Thursday, February 28, 2008

Ghana vs Malawi: The Hiss, the Sun and the Clothes

I’m left with only 2 months in Malawi. I’ll try to step up my blogging – one per month just ain’t cutting it.

But today, I thought I’d throw out a couple of the small small differences that I’ve noticed between Ghana (still dear to my heart, still in my blood) and Malawi (my new adoptive home).

The Hiss: In Ghana, a common way to get someone’s attention is through “the hiss,” in which air is sharply expelled through the teeth. (E.g. “Hissssshhhhh, waiter, bring me a Fanta!”). This is used in Malawi as well, but much more sparingly. And its intensity is different, too. The Ghanaian hiss is loud and cutting -- like opening a pneumatic tire pump at the gas station (indeed, many were the times I would stroll past a tire centre, hear the hiss of a pump, and swivel my head towards it in the mistaken belief someone was trying to get my attention). But for Malawians, the hiss is slow and gentle -- like a small leak in your bicycle tire.

Outgoingness: Perhaps the phenomenon of the hiss points towards the difference in people’s outgoingness in the two countries. People in Ghana are very open and outgoing, whereas in Malawi they tend to be more reserved. In Ghana, I became used to walking down the street and being called to multiple times by curious strangers, interested in a chat. “Saliminga, hello!!” was the soundtrack to my life outside of home. It sometimes made it difficult to get anywhere without feeling rude – if I were to stop and greet everyone, a simple 1km walk would likely take the whole week. In Malawi, this rarely happens. People smile shyly, but rarely initiate contact with me – although it should be noted that, once I make contact, strangers here are as generous and friendly as anywhere else I’ve been.

The Rains: In northern Ghana, the rains terrify people. They are absolutely torrential, beating down with a ferocity that strips away umbrellas, pelts the skin, threatens to remove clothing, and blinds the eyes. When it rains in Ghana, people run for cover and don’t emerge until the last drop has fallen. In Malawi, the rain is much more moderate. I was astounded the first time it rained here, and people still went about their businesses outside.

Rain pours down outside my room in Tamale, Ghana.

Clothing: Local clothing is much more common in northern Ghana – likely the result of a more hands-off colonial approach by the Brits, who seem to have firmly left their stamp on the western-style of clothing adopted by most urban Malawians. Fridays in Ghana were “local-wear” day, in which Muslims would dress in long flowing prayer robes, and non-Muslims would wear smocks or brightly-coloured batik prints. And any other day of the week was still appropriate for interesting Ghanaian clothing – long-sleeved shirts with lightning bolt patterned neck holes, dresses and matching headbands made with shining green and yellow fabric.

When I moved to Malawi, I had to ship all my Ghanaian clothing to Canada. If I were to wear it to the office in Malawi, my dress shirt-clad co-workers would laugh me out the door.

A goodbye lunch for me in Tamale, Ghana. The smocks worn by the man on the right
(Director of Community Water and Sanitation) and me are typical to northern Ghana.

My co-worker, Loti, wears a sweater on a cool day in Ntcheu, Malawi.

The Heat: It’s the dry season in northern Ghana. This means the sun is busy tearing the colour from painted walls, heating corrugated metal roof-tops till they curl against the grain, cracking the lips of all northern Ghana’s inhabitants, and dizzying those who dare venture out at midday. I recall waking up in the indentation my body had left in my foam mattress, finding it distractingly hot tub-like from my pooled sweat. I would drink a bottle of water, turn the mattress over, and settle in for another few hours. Currently in rainy-season Malawi, I’m covering myself in a blanket at night and sleeping quite peacefully.

Trevor Freeman and I luxuriate in the cool refreshing Victoria Falls, Zambia.

This is actually Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso (north of Ghana). But it was hot.

Those are a few of the differences. I won’t answer the question “which do you like more?” Life is definitely more comfortable for me here in Malawi, and I enjoy it for all its beauty and quiet welcoming. But Ghana is still my first love, with so many fascinating quirks and friends that I know I’ll never forget.

p.s. I'd like to welcome the 6 new EWB volunteers in Southern Africa (John Paul, Megan, Hans, Mark, Graham and Ashley), and 5 new ones in West Africa (Jen, Nick, Jean-Francois, Mary and Shea). I’ve added links to their blogs on the right.