AUTHORMary Grace Reich Mary Grace Reich is a student in the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service, class of 2013, studying Culture & Politics with a focus on religious and African studies. At the Berkley Center, she works as a research assistant for the Religion and...
March 16, 2012
The Junior Year Abroad Network (JYAN) connects Georgetown students studying abroad in a variety of cultures. Students share reflections on religion, culture, politics, and society in their host countries, commenting on topics ranging from religious freedom and interfaith dialogue to secularization, globalization, democracy, and economics.
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I am Here to Learn: Navigating the Stereotypes of Americans in Ghana
June 1, 2012 | 2 COMMENTS
The bar which accompanied our home stay seemed to be a hot spot in the evening—if for no other reason than the generator which supplied its lights (the only lights in the town) and speakers. We made our way to the bar and continued in minimal exchange with some of the locals. Our varied English accents and vocabulary were posing a particular challenge to our attempts at conversation.
“Azonto” finally graced the boisterous speakers of the bar. Both benches—the locals and my friends and I—were quickly in the center of the bar breaking out our best “azonto” dance moves. Before long, we were laughing, smiling, and the bar was overflowing with locals trying to join. With a twist of the ankle and a pump of the fist, we had shown that we were there to learn, engage, and laugh along with the villagers.
The struggle to shape my position as a visitor to Ghana has been an ongoing challenge. In many situations, I have been presented with an unsettling hierarchical relationship between foreigners and Ghanaians. Ghanaians have a reputation for welcoming foreigners, and people frequently start up friendly conversations with me as I stroll down the street or through the market. They are curious as to why I am in Ghana and how I feel about Ghana. Often they guess at my occupation in Ghana: a volunteer; and presume how I feel: hot.
While volunteering is an honorable pursuit, I am eager to upset the stereotype and proudly respond that I am a student at the university. Perhaps my water flows more regularly and my lights rarely go out; but that does not mean that I am in the position to teach Ghana how to develop. Rather, I am here to be taught. The need to empower populations of developing countries in their ability to develop independently has been proposed as a key to sustainable development. It is important for a mutual exchange.
I did volunteer as an intern at Women in Law and Development in Africa (WiLDAF), but this too was more of an educational experience for me than anything else. On one of my most educational exposures of the internship, I accompanied a WiLDAF delegation to the Supreme Court of Ghana. When my director introduced our delegation she grouped myself and another American intern together as “representatives of donors.”
She later explained that she did not want to offend the Supreme Court justices with whom we were meeting in bringing mere interns to the visit. I appreciated being included, but my position struck me as reinforcing an unfortunate hierarchical relationship. Once again, it was an easily acceptable story that as an American I represented a donor; and, as a donor, I deserved respect even from the highest officials of the courts of Ghana.
This assumption is indicative of an unjust positioning of players in Ghana’s development. My main objective in Ghana is to explore another culture, but in those countless conversations on the street I intend to also contribute to its development by denying my role in designing it. Rather than reinforcing my stereotypical position as an instructor from the developing world, I try to empower those with which I interact: I am here to learn, and I have learned so much. Yes, I am hot, but that’s not all: I am inspired.
Azonto dancing was one way in which I was inspired, and one way in which I could visibly demonstrate to others that inspiration.I have never been a dancer. I can credit only meager rhythm to my name, but azonto is more than a performance. It is an expression of emotion, identity, and humor. It has become a form of communication and commonality that has crossed the diverse populations of Ghana and the gap between Ghanaians and foreign visitors. It has often been my gateway to inclusion amongst Ghanaians. Their enthusiasm to teach it to me and my enthusiasm to learn was a strong signifier of a mutually appreciative relationship. When we brought out our azonto moves in Nzulezo, we sent the signal that we were not visiting just to observe and compare, we were visiting to engage and adapt.
RESPONSE TO MARY GRACE REICH FROM HANNA GULLY June 8, 2012
As an American in China, I had a similar experience as Mary Grace. While in China, Chinese people constantly approached me out of curiosity. Some people wanted to take pictures with me; others simply wanted to talk. The first question they would ask was, “Where are you from?” This was generally followed by ooo-ing of excitement when they learned I was an Americans.
Like Mary Grace, being an American seemed to earn me immediate admiration. To be fair, not all people liked the U.S., but the overall sentiment was that anything Western, especially American, was cool. As soon as I left my dorm, I attracted stares simply because of how I looked, and I would often hear people talking about me, the “waiguoren” (foreigner). I felt frustrated because I wanted to be taken seriously, but my appearance cemented my stranger status.
Just like Mary Grace, I discovered my own way of proving that I belonged. I didn’t dance, but I spoke. When I would speak Chinese with locals, I would gain their respect. Nearly every Chinese person I talked to was surprised that I could speak Chinese, and would exclaim at my ability. I tried to speak with as many people as I could – cab drivers, moon cake vendors, bubble tea ladies – and the warmth I felt from those conversations made me feel like I was no longer a stranger. Though I don’t think I was ever accepted as someone who fully belonged, I was no longer an outsider and that was a big enough accomplishment for me.
RESPONSE TO MARY GRACE REICH FROM LIANA MEHRING June 8, 2012
I instantly identified with much of what you wrote about in you post Mary Grace. As an American in Botswana I was greeted with the same curiosity and a similar set of assumptions. The Batswana were intensely interested in my opinion of their country and often incredulous that I had chosen Botswana as a study abroad destination. Their most common assumption was that I was a peace corp volunteer or affiliated with some other humanitarian organization. When told I was a student at the University of Botswana many people, and especially younger people, were incredulous that I had actually chosen to come to Botswana.
Their surprise is symptomatic I think of our natural human tendency to think of ‘someplace else’ as more exciting or exotic than our own home. Most Batswana were amused by how entranced I was by their country in the same way I’m sure I would be entertained to see their jaws drop on a first visit to Connecticut.
That being said however, I also experienced the unfortunate hierarchical relationship you mentioned in the context of your visit to the Supreme Court. This dynamic was much more troubling and occurred most frequently in more professional social spaces such as in a court or at a hospital. For example, many of my American friends in Botswana were in a public health program through which they worked several times a week at local health clinics. Within those clinics, patients and even staff automatically assumed they were doctors. The Batswana took their cues from my friends white lab coats and skin and automatically deferred to them as people who looked like authority figures.
In certain social contexts there is a not too subtle mentality in Botswana that Westerners are imbued with greater authority or expertise. The assumption arises I believe from the belief that opportunities, education, and resources in the Western world confer a kind of superiority of Westerner professionals over local professionals. This widespread assumption however is in the process of being broken down, especially as Botswana comprehensively strengthens the entire spectrum of its social systems, most notably in heath and education.