Three months in Africa taught me this: Western guilt is unproductive if all you’re going to do is feel it.
Before coming to Ghana, I lived the typical life of a Jewish young adult in Toronto. I worked at a non-profit, lived downtown and often went to my parents for a Shabbat meal. But something inside of me wanted to see more. So I left my job, waited out my one-year lease, and, with an armful of inoculations against all kinds of disease, boarded a plane to Ghana.
As a participant of Project Ten, a sustainable and ethical volunteering program run by the Jewish Agency, I worked in schools in Winneba, a city 60 kilometres from the capital of Accra. We brought informal education into the classroom, but I was more invested in what I saw outside of it.
And what exactly did I see?
The bellies of undernourished children peeking out of ill-fitted clothes. Little toes tip-tapping their way between gutters brimming with sewage and toxic waste.
Fishermen playing tug-of-war with their wooden canoes and the raging sea.
Women in the market gutting fish with one hand and handling money with the other. Sitting in a row with ten others selling the same thing. The pervasive dust settling into the creases from between their eyes all the way to their cracked feet, resting on the sandy earth.
These were all things I expected to see, things you see in the movies and read in the books. Nothing shocked me. Most of the time I didn’t even feel like I was in Africa.
Except for when the water would shut off in the house at the end of a long and sweaty day.
When that was the case, I’d fill up a bucket from the tank that stood outside, and haul it into the bathroom upstairs. On my way, I would grab a cup and a towel, and seat myself at the base of the bath, cradling the bucket of cold water between my legs. I dipped the cup in the bucket, and spilled the water over one arm, and then the other. I got my whole body wet, slowly lathered myself with soap, and washed it off.
While I didn’t necessarily look forward to what we affectionately called the “bucket shower”, there was something deeply natural about it that I liked, and would have never experienced back home.
Like when I would wash my clothes outside in the early morning. Once the roosters and goats were welcoming the dawn, I would wake and wait for the slow trickle of the tank to fill two buckets with water. I washed my clothes and reacquainted myself with the garments I thought I knew, seeing -only now in the murky water- their small flaws and fine details. Then I would hang them to dry on the line outside and watch them blow in the breeze.
And the car rides on the weekends! Thirteen of us would squeeze into a car better suited for ten. We’d pack our overnight bags in the trunk and watch as Richard, our driver, tried to force it shut, ending up tying it all together with a sturdy rope that only failed us once or twice.
Hours out into the countryside, I used to stick my head out the window and feel the hot wind in my face. I couldn’t tear my eyes away from the redness of the earth, the green around me and the blue African sky.
I really felt like I was in Africa when the coordinator of the program contracted malaria. Seeing this frail version of a usually energetic young man was a jarring reminder that I was not in Kansas anymore. He recovered, and the locals didn’t even show that much concern. For them, fighting malaria is just like getting over the common cold.
Towards the end of my time in Ghana, many people asked me what I intended to bring home with me. Are there any practices that you would like to integrate into your life back in Canada?
Now, almost all of the Ghanaians who I met told me that if they ever got the opportunity to leave the country, they would run and never look back.
Despite the joie de vivre in your average Ghanaian, many of these taxi drivers, educators, government officials, hairdressers and restaurant owners are looking for something better.
I had plenty of conversations about what “better” is, and why, in my opinion, life in Ghana is “better” in many ways than life in Canada.
A taxi driver told me life was hard in Ghana. I urged him to see the value of good weather, the kinship that spanned the country and the warmth that exuded from people in his city. But his counterargument won out.
With two kids to feed and earning the equivalent of about $10 a day, I asked him why he continued smiling.
“Don’t you see this smile is tainted with bitterness?” he asked. And I did.
In Ghana, the modest ways of living adopted by its citizens are not by choice. If they had it their way, they would be living in the same opulence that I do at home. It is the lottery of birth. I am no worthier of my drinkable tap water or flushable toilet than they are.
So, what use is it for me to adopt the practices of people, who, were it up to them, would never be practising them at all?
I don’t think it’s relevant to take a bucket shower here in Canada. Nor would it be a good idea to do my laundry outside in the sub-zero weather.
The guilt associated with me having more is unproductive. It does not lead to change, but rather stilts me into nonaction and frustration.
I would rather share the stories of Ghanaian people. I would rather you see the liveliness of the people of Ghana instead of mimicking the way they live their lives.
So that is what I am bringing back to my life of privilege here in the city. Stories and memories of people who have left their mark on me for good.
Adina Samuels is a young professional living in Toronto. She hopes to make a living telling people’s stories, and is looking for opportunities to do so.