Group Update from Ghana
We wind our way through the dark and crowded 37 trotro station. Brandon leads the way, sidestepping the open sewer and dodging a trotro that has suddenly decided to go into reverse. Neeta stops briefly to buy a roasted plantain (her favorite) from one of the many vendors that crowd the station. Christina ignores a persistent taxi driver who yells "sweet lady, come!" as she passes by. I nearly trip over a chicken as I look over my shoulder to see Yoni briefly pulled by a few overly-friendly guys into a crowd of people dancing to the music blaring from a set of giant speakers. As Yoni laughs and pushes past the dancers, Crystal is right in front of her, taking in all the sights and smells of the bustling station with excitement. Finally we spot the taxi. A middle-aged Ghanaian woman hangs out of the window, waving us over with a huge grin. She is a friend of Neeta's boss and has just returned to Ghana after living in England for years. Her daughter, Crystal, is a first year university student in London, has come to Accra for the holidays- her first time back in Ghana since she was eight years old. The five of us had volunteered to show Crystal around and were coming back from a day spent at the Arts Center, Makola Market, Independence Square, and some of our favorite places in Osu (downtown Accra).
As Crystal's mom thanked us for showing her daughter around and "keeping an eye on her", I realized how unusual this situation was. Here we were- just five oburunis from America- given the task of showing a native Ghanaian the city. Four short months ago I couldn't have told you what a trotro was, never mind how to get from Madina to Tema Station to Osu to 37 and back. I remember how confusing and disorienting traveling was in the first few weeks here, how every time we got on and off a trotro I felt as if I'd closed my eyes, spun in a circle, and magically popped out at my destination. Now the five of us find ourselves debating which routes will be the fastest, the cheapest, and, most importantly, will avoid the traffic (usually the answer is none of them). I feel proud to see how far we've come. As we showed Crystal Accra, I felt like we were showing her our city, our home.
It has been a long and slow process of change and I didn't truly realize how much I have learned until I stopped to look back and reflect. I didn't love every minute of our four months here, but I wouldn't change any part of it. Dealing with the traffic, the slow pace of life, the "Ghanaian time" that makes everything from church services to movies start late, has taught me patience. Exploring the city and constantly having to find my way to new places without street signs or addresses has taught me independence. Witnessing poverty in my workplace and on the streets has taught me compassion. Having the opportunity to live in Accra, to come to know the city so well, has most importantly opened my eyes to another part of the world and helped me to understand what living in a "developing country" means. I have learned a lot in Accra and while I look forward to learning more as we move to the village, I truly feel like I'm leaving a home behind.
Last week, my mom prepared corn porridge for breakfast and was anxious for me to try it. My initial thought was that it looked like white playdough. I followed my dad’s lead and added milk and sugar to it, which made it look slightly more edible. My dad could sense my hesitance to try it and told me, “Try small and if you don’t like it, don’t force.” I was surprised to hear these words come out of my dad’s mouth, because usually he tells me, somewhat jokingly, “eat all so you’ll become big like me.” So I took a small spoonful of the porridge and apparently I didn’t do such a good job of concealing my true feelings because my dad erupted into laughter and said “Eii Ataa” (referring to me by my Ghanaian name) as he does so often. He then explained to me that if he could he would prepare breakfast for me, but that he can’t because he’s a man. He then called Angela over to help me make eggs, since it was clear I wasn’t enjoying the porridge, and told me “there are no strangers in this house” so I should feel free to make myself breakfast or ask someone to prepare it for me.
This interaction made me realize how comfortable I’ve become with my host family. For the first several weeks I was constantly unsure of things. I didn’t know when to fetch water from the well and when to use the polytank. I didn’t know how everyone in the family was related to each other. I didn’t know how to wash my clothes by hand. But slowly, I figured all of these things, and others, out. My home stay actually started feeling like a home, and not just somewhere I was staying. I looked forward to coming home because I knew my dad would be there with a big smile, waiting for me to greet him. I knew my mom would cook dinner for me, often preparing something special for me when the rest of the family was eating something she knew I didn’t like. I never knew which siblings would be home on any given night, but there was always someone there to talk to.
