04 November 2011

The Danger of a Single Story, or How a Monday Can Make You Cry

Daily Times Headline: President Mills Calls Cameron’s Bluff: No Way for Gays
This morning, the radio program that Godwin and I listen to (well, that Godwin listens to, it’s in Twi, I listen for the odd phrase in English and random Twi words that I can understand) found a particularly hot topic.  That’s right, homosexuality in Ghana.  Which is very, very illegal.  As you may have heard, David Cameron threatened to withdraw UK aid to Ghana if it does not take action to decriminalize homosexuality.  Mills, just in time to bolster his political career, told the British Prime Minister to piss off.  Well, in nicer language.   
So at 8:50 a.m. (Godwin was a little late, he said he wanted to give me time to drink my coffee, “like a good husband”), I climb over a red muddied tire into the van.  Godwin had clearly been listening transfixed; shaking his head disbelievingly to “This story…this story…”  I’m as yet unaware of the day’s headlines, so I invite political turmoil into the van by asking Godwin to translate.  What Godwin translates is the same ugly horror story I’ve heard on countless occasions.  Full length title: The Story of the Homosexual Deviant Who Sexually Abused the Innocent Heterosexual Male.  

Now it’s my turn to shake my head, although it’s my insides that are really starting to wobble.  This doesn’t get easier, no matter how long I’m here.  This stays as painful, as raw.  I walk around with this covered up, most of the time, but every now and then the plaster gets ripped off.  And there it is, still, unhealed.

Godwin and I have enough of a relationship that we can talk about the difference between the U.S. (well, my U.S.) and Ghanaian perspectives on what being gay means.  But I tread lightly, and change the subject to some amusing tro-tro lettering (“Humble Lion” – it really wasn’t that amusing, I just needed a distraction) when it’s time.  I can make my point from a scientific perspective.  I can tell other stories, about loving relationships, and marriage, and families, and people who just live their lives as part of society – working, voting, shopping at the supermarket – not hiding, and certainly not abusing anyone.   I can remind him of all the newspaper articles about sexual abuse committed by pastors that I've read aloud to him as he's driven, the conversations we've had in this very van.  But right now, it doesn’t matter.  “It’s madness,” Godwin says.  And to both of us, that’s certainly true. 
Edward T. Hall's cultural iceberg. behavior on top,
beliefs and core values underneath.
Where is our common ground? How do we find our shared values in this? VSO, I’m afraid there is no penguin that can leap between our resident cultural icebergs and form a bridge between us.  Agree to disagree, and not to discuss it? But that isn’t always realistic.  Not today, when the first question I received when I walked through the office door was, “So Kelly, there was a matter that came up today…about the UK…what is your reaction to it?”  

Kelly: Well, colleague, I’m feeling a little sad today.
Colleague: Why? Because of what David Cameron did?
Kelly: Colleague, you know we feel very differently about this issue.  I believe that the law against homosexuality is wrong.
Colleague: [scoffs a bit] But what do you think about what David Cameron did? Do you think it’s fair that he should withdraw aid to Ghana?
Kelly: I think that it would be very hard for Ghana to change its mind on this issue right away.  Oh, my friend is skyping me.  Do you mind if I get that? (Thank god for Humble Lion – and by the way, Humble Lion is either a Jamaican football team or a reggae musician, I looked it up.)  

Chimamanda Adichie is a wonderful Nigerian author who I was introduced to as part of my VSO volunteer training.  In a talk entitled “The Danger of a Single Story,” she says this about the interplay between judgment, stereotyping and power:
“…That is how to create a single story. Show a people as one thing, as only one thing, over and over again, and that is what they become.”

