Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Sacirfice and Sunshine

Step back, relax, look through the glass one more time. But I inevitably see myself reflected, wide eyed and expressionless, waiting for a way to get through to the outside, trying to break the inertia.

Then REWIND---

The second Eid Muslim festival, in honor of when Ishmael (not Issac) was almost sacrificed by Abraham as a test by God to ensure his dedication, was a few weeks back. We were able to spend the day with a Muslim couple going to a few different mosques to pray and witness the sacrificing of a cow, which we had NOT prepared for. Actually we were slightly prepared, for in the morning we met at the embassy where the American head of cultural affairs, as sweet woman who had done much work in West Africa. She kept making comments that we were so brave to be doing what we were doing today and she didn't think she could handle a sacrifice, and we looked at each others surprised faces thinking, well, in this case there was less bravery and more ignorance.

Sacrifices are made in honor of Allah on this national holiday and the meat is divided into three parts- one for the family who bought and killed the cow, one for the family and friends that they decide to bequeath with cow, and one for the needy, orphans and homeless.

This is an excerpt of my journal entry after the day:

Moments in time- the animal on the cement, tied hooves, limp tail. A calm beast, like one who is resigned to accept it's fate, knowing the dull blade is meant for its jugular vein. In the name of Allah- but is it ever right to slaughter so inhumanely even in God's name? When the blade came down I expected the metal to slice through the flesh, to immediately abort the flow of life- instead the man slowly sawed through the tough flesh, through the veins, through the bone- a hollow pipe thus exposed, and the stony animal barely grunted.
Red rivers running toward the feet of the wide eyed children, barely scaring them away. Final shudders of life shaking the massive animal- bolts of energy screaming it's not my time to die.

Later we tried a Nigerian/Ghanaian dish that we had never had. It was a sticky ball made of rice and cassava powder- slightly sour by itself, and you dip it in a tomato stew/sauce or a green one that was very very slimy and not entirely appetizing. Overall it was enjoyable, though not something to write home about ha ha ha. Sorry.

I also got a new perspective on the veil as it being a means of protection for women through being modest. I actually realized that in the future I would consider veiling myself for that very purpose if caught in a situation that called for it. Our host explained to us how Muslims believe that since we have cloth we aught to wear it and it is considered primitive to expose unnecessary skin. This is the thought behind their modesty, which I find very interesting, even if I don't quite agree.

Then there was the trip to Krokrobite (pronounced krokrobitae) that I took with some other exchangers which I mentioned in my last blog. About 45 minutes outside of Accra, we got there by public transport, me and four others squished up in the back of the trotro with one rasta man who was very nice.
Just a note- the lights just went off, so we are 8 kids age 1-19 sitting in an absolutely dark den where the TV was recently unfolding some soap opera, we are lit by cell phones and laptops, the blue illumination coming from hands- blue tooth r&b entertainment playin the song i've been singin all day, and Lady crying probably because it is dark, because she is usually so content. Oh. They just came back on. Everything is Illuminated.

Today I went to the mall and on my way home I saw someone selling very old beat up books on the street, so I moseyed over and found some titles like "The Russian Adoption Handbook" and guidebooks for Guatemala, Amsterdam, San Fransisco, Canada and London, then Ovid's Metomorphosis which I bought for 1.5 cedis, about a buck. There was some Martha Stewart- but it was like some biography on her brother. I definitely got a good laugh and will be visiting the spot again.

Back to the beach- traveling there, out of the city, in the trotro slowly approaching the water, a truly sparkling blue ocean, the perma-swayed palm trees then through the coastal villages, little more than slums, sprawling and inhabited boxes with crisscrossed lines of laundry. Then when we reached Big Milliy's Back Yard we were in resort zone obruni land.
These long fishing boats on the hot hot sand, massive nets hanging off and around- boys playing football on the beach and heaps of scarves from Libera sold by a rasta in a blue sequin midriff. the whole place was a rasta camp- nice background reggae and assuredly a peaceful place (and for those of you who would jump to the wrong as conclusion I would, no, the place did NOT reek of wee, though I'm sure it would have been readily available). In the trotro going home we met a nice obruni volunteer from Germany. He had just finished high school and was through some small NGO... then he told me that he had been an exchanger in Texas living with a single Indian (as in East Indian) woman who had grown up in South Africa, gone to college in Canada and was hosting a Venezuelan student at the same time! Now that is a cultural experience.

These children were selling bowfloats- large puffy balls of fried dough- and when I began snapping them, oh they loved it, except one girl, the one who told me to delete the picture of her- insisted really.

From the left- Sophie, Me, Marie, Silka and Coralie, the latter two have since gone home- they were on the 6 month volunteer trip.

This was from the football match- though you can't tell, this man is very short and the popcorn is about half his height again and he just cruised the stadium selling sugar or salt popcorn for 50 peswas.

My small brother Jake, or as we call him, Kookoo (because his day name is Kweku) and my little sis Abena, though we call her Lady.

Scattered Scales.

May the new year be blessed and prosperous.
Love to all.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Take me out to the ball game


National Ghanaian teams- arch rivals here in Accra, today, 4 cedis ($2.75 maybe), wear red and white if you are Kotoko, the Ashanti team from Kumasi, or red, blue and yellow for the Hearts of Oak.

I wore red and white.

Waiting in the stadium, the energy mounting with drums and chants, the Hearts fans with gourds and rhythm, all the young men in yellow and red clapping and dancing. Although I have only experienced one actual professional sports game (baseball) in a stadium before, I can safely guess that American fans don't drum and dance to pump up the vibes. Especially not the young men. Watching and feeling the unity in the division I somehow appreciated sports all the much more in that moment. Looking around the stadium, which was not that big as stadiums go, but had a fairly good turn out I noticed at least three drums leading a beat for the surrounding fans to celebrate to- all through the game they played, singing religious songs, and songs about the team.

Before the game began, two gulls flew over the stadium and the fans wearing red and white began cheering. At first I couldn't figure why- there was no action on the field, but then I saw people pointing at the sky and realized it was the gulls, who were then joined by more. I then remembered all that I've been told about how the Ghanaians are very superstitious when it comes to sports and since the gulls were white, they were considered a good omen for Kotoko.

I sat there with all my brothers (young and old, for the young ones are back from South Africa) and my bra Bush kept a heated exchange going with some rival fans sitting behind us- I can't really express how funny it was how their tones (for that was all I could understand) would swing from joviality to the heated passion of enemies. I would hear them spitting twi back and forth and then turn and see a wide grin on my brother's face- he gave a bet that we'd get the first goal within 5 mins, a bet which we unfortunately lost.....

As always, there were people selling things from their heads, but today I saw a new one- some small school boy was selling gum, mentos, and cigarettes. First, of course, I thought it was strange seeing cigarettes being sold at all because nobody smokes but then I realized how young the boy was and thought of legal ages... something that is easy to forget about here.

The match itself was unfortunate. Kotoko scored on a penalty kick but the ref called a foul and the goal was canceled. Hearts scored and the score stayed 1-0 for the rest of the time. I can say that the ref did NOT seem to be neutral, and I have heard that there is much corruption in sports here....

As we left the stadium among the celebratory music and water spraying everywhere- people were throwing water bottles off the stadium after emptying them on their neighbors- there was a row of young men responding to the call of nature along a wall... or should I say they were seeing a wall about a horse.... Ghana Ghana.


I have no thoughts to speak of me, no mind space left to ramble about my own self, but I can say that I've been doing very well these past days and weeks. I can say that I've been sunburned from a beautiful day on a beach- the sort of perfectly tropical beach that seems impossible to have reached and to be sitting on, eating a pineapple that is not the best pineapple I've ever had but is quenching and succulent in the moment. I can say that I've been singing and watching the sun, been being myself, been exploring what that means and finding interesting things.

Nyame Adom, me ho ye.

Peace and blessings.

Sunday, November 15, 2009


The trip up north- school boy at the village, and Mosque. This Mosque was particularly famous- it as believed that the first man who found the place and set up the community was buried next to it and then the tree sprouted three days later. To this day the people eat the leaves of the tree on special occasions in a ceremonial way.

The mosque had different entrances for different people- men, women, chiefs, and is still used on Fridays for prayers, however we did not get to enter.

Sitting under a tree at school, feeling the cool shade, the heat of sunburn, the airy trees, the red earth, the human tall termite mounds, the black etches of a cracked path, the sinking benches, the pastel sky.