I didn’t spend as much time at home as my family (or I) would’ve liked, but the past two weeks we didn’t have work because of the holidays so I was able to be home more. I celebrated Christmas with my family, which meant eating fufu with goat meat for dinner. The goat I ate was the same goat I watched them kill and cook earlier that afternoon. The whole family stayed home all day, just talking and relaxing. Then the next morning, my mom cooked breakfast for me, which was exciting because normally I would leave for work just as she was waking up.
It worked out nicely that our time in Accra ended with the holidays. Now that we’re leaving, I realize that I’m actually going to miss my family here. They tried to make me feel included and they succeeded; I really feel like a part of the family. I’m excited for the next half of the program and for a change of scenery, but I’m also sad to leave the city and my family.
Nana, my one-and-a-half-year-old brother, said my name the other night. "Akos!" He also managed to put together the sounds for Yoni's Ghanaian name, "Attaaa..." Of course, he is only beginning to speak words now as we prompt him to mimic them after us. I wish I could stick around long enough to hear him say them on his own (and associate them with the correct people!). We will soon be departing for a one-week orientation in Kumasi, the second-largest city in Ghana, before moving to the village. Or as many people here call it, "the bush." Reflecting on our four months in Accra, I realize what a truly unique experience it has been. Although service has been our main focus, we've gained a variety of perspectives along the way, including those of a tourist, a foreign expat, a volunteer, a student, and a genuine local.
I first experienced Ghana through the eyes of a tourist. What's traveling to a new country without a bit of stereotypical sightseeing? With four months in Accra, we've had plenty of time to explore. Trips to Independence Square, Aburi Botanical Gardens, the National Museum, Wli Waterfall, Nzulezu Stilts Village, the Arts Centre, and the Koforidua bead market have provided much-needed departures from our daily routines. I always looked forward to these excursions as an opportunity to be a tourist and spend time with the entire Bridge Year group. I'm sure we will continue to do so as we travel to other regions of Ghana in the next five months. Such breaks are necessary, especially after a particularly frustrating or difficult week.
I next experienced Ghana through the eyes of a foreign expat, a one-of-a-kind perspective. Whenever we had some free time on the weekends, we referred to Christina's handy travel guide and checked out all the hidden cafes and "oboruni" (meaning foreigner) restaurants in the city. In a land where "oborunis" are so few yet so visible, I'm always wondering, "What brings you here?" Particularly when I see the same middle-aged Middle Eastern man at three different cafes. On a few occasions, I've enjoyed this life of the disillusioned expat, cafe-hopping, writing all day, detaching myself from the real world for a few solitary hours. The ability to do this definitely won't exist in the village. It is something I will simultaneously miss and happily be rid of.
Experiencing Ghana through the eyes of a volunteer has been the most challenging by far. I came prepared with plenty of time, energy, and motivation, but I was caught off-guard by the challenges and frustrations thrown my way. I was definitely a part of many successful projects at New Horizon Special School - I helped raise donations to build an ICT Centre for the students, redesigned the school letterhead, created the design for new school shirts, compiled a yearbook for their 40th anniversary next year, organized the library, and various other tasks. However, I was never able to fully adjust to the leisurely work environment. Also, it took quite a while before I was entrusted with actual responsibilities. Similarly, when I shadowed Ali for a day at Street Girls Aid (a daycare for young children whose mothers work on the streets all day), I became frustrated with the short-lasting impact of our actions. It is a question of practicing charity versus social change. If so, is that okay? Is one necessarily better than the other? Or more needed? It's questions like these that I have been confronting as a volunteer in Ghana. I'm anxious to continue exploring this issue through my service in Oguaa.
