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Projects Abroad volunteer meets local people in Ghana

Getting Ready for Ghana: How to Prepare for Cultural Differences

Limit culture shock and embrace a new way of life in West Africa

By Thom Brown | 31st March, 2020

When you travel from North America, Europe, or Asia, stepping into Ghana for the first time reveals immediate cultural differences. Go in with an open mind and be prepared to be flexible to ensure that your experience is as seamless as possible.

Here are our top tips to prepare you for the cultural differences you’ll find in Ghana.

What are the Most Notable Aspects of Ghanaian Culture?

Church on a hill in Cape Coast, Ghana

It’s impossible to summarize an entire culture. However, on arrival in Ghana, you’ll notice a few differences fairly quickly. For instance:

  • Religion
    People in Ghana are far more religious, with Gallup naming Ghana the most religious country on Earth. Only 4% of citizens claim no religion, compared to 40% in the UK. On Sundays, most shops will close. Families will dress up in their finest garments for church and you’ll hear songs of praise ringing through the streets.

 

  • Talking to strangers
    Ghanaians are chattier to strangers in the street. They’ll whistle at you to get your attention and call out to you, especially if you look foreign. This usually isn’t because they want your money, but just a friendly way of expressing interest in you.

 

  • Personal space
    Local people in Ghana may also want to shake your hand in the street. This is another form of politeness. When riding the trotro, which can become cramped, passengers will push up against you without embarrassment. They just don’t have the same fear of invading personal space that other cultures have.

 

  • Public Affection
    Another thing you’ll likely experience is locals taking you by the hand. You’ll see groups of friends, of any gender, walking hand-in-hand. This is not a sign of romance, but an act of friendship. In fact, any act of public romantic affection is considered culturally unacceptable.

All these differences can seem confusing and contradictory. Just trust in yourself that you’ll understand it over time.

With this in mind, what cultural preparations should you make before you go?

Explore the Streets on Google Maps

Uneven road in Wli Ghana with a mountain view

Isn’t technology amazing? You’ll find yourself using it less when you arrive, but take advantage of it before you leave. Once you know the town in which you’ll live, you can start exploring the area on Google Maps.

Wherever you look in Ghana, you’ll see chaotic streets with open sewers, lacking pavements. You might see a mixture of modern luxury apartments and re-purposed shipping containers. This gets you in the mindset of somebody living in Ghana.

Think about how you would behave in this environment. Would you text and walk, while listening to loud music through your headphones? Or would you stay alert to other people and oncoming traffic?

In Google Street View, take a look at the people and what they're wearing too. You’ll notice long and modest clothes, including collared shirts and closed-toed shoes. Use this information to ensure you dress according to local customs. Your Destination Expert will also advise you on what to pack for Ghana.

Embrace a More Relaxed Lifestyle

Ghanaians like to joke about “European Time” and “African Time”. Although in the same time zone, it’s the attitudes which are different. Being late in Europe is rude, but the good news is that you can stop worrying about it when you get to Ghana.

When someone suggests a time to meet, don’t worry if they’re up to an hour late. They’ll likely be apologetic, but it’s time to embrace a more relaxed lifestyle.

Public transport doesn’t run on schedules. Traffic and bumpy roads can make journey times difficult to predict. Power cuts and loss of WiFi can also contribute to delays. Use your project in Ghana to learn how to go with the flow. People move slowly, so adopt this lifestyle and try to find it enjoyable rather than frustrating.

If the concept of "African Time" is still a bit confusing, our staff can help you better adjust to the change - they are the experts after all!

Learn the Handshake

Young female volunteers shaking hands with Tom Davis in the office

Greeting in Ghana is important. People you meet will say hi and ask how you are before anything else. If you don’t greet someone, they may be less friendly to you later on. When you enter a local’s home, greet everyone individually.

With that in mind, it’s time you learned the Ghanaian handshake. This will show you’re already familiar with the Ghana way of life. It helps build a close bond with anyone you meet.

Start with a right-handed high five, but grabbing the other person’s hand when you make a connection. Next, lower your right hand so you are doing a regular handshake. As you let go, snap your middle finger against theirs. You should hear a loud click.

It might seem tricky the first few times, but you’ll get the hang of it. Once you do, you’ll feel part of the culture.

Get Used to Using Your Right Hand

As a leftie, this is something that worried me. Before I left the UK, my research informed me that the left hand isn’t used. Ghanaians consider it dirty and will use the right as much as possible. Whether for eating or handing over cash, always use the right hand.

In my experience, this is largely true, but not entirely. People do tend to use their right hand, but won’t make an issue out of you using your left. Just do your best.

Before leaving for Ghana, I practiced using a spoon and water bottle with my right hand. After a while, it becomes natural. Nevertheless, where writing’s concerned, I will always use my left.

Ghana culture will take some getting used to, but learning about new cultures is one of the coolest experiences you’ll have! Arrive at your host accommodation with an open mind, ready to explore these differences and allow them to change you for the better.

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