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.

Sing Unto God A New Song

 Posted by Matthew Cutler at 10:26 pm  Ghana  Comments Off on Sing Unto God A New Song
Jan 292013

One of my favorite lines from the books of Psalms is the concluding verse of Psalm 150: “Let every thing that breathes praise the Lord! Halleujah!” That verse is sung in our worship back home in Schenectady. But it is here that the verse comes alive. Praising God is intrinsic to life in Ghana because it it is coupled with an image from verse of the Psalms: Sing unto God a new song. That is a rabbi’s interpretation for what I am seeing and experiencing in PramPram on a daily basis. But there is another way to frame what I am encountering.

Music is an essential part of the cultural fabric in West Africa.Wherever you are, you can hear sounds of people singing and if you are farther away, it is pulsing sounds of drumbeats that draws your attention. The drumming is a constant sound– often loud and always steady– it sets the rhythm of daily life. Life has a beat to it here– the barber shop playing Gospel music from its stall in the tro-tro station, the boutique with its its speaker outside playing music with a drum beat that fast but melodic, the political rally with people clapping in a steady and often complex pattern of beats, the funeral processional with its brass band and its big bass drum, the wedding reception that encourages the bride and groom to build a life together in unison. Each experience has a different beat; but it is present and essential. Sometimes the drumming and the singing gets to me– I confess when the fitness group gathers and parades thru the various compound houses on a Sunday at 5:25 AM, I throw my pillow around my ears as I yearn for them to stop. Sometimes it is comforting– the singing of the woman who is sweeping the dirt around her store in front of my room [at 6:15 AM]. Sometimes it tells me to grab a few Ghana Cedees and get ready;  the drumming marks the women are off to market with their produce and products balanced on their heads– a kind of advertisement that they are on their way. The drumming, like one’s heart beat, is always present– sometimes you hear it, sometimes it blends into the fabric of daily life; but it is always there.

The drumming is an essential part of the worship experience. There is no Greg Kellner or Leah Wolff-Pellingra with their guitars encouraging you to sing. Rather it is the drums and the clapping that draws you in. To start a song, the leader sings the first line and then says: “Ready, sing”… and amazingly they ALL join in. Sure in the church sanctuary on a Sunday morning, that makes sense– people want to be there. But on a Wednesday morning when it is worship time for a bunch of kids? You bet they are enthusiastic– and somehow they know all the words without song sheets, go figure.

I am enamored by the school’s worship because the students posses a kavanah  [spiritual integrity that is so genuine] that is impressive. I asked one of the teachers, a man named Richmond, why the children participate in such an active way?  “This is for God; not for them..” Hmmm.. that is an interesting approach to prayer. But do children REALLY believe that? Yes, they do! The beats of the drums inspire the unison to praise God with an active faith that is real and tangible– it is like a Shabbat evening song session at Camp Eisner infused with camp worship thrown into the congregational setting, mixed with the energy of a dance rave! Kids clap, they sing, they spontaneously start to dance, their eyes close, they sway– wow, it is contagious. O sure, there are always one or two kids , who need the threat of the cane [yes, corporal punishment does exit in the classroom setting] or the stern glare from a teacher who reminds them that they are in presence of God [gulp, that is a fearful thing when your faith is so very real!] The little kids worship [kindergarten thru level 3] is even more exciting and has greater energy; amazingly it  is channeled into a cohesive fashion thru the drumming and dancing!

Somehow this is lost in American society. Worship is a passive experience– more introspective, rather than high energy. Worship is not for God, but for us. If the sermon leaves us flat or the worship leaves us uninspired, we walk away. Not so here. I think of the Chasidic masters who encouraged the niggunim [melodies without words] to be sung thru-out the day as a type of kavanah and spiritual enhancement; a way to find joy in our everyday life so that one can enter into the sanctuary full of reverence FOR God and gratitude TO God. Sure we tried different things thru our religious institutions– flexible seating rather than pews, new prayer books, more contemporary music, family services, etc. But what I am learning here is that what is missing in many American worship is faith in God. Faith is surely abundant here.

Faith— hmmm….Somehow that has gotten lost in translation from one generation to the next. “Let every thing that breathes praise the Lord! Halleujah!” Faith– it comes from within– there is no recipe that we can offer. Faith– it is the realization that each heart beat is a gift. Faith– it means in awe and gratitude and reverence we should call out to God.

