Monday, 20 February 2017

12 Things I Wish I Knew Before Travelling to Africa

Having been in Ghana a mere three weeks I still have a lot to learn about the local culture and customs. Yet already I become a little hardened to the traditions that effect me daily. Here is a list of things I wish I had learnt before setting out on my trip to Western Africa:

1.     You will stick out
·      I mean, I knew I would be noticed but it is hard to describe the level of attention I get at any given moment of my day. Obruni- is what they call white people, and I hear that word literally hundreds of times walking down the street, children’s mouths go agape at the site of me, women pull my hair on the bus and men are constantly making kissy noises to get my attention.  Even though I may not be the first Obruni they have seen, it is still uncommon enough to call attention to.
2.     Sexual Harassment is a cultural norm
·      Not only do the men gawk at me but they follow me down the street, tell me they love me and want to marry me on the spot and even grab at me. All these are apparently typical of the Ghanaian and even African man but only more intense to the stand alone Obruni who draws more men than usual. Being a solo traveller and a plus size women I am further targeted for my apparent wealth and birthing hips. Basically I have to get used to it, grin and bare it and stand up for myself when I think they’ve gone too far.
3.     Say hello to everybody
·      In my first week I learnt that everyone says hello, good morning, good afternoon, it is customary.  It has felt like I have been inundated with welcoming words to the point that they were overwhelming. Now I am being proactive and making sure to say hello first, people are generally more pleasant when I make this small effort and return with “you are welcome”.
4.     People are blunt
·      Ghanian's especially are somewhat blunt with realities we in the western world tend not to talk about openly. If you have a pimple on your face they will point it out, if your hair is messy they will pull on it and tell you, if you are overweight they will straight up tell you ‘you are fat’. Sometimes a waiter will notice I have finished my meal and say you are fat do you want more food, other times it is a child saying “you are fat, I like your face”. In any case it is a plain observation I have been hiding from my entire life and even though it is ingrained as shameful to westerners it is seen as a sign of wealth and excess here. Again, I grin and bare it.
5.     The food is spicy!
·      As a self-proclaimed wimp I am fully trained in asking for no spice when ordering food. Though everyone’s definition of spice is so varying I mostly look at what’s on the kids menu as a cheat to see what will have less ‘flavour’. This doesn’t work here, even kids can handle dishes that to me taste like pure hell fire released on my tongue. With tears streaming down my face I always try to push through, much to my digestive systems dissatisfaction
6.     Dress Up
·      Here’s me with my hiking boots and t-shirt, around me everyone is stylish AF! In Ghana, they take a lot of pride in their appearance and despite the heat everyone dresses sharp, especially for work. I immediately regret nearly everything I brought, and all my favourite dresses I left behind. It can also be seen as a sign of disrespect to dress down as it is perceived I do not deem the people worthy of the effort, hopefully the new dresses I’m having made will help my image.
7.     Learn the local languages
·      Even though they told me everyone speaks English, they really don’t use it for day-to-day chatter and in some of the rural villages I will be working in. I wish I had spent time before I came getting in a few more basics but instead I will have to learn as quickly as I can here.
8.     It’s hot!
·      Ok now you’re going, Mel, what were you expecting it’s Africa! But the heat is just constant and inescapable. I would have taken more consideration in the things I brought because things melt! My fabrics are too heavy; my hair needs to be up all the time and I need industrial strength deodorant!
9.     The Internet sucks
·      Though the average adult African has 3 cell phones the networks coverage is as sparse as the food is spicy (so lots!) Even uploading this blog can take an entire day, patience is a virtue to learn whilst you are here.
10. You will always be the outsider
·      Sometimes I feel like the people I work with would have preferred a monetary contribution over having me, other times I am overwhelmed with their gratitude, either way I am always cognisant that I will never be fully accepted by the locals who sometimes hold a bit of resentment for my presence.
11. Friends back home will forget you
·      Not on purpose, but soon enough everyone will move on with their lives and forget that you are isolated on the other side of the world with hardly anyone to talk to. Those few calls or messages I get count a million times more when the long days of solitude are broken up with friendly voices.  
12. You will question your intentions
·      I am constantly checking my motivations for being here, questioning its validity, quietly chastising myself for coming.  Will any of this matter? Have I just fallen into the very same stereotypes I’ve been trying to avoid? Am I just another white girl on a voluntourism trip to Africa? When everything else weighs down on me I think about how hard I need to work to prove it all wrong and how much of an impact I can hopefully have with the people I work with.  

All the best until next time,

Melanie XX


  1. Love this honest post. Reminds me of how I sometimes felt during fieldwork in Vietnam. On difficult days, treat yourself well (it used to be boiled peanuts, a beer, and MTV Asia for me). On the great days, think of how much you're learning and growing. I am proud of your observations and questions-- they mean you are observant, sensitive, and not arrogant (all great qualities!). I'm sorry you weren't better informed by your organization about what to bring and how to dress. We were well prepped that way. Consider paying it forward by dropping some of these insights into a short PDF or other doc for others at the org, as you go. Just because you don't hear from us often doesn't mean you aren't missed very much! Take good care. Enjoy the journey! Ps I got boob and pimple comments all of the time in Vietnam, even from children : /

  2. Why did you go there without knowing about the culture and climate beforehand? And in USA 1 of every 3 women at work are victims of sexual harassment. Your country would be no paradise on earth even, but spreading bad words about others is easy.