Tag Archives: Ghanaian Culture

ProWorld Day of Culture

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I apologize for the lack of posts. I managed to get a stubborn bacterial infection and was sick most of last week. After surviving some super strong antibiotics, I’m finally starting to feel normal again. Regrettably, I was stuck spending one of my last weekends here in Ghana in bed. C’est la vie.

Before me bedridden weekend, I had an eventful Friday. Along with the two new CRAN interns, I bowed out of work and took part in several traditional Ghanaian activities.

Caleb carving like a pro (or at least better than me)

Caleb carving like a pro (or at least better than me)

In the morning, we met Ebo, a master woodcarver who has a shop within Cape Coast Castle. He was going to try and teach us the basics in woodcarving. First, we stopped by his shop to check out the final products and learn about the different types of wood he uses. Ebo mostly carves with mahogany, ebony, and a local type of wood whose name I cannot pronounce.  His work was extraordinarily beautiful. He had sculptures and wall hangings of all different sizes and colors.

Ebo led us to a workstation on the beach with three small boards and a variety of tools. We were to practice using basic woodcarving tools and make a wood etching of a beach scene. Ebo had already drawn a picture of a boat in pencil for us to follow. We first carved the border, and followed with the boat. Next, we each could add our own designs. We carved our names on the back and then finished with a border around the edge.

Woodcarving is hard and I am terrible at it. I was easily the worst out of the three of us, and poor Ebo had to keep helping me. After a disastrous attempt at hollowing the seat of the boat, Ebo promised to fix it for me. After asking him if my carving was alright, I learned that Ebo is a lousy liar. He gave me a hesitant, “It’s nice,” which really meant, “My toddler could have done a better job.” Despite being very difficult, I really enjoyed our woodcarving workshop and am interested in seeing the results once Ebo “fixes” mine and applies varnish.

My attempt at woodcarving.

My attempt at woodcarving.

After lunch and brief tour of Kingsway for the newbies, we headed back over to the beach for a traditional drumming and dancing lesson. We were joined by the Missou University students, which helped limit my embarrassment. First, we were talk some simple drumming rhythms by our instructor, One Ghana (Yes, this is his legal name. I asked).  I really enjoyed the drumming and hearing the different types of drums.

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I take drumming very seriously.

I take drumming very seriously.

Next was the dreaded dancing portion. It was especially awkward as we drew a crowd of Ghanaians watching us for their nightly entertainment. We were asked to dance barefoot, which was uncomfortable due to the many pebbles on the ground. After a brief warm-up, we were led through a short routine that had lots of clapping and jumping. Being tall, I was able to hide somewhat in the back. Since, I was sick at the time and had just started my antibiotics, I really wasn’t thrilled with the dancing. I was super tired and just wanted to sit down. Luckily it was over fairly quickly and was only somewhat embarrassing.

Warming up for dancing

Warming up for dancing

Overall, I really enjoy participating in some traditional Ghanaian activities.  For me, the highlight was definitely the woodcarving. While I’ve always known that woodcarving is difficult, actually attempting to make something simple was very humbling and gave me new respect for the master craftsmen. I wasn’t a huge fan of the dancing, but a majority of that was because I was feeling so ill. I’m sure I would have enjoyed it more if I were healthy!

I tried to hide in the back.

I tried to hide in the back.

Proworld Ghana's country director, Shawn showing off her moves.

Proworld Ghana’s country director, Shawn showing off her moves.

Ghanaian Quirks

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As I adapt to living in Ghana, I discover more and more interesting tidbits about their culture. Here are some examples:

Ghana Man Time (GMT)

In the U.S., we often use the saying “time is money.” Ghanaians don’t seem to agree. It appears to me that Ghanaians have no sense of time at all. Do you have a 9AM meeting scheduled? The person you are meeting with probably won’t show up until 10AM. As an extremely punctual person, I sometimes become frustrated with the lackadaisical approach to time management. I find it understandable why some international companies are wary to do business here. However, GMT has some benefits. Since people are unconcerned about being late, they will often go out of their way to help you. For example, a fellow intern was lost and stopped to ask for directions. She asked a man clearly heading to work, and he walked her to her destination that was in opposite direction of his workplace. I was taking to the CEO of CRAN this week and he actually thanked me for setting a good example for my coworkers (I’m never late to work). So who knows, maybe this trend is changing in the workplace.

