Thursday, May 17, 2007

I think I cause a lot of accidents here

Life here is, from my (Western) perspective, chaotic. Of course, I don’t know anything. Well, almost nothing. As the Canadian journalist Joan Baxter has written quite a bit about, my cultural blinders are strong and ever-present, and I’m in a country, a region, a city with incredibly complex history and social and cultural customs that I know I’ll only ever scrape the surface of understanding.

Any time I feel I’ve got some answers for development, feel like I’ve got it figured out, I just have to open my eyes to the complexity of the country I’m currently calling my home. This always takes me down a few pegs. There are no easy answers, only subtle and complex situations.

For a superficial example, take the main transport yard in Tamale. At its peak hours, it’s packed to bursting with taxis, tro-tros (mini buses), buses, people, goats, sheep, kiosks (selling fried eggs, movies, pop, juice, bananas, local porridge, imported Chinese electronics, biscuits, local cheese), wheeled carts, shouting, heat, exhaust, spit, music, fatigue, etc. There is no room to move. To navigate on foot means to pick your way between bumpers (praying no vehicle starts to move), ducking under kiosks, politely elbowing your way through a crowd.

It looks like bedlam.

Yet somehow it works.

Cars come and go. Passengers debark and embark. Goods are shipped and received, food is purchased and consumed, tickets bought, money exchanged, and the process repeats without end.

It’s amazing to watch a taxi pull out of this chaos. It has to inch its way forward – literally, inches of space are all that’s allowed. Another series of vehicles around it must back up, pull forward, perhaps even slide to one side to allow for enough breathing room for the taxi. As though putting together a complex puzzle, the taxi driver moves his car through impossibly narrow spaces, around every obstacle, until he’s free onto the four-lane road that cuts through the centre of Tamale.

Daily life here often requires much more concentration than back home. I suspect that any driver put on a Canadian street would be supremely bored with the orderliness of it all. Regularly functional streetlights? Roads free of goats, cattle, chickens? Motorcycle riders avoiding sidewalks? Bicyclists without 10 foot metal poles over their shoulders? Where’s the challenge?

So I feel bad when I disrupt people’s concentration, often with negative consequences.

Take, for example, a few days ago, when I was biking home at night. I was enjoying the downhill slope towards my house, and was gazing at the three large stone stoves that are used to bake bread at night by my neighbours. They look like giant demons in the night, their mouths full of fire.

A man was biking in the opposite direction, a huge bag of charcoal perched precariously on his head. I assume that every faculty of his being was focussed on maintaining his balance, of moving forward.

Just as he passed me, I noticed a minute wobble: a terrible omen of events immediately to follow.

Sure enough, the minute wobble turned into a larger shake, which turned into a wild side-to-side motion of the handlebars, which turned into the man falling over, pinned beneath his bicycle, the charcoal bag in front of him.

I stopped, and several men immediately ran up to him. They hoisted him up, and, with their help, he walked off to the side of the road – seemingly not seriously injured.

I can’t help but think that I contributed to this. Despite the fact that Tamale is NGO central (with all the associated foreigners), white people draw a lot of attention here. Walking down the road means near constant greetings from strangers, and many unbroken stares (but very rarely hostile). This means attention is diverted from possibly more important issues – like maintaining balance.

In the few days since the bicycle incident, a man has walked into a low-hanging ceiling beam while staring at me, and a bicyclist collided with another bicyclist while moving around me.

Maybe I’m just bad luck, but it seems more likely that I’m disrupting the fine balance that exists in a city where safety regulations are not as stringent as they are in Canada.

This could be a metaphor for any well-meaning development worker who’s come to Ghana, expecting easy answers, but instead disrupting the existing fragile system. There are too many examples of poor development projects that have actually made the situation much much worse than it was before.

For now I’ll focus on avoiding causing accidents.

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