Adichie told her own story – growing up in Nigeria, reading children’s books about snow and ginger beer written by English authors; her house boy, about whom she knew so little, except that his family was poor; the university student who was shocked that her African roommate knew how to operate a stove; the vacation to Mexico, and subsequent revelation that not all its people are clawing at the U.S. border – but are working and living their lives.   Adichie’s story allows us to understand her flaws, and gives us permission to reveal our own – if we are only willing to tell.  But we have to tell; because we must come to the realization that when we have limited knowledge of the “other,” we are doomed to create stereotypes, make assumptions, cast judgment, and come to inevitably false conclusions.  As Adichie, countless sociologists, and other intelligent people will tell you, stereotypes aren’t always wrong*, but they are never the whole story.  Or the only story.

*Although some are wrong, 99% of the time.

I cannot and will not do Ghana the injustice of telling a single story now.   In the process of looking for other stories, about how Ghanaians feel about homosexuality, and about the experience of being gay in Ghana, this is some of what I found:
  • A woman emailed in the following comment to a television broadcast discussing Mills’ actions:
“I don’t see what’s wrong with being gay.  I’m a Christian, and I don’t have a problem with it.  It’s just two people in love.” 
Her comment did get torn apart, of course.  But first it got read aloud, on air.  
  • And here’s another story, this one from GhanaWeb, a comment by G.K. Berko regarding an article on Ghana surviving the withdrawal of UK aid:
“In fulfilling our obligations to the International Human Rights expectations, we should enter into a serious dialogue with the appropriate entities to explain that our Society still, even in the 21st Century, has not adequately evolved to comfortably accommodate certain values in the West like on Homosexuality… But we will eventually get there.  The West must, therefore, refrain from imposing their Sexual values on us with that kind of directives as PM Cameron gave. The West did not transform overnight to accept the same Rights, either…it would be unfair for the British PM and any other entity in the West to order us to adopt immediately what took them Centuries to accept...”
  • And, also courtesy of GhanaWeb,  "Lady Professor Drops Gay Bombshell"
…Prof Akosua Adomako Ampofo turning her attention to the issue of gays which could prompt another bout of public discourse on the subject…She said “although we may see homosexuality as evil there is no universal moral obligation to prevent all evil by any and all means that we may consider necessary.”  Condemnation of homosexuals, she noted, will not transform a homosexual into a heterosexual, adding “if we feel strongly about an issue and seek to persuade people we should pray for them, but we cannot force people to follow any particular moral code...She said there is ample evidence to show that homosexuality like other practices or sins, is not uncommon in Africa historically...As a religious person she expressed amazement at what for her is the passion and fear homosexuality has generated, adding, 'We are surrounded by crimes and sins daily that receive no comment, let alone a demonstration.'"
  • "Homosexuals are as normal as 'you' and 'me'", a posting on gayghana.org.

"Ghana's Human Rights Protects every citizen no matter his or her colour,gender,race or political view except his or her sexuality, this means that GLBT people in Ghana are second class citizens? have we forgotten our Motto:? FREEDOM AND JUSTICE?
Why should GLBT people in Ghana be beaten,harassed and jailed simply because of their sexual orientation? ...i want to confirm that homosexuals are as normal as ‘you’ and ‘me'. just because they love ‘their own kind’, they are ostracised and hounded by the law. And branded as "kwadwo basia, batty boy, and even the most violence word like "trumutu" meaning a** f**ker. ‘‘Homosexuals are normal humans attracted to their own gender". Relationships are defined by comfort levels and not societal sanctions..."

As Adichie stated,“The consequence of the single story is this: it robs people of dignity. It makes our recognition of our equal humanity difficult. It emphasizes how we are different rather than how we are similar.” So how will we recognize each other? Between gay and straight, Ghana and the Global North, how will those without power, without voice, add their own stories to what has already been written – and then be heard? The foundation of human rights is the need to preserve human dignity. Perhaps it's the need to proclaim human dignity as well.  
The Talk Party Series: Gay in Ghana http://youtu.be/8EmvW2juke8
So go proclaim.


  1. And then there was the brave comment by M.P.Gifty Ohene Konadu in the Ghanaian parliament,and human rights advocate Nana Oye Lithur statement in the Daily Graphic and philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah's YouTube presentation "Ghanaians like sex too much to be homophobic"
    but oh the silent majority....