Ennis Barbery – Ghana, Fall 2009
Ennis Barbery [3rd year BA student in Anthropology in 2009]
Status: Ennis was taking courses at the University of Ghana and traveling the country for the Fall 2009. She returned to Marshall in the Spring 2010 and graduated in Spring 2011 with Honors in Anthropology. After completing her Masters in Applied Anthropology at the University Maryland, Ennis took a position as Executive Director at the Museum of Chincoteague Island.
Bio (at time of writing her posts): Ennis is a cultural anthropology major from Athens, West Virginia, beginning her third year at Marshall University. She studied at Oxford University over the summer through Marshall’s Yeager Scholars program, and is now studying for one semester at the University of Ghana in West Africa through the ISEP program. Ennis is interested in ethnography, linguistics, and the role of culture in art and literature, and she hopes to continue studying these areas of anthropology in graduate school. Ennis also enjoys photography, theater, and yoga. Although she is not certain of her career path yet, she knows she wants to continue traveling and learning about the ever shifting flow of ideas and culture throughout the world.
December 06, 2009
University of Ghana
With just one week left in Ghana, I find myself reflecting on how my perceptions of aspects of Ghana have changed over the four months I’ve been here. I remember when I first used the public transportation – “trotros”. Choosing the right one by looking at the hand signals that the “mates” frantically perform as they hang out the passenger window seemed so difficult. Now I know these hand signals well – at least the ones for the areas of Accra I visit often. Knowing when to get off at the right stop or “alight” as Ghanaians always say also seemed like a challenge, but now I know the routes pretty well. The fact that these trotros don’t have seatbelts also bothered me and still does to an extent, but I’ve come to accept it.
I remember when I first went to the many markets of Accra. Everything seemed so overwhelming: all the vendors yelling “Oburoni! Bra! Bra! (Foreigner! Come! Come!)”, loud American rap music playing, a guy on a megaphone preaching about the Bible, another guy shouting to sell an herbal supplement for fertility, huge live snails for sale, dried fish and raw meat out in the sun, crowds of people carrying heavy loads on their heads and moving rapidly through the narrow market pathways, and all sorts of unfamiliar smells. Now, this seems normal. The chaos is endearing in fact as I walk though this atmosphere and realize there is nothing remotely similar to this place at home, nothing that I can think of at least. I will miss this chaos, the possibility of finding anything for sale, and the eager vendors – always ready to ask about where I’m from and “how I see Ghana.”
I remember when I first started bargaining with the vendors in the markets. This too seemed intimidating at first, but now it is natural for me. I even find myself wanting to bargain in inappropriate contexts now. I imagine that when I come home I’ll have to restrain myself from saying “You want how much for this? No, no, no. It’s only worth two dollars, and that’s my final price” as a stand in line at Kroger. Yet, bargaining in Ghana can still be a challenging and tedious task at times. The vendors of the Arts Market in Accra, for example, are particularly aggressive and ready to charge an oburoni a drastically inflated price. When they learn that I have lived in Ghana for a few months and know how the bargaining works, they tend to become a little more reasonable about their prices, although a tension of course still exists because I am trying to pay the lowest price possible and they are trying to sell their products for the highest price possible.
After I buy something, I can talk with these vendors without any such tension, and they often turn out to be very interesting people. For example, last week at the Arts Market I bought a mask from Abayaa or “Professor Abayaa, expert in African culture” as he introduced himself. After buying this mask, Abayaa told me a little about his life. He has an undergraduate anthropology degree but, like most undergraduate degrees in Ghana, he says it is useless unless he attends graduate school. Since graduate school is expensive, he has decided to focus on selling his handmade drums and other art and performing African music with his “cultural troop.” He told me about how he migrated to Accra from the Northern Region in search of work but that he would prefer to live in the Northern Region. I’ve heard many similar personal accounts of rural to urban migration from the people I’ve met in Accra, and these stories bring to life the rural to urban migration pattern that we discussed at length in my Rural Sociology class this semester.
After four months of life in Ghana, I feel that I can perceive the place and the people on a different, more intimate level. Four months ago, statistics about things like migration, poverty, and African traditional religions in Ghana existed in my mind. The statistics are still there but they are illustrated, magnified, or even challenged by the stories and descriptions I’ve heard from the many individuals I’ve met – individuals who have been willing to share their time and their thoughts with me, for which I am very grateful.
