Category Archives: Culture

See No Evil

So, how was Ghana?

That was the question everyone was asking when I’d returned from Toronto. We’d had a session at debrief which aimed to generate answers of varying levels of engagement to The Question and it helped for sure. I found myself easily sizing up the true interest of askers to determine which of my predetermined conversation-generating answers I’d use. Some obviously cared a lot and wanted to hear the whole story, while others were alright with my disengaged “it was great! Really life-changing!” I certainly had the tools to deal with The Question itself.

did not have the tools, however, to deal with the fact that it would be asked of me nearly every time I reunited with anyone. It became exhausting almost immediately. I’m so thankful for my close friends and family who know me well enough to know that the answer to the question was one which would take a long time–years, maybe–to unravel. They didn’t ask; no, they waited.

Beyond the exasperation of hearing the same question over and over again, I was tired of being asked because I really didn’t know the answer. In fact, I had no fucking clue how Ghana was. I was still processing and, I realize now, beginning to deny the whole experience. In the weeks that immediately followed my return, I steadily withdrew, burying myself in my schoolwork and relationships and ignoring any idea of the red dust country I’d brought back to Canada with me. I focused on the new me and understanding the skills and perspectives I’d acquired through my experience instead of on the experience itself.

And the sense of denial stretched out from there. To this day, I haven’t called any of the people I met in Ghana. At first I had the excuse of having lost contact information due to a virus on my computer. But, as time passed, I realized that I didn’t want to call Yaku, or Emmanuel, or Illy. I didn’t want to be reminded of Ghana. Of course, I wanted to see how Yaku’s new job was and how Emmanuel did on his WASSCEs, but something was–and still is–stopping me from reaching out to them. It’s a complicated head space about which I’ll probably write in a later post.

I finally understood the underlying cause of my deep-seated denial when I was forced to talk about my experience at a chapter meeting. I went in relatively unprepared, with only a vague idea of what I’d be discussing (this is how I typically approach presentations) and I fumbled. I said the wrong things. I gave the wrong impressions. I stood in front of some very impressionable and naive first-year students and, in my mind, completely botched the idea of “Africa” I wanted to convey to their plastic minds.

That experience (and many others to come) made me realize the power that my narrative holds. I mean this in no self-aggrandizing way; it’s not like I have some incredibly powerful story to tell that will revolutionize the world. In fact, I have a very small story that is relatively short. However, I came to understand that even something so little could become something very dangerous, or something very good, depending on how I wielded it. I’ve learned since then that all narratives involving more vulnerable individuals or groups hold this power, especially when delivered from a privileged individual. In the end,  It all depended on how I was able to connect with others around me and how well I was able to articulate some incredibly complex ideas.

The revelation was, like my story, very powerful. All of a sudden, I was forced to really think about my experience, to piece it all together into something which exposed nuances, was self-critical and-above all-was viscerally honest all at once.

I’d opened a Pandora’s Box.

-C

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Do You Want Fries With That?

Customer service in Ghana, in my experience, doesn’t exist. Last week was one big example of that.

I had dropped off some cloth at my usually very quick tailor two and a half weeks prior. In those two and a half weeks, I’d returned to the tailor at a cost of one cedi per trip four times. The first two times, Master Aziz wasn’t there. Finally, at visit numero trois, he decided to make an appearance. Imagine that: a business owner actually at his business during regularly-accepted business hours! He told me that some finishing touches had to be done, but that the shirt would be complete the following day. At this point, it had been a full two weeks since I had dropped off the cloth; I was so tired of being exasperated that I decided to just be happy that my garment would be done in one small sleep.

I returned the next day to find that (surprise, surprise) Master Aziz wasn’t there. His army of apprentices couldn’t do the shirt, either, because it was somehow complicated. They told me to come back after I was done work. I returned after work to find them lazing about under a tree near the shop. One of them—their ringleader, I’m guessing—told me that they had lights out during the afternoon. Cue rage.

“Did you have lights out for the past two weeks?” I asked angrily, “show me the shirt.” In that instant I had decided to take the unfinished shirt to a tailor who could get the job done. The apprentice pulled out a rolled-up bunch of cut cloth that clearly wasn’t even close to requiring “finishing touches”.

