Wednesday, September 15, 2010

How I Became an Actual Princess

Every few years, the UN releases the Human Development Report, which includes the Human Development Index.  The HDI uses objective data to measure the quality of life for citizens in 182 countries in the world.  (The countries not included are left out because of insufficient data.)  

The United States has routinely been ranked in the low teens (currently #13 on the list) in a group of 38 countries considered to have “Very High Human Development.”  The top ten includes: Norway, Australia, Iceland, Canada, Ireland, Netherlands, Sweden, France, Switzerland, and Japan.*

The greener the country, the higher on the HDI list.  The redder the country, the lower on the HDI list.
So, it turns out the grass is actually greener.
The rest of the countries are listed in categories of “High Human Development,” “Medium Human Development” (the largest category), and “Low Human Development.”
In 2003, I joined the crew of the M/V Anastasis, a traveling hospital ship with YWAM’s Mercy Ships.  For four months, I lived on the ship, working in the hospitality department (a story for another time, as I have been blessed more with the gift of hostility, not hospitality).  During my time on the ship, we were docked first in Sierra Leone and then Togo, two countries in West Africa.
Both Togo and Sierra Leone fall into the category of Low Human Development.  Togo (#159) is a place that has found its way into the center of my heart, and I will most certainly be writing more about that later, but this story is about how I became a princess, so let’s spend some time in Sierra Leone.


Sierra Leone actually ranks #180 on the list of 182 countries.**  So, Sierra Leone is literally “one of the poorest nations in the world.”  When moms say, “There are starving children in Africa who would eat those green beans,” it’s the kids in Sierra Leone they’re talking about.
When I was there in 2003, Sierra Leone was still in the direct aftermath of a twelve-year civil war.  The night after I left, my dad was watching the news and saw an interview with an American soldier in Afghanistan.  When asked if he worried about his safety, the soldier replied, “It’s not like we’re in Sierra Leone or something.”
The week I joined the Anastasis, docked in the capital city of Freetown, we were placed on restriction for three days, when a group of rebels raided an armory, and riots broke out in the streets.  We were told we could not leave the ship until further notice.  At that point, I had only seen the country of Sierra Leone in my traveling from the airport to the port (which included a trip by car and ferry), and I don’t think I really understood the severity of the situation beyond the port.  When I look back now, I thank God I didn’t know what was really going on, or I might not have ever left the ship.
Luckily, the restriction was lifted, and I was able to travel in-country on several occasions during our two-month stay.  Here’s the short story: met a lot of people, did some great things, came home and told my dad.  Fast-forward about four years,*** and my dad had started taking short-term teams to SL to work with orphanages and communities of widows, partnering with existing ministries and organizations (including the only hospital in Freetown and the UN’s World Food Program).
Okay...the princess part.  So, my dad had been working in SL for a few years at this point, and the people he was going to help during this trip told him there would be a special ceremony.  When he arrived, they brought out a special outfit (apparently fitted for an African man, NOT a pudgy white man, as he later split the pants while dancing) and handed him an ornate staff to use for walking.  He was told the ceremony was to make him an honorary paramount chief.
We have traveled all over the world and been given plaques, been introduced with all kinds of crazy titles, and been handed babies for picture ops (this never gets normal).  But when my dad stepped out of the car and people started bowing, he was taken back.  I mean, people in the streets were stopping and bowing reverently, shaking his hand, and talking quickly over each other in dialects my dad couldn’t understand.  After an hour-long parade through the streets of a village, my dad finally asked why all this was happening.  That’s when he found out that the only other white man to receive honorary paramount chief status in Sierra Leone is former prime minister of Great Britain, Tony Blair (or at least that's what they told us).  Like, whoa, right?
Even though it’s an honorary position, it holds all the authority of an actual paramount chief.  The actual paramount chiefs in SL are non-partisan members of parliament and are essentially tribal leaders appointed to settle matters of law in different regions of the country.  The best part?  Sons and daughters of paramount chiefs are actually princes and princesses.
So, I am a princess in the (almost) poorest nation in the world.  Bizarre, huh?
*If you are someone who really digs statistics and charts, visit for more information than you could possibly want to know about the HDI).
**Niger, a country not too far from Sierra Leone is ranked last, and Afghanistan is next to last (this is the first time Afghanistan was included on the list since 1996).
***The story of my time on the ship became my masters thesis, and I will definitely write more about this later.

1 comment:

  1. We couldn't make this up. Actually, you could, but you didn't.