On the roof of our guesthouse in Kokemlemle, we sit and enjoy the African breeze that comes with the setting of the sun beginning around 5:30pm. In the company of our local friend, we sip Ghanaian produced Gulder beer and reflect on day’s events.
We are soon joined by a fellow from Germany and a young lady from Sweden. Staying at a guesthouse we often meet travelers, mainly volunteers, from around the world. The gentleman is traveling Ghana and Togo for a month, visiting his brother and will be joined by his family. The young lady arrived in Accra the night before to begin her short-term volunteer work at an orphanage outside of the capital city.
“Welcome to Ghana, what do you think so far?” I ask the slim blonde woman.
Her eyes widened and her grin lit up her face.
“Thing’s here are crazy! Everything is unorganized – it is so different than Sweden,” she replies.
She goes on to explain her experience navigating through traffic and finding her way through the city. Even with the help of her program leader she found it difficult to grasp what was going on around her in the bustling of the city.
Similar to her experience, as a newcomer I could relate to her initial reaction of what appears as hectic chaos. Upon arrival, there appears to be no identifiable structure, no order, no rules. There are no clearly marked road signs or bus stops. Public transit is not lit up with signs of final destinations and pedestrians, vendors, dogs, goats and chickens roam closely around you. It’s difficult not to feel like you are always in someone’s way and completely lost.
As the night continued and the mosquitos came to join, we discussed the differences we noticed in comparison to our home countries. As our Swedish friend went back to her room to prepare for her early morning start, we said goodbye. Our local friend shook his head and laughed.
“What?” We asked.
His eyes met ours as he explained the reasoning for his smirk.
“This is my country, and she says it is unorganized. My country isn’t unorganized,” he says.
I paused to process his reaction. Never had I thought our discussion on traffic and rules of the road would come of as offensive, but it did.
“I don’t think she meant it to be rude,” I say. “It’s just different from what we are used to.”
We acknowledged her intentions were harmless and discussed how from a foreigner’s view her statement may test true. There seems to be no order. For the locals, however, this system works. Ghanaians have ways of communicating that newcomers don’t recognize. They use hand gestures and body language, whistles and snaps. Everything around us functions – and it is us who are unorganized in the chaotic structure which our new friends are accustomed and we do not understand.
“It works for us,” he says.
Through this exchanging of words and analyzing of experiences I learned an important lesson; things are not as they appear.
When something is different than we are culturally accustom to we identify it as “broken” – but this is not the case.
If we don’t understand, it doesn’t mean it doesn’t work. It doesn’t mean it is wrong and must be changed. To understand the way a system works, we must be patient, open-minded and most importantly respectful.
If not, our world will continue as a culture of ‘us’ and ‘them’ and a perpetuated cycle of misunderstandings and hypocritical ignorance will continue as a global norm.