10 normalities that aren’t so normal in the UK

2 months in, I feel fully settled in Accra and am comfortable travelling solo across the busy city. Yesterday I started to realise there are a lot of things I now consider normal that were culture shocks at the start:

  1. Street goats and chickens

    Whereas I’d pay upwards of £5/£10 to visit a farm in England to see animals, goats and chickens just roam free on the streets of Accra. Often travelling in packs, the domestic animals are like cats – let out in the morning and returning to their owners at night.

  2. Carrying small change

    I’m so used to being overcharged at vendor stalls and on public transport that I keep a list of past trips and an abundance of small change in my purse. I’ve noticed traders give me a specific look when they’re about to push their luck, so I don’t hand over money until I know I’m paying Ghanaian prices and not white girl fees.

  3. Malaria and mosquitoes in general

    People catch malaria like the common cold and it’s easily treatable here. I’ve usually got at least a handful of bites on me at all times, I always carry mosquito spray, tuck myself into my net at night, and I’m now hyper-vigilant at smacking them off. Not quite the ninja reflexes of a local, but I’m getting there.

  4. The hospital system

    If you’re ill you visit the hospital. There are no GP surgeries so everything from a sprained ankle to a terminal illness goes through the same building. Once registered, you pay for everything upfront before you are treated; want to see the Doctor? Let reception know, visit the cash office and then get in line. There’s no ticket system though – you are told which door and then you sit on the closest seat to that door. Every time someone goes in, everyone shuffles up a seat, and if you’ve already queued but had to visit the lab for a blood test, you get a free pass to push to the front once your results are in.

  5. Being a celebrity

    Well kind of…people may not know my name but they know I’m an “Ubroni” (aka white person). It’s not considered a term of offense, just a fact, and I don’t think I’ve gone a day without at least one child shouting Ubroni at me for a wave. White people are a bit of a rarity here so when I was stopped in the supermarket by a group of teens for a photo yesterday I just obliged, shook their hands and agreed to be their friend when asked.

  6. Walking ssssslllllooowwwwlllyyyyy

    Ghanain pace conserves energy, stops you from getting too hot in the sun and if there is an alternative to walking people will always take it (even if it’s to avoid a 5 minute walk). I am used to walking like a Londoner; always in a rush even when I have nowhere to be, and whilst it used to be frustrating, I’m kind of used to being a little more chill now.

  7. Water sachets

    Why drink bottled water when it’s 5x cheaper from a sachet? You get used to the chemical taste of the treated water, it’s safe and after a few weeks I had mastered the art of biting the corner open and not spilling a whole bag on my crotch.

  8. Early starts

    I rarely get up any later than 6am now even on the weekends. The host home tend to wake up at 4/5am and my counterpart is usually up and about before 6am so it’s futile trying to fight it.

  9. Wearing flip-flops inside

    Although the floors are swept and mopped regularly, the sand from outside gets everywhere. It means everyone wears slippers/cheap flip-flops inside and I still have to brush my feet off before I get into bed.

  10. Loaded taxis

    These are communal taxis that have a fixed cost and route split between 4 people. It’s basically sharing the cost of a taxi when you’re all going in the same direction, without needing to know the other people.

xo

Wi-Fi, what Wi-Fi?

One of the realities I’ve faced on the Challenges Worldwide programme is that Wi-Fi connectivity is one of our most valuable luxuries at home that we consider a commodity. Before I came, I wasn’t expecting Wi-Fi in every host home, business or cafe, but I was expecting to find a hotspot or two to work remotely from in the city. That is not the reality in Accra.

There are a few businesses with Mi-Fi, a device that comfortably allows 2-3 people to connect to the internet before the connection starts to drop. But as it’s limited, when we’re on enterprise visits we’re not invited to join a Guest network, and most people hotspot off their mobile phones when using laptops at home or in the workplace.

