Thursday, June 24, 2010


Washington DC.

After the joys, the sorrows, the goodbyes, the long days on which I wanted a cold Seattle breeze and the moments I thought would last for, if not ever, at least much longer than they did.

Met up with Turkey in Germany, and now just trying to realize it is real. We're home, well, almost.

So. I'm alive.

(Note: we met up with the students on our program who had been in Turkey, not Turkey itself... no, as far as I know Turkey is still over where it aught to be).

Tuesday, June 22, 2010


THIS is it.

I am reminded now of a moment some ten months ago when I took the few minutes before finally stepping out of my room to write something named Departure. Even then I knew an era would be ending, and that was what I spoke of.

Life moves on. Even as we sit here willing time to stop, it wraps us up in its swift channel and whether we have our bags or not, it's taking us home. On this last night we sew up the fabric of this life around us, cocooning ourselves in Ghana, in our memories, in our love for this place that it may never let us free.

We will get over it, as all things pass. But at least for me it will take time. And what our loved ones must understand is this passage, when perhaps it will take only a song or a picture to leave us stranded in the despair of this ending, that it is not the things around us that make it hard, it is rather that we created something so beautiful and cannot go back to it.

Of course as we go back each will be thrown into the tumult of beginnings, but for now it is only the emptiness that strikes us.

Now it really is the last minute. The stress of today, cleaning packing goodbye-ing.....

And I am now
Afia Panyin

Here we go.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

We stole one more week to travel up to the norther most tip of Ghana with two intentions: sit on Crocodiles and see Elephants. I am happy to say we accomplished both... except I didn't actually SIT on the croc, I rather hovered 2 inches above it.

The journey began Monday, waiting 3-4 hours in the bus station to finally leave at 4pm. Then we sat in that bus until 8am the next morning when we arrived at the boarder of Ghana and Burkina Faso in a small town called Paga. Throughout the night we froze to death because I had insisted we pay an extra 2 cedis for AC, which, to my defense, would have been wonderful had we been traveling under the sun. There were Ghaliwood films playing all night. And Ghaliwood tends to drive me crazy (no offense to any Ghanaians) for the tinny sound quality, and I'm sorry to say but, bad acting. Every few hours we stopped to urinate or buy food for whatever the hour was, a mere 9pm, 12 midnight or even 3am there were women with baskets of bread, trays of boiled eggs with small pepper sauce, bananas, mangoes or pots of fried rice balanced on their heads and sold by street light or oil lamps. People asleep on straw mats or nothing at all. 20peswas to use the loo. And the moon was a plump half above, lighting the scene, coming through my window to light upon my upturned face.

At a few points we let on enough head-scarved women and capped men to fill the isle. They sat on plastic stools stowed on the bus for just that reason, and the guy behind us grumbled about overload.

Arriving in the morning, munching on some left over crackers I'd brought, we find ourselves not 100feet from Burkina Faso. We sit down to enjoy some B&E&T, the most common breakfast/anytimeofday meal- Bread&Egg with Tea. Now, there is something I should mention about Ghanaian breakfast, and that is, they like their food heavy. "Tea" is what you take in the morning before breakfast, and it is either some chocolatey drink, Milo, Ovaltine, hot chocolate, or Lipton with lots of cream and sugar, AND bread. That is "tea". When I first came and drank only the liquid, they would ask me where the bread was. So anyway, there are "B&E" setups on every corner- like Starbucks in Seattle- and you just ask for however many peswas of bread you want usually 20 is ok, the egg is 30 and the tea brings it to a cedi or just above. The seller chops a bit of onion and tomato in the egg, fries it up and you have a nutritious, cheap and absolutely satisfying meal.

We met with the sister of a friend of a friend who was from Paga who got another friend to help her ride us to the croc ponds on their motorbikes.

So we get to the ponds and it just looks like a little flood area, and then we see the back of a crocodile emerging as the locals call it. So there are like four crocs surrounding us and that's not all, we are supposedly going to SIT on them. There was something about it that went against everything I had watched on those nature shows. One at a time we went and squatted by that prehistoric hunk of muscle and teeth and armor and claws. I could have sat on it, but resting my hand on its rough back was enough for me. As I hovered there the image of it's head just whipping around to snap me in half kept running through my mind.

