Gapers Block has ceased publication.

Gapers Block published from April 22, 2003 to Jan. 1, 2016. The site will remain up in archive form. Please visit Third Coast Review, a new site by several GB alumni.
 Thank you for your readership and contributions. 


Thursday, July 18

Gapers Block

Gapers Block on Facebook Gapers Block on Flickr Gapers Block on Twitter The Gapers Block Tumblr


So, I'm going to Ghana. As previously discussed, it wasn't an easy decision to make, but once I got acclimated to the idea I started to get excited. The plane tickets are booked, visas have been procured, and departure is less than a month away. I have yet to begin shopping for supplies; let's hear it for procrastination.

A few weeks ago, I attended training in Birmingham, Alabama. I flew down on a Friday night and took a cab to the place where I'd spend the rest of the weekend. It was a church, a big one, and upon walking in I immediately felt a surge of panic. I've managed to avoid churches since I was a teenager, averting the inexplicable discomfort they tend to igive me. The first hour there was spent trying to learn the names of the 11 other people going to Ghana while attempting not to squirm. Deep breaths help.

After about an hour, I realized that if all this Jesus stuff made me this edgy now, it was going to be a long trip to Ghana.

I decided the best thing to do was to just relax and go with it. I can adjust to almost anything (at least, I like to think I can), and I approached the rest of the weekend in that mindset. I didn't want to stick out as a non-Christian, but I didn't want to spew some bullshit about finding Jesus just to blend in, either.

Fortunately, I didn't have to give witness, which is what they call a personal testimony about how you came to Christ. Other people kind of did, but somehow I evaded it without even trying. Occasionally I talked esoterically about my spirituality -- which is abstract and not religiously oriented -- using ambiguous language, and since people tend to hear what they are looking for, that was enough. I didn't feel like a liar or a hypocrite.


Fig1. "All right, class, repeat after me: Meh dah see..."

Besides, I was there to learn about Ghana, local customs, and some basic Twi, which is the primary language spoken in the area we'll be in. Twi (pronounced t-ch-wi) wasn't written down until the 1800's by missionaries, so some of the spellings are varied. I approached it phonetically: "Akwaaba" is welcome, and "Meh dah see" is thank you. Goodbye is easy enough: "bye bye."

Some of the customs we learned in order to avoid offending anyone:

  • Women must not show their legs. Women in the major cities, Accra and Kumasi, are starting to wear pants, but in a remote village like where we'll be I'll have to wear a long skirt. It's also advisable to wear thick leggings underneath to reduce chances of getting bitten from a disease-carrying mosquito.
  • You should never cross your legs at the knee. Crossing at the ankles is acceptable, but crossing at the knee is a sign of disrespect. Since finding this out, I've been trying to break myself of the habit, not just so I won't do it when I'm there, but because it's also really bad for circulation.
  • As in most countries with a Muslim influence, you should never offer your left hand for anything; it's your "dirty" hand. Everything is done with the right -- even meeting people in a line moves from right to left to avoid offending anyone.

We also learned about the history of Ghana, which was the first African country to gain independence from its colonizers. Because of its geographic location, it played a major role in the slave trade; the Elmina castle, which held untold masses of people, is maintained by the Heritage Board of Ghana. For many years and still today, Ashanti remains the ethnic majority in a country where much of the historical violence has been inter-tribal.

When I tell people that I'm going to Africa, some concern is occasionally expressed over the safety of the trip. What about all of the turmoil, civil uprisings, military coups? While Ghana has seen more than enough of each of those, it is relatively stable right now. It has been since 2000, when the first peaceful regime change in Ghana's history occurred as the presidency was passed from Jerry Rawlings to John Kufuor. Most violence that remains tends to be in the north of the country, and is, again, inter-tribal.


Fig2. A sampling of traditional foods of Ghana.

