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Opinions of Saturday, 21 March 2009

Columnist: Adu-Gyamfi, Kwaku

Things Fall Apart: Ghanaian Immigrants’ Retirement Plans .....

..... Put on Hold indefinitely.

Are the Ghanaian Immigrants Overworked, Overspent, Shopaholics And Unhappy?

THE GLOBAL ECONOMY HAS GONE down the drain. How will that pose a threat to the Ghanaian Immigrants’ health, spending habits and well-being? The unemployment and economic hardships have soared, along with our health, emotional and psychological ailments .So can all this bad really be good?

NEW REALITY:

Over the next several months, we will see increasing number of unemployment in our host countries .we will also see increasing governmental interventions in wide sectors of their economy as more businesses unfold. As the resulting pain of unemployment spreads wider and deeper, governmental welfare programs—from unemployment compensations, food stamps to medical benefits will expand the government reach into every aspect of our lives. That will also unearth our dark immigration secrets –and will also give us some sleepless nights.

What could be worse than being jobless and having a foreclosure sign on your dream house, or holding –off trading in your old car and reassessing your spending habits? The last thing you would like to hear is more lectures about the economy or how to live within your means. You’re hardly in the mood to welcome any comment about compulsive shopping habits and fiscal promiscuity .Oh, please!

SOURCES OF OUR HEADACHES:

Yes, the truth hurts. We overworked and overspent when ‘things’ were good and we were living above our means through the magic of easy credit and home equity loans. We all screwed- up our priorities and even indulged ourselves and our kids in instant gratification for future goals. We filled the tanks of the brand new SUVs in our driveways and paid for dinners on Friday nights with credit cards. What we wanted grew into what we needed, at dizzying rate because we felt materially dissatisfied—ouch!

THIS IS SERIOUS BUSSINESS:

I’m not trying to be mean ,I just want to make my points quickly without sugarcoating things just to protect someone’s fragile ego, because this is serious time and the casualties are too many to play it safe.

Probably, the timing of this piece looks and sounds very awkward to you, nevertheless, I think this is the perfect time to talk about those negative impulses, because we might learn some valuable lessons from this lean time that could be carried over when the economy improves. When things are okay, it’s tough to take the initiative to change. When the good has disappeared people tend to find the best skills and talents and start moving to the right directions. Therefore, the need for assessing and curing our spending and compulsive shopping habits are more urgent than ever.

This is not an article about philosophy, sociology or human psychology, but I believe it’s worth mentioning that whenever there is a long period of time passes without a job and no hope in sight there is always more life issues to be lurking in the sidelines.

THE STRESS FACTOR:

One of those issues is stress. Stress can not only be viewed through the Ghanaian immigrants’ prism. It’s a universal issue among every society. But, that is not what this article is designed to address .My concern is how it affects the Ghanaian immigrants in the diaspora and how we should get rid of it--- especially, in this hard time when nobody knows what tomorrow may bring.

In tough times there is a strong temptation for our host countries to blame us (immigrants) for all their pains and greediness. This is what is happening in the U.S right now: The recipients of the recent enacted economic stimulus package--- to bailout banks and companies---- have been instructed to” refrain from hiring foreign citizens” (what ever that means!) Hello?

Yes, I know this discussion is very challenging .It‘s challenging because I do not want to patronize anyone. Neither do I want to turn this discussion into confrontational debate; especially in this day and age. But, I suspect this piece will earn me more jeers than cheers. So I ‘m ready to take them as they come, but go easy on me, you hear?

Nevertheless, this off- the- cuff piece is going to force us to confront some hard questions about who we are, what we are doing, why we choose money over leisure and longevity, and the consequences of the choices we made.

TAKING STOCK:

However, if you are already doing well economically skip this piece without harm—lucky you! You are one of the lucky ones. I’m certain you have never experienced any bad time yet. You have never been desperate for money to the point of literally working your ass-off. You have never fallen asleep while driving from work. You have probably never been pushed by the folks back home to send money waa-waa .You have never been arrested for using doctored documents for employment. You have never faced deportation proceedings. What about the house in your home town you’re trying to complete against unrealistic schedule? Are the credit card bills paid for? Enjoy your fortune!

On the other hand, if you are like the rest of us, who are doing exceptionally poorly this is for you .As Ghanaian immigrants, we are already overworked and stressed out, but the fallout from the recent economic crisis is going to present health hazards to some of us, because we are weathering the economic storm with our health, lives, broken homes and dysfunctional marriages or families.

