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.

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