Rich visitors and alternative eco-nomics

By Simon Barrow
January 6, 2011

Travelling around as a comparatively prosperous person in a country marked by significant poverty and inequality is not easy - unless you are largely insensitive to these things, which sadly, some Westerners seem to be, just reckoning that "this is simply the way things are" and revelling in how much their overvalued dollar can buy.

There is, of course, nothing more 'inevitable' about massive disparities in wealth and power, however structurally adjusted, than there is about war, climate destruction or any other human-made or assisted process. And while substantial change is beyond the capacity of individuals, there are more and less helpful ways of thinking about it and responding practically.

In a future blog I will look specifically at sustainable and ecological tourism in Ghana. In this one I want to share some of the routine dilemmas and link them (perhaps rather obviously) to the global-local questions.

The family party I have been travelling with has migrated between Accra, Tema, Cape Coast, Elmina, Kakun national park, Kumasi and many points - urban and rural - in between. Buses are possible for visitors on major routes, only one twice-daily major domestic rail route (from Accra to Nsawam) has survived the last economic crisis in transportation (though more development is underway) and taxis are relatively expensive. Private vehicles* and tro-tros (anything that can serve as a micro means of commercial transport) are plentiful. Roads are being built very fast, but infrastructure lags behind.

Many therefore, inevitably resort to van or car hire, and given road conditions hiring a driver also makes sense. A 'people carrier' is not the most sustainable option, but it is persuasive... especially if you are trying to do a good deal in a short time, and carting around three weeks' worth of luggage and books for theological institutions!

The fabric of inequality is grafted even in the driver-driven relationship, of course. Unless you ask, you as a visitor will know your conveyor only by a first name, and there will be no shared story other than yours. He (almost certainly) will eat apart from you and earn money which is good from his perspective and cheap from yours. An invitation to join a shared meal may well be refused politely. It's just too awkward. The mental and cultural, as well as economic, divide is ingrained in the set up. Of course visitors can mitigate these factors by good and thoughtful behaviour. Bridges can be built. But it is no use pretending they do not exist.

One tourist I spoke to talked of treating people "as individuals, rather than 'us' and 'them'." But we cannot and should not forget that  people are socially and economically located. There is an us and them, and that ought to spur us to ask how, why and in what way it needs to be addressed. The political needs to be personalised, for sure. But the personal is also political, as the women's movement has long  pointed out.

Another way in which these issues are highlighted is through shopping, which in theological terms has become the secular sacrament of the new globalised order.

Buying food or goods outside the stores aimed at visitors and the  elite in Ghana means bartering, which is a kind of local friendly entertainment in some cases and key to survival in others. Not something I enjoy, but thankfully others I am with are well equipped in this department!

There are also sections of urban markets which sell clothing and are termed 'Obruni Wawa' (which means 'dead white man'). This moniker is derived from the tradition of selling off goods from the deceased. Though most of what is sold now is not in this category, the tongue-in- cheek logic still applies: "Who else but wealthy whites would sell off quality stuff like this?"

In tourist sites (including Elmina Castle, which also narrates the terrible history of slavery) street sellers, who are everywhere in  Ghana, particularly at road junctions, can be especially vigorous. 

Here the traditional hospitality - which is extraordinary - is used in  a battle of wits for Cedi notes. If you give your first name, you will find that within minutes it has been painted onto a shell proffered to  you as a gift...with the expectation of a reciprocal monetary one. Products will sometimes even be shoved through vehicle windows in an attempt to solicit commerce.

This can be frustrating and even a little menacing, and the government is eager to stamp it out because it puts off some visitors. On the other hand, how can you blame people who are trying to eke out a living on relatively little from trying to squeeze cash out of those who have, by their standards, plenty? It's not the way forward, but it's about  trade rather than begging and is a claim for dignity as well as resources. It's a symptom of the divide that needs facing rather than just criticising. Discomfort can be there for a purpose.

In more rural areas things seem much more relaxed. Young kids, in particular, will rush to touch you if you are white, perhaps never  having met 'obruni' before.

Unless you live in a hermetically sealed diplomatic or wealth vacuum, poverty (which has been growing in urban areas, alongside wealth) is unavoidable in Ghana - though not necessarily the questions that ought to go with it. The philosophy of neo-liberal globalisation is that riches created at the top of society will spread, albeit in lesser quantities, throughout the whole of society. The reality is that income and power divides are growing, and that the Western model of consumer-based growth at the expense of all else is not to the ultimate benefit of either people or planet.

But while the global gulf in wealth and aspiration persists, the contradictions multiplied in specific local contexts on the South will invariably continue.

Part of the solution, undoubtedly, is building partnerships for sustainability and alternative eco-nomics (sic) across the divides that exist within and without a complex and evolving society like Ghana. For poorer communities, micro-finance (which is developing  significantly) is vital. But the immensity of the challenge cannot be underestimated. It certainly dwarfs the uneasy sensibilities of  visitors like me, and it's what really matters for the Ghanaian people themselves in the longer run.

* Note: While there are many private cars, and that reflects economic growth rates of around six per cent in recent years, this should no more be taken as a sign of the elimination of poverty than the presence of TVs in poor villages across Asia. 'Private' frequently means income-deriving or derived, not luxury.

(Ekklesia co-director Simon Barrow has been travelling in Ghana over the New Year 2011).

Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.