GHANA: THE ROAD LESS TRAVELED
December 5, 2007 § Leave a comment
While most of my fellow seniors are busy enjoying senior festivities and trying to fight off senioritis, I am spending the first half of my last year of college a continent away in West Africa. When some people realized I was serious about coming to Ghana, the typical uninformed questions and comments that come when one decides to travel to a third world country surfaced. Ghana, what could you possibly do in Ghana? Why not study in Europe? Don’t you think you’d have more fun there? You better hope you don’t get malaria. And won’t you have to live in a hut or something? Are you sure it’s even safe there? What about the AIDS rate? Although I was annoyed by the ignorance of these comments, I understood how people could have these negative perceptions of Africa. Every time you turn on the television and there’s a story about Africa, it’s usually never anything positive. Images of starving children, violence, corruption and poverty fill the screen. As an aspiring journalist myself I feel there are two sides to every story and one of my reasons for studying abroad in Africa was to come back and show people that there is more to this continent than what people see on TV. Now I can’t speak for all of Africa because I’ve only been to Ghana. But I figure if travelers can base their positive perceptions of Europe on their experiences in just one European country like France or England, then I can look at Ghana as a positive representation of Africa. I’m now approaching the end of my time in Ghana and I must say this has been the best experience of my life. So allow me to give you some tidbits on life in Ghana from the eyes of a foreign student.
Ghana has been hailed as one of the friendliest countries in West Africa Africa and I agree wholeheartedly. Never in my life have I encountered a country of people that are so amicable and willing to help—especially foreigners. In Ghana every time I enter a room, I’m greeted with a friendly, “You are welcome,” followed by a firm handshake. Asking for directions in a foreign land can be intimidating, but in Ghana even if the person can’t direct me, he or she will instantly lead me to someone else who can. I recall several times where I’ve met complete strangers simply walking down a dirt road or sitting on a bus. These strangers who were genuinely interested in finding out where I come from and what I think about their country soon became my friends. I recall another time when my friend and I were short on money to pay for tickets to a John Legend charity concert and two Ghanaian strangers insisted that we let them give us the money instead of trying to find an ATM in an area of town we were unfamiliar with. Another story that comes to mind was when I fell ill for a week and had to miss classes. When some of my Ghanaian classmates realized I was not in class, they actually called to see how I was feeling. Some of them even stopped by my hostel to wish me well. Or when one of my students from the after school program where I taught this semester sent me a handwritten note apologizing for not coming to class.The hospitality, concern and consideration for others in Ghana is like no other.
Having lived in America my entire life and this being the only time I visited another country, adjusting to a new culture was difficult at times, but extremely rewarding in the end because I was exposed to many new and interesting things. One of the most important aspects of Ghanaian culture is etiquette. Before coming to Ghana etiquette for me didn’t go much further than the usual please and thank you. But in Ghana I found that it is considered insulting to use your left hand to pass or receive something or when shaking hands or eating something. In the beginning, I found myself having to remind myself constantly to comply with this custom. Now using my right hand for everything has become second nature. Greeting procedures are also more formalized in Ghana, especially in small towns and villages and when dealing with elders. I can also recall many times when my Ghanaian friends, acquaintances, and even strangers have offered me food. “You’re invited,” they say, meaning that I am welcome to share some of their food. I found that it was considered rude to decline their invitation to share food. Another aspect of Ghanaian culture I had to adjust to was the frankness in social interactions. In the Western world it is considered rude to tell a person that he or she is fat. But, in Ghana a comment like that is not considered rude at all. It is just considered to be someone’s observation of what they see when they look at a person.
Way of Life
One of the biggest culture differences I experienced was bargaining daily for food, goods, and transport. In America one may come across a street vendor or two in a city or visit a pawn shop and need to bargain for a good price. However, in Ghana bargaining is an everyday practice. At nearly every corner there is an outdoor marketplace where goods are sold or there are individuals selling products on the roadside. A common sight is a young woman carrying a basket of bread or a basket full of bags of water on her head or a person bargaining with a taxi driver. In the actual marketplace it is custom to bargain with the sellers, although there are some stores where there are fixed prices. I remember during my initial first few weeks I grew very frustrated with bargaining because many of the sellers would overcharge me for items because they knew I was a foreigner, meaning they assumed I had an excess amount of money. Once I learned how to bargain, going to the marketplace became less of a hassle and more of a breeze. Another part of living in Ghana that I had to adjust to was the lack of everyday conveniences from home. While the student hostel I lived in had indoor plumbing, there were several days when the water there would cut off. When this happened I filled up a bucket with water from a pump outside to wash my body. And because of the energy crisis in Africa, there were often power outages. Therefore, candles and flashlights were very useful. And in public places, especially in villages and small towns outside cities, finding restrooms were hard and sometimes nonexistent. So carrying toilet paper and hand sanitizer with me wherever I went became second nature. But as time passed I realized that these inconveniences were not as bad as they seemed and not having these inconveniences actually helped me to become more resourceful. Within just a couple of weeks I found myself adjusting more and more to these aspects of Ghana.
