Change and Balance in Ghana

The Supreme Court building of Ghana

Debbie Imbach; Accra, Ghana

Greetings from Ghana!!  After getting off to a rough start, Amy and I have begun to settle into a welcomed routine and are becoming more comfortable as we’re slowly adjusting and learning how to survive here.  I’m already being taught how to speak some Twi (the dominant language in Ghana) by a few of my co-workers!  I have become accustomed to being greeted in the mornings with “Atisen?” (“How are you?”-spelling is strictly phonetic) and I can now respond with “Ayeh!” (“Good!”) and give the good-bye of “Ochina!” (“Tomorrow!”) when I leave work for the day.  I enjoy the amused laughter I always receive when a white American girl tries to speak an African language.

My experience in Accra so far has certainly been a fascinating lesson in political philosophy, which was somewhat unexpected.  Amy and I have been discussing some of the problems we see in Ghana, trying to figure out how they can be fixed.  One thing has been made extraordinarily clear: in a democracy, laws are only as effective as a society allows them to be.  No matter what laws are passed, if a majority of the people are unwilling to follow them, the police cannot enforce them and the laws become meaningless.  This is seen most clearly in the traffic here-traffic is a mess.  A big part of the problem is that no one follows the traffic laws: a supposedly one-way street has lanes going both ways; pedestrians cross whenever they want; drivers stop in the middle of the road to yell at other drivers; taxis dart about surrounding cars, stopping to pick up and drop off passengers whenever they please, and passing slower cars whenever they want.  Today on the way to work Amy’s and my tro-tro (a sort of bus system) was driving on the wrong side of the road to avoid the long line of traffic.  There is a complete disregard for any sense of order and it’s every driver for himself.  But how can this problem be fixed?  The solution is not to pass more laws regulating traffic-the laws are already there.  It’s a social problem: the outlook and mind-set of the people have to be changed.  It takes a majority of the people to commit to following the laws in an effort to make things better.  But people don’t seem willing to do this.  If the tro-tro can get you home faster by breaking the law, it’s good for the individual, so why should efforts be made to change it?

Relatedly, I have discovered a problem in trying to find balance in my outlook and mindset.  On the one hand, when I first arrived here, I was hit with some pretty severe culture shock.  The poor living conditions of many of the people here is shocking and makes me long for something better for the people of Ghana.  And I noticed it every single day and everywhere I went.  All I could see were the things that need improvement.  In this sense, I was missing the positive things Ghana has to offer.  However, as I begin working through my third week here in Ghana, there has been a dramatic shift.  I can now look around and see the beauty I am surrounded by, particularly in the people and their content attitudes.  Many of the problems have started to seem much less severe and noticeable-they’ve begun to fade into the background behind our new routine.  I can now understand how someone who has been born and raised in Ghana sees things as just the way they are.

One of the justices made a comment which illustrated the point quite well.  While Amy and I were looking for a new place to live, he said, “It may not measure up to your American standards, but hey, this is Africa!”  This comment was important for me to hear in a sense because it is important to recognize the place you are in for what it is, to accept it, embrace the positive aspects, and not be constantly distracted and bombarded by the problems and difficulties.  However, the comment also illustrates a very dangerous outlook: the acceptance of this as being just the way Africa is leads to a belief that things cannot change.  If everyone just says, “Well, this is Africa!” then there is no expectation that things can be better.  This attitude can be devastating to a developing country and can cease any potential progress.  I have been struggling to strike the balance between accepting where I am and seeing the good in it, while still remembering the initial shock and feelings that things could (and should) be better.  It is a difficult balance to try to find, and this difficulty is further complicated by knowing that to create real change, the people of Ghana as a whole have to push for it.  But how can the values, beliefs, and outlooks of an entire country be changed and shifted towards progress?  Who am I to believe that I, as one little American law student, can change the mind-set of the entire country?  How can I effect the change that needs to take place to help improve Ghana?  How can my work with the Supreme Court make any long-lasting and wide-spread societal difference, as is the goal of the Global Justice Program?  Unfortunately I do not have the answer to these questions, especially at this point, but I pray that with time and guidance, God will grant me the opportunity to help effect real change.

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