The past few weeks have been an incredibly rewarding and exciting time for me as a volunteer. A youth group in the community approached me about starting a small sanitation project, for which we submitted the grant application last week, and the two girls who attended our tie and dye workshop were able to use money from some of my generous friends and family in America to buy more supplies and get a head start on growing their fabric-dying business. In the midst of this, I have been helping to plan and execute another HIV education and testing event that took place during the past week. On top of this, I am picking up my friend Robin (who is visiting from Taiwan!) today at the Accra airport, and the health, water, and sanitation technical training is being hosted in my village for the next two weeks. Needless to say, things are pretty busy around here.
Next month, a new batch of volunteers will be swearing in, and last week I had the opportunity to meet several of them as they were passing through the Peace Corps office on their way to visit their future sites. This was both an exciting time for them and a refreshing time for those of us who have been here for a while, because there is nothing like the perspective of a trainee who has only been in the country for a little over a month. It really reminded me of everything that I’ve learned over the past year and how far I’ve come, as well as just how much work we’ve been able to accomplish, because sometimes these things are hard to see unless you’re looking in from the outside. Things that used to seem foreign and daunting, like figuring out the best means of public transportation or haggling with street vendors, have now become a way of life. It’s normal to share a taxi with a goat, or ask the bus driver to pull over to the side of the road so I can use the tall grass as a makeshift rest stop. I say all of this because I’ve been reminded of the ways in which my perspective has changed, and I think a change in your way of life can be a very powerful (and good) thing.
One of my Peace Corps friends is currently hosting her older sister, who is visiting from America. I got to hang out with both of them last week and we were comparing notes about the social and cultural differences between Ghana and America. I mentioned that since coming back from my visit to America, I realized how much of a customer-driven culture that America has developed compared to Ghana. We were sitting at an upscale restaurant at the time, and my friend’s sister pointed out that all of the wait staff were just sitting at a nearby table rather than actually waiting on customers. The thing about customer service in Ghana is that it often doesn’t exist, or at least not our notion of what customer service ought to be. We joked around about the fact that in America, waiters and waitresses would never be allowed to sit around at an empty table and wait for customers to tell them when they needed something, or call them over when they were ready to order. In our culture, behavior like that merits a strong complaint to the manager, or at the very least, a lower tip. Here, it is standard procedure to have to summon a server over to you several times to ask for a beverage or place your order. If you ask for a special order at a food joint in the states, the staff are expected to honor your requests to the best of their ability, and apologize profusely if they can’t. Here in Ghana , your request for a variation on a menu item is likely to be greeted with a blank stare or the declaration that the item you are asking for is not on the menu, therefore is not served. It doesn’t matter if the server is being asked to hold the onion or add extra rice on the side, the concept of “what the customer wants, the customer gets” is completely foreign to most food establishments here. This extends beyond just the food industry as well. At many hotels I’ve stayed in here, I’ve had to approach the staff to ask if they had any towels and sometimes even if they had bed sheets (“oh, you want a pillow? Sure, I can find one somewhere...”). I recently put a bag in the back of a taxi only to find out that my driver had put an extra can of petrol on top of my bag, therefore turning my backpack in to a soggy, smelly mess. Imagine your response in America if your bag ended up soaked and utterly ruined because a taxi driver had knowingly put an open can of gas on top of it. Imagine the response of the driver, or the apology you would probably be issued by the cab company for whom the driver was employed. Well, after my driver opened up the back and handed me my wet bag, my response was “Whoa, what happened?” to which my taxi driver responded by simply holding out his hand and tapping his foot on the ground, the universal sign for “anytime you want to pay my fare would be great. I’ve got other things to do here...” I let it go and paid my money, knowing that trying to argue with the driver or claiming that he somehow owed me, the customer, the basic right to a dry bag, was fruitless and likely to end in an argument on the side of the road.
I say all of this not to criticize the Ghanaian way, but to point out the ways that different societies put priorities on different things. In American culture, we have put a high value on customer service, no matter what good or service is being provided. In Ghana, the idea of tailoring your business to the customer’s every whim or going out of your way to please said customer is ludicrous, and frankly, a waste of time and energy. I must say, there are days when I wish I was back in the states, where the supermarket attendant doesn’t scoff when you hand her a $20 bill and require $15 in change because a store is expected to carry cash (If you try this in Ghana you’re likely to get turned down flat –“Madam, we don’t have any change!” or have to wait 10 minutes while your driver/waitress/gas attendant/market vendor tracks down someone, anyone, who might be able to break your bill). But I can also appreciate the fact that there is less of a “face” put on for customers here than there is in the states. A high priority on customer service often ends up manifesting in a plastered-on smile and a front that fulfilling the customer’s every desire is a pleasure. This fake and forced sweetness can get old pretty fast, and it is refreshing to know you’re being served by people who aren’t being nice to you simply because they want a good tip.