November 16, 2009
Tombouctou (Timbuktu), Mali
After four days of travelling from Ghana in various overcrowded buses and shared SUVs, my companions and I have finally reached Timbuktu in Mali. From the rough roads to the overnight wait for a ferry to cross the river, it really was legendarily hard to reach – at least compared to any other place to which I’ve ever travelled. As recommended by our guidebooks, we hired a guide to take us on a camel ride and then camp with us in the desert. Our guide was one of the Tuareg people – the ethnic group who traditionally lives in the Sahara trading salt (mainly) in caravans – and he took us to his family’s home in the desert to stay the night. The camel ride to get to his home from Timbuktu was about an hour long, and although he said there were other Tuareg families nearby, we could only see sand, little shrubberies, and the occasional wandering donkey in all directions. Our guide, his wife and children made us rice and mutton for dinner. He also prepared for us many rounds of sweetened, traditional tea – tea which a resident described to me earlier that day as the equivalent of beer in Timbuktu. By the end of the meal, it was completely dark. Or I should say it was completely void of artificial light because the thick veil of stars – more stars than I realized were in existence – provided more than enough light.
Then, the children began playing musical instruments, singing, and dancing, after negotiating a price for this entertainment of course. As this went on, families appeared from out of the surrounding darkness and happily joined in the song and dance. I wondered how much of this was an act was for us and how much was genuine, but after talking to the people more I decided this probably was their ordinary nightly entertainment. It was beautiful. I couldn’t stop thinking about how fundamentally different the nature of this entertainment is from an ordinary night of family entertainment –aka television – in the U.S. It was so active rather than passive; everyone was involved, whether they were playing musical instruments or simply clapping and singing along. The entire community was involved. The multiple generations all seemed to be enjoying the same entertainment. Of course, less resources were being used because there was no electricity available. Even though I couldn’t understand the lyrics and the community laughed (in a friendly way) when my companions and I tried to join in the dancing, I felt very welcome. I’m sure experiencing this entertainment as a Tuareg community member rather than an outsider is fundamentally different and meaningful in an entirely different way.
November 19, 2009
Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso (on a bus)
My travel companions and I are now on our way back toward Accra and the University of Ghana, back toward the end of semester exams. The bus we are taking is filled with people from Mali who speak French and very little English, while we speak English and very little French. So our conversations have mostly been limited to “Hello,” “How are you?” and “Where are you from?” As soon as our French-speaking co-passengers learn that we are from the U.S., the conversation shifts – almost invariably – to one subject: Barack Obama. When it comes to communicating support for Obama, the language barriers fade away. The men sitting across from us on the bus only need their big smiles and repeated word “Obama! Obama!” let me know that they are happy he is president of the U.S., and that I am associated with him.
I have encountered this enthusiastic support for Obama throughout my stay in Ghana. In fact, Ghana has a more personal connection to Obama because he travelled to Ghana over the summer. Reminders of this visit are visible all around Accra in the form of huge sign and billboards depicting Obama beside Ghana’s president, Atta Mills. It makes me happy that, as an American, I am associated with a man that so many Ghanaians admire. Yet, like many Americans, most of the Ghanaians I’ve talked to about Obama do not know very much about his policies. They know he is associated with Africa, and that is enough. I was actually very hurt when one man I talked to about American politics refused to believe that I voted for Obama. He said, “But you are white so why would you vote for him?” I tried to explain that Obama was elected because many people, of many different ethnic backgrounds, voted for him, but this man did not accept my explanation. Of course, I’ve also met Ghanaians who know more than I do about U.S. policy. Ultimately, Barack Obama is a popular conversation topic and often a source of pride throughout the African countries I’ve visited, regardless of language and political knowledge. If the election of last fall had turned out differently, I wonder how my experience as an American in Africa would have been different.