Mobile-HotSpot

Mobile phone contracts aren’t common, so when you hotspot you are using either credit or a bundle allowance. In Accra Vodafone X offers a 4G package that I can just about stretch out over a month, but I am much more conscious of how I use data now it truly feels like a luxury.

How does it impact work and home life?

  • Online market research quickly gets expensive, so although we still use the internet, a lot of volunteers have conducted face to face user testing, site visits and phoned around for competitor analysis and lead generation

  • Sharing documents is risky business as we’re plugging USBs into a number of different devices. Luckily most have been virus-free, but Avast has flagged a few nasties it’s protected my laptop from

  • Streaming services are off limits. I thought I might struggle to get the most up to date series on Netflix. On arrival I realised Netflix was not an option unless I wanted to dig deep into my savings to chill

  • I’ve found myself writing lists before I hotspot. Thoroughly thinking through what you need mitigates the risk of going off on a tangent and wasting data

  • You need to keep on top of your bundle because if you run out, it cuts out!

Here are a few tips on how to stretch your mobile allowance:

  • Android phones use less data than iPhones, so if you have a choice, use Android abroad

  • Make sure your phone isn’t automatically updating apps; manually update the most important

  • Turn mobile data off for background apps. Unless you’re using it, don’t let it use your data

  • Switch off location services

  • Close unwanted browsers

  • Keep your phone on low battery mode to reduce the number of times apps and emails are refreshed

  • Limit Facebook browsing (or stop altogether)

  • Avoid Facetime and use WhatsApp video or calls as they seem to drain less data

  • Make sure you’re not autosaving files from messages

  • Likewise, switch off auto-play for videos on social apps

  • USBs are still the best way to share files and media without using data. Just be wary about transferring PII and what might come with the file share

  • Take TV/movies with you and leave the newest shows for when you get home

xo

Exploring Cape Coast – our mid-programme review

The Challenges Worldwide (CWW) volunteer programme is 10 weeks long. Roughly broken down, it’s 1 week of training, 4 weeks of analysis, 4 weeks of implementation and 1 week of wrap-up and handing over to staff.

After 5 weeks in their businesses, we took volunteers away to Cape Coast last weekend for MPR (mid-programme review). It’s an opportunity to reflect on the programme so far, gather feedback, bring the group together, and take some time out to have a little fun too!

On Friday we left Accra and stopped at Cape Coast Castle on the way to the guest house. Those that wanted to, were given the option to use their own money to pay for the walking tour around the former slave castle, and learn about the conditions inflicted upon millions.

Cape_Coast_Castle

We were taken through the male and female dungeons; cramped, poorly ventilated spaces that stored up to 1,500 shackled slaves at a time. Kept like goods underground for 6 – 12 weeks, they either waited for death to take them, or for the next ship to sail them to the New World, leaving through the “door of no return”. It was a cruel reminder of how evil human beings can be, and how ignorant we can be to inhumane practices.

After the castle tour, we arrived at Hans Cottage Botel, our accommodation for the next 2 nights. The remote guest house was next to a beautiful lake, home to dozens of tropical birds and crocodiles (which we stayed well clear of!), and was a lovely location for a weekend retreat.

Hans_Cottage_Botel_Lake.JPG

We travelled out for dinner and then returned to Hans Cottage to take over the communal areas that overlooked the lake for some team building activities. Musical chairs, Mr&Mrs counterpart quizzes, a lip sync battle and more were all organised by the volunteers – a great effort from all!

Saturday we woke up early and started the day with CWW work. We discussed the learnings from working in cross-cultural pairs over the last 5 weeks, key successes, and how pairs had overcome issues with host homes, enterprises and their colleagues. It’s been a bumpy ride for most, and I am really impressed with how they have coped and allowed the issues to bring the group closer together.

Following the morning of discussions and surveys, we then travelled out to Kakum National Park to conquer the rope walk. At 30m high, it was like Go Ape on steroids and we had a beautiful view of the forest below.

