So the beginning of my favorite K’naan song goes like this:
“Any man who knows a thing knows he knows not a damn, damn thing at all.”
I love that line.
The song is called ‘Take a minute,’ and I distinctly remember when I first played it in my DC apartment. It’s not really a song you dance to but I couldn’t stop, wouldn’t stop until my feet gave in, waving that white flag. I played it, sang it, danced it, over and over. And over.
Those words always resonated with me. I suppose they resonate because they speak to being open-minded, to being humble, to questioning why you believe what you believe, to wondering why others might disagree, to making the effort to stand in their shoes and see what they see, to, putting it more plainly—enter every context with big eyes, big ears, and a small mouth.
It’s hard to meet that maxim regardless of where you are or what you’re doing. It’s not easy to recognize your own blind spots. I suppose that’s why they’re called blind spots. It’s not easy to stand in someone else’s shoes and see what they see. Empathy isn’t an easy trait to come by. It’s more like a process, a day-to-day struggle of sorts, than it is something actually achieved or internalized. It’s hard for me especially—my mouth tends to move faster than my mind. And it’ doubly difficult since I’m writing a blog meant mostly to make my mom roll her eyes and chuckle to herself.
So, what’s my point? Well, at the beginning of all this, I said that I didn’t have expectations or a particular agenda for this trip; that I recognized the limits of what I could achieve or contribute in a few short months in a country I knew relatively little about; that I just wanted to learn, from the people, the places, and the work. And then I went and wrote about crocodiles, Bob Seger, and the West Wing. I didn’t exactly share thoughtful, self-reflective posts about living in Ghana or development work.
Truth is, I still don’t know yet what I’m taking from this experience. It’s been amazing and engaging experience–overwhelming at times and edifying nearly all the time. It’s not an experience I’ll quick forget, but it is one that I need to let sit. Got to ruminate. Mull it over. So while I’m not about to jump into lessons learned, I figure I owe it to my loyal readership (Mom, Em, here’s looking at you) to at least share some concluding thoughts.
And (because I tend to abjure structure, organization, and, for that matter, punctuation and proper syntax when blogging—I’m basically Bill Faulkner with a laptop) these thoughts will be scrambled, poorly thought through, revolve mostly around what I’ll miss, and include questions rather than answers.
As an aside—I realize I’m rhyming. I can’t help it. I’m listening to K’Naan as I write and it clearly has some influence on the words I write and the order I put them in.
So what will I take with me?
I’ll miss the crap out of the people I’ve met—the new friends turned life long friends whether they know it or not. I’m hard to get rid of. Ask around. To be fair, I learned an amazing amount from traveling around Ghana—from Accra, to Eastern Region, to Tamale—from chatting with Taxi drivers, wandering the streets, exploring new markets and new neighborhoods, from just walking and talking. But I learned the most from the people—places, in the end, are more about people than anything else, right?
And when I say ‘people,’ I mean the folks I worked with. Working with IPA was a wonderful experience—it made this trip. Even though I only spent a couple of months here, I feel invested in IPA Ghana—I feel apart of the team. And that’s no doubt to the credit of the amazing people that work here. I’ll miss the late night conversations over Tilapia, over chicken and rice, and (mostly) over drinks. The conversations touched a lot of different topics but tended to center around living/working in a developing country:
• What matters most to you, personal happiness/a sense of self or professional success? Are these two things necessarily mutually exclusive? What about in the context of development work? Can you do thoughtful, important work, rooted in an understanding of the local context, while staying connected to friends and family and feeling like yourself? If tradeoffs indeed exist, what’s the alternative? Can you do good work abroad as a ‘development consultant,’ hitting and running every couple of months? If you go the researcher route, how can you take steps to ensure that what you’re doing is informed by local perspectives and informs local policy?
I have my own answers (which, predictably, don’t resemble anything close to an answer so much as they do another question) but I’m curious about what you think.
I’ll miss my morning walk to work—seeing kids so unbelievably happy playing soccer on the nearby dirt field. It makes me want to be 12 again, playing golf (thanks mom—for driving me to the driving range nearly every weekend), playing basketball in the driveway (thanks dad) without a care in the world. Just being a kid. I’ll miss the little kids shouting ‘Hi’ and then giggling and waving when I say ‘Hi’ back. Best high fives ever. They’re adorable.
I’ll miss the woman who makes the best egg sandwiches in the history of the world. It took me awhile to find her, but I now visit her daily—she calls me her husband. I’ll miss chatting with the Kingdom Books employees as I wait for my sandwich—we last chatted about whether it made more sense to marry an ugly man (he’ll treat you well and never leave you, but you’re kids will be pretty ugly) or a good looking man (you’ll have good looking children but he might leave you old and wrinkled). Thoughts?
But it’s not just the kids or the egg sandwich lady (seriously considering opening a shop of my own in Cambridge)—it’s the sense of community. Everyone knows everyone else. They stop to say hello, to check in on one another. It’s a genuine connection that I don’t see as much of in the U.S.
I often feel more alive here. There’s a different energy/spirit here than anywhere I’ve ever been. People seem less guarded, less worried about how they’re going to be perceived. It’s not always easy being yourself, unbridled and unconcerned with what others might think. But go anywhere in Ghana where music is playing (and you won’t have to walk far to find it—music is everywhere) and you’ll find folks dancing (hard), guys dancing with other guys, laughing, being silly, being themselves. It’s a beautiful thing.
Last year, one of my closest friends from school (and my favorite Nigerian) once remarked “You’ve got some African in you.”* As I reflect on these last couple of months in Ghana—on how hard working people are, on the pervasive sense of community and closeness, on the kindness shown me and others, and on the energy that fills the market, the streets, the nearby soccer field and everywhere in between—I can only hope that she was right.
* She may or may not have said so after I out butt-danced her. But since this is a blog, I figure it’s not treasonous to ignore context every once in awhile to make a broader point.