November 9, 2009
University of Ghana
Over the course of this weekend, I had a lot of conversations – short, simple conversations – with Ghanaians in one of the local languages, Asante Twi. I’ve been taking a course in Asante Twi at the university this semester, but, at this point, I only know basic things: how to greet people, how to ask them simple questions about themselves, and how to bargain for a taxi or for something in the market. I have been trying to practice and improve my vocabulary and pronunciation, but the more I speak with Ghanaians in Twi, the more I realize that those things – vocabulary, pronunciation, using the correct verb form – don’t matter so much to the Ghanaians with whom I have spoken. What does seem to matter is the fact that I am trying to use the language.
Often when I pass someone on the street, he or she says “Oburoni, ete sen?” meaning “Foreigner, how are you?” in Twi. When I respond quickly with “Eye. Na wo nso e?” which means “I am fine. And how are you also?” the person who asked me the question often looks very surprised and happy. He or she will usually start asking me a series of questions in Twi. I will try to answer these questions, but I will inevitably end up saying, “I don’t understand. What does that mean?” I love seeing how happy Ghanaians get when I try to speak in Twi with them. It makes the language much easier to learn because I don’t feel intimidated when trying to use it. When I don’t know how to say something or I don’t understand a phrase, the Ghanaians I’ve met have always been willing to teach me. Every conversation I have in Twi seems to end with the Twi-speaker complimenting me on my Twi, even if I know I made a lot of mistakes.
November 2, 2009
University of Ghana
After being in Ghana for almost three months now, I’ve started to notice a strange attraction I have to things that remind me of home. One example is Easy Mac. I don’t particularly like Easy Mac or eat it often in the U.S., but when my friend Heidi prepared some Easy Mac that she had brought from home the other night and shared it with me, I enjoyed so much more than I think I would have in the U.S. I suppose this increased enjoyment stems for the fact that it is not readily available here, and, if it is available somewhere, it is probably about fifteen Ghana Cedis (about ten U.S. dollars). My roommate Ana – who is from Mexico – says she feels the same way about products from Mexico. When she sees a Mexican brand on a grocery store shelf here in Ghana, she feels drawn to it – even if she would not normally buy that particular product in Mexico.
This strange, nostalgic enthusiasm about things that remind me of home extends beyond products to holidays. Last Saturday was Halloween – a holiday that Ghanaians do not celebrate but the community of international students in Ghana does. As a walked through a Halloween party hosted by an Italian guy, and saw the elaborate costumes that some of the attendees had constructed, I wondered if all these people would have been just as enthusiastic about celebrating Halloween if they had been in a place where Halloween is normally celebrated. As an American living in the U.S., Halloween has always been a fun holiday – an excuse to eat candy, watch scary movies, and wear something creative. Yet, as an “oburoni” (foreigner in the local Twi language), celebrating Halloween and explaining Halloween to Ghanaians who asked me about the holiday was also a way of reaffirming my cultural identity to myself and others. Celebrating holidays and preparing foods that I associate with my life in West Virginia seem more meaningful to me Ghana – a place where those holidays are less recognized and those foods less common. Somehow, I don’t think Easy Mac will taste as delicious in the U.S.
October 19, 2009
University of Ghana
Over the weekend, the entire ISEP group of exchange students – about thirty of us – travelled to the nearby city of Kumasi. We toured the palace of the Ashanti people, which has now been converted into a museum, and visited Kumasi Central Market. One of the female exchange students organized a meeting for all the women in the group to discuss our experiences as we reach the halfway mark in the semester. Although many of us were reluctant to attend this meeting at first, the discussion ended up being very illuminating. We had not come together as a group since the initial week of orientation, and it was interesting to hear the perspectives of other women going through very similar experiences.
In our “meeting,” which consisted of about twenty women sitting in a hotel room in Kumasi drinking box wine and Star (a beer brewed in Kumasi), the topic that kept arising was our collective experiences with men in Ghana. We discussed how the way men approach and pursue us as international students makes it more difficult for us to make legitimate friends and have meaningful conversations. Since we arrived, Ghanaian men have been approaching all of us on a daily basis and often professing their love and/or desire to marry us within a few minutes of asking us our names. The way this situation usually progresses has not changed much over the two months we have been here, but I have observed a change in my reactions to these appeals and the reactions of my fellow female international students. At the beginning of the semester, we would act surprised, laugh, and try to change the subject of the conversation (almost always unsuccessfully). Yet, as the semester continued I observed our responses getting progressively more direct. Maybe our initial responses – trying to change the subject and making excuses – make sense in the context of typical gender relations in the U.S. because men in the U.S. would usually see these responses as indicators of a lack of interest and stop trying to pursue a woman whom is responding in such a way, at least in my experience. But in Ghana when I have responded in this more indirect manner, the majority of the men I have encountered have continued expressing their “love” at first sight and asking for my phone number. Listening to the other female ISEP students talk about their many encounters with Ghanaian men, I realized that their experiences have been almost identical to my own.
