I have to be completely honest with you. I almost got talked out visiting Ghana.
I’ve done my fair share of traveling. My goal is to reach 25 countries by my 25th birthday, and all continents by 30. I’m up to 21. I figured Africa would be right before Antarctica. But tourism didn’t bring me here.
Currently, I’m finishing up a degree in Social Entrepreneurship, the radical idea that business should have a triple bottom line and that charity might be doing more harm than good. To complete the program, we are to spend at least two weeks in a developing nation. So when I saw that a girl named Jacky had posted in a women in travel group on Facebook about a social enterprise starting in Ghana, a place I knew slim to nothing about, I was intrigued. The program started August 3rd. It was July 3rd.
But I wasn’t convinced just yet. Even for me, flying across the world to a country I knew nothing about, in a continent I knew nothing about, with a woman I had never met, was iffy.
Luckily, Jacky is extremely passionate about the quality of work media professionals in Accra produce, and she happily scheduled a Skype date to make me feel comfortable. A journalist from Toronto, Jacky spent eight months in Accra with an NPO Journalists for Human Rights. According to their website, “Journalists for Human Rights (JHR) is Canada’s leading media development organisation. We train journalists to report on human rights and governance issues in their communities.When the media puts a spotlight on human rights, people start talking about the issues and demanding change. A strong, independent media is a referee between governments and citizens. When human rights are protected, governments are more accountable and people’s lives improve.”
To the tone of Drake, “Young East African girl, you too busy…” played in my head all evening waiting for my Skype date with Jacky. I had no idea where Ghana was on a map. Granted, this might not be a testament to just U.S. lack of cultural awareness, but my own sheltered education. Either way, this girl was insistent that she had no problems as a Westerner in Accra. I knew that chocolate, or at least cocoa came from Ghana. That was about it. I pronounced it “Ack-rah” for days until the Skype date. Not one single person corrected me, because no one in my little circle had heard of it either.
We talked for over an hour, and she was quick to inform me that although it has its issues, Accra is a very modern city. She warned me that the power was a big issue and some neighborhoods will lose power for extended amounts of time. We talked about how Ghana has been politically stable for many, many years. Her program was designed to connect foreign journalists with local media professionals in Accra. I was hooked.
First, I googled to make sure I could even afford flights to Ghana, expecting it to be an absurd, rare trip. Little did I know, Ghana and the U.S. have been working together to develop better business relationships.
“Is Ghana safe for tourists?” was the second phrase I googled. To my happy surprise, Ghana is listed as one of the only green countries (meaning very safe) in the world to visit. Good enough for me.
But apparently, not for anyone I spoke to.
“So you’re going to Africa?”
“Where ‘bouts? Johannesburg?”
“Don’t tell me you’re doing some stupid sh—and going somewhere like Somalia or Boku Haram or West Africa. ”
“Boku Haram is a group but they’re in Nigeria anyways and I’ll be in Ghana-“
“Isn’t that where Ebola is?!”
“Isn’t that where they kidnapped all those schoolgirls?!”
“Isn’t that where they blow up like hotels for foreigners and shoot up beaches?!”
“I’ve heard it’s like really, really dirty and sad.”
“How are you going to communicate?”
“You need to be REALLY careful!”
“Are you getting a body guard?”
“Don’t bring your Cannon!”
“You’re not gonna be able to eat the food.”
“Are you going to have a man with you?”
“Paul’s letting you go alone?!”
“Y’all don’t have security?”
The consistent concern was of kidnapping or being robbed. I tried to assuage their fears by insisting that the U.S. is quite dangerous. The more people I spoke to, the more my confidence dwindled.
As fate would have it, my parents and my boyfriend were extremely supportive. “You’ve never been scared before, what makes you scared now?” my mom asked. “Well everyone keeps saying that it’s a dumb idea and-“ I fumbled the words. “Honey,” she said, “Have any of these people even been to Ghana?”
