Love & Sex

Talking to Strangers: Holiday in Ghana

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Nerve asks deeply personal questions to people we just met.

Kape, 28

What do you do for a living?
I teach French at a junior high school. I also am a sex-ed teacher for Planned Parenthood of Ghana, in Legon.

What's your relationship status?
I'm in a long-distance relationship. He's in the U.K. studying.

Do you see yourself being with this guy in the future?
I hope so. When you're in a relationship, you hope for the best. You have doubts. But in relationships, just like in life, anything is bound to happen. Once you're in one, you don't want to pray for the worst. You pray for the best.

How long have you been together?
Two years.

How do you maintain a long distance relationship?
By emailing, calling, and such things. He comes once in a while. He was here for Christmas.

What's it like teaching sex-ed here?
It's so interesting. I've found that many of my peers in Ghana don't know much about sex education, and a lot of them feel uncomfortable when you talk to them about it. The males are better about it than females. Some people want to talk about it, but the way society is, people feel shy and they don't feel free to talk about sex. I've found that a lot of males don't even know how to put on condoms properly, and I have to teach them. The ladies should know too. Sometimes when I've talked to guys about sex ed and they find out I'm selling condoms, they're like, "Oh, what?" Meanwhile, they actually need a condom and some will come and buy them at night. They feel shy, so they come by late.

Why do you think Ghanaian women are more shy when talking about sex?
That's the way society is — our culture and our traditional beliefs. In Ghana, few parents talk to their children about sex.

Were you raised in a more open household, then?
No, never. I read about it in novels.

Like, romance novels?
I was curious.

How has your view on sex changed from when you first read about it to now?
I was so shy to talk about it, even with my close friends. Now, I realize that sex isn't anything bad. I think having the knowledge about it is better than not having it. Or someone will just mislead you. Now I can talk to anyone about it and not feel shy. I can gather a whole bunch of guys and talk about sex and they're all like, "Wow." I think it's 'cause of Planned Parenthood.

Do guys ever judge you for talking about sex?
Sometimes. When I first started talking to guys about the dangers of STDs and STIs, a lot of guys were like, "Oh." But they started to realize that there's more to it than they thought. So a lot of guys have sought me out to talk about it. If you don't know something, you feel shy.

Who gives you sex advice?
Most of it I learn from books and other media.

What's the funniest question someone's asked you about sex?
Some guys ask me "How?"

As in, how to have sex?
Yes. I tell them sex is nice — it's a good thing. But you have to do it at the right time, the right place, and with the right person. And I'll tell them now is not the right time. Sex is something that both partners should enjoy. Some guys will be like, "No!" But sex is for women, too.

Are you yourself ready for sex?
That's a difficult question. Because I have many things to think about. But when I'm sure I'm ready for the consequences, then I'll be ready.

So you give sex advice but you've never had sex before?
Yes. I encourage abstinence. But if someone doesn't follow that, I educate them on STDs, STIs, and protection.

So when your boyfriend visited over Christmas, he didn't get any?
No! I can only give him a kiss! You see, the way we look at sex is very different from the way Western countries look at it.

Emmanuel, 41

What do you do?
I am the director of the Dagbe Cultural Center and Arts Center in Denu. I am also a poultry farmer and a businessman.

How did you meet your wife?
At my dad's funeral. My dad taught dance groups all around Ghana and he had groups in Ho. So when my dad died, the groups from Ho came for the burial. My wife was pointed out by one of my dad's good friends.

Is a funeral a good place to meet somebody?
Yeah. Wherever there are good things, there are bad things. Wherever there are bad things, there are good things. When we have a funeral, it doesn't mean death is a curse. We believe that the dead bury the dead and people should continue with life. At a funeral, you can find someone to continue life with.

How do Ghanaians propose? And how did you propose?
It's very simple. In the olden times, there were no relationships before marriage.

