By Naduah Wheeler
Humanist Service Corps Volunteer
I was nervous about teaching in Macau. Obviously I was nervous about moving halfway across the world by myself, but more than that, I was nervous about the ethics of the job and my place in the global workforce. After a year questioning my role in Macau, that apprehension only increased when coming to Ghana with the Humanist Service Corps (HSC) where my job changed from education to international development. I was nervous because I had seen and heard too many stories of organizations ignoring local populations and “creating change” by simply enforcing western ideas of equality. I’d read too many reports describing the pitfalls of short-term medical programs, the problems of voluntourism, and the dangers of international intervention. I had serious doubts about my ability to create lasting change in the face of failures by people and organizations far more experienced and well-trained than I am. I had doubts about the possibility of ethical international aid at all. I only chose to go to Ghana with HSC because this program gave me hope. I figured if ethical international development could exist, it would be through HSC’s model.
Over the past eight months in Ghana I have seen real change and believe we will make a lasting, ethical impact here. However, I still have doubts. While we, as an organization, may be working as responsibly as possible, I’ve begun to question the impact we can make/are making/should be making as individuals. In our work we make sure to work with our local partner, Songtaba. We ask for direction. We’re careful to listen and ask questions instead of providing answers. However, some of the biggest impact we will have is by simply existing in Bimbila and in the personal relationships we develop. It’s there, in the smaller moments, buying groceries, walking through town, hanging out at a spot (bar), that we have the potential to make a lasting impact in the minds of individuals leading to larger social change to unintentionally force our ideas without regard to cultural sensitivity.
These spaces are perhaps the most important because they involve ordinary people. Our work with Songtaba is work with activists, with people who already understand gender inequality is a problem, people who are primed to challenge their gender expectations and make active changes within their own culture. However, our daily interactions are often with people outside of Songtaba, people who may have never critically analyzed gender issues, who may fear the women accused of witchcraft in Kukuo, or who still don’t think women can ride motorcycles. How can we best utilize these microcosmic moments to create long-lasting change?
For me, the difficulty in these moments lies in the internal conflict I feel toward cultural sensitivity and a responsibility to push against socialized prejudices to make change. I have trouble reconciling these often conflicting desires. Often cultural sensitivity seems to require my silence and quiet acquiescence to ideas that not only seem problematic to me, but also directly connect with the work we’re doing with Songtaba on a larger scale. However, pushing back against these ideas is often not necessarily the best response given different definitions of feminism, the fact that my very foreign-ness may make my opinion easily dismissible, and the potential for these conversations to backfire.
Just as the answer to problems with international aid lies somewhere between the two extremes of voluntourism and complete non-interference, my role as an individual lies somewhere between silent cultural sensitivity and constant push back. By silently accepting cultural ideas that directly impact the work Songtaba is doing, I lose opportunities to fully realize my role supporting them. Part of our role supporting Songtaba is to help them gain attention and spread their message; quietly listening while people say women should stay home, say disparaging things about the women accused of witchcraft, or dismiss the importance of women’s education is neglecting opportunities to potentially further Songtaba’s message. However, these conversations must be done with Songtaba’s message at the core, not my message individually. There is space to push back against problematic cultural ideas, but it’s not within my role to identify what cultural ideas are problematic. Instead, I can leverage my personal relationships to question and discuss ideas our local partners have decided they would like to change.
To make lasting, worthwhile change, we have to identify the power we have, not just as smaller parts in a larger organization, but as individuals existing in a community. Our smaller interpersonal interactions have the same powerful potential for change that our direct work with Songtaba does. The individual relationships we each create and maintain have an immense potential to nudge people toward equality. Given that power, it’s imperative that we approach these smaller moments, the moments when our cultural relativism is pushed to its limits, with careful thought and consideration and truly evaluate whether our opinion is needed and would make a difference in each situation. Even in these smaller moments we have to identify if we’re disagreeing as Americans confronting a different culture or as partners of Songtaba, working within the cultural parameters they’ve identified.