Originally published in Public Agenda on August 31, 2012
By Schuyler Durham
After many laughs, dozens of adventures and countless new friends, my six-week stay in Ghana is winding down to a close. With a heavy heart, I look back on my time spent in this beautiful country and attempt to derive an overall assessment of my time here.
When I travel, be it down the road from my home city, or across an ocean and thousands of miles away, I always ask the same two questions as means of cultural evaluation; what would I like to bring back to my community? And what would I like to bring here from my community?
During these six weeks, I have filled my arms, luggage, and heart with a seemingly unending collection of trinkets, clothes and realisations I hope to share with my loved ones back home.
I realise that it is repeated time after time by every visitor who spends even half a day in Ghana, but failing to mention the warmth and friendliness of Ghanaians would leave a gaping hole right in the centre of my recollection. It seems as if brief introductions and a two-minute conversation are all you need to make a real friend here. Back home in the States, people are always somewhat wary of strangers. Business interactions are preferred to personal ones. Ghana has taught me that every interaction is better when it is a personal one; taxi drivers, fruit stand ladies, and the random passerby quickly become friends, transcending the cold necessities of business interaction and producing a warm feeling that lasts long after the ride ends or the banana is eaten.
Branching off of this friendliness, the second thing I would love to bring back to the United States is the sense of extended family in Ghana. Though we use similar terms in common speech “calling friends “bro” or “brother” – Ghanaians use the language with a much more literal connotation.
I sat with a Ghanaian in a food stand at one point, while waiting for our rice to be prepared, and several villagers stopped by the stand to say hello. The person I sat with introduced each new face saying, “this is my brother.” After the first few people passed by, I finally recognised that each of these people were not literally his brothers – in the sense that they had different mothers – but, at the same time, they were literally his brothers. Communities are more than neighbours, they are extended family. There does not seem to be as much of an emphasis on each individual family unit, and as such people regard a much larger collection of people as loved ones, as family. Anyone who could be an aunt, in terms of age and gender, is treated as an aunt. The United States, and any nation for that matter, could benefit from this understanding of community as an extended family.
In my opinion, Ghanaians have a better understanding of larger social concepts in general. This is exemplified, as I pointed out in my write up on first impressions, through the prevalence of the Almighty in daily life. People recognise that they are a part of something larger than themselves, and feel an individual obligation to give thanks and focus to this realisation.
Another way that this understanding manifests itself in public life, in an immensely positive way, is the political engagement by all members of society. The government, as a larger extension of the Ghanaian community, is highly valued. This is evident through the debates and criticisms I hear from all corners of Accra every day. Governments work best when more citizens are involved, and Ghanaian citizens definitely have the drive to participate.
Each Ghanaian seems to feel an individual obligation to have an opinion about political happenings, to participate in some way. Back home, I am considered to be more political than most of my peers, though here in Ghana I am as passionate about politics as the average taxi driver. Every citizen voices his or her opinion, and in the end a leader wins and the country follows; a true democracy in every way. When Prof John Atta Mills’ untimely death was set upon the country, Ghana took it in stride, maintaining absolute peace and minimising political play. Despite often claiming to be a leader of democracy, I think the U.S. could use a lesson on the importance of personal politics from Ghana.
The only warning I have for Ghanaian politics, after seeing the damage it has wrought in the United States, is that people should be loyal to people, not political parties. Undying devotion to a single political party prevents one from clearly hearing valid input from those outside social circles of the chosen party, creating an environment rich for political corruption and confusion.
While my Ghanaian experience has been filled with inexplicable positivity, I do have a slight criticism with the trash (refuse) management of the nation. Ghana is such a beautiful country, with large cities like Accra juxtaposed against nearby stretches of sandy beaches or lush green hillsides, it makes me sad to see the way trash is disregarded by many citizens.
I recognise the long list of social services waiting to be implemented or perfected, but a trash collection service would provide many benefits for Ghanaian society. Despite an initial investment, trash management could provide jobs for the jobless while cleaning up the streets. Burning trash should not be an option, as it releases many toxic fumes that dirty the air.
Reporting on the salt mines in the Songhor Lagoon, I witnessed many speakers voice their concern over pollution ruining water sources of the lagoon. Angry statements about blocked waterways were met with cheers of agreement from the crowd. However, in the same breath, the local sitting next to me drained his water sachet and tossed it over his shoulder. This inability to connect consequences, like poor air quality and ruined water sources, with small actions such as this endangers the beauty of Ghana in the long run.
If I know anything about Ghana though, I know that the people are continually driven to unite and make a better Ghana. No problem poses a threat too big for the hearts and brains of Ghanaians.
As I pack my bags to get on that plane headed west, you can be sure there will be a tear in my eye as I frantically recall each beautiful landscape, tasty meal, and friendly face that made my time in Ghana amazing and truly unforgettable.
Thank you Ghana, from the bottom of my obroni heart.
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