WORLDVIEW: In Ghana, be your brother's keeper
Claire Gohorel '12 finds care and hospitality in Ghana's culture
Published: Tuesday, April 5, 2011
Updated: Monday, June 27, 2011 15:06
Night sets in quickly along the equator. Before I even arrived at Zongo junction, the bruised purple sky had turned to black. I hesitantly hopped out of the car and jumped into the tangle of bodies at the market. Searching for the van that would take me home, I had to sidestep motorbikes, taxis and feet. I marveled at the women selling oranges and fried plantains from bowls and baskets balanced on their heads while I strained to hear the call for my tro-tro, a popular form of public transportation in Ghana.I could not find it. The map my host mother had drawn me that morning was no help-all she had written was "Botwe tro-tro." A thin, young banana vendor saw my fearful eyes and asked me where I was going. I told her, and she nodded knowingly and beckoned me to follow.
In the near darkness, we wound our way through the market. A little light emanated from cooking fires while cheap bulbs buzzed in barbershop windows. I finally heard the call I was looking for-"Botwe, Botwe!"
I boarded the van, paid my fare to the mate and turned to the window to thank the little banana seller, but she had already gone. Following my map, I exited the bus at Babayara junction. It was then that I realized I didn't know where to go from there.
I had just arrived in Ghana the night before, and I had never traveled alone at night to my house. I didn't remember which way to turn or how to ask for directions. Adding to my problems, there isn't much in the way of city planning here-most streets here have no names and houses are numberless. Frantically searching through my bag for my phone to call my host mom, I realized that it was gone.
My eyes started to get wet with fear, but I knew that I had to find a way to get home. I saw a few children in front of a store and asked them for help. Suley, a boy of about 12, calmed me down. He walked with me to all the houses in the neighborhood, but in the dark I couldn't see the difference between the painted gates and cinder-block walls.
I poured the contents of my bag onto the steps of an unfamiliar house, and a slip of paper fell out. On it was the telephone number for Dr. Yemi, my academic director here at the University of Legon. Suley passed me his phone, and I was able to connect with my director who called my host family. Thankfully, cellphones have become an enormous trend here in Ghana.
That night at home, tucked into my mosquito net with my stomach full, I felt grateful to be alive and indebted to the kindness of people like Suley.
Since that night, I have gotten lost countless times in many different cities in Ghana, but people have always recognized my troubled expression and come to my aid.
I believe that people here are so helpful because they live according to the maxim "Be your brother's keeper." In Ghana, anyone can be your sister or brother, or even your father. One of my supervisors insists that we call him Papa.
Ghana is a communal and interdependent society with a strong value on family. People rely on each other, and they care for one another. There is no such thing as daycare here because there is no need for it. If you can't strap a baby to your back, ask your mother or your auntie. If you can't find your way, someone will gladly guide you.
"Be your brother's keeper" has been very helpful to me to keep in mind as a foreigner with a bad sense of direction. However, the degree to which a foreigner or obruni is looked after can be overwhelming at times. For example, a host father imposed a strict 7 p.m. curfew on my friend. One day, she lingered too long at a nearby Internet café to finish a school assignment and received a call promptly at 7 p.m. "ERICAWHEREAREYOU?" he shouted in a single breath.
I study with the School for International Training, and the program requires that we relocate every 2 weeks. I have come to know many regions of Ghana and many kind people. In Accra, I lived with a family of five and an old grandma who loved to watch Oprah. In Kumasi, I roomed with Auntie Ama, a former nurse who spent 40 years in England. We drank tea every night before bed.
During my village stay, I lived with a cocoa seller named Nana Opoku, and soon I will move to the east to study with a bead maker called Emmanuel. These are just some of the people I have come to know.
As a foreigner, your movements are monitored at all times. I spent 2 weeks living in a rural cocoa-farming village in the fertile Asante region where I was watched all day and night, particularly by curious children. During the blazing afternoons, I would sit and read in the living room with the windows open for ventilation. Looking up from my book, I'd see little hands creeping over the edge of the windowsill, followed by sets of wide, brown eyes.
In the village I was asked "Woko hen?" (Where are you going?) so many times that I just wanted to laugh-or maybe scream. There were only two possible answers to their question, anyway: to farm or home.
I am no great speaker of Twi-a prominent language in Ghana-but I have mastered this basic exchange because it never changes: You say, "Maakye, wo ho te sen? Me ho ye" (Good morning, how is your health? My health is fine). Most importantly, you must end with "Ye da nyame ase" (We thank God).
Ghana is a country known for its hospitality, and Ghanaians will welcome you with enthusiasm that may overwhelm both you and your stomach.
It seems that the answer to any ailment is a heaping plate of boiled yams or any kind of sticky starch. One evening in the city of Kumasi, I returned to my home with soaking wet clothes from a torrential rainstorm. My host mom took one look at me, shook her head and ran to the kitchen to prepare me a big plate of rice and stew. It was nearly 10 p.m. and I had already eaten a large supper, but I was pushed to "eat all."
In Ghana, I have encountered a lot of discomfort, be it from the extreme heat or lack of Western conveniences. I have chipped a tooth and cut my hand on a ceiling fan. I've gotten lost in the bush and in the cities. But I've always had a brother or sister here to look after me, to clean my wounds and tell me I will be all right. In a place so unknown, I have never felt alone.