Living Under the Sun (in Ghana)

There are two basic life lessons I've learned living under the sun in Ghana.  One is that the sun affects everything that it touches.  And second is the first rule of fashion being practicality.

I'm currently residing in a city up in the mountains, a part of the country which for years I've heard Ghanaians refer to as being "cold", specifically during the nighttime.  I'll admit that sometimes, it is noticeably cooler up here in the evenings than other parts of Ghana I've resided in at lower altitudes.  Occasionally, I may even turn off the fans at night before going to sleep.  So the relatively-chilly air is real, but Koforidua and other places like this definitely aren't "cold" at night, at least not be Western standards.  But that said, I have yet to reside up here during the harmattan, which is actually the coldest time of year in this part of the world.


Back when I decided to relocate to Ghana, I was doing a lot of research in that regard and even came across a few concerned, though obviously inexperienced, netizens who recommended that travelers carry a raincoat in the name of being prepared for the rainy season.  So that was one of the few items I brought over, even though I eventually sold it, being the burden that it was.

My first rainy season is something I'll never forget.  I grew in New York, so I'm familiar with snowstorms and, to a lesser extent, hurricanes.  (I left NYC before the severe floods and hurricanes it experiences these days became a norm).  So up until then, I had never seen it rain like it does in Ghana during the rainy season.

At the time I was working in a school in a part of Greater Accra known as Frafaha.  Back then, the 'hood was mostly undeveloped, with the only paved road being the main highway (i.e. Accra-Dodowa Road).  So when it rained, everyplace became muddy.  And it rained so hard for so many hours that I actually started thinking about Noah.  In fact, it was raining so hard that the road directly outside the school basically turned a stream (feeding into a nearby lake).  So I was a bit afraid but, looking around and seeing that no one else was, decided to keep my cool.

About a year or two later I started venturing out more on my own.  Another thing about being out here in the tropics, near the coast, is that storms can seemingly materialize, as well as disappear, out of nowhere.

I remember once back in those earlier days being out in Osu and actually watching a really-black storm approach from the ocean.  That was the most-terrifying natural phenomenon I had ever witnessed in my life, but that's a story for another day.  What I intend to harp on now is this incident when I decided to go out into the rain, wearing my raincoat and a pair of Timberlands.

I was really feeling myself at first, confidently striding through the downpour while watching others seek shelter under storefronts.  But then, just like that, the rain stopped, and less than five minutes later, it was like 90 degrees outside.  So I instantly went from feeling like the man to sweating my ass off.  And if you really want to look stupid out here in the tropics, try walking around when it's hot AF outside, carrying a raincoat on your arm.  So I learned a valuable lesson that day, that out here, raincoats are unnecessary, unless maybe you work outside in the rain.  In fact, it's now been at least two or three years, if not longer, since I've even owned a long-sleeved shirt.


Another thing I've learned as an expatriate is that no foreigner should go to another person's country and think they know more about surviving there than the natives do.  For instance, I used to find it odd to see Ghanaians see walking around in the rain with flip-flops on.  But I can go out with my Timz and by the time I get home, they're all muddy.  In contrast, these people walking around puddles and mud wearing flip-flops, it's like when they get home, their feet aren't even visibly dirty.

Yet and still, I keep at least two pairs of Timz to this day.  The reason I keep two is because if it is indeed the rainy season, if I wear on pair and they get muddy, then I can wash them and wear the other while they dry.  But the Timberlands readily available in Ghana aren't the authentic, American type.  Rather, they're what I refer to as "Nigerian Timz" since, from what I've heard, they're manufactured in Nigeria.

Some people may be sticklers when it comes to wearing "real" or popular-brand clothes, but there are a couple of reasons why that mentality will probably be broken if you spend enough time in Ghana.  One is that, as illustrated by the raincoat story, what's serviceable in the West isn't always so here in GH.

