As I prepared to visit my brother and sister-in-law in Ghana, I could not help but detect the ignorance most Americans have regarding Ghana, Africa, even developing countries as a whole. I was asked the most ridiculous questions, ranging from “Will they all have on loin cloths?” to “Is that somewhere in South America?”
I did not know what to expect, but I was excited about what the experience could bring to my life. All I did know was that Kirk and Nicole, along with my two adorable nephews, now lived in this foreign country that is more than twenty hours away. After spending over a week alongside them I made observations about some fascinating elements of the rich culture Ghana offers our world. It is my hope and prayer that this simple commentary will help demystify any misunderstandings you may have about Africa. I’m not Angelina Jolie, and in no way do I pretend to be an expert on any of the things that I share with you. But, I have gone. I am happy to share part of my story with you.
Travelling from Accra, the capital city, to Kumassi, where my family lives, I first noticed the most amazing cultural aspect of Ghana: Women walk miles balancing food, water, plantains and even bundles of wood on their heads. These same women carry babies on their backs with only a piece of cloth keeping the children in place, in order to raise a few dollars for the family. This country is built on the literally back breaking work of these resilient women.
After exploring the largest open air market in West Africa, Nicole and I needed a little refreshment, a coke. That was the moment I discovered how much Ghanaians value loyalty. We walked probably a dozen blocks because there was no question about where we should go. Kirk and Nicole refill their soda bottles at a particular little shop. We went there. Later in the day my brother visited the same cashier at the same grocery store that he has for the last eight months. Relationships, even those that we as Americans might consider insignificant acquaintances, are paramount to efficiency.
We drove to Ankaase, a town outside of Kumasi. While Kirk and Nicole were talking with a friend, children swarmed around me. This was different than when people noticed us in the bigger cities. They were not trying to sell me anything. They were just intrigued by this white lady who was giving them attention. I said, “Ma-ha,” good afternoon, and they talked to me, using the only English words many of them knew. They would point at a body part and say its name. It reminded me of when my nephew started talking, and we would ask him where his eyes were, or where his toes were. This stands out in my mind as a benchmark moment during my trip. I had no less than five children talking to me, nearly that many touching me and more than a dozen huddled around me. There is no stranger feeling than that of being famous, or more appropriately infamous, just because you are white.
My biggest cultural shock came when Kirk and I returned to Ankaase for a prayer service. Because we were busy getting the boys to bed, we left about forty-five minutes late. We rushed into the church hoping that I had not missed my one opportunity to share in true Ghanaian worship just to find that the service had not begun. I learned that while time is money in the United States, time is limitless in Ghana. Being fully present in the task at hand, other tasks, other people and other obligations can wait.
With the exception of some slightly frightening moments in traffic and a minor vomiting episode, I always felt safe and protected. I inquired because that is an unfamiliar feeling. Kirk told me that petty crime is minimal because the social repercussions for shaming your family that would follow after committing a crime are far more damaging than any punishment the government could enforce.
If you are wondering, no, Ghanaians do not wear loin cloths. In fact, many of them wear Western clothes—Levi’s, Polo, Gap, etc. They do have beautiful traditional clothing that they wear interspersed with the “Obrouni wawu,” which means, “The white man is dead.” The way Ghanaians resolve why white people would discard the very wearable clothing sold to them in the market is that white people were unable to wear them. What a remarkable revelation about our own wastefulness and values that comes to light while meditating on that fact!
I travelled for personal reasons, and God was able to show me parts of Himself, revealed in His people, that I might not have noticed otherwise. I also observed some fascinating spiritual distinctions that I hope to share with you soon. Until then, may the very big God of a surprisingly small world bless you as you travel.
Read part two of Jill Sims’ trip to Ghana next week …