Friday, January 22, 2010

An Evening in a Ghanaian Hospital: Week One in Ghana

I think I like it here. During my morning run I watch the mango trees greet the warm morning sun. I hear children laugh as they set up the vegetable stands that generate barely enough profit to feed their families. I smell a peculiar fusion of freshly baked bread and exhaust fumes. I am careful to hop over each of the open sewers the line the paths of Legon, Ghana. I jog along the uneven layers of red sand that form the top soil of the Ghanian savannah, stopping to say hello to the lady from whom I purchase pineapple each day. I’m finding a great sense of peace in the simplicity of the lifestyle that I lead in Ghana; the mop of blonde curls I wear on my head no longer phases me, I’m not bothered by the inevitability of the presence of sand on the floor of my bedroom, I’ve grown accustom to sleeping in a very warm environment. My idle thoughts consist of questions like “Where will I get water?” “Will I find a protein source today?” “Do I have malaria?” By the end of each day I am physically exhausted by the mental energy that it takes to become one with the Ghanaian environment.

The day after I moved in the limited electricity that powers my building and facilitates our water supply became out of service for five days. At first it was a novelty to figuratively return to my days in Haiti and teach my colleagues to take “bucket baths.” After carrying water to the third floor a few days in a row I was praying that the water might someday work. Unfortunately, our water system was not repaired and the source near my building became dry. I was up a creek with… no water. Later that night I woke to the sounds of loud banging on the doors adjacent to my room. A voice I did not recognize came to my door pounding and screaming “everyone get out now!” In my 3am stupor I was convinced we were undergoing a political coup. In the United States if someone knocked on my door and told me to evacuate I would trust that there was a natural disaster, but in Ghana I’ve been told to trust no one. I yelled back to the man on the other side of my door to reveal his identity and to explain why we are to evacuate but got no answer. I locked myself into my room and peered out the glass windows waiting to see if my colleagues had evacuated. Eventually a voice I recognized came to my door and I willingly left the building for what was an “earth tremor” warning.

It is strange to be white; I wear my status as a foreigner on my skin. Through orientation we were taught to stick with the other foreign students who happen to be predominately white. Any orientation should help a group to gel together, but this orientation was particularly strange because I feel that bonds were created to cement together what are here called “abrunis” (white people). During particularly stressful moments in the markets, seeing another white person began to trigger in my mind a sense of relief… “oh, she can help me.” It is dangerous. I feel like I am sitting through the American Civil Rights Movement when I attend class each day. Female students do their best to not look me in the eye, male students look for every opportunity to find an abruni girlfriend. In Arabic yesterday my professor had only five copies of a syllabus for a class of fifty. The professor approached me first saying, “you may have the first copy, you have priority.” I don’t want priority. Access to that syllabus was too dear a reminder of my white privilege that I passed the syllabus down the row in an attempt to absolve myself from guilt.

One evening my colleagues and I saw a group of male students dancing outside their dormitory waving flags. One of the ring-leaders shared with me that there is a longstanding conflict between the two main male dorms. Commonwealth, one of the dorms, believes that they are the strongest and has colonized some of the other dorms. The tension between the dorms often manifests itself in broken noses and black eyes but a few years ago my friend describes that a “war took place between the two dorms” Commonwealth lost the “war” and the other dorm gathers each night to wave their flag and dance to celebrate their victory. A few of us joined in their dancing and singing. The use of the word “colonize” reminded me of the psychological principle of reflection, that we reflect in our relations with others the ways that we have been treated.

I am consistently asked whether Ghana lived up to the expectations that I had placed on the country. There are moments wherein I forget that I am living in the developing world but there are also moments that I am confronted with the harsh reality of my living circumstances. I met a girl in class and had the following conversation:
Me: Hi, I’m Judith. What is your name?
Lucy: Lucy. How are you?
Me: I’m fine, how are you? Where are you from?
Lucy: The Volta Region.
Me: What tribe are you a part of?
Lucy: [insert tribe here], so… do you have facebook?
It is absurb to me that someone who lives on the other side of the world can be obsessed with the same virtual site as are millions of Westerners. My Ghanaian colleagues dress similar to me and my Western friends and in social settings it is sometimes difficult to recognize that we are part of very distinctive cultures. People really are just people.

