Prescriptions are not just for medicine

25 October 2010 at 04:00 9 comments

Obruni (Often yelled, “Ooobrruuuniii”). A word that meant nothing to me just three short months ago. Now, it is a word that induces feelings of happiness, anger, and indifference all at the same time. In Ghana, a foreigner is called obruni. Really, it is more of a greeting than anything. Admittedly, it took me a while to get used to being called obruni.

While my fellowship is providing me with a fantastic opportunity to learn about microfinance, this obruni example illustrates a part of my fellowship that I equally cherish – Living in a country very different than my own. This is pushing me to be open-minded despite how strange circumstances might seem at times. This openness, in turn, is pushing me to think about things that I had never thought about before. I think a recent experience illustrates this nicely. A very interesting question was posed to me by a Ghanaian. “Do you think my country will ever reach your country?”

This is a challenging question to answer. One that I had to think about carefully before attempting to do so. Where I land on this issue, and similar issues for that matter, is that Ghana shouldn’t be striving to reach my country (Canada, but I think “your country” in this question means any Western country). What is there to reach for? What works well in North America will not necessarily work in Ghana. What works in Ghana will not necessarily work in North America. The standards, ideals, and cultures are different. They’re not better or worse in one place versus the other. They are just different. So why this constant reaching for more?

In so many parts of the world, the Western world is idealized to be a place where there is no hardship, poverty, or conflict. This is not an accurate depiction. It is all relative. Hardship, poverty, and conflict just present themselves in different ways in the West. We tend to categorize the unknown in one of two ways – we either view it as anxiety-inducing/bad or romanticize about the possibilities that it brings. This romanticized view of the West is what I often encounter in Ghana.

I struggle with this view, because I don’t think the life in the West is necessarily better. It’s just different. Things work differently. There are different rules and expectations. There are different cultural values. This romanticized view brings on another struggle for me. From what I observe (And keep in mind that it is a limited 3-month observation), this view of the West as being better is the driving force behind a lot of development work. Undertaking development projects will make countries like Ghana “better”. By definition, if a country is categorized as “developing”, shouldn’t they then be striving to become better in order to be “developed”?

But better according to whom? Certainly better according to our Western values and ideals. But are all of these projects in line with local people’s values and ideals? Do they even care if they have a new school or a new water well or [fill in the blank with project name]? According to their views of the world, will these local people actually be better off as a result of the development projects?

I was told a story of a development project in a remote village. This village did not have its own water pump and the women had to walk two hours just to fetch the water they need. This is absurd! Two hours just to get water? That’s a full-length Blockbuster production. Funding approved, a group of volunteers built a new well in this village. Now, the village women could get the clean water they need much more efficiently. Job well done! Right?

Are these villagers actually better off as a result of this new well? Did they even care about this well to begin with? Well, turns out, the well went unused. The two hours that the women spent getting water was a time to themselves. It was a very social time for them to catch up with one another and a time where they didn’t have to worry about cooking, cleaning, children, etc. According to our Western values, you should avoid wasting time at all costs. However, in other cultures being social and interacting with each other is much more important. I witness this in Ghana all the time. People genuinely take the time to engage with one another. In North America, however, we are often too busy to even respond to a two-line e-mail.

What I want to demonstrate with this story is that sometimes, with projects like this, the funders bring their own ideals and values to a foreign environment. They then prescribe a new reality for the local people to adopt. While I’m sure that this project was well intentioned, the funders’ values of efficiency did not necessarily translate to the realities of this village. I think what’s critical in our interactions with people of other cultures is approaching them with openness and being sensitive not to prescribe our values that might be very different than their own.

The question of whether Ghana will ever reach Canada has taught me two very important lessons. One is that I want to be involved with work that does not prescribe values to the recipients of this work. For this reason, I am proud to be volunteering for Kiva. From what I observe, the loans empower borrowers to make their own decisions without making any prescriptions. Second, whenever I feel culture-shocked or confused, I take a bit of comfort in the sheer fact that sometimes things are just different in Ghana. They are not better or worse, but just different. While this may be more evident while traveling and experiencing new cultures, I think there is room to apply this lesson in my day-to-day when I return to Canada. And I look forward to trying.