A tug-of-war, some yelling, accusations of thievery, and a hasty phone call to Aziz ensued. I’ll spare you the details, but suffice to say that I didn’t get my cloth that day. I’m not proud of my actions, but, you know, hindsight is 20/20 and all that. Not even FanMilk could quench my burning fury so I returned to Sagnarigu in a state of frustration.

This was not the best state for me to be in when I arrived. You see, I was to meet another tailor in my village at a specific time at his shop to drop off cloth for something even more complicated. Naturally, he wasn’t there. When I asked his apprentices where he was, they could give me no further insight about his whereabouts. Great.

I got his senior apprentice to call the tailor. “He’s coming,” the apprentice told me. We waited about twenty minutes for the guy to arrive and when he did, he sat down to eat his dinner before serving me. At this point, I had already been broken, so his blatant disregard for his customers really didn’t bother me.

The next day, I went back to Aziz’s shop. The shirt was ready, but the Master wouldn’t give it to me until I paid. What a tricksy guy. Then he charged me eighteen cedis for it! That’s right, after two and a half weeks, six trips to and from town, and one night of holding my cloth hostage, the guy still had the balls to rip me off. I got a consolation prize, though: he assured me that the next one would be free.

In an attempt to salvage my emotional response, I looked at the situation economically. I’d be paying eighteen cedis for two shirts, or nine cedis per shirt. That’s one cedi less per shirt than what I’d pay for his usual services and the one he had just completed for me was very complicated. I hadn’t really wasted any of the trips to town because I ran other errands while I was there. All-in-all, the whole thing was manageable. So, I paid him to avoid confrontation.

The next day was Friday, or Milo and Masa Day as I like to call it. Milo is an amazing nectar made with malt, chocolate, artificial colouring(s), and artificial thickeners. Imagine hot chocolate, but with a thick, caramel flavour. It’s friggin’ awesome. Masa are basically these wonderful, little timbits made with maize flour and sugar then fried in shea butter. Apparently they represent little prayers. Because Friday is the holy day in Islam, my host grandmother makes masa for the children and I always buy some from her for breakfast and pair them with Milo prepared by my egg and bread lady.

On that day, I waited fifteen minutes for my Milo. Fifteen minutes for hot chocolate!? I grabbed my packet of Milo and tried to leave. Another tug-of-war, many quick apologies, and rapid Milo preparation ensued. With my bag of hot liquid in hand, I turned to leave without paying. She made a typical Ghanaian hissing sound to get my attention. Oh no you din’nt, I thought. There was no way I’d pay for hot chocolate that was, in my opinion, fourteen minutes late. I turned around, ready to argue with her.

“Nawuna lab sona,” she said with a smile. That means “may God grant you a safe return” in Dagbani and is a suitable way to bid someone adieu if they are on their way somewhere.

Okay, so there’s at least one person in the country who cares about customer service.

-C

16 And Pregnant: Sagnarigu Style

A few weeks ago, a young girl and her two children appeared at my compound. I’d seen the girl before, but now it was obvious that she was staying at the house. Family structures are quite fluid among the Dagomba, it seems, so I didn’t think twice about it.

A few nights later, Yaku and I were eating dinner when a young man showed up. He greeted Yaku and the girl before taking her and her children out of the compound. Yaku seemed a bit bristly after the encounter. I didn’t have to ask why, because he was eager to tell me the story. Apparently, the girl is his sister. She’d gotten pregnant in high school with the young man who’d just been by. They’d since been married, but because she’s young, she is staying with her mother to learn the ways of raising a child. Again, a Dagomba thing.

Yaku was not pleased with the man, that much was clear from the tone in his voice when he told me who he is. We continued eating, though, and moved on to other conversation topics. I didn’t really think about the situation after that.

Last week, Yaku asked me if I remember the guy. He told me that the husband gave the mother 2 cedis (~1.33 CAD, but more like 4-5 CAD when you factor in the buying power) and then disappeared. Yaku’s voice was shaking; it was the first time I’d seen anything remotely close to anger in the man. “What can you do with two cedis?” he asked me.

“Nothing,” I quietly responded. Yaku went on to tell me that he wanted to go the man’s family to give them a piece of his mind, but that his own family had prevented him from doing so. “I know it’s not the right thing to do,” he said, “but what else is there to do?” I had already answered that question: nothing.