So, Life. Mosque at sunset, this was actually on the day of the festival that happens right after Ramadan. We went to a Muslim community and watched a parade of chiefs, there were tons of people- and I turned around and here was the sun setting against these wires, well, as you see.

Ahimota Senior High. I am sitting upon Lover's Lane, in my school uniform which what I wear now for a majority of my existence. I have to say that I appreciate the uniform, in all of its conformity and sometimes discomfort... I love it because it is the tag which says that I belong here- that I am a part of this place, not just a visitor. Now, when I am taking the trotro home people call "Motown girl", instead of "Obruni". That sums it up right there.

So what is Achimota schooling like? How does one of the most prestigious
high schools in Ghana run?
Here is a typical day in school:

I wake up and leave the house by 6:30. On the way I pass the women who sell oranges and bananas at 10 peswas (about 7 cents) a piece, but of course if you buy more then they "dash" you an extra or two. We always greet and pass a few words in twi, and I tell them I'll go and come. Waiting for a bus is never long- in the morning at my station there are never that many passengers waiting, though those that there are can be business men or old women with baskets of things to sell all on our way to work. I love the trotro because of this, because everyone uses it- policemen, school children, fashionable young women, people coming from funerals, going to weddings, and somehow we are all in the same place at one time... So I pay my 20 peswas (maybe 15 cents) to the junction where I get down (they don't say get "off" and I remember the first time we all took a trotro with AFS, and they said "get down, get down" we thought there was a shooting or something! Though now that we know Ghana, we would never make the same mistake even if we didn't understand).

When I walk from the junction to school- about 25 mins- I pass the same man who wears a blue baseball cap and hustles past with a small look and smile, I pass the same three women with large baskets full of plantain chips going to the junction for a day of hawking, I am passed by the same trotro full of school kids who one time all stuck there head out to call GOOD MORNING to me, and Mrs. Suspicious because she always gives me a sidelong glance until I smile, and she usually smiles back, and Mr. Blue Shirt because I swear he has worn the same type of blue button up every single day and he is always holding a radio out in front of him, and we always exchange an "etesen - eye" (how's it - it's fine) and a smile and if I am eating a banana, he asks me where his is and we laugh, and I could go on but the day has only just begun.

I love these morning walks, when it is still cool and my mind is open and fresh- the feeling of belonging given by these interactions. The walk up toward the school is long and under these magnificent shading trees, some of which have small yellow petals of paradise which float to the ground like fallen sunshine. But then there is all the trash among the trees- backlit bags, like dandelions, on a lawn of leaves.

First we all go to morning devotion at the chapel. Led by a female student, everyone sings, listens to some sort of sermon given by a student or teacher, usually about discipline, religious devotion, or something, and we sing more hymns and give the school prayer which is as follows:

"O God, who art the King of kings and the Lord of lords and the Father of this people, we thank thee for this School and all the opportunities that we have in it.
Blesss thou this place adn may thy glory dwell herein. May the sons and daughters come to know the life that is life indeed, and go forth from it as living water to a thirsty land, for thy name's sake. Amen"

Chapel is always mixed for me. While I find the sound of the music- the soft voices in such a mass as to produce a lovely melody, I feel like people sing them as words, and without much though into what they mean. Two days a week (I think?) the small percentage of Muslims and Catholics may go to their own places of worship- for the former it is my class room because it is big enough, and for the later, they have their own chapel.

Then classtime, and my classes are as such:
Core- English, Math, Social Studies and Integrated Science (Agriculture, Physics, Biology and Chemistry, each given two periods a week)
Elective- Textiles (in which we are actually finally doing traditional weaving!!!!) and Ceramics (and we are actually working with clay!!!) and Literature (in which we are reading both The Tempest and a Ghanaian story-A Woman in her Prime)
Other- Religous and Moral Edu., PE (which is a class ABOUT PE, and its role in history, so far in Ancient Greece and in Ghana, though we don't actually DO any PE) and General Knowledge in Art. and ICT.

The day is broken into 10 periods of 40 minutes and I usually have 4 or 5 subjects in a day, no subject more than twice a week. Unlike the American school system, I am with the same kids for every class- we are all 2Voc2- Form 2 (like 11th grade), Vocational track, option 2 which is Visual Arts. (Voc. 1 being Home Economics- cooking and marriage stuff). When we first entered the school we were given the options- Science, tracks 1-4, each with different focus, slightly, General Arts, tracks 1-5 which had electives like History, Geography, French, Government, etc. or Vocational 1 or 2. Personally, I though the vocational class, with textiles and ceramics and artsy stuff would give me more sense of the culture- though I would have loved to do French and History... one more note on classes is that in the elective category there were some other options, and during those lessons the students split up- eg. while I am doing textiles, others are doing Picture Making or Graphic Design. Ceramics or Jewelry. Literature (4 students) and the rest in Economics.

The most frusterating thing about school is that teachers are often late or don't show up at all and either send a note with the class prefect (who is responsible for the class in absence of a teacher) or we do nothing- I mean we do nothing even if the note is sent, but at least then we have a feeling there is still a teach out there. Teachers will answer cell phone calls in class too and will come without the text book and have to borrow a student's one. But they expect us to be on time, awake, stand up when answering a question, keep the classroom clean (no such thing as a janitor) and do all of our assignments despite their own lack of discipline. Then there is the lack of resources which I find really depressing. Classroom, are just rooms with hard, terrible for your back desks, a black board (or in the not-vocational classrooms, white boards) and some chalk. No maps, not pictures, no mathematical tables, no projectors, no flag, no extra pens, no scissors, tape, rulers, absolutely no nothing except trash and it is for two reasons. 1. no funding. 2. if there was anything there worth anything, it would be stolen before it could be used twice by the village people who live on the outskirts of the place against whom there is no protection.

These are my Motown chickitas- Sofie the Dane and Anna Marie the Missouri girl who is on YES and whose videos are featured above. Someday we are going to write the adventures of the poedunk mexican, great dane and redhaired hippie. I'll give you all a discount on the sure to be best seller. Here we are in front of Frankies with Papa- a boy from Marie's class who we happened to meet at the American Embassy while we were all on midterm vacation (the boarders, which is 95% of the school, get to go home). The story is- we were going to get some school supplies, and enjoy a day out together, and we went to the embassy to pick up a package for me and while Iwas waiting, all the sudden all these Motown kids start coming out and I was like WHAT AREYOU DOING HERE? I mean we YESers haven't even been invited to the American embassy yet, but they had come for a program with a group of american exchangers that came to Achimota for a few weeks.... (btw, Motown is the local nickname for Achimota) and so Papa decided to join us for a day.

As far as academics, I am finding them very simple- not many assignments, no exercises to do, class mostly consists of waiting for a teacher and taking dictated notes... my favorite classes are Social because of the subject matter- leadership, resources, nations, etc. and the teacher is very very good in that he is not late, he leads an interactive class with q&a as form of discussion, and brings in real life examples and comparisons (quite a few having to do with the US). The only real way to measure our academic learning is by the monthly test and end of term exam... however the questions are pre set for those exams and not by the teacher, so sometimes the teacher has not taught us far enough, or not mentioned a specific answer or the information was from last year, form 1, which is all really frustrating, but still my average score has been great and I am not stressed over school at all, whatsoever period.

Last note on school.

When I was coming over there was a lot of talk of caning in school, but when I got here I forgot about it, being so wrapped up in everything else. Well, a few weeks ago our French teacher came to class, late, and the place was not swept... though I had been trying to sweep with my feet the large trash because there is no broom or bundle of sticks in the classroom. So he came in and said it was unfit for teaching and he would come back only once it was clean.... then he left. A few people looked for a broom, the prefect tried to rally the people who were supposed to sweep that day (we do have a chart) and, though it was slow, progress towards sweeping was being made... however when the teacher came back in the place was still a mess because we had just found a broom and were just beginning to sweep, i mean one person was sweeping and the other 51 (yes, my class is 52 students) were sitting, talking, rapping, reading, sleeping, staring, laughing, etc. so he was furious that it wasn't done and he marched us all to the caning man. He began with the sweepers- boys twice on the buttocks/back and girls twice on the hand. Some of the girls were tearing up at the prospect of it, and some were telling me to go back. I think there was a general interest in how I was taking it, if I was brave or chicken and if, ultimately, the man would hit me. As it turns out, fortunately for us all, day students were exempt because we are not expected to sweep, though somehow my name had been on the list for that day, but I had been foot -sweeping, as I mentioned, and the guy said he didn't want Obama getting mad, so I was ultimately exempt, with the other two day students. I don't really want to go into the morality of it. The way it was done or if it was deserved or is the right way to punish even when it is deserved, or if it is ever deserved to be hurt or how someone can do that to a child in the first place. All i know is that I was stony calm the whole time, not afraid, just disgusted, in my stomach a knot of tension.

