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Cultural Connectivity: Ghana, the United States, and the Digital World

Rochester, New York (February 28, 2024) – According to my screen-time tracking app, I spent an average of 6 hours per day on my phone in the past week in the United States. In contrast, while I was in Ghana over my university’s winter break, I spent an average of 2.5 hours per day on my phone in the first week I was there, and that time steadily dropped over the following two weeks.

So, what happened?

Well, some background would probably help. I was in Accra, the capital city of Ghana, from December 27 through January 17, living with a Ghanaian host family. I got there just in time for Detty December and AfroFuture but, unfortunately, missed the beginning of the African Games. I experienced the start of a new year in a different country for the first time. Generally, it was a strange yet fun time to be there.

I was not in Ghana for a vacation. Rather, I was there for a study abroad program in Legon focusing on culture and reproductive health. Not only was I regularly interacting with my host family, I was also talking with nurses and doctors, University of Ghana students, and Ghanaians I met around the city. (Special shout-out to the rideshare drivers who made every ride a fun conversation!)

While I didn’t experience every aspect of life in Ghana, as I would need way more than three weeks to do that, I did experience a different way of connecting digitally.

The home I was staying in had only two digital devices: a television and a radio. There was no landline, no Wi-Fi router, and no other device connections. There was one outlet in my room that I used to charge all of my devices. But I quickly came to realize that I only needed to charge my hearing aids daily and only occasionally plug in my laptop or phone.

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The mobile phone dominance

Laptops and home computers are not common things in Ghana. You can certainly buy them, but not only are they nearly double the price of what they would be in the states, there is really no reason for the average person to have one.

Everything a Ghanaian needs to get around is in their phone and, even then, that’s not a necessity for many. I came across some older individuals who had a phone, but I don’t recall meeting a single child who had one. Within my host family, three people had a phone: my two older host brothers and my host mom. The only other person who had a phone and a laptop like me was my host sister, who was visiting from London.

From what I could gather, those who have phones only use them to take photos and use WhatsApp. (Side note: Ghanaians do not use any built-in texting apps; they only use WhatsApp to text and call.) I ended up doing the same. I would use my phone exclusively for photos, WhatsApp, and ordering rideshares.

This was a wild divergence from what I am used to in the United States. Here, the majority of the people I know have a phone and a laptop at the minimum. Some of them, including myself, have home computers and desktops. In my room alone, I have four outlets – not to say I use them all, but they are there. I charge multiple devices every night, and I rely on my devices to be able to get things done and to move throughout the spaces I exist in.

In the United States, a lot of businesses have public Wi-Fi available, and my university’s internet runs numerous videos and webpages with no issues. At home, I have an unlimited data plan so I spend a lot of time doom scrolling, if my screen time from the beginning of this post indicates.

Of course, I live in a higher cost of living area of the United States and go to a private higher education institution, so there is a massive socioeconomic disparity between the people I interacted with in Ghana and the people I interact with daily at home.

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Internet connection and data plans

When I was making plans to use a tro tro (Ghanaian public transportation) with my host brother, I realized my phone was broken. I couldn’t rely on it to safely navigate the city. So, he was willing to come with me and drop me off, then leave his phone with me while he went and did his own thing. The issue? He had already used all the data in his plan, so he had to buy more data and hope that it was processed in time for me to use it. Everything worked out in the end, but it is indicative of a pattern in Ghana.

I did not have a lot of internet access because it was not always available — data plans were the go-to. The little internet I was able to access, which came from a MiFi box (hotspot), was limited and honestly not very useful outside of the aforementioned rideshare ordering.

There was internet at the University of Ghana, but it wasn’t the speed nor the bandwidth I was used to. A webpage could take anywhere from 2 to 15 minutes to load. For perspective, a feedback survey took me 2 hours to do in Ghana when it likely would’ve taken me around 10 minutes in the United States. I also got dropped from nearly every Zoom call I tried to join.

Every Ghanaian with a phone used data plans, including the three people in my homestay. Like I mentioned previously, there was no Wi-Fi router in the home, let alone any ethernet. An international data plan is your best friend in Ghana, especially if you need to access rideshares, WhatsApp, and Google Maps. At first, I was using my existing phone plan, which worked perfectly in European countries but abysmally in Ghana, so it left me scrambling for another solution.

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It’s all kinda fun

There is something whiplash-y about suddenly being stripped of my typical internet access and device usage upon arrival in Ghana, getting used to that, then being thrown back into the second week of my U.S. university’s spring semester.

Because of the lack of digital connection I had in Ghana, I got used to walking up to strangers and asking questions. I got used to drivers that always engaged in conversation, and I got used to watching my host brothers play football (soccer) and learning dances with them. It was, in a weird way, the digital detox some people preach, and I adored it. It got me out of my comfort zone.

On the other side of things, it really reminded me of how much I benefit from my access to technology. For all the new people I talked to, I couldn’t keep in contact with my friends back home as easily, and for all the football games that my host brothers played, I couldn’t watch the forms of entertainment I derived comfort from because they relied on an internet connection. And the kicker: I lost a job opportunity because my internet wasn’t good enough to connect to a Zoom call.

I feel like this experience helped me understand the ways connectivity functions in daily life in two very different countries, and that neither way is better than the other. They simply exist in each other’s cultural spaces. My life in the United States is better with high internet access and multiple devices; my life in Ghana was better with my phone turned off most of the day.

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About the Author: Myren Bobryk-Ozaki is a Connected Nation Communications and Marketing Intern. Myren provides support to the Communications division of Connected Nation. In addition, Myren assists with writing, company blog and social media posting, website editing, bringing creativity to new and existing communications materials.