Monday, July 17, 2006

“I want you to be my friend..!” “Uh oh….”

When do the words “friend” begin to ring off alarm bells? When you are in a completely foreign culture and you have no idea what the beginning and ending connotations of words are; when you have to relearn a way of thinking, acting, and being, just to get by – day to day.
Let me explain: for the last two weeks, I have strengthened my realisation that I haven’t even scratched the surface of East Gonja life; there is SO MUCH that I don’t know. If you stay here a while, you get a routine. You start to know people, you start to go to the same places to buy your peanuts and bananas and sew your dresses – you understand the language, at least enough to get by. You get complacent – reckless maybe even.
In training we learned that we will go through phases during our stay - 4 in total – ‘unconscious incompetence’ where you have no clue, that you have no clue. Everything is fair game; you will hand things to people with your left hand, you will chew your fufu and forget to bow when greeting elders. No problemo; you don’t even know you’re wrong! Then ‘conscious incompetence’ – you know you’re doing SOMETHING wrong, but you’re never really sure what. Sometimes people laugh when you even open your mouth, you’re not sure if its something you do did, or just the hilarity of your foreignness. I like to call it “Do I have something in my teeth?” syndrome.
The next natural progression is ‘conscious competence’ – so you know what you have to do, but you have to think about it all the time. You anticipate seeing people and what you’re going to say; when I ride my bike into town I practice in my head what I’m going to say when people see me “Mey yo Salaga to, mey sha kwaya. Hana fey yo? En shi lan..” I’m going to Salaga, I want/like soap [I want to buy soap]. Where are you going? I’m coming from my house. Its like nothing I can describe, the days tire you. Sometimes when I go to Kpembe and return home, I’m mentally exhausted. You can’t let your guard down even for a second.
Of course, supposedly next in line is ‘unconscious competence’ where you just do things without thinking; you have integrated completely. Why they even told us about this phase in training, I’m not sure. I’m pretty sure its imaginary at best. Or unrealistic in the time frame provided. Maybe SOME things you will be unconsciously competent about; now I don’t have to think when I greet people, when I eat, how to buy things and dress and to an extent I have adapted to living here. But its ridiculous to assume, as I have lately noticed, that you know…anything. That may take years; and then even still…
But I wasn’t foolish or facetious when I titled my blog ‘adventures in Ghana..’, truly life here is adventurous. You never know what is thrown to you at any moment, and just when you become complacent…..
Of course, on to today’s story. The Fulani are a pan-west African nomadic cattle-herding people who comprise of 20 tribes and are found mainly in Nigeria, Ghana, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Cote d’Ivoire, Benin, Togo, and Senegal. Pretty much .. everywhere. They are indigenous in the sense that they live in all of these places, and have, for a while – but they look different (more north African? The best I can describe is that they sort of look like me) and as far as I have noticed, are treated differently. The Gonja are traditionally a cattle owning people, and sort of .. outsource their herding duties to the Fulani people. While clearly this is a relationship of co-dependancy, the Gonja peoples (well, I’m generalizing, but this is what I’ve observed) treat the Fulani as sort of their ‘hired work’. While you would never pass somebody on the street and call out “Hey! Gonja! Come here!”, people here do not think twice of addressing Fulani peoples as “Hey! Fulani! Come here!”. Anyway, other than fairly saddening bit of cultural observation, my fascination stems from the fact that I “studied” (again, I don’t like that term.. or idea) about the Fulani people in cultural anthropology. Plus, since I resemble them, everybody in this town (and especially in villages amongst people who don’t own televisions or have power and have never seen “Indians” anywhere) think I am a Fulani. So I naturally wanted to know more about them.
But its not just “them”. All the cultures in this area are fascinating; the difference is that usually I have an English speaking ‘cultural informant’ who tells me things. Or I read my sister Megan’s social studies textbook. However, for the Fulani – most of them are nomadic and have not attended school, very few speak English and ‘outsiders’ do not know much about their culture to tell me anything.
I expressed this to my friend Mahama at the pharmacy and he said that it was not a problem – that he had a Fulani friend who is attending school and speaks English. I casually mentioned that I would be interested in speaking to this friend… No sooner do I reach home than my sisters are giggling away about my visitor on a motorbike. What?! There is Mahmoud, the son of the Fulani Chief, waiting in our courtyard. At first, I’m gung-ho, asking lots of questions and very excited to be getting first hand answers! Mahmoud has just finished his SS (Secondary School – high school) and is 17 years old. He has his own motorbike (Very Very Rare in these parts) and kind of reminds me of my brother. Anyway, while we are talking, he invites me to his house, to meet his father and his family. How exciting! I draw a map, and say I’ll visit in the next few days.. When is a good time? He says “6 or 7 is good… early”. In the morning? Yipes. Anyway, today I got up bright and early and got ready to go.
While I’m drinking my tea in the morning, he shows up. Apparently 6 or 7 meant evening (oops?) but, as his father is going to Accra this morning, he wanted me to come and greet him early. So off we go, on Mahmoud’s motorbike, to his house. Now, already I’m feeling awkward. I’m not used to riding on anyone’s motorbike but my dad’s, and I’m still kind of squeamish about the whole idea. I mean, I’ve been on motorbikes with Mr. Mumuni and Mr. Francis, and Mr. Losinah (my boss) from work, but they’re all old and I kind of just grin and bear it. But .. I don’t know how to explain; I’ve got short legs, I can’t even climb on the “moto” (as they are called here) without holding someone’s shoulder. Sketchy, if you’re a stranger.
So, we get to Mahmoud’s house and I’m well aware the not only does nobody know any English (he told me this before) but they also don’t speak any Gonja. And I don’t speak any Hausa or Fulani. I see his mother and sisters and greet them and then we sit in a fancy room with couches and wait for his father.
The Fulani Chief knows small-small English so he understands me but directs his questions through Mahmoud. They are mostly the usual questions; how long have you been here? When are you going back? Oh, 4 months is so short! (it is..). Are there Fulanis in Canada (I have no idea.. maybe? I answer; in Toronto. I mean, Toronto is like a small globe, I’m sure there is at least one..)? Where are you working? (Agric). You send Mahmoud to Canada to study (when he finishes his college, I answer, he can apply to study further – Mahmoud wants to study Agriculture at a university in Accra. The family is clearly fairly wealthy and he is the only child out of 9 who has been to school… ). Then we sit for about half an hour, awkwardly, not really talking, watching the tele.
It’s a German news program in English, and I lap it up, as I haven’t had any global news in.. 2 months almost. Of course, eventually I tell Mahmoud that I have to go to work (its around 9h00 now..) and we take our leave. On our way out, he asks me if he can have my picture.
Now things are getting..weird. At first I don’t hear him. What? You want my teacher? Pitcher? Oh.. picture..
Well, I don’t have my picture. Really. I don’t have any pictures of me except maybe on my computer, and I can’t print those.
Then he suggests that we go snap some pictures. I think he means ‘sometime’ – in the vague future, so I say sure. I hope he doesn’t mean now, I have left my house without more than 4000 cedis (about.. 50 cents.. it can buy you food, or coke, or a lot of water..).
We approach Kpembe road, near my house, but keep going. Huh? So soon we turn into a picture place. Uh-oh. Mahmoud speaks to the man in Hausa and we are going inside to a dimly lit photo place with a giant backdrop of a tropical island made of vinyl. I guess we’re taking pictures. We sit in some plastic chairs and I smile – my awkward no teeth showing kind of smile. Then we stand and snap a photo ‘shaking hands’.(meanwhile the camera man can barely contain his laughter. Is it because I’m foreign? Is it because Mahmoud (or “both of us” are) is Fulani? Those are both the usual sources of humour..)
Soon we leave, and the camera man says “tomorrow next” (as in day after tomorrow, collect the pictures). We are speeding down Kpembe road and all my usual friends that I greet are looking surprised. They never see me taking rides from anyone (I usually just ride my bike, or if I’m walking.. I keep walking) and I’m not with any Agric people (I’d be wearing a helmet then..). They inquire anyway “Hana fey yo? Fey yo adukurso?” Where are you going? Are you going to the village? Nope. Just, home.
We get home and Mahmoud asks if he can come tomorrow..? Welll…I stretch, I have to go to some villages and do some work and.. (I don’t but.. I’m starting to feel weird). Villages? How will I go, he asks. By bicycle of course. He is shocked – isn’t it far? Shall I send you the moto, can you ride? No no no! I can go by bike, thanks.