I would like to take a moment to clear up some things that have since evolved ... mainly, my family situation.

When I wrote what I wrote way back in August, I was very disturbed and thought I had all the information,which I didn't, so let me reintroduce my host family.

My Dad did not move to South Africa, the trip he took there was only a few days. I really like my host dad, though we do not have many opportunities to really talk because his schedule and my schedule are directly opposite. But I can see he is a very benevolent and hard working man.

In the house also live the two younger girls, Abena and Afia who go to Junior high, as well as older Afia who is attending a college french course... she actually lives about an hour away with her family (her father is my Dad's older brother) but because of classes she has been staying here. To the left is her and her sister Abena at a wedding we went to. We definitely get along, though we may be very different in nature, and she has taught me plenty already just by being herself. We go clothes shopping together, and last night we went to the High Vibes Festival at the National Theater. It is an annual four day music fest of highlife artists from around west Africa- we heard bands from Ghana, Liberia, and Guinea all playing highlife, which is a bit like jazz meets reggae... maybe? Brass and drums, traditional and drumset, some used electric keyboard, base, guitar and vocals. Twi, French, and English songs mostly- it was very cultural and enjoyable.

We got matching dresses for the wedding....

My brothers, Ken, Bush and Kwesi are great. They are older, maybe 30s and are always willing to talk, take me places when I need, or tell me how to get somewhere.
this called Juxtaposition, With Clouds.

This was at Mole National Park, on our trip to the north.
So, I will leave you now and though I always say this, I'll try to be more consistent in my writing.
i have changed my comment setting because I heard it wasn't working so you can try it again and leave me questions.
Much love to all, and I hope you are all peaceful and well.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Time in Cumulonimbus clouds

Under the raw sun. Sweat. Dust. Bags of water are perfect for squirting people with.
Your face has changed, they said when I came back from my trip. It's the sun I said, I am not made for this climate you see.

I'm sitting in my tv room with a bowl of rice with tomato stew- it is not too late, but dark outside, getting mentally prepared for heading back to school after a week off. My sisters, of a sudden, jump up and run out... i listen... it is raining- oh, for joy, i love the rain, I remember days of JCSchool when we would hear the rain and ditch class and feel it on our skin- oh, and my sisters, oh they love it too, i'll follow them outside and dance with them. I go out. The rain is gentler than it sounded in the house. My sisters have dissapeared. Halfheartedly I look up... then notice my sisters have gone to hustle in the laundry that was drying. They readily dodge out of the water, armfulls of sun-stiff cloth, back toward shelter. So I walk over, the pulse of my excitement as washed away like the rain, and I grab the rest of the clothes.... and they are already back by the tv, and I can still hear the lullaby sound of plinking on metal.
This is an allegory. when there are two different wave lengths, I am so often on the Other One.

Hands. When I see my hands I am reminded that I am different. Yes, sometimes i don't notice, i forget I am white, forget they stare because of my skin, forget how oil and water act in a confined container... then I see my hands and... well... But too, they get the brunt of the action, and they are good hands- if soft, soft compared to the hands I am shaking. One night I am grinding tomato stew for dinner- we are making boiled yam which you dip in this hot pepper/tomato sauce and eat with sardines or other fish. I knick the tips off the peppers, small peppers, hot peppers, one of them is not good, so I break it in half, rinse it in the bowl of water that the vegetables are sitting in, some of the seeds come out, the bad part is gone, I toss the rest in and move on to the next pepper. Maybe a few of them were half bad, so I have opened a few, the juice mixing invisibly with the water, and I grind- something I am getting better at- add onions and then tomatoes, soon I am finished. Then I feel a tingling in my hands, my fingers, my thumb. It intensifies, a burning, a stinging, an inescapable heat in all of my fingers... I remember the peppers. oh god, it was the juice, now seeping into my pores, unwashable, intolerable, and yet... waddaya gonna do 'bout it? The feeling went away by morning...

Yesterday, Fufu time came and I offered to pound it. So I pounded and pounded and pounded, I am getting better at it though still find it... just somehow strange, and yes, hard. When I was finished, my sister came and took over, I looked at my hands and there were three ripe and red blisters, the skin hanging off, stinging at the touch of night air. I have not had true blisters since doing the monkey bars in 2 grade! Then and hour later my sister was out doing laundry, I was sitting with her thinking my hands hurt too much to touch water... then she said how oh she had blisters too from the fufu and how they stung stung stung. Realizing that she had no choice in her suffering, and I was just sitting there, I took over the rinse bucket, and you know, it hurt for the first few shirts, and then the pain just went away, but you know how far the gesture will go. I realized that it will be nights like that, after a good work we sat down to eat freshly killed and roasted pork (my dad was having a party and so it was for them but there was soooooooo much we all had our fill) and playing pool with my brothers- I am getting better at it- almost won a few times- that these were things I would remember and miss.

Generally life is just slower here. People are not focused on doing things, going places, accomplishment, action in the same way that I never thought I was but and am realizing that i am, as a product of western culture. Obviously I can't generalize all Ghanaians, but from what I've observed, apart from school, and work, things are laid back. And honestly sometimes I can't stand it, but have realized that that is something I am learning about.

Ok down to the real stuff- the week off.
So all AFS exchangers- 5 German volunteers, 6 Belgin students, 6 Americans (students and one volunteer) and one Dane in a bus. Driving through Ghana. What did we do? We sang some good old Lion King, gave the truckers behind us a good puppet show with some socks Adam had in his bag (and little faces Sharpied on). Then I sprayed him with my water- perfect timing, he was telling a story or something, you know, with people's attention, and was taking a breath and BAM- right in the face. I had been having urges ever since I started drinking that sachet, so they all knew someone was gonna get it.... but justice was made- the next day at the breakfast table no less, Silka casually saunters behind me and, pulling my shirt away just totally soaks my back. In exactly the sort of way that looks like you've been sweating for all the pigs that can't.

Watched a fetish priest- this old withered woman all powdered in white dust and wearing some cloth that sometimes didn't really stay up and there was some sort of red liquid on her... was it her own blood? Was it the blood of the other woman dancing with her? No, I later found out it was the blood of a SACRIFICED CAT. TIA right? We saw how beads are made, saw how shea butter goes from fruit to nut to butter (and our sweet Dane, Sophie, bless her, dips her finger in with everyone else, but instead of rubbing in on her skin she ate it thinking it was butter, you know, butter, that stuff I dream about sometimes). We thrashed rice, and I tell you, I know why people invented combine harvesters. That was actually one of my favorite parts becasue I have reallly always wondered how rice is harvested. we saw wild monkeys, on the "safari", ate PIZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA at this really nice break from life here- a resturant owned by a Belgian dude, and it was damn good. So, if you ever find yourself in Tamale, stop by Sparkels, and if it is on a monday or a tuesday you'll even get a scoop of free ice cream (unfortunately our group was toooooo big... yes it was a VERY sad moment).
saw how kente cloth is made... got really sunburned... drove wayyyyyy too much...on those bumpy potholey unpredictable impossible for sleeping on roads that make you say TIA every time you are lifted off your seat- stood behind a waterfall- I mean at the last moment realized it was something I couldn't miss, got one of the Belguins to join me in stripping down and climbing behind under the downpour of white water. There was this one seat, directly in the falls and sitting there the world becomes nothing but the cold pounding on your head, the water in your eyes, blurred images of trees and people waving that we have to go but nothing matters when it is just you in the element, laughing at the feeling of being crushed but not diminished, laughing at being released from the hot, sweaty predictability of the bus, at being in Ghana, at being free and alive and the water seeps into your skin, mouth, eyes, refreshing and cleansing, and then you slip down to the shallows and retrieve the garments that almost kept the whole experience from happening and follow everyone back to the car.

