Tuesday, March 9, 2010

"Why can't you speak like a Ghanaian?!?!?"

Valentine’s Day is a very dramatic event in Ghana. Stores were lined with more candy and stuffed animals than I have ever seen. In Spanish class we took turns answering the question “Who is your perfect man/woman.” My colleagues gave responses like “tall, handsome, and white” or “smart, romantic, and black.” Every respondent listed race as one of the characteristics that they held as requirements for a future mate. Eventually the class got to me, the only Caucasian person, and I was forced to give a response. “Well-educated, hardworking, and innovative” I said. My classmates stared at me as if waiting for me to continue. “What colour do you want them to be?” they asked. Never before have I had a racial preference when it comes to dating. It seems so strange to think that the colour of one’s skin could determine attraction. I knew that if I said “black” the Ghanaian women would be angry that I was stealing their men (a sentiment I’ve had expressed to me many times), and if I said “white” I would be deemed a racist. There is such a double standard when it comes to racism here- why is it okay that when I mentioned Chinese people the class can say “EWWWWWW” but on the other hand they call most American policies racist?

I spent Valentine’s weekend on Bojo beach with some classmates from California, D.C., and Canada. I love that in the first few months of a college experience it is perfectly acceptable to invite yourself along to most anything. I knew the names of only two people in our beach group but felt perfectly comfortable navigating the streets of Ghana with them. After I graduate I will really miss being able to randomly introduce myself and spend the weekend with strangers. It took about three hours to get to the beach but Bojo beach was one of the most beautiful beaches I have ever seen. I was surprised to find that I had so much in common with each of my group mates. We talked for hours about internships, graduate school, and our experiences in Ghana. I don’t know that I have ever met such a great group of like-minded strangers. We finished the evening with Chinese food and highlife music.

It was strange to spend Valentine’s Day surrounded by strangers with no Valentines cards in sight. I couldn’t help but think of all of the people around the world that I love very much: my family who eagerly await my return, my college friends located all around the country, my British friends that I desperately hope to see again soon, and my friends in Ghana who are brand new in my life but so very dear to me. As Toulouse-Lautrec once said, “The greatest thing you’ll ever learn is just to love and be loved in return.” Geographic distances are not enough to stifle the love that I share with so many very good friends. I feel enveloped in love each day. The more I let myself love my friends the more the “love tank” in my heart fills up. It is such a great feeling to have found so many people that I hope to stay in touch with forever.

I continue to really enjoy my Twi language classes. Twi is one of the easiest languages I have ever studied: there are no conjugations, no gender, and only seven verb sounds! I find very interesting the ways that the language reflects culture. As I have previously described, the Ghanaian culture is very community oriented. In English one would say “I was born in 1950” while the English translation for the equivalent statement in Twi is “We gave birth to me in 1950.” In Twi there is very little separation between the “we” and the “I”.

Also reflective of the Ghanaian communal nature is a willingness to live in cramped spaces with little personal space. On campus I share a room with one other student whereas in halls meant for local students, five students are scheduled to share a room of the same size. In the United States I recall University regulations that prevented frequently overnight guests but in Ghana guests are not only allowed but expected. Many of the dorm rooms on campus house up to ten people. If a college student cares for younger siblings or an older parent it is common for those dependents to move into the student’s room. There is a growing problem on campus of “perching” wherein students arrive to campus early at the beginning of the year and sell not only half of their bed space but also half of their roommate’s bed. The roommate can do nothing about it without facing dramatic retaliation. It seems so unfortunate that students would be forced to study and live in such a cramped setting.

I had another shocking moment in class the other day; I am enrolled in a class titled “Development Administration” with around a hundred Ghanaians and two other Caucasians. The professor asked a question and my response was muffled by the raucous laughter of my colleagues. My professor asked me to repeat my answer and I did so amidst the continued laughter of my classmates. “I’m happy to repeat myself, even slower if you would like” I told my classmates. My professor responded, “why can’t you just lose your accent, you’ve been here for a month can you please start talking like a Ghanaian?”
“Are you serious” I replied.
“Yes,” she said.
“Of course”
I collected my thoughts and calmly said, “No, I wont lose my accent. My accent is an accumulation of my life experiences and travels. I cannot change my accent in only a month.”
My classmates rolled with laughter as I met the eyes of my professor, waiting for her apology. My professor explained that the students are not laughing at me but at my accent. I rose from my chair to address my classmates, “Your behaviour is unacceptable. In the United States you would be considered to be tremendously rude. Especially in the context of a development class it is key that we consider the implications of our actions on the development of our country. Last year an economics professor came from the United States to teach at Ghana and had intended to bring with her a significant aid package. After being laughed at by her students each day the professor left, and took her money with her.” My professor responded with babble about being a “world-traveler” and not being a racist and told me that I should not expect Ghanaians to succumb to American culture. When I tried to respond she told me that, “this is my classroom and you are not allowed to speak.” Fair enough. I agree that Ghanaians should not lose the whole of their culture to try to fit in with American interests, but we all should be critical of the ways that our actions are perceived by members of other cultures. Even for people with tremendous self-confidence, it is very demeaning to be laughed at every time one tries to speak.

