Ghanaians have this way of taking you in and making you feel like family. I have been in Ghana for two months and a part of me feels like coming here is like coming home.
I’ve somehow managed (unintentionally) to avoid any and all expats. All my friends here are locals: my taxi driver turned best friend, the university student with dreams to become a farmer that I met during a blackout, a poor t-shirt designer that fell in love with a girl too rich for him and a cook that makes the most incredible rice and chicken from a shack on the beach. My weekends and weekdays consist of trips up the mountains with my taxi driver where we sit (and sometimes cry) while talking about life, I go to birthday dinners with new friends I’ve met on the street, catch-up with people with strange names over beer and eat local foods at places no abruni (look it up!) ever has probably been to.
I spent last week in Koforidua at a capacity training workshop. The goal of this training was to educate leaders from communities on peer education, sexual and reproductive health and skills training on facilitation/communication. The World Vision USAID team, along with staff from the Ministry of Health and Planned Parenthood were involved in facilitating the different sessions.
Participants were given an identical pre- and post-test on sexual and reproductive health. By the end of the workshop, participants who weren’t aware of what menstruation was, what constitutes as rape or how HIV is (and isn’t) transmitted had improved their average scores by over 20% and had a basic understanding about human anatomy/biology and HIV/AIDS transmission.
There is so much I’m learning, but the most valuable learning has come through random day-to-day conversations. It is an interesting time in Ghana. Nurses and doctors have been going on strike because some haven’t been paid for months, there is a Chinese “gold rush” which has diverted some water from some villages, people are still unsettled with the sudden and apparently mysterious death of the past President and the controversy over current President Mahama, and there is an increase in taxes (even a new proposed tax on condoms). A few days ago when I was still in Koforidua I had dinner at the hotel with some colleagues. We were discussing international development in Ghana and concluded that Ghana doesn’t need aid, this country needs education and to learn how to use its resources wisely. This country is rich in resources; there is gold, shea, cocoa and oil. The problem is in the value chain. You can buy a jar of 100% shea butter here for $2 or buy a product in the States with 5% shea butter for $50. The majority of the oil in Ghana doesn’t actually belong to the country and gold is taken from the land and sold for exorbitant prices in the rest of the world. Even a few days ago a friend showed up at my office with a chocolate bar, this chocolate bar came with a lecture from him on how Americans are shortchanging Ghana and basically stealing cocoa from the country.
It is already difficult to help change someone’s mindset (and sometimes impossible); it is even more difficult when you add in the cultural differences. My Ghanaian best friend is barely able to make his weekly payments on his taxi. Yet he insists on running errands for friends and their families without charge. He drives from house to house in traffic dropping off medicine, money, food, etc. This wastes hours of his time a week. Time he could be spending working.
He spends 5-10 cedis a day washing his car because he takes pride in his work and wants people to feel comfortable in his car. I explain that his car is ridiculously clean and he doesn’t need to clean it daily, especially these days as we are in rainy season. After weeks, he finally listens. It’s pouring rain today. I get a text from him saying “thanks”.
Then Monday comes around and he has 200 cedis due to the bank, he avoids the bank and works hard for the next few days (accumulating interest!) until he can make the payment. “People here are so connected to one another, I can’t just not help someone in need even though it wastes my time,” he explains.
How do you argue with that?
Change can come slowly if not at all.
To end on a lighter note, the people here are still some of the friendliest, most welcoming and kind people I’ve ever met. Last week I was rushed to the ER and when I returned to work the group had prepared a song for me. I don’t go through a day without receiving a phone call or text from someone just checking in on me. Someone will always be dancing. Someone will always be trying to talk to you. Someone will always be singing or laughing. This is Ghana.