By now you have already heard and read more than enough about the collapsed stock markets, decimated fortunes, disappearing jobs and consumers’ confidence deteriorating. So now let’s focus instead on a different crisis: How are we going to control our overworked lifestyle that we used to support our over-consumption appetite for material things? In other words, the economic downturn and the demise of the financial sector have brought about a new “reality” .No longer are Ghanaian immigrants in the diaspora going to make a choice between being fiscally responsible and socially or physically healthy. They all have to go hand in hand. Indeed, we are discovering that we need new spending habits and a wholly different way of thinking about money and our health. .

OUR MAJOR CONCERNS:

These days, every time two or more recession-battered Ghanaian immigrants get together the major topic they talk about is how life in their host countries sucks. And if you want to hear more of their indignations and trepidations just eavesdrop on their conversations at funeral celebrations, party parlors and at the airports’ departure and arrival halls---all they talk about is the stressful ‘ lifestyle they go through in their “new countries” or lack of emotional life satisfaction .Sadly ,most of us have put the retirement plans on hold indefinitely.

Yes, Ghanaian Immigrants are accustomed to hard work, and toil but, it’s lack of time that is harder to endure. Could it be that we forced ourselves to work so many hours because we are financially promiscuous and spend money as if there is no tomorrow? Or we bought too many ‘Toys’ we do not really need, but just to fill our ‘’over-consumption needs and compete with our neighbors? The present world economic conditions are making things difficult for everyone, but we immigrants are feeling the pain more. I wonder why!

Well, I do not know much about what an average Ghanaian Immigrant does (or doesn’t do) in his or her host country. But, I do know much about those in the United States. So for the sake of this discussion let’s concentrate on the Ghanaian immigrants in the United States. .

HOW DID WE GET TO THIS POINT?

Way before the economic downturn, without a doubt, those of us in the states, were caught up in the cycle of work-and -spend mentality. But, did we need to work hard so as to buy the most expensive name- brand sneakers for our kids per se ---which can instantaneously bring crazy smiles to our faces, or buy the most expensive’ toy, just to impress our friends ’? This mentality is not only keeping us from a more relaxed and leisured way of life but, it’s literally and metaphorically marching us onto our graves at an alarming speeds. There is no mystery here, as to what is going on, except to those who have been living in denial. In fact, sometimes, I bite my nails thinking what the hell am -I doing here! Sometimes, I figuratively get misty-eyed as I speak to the folks back home about hardships we are now going through in our host countries.

The truth must be told. Ever since we had the chance to migrate to developed countries we had the false notion that our lives are better than those we left behind in Ghana. Unfortunately, that false notion suggests that material progress has yielded enhanced satisfaction and well-being. But, much of that confidence we have about our” well-being” comes from a naïve assumption that our lives are easier and better than those at home because we have developed excessive taste for material goods. In essence, the lives of the people back home are commonly thought to be harsh and unhappy by contemporary and our own narrow standards.

LIFE BACK HOME:

Let’s face it, those of us in the diaspora ---myself included and your close friends---tend to judge some of the folks at home as being extremely lazy and “parasites” ;who are out to suck our limited blood out of us. But that is not always true. Take our farmers for example, they are far from being lazy, when you consider the long hours they spend on the farm--from planting to harvest. But, the government employees at the ministries, harbors and motor vehicles registration officers are something else. They are goof –offs who milk the system to the bone. We all know quite a few who spend the major part of their work hours working on their lottery numbers , surfing the net or exchanging text messages or yakking on the cell phone.

Nevertheless, there’s, one thing I admire about the Ghanaians at home when it comes to making time for enjoyment. No matter how hard they work or don’t work they have time to enjoy life. Funeral celebrations and Sundays are set aside to indulge themselves. Even in the small towns and villages, weekends and market days are seen as special occasions. Even with the introduction of social amenities and technological gadgets into the society, Ghanaians at home have changed their “needs” and desires a lot, but they still have time to live life to the fullest; with no interruptions. I’m saying this with enviousness and disappointment.

The Ghanaians at home don’t allow the difficulties of life to torture their “happiness” and leisure. The quotation marks are necessary here because one man’s happiness is another man’s misery. I say that because in Ghana when it rains people do not go to work. Schools are closed when it rains. But, just try that in your host country when it snows or rains. Call in sick on your job and tell your boss you want to stay home because of the snow.