You could just go from single to married?
Yeah. You see this woman and you're like, "Wow, I like the way she does," and you have to go tell your parents. Then your parents research the girl — the girl herself, the girl's background, the girl's family. Do they have madness in their family? Diseases? Witches? I mean, there's a whole lot of research. If they like what they see, they ask you if you really like her and if you're ready to marry. As time goes on, you can tell the girl, "Tell your people to come see my people." Then the parents will talk and the girl will prepare to become a wife and learn the responsibilities. Then, we pour libation and pray, and the girl's things are packed and sent to the man's house.

Is that what it's like now?
No. Now if I see you, I'm just like, "Hey, what's up, man?" Yeah, it doesn't even matter if she's a witch or not. It's like, all about the shape — guys from here like big butts. They just go in and propose. There are two different ways to propose. I'm bad at it; I'm very shy.

Only two methods of proposal? Show me both.
The people who aren't shy see you right away and they're like, "Hi! My name is Emmanuel, what's your name? So where do you come from? Do you stay around this area? I'd love to meet you again, 'cause I've got a crush on you. What do you think? What do you say? We're like, meant for one another." It starts just like that! Some guys are very strong and very professional in it.

They're pickup artists.
They can win girls' hearts in one day and they can, excuse my saying, have sex the same day.

Same-day sex?
Yeah! Sometimes, the main goal is not even marriage, but they just want to use you. It depends, but these days it's rough. The other kind of proposal, the one I did, starts with admiring someone from afar. Like, "Wow, she's beautiful. But I won't tell her." 

I noticed you're not wearing a wedding ring. Why?
I had a traditional Ghanaian marriage ceremony, so I don't wear a wedding ring. If I had a wedding, I would be wearing a ring. In our culture, a man can get married to more than one woman. That's what a traditional Ghanaian marriage ceremony allows. If you have the ability to take care of more than one wife, fine. Once you have a wedding, though, you wear a ring and there's no way you can enter a marriage with more than one woman unless you get a divorce.

Are polygamous relationships common?
They're not common, but sometimes that's better than having a wedding and being with only one person. Divorce is more popular now.

Do you have a second wife?
Yeah. I met her when she was young and I saw a future with her. I talked to her mother and we worked something out. I supported them and paid for her education until she was about twenty-one or twenty-two. We got married. Now, she's with us fully.

What's the age difference between you two?
Twelve years. We met when I was twenty-four. Her mother and I talked about it in the family way and everyone accepted it. But we didn't tell her because she was only twelve. I told her when she was fourteen or fifteen.

How did she take the news?
She loved it, but being a woman, she had to pretend a little bit. There's a saying in our language, "Myunu me lorna ngorgbui nyaoh," which means a woman shouldn't accept the first word from a man.

How did you tell your first wife that you were getting married again?
Well, I informed her before the marriage. I didn't want to make her feel bad. I did it for our future. It's not only for me, but for her and our whole family. Our business.

How do you make time for both wives?
You see, naturally, Africans — especially the Ewes — we are born into that. We have that lifestyle in us already. We understand it somehow. It's the man's responsibility to make sure jealousy doesn't come. So I respect my first wife as the oldest wife. I made a house for her. And I don't take problems back and forth between houses.

Are they friends?
Yeah. They talk. Sometimes there are misunderstandings, but we solve it. I'll talk to them separately. And then they understand separately and then talk together in a group.

How many nights a week will you spend with each wife?
Some people split it up on calendar days. We don't do it that way, though. We're flexible. It's a lot of work, though. For a man.

Yvonne, 22

What do you do?
I'm a waitress.

What's your relationship status?
I started dating when I was nineteen. I'm in a fresh relationship now.

How long have you been together?
Only four months. He's from England, so he comes and goes. He's in Accra now, though. But I see him on my day off, Tuesdays.

How did you guys meet?
At Big Milly's in Kokrobite, where I work. We met at reggae night.

Did he approach you?
When I first saw him, I liked him. He was my type of guy. But I didn't know how to approach him. I was shy. For two or three weeks, he would come here, but I never spoke to him. One time, I came to culture night and we were looking at each other from the back. Then he went to the beach and I followed him. He approached me.

