Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Whose Taboos to Choose?

One of the most difficult things for Westerners to get used to when visiting Ghana for the first time is being asked for things--and asked often. Not so much by beggars on the streets--in fact, that has happened to me only rarely, at least in the rural areas--but by people you have just been introduced to, by casual acquaintances, and even by people you are getting to know fairly well. This is an uncomfortable experience for most Americans at first, even when we've been told to expect it. Why? Probably because of our own strong cultural taboo against "begging" or "pan-handling," which survives despite our changing consciousness about homelessness and other phenomena that make the practice necessary for so many as a matter of survival, even here in the U.S.

I have certainly experienced some notable exceptions to this disconcerting custom of asking. Bernard, for example, rarely asks me for anything unrelated to making Soul of Somanya a going concern, and my host parents on my first trip to Ghana wouldn't even take money for my share of the groceries when I offered. There have been others as well. But in general, there seems to be no taboo against just asking for what you want from anyone you think might be able to supply it.

I suspect that this custom is even more compelling when it comes to Americans, since the average Ghanaian apparently holds a deep-seated, completely unshakable belief that all Americans are endlessly rich. Nothing I've ever said has ever changed this perception of me in Somanya, as far as I can tell. They simply don't believe me when I say I am not rich.                                                                                             

But then, why should they? While I technically live below the poverty line by U.S. standards, I have nevertheless been able to access enough money (whether my own or someone else's) to fly across the Atlantic--not once but three times so far--to visit Ghana. That fact all by itself speaks volumes about the differences in my situation and that of most West Africans. Such journeys are almost as unavailable to the average Somanya citizen as a trip to the moon would be for me.

And that's not all. Each time I have come, I have brought with me visible evidence of my prosperity, including (but not limited to) a bounty of jewelry-making supplies and hand tools, two laptops, two printers, two cameras, one glass grinder, two rotary tumblers, at least one power drill, a number of cell phones, and a variety of clothing and other gifts. Never mind that all of these things were either donated or financed by donations. I was able to get them.

I have also sent money for four years' worth of rent so far on a house (our place of business in Somanya) that is, by local standards, both larger and much nicer than most. And if this isn't enough to demonstrate my boundless wealth, last year I sent the money to buy that most coveted of all treasures--a car. Again, this was all done by way of donations and/or income from the sale of Soul of Somanya products. All I was able to offer was time and energy. But that's irrelevant. I was able to send the money.

So why would anyone there believe that I'm not rich?

[Just as an aside: I find it ironic that I have the opposite problem here in the U.S., where many friends and SoS supporters have had trouble believing that I don't feel deprived because I don't own my own home (I've honestly never wanted the responsibility), and because I drive a leaky (but dependable) '97 Saturn, and have no television (free at last!), no microwave (what's the big rush about heating up water for tea?), no bed (I sleep, by preference, on my ancient but comfortable couch), and nothing a rational person would ever dream of calling "decor." Instead, I live in a modest one-bedroom apartment that I share with the perfect roommate (my dog Hannah) and a happy (if usually somewhat disorganized) clutter of Soul of Somanya inventory, shipping supplies and paperwork. The fact that this lifestyle suits me right down to the ground is irrelevant to many who know me. From the average American perspective, I am, if not poor, at least very far indeed from being rich, and this despite the fact that I have air-conditioning, an endless supply of electricity and running water (both cold and hot), dependable phone and internet service, plenty of books to read and food to eat and, last but not least, that miracle of modern plumbing, a flush toilet--all things that are rare-to-non-existent in most Ghanaian homes. Obviously wealth and poverty are relative concepts.]

But back to my Ghanaian experience of being asked for everything from tuition money to pretty underwear. Consider this: I spend a fair amount of my time here in the U.S. asking people for money and goods to take or send to West Africa in order to help the people of Somanya to a greater share of the prosperity we enjoy here. So why am I uncomfortable when those very same people ask me for those very same things to benefit the very same people for whom I am soliciting aid? It occurs to me that this practice might even be understood by us as their version of fundraising for people in need--namely themselves.