Faith… Faith.. Faith…

Lessons in Creativity

 Posted by Matthew Cutler at 8:34 am  Ghana  Comments Off on Lessons in Creativity
Jan 282013

Before I blog my entry, let me bring you up to 2 important situations here in PramPram: 1. The Ghana Black Stars beat Niger to advance to the quarter finals of the Africa Cup. It was an impressive 3-0 with Ghana’s start Gyan scoring 1 goal and getting 2 assists; 2. Thanks for Corey Cutler, I am working on a campaign to get toilets built here in PramPram– the goal is $7000 and you can access the site thru Facebook [my page or the congregation’s page].

So here is today’s update: I am starting to work with one of my classes on creating “descriptive essays.” The challenge here is that nowhere in the Ghanaian’s education system have they encouraged creativity. The focus has been rote learning, memorizing and processing information. There has been no real creative writing or using reading comprehension as a jumping off point for critical analysis. I have encountered this in each of the levels– we read a short story and we attempt to discuss it. If they can’t find the answer in a sentence in front of them, they stare blankly at me. They are literal; very literal– think, guys… how do you feel, guys?… let’s create a different way of looking at this– blank stares.

It was time to dig into the informal education bag of tricks. We were going to work on stories about butterflies. First step: brainstorming what they know. Easy, answers flow: they have wings, come in colors, they go thru metamorphosis [impressive!], they pollinate flowers,  they have antennas. Ok.. Step #2:we write a descriptive essay about butterflies– they all looked the same: word for word, what I put on the board, in the order I put them on the board… hmm– I thought, let’s get fancy: what do you think it is like to be a butterfly? How do you think a butterfly feels as it flutters around? The answer was that blank stare that I feared. So– It was time for a little roleplaying– “you are butterflies! Stand up! Flap your wings! Here is a flower [it was a chair], there is another flower [it was desk].. and there in the courtyard is another flower [A garbage can in the middle of the school!].. Ok kids, lets flutter and do what butterflies do!” So far they are LOVING this; laughing, flapping their wings running around the school– the headmaster stuck his head out of his office, I explained what I was doing– then his blank stare yielded to a smile and he joined in! This was great, I thought– “ok, kids; back to the room!.. well? how was it? How did you FEEL?”..

The silence was long– the only thing that came to my mind was that song from the Broadway show “A Chorus Line”– the song “Nothing”. You know the song, Morales is at the High School of Performing Arts and Mr. Karp asks her to feel like an ice cream cone. Morales felt nothing; she dug down to the bottom of her soul to see what she could find and she found nothing!.. And that was the answer I got form this exercise. So I paused the writing and I asked them: “does any one talk to you about your feelings [other than whether you are healthy or not]? How about your dreams, expectations, fears?” No, one child looked at me; “we are sent to school to learn.”Isn’t creating a way of learning?

Today, Kofi Anin was on the news. He is probably the most prominent individual to emerge from Ghana. The former Secretary General was talking about his fears for Africa’s future.  6 of 10 fasted growing economies in the world are on the African continent: Ethiopia is #3 after China and India, Ghana is #5, Mozambique, Zambia, the DR Congo, Nigeria are the others. He spoke about the huge population explosion happening over the continent and the number of people under the age of 30. Africa, he pleaded, needed to invest heavily in their education infrastructure. Basic competency levels need to raise drastically and universities as well as trade schools need to grow with intense vigor. If there is a trained work force willing to do the task, then the seed is planted to cultivate successful and competitive businesses.

I wonder, is there a place for creativity in new educational model? I bet Kofi Anin would insist that it was essential– essential to problem solving, essential to transform menial tasks into skilled labor, essential  to build a better life for Africans. So tomorrow, we are going to are going to revisit the butterflies– maybe they have buried inside of them the tools to take their caterpillar-selves and change them into butterflies!


A Trip to Ningo

 Posted by Matthew Cutler at 9:49 am  Ghana  Comments Off on A Trip to Ningo
Jan 262013

The next town east of PraPram is called Ningo. It actually is bigger than PramPram– it has 2 sections: Old Ningo and New Ningo. It is a simple ride from PramPram to there; just follow the coastal road and 10-12 mins later you reach the first bridge to New Ningo, if you blink you will miss it! And then Old Ningo appears as you cross the second bridge– a poor traditional fishing village with a much larger beach front.. and beyond Ningo– well I am not sure, looking eastward it seems empty, but I know its not;  surely tehre are some more villages and then the Togo boarder [probably 40 mins away].

