by Chris Bell
Fifty years ago, I spent six weeks in Ghana as part of a 14-member group sponsored by the Experiment in International Living. We were all in our 20s, half African-American, half white. I was then legally blind, used a cane, and was the only group member with a disability.
Each of us spent the first three weeks living with a host family in different parts of the country. I was hosted by Mohamed Abu, a Hausa-speaking broadcaster for Radio Ghana (which provided programming in the country’s seven predominant languages), his wife Xena, an RN, and their two young children. They lived in a comfortable home in Accra, the nation’s capital. The Abu family was friendly and warm, freely answering all of my questions about their country and culture. During that three-week home stay, I never saw another Caucasian and I felt increasingly uncomfortable in my white skin. It was in Ghana that I learned to love spicy hot food. Meals usually had a starch such as casava, yams, plantain or rice with fish and a little meat, and all meals were eaten by hand. I remember one meal of fish, complete with head, eyes and tail. I was told that no part of the fish was wasted, and every part was delicious and nutritious. I don’t recall what part of the fish I ate. At another meal, I was given my own milder red sauce while other family members used a hotter, spicier condiment. I insisted upon using their sauce, ladling a large quantity on my plate, notwithstanding their adamant warning that I was overdoing it. They were right! Trying to be macho, I took a large mouthful of the sauce-covered food and immediately started choking and sputtering. I had never tasted anything so hot, then or now. My young male ego was further humiliated by their 18-month-old son who gobbled up the spicy mixture without protest. I also enjoyed drinking “Black Label” beer and a very potent home-brewed palm wine served by passing around a gourd.
Friends and relatives dropped by often without warning and it was expected that family activities were set aside in order to welcome the guests with food, drink and conversation. I learned quickly how important extended family relationships were. Even distant relatives were expected to supply shoes, clothing and other material needs of their extended rural family when they got a “good” job in a city. Some Ghanaians shared with me how this obligation could be quite burdensome on city-dwellers.
The Ghanian military was ubiquitous. There had been a recent military coup, and entry into any large city required passing through a heavily armed military checkpoint. One could wait for a long time in a line, or you could pay a soldier money, call a “dash,” and pass quickly through. My host explained that this was not a form of corruption but reflected only that their soldiers were poorly paid and relied upon the dash to supplement their wages.
I learned that young children guided blind Ghanaians, as there were no available white canes or O & M instruction. I do not recall learning whether Ghana had a school for the blind in 1972.