When someone tells you to prepare to be unprepared, you don't actually do that...at least I don't. I thought I was equipped to conquer the world. I thought I was overprepared, in fact. And then when I finally got to where I was going, when I met my destination face-to-face, only then did I understand. Before the confrontation, I learned all about culture shock from books and articles and orientation sessions, but I didn’t have a clue of what I was about to go through until it was happening - until the unbearably humid Ghana air hit me full in the face.
Actually, the term "culture shock" doesn't do justice to the experience. On the bumpy van ride from the airport to the hostel on September 1, I was close to tears because I was so overwhelmed. It's more like "culture-shock-and-distress-that-comes-and-goes-in-waves-until-you-are-a-month-into-Bridge-Year-then-you-finally-feel-OK." Getting to this point has been one of the hardest things I've ever done, but it's the most wonderful feeling to finally be here and feel comfortable. Because this isn't just an experience to grow from - this is life.
Assimilating to Ghanaian life is a complex, multi-layered process. On the surface, there are the obvious physical challenges to adjust to, such as taking bucket baths and learning how to add palm oil as a major food group to my diet. But beneath these superficial differences, there are deeper, more personal adjustments that need to be made. I hold many values and beliefs that local Ghanaians can't even begin to understand and vice versa. For example, when I tried to explain to my homestay family that I'm not Christian, that I'm Hindu, they just didn't comprehend. They asked me, "What do you mean you're not Christian?” In retrospect, I’m having trouble redefining the term “privacy.” It’s unusual for people here to spend time alone to read or to write or to just take a break. Similarly, I've had to learn how to overcome my cultural biases in order to embrace a new way of living. Coming from a small home in New Jersey, it was a little exhausting at first to live with a large homestay family. There are at least nine other family members who live at my house – my mom and dad, my grandmother, two sisters (ages 13 and 18), three brothers (ages 1, 8, and 13…I think), and an uncle. I’m still not even sure if all my siblings are actually biological siblings or how they are related to each other. Three tenants and their families also live on our tiny compound, and other relatives come and go as they please. I'm learning how to better balance spending time with them versus retreating into my room. I needed to step out of my comfort zone in order to immerse myself fully and relate to my homestay family. Meaningful relationships don't happen on their own. The language barrier initially kept me from trying to talk to them; it was just too much energy and I was always tired. But now as I am developing a routine and slowly learning Twi, I'm making a conscious effort to communicate with them and show them I want to be a part of their life.
A classic example of this process of overcoming culture shock is my daily tro-tro adventures (tro-tros are Ghana’s take on public transportation…imagine a 15-seater minivan that serves as a mix between an American taxi and a bus, except much more chaotic). Actually, I probably have one of the easiest commutes out of the five of us, but even so, it's a daunting task (especially because I can barely speak Twi!). This has been the first week that I can actually hop on a tro-tro and know for a fact where I'm going to end up and where I need to get off. This was also the first week where I could lean out the tro-tro window to buy a cold sachet water or a bag of plantain chips from the street vendors weaving between the cars, just like any other local. It's amazing to think that only a few weeks ago I couldn't even find the right tro-tro without Clara or Yaw by my side!
If you were to come to visit me in Accra right now, I could take you on a tro-tro tour of the city without a problem (although it would be awfully uncomfortable). The "simple" task of being able to commute to work has boosted my confidence tenfold. As I learn the ins and outs of the city, I feel like it is confiding a secret in me that only residents can know. I often times still feel myself stick out like a foreigner, or worse, like a tourist. But when I think about how I can perform such daily activities on my own and how my knowledge of Ghanaian ways has grown, I realize that assimilation doesn't happen overnight. I may never truly feel 100% Ghanaian, but every day I feel a little more at home. And that's all I need.
One of the most unexpected yet invigorating qualities of Bridge Year is its intrinsic nature of making me think. Not just thinking in the sense of mulling over cultural differences, but thinking introspectively. When placed into an environment in which people don't always see the world as I do, I am forced to reevaluate all that I know through this new perspective. I find myself redefining my own goals and expectations for my future as I learn from the people around me.
At orientation, previous Bridge Year students told us not to enter this experience with expectations to change the world. They told us about their service placements and explained that our service might not be what we expected to be doing. They warned us that it would be frustrating at times. What they said made sense, and I thought I understood.
However, despite their advice and my efforts to not have expectations, I still went to Ghana with unrealistic expectations. I didn’t know where I would be volunteering but I imagined myself doing really meaningful service and helping people and improving their lives. I expected my service to be meaningful from day one. When I found out I would be working at AACT (Autism Awareness Care and Training), I had high hopes. Aunty Serwah founded the center in 1998when she found there were no resources for parents with children with autism, like herself. The center serves as a school for kids as young as five to young adults and also provides training and support to parents. I expected to be working on projects and that I would have a profound impact on the center.