Pastor Manu invited me to join him on this trip. So we got into a taxi and off we went; past PramPram, past Albia, past the cemetery and then we hit New Ningo. New Ningo is small and has more walled villas– these are owned by people who work in Accra but have a second home [or primary home here]. One house was pointed out because a professor who teaches at the University of Ghana lives there. There is the doctor’s house [noticed it is singular and it is THE doctor]. Some houses that were pointed out belonged to some white people and upper middle class folks who built by the beach. They are interspersed thru-out the area– walled and gated. But overall Ningo is a poor traditional fishing village.. Ok– there is no “HardRock Cafe”, but it seems until 6 years ago there was a polo ground in New Ningo. Now it is over grown and stripped of anything of value [roofing material, wood, fixtures].

I went with Pastor Manu because he was doing some baptisms for Rev Isaac Okeltey– that is Albert Manu’s function as the  chief pastor in the district. He must do the lifecycle events: baptisms, weddings and funerals. There we stood with about a dozen young people– 2 ministers and a rabbi. Rev. Okelty was sure that I was the first Jew that they every met. There were some prayers recited and then the pastors dunked a bunch of young people into the ocean. It was actually kind of cool to watch. Um.. what else was a Reform rabbi going to do on Shabbat in Ghana?.. FYI– I did recite morning litrugy from Mishkan T’fillah before I went!

Ningo is a larger village than PramPram, but Rev. Okeltey’s church is very small; they meet in a classroom of a school. Rev. Okeltey is a charismtiac guy who is very engaging; he has been a minister in town for 15 years. Why such a small congregation? It seems that this population is less Christian and more the traditional pagan religion. The Homowo celebration in this town is supposed to be quite amazing!!!

When we arrived, we walked along the beach to just beyond the heavily trafficked area, to a more quiet spot for the ceremony. But we as we walked, there was a mountain of garbage along the beach– this is no exaggeration! It was alarming– not only to me but it caught the ire of the Rev Okeltey. He explained with a very upset tone in his voice– the central government wanted to create a pristine beach where people can sit and enjoy. They employed a people to clean the beach– but they are bureaucrats who fill what few bins and sweep the sand and the leave; doing nothing more– others have turned the beach into the town dump– literally!! People throw their garbage and despite the signs, use the beach as their toilet.Rev. Okeltey explained that this would not happen in Ghana’s other regions. There the chief has more clout, but in the Greater Accra region [which these towns are connected to] are closely tied to the central government. Thus the chief doesn’t have the clout as a chief would in the Volta Region or Ashanti.

Further away from the residential area, it is less polluted [almost clean!] and that is where the baptisms took place.

Rev Okeltey is a really interesting man. Now, like Pastor Manu– he doesn’t make his money from the church; he has a job for his sustenance. He was a farmer with a degree in accounting– so was Rev. Manu a farmer until water restrictions made that hard so he opened the school 13 years ago. Okeltey is moving into micro-financing with the support of a backer in Accra. His dream is to create an organic farming cooperative  with a special market to sell “chemical free, produce”[aka a green farmers’ market in Accra]. This is still in its infancy.

The embrace of faith was a beauty to behold. The charisma of ministers like Manu and Okelty are inspiring. The town of Ningo– well– it is an example of frustration and short sighted planning: 2 steps forward, one step back a step to the side New Ningo was going to be an upper middle class enclave– that failed it has far more shanties than walled villas; the ruins of the polo ground prove that. Old Ningu was going to be a beautiful beach community, but poor planning and lack of sanitation as well as inefficient in governmental implementation and inability to have collective community change their ways and… and.. the list could go on and on. But the commitment in the hearts of some leaders will not yield to the status quo– they keep going: reaffirming their faith in the future– thru baptism, thru commitemnt to social justice and thru their warmth!

Ghana vs. Mali

 Posted by Matthew Cutler at 12:11 am  Ghana  Comments Off on Ghana vs. Mali
Jan 252013

The title of this blog entry is not based on a NYTimes article nor is it a reflection of the political quagmire that is brewing to Ghana’s north. It is about a soccer match between these 2 countries as they played in their preliminary rounds of Group B in the Africa Cup tournament. The matches are being played in 5 cities in South Africa, the winner gets the Africa Cup, won last year by Zambia. But after 2013, the next match will be in 2015 [avoiding any competition with the World Cup, scheduled for Brazil in 2014].

