Friday, April 30, 2010

Cape Coast: The Slave Castle

As the midday wore on we drove to the Slave Castle in Cape Coast. The imposing white fortress rises from a hillside on a peninsula that juts out into the blue waters of the Atlantic. Colorful, decaying colonial buildings mixed with tin-roof shops gather at the foot of the castle, and kids play in the waves between colorful wooden fishing boats. A crowd of hawkers gathered around our bus and followed us in a mad bustle to the arched doorway of the castle’s outer wall, where, probably by agreement with the castle’s operators, they set up camp to wait for our return.

We meandered through aging white courtyards paved with ancient flagstones and patchy concrete. A troop of girls danced in one courtyard to the beat of a drum, while men in sharp collared shirts lounged in front of their shops. We stopped at a bathroom with signs for “Adam” and “Eve” (you never turn down a working bathroom when you encounter it.) We rounded a corner and ran right into a collection of men and women in white shirts and black nametags. It just happened to be a conference of LDS mission presidents in West Africa along with the Area Presidency. We shook hands with couples from Ghana, Nigeria, Liberia, DR Congo, and other African countries. I guess Ghana is also part of that small world people always talk about.

We passed under a building and the corridor opened out on a vast courtyard facing the sea, flanked by piles of rusting cannonballs. The fort rose three or four floors on either side, white plaster walls with blue shutters, topped by a windowed tower from which the captain could view the terrain and enjoy the high life. Our tour guide surveyed the picturesque scene above before leading us to a downward-sloping tunnel in one wall: the entrance to the slave dungeons.

The curving tunnel was lined with grimy bricks, worn by countless ages of hands and seawater. The cave brooded with a dark musty smell often emulated in amusement park rides. Naked light bulbs were strung along the ceiling here and there to provide some light. The tunnel curved into the darkness before opening up into a series of rectangular rooms, each ventilated and lit by a few tiny shafts cut into the rock. In these rooms, hundreds of men would be placed for three months, many of which would die from illness or starvation. A waist-high mark on the wall indicated how high the sewage had risen at times. The tour guide turned off the lights for a minute, and I tried to imagine standing in human waste for three months, packed like sardines, in near darkness. I almost wanted to cry.

I am still puzzled by the treatment of the slaves. I studied economics for four years, and it doesn’t make sense to me why people who were seen as a valuable commodity would be treated so harshly. I’ve learned to mistrust numbers I’m presented, but even if the death rates were far less than the 60% I was told, I simply can’t fathom the logic and barbaric inefficiency of the system. I guess they were just thinning out the weaker slaves. Also, why hold them for three months? I know it takes time to cross the ocean and back, but were there only a few ships running the trade route to this specific castle? That seems like an artificially long time period

Throughout the tour my mind kept coming back to the awful arithmetic of the place: If the castle held 2,000 slaves at a time, for three month periods, and 60% of them died, that takes 8,000 people out of Ghana per year and sends 3,200 of them to America. I guess there were about ten slave castles, which if fully operational would drain Ghana of 80,000 people per year and produce 32,000 slaves. How many years did they operate like this? I also thought about the fact that Ghana was called the Gold Coast, not the Slave Coast (which I think was Togo and Benin). How many more slaves came out of other countries?

We visited different rooms, some darker than others, some stifling hot. One was tiny, dark, and air tight; where men were sent to die. You could still see grooves on the floor from the chains, and divots in the rock floor where something violent had happened. We found out that the English built a church right above the room—ironic to say the least. We went to the womens’ chambers as well. The captain would frequently pick out the most attractive women to be taken to his quarters so he could have his way with them. Those refused to comply were locked in a tiny, hot cell for punishment. As in other African and Caribbean countries, a whole race of mulatto children were fathered by the captains and guards, and sent off to live in outlying cities, bringing with them English surnames like Wilson and Morris. In many African and Caribbean countries, these half-black children became the ruling elite.

As we climbed out of the dungeons my mind went back to the Lego blocks I used to play with as a child. I would construct hillside forts and pirate ships, complete with Lego palm trees and cannons. I felt I was walking in a Lego display. We crossed the courtyard and climbed up the stairs to the Captain’s quarters, a large half-circle room with white walls and a wood floor. A row of windows allows the cool ocean breeze to fill the room, and opens out on a vast landscape. We could see the afternoon sun glinting on the waves in the west, watch the fishing boats out at sea, and gaze up the east coast to the colorful houses cluttered between the many fingers of land jutting into the sea. It was a breathtaking view, but I kept thinking back to the misery teeming underneath the paving stones of the courtyard, and the poor women who were brought up to this room.

We concluded the tour of the castle by winding through the mazelike rooms, curving staircases, and balconies of the upper floors. A broad hall that once was used for trade negotiations and entertainment now sits mostly empty, with a small gift shop huddled in the corner. We admired the artwork, t-shirts, and other things before winding our way back to the ground floor.

The girls were still dancing in the courtyard when we got back there. We wandered in and out of the shops for awhile, and I bought Alisha a colorful dress, two beautiful necklaces, and a small African mask, all for about $25 (which was even high-priced for Ghana). When we finally left the castle our throng of new “friends” was still waiting for us.

Cape Coast: Castles and Crocodiles

Friday was an exciting day. We were getting pretty tired of Accra--it's a mildly interesting city, but you don't really feel like you're in Africa. I was starting to miss the trees and termite mounds, and the unabashed friendliness of villagers.
We loaded up the bus and headed west out of Accra, toward Cape Coast. I hadn't realized how sprawling Accra is. The central part of town (where everything important seems to be) is rather compact, but ringing the city is an unending mass of suburbs, a confusing jumble of homes, shops, and chop bars in no apparent order. We drove for an hour or two before the urban areas finally broke up into evenly-spaced towns. It was good to be in the countryside again, but I must make a qualification on that: no part of Ghana is truly remote. Outside of the cities, the land seems evenly populated. You drive past small towns and villages everywhere you go. Even out in the bush there are villages everywhere, with thatched or tin roofs and animals running everywhere. Also, even in the bush areas you frequently see the same beautiful clothes: boys run around in the colorful bo--basically a piece of fabric wrapped around the waist that rises up to be tied behind the neck. The mean sport bright batik or tie-died shirts, sometimes with matching pants, and the women usually wear their colorful, form-fitting dresses with puffy square sleeves, a head wrap on nicer days, and a baby tied on their back in a different pattern of cloth.
The drive to Cape Coast is pleasant, but far enough from the beach that you don't notice it for an hour of two. Soon you start to notice that the poinciana trees are fuller and redder, and there are more palms. Quaint little towns populate the hillsides with clusters of orange, red, and blue buildings capped with rusting metal roofs. Some of the towns are clustered around crumbling hilltop castles dating from the colonial era. Most homes usually sport a 40-foot bamboo post, to which they attach a tv antenna.
I noticed that most of the colorful buildings also bore the logos of cellphone companies. I wondered about that for a few minutes, until I saw some guys in red Vodaphone shirts painting a house. They use colorful paint as a branding tool. You set up a shop and Tigo will paint it blue for you, MTN will supply you with yellow signs bearing the name of your shop, and your house next door might be painted in the purple and teal of Zain. Some of the students didn't like the blatant commercialism, but I thought it was a good way to beautify a town and also move your brand into remote areas. One interesting byproduct of this is that you start to own the color you advertise in. Some houses were painted yellow but didn't bear any logos. I still thought of MTN when I saw them, and I had only been looking at them for an hour.
We arrived in Cape Coast and turned north toward Kakum national park. Kakum is a rain forest preserve with a series of rope bridges that allow you to look down over the canopy of the forest. We hiked through the forest, up to the crest of a tall hill and lined up to get on the bridges. As I stepped out onto the bridge a vast scene spread out before me. The forest seemed to go on forever, broken here and there by green hills. straight, branchless tree trunks reached above the canopy, finally bursting into green foliage at amazing heights. I looked down and got a little dizzy: through blankets of leaves I could see little patches of red earth far below me.
There were 7 or 8 bridges, each 100-200 feet long, spanning in an arc between the tallest of the trees. At the end of each bridge a viewing platform circled the trunk of the tree. Strangler fig vines grew up the trunks of many of the trees. They blanket the tree, eventually killing it, and take its place. There were supposedly many varieties of animals, and even some monkeys, but the other people were being so loud that I'm sure every creature for a mile around had already retreated further into the jumgle.
Coming back down the path I noticed hundreds of butterflies of many colors. A vendor was selling cacao fruit for a few cedis each. Ray bought one and I tried a piece. The fruit doesn't contain much by way of food, but surrounding the large seeds is a silky pulp that is citrusy and very sweet.
After the canopy walk we stopped at the crocodile restaurant for lunch. The restaurant is a cluster of buildings raised in the air over a green lagoon. The waters underneath the restaurant contain an estiamted 40 crocodiles. We paid a lady one cedi each to feed them. She brought out a tray of raw chicken and took us over to a pool of filthy black water under the restaurant. A twelve-foot long crocodile was lounging lazily in the muddy water. We all gathered within five feet of the thing, and the lady stuck a piece of chicken on a stick and started waving it above the croc's head. It lethargically raised its head and started snapping at the chicken. After tormenting it for ten seconds the lady allowed the crocodile to eat the chicken. We repeated this a few times, snapping a million pictures, and eventually noticed more crocodiles. A cute twelve-incher floated in the pond nearby. It looked like a little stick with eyes. We saw two more slowly inching their way through the water toward the bank behind us. We tried to get them to come up on the bank, but the lady said that it was too hot for them to leave the water. Sometimes they'll get far enough out of the water that you can come behind and touch their tails. We had no such luck, but I was perfectly happy seeing one from a few feet away. Besides, that black water looked and smelled pretty gross. The crocs seemed like deadly reptilian pigs.
During lunch I had the opportunity to try a Malta. It's a popular carbonated beverage in Ghana. It smelled and tasted just like Total or Raisin Bran. One sip was enough for me.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Accra: US Embassy, USAID, Millenium Challenge

