Monday, July 17, 2006

The taxonomy of a stranger…

I call them foreigners, here they are ‘strangers’. Sometimes it doesn’t mean a bad thing, its just a difference in vocabulary choice. Mme. Janet was explaining to me yesterday “Northerners, they are very hospitable to strangers. When a stranger comes, its like a blessing to your home. If you have only one bed, and a stranger comes, you would rather sleep on the floor and offer the bed to the stranger!”. I guess it means ‘guest’ in that sense, and here guests are clearly treated with hospitality to the utmost.
In a Canadian context, a stranger is – strange. A stranger is an unwelcome guest; the word itself echoes of presentations in grade 2 classrooms “Don’t talk to strangers! Don’t get in a car with a stranger!”. To describe someone as a stranger is a bad thing.

So a stranger is a guest here..okay. Not so bad. But when and where does the hospitality end? I soon found out.

After the incident at the Kitoe dam, and the comment made at the office about the Konkombas, I decided to do some research on my own. I asked a lot of questions, I started keenly observing the differences between the tribes here. The things I found were surprising and then not surprising at all.

So, was it an isolated comment, or was the dislike of Konkombas widespread? I asked around, I casually mentioned Konkombas and observed the results. It was an almost systematic dislike of the Konkombas. I got all sorts of answers: “They are bush people [an insult]. Uncivilized”. “They are dirty – Konkombas don’t wash!”. “They are war mongers, always fighting and starting trouble!”. “They are land stealers! They can’t farm maize!”. There were subtle differences in the responses based on the tribe of who was asked – if I asked some of my Hausa or Mossi friends from town, they always responded that the Konkombas like to fight, bring war. But if I asked any Gonja people, they always responded with highly derogatory comments, with the general understanding that the Konkombas are bad farmers who stole their land and like to fight.

Finally, with all my background knowledge in hand, I approached Mme. Janet, my general source of sensitive information. “Apoorva, the Konkombas are strangers to our land. They had a war here for many years and many people died. That is why nobody likes them.” Oh boy. Apparently ‘originally’ the Konkomba people are from ‘around Togo’. They came and settled in Ghana in large numbers and now their Paramount Chief (sort of like a King/seat of local government) is in Saboba-Chereponi, where my friend and EWB co-volunteer from Saskatchewan, Jon, is staying. But people, the Gonjas especially, resented their entry into Gonja land. At first, they were ‘strangers’, treated with hospitality. But clearly they overstayed their welcome. The Kpembe-wura, the local highest Gonja chief, had allotted them some land to farm. But they ‘multiplied’ and became many – they needed more land. They established their own villages. People grew more and more bitter about this. The Gonjas began to actively discriminate against the Konkombas, not allowing them any place in the local government or any voice or say. The Konkombas in turn, tired of being denied representation and being discriminated against, decided to fight back. What began as a smaller conflict escalated into a full scale tribal war. Salaga wasn’t the most effected, being mostly full of Hausas and Mossis anyway – it was towns like Kpandai and Sabonjida (which is a Konkomba name for that place – the Gonjas call it Jamboy) where if you were even walking down the street and were the ‘wrong’ tribe you would get shot.

Eventually (and my knowledge has gaps here..) the violence ebbed out. But the hostility remains.
Most people in Ghana have “tribal marks” on their faces – they are cut into the skin when the children are very young, and each tribe has distinct. Tribal marks came into vogue around the time of slavery, as a tribe could buy back its children that were taken into slavery: a tribal mark is an instant recognition, upon looking at someone’s face, to ‘where’ they belong. Nowadays in Gonja land, people rarely give their children tribal marks. With so much inter-tribal violence in the recent past, they no longer want that instant recognition. Especially if a certain anonymity means safety.

The Konkombas have invoked conflict (due perhaps to their ‘intrusion’ on other people’s land?) with almost every tribe in the northern region – therefore they remain strangers, despite the fact that they have been here for quite long. But its not just the conflicts that make people strangers…

There are the Fulani herdspeople. The Fulani are “a tribe” in that they all have one origin, but they are 20 sub-tribes spread over most of West Africa. They are nomadic herdspeople, who either keep their own cows and trade with the local tribes, or herd the local tribes’ cattle on contract. The Fulani have been in this region for a long while, but they are eternally strangers. When pressed, people will tell you “This is not their maternal home..”. But then, where is? Ghanaians will say its Nigeria – Nigerians will say its Mali, Malians will say its Niger… The Fulani themselves will for the most part just shake their heads and look sad, if you ask of their ‘maternal home’… Because of the power dynamic, at least in Gonja land, between the Gonjas and the Fulanis (Fulanis herd the Gonja cattle) they are seen as mere labourers, inferiors.
If you walk in the street and pay close attention to how they address the Fulani, it will say it all. “Hey! Fulani! Hey! Come here!” Not even a greeting, which is tantamount to incredible rudeness.

Its an interesting idea; that the guest at first, the stranger, is treated with almost unimaginable hospitality. Like Kings and Queens.. there is a saying in Gonja “Better to starve and feed your stranger..”. But then, when you’ve overstayed your guest’s welcome; oh boy.

At first I was shocked when I discovered all of this, but truly its about the same anywhere else. My parents have lived in Canada for a LONG time – my dad for 30 years this December, but still, to some people they are strangers. Look at how we treated all manners of Japanese-Canadians in the 2nd world war – stripping them of their possessions and holdings and interning them in camps. Because they were ‘strangers’ – some even 3rd generation Canadians. How attached people, people everywhere, become to the concept of ‘us’ and ‘them’ – its incredible. Perhaps its some sort of relic from ancient times when intense tribalism ensured survival; although personally its counter-intuitive, considering that “strangers” (biologically speaking anyway) bring new and diverse genes to widen your gene pool..
Its not even a question of different LOOKING people – its anything that can elaborate a difference between groups of people. The hostility towards the British in Ireland is still alive and kicking; these are people who look practically the same, but their political history is vast and rife with conflict.

The concepts of ‘strangers’ and “guests” and overstaying welcomes; its at the heart of most conflicts throughout the globe – Israel and Palestine, Pakistan and India, Sri Lanka and the Liberation Tamil Tigers……Ethnicity and such distinctions are truly a very mixed blessing, and often when I see the conflict they can bring, I am quite disgusted. What use is diversity if it only divides, mercilessly, humans amongst humans?

If only we can foster a sense that while tribal, or ethno-cultural or regional diversity and unique culture is beautiful, above all and first and foremost we are all humans…… If only. I mean, slowly its happening, but somehow too slowly for my taste. People here often ask me – “So, you are an Indo-Canadian. Which one are you more? Indian or Canadian?”. I never know what to answer to that question – each is integral to my identity as a person, but I guess more than being constrained by any boundaries or borders of ethnicity or belonging, I aspire to be a small portion of all things. Walking forward, with all people, holding humanity’s triumphs and joys closest to my heart and with the solid proof that despite our different constituent parts, we all sum to make the same sometimes difficult, sometimes wonderful, but always proud whole.


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