Sunday, February 7, 2010


"I wonder if I've been changed in the night? Let me think. Was I the same when I got up this morning? I almost think I can remember feeling a little different. But if I'm not the same, the next question is 'Who in the world am I?' Ah, that's the great puzzle!"
-Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

I am coming to love the moments when my normally ebullient self returns to my dorm in complete silence totally perplexed by something that I have recently discovered. After three weeks in this new land I am no longer a tourist but a resident. I’ve run out of comfort foods from England, everything I own is covered in red sand, and the excitement of exploring a new place is transforming into exhaustion and frustration. I suppose that the only way to truly know a country is to live within it.

In a class titled “Strategies for Development in Africa” my colleagues and I were encouraged to analyze aspects of Ghanaian culture and the effect that they have on underdevelopment in Ghana. The first cultural aspect that came to my mind was the importance of respect in Ghanaian life; Ghanaian children are taught to obey their parents and a tremendous amount of respect is given to the elder generation. In classes students are to remain quiet and to avoid any disagreements with professors. The students that I teach are some of the most calm and obedient youngsters I have ever known; the kids stand when they speak, wait to be called on, and always refer to me as “Auntie.” Through my education I have been encouraged to challenge authority, to dissect the rationale of standards of etiquette and to reject traditions that are not logically significant. In the United States and England I didn’t always have to raise my hand to speak, I could excuse myself to the toilets, and I was expected to disagree with my professors. In my American high school one could not get over a C grade on an exam unless s/he critiqued the cultural assumptions of the essay question and/or presented an argument that was unique. I was born into a generation of students that read Nietzsche, Hegel, and Marx and aren’t afraid to take radical stances.

At times I miss the fast-paced nature of my home culture. I walk at a jogging speed, multitask, study long hours, eat quickly, and pack a lot into each day. In a computer class that is affiliated with my Political Research Methods course we were assigned a data entry project and told that we could leave the classroom after we were finished. I entered all of my data in about five minutes while listening to the slow hunt-and-peck typing of my neighbours. As I was packing my bags to leave my colleague asked why I had rushed my assignment. “Well, why would I type any slower than full speed?” I responded. “We do things slower here,” she told me. She is right. A meal in Ghana can take upwards of an hour and a half. I have never before met people who walk as slowly as do Ghanaians. Employees at banks do not have the sense of urgency that is required in American tellers. There seem to be many double standards when it comes to speed: my Ghanaian friends admire the fact that internet nearly always works in the United States but they do not recognize that American technology works only because employees are willing to work long hours to ensure functionality. Similarly, Americans respect time while Ghanaians do not prioritize punctuality; one of my professors was an hour late to a two-hour lecture three weeks in a row without even so much as an apology. I think that elements like these are very much in contradiction with the goals of development; Ghana must decide whether she wants to become developed or wants to maintain her community centered, relaxed lifestyle. Development isn’t a yellow brick road to Oz, it comes with a lot of ulcers, overextended people, and children growing up without parents at home. I wish that there were a way for development to be moderated such that we could live in a world with a vast array of available technology and resources and still have substantive vacation days.

As much as I try to “go native” and fit within the Ghanaian environment I am constantly aware of the privileges that I have as a result of my national identity and the education that I have thus far received. I am a member of the U. Ghana debate team and today participated in a debate with fellow students with the topic “developing countries need more partnership than aid from developed countries.” I favoured the role of partnerships over aid and presented examples such as the failure of food aid in Somalia and the intrinsic ties between aid packages and national interests as compared to the favourable outcomes of participation within regional and multilateral organizations such as the United Nations. I could tell that the other members of my team are very smart, but I could also tell that they have probably never before had access to a speech coach or to an academic search engine. My teammates want me to implement American styles of debate within the University but I don’t believe that debate as it is in the United States would be practical in Ghana. In a country without reliable internet access and without books it is difficult to find the evidence necessary for well constructed debate arguments. The only real source of information for Ghanaian students are the opinions disseminated by Ghanaian professors during lectures. Life in Ghana has cultivated within me a deep sense of respect for the education that has been provided to me in the U.S.A. and in England. My experiences thus far in life make my reality very different from the reality of Ghanaians. I will never be able to relate to my classmates who tell me stories of losing their homes and growing up with HIV positive parents. I will never understand the emotions associated with a relative dying of malaria or of going to bed hungry. I wish I knew their experience. Each living being on Earth sees the world in a very different light through the lens of their experiences and humans will never be able to fully understand each other’s struggles and successes but to be a fair leader I must find ways to empathize with my fellow global citizens when possible. I listen a lot, and I think a lot more. I write and meditate on things that I witness and the ways that they make me feel. For now, that is all that I can do.

