Lessons from Ghana: How to Eat Humble Pie

In reality there is perhaps not one of our natural passions so hard to subdue as pride. Disguise it, struggle with it, beat it down, stifle it, mortify it as much as one pleases, it is still alive, and will every now and then peep out and show itself…For even if I could conceive that I had completely overcome it, I should probably be proud of my humility.”

– Benjamin Franklin

—————————————————————————————————————–

A chance encounter with a Vatican priest was to be my first lesson.

He was in the seat next to me on a flight to Accra, Ghana’s steamy capital city. I was on my way there to work for a local newspaper, and he was coming home to visit his family. He was Ghanaian and had moved to The Vatican a few years earlier to work for the Opera Romana Pellegrinaggi, a branch of the Vatican that organised pilgrimages.

He had this air of benevolence about him which I found comforting as I was only just slightly anxious at the prospect of spending the next four months living in deepest, darkest Africa. He was very engaging and I was surprised at how approachable he was, even dressed in a long black cassock and clerical collar. We started chatting almost immediately and didn’t stop until we said goodbye outside the airport in Accra. We discussed absolutely everything from God to Ghanaian cuisine, and disagreed on many of these topics. However, one thing we agreed on and that stayed with me since, was the importance humility.

It came up in conversation when I asked him why he wasn’t flying first class as I spotted him earlier being whisked through the departure lounge, clearly not your average traveler. He told me that he has never flown first class even though he is automatically offered an upgrade whenever he checks in. He said it can be incredibly difficult to stay grounded when you work for the Vatican as you are elevated to this divine status. He also said how easy it is to lose touch with what is real and important in life and how quickly you can get caught up in all the pomp and material benefits that surround you, not only in the Vatican but in all spheres of life. I think I knew this already but admired how he had made a conscious decision to turn down something seemingly meaningless, like the offer of a reclining chair with plenty of leg room, to rather sit squashed with the masses in economy class in an attempt to stay humble. He told me it was much too comfortable in first class and sometimes we need to be uncomfortable. This was just one small thing he did which he hoped would maintain some kind of humility within himself – something he told me that was very important.

My next lesson didn’t teach me how to be humble, but rather humbled me so completely that I felt ashamed. I was walking through Accra, trying to find the bank and after a few wrong turns realised I was very lost. I approached a young man carrying a briefcase who seemed to be on his way to work and asked for directions. Instead of pointing down the road and then being on his way, he walked the entire way to the bank with me, ten minutes in the opposite direction to where he was going. When I was safely at the entrance to the bank he said goodbye and went back to where he was going.

It was only later that day when I recalled this act of kindness, something he seemed to do without a second thought, that I felt so humbled. Coming from a city like London, one of the worlds great cities, loaded with financial and material wealth, it can be difficult to get the time of day from a person in the street. Yet in Accra, a relatively destitute African city that can barely feed its people, I was offered help in such a generous way and without hesitation. This made me realise just how wrong we’ve got it in our Western civilisation.  This was not the only occasion someone helped me like this and there were many other selfless acts of charity during my time there.

There was a small café near my office in Accra and if one of my colleagues ever spotted me walking past while they were having lunch there, they would shout out the window and invite me to join them. I was a millionaire compared to them and in the three months I worked there, not once did they let me pay for my lunch. Even after much protest on my part, they simply kept reminding me that I was a guest in their country and they would never accept my money. I cringe at the thought of one of them coming to London, expecting to be treated with the same hospitality, and instead being pushed out the way on the tube, or ignored when asking for directions.

London is clearly rich in terms of money and material things, but Ghana is so much richer in spirit, kindness and generosity. And which is more important?

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83 responses to “Lessons from Ghana: How to Eat Humble Pie

  • The Simple Life of a Country Man's Wife

    Great post. It’s amazing how those acts of kindness and humility stick with you and impact your life so much that you cannot help but pass it on. Thanks for sharing.

  • Mikalee Byerman

    Sounds like a beautiful, memorable experience.