The clouds, oh my, the clouds sometimes when the sun is low and there is lightening flashing- enormous white and orange pillows in the sky, towering and softly melting, shifting and flowing into some other shape, shade... Somehow the clouds are truly majestic here.

I will try to stay more consistent with my posts, sorry it took me so incredibly long.

Best hope and wishes and love to all and, of course, thanks for reading. If anyone has specific questions they would like to have addressed in my posts, please just leave me a comment requesting so.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

School, Sea, Sunset, Somnambulation

Well finally a shot of my sisters... from the left, Nana, Afia, Abena, though we call her Mina. This is the only shot I have of all three- and now Nana is living in Koforidua with her mum. We were swimming, obviously, in the front... Mina and Afia go to school alllllllllllll day, they leave 8am get home 7pm, or later. They are in Junior high, and granted it takes half hour to hour to get to school depending on traffic, but still...!

Below is my front yard, with the pool as you can see and my house... if you walk in that sliding door behind the fence, there is a lovely breezeway that is kept very clean for visitors. I have enjoyed teaching the girls a bit how to swim, or just encouraging them to feel comfortable in the water. Last I went swimming was in the evening- Afia and I made a fruit salad- pineapple, pawpaw (papaya), banana, orange- and we ate it while we swam, and the sun went down...

In some places dusk is merely sunset. The lifegiving ball of fire sinking in the sky slowly melts below the horizon and the haze becomes cool, or it is not witnessed because of the hanging clouds and only the dissipation of the light admits a shadowed world. But here, dusk is a time of its own. I began to notice it first when I was taking walks on the train tracks behind the house towards evening. As I was ambling I looked skyward and saw what was perhaps a bird above me, then another and another, and as I kept my eyes up they were filled with hundreds of small black reflections flying overhead. And as I looked closer I saw that, of course, they were bats. So I saw them again the next night and the next, always they come as the sun departs, though once the light is gone they have dispersed and I see none. Always they fly from the South, fluttering like funereal confetti on a current. And then that same current carries a most achingly beautiful voice, as though from the same far off gathering as the confetti, as though from the spirits of the other world are calling through a doorway, briefly opened each night when the sun is at just such a place, singing the praise of God, chanting the evening call to prayer. I have never lived in a place where I could hear proof of Islam each day, a few times a day, and always at this time of evening. So I floated on my back that day in the pool and watched the bats from the silence of the water, the strange and eerie silence of submersed ear drums, watched the light go, a few stars penetrate the light and dust, watched the black bodies of the desperately flapping bats move from south to north above me, watched it and then raised my head to hear the low, deep voice coming from nowhere and everywhere, coming from the human and the superhuman, weaving the fabric of the night around me with ancient melodies.

And these are my team mates, plus some Germans. From the left- Adam Streeter, whose blog is also definitely worth reading and can be found by looking at my followers. Anna Martinez who is doing the lovely video footage and is also attending Achimota School with me. Me... of course the one shot that had everyone in it and smiling I had to have my mouth all weird... then Meredith who lives in Tema, maybe an hour away with traffic.... don't know if she has a blog. Then our German friends Laura and Anne who stayed in Ghana in 2005 for 6 months and have made it back almost every year to visit and vacation. I sure hope to do the same!

This picture demonstrates a few things- first, the roasted plantains that she is selling- those are everywhere, though I actually haven't tried them prepared that way yet. The soccer ball on the umbrella: Ghanaians love soccer, though, this being Not America, they call it football along with the rest of the NA world. Ok, if you click the picture, and read the advertisment on the wall it is for Ghaliwood, which I got a kick out of. Have not see it yet, true Ghaliwood, but I'm looking forward to it. Then if you look behind the Ghaliwood signs, you see the green wall with half of another add for VEGA that has been posted over- well if I zoomed out the entire wall would be green and advertising VEGA and this would be one of many monotone walls advertising either a food or cell phone company.

oh. my. gosh. where to begin!!!!!!!!!!?

where did I leave off?
The Belgians, American and Danish girl came in dazzled and frazzled and tired and shocked, and it was finally I who was the "experienced" one to give advice and all.... a good feeling. Unfortunately most of them are living far away, up in other regions of Ghana so I won't see much of them. Except the Dane- she goes to my school. Schoool. SCHOOOOOOOOOOL!!!? what? I'm still in school? I'm supposed to be learning practical things as well as a new culture? I'm a teenager?

Let me back up.

We went to school when it started, last week to get our uniforms, pick our subjects and pay our fees. However that day only entailed waiting and walking around and waiting and then finally picking our subjects- even though we changed them again, just today. Then we waited for the rest of the week to be called by AFS and told that we would be going back to school to actually begin.... but we waited all week and it was only today, Tuesday the 22nd that we finally started school.

The campus is incredible. Absolutely beautiful. Built in 1927 by the British, Achimota Senior High School has a timeless and almost placeless feeling. Novelistic imperial British tropics. Could be India, could be any time in the 20th century, one could turn the corner and see some proper Missionary/Military wife in a sweeping white gown reading Dickens under a parasol... writing small notes in her journal about the red dirt and shining faces, the enormous black scorpions and breathtaking trees. How did those first people see this same land? Before it was over run with industrialization and media, before it was mostly Christian, and before the red dirt was paved over? Before the air was made thicker by smog, and before natives spoke English, the later of which is a simple way to say a lot of things.
There are immense trees over the whole campus, and wide open lawns in front of the tall white washed buildings. The buildings with blue shutters and a constant two feet of red dirt smudged around the base, some of which are dorms to house the approximate 1500 boarding students, some of which are our classrooms and others of which house the teachers and administration. The only real mark of the era is the large billboard between the boys dorms and the girls dorms reminding students that engaging in premarital sex can lead to HIV/AIDS.

Today we went to school late and finally got our uniforms and figured out our classes and got our books and were left with less than two hours to go to class, which was a nice amount of time to feel apart of something but not get overwhelmed. So, first impressions... the kids are as shy of us as we are of them... and since there are three of us obruni girls, at first it was easy to stay apart, but now that we are all in different classes (a conscious decision) we will each begin to blend into our own groups. I have chosen the Vocational Visual Arts track (vs. General arts or Science) because I am excited to do classes like textiles and General knowledge in arts that will give me more of a local taste- will be, hopefully, traditional Ghanaian, or at least West African. The class I came into was Economics, and I really like the teacher- he had taught in Missouri for a year and had also hosted an exchange student. But when we were going around telling him our names, and let me note that when a student is speaking in class he/she must stand, though most kids just sort of half raise their tushes from the wood bench, this one boy stood and said his name... well he was really tall, I mean tall for any standards and especially Ghanaian because most people here are fairly short, and so the teacher looked at me and said "Afia", because I had also given them my local name, "would you like to marry this sort of man?" well. I will leave you to imagine just how red my face was and just how loud that classroom became with hoots and hysterics. Welcome to Class 2V2. (Form 2, Vocational 2). My class prefect told me that ours is one of the notorious loudest classes in the school... which is fine by me because they are loud with laughter. So for now that is school, and I will post some pictures when I download them. Oh just a word about the assistant headmistress....I'll just say she is the stereotypical scary headmistress that you do not want to see after the first day. My friend, Marie, was debating about whether to go to form 2 or 3 (form=grade) and the woman was like, well if you want your name to appear at the bottom of the exam sheet every time, laugh laugh laugh, go to form three, but I won't change you around unless they demote you because you can't keep up ... laugh... well, Marie, bless her, said no, I think I can do form three thank you. (I'll keep you posted).
It is true that they post our exam results publicly for all the school to see.... great. and for the dress code. One pair of stud earrings is allowed. No bracelets, no necklaces, no second earrings, nails must be cut all the way down, no polish, no makeup, no hair clips, only in a pony tail- not down, not braided, not a bun, only pony, she kept saying it, only pony, only pony. The girls here actually are made to shave their heads from the very first class of school until they graduate high school. Sandals must be brown, nothing inbetween the toes (like flipflops) and no closed toes. No rings. No food in classrooms, not even in our bags, though they were willing to make an acception for us as day-students to bring tightly sealed completely concealed snacks for break time. Lunch is after school at 2:30- break is for a half hour at 11 and that is the only time we may use the restroom as well. Our uniforms must be washed and pressed... Yes. Dress code is tight, but overall I am more or less excited about school. But somehow over the past month I feel like I've grow so much I am out of school- I am beyond school or something, so it felt weird at first having to get back in that mindset. This summer has been so extraordinarily long and filled with new experiences from climbing a multi-pitch in Yosemite to visiting DC to everything about here I just couldn't believe that I had to go back to SCHOOOL.