I have also experienced Ghana through the eyes of a student. We took Twi language classes twice a week at the University of Ghana in Legon, which is very close to my homestay. Christina, Ali, and I also took traditional dances classes on campus for a month. Occasionally, we would stop by for a quick bite at Bush Canteen (the equivalent of a dining hall) or another campus snack stand. At the conclusion of a different World Learning study abroad program, I went to Legon to listen to other students' presentations on Ghanaian culture. They spent four weeks conducting intense research on any aspect of the country they chose, and it was really interesting hearing about Ghana from American peers. But, most importantly, I have been a student of the world more than ever before, and I cannot wait to continue learning from the villagers in Oguaa.
Finally, and most importantly, I have experienced Ghana through the eyes of a local. There are certain aspects of life here that only a local would understand, and I'm proud to say that I now know them too. I know exactly how much the tro-tro fare is from Madina to 37 Station and then 37 to Osu, and I refuse to let anyone take advantage of the "ignorant oboruni." I can bargain aggressively to get to reasonable prices in the market. I know exactly where to look for the best fabric, and what the differences between the various types are, anyway. I've befriended my amazing tailors. I can direct you to the best (and the cheapest) local food places in town. Whenever I see my favorite pineapple seller at the main junction, I stop for a few seconds to say hello even if I'm not purchasing. And, of course, my homestay supplies an endless flow of local culture. I've picked up on the significance of greeting members of the household every time I enter. Initially it was annoying, but now it is second-nature. It is ingrained in my mind to never, ever use my left hand to give or take items (a cultural taboo). I've formed a love/hate relationship with the spotty electricity. I no longer detest scrubbing laundry manually. My homestay family has taught me so much, not only about living like a local, but about values inherent to this beautiful country. I will miss them immensely.
I'm going to miss leaving Accra quite a bit. My experience has been constantly defined and redefined by all these windows. If you asked, I couldn't summarize my experience in a few sentences or even a few paragraphs; it is too complex. If phase one of Bridge Year was a painting, each of my five perspectives has added a new vibrant shade, a new dimension and depth, another layer to the big picture. Painting this masterpiece has contributed greatly to my personal growth and my understanding of this foreign place. Yet, our departure could not have come at a better time. Accra can become exhausting and it's time for a change in environment. I'm sure adjusting to life in the village will be just as difficult as adjusting to life here was, but I'm up for the challenge. I'm excited to add some more colors to my painting. On to the next adventure!
Nine months ago, I remember working on my essays for my Bridge Year application. I was staying at the Dobell’s, the house of Mr. Dobell my subtlety eccentric track coach (and erstwhile AP Language and AP Literature teacher) and Mrs. Dobell (then Ms. Sullivan) or Mum, as I like to call her. They had just bought the house and just begun moving things in from their old house earlier that day. Now late in the evening, Mum was ripping up cigarette-laden carpets with more success than her counterpart who was trying to discern the complexities of assembling a Shop-Vac. I was downstairs listening to John Coltrane on the LP that the old homeowner left behind. I was finished with one of the essays for the application after being inspired by a cache of 1930’s stamps from all over the world that I found in the dusty remnants of the things that the former owner left behind (he was an antiques dealers who also can proudly say he was the first Tibetan studies major at Virginia Tech). Though this inspiration was soon gone, I continued to write even as the cacophony in my head reached a frustrating crescendo, a stark contrast from the euphony that Coltrane continued to exude.
Tired and with the State Track Meet the next day, I put my pen down for the night and went upstairs to my room (well, the one I claimed for myself).
In the morning I went downstairs and found a note on my top of my essays, written in Mr. Dobell’s iconic script (he had previously asked if I’d like feedback).
