Down to Earth

What can I say about Ghana?

One does not come here for scenery. It’s pleasant—tropical forests, hills, coastline—but none of these terrains is spectacular. What sets Ghana apart, as I’ve written again and again, is its people.

Ghanaians experience the same poverty, primitive infrastructure, public health concerns as any country in West Africa, and they do it cheerfully. Most of them live literally close to the ground: everywhere but Accra, pavement is reserved for major roads. Marketplaces, town squares, village celebration centers have dirt surfaces. In a country with rainy seasons, this can mean a great deal of mud. They take this in stride—they’ve never known anything else—and dance in it, shop in it, go to school in it, work and play and eat and even sleep in it.

Living so close to the earth, their cultural mores are earthy. Common bodily functions are nothing to be ashamed of. Privacy is minimal, and the facilities for relieving oneself are often no more than a crack in the floor for urine drainage. Men urinate into gutters in public places. Ghanaian humor is matter-of-fact about subjects that cause many in the western world to blush: the school play we saw featured a dildo as a prop, and no one in the audience—which included both the very young and the elderly—seemed at all put off by it. We, on the other hand, accosted Kofi at the first opportunity for an explanation, which he was happy to provide: the scandal in the play was not that the town fool was playing with a dildo, but that people were inhospitable to him.

The muggy climate makes gravity feel much more substantial in Ghana. Building their lives around an equatorial climate that has only slight seasonal changes, Ghanaians rise early and stay up late, making it possible to slow down for the hottest afternoon hours. Their dance is closer to the ground, too: knees bent, often crouching, squatting. Gravity is an intimate acquaintance, and unlike western dancers, they have no desire to break free of it.

Ghanaians are also down to earth in their approach to others. They are open, candid, genuine. Even hustlers couch their patter in a welcoming attitude that does not feel faked at all.

At first glance—and, to be honest, for much of my time there—Ghana seemed shabby, dirty, muddy. As time passed, though, I began to take these sights and smells in stride, and my impressions of the place shifted. Spiritually, I have always envied those who simply accept what the world brings them, then make something from it. Everywhere I looked, I could see Ghanaians taking the hand they were dealt and playing it with gusto, transcending the humbleness if their world and turning their joyous personalities into their greatest resource.


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