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The Lives of Others

UPDATE: contrasting negative images offered by commentators on Twitter (see end of post)

My Ghanaian friends often tell me that if you want to understand Ghanaians at all, you have to understand how religious are most Ghanaians. I believed them of course, but it didn’t really become vivid until I attended the most amazing church service this morning. I am not saying this out of any religious motives, just to point out another side of Ghanaians that outsiders seldom see or appreciate.

The service was at an Anglican church in Bolgatanga (I am myself an Anglican at a fairly tepid level). The Anglicans in in the US (where we’re called Episcopalians) are a pretty sedate denomination, associated with rich, formal, well-dressed, stuffy older people. So imagine an Anglican service with music including a drum-set, Ghanaian drums, a talented organist and a vocalist, dancing, and a congregation made up of all ages (also well-dressed in indigenous clothing). A drum-set would be as out of place at an American Episcopalian service as a vuvuzuela, but the Ghanaian Anglicans were clearly much more into the service than their American counterparts.

Exactly what point am I trying to make in my current travel-addled state with little time to write this? (Insert obligatory academic references to some random research findings on religion and development when I get more time.)

I think it’s something about how to understand people’s behavior, you need to understand how they see themselves. A good guess is that the people in the congregation this morning, in one of the poorest regions of Ghana, do NOT see themselves primarily as “poor” or “developing”, they see themselves as Christians. Another guess is that similar feelings about religious faith would apply to other Ghanaians in other religious services, like Muslims, Catholics, traditional religions, etc.)

Perhaps this fits into the recurring Aid Watch theme about humanizing aid recipients, how poor people have a life, and may not even see themselves as poor at all, and so may according to some other perspective NOT be poor. This is not to deny the material hardships of people around Bolgatanga; in fact, I talked to the bishop afterwards about really bad stuff like malaria and human trafficking in teenage girls. But not all the comparisons with rich Americans go one way. Just daring to speak for my fellow Episcopalians, Ghanaian Anglicans have something that American Episcopalians could envy and learn a lot from.

UPDATE: got this comment on Twitter:

@auerswald Noticed that too. RT @JaneReitsma: The absolute opposite of @bill_easterly‘s post today – “#Africa’s unsung heroines” http://econ.st/ce525h

The Economist article cited is a description of a few women in Burundi, whose husbands are depicted as follows:

As for the husbands… Many of those who stay are drunks with syphilis. Women are forbidden to inherit land. They are often beaten and raped.

I’m not sure how a random example from Burundi is the “opposite” of the post above on personally observing one congregation in Bolgatanga, since I was not trying to establish the definitive portrait of “the typical African”, which would be a ludicrous enterprise. I certainly would not deny the very real existence of abusive husbands and victimized women, but it does bother me that there are a lot more of the extreme negative anecodotes  in the Western media covering Africa than any positive anecdotes.

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26 Comments

  1. Solar_Sister wrote:

    Amen.

    Posted July 25, 2010 at 4:36 pm | Permalink
  2. Rebecca Burlingame wrote:

    Years ago I was fortunate enough to attend the most inspired Episcopalian services in Florida, that I miss to this day. While there was no drum set, casual services included a variety of instruments and approaches to the music. You’re right, a lot of people don’t think of Episcopalians in such terms and I was just lucky to be there when I was.

    Posted July 25, 2010 at 4:48 pm | Permalink
  3. Manuel wrote:

    Dear Prof. Easterly, I enjoyed very much this post. I am an atheist and I do not care much about the religious dimension of the post, but I believe you have put a religious event to a superb use here. You can never put too much stress in showing that “the poor” are human beings like you and me (“the rich”, even if we do not see ourselves as rich at all) that simply have to struggle with scarce material conditions. The poor are just materially poor, they are not dumber, duller or “spiritually” poorer than the rich. I hope this post will help to make this very important point to the many avid readers of AidWatch in the development community.

