Developing a just society based on equity and equal opportunities for all with respect for diversity.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015


By Jonathan Hunt

There is a memory of my only previous excursion outside Europe that has really stuck in my mind. I was on the Study India programme and a group of us had taken the 6 hour drive from Delhi to Agra to visit the Taj Mahal – that undisputed wonder of the world. We arrived at dawn in search of peace, but needless to say we were already part of a small army of camera-wielding warriors. After walking through the gates one member of our group decided he’d seen enough of the work of art and didn’t even make the pilgrimage down the path to stare obligingly upon it. It was a choice that has always bemused me, yet at that moment his apathy was not alien to me. 

To put it bluntly, my initial confrontation was thoroughly underwhelming. Perhaps I was just tired; perhaps I had seen too many photos of it. But it just didn’t resonate with me. Had we not driven so far and had we not set that dawn alarm, it would have been easy to walk around, take a few photos and leave wondering what all the fuss was about. But I forced myself to stay. I found a quieter spot and just sat and looked. By that point the sun had risen up and was shining upon the side of the building I was studying. And the more I looked, the more stunning it became. The marble flickered from milk to cream and then to gold, glistening under the hazy dawn. Each intricate detail etched into the stone looked like a wonder in its own right. The symmetry of the building. The solidity that you could feel through your bare feet. I sat there for about three hours before having to finally tear myself away. I’m not sure what I thought about during that time, if anything, but it is a memory I have most clarity about from my time in that crazy, marvellous country. I cannot pretend I felt some enlightened urge to sit there; it was brought on by disappointment more than anything. There had been no epiphany about life or experience; I just really enjoyed it. But what I can realise now is that for those three hours I managed to forget about time and myself and simply live in the moment. It is something I have struggled to ever do again.
Dohi School Visit: The children were eager helpers when delivering donations

There were several reasons why I applied for ICS. I have always fostered a fascination for both our human and natural world and a desire to preserve and develop both. The scheme seemed to provide a chance to connect with both people and place, whilst knowing I was working towards something positive. I had wanted to travel, but was struggling to consider what I planned to gain from it. So I guess it gave my adventures some purpose. But most of all, I was probably running away. From what, exactly? It is hard to see. I come from a loving family and have friends who have always stood by me. I have my health and independence. I excelled at school and, although my work ethic somewhat waned at university, I left Liverpool with a proud 2.1. I had successfully balanced a life of work and play and explored a city I came to love. Yet I left feeling empty and detached; like I had always been searching for something I never found. I convinced myself travel would fulfil me and set my sights on saving up the funds. I worked in a pub that was buzzing and vibrant and with the best bunch of staff anyone could ask for. Yet for those eighteen months I was simply waiting to leave. I failed to truly connect with the beauty that was there and let my frustrations boil over. I had planned to depart far sooner but there were various factors that encouraged me to stay. I became torn between my desires. 

Despite finding new meaning in an old life, I was still fixated on running away. It is only now that I have begun to appreciate exactly what it is that I was running away from...simply my own thoughts. At every stage in my life I have been waiting for something else; that next stage in my external path. Something that wasn’t there, but that I was sure was what I needed; that would fulfil me. When you go through most of your life in this mindset it becomes near impossible to escape it. It was only after arriving in Ghana that I began to understand this. I realised what I had failed to connect with and the moments I had forgotten to live in. I had spent the best part of two years waiting to escape and once I got here all I could think about was what I had run away from. Thought had become an addiction that believed external desires could provide its salvation.

In this midst, however, was hope. One of my initial memories of the host home was being greeted by a contingent of very shy but very curious little children. Quickly they forgot their inhibitions and we proceeded to play, dance, sing and laugh for two hours or more. The smiles on their faces I will never forget. The happiness I felt is something that will touch me for a long time to come. Breaking free from the habit of thought is the hardest thing I have ever attempted. But since remembering once more what it feels like to truly live in the moment it is something I am determined to do. And there is no place like Tamale, like Ghana, to provide the platform to do so. Each morning when I shower I try to feel, to hear, the gentle splash as I flick water from the bucket to my body; the burst of life when I tip it up and drench myself in cold water. In the taxi ride to work; taxis that seem to be strung together on sheer hope and will; that clunk and grind with each motion; that I usher onwards out of respect and admiration because they remind me that some things need not be seen as broken. The children at a rural school whose faces lit up as we unloaded a van of donated books, clothes and furniture. Who then, along with their parents, hung on our every word as we spoke about the value of education when so often they had been marginalised from it by lack of the simplest resources. A right that they enjoy as a privilege and use each day as a direct passage to life.  The list of things I have felt life in could go on...the first thunder storm of the season, outside with my family as torrential rain lashed down and purple bolts crashed to the ground; feeling the burn in my chest and hearing my feet pound the ground during an evening run at the stadium; long bus journeys, absorbed in the views flashing by; the colours and textures woven into every piece of fabric; a wander round the market or a stroll through the village; even the cockroaches that guard the toilet at night.