I know things have changed remarkably back home, since my days in secondary school in Ghana. I quite remember growing up in Ghana, we had very limited desires, and so in the race between wanting and having we kept our wanting low— to ensure our kind of “satisfaction”. Without a doubt, we were materially poor by contemporary Standards, but at least, we were richer in terms of Time and Quality of life by present standards. The Quality of life and time are the things the Ghanaian immigrants lack and miss greatly. We have unconsciously exchanged our lives and leisure for money and we are paying a huge price for the choices we have made. It makes one wonder whether we took a vow of unhappiness and hardships by migrating to our new “homes”.

By now, probably the burning flame of your anger--- which is shooting out from your nostrils--- is hot enough to boil an egg instantly. But, before you go haywire and start throwing things around I would like to assure you that I do not raise these issues to imply that we would be better off to live our lives as we did in the 1970’s, when I had to line up to buy basic needs like toilet -roll and a can of milk. Nor, am I arguing that progress has made us worse off. Far from that. I’m instead making a much simple point. The point is Ghanaians in the diaspora, especially those in the U.S are paying for “prosperity” with their lives and souls. And that is very sad and unfortunate.

LIFE IN THE DIASPORA:

Yes, migrating to the “capitalist Mecca” (United States of America) has brought a dramatically increased standard of living; above our widest imaginations, but, at the cost of much more demanding work-life, unstable homes and tons of unhealthy emotional and physical issues.

We eat more (just check out the weight we carry around), but our food is saturated with calories and carbohydrates. The over -sweetened and over- salted dishes we consume wantonly are the causes of the obesity epidemic in the Ghanaian immigrants’ communities across the states. We have 56” High definition flat- screen televisions with three-hundred and something channels to watch. And, if we do not have time we can record our favorites programs with TiVo (built-in digital video recorder), instead of DVD recorder and watch them—to unwind after stressful day at work. But, most of these amenities are partially paid for with credit cards, that charge us arm and leg interest rate ,---So much for prosperity, folks!. So the conventional wisdom that economic progress has given us (immigrants) more things as well as more leisure is difficult to sustain.

SHOPPING SPREE MENTALITY:

Another thing: Shopping has become our main religion and our place of worship is the Mall. Our spending habits force us to work more hours (if we can get a job). The heavy workload also contributed to a variety of social and health problems, among immigrants. For example, (before the economic crisis) work was implicated in the dramatic rise in stress among all immigrants—including Ghanaians. In fact, stress-related diseases among Ghanaian immigrants have exploded in the recent times and premature death among Ghanaian immigrants is very high. And, the recent economic condition is not going to make it easier on us at all.

SOURCES OF OUR MEDICAL AND EMOTIONAL ISSUES: . It’s also true that the incidence of high blood pressure is significantly higher among us. The reason for this is not clear, but may be linked directly to high stress from work, poor diet, lack of sleep and exercise or lack of time to keep up with our medical appointments(if only we can afford the health insurance bills)

According to recent studies reported in a Health magazine, Americans (those who can find jobs) are literally working themselves to death.—as jobs contribute to heart disease, hypertension, gastric problem, depression, exhaustion, and a variety of other ailments. Surprisingly, the high source of the stress does not come from high –powered jobs alone. Nurse’s Aides, Homecare Attendants, Nurses, taxi drivers, housekeepers and assembled line workers--- are all stressed out to the breaking point. Incidentally, these were some of the jobs the majority of us were engaged, before the economic downturn.

LACK OF SLEEP:

Sleep has become another casualty among the Ghanaian immigrants in the diaspora. According to an article in the New York Times, sleep experts say, there is a “sleep deficit” among Americans in general and immigrants in particular. They went on to say that we sleep at an average of 5 hours a night, instead of 8 hours or more which is the normal requirement for adults .As a result, sleep disorder problems have skyrocketed among Ghana immigrants. Therefore, it’s not a mystery for the rise in deadly sleep-induced vehicle accidents we experience among Ghanaians in the U.S. Sadly, we sometimes blame the innocent old- lady in the family (in Ghana) for witchcraft.

