My First Lessons in Culture Shock

I first arrived in Ghana on a Friday. I remember this because I didn’t have any Ghanaian money on me, or even knew what Ghanaian money was called. Did other people come here knowing this kind of information? Then again, I know a number of people who still consider ‘Africa’ to be its own country, so I don’t feel too bad about this. But I did have a collection of American dollar bills. I was ready to go. American dollars: the currency of the world.

I didn’t notice the problem until the next day when I wanted to go for breakfast. I was the only white person there that I could see, and didn't know where I was supposed to be. (I arrived a few days late, according to my university’s timetable for this exchange program, but actually early, according to the lack of other exchange students here at the International Students Hostel at the University of Ghana.) When I woke up, I decided to get cleaned up from my fourteen hour flight and take a shower. It took me several attempts at turning the taps before I realized there was no hot water. Why then, one might ask, was there a clearly labeled hot water tap? Curious, if you have no intentions of ever having hot water come out of said tap. One might also ask: why would you desire a hot shower on an August day when you’re practically on the equator? And for that one I don’t have an answer, other than, it was very early and the sun wasn’t entirely awake yet. Also, when one is showering in ice cold water, one thinks about how wonderful hot showers are.

But back to breakfast. Cold but clean, I decided to look for food. The hostel’s…well, I don’t remember what this woman's position was exactly. She was simply the person at the hostel who told me what to do for those first few days. When I asked her what to do about breakfast on that first day, she pointed out the front doors in the direction of a market. I didn’t remember seeing a market nearby when I arrived the night before, but I guess I missed it in the darkness of the night.

So I started walking. I made it just outside the door before I felt like I had made a mistake. I scanned the (dirt) parking lot and saw nothing but more dirt, another building, and probably a whole lot more dirt after that. Where exactly was this market with breakfast food I so highly desired?

Two guards were sitting by the door, likely wondering who this white girl was and why she was just standing there. They were wearing army greens, which I thought might perhaps be a little excessive for hostel protection. But then again, I had only been there roughly ten hours at this point, nine of those when most people were sleeping. Perhaps this place was a little more dangerous that I thought. I went up to them, hoping they could give me clearer directions. No, no they couldn’t. All I got was another point in the same general direction as before. Excellent.

Off I continued, marching on the red dirt in my white sandals. I marched out of the parking lots, past a building that at some point was painted white and yellow but had transformed into a lovely shade of red (like my sandals). I turned a corner around the far side of the building and there it was. I didn’t recognize it as a market at first though. It was just a cluster of wooden stalls, all painted in mismatched bright colours and having signs like God's Grace Frozen Food. Actually, now that I’ve described it, it sounds just like a market. I’m not sure what I was expecting from a market, and though it seemed very appropriately market-like, this was not it.

the market at ISH

the market at ISH

I spotted the bananas first. Perfect, I thought, bananas are a wonderfully tropical breakfast fruit and one that I can surely afford with my dollar bills. I asked the lady for a dollar’s worth of bananas and gave her a dollar.

“Are you crazy?” she asked. She turned to other shopkeepers nearby, swinging the bill in the air as she talked. “Who is this American girl, bringing American money and thinking she can pay for our stuff with it?” Okay, I don’t know what she said because it wasn’t in English. But from her loud tone, this is what I imagined it to be. She consulted with a few others before handing me ten bananas. It seemed excessive. Ten bananas might last me two whole weeks at home, and certainly cost way more than one dollar. Not knowing what to do about it, I decided to just walk away.

Bananas felt more like a side dish, so I kept searching for a main course. I soon came across a stall with a young girl—I knew she was a girl because of her long skirt, not her bald head—making fried egg sandwiches. Now this is breakfast. “How much is a sandwich?” I asked.

“Two thousand five hundred,” she replied. Dollars? Okay, this is when local currency knowledge is useful.

“I have one dollar,” I said and pulled out a bill. There was more conversation in the language I hadn’t heard before. The banana lady came back, took two of my bananas, and left again. Two men and someone I imagined to be the sandwich chef’s sister came to watch me shop. I became very confused. As it turns out, American money is not so useful when you’re no longer in America. I got my fried egg sandwich to go (wrapped in a black plastic bag) and headed back to the hostel with my remaining eight bananas. The two men followed. The guards stopped them from coming in with me. Now I saw the purpose of the army suits.

It took me until Monday to learn that ice cold showers are the best when taken in the afternoon, I was not to speak with market boys, and an egg sandwich costs 2500 cedi or 25 cents.