My posts reverberate from the echoes of strong emotions. They are layers of dampened anger, frustration, curiosity, discovery and maybe even some joy, if you look deep enough. Six weeks back hasn’t changed the reasons which drive me to write, keep that in mind…
Coming back was not easy. Nor was it particularly challenging. My shock didn’t last long, nor did my unease with some physical and cultural aspects of life here. In fact it wasn’t even a week before old habits had resurfaced feeling strong and refreshed from their months at rest.
It’s so easy when I’m abroad to question myself, to wonder at my surroundings, to puzzle out the monotony of daily life which would elude me even if I stayed 4 years. Back home now I plug into my iPod and zone out. I don’t gaze at trees wondering if anyone uses them for medicine. I don’t see a woman walk down the street and wonder if she’s well off or if it’s because she’s going to market that she’s dressed well. I don’t wonder about the mundane, I’m not curious and childlike as I was at times while I was away.
Life is wonderful and interesting and painful and harsh all over the world.
Then why is it so hard for me to tap into that here?
I freaked out over the size of eggplants yesterday. Ok, the eggplants weren’t too bad actually. At first I just stared at them with this stupid grin on my face as though it was some kind of joke. I mean really, who grows eggplants that big? They only became a problem when I turned around and saw the gargantuan ginger staring me in the face. That’s when the anxiety started building up.
I picked myself an ear of corn and made my way to the parking lot as fast as possible to chew on something familiar and distance myself from the freakish produce in the store.
I landed in Toronto on Saturday and in the two full days I hadn’t really had any big “culture-shock”. My emotions have been on the fritz but that has more to do with leaving a group of people to which the term ‘friend’ doesn’t quite capture they’re meaning to me. It has to do with going back to a life which I perceive as uncertain and exhausted, to a year of studies whose value I’m seriously doubting. It has to do with the dread of impending loneliness.
Back to the mutant produce.
I think the reason I reacted the way I did over the vegetables was because those were the first things I saw that I could directly compare to Bimbilla. There’s no CN tower in Bimbilla, there aren’t any eight-lane highways, people aren’t white, the stars aren’t clouded by the flood of electric lights. There are however, eggplants. They call them garden eggs and they’re yellow but they’re eggplants. They have ginger in Bimbilla too, no one ever remembers the English name for it but it’s used in a majority of delicious dishes. So when I walked into that grocery store which bore absolutely no resemblance to anything I encountered in Northern Ghana I wasn’t shocked by the fridges silently dusting the lettuce with mist, or the waxy shine of the floor, or the stacks of peaches so perfect you’d swear they were crafted by hand rather than grown in an orchard.
What clicked was the eggplant and the ginger. It was then that the difference of the life I’ve lived hit me. I really didn’t anticipate having a moment like this. I was ready to come home. But now that I’m back I’m not so sure. It’s not that I’m not longing for Ghana, in fact that thought of returning right now isn’t particularly appealing. I just don’t think I want to be hear either.
I’m sorry this post doesn’t have more depth to it; it’s just another white person’s ramblings about an experience that is common to most people who return to their homeland after some time away. I’ll try and find the meaning in it but I probably won’t write about it. I just wanted to share.
We landed in Toronto this afternoon.
I’ll post more later when I’ve slept and properly articulate my feelings.
Aug 18 2010
Weeks ago I had planned to write my last blog post about things you shouldn’t ask me when I got home. It didn’t take long for the condescending tone of that thought to hit me. Now, with some twelve hours left in Bimbilla that post doesn’t seem so relevant. I guess the point was that people are unsure of what to ask about and so they resort to bland inquiries about weather and toilet facilities which in honesty I don’t have a problem with, but it’s probably not really what they want to know about, I just have a hunch they do want to know more but haven’t figure out what it is they want to know or else how to ask.
So I guess I turned out to be a condescending jerk after all.
What I wanted to talk about was the weirdness of this last day. You know how when someone you care about is leaving for a while you sometimes turn that last week together into living hell because you’re actually really sad and for some messed up reason you unleash that pain on the same person whose looming absence is the source of the pain? That was circular I know.
Anyway today has been absolutely not like that at all. Today has been really good, and romantic, if you can be romantic with a somewhat impoverished town you’ve called home for some three months. I spent time with my brothers, dong laundry, eating too much, chatting, missing out on cultural references and not understanding their humour. I went to work and managed to get things done and avoid talking about my failures. I said some goodbyes. I failed in selling my bike. I finally learned the relationship between depth of field and Fstop. I talked to someone I met back in May and realized how much I could have learned from this person had I spent more time with him. I became a bit disillusioned with my diamond-in-the-rough Dagomba. I got caught in a spectacular sun-storm (sun shower really, but a shower here would be torrential back home). I longed for a potentially lost relationship. I rejoiced in the new-but-ending ones. I started getting rid of my possessions. Etc.
