Tuesday, May 31, 2011

A Minor Correction by a Feminist in Ghana

Recently, browsing volunteer blogs, I came across a friend discussing feminism in Ghana. More specifically, she addressed the misplacement of Western feminism in the developing world. Her focus fell on a well-worn phrase those of us in Ghana use: “Women work, while the men follow the shade of a nearby tree.” Having shared some scattered discussion and a common interest in women’s studies, I was eager to hear her well-read opinion.

As she touched on the problem of over-generalization, the application of condescending and biased Western definitions, I began to feel a tinge of uncertainty. Having recently written a blog discussing my experiences as an (American) feminist in Ghana, I felt slightly insecure. Had I fallen into the category of an over-generalizing, biased, and patronizing observer? I was thus inspired to take a step back and make an honest assessment of my self-titled ‘feminist’ observations in Ghana and that is the topic of today’s discussion.

My first concession comes in the form of admittance: I, too, have fallen into the trap of arrogantly over-generalizing. It’s hard to forget that blanket definitions are unfair. To claim that all Ghanaian men lazily follow the shade of a tree isn’t any truer than saying all Americans are rich. If I can react with offense to this assumption, then I should be more careful with my own. No doubt, some of my observations will stand – sometimes being a woman in the developing world, not just Ghana, can be heartbreaking, but I’m willing to bet I have a few things to correct. I may be controversial, but I’m not a complete tosser 

Though it may have a role, to assume patrilineal inclination stems solely from religion is an obvious mistake to make. As an anthropologist, Kristi pointed out that most gender roles (including the distribution of work) are based on traditional roles and expectations. They’re neither born out of sexism nor easily changed; this is especially true in towns and villages, like mine, that rely on a pastoral lifestyle. My observation of shade-following men may be accurate sometimes, but I should give credit where it’s due – women have a vastly different role from the men and one that’s easier for me to observe. It would be an oversight to imply that all Ghanaian men are lazy, even if I have doubts about a certain few. This brings us to correction number one: As a rule, Ghanaians are hard-working; they’re simply a different kind of ‘hard working’ than I’m used to. This means my expectations should change, as should my definition of feminism.

Now, I won’t go so far as to say that traditional definitions don’t clash with feminist ones and create sexism in their wake. I have experienced this phenomenon, myself, and it stems from the attempt to stick a square peg into a circular hole. It’s a clash of the cultural titans, one that finds root in the refusal to incorporate the new with the old (and vice versa). Feminism in its own right can be applied anywhere successfully, as long as we understand that its application must be unique to that culture. As much as I’d like to see Ghana turn into a Little America, I have to understand that it may not be possible (which, in turn, may not be a bad thing as long as it finds the right kind of feminism for Ghana).

This is where I often see a lot of tension; indeed, I mentioned it in terms of reconciling tradition and modernization. What I see is the attempt to drop a cookie-cutter onto Ghana, which never works (and, quite frankly, shouldn’t be the goal). This is also where you get phrases like ‘following the shade,’ which really do nothing more than undermine a majority of Ghanaians and any progress they make. Of course, nothing’s perfect. It isn’t ethnocentric or demeaning to point out inequalities as long as it’s done respectfully.

For instance:

1.) It’s more likely a male child will be picked to go to school if a family can only afford to fund one education, but children of both genders are often taken out of class to help with farming during rainy season. What we see here isn’t just a problem with gender, but how people view education as a whole.

2.) It’s true that in Kayayo, more young girls and women find themselves in dangerous/compromising situations, but it’s also true that all Kayayo run up against risks (including diseases, poverty, theft, and natural disasters). So we see that it isn’t just an issue of gender, but an issue regarding the opportunities available to those living in the poorer regions of Ghana.

3.) There are a lot of school girls who find themselves pregnant at a young age, sometimes it’s even expected. Though I find inquiries into my own non-existent children (and the reason for their non-existence) to be amusing, it’s still not an issue centered in gender and feminism. There’s also the issue of education and parenting. It comes down to a life very different from one I'm used to, with very different expectations.

All of these things end up being multi-faceted. Like people, they can’t be simplified and, though I didn’t necessarily mean to, I’m guilty of over-generalization and simplification of the issues. This doesn’t mean that gender problems don’t exist in Ghana – I absolutely had a conversation with a man who was, quite literally, angry at me for engaging in manual labor; I do see men drinking before seven in the morning (with what is, undoubtedly, the same money their wives need to buy food); I have been accosted more than once (and harassed more than that) by men who think I should be subservient. I’m not disagreeing with my previous statement regarding feminism’s place in Ghana, but I realize that I may have hasty in my critique. I forgot, for a second, that the world is made up of individuals and, though it’s easy to fall into generalizations, someone in my position should be more careful.

Aside from hoping this makes sense to more people than me, I wanted to thank Kristi. She brought some faults to my attention and, in the true sense of the word, managed to remain unbiased and fair in her assessment. As for me, I'll follow her lead.

Like I said before, I'll rattle the cage patiently.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

AllVol: Incriminating Photos Will be Taken ...

So, I'm sitting in a bank, watching time pass and it only makes sense that I forgot my book. Lucky, I brought my handy-dandy pocket journal (and was smart enough to bring a pencil or this might be worse). So, ladies and gents, as well as clocking the time (and enjoying the air condition), I'm going to tell you about All Voll in the only way I can: the handy-dandy pocket journal pre-blog (it's kind of like pre-gaming, but with a lot less alcohol ...)

Getting to (and from) AllVol was probably the worst part. It always is. It involved 12+ hours to Accra (kind of like the cousin you don't want to acknowledge, but have to in order to win Gran's approval - AllVol is Gran in this situation). On the updis, beside being uber-expensive, I did have some amazing ginger Talapia and some cheap draft beer (thanks to Becky Pfleuger's cravings). Unlike most Saturday nights spent in Accra, it was an early retirement for us ... we would be leaving for Volta early the next morning.