The story of Paga is that there was a prince who was somehow exiled from his home and was wondering in the wilderness lost and thirsty when he sees a crocodile and it is wet, so he says to himself "well if this croc is here and it is wet, there jolly-well must be water near by" "hallelujah!" So indeed the crocodile leads him to water and in return the human is supposed to keep watch over the animal, which is why the two live in peace up to this day. The locals there estimated 200 creatures living in that pond alone and that they have swum with them. I mean I've thought swimming with dolphins and sea turtles is pretty cool, but CROCODILES? That's a whole other level.

After that we visited the home of the friend here in Accra. Her sister took us to a mud hut with straw roof, into a nice room with a couch, TV, a few faded black and white photos of people, and a bed of foam on the floor. Once we were seated she brought us water, which they had to go buy making us feel terrible. They asked us what we might eat, and offered a Nothern specialty called "tizet" which we gladly accepted. While waiting, a very old man came into the room and settled on his bed with his two grandchildren in their school uniforms sitting by him. He spoke to us of his travels around Ghana and outside, telling us he is Mamata's father. (Mamata is the woman here in Accra). I loved listening to him, his old, slow voice, he kept saying he was so happy to have us, that if we wanted to stay overnight it would be wonderful but he knew we had short time. At that moment I felt so blessed. Here we were with people we didn't even know in this small village, them treating us with such hospitality- it wasn't set up by AFS or family or anyone else, it was the beautiful outcome of doing exactly what I came to do- making connections.

They served us the tizet and let us eat alone. The three of us shared a pot of sticky corn dough that was different from the other Ghanaian dishes, more watery and less fermented, and a smaller bowl of okro stew with a tantalizing chicken flavor. After a day with no real food but bananas and crackers this warm, heavy meal was absolutely stellar, and it was all the better to be eating with my hands from the same pot as my two companions. After many thank you's and a few pictures they sent us off with pieces of fried guinea fowl, 6 hard boiled eggs and a tub of peanut butter big enough to last a year. We couldn't believe it, to say the least. Then they drove us on the motorcycles back to the taxi station to catch a car to Bolgatanga. All told I think that that morning was one of the best memories I will have of my stay here, our trips, Ghanaian hospitality, because as Adam said, it was completely "legit". And it was. It was exactly the reason why I don't want to just tour.

We got through Bolga and down to Tamale, back to where we had been in October with AFS- in fact we visited the same Belgin-owned restaurant we'd had wonderful pizza... only this time our wallets suggested we go for a coke, and it was mostly a guise to use the bathroom because well, it was a real bathroom with tp, doors, flush ability and soap.

Next goal: elephants. This led us back to Mole National Park, which we had also gone to with AFS... but you know, it is so much funner (and hotter, sweatier, stressfull-er, and longer) to go solo, to hop from trotro to trotro, figure it out, arrive in after dark and have to find our hotel, to bear the grit and live on bread and peanut butter. On Wednesday we arrived in another village called Larabanga rather late. It was at the end of a never ending road which had these awful ridges which made our bus rattle and shake so the racket made conversation impossible, leaving us to bounce on our seats, holding and praying that the whole shebang wouldn't go kaput right then and there. Absolutely beat, we step off the bus and are greeted by a tall man in a long white dress which the Muslims wear. He ushers us into a sweet compound, sits us on benches and without even talking about it convinces us to stay there in his guesthouse with his sheer friendliness. And the place we had thought about staying at he said had no electricity. Half an hour later we found ourselves bathed (bucket bath of course) and laying on foam on the roof under a cavern of stars, the hint of a plump moon rising, lightening flashing, soundless.

I wake. 3:21am I have to pee and it is rather cold. Leia, my sister, once told me that if you are holding urine in your body it makes you colder because your body is trying to keep the liquid warm. Hobble down the ladder and go to the pit in the floor used for such purposes. Back on the roof I stand. A baby cries in a house below. Roosters are crowing though there is no light.

We arise before the sun has shaken off the mist and hop on bikes towards the Park, some 6km away. Wheels beneath me for the first time in so long, the freedom of downhill, the panting of uphill in the still cool morning of wilderness. There are no words. I picked up a twig of a woman covered in so much colorful cloth on her way to some form of work, somewhere along this long dirt road. Little further, we pass two school children walking to class and, since the woman has alighted, we pick them up, a boy and a girl in class four in their yellow and blue uniforms. We pass a family of baboons. Warthogs. Monkeys.

