Geographically speaking, Ghana is known as the center of the world. The Prime Meridian and the Equator intersect on its southern coast, giving Ghana its distinctive topographical position.
On January 13 our covey of J-termites left the center of the universe--Ashland's nom de plume--and traveled to Ghana, West Africa. What followed was a 16-day cultural tsunami, full of all things new: food, people, sights, sounds. The discovery of a new culture brings with it the discovery of one's ability to change, adapt and go with the proverbial flow. Sometimes the culture clash is a little nudge, with mini a-ha moments easing their way into your open-minded self; sometimes you're pushed off the high wire and there's no soft cushion below to break your fall. Yikes.
But all of those clashes added up to a super-enriched, vitamin-fortified experience, one I'll never forget. Tucked between souvenirs and dirty laundry in my return-to-home suitcase: a bundle of memories, cranial excursions and musings. A few from the coffer:
Our bouncing bulky bus made for a luxe way of travel. It also made me feel guilty for traveling in air-conditioned comfort, while just outside my window the reality of Ghanaian life played out. Aside from our tro-tro travel at the beginning of the trip and a couple of taxi rides, our mode of transportation was a rolling, fuel-injected interloper.
The air in West Africa is hot, hazy and polluted. Random brush fires burn, as do mountains of trash; un-pollution-controlled vehicles burp out all kinds of icky by-products; and the Sahara wind, known as the harmattan, blows dry, dusty air throughout West Africa. Aside from the effluvia and the aesthetically unappealing nature of this acrid combination, it's pretty darned unhealthy to be breathing in all that gunk. Which leads me to my next blurb.
I wound up at a government hospital last week, in need of a chest x-ray. After coughing for several days and sounding like I was honking up a furball, Professor Dunkel accompanied me to a government-run hospital in Ghana. In the small-world department, an R-MC alumnus, Dr. Paul Nyantakyi, works at the hospital, and he joined our group one evening for dinner. Hearing my hacking, he told Dr. Dunkel that he'd be available the next day if need be. The hospital was sub-par, to say the least. Broken ceiling tiles, dirty floors and a concrete wall of "windows" between patients checking in and the hospital administrative staff made for a dismal, cold atmosphere. Dozens of patients waited quietly while I was escorted to Dr. N's office. Some blood was drawn, an x-ray was taken, and some meds were dispensed. The next evening Dr. N. joined us again for dinner, and I told him that I felt guilty for receiving preferential treatment; he insisted that my foreign status made the situation a "different kind of emergency," as foreigners don't have the necessary antibodies to fight off infections they might contract while traveling in Ghana. There are no antibodies for guilt, though.
At times our lodging was, ahem, less than cozy. I know that staying in a certain hotel I shall not name (but which begins with an "M" and ends with a "b," and has the letters "agla" in between) made us stronger, more reflective and thankful for what we have at home, like toilet paper, hot water and a good cuppa joe. And cootie-free sheets.
Two of our hotels, the Treasure Land and the curiously-named Chances, were great, and we practically jumped for joy on our collective beds when we saw our nifty digs.
Traveling with 28 other people can be loads of fun, and I thoroughly enjoyed laughing and goofing off with my travel-mates, especially during l-o-n-g bus rides. We snacked, compared purchases, took photos and caught some z's. And bartered for toilet paper.
Speaking of le toilette (were we?), I've seen enough Shell gas station bathrooms to last a lifetime. And the "squat pot" at the soccer stadium was just freaky.
I'm suffering from cassava withdrawal--man, that stuff is good. And the pineapple in Ghana is the sweetest, most delish I've ever tasted.
I can't shake the image of a young boy--perhaps 5 or 6--standing on the side of a dirt road, holding a dead animal by its tail in an effort to sell it. Nor can I erase the images of so many women and children walking, dodging traffic, trying to sell something--telephone chargers, apples, suitcases, watermelon, jars of mayonnaise--all from bowls atop their heads. The nefarious poverty that permeates Ghana is hard to fathom, and impossible to forget. Yet the country is steeped in national pride, and billboards everywhere exclaim a confidence that Ghana's future is destined to improve. I want to believe that that is possible.
I am extremely grateful for having been part of this incredible sojourn. My thanks to Professors Jefferson and Dunkel for their confidence in me; to Anthony Robinson, our amazingly talented photographer; to the students, for their unflagging energy and enthusiasm; to Brent Hoard, who puts the "master" in "web master" and engineered this blog-a-licious forum; and to Anne Marie Lauranzon, for allowing me to make this journey, and for not selling my chair while I was gone.
