Thursday, May 28, 2009

Southern Exposure: Or, a Long Weekend in the South of Ghana

Jungle Primeval

Cacun National Park is in the South of Ghana, within an hour from Cape Coast. It boasts some of the oldest, fully preserved rainforest in the world, and a canopy walk on which you can observe the forest from something of a unique angle – after all, how often do you get to see massive trees from above, rather than starting up at them? More importantly, Cancun is partially open to hiking, and one can, go for a walk in one of the few un-colonized (for lack of a better term) stretches of rainforest in West Africa.

It had been a nice coincidence that I had been reading Alan Weisman’s excellent thought experiment “The World Without Us” that week; and had just finished it on the bus ride south. Weisman considers the world both before our ancestors descended from the trees and evolved, and how biological systems will likely patch themselves back together post homo sapiens. To realize that much of the Africa, and perhaps even the world had at one point looked like the rainforest I trekked through in Cacun; and would likely look that way again given roughly one hundred years without the parasitic and often destructive impulses of people stripping the land of its resources, is oddly disquieting. It is not that I am opposed to people or the built environment – my field is urban planning after all – it is just, as one breathes the clean, moist tasting air of a dense rainforest; it is painfully clear that what is still going to be around 10 thousand years from now, and what may not be. The realization that everything in that rainforest is living; and in the case of some of the trees – which are as large as any of the Giant Redwoods you see in the Pacific Northwest of the North America – have been alive for thousands of years is a humbling feeling. That the air tastes different from city air, or even from air in more recently planted forests – that the incredible filtration system of all of those living things which have been at work for millennia remains, in every way, staggering.

Life, in this forest, reaches deep into the soil and expands outwards. It feels permanent – and in a way it is. Though the whole of the ecosystem can be rapidly and easily destroyed through even slight climate variations – in a way, it is the frailty of this plant life that gives its adaptability. If some plant species perish, some will always naturally select for traits that are best suited to those variations. From the upheaval will always come new life. One is forced to come face to face with this in a rainforest. It is us and our edifices that are impermanent and the forest that is the natural order of things. As Weisman argues in his book, the chimpanzees that human beings are descended from, who climbed from similar rainforest tens of millions of years ago in Tanzania were driven by slight climatic variations. Those forests will remain and will sprout anew, and perhaps, with luck, the chimps with them, long after we are dead and gone.

The Ghost of Slavery’s Ships

The town of Cape Coast was at one time the base for the British West African colonization and of the European sponsored and, tragically, African implemented West African slave trade. Cape Coast Castle, a white, almost pre-art deco castle was where those recently taken as slaves were held, in large, crowded holding cells for months at a time, among piles of their own excrement and filth, before being put on ships and sent to The New World, South America, the Caribbean, or elsewhere. It is estimated that some six or seven million people passed through Cape Coast Castle, before being loaded onto ships. They were taken from all over West Africa – some from as far away as Mali or Cameroon. Many died in the squalor of the holding cells of the castle, where they sat in near total darkness, even before they were loaded on ships. The dead were often left to rot with the still living. The Polish journalist of decolonization, Ryszard Kapuschisnksi, in the section of his book on the fall of the Soviet Union, 'Imperium', detailing the holocaust and before that, Stalin's purges in the Ukraine, likened slavery and colonization as being another holocaust visited upon Africa by Western Europe. He has a point.

Cape Coast as a town is quite a bit more laid back than much of the rest of Ghana, though it was once the centre of the Gold Coast Colony (as Ghana was known during the period of British control). Now it is simply a relatively poor coastal community, with most people making their livelihood through the extraction of ever declining Atlantic fish stocks. Heaps of (largely plastic) garbage litter what would otherwise be very pretty beaches, and the coastline is visibly polluted with all manner of waste that has been discharged into the ocean.

