Rebuilding Foundations

An exploration of international development work in Africa

Archive for the tag “Culture”


Until the lion learns to write, the narrative will favour the hunter.

My little sister is almost 13-years-old.  It feels as though she is blossoming into an adult before my eyes.  Almost overnight, she started asking teenager-type questions and doing young woman-type things.  I find myself telling her stories about my childhood that I haven’t thought of for over a decade.  I try to relate her emotionally and find that I’m surprisingly close to her level.  I would like to think that with the 14 year age gap, I am significantly more mature.  But I’m not.

I especially notice the same mannerisms in the way we talk about our accomplishments.  She admits to me the things she’s proud of – like finishing her math homework or learning her theatre lines – but the sentences come out unfamiliar.  When she exclaims, “Guess what, Bebe!” I can tell that she’s only telling a few people these triumphs, such as my parents and her grandma.

In North America, we’re taught to be humble.  We’re taught not to brag about our accomplishments.  But sometimes humility goes too far.  I often find myself arguing, “Oh I’m not that smart” or “I haven’t accomplished anything.”  I try to turn conversations so that they’re about anything other than me.

But maybe it’s ok to talk about myself.  I blog about myself, after all.

Blogging often feels like a self-centred activity.  “Who wants to read my words?” I think.  “I don’t have anything important to say.”

I justify it by reminding myself that no one has to read this.  Every person on this page can shut it down whenever they want.

But maybe I need to be more radical.  It’s time for a new argument: “Beth, you do have things to say.  Your ideas are worthwhile and people should listen.”

That’s the sort of pep talk I give my sister all the time because she – like all teenagers – should grow up to believe that her thoughts are valuable.

I know a lot of women who don’t inherently believe this.  They need constant validation from other people, primarily men.  Probably a lot of men feel this way too (except maybe they need validation from women), although my guy friends rarely discuss these sorts of thoughts with me.

On a related note, here’s a little story:

A few years ago I was flying on a trip that would eventually go from Vancouver to Cancun, but my cheap airline tickets had me crossing through the U.S. along the way.  On one of the flights I happened to be sitting beside an older American man.  He was a retired farmer who liked to race cars and was on his way home from a race.  He was the stereotypical southern gentleman: kept calling me a “peach” and told me about his wife who had loved since high school.

He asked me what book I was reading.  I gushed that Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert is one of my favourite novels and told him the basic premise.  He showed me the book of poetry he had that was written by one of his neighbours.

He must have been intrigued by my synopsis of Eat, Pray, Love because he asked if I wanted to switch books.  We would also exchange addresses and mail the books back when we were finished.

Even though I liked the idea a lot, I hesitated.  “You might not like this story,” I said.  “It’s a really girly book.”

He insisted that he wanted to read it, however, so we exchanged.

Months later I got my copy of Eat, Pray, Love back in the mail with a lovely note that explained that he didn’t find it a “girly” book it all.  He felt that it explored emotions and actions that most people struggle with – just because it was about a woman didn’t make it any less valuable.

He was right.

In our culture, woman’s stories aren’t as valued as men’s, which are seen as normal.  Stories about women are characterized as “Chick lit” or romantic comedies.  They are classified by the fact that they’re about women.

Stories about men, however, get to be everything.  They can be dramas or comedies or action or sci fi.  It’s true that some of these stores can be about women (like Alien), but they’re few and far between.  Furthermore, men often think it’s embarrassing to watch or read one of these.

In contrast, most of the stories I read are about men, but that doesn’t seem weird to me.  That’s how the world is.

Sometimes I wonder that if I was a man, would I feel more justified about blogging?  Would I worry about coming across as self-centred by writing so much?

Regardless, I keep writing.  I enjoy it, which by itself is a good enough reason to continue.

I never want my sister to think, “I like writing a lot but I don’t have anything to say.”

So I give myself the same pep talks that I give her.


More EWB-UBC Questions

Here are some more questions from my awesome UBC Chapter back home.

In your blog post, Fight Patriarchy, you mentioned that many charities are aimed at helping men. In what ways do NGO programs benefit men more than women?

To begin, my apologies.  I often make sweeping generalizations in my blog posts that I don’t back up.  To answer this question, I’m going to narrow my scope and focus on Tamale.

In this city, there are a lot of different NGO projects with different agendas.  There are a lot of different NGO projects with different agendas.  Many of them specifically target women as recipients of aid or education.  Unfortunately, however, it is extremely difficult for foreigners to understand the local cultural implications of their work

For example, I’m currently working with a group that is educating women on obstetric fistula.  Since this a medical problem that occurs from prolonged childbirth, it first appeared to be a “woman’s issue.”  Consequently, they started their project by focusing on women.