    Thank you for sharing. I, too, lament how foreigners must feel when ushered into one of our chaotic cities in the states. Certainly not a welcoming experience…

  • auntbethany

    This is a wonderful post, coupled with two wonderful anecdotes. I get an instant image of the priest you visited with in my mind. I’d love to hear more about your experiences abroad. I’ll be sticking around to see what else you publish! Kudos on being FP, Emeritus!

    http://miracleon32ndstreet.wordpress.com

  • Rob

    Great post, really enjoyed it.

  • runtobefit

    Great story. It was nice to hear about the humble nature of people. Unfortunately, I think that is lost on many people in the world now. Thanks for helping us see there is still hope out there. 🙂

    http://www.runtobefit.wordpress.com

  • TheEverydayMuser

    I am honestly just speechless. I agree with you on the fact that it is ever so surprising how wrong we’ve got it in our modern day western world. I sometimes think that even though we feel we are more modern than these people, they are in reality more modern than us. Modern day world should be a world filled with such people.
    Coming from LA, I can surely vouch for the fact that despite what people think about this city with all of it’s high-profile, it’s surprising how tight and friendly neighborhoods can be. And it’s surprising how many friends you can build in such a short time in a community entirely new to you.
    Ashley

  • humanitarikim

    This is a great post. Humility is something we could all have more of.

    If given the choice, I would take the abundance of kindness and generosity over the riches of material things.

    http://humanitarikim.wordpress.com/

  • Melissa

    Did you get a chance to leave Accra? The rest of the country is very different and varies significantly by region.

    • Emeritus

      Yes, was based in Accra, but spent a few days in Kumasi, and travelled along the coast to Cape coast and Takoradi. Spent a few days at an amazing place on the beach called Green Turtle lodge – a little paradise! Have you been?

  • Roberta Owen

    What a wonderful post to read to begin the day … the Ghanaian people have it right, and I am afraid to admit this, but the Western culture thinks they have it right with all our technology and “power and money” … but is that really what we want to remember on our dying day: Our powers and riches and pushing and shoving to make it on top? I think most of us really need to think about what we’re doing…. excellent post.

  • the bizzle in the pizzle

    nice one, with the young man that walked 10 minutes in the opposite direction to work 🙂 with or without that, ghana will for longtime be richer ONLY in terms of spirit. i can imagine, however, that this kind of spirit will make that ‘longtime’ even longer. you betcha no one in london could afford to do such marvelous gestures of kindness while going to work.

    • Emeritus

      Yes, sad but true. That would never happen in London or any big city.. although Accra is a pretty big city. People in london are much too self-absorbed to ever do something like that sadly. I felt privileged to have received such kindness!

  • Evie Garone

    I loved your post and so agree with you. Hospitality, kindness and generosity can not be purchased and can make us feel SO RICH!! Congrats on being Freshly Pressed! One who gives so freely is certainly blessed and rich indeed!

    evelyngarone.com

  • 4allthesingleladees

    It’s so interesting how it is when we have stepped out of our normal element we realize how blessed we are and how grateful we should be of where we are in life and what we have. Thank you for sharing this; it was inspiring to me.

  • CommentatorandPoet

    Congrads on making “Freshly Pressed.” I found your writing well done. As a hobby poet of sorts, I am always appreciative when a member of the WordPress family points out a glaring error in my poetry work, hence something I noted in your work. Many times, great writings are greatly lessened in their impact and message when improper sentence structure is used. Example, a paragraph must have two complete thoughts in the form of two sentences before becoming an actual paragraph. Noticed this proper English rule was broken quite often in your writing. Just a friendly observation to assist, in otherwise great creative writng on your part.

  • Sam Eubank

    I spent five months studying in Ghana and traveled much of the country. They people there are beautiful, and I’m glad I got to take a portion of that and bring it back with me to the states. I’ve found myself to be MUCH more patient and willing to help strangers in need thanks to what rubbed off on me while there. My blog has several stories from my stay there, and I have many more to share!

    http://wheresmyflask.wordpress.com/

  • Connie T

    Great post. He gave up first class to remind himself to be humble. He seems like a great person.

  • nobodyjones

    I really enjoyed this post. Brought back a lot of memories for me. I volunteered in Ghana during my gap year. There were elements of the experience that weren’t fun and there were elements that were sheer joy. This reminded me very much of the latter. Thank you.

