Time has been flying by. My past blogs have been primarily focused on our work, program details, successes, failures, and difficulties; yet, I have left out a part of the story- a very important part: What is my life like here in Kpando and how have cultural differences influenced it?
Honestly, I could not have asked for a better living situation than my home-stay with the Kosipa family. I am 28 and I really hadn’t planned on having a roommate again- ever (alas, I admit my parents from time to time in between moves); HOWEVER, my new roommate Cecilia, or Mama Ceci, as we all call her, is wonderful, respectful and easy to share a space with. Her children have gone to school and I came to interrupt her “empty nest” by staying with her for the next year.
Our house is a cement structure with “normal” things I am used to: kitchen with gas burners; living/dining room with couches, chairs, a television (yes, quite a few families have TV’s), dining table and refrigerator (not as common); bedrooms; toilet room; and bathing room equipped with all of the buckets I will ever need to take a shower. The house even has a front porch where I occasionally do my laundry (bed sheets are my new worst enemy), or sit on the sun-warmed steps with Mama at night.
The house itself is situated on the same property as Mama Ceci’s parents and thus, we have built-in neighbors that frequent our home as much as we frequent theirs. Their family consists of the grandfather “Papa” and grandmother “Dada”, Auntie (Mama’s sister), Seyram (Auntie’s son), Fiona (Dada’s niece) and Jessica (the four year old daughter of Mama Ceci’s youngest brother, Emmanuel). It’s a nice set-up, family-oriented and communal, as is the way in Ghana, and to be honest, very similar to my life in the States-I come from a very close and large extended family with my grandparents’ home also acting as the main ‘hub’ for Donut Sunday, birthdays and holidays.
Mama Ceci’s home is truly a lovely place to return to after a day of work. Even though there are cultural differences that exist (food, habits, etc.), they have made me feel welcomed and comfortable since the moment I arrived. I am the second “white” to have been close to this family and as Papa would tell you, I am “one of two” whom he “just loves”. That’s pretty cool.
The Volta Region is known for its beauty, serenity and history. Situated next to Lake Volta, the Volta River and in between the mountains, Kpando is visually stunning.
Yet as you walk along the streets of the city, a different picture is painted. Goats and chickens roam freely. Cars leak, rattle and come much too close to each other and you. Horns honk, all of the time. Shopping takes place in shops- some located in cement buildings representing what most would find “familiar”, while others are make-shift wooden set-ups, metal shacks, and road-side stands. Bartering is the way of life. Everything is covered in dust, as most of the roads are not paved (aside from the main roads which have been worn down to the dirt beneath, anyway). What hits you first are the smells-even before the heat, as the heat exacerbates the smells and the olfactory nerve is overtaken in comparison to your heat sensors. Imagine walking down the street and you catch a hint of grilling plantains-sweet smelling, cake-like, almost like the smell of Ben & Jerry’s waffle cones. As you continue walking, enjoying this familiar smell, you are slapped in the face with the most pungent odor of goat poop, urine (from all walks of life), and fish-dead fish, sitting in the sun for hours. Odor dichotomy-all day, every day.
I have learned to embrace all the smells and I know that they are intrinsically the smells of life in Africa- yet, I would be lying if I said I didn’t gag every now and then when something particularly rancid wafts my way.
Walk with me- sun-beaming on your face and shoulders, backpack on your back, sweat dripping down your back and brow, and a cloud of African dust in the air ready to attach itself to you like dry sand to your wet feet when you’re trying to leave the beach. Especially during the dry season (now), I arrive home ten shades darker- not from the sun, but from the layers of dust. You can literally see the outline of everything I was wearing on my body. Showering is glorious.
Whilst in Africa, wear close-toed shoes (especially in the market and always at night). I do occasionally wear sandals, yet I pick and choose this time carefully. There is an immense amount of pollution-plastic (empty water sachets are everywhere), food wrappers, clothes, human waste, animal feces, old tires, useless electronics, razors, etc. You name it- it’s probably on or in the ground. The gutters contain garbage and water (from laundry, cooking, etc), chemically reacting to create bright green sludge. Everywhere you look the environment creates an extremely poignant sense of carelessness-why is it this way?
This is one of the most frustrating things about working in global health and community development, anywhere-sustained changes in behavior affected not only by culture, but knowledge. When a child sees anadult throw garbage on the ground, what is he/she to do but the same? I’ll save this for another blog.
Making our way back to the beginning of this section-the Volta region is a beautiful place, but there are changes that need to happen to keep the environment clean and the people healthy.
Everyone I have worked with in Kpando so far has received us and our programs positively. The individuals with whom we are work on our specific projects are engaged and helpful; however, this is not without a couple of cultural differences that make the work a little more difficult.
Statement: We are meeting here tomorrow at noon.
What is heard: I might be here by 3-it doesn’t matter if you are here.
Have you ever heard of African time? What it means is: everything you had planned will take place two to three hours later than you had planned and the people you may have planned it with may not be present or even in the same city.
Having worked in Africa before, I was prepared for this. (Please note: every African I have ever worked with jokes about this, thus it is not rude to discuss.) I want all reading this to understand that the work Edward and I have accomplished is not without managing this issue.
Having grown up in a culture where time is extremely important (it is how we plan our days, manage our schedules, divide our attention, etc.), it is extremely difficult to remind myself that things will get done in “due time”. Trying to plan meetings, make arrangements, or gather people to come register for health insurance they need is extremely difficult as “time” is not regarded the same. This is a cultural difference and one that is recognized by both sides as difficult to adjust to and even more difficult to change.
In addition and in connection to time, another part of the work environment is communication. In the U.S., we would call or send someone an email to communicate an event, a meeting, information, share documents, etc. In Kpando, while I am able to call (and sometimes, depending on the person, text), most of the communications MUST be done in person to ensure clarity. The local language here in Kpando is Ewe, and while most people also speak English, it is not without a strong accent. Meeting everyone in person is time consuming, but necessary; if all individuals with whom I must meet are on African time, you can see how our communications can be greatly delayed, affecting our work environment and hindering our work.
To be aware of these issues is one thing-to manage them, is another. Although these two issues exist, communication with individuals we are working with has improved and we have come to understandings about the importance of time. I feel accomplished when things get done because I know the amount of time, sweat, and energy that went in to getting it done. All in a day’s (four months) work.
My life here in Kpando is intriguing to all of my senses. Facing cultural differences is challenging in any situation, working through them has opened my eyes to new possibilities.