Kakum_National_Park_RopeWalk.JPG

We left Kakum around 3pm to watch a local dance troop, Afokids. The group are a mixture of troubled, orphaned and deaf teenagers, brought together to give them a purpose – something to channel their energy into and teach them new skills. After a traditional African dance, they performed contemporary dances choreographed by the deaf performers, before inviting the UK volunteers to the stage to try it for ourselves. It’s safe to say they have slightly more rhythm than us, and after a 10 minute tutorial and a wobbly attempt at performing, the in-country volunteers took to the stage and got it in one…we just couldn’t compete with their moves!

Afodat

On Sunday we had a relaxed and slow commute home, stopping at Cape Coast Beach on route. The sandy shore was much cleaner than what I’d experienced in Accra, and it was lovely to walk up and down the beach with the sun shining and a fresh breeze on my face.

Cape_Coast_Beach

After an activity-packed weekend away, the host home were then more than welcoming to see us back safe and sound. Having lived away from home for years, it’s still taking some getting used to living with adoptive parents, but you can’t help but love their genuine and caring nature.

xo

Accra food guide

I’ve been introduced and reintroduced to some amazing local food. When I was younger my mum used to make a lot of African dishes, but I hadn’t had any in a while, and I’m loving all of the snacks and meals. We’ve explored a few market stalls, been fed in the host home and it’s worth noting that a variety of snacks are available from a trotro (local bus) when you’re stuck in traffic.

I’ll update as I go along, but here is everything I’d recommend so far (just remember Ghanaian food portions are quadruple our carb intake so at least ask for a half portion; around 4 Cedis worth):

  1. Fried plantain; boiled plantain I’m not a fan of, but fried plantain is awesome. Cut into large slices or chunks is the usual accompaniment style, but I’ve also had it chopped into small chunks and fried to a crisp which worked really well in a salad instead of croutons
  2. Garri; ground cassava used to carb up less carby meals or thicken stews. More recently I’ve also tried garri soakings (garri + water + sugar + peanuts) which they have as a drink/snack
  3. Redred; rice, beans, fried plantain and general goodness. A great veggie option that is usually served with garri
  4. Waakye (pronounced wah-chi); rice and beans. Often served with meat or a boiled egg, waakyi also comes with a spicy sauce. The boiled egg may sound random, but it’s quite a common alternative to meat with food for a hit of protein here. If you like your food spicy, you can also choose to add shito like a local (translates to pepper – a spicy fish sauce)
  5. Jollof rice; rice cooked in a stew rather than water or stock. It’s a game changer and is usually served with meat and sauce
  6. Tiger nuts; I can only describe these as milky pistachio nuts. After having a Google I learned it is a superfood that also goes by the name yellow nutsedge
  7. Fresh coconut; the only coconut I had ever tried was from a trail mix before coming, so it was really nice to have it fresh. The coconut water is an amazing nutrient boost if you’re dehydrated and tastes much nicer than the carton stuff I’d tried in the UK
  8. Kontomire stew; spinach and eggs in a sauce. I didn’t actually realise it was egg at first but I was a big fan. They put scrambled egg in a lot of spicy stew dishes and it works surprisingly well
  9. Rice balls; cooked rice compacted into a plastic bag/ball shape. I really liked the soft texture, but I didn’t realise quite how much compact rice I was eating until I stopped. Major food baby warning
  10. Peanut soup; teamed with your choice of meat and served with a rice ball
  11. Goat meat; I can only describe this as a beef joint texture with an odd taste. We had it with the peanut soup early on. I’d recommend trying it but it’ll be Marmite
  12. Tom Brown; their version of porridge which is powdered corn mixed with water. It is basically a brown paste that they serve with sugar. Don’t be shy to add a teaspoon or two as I wasn’t a fan until I sweetened it up
  13. Milo; hot chocolate branded as an energy drink. Often drank at breakfast as a meal supplement (one hell of a marketing ploy)
  14. Yams; a carby alternative for rice that is similar to potato. Most of the time it’s boiled but I’ve also seen roasted and fried options
  15. Corn on the cob; I know this is available in the UK, but it’s different here. Yes you can get your bog standard soft corn, but they have a variety available on the streets that is BBQ’d and it turns into a kind of popcorn/cooked corn on a stick. The corn is hard and often dipped in salt water before serving
  16. Plantain chips; their version of unsalted vegetable crisps are available either light or dark in colour. The dark version (coco) is made from riper plantain which makes it much sweeter