Even very direct responses are not all that effective for ending the romantic pursuit. When I have told Ghanaian men that I have a boyfriend, they have often responded by saying, “it can’t be very serious if you are not married yet,” “but what if he doesn’t marry you when you go back?” or a variety of similar questions and statements expressing concern over my perceived lack of commitment. These questions always freak me out a little because I see myself as too young to get married. Their questions and my responses seem to reveal a divergence in our culturally constructed ideas about romantic relationships. From my discussions with my Ghanaian friends who thankfully do not claim to be in love with me, I’ve learned that long-term, serious relationships without the promise of eminent marriage are a relatively new thing in Ghana. There seem to be few Ghanaians in committed relationships that are not defined by marriage or the promise of marriage, and the Ghanaians who are engaged in such a relationship are members of the younger generations.
The differences in the way we view marriage bring up many questions about how people of different cultures form and maintain romantic relationships, while working from two different conceptions of how that relationship should ideally manifest. I think in these relationships, open, honest communication must be an important factor for mutual understanding. But there is another – more pressing – question that seemed to be on every female ISEP students’ mind at our meeting: Why do Ghanaian men show such an overwhelming interest in female international students – specifically white female international students? I’ve heard the exact words “my dream is to marry a white woman” from at least ten men since I’ve been in Ghana, and my fellow female ISEPers shared that they had heard this exact statement as well. It seems that Ghanaian men must say this to white women as a compliment and an implied invitation to start forming a relationship, but, ironically, this statement triggers a very different response in my mind. The potential friendship monitor in my mind flat lines and I start thinking of ways to end the conversation. A friendship with an individual who has expressed this dream to me seems to be doomed from the start because he has revealed that his motivations for approaching me are based on the color of my skin. The frequency of encounters with Ghanaian men like the ones I’ve described above make it difficult for me to give other Ghanaian men a chance to show me that they are genuinely interested in getting to know me as a thinking, feeling individual – not as a “white woman.” Many other white women I’ve talked to have expressed the same frustration. We get angry that these Ghanaian men are making generalizations about us based on race and not our qualities as individuals. This frustration ironically seems to result in white female international students – myself included – making generalizations about Ghanaian men and their intentions. Both sets of generalizations are unfair. When I have given Ghanaian men a chance to get to know me as more than a white woman, they have turned out to be wonderful friends but friendships like the ones I have developed with a few Ghanaian men certainly can only happen when both individuals are looking past the color of each others’ skin.
October 12, 2009
University of Ghana
This weekend I attended the Aburiman Annual Odwira Festival in Aburi – a town in the Eastern Region of Ghana – with a few Ghanaian friends. The festival took place in the Aburi Botanical Gardens, for which the town is noted. When Evans, Jonas, and I arrived at the festival we sat down under one of the many canopies and waited for the festivities to begin. The program we received said that the chiefs and their respective entourages would begin arriving at eleven o’clock in the morning; yet, they did not begin arriving until about noon. While we were waiting, my friend Jonas who is from the Northern Region of Ghana asked me if I had noticed anything about Ghanaians and their “habits attending events.” I immediately knew that he was prompting me to say that Ghanaians are always late, they don’t have any respect for time, or something similar. Since I have been in Ghana, many Ghanaians have told me in exasperated tones that they wish the people of Ghana were more punctual. However, in everyday life – attending classes, going to theatrical and musical events, meeting friends, etc. – I have not noticed the gaping disparity between Ghanaian and Western punctuality that many people I’ve talked to describe. In fact, many of my Ghanaian friends arrive earlier than my international friends and I to lectures. So when Jonas asked me if I had noticed anything about Ghanaians and their habits attending events, I surprised him by saying “no, not really.”