    Posted July 25, 2010 at 6:20 pm | Permalink
  4. Natalie wrote:

    For those in the Development community interested in learning how to understand how people see themselves I can recommend the Advanced Masters course in ‘Culture and Development’ run by the Dept. of Anthropology at the University of Leuven

    Posted July 25, 2010 at 10:38 pm | Permalink
  5. find it really hard how it is possible to find solace in the importatation of the ‘Christian’ faith in Africa. They see themselves as Christians before they see themselves as poor. Well, imo they are poor because the colonizers gave them religion as they land grabbed and de-humanized the indigenous people. So now we are supposed to feel better that this ‘faith’ defines them? This is archaic thinking. God that ‘we’ had left them with the spirituality an connectivity with Mother Earth we robbed from them. How much we could have learned about our home.

    Posted July 25, 2010 at 11:35 pm | Permalink
  6. Michael Kevane wrote:

    Wish you had an hour to visit Sumbrungu Community Library, on the road to Navrongo, about 15 km out of Bolgatanga. Just by the Polytechnic (which you should also visit!) but closer to the road.

    Posted July 26, 2010 at 12:09 am | Permalink
  7. Curious wrote:

    Nice post. We see others one-dimensionally bc that’s ALL WE KNOW ABOUT THEM. Westerners define Africans by their poverty – bc that’s all they know. It’s the same as how Africans see Westerners as one-dimensionally as rich (and in the case of women, “easy”) – it’s for the same reason: that’s all they know! From TV, that is.

    It’s hard for people to imagine that the ‘poor’ have deep thoughts, interesting conversations with family members, wit/sharp humour, and insights into life. I.e. – that they are HUMAN. Even little dogs in the West are appreciated for their unique personalities (was just at a doggy park last night) and yet the poor are denied this.

    What is sad is that – Nathalie (no offense) suggests a graduate diploma for understanding the humanity behind others – how robotic have we become as a society to need advanced studies to understand our fellow humans?

    Sadder still is Deborah’s attack based on her own sensitivities that in turn ‘robs’ contemporary Ghanaians of their love of their faith – as if they are unable to be self-reflexive of religion and as if they are children without the ability to negotiate their past history with their current reality – and to assume that religion is merely a pacifier to them “solace” like they are babies – instead of wondering what sort of fascinating worldviews these Ghanaians must carry – how they interpret faith and allegory and poetry and put it all together.

    Thanks for this post!

    Posted July 26, 2010 at 9:40 am | Permalink
  8. Tim Ogden wrote:

    @deborah phelan

    Do you imagine that native religions sprung fully formed into a whole geographic area simultaneously? Or that there wasn’t competition and evangelism between different religions over the entire history of West Africa?

    Or that the Europeans who became Christians and then missionaries did not perceive benefits to that religion when they converted? Or that prior to converting they too did not have some ephemeral connection to Mother Earth that apparently has something to do with lives dominated by subsistence agriculture?

    A connection that they were only too happy to give up for the prospect of improving their lives beyond being dependent on their own manual labor and the weather from day to day?

    Posted July 26, 2010 at 9:50 am | Permalink
  9. Carry on with “the recurring Aid Watch theme about humanizing aid recipients.” It’s what’s most often missing in the discourse and what’s most needed in the sector.

    Posted July 26, 2010 at 10:08 am | Permalink
  10. fundamentalist wrote:

    Exactly! “Culture Matters: How Values Shape Human Progress” by Lawrence E. Harrison and Samuel P. Huntington address the issue of religion well. Religion creates culture and institutions. Institutions determine the path of development.

    Posted July 26, 2010 at 10:17 am | Permalink
  11. Amen! I used to be an Episcopalian, now am an Anglican taken in by the Anglican Church of Nigeria. I know what you mean. We should be humbled, and grateful for the faithful witness of African Christians. They know who they are and they know Whose they are. God bless the Christians of Ghana. God bless the Church in Africa.

    Posted July 26, 2010 at 10:37 am | Permalink
  12. Word_Bandit wrote:

    Interesting entry.

    Funny, we have joyful, fulfilled women and one’s married to drunks who beat them RIGHT HERE IN THE US.

    Amazing, isn’t it.

    :-)

    Posted July 26, 2010 at 11:03 am | Permalink
  13. Curious wrote:

    Re: the “opposite” twitter account – here is another problem with Othering – that Westerners have become so…detached from the way the majority of humanity lives that it cannot even BEGIN to fathom humans in their totality.