In the recent times; Shift work, long working hours, the growth and the accelerating pace of life have all contributed to sleep deprivation. To prove my points get this: An average Ghanaian immigrant has an alarm clock; to wake him up. On top of that, there is a clock in the kitchen, living room, dinning room, bed room and bathroom. The microwave and regular ovens have clocks, the desk top computer has a clock, and there is a clock in the car, one on cable TV. There is a clock on the house phone and cell phone---all reminding us to accelerate our lives. We do not even have the luxury to sit at the dinning table to eat meals together with our families, Instead we are always on the run. What a life!

RELATIONSHIPS DYING PREMATURELY:

Right now, it’s most likely you’re juggling multiple chores. You are probably surfing the web to read this article, yelling at your children in the other room, checking your e-mail and your account balance and yakking on your cell phone while you’re trying to finish your cold coffee and gawking at the clock on the wall, so that you could catch the bus or train to work. That is inane .How much can you take?

On the other side of the spectrum is the juggling act between job and family. It’s believed that about eighty-five percent of Ghanaian immigrants now say they have too little time for their families. But, the problem is particularly acute to women more so than men. I do not know any Ghanaian immigrant lady who is not working by choice (do you?)So that means every Ghanaian immigrant woman is employed in some form of capacity; doing anything and every thing to make a living. Our women feel extremely stressful because when they come home they try to make up to their families for being away at work and as result they rarely have anytime for themselves. This stressful lifestyle has placed tremendous burden on their marriages and themselves.

Another reason we’re overworked and stressed out is the competition element between some marriage couples. Unfortunately, they do that all in the name of pleasing the folks back home. Sometimes, the pressure from home forces our women; particularly the new- comers, to work two jobs just to make the two ends meet and also meet their ““obligations” and “goals”, at the expense of a healthy marriage and their own health.

THINGS FALL APART, WE NO LONGER AT EASE:

And, when you add up the time we spend with friends at parties, exercising (‘Exercising,” what’s that?)attending our kids’ soccer games, seldom attending church service, shopping, sitting in front of TV or read our e-mails and doing other household chores, cooking and eating---not to mention sleeping—it’s easy to realize why we have no time to devote to ourselves, or our relationships ,let alone to have a well-defined life fulfilling goals. Most of us hardly read anything other than the monthly bills. It’s very pathetic!

In addition, the two-earner couples have less time together and that reduces the happiness and satisfaction of a marriage. These couples often just don’t have enough time to talk to each other, let alone to be sexually intimate. The growing number of husbands and wives are like “ships, passing in the night”----working sequential schedules to manage their child care. From the look of things no relationship can withstand such an intense pressure and stress. Thanks to the overworked lifestyle; relationships are fractured and friendships are punctured beyond repairs. And, where is opanyin Kwadwo Kyere when we needed him and his advice and wisdom the most?

The problem is more acute to young parents. It’s common for one of them working 11pm -7am shift, to accommodate their families—and eliminate the need for babysitters. So when it comes to attending to the marriage, family and the job the marriage always gets less attention. No wonder the divorce rate among Ghanaian Immigrants is par with the natives in our host countries and, the single –parenthood is growing as our work load and frustrations grow. The chances of a Ghanaian immigrant child being raised by a single mother are very high because of the unstable marriages.

HUSBANDS’ ROLE:

Uh-huh, the situation is exacerbated when the Ghanaian men—with their machismo fail to do their fair share at home to help out. The woman feels furious, stressed out and tired after being on her feet 8 hours in a nursing home attending to 85 year- old Alzheimer patient who drives her crazy with unnecessary, attention, demands and racial remarks.

THE EFFECTS ON CHILDREN:

Serious as these problems are, the most alarming developing may be the effect of the explosion on the care of children. To make the two ends meet, “child neglect” has become endemic to the Ghanaian communities in the diaspora. The major problem is that, children fend for themselves while their parent is at work all day. It’s estimated that children in ‘self’ –or more accurately, ‘no’ care – are increasing among single- parent households among Ghanaian immigrants. HOME -ALONE KIDS:

Though ,leaving the kids home alone has long been an anathema for every parent, because it’s illegal to leave a child below the age of ten without an adult supervision ,but the economic necessity has pushed us to break the law unabated with impunity . Sometimes, the parents leave the children feeling guilty but with instructions like:”Don’t open the door, don’t touch the stove and when anyone calls say we’re sleeping”. And, please do not even ask who checks the kids’ home work.

