Jessica Stangeland :: Ghana
As I prepared for my trip to Ghana in early December, I read in the Brandt’s Guide to Ghana that Ghana is considered “Africa for Beginners,” and I have found this to be quite true. I have not had much, if any, culture shock. I don’t know whether it’s because the transition has been so easy thanks to Cross-Cultural Solutions (CCS), the NGO I’m working for here, or because I felt I was prepared for the worst. But I have been having a great time here and have learned so much about Ghanaian culture through exploring, asking questions, and being open-minded.
First I would like to talk about CCS a little more in depth since I am the first intern at SU going through this program. CCS is a non-profit NGO based in New York with placement locations all over the world. There are several here in Africa, including: Ghana, Morocco, Tanzania, and South Africa. There are also locations in Southeast Asia, Russia, and Latin America. Each country has one placement site, the one in Ghana is in Hohoe (pronounced: Ho-whay). I live in a very secure compound (called homebase) with 22 other volunteers/interns from the US, Canada, and Great Britain. The staff, which includes: two cooks, multiple cleaning ladies, a house manager, guards, directors, and others, are all native Ghanaians. I live in a dorm-style house with a large living area, 3 washrooms, and a kitchen. There are western style washrooms but no hot water, which is okay since it is about 90 degrees during the day. There is a lot of dust this time of year because a strong wind from The Sahara Desert in the northeast blows in.
For three hours every morning I go to my volunteer placement at Christ Orphanage. At Christ Orphanage there are 30 orphans and about 70 neighborhood children ages newborn to 9 who come to learn. However, I use the term “learn” here liberally because it is more or less a daycare since about 80 percent of the kids are under the age of 4. There is one headmaster, Raymond, and 5 volunteers so it’s incredibly hard to be able to watch over all the children let alone separate them up and teach them anything. Many of the kids speak very little to no English and that has proven to be a big barrier. It’s very hard for them to grasp the concept of letters or numbers, so for the most part the kids only memorize and repeat things without understanding. For instance, the children I work with know how to sing the alphabet but if I wrote down the letter “A” they would have no idea what it is. One of my personal favorite story is when one day I told the kids, “Okay, today we’re going to work on numbers. Numbers such as 1, 2, and 3.” Then I held up some flashcards with numbers on them and they guessed what number it was. None of them got any right so I would have to eventually tell them what number it was. After about 3 minutes of this I hold up the number 5 and ask what number it is and a little girl shouts out, “Letter O!” Uh, not even close. I started cracking up and decided to put the flashcards away and read some Dr. Seuss to them. But I do feel like progress with some of them, and that’s all I could hope for. I don’t expect all these children to be eager to learn when most of them have been up since 5:30 in the morning, have had to walk a mile to school, and probably haven’t even eaten breakfast. Most of these kids just want attention and I figure one of the best tools they can have is speaking and understanding English so that’s what I do. I read to them and talk to them and hope they pick up some of it along the way.
This past Sunday I attended my first church service here in Ghana. Although I was born and raised Roman Catholic, I attended a Presbyterian church and it was amazing. The church is located in an old school house that was painted bright blue on the inside and has these really cheesy photos of Jesus hung everywhere and lots of pink ribbons on the windows. When the sermon began everyone stood up and began swaying side to side and having personal conversations with Jesus. Then the women all danced around in a line and I was forced to join in. One of the older ladies handed me a white handkerchief to wave around; something all the women did. There was live music going and lots of singing and lots of shouting out “AMEN!” and “Jesus!” The men also had many opportunities to dance. And near the end of the 3 and a half hour long service (I know), a couple of the women brought out plates of food for me and the other volunteers I went out with. The food was basic: a hard-boiled egg and rice with some kind of meat sauce on top. In Ghana, it is customary that you leave a little food on your plate so as to let the host or hostess know that they provided enough food for you. It was really humid in the church and after we left and hit the fresh air, I realized how sweaty and sticky I was. But it was an amazing and silly experience that I hope I have again.
Ndi (Good Morning)!
My time here in Ghana is past the halfway mark and that means it’s time for my second reflection…
In general, I love Ghana. The people are very friendly and colourful and the community spirit is so warm and welcoming in Hohoe. However, it should be said that it is a little difficult being a white girl here just because the local mindset is that all white people are rich and all white girls are very friendly, if you know what I mean. There have been numerous occasions where small children come up and ask for money or for my water bottle. They are harmless but it is a little off-putting. Another silly social norm here is that everyone asks for your e-mail address. School-age children and teens will chase after you in the streets and say, “Please, I want to be your friend. What is your e-mail address?” Sometimes I give it out, but not usually. Adults do it as well and it’s harder to say “no” to them because then they ask a thousand questions of “Why not?” So I always have the back-up answer of, “Oh, sorry. I don’t have e-mail,” and crack a smile and walk off.