Sorry I’m Late. It Was Raining.”

Rain showers in Ghana are generally short. However, when it rains, it pours. Since most of the roads here are unpaved, it can get REALLY muddy. So during these brief rainstorms, everything practically shuts down. People run to the nearest shelter and wait until the rain stops. This means that rain is a valid excuse for being late or not showing up for something. I can’t wait to try this one back at home!

“You are Invited…”

Despite their poverty, Ghanaians are an incredibly generous bunch. It is tradition that when you are eating something and other people are present, you tell them, “You are invited.” By saying this, you are offering to share your food. Most of the time you will be eating something that’s clearly one serving. In this case, invitation is purely out of politeness and people really aren’t expecting you to share. However, if there is plenty to go around, people will practically pressure you into eating something. My coworkers, for example, save me from scurvy by always giving my oranges and bananas. I think this is a really lovely tradition and reminds me on a daily basis to be generous to everyone.

“But we probably won’t eat together”

In most cultures, sitting down to share a meal is very important. This doesn’t seem to be the case in Ghana. Eating seems less of a social activity and more about fulfilling physical needs. I rarely see Ghanaians eating at all. While there are plenty of snacks on the side of the road, people don’t seem to walk and eat. There is no set lunchtime at work. People come and go to the “kitchen” as they please and often eat by themselves. Occasionally everyone will have a “kenkey party” and sit down to eat together.  My homestay is no different. In the almost three months that I’ve been here, I can count on one hand the amount of times that I’ve eaten with my host family. Usually, my auntie serves me by myself and eats later. I’ve never seen Ben, my oldest host brother eat, but occasionally get to eat with Papa Kofi. I am very surprised about the lack of socializing during meals considering how community-oriented Ghanaian culture is. Plus many of the traditional meals are very labor intensive. It just feels strange eating alone after Auntie Alice spent five hours making me banku.

Favorite Colloquial Phrases

Along with using British spelling and terms (Think pants vs. underwear), Ghanaians have developed their own slang. Here are some of the most common:

“I’ll flash you”

No, this isn’t an offer for some indecent exposure, but rather a way to share a cell phone number. “Flashing” consists of calling someone and hanging up after a few rings. That way the person is able to easily add your number to their phone. It can also be used to signal someone that to call you back if you are low on phone credits.

“It is finished.”

This is always the worst thing to hear at a restaurant. It means that whatever you were requesting no longer is available. It can be used for just about anything: food items, Internet, water, electricity, etc.

“I am coming.”

This is probably the most ambiguous phrase of the list. It is usually used when meeting up with someone. The thing is, the person may not actually be coming right away. They could be coming in an hour, or perhaps even the next day! Equally confusing, is that it also used as a goodbye. For example, when my supervisor goes to a meeting or to lunch, she will say, “Marissa, I am coming.” Nope, she’s actually leaving.

Bath vs. Bathe

The verb bathe is not present in Ghanaian vocabulary. Instead, someone will say that they are, “Going to bath.” I find this one really strange. I’ve tried to explain the difference to some people, but it’s not catching on. Say it with me: “BATHE.”

“Dash”

To dash someone is to give them something for free. For example, if the fruit lady dashed me an orange, this means she slipped an extra one in my bag.

“Are you sure?”

This one is my absolute favorite! It means, “I know you are full of crap. I’m giving you one chance to tell the truth.”Pretty much, it’s the socially acceptable way to call someone out on lying.

Breman Odwira Afahyea: It’s Festival Time!

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This weekend I traveled to a remote community called Asikuma for a festival celebrating the Breman State. Asikuma is where my friend, Abby, lives and works during the week. We spent the weekend with her homestay family and attended the Grand Durbur, or the main festival program.