What impressed you about him?
Everything. The way he talks, walks. And he's a footballer. I like athletes.

Do you normally hit on people while you're working?
No, no. I just let them pass and go. Unless I really want to get to know you. When I first started working here, a lot of people were asking me out. But you don't need to say yes all the time, because if you do, it might spoil your reputation.

So you could get a lot of dates working here, but you choose not to.
I did it just this one time, because I liked him.

He was the exception.
Yeah. His dad is Ghanaian, so he's staying with his dad now. He's leaving in January, but he'll back soon to work in Accra in four months.

Are you upset?
Yes, but I have to live with it. I've dated long-distance before, and it didn't work because it was for too long and he never called. But this guy texts me every five seconds.

That's not annoying?
I'm really interested in him, so it doesn't bother me.

How do you make it special when you only see him once a week?
We go to places where it's just us and we can be alone.

What's the nicest thing he's done for you?
Kisses. He's the romantic type. Every five seconds. I've never had a guy like that. The only thing I don't like is when there are a lot of other people around. He doesn't really care.

When you're alone, will you let him go farther?
Oh, yes.

What's your craziest hookup story?
It hasn't happened yet with this guy. But once, with my ex, we were outside my house and my dad was inside.

So you were doing it in front of your dad's house?
Yes, and if he were to come out, I would've been in big shit. That was the craziest thing. I knew he was inside, but I did it anyway. He still doesn't know. Anytime I pass by the gate, I remember that.

Would you ever do it on the beach at Kokrobite?
Maybe. It's all about feelings. When you're next to a guy and those feelings come up, there's no stopping it. If he's walking and he gets stiff, I'm not going to try to bring him inside.

Michael, 25

What do you do?
I'm a graduate student in classics and a basic school teacher. I also write about Christianity. I've published a book, Are You Cold, Lukewarm, Or Hot? It's about commitment to God.

Busy guy! What's your relationship status?
I'm in a very committed relationship. We plan on getting married in three or four years.

How did you meet?
I first met my girlfriend in October 2009. I was fulfilling my national service by working at the University of Ghana's classics department. I was in my office when she came in to collect her interim assessment script. When she entered, I just had this feeling. I don't know where it came from. There have been occasions where I've met people and I've had those feelings. Normally, I'll try to talk to those people.

Did you have a line?
She said she was coming for her script, so I told her I hoped she had done well. But she didn't want to talk. I tried to ask her her name and she said, "Why do you want to know my name?" I was like, "Oh, I'm just trying to get to know you." I told her anytime she has a problem in Classics, she could stop by and I'd help her. The next day, I was going to visit one of my uncles in the political-science department. I heard someone call my name — "Michael!" I saw this smiling face, and it was her.

Well, that's adorable. What's your technique usually?
I always initiate and then I sit back. That's the advice I normally give to other gentlemen. When you make the lady feel like you can't live without her, then she gets the upper hand.

So do you think you have the upper hand?
That's not actually my idea of a good relationship. It's not about having the upper hand. It's about respecting each other and about seeking the welfare of each other. It's not about being bossy because you're a man. Just loving each other.

Have you proposed yet?
In our culture, we have two stages of proposal. The first one is where you make you intentions known to the lady. Both of you need to know where you're taking the relationship to. Are you in a relationship just to fill up time while you're here in school? Or, are you in a relationship so that both of you can know yourself better and get married and have children and have a family? We decided on the second one, to have a family and a future. The second stage comes when you are now really prepared, and that's where you propose and you go and see each other's families. We have a traditional marriage and then a church marriage. The traditional marriage is still very important. Without it, you won't be ready for your church marriage.

What characterizes a traditional marriage?
Now we're talking about "bride price." When you take a girl out of her family, that means her family loses the services she was rendering to her parents. So you need to pay something.

Like a dowry?
Yes, but it's the man who pays it to the family.

