I think I'm Ghana like it here...

Monday, May 22, 2006

I arrived in Austin a week ago today. One of my biggest worries coming home was that there would be this disconnect—this four month gap in my life at home just floating in my mind like a dream, separate from my American reality. The New York kids would return and have their Ghana compound reunion and reaffirm for one another that all of their experiences were real (Did we actually witness a Banku eating contest in the Osu Night Market? Did we really ride for hours on a bus of singing school children on their way to a football match? Did we help? Were we changed?) and furthermore, that all of those experiences are fully a part of the life they are living at ‘home.’

I have been worried. Already life has this incredible inertia. The Summer of familiarity begins. I do things that I have done before: eat at the places I know I like, drive with the radio on, not thinking about the route… Lately I am shocked when I arrive. This internal map has stayed in me for the past four months; it pulls me along so softly that I don’t even notice it at first. I have been excited about bringing something new to the old things—if only I can keep these new things in the forefront of my mind.

But perhaps today, as a sign of good faith, I should attempt to practice this (mental connecting the dots between my life in America to my life in Africa and back again) instead of just declaring to the world that I want to. ‘nuff said.

I read this article in the NY Times this morning (http://www.nytimes.com/2006/05/22/world/africa/22nairobi.html) about the parliament in Kenya, who (and this has become so common among groups of politicians all over the world) have voted to quadruple their pay and give themselves other perks, like a decadent mileage allowance to cover driving expenses, etc. Meanwhile, Kenya is experiencing a severe draught that has killed tons of crops and livestock. The article estimates that 3.5 million Kenyans will be facing food shortages in the coming weeks and months. Many Kenyans are pissed, rightfully so. The most disturbing part of this, though, is that these guys aren’t really accountable to anyone because they’re not trying hard to get re-elected or even to maintain their honor in the eyes of the people that they are supposed to be representing: “apparently many of these lawmakers already believe they are short-timers, which is why they are feathering their nests as much as they can, while they can.” Materialism becomes more and more desperate and reckless. Its arms reach further and further across the globe.

And then I am reminded of another article I read recently about these online Nigerian money scams. There are different types of scams, but basically some Nigerian scammer will email an American (I can’t remember how they obtain these lists of email addresses) promising tons of easy cash for help in storing some large amount of money in their bank account. In the end, the American “sucker” winds up paying thousands of dollars to the Nigerian and doesn’t ever see a cent of the cash they are promised. The article that I read was actually about the pastor of a church—how he got sucked into this scam, lost over $20,000, deceived all of his friends and family, was finally sent to prison, and still, in the end, had faith that the Nigerians would come through with the money. He lost his whole life, a process that began with pure and simple greed, with the desire to get a lot without working for it. So often, as Americans, we are told that this is acceptable. We are encouraged to find the loopholes. We see the easy way out as an opportunity, instead of what it is: cheating.

What strikes me particularly about both of these articles is that this is a brand of greed and materialism that I recognize from home. This helps me to connect the dots, and it helps me think about how to proceed with my life wherever I am living it (and I do not intend for this to sound as self righteous as it does. I know that these tendencies are in me too). I do think that America and Africa are profoundly interconnected. Over the past four and a half months, so many Ghanaians approached me mainly because they saw me as a potential ticket to America. I tried to avoid being offended by this, because it was tough to know how hungry someone might be at the time of this interaction. Yet my gut says that western materialism spreads this greater disease of dissatisfaction with all that one has and is—dissatisfaction with your own history, your homeland, your relationships, yourself. This is a dissatisfaction that helps us to buy more and that is why it exists. There is no four month hole in my life. Having a “real” life (or getting back to “real” life) implies that there was a fake life somewhere. There isn’t. This is evidenced by the pandemic of dissatisfaction. We are one and must begin to think of ourselves as such.

final word: this will be my last blog here since I don't live in Ghana anymore. You know where to find me...Thank you for your time and interest, whoever you are who sat down to read this every now and then. Thanks.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

With three days left in Ghana, I just got around to going to the Accra Art Center for the first time today. The art center is actually like a market where you can buy carvings and masks and kente cloth and so so so many beads. It's very touristy. I ran out of cash pretty quick, and then akwardly had to explain to each vendor pulling me into his shop that I could not buy. I would say, "I have no money. My money is finished" and they would say, "How much do you want to bring?" and I would say, "My money is gone. I have none left," and they would say, "I'll give you a small price. small-small." Small-small is a Ghanaian-english phrase that people here use all the time. "Dash me small small" means "give me a little bit" or "give me something small." Strange to think that in three days, I won't be hearing this around town.

