Sunday, November 23, 2008

"Other Thoughts on Perspective" by Chris 23 Nov 2008

What do we mean when we talk about perspective? I would define it as how I view things around me in relation to what I am accustomed to. Will I see and react to things in the same way when I return to my life in the states? Absolutely! How could I not? But to what extent I don’t know. Tammi & I had a conversation about just this recently and we came to a couple of conclusions.

First, as you all have ascertained from our blog entries, we do live a much “simpler” life in many ways and we are surrounded by people living even more simply then what we are use to. The phrase “hand to mouth” takes on its true meaning here. I can never deny that we live much better than most the people around us but our lives are quite different/ simpler than what we had in the states. Much of the change I see as for the better; No credit cards to deal with, no house or car payments to worry about, no car to fuel or drive, no crazy meeting schedules (we are informed of most meetings we have here about 2 hours ahead), and no need to keep up with the Joneses. Sadly, we are the Joneses. There are so fewer trappings here and the people here, as with the rest of the developing world, equate trappings with wealth which they in turn equate with happiness. I would agree with them on the first two points but I beg to differ on the happiness issue. But that is a discussion for a different time. I have had numerous conversations about this issue with my students and I hope to get through to them at least a little. Then again, who am I to deny them what I already have in abundance?

Chris teaching his students graphic Design

It is true that the whole conversation is
hypocritical on a lot of levels. And that leads into what I really want to discuss: how will we choose to live upon our return to the states? I find it hard to believe that I won’t be affected by what I experienced after living two years in Africa when I am making decisions on which bottle of wine to buy, the $15 or the $25 one, both extravagant. Or do I really need that new pair of shoes even though the pair I have is fine?

A quiet day at Kumasi's central market

Will we live more simply? I would love to say yes. In many ways I am sure we will, but in other ways…it’s just too easy not to and admittedly I’m weak. We all have become overly comfortable with our positions in society and the world and it is really easy to remain that way. Presently Tammi & I live in West Africa, our access to the conveniences and comforts we have grown accustomed to have been greatly reduced. I really miss air conditioning. But we still do very well in perspective. Peace Corps gives us a monthly stipend and expects us to live at the same level as the people around us but they are realistic and know that most Americans couldn’t do that. We stick to the stipend and it is plenty enough to feed, cloth, and house us, but it allots us very little latitude for luxury. This is where Tammi & I are different from most of our fellow PCVs, and believe me there is no small amount of guilt attached. I am on sabbatical from university, and with that is the comfort in knowing that my salary is there just in case we “need” a bit of luxury (even though the money is difficult to get and the luxury is hard to come by here).

We will live more simply in many ways but... I see a couple of scenarios; the first, we return and book trips to Vegas, Disney World, and any other place that is a cliché example of American over indulgence while eating a McDonalds quarter pounder or a piece of pizza. The second scenario is we return and deny all the luxuries, ride the bus
or bike and become completely altruistic giving our time and money to various causes while living a very simple life. I think what will really happen is somewhere in between. The first scenario is possible after being denied luxuries for 2 years I will feel compelled to indulge to the extreme. The question is; how much self discipline have I gained? Eventually I will work it out of my system and settle into a simpler life. The second scenario will happen, but again perhaps not to the extreme. I do expect to return and take a more active role in causes I strongly believe in. If nothing else, what I have gotten with my PC experience so far is an understanding of what is really important and what’s BS. I am coming to realize how much BS we proliferate in the states and how little of it is really necessary. I might complain about the system here but the one thing it has going for is that it is straight forward. They seem to run into problems when they try to be more western (try to complicate things) and it just doesn’t work.

