Adapting to a new culture must be process approached with care, balancing divergent philosophies: fall in love too easily, and she breaks your heart, adapt too slowly, and an insulating bubble develops around you; that which protected you, now becomes your prison.
I had heard that as a foreigner, opening a bank account was a bit of a challenge. Nightmarish stories are shared in the expat community in hushed voices, each worse than the previous. It is not only bank accounts, but visas, car maintenance and, physicals…, stories of anything with a bureaucratic component. Ours is a bank account story, where we found that opening a bank account was relatively easy, accessing its money, was an opportunity to learn—maybe relearn—that adaptation is a choice between being the person you want to believe you could become, and the person you came as.
Opening the Bank Account
For Suzanne and I, it only took two hours, five different forms filled with assorted permutations of the same basic information, 15 signatures each, two forms of identification, and a letter from our employer. Actually, the letter only assured them that I was employed, but since we were opening a joint account, they let it slide. Return next week to pick up your ATM cards, we were told. Later that afternoon Suzanne and I both receive txts saying “We thank you for opening an account with us.”
ATM Card: second visit
Its ten days later now and we’re back in Accra to stop by and pick those promised ATM cards. I should remind everyone that the journey to Accra is about 90 minutes of bad roads and traffic. At the bank I am next in line (Suzanne has already bailed on me, mentally. She is reading something work related). Then the woman who sits behind the desk where ATM cards are issued, walks away saying “I’m coming.” The man sitting next to me asks “Are you sure?”
“I’m coming,” is what we say here for “I’ll be right back.”
“Are you sure,” is a way we jokingly confirm something. Say something with confidence, and the customary response is click your tongue and say “Are you sure?” It is not that they are questioning you, or the accuracy of what you’ve said, its more playful, like really? Little did I know then, the foreshadowing of his question because 45 minutes later, I wasn’t so sure.
EcoBank closes its lobby at 4pm, sharp, unless you know the head of security, who happened to be our day guard from before, Daniel. When we came to open the account, it was a wonderful reunion. I saw Daniel from the road, and began waving to him as we drove up. He looked back at me, hard-faced, like I was going to be trouble, until he recognizes me, and literally began jumping for joy. There were hugs and handshakes and we must have spent 20 minutes standing in the hot sun shaking hands, catching up on his family, and telling him about ours.
Daniel, our former house guard now guards EcoBank
Getting to the door at 4:01 on a Friday, and finding the gate closed, Daniel pleads with the inside guard to open it, and reluctantly he agrees. There are maybe six people ahead of us waiting for customer service. Its 4:15 now and we’re next. “I’m coming,” says the woman behind the desk as she walks away. From now on she will be known as the only person who can issue ATM cards, because apparently, she is. Forty-five minutes later she keeps her word; who takes a 45 minute break right after closing time?
For the next 30 minutes the only person who can issue ATM cards works on issuing ours. Actually, I ask for two cards, but she says it is impossible. I point out the part of form (a sixth form– with basically the same information as the other five but fewer signatures) that approves the issuance of two cards. Apparently, the only person who can issue ATM cards has never seen this part of the form before. We argue about it for 10 minutes, and finally I say (remembering my Getting to Yes training) how about we just start by issuing one card? Then for the next 30 minutes the only person who can issue ATM cards types our information in to her computer, and looks puzzled. She creates an ATM card for me right there, with my name on it and everything, but can’t complete the final step, programming its PIN code. It is now well after 6pm, and the only person who can issue ATM cards says to come back on Monday. We start to get into our second argument discussion about the difficulty of coming back into Accra and she says. “Oh, sorry.”
“Oh, sorry,” is the expression we hear when something had gone terribly wrong, like a car that has backed into a gutter, or a dropped cell phone that shatters. “Oh, sorry.” It isn’t an admission of guilt, or fault, but a sincere apology that this has happened. “Oh, sorry,” she says—packing 90 minutes of bad road or traffic into two words. “Come back next week” and happy this hot and hungry obrunie is not, and I feel the person I want to become sweating away as my deodorant fails. I even smell upset, and I don’t like any of it but I know enough not take out my frustration on the only person who can issue ATM cards.
ATM Card: Attempts Three, Four and Five
A week later, I’m back in Accra dealing with some other difficulties and stop by to greet the only person who can issue ATM cards. On this our our third visit, we learn that once she types the information into the system for Suzanne’s card, it takes time to activate it. “Come back in 30 minutes.”
We come back in 60 and still it is not possible. Come back tomorrow. At this point I start laughing. I must laugh at the absurdity of the situation because if I don’t, I will never pass this test, I will never get a working ATM card, I will never become the person I want to believe I could become here. So I laugh, but it feels forced.
I ask about the possibility of going to another branch, one closer to our village and she looks hurt. We learn on this our fifth visit to the Osu branch of EcoBank, that it not only has the only only person who can issue ATMs cards, but apparently is the only branch that can program PIN numbers, but that person, the PIN Lady, is absent. So we have a bank account, we have ATM cards, but the cards don’t have their PINs so we cannot access our money, because the only way to withdraw money is with a working ATM card.
On Friday, I return for my sixth visit and everyone is happy to see me, including the only person who can issue ATM cards. We greet each other like old friends and she is excited because PIN Lady is at the bank today. PIN Lady takes my card, examines it, and shoves it in her machine. PIN Lady types hers in, I type in mine and beep, it is done. She does the same for Suzanne’s card, but this time I can’t help but notice her PIN is an ordered four digit numeric sequence starting with 1 and ending in 4. Now I really laugh and admire utter beauty of its absurdity. Is this what adapting looks like?
As she advises I wait two hours and then try my card. I do and it works, the third time. Part of me is elated because I have succeeded, completed a right of passage for all who hope to make Ghana their home. Part of me feels schooled, that if we are going to live here well, we will adapt to do it on Ghana’s terms and maybe become the people we came here to be, or not and stay that person God can not fully use.
I admit that half way through the process CalBank came to the Ashesi Campus offering to open new student accounts. Apparently CalBank is planning to install an ATM here. “The EcoBank ATM is worrying the students tooooo much” she says drawing out the ‘oooo’ sound to add emphasis. I ask how many forms would I have to fill out to open an account, and she shows me their half page one and says this is it. I am tempted to ask Are you sure but instead ask “When will your ATM come to our campus?”
“Oh, it will come,” she says clicking her tongue and nodding her head once. “It will come.” I would have believed one it will come, but saying it twice tells me “it will be a loooong time coming.”