cousin = sister = friend

February 26th, 2018

In Ghana, a guy will introduce his friend as his brother, and although they may not be biologically brothers, they are, with all intents and purposes, brothers. My guide through Ghana was a girl named Juliet. She is the adopted daughter of the woman who runs the organisation I volunteered with. She works there too and has recently graduated high school. She grew up in Ho and has been out of the country only once last year when she visited Christiane in France. Christiane spent most of her time in Ho for the last fifteen years and has a beautiful relationship with Juliet. It was fun to see the interaction between the French and Ghanaian cultures of Christiane and Juliet, and although they have their differences, they love each other very much. Christiane made sure that Juliet was taken care of while remaining in her community; being close to family members, attending school, etc., while still developing a relationship with her.

Having Juliet with me was very beneficial in learning first hand about the culture in Ghana. She’s a very sweet and thoughtful girl, and very quickly became like a sister to me. We put it together that since her mom, Christiane, and my late Uncle Paul, had a close relationship, that we were kind of like cousins, and since being cousins in Africa is basically the same as being siblings, we started introducing the other as our sister. And it felt right, partly because my actual younger sisters are also very Christian and conservative and a bit bossy at times, but ultimately they are very loving, and that energy was absolutely there.

Our first day together, we spent the morning at Sally’s house, Christiane’s good Ghanaian friend, who has a nice house outside of Accra. We lounged around and read, and played with the electronic piano, and sang some hymnals. She and I both like to sing and it was a really cute way to pass the time. We were both a little shy at first and it took the weekend for us to really open up to each other, but she was immediately very warm, and truly wanted to help welcome me to all the local foods and customs. She asked me about my tattoos and I told her the story and it opened her mind to the idea that maybe tats aren’t necessarily negative or meaningless, and she admitted later to me that her first impression of me was that I was a ‘bad girl’ because of them.

Juliet broke an egg that day and was very upset when she told me and then confessed to Christiane when she got back to the house. Christiane applauded her honesty, because it was much more common in Ghanaian culture to avoid blame than to take responsibility, and reassured Juliet she wouldn’t get beaten, it was just an egg, (and apparently being beaten is slightly more normal there as well).

When we got to Ho, Juliet stayed in a house also in Fiave, not far from the one I was renting, but I think we only ended up sleeping apart one or two nights. There were two beds in my room and we traveled together anyway, and she would cook for us pretty often. Sometimes we would have to go to Juliet’s to get something she needed and we would walk through the neighborhood, which was a distance of like 3 blocks, but was actually a walk through some jungle-like trees and cornfields and some houses, some nicer, some not so much.

One of my first mornings there alone, I couldn’t figure out how to get the gas on my stove to work, but I had already started the coffee in my little Italian pot Christiane had given me to use, so I thought I could walk it over to Juliet’s to use her stove. When I arrived at hers with the coffee pot in hand, after passing a few people, naturally, she laughed and chided me for doing that, knowing that surely people saw me and what they must have thought. That very evening on the way back, she ran into a friend that lived nearby and when she introduced me they said they saw me walking with a coffee pot and thought, ‘what is this crazy white girl doing?’ Haha. Oops. And when Christiane learned that I never got my coffee that morning she sincerely expressed her condolences.

We would sometimes walk to the little shop on the main road because we liked the girl that worked there. She played Dolly Parton on her radio and we would hang out a little bit after picking up some water bottles. (They also love Don Williams in Ghana/Africa and other old country artists). We didn’t do much else in the neighborhood, though. We once went to one little drinking shop once and had a drink before going out, (I taught Juliet what pre-gaming is). This spot was actually just a kiosk of booze and plastic chairs out front or to the side. And once I waited for Juliet at a newer drinking spot closer to her house, where I was the only customer and I watched the news and an Indian drama on one of the only really nice tv’s I saw in Ghana. At one point, the kid of the owner ran up to me all excited, but then started crying because I may have been the first white person they’ve ever seen.

