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Most new arrivals in Ghana will be pleasantly surprised by the smiling, helpful locals. But the degree of culture shock in Ghana may be a lot more intense for those who have never been to Africa.
Many foreigners find the stark differences overwhelming and respond by isolating themselves in small enclaves of expat 'safety'. Though these insular spheres can be comfortable, it often means missing out on all that Ghanaian culture has to offer.
Ghana’s capital, Accra, is a modern city with shopping malls, movie theatres and restaurants catering to various tastes and budgets. The smaller cities and villages, on the other hand, are much more traditional and culture shock may be much worse for expats living in rural areas.
Dress in Ghana
There's no specific appropriate mode of dress in Accra and expats will see ornate traditional Ghanaian outfits alongside casual jeans and T-shirts. Women are encouraged not to wear shorts or short skirts, although this is less of a consideration if living in one of Ghana's urban centres.
In the workplace, the dress code can be quite formal and modest for women. Westerners melting in the heat will be surprised to see their Ghanaian colleagues dressed up in a full suit and tie for work and corporate events, cocktails and receptions.
Meeting and greeting in Ghana
Ghanaians are generally open and friendly and it is common for locals to strike up a conversation with foreigners who have recently arrived in the country. They are incredibly hospitable and expats should take the opportunity to visit acquaintances and colleagues in their homes whenever possible. Ghanaians also appreciate conversations about themselves and their family, and this comes across in business settings, where getting to know one another is valued.
Elders are respected in Ghanaian culture and when greeting people, especially those who are older, appropriate titles such as Sir or Madam should be used.
Shaking hands is a common way of greeting and there is a special friendly Ghanaian handshake involving snapping one's finger while shaking hands. This is easier understood when shown in person and new arrivals may be excited to learn it.
Women may find that Ghanaian men declare their love in a first meeting. All of this can be taken lightly and new arrivals will eventually get used to this friendly sort of banter. Any unwanted advances can be deflected through witty conversation and a firm goodbye.
Traditional food and cuisine in Ghana
Ghanaians love local traditional food. The cuisine is very different from what many expats will be used to, especially if they have not been to Africa before, and some dishes are an acquired taste. Each meal consists of the main starch alongside a, usually spicy, meat stew or soup accompaniment.
The national dish is fufu, which is a pounded ball of starches placed in a large bowl of soup. Utensils are not typically used and sharing one bowl between friends and family is common.
Ghanaians love meat and are not shy about eating every part of the animal. What may shock expats the most is that eating insects and meat of animals that are considered pets in many cultures is not uncommon in areas of Ghana. This reality may likely be unsettling to those unfamiliar with these customs.
Wasting food is not appreciated and so expats are encouraged to share – which may be a relief if certain items on their menu are not to their liking.
Overall, there are many tasty and interesting dishes to try, and adventurous new arrivals might enjoy many of the meals that they sample.
Languages in Ghana
Although there are more than 30 local languages, English is the official language of Ghana, which means expats fluent in English are unlikely to experience major language barriers. That said, while English is widely spoken in the cities, some rural areas might see people only speak their tribal language.
Akan, with its various dialects, is the most widely spoken local language, and many phrases are quite easy to learn. Expats who do take the time to learn some of these phrases will find that the appreciative responses by the locals make it well worth the effort.
Shopping and bargaining in Ghana
Bargaining is a cultural institution in Ghana and the social meaning of bargaining is as important as the financial benefits. Expats must master the art of haggling and negotiation, and engage in the associated banter, particularly when shopping in local markets or hailing a taxi.
The seller announces a price. The buyer then responds with a remark about how expensive that is and offers a counter amount, usually less than half the original fee. Expats should be friendly and smile, engaging in some banter and a chat. Bargaining then ensues until a price somewhere between the two is agreed.
Cultural etiquette in Ghana
Foreigners must familiarise themselves with the cultural etiquette in Ghana, including these important points:
Extending an invitation to someone in Ghana often suggests that the host is paying
When greeting a group of people, shake hands with people in order from right to left
Using the right hand is important for giving and receiving gifts
It's customary to offer all visitors to one’s home a glass of water as a common courtesy
Punctuality is not a strict concept, so a meeting set for 9am might only happen at 11am. This is an aspect of life in Ghana that takes a while to get used to
Overall, Ghana has a vibrant culture which enriches those who discover it. Once expats grow accustomed to the slower pace of life and nuances of local culture they are sure to have a wonderful experience in Ghana.
►Safety in Ghana provides information about staying safe in the country
►Read some Expat Experiences in Ghana for first-hand accounts from foreigners living in the country
"Be flexible, open and be willing to change your views on how things should run." Nansie gives some advice to expats who may face culture shock, read more in her expat interview.
"While Ghanaians are on the whole very friendly, it is still a male-dominated society, so it is sometimes frustrating to get things done as a woman. In a similar vein, it is also still quite a conservative society, with most people in the south of the country devoutly Christian." Read more in Chris' interview about culture and gender in Ghana.
Are you an expat living in Ghana?
Expat Arrivals is looking for locals to contribute to this guide, and answer forum questions from others planning their move to Ghana. Please contact us if you'd like to contribute.
I'm a writer at heart with a double life as a regional sales manager in the telecoms industry in Africa. My work and social life take me around the continent, and provide me with a plethora of interesting material to ramble about, which I try to do at least weekly on my blog, Holli's Ramblings.
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