[Disclaimer: this is a very long post]
Week 5 (I think it’s week 5?) started off as a week of new adjustments. My classes were having quizzes and assignments due, my program was having forms and paperwork and national ID Cards to complete, all while I was beginning my volunteer service with two different organizations (will discuss these in detail in the future).
Although I’m in a new country, the feeling that came to me this week was familiar.
It went something like: “fuck this”.
That’s what I’d say when I’d wake up, hike 30 mins to class, eat, go to another class, go back for maybe an hour before another class. Then to see that I have just-sprung and close coming deadlines for assignments and quizzes. To sit in class and have pictures taken of me without my permission. To leave that evening class with the options of walking 30 mins home alone in the pitch-black dark or with a creepy classmate. Then that creepy classmate (whom I just met that night) doesn’t say anything on the walk other than “Will you come to my room? Can I come to your room.
So, needless to say, in my free time I didn’t want to think about class. I didn’t want to think about Ghana. I wanted to go to the expensive but American-feeling mall with my international friends. I wanted to drink with my international friends. I wanted to forget this world I found myself living in.
So, with all this going on and my decision to “Fuck it”, I failed two quizzes in two classes in two consecutive days. Each was worth 2% of my overall grade, and they were the first assignments in the class.
The last quiz I failed was on the Friday before my program’s scheduled trip to Kumasi. I was excited to go on this trip to get away from it all. Little did I know this trip was actually going to push me so far in it that I’d snap.
The 5 hour cramped bus ride there was fine. The 4-hour stop at a fabric-making shack for all 17 of us to stamp a piece of fabric was fine. The hotel we stayed in was great. Besides almost fainting from a blood-sugar drop Friday evening, Saturday morning I woke up feeling fantastic.
We learned about the Kente fabric and how it’s made. I got to bargain for some beautiful pieces. I enjoyed this bargaining…the strategy and game of it all.
The next stop we learned about a dye made from tree bark that they stamp on fabric, using stamps of various symbolic symbols. They walked us through how they make the die, and we got a hand at beating the tree bark.
Here I saw a fabric that I loved for my very close friend, Karli. It was red, green, and yellow which are Ghana’s colors and coincidentally Karli and my sorority’s colors (Alpha Pi Omega). There were two symbols stamped on this fabric: One that meant leadership, one that meant strength. Perfect for Karli.
I didn’t let my interest show though. The salesman put up a fight starting at 150. I got it for 70. All was good. I was happy. I waited for the other students to stamp their own fabric by playing with the local children and exploring with some friends.
Then things took turn.
Everyone was boarding the bus. I was waiting for my friend to retrieve her piece. I was approached by the man who sold me the fabric I was holding. He shows me the money I handed to him and points at the 50, saying the corner was ripped and the money is no good.
I was resistant.
It had been 30-40 minutes since I had bought the fabric. Is it really un-spendable? Was it ripped when I gave it to him? Coming from a space of being trained (by my coordinators) to avoid being ripped off by the sales people, I was resistant.
At first I just said no, it’s good, and started walking towards the bus with my friend. Then the grounded and analytical voice in my head spoke.
“He wouldn’t come back if it was still good”.
I walked with the man to a Ghanaian student in my program, Atsu, and asked him if the bill was bad, and he confirmed that some may reject the bill. There was something about the bank and how I could exchange it…I really didn’t pay attention at this point. Everyone was getting on the bus. Everything was happening so fast. I didn’t have another 50 in my wallet and I didn’t want to be stuck with unusable money…I still had to eat. I offered him the fabric back for the money, of which he refused and said he was going to ask the Ghanaian leaders of my group if they would exchange it. Before I processed that he was about to bring more people into this predicament, he was gone. I waited outside the bus, despite some friends telling me to get on and screw him. Next thing I knew I was surrounded by the market men. All yelling loudly, all wearing black shirts. A new man came to talk to me, I presume my sales man’s boss. I was expecting either a keep-the-fabric or give-it-back response. You know what they say about expectations. Instead I got mansplaining about how my bill wasn’t useable. I interrupted his slow-talk out of frustration. “I understand. I understand. I understand!!! Do you want the fabric back?”. “yes” he said quickly and snatched it away as though he thought I was going to put up a harder fight. The original sales man behind him tried to resist but was shut down. I took my ripped money and got on the bus.
