January 22, 2007 lia

Just Another Agent of Neo-Imperialism

Being a Canadian in Africa promoting public participation in local governance vs. White lady persuading Black people to do things the way we do things back home [or at least how things are supposed to be done in Canada]. As with everything, the “truth” lies somewhere on the greyscale between these two [and many other] extremes.

Every head has its tail, and it would be naïve to suggest that those in development work are just good. I wouldn’t be doing what I do if I didn’t believe in it, but I think it’s important to exercise a critical eye – especially when the intention of your work is to effect change in people’s lives. Many aid/development/workers/volunteers go to the developing world because they want to “make a difference” and instigate positive change in the world. From an ethnographic point of view, change means a deviation from the normal trajectory of natural development of a society. From a social-anthropologist perspective, changes instigated from an outsider would have some obvious biases that would lean towards the values and structures [and benefit] of one’s own culture. Though I stand to be corrected on that interpretation/wording. Likely by Paul.

Any “difference” that I “make” cannot happen independently of the white-democratic-individualistic-North American perspective that I come from. I may not be of Anglo-Saxon descent or even be a Christian, but having grown up in Canada, there are also some clear WASP values that I have been raised to appreciate – things like subtlety and not discussing inappropriate things that will make people uncomfortable [and not blatantly cheating on your wife and having your girlfriends hanging around the office all day].

A large component of my internship in Ghana is knowledge exchange, specifically with concern to public participation in local governance and planning. If individualism and democracy are indeed post-Enlightenment Euro-Christian constructs, then what is the difference between me being here to cast the net of democratic participation to a wider audience, and early Christian missionaries coming to Ghana to cast the net of Christianity? Both parties think they are somehow “saving” people.

Good intentions can still lead to very dangerous things, and sticking to one’s principles can be even worse if people are not critically examining what they are doing. I have spent much of my adult life resisting North American complaisance to commercial culture – a culture that dictates that people with a lot more money than me expect me to pay offensive prices for goods that were produced in some poor nation too desperate for employment to negotiate a proper salary for its workers. Shopping malls, expensive cars, [blood] diamond rings, and the right labels to advertise that I’m working more hours and having less fun? Meanwhile we’re all sedated from participating in our own governance, because we feel like the lucky [rich] ones?

That said, I remember reading some story about the latest suicide bomber in Iraq last year and it dawned on me: suburbanite Paris Hilton wanabees will never blow themselves up while killing a dozen or so others in the name of anything. They’ll never believe in something enough to do that. And while I loath their disinterest in collective welfare, at least their youthful emptiness needs only material goods to satisfy its cravings, and will never be manipulated into someone convincing them to fly a plane into a building, killing mostly people who are basically as powerless [and arguably more repressed] as they are against the global distribution of power.

Regardless of good intentions, we are best equipped to mitigate the potentially destructive aspects of the differences that we make by critically examining our own perspectives and biases. It’s important to stop and smell the WASPs.

Visiting a Slave Fort. Ghana’s coast is dotted with the most impressive monuments of West Africa’s slave history [see my photobox album]. While visiting slave “castles” in Ghana, there’s a general sense that you, white people, did great harm to us, black people. As a human being, I have a lot to learn about what happened to Africa and to Africans because of slavery. It’s impossible for me to imagine how people could do such tortuous things to fellow people. But a black man trying to use white-man’s-guilt so that I’ll buy his postcards does not exactly plant us on the road to recovering from the largest displacement of people in the history of mankind [though perfectly forgivable, however ignorant].

Could this man come to grips with the fact that my ancestors had less to do with the slave trade than his? All he sees me as – along with most of the people I encounter daily on the streets of Ghana – is just another white person like all the other white people who have come to the country. I expressed my frustrations to my friend Robin one afternoon in an email:

“I tire enough of people making presumptions about me in Canada, but here, it’s just too much. I went to the coast, and everyone’s all “Look what your people did to the African slaves” — a first generation Canadian-Lithuanian had less to do with the slave trade than most of the tribes that currently compose Ghana! I’d much rather have an interesting conversation about neo-colonialism than simplistically blaming me for the slave trade. Even if I was Danish, Dutch, or English, do you think my ancestors were rich enough to participate in any international trade??? My ancestors were fucking shoemakers in Lithuania! And besides, as a WOMAN, I never would have been allowed the right to exercise my will over myself let alone over another continent of people.” And even if my ancestors were among those responsible, what does that have to do with all of us now? Don’t we all have something to learn from this, regardless of how directly or indirectly involved our distant ancestors were?

Another classic example of false assumptions based on geographically- and culturally-determined power distributions, rather than recognising the much more relevant sub-level power struggles that exist in everyone’s daily lives. I try to evoke an alternative perspective, whenever I have the opportunity.