Looking back, a month later, I can’t believe that’s what I was thinking. No wonder I was frustrated with my first few weeks at AACT. I started out in the primary classroom, which has ten students and nearly that many staff members and volunteers. The staff knew what they were doing and were content to let me sit in the classroom and just observe. It didn’t seem like they needed my help. After a few days, I started helping kids individually and participating in the group activities. However, I still felt like I wasn’t doing much and that I wasn’t needed.
At the start of the third week, I asked Aunty Baaba, who helps with the administration, if she needed any help outside of the classroom. She took out a pad of paper and asked me about what I had studied and what skills I had. When I told her I had just graduated high school, she closed her notebook and told me I could help her listen to phone messages, sort mail and help around the office. I wasn’t exactly sure what I was expecting, but that wasn’t it. However, I was happy to have a specific task. I spent the day in the office as Aunty Baaba’s personal assistant. Occasionally, she asked me to retrieve a file for her or deliver a message to a teacher, but otherwise I just sat in the office and watched her work.
Spending the day in the office made me realize how much I enjoyed being in the classroom and interacting with the kids. My time away from the classroom, even if it was only one day, allowed me to reevaluate my service contribution. I began focusing on individual moments and realized that each time I gave a child individual attention, that was something he/she wouldn’t have gotten if I weren’t there. For example, we were teaching the kids about colors, specifically yellow. I was sitting next to Jeffrey, a smart kid who has trouble focusing. He needs one-on-one attention. I could tell he was not absorbing the information, so I had Jeffrey look me in the eye as I repeated what the teacher was saying to him. This way I was able to ensure that Jeffrey at least paid attention to the lesson.
Focusing on my daily contributions and simply enjoying my time with the kids has allowed me to appreciate working at AACT and has also given me a much more positive outlook on my remaining time there.
I have now been in Accra, Ghana for more than one month. Over that time, Ghana has slowly, very slowly, started to become the norm. I think of it as my world now. When I wake up, I expect to see chickens and goats roam the characteristic red dirt roads, someone carrying 30 pounds of plantains on their head, stores with religious names such as “God is Great Dry Cleaners,” and men climbing through the window of the tro-tro during the mad rush. All of this is not unusual or surprising or shocking. Even the incessant hisses or shouts of “obruni” don’t faze me…as much. No longer do I get lost every day on the way to work or have to ask directions from 20 people a day. I have gradually developed a routine. I work Monday through Thursday and have Twi class on Friday. Every Tuesday after work, I meet the other 4 Princetonians at Pizza Inn to partake in the two pizzas for the price of one extravaganza. Every other day I buy a pineapple from Afia, a very sweet pineapple and mango seller. Despite these adjustments, adapting to life in Ghana continues to be a bigger challenge than I expected. Up until now, it has been about surviving. Culture shock is very real and something I could never have been fully prepared for. I have discovered that part of the difficulty of adapting to this experience has to do with the expectations I had when I arrived.
This importance of managing expectations dawned on me when talking with Svia, a German intern at work. I was expressing my longing for pizza, pasta, sandwiches, peanut butter, cookies, an abundance of fruits and vegetables, smoothies, and basically every other American dish, when she cautioned me about expectations. Some of her friends who had spent time in Ghana were transitioning back in Germany, and the food that they had craved and dreamt about for so long was unsatisfying when they finally got their hands on it. She also knew people from her program that had severe problems with homestays and work, so she wasn’t surprised or freaked out by the issues and frustrations she encountered. She seems to have adapted well to Ghana by keeping her expectations low. Svia was advising against having unrealistically high expectations, which was probably my romanticized version of Bridge Year. This made me think: would my time so far have been smoother or easier if I had had low expectations? Surely if I hadn’t expected much at all, I would have been pleased with whatever the outcome. However, this seems to contradict most American thinking of setting the bar high, pursuing perfection, always trying to better yourself; to become more efficient, nothing but the best. Are high expectations a bad thing? An American thing? Also, how exactly did I form my expectations of the Bridge Year experience? The Bridge Year Program itself is so new and each individual’s experience is so extremely different, I have realized it is difficult to have a clear idea of the next 9 months, even based on the two previous years of Bridge Year Ghana. I have learned that expectations can severely affect your mental outlook. With that said, you can’t trick yourself into lowering expectations; it is just too hard to argue with your own logic. To give you a simple example from a recent experience, I was beyond elated when I found a Cadbury Flake here, which I consider to be the best chocolate on the planet. However, when I tasted the chocolate, I was beyond disappointed, as it had a strange coffee flavor. I was expecting a certain level of excellence based on all my previous experiences with Cadbury. I thought there would be no room for error and that I would be guaranteed a heavenly treat, but I was proven wrong. Even though this is a small, trivial example, I realized that even instances where you are so confident in the outcome, where you think you know exactly what you are getting, can turn out differently than expected.