After our market visit, we made our way over to the US Embassy for a meeting with USAID and Millenium Challenge. After 9/11, the US Embassy was redesigned with beefed-up security. The campus is a collection of nondescript granite buildings, and you can tell that they value function over form. Photography of the facility is prohibited, so I won't be able to provide any pictures of our excursion.
We lined up with our passports and waited for the embassy staff (who appeared to be Ghanaian) to process us through. I thought it ironic that a bunch of obrunis were queued up, waiting for some Ghanaians to let them into their own embassy. We got our visitor badges and entered the compound. A series of ramps prevents bomb-laden vehicles from driving right in, and the main building is surrounded by concrete posts. Inside the building, every door (even the coat closet) is equipped with crazy automatic locks.
In the conference room, we met with USAID and MCC officials for Ghana and West Africa. It was very interesting to hear about the projects that the U.S. is engaging in here. We talked at length about farming, and they were curious about our research on market queens.
After leaving the embassy we drove back to the airport to pick up Marissa. That poor girl has the worst luck I've ever seen. We was originally planning on going with us early to the island, but when the visas weren't looking like they were coming through she changed her ticket. At that point the only available itinerary put her here a few days after everyone else, so she ended up losing an entire week. When she flew out here, the plane malfunctioned on the runway at JFK, and then one of the passengers punched out a flight attendant. While they were investigating, the pilot and crew timed out, so they had to wait another few hours for a new crew. All in all, she spent the better part of a day sitting on the runway.
We crawled through Accra traffic back to the hotel, briefing Marissa on our Ghana experiences so far. I'm sure she promptly collapsed into bed after dinner.

Accra: Makola Market

I went for a delightful swim on Thursday morning. The night before there was a huge salsa-dancing party around the pool, and I didn't want to be the one obruni in the middle of it, so I opted out of swimming. The water was very chlorinated, but nice and cool. I dried off and had a breakfast of fruit and croissants, with an omelet and some homemade hot cocoa. I've become a pro at the cocoa thing. You heap a tablespoon of cocoa powder into a teacup, add three sugar cubes, and pour hot water to halfway fill the cup. Stir it awhile until everything is dissolved and then add milk the rest of the way. It's pretty darn good.
After breakfast we went to the Makola market to research the market queens. We went to the temple site to pick up a few translators: there were five returned Ghanaian missionaries. They were sharply dressed, confident, and fluent in Twi. We all paired off and grabbed a translator. Jessica and I set off into the market to find the tomato queen.
The gods were shining favorably upon us. We walked up to the first tomato vendor we saw and asked her where the tomato queen was. She pointed off in the direction of the center of the market, but then said that she was the mango queen for Makola. We asked her questions for fifteen minutes and learned all about the mango market. This queen organizes three trucks that go outside Accra to a few villages and buy the mangoes. One or two villages supply all of the mangoes for Makola. She comes back and divides the mangoes among the vendors, who go out and sell them. The vendors pay a daily lease to the city of Accra for the use of the tiny scrap of public land containing their shop, and the queen serves as a union leader, arbitrator, and mother hen. If there are any quarrels with the city over rent rates, the queen negotiates new rates. If two vendors have a quarrel, the queen arbitrates the dispute. If one of the vendors falls on tough times, or if they buy produce on credit and it spoils, the queen will scrounge around for funds to bail her out. All the women look up to the queen mother, and the appointment is usually for life.
We thanked the mango queen, gave her a few cedis for lunch, and set off to find the tomato queen. We left the bustling main street and entered the cramped, colorful, mazelike bowels of the market. Narrow alleys zigzagged everywhere, lined with 4'x6' stalls selling cleaning chemicals, little piles of ginger root, colorful baggies of spices, pungent stacks of dried beef fat and smoked fish, pig hooves, multi-colored fabric, and vegetables. Girls walked briskly through the crowd carrying basins full of wares, or heavy bags of rice, on their heads. One of the mysteries of the Ghanaian people is their women: they can carry 60 lbs of rice on their head, strap a sleeping baby on their back, and have both hands free to conduct business while constantly walking. I would collapse after 20 seconds, and then my brain would explode.
We started to notice different zones within the market. Everywhere you go, you'll see similar fabric, chemical, and food stalls, but we also saw a building where women filled basins with countless varieties of rice, and also a small warehouse full of all kinds of meat. The stench of decaying fish, sides of beef, and sewer underfoot was absolutely overpowering.
We walked for twenty minutes in a straight line and the market kept going. Eventually we saw the tomato headquarters: a bustling courtyard cluttered with stacks of wooden crates. Women sold piles of ripe tomatoes from battered tables. We found out that there are two main varieties of tomatoes in Ghana: the Ghanaian kind is small, round, and very acidic. Farmers usually gather their own seed from the previous crop, scatter it in last year's field, and wait for the rain to water it. These tomatoes are poor quality, but very cheap and plentiful. They looked rather unappetizing. Many of the piles of tomatoes were rotten and swarming with flies. Bowls of watery tomato remains sloshed their contents around as people jostled by. I thought about the fact that most Ghanaian food contains tomatoes. It wasn't appetizing.
After asking around for a few minutes we were directed to an office, where we were informed that the tomato queen was out. We got her phone number and told her we would call back. It was time to go back to the bus. We said our goodbyes and threaded our way back through the labrynth of the market. Our translator had grown up in Accra, and seemed to know innately where to go. We emerged from the market in the exact place we had entered. I was impressed.
Back on the bus, we asked one of the translators how all of the street vendors across Accra get their stuff. He said that every morning, distributors send trucks on routes through Accra, and the street vendors buy their daily inventory from the trucks. It's interesting to see how a huge city like Accra functions without a developed banking system or credit infrastructure. Almost everything is cash-based, and the producers must figure out how to get their products directly to the end-user. It's definitely an interesting business environment, but they find unique solutions.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Accra: The Perpetual Education Fund

One of our projects while in Ghana is for the Perpetual Education Fund of the LDS Church. Church leaders found that their young missionaries were returning home with no prospects for education or meaningful employment. They created a scholarship funded by special donations from other church members. The fund provides higher education grants for young members of the church in developing countries. Recipients repay the loan upon graduation.
Church leaders were finding that many loan recipients are still having trouble finding jobs, and they are trying to find the cause. Our project involves interviewing PEF participants to understand their experience with the program, its impact on recipients, and the motives that drive career and degree selection. We want to find out how to improve the program before they expand it to other West African countries. We met in the morning with some church leaders in charge of the PEF in Ghana. We discussed potential issues and the main questions they wanted to answer, and scheduled all of the interview dates. As we travel through Ghana we'll meet with as many PEF recipients as we can and interview them. Then we will compile the data, analyze it, and present our findings to church leaders before going home. It's going to be an interesting project.
After meeting with the PEF we drove out to the suburbs to meet with an NGO called IDE. They commissioned us to begin the market queens study to learn how farmers participating in their programs can get their crops to market. We had a good discussion with them. We found out that much of the produce, especially tomatoes and onions, is produced in other African countries like Burkina Faso and Niger and shipped in by the market queens. Imported produce is very expensive, but stringent Ghanaian laws regarding what crops can be planted in the country have prevented Ghanaian farmers from growing varieties of tomatoes that can be harvested year-round. This leads to price shocks. In addition, poor crop storage facilities lead to market gluts, whe farmers must sell their bumper crops for sometimes a tench what they could get during other times of the year.
As we talked, I remembered the man I had sat next to on the plane. He is a purchasing and quality control agent for a large fruit exporter, and knows the distribution markets very well. I gave them his card and they were grateful. I'm finding that little chance encounters and small miracles like that have been happening on a frequent basis.
We drove home, ate some dinner and went to the temple for an evening session. It was an amazing experience, thinking that the blessings of the temple are available in Africa. The temple interior is gorgeous. The furniture and woodwork is exquisite: there are brown and white striped woods, dark mahogany, teak, ebony, and velvety-looking panels.
When we got back to the hotel there was a dance party around the pool. Sharply-dressed Ghanaians were salsa dancing around the edge of the pool. As we walked in, some men slipped out of the crowd and whisked away the girls. Some of the guys entered the fray as well. I was tired (and married) so I went up to a third-floor balcony overlooking the patio and relaxed while a crowd of beautiful people danced below.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Acra: Reunions

