Changing Societies; One Mind at a Time

The following post first appeared on the blog of the Northern Regional Resource Centre for Persons with Disabilities.

RCPWD works to ensure that disabled  people in Ghana’s Northern Region are able to realise their full rights. For more information on their work, see their website.

Its the end of week eight of my International Service ICS placement in Tamale, Ghana. I am nearer the end now than the start, and I’ve been thinking a lot about how to measure the value of my time here.

The value of some aspects are clear, albeit hard to quantify. My relationship with my host family, for example, is something I will keep with me long after I leave Ghana’s red dust far behind. I could not forget the time I have spent relaxing in front of our house, or playing with the five year old who, though not technically related to my hosts, is to all intents and purposes part of the family. I have also learnt a lot about myself. I have discovered that, when the team faces challenges, I will take the lead without a thought if it seems likely to move us forward. I could also measure progress against our team plan. My team is running courses on IT and employability skills, we have a flurry of school sensitisations in the coming weeks, and we will soon begin drafting reports based on our engagement with managers of shops and public services. All of this valuable.

Still, I can’t help looking at the big picture. I chose to volunteer with International Service because I genuinely believe that ensuring people can enjoy their human rights is fundamental to developing successful states in which people can flourish. That means changing societies – not just in Ghana, but in the UK and all around the world. It means providing universal access to good quality education, without poverty, lack of resources, or unaffordable fees standing in the way. It means empowering women to play an active role in the economic and social lives of their communities, rather than being too subjugated to report sexual assaults, let alone to look for bank loans to start businesses. It means creating built environments and civic services which don’t limit the inclusion of people based on physical or mental disabilities.

Above all, the work which organisations like International Service undertake aims to change the way people think about the world and about each other. To shape a culture of inclusion. In that respect it is a perfect partner for the ICS program, with its commitment to Active Citizenship. That is also why, at the Resource Centre, we are following up a technical survey of the accessibility of public buildings conducted by the last cohort of volunteers, with a series of interviews with public and private sector staff to try and gauge their understanding of, and attitudes towards the same issues of accessibility. I am sure the results, when compiled, will highlight clear focal points for local businesses, for civil society, and for the government in Accra.

Our report, however, wont change the world. It wont even change Tamale, unless it is supported by people. That is what it all comes down to. People will have the power to decide whether our advice is worth acting on, whether they gain more from including the one Ghanaian in five who is disabled. I am optimistic. Our interviews have made the last 8 weeks fascinating for me. I have met people from across Tamale, and their attitudes have varied. I have lost count of the number of people who have repeated the mantra ‘disability is not inability’, but accessibility continues to be seen as someone else’s problem: whether it is a case of funding or permission from above. Again, people assume that a ramp (regardless of its steepness) automatically makes a space accessible. People rarely consider intellectual disabilities. This is where my counter-part Abdul-Mushin and I step in. We push home the point that an integrated society is everyone’s responsibility, and in everyone’s best interests. We highlight that disability encompasses more than being in a wheelchair. And people listen – people clearly understand that integration matters.

Of course there is a long way to go, but what we say will effect the people we talk to, and they, in turn will talk to others. Changing a culture is a slow process, in which my contribution is, as they say in Dagbani, ‘Bira Bira’ (small small).

The American Civil Rights activist Anne Braden said; “What you win in the immediate battles is little compared to the effort you put into it. But if you see that as a part of this total movement to build a new world, you know what cathedral you’re building when you put your stone in”. The stone I put in is part of something much bigger. It can’t be measured, monitored or evaluated. But it is the most valuable thing which I will have done in these three months, and that’s not nothing.

Gender Identity and Language: An outsiders perspective

This article presents what I think is a linguistic problem resulting from an increased freedom to express a trans- or queer- identity. It‘s aim is simply to engage with this challenge from the hugely privileged position of a white, middle-class, cis-male. I know there are parts of gender identity which I simply don’t understand (as I hope I have made clear – indeed it is the crux of the problem), but that cannot invalidate anyone else’s experiences, nor should it. It would not be unreasonable to question whether I should be writing this at all. My only response is that there are issues that I, and society as a whole, have to engage with. If, in so doing, I have caused offence, please accept my apologies, and (if you feel able), please do explain what I have missed. I know I still have a lot to learn.

