Monday, November 5, 2012

Perceptions and Reality

This blog post was requested by a friend of mine who was a few years older than me and currently works at Lawrence University.  I didn't ask him if I could use his name here, so I'll just stick with his first name. Thanks Nate!  I'm going to do my best to comment on my perceptions of Ghana, and Ghanaians' perceptions of America.  Coincidentally, this post is exactly the type of thing PCVs are supposed to be doing.  Two of Peace Corps goals are: education of Americans about the host country, and education of host country nationals about America.
My perceptions of Ghana
I feel like my perceptions of Ghana were similar to other Americans'.  Ghana is in Africa, and it's hot.  But I also knew a bit more about it before I came.  I took an African history class my senior year at Lawrence, which doesn't seem like a whole lot of African history, but Africa is not an emphasis in the American educational system.  I also knew a handful of people from Ghana in college and was really good friends with one guy in particular, David. 
David and I were on the same intramural basketball team for all 4 years of college, but we never had any real talks about Ghana.  However, David was a smart dude, and I respected him a lot as a scholar, footballer, and person (not as a basketball player though. He might have been able to beat me sometimes in 1v1, but I was a much better team player).  I had no real reason to think that Ghanaian students would be any different from American students or students from other countries that I met while at Lawrence.  I generally thought that all students in Ghana were like him: hardworking and ambitious.  In reality, I don't think students in Ghana are very different from students anywhere else in the world: some care and want to learn and are willing to try hard, and others would rather do a million other things than sit in a desk.  My perceptions were shaped by my personal attitude toward school (why wouldn't you want to learn new things!) and by the smart hardworking international students I met while at LU.
The biggest difference that I do see between Ghanaian students and American students come from systemic issues like corporal punishment (caning), teacher apathy, and lack of parental guidance.  Those things are difficult to change, and it takes personal commitments and willingness to change.  I'm working on some of those things at EP JHS, but the going is slow.
David was one of the more religious people that I knew (granted that doesn't say a whole lot because I went to a small, non-denominational, liberal-arts school), and I guess I didn't know what to expect when I got here, but almost everyone is pretty religious.  Traditional religions and the people who practice them are not nearly as prominent as they used to be, but interestingly enough, everyone respects the power of traditional religions and the magic associated with them.  The people of Ghana are overwhelmingly Christian, and Islam is the second largest religion, but only the most devout people who have truly put their faith in God don't believe that traditional religions have the power to hurt them.  The same goes for witches; everyone believes in their existence and takes witch threats seriously.
Probably my most incorrect perception of Ghana was that Ghanaians would always be trying to rob, scam, or cheat me.  I just assumed, thanks to the American media, that Americans who travel to third world countries are always in danger all the time.  This is just not true, and I find 98% of Ghanaians to be extremely nice and helpful.  Ghanaian hospitality is more than a saying, it's a way of living. 
I was also unsure of how people would look at me considering that I'm a white man coming from a country which participated in the slave trade.  I whole heartedly believe that all people are equal and should be treated as such regardless of skin color, gender, wealth, sexual orientation, or any other differentiating factor among human being, but I still felt guilty and sorry about slavery, discrimination, racism, and the struggle for civil rights that black Americans had to deal with in America (and still have to deal with today).  Gay rights is a pretty big issue in America right now, and I just don't understand how people can be so ignorant and closed-minded about such an issue that obviously is exactly the same as all the other civil rights struggles from the past.  The great Charles Barkley said this one night on TNT's Inside the NBA show, "I'm all for gay rights. As a black man how can I agree with discrimination of any kind."  Ghanaians are also extremely homophobic to the point that it's illegal, and I don't think they will be changing their minds too soon because of their strong religious beliefs.  This paragraph was supposed to lead into the section about Ghanaian perceptions of America, but instead I went on a rant.  Sorry, but I'm not going to delete it.
Anyways, 99% of Ghanaians have stopped blaming Americans for the slave trade, and I haven't been harassed about it yet. (Or maybe they never blamed Americans too much.  The British colonizers are still referred to as "colonial masters" and I think they took a lot of the heat.  And it's important not to forget that kings and chiefs in Ghana were usually the people selling the slaves to the slavers and making money.  And slavery was practiced in Ghana by Ghanaians before the Europeans came to buy slaves.)  Slavery was terrible; everyone acknowledges that.  I had a really great conversation with my new headmaster a few weeks ago about all kinds of perceptions and beliefs people have in America and Ghana.  In the end we agreed that generalizing and assumptions only lead to problems, and there is no way to undo the past; we can only learn from it and try not to make the same mistakes.
Ghanaian perceptions about America
Ghanaians really do believe that all Americans are rich, and they believe that if you have a job in America you also live in a mansion and drive expensive cars.  I work all the time to dispel this myth.  Yes, it's true, the average American is wealthier that the average Ghanaian, but the way wealth is distributed is similar to Ghana.  There are super rich people, people who have plenty of money but not boatloads of it, people who earn enough to get by, and people who really struggle.  The difference is that America has more of a middle class than Ghana, so a greater number of people are able to live comfortably.  Something that is hard to explain to my students is that living in America costs a lot of money.  A person can live in Ghana on very little money, but everything is more expensive in America (except imported goods like electronics which cost the same or even more here).  So to just afford basic things like food, water, shelter, etc, you need to make a lot more money than most Ghanaians.  I've been told that even when families send someone to America to go to school or work they think they live a lavish lifestyle because they are able to send back enough money to support the rest of the family.  The exchange rate and cost of living are the two biggest factors that allow this to work.
People do ask me for money, but not so much in Bodada (they know I'm a volunteer and I'm here to help them) .  Usually when I just say no people will leave me alone, but sometimes I have to explain that I'm a volunteer.  Occasionally that isn't even enough, but then other Ghanaians will step in and get the person to stop bothering me.  Ghanaians have a lot of pride, and they don't want visitors or outsiders to think that Ghana is full of beggars and robbers.  It's surprising and really nice how often I'm helped by strangers here.
Switching it up a little, Ghanaians also love Obama, but he's the only pop culture icon from America that most people know.  I already talked about the Obama shirts, but there are lots of other shirts that people wear that are originally from America.  They buy big crates of clothes that were donated, and sellers sort through them and then sell the nicer articles on the streets and in clothes kiosks.  Just the other day I saw someone wearing a Gustavus Adolphus t-shirt, and I've seen lots of other t-shirts that I recognize.  Most people don't know what their shirts represent back in the states, and there's no discrimination between colors and genders.  I see guys wearing women's shirts, sweatshirts, and shoes all the time.  It makes me smile.
 I'm sure in Accra there is a greater influence of American culture and media, but in most parts of the country, people don't listen to American music too much (some like rap and pop but they love country music) or watch American movies.  Some radio stations will have an hour of American music each morning, but mostly they play local music and the DJs talk a lot, like wayyyyyy too much.  More affluent people have TVs here with a satellite dish which gets a few channels for free because you pay for the dish itself and the converter box, and occasionally an American movie will be on.  But most of the programming is either Ghanaian or Nigerian.  They also have a few international news stations like BBC and Al Jazeerah.
Most people here have a lot of respect for Americans and I get the impression that we are thought of more highly than Europeans.  I like to think it's because of programs like Peace Corps which offer more substantial aid than some other volun-tourism groups, but it's probably because they know American money is good and that Americans are rich and nice.  
I'm kind of running out of steam now, so let me know if there's anything that I should elaborate on by commenting, Facebooking me (I uploaded more pictures!), or sending me an email.