This cup is a source of pride for a nation. Ghana is one of the favorites to win, along with its neighbor the Ivory Coast. The tournament was to be played in Libya but political unrest and civil war moved the venue. In truth the unrest in nations have effected the quality to play– the powerhouse of Africa is Egypt but the political unrest is a factor that contributed to the team failing to qualify. Mali’s unrest seems to make for erratic play. Democratic Republic of Congo [formerly Zaire– when did that name change happen?] has a new coach, Claude LaRoy who used to coach Ghana until 2008 and then for 3 months in 2011 coached Syria until all hell broke out there.  But sportscasters give the political dimension a passing comment as the ball is kicked around the field. Wouldn’t it be great if a UN official could stand in Timbuktu in Mali with his back straight and arm extended with a yellow card as a warning to the Al-Qeda backed rebels or to government troops whose human rights track record is in question? Wouldn’t it be great if those sides listened to the judgements of the ref with the same type of support as they get in soccer?  Yet, it is the game is essential, the backdrop is not important– this is Africa’s escape from tensions.

I must say that the fans at these games put American fans to shame. It is an active spectator’s sport! And there are no drunken, fat guys who are shirtless in Green Bay in January who look silly rather than supportive. The fans come dressed to cheer their teams on; some in very cool tribal uniforms, some painted head to toe in the colors of the their flag; some wear outfits that show their support. It is very entertaining to watch the cameras pan the crowd. And the players get into it as well. There are some pretty funky haircuts out there: Mohawks, shaved heads, dreadlocks dyed white with red tips. My favorite is the goalie for the Congo, a guy named Kadiaba who has a ponytail coming out of the middle of his shaved head and a beard with no mustache. He looks like an extra in a Mad Max film! Then when Congo scores, he sits in front of the goal and bounces across the field as if he is riding in a car over a bumpy road. It is very funny!

Ghana’s team has some of that but it is very muted in comparison. What Ghana has that is unique, other than a solid team, is one of the few sub-Sahara African born coaches– Stephen Appini. Most of the coaches are European or North African by birth– in fact, African soccer has been viewed as second rate until Ghana made an impressive showing in 2010 World Cup. Some people want to see Ghana win, just to prove that Africans can do that job!

In PramPram, everyone is a fan. Everyone tunes in when the Ghana Black Stars play. It is a source of national pride. And when Ghana scores, people roar! They might do a little dance called the AZUTO, It is easy– left hand bent across as if in a sling, feet apart with the right foot acting as a windshield wiper as the right hand punches down 3 times and then up 3 times. When Ghana scored, we all did it. Yes, even the uncoordinated white guy– that is until I heard Marissa Tomei’s voice from the movie “My Cousin Vinny” say inside my head: “O yeah, like you blend?”

It is quite an experience to be here for this tournament. It runs until February 11, when the final game is played. By the way– Ghana won last night 1-0. Next up is the last of the preliminary matches– Monday night is Ghana’s match against Niger.


The Festival of Homowo

 Posted by Matthew Cutler at 10:34 pm  Ghana  Comments Off on The Festival of Homowo
Jan 232013

Sitting with some students, we were talking about holidays we observe and celebrate. I didn’t do the Jewish thing; it is far too hard from them to grasp the concept of another religious observance, independent of the mainstream culture and/or the state. I focused on American holidays, I threw in Halloween into the mix because… well.. it is Halloween; nothing is goofier to a foreigner than trying to explain that folk/religious holiday [which is the 2nd largest commercial holiday in the US]. The kids started to tell me about their festivals.

In April, there is a big one called Homowo. It is for the Ga tribe which is where PramPram is located. It dates back to way before the colonial times. It is a folk, traditional festival where people bang drums, dance, pour water out on the ground and worship the old chiefs by bringing out their old thrones. It is rooted as a way to encourage crops to grow. The term itself means “hoot at hunger”; a way for the chief and the older women in town to chase famine away just as the crops are beginning to grow.  It lasts 7 days. It is very common, I understand, for traffic to come to a complete halt. In addition to festive foods, people usually will buy new clothes for their family. Homowo is a big deal for the Ga tribe– that is, the population in Accra and points east.

I asked Pastor Manu about this festival. He quickly dismissed it; it is not Christian and we don’t observe it. As I pried a little further, I realized that this a significant dilemma for him. As a minister, he shies away from traditional pagan rituals; but the people in town just love it– it is a big deal. I reassured him that I understood this, I face such challenges as a Rabbi in Schenectady. That is when I explained Halloween to him– it is a Christian ceremony that precedes All Saints Day. I explained the origins of it and why it doesn’t fit in with Judaism. But the dilemma is this– kids love the holiday and love to go trick-or-treating. I shared with him the challenge of when Halloween fell on a Wednesday when we do supplemental Hebrew school and High school. I refused to cancel classes for this not-Jewish-festival; 1 student came in the afternoon and 5 out of 65 came in the evening [2 of them were mine!]. He smiled and said “Then you understand the problem I have with Homowo!”

