Wanderer Wednesday #4: Ghana Travel Etiquette

Obama buttons in village in Ghana

Steve passing out some Obama buttons to new friends in a village

I got a little behind in Wanderer Wednesdays compared to the other daily specials that are on #5 but life goes on.

This week I would like to give an introduction to some basic etiquette for a traveler to Ghana.  With a culture full of taboos and what tends to be a little more conservative than what most of us are used to in the West there are some things that you might do that could offend some Ghanaian’s.  But for the most part Ghanaian’s are pretty easy going people and none of the things here will be the end of the world or cause too much of an issue.

What is the deal with not using your left hand?

This does not specifically pertain to Ghana, but is true for a lot of parts of Africa and the developing world.  Using your left hand to do anything that has to do with the interaction of other people is seen as rude and some might say Taboo.  This includes handing money to someone with your left hand, shaking someones hand with your left hand, touching someone with your left hand, handing someone something with your left hand the list goes on.  To some people even waving with your left hand may be an issue.  The most important time to not use your left hand though is during a meal especially a shared meal.

There is actually a very practical reason for this that you may even appreciate.  Until recently toilet paper was unknown to the vast majority of people in Ghana and because of this and in many traditional societies the left hand is/was used to clean ones backside.  Now you know why no one wants to eat with anyone using their left hand, especially since Ghanaian’s eat from one bowl together.

On the topic of food, “you are invited?”

You may here this if you spend much time around Ghanaian’s at all, it is a offering to share their food.  Some people might insist and it is fine to roll up your sleeves and dig in also.  But first there is often a bowl of water on the table that you dip your RIGHT hand into and use some soap to wash your hand.  Before a meal it is usually better to use just your right hand and use the thumb to scrub your fingers on that hand before dunking it back in the water bowl to rinse it off before dipping into the food bowl.

After eating the cleansing is repeated.  It is considered polite to offer an invitation also if you are eating around others.

What should I wear?

If you are male you probably can’t really go wrong unless you are walking around naked and in that case people will probably just think you are crazy, unless you are on a rural beach somewhere and are following suit (haha, no pun intended) of some of the local men you are with.

If you are a female a little more care has to be taken.  Short skirts and short shorts are still usually found upon in most parts of Ghana especially the rural areas.  The general advise would be for the garment to go below the knees.  In Accra around the town you may see that this is not as much of a requirement, but even then you would probably get more attention than what you would like from the males.

Typically western clothing is not that comfortable in tropical humid Ghana so if you are on fence about what to wear and take I usually suggest taking the basics that are easy to hand wash and then pick up some of the many great local textiles.  Not only are the more comfortable but Ghanaian’s love it when they see and Obruni (a foreigner) in their clothes.

Why does everyone keep talking to me?

Unlike the west where we have learned to build walls and barriers between each other it is still considered rude not to give a good morning to people as you pass them on the street or the village.  That said that even if it is not the morning people will still often ask how you are or simply say hello.  Please respond nicely and return the gesture when possible.

Learning some of the local language can be one of the best things you can do to build connections and really make your travel and enlightening experience.  There are over 50 local languages in Ghana, and no one expects you to know all of them.  Fortunately the language Twi is understood and spoken by many all around Ghana, particularly in the South and the Ashanti region.  If you take the time to learn some Twi you will be rewarded with some great interactions with people and even get the price lowered when negotiating with market women and taxi drivers.

Please do not smoke in public

In the US we have laws about this in many places especially in doors, Ghana may not have laws but this is one way that you can actually attract a bit of hostility.  People will come up to you and ask you to put out your cigarette or generally act rude to you if you are smoking in public around others.  The one exception is if you are in a bar or spot at night and there are locals smoking then you may ask some of the people around you if they mind.  For the most part though find somewhere private if you have to smoke.  You may even want to give it up after trying the cigs in Ghana they are not of the quality you are used to in the US, even if they are in a Marlboro pack they are not real Marlboros.

Visiting The Chief

When in rural areas and visiting villages it is often customary to go and see the chief before just wandering around.  If you are with locals this may not be as necessary.  When going to see the chief it is recommended that you take an offering of Shnaps or Apeteshie (local Gin distilled from palm wine) and be ready for some shots even if it is in the morning.  Try to bow to the chief and stay lower than him until offered a seat or told you can be free.  Drinking libations and giving libations to the spirits is an important little ceremony that is often practiced at meetings like this and it involved the bottle going around with a shot glass.  You are expected to take a shot and pour out the bit in the bottom of the glass onto the ground as an offering to the spirits.  If it is in the morning or you have already had one too many it is acceptable to pour out more than you drink and is a technique that can be used as not to get too hammered.

On that note I would encourage travelers to be mindful about public displays of drunkenness for a couple of reasons.  First and for most I am sure you would not want people in the country you are visiting to think that all people from you home are drunkards, remember that we are all ambassadors (can’t say that I haven’t always followed this advise, but I thought I would pass it on, because life is too short to learn from all our own mistakes).  In some places this could set you up to be taken advantage of or even to become a victim of a scam or pick pocketing, this usually isn’t the case but you are drawing attention to yourself and are in a more venerable state.

What should I tip?

Tipping is something that is rarely practiced by many visitors to Ghana and is usually overlooked.  For some reason (I am even susceptible to this from time to time) when westerners come to Ghana they turn into über cheap skates.  I am not sure why this is, but where things are already much cheaper than home it seems strange.  But it is important to remember that most of us will make in an hour what someone in Ghana may make in a week.  There are still people that are making less than a dollar a day.  With that a little tip can go a long ways.  Often workers are not even paid a wage but rely on tips that are usually slim to none.

For meals tipping is not always necessary in you can be discretionary here, if services is good and you like the food a Cedi is a good tip here.  But make sure you give it directly to the person that serves you rather than leaving it on the table where a co-worker or the host may help themselves.

Tipping really comes into play when you are working with some sort of guide be it someone who paddles you in a canoe to a village, or shows you where to catch the correct tro-tro.  If you are already paying for the service a good recommendation is to pay a tip that is roughly 50% of what you paid for that.  So if you pay 5 cedi for a canoe trip a tip of 2-3 cedis is a good tip.  Tips are referred to as a Dash or sometimes someone might ask you to be friendly with them.

In rural areas I would encourage you to bring along gifts for people that help you out rather than money and not to tip excessively as not to create problems with other in the community and an unreal expectations.  I would also suggest not tipping police officers, custom agents, and other authorities, because this could be considered bribery which is illegal and not a good practice to condone.  Children will ask for money to get the pictures taken in some of the busier tourist areas, I would suggest not doing that either and forgoing that picture as not to further reinforce this practice.

I hope this helps, there are many more tips for travelers etiquette and will be back to share more shortly.

This entry was posted in Ghana, Giving Back, Travel Stories, Travel Tips, Trip Ideas, Wanderer Wednesday and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Wanderer Wednesday #4: Ghana Travel Etiquette

  1. Pingback: Wander Wednesday #5: Ghana Travel Etiquette Continued | Green Bug Adventures

  2. Pingback: Wanderer Wednesday #8: How to avoid romance scams | Green Bug Adventures

  3. Jdjane says:

    hey there! just came across your blog from the gtenery blog! i represent an eco resort in el salvador and often wonder what the true impact of eco resorts are on a global level.very interesting blog you have there though, i look forward to reading more.cheers!

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