There are also a few things I wouldn’t recommend, but it’s all about personal taste so I’ll leave those for you to discover yourselves.

xo

Preparing for Ghana – what to bring

Almost a month in and I’m starting to realise what I should/shouldn’t have brought. Anyone looking to travel Africa or apply for their own ICS experience, here’s a little advice.

Do bring:

  • Micro-fibre towel; always good for taking to the pool or using as a floor mat when exercising
  • DEET; aka mosquito spray. Available at Wilkinsons for <£1.50. I’m probably going to use x1 in 6-8 weeks, but I’ve not been spraying myself much
  • Mosquito net (if not already provided!)
  • Sudocream; works wonders on bug bites but also works for general first aid. It’s cheaper than normal bug bite relief and multi-use
  • Shorts; it’s not as conservative here as I thought it would be, but ideally you want just above the knee because otherwise your skin sticks to the leather trotro seats
  • Swimming cap (ladies only); if you want to go into a public pool, you have to don the head-wear
  • Snacks; I’d recommend cereal bars, dried mixed fruit and nuts as they keep for a while and are good for when you either don’t like what’s on offer or need a healthy boost
  • Greens powder; it’s basically powdered spinach/good stuff. It tastes disgusting but when you’re ill you’ll do anything to get better. Aldi had just started selling some for <£2.50 when I left (100g will do 10-12 portions)
  • Multi-vitamins; I can’t tell if they’re working, but for £1-£2 for 60 in supermarkets it’s worth trying to prevent illness
  • Power bank; power cuts aren’t as common anymore but I’m often on the go and couldn’t be without my phone
  • Speaker; it’s just nice to be able to play music around the house whilst you’re away
  • Music; I brought a speaker and forgot I had no music on my phone…wi-fi is near enough non-existent in Ghana so definitely get downloading before or rinse any wi-fi you can on arrival
  • A good camera phone; Android phones are really common here and you’ll stick out with an iPhone but it’s worth it for the best quality snaps!
  • Surge protector; if there is an electricity surge, having your gadgets plugged into one of these will protect them from obliteration. Available in ASDA for £6-£8
  • Backpack; I don’t understand why people don’t already have one, but definitely get one if you’re off to explore
  • Plastic/rubber flip-flops; everyone wears them around the house like slippers because of the sand that comes in from outside
  • First aid kit; plasters, paracetamol, ibuprofen, cold&flu tablets, re-hydration sachets, small scissors and Imodium of course. It’s really expensive to go to the Doctors and/or Pharmacy so just bring it from home
  • Movies/TV shows; I didn’t stock up on enough entertainment for the evenings. I also wish I’d brought a HDMI cable to link what I do have up to the TV
  • Dry shampoo; it’s not available here so bring as much as you’ll need for your stay
  • Tissues; George packed all 6 packs when I only planned on taking a couple, I’m glad I didn’t say anything because most public toilets don’t have any loo roll
  • Hand sanitiser; they don’t have soap either…
  • Small lunchbox; I wish I’d brought a container to put fruit in for lunch or snacks
  • Coin purse; even for the guys, having change floating about in your bag is a pain
  • Nail file; for your nails but also in case you need to file down your local SIM card. For some reason a lot of ours weren’t cut to size and it’s quite common here. Worst case I’ve seen phone shop assistants file them down on curbs though
  • Bottle opener; drinking isn’t really that popular so if you want to buy some alcohol from the supermarket it’s best to be able to open your own booze
  • Sports bras; I wish I hadn’t brought any normal ones, they’re a right faff to hand wash
  • Face moisturiser with UV protection in it; it just stops you from forgetting
  • Cards; you can’t go wrong with a pack of cards and bonus points for bringing Top Trumps too

I’ll add to this list if I think of anything else in the next few weeks, but hopefully it will be of use to someone!

xo

The Team Leader role

With the business workbooks now submitted, recommendation presentations taking place on Monday/Tuesday and our MPR (mid-programme review) next week, time is flying by!

