Saturday, 15 September 2018

Blog post August: Taking stock and some reflections

Blog post August: Taking stock and some reflections

Now that I have completed my second month, I feel like I have a way better grasp of everything; my work, an established routine, what to eat and cook, getting around and also my social relationships.  At work, I feel like the women have really opened up to me and see me less as a foreigner (though I’ll always remain the solemiye/the white woman to them haha) and more as a part of the team. They are indeed very protective over me and are always giving me advice. I credit the sheer amount of time I spend with them 6 days a week to this new found familiarity and one result of this is having gained insights into the cooperatives' “office politics”; now as an integrated part of the team, I witness the quarreling, the grudges and see the womens' unique character traits shine through. On the other side of the spectrum, managing customer relations with foreign clients can also get heated. In one occasion I had to act as the “bridge” between the two, which was really quite uncomfortable.

I am happy to have finally established a regular routine in my daily life, including my yoga practice, laundry, market shopping and cooking, etc. - all things that help make me feel at home in Kongo. Getting around the village, but also around Bolgatanga, the nearest big town in the region, has also made life a lot easier.  In terms of my social life, I think I am at a point where I can say I have more meaningful relationships to the people around me and slowly establishing my own inner circle of friends. So, after a hectic first month full of new information and impressions, the second month has come to a friendly close, where I am feeling a lot more relaxed and on top of things. 

Throughout these last eight weeks I have had a lot of time to reflect on certain issues in Ghana, which I would like to share below.

Given the popularity of chocolate in the world, I find it sad that Ghana has not been able to cash in on the cocoa industry more. Among the locals chocolate is not very popular and to date there is only one chocolate factory in the country. Ghana is the number two cocoa-producer and exporter in the world, and despite the world’s addiction to chocolate, Ghana is not much richer for it. Sadly, Ghana makes very little profit of this brown gold as it only exports the raw material, whereas the actual manufacturing happens in a Swiss or Belgian factory and is then sold as expensive chocolate across the globe, even back to Africa. Although I am well aware of the consequences of trade-distortions and the lasting effects of colonial exploitation, when you see these inequalities up close, the magnitude of the problem just hits home. Our trade distortions are perpetuating the poverty cycle that LDC’s are struggling to break out of.

Another tragedy is the e-waste recycling business in Ghana. Many young Ghanaians make a living rummaging through the big rubbish dump in Agbogbloshie, Accra looking for parts like copper and steel that can be re-used, and by so doing inhale the toxic fumes of burning e-waste that slowly ruin their internal organs and lead to death. The kids know it, everybody does, but for those working there, exposing oneself to the risks sadly outweigh the costs of not doing it.

This month a young member of the community here in Kongo village passed away and the person happened to be a close friend of the friends that I have made here. Because he was young, the community didn’t celebrate life as they do when elderly members of the community die, but were instead visibly distraught. His passing sparked a lot of discussion over people dying young from preventable diseases. Often, they say what happens is that patients get misdiagnosed and treated for the wrong illness before they realize the real cause and by then it is too late.  All too often sick people get treated for ulcers, because this sickness that eats away at the organs due to lack of food, is very common but its treatment is insufficient to treat diseases like hepatitis b and others.

Faced with these harsh realities, I have come to understand the support that religion offers many people here. This village has a large catholic community, and because I reside in the Catholic mission, I attend mass weekly. Its there that I see how serious they are about their faith; how the whole family gets dressed up in their finest, sing, pray and listen to the priests from Kerala preaching on the importance of raising morally-driven children, of getting married under the eyes of God and not to sin out of wedlock. This month we had a week-long celebration for Marian devotion. The entire catholic community from the district descended onto Kongo to attend mass at the grotto. I actually really enjoyed this festival, less for the religious meaning, but more for the festival vibes. A large food market was set up, which was open 24/7, where kids and adults ate, cooked, conversed and slept for an entire week. It was fun to watch everyone rock out in church, like at any other high school dance. In the absence of a village discotheque, this festival is the closest thing to going to a dance party that youngsters can get and they make good use of it 😉

There is little other means of entertainment in the village, except for a handful of bars that are open at night and where mostly men come for a drink. The men love to drink and they love their motorcycles-and the two in their eyes are inseparable. So, although everyone knows not to drink and drive, everybody does it anyway. Usually when I approach them about it, they just say that the police see them drink and drive, but don’t say anything. Laws are unfortunately not enforced here and road accidents are frequent, sometimes also fatal. Most acknowledge that road safety is a problem throughout Africa, but when I ask them why nobody does anything about it, they just shrug. Police officers in Ghana are known as “paper tigers”. Why? Because on paper they are fearful, but in reality, they are soft.
I have always enjoyed a good proverb and want to collect as many as I can keep during my stay. Proverbs are an integral part of Ghanaian and African culture. They convey wisdom, truth and life lessons and are very often used to educate children. I have yet to collect a lot of interesting ones, but one that I heard was “The shea butter laughs at the salt when it rains forgetting that the sun will soon shine”. I think it is a pretty clever one.

One thing that is a constant throughout all of Ghana is children’s upbringing. Children must respect their elders, which isn’t limited to their parents, but cuts across all people senior to them. You will seldomly see any child not obeying an adult. The other day a three-year old got admonished for giving me her left hand to greet me.  Like in many other cultures, Ghanaians consider the left hand “dirty” and are not allowed to use it to eat, when greeting with a handshake or handing something over to someone else, like making a payment. Paying at the market, while juggling your new bought produce in one hand, can be a tricky affair...!

Finally I want to talk about a popular mode of transport here in the Upper East, the Can-do’s/Kandu: the Indian three-wheeler, also known as auto-rikshaw, bajaj or tuktuk in other places, was introduced to Ghana recently under the last President, John Mahama. This president was so popular among Ghanaians, that this vehicle that got introduced under his tenure became synonymous for his election slogan “Mahama can do!”. The last two syllables “can do” stuck and that has become its colloquial name in the Upper East region. Interestingly enough, can-do’s are widely used in larger towns of the northern areas, but are unseen in the country’s southern capital, Accra. Similarly, another stark north-south contrast is that in the North you can see a lot of women driving a motorbike themselves, whereas in the South it is hardly seen. A plausible explanation for this is probably the necessity of driving in the north and the traffic and pollution in cities like Accra, where closed vehicles are preferred (probably also for its status symbol).

Enjoy the last days of summer!!