As a participant on the Tzedek overseas volunteering project, I expected to have many thought provoking moments but I did not expect my experience to pan out how it has done. There are 22 days left of this Ghana trip and I still find myself questioning my daily experiences. Yesterday, a simple shopping trip to a western supermakret got me thinking. Cocoa plantations in Ghana are the main source of cocoa beans for Cadbury's (Kraft) chocolate. So I expected and looked forward to seeing an abundance of chocolate, locally produced. Yet, I was struck by the complete absence of this product. I heard on the grapevine that one shop in Tamale sold mars and bounty. A group of us went to find the chocolate and when we saw it on the shelf we all reacted with excitement and glee. The woman at the checkout started laughing. We asked her why she was laughing and she replied I thought you must be happy that the chocolate was cheap. That made me feel uncomfortable. We had all rushed into buying the chocolate with no particular thought about the fact that the chocolate was overpriced and a complete luxury item. In the UK, chocolate has doubled in price over the past 10 years and yet the cocoa farmers' salary has halved. There seems to be a real injustice, especially finding out that a farmer's salary for one month is approximately the same as one chocolate bar. How should I react to this? Should I give up eating chocolate in support of those farmers that never get to taste chocolate. Should I make it my life goal to ensure that every farmer gets to taste chocolate in their life? This would be unrealistic and unsustainable. But these simple occurences make me think twice about day to day life. Where are my products coming from. In terms of importing and exporting, the teacher I work with at a school for Orphan children in Tamale informed me that tooth picks are imported into Ghana. I was amazed by this. At face value there is something very odd about this trading. Its not as if Ghana lacks the resources to produce its own. But in importing this item, it immediately increases the price.
During my time spent in Tamale, living in a village on the outskirts of the city called Fuo, I have come across an amazing family. I have made a real connection with 1 particular member of the family. The family consisters of a mother, her children (from 2 husbands, both of which have died) and spouses and grandchildren all live together in the village. Most of them are found outside under a tree where they live. The women of the family can be found washing clothes, cooking porridge to sell, cooking meals for the family members and looking after their children. One of the younger sonz, Ibrahim, 19 yrs keeps his sister-in-laws company as they do all the chores of the household. For me the real gem of the house is Alima, 25 yrs old. She is married to the eldest brother. They are a farming family. The men traditionally go out to farm. Alima's husband is an exception and is currently enrolled in university in Waa studying economics, aged 34. Alima spends most of the time without her husband as he stays in the city of his university and only returns during the holidays. She is living with her in laws and her family live far away. Her one daughter habsa recently got Malaria. When I visited them after 2 days at hospital I could see in Alima's eyes the shear exhaustion and strain she felt. In essence she is a single mother. She copes like the stereotypically strong African woman. But when we talk I hear the story behind the scenes. She is highly intelligent and speaks 6 languages. She spends her time carrying her baby on her back, and walking far to fetch water from the tank of a rich Ghanaian family's home and carrying it on her head. She slaves away at the hot fire, looking after the whole family as the elder mother is too weak to feed the extended family. Ibrahim rarely helps. There is this gender bias that exists and you rarely hear the women complain outwardly. Alima always asks if I will become her husbands second wife so that she can have help with the chores. She resents that role of a woman and wants to work. But she is a happy smiley woman by nature and adores her child. It was heart wrenching to see her suffer from the strain of potentially losing her child. On top of this, she found out that her husband has falied a year at university and will need to be away from home another year. But Alima is a strong woman. One cant help but question whether the poeple here are innately tought or if they have to be. Their coping mechanisms are developed from a young age. I see at school that children are beaten and caned. They are commanded not to cry. If hit by another child they are told to just hit them back. There is no space for feeling sorry for oneself. This is something that I became very aware of from day one. Yet, people are very kind and visiting the sick is a huge element of Ghanaian culutre.
On another note, I recently visited Mole National Park witht the group, we were 10 in total. After amazing safari trips, taking thousands of photos of elephants form every possible angle, we went to visit Larbanga. This is said to be the site of the oldest Mosque in West Africa. It is claimed that the Mosque as built in 1421. A random figure especially as many older Ghanaians cannot quantify their age! On this visit, I was struck by architectural magnificence of the building, the styles that seemed to resonate those that I am familiar with from watching documentaries of Ethiopian building styles. This visit was disturbed by the residents of the village which surrounds the mosque. The inhabitants were very pushy and kept physically prodding me, asking for money and water. These beggers were very different from the stanard collector. In fact in Ghana, you rarely come across people just begging. They tend to be selling things and pushing you into buying things you dont actually want. BUt these beggers were much more in your face. it was difficult to ignore. The policy of Tzedek is to not give handouts so I could just say with confidence that i am with an organisation and it is our policy not give out money as it is unsustainable. However, I still felt and continue to feel guility. The children at school often ask for water. How long can one hide behind this excuse of 'its noy my polcy'? should I feel guilty and uncomfortable?? In many cases these people were born into poverty and I happen to have been born in London where there are more opportunities for healthcare and education and employment. But what have I done to earn this? Nothing more than the beggar. It does not sit comportably with me to drink and enjoy life whilst I see people suffer. Ruth Messenger says of poverty, ' The numbers are overwhelming. But we cannot retreat to the convenience of being overwhelmed'. I am seriously considering these thought. Perhaps I should shape my career into a more development focused path that I had orginally thought.
We were discussing yesterday at our weekly Torah L'am group learning session whether you can return to the UK with the knowledge of suffering in the world having seen it first hand and be any less guilty of not acting than a person that has not been exposed. I cannot help but argue that I as a witness to injustice I must try my best to act in a way that will encourage postive change towards a more equal, just future. I expect that there wil be countless more occasions in which I will experience injustices. Only time will tell how this impacts on my life.