During the week I am helping to teach a first grade class at St. Francis Primary school. There is somewhat of a language barrier and I can see than some kids can do any math or English that I throw at them and some kids don’t even know how to write the alphabet. In the afternoons I go to Christ Orphanage and play with the hundred or so kids there. Mostly we go to the big, open field across the road and play games and run around. On the weekends I take the opportunity to travel. Out of the six or so weekends I have had here, I have only stayed in Hohoe for one. I have traveled a lot throughout the Volta Region (eastern Ghana where Hohoe is located), and I have been to Southern Ghana and its beaches quite a lot, too. My favorite destinations are those that are very rustic and are usually are located in small fishing villages along the coast or along Lake Volta. CCS has also provided a lot of cultural perspectives throughout the week. Sometimes we have a guest speaker who talks about various social and cultural aspects, and sometimes we go on hikes or visit local craftsmen.
Another big part of my stay here in Ghana is the food. It’s mostly a carbohydrate-based diet, meaning I have probably gained weight since being here. We have 2 cooks at the CCS homebase who prepare all our meals. For breakfast our options are: hard boiled eggs, omelettes with onions and tomato, pineapple, and sometimes baked beans. We also have bread and various jams and spreads that are accessible all day. For lunch we have: rice (sometimes plain, sometimes cooked in a tomato sauce), salad (shredded lettuce with peppers and hard boiled eggs on it), red red (a Ghanaian tomato based sauce with veggies in it) for our rice, and pineapple. Dinner is usually the same as lunch, although sometimes we have pasta noodles or vegetable soup or fish. There are always vegetarian options and every meal ends with either pineapple or oranges. There isn’t a large variety of fruits in Ghana and most dishes are very acidic because everything is made with tomatoes. We also eat a lot of fried plantains and I have grown quite keen of plantains chips. Overall, the food in Ghana is pretty good. There are a few more local dishes that we have sometimes at homebase, but for the most part the other volunteers aren’t adventurous eaters so we don’t get to try many “exotic” local foods. But I have gone out for dinner a few times and on those occasions I like to order fufu or banku. Fufu is a thick starchy dough-ball usually made from pounded plantain and either cassava or yam, and is eaten with a sauce. Banku is very similar, but it is cooked and usually eaten with soup. Yams are also very popular here, but the yams look more like sweet potatoes. We eat a lot of those at homebase, usually in a French fry-like form.
Oh, there was a commotion in town last night. There was an attempted armed robbery in one of the banks!! That’s HUGE news because nobody ever robs banks in Ghana. It’s definitely going to make national news; it’ll probably even make news in surrounding countries as well. Nobody was injured and I don’t think any money was stolen. It happened at dusk….2 or 3 men went to the Commercial Rural Bank and stole a big carton of money with about 15,000 Ghana Cedi (pronounced: C.D.) in it. One Ghana Cedi is equal to one American Dollar, but the average income in Ghana is 300USD/year so 15,000GHC is a lot of money. The robbers were stupid, though, because the police station is right across from the bank so on the way out they hid the money in a ditch and ran. I think the money was recovered. This is all word-of-mouth knowledge, though, so I’m not exactly sure how it all went down. But one of my friends from CCS was riding his bike around town when it was all happening and he heard gunshots and saw the robbers run out of the bank with machine guns! But once again, it is a VERY rare thing and nobody was injured.
Yesterday a bunch of the CCS people went to Kpando, a small town about 45 minutes away from Hohoe. There is a pottery maker there and we learned about the local process of making ceramics and bought some stuff there as well. The weather, though, was SO crazy on the way there! A down pour of rain started shortly after we left homebase and then big gusts of wind came about and as we were driving through the small towns we saw shops blown over, roofs that had blown off or were about to be, and power lines laying in the middle of the road. It only lasted about 20 minutes. After the pottery place we went to the Kpando grotto, which is a large area on the side of a hill that has HUGE life-size statues of the Stations of the Cross. It was so glorious. I can’t explain the beauty of it and this reflection won’t do it justice, but I’ll try anyway. The statues were this pure-white stone and were very detailed. They were all spread out over a large forest-y area and there was even an outdoor church with tons of bright blue pews and a rock altar, and was surrounded by tons of magnolia-like trees. It was really peaceful and I took loads of pictures. There’s a good one of me standing next to a huge statue of St. Bernadette and I’m looking up at her. It’s actually a really beautiful picture.
The weather in Ghana has been quite humid lately and although I don’t feel particularly hot, I find that I constantly have beads of sweat dripping down me. Needless to say I can easily get dehydrated, but I do have access to an abundance of bottled water.
That’s all for now.