The customs of Homowo are quite old. The rituals are designed to ward off evil spirits that will prevent the crops to grow. In fact, other than traditional drumming and singing– no noise should be made [in case you scare the corn into dying!]; the memories of the old chiefs are invoked as a way of bringing their spirits around to add to the voice of the current chief; water is poured on the ground as a plea for the start of the rainy season. It may be a stretch but some of these customs have parallel images in Judaism, but overall the theology is radically different from each other.

So in PramPram, the minister shakes his head as Homowo comes around and everyone celebrates. Just like the Rabbi in Schenectady does when Halloween falls on a Wednesday!

A Different Style of Living

 Posted by Matthew Cutler at 9:32 am  Ghana  Comments Off on A Different Style of Living
Jan 222013

The stores in PramPram are mostly metal shanties with a few rustic looking buildings. By late afternoon, many vendors have set up a road side stand in front. They are local families looking to make a couple extra Ghana Cedees. They cook on the roadside– frying yams and plantains or dough in large woks, roasting meat or fish on a grill, smoking fish in clay ovens, meat pies, selling fresh fruits — some already cut up [pineapples, mangoes, paw-paw, bananas]. I have not eaten any– watching myself plus there is a voice that I should be very cautious. Plus the Manus are serving me these foods each day as my meals– gotta watch that weight thing!!

What amazes me is that everything comes from scratch. Wait– let me rephrase that: the shock on one of my student’s face when I told her about prepared foods in the States. “what do you mean, that soups come from a can?”, “you go to the store and buy food ready to eat? why?” The conversation was a simple Q and A between and American teacher and some Ghanaian teens. They laughed when I told them that I wasn’t used to see chickens and goats run around so freely; by the way– the amount of noise those roosters and chickens make has made every  savory bite of chicken so enjoyable– revenge is sweet, my little chick-a-dees! I explained the frozen food section at a supermarket and the concept of a microwave. 14 year old Sarah Mensah put her hands on her hips in an indignant poise: “What? you call that living? You are suppose to cook for yourself and your family. Isn’t that what God wanted us to do? Abraham took pride in his wife’s cooking! And the only time Jesus ate out, it was his last supper!!” Humbly I tried to defend my eating habits– but to no avail, the hand went up she cocked her head, rolled her eyes.

Right outside my window– I mean right outside my window– is the New Jerusalem Miller. People soak their corn/maize for 3 days then bring it to him to be ground. Sometimes he is grinding cassava into flour. He starts up that loud diesel engine– people knock on his door, he begins his job: 3 in the afternoon, 4, noon.. 6 AM. As the flour is ground, some women are adding water to a section of the flour to make Kokotenu. Some of the flour is brought home.  Adding cassava and corn flour to a boiling pot of water and constantly stirring is how you make the main staple of Ghana– Banku. If you want fufu– you’re smashing — I mean with a large shave stick about 4 or 5 foot long stick and a large bowl– cassava and plantains into a pulp; then add water.

Everything is done by hand and with intensity. Laundry is scrubbed with a coarse soap by rubbing out stains. Teeth are cleaned with an intensity that would make any dentist proud. Water is brought from a large tank by hand to the homes; remember the government turns on the water once a week or so for a day; this week it was for about an hr or so. My neighbor is a medical student in a near buy university. Every Saturday he spends cooking stews and food for the week, he makes his own Banku, cheats– he buys the smashed ingredients for fufu. Cooking on a small propane Coleman like stove, the rooms fill with an incredible aroma; just like his mama would make!

And that is the way it is… As Sarah Mensah suggests, to do it any other way would not be right!

People Profiles

 Posted by Matthew Cutler at 10:34 pm  Ghana  Comments Off on People Profiles
Jan 202013

The teachers at The Bethel School are a dedicated group of people. Most of the teachers are in their mid to late 20s. Some are making money to help pay for their university studies. Some are teaching as a supplement to their national service requirement. There are, of course, exceptions– like Evans Charwe who celebrated his 71st birthday on Saturday; he has an important role in the school– he is a retired professionally trained and certified teacher whose credentials are essential for the Bethel School to get their license. You see, every school needs one professional/master teacher. The other teacher who is older than the rest is Georgina, who teaches nursery school. By and large the teachers surly seem dedicated to what they are doing.

