Out of Africa – reflections on Ghana 2013

‘Obruni, obruni!’

This has been the accompanying call as we have made our way around Ghana in the last 12 days. In the local language of Twi, this phrase means ‘White man, white man’ and is apparently a friendly greeting, but one which nevertheless draws attention to the fact that the 16 students and 6 staff in our group were not only incredibly conspicuous but also a long way from home in so many ways.

On many occasions during our visit we have looked at each other and said that it was going to be difficult to accurately relate to people back home just what we were experiencing. Well, I’m going to have a go at just that.

I like a challenge.

Arrival at Kotoka airport in Accra. The heat. The wall of heat. Yes, we had expected this. We were not totally prepared for the warmth of welcome that we received though. Having been to Ghana once before (in February 2011) it was clear from the number of staff who came to greet us that I was coming back to see friends.

The drive from the airport to Akropong-Akuapem (approximately 90 minutes) quickly served to demonstrate just how far we had travelled and also the distance we were going to find ourselves from our comfort zones for the duration of our stay.

Tarmac roads ending and turning into dirt tracks, rows of bed frames, or TV sets, or tyres at the side of the road, stray dogs seemingly at home in the middle of the ‘carriageway’ dodging the traffic, armed police check-points and unannounced road blocks resulting in ‘every-car-for-himself’ off-road rallying to reach our final destination. We were certainly not in Kansas any more, Toto.

Life in Ghana takes place by the roadside. Tiny, makeshift-looking, wooden stalls housing pyramid stacks of mango sit side by side with rows of rusting taxi-cab remains as people clamour at your windows to sell you the variety of wares that are perched precariously in vast metal bowls on their heads. Amidst all this, people live out their lives. They work, sell, sleep, wash and play within sight of the roadside. As you make your way by minibus through the towns, you see a thousand life stories playing out before you: women asleep at their Singer sewing machines, workers shovelling gravel into buckets to place onto a lorry, children kicking a punctured football at each other and many seemingly sat doing nothing.

We walked through communities that exemplified the view of what simple African village life is like. Modest mud huts with basic power, pots bubbling away on open fires, wandering goats and fresh water from the nearby borehole carried aloft in metal containers by the even the youngest. Despite this very basic existence, often relying on the daily labours of the village’s fishermen, we were met with greetings of ‘You are welcome’, smiles all round and high-fives from the children. At no time and in no community were we made to feel like the affluent interlopers that we really were. Here is a people happy with who they are and the little they have and keen to share it, without the slightest sign of resentment. This did not go unnoticed by the students in our party.

School life is similar. Lessons are conducted in plain concrete-walled windowless rooms with often more than 60 students squeezed in behind tiny wooden desks. The facilities for the teacher comprise no more than a board (be it of the black or white variety). Some students bring books. The lesson is defined by teacher talk, peppered with students rising from their seat to answer individual questions and occasional whole-class choral responses. Pair work and group work are not the learning methods of choice. The level of work studied is comparable with A level at this senior high school, but the onus is very much on the students keeping up. Little is done to check on understanding other than a cursory ‘Do you understand?’ to which the response is always a united ‘Yes sir’. It comes across as very much more of a sink-or-swim situation for the students.

My view of students in Ghana is that they are much more driven to succeed in their education than here in the UK and place a higher value on it as a result. The vast majority of the students have to pay for their education, but they see it as necessary to get to where they want to be – as the next generation of nurses, doctors and lawyers.

Take Mary for example. She is in her final year and wants to train to be a nurse. Her parents both died in recent years and so to enable her to afford to come to school, she would make food, which she could then sell at the market in the afternoon. In addition to this she had to keep up with her studies and survive the rigours of a Ghanaian school day (often starting at 4.30 am to perform chores and be ready for lessons starting at 6.30). This is an example of resilience that goes far beyond what would be considered acceptable by students here in the UK (and in many senses, rightly so).

However, time in Africa is by far the most abstract concept. Things happen when they happen. I have heard of the story of the bus not leaving at its designated time, but only when it is full and I can well believe it. As time-pressed Western Europeans, we like our schedules and pride ourselves on the ability to cram as much into a given time period as is humanly possible. In Africa, this is not the way it is done.

The illustration of this that jumps instantly to mind is of our last day in school. Our farewell celebration was due to start at noon, but that soon came and went. At 1.30 came the call for a choir rehearsal with one of our staff. As we made our way down to the location for this rehearsal (the first one with this particular song) I commented on the fact that this would surely be the first time ever that the first rehearsal had taken place more than an hour after the show it was going to appear in had started.

But … TIA (this is Africa). You simply put your Western urgency to one side and you just go with it, expecting the unexpected, awaiting the surprising and braced for the unannounced.

And, I have to admit, if you can stand the heat, master the mosquitoes and adapt to the new timekeeping outlook, then you should be prepared to take Ghana and its people to your heart, because I can guarantee that they will take you to theirs.