This blog post was written by Emily Hess, a Spring 2016 CIEE Ghana participant from Indiana University - Bloomington.
“Up, down, high, low. Up, down, high, low.”
This is the mantra I repeat to myself on bad days. I take a breath and I let it out. Sometimes everything seems more extreme than it really is. And I have never appreciated it more.
My flight landed at Kotoka International Airport on the 25th of January and since then, my re-integration into a West African country has happened quicker than I expected. At first, this came with relief. Instead of jumping in like the first dive into a cold pool of water, I seemed to slip into a warm and familiar rhythm that is both inviting and rewarding. I was so thankful that five years away couldn’t separate me from the strength and adaptation that I needed to thrive in Ghana, much like I thrived in Senegal.
This is what I thought, anyways.
It seems to me like the pattern and mannerisms that I thought came naturally to me may contribute to a greater problem in the way the world sees many African nations. I didn’t maneuver all of the ups and downs of the culture shock process, and I skipped right from the honeymoon phase into the ambivalence phrase within a few days. I did this because I wasn’t willing to accept that a new experience in Ghana would be terribly different from the one I had in Senegal. I was shoving the two together into a unified, typically “African”, experience. I was doing the precise thing that I criticized so many of my friends and family for. I was lumping these two totally different places into one category and in the meantime, I was shutting off taking in the Ghanaian experience for what it was – unique and brand new to me. I couldn’t tell you what kinds of opportunities or shocks I may have missed out on in my first few days, but I can tell you the exact moment that I realized where I had gone wrong.
From my home stay in the morning, it’s about a 15-20 minute walk to grab a shared cab to school. For those of you who don’t know, a shared cab is four seats split into four fares for people all going in the same general direction. They load by location and charge by distance for one seat per passenger. I had a perfect opportunity to let the culture shock of this form of transportation sink in. But I didn’t. On the way to school, we drive slowly over roads that aren’t completed, through intersections with no lights or signs, and by small tin and wood huts that community members live in. I could have spent time to take it all in and learn about my environment in that way. But I didn’t. I saw Ghana the way I saw Senegal after months of seeing these things time and time again. This is life. And I wouldn’t touch on it again.
Saturday morning on my walk to the cab, something caught my eye. Usually on my way to a cab, I keep my eyes to the ground to deter attention in my direction. I don’t look at the world around me for the dread of confrontation with a local, typically male, Ghanaian who wants my attention. I also accept that the world around me just looks a certain way, and I don’t need to observe it to know it’s there. But as I crossed over the bridge, I turned to my right, and I saw something that I had never seen in Senegal.
Senegal doesn’t have a very effective system of trash collection. Most of the local trash will be gathered and thrown into ditches, under bridges, and burned in piles. Although it isn’t like this everywhere, the places I lived had a particularly bad problem with trash collection and disposal. I made my best effort to just stop looking at it after a while. But on my way to the cab on Saturday, I did something that I hadn’t done in Senegal since my first days of shock. I stopped and looked over the bridge.
I think a few locals noticed my mouth fall open and the rush of air that entered into my gasp. I felt as if my eyes had never seen something so average and made it so beautiful before. Lush green grasses, trees, and overgrowth spilled across the creek below and into the ditches surrounding it. The foliage stretched as far as I could see and cut through old taxi lots, boutiques, and homes unscathed. It remained green and plush. No trash, no burned piles, no rat nests. I couldn’t explain how the Ghanaian experience impacted me in that moment, but I realized that I had been wrong about the way I was seeing the world thus far. There was immense beauty and just as much to learn in this moment than I had ever given my experience credit for since landing on the 25th. It seemed so silly to feel such raw emotion over something so small. But when I welcomed it, a few things changed for me.
And now the bad days and the bad moments come, but so do the good ones. The ups seem higher, and the lows much lower. The day isn’t centered in ambivalence but wide-eyed curiosity and admission of the unknown. I can see this country for how it is – great, terrible, lonely, exhilarating – all at the same time. I breathed Ghana in, and I let Senegal out. And I know now that life will get harder and some days will feel like an uphill battle, but I’d rather it be hard than it be nothing at all.
- Emily Hess (Indiana University - Bloomington)
CIEE Ghana Spring 2016