Sunday, August 20, 2006

The Complexity of an Accident

Ghana has quieted down significantly with the departure of our 23 short-term volunteers. They’re flying out of Accra on Tuesday, back to Canada to continue working on global poverty alleviation from home, through their chapters. I’m sad to see them go, but such is the transient nature of friendships over here – Western volunteers frequently come and go. It’s similar to backpacking, where you meet new friends and lose old ones in every city you visit and depart. The problem over here is that the friends generally stay long enough (several months) to form a close relationship with you, which makes their departure sting a bit more. But there are still lots of great people here – Ghanaians and Westerners alike, so I’m not too worried about loneliness.

Last night I witnessed something that bothered me. I’d just arrived at a bar near my house to meet some friends for a beer, around 9pm. As I was entering the bar, I heard the sound of metal grating against concrete, and turned to see a motorbike lying on the ground roughly 20 metres away from me. I rushed to it to see the rider lying unconscious on the ground, his right arm and leg straddling the concrete divider that separates the road from the bike path. A dark liquid was pooling near him – thankfully just motor oil, I realized.

A crowd of people quickly gathered, and I felt powerless to help. I took a first aid course before coming to Ghana, but in that moment the rules seemed completely different – how do you call an ambulance when there is no ambulance system to be called? How effective are instructions given in English in a high-stress environment when English isn’t the native language?

Several people in the crowd tried waving down one of the many taxis that were passing by. We were on Tamale’s main road, and Tamale has plenty of taxis, so it wasn’t tough to spot one. What was tough, it turned out, was getting one to stop.

At least five taxis went by, some slowing briefly so the driver could survey they scene, some whipping right by.

Finally a tiny taxi pulled up behind the unconscious man. After several frantic hand gestures from the crowd, the taxi hesitantly pulled up closer to the man, and he was loaded into the backseat. I didn’t see any signs of serious cuts on him, but I was pretty worried about head trauma -- he wasn’t wearing a helmet. He regained consciousness in the cab, and ended up sitting upright in the backseat.

However, the taxi didn’t move. The driver refused to leave until someone from the crowd agreed to come with him. Finally, someone climbed into the front seat, and the car left for the hospital.

I asked one of the people in the crowd why it had taken so long for a taxi to stop, and then why it had taken so long for the taxi to leave.

“The drivers don’t want to stop for casualties,” he said. “Too often they drive to the hospital and then don’t get paid. So they won’t stop to help, forgetting that they could be saving a life. That’s why he wouldn’t leave until someone got in to the car. This man guaranteed he would pay for the ride.”

This shocked me. I know I’m using simple stereotypes here, but Ghanaian culture generally puts a huge emphasis on the importance of family and community, and downplays individuality (more so than North America, at least). It can be as simple as the social norm that you must offer to share your dinner with anyone who happens by as you eat it (possessions are to be shared). It can be more complex, like when a well-to-do Ghanaian must support his immediate family, as well as many members of his extended family who need it.

So to see taxi drivers pass by a seriously wounded man -- a shockingly selfish move – was almost incomprehensible to me, not to mention terribly frustrating. I had to stand there as people who could help get the man to the hospital simply moved on.

I’m sure that this kind of callous disregard happens across the world. This was just my first real taste of it in a country that I had, until now, seen as always valuing a sense of community above a sense of individuality.

I know this is a theme that keeps popping up in my blog, but it’s worth noting that I’m still developing an understanding and appreciation for a place that is obviously complex, obviously multi-dimensional. It was a wake-up call to keep me thinking critically, to appreciate the good, but not be afraid to confront the bad. Unfortunately, it’s easy for an optimist like me to focus only on the good.

No place is uniform, homogenous. Such oversimplification can lead to misleading conclusions and conflict. For example, big problems don’t have single root causes (African poverty isn’t simply the result of corrupt politicians – it’s the result of a myriad of interlocking and separate factors, not all of which are understood). Furthermore, Africa isn’t a uniform continent, and its countries are by no means uniform (the cultural and economic differences between northern Ghana and southern Ghana, for instance, are glaring).

I suppose we’re used to polarization, to simplification in the media (“you’re either with us or against us”). It allows us to digest complex issues, to feel some measure of control over them – and it’s easier to report the news this way. But this can be a dangerous tack to take, and it’s certainly not a frame of mind that should be adopted when doing development work.