I mentioned the other day that we'd be attending a funeral on Saturday. We did--but it wasn't the funeral we had planned on attending.
We were scheduled to attend the funeral of a relative of Kofi Bempong, our tour guide. But a leisurely breakfast and some incredibly busy traffic made us late for our first appointment (service-learning), which in turn made it impossible to attend the funeral.
In the unbelievable-but-true department: there was a funeral taking place in the very same village where the service-learning was, and we were invited to attend. We walked past women cooking over open fires; villagers smiled and shook our hands. Narrow dirt alleys separated simple huts; curious residents smiled as we walked by.
We were asked to greet the mourners by shaking hands, and then we sat down. Several hundred people, many in traditional funeral garb, sat on plastic chairs under simple tents. Festive music blared; children of all ages sat nearby and some climbed on our laps.
Although we had missed the presentation of the deceased, we were privy to a celebration of his life. As honored guests, we were offered the luxury of bottled soda; five or six children watched intently as I sipped on a cool drink. A few minutes later, feeling incredibly guilty, we bought soda for all the children, and ice cream too.
Then the dancing started, and those who wanted to were invited to join in. Papa J bolted out of his chair and started shimmying on the sand. The dance floor cleared and the crowd cheered for the doctor of dance. Man, that guy can cut the rug.
Sometimes the best stuff happens off the calendar.
I'm going to log off in a minute....I've been here for two hours and our taxi awaits. The photog and I are here together while the rest of the group is spending the day at the beach. Tomorrow we head home--hard to believe--and I don't know if I'll have Internet access. I'll do my best, though!
R-MC students often participate in activities that connect them with the community. They give their time, expertise and energy to a wide range of organizations, and it's the ultimate win-win situation. The givers are happy to give; the receivers are genuinely grateful. Rinse and repeat.
But sometimes the line between giving and receiving blurs a bit, and that's when things really get interesting.
Yesterday we were welcomed with the collective open arms and hearts of the residents of a small village in West Africa. Our big bus did some major pothole-dodging on a labyrinth of dusty dirt roads before landing in the Doyumu village, a community tucked away from--well, from everything, it seemed.
We walked our tired, backpacked selves a short distance and saw village life unfold before us. Goats grazed, children played, and a group of 200 or so women sat on plastic chairs arranged in a circle around a simple wooden table. The majority of the women were in traditional African clothing: brilliantly-colored dresses and skirts, and most wore sandals. Some carried babies around their waists, the Ghanaian way: the tot is papoosed to the mother's back, facing her. From the front you see two tiny brown feet flanking a mother's waist, a sight that took me aback a couple of weeks ago. Now the equation makes perfect sense.
As we approached the group and took our seats, applause. No-words-needed applause, accompanied by lots of smiling and waving. We had come to present the women with gifts: second-hand T-shirts and school supplies for their children.
It seems like a million years ago that I left Ashland, my bags packed with what I hoped would be just the right clothing (ha) plus a bag of donated clothes, toiletries and school supplies to give away. My colleagues generously contributed shampoo, crayons and T-shirts, and I squished everything into a duffel bag the night before our departure, wondering where those miniature bottles of shampoo and slivers of soap would wind up. Half the time when I travel, I haul that stuff back from hotels, only to purge it from my bathroom cabinets during a maniacal clean-a-thon. Embarrassing but true.
Rev. Eric Annan leads the Sovereign Global Mission in West Africa; his organization works to provide street children and needy families with the most basic of basics. I met Rev. Annan in Virginia a few months ago when we both wound up at an African cultural performance in Richmond. The performance was a fund-raiser for SGM, and Professors Dunkel and Jefferson arranged for our group to have three days of service-learning with Rev. Annan's charges while in Ghana.
We introduced ourselves and Rev. Annan placed a huge shopping bag full of gifts on the table. He said to the women, "As you know, there are not enough shirts for everyone, so we give them out as first-come...." He stopped, and the women chimed in, "first-served." I wished I'd brought another bag of clothes with me.
The school supplies were placed on the table, and Rev. Annan explained to us that the remaining donated items would be distributed to other villages. Then he brought out a Frisbee that my colleague Billie had donated.
So of course, you know what followed. The Frisbee made its airborne way through the hot air, trailed by an exuberant group of wide-eyed children. The flock of kids chased R-MC students, laughing and watching the mysterious disc zip around. A little boy grabbed the Frisbee off the ground and tossed it--upside-down--through the air. It was a wonderful sight.
Tomorrow may mark the most unusual combination of events that have ever occupied space on my calendar on the same day.
