Yesterday, Valentines Day, is one year since we arrived in Ghana as a family. I hardly know where to begin to make sense of this year and our new life.
Other than to start with the irony of arriving on Valentines Day. We moved to Ghana to be together as a family (Bill was previously FI/FO from Australia), and this past year has provided enough challenges to any marriage. But, thankfully, we have come through stronger and more resilient.
Ghana, for us, has been full of contractions and opposites. On the mine where Bill works, we ride our bikes past galamsey miners and through villages, where all but the chief, are desperately poor. But we have seen more than our fair share of fancy hotels this year. We buy cheese which is the average Ghanaians daily wage. But we eat baskets of tomatoes and mangoes from roadside stalls. We access the internet while driving on back roads through the countryside to school. We are surrounded by our developed world “stuff” from home: computers, iPods, good glasses and heavy cutlery; but we love visiting the markets and buying second-hand clothing. It has been the vast differences between the haves and the have-nots which I have found most confronting this year. I do not know how to make it sit easier with me, and I expect it never will.
I love the ubiquitous good manners; the essential morning greetings. Faces of young and old who burst into smiles when you smile or wave first. But I am confused by the blank stares and utter avoidance of eye contact from shop assistants. I am frustrated that the colour of my skin marks me as a walking ATM machine. I am confused as to how wealthy Ghanaians can treat their less fortunate countrymen with disdain. I am deeply saddened when Bill’s work colleagues feel they cannot comfortably knock on our door. I don’t like the hierarchy of wealth and status. I love the ingenuity of getting something fixed using what is at hand; but the lack of attention and care to detail drives me crazy. The bribes and expectations of ‘dash’ being paid, the inherent expectation that if you want something done (sometimes done faster, and sometimes just done) you need to pay. And being an obruni can mean you pay quite a bit more. But this is counterbalanced by genuine helpfulness of some people.
And as to the children? Ask them on a good day, and they are pleased with the move. Ask them on another day, and the answer will be quite the opposite. They have been homeschooled, to a Ghanaian school with profound differences in pedagogy and discipline, and now attend an international school, which has proven the best fit. They have had to make friends, deal with bizarre racist taunts; and at then end of day, come home and play together again, and again. No distractions of playdates or after school activities. They have learnt to deal with less, and with repeated and heady doses of disappointment when things (as they often do), don’t work out according to plan. But this is not a bad thing. They have learnt to appreciate what they have, and that if something breaks or is not cared for, it cannot be simply replaced.
They have learnt how lucky they are to have been born in Australia.
And let’s be honest, they’ve had their fair share of Fanta, good hotel swimming pools, care package TimTams and Twisties, slingshots (are they even legal in Australia?) and Wii games. None of which were major features of their lives in Australia, it’s not all about learning life’s lessons!
And us? The biggest lesson has been one of expectation management. And while I still feel my fair dose of frustrations, the first world expectation that things will work out first time, has long been lost. We’ve learnt to make a plan, to roll with the punches, and make another plan. Situations, attitudes and experiences which would have brought me to tears in the early months, can now be met with gritted teeth, a sigh, and sometimes even a smile.
The key to managing expectations, other than having none, is to remain flexible. When we were planning the move here, I swore till I was blue in the face that I would not take a place in Kumasi and single parent in Ghana. Nigh on a year later, guess what we have found to be the best option for our family? Yep, single parenting during the week, and seeing Bill on the weekends. In addition to being much happier at school, this move has greatly increased our social life (and when you are starting from a base of zero, it has been a great improvement). But for all the challenges of living as the only expat family in Konongo (and a very small number of expats overall), now that we have had the experience of living in Kumasi as well, I am pleased we have had our time in Konongo. While I still envy the relative sophistication of Accra, our experiences in Konongo have, I believe, shown us a more realistic view of Ghana.
At the end of a particularly challenging week recently a very wise and dear friend sent me an email, which elegantly explains expectation management.
Here is what she wrote to me:
When we were in India last time … we had a time when we were waiting for hours late at night with all the kids for “the driver “ to come. Every time we tried calling him , “Yes, sir I have left, I am just around the corner, sir, I be 5 minutes.” So we reflected while we all waited about why we were all so tense and anxious and annoyed & how does this country and the people here function like this. After much discussion I came up with the word/term “adjust” said with a tilt of the head and Indian accent of course and there you have it. It sums up all.
How do 9 people squeeze into a rickshaw to get from A-B? They adjust their position!
How do school kids walk to school in 40 degrees? They adjust their thermostat
How do people get to work on time? They adjust their hours of work
How do people live with constant blackouts? They adjust activities accordingly
How do people cope with no personal space? They adjust their need for space
Etc etc etc.
The whole way of life/culture/basis is: You adjust, you be happy, you don’t adjust you always unhappy. Your degree of happiness is directly proportional to your degree of “adjust”.
This past year has also given us the most extraordinary opportunity to travel, which has been a wonderful gift for all of us. But as we enter this second year with school being much more stable, we find ourselves, just as we had at home, now tied more closely to school holidays. And as I feel more ‘at home’ here, the desire to travel, and lets be honest, to run away has lessened. We have a pet, my phone has the numbers of car mechanics and tradesmen and school teachers. And however transient this life can feel, there is a life here. A mundane and ordinary life. And that is a good thing too. And there is so much more to learn about Ghana. A week, or even sometimes a day, doesn’t go by when I am not surprised by something!
But as we look to the future the need to plan and to get things done sometimes rattles through my head incessantly. We need to visit the Monkey Sanctuary at Boabeng-Fiema, we need to show the children the slave forts at Elmina, and visit the beach at Axim, and the elephants at Mole. And wouldn’t it be wonderful to see friends in Tanzania later in the year, and Italy in summer and… and…. and….The list goes on forever, and it is, of course, unattainable.
And that’s the gift of this life. While we have sacrificed friends and family, stability and an easier normality; we have gained a close-up view into a different culture, being able to meet people from all sorts of walks of life and the opportunity to see a little more of the world. It’s not forever; but for the moment it is (as they say in Ghana) ‘fine’.
Thanks to everyone for reading and commenting on this blog over the last year. It’s been fun.