Even when at home, the workload will leave the mentally drained parents limited time, attention, or energy for their children. And, the lack of spending quality time with the children has resulted in several emotional problems, poor eating habits and obesity among the children. The children end up gorging on artery-clogging fast foods like McDonald’s cheeseburgers with French fries and top it off with a larger size coke soda. We are in effect raising hypera-ctivity disorder, obese and lazy kids.

What a choice!

”Parenting deficit” has also contributed to poor performance in school, mental problems, and alcoholism and teen pregnancies, among others. Our children are being “cheated” of childhood. As much as we try to compensate our lack of parenting by showering the kids with unneeded material goods, and giving them too much latitude, the kids feel that we adults do not care about them. Folks, we can not fool them with gifts...

To portray how dedicated we are to our kids’ education some of us put our kids into private schools, (they’re not cheap) thinking that private schools will solve all our parental deficit problems. Our inability to help our kids to do their home work assignments or check their school works is pushing us to pay for our kids’ basic education, instead of saving the money for their college years.

SOLUTIONS AND SUGGESTIONS:

At this point we should remember that there is more going on in our homes than lack of time, Child neglect, mental distress, sleep deprivation, and stress-related ailments-- all have other causes .But, the overworked lifestyle, lack of work and poor spending habits have exacerbated each of these social and health aliments. So only understanding why we worked as we did and how the demands of work affect family’s life and our health then we can hope to find solutions to these problems. Like it or not, until we address the underlying factors that contributed to our emotional and economic pains, even an economic recovery would be meaningless to us.

In trying to reduce our workload maybe (just maybe) we can also reduce the unnecessary demand the folks back home have placed on us. We can work on living within our means, and stop competing with our neighbors and buying things we hardly need. To reduce the stress and workload we can also reschedule the self-imposed, unrealistic completion dates we have placed on the houses being built in the cities of Ghana.

I know this is an adrenaline-intense discussion, but it’s finally going to pry-open the door to the issues we have been hiding for years. Having said all that, it’s not my job here to judge whether working two jobs or working 16hrs a day is good or bad---that is not my business. I’m just sharing what I know about the end result of our overworked schedules, spending habits and stress levels that keep echoing in my thought.

I hope you nodded your head from time to time as you read this in agreement. But, I would not mind if you vehemently disagreed with me on some of the issues I brought up. It proves you are thinking about my points—which is good. However, if something rubs you the wrong way or pisses you off (which I know it will definitely send your blood pressure gauge way up.) please don’t take it personally.

To those who have followed me this far, I applaud you---who wants to read such a lengthy piece without getting pissed off? It shows you are willing to hear a different view point on the subject in question. You have also earned the right to trash or criticize this piece because you have come a long way. That’s the essence of communication. Thanks!

LOOKING FOR WHAT MATTERS:

On that, I would like to end this discussion with Dr.Deepak Chopra, one of the world’s greatest leaders in the field of mind and body studies. He once wrote:” when we seek money, good relationship or great job, what we’re really seeking is happiness .The mistake we make is not going for the happiness first .If we did, everything else will follow”. I wonder if we have truly found the “happiness’’ we came here to seek. What do you think? . Yes, times are hard and some of us are convinced that times are bad and we are going to suffer devastating hardship before it gets better. But, we can use this period as a learning process to mange our money, health and our lives in these bad times. When there is tendency to get off track we just have to be imaginative and inventive as we were that hapless and hopeless moments we first arrived on the American soil or European shores. In other words, it’s a period for moral and health revival: we are learning to live without material extravagances and ways to simplify our lives and concentrate on what really, really matters.

Indeed, the events of the past months have shaken our spirits and shifted the foundations of our goals and retirement plans. In fact, we’re now questioning the decisions we made and our desires to spend the better part of our lives on far, far away lands.

Notwithstanding, we should keep hope alive, because something good always comes out of bad situation. It’s no fallacy that a period of misfortune and turmoil, is by a quirk of fate, followed bliss. After turmoil there’s stillness, within which flowers bloom, children grow up, we gray. Sometimes turmoil is our companion, for with it we take stock of all that matters to us, both good and bad. Of course, no pun intended!

Kwaku Adu-Gyamfi

NJ, USA

*The author is a social commentator, and a founder of Adu-Gyamfi Youth Empowerment Foundation of Asuom, E/R