Monday, April 30, 2012

Becoming African...

Weather:  The rainy season has arrived!!  I love the rain. During the rain, the temperatures can drop to the mid-70s - downright cold!  Unfortunately, after a few hours it gets pretty steamy as temps climb up again to the mid-80s or 90s.  But a nice change of pace!

The countdown is now on for when we leave Ghana - just about one month left.  As we prepare to leave, after living in West Africa for seven years, Noah and I have been having discussions about if there are parts of us that are now more African than American.  After reflecting on that a bit, I thought I'd share of my own reflections/changes.  Some are obvious, others not so much.  Some people have called me African-American...but I think American-African might be more appropriate:-).

Some of the changes are:
Football - Most of the world understands football to be what Americans call soccer.  Most of the rest of the world is in love with soccer, yet Americans continue to be in love with football.  Some West African friends have told us that American football should be called handball - they don't understand why it is called football.  I have grown to love this sport - the amazing talent in the footwork that you see on the field is akin to a dance of sorts.  The skill, talent, and energy for this sport is immense and impressive.  So I definitely prefer this game of football to American football.  Additionally, just as in the US, watching this sport is a community activity.  The difference here is that since many people gather together to watch/listen to it around shared televisions or radios.  And since most of us have year-round open windows, we hear celebrations all around us when there is a goal.  For example, during one game, there was a penalty kick-off, and our coverage was about two seconds behind the coverage that our neighbors were getting, so just as the person kicked, we knew he had scored!  I will miss the constant access to football. 

Protocol/Formality - They say that the American culture is one of the least formal in the world.  West African culture is definitely more formal.  There are processes and procedures that must be observed when communicating.  While it definitely took time to learn, and I'm sure I still make mistakes, I have grown to appreciate the formality and procedure.  In fact, it is now frustrating to me when working with Americans when protocol is not observed - I have to catch myself to remember that it is not part of the US culture.

Food - spicy and ricey.  I have grown to love my food spicy - all of it (except for sweets of course).  I even put hot pepper on popcorn.  My kids are amazed if I ever say that something tastes hot to me, as I usually eat my food very spicy.  When I go back to the states, I have to find a way to spice it up or it tastes bland.  Maybe I need to start carrying hot sauce in my purse.  Also, I have become very accustomed to having rice every day.  I'm not to the point yet, like Liberians, who say that if you haven't had rice, you haven't eaten that day.  I can go a day without it, but it has become a staple. 

Respect for elders - While respecting elders is important in Liberia, Ghana carries it to a whole new level.  Respect for elders does not mean respect for those who are elderly (or over the age of 65), but respect for anyone who is older for you.  That means, when I arrive at a place and get out of my car with my computer bag or other items, someone younger than me will rush to carry it in for me.  [Several American guests have been alarmed at someone rushing out to take their bags from them - off their shoulder, out of their hands, without any explanation:-).]  At first I thought it was because I was American or a woman, but then I came to realize that it is done for everyone.  I remember arriving at a place where a woman, seven months pregnant, and about ten years younger than me, rushed out to take my bags.  When I told her there was no way I was giving her my bags (she's a friend and colleague so I could be direct), she laughed and told me that she must help her elders!  The down side of this is that if one is a manager of a business and you have employees who are older than you, you cannot correct them.  That is why when you read in a business plan that employees will be 46 years old or younger, for example, it is because the owner is 46 and he or she can't hire someone older than them!

Appreciation for the lack of separation of church and state  - I love the increased tolerance for religion that I have experienced in West Africa.  Meetings will start and end in prayer, regardless of whether it is a government meeting or community meeting.  I don't have to worry about being a Christian or offending anyone when talking about my faith.  I know that is not the case in all parts of West Africa, of course, but for the most part I have experienced this in both Ghana and Liberia.  Our work has been with both Muslims and Christians, and there has been a pretty open dialogue and acceptance of differences.  I know that doesn't make the news very much, but I'm thankful that it has been my experience here. 

Global news - I love that I live in much more of a global world while in West Africa than what I experience it the US.  I have access to BBC all the time here and all of the news is much more comprehensive to what is happening around the world.  One thing that I find so difficult is to listen to the news while in the US - 90% of it seems to be about the US and much of it is focused on celebrities or one particular crime.

Individualism versus Community Minded - By far and away, one of the major differences between North Americans and West Africans is the mindset toward the community.  North Americans tend to be individualistic - my goals, my dreams, my job, my kids, my possessions, my income.  West Africans tend to view things from the community perspective, balancing their own wants and needs in terms of what is best for the immediate family, extended family, church, and community.  I have seen the pros and the cons of both ways - there are things that are both healthy and unhealthy about both ways.  So I've learned to switch between these depending on the setting that I find myself in.

Time - I believe that I have managed to hold on to my own sense of time, while becoming much more relaxed about other people's sense of time, at least for Africans.  I no longer arrive early for meetings but usually right when the meeting is about to start.  But I have learned that it is appropriate to not be so focused on time as to pass people without greeting them, to start a meeting without finding out how people are doing, to ask about their families, etc.  This also relates to a warm culture versus a cold culture - it takes more time to be in a warm culture as it is more relational. 

Spirituality - West Africans tend to be much more spiritual than North Americans, seeing the work of spirits in many areas:  sickness, success, failure, death, and many other areas.  North Americans tend to undermine the role of any spirits in these things, looking to science for the answers.  I have come to appreciate this heightened sense of spirituality; growing up we did not spend much time being aware of demonic activity, yet Jesus spends much of his time casting out demons.  While I don't agree with the extent that this reaches (i.e. sickness or death as a result of curses or witches instead of malaria or sanitation issues, activity of deceased ancestors in daily life, etc.), I do appreciate their understanding that "our struggle is not against flesh and blood but... against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms." (Ephesians 6:12)

I think in conclusion, that I remain more American than African.  Probably not a surprise as I spent so much more time in the US than in Africa...not to mention that even while living in West Africa, I tended to still live as an American.  However, my preferences in many areas have changed, and of course, I have changed.