“You are in Ghana now, you can’t compare to England.”
That was the advice from my guide, Timotei, as we travelled to Axim; a large fishing town in Ghana’s Western Region. Timotei, which I upheld as a brand of shampoo products first and the name of a friend second (however I feel like my frame of reference on these things is going to change a lot over the coming months), obviously felt I was talking too much about my home nation and its established way of life. It was only my second day in the once-named Gold Coast, and I had plenty of comparisons to make.
What I read from his response, to what I intended as idle chit-chat as we rode the 40 minute tro-tro journey to our destination, was that Ghanaians don’t want to hear about how things are patently different in Europe compared to life in West Africa. They’ve heard reports of Western wealth and lifestyles; they’ve seen the technological and cultural imports in the big three cities of Accra, Kumasi and nearby Takoradi; but that doesn’t mean they don’t want to show off with great pride the life that is available here.
Maybe I read too much in to this, but what I had already observed in the locals was that they don’t often ask you too directly about your accustomed of life. Believe me, they have gotten over the cultural differences way before you set foot off the plane. Ghanaian people very much live in the moment, never dwelling on or anticipating things too much – and they’re much more interested to hear stories about your family than anything else. In the tro-tro (the main source of public transport, which amassed to a shelled out transit van with old-fashioned iron flippy seats), I asked some basic questions about where we were going and what I could expect from Axim. “You will see with your own two eyes”, came the patient reply.
After three days in the remote beauty-spot of Busua, I have already had many a rich and enlightening conversation with scores of people. Popular topics of conversation include football, music and, most significantly, sex. The best way to make friends, that I have found, is by trying your hand at one of the regional languages, of which there are around 40 over the whole country. Twi is the most widely spoken native language of Ghana, and it is spoken in the state capital of Accra. In Busua, my home for the next six months, lesser-known Ahanta is mixed with the broad coastal tongue of Fante, as well as English, in the veritable cocktail of language they use to communicate with one another. If you learn a single phrase in any one of these and repeat it to a friend, you are guaranteed an excited response.
There is also a unique way of speaking English in Ghana you need to understand to make any headway (of course, for many of these, context is everything):
“How do you feel it?” – Do you like it?
niece/nephew, son/daughter, mother/auntie, cousin/friend, him/her – all interchangeable as there aren’t traditionally have gender pronouns, and everyone seems to be considered family.
“You have to confuse him.” – You have to persuade him (or her).
‘Chop’ – Food, or ‘to eat’. Also ‘to spend (money)’.
“I’m coming.” – I’m leaving shortly, but I’ll be coming back.
“T.I.A.” – This is Africa, as spoken in the movie Blood Diamond but, as I was pleasantly surprised, also a common expression. Said when thinks don’t go quite according to plan.
‘Ok’ – I haven’t understood a word you just said.
It may come as no surprise that Ghanaians are devoutly religious people, the most religious country in the world in fact, and this also has an effect on every day phrasing. This is most exemplified to me from Philip, the son of my host family, who has said to me: “If God permit, I will see you tomorrow” and, in response to a enquiry of frequency,: “every blessed day”. Which, in a thick African accent, hasn’t nearly got the same sarcastic attachment to it than if a Brit had said it.
These heartfelt expressions go on. “You are invited” precedes every meal; “you are welcome” is warmly offered on arrival; and in their native languages, there is no word for ‘hello’ always a sincere “how are you?”. This nature of respect makes for the perfect travelling environment. I think I’m going to like it here.