November 9, 2006 lia

Aspiring to be a Piece of Meat

You can see a paper-thin version of the world, a slightly meatier version of the world, or a deep and profound version of a few familiar places. Unfortunately, the choice isn’t’ always yours.

It’s really unfair that the current condition of the world is such that some people have a lot while others have so little. It makes a situation that is uncomfortable for both the haves and the have nots, and the larger the gap, the larger the discomfort. Where people are desperately poor, rich people need to build a wall around their material and human assets, protecting themselves and their families with bodyguards, security systems, or, if you’re in Africa, a 6-foot concrete wall embedded with broken glass perilously sticking out of the top. The more obviously valuable you are (i.e. the more obvious the gap is between you and “them”), the more devices you need to protect yourself.

When traveling, you are constantly being sized up as a potential source of political, economic, social, and/or cultural gain, as well as a source of escaping a current condition for some imagined easy life elsewhere. The list of questions tourists are relentlessly asked represents this: “Where do you come from?”, “What do you do?” and “Are you married?” This sizing up exercise is, of course, not restricted to travelers in developing countries – in our home cultures we ask a similar line of questioning and how we introduce people also reflects these values. This is how we construct our social world, how we understand our position in comparison with others, revealing at best potential sources of intriguing conversation, at worst, opportunities to advance one’s own status through a new connection in their network. Eco-tourism is one approach to lessen the negative aspects of the visitor-visited dialectic, claiming to offer a more genuine and beneficial experience to all parties concerned.

I am the second Canadian to be working in my office of 80+ employees, most of whom are men. It has been very easy for me to make friends at the office because the last Canadian made an excellent impression on everyone, and I was almost instantly welcomed into the office family. The half-dozen women in my office live a very different reality than I do though, and my closest friendships have been with some of the men. In the 1980s, the Soviet Union sponsored many Ghanaians to study in Moscow, and I enjoy discussing Soviet Russia, socialism, capitalism, religion, belief systems, culture, and society with these colleagues. After work, I never have any trouble finding someone to join me for a beer so we can continue our intriguing conversations.

After a few weeks of familiarizing themselves with me and the history of each of the five rings I wear on my fingers (ie. learning that none of them is a wedding band), I was suddenly being very actively pursued by some of the men at my office. Everything seemed under control though, as I insisted that I would never be involved with someone I work with. I even explained that, as a woman, it can be difficult to be taken seriously as a professional sometimes, and so we must insist on maintaining professional boundaries and not give any ammunition to those who would suggest that our achievements were due to something other than our own merit.

This week, I made some discoveries about the nature of some of office friendships though:
1. After failing to secure the affection of the first year’s Canadian, the men in my office settled on a queue for who would have first dibs on the second Canadian at the office. This queue was roughly decided on before last year’s Canadian had even left Ghana.
2. The order of the queue exactly conforms to the order of people who have been obviously pursuing me in the last few weeks.
3. Some of the strange middle-of-the-night phone calls I have been receiving were coming from these pursuer’s suspicious wives.
4. All of these efforts were in the pursuit of wanting the freedom to travel.
There’s a lot I could say about this. In fact, there’s a lot I did say about this to my Canadian colleague in Ghana who is doing on a similar assignment as me, though he’s male and is in a different district.

-Do you see what I have to deal with? If it wasn’t difficult enough strategising ways to avoid these discomforts from strangers on the streets here…
-Wow. How does it feel to be such a piece of meat?
-Piece of meat? I was prepared to be a piece of meat! I endured being a young 6 ft blonde living in Italy and Turkey. At least as a piece of meat, you can construct some idea of what’s behind the flesh. Someone could like your style, the confidence in how you present yourself, the sincerity in your eyes. This apparent list of romantic hopefuls was decided on before I even arrived. I don’t even get to be a piece of meat – I’m a piece of paper!
Later in the week my informant asked me how I felt about these four pieces of information I had learned:
-I guess mostly I’m disappointed. There are so many people traveling around the world who want a more genuine experience than the façade we are offered as tourists. We care about people and want to better understand realities of the human condition. So we work hard and come to countries like Ghana to offer our time and services in exchange for a more sincere and authentic experience. But in the end, it’s just another misleading façade that we get to see, except that we were deceived to a deeper, more personal level.

But maybe that’s fair. We have the freedom to see virtually the whole surface of the geographic world. Why should we also consider ourselves to have the right of access to all of its depths too? The freedom to leave comes with a limit to how much you get to see. A Ghanaian passport won’t get you into many countries, and the financial condition of a typical Ghanaian will get you into even fewer, but Ghanaians can have a much deeper experience in their travels in West Africa than that which is afforded to the visible minority foreigner who additionally doesn’t understand the subtle gestures and changes in tone characteristic of West African cultures.