13 October 2011


The sun is getting heavy again.  It indiscriminately throws its weight around, like a reckless boy tossing those bundles of water sachets off the early morning delivery truck.  We are customers whether we want to be or not.  Before noon, the heat is draining; it’s like carrying around the entire truck, boy and sachet bundles included.  And by the time I’m home, the heat still hasn’t eased; it won’t, not until the sun realizes - almost incidentally, about an hour from now - that it’s time to get a move on.   But at least a breeze does reliably find its way here every afternoon, one that stirs coconuts and ruffles the feathers of flame trees as it passes. It curves through the terraced green and red dirt reaches of Fourth Ridge, brushing past girls in blue uniforms and tiny gold earrings walking home from school, until it finds me, reaches down and tangles my hair. 

Regardless of the hair-mussing, the breeze is always liberating. I can sit comfortably on almost-too-hot pebbled steps and watch clouds have moments of profundity.  In a little while, the Muslim call to prayer will drift up from somewhere (maybe behind me and to the right, but you can never tell with ridges), so I know it’s 6 p.m.  Reliably, just like the breeze.  Probably more so.  What happens next to the sky I might elsewhere depict as a brief and emboldened wash of pink across the clouds, one that is gone before you even pay attention; however, that might ascribe an element of hurry or ostentation to the coming of the night.  And this is Ghana.  So, instead, the sun rolls away like an empty truck headed for home.  The boy is asleep in the back.  He’s using the last bundle of sachet water for a pillow. 

Missing that heedless youth already? Don’t worry.  It will all happen again tomorrow.  And in Ghana, probably 90% of the population will awaken well before the sun makes its appearance.  A whole nation of early risers, and they got me as a volunteer…the one who fanatically sets her alarm clock and only wakes before sunrise on accident or pain of death.  But it isn’t just about comparing wake-ups.  Here we explore different concepts of time altogether.  As a product of the United States, I was raised to regard time as linear, without a pause for breath to question. Time passes, independent of what I think, feel, observe or do.  It’s made up of carefully regulated hours and minutes, daily schedules and monthly plans; it’s the arrow; it’s the conveyor belt with boxes to fill with activity, passing through the past, present and future.  With all this measured precision and regulation, the warning bell to strike at the heart of our linear living is found in Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury: "…clocks slay time. He said time is dead as long as it is being clicked off by little wheels; only when the clock stops does time come to life."

I’m not going to swoon romantically and tell you that Ghanaians, by offering the clock some flexibility, have the secret to reviving time – and thereby life.  Ghana’s fabric of cultures has long been knit firmly in place by agriculture, fishing, and other cyclical pursuits involving human interaction with the natural world; time discipline, therefore, never needed an artificial means of dividing and measuring time.  Well, not until recently, in the historical scheme of things.  In short - it’s a different pace, one that reflects a life not bound by a watch.   In reality, most Ghanaians I know do so much during their days that flexibility with time is all they’ve got to be creative with.  Yet, still, there is more of an ease to the passage of time.  Perhaps a quick “good morning” becomes a long conversation. My boss often gets pulled into long discussions with people seeking his advice; I look on, bemused, bored.  His appointments get pushed back, or maybe cancelled, but don't mind him. It’s entirely possible that his appointments were running late, too.

With the steady influx of Western time, money and everything else, some have noted an incremental shift away from collectivism and toward individualism - and with mixed feelings about unwanted elements of Western culture, or unwanted alterations to the family system.  A story was recently related to me, like a fable: The elderly woman in a local community has two children, one in the U.S. and the other in Accra – both with very successful careers.  But this woman - this mother, or sister, or aunt, or cousin - is alone, in the Ghanaian sense of the word.  No one serves her a meal, talking with her about the day; no grandchildren run through the house to the yard; there is no one to allow her to take her rest.  So why isn't the solution as simple as children returning home to care for their aging mother, as some might suggest?  In a collectivist society, like Ghana, the emphasis is on cooperative tasks, small in-groups and out-groups, and focusing on what people have in common.  Conversely, a society based in individualism, like the U.S., is marked by competitive tasks, public situations, and exploring what makes the individual unique.  As explained by Iulia O. Basu, such cultural differences mean that people in different cultures have fundamentally different construals of the self and others. Is the only solution to this shift, then, to accept society’s inevitable change - and its children moving away?  Then we must also accept that as they do, that people's understanding of their roles will change as well. So is it possible to hold close, right now, to what was and what will be?

