Sometimes I trick myself into thinking that two years of living and working in this country has made me an expert, that nothing can surprise me, and that I’ve basically got it all figured out. I’ve realized recently that those sentiments are probably not reflective of the whole truth. Sure, I’ve learned, integrated, grown, and become more comfortable here, but recently, I’ve encountered more than a few surprises about the place that I call home. Maybe more importantly, though, I’ve surprised myself with my reactions to recent events. I want to share a few examples of what I’m talking about with you today, and interestingly enough, they both deal with different understandings of time and the value that is placed on it. Although anecdotal, I think they further cement in my mind the idea that there are some ways in which my own culture and upbringing is bred very deeply within me, and there are some ways of life that I might never fully understand :).
After waiting on probably hundreds of buses/tros/taxis/cars to take me on various trips around the entire country over the past two years, I found my mouth gaping last week in my most recent adventure away from the village. A friend and I decided on a whim to finally visit another volunteer who lived about 2 hours away in a big fishing village. We had been talking about visiting his site for a long time, so after finally picking the day, we set off on a Saturday morning to the bus station to get on the second (and last) bus of the day heading out to his place. It was around 10:30am when we got to the station, and we figured we’d have to wait about an hour or so for the bus to fill up and leave. As a huge storm rolled in about an hour later, we watched as everyone got on the bus where we were already sitting and were hopeful that a bus full of passengers meant that we’d be leaving shortly. To our dismay, we were still sitting at the bus station 3 HOURS later, at 2:30pm, having watched as the storm passed and all of the passengers got OFF the bus again to do various tasks such as going to buy supplies, chatting with friends, and eating food. We finally started asking the driver why we had been waiting for 4 hours for a full bus to leave, and he replied, without quite answering our inquiries, “oh you just wait a little, we’ll be leaving very soon!” Now, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to wait hours and hours for a bus to fill up or for some form of transportation to leave the station, so this type of thing shouldn’t bother me. But as we quickly passed the four hour mark of waiting for the bus to pull out of the station, I found myself very frustrated. These frustrations became even more pronounced when I watched as a mechanic, who had been sitting around for a few hours eating food and chatting with his friends, got to work fixing the starter on the bus. In my mind, this problem could have been addressed, oh, I don’t know, 4 HOURS AGO when the driver realized that the bus needed some fixing and called the mechanic over, but clearly me and the driver (and every other, uncomplaining soul on the bus) were on different pages. Finally, at the 5 hour mark, I watched as they finished fixing the bus and STARTED to load the supplies onto the back of the bus. The driver had apparently been waiting for everyone to physically get on the bus before loading all of their things. The tricky part is, everyone had been waiting for all of their things to get loaded on the bus before physically getting in. Now, you might laugh at this bit of circular logic, but the amazing part is, it happens EVERY SINGLE TIME a bus goes anywhere in my region. Which is why I was slightly horrified at my outburst of frustration when I saw it happening, yet again, on this trip. I guess after a couple of years of seeing how inefficient (in my mind) this system is, and how much time/money is wasted while people stand around and nothing happens, I couldn’t take it anymore. My loud protests to the driver about my utter disbelief at the amount of time (namely, almost 6 hours) I had wasted waiting for a bus that could have left within 30 minutes of my arrival were greeted with a lot of belly laughing and a statement that went something along the lines of, “oh white woman! You don’t understand our culture! Haha! We will leave soon! Don’t worry yourself! We will leave at any time now! This is our way!” I felt a little offended at his accusations that I didn’t know the “Ghanaian way,” but also realized that my behavior proved exactly his point. As my frustration and surprise illustrated, I clearly DIDN’T understand the culture, or at least temporarily forgot, considering my American friend and I were the only two people complaining in a bus of over 100 people…
My next set of surprises came just a few days ago, when my colleagues and I had finally planned to hold a malaria workshop we’d been planning for several months. We had invited 12 villagers representing 5 communities to a workshop to train them on malaria prevention/treatment and how to conduct educational outreaches that would benefit their respective communities. I was excited about this project and we had put many hours into the planning and prep for the workshop to fit in as much education and hands-on activities as possible in a day’s worth of training. We planned for the workshop to start at 7:30am and go for the entire day, though we told the representatives to report to our office at 7am, anticipating that they’d be late. As 7:30 rolled around, I sat with two other volunteers and waited for not only the participants to arrive, but also our supervisor to arrive, who was bringing all of the supplies for the workshop and acting as our translator. 8:00am came and went, and when I called my supervisor to ask where he was, I found out that he was still in a large city about an hour away getting breakfast and had to pick up a few things before he made his way over. I was shocked. He was unfazed. “Don’t worry,” he said, “No one will show up before 9:30am anyway.” I think the only thing I said to him out loud was, “What?! Okay, whatever you say…” Though in my mind, I thought, “They were told to come at 7 o’clock! Surely all twelve Ghanaians wouldn’t show up to a conference more than 2 hours later than they’re supposed to! A few, sure, but ALL TWELVE, and YOU, my supervisor?!”
I sat and sulked and even started loudly questioning what would happen if no one showed up to the workshop at all. All of that money down the drain, all of the wasted time and effort, and the embarrassment of planning a project that utterly failed were just a few of the dramatic consequences that I found myself conjuring up. I don’t know if I’ve ever had a project go exactly as planned or ever had a meeting start on time during my service, but I still found myself in doubt over how this program could possibly be anything but a total wash. Sure enough, as the time neared 10am, villagers started to stream in, and my supervisor arrived shortly afterward. The workshop ended up being very successful, with EXTRA people showing up for the training and every one of the participants walking away with new knowledge and skills that they can now share with their communities. At the end of the day, I found myself shaking my head in awe at how successful it had been after all of my worries and doubts.
I share these stories with you both to release some of my own frustrations and to illustrate how my understanding of the value of time, the success of a project, and the importance of having a schedule STILL differ from a lot of my Ghanaian counterparts. I have certainly learned a lot and changed the way that I do things since coming here, but there are still so many differences that amaze me on a day-to-day basis. I think maybe I’d amend that popular old adage to say something like, “You can take the girl out of her culture, but you can’t ever, fully, take the culture out of that girl.” Yeah, that sounds about right.