Social faux pas

Saturday, August 30, 2014
There is so much happening that it cannot ever all be written, not even a tiny fraction. Even the events in the last few days could never fully be recorded. Infinity, and each point within teaming with endless hermeneutic possibilities, swirls around us without end, quantum bits of positive and negative mass/energy/memories appearing, as if ex nihilo, and, moments later, annihilating each other in a flash or transforming into some structure: A sentence appears. If I am to share anything, I am forced to make moving memory objects become still, observe and choose some morsels, filtered and changed as they are, through that odd thing called my mind. Here are today’s choices:
Social faux pas. And learning opportunities. Four of them.

1. Tamale

The northern Ghanaian city of Tamale not pronounced like the delightful Mexican food wrapped in corn husks with masa harina and meat and/or vegetables inside. The accent of this city’s name is on the first syllable: TA-ma-le. Tamale, a predominately Muslim city, is the administrative capital of the Northern Region and the third largest settlement in Ghana. It has a population of about 550,000 and is growing rapidly. It was an important crossroads on the caravan route connecting the Sahel (the more desert region to the north) to the coast during the slave trading era, and possibly before that. One moves from the rain forests of the south to the savannah of the north as one moves toward Tamale. I don’t know if we will visit this city, though we hope to travel north between semesters, perhaps to see elephants in the wild.

2. The Woman in the Car

I have had three experiences in the last week of people stopping me on the street, and saying “hello,” smiling and waving like they know me, calling out a name that is not mine. It has become clear that for some Ghanaians having briefly met a white guy with mostly white hair and a beard, well, as minorities (in population numbers, not in status) here, we pretty much all look alike, notwithstanding that some of my cultural doppelgängers are a foot taller than me with a prominent bald spot. There is at least a millennium of cultural baggage that is expressed and reproduced in social relations from the taxis that honk more insistently at white folk who are on average more likely to have fair (and whom the drivers charge more) to an often uncomfortable level of obsequity at stores. One has the privilege to be crass or gracious when one is white here. We are seen to have money, and that is mostly true and certainly relatively true. The security guards the university pays to guard of the Fulbright house, the four-plex in which we live, consider themselves to have a good job. It pays, I am told by a reliable source, the equivalent of twenty-five cents per hour (almost one Ghana Cedi). That is two dollars (about 7.50 Cedis) a day for an eight hour shift. What must be the sense of social distance experienced by the guards when we bring out our empty bottles of wine and beer, these consumables that easily exceed his monthly income?

After getting up at 5:15 am, getting our vitamins and meds lined up, awakening Hannah, getting a bite to eat, Hannah and I climb into the cab at about 6:10 am with our driver, brother Oppong, for a ride to the German Swiss International School that can take anywhere from twenty-five minutes to an hour and a half (which will be more likely the case as all the other primary schools open up in the next two weeks). We were somewhere in the middle of our six days without tap water in the house, so I was feeling considerably less fresh than I am accustomed. After spending time with Hannah in the open play hour before school formally starts, I retreat to the German Swiss club form which I can see Hannah if she is in the playground area, and which separates us by wood lattice under which the children can crawl (and Hannah has done so) to get a parent’s attention. I chat with a group mostly German speaking parents where we have good coffee, apple strudel, and other European delights. When our group breaks up at about 9:00 am, I walk a few kilometers to an “internet café” on the busy and pollution-choked Ring Road to read the latest from the IWW’s annual convention, about various Quaker business or practice issues, peace organizations to which I belong or follow, what is Happening with Cameron, Rhiannon, Quinn, and my other kith and kin.
I give this background to show that the life I lead here is very different from most Ghanaians. And some Ghanaians who have some measure of privilege have pointed this out to me. For example, I went to the doctor to have my Malaria prophylaxis prescription renewed. The doctor would renew it for only two months, telling me that I should go off this antibiotic and be like everyone else here and treat the symptoms if I get it (meaning when I get it). The social dimension of handling the physiological is inextricably attached to meaning and status. Does truly experiencing Africa necessarily mean disrupting my gut’s flora with ten months of daily antibiotics? Does it mean likely getting and treating Malaria? This appears to be a real choice I get to make consciously.

So, a couple of hours later I walk out of the Busy-Internet internet “café,” that is, a café that has nothing to drink or eat, but access to what someone decided to call broadband. (It takes 13 hours to download a movie there on iTunes.) It was a warm sunny day, like most of them, and I felt the blast of heat upon leaving the air conditioning. It was startlingly hot, and as I recoiled from the heat and made my way down the stairs to the drive way, a woman in the passenger side of a large SUV called out to me, calling me a name I do not recognize.

