There was not a recycling program in Atabu, the village where I lived and volunteered with a women’s microenterprise group in 2007. Everything we used could be reused in a different way; mud-stained skirts became cleaning rags, empty juice bottles sold palm oil at the market, plastic bags that held loaves of bread became plastic bags that held whatever else you needed to carry between villages.
Back home it was so easy to toss away a yogurt cup, or use a paper towel to dry my hands instead of a washcloth. Learning from the locals on how they disposed of things they didn’t need or couldn’t use was super insightful. There was hardly any garbage because everything had a second life until it was literally torn to shreds, or broken and unfixable. I didn’t realize how much waste I accumulated until there wasn’t really anything for me to waste.
I was raised to shower every day; it’s what society said I should do. That changed drastically when I lived in the Volta region, where a massive drought caused water issues all around the country. Cold bucket showers and water rationing became a reality that wasn’t very difficult to deal with. The air was also so humid that my hair would dry instantly, and any oils or grease would magically disappear. Sometimes it’d be weeks between showers. I didn’t smell, and if I got dirty, I’d wipe myself down with a damp cloth. I now consider any sort of bath product beyond baking soda to be complete marketing bullshit.
My volunteer coordinator made us get up at 7am every day so that we would be on time for the day’s chores in our village. She’d yell at us and rush us out the door, and then we’d sit around the central pavilion until 10am usually, waiting for the local women to arrive with materials to make jewelry.
“Why do we need to get up so early to do nothing?” I asked her.
“Because they want us to be there at 8am, so we have to be there at 8am!”
Audrey didn’t get it though — in Atabu, things happened when they happened. No one wore a watch, or scolded anyone when they were late. Buses never departed on schedule, and any sort of project had a TBD timeframe. The women I knew were probably up at 6am but they had better things to do than deal with Americans looking to boost their egos during a volunteer stay. It was soon easy to fall into the same pattern of prioritizing what really mattered, for myself and the other people I lived with, than worrying about being “on time.”
This still sometimes creeps up on me now that I’m back in the USA, but I definitely had to get used to wiping, then tossing my toilet tissue into a waste basket (instead of flushing it down). Sometimes there wasn’t even tissue at all, but a pile of newspapers you had to tear off pieces from. Suddenly cleaning off a little pee on a toilet seat back home seemed like a dream, compared to shitting into a trench of a 3-walled outhouse where anyone could walk in on you at any moment.
My volunteer assignment didn’t officially begin until about two weeks into my placement. At first I was a little stir-crazy — “Isn’t there anything I could help with? Fix a door? Teach English? Wash something?” My “white savior” mentality couldn’t reckon with the fact that my services were somehow not really needed. Back home I was used to a never-ending pile of work that needed to be done, but in Ghana, I was bored.
Then one day, I said, “Fuck it. I’m here and I might as well just take advantage of some cultural interaction.” I began to appreciate laziness and the slow pace of life. I read like, 16 books in four weeks. I traveled to different shops and areas of the village, and conversed with the people around me. Building friendships and relationships with the locals proved to be a much better use of my time than trying to feel “needed.”
In talking to some of the local women, I realized that the reason I was here was not really to help them. These women took care of the children, did all of the cleaning and cooking and mending. I could barely lift the mallet to pound fufu or palm nut oil alongside them. They’d honestly get by whether or not I happened to be there, and to be honest, their skill set was well beyond anything I could lend myself too.
Oh, do Americans like to brag. We do this a lot verbally (“Our country is the best/smartest/prettiest/strongest”); whether or not it’s true doesn’t matter, as long as we say it in a confident way. But we also brag in non-verbal ways as well — we are consumers, we show off our wealth through disposing of personal property (and sometimes the people in our lives) too quickly, in favor of something “shinier and new.” We walk around flashing our Iphones and discuss our sex lives out loud on the subway, like people really give a shit.
Americans sometimes don’t realize the kind of image they give off in other places. Loudly complaining that a Chop Shop in Accra had no Diet Pepsi drew attention to some of the other volunteers in my group. They grew annoyed when people asked, “Yovo, buy me a Pepsi?” every day, but when you’re flashing around a bottle of pop in front of people who consider that to be a luxury, you’re promoting a “wealthy, privileged Western traveler” stereotype.
Living in Ghana really made me aware of how much Americans take everything for granted. I started watching my consumption habits, and really zeroed-in on my actions to make sure I wasn’t sending the wrong message. I soon learned that I could live without cheese, cable television, and a new pair of jeans every month, and really enjoyed forming friendships with people who liked me for who I was, not what I was worth to them.