Every country in the world has its own culture and traditions that reflect the uniqueness of its people, and Ghana is no exception. The West African nation is a prime target for international volunteers looking to make a difference on the continent while experiencing the best Africa has to offer.
Known as being ‘all of Africa’ in one location, Ghana is renowned for its varied environments and biodiversity, authentic African culture and warm, welcoming people. Like anywhere else you could visit for a volunteer vacation, though, Ghana has its own identity and quirks - some of which may be surprising and different from life back home.
If you’re planning to volunteer in Ghana, keep reading for an insight into what you can expect; learning about life in another country, the local population and the main lifestyle quirks can help facilitate cultural exchange, acceptance and tolerance during your volunteer visit.
Hissing means someone wants your attention
Wherever you’re from, you’ll understand the ways in which local people from your hometown will try to get your attention, whether by saying ‘excuse me’, calling out, whistling or otherwise. In Ghana, the most common way of getting the attention of another person is by hissing at them.
To visitors, the loud hissing noise can be alarming unless you know what it means. In some cultures, hissing is a sound of disapproval, but in Ghana it simply means that somebody wants to talk. It’s not uncommon to hear hissing in the street, at the market and even in the middle of a restaurant when somebody wants the waiter’s attention, and because the sound carries well, it is usually successful in achieving its end.
After a while, you may start using this means of communication yourself; at first it might seem quite strange but you’ll soon discover it is the most accepted and effective way of communicating with the Ghanaians you’ll meet on your volunteer vacation.
Visitors from abroad are called ‘obruni’
Visitors to Ghana are often referred to as ‘obruni’ by the locals, which means foreigner. The term is much used to describe visitors, especially white volunteers who are in the minority in Ghana and easily recognisable. Obruni is a general term and not meant to cause offence in any way.
As an obruni in Ghana, you can expect to encounter certain types of behavior, especially if you are very obviously from overseas. There exist certain stereotypes in Ghana, where white foreigners are often imagined to have lots of money. With this in mind, it’s worth being wise with your money. At the market, hawkers may call out to you and try to sell you their wares; in Ghana, many ‘obruni’ don’t know the worth of goods and are unfamiliar with the local currency – don’t be pressured into parting with your cash!
Young children may also come running over simply delighted by the novelty of your presence and keen to find out more about you, while obruni women can also receive unwanted attention from the locals. It’s best not to react to this harmless flirtation, which is part of the culture.
Ghanaians are among Africa’s most peaceful people
Some parts of Africa are associated with crime and civil unrest; not Ghana. The West African nation is among the continent’s most peaceful destinations, so much so that it regularly features near the top of the Global Peace Index for Africa, above most other countries.
Many volunteers travel to Ghana to experience life in Africa without the risks associated with other nations on the continent. Ghanaian people are warm, welcoming and grateful for the help of international volunteers.
Ghana is also a tolerant and democratic nation that prides itself on peaceful interactions with others. Despite being a developing country, Ghana is moving with the times; religious freedom, an uncensored media and democratic elections are just a few examples of the nation’s efforts to maintain an ethos of harmony and peace.
Lizards are as common as squirrels and pigeons
If you’re volunteering in Ghana and traveling from Canada, you’ll know just how common squirrels are back home. Likewise, if you’re traveling from the UK, you’ll be familiar with the ever-prevalent pigeons that are so common they blend in with the background. In Ghana, the most common creatures to be seen dotting the sidewalks and scaling the walls are little green lizards – a far cry from the furry or feathered critters you may be used to!
There are all sorts of lizards, big and small, that live in the cities and further afield, causing no harm and passing by generally unnoticed by locals. Of course, from time to time, the lizards can enter buildings, which can give visitors a bit of a fright!
Geckos, monitor lizards and many other species are common in Ghana; tiny house geckos can be found scurrying through buildings while agama variants may be seen on walls and ceilings, hunting insects that are attracted by the light. If you’re lucky, you might also spot a slower-moving chameleon during your volunteer vacation.
Pregnant women eat clay
In Ghana, it is commonplace for many pregnant women to supplement their regular diet with clay, mined from the ground. This may sound peculiar to foreigners but it is an aspect of the local culture in Ghana, where many women report craving clay in the same way as others might crave a tub of ice cream or a jar of pickled onions.
Usually, the white clay called ayelo or shile is consumed. This mineral-rich clay is dug up, processed and sold at local markets throughout Ghana. Sellers of the clay extol the benefits of clay consumption, which is reputedly an ancient remedy for pregnancy-related nausea. Other reputed benefits include the reversal of heart and respiratory conditions.
Because clay is mined from the ground, it contains minerals and, similarly, traces of metal oxides. The jury is out on the proclaimed health benefits of eating clay, with concerns raised about the cleanliness of the substance and the effects it could have on the digestive system, but this Ghanaian tradition is centuries old and showing no signs of dying out.