    Harsh environments usually beget harsh attitudes. Most of the people we are trying to ‘help’ probably do many things that as modern comfortable westerners, we cannot accept – like beating their wives. The thing is, Westerners stop at that fact. Men who beat their wives (or mothers who beat their children) are cast as monsters. End of story.

    But, it’s not the end of the story. People are complex. Reducing communities to their domestic violence index makes you miss the rest of the story that is much bigger than one of its parts. Like reducing a human to its act of defecation. Imagine an alien being so disgusted by our defecation habits that they refused to talk to us or see as anything less than disgusting and smelly? They would miss the beauty that is associated with being human too.

    So yes, the wife-beater in some rural village that strains his back to grow some rice – and awfully beats his wife – yes, he too is complex and is not a monster. He has children that love him, grandchildren that admire him, a wife that feels all sorts of things for him. He may have fought and made all sorts of sacrifices for his family and community. He likely has wisdom to share. Yes, all this and more, and simultaneously beats his wife. THat is humanity – we are full of shit and full of beauty.

    So if you CHOOSE to remain ‘stuck’ on one point that offends you – you also choose to forfeit your opportunity to see the totality and full humanity of someone and you will live your life as if listening to one tune just bc that happens to be your favourite.

    Think of one aspect of yourself you do not like (we all have one – do you gossip? are you cranky? jealous?) and imagine if someone found out and then refused to get to know you or talk to you or try to like you bc they amplified this one characteristic of yours and said you were only that and bc of that, you were good for nothing?

    Posted July 26, 2010 at 12:01 pm | Permalink
  14. Jane Reitsma wrote:

    Honoured that my little tweet made it into your post…

    Bill, by “opposite” I simply meant that The Economist article chose to portray the women of Burundi in negative extremes- slaving away all day while their husbands get drunk (while you showed the richness in the lives of people Westerners often tend to portray as simply poor). Oddly, it was The Economist that described this small community in a small country as “Africa’s Unsung Heroes”- I am very careful not to generalize about an entire continent.

    I tried to make sense of the strange little article in The Economist… what was the point of it? I would hazard a guess that it was one journalist’s personal and perhaps emotional reaction to what they saw, and ignores the complexity of the community and its members. The problem is it is without context it leaves the reader with a very simplified image of life in this community.

    Posted July 26, 2010 at 12:19 pm | Permalink
  15. William Easterly wrote:

    Jane, thanks for responding and explaining your point of view. I understand now it was the Economist speaking, not you.

    Posted July 26, 2010 at 12:38 pm | Permalink
  16. Bill,

    Yes, Thanx for noticing that little side comment.

    The similarity I see between the Economist piece that @JaneReitsma noted and the above post is that both suggest that they are reporting on an unseen or under-appreciated truth about the identity of others (“not ‘poor’ but ‘Christian’ & joyous” or “not ‘poor’ but tenacious and stoic.”) The “truth” suggested is of an opposite character.

    On this thread I’d say it’s worth the time (for anyone who has not already read it, which I know doesn’t include you) to take a look at what Amartya Sen has to say on the topic of other people, related to his thinking on multiplicity of identities: http://bit.ly/acblHn

    We all have multiple identities. Observation that “other people” aren’t as we imagine them to be is so universally true that I’m not sure it contains any insight. (Not trying to be harsh here. Just how it looks to me.) Have to push a bit further.

    I don’t know anything about “Africa” (whatever that is). I try not to pretend to. But if I was going on a grand tour, my first stop might be in Addis Ababa to meet Bethlehem Alemu:

    http://edition.cnn.com/2010/WORLD/africa/06/02/bethlehem.alemu.ethiopia/

    I have no idea if she’s representative of women or other people in Ethiopia or elsewhere. But her project seems pretty cool, and I’d be interested to learn more about it.