What it comes down to is that I did a bunch of mundane things and the only difference between today and last week is my perspective. I’ve touched on this before but I really think that my personality and worldview are incredibly intertwined (I guess everyone’s is, that’s what personality is no? John?). I’m not saying my personality took a vacation today, I just think that my usual introverted, slightly negative, overly critical but not particularly insightful, self took a back seat for the more appreciative, wondrous, and joyous part of me. The conclusion then is that this beauty and goodness has been around me all along I just failed to step outside myself and change my point of view.
I guess I’ll know next time and by that I mean tomorrow when the market woman cheats me, when director goes on for too long, when the car breaks down on the way to Tamale and when the phone still doesn’t ring. I’ll think back to today and see that in fact it’s all fine; I’m just looking at it from the wrong side.
Suleh’s been very evasive. I keep asking him to meet so that we can talk about how he’ll keep AAB going in the district after I leave. I’ve scaled back my ideas on sustaining the program a lot since I got back from mid placement retreat. It’s irritating me that I’m being played like this. What’s worse is that I’m worried it’s partly my fault.
I gave up on sustainability soon after the retreat. Saying it that way makes it seem like it was a one-time decision. The way it happened was a little more gradual. I kept cutting down and redefining what that sustainability meant for the district until I finally accepted a shrivelled and wretched plan as my best option.
This option involved meeting with Suleh as often as possible in any way possible (I invited him to AAB meetings, invited myself to tag along with his work, scheduled meetings etc.) to get as many conversations about AAB going as possible. The second part of the plan was to be super blunt and ask him what it was he was willing to commit to so that I could work within that framework rather than imposing my plan which in turn would be dropped like a hot chunk of yam into the mortar.
So it’s been with a lump of dread in my stomach that I call his phone or approach him all the while cringing at the impending rejection. Exactly what happened twice today.
“I’m off to a workshop” of course, he’s only ever around for workshops.
“OK, let’s meet afterwards”
This afternoon was the same thing, more bullshit about social obligations and being busy from dawn onwards and a weak promise to call me tomorrow afternoon. I wish he would tell me no straight up so we can drop this pretense.
What if I’m just lazy?
Back home before leaving there was the worry of me being too critical of myself, what if the pendulum’s swung the other way? What if I’m just complacent and accepting “defeat” when in fact I could have pushed more? What if I had been more of a hard-ass and not so worried about having those awkward meetings where I don’t let up on my target?
What if what if what if… the most wasted words in the English language.
“I’m realizing that I am a development worker who’s not completely sold on development. Maybe I’m just disillusioned with where all the newfangledness of Western life has gotten us. Maybe I see here what we lack; simplicity, community, a noncommercialized, revered culture. I can’t dismiss traditions. I can’t accept the shriek of the corn mill replacing the tok tok of the pestle, because pounding is social, communal, reciprocal, and the mill just means waiting in line.”
Sometime after the imam started his wailing and before the sky turned light a cold breeze convinced me to make my way to the latrine. I still can’t figure out when it’s about to rain based on visual cues, but the smell and touch of that breeze was almost a dead give away. That leaves me hear, relieved, reading my book at dawn while the rain strums on my tin roof.
That passage is from Nine Hills to Nambonkaha: Two Years in the Heart of an African Village a memoir of a Peace Corps volunteer’s time in a northern Ivorian village. The whole time I’ve been reading it I haven’t been able to get over the similarities between the life she describes and what I’ve witnessed here. I guess it makes sense, it’s probably only some five hundred kilometres west of here. What’s weird and what I’m a bit ashamed to say is that some of my insights into rural life in Ghana have come from her. I’m able to get over it by arguing that she did live there for two years as compared to my less than three months.
That being said I can’t get on board with her reverence for village life. I can’t imagine myself ever letting go of my mistrust of tradition. I can’t ever accept the benefits of a tight-knit community without seeing how it ties down the most forward thinking individuals, those that are most likely to bring about the positive changes required to boost the quality of life.
I’m aware of the risks of development, of the unravelling of the social fabric that comes along with it. However, I’m much more uncomfortable with the fact that subjects around health are taboo, that you can’t speak openly to your parents, that a man who is in charge simply because he was able to not die before the rest of his generation’s males has any influence over your life.
I feel like I’m being narrow-minded on the one hand. On the other this is what I know and value about my culture. It’s not even that traditions are so far removed from me personally, my own father and I have vastly different views on this subject and still I can’t (won’t?) see the other side of the argument.
He had painted his nails pink, which is what I was trying capture, but this turned out o.k. too.
It’s yam season!!! The new yams are really expensive, and EVERYBODY wants some. If you’re traveling from a yam producing region you bring them as gifts and bitch about the people who put in the request all the way to the market.
Inusah discussing “Market Planning” with his farmer group. This group has learned a lot from Inusah but I’m not sure this particular concept will sink in. Essentially we’re getting them to form a mini cartel but the need to sell individually sometimes seems too strong to a subsistence farmer for them to resist.