“I bet this wouldn’t have happened in Canada,” continued Yaku. Ha! Little did he know. I told him that teenage pregnancy happens all too often in Canada and that some high schools even have day care centres in them to support teenaged mothers. I went on to explain that the girl and her family usually have little power in influencing the boy to deal with the situation in a manner befitting of a man and that if they’re lucky, they’ll be able to get regular child support money from him.

Yaku wasn’t surprised by this and after my explanation I realized that he was just venting his frustrations. Personally, I hate it when people burst my frustration bubble, so I felt as though I’d ruined his opportunity to articulate his feelings.

I think it was fellow JF Kevin in Malawi who wrote about witnessing the end of a marriage. He pointed out that even in Malawi, life still happens. The story of Yaku’s sister highlights the fact that there are certain things that cut across cultures. No matter where you are in the world, there are always people experiencing conflict, hurting each other, or drastically and negatively changing the course of each other’s lives.

Of course, there are also always people working together, finding love in one another, and drastically changing each other’s lives for the better. I think that there’s something to be said about the uniting force of either; in that one conversation with Yaku, I was able to really understand his frustration and exasperation.

I’m never going to be able to change the situation for teenaged mothers in Ghana, but at least I can take something positive away from this garbage dump of a situation.

-C

 

Day 6 – A Tamascan

As I mentioned in my previous post, I cut my stay at Tamasco short by one day due to illness. Doing so meant missing out on the Dagomba Students’ Assocation (DSA)–of which I was made an honourary member–meeting, not being able to perform in the dance routine introduction to the gospel rock show that I had been rehearsing for diligently, and missing out on the usual Saturday Tamasco dance party.

I actually had fully planned to rest up during the day, eat a bunch of saltine crackers and drink some tonic water, and go to all of these things, but I really was not feeling up to it. Plus, I had to remain close to a toilet at all times. Instead, I went to town to get tested for various bowel-related illnesses, then rested in my hut.

While I was resting, I got about 7 different calls from unknown numbers. Each time I answered, it was a different Tamascan I had met asking about how I was doing and wondering if I’d be able to make my commitment for the day, or if they should come and visit me. Before I left, I had given my number to 2 close friends that I had made at Tamasco.

Their concern for me and desire to include me in the student life made me feel absolutely awesome. The students that I met at Tamasco were phenomenal! They were so hard-working, welcoming, interested, and interesting. I really wish I could’ve spent a month there, instead of just a week. Still, in that week, I made at least 2 good friends who I will continue to communicate with for a long time.

The people I met were so fantastic that I want to introduce them all to you:

Helena. She was one of three no-nonsense girls in my class.

Emmanuel a.k.a. E-Man a.k.a. Tom. He's my best friend at Tamasco! It's too bad he closed his during this picture, though.

My buddy Francis. He helped me out around campus and looked surprisingly similar to Fiddy Cent. It doesn't really show in this picture, though.

Francis and I. My uniform is somehow big, I know. I didn't have time to get it fixed before I started school.

Me with Emmanuel and Oliver, a.k.a. Tom and Jerry. These two were inseparable.

(Most of) Agric Form 3 Class E! These guys and girls were awesome! So bright and funny.

Something that Emmanuel told me when he was calling to check up on my health really stuck with me. He said, “you’ll have to come back tomorrow to get some Tamasco cloth, because you’re a Tamascan, after all.”

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: Ghanaians are the most welcoming people I’ve ever met. These students were no exception and I truly do feel like a Tamascan because of their hospitality.

-C

Day 5 – Sex and Shit

Warning: this post is not for the lighthearted or weak-stomached. 

Sex

“So, have you ever-teehee-done it?” asks Emmanuel, his mouth blocked by his hand for the last two words of his question. I’m sitting in a teacher-less classroom (surprise, surprise), with all of the students’ attention directed at me. We’re talking about the Mystical Land of Canada.

I had fully expected this topic to be broached over the course of the week and I’d been dreading it. How do I talk about sex with a bunch of potentially very hormonal teenagers living in a puritanical society?

“You know,” I begin, ladling a thick sauce of diplomacy over my words, “in Canada, relationships are very different. Many people have pre-marital sex there.”

Some of the students are surprised by this information, while others nod their heads sagely (or gravely? I’m not sure).