In the morning we'll attend a funeral. When I saw our trip itinerary for the first time--a few months ago--my immediate reaction to the aforementioned was something like, "Um. Okay. But how does that work?" I mean, a few things need to be in place before one attends a funeral.
Like a death, for instance.
Ghanaian funerals might take place days, weeks, even years after someone dies. Families wait until they have notified friends and relatives, and until they have enough money to arrange for a proper burial. I saw death notices on a local TV channel yesterday--that's another new one on me.
There are three important events that take place when someone dies. The first, known as the day of confirmation, takes place eight days after death and is an in-house ceremony to honor the deceased. On the 40th day, friends and family celebrate the deceased person's "total exit from the physical world to the spiritual," according to Kofi Bempong, our tour guide. Kofi shared this information with the group the other day as we tooled down the road on our way to the waterfalls.
The final rite of passage occurs on the 80th day after death; it is known as the day of remembrance. All three events occur irrespective of the date of the funeral itself.
According to Ghanaian tradition, family members must wear red to the funeral; friends, colleagues, etc. wear black. Funerals can last hours as loved ones are mourned, praised and celebrated.
It goes against my sensibilities to think that it's okay to attend a stranger's funeral, but I've been told that our group's presence will be welcomed, and I must admit, I'm intrigued.
I look forward to reporting my findings. I have a hunch my head will be filled with quite a few scenes from a most unusual day.
Africa is crazy about football. Or should I say, soccer.
The Africa Cup is taking place as I blog, and our R-MC group was treated to a match last night between Ghana and Namibia.
Approximately one gazillion people joined us in Accra at a stadium that supposedly holds 40,000 crazed, face-painted, whistle-blowing, bouncing fans. Street vendors hawked t-shirts, horns, flags: all things red, yellow and green, the colors of the Ghanaian flag.
It was great fun to unwind at the end of a long day by joining in on the sporty-fun of people-watching. Oh: I mean, football.
Earlier in the day we'd had the honor of visiting the U.S. Embassy, which I found incredibly interesting. We met Ambassador Bridgewater, had a Q & A and a photo-session. (Our photog was not allowed to take photos this time.)
More soon.....this computer is going to shut down in three minutes!
Greetings, salutations and copious amounts of fufu.
Internet access was impossible yesterday and I must say, I felt a bit out of it--much like my second day in Ghana, when I had yet to find a cup of coffee anywhere. Ouch. Feels like someone took the comfort out of my zone. Coffee and blogging: naturally delicious.
We're back in Accra, and the closest Internet cafe is 35 minutes from our hotel, requiring forethought, moolah, and a taxi. Our surly hotel owner (can anyone say cranky?) called a taxi for us and went back to watching soap operas at ear-blasting volume. Little charmer.
But I digress.
We've had an incredibly busy couple of days. On Wednesday we toured the Volta Hydroelectric Dam, which supplies 70% of Ghana's electricity. The man-made Volta Lake is newish, having been built in the late 90s, and our tour guide was kind enough to show us around and allow us to take photos. I took in the daunting view of so much water and started thinking about my toothbrush.
Americans traveling to Ghana are strongly advised not to drink the water--bottled is the only way to go. So for the past--gee, how long have we been here?--oh--the past 11 days...we've been buying water. From hotels, gas stations, anywhere it is available. At meals we take any unused bottled H2O back to our rooms. (There's even a little Lord of the Flies hoarding going on now and then.)
Anyhoo. If you can't drink the tap water, you most certainly can not use it to brush your teeth. [insert mental picture of coffee-deprived tourist staggering around hotel room in search of bottle of water and toothbrush]
So the Volta made me think about tooth-brushing, and how I take that little fragment of my day for granted. Big-time, Volta-sized granted. And half a world away, Ghanaian women fetch water daily, siphoning it off into enormous plastic jugs or stainless steel bowls. I saw a young woman doing the latter the other day, standing under a spigot with the huge bowl atop her head. And a few days ago a child, no older than two, was practicing this integral water-gathering by walking along the road with a plastic bottle on her head. I keep feeling like I shouldn't look--these scenes comprise so many private lives, right?--but I look.
And each time I raise my toothbrush to my mouth, I think of the thousands of young girls selling bottles (and small bags) of water as they dodge crazy, non-stop traffic.
I was told yesterday that 29% of Ghanaians live below the poverty level--they earn less than one cedi (one U.S. dollar) a day.
Something to drink in and think about for a long, long time.
That's what we did yesterday. Our pod of savvy travelers trekked 30 minutes up a mountain in what is known as the Volta region in Ghana. Along the way: cocoa trees, pineapple plants and a series of footbridges that eventually led us to the Wli (WEE-lee) waterfall. The largest waterfalls in West Africa, the Wli is a mind-bending 400 meters (1300 feet) high; our climb led us to the lower portion of the falls. Had we added three-and-a-half hours to our hike, we would have reached the summit of the falls.
