Ghana. A Cultural Pact

Inside Ghana with Clare Cutler.

“Ghanaian values stem from a cultural lineage built upon trust.”

Clare Cutler.

Clare Cutler, a graduate of the University of Illinois, holds a bachelor’s degree in Urban and Regional Planning with a minor in Landscape studies, and she is about to pursue a master’s degree in Environmental Justice at the University of Michigan. In 2015, Clare joined the Peace Corps as an agricultural volunteer in Ghana—recognizing how her passion for environmental sustainability coupled perfectly with the opportunity to shed all modern conveniences.

She hoped to discover cultural nuances that would have an impact on her understanding of the world while studying the effects of climate change on ecological systems. After spending more than two years in Ghana, Clare has returned to the United States with a newfound wisdom. She offers an indispensable perspective on Ghana’s cultural dynamics and how Ghanaian values contrast with those of America. She reminds us that John F. Kennedy started the Peace Corps with a mission. At the University of Michigan in 1960 he asked,

How many of you who are going to be doctors are willing to spend your days in Ghana? Technicians or engineers, how many of you are willing to work in the Foreign Service and spend your lives traveling around the world? On your willingness to contribute part of your life to this country, I think will depend the answer whether a free society can compete.

John F. Kennedy knew that immersive cross-culture exchange would blend the values of these prospective countries by opening up an ongoing constructive dialogue, thus, reinforcing a multi-cultured world. Clare brought me through her day-to-day life working alongside her Ghanaian friends on a cashew farm which sparked interesting questions about gender roles. The most rewarding aspects of being immersed in a foreign culture are the paradoxical realities that cannot be discovered in a textbook, but instead, require true connection. Clare shed light on the value of embracing cultural differences and harnessing the power of foreign relationships. Her volunteer experience in Ghana crystallized her ambition to help people gain a voice and protect their communities for themselves and future generations.

Although the cultural barriers were apparent, for Clare, they acted as learning experiences that allowed her to adopt, appreciate, and integrate new ideas.

The quality of service the Peace Corps provides is conducive with spending every waking moment intertwined with the people of the country, consequently, learning the subtleties of their cultural landscape. This knowledge aids in sincerely understanding what the people need, which Clare argues, is not a core intention of some NGO groups. For the past 50 years, the Peace Corps has helped skilled young people establish international friendships and has been committed to promoting world peace. Clare’s initial inspiration to join the Peace Corps is credited to her high school teacher, who relayed the simplicity of the organization’s mission by sharing her experience of volunteering in Jamaica. Her teacher tells a story of the World Map Project. With a large sheet of grid paper, she outlined the world map and had her students guess where Jamaica was. They pointed to Russia, China, and the United States, and after the whole map was colored except their country, they were astonished at how small their tiny island was. The project inspired questions regarding geography and Jamaica’s relationship to the other countries on the map. Clare reflected on this story by affirming, “that is what made me feel like that is what I want to be doing. Not going in with “solutions” or “big plans,” but just person-to-person.”

Clare’s Peace Corps Ghana Agriculture group at their swearing in ceremony.

Soon after arriving in Ghana, the effects of climate change became starkly evident to Clare. She explained that marginalized groups tend to endure the consequences of world-wide environmental decisions. Clare continued,

This phenomenon was visible in Ghana. I lived with people who rely on a predictable climate for their crops. Because of climate change, their food security and income are in jeopardy. The people of Ghana use far less fossil fuels than the west, but they are faced with the consequences of our actions. There are many other issues on a much smaller scale with water and air quality, waste management, and ecology—where people with the least power are forced to accept living with environmental hazards.

Clare unraveled these issues as she farmed, day after day, adjoined to her Ghanaian friends on the farm. Each morning, the mother, Angela—who usually held a baby on her back—and her young daughters, would lug food and water on their heads for three miles to the farm. Once they arrived, if it were cashew season, they would spend hours picking cashew apples off the ground, twisting the nut and throwing away the sour fruit. After taking a lunch break and working for three or four more hours, since it is a woman’s responsibility to tend the fire at home, the mother would then chop the firewood that would later be carried home on their heads.  As for the men, they begin farming earlier than the women, but at a much more moderate pace. This is because the men are sometimes tasked with hard labor like building mounds for yams—a duty off-limits to women—and because they simply have less to do. Clare recalls that, “by the time the men go early to farm, the wife cleans the house, sweeps everything, makes breakfast, is selling her own thing (like fried dough or porridge), gets the kids ready for school, prepares lunch, brings it to the farm, and feeds the men.” Also, the men usually ride motorcycles or bicycles as means of transportation, unlike the women, who have to walk. To Clare, it is obvious that women are not valued as much as the men in Ghanaian society, but the fact that women hold more representation in politics causes the social commentary on gender roles to remain unclear. 

Pictured is Clare’s “Nana,” who she lived with in Ghana, making yarn out of wool the old fashioned way. Photo credit: Clare Cutler

Integrating into Ghana’s community-oriented culture inevitably began to chip away at Clare’s rigid demand to be independent. The American way—work hard and watch out for yourself—is very self-reliant. While, in Ghana, this way of thinking is flipped upside down. It infuriated Clare when Mame, one of the Ghanaian women Clare lived with, would incessantly sweep her porch. Clare interpreted the act as Mame assuming she wasn’t able to do things herself. One morning, to prove a point, Clare decided to clean everything until it was sparkling. Yet, Kwame, Clare’s neighbor boy, readily walked on over, picked up a sponge, and began scrubbing her stove. Then it clicked. Clare realized that Kwame just wanted to spend time with her. Seeing that most Ghanaians don’t have a lot of money, this was their way of welcoming her into the community. Clare recalled, “They aren’t doing it because they think I can’t do it. It was a huge shift in my frame of mind. Letting people help me. It made me realize that I can do nice things like that for them too. It is not offensive to help someone. It was a huge shift for me. That was the biggest one.” 

