When you go to a new place you spend a lot of time getting to know your surroundings.
- Who do I trust (does that guy on the street asking for your number really want to be your friend?)
- What do I eat (that won’t make me sick, but is still in my budget)?
- When can I fit everything into my schedule (work, gym, groceries, friends, etc.)?
- Where do I live (that’s close to work but safe and has interesting night life)?
- How do I get around (and where the heck am I even going)?
It’s a bit of a whirlwind… with a lot of stress, excitement, adventure, and new stories every day. However, after a while you settle in, you have a routine, you know what is expected of you (for the most part). Then what? For me, once you’ve figured out the: who, what, when, where, and how…. it seems like the next step is figuring out the why. Why am I here? What is my goal? What is my mission to accomplish and how will I know if I succeed? I find that really difficult to think about, especially when you don’t know where in society you fit in. Being part of society means being part of a group… it allows you to share opinions, asks questions, get advice, and many other important aspects that come with being in a group. But in Ghana, who am I…?
A rich expat (or their globe-trotting children)?
THIS IS NOT ME….
A traditional expat has a lot of money… whether because they’re paid very well for being placed “on location”, because they’re independently wealthy, or because their average wages in the Western world translate to a lot more goods and services in this part of the world. They usually have a driver (or a personal fancy car), a (sometimes demanding, sometimes flexible) 9-to-5 job, they like to go out for nice dinners and expensive drinks, and they tend to stick together in certain areas of town (which in Accra, is likely Osu). Their children have all the same luxuries, and have been educated at the best international schools in the U.S. and Europe. They take long vacations with family and friends to go skiing, check out the beaches, or visit far-away relatives. Some live abroad and come back sporadically, while others consider Ghana home but travel elsewhere extensively. The expats have often been here for years, and have a “been there, done that” attitude.
- They’re really fun to go out with on a Friday night. But I’m a volunteer, on a stipend, and unless I want to spend all my savings on everyday living, I can’t lead that kind of life. It’s also hard to get to know the country if you’re separated from it so much.
A rich expats wife?
THIS IS NOT ME….
They have all the benefits of a rich expat, but generally have no real job. At a women’s event I attended today, I heard that this was sometimes called a “trailing spouse”. Sometimes they volunteer, work part-time, or do short contract work, but many of them don’t do any work at all. They have live-in staff to watch the kids, do the cooking and cleaning, and a driver to take them to social activities and getting groceries. They shop at stores with expensive international products and go for morning coffees with the other ladies. They join associations with other similar ladies, and together they take exercise classes and have lunch-ins during the week. They often do their part to help out with charity.
- I can’t sit around all day and do nothing. I’m sure they have a lot of activities, like bridge, golf and volunteering, but I don’t think I could like that kind of life without a clear purpose.
An everyday Ghanaian?
THIS IS NOT ME….
Everyday Ghanaians are very community focused. They know what’s going on with the people around them, and make a point to chit-chat with those around them. They will intervene with a lot of yelling (but almost never any physical violence) if they think they (or even someone they never met) has been cheated in some way. Friendly customer service isn’t found very often, but you can buy almost anything from the roadside hawkers on your commute. Some people wear traditional African cloth outfits while others where jeans and t-shirts (a lot of it used North American clothes that can be easily purchased here). No matter how they dress, the women carry their babies in fabric on their backs, and take on the primary care-giver role, even if working themselves. If you ask for help, people will give you directions every time (even if they don’t know exactly where to go). I’m not really sure what they do during their downtime, other than sit with the family and perform household chores. Restaurants are not common (most people eat at home or at small roadside shops with little seating) and venues with activities (like bowling, pool halls, the beach, and the movies are not frequented very often, even though they exist). The vendors are very friendly, and will ask about your health and family once you have met them a couple of times.
- However, it is difficult to be best friends with a vendor, since it’s unlikely they will want to talk to you about much more than the weather, your outfit, politics, and other everyday conversations. They’re lovely, they just come from a different world, and there’s many cultural, language, educational and social boundaries that are inherently difficult to cross.
THIS IS NOT ME….
Missionaries are generally very religious, and therefore tend to live a modest and simple life, with work as their primary focus, and basic living activities (like sleeping and eating) in between, with less down-time for fun activities and socializing with those outside of religious activities. Some do great community work that really impacts lives, while others try to teach the word of God, and how it is “superior” to the religions already being practiced in the region. Some missionaries are less religious but focus on really important issues, like medical help for those in war-torn areas. They often have the same lack of free time due to the demand for services and their crazy work schedule.
- I am not a saint. I drink, I stay out late, and I have not devoted my life to god. Some of them pretend to be saints, but actually spread a neo-colonialist view of the continent needing to be “saved”. Some of them do great work to help those in need, and I applaud them for it.
Of course these are stereotypes, but they describe most of the people I meet. They’re nice, we chat… but they’re not living my life. There are of course exceptions… development workers who have come with their husband but have a job themselves, rich elite Ghanaians, and down-to-earth police officers, but for the most part, these are the people I run into on a day-to-day basis.
So, who am I?
A few days ago I asked Mike (my co-worker and roommate) how I could describe myself to someone I met a few nights prior. He said “Oh, you’re the small, blonde girl.” Apparently, everyone in my neighbourhood will think of me when this description is mentioned. I’m the only one of my kind in this area….
So that’s me… the small, blonde girl in Accra, feeling a bit lost and out of place. When I figure out a better description, I’ll let you know.