Fling Wide the Doors

Fling Wide the Doors

On the rare occasions when someone asks me what my nationality is (as supposed to where I am from), I tell them I am British. I am British because, while I and my immediate family have all been born in England, my heritage is not so limited. I have family links to almost every part of the British Isles, from Thames ship-builders, to Irish lords who lost their title in the early 18th century. And more than that, I believe that, after a millennium of inter-mingling, it is very hard to maintain that the culture of any part of the United Kingdom is not bound up with the other constituent parts. We are a community, and I feel a part of that community. Granted, I don’t feel it strongly enough to die for my country, but I do feel it strongly enough to serve my community.

Communities matter. Identity matters. I would never seek to deny that (and have written before about the value added to our community by immigration). Something of the cultural wealth of our shared community is captured in this beautiful and eloquent post by my friend James. But what it fails to do is consider the limits of that community.

Communities are formed when their members contribute to their shared goals, when people support and care for each other. As such communities are inherently inward looking, and this is natural. Of course I want to help my friends, because they are dear to me. If I did not want to help them, they would not, by most definitions, really be my friends. Yet such an introspective view can be problematic too. Any group, unless it is universal, necessarily means some people are excluded and when groups become to close knit and inwards-looking, these exclusions can create real problems. The most commonly cited problem with the Freemason movement is that members will do anything for their own, without respect to justice or merit. There was a time when it would be very hard to advance a career in certain fields without being a member of the local lodge. Likewise, when migrant communities function as a state within a state, problems arise. Ex-pat communities can be incredibly obnoxious. A common fear cited by some people on the right wing of the British political spectrum is that immigrants, and particularly Muslim immigrants, function outside of the British legal and political system, with their own schools and laws. While this is certainly an exaggeration, it has roots in a real problem.

You see, favouritism, even if born from love and affection, which are undoubtedly positive emotions, can be very negative. Every conflict in history has depended on the creation of an us vs. them dichotomy, whether between competing empires, faiths, ideologies or races.

As I said, it is natural for people to favour their communities, because of bonds of mutual indebtedness. Our government has a duty to its citizens, because they contribute taxes, elect the government and share in civil society. But in fulfilling its obligations to the electorate, it risks creating an us and a them. Indeed, governments specifically cultivate this perspective for their benefit (some would argue this policy is currently being pursued). Preventing such a division is reason enough, without even considering the abstract benefits which it creates, to support foreign aid spending, diplomacy and our involvement in international unions such as the EU and UN.

Still, I can’t help thinking that, compared to their efforts at home, this external action is small beer. For practical reasons it makes sense to target resources within the limited scope of the state, but if this to be done, it seems to me unethical to deny anyone the chance to share in them. I can barely stomachthe Government’s recent decision, to support only children in need in Syria, and not those closer to home. We have as much of a duty to those on our doorstep as those on another continent, and it is immoral to deny people, particularly unaccompanied children, the chance to share in our community because we believe they are someone else’s problem, or because we are worried that more people will follow in their wake. If more people do follow, that is surely a sign that we are getting something right!

Communities only avoid being exclusionary by radical inclusion. By saying that ALL are welcome. By flinging wide the doors and inviting everyone in. Not everyone will choose to come in. Some will love being out of doors, many will want to remain in their own communities. None the less, from a purely moral perspective, there is no reason to deny anyone the chance to become part of our community. To contribute their taxes, an in return share our public services. Put simply, borders should delineate only government’s primary sphere of action. They should be seen as permeable membranes, not maximum security walls. We must accept this, or face the reality of fences, riot police and never-ending conflict.


Ghana : My Family and Other Animals

Ghana : My Family and Other Animals

I have now been in Ghana for about two weeks, and I think the time has come to say something more about normal life here. The obvious place to start is with my hosts who are, I think pretty representative of an average Ghanaian family, and certainly play a crucial role in my time here.

Staying in a host family was one of the things which most excited me in the run up to my placement. The idea of sharing my life with another family, of coming home and chatting about my day, of being part of the mundane and exciting alike, was simultaneously exhilarating and nerve-racking. In fact, I think this is one of the greatest strengths of the ICS programme. It helps volunteers – British and (in this case) Ghanaian alike feel rooted in the communities they are helping. We aren’t bussed in do-gooders who return to air-conditioned flats cut off from the realities of life in our placement countries, whatever they may be.