By Zerrin Cetin, KF12 Ghana

Entry filed under: blogsherpa, Christian Rural Aid Network (CRAN), Ghana, KF12 (Kiva Fellows 12th Class). Tags: , , , , , , , .

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  • 1. Rike  |  9 November 2010 at 16:44

    Again another very good post, Zerrin!
    This is very important. To let people decide what they need.

    But sometimes I asked myself, if this “it’s just different” isn’t just due to the fact, that we simply can’t cope with the inequity we are confronted with.
    We say: ” there is no better/worse, we can’t judge, because of the cultural differences.” Ergo: we don’t need to feel bad about all the inequalities. But think of being in a Ghanaian hospital. There is no cultural difference, that makes it more comfortable for a Ghanaian with Malaria to sit there over 6 hours before seeing a doctor than for you and me. And there are a lot of other examples like this. e.g. unemployment.
    So, it’s also important to let this cultural difference-thing be no excuse for not trying to improve the situation that African people (themselves) have made out to be in need of improvement. And there is a lot.

  • 2. Taylor  |  8 November 2010 at 12:56

    Loved, loved, LOVED your post.

    In my time in Togo, I found that lots of people had internalized the idea of Western world = good and developed/ African continent = poor and underdeveloped. People would start conversations with the words “you see how we suffer here in Africa?” And while it is not up to me to determine whether people are suffering or not, it seemed that these comments were made by entrepreneurs who had homes of their own and children in school. Certainly, everyone has their own struggles, but this unified idea of “suffering” seemed to be a foreign idea imposed by neocolonialism (i.e. Western initiated development projects).

    I also remember acquaintances being completely shocked when I explained that there are homeless people in Toronto. And of course, the first comment made was, “but it’s COLD in Canada!” Yet it had not occurred to that group of people that poverty existed in Canada too.

    This is why it is so important to recognize three things: 1) The western way of life is not necessarily better than any other way of life. It is just different. 2) Grassroots development is key. Every society is always striving to become better; accordingly, microfinance exists everywhere from Lome, Togo to Jane and Finch, Toronto. 3) When we travel, we suddenly become “ambassadors” of our home country. I think it is important for Kiva Fellows, and all travelers to work on deconstructing these blanket generalizations of developing and developed nations by shedding light on the reality of our home countries. Yes, as volunteers we are priveleged, but that is not true of everyone in Canada.

    Thanks for your post! It was great to read! Three cheers for Canadians in the field!

    – Taylor KF9, Togo.

  • 3. Tamara  |  2 November 2010 at 18:47

    Great Post Zerrin!

  • 4. Lina  |  27 October 2010 at 04:06

    Great post, Zerrin!

  • 5. Gabe Francis  |  25 October 2010 at 15:41

    well put Zerrin. This is exactly right.

  • 6. caseykoppelson  |  25 October 2010 at 15:22

    Loved this post, especially the well example.

    There is a lot of pressure within the development world to impose metrics on poverty, to track returns and use resources efficiently. This is important, yes, but metrics won’t get us very far if we lack cultural context. Thanks for the reminder!

    – Casey Koppelson, KF12

  • 7. EB Moore  |  25 October 2010 at 10:50

    Fantastic post Zerrin! I’m right there with you for supporting options and opportunities rather than imposing “development.” Really love your example of the water pump.

  • 8. Sarah  |  25 October 2010 at 05:53

    Awesome, Z, just awesome.

    I love this idea of allowing cultures to operate as they choose. Even in my limited experience across the US and Canada I often find myself defending either country to the other residents. Accepting that different countries have different values – and that that’s not a bad thing – is integral to cooperation.

    Also, I miss you!

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