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)

Sunday, August 16, 2009


It seems like a fitting title, given the circumstances.

Yes, I have arrived in Accra, Ghana and am living in a house full Ghanaian laughter. My family is boisterous and large, with a plethora of incoming and outgoing relatives, "house help" girls that are treated like siblings, the Big Mama of all Big Mamas and now me, an "obruni" as they call the white foreigners. But before I introduce the family, I must tell you about Accra.

Akwaaba! Welcome to Ghana, the land of Sunshine, where Freedom and Justice guide the people.
Though as I write this I realize that the sun is what I have seen the least of since my arrival to an overcast, smoggy, generally hazy Accra. And yes, I must say I miss it. The sky. But, for the myriad of colors and faces and dresses and whir of action, I probably would not find myself sky-gazing all that often anyhow. This place is full of life, full of lush green trees, black and shining people who are always decked out in vibrant fabrics, full of smells- smoke, fuel, body odor, fish, fish, fish, open sewers, humidity, dust-- red dust from the sides of the roads, orangey like powdered Thai tea and contrasted perfectly with the greenery. And emerging from the dust are billboards, advertising Obama, CocaCola, black hair dye (?), and all along the streets are Vodafone adds, the leading cell phone, though competing for frequency are the patriotic colors of Red, Yellow and Green. Along the sides of the roads are people. Walking, biking, balancing baskets of dried plantains, peanuts, sashes of water, toilet paper, sandals, tires, everything and anything you can imagine on their heads, gracefully walking as though their necks were invincible. And the roads themselves? Basic rule: which ever car is fastest and which ever driver is riskiest gets the right of way. Cars slowing for people? Cars using turn signals? Cars staying in their own lanes? Do you WANT to get where you're going? (Whether or not you are alive is a minor factor). Yes. the roads are wild, because the traffic is terrible. If one doesn't accelerate to get the next spot, one might be stuck in the unmoving pile for another fifteen minutes. Accra is definitely another world, yet I am remided of my time in Thailand, which makes it seem like this world is not so large after all. Especailly when my host sister, Abena (not the 1 year old, this one is 14) taugth me the same game as I had learned from the Thais in a remote village- it is basically Jacks with rocks. And of course, being on my email doesn't make anything seem any bigger- except globalization.

So, I leave the Family unmentioned, but that will come in a later post. Know that I am well, I can't believe I have been gone only just over a week, and am very much looking forward to this year... and at the same time miss you all dearly.

One more note- my new name is Afia, meaning Friday born girl. There are basically 7 male and 7 female names in this area, that each person is called by, as well as any other names. One male and female name for each day of the week and you are named depeding on when you are born. Thus there are two Afias, two Abenas, four Kwabenas (at least), etc. in this one household. It makes me feel infintely a part of the clan when little 6 year old Jake/Kwabena retraces his steps through the house yelling "Afia, Afia" when I have lagged behind him, or when Akua says "Afia, you come pound da fufu". Yes, I have found a second, or third, home.

Friday, August 7, 2009


It is the day of departure.

Inside me is a strange calm that I've felt all day, induced by the monotone gray, and the feeling of standing on a precipice. Elation and apprehension pull me in such opposite directions that I find myself suspended in a midair emptiness. Now I just want to leave, jump, decide, freefall, move onto the next phase with my body as well as my thoughts.

I feel this is the beginning of something that will guide the rest of my life, and the feeling extends to those around me, as we all take a step together in different ways. This whole year has been one of irrevocable change, and my journey is just the same wind, finally reaching me. So here is a clinking glass to beginnings and movement.

But in this particular moment I am focused on the sound of a doorway closing, an era ending, a precious era that has defined in many ways who I am today and why I am leaving. Right know that door feels to be never closing, and I keep peaking back- saying one last goodbye, grabbing one last curio- and I only hope it does not close on my fingers. So, the clink of glasses sounds again, this time, with glittering, doleful eyes, to endings.

Have there been things unsaid? Of course, and things undone as well. But that is a place one cannot dwell. My feet are poised at the brink, and I must release the qualms, and trust that this is the right path and that though I fall free, I am carried by Grace.

So, here I go.