Seeing Ghana through Ghanaian eyes

Yesterday was my two month anniversary in Ghana. I can’t believe how fast time is flying by. I’ve taken some time over the past few days to journal a lot, and reflect on how I’m feeling about living in Ghana, what I’ve learned, what assumptions I’ve had that have been completely wrong (too many!), in what areas I’ve grown (patience!) and what I’m doing really poorly at (my language learning!).

One moment that struck me in the last little while happened as I was travelling from Kpandai to Tamale on the bus. I was just watching out my window as we passed through a large town called Yendi; suddenly a white person passed by on a moto. I was shocked, and immediately thought “OBRUNI (translation: white person)! What the heck are YOU doing here?”. I laughed to myself as I realized that that thought had gone through my head, after all, I’m an obruni and what the heck am I doing here? What struck me though, is that it was an instance of me seeing Ghana through Ghanaian eyes. It is an unusual sight, and certainly Ghanaians would notice an obruni on the street and wonder what they were doing here.

Ultimately all my Ghanaian experiences have been seen through my Canadian lens. Consciously and unconsciously  I am constantly comparing to Canada, comparing Ghana to what is familiar to me. No matter where we go, we bring and see through our own lens based on our previous experience. How has this been affecting my experience and the way I view Ghana?

I really wish I could see Ghana through Ghanaian eyes.

We talk a lot about this in our predeparture training, making it something to be aware of and trying to be explicit about the assumptions and norms that we have, and then testing them. Even still, I remember first moving to Kpandai and thinking I could be a really successful business owner – what if I had a restaurant with ACTUAL customer service? Meals and drinks would come quickly… people would be welcome and asked what they want to order , there would be lights etc. etc. I had a lot of ideas. But thinking about it now, would it really be that successful? That was me seeing the opportunity through Canadian eyes, with what Canadians value, but customer service is not something that is important in Ghanaian culture, so why would Ghanaians choose my restaurant for this ‘value-add’ when it is something they don’t see has a value add? Sure, it might do great with all the obrunis that live in Kpandai… all of me and Don – great customer base, Joyce.

Maybe if I could see Ghana through Ghanaian eyes, I wouldn’t be so frustrated by the things that sometimes frustrate me in Ghana. Maybe having meetings start 2 hours late would be okay, maybe I wouldn’t feel so awkward when people are yelling at each other over the smallest disagreement because that’s just how Ghanaians communicate, maybe I would be okay with fact that reporting to donors is a huge part of a government employee’s role, maybe I would be okay with the concept of having multiple wives, or understanding that women are officially ‘expired’ once they reach 25 and aren’t married, and maybe I would be able to better influence change in my office environment if I really understood the importance of hierarchy and formality that exists in Ghanaian workplaces.

Another story that comes to mind has to do with laundry. I was being (my usual) stubborn and insisting on doing my own laundry by myself (done in large metal bowls by hand) – I want to live as Ghanaians do! My host mother took me aside and told me quite sternly and said that my small sisters could not stand by and watch doing nothing while I did my laundry, that was not Ghanaian. Here I was trying to be Ghanaian by doing my own laundry, and in actual fact I was being non-Ghanaian by not letting my host sisters help. So now we do it together (all my knuckles still end up bleeding… I don’t have the technique quite right yet, but I’m learning small).

Laundry in Kpandai

Having my host sisters help me with laundry

Then again, seeing Ghana through my Canadian eyesis also great sometimes. No Ghanaians get so excited over baby animals; or the antics of goats; or the fact that ice cream is wheeled around in bicycles for purchase (awesome right?! Unfortunately not in Kpandai); or that bananas grow in your backyard; or that there are so many opportunities for business; or that there is so much room for  improvement in government services, for revenue collection and for donor collaboration; or that you can buy produce straight from the farmers that grow it; or that cell phone services are so much more competitive and flexible than in Canada. A lot of the things that make me happy here are things that are different to me, that are new for my eyes. My Canadian lens is especially useful in my job at the Kpandai District Assembly, my value is that I can see things to improve or change because I am seeing them as an outsider and as someone with experience in North American office environments.

I have a long way to go before I can claim having anything close to a Ghanaian lens, and likely I never will, but it is a good reminder to always be asking questions, asking why, to try to build that understanding and point of view. And maybe more than wishing I could see Ghana through Ghanaian eyes, is wishing I had the ability to switch between the two sets of lenses. Being conscious about when I am seeing through my Ghana eyes and my Canada eyes, and taking advantage of both.

This gets me wondering what it will be like to return to Canada… how will my changed lens affect how I see Canada and my life there?

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5 thoughts on “Seeing Ghana through Ghanaian eyes

  1. Awesome post Joyce.
    Agree completely that your Canadian lens is your value-add in this type of work. Not that it’s the right way to view things, just an alternate way which has the potential for improving things. Ultimately though, it’s up to our colleagues to really decide if the change will work for them or not.
    I’ve accepted the fact that I’ll never truly be able to see things through a Ghanaian lens – I’ll always be an outsider. Not in a negative way though, more as an opportunity for continuous learning.

  2. wow. this is an extremely mature insight. and im not saying you are not mature but you can be stubborn and but im super proud that you could take that step back from both your lenses and view the differences between the 2 of them. Great work

    also do your ne bifocals help you walk into less things and generally be less of a klutz?

    love nig

  3. Its not just your ability to see things that makes you so great, its your mind honed by all the experiences you have had and how you have always risen to the challenges, starting with the hay bales, Grade IV, camp, canoeing, Nahanni, first and second year, and etc. I love our thoughtful writing.

    love mama

  4. Pingback: Development Digest – 28/10/11 « What am I doing here?

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