Most Ghanaians are bilingual
Although the national language of Ghana is English, the country has at least 79 identified languages in total, many of which are tribal tongues or dialects originating in the different regions according to the diverse ethnic groups that occupy each area.
English became Ghana’s national language after colonization by Great Britain in the early 1900s and the majority of Ghanaians speak English as well as at least one other language – usually one of the tribal dialects. While most Ghanaians are bilingual, many know three languages and some even more than that!
Although 79 languages have been identified, it is thought there are more than 200 tongues in total in Ghana. The most common tribal language is Akan although many of the tribal tongues are sub-groups of other local languages, thus easily understood among tribe members.
Water is sold in sachets
Ghana is a developing country lacking in the basic provisions of many Western nations. More than 40 per cent of the 25 million people living in Ghana do not have access to safe water, especially in the poor rural areas. For this reason, drinking water is usually sold in bottles, or small pouches called sachets.
The popularity of water sachets is growing as a convenient way to enjoy a refreshing drink on the go.
Sachets of water are sold all over Ghana, from coolers in the street, in shops down the sidewalks, alongside the motorways in carts and by individual hawkers who appear anywhere traffic gathers.
Sachets usually contain 500 ml of water and can be discarded after use, making them handy and less cumbersome than bottles to carry around. Just be careful they don’t burst in your bag if you stock up! The water sachet phenomenon has created a litter problem, however, so please put your empty sachets in the bin or, if you can’t find a refuse bin, take them back to your volunteer accommodation where there will be a bin.
Ghanaians are named after days of the week
Ghana’s largest ethnic group, the Akan, traditionally name their children after the day of the week they were born on. Many Ghanaians are descended from the Akan tribe and so the custom has remained popular to this day, with a specific male and female name for each day. These day names are bestowed upon a child along with other ancestral and religious names.
The names and their derivatives not only refer to the day of the week, but also to characteristics believed to go along with each day. According to Ghanaian tradition, Monday’s child is nurturing and dependable, while Tuesday’s child is a problem-solver with a balanced attitude.
Ghanaians usually have a number of names, often including an English or Christian name and a middle name that may refer to their order of birth or whether they are a twin. Commonly, Ghanaians’ middle names will be inherited from another family member.
Ghana uses Greenwich Mean Time
When you volunteer in Ghana you’ll probably expect to have to get used to an entirely new time zone but if you’re traveling from the UK you won’t have too much to acclimatize to because Ghana – like London – uses Greenwich Mean Time (GMT).
Associated with bodies connected to the UK, like the Met Office and the BBC, GMT is also used in Commonwealth countries like Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. Although Ghana was colonized by Great Britain in the late 1800s, the nation proclaimed independence in 1957 but has remained under the GMT time zone.
Greenwich Mean Time is also known as Greenwich Meridian Time, dating back to 1884 when it was established because the Prime Meridian (line of 0 degrees longitude) runs through Greenwich. Every 15 degrees longitude is equal to an hour of time, making it possible to work out the time anywhere on Earth if you know how many degrees east or west of Greenwich the destination is.
Cedi currency is named after seashells
The use of shells as monetary currency is not unusual historically; in Western Africa, shell money - known as cowry - was legal tender until the middle of the 19th century. The Ghanaian currency cedi is named after the Fante word meaning cowry shell, which was first introduced as currency in Africa during the 14th century.
Cowry shells belong to a species of sea snails with porcelain-like shells; they are thought to have been introduced to Africa through trade with merchants from Arabia, at a time when the slave trade was at its height.
The value of the shells was greater in Ghana and other African nations than the supplying regions, which made trade in cowries lucrative and the use of shells as currency quickly became widespread. Modern coins were produced and used in Ghana from the late 1700s but cowries were also accepted as currency until 1901.
Ghana is a fascinating place with diverse traditions and age-old customs. When you volunteer in Ghana, spend some time exploring and find out more about the nation’s history and the cultural quirks that make up Ghana’s rich tapestry of life.
The Ghanaian population is comprised of many ethnic groups and tribes, each of which has its own unique culture and customs. Some traditions may be different from what you’re used to, but it is these customs that make Ghana such a uniquely appealing destination. The Ghanaian people are largely peaceful and respectful of one another, and towards visitors – expect to be treated with kindness by friendly locals when you show them the same courtesy.
With more than 70 languages, a diverse array of environments, unique styles of music and dance and fantastic, flavorful cuisine, there is much to discover when you volunteer in Ghana. With a little research and the help of your volunteer abroad coordinator, you can explore so much more than the usual tourist hotspots and get under the skin of the nation for a truly authentic African experience. Download the program brochure to find out more.