Thursday, June 23, 2011

Class, Culture and Concepts of Community

As a Canadian working in Ghana, I am confronted with a lot of differences that I have to reconcile. One of the greatest mistakes I have seen myself, and others make, is to attribute a lot of these differences to culture. You hear of a woman being beaten in a village compound and say well, its cultural. You see people spend money as soon as they have it, with little tendency towards savings, and you think this is cultural. "In Canada, we…..", "but in Ghana, they….". This, I purport, is a very slippery slope, and also inaccurate in many cases.

I found myself saying these thing a lot, particularly the first year I was in Ghana living in Wamale, in the Northern Region of Ghana. It is easy to get into "we", "they" mentality as your mind struggles to make sense of things that are foreign, different, uncomfortable. In the beginning of living in a new culture, the differences are blaring- they jump out and you can't ignore them. I tried to take a stance of understanding; they are from a different culture, so a lot of what I do and believe will be different from them. It's okay to be different. But this not only emphasizes the "otherness" of the people and nation you are working in, but can also blind you to the complex, holistic nature of situation.

I can admit that I come from a middle/upper class family in Canada. We always had enough to get by, we were well educated, and had a comfortable lifestyle. When I come to Ghana, and live in a village with subsistence farmers, some people who are just scraping by, there will definitely be a lot of differences. In Canada, we all had cars; in Wamale, people are struggling for bicycles. In Canada, my cupboard was always full of biscuits, chips, cookies, fruit, vegetables, juice, milk. In Wamale, if you don't eat when everyone is eating, you'll be left behind and have to wait for tomorrow to be satisfied. Yes, there are cultural differences. But a lot of the differences I just mentioned are a result of differences in class, economic status, not culture. Perhaps I would have been better prepared for village life in Ghana had I spent time in "slums" in Canada...

I don't doubt that there are communities in Canada where people are barely getting by. Poverty looks different in Canada; surely. But having worked with some of the most disadvantaged children in Windsor, Ontario, I had my eyes opened; wow; there are Canadian families that can't afford soap or toothpaste!?! Many foreigners who come to Ghana are ignorant or blind to poverty in their own countries, so when they are confronted with poverty in Ghana it is seen as cultural. I purport that many (most?) foreigners living in Ghana are well educated, and at least middle class, in their home countries. Most who come to Ghana come to volunteer through a University program, or work in development (many with Masters degrees), or invest in business in Ghana (wealthy people from China). Let's not forget that merely getting to Ghana is a great expense (flight). I believe it would be hard for a very poor Canadian to find him or herself in Ghana.

As I've started working in more affluent, "developed" parts of Ghana, I have seen that there is wealth in Ghana! I have seen mansions and cars in Accra that I've never come face to face with in Toronto.

The other day, as I sat in a home in Accra, a group of people came to the door to talk to the father of the house. They sat down and discussed how they are starting a neighbourhood committee to address challenges in the community, namely; improving the roads and sewage system. He started by apologizing that he has never come to greet him before, and remarked that these days, we don't know our neighbours. Unless there is a problem we don't enter the homes of our neighbours. He vowed that from now on he would be a better neighbour and visit just to see how the family was doing. As I heard them talk, I thought wow; this could be Canada. Truthfully, I don't know or "care for" my neighbours in Canada. We are all busy doing our own things, leading our own lives, as we happen to coexist in the same geographical area. But I was part of "community" in other ways, beyond the physical neighbourhood, and I know that urban Ghanaians too have "communities", but they are likely not tied to neighbours based on physical proximity.

When I first came to Ghana one thing I loved about the culture was community. Everyone greets each other, knows each other, cares for each other. Everyone in the community is the mother/father of the children. In Wamale, I have never had any theft. Whereas in bigger cities, theft can seem inevitable. In a lot of villages, there is a strong sense of community; and even if someone does steal, within a matter of hours you will find out who did it. I have always loved the sense of community in Wamale, where everybody truly does know your name.

As I listened to these middle/upper class Ghanaians talk about the fact that they are now isolated from their neighbors, I smiled to myself thinking about the days I boasted of Ghana's community culture. I believe this difference is in fact more a result of class, and not culture. Yes, those in Accra are still Ghanaians and part of Ghanaian culture, but as a result of their jobs, education, and lifestyle, their sense of community is quite different from a rural village who is deeply intertwined, interconnected, and often times interdependent.

All this is not to say there are no cultural differences between Canada and Ghana; clearly there are. Nor is it to paint a simplified North versus South picture of Ghana. What I have seen is that villages in the south aren't entirely different from villages in the North, and that there are similarities that cut across cultures but may align along class difference. Further, it is not to say that there is a universal culture of poverty*; that all people who are poor have the same values or behaviours. I have merely noticed that many differences attributed to cultural clashes may in actual fact be class clashes.

Instead of painting Ghana as all beautiful, or totally different from Canada, I am striving to see people as people, continue to check my assumptions and biases, and live lovingly among people wherever I find myself in this complex intersection of culture and class.

**For more information on the culture of poverty, have a gander below.