Update from Ghana - March 2011
By Ryan Fauber
Have you ever tried to explain the universe?
Did you know how easily it expands and contracts? After only six months in Ghana the universe has shrunk to the distance between Oguaa and Kumasi. A distance of 18 miles begins to feel like a day’s journey. A dip of just one or two degrees on the thermometer foreshadows the coming of the next ice age. Showers occur with the prefix “bucket” or not at all. The gravitational pull of a football has become as strong as a planet. And you can claim to have fetched a bucket of water from the borehole at one end of the universe and successfully carried it on your head to the other.
Ask my students what the universe is, even tell them that it encompasses everything, and they will confidently answer that the universe is Seniagya, the village in which my school is placed. Further explain to them that the universe is infinite, huge, you could never reach the end, it’s too far to even think about, and some of the students would allow the universe the distance “between Ghana and America.”
It is nice, when you think about it—a small universe. It is a lot easier to identify those things that matter most to you. The ideas and priorities from America that are rendered irrelevant in this new place simply dissolve into a static that radiates from too far away to imagine. You know everyone. It is as if the limited space in this small universe has made it acceptable to walk into any house, to treat every person like a member of your family, to share everything you have.
The first leap, from America to Accra, seemed to underscore the vast distance between where I came from and where I landed. Oguaa, Akuakrom, Seniagya and Senchi, the villages where we teach, seem to exist on a map of the universe as the single instance of inhabited land, the sole example of life. Accra felt like a tiny point in a massive, humming incomprehensible unstoppable universe that grew and grew and was filled with too many perspectives for one lifetime, too many trotros for one road, too many conflicting axioms, too many people, too much religion, too much of everything.
In Accra, the shock of pushing out the boundaries of the universe was coupled with the harsh fact that homosexuality was criminalized in Ghana. I had never felt solely or even totally defined by my homosexuality. In America, it just… was. In Accra, however, I found myself alone in a huge, loud, angry space. Perhaps it was the sudden spatial expansion that compelled the increase in decibel and decrease in subtlety of personal creeds. To reach all the ears in this newly vast space, microphones were required on every street corner to spread the vilification of social immoralities and the socially immoral, and to impress the importance of daily donations to whoever happened to be holding the microphone at that moment. News articles appeared at least once a week with such titles as “Homosexualism [sic] can be Cured,” “We support the fight against ritual murders, paganism and homosexuality,” “Homosexuality is not a human rights issue because homosexuals aren’t human,” etc…
To fill such a huge space, the topics had to be BIG. The reactions had to be even bigger. And suddenly I felt incredibly small, a person boiled down to one descriptor and lost within it. In some ways, nothing I did in Accra outside of my work at the Human Rights Advocacy Centre felt real. My homestay family, elders in the most outspoken Christian denomination against homosexuality, could not know me. In my head, the people I met on the street, no matter how amiable and welcoming, would turn hostile if they perceived my sexuality. How could I hide what slowly began to feel like the only significant piece of me? Me, the human, became so small--secondary to me, the homosexual.
And just now, as I finished typing that sentence, is when I thought, Had I truly been convinced that those two ideas: human and homosexual, were separated?
I had never advertised my sexuality. Only those in the program and at HRAC knew, but the articles, sermons, and radio programs that were broadcasted blindly had the same effect as if they were directed at me. I was the surface off of which they rebounded. And I turned myself into that. The pulpit-masters, the billboards, the thousands upon thousands of notices that advertise salvation as a product would have you believe that the dimensions of the universe begin and end with them--survival of the loudest. I had slid unknowingly into those dimensions. I had internally flattened myself into the idea of a homosexual. When preparing for Bridge Year Ghana, I set out to prove that there is no “homosexual” or “heterosexual”--that there are only humans. But, in reaction to the intolerance I faced in Accra, I boiled myself down to a singular descriptor, and I did the same to those decrying my sexuality. I perceived two contesting, one-dimensional ideas and in throwing myself so fully in my work for human rights, I almost lost the human element.
Loud problems echo in a big universe, but quiet ones exist and fill the spaces. Outside of the Accra Mall, the end-all-be-all which set itself as the standard of lifestyle for any Ghanaian truly working towards becoming a developed person, a group of Sudanese children stand quietly asking for any change you could spare. The same children would sometimes move to Madina Market, the station where I caught my trotro home. The feeling in my gut as I handed over the insignificant amount of loose change in my pocket or sometimes just walked by on my way home—or even worse, into the mall--is indescribable. That feeling, I imagine, is a staple in any type of development work: the feeling, the knowledge that you cannot save everyone in such a big universe.
I have learned, gracelessly, temperamentally and inefficiently, that I can address the loud problems, listen as hard as I can for the quiet and understand that this universe is not made up of problems. Yes, people are different. People are straight; people are gay. People are rich; people are poor. People are loud; people are quiet. Has anyone noticed how magnificently varied the universe can be? And it’s HUGE. Until I got here, I had as much of a concept of “everything” as my students (forgive the premonition) in Seniagya will.
Then, as gently as the first transition had been abrupt, my universe shrank to the size of three villages, with a theoretical wormhole that extended as far as Kumasi and transported as fast as a taxi carrying seven people could go.
It did not matter that I was gay. It did not matter what religion I followed. It did not matter that I was white. It mattered if I could fetch water. It mattered if I could wash a dish. It mattered if I could teach my students.
Being in Oguaa, seeing the same faces everyday and having the time to understand what lies behind each and every one of them, I felt so much more like a complex organism—with small parts and big parts. I was recognized as possessing and in turn recognized in others elements that added to the harmony fed by the hum of a compact group of other complex organisms in the same universe. How is it that in a smaller space the territories of us organisms do not constantly collide? Simple: “territories” is an alien term here. How in a smaller space do voices not echo louder as they bounce of the shrunken extremes? Simple: no microphones. The loudest voices I hear are those standing on opposite ends of this universe shouting “MAAKYE! (GOOD MORNING!)” to each other. No room for billboards. No time to develop single encompassing impressions of one another. No roar of greeting that does not abate to give rise to the quiet workings of village life. Here, things just aren’t big. There are no big malls and big churches, end-all-be-all- monoliths, to impress their criteria.We are not different in immense, speculative ways. Even within, I do not feel split between the (subjectively) small facets and the easily isolated and distorted ones. If categories exist they consist of: “Good at fetching water” and “Those who do not shower,” “Good at football” and “Good at watching football,” “Good at farming” and “Those who stay home and better be pounding fufu.”
The tasks we perform here do not care what big and small pieces you are built of and will not perform themselves because you are rich or poor or straight or gay. People are different in the most subtle ways. Isn’t it amazing how concordant this universe is? And it’s so SMALL. Before I arrived in Oguaa, I had an entirely different conception of what made up the universe. Planets? Hot showers and A/C? A “developed” and “undeveloped”? All I hear is a principal hummmmmmm.
Try explaining the universe. I wouldn’t write anything in ink, though.