Over the years I have received many emails asking about expat life in Ghana. I appreciate that information about life in West Africa is hard to come by. Beyond gushy tales of self-styled adventure travellers, and the many fabulous blogs written by West Africans showcasing all that is new and emerging and should be celebrated about life here — there precious little about the daily grind. But after one-too-many emails asking me where to live (near where you work or your kid’s school) or where to buy meat (major supermarkets, local butchers with generators), I felt disengaged. I was providing a service with no thanks, which did not resonate with the voice that was truly mine.
I’ve taken a long break from the blog, to assess life, to work, to study, to take my time, to consider why I felt such a strange dichotomy between what I wanted this blog to be and what people expected it to be.
Unsurprisingly, like life in general, there was no epiphany. Just a slow dawning. Here are my thoughts about expat life in Ghana. No handy hints, no answers, just my honest opinion.
There are a 1000 ways to be an expat here. The experience of the diplomat is different from the experience of the company employee with a highly engaged HR team behind them, which is different to an employee with virtually no company support behind them, which is different to the business people who come on their own accord to make a life and a business here, which is different to the foreign spouse married to a national. I can’t tell you how it will be. Will you have a driver? Accommodation paid for? Utilities paid for? (lucky sods the lot of them).
But I can tell you what will make or break your assignment.
Your expectations and your attitude.
It is as simple and as difficult as that.
If you are coming from the developed world, your accommodation will not be the same. It may be a fabulous colonial era house, with the accompanying responsibilities of guards and a retinue of staff to manage. It may be an apartment in a compound, or a more modest house. But you will have problems with tradesmen, frustrations with ongoing power shortages, maybe densely mysterious electricity bills (ours have increased by approx. 150% in the last few months), a lack of water or a burst pipe, sometimes the internet will be flaky, sometimes it will be uninterrupted for weeks, maybe at dial-up speeds (hello this week) or maybe just great. There are 1000 ways to be frustrated here.
You will sit in traffic during the week and you will celebrate the empty roads on a Sunday morning. You will try and avoid meetings with the traffic police, but it won’t always be successful. Maybe you’ll drive a sexy black Range Rover, maybe you’ll catch tro-tros.
At the traffic lights you might choose to shoo away the window washing boys, but I promise, your heart will break with the endlessly cheerful, skateboard riding, disabled men. Some days you’ll shelter in the air-conditioned cocoon of your car avoiding contact with the outside world. Some days you’ll wind your window down and buy plantain chips and phone credit at the traffic lights and chat about the football, or decline the marriage requests for your daughter who is sitting next to you. There are 1000 ways to be frustrated here.
There are 1000 ways to be delighted.There are an ever increasingly number of malls and grocery stores for you. But you will not find the same brands, or the same quality. But the choice is increasing all the time. Maybe you’ll buy a Valentino dress or maybe you’ll have your local tailor custom-make you a wax print outfit. Colour will become part of your wardrobe. More often than not you’ll find sushi wraps (nori) or tamarind paste or golden syrup. You will go to several grocery stores to do your weekly shopping. You will learn to make balanced choices between $20 punnets of strawberries or 30c for a kilo of bananas, or 70c for the world’s greatest pineapple.
You might bemoan a lack of decent red meat, or eat a lifetime’s worth of chicken. Regardless, cheese will become an item to treasure. Your baggage allowance will be used up with precious, delicious treasures when you return from a trip home. There are 1000 ways to be complain here.
Maybe one weekend you’ll go to the beach. At the city beaches you might not swim, because no one wants to swim in effluent. But maybe you’ll head to Kokorobite, where you can bemoan the plastic bag(-fish) that swarm at your ankles. Maybe you’ll choose to play beach volleyball with the Rastafarians and buy lobster fresh from the sea balanced on the ladies’ heads who walk up and down the beach. You can watch the fishermen with their beautiful, unwieldy dug-out canoes drag their boats and catch into shore. You can choose to look at the beauty of their actions or you can choose to look at the plastic bags in the net. The choice is yours. There are 1000 ways to see a situation here.
Maybe you’ll head further afield and visit the UNESCO Slave Forts that dot the coastline. Maybe you’ll visit Sodom and Gomorrah where the world’s e-waste is sent. Maybe you’ll buy your herbs from an urban farmer whose field sits between apartment blocks and highways. Maybe you’ll visit a local school. There are 1000 ways to remember the luck of birth is a throw of the dice.
You’ll feel like socialising. Maybe you’ll sip Verve Clicquot atop the highest building in the land. Maybe you’ll sip beer at a chop bar on the side of the road, with Chelsea vs Man United playing at full volume. Maybe you’ll dance to the ancient beat of a West African drum. Maybe you’ll sip a G & T at an embassy residence. But you will meet wonderful people from Ghana and everywhere else, the only similarity you’ll share is a common language and the fact that you live in a small West African country. There are 1000s of people to meet here.
I can’t tell you what your life will be like here.
All I can suggest is an open mind. It will not be just like home.
But that’s the point isn’t it?