(There is a certain irony to the fact that the placements which most interest me, in the Occupied Palestinian Territories are also the only ICS placements which do not include staying with host families, for security reasons. If Palestine had been an option, I would have gone there without a second thought, and not experienced life in a host home. If…)

As it is, I am happily residing in the house of Catherine (Kate) Achap, in Kalipohini. The house is home to three generations, though it could be two. Catherine runs the household, and also is a small time shop-keeper, selling mainly drinks and sweets to the locals. Her husband, a retired gold mine engineer, died in December of 2008. Her eldest daughter (whose name I don’t know), lives in another town, but the rest of the family lives at home.

Theresa is the second oldest and is currently studying Media and Mass Communication at college. She seems to be away form home a lot though, so I haven’t seen her all that much, but I understand that, when she finishes, she wants to be a teacher or work in bank, because such jobs work well around family life.

Family Life – Pascal and Theresa make Fufu by mashing Yams with water

Next in the family is Boniface. He was the first of the family I met and continues to be very friendly, showing me around Kalipohini and generally looking out for me. He and his friends are often hanging around, gathering fruit or just relaxing, but he is ‘meant’ to be studying engineering. I can’t help wondering if that is his attempt to live up to the legacy of his father. He must have been about 11 when his father died, which would have an undeniable influence. He is also much better at making small talk than his younger brother, Pascal, who is in his mid-teens and is the quiet type. He wants to go into business when he is older. Perhaps he and Theresa can start a family bank.

The family is completed by S., who, at 13, loves science (she reads ahead to find out what they will study next), which bodes well for her future. She is actually the daughter of the absent oldest sister, while her father lives and works in Italy. Apparently it is quite normal for peripheral family members to live with the core like that. As the youngest girl in the house, S. spends most of her time (when not at school) helping to ‘keep house’ and run the shop. It is quite likely that even in the 21st century, this is how she will spend most of her life. Gender roles in Ghana are pretty strictly defined.

[Here, writing was interrupted due to a power-cut]

Along with the family itself, we have numerous human and animal hangers on. The most present of these are Mr Ibrahim and his five-year-old daughter, who seems to spend more time here than at her own home. She is precocious and social, often traipsing along after S. and helping with her work. Her father views the Achaps as part of his family, and I have spent many an hour chatting with him and playing a board game which is a cross between snakes and ladders and frustration, and seems to be ubiquitous here.

Alex relaxes in the kitchen, away from the hustle and bustle of the porch.

Along with all the people, there are a lot of animals. Foremost are the dogs (although the chickens are the most vocal). We have Sparky and Bamba, who are related to each other (I think Bamba is Sparky’s pup, but I’m not certain of that) and have been with the family for a long time. Next, there is ‘little Blackie’ (so called because he is Brindle), who is a few months old, and whom the family are supposedly training for Ibrahim. I confess I haven’t seen much actual training going on… Finally, and most recently, we have acquired a PUPPY!!!! Puppy is not officially named yet, but I have taken to calling him Alex, which seems to fit. He also seems to rather like me, following me around, and chewing on my flip-flops or shorts. When he runs he bounces from his front to his back feet in pairs, which is most endearing. Other regular parts of life include Guinea Fowl (which look ridiculous) and goats wandering around.

Every time I think I have the measure of the house I learn something new. It took me a week to discover they have a rather nice lounge, and coming off it, what is currently a trunk room, but must once have been another bedroom. That room, I discovered only this weekend, has an en-suit bathroom! This is a bit of an irrelevance, since the water was cut off a few years back, and it has been an ongoing battle, not yet won, to get it turned back on. Still, even without running water, it is a very comfortable house. They have a fridge freezer, and an oven (which they choose not to use), multiple televisions and so on.

But the building isn’t what makes my host home a nice place to live. What makes it a good place to live is that they make me feel part of the family. It’s about coming home to the latest large and spicy meal. Of course, it has challenges too. I find the lack of small talk very odd – people don’t chat about their days here, preferring silent contemplation (perhaps I just live with a family of introverts). I also struggle with the insistence of the family to bring me a chair/get up and offer me their seat whenever I come over, and their refusal to let me help with cooking or cleaning. These are uphill battles in a culture which focuses on generosity and has very strictly delineated rolls for men and women. Just the idea that I should cook or help wash up inspires laughter.

