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YASC Trip to Ghana – Part 1 of 3

I just returned from Ghana on a volunteer trip with the Yale Alumni Service Corps, and what an amazing trip it was! This was my first time visiting Ghana, or any country in Africa for that matter. Turns out that I didn’t know a whole lot about the country and I had a lot to learn. I’m going to provide here an outsider’s perspective based on a 2 week trip so take my words not as encyclopedic knowledge but as the initial perception of one American which subject to change.

I arrived at the Airport in Accra on July 29th for a week of tours which included Togo and Benin. Those were countries I knew even less about (!) but let’s stick to Ghana.

Ghana gained its independence from Britain in 1957, and that event is seen as heralding the decolonization of Africa from the Europeans. The United States sent a delegation including a couple of household names today: then-Vice President Nixon, and Martin Luther King. At the time Ghana was known as “Gold Coast” – following the same naming scheme as its neighboring “Ivory Coast” which tell us what explorers and traders were initially doing there. But in order to symbolize their independence, the founders decided to name their country after the ancient Ghana Empire in west Africa. In this way, the idea was to take an ancient, homegrown civilization, and reimagine it as a modern democracy.

In fact, some of Ghana’s democratic institutions are similar to what we have in the US. In foreign policy, they were part of the non-aligned movement (neither with the US or the USSR in the cold war). Domestically, we Americans may be familiar with some of the government functions. But while Ghana was never a communist state, the founders instituted socialist-style plans for industrialization. If you look around today, you can’t say that’s been too successful. Corruption by government employees is seen as an impediment to economic growth. Heavy industry would have been better off under private initiative, if only a consistent regime of laws and rights can be relied upon.

After several coups and periods of instability, Ghana today has a stable democracy with competitive elections and a functioning judicial and legislative branch. That doesn’t mean that the government works for the people as much as they would like – but change is possible through the ballot box as opposed to violence.

So enough about that – what about the regular folks? When I was walking and riding around in the bus in Accra, I had never seen so many people working and hustling so hard. If you watch the people on the street, you can see that everyone is on a mission – and I’d say this is even more than in New York City. Most people are trying to sell things. Many are carrying large items, moving them from one place to another. Some people are dressed nicely walking briskly to meetings or events. You can see still other people with books and backpacks on their way to school. Hard work and initiative come naturally to Ghanaians, and I’d say they are a nation of entrepreneurs.

In central Accra there are lots of large construction projects. Like in Downtown Brooklyn, they seem to be on a bit of a building spree. But once you get outside the city, you notice something very interesting: a lot of half-built houses made of cinderblock.

When we in the US want to save for a house, we might open up a savings account, or perhaps invest in the money market and mutual funds. Then, we you have enough for a down payment, we can get a mortgage, and voila – we’re in the house! When these Ghanaians are saving for a house – they literally see a partial house! They purchase each cinder block when they can in the hopes that they can one day finish. This is the best option for many people, but it comes with many risks. Do they have the title to their land? The government can come in and give it to a third party in the name of economic development. Are they protected from natural disaster or theft? I doubt the insurance market is well developed. Can they sell half a house? I could imagine having a good market for that, but it appears that it probably isn’t.

Still, our savings and mortgage strategy is also fraught with risk and it’s a matter of mitigating those risks and improving efficiency. There might be economic opportunities in Ghana for solving problems of land-title, insurance, real estate markets, and division of labor for home builders.

Buying things in West Africa is also too much for me. I’m not used to bargaining on the spot! It’s stressful. Apparently I was very good at it when I negotiated for a hat in an Accra market. I have a hat already, why do I need yours? Yeah, I understand this is an African hat, but my nerdy tourist hat perfectly fits my needs. I don’t know about that design. So I got them to come way down on the price. But then somehow I didn’t leave the shop without buying a Ghana Soccer Jersey (awesome!) and a watercolor painting (I don’t need it!). I came home with a lot of cool stuff – but I would have looked around more if I could eye a product without the assumption that I was going to buy it.

While I found the vendors to be overly aggressive, I also found them to have a certain straightforwardness. Sure – they all claim to have a “good price just for you” and to be your friend – but I didn’t catch anyone trying to mislead about their products. And in a few cases they answers my questions correctly even if they knew it wasn’t the answer I wanted to hear. I bet with a little practice one could understand their “lingo” and be able to make wise purchases.

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[ Up Next: Arrival in Yamaransa ]

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