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19 American Habits I Lost When I Moved to Ghana

Ghana United States Student Work
by Sofia Neilsen Mar 23, 2015

1. I stopped referring to “Africa” instead of the many individual African countries.

You’ll never hear me say “When I was in Africa…” again when referring to my experience in Ghana. Africa is a continent — and a massive one at that. It doesn’t take much to realize Ghana, Kenya, South Africa, and Morocco can’t be lumped into one blurry stereotype.

2. I forgot how to sleep in.

I didn’t get up with the roosters, because they started squawking at three in the morning. Instead I got up with the neighbors at five, who blasted their radios and sang what was supposed to be the words to Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On.”

3. I stopped worrying about all the chemicals I was being exposed to.

I stopped squirming at the unpronounceable words on the back of my hand sanitizer and bug spray. One-hundred percent DEET? Perfect. I slathered that stuff on my arms like lotion and pretended to not notice when I pulled off the paint from cars if I leaned against them for too long. I’m sure it was fine — whatever will keep the mosquitos away.

4. I totally forgot about cheese.

I used to eat cheese with everything — drizzled on nachos, heaped into small mountains on pasta, sliced for crackers, baked into a panini sandwich, swimming with macaroni noodles — you name it. My digestive system was in for a pleasant surprise when I discovered cheese was not a thing in Ghana. “You can only find cheese in Kumasi,” a teacher at the secondary school said. The following weekend I took the 3-hour bus trip into town, splurged on a package of sliced cheese, and cradled it in my lap until I got home.

I hoarded the cheese in the refrigerator for my entire stay. Although I was a bit suspicious of why the cheese never grew mold, I did the unthinkable and shared my treasure with my host family because for once I wasn’t feeling cheese. Judging by their faces after tasting it for the first time, neither were they.

5. I stopped thinking of funerals as only sad occasions.

A funeral is a massive party for the community to come together and celebrate the life of a loved one in the midst of grief and tragedy. Ghanaian funeral events and rites take days, but much of the events focus on dancing or drinking Fanta and eating rare local delicacies, like goat or cow meat, with the rest of the village.

The Adowa funeral dance, which I attempted with some luck except when looking like a chicken with the bent arm movements (to the delight of my local friends), is an essential part of every Ghanaian funeral. An all-out burial is also common, with caskets shaped like airplanes, chickens, cars, or even Coca Cola bottles.

6. I forgot about American “good table manners.”

Welcome to communal eating, where a small group of people share a bowl filled with some sort of starch and soupy stew, eating only with their right hand. I learned to not expect a spoon, or my own plate for that matter. I tried my best to not drip too much oily liquid on my foot as I practiced making a “natural spoon” with my last three fingers.

7. I stopped freaking out about harmless bugs.

At first I shrieked when my host sister spotted a tarantula in the kitchen. She laughed when she saw my terror and started playing with its legs. “See? It’s only dancing.” I never did warm up to playing with tarantulas, but when we had a monster spider living in the bathroom for a week I named it Bernard to help ease my phobia long enough so I could at least use the restroom.

8. I stopped hiding away in my bedroom.

As an introvert, I tend to hide in my bedroom when I don’t feel like chit-chat or I read a book in bed instead of joining a party in the living room. The Ghanaian compound is designed to limit this kind of seclusion and prevent loneliness — and I think it’s a good thing.

“It’s built in a square,” my host brother told me one evening as we played a game of dame. “All the rooms and doors face the center of the compound — the place where we come together to eat and talk.”

I nodded in approval as he tried to apologize for how small my shared room was. “It’s brilliant,” I said, and I believed it. If I ever get to design a house, I’ll keep this model in mind.

9. I stopped requiring a cell phone to stay in touch.

At first I kept checking my pockets, feeling like I was missing something. “Did that guy text me back?,” I would wonder. “Oh wait, I’m totally free of that stuff.”

10. I stopped taking photographs of everything and learned how to just be in the moment.

“Why are you still carrying that?” one of my local friends asked as he pointed at my Nikon SLR I pulled out of my backpack and slipped back in a moment later, hoping he would not notice.

The truth is I love taking photographs abroad, but the village where I lived felt like the wrong place to whip out my bulky camera. Most of them had never seen a camera like mine before or believed a photograph took away part of their souls. I left the camera home most days with a new respect for being in the moment and for not exploiting people through my lens.

11. I stopped requiring a mirror.

When I first moved to a Ghanaian village, I stressed about not having a mirror. How else was I going to scrutinize over every blemish or check out the humidity damage to my hair? Soon this and the desire to wear makeup passed. If I had a zit the locals excused it away as a mosquito bite. I didn’t realize my untamable eyebrows were sprouting near my eye socket until I finally saw my reflection — four months later.

12. I stopped judging businesses by their names.

When I got out of the village and into Kumasi I noticed some of the best places had names that would never fly at home. Blood of Jesus Restaurant, anyone? Patience Beauty Salon? Victoria’s Secret Fast Food? How about the Beware Friends Fashion Center?

13. I stopped believing that if something was heavy, I couldn’t carry it alone.

It’s no secret that Ghanaian hawkers can balance towering bundles of fruits, bowls, and firewood on their heads, or that construction workers can haul around raw concrete materials in the same way. Yes, the maintenance man in the village can move a refrigerator down the road on his head by himself, but that doesn’t mean I have to gawk.

14. I stopped wasting water.

I learned to take a shower with only one bucket of water — no need to keep the water running. Besides, our compound made a group effort to limit water use, relying on monsoon rain water collected in massive 50-gallon containers in the center of our housing compound for cooking and washing.

Once the water in the containers was low enough to see the bottom with a few soggy worms floating in the standing pools. I was worried we would have to haul water from the well, but that night the rain came pounding down so hard I woke up thinking the village was under attack before fumbling to the porch in time to see the barrels filling by the second.

15. I stopped getting annoyed every time the power went out.

Instead of getting angry or flustered when the “lights are off” as the Ghanaians say, I did what they would do — grab a “torch,” walk outside, talk to the neighbor, go to bed early, or admire the pristine night sky.

16. I stopped expecting all food to be instant.

There isn’t a fast food restaurant in most Ghanaian villages — or a restaurant for that matter. I’m a microwave kind of girl, but I had to abandon all these prior notions about food prep time.

I learned to cook out of frustration and to satisfy my gnawing appetite, only to discover that spending three to four hours preparing a local meal of jollof, red-red, or groundnut soup for my host family and friends made me feel an unexpected sense of delight.

17. I stopped needing a cup every time I was thirsty.

Clean water is available in the Ghanaian village, but it is packaged in small pouches called water sachets that require people to bite off the corner before drinking. A bundle of sachets is cheaper than a water bottle, so I carried these suckers from the center of town to my compound, balancing the package on my head. Don’t ask me about the time one exploded on the trek home.

18. I never left food on my plate.

I ate every bite, and the gracious hosts made sure of it — even if the banku tasted like sour milk or the floating eyeball in the oily broth from the dried fish made me gag.

19. I stopped feeling suspicious every time a stranger asked where I was going.

“Where are you going?” is just as common of a phrase or even a replacement for “How are you doing?” It’s normal for a stranger or new acquaintance to pose the question in Ghana.

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