Top Six Things I Learned

#6: It’s a seller’s market

That is the fifth most striking thing I learned from half a day of new car shopping in Accra on February 22. The showrooms are mostly hard to get into. It is not easy to find a place to park, and sometimes we had to walk a certain distance. It was also not always obvious where to find the front door. On the other hand, the sales people were friendly and fairly knowledgeable. No pressure at all.

#5: The dollar reigns

All prices were in US dollars and in one case also in Euros. The Ghanaian currency, the cedi, was nowhere to be found. Dealers are protecting their precious assets by pricing them in the currency in which they buy them.

#4: Cars are expensive

Toyota had a Camry for $63,000. I must admit that I walked past the Audi and Mercedes dealerships without getting figures, so my data is incomplete. Taxes are a big reason for the prices. The cheapest car we found is a Renault Logan at just under $14,000. We did not stop at the dealers in Chinese (Ssangyong) and Indian (Tata) vehicles.

#3: Financing? Not really

All dealers offered financing. The terms: half down on delivery and the rest to be paid in six months, sometimes without interest. Some had connections with banks where the going interest rate on vehicle loans is 20% with terms up to 60 months. Ouch. This probably explains the lack of pressure. Either the prospective buyer has the cash or they do not.

#2: I am white trash

My white skin sends the false message that I can walk in the door and drive out with a new car. In a flash, the sales staff figure out my real buying potential.

And the #1 thing I learned: I’m looking for a used car.

Stools and skins

“Stools and skins”. When I first saw these words in Ghana I was confused and a bit shocked. I had no idea what they meant. My cross-cultural training took over. In that training we learned to suspend judgment, do research, and try to understand from the other’s perspective.  So, I talked to people, read documents and did internet searches. I found the rich cultural and political reality of traditional chiefs in Ghana. In the southern part of the country, the symbol of the chief’s authority is his stool – just like a king’s throne in Europe. It can be very ornate, one is even made of gold. In the more northern regions, the symbol of the chief’s authority is the animal skin he wears. Even the constitution mentions stools and skins. For example, it speaks to “Stool and Skin Lands and Property”. So “stool” or “skin” can be used to refer to the chief or the area he rules.

Ghanaian stool

A carved stool in traditional shape (for sale at

The system of traditional chiefs is still very much alive in Ghana. It is even written into the constitution. The symbol of the stool is found all over. For example, for those who can afford it, it is popular to have an arch over your driveway in the form of a traditional stool.

Often looking into things like this gives me general information. It is interesting and it helps me fit in. Only occasionally does it have direct, practical use. In this case, the information is so important that I would fail without it. The chiefs in Ghana are often educated and sometimes believers. Even when they are not believers, they most often support Bible translation and literacy as elements of development. They are the one’s who can mobilize people at the grassroots. Sustained use and impact of the Bibles translated into Ghana languages cannot be achieved without involving stools and skins.


Saved by my skin

I don’t remember where I was or what I did. The reaction it got, on the other hand, is forever burned into my memory.

Village in Burkina Faso

Village in the southwest of Burkina Faso

Maybe my memory fails me because it happened in one of Burkina Faso’s ubiquitous villages of round earthen structures with conical thatched roofs surrounded by fields (photo) and wooded grasslands. They can all seem the same.  While discussing with a group of men through an interpreter, one of the younger men became angry at something I did. His glare matched his rapid and loud tirade. Embarrassed by my gaffe, my interpreter fell silent.

When the young man’s energy was spent, one of the older men spoke a few soft words, the irate young man nodded his approval and smiled. The tension was gone.

“He is just a white man. He doesn’t know anything”, were the words that saved me. The old man was pointing out that I did not know their customs, and therefore I should not be blamed for breaking them.

Don’t try this in a court of law because there “Ignorance of the law is no excuse.”

I have been fortunate to be working in Africa where my white-skinned ignorance usually gets me a gracious pass. I hope you will return the favor and be gracious to the “foreigners” you meet in your “village” –  especially as we remember that our Lord Jesus himself was born away from home.



Sitting outside the cantina in Tamale

Tamale staff sitting outside the cantina at coffee break

This is coffee break at the GILLBT* Center in Tamale. The staff get coffee or tea (mostly the later) inside. They then forgo the tables and chairs inside to sit outside on the foundation and sidewalk to talk. Mind you, these are not gardeners or simple laborers. There are a number of BAs and even MAs in this group. But they have no complexes about doing things their Ghanaian way. Some even wear traditional Ghanaian clothes.

One of the first things I learned about Africa is that people here live outside. Houses are for sleeping, storing stuff, and taking shelter from rain. Our neighbors in Ouagadougou would bring their chairs out to the edge of the street in front of their houses to sit, talk and gab with passer’s by. A lot like small town America used to be, but in that case people sat on their porches.

In some places in Congo, people built palaver huts under which people sit to talk (see below). Everyone brings a low stool. In fact, the stools are about the same height as the sidewalk the guys are sitting on in the  photo.  Sitting outside to talk about important matters is also very Old Testament:

“Her husband is known in the gates when he sits among the elders of the land.” (Proverbs 31:23 English Standard Version).

This and many other cultural similarities made the Old Testament popular among Africa Christians. My wife must be a very virtuous woman because at coffee break in Tamale, her husband is known at the door of the GILLBT “Cantina” when he sits among the senior staff.

Palaver hut outside Isiro, DR Congo

Palaver hut outside Isiro, DR Congo


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*GILLBT, for Ghana Institute of Linguistics, Literacy and Bible Translation. A Ghanaian organization doing just was its name says: Linguistics, Literacy, Bible translation in the languages of Ghana. It has translated the Bible into more Ghana languages than any other organization, in addition to making over 500,000 literate through its literacy programs. Dayle and I are assigned to it to help with planning and mobilizing more resources from within Ghana (Ed) and managing a Guest House (Dayle).