Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Like Two Cars Trying to Cross a One-Lane Bridge

Every day I learn more and more about the cultural dynamics at play in Ghanaian society. Some of them I almost expected, like the fact that women are expected to do all of the cooking and cleaning and domestic work, while the men are expected to have the paying job. Others have caught me completely off guard. For example, I just learned that going out to eat has a negative connotation here. Since groceries can be very expensive, eating out is often a more affordable option; however, as Dennis explained to me this morning, it is often seen as the option of last resort when the woman of the household is not capable of cooking the requisite meal for her family. “Pat would never allow it!” he said. I told him that in the U.S. it is almost exactly the opposite: cooking is generally cheaper and eating out is often considered a treat.

Another thing that I expected to see was the large adoption of Western technologies. It is quite ignorant to think that Africans want to be just like us, and that the goal of international development should be to make it so. However, cell phones and the internet are examples of transformative technologies that have completely changed the way we live and work, making it possible to communicate and interact in ways unforeseen only a generation ago. Most Africans feel the same way, and, seeing the greater efficiency and enhanced connectivity made possible in their personal and professional lives with many Western technologies, they have welcomed them with open arms. Without a doubt, the most advertised item in Accra is the cell phone, and I saw an Apple store on my first day. This is all the more reason why I was completely dumbfounded to witness the vast inefficiencies in the workplace stemming from the lack of use of these technologies.

It happened during another eventful day of driving around Accra with Charles. This time we were accompanied by Dennis, who had to go to some government ministries to personally enquire about the status of approved funding (which was now owed to us), as well as knock on a few other doors to get certain things moving. He wanted me to come to better understand the “politics of Ghana” and the organizations, associations and ministries with whom I would be working.

We arrived at the first government ministry office, where Dennis was following up on some emails and phone messages he had previously sent, from which he had not heard back. When we opened the door to the office, four desks piled high with files sat in a very cramped room full of about a dozen people – one person behind each desk and the other eight or so mulling about doing nothing in particular. Dennis found the person he was looking for and spoke to him for about 2 minutes. There was a lot of nodding, and then Dennis turned to leave, motioning for Charles and me to follow. I asked if everything was ok, and he said, “Yes, we will get our money now.” We then went to two or three other offices where the same thing happened. Even though it had taken us hours to get everywhere in the traffic, we never stayed at one place for more than 5-10 minutes.

As we left the third stop where this same scenario has unfolded, I said “I don’t get it. Why did we need to come all this way, when a phone call or an email would have sufficed?” Dennis and Charles just laughed. They said that the previous phone calls and emails served mainly to broach the subject, and many times they are not returned, let alone in a timely manner. More often than not, in order for things to actually get done, an in-person visit is required. During this visit, the emails and phone messages that have been sent to the person are discussed, where the individual will confirm their receipt and that they intend to follow through on whatever it is. If these messages are not sent before the in-person visit, the person will just say that they have no idea what you are talking about.

“But that’s so inefficient, especially when it takes us so long to drive here.”

They laugh even harder. “That’s Ghana” they say, which reminds me of “It is what it is,” a favorite phrase of my best friend, Jeremy, who stole it from his father. It’s a phrase which is simultaneously both profound and inane and can be said of anything under the sun. “You’re right, it is very frustrating. It was not this way in Germany” says Dennis, who got his masters degree in Berlin and has also studied in Norway.

In DC, the government is the butt of many jokes and the cause of much frustration regarding bureaucracy, red tape and inefficiencies. I’m not sure if this phenomenon is exclusive to the government here, but as of right now, my diagnosis is that this need for a face-to-face interaction may be cultural (More investigation to be done, so stay tuned). I was prepared, as many told me before leaving, for life to move at a slower pace here, but this lack of use of readily-available technologies is certainly surprising. An economist would term this "higher transaction costs" - the cost of making a transaction - and higher costs are always a bad thing in economics.

This conflict between “Westernization” (for lack of a better term) and the preservation of native cultural norms reminds me of something else that happened last week that may be serve as a nice metaphor. Perhaps it is not an appropriate metaphor at all, but I thinks it’s a good story in it’s own right, so here goes:

As Dennis, Pat and I were headed to Church last week for Pat’s women’s bible study (Dennis and I would run some errands during it), we came to a stop in front of a one-lane wooden bridge over a little brook. A steady stream of cars were coming over it from the opposite direction, and we were first in line to go over as soon as it let up. The only problem was it wasn’t letting up. I asked Dennis if there was a traffic cop* on the other end who would stop the cars at some point, and he just laughed. After 5 minutes, and prompted by honks from the line that had formed behind us, Dennis decided to take matters into his own hands. At an opportune moment, he turned into the traffic and began to cross the bridge. Inevitably, about a quarter of the way across, we found ourselves nose to nose with a car from the other side. A standoff ensued for a good 30 seconds before the other car put it into reverse to let our side have its turn to cross.

*Say what you will about traffic cops (I will readily admit to despising them, as they invariably prove themselves to be utterly worthless 96% of the time), but in this instance, we could have used one in Tema, Ghana.

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