Sunday, May 28, 2006

An Inflamed-Confused Open Letter; May 25th 2006

I’m not even sure I can be writing this, but it is after all my thoughts. So a little disclaimer before I begin: I may be homesick, or slightly ‘culture-shocked’, definitely I’m not in the best mood, and its been a long day. This is no way a slight or even a widespread representation of Ghanaian men, or their relationships with western women; just my interesting experiences so far, and the ideological perspectives behind them. Furthermore to YOU the reader – this is a slightly scary but very real idea of how far the image that western culture/globalization presents can reach, and how distorted that image can be. Who says that our actions, our culture, our opinions, and definitely how we present ourselves when we travel don’t have far reaching impact?

I’ve had 5 marriage proposals today, 3 people imploring me to take their children to Canada, and for the first day since I’ve got here, I want to scream everytime somebody tells me “Obruni (foreigner/white person), I want to be your friend so you can take me with you.”

Let me explain further – here a foreigner is a ticket out. If you ask further questions when people propose to you/ask you to be their girlfriend, you get very insightful and telling answers:

1) “I want a white/Indian/foreign girlfriend!”

This one is easier to explain. [Note: usually when I get marriage proposals, they are only semi-serious and I joke them off. “Yes, I’ll marry you, you can be my fifth husband!” or “Yes, but my asking price is 900 cows!” or “My father may beat you! Aren’t you afraid?” Hahahaha!] The idea behind this (after further questions – “Why don’t you want a Ghanaian girlfriend?”) is that foreign women are mythologized; no, foreign people in general. Apparently we are all very very very nice. We won’t ‘bicker’ like our African sisters, we are okay with them having other girlfriends at the same time (apparently we are also promiscuous – thank you western music videos – so yeah, my foreign-ness makes me an easy lay.).

Some of this is based on the entertainment export culture. The only music videos that make it to Ghana more often than not are rap or reggae videos, with hundreds of scantily clad, well oiled (no, literally) women sidling up to one man – the artist. The movies they see, to a lesser extent, the magazines they read (old copies of Cosmo are sometimes found in the lending libraries). These are the cultural icons that make it here. How bad am I allowed to feel with this misrepresentation and gross generalization of western culture? Interesting question, but if you flip it, “What do westerners think of Africans? In fact, how many know that Africa is not a country?” and you will get interesting answers as well.

Some of it is rooted in colonialism and post-colonialist culture; how ‘whites’ or foreigners are mythologized in general. “Very, very nice” often also means, “gives us things”. The expression ‘HiPC’ pronounced ‘hippuck’ means “Highly Indebted Poor Country”, and is in COMMON use here – many people here are well aware of things such as aid issues, trade issues, rice subsidies, the International Monetary Fund. And what do many aid workers/NGO workers/”development tourists” do but (in a Ghanaian perspective) emphasize that age old dependance relationship? ‘You, black man, take this from me, the benevolent foreigner’. When well meaning backpackers and students bring scores of pencils and candies and old clothes and ‘I love USA’ badges and throw them out to throngs of children, what are we doing again? We are, ahem, being Very, Very Nice. Yassum.

Of course there is good old foreign mystique. That one isn’t really a culturally specific factor – even Canadians do it all the time. “Ooh, she’s dating a guy from France, how romantic.” Can’t blame them here, although I will be perfectly honest that when I’m covered head to toe in red dust, sweaty, with pieces of hair stuck to my forehead, and small boys chasing me saying “Fulani! Fulani! Where are your cows?” I’m pretty sure my ‘foreign mystique’ no longer comes into play. At all.

2) “I want you to take me to Canada!”

Not so easy to explain. But I shall attempt… “Why do you want to go to Canada? Ghana is so nice!” and the answer is usually, “Ghana no good. Ghana has no money! Ghanaian economy is bad!”.

That may be true, in fact, being no economist/expert myself, I can still notice that there is a vast disconnect here between people who need jobs, and jobs available. Even government jobs are not really sufficient to feed a family/satisfy the cultural requirements of supporting extended family. Subsistence poverty is widespread in the northern regions, in the farming areas, but the ‘middle-class poverty’, where even educated Ghanaians can’t make ends meet, is commoner still. But…

Why is Canada the answer? Because we are rich. Let me first speak for myself; I personally, vastly misrepresent by saying I’m a ‘first-generation Canadian, daughter of immigrants’. While this is in fact the truth, and my parents do work very, very hard, we did not struggle to eat while my mother cleaned office buildings by night and my father worked on the pulp-mill floors. My father is a professor, and my mother is a teacher. We are not the typical story of what happens when people dreaming of a better life arrive ‘in the west’. We are however, the story that Ghanaians hear. Every Ghanaian I met in Winnipeg before I left was “doing well, quite well”. I met lawyers, professors, doctors, engineers, teachers, scientists; I met people who don’t make “good wages”, they make comparatively “great” wages. They are highly academically educated, and come from privileged backgrounds even in Ghana.

