"We need your help."
The words were those of Nana Amisah, the owner of the land upon which the small town of Kuntanase, in the central part of Ghana, is built. (Nana is a title.) Nana Amisah explained the needs of his community and how I, perceived as a rich white Western visitor, might be able to help. I even had the offer of a school or clinic named after me—assuming I would pay for it, of course.
But it wasn't just in comparative wealth that I was feeling the difference between the cultures. At the end of my two-week visit to Ghana in December I was feeling the difference more than usual.
Traffic Jams, Torrid Heat and No Toilets
We had gone to Kuntanase for Sabbath services. Accompanied by Pastor Richard Dua, we had been scheduled to visit Pastor Ofori Manu and his congregation a 2 1/2 hour drive from Accra, Ghana's coastal capital.
At least, that's how long it normally takes to get there.
On this particular Sabbath, however, a small town en route had decided to hold a special Christmas market and traffic was backed up for two hours. There we sat in our car in extremely hot and humid weather with no air conditioning. Sweat just poured off me and my clothes were soaked through. I had no prospect of cleaning myself up for 48 hours as that night I was to be dropped at the airport for my return trip to Michigan.
When we did finally get there, we had to walk the last mile as the side road was blocked by a traditional Ghanaian funeral attended by an indeterminate number of people. Naturally, that last mile coincided with noon, the hottest time of the day, and was uphill!
By the time we reached the hall, this old obroni (Twi for "white man") was breathless and V-E-R-Y uncomfortable. I was drinking water by the bottle and was still thirsty. The congregation of 96 people had been waiting patiently for my arrival and was ready for my sermon. Delivering a sermon at noon in the heat of the West African bush is quite a challenge—my glasses kept steaming up and I had to keep closing my Bible to keep the sweat from ruining the open pages. The corrugated iron roof only made the heat more intense. I was hoping for some air to circulate through the windowless building, but nothing moved—least of all, me.
Sadly, because it had taken four hours to get there, we had to leave soon after the service in order to get back to Accra before sunset at 6 p.m. But as we were about to leave, a message came from Nana Amisah asking me to come and greet him.
In West African culture, nothing is more important than the greeting. Wherever you go, whomever you visit, whomever you might bump into while walking down the street, must be greeted. "Hello. How are you? It's a pleasure to see you again. How is your family? How is the farm? How are your goats and chickens?"
No matter how anxious a hot and sweaty obroni might be to return to "civilization" (at such moments defined as any building with air conditioning!), the greeting must be completed or offense can be given.
So we walked back down the hill (slightly easier, but by this time it didn't matter anyway), past the funeral procession ("Mr. Rhodes, Nana says you should greet those attending the funeral." "All 100-plus people? We'll be here all day—I have a plane to catch!").
By this time I needed to get away as soon as possible. It wasn't just the heat. Eight hours after leaving the hotel nature called and I needed to go somewhere, as soon as possible. I asked where the nearest appropriate facility was and was disheartened by the reply, "21 miles from here." "21 miles???? And how long will that take?" "Mr. Rhodes, the road is bad, full of pot holes. It will take an hour, maybe slightly less."
And we still had to greet the Nana! A hurried greeting is more insulting that not greeting at all, so I had no alternative but to grin and bear it.
We entered the Nana's home. There were fans in the living rooms. "If he has fans, maybe he has the other thing I need," I reasoned. But it was not so. Few homes in Ghana have toilet facilities—most people just use a hole in the ground. Only hotels in big cities built for Western visitors have flush toilets, along with a few Western-style restaurants and businesses.
Realizing that there was a need to get moving as soon as possible, the two Ghanaian pastors kept reminding the Nana that time was short and I had to return to Accra for my plane. We were soon able to leave. But now Pastor Ofori Manu's landlord also had to be greeted. Our walk through the town continued as we went to his home. When we got there I personally was relieved that he had "gone out" and therefore could not be greeted. We were now free to depart and begin the one hour journey to the nearest bathroom!
Greetings a Top Priority
The importance of the greeting in West African society cannot be overly stressed. It is very much a part of the local culture which, at times, can seem quaint to the Western visitor, but at other times (see above) frustrating. It is one of the first things any visitor to Ghana must adapt to. Observing visitors making this adjustment is often quite revealing and always interesting.