We debated whether or not to splurge and spend the 40 cedis to go on a safari car tour, as we didn't see elephants immediately at the waterhole, over bread and peanut butter. A cheerleading quad of North Carolina girls in matching tops and mini shorts were also there getting ready for the walking tour... so they all had to rent Wellingtons becasue all they had were flip-flops. Hehe. Then one of the guides comes over and says the old man there wants to know if we would join his safari car because he is alone and there are four of us and it would be perfect- free for us. We thanked him profusely and hopped on. (We were four because there was another girl traveling alone, who we had happened to have seen down on Busua beach a month or two before. If I didn't mention Sofie didn't come one this trip, just me Marie and Adam). This lovely man was a retired writer from Toronto with a Scottish accent who had lived in Accra for some 13 years as a missionary. He was writing a book about literature in Ghana and Nigeria. (We scored a signed copy) . Truly he was a wonderful old man, liked talking, interested in us, had vast and rambling knowledge, and told us that a Brit once said to him that "Canadians are like Americans on decaf" which made us howl. We agreed on certain Ghanaian phenomenons, such as the use of the word "urinate" as the sole key to a place to piss- "bathroom", "washroom", "pee", or "restroom" result in nothing but confusion. Why are we embarrassed to say it?

And finally, after 2 and a half hours of nice conversation and woods, occasional antelope, warthogs, monkeys we arrived at the very same waterhole that we could see from the top where we saw two elephants. Now, besides the desire to go to Paga, the only real reason for this bang up trip was for Adam to see elephants. As he saw it, he couldn't go all the way to Africa and not gaze upon a true, wild African Elephant. And he got his wish. Two massive animals, half stained with muddy water, gentle yet fearsome less than a hundred feet away from us.

We biked home that night after dark, slept out on the roof again. The sweet man who owned the place awoke us at 1:30am telling us it would rain, so we got downstairs and not three minutes later do my ears fill with the crashing of water on a tin roof. I had never heard it so loud before.

The rest was a blur- driving from 4:30 to 11 along bumpy roads back to Tamale, then Kumasi and finally home sweet home to Accra.

All told it was beautiful. The north is mostly open, with many trees, villages of round huts with thatched roofs, traditional cloth exploding color, mosques, beggars.

We are left with two weeks. Saying goodbye, finding the last treasures, trying to figure out how to bring everything back, making sure my mental list is satisfied, preparing to take the leap back home and then to reperch again. As it is no secret now, my family will be moving to New Mexico come August.... just another adventure on this continual spinning earth, another home, another life. As I leave this one I get ready to embark on another. Is it a sunrise or a sunset?

Monday, May 24, 2010

Sea Shells

Two girls, feet buried in wet sand, skirts hiked around their knees, fingers swiftly searching. Double bent they prod the shore plucking shells, stones- glinting and salty. As a wave rocks the landscape, retrieving some of its bounty and producing more. Their eyes must be quick, fingers quicker lest that pearl is lost- but they are often lost- again and again their hands dart for one only to be swallowed by foamy brine and their treasure not yet grasped already gone. Skirts fall in the dash for glinting purple and come up sea soaked, but the girls barely notice. Sometimes she will take the chance after one over the other, there is only this time before the wave comes to decide, to chase, to try, and sometimes she comes up with diamonds, sometimes nothing but the salt and sand but there is no time for regret, the next wave is coming and the eye is already roaming for its next infatuation.

Can't we find these metaphors for life in every moment? Isn't the universe reflected in the contents of a teacup? I am searching for something. And even as I reach for it, chance comes to obscure, snatch or distort that which I desire, leaving me to blindly persue something I may or maynot manifest, and once taken, may or may not keep. Then there are those waves that come and not only sweep away the object of your desire, but knock you down, soak your skirt, leave you altered.

Sun scortched, hands overflowing yet minds stuck on those treasures lost, toes clean, thoughts expanded to exlposion from the sheer expanse of ocean. Knocked down on the cool shore, cold breeze, skin radiating pink heat, complete silence save for rhythmic crashing, is this freedom from the searcing? Momentarily.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Me Ye Ghanaba

Well, we've hit the books again. Sat through half a day at school and realized I was already sick of it. The sweat, the uniforms, the late teachers, the hard wooden desks. And at the same time, I felt such an affection for my class- now that I know each person's personality, their niche in the dynamic, how they fool around... and as always when I am with them I begin thinking about how school was back home, the way we interacted with each other as opposed to how they do here, so during math class in which we are learning exactly what I learned last year, how to calculate the circumference and area of a circle, I began to brainstorm what makes a Ghanaian a Ghanaian.