“I’m not saying it’s right or wrong,” I continue, maintaining my level of neutrality, “because, you know, the Bible and Quran both say that it’s wrong. We just have a different culture there. A different context.” They seem to accept this explanation.

“It’s not so here,” says Daniel, “if you have pre-marital sex, they’ll beatchu!” Some of the guys laugh along with him. I sense that the main reasons behind remaining chaste have escaped them and wonder if it’s due to their lack of sex-ed.

“We have a saying at Tamasco,” explains Oliver, “that a girl should arrive and leave alone, never as part of a pair.” I’m immediately confused, as is often the case when I hear Ghanaian proverbs. He tells me that it means that girls shouldn’t leave the school pregnant. This disturbs me, but I wonder how far I can push them.

“It takes two to get pregnant, though,” I remind the group, “I think the expression should be: If a boy enters Tamasco, he should leave as a boy, and not a man.” The guys laugh, but when I probe them, they agree.

“And if you’re thinking of abandoning the values you grew up with,” I continue sternly, “you need to really consider if it’s worth abandoning everything you’ve known to be true since you could speak. Also, you should wear a condom.” I’m not sure if it’s my place to add the last part, but to give abstinence-only advice is diametrically opposed to many values I hold dear.

“Abstinence is the only method that’s 100%” Emmanuel reminds me smugly. Oliver nods and, pen in hand, says, “it’s like this. If I don’t remove the lid from this pen, then I can’t write with it.”

This kid is confusing. I ask him again what he means. He explains that if a girl keeps her legs closed, she can’t get pregnant. Once again, this man-centered view worries me. I tell them that God gave women and men self-control for many reasons and that unwanted pregnancy is one of them. They accept this and we move on to discuss Canadian weather after some closing remarks by the class prefect about the duties of Tamascans t0 stay pure.

Shit

When I first arrived at Wemah house, one of my initial questions was “Where’s the toilet?” The answer came from Jacob and was somehow cryptic. “Oh, you’ll find out about Morocco soon enough,” he told me with a grin. As far as I know, Morocco is a country in West Africa that I’d like to visit at some point in my life. I decided to put the question to rest and take a wait-and-see approach.

Un/Fortunately, the food at Tamasco is, in a word, disgusting. I was so backed up from it that I didn’t require a place to relieve myself until Friday. That’s right, I didn’t poop for almost 5 days. I’m fairly certain that that’s a new record for me, not that I’m keeping track. The last 2 of those 5 days were awful. My stomach hurt terribly and I was super nauseous at any strong scent.

This is why I can never eat garri again. We had garri and beans on Wednesday for dinner, so it was the last thing I ate before my horrid two-day, gut-busting experience. Even just writing about the meal now is literally making my dry-heave. It was bad.

Worse, though, was the fact that on Friday when things finally did loosen up, oh boy did they EVER loosen up. I think “release” is a better word. I had an immediate and absolute need to visit Morocco. I’d heard from Emmanuel that it was located “behind the headmaster’s house”. I found this hilariously ironic, but I also hoped that it would be enough information for me to find it on my own, for I was too embarrassed to ask anyone to direct me.

So, like an old elephant ready to die, I discreetly separated myself from the herd and went my own way. It turns out that Morocco was easy to find; I just had to search for the place infested with flies and littered with human turds and various butt-wiping implements. It was, in fact, behind the headmaster’s house.

I know I didn’t overtly mention it before, so I’ll do so now: Tamasco, the Shining Light of the North, doesn’t have any toilets for the students. They have to shit in the woods. That’s what Morocco is–their shitting place. I have to commend them for at the very least localizing their bowel movements. In some small way, I’m sure this is a way to prevent the spread of contamination.

Okay, so I arrived at Morocco and chose a place to do my business. In all honesty, this was the first time I’d ever shat in the woods. Sure, I’ve emptied my bowels in the bush before, but there was always an outhouse or at least one of those boxes that they build for campers. Yay for learning experiences!

I squatted, pushed, and promptly ruined my Tamasco uniform. I really tried to stay out of the splash radius, but no fluid mechanics class could help me predict the splatter pattern of liquid feces leaving my body at a seemingly very high flowrate. At least it was just a few drops that got on my shorts. After about 20 sweaty, thigh-busting minutes, I decided to call it quits. I wiped my butt, and my pride, and walked back to Wemah house.