Mary, Sarah, and I left Cape Coast on Friday afternoon to make it to Asikuma in time for dinner. It took about two hours, a trotro ride, and a shared taxi tide to get there. Once we made it Asikuma, we wandered around Our Lady of Grace Hospital looking for Abby. Eventually we found her, and made the half an hour walk back to her house. We ran into a parade along the way, and I was escorted by two men dressed in monster masks and clown costumes. It was one my weirder moments in Ghana, which is really saying something. Once we made it to the house, we met the some members of Abby’s homestay family, Auntie Maggie, Sister Bebe, Grandma, and Petra. They showed true Ghanaian hospitality by supplying us with several beverages and giving us the best bedrooms to stay in. We ate a delicious supper of jollaf rice with chicken, pineapple, and watermelon. We all went to bed early in order to get a good night’s sleep before the festival.

We got up bright and early to fit in a brief tour of the town before the Durbur was scheduled to start. Of course being Ghana, the scheduled starting time and the actual starting time were quite different. The program was supposed to begin at 11AM, but when we arrived at the time, the grounds weren’t even set up yet. The program would eventually begin around 2:30PM. So, we did a bit of shopping and headed back to the house for lunch. Shawn, ProWorld’s country director, met us just in time for the festivities, as Sarah needed to return to Cape Coast that evening.

Festival grounds!

Festival grounds!

We went back to where the festival was being held (this time by taxi), and found the seats that Sister Bebe had saved us. We had a great view of the procession of regional chiefs, but were baking in the direct sunlight. I had forgotten to put sunscreen on the tops of my feet and they were on fire! Once all of the regional chiefs had greeted the Paramount chief and took their seats, a man in traditional clothing approached us. Apparently the chiefs had noticed that we were sitting in the sun and invited us to sit next to them under one of the tents. So we awkwardly paraded across the field in front of everyone and took our seats of honor. Since we four of us were the only foreigners to attend the festival, I suppose they wanted to make sure we were as comfortable as possible and could enjoy our visit. The festival proceedings were several hours long, so I was extremely grateful that we were invited into the shade. Also, Mary and I were given programs for free, even though they were charging everyone else one cedi. Since most of the festival was conducted in Twi, the program ensured that I could understand what was happening.

Procession of the regional chiefs

Procession of the regional chiefs

So the Afahye was being celebrated for several reasons. Most broadly, the festival celebrated the development of the Breman state in areas such as career training, environmental preservation, sanitation improvements, and improvement of infrastructure. The Durbur contained an “Appeal for Funds” portion, in which community members were encouraged to donate to the implementation of the Breman’s 5 Year Strategic Development Plan. The Breman Odwira Festival also was an integration of smaller cultural festivals such as Okyir, Bayerdi, Akwanbo, Abangye, and Essa. For example, Bayerdi marks the yam harvest and Akwanbo commemorates the annual ceremonial clearing of all weeds along the ancestral routes to Asikuma. So really, the Breman Odwira Festival is combination of cultural activities as well as a fundraiser for the community.

Traditional Dancing

Traditional Dancing

As a non-Twi speaker, the Durbur consisted of a procession of regional chiefs directly followed by a greeting and a prayer. Then the Paramount Chief, Odeef Amoakwa Buadu VII, gave a welcome address. We got to see some drumming and traditional dancing, and then a few more speeches. After that, there was the fundraising portion, another prayer, and the final procession.  I really enjoyed the final procession that winded through town, culminating at the royal palace. The Paramount Chief was carried in a throne and was followed by musicians. All of the regional chiefs fell into a line behind him. Everyone danced, clapped, and cheered the procession onwards.

Odeef Amoakwa Buadu VII

Odeef Amoakwa Buadu VII

After the procession, we again headed home for dinner. After a quick meal of spaghetti with hard-boiled eggs, we readied ourselves for a night out. Honestly, I wasn’t too excited about partying as my few experiences here in Ghana have left me somewhat uncomfortable. I’m not a fan of the incessant staring and frequent groping, or being made fun of for my lack of dancing skills. Shawn and Sister Bebe decided to come with us (for which I was very grateful) and we walked over to the taxi station, which had been transformed into an open square with a stage. In Ghana, if there is music playing, people will immediately start dancing. That’s why it was so strange that no one was dancing in the square despite the music playing and dance groups performing on stage. It started to rain, so we decided to go back to the “spot” by Abby’s house for a drink.