Class size is rather unique. The older grades have 7-10 kids per level, but the younger grades have significantly more. Take Georgina’s class. I counted 45 kids in her 2-4 yr old class. Nursery school is actual learning– sit with eyes on the board and recite. There is no playing as a tool for learning experience. No small groups or various stations. It is frontal learning with strict discipline to keep kids focused. Being a teacher here is 1/3 drill sergeant, 1/3 educator, 1/3 doing whatever needs to be done to make sure the school runs.

Evans Charwe is a fascinating example of a teacher here. Looks can be deceiving– Evans is missing a front tooth, shuffles to class and soundly naps between class. But this man is truly dedicated. The other teachers are roughly a third his age. But enter his class room, you see that he knows what he is doing. He writes his lessons in great detail on the board because most kids don’t have textbooks. Schools are required to have one certified teacher who can mentor others; Evans is that– soft spoken but assertive, other teachers take thoroughness of lessons from him.  He teaches Dangwe language and social studies. Before he retired, Evans was a high ranking official in the sports authority. He is the only person in PramPram I have so far met who has traveled outside the country: Scotland, Las Vegas, Minnesota, Canada and Finland. As dedicated as he is, he is also a bit jaded. he is frustrated with the lack of government money coming in for education. He worries that families in PramPram [where illiteracy rate is quite high] don’t take learning as seriously as they should. He rolls his eyes when he tells me about 40% of the families don’t pay their tuition bills but have elaborate celebrations and buy fancy clothes for the big holidays around here. He is surprised when parents don’t buy textbooks, there is always some who refuse to do so. Yet Charwe perseveres, thank goodness for him!

Another fascinating teacher is the junior high school’s social studies, religious/moral educator and English teacher Amuyao Abraham Tetteh. Amuyao is the family name, Tetteh is his birth order [second son]. The kids refer to him as Mr. Tetteh; teachers call him Abraham. He is 28 years old and has been teaching at the school for 5 years. On weekends, he studies at the university in Tema. He is focusing on business administration and human resource management. He is in his 3rd year of 4– graduation is summer 2014.  Abraham is the second of six kids, both of his parents have died. His grandfather was the chief in his village and his father was a successful cattle farmer with 20 acres of land. His eldest brother is running that; his eldest sister is raising the younger siblings– 1 or 2 are still in high school. he teaches to help support his family in the rural region in the Volta river area as well as to pay for his tuition. When he is not working or studying, he is busy making things work– his cooking and laundry are major projects to be on a regular basis.

The turn over rate is significant here. The average teacher stays in a rural school maybe 2 or 3 years. There is a centralized application system for which the headmaster can post job openings. The average teacher pay is between $150-200 a month. Like I said, this is their patriotic duty to help build a better Ghana.

No Wahala– No Problem

 Posted by Matthew Cutler at 9:48 am  Ghana  Comments Off on No Wahala– No Problem
Jan 192013

“No wahala”– a common expression in Ghana. It means “no problem”; it is from a Nigerian dialect that has found its way into Ghana’s slang. It fits the temperament here. People seem content with what is happening [except for the 2 large political parties which are battling in court over the last presidential election]. The attitude is that no task is too hard nor any process too long. No wahala– nice attitude for an emerging economy.

Well, no wahala doesn’t always sit well with me, I am not known as Mr. Flexible in ordinary circumstances. But these are unique ones,right? I can do something to help when the resources are at my finger tips, right? So on Friday, physical education activities left me dumbfounded. Children wore their “Friday wear”, one nylon shirts and shorts/skirts. They were gonna play in the last hour of school. However, the grounds are all dirt and quite dusty. The girls played a game called AMPE which they jump thru a rope tied in a circle. The boys played soccer; some with bare feet and some with shoes and some with cleats– the ball was ripped and tattered. There was volley ball being played, except the ball was a deflated soccer ball and the net.. well it was a string which wasn’t long enough to tie to the 2 posts [a student had to hold an end]. No wahala? For the kids– no wahala, this is the way it is and they had fun. But one of my friends gave me $100 as I was packing up in order that I could to do something special while at the spur of the moment. I was going to buy a couple of balls and a net– no wahala, I thought.