My thanks to the friends who commented on earlier drafts. These thoughts are my own.

In recent years, a number of people I know have come to see themselves as gender queer, by which I mean they do not see themselves as fitting into their assigned gender at birth, or in some cases, into any gender. These realisations have come to people from all sorts of backgrounds, at different times in their lives and in different ways. First and foremost, I would like to tell each and every one of you that you are remarkable people (if for no other reason than you have undertaken some pretty hardcore self-reflection), and I am lucky to know you. I know I am often guilty of neglecting self-reflection, and I commend those people who have undertake such scrutiny as to make what can be life-altering decisions.

But, as someone on the outside, I confess a certain confusion. You see, I don’t think my gender has ever been that important to me (except inasmuch as it has almost certainly subconsciously coloured my sexual orientation – I am a guy and have been brought up in a hetero-normative society, so while I maintain there is no reason I couldn’t fall in love with another guy, it is perhaps less surprising that to date I haven’t done so). I have never been particularly conscious of my gender. I don’t wake up in the morning thinking I feel like a man. Although I know some people who identify as gender-fluid are more male or female from one day to the next, this is beyond my experience.

Partly this is because I don’t think my life would be substantially different if I were female. Certainly, it wouldn’t have stopped me being a musician, it wouldn’t have stopped me studying history, going to Cambridge, or volunteering in Ghana. That is not to say that my life is not easier for being male (and I live in one of the more gender-equal societies in history) – female sopranos cannot sing in most church choirs, I might have lacked academic role-models, and travelling as a woman can present all sorts of challenges which men simply ignore. Still, my life, in broad brush strokes, would be equally possible were I female. This mean I am not very aware of my gender. Its simply not something which matters to me.

All that colours how I think about gender in general. When I use a gendered pronoun, or think about someone’s gender, I don’t think of something innate or ‘real’. Such ideas have no meaning for me, nor, I suggest, for many other cis-gendered people, and that means they are not linguistically useful. Words are valuable because they allow people to communicate a shared concept. If the concept is not shared between all parties, as in the case of innate gender, which I believe is mainly meaningful to people who have been mis-identified previously, the word has limited utility. From a linguistic point of view, the only value of the concept of gender, is as a shorthand for a set of visible attributes, because that is the only understanding which can be shared by everyone.

When I say ‘male’ or ‘female’, when I refer to ‘him’ or ‘her’, I am imagining a set of attributes (perhaps within two circles of a Venn Diagram), and saying that, based on visible attributes, this person fits better into one circle or another. I would argue that this is how gendered language is generally used. What attributes go into a circle will vary over time and between societies – there is no absolute gender, unless you mean what’s between your legs, which is a., not a useful descriptor as most people don’t go around with their trousers down, and b., none of my business, unless we have a very specific kind of relationship. Still, as a linguistic shorthand it largely holds up. I am aware that the traditional attributes of women in Japan differ from those of women in Ghana, and adjust my thinking accordingly.

Of course, people are fantastically varied. Very few people would fit neatly into a circle of ‘typical attributes’, hence the circles of my Venn Diagram would overlap, and many people, either by chance or choice, cannot be identified based on visible attributes at all (falling outside the circles altogether). There are also people who feel more comfortable presenting themselves as a different gender to that which they were assigned. And that is fine. People are free to present themselves however they would like. And that presentation will likely mean I use a certain pronoun unless I am told otherwise.

But, as I have been told by some of the lovely people who agreed to look at this in earlier drafts, being trans- or gender-queer is not about appearance. It is about who you are. It is about your identity being limited or denied. As I said before, this is not something I can really understand. But I can see that it presents a real problem if gender is understood normative, rather than just descriptive. When we start to say this is what a man should be, how a woman ought to behave, that is when we have a problem. Doing so undermines language, by providing an alternative definition, without making it clear which one is in use. Far more seriously, it allows systems of oppression develop.

