It has been over one week since my arrival in Ghana, and already I have seen a great deal.
Where should I start? With the trash burning in countless heaps by the roadsides? With the dozens of friendships acquired simply by walking alone through a crowded market? With the ubiquitous smiles and musical rhythms? Quite frankly, I am flooded with so many curiosities that I can hardly process them, let alone fit them inside my figurative cabinet. However, as the days unfold, I will hopefully improve at picking out the jewels worthy of displaying here in my mental interior.
After the program’s short orientation, all twenty-one students transported their bags to separate homestays near the University of Ghana Campus in Legon. I moved into a home thirty minutes from campus in a town called Babayara. I stay there until this coming Friday, when my group and I will gather our belongings and move to Kumasi.
My home is occupied by a man, his wife, the wife’s mother, and five children of various ages. Below (if you are interested) I have included their character descriptions:
Mavis: Compact, and with a pleasant, high-pitched voice that sounds like a drumstick hitting a tin can. She smiles with a soft and self-conscious reserve. While generous and kind, she never comes too close. Some nights, I hear her singing church songs to her son, Nathan, before she puts him to sleep.
Papa: Always friendly and smiling, but never available to converse for more than two minutes at a time. His business requires him to wake at 3:30 in the morning and return home after 8pm. Most of our encounters occur after his evening bath, when he exposes his unusually small, bare body half-tucked beneath a wash towel.
Grandma: Never leaves the living room couch. She looks like a large balloon that has partially deflated into a flowing tub of skin. Although she speaks kindly to the members of her home, she never initiates conversation with me, and seemingly regards me as a spoiled pest.
Kelly: The daughter of Mavis’ sister, who works as a businesswoman in New Jersey. At age 15, she has perfect curves and sensuous, fat lips. She likes to borrow my iPod so—as she completes her nightly chores—she can sing along to Eminem and Chris Brown.
Giftie: The cousin, age 16, who serves as the House Help. She has a shaved head and delicate facial features. By far, her smile is the one I appreciate the most. She works hard to make me feel comfortable, and never glances at me without a slight hint of curiosity.
Tisha: Kelly’s younger sister, age 13. She suffers from the typical symptoms of teenage insecurity, and so constantly seeks attention. I offer it willingly because she is smart and assertive, and because she constantly makes me feel welcome. When we first met, Tisha was painting Disney princesses with watercolors.
Freddy: The only child of Mavis’ third sister, who died last year. Although he is only seven, he is extremely well-mannered. He spends most of his time building sculptures with the Play-Do I brought in my suitcase.
Nathan: Nearly four, rambunctious, and (very often) naked. He has a precious way of smiling and rambling away in English that I never understand. He enjoys kicking into cartwheels within the confines of the living room, and likes to barge into my room without warning. Yesterday, while I attempted to focus on an assignment, he rushed into my room, attempted to run me over with my suitcase, and proclaimed me a “Rasta man” doomed to eternal imprisonment within the walls of my mosquito net.
Each day, I travel on two tro-tros (buses) to get to class at the University of Ghana. Class entails three hours of intensive Twi language study, followed by at least one lecture regarding Ghanaian culture. After class ends in the early afternoon, the students are free to explore local markets, lounge in internet cafes, or pop by bars for Ghanaian beer (which is very, very good).
While I’m starting to grow adjusted to my new lifestyle, I still experience a great deal of difficulty adjusting to cultural differences. Constantly, I’m surprised by the “oddities” I see on my journeys to and from school. Like a newborn baby, my insatiable curiosity inspires me to grab hold of these spectacles and suck on them for awhile.
Below is a list of cultural differences I have noted since my arrival.
- Vendors carry heavy items on their heads
- Water is sipped from small, plastic bags
- White skin is the source of shameless staring
- The markets smell of hot earth and human waste
- Trash is discarded by the roadside, where it is burned in piles at night
- Vendors sell their furniture and house goods on the sides of busy streets
- One must never simply approach a stranger and ask for directions; he or she must first deliver a personal greeting in which names and health inquiries are exchanged
- Nearly every Ghanaian belongs to a church (no Jews whatsoever)
- Roosters actually crow each morning
- The sun sets at 6pm and rises at 5am
- Running water is extremely rare, even among wealthy families
- Even the poor women dress fashionably in colorful, local fabrics
- In public, the wealthy mix seamlessly with the poor
- The finest delicacies have a paste-like consistency
- All of the meat is fried
- The fish actually tastes fishy
- Families don’t dine together
- Family evenings are spent watching foreign soap operas (dubbed in English) on television
- There is no such thing as a microwave or washing machine
- Church songs may be heard throughout the streets on Friday nights
- Most people—even the Christians—believe in ancestral spirits
- No one smokes cigarettes
- Funerals are joyous occasions
- Polygamy is legal
- Homosexuality is illegal
- Everyone gets married and has children
- The most attractive women are “full of flesh”
- People believe in friendship over profit
- Everyone is patriotic