I randomly woke up at 4.30am, and after getting a glass of water, I didn’t go right back to sleep. I got on my cellphone, responded to texts and scrolled idly through my Twitter feed. I came across a link one of my followers had posted. With a title as provacative as "Why Ghana Is Not A Tourist Friendly Place To Visit" via @HuffPostTravel, there was little to no chance I’d scroll past it.
A half hour later and after several attempts to ignore the anger that bubbled up in my chest, I’m here- spilling said fury into a blog post.
As much as it pains me to give Karen Curley’s poorly written and offensive account any kind of platform, I just find it hard to ignore.
Karen’s ignorance is not unique in its condescension— she is actually exactly the type of Westerner that makes me question why on Earth she even ever left her country to begin with, especially if she bore no intentions of abandoning close-mindedness while in that alternate environment. From all indications, Ghana was a lost cause as far as Karen was concerned, before she had even landed there.
Karen says that ‘as an American’ she is accustomed to a ‘certain comfort level’, as she calls it. I just find it interesting that Karen believes the fact that she is of American descent is the reason she has grown up with these things. As though all Americans can say this. As if by virtue of being American, one is granted a lifetime supply of airconditioning along with their birth certificate. As though that is the only story one can tell of America. I’m not blind to the fact that more Americans have ‘comfortable’ living situations, with ‘hot showers, food (really, Karen, you didn’t see food in Ghana?), and even air-conditioning’. But the problem with stereotypes— and I quote Chimamanda’s talk on The Single Story— is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete.
It should not be acceptable to us as citizens of the world to so readily accept a label of affluence and comfort for the West and one of despair and hopelessness for Africa (and other places that bear this burden). How about I tell Karen about the men that poke and prod me on the train and on the streets of America? The ones who want to be my friend? The people who act like they have ‘never seen an African person’. About how I had to come all the way to America from Ghana to ever see someone throw up right infront of me? Or to get violently robbed? Oh no, but those would be isolated experiences, would they not? Surely, men with aggressive, overly-familiar advances are a Ghanaian problem. It’s not like men do that kind of thing all over the world or anything.
I’m very aware of the fact that Ghana— Africa as a whole— has immense room for improvement. The poverty saddens me too; I see it too. I’ve visited nearly every region of the country, and the inequality between the North and South astounds me and makes me feel helpless. But this is not a Ghanaian problem. There is inequality everywhere. There is wealth everywhere. I’m sure Karen would be shocked to know that there are millionaires- dare I say billionaires?- in Ghana. According to her, she was ‘mostly in Accra and there were no splendid neighborhoods there’. I wonder where these rich people live? Karen says that ’the people over there do not know how to react to a White person.’ Tell me, dear Karen, exactly how one ‘reacts to a White person’? In Karen’s view, ’there is no sanitation system there’, and ‘the poverty over there is heartbreaking.’ Really, it was the nuances of her writing that irritated me: the sheer We vs. Them nature of it all, her condescending tone, her choice of words. If I didn’t know better, I’d almost be tempted to believe that Karen really had never seen poor people before this trip. And the sad thing is, there are people who don’t know better. People who will read her one-dimensional tale and extrapolate it to account for all of Africa, in all its diversity and contrast.
As far as they know, they have seen on HuffPo that in Ghana, “people have no choice but to urinate right in the middle of the street” and that there is “burning trash and feces everywhere”. Wow. Conveniently falls right in line with the prepackaged image of Africa as filled with uncivilized caveman types, who had absolutely no hope before the savior showed up with his language, his God, and his way of life, and even after this ‘intervention’, continue to languish in despair, with no hope of true self-governance or self-development.
I challenge us all to not accept this kind of thinking. I challenge Africans to rise to the occasion and use the ignorance as fuel to power what our dreams and hopes are for the progression of our continent. I challenge foreigners; both tourists and people who consume secondary accounts of Africa through film, books and television, to ask questions, to probe, to examine themselves, and as they read or watch, see both similarity and difference. See them simultaneously. Don’t accept such simplistic one-dimensional accounts of homogeneity. It is always more complex than that. Find an opportunity to see for yourself through a visit if it’s possible. Talk to people who are different. Read books on Africa by Africans (let them tell their own stories) or unbiased scholars who have lived there long enough to be credible. Don’t accept information like this at face value. Especially not from a person who doesn’t know how to spell ‘capital’.