Juliet loved to watch movies and it was really wild to see their bootleg or Chinese copies of old and new films and shows compiled on scratched DVDs. I had a couple movies on my computer, like This is the End, and Happy-Go-Lucky, and The Hobbit, so we watched those, sometimes on the couch in the living room while eating and sometimes when we went to bed. She really enjoyed This is the End and all the cameos, especially Kevin Hart’s, at which she screamed, “Kevin!!!” She loved the show Chuck, and so we watched that on a bad Chinese copy that often skipped. It is a really silly show but I can see how it would be exciting and fun from such a different perspective culturally. I, myself, couldn’t help but find the flaws in the plot, but she just enjoyed the action and romance of it all. I let her use my computer to watch as much as she wanted when we were together. At Sally’s she found a Disney show on a disc and really enjoyed that. I couldn’t watch it but briefly enough to realize it was one of Ariana Grande’s first appearances. Juliet asked me if high school was really like what she saw on television. I thought about it for a minute, and although we in America might quickly say no, it’s such an exaggeration, I kind of had to say yes. It’s very American to have a cheerleading squad, and a football team, and band kids, and theatre kids, and nerds, and popular cliques. Anyone that went to public high school in a semi-affluent area in America can attest to that. And that is basically what they are being shown, these dynamics. I did contest that the girls wear high heels, because at least in mine, that was not the norm, and Juliet seemed pleased with that response.

Juliet had attended a boarding school and talked about how they had big and little sister/brother programs to help new students get acclimated. She talked a little bit about her mates and their relationships with boys and the normal teenager sort of things. She said of her experience at school that they were fed well enough, but were often still hungry, and she felt bad she couldn’t visit her little sister in order to bring her some food.

Juliet asked me if I liked black guys, because that’s a normal question to ask white girls, I guess, and it is very normal that some white girls have an affinity for black guys. I explained to her that my first relationship was with a black guy, but that I didn’t think I had a specific type, and have dated all types, but was more into German guys than anything else right now. We talked about how guys are annoying, normal girl complaints, and about they are often trying to feel up on a girl, and that she would never let guys hug her in school because she knew that. In their conservative culture, hugs and kisses, even on the cheeks, are reserved for those in a relationship, and doing either could send the wrong message. We talked about how it is hard to trust a guy and how many stories we have heard of guys’ having other girlfriends. She hopes that her first boyfriend will be her husband. I agreed that is the ideal, and it does happen, but it is very rare, and very lucky, and not the norm. She confirmed that virginity was a very prized thing there, and that guys often ask girls if they are a virgin, but she has learned that she doesn’t have to answer that. There is a strongly held belief that when a girl and guy get married and have sex for the first time, that the girl will bleed if she’s a virgin. There’s a whole white sheet thing. This is a bit antiquated to us in the western world, and is slowly becoming overturned there in favour of more education about reproductive health, and that the hymen can break at many other times, and that girls and guy alike should value their innocence and respect each other, but it is a slow process. Girls really are afraid of tampons breaking their hymen. Even Juliet only learned about tampons from another volunteer because one day she wanted to swim but felt she couldn’t, and then was given a tampon by a Westerner and her life was changed.

Me and Juliet went out to a popular outside drinking spot called Mirage, the first Friday night in Ho. She was really funny when I asked her about if what I was wearing was appropriate, and didn’t think I should wear a dress, and really wanted me to wear jeans, but it was so warm there I couldn’t be bothered to wear jeans. I ended up just wearing a skirt and leggings and a t-shirt and it was fine, but it’s true that you do have to think about what you’re wearing and how you’re presenting yourself in another culture. You can’t always wear what you would at home, but you also have to be comfortable with yourself. Juliet was trying to be helpful and protect me from unwanted advances, which I appreciated.

We met our friend Julien, the French engineer volunteer, and had some beers and he introduced me to the popular Alamo bitters drink. Juliet liked Smirnoff Ice and if she had two she was good for the night. Juliet said she didn’t like to dance but greatly encouraged us too. She wanted to play pool and she was really excited to buy our first round. She was annoyed that our waiter asked her for a tip, because it is not a thing there, really, but I think because of her association with us Westerners, she was asked to, and she did. Juliet liked to hang out with Julien but often got flack from the other girls at the compound. It was very rare to hang out with the opposite sex if you weren’t in a relationship.

