Akwaaba means “welcome” in Twi, one of Ghana’s most commonly spoken languages, and I thought it would be a fitting title for a blog entry that deals with my first days in Ghana.
We landed at Kotoka International Airport in Accra at roughly 8 pm on May 17th, after roughly 30 hours of travel that took us through Zurich and Istanbul. It was a relief to finally be there, but we were also absolutely dog-tired. After about a half hour to rest in our room at the hostel we went out to get pizza at a restaurant close by, accompanied by our coach, an EWB staff member working in Ghana.
Pizza seem a bit surprising? Yeah, it was for me too. In hindsight, though, maybe it shouldn’t have been—Accra is a city of over 2.2 million, home to people from all over Ghana, Africa, and the world. The world becomes more connected, and more complex, with each passing moment.
The next day, we went to Kaneshie market, the second largest outdoor market in Accra, to (attempt to) buy some ingredients for lunch, after being tasked to do so by our coach.
We were actually fairly successful in getting what we needed. The stall owners were friendly and helpful, and we were even able to fulfill some of the extra challenges our coach issued, including learning various Ghanaian dance moves—I had to demonstrate the moves we learned, to the uproarious laughter of everyone in the market, myself included.
Our task was made easier by what, in my observation, appears to be that Ghanaian society generally primes people to be more open to conversation and helpful in interaction with strangers than Canadian society. People you don’t know will call out to you as you walk to start a conversation, whereas in Canada, even close friends might only receive a head nod as you pass them in the hallway.
At the same time, I also attracted attention because of my white skin. In addition to simply standing out, the colonial history of Ghana and continuing neo-colonial influences unjustly and undeservedly marked me as somehow more deserving of attention because of my skin color.
“Obroni” is the Twi word for “foreigner” (typically referring to non-black foreigners), and it was the name I would be greeted or called with very often over the summer. It carries with it some implicit assumptions of wealth or influence. Over time, I got used to hearing and answering to it, but on an underlying level I still felt some discomfort over being marked as the “other”, even if (and perhaps in some way because) it was an otherness that carried ostensibly positive implications.
There are a number of salient differences between the taxi experience in Ghana vs Canada. The first difference is a consequence of the fact that (with some exceptions for major thoroughfares) many roads are either unnamed, or that the names aren’t well known. Rather than specifying a street address for a destination, you typically ask the driver if they are familiar with the vicinity of your destination and how to get to the area. It is then often your responsibility to guide them to your specific destination (again, excepting major landmarks). This can be difficult if you are not familiar with the area yourself, but most people in a given area are happy to point you in the right direction.
Making sure that your driver is familiar with the area before entering their cab is important, as we learned when we went to get our foreigner identification cards at a government registry office in Accra. We took two taxis, and while my group arrived at the office as scheduled, the other half of the party was nowhere to be found. We hadn’t gotten Ghanaian SIM cards for our phones yet, so we couldn’t contact them either. After a worry-filled half-hour, and numerous reassurances from my coach, they finally arrived; their driver had gotten lost, and they had to stop a couple times to ask for directions.
Once matters of navigation have been settled, the time comes to negotiate a price for the trip. As there is no regulated metering system, you have to haggle for a reasonable fare. As a white person, the first price (a.k.a. the “obroni price”) I was offered for almost any taxi trip was 2 to 3 times what I had been informed was reasonable for said trip. For example, a reasonable price for a ride from VOTO’s Accra office to where I would stay when I visited Accra was 12 cedis (roughly $4 CAD). On some occasions, I was offered prices of up to 40 cedis. For comparison, the VIP Bus ticket from Accra to Kumasi (a ~250km trip) also costs 40 cedis, and VIP is both the name of the company, and an accurate description of the buses, which are considerably comfier than any bus I’ve ridden in Canada (more on these later). As the summer progressed, I would mention this fact in my negotiations, with some success, e.g., “Ey, boss, you’re giving me the obroni price! I could get halfway to Kumasi for that much.” With that being said, I understand the incentive to try and get a higher fare, and drivers were uniformly civil about whatever fare we ended up agreeing on.
One afternoon in our first week, our coach took us to meet with a friend and mentor of hers, who taught us basic phrases in Twi, as well as basic aspects of the Ashanti culture, both topics that I will touch on in greater detail later, but for the time, there was one aspect that I found particularly salient to everyday life.
In many cultures around the globe, including Western and Ashanti cultures, the left hand has traditionally been associated with unclean, unhygienic, or otherwise malign aspects. Fun fact: the word ‘sinister’ comes from a Latin root that originally means ‘left-handed’. In fact, using the left hand for anything involving food, or social interactions (eating, waving, passing objects or money), is considered disrespectful in Ashanti culture.
This was a problem for me because, unlike Inigo Montoya and the Man in Black in The Princess Bride, I am indeed left-handed. People were pretty forgiving about it, given that I was a foreigner. If I screwed up and used my left hand to pass a bill to a market vendor, I could either switch the money to my right hand last-second, or mumble a “Sorryforleft”, flush with embarrassment, and make my exit as soon as possible, for example.
I feel I should also clarify at this time that my colleagues at VOTO were all aware that I was left-handed, and were completely understanding, although I still tried to keep my left-hand-use to a minimum out of respect.
It was kind of rough having to suppress this part of my personality, though. It may seem a bit weird, and maybe it’s only an Alex thing, but I feel like a lot of lefties take a certain small pride in being left-handed, and all its associated traits. What’s more, is that this habit of suppression came back with me from Ghana. As recently as late September, I’ve caught myself passing someone something with my left hand, yanked it back out of their reach to put it in my right hand, and then stared kind of stupidly at both my hands for a) still doing this to myself and b) inexplicably making a fool of myself in front of unsuspecting people.
Anyways, let me know if you have any questions about anything in this post, or if you have things you want me to discuss in upcoming posts!