Another turn of phrase that I'm going to miss a lot is "Go-come" or sometimes, "go and come." In Twi it's "ko-bra" but most Ghanaians just say "go-come" to me. Generally people say this after they greet you on the street or something like that. You'll say, "Hi, how are you today, Kofi?" and Kofi will say, "I'm fine. How are you? Are you going to school?". I'll say, "yes," and then he'll say, "okay... go and come." It means see you later I guess, but I like it because it implies this gap in interaction, as if you should just hurry up and get through whatever errand or chore you have to do so that you can pass by and greet your friend again. The interim seems strangely unimportant. People come and go, and they always always greet.

Thinking about coming home makes me feel this way. Ghana is definitely giving me the old "go-come," because today at the art center, a man named Edy told me that I must come back to Ghana soon, that I should bring my two brothers (he asked first if I have sisters, of course, but when I told him that I have two brothers, neither of whom have been to Africa, he said, "Oh! You must bring them! You must organize the trip!" You must go and come.) I feel that warmth. Seven kids from our compound have already flown, and all of our goodbyes were quick and lighthearted and surreal... see you later, peace out type of stuff. I'm not so good at this... I want flamboyant ceremonial goodbyes always. These half-goodbyes blur into each other, so I keep expecting faces that are already many miles away.

At the same time, Austin said go-come to me about four months ago--and on the plane ride here, as excited as I was, at the time I was comforted much more the coming home part than by the going away part. I thought so so much about seeing people after four months... how satisfying and exciting that would be. In my mind, I lessened the importance of the frightening intirim--the intirim which has now become my very full daily life. How weird. But I guess part of the beauty of this phrase as I walk around the Earth and people tell me to go and come is that I have all of these away experiences, all these inbetween experiences that only I can fully know... and that I always have someone to return to, no matter where I am. Always someone waiting for me to come. And that is a blessing that is very comforting to me.

One last Ghanaian englishism that I particularly enjoy: someone sitting outside their house in the heat of the day says "How are you?" I say, "I'm fine." They say, "Thank God."

Sunday, April 16, 2006

It is Easter Sunday in Accra. The sun is relentless; no April showers today.

The continuous stream of questions raised for me about my culture, my life, my future remains confusing after three months living here in Ghana. I am thinking of this now because a friend of mine said that today was the first Easter that she’d ever spent away from her home and her family and her church; she was sort of down. This morning a few of us visited a great big Catholic church called Christ is King. We arrived late and it was packed (apparently there are usually three masses at different times on Sunday mornings but on Easter there is only one big one). We ended up having to sit outside. I made my best effort at participation—could sometimes hear the prayers, could sometimes hum along to the music, which was absolutely joyful, sung at the tops of peoples’ lungs and danced out of them… I tried to forget distractions and think about grace, new life, but for some reason, it didn’t come easy. I was comforted by the babies running around, the little girls in gold hoop earrings and pastel ruffles that made them all look like cupcakes or flowers, the little boys dressed in full traditional suits, draped from head to toe in bright African prints and looking like miniature grown men—all across the world, it must be a universal joy to see the children gussied up on special occasions. So I had this to cling to and to be thankful for.

But still, I am missing the most trivial things. I boiled eggs yesterday without having a way to dye them. For the first time in my life, I began to think that the ridiculous connection between the day of Christ’s resurrection and the Easter bunny is absolutely correct. Being in Ghana makes me realize that plastic grass in a pastel plastic basket filled with more chocolate then any child should ever be given at once, plus the women who break out such old fashioned things as white hats and gloves only on Easter now, plus fresh flower arrangements drawing bees to the alter of the church—all of these things are married in my mind to images of Mary Magdalene finding the stone rolled away, Thomas reaching his hand into Jesus’ side…these have been wed to each other (arbitrarily?) by American culture. Ghana is teaching me (among many many many things) that I am an American, that I have a culture… which is full of contradictions that play themselves out in me, and it is mine (ours) to sort out and change.

