Friday, August 21, 2015

The white man who can't solve problems

I know it’s cliché to write a blog post about how my time in Africa has changed me. But this last month in Ghana has taught me things I wasn't expecting. Here are a couple of them.

1. Learning to fit into a culture does not mean assimilating into it


Up until now, in every place I’ve lived outside the US I’ve been able to somewhat hide my foreign-ness by learning the language, learning to dress like the locals, and/or just quietly slipping into the every day life of the community. I’ve always felt like the biggest compliment is someone coming up to me and asking me for directions in the local language. It made me feel accomplished, like I somehow successfully learned to appreciate their culture.

All of that changed the moment I stepped foot in Ghana. I was immediately put in the foreigner line for my passport check. Several taxi drivers navigated through a crowd of black people just to get us into their car. Driving down the street consists of everyone staring at me or even yelling out “obruni” (white man). Walking down the crowded street is always accompanied by what seems like a million eyes fixed on me. In stores people don’t even try to speak Twi to me, they automatically switch to English. While waiting for my order at a restaurant a Mom and her daughter walk in behind me, the little girl looks at me and says something to her Mom where the only word I understand is “obruni.” The Mom looked at her and in English has to tell her about 4 times, “Yes, dear, I see the obruni too.”

It took me a long time to not be bothered by this. I still struggle with it sometimes. I’ve been constantly trying to find ways that I can slip into my undercover self and be mistaken for a local. But then I realized that I will never be able to do that. Even if I were to live here for 20 years, perfectly learn the language, the mannerisms, the right grunts for every situation, I still would never be mistaken for a Ghanaian. But that’s ok. I’m learning to fit into this culture without looking like a local. I’m learning more about the people, their desires, their concerns, their food, their history. And I’m bringing my own unique qualities to share. And in the end, isn’t that what traveling is all about?

Austin playing Spar, the card game of Ghanaians. 


I wanted to see the jungle. We definitely found it. 

2. International Development is about creating opportunities, not solving problems

Almost all of my experience with international development up until now has been trying to find solutions to pressing issues. How to help boost the Romanian economy, how to educate the youth, how to save the rainforest, etc. Although I have had good intentions, I’ve been focusing on all the wrong things. When I first came to Ghana all I saw were the problems. The never-ending litter, clogged gutters, unsafe housing. I was overwhelmed, how am I ever supposed to solve this? The city has quickly expanded to accommodate rapid urbanization, which has resulted in so many issues. Every corner I turn I see a new problem that needs to be fixed. It’s exhausting.

But as I’ve spent more time here, I’ve stopped seeing the problems and started seeing the people. The kids aren’t crying about not having a yard to play in, they are playing hide and seek behind rocks and tires. The women aren’t complaining about cooking over a trash filled gutter, they are laughing with their friends while balancing huge pots and pans on their heads. The men aren’t dragging their feet about having to create their own jobs, they are dancing in the streets while working. Once I saw that the people are happy despite all these “problems”, I realized that development isn’t about creating solutions. It’s about giving people opportunities to be even happier than they already are. It’s doing the same thing that I want to do with my community in the States, helping them to achieve their dreams. As much as I have come to appreciate the role that nonprofits and government organizations play in development, they are not enough. We need businesses that fix inefficiencies in the markets and provide opportunities for those in poverty. We don’t need them the people to be charity cases, we need to start seeing them as they really are, people who can change the world.

Some guys we met while hiking. One loves learning about other cultures, the other just smiled a whole lot. 
Colby, who is an entrepreneur, buying and selling cool things he finds in the markets. 
My time in Ghana has taught me so much more than I expected coming into it. I think I’ve learned more in the past 3 weeks than I have in the past 6 months. And when it comes down to it, all of the things I’ve learned have come from the people. For every Ghanaian that has yelled out “obruni” while I’m walking down the street, there is one who has stopped to welcome me into their country. I’ve learned to smile, to laugh, to dance, and to welcome every stranger that walks by.


Although I’m excited for the hamburgers, cheddar cheese, air conditioning, and dryers that await me back in the States, I'm probably even more excited for a life filled with more adventures and lessons learned, many of which I hope to be in Ghana.