Be that as it may, my discomfort with their custom of asking so freely has its roots, of course, in the American work ethic, to which I subscribe, and which forms the very foundation of SoS. Soul of Somanya is about giving work, not stuff. The theory is that if one has dependable, living wage employment, one can buy one's own stuff.

But who am I, after all, to say it's wrong to want a few things to come more easily than that? It's not as if the people of Somanya don't work hard. They do. They have to in order to survive. Is it their fault that the paid work (if any) that is available to most of them doesn't produce enough income for even those things that we, as Americans, take for granted as being absolutely fundamental to our very existence, not to mention our happiness?

So the people of Somanya ask, hoping they will receive a little something extra to enhance their bare-bones lifestyle. But SoS can only offer them work, pleasant work, satisfying work, at a living wage and in a safe and healthy environment. And even this we can offer only to a few.

It somehow doesn't seem like enough, at least not to us. But ask one of our artisans, who now has money for nutritious food and vaccinations and proper schooling for her children, and I suspect you'll get a very different answer..

And anyway, I learned early on to keep my eye on the small picture when in Ghana, because if you look too often at the big one, you are quickly overwhelmed, and then you're no good to anyone. SoS can't eradicate poverty in Ghana. We can't even eradicate it in Somanya.

But we might, if we are fortunate enough to find an abundance of generous hands and hearts over here, be able to open up a few options for a handful of people over there, whether it be for more schooling, better medical care, improved nutrition for a few children, or just a little easing of the scarcity in a few lives.

No, it's not enough. But you do what you can...and then work to get better at it so you can do a little more, and then a little bit more, tomorrow...and the next day...and the next.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

A Short Supply of Trust

Within a few days of arriving in Ghana on my first trip, Megan and I, along with my three young partners in the project, met with the beadmakers who were to be my students. I had assumed that the classes had already been scheduled and organized, so I was a bit surprised when I met with the first group of artisans that there was some doubt about whether anyone was going to take the classes at all. Early in that meeting, I started picking up on unexpected--and, at the time, very puzzling--undercurrents of anger and distrust that made me distinctly uneasy. But this uneasiness turned to incredulity when, as soon as the initial introductions had been finished, the group's spokesman asked me, "What are you going to give us besides classes?" The second group, with whom we met a few days later, was even more forthright. "Who," they asked me, "is going to pay us to take these classes?"

I was, understandably from a Western perspective, more than a little bit taken aback. I had been told repeatedly via email that the entire group of fifty beadmakers was eager for my arrival; that they kept asking, "When is she coming? When is she coming?" I had just spent six months raising enough money to cover the trip expenses, spending endless hours thinking through the logistics of what would be necessary to teach fifty people a variety of classes for five weeks, ordering and organizing all the necessary tools and supplies, and trying to fit everything I needed to take with me into six suitcases--all of this while struggling to keep working and paying my own bills. I was happy as could be doing it, and I hadn't thought that I was after gratitude, but I have to admit that, after all of my months of preparations, and given that the classes were to be free, I found myself thinking that something more along the lines of a simple thank you would have been more appropriate.

Appropriate? I've always hated that word. And anyway, who was I to judge what was considered appropriate in Krobo culture? But it's so hard not to react first from your own cultural brainwashing. 

Years later, I would learn that the beadmakers actually were actually being made to pay for the classes (more about that in a future post). But even without knowing this, I fairly quickly came to see how my presence there might be perceived by them as a mixed blessing. Because, whether the classes were free or not, I was asking them to take some eleven or twelve days off of work--this in a place where, if you don't work today, your children very likely won't eat tonight. And I was asking them to take this risk while offering no assurance that their investment would ever pay off. How, for example, were they to market the products they were about to learn to make? Very few people in Ghana have money to spend on luxury items, and none of these artisans had the capital, the language skills, the technological skills, the knowledge of Western business practices, or the contacts to get those products out of the country and into the global marketplace. Yes, I had promised that I would try to help with that. But who was I? I had already told them that I had no training or experience in marketing. And even if I had, what reason did they have to trust me? What reason did they have to trust that I would even try to carry through on my promise, much less succeed?