Those that have achieved affluence in Cape Coast have done so through the successful mining of white guilt over slavery cottage industry. It is interesting that a robust tourism economy can be built in dwelling, at length, in the depths of human willingness to exploit and abuse their co-mammals. Indeed, the viciousness of the slave trade, and later colonization of West Africa by exploitative European empires, was heinous – and guilt over this is something seized on by the locals of Cape Coast, dramatically inflating prices of everything from taxi fares to souvenirs for visiting white tourists. The ancestors of the slaves then, would seem to be having their revenge, increment by increment then. Except, it is not that simple. African complicity in the slave trade was what made the whole thing possible. While European demand for slaves drove the trade, it was Africans that went out, rounded up their brothers on the continent and brought them to the Europeans to be processed and shipped out. This is a point only briefly and hastily covered by those leading the tour of Cape Coast Castle, and the former Portuguese slave castle of Almina (a Africanized version Al Mina, or 'the mine'), stressing, to them the uniquely European nastiness of slavery, then strongly hinting that a generous tip would go some way to begin 'healing those wounds'.

Slavery though, was also a normal part of many of the African Empires that existed well prior to white colonization. A similar process of imperial conquest, with Assante, the Songhai, the Fanti, and other African empires perpetually at war with one another - and actively enslaving their enemies as parts of the spoils of war, had played itself out for thousands of years in Africa (and in the rest of the world!). Indeed, what elevates the European slave trade is three factors, (1) the scope on which it was practiced, and (2) its systematic implementation of the trade and the technology gap between the oppressed and the oppressors; and (3) the brutalism of exploitation of the colonization that followed.

The experience at Cape Coast is interesting because it is clear, one really does begin to feel bad about the horrible things that ones ancestors had been up to; however you do not always feel bad in the way people from Cape Coast would like you to feel bad. It has been European acknowledgement that the whole process of slavery and colonization were wrong after some bruising defeats to the old post-war European empires, and anti-imperial narratives from the likes of Forrester, Orwell, Paul Scott and countless others that has lead to the pervasive feeling of guilt for practices which were, throughout ancient history, common place. No such consideration seems to be given to the equally large, no less ugly, and far less often talked about Ottoman and North African slave trade run through Morocco, which often saw Europeans enslaved as well as Africans. Perhaps it was the unintended racial egalitarian nature of this slave trade that sees it forgotten, while the European slave trade, the ancestors of its victims alive, and in many places, often disadvantaged by centuries of institutional abuse, in the Americas and Caribbean that elevates the horror of one while almost erasing from memory, the other.

Colonization is an abusive system, it was one that had advantages in places some parts of India (where the English Colonial Service and British built railroads were the ticket to emancipation and social mobility for many low caste Hindus who would otherwise be forced into lives of extreme poverty and menial labor to their Brahman brethren) but it remained at base and abusive system. Slavery was one clear aspect of this abuse, and it is something that, in many parts of the world, we seem to have finally achieved consensus of its grotesqueness; however this does not necessarily exonerate Africans who were involved in giving the sinews of this abuse. Guilt can only be useful to a point, but it is memory and vigilance that such abuses not be allowed again that must be the lasting legacy. Similarly, it is also far too easy for many West Africans to blame all of the ills of their countries on colonialism, (and the artificiality of the borders of many post-Colonial African states and massive resource extraction by European colonialists makes this argument) without trying to improve conditions and often while exploiting their countrymen. The lesson should always be one of the prevention of future transgressions rather than in wallowing upon the spilled blood of the past.

Accra on Sunday

Accra is dead on Sundays. It is funny experience to walk in the streets of a city of three million and encounter no one except for the perpetual onslaught of dejected taxi drivers, desperate for a Sunday fair, who anxiously honk their horns at you as they pass. A coworker of mine, noted that, one of the things he loved about his country was that, as a result of the widespread religiosity of the place, Sunday had a very particular feel. Sunday is sacred in Ghana, people go to church and then spend the day at home with their families. In a way it is nice, it proves that even a days respite can be gained from that most resiliant of beasts: capitalism. Shops are closed in vibrant commercial districts, with only the odd restaurant or bar (often in areas that tend to boast large numbers of foreigners) open. Indeed, I walked the whole four-mile stretch of the central business district without seeing a single open shop. The next morning, the same area was so congested it became completely impassable. On Sunday though, one can begin to feel very alone. All of the signs of recent human activity are still present. Trash litters the streets and due to the open sewers, perennial stink of urine that permeates West African cities are, as always still there but, as the premise of the Weisman book offers, everyone has simply vanished. One can start to entertain ideas of how long it would take the jungle to reclaim Accra were this status quo to persist. Then you start to go a bit crazy.