Juliet hated that I smoked, and really tried to persuade me to quit, and even stole my cigarettes one night. She was very stubborn when she wanted to be. She couldn’t understand how I could enjoy living and want to live but still be a smoker. She would ask me if I wanted to die. I would reply no, that culturally, it is seen very differently, and yes, it is less cool even in my culture now, but still, it’s widely accepted. And I explained to her that yes, I do want to quit, and I will, and sometimes I smoke because I’m anxious, and it’s easy to be anxious in such a new environment, as exciting as it is.

We would get talked to by guys often enough, and even though I had no problem ignoring it, it was more difficult for Juliet. We didn’t deal with it a ton because we really didn’t go out that much. But on our visit to Kokrobite, a beach town outside of Accra, we were more harassed than anywhere else. I had been warned by Heather, but it was still pretty difficult to handle, all the rastas and just the presumptuous attitudes. We were with Julien, but he doesn’t have the most domineering kind of energy, and is a really nice guy, but not one that really keeps the rastas away. We kept most of them at bay though throughout the night sitting at the bar. We would have to simply turn our backs to them and hope they got the message eventually.

When we were leaving the next morning, I went to the beach for a last look around and Juliet and Julien waited for me by the bar. A guy tried to talk to me, as many of them did, but this one was extra persistent and sent a boy up to tell me that ‘my friend’ wanted to talk to me. I ignored his advances still and walked to go meet my actual friends. He followed us out of the hostel area and towards where we could catch a cab. I continued to ignore him and walked ahead with Julien, but he started to talk to Juliet. They were walking slower. I was annoyed by him but I asked her if she was okay and she said she was, so I figured she could take care of herself. When we got in the cab she told me he had said that it was easier for black men to talk to other black people, and that he was from South Africa, and that he wanted her number, of course, and mostly talked about himself. She told me she wasn’t actually interested in him, but he did call her and she did answer over the next few days that I was still with her. The incident bothered me because I thought maybe since he felt rebuffed by me, that he should make up for it with Juliet, or something, I don’t know, but I didn’t like his presumptuous attitude, obviously.

That’s a very normal way to start dating there, to exchange numbers and then randomly call each other to chat for a few minutes. Smart phones or dating apps are not exactly the norm, but if they have a flip or older phone, which they call yams, they’ll contact each other that way. Sometimes just a quick call in the morning, called ‘flashing’, to, basically, annoy you. Christiane told us that she would overhear the girls on the phone with boys and their awkward conversations that they basically have en lieu of online dating.

I was impressed that Juliet had not yet succumbed to the perils of dating and I hope the best for her, of course. I hope she finds a trustworthy man that makes her happy. She got upset at me once for outing her favour towards Spaniards to Christiane, but said that she would love to live in Spain.


I think having Juliet with me throughout my time in Ghana was really an invaluable part of the experience. I learned so much from her, and I hope she learned from me, too. Besides conversations about boys, hair, and culture, we would talk about religion, our families, and what we want out of life. I hope I gave her another perspective to think about. One night, I observed an exchange between Juliet and Christiane and Juliet was really upset with herself. Yes, she had learned to take responsibility for her actions, but she had also adopted the Western tendency to be very hard on oneself. The chicks had gotten out of the coop and Christiane needed Juliet’s help and had chided her for all of the above, as mothers do to their children when they are upset. At dinner, Christiane also praised one of the girls on the compound for her dedicated work ethic, and expressed her sadness about the girl having lost her parents having left her village to come here to take classes and sell salt at the market. When we got home that night, Juliet was beside herself in tears thinking that Christiane would rather have the other girl for a daughter than have had Juliet. This was such a sweet and sincere moment where I could fill the role of big sister and comfort Juliet. I told her that sometimes we are hardest on those closest to us, but that Christiane values the relationship they have and the woman that Juliet is, and would never trade that for anything. Christiane in her French way was being direct and honest about her frustrations, and Juliet was feeling not good enough. That I could be there for her through that was very profound in our relationship as cousins/sisters/friends. I feel so blessed to have had this time with both of them, to learn from them, and to love them.