Wednesday, October 14, 2020

CULTURE CLASH: Writing Out Of A Diverse Life


In an era when the American administration has done its best to seal the country off from foreigners and migrants including refugees, I've been reflecting on how exposure to people who look different from you and have different backgrounds can enrich your life. I was brought up in Ghana, which of course was a British colony. I came of age on the campus of the University of Ghana (UG), with its iconic orange-tiled roofs. Both my late Black American mother and late Ghanaian father were lecturers there, in Sociology/Social Welfare and African Studies respectively.

The Balme Library, UG (Photo: Kwei Quartey)

Ghana's connections to Britain, a lot stronger then than now, brought a large number of nationalities from the all over the Commonwealth of Nations. Apart from British citizens, there were Australians, Canadians (for some time, our next-door neighbors were Canadians), Indians, Jamaicans, Ugandans, South Africans, and others I've probably forgotten. Many were part of a memorable cast of characters--some amusing, others quite odd. I recall one British lecturer who wore a floppy hat and had a strange movement disorder and a habit of talking to herself. Whereas some of these professors might have a difficult time gaining employment elsewhere, the academic world can often accommodate such "unique" personalities who are sometimes both brilliant and bizarre. My primary school was much the same as the University--a mini United Nations of pupils.

Universities and colleges are often called "ivory towers," a state of privileged seclusion or separation from the facts and practicalities of the real world. That was much the case with the UG. Quiet, clean, and rather lush, the campus was neither anything like the hectic urban life of Accra nor the rural sectors of the country, which at the time, accounted for most of Ghana's population. That's no longer the case, as only some 43% live in rural areas.

At the time, the University provided a perk to expatriates like my mother: a comped visit every 1-3 years (somewhat negotiable) to their country of birth. Not only them, but their dependents as well. That meant my three brothers and I got to accompany my mother to New York City for entire summer vacations. That an institution in a developing country could afford to extend such a fringe benefit seems staggering to me now, but back then, I took it for granted. I would venture to say we were a tad "entitled," which is an uncomfortable word in the modern zeitgeist. Additionally, because my mother was an American, her children were automatically United States citizens (jus sanguinis), making travel to the UK and Europe a cinch. 

My 2nd brother (R), Mom, and me (Photo by unknown)

In the face of all this, my father was uncomfortable about any blatant show of privilege, and he might have squirmed somewhat over the perks and our relative ease of travel abroad. Ironically, he had degrees from two American universities, but the hard way. No one ever paid his fare! But my pragmatic mother had a strong motive to travel, i.e. the ability to visit her mother ("Granny") in New York. Summers with Granny were truly wonderful. As much as my mother loved Ghana, I believe she felt her children should experience the American half of their cultural heritage. 

Moving Beyond The Ivory Tower

At the diametrically opposite end of traveling to her hometown of NYC, my mother as a sociologist and social worker took her students off the UG campus on field trips to remote rural areas, which experience her students greatly appreciated. Much of the goal of these outings was to explore how village life, culture and traditional belief systems could be used to advance development, reduce poverty, and shape social policy.

My mother also allowed us, her sons, to tag along on these trips, and there I felt the heaviness of my privileged circumstances in contrast to rural living conditions. I remember visiting one village where up 
to 80 percent of adults suffered from river blindness, or Onchocerciasis. This dreadful disease is caused by a parasitic worm called Onchocerca volvulus, which induces such intense itching all over the body that it's impossible to sleep. Eventually, the sufferer goes blind, and in villages were the affliction is endemic, it's common to observe children leading adults blinded by Onchocerciasis. 

A boy leads a blind Onchocerciasis victim (Photo: WHO)

At the time of that field trip, I had already decided I wanted to be a physician, but I believe this wrenching, seminal experience solidified my ambition by raising the curtain on what truly hellish suffering is like and making me want to do something about it.

Cultural Discomfort

Bart, one of my best childhood friends, lived down the road from us on the UG campus, an easy 4-minute walk between our homes, We had a lot of fun and adventure together, and I commonly stayed over for 
lunch and dinner and went on trips with Bart's family and vice versa. They were Dutch expatriates who had lived in Ghana for decades. Hanging out with them was a very different experience from visiting my father's relatives a world away in "real" Accra. My mother, brothers, and I were in the awkward position of not having learned, or been taught, my father's indigenous language, Ga. If he had spoken it to his children from an early age while my mother spoke to us in English, we would have been fluent in both. However, my father might have thought his wife would feel excluded by conversing in Ga with his kids. Already, by Ghanaian tradition, my mother as an American wasn't whole-heartedly welcomed into the affairs of my father and his side of the family, and my father was aware that she at times found that 
exclusion hurtful. In the end, the result was a sharp demarkation between our nuclear family on the one hand and the extended Ga family on the other.