They soon discovered, however, that the problems surround obstetric fistula are much more complex.  Early marriages, teen pregnancies, malnutrition, and poverty all contribute to the high rates of obstetric fistula.  Moreover, it often doesn’t matter how educated a woman is on the subject because ultimately she needs permission from her husband to go to the hospital – either to give birth or get treated afterwards.

We exist in a patriarchal society, so all these small patch-up solutions ultimately help to uphold patriarchy.

Here’s another example.  For the GIFTS project, Amplify hired Ghanaians to work as field workers.  They record housing information, GPS coordinates, and paint numbers on the houses.  Out of 10 data collectors, only one is a woman.

This isn’t because Amplify is biased: they actually aimed to hire more women.  But many women can’t work a full-time job here.  Instead, they need something that they can organize around household chores and childcare responsibilities.  For instance, my seamstress’ 1-year-old son usually hangs out in her stall with her.

As a Canadian, I view my job life and home life as separate entities.  Women here, however, often don’t have that luxury.

Does that make sense?  Have I answered your question?  I wanted to delve into counterrevolutionary theory, but that would have started a long “end patriarchy!!!!!” rant so I tried to give examples instead.  Let me know if I haven’t been clear.

If people are using pay-as-you-go cards, then would they be paying to answer the surveys you’ve sent out?

With pay-as-you-go, you only pay when you make the outgoing call.  Receiving calls doesn’t cost anything.

In what other ways can we/NGOs help if we don’t build infrastructure directly? How do we help improve infrastructure indirectly?

By helping countries improve their government’s accountability, which leads to your next question:

You suggested improving the tax system, however, how could developed countries help developing countries improve their governments as whole?

I wish I had concise answers for you.  Honestly you’re asking me things way outside my depth of knowledge, so please take everything here with a grain of salt.  Actually, take it with a mountain of salt.

I think we need to focus on our own governments and lead by example.

In South Africa, I got to meet the Governor General because my friend’s boss was receiving an award.  As a fellow Canadian, I was invited to the party.  We went to the Canadian Diplomat’s house in Pretoria, which was huge.  I met Craig Kielburger, the guy who started Feed the Children.  A large group of important Canadians were traveling around southern Africa to meet state leaders and see the countries for themselves.

It was outrageous.  Besides the lavish food spread, they had also brought in Canadian beer and maple cookies.

Most African governments are disgustingly corrupt, but we’re not shining ideals either.  As Canadians, I think we need to demand more from our politicians.  Advocacy is key.

I know that’s not a great answer.  I’m basically saying that we can help African governments by ignoring them and letting them fend for themselves.

More than that, though, we also need to recognize that many of our actions in Canada undermine sovereignty in African states – like our electronics that often contain minerals from conflict zones.  We need to consume less stuff.  If oil, gold, diamonds, and other resources weren’t so precious, then people wouldn’t fight over it.

These are tough issues.  It’s so complicated that I have no idea how to tackle them.

That being said, things change quickly.  Look at how quickly China and India created a new middle class!  Nothing is hopeless.

If anyone else has more ideas, you’re invited to share.

Princess Leia

Street harassment is probably my biggest issue with Ghana.  I just want to walk around without men yelling at me.  The constant onslaught is exhausting.

Luckily Hollaback Street Harassment recently made a great video to illustrate what a huge problem this is, even in North America.

Even luckier, a fantastic parody was made!  This video is excellent.

Sometimes, you just have to laugh.

Moreover, it makes sense that so many men here have no idea how to relate to me.  They probably get most of their information from TV.  Can you imagine if you judged women from beer ads?  No matter they think I’m going to have sex with them just because they say hello.

Compared to here, Canadians are way more sexually active.  Ghana is relatively conservative, especially in Tamale with its high proportion of Muslim population.  Most people probably have a friend of a friend who dated an expat and they had sex without any thoughts of marriage.  So weird!

So I try to be more understanding.  Look at how Canadians view Africa, after all.  We generalize “Africa” as if it’s one big country.  We listen to songs like the new Band Aid 30 version of “Do they know it’s Christmas,” which is full of lies, racism, and bad rhymes.  We see Africans as lazy, dependent, and vulnerable.

Which is wrong.

Sometimes I feel like an alien from a galaxy far, far away – but I’m not.  I’m not going to say something stupid like “we’re all human so we should be able to empathize” because I don’t think that we can.  More and more during conversations, I realize “I have absolutely no idea where this guy is coming from.”  I can’t dig down deep to his fears, desires, and motivations.  Our cultures are too different to understand each other.

But I think that’s ok.  I think it’s ok to accept our differences as long as I realize that it’s not a black/white thing or men/women thing.

Ghanaian Greetings

Yesterday my host-father gave me a lesson in Ghanaian greeting etiquette.

In the evenings, he often sits on a chair in the front yard.  When I get home and walk through the gate of the perimeter wall, I always call “Anoola,” which means “good evening,” and wave.

