Wednesday, February 25, 2009

To Catch a Thief - A follow up to the Guard and the Gardener

Over the past few days I’ve read two blog entries from fellow foreigners in Ghana. Both concern the serious betrayal and incredulousness they have felt as sentimental things have been stolen from under their noses by the Ghanaians they know and trust. My close friend was also over a couple days ago and told me the same thing. The most disturbing aspect of these stories is that each person had demonstrated time and time again that they were happy to share and if asked would give the shirt off their backs for the people they share their personal space with.

The first blog entry I’m referring to was by Barb – an American married to a Ghanaian, living in Ghana with her husband and kids. The second entry was by Wes, an American secondary school student who is spending a school year in a village in Ghana.

Both people are quite open-minded and trusting.

Both have the very best of intentions in Ghana, and neither have flaunted wealth nor treated their Ghanaian families with anything less than respect and love. Yet both are finding themselves reeling at the ability of the people around them to steal and lie, straight faced, with no remorse.

Both stories are so sadly familiar to me. They reminded me of the story I posted a year and a half ago, regarding the ongoing theft of diesel from our house by our trusted gardener Eric and the guard who represented a highly respected and trusted security company. During that whole fiasco our gardener defiantly protested the accusations and insisted he was innocent. He counter accused our cook, who has since been let go.

The whole thing was sad for me. He had been someone I had a soft spot for, and I commonly gave him cash advances which we both knew would never be paid back, as well as clothes, food etc etc etc. Once he was gone the letters started. First was a letter in his broken and pleading English, asking for his job and housing back. He insisted that God would redeem him and one day we’d regret accusing him. Next came a letter from a lawyer’s office in Accra, threatening us with legal action for dismissal without cause. That we laughed off, but I took the time to write to the lawyer to explain that we had witnesses etc. and they backed off.

A few months later Eric came back with a vengeance, waiting at our gate as we left for work in the mornings and leaving letters with the (new) guard. These letters continued with the theme that he saw us as his family, as his mother and father, and that he would never have betrayed us in the way we accused him. He wrote that he had been praying every day that we would one day see the truth of his innocence and let him return.

Now in our relationship, JW is the softie at heart. One of the letters got to him and he called for Eric to come and see him. The next week Eric was back. Smiling as ever, ready and willing to help with anything, assuring us it had all been an ugly misunderstanding with the evil, jealous woman who had been our cook. He assured us God would bless us for seeing the truth and giving him this new chance.

I was skeptical, given what I’ve seen happen in Ghana, but yet I went along with it, and to this day, he is back at the job and staying in a room at the back. I still give him little presents etc.

Yet a week after his return a friend of mine who has a gardener that had filled in at my house during our months without Eric, casually mentioned that Eric had admitted to the other gardener that he had indeed been stealing the diesel, with the guard, just as we’d suspected, for over 2 years. He however told the guy he was happy we’d taken him back and wouldn’t do that again…

So where is the deterrent to stealing again? How does a Christian who references God and the bible and uses his religion as a tool, then live with the lies? Is it simply a matter of poverty?

As both Wes and Barb's stories corroborate, this is not always the case... Is it a cultural acceptance of dishonesty? Why is it ok to betray people who trust you? Where is the remorse? How can we expect anything less than corruption at a national level when this is the behaviour you find inside homes? Who is brave enough to talk about it, to confront it? To change the culture that expects and condones it?

It’s a case of honesty in Ghana – or lack there of…
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Anonymous said...

A "cultural acceptance of dishonesty"? I don't know. These are poor people doing stupid things to survive. Maybe to them you're rich, and to them stealing from the rich is OK. I have a sibling who used to fake illness to squeeze cash from me--so these Africans steal from each other too. This bevahiour is not peculiar to Africa. When I lived in New Hampshire, USA, a white neighbor who worked on our yard stole mulch from us. So there!

Here, There, Elsewhere... and more said...

I know so so many dishonest british, Europeans and Americans that I truly believe it's a question of the individual person's values/principles and nothing to do with nationality/race...

I was born and brought up in Ghana in the 1960s-early 70s and I have memories of our vast open houses and compounds (we moved a few times) and many, many "helpers" (my term for cook, gardener, cleaner...etc) who came and went around the house, day in day out, and who all had plenty of opportunity to help themselves to whatever they wanted.

Believe me or not, not once, in the many, many years my parents lived in Ghana did they ever have the slightest problem - these are their words and I believe them, they have no reason to lie - they did, however, frequently experience theft from luggage and hotel rooms on their many travels around the world whilst based in Ghana.

The pale observer said...

Well I can't say I didn't know that this would be the general response to this post. Of course I agree that theft is a common thing the world over, but I am talking of my little patch and here it is undeniably a rampant problem. I simply wanted us to look at it and not deny it - so that solutions can be found. I believe the problem starts long before the theft and has it's roots in culture or cultural adaptation. My theories will no doubt be controversial and probably don't belong up on the blog but the point is that it happens here, not saying it doesn't happen elsewhere. Hope that is clear, And THANKS everyone as I love comments! Debate is the spice of life.

Anonymous said...

Could we also say that the dishonesty on Wall Street that has brought down the world economy is cultural or American? How about the 17-year-old cashier who steals from the cash register of her employer in Toronto? Or the female bookkeeper of an insurance company near Boston who embezzled more than $300,000 and lost it all gambling at casinos. It's really a values thing, as the above commenter says.

William Deed said...

Why on earth did you take him back? And why do you keep giving him small presents?

Do you not see that the culture of impunity is being encouraged by yourself?

Lisa Faye said...

When I was living in Ghana people used to always tell me that when you give these small 'gifts' to people they begin to think that something for nothing is a way of life for foreigners. So they start to take something for nothing more often.

Really, I think that the theft made me care less and less about my various "things", but after losing my digital camera with all the pictures from the birth of my child that I had not yet downloaded, I had to force myself to just shut down and stop caring about any "stuff" at all.

But it's certainly not an easy or fun thing to do... I have to say when I read a post about you i-phone I though you were a crazy person as I think investing in anything good is just a path to the disappointment of theft.

Loving your writing Holli!

The pale observer said...

Thanks Lisa Faye - feel free to follow the blog regularly by clicking on Follow at the top left...

It's sad in Ghana what the perception of foreigners is, as well as the lack of conscience about theft... but no one of us is going to change that... :(

Anonymous said...

It seems you achieved your aim of being controversial. You may feel you know Ghana well enough after living there so long to make such comments. However, I don't think you've ever witnessed a thief caught in public. Until you have that experience, please hold your "justified" comments about a whole culture.

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