She was right. Every single person I had spoken to was absolutely clueless on the facts of Ghana. She put me in contact with- no joke- my grandparent’s 70-year-old neighbor who has been working in and out of Accra for ten years or so. He was absolutely delighted that I’d get the opportunity to travel to such a peaceful and welcoming place, but gave me a few warnings. One of the things that bothered him the most, and he certainly has met some wealthy Ghanaians, was the huge income disparity. Knowing I’m sensitive, he intended to prevent culture shock by
One of the first things I notice while flying in was how massive the lights stretched out. I had imagined large chunks of the city to be blacked out at night. The next, immediate thought was that there were no solar panels. Paved roads? I thought surely I’d be bumping around in a seat-beltless excuse for a car with jungle sounds and limited street-lights. People selling everything under the sun all day and night? I expected everyone who didn’t have a job to be lazy or drunk.
While vising the huge public transportation and market circle, rightly called circle, I truly expected to be harassed to buy things. Most people paid me no mind. This is very different from nearly everywhere I’ve traveled, where visitors are pressured to make purchases and cursed at if nothing is sold. Not sure why, but I imagined a large military and police presence in order to maintain order. Turns out, people can be good without being monitored. Another aspect, as a U.S. citizen, I have to get accustomed to. I kind of expected parents to be a little suspicious of our Western group staying in their neighborhood, but we spent hours upon hours with the neighborhood children doing everything from playing football to having photo shoots.
Generally, when I’m traveling and someone helps me, they insist on a tip. In Ghana, it took me a few days to realize that when I’m standing on the street corner confused and someone asks, “Where are you going?” they are actually just trying to help. As an U.S. citizen, it was hard to fathom. If I were lying unconscious on a street corner in the states, the majority of people would step right over me.
Call me ignorant, but I didn’t even realize that an advertising agency could be a successful business in anywhere but South Africa. They have Apple products?! “So why are the majority of people hawking on the street?” I wondered. And then researched. I’m beyond interested in the fact that Ghana is a huge exporter of very valuable items, like diamonds and cocoa, and yet the money doesn’t seem to stick around. There are hardly any factories. I noticed that the bars would collect the beer bottles after you were finished. Turns out, The Accra Brewing Company has to get all of their glass bottles from Nigeria. There are no glass bottle manufacturers in Ghana. Those solar panels I was curious about? After asking around, it became apparent that the current power system is a little suspicious and struggling. With over 27% of energy being ‘lost’ in 2014 through political influence and power theft, the issue is major one.
The state-owned company claims it cannot account for the massive amounts of power missing through political influence. Not only is this a major issue for the day-to-day life of Ghana, it prevents international businesses from investing in the country. The instability of power seems to be one of the largest handicaps to economic progression. Another major issue I was unaware of was shipping. Amazon, one of the largest online stores in the world and a leader in delivery, will not ship to Ghana. Plenty of businesses are taking advantage of this by playing a middle-man, having the items shipped to themselves, and then resends to Ghana. It seems like when valuable items are desired from Ghana, it’s easily arranged. When highly subsidized rice and crops from the U.S. have nowhere to go, it’s easily arranged.
The importing and exporting relationship is quite askew. Although Ghana imports huge amounts of crude oil, both crude and refined oil are imported at a high rate, resulting in high gas prices. The current trade balance is a negative of $4.6 billion.My assumptions of a lazy, unconcerned population were undoubtedly created through sensationalized media and friend’s illegitimate fears. What I’ve discovered is that Ghana is a vastly rich country, filled with intelligent hardworking humans, resources of epic proportions, and opportunity. I truly believe Ghana has a bright future, if selfish international (and unfortunately domestic) interests are brought to light and changed. Instead of selling the precious diamonds, gold, and oil at inhumanely cheap prices, only to be either imported right back and sold with a large mark-up or sold to the rest of the world, Ghana should focus utilizing the multiple resources it has.
First, modernizing the power-grid through solar power and wind turbines would provide consistent energy, jobs, and confidence from companies who desire to bring manufacturing. Continuing to pursue companies to relocate factories from Southeast Asia to Ghana will result in less dependence on the three main exports and a wider financial base for the country to stand on. Additionally, investment in local processing plants for cocoa pods, coffee beans, cashew nuts, and other raw materials will ensure Ghana earns the rightful financial return from its precious goods. Lastly, Ghana must continue to relieve dependence on foreign imports and focus on producing crops on the vastly fertile soil.
I’m ecstatic to return to the states with confidence in Ghana and newly formed friendships. Ideally, my stories will encourage other travelers and businessmen to consider the unique and precious country of Ghana. Thank you for an eye-opening experience.