Apparently I’ve been doing it wrong!  Last night he said, “You don’t greet when you are far away.  You should wait until you’re closer.  Unless you’re on a bicycle or in a car, then you can wave and greet from far away.  But you should wait.”

“Ok, thank you for telling me,” I responded.  “From now on, I’ll wait.”

I had already sort of noticed this phenomenon from walking around.  Back home, I say hello to people when they’re about 1-2m in front of me.  We make eye contact, smile, say hi, and maybe say “How are you?” “Good, and you?” “Good” as we pass each other.

In Ghana, however, people wait until you’re side-by-side.  It threw me off at first to have people greet me just as they were leaving my peripheral vision.  Do I turn and say something?  But most people seem to speak as they’re walking away.  One person might say “Despa” (good morning) as they pass another and the second person says “Naaaa” (fine) as they continue in their separate directions.

It seems an especially strange practice when boys are yelling after me.  I’m unlikely to respond to men yelling “Hey salaminga!” anyways, but there is no way I’m going to stop, turn around, and answer when I’m already a few meters away down the road.

You are welcome

After yesterday’s rant, I feel a need to give a more balanced story about this beautiful country.  Ghanaians are extremely friendly people.  Much of my discomfort stems from my own standoffish North American upbringing where it’s weird to ask a stranger in the supermarket how their day is going.  Here, though, it’s weird (and very impolite) not to ask.  There is a huge difference between:

“Good morning, how are you?”
“Are you having bread?” (which means, “Do you sell bread?”)


“Good morning, are you having bread?”

It’s also not weird to ask a stranger for his or her phone number after speaking for only a few minutes.

When I went to Wa a few weeks ago, the boy beside me was traveling back for school after staying in Tamale for the holidays.  He saw another boy out the window while we stopped to let off some passengers.  They talked for a bit in a mixture of Twi and English.  I couldn’t understand a lot of the conversation, but he asked the boy outside if he was a student at the university.  They talked until the tro had finished unloading and started to move again.  “What’s your number?” asked the boy beside me.

The outside boy gave his number so my seat partner could “flash” him, meaning call and hang up right away so he saw his number but neither are charged any pay-as-you-go fees.

As a super polite but somewhat aloof Canadian, I would not feel comfortable giving my number to someone I only talked to for a couple minutes.

Unless we were at a bar and he was super hot.


We Canadians have our strange customs too.  For instance, we add people on Facebook that we barely know – a website full of photos and personal information.  When I think about it, I’d actually rather give a stranger my phone number than access to my profile.  My phone number is more intrusive, though.  I don’t like being called 5 times in a day, even if it’s relatively easy to ignore.

But let’s get back to the original point of this post: Ghana is a warm and friendly country.  People tend to laugh easily and greet their neighbours.  I don’t want to stereotype any culture with broad generalizations, but I’ll still say that Ghanaian culture is lovely by and large – despite its patriarchal leanings.

A Script of Petty Arguments

Scene 1

In the VOTO internet cafe, which is packed full of people.

Man: Hey white lady.

Me: [Silently types at computer]

Man: Hey china girl.

People working on the surrounding computers glance at us.

Me: Stop talking to me like that.  It’s rude.

Man: What?

Me: I would not say to you “Hey black man.”  No, because it’s rude.  So stop talking to me like that.

People on the surrounding computers start laughing.  Man looks sheepish and goes back to his work.

Scene 2

In the bathroom at nightclub. Two men lean against the walls while I wash my hands.

Man to his friend: That’s pretty, don’t you think?  Really nice.

Me: Don’t talk about me like I can’t hear you.

Man: What?

Me: Don’t talk about me like I can’t hear you when I’m right here.  It’s demeaning.

Man: You’re pretty.

Me: I don’t care.

Man: Let’s go inside and dance.

Me: No.

Scene 3

With a friend while buying fruit from a woman in the market.

Nearby man to my friend: Hey white lady, are you married.

My shy friend: [Pause] Yes.

Man to me: Are you?

Me: Yes.

Man: I want to marry a white woman.

Me: No one will marry you if you only want her for her skin colour.  That’s very shallow.

Man gets mad and huffs off.  Returns 30 seconds later while we’re still waiting for our change.

Man: [indignant] I don’t believe you’re married.  You’re only small girls.  You’re liars.

Me: Good thing you figured that out.  You don’t want to be friends with liars.

Man: You’re lying.  You just don’t want to be MY friend.  Why are you lying?

We walk away with our cut up papaya while he angrily yells after us.

Scene 4

Walking through the bus station.  A man comes up behind me and wraps his arm around my waist.

Man: Hey salaminga.  I want to talk to you.

I jump to the side and angrily turn to face him.

Me: Don’t touch me.