“Are you sure you haven’t noticed anything about our concept of time?” he prompted. I explained to him that I had heard many Ghanaians complaining about other Ghanaians being late but truthfully I had not observed this chronic tardiness myself. Jonas said he did not believe me. I thought about this conversation as I waited for the chiefs to start arriving and parading in front of the seated crowd. Sure, in the two months I have been here, I have observed people being late to various events but not more people or to a greater extent than I would expect to see in the U.S. I have read that during colonization, Ghanaians and Westerners conceptualized time very differently, but, at least in Accra and Legon today, the more noticeable phenomenon for me has been how self-conscious Ghanaians about being on time. Could this be because they are interacting with me, a person from the U.S., and they assume I have high expectations about punctuality? Maybe they have been reminded of this fabled African lateness since childhood and now they are extremely time conscious. Either way, observing the differences in how people of various cultures conceptualize time is fascinating, and observing how people conceptualize their identities or their collective identity – as people who are late or punctual, as people who fit a cultural stereotype or defy one – is perhaps more even fascinating.
October 7, 2009
University of Ghana
Over the course of the past few days, I have been part of two thought-provoking conversations – one in the context of my Black Diaspora history class and another with the Ghanaian children at GCP where I have been teaching. During my history class, the professor commented that he had observed many female Caucasian international students walking with Ghanaian guys on campus recently and that he thought this was a positive development. An African American exchange student in my class immediately raised her hand, explaining that she saw the situation in a different way. She expressed that as an African American she had thought of herself as a minority throughout her life and now, in Africa, she said she felt like part of a culture that should be celebrated. She went on to say that she thought specifically, “Africans should celebrate being together with other Africans.” This statement sent many hands flying into the air, ready with a myriad of responses, ranging from accusations that this student did not support interracial marriage to one invitation from a male international student to any female Ghanaian student whom would like to “enhance the race relations further” with him. Many of the responses were from other African American exchange students echoing this first student’s sentiment of feeling at home in Africa despite the fact that many of them had never visited Africa before and knew relatively little about the culture they would encounter in Ghana before arriving. These comments made me think about how a place to which a person has no physical connections can play such a large part in shaping that person’s identity, and, in such cases, how visiting that place might be a surreal experience. It seems to me that it would be very difficult and rare for this place of ethnic heritage to fit the expectations the person has been developing, perhaps since childhood.
The Ghanaian children at GCP also made me think about how people conceptualize places they have never been based on the sources of information to which they are exposed. During a short break from class, a five year old girl asked me enthusiastically, “Madame, when you go back to London, will you bring me high heels?” Then she ran away to play a clapping game, not bothering to listen to my response that I am not from London and I don’t think high heels are produced in a child’s size one and a half. Several other girls heard this child’s question and quickly voiced their requests for various fashion items. I asked them why they thought London had better shoes and clothes then Accra – which has more designer stores than I have seen in West Virginia at any rate – and they said “television.” Their response was troubling for me and I tried to explain to them that television does not present an accurate picture of life in the U.K. or the U.S., but it is difficult to compete with years of exposure to Western media.
Before I arrived in Ghana, I had developed expectations based on books, internet sources, a very limited number of television shows, and the descriptions from a few people who had visited Ghana before. Some of the expectations I developed about how Ghana would look and feel have been met but many more have been contradicted and replaced by observations.
October 4, 2009
University of Ghana
Today I rode in a trotro (Ghanaian public transportation in the form of minivans) that said “God will revenge” on the rear windshield and in a taxi that said “Big Daddy” accompanied by a huge sticker of Jesus’ face. Affirmations of religious beliefs seem to be plastered all over Accra. From hair saloons to automotive shops, many businesses include some reference to God in their names. Religion is thrust into the lives of Ghanaians not only through visual means. Several times this week the other students of the International Students’ Hostel and I woke up to Christian ministers loudly encouraging us to “be saved” from the sidewalk outside the building, below our windows and balconies.
Ghana’s population is a divided between Christianity, Islam, and African Indigenous Religions; the ways in which these religions overlap are what I find most interesting – and most contrasting when compared to my Western conceptualization of religion. In West Virginia, as a child, I thought about religion the same way I think about answer choices on a multiple choice exam: you have to pick one. In Ghana, the conceptualization is less exclusive. For example, many of the business names that reference God use the names for God in the local languages – the same names that are used for the creator spirit in African Indigenous Religions – but display Christian crosses and pictures of Jesus, seamlessly blending elements from Christianity and African Indigenous Religions.
