Thursday, February 11, 2010

The Safari

Books are very uncommon in Ghana. High humidity, lack of storage space, high shipping costs, and high rates of illiteracy make books impractical to own. Low numbers of African authors make books an element of Western culture that can only hope to provide limited perspectives as to African culture. Last week I received notice that a package from my cousin in Chicago had arrived. I took a 45 minute ride in a Tro Tro, the Ghanaian form of public transportation, to the post office where I waited for an hour in one of the most inefficient systems that I have ever experienced to receive a package of three books including “Modern Philosophy”, Karl Popper’s “The Logic of Scientific Discovery,” and “The History of Western Philosophy.” The titles sent excited shivers down my spine and I caught myself jumping up and down in joy of the books that would soon occupy my leisure time. After a few moments of acting like an idiot I noticed the Ghanaians staring at me wondering how I could be so excited about really big paperback books. Other visitors to the post office were opening boxes with clothing or trinkets from China that they could sell along the streets, unaware of what difficult books about philosophy meant for my academic career. It was blatantly obvious how different are our lives.

On Friday my colleagues and I boarded a five a.m. bus to Mole National Park for a 16 hour ride to see our first glimpses of the African wilderness. I enjoyed reading Karl Popper and studying Twi language for most of the trip. As I marked up my book I became intoxicated with passages such as “Language analysts believe that there are no genuine philosophical problems, or that the problems of philosophy, if any, are problems of linguistic usage, or of the meaning of words. I, however, believe that there is at least one philosophical problem in which all thinking men are interested. It is the problem of cosmology.” As I read some particularly interesting passages about naturalistic views and the dualism of macro and micro laws my eye caught the rows of huts positioned throughout the African Savannah that we were passing through. These people probably do not speak English. They likely will not live to see electricity or the internet. Their lives are protected by the science of herbal medicine and hard work marks each of their days. These people will never read of the problems of philosophy. I felt such disconnect between the Americans on the bus who have pledged their lives to the service of humanity and the humanity that we hope to serve. As I sat on my air conditioned ivory tower I knew that I will never experience the world of the hut dwellers. I will never be able to overcome my education. Maybe Karl Popper can’t tell me everything I need to know about the world.

16 hours, much of it gravel road, later we arrived at Mole National Park and had a quick meal before sliding into bed. The next morning I woke up to baboons on my front porch enjoying our trash from the night before. We went on a two hour hike through the park wherein we saw crocodiles, elephants, antelopes, warthogs, baboons, monkeys, and birds. I asked tens of questions about the conservation practices of the park and was happy to hear of the presence of poaching restrictions, programmes to monitor elephant breeding, and various safety precautions. In the afternoon we took a safari ride through the park on a 4x4. My friends and I sat atop the car and felt the African wind blow through our hair as all of park moved past us like the “It is a Small World” ride at Disney World. The sun set over the African horizon and I enjoyed the good conversation and cool breeze. My friend, “Mother” Theresa taught me to calculate minutes of daylight remaining using the width of my fingers. My pictures from the weekend embody the “Africa pictures” that I had hoped to bring home and place into a tribal-looking frame. I can’t think of a day of my life that I enjoyed more than this day hiking through the savannah. I sang the lyrics of Toto’s “Africa” in my head and allowed myself to get lost in the reality that it will take a lot to drag me away from this beautiful place.

Sunday morning we left the park quite early to begin the tedious drive back to Legon. We stopped for a morning swim at a waterfall and enjoyed climbing the rocks and basking in the cool water and warm sunlight. One of our friends, Evan, got really sick on the ride home and we stopped for him to be treated in a hospital three hours away from our home. Evan was diagnosed with malaria and spent the night in Kumasi receiving treatment. Sunday night several of us went to the American Embassy to watch the Super Bowl and to celebrate our friend Bitty’s birthday at the Marine compound. We were picked up from our residence by the Embassy armored car and entertained the driver with questions such as “How many times would I have to shoot in the same place to break through the windows?!?!?” The Marines were all very kind and it was nice to be surrounded by Americans to celebrate such a defining element of American culture. The leather furniture, paper towel dispenser in the bathroom, big screen t.v, pool, and swing set made me forget that I was anywhere outside of the States. My friends and I gorged ourselves on pita chips and fresh salsa, a luxury I haven’t seen since I left the U.S. last summer. The Super Bowl commercials were replaced with statements from high-ranking military personnel wishing all service-people abroad an enjoyable Super Bowl. As we sat around the pool talking about sports I realized how much I really want to return to America someday. There are so many little things that I have convinced myself do not matter but that I secretly miss about life in America: I miss the ability to stop by Taco Bell after a late night, I miss CNN, and I miss having a diversity of newspapers accessible to me.

