Monday, July 23, 2007

not just the good.

For the past few months I've been telling everyone wonderful stories about my time here. I've been giving the image that everything is wonderful here in Ghana, but in reality, I've been leaving a lot out. I think it's time to share some of the challenges that Ghana faces and some of the heavier thoughts that I've been having.

I'm only sharing two stories with you today, and hopefully two more next weekend. I hope that you think about them.

Please, take me with you?
I get many, many proposals in a day. Usually they come from the people that I have breakfast with, people that I see almost every day that I've become friends with, and are said in a joking manner, but realistically they are also secretly hoping that I will say yes.

Why do I get these marriage proposals? The people see the colour of my skin and believe that I can give them a better life. That they won't have to work any more. That they won't suffer. That I can give them fancy cars and a big house and take them to Canada with me so they won't have to suffer. Clearly they don't think of the -40C winters, but it's more than that. They would happily leave their country and families for a "better" life.

It doesn't stop at marriage proposals. I've had women try to give me their babies. They are willing to give away their children because they hope that they will get a better education and be healthier. For this one, I really don't blame them. In Ghana, there's a one in eleven chance you won't reach your fifth birthday.

I try to explain to them that not everything is great in Canada, that we have our troubles too, but how can I tell someone, right to her face that her child won't get better health care in Canada? That out of 1000 births in Canada, only six will die before their fifth birthday instead of 112 as it is in Ghana.

But what else are they to believe? NGOs come to Ghana with handouts, boreholes and schools, and then leave again just as quickly as they came. They take pictures at all the cute children to show back home, sometimes leaving behind a football or some toffees, but not taking the time to listen to everyone's stories.

When I travel through Tamale, at every intersection in the road there are signs pointing the way to an NGO office. There's one charity in particular whose slogan sends shivers up my spine: "Giving hope to a world in need." How would you feel as a Ghanaian if you saw that sign every day? How would deal if the message that every NGO sends to you is, "You can't do it on your own. You need us."

On my recent trip to Laribanga, I saw what tourism could do to a developing country at its worst. The town has two famous attractions: the mosque and a "magical" stone. Because of the close proximity to Mole National Park, it gets quite a few white people coming through to see these two "attractions." While I praise the community's action to use these pieces of history to generate some income for the community, I cannot praise the attitude that comes with it.

Upon arriving in the town you are required to register at the "tourism office," a small room that doesn't even have a desk or a chair. When I arrived there with my two companions, it was empty, so we continued walking into town hoping to see the magical stone. On our way someone stopped us and said, "are you going to see the mosque?" We said no, and continued on our way. A VERY short time later a man on bicycle stopped us and told us that the stone was too far away to walk to, so we should pay him to take us on his bike (riding double in turns) and then pay him to tell us the history of the stone. We had heard about the people from Laribanga being aggressive in asking for money, but we didn't think it was going to be that bad. But, we had a short time frame and we decided that if the stone was too far to walk, then we should at least still try to see the mosque.

Instead of travelling straight there we meandered through the mud huts, talking to people as went. Small children were swarming around us, grabbing at our bags and tugging at our hands while looking up at us and asking, "thousand? thousand?" We were shocked... two year olds were begging for money! The older ones were pushing the little ones closer while also asking for "toffee", or the small hard candies that white people so often give. I knew better than to give candies to anyone other than the children that I knew well -- I had seen a woman be swarmed a year an a half ago in the Dominican Republic, shocked at how fast the children ripped the bag out of her hands and at the fight that erupted between the kids when they realized she didn't have enough for everyone.

But we wound our way towards the mosque anyway, and stopped very close to it. Two of us started talking to some people (they were actually pretty funny and interesting) and the other turned the corner, realized we were at the mosque, snapped a picture, then came back to join us.

