Wednesday, January 27, 2010

My day as a "Colonial Master" and Public Servant

"I am not the same having seen the moon shine on the other side of the world.” - Mary Anne Radmacher Hershey

It is challenging to be foreign. I often feel torn as to exactly what my role should be while abroad; should I sway toward assimilation or should my goal be to share my culture with the Ghanaians? I’m pleasantly surprised by the flexibility exhibited within my colleagues, after just three days in Ghana everyone was sporting new African dresses and wearing their un-styled hair proudly. As my body and mind have began to adjust to the climate and environment of Ghana I am beginning to think of Ghana as being home. I see so predominately the unity and similarities between people of all races and backgrounds that when I discover stark cultural differences I am a bit shocked. I live in a country where families take young daughters to surrounding countries to mutilate their genitals. I live in a country where the majority of the citizens do not speak the national language and where fewer than 50% of the population is literate. I live in a country where most of the roads in urban areas are made of gravel and where open sewers continue to line the streets. I live in a country where homosexuality is illegal. I cannot escape evidence of the group focus in Ghana; some of the people here have scars implanted in their faces to denote their tribe such that if they were to be misplaced as children they could have a better likelihood of being found. Since I’ve been here I have found some degree of difficulty in relating to friends in England at the United States; as they relate to me the gossip from the latest party my idle thoughts are dedicated to questions such as “will the water work today?” It really is a completely different life.

The food in Ghana is some of the best I have had in my life. I love having access to a wide diversity of tropical fruits and natural foods! More mornings I eat a whole pineapple and a handful of nuts on the way to class. For lunch I enjoy a scoop of white rice, tomato sauce, a bean dish called “redred,” and steamed vegetables. I generally have pineapple juice as a snack and then enjoy vegetable skewers with paprika and a mango for dinner. Food is incredibly inexpensive, the meals mentioned above total around four U.S. dollars. Though very few Ghanaians are vegetarian, I have found finding vegan choices to be very easy.

I continue to enjoy each of my classes. My classes are taught as a two hour lecture and a one hour tutorial. Many of my lectures have upwards of 300 students. The department is very understaffed and students must take almost identical schedules so as to make the best use of professors’ time. When a Ghanian student applies to University they are administered an exam that accesses their capacity for success in University. Based on the score that they receive they are placed in a degree programme over which they have no control. Students must stay within their degree programme for two years and pay for an education that may not interest them. I have heard stories of students intentionally failing their exams so as to be kicked out of a programme in which they have no interest. I am so fortunate to attend a school in the U.S. that allows me to serve as the locus of control in regards to my education. The Missouri State University Political Science department has been incredibly generous in the ways that my courses will be transferred back to Missouri State; I wouldn’t find the same flexibility in Ghana. My time in Ghana has called me to really interrogate the idea of individual liberties that is ever present in the United States. As an American I have so much control over myself and my actions.

Each of my classes carries with them a certain awkwardness in regards to the colonial history of Africa. Each professor approaches issues of the past in a different light, some are very careful to avoid offending Western students, others are unafraid to call us “you people” and refer to the “colonial masters,” and yet others talk around the subject as though slavery is a dirty word that shouldn’t be mentioned in class. I recognize the sensitivity of the issue but believe that a comprehensive investigation of the negative elements of world history is the only way to prevent future evils. The approach that I took toward colonialism prior to my arrival in Africa was very anti-Western but I am coming to see that the struggles that Africa has faced cannot totally be attributed to Western follies. Though the Americans and the British are often blamed for the slave trade it was the leaders of tribes throughout Ghana who agreed to trade goods for people. It wasn’t my ancestors who foraged through jungles for human flesh to transport to the Americas but it was their African brothers and sisters who sold people as property. There is much evidence of the benefits of colonialism within Africa: colonialism brought about the construction of African railways, imperialism fostered international trade with Africa, and globalisation makes Western products available to those in the East. The United States has historically acted in ways that are detrimental to African nations, but I believe that African nations made many key mistakes that contributed to their current instability and underdevelopment. In a country where a high percentage of infrastructure carries with it a sign denoting its donation from the United States or the United Nations it is obvious that the U.S. and the U.N. are channeling a lot of money and human power into Africa. The Ghanaians at times seem content with underdevelopment: no one seems fazed by the open sewers that run throughout the country, the Ghanians recognize that the water will rarely be available and so they collect water in buckets to prepare for dry days, and I have yet to hear a Ghanaian complain of the heat. Acceptance of living circumstances fosters complacency which is the detriment to progress. My professor explained today that, “Ghanaians don’t buy Ghanaian made goods.” Many of the items I have purchased in Ghana have been of dismal quality. The cell phone that I purchased consisted of tens of pieces that had been affixed together with the aid of superglue and at no point functioned properly. I’m quickly losing faith in Ghanaian goods and am looking for imported products that I feel I can trust. The scope of imported products available in Ghana is demonstrative of the lack of multi-layered economic systems in the country. I am not sure what the solution to African underdevelopment might be but I believe that it involves a Pan-African recognition of African involvement in her own underdevelopment and a commitment to create new, potentially vertical, markets that will be internationally competitive.

Today was my first day at Prima Academy where I am volunteering as a teacher. My primary role is to serve as the English teacher for students aged 12-15. I will create lesson plans and operate three classes independently. I don’t intend to become a high school teacher but I believe that this will be an excellent opportunity to interact with impoverished youth and to experience another side of Ghana. My first class began reading a play using the “popcorn” system that I remember hating in elementary school. I taught the students to summarize, make inferences, and to use context clues. The kids laughed at my attempts to pronounce their names and I giggled a bit when they referred to me as “Auntie Juliette” which is easier for Ghanaians to pronounce than “Judith.” In my second class a taught a few grammatical principles including the use of infinitives and collocations. The student’s textbooks are provided by the government of Ghana with the exception of some story books donated from American schools. The governmentally provided resources contain predominately articles about the prevention of STDs and articles that promote Western lifestyles. The students and I read together some passages in their textbooks including a story about the prevention of syphilis and a passage about gender issues in Ghana. Following the story about gender issues in Ghana we created a chart on the board of tasks generally assigned to men, to women, and to both genders. The students suggested tasks to add to each list. The final product looked very similar to what I would imagine in the United States; women were designated as the cleaners, cooks, and child care providers while men were assigned to “pound the fufu,” carry water, and collect wood. We discussed how men and women are both capable of each of the tasks on the board. Before leaving the class I asked each student to list something that they had learned. One student said, “I learned that women can be good politicians- like Hillary Clinton, and you will be a good president someday.” I hope that he is correct.

In another class exercise the students asked me to explain the concept of “disabled.” After providing a definition I asked the students to contribute examples of disabilities. I was a bit taken back with the easy in which they spewed titles of diseases I’ve only read of, “ebola” “HIV/AIDS” “Syphillis” “Malaria” “bowed legs” “amputees.” Their fear of diseases like typhoid that have plagued their friends and family members makes the division in our living circumstances all too clear. I took home with me at the end of the day a smile I could feel throughout my body, a bit vision of the world that is a bit more loving, and a stack of curriculum and textbooks from which I can develop lesson plans. This is the life.

I discovered today that one of my closer friends in Ghana, Theresa, is in the hospital being treated for malaria. I’m taking every measure I can to prevent malaria but am all too aware that I am not invincible. As a resident of a foreign land I reside in a body devoid of antibodies against malaria. My bed net, medications, and bug spray are all that stand between me and malaria.

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