Life requires a lot of hard work and effort, and the harder working and more ambitious we are, the more successful we feel our lives ought to be. But what cannot involve any hard work or effort from us individually is being brought into this world, yet where that happens can have an extraordinary impact on our lives.
A Belgian baby has, so far in their extremely short life, worked no harder than a Ghanaian baby. However, the level of ambition for each child already differs tremendously. In a country as economically poor as Ghana, a great ambition for a newborn child is often, at some stage in life, to be accepted into Belgium’s economically superior society – something that a Belgian baby has already achieved, even before their brain is properly capable of processing memory.
Adams Mensah had achieved this common Ghanaian ambition by age 14, as he moved along with his sister to join his father in Belgium. This left his mother alone in Ghana, with a difference in life opportunities as vast as the distance between them. But why did this opportunity difference now exist between these people? Simply because he was a Belgian, his mother a Ghanaian.
Adams Mensah’s film, screening at this year’s Scottish Mental Health Arts & Film Festival in a co-presentation with Africa in Motion, documents the director’s experience upon returning to Ghana, nine years after he first moved to Belgium. Six years prior to the making of the documentary, Adams’s mother suffered a severe stroke, in which half of her body became paralysed and she lost her ability to speak.
The film follows Adams’s engagements with his mother and focuses primarily on his efforts to bring her to Belgium to visit her family, although this proves far harder than Adams had foreseen. After a contracted struggle trying to acquire a visa for his mother, the film concludes with Adams describing how the situation made him finally give up, with his ever deteriorating mother never granted permission to visit her family.
What Adams highlights to us throughout the film, is the all-consuming role that health plays in all of our lives. As he approaches staff who work in the relevant embassies, involved with bringing his mother to Belgium, the contrast in their situations is painted clearly. Adams is there to try and give the woman who raised him a taste of the opportunity she granted him nine years ago, and to do so before her health inevitably worsens furthermore. He speaks to employees who are there almost daily, upholding regulation they did not write, primarily to ensure some level of financial success in their own life. It’s a difficult conversation for those involved and a difficult subject in which to reach a realistic and just conclusion in today’s world.
A good life can be well spent chasing ambitions and becoming ever better versions of our past selves. We can view society with wide eyes, see our goals, chase after them, and if we achieve success, embrace it and the happiness it brings to us and those we care about. But no matter how successfully we achieve these goals, and no matter how much we improve ourselves through our lives, if our health or the health of those that we love is threatened, we are forced to reinvent what that success means.
The extent of this reinvention can be a very personal affair, one which is very hard to relate to those who we do not know well. That was exactly the situation apparent in the conversation between Adams and the embassy staff member, where the life-altering milestone of one person is placed into the mundane routine of another. So what causes this diverse transaction of trusted compassion to take place so frequently in modern life? The simplest answer appears to be for financial reasons.
Healthy finances can help to ensure a healthy life, which is one reason why we spend so much time ensuring that we have them, in order to maintain our health and comfort. The member of staff in the embassy is doing just that when Adams approaches him. Reverse the positions of the two people and it is very likely the conversation would remain identical. The point is that Adams can no longer accept the embassy employee’s financial success as his primary ambition, just as he is incapable of appreciating Adams desperate situation, particularly as it is clear that it is not an uncommon one, in his line of work.
There is no implication that the embassy employee is specifically responsible for any wrongdoing, but the situation highlights how commonly our drive for financial success, which can be so detrimental to the health and success of others, can dissociate us from the rest of our lives. We may not be aware the strength of that drive, until we are put in a situation similar to Adams.
It is economics that separates Belgium so distinctly from Ghana and it is economics that allowed Adams to live in Belgium, but his mother not to. It is economics that drove the member of staff in the embassy to refuse Adams’s mother a visa, and it is economics that ensure the embassy and finances need to exist at all.
It is Adams’s clearly bewildered and astonished attitude to the situation he has suddenly been placed in that seems to be both the most damaging and important point in the whole film. What we so painfully miss throughout the world today is just how much love and care we are all capable of. Through appropriate education and restraining our economic and financial ambitions in relation to other aspects of our lives, the long term damage suffered by people like Adams and his mother can be limited.
Whether we are understanding of it or not, what Adams’s story in Me a Belgian, My Mother a Ghanaian makes clear, is that no matter what level of financial success we possess, or what impact birthplace has on our lives, the inherent helpless care that we have for the wellbeing of those we love, has the potential, ultimately, to bring equality for all.
by Callum McLean