As I said earlier, I am very lucky to live in a society which has made significant progress towards gender equality. But there is still a long way to go. Women are still far less likely to study certain subjects at university. Men still commonly get paid more than their female counterparts. There is an expectation that if someone in a couple is to stay home and raise children, it will be the woman. I know that the feeling of being limited to a specific role is not the only reason that people feel limited by their gender identity – I know it is more innate than that – but these institutionalised biases are the closest I can come to an understanding of why gender identity matters so much to some people. (It may also partly explain why my anecdotal evidence suggests that people assigned female at birth tend to do come out as trans- more than those assigned male, though it may also be that it is much harder, much more dangerous to choose to be openly trans-feminine in what is still a patriarchal society).

That leaves us with a question. How can we continue to use language in a way that is meaningful? Using language to describe innate gender does not aid communication, but using it descriptively does not do justice to how people feel. Normative use of gendered language damages people’s freedom and entrenches oppressive societies. Somehow we must cut the Gordian Knot.

The way I see it, there are three options. First, alternative pronouns proliferate, while ‘male’ and ‘female’ become more narrowly defined. In this scenario, everyone must choose their own pronouns, and we must act accordingly, learning them as we learn names. Given that I am bad enough at remembering names, this fills me with fear (although I know my trans- and queer friends will forgive my errors) . At the other extreme, we could do away with gendered pronouns altogether. This is less likely to cause offence, but can deny people for whom their gender matters an opportunity to be affirmed. From a communication point-of-view, it is also of little value; it makes it harder to identify people in a crowded room. The tall, blonde person is by definition less specific than the tall, blonde man. Given that this post is first and foremost about how we can continue to use language in a useful way, I don’t think this is the solution.

Personally, I would favour a middle ground. We use ‘male’ and ‘female’, ‘he’ and ‘she’ in less closely defined ways to communicate. We, as a society, accept that we cannot use gender as anything other than descriptive – we return to my Venn Diagram perspective. Of course, there would still need to be space for people who don’t fit in either circle (a gender neutral pronoun), but linguistically, we could accept that gendered language reflects only the speaker’s impression of an appearance, nothing more meaningful than that. This gives us the benefit of reducing the number of people being referred to (which is, I would argue, the reason gendered language evolved), without inadvertently undermining a person’s innate identity. What a person feels internally remains true, and no external language can change that, but neither can it adequately capture it, so personally I think we should abandon attempts to do so.

Of course, if you tell me to use he/she/they/any other pronoun I will do so. Anything else is rude and heartless, and it is vitally important that we affirm everyone’s identity. But I hope this perspective is something which can be considered. Language is only what we choose to make it. If tomorrow, we could all stop thinking of gender as normative, the world would certainly be a more free and equal place (not to mention a happier one), and it might just help us communicate.

Ghana: Last Taxi to Kalpohini

Ghana: Last Taxi to Kalpohini

One of the more eye-opening aspects of life in Tamale has been my daily encounters with the city’s public transportation network. For starters, let me say that the railway, established under colonial rule, completes a rough triangle, from Accra north to Kumasi and west along the coast to Takoradi, with the third side linking those two cities. It comes nowhere near the Northern region, and all transport north of Kumasi depends upon the road network (with the notable exception of the boats which move up and down lake Volta to the East, and the two aeroplanes a day which fly into Tamale Airport Aerodrome.

Most private citizens rely on bike and motorbikes to get around, and (as with many places in the developing world), the loads which can be carried on such vehicles are at times mind bending – from a family of five to a large amount of heavy building materials, livestock, and the odd fridge – the bikes are ubiquitous and versatile. They are also a challenge to cars and pedestrians alike. Tamale has few pavements, though it does have one unique factor. Several of the more major roads have cycle lanes. This ought to make like easier, but the lanes are shared by pedestrians, bicycles and motorbikes, adding an interesting dimension to ones travel.