A few weeks back, I interviewed one of my Ghanaian professors, Kofi Awoonor, for a school project. He attended the University of Ghana at Legon back when it was run by the British. He was a student when Ghana became independent. He studied in the U.S. for some time, writing poetry. He was a strong member of the orature movement, seeking to give respect and a larger voice to traditional African story-telling practices. So, he has this huge wealth of knowledge. He has lived through a lot of history in a short time and this has given him an over arching perspective on life and his community and Ghana and Africa and the world… This is what being an elder is all about, I guess. During the interview, he said a lot of things that struck me (one of which was that he is full of fear and trembling for the younger generation of Ghanaians who have, by in large, accepted American brand capitalism and who spend too much time and energy devising ways to get out of Ghana… I have found this to be somewhat (not by any means entirely) true… After this, he also told me that Ghana doesn’t know how to be itself. When he said that, I immediately felt the frustration behind those words. Ghana is having an identity crisis which is common to all who have been made aware that the forces of oppression (and these are clearly different in different cases) have given us a philosophy which has taken root in our brains and come to fruition in acts against ourselves. When you are made aware that you have been programmed against your will by this conquering force, you are left constantly trying to dissect your internal self, to take the real self and throw away the fabricated identity; This process may be necessary, but it is also, after a certain point, maddening and impossible. Many Ghanaians are in favor of putting traditional practices up for critical analysis to see which of these practices are still positive, beneficial and relevant… many of them are and some aren’t. When I think about it now (based on my very limited knowledge) this type of analysis seems so much healthier than the type that tries to divide the actions of the self (and the nation’s cultural practices) based on their origin rather than on their function in and effects on the society and the individual.

What I mean to say is that young Ghanaians are often scolded by the older generation for not knowing traditional ways of life and belief systems or for dressing in Western clothes, not speaking their regional dialects well, etc… (certainly I believe that these are important values that should not be brushed aside)… but whenever this generational divide becomes apparent, the older generation claims that the youngsters cannot be true Ghanaians if they do not have this cultural literacy. So a huge portion of the young generation of Ghanaians are accused of not being Ghanaian at all… as if it is possible not to be what you are! (The same idea has been very recently used toward different ends to persuade Americans that they are not American unless…) This is dogma. Instead of accepting tradition blindly, and inversely, instead of carelessly throwing out the old in favor of the new, we must find ways to critically sort and select our philosophies based on what will work toward betterment of the self and society. This process should be continuous and should hold nothing as sacred beyond the good that it actually does. Right??!

But what does that mean about my love for the Easter bunny… a love which I never fully acknowledged or appreciated until now?? I can condemn the excess of American materialism and isolation until I’m blue in the face… I can even look around me in Ghana and see how these philosophies are being exported here and how they affect Ghanaians today, but on Easter Sunday, I cannot divorce my faith from these confused symbols which give them life. I wonder if this holiday of bunnies, chocolate, and Christ’s triumph over death is really in the realm of academic, critical analysis. Today I can only think of it emotionally… Today I can only remember my excitement as a child, finding colored, dew-covered eggs in the grass and giving myself a tummy ache with my 100% chocolate breakfast. I am reminded today that culture exists beyond academics, beyond the ability to sort and categorize. I am reminded that time, repetition, and memory have an inertia which often leaves function forgotten somewhere along the road— it is this inertia which woke me up this morning to tell me that Easter doesn’t work this way.


Looking over this blog entry again, I realize that I made myself sound bluer than I was. Yesterday was a good day in Ghana; it simply felt nothing like Easter.

