The Grand Portrait
Life is amazing. Nothing ever happens the way one imagines it is going to. One realizes that most clearly here; all your philosophic systems crumble. At every turn one finds the unexpected.
– Lieutenant d’Armagnac, The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles
One morning we took the tro-tro bus across the city to a preschool for street children that was run by the Catholic Church. The children were homeless, their parents living on the streets of Ghana’s cities. We were asked to paint one of the walls inside the building. I mentioned the idea of making a giant map of the world which was unanimously approved. With a pencil I sketched the continents freehand from my memory, standing on top of a chair to reach the ceiling. At first, the project looked like a nonsensical mess but later it would be honed into a masterpiece.
Later we played soccer (futbol) with the children for hours. They were so delighted to be with us yet we were truly the ones who were honored to be around them. The sun began to set beneath the smoggy horizon of tin-roof shacks; our bodies coated with sweat and dust. We high-fived the young kids and took the stairs up to Mike’s apartment, a Ghanaian Light for Children staffer. From the veranda we watched the sunset over the city of Kumasi. With trash and tire fires burning in the distance it looked like scene out of Syria.
We ate a dinner of yams and rice, waving away potentially malaria infected mosquitoes and wiping our sweaty foreheads. I looked out over the immense poverty of Africa and dwelt on all of the suffering that must be in the valley below. But it wasn’t all suffering, there were miracles and stories too rich for recording that must have existed there as well. Sure, the poorest people in America are rich in comparison to the people in Africa but they suffer in different ways. It’s hard to distinguish between the millionaire, the middle or poor class in America and someone in the slums of Africa when it comes to suffering. It appears the later suffers the most but it’s all truly a matter of perspective.
That night Rebecca said something that will stay with me forever. We stood staring out over the city, the darkness creeping in and the lights flickering to life. There were no street names and each family’s home merged into the next without any real distinguishing. Everyone lived in community in this city of makeshift shelters.
“I feel like for the first eighteen years of my life I missed out on all of this,” she said. “And now I don’t have to.”
Earlier that week we ventured out to a remote village far from the city in an isolated part of Ghana. There I met a young man named Edward who was my age. He was incredibly kind and genuine, I sensed it in him immediately. He toured us around his village introducing us to the people in his community. I asked him what he did for work and he said that he was currently unemployed but hoping to find a job soon. My heart sank because we were the same age and I just felt a connection with him. He told me that he hoped to come to America for schooling or work. For some reason, the first thing I could think of to tell him was, “Edward, America ruins people you know. Treasure what you have here.” Somehow he understood, even though he had never left Ghana. As we departed I thanked him for showing us around and being so hospitable. With a handshake I gave him every last dollar I had with me and told him it was for him and his community. What was it to me, anyway? It had no use sitting in my pocket when it could have went to someone genuine like Edward.
I thought of life as this giant portrait that was being painted by The Master Artist. Some people were painted into one section while others were drawn into another. The people at one end of the painting only caught glimpses of those on the other end. Some were in darker places while others were in lighter but when the painting was finished and one stepped back and viewed the entire portrait it couldn’t have been more miraculous. Every part was in place and worked together. The good couldn’t have existed without the bad and the light without the darkness in this grand portrait of redemption. No matter how rich or poor or degree of suffering, all of the people in the painting needed was the Master Artist to be incredibly wealthy.
Later that week we returned to the school for street children and finished the work we had begun. With green and blue paint we filled in the continents and the oceans before labeling each of them. At the end we stood back in approval. The masterpiece was finished. The world looked beautiful.