Well, not exactly “no wahala”. You see there are no sporting good stores here. No Target, no Dicks– nothing of the sorts. One has to travel to Tema in a tro-tro [a van held together with bungee cords and duct tape; that could breakdown on the side of the road– as mine did during the day; which no big old white guy fits in easily or comfortably, mind you]. Tema is 45 mins to an hour away. The shopping area is like the shuck in Jerusalem– a maze of stalls where you can buy anything. Felix [one of the teachers] went with me– he knew where to go; no wahala? Not in his eyes– even though the 2 or 3 stalls selling sports equipment didn’t have nets. So back on a tro-tro to Accra, an hour and a half over dirt roads and/or broken pavement. There 4 stalls in 2 market areas, we found success! 2 volleyballs, 2 soccer balls, a net and 2 air pins to blow up the balls– all for a hundred bucks!

Now, what amazed me was that I dealt with this journey as Felix did, go with the flow.. If you don’t feel a wahala, there is no wahala. People helped me in this regard– squeezing into a tro-tro bound for Ashaima on the way home, people laughed when I tried to fit into a seat where my legs couldn’t slide in. Remember the average person in Ghana is short and skinny. But they petitioned the driver not to fill the seat next to me– they applauded when he waved and laughed at the large blofono in his vehicle. It was a very pleasant albeit uncomfortable ride…

Quick aside– to get to Accra or anywhere from PramPram, one takes a tro-tro to either Ashaima or Tema and then transfer to one for Accra. It takes between an hour and half to 4 hours for the journey.

Lesson of the day? “No wahala” is a mindset; a lesson one needs to remember when the sabbatical is over and life returns to its usual routine.

The Ghana Black Star

 Posted by Matthew Cutler at 5:45 am  Ghana  Comments Off on The Ghana Black Star
Jan 172013

Next Monday is the official United States  celebration of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday. His actual birthday was 1/15. Monday will be the inauguration of Barack Obama’s second term. I tried to explain the significance of these 2 events to one of my classes. They got the inauguration– they didn’t see why it was a big deal. So a black man became president.  They heard the name of Martin Luther King Jr; but who he was in American history didn’t really register. You see, many people in Ghana just don’t get racism. The kids were surprised to hear of racial divisions in America; they were appalled to hear about history of segregation the America’s southern states. They know OF America’s history of slavery; there are fortresses on Ghana’s coast that served as holding cells before Africans were shipped to the United States and other areas where slavery was permitted. But they never heard of the harshness of our slave tradition. They knew it ended in the mid 19th century, but they assumed once it was over– everyone was equal. Therefore, Dr. King’s legacy was foreign to these children. Some things just don’t translate.

Ghana has a rich tradition of fusing cultures and people together. Remember the boarders of this country were drawn up European colonialists. It didn’t necessarily fit any of the tribal boundaries that existed for centuries. So out of the numerous tribes here, some are rooted in Mali and some in Nigeria; while others are indigenous to here. And thus, when Ghana became the first West African nation to get its independence from Great Britain in 1957, the founders of this republic took care to make sure the core values of the nation would be shared by all people within the boundaries. The make up of the Ghanaian flag is a perfect example. It has a red strip to symbolize the blood shed in the fight for independence, it has a gold one to symbolize the rich mineral wealth [i.e. gold] and a green strip for the rich vegetation and the lushness of the country. And smack in the middle is a black star–a symbol of the unity needed to build the republic. The theory was that a star symbolized a fixed reference point for people. As Ghana grew and thrived, it was essential that tribal history and culture be respected.  It was common to intermarry between tribes– if one married within the tribe, the feeling that relationship was too close. The National Tribal Council is an important sounding board for the President and has a strong voice in forming policy.

There are large tribes and small tribes. There are tribes whose history dominated Ghann’s history and language– primarily the Ashanti tribe whose capital is Kumasi which is 4 hrs north of the capital of Accra. But they don’t dominate politics and tribal patronage is shunned by the society. In fact, the current president is from the northern tribe [not Ashanti]. The chief of staff is from Dangwe tribe [actually from PramPram] and many prominent ministers come from the eastern Volta region.There doesn’t seem to be any economic or class tension either. People are respectful of where they are in society; coveting is truly a sin in the eyes of people here. Surely there is corruption in government here, it exists all over Africa.But that doesn’t mean it is tolerated. Ghanaians are proud of their unified patriotism and they love their national soccer team, the Black Stars.

In Jewish intellectual circles, similar concepts exist. The notion of tikun olam, world repair, is a powerful calling for us Jews. But the essence of tikun olam is not the repairing but in the unity of purpose. The rabbinic sage the MaHaRal taught that from tikun olam , we learn a valuable lesson: dat hanamasot– common manners and etiquette. yes, somethings do translate– in Judaism and in Ghana!