At the training weekend, I also had a chance to try some Ghanaian cooking. Fufu is the main staple of many Western and Central African countries, and is made up of mashed cassava and plantains. When cooked, it maintains the texture of play-dough, and is best dipped into some kind of sauce, as it doesn't have much flavor of its own. But it fills the belly. Other dishes I tried were more familiar: sweet plantains, which I frequently eat at the Costa Rican restaurant down the street, and a spiced chicken dish resembling a cross between an Indian curry dish and Jambalaya.

Another thing I found out is that Ghana is so close to the equator that the sun rises at 6am and sets at 6pm every day, regardless of season. Once it gets dark, the Malaria and Dengue Fever (for which there is no vaccine) mosquitoes come out, so I won't get much of a chance to explore the African night.

I also learned a cultural note specific to my purpose there: in general, Ghanaians love to have their picture taken. A woman who has been there before expressed frustration that every time she tried to photograph a scene, a dozen children would jump in the picture. Cynics might suggest that they want money for their photograph, but she found that they just enjoyed being in front of a camera.

People will ask for money, but that's not unusual; people ask for money here in Chicago all the time. It's not always a monetary thing, either: they also ask for pens, and your address written down on a piece of paper: just some kind of reverse souvenir that you were there. I'm told it's the children that do most of the asking, and have come up with my own way of dealing with it. I have an extensive sticker collection left over from my raving days, boxes and boxes full that haven't been touched in years, so I'm going to bring a whole bunch with me so I have something easy to hand out to a large group of kids. Stickers won't feed empty bellies, but we will be feeding people while we are there, and building a hospital. Besides, we were strongly discouraged from giving out money, as it reinforces certain negative behavior patterns. But I know I'll want to give something.

While there, besides photographic documentation and construction, I'll also be setting up the hospital's computer network. Part of the building has been completed, and has five machines within a hundred feet that need to be networked. Since I have experience with that sort of thing, during the training weekend I was designated to bring the necessary supplies. I wavered between setting up a wireless network, which would be easier, but think I'll just run some cabling, since it will be much cheaper.

By Sunday, the last day of training, I realized something that hadn't occurred to me before. It might not matter that I'll be spending two and a half weeks straight with Christians so much as that I'll be spending that much time with the same group of people -- constantly surrounded by people. I enjoy the company of others but I need downtime, personal time, alone and quiet. Something tells me that might be kind of hard to come by. Yet another thing I need to prepare myself for.

I keep having dreams about Africa, in the mornings right before I wake up. The settings and people vary, though my sense of wonder at being in such a profoundly different place does not. In all my dreams I have forgotten to bring my Malaria pills, and start to get nervous. In the most recent one, however, someone told me not to worry about it, just to enjoy being where I was while I was there. Good advice that I plan to take with me on my journey.


alicia / August 13, 2003 2:03 PM

just remember while you are there that j3sus starts with j3s and you should do fine. if someone bothers you about christianity, just say to them, "i put the j3s in j3sus." i can make you a t-shirt.

j3s / August 13, 2003 2:57 PM

Alicia, did you ever know that you're my hero?

Andrew / August 13, 2003 3:02 PM

I think we should make that shirt *regardless* of this trip. Where's the nearest fuzzy-letter t-shirt store?!

Naz / August 13, 2003 3:03 PM

That shirt would be rockin'.

heather / August 14, 2003 5:05 PM

oh oh! I totally want one!


About the Author(s)

Jesica Davis will report once more before leaving for Ghana September 3.

GB store

Recently on Detour

A Tragic Day in Chicago
While most people see the weekend after Thanksgiving as a time to begin preparations for the December holiday season, this time of year is a painful reminder to some as the anniversary of one of Chicago's deadliest fires. Ninety-two students...

The Social Life of Our Urban Spaces
"Placemaking" comes to Chicago

Don't '&' Me, OK?
The ampersand gets Wenner thinking about the distinction between race and ethnicity.

Photo Essay: Transitions
Rearview contributers interpret the theme "Transitions."

People from the Rearview Archive
Gapers Block digs into the Rearview archive in search of portraits.

View the complete archive

GB Store

GB Buttons $1.50

GB T-Shirt $12

I ✶ Chi T-Shirts $15