-Obaa yaa. Why do I have to wear your European clothing? It’s too hot for trousers and a tie.
-Ghanaians are always wearing traditional clothing. I’ve never seen an Assembly member come to a meeting wearing anything but traditional cloth, and it seems like people only wear t-shirts and the like when they don’t want to soil their nice Ghanaian clothes.
-Yes, we do wear traditional clothes on weekends and at public gatherings. But to work, we always wear a suit and tie because your people tell us to. You know, we ended imperialism almost 50 years ago, yet were more like the whites than we’ve ever been.
-Know thine enemy, Personnel. It’s not just white people who are telling you to wear a suit and tie. It’s people who own companies that sell you things who tell you to wear the suit and tie they’re selling you, and it’s your complaisance to their lies that makes you wear their suit and tie. We have to accept our own responsibility in that, even when there’s such a consorted effort against us, involving most of the people who control what images we are meant to see. “My people” suffer far more than Ghanaians when it comes to complaisance to that lie.
-What do you mean?
-You can walk down the street and buy a coconut from a small boy. That small boy climbed the mountain this morning, picked the wild coconuts on the mountain, brought them down the mountain into town, carved the coconut for you and collected your money. If I were in Canada and I wanted an orange, I would likely go to a giant chain supermarket owned by some American corporate giant, and buy a Pfizzer patented genetically modified orange from Florida, which is owned by Sunkist, which is owned by coca cola, flown on a plane owned by the Star Alliance, using petrol from a Texan tycoon who had to invade Iraq just to keep pace with American oil-demand, and marketed by AOL-Time-Warner-Disney. If I’m thirsty, it’s almost impossible to avoid coca-cola, because they own minute maid, dasani, etc. Why should I have to pay to all these people who already have more money than me?
-That’s serious-oh.
-Like the t-shirt Gladys is wearing right now. Gladys, is Nike paying you for this prime real estate across your breasts? That’s some seriously persuasive advertising you’re giving Nike for free. I try to participate in all of that as little as possible. But it’s not easy-oh.
-Uh-huh. Like all those Malaysian textiles you see in the market these days. Nobody used to be able to afford them, but now that people are having some small money, the local textiles are having trouble competing because people want to be seen wearing finer, imported cloth.
-Oooh. Which stores in the market have Malaysian cloth?

I could try a lot harder I guess.

Being served. I’ve never been served like I am in Ghana. It used to make me very un-comfortable being fussed over all the time and being in the top half of some hidden hierarchy that everyone except me seems to know about. Not just because I’m white, but mostly because I’m a guest [and my skin colour screams “GUEST! GUEST! GUEST!”]. Anytime I go to the market with a Ghanaian, the shopkeepers always hand my bags to be carried by my Ghanaian friends for me, who are part of the conspiracy and never let me carry anything for myself either. How many times have I walked down the street empty handed while a Ghanaian followed me carrying my groceries and heavy bags of water on their heads from the store to my kitchen so that I don’t have to lift a finger. I don’t even resist it or get embarrassed anymore. Whenever I arrive anywhere there’s a scramble to address the arrivees in the proper order of top to bottom, and I’m never allowed to stand for more than 10 seconds upon entering a room [usually the first 5 seconds are spent kicking someone else out of their chair to offer it to me]. All you can do about it is sit and be served, otherwise you will make your hosts [and everyone else] very un-comfortable.

Such a culture of selected servitude – Ghanaians will eagerly serve the people within their hierarchy of relations, but it’s impossible to galvanise support for serving collective public works such as boreholes and hand dug wells – the means for providing basic water to households – and public indiscipline regarding where to dump wastes [solid and liquid] is a major issue in Ghana. Yet you can make anyone younger than you fetch anything for you at any time, and no one would ever question some of the irrational decisions made by their bosses. [Maybe waste disposal is one of the few areas of one’s life where Ghanaians feel especially empowered to do exactly as they please?]

Anyone who has ever spent any time in Africa will experience at least one man who’s going to tell you how he thinks it is. I don’t know how to describe these men except as pompous, misinformed, anything-to-be-able-to-make-themselves-feel-like-big-men, misogynistic shits. The other Canadian in Kof, Kathryn, had one of these men come into her house, get right into her face while she was eating, and start his monologue rant against her and everything else her skin colour and gender represent to him.

-You can eat with your hands? You don’t need a fork? You don’t think it’s beneath you to eat with your hands? All you white people do is come here, devastate our economy, and tell us what to do. If you really gave a damn about Ghana, you’d send our students to your country to learn your technological expertise so that they could come back and train the new work force. You’d fund technological studies and fund local artisans to build things, rather than always sending us your own people for big contracts. We don’t need any white people in Ghana, we just need your technological expertise to train our own people.

