What I Learned in Ghana 

I spent the past four months studying abroad in Accra, Ghana at the University of Ghana. If anyone is interested in study abroad I suggest the provider USAC, who put me in the same dorm as students from other programs who were paying three times the cost. It was certainly nice being outside of the United States, whose meltdown is more visible now than it was during the devastating administrations preceding Donald Trump. Of course few can afford to travel for four months.  I didn’t feel so different from the people who talked about moving to Canada because they hated Trump, leaving all those who cannot afford to uproot their lives behind to deal with him.

There is a sense among the enlightened liberal circles that we have no responsibility in Trump’s rise. The extreme conclusion of this would be to leave the country but one really doesn’t have to in order to completely separate themselves from the reality in America, that is if this person is privileged enough to believe in the first place that “America is already great.” Locking yourself away in an air-conditioned suburbia does the trick just fine. The irony being that this is the very “wall building” that the liberal is supposedly against. It is much easier to be against Trump’s wall when illegal immigrants can’t be given your job (at an even more unlivable wage mind you, as the employers are the most racist of all). The hope is that all workers can identify the common enemy who is lowering everyone’s  living standards. This unfortunately is at times far from the perception in a deeply racist country.

This is not to excuse anybody but merely to recognize that the issue of immigration is about far more than race. Both liberals and conservatives would rather divide by race than unite by class. It might be more accurate to say liberal elites prefer to divide by education level and geography because our leaders are not coming close to taking the side of nonwhite people obviously, regardless of what identity politics assumes.

So to say that poor rural whites are the only ones building walls would be disingenuous. The main point here is that regardless of political affiliation we would all do well to be less isolated in America.

My roommate from Myanmar compared Ghana to his home country, saying both countries were “people” countries. Communities were strong and people relied on each other. Ghana could teach us some lessons about how to treat each other in the United States. I will immediately qualify this statement with a quote from Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s Critique of Postcolonial Reason:: “In subaltern studies, because of the violence of imperialist epistemic, social, and disciplinary inscription, a project understood in essentialist terms must traffic in a radical practice of differences. The object of the group’s investigation, in this case not even of the people as such but of the floating buffer zone of the regional elite—is a deviation from an ideal—the people of subaltern—which is itself defined as a difference from the elite.” It is very easy to simply cast a group already so othered in American discourse as simply different and monolithic. Spivak is right in that such solutions are not necessarily even looking at the people themselves but defining them solely in their difference to the assumed norm. The assumed norm here being the American innovative individual, the engine of capitalism.

Spivak’s analysis is excellent and I fear I will not overcome it. My best counter to it would be to attempt to explain such an essentialized difference through difference in experiences, rather than in essence.   One explanation for a strong community in Ghana was simply that Ghanaians had to bond together. Many Ghanaians told me that they had to form a community to survive. How else could you make it under imperialism and capitalism? This seemed to be in striking contrast to the survival of the fittest narrative we so often hear in the United States. Here we seem to have embraced the idea that individuals can make it under capitalism. Once again a product of our situations as certain individuals in the US were doing ok for a short time under capitalism.

Ghana’s first President and liberator Kwame Nkrumah (Kwame indicating that he was born on a Saturday) said this about Ghana’s independence: “the independence of Ghana would be meaningless unless it was tied to the total liberation of Africa.” Such a sentiment was inspired by Marcus Garvey’s Pan-Africanism. Meanwhile, the United States was founded on the genocide of Native Americans. Here it sadly was survival of the fittest (most barbaric and cruel) that won. Ghana was a trailblazer for African Independence because of, not in spite of, its emphasis on community, specifically socialism.

This is not to say that Ghana is a socialist country, or a country without corruption and horrific poverty, but maybe it would be if Britain soldiers had not led the Ghanaian army in a coup that ousted Nkrumah. Just months before Nkrumah had introduced the term “neo-colonialism”, where he outlined the new strategies of the West’s domination, namely intelligence agencies interference politically (CIA, KGB) as well as exterior economic exploitation that nullifies independence.

Ghana may have led the fight against neo-colonialism with Nkrumah at the helm. When Nkrumah was overthrown, the US feasted. From us-uk interventions.org:

“Commenting on the recent coup in Ghana, Robert W. Komer, a special assistant to the US president, says in a memo to President Johnson that the overthrow of the Nkrumah government was “another example of a fortuitous windfall”. He gloats over the win noting that “Nkrumah was doing more to undermine our interests than any other black African” and that the “new military regime is almost pathetically pro-Western”. He then goes on to emphasize that the US should “follow through skillfully and consolidate such successes”. He explains: “A few thousand tons of surplus wheat or rice, given now when the new regimes are quite uncertain as to their future relations with us, could have a psychological significance out of all proportion to the cost of the gesture. I am not arguing for lavish gifts to these regimes, indeed, giving them a little only whets their appetites, and enables us to use the prospect of more as leverage.”

