A semester at sea: New perspectives in Ghana

It has been over a month into my voyage and I have had the incredible opportunity to have traveled to Iceland, Germany, Spain and Ghana. After leaving Europe, I was excited and nervous about finally stepping outside my realm of familiarity and prepared myself for what I would encounter once I reached Ghana. I anticipated that, like most developing countries, Africa would be deserted, dirty and impoverished. I thought most Ghanaian women I would encounter would have limited rights, be jobless and bound to their fathers or husbands. However, two minutes into my arrival in Ghana, my perspective changed entirely.

As I peered outside my air-conditioned bus, I saw a Ghanaian women carrying a large load of laundry on her head. The beads of sweat pouring down the sides of her face mirrored her child’s, who was strapped to her back. She did this while simultaneously navigating through the dangerous traffic with a stool in one hand and a bag of groceries in the other. In that moment, my definition of a hardworking woman instantly changed to embody this local Ghanaian mother. My view of her was then interrupted by a large basket full of Mentos, Ghanaian chocolate, plantain chips and ice cold water bottles. Underneath the basket was another Ghanaian woman, asking me through the window of the bus if I wanted to purchase anything off the basket that she balanced effortlessly atop her head. After I politely declined, she moved along, revealing the streets of Ghana as it bustled with women carrying various items on their heads, from bags of cement to large baskets of food and souvenirs, to sell through the windows of taxis and buses stuck in the heavy traffic. As I looked around in awe, I realized that the majority of the sellers on the sides of the roads were women, most of whom also had children toted on their backs. These mothers who doubled as providers for their families showed me the astounding work ethic of Ghanaian women.

Leaving their office, I was filled with gratitude for the women in the IFWL who dedicate their lives to helping other women escape such horrors. The two lawyers I met that day added to my definition of hardworking women.  

Two hours later I found myself in the office of Ghana’s chapter of the International Federation of Women Lawyers (IFWL). This non-governmental organization (NGO) provided legal aid, legal literacy and education programs to women in dire need. I spoke to two of the female lawyers, who shared their experiences of working with the various women they encounter every day. When asked what the recurring characteristic they see in the women who come to them for help is, they answered with one word: resilience. The lawyers explained that the women who finally come to them for help only do so because it is their last option. One lawyer shared the heartbreaking story of a Ghanaian woman who stayed in her abusive relationship, as most women in Ghana do, for years until one day she came home to her husband having killed both her parents and their own children. The lawyers emphasized the endurance these Ghanaian women have, never seeking help unless it is their last option. To help women speak about their traumatic experiences, the IFWL has incorporated poetry. Women who come for help are now encouraged to write about their experiences through poetry so that it is more personal and less intimidating to share with others. Leaving their office, I was filled with gratitude for the women in the IFWL who dedicate their lives to helping other women escape such horrors. The two lawyers I met that day added to my definition of hardworking women.  

My last stop of the day was at Global Mamas, a company that prioritizes female employment and helps them achieve prosperity by allowing them to do the “work they love…[and] realize their dreams of having the opportunity to support their families, send their children to school, improve their health, and save for the future.” The Mamas create their own fabric and make their own dresses, curtains and other products, and then sell them to people who come into their shop or order online beforehand.

I was overcome with the stench of dye as I made my way into their tiny workplace. These women come in and work full nine-hour work days, hunched over buckets of smelly dye with nothing but an apron and gloves as protection. As I walked by, two women smiled at me from behind their aprons stained from a day’s worth of dye.

“Does your husband like you working?” I asked one of the women. She laughed and said she was unmarried, and called over one of the other workers to answer my question. This was the first time in Ghana it occurred to me that women here are not dependent on their male counterparts. Here was a woman working full time with nobody to support but herself. I turned to the other worker who told me that her husband was supportive of her working, ecstatic even. She further explained that they could live a more stable life having two incomes instead of one. Her husband did not see her as an inferior but an equal and did not mind her making a higher income than him. She said her marriage has ultimately flourished with her being employed.

As I stood in front of these two women I realized that everything I had assumed about Ghanaian women was not true. They changed my perspective on what it meant to be a working woman, and gave me what I hoped to find on my voyage—hope, ambition and female empowerment.