On Privilege

December 2nd was National Farmer’s Day in Ghana. You’re thinking “well that can’t be a very big holiday… farmers?!”, and you’d be wrong. The whole country gets Farmer’s Day off of work, there are celebrations in every district, along with Regional and National celebrations. Farmers constitute almost 60% of the Ghanaian workforce and a significant portion of the GDP, and in the Northern Region where I live, the percentage is even higher. Agriculture is a huge part of life here, and so, there is a national holiday to celebrate farmers across Ghana.

I really wanted to attend one of the district celebrations of farmers – they give awards for Best Farmer (and for all different crops and husbandry) and best extension agents (government agricultural workers that support farmers), there are cultural dances and music, and you can’t forget the official speeches. Working at the Regional Office in Tamale now, I was lucky enough to find out that there was an extra spot in the vehicle going to Chereponi for the Regional Farmer’s Day celebration in the morning. I jumped at the chance!

I arrived early the next morning at the designated pick-up spot outside the Regional Minister’s house. (Aside: The Regional Minister is the top politician in the region… Perhaps equivalent to a provincial Premier in Canada). I was put into the back of a giant SUV with white interior leather seats and wood paneling (eyebrows raised, I would be travelling in serious comfort – this wasn’t like a bus ride at ttaaallll) and found out I would be travelling with the Public Relations Officer for the region, definitely a big man. Also in the car were the journalists covering the event from the local radio and TV stations. The four hour drive was entertaining; the journalists definitely had strong and interesting opinions on many issues in the Northern Region.

I arrived and was rushed quickly to the VIP Press Breakfast – amazing eggs and tea while I mingled with the guys from Ghana TV. I was then escorted to a seat under a tent on the celebration ground just next to the VIP tent. The ceremony was great and attended by hundreds of people and media. Speeches from the top district politicians, Agricultural Director and the Regional Minister all spoke to the importance of Farmers in the Northern Region and some of the issues that were currently being faced (climate change, bush burning). Tens of farmers were given awards and prizes and recognized for excelling in agriculture. Cultural music and dancing in between speeches broke the monotony.

When the ceremony was over, a line of SUVs pulled up in front of the VIP tent to begin the Regional Minister motorcade. I was hustled back into my wood-paneled vehicle and we drove off, leaving all the farmers literally in the dust (it is very dusty this season). The motorcade stopped at the district chief politician’s (DCE) home for a late lunch. Among all these important officials, officers and politicians, I was served my meal (“Auntie, serve the white woman!” – DCE) while everyone else lined up for their own. The Regional Minister (remember: premier) stood up from his chair as soon as he saw me standing with my plate and insisted I take his seat, alone at a table to eat. I tried profusely and politely to refuse only to be told off by the Regional Director of Agriculture that I “had to do what the Regional Minister asks”. So I sat and ate by myself, in the seat of honour, embarrassed, confused and undeserving. I ate as quickly as I could to vacate the seat and mingled until it was time to go back to Tamale. I thanked the DCE for having me to his house, and for hosting a fabulous Regional Farmer’s Day celebration and was put back into my fancy SUV for a comfortable ride back to Tamale.

On the way home, I reflected on the day. How was it possible that on the one day I was supposed to be dedicating all my appreciation and thanks towards the group of people that is likely the least privileged in Ghana, could I have felt so privileged? I was absolutely undeservedly given privileged treatment all day. It blew my mind. Why? Because I’m foreign? Because I’m seen as a guest? Because of my skin colour? Because I work at the Regional Office? Because I work for an NGO? Do I inadvertently ask for privilege or special treatment through my actions or words? How can I be more aware? What privilege do I receive that I don’t even know about? I don’t have answers to any of these questions, but I can’t help but be angry at a system that gives or allows such a disparity in opportunity and privilege: on Farmer’s Day, the best farmers in the region, for their career of unbelievable manual labour and effort, received a bicycle, rubber boots and some rain pants and I, a young, inexperienced nobody, was given the seat of the Regional Minister and travelled in high style.

It isn’t fair. What am I doing here?

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6 thoughts on “On Privilege

  1. That’s life! It’s what you do with that opportunity and privilege that can help make things fair. Easier said than done though.

  2. Hey Alex,

    Thanks for sharing your experience. I remember having some similar experiences in Malawi, though never to quite the extreme that you experienced. I’m curious if there were other women in the group you were with when you went to lunch? I went to one NGO field day where a number of the NGO field staff were women, but for what I understood to be cultural reasons they weren’t allowed to dine with us when we went off for lunch. It was a weird thing and I’m curious if gender dynamics played into your experience of privilege and muddling of the normal social order. Obviously Malawi and Ghana are very different places, but I’d be curious how that side of the interaction went for you.

    Also, just out of curiosity were the speeches made in English? All of the field days that I went to all of the speeches were in Tumbuka or Chichewa and I had to get sporadic translations from my annoyed coworker.

    Hope you’re doing awesome,

    Fraser

  3. Wow Alex,
    This article is such a beautiful framing of privilege. It brought me right back to Malawi…
    I definitely empathize with your situation. Good luck figuring out what this all means and how you can work with (or against) it.

    Hugs from Waterloo,

    Daniek

  4. An interesting discussion is definitely worth comment. I believe that you should publish more on this subject matter, it may not be a taboo matter but typically folks don’t talk about such subjects. To the next! Kind regards!!

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