For those of us without the luxury of a motorbike (indeed our insurance would not cover it even if we had access), there are a few options. First, and cheapest, are the Yellow Yellows (you might know them as Tuk Tuks or Auto-Rickshaws). These are basically motorbike bodies, converted to have three wheels, and fitted out with seating for six (the driver, a front passenger either side of him, their legs sticking out to the sides, and three passengers behind). They are also very dangerous. They have little that would count for a roll cage, open sides, and more people than should really fit them. Suffice to say our insurance would balk at them as much as at motorbikes. Likewise, it would not cover riding in one of the small flatbed trucks, which are much like a Yellow Yellow, but can cram maybe ten people. These do brighten up the road somewhat, though, as they seem to carry mostly Ghanaian women in their vibrant, multi-coloured dresses.

That basically leaves us with the taxis. Now, I say taxi and you probably picture either a London black cab, or a yellow New York taxi. These are generous images, of which I must disabuse you. You see, in Ghana, any car can become a taxi, all it takes is painting a couple of the bodywork panels yellow, and voilà, you have a taxi. As far as I can tell, there is little additional screening of the car done (though some drivers are licensed).

Of course, there is a little more to it than that. Ghanaian taxi drivers have taken the phrase ‘a good little runner’ and pushed it beyond the limits of what is reasonable, sensible or even sane. Certain makes seem to be preferred for that reason – Opel, Fiat, Kia and the like. However, a stronger distinguishing feature than the make is a ubiquitous state of disrepair. It is rare to get into a taxi which doesn’t look like it has been involved in a destruction derby. Cracked windscreens and missing wing-mirrors are routine, and I am no longer surprised when my ride is hot-wired or given a push to get it going.

In some ways, it is not surprising that the cars are so well used. They have a lot to deal with. First of all, they are faced with chaotic roads. The main taxi rank is a maze, before you even add in Motorcyclists (some of whom will be driving down the wrong side of the road), Yellow Yellows and pedestrians crossing. I sincerely doubt I could negotiate a car around Tamale and if I make it through twelve weeks here without seeing an accident, I will be amazed. (The worst I have seen so far is a wing-mirror being knocked off in a collision with an (apparently unharmed) pedestrian in the main taxi rank, while on another occasion the radio started smoking.)

Then of course there are the roads, which vary substantially, from the well maintained, multi-carriageway trunk routes, such as the Bolgatanga road, down to side streets which are barely defined dirt tracks. These put suspension through the rigger with some of the largest speed bumps I have ever seen – speed bumps so mountainous that drivers will come to an almost complete halt before attempting to summit them, and still risk grounding their cars. Others seem to be simply a line of pot holes which drivers will attempt to slalom around.

More confusing than the external damage is the internal. I haven’t yet worked out why so many of the cars lack internal door handles or window mechanisms (this is not a major problem, since windows are kept open). More of a problem is the similar lack of seat-belts.

Of course, it is no surprise that a car, which is a large investment, is thoroughly used here, but nonetheless, one can’t help but feel that any decision to use a taxi a decision to take your life into your own hands.

For all that, taking a taxi has become routine, mundane even, because (over short distances), taxis occupy both the traditional door to door, high fare market, and the cheaper, set route market occupied by buses elsewhere. Every morning, to go to work, I will walk to the nearby taxi stand – Kalpohini last stop – where I meet Cecil. With two of us going to the same place, it is easier to fill a taxi, which won’t leave without at least three passengers, often four (sometimes as many as six). A drive in to town, which takes around ten minutes, will set you back 1.2 Ghana Cedis (about 20 pence). And of course you get to experience the cool breeze through the open window, and explore the driver’s music taste (on one particularly surreal occasion, I ended up singing along to “Saturday Night” by the 90’s dance musician Whigfield).

From there, its a short walk to the stop which takes us from town to the roundabout outside the new sports stadium. And I mean the roundabout, Taxi drivers have an unnerving habit of stopping in the middle or roads or junctions, between the two lines of traffic. But for the princely price of 1 Cedi, it is hard to raise any real objection…

Universal Suffrage?

Universal Suffrage?

