Reflecting on Ghana
Wow. It is hard to believe that tomorrow I return to the airport and leave for the next leg of this trip. Ghana was a great first stop, and I’m thankful for all that I’ve learned during my time here. While I’m sad to leave Pa Kofi, Auntie Alice and the friends I’ve made here behind, I’m excited to move on to Tanzania and see the similarities and differences between the two countries.
I wasn’t quite sure where to begin with this post. With four months ahead still to travel, a “final” post from this stop seemed a little premature. At the same time, Ghana has opened my eyes to a lot, and it has made me reconsider my perspective on a variety of things.
Earlier last week, I met with the Regional Director of Social Welfare for the Cape Coast region. Initially, this trip was supposed to help me see the different roles the Regional office fills and to gain a better understanding of the scope of social welfare services. (For those of you just tuning in, I volunteered with the Department of Social Welfare this month because the DSW is responsible for monitoring NGO activities. As a volunteer, I was able to meet with and interview several NGOs, thus helping me with my research.) Anyways, after exchanging a few pleasantries and a very brief description of this gentleman’s responsibilities, we fell into a rather awkward silence. As the Chatty Cathy in the bunch, I took the pause in conversation as a chance to ask a question I’ve posed to several people since coming here. Basically, I want to know what Ghanaians see as being the necessary next steps for Ghana to become a developed nation.
In some ways, Ghana is considered to be the success story on the African continent. For example, shortly after I arrived, one Ghanaian explained to me that the last presidential election’s results had been disputed. Rather proudly (and rightly so), I was told that Ghana didn’t turn to violence to solve the dispute. Instead, the matter was turned over to the Ghanaian Supreme Court, and the decision given was accepted by the people. Attending school in Ghana is compulsory, and a public school system is in place. Just this week, the local news reported that a street naming and house numbering project was beginning throughout the nation. This project will help with future urban development programs, and it is part of an effort to fulfill one of the Millennium Development Goals . Plus, it will make things much simpler for foreign visitors! No more directions that begin, “You’re going to go down until you see the stand selling chickens and then hang a left by the red building with the “I Love Jesus” poster on the door.”
As you can see, a lot of positive steps are being taken here. At the same time, a sanitation system is essentially nonexistent. Open sewers double as trash cans. Clean, drinkable water is not piped into homes, and so everyone is forced to buy either water bottles or plastic bags ( locally called water sachets) to have something clean to drink. The bottles and plastic containers are burned, along with the rest of household trash. The informal sector provides a large portion of the population with their income. It is not uncommon to see women on the street selling goods out of baskets balanced perfectly on their heads. These “goods” can be anything from sun dried fish, a local delicacy, to baby diapers and household items. Many families depend on the money sent back from family members abroad to cover the bills. Some roads are paved, but many are not, and when it rains, common walkways become muddy pits.
Having seen lots of things during my time here, but recognizing my limited scope, I’m interested to hear what someone who has lived in Ghana and knows this county better far better than I ever will, perceives to be the next crucial steps. I thought it would be especially interesting to get this government official’s perspective. I have to say, his answer surprised me.
To begin, he asked me how I defined development. Before I could offer a response, he told me that his country would never succeed if it only used American standards to measure success. He then continued, saying that many Ghanaians see getting to America as the answer to all their problems. They try to get out, instead of trying to make things work here. According to this man, Ghana needed to be proud of Ghana, not vainly attempting to be another country. He was frustrated by the fact that children are required to speak English in schools here, with less attention being given to the local languages. He then said that for real change to happen, all foreign aid needed to be pulled. While he conceded that this would not be a popular decision, it would be extreme enough of a step to force Ghana to stand on its own two feet. By continuing to funnel in money, America was enabling a ” dependency attitude”. Until this dependency was broken, Ghana would not be able to define development for themselves or figure out how to move towards it.
His response caught me off guard. Since being here, I have heard a lot about Ghana’s relationship with America. Learning what America is to many Ghanaians has been eye opening. Explaining that poverty exists in the States has been met with disbelief. In that sense, I agreed with this man. Coming to America should not be seen as an instant solution to solving your problems. And while I love my country, I hate to think of the many Ghanians who do not feel as strongly about Ghana.
I think the real root of this man’s frustration is that in trying to help the developing world, we end up hurting countries. It is easy to get caught up in the need to do something, especially when you observe a problem you think you’ve already figured out how to solve. But, bulldozing in, even with the best of intentions, doesn’t give the community a chance to contribute. I have an end date, a time when I will return to the land of hot showers and traffic rules. Others do not. This may not be my home, but it is the home of the communities I’ve visited. Therefore, it is only logical to let them lead. Rather than completing the project, we should be equipping the people to do it themselves. When we aren’t patient and subsequently exclude others, we haven’t really helped. Perhaps we’ve temporarily alleviated the problem, but long term, what have we accomplished? Also, and this was a humbling moment for me, there is no way you can waltz into a new place, and in a short period of time be culturally enough aware to make good decisions without people who know the culture, because they are the culture.
Needless to say, this conversation was thought provoking. It made me think about service and the role of NGOs in helping. It made me consider what “developed” should mean, and how where I’m from influences how I see the world. I certainly don’t have all the answers. I likely won’t make a tremendous impact in the communities I volunteer with in the coming months. But, I will do my very best to be a good student, learning all that I can from the places I visit. Here’s hoping for even more thought provoking moments in Tanzania!