For instance, I remember once one of my Ghanian homeys got an authentic pair of those conventional, beige, high-top Timberlands that someone who had traveled outside had gifted to him directly.  A lot of times that's the only way you can get certain products from the West, if someone you know actually carries it from there on an airplane and directly gives (or sells) it to you, since you won't be able to find it in any stores, regardless of how much it may or may not cost.

I was more excited about his acquisition than my friend was, so one day he let me wear the Timz.  I could have worn them more frequently if I wanted to, but that one experience was enough, because it was then that I realized that Western Timz are actually heavier at the base and thicker all around than Nigerian Timz.  That makes sense since out there in the West, they were made to be worn in the snow and on rocky terrains.  But ain't no snow out here in Ghana.

So when I wore those Timberlands outside, first of all my feet were sweating, which is something I never experienced before or since.  And since by that time I had become accustomed to wearing lighter boots, I could actually feel the weight of the Timz, as if they were a burden.  So then I understood why my friend didn't favor wearing them himself.  Yet another thing I've learned throughout the years is that just like wearing flip-flops or even sandals outside is an acquired skill, so is wearing Timberlands.  So the overwhelming majority of the guys I know out here don't wear Timz or for that matter boots at all.  And sometimes when certain dudes try to force, it's like they'll be feeling uncomfortable and walking funny.

But to reiterate, I never lost my personal appreciation for Timberlands.  I've even worn Nigerian Timz on the beach.  The thing about Ghana is that most of the roads are made of dirt and unpaved, even in some key parts of Accra.  So if you're not used to those types of environments, then those harder, ribbed soles and hard toes can make a positive difference.

I remember once, again in those earlier days, I tried to acclimate by wearing sandals into the hustle and bustle of Madina Market and ended up tripping and busting my big toe wide open.  That's when I realized that sometimes, no matter where in the world you travel, it's better to just go with what you know.  But that's not to say that I wear Timz daily.  Since being out here, I've also grown accustomed to wearing shorts with sneakers, which is a more preferable combination, all things considered.


Ghanaians are Black people, and sometimes you may come across some who, in one way or another, display that same type of impractical-materialistic mentality that African-Americans have.  I remember once I was walking down the road, and some younger dude started singing behind my back 'your Timz are fake, oo'.  First of all, he never imagined that I already knew they weren't real, at least not by Western standards.  And second, it ain't like dude was dressed to the nines himself.  If anything, he was probably jealous, envious or intimidated.

It sorta reminds me of another incident back in the days when I was walking by this guy and he started singing this song under his breath that goes 'walk like an African, talk like an African', due to the way I was dressed.  In other words, he never imagined that I wasn't from here and assumed that I was trying to imitate African-Americans (though to note, in more recent times, international fashions have become a lot more uniform).  I'll be in a boutique a lot of times and even have to point out to the owner/seller that certain items they're selling aren't genuine.  And it isn't that they're dumb but rather, never having spent time in Western culture, wouldn't know how to for instance spot a fake Ralph Lauren shirt.  

As an expatriate and someone who may be a bit fashion-conscious, you're likely to experience dilemmas in places like Ghana.  The types of new Western-style clothes (for men) that are readily available are usually fake, not of good quality or, if authentic, too small, especially if you prefer a looser or baggy fit.

Baggy clothes, such as big jeans, do have more fabric and therefore weigh more.  But even in all of my years outside of the States and with sellers constantly telling me that baggy clothes were no longer en vogue (to explain their lack of stock), I never grew accustomed to skinny jeans or fitted shirts.  And believe it or not, especially as far as the jeans go, that's actually one of the biggest issues I've faced as an expatriate in Ghana.

The thing about GH, besides it being hot, is that male obesity is virtually nonexistent out this piece.  Also, female clothing of the day is like always tight.  So there really isn't much of a demand for bigger clothes.  And it can be incredibly annoying when you go out shopping and come across a shop filled to the brim with T-shirts and trousers labelled XL which, under American standards, would rather be classified as a large or even medium.  It's like the homeys in Ghana really do like it snug.

