Wander Wednesday #5: Ghana Travel Etiquette Continued

Last week I started a post on Wanderer Wednesday about travel Etiquette for Ghana. We went over a number things to consider, like how you dress, not using your left hand, greeting people, smoking in public, visiting the chief, and tipping. This week I would like to continue this with a few other etiquette items, I hope these will be helpful to you and keep you on the straight and narrow during your trip to Ghana.

Please ask permission before taking photos of people?

This one is covered pretty heavily in guide books and other recommendations for travel in Ghana. I think that it should be a given for travel anywhere, I am sure you would appreciate it if someone asked your permission if you were walking to work one day and someone popped out and put a camera in your face. But I think there is a basic misunderstanding of why this is the case in Ghana. Some people may assume that Ghanians just plain do not want their picture taken in some areas or that it is just one of those things to squeeze a little more money out of tourist.

It is true that is some of the more touristy areas in Ghana that often the locals will request money if they perceive that they were in your picture, this is especially true with the kids in some of these areas. But like I said this is only in certain places and I have not found this to be the general rule. This is another good reason why you should ask, then you will get the request for money before you take the picture rather than afterward. If that happens I would suggest that you pass on taking the picture rather than continue to reinforce the money for picture routine.

The other reason why it is advisable to ask permission is because sometimes people truly do not want their picture taken and there can be numerous very reasonable reasons for this. They could just be having a bad day and not wish to be bothered by it. They could be in the middle of working hard and would prefer not to be imaged with sweat and dirt (would you?). The other major reason is that Ghanians are a very proud people and they feel that sometimes tourist catch them off guard with picture taking and they are not prepared and feel under-dressed. Often these people are in the middle of their working day and are not prepared for photos, or they are not in clothes that they want to be photographed in. They also think that visitors may take the pictures home and show everyone how poor they are and not dressed nice and poke fun at them. Ghanians can be some of the nicest dressed people in the world from what I have seen when given the opportunity. They are no different than us in that they want to be portrayed at their best and often when a tourist pulls out a camera that timing is just not there.

Should I give money to people who ask?

This is an issue that many travelers to the developing world struggle with. Tourists are often targeted by people asking for money because they are seen to be wealthy or more wealthy then them anyway. People usually fall into two camps on how they handle this, there are the people that feel for everyone and want to give to everyone that asks but they may not have the money to do that or they realize that there are too many people for them to give to everyone. The other group is the ones that have a very adverse reaction to this and do not want to be seen as wealthy enough to give everyone money and they do not want to perpetuate this stereotype or habit. I am not here to say which mind set is right or wrong or even give a definite answer on how to deal with this.

In Ghana there will be people who ask you for money from a child to adults to policemen. How you handle this is ultimately up to you. But it is important to think about how your actions may affect future travelers and also if giving money is the best way to help or even will help. Many of us traveling to these places off the beaten path are not rich and this is at the forefront of our minds when being asked for money, but there is still a side of us that knows that we are more fortunate than the people doing the asking. This puts us in a bit of predicament of being cognizant of the issue and having the potential to help, but know that we cannot help everyone or even one person enough to make a difference. So what can you do? There are different scenarios of how people ask you for money and can be handled in different ways.

One of the first instances that you will run into in Ghana is what I call the Ad-Hoc guide. These are the people that are very excited to help you find where you need to go, carry a bag for you or get you a taxi at the airport. If you know where you are going and do not need the help you can state this, often times they will tag along to try to help anyway and ask for a dash or for you to be friendly to them for their help (which may not have been helpful at all). If you did not use there help or do not need it just plainly state that and continue to do what you need to do. If you do need someone’s help you may want to first ask someone who does not approach you, you may get better un-biased help that you will not be requested to pay for. Sometimes people will volunteer to help you and not even ever ask you for something. I tend to carry some small souvenirs from my own country as gifts for the people that do actually truly help me, that way I can give them something that is linked to my identity but not continue the cycle of monetary reward. One of the other ways that you can avoid this is by traveling with a local or a local guide who can help you with finding things and places; they also act as a barrier against the Ad-hoc guides because you can point out that you already have a local guide.

The next general type of people that will approach you for money are primarily in Accra. At major stop lights at busy intersections there are generally a group of people that are physically handicapped in some way. Some of them may have had polio at one point, or suffered from an injury or other issues that cause a physical handicap. There are no great options for these people in Ghana and that is why they tend to hang out at stop lights along busy roads asking for money. Most people are making a living through very hard work, and this is not an option for them. This one is really up to you about how you want to handle it. It is hard to say no to someone in the situation right outside the window of your car. Ghanians that are driving around in cars are usually on the upper cusp of income so it is understandable why they take this approach. You will notice that there are a good amount of Ghanians who will even reach into their pockets to give to this population of people. Because of this I know that many travelers feel comfortable giving money to these people because they are truly in need and see that Ghanians even perceive the need to give to them.

Then there are the people that just say give me, give me. Sometimes these requests come in a joking way, like “what are you going to leave in Ghana, you should leave it with me, your son I Ghana.” Other times it is just very brash and direct, give me money. Sometimes children will do this and they probably learned it from other children or an adult that they saw do the same thing. I personally do not like to encourage this approach and do not give money to requests like this and would suggest that you do not either. If you feel like you want to give back there are more responsible ways of doing it. First you can make sure that you are using local guides, and staying at locally owned lodges so your money has more of a chance of trickling back into the communities. You can also donate money or other things that you bring with you to reputable organizations that have a process for distributing things to truly needy people.

