You’d think by now I would know better. I should have known better. But I was dealing with women and honestly I don’t interact with women near as often as I do with men.
I walked to my tailor this morning, extremely excited to pick up my very first traditional Ghanaian outfit. Yes, everything I’ve gotten made up to this point has been a western style. I got to the shop and greeted everyone. I set my bag down and started to open it. Two of the girls quickly told me to stop and that I should follow them. My dress was at the house. As soon as we rounded the corner they gave me the scoop. The last time I was there the small boy at the shop apparently blabbed something to his mom, the Madam, about me working with the apprentices and not her. I was confused though, because I thought the Madam was the lead tailor sitting in the back? The tailors at the shop have decent English, but the one I thought was the Madam doesn’t have the best language skills. The Ghanaian who took me to the shop wasn’t clear when he introduced me if the lady he pointed to was his friend or the Madam. He told me beforehand though that the Madam is always more expensive and because I’m white she will try to charge me more. He suggested that I give my stuff to the apprentices first, then the Madam.
So apparently the last time I went to the shop, I handed over my cloth to one of the apprentices. I mean physically handed it. I thought I was giving it to the shop as a whole, but apparently I wasn’t. I also handed over 5cd because they asked me for money to buy the lining for the dress. Reasonable request, right? Apparently because I handed the money to an apprentice not the Madam, I committed some sort of mortal offense. After I left, the Madam yelled at the all the apprentices and scared them senseless. But why?! The apprentices told me never to come back to the shop, from now on I need to go to a different place to pick up clothes if I want to work with them. Wait what?
The whole time I’m thinking: “how on Earth did I get so good at unknowingly pissing people off?” I had never dealt with a group of tailors before, only one lady in a shop. How was I supposed to know the politics of tailor dynamics? How was I supposed to know that I couldn’t physically give my fabric to a lackey, I had to give it to the head honcho? I’m still not even sure who the Madam really is. Is she the lady in the corner or is she someone else who doesn’t sit in the shop? One of the biggest things Americans grabble with here in Ghana is the concept that authority is top down. Well I mean it is everywhere, but hear me out. If you want to host a program in town, you first talk to the District Chief Executive and the District Assembly. That’s like going to the mayor and city council in America to ask permission to have a basketball game in your neighborhood. We have gatekeepers for a reason in America, because time is important. Authority is assumed with a position. We accept someone’s authority because of their job title. In Ghana, authority is something that is more important than time. Throwing your weight around because you can is extremely important in this country, especially for men. Giving the appearance of even more authority is natural. For example, today I was watching Ghanaian news for the first time. They were showing the confirmation hearings for ministers at the top level of government. The man being questionned was up for regional minister of the Ashanti Region. He was wearing cloth, like the chiefs do here. One man asked him if he was a chief and he said no. So the man asked, then why are wearing a chief’s cloth?
Big man syndrome is something I’ve struggled with here. The idea that men here have to assert their authority as often as possible and most of the time randomly is just mind boggling. I grew up assuming that authority was earned. Police in America go through training and have authority because that’s how our system works. Bosses have authority because they have more experience, have worked at the company longer, and because they are more qualified than you. Here you can have authority simply because you have enough money to pay someone off or because you are in at least some position to scare the people below you. I didn’t think that would be the case with women though. I honestly thought it was primarily a male phenomenon here. Maybe that’s why it caught me so off guard. I didn’t mean to piss off the Madam, but I should have known better.
I asked if I could apologize, but they told me that wouldn’t help, the damage was done. I think that’s what stings the most. I simply thought I was handing my cloth over to the store as a whole, I didn’t know better because I was alone and had never dealt with a situation like this before. My American self wants to apologize and make everything better, but my Ghanaian self knows that an insult simply can’t be “sorry”ied away. I sit and think “why did it have to be the tailor, for gods sake, anyone but the tailor!” It hurts because I want to fix it, but I can’t.
And then that just brings up bad memories from my old site. And then my deep internal dread of failing comes bubbling back to the surface. Ghanaians are always complementing me on how integrated I am, but how is it that I still manage to piss off the people I want to work with the most? There is one simple answer. I’m American. I always have been and always will be. I wear batik, I speak the language, I heartily consume the food, I deal with tros, I do the hiss, I do the hand motions, I wear the clothes, I know the meanings of adinkra, and I know Ghana time. I know the nuances and I understand how a lot of Ghanaians think. I feel integrated, but I can never fully be 100% integrated into Ghanaian culture. Because I’m not Ghanaian. I was raised to have certain convictions, morals, and attitudes. I’ve adapted here in Ghana to fit in with the culture, I’ve learned to accept things simply because that’s how it works here. But there are still a few things that I cannot accept; things my mind won’t let me brush off. Big man syndrome is one of those things. I know it, I deal with it, but I still can’t accept it. It is hard to explain, but here’s an example:
It is like in college, you take a class and you are really good at it. It is one of your favorite classes and you enjoy learning. Your professor is very particular though, no matter how hard you work, or how well you do, you still end up with a B at the end of the semester. You want to dispute the grade, but you know that it is futile, there is no changing the professor. You learned what you learned, you got something out of the class, but you didn’t make the grade you wanted. Fighting for a better grade will only bring you more stress and a sour relationship with the professor. But deep down inside, you are bitter and resentful, those feelings simply won’t go away by accepting your fate. Those feelings are there for a reason.
That’s how I feel here. I know I can’t change certain behaviors, I just have to deal with them. That doesn’t mean I agree with them or like them though. We are raised to have certain convictions, they are there for a reason. They help guide us in our decision making and help us be fully integrated into our own culture. Culture isn’t just a group of people who look similar, wear the same style of clothes, and eat similar foods. Culture is about attitude and how we behave. How we are raised and what we believe are traits that we share within our own culture. We share a common bond that isn’t easily broken. I believe you can fit yourself into another culture, but you never lose the culture you grew up with. It stays with you forever, guiding you throughout your life.
I’ve adapted here and my personality has changed, but I don’t think my internal beliefs have changed. I don’t think they can. Can you even change your morals and convictions? Do you want to?
And that’s my internal struggle – grabbling with reconciling what I can’t change and what I think is wrong.
This is something I will continue to struggle with. Because if this were easy, then it wouldn’t be Peace Corps.