We drove to the village in what can only be described as a party bus. The flashing, multicolored lights and sound system that felt funny and gauche as we left Accra felt like callous opulence in Hehekpoe. Most people in the village didn’t have electricity, and none had running water. The dissonance of our arrival was deafening.
Enveloped by lush greenery, the village itself seems sucked dry of the hue; sand, trees, and houses all variants of brown. The monochromatic physical space was offset by the vibrancy of the people, whose voices, clothes, and dispositions were bright and unfailingly cheerful.
We were immediately greeted by loud cheers and excitement. Walking from the bus, children fought each other for coveted hand-holding privileges, the winners triumphant and the losers still clinging to our clothes and limbs. It was sweet at first, but left a hard feeling in my stomach. It felt odd — like we were trophies. Still, our welcome was spirited and encouraging.
Generosity, personalities, poverty, heat — Hehekpoe was a village of extremes.
The trip to the rural village in the Volta Region of Ghana was organized through my school. We were there to do a service project with a local NGO and spend the night with a host family. The NGO has a long relationship with the village and supports them in building infrastructure. When we got there, they were mixing concrete for the foundation of a new school. We began helping immediately.
I’ve read that a good rule of thumb when volunteering in a developing country is only to provide a service you would trust yourself to do satisfactorily in a developed country. I knew I was the only person in our group who had mixed concrete before. Still, that did not absolve me of the sin of voluntourism.
Walking back and forth between the pile of rocks and the mixing area, my back ached, my forehead burned, and my fingers slowly lost feeling from their tight grip on the thin lip of the basin. But my thoughts were unencumbered. This is the only part of manual labor I enjoy — the way simple, repeated physical motion distracts my hands and focuses my mind.
It would be both better and worse if we had come to Hehekpoe and not done a service project. Better, that we would not have engaged in the damaging history of voluntourism and the white savior complex. Worse, that our trip would likely feel even more voyeuristic than it already did.
It struck me that everything I do here will be an imperfect contact of cultures.
There is no uncomplicated way for me to exist in this space. I did not come here free of history or context; my interpersonal relationships with Ghanaians are a microcosm of the international relationship between our countries — between the global north and south.
Recognizing this doesn’t make that relationship go away, and it doesn’t make the tension go away either. It only makes my time here more complicated. Then add to this another layer of my own identity and complicate it further, just for fun. Because, of course, I don’t just relate to people based on my nationality or my race; in fact, I’m most accustomed to my interactions being dominated by the strict enforcement of gender relations.
I grew up a girl. Girls learn that we are not allowed to take up space in the world — not physically, which is policed through the construction and meticulous regulation of “fat,” and not intellectually, which is policed through an endless series of degradation, invalidation, and patronization. Girls learn these rules so women can subconsciously live by these rules.
I am now in the difficult, imperfect process of unlearning this socialization. I have to remind myself that, as a woman, I am allowed to disagree, challenge, even aggravate. To insist, assert, contend, demand.
I came to Ghana in the midst of this process and suddenly, felt the boundaries change yet again. As a guest in this country, I am not entitled to unlimited space. And coming from the U.S., I already take up a whole lot of space on a global scale.
So I am plagued by the fear that every time I make a point to assert myself, I am taking part in a colonial legacy of privileging the voices of few over the voices of many in developing countries. In my mind, I can’t separate myself from international power dynamics — and maybe I shouldn’t. It’s a daily, delicate balance between taking the space I deserve and making space for others.
Searching for this balance manifested in a mentally devastating practice in which I refused to allow myself to acknowledge that there were aspects of being in Ghana which I did not enjoy. Here in Hehekpoe, I stubbornly clung to the pious notion that I equally appreciated all ways of living and that I was not at all bothered by the lack of amenities to which I was accustomed. To be bothered would have been to perpetuate Western-centric standards of what is “good” and what is “right.” It would have privileged my voice and opinions — my identity — in a socially constructed, but unmistakably real, hierarchy over my charitable hosts.
I walked around with that cognitive dissonance ringing in my head, telling me that, on one hand, I was frustrated and, on the other, that my frustration was not allowed. Not only was this unhealthy, it was unsustainable. Eventually, the need to feel my feelings overwhelmed me.
There has to be a middle ground. I can acknowledge to myself that I would prefer electricity and still be a gracious guest in Hehekpoe. I can allow myself to feel annoyed sometimes and still appreciate Ghana and my amazing opportunity to live here. I can understand my place in global history, and still assert my voice.
And even though I can’t distance myself from the marginalizing systems of power, I can focus on my small, microcosmic impact.