On Monday I woke up with stomach pains and a headache that I chalked up to the hectic nature of the weekend. I proceeded to class despite feeling woozy and nauseous. On the way to my “Africa and the Global Systems” class I lost my equilibrium and fell to the ground a few times. In class I started to feel dizzy and had difficulty focusing my eyes on the professor. My classmates raised suspicions that I might have malaria and encouraged me to visit the hospital. As I inquired with other colleagues as to the location of the hospital, Danielle, a girl I really admire but barely know said that she would come with me. There is an amazing sense of camaraderie here- despite being merely acquaintances Danielle was willing to drop all of her evening plans to spend the evening with me in the hospital. I am consistently blown away by the generosity of my colleagues. I trudged along the sandy ground to the night market to get a banana to last me the night, barely able to drag my body. Danielle, Yem, and I got a taxi to the University hospital and I waited as they attempted to procure my records. While I sat on the bench, barely able to hold myself up, I saw a lady be wheeled out on a stretcher which proceeded to break causing her to fall to the ground. When my friends arrived we waited outside to discuss our options while a small boy wheeled what appeared to be his handicapped grandfather down the non-ADA approved ramp, losing control of the wheelchair and running into my friends. Danielle screamed a bit and the man fell out of the wheelchair and face first onto the cement. The sound of the man likely getting a concussion hasn’t left my mind. I want nothing to do with that wretched hospital. My friends took me to a private hospital twenty minutes away where after an hour of waiting I was able to be tested for malaria and a host of other potential diseases. I started to feel a bit better but even a water bottle was too heavy for me to carry. As the nurse placed a blood pressure cuff over my arm I cringed as it felt that the cuff was crushing my bones. While I was waiting my friends Tristan, Rachel, Amanda, and Heather stopped by with their own health concerns. After four hours in the hospital I departed with a malaria test that came out negative, well wishes, and an antibiotic. So many of my symptoms: the dizziness, loss of equilibrium, and double vision would not be cured by the antibiotic. I had to recognize that the Ghanaian health care system did not have the tools to address my health concerns and that I had to return home and hope that they pass. It is so demoralizing to know that if I were in Western society I could receive quick treatment and leave with the confidence that my doctors used all tools available to regain my health. I attempted to go to class the following day but my double vision returned so I went back home to rest. I don’t have the patience to be sick and my negative feelings of Africa intensify each time the health care system cannot help me. It is one thing to read of the numbers of Africans that die each year of malaria but another thing to call my parents and tell them that I will likely be diagnosed with a disease that will remain in my system for a lifetime. As I sat in my bed too sick to do much of anything I felt so mad that the world has to be this way: that health care is offered only to the elite, that Africans suffer in silence as Western society develops greater technology, and that the faces of the victims of underdevelopment are obscured by national interests. I’m angry beyond belief. Part of me wants to go back to England where I know I can get the health care that I need but another part of me recognizes how much this experience will cause me to grow. It is hearing the cries of a woman who has just fallen off a faulty stretcher that makes the need for health care reform, in America and around the world, salient in my mind.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

My Pledge of Allegiance

I heard the Pledge of Allegiance this week for the first time since I left the United States this past summer. As my views toward the Americas change and develop I was surprised to see that my understanding of the Pledge of Allegiance, one of my favourite elements of American culture, had also changed. Here is my Pledge of Allegiance:

I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America

It seems strange to think of my home state, Missouri, as a former slave state. The Missouri Compromise set the stage for a legacy of racism and oppression that the United States has yet to overcome. It is easy to forget that the American economic system, the best in the world, owes its greatness to the toil and labour of African populations. The Emancipation Proclamation was drafted a mere 145 years ago yet I feel so personally divorced from slavery. The Imperialist tradition allows me to create a clear distance between slavery and myself; I am granted the comfort of the American life without consideration of the strife that was coupled with its establishment. Taglines of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” allow me to pretend that I carry no blame. Touring the slave castle of Cape Coast brought me face to face with some of the big questions that I wish I never had to ask myself. The students in my exchange programme were loaded onto a fancy air conditioned bus and driven through the Greater Accra Region until we reached an enigmatic and beautiful castle that looked more like a vacation resort than a building where thousands of Africans saw their last glimpse of their continent. The white edifice was positioned on the top of a small hill that overlooked a port that is currently used for fishing; the demure arches evoked a sense of serenity that hid the cries of history. As we entered the slave chambers we stood in nearly complete darkness where hundreds of Africans were housed for months at a time and forced to lie in a 1.5 feet of human feces, head to toe, until the slave ships arrived to take them to the New World. My colleagues and I walked quietly with our heads low in tacit awe of one of the worst epochs of American and world history. I couldn’t imagine the strength that would be necessary for so many Africans to march weeks in chains to Accra to be stored in the worst of circumstances with people of different tribal origins without a common language.

and to the republic for which it stands

It was easy for us to board our bus for the Hans Cottage Botel where we would swim and drink pineapple juice and begin to forget about the injustice that we had just witnessed. We could forget about child slavery, human trafficking, and exploitative trade issues pretending that oppression ended with the Civil Rights Movement. Why is it so easy for us to oppose the slave trade and so difficult for us to see the blood and chains along the aisles of our local Wal-Mart? How do we declare the practices of our ancestors innocuous yet continue to participate in the exploitative measures of our own generation? How do we convince ourselves that slavery is a problem of the past? I am not sure what it means to be “American” but I believe it has something to do with standing against inequity.

one nation under God, indivisible

On Sunday morning we left the Botel. I’m not quite sure what differentiates a Botel from a motel or a hotel. This particular “botel” had a nature trail, nice restaurant, and live crocodiles surrounding the patio. Some of my friends petted adult crocodiles near the water. Our next stop was Kakum National Park where we went on a canopy walk 250 meters above the ground. We walked along a ladder positioned between sets of trees, holding onto ropes as we swung platform to platform. While we climbed through the canopy we saw some amazing examples of rainforest wildlife, mainly birds and insects. It was amazing to see how dark was the ground layer of the rainforest, with almost all sunlight blocked by the canopy layer. The layers above the canopy were marked by sparse vegetation and very small leaves while the understory fought its way to find a glimpse of sunlight to use for photosynthesis. It was surreal to be surrounded by an ecosystem of which I have only studied. The pictures looked just like those in my textbooks. My colleagues and I hiked along the floor of the rain forest taking time to snap pictures and sing “In the Jungle” and favourites from “The Lion King.” As we carefully placed one foot in front of the other in our climb along the canopy it was astonishing to see my class mates join together through a sense of fear. My partner, Patrick, did nothing to calm my nerves and consistently reminded me of the 250 drop if I were to fall. “You will need those crutches forever if you misstep,” he told me. For one of the first times since we have been in Ghana we all let our guard down as we together experienced something a bit frightening. The relationship that exists between friends in Ghana quickly becomes more intimate than relationships outside of the developing world. Together we have experienced some scary and dangerous things and without each other we may not have had as successful of a journey through. Illness is a constant threat in Ghana and it is important that we inform our friends as to our symptoms such that they can help us to monitor our health. We’ve all been in some pretty vulnerable positions: me stuck in the open sewer, others with Malaria, and others with periods of diarrhea that lasted days. In caring for each other and letting each other see us in other in our most honest state we have become nearly indivisible. My colleagues here have seen an organic version of Judith Rowland that doesn’t often appear in the Western world.

with Liberty and justice for all

As my colleagues and I continue to grow in our academic and personal pursuits I see mature adults emerging from students. I have already gained a greater perspective of the world that we remain with me as I enter my future endeavors of service. I just hope that as we return to campus and to our daily lives: the 30 minute walk to class, the breakfast pineapple, sitting in huge lecture halls, and wishing that we had books to read we wont forget what we saw and learned at the Cape Coast slave castle. Remembering this weekend and what it meant may someday ensure a greater probability of liberty and justice for all.

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.