We all had a tepid beer and some tasty mystery meat before the rain started to pick up. We managed to make into the bar before it started pouring. At that point, the old lady in me just wanted a shower and bedtime. The bar quickly turned into a Ghanaian version of a frat party. I kept getting spilled on, groped, and was generally hot from the amount of people jammed into the area avoiding the rain. As soon as the rain slowed, Mary, Shawn and I grabbed a cab back to the house, leaving Abby and Sister Bebe to continue frolicking. I took my much need showered and conked out.

When I woke up on Sunday, the sky still looked ominous and it was sprinkling off and on.  We ate an early breakfast, and packed up our things. Apparently there was some sort of major Catholic celebration going on in Cape Coast, so Sister Bebe and Abby joined us for our trek home. I was so tired from my busy weekend that I spent the rest of the day reading and napping. Oh well.

I really enjoyed the Asikuma festival and am really glad that I was able to take part in such a rich cultural experience. Funny enough, I got hit on more during this weekend than I have during my entire stay in Ghana. I left about twenty-five boyfriends in Asikuma. So many choices! 😉

Here’s a video of questionable quality that I took of the festival. Ignore the cheesy IMovie transitions!

Cultural Differences

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One of my coworkers, Victor, is very interesting in learning about the United States from me. His English is only somewhat better than my Fante, so we communicate using hand gestures and broken sentences. One day he asked me, “How is America’s culture different than Ghana’s?” I was stumped. How could I simply explain the vast differences between the countries? Besides, I know that my experience being raised in the Midwest is unique from someone located in the South or West Coast. Then there are the differences that arise strictly from the countries’ economies and differences in infrastructure. Technically those differences aren’t cultural, but they sure are significant. Lastly, I’ve only experienced the southern part of Ghana. I am aware that Ghanaian culture is not homogenous and differs by community and region.

Victor asks me about cultural differences at least once a week. I answer him with short examples of differences that I’ve noticed rather than sweeping generalizations. Here’s a list of some of the cultural differences that I came up with:

1.  Don’t Use Your Left Hand!

Traditionally the right hand was used for eating and the left hand was used for bathroom activities. Consequently, it is rude to use the left hand in interactions such as giving or receiving an item, or gesturing for directions. I am fairly ambidextrous and have a difficult time limiting the use of my left hand. Ghanaians visibly cringe when I slip up and hand them money with the wrong hand. Usually a quick “Sorry,” remedies the situation and lets them know you are aware of the cultural etiquette. I think that I’ve finally got the hang of handing money to a vendor while receiving my purchase only using my right hand. It’s trickier that you would expect!

2.  No Smelling Your Food

Another quirky etiquette rule is that it is considered rude to smell your food before you eat it. Once I was buying a pineapple and sniffed the bottom to check if it was ripe. The vendor yelled at me and I hastily bought the pineapple. I’m now more discreet with my fruit-sniffing.

3.  Importance of Greetings

For me, this is one of the biggest cultural differences between Ghana and the U.S. It is very important to greet people properly (Good Morning/Afternoon/Evening).This is starkly different from my train rides to work where I never talked to anyone despite seeing the same commuters everyday.  At first, it is tricky figuring out who you actually have to greet when you walk past and who you can ignore. There are certain people who live or work near my house that I greet every time and I pass, and the rest I just use the eye contact rule: if you make eye contact, say hello. Most of the time I really enjoy this custom as people sincerely care about your well being. However, some days I just want to walk to work without being asked for my phone number.

4.  Excuse Me? No, Hiss….

Back at home if I wanted to catch a stranger’s attention, I would politely say, “Excuse me.” That doesn’t work so well here. Ghanaians hiss at people who they don’t know to gain their attention. At first, this seemed very rude. Now the hissing doesn’t faze me, and is actually quite useful in trotros or markets.

