As we were getting ready to leave one thing that always seemed to come up in conversation was culture shock. Kind of like malaria, it supposedly manifested itself in different ways, hitting everybody slightly differently. So I filed the concept of “culture shock” away in the back of my head, read a few books and articles on Ghana’s history and culture, and having no idea what to expect, I figured I could just deal with it when and if it hit me.
However, the issue with this plan is that it assumed that I would know when it hit me.
For me culture shock manifested itself really subtly – I went into something kind of like denial, in the sense that on both the subconscious and conscious level I refused to try and comprehend where I actually was and what I was doing. Instead I simply reacted with things as they came up, and then moved on to the next issue.
There were a few instances where I actually noticed this phenomenon. On occasion I would try to look at “the big picture” but my brain would just stop and drift on to the next topic, as though after a couple of seconds of loading the subject I hit some subconscious firewall and was re-directed to something else. I also began to notice that I never felt overwhelmed by where I was or what I was doing; which, considering where I was and what I was doing, was kind of odd.
We also spent our first days in Accra in air-conditioned rooms doing pretty conventional training sessions, which might have also been responsible for throwing off my woefully inadequate culture shock radar. Even our sessions on Ghanaian culture generally didn’t sink in. Besides the occasional walk down the street or typical Ghanaian meal – with typical Ghanaian customer service (the term “customer service” has somewhat of a different meaning here) – our exposure was very sparse and consequently the hypothetical scenarios that we were presented with, seemed almost theoretical.
Once we got out of Accra, however, and into the much smaller town of Koforidua, we became much more deeply immersed in the culture. The change in cultural immersion can be compared to going from a bucket shower to the deep-end of a pool. We started buying fruit from the street vendors, haggling for cab fares and drinking water from the Ghanaian sachets (plastic bags); we also began meeting and interacting with a much wider variety of Ghanaians, from children to youth to adults. Then on Wednesday, for the first time in a while and five days after we arrived in Koforidua, I tried to look at the “big picture”, and much to my surprise, I was able to!
Since that day I have managed to avoid becoming overwhelmed as I’ve become more aware of the magnitude and the scale of the project I’m helping run, and hopefully this trend will continue. With the territory have come more occasional pangs of homesickness, but I would be willing to say that if that’s the price to pay to get over culture shock, and for the time being, they’re worth it.
In the following weeks I’m really looking forward to see how the culture shock wears off and how I adapt and absorb the culture, especially now that I’m aware of it!
-David Caughey, Youth Ambassador, Ghana 2012
David is part of a 5-person team volunteering in Koforidua, Ghana for 8-weeks. Keep reading for updates from all of them in the coming weeks. For more on our Ghana projects, check out the Ghana section of our blog.