Culture Shock in Ghana

Most new arrivals in Ghana will be pleasantly surprised by the smiling, helpful locals – once they get through the chaos of the airport, of course. But the degree of culture shock in Ghana may be a lot more intense for those who have never been to Africa.

Many foreigners find the stark differences overwhelming and respond by isolating themselves in small enclaves of expat 'safety'. Though these insular spheres can be comfortable, it often means missing out on all that Ghanaian culture has to offer.

Ghana’s capital, Accra, is developing into a modern city with shopping malls, movie theatres that play the latest Hollywood movies, and restaurants catering to various tastes and budgets. The smaller cities and villages, on the other hand, are much more traditional and culture shock may be much worse for expats living in rural areas.

Appropriate dress

There's no specific appropriate mode of dress in Accra and expats will see ornate traditional Ghanaian outfits alongside casual jeans and T-shirts. Women are encouraged not to wear shorts or short skirts, although this is less of a consideration if living in one of Ghana's urban centres.

In the workplace, the dress code can be quite formal. Westerners melting in the heat will be surprised to see their Ghanaian colleagues dressed up in full suit and tie for work and corporate events, cocktails and receptions.

Meeting and greeting

Ghanaians are generally open and friendly and it is common for locals to strike up a conversation with foreigners who have recently arrived in the country. They are incredibly hospitable and expats should take the opportunity to visit acquaintances and colleagues in their homes whenever possible.

Women may find that Ghanaian men exclaim their love in a first meeting. All of this can be taken lightly and every new arrival must get used to this friendly banter. Any unwanted advances can be deflected through witty conversation and a firm goodbye.

Traditional food and cuisine

Ghanaians love local traditional food. The cuisine is very different from what most expats will be used to, especially if they have not been to Africa before, and some dishes are definitely an acquired taste. Each meal consists of a main starch alongside a, usually spicy, meat, stew or soup accompaniment.

The national dish is fufu, which is a pounded ball of starches placed in a large bowl of soup. Utensils are not typically used and sharing one bowl between friends and family is common. 

Ghanaians love meat, and are not shy about eating every part of the animal, including eyes, bones and skin/hide. 

Overall, there are many tasty and interesting dishes to try, and adventurous new arrivals might enjoy many of the meals that they sample. 

Language barrier

Although there are more than 30 local languages, English is the official language in Ghana. English is widely spoken in the cities, but in some rural areas people may only speak their tribal language. Twi is the most widely spoken local language, and many phrases are quite easy to learn. Expats who learn some Twi will find that the appreciative responses by the locals will make it well worth the effort.

Shopping and bargaining

Bargaining is a cultural institution in Ghana and the social meaning of bargaining is as important as the financial benefits. Expats must master the art of bargaining and engage in the associated banter, particularly when shopping in local markets or hailing a taxi.

The seller announces a price, with the buyer then responding with a remark about how expensive that is and offers a counter (usually less than half the amount). Bargaining then ensues until a price somewhere between the two is agreed. 

Cultural etiquette

Foreigners must familiarise themselves with the cultural etiquette in Ghana, including these important points: 

  • Extending an invitation to someone in Ghana suggests that the host is paying

  • When greeting a group of people, shake hands from right to left

  • It's customary to offer all visitors to one’s home a glass of water as a common courtesy

  • Punctuality is not a strict concept, so a meeting set for 9am might only happen at 11am. This is an aspect of life in Ghana that takes a while to get used to.

Overall, Ghana has a vibrant culture which enriches those who discover it. Once expats grow accustomed to the slower pace of life and nuances of local culture they are sure to have a wonderful experience in Ghana.

Holli Our Expat Expert

I'm a writer at heart with a double life as a regional sales manager in the telecoms industry in Africa. My work and social life take me around the continent, and provide me with a plethora of interesting material to ramble about, which I try to do at least weekly on my blog, Holli's Ramblings