Monday, May 28, 2007

“How do you find Ghana here?”

May 27, 2007

Three guys I had never seen before noticed an oboroni in the cook shack and came to investigate.

They were younger guys, students in their early 20s. We’d never met, but they’d surely seen other white people staying at the Silver Ring Guest House from time to time. They were friendly, and a little drunk. They asked me if I always serve myself, which might have been a dig for doing slave work when I could get the houseboys or, better, a woman to cook for me. One of them wanted some bacon, but it was still raw in the pan so I was able to dissuade him.

At first they wanted to talk football. I don’t follow the European Champions League that closely and so wasn’t able to commit to either Liverpool or AC Milan. I did slag David Beckham though.

Then came the question, as it always does from Ghanaians who are politely curious about foreigners in their country: “How do you find it in Ghana here?”

I’ve wrestled with this question a lot lately, halfway through our stint in Africa. There are several factors to be juggled in the answering.

First of all, the unavoidable: I’m Canadian; I’m polite. Ghana is nice. How is it nice? The people are very nice to me (I omit the fact that they’re not always nice to each other). Ghanaians are very welcoming and hospitable; that much I can conscionably defend as truth.

Second of all, the obvious: there are some problems with life in Ghana. Oh? Like what? Like the electricity shortage. I have a hard time understanding how businesses can survive with frequent unscheduled power outages. And of course that leads to other problems. Like what? Like the food poisoning I suffered last weekend that made me want to die. It’s hard to keep perishables, like meat, safe to eat when refrigeration is so unreliable, and that leads to public health concerns, etc.

Thirdly, the not-so-obvious and possibly avoidable, which I did not explain to the Ghanaians: my personality is in a clash over Africa. It’s a fight, a duel, a debate within my intellect.

On the one side, my sympathetic nature that extends compassion to all less fortunate people and is laden with a healthy dose of shame for the atrocities that my Anglo ancestors committed on this continent wants to focus on the best aspects of Africa and African society; to ignore or at least minimize the shitty parts and emphasize that which holds potential for humanity.

Weighed against that is my cold practicality that refuses to be cajoled into glossing over the voluminous nasty bits of African life and insists on brutal, simplified truth.

I’ve only just today come to the realization that my complaints about life in Africa, which are various and sundry and shall be listed (somewhat) forthwith, are products of my own negativity. I’m seeing things in an unfavourable light because that is how I choose to see them. So be it: I take full responsibility — or blame — for my impressions, negative or positive, of life anywhere on this planet, and I do not ask anyone’s indulgence or forgiveness. I can only be honest with myself about my own experience. To wit…

There are three aspects of this African life that must be scrutinized and criticized if we want to get to the meat of “how I find Ghana here”: Ghana the land, Ghanaians the people, and Ghana for tourists (because, let’s face it, that’s what I am).

LAND: Let’s pretend I’ve already written some flowery phrases about how beautiful Africa can be. Can be, when glimpsed from afar. Up close it’s hot, smoggy and clogged with garbage.

PEOPLE: I’m not partial to being a gawked-at racial oddity seen primarily as a conduit to material prosperity by an ultra-religious culture that lacks curiosity, insists on a monetary incentive to get anything done and barely pretends to the tenets of social equality, clinging instead to outdated feudal hierarchy that makes sure its poorest, least fortunate members stay right where they are.

TOURISTS: The hardest part about travel in Africa is that there is no escape from Africa. It is everywhere. Africa is not just the beaches and the jungle and the markets in the street that everyone wants to visit; it’s also the dogged taxi and its crazy driver in traffic jams on broken roads where street vendors shove their wares through the windows; it’s the hotel without power or water but plenty of bedbugs, some of which bear diseases that can kill you; it’s risky food and water at every meal, every day. African heat does not abate; African street grime does not get washed off; African food does not become more palatable; African sleep does not come easy. Africa is everywhere, always. There is nowhere that is not-Africa, and so no real relief from these trials, beyond taking a de-worming pill every few months.

And let’s face it, it is a trial, for me. I speak only for myself. This so-called trial is nothing compared to what the Africans themselves live through, I know, and I’m disgusted with myself, complaining like this, but it’s the truth, it’s how I feel. Africa sucks.

Or maybe after four months I’m just tired of being a tourist.

Of course, I didn’t say any of that to my three new friends. In conversation with Ghanaians I always emphasize the positive – unless someone really wants to know what I think. I’ve got a couple of Ghanaian friends well enough known to share these thoughts with, and they’ve helped build these impressions with their candor about conditions of life in Africa. But I don’t dump all this on strangers. That would be rude.

The boys said they were pleased to meet me and were glad that I was enjoying Ghana. I thanked them, and said I hoped we’d meet again.

And I do. G.

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