The falls are spectacular to see--and feel. (I get misty, just thinking about it.) We scrambled to get our shoes and socks off and sloshed around in the bracing water at the base of the falls. It was an exhilarating, 5th-grade moment; we were all just a bunch of kids playing in the water. Our trusty photog, Anthony Robinson, snapped away as we romped.
And then, to continue the grade-school theme, there followed a series of I-will-if-you-will dares to stand directly under the falls.
Brrr. A group of R-MC students put the adventure in adventurer as they traipsed through the numbing water and stood under the rushing falls. Upping the ante, students dared Professor Dunkel to give it a shot. He complied, got dunked, and Professor Jefferson (who went in fully clothed, shoes and all) soon followed.
This Wli wayfarer thoroughly enjoyed the falls; I would have loved to have spent the day there. But our blimpy bus awaited, so we hiked down the mountain, water-logged and smiling.
We leave Ho this morning and drive toward Accra, stopping at the Akosombo hydroelectric dam, one of the largest man-made lakes in the world. The dam generates electricity for Ghana and other West African countries.
The blog-o-spheric pressure feels good today and I feel another exciting venture around the corner.
Stepping out of your comfort zone can leave you feeling a bit twitchy. We use the term "culture shock" for good reason: plopping oneself down in the land of the unknown hurts. The electrodes of a new reality--food, customs, smells, sights--pinch, chip away at your sense of "normal," and it's difficult, if not impossible, not to compare your world with the one unfolding before you.
I'm not used to being a foreign object. White, American, female: adjectively speaking, three words that make me un-special, unusual and under the radar of most Ghanaians. I can't remember the last time I had the desire to "fit in," to get inside the bubble of status quo.
Last night we attended a music-and-dance performance not far from our hotel. My American self assumed this meant we'd be inside a cultural arts center of some kind, but our jumbo bus rolled to a stop on the side of a dirt road and we disembarked. Trailing like faithful goslings behind our tour guide, we dodged the ever-present foot-wide drainage ditches that flank all Ghanaian roads, and arrived, indeed, at a cultural arts center. Outside. In the middle of several run-down shanties.
Three or four rows of plastic chairs awaited us and we were seated. Children milled about; costumed teenagers and adults loped by; a drummer pounded on a drum.
And then the music began. Heart-thumping drumming filled the acrid air and dancers hopped about in a beautifully choreographed frenzy. A gorgeous, feverish rhythm. We were treated to five or six dances, each used for different rites of passage in the Ghanaian culture.
The crescendo? We were invited to join the fray, and it was nothing short of thrilling. We danced, hopped, yelped, sang, shouted and laughed. Probably looked a little foolish, too, but that's okay.
I think I'm starting to enjoy this blogging thing.
I had a diary when I was a kid--a small, white plastic-covered book that had a gold clasp on it. And a key, of course. The key is what sealed the deal: that way the secrets couldn't get out.
But I'm, ahem, older now. And while I do write occasionally, I don't keep a diary. That's one of those things that make-a-New-Year's-resolution types do, not a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-tour-bus type.
Blogging, though, allows me to record and share a morsel of this incredible West African sojourn. As my mother mentioned to me in an e-mail today, despite the destitution, the poverty, the sadness that washes over this struggling country, the technology exists here for me to blog, share, reveal and rant.
We are in Ho, in the eastern region of Ghana, and this afternoon we visited a local artisan named (I am not making this up) Crafty. Papa J (see my 1/17/08 entry) met Crafty several years ago on a trip to Ghana and incorporated this afternoon's visit into our itinerary so that we could see for ourselves the artist behind the art.
Masks, beaded jewelry, batik, paintings: we marveled, took photos, chatted with Crafty and, of course, bought. A musician as well as an artist, Crafty sat down more than a few times to play drums for us. And I should mention this, too: he makes drums. Stunning, one-of-a-kind instruments with wood-carved bases and stretched animal hides atop. Several people couldn't resist these bang-on beauties. Can you say carry-on baggage?
Dress-up time followed, with Papa J, Jeff Sampson and student Easton Davis donning traditional Ghanaian garb and posing with Crafty for an impromptu photo shoot. (Jeff and his wife, Celeste Barnes, who is also on this trip, are Easton's uncle and aunt respectively.) The costumed four were nothing short of regal.
Later this evening we'll be guests at a cultural center, where we'll be entertained by traditional Ghanaian music and, methinks, dance. My bloggy self looks forward to sharing the experience with you as soon as possible.
