For the second book assignment I read Somebody’s Heart is Burning: A Woman Wanderer in Africa by Tanya Shaffer. Similar to the first book I read, Black Gold of the Sun, this is another memoir based on travels throughout Ghana. But since Shaffer is a woman born in California with no connection to Ghana (other than the desire to travel somewhere new), I could relate more to her experiences. However, most of the time I found her incredibly frustrating.
Shaffer’s idea of immersing herself into the Ghanaian culture meant that she was eager to taste the local food, sleep under the stars on the beach, and learn a few words in Twi. I do not disagree with trying things that the locals physically do, but when it comes to being openminded about other opinions, Shaffer is quick to preach her beliefs and place them above all others. One example is accepting food that is offered from a Ghanaian home to their guests. Shaffer complains, “I’m not a large person, and in the heat, my appetite had diminished. Furthermore, in spite of years of feminist self-education, I have as much body image baggage as the next American female. Being forced to eat past the point of fullness brought up all my adolescent angst” (83). I have experienced the same pain of eating to the point of explosiveness, but I understood that this is part of the culture. Ghanaians do not have foreigners in their homes every single day, and they also don’t have to same ‘American feminist education’, and instead think that the fatter a woman is the more beautiful she is. Shaffer constantly complained of little cultural values such as this one, and what I couldn’t stand was that she did not realize that this was a temporary situation, and she would soon be back in the comfort of first world hospitality.
Another cultural value in Ghana that is hard for westerners to accept is that it is not socially acceptable to be gay or lesbian. My professor, frustrated with the influence of western ideals, explained to us that first we brought religion and conservative values, but ever since the west had decided that being gay was acceptable, Ghana is chastised by the west for not keeping up. Shaffer talks about meeting a gay couple, Kojo and Bengo. Kojo asks her about homosexuality in San Francisco while Bengo is out of the room. “His eyes met mine, then, for a quick moment. ‘And they can live there, as they are, openly?’ His tone was querulous, disbelieving. ‘Yes, they can.’ I looked at Kojo’s smooth face, struggling to contain my curiosity. ‘You and Bengo,’ I said suddenly, ‘are you lovers?’ Kojo looked at me in terror. He shook his head violently. ‘Please,’ he whispered” (159).
I find her version of travel and the people she meets idealized, lacking a political awareness, that heightens tenderness and makes it saccharine, easier to swallow. But there are a few parts of Shaffer’s story that I could relate to. The men in Ghana, even the non-Ghanaians, all seem to incessantly hit on the foreign women here, and after a while being the ‘rejector’ takes its toll. Shaffer talks about the guilt that she felt every time she would turn a romantic offer away, thinking that maybe she was missing out on an experience. After having turned so many men down in the past few months, I (and my fellow female classmates) started to feel that maybe I am the one who is wrong. Thankfully, this guilt doesn’t last, because I see the rejected men hit on several girls two minutes later.