by Allyn Faenza
As my semester abroad in Accra, Ghana comes to an end, I have been thinking through the things I have experienced, the people I have met, and the things I wish I knew before coming. I only talked to one person about his semester abroad in Ghana before boarding the plane. As a male, he had not been fully exposed to the sexism present in Ghana, but he did tell me that men would approach me and call me “obruni,” which means “foreigner.” I was not ready for living in Ghana as a woman, so here are a few observations I have made over the past four months that might help you understand what it is like to be a visitor here if you should choose to visit this frustrating, hot, wonderful little country in the future.
Here in Ghana women tend to dress modestly, but the rules of socially-sanctioned clothing are very complex. College-age females often wear tight-fitting blouses or T-shirts and skin-hugging leggings despite the 90 degree heat. Even when it comes to church attire, women wear long dresses that are worn very tightly. Here it seems like modesty is all about the length of one’s trousers not their tightness. Personally, I cannot wear leggings in this heat. Even though I may get a couple extra stares, I wear my shorts and skirts that hit above the knee. If you do dress as you would during the summer months in the States, expect some men to approach you more, stare at you, and assume you are sexually easy.
I wish someone had told me to come up with a plan for rejecting romantic advances. I was so intimidated by all of the male attention when I first arrived in Ghana. I had men at the airport asking where I lived and if they could have my phone number! The easiest way to turn a guy down is to be direct. At first, I was not sure whether making my intentions clear would help or hurt me, but once you have had men approaching you each day who tell you they want to marry you, you learn that the direct approach is best for your sanity and time. If I spoke to every man who talked to me, I would never feel safe walking around alone, and it would take lots of time to get from place to place. Some girls on my program pretend to be engaged or married, while I typically take the honest route. If their conversation takes the direction of a romantic proposition, I say, “No, I don’t want to be your friend or give you my number, because I don’t like you. Have a nice day.” Say whatever makes you feel comfortable. Women are so often convinced that the most important thing is to appear nice and spare people’s feelings, however, your safety is more important than saving a stranger’s feelings.
One other thing I wish I knew before coming here is how much I appreciate my privacy. In America it is not difficult to locate public restrooms with toilets for males and females. In Ghana if you are traveling on the highway or in the city, it is not common to find a public restroom. Instead, it is often a little field where men and women free-range urinate. There are so many health reasons that make this practice problematic, but I found the experience of urinating outside, near a highway or in a gutter at an open market so emotionally distressing. I treasure moments of privacy, but now I realize they are a luxury that comes with infrastructure development and social norms. As I have mentioned in my other posts, men sometimes grab me or touch me without my permission. This is because Ghanaian culture accepts men as sexual aggressors who have the right to touch a woman without her consent. If I protest their touch, men respond angrily saying that I have no right to tell them no because I am a woman. Being a woman here means life can oftentimes be less comfortable and private.
My personal lens is inextricably linked with my feminist lens, which has made many situations difficult here. I have found myself in this male-dominated society completely of my own choice. Numerous times I took a look in the mirror and asked myself why I was here. Why would I choose to go abroad somewhere like Ghana? But my experiences here have not been in vain. Now I know that Ghana has changed me, made me stronger and prouder than ever to be female.
This is the final addition to the author’s weekly column about living in Ghana.