I feel like a lot of this last entry is confusing or maybe like I didn't say exactly what I mean, but rather than withdraw it, I will try to simplify things a bit: Yesterday I felt that I really began to empathize with this Ghanaian confusion in attempting to separate the 'good' or efficient or progressive aspects of the culture (influenced by 'traditional' ideas as well as ideas brought in from colonial forces) from the bad or 'regressive' or even outdated aspects of the culture. Ghanaians are forced to undergo this process of finding themselves (or selecting what self to be culturally) all the time, and it is a really confusing and difficult process... seeking identity is a confusing and difficult process.

Yesterday I empathized with this problem... I have been down on American culture a lot lately. I visited this Ananda Marga yoga center and spoke with a Dada for a long time about ways of connecting spirituality to social justice, and afterward, I was ready to dismiss everything about what being an American means. But then the next day was Easter and I found myself missing American Easter in spite of myself, because it is IN me... and the fact that it's in me makes things complicated. That's all I meant to say.

Don't worry. I'm still having a wonderful time and learning so much. I still love jolof rice and pineapples and trotros.

Monday, March 27, 2006

Preview of Spring Break: more pictures and stories to match coming very soon!

Friday, March 17, 2006

Oh, it has been too long! I must admit that I have been a bit overwhelmed lately. There are readings and midterm papers even in Ghana... and always right before Spring Break, too! So much has happened in the last few weeks that I find it difficult to begin.

Our little compound crew is breaking up for Spring Break--bits and pieces headed in separate directions for the next ten days or so. Tomorrow Brittany and I depart for the eco-village on Lake Volta close to Ho. Our plans are flexable (and admittedly not entirely formed), but basically, we'll be taking a whirlwind nature tour of Ghana by bus/tro tro, stopping notably at Mole National park (where there are many elephants and monkies to be seen!), Green-Turtle eco-lodge on the coast, Techiman and the monkey sanctuary close by. It will be nice to have a week to explore Ghana more thoroughly. Accra is quite a bustling city, and it always feels like such a relief to be out among the trees for a few days... and nothing beats travel by tro-tro, really... so high off the ground, I feel free. People are very understanding when you go over a big bump and accidentally end up in their lap.

I should have a million stories about my adventures, but I don't. Every day is an adventure here. So here are the small recent news stories or perhaps the main small news story: I have met several interesting cab drivers recently. Coming back home from Osu the other day, me and my friend Celeste got into a cab with a driver who said he would take us to Tante Marie for 10,000 cedis and then lectured us about how it should really be $15,000... he said that we are all the same and we must help each other out now and then, and that he used to live in France so he knows about all kinds of people--he kept saying that he would accept ten but he just wanted us to know that it should really be more. At first we were both frustrated (it happens often that cabbies raise the price after an agreement has been made and that can be shady of them), but then when we steered him in the wrong direction and said that we would "get down here," he said no, no, we shouldn't have to walk and that even though it took more time than it should have, we would not have to pay extra. We thought that was nice... and so we finally agreed on $15,000.

Then, day before yesterday I met this cab driver named Mr. Debu who was already acquainted with my friend Dave (from the program)... he talked non-stop about how tall and thin Dave was, and most importantly, how Dave was a man of little words... he liked him, but wished that he would talk a little more on the cab ride. Then Mr. Debu proceeded to talk the whole 20 minute ride to Legon about how he was 53 years old and he'd been driving a cab for 35 years and had never been outside of Ghana--he talked about how he thought that was a shame and said that I should feel very lucky to travel to different places and learn about different people, and I said that I do feel lucky. He liked asking me about all of our states (had I been to all of them? I said no, that would take a long, long time... explained how far it is just to get out of Texas... and then had to explain Texas). He also really enjoyed talking to me about airports, and how many cities in Ghana have airports but you have to come to Accra to fly internationally. He was very curious about our international airports in the U.S. as well, and it made me wish that I knew more about how our airline systems are actually set up. Mr. Debu told me where he usually hangs out and told me that I could come find him whenever I need a cab to Legon. What a good conversationalist!

