About 15 of us were gathered in a hot and dusty room in Accra, Ghana. Two young Ghanaian women wearing identical purple polo shirts walked in. One of them carried a tattered cardboard box with wooden sculptures. When she put the box down, I could see the sculptures were penises. Maybe 20 in all, lying and standing, helter skelter.
They were varied as to size and shade of brown, but there was no mistaking what they were. In fact, as sculptures, they were rather beautiful – polished wood in a simple and elegant shape, handsome examples of African not-so-traditional wooden carving. But of course it was hard to separate form and content, and there were a few giggles.
However, this was pretty serious stuff.
The women were sex workers who had been recruited by the organization (“AIDS Prevention Project,” or APP – not the real name) for whom my husband and I were volunteering. APP’s mission was to prevent/treat the spread of AIDS and other sexually-transmitted infections in the community of sex workers. Their primary method was education, particularly about condoms.
The audience consisted of donors to American Jewish World Service, the organization that had sent us as volunteer management consultants to help APP create a five-year Strategic Plan. Since sex workers are a huge vector for the spread of the disease, APP’s work was very important. Ghana was doing well at controlling AIDS, and APP surely played a part in that.
The women introduced themselves. “Sarah,” the more outspoken of the two, had a dark expressive face and a body Rubens would have loved to paint. She was generous with her hand gestures as she spoke. “Maridia” was more reserved, with a quick but hesitant smile. She had long thin legs and a long, thin face with hair-plaits that swung as she moved her head.
For about 15 minutes, they showed us how they educated other sex workers about why and how to use condoms, from package-opening to application to disposal. They were, by turns, all-business – we were allies in the battle against HIV/AIDS – and mischievous, as if we all shared a little joke.
It was a surreal juxtaposition of my former and present lives. This presentation was better than most I’d seen in corporate conference rooms in New York. No PowerPoint, no laser pointers or flip charts. Just penises. No MBAs, no power suits, no pretension. Just passion and commitment.
As a training consultant, I’d led many seminars on giving presentations, and I wished I could have had a videotape of what I’d just seen as a perfect example of all the qualities I tried to teach: unlimited enthusiasm, clarity of useful information, humor, compassion, engagement with the audience, even effective use of props and body language. I was particularly struck by their ease and its contrast to my own first-ten-minutes-are-hell stage fright when giving presentations.
A bundle of “what if’s” teased me. What if Maridia and Sarah had grown up in an apartment in the Bronx, as I had, with a well-stocked kitchen, a bathroom with fluffy towels, a playground outside? What if their childhood concerns had been more about resenting their parents for making them clean up their rooms, or hoping their clothing was like the popular kids’, and less about whether they’d be eating a meal any time soon?
Surely, they’d have opted to be teachers, lawyers, secretaries, nurses, doctors, homemakers, writers, civil servants, investment analysts, artists, athletes, scientists, or one of the other “You can be anything you want” possibilities. Conversely, what if I’d been born in Sarah or Maridia’s place, with the paucity of opportunities they had? Would I have turned to sex work out of desperation?
And what if I weren’t retired? Would I go back to stylish conference rooms in buildings with stale air to teach communication skills to highly-paid people who’d use them to market cosmetics, investment instruments, or other toys of the developed world?
From the moment Sarah and Maridia walked in with their box until the moment they left, they did their jobs with confidence and good humor. They never showed any signs of resentment or regret. They joked around. In a word, they had dignity. Funny the way things turn out.
Have you ever met someone you expected to be a certain way, and then had your expectations confounded?
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Carole Howard is the author of Deadly Adagio, published by Second Wind Publishing. She is working on a travel memoir, working title Tales of a Silver-Haired Volunteer, from which this is an excerpt.