Everyone behind me was yelling. Black men in black shirts screaming and holding up fabric. I had no idea why, and was overwhelmed.
“ignore them” Atsu tells me as I walk to my seat. Even here, I was cool. I told the students what happened. They said it was stupid. I said whatever. A man points at me through the bus window and gestures me outside. There were still many others around him. I had the expectation that he was related to my last encounter…maybe they had changed their mind and would give me the fabric back (the best way to bargain here is to walk away). You know what they say about expectations. Instead he holds up a different fabric and offers it to me for my ripped money. What the hell?
I was confused.
Then I snapped.
Emily Zucker, someone I know very well whom I never remember being angry, snapped.
-pic of me and Grace- “What? Why would you take the 50 for this fabric and not the other one???!!!!” I yelled, out of anger and also to be heard over the yelling sellers in the background. My hands did something while I yelled this, I’m not sure what. I had barely stepped off the bus and our leader was two inches to my left, but I was not present to him at the time.
The worker didn’t even flinch.
“He won’t take the money but the money is good to me”. He says. Then he continues on pointing to the fabric he has holding up, saying it is good and nice yadda yadda. I feel bad for yelling. “I understand.” I said “No I don’t want it”. and I quickly turn around and seek security on the bus.
This time I wasn’t cool. My friends asked me what happened. I couldn’t talk about. I tried. Every time the words fell out of my mouth and evaporated into the air as does a warm breath cloud in the winter temperature. Then I had to replace the air I just lost, and quickly, so I’d gasp. My body was shaking. “Arrhghh” is what the exhale would sound like…and my sentences went something like “They just…Arrhghh”.
“I can’t talk about it right now. I need a minute”.
After a few minutes, I explained it to everyone. They understood although I was hard on myself for getting that angry. What the heck, Emily? Then I began reflecting on how I’ve never, in my memory, been so angry I couldn’t talk before.
I prayed right there for clarity. And I got it.
That evening, in the hotel, I ended up talking with a 75 year old Irish man named Hugh. He was traveling in Ghana to visit his friend who’s a Ghanaian priest. He was a very easy man to talk to, and he told me something that, upon margination, would lead to a necessary realization for me in this country.
“The women here in this hotel…they work every day from 7am to midnight. You know how much they make a month? 40 Cedi. I mean Hell…That’s 10 Euros!! (and ~10 U.S dollars)” he says.
In case you think 1 dollar will get you farther here… not really. Believe me, you can’t live for a month on 40 cedi here. Well, clearly you can, but I don’t know how.
“These people here and out at the markets… they’re pushy because they’re struggling to make a living!” he says.
I thought about the sales man who was trying to get a useable bill for himself to please his boss and get his share. I thought about all the sales people and how aggressive they are to sell their items… and all the aggressive men here trying to date me.
“Has it happened to you yet, dear?” Hugh says, “I’ve had a few women propose to me just to get out of here.”
Please know, Ghana is not a place where people are trying to jump ship. All the students I’ve come across at the University are getting their degrees with the goals to STAY and help their country in some sort (starting new businesses, starting new programs at the university, etc.). However, that’s the students. There’s other groups in Ghana that I haven’t truly seen. What’s behind the people at the markets? Was I being ignorant in thinking that they made decent money to live? Potentially. Was I being too resistant to the fabric sales men? Absolutely.
And that’s OK. Great, actually. It was Gods way of showing me what I needed to see. Given the culture and opportunity here, being able to go to the University is a big honor. I’m not going to push that to the back burner any longer. Education is everything.
As for the fabric, sorry Karli. I’m sure there’s a much better present for you in store.