Welcome to Ghana! This is my fourth time in this stable, democratic, West African country. I first learned about it in 1997 when I participated in an Experiment in International Living trip to the Navajo Nation in the American Southwest. One of the students on my trip was from Ghana, and he had gotten a scholarship to go. We kept in touch through letters – yes, this was before most people used email – and I visited him in 2005 when coming back from working in Malawi to go to law school. I’ll never forget that trip – seeing the slave castle at El Mina and crossing rope bridges in the rainforest of Kakum National Park.
This time, I want to be more than a tourist. On Tuesday, I met with Fred Deegbe, founder and CEO of Heel the World, a luxury men’s shoe line – and what a great meeting it was. Fred opened up about the challenges his company faces and his future goals, and it was clear to me that he would stop at nothing to bring top-quality Ghanaian products to the international market. You can learn more about Heel the World, and Fred’s wife’s exquisite clothing line, here: http://htwshoes.com/site/ & https://www.facebook.com/pages/DUABA-SERWA/186312377635.
In addition to describing the state of business on the Continent, part of the goal of this blog is to introduce Americans to some of the wonderful qualities of “African”* culture. In fact, I believe that the world can learn a lot from these values. One thing I love and also find hilarious is that people here really say what they are thinking, and no one seems to take offense. When my hosts (the brother and cousin of my 1997 friend) took me to my hotel for the first night, the bellhop was showing us to my room, but he was walking extremely fast and we couldn’t keep up. Instead of keeping their grumbles to themselves, my friend yelled down the hall in Twi: “Hey man, why are you going so fast?! You’re supposed to be showing us the way!” “We might end up in the Presidential Suite,” remarked my other friend. Ha! When we finally caught up at the door of the room, the bellhop was still smiling.
In the same vein, people are in each other’s business. It takes some getting used to, but after a while it became endearing to me. On the way out of the airport with my bags, a complete stranger started walking next to us and telling me to enjoy myself in Ghana – this would never happen in the U.S. unless the stranger was mentally ill. And rest assured that if someone is doing something in public that others disapprove of, he or she will hear about it – loudly. Africans are not afraid to “get involved.” In this way, the Continent exhibits some of the “it takes a village” mentality that American seems to have lost.
In addition, people here go out of their way to do things for family, friends, friends of family or friends, and even complete strangers! I admit that some of my experience certainly is colored because I am white, but I believe I have been here enough times to recognize patterns where they exist. Right now I am staying with my friend’s girlfriend, who I never had met before this trip. Any attempt to thank her or minimize my “inconvenience” to her is met with incredulousness – if you told me that the word “inconvenience” does not exist in local languages, I definitely would believe you.
As another example, I needed some cedis to pay for dinner, but only had U.S. dollars. I asked the waitress if she accepted dollars or where an ATM was, and given that these were not options, she told me she would run across the street to see if she could change a $20 for me at a local shop. In true Western (and lawyerly) form, I hesitated for a split second and thought about making some sort of oral contract before handing over my bill, and before remembering that this type of “errand-running” is done without a second thought in Ghana. Sure enough, a few minutes later she came back with the cedis, changed for a better rate than I got at the forex bureau.
As someone whose culture taught me that it was a sign of weakness to ask for help, and that I should never burden someone else, it’s wonderful to feel safe to accept these gestures. It’s not all rosy – and the electricity is out as I write this – but that doesn’t mean it’s all dark either.
*Given that there are almost 60 countries in Africa, there is no way to generalize about African culture. My cultural references are primarily to West and East Africa, which I know the best. Differences I observe between the two are noted where relevant.
Tilapia with banku, and a bowl of water and soap to wash your hands before eating – why don’t we do that in America?!