14.04.2005 Diaspora News

The “Livingstone Complex” Of A White Do-Gooder

By Kwame Okoampa-Ahoofe, Jr., Ph.D.
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On August 1, 2003, an interesting article written by a white-American male who had just concluded a two-week, English-teaching stint in a Ghanaian elementary school appeared in the New York Times. The article was interesting because it insightfully, at least for a largely disinterested American reading public, depicted the daunting odds that the average Ghanaian pupil contends with in order to achieve a decent level of education. Such odds, noted the writer, included, for instance, a school having only “10 reading books for a class of 35 [students].”

Here in America, such state of affairs would promptly attract public attention and readily be labeled “a national outrage.” But in Ghana, where academic achievement is highly prized, rather than being taken for granted, as it is definitely the case here in the United States, there prevails an uncanny resiliency towards such a formidable hurdle, both on the part of the teacher and the student. Thus Adam Cohen, the writer, who served under Global Volunteers, a non-profit poverty-alleviation organization, adds that “when it was time for English, the students moved their desks into clumps of three or four, each sharing a single book.” The writer, naturally, marvels at this eudaemonious spirit of sharing, which is a relatively rare commodity in these United States where abject self-aggrandizement, at the expense of the larger society, is widely applauded in the specious guise of capitalist progress. For those of us, like this writer, who partly grew up in rural Ghana, the scenario depicted by Mr. Adam Cohen is rather pedestrian. In some respects, one may even hasten to add that it is a crucial negative motivation, the sort of phenomenon that many Americans need in order to ensure salutary developmental and cultural stability. For instance, the recent massive power outage in the North-Eastern corridor of the United States, as well as portions of southeastern Canada, came to most Africans resident here in the United States as a mild inconvenience; in fact, most of us were more worried about the possibility of food spoilage than anything else.

Two years ago, for instance, when the Washington Heights section of Upper Manhattan, New York City, experienced a power outage for three consecutive days, my late father and elder sister had to dispose of several hundred dollars' worth of foodstuffs. In the end, Consolidated Edison (ConEd), the main power provider, offered what my father then described as an “eloquently insulting gesture” of a $100 check or coupon by way of compensation.

On the night of the recent massive power outage, I met a lady who lived on the tenth floor of my seventeen-floor cooperative apartment building crying like a baby because she could not take the elevator upstairs. I huffed under my breath: “You bloody fool!” and, almost paternally, advised her too see campus security for escort. I live on the first floor of our nine-building complex and happened to have a flash light but, unfortunately, the Kobe Bryant rape episode roused me promptly out of my Good Samaritan-complex to facing the grim fact that attempting to escort my neighbor upstairs might not be such a good idea, after all. In Ghana, it would have been just a minor inconvenience; but here in America, such officiousness could almost certainly land the Good Samaritan on the judicial rap sheet. A high-felony sheet, of course! And so I was quite amused a few days later, when Mayor Michael Bloomberg appeared on network radio and television patting New Yorkers on their backs and commending them for acting the proverbial role of model citizens. In my part of New York City – by University Avenue and Fordham, in the Bronx – it took more than two hours to have traffic cops manning congested and chaotic street intersections. This dispiriting state of affairs, naturally, gave one the eerie feeling that had the power outage assumed a hint of the workings of terrorists in its details, as it were, City residents would virtually have been on their own. And yet, here we were with Mr. Bloomberg being bombarded with kudos and the latter, himself, bragging about some 10,000 police officers having promptly reported for overtime duties and studiously manned major byways almost two or three seconds in the wake of the outage.

In his fascinating article, Mr. Cohen also states that: “It was heartening to see [President Bush II] take an interest in Africa, and promise it badly needed aid… [adding that]…it was unfortunate that [Mr. Bush] did not take the opportunity to push an idea he raised in his 2002 State of the Union address: the importance of ordinary Americans' volunteering in foreign lands.” Needless to say, I almost guffawed, literally fell off my couch, which also doubles as my desk and chair, with laughter. Indeed, it was not that the gracious suggestion of well-meaning Americans volunteering their services abroad wasn't a noble venture or enterprise, for it incontrovertibly is, save that the last time that Ghanaians made the mistake of seriously factoring the Peace Corps into our developmental agenda, our entire national destiny almost totally collapsed. And, here, it may be significant to recall that in 1961 when President John Fitzgerald Kennedy launched it, the seminal batch of Peace Corps volunteers was dispatched to Ghana. A few years later, Ghana's President Kwame Nkrumah would ban the Corps for what was then diplomatically described as some members of the organization engaging themselves in activities considered to be categorically incompatible with the publicly stated objectives of the volunteers. In other words, the Peace Corps operatives appeared to have been more on a mission of espionage and other anti-African activities than the proactive business of facilitating the rapid and auspicious development of a newly emancipated former British colony. Five years later, President Nkrumah and his CPP government would be summarily decommissioned in a CIA-sponsored coup detat that was billed as, perhaps, the monetarily cheapest military operation against a detested major world leader.

