What does complexity mean?

As funny as this is, it’s simple for us to recognise that it’s also a bit ridiculous.

As much as you (as a Canadian) are not a beer and beaver-toting voyageur conquering the polar bear infested snowscape with a hockey stick in your hand, it is foolish to reduce anyone else, anywhere, to the mere pieces of basic perceptions about their representative culture or region.

But we do this, unknowingly, and it is the not knowing that makes it dangerous. Because as we consume these tantalising “insights” about cultures and people, we then make judgments based on unrecognised assumptions, making them that much more difficult to dig out of their trenches when the time comes.

But we have to get a handle on our thoughts. Challenge them, prod them, get them to explore and march not in line with the status quo, but tramp their boots all over our most cherished stereotypes of “peoples” which we do not know. Because a person is a person, no less dynamic or static or ravishing or dull as us, our friends, our coworkers and family. Making anyone into any more or less than this is to do them a disservice. And to buy into this consumption of other cultures, whether it is vacationing in Cuba with the sun and the revolution or Vancouver with the mountains and the whales or Montreal with the festivals and the french or Kenya with the lion king safaris, we voraciously consume the people as destinations, not as distinct individuals but a homogenous vision of their “culture”.

This is how I feel when I show pictures of the cloth my tailor, Talhatu, fashioned into clothing for me. Yes, she was a tailor, and yes, she sews well and with popular Ghanaian and Togolese textiles, but that is not her entire identity, and Ghanaian fashion cannot be summed up with a picture of the vibrant cloth she works with. When you get to know her you see that she actually doesn’t care for yams, the dominant starch food in her region, she’s a mother of two bright but shy kids, she’s the granddaughter of the local chief and she’s being divorced by her husband. Ghanaians are not all like this, but neither are they simply comprised of their profession as farmer or tailor or shopkeeper, or their skin colour or the fact that they live on the African continent.

Ghana is a place where this hand-powered sewing machine works alongside stunning runway-quality Ghanaian fashion (pictures from Alex Fox’s Poia di Zorra).

This is some of the nuance and complexity I try to explain when I talk about Ghana, but it becomes difficult when I honestly cannot express the levels of detail I saw in people and situations, and the mountains of it I undoubtedly missed in the 4 short months I was there.

Something underlined when I start learning again with fresh eyes of a completely different region of the world. In this case, Latin America, which I had the absolute pleasure of exploring in my class at SFU, History 209. With a professor that understood this critical idea of simplifying people into unintelligble and meaningless stereotypes, the course was based around taking this romantic, impoverished, revolutionary vision of Latin America as a homogenous region and breaking it down by country, by class, by race, by gender, by political cant. And still we miss the breathtaking detail that creates the excitement and banality of everyday life. Until I saw the video below, I hadn’t realised that I was just replacing my broader, uninformed stereotypes with more polished, well-reasoned generalisations about groups of people. No less presumptuous, or incomplete, no matter how much more “educated” I am about the history of this complex region compared to the start of the semester.

And if you ever need to interact with these people, whether it is through travel, work, or let’s say international development, you are doing no favours by presenting yourself as someone so ignorant as to assume that you know their favourite cultural reference, or their views on their government, or their hopes and aspirations without asking them first.

Because really, how ridiculous would it be if someone came up to you and asked how your igloo lifestyle was being affected by global warming, or if you ever keep your pet beaver on a leash?


About Janine Reid

What is Janine? -board game enthusiast -political observer -Vancouverite -questioner -listener -health provider
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5 Responses to What does complexity mean?

  1. What a full post! Excellent writing, as usual. Your arguments could not be more salient. When looking at your photographs of Talhatu, I would never have guessed those things. They also diverge from my conceptions of what I consider a stable religious society. She represents an interesting intersection of modernity and traditional legacy. Grand-daughter of the chief, yet being divorced by her husband, a self-made entrepreneur who has shy modest children, etc.

    I have sat here with my notepad for the last few hours, jotting down some of the more remarkable facts about some of my host family while I was in Zambia. I would never have guessed that my host brother, Japhet, would be keeping a second wife…in secret, several hours away! His father was himself a polygamist, yet the father was discouraging polygamy among his children.
    My host-cousin, Winnfrieda, was unable to eat 4-legged animals but could have chicken and fish – someone like me, with food intolerances! My host-sister, Martha, lived a super-human schedule revealed to me near the end of my village stay; yet her passion was mathematics and she was president of the Maths club at her high school. People will always surprise you.

  2. Another great post Janine! I have to say, I am still loving your blog. Your reflections seem to get more and more insightful as you go on in life. It’s wonderful to still hear the love in your words for Ghana, and the wider world! Hope you are doing well. Miss you.

    • Janine Reid says:

      Thanks Erin. I miss you two, and the whole crew and dis thing that I had in Ghana. One of my intentions is to keep closer to the team and reconnect with strategy after my 4-month hiatus. Let me know if you have any creative ideas to do this! I’m currently following the JFs and that’s been fun (and exciting!)

  3. emilystewart says:

    Really really insightful post. I’m loving your blog.

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