18 August, 2013

A Crash Course on Ghana: Just the Beginning of a Long Journey (The First Week: part one)

It has been just over a week in Ghana. In some ways I can still barely believe it, I am in Ghana. With every day of this immersion I am loving and learning to love the culture, the food, the languages, and the people more and more. Not only that, but I feel like I am, in a sense, coming to life, slowly but surely. The past week is probably best described as a crash course on Ghana. I've feel like I already know so much and have learned so much about the language and culture already. However, my belief that I have already learned and know so much, is a more sure sign than any other that I have still a lot to learn. 

As a side note, I am also realizing that weekly blog posts may not be enough to capture everything that I want to say. There are just so many, too many ideas bouncing around in my head at the moment, while I am attempting to formulate some sort of plan for this post. I will begin after this post to try doing two posts a week.

I'd list all the things I've done, day and night, but that would just take forever. Besides, I have already personally logged most of that. Instead, I wish to just encapsulate what has stood out to me the most so far with some highlights of my experiences and thoughts.

I’ll lead with some of the challenges I've faced so far. 

I had always considered myself a strong proponent of saving and conserving water, but looking back at my practices in the US, this just wasn't true. I don’t think I truly realized how important and essential water was to life as a whole until being forced to face a few simple challenges with water access. In the dorm we don't always have direct running water in our rooms. We found this out in a rather abrupt way, when, after our day or so of flights and travel, only two of us were able to shower before the water was out. The next day almost all of us bought buckets to fetch water in from the outside polytank spigot. I have just as many bucket showers as I have regular ones and I have found bucket showers not only to be more conservative in the usage of water, but also more relaxing, especially since our water is not heated. 

The other challenge that I’ve faced is a sort of compound challenge, with both circumstantial and personal causes. I accidentally plugged in the power strip that I brought from the US without switching my universal adapter/converter to converter mode. However, instead of just shorting out the power strip, it shut off my room’s electricity. Two days later I had it fixed and then without thinking I switched the adapter to converter mode but didn’t consider the condition of the power strip before plugging it in again, thus once again I lost power in my room. It has since then been fixed. This has given me a glimpse into some of the electrical/power issues that many of the locals face, and merely a glimpse, seeing as these issues are not caused by mistakes like mine were and are more infrastructural in nature. Either way it has given me an appreciation of the electrical/power infrastructure that we have in the US where in most cases, if there is an outage or issue, it gets fixed fairly easily within a day or so without risk of it happening again any time soon.

These challenges have not just been inconveniences, though, they have been great learning experiences that are beginning to shift my true personal understanding to better match the facts of the situation that I already know. 

The next topic I want to touch is Ghanaian culture. I have not experienced much culture shock at all, especially with surface level matters. Having spent time in China on quite a few occasions, in big cities, smaller cities, and as well as some rural areas, I was not taken aback by the smells of the streets, the dust/dirt everywhere outside, the nice but seemingly perpetually in disrepair road and sidewalk infrastructure, nor by the hassling and bargaining in markets. 

However one major difference from my experiences in China, is that, here, I cannot masquerade as nor be mistaken for a local. This has created a very different dynamic for me. Despite the fact that I am accustomed to being a minority, in living life in the US, it is still not the same as being an unmistakable foreigner. The extra attention that foreigners get is what has stuck out to me the most, both the bad and the good. There are times I wish the dorm staff wouldn’t try harder to cater to foreign students than the Ghanaian students or that people wouldn't just stare when we walk by, when in either large or small groups. But then there are wonderful moments at the Old Night Market on campus, when a nice and outgoing stall owner, or just on the streets on campus, when a stranger or two, may strike up conversation in order to just get to know us or to teach us some helpful tidbits of Twi, the dominant traditional language of Ghana. We’ve been outside of Accra a couple times now, and when on walks with friends or on our way to something with my camera in hand, there were children and adults alike who happily and sometimes excitedly invited me to take pictures of them. This very openly communal culture is only a step away from some communal culture in the States, but definitely a stark contrast in difference from the average/norm social culture in the US. While I find it odd and surprising at times, it is very comfortable, and feels much more real and genuine.

Now that I’ve stumbled onto the topic of cultural genuineness, I want to share a particular experience that threw me for a personal loop of sorts, and on the first day we were here too. We were invited to take a tour of a small artifact exhibit in the Institute of African Studies at University of Ghana Legon, where most of our classes will be held. The exhibit was focusing on the Akan craft of bronze casting. At first it seemed like any other exhibit, with some interesting facts and details of processes that have been used in the past and changed over time. Then we reached the cases of bronze cast proverbial symbols and tokens.