Nayoku Community Sensitisation: After exhausting all games with the children, running proved 
to be a popular last resort
 It is easy to be fascinated by only a limited portion of life. Recently some of us were lucky enough to be gifted the chance to watch wild elephants bathing at a watering hole in Mole National Park; an experience rightly incredible. Immediately afterwards a butterfly fluttered gently alongside us, parading its beauty with quiet grace and humility. Someone jovially asked, “Is it weird that I am as fascinated by the butterfly as I was by the elephants?” It is a reflection with a commendable motto and one I plan to uphold – to seek wonder and awe in as much as you can. We should not look for what we are supposed to be fascinated by, not decide beforehand what we think is beautiful, not set ourselves things to find. Embrace everything and seek life in every moment. Everything around you has a story; try to tell it. But do not always worry about telling your own. Living your life as if it were a story to be told seems to bring only shallowness and disappointment; those of others will always seem to contain more fire. The mobile and the internet are wonderful inventions that can bring us closer together in ways we could have never imagined. But they also threaten to pull us apart; apart from each other, apart from nature and apart from ourselves. There is a memorable line from the wonderful speech in Charlie Chaplin’s ‘The Dictator’ where he says “We think too much and we feel too little. More than machinery, we need humanity. More than cleverness, we need kindness and gentleness.” In the battle for supremacy of thought, for peace in our relentless minds, we can often forget what it means to be human; to be alive. It has certainly been true of myself and I fear it is becoming true of many more. 
There are too many of us distracted by the electronic devices in our pockets that provide easy entertainment and instant updates. Too many people living their lives in virtual worlds, their adventures in reality existing for the purpose of an identity on social media. It is easy to spend your life inside your head – worrying about your identity and your ego. We have become blissfully ignorant of our surroundings, disconnected ourselves from true interaction, in a bid to keep up with the demands of our thoughts. For too many mobile phones have become the opium of thought, of insecurity, fear and boredom. Pleasure for the ego that has an identity to uphold, rather than the self that has life to nurture. It has taken until now to realise that for every moment spent looking at my phone it is a moment in which I cannot appreciate this beautiful country and its wonderful people; it is a moment that is lost. In a further bid to confront this in my own behaviour I have decided upon a loose rule when it comes to photo taking – to only photograph that which will conjure up a memory and not that which will validate my travels to others. I will now always try to live, experience and feel a place before snapping it. It is too common to see tourists flocking to an exotic beach, smartphones at the ready, clicking and tapping as they share their perfect lives to jealous onlookers. I hope that I would always pause, breathe the sea air first, taste the salt on my tongue, watch the rhythm of the waves as they roll onto the shore line and listen to them crash against the rocks.  It is easy to become so obsessed by what your life means to others that you forget to live it yourself.

It is hard to find the words to describe the lives of communities here without sounding patronising or clich├ęd. I cannot pretend to know what they want but I know how I have come to feel. Walking into the village that I am living in it was easy to pass it off as poverty – the lack of furniture, the lack of appliances, no running water. But is it so, or is it mere simplicity? I probably have no right to decide. I am sure they could do without the power cuts and would rather not have to walk to collect water, but for much else they seem to have what they need. I am not able to say if I could live like this forever but I have certainly not missed much. Each piece of technology my home here lacks is one less distraction for living. Here is a community that talks, that shares, that cares. A family that welcomed me and provided for me; always finding something else to give and never afraid to reach inside to find it. The children have no playstation, no computer, no mobile phone, yet the thirst for life I have witnessed amongst them is astonishing. Energy and ingenuity that I have never seen before. Their kindness comes as standard, their laughter always abundant. They manage to sing as they shout and they rejoice when they run. I have learnt from them in ways I could never have thought possible. Above all, through living with them, I have learnt to see them not by what they are lacking, but by the richness that their souls possess. 

Sagnarigu: Where you can always be sure of meeting some friendly faces
So whilst of course I have found my time here nothing short of incredible, it has begun to change me not because of the experiences I have had, or pride in my achievements (all of our achievements) or that extra line on my CV. It is because in this country, over these few weeks, I have really learnt to appreciate the moment. I have started to feel and connect after years inside my own head. I’ve understood how thought can destroy your sense of life if it takes you away from where you really are. Living in the moment does not mean forgetting the past or discounting the future. It is about remembering to actually live rather than waiting for the other life you are preparing for. I, for one, fell fowl in my imagination of the perfect path through life. It was an obsession filled with external ‘necessities’; that next step I was sure would complete me. But they were just meaningless identities conjured up by my ego not my true self and existed to only narrow my scope for fulfilment. As John Lennon once sang, “Life is what happens to you while you are busy making other plans.”

So now when I hear the giggles, shouts and screams of “Salaminga, hello”, “Salaminga, how are you?” by throngs of waving children, I will always greet it with a smile. It is just something else that reminds me that I am here. That I am someone people are fascinated by and want to meet. How can one not be inspired by children voicing such wonder? As shallow as it may be, as discriminatory as it is, it is beautiful to know that you possess something that brings excitement to somebody’s life. If you have that much worth, that much to offer, through simply the colour of your skin, then just think what you have beneath it. 

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