This past weekend was by far the best I've had here... On Saturday I had another drumming lesson and learned my new favorite rhythm, then went out of Accra with my YES friends and an AFS volunteer to a beautiful park called the Aburi Botanic Gardens where we were toured around and saw trees planted by different presidents and even Queen Elizabeth. The place was made into a park in 1890 and has sections for herbal medicine research, conservation, and then the trees that we were toured through. Once I upload my pictures I will speak more of the Gardens. So we got home around evening and less than a half hour after I got back my brothers decided to go out so I spent a nice night drinking pineapple juice, listening to the music, admittedly feeling awkward at times... at a little spot on the side of the highway near the sea.
The next morning I got up to go with the same volunteer to the International Central Gospel Church, or ICGC. It was quite a church I must say- first it was big, hundreds of people all decked out in their Sunday Best, live band, ushers in suits, a big choir, even a balcony, and everyone was singin' and dancin' and and fillin' up that whole huge building with glory and praise. Then we went to the beach for the first time...

The beach. the beach. sandy expanse of untarnished white swept up by a crystal blue sea and elegantly swaying palm trees shading your personal haven...right? Warm water with gentle waves rolling around you and bright fish darting between your legs- It's the tropics after all.

Labadi beach is a touristy spot and hence a money making opportunity. Bars line the beach, with shaded tables to sit at (and pay for) very crowded- people selling things from bathing suits to carved wooden statues to mini drums to little Ghana bracelets to pirated DVDs...
I was so excited to be in the ocean that I just started running, jumping, splashing into the sea, feeling the perfectly chilled water and there- oh, is that seaweed, huh, why no, its a plastic bag. And that there- it's a ice cream bar wrapper, and that and wow- it really is dirty... then a whistle. Silly girl has gone flitting and prancing into the red flag zone. Ha, count on me to do such a thing... but truly it's hard to tell because most of the beach is red flag. In fact the area where we can swim is very small, like a hundred feet from white flag to white flag (though I'm a terrible estimator). But at least there is a lifeguard. Many Rastas, many Obrunis, many locals, music blasted from everywhere so loud that even when you are swimming you can be dancing... not my idyllic lie-on-a-beach-and-read place, but interesting in a people watching/meeting sort of way... and I did enjoy swimming, especially when it was later and the waves were really crazy, powerful but close to shore so still safe...
and then there was Eid, the Muslim holiday celebrating the end of Ramadan, as well as Kwame Nkrumah's birthday celebrations..... but I will wait until I have my pictures and some more time.

Personally, I am just riding the tide, starting school is the main thing on my plate, and having to get to school by 6:45 tomorrow. I have not felt real homesickness since DC, though I think of home and people- you all- often, especially when look at the night sky.

As always, that this may find you in peace.

by the way, this had nothing to do with sleepwalking, don't worry, you didn't zone out... but I'll be doing that soon... if I don't cut short all the things more that I want to say and instead sleep.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

As-Salam Alaykum

laugh laugh laugh laugh "no, no, no... AponCHE"
what is the difference?!
Goat. AponCHE=Goat. They roam the streets here, and then they grace our stews.

Irony. Check it out. I guess you can't see that well, but those are slums... the billboard.... yea.

These are the same slums, it is very hard to capture from a
moving car.

First dress... not a great shot... they add extra material to make the hips look big,
which I thought was funny... so different.

Click on the pictures to get a super enlarged view. Especially the slum ones, you can really see.

Ghana countryside. Sorry about the cracks in the window.

The woman has a baby on her back... this bridge is just behind my house... I like to go there in the evening sometimes and there are train tracks to walk on, along the fields.
The boys are running across the street with heads full of limes.

This is my bedroom, though I've since removed the mats. Above is the Kwame Nkrumah burial site. He was the first Ghanaian president and was very interested in uniting Africa... I know painfully little about him... Most people adore what he did, but my uncle went on a tirade about how Nkrumah wasted the money that could have helped GHANA, and is therefore part of the reason why Ghana is still poor. Same uncle has told me numerous times how Ghana is one of, if not the richest place on earth, considering its size and the amount of tapped and UNTAPPED resources... Gold, oil, cocoa, salt... I can't remember now, but he feels like Ghana should be doing much better than it is. Below is the Presidential place... their White House... except for some reason the president is not there right now... then there is a shot of Accra. It doesn't really demonstrate anything, there are no people selling things at that spot and you get no sense of the traffic, but I liked it as a photo...

I cannot believe I have been here for a month already. Of course it feels like I have been here forever, and for no time at all... have done many things, but also sat around for way too long trying to understand the terrible Ghanaian soaps in a florescent lit den, while everyone else gets a kick out of talking in Twi to each other and the screen.

So I broke the semi-monotony one day by asking one of my uncles if I could take the trotro to my drumming lesson. After much debate about if I could get there in time, if I wouldn't get lost, if I should take this route or the other, he decided to come along with me. And I sure am glad he did. Trotros are the most common mode of transport, being cheap and accessible. From anywhere in Accra one can get anywhere by trotro at any time of day or night for less that one cedi. Ok, I have no way to verify if that is true, but you get the idea. So we caught the trotro, and took it to "Circle" where I would have been completely lost if I had gone on my own. The most interesting part was walking down a narrow sidewalk where there were literally hundreds of young Ghanaian guys on either side of me selling stolen cell phones mostly and hissing, calling obruni, or princess or just girl, or making a smooching noise, another common way to get someone's attention, or lightly grabbing my arm... yes, if my uncle had not been there I might have just fainted. No, I exaggerate. The next day I went through the same mob by myself and was perfectly calm and dignified, if a bit sweaty. That day was fun... I met up with some fellow YESers at Circle and we found the bank...ate some interesting street food- a different kind of fried doughball- stood out like a 7 fingered hand with three soar thumbs... made our way through the mazes of trotros, shoes, shoes, shoes.... were followed by a relentless guy wanting to get my or Marie's number, so we finally gave them to him....

JOKING- we would never do such a thing, don't worry.

...unfortunately I should say that this taste of independence was short lived because my dad said later he wishes I would not go by my own yet. By my own. I guess that is improper, but it is something my brother Dominic says... funny how it just slipped out.


We went to a mosque on 9/11.

seems appropriate, given the program we are on.

Sitting there listening to the prayers and preaching, which was focused on how Islam is misunderstood and is the most peaceful religion at heart, thinking that if the events of this day 8 years ago had not happened, I would not be here. Which is in absolutely no way to say that some good comes of every wrong because that would be attempting to be a justification and that's not my point, it was just a profound realization. One that actually didn't dawn upon me until my friend pointed it out. Beside the point.
It was not a traditional mosque in any way... just a building that could have been an office, but was transformed into a place of prayer by the atmosphere of quietude, the white and flowing hijabs on the women, the long mats being unrolled in the courtyard. If any of you are interested in Islam, the story of its birth, some reasons for its misinterpretation and a good, balanced opinion on its true meaning (with different ideas presented) I am reading a book called No God but God by Reza Aslan and would recommend it.

There are certain things about Islam, such as praying 5 times a day, wherever one is, taking the 5 or so minutes to stop whatever is going on and join every other Muslim across the globe in an act of prostration to Allah, submission to something greater, that makes me have a great respect for the Ummah. Also, fasting during the month of Ramadan, which is almost over now, I mean fasting is not for the fainthearted... but fasting purely for religion takes such great spiritual devotion I am truly in awe. And of course, how much they must enjoy Eid, the equivalent of "Fat Tuesday" which comes for the three days after Ramadan has ended.

Religion is very prevalent here in Ghana, though it is predominantly Christian, not Muslim, at least in the south. I have been asked about my religion, and it seems people only accept two answers. Christian or Muslim. Being neither is hard because I am asked why and don't really know how to respond. It is both very simple, I just wasn't raised that way, but also very intricate because I am not downright atheistic. Why don't your parents take you to church? And forget trying to explain Unitarian Universalism... but the thing is, I wonder in myself why I am not religious... in an organized sort of way. I start wondering what my own beliefs are.... What will I teach my children should I be blessed with any? Blessed by who?
It is something I meditate on when I am in the Presby church and can't understand a word of the Twi service.

