While trudging under the cascades of the Wli waterfalls in Ghana's Volta region, I found myself at a standstill. I was attempting to navigate the crushing torrent of white water to a tiny enclave behind it, when the deluge engulfed me like a pair of fizz-colored blinders. As I clung anxiously to the slick rocks underfoot, I spied a phantasmagoria of shimmering figures through the downpour. Seconds later, I was linked arm in arm with a troop of young Ghanaians, all singing – including myself – at the top of their lungs.
As a first-time traveler to Africa, my initial weeks on the continent have followed a similar pattern: I get lost and Ghanaians enthusiastically help me find my way. The city of Accra – where I work as a journalist – is especially difficult to navigate. I constantly get on the wrong bus, arrive at the incorrect ministry, and stumble about searching for landmarks that are camouflaged by the urban mosaic.
Yet whether I need a translator in a local fishing village or a cheap apartment, someone is always there to assist me. Often when I arrive at the bus station on my way home from work, I am greeted by a stranger who cheerfully guides me to my bus. I don't even need to ask for help, it's simply delivered with heaps of goodwill, and it makes me wonder why in America we're so obsessed with doing things on our own.
In Eugene, Ore., where I used to live, I could walk around the bus station for days without anyone trying to help me. Of course, I'd be unlikely to ask, either. Americans harbor an ethos of individualism. And while this stubborn self-reliance may be key to some of our economic success, it's a poor way to develop a sense of brotherhood. In fact, it often leaves us emotionally reclusive and alone.
In the United States, I sometimes go a day or two without greeting anyone. It's easy to mix in with the masses – to drift to work or school in a bubble – simply nodding your way through the day. Nowadays, I handle most of my communication via e-mail and text message. In fact, sometimes I think my digital relationships are eclipsing those in the real world. I recently lived in a subdivided house for a year without speaking to my neighbors. We simply exchanged stoic nods as we passed.
Before arriving in Ghana, I'd grown eerily comfortable in this silence, but the collectivism of Africa quickly frayed my penchant for quietude. On a five-minute walk between my house and a local restaurant, I'd exchange a dozen or so hearty greetings with relative strangers – people I'd seen once or twice or maybe never before. I watched with amusement as a cargo truck tramped into my neighborhood one evening and tried to squeeze into a parking spot amid frolicking children, goats, chickens, and other obstacles. It seemed an impossible feat, but with six or seven strangers helping, it parked successfully.
In Ghana, I have danced, eaten, and spoken with more strangers in six weeks than I would have in America in six years. And this paradox – that despite its material wealth and technological might America is so standoffish and lonely – has been burning a hole in my head.
Is it intrinsic to our fiber, handed down from our forefathers, whose desire to break from the British created a national consciousness obsessed with independence? Is it a remnant of the lonesome frontiersman, the promulgation of Horatio Alger protagonists, the preaching of transcendentalist authors who decided it was more spiritually pure to go it alone?
One day, I live in America, where I drive to work with the radio on or take the bus buried beneath my headphones. The next, I'm crammed with 15 Ghanaians into a makeshift minibus in the sweltering heat of Accra. There's a child drooling on my sleeve, I'm sharing a bench made for three with a family of six, and the traffic is so congested it will take an hour to go 10 miles. The driver cranks the music unbearably loud, we sputter out of the station, and I grin at the fact that in the midst of such chaos I feel exceedingly fine.
When Thoreau said, "I would rather sit on a pumpkin, and have it all to myself, than be crowded on a velvet cushion," I think he got it all wrong. I'd rather be crowded on a pumpkin than alone on a velvet cushion, often the case in America.
There's a scintillating charisma to the way Ghanaians greet one another and aid one another, and it's something that I wish America would harness. We cannot be forever imprisoned in the archetype of lonely, stubborn cowboys. At least, I know I can't. There are too many spellbinding waterfalls I'll need directions to.