Blog from abroad: Reconceptuatlizing the third-world

Blog from abroad: Reconceptuatlizing the third-world

*Pardon the slight delay of this week’s blog; Olivia was after all, without internet for a while.


Today, for the first time since arriving in Ghana, I feel as though I am living in a third-world country. As I type this blog post, I’m sitting in a pitch dark and ruthlessly hot room due to one of the many long-lasting power outages that have become de rigeur as of late. I finished getting ready for bed with water fetched from tanks outside the dorm because all running water has been shut off for three days with no explanation. Sure, I knew that Ghana was a third-world country before I arrived, but no electricity or running water? How absurd!

Blackout ambiance becomes the norm during one of our many blackouts. (Photo by Olivia Cohen)

Blackout ambiance becomes the norm during one of our many blackouts. (Photo by Olivia Cohen)

Before coming to Ghana, my imagination painted a picture of how a third-world country should look. The landscape was austere and dusty – void of manufactured products and entertainment, and speckled with hungry children begging for money. As measured by portrayals of Africa in the media, my concept of Ghana was spot on. As measured by my experience though, I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Ghana, and I’m sure many other third-world countries, are surprisingly modern. With the exception of chocolate and a pumpkin spice latte, I can find anything that I need here. I’ve bought a nano-SIM card for my iPhone 5, classic novels from the Western cannon and all manner of familiar clothing and toiletries, from skinny jeans to sun screen. If the Africa of infomercials exists, it is not found in coastal Ghana.

Don’t get me wrong – demographically and statistically speaking, Ghana is undeniably a developing country, but it somehow doesn’t feel so different from home. I conduct my life in much the same way as I do in Charleston, except sometimes, I’m living in the dark while guarding an awareness that I’m 40 miles up stream from a cholera outbreak.

Take the power and water outages as a large scale example of how life in Ghana is different from life back home. Ghana imports all of its oil from Nigeria and unfortunately, all of the Nigerian oil workers are on strike indefinitely. As a result, the power companies in Ghana must shed a record 500 megawatts of electricity and so they are shutting down all gas powered thermal plants – hence the blackouts.

In order to offset reduced oil-based energy sources, the government is mandating greater hydroelectric power generation. Ghana experienced an ill-fated drought this past year and there is not enough water in the national reservoir to support increased water usage. As a result, the water company is periodically shutting off water in order to force conservation.

Poly tanks outside the dorm provide water for cooking, cleaning, showering and flushing the toilet when the water is turned off. (Photo by Olivia Cohen)

Poly tanks outside the dorm provide water for cooking, cleaning, showering and flushing the toilet when the water is turned off. (Photo by Olivia Cohen)

It’s difficult for me to imagine a water company in the United States simply shutting off water access for paying customers in drought stricken areas. Las Vegas would probably fizzle out of existence and I imagine people would generally freak out. The political instability responsible for the water and oil shortages is found all over the world, but in developed countries, its effects are less noticeable. (The recent fast food workers’ strike didn’t exactly cause a french fry shortage, did it?)

From what I can see, the biggest difference between third-world and first-world countries is access to uncorrupted public funds. Typically, development indicators of any given country, such as the infant mortality rate and the literacy rate, are directly correlated with corruption. Without properly allocated funds for fuel backups, how can businesses and schools continue to run? I had to wait about eight hours to submit this blog post because the power takes out the Internet with it. (Although today I didn’t have running water, but I still had wifi.) How can students acquire skills and knowledge for the modern world in an inconsistent environment where toilets suddenly stop flushing for a few days and the Internet regularly peters out?

This post has grown rather rambling and for that I apologize. If I could leave you with a final takeaway, it would be this: Although third-world and first-world countries are undeniably different, living in a third-world country does not feel so different from home. We are lucky enough to have grown up with the famed convenience and ease of American life, but the majority of the world does not live like us, and, contrary to what I often saw and heard about third-world countries from the movies and the news, life is still good. Most of the world will never experience lattes to-go or a single store where you can buy everything you need. And yet their lives lack nothing. People will thrive with or without Starbucks.

Whenever I become frustrated with the inefficiencies and inconsistencies of life here, I find comfort in the most glaringly obvious of facts: billions of people are born and raised in the third-world and they get on just fine. I need to check my culture of abundant free wifi and hot water at the door and remember that there about seven billion ways to live life, and just as I learned to thrive in my own culture, I can learn to do so in another. 

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Authored by: Olivia Cohen

There is 1 comment for this article
  1. Dona at 4:18 pm

    I enjoyed reading your article. I am from India and yes, living in a third world country has its share of difficulties.That is the reason why most people living in such countries opt to live in developed nations where life is easier. 🙂

    Life does go on wherever we live but the quality of life differs because the milieu impacts a person’s overall outlook on life.

    And yes, i can very well relate to the power outages and water scarcity in developing nations..it is a nuisance to say the least.:P

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