The Northern district of the city is called Asylum Down. It is a relatively affluent district that felt something like a Ghost town on a hot Sunday morning. I think the name is wonderful. It reminded me of an episode of “The Old Grey Whistle Test” (a long since deceased BBC music program) with the Smiths on it. In said episode, Morrissey and Johnny Marr hijack a class of English school children as a mechanism for Morrissey to put forward a litany of slightly prissy remarks and weird jokes that don’t really come off. The high part comes during a scene in which one of the children has the gumption to ask Morrissey, “Where are we going?” to which Morrissey quite stiffly replied, “We’re all going mad!” Asylum Down on a Sunday makes you feel that way. It’s emptiness, the apparent sheer lack of human life on the streets (with the exception of the cabbies, who genuinely are mad in Accra and school like sharks on a feeding frenzy at the site of a fair) makes one feel that perhaps, you have completely lost it, and are in an asylum on ones own making. (Deadpans) Eerie that.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Cultural Anthropology Part 1

There is an obvious danger in making gross generalities about a whole culture; even if the cultural behaviors being described are visible within an observed percentage. It is these sorts of crass universal assumptions about foreign cultures that fueled the Orientalist screeds on Arabs, “Orientals”, and Africans that Edward Said so effectively critiqued; arguing that they served to pervert the Western understanding of “the other” by mischaracterizing indigenous belief and then placing it into the context of, or direct juxtaposition with Western beliefs. Even someone like the late, great Ryszard Kapuschinski, (to whom my writing is deeply indebted), was something of an Orientalist – he at times knowingly mis-portrayed African, Asian and Latin American cultures; making gross generalizations and dealing wholesale in exoticism because it made better copy back home. Flaubert, T.E. Lawrence, Charles M. Doughty and others, were similarly afflicted. Why Kapuschinski transcends the Orientalist label is because he always had a very healthy respect for the cultures he was portraying; and his work remains fiercely literary in both tone and content.

That said; sometimes these cultural distinctions, taken in contrast with the West (here mischaracterized as a singular, monolithic entity – possibly eliciting accusations of “Occidentalism”), can be useful; as long as culture is taken on its own terms rather than measured against Western ideas. I take this long to, pardon the expression, clear my throat, because I think the distinction between an Orientalist read on culture – complete with its coded chauvinism; and a less biased read on culture is an important distinction. I also feel that as an outsider looking at a culture for which one may not be equipped with the  salient cultural frame of reference, it is very difficult not to practice some measure of Orientalist thought. I think an awareness of the impulse to reduce foreign cultures to exoticism can also help to mitigate that impulse. I will attempt to tread lightly. What follows is a collection of, largely anecdotal, and loosely linked cultural observations:

Assantes live in a continuum in which all things appear equally likely. Belief in magic and traditional mysticism operates in tandem with a particular fundamentalist type of charismatic Christianity (I say fundamentalist because there is no debate on evolution: it is presumed wrong out of hand because it contradicts the book of Genesis) along with other vestiges of modernity. The ethereal are given the same considerations as the practical. Thus, many Assantes, and Ghanaians as a whole, will tell you that animals descend directly from the heavens. A popular tale; which many people claim to have directly experienced involves heavy rainstorms and fish falling from the heavens. Streams of water, formed in the rainstorms, are apparently what these fish use to navigate to bodies of water – literally swimming along the ground. I have been told this story countless times with people often claiming to have eaten said heavenly fish after discovering them in fields and under trees during rain storms (the lack of food in the fish’s stomach proving that it was produced divinely). I also once heard the story told about deer. This is taken as categorical evidence of God’s existence. Thus, because someone said it, it must be true, ergo it is made to fit into the existing framework of monotheistic belief. Many times, traditional beliefs in magic that cannot be reconciled with Christianity are explained as demonic forces that people are to live with. Thus, a troop of very talented street acrobats, who delighted a crowd with their gracefulness and cleverness were attributed as magical, and people were reluctant to put money into their hat because they were worried they could be helping the devil.