Note: please excuse my repetitions, for I have probably mentioned some of these in passing...

First is the hand shake, as that is the prelude to all relationships. The Ghanaian hand shake ends with a little snap, one person's middle finger against the other person's. I find it funny sometimes, as I see "secret handshakes" to be a gangsta thing to do, when I see two men in suits finishing off a business transaction with this gesture, or I greet a grandmother and she snaps my finger. Also, handshakes are much more common- on average I will do this 7-12 times a day. Its a way to greet, a way to have a smile, just a passing "eeee, Yao" and we shake and I keep walking (I mean to a friend at school).

1) The person who enters a room, or meets another person who was already in that place is expected to greet first. For my first few weeks I was always greeting people, whether they were coming to me or I to them and my family kept telling me it wasn't good.
2) The younger person is always expected to greet the elder, unless in the above situation. In that case, if the elder is entering they will either not greet, or do a general one.
3) Youngsters are not expected, and indeed shouldn't ask their elder "how are you". An elder asks you, and you can ask in return but you must add a "please" before it, in Twi.
4) When shaking hands with people in a room, always begin at the right side.

"Twinglish" is common. Every so often they through English words. in their Twi... eg. "ma me book, wii" (give me a book), which helps me stay abreast in conversations now that I also get bits of the Twi.
"I'm coming" - it means they are going away and will come back shortly
"You don't have to" - you can't or really shouldn't
"00000" / "paapaa" - added to anything to exaggerate: "I'm hungryoooo" or "it was hot paapaa"

When speaking to an elder one is constantly saying "please", but in Twi. It feels weird to do it in English, but it would be: How are you? Please, I am fine.

Moving on... One always invites others to eat their food, and, if you are invited and don't want to take any you say "thank you", and if you want to eat you just eat. I used to say thank you as I ate, which is improper.

When in the presence of elders: Stand. Remove cap. Keep left hand behind back. DO NOT CROSS LEGS. Speak when spoken to. Keep hands out of pockets. Of course that is all the traditional formal stuff... often it is unnecessary.

Pure Ghanaian:
People suck their teeth to show annoyance or disapproval. I find it completely condescending, and very hurtful.
Hiss and/or loud kissing noises to get attention which I find rude and annoying yet effective, especially when trying to buy something off of someone's head.

Going out: LOOK GOOD. Look "fresh".
Iron everything. Have outfits that match- EVEN GUYS! Guys will wear sneakers with red on them, jeans, red belt, red shirt, red cap. Or these awful pink and/or flowered starched shirts with popped collars and their fake-worn jeans, stiff caps tilted to the side almost falling off their heads. They are the fresh guys. Girls wear very color coordinated outfits too of course, one or two colors. I have seen completely yellow and completely pink outfits- I mean pink skinny jeans, shoes, shirt, belt, necklace, earrings, hair clip. I would never have the audacity.
On the other hand, those who are out working, hawking, selling, wear completely discordant outfits- skirt with blue and orange stripes, a shirt with Obama on it and a scarf with a dull flowered pattern that belongs on Victorian drapes. Lots of skirts. And shawls. SO MUCH COLOR. My fellow YESer Adam Streeter has done a wonderful bit on all the second - (or fifth) hand clothing, so I'll do some promo and say you should check out his blog:

(Adam, since I know you are reading this, I expect your next blog will feature a certain address... winkwink.)

Last but not least is GMT. Greenwich Meridian Time.... or Ghana Man Time. : )
I'll just say if the invitation says 3, come by 4:30-5.

And now I am listening to Hallelujah in Danish and drinking an iridescent red drink called bisab which we made ourselves from dried flowers after I trekked all over town and into a very cramped marketplace to find them. It is sweet and tangy, bit of ginger, hint of cloves... like sour apple cider, but more robust. Petal syrup.

