Monday, July 25, 2011

Living the Life…Sort Of


I had been told before coming to West Africa that Ghana has no middle class; that its people are either ostentatiously rich or living at a bare subsistence level. But Megan and I became aware very quickly that our host family was more comfortably situated than most Somanyans. For example, they had a wall surrounding their “compound;” a wall that was topped by jagged shards of glass. We reasoned, correctly as it turned out, that one would hardly bother to protect one’s home from thieves unless it contained things worth stealing. In addition, the compound held not one but two houses, both of them well-built and in reasonably good condition. This, by itself, put them a few levels above the average citizen. Eventually we would learn that both the mother and the father owned popular shops in town.

Don’t get me wrong—these people were not living a life of luxury. They had no dishwasher or laundry facilities or vacuum cleaner or air-conditioner. They had no computers or iPhones or microwave ovens. They didn’t even have a car. The main house had running water only once or twice a week for an hour or two at a time, though this, I gathered, was not due to their inability to pay for it, but to the town’s rationing of water from the local reservoir.

The parents did, I think, have a television, and I believe they had a small refrigerator as well. Food was varied and plentiful, though I’m pretty sure some of this bounty was available mostly for our benefit. In fact, after we left our table one evening, I happened to look back to see the three nieces racing each other for the few fried plantains we’d left on our plates. After that, we began leaving choice tidbits for them on purpose.

But if feeding us was a burden—and surely it must have been—we were never allowed to feel it. I imagine that the mention of such a subject within our hearing was forbidden by their rules of hospitality, just as it would be by ours. But when I went to the mother one day holding out an offering of cash to offset the extra expense we were causing, it became clear that our customs on some points of hospitality were very different indeed. She threw her hands up, palms towards me, in a warding-off gesture, physically backing away from me and saying, “No! No! No!” with a look of absolute horror on her face. It was obvious that my gesture, which would have been positively expected in a similar situation in the U.S., was downright offensive here. However, she quickly forgave me, graciously making allowances for my ignorance, and it was afterwards decided that I could bring occasional gifts of food, perhaps a fresh fish, or some uncommon little treat—just not money. So I made it my business to discover their likes and dislikes and, learning that the father had a sweet tooth, I began presenting them with jams and preserves that I could buy at the little local import store.

Megan and I, along with Bernard and one of the sons of the house, occupied the secondary building in the compound. While it, too, had faucets and even (miracle of miracles) a flush toilet, it received no running water at all. We bathed from a bucket of cold water every day for the five weeks we were there, an experience that I actually came to enjoy…eventually. It took some work, but I gradually taught myself to experience this morning ritual as refreshing. Who wants a hot shower in near-100-degree temperatures anyway?

The flush toilet, on the other hand, was immediately appreciated by us as the rare luxury it was, despite the fact that someone had to draw water from the well and lug it around the building and into the bathroom to pour it into the tank before that useful appliance could actually be flushed. Not me, since no one allowed me to lift a finger to do anything even remotely resembling work the entire time I was there, except for teaching. I learned later that this courtesy was only partly because I was a guest in the house, and partly because I was “so old.” (I was fifty-five at the time.) Age, it seems, commands great respect in Ghana, where every well-brought-up child is taught to wait on and obey his or her elders—even an elder sibling. This last led to our witnessing the youngest of the three nieces being soundly switched by the mother for having sassed her older sister. When Megan and I couldn’t quite suppress our dismay, the oldest son, noticing our expressions, hastened to justify it as an important and necessary life lesson.

The three young girls of the household were very curious about us. Too shy to try to talk to us at first, they would come to our window when we were in our room and look in, trying, I think, to see what our underwear was like. They were aided in this by the fact that the curtain was only about four-fifths as wide as the window itself, so that there was always a gap at one side or the other. (Privacy is not a high priority in rural Ghana.) The mother, and also the young men (who were always scrupulously careful to keep their eyes from straying in the direction of our room), repeatedly shooed them away, but they would come back whenever they thought no one was looking. We learned to laugh and accept their interest as a friendly one. Later, they began coming to us on our porch once their evening chores were done, practicing their bits of English and asking us to find them rich American husbands and to bring them pretty underwear and cell phones the next time we came.

This, in a nutshell, was our domestic situation for the five weeks we were in Somanya. I’d like to be able to say that we lived as most of the people there lived, but I know this isn’t true. Between our host family’s endless generosity and our own limited but adequate resources, we wanted for nothing important. But even if we had lived as most Ghanaian families live, with hard choices to be made on a daily basis between basics that we, as Americans, consider absolutely necessities, we could never have experienced life as the people there do. After all, we would be leaving soon. And we had options that the average Ghanaian, with little education and less financial capital, does not. As a white, middle-class American, I will never be able to fully understand how it feels to have lived life at a subsistence level from birth, or to continue living it with no reasonable hope of any significant change.

Still, I am so grateful for having had the chance to experience from the inside at least a little of what life is like in a Ghanaian family. It was an amazing gift. I will always treasure the memories and the friendships we formed there. And I will always be sad that later events complicated those friendships and made me uncertain of my welcome in that family. But I was to find that, for all its appearance of simplicity, life in rural Ghana can be a complex and baffling thing, one that is, and probably always will be, indecipherable to an outsider such as myself.

1 comment:

  1. Another great post, Mel. You make a good point that you still really have no idea what it is like to be Ghanian. But what an amazing experience! And I know it was life-changing for you. Thank you for this beautifully written glimpse inside those barrier walls.