Losing Words and Finding Stories in Africa

by Lauren Hober

Convenience. Need. Want. 

If you repeat any word enough times it becomes foreign, unfamiliar.  

You can’t come here with your first-world vocabulary. You can’t come “needing” things you merely want and “wanting” things you’ll never need.  You definitely can’t come here expecting things will be conveniently worked out and planned into your everyday life.

Discover how our first place winner, Lauren Hober, lost words and found stories in Africa.
Discover how our first place winner, Lauren Hober, lost words and found stories in Africa. Photo owned by GoAbroad.com

In America, it is so easy to get what you want, confuse your wants with your needs and rely on first world development. 

“I need to take a shower.” 

“I need to wash my clothes.” 

“I need to go online.” 

These are needs replacing wants in a world that doesn’t allow for convenience. 

Sometimes in Ghana, you may look around and forget why you’re here. When you’re gathering sweat in your brow and upper lip and you know sooner than later it will be rolling off your very chin. When there’s red dirt stuck to your skin and you can no longer tell if a tan is beginning to bloom or if you’re actually just dirty. More often than not, you’ll go to a restaurant with more than five people and they’ll give you menus to look at. Only after you’ve made decisions do they tell you, “Oh, sorry. It’s finished,” and really all you have to choose from are the two things they are currently making. Even worse than that is trying to take a simple taxi ride to somewhere nearby, but because they can tell by your lighter skin that you are not a local, they’ll charge you more. 

These are inconveniences. They’re frustrating and time-consuming and make you homesick. 

But they are absolutely necessary. 

After you realize this, you remember why you came here. Because you wanted to see a side of the world that books and movies couldn’t properly explain. Because you wanted to explore a world that demands empathy and attention. 

Sometimes in Ghana, you may look around and remember exactly why you’re here. When you visit Wli Falls and it’s the first time you’ve ever seen a waterfall. But not only that, you look next to it and see locals doing their traditional dance moves with paint, mud and smiles on their faces. When you walk over to them and join them because you’ve been taking an Introduction to Traditional Dance class and you can now apply the moves you’ve learned. 

You remember when you’re in a kindergarten class, with 57 kids dressed in green and white checkered uniforms, asking you if you could tell them that story about Little Red Riding Hood just one more time. It’s when you’re helping women discuss topics about Women’s Rights and learning more about what they do to survive in a society drowning in inequality.  

But sometimes, it’s something even simpler than that. You see the women working with their children held on to their back with Kente cloth. You hear the men and women giving you a warm “Welcome!” in Twi, their local language, whenever you come to a new place.  You see the gold, green, red and black Ghanaian flag hanging from almost every house or taxi and remember the pride they have for their home country. 

You realize you had to rid yourself of wants and needs to not only see these things, but to learn from them. 

You’ve begun to laugh that you’re so sweaty you can’t take a shower, or that all you wanted was their famous red-red dish at the restaurant, but all they’re making are yams and stew.  You and your friends are now more comfortable bargaining with the taxi drivers to make sure you get the right price. You’re even more aware of the open gutters that have been begging you to fall in them since you first arrived. 

Chimamanda Adichie, a Nigerian author, once said, “So that is how to create a single story, show a people as one thing, as only one thing, over and over again, and that is what they become.” 

Coming here with your first-world vocabulary creates the single story. The story of Ghana, Africa remaining underdeveloped. Ghana remaining inconvenient. Ghana remaining undiscovered. But there’s more to it than that. There’s a whole other story that needs to be unearthed and shared with the world. 

You have to discover what brought you here and you have to tell the world of the story that lies hidden by the first one –the story that tells you that Ghana, Africa is just as hopeful, determined and hardworking as those in the first-world. You have to be the one that reminds people to forget their culture and embrace another one. Only then, can you truly outline the beautiful sunsets of the coast, the wonderful smiles of the children and the amazing culture that changed you.