Saturday, May 27, 2006

Stranger in a Strange Land

I’ve finished reading what is likely to be the first of many books this summer. First on the list was Robert A. Heinlein’s “Stranger in a Strange Land,” which was a fantastic book with a very appropriate title for my current situation.

The book is about a man, Valentine Michael Smith who is born on Mars, educated by an extremely advanced Martian race, and then brought back ‘home’ to Earth. In light of the story and my experiences on the ground, I can’t help but draw parallels between the mentality of the fictional Martian society and actual Ghanaian society.

For one, Smith believed that all the religions on earth were correct and not contradictory; all of them were different ways to look at the same problem, in which all religions are united to a common purpose. Ghanaians are very similar in their fusion of beliefs. They incorporate Christian or Muslim beliefs into the traditional tribal beliefs without any problem. Highly educated Ghanaians, some with one or more university degrees in science, believe as readily in ghosts and witchcraft as they do in hydrogen bonding. As far as they’re concerned, nothing in science and religion contradict. Life can be studied or it can be left as it is and shrouded in mysticism. But above all else, it is beautiful. To Ghanaians, everything is Grace.

I’m amazed at how Ghanaians are such unbelievably happy, trusting, and peaceful people. I actually can’t quite get over it. Almost every element of their society is founded on such a deep trust that I almost feel guilty just thinking about it. Two quick examples:

1. When a woman with a baby wants to board a lorry or tro-tro, she passes her baby through the window to complete strangers, packs her bags, pays the driver, climbs on and finds her seat, and then has the baby passed back to her. She usually doesn’t know any of the people who hold and play with her baby during this process, and, equally, doesn’t care. No-one I’ve talked to finds anything odd about, save for other visiting volunteers like myself… I can’t possibly this practice being adopted back home.

2. While traveling to my work I passed through the capital of the Upper West Region, Wa. Upon arriving there I tried to take a taxi to the station, where I would bus up to Jirapa. I knew the taxi ride should only cost about 5000 cedis, but the man I asked insisted on trying to charge 10 000. After a few minutes of debating juxtaposed with small talk I got him to bring his price down to 8000. At the end of our trip we got out, unpacked all my bags and he led me to where my bus would arrive. As I went to pay him I realised that I only had a 10 000 cedis bill and that he had no change. He smiles at me, takes the bill, and hurries off into the chaos towards his taxi. I see him go through a mass of people, come out on the other side, get in the taxi and drive away. Figuring that I had been had, I gave up and started chatting with the man next to me. About ten minutes later a gentleman walks up to me with 2000 cedis and says “your change, sir.” I have no idea how many hands the money passed through but somehow, without either myself or the taxi driver looking, I got my change. Again, no-one blinked at this casual exchange; you always make sure that everyone gets their due change in Ghana… just amazing.

Situations like this, which usually happen every day, really lead me to question my being here. Morally and spiritually these people seem infinitely more advanced than home; and the sense of community is so strong here. So how, exactly, is the West trying to ‘develop’ these people? By trying to ‘raise their standard of living,’ dragging them into our crazy consumerist/capitalist system? What good will that really cause? Am I really just ruining a beautiful society by trying to bring them fancy machines; by trying to boost their economy with a consumerist mindset?

Maybe we should start flying Ghanaians to Canada so that they can ‘develop’ us…


At 2:03 p.m., Anonymous Jenn said...

Wow... that is really amazing, for them to be so trusting. It's a shame that our society can't be like that, just think of how life would be like? Well you'd probably would know because you're there experiencing it. Really though I think that'd be the answer. This is just me thinking, but couldn't issues like theft and such be aliminated? Poverty become distant and it's level not rise because we wouldn't have systems where the rich get richer and the poor get poorer? The idea of all religions being united in the way that Ghanaians have could prevent wars over religion. The middle east if they thougth like that wouldn't have such predjudice and racism towards one another. Thing could be become very peaceful and we'd finlly get that "peace" that the west has been "fighting"
This is not the first time that I've thought of such things, it just brings it back to the surface.
You got me interested in that book though. *is so raiding your library*

Anyways, take care, be safe!
lots of love, Jenn

At 2:20 p.m., Anonymous Jenn said...