Long bus rides lend themselves to a lot of thinking. And, if you're lucky, a lot of naps. I fall into the former category, and the meandering, dusty roads of Ghana provide the perfect backdrop for some serious (and not-so-serious) thinking. A few tidbits from my cranial region follow.
Signs of the Times
I've never seen so much signage in my life. The landscape is generously peppered with billboards, street signs and advertisements used by the many merchants of Ghana. Some of my favorites (you may detect a theme here):
God First Beauty Salon
Mr. God Frames
Clap for Jesus Shop
Don't Mind Your Wife Chop Bar
Oh, and God's Way Internet Cafe, where I'm sitting right now.
Please Pass the Toilet Paper
Traveling in a large group can either unite or divide. I'm happy to report we've bonded wonderfully, thanks in part to the, er, challenging plumbing situations we've encountered. We've encountered bathrooms with no lights, no water, no doors, no soap, and no t.p.
Good thing we all packed an extra supply of humility and humor. And toilet paper.
Slam Dunkel and Papa J
Young Ghanaians refer to all older men as "papa" and all older women as "mama." Professor Jefferson embraced--perhaps even suggested--his temporary when-in-Ghana moniker: Papa J.
Professor Reber Dunkel, on the other hand, suggested that when in Rome, uh, Ghana, students call him "Papa Dunk," but the aforementioned lengthy bus rides have produced a hilarious crop of Dunkel-icious names, including Reebs, Rhubarb, and my personal fave, Reeb-a-roni.
There are seven suspension bridges in the Kakum National Park in Ashanti. Narrow, wobbly slats comprise the bridges, which are suspended 150 feet above the rainforest. The bridges are flanked by netting held up by rope. Adventurous types travel from one canopy walkway to the next, resting for a few seconds in between on wooden platforms tied to gargantuan trees.
Suffice to say that there was more than a little bit of trepidation floating around in our behemoth bus as we approached Kakum.
I love this one: A sign at the entrance to the park announced "Please take babies along at your own risk. We are not responsible for injuries."
We hiked a short distance through the forest, guided by a park employee. The woman in front of me (I later found out she was visiting from Argentina) was wearing flip flops, and I kept trying to purge this pernicious thought from my noggin: What if her flop gets stuck in a slat and she goes careening over the side of the bridge?
We trekked up the steep, rocky ridge (no small feat) to the first bridge, and, like baby birds being pushed out of the nest, we were nudged, one at a time, onto the quivering walkway.
I was behind Ms. Argentina and set one cautious foot in front of the other, hanging onto the ropes as I made my way across the first bridge. Eek.
Halfway across, I stopped, took a deep breath, and looked around. And then up. And down. Birds were tweeting, crickets were cricketing, and--gasp!--I did not see a pair of flip flops go overboard. On the contrary, Ms. Argentina was laughing and mugging for her husband (he was in front of her) as he serenaded her in Spanish.
One down, six to go. I relaxed into a rhythm: step forward with my right foot, grab the rope on the left side with my left hand. The verdant treetops were gorgeous--an emerald cushion beneath me. I started thinking about height, about the act of looking up, down, forward, both in the literal and figurative senses. Oh, and I thought about the importance of proper footwear, too.
Yep, I made it to the end, no worse for the wear. I can't say I learned the ropes--but I can say that they taught me something about myself.
Yesterday we visited Kumasi, the traditional center of the ancient Ashanti Kingdom. We toured the Palace of the Ashanti Monarch. Okoyu, our tour guide, led us through the palace, which is full of artifacts and memorabilia of the royal family. Photos, furniture, paintings, and, I'm sorry to report--icky wax replicas of some of Ghana's most famous royal family members. Eeeew.
But I won't wax on about the negative. There was much to see, hear and learn about the Ashanti culture.
Then we boarded our bodacious bus and drove to the Cultural Craft Centre, which is a euphemism for "many people selling lots of stuff that American tourists think they need." There ensued a good bit of bartering, buying and bragging. Most people dropped some moolah and jogged onto the bus in triumph: "Hey, check this out! For only five cedis!" (SEE-deez)
Next stop: a Kente cloth "factory," a small building crammed with colorful Kente fabrics of all sizes. A handful of artisans were weaving away, and dozens of sellers hawked their gorgeous wares. Americans are not used to this type of "shopping," which feels more like pouncing. The cacophony of offers got louder and louder: "Sister, sister! Only 15 cedis!" Again, we dropped some dough and compared our loot; Kente cloth is incredibly gorgeous, and yes, of course I bought some. Duh.
