Africa in the Abstract

Hello All,  I recently was assigned an essay in the Cultural intensive class that I have been taking part in for the last four weeks here in Ghana.  I was given some subject areas and other than that was free to write whatever I wanted.  My wonderful first reader on much of my work (my hubby) recommended I post this as a blog entry as it is a pretty good description of my experiences here thus far.

Hope you enjoy it!

Peace to you my friends,


Africa in the Abstract

“I am having a surreal experience”, I think.  My head is against the window of the bus that carries my fellow study-abroad students and me to the Kakum Rainforest and to Cape Coast in Ghana.  I am overcome with exhaustion after 24 hours of travel followed by three nights with only a few hours of sleep. Have I only been in Ghana for a few days?  It feels much longer.  African pop music plays in the background, drifting down from the radio speakers.  The scenery of the countryside that flies by us is something that I have only seen in movies.  This feels like a movie.  Like the opening scene of some action film with the camera behind me showing the view I am seeing and you just know that the revolution or bomb or ambush is going to happen at any moment.  I literally pinch myself because I cannot believe that I am here, that this is me doing this. The scenery that I have been watching through the bus windows shocks me.

I am shocked by the miles of poverty that I see fly by the windows of the bus and this reaction surprises me.  I see entire villages that are made of homes in various states of dilapidation.  Houses made of scraps of wood and mud, no windows and dirt floors.  I admire the ingenuity of the people making homes with what is available to them.  When the bus stops we are inundated by people hawking their goods.  They tap the windows and look at us with eyes that are begging us to open the window and buy whatever it is that they are selling, the smoked fish, the chewing gum, the shoes, the packets of dried plantain. For sale is anything at all that a motorist passing by is willing to pay a few Cedi for.  As the bus pulls away some desperately chase us imploring us to quickly make a purchase.  Many of the women have the double burden of carrying not only their product on their heads but also their babies on their backs.  I wonder how many hours a day do they spend on the hot cement, dodging cars and selling their wares?  I am in awe of how hard they must work for what must be a few Cedi a day.  I feel quite deeply that there is a disconnect here with what I had thought Ghana was going to be like and the reality of what I am seeing.

The disconnect surprises me because I had had spent the last semester of my studies in the United States doing research papers for all of my classes on one aspect of Ghana or another.  I thought that I knew what to expect.  This is why when a few days after the trip to the rainforest and Cape Coast, when I am attending a lecture, what one of the professors says strikes me so deeply.  I can’t even remember which speaker it was because the day we attended the roundtable discussion where I think he has spoken, I was quite ill.  I had the wherewithal however to scratch what he had said in my journal. He said that for most people in North America and Europe, Africa is only an abstract.

Looking back now on when this all started for me, I understand exactly what that speaker meant by viewing Africa as an abstract.  When I applied to the study abroad program and researched the schools that would best work for a major in Women’s Studies, I was given three choices.  The first was Ontario, Canada.  I have been to Ontario and I knew that I was not what I was looking for in a study abroad experience.. I thought that it would be like going to school in Ohio.  The second choice offered me was South Africa at the Nelson Mandela University.  That program was much more attractive to me, but the choice that really got my attention was the University of Ghana. I began to research my options in earnest. I wanted to know what the countries were like and how an older student would fare participating in each particular California State University International Program (CSUIP).  I ultimately chose Ghana because if I was going to a foreign country to study abroad then I wanted a culture as unlike my own as possible.  When I told the CSUIP director at my school this, she had a knowing smile on her face and informed me then I definitely chose the right program in selecting Ghana.

I had wanted to both prepare myself for the culture of Ghana and gain knowledge of the history of the country so I worked with the head of the Women’s Studies Department and honed my research for my classes on a few areas of interest that would fulfill the requirements of my Women’s Studies major. One area was foreign aid, and how the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) have held up Ghana as a shining example of the successful implementation of Structural Adjustment Programs that were implemented. This is despite their very high levels of poverty. I wanted to know by what measure were the World Bank and IMF considering their financial programs a success and how did those in Ghana feel about it?  Knowing that as a general rule, poverty more adversely affects women this area applied to my major.

In my typical style of study, I did a great deal of research.  I easily read and referenced at least thirty different peer reviewed papers on the subject. I found online Ghanaian newspapers and read those exhaustively.  I read, multiple times, the entire seventeen page speech that the newly elected president Nana Akufo-Addo gave to the parliament of Ghana regarding the State of the Nation in February 2017.  I researched my subject thoroughly and wrote my papers. Having done all of this I felt confident that I had a more than average knowledge of the country and when I heard that I had been accepted into the program and that I actually was going to Ghana, I was excited for what I viewed a this once in a lifetime opportunity.  I felt prepared but still (though I did not know it) Africa was only an abstract for me.

I have been in Ghana for just over a month now and the last four weeks of the Ghana Society and Culture intensive class have been quite the whirlwind experience. It has been a lot to absorb. Yes I have done a great deal of research and reading about Ghana.  Reading and research is one thing, however being here has taught me that reality is an entirely different experience.  I have been guilty of viewing Ghana and the problems that I researched as an abstract. That is why the words that professor spoke so resonated with me. This leads me to wonder how much of the research I have read viewed Africa as only an abstract?

