Have you ever received that chain-email with pictures of the less fortunate in Africa? They usually remind us to be thankful for what we have with graphic images of Africans living in appalling conditions; an African child’s feet in sandals made of flattened plastic water bottles and raffia, school children drawing alphabets on the ground for lack of pencil and paper, school children crowded five to a desk in a darkened classroom, villagers collecting water where cattle and pets drink and bathe from.
Those were the images that flooded my mind before I arrived in Kumasi, Ghana as a volunteer intern for Journalists for Human Rights last summer.
Fortunately, the situation there was much better than what the email led me to believe. Based on IMF data, Economy Watch listed Ghana as The World’s Fastest Growing Economy in 2011. In terms of political stability, the 2009 Failed States Index gave Ghana the world ranking of 53rd place as the least failed state, second in Africa after Mauritius. This former British colony known as the Gold Coast is also known as one of the more NGO-friendly countries on the African continent. This has allowed the country to progress far faster than its counterparts to the east of the continent.
However, despite the admirable advancement in education, employment, infrastructure and economy, the reality of day-to-day life in Ghana still seems harsh to me. During my first few days in Kumasi I had to realign my expectations, and look past my menial discomforts. How can I complain when the average Ghanaian encounter these conditions on a daily basis? The small things I found discomforting were rarely regarded as anything other than normal.
Take, for example, the issue of basic sanitation. I was initially annoyed by the constant flooding of the bathrooms at the guesthouse where I lodged. Water outages were also a common feature of my morning rush to get ready for work. Then one of my colleagues at work asked if I could connect him with an NGO. He wanted to help his community gain access to proper toilets as they were currently non-existent in the Bosumtwe Lake District where he lived. I then learned that this is a common feature in many parts of Ghana.
According to a 2006 report by the Ghana-Netherlands Chamber of Commerce, 73% of Ghana’s Northern Region is without any form of latrine; in the Upper West Region: 79%; in the Upper East Region: a whopping 82%. Over four million Ghanaians consequently resort to defecating in bushes and drains, a practice which exacerbates the spread of water-borne diseases such as diarrhoea, cholera, Hepatitis A and typhoid. I myself have borne witness to a countless number of public urination during my stay in Kumasi; Signs scattered around the city which read, “Don’t urinate here, fool!” no longer seemed funny to me; rather, they made perfect sense.
Suddenly, the flooded bathroom at my guesthouse didn’t seem half as bad. At least there was running water 95 percent of the time and the toilet flushes normally.
During my pre-departure training in Toronto, I was warned about the myriad trivial things that people from first world countries tend to gripe about. they’re commonly known as “first world problems.” My displeasure at my fully-functioning bathroom was one such example. Thankfully, the reality of life in Ghana gave me a reality check. Now I find it a little bit harder to complain about things; I’ve seen people survive under much harsher conditions with nary a complaint.
Whenever I find my part-time job to be too burdensome, I remind myself of the school-age children in Kumasi carrying bucket-loads of food on their head, hawking their wares from car to car amidst choking exhaust fumes in the hot sun to eke out a living. When I’m on the verge of griping about my internet connection being too slow, I remind myself that 97 percent of the world’s population don’t even have access to a computer. When I find the service at my local Tim Horton’s outlet to be a little too slow, I remind myself of the more than ten million people in East Africa dying from starvation.
I bet they wouldn’t have complained if the toasted bagel they ordered took a few minutes longer than usual.