Studying in Ghana: Daily Life

(As part of btw’s Profiles of interesting people, we present Part II of an interview with Rob Schubert, who recently completed research in Ghana. Click here to read part I.)

btw: What is the weather like where you are?

Rob: For someone used to snowy, cold winters, the best word I can use to describe Ghana is “hot.”

There are distinct seasons throughout the year. During the dry seasons, the air is often filled with dust and most days you come home with your hair, skin, and clothing covered in a thick, red layer of dirt.

During the rainy season, the mornings are often cloudy and the rains come quickly and hard.  Listening to the rains fall on the tin roofs or rattle through the tall tree canopy is one of my favorite things about working here.

btw: Do you live in a village or city? What is that like?

Rob: I live between two villages that surround the monkeys’ natural habitat. The nearest village is fairly small with two main dirt roads, tightly clustered houses, a few market stalls, and a school.

A loudspeaker blasts music and local announcements in the community, beginning often before dawn and playing late into the night. The villagers live in homes that include many extended relatives living under one roof. The smell of cook fires and the locals greeting one another in their brightly colored traditional clothing is a memory that I won’t soon forget.

Like most places in the world, the village is really a blend of traditional and imported cultures. People wear clothing with the logos of American companies, talk on cell phones, and watch soccer matches on their televisions. They may listen to news or music from around the world on their radios and travel to and from the larger nearby towns in a stream of overcrowded taxis and buses.

At the same time, the community is governed by a traditional council of elders and a chief. A traditional fetish priest honors spirits believed to be associated with the two local monkey species. That priest also celebrates many ancient rituals and traditions.

btw: How much contact do you have with the people who live and work in the area?

Rob: Every day I see and talk with farmers passing down the forest trails to go to and from their fields. I have also worked with several locals including herbalists, chiefs, and traditional priests. They helped me understand the plant species in the forest and the history of the sanctuary. I value their expertise and rely heavily on their knowledge about the forest and the community.

During my research, I often come into the village and interact with the villagers. The smaller fruit-eating monkeys search the garbage dumps for food waste (yam peels, mango pits, etc.) and raid homes and storehouses for food at least twice a day. The larger leaf-eating Colobus regularly eat the highly mineralized mud used in the construction of many of the local buildings.

btw: What are the people and culture like where you are? What language do they speak?

Rob: English is the official national language of Ghana, but the most commonly spoken language in my region is called Twi. Listening to the people in the village speak to one another, you can feel the energy. The conversations include lots of hand gestures and loud exclamations. More than once, I thought individuals were in a long heated argument only to find out that they were talking about the weather!

The energetic nature of the villagers is also evident in their religious practices. Though dominated by a variety of Christian denominations, both Islam and traditional animistic beliefs can be found in the surrounding communities. Saturdays and Sundays ring out with the sounds of drums, bells, and singing as different churches hold their weekly services. The villagers can be heard singing as they pass through the forest.

Funerals are another important community event and they occur frequently, often several going on the same day. The community gathers over several days and everyone dresses in the traditional funeral colors of black or red. They gather in open areas, donate to the funeral costs, and celebrate the lives of their family members through mourning, music, dancing, and food.

On days when these special events aren’t happening, men often leave early in the morning to go farm or hunt. Women sometimes accompany their husbands to the farms, carrying back large metal basins on their heads. These can be filled very high with yams or corncobs, and I was amazed at the strength of the women!

When not at the farm, women often prepare food outside of their houses throughout the day, travel to the local stream to wash clothes, or search through the forest for fallen logs to use as firewood.

In Baobeng, women prepare yams for meals by pounding them into a paste with a long wooden stick.

In Baobeng, women prepare yams for meals by pounding them into a paste with a long wooden stick.

Children that can afford to go to school are often seen walking in big groups with their brightly colored school uniforms. Those that don’t go to school either play near their homes or help their mothers during the day.

btw: How do you keep in touch with your friends and family in the States?

Rob: Cell phones are common throughout Ghana, even in the most rural areas. However, the cell signals, particularly away from large cities, are often very poor. Conversations with family and friends tend to be quick and often frustrating as you lose the signal or try to piece together the bits of their words that you can hear.

Each week, I travel to a larger nearby town to get supplies and food and to use the Internet. The technology is not reliable. Computers are overwhelmed by viruses and Internet connections are slow. We also have frequent power outages. With all that, I have managed to contact family pretty regularly.

Check back next week for the final installment of btw’s interview with Rob: “Highs, Lows, and the Future.”