Check yourself before you wreck yourself

He was a friendly fellow.

“Why are you in Accra?” he asked with a smile as we sat next to each other on the trotro.

“I am a journalist here from Canada,” I replied.

He closed off.

“You people make Africans look like monkeys living in trees,” he grumbled, as he stood to get off of the minibus.

That was the second time I heard this exact statement since arriving to Ghana in April as a media trainer for jhr: Journalists for Human Rights.

This comment initially upset me. But very quickly I found myself searching for an explanation:

What do journalists do to have Ghanaians think western media so strongly misrepresents them, and their lifestyles?

My local colleague suggested I don’t question this accusation. This has nothing to do with western media, she said, and everything to do with the Ghanaian mindset.

“Ghanaians know this country has issues, they just don’t want other people revealing them first.”

I don’t buy it. Not fully, anyway.

With this explanation, journalists bear no responsibility. There are multiple sides to every story.

Despite my colleague’s recommendation to let it go, the comment stuck with me. I thought about it the entire bus ride. And every one since. I take four trotros a day. Only now do I understand why Ghanaians question my presence in Accra.

Trotros are privately owned minibuses that serve as the city’s form of public transportation. You jump on, pay a small fee, and away you go. Most days, I spend my journey listening to a preacher onboard going on about God and the ways we should all live our lives.

“You will die if you have sex,” is what one of them once went as far to say.

Believe it or not, I have yet to witness another preacher top this one’s earnings. People on the bus gave him a sum of 10 cedis for five minutes of nonsensical banter. This is only about CND$5, but in Ghana, that amount of money goes quite far. To put it into perspective, my morning trotro rides combined are over an hour long. It costs me CND$1.20 to get to work.

When I get tired of the preachers, I peer outside. People selling goods swarm the bus. Many of them are kids.

“Pure water!” “Pure water!” the children yell as they run around with baskets of bagged water on top of their heads, taking the equivalent of five cents for each “sachet.”

Water is actually the least bizarre item you can purchase from the top of peoples’ heads. The assortment varies from sunglasses, to spring rolls, watermelons, Kleenex boxes, DVDs, and even scales. The kind you put on your bathroom floor to weigh yourself. I could go on.

“Why aren’t you in school?” I once asked a 14-year-old boy selling sunglasses in a group of other, older salesmen. “I would rather be making money,” he said.

On average, he says he makes 40 cedis a day. But after I asked how much he personally bought the glasses for, I realized his 40 cedis are more like 20 cedis, which is about CND$10.

Ten dollars a day is more valuable than his education.

When I hop off the bus, I usually see my fellow trotro riders toss their empty plastic water packs, which they purchased through the window just moments before, on the ground.

These end up in the gutters.

And even, the waterways.

JHR asks its trainers to publish two blogs on their website (www.speakjhr.com) a month. All three phenomena – preachers, school absenteeism, and the state of the environment – ran through my head as potential topics.

The pressure in my chest to meet my deadlines started to grow. It was like I couldn’t breathe. I questioned how I could tell these peoples’ stories in an accurate way.

I feared all three publications could simply make Africans look, as the man put it, like monkeys living in trees. Or, like bible thumping, uneducated, environment-hating people perhaps.

Not publishing anything would risk my journalistic credibility, professionalism, and perhaps, upset my bosses. Publishing meant I would confirm my skeptics’ accusations, shame Ghanaians, and misinform Canadians.

I said to hell with it.

I missed my deadlines. Something all journalists are told not to do. But, getting it right just means too much to me. Or at least, not getting it wrong.

So, I just continued taking the trotro to work.

April turned into May and May turned into a new perspective. What I was observing changed.

I started to see that people on trotros give money to preachers not because they are ignorant. Religion is all some have to get through the day. Others are responding to the immense societal and cultural pressures in Ghana to be, or appear to be, religious. That, and most don’t know preaching on minibuses is actually illegal.

The children who sell goods often want to go to school, but many have to work in the morning to afford their transportation fees. In other cases, their teachers aren’t showing up to class. Some have family members they are trying to financially support. In the end, you can’t fight hunger.

The garbage is overwhelming, but not necessarily because the people don’t care about the environment.

Nuumo Blafo III, the public relations officer at The Accra Metropolitan Assembly, which is in charge of waste disposal in the city, said public garbage cans get stolen. Instead of replacing them, they give everyone a free garbage can for their homes. This is the government’s only garbage service subsidization. Despite income levels, everyone in this city is expected to pay for garbage pick-up. Not everyone can. And no one wants to carry their garbage to their homes to dispose of it. It ends up in the streets, and those free garbage cans are sometimes used to collect rainwater instead of trash.

I was initially misinterpreting Ghanaians because I was riding the trotro like a westerner.

I drew comparisons and made judgments: Ghanaians versus Canadians. Africa versus North America.

But, true and genuine understanding does not come from comparison. Knowledge comes from acceptance.

People say, “Think outside the box.” I say, get in the box before you think outside of it. Which ever box that might be.

So, I started assessing life here through a local lens. Life that seemed bizarre became real. First impressions and reactions magically transitioned to identifications, sympathies, and, empathies.

Getting to this continent is easy. So is acting on sensationalized first impressions, and publishing them to meet deadlines and to wow editors who might not ever come to the country you’re writing about. Consequently, they assume everything you say is true.

Why wouldn’t they?

You’re the reporter. You’re present, see it happen, and so, you must know how it is.

Well, I am here. Physically, at least.

But wasn’t wholly – physically, mentally, spiritually, emotionally – until I simply forgot where I am not.

I am no longer in the West, a place where it is safe to jump to conclusions. My first impressions and reactions lie akin to a western reality. I had to shed what comes with that mentality, immerse myself completely to get the full story. Get involved to gain perspective, lose bias. Admit subjectivity to gain objectivity.

I had to learn life here in actuality, and accept it as my own.

The Ghanaian reality is a lot of things: hardship, corruption, chaos and struggle.

But it isn’t living in trees like monkeys.

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7 thoughts on “Check yourself before you wreck yourself

  1. Really interesting post Jess. The faster media is working these days with social media and 24 hour news the more dangerous it’s getting for journalists to be complacent with inaccuracy. Cool to see you taking a second look in spite of the deadline.

  2. I like it Jess! Good to see you’re still at it! Remember where your cover picture was taken? They and 6 other villages now have wells with clean drinking water as well as ECD centers … and more coming. Auntie Stella is hard at work and has helped many young people already and the LunaPads program is starting up. So much to do and so little time!! Stay well and CU at some point some where!?.

  3. i love this post! i especially like the part where you said “get in the box before you think outside of it.” i think It’s always easier for people in general and not just Westerners to judge from afar than to experience a reality and then report on it accurately. Amazing work!

  4. Corrected Reply:
    Great things to learn, and enjoyed reading. Good for you; and these are very important lessons for every journalist/reporter/ writer to learn if they want to improve and find truth.
    However, I would add that it is not safe to have foregone conclusions about anything, especially or even in your country. Reporters do the same thinking in the box, no experience, no reality check regarding many subjects, especially poverty, homelessness, hunger. We have many societies within this western world as well. And to try to find the truth, people have to jump out of the box of all preconceptions that come from upbringing, and who and what and where, to see what is not them.

  5. Massive respect to you Jess, this is one very beautiful piece. Your process however is what gets to me the most: it’s not about being African, or about journalism; you demonstrate some really solid principles and for me that sets you above most people both ethically and professionally.

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