Research Introduction: My Ghanaian Beginnings

25 06 2012

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By Jessie Narloch

Every evening for six weeks last summer, I would sit on the rooftop of my Ghanaian host family’s home and recount the day’s events. I sat with my field notebook, revisited the scribbled notes I took, recounted the impromptu interviews, and attempted to make meaning of the day-to-day interactions that I recorded. One overarching theme that epitomized my time in Ghana was the pure generosity and hospitality of the people. Very rarely did I feel out of place in this hospitable country; at every turn was a Ghanaian who would graciously and enthusiastically answer each and every one of my never-ending questions. Consequently, my Ghanaian friends playfully referred to me as the “question girl.” My passion to learn and my desire to genuinely know about Ghanaian culture produced many deep friendships with Ghanaians, many of whom I continue to keep in contact with.

In all of my conversations with Ghanaians, one topic was never avoided—spirituality. Ghanaians are proud of their heritage and their religion in a uniquely prominent way. When it came time to choose an anthropological research topic for a class that I was taking, understanding the ways that religious beliefs affected the manner in which Ghanaians sought medical treatment was of particular interest to me. Previously taking pre-medicine classes while focusing on medical anthropology and global health within my Cultural Anthropology major also fueled this decision.

I was quickly introduced to the world of research, the complexities of a foreign culture, and the unique interplay between spiritual identity and decision-making. I was faced with realities that surprised me, and the preconceived notions I had about certain groups of people were quickly shattered. I leveraged my desire to incessantly ask questions for a purpose—to begin to understand how believing in spirits, in Jesus Christ, or in Allah directly affects the ways in which people seek healing when ill. The initial findings only left me wanting to talk to more pastors, more doctors, and more Ghanaians in order to begin to understand this vibrant culture’s relationship with religion and medicine.

This project has made and could continue to make a prominent impact on my academic goals and my prospective career as a physician. The research has taught me that asking specific, meaningful questions can create a patient narrative that elicits not only what is physically wrong with the patient, but probes beyond that to reveal the influences of spirituality, heritage, race, socioeconomic status, and gender that constitute the patient’s world and that affect his or her susceptibility to and perception of disease. Moreover, my experiences in piloting this research continually humbled me, reminding me that Ghanaians’ insights can teach me much more than any cleverly constructed question could ever teach them. These lessons will mold me into the anthropologist and future physician that I desire to become.

This project is far from over. It is clear to me that through my previous experiences in Ghana I merely caught a glimpse of the intricate and unique ways in which spirituality is wrapped up in medical decision-making. This summer, I am excited to continue relationships formed last summer and create new relationships that will make a lasting impact on this research as well as on my perception of the world. I look forward to many more nights on my host family’s rooftop, reminiscing about the day’s events and contemplating the complexities of the place I call my second home.

Jessie is a Senior at Duke University majoring in Cultural Anthropology and taking Pre-medicine classes.

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