Thursday, July 7th, started as every other day has here. However, it became clear quite quickly that this would be a day of important conversation, education, and hopefully change.
The events were set into motion as early as 8AM, at our daily teacher meeting. During this meeting, one of the oldest teachers brought to everyone’s attention how upset he was that he had still not received his paycheck, more than a week after he was supposed to. Though I know that all of the other teachers were in the same position and were also upset, they strangely laughed and poked fun while he talked. It was clear to me that he was becoming more upset as people appeared not to take him seriously, and this upset me. When he was finished talking, I hesitantly raised my hand. I expressed that I was not sure if saying something was over-stepping my boundaries, but if I was permitted to speak freely I would like to point out something that I am observing as a third party. I noted that I have seen, many times in meetings, that teacher’s ideas do not seem to be completely respected or acknowledged. In my opinion, even if you do not agree with someone’s opinion, it is necessary to acknowledge that their feelings are valid and should be respected and considered. I think that it takes a lot of courage to express yourself in front of a group of your peers, and to summon the guts to do that and to then be met with laughter seems disrespectful to me.
I was hopeful that my monologue would spark a good conversation amongst the teachers, since many female teachers nodded in agreement as I expressed what I was thinking. I was thinking, how perfect would this experience be if I could learn from them and they could also learn from me? Alternatively, the headmaster and several other male teachers reacted very dismissively and said that they did not know what I was talking about, that laughter was not malicious and thus permissible, and that they “knew” that the teachers didn’t mind or take it personally when they reacted this way. I was a little surprised to hear this response, especially because I had heard from several teachers before that they did not feel their opinions were respected at these meetings. Despite this, I thought it would be counterproductive to disagree since this is not my school; this is not my culture. As I’ve learned from my parents, no one likes to be told that they aren’t doing or thinking about things “correctly.” I did not feel it was my place to lecture anyone just because they were not acting in the exact way I would have, so I dropped it. Something I am really trying to do while I am here is observe, absorb, learn, and analyze (internally) without passing judgment. Perhaps I shouldn’t have said anything at all… but when and when not to speak up is something I’m still working on a bit.
My educational conversations continued throughout the day. As I went about my workday, I started to see the outpourings of news articles, videos, and Facebook posts about the horrible murder of Alton Sterling. I watched the videos, read the articles, and sympathized with the posts. I was upset and I wanted to cry, but I also wondered about how my privilege should play into my feelings. I wasn’t sure how to articulate my thoughts exactly (and I’m still not doing a great job with it), but I saw an amazing Facebook status by my friend Kaitlin Garvey that summed it up perfectly. The post read: “My privilege manifests itself in the fact that I GET to be angry, and heartbroken, and sick to my stomach, but I don’t HAVE to be afraid. I don’t have any reason to fear in the aftermath of a vicious hate crime like this. If you don’t understand that, don’t try to argue with me.” I found Kaitlin’s post to be so important in that it sheds light on the thin line between recognizing/being upset about an injustice vs. claiming the injustice as your own (for example, #BlackLivesMatter vs. #AllLivesMatter).
Just seconds after I saw Kaitlin’s status, I saw another Facebook post that prompted similar thought about race. This was a post that Elisabeth shared, and it was an article regarding the much discussed “white savior complex” (the article can be read here, if you’d like to see for yourselves: http://qz.com/723736/the-only-thing-louise-linton-learned-on-her-gap-year-trip-to-africa-was-how-to-be-an-oblivious-jerk/?utm_source=qzfb). The “white savior” is a character I have given much thought to over the years as it is something that I, at times, worry that I run the risk of becoming.
For those that haven’t heard the term before, Wikipedia discusses the white savior narrative as a situation in which “a white character rescues people of color from their plight… The white savior is portrayed as messianic and often learns something about himself or herself in the process of rescuing… This image is problematic because it frames the person of color as unable to solve their own problems, as incompetent… A common storyline in white savior films is a white teacher or white coach helping students of color.” As someone who genuinely loves volunteering my time and helping people in need, I often have to check myself to make sure that I am not stepping over the line between helping and hurting. Because I’m not sure that this point has been clear in my other blog posts, I would thus like to take this time to further discuss my intentions in and opinions about this trip thus far, as well as open this topic up for your critiques and questions.
