Why showing up for dinner unannounced is a good thing - in Ghana

Posted: Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Perhaps it is rash to claim that five months ago I was a different person. Yet prior to joining the Peace Corps and moving to Ghana, it was definitely reasonable to assume certain skills had not yet made their way into my repertoire of general knowledge.

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Consider for a moment a typical Ghanaian dinner. All too quickly I found I was without many skills necessary to carry out such a basic function. I did not know how to eat soup with my hands nor did I know how to carry the pot of soup from the fire to the communal eating area on my head (as the local women do). I was unable to catch a chicken, let alone butcher it, and I frankly had no idea what to do with a plantain apart from acknowledge its existence. But most grievous of all, as I have come to realize, I did not know how to invite myself to dinner. And so as the neighbors scratched their heads, I struggled alone to turn plantains into what I hoped with time would resemble something edible.

In retrospect, I was suffering from an affliction common to most members of a culture that prizes self-sufficiency who suddenly find themselves living in a completely communal society like Ghana (where I am learning it is better to be dependent). Upon my arrival, I was hesitant to ask for or expect hospitality lest I appear rude, lazy, presumptuous, or (worst of all) unable to provide for myself. These feelings extended far beyond simply taking too many free dinners. Knowing the carpenter had a family of six at home inspired a deep sense of guilt when he spent hours fixing the lock on my door free of charge. A vague feeling of pathetic uselessness set in after, seeing me struggling, the neighbours took away my laundry and insisted on finishing it for me.

Much to my frustration I was becoming more and more indebted to people I feared I would never be able to repay. I hadn't yet realized that in Ghana there is value placed on assisting your friends- value that extends far beyond time and money. I am slowly realizing that my fear of debt was ungrounded. In resisting the many offers of help I was simultaneously resisting chances to build human connections. It seems that contrary to exposing a weakness, here in Ghana accepting help establishes a relationship. It builds trust, acknowledging you understand the real question being posed is not "can I help you?" but "can I be part of your life?"

So now here I am: five months into my 27 months in Ghana. I can proudly say I am now able to eat with my hands, but after spilling a pot of soup, I no longer try to carry it on my head. And while I have discovered the many joys of cooking with plantains, I have yet to discover the joy of butchering chickens. But as for the real test: inviting myself to dinner? I know to expect more than simply dinner when I show up unannounced - something far more filling than plantains.

• Sophia Polasky, of Juneau, is a Peace Corps volunteer in Ghana, West Africa. She can be reached at scpolasky@gmail.com.

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