One interesting thing is that when we were in DC with the 400 other YES participants from around the world (have I mentioned that?), there was an activity we did around religion where we had to pass a sheet of paper and write what we knew about all the different major religions. I was really surprised that some of the kids had not heard of Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Agnosticism... I was surprised and concerned and judgmental (not of them, but of the lack of education they had been offered in this particular area)....

Tomorrow I will get to meet the other AFS kids coming from Belgium, USA, and either Germany or Finland. I have met some sweet German girls already who were on a program here three years ago and came back to visit, and I've begun to realize just how much AFS connects one to people from not only the place I am but to people from all over the world. So we chatted about our homes to each other and shared our observations about Ghana, new to us all. One of the funny things is that us Americans all come from different parts of the country, so we run into a problem when explaining "how things are in America" because we all have different experiences. It all comes down to, America is a very vast place and everything really depends on where you go.

I hope you enjoy the pictures, I will try to upload some videos too later.

Hope all is well.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

The Kitchen

What defines a place? Weather, people, geography, culture and within those all the various aspects of life from religion to vegetation. And Food. Food is one of the most essential definitions of place, and it gives a view into the rest- how it is prepared, taken and what exactly it is. So. Ghanaian food.

The picture is of my first meal here, a gentle rice dish called Jollof. By gentle I mean it was roughly familiar and not too spicy. And of course there was fried chicken and some sauteed cucumbers, tomatoes and beans, which they call "salad" but is very different from my definition of salad. Jollof proves to be one of my favorite meals, and it is basically rice cooked in a tomato, pepper sauce, and there is usually some canned corned beef thrown in for flavor. But I shall zoom out to the main ingredients, because there are so many variations on roughly the same things.

For the starch of the meal there is rice, yam, cocoyam, plantain, potato, and some other types of yam. These are taken with sauces made out of tomatoes, pepper, onion, "spices", fish, canned corned beef or tuna and in one dish a spinach like leaf. Fish is a big part of the diet, in all the soups and sauces or fried on the side, though I have only had it like that in a restaurant. Gosh, how does one tackle food....

Breakfast: usually I have bread and tea. Tea meaning either PG Tips or Ovaltine or Milo. The bread here is amazing- it is very white, very square, and infinitely light. I have never had Wonder Bread, but I think this is basically the same. We buy it unsliced, every other day from the store down the street, and I got to see one of the bakeries so I know that it is local bread (though obviously not local wheat). It is slightly sweet which makes it perfect on its own or with the delicious chocolate spread, which gets me through my sugar cravings because...

Ghanaians are not big on sugar. There are not really desserts, except sometimes watermelon, which is surprisingly flavorless compared to what I have tasted before, or pineapple which is really really sweet and juicy.

One thing that all of us YESers have found that is like a doughnut is called a "bowfloat" and it is fried corn dough with a bit of sweetness. Unfortunately they are addictive but give me stomach aches.

But back to the starches- all of them can be fried or boiled, and my favorite is fried plantains with a bit of ginger, especially when they are really really ripe and soft.

The specialties are fufu, banku and kenke. Fufu is impossible to explain, but I will try. So you take the boiled cocoyam, and-or boiled plantain and-or boiled cassava and mash it up. The mashing process is impressive because one woman sits there slowly putting in the chunks of starchy tuber and then mixes it while a man steadily drives a long log into the mortar where her hands are. I thought her fingers would be smashed a million times, but I realized that you learn from early on how to be quick and if the man has a rhythm then it is easy to work together. Slowly the fibers break down until it looks like a lump of bread dough. I have just completely mutilated the process- it is so involved... I will try to post a video... So then the fufu is taken with a "light soup" but as they pronounce, liesoup, which is really just a broth of tomato and pepper and it always has a hunk of fish or meat for everyone. Fufu is a long process... we start it in the mid afternoon, usaully after church on sundays, and end around 4 or 5 and eat it as soon as it is done because first it gets hard when it sits, and second it is so heavy that one does not want to take it any later. Then sometimes we will have some small rice or bread with tea in the evening. I have had fufu a couple of times, but I find it hard to eat. Because it has been broken down by the pounding, there is no need to chew it, and truthfully chewing it is rather unpleasant because it gets all stuck in my teeth, so one just smooches off a bit with the fingers, gets it all soupy and then quickly swallows it... which I find not entirely enjoyable. But I love the light soup, so sometimes I just have that.

Now banku and kenke are made out of fermented corn stuff, and are stickier and less slimy than fufu, and have a flavor, which fufu does not. They are sour, to variying degrees, and if it is too sour I do not like it. We eat them with sauce, again, a tomato, pepper onion spice sauce... and again with fish or meat..... yes.... it does get a bit monotonous, there is little that is not spicy and fishy and starchy. Fresh vegetables are not a big thing.... most meals are taken hot, which is because of the tropical diseases that can get into cold food. So far I like most everything, though I have to be careful with the heavy foods because they are so much heavier than what I am used to. Then they ask me what I eat at in the US and it is so hard to remember.... its all so diverse and just so different....

Dairy is nonexistent.... they bought cornflakes, which I tried, but seriously, putting water with some canned "Ideal milk" was a little bit weird. I said that at home I have cereal with real milk, and my sister was saying that this canned creamy stuff made of palm oil and stuff was milk, and I was trying to tell her..... and of course there is no cheese, and they use margarine....

Water is another thing. We do not drink tap water, no, I have not had a glass of water since Ive been here, it has all be taken from bags or bottles. even the locals drink sashes of water, little bags that you tear the corner off of and suck on.

Food.... let me see.... preparation... Most things have been prepared in bulk and then we heat them up- sauces and soups and stuff... I can not wait till we run out and I get to see the cooking process. The starches of course we make as we need, and i love that our pantry is full of these HUGE yams, and whole bunches of plantains. Of course we do make simple tomato pepper caned tuna sauces when it is late and no one feels like cooking and eat it with rice.... Because my host mom is not around the food situation is different- it is more fend for yourself and then in the evening the girls makes something or my Auntie brings us banku or fufu if we do not have time to make it.

Taking food... first of all we say "taking" more than "eating" which tripped me up the first few times. And this family is informal about eating.... most of the food is finger food, which I love, but also gets me very messy, and most of it is taken together... I had my first experience eating rice out of a bowl with my fingers and three other girls, which was enjoyable, if a bit of a race to try to get enough... one can easily see that eating together has caused everyone to eat faster.

Salad- well they do have salad... usually it is cabbage, carrots, green pepper, canned tuna, onion, and noodles. Or else they don't add noodles and they make sandwhiches out of it... put it between bread and put the bread in this nifty little warming oven.

In general I like the food, but find it a bit repetitive. and i occasionally really miss a good feta, cranberry, walnut, pear, spinach salad.

Switching angles... communication is sometimes frustrating. When I feel like I've told the right person what I want to do it then ends up being mixed up in the wash and coming out some other way, and in the end I feel like I messed up, even though I can't think of how I could have though to do it differently. It hasn't happened too often, but the few times it has I have felt very regretful that I didn't play it differently. I just keep reminding myself that this is only the beginning and I am learning so that eventually I will get it.

School begins next monday, on the 14th... and I have to say I am nervous.
I will be going to a pretty prestigious school and I have heard the academics are much more difficult here.... though I'm not so worried about that as much as just getting along, fitting in, finding my place in another new school. fortunately this is not the first school transition i've had to make.

I hope all is well with everyone, and I would love to hear from any of you, email, facebook, anything.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Shopping Spree

"Having trouble tellin' you how I feel, but I can dance, dance, dance" - Lykke Li song lyric

Oh life goes in and out, roller coaster, up and down, and I am just trying always to dance my way into myself. As I spend the morning in a strangely quite house catching up on my fellow exchangers I feel both that I am part of a much larger network of similar experiences, and too that I am so so so alone here in completely my own situation, my own adventure, and I can't quite wrestle it into words to share.

But as always, it is best to being with experience.