At any rate, the inability to speak Ga fluently was (and is) a problem. My name, Kwei, is so quintessentially of the Ga people (my brothers and I don't even have English names) that any self-respecting Ghanaian would assume we knew how to speak Ga. Repeatedly explaining why that was not the case was (still is) a royal pain in the rear. We took formal lessons when I was a teenager, but there was
no immersion to go with it. 

There was something more profound to the language deficit. Language and culture are intertwined. Interacting with another language means engaging with the culture that speaks the language. My mother was the more present and assertive parent, while my father was more absent and self-effacing. I never had a strong sense that he was fiercely proud of his Ga heritage, or perhaps I never recognized it. Sure, he took my brothers and me to traditional events and family gatherings in town, but I always felt like an outside looking in. I wasn't standing with one foot on dry land and one in the pond. I barely had a toe in the water. And once those small nibbles of Ga culture ended, it was back to the comfortable ivory tower. These experiences were both a culture clash and a culture miss.

The Writing Paradox

While all this culture clash and diversity in my life experience are a bit of a muddle, that jumble is the very materiel and fodder for my writing. In truth, I constantly strive to grasp a culture I feel I just missed--a lost opportunity, in a sense. I have a theory that an author writes to exercise control over a world that's largely beyond control. Rather than run away from my confusion, I'm urged to wrestle with it. Each of my novels is an exploration of Ghanaian culture and an attempt to fully understand it. Mystery is the best genre in which to do it because the central question in mystery, especially murder, is why? Sure, the how is the mechanics of the matter, but what we all want to know is what intricacies of the murderer's mind compelled him to commit the crime. 

In one form or the other, the backdrops to my stories have some aspect of culture clash. In WIFE OF THE GODS, a young progressive female medical student challenges the age-old tradition of indenture servitude of girls to a fetish priest in return for his protection of the family against curses. In GOLD OF OUR FATHERS, illegal Chinese gold miners are in conflict with the locals. THE MISSING AMERICAN is where Ghanaian and American values meet like a river lagoon swirling with the sea at high tide. In funny scene in the upcoming SLEEP WELL, MY LADY, our protagonist Emma Djan, who has little or no privilege in her background to speak of, goes undercover as a wealthy woman and discovers why Mercedes Benz owners feel superior. Because that's what a Benz does. Apologies to all Benz owners. Full disclosure, I don't have one.

Finally, I think the well-worn maxim, "Write what you know" is inadequate. You should also write what you care about. If there's no emotion built into the foundation of your writing, it may seem flat. So, as long as I can write, I will continue to delve into culture clashes. 




  1. Thanks for sharing these personal reminiscences, Kwei. And for how they link with your writing.

  2. Fascinating, Kwei. One of my nephews is married to a Ghanian woman and I will share this with them.

    Like you, I was denied the chance to learn my ancestral language as a kid. On my first trip to Italy, I realized that I would never understand the culture if I didn't speak the language. Starting after the age of 40, I managed to nail it into my head. I too a LOT of banging! I hope this blog post will encourage my nephew and his wife to teach their kids Ga.

  3. What a wonderful blog!

    I had the opposite experience in some ways and a similar one in others. The opposite experience was growing up White in apartheid South Africa. Almost everything about my life was White - school friends, relatives, university. I say 'almost' because my family enjoyed people working for us at home - Black people. In many ways, I was brought up by a Black nanny; Lizzie was her name. It still sits uncomfortably with me that I never knew her last name, or anything about her family. She was just Lizzie, a warm, supportive human being, who was, for intents and purposes, anonymous. This situation was the norm at the time - apartheid's laws and the general mindset made something different very difficult. In contrast, I know quite a lot about the woman who comes in and cleans the block of flats I live in in Cape Town. Her young daughter, Andisizwe visits us occasionally, showing off her report card with pride.

    The similar experience was, because of both apartheid and a colonial mentality, that I never learnt one of South Africa's indigenous languages - something I regret to this day. I probably would have chosen isiZulu, because it is a lovely language, full of onomatopoeia. The Zulu word for scooter, for example, is isithuthuthu, with the 'th' being pronounced as a 't'.

    I have always planned, when I make my millions, to provide scholarships for people to live and travel abroad, in order to open their eyes to cultural differences. I think that is the best way to reduce bigotry, racism, and intolerance.

    1. Yes, travel can perform wonders on one’s outlook.

    2. I was curious, didn’t Lizzie speak to you in any indigenous language?

    3. Yes, travel can perform wonders on one’s outlook.