I love travelling to a new country.
Experiencing all the new sights, getting to know new people and trying to unravel the mysteries I’d at that point only read about is uncomfortably amazing for me. Things don’t always go well, but those times are what usually lead to the best stories.
That idea of discomfort is what leads to culture shock in my opinion. Your mind has trouble reconciling your past experiences with all the newness that you’re currently experiencing and some people can get physically uncomfortable because of it. When, after a few days or weeks, the balance is shifted from a focus on differences to a focus on similarities, and your mind is better able to process your surroundings with respect to your previous experiences, you start to create a ‘new normal’ and your culture shock goes away.
I’ve rarely gotten to this stage, mostly by recognizing the fact that a place is bound to be different before I go. But I really thought things would be different in Ghana. This was my first trip to an African country and it was for completely different purposes than my other, solely travel related experiences. Add that to the fact that I knew I’d be living in a fairly remote area for long periods of time, and I was expecting the worst.
Ghana, as I’ve come to expect, proved me wrong. What I didn’t take into account was the Ghanaian attitude towards strangers and their approach towards hospitality in general.
I arrived in a new district to do some research work early on in my placement. I was supposed to go to the local Ministry office to meet with some staff but didn’t know where it was. I called one of them up to get directions and as I hung up the phone, a random passerby came over and offered his help. He said he knew where the office was and could show me the way. I expected to walk the 15 minutes with him to the place, but he took me to the main road and flagged down another local riding by on a motorbike. After explaining to the new stranger what was going on and where the office was, he offered me a ride to the office, which turned out to be in the opposite direction he was going.
I was trying to return to Kpandai from Tamale at one point in the summer and was waiting for a Metromass bus at the station. I’d been waiting for a few hours and nothing seemed to be happening, so I eventually went to ask if there was any change to the schedule. Waiting in line to speak to one of the station’s employees, I got into a conversation with another stranger who was curious as to why I wanted to travel to Kpandai. I explained the work I was doing which he was interested in (everyone’s a farmer so can relate to the work). I eventually found out the bus had been cancelled, and the previous stranger, now friend, insisted on driving me to the private bus station where he thought I’d be able to get at least part way to Kpandai. So he did, but the bus for that leg of the journey was just pulling away as I got there. He had some small boys run up and get the bus to stop so I could get on and sent me on my way.
I was in Kumasi for the first time for some meetings and in a unfamiliar part of the city. I needed to get across town but wasn’t sure how and there were no taxis coming by. After waiting around for fifteen minutes, I decided to try and stop a car to at least get some directions. When I did and explained where I wanted to go, the driver told me to hop in and drove me to my next meeting himself. He explained it wasn’t something he would usually do, especially in Kumasi, but didn’t want someone obviously not from Ghana to have a bad experience here.
These are just a few examples of the situations that seem to pop up everyday here in Ghana. People are more friendly than anywhere else I’ve been, and insist that outsiders are welcomed to an amazing degree.
This attitude seems to cut through the crazy external stimuli your brain can experience when seeing Ghana for the first time – livestock running across the road, nomadic goods-sellers with anything and everything on their heads, open-air sanitation and all the rest. The personal connection Ghanaians instantly form with strangers makes those things seem unimportant in some way, and makes culture shock, at least for me, a strange concept in itself. After all, once you get to know the people of a new place, isn’t all the rest just window dressing?
My friend Brian Venne put it best when he said “There are no strangers in Ghana, only people you haven’t met yet”. After living here for the eight and a half months, I couldn’t agree more.