So you may be compelled to patronize second-hand clothes, colloquially known as "foes".  This is the only way you're likely to find Western name brand clothes that are actually authentic and that you don't have to go on a diet in order to fit.

Occasionally, you may walk into a local boutique, and they'll have one just single, quality item that someone the owner knows who traveled to the US or Europe brought over, brand new.  I recommend that if you, as an expatriate, come across such a product that actually fits to purchase it immediately, because never know when, if ever, you'll come across it again.

There's also now a number of Western-style malls in Ghana, especially in Accra, and they all have at least one major clothing store.  I went into such an establishment a few years back, at the Accra Mall, and the clothes were too "White" for me, i.e. skinny and basic yet overpriced.  It almost felt like being back in the New York and walking into the Gap.  So I haven't gone into such an establishment since.

Sometimes I'll buy a T-shirt, and one of my homeys, even one of the bummier ones, will look at the tag or the logo and, seeing that it's not a popular brand, act like he's disappointed or that I dumbed out.  But it got to a certain point where it became more about getting clothes that fit and that I feel comfortable in rather than keeping up with trends or labels.

Back in the days I used to buy second-hand Hilfiger and the like, but I eventually stopped purchasing used tops.  However, if I see a pair of baggy jeans or shorts that I like, even if they are secondhand I'll probably cop them because again, truly baggy clothes are rare out here, and from what I can gather, that's even truer now than it was when I first arrived.

But in Ghana's defense, keep in mind for instance that a new pair of traditional beige Timberlands from the West costs within the $150-200USD range, and that's not including shipping, etc.  So when you flip that over into Ghana Cedis, you're talking about paying roughly ₵2,000GH for a pair of kicks.  And whereas Ghanaians may suffer from their own forms of materialism, it definitely ain't like that.

The economy out here is different, and there are so many other things you can do with that money, even though it's not a ridiculously-large sum.  One difference between the Third World and the First World, from what I can gather, is that in the former, people tend to actually own land.  So if you hit a lick in Ghana, you can go out and spend it on high-priced clothes or other showy items to impress people.  Or you can use that same dough to purchase land or try to do something more permanent.  And when you couple that reality with how hard it is to make money out here to being with, what you get is a people who tend to be a lot more practical than Americans are.


Air conditioners are bit of a luxury in Ghana, because first of all they tend to be pretty expensive (if you're lucky, you can get a good used one for about that same ₵2,000Gh).  Also, when compared to fans they consume a lot of electricity, and it's like don't sleep on the price of electricity in Ghana these days.

But here's an interesting story that taught me that being under an A/C too much isn't a good thing.  For the past few years, up until recently, I've been living primarily in guesthouses and hotels, always renting a room with A/C.  And for the past couple of years, I've also been experiencing painful back problems.

It was pretty severe, as sometimes I'd only walk a few feet, and the base of my spine would start burning.  I hastily came to the conclusion that maybe it was age related or had something to do with my belly, and a homey was telling me that it was due to the fact that I spending all day sitting at a desk, but I later found out that both of us were wrong.

A few months ago, I moved into a new place and wasn't in a position to immediately go out and buy an A/C.  After about a month, I noticed that the back pain starting to subside, and within about three months, it had completely disappeared.

So I was sitting there thinking to myself like what recently changed in my life to make my back stop hurting.  And the only thing I can think of was that the new place I moved into didn't have an air-conditioner.  And sure enough, I looked it up on Google and found that yes, A/Cs can in fact cause back problems.  That doesn't mean that I've given up on air-conditioners, but now at least I know to ration its usage and not leave one running all day.


Perhaps the general lesson to be learn from that A/C experience is it never being good to form too much of a dependency on artificiality, especially when you're living in a natural environment.  And in Ghana, the sun is something which ideally you're able to make peace with instead of hiding from.