Ultimately, we worked with the first group to establish a class schedule that allowed them to work one half day and then one full day, one half day and then one full day. This, they seemed to feel, would lessen the impact on their budgets sufficiently to make their attendance possible. We offered to do the same for the second group as well but, ultimately, they were not able to get past their distrust of my motives (or rather, as it eventually turned out, of our motives) far enough to feel able to take the classes at all. When the dust finally settled, only fourteen of the original fifty beadmakers ended up taking the classes I had come to teach.

Here's what happened with the second group. When we went to meet with them, we found ourselves, much to our surprise, facing a seated but restless and angry mob. Their spokesman was so furious that he was actually spitting as he talked. And, although he was speaking English, his startling vehemence, combined with the local accent (to which I had not as yet become attuned) made it impossible for me to follow what he was saying. Eventually, one thing did come clear; namely that the group had been shown a copy of the newspaper article my local paper had published about my trip and my reasons for making it. I had sent a copy to one of my project partners some months back.

If I weren't an important person, these beadmakers now told me, my picture would not have been in a newspaper. It was clear to them that I was the head of some large charity organization, and that I must therefore be in possession of money intended for them. Since I wasn't handing that money over, I was obviously planning to keep it for myself, or to share it only with my niece and my three partners.

Megan later told me that she was so scared during that meeting that she almost threw up right there. But I guess I was having some kind of out-of-body experience or something, because, for some reason, I found myself sitting back and observing the situation with pure fascination, almost as if I were watching a really interesting movie rather than being present and the potential object of mob-mentality wrath. Eventually, with a calmness that is entirely uncharacteristic of me in moments of great stress, I explained to them that I was just a regular person like them, and that in the U.S., most newspapers had sections where they printed pictures and articles about everyday people who were doing things that might be interesting to other people in their communities. This led to some lively discussion in their language that went on for some time. But in the end, they seemed to accept my explanation. Then there was yet another very heated discussion, also in Krobo, which resulted in me being asked by one of my project partners to tell the group where I was staying and what I was sleeping on. 

Megan and I looked at each other: What was I sleeping on? What was that about?

It was not until 2-1/2 years later that I would finally learn the answer to that question. In fact, subsequent visits to Somanya have illuminated a great many of the more puzzling aspects of that first trip. But those are stories for future posts. For now, let me just quote from an email I wrote home a few days after I had finally taught my first few classes out under the trees:

"If I live to be a thousand years old, nothing is ever, ever likely to be as magical and fulfilling as this trip has already been. The classes are going extremely well--the level of creativity and talent among the students is astounding. You show them something they've never even seen examples of until right then and the next thing you know they are inventing whole new designs and even innovating technically. It has also been a lesson in, "It takes a village to teach a class." Everyone helps, from Megan and my partners in the project to the students helping each other. It's wonderful to see."

Despite the rocky beginning, my first teaching experiences in rural Ghana truly were nothing short of amazing. I had been teaching beading in the U.S. for quite a few years, yet I was, at first, unable to account for the absolutely fearless approach to learning and the extraordinary level of talent and creativity among these particular artisans. I ended up deciding that they must be so used to having to be courageous and innovative and resourceful just to survive that being so with regard to a piece of wire or a strand of waxed linen was simply no big deal to them. But of course, like everything else in these blog posts, that's only my take on it. Who really knows? I don't pretend to. All I can do is observe and speculate...and admire. 

Note: The lack of pictures in this post is due to my not having the explicit permission of some or all of the people depicted in them.