Tuesday morning was the official start of our trip, but six of us had come early to go to the village. The rest of our group had arrived in Ghana and picked us up in the morning. Our trip is arranged through Land Tours. For a package fee you get a bus and driver, hotel accomodations, most meals, and a tour to many of the interesting locations in the southern half of Ghana.
We drove to the Coconut Grove Regency Hotel in Accra to drop off our luggage and then jumped on the bus for a guided tour of Accra. We inched through traffic as the tour guide explained the history of Accra, pointed out the old British colonial buildings, the homes raised off the ground by pilings, built by the early missionaries; we saw the government buildings, the streetside markets, the teeming masses at Osu, along with the lighthouse, fort, and beach. Everywhere we looked people were milling about with wares for sale carried on their heads. One man had a huge raft of foam (6 feet square) with hundreds of sunglasses stuck in it.
We stopped at the Kwame Nkrumah memorial park, a beautiful, imposing marble monument to the first president of Ghana, who was quickly deposed in a coup and imprisoned shortly after his election. The monument houses his burial place, and resembles a tree cut down at the trunk. I don't know how we timed things so perfectly, but they were celebrating the centennial of his birth. All of the trees were wrapped in green, red, and gold ribbons. Brightly-dressed people--politicians, the press, and Ghanaian celebrities, were seated under pavilions lining the water in front of the monument. On a raised pavilion in the center, the Vice President and other heads of state watched as singers, performers, and speakers conducted the program from an opposite stage. Hordes of performers in traditional Ghanaian costumes were grouped together on the lawn, waiting their turn to take the stage. Men with news cameras trolled the grounds, frequently stopping to pan across our group--practically the only obrunis at the event. I'm sure if you were watching the national tv channel at the right time, you would have seen our two-minute claim to fame.

We watched the event for about half an hour and left for the bus. Just a block away is the arts and crafts market, a popular place for tourists to view and purchase traditional kente cloth, batiks, artwork, drums, and other things. The instant we left the bus we were thronged by men trying to push their wares on us. They were extremely pushy: "hello my friend" (sticks out hand for you to shake, and then holds on to it for five minutes.) "What is your name? Where are you from?" They all smiled with frenetically forced friendliness that was more than a little creepy. One man asked me to write my name on his notebook, which I foolishly did. A few minutes later he hunted me down in the market to show me a bracelet he had made with my name on it. He asked for three cedi's, but after awhile I was able to talk him down to one cedi.
Once you enter the market you are assaulted by people trying to sell you things. They push things into your hands and tell you to hold on to them for awhile. They'll grab you by the arm and pull you into their little booths to show you stacks of kente cloth, or piles of little canvases with painted African scenes, or little dresses made of batik fabric; then they stand in your way and hand you pile after pile of things, hoping something finally sticks. After running the gauntlet for thirty minutes I had bought two strips of kente for 20 cedis--a rip off at that price, but still only $13.80 USD.
We slogged back to the bus, trailing lines of new "friends". It was like walking through mud. Even on the bus they would knock on the windows and hold up things, talking to us incessantly. All in all we have a smart group: everyone had bought one or two things, and the contents of our wallets were mostly intact.

We stopped at a restaurant for a delicious lunch. Most of our arranged meals consist of a traditional Ghanaian buffet: spicy jollof rice, baked chicken and fish with hot cilantro or pepper sauce (called Shito), fried plantains, potato fries, and various dishes that look semi-indian: curried black eye peas, baked beans, something that looked like spinach saag, and a peanut gumbo. It was delicious.
After lunch we visited the WEB Dubois museum. Dubois was the first black college graduate in the states. He moved back to Ghana and did good things for them.
After the bus tour we hung out at the hotel. It's a nice collection of four-story brick buildings with arched windows, built by . A bunch of politicians were staying there for a policy summit in Accra. We heard snippets of talk in French, Twi, and a distinct English accent that sounds different from the standard Ghanaian English. I was delighted to have my laptop back. I spent most of the afternoon attempting to upload pictures from the trip and writing blog articles. The wifi was extremely slow--it would take five minutes to upload a single picture. I cried as I looked over the children's pictures, especially one of this beautiful little girl in a blue head scarf. Alisha and I want to adopt a Ghanaian baby, and we're just praying that some opportunity opens up in the next year or two.
We ate an excellent buffet dinner with the politicians and hung out for awhile at the hotel. We started to get a little stir-crazy, so someone suggested we go out looking for mangoes. I had just learned how to eat a mango: you squeeze it for a few minutes until the inside is soft, and then you bite a little hole where the stem used to be and suck the juice out. Eventually your mango will be deflated, so you suck out the seed, chew on it for awhile, and throw it away.
We walked along the dark streets of Accra, dodging the open sewers and keeping an eye out for traffic. A mile or so down the road we came to the edge of Osu. We found a lady selling mangoes and water. We bought the rest of her inventory and headed back to the hotel with mango juice running down our chins.

How to deal with the cops in Ghana

Classic scene illustrating how to deal with the cops in Ghana:

Ray's uncle runs a red stoplight in Accra. A policeman standing on the corner vigorously flags them down and hops in the back seat next to Ray and Jasmine.

Cop: "I am arresting your driver. You are under arrest. Drive to the police station."
Ray's Uncle: ignores cop
Cop: "Do you speak English? I said, you are under arrest!"
(Cop notices Jasmine. Gives a big smile). "How are you?"
Ray's Uncle: "Yes I speak English, I'm just ignoring you and I'm not under arrest."
Cop: "What?! What does he mean? You are under arrest! Where are you taking me?"
Ray's Uncle: "I'm driving my nephew to the Mormon temple, and you're in my car."
Cop: "I don't want to go to the Mormon temple. You are under arrest."
Ray: "umm, sir. I don't want you to arrest my uncle, and I need to meet my friends at the temple. Here's what I'm going to do. Have you ever seen one of these? This is a granola bar. It's from the U.S. and it's very tasty. I'm going to give you a few granola bars if you agree to not arrest my uncle."
(Cop eyes the granola bars and thinks for a few moments): "Ok, deal. How about you give me your cell phone number and we can hang out?"

Back in Accra

Our first day back in Accra was one of rest. Mr. Narteh dropped us off at the Pink Hostel. For some reason they had lost our reservations. We were starting to get the hang of things, though. We showed the desk attendant the reservation email we sent. He hassled us for awhile until he realized that we wouldn't budge, and finally admitted that our rooms were available. Matt and I ended up in a huge room with eight beds in it. I could see why the desk attendant was reluctant to give out the room to only two people.
I showered, washed some clothes in the sink, and crashed on the bunk for a nap while Matt and the girls set off to look for a grocery store. I woke up to screaming and got up to check it out. There was a large mob of people across the street. Two ladies were in a full-on fistfight, punching and pulling hair while men yelled and gestured to one another. The ruckus went on for a good half-hour, while I watched intermittently from my third-floor bathroom window.
Matt and the girls finally got back. They had wandered for a mile until settling for a gas station. Even at gas station prices, ten cedi's (roughly $7.00 US) will get you a good amount of groceries. We ate lunch in our huge room, snacked on fried oysters, and rested from our village experience.
When night came we wandered down to the restaurant for dinner. We met some other hostelers who were working on some ngo construction project up north. Apparently, Ghana is a good place to escape if you want to bum around and do service. People come from all over the world to see Africa and build schools and health clinics for nonprofit organizations. Gathered around a table were people from Ireland, Norway, Switzerland, Canada, and the U.S. I was so glad to hear Norwegian again, and to speak it with someone other than my bathroom mirror. They drank beers and I had a Coke. We talked about our countries, our various work and research projects, and exchanged cards. After awhile they headed down to Osu (they party-area of Accra down by the beach), and we didn't hear them again until 4:00 in the morning when they finally came stumbling back in.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Pediatorkope: Goodbyes

I just saw my face for the first time in five days. It looks different. A lot redder than it used to be. And it's white. I'm not used to seeing white faces anymore. I look out of place--I think after being in Ghana for a few days my brain has adjusted. I used to see Africans as a different kind of people. Now they're just people, and I feel like I'm the one who has to fit in. I've mentioned this before, but I'm surprised I never noticed how beautiful Ghanaians are. I held a little girl on my lap yesterday and noticed how beautiful her skin was. All of the children have huge, dark eyes and attractive faces.

I'm back in Accra, and I feel strangely homesick for the village. I noticed how friendly Ghanaians were when I came to Accra for the first time, but now I notice a stark difference between city Ghanaians and the villagers. We walked through Big Ada on our way to the van that took us back to Accra. People would raise both of their hands and say "Moiye! Inga sa minya lu." The children would laugh uncontrollably and run to us in mobs, wrap their arms around our legs and ask to be picked up. The people in Accra are more reserved. Still friendly, but definitely not as outwardly kind toward obrunis.

