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Lyn Burr BrignoliOctober 22, 2012

In 2000 I received a Fulbright grant through Yale University to travel with 11 other teachers to Ghana, West Africa. As a volunteer religion teacher to children with special needs in my parish (St. Mary’s in Greenwich, Conn.), I was an anomaly in the group of high school and grade school teachers and one college professor. I returned to the north of Ghana in 2008 and again in 2011, where I have been working on a girls’ education initiative.

I meet David for the first time when we are ushered into his office in Bolgatanga where he works for an American-based nongovernmental organization. He is wearing a white “smock,” a loose, skirt-like garment worn as a shirt—formal attire for men in northern Ghana. Tall and thin, speaking in British colloquialisms, he reminds me of an English aristocrat, except for the scar on his left cheek that resembles the scratch of a lion claw across his dark skin.

Later David (not is real name) will tell me that the mark is the imprint of the Nankani people for identification in times of war. His father had insisted on it, fearing his mother could take him one day to her people, where he would be mistaken for a Dagomba rather than a Nankani prince. His father, from a royal family and ashamed to be so poor, left his rural village at 18 with no formal education. Eventually he found a job as a policeman in a gold mine near where David was born and lived until he was 2 years old.

When David’s mother became seriously ill, his father took him to be cared for by extended family back in his home village where, in the mornings, “mamas” might offer him five or six peanuts and a cup of dirty water for breakfast. Often the contaminated water gave him worms, he will later tell me, rolling up his pant leg to show the scars where the worms had finally broken through the skin. He had nothing to eat until supper, a bowl of mush made from ground maize and okra.

At 17 David received a scholarship to a Jesuit boarding school for boys located a fair distance away. When he arrived at the school, barefoot in tattered shorts and shirt, the other boys teased him mercilessly, and after a few days he went to the headmaster, a Catholic priest and a native of Ghana himself, to say that he was going home.

The priest said to him, “Look up. What do you see?”

“I see the ceiling,” David said.

“No, I mean, if we go outside at nighttime, what do you see?”

“I see the moon and the stars,” David answered.

“Just so. That is you,” said the priest. “Your purpose is far beyond what is contained here in this little room.” Then the priest opened the cupboard, took out a clean cotton shirt and gave it to David. “Put this on,” he said. “Every morning you are to report here to me, and I will accompany you to the assembly,” the headmaster said. “But under no circumstances, for any reason whatsoever, are you to leave this school.” It was a turning point in David’s life.

David went on to earn a master’s degree in economic development in England, but always wanted to return to help his people. He is working now in the regio n where he grew up, where two out of three people fall below the poverty line, which is about $98 a year. Of these over 80 percent are women with dependent children.

The purpose of the nongovernmental organization he works for is to help create and manage farming collectives. During one brief rainy season the collectives can produce food for the year—groundnuts (peanuts), beans, soy, millet, guinea corn and rice. The N.G.O. lends money for seeds, supplies and equipment to about 100 women farmers who participate in the cooperative; they pay back the money as the farms become productive.

“Giving handouts is an emergency measure, but it doesn’t solve economic woes in the long run,” says David as we sit in a circle in his office at the N.G.O.

David is making arrangements for us to spend the following day working alongside the farmers. “You will come away with a better understanding if you work in the fields,” David tells us. “Wear long sleeves and long pants, and wear a hat. It will be hot.”

The fields in Navrongo lie a few miles from the border with Burkina Faso, with the arid Sahel not far off. It is hot, hot. Through an interpreter we talk with the farmers, who are dressed in wonderfully bright colored cloth, with turbans wound around their heads. I ask one her name.

“Howa,” she answers.

The women are enjoying our presence, laughing as if it is a great joke to watch us bend over, our fingers thrust deep in the dirt. But we will not be here long enough to become bone-tired or so hot that we are dehydrated or so hungry that we develop splitting headaches. We are, after all, only voyeurs of poverty.

Later, in an e-mail, I ask David why he chose to live so close to the bone himself, why he did not remain in England. He wrote: “No doubt life could have been easier for me had I remained in the West. I do relish the ‘good things’ of the West, but I realize that one may not have it both ways. The trade-off would be the loss of some part of myself. This work among my people is a work that I love.”

When we are back in Bolgatanga after working in the fields, David sits beside me at dinner. When he asks me what I do in the United States, I tell him about teaching religion to children with Down syndrome, discovering how gifted they are, even though in the eyes of the world they are seen as inadequate. “This is a work that I love,” I say.

“You don’t need to tell me that because it is written all over your face,” David says.

“Lyn,” he will later write, “I remember in our first meeting you talked about your work with ‘other-abled’ children. What touched me most was your emphasis on their being different, even unique, in such a way that the concept of diversity was not twisted to imply that one human being was inferior or superior to another.”

In his culture the handicapped are seen as cursed by God, less than human. But David realized that after speaking with me, he began to see disabled people differently. To illustrate his point David told me the story of how, a day or two after we had left Bolgatanga, he drove to a nearby village. When he parked his car under a tree, several mentally and physically handicapped adults approached him, he said, holding out their hands to beg. Instinctively, David reached into his pockets. “Let me share my poverty with you,” he said, distributing his money.