Do you have any idea what your fiancé's family will request from you?
Generally, families will request clothes, textiles or prints. Sometimes luggage. Family stuffs like cooking utensils or toiletries. They will list the items. It's negotiable, though.

In the Western world, bride prices are associated with objectifying women.
Some husbands see it like that, and that's a problem with Ghanaian marriage. Some Ghanaian men assume that just because they've paid the price, their wives are their total property, and they treat them like that. That isn't the essence of the bride price. The meaning is that you are taking the daughter of a man away. The father will miss her, the mother will miss her. The daughter probably cooked for them, helped them take care of the house. Now that she is gone, the family will have to go outside their house to find someone to do those things. So by giving the bride price, you're just trying to help fill that space that has been left by your wife.

Why is it paying the bride's family? How come the woman never has to give anything to the husband's side of the family?
Because the woman will continue the line. Ghanaian society is matrilineal. It's the woman who carries your family, so she has that power. You need to give her that needed respect. And in Ghanaian society, that respect is manifested through the bride price. If there's a divorce, the family would have to give the bride price back.

How did you know when you were ready for marriage?
Well, I wish I were ready now. Why waste time?

So you're talking about your finances.
In my case, the main obstacle is that I'm not financially ready. I'm a graduate student and I have one dependent, my sister. My mother is deceased and my father has been jobless since 1998. He had a stroke and he just recovered. I'm the first born and I have responsibility over three siblings, mostly my sister. I look after her and pay my own fees. The burden is a lot on me. Marrying at this time wouldn't be good because I have to consider her, my wife, and the children we plan on having. I'm not prepared financially. But emotionally? In maturity? In physical features, everything is developed! So I'm ready in that sense.

Keith, 30

What do you do?
I'm an American student studying abroad for a year.

What's your relationship status?
I guess you could say it's complicated.

Story of my life. What are you usually attracted to?
My grandmother says I'm attracted to "crazy," which I've learned over time is true. I don't want to sound like a complete romantic, but people's inner beauty is really important to me.

How do you define "inner beauty?"
There are people who are counter-dependent, co-dependent, and dependent. When I meet people who are extremely self-absorbed, it turns me off. I'm a codependent myself, so if people have other codependent tendencies, I'm definitely more attracted to that. I've been in relationships with dependents and that's bad. Give, give, give, take, take, take, and then you burn out.

But you said you used to be attracted to crazy. Who's the craziest person you've been with?
I dated a Swedish girl, and she was straight-up mental. Very, very dependent individual. She tried to commit suicide four times. I spent a lot of time mopping up blood off the floor. I moved with her to Sweden in 2008. Her family met me at the airport and told me to get lost and find a hotel. Apparently, she had told them that I was stealing money from her and holding her passport ransom. Not true at all. It was at the visa office being processed. I ended up couch-hopping for four months with what limited friends I had in Sweden. Oh, and I became an au pair.

Were you still with her this whole time?
Well, I found out she was seeing two other guys besides me. And one of them flew to Finland, and she met up with him there while I was still in Sweden.

Good lord. How did you get a job as an au pair?
That was my own little revenge. Her older sister, the family member who told me to get lost and die, had a partner named Petrus. They were in some kind of domestic partnership. He thought I was a cool guy, so he let me live in their basement and gave me a job watching their son.

Wait a second; you became the au pair for your ex's nephew?
Yeah. And man, did it piss her off!

Nice. I notice you're wearing a ring on your wedding finger. Mind explaining?
Oh, you get to hear my depressing story. I met this perfect girl and it was probably the most idealistic relationship I've ever had. Before we started dating, I knew she was going into the Peace Corps, so it was going to be temporary — not even a year. Anyway, before she left, I gave her a ring. A promise ring. I tried to be really sentimental and romantic about it. There were two open hearts that made the infinity symbol. Two days later, she dumped me.

Did she give back the promise ring?
No, she kept it. And then she wrote me a three-page letter saying how I was a bad person. But it was really shallow shit, like "Oh, you're no longer funny," and "I don't find our relationship stimulating anymore," and "I don't think you got along with my brother." 

