I spent a year each living in Ghana (2005-06) and Ethiopia (2007-08), working in IT for the British NGO VSO (Voluntary Service Overseas) at government offices. The two countries are very different, and my experiences in the two were quite different as well.
Ghana is in West Africa, Ethiopia in the East. Ghana was colonized by the British, Dutch, Portuguese, Danish, whereas Ethiopia was never colonized — the Italians were there for 5-6 years but never managed to colonize it.
Ghana was known as the Gold Coast, and Europeans built forts there to trade with the locals. Initially they were trading in goods but later they discovered slaves, and the place got to be known as the Slave Coast. The forts were used to keep the slaves before they were shipped out — only the strongest were able to survive the dire conditions of the dungeons.
Ethiopia, on the other hand, has architectural gems of its own, such as Lalibela, which has eleven rock-hewn churches built mostly in the 12th and 13th centuries. Haile Selassie was one of the most respected African leaders. Even though it is economically one of the poorest African nations, due to its history it is one of the leading countries in the African Union — the headquarters of the AU are in Addis Ababa. Many other African countries like Ghana, Mali, Senegal for their flags have taken the colours of the Ethiopian flag: red-green-yellow.
Since 1992 Ghana has been a relatively stable democracy, peaceful, steadily developing. When opposition won the elections, the power transfer was smooth — a rarity in Africa! In Ethiopia, however, elections have always been rigged. Ghana is predominantly populated by black people, Ethiopians are mostly brown. Christianity was brought to Ghana by missionaries, whereas Ethiopians have their own Orthodox church.
My experiences in these two countries were very different too.
In Ghana I was living in a rural location in a compound with 3 huts on the campus of a school near Nalerigu in the Northern Region. There was no running water; every day students brought me water from the borehole with buckets. There was a hospital run by American missionaries nearby, but apart from that for the most of my 13 months, I was the only VSO person out there. For shopping, internet access, and socializing with other expats I had to go to the regional capital, a bumpy 4-hour tro-tro ride.
In Ethiopia, however, I was living in Awassa, the fast-growing regional capital of the Southern Region. There was a beautiful lake. I was staying in a bungalow with hot water and dial-up internet connection. There were around 10 other VSOs in town, and numerous other expats. I was working at the regional government, leading the development of database systems. Since it was the regional capital, compared to the local government I was working at in Ghana, the office was better organised and there were local colleagues who had relevant technical degrees like computer science and maths. So there was more possibility for collaboration and capacity building.
Overall, I enjoyed my time in both.
I liked the lightheartedness and politeness of Ghanaians. I loved the way the landscape in the North transformed with each season, from being completely arid, to blooming with sunflowers and watermelons. The Harmattan wind blowing from the Sahara, with dust hanging in the air, reducing the visibility dramatically, was surreal. When it rained, it was so heavy and powerful that cars had to stop, people take shelter and pray that their crops wouldn’t be destroyed and houses wouldn’t be flooded (and mine too flooded, after which I got a “trap door” installed).
In the south part of Ghana life was good and joyful. I remember sitting in a tro-tro with West African beats playing, on the way from Kumasi to Cape Coast, cruising through the lush tropical landscape, tree branches growing into the road, people selling fruits and oil by the roadside. And then in Cape Coast, the colourful run-down colonial architecture, sipping beer at the restaurant overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, imagining the European ships that arrived there a few centuries ago… contemplating and having no hurry in life…
Perhaps because it was never colonized, and therefore less connected with the outside world, Ethiopian culture is rather unique in Africa. And also more difficult to relate to. Their calendar has 13 months, our 6am is their 12am, they are 7 years behind us (I was there when Ethiopia entered the new millennium). The cuisine, with injera (spongy pancakes) and raw meat, is one of the richest on the continent. The language Amharic has its own alphabet.
The country offers a lot to travellers. In the Northern Region there are numerous Orthodox Ethiopian churches; in the South is the north part of the Rift Valley, where humanity is believed to have originated and where to this day many ancient tribes live in the wild; and in the East there is Harar, the fourth holiest Muslim city. But in Ethiopia I also saw people with leprosy and sick horses dying a slow death on the streets. Even in the most crowded bars the music reminded me of the desert, the mountainous terrain, the isolation, the toughness of life in Abyssinia.
Yet the same music gave me so much joy when we were travelling by jeep deep in the rugged, wild, lush South. Nature was still beating civilisation there: land was sliding, roads shifting, rivers overflowing. Crossing rivers, getting stranded due to the waterlogged road, spending the night in the jeep, the next morning the tribesmen cutting the trees and bushes down to make a new road and charging a fee for it… it all makes me want to go back to Africa.