The next day, when he drove to the village, the same people were waiting under the tree. “Oh no!” he called out to them. “I gave you all my money!”

“We don’t want your money,” they replied. “We just want to shake your hand.”

David realized they were waiting to shake his hand because they were feeling a difference in the way he perceived them. There they were again, yearning to be seen as valuable human beings, just one more time. I believe we all have this deep craving to be seen. But perhaps it is felt more acutely by the physically and mentally disabled people, who for many reasons seem to be invisible to the rest of us.

David wrote me to say he experiences “the poorest of the poor” much as I experience my children with Down syndrome. He said that both groups “seem to have received a life sentence to remain ‘invisible’ to the rest of the world. We both share the pain of those who are so thoroughly discounted.”

I cannot help being struck by an overwhelming irony. From my perspective, David seems only slightly less poor than those he serves. No mere voyeur to poverty, David remains nearly invisible to many in more affluent circumstances, along with those he is trying to rescue from invisibility.

It has been said that we are enlightened not when we get a great idea, but when someone truly sees us—that is, sees us with God’s eyes. When we see each other in this way, we not only ensure that we are all are visible, but that we are loved and valued.

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11 years 4 months ago
Thank you for this wisdom from real life experience. Years ago in my work with adults with develpmental disabilities I came to realize that people who live with disabilities have something very important to say about what it means to be human. How we respond to people with disabilities says something very important about who we are as human beings. It was definiely a shift in world view for me.
11 years 3 months ago

What a wonderful story.    

Regarding respect for  people who are “different” in any way.   For most of my 80 years I’ve been encouraging people to accept and love all people  because beneath the accidents of physical attributes and cultural background we are all God’s beloved children, each of inestimable value.

For several years I taught physics at Chatham University in Pittsburgh.   My largest class had 17 students, but over the years my students included observant Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, two atheists, straights and gays, from countries including Turkey, China, Japan, Nepal, Uganda and Cameroon.

In this setting my effort to promote appreciation of the inestimable value of each person was based on the common freshman physics problem of estimating the number of atoms in a human body.   The number is huge, ten to the 28 power, and it’s absolutely incredible that these atoms self organize,  driven by a force I call “Organity”,  symbol (1028 ) into a rational sentient person.   Surely each person deserves utmost respect as a wondrous creation of God or the universe. 

The following  essay on Organity Symbol and respect was part of my course notes.   The organity symbol appeared in the heading of all my passouts to the students. 

ORGANITY SYMBOL           ( 1028 )    

 1028 is the approximate number of atoms in a human body.

 How in the world did these atoms get themselves organized into a living thinking entity that we call a person?

 There’s some kind of organizational force or principle operating here.    I call it “organity”.

 Organity is analogous in a way to gravity.  The force of gravity is just “there”.  We can feel its effect, we have developed a method of quantifying it,  and we can calculate its effects, e.g. in the solar system, and in the design of mechanical structures, but have no idea from whence.

 Similarly organity.   We can see its effects at many levels, from the organization of an atomic nucleus to the organization of chemical compounds, slime molds and on up to the biological organization of humans, and beyond to the social organization of ant and bee colonies to what we call “civilization”.   But whence?

 Now part of my message here is that we owe ourselves, other people and every living thing in the universe an enormous amount of respect and awe.  

 Think of it this way.  Go out in your yard and dig up 500 pounds of dirt.  This contains all of the atoms needed to make a human being .  Go make one.  Obviously too difficult.   So here’s a less ambitious project.  Dig up one teaspoon of dirt.  There’s enough atoms there to make an aphid.  Make one.  Obviously too difficult.  So make an amoeba.  Still too difficult.  

 Well if we can’t assemble  something with the IQ, ambition and energy level of an amoeba, the organity driven assembly of a person is more than awesome.   This underlying awesomeness overwhelms any consideration of peripheral human conditions such as size, shape, color, national origin, ethnic origin, religious affiliation and creed, sexual orientation, IQ, athletic ability or any other characteristic you can name.  

 So my plea to you is to think about the awe and respect we owe to ourselves, other people, and every part of this creation.   One of my hopes is that this awe and respect will impel us to dissolve first the mental barriers, and then the physical barriers, that  we construct between ourselves and others.   We’ll then begin to see ourselves primarily as citizens of the universe, and only secondarily as citizens of a particular country or members of a particular ethnic or religious tribe.   Many voices today say that this thinking is crucial if we are to survive the threat of destruction by weapons of mass destruction, acts of terrorism, and strangulation of the environment.

 Finally, in my dealings with you as students I try to keep this awe and respect always at the forefront of my attention and intention.   I sincerely hope that you will do the same for each other and for me.  And if ever you feel that I’m giving you less than your due, please remind me of all this good stuff that I profess to believe.



 Don Rampolla                                                                                           Rev October 2007



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