    • Emeritus

      My pleasure! Yeah, it was quite an emotional rollercoaster in Ghana. You would see things that made you want to cry and then 5 minutes later something that made you beam with happiness. I still miss it.

  • emjayandthem

    simply … wonderful. Thanks for this and also, congrats on being freshly pressed… get ready for the traffic coming your way! ~ Cheers, MJ

  • sunshinefreedomandalittleflower

    What the priest said about being uncomfortable is so important, but so hard to hear. Lovely post btw!

    • stuckinmypedals

      I agree. “Sometimes we need to be uncomfortable.” I’ll be chewing on that one for awhile. Loved the post-thanks for sharing!

  • mamanne

    I live in America…we are the same over here as in London. We have forgotten what counts to strive for that which does not.

  • Kirsten Fisher

    What a wonderful post. I found, to my own surprise, a similar generosity, kind nature, happiness with what one has, and great sense of community in other ‘less privileged’ places, including Uganda and Bali. It humbles you, yes. But, I also think these experiences are great in that they make some of us stop to consider what is really important, where our priorities lie, and what kind of people we want to be in this world. For me, it’s so easy to fall back into striving for personal success as Western culture identifies it; it’s inspiring and important to have those pointed reminders of how others live. Again, thanks for the post and the reminder, as I sit comfortably in a wealthy Western nation.

  • rtcrita

    Ah… I love this post. It’s just something that needs to be heard and understood by as many people as possible. I think about this often, how people are not as kind and considerate as they use to be when I was growing up. I think about it whenever I hold the door open for someone as they are leaving or entering a place of business and I never even get so much as a thank you — or when someone doesn’t hold the door for me.
    Yesterday, and this has happened more than once to me, I was at the check out line getting my groceries, and the girl at the cash register never said “hi,” never spoke to me at all (even to ask me if I found everything I needed) or even acknowledged me except to tell my my total, and never even said “thank you” or smiled when I was done. I was just so dumbfounded at how anyone could be so “robotic” in their life. That’s why I love going to small towns. People are always so much friendlier. You can always go to the downtown area (which is usually no bigger than a couple of blocks) and find the local diner and everyone will be friendly, smile, and talk to you like they are so glad you are there.
    Maybe it has to do with our busy lifestyles or that parents don’t teach manners like they did in times past to their children. I’m glad that volunteering is a requirement in many schools now because I think it helps kids learn to think about others in ways that are helpful and caring. Great post!

  • travelingmad

    Great post. Being humble is something easily forgotten in a bustling, big city. We don’t have time to be humble or curteous or helpful. I try to be as helpful as I can to everyone.

    I love hearing and reading about Ghana. I have a lot of friends from Accra also. I am convinced that my ancestors are from Ghana! Every time I go to the African parties I am asked who my parents are and where I’m from in Ghana. I take it as a compliment 🙂

  • Melladric

    “I knew this already” and yet here am holding my breadth and struggling as if there were no other options to life in the hustle and bustle of my routine.

    I hope, someday I some real kind gesture would touch my heart, not likely though.

    Oh boy, I feel so blind…

  • sleeplessrant

    Thank you for sharing this. A few minutes ago, I was in one of my self-centered musings and then i came upon your blog. Thank You for reminding me what really is valuable in life.

  • acleansurface

    How beautiful.
    I especially liked this sentiment, “He told me it was much too comfortable in first class and sometimes we need to be uncomfortable.”
    How I wish others of power would understand this — the world would be a better place.

  • ranreadwrote

    What a beautiful post. This is why I love travel, even plane travel. Love the Ben Franklin quote too.

  • jule1

    This post brought tears to my eyes. What a wonderful lesson you learned in Ghana. I enjoyed your thoughtful post very much, and it has me thinking about how I can incorporate more kindness and humility into my own life.

  • kerrycharacters

    I grew up in Africa but have lived in France for the last 12 years and London for 18 months. I am now in Toronto. One of the great lessons Africans can teach us is the importance of sharing. I agree this is part of humility but kindness and generosity are ingrained in the culture, no matter what we see on the news. Thanks for this lovely post.