Now, I grew up learning that both the tangible and intangible – money, toothaches, scented resumes, and t.v. shows about FBI agents – were written on a spectral list of items that “come and go.”  And yes, perhaps worst of all, people come and go as well.  So us Americans, we think we’ve faced it head-on: we can’t hold onto anything, or anyone, indefinitely.  We can know the truth of this, even in the languages we use to communicate such concepts to each other.  There are over 6000 living languages in the world, and they are dying at an alarming rate.  In Ghana, there are 46 different dialects, only nine of which are written down.  But in all of these dialects, the phrase “go and come,” is used to express direction, intent, or promise, from one person to another.  The guard at my house demonstrates this to me every morning as I walk through the gate.  “You go and come,” he says, reassuringly, as if I needed reassuring, and then he shuts the gate behind me.  (I haven’t even touched upon the Ghanaian, “I’m coming".*)  Stories and sentences like these are often circular, using repetition to arrive back at the same beginning point.  And then there's the symbol of the Sankofa, meaning “return to your roots,” which celebrates a person learning from life and then returning to where he or she came from – presumably to continue to grow stronger again, together.  These stories, sentences and symbols reflect cultural beliefs and values.  Our ‘coming and going’, ‘going and coming’ expressions communicate our assertions about the continuity of relationships within the circumference of time.  Maybe to let people “come and go” reflects, linguistically, an individualistic approach that relies upon a willingness to be drawn apart.   Maybe to “go and come,” reflects the underlying belief that we will eventually be drawn back together. 

Am I overanalyzing?  Absolutely.  But then there are rooted truths waiting to be returned to. I don’t know what Ghana will look like in 20 years, or in 50.  I do know that the most effective change occurs with all stakeholders working together, collectively; so I can't sit back and advocate a full-fledged push toward a new indivdualist state.  Not without remembering what has made this group of people, this country, so strong in the first place.  Strong enough to survive war, and slavery, colonialism and now globalisation.  Strong enough to be the first African country to declare its independence.  Strong enough to change, to shift, and to remember these roots.  Sankofa.  Sometimes, for all of us, it feels like forward movement is imperceptible; sometimes, though, the speed and the jolts takes us by surprise, like a truck hitting a pothole in the road.  It’s jarring, and those bundles may get shaken loose.  But don’t worry.  The sun will still set at the end of the day and rise again tomorrow.  And we can avoid that pothole next time.   Better yet, it will get patched.  But that might take a while. 

Sankofa (one representation)

*Now, some of my personal experiences regarding time have been amusing.  Some frustrating.  It’s been an adjustment.  Let’s use the Ghanaian, “I’m coming,” as an example.  It’s quite multipurpose.

1.       When exiting a room, announce “I’m coming,” instead of, “I’ll be right back.” The length of time that you take to return is negotiable.  

2.       Think of any situation in which an American would say, “Hang on,” and substitute.  As in, your coworker says to you,“Good afternoon, Kelly, are you heading home? I'd like you to give a training first thing tomorrow morning. I just emailed you.  Why don’t we meet.” Your response, which is perhaps a little dry: “I’m coming.” 

3.      You're a taxi driver who an obroni has phoned for a lift, and you’re running at least 45 minutes late.  The obroni calls you to say, “Hi, sorry, but where are you?” You answer smoothly, “I’m coming.”  (Alternatively, you can say, “I’ll be there in 2 minutes.”)


  1. I think "you go and come" is somehow tremendously reassuring.
    How do you suppose the guard at your gate might refer to you?

  2. What a beautiful post. I will be moving to Ghana at the end of the year. Your photos are so beautiful.
    My fiance visited Ghana a few months ago, and brought me back a Sankofa bracelet. It's such a beautiful symbolic representation of the unavoidable cyclical nature of life.

  3. Food for thought!..I enjoyed this post tremendously especially your analysis on the "going and coming".The best part for me though is your last line;that of the taxi driver!-Hilarious!
    Nb ..I am Ghanaian