Suddenly we were surrounded. About 10 men came racing towards us making a racquet and creating a commotion, giving us even more unwanted attention. One grabbed me and started pulling me away from the mosque but I threw his arm down. There was one in particular that was yelling at us, telling us that we were liars. That we didn't follow the proper procedure. That we were trying to cheat them from their money and that we were breaking the laws of Ghana. That we were stealing from the community. That we need to each pay them 20 000 to see the mosque... and we weren't even allowed inside due to the rules of Islam (women under the age of 50 are not allowed inside). Even when we tried to interject -- that no one was at the tourism office, that we didn't know the procedure (even though we had been told by some of the other Junior Fellows that had visited earlier), that we didn't lie to them (we really were going to see the stone first), they didn't listen. The leader didn't even want to hear our side, he just wanted to yell.

Is that any way to treat a visitor? I can imagine people in the past getting flustered and afraid and then just giving them the money to make them stop yelling. I can understand people not wanting to be the centre of attention as a large part of the community gather around them and wanting to get out... but we had been here for more than two months already. We weren't going to take it.

We tried to leave but they wouldn't let us. We told them that we didn't even want to see the mosque anymore. Someone demanded one our cameras so they could prove that we did, in fact, break the rules (which we never did deny), and when we said that they couldn't just demand someone's personal property, the accusations of "liar!" just intensified. Finally we said, "Is this any way to treat a guest? We're going to go back and tell all our other white friends not to visit Laribanga because the people are cruel and only want to take advantage of white people!" It was the only thing that shut them up. We were then escorted around the mosque -- for free -- and were told to take all the pictures we wanted.

It was one of the toughest moments I had since I arrived, and brought all kinds of questions to my mind. Is this what tourism can do to a town? That they look at white people and just see dollar signs? Yet, at the same time, the image that they have of white people can't be completely wrong... people who gave the kids "toffees" like I saw in the Dominican Republic, people who gave the 20 000 to see the mosque, and then donated three times that amount for general upkeep (another group of friends demanded to see a recent repair they made on the mosque, but the guides came up empty), these are realities of white people going to developing countries as tourists. There are many people that go to a cultural centre and pay full price for a painting that is WAY overpriced instead of bartering. Then, the people who sell these things start to expect it from you.

There are two brothers that live in Laribanga, that are honest and good guides that we met later that agreed with us. They said they couldn't believe how some of their neighbours treat us, and that we did nothing to deserve that kind of treatment. In their words the only thing that white people do wrong is "give money that is unwarrented."

I can't imagine being the farmer in Laribanga, working all day under the scorching sun trying to make enough food so his family can eat during the dry season, and seeing the white people throw money around. What does that say about the work that you do? How can you find pride in your work when you keep seeing how much better everyone else is living?

How have places like Cuba, Jamaica, Mexico, Thailand, and South Africa been changed by tourists? How can I travel so that I don't do so much harm to the people?

I can't give you a really accurate picture with just a few words, but I hope that I can open your eyes to a few of the things that I don't want or like to show about the country that I've grown to love so much. Yet, I'm allowing this blog to be a small window from Canada to my life here in Ghana, and what kind of window only shows the good? And what kind of person would that make me?


Doug said...

Hi Laura,

I read your "not just the good" blog with interest. Since I am 64 years old and male, I don't get a lot of marriage proposals, but still get asked, "Please take me with you." When I have traveled in Ghana with younger women, they recieve many, many requests also. This has been going on forever... not that that makes it any easier when you get asked.

Larabanga! Wow! Am I disappointed! It has always been a favorite destination for me. We were in Damongo in February, 2007, but didn't get any further north so I missed seeing my friend Sadik in Larabanga. Sadik is the JSS Arabic instructor in town and may have been the nice guy who had a brother and apologized for the behavior of the rest. I am sorry that happened to you and if it's OK with you, I will share your story with Sadik.

Check out our website (E-quip Africa) and I hope we don't fit your description of NGO's who set themselves up as Ghana's Saviors.

I was in Tamale in February also and you are right about the NGO signs on every corner. However, you must trust the Ghanaians to discern who is there to be of honest and worthwhile help and who is there to satisfy their own selfish needs. Ghanaians are very intelligent and discerning. If what an NGO says is not backed up by what they do, then they will be quickly forgotten.

I enjoyed your blog and will look for more. My blog here @ blogspot is only a collection of quickly written emails or worse. Some of my photos are nice though!


Sias Jordaan said...

Hullos Laura!

