Written by John Clement
Ghana Memories 1966 – 1968
The lizard in the toilet stared at me with matte black eyes and refused to be flushed. I couldn’t tell my male students apart; most of looked like Floyd Patterson, former World Heavyweight Champion, and carried pencils in their hair. Uniformed schoolgirls carried notebooks, ink wells and sandals over red gravel tracks to school and drum chants throbbed nightly from a compound hidden in the guinea corn. In the dining hall students ate with exquisite delicacy with their fingers from shared plates. In Tamale market toddlers played in the filth around the public toilet.
John, I’ve a feeling you’re not in Southern Ontario anymore.
Northern Ghana, September 1966, age 22, away from home for the first time.
The rhythms of Ghana are in my bones. Drumming, chanting, the cacophony of the multitude of tongues in the market, and daily life structured by the rising and setting of the sun. Without street lamps seeing anything at night depends on the cycles of the moon. After an overnight thunderstorm when clouds linger elementary school students may be late for class because they can’t estimate time by the height of the sun in the sky. Planting, growth and harvest are ruled by rain’s arrival in late March and the dry season ushered in by the Harmattan wind blowing south from the Sahara from late November to the middle of March filling the air with fine dust, cracking the skin of lips and hands and plunging morning temperatures to 25o Celsius.
I learned about teaching, about having clothes sewn by market tailors (new pants are copied from a pair of old pants – no measurements), about Islam, animism, kinship systems and about living in a country where the infant mortality rate was 50% and political stability was struggling to be born.
After three months when culture shock verged on depression I learned Ghana’s most important lesson. Interpersonal relationships matter more than anything else.
For three months I was uncomfortable extending myself to establish personal ties with market vendors, clerks in banks and stores and government offices and strangers who called out greetings in the street. I missed Canadian urban life where daily are transactions take place on the freeway model. People expect to get what they want with a minimum or personal interaction. Visitors to Ghana who fail to get off the freeway are likely to complain about poor service, lazy Africans and the need to use bribes to get anything done. When I overcame shyness and began to ask people about their families, to talk about my family and to call out my own spontaneous greetings I was welcomed in a way that overcame culture shock and wrapped me in a love and caring that I never realized was there. Example: two soldiers in a jeep offered me a lift home on my long walk from school. I started to tell them where I lived. “We know where you live,” was the reply.
My friendship with Elizabeth Adisah Iddi, a childless elderly market woman, remains one of the pivotal relationships in my life. “A person without a family is like a frog hopping down the road,” she said and she became my adoptive Ghanaian mother. I was invited to her single room in a mud brick compound for Sunday meals, she introduced me to her family and had her friends report to her when I overindulged in pito bars. One evening on the road with Adisah on my left a little girl grasped my right hand and we walked on together. I was home.