This is an abridged version of the “conversation”. The actual “conversation” – which was in reality a forceful monologue intended to intimidate Kathryn out of a retort, and then actually talking over her when she did offer constructive responses – lasted about 25 minutes. Most regrettably though is that this man actually made a lot of really good points. With some major adjustments in delivery, it could have been an enlightening conversation for both of them, where they mutually learned from each other and maybe even discussed potential solutions in a non-threatening environment. Instead, Kathryn and I bonded over the shared experience of having to deal with some really hostile assholes amidst the generally welcoming and almost overly hospitable warmth of Ghanaian people.

The next day I sat at my desk at work and thought about what I actually do at the office. I spend a lot of time showing my bosses different commands on the computer, I re-write and edit documents for print, I redesign their PowerPoints so that they conform to a single stylistic format that’s easy for an audience to follow and is highly visible in an inadequately lit room, I convince them to let me reorganise presentations such that there’s a stronger hierarchy of information that fits into fewer than 20 slides and contains 3 clear messages for the audience to leave with. I lobby to include things like disability rights into the development plan, I constantly query them on their opinions of various donor agency project implementation models, and I tag along to help with monitoring and evaluation. I try to influence them to do things like they’re done in my world, I learn from their experiences, and I leave.

-Abu, am I just an agent of neo-imperialism?
-No! Of course not.
-But mostly I just consult on issues regarding conforming deliverables of the Planning Unit into a format that would be used in my home country.
-You are teaching us a great many things. Everyone thinks you are jovial.
-You don’t think foreigners cause more harm in Ghana than good?
-We love white people. You all look the same – like movie stars.

People ask me why I don’t take pictures in Ghana. Try walking through an African slum where you represent all that these residents don’t have. A walking slap-in-the-face of the haves vs. the have-nots reality. While you get to pass through their lives, smiling and waving, they stay and are rarely offered the opportunity to pass through yours. Pull out a camera and what you’re doing is trying to document their misery. What’s worse is that they understand that, but are so hospitable that they’ll even smile for your pictures [even if you just wanted a natural shot]. You are an observer, un-involved in what’s being captured, and they are your subject. Maybe that’s not what’s actually happening, but that is certainly how it can feel sometimes.

Even if I don’t make a difference in Ghana, Ghana has certainly made a difference in me. Being a visible foreigner represents so many different things to different people here, and most of those things are starkly different than your reality as an individual. Just by walking down the street you may represent a history of slavery and colonialism, and the present reality of a globalised world who decided who all the big players were going to be without inviting Africa to the table.

So many clichés. I must have read 100s of feel-guilty-cause-you’re-comfortable blogs/emails/letters. And then following guilt, we are expected to have a realisation of what’s really important. Meanwhile, being distracted by the superficial is not something that’s restricted to the developed world – I’ve encountered just as much materialism and vanity in the developing world as I have in the developed. I think it’s mostly the act of mentally removing yourself from your normal condition that makes you realise what’s important, and that’s something that’s universal.

I was back in Vancouver this summer, and every morning and every evening I would change trolleys at Main and Hastings, Vancouver’s famous Downtown Eastside. There are so many development issues there – it’s probably one of the few places in Canada where marginalised poverty actually holds a majority. There are some fantastic things about that, and some important perspectives and alternative voices have been brought to mainstream attention via the safety in numbers found in the Downtown Eastside. As the condos are increasingly encircling the community, many lobbyists have argued that marginalised culture itself is being attacked as residents are forced to move into less expensive suburban communities where they will be swallowed up and assimilated into the norm. The approaching condos represent a cultural genocide, where those whose views vary from the accepted centre are weeded out like cancer cells from the Vancouver social fabric.

That said, the community is also experiencing a devastating drug problem, and many residents find their addiction even harder to kick because of the sense of inclusion one can feel when suffering from drug abuse. Ask these people if they want their drug culture to be assimilated, and they might actually agree.

Summary and Conclusions. So I’ve covered imperialism, blame, guilt, and assimilation, but mostly I hate to dwell and rather concentrate on potential solutions – what is working, what is not working, how can it be adapted to work, and how can we make the whole thing effective and meaningful? But if any outside attempt to drive change is considered as a vehicle for assimilation, then what must I do? Even trying to empower others to determine their own means of escaping some assumed disadvantageous circumstance could be considered to be driven by Euro-Christian-individualism!

So the cycle of drive, doubt, critical re-examination, and getting back on one’s feet perpetuates. Accept that we are all biased creatures, remember that there isn’t one answer, that everything is a negotiation between different interests, and that by pleasing everyone you’re pleasing no one. You can justify anything as “good intentions” and so you need to work hard to do what actually feels right, while acknowledging that other people are also doing what they think is right, and neither is better or worse. We’re just trying our best.

As Dr. Walter Perchal – the professor I had the great fortune of working with while TA’ing Education and Social Change at York University for two years – would always say “Mental conflict is good. It keeps you on your toes and reminds you that doing the right thing is – and should be – difficult work”.