The only thing is, having a BM didn’t make me feel any better. In fact it made me feel worse. My stomach went from a dull ache to feeling like it was about to explode within me. I lay down for an hour or two, but it was obvious that there was more to come and I just couldn’t stay in that environment, so I called it quits and ended my school stay early. The close proximity to Sagnarigu made it easy for me to get home to my VIP latrine quickly.

I spent Saturday resting and getting tested for Typhoid and Parasites. To be honest I think it was just the Tamasco food, but it’s never a bad idea to get tested in case treatment is required. By the time this post goes up, I will have found out what it was and will have taken the appropriate course of action.

Like I warned, this post was not written for the weak-stomached.

-C

Scorpion!

4:30 – Adhan startles me awake. Living beside the mosque means that I get this wake-up call every day. The dogs all howl and the babies all start to cry in response. It’s the daily village cacophony. I grumble, roll over, and cover my head with my pillow in an attempt to fall back asleep.

6:30 – this time, it’s my alarm that wakes me with its tinny ringing. I groggily roll over and rub the sleep from my eyes, which are still working to focus properly. As things become clearer, I notice something dark at the top of my mosquito net.

Ew, a cockroach, I think to myself. I then realize that the insect isn’t covered in white cross-hatching. It must be on the inside of the net. This is somehow alarming, but not all that bad. I’m fairly certain that it’s unlikely that a malaria-carrying mosquito would fly low enough to get into my un-tucked net. A cockroach, on the other hand, could crawl in a small gap at the bottom. I’ll have to figure out how to tuck it better, I realize, still lying in my bed.

Mornings aren’t really my thing; my stepmom could tell you that. So I lie in bed for some more time, watching the cockroach. It’s not moving and this gives me hope that the insecticide in the net has killed it. 5 minutes have passed. My mind has started to wake up and now I’m thinking that maybe I’m not looking at a cockroach at all. The shape is wrong. Cockroaches are sort of oval-shaped. This thing is more triangular. Unfortunately, I’m not 100% alert just yet, so I chalk it up to the cockroach being injured. I’m reading The Metamorphosis by Kafka and my imaginative (and sleepy) mind is allowing reality and literature to blend together.

It’s been 10 minutes and I’m now convinced that the thing on the inside of my mosquito net is definitely not a cockroach, injured or healthy. So, what is it? My curious mind wants to know. My tired body, on the other hand, would rather lie there and let the thing—whatever it may be—do its thing. Another 5 minutes passes. I really need to get up at this point, so I roll over and unclip the clothespin that holds my net closed. I fumble with the opening, but eventually stumble out into my hut.

Now there is a barrier between me and the thing. It’s only now that I realize the safety that barrier provides and how silly it was of me to just sit there and watch it for almost 20 minutes. Who knows what kinds of creatures are out to get me in Ghana and how they’ll do it? I decide to investigate, looking down from above on the thing:

You can tell by comparison with the net that this one is just a little guy. When it's on the inside of your net, though, even small is big enough!

I was right; it was no cockroach. In fact, I am looking at a scorpion. The irrational side of me has a small panic attack. It could’ve stung me in my sleep! The rational side of me comes in and informs the irrational side that most scorpions aren’t poisonous enough to do any serious damage. You can imagine this rational/irrational discussion as two small replicas of me sitting on either of my shoulders, arguing. I’m fairly certain that in my sleep-deprived daze, that’s what I pictured happening.

The scientist in me wins out, though. I immediately grab my camera, set it to macro and reach into the net to snap a pichah. That’s the one you see above. Now I’ll be able to identify the species, I think proudly. THEN IT MOVES. I jump away a little bit; until now, I had assumed that the insecticide had killed it. Oh, right, scorpions are arachnids, not insects (do they even make arachnicide?) I wonder if the chemicals will kill it, so I decide to leave it and go about my day normally. Maybe when I return from work it will be dead.

Later, I return.

It isn’t dead.

Thankfully, it is still in the net and hasn’t escaped to some other region of my room to plan a sneak attack which would lead to my demise. I puff out my chest. Alright, Chris, I tell myself, time to be a man. You handled those two mice last week. What’s a little scorpion going to do to you? I grab an empty Pringles can that I’ve got and deftly scoop the arachnid into it. With the lid on, I venture out to show my host family. Ayisha is very surprised and tells me that one sting from that little bugger could lead to a week of full-body pain and fever. My host grandmother has a fun time scaring Yaku’s nieces by pretending to throw the scorpion at them. They shriek, even though the lid would stop it from leaving the canister.

