Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Back to Local

I rode my bicycle up to the Jirapa District Assembly at 10am on a Tuesday. Its a simple and usually quiet 3 story building but today its flowing with life like a busy anthill. Its the day of the 2011 "Inauguration of the Jirapa District Assembly". A building full of elected officials representing, "the people". The ants are interesting. They wear bright patterned clothing, stopping to greet each and every ant in their path. A formal obligation ingrained in them since birth. I join the ants in their customs and eventually enter the conference hall. Squeaky ceiling fans push hot air around the crowded room and a sea of colorful traditional smocks (Casimir is modeling one in the photo) greets me with Ghanaian formality. I find a seat in the back to observe the "smock fashion show" and try and blend into a room I will unequivocally not blend into in anyway possible. But, still I try. It doesn't work as recognizable faces start sitting beside me making jokes about their luck in seating and comments on how hot it already is. I ignore most of their jokes because I came to the meeting to watch a friend of mine be sworn in as an Assembly Woman representing her community. She's one of the only two Ghanaian women in the large room. Don't worry, I'm not going to talk about gender issues (although its a huge one) but, as I was sitting through the ceremony I continuously tried to get a glimpse out of the window and into the real world below. The place where I really wanted to be at that moment.

I've realized since long ago I am not meant to sit in an office trapped levels above the ground. Not only do I hate the awkward formality of all of it and the dead ends that come from long boring meetings but, the place where ideas originate and plans take action is not in an office building. Its on the ground. Its under mango trees, its in the market, walking to farm, fetching water, sitting in a Ghanaian classroom. Its in action. Its in communication. I've noticed that when you stay so removed from the earth and the people you lose the ability to make informed and experienced decisions on behalf of a society. When a political figure moves from their big isolated homes to a car and then an office building followed by lunch at an expensive restaurant and bar they miss the world. They pass everything by through tinted windows. Yet these are the lives of the "Big Men" that represent the people in Ghana (and probably most places in the world).

The next day, I was actually in the office to work on the computer when I was instantly disturbed (as normal). Two men came from Wa (Our regional capital) and I was pulled out of the office with my friend (the one just elected Assembly Woman) to get lunch and a drink. Normally when "Big men" go out they hide from Jirapa behind bottled drinks and food delivered on trays (I know that sounds normal for America but here its not affordable for most). Don't get me wrong, its nice to be treated every once in awhile. It is a good thing to enjoy your successes and life but this lunch was different, in a better way. As we sat on a bench in the center of the market drinking pito (picture of my friend, Nick, having some pito) and eating the local cakes and meat for anyone to see one of the men noticed how uncomfortable my friend was (this was not her choice setting) and explained something to her. He told her, "The moment you are elected to represent your people you start trying to avoid them. You start to forget who you're working for and what they stand for. Its good to go back to your culture and people. Be local! Remind yourself and everyone you're working for that you're just like them. And you are not above them, better than them, or superior. You know them and that's why you can represent them." The moment he said this I started enjoying this lunch even more. As I've been working in a government office in a developing country for almost two years now, I've noticed the corruption in politics and that he is correct. Once you're elected you're no longer "local".

In the Peace Corps they encourage us to stay out of politics. In fact, its in our handbook, but not only do I represent the United States Government but I am hosted by part of the Ghanaian Government. Hard for me to ignore politics. I don't have an opinion about their parties or who is running but more what they are doing. Or in most cases, not doing. I am here because children are dying from diarrhea that could have been prevented from having a clean water source, because malaria is continuing to cut peoples lives short, and because Ghana requested assistance to educate their people. So no, I don't care about greeting everyone in a fancy office building when the person I really need to greet is carrying her sick child on her back to the hospital. And no, I don't care if the Assembly holds a thousand meetings every year if none of them ever leave the office to talk to their people, to find out if their programs are working or how they can fix them. To be fair, there are some wonderful government employees that work very hard and do care about who they're working for. To be honest however, there are a lot of employees that only do things that benefit themselves which is not the ideal "civil servant". As far as I'm concerned the Peace Corps is about being "local" so to speak. Grassroots. I do not belong in an office. I can't do much in an office except type letters and stare at walls. What I can do outside is so full of possibilities its overwhelming.

A health club I work with at a local Junior High School has done more for their community in a few months than entire departments at "the office" do in 6 months. They educated the younger students on HIV/AIDS with practiced activities and songs. They all came on a Saturday morning to help clean up the hospital. During the clean up they even found and helped to solve a public health risk at the children's ward (picture of some of the kids cleaning). Where is their ceremony? Where is their time and travel payment? Their sitting allowance? If 15 year olds can do all of this without money, cars, computers and offices I start to wonder about all the complaints I hear at the office.

I cannot and do not wish to waste my time stuck in an office. I think I've made that clear by now. I can only speak for myself (after all I do realize its easy not to care what people think when you get to leave after two years/stay out of politics) but I will never stop sitting with the locals. I will never stop listening to their stories. I will never stop and pretend that the only people that exist in this world are like me and those equally employed. People here are always asking me why I'm not in the office all the time? It's simple, my work is with the people. Not the office. The office is there as a means to assist the people, not a prison to house dictators. If you ask anyone what their favorite part about their work is, do they ever say, "I love my office"? I doubt it.

This is a picture of my health club with some GREAT District Assembly employees that supported their clean up activity!