Two proverbial symbols stood out to me: Obi Nka Obi and Funtun Funefu Denkyem Funefu.
Obi Nka Obi was represented here as two fish with their heads at the other’s tail and is loosely translated to, “no one should bite another’s tail”, capturing the reciprocal nature of social interaction. This proverb captures the same essence that other proverbs from many cultures, including the popularly known pseudo-Christian Golden Rule, do unto others as you would like them to do unto you, an extrapolation or contextualization of Leviticus 19:18 or Mark 12:31: “...love your neighbor as yourself...” The curator explained that even though the Akan people did not use a complicated or sophisticated written language, things like these small bronze cast totems/weights were used throughout the culture as ways to remember the proverbs, as a way to pass them down from generation to generation. Never before, had I felt the power of an oral tradition as then. 

The curator also explained the meaning of Funtun Funefu Denkyem Funefu, “Siamese crocodiles”(it is a longer proverb, but shortened to that for reference). The symbol is of a siamese crocodile or other animal that shares just the one stomach, the proverb describes the relationship that the two have. It basically says, the siamese crocodile shares one stomach but fights over the food for the sensation of taste in it’s mouth that it craves. It is a symbol that represents democracy and unity through a reminder of the associated innate struggles and difficulties; for West Africans it is a reminder of the danger and harmfulness of infighting and radical tribalism. This image, in one phrase and graphical representation encapsulates the struggle of communities everywhere, that everyone within the community is all benefiting together but the individuals within fight among themselves in order to personally experience the benefit more directly. This is very much like the Western world’s social contract theory, famously written on by Jean-Jacques Rousseau in his The Social Contract, in which he describes individuals as free to make choices but at the same time tied down to a social contract with peers as well as authority and thus mutually reliant and dependent upon each other in the agreement of certain sacrificed rights and freedoms.

I am finding this personally tangible encounter with oral tradition just utterly amazing, I had always found oral tradition fascinating, but never had I truly realized it’s worth or the mysterious influence it seems to hold. This encounter and the curator’s commentary got me thinking more about the contrast between Western written tradition and African oral tradition. It almost seems the focus of Western culture has been more on the academic side and understanding it as social-political theory rather than a proverbial warning and ancestral artifact. It’s interesting to compare the possible results of the two on the current state of these world regions. The Western world seems to be cold and focused on lives that are not the privy of any others, while the African world, still very much has a strongly communal culture, wherein the community is at equal value with each individual within. I am not saying there is no place for theory or academic pursuits of understanding social structure and systems, but I am beginning to believe that the Western world missed out a bit by falling full on into the Enlightenment mindset that convinced Western society that theory could fully replace “primeval” understandings, legends, proverbs, and understandings. I’m not sure if, whether or not, I’m onto something substantial here, however, I do know that I greatly value the conversations and thoughts that have come out of this experience and my new-found, truer appreciation for cultural proverbs, especially West African ones.

Well!...This is getting a bit long, so I will save a bit for the next post. I will, however, let you know that it has something to do with meeting two chiefs, playing drums with some local boys in Adenkrebi, as well as a couple perspective opening lectures at the Akrofi-Christaller Institute of Theology, Mission and Culture in Akropong, and a tiring but amazing hiking and waterfall day trip. One other thing I can say about this semester and experience so far... I believe my spirituality, which had begun to and continued to subdue as I became more “reformed” and my faith shifted more into an intellectual theological focus, may be slowly being revived and perhaps soon to be exhumed from the depths of my being, buried beneath nearly six feet of rationality and cynicism.

A little sneak peak of the waterfall!
It is late in Ghana at the moment, I fell asleep while finishing off this post and woke up in the middle of the night, so I will be off to bed soon, as many of you in the US will be as well or already have. I will be throwing in little bits of Twi as this blog develops, so... goodnight and da yie(goodnight or sleep well)!

P.S. Tomorrow we start classes and not that the other classes are any less important or interesting, but I am just absolutely thrilled to start our Twi class! 

1 comment:

  1. Aniki, you're amazing =]. I love your blogging and how you look at things. I always look forwards to reading things from an 'aniki lens'. I swear aniki, if you ever need a second job or something, you should become a columnist. I'm glad you made it to Ghana safely and are settling in nicely. I really hope you have an awesome and memorable experience this semester too; though I miss you terribly [probably because I haven't seen you in a REALLY long time]. Stay safe, be careful, and I definitely look forwards to seeing you once you come back to Florida <3.