This morning was a slightly somber experience. I got up, had breakfast with my family, and for some reason we didn't talk much. They laid out a feast: leftover stew from last night served with kenke, which is a ball of steamed corn masa kind of like a tamale, except tangy from the fermentation. They also had a large bowl of freshwater shrimp (they call them lobsters) fried in coconut oil. I learned that you can eat them whole, shell and all. They were delicious, and the head and legs added a wonderful saltiness. I also got a baggie full of fried and salted river oysters. They were so good I couldn't stop eating them. I'm getting hungry just thinking about them right now.

I walked with the boys down to the river bank one last time, to take pictures and observe their antics. They taught me more Dangbe, showed me the lobster traps, and I watched the men fishing for oysters. My brother Moses stripped off all his clothes on the bank and dove into the water with a knife in his teeth. He pried some oysters off the river bottom and pulled up some of the basket-like lobster traps, dumping their contents into the rough-hewn canoe I was perched in. The shrimp jumped like crickets in the bottom of the boat.

The time came to say goodbye. I gathered the boys into a bear hug and took a dozen more pictures. I hugged my mother goodbye and told her when I would return. Papa Joseph wouldn't let me carry any of my bags--he grabbed one and had his daughter carry my huge backpack. A girl from the village took my shopping bag containing the leftover water and a small watermelon I hadn't eaten and tossed it into a rubber basin she was carrying on her head. I was amazed by the ease with which she balanced everything, and how gracefully she walked with a watermelon on her head.

My friends and I converged at the school, trailing a good number of the island's inhabitants behind us. They felt like family, and it was hard to leave them behind. We gathered by the same tree we had sat under the first afternoon when we had our introductory Dangbe lessons. We joked around and showed off all of the things we had learned to say.

It was time to go. We formed a procession and made our way back to the beach we had first landed on a few days before. We loaded our things into the motorboat and sped off down the river, waving at our newfound friends and families.

Big Ada really is a big place, but it's all a matter of perspective. When we first arrived it seemed like a small collection of colorful sheds with tin roofs. Now it was a booming metropolous. People and animals wandered everywhere, and I saw countless interesting things being sold from little tables and booths. Isaac bought me a colorful beaded bracelet for 1 cedi. We trekked through a maze of narrow alleys and crossed a few rutted dirt streets before coming to a tall metal gate, partially opened to reveal a large, grassless yard. Piles of palm seeds, peppers, and other things lay drying in the sun. A bunch of sleeping cats lay in a pile under the shade of a long bench. Three beautifully-dressed old women sat in a row on the bench, mending clothing. We came to a large house with colorful walls: lime green, orange, and blue. This was the house of Big Atah, the chief of Pediatorkope.

Ada used to be a warrior kingdom, controlling the salt trade up and down the Volta River all the way into Togo and the northern regions of Ghana. We saw some of the vestiges of ancient authority: the chief wore bright kente cloth and carried an interesting carved totem gilded in gold. His translator (which he didn't actually need--his English was very good) held a tall scepter bearing a lion on the top. The Chief gave us a bowl full of mangoes to eat while he prepared himself inside. We then went in, observed some kind of formal greeting that we didn't understand, and talked with the Chief for twenty minutes. He told us about his life, Ada, and the island. We told him a little bit about ourselves, and what we thought of the village. It was a very pleasant conversation. We took some pictures together and then left the Chief, Big Ada, and our new island home behind, framed in the window of a ten-passenger van as we sped along the George W. Bush highway back to Accra.

Pediatorkope: Little Miracles

One interesting thing about the villagers is how small they are. Over the past few days I had gotten to know all of the children in the village. We played games, told stories, and I watched them chatter with each other, swim, and wrestle in the sand. They asked me how old I was, and I told them 29. They all giggled and looked at me a little harder, like they were trying to verify it. I asked each of them how old they were and was astounded: I had assumed that these boys were mostly under the age of 10, but many of them were in their late teens. The average boy was a little over 4 feet tall and weighed probably 60 pounds, but was 16 years old.
I ate a few dinners that night. Papa and I first dined alone in his hut. The children set our food on a little table (more like a footstool), with a bowl of water underneath for handwashing. We ate banku with the usual fish stew, but this time it also contained chicken, whole crabs, and river oysters. The soup was very hot, so Joseph would reach into it with his fingers and pile little bits of meat on my side of the bowl where I could grab them. By this time I was getting used to eating without utensils. My first experience with banku was very difficult, and I had mostly avoided it with the rice dish the night before, but I was surprised to find that I really enjoyed the food. I ate as much as I could, swallowing little balls of banku dipped in the soup. The oysters were delicious and not too chewy. I was taught to crunch the crab shell with my teeth and spit it out on the table. I bit into a claw and it released a little burst of crab juice into my mouth, and the meat inside was delicious. I counted it a little miracle that in such a short time I was able to adapt to this new food and actually enjoy it.
Another miracle occurred during the night. The rain had stopped early in the morning, and we had experienced another hot day. I was dreading another stifling, sleepless night in the hut. Before going to sleep I prayed that somehow I would be able to sleep through the night, and I actually did. I was hot and sweating, but I laid down and promptly fell asleep. I don't even remember waking more than once or twice briefly in the night. I woke up the next morning feeling great.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Pediatorkope: Light and Heat

The huts on the island were all very hot. I noticed while I was in the Evangelical church that there was a nice breeze outside, but the heat inside was trapped in the ceiling and not circulating. My mind was wandering, so I started thinking about how you could alter the hut design to allow for circulation.
The basic Dangbe hut is constructed from mud. They shape mud into walls a foot at a time, wait for it to dry, and then build the walls a little higher. The process takes over a month. They frame in windows by placing 2x4's into the drying mud. Once the walls are done they make simple wooden trusses and cover them with reed thatch. The roof is quite waterproof, as far as I can observe. They usually leave a gap where the roof hangs over the walls, which allows some ventilation, but not much.
After throwing around a few rather complicated ideas, I realized that you could make the roof on one side extend a foot or two past the peak, and then cut the thatch back to make an opening a few inches wide on the other side of the roof. The extension would cover the vent from rain, and heat could leave the hut through the roof. This would allow cooler air to circulate in through the doors and windows.
I ate dinner with my new brother Moses, who happened to be a mason. He had built a number of huts, and had some good insights on hut design. I shared my idea with him, and we had a good time sketching different ideas out on a scrap of paper. One other option I had seen elsewhere is to drop the roof on the smaller sides down a few feet to create a triangular gable on either side of the roof.
Moses and his family were all interested in my flashlight. I'd crank it for a few seconds and turn it on. They'd turn it over in their hands and say "Battry?" "No, crank." "Oh, solah..." "no, not solar. Just a crank. See?" I'd crank it and show them how the light got brighter. They were amazed that you could buy a flashlight that was easy and free to recharge. Everyone on the island used these little kerosene lights, like large versions of the warmers that caterers place under the food trays. The burning kerosene creates an acrid smoke that fills the hut and makes you cough--I'm sure it's not healthy. It's also expensive: Moses said he spends 4-5 Ghanaian cd's each week on kerosene lights. He also buys D batteries for his flashlight about once a week. I did the math: they spend about 230 Ghana cedi's a year ($160 USD) for one kerosene lamp or flashlight. My family used three or four, which amounts to almost 1,000 cedi's a year ($700 USD). My flashlight cost $11.00 at Walmart back home. Say you paid $30 for it in Ghana--the flashlight would pay for itself in a little over a month. If the flashlight only lasts one year before breaking, it would still save you $130 a year, or a discount of 81%.
There are microfranchise organizations in other countries that help people to establish small businesses to become economically sufficient. You could borrow a thousand dollars, buy a bunch of flashlights and lanterns, and go out to a village to sell them. It works in other countries--I'd like to find out if it would work in Ghana. We're actually visiting Burro on our trip to the Eastern Region, and I'm excited to talk to them about the feasibility of the idea.