When I first got to campus I was surprised by the lack of political organizations available to students on campus. I have yet to see evidence of political parties or affiliations and have been told that Ghanaians do not vocalize their political beliefs out of fear that opposing parties could cause harm to their jobs or families. There are ways for civil society to become engaged in the Ghanaian political system but it is very uncommon; individuals don’t have the chance to be heard politically in Ghana. I’ve been told that citizens can write letters to public officials but that no responses will be issued and that most likely the letter will not be read. This information is a striking contrast to my experiences in the office of U.S. Senator Claire McCaskill wherein we daily addressed the real needs of constituents and responded to every piece of correspondence that we received. Ghanaians seem to be less interested in government because they feel that they will never be able to shape national policies, in turn the government operates almost as a dictatorship with no check and balance within the citizenry. I am very afraid of the hopeless attitude with which Ghanaians approach issues of national importance. There is so much distrust in the government that citizens choose not to bother which in turn gives the government more freedom to become corrupt. It is a vicious cycle.

So much of Ghanaian culture seems so archaic. It disgusts me that I live in a country where many families take their young daughters to Burkina Faso such that they may be circumcised. It bothers me that some women in the Northern areas of Ghana padlock their lips together such that they can speak only when their husband unlocks their mouth. It appalls me when men on the streets think that they can say sexually horrific things to American women as we walk past them. Strolling through the markets people will grab my wrists and tell me to come with them and to be their wife. I am learning to say “NO” in a very emphatic and aggressive way of which I never thought I would be capable. I’ve record the marriage proposals that I receive each day and am nearing 500 proposals. Some of them have been interesting, one man got on both knees at the market and said, “I had a dream that I would marry a beautiful girl like you and we would have twenty children. So, what is your name again?”

Religion plays an interesting cultural role in Ghana. Ghana allows freedom of religion but religion is seen as a critical element of the Ghanaian lifestyle. Market stands are often called tacky things like “Praise the Lord frozen foods” or “God is Great fruits.” After making an emphatic point my Twi language professor will say “Hallelujah Praise the Lord.” Before each class students are allowed to come forth to offer a prayer for the class. The debate in which I participated today began with a group prayer. As an avid Christian I am delighted to be surrounded by so many reminders of my faith, but I can’t help but notice that Ghanaians are not really free to practice their own ideas of religion without social backlash. This weekend the campus ministries of the University are joining together to host an event titled “The Dangers of Homosexuality to Society.” There isn’t a lot of room for progressive Christians in Ghana must less people of Jewish, Hindu, or Muslim background. I really miss the American establishment clause!

My blog posts seem overly pessimistic and hopeless. The upsetting things about my experiences here tend to occupy my thoughts most often. I am equally, if not more enthused by the strong community spirit I have found in Ghana. When Ghanaians call you their “brother” or “sister” they really mean that they will treat you as though you were family. The hospitality in Ghana is unbeatable. At times it is overbearing, I am so used to people being closed-off to others that we are taken aback by actions that are intended to be compassionate. For instance, in the United States if someone were to call me eight times in a row I would think that they are obnoxious whereas the Ghanaians interpret that as being evidence that they really care about you. Ghanaians will give away the metaphorical shirt from their back without a second thought. A girl in my Spanish class whom I had never before met agreed to photo copy all of the course materials for me, I was shocked by her generosity. My American colleagues and I are slowly adapting to our new lifestyles and are learning to be more open and free with others. We will be better people for our experiences here.

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