Another thing that I left out from my first comment was on us comming in their to "develop". Some times it like we shouldn't even interfere because we just end up ruining what was once beautiful. Take for example when Europians came to the west. They had destroyed the land and the people there. Did the native not become alcoholic, be attacked by diseases that their body could not fight and destroy the unity that they had within their tribes?
For some reason we seem to think that if something is not up to par with the rest or is not like the way we do thing, we need to "fix" them or bring them up par. As if it's our responsibility. But as you're seeing now, Ghanaians are fine and have one of the best state of communities,they don't have the sort of technology that we have or gadgets but like you say it doesn't make them incapable, dumb or helpless. They take the joy in what they have, whereas here in the west we complain about what we don't have and we're all guilty of this.
I think in "developing" countries in Africa what we simply need to do is to help them out by giving them healthier livning conditions like with the water and medicines that they do not have that we can share, other wise I think we should butt out and find a way to fix our own problems.

lol so yes that's what I wanted to add ^^

At 3:09 p.m., Blogger Emily said...

I'm glad you mentioned that last thing Jenn, about developing the health and stuff; because the fact is people are starving. At the end of the day it doesn't matter how wonderful their culture is, if they're dying of diseases in their water (which they are or good hearted people like you, Bryn, would'nt put the time, energy and money into something like this, you would find another cause to help)the culture will die with them.
On a scarier note, people like you going in without hidden agenda's are important. You want to strengthen them, learn from them, but not capitalize from them. There are many countries, organizations, people who do the opposite. I can be as bloody nice as I want, but I have to have some sort of skin so I do not get manipulated. That is another way in which a wonderful culture could be lost.
I particularly enjoyed this post Bryn, but I want to stress to you again (and you and I had talked about the potential of you taking this whole experience very to heart) don't think too deeply all the time. Please enjoy it, take the lessons this internship gives you in stride and apply them as you can. Take their characteristic of being perfectly happy and content and apply it to yourself. No guilt. (Who was it who lectured me about guilt once upon a time?)

At 5:43 p.m., Anonymous Mum said...

Hi Bryn, I'm really enjoying your stories and photos. I agree with Emily'comments - don't think so deeply all the time. Love you very much and so very proud of you.

At 11:42 p.m., Anonymous Anonymous said...

You're not a colonizer Bryn. It's okay. Although I will admit my eyes nearly popped out of my head when you mentioned the woman passing her baby through the crowd.

I don't see the NGO you're working for as taking any sort of "westernization" role...they aren't focused on mass industrialization, just simple things that can help make a big difference by working locally with the people. Have fun. This is the experience of a lifetime.

At 1:41 p.m., Anonymous Brett said...

It is the respect for our fellow man that the west has lost. For the most part nobody cares about the stranger in the street crying. They'll walk by. These civilizations have survived by banding together, a lot of these places have seen horrible droughts, disease epidemics and various other tragedies. The only way to survive is to live as one, the conditions have tought them that. However, it'll take more than a couple water pumps and some tractors to destroy the way they live. I wouldn't worry, as you've shown in your posts, these are amazing, intelligent and very happy people. People usually only change the way they're living when they're unhappy.

At 2:56 p.m., Anonymous chickety said...

Hi Bryn!

That you ask these very thoughtful questions means you have little to fear.

Maybe the question is whether it's possible to help ensure clean water, stable food supply, and other things that prevent disease, suffering, and death without foisting upon them our obsession with self and things.

Thank you so much for sharing your pictures and impressions. You never cease to amaze me.

PS: I'm reading Stephen Lewis' Race Against Time. Amazing.

At 12:46 p.m., Blogger Laura said...

Dear Bryn,

I've been dreaming about you. I think that means I miss you. (I'm not even joking... last night we were on a bus together)


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