Soon after arriving in Ghana, the effects of climate change were starkly evident to Clare Cutler
Clare traveled to Ghana as an agricultural volunteer for the Peace Corps in 2015, hoping that connecting with people on a personal level would help her better understand the realities of our world while studying the effects of climate change on ecological systems.
“Marginalized groups tend to endure the consequences of world-wide environmental decisions,” the Environmental Master’s student explained. “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.”
Two years working on a cashew farm alongside Ghanaian hosts and friends opened Clare’s eyes to how widespread the consequences of climate change can be. “There are many other issues on a much smaller scale with water and air quality, waste management, and ecology,” she explained, “Where people with the least power are forced to accept living with environmental hazards.”
After spending more than two years in Ghana, Clare returned to the United States with newfound wisdom about more than just the climate crisis. Peace Corps volunteers spend every waking moment immersed in local communities, making it easier to learn the subtleties of cultural landscapes and better understand communities’ needs. Although cultural barriers were present, they were learning experiences allowing Clare to adopt, appreciate, and integrate new ideas. Straddling two cultures offered Clare a valuable perspective on how Ghana’s cultural dynamics and values compare with those of her home, the United States, and what Americans can learn from Ghanaians.
Gender roles revealed on a Ghanaian cashew farm
Questions about the role of women were at the forefront of Clare’s mind as she began her long days of work on the cashew farm.
Each morning, her host mother, Angela—who usually carried a baby on her back—and her young daughters walked three miles to the farm while carrying food and water on their heads.
In cashew season, the women and girls would spend hours harvesting cashews: picking cashew apples off the ground, twisting out the nuts, and throwing away the sour fruit. After a lunch break and three to four more hours of work, Angela would then chop firewood to be carried on her and her daughters’ heads for the three-mile walk back—it’s women’s responsibility to tend fires at home.
Though men began farming earlier in the day than women, they worked at a slower pace. Partially because they’re sometimes tasked with hard labor—like building mounds for yams—but also because many simply have less to do.
“By the time men go to farm,” Clare recalled, “their wives have cleaned the house, swept everything, made breakfast, sold her own things (like fried dough or porridge), got the kids ready for school, prepared lunch, brought it to the farm, and fed the men.” Men have yet another working advantage over women: they usually ride motorcycles or bicycles as means of transportation, while women have to walk.
To Clare, it seemed women are not valued as much as men in Ghanaian society. However, the fact that women hold more representation in politics challenges that notion, complicating any social commentary on gender roles in Ghana.
Community-thinking in Ghana
Adapting to new gender roles wasn’t the only cultural adjustment Clare had to make; integrating into Ghana’s community-oriented culture began chipping away at her insistence to be independent. The “American way”—work hard and watch out for yourself—values self-reliance, while Ghanaian culture is quite the opposite.
For example, Mame, one of the Ghanaian women Clare lived with, constantly swept Clare’s porch. At first, Clare was furious, interpreting the act as Mame assuming she was incompetent. One morning, to prove a point, Clare cleaned everything in the house until it virtually sparkled. But the satisfaction was short-lived: Kwame, Clare’s neighbor, soon strolled over, picked up a sponge, and began scrubbing her stove.
Then it clicked.
“They aren’t doing it because they think I can’t do it,” Clare realized. Kwame just wanted to be helpful and spend time with her. This was his way of welcoming her into the community.
“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.”
A different value of currency
This communal mindset also influences the way people view money in Ghana.
Before living in Ghana, Clare thought money had fixed rules. Like most Americans, she assumed there was a “don’t spend more than you earn” mentality.
Once in Ghana, however, Clare quickly realized money is completely cultural: many Ghanaians purposefully do not save because then people would want to borrow their money. Ghanaian society relies on the guarantee of constantly helping one another and reciprocating the favor, but some people take advantage of the system and live perpetually indebted to others. For the Ghanaians in Clare’s circles, though, this risk of a few freeloaders wasn’t great enough to change their financial ways.
At first, this foreign mentality made budgeting and planning a struggle for Clare. But with time, Clare realized that these cultural differences were not barriers, but rather an introduction to new ways of thinking.
She became more open to sharing what she had. Instead of being insulted when items were returned to her broken, she recognized the fundamental differences between the fast consumptive habits of Americans and the more sustainable approach Ghanaians take to material possessions. “Westerners are much more about acquiring. Ghanaians will use something until it is totally exhausted,” Clare noted. “Especially flip flops.” Instead of throwing out sandals once they break, “they will put them over the fire, melt the plastic and put them back together.”
Challenging as it was at first, complete immersion in a drastically different culture is what the Peace Corps is all about.
Trust in Ghana’s safety
Despite the massive educational value of cultural immersion, when Clare announced her decision to join the Peace Corps in Ghana, she received mixed reactions from her friends and family: they worried about her safety. An understandable first response, but after more than two years in Ghana, Clare grew frustrated about needing to reiterate how peaceful the country is.
Her claims went beyond ‘feeling safe’; she had objective proof. The Global Peace Index (GPI) assesses safety and security, domestic and international conflict, and the level of militarization in countries. It 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.
That’s not to say Ghana is a bastion of peace, but according to Clare, most of the violence in Ghana is inter-tribal; the Peace Corps keeps volunteers well away from areas at risk of conflict. Contrary to her American family’s concerns about the dangers of overseas travel, Clare recalled a list of mass shootings that occurred overseas during her time in Ghana, including in Orlando and Las Vegas. Meanwhile, in Ghana, phone theft was the worst thing to happen to her.
Even that was unusual; Ghanaian values depend on trust, and thievery is not tolerated in Ghana. Clare asserted that if you left your bag out in the open for hours, it would still be there when you return. “The way shops or stores work… ladies will just be in their stores asleep,” she explained. “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.”
What are the consequences? One night, Clare was on the beach with friends when she witnessed a crowd of people circling a young boy, almost hitting him. “YOU ARE A THIEF! YOU ARE A LIAR!” they screamed.
The boy had stolen someone’s phone.
“Even his family members participated,” Clare recalled, “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.”
That night, the benefits of cultural immersion became evident. Unlike many of her friends on the beach with her, Clare was able to read the subtle cultural precepts motivating the public shaming. When we spoke, she did not claim it was right or wrong, safe or dangerous—just different.
Commitment to cross-cultural exchange
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 can create bonds and strengthen diversity, in turn making the world a more peaceful place. But to create connections that will last, we must ensure exchange truly goes both ways.
The Diversity Visa Lottery in Ghana, a program allowing qualified educated Ghanaian professionals to receive American citizenship, is an important bridge linking the United States and Ghana… but President Trump and other politicians have supported legislation to eliminate the Visa Lottery.
“I don’t think people appreciate that this positive relationship isn’t guaranteed.” Clare warned, “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.”
Knowing this, Clare has committed a portion of her life to service. Currently, she’s living in Houston with her boyfriend—another Peace Corps volunteer—while anticipating the start of her Environmental Justice master’s program at the University of Michigan, but she plans to serve in the Peace Corps again. As her years on a Ghanaian cashew farm showed, the most valuable rewards of cultural immersion come from experiencing seemingly paradoxical realities that can only be understood by connecting with people… not textbooks.