A Week In Ghana

David SelingerI had the opportunity to visit Sokode Gbogame, Ghana to see first hand the work of Solace International—beneficiary of RichRelevance’s social efforts. The following blog are my reflections on the experience working with a primary school, a community clinic and two agricultural businesses built by Solace.

After a single week in Sokode Gbogame, Ghana, I feel my life perspective is forever changed. There must be a thousand different reasons for this shift, so I’m struggling to reduce the description of the experience into a single thought. My best attempt might be “Culture Shock.” And interestingly enough, not culture shock upon visiting Ghana but upon my return to “the first world.” Let me explain.

As I was preparing with my two godsons, Miko and Kimo, for my trip to Ghana, I constantly told them and myself to be ready for anything—to go to Ghana expecting any of the most unreal things to happen. We read books. We watched videos. We were prepared.

So, on the first day, when we saw people living in homes with aluminum siding as the roof or in shipping containers snagged off of the port, we weren’t surprised. In fact, Miko and I were so ready for anything that when our shower smelled of that wonderful “septic” scent, we didn’t pause to think that perhaps there was something wrong so we took our showers anyway (it turns out, there was something wrong, and it did get fixed) (and yes, don’t think about this too long, you’ll get sick).

Miko now loves fish-heads.

We took cold showers for a week without batting an eyelash. We went to the mud-floored market, where snails were sold alongside handmade fabric, right next to live chickens, free-roaming crabs and hand-jarred peanut butter. We sat with a young orphan boy (likely HIV+) who came down with malaria and held his hand while he struggled with the excruciating pain shooting through his veins. We got up on a 6-foot ladder made of water-soaked wood to hang our mosquito nets (a ladder that sagged under even my 150-lb weight and collapsed a few days later). Miko even ate a fish-head whole because being served the delicacy of a fish is an honor. We did all these things without hesitation because we were ready. And the trip was phenomenal.

We lived in an orphanage called “New Seed International” with 23 children, all of whom are there because of HIV: either their parents have been killed by the disease, or they are infected and have been stigmatized and rejected by their families.

There are an additional 50 orphans who are fostered by New Seed in the community, but we spent the majority of our time with the 23. The removal of boundaries was the most overwhelming piece of this experience for me. Even in the course of a short week, it overtook me. There was no getting in a car to go “visit” the orphans and no hotel to go to after playing with the kids. We woke up with them; we studied English, spelling and math with them; we watched movies with them; we played soccer with them (Team USA lost to Team Ghana btw—I’ve never so happily lost to a team of 8 year-olds before 🙂 ); and we nightly put them to bed. There were no boundaries, no barriers, no walls. Just smiles, hugs and shared memories.

It’s “Toy Story” night. Thanks Pixar!

Miko studying English with the kids.

My favorite-favorite memory I think was skyping with my wife Cynthia and daughter Abigail one night. I carried the computer outside to show some of the kids playing in the yard and they crowded around me like a swarm of hornets, screaming “Hi Abigail,” “I see you Abigail,” “Hi ugly face dog” (Coconut, our pug, came to see what was going on). At first shy, Abigail quickly realized that she had new friends and asked them to sing a song. Seconds later they broke into a Ghanaian lullaby for her, bridging thousands of miles with Skype, smiles and song.

From a business perspective, New Seed includes a primary school, a community clinic and two agricultural businesses (poultry farming and growing cash-crops) to fund their operations and serve the community.

Dorothy Byrne is Patrick Byrne’s mother (Patrick is CEO of Overstock.com). The school and orphanage were built with Patrick as their major donor. I helped but not nearly as much ☺.

As a part of the Solace International network, it was great seeing the local revenue generation at work subsidizing the cost of feeding the children. (Note: RichRelevance is a sponsor of and has adopted Solace International as a beneficiary of our social efforts). The kids help out with the businesses and the sensation of the entire operation was one of community—us against the world…us fighting for survival.

So upon returning to Accra (the capital of Ghana) and entering the British Airways lounge, I was immediately struck with the Culture Shock. I hadn’t realized how natural it had been to accept water as a limited and precious commodity at the orphanage. It was now awkward to watch it being wasted by those who had it in plenty. I deeply miss the culture of people always being present in the moment, looking me in the eye, smiling as we pass on the street and frequently waving.

I had barely noticed the lack of mirrors in the rural Volta Region where the orphanage sits; the ever-presence of reflective mirrors everywhere in London and now back in the states almost glares back at me. They reflect a face that experienced a big dose of reality in the past week. A face that is  re-fueled with the wonder and excitement of life and yet simultaneously struggling to reconcile the life of a corporate CEO with that of an orphanage resident in Sokode Gbogame, Ghana—a collision of circumstance and opportunity, a contrast of comfort with challenge. I am still overwhelmed with the cognizance of my contrived corporate life.

How can I really dig my teeth into our social marketing strategy while worrying about a child struggling with malnutrition?

I find my solace in two things:

  1. My commitment to “die poor” (to donate everything I make) has renewed fervor; my reasons for this commitment now have faces, names, hopes and dreams. I must focus because through my work, I become the financial support for the businesses which are the foundation of the school, clinic,  poultry farm and orphanage which sustain these children.
  2. That I work with amazing people who support the same values and know how important it is that we all work together to sponsor Solace International. My team at {rr} has adopted Solace and on the day of my return to the states had worked to launch our Solace International sponsorship and donation page. Thanks guys!

I can only imagine how much I’d be feeling if I stayed a month or a year… Next time. 🙂

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This post was written by David Selinger

ABOUT David Selinger
David is CEO and founder of RichRelevance. He first garnered international recognition as an expert in the field of eCommerce data analytics and personalization with his groundbreaking work leading the research and development arm of Amazon’s Data Mining and Personalization team. In that role, David increased Amazon’s annual profit by over $50 million (25% of US profit, 2003) setting the industry standard for recommendation services. To view David's full profile, click here.
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  • Anonymous

    David – I came across this post and want to convey that you really are great soul. I would like to share one of the teachings of a great saint.

    “Accept your lot cheerfully. If you acquire wealth, become humble the way a tree laden with fruit bows down. Money is a necessity but don’t get obsessed with it. Yet, don’t be a miser, be generous”

    I believe our existence in this world should touch few lives before we depart from this beautiful world. Do our duty conscientiously and with detachment, not regarding ourself as the doer.

  • KJ

    David – It is truly humbling to read about your experiences above. Having come from a third world country myself, being exposed to the way of life growing up there, and settling so easily for comforts here, I can relate to the experience that can be so overwhelming. It is especially touching to see you take time to share your thoughts as a successful CEO going to a place and living a down-to-earth life amongst the many in Ghana. Just wanted to say in reference to your note about “dying poor” that you will leave a long and rich legacy through such continued service and commitment.

    • Reply

      KJ, sorry for the long delay in response!! Thanks so much for the kind words and glad to know that our views on hope are shared.

      Have a happy new year!


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