Yet, this blending of ideas is sometimes more complex. Last weekend when a few other international students and I travelled to Nzulezo, the village on stilts in the Western Region, our tour guide/canoe operator – Francis – shared his thoughts about religion with us. During the canoe ride to the village, he told us that he was a Christian and he did not approve of the African Indigenous Religions practiced in Nzulezo. He said we should not give the chief a bottle of gin– the gift that a woman in the neighboring village had suggested we bring in exchange for hearing the story of Nzulezo’s history. Francis explained that the gin would be used for libations. In other words, it would be poured into the water as a way of remembering, honoring, and communicating with the ancestors. He explained that as a Christian he felt he could have no part in this activity. When we reached Nzulezo, we learned that the chief was absent anyway so hearing the history from him was not an option.
On the way back across the lagoon, Francis told us more about his religious beliefs. He claimed he had seen his deceased ancestors and that the reason he did not want any part in African Indigenous Religions was that they were very powerful and dangerous. He described how greedy people could use the practices of African Indigenous Religions to get wealthier and how he believed this was always accomplished by some malicious act. Throughout this conversation, Francis revealed his acceptance of the validity and truth of the traditional beliefs but also his rejection of this system of beliefs. He also told us about his dreams of going the U.S. in order to make more money and buy many different kinds of cars. I wondered how Francis’s interactions with his family and friends, with the people of Nzulezo, with missionaries at the local churches, and with international tourists, including myself, had all affected his perceptions of religion. Which groups of people in his life had the most powerful influence in shaping his identity as a Christian, as a Ghanaian, or simply as a person? How did the most influential groups gain influence? Perhaps subconsciously, did Francis compare religions based on the content of their doctrines and practices or on the characteristics of their believers? I considered these questions about my own life and religious beliefs as well. When we reached the shore of the lagoon and paid Francis for the guided canoe ride, he gave each of us a necklace he had made from a water lily during the return journey and also a lot to think about in terms of religion.
September 27, 2009
University of Ghana
Ghanaians’ perceptions of their own culture often surprise me. This weekend, like every weekend, a few other international students and I travelled out of the Greater Accra Region. On the way to Nzulezo, a village constructed in a lake on stilts, we encountered a very entertaining taxi driver. He picked us up from an isolated junction where the bus had left us just as the evening was getting dark, which apparently gave him license to charge us a high fare. We sat in the car with serious faces – disgruntled by how much we were paying and the fact that we did not have a choice in the matter since we could not predict when the next taxi would appear.
As the journey to the village continued, the taxi driver, Nicholas, stopped many times to pick up more passengers. After several stops, my friend Heidi and I sat on each other in the passenger seat – our legs nestled between the seat and a huge gas can. A small, elderly woman sat on the driver’s left leg. My friend Ana sat in the backseat, tightly sandwiched between the door and three men. In the rear of the car – usually reserved for storage – two women squatted around a bowl of fish they had been selling that day. One of them had a small baby tied on her back.
My eyes met Heidi’s; both of our expressions communicated, “this situation is ridiculous!” As Nicholas got back into the car, after attending to the passengers in the back, he enthusiastically said, “African taxi!” He went on, laughing throughout his speech, “African taxi! That’s right! Four people in the front! Six people in the back!” (he was not counting the baby). The whole taxi erupted in laughter as Nicholas chuckled to himself. Our disapproving faces transformed into smiles, and we laughed with him. “Only in Africa” he said, and we laughed again, not really knowing how to respond.
Sure, this situation would have been deemed dangerous and irresponsible by the safety standards I am used to observing in the U.S., but we had to admit that it was funny. Nicholas’s ability to laugh at himself seemed to make everything better. He recognized that the differences in our cultures (and –more importantly – in the transportation infrastructures of our respective nations) made this situation seem strange to us. Yet, he dismissed any possible tension between our opposing expectations about how a taxi should operate with his laughter. Nicholas made me think that maybe differences are often easier to discuss with honesty and a sense of humor.