All that negative stuff aside, this is really not that bad of an issue in Ghana compared to some places in East Africa and other places in the world. For the most part you will find people in Ghana very humble, interested in who you are out of curiosity, hospitable and generous. Please do not walk around with a chip on your shoulder avoiding interaction with people because you are afraid they will ask for something from you. You will not have as great of a time as you would if you were open to meeting people.

Inappropriate Sexual Behavior:

This section is a little difficult to write but I believe it is important. It is difficult to write about a culture as an outsider and not make generalizations so please forgive me if that is what it sounds like I have been doing in any of this post that is not my intention and there are always exceptions to anything general. Ghana is a very Christian country in the south and Muslim in the North and in some ways very conservative in that regard. This also goes along with sexuality also, and the challenges that religion puts on sexuality. Traditionally there has been very little acceptance of public displays of affection and things like per-marital sex. But there is somewhat of a paradox because there are certain cultural tendencies toward abundant sexuality with the idols and fetishes of beautiful naked women and men’s use of natural sexual enhancing remedies, and just the free nature of people in general. As a traveler to Ghana be it if you are male or female you will probably have some kind of interaction with a Ghanaian that could be perceived to be an advance or segway to intimacy or a deeper friendship or relationship. There could also be the temptation for you to be the advancer with a Ghanaian you have met. Typically when people are on vacation there is a tendency to enjoy or pursue relationships with people more freely than you would during your normal life at home so this is all very understandable. But how do you handle all of this in a foreign land with un-written rules and potential dangers in getting close sexually or intimately with someone? Or how do you handle un-wanted attention of the sexual nature as a traveler?

I think that western women traveling in Ghana and particularly white women are the ones that have the hardest time in this department in Ghana. Ghanaian men can be very aggressive in their desire to meet a foreign woman. The motivations for this can be complex, from wanting to marry one to get out of Ghana to the US or Europe, or to get a monetary benefit from such a relationship. There is also a bit of a negative ingrained cultural aspect that may be a relic of colonization that they perceive that white people are better and will make better lovers or spouses. Then I also think there is a genuine interest that everyone in the world has in the unknown and people who look different and the difference could be the basis of attraction along with curiosity, and the basic fact that you stick out like a sore thumb. Possible reasons aside a western woman traveling in Ghana will probably be hissed at and approached by men telling them they are beautiful, that they want to be their friend or just plain asking them to marry them. This can become quite annoying and I have seen many western women almost ignore any potential interaction with men because of this or they are very abrupt and rude in return. I can understand how that can happen and why that would be the go to defense but there are probably better ways that it can be handled. Handling things in a joking way or politely refusing is a good start. I don’t like lying but wearing a wedding ring, or traveling with a male that you can say is your husband can also help, these are excuses you can use to turn down the advance but not shut the door on any potential positive interaction or friendship. I have heard reports of men sometimes grabbing a woman’s hand or shoulder to get their attention, and if this bothers you feel free to remove their hand and tell them that like you would any man in your home country that would do that. Traveling with a local guide can also help to keep these kinds of advances at bay.

Ghanaian women tend to be a little more reserved and shy than their male counter parts but men will still often receive an advance, but these are typically a lot lighter natured and jokingly than how it is with women travelers. Like Ghanaian males, Ghanaian females also have an attraction toward foreign visitors and many of the same motivations are there that are there for the men. This can present its self in a couple of ways. Women may candidly ask you to marry them. They may want to dance with you at social functions. But it is not nearly as aggressive as the male counterparts, if you are not comfortable with this a simple no thank you will usually take care of it. If you are in areas that are frequented by prostitutes or ladies of the night things get a little more forward and aggressive and saying no can be a little harder but still is usually accepted and things will be left at that.

If you are looking to pursue a relationship with a local just remember that you are only a visitor to their country and you will be leaving. This can cause hurt feelings and potentially social issues for the person you left behind. In rural areas it is still seen as taboo people to have sex before marriage and if this were to happen it could have implications on that person’s ability to get a husband in their community in the future. You also need to be careful about not being coercive with your money or status for sexual reward. If you are going to pay for sex, please do not coerce a young girl in a village to go down that path. One night stands are not the norm for the general population and you should be careful with that in that it can create a lot of hard feelings and perceived promises. Just be honest and respectful and things should be alright.

Please do not come to Ghana if you are looking to sleep or take advantage of children or underage people, you will be caught and prosecuted. Also please do not come to Ghana and coarse people for adult film or to take pictures of naked people, it is not respectful and pornography is illegal and Ghana and you can be caught at the airport on the way out of the country. If they feel they need to they will search through your camera or computer.

You should also be careful about pursuing same sex relationships because this is still illegal in Ghana and there is a general stigmatization in Ghana against this. If you are a same sex couple traveling to Ghana you will notice that it is not going to be a big deal as long are you are respectful and realize that it is not culturally acceptable and I would suggest keeping displays of affection to a minimum in public. That being said though you will notice that Ghanaian men will walk down the street holding hands, this is not because they are homosexual this is because they are good friends and they are showing that is the case and that their relationship is friendship rather than a monetary one or a business relationship. The same goes for women they will often walk hand in hand down the street also. So if you are a same sex couple this is something that you could probably get away with (still probably not recommended) without much scrutiny in Ghana, but anything else may cause some issues.

Remember that soliciting prostitution and prostitution are illegal in Ghana. There are risks that go along with any sexual behavior that you should be aware of in your own country also. Ghana’s HIV/AIDS rate is much lower than a lot of other African countries, but it still exists, and in higher percentages among sex trade workers. Hepatitis C is also a concern along with other STDs like gonorrhea , and Syphilis. Be smart and be safe, don’t put yourself and others in danger.

#1 Travel tip to ensure you have a good time:

Be respectful, be patient, and have sense of humor. Smile and don’t get to caught up in everything, enjoy yourself.

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