What led me to question the research I had used was reading the monograph given to me during the first full day here in Ghana written by Dr. Dan-Bright S. Dzorgbo titled Foreign Aid and Ghana: Power Dynamics of Partnership in Development.  Dr. Dzorgbo is a sociology professor at the University of Ghana. Certainly there are a multitude of papers and articles written criticizing the IMF and World Bank for their Structural Adjustment Programs and questioning their motives but I realized that none of the papers I had read were written by someone who was actually from Ghana. The only exception would be the address to parliament given by the president of Ghana and even then he was not critical of the IMF or World Bank.

Interestingly Dr. Dzorgbo uses the philosophical framework of the post-structuralism sociologist, Michel Foucault to analyze the power structure involved in foreign aid to Africa, in particular the IMF and World Bank.  Dzorgbo states, “The persistent underdevelopment of certain nations serves an important goal; it provides the contrasting context for legitimizing and justifying the Western path of development”. In other words it benefits the aid institutions in the West to keep Africa in need of aid because it furthers their financial interests and justifies the means in which they do it.  Dzorgbo is not shy regarding his criticisms of Western lending institutions and their stranglehold on the discourse of how development should look, particularly in formerly colonized countries like Ghana.  Dzorgbo goes on to state, “The industrialized societies have devised a more insidious form of control, in this case through the aid establishment and changing development discourse, to replace colonialism and the naked display of imperial power in their quest to secure foreign resources”. Said another way colonialism has not been eradicated in Ghana rather it has been repackaged in a much more palatable and subtle way in the form of the conditionality of foreign aid.

There is danger in this repackaging however.  This danger is that a large part of the Western world views Africa as an abstract, which makes it easier for a very small group of lenders, like those who control the IMF and the World Bank, to continue to extricate resources from developing countries like those in Africa at the expense of the people who inhabit those countries with little or no repercussions.  All the while presenting themselves as benevolent benefactors whose only interest is to spread democracy and to aid those poor unfortunate souls in, what is presented as underdeveloped and inferior societies.  Not surprisingly the reality is much different.

President Nana Akufo-Addo gives evidence to the true reality in his State of the Nation address he gave in February 2017.  One of the more shocking statistics that the president cites is when he states, “Ghana’s total revenue is consumed by three main budgetary lines: wages and salaries, interest payments and amortization and statutory payments. These three items alone account for 99.6% of government revenue. This means that anything else that government has to do outside of these lines will have to be financed by borrowing or aid”. Things like health care, road maintenance, education and all other social services.  This gives lending agencies like the IMF and World Bank tremendous power over the governing of Ghana.

What I have seen first hand now is how this power has been abused and most certainly does not serve the best interests of the vast majority of Ghanaians.  One only has to drive through Accra and see the conditions of the infrastructure to witness it. Or experience the intermittent power outages that occur here, which disrupts not only the lives of people but also the functioning of businesses.  Or look at the extremely high unemployment rates. Which brings me to a conversation I had on the plane ride from London to Accra.  I was sitting next to a very nice Ghanaian gentleman who had sought and found work in London but also resided part time in Ghana, where his family and fiancé reside.  When he found out how long I was going to be in his home country he paused and looked at me very seriously then he gave me some advice.  He told me to pace myself.  I was unsure of what he was talking about and asked for clarification.  He said that many people would ask me for help but the need was much greater than I would be able to give.  He told me that I would get used to the overwhelming need and would have to turn a blind eye to it.  Yes poverty is a part of Ghana but it is also so much more.

The Ghana that I am still learning about and that I look forward to getting to know even better is the beauty of this country and culture.  I think of the small village I saw where the children were giggling and laughing as they took turns pumping the water from the well.  I think of the beauty of the weaving and the pride taken in the artistry of weavers.  I think of the centrality of family here that has all but disappeared in the United States.  I think of all the kind people who have gone out of their way to help me when I asked, or even when I did not ask. I think of the girl I see who cleans the halls of the hostel where I live and how she sings while she works when she thinks no one is around.  I think of the liveliness and laughter I hear every evening from the Night Market that is just yards away from the window to my room.  These are all the things that make Africa and especially Ghana much more than an abstract



Works Cited

Dzorgbo, D. S. (2012). Foreign aid and Ghana: power dynamics of partnership in development. Accra: Institute for Democratic Governance.

State of the Nation Address – Home – Ghana Business News. (2017, February 21). Retrieved September 8, 2017, from,5065.1



3 thoughts on “Africa in the Abstract

  1. Proud of you T! Great essay, informative and beautifully written. Thank you for sharing, and keep posting!!! Sending love and wishing I could pay you a visit and share in the sensory experience of Ghanian culture.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Beautifully written. I feel almost like I’m there with you. I’m so proud of you and look forward to reading more about all you experience. It’s wonderful that you have the sensitivity to see the good in the midst of a lot of sadness or rather complexities of the politics and culture. My love to you. Take good care. xo


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