I needed a wake-up call to remind me – I’m just sorry that it took a man’s injury to accomplish this.


Anonymous said...

There is an ambulance service. The number is 193 from GT.

Anonymous said...


Levi said...

Thanks for sharing this Luke. I'm always interested to see how poverty influences culture. It is risky for a cab driver to take someone when they may not get paid. I do see how this is contrary to the Ghana I know but difficult circumstances sometimes cause people to take difficult actions.
Keep writing.

Anonymous said...

I realize this is off topic, but I am under the immpression that quantum mechanics has been correlated to relativity...can anyone provide a quick synopsis?

Anonymous said...

Excuse me, how can you post a comment like that, when a more serious issue is at stake. Sure relating quatum mechanics to relativity would be a great acheivement to human kind, however bringing awareness to social issues could be time better spent. Especially on a blog like this.

PS. They haven't been able to correlate quantum mechanics to relativity. String theory falls apart... genius.

Anonymous said...

So what you are saying is that relativity is represented by peanut butter...while quantum mechanics is the jam...BUT, the string theory prevents correlation because it is the (lack of) pectin in the jam? Please elaborate!

Anonymous said...

How about we see how well you can prevent the back of my hand correlating with your face.

Anonymous said...

I don't understand how that has any bearing on the matter at hand. You are cruisin for a bruisin...and I suspect you wear big shoes to compensate for an're not fooling anyone...idiot.

Anonymous said...

I've had just about enough of your antics. Your shenanigans are intolerable, and this buffoonery must come to an end. The satiation and abhorrence of your comments make me feel aghast that society has produced such an indolent, torpid and corporeal person such as yourself.

Anonymous said...

Aghast you say? Buffoonery? Excuse me sir, but your requiem for dismissal is all but looming. The perspicacity that you flaunt is a mere shadow of acceptable behaviour. If you are trying to impress or inTIMidate, your merit is questionable. I am aghast and perplexed at the extent of your tomfoolery; but alas, your mental adeptness is limited as I am sure most are aware. Perhaps you should invest in some remedial de-stupefying courses…you are clearly an idiot…FACT.

Better grab a dictionary if you are capable of response…you CLEARLY won the last round. I’d rather shoot from THE HIP…which is where I am going on Saturday in Stratford…bitch.

Anonymous said...

Pardon me, but maybe you should have proof read what you wrote because you are not making any logical sense whatsoever. Why is my merit questionable if i am trying to impress you? Remedial de-stupefying courses? Your ramblings are twisted and indecipherable. If you are going to retort then I would please ask that you do it properly, otherwise I will go argue with wall or maybe a nice chair. At least their responses would be more stimulating.

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

First off, merit is simply an admirable quality or attribute. Your merit IS questionable because you attempted to dazzle with BIG words, and an obvious dictionary assisted barrage. I construe your bravado as counter productive, because YOU type without proof reading. Your rebuttal is awkward, and redundant. You could have just accepted defeat, and offered an apology. I interpret your confidence as contrived, and hilarious.

I merely suggested you pursue de-stupefying courses in the hopes that you would cease your regression into oblivion. You can’t be so inept? Can you? Thus, I will reiterate...if you want to look smarter, stop acting like an idiot. No room for kids at the grown-up table.

Anonymous said...

What table? What kids? What are you talking about, we're not sitting down for dinner! Are you saying that children are useless and have nothing to offer? Keep in mind that children will eventually take over everything. And more specifically YOU! So you better watch what you say before I take you over ... over for good ... Game Over.

Anonymous said...

Since I unfortunately possess rudimentary characteristics of civil discourse including manners and courtesy, I will try to be succinct, and admonish you kindly. You sir, are lacking tact. You fail to see the BIG picture of what is being said. Your attention to the last line of my previous refute is beyond grasp. I was not questioning the role of the youth in the world of tomorrow. I was questioning your morale fibre. To champion a challenge, be it verbal, written or physical, you should keep your eye on the prize. If you stay on the ball, you stay on the wall. It’s that simple. Humpty Dumpty lacked that foresight, and you are following the EGG-act same path. Booo-urns to you. Booo-urns indeed.