Ghana’s communal tendencies also influence their monetary system. Before living in Ghana, Clare thought that money was fixed and had rules, like most Americans would assume with their “don’t spend more than you earn” mentality. In order for a culture to thrive, it must align itself with either order or chaos. In this case, in the eyes of any American, chaos triumphs in Ghana. Clare quickly realized that money is completely cultural and that the Ghanaians do not save because that would mean people could borrow their money. Their society relies on the guarantee of helping one another, constantly expecting and reciprocating this promise. Some people take advantage of the system and live perpetually indebted to others, but for the Ghanaians, this drawback isn’t great enough to change their ways. While in Ghana, budgeting and planning was a struggle for Clare, and deadlines did not exist. She had to set boundaries. 

The book, “African Friends and Money Matters,” by David E. Maranz, was issued to the Ghana Peace Corps volunteers, and argued that, as a westerner, you will never become fully immersed into every aspect of a foreign culture. Although the cultural barriers were apparent, for Clare, they acted as learning experiences that allowed her to adopt, appreciate, and integrate new ideas. She became more open to sharing and when her items were returned to her broken, instead of being insulted, she was able to recognize the fundamentally different relationship Ghanaians have with material items. Clare notes, “westerners are much more about acquiring. Ghanaians will use something until it is totally exhausted. Especially flip flops. They will put them over the fire, melt the plastic and put them back together. That is what a lack of options looks like.” Living amongst these major lifestyle polarities is what the Peace Corps is about, getting to know what another culture is like. Clare’s experience demonstrates how worldliness leads to humility.  

So, why Ghana? The Peace Corps is committed to matching volunteers with a country that is best aligned with their skills, experience, and interests. And incoming volunteers, who are committed to service, are willing to be placed anywhere based on this assessment. When Clare announced her decision to join the Peace Corps in Ghana, she received mixed reactions from her friends and family—they were very worried for her safety. After more than two years in Ghana, Clare was slightly frustrated while reiterating how peaceful Ghana is.

According to Clare, most of the violence in Ghana occurs tribe to tribe and the Peace Corps made sure they stayed away from those areas. The Global Peace Index (GPI) ranks Ghana as the 43rd most peaceful country in the world while the United States sits comfortably at number 114, nestled between Rwanda and El Salvador. The GPI assesses safety and security, domestic and international conflict, and the level of militarization. Clare recalls a list of mass shootings that occurred globally during her time in Ghana, including the shootings in Orlando and Las Vegas. Meanwhile, in Ghana, getting her phone stolen was the worst thing that happened to Clare. Clare pledged that if your bag is left out in the open for hours, it will still be there when you return. Apparently, thievery is not tolerated in Ghana. Ghanaian values stem from a cultural lineage built upon trust. Clare put it this way:

The way shops or stores work… ladies will just be in their stores asleep. If you want to buy something you have to wake them up. If I wanted to, I could open up their jar of money, take it, and run. And it just doesn’t happen. It is a cultural pact. They like to be able to sleep in their shops and trust one another. If someone messes that up, the consequences are so huge that you would not dare.

So, what are the consequences? If someone is caught stealing in Ghana, they will face the punishment of public shaming. One night in Ghana, Clare was hanging out on the beach with a bunch of friends when she witnessed a crowd of people begin to circle a young boy, almost hitting him. They started screaming, “YOU ARE A THEIF! YOU ARE A LIAR!” He had stolen someone’s phone. Clare remembers, “even his family members participated, because if his family wasn’t seen joining in and calling him a thief, they would have been assumed to be thieves themselves. It is about reputation and pride.

Those are the consequences. It’s like ‘mob societal justice.’” Clare outlined the way in which Ghana handles justice but did not claim it was right or safe—just different. The benefits of cultural immersion were evident that night. Unlike many of her friends on the beach, Clare was able to pick up subtle cultural precepts that indicated the context of the public shaming. 

Clare’s personal mission in Ghana was aligned with that of the Peace Corps—to promote a better understanding of Americans to the people served, and vice versa. Clare explains that the Diversity Visa Lottery in Ghana, a program that allows qualified and educated professionals to be selected for American citizenship, is an important bridge linking our nations. President Trump has supported legislation that will eliminate the Visa Lottery. Clare warns us: 

I don’t think people appreciate that this positive relationship isn’t guaranteed. We have this soft political power in the world because we are a big exporter, employer, and we are the United States. I saw so much influence from China in Ghana and it made me realize that our power is not guaranteed forever and if we don’t foster those relationships with other countries, it will be gone.

Clare lived up to the challenge John F. Kennedy set forth for young educated individuals to commit a portion of their life to service. And it won’t be the last time for Clare, she would like to serve in the Peace Corps again. As a volunteer, her example and influence will have a lasting impact on Ghana and the United States. Currently, Clare is residing in Houston with her boyfriend—who is also a Peace Corps volunteer—as she anticipates the start of her master’s program at the University of Michigan. Below the surface of being a volunteer lies a world of opportunity to change how we view others, ourselves, and the world. Cross-cultural exchange creates unbreakable bonds and strengthens diversity, in turn, making the world a better place.

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