    • Emeritus

      Thank you. Yes, the media seems to be this self-perpetuating machine that shows only the negative side of africa, and completely ignores all the positive things happening there.

  • Aurian

    Thank you for a poignant post, and congrats on being freshly pressed :-).

    That’s a great choice of quote to lead in, and your voice comes through very nicely in your writing. I also think that story of the priest will stick with me as a bit of a memorable reminder – for the obvious lesson as well as the fact that we can always learn from someone else even if we don’t necessarily agree with their beliefs – thanks for sharing.

  • Rachel!

    Love it. Experienced the same hospitality in Vietnam and this New Yorker was humbled.

  • John Dzineku

    This is the first time in my life, reading something somuch interesting and exciting.

  • Chanteuse Designs

    Lovely post. Truly lovely. Thank you for posting. I value kindness enormously and reading your post reminded why I love the simplest of gestures. It does seem to be rare. Humility….it’s even a beautiful word.
    Cheers,
    Kathleen

  • marjnhomer

    great post. when you have less wealth in terms of money, you make up for it in terms of character and morals. they obviously had deep values set in themselves as to how to treat people where in the western world its all about how to beat the other person and who gets ahead of who…

  • leesis

    quite simply an awesome piece

  • Susan Elizabeth Ball

    Wonderful post. We can all take a lesson from the people of Ghana on how to treat guests in our country and our fellow countrymen. Kindness and generosity bless not only the recepient but the giver as well.

  • shekharonline

    wow! congrats being freshly pressed ! liked the post!

  • livingvoraciously

    Great Post! And congrats on being freshly pressed 🙂

  • lifewellblended

    I enjoyed reading about such acts of kindness. I have experienced similar acts when I travelled in Europe as a college student. People I had just met would offer to drive me to the airport, make arrangments for me to meet a relative in the next stop on my itinerary. I felt embarrassed when, years later I was arriving at my hometown airport and saw young European students traveling and looking for a place to stay, but not extending them the same courtesy. What is it about our culture that makes us so fearful we don’t extend hospitality?

  • Lucky

    The problem these days is just that there are so many people out there to cheat you of whatever little you maybe carrying with you and those who could kidnap/ murder you that one always hesitates to help another person who is in need. There are cases where thieves/robbers have used the guise of a baby being left alone in the middle of nowhere and instances of wounded people in the middle of a road to assist in their criminal activities. One is always afraid to stop and offer a hand.
    The world we live in now sometimes makes me feel there is just no space left for humanity! 😦
    It is a great thing to have found such hospitality in Accra… 🙂

  • Seashu

    Ghana and Bangladesh are really alike! Everyone is so nice and willing to help and when I come in America, I get the exact opposite. Sometimes, I’m even seen as weird for doing somethings that would be considered courteous in Bangladesh, but not accepted in America.

  • Fire Crystals

    Great insight into the life of other people. You are absolutely right in what you have written. Often people are rich in material possessions, but poor in spirit.

  • Nate

    I like it a lot.
    Great story, great writing.

  • Wild Thoughts from Uganda

    Definitely one of the best things about Africa is the hospitality. Something we could really learn from in the west.

  • I Made You A Mixtape

    I am a Londoner. Our “great” city has become aggressive, dirty and very cold (and I’m not talking about the weather here) , clearly we have a lot to learn from our African friends. What a wonderful experience you must’ve had working in Ghana.

  • cpmondello

    Treating each other humanely surely is the only way human kind will survive. However, “survival” only goes so deep: “As an example, consider the burning of “witches,” a practice that once occurred here in the U.S. and now is mostly relegated to the third world nations. When we here reports of women being suspect of witchcraft in African nations, we marvel at how ignorant they are and express surprise over their backward culture. What we seldom realize is that there is at least one gigantic problem with this: some of the attacks on “witches” are happening because of our Christian fundamentalist religion. According to this article in The Guardian, a 72 year-old grandmother in Ghana was burned to death with kerosene because she was suspected of being a witch. And of the five people who tortured and then burned this woman, one just so happened to be an evangelical pastor.” http://www.atheistrev.com/2011/01/exporting-fundamentalist-christianity.html

  • michaeleriksson

    The Franklin quote matches my own experiences perfectly and your Vatican friend goes in a similar direction to my own thoughts on the topic of power/leadership/whatnot and the need to preserve humility. (I differ, however, in that I would not suggest abstaining from e.g. a more comfortable chair, but instead recommend that people of influence regularly should engage in highly everyday tasks, including such that could be seen as humiliating. Consider e.g. a “boxing day” arrangement of some sort.)

