“Ghana is Africa for beginners.” These are the words the nice lady said to me on the phone when I was first talking to her about my plans of doing an internship in Africa. By that time, I had never even spared a thought of Ghana; I didn’t even know where exactly it was located apart of it being in “Africa”. “Ghana is the best place to start exploring that continent. If you want to see ‘real Africa’ you need to go there, not to the North or the South. South Africa actually is like a second Europe, maybe with a wider gap between poor and rich and different vegetation. But if you want to experience ‘the real African spirit’ you need to go to the West, go to Ghana.”
Well, this explained at least where Ghana is located, and as I was sick of looking for internships in the field of clinical psychology I just spontaneously decided to go there. To see “Africa” has always been one of my dreams, as a child I had a suitcase full of “African” objects, like rattles and other instruments, and this was now my opportunity.
Spontaneous decision, extensive preparations
While I had never really noticed Ghana as a particular place to spend vacations or to work at before, once I had decided to go there suddenly Ghana was all around me. It was the country most spoken of by my circle of acquaintances and suddenly everybody seemed to have been there or to at least know somebody who has. Soon my head was spinning with all their good advices and I started doubting if my idea of going there really was as brilliant as I had thought. There were a lot of preparations to do, I needed to apply for a Visa, and to do so I had to provide – among other things – a certificate of good conduct and an international birth certificate. Within two months I attended to the doctor, roughly estimated, about six times, always receiving two or three vaccinations, as my vaccination card was embarrassingly incomplete. Yellow fever, rabies, typhus and cholera, all of them are illnesses still existing in Ghana. But the most important thing was to find a proper protection against Malaria. Unfortunately, there is no vaccination, so I decided for a chemical prophylaxis, some pills I needed to swallow every day during my entire stay in Ghana. Those pills had highly terrifying package inserts, but as Malaria also seemed highly terrifying to me I finally decided for it, trying not to think about the enormous costs (around 50€ per package!).
A difficult start
There are certainly a couple of things I expected when my plane finally arrived at the airport in Accra, the Ghanaian capital. But what I definitely didn’t expect was that Ghana would meet all my expectations. It was just exactly like I had always imagined “Africa”. Although it was already dark outside, there was still much life going on in the streets. I saw women wearing colorful dresses, carrying babies on their backs and all other goods on their heads. I heard hip hop music roaring out of some speakers and I smelled a mixture of dirt, damp air and exotic food. I couldn’t keep myself from looking around, although I had some other troubles on my mind by this time: My luggage hadn’t arrived. At the airport they told me that I would receive it the next day, and so I tried my best to stop worrying and cheerfully start into my African life.
Meeting Mama Africa
As it was arranged I was picked up at the airport by a member of the organization I was traveling with. Ben was a quiet but somehow caring guy, who didn’t really talk to me but quietly bought me a bottle of water as if he had read my mind: My throat was dry of thirst. Then he brought me to the place where I was about to stay for the next three months, and I first met my “Mama Africa”. She was called “Mama Mina” and fulfilled all of the criteria I had in mind of a typical African woman: A big woman who took me into her strong arms and welcomed me in her mother tongue: “Akwaaba!” This means “welcome” in Twi, one of the many traditional languages that are spoken in Ghana and the most common language in Accra. Then she showed me my room and tired as I was I directly went to bed. This first night was for sure not the easiest one. For my German body the weather was too warm and too sticky. I entered Ghana by the beginning of the rainy season, and the hot and humid climate made my skin wet of water and sweat. I shared the shabby room with another girl and tried to find some rest although the bed was rather hard and uncomfortable.
Take it easy
Although I was eager to see Ghana, I was especially interested in my internship, so I couldn’t wait to start working. Unfortunately, I had to wait until the next week because I first needed to complete an orientation program. I arrived on a Wednesday and the next Tuesday then, finally, I set off on time to meet my boss after lunch at 1:00 pm at the hospital. Excitedly I asked at the hospital administration for the psychologist, but he hadn’t arrived yet. So I waited, and waited, and waited until he finally showed up at 3:00 pm just to then receive some patients while I had to wait outside because they didn’t speak English. It was already 6:00 pm when I finally had the chance to talk to my boss and he told me that there are only few and certain cases where I was allowed to sit in during the therapy sessions and that my job was mainly to write a short research article every week and to accompany his assistant who always greeted and registered the patients.
A bit disappointed I left work this day, wondering if I could really learn something during this internship. Well, actually I did, although in a different way than expected. I learned to take it easy. Unlike here in Germany, in Ghana there is no hype about something like “efficiency”. In my hospital for example: No matter how much work there was, there were always, just in case, as many people as you would need if there was an epidemic. On the other hand, the handling of opening times was mostly rather loose, which definitely had its advantages: When I for example needed some shirts to get sewed quickly (because I was about to leave the country the next day), the seamstress brought them to me even on a Sunday. Slowly I adapted to this “African way”. After some weeks I stopped worrying to be late at work, and I started reading books during my free time. There was not much to do, but I filled the time, and chatted with my colleagues who didn’t really have anything to do either and watched television, played on their smart phones or ordered food. From time to time, when the internet was working, I could work on the research articles, otherwise I did it at home. I really had imagined it differently, I always had thought that in Africa where there are so many diseases there are far more people needed in a hospital than are actually working there. But the sad reality was, that it was the other way round. Not that people didn’t need doctors or nurses or psychologists, but almost nobody could afford it. Taking it easy was sometimes really difficult, and I had long and hot-tempered discussions with my friends there about that.