Then yesterday, I met a cab driver named Steven who I like a whole whole lot, because he listened to gospel music very loudly in his cab. He told me that he comes from the Volta region and that as the only male in his family, he has a great responsibility to earn money and that is why he's working in Accra. He would like to drive for a company so that he could travel further distances and see more of West Africa. He invited me to his church. I cannot describe my affinity for cab drivers lately... perhaps the bargaining process is becoming less strenuous for me, but it is nice to have the chance to learn about someone totally new. I am aware, of course, of how I am treated differently from a Ghanaian in this situation. The mutual curiosity is pleasant... the feeling is still very fresh for me, and I am sometimes suddenly uncomfortable when I begin to sense that more is wanted of me than I can really offer (such as sudden declarations of love) or that more power is being given to me than I really want or merit in these kinds of social situations. Despite these difficulties, I believe that I will continue to enjoy my good fortune in cab drivers and to complain about the bad ones for that matter.

What else is new? My friend Kate has an exciting project for raising awareness about stigma for those with HIV/AIDS in Ghana. My part in it so far is helping to teach workshops in middle schools about the injustice of the stigma assiciated with HIV/AIDS and how we should work to treat people with kindness and compassion. I think that this will be fun and challenging and educational. My eyes have definately been opened to differences between American and Ghanaian school systems. Many students that I have interacted with here have been smart as a whip, but it is difficult to get these kids to trust their own original thoughts... to speak out with an idea that is creative or unique to them. The idea of sharing examples of personal experiences in the class (which we often ask for in the workshop) is very strange to them... often the feeling in the classroom is that the entire class is filled with painfully shy students, which isn't really the case at all, but the intense fear of being wrong (which I think is found in all public education systems to a certain extent) is incredibly strong in my few experiences. I have much to learn about how to draw kids out and how to read what they are giving me in order to help them really gain understanding or really allow themselves (in this case) to be given over to empathy for others.

Enough babbling for now... this stuff just pours out of me, and I think it is proof of the fact that what matters most to me about this experience now is my interactions with people who are often overwhelmingly warm and sometimes overwhelmingly demanding... both rightfully and unrightfully so. More about this soon. I must go eat free delicious dinner, but do not let me forget to write about my interview with my creative writing professor. Pictures of rocks, trees, water, seashells, monkies, and Brittany Larson riding an elephant (I hope!) are coming soon.

Wish me luck!

Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Trip to Beyin & Axim Beach

Monday, February 20, 2006

This past Saturday, February 18, 2006, shall be known hereafter as the day on which everything that could have gone wrong didn't. We trekked out of our gated castle of a compound at about 11:30 am (me looking completely silly strapped in to my huge camping back pack) to catch a share cab to the STC bus station. We had planned to take the bus departing for Takoradi at 2:30 pm, but it was sold out so we bought tickets to catch the 1:30 bus. The funny thing about that was that the bus to Takoradi was one hour late, so we left at 2:30 according to our original plan. The bus was pretty packed. STC buses get filled up to the absolute brim; they have these little seats that fold out and fill the aisles of the bus the whole way back so that if someone in the back decides they have to get out, every single aisle person in front of the trouble-maker must fold up their seats and move out. But personally, I think that the best part of the bus ride was my attempt at eating the digestive cookies that I had bought at the Shell station just before departure--they had been completely crushed in the top pocket of my backpack, but I tried to eat them anyway, spilling crumbs everywhere and grossing out the lady next to me with my mess. I caught a few zzzz's on the trip and did a little reading. We arrived safely in Takoradi at around 7:30, and our remarkably kind driver escorted us accross the street to catch a tro-tro. When we discovered that there would be no other tro-tros leaving for Beyin until tomorrow, this too too kind man helped us to negotiate a reasonable price to charter a van over the Beyin, and then proceeded to give us his telephone number so that we could call "if we have any trouble." Perhaps he was nervous for us, because it was just after dark and we were apparantly too dumb to be nervous for ourselves. What a caring and helpful individual!