I was impressed, not only with the fact that I can now *deftly* navigate Accra, but the swiftness with which our tro filled on a Sunday. It's a strange phenomenon I've stumbled across: there are never any Ghanaians in sight, but the moment a mass purchase of tickets by travelling o'bronis occurs, it is almost always followed by the sudden appearance of enough Ghanaians to fill all remaining seats. And it is glorious. Every time. So off to Hoe we went ...

The ride through Tema is beautiful (and quite jarring, considering it looks like a suburb of Beverly Hills). Though my ipod was dead, I'm happy to admit that I've grown quite accustomed to staring out of tro windows for unbelievable amounts of time (and with the efficiency of a mule pulling its cart without needing to be whipped for motivation ... the verdict is out on whether or not this is a good thing ...) Aside from having a driver who's childhood dream must have been Nascar, stunt-double, or any other profession where wreckless driving is acceptable (bank robbing?), we got there in one piece. DPT Rob Moler's greeting: "Wow! You all look so healthy!" was met with a quick inventory of existing limbs and a nod of agreement ... if our driver had only had his way ...

Chances Hotel: swimming pool - need I say more? I was poolside before my pack hit the floor. What ensued was the kind of catching up only pool-giddy volunteers drinking palm wine in Ghanaian sun can pull off. Beers were discounted. And we celebrated. I had a girl's night, of course - three to a bed and a channel dedicated to only American movies. It was bliss (and we didn't even need the air conditioner).

Monday began with news of Bin Laden's death, as we crowded around the TV in silence (a few muffled 'Murica's' made their debuts) and shuffled into meet the biggest breakfast most of us have seen in months (three: count them. THREE cups of tea for your's truly). The thing you should know about AllVol (besides the food, and the pool, and the air-conditioning, and prom, and the talent show ...) is that it is, first and foremost, work. They just butter us up first :)

This year was PEPFAR - next year is food security. Though also an opportunity to meet second year volunteers (and reunite with first years), it's a chance to re-energize and motivate to keep going strong. It's exactly the kind of break needed to do both - you'd be hard-pressed to find a volunteer who isn't ready (and excited) to go home after AllVol. (Wow - I just call my site 'home' - teehee!)

Now, I don't want to brag, but WatSan pretty much kicks ass at PEPFAR and HIV-related activities. This being said, it was nice to learn a few things - get new ideas and access new tools. Peace Corps is punctuated, always, by the ability to learn something new. Like a session on MSMs (Men Sleeping with Men) and how to support (or identify) them in rural as well as urban settings. Or getting to experience 'Theatre for Change' and how interactive theatre can be used to teach Ghanaians in a creative, fun way (they do love their drama ...)It was really a great time, regardless of being unused to the 8-5 grind and power-point presentations. But that's not the best part.

You know what the best part of AllVol is? The good ju-ju between old and new volunteers. We had some seriously positive energy; we were 'gellin';' there was a lot of love being thrown around. There was also excitement as we, the newer volunteers, realized we would soon be the 'big fish,' so to speak - the next group comes in June for training.

I couldn't believe it'd almost been a year since I set foot in Ghana, that we would soon be the same fountain of information that the second years were to us (and that the second years would soon be homeward bound - sad face). I suddenly found myself really excited to be welcoming a new group of fresh faces ... and then there was the talent show (and the craft fair) ... (and prom) ...

I was a little disappointed in the lack of a 'bromance' duet from CD Mike and DPT Rob, but we did get bonafide American candy lobbed at our faces so ... it's pretty much a give and take. I decided to make a cheeky re-write of 'I will Survive,' PC Ghana style. It was pretty much a lesson in what happens when rehearsal is limited ... I credit the fun I had fumbling through it to my supportive and forgiving audience (and a purple diva boa). The show as a whole was hilarious and ended with a second year flash dance - an idea I'm pretty sure I'm going to steal next year ... The craft fair left me broke, but happy in a way that only shopping can - I am currently wearing at least two pieces bought that day. And prom was ... well prom. There are plenty of incriminating photos that I will treasure forever and it involved enough dancing that the only way to cool off was to jump into the pool fully-clothed. On at least three seperate occassions. Eventually we ditched the dance floor all together for a dance party in the pool because, in the Peace Corps, we are efficient.

I went to bed sober, but way too late for an 8am departure time to catch a tro to Kamasi. Away from air-conditioning and suffering from severe lack of sleep (let's face it, conference or not, *this guy* likes to socialize), my heat rash made an angry come-back and my mule-like efficiency disappeared with the presence of a toddler who fake-cried for FIVE hours straight on the way to the KSO ... I think Connor honestly considered tossing him out the open window at least a dozen times. None of us would have blamed him :)

I wish we could have stayed at the KSO longer - we were all still feelin' the love, but my AllVol reboot left me anxious to get home (plus I really missed my kitties). Being that any kind of travel in Ghana leaves one exhausted, I passed out in Tamale and barely found the motivation to haul my ass to Bolga the next morning. Home at last, I've had a kitten attached to my lap at all times (and both have taken to following me to the latrine, lest I disappear again). My support group meeting yeilded 50 shining faces and some real bonding time.

I am currently committing myself to no long trips until my mum comes to visit (hi mum!) and I'm happy to be back in the groove. There's nothing like going away for a while to make you realize where you really want to be. And where your kittens really want you to be too. And that, my friends, is what All Vol is all about.

I should also add here that our Youth, Gender, and Development group raised over seventeen hundred cedis with their date auction - when PCV's love, they really LOVE ... by the way, Rob: I'm winning that date next time!

Until next time