The first thing I notice about Ghana, besides the liquid heat and the wispy haze of Saharan sand that often hangs overhead like sepia gauze, is the Zen-like calm of her people. They exude contentedness despite the fact that chaos dominates the scene like Iron Maiden music played at a funeral. I step off the airplane and onto the melting tarmac where I follow a jet-lagged throng of fellow travelers into a run-down building that dates from the sixties, still garishly festooned with Christmas decorations in February. I walk past the sign that reads, “Sexual perverts not welcome in Ghana,” the ambiguity of which surely must make many people, besides myself, pause and question for a moment “what a perfect place for a web cam.” And then I step out of the tepidly cooled airport and into the beautiful frenzy that is Accra.
The traffic is like ballet night in the psych ward. A sociopathic, chaotic world where drivers don’t hesitate to literally plow onto the red dirt sidewalks to avoid traffic while impatiently honking at the ten-year-old girl selling bags of water from a massive bucket on her head. The quintessential “If you don’t like the way I drive, stay off of the sidewalk” bumper sticker would only draw blank stares here, I’m afraid. As an impatient American with an ingrained sense of righteous indignation lurking just beneath the surface of my pampered ego, the lack of outrage is astounding. The guy driving the car remains calm. The drivers he is ditching seem to hardly notice. And even the young girl nonchalantly steps aside, unhurried and somehow dignified. I’ve slammed my fist onto the hood of a car driven by a man who stopped in the middle of a crosswalk forcing me to alter my path. I think I would soon be certifiably insane in a place like this.
I wonder if these people have a deep running current of anger beneath their calm exterior. I imagine how I would feel if I lived in a tiny shotgun shack, built from scrap wood and garbage. If I slept on a red dirt floor exposed to the heat and the bugs and the stench of an open sewer, would I be burning with resentment and anger? I think about these things when we walk through the neighborhoods in Accra, as noticeable as the Addams family in circus attire. Would I want to kill those wealthy looking tourists taking photos of my shack and my people as if they were visiting a different planet? I think I would be a bitter, angry person. Yet the peculiar truth about Ghana is that I never felt even a sliver of resentment towards me or my family. The people were unfailingly warm and friendly.
This is the reason I took my children to Ghana. I wanted them to understand that most people in our world live in shacks and struggle on a day to day basis just to survive. The insular nature of a teenager’s developing mind can’t fully appreciate foreign realities of any kind unless we, as parents, force a new reality upon it. Travel is like a bracing splash of glacial water on a hot day. Until we remove our children from day to day life, they will tend to focus on things like peer approval or any one of the distractions that happen to make up their environment. I would liken the developing mind, and to a lesser extent the adult mind, to time in a prison. A prisoner falls asleep and awakens in a cell. He may eat, exercise, write and even read about events in the outside world, but his perception is always tainted because every experience happens in the environmental context of that cell.
As homo-sapiens, we can’t imagine what heaven or hell might be like, so we invent mythology to create a sort of scaffolding below which we build child-like notions about unknowable things. Children and many adults do the same thing when they organize their thoughts about faraway places. Africa, for example, may become a dark, foreboding place fraught with danger and torn asunder by conflict. Some of these perceptions are at least partially true. I mean, of course we should always be careful when traveling. Yet it is pure joy to watch the scales fall from their eyes and their faces illuminate with wonder as they come to see the world more clearly than they did before.
My son came up to me in Africa and said, “Dad, I always thought we were poor, but these people hardly have a thing and they work their butts off. I used to think poor people were lazy, but I can’t imagine having to work as hard as they do.”
“Do you think most of them would want to move to America and live like us?” I asked.
“No,” he answered, watching the throngs of people milling about in a strange sort of harmony. “I think they would feel too lonely in America.”
This is why I took my children to Africa and the reason we travel. That sort of insight would be impossible in the gilded cage that is our wonderful hometown. And insight through experience is one of the greatest gifts I can give as a parent.