The pictures my sister sent from Ghana made it clear she did not live in a grass hut.

The first showed an airy room with a soaring cathedral ceiling, and rattan chairs floating on an island of neutral carpet. I blinked: Only the colorful batik curtains assured me this was not a Florida condo. The rest of the glossy photos confirmed my first impressions, detailing four bedrooms and three baths, a well-equipped kitchen, even a two-car garage.

"Come and see us," she pleaded in the accompanying letter. All Nancy's letters had included that invitation, from the day she'd moved to West Africa to marry her Ghanaian exchange student sweetheart. For 13 years I had resisted. At first, I was simply ignorant and afraid; that far-off continent, with its malaria and jungles, held no appeal for me. Then, just as Nancy's vivid letters began to attract me, Ghana was convulsed by a series of political coups, followed by years of drought and food shortages.

But slowly the Ghanaian economy began to improve. A benevolent dictator, Flight Lt. Jerry Rawlings, ended the coups. Rain filled the reservoirs. Kellogg's Corn Flakes returned to the stores, and "petrol" to the gas stations. Nancy and Willie completed their new house, and finally, on the strength of the pictures, I agreed to go.

I chided myself about waiting so long. Perhaps Ghana was becoming as westernized as the countries on my recent tour of Europe, which had confirmed the impossibility of escaping the American Way: the Pizza Hut in beautiful Renaissance Bruges, the reruns of "L.A. Law" on BBC, the Guns N' Roses T-shirts in Madrid. If my sister's photos were any indication, I might be too late to see the unspoiled Ghana.

My fears started to dissolve as we drove away from Kotoka Airport in Accra, Ghana's capital. Just ahead in the road, a soldier with a machine gun blocked the sparse traffic. He had stopped a van, its roof piled high with firewood, its interior jammed with people. "What did he stop them for?" I asked Willie in a whisper.

"They are overweight," Willie responded, "but they will give him a bribe and be on their way."

"Who makes the first move?" I asked. "Does the soldier name his price, or does the driver make an offer?"

"Oh, they all know the going rate for overloading, so they won't waste each other's time," Willie chuckled. "If the driver doesn't pay, he will go to court, where they will also fine him for not having a first-aid kit and a torch. It's too much trouble. So he has charged the men with the firewood enough to cover what he must pay."

I sat back in the corner of the Hyundai and lapsed into silence to prevent myself from voicing the judgmental comments that rose in my throat.

Willie seemed to sense my inner struggle, and stepped in to defend the situation. "The soldiers, they are not paid much, and they usually don't stop anyone unless they have actually committed some offense." He shrugged indulgently as we were quickly waved through the roadblock.

This encounter with Ghanaian law and order was the first of many that made me reflect on the cultural canyon that lay between the Western world and Ghana. What struck me first as frontier vigilante law turned out to be a workable system of informal justice based on tribal traditions and made possible by a relatively homogeneous society.

This was brought home to me the next night as I slipped out the door to jog around the neighborhood, thankful that the heat of day had passed. Nancy stopped me on the porch and warned me that I really couldn't run around the streets at night.

"Someone will think you're a thief, running in the dark, and then the whole neighborhood will be after you," she explained.

I was incredulous. But Nancy went on to explain how Ghanaian citizens really do get involved in fighting crime.

"Last year," she began, "my purse was stolen from the floor of my car, when I was stopped in traffic. All I had to do was yell 'julo' -- that means 'thief' -- and the man was mobbed." She grinned, remembering the surprised thief, who hadn't realized that a white woman might know how to raise the hue and cry. Her purse was quickly returned to her, while the crowd taught the thief an impromptu lesson. "I think he was actually relieved when the police arrived," Nancy concluded. "They don't usually beat someone nearly as much as the crowds do."

Had she pressed charges? There didn't seem to be much point, she recounted. After all, the courts have such a backlog of cases. The purse had been returned, and justice had been served. What more could the courts do?

A letter I saw the next day in an advice column in the People's Graphic confirmed this. The writer asked, "If I see a crime being committed, and I run off to find the police, what happens if others tip off the criminal before the police arrive? Can I be charged with wasting the time of the police?" The Ghanaian "Dear Abby" answered, "No, it is the duty of all citizens to report all crimes, so you will not be charged. However, it is better if you call on your fellow citizens to assist you in arresting the criminal, then go for the police after he has been caught." The newspaper concurred: When everyone agrees on right and wrong -- and when guns are almost nonexistent -- citizens are willing, almost eager, to get involved in a good thief chase.

A common consensus of right and wrong starts early in Ghana, as I learned from my nephew Kofi not long after. Kofi, at 4, attended a nursery school that impressed me with its sunny rooms and bright toys. But Ghanaian schools have a different goal than Western schools: They exist to teach kids to live as part of the community, more than to develop individual talents.

Every day as we picked Kofi up at noon, he would tell us what he had learned. The first day he reported that he had learned about "indigo -- it is a color of blue, Auntie Cindy." Another morning, he had spent hours carefully scrawling the letter A, until he perfected it and was allowed to progress to B.

Then one day, as he climbed into the car, he announced that he had learned the "King of the Suckers" song. Even Nancy had no idea what this meant, so we asked him to sing it for us. Kofi thrust back his small head, and piped the little tune proudly. "Michael Adjetey, it is shameful to suck, I promise I will never suck, it is shameful to suck." When he was done, and we were still confused, he explained impatiently, "Michael Adjetey is in my class, and when he sucks his finger like this" -- Kofi popped his thumb into his mouth, then took it out to continue -- "Mrs. Kato says we must all sing to him, to make him stop."

So, I reflected, this is how Ghanaian society stops its thumb-suckers before they can possibly commit a worse crime. Michael Adjetey would not soon forget that all the world is watching when you do something wrong. "Communal pressure is everything," Nancy explained as we drove away. "Overall, I think it works well for Ghana. Older kids study together, and the question at exam time is not 'What'd you get on the test?' but 'How many of us passed?' No one here can understand the stories we hear about American students sabotaging each other's lab experiments to improve their own chances for medical school."

The night I left, we encountered a soldier once again, standing guard at an intersection with his inevitable machine gun.

"They see we are a private car," Nancy predicted with confidence. "There's not much motivation to stop us. Besides, there's a truck from Lagos behind us, and the soldiers always like to give a hard time to Nigerians."

But this time Nancy was wrong.

"Where you come?" the soldier asked us, leaning into the window.

"North Dzowulu. I go come," Nancy answered, in the curious African patois she used in public.

"Yo-o. Do you get something for us? The night is cold," the soldier responded.

"Oh, I give you something next time, my friend," Nancy countered, smiling. The soldier stepped back and waved his machine gun, moving us on with a friendly gesture. As we drove off, Nancy turned her head, and grinned at me. "You see? It's a very reasonable system."

For more information about travel to and within Ghana, contact the Embassy of Ghana, Information Section, 3512 International Dr. NW, Washington, D.C. 20008, 202-686-4520.

Cynthia W. Harriman is a computer writer living in Portsmouth, N.H.