By Tara Dear, Yale-NUS College ’17 – See bio
Since I shaved my head three years ago to raise funds for the Leukaemia Foundation, my mother has deplored the state of my hair, kept cropped short enough that I am regularly mistaken for a boy. But even while it was still almost waist-length, my grandmother agonized over its tangled state, declaring that I didn’t deserve such a thick mane if I didn’t care for it properly. My hair has never been my most cherished feature, and thus whenever people applauded my bravery in reducing it to skin-bare stubble, I felt a bit of a fraud. It doesn’t require any courage to sacrifice something that’s unimportant to you; indeed, I’m experiencing similar twinges of guilt when people admire my gumption for going deep into rural Ghana to “help the poor Africans.”
In the first place, they’re not so poor – or at least, I’ve yet to meet a Ghanaian who would trade their deep-seated love of country, rich cultural heritage, and loving, close-knit community in exchange for a first TV and a flushing toilet. Admittedly, it can be a struggle to put four or five children through school, but as primary education is government-subsidised there’s at least opportunity for nearly every child to be literate. In all the villages I’ve been to, no one’s starving, although food is treated with a little more respect than the endless parade of take-aways and instant, dried, concentrated, or powdered substitutes readily available on Australian supermarket shelves. Meals are painstakingly prepared by the caring hand of a wife or mother over an outdoor wood fire. If this is poverty, perhaps Australia could do with a healthy dose of it; maybe we’d be reminded to rethink our fast food meals eaten on the run or assumptions that it’s a matter of fact to receive – and complain about – higher education. If we could see how much Ghanaians achieve with just a couple of dented metal pots, maybe we’d question whether we really need a new top-of-the-range oven when we’ve already got a perfectly serviceable one, albeit a few years old. Perhaps we confuse poverty with frugality: in Ghana, clothes are worn until they fall to pieces, not out of fashion. It puts that overwhelming teenage concern of “what will I wear today?” in perspective.
But the main reason for my pangs of conscience is that, far from me helping Ghana, the Ghanaians are helping me. Having arrived here five months ago motivated by a sense of righteous idealism, I’ve instead been gently ushered onto a divergent path of initial bewilderment, occasional resistance, and at last, acceptance and contentment to be the student, not the teacher. Of course it can be argued that the money I raised provided thirty orphans with decent nutrition for a month, or that the time and effort I put into teaching nudged my class of eight-year-olds a little closer to awareness of the wide world outside their little town, Swedru. But on the whole, there’s no question that the most profound impact of my time here in Africa has been on me.
Far from dissuading would-be volunteers, however, I hasten to say that I still believe it’s a wonderful thing to do – as long as you understand that most of all, you’re benefiting yourself. You’ll gain a greatly enhanced perspective of the world outside your own bubble through immersion in a different, and at times, frankly confrontational culture. Corporal punishment is still inevitably present in most teaching institutions in Ghana, but how do I, a gently-reared Westerner, react when kids come up to me requesting to be caned for their digressions? As a volunteer living in a third-world country, you find a new sense of appreciation for simple tasks that you used to take for granted – the almost shameful luxury of a washing machine when your host mother laughs at your first attempt to scrub things by hand, when she manages easily with a bucket of water drawn from the well. Rather than coming to Ghana with plans to improve the lives of “those poor Africans” with Western standards and expectations of sanitation, schooling, and social interaction, perhaps we highly hygienic intruders ought to acknowledge that we could do with a few lessons ourselves.
One evening, when I wanted to go for a stroll to admire the dazzling display of the unpolluted Milky Way, I asked my host father if it was safe to be on the road by myself at night. He frowned and said that perhaps I’d better take a torch in case I stumbled into one of the puddles left by the recent rain, or that a cyclist returning home might not see me and there’d be an accident. I felt confident about avoiding these dangers so I tried to clarify my meaning: whether there were any ‘bad’ people in Wulugu who might try to molest an unprotected white girl alone at night. It took Issifu a while to understand my question, but at last he laughed and with a wave of his hand, dismissed the issue. He told me that I could walk along the road brandishing a purse full of money if I chose; as an honoured guest and visitor to their village, nobody would even consider touching me against my will. I doubt any of those ‘civilised’ cities, London or Sydney or New York, could say the same.
I stated before that while there’s a great deal a volunteer could gain from Ghana, there’s precious little one could offer in return; but perhaps that’s not quite true. Maybe if enough of us went to Ghana to experience it as the proud and graceful country it is, rather than focusing on the corruption and desperation we’ve been led to expect of a third-world nation in need, we’d start to consider Ghanaians on their terms rather than ours. From missionaries eager to save the damned souls of the heathens, to colonisers perceiving only a strong back and working pair of arms, and lastly to the well-meaning but misguided aid workers of today (myself among them), perhaps we can at last make the quantum shift to seeing Africans as the warm-hearted and highly capable people they truly are; certainly no less than Westerners, and in some cases, a great deal more.