I have said before, I am not here to change the world. I will not remodel Ghanaian society over night, and nor would I want to. But I know that being here is already changing me. I can see that different ways of living are no less valid, as long as everyone involved is a willing participant, and I am happy to be part of something which really is a community. I am recognized by friends of the family when waiting for a taxi, I am introduced on my first visit to church. I am a part of life here, and the value of that really cannot be understated. It is like nothing I have done before.

Finding your feet (in someone else’s shoes)

Finding your feet (in someone else’s shoes)

The following post first appeared on the blog of the Northern Regional Resource Centre for Persons with Disabilities. RCPWD works to ensure that people in Ghana’s Northern Region are able to realise their full rights. For more information on their work, see their website.

As I write this, I am coming to the end of my first week working at the Northern Regional Resource Centre for Persons with Disabilities (RCPWD). My International Service ICS cohort has been in Ghana for ten days, and I think it is fair to say that most of us have adjusted to life here.

But life here and work here can be very different things.

The first few days on project felt rather frustrating. We seemed to be just waiting for something to happen. We discussed some of the work of our predecessor cohort, we shared some cultural differences and learnt some more Dagbani (a process begun at our in-country training), but we didn’t seem to focus on what our cohort could do to add to the work of the Resource Centre. I began to doubt if we would really make any difference at all.

Then, on Wednesday, things began to pick up in pace. For me, that meant reviewing the results of an audit of 40 public spaces and buildings in Tamale, carried out by the previous International Service volunteer cohort,to asses how far they were accessible to persons with disabilities. This report will be presented to the sites audited, to help them improve their accessibility, while I hope that its general findings will be useful to other sites which are legally required to ensure they are accessible to persons with disabilities by August.

I also began collaborating with Fuseini, my team leader, and Abdul-Muhsin, the ICV with whom I will be working particularly closely, to design a follow-up survey for the sites audited by the previous cohort. This survey will encourage the owners and managers of the audited sites to think about what they can do to facilitate not just physical access, but also access to services, which is just as important, but much harder to measure.

So why the sudden shift in gear?

I think the answer to that question can be found in the title of this blog.

Each of us has come from very different places – from across Ghana and the UK. The routes we have taken to get here have also varied, from the gap year student who wanted to do something more, to the volunteer pulled out of an ICS International Service placement in Palestine, to the graduate looking to improve his career prospects. We have all had to ‘find our feet’, many of us in settings which are very different (even for the Ghanaian volunteers among us – Accra is a long way from Tamale). Meanwhile, Fuseini (our team leader and the lynch-pin of the whole group) had not only to get to know a new cohort of volunteers, but also complete a small mountain of admin to get out team plan and budget approved.

The saying goes that before you judge someone, you should walk a mile in their shoes. That is part of what ICS is all about. We come together in our different shoes, from our different walks of life, and we have to learn how to walk together. We have to wear each others shoes (metaphorically at least – in this heat I wouldn’t want to inflict my actual shoes on anyone else!)

I admit that I found that challenging. I thought we wouldn’t manage to make any progress, and, because, one of my main reasons for volunteering with International Service is to get experience working on issues of human rights, I began to doubt if it would be worthwhile. I wanted to press on down the road.

But instead, we spent our first few days trying on one another’s shoes, at the same time as we were finding our own feet in new homes, a new culture and new work. We were learning to walk together. Now we can head on to greater things.

Ghana: Unsettling In

Ghana: Unsettling In

Whenever people move somewhere new, they speak of getting settled in. Of emptying the boxes, putting up pictures and starting to feel at home. I’ve been in Ghana now for about five days, and this is my third morning with my host family. My things are unpacked, I am learning peoples names, and starting to know my way around. You might expect, all in all, that I am settling in.

But that doesn’t seem to be quite right.

You see, the ICS programme is about more than just sending young people to help on development projects for 12 weeks. It doesn’t end when we come home in July. Rather, ICS aims to foster personal development and active citizenship. Volunteers like myself and my in country partner, Mufty, are encouraged to become more involved in the world around us. Part of our placement consists of fortnightly weekly ‘group reflections’ where we consider wider issues in global development. We are meant to be challenged to see the world in different ways, and to reconsider our place in that world accordingly. We won’t change the world in three months (though we will certainly try to make a difference), but the world will change us.

