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Tales from a Rolling Stone

My So-Called (Ghanaian) Life

GHANA | Tuesday, 26 May 2009 | Views [564] | Comments [1]

I realize that I am a jerk in that I always swear to be better about updating this thing and never do. I really have tried to think of things to write too, but every time I try to scribble something out I feel like I pretty much captured it all when I detailed Ghanaian finger-food, dance performances at funerals, and the seemingly endless marriage proposals. It really took until today after seeing monkey being sold on the side of the road for chow and hearing about witches being exiled from their communities that I decided that there were still interesting stories to be told.

Although before I continue, let me just clarify that despite popular belief, Ghana/Africa is not just filled with Lion King type animals for dinner and crazy voodoo beliefs. There are shiny new buildings, hip bars, candy at the checkout counter of my grocery store, and bad reality TV shows. The local chick I live next door to is a financial analyst for an an international bank.  I just choose to talk about the more unique side because, well, who wants to hear about my trip to the shopping mall anyway?

So I begin.

As stated before, I came to Ghana to work at an organization that deals with human and environmental security. When I got there, one of the first things my boss asked me to do was help with office management and take some responsibilities off his plate. I told him that I would, but that it may take a few weeks because I wanted to get an understanding of the organization first. Easy enough. Between power lines spontaneously bursting into sparks outside of my window and nearly falling on the cows that occasionally graze there (which I stopped counting after three times), I spent my first few weeks fundraising and observing, trying to figure out just what the organization did. It didn't take long to realize that my boss was right – he was overburdened, and this was due to the fact that half of his staff didn't know what their jobs were. It may sound ridiculous but its true – some people straight up didn't know what they were responsible for and so just didn't do much of anything.

Knowing full well that trying to fundraise nine hours a day for nine months would do my head in, I decided to do what any idiot recent college grad would do, and with an artificial tone of wisdom (of which I had none), I sent my boss a formal needs assessment and set of recommendations for the individual, team, organization, and all sorts of other made-up nonsense, and quickly found myself putting new systems in place, reorganizing the accounting system and doing far more restructuring than little Sara should have been given the authority to do. All of a sudden I was the one running meetings and my boss was asking me for management advice.

Dear boss, are you aware that I'm 23 years old and am making things up as I go?!?!?

Anywho, for all of you who have asked me what I do, that's it. I do a lot. And I'm happy to report that productivity has increased, even if it may be because I think I scare everyone I work with.  It is kind of fun to be scary, however.

But enough about me and back to Ghana. Much more interesting.

As I mentioned before, Ghanaians are incredibly friendly people and just love the fact that I come from Obama-country (or Obama-land depending on who you talk to). People frequently come up to talk to me on the street, and although a lot are trying to sell me something, many others just want to talk or shake my hand. Not too long ago I even got a round of applause because a minibus driver let me in the car when it was already full (a big no-no). “Hey obruni, what's your name?” one guy yelled, and the other 15 or so passengers started cheering and clapping after I answered.

You know you're not in Boston when...

Anywho, although Ghana is a very well-governed African nation enjoying technological advancement, economic growth and the material perks of our ever-shrinking world, it is also a country that is still very much in tune with its traditions and cultural beliefs. For example, aside from its democratically elected government, communities are also governed by traditional authorities such as chiefs, who ascend to the throne upon receiving a special stool. Additionally, Ghanaians are very superstitious – many believe in curses that can be brought on by the spirits of ancestors, and if misfortune falls upon a member of one of its smaller village communities, it would not be uncommon for a widowed elderly woman to be accused of witchcraft and exiled to live the rest of her life with other alleged witches, sometimes in chains. Polygamy is also still common in many of its smaller village communities. My co-worker even offered to make me his second wife.

Thanks Sammi.

