Different Cultures; Different Choices (Africa)

Many years ago, I taught a public speaking course on the Six Nations reserve. I’d never been to a reserve and knew embarrassingly little about native culture.

The native students didn’t like the idea of using persuasive techniques in their speeches. Perplexed, I tried to explain that the techniques were all effective, tried and true. When the students refused point-blank to try using argument to convince people of their ideas, I asked: “How do you persuade others to do things you think are important?”

They stared at me as though I’d asked an absurd question. “We don’t. We don’t believe one should ever tell others what they should do.”

“What about with children?” I persisted. “Don’t you try to persuade them not to do dangerous things?”

They shook their heads.

Finally a young man saved me. “We don’t believe we have the right to influence another person’s choices, so we would never try to persuade someone to behave in a certain way. We show our children what is right and we tell them stories; they learn from what they see and hear. Then we leave them to make their own choices.”

Not wanting to be disrespectful of their cultural beliefs, I told them they could design their speeches as stories if they wanted. The young man who had spoken up later told the heart-wrenching tale of his personal battle with alcoholism, how it had impacted his life and his family, how he’d joined AA and found peace. His story had more persuasive power than any number of carefully structured arguments.

Their belief in individual freedom of choice fascinated me. I often think that if the European settlers had adopted the cultural beliefs of native North Americans rather than forcing European ones on them, we might live in a better world, one free of the ravages of climate change, for example. Respecting individuals’ freedom to choose their own paths seems to be an important part of native philosophy.

In sub-Saharan Africa, most people can’t imagine having the freedom to choose how to live their lives, because of the economic and political circumstances (many of which are also the result of European imperialist policies.) Without access to publicly funded secondary education or health care, many people struggle just to survive. Harsh realities limit their choices.

An article in today’s Globe and Mail states that the “highest proportion of poor people [in the world are] in sub-Saharan Africa. In Africa as a whole, two-thirds of people are still poor.” As I mentioned in a previous blog, EWB (Engineers Without Borders) volunteers go to African countries to address the root causes of poverty, but they start by trying to understand the cultures of their host countries. So they don’t make the mistake I did on the reserve. They don’t arrive with solutions and try to impose them. Instead they immerse themselves in the culture, living with rural families and joining in the life of the community. They work with existing agencies, on particular projects, but one of their broad goals is to raise Canadian awareness of the struggles facing people in Africa. They do this by telling stories, in their blogs.

Mina Shahid is in Ghana on a long-term placement with EWB. In September he wrote, “Since I arrived in Ghana I’ve been asking people what their dreams are … It’s been a difficult exercise … For the most part, people simply don’t know what I mean when I say dream. No matter how I reframe the question, it’s still very difficult for people to think about life in this way. Maybe they weren’t taught to dream when they were younger … I can dream of going to Harvard or Cambridge because I know people who’ve done it (so it doesn’t seem that impossible). But perhaps for people here, the reason they don’t dream is because examples of “dreams come true,” are not present around them.”

A few weeks later, Mina related the story of a man he met by chance. It begins, “Moses grew up in a small village outside of Saboba and his father had two wives. His father died when he was in primary school and because his mother was the younger of the two wives, she was left with nothing. He, his mother, and his older brother had to move and build a new home with the little they had. As a result, his family became exceedingly poor, barely able to feed themselves. He tells me that some days there was no food to eat and they would have to grind up hot peppers, make a soup out of it, and drink it as a meal.”

It is almost impossible for us to imagine the kinds of hardships faced by Moses, and others in sub-Saharan Africa. He struggled for years to achieve something that most North Americans can attain with very little effort: an education. The story shows that people in Ghana can dream and they can choose how to live their own lives. But to do so they have to overcome unbelievable obstacles, obstacles that all too often deprive them of freedom of choice.

Take a moment to read the rest of Moses’ story. It’s impressive.

There’s a link to Mina’s blog on the right of this page, if you want to read more about his experiences in Ghana.

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8 Responses to Different Cultures; Different Choices (Africa)

  1. minashahid says:

    Hey Meg,

    Thank you so much for referencing my blog, and more importantly Moses’ story! You’ve articulated my own thoughts on freedom of choice far better than I could of. I often think poverty is a lack of choice. On a school day in Toronto, I can wake up in the morning and choose not to go to classes. It’s as simple as that. When you live in poverty, it’s hard to not choose to grow your food, or to not choose to collect your water. This lack of choice leaves people in a perpetual state of reaction, constantly vulnerable.

    Thanks for the post, it was great!!

  2. Meg Westley says:

    No, no thank YOU, Mina. You’re the inspiration – and I’m very happy to share your stories.

  3. mikeklassen says:

    Amazing post Mom. I think the weaving of your own experience with Mina’s story of Moses is quite powerful. Your points about understanding culture and context before taking action resonate a lot with some of the ideas Frances shared with our group during her workshop. One thing that came up as a challenging tension is the pull between each new volunteer learning for themselves vs. the knowledge sharing from past volunteers who have developed and are implementing a specific strategy for change. Constant transition is a major challenge for EWB given our current human resources model, and in some cases it can put pressure on new African Programs Staff (like me) to adopt the strategy of people who came before me in order to be able to contribute. I plan to remain critical and understand the things I’m seeing, but I can foresee this being quite a challenging dance!

    Love Mike

    • Meg Westley says:

      I can imagine it’s a challenge – on the one hand you want to figure it out yourself to be sure you have a grounded understanding. On the other, you want to build on the work of those who’ve come before you. It will call for a balancing act – one I’m sure you can manage.

  4. Geoff says:

    Hi Meg – totally agree. Haven’t been to Africa, but heading to Haiti for a week in January, and thinking I will experience much of this as well. Having spent time in India and Nepal, the concept of poverty eliminating choice is absolutely true – but it also applies here. When I think of the rural poor in Huron and Perth Counties, their lives are defined by what they cannot do – get to medical treatment, for example. We do have a very rich life in comparison to most in the world – but we also have very deprived people close to home. I visited a man in the Ottawa Valley about a decade ago who lived entirely on canned pet food, and who had so many newspapers in his house that he had paths to his chair and his kitchen – he still used an outhouse. In many ways his life was as deprived of choice as any others.

    • Meg Westley says:

      Thanks for the comment, Geoff. That’s great that you’re going to Haiti – and I’m sure you will find a similar situation – hope you can be of help. No question, those living in poverty in Canada also have limited choices – I guess it’s the same all over the world, just that in some places more people have fewer supports and opportunities than others – and it is pretty extreme in parts of Africa.

  5. Megan Franken says:

    This is really fascinating Meg! You write that it can be impossible for us to imagine the challenges Moses faces- perhaps this is our culture’s counterpart to not understanding dreams. The same way some people can’t imagine prosperity and great success, we find it difficult to imagine facing challenges of such magnitude. I wonder which skill is more valuable? More practical? Great post,

    -Megan

    • Meg Westley says:

      Interesting thread to pick up, Megan. I guess what we really need is more cross-pollination – for us to understand the challenges better and for them to find it easier to dream. Both are valuable, depends what with you do with the knowledge/ability, I guess.

      Thanks for the comment.

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