Before coming here, I don’t think I really knew what to expect; probably something between Julia Roberts in Eat, Pray, Love and one of those two minute Save the Children infomercials that crop around Christmas time asking for “just two pounds a month.” I expected to have people running up to us, begging for food and water on a daily basis, I expected no electric, internet or phone coverage and I was sure that I would be living a life so alien from my own that it would consume the sense of fear and isolation that this trip would bring about.
As I write this I’m in the back (window seat, thankfully) of a tro-tro minivan. They’re the kind of un-sturdy vehicle you see in all the films about Africa; rows of 4 inside with lots of things, from bags to goats, tied atop of it. I’m travelling back from Tamale, a large city 3 hours south of Bolgatanga, where I currently reside. Initially when I came here, I was stunned by the size and built up nature of Bolgatanga. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still nothing like we know in the West, but there are shops, bars, super markets, hotels, restaurants; everything you wouldn’t expect when told you’re staying in ‘rural Ghana.’ I’ve considered myself very lucky to have access to the occasional over priced Mars bar or coffee and omelette when needed, yet I’ve felt refreshed in knowing that these are only rare indulgences, not to be relished in as a daily occurance. In Bolga, since being here, I’ve met about 4-5 other white people (Solmia’s, as we are affectionately named) not that race is something I think about – in fact far from it, I often forget the colour of my skin and my lank kinkless hair when I’m in town. It’s only when I’m alone and a group of children fight for my attention that I remember it’s because I’m like a Martian amongst them. Coming to Tamale (for a work trip) was exciting, a change of scenery (on week one we had a strict travel policy introduced meaning no travel outside of our community was to be granted throughout the 12 weeks – but that’s a different story) was much needed and rumour had it there were lentils and pizzas in Tamale. We arrived in Tamale dumbfounded at the size of the place – football stadiums and shopping malls have been so far removed from our reality that the sheer size of a building so large made us feel uneasy, lost and intimidated. The next stop was to meet other volunteers at their local hang out – Chucks, a western eatery and bar. The the smell of garlic and crisping dough on the way in was disorientating in itself, however upon walking inside I wasn’t prepared for what I saw. Solmia’s, Solmia’s everywhere. So many in fact, that I momentarily forgot my own race all together. There were fairy lights, an edgy concrete bar, wood fired pizzas, draught beers – all things reminders of the life we’ve chosen to leave behind. The experience was surreal. I’ve spent months, yearning and longing for home, dreaming of the food I will eat, the clothes I will wear, the baths I can have and the places I can go. And yet here it was in front of me – only 30 cedi (about £7) and I could indulge in a pizza topped with olives, only 22 cedi (about £5) and a Sex on the Beach cocktail was mine and yet my friends and I opted for salad and water, much to the amusement of our Tamale based colleagues.
One thing I have learnt about life here in Ghana is that every issue, every struggle, every upset or stress I have had in my life has in fact been quite the opposite. Everything from my parents getting divorced to the stress of my studies, from long shifts at little pay as a teenage worker, to difficult break ups or kids picking on me in school. Everything, absolutely everything that’s caused me to shed tears, lose my temper or keep me up at night has indeed been a massive Western privilege. I’m not trying to claim I’ve came here and suddenly had a Gandhi like epiphany, far from it. But the realisation that everything that’s truly impacted my life in a negative way has actually been a privilege is, thus far, the most overwhelming bridge I’ve had to cross.
The fact my parents were ‘allowed’ to divorce, that my mother didn’t have to have permission granted by the church and law. The fact that I have been able to study as a female, and will be able to go on and study for my MA and PhD should I wish it. The fact I have the freedom to work and earn a living to allow me to travel, explore and learn about cultures different from mine, and that my money is my money, and not earned then given back into a family fund. All of these normal day to day struggles of Western life, things you might send the kids to a counsellor for, or and overpaid therapist. Things you can discuss with colleagues, friends and family without fear of persecution or trial. All instances of the overwhelming humbleness that washes over you in a country like this. Never in my life have I felt grateful to have experienced the troubles I have and to come to the conclusion that they are quite as far from ‘struggles’ as is possible to go.
As I’ve said, I’m not expecting to come home some sort of yoga pant wearing, bandanna sporting, Russell Brand, come Gandhi, come Angelina Jolie, world warrior and activist – I know all too well that once I’m back in my ‘real world’ that these privileges will start to slowly but surely become matters for concern once again. I know that I’ll get stressed over my order taking time in a restaurant, or a shop being out of stock in my size… I can’t control the intoxicating nature of Western life, but I hope that when I next use the NHS, or I begin to feel overwhelmed by my MA work load, or I call out a man for a sexist remark in a bar, that I remember how privileged I am to be able to be upset over these things, and to confront and deal with them free of persecution or shame. I hope, therefore, that I can live my life with more understanding and empathy than I may have had before.