Saturday, May 1, 2010



It's night, on a rooftop in the midst of some forgotten neighborhood on the edge of town. The air moves and the silhouette of a palm tree sways. A distant horizon glows with one neon sign flashing, and we wonder, what could it be? The stars are few, as they always seem to be here and there is no moon, but lonely street lamps shed yellow light on the world and we have sight. A radio is somewhere below filling the sleepy streets with reggae... "...there is no place like home, home sweet home, when I go far to (Kumasi) I will always come back home..." and we sigh. Night has covered the landfill with its charcoal smoke which sits between us and the rest of town to the west. This morning we trekked over those ashes in our chalewates (flipflops), past a family in their Sunday best, paid the 20 peswa toll to cross a wooden plank over a flow of water and waste, came out with blackened feet and blacker lungs. Night may cover it, but we all know what lies in the dark, empty space like a hole out in space waiting to suck you in, and your reggae beats too. Just below us in the dirt street outside the hotel is one lotto booth spilling yellow on the earth, one man inside reading the Daily Graphic, occasionally visited by long shadowed fellows, just doin' his thing in his little snippet of life. I try to teach Sofie to salsa dance, but reggae really is not right for salsa. We peel oranges and suck out the sweetness, remining, fooling, being.

Lying on the beach at night, the stars are finally brilliant here, away from the city, the smog, the dust. We lay with our heads on each other's laps in a little square- lucky we were four- getting bit by sand flees, the crash of waves, stories and little peeks into each other's lives, silence, constellations.


Driving in a cab, smooshed together four in the back heading towards the monkey sanctuary. The driver pulls over in a small town and tells us we should get down here or give him another 1.5 cedis each to go all the way. We didn't agree to that though, back in Sunyani he had said we could get there for 3.50 each- all the way. Each of us try explaining to him that it doesn't work like that, he had agreed to something but he just said it was a misunderstanding back at the taxi rink. It goes on and on. We disembark. Maire begins hauling our bags out of the trunk saying we should just leave, that it's not ok, which it wasn't. Some other men come over and we are quick to give them the story, us in English and the cab driver in Twi, schoolboys come, and finally a mediator who settles that we should pay him small more or let him take us to find a trotro. The thing is he could have been easily telling the truth- a lot of men had been directing us and giving us the options of how to get to the sanctuary, either taxi and trotro which would cost a little bit less but make more hastle or this, the taxi direct route, but we had been pretty clear with him before we got in the cab... But just as easily he could have been trying to make a little more off us because he had no better way to waste his time. So it turned out with us asking him to take us all the way for a little more than we bargained for, much to the disgruntlement of our wallets. After half an hour up a bumpy, dusty road, me sitting on Marie's lap we made it to a nice reception area with a mango tree dripping juicy yellow stickiness. The tour guide led us to the village through the forest and we proceeded to find families of monkeys jumping about us. We fed them bananas.... As we are feeding all the small ones they rush in, grab the fruit and stuff their mouths, until the Big Daddy comes over, saunter up to the man with the goods. He sits. The man offers him a bite. He peels the banana with the dignity of a king and breaks off a piece to nibble on. Then, when he is finished, he saunters away and all the little ones come rushing back to grab their little paws some chop.

My heart pounding, legs pumping, firm sand below, then waves then sand, down the strip of beach, early morning exercise, go go go till I feel I might drop, down to the end, touch the tree, turn around, beet red face, short breath, satisfaction.


Largest market of West Africa. The air is thick; sound, dust, movement, sweat, heat, color, a maze of THINGS a pulse of action, go or be run over by the cart too heavy for men to hold against gravity, step aside or risk bumping the girl who is carrying a load as tall as herself of boxes full of who knows what on her head, shout or don't be heard, hold on to your things or be picked, bargain or be taken, keep up with the rest or be lost forever in the twisting avenues beneath tin roofs or bare sunlight with crockery forests in one isle and bolt upon bolt of color bursting fabric and then caves of Accentuation- nails, polish, makeup, hair, jewelry, Excessoria to the max with a preacher pacing up and down yelling into his microphone repenting and amen, and hallelujah, and the man behind him reiterating everything again in his twitchy trance shaking his hands to the heavens until they get into an argument, a microphone yelling at a voice in some dialect and then they both go back to exactly what they were doing, and then you're thrown into the fray of hawkers, food, shoes, books, clothes, everything is there. We cross the street, a woman is breastfeeding her child on the median strip under an umbrella while cars go past on either side. I had to pee. Please ma'm, is there a urinal (they don't get "washroom" or "bathroom" once I used that and ended up having to squat to get the woman to understand. On the side of the road.). No, sorry the urinal is WAAAAAY over there. I walk away. tsss, tsss. I turn back, a big woman motions me over. You need to relieve yourself? I nod. She brings me into her little three walled shop, holds up a drape and gives me a little cup. Yep. TIA straight up.

