Global Conversations Beyond Discipline

Disconnected by Culture

Kumasi hosts the largest open air market in West Africa. The sights, smells and sounds are overwhelming but awe-inspiring.

Since leaving High School I’ve been studying at university for eight years. That might sound impressive, and the way I casually mention that in conversations is meant to have that effect. Sure, I’ve done some impressive internships, I’m comparatively well-travelled and I may sound like I know a few things about the world. But I don’t. And what I do know I learnt high atop an ivory tower. I’ve studied history, politics, philosophy and law. I study people. But I may as well have done so with a pair of binoculars. I generally don’t feel connected to my own culture. My world is books and exams. Words on paper. And now here I am in Ghana as an Australian Youth Ambassador for Development. AYAD is a program that connects young professionals with host organisations overseas to work on various development projects. I’m writing this in my HO’s air-conditioned office in a backwater city called Kumasi. My world here is flipping between a laptop screen and an iPhone. Sure. I live like a local. I eat the local food and I walk to work through streets full of laughing children and locals looking curiously at the extremely pale man walking by. Most probably think I’m lost. They’re usually right. But given how much I interact with the people I pass by on the street, I may as well run through the neighbourhood. And the food I eat resembles what I enjoy eating most at home. When I go out on weekends, I have a group of expats to drink with. Kumasi, to those of you who had never heard of it (I certainly hadn’t) is a city of 2 million with a very small expat community. You rarely see any other complexion of skin other than black. It’s a city that is very, very Ghanaian. Yet can I say that I have even remotely embraced the culture?

Embracing a local culture, ultimately, is not a question of opportunity. Or difficulty. It’s a question of attitude. Do I want to acclimate to the local culture? Answering this question requires an evaluation of your motivations for being there. The AYAD program, as part of Australia’s aid program has two seemingly, diametrically opposing goals: to give young Australians an enriched and cultured experience overseas and to aid in the development of impoverished countries. These goals aren’t compatible. We are encouraged to embrace the local culture, yet we are here to change it. It could be argued that culture should be divorced from the development issues that we are here to address. What does building dams or contributing to conservation efforts have to do with the culture of a community? Everything. Culture has an enormous impact on the state of a nation. It effects the values, motivations and recognition of problems that influences communities. We are here to build capacity. At a fundamental level, that requires us to train locals and as a result, to change the culture of another society. Those working in development have to balance embracing a culture with the need to change it. It’s a fine line. I’m not able to describe how to walk that line, certainly not without writing a novel and maybe another eight years of study. But it’s important to recognise that fact. Can we make significant material improvements to the lives of those living in developing countries without impacting their culture? And if we can’t, is the welfare of a people more important than what makes them unique? And are we willing to sacrifice a unique culture on the altar of a Western standard of living? Maybe I’ll find out in the year ahead.