not kidding when I tell you that Pastor Manu wants to talk to me about the wording for the plaque whic he wants to hang prominently at the entrance of the toilet facilities!! I kid you not–a plaque will mark the gift being given!! [Folks– some day, you will turn in the “Bradt Tour Guide of Ghana” to the pages about PramPram and there will be printed that one site that should be seen is the plaque on the outhouse which reads: “Built in honor of the 50th birthday of Rabbi Matthew Cutler by his friends and the members of Congregation Gates of Heaven, Schenectady, New York, USA.” I will contact Rabbi Cashman for the appropriate Biblical citation to be used as a preamble!

Of course no day would be complete without a proper birthday celebration. At the end of school, my students and all the teachers as well as some people in the area I befriended came to wish me well. There was a beautiful and tasty birthday cake with a flare or Roman candle in the middle. There were cards, songs sung by the children, a toast from the Evan Charwey as the master teacher, pictures taken.. and a gift: an African suit tailored just for me! It is quite exquisite– surely I will be the talk of the town when I attend a United Way Board meeting wearing that brightly colored pants and shirt! And all kidding aside– it was one of the most meaningful and touching things I have received as a present! So you are darn right I will wear it .. and I will wear it with PRIDE!!

Let me bring this posting to a close by saying that when I came to Ghana, I was going to teach and do some good work. But what I didn’t expect was a renewal of my spirit and a recharging of my professional batteries. I am so proud of the bonds of fellowship I forged here, especially with Pastor Manu and his family as well as the teachers of the Bethel School and the students who can flap their wings like butterflies as they tell the story of the goofy bearded guy who always wore “knickers”, who told funny stories and sang silly songs but made them feel and encouraged them to think… well, that is how I HOPE they remember me! And just when they use the toilets that have my name on it…

Gender Issues

 Posted by Matthew Cutler at 11:55 pm  Ghana  Comments Off on Gender Issues
Jan 302013

“OK, Eunice,” I said, “if you can do anything in the world, what would you want to be in the future?” She smiled and said without any hesitation: “I want to be the First Lady of Ghana.” Noble answer, but I wanted to press her on that– “why not president?” Eunice pursed her lips and cocked her head, made a clicking sound with her tongue that marked disapproval: “no, girls can’t be president!”  Why not? “It will never happen. Men will always be president. That is the way it is in Ghana.”

That response made me think about the clear and evident gender roles that exist in Ghana. While there are some subtle differences between tribes, by and large– men are the dominant presence and women are second tier. That doesn’t mean that the women are slaves to their husbands; rather they are caretakers and husbands are the ones who bring in the most of the family income. Like many societies, women’s roles are defined by the household chores; they are in charge of children rearing, cooking, cleaning, etc. While I have seen more than a fair share of men helping in those areas [bathing children in the morning, working with their wives for the 2 person production of fufu– the one who pounds the product and the one who constantly stirs it], it is clear that the home is the women’s domain. Children are very active in assisting and very often with a great deal of deference and respect to parents and elders. No surprises here– but living in such close quarters: rarely have I heard domestic squabbles or have seen anything less then partnership [albeit probably not 50-50] between couples. Certainly from what I have heard on the news and heard from people I chatted about this, gender roles are clear and women are not equal to men: there are educational biases, differences in pay scales, sexual harassment in the workplace,  and the biggest issue I heard– domestic violence.

In the tribal system, roles may differ. In the Akaan tradition, women are more merchants than men– leaving heavy labor to them. In the Ga tradition [which is the dominant one in PramPram], women assist their fishermen husbands by cleaning the fish and preparing it for market– deep frying it, cutting them into sections, selling it to others. The same can be said for the 11 other tribal systems. But there are abuses and customs that are quite alarming. Like in the northern town of Bawku which is a large town of about 60,00o people near the Togo/Burkina Faso border, some 30% of teenage girls have their genitals ritually mutilated. There are constant stories of domestic abuse, forced prostitution and enslavement.

Yesterday, there were hearings held for President Mahama’s new ministerial appoints. One was for the replacement of Juliana Azumah-Mensah, who is stepping down as the Minister for Women and Children’s Affairs. [Quick aside– 9 of the 32 Ministers in the government are currently women]. During the hearings, it was evident the pressing concern about many of the issues. One issue that was a top priority– as Ghana’s emerging economy grows, which is growing at a current percentage of over 6% a year,  people are emigrating from the poorer north to the bigger cities. Poverty is more intense and so are the chances of child/female abuses– slavery [yes, slavery is not unheard of!] can occur when women and children are abducted to work in factories or in the sex industry either in Ghana or around the world! The emigration issues also mean an increase of sexually transmitted disease– sometimes husbands leave the village in search of jobs and contract the HIV virus thru encounters and pass them along to their wives. Poverty intensifies the chances of violent domestic abuse as well raises the possibilities that children in large families can be sold off to provide income for the rest. The challenge, the hearings revealed, is not in legislation– it is easy for members of Parliament to pass the laws in accordance with international standards to ensure the well being of women and children. The challenge is enforcement as well as education; these require money and that is in limited supply by the government. Ministers have to fight to get proper allocations. There are significant turf issues– like the Ministry of Women cannot make arrests or fine people– that is the attorney general’s realm. There are tensions between NGOs whose work is seen as noble but often unrealistic and government bureaucrats who often have little incentive to go beyond their job description to create substantive change. All this leaves an outsider shaking his head.

Is there hope? Yes, there is– Pastor Manu reminds me that Ghana is a young nation, independent since 1957. Systemic change takes time; it cannot happen over night. Cultural change is even hard to occur. It is a mantra he is used to repeating. So in the meantime, one keeps advocating and pressing. Media campaigns exist about domestic abuse, about women’s rights within a marriage, about concerns about human trafficking and about education biases. Pulpits are being used and sermons are preached– advocating for better treatment for women and children in their homes by husbands/fathers. There is a constant pushing for more funding and better checks-and-balances to create a better/safer environment for the most vulnerable in Ghanaian society…

Gender equality? No– it doesn’t exist…But there is hope because people care…What is that line from Carl Sandburg poem? “Miles to go before I sleep, miles to go before I sleep”.. Yup, that says it all—

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