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.