Funny or stupid

When you are in a cross-cultural situation and you see something that strikes you as funny or stupid, do three things:

  • Assume that the “funny” or “stupid” thing makes sense from some perspective
  • Assume that it seems funny or stupid because of something you do not know – that it is a sign of your own lack of knowledge of the other culture.
  • Start learning

Sign - The Property Is NOT for SaleLet me give an example. When we arrived in Ghana I stared seeing signs “This land is not for sale” or “Not for sale. Keep off” I had seen many For-Sale signs, of course, But Not-For-Sale-Signs seemed odd and funny. My next step was to wonder what I did not know and my third to start asking questions. As it turns out, there is a very good reason for all those Not-For-Sale signs – real estate fraud. Using forged documents and other tricks, unscrupulous people will sell you real estate belonging to someone else as though it were theirs. Legitimate land owners have found people moving onto their land, or into a house they own, claiming that they bought it. Indeed, they believe that they did buy it from the legitimate owner. Such matters go to court, but that can be a long and expensive process which does not guarantee a just outcome. Some people who were not very good at keeping records have lost their land.

Taken in Accra, GhanaSo painting a prominent Not-For-Sale sign on a wall where it is hard to remove is a very good way to keep unscrupulous people from showing uninhabited property.

When I asked my Ghanaian friends about this, I got interesting stories about problems they, or someone in their family, had with fraudsters trying to take their land. It was a good occasion to get to know them better, and commiserate with them about a trying circumstance. Following those three simple steps gave me understanding and better relationships.

  • Assume that the “funny” or “stupid” thing makes sense from some perspective
  • Assume that it seems funny or stupid because of something you do not know – that it is a sign of your own lack of knowledge of the other culture.
  • Start learning

People who come back from a missions trip only to talk about all the funny things people did, are showing that they failed to dig a little, understand and really connect.

Wrong kind of kid in school

Demolished school

Demolished school

I walk by several times a week, and one day it was demolished! And the rubble was just left piled everywhere. A short section of wall was still standing. On it was the painted primary school decorations and teaching tools, now showing incongruously for all to see.

There has to be a story behind a scene like this, so I asked. The man who ran the school had built it on someone else’s land.  The when he refused to vacate, the land owner took him to court. The court issued a judgment in favor of the land owner and ordered the school closed. But the man running the school ignored the court order and kept the school open. Negotiations failed. So, one day when the school was not in session, the land owner brought a bulldozer and the police, and they knocked down the buildings.

Kid (goat) in demolished school

Kid (goat) in demolished school

However, there are still kids in this school, just the other kind.

I never thought much about the kinds of systems and organizations a country needs. This story is about weak systems in Ghana that regulate land. Without those systems, real estate agents are self-appointed and some of them are crooks who will not hesitate to sell you a piece of land, or a building, that belongs to someone else. It happens all the time.

I suspect that the man who “owned” the school thought that he owned the land, only to find out that his title was junk. At first glance the situation was surprising and humorous. On another, it is a tragedy.  On yet another, it is a story of a country where land used to belong to everyone and its use was regulated by the chief, but which has been and still is moving to a different system and there are lots of bumps along that road. It makes me glad to have grown up in a place with pretty good systems for such things, and it gives me empathy for the Ghanaians trying to buy a piece of land.