Poverty. Starving children. Blood diamonds. Rebels and civil wars. Disease. Think of Africa, and these may be the first thoughts that generally come to mind. It is how Africa has often been portrayed in the mainstream media and it is unfortunately how most of us perceive Africa. It is human nature that bad news tends to influence our perceptions much more so than good news.
Africa has been a place I have thought of travelling to, but never really made up my mind to go. So when Wilmar International offered me an internship in Ghana last year, it was not a difficult decision for me.
Wilmar is an agribusiness group listed on the Singapore Exchange. It is one of the few but growing number of companies that have made Africa a main priority in their expansion plans. Ghana is particularly suitable for Wilmar because it lies in the ideal region for the cultivation of oil palm. It is one of Africa’s fastest growing economies, and is relatively more stable politically and economically as compared to other African nations.
Before embarking on the 10-week stint, I was worried about the same things everyone else would worry about: safety, living conditions, the people, and so on.
Of course, I also had preconceived notions of how things would be, based on the little I knew of the country. I had imagined Ghana to be a dangerous place, with lawless towns filled with starving, malnourished children, and ruled by rebel soldiers and warlords.
It did not help that when I first touched down in Ghana, I was harrased by a man who demanded money for helping me pass my customs declaration form to the customs official.
But over the weeks I spent in the country, it turned out that my worries were very much unfounded. Ghana is surprisingly safe – perhaps even more so than in some more developed countries. I could generally walk around town alone without worrying about getting robbed or kidnapped.
The people there are amazingly warm and sincere. I have travelled to many developing countries over the years, and one common trait is that many locals, upon seeing that you are a foreigner, would attempt to siphon money off you by various means. Apart from that one isolated incident at the airport, I did not experience any such haranguing during my time in Ghana.
A market in Ghana
Rather, Ghanaians are more than welcoming to foreigners. They are delighted to share their country with you, their culture, their food, their language – all to make you feel at home. More than once, my colleagues would treat me to local food at lunch. Each day, they would also patiently teach me a new word or two in their local language.
Local Ghanaian food
This experience has taught me much about opening up my mind, and to not be influenced just by how the media portrays the continent. This is especially relevant now considering the current outbreak of Ebola in West Africa, which will only reinforce the stereotype that Africa is a poor, impoverished and disease-ridden continent that we should avoid at all cost. Too often have we seen Africa in such negative light that we lose sight of everything else the continent has to offer.