Pediatorkope: Churches and beaches

I woke up refreshed and well-rested the next morning. I took a wonderful bath, and ate a breakfast of bread and cheese. I was feeling generous, so I shared my food with the kids. I was touched by how well they shared food. The wedges of Laughing Cow didn't go very far, but the kids shared everything evenly. One would take a bite of a wedge of cheese and then pass it on. They may not be able to get along when it comes to waiting in line for kickball, but with important things like food, they make sure everyone is taken care of.
I waited for my papa to take his bath and get dressed. We were supposed to get to church at 9:30 am, and it was already 9:20. My papa had some position of leadership in the Methodist branch that met at the village school. He was dressed in a long sleeve, white shirt, and slacks. I felt out of place in my shorts and sandals, but I didn't have any room in my backpack to fit dress clothes. While we walked I practiced saying "good" and "bad" in Dangbe. For some reason they are very similar, and I wasn't able to get any of the villagers to understand the irony.
"How do you say 'good?'" "ehi." "and how do you say 'bad'?" "ehi." "They sound the same!" "no, listen. 'ehi', 'ehi'."
People would ask me what I thought about something and I would say 'ehi'. I wondered why half the time they looked at my funny. I guess I was telling them it was bad.
I figured out that the second syllable of "good" is pronounced nasally and with a downward tone, while the second syllable of bad is produced in the front of the mouth and with a rising tone. I had heard that Danbge was a tonal language, but up until this point hadn't encountered any problems with it. We used the words we learned without respect to tones, and people seemed to understand us fine.
We got to the church at about 10:00 and there were only a few other people in the room. The pastor was arranging a purple-fringed cloth over the lectern, a boy tuned a bass drum, and a lady in a white dress was singing into a megaphone. The meeting was scheduled to start an hour earlier, but no one was there yet. The pastor started the service. My papa had written the agenda on the board. The theme for the day was "I will give eternal life to those who follow me."
There were a few scripture verses listed, and next to those were names of people who were assigned to read them. I also saw a list of eight or so hymns.
After an opening message we started singing the first hymn. People began filing into the meeting. The music was amazing--I kept telling myself that I was listening to Africans singing. The lady with the megaphone would lead, the boys would drum to the rhythm of the song, and the congregation (which had grown to over 20) would sing along mostly in unison. My papa would shout the words of the song after we sang them. There was a visiting preacher from Big Ada, and he had a resonating baritone voice. He sang a counterpart to the congregation. When they would die down he'd start up, then they would swell together and break. At times I felt almost moved to tears.We'd sway and clap, and I'd attempt to sing along. You could tell everyone knew the tunes. The hymnbooks only contained words.
After each hymn we would have a scripture reading, or we would recite something in Dangbe--probably the Lord's prayer or a creed. I just listened. The villagers would lower their heads and whisper into the desks. The visiting pastor would sometimes get very animated, whispering explosively and bursting into tongues and growling. When that happened the hair on the back of my neck would rise, but hearing all of the villagers reciting was an interesting aural experience.
The visiting preacher was given his turn at the lectern. He paced the floor like a caged leopard, staring off into some unseen place and yelling fervently in Dangbe. Every once in awhile he'd pause his yelling and whisper something like "thank you Jesus." I was only two feet away from him at one point during his circuit around the front of the room, and when I looked into his eyes I saw no human recognition, as if he were temporarily autistic. Shortly after his scheduled tantrum, he sat down and became just another friendly villager again.
After church I walked over to meet my friends. They were attending an evangelical church, which still had 30 minutes to go, so I slipped in. It was a very different experience. A lady in a bright yellow dress was visiting from Tema. She would charismatically tell stories (again, in Dangbe) and recite scriptures. The conclusion of every story was a heartfelt "hallelujah," which everyone in the room would repeat. People would frequently interject with "Praise Jesus", "Thank you Jesus", or things like that. In general, the message was much more everyday than the Methodist scripture reading. She would talk about food, clothing, and the fact that God had brought obrunis to this church for the first time. At the end they pulled out this collection plate and the men and women lined up separately into almost a Conga line, dancing in a procession toward the collection plate. Each person would drop some money into it and dance back to their seat.
The preacher wanted to take some pictures with us afterward, and invited us to return to the island and donate to the church.
After church we gathered at the riverbank to meet our canoe driver. We had planned on touring the islands the day before, but our driver wasn't available due to the heavy rains. We generally try not to do certain things on the Sabbath, but we did want to explore the rest of the islands, so we took a vote and decided to go. We all hopped in with four villagers and sped down the river toward the estuary, where the Volta meets the sea. We passed colorful fishing boats, big mansions at Ada Foah, and little resorts. Eventually we reached the estuary. A narrow sandbar separated us from the sea. We beached the boat and hiked up the dune to see what was on the other side. There were waves! Good ones!
I took off down the beach, dove into the water, and before I could think straight I was coasting back to shore on a little peeler. Everyone else was laughing. I hadn't been surfing (or bodysurfing for that matter) in a very long time, and it was heaven to be back in the waves, even without a board. The outgoing river created interesting sandbars and currents which cause the waves to wedge and break partially perpendicular to the shore. They're peak up and grind across the shore like a point break. It was so fun! The waves would sometimes break directly on the sand, and I'd get tumbled around for awhile. I jammed my big toe after an especially powerful collision.
After awhile everyone got tired and piled back into the boat. I was reluctant to go, but was starting to feel burnt, so I scrambled back up the dune and strapped on my life jacket. We ate sugarcane on the ride back and took a bunch of pictures of palm trees and colorful boats.

Pediatorkope: Kickball and Sardines

I was reluctant to leave my friends after the fun we had in the rain, but we knew our families were waiting for us. A mild sense of homesickness and anxiety had settled over me during the day. I was mostly dreading another sleepless night alone in the heat of the hut.
I made the two-mile trek back to the village and found the boys playing with a partially-deflated soccer ball. We kicked the ball around for awhile and the thought crossed my mind that I should try teaching them kickball. My Dangbe was still extremely limited: I knew how to say "ball", but we gave it a go. I marked out three palm trees as the bases and stuck a stick in the ground for home plate.
After some work I got them to line up and showed them the process of kicking the ball and rounding the bases. They giggled when they learned that you could tag someone with the ball and send them back to the dugout. We started playing and it quickly turned into a game of tag: one boy would kick the ball and start running as fast as he could, straight past first base, into the outfield, and out of the village, usually trailing the pitcher behind him.
I taught them that when you touch the base, you are safe and can't be tagged out. This was good for them, because a few of them were nursing headaches from being tagged out rather forcefully. We started the game again and the kids were running from one tree to the next, regardless of which base was which. Sometimes one of them would scurry up the palm tree and sit there taunting the pitcher. That was an interesting new element to the game.
In between uncontrollable laughing fits, I would teach them a new rule. Eventually we had a rather orderly game: the first kid in line would kick the ball, round the bases, and run home, giving hi-fives all around.
I quickly found that the kids didn't like waiting in line. After rounding the bases, instead of going to the back of the line, they'd try to see how far up the line they could cut. This led to arguing and a little crying almost every round. In the morning I had seen turkeys fighting in the yard. They puffed out their chests, stuck their heads up high, and bounced into each other like teenage boys. It was quite hilarious. I'd tell the boys "kapui klakumi." "Don't be turkeys." and they'd all laugh. Then we'd have a group hug, everyone would say "I love you, I love you, I love you" and we'd try to make a line again. They were doing better by the end of the game.
We never kept score, and the only player on the field was the pitcher. We had so much fun, though. After awhile they started to really get it, and they'd steal bases, play chicken with the pitcher, and kick the ball where they thought would minimize the likelihood of any of their teammates getting tagged out.
It was starting to get dark, so we broke up the game. I realized that my camera batteries were dead, and someone told me that there was a generator on the island, back up by the school. They turn it on every night from six to nine-thirty. Ray was staying with the schoolteachers in a brick house by the school, and he said that the lights would suddenly come on at night and the electrical outlets would work for a few hours. I wanted to charge my batteries for the next day, so I set out for Ray's house.
Every time I made the trek to the village I remembered how long it was. The time is also compounded by the fact that every villager you meet stops to talk to you, ask you where you are going, and give you directions. They eventually sent one of the village boys to accompany me. My feet were starting to get tired. I have high arches, and when I walk in my sandals for very long my feet start to ache.
We eventually got to Ray's house, said a quick hello. He was learning how to pound fufu. It looked like a big ball of yellow taffy. One person would pound it with a five-foot long stick that was fatter at one end, and the other person would shape the ball of dough in the bowl, holding their hand precariously close to the stomping going on. We left them to their dinner preparation and started back for the village. My feet and back were aching from all the walking. My friend started calling me "kawi" (crab), because I was hunched over and shuffling my feet. When we finally got back to the village we had been walking for almost two hours, just to charge some batteries. Yes, everything in Africa takes longer to do than back home.
We sat down to dinner, and I noticed that I didn't mind the banku as much as I did yesterday. I was a few bites into a big ball of dough, when they set a dish of fish stew on rice in front of me. I was honored that they would give me rice, as it is a luxury. At the time it was the most delicious thing I had ever eaten. I found out that the fish were tinned sardines, served in that pepper, tomato, onion sauce I ate the night before. I hadn't eaten much in two days, so I was very grateful for the food.
We joked around for a little while after dinner, and by bed time (about 8:30 pm) I was so exhausted that I shuffled into the hut, rolled under the mosquito net, and fell promptly asleep. The air was deliciously cool from the rain, and the animals were sheltering somewhere else in the village. It was a wonderful night.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Pediatorkope: Morning at Last