I take the specimen to Bailey’s compound to show her. Her host family is equally surprised. They tell me that God has answered my prayers by preventing the scorpion from stinging me and that I am blessed. I’m pleased with this analysis. Then they kill it with a few swift, crushing bashes with a plastic container. This too pleases me.

I walk back to my compound. As I’m about to enter my hut, Ayisha tells me with a devilish grin that the scorpion I had just dealt with was only a baby and that the babies stay close to their mother for some time after hatching.

The babies stay close to their mother for some time after hatching.

Oy.

-C

Mand-Holding or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love My Friends

Imagine walking down the street in Ottawa (or some other Canadian city of your liking). As you walk, two men holding hands approach you walking in the opposite direction. What are your immediate assumptions? Humour me and assume that you’re about to pass a same-sex couple on the street. You’re a good Canadian, though, so you’re either completely comfortable with their homosocial gesture because of your socialization, or you will keep your discomfort to yourself and respect their right as Canadians to publicly take part in such an act.

Now imagine that you’re in Northern Ghana. This is probably much harder because it’s likely that you’ve never been to Northern Ghana, but please bear with me. I’ll give you some hints: it’s hot, sticky, dusty, and generally amazing. Okay, so you’re walking down a red dirt road in rural Ghana. As you walk, two men holding hands approach you walking in the opposite direction. Now, what are your immediate assumptions?

Homosexuality is illegal here and the religious beliefs of at least 95% of the population make it socially taboo as well. So why the heck are these two guys holding hands?

As I mentioned before, I was warned that Ghanaian men dance together pretty raunchily, but that it’s not indicative of desires to perform any further acts with each other, so I was prepared for the potential culture shock involved with that. However, I was not prepared to see so many men holding hands, draping their arms over each other, placing their hands in each other’s little lower-back crevices (you know that spot–it’s the best!), and generally canoodling. All.The.Time.

I certainly wasn’t prepared to entwine my fingers in my friend Dan’s big black hands immediately upon meeting him on my first night in the village (maybe a little get-to-know-you-chatting before you get all adventurous, there buddy). But I’ve come to be comfortable with, and even somehow enjoy, being physically affectionate with my male friends over the course of the last month. In fact, I’m more uncomfortable holding a girl’s hand here, because I fear the changes in perceptions about me that that might cause. My village already wants me to get a Dagomba wife (or four). I’d rather not fuel the marriage craze, thank you very much!

But why shouldn’t I enjoy holding hands with a male friend? I mean, I’m generally an affectionate person and I care for my friends pretty deeply. I gave this question some thought and realized that it’s actually just the tip of a big privilege iceberg.

In Canada, men who are friends don’t normally hold hands or express the way they feel about each other in a physical way because to do so would be non-masculine or “gay”. This perception exists because it’s “okay” to be queer in Canada, so there’s a potential that others might see homosocial behaviour as being indicative of queerness in the ones partaking in such behaviour. Note that the fairly new sensation of the so-called “bromance” is an exception to this. Conversely, in Ghana being queer is simply not a possibility, so there is no potential for this kind of act to be an expression of queerness.  That is, because queer individuals don’t have the right to be open about their sexualities, outwardly heterosexual men have the luxury of being physically affectionate with each other without worry of judgement.

It’s been a really noticeable balance of privilege and oppression for me, and one that I wasn’t expecting when I read about unpacking my invisible knapsack of privileges as part of the JF Foundation Learning. As someone who believes in human rights for human beings of all orientations, gender identities, and heritages, seeing this balance play out on a daily basis has been a struggle for me. However, I’m in no place to radically change the way privilege works in Ghana, so the best I can do is open up this type of discussion and express myself.

Oh, and canoodle with Dan every now and then.

-C

Note: as my good friend Clare pointed out in the comments, the way I use the word “queer” in this article might not be fully understood. Here, I’m using queer as a reclaimed umbrella term to describe individuals whose orientations are non-heterosexual, and I am certainly NOT using it in the offensive sense.