Culturally speaking…

I’m fairly hesitant to write a post about my cultural experience in Ghana as I’ve been here barely 2 weeks, not even that really, and pretty much every moment I’m awake, even when I’m alone in the evening I’m unsure if I’m doing something subtly wrong or just could be doing something better, like spending time with others in the evenings rather than alone. If others know I’m alone but they themselves arent, is it rude to keep myself isolated?

All told its been a lot harder getting used to everything like the change in culture than I was expecting. As a comparison, when I was in Brazil I was younger and with other volunteers. We were also generally more sheltered from the community and worked with other westerns as well as locals. This all makes a big difference. Also Brazil is more developed than Ghana is, which makes quite a big difference in itself. Plus, you know, a whole other continent.

It feels a bit stupid to say as of course it’s different here. But weirdly, I don’t think it sunk in in the first few days just how different it was going to be, and since then I have found myself steadily getting a bit more uncomfortable in a small way each day (as well as more comfortable in a host of other ways too, let’s not be too negative now!).

You know to quote George Bush is always a mistake, but it IS all about the known unknowns and the unknown unknowns – after a week, I now have a hugely better idea of how completely culturally different I am from Ghanaians, doing something the right way here feels awkward and a bit weird for me.

But also, compared to when I first arrived, I’m even more sure that there’s stuff I’m just not seeing or getting yet. And it’s this stuff that is making me so much more hesitant about everything.

Luckily I feel like I’m getting to know the geography teacher Hayford and a few others well enough now that I’m starting to feel able to ask the questions about everything I want, so hopefully this increased awkwardness will be short lived!

So what is so obviously different even I have picked it up in just 10 days.

We’ll, first of all and biggest to me so far is the culture of how it is rude not to invite others to share your food when ever you’re eating around them. There may yet be more to it than this and you’re not committed to share if asked, but  I think it is polite/a sign of respect to do so.

Second of all it seems to be fine to invite someone into your home, sit them down with some food (or not), and just leave the while you continue what you were doing. I’m still learning this one. I’ve tried offering to help to no avail. I’ve also bee. Offered choice of tv channel. I think this is a honoured guest thing. Feels awkward as an Englishman.

Talking of men, there are quite specific gendered roles and heaven forbid you try and help if you’re a man!

Also you always pay respect to those older than you, and greet a group of people from the left to the right (their left) shaking hands. If its official, once you’ve sat down after greeting them, they might also come around to greet you as well.

Oh yes, respect is to be paid to all officials, chefs, community elders, district leaders if you’re important (or interesting) enough. This can take some time.

Next there are the things that happen at the school: essentially there is an interesting attitude towards the students, beyond the caning (which is a part of it) the way they are treated is  different its hard to explain. It’s sort of like they aren’t full human beings yet.

Definitely not every teacher is like this, some are fantastic teachers as well!  But take for example how the students fetch me water for my personal use, or how when I was in the library and started sweeping up some mud I tracked in a student reading there tried to take the brush from me and do it himself. Or even how tonight madam Emelia quite seriously ordered one of the boarding students to do my washing for me, which I refused of course. The students are treated like the help here, not just only students like in the UK, I think that’s it.

Still at there’s the fact that the teaching quality is so diverse! From engaging to utterly boring, from well taught to made more complex than necessary, from mutual respect to mutual disinterest or anger. I only saw a very few lessons in the UK, but they all felt so professional in comparison and I’m not entirely sure why or how I could convey it if I were although I think one of the differences in punishments that certain behaviours receive. In the UK, students are usually all quiet and pay attention to the teacher at the front of the class unless doing something specific else (or misbehaving). If a student isn’t like this and refuses to attempt to be, he will get told off or a detention.

In a classroom in Nsawkaw, pupils are free to come and go (almost completely true). Don’t pay attention or make notes fairly often. Chat to each other. Change seats and generally engage less with the lesson and the teacher. And the teachers ignore this. Instead teachers punish (ie cane) for things like not knowing an answer to a question, or leaving a textbook at home, or not leaving the classroom fast enough, or not having done a homework. These are all things I have witnessed students being caned over.

Next big cultural difference is the food! Most obviously there is a lot less leaves and general vegetables here than in the UK. Meals here seem usually to be a stew of some sort and a starch. The stews are tastey enough – they are often tomato based and so far they all, or almost all, have had a tiny bits of fish in for the protein I guess. This adds a hint or a fishy taste and the occasional fish bone.

The starches are also surprisingly ok considering I’m new to a lot of them. So far it’s either been rice, boiled yam, or a pounded up mix of either maize and yam, or the famous fufu, which is two of boiled plantain, yam, or cassava, which if I’m honest about, I’m struggling with.

Finally there’s all the stuff about who I am. I am definitely a white person here. I’m not made to feel bad or awkward or anything like that, but it’s there. And yes of course it is, what do I expect? I am white in a rural part of a west African country. I’m just saying its taking a bit to get used to it.

Anyway, those are my first views on Ghanaian culture worked out in less than two weeks. I think I’ll have to post again about this in 6 months time to see how much my opinion changes but this is what I’ve noticed the most so far.

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