Sunday, May 31, 2015

Important People I Would Not Know Without YES, Day 7: Nans Riffart

I mentioned, before, that a few blogposts will leave me at a loss for words. Nans Riffart, the last “obruni” (white and non-Ghanaian) person I will write about definitely captures that. By nature, Nans is one of the most caring, affectionate people I have ever known. In Kumasi, he was my best friend, and I look forward to the day we will meet again.

The first time I met Nans, I was jet-lagged and my adrenaline was crashing fast. We were in the AFS bus at the Ghanaian airport, and I had ask his name about ten times before I decided it must be something like “Naunce.” I do not speak any French, and I am honored to have a friend who was willing to speak my language to get to know me. As I spent some time with him over the next few days, I was touched by his open nature.

Nans and I were placed at the same school. I don’t think either of us could have realized the impact this would have on both of us. We weren’t in the same class (we wanted to make Ghanaian friends, after all), but we were able to meet during breaks to process our experiences with Ghanaian culture.  As time went on, we talked about many pieces of life, physical and spiritual. We shared countless laughs and I had the privilege of teaching him English words.

Before Ghana, I was a private person. Not in the sense of introversion—I am an extrovert and always will be. In high school, I kept secrets from my closest friends. I wanted no one to see my weak points or my fears. I created myself instead of just living as I was. Maybe that’s why I had so few close friends in those days.

It was Nans who changed that for me. He learned things about me I was afraid to admit to myself. Because of that, I found myself telling him things I hadn’t told people before. Perhaps, according to the laws of social interaction in America, we weren’t supposed to talk about such things. But Nans and I were not governed by rules.

He memorized my facial expressions. (I recall him saying once: “Sarah, you’re wearing the expression you do when you want me to think you’re happy, but you’re not. What’s going on?”) He was verbally affectionate in a way none of my American friends had been since we were kids.

We traveled around Ghana together, Nans and I. I especially remember our trip to the monkey sanctuary in the Brong-Ahafo region. We got stuck in a city called Techiman during a pouring rainstorm and made the best of it. Then we went out to the sanctuary, where we spent two days scrambling around the forest, reading Biblical poetry, and practicing meditation. Seeing wild monkeys up close for the first time was extraordinary. In that place, I felt close to the Earth and to God.

Nans gave me a gift from that place, which I will treasure forever. We were young, and strived to keep each other happy that year in Ghana. I won’t pretend we always succeeded. We had our misjudgments and our failures to support each other. But we tried so hard, coming from a place of love.

Nans Fabrice Riffart, Kwame Agyeman, lover of nature and humankind, you showed me how to be a friend. Whenever I find myself missing you, I remember that you want me to be happy where I am.

Important People I Would Not Know Without YES, Day 6: Logan Smith (who helped an acrophobic go cliff jumping)

This is not a picture of my friend Logan. This is not a picture of me, either. In fact I don’t know this guy at all. I snatched this from the internet.

This is a picture of how I felt on the day I met Logan. I was leaning over the edge of the cliff, about to fall. I had left Colorado and was sitting in some weird New York hotel preparing for the ride of my life. I was overwhelmed. Ten months felt like forever in that moment.

Some people can sit and reason through their fears and stress. I am not one of those people. I am a crier. I cried all day during that orientation.

Logan was the group leader sent to prepare us AFS students to live in Ghana. By the time we arrived in New York, it was too late to pack anything else or say goodbye to anyone else. Logan’s job was to be with us as we prepared in deeper ways.

I did a pretty good job, that day, of hiding my tears and my sadness and my nerves. I think, though, that Logan had some idea we were all freaking out. (However, Sarah freaking out does not look like Emily freaking out or Ann Elise freaking out. Lydia freaking out does not look like Jeneni freaking out and neither of them look like Sarah freaking out.) In spite of that, Logan was wonderful at calming us down without admitting that that was what he was doing.

Fast forward ten months. Our group was completely different. Instead of five YES students, there were three of us. Instead of being new friends excited to get to know each other, we were sisters who knew each other like the back of our hands. (And sisters who were in the middle of a heated squabble over what was right. Honestly, we might have rather made the long flight from Ghana alone than spend so much time with our siblings.)

And who met us in the DC airport but Logan. He was there to prepare us to jump off an even larger cliff—flinging our new selves into our old homes. He laughed at my funnier statements (“This place is full of white people.” “It’s eight at night; the sun should have been down hours ago.”). Logan was there to validate our experience. When we’d tell a story, he’d come up with a similar one from his experience in Ghana.

Some of my peers may say that having the same group leader to send us off and welcome us home provided closure. However, I was not seeking closure. I wanted to be transformed as a result of my experience, to see my life never be the same again. In that orientation, I felt like Logan was telling me: “You did not dream this experience. You have permission to be different than you were before.”

In September 2014, I had the opportunity to be a group leader myself. When I arrived in New York, I kept in mind that the students may have felt like they were falling off a cliff. As Logan did for me, I was present with them as they prepared for the ride.

I will not be with this year’s YES Abroad students at their return orientation in Washington DC. I get to do something crazier—be at their return orientation in Accra. I am blessed to maintain strong links to Ghana.

When someone is there to help you, moving across the world is not like falling off a cliff, it is like jumping. I’ve never been cliff-jumping (I’m kind of acrophobic), but I hear it’s fabulous.

Logan, thank you for being with me as I made those jumps.

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PS: I know the cycle is broken, and this isn't really a "14 day blog series" now, but life happens. Finals, closeout duty, ministry camp, special guests, etc. I still plan to finish.