Man: Hey, I just want to talk.

I walk away.  He’s not worth my time or disgust.

Script Analysis

For every unpleasant interaction I have with stranger, there are at least 50 good ones.  Regardless, sometimes I want to scream, “Stop being such a stereotype! Have some fucking decency and respect.”

The thing that really bothers me is the constant harassment.  In Joburg, it was bad in Hillbrow (where I worked) but I didn’t have to put up with the comments in the rest of the city.  Back home, I know that by clubbing I’m putting myself in a situation where I’m more likely to be harassed and accept it.  It isn’t ok – women should be able to do anything and go everywhere – but I put up with it without complaint.

Here, though, it’s wearing me down.  I miss the days of anonymity.

Lindsay’s Sallah Post

For a much more detailed description of Saturday’s Sallah event, read my coworker Lindsay’s awesome blog post.


Yesterday was a day off in Ghana to celebrate the Muslim holiday Sallah.

A group of expats went to the Saturday morning event to see what Sallah was about.  One girl is dating a Ghanaian Muslim, so her and her boyfriend guided us through the crowd.  The night before, they had instructed us to wear long skirts, sleeves, and scarves that covered our heads.  We did our best, but most women get new clothes made for Sallah so we were a bit plain next to the beautiful clothes surrounding us.

The Sallah event was held in a large park in town.  Our little group of expat women sat on benches and watched the crowd from the edges.  It was weird, though, because our bench faced the sea of people, which were all men.

“Are you sure we’re in the right spot?” one girl asked.

“It’s fine,” answered the girlfriend who had gone to Sallah before.  “We’re just not allowed to sit in the front row.”

“But the woman are all in the back….”

We stayed where we were, although I think we all felt a bit conspicuous.

Sallah in Tamale

Sallah in Tamale

The event didn’t last too long – less than half an hour.  Everyone prayed in unison, uttering phrases, kneeling, and standing back up a few times.  Except for some children who were doing their own thing.  Whenever the huge crowd knelt down, there were always a few kids still standing and looking around or pushing each other.

Some things don’t ever change, no matter the culture!

Kids at Sallah

Kids at Sallah

Sunday Morning Church

For a cultural experience, I went to church with my host-family last weekend.  To start, I was worried that my clothes wouldn’t be conservative enough so I wore leggings under my dress and a light sweater over my shoulders.

I shouldn’t have worried.  Many of the women were in heels and little, fitted dresses.  Church was obviously a  place to see and be seen.

The service lasted about 3 hours.  It was air-conditioned, thank goodness.  There was lots of singing and swaying, which I enjoyed.  There were no exorcisms, which my colleague witnessed at one church event with her host-family (she stopped attending afterwards).

The Pastor’s main story, though, wasn’t particularly inspiring.  Nor did it make sense.  There are a lot of really nice parables in the Bible, so it doesn’t seem like it should be that hard to make me feel a little more friendly towards Christianity.  “Let he who has not sinned cast the first stone” and all that.  Instead, the Pastor said something that went like this:

There was a man with a beautiful daughter that everyone wanted to marry.  The father decided to host a race and whoever won the race could marry his daughter.

Every young man in town signed up, but then a dog also signed up.  The men knew they couldn’t beat the dog, so they all dropped out – except one man.  He wanted to marry the girl and he believed in God’s power, so he stayed in the race.

The night before the race, God lay bones along the path that it would be run.  Big, juicy bones.

In the morning, the man and the dog started the race.  At the first bone, the dog paused.  He wanted to win, but he also wanted the bone.  “How often do big, juicy bones appear?” he thought.  “I’m going to eat it.”

He lay down to eat it and the man ran past.  The dog finished the bone and quickly overtook the man again.  But then he saw a second bone.  “I’ve already had one, but I’d like another,” the dog thought. “Even if the man is only one second away from the finish line, I can still beat him.”

As he was eating the second bone, however, the man crossed the finish line and won the race.

The moral of the story is that beautiful women are like bones in your path, keeping you from accomplishing what God has laid out for you to do.

Seriously?  Women are either prizes or street meat?  If anything, I’d say the moral is don’t eat food off the ground.  The dog in the story had more character than the woman!

I wasn’t impressed.  After it was over, my host-sister ushered me to the section for people who were attending for the first time.  I had to fill out a questionnaire with my name and phone number as well as answer questions like “How do you feel after today’s service?”  The choices were “Inspired,” “Very inspired,” and “Truly inspired.”

This is culturally insensitive and callous to say, but now that I’ve ticked that off my list of experiences I don’t think I’ll go back.  Mostly because I don’t have any high heels here and my shoe envy was awfully sinful.

Language Lesson #2

In Ghana, people add “O” to the end of word to give it emphasis.  For instance, if you’re really sorry then you say, “Sorry-oh.”

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