What's the deal with your ring, then?
Well, the breakup was a really painful experience for me. The hammer of life came down on me and I ended up in a mental hospital. And when I got out, I was talking to my counselor and we had this idea that I would wear a ring to keep myself celibate for a while. I made a promise to myself that I wouldn't see anyone for six months. The ring kept women away and it served as a reminder to me. But whenever I told other guys about it, they'd be like, "No, man. Girls are looking for married guys!" Too bad I haven't encountered any of those girls.

How did it go?
It was supposed to be six months, but it ended up being eighteen months. I was happy and healthy, so I took the ring off. But while I was packing for Ghana, my sister's like, "You know what? You need to bring that ring. Avoid girls."

Why did you extend your six-month commitment to eighteen months?
In my support group, there was this girl who knew about the ring. And she waited exactly six months for me. It was kind of fun having a stalker. Someone a little emotionally damaged. She was already crazy and bipolar. She was the complete opposite of me. Tattoos, piercings, death metal. I'm a bon vivant; I like to experience life and all its lovely things. So when she approached me, I was like, "Yeah, fuck it. Why not? A new experience!" That was a bad idea.

So, hold the phone, a depression support group isn't a good place to meet people?
Definitely don't use it as a dating service. I put the ring back on after that.

What's your craziest hook-up story?
I don't even know the difference between crazy and normal at this point. When I was in my twenties, I went through this "whoring myself out" phase. And, uh, there was this African-American girl. And she just sent me these crazy-ass texts. One of them was like, "I'm in the shower. Come join me." And I'm like, "Okay!" I had never even met her or talked to her.

So she texted you the address and you met her there and joined her in the shower?
Yeah, first and last time meeting her.

Was it any good?
Yeah, but it's bad because it's insanely awkward afterwards. Having to be like, "Oh, who are you? Where are you from?" Those personal questions always kind of odd. You know, when you said you were going to ask me personal questions, I thought they'd be more scandalous.

Like what?
Like if I have any ethnocentric tendencies.

Well… do you?
No, I've hooked up with every ethnicity besides Asian. I think it's because my aunt is from Beijing and when I see an Asian woman, I think of her as family.

So you don't think that of white women?
No, I have no respect for white people.

Jina, 29

What do you for a living?
I'm a waitress.

What's your relationship status?
Married with children. The first one is four-years old and the second is one-and-a-half.

How did you meet your husband?
We met in Kumasi. But we're not legally married. There's this distance between me and him. We have a problem between us actually, and now we're solving the problem.

Oh, so you're taking a break. What attracted you to him initially?
He's a really nice guy, really good in… everything. If I ask him for anything, he'll give it to me.

So you two weren't married when you had kids. When you found out you were pregnant, how did you tell him?
It was difficult for me. But when I told him, he said I was his wife. And he knew my parents and I knew his parents and it was okay.

What's the most romantic thing he's done for you?
He built a house for me, where I stay now. But I came here to Kokrobite to work so I don't have to think about what happened. If I were in Kumasi, then I'd just sit there and think and think about it.

Think about what?
There is a problem between me and him. He's a chief and I'm his second wife. His wife and I don't get along. So I'm here. If we solve that problem, then I'll go back and see him. He's living in Kumasi and I live here with our children. He comes and visits every two weeks.

Are you happy with that set up?
No, I'm not happy. I'm thinking about what I can do. But I still love my husband.

You love him enough to take the second place?
Yes. Because of my kids.

How do you get involved with someone who's already married?
At first, I didn't know anything about her. But before I had our second child, he told me.

Wow — he waited that long? Were you mad?
Well, he said he loved me and didn't want to tell me because he didn't want to lose me. I was mad.

Does he make time for his kids?
Yes. He takes care of them. Schooling, everything.

But you're still with him. How do you stay in love with someone who's already with someone else?
You understand each other.

The first wife is a nasty lady?
I hate her. She hates me, so I hate her.

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