Local mythoa remain of the utmost of importance within the culture; and vary from village to village. A village I recently visited coexists with a large monkey population in an abutting forest. The area has become one of the leading monkey sanctuaries in West Africa – an impressive feat as monkey is a prized bush meat in many parts of the continent and the likelihood of so large a monkey population surviving so close to human settlements is something of a singular occurrence; with most other sanctuaries existing only in deep and remote parts of forest primeval. What has protected these monkeys from a culinary holocaust has been a local taboo against eating monkey based on a local legend. Apparently, some time ago, many of the ancestors of the village disappeared suddenly at around the time the monkeys showed up (as deforestation likely pushed the monkeys into the relatively preserved forested area that the village touches), leading the villagers to believe that their missing relatives had been transformed into monkeys, in a sort of reverse Darwin irony. It certainly puts the Americanism about being a “monkey’s uncle” into a new perspective. The taboo against eating monkeys then stems from a desire to not devour distant familiar relations; and has preserved the monkey population; who are fed a steady diet of (locally cultivated) mangos by the villagers; who with the creation of a national park; have begun to profit thanks to simian centric tourism. It is a strange symbiotic relationship that sprung from a local mythology. As more traditional beliefs are replaced with the ever encroaching and increasingly fundamentalist Christianity that is pervasive in Ghana; one wonders if similar animal sanctuaries can come into existence without state intervention.

The Assante, despite which religious faction they align with, tend to be Protestant in the Weberian sense. The work ethic of the Assante is renowned throughout Ghana. This makes a lot of sense: the Assante had one of the most successful and wealthiest empires in pre-colonial Africa, and largely got there through a fiercely competitive streak; which manifests itself in both a willingness to work, and a tendency towards argument. Thus, even watching a football match is an opportunity for many to boast of the team they support. Emotion is explosive and tightly coiled just below the surface. People get angry quickly, but also recover quickly.

This can play itself out in an ugly way sometimes. Rough justice is popular in Ghana. Thieves, if caught, are regularly lynched by a mob, rather than going to trial. Even in the event of involuntary manslaughter during these lynching; which is quite common; it is rare that any criminal proceedings are put forward. Police are often placed in a position in which they have to protect thieves from angry mobs and, not wanting to face down this instant justice. At times the line between civil society and anarchy can be diaphanous; almost seeming the vestige of an older, more primal society.

There is also a strong sense of propriety within Ghanaian society. Correct packaging of items sold is a must. This means that everything will be given to you in a black plastic bag, regardless of whether you want the bag or not. It is, in many ways, an ecologist’s nightmare. My efforts to forego the bag, for items that are prepackaged and thus not needing to be entombed in a polymer sheaf have been met by a combination of scorn and shock. I was once denied the sale of a bottle of coca cola because the vendor was out of black plastic bags with which to package the thing in. Never mind that I didn’t want, or need the bloody bag anyways. This has much to do with social protocols. To not offer up items in a plastic sack is to do someone a grave insult; and the establishment that fails to produce plastic bags is doomed to be looked upon as cheap by other Ghanaians. At the same time, this does little to mitigate growing mounds of plastic waste that erupt across Ghana.

There is also the tendency towards a sort of passive affirmation in the event that something is impossible. For example, instead of telling you that they cannot make a meeting, etc, a Ghanaian will tell you that they certainly will be there, and then simply not show up. Some people will try to casually let slip other commitments at the same time; often leaving you to piece together that they cannot make it; however not everyone will extend this courtesy; often leaving one to wonder if anyone is going to show up; or at one time. There is a running joke in Ghana that things operate on GMT or Ghana Mean Time; which often means add between 1 and 4 hours; except when people are early. As a result, one must adjust ones schedule for the eventuality that a person may not arrive at all; or may arrive significantly later than predicted.

Friendship with Westerners is interesting to. Strangers will walk up to you, insist that you are now best friends and proceed to try to make plans with you. I learned early on not to give out my phone number because people have no qualms whatsoever about calling you very late at night, or very early in the morning, and then get angry when, bleary eyed, you are unable to remember them as the stranger that accosted you three weeks earlier. People can also come across as pushy - but this is merely cultural. A stranger who walked by me in front of my building once told me to “get off the phone” so she could talk to me, and that it was of the utmost of importance. What she eventually had to say was just that she wanted my phone number. It is frequent for strangers to walk up to you and say “I like you as my friend.” I have never been sure how to respond to this; people generally seem well meaning in doing so; but lest one get sleep at all; one must be cautious.

Misconceptions about Westerners abound. Children in a village once checked the latrine after I had used it because they had been told that Westerners defecate money. This was a view held by their elders as well; who had planned a similar ‘investigation’ but were extending the courtesy of waiting until I had departed the vicinity.