November 2, 2006 lia

Cultural Lesson # 7 – Asking for money

[This particular entry is not very Politically Correct, especially in terms of terminology used here, which is based on my conversations with my Ghanaian colleagues. My objective is to humanise some taboo topics regarding poverty, which might even scratch the tip of the iceburg of international development in general, in an effort to better understand how to cope with poverty, my objective is not to offend everyone]

The most difficult cultural barrier I’ve faced here is how to pay a bill.Two months, and I still don’t understand how to smoothly instigate a social activity, how to understand what you’re expected to give whenever there is food or drink present.

I have described Japan as the anti-America – Japan may be considered a highly westernized capitalist society, but you quickly see the other face of Japan when you work in the school system there. Yes, you can describe Japan in western capitalistic terms, but underneath this façade, Japan is also one of the best living examples of principles of communism and socialism.

When I began getting frustrated by cultural differences here in Ghana, my first instinct was to tap into the knowledge of the international support network of people I’ve met over the last decade of travelling. Collectively we have experience about being a clear visible foreigner, being an invisible foreigner where you’re expected to conform because they think you’re a local, being a woman in a society that has less respect for women, being a man in a society that expects you to always command and take charge, what religious conversations to avoid, etc., etc. But none of us had really lived in a “developing country” though, and I have been over-confident that my international travelling experience would take care of most serious cultural differences here. I was wrong.

When you’re in the “developing world”, as a representative of the “developed world” – whether you be Canadian, Japanese, or Danish – you are different from people in the “developing world”. You may not wish to wear that label, but it will be planted on you by.

When I was doing seminars for Education and Social Change at York University, some of my students started talking about an expensive ring that Poof had bought J.Lo, and what they would do with the money instead of squandering it away on some ring. What would you spend it on? A new pair of Nikes? Highlights? It’s all relative to where you fit on the financial scale. To us, they’re all rich. In their world though, I’m sure Bill Gates would scoff at how cheap D.Piffy was for only spending $5 million on a ring. In fact, 80% of the world is having the same conversation about how we misuse our money right now.

Here, anyone from the developing world is Bill Gates. I’ve met international volunteers who spent every penny they had to join a program to come to Ghana and work in hospitals, and they really need to eat rice and beans to survive here. Even those of us who are paid to be here are under different financial pressures, depending on whether accommodation and flight were included, or whether we have outstanding student debts to pay while we’re here. I was taken for dinner in my third week by someone who was staying at a $200/night hotel. According to the locals, we’re all in the same, uh, yacht.

How to approach spending money here?
On one hand, a little for me goes a long way for whomever I give it to. On the other, everyone is constantly asking me for money – well dressed healthy-looking children, shopkeepers who ask me to give them my change instead of returning it to me, whoever is standing next to me whenever I buy anything, close friends here, bosses, and the rare disabled person who actually depends on begging as their main income. I’ve gone through several phases regarding how I feel about it:

1. It was a shear act of luck that you happened to be born in the developed world, the least you can do is buy this woman twice your size the meat pie she has asked for.
2. I don’t appreciate being targeted as a foreigner, and if I give whenever asked I’m asked, I’m setting an un-fair expectation of the next foreigner they meet, so I will only give things to people who do not ask.
3. Rather than complaining that you’re hungry whenever I’m around, why don’t you do something about your circumstances? I’m only here for six months – who will buy you snacks after I leave?4. Charity breeds dependence. By throwing money at people without a plan for how to spend it in such a way that it will ultimately improve their situation, you are reinforcing their subservience to you.
5. People ask for things because people give them things when they ask, and it’s easier than getting things for themselves. By not contributing to this cycle, you’re encouraging them to take matters in their own hands and demand the means to provide for themselves.
6. I wouldn’t think twice about lending $20 to any friend of mine back home, so why does it feel really really wrong when one of my friends here asks me for 200 000 cedis [about $20]?
7. I won’t buy things for friends that are basic needs, but periodically I’ll buy them a luxury item. That way, you’re not creating a dependence, but every now and then you’re just making their lives a little rich for an hour or so, without making them accustomed to those things.
8. Don’t give anything to anyone when anyone else is around. This is obvious when you’re in a busy station or market, where you could be seriously injured by the mob you would create, but even in someone’s office, make sure no one else is around or your gift will be expected to be shared.
9. I don’t want anyone to help me. I don’t want to owe anything at unexpected times, or be told I’m un-grateful when much of what is given to me here is actually useless to me.
10. I will always share things that I already have. I would much rather be left hungry because someone asked me to share my lunch with them than to refuse someone just because they waited until I had already returned from buying my one-person lunch and don’t have enough food for two.
11. The truth is, people will get what they can. Don’t let them hide behind your insistence on being polite. People who cheat you are not your friend — your taxi driver can’t smile and ask your name or learn what country your from, then say you’re the one who’s unfriendly, when he’s the one who insisted on cheating you by 4 times the actual cost.
12. Relax. This is fun. Beer costs 1/5 what it does in Canada, so you can treat 3 people and still get a discount.
It’s much more complicated than it sounds, because it’s not the people or the occasions that you expect to be asked for money. Also, it’s not a simple matter of learning what the cultural rule governing paying for things is, because there is no developed-developing cultural rule, and in the developing world you’re not allowed to play by the same rules as everyone else.

There are also gender issues, because it’s usually women depending on the charity of men for things. Sometimes it bothers me that they accept that condition. Sometimes I’m ashamed to be so judgemental about it. Am I a woman first? Or a rich foreigner first? Some men consider me the former, some the latter, meanwhile I’m left trying to assess what to do when the bill comes, trying not to offend anyone.
It became very clear to me when I spent a weekend on the East Coast with some foreigners and a Ghanaian Rasta man. He had joined us without an invitation [an invitation always means the inviter will pay for everything], but we started to pay for everything anyways because it’s understood that we have more money than him. Very early in the trip though, he started buying us things – a round of water, one of the shorter trotro rides, a pineapple – and it was so refreshing. In the end, he cost us a lot more than what we cost him, but that is completely outside of the point. By contributing to the pot, he was asserting himself as an equal member of our team. We were not separate from him, he was not depending on us, we were all on a trip together. I think I expected Africa’s colonial history to demand that from me while I’m here – not to want to depend on me or put me on a pedestal only because I’m a foreigner.

Yesterday, I walked into an office of women to throw something in the rubbish bin. Someone in the room recognised that among the many things I was carrying, one happened to be a half eaten loaf of bread, and it immediately became a major issue about what was expected of me to share with these women. Half eaten bread, with nothing to put onto it, to be split among five of us? You are not pigeons! I don’t understand.

In my first month here, after not seeing any foreigners for 3 weeks, I spoke with a 3-member team from the Japan International Cooperation Agency as if I had gone to elementary school with them. Over lunch they asked me what strategies I had for coping with the incessant “Obruni!” calls that every person walking by feels the need to bark at foreigners as they pass, they asked me if I was still on bottled water, or if I had moved to sachets yet. I was at ease throughout the meal because I understood the expectation of me when the bill came. You would never know that we came from two starkly different parts of the world because we both came from a common financial expectation found in the developed world.

There are so many different ways to draw lines between cultures. I’ve seen East-West, capitalist-socialist, Muslim-Christian, vegetarian-omnivore, and collective-individual cultural divides, but the developed-developing/North-South cultural divide seems like an ocean to me sometimes.