Counter Culture Shock

I’m home in suburban Portland now. All the streets, and most of the walking trails, are paved, signed, well-lit at night. There are more stoplights between my house and the Sunset Highway, less than three miles away, then I saw in two weeks in Ghana—and that includes the capital city of Accra. So why, during my morning run through the lovely Washington county countryside, did I feel more at risk than anywhere I ran in that strange foreign country?

Let’s start with driver manners: my initial impression was that Ghanaians love their car horns almost as much as New Yorkers. In time, though, I realized they were using them out of concern for each other, warning bicyclist, pedestrians, and slow-moving vehicles that they were about to be overtaken by a faster vehicle. If the people in question did not, or could not, move out of the way, the driver patiently waited behind them until an opening became available. When our bus passed other vehicles, the maneuver always started with a blast on the horn to let the other driver know what was about to happen. If the bus couldn’t make it around the vehicle before oncoming traffic got frighteningly close, another blast on the horn clued those cars or trucks into the need for slowing down, possibly moving to the side, until the bus could slide back into the proper lane. The only time I experienced a driver to sit on the horn and blast it repeatedly was when we found ourselves stuck behind other buses in Elmina that were taking a very long time loading up the school groups they had brought to the castle.

When I was running, I mostly stuck to the left side of the road, as has always been my practice as a pedestrian, making sure I could see oncoming traffic. I needn’t have, though: those times I was on the right side of the road, every vehicle, without exception, that passed me let me know it was coming with a gentle toot on the horn. Whether on the right or the left, every driver also steered as widely around me as safety permitted.

Contrast that with the commuters I duel with whenever I take a morning run from my house. Some make slight allowance for the presence of a runner on a narrow, shoulderless road, steering a slightly wider path around me, even venturing into the left lane if there’s no one coming. Some will even slow down a tad. Many, however, just barrel toward me, forcing me off the road, cutting things terrifyingly close, steering right down the middle of the lane. This is even more nerve-wracking when I’m cycling in the country, because now I must be on the right side of the road, and with no shoulder for me to ride on, I find these drivers zooming past me with just inches to spare. This would never happen in Ghana, where there are more bicyclists, none of them wearing helmets (except a few spandex-clad foreigners I spotted in Accra). Every driver seems to understand that in a contest between a pedestrian, a cyclist, or even a motorcyclist, and a car or truck, the larger vehicle will always win. So they take it easy and give plenty of leeway to the less-armored travelers in front of them.

Then there’s the opulence of my surroundings. I live in a starter neighborhood, the kind people move into when they’re finally earning enough to get out of an apartment and into a house. These homes are small, modestly appointed, and all virtually identical. Rent is not much more than it was for the town house we had on the other side of the community college campus. Most driveways feature recent-model Japanese cars, a few SUVs, a pickup or two. It’s a home that probably falls right around the median for American houses: newish, roomy enough, but lacking in personality. Most of the people in this neighborhood aspire to something with more charm, and we’re no exception: once Sarah has graduated from high school, we’ll be looking for something on the inner east side of Portland.

In the twenty hours since I got back, though, I feel like I’m living in a mansion. I’m surrounded by conveniences I take for granted: a flat-screen TV, a grand piano, a dishwasher, clothes washer and dryer, internet connection, a closet full of clothing, three bathrooms, air conditioning, potable water.
More than these things, though, the clue that I’m not in Ghana anymore is the neatness of everything. I don’t think I’ve seen a scrap of litter since landing. Last night at the airport, I pocketed a piece of gum I’d been chewing because there were no trash cans in the passenger pickup area—even though I was right next to a construction site that I could easily have chucked that bit of gum into. We don’t litter here.

Ghanaians do, and much of what they drop on the ground whenever they’re finished with it is the most toxic of trash, the plastic bag. They drink treated water from pouches, then turn the bag into litter. This doesn’t happen as much with plastic bottles, though, because those bottles can be reused, and often are, by oil sellers in the marketplace who buy cooking oil in bulk, then distribute it in used water and pop bottles. If they could find a use for the plastic bags, I expect they would, but since they can’t, they toss them away as freely as a smoker grinds a butt into the sidewalk or street.

Smoking, though, is something I saw hardly any Ghanaians doing. That most ubiquitous of litter items, the butt, was not to be found anywhere. This probably has a lot to do with the cost of smoking—few Ghanaians earn enough money to support the habit—and there is a sadness to the thought that, to them, water is sold and consumed in the same fashion cigarettes are here.

I haven’t been out enough to be reminded how well Portland politeness compares to that of Ghana, but I am fully prepared for it to be a shock. When we of the Northwest see a stranger in the street, we may briefly acknowledge her or his presence with a nod of the head, but that’s it. There will be no complicated handshakes, no board smiles, no waving—unless the other is a child, in which case, while he or she may be very friendly, we’ll want to discourage that, because who knows what’s going on inside that stranger’s head? There might just be an abduction brewing.
I’ve often had the experience of returning from a long event that altered my perception of other people—a summer camp, a conference, an Orff course—and felt like I was plunging into icy waters after being in a sauna. People are not as friendly, not as generous, not as empathetic as they are in that other world I visited. I was at Costco this morning, and people were certainly polite, but there was none of the warmth I felt from people crowding around me in the marketplace of Ho. I also am less likely at Costco to feel a light touch on my arm as a child who’s never seen a white person tests to see if I’m real.

I’m not likely to have any child reach out to me, and if I reach out to the children of others, I run the risk of being considered a threat by their parents. We live in a country that is terrified of stranger danger, and so we teach our children to have phobias around adults they do not know.

We also live in a country in which shootings take place on a daily basis. The week I left, two young people died in a shooting at Reynolds High school. One more, and you’ve got the number who died of gunshot wounds in Dzodze since 1940. One of those three deaths was intentional, the other two were accidents, but every shooting led the town leaders to alter the flow of their drumming and dancing practice. Violence is rare, and when it happens, it is significant enough to necessitate a major adjustment to religious practice.

I don’t want you to think adjusting to Ghana was easy. The dust, the half-naked children, the primitive infrastructure, the sensory overload of the marketplace—there was plenty to spook me. But transcending these challenges and, in time, completely displacing them, was a sense that Ghana is the way the rest of the world should be: taking what the world gives us and, rather than demanding more, turning it into something that is more, and doing all this generously, with good humor and a welcoming attitude that surpasses any I’ve experienced. Add to that music and dance that flow as freely from the people as breath, and it’s no wonder being back in the United States feels like a rude shock to my system.

I’ll adjust. Portland is a wonderful place to live, and those who share this city with me are, by and large, nice people.

If only they danced more.


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