Monday, April 25, 2011

Survival skills

Living in a foreign culture away from everyone and everything I know has done wonders for building lots of useful skills, some of which I never even considered before now.  What follows is a random selection of those skills. 

  1. Compose a succinct, polite email that gets results.  Using too many words leaves too much room for interpretation, especially when speaking with people for whom English is not their first language.  A short, direct email that says, “You need to do X” is much more in line with Ghanaian thinking.
  2. How to say NO.  I’m generally too nice, but it’s easier to say no when I get requests that seem excessive, like teaching all twenty teachers at a school or bringing a brand-new, $1000 laptop back from the US. 
  3. Open a wine bottle using the corkscrew on a Swiss Army knife.  ‘Nuff said.
  4. Figure out what a conversation is about when I understand only 5% of the words.  I’m sure this skill will come in handy for those jargon-laden conversations that occasionally happen in meetings at work. 
  5. Not freaking out at the presence of wild animals in the house.  Let me say that I am not a fan of millipedes.  One morning I woke up to find a millipede crawling across my bathroom floor—a 3”-long, dark brown, scaly, creepy-looking bug.  Three months ago, I would have recoiled in disgust and tried to find someone to help me get it out of the room.  Now, though, I looked at it for a moment; grabbed a piece of toilet paper and picked it up; and opened the bathroom window to hurl it out onto the lawn.  The geckos are another story—they’re kinda cute, so I like it when they wander across the office wall.
  6. Find my way around Kumasi without a map or GPS.  One evening, Akmed told me he couldn’t drive me the next morning because he had to go to a funeral. In the first few weeks, I would have had to call a school to tell them I couldn’t make it. Now that I know where most of the schools are, I pulled out my appointment book, saw that I would be going to a school I could direct a taxi driver to, and asked him whether he would be able to get me to my next school.
  7. Negotiate a fair fare.  That same day, when I went to get a taxi, I talked to both the taxi driver and another man, neither of whom could understand that I wanted to go to a JHS.  The second guy that the taxi driver called over at least knew where the university (“Tech”) was, so when I told him it was on the way to the university and I knew where to turn, he gave the taxi driver directions.  When I asked “How much”—since you always have to fix the price before getting in the car—and the taxi driver responded “Five”, I said “It shouldn’t be more than four, since it’s closer than Tech and Tech is five.”  The taxi driver took my four cedis offer.   I also learned to bargain my way to a reasonable price on other things, like getting a 25-cedi dress down to 18.
  8. Watching television to understand a country’s culture.  I think I learned more about Ghana watching TV with commercials than any other way.  For example, there was a commercial for Oxo washing powder.  The scene begins with kids playing football (soccer) when one of them kicks the ball into the second-floor of an abandoned building.  In the US, the kids probably would have gone to find an adult to help.  In Ghana, though, the two kids look at each other and then run up the stairs where they found a treasure trove of footballs waiting for them.  They started throwing them out the windows to their friends downstairs.  The moral of the commercial was that kids are meant to explore and that Oxo washing powder can clean up the mess from it.
  9. Patience.  Probably the biggest skills I’ve learned in Ghana is patience.  Everything takes much longer than expected, from waiting in line at the post office to getting around town in the nightmarish traffic of Kumasi to trying to get things done within the school system.  Learning to be patient is an important skill for life in general and for working in pharma in particular.  It’s not for nothing that there are ads out there talking about how “when I started working on this drug, my daughter was in diapers, but now she’s graduating from high school.”  (Not my daughter—someone else’s daughter.)
  10. Enjoying the moment.  Ghanaians seem to embody the phrase “Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow you may die.”  While it can be frustrating that it’s hard to plan for the long term, it does help in learning to embrace the present and not worry about the future so much.

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