An Interview With Elizabeth Geitz Author of I Am That Child: Changing Hearts and Changing Minds
Reviewer Mara MacSeoinin: Mara is a Cambridge University Theology graduate and prizewinner, an author of a YA fantasy novel entitled The Dawn Herald and is presently writing a book on Benjamin Franklin. Mara grew up in Cambridge UK, lives in Hertfordshire, is a cricket fanatic, gourmet chef, reads and writes obsessively and is about to start (another) Masters in Philosophy. She also reviews for WH Smith and The Booktrust.View all articles by Mara MacSeoinin
Author: Elizabeth Geitz.
Publisher: Morehouse Publishing (February 1, 2012)
ISBN-10: 0819227781: ISBN-13: 978-0819227782
We’re all too accustomed to the images of Africa beamed into our television sets: listless mothers holding fly-covered, emaciated children with sunken weary eyes. Africa ceases to be a continent and becomes a country of the dispossessed, the war-torn and the famished. We mitigate our guilt by giving a little money, or sponsoring a child, or we turn off the television entirely, so bombarded by stock images of suffering that we are incapable of empathy.
Apart from Elizabeth Geitz.
Geitz is a do-gooder in the truest sense of the word; she actively seeks out suffering in order to end it and to enlist the help of others in alleviating it. She champions the poor, the uneducated and unrepresented, and ventures far beyond her Pennsylvania milieu to learn about the world. Her transformational journey to Cameroon, eloquently depicted in I Am That Child: Changing Hearts and Changing Minds seeks not only to dispel the Africa myth, but to tell those who take comfort as their birthright what life is like for some of the world’s poorest people; how our luxuries, both political and cultural, are mere dreams to those who are AIDS orphans, or forced into marriage, or lacking not only any kind of welfare safety-net but even the most basic medical supplies to enable them to give birth safely.
Geitz’s journey to Cameroon first began several years ago when Sister Jane Mankaa visited the United States to share her experiences about building an orphanage in Cameroon, West Africa. Sister Jane’s presence was so strong, her stories so compelling, that Geitz and her two friends, Lilian Cochran and Nan Curtis, took the ‘unlikely leap of visiting Africa together’. But part of their motivation to see life as it was lived in Africa stemmed from their childhoods in the Deep South, where they were witness to segregation. ‘I remember being told in all sincerity,’ she recalls, ‘“never look a black man in the eye”. In this [racist] world some of us were cared for by African American women in our homes…we grew to love them with a fierce loyalty over the years, even as we recognized the injustice that forced them to nurture us at the expense of their own children’s care.’ Perhaps the recollection of these children made Geitz’s encounter with her adoptive Cameroonian child, Nafi, all the more poignant. In giving him and indeed all the orphans at Good Shepherd boundless affection, she was in some way atoning for the vicious segregational system to which she was unwillingly, and as a child unavoidably, complicit.
The journey to Good Shepherd was, in every sense, seismic, from leaving her family – when she returned they greeted her with lots of hugs and ‘a big sigh of relief: they were worried about me’ – to witnessing how appalling poverty and deprivation turned giving the simplest gift into an extraordinarily meaningful act. A football gave the children endless pleasure; a computer transformed their lives through filling them with wonderment. Perhaps for the first time, Geitz realised what it felt to be a minority: she and her travelling companions were the only white faces in sight. In the West, where we take whiteness for granted, being the Other truly brings home our status as a worldwide community, one of many of God’s children. Through interacting with the young and teenaged orphans at Good Shepherd, Geitz is able to present a compelling truth: that there are many lives being lived far and wide, and many stories to be told. She demonstrates that Africa is abundant with universal human conditions and memes: sorrow and joy, naughtiness and petulance, dishonesty and wheedling, generosity and sharing, while delivering, with unerring honesty, the plight of those who have no access to the wireless communications we take for granted, and no way to broadcast their tale.
Though, as an Episcopalian priest, her mission is primarily a spiritual one, Geitz is eminently practical in terms of forward thinking. She believes that three factors would “greatly enhance the viability of the future of Cameroon. The first is enhanced transportation infrastructure. Cameroon has the capability to grow enough food for its own people, but there are not sufficient roads to get the food where it is needed. Second, the programs currently set up for healthcare need to be funded. In Cameroon, a woman dies every hour from the complications of pregnancy or childbirth. Nine percent of babies die. Third, the Maputo Protocol for women’s rights, signed in 2009 by President Biya, needs to be enforced […] the Protocol is a comprehensive document giving full and equal rights to women and outlawing female circumcision. Article 14 of the document also legalizes abortion under certain circumstances. Additionally I would like to see polygamy outlawed and men who are found guilty of rape incarcerated.”
How could such a radical document be enforced in a country whose people believe that AIDS is caused by witchcraft? Those ostracize those suffering from it and the children of those who have died from it? They who visit witchdoctors who increase the spread of the virus (currently at 5.5 percent of the population) by slitting the skin of with contaminated razorblades? How can polygamy be discouraged when one the King himself has thirty-eight wives? One step at a time, of course. For living with the orphans and founder of The Good Shepherd Home, Sister Jane Mankaa, taught Geitz of the power of hope and resilience. “Setbacks become an opportunity for her, not a reason to say “it can’t be done”.’ The same kind of hope and faith permeates Geitz’s modus operandi. ‘When my mother committed suicide,’ she recalls, ‘I was forced to deal with the tough questions. The outcome? God is not the giant puppeteer in the sky who can pull strings to make good things happen or keep bad things from occurring. God cannot protect us from evil in the world, but can be with us as we face the evils – like the hunger of orphans, their physical abuse, sexual abuse. God created free will. It is humans who do these things to other humans…my faith tradition teaches that God suffers when we suffer, weeps when we weep. We believe in a loving God who is there for us no matter what.’ It is this belief, this faith, which allows us to put our media fatigue to one side and realize that we are all That Child: their tragedy is our tragedy, and humanity would triumph if we would but acknowledge it.
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