Emily Levy, 2011 Gaudino Fellow

Emily Levy's Gaudino Fellow Experience

For Winter Study, I went to Ghana to research the stigma of mental disability there and how, if at all, people with mental disabilities are treated differently from people with physical disabilities.  I am very interested in the education and enrichment programs for the mentally disabled, and since I only had experience in my home-town, I wanted to see what the situation was like in a completely different setting.  I went with Nana Taylor, another sophomore here who is from Ghana, and I stayed at her house for three weeks.  During that time, we conducted lots of interviews and visits at a school for the mentally disabled, the physically disabled homeless, and a visually impaired newsreader.

We discovered that there is significantly more stigma for the mentally disabled, and it is driven by traditional culture.  Currently, however, there is a burst of education and enlightenment that is reaching many Ghanaians.  Many people we talked to were open-minded and acknowledged the heavy stigma placed on the disabled.  I am fairly confident in predicting that in the next generation, the stigma will be minimized – although it is not reasonable to expect total equality for the disabled, since there are stigmas on the disabled in every country.

Uncomfortable learning:

As a (very clearly) white person in Ghana, it goes without saying that I stood out.  I did not usually mind being called after and joked with, but one consequence of my appearance was that many people felt no shame in assuming that I was rich and able to share my wealth with everyone.  While in Ghana, I met up with my family friends’ grandmother’s caretaker’s family, who lived in Nima, the poorest slum of Accra.  The family was incredibly hospitable and I had a wonderful time staying at their place overnight – upon my arrival, they even brought over the seamstress and arranged for a dress to be made for me.  Between my stay and my departure, however, they kept in contact with me and I felt as if they were trying to guilt-trip me into giving them money – they insisted that I should not pay for the dress, while they could not pay the modest transportation fees to get their 15 year-old son to school.

I met up with the son two more times before I left – he seemed to be the messenger for the family – and every time I talked to him and met with him, he would bring up how he wasn’t doing anything all day and he couldn’t go to school.  I was split between listening to him as a worried teenager or listening to him as a teenager told by his mother to wheedle money out of me.  I felt terrible questioning his motives because I knew that he and his family really were nice and modest people.  In the end, I gave him a modest amount of money for the dress as well my worn-out sneakers, and he gave me a package to bring back to his aunt – something I had to wiggle through customs and almost missed my connecting flight for – and I left feeling like we had parted somewhat even.

From interacting with this family and with the many people who approached me to talk, I realized that intentions, just like everything else, are not black and white; yes, people on the streets saw me as a source of money, but yes, they also saw me as someone new and exciting to talk to with interesting information from abroad.  I learned to expect these people to want some change or a future visit, but I also learned that they also just wanted my company for a minute to share some stories about how our lives are different and what that all means.  I came back from Ghana more open-minded and with a more multi-faceted view of human motivation and personality.

The picture: Breakfast during my overnight stay with the family in Nima.  I was served separately.  Their house consisted of this open kitchen/eating area and a few rooms where the mother and children slept.