As I was preparing to leave for Accra, I was fending off distressing questions from all sides. Are you going to live in a hut? Will you be able to receive mail? Do they speak English or just their tribal language?
As a good student of critical race theory and postcolonialism, I deftly deflected these questions, reminding the ill-informed inquirers that Accra is the capital city of Ghana, and has in fact made it into the twenty-first century with the rest of the world.
I fielded these questions so frequently, so incessantly, that I too constructed my own perception of Accra. After telling so many people so many times in so many different ways that Accra is not all that different from their own cities, I actually convinced myself that Accra was no different.
My dad told me that the first thing I’d notice would be the new smells. But the first thing I noticed was the heat. It was thick and mind-bending, even when I landed in the late evening. It has just rained, and as I walked from the plane to the main airport building, I watched the pavement parch in the ardent sun-less heat.
Some students in my program were on my connecting flight, and we were picked up together at the airport. As we drove to our new home, our bus and the city were unusually quiet. We watched reverently as we passed unfamiliar sights that we knew would soon become mundane. The windows were down, and I put my hand out almost instinctively, trying to touch every part of this new place.
In those first few weeks, I was surprised when our running water wouldn’t work for hours or days, or the wifi would go out. I was trying so hard to reject the vision of the country (and the continent) as one big delusional safari-themed Taylor Swift music video, that I instead thought of the space as downright first-world developed.
I forgot that Ghana is a developing country; I failed to appreciate the extent of the damage caused by its history of exploitation and colonialism. Making this mistake was a humbling reminder of the chasm between who I am and who I think I am, and acknowleding it is hopefully a step closer to bridging the two. When I neglect the history of this space— and I’ve done it again since— I remind myself that it is my privilege to forget the colonial legacy imprinted on the country, and that part of the reason I chose to come to Ghana was so that this very history would be salient enough to me that it was impossible to overlook.
And then there are differences for which I could not even prepare because I simply could not have anticipated them.
Things like: Time. Here, it is not time, but T I M E— all drawn out and sticky and sweet and slow. There’s no mention of “wasting time” because in Ghana, time is not money. You don’t spend it; you don’t control it at all. You enjoy it. And I’m the fool who hasn’t learned to enjoy it— always the fastest walker and the fastest worker, consumed by promptness.
Also: As it turns out, my carefully cultivated New York mentality makes me kind of rude in Ghana.
Two years in New York taught me many coping mechanisms, chief among them to assume the worst in strangers and to keep to myself. The news ticker in my head reads: Don’t touch me, don’t talk to me, don’t look at me.
It’s not a bad strategy— in New York, the strangers who talk to you often want something from you that you’re unwilling to give, so it’s best to head them off by shrouding yourself in calculated iciness. But it is a culturally relative strategy.
This approach is hilariously out of place in Accra, where strangers say hello on the street and walk you to your destination instead of simply giving directions. On my way to class on my second day here, a man on the street smiled at me. Instinctually, I wondered What do you want? As it turns out, he wanted to wish me a good morning, and subsequently, I wanted to crumble to the ground in shame.
As I’ve adjusted to this new way of life, I realized that these differences are actually related— Why do I find it frustrating to have inconsistent water and wifi or be stopped by strangers? Because they are inconveniences; they add extra time to my routines; they make me late. To most people in Accra, the inconsistency of these things is not troubling because they do not have an obsession with punctuality. It seems impossible, but the whole country manages to run rather smoothly without fetishizing efficiency.
Learning to adapt to this lifestyle is a process and it’s plagued with imperfection. I still catch myself settling in familiar annoyance when my supervisor comes to work hours after I’ve arrived, or my friends and I wait an hour for our dinner at a restaurant.
It’s difficult to change your mindset, no doubt, but I believe that most difficult things in life come down to a game of Would You Rather. So I play. I ask myself, Would you rather value time or value people?
Of course, I already know the answer; I just need a reminder. The reminder does me and my impervious New York exterior some good.