In Ghana, I was introduced to new foods, some of which like kenkey (sour tasting maize-flour balls steamed and wrapped in maize leaves), fufu (boiled cassava or yam that is pounded and served with soup) and banku (cassava and cornmeal) were acquired tastes. Other Ghanaian staples that didn’t take long for me to love were jollof rice (a spicy rice), waakye (rice and red beans) and kelewele (spicy fried ripe plantain with stew). One of my favorite places to eat on campus was “The Night Market,” which was an outdoor market composed of several rows of vendors selling everything from chicken, fresh fish, soups, plantain, and rice to traditional Ghanaian foods like fufu. The name, “night market,” was kind of deceiving because the marketplace opened bright and early at 9am and closed at around 9pm every night. So I figured the name was due in part to the fact that it was one of the few places on campus that remained open late. The food here was extremely inexpensive, like many markets in Ghana. You could eat a hearty dinner for as little as $0.80.
One of the best parts about studying in Ghana was learning a new language. Although English is the official language in Ghana, most of the country’s people use their native tongue when communicating with each other. In the region of Ghana where I lived, people spoke Twi, the language of the Asante and Fante people. I enrolled in a Twi course (pronounced “tree”) and learned how to speak and write in Twi. The only other language I’ve studied was Spanish, so to learn an entirely new language in the land where it is spoken was incredible. Being able to understand Twi also helped me to communicate with the people more, which was extremely useful during my many travels away from the University. Whenever I spoke Twi to a Ghanaian person he or she would give me a light-hearted laugh and urge me to continue, which showed that they were amazed and delighted that I was learning their language. I soon learned that many of my Ghanaian friends also spoke pidgin (a blend of English and Twi), which also became useful during my time in Ghana.
I studied and lived at The University of Ghana, located in Legon, Ghana, about 13 kilometers north-east of Accra, Ghana’s capital city. Founded in 1948, it is the oldest and largest of the five public universities in Ghana with a student population of about 28,480 –a far cry away from the medium-sized campus of my home institution. Studying at The University of Ghana was very different from the States because the academics were way more relaxed, meaning that there wasn’t much work to do apart from coming to class and in most classes the only evaluation students receive is at the end of the semester at final examination time. Because of the more relaxed academic environment I had lots of free time, which gave me more time to really see Ghana and get more of a cultural experience—which was what I came for.
Ghana is a beautiful country, so exploring all of the beautiful sights it offers was the best thing about my experience here. In my travels I found myself in Kumasi, home of the Asante people (one of the most powerful nations in West Africa at the end of the 19th century) and best known for its kente-weaving villages. I also journeyed to the illustrious towns of Cape Coast and Elmina, which despite their beauty have a devastating past in that it is home to several castles and forts that held slaves during the Trans-Atlantic slave trade. In my travels there I toured both the Cape Coast Castle and Elmina Castle, which made for a somber but also enlightening experience. I also experienced my first ever harvest festival in Cape Coast, called Oguaa Fetu which takes place on the first Saturday in September. At the festival traditional chiefs from the area parade in kente-cloth togas and gold crowns and medallions. The most important chiefs are carried in canoe-like stretchers balanced on the heads of four manservants and shaded by huge parasols or umbrellas. The parade lasts all day and there’s lots of dancing, drinking, food, and music—giving it a Carnival-like atmosphere. I also traveled to the Eastern Region and the Volta Region (my favorite), where the mountainous and savannah-like landscapes and beautiful waterfalls are mesmerizing.
During these travels I’ve been welcomed into small villages where the people (especially the children) are friendly and full of life. They taught me traditional African dance moves as well as how to cook Ghanaian dishes and even how to basketweave.
In my many hikes around Ghana I’ve also seen my share of wildlife. I’ve gotten to feed baboons and monkeys and even ventured into a bat cave. Traveling throughout Ghana gave me the opportunity to see sights I could have never seen from the classroom and meet people I’ll never forget.
As I write this I’m approaching the end of my journey in Ghana. In less than two weeks I’ll be back home. The familiar sights, sounds, and people from America will be refreshing to return to. But at the same time the culmination of this journey is bittersweet. I gained more knowledge in four months here about Africa and perceptions of the Western world then I can learn in a lifetime living in America. I also gained a better appreciation for different cultures because I not only met students from Ghana, but students from all over the world. Each time I think about the journey back home I reflect on everything I experienced here in Ghana know that I’ll treasure the memories forever. As Zora Neale Hurston once said, “you have to go there to know there,” and I realize there’s so much more to Africa then what we see on TV.