Friday, 20 June 2014

Pushing Back - Immigrant Attitudes in Ghana

So there I was, minding my own business when I simultaneously felt and overheard a disturbance in ‘The Force’. A noise that I’ve become all too familiar with since I started working in Ghana. A noise that is as offensive as it is unnecessary. The all too familiar noise of the immigrant verbally berating a Ghanaian. In this case, it was a manager, Indian man, verbally assailing his driver for not returning to the office fast enough after dropping off another manager at an important client meeting. It took every ounce of restraint I had in me not to walk up to this individual and deliver the atomic bomb of bitch-slaps across his smug face. Instead, I mustered self-control, as is expected from a corporate professional such as myself, and decided to write about this common bad behaviour exhibited by many immigrants and directed towards Ghanaians, in Ghana. 

Ghanaians seem to have an insatiable appetite for taking abuse (verbal) from foreigners in the work place, whether they’re at fault or not. Maybe it because we're so goddamn passive about everything that happens around us and would much readily let 'God' handle things than actually deal with anything ourselves. We [Ghanaians] are a truly non-confrontational, accommodating & easy-going bunch. While this may be viewed as a good trait, it also leaves us vulnerable in a lot of ways. Savvy immigrants quickly notice this and exploit the f*ck out of it, readily dishing out unnecessary verbal abuse for the most minor of infractions, mostly because they can get away with it.

For over 10 years, I worked in the UK and US and irrespective of my fair share of f*ck-ups, I was never ever verbally assaulted by a line, senior or departmental manager. Granted, I was far from the kind of employee that had a f*ck-up a week, but I worked with some people who would be more useful to society, earth and the universe if they were employed to watch the grass in my front lawn grow. Not even they ever got shouted at for being that way.

But back home in Ghana it seems to be an okay thing for Ghanaians to be routinely verbally abused by immigrant bosses. It doesn’t help that the biggest employers, save the government, are foreign owned companies with mostly immigrant management teams. So not only do majority of Ghanaians have to deal with and overcome the innate inferiority complex that comes with being black, but also have to deal with the workplace glass-ceiling that is inevitable in these companies. I digress…back to shouting and public humiliation.

I was in a 3 way conversation with 2 immigrants, an Indian and a Ugandan the other day that went like this;

Ugandan: ‘I love Ghana, the people are so calm. I mean it’s 8 o’clock on a Friday night and most men are already home sitting there looking at their wife’s face. Unheard of in Uganda!

Me (Ghanaian): ‘A lot of foreigners find Ghana’s pace a little too pedestrian and the people a little too timid and non-confrontational.’

Indian: ‘Yeah, I can totally speak to the non-confrontational thing. I’ve never seen a set of people who are so docile and timid in my life.’

Me: ‘Explain’

Indian: ‘Okay, so there’s this guy in facilities who arranges for accommodation for visiting engineers. One time, on one of my projects he wasn’t able to get the apartments I had requested. I went totally mad.
I was effing, blinding and swearing at this guy and he just stood there with this dumb smile plastered to his face.’

Me: ‘He said nothing?’

Indian: ‘Nope, the more I shouted, the more he smiled and said nothing. It was as if he was enjoying it. I know it wasn’t his fault but I was so mad I just needed to take it out on someone. But that’s how Ghanaians are.’

A little bit of me died!

How is it possible or even allowed for this kind of behaviour to exist let alone proliferate in Ghana? How is it possible for an immigrant, an alien, a non-native, a foreigner to come into someone else's country and behave like this towards the owners of that country? When I play the situation in reverse, it makes even less sense. Imagine me, a black man from Africa, going to the UK, and working as a senior manager in a well-known IT company like IBM or Microsoft and treating my white driver with the kind of disrespect described in the conversation above? What do you think the outcome of something like that would be?

I’ve experienced 2 situations where foreigners attempted that kind of nonsense with me Ghana. The first one was with a young Pakistani man who I was replacing in a particular position at a company I was newly joining. Let’s call him Navid. Now he was coming to the end of his tenure and we were well into the 3 month transition process. It was a moderately tense situation and keeping a cool head was key to successfully managing all the moving parts of the situation. I was required to dig through archived emails to get some information on a fault that was closely related to the situation we were then facing. This young, overly aggressive man, wanting to posture for the crowd of other managers that had gathered to assess the situation, decided that he was going to use me as fodder for his misguided cause. I can hear those of you who actually know me chuckle…

Navid: ‘Have you got the information?’ (Irritated and slightly raised voice)

Me: ‘There’s tons of related data, I’m getting there.’ (Calm but assertive)

2 minutes pass by

Navid: ‘Where are we with the info on the last incident? What the hell is taking you so long?’ (voice raised and visibly irritated)

Me: ‘Give me a couple of minutes to make sure it’s the right info. It’s important that we get it right.’

Navid (shouting): ‘What the hell are you doing? Haven’t you used email before? Or do I have to teach you how to use email as well…?’

Me: ‘Navid, first of all, you don’t get to speak to me like that. I’m not an imbecile and you shouting doesn’t add value to this situation.

Pause for dramatic effect…

‘You’re supposed to be my trainer, a job that you’re currently failing miserably at. If you think you can’t continue with this handover process in a respectful way towards me, then kindly let me know so that I can ask for you to be replaced by someone who CAN actually do the job.

Navid: (Stunned silence)

Me: ‘So from now on, I expect nothing but respect from you. Are we clear?’

Navid: (Silence)

Me: ‘ARE WE CLEAR!’ (Slightly raised voice, direct eye contact, oodles of assertiveness)

Navid: ‘Yes.’

I often wonder what possessed this man on that day? What gave him the impression this kind of thing would fly with a person like me in my own country? Was is simply bad leadership? Was it something deeper? In any case, he'd done this kind of thing before and gotten away with it every single time.

Ghanaians reading this, I implore you to look out for and check this idiotic and undeserved behaviour exhibited by foreigners, against our people, in our land. Remember that this is our country. Many of us have had to put up with lighter skinned races in our various travels; The institutional racism we all experienced, the patronizing comments like ‘you speak so well’ after you've given a killer presentation (as if eloquence and confidence were never traits expected from you). Those times when white friends denigrated other races in your presence, forgetting that you yourself were of a darker skinned race.

Let's be absolutely clear;

I’m not asking us to reverse the roles and be nasty or racist towards foreigners in Ghana.


What I'm asking is as follows;
Demand the respect that is owed to you as a native of this land.
Let no Indian, Lebanese Pakistani or White man think they can come here and disrespect our people and subjugate them to any form of abuse, verbal or otherwise.

This message is to the Ghanaian middle class and elite; protect our less educated and less privileged kin-folk, those that don’t have the education or intellectual liberation to realize that a lighter skin colour is not a superior skin colour. And again, I’m not necessarily asking for aggressive, belligerent confrontation.

For those Ghanaians reading this that are in managerial or influential positions, call out your non-Ghanaian colleagues who are prone to this kind of asinine behaviour. Bring it up in staff meetings, make it a topic of discussion. Show them that we’re switched on to this nastiness and we’re willing to talk about it openly and even prepared to take some action. I know this blog piece is horribly nationalistic but it is written out of frustration and necessity. THIS IS OUR F*CKING COUNTRY. Let’s own it!