Of the many different cultural adjustments to be made when coming to Ghana, one of the most important is understanding the process and significance of local greetings. There is a list of about ten different, basic greetings and connected conversational pieces to learn. These are relatively easy to learn and use, but the biggest challenge is the sheer volume of times in a day you greet people and people greet you. It is incredibly important in Ghana to greet people and acknowledge them, far more so than anywhere I have ever been before. Even if you do not speak (due to noise, preoccupation, distance, etc), people will wave, nod, and bow as a sign of respect to those they pass. Especially as a foreigner, people are curious about you personally, want to make friends with you, want to see if you are familiar with the language, and want you to feel welcome and a part of their community. But, as someone without this experience, I had multiple challenges to work through in order to adjust to this cultural aspect. I had to accept bowing or kneeling, I had to accept the attention, and I had to realize the social value.
When I left religion, for a long time I had asserted that I would never bow to anyone or anything ever again. So much time on my knees before a god had given me a bitter taste in my mouth with regards to the action. So when I first arrived in Ghana, I had a strong resistance to allowing myself to bow to greet elders I met, especially coming from a personal and cultural belief that individual virtue was respected, not age. I was shown quickly that this was something I would have to get over. Within the first few weeks, we were meeting chiefs to which bowing or squatting is the only option. Anything less is unacceptable.
When we were first learning greetings and realizing the frequency with which we would be greeting people, it was quite a shock to the system. And for the first four months, it was extremely draining to try to follow local culture. I was not used to interacting with so many people in a day, and it would completely wear me out by the time I had returned home. Though interpretation of the situation was inaccurate, I felt like I was being gawked at as some form of entertainment for the locals to yell at to see what would happen. When I was already feeling out of place, already feeling like everyone was staring, already trying hard to integrate and adapt, and when I was not used to this kind of interaction with so many people, I had an incredibly difficult time being okay with this aspect of my experience here. I was frustrated and exhausted.
One day, while riding to Kukuo, I had a long conversation with my friend and coworker, Lukeman. This conversation changed everything for me. I vented my confusion and questions, and I listened to his answers. This was a huge lesson in how cultural differences can mold perceptions, and how cultural adjustment is not only about the physical actions, but the spirit of those actions. He explained that it was not about me being some kind of show; it was about respect. Casual, sometimes comically communicated respect, but still, this was just how Ghanaians said, "Hi, I acknowledge you as a person. I acknowledge your existence. I acknowledge your importance."
After this ride, I realized that when I greeted, waved, bowed, and smiled that this was what I was saying. It was not obligatory; it was beautiful. From that point on, whenever I greeted someone, I would say this in my head: "I acknowledge you. You are important." And never again did this action zap my energy; It gave me energy. I was excited to greet people. I was excited to bow toward an elder. I was excited to wave and say hello to the hundreds of children I passed on a regular basis. I was excited to let people know, through their own cultural tradition, that I considered each and every one of them important – that they mattered to me. No matter our differences, no matter our worldview and life experiences, we are all just human beings. Seeing the smiles on their faces, their noticeable excitement when they heard me speak their language, and noting the obvious change in the tone of the conversation has become one of my favorite things about my experience here. In fact, I strongly hope that it permanently affects the way I treat people at home and anywhere else I visit. I want to carry with me the Ghanaian spirit of acknowledging my fellow person and acknowledging their value.
*The photo shows two friendly boys on the beach in Ghana saying "Amaaraba," which means welcome in Dagbani.
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