An American in Accra finds the local cooperative spirit a stark contrast to his homeland's love of self-reliance.
Jacob Silberberg/ Getty Images/ File
While trudging under the cascades of the Wli waterfalls in Ghana's Volta region, I found myself at a standstill. I was attempting to navigate the crushing torrent of white water to a tiny enclave behind it, when the deluge engulfed me like a pair of fizz-colored blinders. As I clung anxiously to the slick rocks underfoot, I spied a phantasmagoria of shimmering figures through the downpour. Seconds later, I was linked arm in arm with a troop of young Ghanaians, all singing – including myself – at the top of their lungs.
As a first-time traveler to Africa, my initial weeks on the continent have followed a similar pattern: I get lost and Ghanaians enthusiastically help me find my way. The city of Accra – where I work as a journalist – is especially difficult to navigate. I constantly get on the wrong bus, arrive at the incorrect ministry, and stumble about searching for landmarks that are camouflaged by the urban mosaic.
Yet whether I need a translator in a local fishing village or a cheap apartment, someone is always there to assist me. Often when I arrive at the bus station on my way home from work, I am greeted by a stranger who cheerfully guides me to my bus. I don't even need to ask for help, it's simply delivered with heaps of goodwill, and it makes me wonder why in America we're so obsessed with doing things on our own.
In Eugene, Ore., where I used to live, I could walk around the bus station for days without anyone trying to help me. Of course, I'd be unlikely to ask, either. Americans harbor an ethos of individualism. And while this stubborn self-reliance may be key to some of our economic success, it's a poor way to develop a sense of brotherhood. In fact, it often leaves us emotionally reclusive and alone.
In the United States, I sometimes go a day or two without greeting anyone. It's easy to mix in with the masses – to drift to work or school in a bubble – simply nodding your way through the day. Nowadays, I handle most of my communication via e-mail and text message. In fact, sometimes I think my digital relationships are eclipsing those in the real world. I recently lived in a subdivided house for a year without speaking to my neighbors. We simply exchanged stoic nods as we passed.