First of all, I would like to make it known that I did not want to come to Ghana with hopes of “saving” anyone. Rather, I had been to Ghana once before and thoroughly enjoyed my experience for many reasons. I enjoyed the people I met, the music I heard, the culture I encountered, the hospitality I experienced, etc. I also enjoyed the opportunity to volunteer, and the opportunity to learn about a different way of life, a different religion, to eat new foods, etc. I felt that the experience I had in Ghana before helped me to gain a more complete worldview, better understand my inherent privilege, and reprioritize certain things in my life. I wanted to come back to Ghana so that I could experience all of that again, and happening upon a school that was seeking a photography teacher (a subject I am passionate about and thus thrilled to share) was a happy surprise. That’s not to say that I don’t love volunteering and teaching at this school, but just that I did not come to Ghana to rescue anyone.
Rather than internalizing all of my thoughts on this, I spoke to my friend Sola about it, asking what her thoughts were and if she had any advice for me in working towards not continuing this horrible tradition of “white knighting.” Sola had some amazing things to say on the topic, including: “In terms of sharing your experiences, be honest and try not to commodify the country and the people who live there. They are not there to make you better or teach you things. They simply are just there.” She also mentioned I should, “…try to use their quotes and pictures as much as possible. That way your story seems spin free.” I was really glad to hear Sola’s thoughts because, before speaking with her, I did not consider that even having a travel blog is a sign of my privilege. If you think about it, my blog gives me a voice and a platform to share my experiences on; the students and teachers that I am living with do not have that same platform. With this in mind, I am really going to try to share other points of view here in addition to my own. To think that I can share with all of you a complete view of Ghana through my eyes only is something that I realize makes no sense, and so I am going to try my best to work towards producing a more comprehensive picture.
As you can see, I was having a very introspective day. This continued when I left the school around dinnertime to buy some mango from the local fruit stand. On my way back, I ran into Auntie Alice: another teacher at the school. Auntie Alice is one of my favorite teachers at the school because she speaks her mind, is very intelligent, and has amazing foresight regarding solutions to problems. I told Alice about what went on at the morning meeting because she was not present for it, and because she is someone who is often laughed at when she tries to voice her opinions. Alice was upset to hear that the other teachers were not receptive of my thoughts because this meant that they still did not see anything wrong with disregarding her opinion. To give you guys an example, last week Alice mentioned that the school toilets were getting dirtier and dirtier and that something needed to be done to ensure that this wouldn’t continue to happen. I’m not sure if I already told you guys that in a previous blog post, so please forgive me if I did. Anyway, when Alice said this at the meeting, not a single person agreed with her even though they all knew it to be true. Instead, not only did teachers laugh but they just walked away from her and left her physically alone as she was still speaking. Alice told me that this is not abnormal and that whenever she makes a suggestion (and rational suggestions, at that), she is never taken seriously. Rather, the teachers talk behind her back and tell her that she is being mean, bossy, etc. She told me that she is so fed up with the lack of respect that she receives at the school that she actually thinks is going to quit at the end of the term.
Hearing this made me so sad. I like Alice a lot and did not want to see her go. I hated that other people’s inconsiderate actions had driven her to this decision; especially because I find her so intelligent and think that she honestly makes excellent suggestions towards bettering the school. I was also sad because this is not the first time that I have heard a story of a woman being called “bossy” simply because she has opinions. This being said, I was also happy for her and really admired that she had the courage to leave the situation in search of better treatment (which, of course, she deserves).
Deep topics aside, I also had many small, enjoyable moments in my day. I had decided to wear my new green dress to school and received a lot of compliments on my new “African Wear.” Also, I received some small birthday presents from the teachers and students, including: a bag of spaghetti from Emmanuel in Class 5, a small bottle of cocoa butter lotion from another student in Class 5, a handmade necklace from Linda: the KG teacher, and a card signed by all of the teachers at the school. Each gift was so incredibly touching because I honestly did not expect to receive anything at all... as I said the day before, I am really so thankful to be surrounded by such loving and giving people.