Midnight here in Sias's room, and I feel so far removed from the rest of the world. Have we invaded Ghana with our culture? Do you find that the 'cult of reason' (i.e. I do not think our way of thinkng comes naturally, rationalism having assumed a dictatorship in the last few hundred years of 'western' thought - just wondered if people that you work with have a hard time identifying...) and capitalism comes naturally to Ghanaians?
I found your comments on tourism very interesting...I wonder when this concept originated in Ghana - it seems like an industry that does not come naturally, but one that to me has allways seemed a logical option for 'africa'...yet again not something that should be left to the small businessman perhaps...

I very much enjoyed your blog and apologize for not being more supportive for the summer thus far :(



Tricia said...


I'm really grateful to be reading a different perspective about your time in Ghana. I mean, everything can't be wonderful and peachy since life is always a series of ups and downs; this just shows that you're human.

Tourism is such a tricky issue and with the massivity of cultural differences, it is very easy to do something "wrong" while you're abroad.

As frusterated as you were, I definitely think you did the "right" thing and you are continuing to do so by asking questions and keeping yourself vulnerable...

If nothing, I hope these experiences make you stronger and more eager to learn about why you were treated the way you were at the Mosque.

All the best, and see you soon,


Adam F-K said...

Hey Laura,

You honestly shocked me quite a bit with your blog entry not just the good...

I really appreciate your strength and dedication in sharing this with us. It is very important.

About the marriage proposals: do you remember that video (see link at bottom for those that haven't seen it yet) of Christian we watched in the lounge before the conference call with him? I remember feeling uncertain about how he was joking about taking his lady coworker back with him to Canada. I felt a bit better when he added that he would take her and Sheref and 4 or 5 more people in his backpack to Canada. How do you deal with peoples requests? Do you joke back with them?

You also opened up a prejudice in my mind too with:
"Giving hope to a world in need." How would you feel as a Ghanaian if you saw that sign every day? How would deal if the message that every NGO sends to you is, "You can't do it on your own. You need us."

Up to this point, I would say that I believe that they do need us in one fashion or another... but I never thought about the message this sends to Ghanaians. Thanks for challenging me!

More on this thought: I've often thought that what Africa really needs is for Western nations to put our actions where our mouth is: double standards with trade (we can protect our industries, but you can't), agriculture dumping, and other policies we push on them. If you have time, I'd love to hear some of your thoughts on this. Have you seen the impact or indications of our crappy policies?

Take care buddy and keep doing it for Dorothy! I can't wait to give you a big hug when you get back!


An excellent and FUNNY video from one of our overseas volunteers in Ghana! [20 min]

kristin said...

Hey Laura,

Keep strong girl! These are the experiences that will change you, keep you growing. And by you sharing them, open our eyes too. Thanks.

It especially breaks my heart reading about the children and their mothers wanting more for them. Of course, it makes me think of my own and even living in Canada, how I hope and pray that they will have a good, long, happy, healthy life.

Anonymous said...

Hi Laura,

I know that your a foreigner living in what is most likely completely different from yours but I have to disagree with some of what you have said.
First of all many of you foreigners come to Ghana and other countries in "Africa" feeling like you are about to do some good and change the world in some meaningful way. Well, the truth of the matter that's not gonna happen.
Ghana is a developing country, one of the most developed in Ghana. Like most countries in its youth it has its downsides. I'm sure if you had visited Canada when it first started out wouldn't have been much different.
Second many foreigners such as yourself bring these unbelievable situations on yourself. I am friends with many caucasians and none of them have ever gone through what you have. Perhaps because they grew up here.
Frankly I feel your perceptions are mostly wrong, over the top and rather silly. If your so upset go home!!

Anonymous said...

Typical Canadian girl coming into a country where the minimum wage, if people get paid, is less than a dollar CAD per day. And you are surprised that people ask you for money?

And more than likely, it's not that you are a woman under 50 and not allowed into the mosque, it is that in Islam a woman should be dressed modestly to enter a mosque. Westerners always show up in tank tops and shorts with hair uncovered expecting to be able enter a sacred area in improper attire - and then it is our problem for not letting you in. Ridiculous.

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