    Where I start to differ is Ghana. Now, I do not know London specifically, and it is quite possible that the situation London is out of hand. However, my experiences of Stockholm, Frankfurt, and Cologne give me no reason to doubt that it is possible to be well-off in both spirit and material possessions—it just takes some perspective and ability to avoid excesses. It is true that many city-dwellers lack this perspective; however, many others do not. Specifically getting help, even in the cities, has never been a major problem for me. Just be polite and lead with a smile. On the rare occasions when I need directions, it can happen that the other party is in too much of a hurry—true. However, the more common problem is not that people are unwilling to help, but that they simply do not have the knowledge needed. (And who can blame them in a modern city.) Further. my experiences from small towns and villages in Europe is that the friendliness and willingness to help strangers is first-rate.

  • indah_nik

    You can find the same thing in my hometown. We’ll welcome you to Yogyakarta, Indonesia. Be my guest…

  • Melanie

    While I 100% agree on your conclusion (for most of the world in general, and myself specifically), often gestures made specifically to make oneself humble only lead to a different kind of pride. For example, people who give up first class for coach to humble themselves, or those who volunteer at soup kitchens on Thursdays, then use said actions to feel proud about their Spartan lifestyle or self-sacrifice and that they are such good people to do such a thing. If I were to walk someone to City Hall here in Milwaukee, then pat myself on the back for it for a week, I have helped the person, but haven’t really been humble. They’re still good things, but we haven’t eradicated pride, just mutated to a different kind.

    I’m not accusing the priest you met of such a thing. Personal interaction often indicates these failings, and I’m sure you wouldn’t have been so impressed as to write in praise of him if you thought he was so puffed up with his actions. I’m not accusing anyone other than myself of such things! I just know it’s more difficult to do the simplistic, humbling things with the right attitude than it is to just do them.

  • Sonal Chopra

    Such a heart-warming post! 🙂 It’s true.. people in big cities have somehow lost that human touch. It’s reinforcing to hear your story. Makes me believe even more in the spirit of sharing & reaching out to others.

  • archiegrrl

    I was an American Peace Corps Volunteer in Central Asia in the late ’90s, just as Russia’s fragile post-Soviet economy was collapsing, and taking Central Asia with it. It was very common for local people to ask me, “Which is better, America or Kyrgyzstan?” I tried out a variety of answers over my two years there, and when I tried to hedge my bets, people would often laugh at me and say, “America is better, of course.” I knew that they were thinking of all the material goods in the US, and of the general standard of living.

    I finally learned to tell people, “In America, people have more things. But in Kyrgyzstan, people have more heart.” This would always end the questioning, with a knowing, approving nod.

  • saravspark

    Nice to read your experience….!!….
    Its always good to see the writings of a person when its being a reflection of his/her experience…

  • J

    This was a very beautiful post, Be sure to post more on yoru travels Go big or go home: Adding color to black and whites. Black and white blah or black and white BAM. How to turn contrasting colors into an unforgettable outfit. http://ow.ly/3CrSc

  • Fred

    One of the most beautiful posts I’ve read in the recent days 🙂
    Will keep myself hooked to see more of your posts.

    Humility, if only I had more of it….

  • Explored: Teshie « teRRibLy AdicTiVE

    […] Lessons from Ghana: How to Eat Humble Pie (triplicateemeritus.wordpress.com) […]

  • Fylvia

    You are so right. It’s only when you step out of your comfort zone and are willing to be part of the bigger picture that you truly learn and grow.

  • Redeker

    Legendary post, I enjoy this spectacular site,I found you along freshly pressed!

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