Uh-oh...the bus is leaving and I have to stop for now. More soon.
I was sipping coffee this morning at 7:00, sitting in the lobby of the Treasure Land Hotel in Kumasi. We've planted ourselves here for the past couple of nights, and I was giving myself a gentle, caffeinated jump-start to my day when Martha, who works at the hotel, walked by.
She held out her hand and offered me a fried ball of dough she'd bought from a street vendor. I tore off a piece and nibbled on the golden, spongy stuff. "It's kuse," she said,(KOO-see) and explained that it is made of pounded black beans mixed with salt peter, then fried in oil. Its donut-like appearance belied its flavor, and I found it very pleasant. (See previous blog-reference about my carboholic nature.) Martha and I started talking food, and soon we were sitting together on a sofa in the lobby, chatting and laughing and talking turkey, er, fufu.
I asked Martha to give me the skinny on fufu, and she set me straight: it's made by pounding cassava (a huge, white, potato-y vegetable) and mixing it with pounded yams (also enormous, but yellow or orange). The glutinous mass is then formed into blobs and served with sauce or soup. I was mistaken the other day when I said that corn was the main ingredient in fufu (although it can, in a pinch, substitute for the cassava/yam mixture).
Then the real fun began. Martha had a co-worker go out to buy some yams and cassava so that I could see the origins of fufu close-up.
These bicep-challenging veggies are enormous, perhaps five pounds each; I could barely lift them. Martha cut them open to show me what they look like and then headed toward the kitchen. "I will put them on the fire," she said. Twenty minutes later I was nibbling from a huge plate of boiled cassava and yams, a nice contrast to my very American coffee-and-toast breakfast. Cassava has a wonderful texture and taste: think chestnuts. And yams are sweet and orange-colored.
Martha (MAR-tuh) was born in the northern part of Ghana 31 years ago. Her mother moved the family (there are eight siblings) to Kumasi 20 years ago after Martha's father died. He had worked in an animal reserve, and the family headed south where the cost of living was better. She has a 3-year-old daughter and lives with her sister, nieces and nephews. I'd been confused earlier when Martha said she sends her daughter out to buy cassava; I asked how a 3-year-old could do that and she explained that all female children in a family are known as "daughters" or "sisters." That brought tears to my eyes for some reason. Martha's adult niece--not her toddler--shops at the market.
It's strange to think that two very discrete cultures could mesh so easily in a hotel lobby.
Or is it?
What it really boils down to is sharing oneself and being open to the unfamiliar, taking a bite out of a different way of life.
One of the easiest ways to acquaint yourself with a foreign country is through its food. The strange vittles at the end of your fork can be fodder for conversation, curiosity--and, occasionally, intestinal distress. Thankfully, my gustatory experiences in Ghana thus far have been delightful.
Rice plays a prominent role in Ghanaian food, which pleases this carbo-maniac to no end. Spicy chicken and fish, plantains and vegetables have graced our tables at every lunch and dinner, and white yams have shown their potato-licious faces at many a meal. These enormous tubers are plentiful in Ghana and if I could I'd bring some of these lovelies home in my suitcase. I know, I know: the folks in Customs might not understand. But a gal can dream, right?
Fresh pineapple is served for dessert after each meal; it is nothing short of fruity bliss. And we've occasionally been offered ice cream after dinner, which we pounced on; a huge plastic tub of ice cream was plopped down on our buffet table the other night; the sweet stuff had a wonderful, rich texture that made me want to take the entire container back to my room and call it a night. I managed to restrain myself.
I do think we are served somewhat Americanized versions of African food; I've been told that the food sold on the street will be much, much spicier (ouch!) and will include other traditional offerings, including fufu (FOO-FOO), which is made by pounding corn until it turns to mush, forming it in a ball and serving it with stew. Some of my colleagues back in Ashland who have traveled to Ghana described it as, um, hard to swallow and rather gelatinous. But hey, I'm here, it's real, and I'm going to give it a shot. Fufu fighters, beware.
Until next time, I remain well-fed, grateful and fufu-free.
Our mode of transportation elicits an enormous amount of attention. The elephantine bus we're traveling on may as well be a spaceship and its passengers aliens. Small children are transfixed; older children stop and stare; adults seem to view our moveable beast with a curiosity or disdain. It's as if the director has suddenly started filming in slow-motion and we are a movie within a movie.
