Thursday, October 16, 2008

A Dash of Development

“Please I’ll take 4 tomatoes.”
“Okay, 4, and I’ll dash you 1.”

I get dashed something every week. From ladies selling vegetables in the market, from my neighbour frying meat pies and bofroot, from my tailor. A dash is a freebie, or a service given without charge, usually after a sale or service. The dash is added at the end and is never large, but is over and above what is necessary. Admittedly it keeps me coming back to the same sellers, but looking at their humble settings I always feel a bit guilty because I feel that proportionally it’s costing them more than it’s saving me. It’s only the insult that I would be offending them with by refusing the dash that brings me to accept it.

It has caused me to reflect on the entrepreneurialism and small business style that I see here around Tamale. Without much deviance, each bike fitter offers the same services. Each chopbar offers the same foods:

......................Jollof rice

Each tailor sews the same styles. Each movie vendor sells the same pirated collections. Location and the interaction with the seller or service person are about the only things that small formal and informal business owners can use to persuade customers to return to them. Sure, some bike fitters and tailors are much more skilled than others, but there’s a limit to how much added quality you can allow when the prices are kept so competitively low. The luxury of paying more for a higher quality service isn’t so common here, as there’s not much of a market for specialties.

Of course, I still routinely get charged the “white price” for things so the opportunistic spirit is still there, but ripping off white people is not a sustainable business model to drive an economy on (unless you’re well positioned to do so, which Tamale is not).

Business as usual

From what I’ve come to understand though is that the dash, and the interaction with the shop keeper is routed in something much deeper than business motives. I find that people are much more interested in being your friend here, or in recognizing more than a casual business relationship. This may be amplified in my case because I’m a foreigner, but I observe it in the relationships of my Ghanaian friends as well. If I travel and am not seen for a while, people who I interact with mainly as a client lament that I didn’t tell them I was going. When my boyfriend came to visit me I was reprimanded on several accounts for not brining him around to everyone we met to say good-bye before he left. It’s well-meaning, and I believe genuine, but there are cases when I wonder how much room it leaves for competitive business savvy. How can you refuse a favour to your friend in the name of profit?

This all became a little more personal when it was rumoured that someone who I’ve come to know and love here was waiting to move from Tamale until I left because they were hoping to take a lot of my things when I go back to Canada. I don’t know if it’s true, and I don’t believe it’s worth risking our friendship over by asking and essentially accusing her of this, and ultimately I had to question if it’s that offensive. Some of my things will be going to other EWB volunteers because I know they’ll need them, but many of my things I’m hoping to give away to the people who’ve been so kind to me. Still I must admit that the more I thought about this, the more I was hurt. I was hurt by the idea that somebody who I thought I shared a genuine friendship with could really be staying in my regular life for the purposes of getting my things.

kola nuts

The dash is so common, it can pretty much be expected… and often times it is. Kola (named after the nut) is another practice often expected, it’s a tip or a payment in appreciation for a favour, or as an expression of respect. Kola is a controversial issue in Ghana because it’s deeply rooted in tradition, but can often verge on bribery. Especially when the divisions between professional and personal relationships are so loose.

Good Governance

EWB’s Good Governance team, of which I’m a part, is working in the Regional Planning and Coordinating Unit, and the District Planning and Coordinating Units of Northern Region. We often hear and see of kola, protocol, and leakages which are terms representing increasing forms of corruption. Our work in large part aims to create more rigorous systems of planning and decision making that make it more difficult to have leakages, or other things gone unaccounted for. It’s a well known problem, and it’s quickly identified as the cause of many project inefficiencies and even failures, yet it’s rarely combated except in the most grievous cases.

Canadians can tell you that Ghana isn’t the only government that suffers from corruption, so my intent is not to preach repentance from high places. I do, however, find this an interesting problem to deal with when I begin to look at interpersonal relationships, rather than formal or organizational ones. Corruption is evil and I’ve met so many Ghanaians who are suffering under it. Yet it seems that some are clear cases, and others are not. The more I try to understand and integrate with the culture, the more difficult it becomes to distinguish cases on a smaller scale. It’s wrong if it happens to the government, is it wrong if it happens to me?

"kola" goats riding back with us to Tamale

Is it corrupt for a Dagomba village to offer a goat to a project committee that is already working in the community? It’s not corrupt for a vegetable vendor to dash me vegetables so that I keep patronizing her store over others... or is it, because my stipend is made up of donations from individuals and corporations in Canada? Is it wrong for my friend to hope that I leave her my things when I go? Does that make her a less genuine friend?

At the root of all systems and problems are people. I can’t help but feel that there are a few biases and personal values that shade our view of the problems, making solutions a little trickier to design and implement.


Michael said...

Great post Jen.

Few things are as absolute as we would like them to be, and that is perfectly all right! There are some lines that should not be crossed - it comes down to doing what you are doing - looking past the surface and being discerning in our actions and opinions. (Opinions that cannot help but being personal and cultural. We need to be aware of the root cause behind our opinions as much as the root causes of what we are observing and interpreting.)

I will be inserting your post in our next newsletter.

The Evangelist said...

Hello there!

I am so thrilled that I found your blog! I think that you have posed some excellent questions.

I suspect that the reality is that even in your own country, people have decided to befriend you for a NUMBER of reasons and some of those reasons may be self-centered.

I will be moving to Ghana in two months. It is widely known among Ghanaians that the foreigners leave many of their belongings to those they have met when they leave. This has become an expectation for them. If you are a starving person and you befriend someone who owns a grocery store, is THAT false friendship or is that an act of self-preservation wrapped in a need for friendship?

Or both?

It is an interesting question.

Thanks for this wonderful blog entry.

{thumbs up}

Gweneth In Tamale, Ghana said...

You look great and I love your blog. You write from the heart and that is probably what matters most.

Miss you girl.

N Deya ;)