They return to Ghana, to their hometowns, perhaps to their grand-parents’ villages, and people see them: Ghanaians from Canada. And how grand they are; how rich and vast and wonderful a land Canada is! Eh-hein!

How do I explain to them, that if they haven’t finished their SS (Secondary School – ie High School), and they somehow arrive in Canada, they will be living in a similar state of deprivation to their current clime? What’s worse, the incredible sense of community that is the norm here, is completely gone. If you are hungry here and you tap on your neighbour’s door one evening, they will feed you. If you are hungry in a dingy, cockroach infested apartment on Jane Street in Toronto, and you knock on your neighbour’s door, they may be crack dealers, and definitely may not feed you. The support system that both plagues and is a gift to this country is all but gone in Canada. Not to mention the fact that you will not have weeks of reading and training on ‘culture shock’. You will be thrown into a vat of complete foreignness, with the highest, and most unrealistic expectations possible, and you will be fighting hard to stay afloat.

That is the truth. Does it upset me perhaps that poor Ghanaians in Salaga aren’t aware of the realities of the immigrant experience in Toronto? Perhaps, yes, I am upset about that. But in the name of being brutally honest, I will tell you what perturbs me more – my guilt.

I wonder, why do I have to justify my lifestyle when I am working here for free, trying to relieve these people from poverty? (I am not defending my mindset, by the way, just shamefully illustrating it). Why am I responsible for undoing every stupid act any foreigner ever committed in Salaga and East Gonja? Furthermore, my age old personal ‘romantic’ image of the poor being hardworking and never asking for things is tarnished constantly when people are not only expecting things, but indignant when they realize I didn’t bring any. The worst is what happens when I realize that even with our lack of community and social capital and perhaps true joy and connectedness to our lives, even with our pollution and lack of action on the world stage, and a completely muddled sense of national identity – Canada is a pretty damn awesome place to live in. And when I realize that, I realize that its because I live in Canada, because I am, let’s face it, rich that I have had many of the opportunities I desired to achieve my dreams. I want to travel, I want to write, I want to do work for free – I can only do this because of the opportunities I have had.

So what if I DO want to take them with me? Every smiling child, every eager adolescent, every hardworking auntie? I can’t! Its that frustration, it’s the permanently emphasized difference between my chances, and their chances; my ability to choose regarding my life, and their inability, that just makes me cry with anger and frustration sometimes. I won the lottery, I randomly happened to be born to my parents, where they are, and not to Mr. Abudu Seidu, hardworking farmer of Mekongo, striving to make ends meet, his children proud farmers, even though one (shyly admitted) wanted to be a nurse. Or even to Madame Mercy, the Best Yam Farmer in Ghana (!!), of Kpandai town, who is slogging day and night to pay her children’s school fees.

I’m writing this, and I’m sharing this with you because I feel compelled to do this; it burns in my throat, that choked uncontrollable sorrow and childlike complete mistrust of the world and its ways, that feeling of utter betrayal by fate and morality and human accomplishment, that Mr. Abudu, and Madame Mercy, can dream the same dreams for their children as my parents dreamed for me, and it is conceivable – nay, its is very likely, that their children will never, ever achieve them. Not because they aren’t capable, but because of the inequality in the way the things we age-old described as wealth and power were distributed.

So now, after months of explaining to my family and friends and strangers, why I am here, and what I am doing, I have fully grasped and comprehended the purpose of my stay in Ghana. Beyond building capacity at the MoFA office, beyond training the agricultural extension workers in better teaching techniques, beyond organizing a district food security network; I am here because the ideologies, the big words and poverty-reduction strategy papers, and UN Conferences and have all become redundant (in a way) and reduced to the singular pressing need to do something regarding the inequality in the world. The inability for people to make choices regarding their lives. I am here because the people who have become my people, my family, my neighbours, my friends, these people are struggling and I need to take that message home.