Scenes from a day:
Yesterday I saw an emaciated man sleeping on a gravestone. I saw a young child, no older than two, dodging traffic as she peddled bottles of water piled in an enormous bowl resting on her head. I saw a man accidentally drop something into one of the open sewage drains that line every street; he knelt down and retrieved the item and I heard some of the students on the bus gasp. Time and again I saw women standing over open fires, pounding corn with long wooden pestles. Many had babies papoosed to their backs. I saw passels of school girls, uniformed, all with closely cropped hair; according to Ghanaian law, girls are not allowed to grow their hair until they are adults. I saw the lushness of the Kakum rainforest as I inhaled the polluted air surrounding it. I saw the poverty of Kumasi, once known as the City of Gold.
I also saw children smiling, playing, jumping up and down. In nearly every town I saw billboards declaring Ghana's pride--and hope for a better future. I saw communities of people living impossibly close to one another and sharing, rather than dividing. I saw clusters of men fishing along the Cape Coast, trolling the water with gigantic nets. Their orchestration yielded hundreds of small fish, which women then methodically arranged in rows over huge, low fires on the beach. The smoked fish will then be collected and sold.
I saw hope flowering.
Our spaceship heads to Ashanti today, where we will visit a "craft village" and watch artisans at work.
This morning we attended a lecture at the University of Cape Coast. Dr. Isaac Amuah, chair of the department of music and theatre studies, presented "The Matrilineal Social System in Ghana." I must admit that when I heard that we'd be attending a Power Point lecture, a hot cup 'o joe and a newspaper sounded oh-so-tempting. Couldn't I just sneak away for a little while?
But this professor was amazing: animated, funny and interesting. Two students asked him if we could pack him in our luggage to take back to R-MC to join our fab-o team of profs!
Dr. A. told us that the "systems of inheritance" in Ghana are grouped geographically and ethnically along linguistic lines.
Translation: Depending on where you live and what language you speak, you will either inherit the family responsibilities of your mother (matrilineal) or your father (patrilineal).
Dr. Amuah also spoke about cultural norms and the roles of men and women in Ghanaian society. For example, women in matrilineal societies are responsible for nominating kings and chiefs, but those same women must remain (literally) silent at the nomination meeting itself. Sequestered to the opposite side of the room, women may observe, but they may not speak.
And so-called "modern" Ghanaian men will not set foot in a kitchen; that is, unless, as Dr. A. said, "the man wants to talk to his wife...while she cooks." [insert head full of conflict here.]
Contrastingly, a husband is considered an "alien" in his own home if he is part of a matrilineal society. It is believed that the physical aspect (i.e., the body) of a child borne in such a household belongs to the mother. She owns the children. The spirit of a child belongs to the father. He is responsible for naming the child and for the child's behavior throughout life.
Following the lecture we lunched at an on-campus eatery, and Dr. Amuah and two of his colleagues joined us for a lovely repast: spicy rice; chicken and vegetables; fried potatoes; fried plantains and baked fish. I've decided that plantains are my new fave-o-rite Ghana grub: delightfully de-lish with the perfect mix of sweet and salty. More, please.
My fellow blogger-people and I are ready to log off (blog off?) and head back to our rooms. After a quick change we'll get on the big bus and go to dinner in Elmina.
More on Elmina tomorrow (or the next day, depending on Internet availability); we spent the better part of the afternoon there today, and I have a lot to report. Tomorrow we drive to the Kakum National Forest. It's a six-hour trip from here, so there'll be plenty of fodder for blogging.
The yellow-eyed girl stared at me, pleaded for money, rubbed my forearm, and told me her name: Mary. Nine years old, dressed in dirty clothes and wearing threadbare flipflops. On her head, an enormous aluminum basket filled with cut pineapples. The basket never teeters, but I can barely keep myself centered. She smiles again and presses herself closer to me: "One cedi, give me one cedi." A cedi (SEE-dee) is the local currency and is roughly the equivalent of one U.S. dollar.
I am standing in the middle of a fishing village in Elmina,West Africa. And I am dumbfounded, nervous and definitely out of my element. Our tour bus stopped in Elmina so that our group could walk around, talk with people, take pictures. Hundreds of children live in this village--homeless, parentless, relentless children. That last adjective refers to the scores of children in Elmina who are peddling whatever they can: Valentine cards they cannot read, small bags of water, ice cream. Our tour guide, Kofi, told us not to give money to the children (or adults), as doing so would create chaos. But it's hard to resist give a dollar or two to these smiling faces; my heart is pounding. I'm worried I'll start crying.
I start to walk across a bridge and turn back after I realize the rest of the group has gone ahead; I can't find a familiar face and I head back toward the bus. Then I notice an R-MC student in the middle of a swarm of children. She is buying them fruit, bargaining with one of the children to buy the most fruit for the least amount of money so that she can distribute some to each child.