Your writing is better than it was a year ago…the author is trying (essay-French infinitive=to try) to say true things about the world and about himself…these essays give a nice sense of who you are as a mercenary adventurer traveler who embodies Emerson’s insistence that a respectable traveler embarks, not simply to receive experiences but to create them and to bring something to the table…Clean them up, read them out loud and trust your voice…
I found that note as I was leaving Accra for Kumasi and starting the second phase of my nine-month journey in Ghana. The past four months have not been bad. In November when we went to the Volta region I very much imagined myself a “mercenary adventurer traveler” as I scaled Ghana’s tallest peak, and again when Alison and I camped out thirty or so feet from the Atlantic as villagers and fisherman frequently broke our sleep with their midnight revelries. Back in Accra I finally felt like I had managed to conquer the hectic and chaotic city while finding all of its hidden treasures along the way (from Josie’s Cuppa Cappuccino, a quaint café, to Le Tandem, an up market French restaurant). However, even with these experiences, at the start of my third month I remember feeling a latent frustration that, while never manifesting itself in a raucous or blatant manner, did, in retrospect, initiate a persistent and gradual ebb in my experience and made me feel like something less than a traveler or adventurer let alone a mercenary. My complaints became abundant ranging from the monotony of my internship, to the inability of the Twi teacher to deliver consistent intelligible lessons, the redundancy and the near 100% predictability of breakfast at my home stay (scrambled eggs with a Russia sized hunk of bread), and to many other parts of my experience in which my unspoken (and supposedly nonexistent, because I always denied they were there) expectations decoupled drastically from reality. In short, while the external adventure had come up short in some places, the real shortcoming was internal. I was just receiving and receiving and expecting to receive this experience and becoming irked when the expected experience was not as I had speculated or hoped.
I knew that something was not right. How could I be in Ghana, a student-adventurer desiring to be away from the classroom, and not be at least somewhat satisfied? The answer only came as I read Mr. Dobell’s note, and realized how much I had changed from the person who I was when I writing those essays. In reading his note, I realized I had not tried to create new experiences for myself.
Independent of my internal failings there are many dynamic and memorable experiences from the first half of the program that I will be able to relate to people once I get back. But now that I feel like I can be that capricious mercenary, that prudent adventurer and respectable traveler once more, I know that the second half of the program will be full of experiences that will have value not only as tales when I get back but as a catalyst to broaden my own perception of myself as I finally seek to create something.
During our Bridge Year Orientation in Princeton, we were given an article called "Intercultural Communication: A Current Perspective." To be honest, I briefly skimmed the handout at the time, but stumbled upon it recently. It argued that the crux of intercultural communication is in how people adapt to other cultures. Bridge Year is focused on cultural immersion; it is all about adapting to other cultures. The volunteer placements allow participants to work closely with the host community to gain a deep understanding of the lives and experiences of local people. Language training is meant to empower students to communicate effectively with others within the community, and to establish meaningful relationships. And finally, we live with local families to become part of the local society.
Ghanaians have been very enthusiastic about ensuring that we are sampling everything and all of their culture. From food to dancing to speaking the language, many quiz us on how much of Ghana we have experienced. Often, Ghanaians will ask me: "So, have you tasted Ghanaian food?" Then, they go specific: "Fufu, banku, kenkey? What about red red? How did you like it?" Even a small "thank you" in Twi elicits a curiously jubilant reaction. They often will test my language skills, and squeal with delight each time I stumble through a new Twi phrase. Strangers are so overjoyed when I prove that I am immersed in their culture and have picked up some phrases and sampled their dishes. After being in Ghana's capital city for four months, I have a pretty good taste of Ghanaian culture and being a part of a Ghanaian community. Initially, there were the obvious physical adjustments: bucket baths instead of hot showers; washing my dishes by hand after fetching water from the well; cooking without recipes, measuring cups, or ovens; flushing toilets by simply pouring water in; and hand washing all of my clothes instead of just throwing them in the washing machine. But that was the easy part; it is the deeper, underlying cultural differences that have been hard to adjust to.
