After Three Weeks in Accra
As I walk towards the bus stop to work on a sunny, hazy morning, I have my first realization that Accra feels familiar. When I get on the school bus and a man gives up his seat to an elderly woman, I recognize a warm, fuzzy feeling in my heart. Somewhere inside me a change has taken place about my temporary home.
I can’t pinpoint when it happened, but my attitude had changed. For the first week that I was in Ghana, I was uncomfortable. By my third week, Accra felt comfortable – like new shoes that have been worn in.
I have come to appreciate that Ghanaians are friendly – they go out of their way to make you feel welcome, they always ask you to share their meals (“You’re invited!”) and they are happy to take a longer route to their destination in order to show you where you need to go so you don’t get lost.
I wake up in the mornings wondering how to write this blog post. According to an article in the Kenyan Airlines magazine that I read on the way here, Africa is grossly misrepresented in the international media. NGOs like World Vision bombard our T.V. with images of poor, barefoot, starving children. I often read stories about North Americans returning home after visiting Africa and changing their lives because they appreciate what they have so much more. I find this depiction of Africa extremely frustrating.
Accra might not be a modern city but there are many signs that it’s developing. There is lots of construction underway to improve the roadways. The first and only mall opened in 2009, with a new movie theatre. A Ghanaian-American who came back four years ago has built the only mini golf course in West Africa. Progress is slow – very slow – but steady.
By no means do people here live an easy life. Ghanians work hard to make ends meet. The median class doesn’t have much disposable income. They work long hours and spend almost all their free time at Church or listening to a sermon on the radio. Many parents are only be able to educate their first-born, who then helps educate the next sibling.
At some point in these three weeks, I have also come to terms with some of my own biases. I’ve come to realize that people are, for the most part, the same all over the world.
After Six Weeks In Ghana
I’m frustrated again, but for completely different reasons. Almost all the Ghanaians I’ve met want to leave their home.
Whenever anyone finds out that Sarah, (one of our co-volunteers) is American, she overwhelmingly gets the same response: “That’s my dream country.” “Find me an American husband.” “Take me with you.” “Help me get a visa.” One of the nurses at the hospital where we were both volunteering brought in all the paperwork so he could ask all of his questions about getting a work visa. Several of the administration staff asked me to help find them foreign wives.
The most bizarre experience, however, was when a nurse at the hospital was showing us photographs of her daughter.
Me: “Your daughter is adorable.”
Her: “Take her with you.”
Me: “Won’t you miss her?”
Her: “No, I’ll call her and keep in touch”
This phenomenon was best captured by the experience of a Toronto acquaintance speaking with a Ghanaian-Canadian at a Toronto coffee shop. According to the Ghanaian, “the reality is that if a slave ship landed on West African shores tomorrow, even the horrors of the past would not stop thousands boarding so long as it was destined for Europe [or North America].”
How can a country ever progress when it’s people all want to leave? Ghanaians believe that there are more opportunities abroad. Perhaps this is true, but they don’t think about what they would be leaving behind – a real sense of community, and a rich, colourful culture. I wish Ghanaians would be proud of what they do have and strive to make it better, instead of dreaming of leaving.
On a more personal level, I find other things frustrating. The men here often tell me they love me – in tro tro stations, at my volunteer placement, walking along the street. Often they position themselves in such a way to grab my arm – if only for five seconds. I’ve become really good at dodging at the last minute. But I find myself losing my temper – I feel like I’ve entered a time machine and now live in the universe of Mad Men. I appreciate, more than ever before, the respect with which I’m treated at home.
Never before have I seen so many pregnant women. I am told by the woman running the West African Aids Foundation that having children is considered a woman’s raison d’etre here. If a woman cannot have children, it’s likely that she’ll soon find herself single. The growing number of maternity clinics are one of the most profitable businesses in Accra.
Even in my last week here, after thinking I’ve seen it all, some things continue to astonish me. Getting off the tro tro, the mate (the guy collecting the money and calling out stops), grabs the lunchbox in my hand: “I like.” What follows is a mini tug of war until he realized I wasn’t going to give up my lunchbox.
The most insightful conversation I have happens unexpectedly while sitting on a tro tro, on my way home. I turned in surprise when the lady sitting next to me asked for change in a British accent. In conversation, I learned that she had been working for an IT company in Ghana for two years and had also opened a school for underprivileged children. In our short conversation, I realized that she has come to many of the same conclusions as Trevor and I have in our six weeks here.
Mismanagement is rife. Ghana is rich in natural resources – gold, cocoa and most recently oil. There’s no reason for the country not to be developing more rapidly. When oil was discovered, Sierra Leone told Ghana that they had signed an unfair diamond contract years ago and didn’t want the same thing to happen to them. They were willing to help provide the capital Ghana needed. But the corrupt politicians signed a contract where the profits (I heard up to 80 per cent) are going out of the country. Similarly, when a company from China sets up shop, they bring in their own workforce, so they’re not creating jobs for Ghanaians. When I asked the Britisher: “The companies don’t hire any of the locals?” She whispered back that Ghanaians were only hired for the most menial, tedious tasks – implying that it was a modern form of slave labour.
A limited perspective. Ghanaians think that their home is a microcosm of the rest of the world. Most have had very little exposure to the rest of the world or to foreigners. For example, they believe that everyone is as religious as they are. They are not taught to think differently and this is partly a failing of the education system, partly because of the lack of exposure and partly because their lives revolve around the Church, leaving little space for a life outside religion. When our volunteer coordinator Poppo met his first Western volunteers, he was shocked to learn they were atheists – his immediate reaction was that they risked going to Hell. Poppo’s perception of the world has changed, but most Ghanaians never make this transition.
I didn’t want to come here. I’ve never been interested in Africa, much less Ghana. I knew this was going to be well outside of my comfort zone. But as I now know, you have the most to gain by being in a place that challenges you. I learned more in six weeks than in the previous four months I spent travelling before i got here. About myself. About life. About living in Accra.
The lasting image that I will carry is that of the adorable children calling out ‘Obruni’, enthusiastically waving and smiling when you look back. I hope they will grow up in a Ghana that has found it’s feet.