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  • Writer's pictureThe Old Farmyard Forceleap Farm

So who is happier?

I am frequently told that by coming here I am giving the boys an opportunity to see how the other half live. Maybe I am being oversensitive, but I feel this somehow implies that, as people here are poorer, they must live poorer lives. Although there may not be as much money or choice about, people here do not strike me as being anywhere near as miserable as many people in the UK!  Although I do admit, life here is more challenging, certainly with an added layer of jeopardy, and obviously people don't like being poorer. But despite this, they are not sinking under the tidal wave of anxiety or depression that seems to be afflicting ever increasing numbers of people at home. They seem less fearful, more cheerful, optimistic, certainly more resilient, and so I am left wondering who is having richer or poorer life?

Maybe they are just nicer, have stronger sense of community or have a strong faith, (that our society seems to deride), that encourages them and gives them hope if they feel down? At home we are taught that being kind and thinking about how other people feel, are all key to oil the wheels and help us to make each other happy. But here people have a totally different perspective when it comes to how they interact with each other.  Their concepts of kindness, duty, respect, emotional regulation, children’s behaviour, manners, and the nature of friendship, are all just very different.

I was thinking of some examples to share with you. So, at school, when a child gets a question wrong, they get a smack around the back of the head, or chalk thrown at them and told they are stupid, lazy, or useless (or all three).

Out and about, I am constantly being handed toddlers to hold, who are often screaming with fear of the white lady, whose arms they are being pressed into. But everyone watching this farce (often initiated by the child’s own mother) think their fear is hysterical?? If someone in a group is being a bit shy, or reticent, rather than encouraging them out of their shell, the rest of the group will often force them into the limelight and seem to publicly ridicule their awkwardness. Another weird local tradition, that to me looks incredibly disrespectful, is for a grandchild to dress up in their grand-parent’s cloths the day after they die. They can be seen walking around the village visiting all their grand-parent’s old haunts, imitating their mannerisms and foibles. To me it looks like they are taking the piss, but here it is a hugely admired way of honouring an esteemed elder. The culture is just so different!

Even variations in the use of language shows a different perspective or approach to life. There are some words that we do not have an equivalent for in English, my favourite being “Naa”. “Naa” is a generic response to any greeting. It does not really mean anything in English, maybe the equivalent of nodding your head, but it is used to express active listening, so you say “Naa” when someone greets you, to indicate that you are fully engaged and listening. It is diametrically the opposite sentiment to when you try to talk to someone who is on their phone, and they say I am listening, and you know perfectly well they are not! There are also some words in English that do not have an equivalent in Mampruli. For example, in Mampruli there is no specific word for “Please”. “Ga-fa-ra” really means “Sorry” but it is also used for “Please”. Someone explained to me that this is because, if you are entitled to something or someone’s service, you should not have to ask for it. But, if you are not entitled to it and take it, you are depriving someone else of what is rightly theirs, and so should apologise. In their eyes us constantly say “Please,” and “Thank-you” it is rather rude! They think that, either you are mocking them for failing to provide something they should have done or that you are seeking to take more than you are entitled to, which is quite likely if you are a white person!    

Another major difference is greetings. Greetings are huge here, in fact across Africa. It is the only Mampruli I am actually pretty fluent in! “Da-suba, Din-ya-walla?” “Hello, how are you?” often followed by, “how was your sleep, how is the work, how are your cattle, how was your market day, how is the family” etc. There is no conversation that can possibly proceed without first greeting each other, with a good splattering of Naa, Naa, Naa, to indicate you are listening and engaged. Even if you want to have an argument or someone is in a real hurry, they still slip in a greeting, for example, “Hello, how are you? Your car is on fire!” (It wasn’t by the way, but you get the point!).

Last night I had to drive James and Martha over an hour up the road and back just to greet a friend Gideon, who was visiting from Accra. We arrived at his home and greeted him and his friends with polite handshakes, smiles, jokes, and a bit of chat, and then came home. On the way home, whilst I peered into the gloom (my lights are not great), I tried to avoid smashing into the deepest potholes or hitting the inevitable groups of goats sleeping on the warm tarmac at night, while James and Martha had an animated conversation about the event. I realised that discussion was limited to the behaviour and social connections between the group of people we had been socialising with. The conversation went something like this. “Gideon is doing well in Accra. He works at the airport now, I thought he was at the transport ministry. No, he moved to the airport, but I think he got a better job, Then he is doing well. When we were at school, was he not moving with that young guy Kassim, he is helping at the chief’s palace now isn’t he? Yes, he was there tonight, the guy with the blue shirt. Oh, that was him, wow, he has grown, but he has done well. But his sister, now she is very boastful, when you meet her, she just talks about herself. I do not like that etc.

Thinking about it, I realised there was absolutely no comment about how anyone was feeling. It was all about linking the dots, who is who and how well they are behaving as part of that group. So, I think a key difference is that here in Ghana people are never viewed as a standalone individual. You are part of a network and that is how people relate to you. This means the focus is on how you relate to each other within that network via your actions and behaviour becomes important, but no one seems to spend much time thinking how they are all feeling.

For us hurting someone’s feelings is something you would seriously avoid doing as a friend or caring family member, but here… Maybe having our feelings hurt and learning how to deal with that ourselves, is a crucial step to growing up and becoming more resilient. Maybe not something to be fear and even embraced as it could motivate us to become better people? Mikey is constantly complaining that someone or other has “hurt his feelings” but in the nicest possible way, no one here really cares, and to be fair I have not heard him complain about the state of his feelings in all the time we have been here, it is simply not relevant? These days at home we are told to talk to children about how they are feeling and encourage them to be open and display their emotions, and whatever happens, do not bottle things up. But now I am questioning the wisdom of this. Maybe bottling things up is part of controlling our feelings and is actually healthy as long as we realise those feelings are not dealt with yet. If we constantly over share it is like having feeling diarrhoea! But also, by telling others about it, are we not somehow expecting them to help us deal with how we feel? If this is the case, it is at the expense of learning to control our emotions and take responsibility for our actions ourselves? Maybe that is why we are less resilient? At the end of the day how we act often leads us to feel the way we feel anyway. Maybe we need to be more English and reserved after all! Interesting!

So, all in all, I am often left feeling rather bemused by my Ghanaian friend’s, and I should think they are equally bewildered by the boys and me! But I guess, understanding the emotional landscape of another culture, and so recognising what is actually going on in their heads, is one of the hardest things to get to grips with when you are trying to really understand the nuances of another way of life. When you see displays of kindness, rejection, love, arguments, humour, banter, fear, what do you perceive as real, what is feigned, what is being rude and what is a masquerade. What do they really think and feel and what are they hiding? I have spent a lot of time here in Ghana, but still, I don’t think I will ever really understand what is going on in their heads. So, it is difficult to say who is happier, I think people here have better mental health and are more resilient, but maybe at the expense of consideration and care of each other’s feelings? But the experience does give me cause to suggest that it is worth considering what we could learn from them and maybe concede we have not got it all right and there are other ways of doing things.

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