The end of the Nkrumah era did not terminate Ghana's – and, by extension, Africa's – romantic flirtation with the Peace Corps; and perhaps most of the activities of this U.S. government-sponsored organization were quite beneficial to their purported beneficiaries, as, indeed, I have heard a number of my countrymen and women laud the services of one or two Peace Corps volunteers whom they still remember nearly four decades later. Alas, for this writer and his high-school classmates who grew up during the early 1970s and 1980s, any thought of the Peace Corps, or American volunteers going to Ghana wells up a sour taste in our mouths. For ours was a time when such Peace Corps nuisances as Geoffrey (Jeff) Dunham and Craig Schuler, who “taught” at St. Peter's Secondary School, one of the finest of its kind in the entire West African sub-region, brought our potentially landmark careers to an apocalyptic halt. And here, it may be painfully recalled that Mr. Dunham, who was supposed to have taught my classmates and me Mathematics, spent the entire two years that he was at St. Peter's quizzing us on decimals, day-in-day-out, until by our third year when we were expected to be selecting courses for specialization or majoring, we discovered to our disgust and horror that almost all of us knew next to nothing about Mathematics, except, of course, juggling Nintendo-wise with decimal points. It was the critical intervention of some of our senior students who had not met with the unfortunate Jeff Experience that redeemed some of my classmates. I was so damaged beyond repair that I had to abandon my missionary's dream of becoming a physician.

For his part, the Honorable Craig Schuler, who hailed from Iowa (or one of those corn-specialist Mid-Western states), just as Sir Jeff came from Seattle, Washington, turned out to have been no better when shortly after leaving St. Peter's he took over a U.S.-AID food distribution outlet as coordinator. The food which Schuler (as he was popularly known) distributed was largely yellow corn and was meant for the consumption of the poor and famished, for in 1977 or '78 there had been a massive drought in the country. Alas, we would, once again, discover to our disgust and horror – after many unsuspecting consumers came down with acute bouts of diarrhea dysentery – that the yellow corn was actually of animal-feed grade. And so, unfortunately, whenever I hear or read of American volunteers succoring to the dire needs of primitive Ghanaians and Africans, or citizens of the so-called Third World, in general, I experience an abdominal riptide.

What, however, intrigued me most about Adam Cohen's recent Ghanaian experience was the writer's nineteenth-centuryesque portrayal of his hosts in such rhapsodic terms as could only be expected of a Henry Morton Stanley or, better yet, a David Livingstone. For instance, in one of his paragraphs Mr. Cohen gallantly observes that: “Little of the outside world reaches Prampram [the coastal Ghanaian town where he taught]. My students asked about my eyeglasses, the purpose of which eluded them.” Indeed, as one who grew up with parents and grandparents who wore eyeglasses, and who lived at least sixty miles inland, in the tropical evergreen forest of Ghana's Eastern Region, long before Mr. Cohen and, perhaps, his parents were born, the preceding account is simply fantastic. It may be worth recalling that this writer, himself, who partly grew up in a relatively more remote region from Prampram, with roughly identical economic profiles, has been wearing eyeglasses since 1978. Then again, who said the average mainstream American imagination, vis-à-vis continental Africa, is at one with the purely phantasmagorical?

Indeed, Mr. Cohen is to be lauded for at least being intelligent and sensitive enough to conclude his article by quoting the Ghanaian local coordinator of Global Volunteers as exhorting his departing guest to inform Americans that “despite the serious deprivation [that the average outsider] observed all around [the Prampram community], the people we met were happy.” *Kwame Okoampa-Ahoofe, Jr., Ph.D., teaches English and Journalism at Nassau Community College, Garden City. He has also taught high school-level English and Literature in Ghana. Views expressed by the author(s) do not necessarily reflect those of GhanaHomePage.

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