For those of you wondering what I’ve actually been doing, here’s a 5-point summary job description for the Team Leader role:

– Coordinating bi-weekly enterprise visits to ensure business owner and Challenges Worldwide expectations are aligned, and work to date has been completed to a high quality

– Conducting bi-weekly host home visits to check volunteers are settling in, abiding to house rules and acclimatising to the new environment. Looking after their health and well-being throughout the programme

– Directly line managing 9 volunteer pairs (18 total) with a Ghanaian counterpart. Facilitating 121s, reviewing workload and progress, providing business support and helping them to resolve any issues that arise

– Effectively delivering weekly CMI training by engaging all 38 volunteers in activities. Encouraging them to present their own content, and teaching them to work as Professional Consultants within their enterprises

– Heading up the Accra site Communications Team to deliver our KPIs; producing imagery, blog posts, high quality articles, video content and PR, and researching into local recruitment opportunities to pitch to the UK team

It’s a lot of work, especially in Accra this cycle as we had a surprise last minute flux in numbers. Usually TLs look after 4/5 pairs, whereas we have 9; this teamed with the long commutes keeps us on our toes at all times. But with bigger numbers comes more exposure to an increased number of enterprises, amazing host parents and the opportunity to explore the capital on a trotro (local bus).

If it sounds like experience you’d like to have on your CV and you like a challenge – research into Challenges Worldwide, or ICS and the other partners they work with across the globe.


xo

Living like a local

Having only been here a couple of weeks I’ve already had quite a few culture shocks, both good and not so good.

Early starts

People get up really really early in Ghana. It is normal to wake up at 4:30/5:00 and start the day with exercise, chores, getting the latest social media update or your TV/reading fix. This caused confusion in the first couple of weeks as I thought my in-country counterpart Tilly just didn’t realise we weren’t starting until 8:30, but now I have learned to tune out her morning routine and she’s agreed to leave the lights off until 7am – compromise at it’s finest!

Hand washing

I knew there wouldn’t be a washing machine in the host home, and I had hand washed clothes before so didn’t expect this to be an issue, but it’s a lot harder than it looks when done properly. I’d at most washed a bikini whilst on holiday and half “washed” a towel if I’d gotten sand at it at the beach. This is nothing compared to a full load of washing including bed sheets when you wash a 10cm square section at a time at most. The technique involves rubbing the material onto your knuckles to scrub any dirt out, and expect a load to take a good 3 hours; if you’re lucky. I’ve also found that any lace materials scratch your skin off like a scouring pad, so when the online websites recommend cotton undies, they didn’t just mean for comfort whilst wearing.

Church

Last Sunday we attended a special Independence Day church gathering with our host family that was conducted in English. The ceremony started at 7:30 and finished at 12:00, and it was more of a party than the usual hymns and prayers I was used to as a child. Everyone dressed in beautiful African prints, or white linen if part of the choir, and I noticed that they are particularly fond of their sequins. As well as dressing fabulously, everyone was dancing throughout, singing, and praising the appointed prophet as he wished their illnesses away and spoke of riches due to be bestowed upon all those in attendance throughout the month of July. An experience I’ll never forget but I’m not sure I’ve been converted just yet. Here’s a snippet of the service.

