If you read last week’s blog about Ghana, Intrigue at the Palace, I hope you chuckled at the absurdity of my situation.
If not, if you were disappointed in me for not standing up to the palace guards and decrying their notion that a woman’s touch is a curse, I understand. You may have wanted me to get in their faces and change some attitude, but forcing change doesn’t work. You have to start with an atmosphere of trust. Here’s how I know this:
While in Ghana I worked as a Human Rights Officer at the US Embassy. My portfolio was to fund projects that empowered women because, as any international aid organization knows, when you set a woman’s spirit free, you ignite a can-do attitude that empowers families and, in turn, improves the quality of life for the whole community.
One of my projects funded a candle making business to create alternate employment for female circumcisers. Our approach was to engage the trust of a village member who would help us educate the whole village about the irreversible damage caused by female circumcision. In addition, we did not scorn or displace the practitioners for their malpractice; we empowered them with a new livelihood, making and selling candles. A win/win for the whole community. But change only came when villagers trusted our motives.
People listen to supermodels Waris Dirie and Iman when they raise awareness on the dangers of female circumcision. Yes, their celebrity gives them credibility, but they also come from a culture where the practice is prevalent.
Attempting to facilitate change when you live outside the culture is more difficult. People are suspicious of foreigners. In 2001 I lived in India where the CDC was close to eradicating polio. Then the rumor spread among Muslims that the volunteers from our ex-pat community were administering sterility drugs not polio vaccines. Their sudden fear of genocide caused many people to refuse treatment, and the number of cases shot up in 2002. Fortunately, by 2012 India was back on track and finally reported no new cases of polio.
So back to my predicament in Ghana. The guards at the palace obviously didn’t trust me. Why would they—I had disregarded their rules and supposedly violated their throne. If I were belligerent, too, it would have just increased their disrespect for women.
Facilitating attitude change is not easy. Patience is key. But you also need timing—and this definitely wasn’t my time; you need favorable odds—and a skirmish with the guards was one I could not win; and most importantly, you need trust. I’d have to work on that.