Because poverty exists during Mother’s Day, and poverty exists during the cottages opening on May long weekend, and during the annual Winnipeg marathon, and during Folk festival and when you are drinking coffee and eating a donut in Tim Hortons, and even, even when you pad down the stairs in your pajamas and see the perfection of a late August sunrise and think ‘oh, how beautiful’ – because precisely at that moment of small, and secret joy, someone somewhere in the world, someone who I love, someone who has become my family or my friends, will look at a similar sunrise, thinking only of how to feed their children, how to get by. And their heart will be beating the same as yours, their blood, mostly plasma some erythrocytes, like yours, but that joy? That hope, that dream, that ability to see in the sunrise a latent potential for adventure and daybreak and possibility? I can only hope that you will take action so that that can be the same as well.

Keep Well.

Apoorva

20 Comments:

At 3:21 p.m., Anonymous Anonymous said...

Interesting observations, Apoorva. But do you think Ghanaians are any more deluded or mistaken about what is important than any group of people in the world? Are they more prone to mistake the 'white' world for the ideal world than any group of people? I live in Chicago and I visit Canada very often. And what do I see on the streets and on college campuses with respect to the dating scene, the most important barometer of cultural mixing and heterogeneity, more Asian-white, more black-white, more Hispanic-white and hardly any Asian-black or Hispanic-black dating. I inquire and I get different responses. Apparently being with a white person enhances one's social status and so people respond accordingly. Of course if you talk to them they will give you all kinds of reasons. At one website forum I visited several years ago a respondent, a second generation immigrant from China provided what I think represents the best answer to the observation I made a while ago. She said that parental influence has a lot to do with her choices. Her parents would prefer she goes out with someone with Chinese heritage, failing which 'a white man.' She stated that there was an unspoken assumption regarding her dating in the house, that in effect, debarred her from dating any person with skin darker than her own. Her parents love her, she wrote, and wanted her to reach the top of the social hierarchy which they, for one reason or another, could not do. Marrying 'white', as they called it, will make it easier for her.
See how the mixture of love and misconceptions about life in the West affect those who live in the West.
Dear me, I did not even introduce myself before blabbing on your blog. I was born in Ghana. I now live in Chicago, twenty years removed from Ghana. I hope you don't mind my intrusion.
Kwasi Appiah

 
At 1:15 p.m., Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow, that's really intense. To think of all the stuff that we spend so much time worrying about. "what am i going to do this weekend" "how did I do on that last test". We put so much emphasis on things that are so unimportant. When you look at (or hear about) people who spend their whole life working hard, trying to feed their families, worrying if they will have food the next day, depending on their crops, the rainfall and the sun to be able to live. Most of us will never have to worry about things like that, we will always have enough money for all the things we need, and some of the things we want. It is funny that no matter how little, or how much you have, most people are never satisfied. Whether it is "i need that new computer game" or "i would not be so poor if I went to Canada", there is always something. But it makes everyone here seem so petty and ridiculous the things that we whine about, when you realize how many people would give anything to be in our shoes.
Shelley

 
At 9:37 p.m., Blogger Timothy said...

Dear Apoorva,

I am so happy! It sounds like an enlightening experience. Keep in mind that your richness is a tool. It's not "your fault." The place of your birth and your identity are tools with which you may take action. The greatest thing we can do is use these gifts well.

 
At 5:40 p.m., Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well I haven't been reading your journal for awhile... no internet access for a couple weeks - I'll just leave it at the fact I got into the news for something negative this summer.
But wow. I'm jealous. I think the people there only ask for marriage or for you to take their babies home because they see it as a land of opportunity - of wealth. That is only what they truely know of North America in general, and they see it as a place so far away from their own issues of famine and hard labor - an easy fix. Then again you made a really good point in one of your previous entries when you were talking about how one person said something along the lines of liking their own life when the issue was brought up surrounding gay marriage. I remember in Uganda the truthful answer was returned with squeals of laughter. To me its unfortunate but I do not think that you can lead a truely honest life of caring about "the right things" and yet be wealthy - as in what we have in Canada. When I was in Uganda I said to myself many times that these were the people that truely knew how to live, that they knew what love truely was. And while you can learn something from that, it is only a matter of time before you are home and you are forced once again to think and care about the things that may seem petty compared to the problems that you have seen in Ghana. But don't beat yourself up over that, and no one should. You and everyone else must accept that this is the life that has been given to you, you can't be upset at yourself for something that you can't control, but what you can control is what you do with your experience there and what you learn from it. I don't mean for this to be a lecture, just some thoughts I'm rattling off. Can't wait to see your next entry!