I’m hoping I’ll adopt some of the early start mentality as although I would call myself a morning person, I’m not an exercise in the morning person, and need to be to suit my curfew. Hand washing will not defeat me so early on so I’m going to find new ways to try and speed up the process before I succumb to giving up 15% of my stipend to a cleaning lady. As for church, I’ll definitely visit the host homes smaller local church before I leave and remember the ceremony fondly, but I’ll leave the singing and dancing to people with more rhythm.

xo

Arrival in Accra

I made it! After starting my Challenges Worldwide journey in December, making it through the application process, assessment day and pre-departure preparations, I arrived in Accra on Sunday.

The 6.5 hour flight wasn’t as long as I’d expected, but apparently we were very lucky to go direct! My UK counterpart, Bryan, wasn’t so lucky as the flight was fully booked so he came the next day via Dubai and was in the air for +14 hours.

My first thoughts as follows:

  • The host home is pretty awesome; we have a huge living room with an open plan dining room and a big twin bedroom, complete with a fan and mosquito net

  • Mosquito nets are like little forts and, I am told, if you sleep with the fan on mosquitoes are so light the air blows them away

  • Mosquito spray smells disgusting and if you spray your arms first and then your legs you smother yourself in the chemical mist bending down

  • Showers are always cold, and I’m OK with it

  • Water is sold in bags instead of bottles and you bite the corner to open them. They are also crafty little bags that spill at the first opportunity

  • Brushing my teeth with a water bag is an art I will master

  • It’s normal to drink Milo with breakfast (an energy hot chocolate drink)

  • Jallof (rice cooked in stew not water) is a staple with most meals and tastes good with everything

  • Locals eat huge portions of rice and small portions of stew/meat/sauce

  • They eat everything with their ‘SPOON’ (five letters for each finger on their right hand)

  • Everyone uses their mobile phone data for internet, there is no Wi-Fi, and I definitely took it for-granted

  • Trotros (the local buses) are chaos, but they are clearly organised chaos for locals as they just seem to magically understand where they are going

  • The guy that takes the fare is called “mate”

  • Without our in-country team leader (ICTL) counterparts, we would get lost almost immediately, never to be found again

All in all so good so far!

Accra1.JPG

xo

Time: 1.58.58

I know I probably sound like a broken record – but a massive THANK YOU to everyone donated in support of my fundraising target for Challenges Worldwide! On Sunday I ran the 13.1 miles in 1.58.58 – keeping to my 9 minute mile target pace and successfully completing the MK half marathon.

The first 7 miles were brutal; I was counting down the mile markers and the only things that kept me entertained through the roads and roundabouts of MK were the abundance of jelly-babies being given out, the Dutch-style windmill at mile 8 once we reached Ouse Valley Park, and my amazing supporters.

Another massive THANK YOU to George, Suzy and Hugo who helped create my playlist, drove me to the race at 7am, calmed me down whilst I panicked for no reason pre-race, cheered me on at the third mile, and got the best seats in the stadium to literally scream at me whilst I completed the final lap of the stadium.

£500 raised for charity and one half-marathon down, I am now the proud owner of the most fabulous cow medal around and just 6 weeks away from flying out to volunteer as a Team Leader in Ghana. Exciting times!

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xo

2 days until the MK half-marathon!

This week I spent a couple of days up in Edinburgh at Challenges Worldwide Team Leader (TL) training and met my TL counterpart, Eva, who I’ll be spending 6 months with from June.

Challenges_Eva.JPG

During the training we learned more about the amazing work Challenges Worldwide do, what we’ll be involved in and how the commercial arm of the charity will continue to support SMEs after we’ve left. Every time I hear one of their staff talk about the work they do, and see how passionate they are, I’m reminded how amazing it is I’ve been given the opportunity to take part.

The first milestone to showing my commitment to the programme is to fundraise for the charity. Thank you to everyone that has donated so far! I am only £45 off my target of £500 and have been training for the MK half-marathon to drum up support. With just 2 days to go until the race, I’d love to hit my target and I can honestly say it’s a worthwhile and sustainable cause if you’d like to donate!

Donate here if you haven’t already: https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/soffiabowring

Have a lovely long weekend all!

xo