This Is Africa (TIA): Lessons Learned from a First Timer in Ghana
It does not take long being in Africa for a Type-A personality like myself to experience two important acronyms:
GMT – Ghanaian Maybe Time: The time when an event, pick-up, arrival, etc. is anticipated, because there is no telling when it will actually happen for any number of reasons, but mostly dirt pothole filled roads and massive traffic on the paved roads.
TIA – This Is Africa: The standard response for anything that defies common sense. For example, I want to buy a drink from you, but you cannot give me change – ever (it seems). Thought: wouldn’t you think having a cash drawer full of change would be essential to getting business tonight? Response: TIA ?
This is not my first trip to a developing country, so I was prepared for the open drainage, the trash strewn everywhere, and an overall “less developed” infrastructure. Some of the things that were more surprising are
• How much of the country is still just dirt – at the markets, the “side walks”, the school floors. I’m so used to places of business and community buildings having real floors, that it strikes you funny when they don’t here.
• How much of the buying and selling of goods is done in street side markets and through human vendors wandering between the cars, which are stuck in traffic, with merchandise balanced on their heads. We’ve been inside exactly one “grocery store” – everything else we’ve bought from the bus windows, by pulling over on the side of the road, or browsing through an open-air market.
• How many children spend their entire day and into the night hanging out in a relatively small area, making their own fun with nearly nothing, while their parent works 2-3 feet away. It took my husband and me months to decide on the best day care option for our kids while we worked and that is not even a concern or a real option for many here.
I’m also enamored with how babies and toddlers are swaddled onto the backs of their mothers and younger siblings; how I haven’t seen one dad carrying a child strapped to his back; how I haven’t seen one person jogging on the streets just for exercise; and that more often than not, I look at structures along the side of the road and I simply cannot fathom how a whole family can even fit inside, much less sleep or cook or bathe there. Then I walk through the village where we are serving this week and we walk by a family sitting outside, among their sheep and chickens, and find a little boy no older than 5, standing up bathing in a bowl. No matter how many pictures we’ve seen about this on TV, it’s real life in that moment and it really happens all over the world today.
There are also some things I have loved in Africa so far, with fresh food being at the top of my list. The pineapple is to die for and when we buy it at the road-side stand, it most likely came off of a real, “organic” bush yesterday. That is true of the fish grilling with his eyes staring at you and the sausage kabobs I buy in front of the hotel that are grilled fresh nightly over a charcoal pit made from an old tire with re-barb for a stand. The Ghanaian people are very proud of their culture and their country; they are anxiously awaiting a Supreme Court ruling concerning their presidential election in hopes that the outcome starts to eliminate some corruption, and they have been very gracious and welcoming to us.
When you look past the horrific traffic, the under developed infrastructure, and the mom who is letting her toddler pee on the street openly next to the highway, you can see the children’s faces. Some are shy and sad, cautious and nervous about who we are and what we are doing. Others wave their hands at us wildly, jump up and down for our attention, run after our bus with dirt swirling in their paths, or cling to us so tightly, it’s painful to put one down to give another his turn. When you watch them play, you see the bullies, you hear them nag each other in their native language to get off the swing because it’s “my turn”, you watch a gang of three year old girls strut – truly strut – across the play yard to find trouble and emerge with coal smeared on their faces. Just watching that, you know that these kids are no different than our own kids who are doing the same thing thousands of miles away.