Last week, the UK went to the polls, to elect local Councillors, Mayors, Police and Crime Commissioners, Welsh Assembly Members and Members of the Scottish Parliament. I have been following the proceedings from a distance (having arranged a proxy to vote on my behalf before leaving for Ghana), and have begun to see some of the weaknesses in our electoral process.

First of all, turnout continues to be a challenge – even for the heavily publicised race for the London Mayoralty, turnout was below 50% – but that is only the start of our problems. Huge swathes of the population are systematically prevented from voting, in ways that lead me to question whether we can really claim to have universal suffrage at all.

Take convicts. At present, the UK has a blanket ban on voting for anyone currently serving a prison sentence. While it can be argued that, by breaking the law, criminals remove themselves from legitimate society and thus lose the vote, this is not what international Human Rights law says. Voting is a fundamental, inalienable right, as laid out in article 25 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

“Every citizen shall have the right and the opportunity, without any of the distinctions mentioned in article 2 and without unreasonable restrictions… To vote and to be elected at genuine periodic elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret ballot, guaranteeing the free expression of the will of the electors”.

So, only reasonable restrictions can be applied to universal and equal suffrage. You might say that a ban on prisoners voting is not ‘unreasonable’, but the European Court of Human Rights has repeatedly found that the UK’s blanket ban is illegal (a decision the UK has simply ignored for the last decade), as it is indiscriminate and does not reflect the crimes committed. Further, prisoners may have broken the ‘social contract’, but must still live within our society, in prisons we maintain. They should be able to have a say in what kind of life they are given, like anyone else. If they are disenfranchised, there is no political incentive to treat them fairly.

This is only one failure of the system, however. Something I have failed to notice before (thank you to those who brought this to my attention) is that, for some people, the mechanic of physically accessing a polling station can in effect bar them from exercising their fundamental rights. I believe that part of the problem is that, at present, we simply do not have enough accessible halls to set up polling stations in. Obviously that situation is slowly improving as school halls get renovated, new community centres built and so on, but in the mean time, poll clerks must be empowered to take necessary steps to facilitate voting at the local polling station, whether that be having an additional ballot box which can be taken outside as necessary, or some other method of ensuring everyone can physically vote. Apparently at present there is a number to call to find out if your polling station is accessible. It isn’t clear what happens if it is not accessible – whether you are directed to an alternative station (which may be hard to get to), or steps are taken at your station, or you are simply unable to vote – but this need to call in advance can be problematic too (problems which I confess had not even occurred to me, until they were pointed out). The aim is to mitigate the failures of the build environment, but it would be less discriminatory to make such preparations universally across all polling stations. And I grant that anyone can apply for a postal vote, but that can be a slow process, and voting in person should be an option to anyone – if simply to ensure voters have equal time to make up their minds.

This raises another problem. Under UK law, nobody otherwise entitle to vote can be prevented from voting due to mental capacity. Now it is clearly right that people with mental illnesses or disabilities are able to vote, but this does raise a problem with regards to informed choice, because the vote they cast must also be their own, and must not be forced on them by another person. If, therefore, someone with limited mental capacity casts a vote, they may unwittingly be committing electoral fraud. I don’t know how we address this. I can think of no way to determine whether someone is able to make an informed choice which is not hugely inappropriate, but it is certainly a problem (albeit not a major one – electoral fraud is hardly a big issue in the UK). More importantly, we need to ensure that people who might find it hard to make an informed choice are not excluded from doing so. Information must be available in clear and simple formats, to ensure that participation is truly open to everyone.

This leads me to another question. At present, despite often being better informed, despite contributing to society, paying taxes, getting married and above all being affected by politics, under 18s are not able to vote. I cannot find any good reason for this. It seems to be accepted just because that is how it is. On what basis are they disenfranchised? They are part of society, our government policies will impact on their lives. If they are as able to make an informed choice as anyone else, why can they not do so?

Again, it can be all but impossible to vote if you are in temporary accommodation (such as a refuge for victims of domestic abuse), or are homeless. These are groups who need the protection of the state more than most people, but are unable to vote for the policies which would benefit them because of the failings of state bureaucracy.