So, for the past month I have learned a lot about Ghana and how it works. It has been very day-to-day, just trying to get comfortable, adjusting is still very much a challenge. Even now, I am tempted to isolate myself. I retreat to my bedroom soon after dinner to read and fall asleep early. I plug in my headphones in an attempt to tune out the irritating hisses and calls of “obruni.” But now, I can take comfort in the knowledge that I have successfully survived the first month. It is now time for the next phase: leaving a mark and recognizing that my actions having consequences. I want to make my mark at work. I want to engage with the community, perhaps disconnect those headphones and greet and converse with the tailor I pass everyday or insist on helping my homestay brother with his homework. But I now know that I have to be careful. I have built up the next phase of our Bridge Year in the village. The serenity, scenery, and proximity to the other 4 Bridge Year students, will be a nice change from the bustling, crowded, dirty, sweaty, and long commutes of the city. It makes sense that the aspects of the city that I don’t love will not be present in the village, so I will like it. But, I have to realize that life in the village will bring a whole other set of issues. Likewise, I have built up the idea of returning home. It makes sense that a hot shower, running water, and freshly baked chocolate chip cookies will be very much appreciated. But just as I am sure the village will be far from perfect, I am sure returning home will bring up issues that I cannot understand or anticipate currently. During the next eight months, my greatest challenge will be learning how to redefine my expectations and not allow them to interfere with this experience.
The hardest part to experience here in Ghana is the poverty. Growing up in a quiet suburb of Boston, I've never witnessed poverty on such a personal level. I work at an NGO called Street Girls' Aid, a daycare facility for kids ages 2-6 whose parents work on the streets. We offer a safe place for the kids to go during the day where we also teach classes to prepare them for school. My commute to work takes me through a pretty rough part of town. After my hour and a half long trotro ride, I get off and walk towards the market. Along the way, I pass the same beggars everyday- the man in his wheelchair, the mother with her two babies, the one-armed man, the father with his kids who sometimes follow me, holding onto my skirt and looking up at me with hope in their eyes. After I walk through the market, I go behind it and across the railroad tracks. There are only one or two trains that still go through each day, so the area has attracted crowds of squatters and vendors that sit amidst heaps of literally smoking and burning trash. Street Girls is located right in the heart of this area because this is where the kids live and their parents work; this is their world. It's hard to see how different these kids' opportunities are from what I grew up knowing, what different expectations they have for their futures than I have for mine. It makes me feel guilty for being born into the world I know and frustrated that there is seemingly nothing I can do that will drastically change the future for these kids. As important and rewarding as I feel my service is, there is only so much I can do. Poverty is a problem that is much larger than me or Street Girls' Aid or Ghana. It has been an eye-opening experience to witness this end of the socio-economic spectrum in Accra, especially because my home stay experience is on the other.
My family lives in North Legon, a suburb of Accra. The house is a two-building compound surrounded by a seven-foot-wall topped with barbed wire (a common security feature in Accra). My family is great, I have a mom, Sofia, and three younger brothers, Oreku (9), Kofi (6), and Kojo (4). The three boys can usually be found running around and wreaking havoc on the house (one of their favorite targets being me and my room) so I am definitely kept on my toes at home. There are also two family friends, Albert (16) and Tony (19), who live in the house and help with cooking, cleaning, and looking after the boys. Sofia is hoping to run for parliament in the 2012 election so she is currently running against three other candidates for her party's (the National Democratic Congress) nomination for her constituency. The constituency is broken into 60 branches, each with four delegates who will vote in the primary in November, totaling to 240 votes. Each delegate's vote must be won on a personal level. Oftentimes I come home to find twenty or thirty delegates gathered on the porch or eating banku in the main room, discussing local issues with Sofia. It has been fascinating to meet the delegates and discuss both Ghanaian and American politics. I have also been lucky enough to sit in on the core campaign meetings. The campaign team is made up of eight men who are at the house so often- for meetings, to check in with Sofia, or just to hang out with each other- that they are like family, the boys even address them as "uncles". I have really enjoyed seeing the inner workings of Ghanaian politics.
Experiencing these two extremes of Ghana at such a personal level has been a reminder of how complex the society is. Wealth and poverty coexist in every city in every country around the world every day. I have been lucky to experience such a rich and multidimensional view of life in this city that I am learning to call home.