So, we take the tro-tro... the driver had not wanted to go for a cheap price because he said, the roads are very bad. This turns out to be true. The roads from Takoradi to Beyin are largely unpaved, and the dirt has not been relaid in a while, so there are these deep ridges from the rain, and when you ride over them in the tro-tro, they shake up all your organs and turn them into stew. The organ-shaking action goes on for about an hour, and since we have chartered the van, each of us is alone in a huge seat, sloshing all over the place. Once we get close to Beyin, we mention that we don't know where the guest house is--the extent of our knowledge is that it exists somewhere in town according to the Bradt guide. Our driver pulls over, spots a group of three or four guys hanging around (and by this time, it's maybe 10 pm) and asks them if they know anything about the guest house or where the owner is. The answer is yes, so rather than point us in the right direction, the entire group of them jumps into the van to personally escort us over to the owner's house--and this is a bit nerve racking to be honest. The possibilities for being taken advantage of in some way are overwhelming to me at this point. We are a group of oborunis, totally vulnerable and clueless, sitting there with pockets full of money in a van of strong men who know the area and chat and laugh together in some Asante dialect. Who knows what comes next?

the worst does not happen. Instead, they direct the van over to the owner's house as promised, and call him out from the middle of his evening shower to let him know we're here. He climbs into the van in his towel (hasn't bothered to get dressed) and points the van off the main road, to a sandy beach that looks like the middle of nowhere except that there is also this line of people just snoozing away in the sand like sardines. We are instructed to get out, and I cannot comprehend that we are really where we are supposed to be. It doesn't look like there is anything there! The owner leads us toward the darkness of the ocean, which we can now hear very audibly, (though we see nothing), and then we are led around a stick fence to the guest house: a hut with three rooms in a row, plus a bucket-shower stall, a bathroom stall, and a covered outdoor 'living room' with a little table and benches. I was hands down in love with this place the second I saw it. Not sure why. Maybe because everything that could have gone wrong didn't. Instead we found our spot against all odds, our secret water-hole in the desert. The breeze from the ocean made its way through all the cracks between the stick-walls and we slept soundly on our slightly damp beds, though a few times in the night, I actually woke up feeling chilly.

Saturday was another eventful day. We took an hour long canoe ride to the stilt village, though we had to get out a few times and walk since the water is pretty low this time of year. We arrived at the village and took a stroll around the middle long deck, which folks there referred to as "the main street." We met a guy who took our donations for the school, which we got to see--just this room. desks in a row, small blackboard at the front, window facing the water. It was a strange thing, actually, because after a few minutes walking along the decks of this village, I began to feel very obtrusive. I mean, it was a fairly small arrangement of wooden rooms on stilts in the water, and the villagers were clearly going about their daily business of washing clothes or feeding their kids or sleeping outside on the decks; everybody's door was open, so as we passed along the 'main road' we could look into folks houses and see four or five people sitting around together in small, dim rooms. This was the first time that I really felt that I was invading--we were too close to their real lives to have come without invitation. Even worse, we had come as tourists to gawk and leave... I felt strange, though I tried to explain to myself that they are used to it--it is fairly common for tourists to come visit this village. The village does provide accomodations and they also charge visitors a small fee to come, so they do receive some reward for these awkward encounters. I don't know how to judge if it's worth it though. I guess I would have to ask them that. Oh, the good thing about the stilt village was that we got to swim right next to the village--the water is apparantly quite clean in the area, but the leaves that fall into the water turn it this orange-red tea-like color. The water felt great and these two kiddos (who were clearly very comfortable with white tourists) jumped in to play--swimming up to us and bumping their heads against us underwater to scare us. They were so silly and fun--jumping into each of our arms and demanding that we repeat our names to them.

From the stilt village, we went on to Axim beach which was breath-takingly beautiful and relaxing and uneventful. We found this island of rocks and climbed it and watched the waves and the fisherman scattered in their boats accross the water further out.

Goodness! Time passes so quickly here. I tried to begin this a few days ago, and now it is Thursday and so many new things have happened. We're already getting ready for our trip to Kumasi this coming weekend. I think that since the Ghanaian conception of time is more laid back, it is easy to let time get away from you. I have no command of the days as they pass here; days are not controlled by the chores that one finishes or doesn't finish, but instead they are commanded only by the sun and my body's demand for sleep. I have truly been letting this processing of events fall by the wayside as I attempt to accumulate this collection of people and places in Ghana. As I close each of these entries, I am plagued with the feeling that there is so much more than I can tell and that what I do manage to put out there is so much less than the experience itself. Of course.

This will have to do for now: the whole world feels different than before.