Nearly everyone I meet in Kumasi asks me “What are you doing in Ghana?” I tell them I am taking classes at KNUST for the summer, which is a satisfactory answer for most people. Last week, however, I met a young man named Collins at Komfo Anokye Teaching Hospital where I intern, for whom this answer did not suffice. On my first day interning at KATH, I was assigned to sit at the front desk of the immunization clinic with Collins. Despite the long line of patients waiting to be checked in, his questions to me were unending. Collins wanted to know everything about me: what the weather was like in America, if I had a car, what languages I could speak, where I had traveled to before, even how much storage my iPhone had. I wasn’t surprised when he finally asked me “Why did you come here?” I gave my usual spiel about studying abroad and experiencing a new culture, to which Collins sharply replied, “If I were you, I would have never come to Ghana.” When I asked him why, he told me about Ghana’s struggling economy and the lack of opportunity he faces. Even with a steady job at the hospital, Collins struggles financially. We continued the conversation, but he couldn’t seem to wrap his head around why I, an American, would ever come to his country. It caught me off guard when he suddenly blurted out, “I hate Ghana. I would love to go to America.” This was a drastic departure from the widespread Ghanaian pride I had witnessed in previous interactions. Other Ghanaians I had spoken with expressed great pride for Ghana’s vast culture, history, and traditions. Collins seemed detached from this common narrative of national pride, more focused on mobility than maintenance of culture.
My conversation with Collins has led me to think more deeply about my position as an American in Kumasi, and more broadly as a Westerner in a Southern global context. After just two weeks in Kumasi, I know this experience is one I will never forget. But Kumasi is just that for me: an experience. For the people here, it is their reality. I think it is important that I am here and that Davidson funds programs such as Davidson in Ghana. But I also think that my temporary positionality in Kumasi comes at a moral cost. Who can leave and who is forced to stay? Who is the tourist and who is being toured? Voluntary migration is enjoyed almost exclusively by privileged members of the West. For less privileged non-Westerners, travel occurs primarily through forced displacement (Chambers, 1997). My identity as a wealthy (by global standards) American allows me to enter into and consume the third world space, and then leave. This privilege of voluntary migration is one I have become numb to but is a privilege most people will never have.
At the end of our conversation, I asked Collins if he thought he would ever go to America. He told me “it’s not that simple.” He explained the strength of family values in Ghana, and how he must care for his parents and cannot simply leave Ghana because he wants to. Overall, I think it’s important to acknowledge the moral cost of temporarily inserting ourselves into this space, when many people here do not have the ability to leave. This cost is always present, but I’ve only begun to notice it here in Kumasi: the man who eats half-eaten chicken out of the trashcan at the restaurant while I enjoy a full plate, or the security guard sleeping on a cardboard box outside of my door while I am in bed. Coming to Ghana has forced me to acknowledge vast inequalities, but more importantly it has opened my eyes to the moral cost of temporarily experiencing another person’s reality.
Chambers, Eve. Tourism and Culture: An Applied Perspective. SUNY Press, 1997.
For further reading on Ghanaian family values: http://acad.depauw.edu/~mkfinney/teaching/Com227/culturalportfolios/GHANA/Family.html
For further reading on ethical tourism: https://www.travelmatters.co.uk/ethical-tourism/