My ISEP (International Student Exchange Programme) colleagues and I went on a trip to Kumasi, Ghana this weekend to visit the palace of the Asante kingdom and to do some shopping in the major art region of Ghana. The palace was very interesting; we learned that each of the tribal groups of Ghana continue to have a king who rules concurrently with the President of Ghana. Each of the tribal kings serves as an advisor to the President. We visited a Kente village to purchase regional cloths, a wood carving village, and several markets. I purchased several wood carvings, a belt, a large basket, a mud cloth, and various pieces of fabric.

After returning from Kumasi we had to get back to the vibe of everyday life. In my morning “Africa and the Global System” tutorial we discussed the ongoing underdevelopment crisis in Africa. I’m a bit frustrated by the class’s undying focus on colonization and the impacts of the slave trade. I am first to admit the role that the United States played in the underdevelopment of Africa but I don’t think it is enough to sit back and blame Americans and the World Bank. My professor answered me by saying that African leaders care not about their citizens and submit to World Bank loans such that they can deposit the money in personal Swiss bank accounts. “I understand that,” I said, “but what are everyday African people doing about it?” “We pray to God that things will get better,” my professor responded. Frankly, I don’t think it is enough. “You are students at the top University in West Africa, you are well-educated and talented, you CAN do something about this,” I challenged my classmates. I met the hateful stares of my colleagues who nodded their head as if to say that I did not understand. I will never fully understand. I cited examples of the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Hungary who just 21 years ago were in the throws of communism but since have become developed and thriving economies. Each of these revolutions were spearheaded by young people in academia shrouded in a sense of martydom and dedication to their countries. I have never before been surrounded by so many people who are willing to stand idly by and blame the American government for their misfortune. The people I knew in Haiti lived under similar conditions of underdevelopment but they were mad about it and made their opinions known. I will not stand for my “Public Policy Process in Ghana” professor to tell me that everyday citizens have no role in the public policy process. All it takes is a few protests for the public to gain a voice. Americans cannot develop Ghana, only Ghana can make conditions better for herself and it takes a few sincere and dedicated citizens to get the ball rolling.

Later in the day in my Spanish Literature course my team and I were to present our paper on literary styles and their use in portraying the themes of poverty and hunger in the book “Fiestas” by Goytisolo. My team mates and I were required to write a paper together and then read it to the class. My Ghanaian friend read our paper aloud and as she reached the section I had written the class began to laugh very loudly. My professor joined in the laughter saying that the words I used were too “advanced and profound” for the class. Words like “microcosm” “superfluous” and “implicit” were apparently too challenging for my classmates. As my portion of the paper was berated by my colleagues I gathered my courage to say, “We are twenty two year old academics at the top University in West Africa, my words should not be too advanced for you.” I couldn’t help but think that perhaps my colleagues should read a book, or challenge themselves to expand their understanding of the world. My Ghanaians colleagues seem like mere figures stuck in Plato’s Cave watching the puppets on the wall and complaining about the puppets purchased by the Americans. It isn’t the students’ fault: it seems that they have been born into a culture of respect and order that discourages any challenges to community norms. I stand at the opening to the cave trying to free my friends but am only meeting resistance. I offer to loan them books, to form study groups with them, and to have political discussions together but at some point we are not meeting in the middle. When my Ghanaian colleagues and I talk about the differences between our home schools they chalk up my opportunities to my race and nationality. I know that I have been in an advantaged position for most of my life but I am also very aware of the long hours that I have studied, interned, and researched to get where I am today. My Ghanaian friends will never have the slew of opportunities as do American citizens but I fully believe that they can create for themselves a better future. In the meantime it isn’t enough to sit back and wait for God to do something about it. I think that the best solution to underdevelopment involves changes in the educational system. If students learn to think critically, challenge authority, and have confidence in themselves they will be able to tackle issues of national importance. The more teaching experiences I am afforded the more that I see education as the critical link in the chain of development and progress. When I teach I feel a bit like Erin Gruell in the film “Freedom Writers” standing before a class of students with whom I will never be able to fully relate. I can’t teach my students or my colleagues about the world but together we can discover strategies to begin uncovering the world. I am not content to stand idly by as my colleagues doom themselves to a future of underdevelopment.