I woke up the next morning tired, but extremely glad for a new day. The roosters were crowing outside, the frogs were dying down, and I could hear the little birds in the palm trees starting to chatter. I got up, changed out of my sweat-drenched clothes, and left the hut.
People were already hard at work outside. They used bundles of reeds to sweep the yard and gather up the trash (I still haven't figured out what they do with it. I never detected that "burning trash" smell.) A pot of water was boiling on the fire.
My new father greeted me. His name, by the way, is Joseph Quality Agamah. He decided to name me Agudi, which means "First born." Each family chooses a set of names to give their children, and that identifies you personally and as part of a specific family. It beats facial scarring, like they do in Mali...
He asked me if I would take my bath. I said sure, not knowing exactly what that entailed, and he signaled to his daughter to get it ready. The bathing area is a 10'x10' enclosure. They stick stakes in the ground that eventually sprout into trees. They weave palm fronds into a mat and wrap that around the posts to make a little wall. I looked inside and saw a bucket full of clear water. I decided that I wasn't ready to bathe in the buff, so I changed into my swimming shorts and took my bath.
It was great! A little awkward, though. You slather soap all over yourself, do your best to rinse off by cupping water in your hands, and finally dump the bucket over your self (that was the best part).
I got dressed and quickly ate some bread and cheese that I had brought to the island. We had been told that they would provide dinner, but we would need to take care of the other meals. Well, when I left the hut there was a little table set outside with a bowl of bread and a cup of coffee. She motioned for me to sit and eat. I ate some bread, but didn't know what to do with the coffee (1: I don't drink coffee, and 2: it was made with river water). I eventually was able to communicate to her that my stomach was too weak for coffee and gave it to the kids.
I played with the kids awhile, teaching them tic tac toe in the sand, until Papa Joseph took me out to see the sugar cane fields. We left the village and winded through the bush on a narrow sandy path through mangroves. The mosquitos were pretty thick in places, but it was beautiful. The sugarcane grows everywhere. All you have to do is hack it down with a machete and bundle it up. They take it by boat to Big Ada across the river and sell it in the market. Some of it is processed locally into rum. They also tap the palm trees, which provides an instant supply of cheap alcohol. The liquid ferments within a few hours after tapping. After hearing that I expected to see drunk people everywhere, but never noticed much drinking at all while on the island.
While I waited for Papa Joseph to take his bath the kids taught me Dangbe: goat, rooster, chicken, tree, coconut, crab--you know, all the basics. I found out that many people in Accra speak Ga, which is almost identical to Dangbe, but I quickly realized that most of the words I was learning would be useless in the city. "The crab bit me." "I want to drink coconut." "I like your goat." These were the kind of sentences I used most frequently on the island.
We hiked two miles back to the school to meet my friends. Isaac had brought some green and blue paint for the playground. I guess I never provided any background information: my uncle Ben Markham founded Empower Playgrounds after living in Ghana as an LDS missionary. He builds playground equipment that generates electricity for village schools. The kids play on merry go rounds and swings, and that charges LED lanterns that they can take home and use inside their homes. Ben graciously arranged our visit to the island, the host families, and even our travel to and from Accra. We are very thankful for his generosity.
Isaac thinned the paint with gasoline, something I had never thought about but I guess it works fine--it does evaporate. We put a new coat on the merry go round and then went down to the river to swim. Looking back, it probably wasn't a good idea to swim in the Volta River. It does contain the pollution of two African countries. But we were hot and had a rough night, so we decided to brave the water. Isaac took us out in a canoe past the marshy reeds and we jumped in. It was so nice to see my friends again, and to speak English for awhile. We tread water in a circle and talked about our crazy experiences from the night before.
It started to rain as we were getting out of the river, so we just stayed in our swimsuits and walked around. A guy named Tete took us crab hunting, which basically meant laying the little tin-can traps next to a crab hole. The rain was pouring down in buckets, and it was the most wonderful thing in the world. Tete climbed up a coconut tree and knocked down a dozen for us. We all guzzled coconut juice and Isaac taught us how to get the meat out. You stick you thumb in between the meat and the shell, and work your way around. It comes out in one big piece.
It was a magical experience. Standing in the cool, drenching rain, playing with my friends, and eating coconuts. Most of us had experienced similar things the night before, and we compared notes. The whole village experience was more difficult an adjustment than we had thought (looking back, that's a no brainer. We were in Africa.) We were reluctant to separate and go back to our families, but it was almost time for dinner again.

Pediatorkope: First Night in a Hut

I went inside the hut to drop off my backpack and food, and started to feel a little nervous. Huts look romantic on the outside, but the inside is dark, dirty, cluttered, and very hot. I was glad to see that I would be sleeping on a bed; the only bed in the hut. I wondered where they would be sleeping. Would we be sharing the bed??? Or was there a bed somewhere else?
I met my new brother Robert. He was 39, and recently returned from Accra. He took me around the village and introduced me to everyone. I was starting to get tired and feeling a little shell-shocked from being separated from my friends, in a new place, surrounded by people who didn't speak my language, and it seemed already expected me to understand theirs. Robert would take me to a new family, introduce me, and they would smile, and laugh, and chatter at me in Adangbe. I would say "Hello", "how are you", "I'm good", and then shrug and smile while they continued to ask me questions. Heck, those who spoke English were hard enough to understand.
The introductions seemed to last forever. When I finally had met every last living soul in the village, we went back to the hut for dinner. I met all the grandkids. They were inquisitive and hilarious, and almost all were boys. We started playing games: I taught them thumb wars and tic tac toe. We went for a walk down to the river bank, where they threw off their clothes and dove into the water to play and fight. They filled some empty gasoline containers with river water for cooking, drinking, and bathing, and we walked back to the village.
The kids were fascinated by my crank flashlight: "batteries?" "no." "Solah powah?" "no." Then they'd look at me like we had run out of options. I'd show them the crank and let them play with it. They were all glad to have another flashlight around, and resumed playing tic tac toe in the dirt, with the aid of my flashlight.
My new mother brought out dinner, which consisted of banku and fish stew. Banku is a mixture of fufu (pounded cassava) and corn flour, mixed with water and cooked like porridge, except it has the consistency of cookie dough. Everyone reaches into the bowl and breaks off small pieces of it, dips them into the fish stew, and swallows them whole. I kept gagging on the banku until I learned to grab smaller amounts at a time. The stew was very fishy-smelling and full of bones. I had a hard time eating enough to claim I was full: I kept thinking about river water carried in a petrol container; I thought about typhoid, food poisoning, etc. and was glad when I somehow convinced them I was full.
I went to my hut and promptly stripped off my shirt. I was covered in sweat. I spread my twin sheet from Walmart over the musty-smelling bed and laid down. The rest of the family was still listening to Bob Marley on the radio and washing dishes from dinner. It was very hot inside, but after an hour I finally managed to fall asleep.
It was a night of suffering: I woke up after only an hour, feeling wide awake. I felt on the verge of heat stroke, or dehydration, or just hysteria. I was drenched in sweat. I could hear the ticking of the clock on the wall, the sheep bleating outside, and these cursed frogs that actually sounded like legions of people snoring. It was impossible to sleep, but for some reason I never got up to find my ear plugs--the fatigue from the heat made me unable to move.
I closed my eyes and tried to tune out the other noises. Every time I would check my watch I'd notice that only ten minutes had passed. Time slowed to an agonizing crawl. I found out that everyone in the family crowded onto a palm mat in the front room, under a mosquito net. I could hear parents in the other room snoring, kids giggling, and people going to the bathroom in a chamber pot. I prayed that God would allow me to sleep, or at least massacre all of the frogs in the village. Finally, around 3:30 am I fell asleep, and woke up at 5:30 so glad to get out of the hut.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Pediatorkope: The Landing

We piled into the little boat and motored around the river, zigzagging around small, uninhabited islands in the river, speeding toward Pediatorkope. We noticed some tiny islands that seemed to be moving, and realized that they were actually huge masses of plants floating down the river! We rounded a bend and could see off in the distance a sandy beach. I recognized it from the pictures Ben had shown me when he visited the island. I can't describe how excited we all were. I felt like I was visiting some place in the afterlife--I had looked forward to this experience for months; the thought kept me sane while I was slogging through government accounting, budgetting, nonprofit law, and the rest of my classes. And now we were finally here, halfway around the world in Africa, setting foot on a primitive island in the Volta River.
We landed on the sandy beach, between two palm trees jutting out over the water at awkward angles. A few village kids were watching us from one of the trees, and another small mob of children eyed us shyly from farther up the beach. The men at the landing looked at us inquisitively for a few moments and then broke into big smiles. Soon the children came running up to us. We exchanged high-fives with a few and Jasmine started a game of "can-you-make-this-face." She'd do something and all of the kids would mimic her. It was the most hilarious thing I'd ever seen. At one point she started singing Harry Belafonte's banana song and they ran around in a troop singing it for an hour. Even after we left them we could hear "Daaay-oh, day-ay-ay-oh" off in the distance.
The wildlife was amazing. A big black iguana with an orange head and tail scurried up a tree. A million bird nests hung from the fronds of the palm trees above. There were mangoes, coconuts, and little figs growing everywhere, with some banana trees. The ground was paved with beautiful little shells: purple ones, white, pink, and orange. Most lived in mud huts with thatched roofs, but there are some cinder-block houses with tin roofs as well. We saw goats, sheep, dogs, turkeys, and chickens (the baby chicks were dyed bright pink to deter the hawks). We later found out that all of these, even the dogs, are raised for food. There were a few cats too. Hopefully no one eats those.
The trees are very beautiful: Neem (bodhi tree), royal poinciana (regarded by some as the most beautiful tree in the world), some tulip-looking tree, and mangroves seemed to be the most common. All the furniture was made of mahogany and teak. There is sugar cane everywhere as well.
We gathered in chairs under a tree and had a quick lesson in Dangbe, the local language.