So, if I were to settle in, that would mean complacency. It would mean not recognizing the diversity of Kalipohini (the suburb of Tamale in which I am living), where air conditioned houses in large compounds nestle with households who cook over open fires and where Christian and Muslim neighbours mingle without thought to ‘extremism’ and PREVENT Strategies. Yes, I am okay with the fact that my morning shower comes from a bucket, and my drinking water from a sachet, not a tap, but that doesn’t mean I can forget that lack of clean water causes unbearable suffering for people around the world. Nor does it mean that my family here is particularly poor – most host siblings hope and expect to have skilled or blue collar jobs; Engineering, Banking, Teaching. The simple pictures we all have of the world are of course false, and I am glad to be spending the next three months discovering just how much more there is to life than meets the eye.

Unpacked – now time to get ‘unsettled in’

There is another, more practical dimension to ‘unsettling in’. As Kalipohini starts to feel more like home, as I start to think of myself as an extension of this family, more than just a guest, it would be easy to get complacent. To forget to put on DEET. To sleep outside the mosquito net because it is cooler. Yet that would be not only rash, but rude. I am insured, and the chances of anything serious going wrong are remote, yet here are people in Ghana for whom having a mosquito net really is a life and death matter. I need to remember that, while this city will be home for the next few months, I am in a very privileged position. I can and will feel at home, but at the same time, I will always be an outsider. And that is healthy – I am who I am, and can be no other.

As I lay out my things next to my bed, as I stick up a postcard and as I chat with my host family, I must remember that I am here to be disrupted, to have my perspectives challenged.

We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed.

Ghana: Reality Sets In

Ghana: Reality Sets In

I have to admit, the 5th of April has rather snuck up on me. For a long time, it seemed distant. Unreal even. In my head, I knew it would come, but nonetheless, I was genuinely shocked when, chatting to a friend, I realised it was less than a fortnight away. And now? Well now I am sitting in Heathrow Terminal 2, already in the second day of my three day journey from Coventry to Tamale – and my flight will leave in about 5 hours.

People have asked me a lot about how I feel. They have asked if I am looking forward to it, and told me it will be an amazing experience spending three months in Ghana will be. Part of me has thought ‘yes I know’ whenever people have told me how fantastic it will be. Don’t mistake me, I really do appreciate the support I have received from people I know well, and those I barely know at all, but those comments have started to wear a little thin.

I can’t help thinking that the reason for my frustration is that I haven’t *really* known how it will feel. In my head I have been aware of what I ought to expect. Words like amazing, life-changing and unmissable have slipped out without a thought, but they haven’t been real. I thought for a long time that the full reality of what I am doing wouldn’t sink in until I arrived; until I met my host family, and got stuck in to project work. Then I started packing.

I have been gathering things to pack and making lists for a few weeks. I began to fill a bag on Thursday, and on Friday afternoon, this all became very real. Suddenly, I was struck by the enormity of spending three months living with an unknown family, in an alien culture, working with people I have met only once before. I don’t know what pushed me over the edge. It might have been the stress of deciding what books and music to take, or fretting about whether I have been overly cautious in my packing. But more than that, I think that packing up three months of your life activated a fight or flight response. It is so final. So decisive. Perhaps my half-dozen repackings of my bag where meant to wear  away that finality. But, the tipping point was inevitable. I had to grapple with the big question: WHO ON EARTH THOUGHT THIS WAS A GOOD IDEA.?

Of course, in my head I know that 12 weeks isn’t all that long – about the length of a university term really. I know I will be well supported in Ghana, and that people in the UK will be thinking of me. I know my team and my host family will look after me, and I them. I know I will have plenty to do. But still,its easy to be overwhelmed. (In part I blame this on the emotional trauma of the Hamilton soundtrack. Those responsible know who they are and will suffer accordingly.)

The solution, of course, has been to stop and think. To realise that really I don’t need to worry about another repack when my bag is way under-weight. To enjoy music from a choir which was once a central part of my life. To write about what I am feeling, for public and private consumption, and to talk to people. I consider myself a sociable introvert, but it is amazing how much difference enjoying a meal with people you love can have when the world feels far too big.

On balance, I am sure that facing the questions was good and healthy. Better to deal with them while I have a safety net here. Whatever doubts I had, have given way to a certain zen resignation about things. There’s no turning back now, and there is no way I am going to let people down, so it will be okay. How could it be otherwise?