He leaves. I have no idea what really just happened. Are we just friends? Do friends snap photos? The word friends here itself means… many things. If someone is really your friend, you will call them your Sister or your Brother. But if you are dating/married/common law with someone, you will ALSO call them your Sister or your Brother. Like, Madame Janet calls her husband Imoru as “Bra Moru” – or Brother Imoru. Girls will say that they want to be ‘free with you’ which means, your friend. Boys will say they want to be ‘free with you’, which means, your.. friend with “benefits”. If you don’t like someone but you know them, you will say that ‘you are not free with them’.
I’m feeling weird. Megan, Krofiye and Sadia have gone to school. Madame Janet has been in Tamale (seeing the doctor, with Boncat the baby) these last few days and usually I would ask her for advice regarding stuff like this.

The thing is, I was not prepared for this at all. I have no idea if its just hospitality, because his father is the Chief (its customary..), or if he wants to go to Canada, or …? Usually, the people who hit on me do it as a joke (thank heavens), are vulgar and open about it (I tell them off) or are otherwise clear in their intentions. Since I never viewed Mahmoud as anything but a “small boy”… But I don’t even know if its totally normal and this is how friends act here. Ohhhhh boy. The messes I get myself into. He’s already called me twice while I was at work. Oops?

But the point is not Mahmoud, or my fairly ridiculous capacity to get into messes, but that you can never really “understand” or be ‘unconsciously competent’ of a culture in 4 months. Or even a year. Or even forever, I guess, if you don’t try. There are things you simply could not have known, even by asking around, or reading in a book (like yesterday, when I weeded out some sorghum from the farm I was visiting, by accident. But later, the farmer was hacking at some onion plants with his hoe, muttering about ‘weeds’..).
I guess though, not knowing is part of the adventure? Incidentally next time I see Mahmoud, I’m going to have to casually name drop my (fake) boyfriend Thomas who is being a nurse in Mali, at least a few times.



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