When it comes to time, America and Ghana are at opposite ends of the spectrum. Americans are very time conscious, whereas Ghanaians have little concept of time.
Many years ago, a Ghanaian told me a joke about a native of the country visiting Mexico. The man had a few hours to kill before catching a flight back to Ghana, so he hired a taxi and guide to show him around Mexico City. He began asking the taxi driver questions. "I keep hearing this word mañana a lot. What does it mean?" The taxi driver explained: "No hurry. Tomorrow. Maybe. Do you have a word like that in Ghana?" asked the cab driver. The Ghanaian responded: "No, we have no word like that in Ghana that conveys such a sense of urgency!"
It's quite an adjustment for Americans who like everything to begin (and end) on time, who want to get as much done as possible in the shortest possible time and who certainly don't want to waste time greeting everybody at great length. A simple "hi" should suffice, with a brief wave of the hand.
An American businessman once told me, soon after we first arrived in Ghana 25 years ago: "You know, signing a contract here means nothing. It won't hold up in court. It's not until the Ghanaian businessman takes you by the hand and walks you down the street introducing you to all his friends that you realize you've got the deal!" (Yes, men hold hands. That's another custom—maybe a subject for a future article!)
In Western culture probably nothing is more important than money and time. "Time is money" is a famous saying. In Ghanaian culture, time and money are not as important as people. No matter how much time you might lose or how much a delay could cost you financially, greeting people comes first. It has to be done. In my mind, I've sometimes likened it to my upbringing in the north of England—whenever anybody came to visit, my mother would automatically "put the kettle on" to make tea for the visitor, whether he wanted a cup or not! It had to be done. That was the local culture and nothing could interfere with it.
The apostle Paul writes of the importance of "redeeming the time" (Ephesians 5:16). But have we ever stopped to realize that this can be interpreted differently in different parts of the world? To Americans, the words convey the need not to waste time, to always be doing something, as this is thought pleasing to God. To the peoples of West Africa these words would have no such meaning.
Rather, noting the wider context of the passage Paul wrote, the emphasis would lie elsewhere. "See then that you walk circumspectly, not as fools but as wise, redeeming the time, because the days are evil" (verses 15-16).
Faith, Family and Friends
We live in a time when the world is full of great evils. It is clear to many that things are only set to get worse. Ghanaians are aware of civil disturbances in neighboring countries between Christians and Muslims that could threaten Ghana itself. Many also remember a time 20 years ago when Ghanaians suffered horribly through famine and political upheaval.
What helped the people survive was faith, family and friends.
Ghana is a very religious country. Of course, most of the religion practiced there is false religion. Satan has deceived them just as he has deceived the rest of the world (Revelation 12:9). But their varied religious beliefs are very important to them and give them a strong faith. A great deal of time is spent on religious practice, including all day (and even all night) church services.
Along with religion is devotion to family and friends. Culturally, relationships are far more important than making money, advancing a career or accumulating things.
Without realizing it, the culture has stumbled upon a great Christian truth, revealed to us in Matthew 22. "Then one of them, a lawyer, asked Him a question, testing Him, and saying, 'Teacher, which is the great commandment in the law?' Jesus said to him, '"You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind." This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like it: "You shall love your neighbor as yourself." On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets'" (Matthew 22:35-40).
I've traveled widely and I can honestly say that I know of no other people more friendly than the peoples of Ghana. Many visitors comment on this. It is incomprehensible to Westerners that a nation with an average income of $25 per month can be happier than we are in the West. But they are. Perhaps that should tell us something?
The unhappiness that many in the West feel in their lives comes down to the fact that they don't follow the simple priorities set by Jesus Christ. Rather, they put money first. Time is money, which means that there is little or no time for a relationship with God or with their fellow human beings. The result is a great emptiness that they try to fill with physical things, along with alcohol and drugs, both prescription drugs and illegal drugs. But these will never fill the gap, a gap that can only be filled by reestablishing priorities.
Yes, it can be frustrating sometimes having to "greet" everybody in Ghana—and it certainly takes time. But it's also an opportunity to bring joy to others, to show love and concern for our fellow human beings.
I may not be able to build a school or a clinic in Kuntanase, but I was able to represent the United Church of God and the United States of America during my brief visit to the town—building a bond between us that will long be remembered. UN