All that said though, before anyone thinks, “I knew it! Africa is a savage land where the most powerful people live in the tallest trees!” (which is what my co-workers swear all Americans think about Africans.  Well that and that all Americans think that Africa is a country (thank you Sarah Palin)), do also know that there are ATMs, Oreos, and Friends on TV. It just so happens that you can carry a Visa card and believe that the spirits of your ancestors can seriously mess with you if you misbehave. Personally, I like to view it as just open-mindedness. But in all seriousness, as globalization and education gain traction and reach more people, many traditional beliefs are fading out with each younger generation. On one hand, a person could argue that this is increasing equality and opportunity for some of Ghana's marginalized populations (e.g women), but on the other, their traditions and beliefs have defined the richness and uniqueness of their culture, and its sad to see them given up for Western trends and values.

Which are what again?

But Ghana is very much a developing country and developing it is. Yesterday I went to a meeting in a small community which has no access to clean water, and has no toilets in the village to boot. The meeting was about two local non-profits working together with the community to build a water pump that could be maintained by those in the community, not only for access to clean drinking water, but for desperately needed hygiene as well to prevent diseases such as typhoid, cholera and diarrhea. In the past, do-gooders did visit communities such as these and provided them with water rigs, but unfortunately, they did not consult or involve the communities they came to “help,” who having not invested in the pumps themselves, did not keep them maintained and when they broke did not know how to fix them. Thus through this model of involving the community members and educating them about the importance of clean drinking water and proper sanitation has proven to be a much more effective and sustainable model. The education at our meeting was very interactive, and we ended the meeting with a hand-washing demonstration and song to the tune of Row Row Row Your Boat that went:

Wash, wash, wash your hands after the latrine,

And before you eat your food

Else you get diarrhreaaaaaaaaaaaaa


(But also very exciting :))

What else. Let's see, the overt Christianity here still never ceases to amaze me, as it is everywhere. Who knew that people would be amazed that businesses in the US are not all named after verses in the New Testament, or that being Jewish is mutually exclusive of Christianity, so therefore no, I do not believe in Jesus (shocking). And yes, I have tried alcohol, abstained from by most observant Christians here, and no I cannot count how many times I have tried it (again, shocking). Yes, drinking is socially acceptable. Yes, some people have sex before marriage and that is considered common social behavior. Yes, women go home with men from bars. No, they are not all prostitutes.

There's nothing like a casual conversation with a Ghanaian to make you feel guilty for coming from a seemingly amoral society where its future leaders are preoccupied by drunken promiscuity.

Anyhow, as I'm beginning to notice that this is turning from novel to Tolstoyan in length, and its beginning to rain which typically forecasts an impending power outage, so I think I'll wrap this up with a few last highlights:

  • If you read my email you saw that I got mugged. It sucked and the guys pushed my friend, but having gone through it before, my seasoned yelling skills scared them away and I got to keep most of my stuff.

  • I went to visit Cape Coast and Elmina, two port towns that marked the center of the African slave trade. The local Ashanti chiefs traded most of the slaves to the triangle trade for guns and whiskey. Three centuries of sad history and 12 million estimated to have been shipped off to servitude. The holding dungeons at the castles were eerie.

  • I have become known as sports girl in my neighborhood from my morning jogs. People frequently come up to me and ask if I am said sports girl. This is generally followed by high-fives.

  • Little children like to give me high-fives and hugs just for being white. Others like to ask me for things just for being white. I may add that being white isn't totally understood by everyone, as I have had to explain that I actually do become lighter if I do not spend time in the sun. No I was not lucky enough to have a nice tan bestowed upon me at birth. Yes, my skin can turn frighteningly white when not under the African sun.

So all in all, that it my life here. I'm sure there is more, but as I mentioned I reckon the power will be outing itself fairly soon due to a storm. Because yes, despite popular belief it is not always hot and dry in Africa. And sometimes one may even find that he/she needs a jacket.

Okay fine, I have never needed a jacket in Accra. But just for the record I did freeze my ass off a time or two in Southern Africa!



You go girl! Your life stories are fantastic!

  rachelle May 26, 2009 1:44 AM

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