25 Things to Know About Ghana
March 20, 2011 § 15 Comments
25 Things to Know About Ghana
You saw the Black Stars do well at the last two world cups and probably cheered them on. You know someone going to, visited, came from, or has some flimsy connection to Ghana or Africa and his/her stories piqued your interest about the country and continent enough that you’ve decided you want to visit. You met someone online… umm… don’t do that. You want to meet an African? Come to Africa, or find one in your community. You scored a job or a volunteering stint with an NGO and unsure what to expect in Ghana. And lastly, you’re a returnee who has long been curious about making the jump back home, but like me, had fears and lingering doubts about whether you could make any life for yourself after living so long abroad. If this is you, read on. I’ll try to stay away from the usual stuff. Yes, it’s hot. We live closest to the middle of the world (look it up). It’s also not that bad. There are about 25 million people living here including some lighter and with more sensitive skin than you. If they can hack it here, so can you. I will be honest and help you along as much as I can. Alright, let’s see what we can learn.
1. Before boarding that BA/KLM/Delta/United flight, I’d advice you thrash every stereotype you’ve accumulated over the years about Africans. You’ll find your visit not the most pleasant if you see Ghana or Africans through that spectrum.
2. Put that camera away. You’re not on a safari. I doubt you’d like it if I showed up at Podunk, USA and started taking pics of you and your family as you went about your daily lives. “Look, hun! It’s white people! Look at how they all push those carts into that Wal-Mart building. Fascinating! Quick! Take a picture!” Not cool! Ghanaians are flattered if you SEEK permission to take their pictures.
3. Don’t assume just because you’re in a developing country, you know more or are smarter than locals. On average, a Ghanaian (and African) speaks 3 languages including English by age 8, hash a working knowledge of 1 or 2 more, and can read and write in all of them. Last thing you want to do is be the ignorant westerner around people who can talk about you in 5 different languages. Ghanaians are a very proud bunch, and find it very condescending and insulting when we get the impression you don’t think very highly of us. Do as you’d like to be done to you.
4. Learn to say ‘no,’ ‘thank you,’ and ‘my name is/I am called’ in twi or ga. On your flight down, you should find more than enough Ghanaians who can help you learn and practice a few useful phrases. Even if you’re not quite ready to use either language, a strong N-O goes a long way (this is especially for women). It’ll be very useful once you step outside customs at the airport.
5. If your time will be spent in Accra, don’t park yourself on Oxford Street or any of its adjoining streets in Osu. Don’t just visit all those places you saw on tripadvisor because they were “highly recommended.” To me, that’ll be like an American visiting China only to eat at McDonald’s. 1. Most of those reviews are padded. 2. To be honest, people who go to these places go only to be seen. Yeah, the experience might be unique to Ghana, but you’re mostly there to show you’re the ish. So, unless you have a paying date or looking to burn money, I wouldn’t recommend them. 3. They are all foreign-owned and ridiculously expensive. I don’t mind expats earning a living in Ghana, but if you’re going to spend 100ghc in one night, it might as well be at a local joint than having a poor imitation of an Italian dish you’ve had at home. 4. Lastly, TIP! I’m not the best of tippers mostly because I’ve never really liked being forced to tip for something I’d already paid for! Seriously, why should I tip you every time you pour me a drink I’m paying for?! Ok, you don’t have to tip, and no one’s going to add a 20% tip to your bill here, but it’ll be a nice gesture for those serving you. Chances are, your waiter probably makes in a month what you just spent on your meal. So, if it moves you…
6. The same can be said for MaxMart, A&C, and the Accra “Mall” (sorry, Ghana, if it takes you less than a minute to walk from one entrance to the other, it’s not a mall. I’ve been in Sam’s Clubs at least 5x the size of Accra Mall). Everything you see at these places is marked up 3-5 times! I once found these 99-cent cheese slice packs going for 9ghc at ShopRite; and at nearby ‘Game’ there are $200 netbooks and $400 32” LCDs going for 1400ghc and 4500ghc respectively. Now that’s highway robbery! If you’re on a long-stay and need certain items, find a Ghanaian in your community (we’re everywhere, even Iceland!) and ask how he/she ships stuff home and do the same. You’ll probably have to deal with a 30-day shipping time, but it’ll be worth your while in the end.
7. a) Never hesitate to ask for help. I do it all the time, and I’m from here. Ghanaians can be the sweetest and most caring bunch, and will often go out of their way to give you a helping hand. That said, I don’t mean walk up to anyone to ask him/her questions. The trick here is to find a way avoid the chaff: the smooth talkers (often looking like a lil’ too coiffed); the swindlers; out-right thieves; the kind and princely only for them to ask without shame if you can buy them a mobile. Now, that last bit hasn’t happened to me, but I’ve had someone tell me how he admired my adidas and if I’d dash him this very pair I had on. Yes… somehow my wide size 10.5 compared to your 9 isn’t a matter. I should give you my shoes because you pointed out which bus I needed to board into town?! Don’t be gullible. You should look out for the person least interested in getting your attention, and who would also forget about your existence the moment he/she is done helping you. That’s who you ask for help. Always trust your intuition.
b) This is a lil’ about how you use money and sort of ties into how you interact with people as with part a) First off, try not to say dollars or cents. I make that mistake all the time, but I can get away with it a lil. You can’t. Your skin colour has an already built-in price mark-up on everything without a price tag. You have to first learn to negotiate without negotiating. My mom didn’t raise idiots. I learned long before I left Ghana how to keep a courteous look and a fuck-off look at the same time. That second look works when I don’t want someone chasing me around to buy something. You don’t have to be that extreme, but you should always learn to be in command when necessary without turning people off. If you don’t like a price of an item, say thanks, nod, or wave off and walk away. I watched my mom do it many times at Makola to perfection. If a vendor is fair, and you aren’t cheap, you’ll both come to a satisfying price point. Now, before you board a tro-tro or hail a taxi, try to ask around how much your journey will cost. With taxis, negotiate the fare before climbing into the cab and only pay once you get to your destination. If you don’t like a fare, say no, and stand back. If he wants your business, he’ll negotiate. Also, if you don’t have the exact amount for the fare, ask him for the change you need before you give him whatever you have in hand. “do you have change?” “yes.” “ok. give me …” and do this routine before you hand off your money. Lastly, if you know the way, direct him as to where you want him to go, or he’d take you over a longer route and use that to argue for more money.
(There’ll be more entries adding to this list later.)
Tro-tro: tro-tros are now mini vans holding between 9 and 15 passengers. The name comes from these wooden trolleys which were finally banned in the late 80s for being unsafe. I miss the rush of chasing after one and watching passengers hop on and off from the sides as they moved. There’s more on the current death traps later.