September 20, 2009
University of Ghana
On Thursday, I volunteered as a teaching assistant at Global Civic Preservation (GCP) – an NGO that provides education for children in Accra who cannot afford the required uniforms and fees to attend their local schools or children who have been contributing to their families’ incomes by working instead of attending school. GCP helps these children “catch-up” to the academic levels of their peers and finds financial sponsors for these children in order to help them enroll in their local schools.
When I heard about this organization through the exchange program office on campus, I immediately wanted to help. When I arrived at GCP at eight a.m. on Thursday, I found myself in a much different situation than I had expected. There were no certified teachers present at the beginning of the day because the few who volunteer for GCP were all teaching morning classes at schools from which they receive pay as opposed to GCP from which they do not. I was handed a teacher’s manual, instructed to make a lesson plan for English and for mathematics, and directed to the “teen class,” which ranges in age from eight to fourteen and in ability from illiterate to what I would estimate as a fifth grade reading level in the United States.
It was overwhelming. It was difficult for me to keep the attention of the twenty children because UI was inevitably boring one group of them – either because the subject matter was too advanced or too easy for their skill levels. By the time I left at two o’clock in the afternoon, my entire perception of education and of childhood was altered. At GCP, there were few books or other supplies for me to give the children, and several children described to me how they had walked over two hours at morning to get to school.
On the way home, from GCP, I saw children in school uniforms as young as five or six years old riding the public transportation home unaccompanied and other children – children who had not attended school at all that day – selling plantain chips to passing traffic. Suddenly public education in the U.S. seemed so easy and so underappreciated. I wondered how governments and people in other parts of the world could create situations in which education is so difficult to obtain, and I realized how much my own perceptions of education have been shaped by the education system in the U.S. I knew it was more challenging for children in developing nations to gain access to education, but I did not really understand the contrast in education systems until now. I hope I can continue to learn from the children at GCP and maybe help them use the limited resources at GCP.
September 14, 2009
University of Ghana
This weekend I traveled with a few other university students out of the urban – and relatively Westernized – Greater Accra Region in Ghana to the more rural Eastern and Volta regions. Both of the places we went to – Bodi Falls in the Eastern Region and the Monkey Sanctuary in the Volta Region – were far removed from the crowds of Accra, surrounded by strikingly green rolling hills and plains, and obviously marketed as destinations for international tourists.
At Bodi Falls, the Ghanaian owner of the guest house was surprised when we told him we would eat the local food – “fufuo” made from crushed cassava root – if it was less expensive than the rice he was offering to prepare for us. (We ended up eating the rice because the village where the fufuo being was offered was too far away.) His surprise about our willingness to eat the traditional Ghanaian dishes showed his perception of international tourists’ preferences, perhaps shaped by the preferences of international tourists he had encountered in the past.
The Monkey Sanctuary we visited is made up of one concrete building for reception – from which the tours depart – and several other concrete buildings in which visitors can rent rooms complete with mosquito nets, while most of houses of the surrounding village are constructed using bamboo or mud for walls and grass thatching for roofs. This difference in architecture alone reveals the tour providers’ perceptions about the preferences of international tourists. During our one night stay there, we saw several other groups of tourists, all of which were from the U.S. or Europe. During our guided walk through the surrounding forest, we got to feed bananas to a few monkeys that our guide coaxed down from the trees, and he explained the concept of the Monkey Sanctuary. He described how many years ago the group of people who lived in the area and practiced a form of African Indigenous religion had designated the site as sacred, thus, restricting entry of the area to religious figures of the community. He said, as a result, the monkeys moved to this comparatively more peaceful area, and the monkeys’ presence reinforced the peoples’ beliefs about the sacred nature of the location.
Of course, I found this explanation from the tour guide very interesting, but, at the same time, the way in which he described the beliefs of the local community (or perhaps more realistically the past beliefs of the local community) seemed to transform this community’s sincere ideas into a commodity for tourist consumption. I noticed he used the word “fetish” when describing the community’s religion, and according to my class on African Indigenous Religions – a course I am currently enrolled in at the University of Ghana – “fetishism” is an inaccurate and ethnocentric concept used by Westerners in the past for describing African belief systems. Given this context, I was surprised to hear our Ghanaian tour guide describe the indigenous religions in this way. Did his use of this word reveal his belief that African Indigenous religions are inferior to other religions? If so, did his interaction with American and European tourists influence this belief? Looking at a broader perspective, what are the positive and negative effects of cultural tourism on the communities who host tourists and on the tourists?
