Living in Ghana

Many of the more adventurous people reading this blog will have contemplated a stint working in a developing country with an NGO. Some of you may already have done so.

I talked about work in my last blog, but what is it really like living in Ghana?

People say ‘hello’ and shake your hand, differently. Now I know it’s a cliché, but absolute strangers do say ‘hello’ in Ghana. Luckily, English is the official language, so I can converse with most people if I keep it simple and don’t disappear in a flurry of idioms. But whilst people say ‘hello’, there is a certain reserve. I expected something more Italian and in fact, it’s a bit more British. That’s apart from the handshake, which involves shaking your hand, grabbing your middle finger and then ‘snapping’. I haven’t worked it out yet, but it’s strangely intimate. The ‘hello’ also needs some care, it can lead to a request for money, and in 1 case, someone asking to be my personal assistant. Mostly though it’s genuine and people are trying to look after you, for example, if you have just tripped up whilst walking along the road in the dark.

Shaking hands
The Ghanaian Handshake

Pedestrians have a tough time in Ghana. And don’t risk cycling. In the city, roads are in a variable state, and often, there is no pavement.  When GDP per head (PPP) is about 1/10th of the UK’s, this is entirely understandable. Less money also impacts investment in health, electrical supply, provision of clean water and sanitation.  But, still a lot is done with limited resources here.  Just imagine London if GDP per head was cut by x10? This brings me back to tripping up on the road, which is what I did last Monday, acquiring a slight limp and a big bloody graze down my left arm. All my own fault of course, and no, I wasn’t drunk. I was walking back from the gym.

Look where you're going next time
Look where you’re going next time?

The gym and other distractions. Will I be as big as a house when I get back in December? Who knows. To try and avoid this, I found a gym where I can get sweaty jumping up and down a bit. But what else am I doing with my free time? Let’s face it, I am on my own a lot; this is not a group assignment. If you can’t cope alone, I wouldn’t do this sort of assignment. I prepared with a 1GB hard drive of DVDs, a supply of Lavazza, and a fantastic audiobook App from the Barbican library. Here are some highlights:

  • I Claudius. BBC TV, 1976. I watch the entire series every 5 years. Remember, don’t touch the figs.
  • Peter Grimes. BBC TV, 1969. Benjamin Britten conducts, Peter Pears as Grimes. Tragic and brilliant.
  • The Paris Peace Conference of 1919. Audiobook. Margaret McMillian, Canada’s answer to Mary Beard. Very easy on the ear.
  • Letterpress. More aggressive than scrabble. Often ends nastily for me.
Luckily, the sweaty pink faced Obroni* is out of shot

Whilst Kumasi doesn’t have the same metropolitan distractions as London, I was lucky enough to be invited to a funeral.

Funerals are not the same as in the UK. Funerals are big, happy and sad events. This may sound odd, but they are celebrations of the deceased, so it’s OK to have a bit of a party. I was kindly invited to a thanksgiving service last Sunday which was a real eye-opener into Ghanaian culture. There was singing, dancing, really loud music and quite a long sermon. Luckily, no one was subjected to me dancing in church; having being brought up a Catholic, the only thing you did in front of the altar was genuflect and make the sign of the cross. So dancing didn’t feel quite right. Perhaps next time.

The Funeral dress code was black and white

And remember, look after yourself.  I sometimes use this phrase when parting from friends. In Ghana, you really need to. At home, no thought is given to the safety of food and water. Except in North London. In Ghana, you wash in tap water but that’s about it. When eating, my rules are that all vegetables must be cooked, if its stood around I won’t touch it, and easy for me, no meat. If there is no obvious refrigeration, then fish is also out. This seems to have worked fine,  touch wood. The other fact of life is Malaria. The prevalence of Malaria in Kumasi is quite frightening. In the rural areas, it’s even worse. One clinic we work with is treating about 10% of the local population for Malaria each month. So in 1 year, you may succumb twice or more. Your average ‘Obroni’* like me, has no acquired immunity, so we get really really ill (Clin Microbiol Rev. 2009 Jan; 22(1): 13–36.). So listen up everyone, use a mosquito net, slap the repellent on and take the Malarone!

Clean clothes
The joy of machine washed clothes

‘Obroni’*= a Twi term that means foreigner, particularly those with a white skin. Often applied to me by old people and children but not considered offensive.


  1. Robert, I so enjoyed reading your blog! Thanks for keeping us updated. I have taught so many people back home the Ghanaian handshake. It will become second nature after awhile. When I figured it out, they said to me…. You are finally Ghanaian.

    And if you think funerals are a celebration, wait until a wedding. I was invited to be in a wedding whilst I was in Ghana…. lots of church, lots of dancing, lots of celebratory ceremonies, lots of dancing in church! Enjoy and touch base if you need anything!


    1. Hi Christie. Thanks for the feedback and your help over the phone the other week. The handshake thing is the strangest isn’t it? Robert

  2. Robert..I took a look at your blog. You so clearly described “living in ghana”. Soon you will be eating fufu and urinating at the roadside! Thank you for our service at the labs in the bush. You are quite the sturdy lad..being tossed to and fro on your car journey. I have some advice. do not listen to Mama T much she sees the glass as half empty which will prove to be a good perspective as she drinks some vino.. game of scrabble with a novice?

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