After leaving Ghana, I began to question my obligations as an American to the economic structure of the countries I visit. I thought about this while driving past tiny villages composed of shacks with caved-in roofs, while bare-footed children cheerily chased our bus to keep waving at us. I thought about this as I wandered through the massive marketplace in Takoradi, resisting again and again the calls inviting me over to merchants’ tables and the appeals to my nationality. And I especially thought about it when I interacted with locals individually, people who seemed to connect my skin color instantly with at least moderate wealth.
When a few friends and I left the ship on the first day, the street merchants right outside the port didn’t bother with calling us over to them. Their strategy was to ply us with things, say that they were gifts, and then try to charge money anyway. As soon as I stepped outside of the gate on our first day, a young man walked over, introduced himself, and immediately started to embroider my name onto a bracelet.
“No, no, no. I don’t have any money,” I blurted, and started to walk away. It was true. We’d just arrived in Takoradi, and I had absolutely nothing but a debit card.
He pushed onward and said, “Okay, okay. This is a gift for you. I want to give you something to remind you of Ghana when you leave.” Touched, I thanked him and let him continue to embroider my name. He finished the bracelet and then put it on my wrist and said, “For you, only 10 cedi.”
I said, taking off the bracelet, “I honestly don’t have money. I’m really sorry.” I pushed it back into his hand. He pushed it back into mine.
“Try,” he kept saying, as in “try to find money.” He didn’t believe I could possibly have stepped off of the ship with no cash of any kind. He in fact looked offended, as though he were insulted that I would so blatantly lie to his face.
On another occasion our taxi driver tried to convince us to pay him more than we’d initially agreed upon, quoting extra out-of-pocket expenses that Ghanaian taxi drivers were expected to pay and adding prices for the time of day or the direction in which we were making him drive. Again, his attitude toward us seemed chilly, as though we offended him by demanding the same fare a local would pay. Feeling inexplicably guilty, we handed him two more dollars than the initially agreed-upon sum.
We’d been briefed on the standard rates for taxis ahead of time to ensure that we’d receive “fair” prices, but I still couldn’t help wondering what was fair. While I resented being manipulated or made to feel guilty, I also couldn’t reasonably say that an extra two dollars, split between four friends, made much of an impact on my wallet. If the difference to me was so negligible, perhaps it was appropriate that I pay more than a local would. What bothered me was the “bait and switch” aspect, the feeling that I was being tricked out of my money. Just like what seemed to bother that bracelet salesman was his conviction that I was being purposely deceitful, even doubtful of his intelligence, if I expected him to believe I was broke.
I left Ghana confused. What are the terms of “fairness” that should dictate our interactions with each other? Should I be concerned for my own pride when negotiating prices, or focus primarily on showing respect for the other party? I still can’t answer my own questions. But I can say that I’ve acquired a fresh commitment to honesty in any interaction I have abroad.