The possessive and exploitive nature of relationships between countries and their people continue under neocolonialism. My professor believed that the US was not at war against Ghana currently because Ghana gives them oil on the cheap.

Somehow though a decency lives on. I don’t mean to romanticize Ghana, the lack of social services, the inequality and the patriarchy are all problems that are theirs and ours. But there were some very refreshing occurrences from my time in Ghana:

+ Before being asked for a favor, one would be asked how they were doing, and often get good wishes for their family in the process. I think we can account for the general politeness and consideration both by more time away from work and the priorities of the culture within this time.

+ If someone was given too much money by mistake in a transaction they would alert the other person and return the money. In America if someone made a mistake such as giving a customer too much money I wouldn’t suspect many customers to be decent enough to alert them of their mistake. It was after all, theirmistake.

+ If someone needed directions, they could feel free to ask people on the street and often they would be walked to their location. There are less road signs in Ghana, which makes for more confusion but less stress. You just ask somebody for help, and people actually know the landscape of their neighborhood. In other geography news it was nice  to see a world map here. I mean at home the United States is nearly the size of all of Africa.

+ People smiled at you here. I forgot what smiles from strangers looked like. Suspicion is the name of the game in the US, as mass shootings dominate the headlines and public spaces.

+ When you saw someone you knew you stopped to talk to them rather than rushing off in a hurried apology. In Ghana relationships are valued and remembered, work is not the first priority 24/7.

+ Strangers on public transport would talk to each other all the time. Public transport in the US, when it hasn’t been surmounted by Uber, (which sadly is in Ghana too) is full of exhausted people with personal space issues. A Ghanaian had been in New York and asked me what was wrong with everyone there. No one looked up from their phones!

+ Ghanaians would not ignore persons who begged. This didn’t mean that they gave them money always but eye contact was expected. In America those who can avoid public transport do, and have those tinted windows so the beggars can’t see them.

+ The police didn’t have guns. Someone even had the guts to say to a police officer that he didn’t have the right to search him and there were no consequences. The militarization of our police do not allow us to have any sort of genuine interaction with them, as we fear they could and would open fire.

+ I got most everything from local markets and I was friends with everyone I bought from. These are just little things mostly but it gave me some perspective about how isolated and distrustful we have become in America. Much of this has to do with the way corporations have taken over small communities and businesses.

+ Hugs are always free and given. Not just by a guy with a “Free Hugs” sign after a traumatic event.

What disturbs me about just walking through the streets of America today is that we are so distrusting of one another. If it’s not a Muslim behind every corner, it’s a Russian agent. The segregation, isolation, and close-mindedness can all be linked back to the public school being abandoned as a place for community and curiosity. Now the schools are very much a part of the punishing private state.

It is a worthwhile idea just to get to know people different from you. Sometimes the differences help you improve as a person. But even if this isn’t the case there is something to be said for just seeing other people. Like not walking right by them. And being curious. Everyone seems to be too guarded or distracted for the everyday interaction. The whole notion of anything public is thrown out the window as we all indulge in our own technology bubbles, where we can read our own news, watch our own shows, live our own outrages and form our own moral superiority. Whatever happened to just learning from somebody else? I mean learning from someone new. Behind every person is a story, every opinion an explanation, every feeling a memory.

Assuming all of us are merely a product of our situations, the youth of our country are surviving as they need to, just as Ghanaians did when they turned to socialist ideals under Nkrumah. Polls show now that millennials prefer socialism to capitalism. A whole generation of Reds! Well yes, that is what happens when capitalism can only irk out symbols and crumbs.

Now as we reach the days of mass extinction, we must unite. But will we? Or is the American identity too ingrained? All signs point to an uphill climb that cannot be solved on neoliberal terms. Neoliberalism is merely an argument for a certain kind of individualism. It will contain few winners. What we will need is a revolution that responds to the new conditions that we find ourselves in. America is a dark place at the moment but Trump and company are showing their hands. If socialism is to triumph we must be willing to accept difference, for we are all different, and we are all suffering.

To close, bell hooks’ Talking Back: “It may have been this contact or contact with fellow white English professors who want very much to have “a” black person in “their” department as long as that person thinks and acts like them, shares their values and beliefs, is in no way different, that first compelled me to use the term white supremacy to identity the ideology that most determines how white people in this society (irrespective of their political leanings to the right of left) perceive and relate to black people and other people of color.”

Nick Pemberton writes and works from Saint Paul, Minnesota. He loves to receive feedback at pemberton.nick@gmail.com