We have a box of oats. Water. A can of sweetened condensed milk called Jago, spoons.... Hunger. No bowl. So, as water comes in little plasic bags here, we drink one down and slit open the bag to make a cup, pour in our oats, water, Jago, mix it all around, and mmmmmm it was delicious.


Night, again, in the trotro to the coast after a very long day. Today was the day of the monkeys, we'd roused at a blinding 5am to meet a friend at 6 to get a nice show on the road, had the whole shebang with the driver, fed monkeys for two hours, made it back red with dust in every crease of our clothes and pore of our skin, packed up and headed to Kumasi, 3 hours in a bumpy hot trotro, waited in Kejetia again for an hour for a car to Takoradi, everyone staring at the disheveled, dirty, tired, slightly cranky obrunis, learned for the first time that there is something even cheaper than water and that is mangoes, in mango season, they are 5 for 20 peswas, you do the math.... mangoes here are different, the local kind. You have to tear a small piece off the top of the skin and suck out the inside, just like oranges. it is either the cleanest way to eat it or the messiest depending on if you decide to, after sucking, peel back the skin and finish it off, then it leaves you with a yellow face and long strings stuck between your teeth. (Any guesses why I didn't take pics?). But back to the moment. We are driving along, finally in a trotro, but to the wrong town, no matter, it's only an hour from the right one, and we had to get somewhere. I am crammed between Sofie and Adam, my shin digging into the corner of a box and my other knee up against the seat in front of me. Freezing now from the rush of night air coming from the cracked open trunk (or boot as they call it here), my head bobbing with sleep and awareness against Sofie's shoulders as I try to cover her exposed skin. We fly over a pothole- the car gets a flat tire. Everyone files out and the men flag down some other cars to get it fixed. Middle of nowhere, still an hour or more from our destination, in the dark we could only pray and crack jokes, so that's about all we did. Obviously we got in safe and sound and slept at the same place we had gone to before in Cape Coast which was really rather nice, to have a memory of having been there before....

Bathing suits, sand, our bare bare feet, pounding together, running down the sloping shore and finally our feet hit the waves, warm and inviting, we dive in, wash off 8 days of nonstop travel, relax into the water, let it embrace us, oh the glory of that moment..... We swam all day for two days, three days? Sleeping in the afternoon when the sun was too scorching, reading and nibbling on little piles of fruit, local RedRed for dinner on the roadside, bean stew over fried plantains. Our hotel, Pete's Place was situated about a two second run across a strip of sand from the ocean and a minute walk from the town's only road where we could buy a meal for less than a dollar. The beach was not full of rastas, trash, whites, locals, anyone really, I mean they were there, mostly surfers both foreign and local, three little girls selling mangoes, cookies and water, but not in the annoying abundance as on other beaches we've explored.

Another trotro, this time on the way back to Accra. We barely speak, the traffic is bad, the sinking feeling of life setting back in. What we would do to take back those stolen days and steal them again and again, just us and the world. Arrived into Circle in the evening, bombarded by the guys hissing and calling, the air thick once again, fatigue, dirt, the city swallowing us whole.

Snapshot: A few days later:
My entire bodytan is peeling off and I am left as white as before the trip. Great.

Sunday, April 4, 2010


Spring is blooming fast and furious though it feels no different here.

So I'll start at the beginning...
Ghana's independence day is March 6, 1957 and they do not have BBQs and watch fireworks late into the night to celebrate- but they certainly celebrate. My Danish friend and I decided to go to Independence Square where we heard all the celebratory action would be...despite the fact that every Ghanaian we told us that we shouldn't waste our time in the sun when we can watch it on TV. 7:30am we reach Tema station and head out on foot for the square though Sofie is not feeling up to par, I just tell her it's not far.... so we are walking along for a while... and then a longer while... getting into a rather slummy part of town- see some boys playing football in what looks like a mini broken down castle, another slave fort, in fact one I had heard about but couldn't find. We keep trekking in the rising heat, buy an orange, some bananas... powdered milk which Sofie eats with a sash of water just plain like that... eww? Finally we ask someone if this is the right direction and of course it is not so we spend another 45 minutes walking back past the football boys, past the station and on to the Square and get there right in time for the celebration. But of course not in time to get a seat.
This year was different I have heard. They usually invite the military and police to march in all their uniformed glory, but this year they ("they" being the government I assume) requested about 40 junior high and high schools to train their cadet corps (mini-militant training) to walk in formation at the square. It was rather awful though becasue the children were fainting in the heat from standing out there for hours and had to be carried to the shade. Overall it was a bit boring and hot, and we couldn't hear the speeches given and then they shot off a few guns. The best part was just seeing
our friends after they were done marching.

