Last fall, I studied abroad in Ghana, West Africa, and am writing to share my experiences and motivations for going to Ghana. I know that’s probably not the exciting introduction you were hoping for, but I’ve spent the last five months trying to think of ways to begin to recount the trip, and I have realized that nothing is more unique or genuine than the facts themselves. During my semester abroad, I learned more important life lessons than I ever have in school. Here are the top five most useful lessons I learned while abroad.
Lesson 5: Never Be Stingy When it Comes to a Fan
Southern California is hot, and India is hotter. But Ghana, being right on the equator, has a climate of its own. With temperatures remaining steadily around 90°and humidity around 80 percent, Ghana is an extremely hot, sweaty place where everyone is always pulling out handkerchiefs to wipe the sweat dripping from their foreheads. Unused to the environment, my roommate Dean and I would consistently wake up sweating in the middle of night and constantly talked about how great a fan would be. However, both of us were stuck in the Ghanaian mindset, and a fan—with its 200,000 cedis price tag (about $20)—seemed like way too much money to waste on mere comfort. Finally, with only a month left, and after weeks of deliberating, we decided to stop being so stingy and purchase a fan, after which we felt like we were in heaven. Buying the fan was one of the best decisions of my life. It allowed us to sleep like babies, attract a lot more visitors (no more sweaty odor), and even kept away those annoying mosquitoes. Looking back, it was a valuable lesson: there are some things in life which have value that money can never match; you just have to make the purchase.
Lesson 4: Alcohol Isn’t Just Important in College
Now we all know alcohol is hugely prevalent in college. But one thing I learned was just how valuable it is half way across the world in a completely different environment. A couple of friends from the study abroad program and I traveled to a remote village to check out a local rock shrine. This village, Wassa Domama, was in a small, extremely friendly area in which we were able to meet and befriend a lot of local residents. After a night in Wassa Domama, we were offered a chance to meet the chief and village elders—an opportunity we could not turn down. Luckily, we had been told of the importance of pouring libations when meeting chiefs and elders, so we brought a small bottle of Schnapps to present to the chief as a gift. The extremely elderly chief, or “Nana,” was thrilled that we understood and had thought about their local customs; we proceeded to drink Schnapps together late into the night. That small bottle of alcohol, with the warmth and excitement it induced, really proved to be an amazing gift. Lesson learned: alcohol isn’t just for bored, college kids, but it speaks volumes to all age groups all around the world.
Lesson 3: Don’t Keep Your Marriage Plans a Secret
To provide some context, in Ghana foreign men and women (“obrunis”) are frequently offered marriage proposals by Ghanaians (some a lot more serious than others). By the end of the trip however, proposals had become routine, and we failed to take much notice of them. After my program finished, I was lucky enough that my parents were able to visit me in Ghana so I could show them where I had been living. While I was giving them a campus tour, a group of Ghanaian girls came up to me, and we started talking like old friends (everyone I met in Ghana was extremely friendly). My parents assumed the same. Within a few moments, one of the girls turned to my mom, and with the most serious face, asked her, “I like your son a lot. May I marry him?” Thinking we were good friends, my mom took the question to heart and was blown away and flabbergasted at the suddenness of it all. I will never forget that initial look of awe and disbelief on my mom’s face. I learned a valuable lesson: your parents really do care about who you marry. Don’t let it blindside them, because it won’t be pretty.
Lesson 2: Slow it Down, Turbo
Life in Ghana is generally far slower than life in the United States, possibly due to the lack of technology, less development, or just the weather. Your pace of walking slows down drastically (as you try not to break out in sweat), as does the number of tasks you can complete in the course of a day. Life in general has a far more laid back, relaxed feel to it. Another element of this type of lifestyle is that everything is far more personal, as there’s no rush to continually move on to the next activity. The interactions that we overlook here while we’re always moving on to something else are cherished in Ghana. There’s far more of a focus on enjoying the present than rushing to the future, and that entire outlook was remarkably refreshing.
There were countless times when I would try to request something (go to the bank or buy something from the market) in the American manner where you just state your business and expect results. However, with that attitude, no one would respond or be helpful at all. After looking around and observing, we quickly learned that every interaction in Ghana first starts with basic, non-business related conversation about family, friends, health, etc. Only after mutual respect was built through the greeting could “official” business be taken care of. It’s a lesson that I’m trying to translate here in America: life becomes that much more enjoyable when you focus on the personal connections built along the way and not only on the result you’re aiming for.
Lesson 1: Thank God for Paris Hilton
Of all the things I learned from time in Ghana, there’s one thing that will always stay with me: gratitude for what I have here. I remember I left for Ghana in the middle of yet another Paris Hilton fiasco and was disgraced at how low our country had stooped. But after being immersed in, not just exposed to, life in a developing country, with all the basic needs that go with it, my mindset changed. No longer am I annoyed by the U.S. media’s focus on useless news; rather, I am grateful that all many of us have to worry about is what new antics Paris is up to and not how many days we’ll have to go without water or electricity.
In Ghana, I met a high school-age boy, Abraham, who did laundry and menial tasks in the dormitory for wealthy Ghanaians and foreigners so he could earn fifty peswas ($0.50) and pay his daily transportation costs to school. Abraham is a brilliant, motivated, and ambitious young man, and I will never forget when he asked me one day, “Nikhil, how come you were born so you can travel, have money, and see the world, and I’m stuck here doing the same thing for my entire life?” I had no answer then, and I have no answer now, but it definitely drove the lesson home: I am extremely grateful for all I have and can no longer complain about the small things. There are millions of people who cannot even dream of the luxuries I enjoy.
My trip to Ghana was the most incredible experience of my life. I could go on with anecdotes about getting lost while backpacking through Togo, surprising locals by speaking the local language, Twi, in crowded markets, experiencing the food, language, music, and heritage of Ghana, being given the title “head of the royal family” in a local village, or simply learning to effectively and efficiently wash my clothes by hand, and shower and flush toilets with buckets of water. But beyond all these experiences, it was the clarity I got from my trip that made it so valuable. For once in my life, I was able to step off the path that seems to be so prematurely set for so many of us and experience a new culture, all while pushing my own limits and growing each day.
Nikhil Arora is a senior at the University of California at Berkeley.