Jennifer Comes To Africa

August 5, 2012 § 4 Comments

Before I made it to The Putney School, my only encounter with bovines had been the zebu and Brahma breeds I still cross paths with in my village (including yesterday afternoon!). Growing up, they looked so huge and menacing. Ok, the menacing part was probably something that was fed to us kids akin to the monster-in-the-dark thing. I used to be told not to wear red around them. I still hear that today. It’s all silly and a bit funny now, but how do you explain to those people that these ruminants are colorblind and only see shapes and in shades of gray? The cows we have aren’t so large or menacing, even with those long horns. People avoid them and look at me strangely like I have some sort of death wish when I walk among them with ease.

I have this ease now because of the two breeds I handled at my alma mater. There aren’t many experiences quite like having your 17-yr-old 160-lb frame squeezed in by two 1200-lb Holsteins while you crouch to disinfect one of their udders before milking. ‘Squashed’ is a more appropriate description, and at 6am in those cold Vermont mornings, they weren’t the most thrilling of experiences, especially when one or both of them are pooping! This happened two other times and I was told they were simply bullying the barn newbie. It was then I learned how to straighten those giants up. I won’t say exactly what I was taught, but it involved their tails. We also had Jerseys (shorter and smaller), and they were equally temperamental, if not worse. Ok, I’ll have to be fair here, holsteins are normally calm, but to me there’s no such thing when it comes to half-ton animals… this also isn’t about cows. I’m looking at cows outside my wall and that’s got me starting off with cows… but my point here is that I learned you couldn’t just yell, spank/hit, or nudge those bovines. You had to really put the squeeze on them (literally) for them to do what you wanted.

Local Ghanaians can and often times are like Jerseys and Holsteins- especially when they see you the foreigner or returnee as their barn newbie. And if you don’t handle them the right way, they can and will bully you like I was by those cows in Vermont. Jennifer didn’t exactly do the ignorant-white-people-in-Africa thing, but she initially seemed a bit too accommodating and pumped to immerse herself into this environment (hubby and I were hesitant to seem cynical thereby damping her enthusiasm, but at the same time didn’t want to encourage her as we both knew she’d sooner or later hit her own wall). I love and still love her ability to adjust to an environment like ours, and I’ll always commend her for her efforts. It also doesn’t hurt having a husband who grew up in Ghana to act as ones proverbial anchor in these choppy waters.

There were the lazy home builders, the terrible internet, food/stomach problems, home sickness, indifferent construction workers who were supposed to make their uncompleted house livable…I could go on and on, but it feels a bit icky talking about friends I see every week. It was unfortunate that it took their going a lil’ nuts on these locals before a 2-day push was mounted to get the home mostly done- only with after a 2-week hotel stay, a needless expense no one should be forced to endure, least of all, the very foreigners we don’t hesitate to worship at any chance.

The more I think about this now, the more I wonder how much of our ‘legendary’ hospitality is because we really are nice people, and how much of it because we see suckers with $ signs we need to fleece quickly before they get a hang of how things work. An overprized alatsa phone, a taxi ride, ‘tip’ for locating misplaced luggage at Kotoka, 80ghc laundry (that one really got to me…AAHH!!!), 600ghc to transport home items on a flatbed from Tema to Oyarifa ONE WAY! And they always say it with a straight face! Thankfully, this Jennifer is smart about on what and how she spends her money, and after her first 3 weeks in Ghana, she’s more the wiser about how to spend money in Ghana.

Are you a Jennifer, or a Kurt? Have you gone through something similar? I know the cedi is on a bottomless tank, and it seems cheap against the dollar, but make no mistake, Accra can be an expense place to live if you let it, and before you realize you’re burning these ‘cheap’ cedis faster than your home country’s. We’re not all here to fleece you, so I’ll help you here. For taxi rides, ask a passerby, shop keep, etc what a normal fair is when it’s a shared ride, then multiply by 4 and add 1ghc rounding up to the next full figure i.e. if you’re riding by yourself or with companions not making a full car (e.g. if a single fare to your destination is 70p, you’ll offer him 4ghc (.7*4=2.80ghc+1..rounded up). Don’t let me hear you paid those thieves 10, 20, or worse. I’ll go on, but I’m waiting for Usain Bolt to run the 100m (I wrote the first half earlier), so I’ll stop here and let you ask me what things costs (you can ask anything, really!), and I’ll have an answer for you and maybe share it with everyone else in another blog entry.

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§ 4 Responses to Jennifer Comes To Africa

  • ann meredith says:

    I agree it is one of the things that you have to learn that to a Ghanaian a white skin equates to a sucker! This is mainly because they believe you have pots of money and of course compared to the majority of Ghanaians you have. When we first arrived I would have to stay in the car when we were buying things so that the price wouldn’t be inflated. It didn’t always help as the recognised my Ghanaian husband as someone who had only recently returned after working abroad and treated him in the same way so resorted to sending his daughter to negotiate first.
    We have been here over 2 years now but it doesn’t stop us getting fleeced. We wanted some form of shelter for our gas bottles and water pump so asked a local carpenter to come and measure up and quote us a price. Eventually we decided on 200 cedis. When he came he brought 7 pieces of timber costing about 7 cedis per piece and a sheet of roofing and constructed 2 crude shelters. When he had finished there were 4 of the timbers and most of the roofing sheet left. We were ripped off but just had to accept it!

  • Mike says:

    The 80ghc to do laundry really ticked me off. I normally spent $2 at my old laundromart for both washing & dry for a single load, and to think people would be ok with paying $40 for the same, or that someone would dare charge that much amazed me!
    I know masons go by day rates unless you have a big project and negotiate on total payment (masons -25ghc/day, mason’s labor help- 15ghc/day, regular laborer- 10-15ghc/day, bricklayers -30ghc/day). I’m not sure about carpenters, but I know their rates are lower or on par with masons. So that 200ghc for a one day job, was a huge ripoff! I normally ask someone who knows he wouldn’t be doing the job how much materials and labor cost, then I have them give me a ballpark fee BEFORE I approach whomever I’ll be asking to do the work.

  • Nana says:

    Great blog Mike, its always refreshing to read about the experiences of a returnee. It definitely hits every nerve from frustration to acceptance of a culture. Do you have any experience with starting a business or working in Ghana. My wife really wants to move to Ghana but wants to work for a daycare service or start her own.

    • Mike says:

      Thanks, Nana. As to your question, my experience with starting a business in Ghana is a bit limited. What I can say, though, is that it’ll be better for your wife to plan and start her own daycare service than to work for someone. And when it comes to daycare here, location and networking are two important areas to tackle. Ghanaians tend to reject or question things that are foreign to them and are often cynical and would try to discourage you from starting something like a daycare business. I would concentrate on expats/returnees first, and be prepared to assume 100% of the cost and sweat equity as banks aren’t very helpful, and locals often (including family) care more about making money off you than helping you start a business.

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