“Hello, no, that is not me,” I answered her as I moved toward the front, passenger side car window from which she spoke. I introduced myself, my name and that I am from Indiana in the USA, a place where it would be starting to get cooler in the evening as we move toward autumn. She said she worked for Ghana TV, a station in Accra, the city in which we were having this conversation. She was Ghanaian, perhaps in her forties with shoulder length straightened hair, with some makeup, and European stylish clothes, her very dark skin glistening from the heat, clearly a woman of relative means in this country. I leaned in to hear her better; I have some hearing loss, and the ambient street noise decreased my ability to hear despite her articulate English. In response to my comment that we are less than two weeks into being in Ghana for our first time and that everyone we have met has been extraordinarily welcoming and generous, she suggests that she should interview me and perhaps my wife for TV. After we exchanged phone numbers, she mentions that others might be looking at us, because a white man talking to a Ghanaian woman often means, well, you know. I apologized both for my cultural lack of understanding on social space (Americans interact in closer social space than Ghanaians that do now know each other) and that I have some hearing loss that leads me to lean into conversations. After many apologies from me I took my leave. It occurred to me as I walked away that her expressed concern was not much different from what happens in the USA, that some of the racialized constructions of relationship are similar in our two different social contexts. And some of the roots are the same, the relational legacies of colonialism and slavery. She has not yet called for that interview.

3. No Chairs in the Internet Café

I am old. You will read this in this and the fourth section here. “I am old” means something different in Accra than in the USA. Being old means being deserving of respect. My nearly white hair means that I am treated differently than a young person. Add to that that the average life expectancy in Ghana is 63, a mere five years older than my current age. In the USA we talk of 50 being the new 30, and that has merit with our life expectancy pushing 80. Instead of five years, I can reasonably expect to be around here for thirty or more. It would not make so much sense here to adopt a child at 53 years old, but in the USA I can reasonably expect to kick a soccer ball with Hannah when I am 70 and she is 18.

Hannah gets out of school at 12:30 pm each day, and I check what her blood sugar levels were for the day taken by the teachers, and I determine how much insulin to give her in a shot after lunch. Wednesdays we opted to have her stay for the after school session till 4:30 pm with an extracurricular activity of expressive dance. So, after I give the needed insulin, I head back to the Busy Internet Café for some more connection. I walk the three kilometers or so past the major water way were many relieve themselves, past shops for those with cash and past the street vendors for those with pesos (the equivalent of cents for the Ghanaian Cedi). The gasoline and diesel here is not unleaded. They use lead to increase mileage despite the damage to the young brains here. I breathe in the fumes as I sweat down the road, honking taxis trying to deliver the white man from the sweat of the walk and some of his Cedis.

The woman at that takes my order appears to have a physical deformity, some spinal problem. She is kind and recognizes me from prior days—she tell me my account name there: “Brad2.” I smile and affirm her. I pay for two hours of internet access, a full eight Cedis, the equivalent of about $2.50, and I walk to the wireless room where I will set up either my computer or my iPad. The room is full and there are no chairs available for me. I set my computer down by a plug, turn it on, connect the electric cord, and decide where to sit on the floor. I move a waste can over a few feet and sit down against the wall, cross-legged, computer on my lap, a familiar positon for me. I hear a roar of people running toward me. From some thirty feet away the woman who took my money and three others from the front desk are impossibly yet instantly in front of me insisting that I take a chair of a young man who is moving out of the seat and also insisting I take the chair. I am stunned, accept the offer, thanking them, slowly trying to absorb what just happened. Here I am old and must not sit on the floor when a younger person sits in a chair. They honor me in way that is both sweet and discomfortingly unfamiliar to me. I have as of yet no idea what I should have done in this situation. I have some asking around to do.

4. Carrying water in Front of Others

In the first two weeks of our stay in Ghana, we were without running tap water for six days. After a few days one of the Fulbright House Fellows, our dear neighbor, Beth, let Monica know that we could draw on a water source across the street. The streets here are pretty quiet, it being before school starts, in part because of the faculty strike. So, as you may already have read, I carried water, like a Ghanaian woman, on my head, not well, but I did it. The second time I did this with at least eight gallons, probably more, likely seventy or more pounds, someone shouted me down. A Ghanaian woman walking with two college age daughters told me, did not ask, told me that her daughter would carry my water. One of the daughters came forward, took my small barrel of water, did not carry it on her well braided hair, but to the side of her. I had to obey, the woman’s command was not one with which to quarrel. I am carried back to my maternal grandmother’s kitchen where, as a four year old I began to learn to cook the German-American fare of her prodigious production of soups, stews, breads, pies, cookies, cakes, and on and on, Grandma Glock’s word was unquestionable law. It was immediate and irresistible, and so was the word of my immediate benefactor’s mother. I obeyed. The young woman seems pleased that she did not have to go far. It was clear that I should not offer her money for this deference, though I wondered for a moment what the proper thanks I should offer. I am old and it is odd for this American where age is battled in advertisements that crowd the eye every few hundred yard, new to Ghana, to be honored for being so. I think I might like it if I can get used to it. We shall see.

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