Moiye - Hi (Welcome)
Yay - Hi back
Kayonga kay - How are you?
Inga sa minya - I'm good
Onga sa minya - How are you?
Eeeeeeeeh - I'm good

It's a funny language. Kinda like something Bob Marley might spontaneously invent when he's baked. We noticed that people would have entire conversations consisting mostly of "eeeeeeeh". It's a standard greeting, acknowledgement of understanding, and a general catchall response to any question.
After our introduction to Dangbe we made a procession through the villages and dropped each member of our group off with their host family. Each time we'd give a round of hugs, say "eeeeeeh", and keep going to the next village. We ended up spread out over almost two miles, among a few different villages connected by sandy footpaths. I found out that I would be the last one left. We walked for what seemed like forever, and the scenery began to look less dusty and more sandy. I noticed more palm trees and sugar cane. We were approaching the end of the long island.
We came to another village and met my host family. An elderly man with a towel around his waste wrapped me in a sinewy bear hug. I would call him "Father", and I was introduced to my "brothers" and "sisters". My new mother was ushered out from somewhere inside, and she greeted me with a big smile. They were going to teach me Dangbe, feed me, and I would live with them in their hut, they said.


I slept in my clothes last night: just collapsed on the bed, and woke up in the same position. I felt great. A new day was starting--and an African one at that! I crouched under the cool shower spigot for a few minutes to wash up and ran downstairs for breakfast. A dark, moustached man wiped glasses behind the bar while a loud Ghanaian soap opera blared from the tv. The breakfast buffet was interesting: sweet, non-acidic spears of white pineapple, hard-boiled eggs, the same thick, sweet bread we had eaten the night before, watermelon, baked beans (for some reason), and pineapple jelly.
I ate quickly and went outside for a walk. Accra reminds me of Mexico: every street looks like a back alley; open sewers flank the sidewalk; plywood shops are set up everywhere, selling anything from bottled water to clothing and even dog collars. I walked down the street to Barclays Bank to break a few large bills. I broke out my camera and took a few pictures of city life. People walking around mostly ignored me politely, and the ladies in the shops were very nice. I ambled around and chatted with people. A sign on a passing truck proclaimed "Satan is a liar." I spent 15 cedis ($11 USD) for a beautiful handbag made from colorful scraps of batik cloth. (I found out that if something has a price on it, you just take it. no haggling there.) I stopped in another shop to buy some water. Prices in Ghana vary widely--I got a bottle of water for 20 pesewas (14 cents) that would have cost 1 cedi (69 cents) at the hotel.
We met Isaac and Mr. Narteh at the hostel. They had brought a van to take us to the island. We piled in and headed toward the temple site to drop our large suitcases off with a friend. We stuffed into our backpacks what we would need for the island and left everything else there.
The temple in Ghana is very striking. It sits in downtown Accra on one of the main streets by the embassy neighborhoods. The temple itself is flanked by a variety of dramatic palm trees that I've never seen before. On either side are three story buildings. One is a meetinghouse and the other contains a visitor's center and dorms for visiting temple-goers. We met a nice man who would be holding our stuff for a few days and drank a few malt pineapple sodas. After Ray and Jasmine arrived, we all hopped back in the van and headed out of Accra.
We stopped at a shopping mall (the only one for maybe a thousand or two miles) to pick up some food for our trip. One of the larger stores inside is a shopping mall much like Smith's or Safeway. I bought some bread, cheese, and hummus, and some juice and chocolates as a gift for the chief in Pediatorkope. At the other end of the mall I found a place to change dollars to cedis. The rate wasn't amazing, but I got enough to last a few days.
I am amazed at how beautiful Ghanaians are. They wear bright clothing in every color, and have clear, beautiful skin. The kids are adorable; women usually carry the baby on their back in a tightly-wrapped length of fabric. You'll often see a woman walking with something on her head and two little baby feet sticking out on either side of her waist. Men usually wear nice shirts and slacks, but I saw a wide variety of men's clothing--even a few in Middle-Eastern shalwar kamis.
Everything in Africa takes twice as long as it does in the U.S. We finally gathered our missing group members together in the van, then had to find our driver who had wandered off, and then had to go get the other group members we sent off to find the lost ones. We finally set off out of Accra for the African countryside.
Once you leave Accra you really notice that you're in a different place. Strange baobab-looking trees stick out above semi-tropical scenery. There are huge red ant mounds and mountains in the distance. men in bright purple shirts and pressed black slacks doze on wooden pallets under a tree, next to a herd of scrawny goats. Women sell pyramids of yellow mangoes on dingy wooden tables. Almost-naked children run around between the tin-roof shops, which bear names like "The Grace of God Barbershop" or "El-Shaddai Tires."
Eventually we came to Big Ada, a picturesque town of colorful buildings, narrow streets, and corrugated metal roofs. Ada used to be a powerful kingdom, controlling the salt trade up and down the Volta River. Now it's a fairly quiet place where few tourists go, but a short jump to the south is Ada Foah, a small town at the estuary of the Volta River. Ada Foah seems to be the "Ghanaian Riviera." There are nice resorts, expensive houses, and tourist-friendly places.
We got out of the van and trekked through town. People smiled shyly at us when we passed, and the children would raise both hands in the air and scream with excitement. It was as if no white person had been there in years, and we were only two hours from Accra. We came down to the riverbank, where children played soccer between rows of colorful canoes. We were so excited to finally be here, and nervous about what it would be like.
Just across the water lay a maze of islands, the largest of which is Pediatorkope. In the distance a coconut tree swayed in the wind, as if in greeting. Egrets and hawks criss-crossed the sky, and small canoes with bedsheet sails drifted up and down the blue Volta.

First Night in Accra

When I bought the plane ticket to Africa I mostly thought about the destination. I didn't stop to realize all of the amazing places I would be flying over. We reached Ireland as the sun rose. I could see the mismatched green fields and rock quarries, and then Dublin. The Isle of Mann, my mother's ancestral home, could be seen off in the distance as we crossed the water to England, and then a longer crossing before we descended into the Netherlands. Amsterdam is a network of square, green fields crisscrossed by canals, with stripes of colorful tulips. The long rows of buildings are laid out in regal-looking rectangles. We spent a few hours in the Amsterdam airport, met up with one more of our group, and spent two hours wandering through an art gallery and flower shop inside the airport.

The connection to Ghana was interesting. I had heard than Africans do not tolerate lines well. Whenever anyone started talking on the intercom there was a rush to the gate door, and staff would have to tell people that only Business Class could board, or only rows 8 - 16 could board. The room smelled like sweat and a thousand types of cologne. Many people were laughing with strangers and others were bickering over seats. The flight attendants rattled off every message in Dutch and English; I thought it ironic that many of the passengers probably spoke neither very substantially. Some looked like executives, but many others seemed like they had never flown before. I ended up sitting next to a young Ghanaian who worked as a Quality Control analyst for a fruit company in West Africa. We talked about the market queens project and he gave me good background information on the agriculture market in Ghana.
There wasn't much to see as we flew over France and Spain, but as we crossed over Algeria and into the Sahara, the clouds parted to reveal sand dunes, strange red and brown formations, and jagged stripes of different-colored minerals. As we approached Mali the sky below turned an ugly brown from the sand storms and we couldn't see much. The sun set and we flew over Niger, Burkina Faso, and part of Togo as the clouds built. While we flew over Ghana I saw the most wonderful lightning storm of my life. Huge mountainous clouds would flash like lightbulbs and throw out streaks of lightning. It was a magical beginning to my Africa trip.
We descended into the sprawling city of Accra. Everyone burst into applause as we touched down. I was hit by a dense wave of hot, wet air when we left the plane, and we crowded like cattle through the doors. The airport itself felt like some kind of cattle auction. As we passed through the throng, some guy with a badge grabbed my bags and walked me the twenty feet through customs. I thought he was going to look through my stuff, but instead he asked me for a 20-cedi tip for carrying my bags. I ignored him and kept walking.
Outside the airport is a large waiting area that looks like my old school cafeteria. People lounged on benches under an awning watching Michael Jackson and Eddy Murphy dancing on a large screen. Women milled around selling Fanta and Coke from basins on their heads.
We found Isaac and Mr. Narteh waiting for us in the parking lot. They took our bags and after waiting for the rest of our group, we headed down to the Pink Hostel. Mr. Narteh had brought us some sandwiches--a fried egg between two pieces of thick white bread. The others were paying one cedi per hour to use the internet.
I was so tired when we got to the room, I barely made it to the bed. I threw down a twin sheet and collapsed in a heap. We tried to plug in a power strip but didn't check the voltage. Something exploded, despite the adapter, so we were too scared to charge our phones or computers.
One more night in civilization, and off to the island.

