Give me your camera: understanding gift giving in Ghana


One of the interactions with people in Ghana that I find difficult is when people—strangers—ask me to give them things. It’s quite common. In just the last week: A man on the street asked me for my camera; a group of schoolgirls wrote me a letter asking for shoes, bikes, and backpacks; and another man asked me to buy him a plane ticket to the US. My favorite is probably the man who told me I should buy myself a moto, so I could give him my bicycle. When I told him no, he told me I should simply buy him a bike. When I again said no, he told me he loved me, and that I should marry him. (But that’s a different kind of interaction that can be hard to handle.)

Rather than be bothered by these interactions, which is my instinct, I’m trying to understand them. The better I understand, the more likely I am to accept such exchanges as part of life in Bimbilla. I can, therefore manage my reactions as part of my life in Bimbilla. Or, at least figure out how to change my behavior in ways that make sense in this culture and be more comfortable for me.

During our cultural training upon arrival in Ghana last summer, we were told to expect this kind of behavior. We were told that when someone asks us for our things it is because of one of two things—or possibly a combination of both. The question might simply be a way to start a conversation with a stranger. Or it might be part of a more complex system of gift giving at the center of relationships in this part of the world. Specifically, a person might just want to be your friend. If you give that person something, they are indebted to you, must give you a gift in return somewhere down the line, and thus begins a beautiful friendship. We were told in our cultural training that Ghanaians don’t expect to actually be given the thing, but will happily take it if you decide to give it. (By the way, this is one way I’ve chosen to interpret the many offers of marriage I get from strangers. They don’t expect me to say yes, but if I do, hot damn!)

There is no way I can confirm or deny that any of this is actually what is happening from the Ghanaian’s point of view. I’ve been told this by Ghanaians, but that doesn’t mean they are successfully explaining or that I am truly understanding. Just think about explaining the unwritten rules for just one gifting context in the US—like buying drinks for others in a bar—to a Ghanaian. There are so many nuances and exceptions and decisions made based on relationship, income, location, and personality. Is this person my boss, a person I want to get to know better, a friend who had a bad day, a stranger at a bar lucky that I had a great day, someone who came out to celebrate with me, someone I am celebrating with, the bartender, an old friend who bought the last one, your dad, your daughter, a known mooch? The reasons behind each of these gifted drinks (or lack of gifted drinks) is different and the expectations that come with accepting the gifted drink are different. By and large, the members of the US macro culture know these rules and follow them implicitly. I’m sure the explanations of Ghanaian giving culture I've been given are incomplete.

I’m also sure that part of what makes me uncomfortable is that the giving culture here is so explicit, whereas giving culture in the US is much more subtle and nuanced—at least in my experience. There is a “rule” here that, if you travel to another city, you should return with gifts of bread. (That’s one reason, I'm pretty sure, there is always lots of bread being sold at bus stations—with labels saying where it was baked.) I haven’t figured out how big of your circle are supposed to be on your “give bread” list. I’ve never brought bread back from travels myself, but I have returned from trips and been asked if I brought them some bread. Even though I kind of understood what was going on, I still found the explicit request for bread kind of unsettling.

In the States we also give small gifts quite often—when visiting a friend's house, when out to dinner or drinks, when we return from a trip. But the expectation is usually unspoken. I think that, at least for us, the unspokenness is an important part of the meaning. We pretend the gifts are not an obligation, albeit a social one, but a nice, unexpected gesture. Responding “you shouldn’t have” and “how thoughtful” add to this ruse. Everyone knows the score, but we play along anyway. Here, in Ghana, the obligation is bold and spoken. Their way of gift giving breaks our rules of gift giving. And though I’m on their turf and should play by their rules, I have to consciously and actively overcome the social breeding I’ve had since childhood to do so.

It’s not only culture that defines this “request for stuff” interaction, and my difficulty with it. The request itself sounds so rude to my ears. It wasn’t until a few weeks into language classes that I realized why. Dagbanli doesn’t really have a word for “please.” There are ways to say please, but they are borrowed from other languages or not as simple as a single word. And, more importantly, not a common part of the language used for asking. In Dagbanli, “give me your camera” is the way that you say you’d like something, even if it’s a polite request. So—for Dagbanli speakers for whom English is a second language or who are learning English—it’s quite natural to leave off “please” when native English speakers would more than likely include it. When I learned this simple linguistic quirk, I instantly was able to hear these requests with more charity and as less demanding.

Recently I learned that for the half a year I’ve been here I’ve likely unknowingly been giving my neighbors a similar experience. I was with a Ghanaian colleague at a shop in town and asked, “can I have water?” The woman seemed befuddled by what seemed pretty simple to me. My colleague later explained that the woman obviously thought I was asking her for water free of charge and that, with the language barrier, she didn’t know what to do. It was only when I had my money out to pay that she went to grab the bottle. I learned that “can I have” in Ghanaian English is equal to “give me for free” when I meant to say, “I want to buy.” There have probably been dozens of interactions at shops where I’ve used this phrase and obliviously created discomfort. So now I’m trying to change this linguistic habit.

There is one final aspect of this interaction I’d like to explore—race. I am not going to go into all the ways race plays into my interactions and life in Ghana. That would probably take a lifetime, but at least a book. One very specific thing, I suspect, plays into this interaction: the fact that many of the few white people in northern Ghana are here working with NGOs. And NGOs are seen as givers. Though many NGOs still do a lot of giveaways, the model is moving toward sustainable and empowering projects. The Humanist Action: Ghana specifically works to empower people with projects that lead to long-term sustainable quality of life improvement. Simple giveaways do not go very far toward that goal. Nevertheless, NGOs are associated with giveaways. And white people are associated with NGOs. It’s no wonder that people ask us for stuff.

This is complex. This small interaction includes aspects of a cultural divide, a language barrier, and racial history. It is not something that should be dismissed as rude, entitled, or greedy. Nor should it be simply laughed off. Increasingly, you won’t have to leave home to have figure out how to navigate these kinds of interactions. My Bimbilla neighbors didn’t have to leave home to encounter another culture. As we are trying to build a global community, navigating and trying to understand these kinds of encounters needs to become second nature, then common nature, and, finally, human nature. Eventually, then, we can see right through one another’s cultures and simply see one another.

Photo caption: After an event in a nearby village the host gave all the special guests some gifts. They wanted to give the HA: Ghana representatives a goat, but we convinced them that was too generous. So they gave us a chicken.