Well, roller coaster indeed, I had two days of complete overload and stimulation which dumped me into a weekend of fatigue and a small cold. On Thursday I went shopping for some clothes...
The day began with a mango. The better part of a mango, and tea, with the usual powdered milk, which in itself has been strange to get used to. Dairy is not really practical here... anyway, the market. The market is situated in a 'trotro' station, trotros are like minibusses, so it is a mecca of trade with a constant flow of people coming in and leaving, and of course vehicles driving through the throngs, weaving between the umbrellas, under which there are goods like presents under a christmas tree. And people constantly parading their wares; belts to sponges, sunglasses to sim cards in one's face, and I simply keep an eye on Auntie Essi as she parts the red sea with her calm poise. One thing I realized, as I stood before a heap of shoes that all looked roughly the same, trying to find some that both fit, weren't too old looking and were ok for church, or walking, not really knowing what I needed or wanted, and having new ones thrust on my feet by another Ghanaian man, asked are they ok? yes they look nice, yes you buy, yes you like? are they ok for you? well, at home I can say yes they are ok, but I don't really want them, but here, Ok means that they are suitable and therefore worth getting... so I did a lot of, wait, no I don't want them... anyway, I realized that to go shopping at a place like that, I would need to have a clear idea of exactly what I needed and exactly how much I was willing to spend on it. Bargaining was an art. The whole experience was heated and flustering, except the bargaining, done by a skilled Auntie Essi who would then speak softly and not look at the man, softly and firmly, both with equal tones, until she would be still, and then tell me how much money to fork over. I could not understand a word of it, not even the rates they were talking about because they speak with the old money lingo, which I can't really translate into cedis yet. At one point when I had just made some slightly hasty decisions and was feeling quite flustered, trying to keep up through the noise and narrow paths between baskets of dried fish and piles of old electronics, Essi took my hand, softly. I have never been thrown a life ring or rope, but that hand, those calm fingers amidst the blur was a life saver as much as any other.

I could go on. We went to another part of town where ladies sold things out of their hand bags, until the cops drove by, and then we all hid our money and looked around like we were unassociated. And all I could think was, where does all this stuff COME FROM? I mean the sheer mass of plastic and cotton, the piles of second hand clothes and new shoes, it is just unbelievable. I asked Essi, and she just said, mass production is everywhere now, and shrugged.
I mean, I used to get totally overwhelmed shopping at Ross... this place makes it look like a "chique boutique"!

Friday I had drumming lessons until afternoon, then when I was picked up brother Bush told me we were going to the wedding. Now I had been told there was a wedding, but I had been told that this day was not really the wedding but the "engagement" and that the festivities were in the evening, so needless to say I was a bit unprepared. There is a theme here, and the lesson is: always be prepared Justine for spending time out on the town. So the rest of the day I spent at the reception for this wedding which involved sitting, sipping minerals (the local word for soda), listening to Twi, feeling disgruntled that I had not worn my new dress, and generally waiting because, as I was informed by an uncle, the whole thing was not going according to plan. Apparently the couple were of a certain region that likes to do things at night. So we got there- to an open courtyard bar- at three or so and waited until after dark- 6:30-7 for the bride and groom and everyone else to get there.... And I went to buy fish with my uncle, that was the best. We drove to "Oxford st" (you know why they call it Oxford, he said, because everything is so expensive) which might be called a main drag- a touristy spot where I saw many obrunis. So we just drove and when we passed the fish guys our driver hissed them over and the barganing began. As we sat in the car, four or five Ghanaian guys with buckets of different fish were all trying to make theirs look the most appetizing and cheapest. Talapia is a specialty fish, but we got red fish- the biggest one, more than a foot long, which my uncle cooked the following day in a delicious stew of tomatoes, oil, peppers, spices.... it is taken with banku, a sour, sticky, pasty mush of fermented corn that is not entirely terrible but not all that great either.

After winning some points by dancing- it was great, the aunties got up and laughed, hailing me with their swaths of cloth- we ate. And as I was finishing my plate, the drink guy (who made sure everyone had ice, alcohol or minerals) brought me a plate of food larger than my first and told me to eat all! eat all! else I charge you big money! Then we go dance, and you make sure to move your waist! and I said, o yes, but see sah, if I eat all I will no be able to dance! and it was all very humorous and in good fun. After the supper my uncles and brothers went to play pool and listen to live music, jazz and high life and I did dance, to the Ghanaian rhythm and hummed to myself when the song was a version of "Lean on me" and later, "Hard days Night".

On another note, I have found a really good friend, also named Afia. She is my "dad"s niece and has graduated senior high school but is taking French courses and plans to go to university. We both enjoy reading and I've asked her to recommend some good African authors, and we have both found a friend in each other. Today she showed me how to fry plantains, which is one of my favorite dishes, and she has promised to teach me more Ghanaian cooking, as she loves to cook herself.

I have begun to feel so incredibly privileged, that I am studying abroad, have been abroad before, can go home and even come back sometime... I don't know how to express the feeling because I don't know how if feels, just a big question mark. Why? circumstance. Fair? Un-qualify able. But it has made me more certain that I must give it back in some way, must make the effort to walk toward the middle ground, walk toward the center of the see-saw. In a way that is what I am doing, but not completely.

one more note: Laughter. laughter here is a spirit, a fairy, a jinn coming from the depths of these Ghanaian souls. It has a way of completely taking over the bodies around me so that the girls crumple as it rolls out of their mouths. Abenna begins to laugh, she stumbles to the wall, sighing, leans on the tiles to regain herself, or on each other, or on the floor, I absolutely love watching people laugh. I can't say I've completely every released my own Genie of Laughter, no, I remain upright in my humor, but one day, I know, one day I will laugh that thing right out of my throat and forever more laughter will be a full body experience.

Another note, on the irony of life as relates to the everlasting struggle for beauty. In Ghana they bleach their skin to become fairer, whilst we waste our money and time in tanning salons. Needless to say, both have terribly ugly long term side effects.

The picture I took on the first day out of my hostel window, of central Accra in early morning on a deserted street.

Asomdwee, peace.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Real Women Have Curves

One day I am awoken by a rapping at my door, and Abenaa comes in to tell me that 'brarBush' (brother "Bush", yes nicknamed after our locally adored former president- I haven't figured out why yet) wanted to take me to get "Muslim porridge" and would I bathe? I hurriedly put on some clothes saying I'd bathe when I got back, thinking that we were getting the dry porridge to prepare here shortly. Well, we did not leave for another 45 minutes, though I had been under the impression we were in a hurry. Once in the car, still a bit groggy, I watched our residential area fade into slum and then urban dwellings- narrow streets with open sewers waiting for unaware drivers to steer their tires into and hens waiting for unaware food to peck at. The porridge operation was in full swing at this hour; girls and women behind huge tubs of what looked like really thin cream of wheat, but more of a cement color. Not altogether appetizing... And the woman up front was swiftly pouring bowlfuls of the porridge into bags, one at a time in such a methodically predictable manner I could see she had been doing this same series of actions for a while. So we got our bags of porridge and some fried dough balls and started home... or not.

I will divulge here for a moment because the porridge was quite a new experience. A bag is portable, it is penetrable, it is easily thrown out the window and it can hold hot substances, all of which make it perfect for serving porridge in. But I had never sucked my breakfast out of a bag before. Especially not a whitish, creamy breakfast out of thin clear plastic. Anyways, you just rip a hole in the corner and are rewarded with a gingery, warming, slightly sweet meal. And more than I could eat for less than 50 cents.

To make a very long day short we drove around Accra, stopping at some living barracks to meet friends, going to a restaurant to meet more friends, stopping by the office, eating, meeting more people, buying a coconut from one of the many cartloads, picking up friends and dropping them off, getting ice cream, driving the same streets over and over until I began to predict where we would end up, which felt like an accomplishment. For the first hour and a half I kept assuming the next stop would be home. I didn't know what to say to all these people but to reiterate the pathetically small phrases I speak of the local language. I hadn't really dressed for a day out and still felt tired, but eventually I relaxed into just observing. Fortunately, this is something I am quite fond, as you all might know, and there is no shortage of action in Accra.

