This visit to Cape Coast was my first visit to the African continent. My husband has been to the Democratic Republic of Congo and to Tanzania several times, but I was never able to join him. I had a sense from him of present-day African life, but no direct experience.
Since returning, several people have asked questions about what life is like in Ghana, and they’ve been surprised by some of my responses. While there, our hosts asked several times if Ghana was like what I expected. They seemed to have a sense that American expectations of Ghana differ from reality.
So here are a few observations that surprised me a bit and may surprise others.
1. Ghana is a modern country. Here are scenes from Accra, the capital. I wasn’t fast enough to get pictures of the Mercedes and Land Rover dealers. I never saw a McDonald’s or a Starbucks, but we passed several Burger King and KFC stores.
2. The airport is lovely. I didn’t take pictures because that seemed too touristy, but it was about the same size as the Indy airport. The international arrivals terminal is new. There are fewer gates because they use the international system whereby you’re not allowed to hang out at the gate until it is almost time for boarding, so there is time and space for shopping, meals, etc. The country is ready to welcome visitors.
3. Almost all of the roads we encountered were paved. Some had pretty deep potholes, but no worse than roads in the Midwest after winter. When we hit some unpaved roads near Kakum National Forest, Father Theo said almost apologetically, “You probably don’t see roads like this in the US.” I told him we do have many unpaved roads in rural areas in the US, and we struggle with potholes.
4. As we drove, we passed a lot of construction. People are building large homes, apartments, businesses. This is true not just in Accra and Cape Coast, but also in areas outside the cities. There were stores and gas stations nearby. These areas felt kind of like suburbs in the US.
5. We also passed many areas of poverty – small one or two-room homes crowded together, no running water, a shared well, etc. Impoverished areas do appear more economically challenged than in poorer neighborhoods in the US, and many people are struggling to get by, but there was a strong sense community life. There are people in the US with a similar standard of living, and the gap between wealth and poverty seems less wide in Ghana than in the US. Children are required to be in school, but there is not a strong system for ensuring that they do, so some children do seem to fall through the cracks. The Diocese is exploring starting a ministry to address this.
6. The food is wonderful. We ate lots of rice, plantain, and fish. I’m not a fan of fermented or pickled foods, so I didn’t enjoy fufu or banku, which are made from a fermented corn dough. But I loved the stews that went with them. And the pineapple was the sweetest I’ve ever eaten anywhere.
7. This is probably too much information, but there was soft toilet paper in almost every restroom – not just in hotels or tourist areas. I carried tissues just in case but only needed them a few times. Most restrooms were sparse but clean. I’ve seen worse in the US.
8. People shop in markets, so you see a lot of stalls and sellers on the streets and in outlying communities, in addition to shops. Some communities have markets one or two days a week, and others are open every day.
9. We were told that jobs are a challenge in Cape Coast. Young people who get an education tend to leave to work in larger cities or in other countries. Most folks I met who are in school are focused on IT, engineering, sciences, etc. People with an education can work as teachers, in government, or in hospitals. Outside of that, many are “self-employed,” meaning they sell things. The Diocese is working on some projects that will create jobs for young adults in the community.
10. The country is beautiful. The coast is gorgeous. The forests are very alive. From a distance, they look like North American ecosystems, but the trees and plants are very different. Our guide at Kakum told us a medicinal use for almost every tree. The biodiversity of the African rain forest is a gift worth preserving.
In summary, I found Ghana an exciting, creative, resilient culture. The economic challenges they face are similar to challenges we face. They have much to teach and share. They don’t seem to need or want “helpers,” but they welcome “partners” in mission and development.
The featured image is me holding beautiful necklaces handmade by Fr. Theo’s wife Ivy given as we all said good-bye. We weren’t expecting these exquisite gifts. It’s a symbol of the many surprising gifts I encountered on the journey.