Monday, February 25, 2013

Ghana: A Progressive Nation with a lot of Progressing to Do

So my sporadic blog entries are due to the fact that I am a busy-busy bee here in Ghana.  Many education volunteers speak of free time and only teaching a few classes a week.  That is not the case for me.  I teach, plan lessons, and grade papers for 12-two hour classes a week.  Not complaining but it has been a bit draining lately and I am ready for the term break.  Aside from teaching I am also assisting in planning a week-long national leadership conference for senior high students,  leading a health club at my school, and working on grants for a computer lab and library.  Just wanted to give a brief update on what I’ve been doing before I get to the real topic of this blog.
                If you look at Ghana, its politics, and it’s freedom, it is one of the most if not THE most progressive nation in West Africa.  We recently successfully held a free and fair election for a new president.  The Minister of Human Rights, appointed by the president himself is a supporter of LGBT rights in a nation where homosexuality is widely frowned upon, not to mention illegal.  But there are many things that I see far too often that remind me I am far from home.  It’s my own belief that strict traditional gender roles and whole hearted beliefs in taboos and witchcraft will continue to separate Ghana from the modern world.
                The first topic is one that did not come up so often in my first few months here, but as I make friends and get more social, it has been appearing in conversation time and time again, so I felt compelled to write about it.  It is the widespread belief in witchcraft, and it is truly amazing.  It is not to say that all Ghanaians believe in it, but I am frequently shocked at the caliber of some individuals that do.  College educated people with multiple degrees are among the believers.   
                My favorite subtopic here is the issue of Ghanaian Witchcraft vs. American Witchcraft.  My students as well as friends and co-workers have all told me that Ghanaian witches use their powers to bring despair and suffering to people that they are envious of.  That is why Ghanaians are suffering.  If something bad happens, it is not uncommon that it was at the hands of a witch.  American witches, though, they use their powers to bring prosperity and goodness to their people.  That’s just another reason why America is so great.  It has good witches!  I tell them that the overwhelming majority of Americans do not even believe in witches, including, myself.  They tell me that is good, because if you do not believe in them, they cannot harm you.  “??” So I ask, why doesn’t everyone just stop believing in witches and we will all be in the clear!  That just confuses them completely. 
                This seems like an innocent traditional cultural belief, and it can be, but it has also proven to be very dangerous.  For example, in the northern regions of Ghana they have ‘Witch Camps’ where people who are believed to be witches are sent to live out their entire lives, isolated from society, unable to do ‘harm’.  Hundreds of women have been forced into witch camps, and most of the time these women are uneducated and illiterate.  They do not know any better, and that kind of trauma might cause many of these people to believe they are actually witches.  If someone eats food and gets sick, the person that prepared the food might be deemed a witch.  Off to the witch camp you go.  Bacterial food poisoning maybe?  Nope, definitely a witch’s doing.
                Other tragic cases often involve children.  A child born with deformities might be considered to be a ‘spirit child,” one that is intent to do harm to all people that encounter him/her.  Or if the parents fall ill soon after birthing a child, it might also be a ‘spirit child.’  Many of these ‘spirit children’ have been killed by ‘conconction men’ that make a poisonous brew of toxic roots to give to the child in order to kill it and stop it from doing harm.  There has been accounts of a father dying shortly after he gave a punishment to a child.  The child is then accused of being a witch and killing the parent in anger.  The child may then be severely neglected and isolated from the family, or worse. 
                 I discussed this issue with the chief of a large district in Kumasi, a major city in Ghana.  He is a highly educated man and one that does not believe in witchcraft.  He made an interesting point that it is a problem of illiteracy and poverty.  He told me that a rich person would never be accused of being a witch, no matter what tragedy presents itself.  A very unfortunate side effect of poverty is lack of education, which leads to lack of understanding of the workings of the natural world.
                Let’s move to gender roles.  Ghana is an extremely traditional society and women simply do not enjoy the same treatment as men.  It is a highly patriarchal society.  One of the first real gender shockers I encountered came on behalf of both a student and fellow teacher at my school.  The action that set the stage was a perceived mishandling of a student’s attendance record.  We have what is called a ‘register prefect’ which is a student appointed to record all student attendance for the school.  This register prefect is a female student.  A male student happened to view his attendance record and believed he was marked absent when he was present.  This inspired him to go to the register prefect and hit her in the back of the head with a closed fist, hard enough to bring tears to the girl’s eyes and a bump on her head.  This of course sent her wailing and throwing rocks at the boy.  The entire encounter was witnessed by a male teacher.  We had a small staff meeting to decide how to punish the boy and if it was necessary to punish the girl for marking the register incorrectly.   My input was that physical violence should never be tolerated no matter the reason and the boy should be punished.  There was a dispute among teachers on whether or not the girl should be punished for making an error in the register.  It was amazing that the conversation was focused more on the accuracy of the register than the fact that a male student physically abused a female student.  It did not seem to be a very big deal.  Almost as if it was acceptable for the girl to be hit if she marked it incorrectly.  One of the male teachers also gave his input that if we do not want the boys to abuse the girls, we need to train the girls not to insult the boys in case the boys cannot control themselves and feel the need to hit the girls.  My mental reaction was: “WWWHHHHAAAAAT!??”  But I did not lose face and decided I would have a private conversation with the teacher later.  That conversation ended in me convincing the teacher that maybe counseling the boys on withdrawing from physical violence might help but it would be better to teach the girls to respect the men so they don’t get hit……Because in Ghana it is not uncommon for a man to control his wife with his hands……but doing trying both strategies is a good idea.  Small progress…small progress.
                It is also very common for the girls in school, even the bright and promising girls, to act dumb and pretend they do not know the answers in class in order to not insult the boys by making it appear the girls are smarter.  This even happens at the university level.  I was with a Ghanaian friend of mine, who attends a teacher training college, while he was telling his elementary school sister, who is her class captain, not to speak out in class all the time if the boys are keeping quiet.  I asked him why he was teaching his sibling to be submissive and he said that’s just how it is, even at his university.  The boys should always be stronger.  Families are also more likely to send a son to university and not worry about the daughters education as the main concern there is that the woman finds a husband and will not need to work. 
                Finally, women are simply not as respected as they should be.  I was having a drink with my friend after a funeral and his friend and wife later joined us.  The first thing his friend said to me was “Wow!  Nice American lady!  I always said that I wanted to marry a white woman but I had to marry her instead” as he gestured to his wife.  I could not believe he would make such a comment in the presence of his wife, who just looked down and did not say a word the entire time.  It was uncomfortable.  I thought he was joking but he continued to talk about how all Ghanaian men want a white wife and Ghanaian women only disturb their husbands.  I am positive that in this particular case, the husband was doing the disturbing.  But then again, this type of society encourages women to be passive and submissive to their husbands, so maybe she didn’t mind.   I did.
                So, needless to say, these things remind me of how different the world is outside America.  Something like witchcraft, that we think is pure nonsense and a cheap form of entertainment in the movies is a serious and scary reality for some people.  Women’s rights and equality have come along way in the U.S. but even a progressive nation like Ghana has a lot of catching up to do in that field.  I also believe that America is less like the rest of the world than any other nation.  There are more third world countries out there that lack education and freedom and that perpetuates these views.  Many are hundreds of years behind Ghana.   I think most of the world’s nations have views and ideas that are less like Americans and more like traditional Ghanaians.  But you just have to get out in the world and find out for yourself!  Otherwise you’ll never know.

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