The Unspoken Rhythm of Life

In Accra, The Art of Travel Spring 2015, Genius loci by Lydia CapLeave a Comment

I’ve struggled a great deal with this post, and I don’t exactly understand why. If someone were to ask me to describe what stands out to me the most as “Ghanaian,” I would have no problem answering: the spicy carb-based food, the friendly disposition of locals, and the colorful clothing. But none of these things strikes me as encompassing the spirit of Ghana. I feel Ghana’s spirit most when I observe how locals communicate with each other: there is an unspoken understanding and rhythm that accompanies every interaction. I guess the reason I struggled with defining Ghana’s genius loci is because I was looking for it in concrete things. Instead, Ghana’s spirit comes from an abstract idea present in concrete aspects of life.

When people are driving, no one follows any laws. Every road is a free-for-all, yet I have never seen any accidents. The mentality is, “I am in charge of this car and I will do what I want and everyone around me has to watch out for what I am doing.” And surprisingly enough, it works! Drivers are able to seamlessly merge across lanes of traffic with finesse I have never seen in New York. Traffic does not come to a dead halt here because people are able to get where they need to go. It is an unspoken rule that you can do whatever is needed to get somewhere: creating an entirely new lane, swerving all over the road to avoid potholes, and honking like crazy for reasons I have not yet figured out. The Ghanaian system of driving should not work, but somehow it does because people know how to cooperate with each other.

Public transportation is similar: I have no idea how the chaotic system works, but it is surprisingly efficient. There is no written schedule of where Tro-Tros (busses) are going, when they arrive and depart, or how much they cost. Yet when I stand at the bus stop and watch other passengers, no one has to ask where a bus is going–I’m the only one who does. When I’m sitting on a bus and the mate asks for fares, no one asks how much it costs, they just hand over the correct amount of money–I on the other hand, always have to ask. When it comes to getting off the bus, there is no set schedule of stops because the bus is supposed to stop wherever you need it to, as long as the stop is on the designated route. But I never see passengers telling the mate or the driver that they need to get off; it seems like the driver automatically knows where to stop even though the stops are different every time I ride the bus. Again, I’m the only one who has to awkwardly ask if we can stop somewhere. I am constantly in awe of the unspoken understanding locals have when it comes to navigating public transportation.

There are many other situations in which the unspoken understanding that Ghanaians share comes into play: in crowded public spaces where no one appears to get in anyone else’s way, in transactions at the market where customers silently bargain with sellers, and when people try to grab your attention with the most discreet hand gestures that I never notice until five other people are yelling at me for not paying attention. Ghanaians are much more in tune with each other than Americans are, and it creates a friendly, upbeat, and ultimately strange sense of community that I feel everywhere.

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