Thursday, April 22, 2010


A series of miracles got us to Accra, and smoothly I might add. Our passports arrived a day early--I still haven't figured out how they got from DC to Salt Lake in less than 24 hours. The Salt Lake airport was almost closed due to bad weather, but we took off just in time. Our flight wasn't grounded in Memphis; we passed through without any problems. And it looks like the Amsterdam airport is clearing out very quickly.
I'm sitting in a cramped airplane seat, flying over the Atlantic in the middle of the night. All I can see when I look out the window is a white half moon. In a way I feel like an astronaut -- flying across an empty place; the earth is far below; nothing to distract me from my thoughts, because I'm not actually in the world right now. I find when I'm on a plane that my mind automatically drifts to the problems of the world. I feel more focused up here. I'm reading the new classics of poverty alleviation: The Bottom Billion and Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid. A classmate & fellow traveler doze next to me. The Amsterdam-bound Europeans stare around in a bored, travel-weary way. I'm sure they're glad to be ending their vacations & finally getting back home, given the airport closures of the last week.

I'm always surprised by the awkward combination of boredom and excitement I feel when traveling on a plane. I guess airports are a very anticlimactic way to begin a trip. I'm actually going to a new continent; this magical place I've read about for months; but all airports are basically the same. You sit for hours at a time in a numb state of purgatory, punctuated by brief moments of mild panic: "What if I miss my connection?" "What if my bags don't arrive?" "Will they ground us somewhere strange and cancel our flight?" But for the most part this trip is like any other trip--uneventful. And for once, I'm glad.
I can't get David Bowie's "Space Oddity" out of my head.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Bureaucracy Blues

We've been really anxious over this Iceland thing. Most of the flights in Europe have been grounded for five days because of a lingering cloud of caustic volcanic ash from a volcanic explosion in Iceland. These Icelandic volcanos aren't very nice: a few hundred years ago one went off and the resulting worldwide famine caused the French Revolution. The last time this particular one blew was in the 1820's, and there was no summer that year.

So it blew again last week and European officials instantly closed down the airspace over most of Western Europe. Here's the problem: they never actually tested the ash to see if it would harm planes. Five days later they run test flights and discover that there probably wasn't a need for the ban. Millions of people have been stranded for almost a week; the airline industry has lost over a billion dollars now, and countless businesses from Kenya to Nebraska have been strained or even ruined from this little mistake. Now that the bureaucrats have realized their mistake, it still might not be until Friday until they pull their heads out and get flights fully moving again.

We are flying out tomorrow (Wednesday) at 1:00 pm, with layovers in Memphis and Amsterdam before arriving in Accra. There's a high possibility that we'll be grounded in Memphis for a few days. I'd much prefer Pediatorkope to Tennessee, I'll tell you.

We thought that was the only headache to worry about, but it turns out bureaucracy is everywhere: in order to travel to Ghana you need to pay $50 to apply for a tourist visa. You mail your passport to the Ghanaian embassy in DC, and then they stamp it and mail it back. We sent our applications to the BYU travel office weeks ago, but just found out that they sat on them until it was too late. They paid the fees to rush our applications, but the Ghanaian embassy is backlogged with paperwork right now and says they won't be sending our visas back until this morning (Tuesday). So they will hopefully be arriving tomorrow or the next day, and I have to get on the plane tomorrow. If this delays my flight, I don't know if I'll be able to get on standby or rebook.

This whole week I've been praying that the volcano would stop its antics: turns out I should have been praying for bureaucrats to do their jobs--an even more impossible request.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

How NOT to Pitch an Idea

I had an interesting experience today. For the last few weeks I have been talking with a friend about ideas he had for the BYU Experimental Theater Company. Yesterday we were tossing around some thoughts, and we had an epiphany: why don't we turn this club into a student-run immersion program? It could be structured like a real production company, have industry experts on the board to guide us along, and students could take it as a capstone class and gain real experience producing a play. This would round out their skillset and make them more marketable once they are looking for a job.
It's a very feasible idea: the PR department at BYU formed a real PR firm that is run by the students. They complete projects for real clients and gain valuable experience. The PR department was recently ranked in the top five programs nationwide. I am on the executive team for Grantwell, a mock-foundation housed within the Romney Institute that gives students great experience in foundation work, as we complete consulting projects for real foundations. Heck, the student newspaper is run the same way. This is not a new concept.
We put together a proposal and met with the rest of the ETC student board today. I was expecting an overwhelming response, pats on the back, maybe some cheering. I mean, we were pretty much saving the world here. This was a no-brainer decision.
They hated it.
Really hated it.
"We can't make it a class, because the faculty members have too much to do already." "We can't call this a professional theater company, because BYU would have major problems with that." "The department already teaches this stuff: you just have to fill out a proposal and get special mentoring." "I'm talented enough to get a job, I don't care about production." "This completely changes ETC and we don't like that", etc.
I was amazed by how quickly, unanimously, and violently they opposed our idea, until I realized that we had made the mistake, not them. We were dumping a complicated-looking new program on them without showing how it fulfilled their own goals. We also made the mistake of pushing a full-scale program with no warning, on a group of people who were already overwhelmed by the complexity of their current organization.
In the future, here what we should do differently:
1) Highlight what everyone wants to get out of this.
"We want to learn how to produce plays, not just act in them."

2) Describe the problem briefly.
"We do all these student activities but still don't have marketable skills to get a job after graduation."

3) Touch upon the main point of the solution.
"We should create an organization that looks and runs like a professional production company. That way, we graduate already having real experience."

4) Reinforce the idea's feasibility.
"Many departments on campus have used this model successfully. We can learn what worked for them and duplicate their methods."

5) Only introduce the initial tactical points.
"We can start slow, by finding someone in the industry who can help us build the right organizational structure. We will need to change the way we brand ourselves, but we'll mostly be doing business as usual in our day-to-day operations."

6) Outline a brief vision of what the organization could become down the road.
"Eventually, we could be an official capstone experience for theater students. We would be widely recognized and students would want to apply to our department, because of what we do here. We would place more graduates in prestigious jobs, and they could come back and make the company even better."

I wish things had gone better this morning, but I learned a valuable lesson, and hopefully won't repeat this mistake again.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Ghana Plans: Pediatorkope

I've been so distracted by Ghana plans lately that it's hard to focus on school. I'm really excited about a new addition to our trip plans: some of us decided to fly out a few days early and stay a few days late for a layover in Amsterdam. We had been juggling a few options: stay a few days in Kumasi, go up to Tamale and do a walking safari in Mole National Park, or maybe cross the border to Togo or Ivory Coast (not very feasible given visa hassles).

My wonderful uncle Ben suggested a great idea: why don't we just hunker down in a village for a few relaxing days and get to know the people and their lifestyle. It sounds like a wonderful idea--we had been getting a little stressed out arranging the details: if we went to Tamale that involved an 11-hour bus ride plus 3-4 additional hours to Mole. It would have been expensive and stressful.

Ben suggested the island of Pediatorkope. It lies at the confluence of the Volta river and the Atlantic Ocean, about two hours east of Accra. I found a few pictures of the island, and it sounds like a tropical paradise: mango groves on the edge of the river; colorful canoes plying the water, going from island to island in the river delta; the locals live in thatch huts; the women pound fufu and the men fish. There are a few nonprofits operating in the area--we'd be able to visit with them and learn more about what it's like to operate in West Africa. There's a little church on the island, so we could hold a service there on Sunday.

As I constructed this romantic picture of life in the village, I started to see difficulties they face: the Volta River is very polluted, teeming with typhoid, hepatitis, and other exotic diseases; the Akosombo Dam has significantly lowered water levels and fish populations downriver; the people live in poverty and have no power or light.

I am very curious to see what village life is like. We will be staying with families there, probably sleeping on concrete under mosquito nets. We'll eat whatever they eat (and hopefully not get sick), go fishing, explore the islands by canoe, sing with the kids, pound fufu, and learn how to cook.

I'm so excited to go, but I wonder if my current lifestyle is too cushy--I don't know how I'll be able to sleep on concrete, in stifling heat, under a stuffy mosquito net. I probably can't even deal with 20 hours of jetlag. I hope I don't get malaria, or typhoid, or food poisoning.

I'm conditioning myself to sleep on the floor. It's kind of pathetic. I took a nap on the couch yesterday and afterward my hips ached because I didn't have a pillow between my knees. How will I live for a week (or good portions of a month) without a pillow? I guess I have some toughening-up to do.