    Posted July 26, 2010 at 12:49 pm | Permalink
  17. Curious wrote:

    And, for those quick to bash religion, just a little reminder of one of many instances where irreligion fared even worse:

    http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20100726/ap_on_re_as/as_cambodia_genocide_tribunal

    Always amuses me how atheists (especially of the Leftist variety) want all Christians today to atone for the ills of the Inquisition, forced colonial baptisms, and Salem Witch Hunts (did I miss a cliche historical anti-Christian example?) – yet make no connection whatsoever to their shared ideology with the intentionally atheist regimes of Pol Pot, Stalin, and Mao.

    As a North American Christian, I am somehow told to feel a collective shame over events that took place hundreds of years ago in places that have nothing to do with me – and yet I see no North American Leftists I know feeling an inkling of connection to their shared ideological roots with utopian schemes that ended up terrorizing populations to unprecedented scales that no European monarchy of the past could have rivalled.
    No ‘forced conversions’ were more brutal than those inflicted in Communist States. Early Christians are lambasted to this day for their role in destructing ancient Greek Pagan temples – but no one cried out when Communists destroyed thousands of Cathedrals and turned them into storage spaces. I know Communists that when faced with the facts of 100,000s of Russian priests/monks/nuns being put to death in Siberia merely shrug their shoulders as if to say “oh well, they deserved it”. And then they want credit for somehow being more “humane” than their “archaic religious ancestors”? I don’t think so.

    Just pointing out a double standard.

    Posted July 26, 2010 at 1:00 pm | Permalink
  18. Ted wrote:

    I think we concentrate too much on the negatives of Africa. Yes, it’s important to know about the civil wars, and and unnecessary death, and the starvation – but Africa is a big place and surely there must be good things going on there! And there is, and those deserved to be talked about far more in the media. Oddly, this seems to be almost characteristic of Africa though. I tend to see much more positive stories from places like Nepal, Burma, and Bangladesh – all incredibly poor countries – so, I have to wonder where are the positive stories from Africa? For example, just a few weeks ago I was reading stories about Bangladesh attracting industry from China due to China’s rising wages and how this was going to help the people etc. Where are my Africa stories like that, surely industry is happening somewhere!

    On the note of the economist article, I’m wondering if a lot of these abusive men are suffering from neurosyphilis. Mix the agitation, irritability, depression and confusion that often comes with neurosyphilis, throw in some alcohol and I can see how a really bad outcome from that might come.

    Also, and while this is not to excuse anyone’s behavior at all, I think that we underestimate the role of deterrence in developed countries. In the United States or Japan or any European country, you couldn’t get away with repeated abuse and rape of your wife without a severe prison sentence (and it’s still ridiculous in the United States that many states treat spousal rape as a lesser crime than rape) whereas you obviously can in Burundi.

    Posted July 26, 2010 at 1:14 pm | Permalink
  19. Shawn Forde wrote:

    You talk about humanizing the poor, but by making statments such as “A good guess is that the people in the congregation this morning, in one of the poorest regions of Ghana, do NOT see themselves primarily as “poor” or “developing”, they see themselves as Christians” are you not simply using a generalized characterization that you connect with to challenge a generalized characterization that you disagree with? I realize you are trying to present a challenge to commonly held assumptions, but to me it seems like you are simply challenging a superficial point-of-view with a different superficial point-of-view.

    If we are talking about ‘humanizing the poor’ than shouldn’t the discussion avoid the use of isolated observations to draw conclusions about groups of people – regardless of whether those observations are positive or negative.

    Posted July 26, 2010 at 2:11 pm | Permalink
  20. Nicolas wrote:

    Bill, we are three economic students from Santa Clara University volunteering just outside of Bolgatanga in Sumbrungu at the library set up by FAVL/CESRUD near the Polytechnic. It would be really interesting if you could come by and see the facilities and what we are working on.
    Feel free to send us an email. Hopefully see you around the market in Bolga!

    Posted July 26, 2010 at 6:03 pm | Permalink
  21. American Christians could learn a lot from Ghanaians!

