Friday, April 26, 2013

What Ghana Taught Me About Giving

If there’s one thing I've noticed over the years, it’s that Ghanaians have a wonderful knack for giving.

Usually it's simple: someone’s time or help, their opinion about the culture or their advice; and it’s hard to pinpoint exactly when these times will be. There are days when no one seems to want to give an inch and, just as quickly, everyone seems to be giving something (and giving it freely). I've often been completely surprised, knocked off of my guard by someone’s kindness. Usually this happens on the worst of days and exactly when I need it; a reminder that, in the heat and exhaustion, I can continue - one foot in front of the other - because the world is good.

There’s no end to the kinds of things I've received: American coins, sea shells, drawings of trees and real, delicious popsicles;  people have paid for my travel, taken me (completely out of their way) to the location I'm so unfamiliar with, fed me and carried my bags; there are always kind words and smiles, curiosity and conversation, and an over-abundance of marriage proposals. Though I attribute some of this to my 'visitor' status, Ghana is of a communal mentality; centered in traditionalism, family homes, and village life Ghanaians take care of each other because their well-being is dependent upon one another.  (What’s to say that tomorrow they won’t need help, in turn?)

As a rule, giving is only satisfying when it’s wholehearted and honest, completely void of expectation. Generally, there's no reason for kindness other than the kindness, itself. And, though it seems such a simple thing, it tends to fill the biggest holes, heal the largest wounds, and is quickly contagious. After three years, much of it spent dependent on the kindness of others, I've come to understand that life is about giving. Whether it be the heart, kindness, creativity, or capital, the world is meant to be shared. Too many adventures and stories would cease to exist, too many simple fulfillments would go unnoticed, if no one opened their hearts and minds; if no one gave an inch.

And, really, there's a simple reason philanthropists are happy: they help make other people happy. While it’s strange to think of myself as a philanthropist, I guess that’s what I've become (though most of what I give seems meager); a smile here, a hug there, my undivided attention and compassion. The best reward I've received isn't payment or recognition, either; it's a smile, returned. The shy kind of smile that lets me know I've made someone feel special for a moment, and that's all the reward I need.

As Ghana is more ‘Westernized’ and cities get bigger, this will undoubtedly change. It’s an unfortunate reality  I've begun to witness; as people modernize they become autonomous (maybe this is why Ghanaian hospitality is so pleasantly surprising). In the modern world we cling to our pennies, covet our time, and pine over our privacy; we grow farther and farther apart, orbiting each other like satellites, attempting to find solace in social media outlets and iPhone applications that connect us to some form of community. 

The longer I’m in Ghana, the more I realize that giving is exactly why I came here; it became my philosophy, a philosophy I think many of us need. I can honestly say that there’s nothing more satisfying than giving a kindness, no matter how small; a smile, the taxi fare, the simple acknowledgement that a stranger is important and recognized and loved. In all of this I've found that I, too, am recognized, often receive more than I give, and am happiest in the simple happiness of others. It's kind of fantastic.

So, go on … give in and give a little. Ten bucks says you won't be disappointed.