I have heard the saying "real women have curves" and if this is the case, then Ghana is a hot spot for feminine reality. Yes, this place is a land of curves. Beautiful black fleshy fronts and behinds (trying to keep this PG) accentuated by fitting, colorful Ghanaian dresses. I appreciate seeing this different idea of beauty though at first I was surprised to see that the four final contestants for "Ghana's Most Beautiful" TV show were not the western ideal of slimness. It is obvious that the local diet, heavy on carbohydrates and meat, both fried in various forms, does not make it easy to be otherwise, but it is just as obvious that the beauty image is completely satisfied the way things are. So on the streets there are always innumerable women carrying baskets and glass boxes of savory bites on top of their strong necks. Then there are the numbers of lean, muscular men hauling carts of frozen yogurt or coconuts or brush. Alleys with broken streets, hens pecking across, smoke hazing the other end. Canals of sewage with scavenging white stork-like birds and children- green hues of algae and palms, the reflective tones of water and sky, and always a haze at the end of the view. For hours I watched it all go by, to a soundtrack of honking and hissing, (the way to get one's attention) occasional heated Twi conversations when we were taking someone somewhere and Soldier Boy (a rap song, for those of you over 25) when we weren't. It was not until dinner that we returned, wind blown, eyes open, full of new sights and tastes, sticky with smoggy sweat and satisfied.

However, if I've misheard the saying all these years, and it really goes real women have curls, then I'm afraid Ghana is becoming the western media. Fortunately I was aware of this before I came to Ghana. See, there were 30 Ghanaian teens coming to the US to study through the same program as myself who I got to meet in Washington DC at my pre-departure orientation. All the girls had long heads of mini braids, but one girl's hair was a dirty blond, so I asked another girl if it was a natural color. She looked at me funnily then said that none of it was- all of them had extensions, of course. As I came to understand, it is mandatory that girls buzz their hair until they are out of high school (this I will not be made to do, I have been told). So I realized quickly that the women here do not really have a problem with sporting artificial hair. And I am pretty sure that almost every woman here does. Whether using straight up wigs, extensions or profuse gels and sprays, most hair has the same unnatural stiffness and shimmer. The best I've seen so far was a 3 or 4 year old girl, in church, with her little dress and a wig that was black with shimmery red/gold highlights cut in a short business-woman sort of way.

Curves and curls, hues and haze whizzing by me, and I notice how kids have to entertain and take care of themselves and each other, and how few birds there are here- pigeon type ones and large crows that have white bands around their necks, but not in the ample amounts one might expect with so much to scavenge. And then I see that this world is a scavenging world. The street animals and people alike, all finding what is there, competing for survival. I will try to capture what I am saying in pictures, only, it feels like I am violating the subjects in some way. As one of the other AFSers said, it's not like they are tourist attractions, they are people living their lives. We are all people, living our lives, writing our own stories with every decision we make.

As always, I hope this finds you all in peace and health

Wednesday, August 19, 2009


I write to the powerful mic of the nighttime gospel coming from a church nearby. I write in a comfortably warm room, to the hum of the computer and the tick of the second hand that is forever revolving around the small hand being pulled by gravity, always limp, while the minutes keep a timely loop, desperately, around the hour of 6, always. And as I write, I gaze ahead of me and see a thick, camel-colored-with-roses printed drape that reminds me vaguely of Fraulein Maria's homemade garments, and the white wall that is tainted with dirty finger memories. It is a modest room, prepared for two, and taken by only me- on the empty bed lies a keyboard that I have yet to play. This room was Jake and Kelvin's, the two younger boys who are my host brothers, but the only sign of this fact is the set of matching football (soccer) field mats .

The picture is of Jake, who is the youngest boy, at 6. He is very smart and was a constant companion for the first days, in the pool, outside, inside, playing cards, watching TV (it is a big time passer in this household). He has a very cute way of mumbling Twi/English so fast that I can often not understand him, but his smile is priceless and his little way of swaggering with a soda in one hand and package of crackers in the other.
Kelvin is 11, and Baron is 13 and they were both a bit shyer, but also preoccupied (I will explain) so I didn't really get to know them that well. They had a way of walking around with fairly expressionless faces, until I smiled at them, and then they would flash me these beautiful grins.
Abena is 1, and my my is she chubby and cute! The IDEAL little African baby with bright eyes, always smelling of a very warm oil. When her expression changes from curiosity, it is almost always to delight, and they all call her Lady, except they say it like Ledy, ledy, ledy.
The girls, who are somehow related, but I have not gotten that far, are Nana, Abena and Afia- they are 12, 14, and 15. Nana has a great laugh, where she throws her head back and lets it bubble from the back of her throat. Afia is quieter but also enjoys laughing, especially at me when I try to speak Twi. Abena is my sister. She is witty and confidant, likes to tease and has this beautiful way of looking completely serious and then lifting her cheeks to reveal this smile of smiles. Mostly, she loves to make me mimic her speech, her dancing, her looks, and then laugh laugh laugh and I join right in. I have figured out that if I ever feel awkward, I have only to ask to learn some Twi and we will all end up having a good time.
Mama Faustina and Akua are the ladies of the kitchen and house, Mama being round and loud and Akua being compact and powerful in her thinness. Then there are the Uncles. I have barely attempted to learn names and am only beginning to catch onto which actually live here and which are just guys from the office. My "Dad" is a business man, and apparently it is a family business because his other brothers seem to work there too, as do all the various male inhabitants, but then some just come as business partners. They are all very nice and always shake my hand, which ends with both of us snapping our middle fingers together using our thumbs... its hard to explain but it is the local greeting. And as I've said, they all call me Afia.
Imagine me, on that first day, arriving to a house expecting Mom, and four kids, and meeting room full of people after room!
But here is the catch: three days after I arrived, the three boys, and the other older boy who I forgot to mention, he is a cousin, as well as Akua and a load of suitcases boarded a plane for South Africa because the boys need better education that what is offered in Ghana, and the family has a second home down there. Then only a few hours ago, Mama Faustina and baby Abena joined them, and within a few weeks Dad is going as well. They will live there all year and come back on vacations. Also, I learned that the three girls are going to school in another region and will not be living here either. I have not been able to get completely clear why they are hosting me if they knew about the move, but I think it is somewhere in between not knowing that they would have to leave so soon, and them being the first family to offer. It is surprising and frustrating how difficult the language barrier actually is- often I feel like my meaning is lost in accent and the general chaos of whatever is going on, so it has been hard clearing my confusion. They keep telling me not to worry and that I will not be lonely and all, but I will let you all know how the situation unfolds.
The worst part was how much I fell in love with all of them- and the constant interaction - which leaves a huge emptiness in the house. I miss them all even though it was only a few days that I knew them.

On a different note, today we had a drumming lesson set up by the AFS people. It was amazing, I already can't wait till Friday for another. By "we" I mean the four YES Abroad Ghana kids, me, Adam (CA), Anna (Missouri) and Meredith (Virgina).

The days have been long. I must be accompanied on walks, automatic deterrent, even though this is a really nice neighborhood- Dad insists on it- and as of yet there is nothing I know about to do. And none of the girls here really like to go out that much. Both the heat and the heavy carb-based diet make me lethargic, which is a downward spiral, so I've been trying to get out somehow everyday. I went to Dad's office with an Uncle, and listened to a room of large Ghanaian men shout in Twi/English about local politics for a few hours, then tried to have it all explained to me.... but I was left more baffled than when I was able to connect the dots of English using my imagination. Went for a very long walk with some other uncles all around and talked about Ghana and America. "Brother Ken" impressed upon me how much anyone in Ghana would give to go to America, so please, let us be grateful for where fate has landed us, because I think most of you reading this are on a computer in the US.

It is strange how far away the rest of my life feels. If it were not for this computer I would feel very isolated indeed. A picture of a friend fell out of my journal today, I had forgotten it was there, and just looking at it the first thing that came to mind was "wow, the rest of my life is real". There's no way to explain how that feels. It just comes from how excruciatingly long this week and a half has been, how completely ripped out of the fabric of my life I feel, my known life, my trusted life, the life that indeed ended me up here, I remind myself. I remind myself that I asked to be here, I worked to be here, I want to be here, and yes, the rest of the world will go on without me, and that this too will just become another chapter in my book (though right now it feels like I'm completely starting a new one- no pages to turn back to for a clue as to how the plot is supposed to go). But I also know how true it is that by feeling the blankness I am learning more about myself than all the pages of the desired familiarity can teach.

I hope this finds you all in peace and health.

PS I have to say I really appreciated the comments. Not that I'm expecting them now or anything, it was just nice to have the whole "rest of my world still existing" thing reaffirmed in those little notes. Thank you.
Asomdwee (peace)