November 1, 2006 lia

The Bigger Picture

My sister and brother in law have a parrot. When I’m in Vancouver visiting, I often baby-sit their parrot. The parrot wakes, squawks until someone lets him out of his cage, squawks to be fed, cleans his feathers, sharpens his beak, and then squawks to be put to bed. By my second day babysitting the parrot, I start to think about what kind of a life a caged animal has, and by the third day…well…it doesn’t take much imagination to draw parallels with one’s own life.

Here in Ghana, much of the work conducted at my office involves socializing, interrupted by mundane work tasks. Even in my department, one of the most important and active departments in the Municipality, I often feel like I’m meant to fit a circle into a square, then into a triangle, then into a rectangle, only to find out all three files were replaced by an older version of the file by one of my work colleagues who’s still learning how to use flash drives. One hour meetings are spent waiting for 2 hours for people to come, another hour re-capping what was missed by participants who were 3 hours late, and most of the presentation is spent reading out loud what’s already been provided for us in written form, which we’ve already read while waiting for participants to arrive. Despite constant emphasis on presenter’s need to summarise their points, the narrative word-for-word reading of the document being presented continues.

When I ask what people do on weekends, it usually involves going to a funeral on Saturdays and church on Sundays, preferring to socialize en masse instead of the dinner party or going out for beer style of socializing I’m accustomed to in Canada. Ghanaians don’t really have vacation time, so they also don’t spend much time traveling. In fact, with the exception of Accra, there really isn’t anywhere to spend your money – there’s no infrastructure for Western conceptions of leisure, and Ghanaian leisure costs only membership into their social units.

My first reaction to all this was to constantly emphasize the end goal – what is the objective of what you’re doing, and is your method of achieving that objective actually effective? Common examples are presentations that use too many slides or speeches that lack a hierarchy of information so that an audience can extract the message from the words. A specific example was the Public Hearing I attended last week, where opening speeches and Department Head presentations were so long that by the time the public had the opportunity for discussion, they were worn out. That meeting lasted 7 hours in a room without air conditioning – you can hardly blame the public for their lack of enthusiasm when their time to speak had come.

My leisure time follows a plan I drew with some fellow sojourners here, a plan whose objective is to allow us to see as much of Ghana as possible on weekends and National Holidays while we’re here. I have only stayed at home three weekends since I’ve been here, and that was only because I was sick with “malaria”.

I find it difficult to complete tasks which I can’t determine the larger reason for, and have been much happier at work and in my leisure time here since drawing a new work plan and settling on a rough travel schedule.

This is my bigger picture.

Since a great deal of my time at work is spent socializing, I spend a lot of time talking with Ghanaians. I have mostly found that there are two main themes of conversation: gossiping and flirting; and society and beliefs. Contrary to what you’d expect though, the gossiping and flirting seems largely instigated by the married men in my office.

The society and beliefs conversations are usually instigated by someone discovering that I’m not Christian or Muslim.

-I’m agnostic. It means I sit on the beliefs fence, not even committing to an answer regarding if God does or does not exist.
-But what do you believe then?

But what do you believe then? Are people allowed to just ask you that? How are you…fine…what’s the purpose of you being on this Earth? These are questions I have spent the last decade trying to escape/answer by fleeing to different parts of the world. Beliefs are not a place on this planet.

The Personnel Officer has particularly taken an interest in discussing this topic with me.

-Obaa Ya, how do you manage to wake up everyday and carry about your life if you don’t have beliefs about what happens to you when you die?
-But what difference does it make – I’ll be dead. I demand satisfaction and justice in life rather than trusting it in someone else’s hands at death.
-Do you see justice occurring in life?
-No, but that doesn’t mean we should be complaisant to injustice. Powerful people are benefiting from your acceptance that their wrongs will be righted after they die. Meanwhile, people continue to suffer while living. No, you’re absolutely correct that we can’t expect justice in our lifetime, but we can still demand improvements for the living.

Our conversation continued along the usual trajectory of evolution vs. creationism. By the time it was 5 o’clock and time to go home, he brilliantly summarized his view as follows:

-Obaa Ya, you are clearly knowledgeable about the physical world, and I appreciate your sharing with me what you know about it, but you fail to recognize that your arguments are limited to the physical world. I’m talking about something outside of the physical world. You’re assuming explanations from the physical world can be applied to the non-physical world.
-But then you’re assuming that there is a non-physical world.
-Of course there’s a non-physical world. Otherwise, what is there to think about?
-Well, I like thinking about the physical world. Maybe that’s why I travel so much. Maybe when I’m satisfied with what I know about the physical world, I’ll start considering this spiritual one you like so much.

And there it was – I assumed Ghanaians lead mundane lives because I don’t see them constructing a bigger picture for their lives in the physical worlds. But, what I entirely failed to appreciate was that Ghanaians think I lead a mundane life because I haven’t constructed a plan for my life in the spiritual world.