Stumbling in the daylight
My first introduction to Ghana should have told me just how out of touch I really was! After a day in the country we ended up attending a wedding of a Ghanaian colleague (that no one really knew) and the major public celebration for the Ashanti King – both in Kumasi (Ghana’s 2nd largest city). As my mind tends to move towards risk management, my first concern was how would we find a small group of students (12) at a major public event where they were expecting over 100,000 people?! My second thought was…we are going to a strangers wedding…what do I wear?!
It turned out that finding 12 Canadian (Caucasian or Oburoni as we are called locally) students in a crowd of 100,000 Ghanaians was pretty easy! All I needed to do was find a high point and look for those that didn’t blend in! The wedding turned out to be a very different experience all together – we were placed in a position of honour next to the Bride and Groom (sitting next to the head table). This odd experience was topped off by watching a group of the grooms friends spray him and his new wife with water (clean and dirty), cola, and brightly coloured non-alcoholic sparkling juice. Did I mention that they were still in their wedding finery?
Ghana has taught me that to expect the unexpected and to assess risks in very different ways. Those early experience highlighted for me that when trying to make sense of what was happening around me, I needed to shelve my own cultural norms and expectations. I needed to trust the advice of those around me and needed to learn to talk less and listen more and differently.
Learning to listen differently
Ghanaians have an indirect communication style and this means that as I was making missteps no one was directly correcting my behaviour. Sadly it took me more than one trip to figure this out and it cause much frustration! The clearest example of this for me came from a colleague in Sunyani – I thought that he simply couldn’t remember that I was one of the prof’s on the trip and not a student. After running a session with students on research I provided some feedback and he turned to me and said, “that is very insightful for a student”! After the session wrapped I handed him my card and reintroduced myself as Dr. Aggie Weighill – it was sometime later that I realized that he knew that I was a professor, he was trying to tell me that if I dressed like a student I would be treated one!
For my first trip to Ghana I packed a couple pairs of shorts, some capris, and t-shirts…the weather ranged from low to mid 30s (Celsius) and as a large women all I was thinking about was trying to stay cool! What I didn’t know (and had not thought to ask) was that Ghana has a hierarchical structure and that there are strict norms related to how one dresses within that structure. A professors (particularly a female professor) does not wear shorts and t-shirts! She definitely does not wear them to work – this may be somewhat acceptable for foreign students (Ghanaian students would not dress that way for school) but not for the leaders. An important lesson that I now pass along to my students – needless to say that I do not pack shorts to Ghana and my t-shirts are limited to outdoor activities and days off (I will come back to clothing and its importance in community work in a later post).
Canadians have a relatively direct communication style – we will say no if something isn’t possible or if we don’t want to do it. Ghanaians have an indirect style and they are less likely to say ‘no’ directly; this is something that can cause confusion and frustration…unless you listen for the implied ‘no’. I have come to learn that when posing a question or suggesting an activity I need to listen to whether there is a clear (and somewhat enthusiastic “yes”) or if there is a somewhat lackluster ‘that could work’. I also listen to hear whether obstacles to doing the suggested activity are presented (3 or more times if the person presenting the idea is persistent) as this can also be an indication that it really isn’t feasible or not desirable for the local partner. Learning that a lack of a clear “no” does not mean “yes” was one of the toughest lessons that I have learned in Ghana.
Dr. Aggie Weighill
Fernweh is a German noun that speaks to longing for travel to distant places - something that I strong relate to. I am very fortunate to have a career that helps me to fulfil my desire to travel and to explore our amazing planet. I also have incredible friends and family who both encourage me and join me on adventures at home and abroad.