I wrote the blog below in September 2017. At the time, I had been living in Ghana for over a year. While I no longer work full-time in Ghana, a lot of what I wrote still remains true.
I always had a special but distant connection to Ghana. I often used the traditions as excuses for my parents’ rules and actions that sometimes clashed with my Canadian way of thinking. Shouting over the phone during my conversations with my grandparents were integral to my upbringing. Having a faraway home with people waiting to receive you with open arms is weirdly comforting. After a huge effort to understand the Ghanaian culture and history as well as the desire to meet my extended family, I decided it was time to go. While I visited at the age of 4, my love with a touch of hate relationship with Ghana really began about 3 years ago when I came to visit for the first time as a young adult. For my Masters, I came back in 2016 for four months and studied the mental health of Ghanaian women living with breast cancer. The food, the music, the people, the sense of freedom and most of all the potential to make a great impact on people’s lives were so enticing especially for someone with an entrepreneurial drive like myself. For these reasons why I decided to come back and work.
While I am much more settled now after 9 months, at times, I still have a bit of difficulty adapting. It’s mainly due to unrealistic expectations I had before coming to work and also trouble getting accustomed to doing things the “Ghanaian way”. Here are some of the 4 things to keep in mind before you moving to a new country, especially a low or middle income country:
1.DO NOT ROMANTICIZE YOUR RETURN It only comes with disappointment. Watching An African City, I had this idea that I‘d be sipping drinks every other night (which I don’t do because that’s a lot of money) with my girlfriends (which I don’t have because they live in Canada) in Accra (I live in Kumasi). Understand that if you are coming to settle, things take time. If you are a broke recent graduate like me, know that you will not be living the high life and Ghana is actually more expensive than you might think. As someone born and raised in Canada, I am only now establishing friendships and a network here. There will be times where you feel lonely. Do not let the loneliness consume you. Start that project. Go to that event. Learn to be comfortable doing things by yourself.
2. YOU ARE NOT A SAVIOR There’s nothing wrong with wanting to make a difference but do not think that you will save the country. Creating change especially behavioral changes cannot be done overnight. No matter how well intentioned your plans are, there will be bumps on the road to achievement. I’ve learned that almost everything takes a little (or a lot) longer in Ghana. Keep in mind that you might need to expand your project timelines.
It is not uncommon for an expat or NGO to come with what they feel to be a life-changing and impactful business idea or solution for a particular problem. Then they arrive to find that the people have already produced a local solution and are unwilling to modify their behavior. Better yet, the organization, so enamored with their idea, fails to do proper research of the environment and people and cannot adapt the solution to the local context.
Part of recognizing that you are not a savior involves revising your plans often so that they reflect the realities on the ground. It is also understanding that people will not flock to your idea just because of your level of education, your level of work experience or because you’re from a higher income country. Ask yourself if what your are providing is culturally sensitive, can easily be incorporated into one’s life and actually solving a problem. The best way is by speaking to the people and receiving honest feedback. Know that Kenkey seller’s feedback may be just as valuable as the doctor’s.
3.CHECK YOUR PRIVILEGE. Education. Traveling. Being able to settle in another country out of your own free will. These are privileges and not an opportunity afforded to everyone. At times, we can be inadvertently condescending. While you may be used to a way of doing things, you cannot impose that on others. Also, your way might not actually be the best way of doing things. Do not let your privilege make you think otherwise. Be patient and understanding. When interacting with anyone, from the Regional minister to the street vendor to the priest, treat everyone as a peer. Attempt to improve through collaboration while respecting the culture and context you are working within.
4.BUILD EMOTIONAL RESILIENCE Moving is a big life change. Moving to another country is HUGE! No matter how much you prepare, you are never really prepared. Building that emotional resilience can help reduce culture shock. Sometimes, I get comments and criticism about my weight, not going to church and the way I dress (among other things). Initially I would get defensive and it would trigger an emotional response. These are not things someone, especially in that tone, would say to another in Canada. Now, I’ve learned to not take things to heart. Most times, the comments do not come from a place of malice and even if it does you are already dealing with too much to add to your cognitive load.
Another aspect that helped build my emotional resilience was learning that it was ok to say no. For example, if you want to give, do but you do not have to.There is this notion that people who live abroad are wealthy (which is a stereotype expats definitely contribute to but that’s for another article). Just because you grew up abroad does not mean you need to give in to the requests of every single person (family or not). If you cannot afford to buy gifts or can only bring something small, do not let anyone shame you and do not let the guilt consume you. While expats definitely contribute to that stereotype, we know this to not be true in all cases.
Coming in with an open-mind and understanding will save you much irritation.These considerations can help set up the proper mindset for the return and mitigate your expectations.
If you asked me two years ago where I would be, I probably would have said that I would finally be in Medical school. Ghana would have been my last answer. While I get very frustrated (often I must say), I soon feel inspired to learn more, work harder and improve myself in any way I can. Anywhere that inspires you and pushes you to be the best version of yourself is exactly where you need to be.
Let me know your thoughts below!