The symbol of the Black Star means a lot here. It can be a transported symbol for all of us as well. It is an African manifestation of a Jewish concept [or the other way around, it doesn’t really matter]. For all of us, we need a star that can help us navigate through life with common unity and purpose.

Sanitation Issues: Maybe we can Help

 Posted by Matthew Cutler at 9:06 am  Ghana  Comments Off on Sanitation Issues: Maybe we can Help
Jan 162013

This blog posting ain’t pretty; but it is essential that we all know about sanitation and health issues in other countries:

Here is the scene. The sun was setting in PramPram. I thought that I would walk to the beach and capture sunset pictures as the sun dips beyond the horizon, using the beach as a back drop; trying to do my best Robert Glick impression {Robert is a friend of mine who is a terrific photographer]. As I got to shore, I went beyond the fishing boats, resting on the beach– all to see the sun start its descent. The tide was coming in. Very picturesque. Add to it 15 or 20 men on the beach itself– their silhouettes looked magnificent as I prepared to bring the camera to my eye. What a beautiful ritual– people watching the sunset. But these guys weren’t sitting; they were squatting. They weren’t taking in nature, they were.. um.. doing nature’s business. As I turned to walk back, I was careful where I stepped and then I realized that the shoreline was heavily polluted. In fact, everywhere I have been in Ghana, there was garbage. I know the guide books warned that people urinate everywhere; but they also defecate everywhere as well as throw their garbage anywhere!

Garbage, poor sanitation, attitudes that the world can be used as their toilets– these might not surprise any traveler to the Third World. But as one who has been active in promoting environmental consciousness as a religious value, what I am seeing in Ghana can easily become a personal mission! I understand that we are the first generation that is actively aware that our world is a gift and that God has placed human beings to be shomrei Adamah, caretakers of the earth. I know that we have talking in the US about being more “green” and working on conservation and pollution control. What is the expression, “act locally, think globally”? I think it is time to start being advocates to act globally as we act locally!

I spoke to Pastor Albert Manu about this. He said that part of it is culture and part of it is economic. No financial resources has been set aside for regular trash pick up. He pointed out that I probably haven’t noticed that there are no garbage cans out on the street, no garbage trucks picking up trash, no inmates manning the highways to remove garbage. Ghana’s economy is still emerging and thus, those things are “luxuries” in the Ghanaians’ eyes. It is also cultural– when I told him about the beach, he said there are toilets near by for that part of town– people are lazy, people stick to their old routines– especially those who are illiterate and feel comfortable within their circle of poverty. Later in the evening, we saw a news clip that echoed what the Pastor was saying. Only 14% of all Ghanaians have access to proper sanitation. Though the goal is to have the percentage at 52 by the year 2015, the money isn’t there and the goal will surely be missed. [Please note that in the same broadcast, President John Mahama was in the northern part of the country, promoting an active reforestation initiative to save the environment and keep Ghana’s profitable timber industry strong!– so there is environmental advocacy going on!]

Pastor Manu’s Bethel School is 13 years old. It is growing. They moved from the church as the original class room site to a thatched building to a wood and metal complex that looks like those found in a rustic North Eastern summer camp. He teaches environmental awareness as part of the curriculum; a novel idea from what I glean from Pastor Manu’s colleagues. The kids pick up the garbage every day from the school before classes start. They take the garbage cans to the community dumpster which is not exactly across the street. But Pastor Manu points out the great irony with his work– the school still has a pit toilet, they urinate anywhere [as it is the way of land here] and the little ones don’t like the outhouse. He said that the highest priority for the school’s infrastructure is building a bathroom building. He showed me the estimate– roughly $7000. That is twice the annual salary in in Ghana; in PramPram is is closer to 3 years work of salary.

I wasn’t planning to make a financial plea while I was here– forgive me for doing so. People have been very generous with other initiatives relating to my Sabbatical journey– books, wheelchairs, school supplies, etc. There is nothing “sexy” about a toilet campaign; if the funds are raised, I doubt a plaque will hand on its walls. But it is a symbol– a symbol that we take our task seriously to be Shomrei Adamah, guardians of God’s planet; a symbol to make sure that environmental education becomes a priority this school and indeed,other schools. If you want to help– send any donation to Congregation Gates of Heaven. Sue Litynski will help get the funds here to start this project.

Let me thank you in advance for your support.

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