Being Nice

From Estero to Africa

Sunday, July 19, 2009
By Kathryn Taubert
Why is it so hard for some people to be nice?
I am in Ho this weekend, on a little R&R from the heat and roosters. I decided to stay in a motel with running water and air conditioning. I also figured my caretakers might need a break too. Sure enough, even though Ruby questioned me closely about my plans, she made plans to visit relatives in an adjacent village, a fact which reinforced my feeling that she also needed a little R&R, although she would never have said so.
They’ve been very good to me, if a little overprotective at times. Women, here, especially “madames” (how they refer to “us Elders”) are not as independent as American women, especially Texans. So I thought a little break would do us all some good. I also admit a certain longing for running water and private bath with flush toilet, especially at 3 a.m.
I stayed last night at the Freedom, the “number 2” motel in Ho. Forty-five cedis (about $30) bought me a clean room with working amenities plus breakfast, although the power was out when I arrived. That happens a lot in Ho. Not fancy by any means, but more than adequate, with a large stall shower, working toilet, fuzzy television, lights, air conditioning and ceiling fan. The Ghanaian fashion sense doesn’t always translate to interior design, however, with psychedelic 12-by-12 tiles on the floor that confuse the eye and trip up an already klutzy American. I had to watch myself carefully walking up the stairs to my room along a 3-D tile floor that never heard of OSHA must less got cited. Not to worry; I’m getting pretty good at walking with my eyes on the ground, although I’m missing a lot above ground level that I’d otherwise see.
I expect the decorations in these buildings are cast-offs from some building project or another, perhaps foreign imports obtained inexpensively by budding Ghanaian entrepreneurs.
The small restaurant served a limited but decent menu. Curious about Ghanaian vegetarian pizza, I was pleasantly surprised to find it quite good, but not quite pizza. They made the dough from scratch, baked it with at least an inch of vegetables in tomato base, and then whispered “cheese” over the top. Mostly chopped lettuce, onions, green and red peppers, and maybe even a little shredded cassava, it was filling and tasty.
The “Business Centre” contained computers of the same vintage (just short of obsolete) as most here, and a non-working printer. It took me almost three hours to empty my e-mail in boxes and send an article or two. Nothing here is “high-speed,” pizza or otherwise. But the young man attending the room was, as are all, most hospitable.
Today I took a tro-tro to the Chances Hotel where I had originally planned to stay the weekend, but for the unavailability of a room last night. While the Freedom is just down the road from the busy Market in Ho, Chances is on the outskirts set back in a peaceful “suburban” setting. For a little more a night, the accommodations are newer, more modern, quieter. This is the place for a get-away or conference, with its open air conference center, small adjacent open-sided restaurant, tree-filled courtyard and pleasant “chalets” around the courtyard. It’s not the Hyatt, or even a Courtyard Suites; but for Ho, it’s first class, for about $60/night.
I had lunch at a table next to a group of Europeans. Booting up my PC, I was distracted by the behavior of my lunch mates.
This small hotel is Ho’s attempt to upgrade it’s facilities to attract visitors from other countries as well as Ghana. Tourism is the fourth-largest source of Ghanaian income, and budding entrepreneurs are trying their best to appeal to Western and European standards. Staff are extremely polite, accommodating, if somewhat inexperienced, and facilities not quite pristine. But what they lack in experience, they more than make up for in gracious hospitality.
The woman at the next table, whose unmistakable accent shall remain unidentified to protect her country, had ordered her meal: grilled chicken, braised rice and mixed vegetables, for $8.00 cedis (about $5 US). Unmistakable thunderclouds roiled in her face as she virtually leapt out of her chair, plate in hand and stormed back toward the kitchen, almost shouting “THIS IS COLD” while stabbing at the air with her finger. Turning on her heels, she left the young waitresses and cook in a flurry in her wake, chattering anxiously amongst themselves in a clear attempt to appease.
I was saddened by this unkind display and found myself wondering at the propensity of some to take the mean road instead of a kinder, gentler one.
I am ever mindful of my role here as a guest in someone else’s country in which I am “the foreigner,” who will, by virtue of my country’s limited representation in this part of Ghana, leave an indelible impression upon the minds of those whom I meet. Many of them have never before met an American, and many have never seen a white person. (I frightened more than a few small children initially, including 3 year-old Mawunya, who ran screaming from the room when she first saw me. Now, she doesn‘t want to leave me, or my “gadgets.”).
I am not only representing myself, I am an unavoidable representative of the U.S. Whatever I do speaks not merely for me, but my country. I can’t imagine treating these people rudely when all they are trying to do is please, and lift themselves from crippling poverty.
Why this woman, like so many to be found everywhere, behaved as she did instead of nicely requesting that the cook “heat this a bit more for me, please,” I’ll never know.
But I made a point of thanking the young waitress who served me and asked her to tell the cook that my meal was cooked flawlessly (it was), tasted delicious (it did) and left a good tip to show my appreciation.
I was rewarded with another of those smiles I love so much. I can only hope in some small way I made up for the unfortunate behavior of another “white person” who behaved so thoughtlessly.
I do not want people here to learn the term “Ugly American.” At least not from this American. I hope to leave them with at least half as good an impression as they have left upon me.

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