learning about development's failures from the little things
Nothing in Ghana happens quickly. People talk slowly, walk leisurely, and take their time. When I first arrived, I was easily irritated by the slowness, annoyed by waiting two hours in a restaurant or sitting in traffic. Over time, I adjusted and got used to zoning out or carrying a book with me. I still don’t enjoy the pace, but I can tolerate it. In this environment, the suddenness of an epiphany seems out of place. Instead, things occur over time and from repetition. I’ve learned an enormous amount here, but I can’t pinpoint a particular moment.
My biggest realization is that development is still a far-fetched dream. Back in the U.S., it’s easy to read about organizations providing clean water to rural communities or saving women’s lives through better maternal health care and feel inspired. I’m sure these organizations are doing good work, but I now see beneath the optimistic façade. For every person they help, there are thousands more suffering. For those lucky enough to get assistance, their lives don’t necessarily improve that much. A community might now have water, but they are still left without healthcare, adequate food, and an education. Of course, I knew these types of facts before I came to Ghana, but it didn’t deter me. I knew that seeing poverty every single day would be overwhelming and difficult, but I expected to still have some hope, to believe that things were getting better. And yes, Ghana is developing, but very slowly. There are still so many problems that any improvement feels small, like it is not enough.
I’ve learned this over time, from walking past the handicapped beggar on our street every afternoon or hearing yet another sob story from a patient at the health clinic where I intern. All of their multiple problems build upon each other, adding up to make you feel powerless. What can I do for a woman whose husband abandoned her because she had AIDs and left her with sick, with no money and a newborn child? I could give her money, but that’s just a temporary fix. I could give the beggar some change, but not what he really needs. He needs a culture that doesn’t stigmatize those with disabilities, but allows for them to have jobs, to pay for their own food and housing. That is something I can’t drop in his hand.
Two weeks ago, when we traveled to the northern, poorer region of Ghana, I had an especially poignant reminder of my inability to help. We visited a widow’s village, where widows are exiled if they refuse to marry their husband’s brother. These women have few resources, but a number of NGOs are attempting to help them. The women now weave and sell baskets to earn money to support themselves and their children. We visited the village and bought a lot of items, but there was little else we could do. I’m sure the money helped them, but it’s only so long before it runs out.
As we were leaving the village, we gathered together our empty water bottles from the bus and began handing them out to the children. They started fighting over them, punching and shoving each other to grab our trash, to get a few pennies by recycling it. Meanwhile, we sat on the bus, some of us already engrossed in our iPods or books, others looking at the scene through our windows. The children behaved like a group of pigeons squabbling for breadcrumbs. Our actions, our trash, made the kids behave like animals. We were trying to help, but I wondered how much harm we were inflicting in the process. If giving an empty water bottle causes fighting, how helpful is it? More importantly, how much of a difference do all the small actions of development really make?