One thing I hope happens upon our return is that we are far less dependent on all the trappings we have become accustomed to. Do we really need two vehicles or a bigger house? What about all those kitchen appliances? We don’t have
a toaster, a blender, food processor, or coffee maker here. We don’t even have a can opener! The Leatherman becomes very necessary here. We have no appliances and we are making some of the best tomato sauces I have ever tasted (trust me it is not due to the “fresh” produce acquired here). The lack of kitchen gadgets and preprocessed foods has forced us to improvise and be creative with our cooking. We strained coffee through a bandana before we got our French press. We grind various things in an iowa; grinding bowl (see automatic coffee grinder picture in 1st blog). It serves as a perfectly adequate food processor/blender though it would be difficult to make a margarita in it. I have taken to making chunky peanut butter; I buy raw ground nuts roast them on the stove add a bit of salt & sugar and grind away. It is the best peanut butter we’ve ever had. I have come to thoroughly enjoy chopping onions & garlic which we seem to use in practically every meal. I do miss a quality chef’s knife though.

All sorts of critters

We have been told numerous times that readjusting to the US is often more difficult than adjusting to your host country. It has everything to do with perspective. Those who have traveled and spent a goodly amount of time in another culture especially one very different than ours, see that there are different ways to live. There are different customs, different ways of doing things, different ways of looking at things, and no single way is
always the right one. We cooked what we felt a very “American” meal of hotdogs and mac &cheez for our home stay family. They loved the hotdogs but hated the mac & cheez. In most parts of Ghana, the idea of drawing milk from an animal’s mammary glands is strange enough, let alone letting it ferment to be turned into cheese. At the same time I can’t understand why they would let corn meal ferment in water so it is sour and stinky, but they love it. The phrase “To each their own” seems pertinent here.

It has been said many times before that if everyone in the world could walk in the shoes of their enemies for just a day… Especially at this point in our history it is so important for everyone to better understand how others live, to gain a broader perspective. We can get a feel for what it is like to live in Ghana but we can never ever TRULY understand what it is like to live AS a Ghanaian. With the profoundly spoiled status I have been given as a white American male, I simply and knowingly couldn’t hack living as most do here
. I understand that and it humbles me. It also gives me profound respect for the people here. In the end, I pray it helps me to be less selfish and I hope to be more sympathetic and understanding of the people and things around me.

Finally, on a bit of a lighter note, I thought I would give you a few anecdotes on perspective. They come in 3 categories;
1) What, doesn’t that happen everywhere?
2) Geese I wished I’d taken a picture, &
3) Haven’t you had to
I do hope this will become a regular feature.

A month or so back we were walking through our local market when we passed a woman topless with her breasts & face painted white. She proceeded to throw everything she was carrying into the air and ran off screaming. We were later told she’s a priestess and she was taken by a spirit… Doesn’t that happen everywhere? Just tonight I had a
pack of small children run with me for a good 200-300 yards while out on an evening run. I know it was the highlight of their day and it made my day much brighter also.

A drummer taken by the spirit
Ohum festival in Old Tafo

A couple of weeks ago they shut the school down for 2 days of intramural sports. Imagine the star player of the schools’ football (soccer) team, a 20 year old man standing on the sideline in the best macho pose he can muster, sweat glistening on the ripped muscles of his shirtless back (Terri, that one’s for you) and a powder blue diaper bag slung over his shoulder. I wished I had a camera. Another of the other players wore Christmas themed woman’s socks pulled up over the knees. I wished I had a camera. We were in Koforidua a while back where we saw a guy in quite an attractive pair of zebra striped bright pink hot pants. They looked very nice on him but I don’t think they quite achieved the look he was after. Again,
I wished I had a camera. They have no clue what theses clothing items are for, to them they’re western and that simply means they’re cool. It is quite common to see children wearing tee-shirts as skirts which I think are genius. There is a big market here in second hand western cloths which they call “obruni wawo” literally translates as dead white man’s cloths. In the beginning I guess they literally thought that these cloths were from dead westerners because why would someone just get rid of perfectly usable cloths?

Public Transportation

Have you ever had to help to push-start your taxi or had your taxi stop to pick up a piece that fell off? Better yet have you had to wander down a road looking for the part that fell off? Have you ever had to have a stranger’s child sit in your lap on public transportation or simply have a stranger hand you their infant?

A few of the neighbor kids

Lastly in the “what’s up with that?” category; We have a cobra, yes a cobra in our back yard! What’s up with that?

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