September 8, 2009
University of Ghana
After being in Ghana for only a few weeks, I am amazed by how easy it is to make friends here. Whether on campus, in Accra, or in one of the small surrounding towns, I feel as if I am always meeting many smiling faces, interested in where I am from and why I am in Ghana.
A few other international students and I visited a small town called Apam last weekend. While we were walking down the street looking for somewhere to eat, we saw a funeral procession approaching. The people were dancing, clapping, and singing a seemingly cheerful song as they carried the coffin through the streets. The other international students and I stepped out of their way, but, as they passed us, the women leading the songs told us repeatedly to join the procession. We joined them, clapping and following them through the streets to a place where many chairs where arranged under several tents. The children in the procession kept asking, “Oburoni, can’t you sing?” and they were all surprised that we did not know the traditional songs. We stayed at the funeral for about an hour, talking with the people and learning about the ninety-five year old man who had died. I was surprised by the way in which this funeral was a celebration of life rather than a sad affair and even more surprised by the mourners decision to include us – four foreigners who did not know the deceased man – in the event. This is just one example of the amazing friendliness and hospitality I have experienced in the weeks since I came to Ghana.
On the campus in Legon, it is common for other students to approach me while walking to class, and by the time we have arrived at the classroom, the conversation has progressed from “What’s your name?” and “Where are you from?” to “What is your phone number?” and “When do you want to come spend the weekend at my house?” Of course, not every conversation I have had with a Ghanaian student evolved from stranger to friend at such a fast rate, but this sort of fast progression seems to be more accepted by students at the University of Ghana than by students on U.S. campuses.
At first, coming to a city where I knew no one, this very friendly environment seemed ideal. I did not have to work to make friends at all. Yet, as time passes, I find myself feeling as if these quickly formed friendships are insincere and discussing this with other international students who are having the same sort of experiences and the same awkward feelings about those experiences. Can two people really become close enough friends to exchange phone numbers and room numbers after a few minutes of conversation? Are the intentions of these eager friends insincere? Or are my culturally constructed ideas about friendship preventing me from forming valuable friendships? I still have a few months to try to figure it all out.
August 17, 2009
University of Ghana
I have been in Ghana for one week now, and I am just starting to grasp the fact that Legon is going to be my home for the next four months. During the first week, I kept drifting into the mindset that I was on vacation and would be returning home to West Virginia relatively soon. This sense of being a visitor has been reinforced for me by way Ghanaians frequently address international students as “oburonis.” Oburoni means “foreigner” in Twi, which is a dialect of the language of the Akan people of Ghana. “Oburoni!” young children often yell as I pass them on the street. “Oburoni” venders yell to get my attention, coaxing me into their stalls at one of the many markets in the city of Accra.
Classes at the University of Ghana are scheduled to begin today, but the registration process is very different from class registration at Marshall and other universities in the United States. In order to register, every University of Ghana student must go to each academic department in which he or she wants to take classes, look at the timetables of classes posted on the department bulletin boards, and sign up for classes in each department office. Some of the timetables were posted at the departments over the weekend, but others are still not posted. Earlier this morning some other international students and I were beginning to get anxious about running around to different parts of campus and trying to sign up for classes – some of which were not even scheduled yet. Ghanaian students reassured us that, although the university calendar says classes begin today, the classes usually do not take place until the following week.
A Twi phrase I have been hearing a lot this week while registering for classes – “mereko aba” – translates to “I am going and coming back” in English. People will say this when a class timetable is not ready, when the internet in the student housing is not working, or when a vendor at the market does not have the requested item. But the English translation does not really capture the attitude this phrase seems to convey in its Ghanaian context – the implication of “relax,” “chill out,” and “many potential problems will resolve themselves in time.” Although encountering this relaxed attitude – in Ghana or in the U.S. – can be frustrating sometimes, blood pressures around the world might improve with a little dose of “mereko aba.”