And then the swarm grows, and our student buys more fruit. And then ice cream. And the panic sets in. More children gather--little birds flocking to a nest of ice cream. I stand watching, worried, scared. The children dive over each other; there are thirty or forty of them, and they claw for the ice cream. One little girl, no older than six, snags two ice cream bars and taunts the empty-handed boy standing next to her.
Our student heads toward the bus; the crowd around her grows. Adults look at us with a mixture of disdain and curiosity. A man spits on the side of our bus, raises his arms and yells in our direction. Kofi breaks through the fray and escorts us onto the bus. In an effort to appease the crowd, he buys a loaf of bread and gives it to a "leader" in the village to distribute.
An hour later I am still crying as we head toward a restaurant for lunch. Our student says she was happy to have been able to help--and wishes she could go back to the village.
I'm sitting now in an Internet cafe on the campus of Cape Coast College; the cafe is nothing compared to American standards; there is no air conditioning, and no cafe, but I am thankful to have this thread of communication with you.
As I mentioned two days ago, this is a country in motion. Everywhere you look are cars, tro-tros (mini-vans used as taxis), cyclists, chickens pecking at barren soil. And people walking, selling, dodging cars and trucks. Nothing stops.
It's Monday evening in Ghana; we arrived this morning at 6:15 a.m. after a seemingly endless (albeit exciting) journey. After retrieving our luggage and navigating Customs, we were met by Kofi, our tour guide, who held up a "Welcome R-MC" sign and greeted us with an, "Akwaaba!"
Akwaaba means "welcome," and after counting heads (and a sea of luggage!) we boarded a bus and headed for the Magrab Hotel.
My first impressions of Ghana will stay with me for quite some time. This is a poor country, and the view from the bus window reflected that. Hundreds of vendors, selling everything from tires to furniture to food, line the dirt roads in Accra. Women walk through the streets with enormous baskets of wares on their heads; it's a gravity-defying sight to see a three-foot stack of oranges (or bottled water, or other goods) sitting atop someone's head--and to realize that this is someone's livelihood. And it's a culture-slash-soul shock to realize that this is the norm, not the exception, of Ghanaian life. Children run between cars, selling fruit, or flags, or water--everything under the (hot) sun. Everything is in motion: people, cars, the thrum of daily life.
After checking into our hotel, a much-needed shower and a l-o-n-g nap were the order of the day for me. The group met at 5:00 p.m. in the hotel lobby, and we were driven to the Home Touch restaurant. Dinner was delightful: rice, plantains, fish, chicken, and plenty of heat (the spicy variety). It's impossible not to feel the dichotomy of the view outside the bus window and the bounty inside the restaurant.
Kofi briefed us about our upcoming two-week agenda. We'll head to the University of Accra tomorrow, attend a lecture, and tour the college library. On Wednesday we'll tour fishing villages and visit Elmina Castle in Cape Coast. I'll continue to update you on our schedule, which will include service-learning in Accra and a visit to the Kakum National Forest--and much more.
Ghanaians are friendly and open; we've been greeted with warm smiles everywhere we go. I feel welcome here, especially when greeted with a joyful, "Akwaaba!"
My bags are packed, my alarm is set for 3:00 a.m. and I am ready to sink my teeth into what I know will be a thrilling 16 days. A group of lucky wayfarers--23 R-MC students, two professors, a photographer and this neophyte blogger--will begin the exciting journey to Ghana, West Africa tomorrow, January 13. We'll meet on campus at 5:00 a.m. (ouch) and a charter bus will transport us to Baltimore-Washington airport, where we'll catch a 12:00 p.m. flight to JFK airport. After picking up more West Africa-bound sojourners, we'll be off and running, er, flying, to Accra, the capitol of Ghana.
Ghana was once known as the "Gold Coast" for its abundance of, well, gold. The area to the west of Ghana was known as the "Ivory Coast" because of, well, you get the picture. Ghana is a small country--roughly 92,000 square miles--about the size of Oregon, and its inhabitants number about 20 million.
Professors Reber Dunkel (sociology) and Alphine Jefferson (history) have been preparing their students for this trip in myriad ways. Students had reading assignments, watched Ghanaian-produced movies, learned a handful of African words (more on that later) and attended lectures on the culture of West Africa. And last week we enjoyed a spicy melange of Ghanaian food at Ma-Musu's West African restaurant in Richmond--an auspicious start to our immersion into all things Ghana. Please pass the jerk chicken.
I'm thrilled to be part of this globe-trotting gaggle of gadabouts, and I look forward to sharing our adventures with you. Let the expedition begin!