Day drinks are being ditched for tailgates, herds of Carolina girls are preparing their group Halloween costumes — October has really set in at Elon, and I am thousands of miles away. In fact, I am writing this in an email while sailing through the Gulf of Guinea, just a few miles away from the equator; but, I have seen enough fall semesters at Elon to know that some things never change.
I am just coming off four days in the nation of Ghana, a jewel of West Africa, and I am still marinating in a very new perspective that was brought on by a combination of culture shock, humidity and a serious exposure to a walk of life that differed strongly from my own.
Before this past week, I had traveled to a handful of other countries in Europe and North America, and it is safe to say that I had never been in a place with a set of norms that were so far from what I know and have been raised upon. This blatant contrast brought out the best in some people, the worst in others and ultimately a whole host of new understandings.
One of my most prominent realizations in Ghana was the constant ringing in my head that I was so wildly lucky to be doing what I was doing and experiencing the opportunities around me. Very few people get to do what I am able to do, and for that I am endlessly grateful.
I will walk away from this particular experience with the thought that out there in the world, there are thousands of people living so very differently than me at this moment, and that no one walk of life is superior to any another. It is easy to look at people who walk around, selling goods out of buckets to people in the street, coated in their own sweat and adorning used and worn clothes and think, “these people must want to have the things that we have and live the way that we do.”
Just the mere thought of this is foolish, ignorant and frankly, ethnocentric. To assume that someone who is living a diversely different lifestyle than you wants your lifestyle is directly indicating that you believe your walk of life to be superior to theirs.
Thinking this alone is the danger of believing a single story; an incomplete stereotype about a group of people. Sure, I bet there are some people who live in nations such as Ghana who want to live the way middle-class white Americans do, but to assume that they desire a life like ours puts us in a foolish and egotistical mindset that an affluent American lifestyle is the ideal ultimate end goal for people around the world who may appear to have less than us.
The people I met and interacted with in Ghana were some of the kindest and friendliest people I had ever met. Children would run up to us in the streets, holding our hands and asking our names and where we came from. Adults would approach us in public, shaking our hands and offering to show us around town, wanting to get to know the people from the different place and how we liked their country.
Along with this general friendliness and aura of joy, I saw a brand of people who were so content with their lives and what they had, even though it seemed like so much less than what we do.
The biggest thing I am taking away from my time there was how people and cultures around the world exist with different norms, and none of these are comparable to one another. There is no conceivable way to look at another person’s life and judge what they may want or desire because they do not live like you, look like you, dress like you or act the way that you do.
There is no correct way to live. We just need to observe how other people are going about their lives, have respect for it and try to understand it. We owe other human beings this decency — the gift of viewing them as human beings, too.