Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Cultural Anthropology Part 2

Being around white people - nay Americans - has produced more jarring a sense of culture shock than anything I have experienced in Ghana. I recently managed to hitch a ride north to Mole (pronounced like the Mexican sauce rather than like the ground dwelling mammal) National Park and Safari with a group of tourists/researchers from Utah, which again brought me into contact with Americans in quantity – again resulting in the aforementioned culture shock. It was not that these denizens of the Mormon promised land (and having once driven through Utah – the only promise I detected was sunburn and canyons); it was just that I found them somehow harder to relate to than most Ghanaians. As an Eastern Canadian in origin, with a strong European heritage still very much alive and well on both sides of my family, I’ve never felt completely at ease with American culture – despite my dual American/Canadian citizenship. (I’ve been known to tell the story of my trip to the Lincoln memorial in Washington, DC as being the one time I’ve felt a strong sense of emotional connection to America only to have it obliterated by none other than a roving band of Americans, but I digress.) Contact with Americans for the limited period of this weekend drove home several points of contrast between the two cultures.

Ghanaians are more than happy to argue with you, to exchange a difference of opinion, but that is usually the end of it. They argue, almost what seems viciously sometimes about very intimate things such as religion, football teams (the unofficial second religion of most Ghanaians), and politics (and politics are the third great national passion – I was once told that to not have an opinion on Ghanaian politics is to not be a true Ghanaian) but then, after these exchanges, no hard feelings. Americans meanwhile will be far more politic, will not broach seemingly contentious issues, but then carry seething, though never spoken of animosity when differences are hinted at. Ghanaians also seem to carry a greater pragmatism about many of their political ideologies – even the staunchest supporters of the current government will elucidate at length about the deficiencies of that government – try getting an American Obama or Bush partisan to do the same. Ghanaians are, through experience, wary of single party rule and strive to see government turnover from election cycle to election cycle. This leads to problems in that it is far more difficult to realize long term planning projects if an administration cannot take credit for them; and with their departure from power likely sealed; anything that cannot be claimed at the end of a cycle is often simply not broached. American “politeness” falls into the realm of the ridiculous. During the long trip North, during a stopover at Muslim village boasting one of the oldest (they claim oldest, but the claim is controversial) mosques I was chastised by the Americans I was with for asking questions about Sufism in West Africa. Apparently these questions were viewed as too obtrusive – never mind that Ghanaians are delighted to talk at length about the various ins and outs of their religion and I was given lengthy and well-considered responses. To Ghanaians, their religion is part of life, and often to be advertised the same way support for football teams is advertised. As a result one is greeted with rear window sized stenciled messages on cars reading things like; “If God says yes, who could say no?” and “Satan is a liar” while most street businesses carry names such as; “Body of Jesus Fast Food” and “Christ the Lord barber and saloon” (sic – and incredibly often the word “saloon” is misused instead of “salon” resulting in hilarious ironies by which frequently anti-alcohol Ghanaians have long conversations about going to the saloon). In the Muslim North of the country, this trend is continued but with Islamic equivalents; so one gets “Allah is Great Dried Goods” (again proving that a lack of punctuation can have hilarious consequences), etc. People are often very happy to have an extended dialogue about the ins and outs of the minute details of their belief system; and one generally spends time trying to extricate themselves from such conversations not worrying about whether or not a Ghanaian will be offended by having the topic of their faith accidentally broached.

There is also more of a sense within American culture of wanting to appear more humble. While a Ghanaian will never let you know that they are poor; and will wear their Sunday best every day of the week (and in many cases washing dress clothing every day of the week to insure to insure that it remains spotless) to prevent anyone from thinking them as in any ways impoverished, American liberal tourists will go out of their way to try to demonstrate to Ghanaians how poor they are in the United States; despite this being obviously not the case to Ghanaians. Much of this seems to be tied to an ill-founded sense of American guilt about developing countries; but I ended up laughing myself sick as a middle class American masters student complained to a Ghanaian dishwasher making less than 20 cents an hour about how much his car insurance and iphone were costing him every month. The dishwasher, for his part, seemed to find the whole thing vaguely surreal, tried to muster some sympathy, and was later disappointed when the same American used his discourse on the monthly cost of his mobile phone as a rationale for not buying said Ghanaian a US $0.60 coca-cola.

Ghanaian dietary patterns often differ dramatically from those of North Americans. Foofoo is the national dish of Ghana. It is a combination of plantain and kasava, floating in a sauce made largely of spices, chicken fat and oil. Ghanaians will generally only eat one major meal a day, and that is almost always foofoo. People will tell you that they have not eaten that day if they have not eaten foofoo; causing ironies by which people can be too full on rice, or some other foodstuff to be able to be able to have eaten all day. Foofoo is enormously filling and is probably, a 3500-calorie meal on its own. Contrast this with the North American obsession with small, light meals – an obsession that I share; gastronomical exchange can prove difficult. There is also an American terror that comes into play with so-called “dark meat” (chicken legs, etc) and skins, which Ghanaians (and I) resoundingly reject.

Still, both groups, Ghanaians and Americans seem to have much in common when it comes to the ecclesiastical (and both seem to share a strange factional sense – especially when dealing with Islam), which, as far as I am concerned, the less said about, the better. Both are willing to proselytize, Americans more tacitly, Ghanaians, as noted above, far more overtly.

In the end, and as always, true social understanding proves difficult – and the tendency to make fetish of the other runs rife; still; all in all, I find Ghanaians less of an enigma than I do my own countrymen. And that says something.