Then of course there are the approximately 800,000 people who have fallen off the electoral register because of the change to individual voter registration. Students and people in short term accommodation have been particularly hard hit by this change, which in effect prevents people from voting even if they want to. This is geographically and thus socio-economically unbalanced – the total decline is around 1.8%, but some urban areas have fallen by more than 10%.

Conversely, while all these voters, who may be well informed, and want to be involved in the political process, are prevented from doing so, people are allowed to vote under the influence of alcohol or drugs. This is surely a perversion of what should be a serious and weighty decision for each member of a democracy. Not that I am espousing compulsory drugs tests, but I think we may have lost our collective sense that voting matters, a cetury after women finally secured the right to vote.

These situations all pose problems to us. I don’t have a response to all of them, but I am sure these problems need addressing, before we lose sight of the importance of democracy altogether. In fact, I am inclined to believe that voting ought to be a legal obligation (albeit with a “none of the above” option), and I am certain that more must be done to allow everyone, regardless of their situation, to have an informed say in how our country is run. Whilst electronic voting has a dubious track record, one potential option would be to allow anyone to vote anywhere, using a system which tracks people based on National Insurance numbers. We could thus allow people to vote regardless of where they live, ensure that more people can vote at a convenient polling station, reduce the need for postal ballots, and allow more people to vote at the limited number of accessible polling stations. There are problems to overcome in regards to maintaining a constituency link – but I am sure this can be over come without too much trouble. All in all, it would help address many of the problems our voting system faces, and that can only be a good thing.

Ghana: Working Week, Sunday Rest

“Stop all the clocks”. That’s how Auden’s poem starts. Well, there are occasions here when that feels rather unnecessary. You see time in Ghana has something of a life of its own; now rushing forward, as though to get through its length of days in the blink of a eye, now languishing behind, awaiting I know not what.

There are days at the Resource Centre for Persons with Disabilities where all I can do is trawl the internet, perhaps stumbling upon a relevant report by Human Rights Watch, but more likely achieving nothing of significance. Afternoons which seem to stretch beyond sight, where the heat gets under your skin, into your bones, and all you can do is sit under the ceiling fans, and drink sachet water.

But these days are matched by those which pass before you have even realised which day it is. Days of meetings with city businesses and government organisations, discussing the importance of accessibility to buildings and services, and trying to hammer home the warning that they must make appropriate provisions by August or risk breaching the law. (This is the main thrust of my work at present. We are building on an accessibility audit carried out by previous volunteers to try to get a picture of how people the needs of people with disabilities are met and encourage action, facilitating the involvement of PWDs in the local economy and civil society). Further time is swallowed without thought by school and community visits (a.k.a. sensitisations), which seek to dispel some of the myths surrounding disability in Ghana (including that disabilities are caused by evil spirits which can infect you), and replace them with an awareness that disabilities are not inabilities, but limitations of the social and physical environment, and that people with disabilities are first and foremost people.

This ebbing and flowing sense of time is not unique to project work. It is just as common in our weekends, where long afternoons playing cards with my host siblings, or burning my way through books, are matched by mornings lost without a thought in church, or watching the Ghana Society for the Physically Disabled (GSPD) play wheelchair basketball.

So too, it rubs off on everyone else here. Appointments, for example, do not seem to be set in stone in the way they are in the UK, and need repeated confirmation. They may be cancelled at a moment’s notice, but equally may happen well ahead of schedule. Punctuality is not the cardinal virtue, rather it is subservient to sociability. Greeting your neighbour is more important than getting to work on time. Getting to church on time is practically unheard of (though interestingly the Catholic community at which my host family worships seems to better at this than the Anglican cathedral I visited once and decided wasn’t the place for me).

I like time. There’s so little and so much of it.” Well, four weeks have already passed, and it seems like no time at all. And yet if you asked me about something that happened last week, I would be amazed that it was only last week. Eddies in the Space-Time continuum and all that…