Tuesday, August 21, 2007

On a Mission

After a trip out to meet the District Director at the office where I will be working in Navrongo, I have come to Bolgatanga for a few days, while the director asks a family if they'd be willing to have me stay with them. With a full day in Bolgatanga to myself, I half-expected to sleep, read, and wander around town for a few hours. Sarah Lewis has other plans.

Sarah is a Long-Term Volunteer with EWB in Ghana, and has been here for seven months. She also works with the Ministry of Food and Agriculture, and developed and organized my placement in Navrongo. I will be working with and reporting to her for the next 3 months. Sarah is also the former president of the EWB chapter at Waterloo, so we go way back.

Sarah's 'mission' for me was this: go out into Bolgatanga, and ask people why they thought that fewer girls than boys attend school in Ghana.

I found this to be a fairly scary proposition. Asking strangers for their opinions on complicated issues probably isn't something that comes naturally to me (or most people, I expect). But with the added cultural and linguistic barriers of being new to the country, it becomes even more difficult.

I put off the mission until late in the afternoon, and then wandered around town for a while as I thought of a strategy. Eventually, I decided to buy things from people selling on the road, and ask the question while they got the change.

I began by purchasing some biscuits from a young girl down the street from the guesthouse. Ironically, I interrupted her while she was doing her homework. After paying for the biscuits, I said, "Please, I also have a question for you. Do you know why is that more boys than girls attend school in Ghana?"

She shook her head and said "no". From my later experience, I expect that I phrased the question in the wrong way. At the time, however, I had the uncomfortable feeling that she expected that I was about to tell her why I thought that more boys than girls attended school here. I wished her a good day and moved on.

I tried again soon after, with two women selling groundnuts. After paying, I explained that my "senior sister" had sent me out to ask the question, and phrased it as "why do you think" rather than "do you know why". I had to rearrange the question a few times before they got my meaning (Ghanaian english can take some getting used to). The women replied that men used to attend school more often than women, but now, everything was fine.

I bought some bananas from a young woman farther down the road (my pockets were starting to get very full by this time), and asked the question again. When I finally got the question right, she responded by stating that girls often did not value education as much.

I soon realized that my strategy of speaking only to street vendors didn't exactly give a balanced sample, since the majority of them were women. To get some male representation, I had to work up the courage to approach somebody on the street.

I asked the question to a young man named Justin next, who I think was about my age. His response was that education was still not considered as important for girls. I found it interesting how the answer differed slightly from the woman I had spoken to just before, although you probably can't read much into talking to just two people.

Finally, having worked up a lot of courage, I approached a group of men sitting down on some benches, and posed the question my "senior sister" had sent me out to find.

Immediately, one of the men pulled out a bench for me to sit on in the shade. I sat down in the middle of the group. The eldest man in the group said "first, you have not greeted us. What is your name?"

I felt completely embarassed by my rookie mistake. In many cases, it would be in bad form to ask a question like that in Canada without introducing yourself. In Ghana, where greeting is considered to be very important, the misstep is more important. I apologized and introduced myself as Dane.

The man introduced himself to me as Issah. He then told a story about a foreigner getting off a plane and asking a question to a Ghanaian in the airport without introducing himself. I wondered if being reprimanded in story form is better or worse than the direct style.

I sat and talked to the men for about 15 minutes; about the question, but also life in Ghana in general. They were happy to sit and talk to a complete stranger, and to get to know each other better. I realized that, although I was sure to make similar mistakes in the future, it was necessary to "dive in" if I was ever going to speak to anybody, and learn as I go along.

Mission Accomplished.

4 comments:

Megan said...

Haha, "Sarah Lewis had other plans" is such an ominous sounding sentence, I'm glad you survived! I really like this story - I can totally picture myself making the same mistakes. I'm glad you found a group so willing to talk to you, it must have been pretty cool.

darcy said...

I like your stories.

Erin said...

yay dane! i'm proud of you for working up the courage to do this - you're already learning so much (such as the importance of teaching lessons through storytelling, haha)

Sylvie said...

Great stories Dane. And good job on going up and talking to random people, that's always hard wherever you are, and even more so with cultural/language boundaries.