Saturday, February 19, 2011

“Out of the mouth of babes…”

…and teenagers.  One of my (many) side projects here in Ghana is supporting a new partnership for a set of four senior high schools, two in Kumasi and two in Washington, DC, schools.  This partnership is intended to culminate in two videoconferences, one in March and one in May, on the general topic of migration.  MCI and the United Nations Association for the National Capital Area (UNA NCA), which runs the Model UN conferences in DC, are working together on this project.  [Editor’s note: what a blast from the past.  Back during my high school years, I participated in Model UN multiple times.  My favorite year had to be the one that we were France—not because I like the French in particular but because you make an awful lot of friends at a Model UN confernce as a permanent member of the Security Council.]

The topic of migration is of interest both to MCI, in terms of migration within a country from the villages to the major cities, and to the UNA NCA, in terms of migration between countries.  My primary role in this project has been to get the two Kumasi schools up to speed on the project and to help surmount the numerous technical challenges, from unreliable Internet access to a lack of experience with using Skype.  We are fortunate that Skype just released the ability to do group video calls and are crossing our fingers that it will let us have a 4-way discussion with all the schools involved. 

Upon visiting one of the schools, the teacher on the project asked me to talk to the five girls who are working on the project.  This teacher is not biased against boys—this senior high school happens to be an all-girls school.  I had no idea what to say to them and, quite frankly, was a bit scared about talking to a group of Ghanaian teenagers.  But he mainly wanted me to answer any questions they might have had about the program, so I was willing to give it a go.

Sitting to one side of the computer lab, the five girls and I started discussing the program.  I explained that I was in Ghana for six months as a volunteer to MCI from GlaxoSmithKline, my company, which is paying for my stay here.  They relentlessly grilled me with tough questions, like “What is the focus and end goal of this project?”  I felt a bit helpless, given that I still didn’t fully know why they were in this program.  In reviewing some email threads, I ran across the verbiage that it is intended to help “students and teachers focus on issues of global concern”.  I don’t think that that explanation fully satisfied them, and we wandered to other, more personal topics of discussion.

They were very interested in finding out what I thought of Africa before I came to Ghana.  In formulating my response, I felt a bit embarrassed because I wasn’t sure how they would take it. In my pre-reading for this assignment, I’ve developed a healthy guilt about how we in the developed world have treated the African continent primarily as a source of natural resources and now tend to assuage that guilt by dumping boatloads of money on them.  “I had the opportunity to visit South Africa a few years ago and I saw the kilometers of shantytowns outside Cape Town…”
“And you wanted to come help us?”
“ Well, yes.”
 But I went on to explain that even before I arrived here, I had begun to learn how different Ghana is from much of Africa through conversations with my Ghanaian co-worker.  I told them stories about how proud the Ghanaian diaspora is of their country, from the Ghanaian man flying back here through the RDU airport who was thrilled to hear LJ tell him I was living here to the Ghanaian cab driver in New Zealand whose face lit up like Christmas when he heard me talking about his country to my sister.

I think they were somewhat satisfied with my views of Africa, but they expressed their displeasure about the views of other foreigners, an issue I can understand from personal experience.  When I started telling people I was moving here, I can’t even begin to count the number of people who asked questions like “Is it safe there?” or “Is that one of the countries with all the wars?”  I explained to the girls that many people in the US think African countries much like US states, instead of recognizing the much larger differences between these disparate countries.  These views get very little help in changing, in large part due to media’s unceasing focus on Disaster TV to gather ratings.

One of the girls told me what someone in the US told her that they think about Africa. 
“They think we live in trees!”
I was completely stunned by this statement but I recovered my wits quickly enough to try to use it as a teaching moment. 
“That’s it!  That’s the goal of this program.  By participating in this partnership, at least two more schools in the US will have students who will know that you don’t live in trees.”

That would have been the end of the story and the end of this post had it not been for another conversation that I had today.  One of the JHS schools is actively involved in partnerships with the UK, in which some British students have had the opportunity to come to Ghana to learn about life here.  In telling a story about one British youth who had visited, this head teacher said, “He thought we lived in trees.”

I couldn’t believe that I had heard that twice in one week.  Never in my wildest thoughts had I entertained the notion that Africans live in trees and I told him that.  I suffered from my own misconceptions in thinking that many more people live in tiny shacks than actually do, which somehow that seems less ridiculous to me.  But perhaps it’s no less troublesome to an African to hear, as it still demonstrates a lack of knowledge on my part. 

So there you have it.  Today’s lesson is that Africans don’t live in trees.

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