- Nicole

 
At 11:52 p.m., Anonymous Alex said...

Tron...
I know it's hard for you and honestly your entry made me tear up but I know one thing. You will have conflicting emotions while there but you are doing good, even if it's just being there and showing them that good exists in this world. I'm not trying to tell you you're perfect, just that if I could pick one person to send over there to show them the best Canada has to offer in the way of help, emotionally and subsistancely (making up words) it would be you. Be strong, like you are, and learn from this, come back and we can share. I can share all I learned about animals this summer working with and for them and you can tell me all you learned working for and with people, amazing and human people.
I sometimes get angry like this when I hear the stories about some of the animals brought in, "I don't want it in my yard, it's eating my grass!", "It's family was plowed down by a car and they never stopped to check and so he was orphaned"... There is ignorance with animals as well.. but I take that frustration and put it into my passion, my urge to get the message out there!
PS not trying to say what you do is like working with animals, just some of the emotions in our jobs.

 
At 12:43 a.m., Anonymous Kimstertron said...

Hey Apoorva!

Sorry, I have been so crazy busy, I haven't been able to read your posts! I've been thinking about you though, especially every time we drive down near your house! I'm going to print off all your entries and read them at work, so I promise to leave a meaningful comment next weekend!

 
At 10:43 a.m., Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey Apoorva,

Thanks for being so honest and so throughtful in these posts.

Keep up the great questioning...

RG

 
At 11:25 p.m., Anonymous Anonymous said...

TRON!

They found a skull in Pangnirtung, Nunavut! it looks somewhat like a baby caribou skull, but it isn't. They have no idea what it is! They are dating it, and may have discovered a new extinct species.

I miss you dude, and have totally been enjoying your blog posts, and am very happy to hear that you are doing well and being challenged.

I am currently gathering important A-tron and K-bot style things to send to you.... so expect a parcel soon!

-k

 
At 11:45 p.m., Anonymous Anonymous said...

I totally forgot to mention this in my last comment:

Friday was my first full day working on the floor (ie. not training) at MEC. And... Stephen Carroll of THE WEAKERTHANS came and bought shoes from my co-worker and I!
wowzers!

Just thought that you'd appreciate that little blurb.

yet again,
-k

 
At 2:30 p.m., Blogger Adam F-K said...

Hey Apoorva!

Just wanted to say that you and your incredible observations, words, feelings, experiences are making a real difference in me. Thank you.

K-bot and I are going to help you educate/inspire plenty(to the power of 2) when you get home!

We all love you!!!

Adam

 
At 9:12 p.m., Anonymous Mel said...

Hey 'poorva. Listening to Rabble.ca reminded me of you, and how you haven't updated in ages and probably won't read this for another month. Kelsey says you're keeping fine. Just wanted to say "hi."

Mel.

 
At 11:03 a.m., Anonymous Anonymous said...

i've only read this post. very informative. it's good to see that as of this post anyway, you are doing well.

-trailwind

 
At 2:06 a.m., Blogger SJ said...

Hey Apoorva,

So while I have written to you and emailed to you and sent messages through other people I have no idea whether they got through so, this is a last attempt to get through to you. It looks like you haven't been able to get onto the internet for a while though so it may be that you only read this when you get back to Canada and then jokes on me.
Anyways, this post really hits home, and I think that while I am in a different situation than you, it really voices my opinions better than I can. I am in Lusaka, which is like a huge city and like all cities it is sometimes more like a big machine than the friendly caring image of a village in the developing world. I don't get as many marriage proposals as you, or requests to bring people back. What I do get quite often is requests for me to come back to Zambia when I graduate. Even though the lack of jobs for people with Masters is phenomenal, people would like me to come back because they see it as if I come back I will bring investment, which will bring jobs. Most people in Lusaka are smart, and alot of them are educated with masters or higher, but there simply aren't many jobs. Even the copper mines which are probably the biggest industries are composed of foriegn companies which bring their own engineers and workers. So, while I would like to be indignant and say that Zambians should be trying to build their own economy and not rely on outsiders, the harsh reality is that they are trying, and they are trying really hard, and yet they don't seem to get anywhere. And so it is not such a hard stretch that people would like more foreigners to come and bring investment into the country. It breaks my heart, because Zambians are as good of people as Canadians and they deserve the same chances, but they simply don't have them. well that is the best I can do for now, I have to get some stuff done now. Ciao Mi amiga.

SJ

 
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