The greens are stark against the reddish dirt of the roads. Ghana is a dusty country, but one with incredibly lush jungle. Farming plots are interspersed amongst native trees, adding dimension to the rich landscape. Buildings vary in size, age, condition and colour, but construction work is ubiquitous whether in a suburb, city or remote area.
When complacency and comfort threatened to dull my life, I decided that longer-term travel through volunteer work was a great opportunity. Gaining experience while engaging my fight-or-flight response seemed like a sure way to spark a fire under myself. Quitting your job to do something a little bit crazy can only bring positivity, right? So far so good – a productive first month has just passed. I will be writing more about my experiences, as well as analysing the state of volunteer work, NGOs and travel, amongst other topics.
The volunteer project I work with is Street Library Ghana. This local NGO tackles literacy by focusing on technology. While this focus may seem strange in a place with unreliable electricity and mostly older-generation technology, smartphones are abundant and can be equipped with relatively reliable 3G internet. Ghanaians are almost as connected as those in developed nations, but may be more adaptable and innovative as they are less reliant on constant technological connection. For this reasons, Street Library is partnered with Microsoft and other sponsors to create a mobile app – exciting stuff!
First impressions of Ghana included a remarkable lack of culture shock – partly attributed to some prior travelling experience, but I believe mostly because of the hospitable, friendly nature of Ghanaians. This is particularly handy when trying to catch public transport, as most people will give directions – or even take you to the right bus. Politeness is encoded within language and culture, and therefore is not always genuine, but through my first month here I have mostly witnessed sincerity. I have also witnessed the lack of composure exhibited when arguments ensue, something that appears even more dramatic to a foreigner when conducted in the local language.
As a foreigner here, you tend to attract attention. This can come in the form of bids for friendship and requests for phone numbers, all the way to marriage proposals – but I am unsure of the seriousness. At first, I thought it appropriate to defend myself against this with polite refusal. After an unsuccessful first week that proved mentally exhausting and repetitious due to constantly having the same conversations, I found my feet and am now content to more directly shut down any attempt at these conversations.
Employing a little cultural relativity goes a long way. For example, adopting a strong feminist stance won’t be understood particularly well, but you still need to know when to stand your ground to avoid potential harassment. Like many people the world over, some would give anything for a chance to explore the world, to live somewhere other than the place they were born. Through understanding the alternative point of view, and the basis of behaviour, it is easy to see the relative innocence of most interaction. By taking this approach, I have not had any negative experiences, and have managed to deftly avoid being hassled by more persistent individuals.
Ghana seems to define freedom not through economics but through social capital propelled by mobility. Attitudes are relaxed and mitigated by environmental circumstance, more often than not directly affected by intermittent electricity supplies and an inability to accurately measure travel time. But this does not stop people spending a large chunk of their day travelling for professional or social reasons. The abundance of tro-tros – mini-vans crammed with patrons that travel at alarming speeds – and taxi services mean in Ghana it is surprisingly easy to get around. Just don’t guarantee anyone an arrival time.
Ghanaian children are beyond friendly; they have an abundance of excitement, curiosity and fearlessness that clearly represents wider cultural attitudes. Often shy at first, once any barrier is broken they never stop cheering, laughing, touching and questioning. This has been my experience with other Ghanaians also, which has the potential to create either an easy experience or a less comfortable one, depending on who you are and the situation you find yourself in. As a solo lady, I have had a mix of experiences that have overall left me a little more cautious but still with warm affection for Ghana.