Luncheon with the president

Posted: Friday, May 30, 2008

Like any 'obruni' (white man) living in Ghana, I am treated as royalty. This means I am frequently asked for outrageous sums of money ("Obruni, give me one million dollar.") and it is assumed that my connections are as vast as the mystery which surrounds me.

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Courtesy Of White House Press Photographer
Courtesy Of White House Press Photographer

When greeting me, people inquire, alongside my family, about the pope, President Bush or Jay Z. Nobody doubts for a second that I am not personally acquainted with the rich and powerful. In their minds, I am no less famous.

Over the last year, I have worked hard to dispel these inflated notions of my importance, I even thought I had made some headway, and then President Bush came to Ghana, and I had lunch with him.

You may have heard that while visiting Ghana, President Bush dined with 10 Peace Corps volunteers at a luncheon hosted by the U.S. Ambassador to Ghana, Pamela Bridgewater. I was lucky enough to be selected from the mass of qualified and respected volunteers serving in Ghana (135, to be exact) to attend this lunch.

My village was hardly surprised - it confirmed what they had long suspected: President Bush is, after all, a personal friend of mine, why shouldn't he come to Ghana and ask me to lunch?

The luncheon itself was certainly a defining moment in my Peace Corps service. While my village may think it inconsequential for me to dine with the president, I am well aware of the opportunity.

The luncheon was a small, private affair. In addition to the President and 10 Peace Corps volunteers, Laura Bush (as she prefers to be called), Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice (from whom I sat across), Ghana Ambassador Pamela Bridgewater, Peace Corps Ghana country director Bob Golledge, and Bob Geldof, celebrity activist and acting reporter, were also in attendance. It was, to be obvious, quite the guest list.

After a few moments of blinking at one another, the press left and we began to talk. Contrary to what might be expected, the conversation was anything but stiff and formal.

The president was eager to hear our stories, and we were eager to tell him why we joined the Peace Corps, what motivates us to get up every morning and how this experience has changed our lives, for better or for worse.

President Bush laughed as we recounted various village exploits and seemed impressed to hear of volunteers surviving snake bites, muggings and heat without a fan. It pleased him to hear us mention work we do in coordination with the Millennium Challenge Account or the president's Emergency Plan for Aids Relief.

The president has certainly done a great deal for Africa with these two initiatives, and his legacy in the villages is overwhelmingly positive. Besides, Ghanaians love anybody who will dance with them.

I assume our lunch went well. At an address in the East Room of the White House, on April 29, during National Volunteer week, the president said, "Laura and I met with Peace Corps volunteers in Ghana recently, and they are some kind of fired up. Matter of fact, it is exciting to be with those good souls who are motivated to go help, and in so doing it really is the best foreign policy America could possibly have." I'm inclined to agree.

Upon return to my village I passed along to my mamee the greeting Condoleeza Rice extended. My mamee merely grunted and gave an approving nod. In her mind it was perfectly reasonable that my personal friends should pass along this expected acknowledgment, and it merely indicated that all was right with the world. Though I suspect she was a bit disappointed I hadn't brought home Jay Z.

• Sophia Polasky, of Juneau, is a Peace Corps volunteer in Ghana, West Africa. She can be reached at scpolasky@gmail.com.



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