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.  

1 comment:

  1. I absolutely love read in your writings Mel. Keep them coming!