In February of 2013, I joined a group of Cross-Cultural Solutions volunteers in rural West Africa for two weeks. It was the experience of a lifetime, but one that could have easily passed me by had it not been for a lovely little moment of clarity that happened within the first few hours of my adventure.
After a nine-hour flight and a five-hour van ride that included a quick stop for some sugar bread — a Ghananian staple — we arrived to the CCS Home-Base. This is where my fellow volunteers and I would be living during our time in Hohoe, Ghana.
As we piled into the house, one of the CCS staff members — a local woman named Ruth — asked if anyone was interested in joining her for church in the morning. I had barely opened my mouth to politely decline when one of the other volunteers piped up, “I’m in. I didn’t come here to not do stuff. You know?” Damn! She had a point. “Alright, I’m in,” I added. And just like that, I decided to make it a priority to make “I’m in!” my default response during my time in Ghana.
Here are my tips on how to have an “I’m in” attitude and experience the local culture in Hohoe. And if you’re not headed to Ghana any time soon, no worries. Most of what I have to share will work just about anywhere your travels may take you.
- Let people welcome you. A community very much off the tourist path, Hohoe is a safe and bustling little city. And as a volunteer (and a Westerner), you’ll be noticed and genuinely welcomed just about everywhere you go. In fact, it’s not uncommon for your new acquaintances to invite you to their home or shop for a visit. You just need to be open to it.After my first week volunteering alongside Victor, a local teacher, he invited me to visit him in his village. He toured me around his community, showed me his church, and introduced me to his eldest brother, Albert. It was such a simple gesture, but the experience moved me in a way that I can’t quite explain. I still keep in touch with Victor (we’re pen pals, yeah … it’s old school, and it’s awesome) and a couple of weeks ago, I got an amazing morning phone call from Albert. His sole purpose was to wish me a “happy day.” Can’t beat that.
- Ask questions. When you’re in a new community, you’re kind of a blank slate (with the exception, of course, of the reading and research that you do prior to your arrival). And in Ghana, just about everyone I met was an open book. So I asked the bone-healer why people visited him (and his hacksaw) rather than the hospital, I asked the witch doctor if he ever works with customers who want to do harm to other people (absolutely not), I asked a member of the Zongo community (where the majority of Hohoe’s Muslims reside) what brought her down from the North to settle in a region that wasn’t particularly welcoming to Muslims, and after being referred to as “sister” for the twentieth time, I asked some Rastas if they really thought of me as such (“aren’t we all brothers and sisters?”).Of course, each question that I had was asked respectfully and without judgment. And in return, I was answered with nothing but honesty and a level of respect that mirrored my own. It makes me wonder if some of us worry so much about offending new friends in other cultures, that we shy away from asking the questions that allow for genuine cultural exchange.
- Learn the basics of the local language. Hopefully, you’ve already thought of this one on your own, but it’s worth a reminder! There are very few places that one can travel where the local people will not be appreciative of your best efforts to communicate in the local language. In Hohoe, most people speak Ewe, and the common greeting is (phonetically) “Way zo,” or welcome, with the appropriate response, a long and nasal “Yooooooo.”In addition to the local language, learning about social custom and etiquette can go a long way, also. For example, in Ghana, there’s quite a bit of polite and thoughtful questioning that occurs before your get to the purpose of your visit or the “meat” of the conversation. People will ask you about yourself, your family, your country, and how you are enjoying your time in Ghana. It’s considered rude to dive right in. Now you know.
- Go to church (or whatever). I’m now a firm believer that if ever you are invited to do something in a more intimate setting — be it a religious gathering, cultural tradition, family meal, wedding, birthday party — definitely DEFINITELY go. Of course, you’ve got to trust your gut. I’m not encouraging you to join in on something that gives you a feeling of impending doom. But as long as your good judgement tells you it’s safe, I say go for it!
And that’s how I ended up at my very first Pentecostal mass. I watched girls nibble Obama biscuits — a popular local snack that comes in a red white and blue wrapper stamped with the likeness of our very own 44th President — and stare up at me with coquettish smiles, I danced and sang with the older women as they soulfully waved handkerchiefs in the air, and I listened intently to the sermons read in Ewe and English. And through it all, I felt a warmth and excitement welling up inside. I definitely didn’t go to Ghana to not do stuff.