    Posted July 27, 2010 at 8:47 am | Permalink
  22. as someone who has travelled extensively in Africa and read extensively about the introduction of various forms of Christianity to the region which occured at roughly the same time as these same peoples were introduced to subsistence farming because their crops were tranformed into cash crops to benefit their occupiers, there is little doubt that Christianity is not a world view which would have become as dominant as it is throughout Africa …. like most interventions in Africa until recently, I see no honor or joy in the fact that Ghanas find solace in institutionalized western religions. I personally find visiting villages where all praise be to God and faith and hope and prayer are the hallmarks of the local civilization extremely disturbing. This continent has a lot of reality to face, more than perhaps any other region, and frankly, religion just ain’t gonna do it. Not when they are facing the potential extinction of millions and millions due to the ravages of climate change and the ongoing rape of the continent by multinational interests to find coltan for the cellphones they pass out as ideal sources for education.

    Posted July 28, 2010 at 3:29 am | Permalink
  23. My wish would be that they would call themselves or identify themselves first and foremost and proudly as Africans.

    Posted July 28, 2010 at 3:31 am | Permalink
  24. @curoius .. the fact is that the religioius conversions in Africa go hand in hand with the colonialization of Africa. Read King Leopold’s Ghost. Read Carolyn Elkin. Read Powers on Genocide. See if then you dissect it as between Atheists and Institutionalized Religions. Take a look back at the connections between the aboriginal Afircan and the animals of the rainforest, the vibratory part of their brains which so connected them with the innate rhythms of the earth … that is what we have lost and that is what has destroyed the world. We forget that we are all Africans, we all hail from the Zaire river valley. Some migrated. Others remained. And many of those who migrated returned but didn’t recognize the place as home and so began deconstructing and destroying the core of existence.

    Posted July 28, 2010 at 3:38 am | Permalink
  25. @philip thanks for the Sen reference… :)

    Posted July 28, 2010 at 1:50 pm | Permalink
  26. Mark F. wrote:

    “…yet make no connection whatsoever to their shared ideology with the intentionally atheist regimes of Pol Pot, Stalin, and Mao…”

    Atheism is not an ideology anymore than not believing in Santa Claus is an ideology. Comment FAIL.

    Posted August 1, 2010 at 4:02 pm | Permalink

6 Trackbacks

  1. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by William Easterly, Conduit Journal and kyle vermeulen, r3publican. r3publican said: The Lives of Others- My Ghanaian friends often tell me that if you want to understand Ghanaians at all, you have to… http://bit.ly/ascznM [...]

  2. By sunday roundup « Opalo's weblog on July 25, 2010 at 2:44 pm

    [...] Malaria, nuclear test ban, nuclear test ban treaty, nuclear weapons, William Easterly Easterly goes to church in [...]

  3. [...] Bill Easterly has a brief reflection on the role of religion in global societies, a role that must be taken into account by development ‘experts.’ Speaking of his experience at an Anglican worship service in Ghana: I think it’s something about how to understand people’s behavior, you need to understand how they see themselves. A good guess is that the people in the congregation this morning, in one of the poorest regions of Ghana, do NOT see themselves primarily as “poor” or “developing”, they see themselves as Christians. Another guess is that similar feelings about religious faith would apply to other Ghanaians in other religious services, like Muslims, Catholics, traditional religions, etc.) [...]

  4. [...] Bill Easterly has a brief reflection on the role of religion in global societies, a role that must be taken into account by development ‘experts.’ Speaking of his experience at an Anglican worship service in Ghana: I think it’s something about how to understand people’s behavior, you need to understand how they see themselves. A good guess is that the people in the congregation this morning, in one of the poorest regions of Ghana, do NOT see themselves primarily as “poor” or “developing”, they see themselves as Christians. Another guess is that similar feelings about religious faith would apply to other Ghanaians in other religious services, like Muslims, Catholics, traditional religions, etc.) [...]

  5. By Festive, If Ugly « ox the punx on July 30, 2010 at 9:14 pm

    [...] blog of NYU Professor and development-hater* William Easterly—had a great post recently about how poor people in rural Ghana do not, primarily, think of themselves as poor people. [...]

  6. By Roundup! | Africa on August 3, 2010 at 12:03 am

    [...] as “poor” or “developing,” these are incredibly static categories. Although his attempt to re-categorize them as “Christian,” while providing a useful paradigm shift, is probably not much less reductionist even if it is a [...]