I love having a development studies background. Having studied development from a variety of disciplines, I am able to look at a project or an idea from different viewpoints, and discover the commonalities and the variances that exists between them. Having just returned from Ghana, and hearing about Africa with increasing frequency, I feel compelled to contribute in my small way to the continent's unfolding story.
Let's take a look at Africa. It's a massive continent comprised of 55 countries, each independent with their own history, and culture. Often, these countries are homogenized under the African story, which is often characterized as a story of poverty, helplessness, conflict, turmoil, and death. I want you to know that the real story is much more diverse than that. While orphaned children, conflict areas, and famine are real problems, they are not specifically African problems, nor do they characterize the continent as a whole. There are beautiful stories unfolding everywhere across the area's diverse geography, because that's life! But unfortunately, we often fail to take note of the good as we discuss the bad. My hope is that we can change the story of despair, by making a shift to a variety of stories that reflect the complexity of life.
Now I'm no expert. I only spent 6 months in Ghana, so take everything I say with a grain of salt. While in Ghana I saw extreme diversity, which to be honest was somewhat unexpected. The country has thriving business centers like Accra and Kumasi, and in these cities you will find expensive restaurants, large mansions, fancy hotels, and nicely paved roads. Even as a development studies graduate, I wasn't expecting to see so many lights as my flight made it's descent into Accra. Walking through some parts of these cities, you could forget you ever left North America. But then just a few minutes away you come across slums, polluted waterways, and piles of burning garbage. Much like Canada, you see a range of lifestyles, but to greater extremes due to prevailing financial and political structures that limits the size of the middle class. The fact that I, a "learned" development scholar, was surprised by the level of modernization goes to show how powerful the prevailing African story can be (I feel I should have known better).
But don't get me wrong, there is more to Ghana than its major cities. You can drive for an hour outside of Kumasi and find yourself in a small village of a few thousand people. In these villages you can still find examples of communal housing, subsistence agriculture, and traditional culture. It's a different world (but not entirely). In these areas, there are those who live on 1-2$ a day, I met many in Sandema (the village where I lived). Here's the thing though. There are a lot of positive aspects to focus on aside from the poverty story, which is itself way more than a story about money. One such example is that of connection. While in Sandema, I discovered a sense of community that I hadn't felt since I was a child. They have a strong spiritual story to keep themselves in good spirits (very little cynicism), and that also works to keep them connected to one another. It's beautiful to see the village rally around a sick or elderly family member (almost everyone is extended family). And when someone passes away, there is a community mourning period that allows people to lean on each other, and honour the memory of the deceased and the impact they had on the community. More than anything there's a respect for life, and a zest for living it. That's a freedom that money can't buy. But when was the last time you saw that on a commercial?
And guess what? Right now, there is a group of Ghanaian children huddled around a TV watching American movies on DVD. The two teenage girls I shared a house with loved High School Musical. Even in small towns, the Global North/"developed" countries are making their presence known. What we may not be aware of is the impact our lives are having on people far away. And I'm going beyond the historical perspective here, of course colonialism left it's mark. Kids growing up with access to the internet and American media are exposed to a lifestyle that is foreign to them, one which is portrayed as being of greater affluence and value. And they don't know that it's all a big marketing scheme, that our lives are not actually like the movies portray. Of course there's a reason why some countries ban or restrict advertising aimed at children, because it impacts childhood development. So what happens when those children grow up? What does the country's culture look like in 20-40 years?
As a development practitioner, I felt guilty living in Sandema. There I was in a foreign land, propagating a story of affluence that I didn't fully support, nor fully understood the impacts of. Whether or not economic modernization, and cultural globalization is worth striving for, I don't know. The way someone constructs their value system, and decides what is worthwhile to them is not up to me. Ultimately, I believe the people of Ghana should have the right to decide how they want to proceed into the future. Whether or not this is actually happening is something I worry about. Are Ghanaians choosing better lives, or being manipulated by the prevailing African story that strips them of their self-worth? Who is making important choices about the country's development? The wealthy elite who have a stake in economic expansion or the mass public who has yet to see living standards rise by any significant amount? What role do we as consumers play when we buy resources from Ghana, or sell our products into this new market? Do we have a responsibility to be conscious of the cultural and social impacts of globalization? Do we know enough about this foreign continent to subscribe solutions to it? These are questions worth asking. If asked, what will happen to the prevailing "African story"?