Friday, 11 November 2016

Learning from each other – the cultural counterpart experience

A big part of joining an ICS programme is the experience of living and working within the local community, but equally as rewarding is the opportunity to live with a host home counterpart. Essentially your counterpart is like your roommate, with whom you share your home for the duration of your time on the project. But as we have discovered so far, a counterpart is much more. They provide the opportunity to develop a lasting friendship, to learn from one another and share all of your weird characteristics such as putting ketchup or mayonnaise on every meal, or eating YAMVITA (baby’s cereal) at strange times of the day!  Leaving your family, friends and all of your comforts behind can be nerve racking at the best of times, let alone when you are trading your flushing toilet for an outdoor pit latrine (hole in the ground!) but having a counterpart to share the experience can be a great comfort and makes the process an adventurous one.

Market Day Event
“Although accepting the fact that there are lots of “pot holes” in my cultural knowledge about my home town - Nandom (Upper West Region), I have visited regularly since I was a child and therefore thought I would be prepared for living in a rural town like Tolon. Growing up only an hour away in Tamale, I believed I would be able to blend in easily in Tolon, but the ICS placement has proved me wrong so far and challenged me in many ways. Most things I thought I knew were just scratching the surface. An example is during our first week in the community, when our team leaders took us to meet the Chief of Tolon and we were told not to wear our shoes when entering his palace. I was dumbfounded, only to realise that this newly discovered custom was just the tip of the iceberg. When we entered we were given cola nuts and were told that whoever refuses to eat a cola nut given from the chief is seen as an enemy. This is when I realised that I was lost in my own shadows, and a stranger in this community. But now after 6 weeks in Tolon as a volunteer I have learnt a lot about the community and culture.


Also, having a UK counterpart has provided me with the opportunity to learn new things and explore a different culture. Having a roommate who suddenly becomes your best friend and a sister is one of my best experiences so far, and I have learned a lot about the UK and also taught her about the Ghanaian culture as well. She has even started teaching me Spanish in the mornings before work! Always being just a little bit late to arrive at the office together because our bikes magically seem to break down or get a flat at the same time! This amazes everyone in the office and we are made to collect water for being late, but doing it together makes it all fun. My counterpart and the other UK volunteers have a strange habit of asking for ketchup and mayonnaise with every meal. On our first week together, my UK counterpart asked “Josephine, will you wear your flip flops?” This was amusing for us, as here in Ghana we call these slippers. She then explained to me that in England, slippers are fluffy warm shoes that are worn inside – often in the winter”

“Growing up in London with some of my best friends coming from Ghanaian families, I thought I already knew a bit about the culture. I didn’t think there would be many surprises, but I feel like I have learnt so much already in just 6 weeks. There are many things that have been an adjustment in Ghana – food is typically eaten without a knife and fork, and only with the right hand. Hierarchy and adhering to proper social codes of conduct is also much more obvious and apparent. Respect for your elders is very important in Ghana and can be observed by younger members of the community through customs such as lowering of the head or kneeling as a form of reverence. Our host brothers and sisters are so helpful and always rush to carry our bags for us when we arrive home from work. This is pretty different to my experience growing up in the UK, as little is expected of small children in terms of domestic chores, and at times elderly people can’t even get a seat on crowded public transport.

     Being in a rural part of Ghana where women typically marry and have their first child anywhere between 18 and 24, I’m asked quite often as to the whereabouts of my husband! Explaining that women in the UK tend to get married and have children slightly later (and sometimes not at all) has provided a great source of conversation in my host home. We have a lot of laughs together, particularly when my host family ‘subtly’ introduce me to prospective husbands! I have also learnt that there is a lot of inequality in Ghana. That’s why I’m really happy to be a part of a project like ICS/NFED Tolon, which helps rural women through developing their livelihoods using income generating activities.

Keira and Josephine with their host sisters
     Ghanaians have an amazing sense of humour, and can be very sarcastic with lots of playful teasing between friends, just like back in the UK. Many young people in Ghana are very optimistic, forward thinking and are changing the status quo for the younger generation - our host sister is only 16 and already knows she wants to be a doctor. Overall, life in Tolon has had its challenges, but it has also been extremely rewarding. Coming from one of the world’s largest cities and trading the sounds of sirens for goats and chickens was an adjustment to begin with, but having a counterpart to share all of the bizarre and funny moments with has been one of the best aspects of the programme.  My time here has provided a rare opportunity to learn first-hand about the culture, or simply how to improve my technique for handwashing clothes (the Ghanaians are professionals at this!) A funny moment in our first week here was my counterpart explaining that I can’t possibly eat fufu with a spoon…”

We hope that we can continue learning from each other and the rest of our team. We now know that both of our countries are diverse and home to many different people from varying walks of life - what you see on TV is rarely an accurate representation - not everyone is friends with the Queen in England, and some of us can’t dance the ‘Azonto’ here in Ghana!  We are going to have matching dresses made for us, so we will be able to take something back home with us that will always remind us of our time here. When we look closely, we can see that we have many more things in common despite our differences. The counterpart experience has been the best way to learn that friendship knows no borders. 

By Josephine and Keira


  1. Yooo we hear your experience and its well noted but hey watch out for Mathew and David as host home brothers but not counterparts. We sometimes decides to all be ukvs and other times all icvs, you know why? Becuase we do almost everything in common as brothers

  2. Well, in short 'experience they say is the best teacher' and ICS has given us that opportunity so I am enjoying every second of it. long live international service, long live ics.an opportunity no amount money can buy for you from the comfort home so guys step out to challenge yourself to change your world. It not about the money but the impact on you and other beneficiaries

  3. Hi Keira, great to hear about your experiences in Ghana and see some lovely pictures of you in the community. Woman in the world do have many things in common as you say and while inequality is probably far worse in Ghana, I haven't visited so can't say how difficult it is, inequality is still an issue for women world wide. I still think women do the majority of work, in the home and work place, so need to keep fighting for our rights as sisters!

    It must be interesting meeting 'prospective' husbands and I hope that you've now mastered the art of eating food with your right hand...puts hygiene and hand washing into a whole new perspective. Take care and have fun, looking forward to more stories about your adventure. Jane (Luke's Mum) xx

  4. Love hearing about your experiences Keira in Ghana. Very well Written!
    Love you, Aunty Olwen :) xx