From Water’s Edge to Clay Rock
“No amount of TV and talking to friends who’ve been could prepare me for Africa” (Andrew)
So how far from the sea is it then? What food do they eat? What will the weather be like? How will I react to the poverty and what I see around me? What do we need to pack? What will I be doing?
How far……Susan….how many hours in the bus?
From Plymouth to Bolgatanga is 26 hours – I have just added it up – however our journey took 4 whole days, starting at 7am outside the Theatre Royal on Sunday 14th February to 7pm on Wednesday evening outside the VSO office in Bolgatanga. I should tell you that we stayed for two days in Accra, the capital of Ghana, where we were welcomed and supported with great hospitality, generosity, laughter and friendliness. We were given useful information on the political context of Ghana, necessary medical advice and insight into the realities of culture shock. Would we or wouldn’t we get it? Would it happen in Bolga, or on our return to Plymouth?
To Be or Not to Be: Culture Shock
The five stages of culture shock are Honeymoon, Distress, Re-Integration, Autonomy and Independence. How many of us though remember the theory, when we are living the experience?
“The only way to do it was to immerse myself into the family, into the culture”
I found it a very useful back-drop against which to set my recent experiences of international, cross-cultural working. For further information and insight into the concept of culture shock check out: www.kwintessential.co.uk;
K.Oberg 1954; D.Elmer 2002).
I am talking about Community Xchange (a partnership programme, managed and delivered by the British Council, and Voluntary Services Overseas). 12 UK participants – all working in some way with young people, are matched with counterparts from Bolgatanga in the Upper East Region of Ghana, creating a team of 27. The backgrounds of this highly skilled, dynamic and forward thinking team includes a journalists, artists, youth workers, volunteer co-ordinators, drama practitioners, educators, storytellers, teachers and development managers.
WOW! What do you do? What happens? How does it all work?
Team members are matched with a counterpart and they observe, participate, offer insights and share in their work for three weeks in each community. They will each live with a host family around the community – here in Plymouth we have hosts in Plympton, St Judes, Hooe, Turnchapel, the Barbican and Milehouse. As well as this as a team they will organise and contribute to a Community Event in each phase of the programme.
It is busy, intense and challenging; however it is also affirming, humbling and life changing. It is an opportunity of a life time and an experience to embrace with an enquiring mind.
“I thought the experience was fantastic; it’s been amazing – life changing” (Kerry)
“This programme has had an unexpected and huge impact on me – beyond words” (Salam)
We arrived in an unexpectedly hot time in Bolgatanga, with temperatures ranging from 38 to 46 degrees. For some of us the food was too spicy, for others too much starch, for some it was a delight and for others created a craving for omelette and chips!
Where else would you see piglets wandering in the roads and walkways? And empty water sachets on every street corner and red dusty playing field? Where else might the taxi door come off in your hand or meetings start two hours after the scheduled arrival time? How might you adjust to continuous drumming, horn-beeping and phone calls to check out your health and well-being?
This is a culture rich in tradition, a culture where the heart is people over prosperity, a culture where people give generously from within and gracefully appreciate anything given to them.
These are places where the magic of life is fully appreciated on a daily – even hourly basis, where the ritual of prayer and thankfulness of the gifts of friendship, food and our shared humanity are stated often and given highest priority. This is a deeply faithful community, where both Christian, and Muslim live well side-by-side and where African Traditional Religion commands a rightful and respected place.
This is a place which encouraged reflection in those of us from the UK.
On a programme such as this we might expect high challenge, complex situations, conflict and cross-wires. However by the Friday of the second week this team had been together, Kerry reminded us at our team review that
“We have done really well. We must accept the perfect imperfect and keep the positives in the space”
and where Conrad was able to stand confidently at the meeting’s end and state that
“I am happy to be part of the group and pleased that we are living like a family”.
In Bolgatanga we learnt that when a Ghanaian sits down to eat he will always invite you to share the meal; we also learnt through the process of honest questioning and open dialogue that we do not always have to accept!
Participants on Community Xchange value the opportunities provided for discussing our cultural differences, whilst at the same time acknowledging our universal similarities – of our need to eat, drink, sleep, use the bathroom and share conversation. For many in the team finding out what they do know and the strength of their inner resources was a great comfort. For many the sharing of work practices, of styles of facilitation and leadership, and exploring how these can best be adapted in two different cultures, presented the intellectual and practical stretch needed for full engagement with the programme.
Learning and Changes
So as we await the arrival of our new friends from Ghana I have had the privilege of speaking with the UK team members and discovering what has happened for them….as a result of the journey so far.
“That the constant memory of the poverty I witnessed now impacts on my work with young people…..that I have a more relaxed approach…that I can identify the important things more easily…..that I have a more balanced way…..I now have an increased awareness of the world….and am more grateful than ever for what I have. I want to have more time for my friends……I have become more aware of the benefit of ritual and religion……how we try so hard to control external circumstances….. maybe how much we should acquiesce to the flow of life……
I know more about the educational system within Ghana; I can see the universal similarities between both countries education systems……I was given insight into the seamless working of family, kin and community……I see that we both have something to learn and gain from our styles of working with young people……the impact of the global village……the complexity of gender relations…..”
The programme has raised questions for people about relationship, discipline, connectivity, core values, treatment of children and young people, how and where stress is created, workplace culture, our responsibility in changing what we see as imperfect, our chances to contribute and make a difference and about the balance of rights and responsibilities,
“I have realised so much more about myself….I blossomed in Bolga…….I am now curious about the possibilities available……I relished the opportunity to stretch myself and give back to the team…..I return to the UK with a sense of pride and an eagerness to show off Plymouth to our new friends………the depth and richness of the whole experience from initial training to the bus ride back to Plymouth”.
“I can look at the world with new eyes” (Agnes)
This is only half a story….an unfinished chapter. We will only start to know the full impact for all of our team after the end of the Plymouth phase…..but for now let’s not wish it away.
You (the CX UK team) will probably all recognise something you have said…..so a big thank you to Kerry, Kerry and Salam; Emily, Agnes and Nick; Andrew, Siobain and Giles; Katie, Maria and Martin.
Written by Susan Moores
GlobalXchange Programme Supervisor