The handout we received at Princeton defined assimilation as the process of resocialization that seeks to replace one's original worldview with that of the host culture; it is substitutive. There have been some aspects of Ghanaian culture to which I have struggled to assimilate, for example, the cuisine. I am a picky eater to begin with, and so I have struggled with the spicy, oily stews that accompany most lunches and dinners. In a typical day, my homestay nephews will eat sugar bread for breakfast, fufu (pounded cassava and plantains) with light soup for lunch, and boiled yams with garden egg stew for dinner. Needless to say, they love carbs! Luckily, my family has been accommodating to my picky eating habits. My homestay mom will sometimes buy me cabbage, carrots, and onions, which I’ll steam for dinner, even if she thinks I am crazy for doing so. I’ve also bought a lot of fruit and vegetables on my own; I have bananas and pineapple almost every day. Religion is another thing I've struggled with in Ghana. I have never been in a country where religion has played such a pivotal role. The question is not “Are you religious or what religion are you?” but instead “Which church do you attend?” Ghanaians are completely blown away when Yoni tells them she is Jewish or Neeta reveals she is Hindi. My family goes to church every Sunday and my homestay mom is a deaconess, often leaving for church at 4am and coming home at 9pm. While I have attended church with them twice, I am not very religious and certainly don’t share their passion. I’ve been to a Catholic Church in the US, but the Pentecoastal Church and Nigerian “Christ Embassy” was a whole other level. Speaking in tongues, disco balls and strobe lights fit for a 70s dance party, very limited Bible reading, heavy emphasis on donating money (even donating specifically to the pastor himself), and lots of talk about how God can make you wealthy. I attended church a couple of times and got a taste for the experience but my family has respected my decision to not become a church regular. Another example of things I've struggled with is that my homestay brothers, other than school and church, almost never leave the house. Almost every day I ask what they are doing and they always respond “general cleaning,” I then ask them if they are up to anything else, and they always say “Nothing, Ghana is boring.” During Christmas Break, the BYP group and I planned many excursions: Aburi Botanical Gardens, an orphanage that Yoni’s friend volunteers at, and Koforidua for a bead market. And again, my family has been respectful of my need to stay busy, active, and travel!
While there are cultural differences that I have not assimilated to and am not planning to integrate into my life when I go back, there are values that I hope to retain and integrate. The handout also defined adaptation as expanding one's worldview to include behavior and values appropriate to the host culture; it is additive. Greeting is extremely important here. Although, it can be a bit redundant when 15 people in one house ask how you are, how your mother is doing, how your father is doing, how your sisters are doing…every time they see you, even if it is 5 times in one day. ("Yep, they are still fine, just like they were fine this afternoon!") But it’s when strangers wish each other a good morning, even if they are not stopping to chat. Treating strangers with more friendliness and openness is something to take note of. While I previously said that I did not share my family’s complacency to stay home all the time, I do think that their laid-back, relaxed, low-key nature has value compared to a pressure-cooker, intense environment that was so evident during the college application process. And finally, I greatly respect the communal values of my family. Here, my homestay nephews are almost always doing chores; they are responsible for all household operations, cleaning and upkeep. They also completely care for their grandmother; the kids really take care of the parents. When I get back to the states, I hope to lend my services more, instead of allowing my parents to take care of everything!
With 4 months in Accra, I have already encountered many cultural differences, but we still have 5 months left. In the village, I will encounter many more, especially as Accra is considered very liberal, modern, and western for Ghana. Already, we are aware that caning is an accepted form of discipline in the schools we will be teachers in. We will not be caning our students, a cultural norm that we will not practice. However, as the handout pointed out, it is important to create a climate of respect, not just tolerance, for diversity. Imposing beliefs on others, either as a foreigner or local, leads to misunderstanding, friction, and inappropriate assumptions of similarity. I can’t label one culture’s values as correct or one culture as superior. I have to be open-minded about the further cultural differences I will encounter and continue to assimilate and adapt.