5.  Cleanliness is Next to Godliness, Except in Public Spaces

Ghanaians like to keep their personal spaces very neat. My homestay mother, for example, sweeps and mops the floor every day around 5AM.  She then spends most of the evening picking up after her son, doing laundry, and cleaning the kitchen. After my cleaning proved not to be up to her standards, Auntie Alice even offered to clean my room. I’ve talked to my coworkers and other ProWorld participants and the general consensus is that it is important to Ghanaians to have a clean home. However, this cleanliness does not carry over to public areas. Unlike the U.S., municipalities are not responsible for trash collection. Instead, Ghana has one waste management company, Zoomlion, to manage trash. Zoomlion is known to be ineffective and has recently been accused of fraud and bribery. Because of the lack of public garbage cans, Ghanaians throw their trash anywhere and everywhere. Streets are littered with garbage and the open sewers often get clogged with waste. Also open defecation is still prevalent, especially in rural areas. This is leading to the contamination of water sources and the spreading illnesses. I believe that a combination of education and improvement in sanitation infrastructure is necessary to limit diseases and ensure water is clean.

6.  Speaking of God…

After attending Catholic school for twelve years, I thought I would be prepared for working and living in a religious environment. I was wrong. I am overwhelmed daily by the fervor in which Ghanaians worship. Though I realize some areas in the U.S. are more religious than others, I doubt that any U.S. community has a liquor store called “Blood of Christ Spirits.” It seems to me that almost every business is named using a biblical reference, which can create some hilarious results. You can hear religious services on the radio and watch them at all hours. The most interesting is this Nigerian broadcast on Sundays that shows exorcisms. My Auntie Alice laughed at my reaction when we watched it together. Religion permeates every aspect of Ghanaians’ lives. For example, when inquiring about someone’s well being, a common response is, “By God’s grace.” At my work, we pray everyday and even fast on the second Tuesday of the month. As someone who is unreligious, this is probably the most difficult cultural difference to adjust to. Though dealing with the prevalence of religion here has increased my patience, understanding, and tolerance.

7. Bargaining to Avoid the “Obruni Levy”

In Ghana, very few things have set prices, especially if you are white. It is very common for vendors and taxi drivers to steeply increase their prices for an obruni because they assume that white people don’t know the fair price. Besides, Ghanaians think that all white people, especially Americans, are rich. Thus, I’ve learned that it is very important to know the estimated price of an item before you go buy it. I’ve really relied on the other ProWorld participants to figure out prices for everything. I’ve learned that the trick to bargaining is to appear as though you don’t care for the item in question. Usually if you mention that you will come back later or go somewhere else, the vendor will lower the price in order to make a sale. At first I felt guilty over haggling over a few cedi. However, it isn’t fair for me to keep paying extra just because I look like an easy target. Besides, vendors know the cost of their wares and will not sell anything at a loss.

8. Gender Dynamics

This is by far the most difficult topic to write about as the issue is so complex. It seems to me that there are very different expectations for men and women. Women are absolutely expected to cook, clean, and take care of the children. On top of this, more and more women are getting jobs outside the home, increasing their workload. Women are encouraged to be modest and are thought to be “fast” if they happen to go out at night. Men, on the other hand, are expected to provide for their families fiscally. Outside of work, men can go out drinking with their friends or can relax at home. There are even unequal expectations in marriages. If the man is unfaithful in a marriage, the wife is just needs to accept it. However if the roles are reversed, the husband should divorce his wife.

The difference in gender roles can be seen even in early childhood. Young girls are responsible for helping their mothers cook, do laundry and take care of their younger siblings. Little boys seem to be babied here and allowed to spend all their free time playing. My homestay brother, Papi Kofi, is eight years old and still doesn’t get dressed by himself. Auntie Alice has to dress him, brush his hair, etc before school.

Here’s another anecdote: my friend Mary goes to small villages to host outreaches about health issues. She was giving a discussion on the importance of washing your hands before you eat, as most Ghanaians eat with their hands. A man asked her, “Sometimes my wife doesn’t give me soap and water to wash my hands. What should I do then?” Mary was baffled by the question and had her male Ghanaian coworker answer. John pretty much told him to grow up and get his own soap and water.