Perhaps the most distinctive element of Ghanaian culture is the focus on the group over the individual. There is a definite presence of “group think” and “majority rule.” I’ve noticed a lot more assimilation here than I have witnessed in America and Britian. Also distinctive is the focus on oral tradition over that which is written. There is only a 50% literacy rate in Ghana so information is generally disseminated through word of mouth. Walking around campus it is rare to hear students speaking English. Though English is the national language of Ghana, Ghanaians learn the language associated with their tribe at birth and speak English predominately at school. More than half of Ghana’s population has never learned English. My inability to speak much of the dominant tribal language in Accra, Twi, makes trips to the market very difficult.

In Britain I always had my nose in a book. I was looking forward to my exposure to African literary classics but have had difficulty thus far finding books to read. The school bookstore is very limited and I have found only one bookstore in the city centre. The school library will not allow students to check out most of the available books and I had difficulty finding resources written after the 1990’s. Because books are so expensive and infrequently available many of my professors do not assign an extensive reading list. As opposed to purchasing books students visit department offices to buy a photocopied packet of journal articles and excerpts from books to read for class. In my Spanish Linguistic Theory class our work books are handwritten and photocopied which makes them very difficult to read. Like any other goal-oriented American, I am concerned that my textbook for Political Research Methods was published in the 1970s and that I wont be able to access the supplemental reading materials that I feel would be critically important to my academic experience. I have a mini-heart attack every time I realize that the library no longer carries a book that I have been asked by my professor to read for class. “How will I learn?” I wonder to myself. The most important lesson I have learned while abroad is that books can impart only a small amount of information about life. As a student of International Development I will learn more from experiencing development than I ever could from reading.

Tuesday night I joined my colleagues for pizza night before the football game against Angola. The other vegans and I split a veggie pizza without cheese. Walking back to campus I became so engaged in conversation about poverty that I failed to see where I was walking in the dark and fell into one of Ghana’s many open sewers. I knew immediately that I was hurt and my friends Paula and Theresa ran off to buy something with which they could make a brace for my leg. I stayed sitting in the gutter until they returned with knives and tea towels that we affixed to my ankle with belts. We took a taxi to the hospital. After a thirty-minute wait I was seen by one of the few nurses who spoke English. She taught me to say “I fell into the gutter” in Twi and told me that, “Only the Americans fall into the gutter!” I became the laughing stock of the hospital for a few hours. I was told that the man next to me in the hospital was dying of Malaria and another man was suffering from Cholera. When I was given an examination room the nurse brought in a tray of injections and sat them on my stretcher. I was not expecting shots and asked what the shots were for when she explained that they were for another patient who would be sharing the room and the stretcher with me. The hospital did not have a wheelchair for patients to use nor an X-ray machine to check the damage caused to my ankle. There was literally nothing that the hospital could do to help me. The doctor seemed more concern with the gashes in my leg than with my ankle as the gashes could allow a range of bacteria to enter my bloodstream. I was given an antibiotic and encouraged to keep my wounds very clean. I was permitted to return to the hospital the following morning to receive a set of crutches and hobbled around campus with my crutches for a while. With so many potholes and uneven layers of sand it was difficult to maneuver my crutches in a non-ADA country. The realities faced by so many disabled people became a bit more clear to me as I was forced to forgo many things I would generally choose to do because they were physically inaccessible. I am so lucky to be young and agile, I can’t imagine the difficulties I will face as I begin to age.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting account, Judith. And it's fortunate that we cannot, in our youth, imagine the difficulties of aging.It's enough that one has to face them as they come! I like myself now, better than at any other year in my life, but my body often doesn't respond as well as I'd like and that's a bummer. Blessings to you, my friend.
    You enrich my life.