Living in Ghana sometimes certainly posed a challenge. Especially finding my way around using public transport was difficult. Instead of trains and buses the Ghanaians use so-called “Trotros”. One could probably describe them best as minibuses, though the word „bus“ is misleading. A Trotro is not built in order to carry humans, usually it is some sort of discarded delivery-van in which somebody has squeezed as many seats as possible without considering any aspects of comfort.
Moreover, the person who has tuned the car, didn’t bother removing signs and inscriptions, which is why it is not uncommon to find cars labeled as „Möbelfirma Mahler“ (Furniture company Mahler) or even old ambulances or hearses. It is important to know that Trotros don’t follow any timetable, they usually set of when they are full, which can take ages. But although going by Trotro is definitely not the most convenient mode of travelling it certainly is a great experience noone should miss…especially as the adrenaline-kick experienced (due to the questionable condition of the Trotro, the quality of the paving and, of course, the driving stile) is comparable to sitting in a roller-coaster.
Another thing I needed time to get used to is to always stand out. This was something I had never experienced like that before. Unlike in other countries I have visited, in Ghana my physical appearance always revealed me as a foreigner and attracted attention. For the Ghanaians I was an “Obruni”, a white person, a label which came with some sort of special treatment: Knowing that I was not used to the currency and to the prices, they tried, of course, to sell their goods to me for some kind of special “Obruni-price”.
I will probably never forget my first visit to the art market in Accra, which was for a long time also my last. You need to know that the art market is a huge crafts market where tourists usually go to buy souvenirs. Apart from shouting, pulling me into stalls and showing me their artwork I also had to withstand a lot of marriage proposals and other flirt attempts. It was overwhelming and almost impossible to say no, so I left the market with cram-full bags, an empty purse and a heavy headache, swearing to never return their again. Needless to say, I broke that vow and returned. But the second time I was much better prepared, probably due to my frequent visits at other markets…for example at Kaneshie, where they sold beautiful fabrics that were turned by the seamstresses into colourful African clothes. Also needless to say is that I, once more, had troubles with my luggage to fit the requirements…tons of souvenirs and clothes needed to leave the country with me…
Impressions of the country
The weekends I mostly used for travelling and exploring the country. It was a great relief to leave the crowded and bustling Accra with its enormous contrasts between rich (a handful of people living a comfortable life with European-standard houses and lots of house servants) and poor (a great majority, working as servants for the rich or selling food and water on the streets, living either in slums or shabby huts).
Out there, in the more rural parts of the country (especially in the North and East), I got to know another “real African spirit”. While in Accra the poor are basically living “in the dirt of the rich”, in the rural areas there are no such contrasts. Everybody is hard-working on the farmland, but the diet is much healthier and the streets and the air cleaner. There is no such hectic as in the big cities, less traffic, and a totally different form of dealing with poverty: frugality.
Of course one should not overgeneralize this. In the very West of Ghana for example, there is a small village called “Nzulezo”, which is entirely built on water, just like Venice. But unlike Venice, it entirely consists of wooden stilts and platforms which have to be renewed every five to seven years. As it can only be reached by canoe, the access to doctors and hospitals is limited. This is extremely problematic, especially due to the poor hygienic conditions. Although it is a World Heritage Site, there is only little tourism and the people are poor. While for the few tourists there exist water closets, the inhabitants relieve themselves in the water of the lake, the same water they use for cooking, washing and even drinking. And although there are dustbins in use, there is no possibility yet to get rid of the waste. It is deposited on the mainland but often gets washed back into the lake by the rains of the rainy season. On our way to Nzulezo we met a man who is head of an NGO and is trying to figure out a plan to provide toilet facilities for Nzulezo. Maybe in the next article I can tell you some concrete steps he is planning and how we can help him with fundraising.
Spiritual and religious life
Another thing that surprised me was how vividly spirituality and religion was celebrated. Although some old “African” customs and traditions are still alive, the South of Ghana is predominantly Christian, and almost everybody is going to one of the many churches on a regular basis, some even two or more times a week. Those frequent church visits didn’t surprise me anymore after I had visited one of the worship services myself: I would probably describe this mass as a mixture of a big show (Gospel performances on a very high level with choires, soloists and big bands), a party (the crowd cheerfully singing and dancing along) and a lecture (the pastor explaining how to live a good life using bible quotations and a power-point-presentation).
While proofreading this article I am amazed how few of all my experiences in Ghana I could capture in these words. I didn’t even properly describe the living conditions, the frequent light-outs or “water-outs”, the heavy rains, the music, the nightlife. I didn’t even mention anything about the history or political system. I didn’t describe many of the places I’ve visited, the people I’ve met. But well, this is not surprising. Tolkien needed three books (and more) to describe his fantasy world of Middle Earth, so how could I describe this (at least to me) new and “fantastic” world of Ghana in this short article? But unlike Middle Earth, Ghana is visitable, so if I have aroused your interest I can just strongly recommend you to do so.