An issue I’ve had here is that men won’t even listen to women. When we were on our trip to Volta, Abby and I notice that we took the wrong turn to go to the monkey sanctuary. We told the trotro driver and his two friend and they just blew us off. A few minutes later, they realize we were indeed going the wrong direction and turned around. When we relayed the story to a ProWorld staff, she confirmed that they didn’t listen to us because we are females. We should have had Max or Jason tell them.

I am often disturbed by the gender dynamics in Ghana. While I realize that complete equality has yet to be reached in the U.S, I am grateful to live in a culture where such extreme double standards and expectations don’t dictate my behavior. Part of CRAN’s mission is to encourage women’s empowerment. I hope that I can get involved in this aspect of work while I’m in Ghana.

A Bit About Culture

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I find it interesting to observe a different culture from the outside, but find it just as interesting to hear about the culture from a member of it. I’ve become fast friends with Isaac, a ProWorld staff member and a Ghanaian. He was in charge of most of my orientation and showed Abby and I around Cape Coast. He explained a lot of the culture to us and answered questions that we would have been uncomfortable asking others. Once Abby’s homestay family came to pick her up, Isaac and I were the last ones in the bunkhouse. We talked about a million things, from our future plans to drinking alcohol. Here’s a bit about the culture as described by Isaac:

Marriage/Relationships

Casual dating does not exist in Ghana. All dating must come with the intention of marriage. It also seems that the men have to do all of the work; they really have to woo the ladies. If a woman says yes the first time, she’s considered easy. People generally get married between ages 24-30. At 28, Isaac’s on the old side and is being pressured by his family to find a nice girl (which is why he doesn’t go home much). Couples generally aren’t supposed to be physical in anyway before marriage. No kissing, touching, and especially no sex. Any casual relationships must be done on the sly. Isaac believes that this is dishonest and can lead to lying amongst partners. The freedom to have relationships is one of the main reasons Isaac wants to go to the United States.

Religion

Ghana is VERY religious. While there are some Muslims in the northern part of the country, Cape Coast and most of Ghana is very Christian. There are churches everywhere. They even broadcast preachers talking over speakers. The one broadcast starts at 5AM and I can hear it in my bedroom. What a way to wake up… Since I’m unreligious, I find it to be a bit tiring or frustrating. However most Ghanaians cannot even comprehend not believing in God, so I generally just tell them that I’m Catholic. I was baptized and went to Catholic school, so I suppose it’s not that much of a stretch. Isaac believes that religion is more harmful than helpful in Ghana. There is only one “right way” to living in Ghana. He feels that the presence of religion limits people’s freedom.

Homosexuality

Since I just mentioned that Ghana is very religious, it’s pretty obvious how they feel about homosexuality. It’s actually illegal here. Isaac says that about 99.99% of people in Ghana are against homosexuality. Out of the 0.01% that aren’t against it, only a few would actually admit in public. While I realize these aren’t officially statistics, they make the point pretty clear. It’s not ok to be gay in Ghana. Isaac says that if a person public admits he/she is gay, his/her friends and family would never speak to them again. It is considered an abomination. While I suspect that Isaac has no problem with homosexuality, he never told his opinion probably out of habit.

Drinking

One of the first things Isaac asked me was, “Why do kids go crazy when they are twenty-one?” He really likes the show Kyle XY and saw an episode where the daughter gets really drunk. I find this hilarious as I used to watch the show myself. It was a nice bonding moment. Once I explained the laws on drinking and what happens if an underage person gets caught, he simply shook his head. In Ghana, the official drinking age is eighteen. However, people drink as young as ten years old. Bars will sell alcohol to just about anyone. The police don’t care or can be bribed to look the other way (Corruption is a big problem here).

Family

One thing that I think is lovely about Ghana is the importance of family. Isaac didn’t seem to care about this. Extended family is very special here. While I only see my relatives a few times a year, Ghanaians see them everyday. In Ghana, family is your safety net. They support each other during hard times and celebrate when things look bright. The desire for individuality and the “pulling yourself up by your bootstraps” mentality is so strong in the U.S. that sometimes I am appalled at the lack of compassion and understanding I often see people having. In no way am I righteous; I am just as often appalled by my own thoughts and behavior as well. In Ghana, people want others to succeed. A high tide lifts all boats!