I keep to myself most of the time for several reasons. First, I used to hang out with other twenty and thirtysomething expats and returnees who either came to Ghana for adventure or job opportunities. I learned the hard way that many of them were fair-weather friends or 酒肉朋友.
For those people staying long-term, I recommend you keep your expat friends to a minimum. They cannot help you navigate living in Ghana. Surrounding yourself with expats insures that you’ll always be paying top dollar (cedi) for anything you purchase. Furthermore, they will not necessarily know where to find a good electrician, taxi driver, plumber, guard, or maid. Many do not read the local press so will not understand the changing political and economic winds.
Lastly, many expats stay in Ghana for relatively short stints of 3 months to 2 years. Talking to them basically involves reliving the first 6 months of my time here. Their growing pains involve rehashing my own adjustment to life in Ghana. After a while, this gets to be a tired conversation. I’m more interested in working through my issues with Ghanaian staff than simply identifying their idiosyncrasies.
Over the years, I have tried to surround myself with Ghanaian “returnees”. Returnees refers to those who have left Ghana for school and/or work but for some idea have decided to return to Ghana to settle down. In my experience, the majority of these people went to the UK but a fair number also went to the US.
Returnees can be your bridge to local life here. Many of them may be obligated to funerals and weddings. They are going through many of the same challenges you are but are culturally sensitive as to the underlying causes. For instance, they can explain why everyone seems to be busy on Saturdays; they can advise on who to avoid because of reputation; they can tell you how to find a good ______ .
They probably went to good international schools in Ghana and studied at top schools abroad. Education is a strong value in Africa. More often than not, they are the owners of businesses here so they can introduce you to the right person in Customs and/or Immigration. Moreover, they can advise you on how to do business in Ghana. I have written posts on doing business in Ghana as an expat. For the moment, let’s just say that Ghanaians don’t really like foreigners. They like dealing with their own.
The main downside to hanging out with returnees is that they have many of the same obligations that local Ghanaians have. Thus, they tend to be very busy. A secondary disadvantage is that many — not all — returnees are not that attuned to the life of the average Ghanaian. To really understand Ghana and Ghanaians, you need to work and/or socialize with average Ghanaians.
Since I employ a handful of Ghanaians, I can understand many of their concerns. I usually ask people where in Ghana they are from and which party they support. These factors seem to cloud how they think. Average Ghanaians are the most sensitive to changes in fuel prices, the availability of power, political issues, and whatever event or holiday that is fast approaching.
But I draw the line at working with Ghanaians.
I have tried to hang out with average Ghanaians but find it difficult to relate to most of them for a few reasons. First, most Ghanaians are devout Christians or Muslims. They tend to attend service twice a week. Second, there’s generally an economic divide between us. Most Ghanaians cannot eat or drink where I enjoy and I’m not a fan of eating food out of bags. Thus, I always have to pay for my companion’s. Once or twice is fine but every time seems to be imbalanced.
Middle class Ghanaians have more means but I also find a gap in common experience. This week I went to my first Rotary meeting in months. I’m going to give it another try. Perhaps if I go to more meetings, christening, and funerals, I can forge a stronger tie with my fellow members.
In conclusion, I recommend any expat planning to stay in Ghana for a while to try to integrate as comfortably as they can into the local culture. Find returnee and Ghanaian friends to help you navigate the cultural and every day obstacles to living here.