On the weekend after it was our school's Founder's Day which is celebrated by the students performing traditional dances from their respective tribes. It was very beautiful, and actually made me rather... jealous? extra-conscious? *blank* becasue it hit home what it means to have culture. After I was talking to a friend though, and they were telling me that even though they do it, they feel very removed from it. Our school was founded 83 year ago by three English colonizers (whose faces are on the purple cloth).

The very next day we were back to the Independence Square for the annual Thanksgiving Ceremony. We, myself, Maire and Sofie went becasue we heard the President would be there... and we figured it was rather special because my class was specially invited to represent Achimota.... so we went, though the hours we spent sitting there I can't say we didn't regret it just a smidgen. It was basically hours of praise for another year of Ghana attended by the president and everyone else "important" as well as a few schools and other uniformed organizations, individuals, etc. (in fact I believe my host father was invited, but did not attend). The things that struck me- first, it was all out in the open, no metal detectors, no glass boxes, no bag searches not even personal ID checking... just the president and entire governmental body there with those invited and from afar those not invited just watching. Then there was the very fact of what it was. A day reserved to giving thanks and praying for the country. There was a 10 minute speech from the president, but it wasn't quite what we were imagining. The best part, of course, was just being with my classmates outside of school, even if we still were in uniforms.

THEN the next week we went back to Sagymasi, the village, for another funeral. This time something very interesting happened. During the burial of the 42 year old woman, there were some other women who began acting out gold digging, which was the woman's occupation. So here they are burying the casket, crying and singing while the women are play- digging in the ground and haggling over prices and running away from police, all laughing and making a show... but everyone was just sort of looking at them through their sorrow. I asked my uncle if it is normal, and he said that yes indeed sometimes people will come act out the professions of the dead. And sometimes they try to prop the dead up to make it seem like they are doing the work. Yes. Interesting. Not sure just how I would react to that. The village remembered me, and got to meet my friend Marie who is now living with me.... which is another addition.

So, one night my friend from Missouri comes to my door at 9:30pm on a school night with ALL of her bags asking if she could stay becasue something happened with her family. I don't want to go into what happened... just say there were some personality differences, but the point is she's now living with me... We have fun together, me the red-headed hippie and her the Midwest Mexican, sort of opposite but similar in all the right ways.

So THEN there was this past weekend..... PARAGLIDING!!!!!!!
For the past 5 years there has been an international paragliding festival held at this particular mountain here in Ghana a few hours away from Accra. We went up by trotro to Koftown (that's it's local nickname, I can't attempt the real spelling) and spent way too much sika at the bead market, then stayed the night with another AFS girl.... ate mangoes and cake for supper after getting all showered on and squeezing 5 in a taxi. Up on the mountain the next day we purchased our 50 cedi tickets (about $35) for the parachuting..... then waited, what? 30 hours? Yes. They told us there was no way we were flying that day because apparently people had been buying tickets through the Tourist Board for two days already.... Great. So we then had to figure out a place to stay, which proved rather difficult. We called hotels, all booked, we called another AFS girl, didn't answer, but there was another AFS girl (actually from Seattle, go figure) who was there with her host family and they were staying at a camp site there. She said, well, maybe you all can just camp out under these empty cabanas, I mean no one is around and there should be a party all night anyway, and, come on, its Ghana. So we did.

After a lovely meal in town we got back up to the hill and found our piece of cement, gathered bamboo leaves with a few random mattresses, and covered them with our extra clothes for our beds. I went out to the edge of the mountain and looked out over Kawhu, the town/city below nestled in the black mountains, a line of traffic snaking away to the south- everyone coming up for the Easter weekend. It was a beautiful night, up on the mountain, lightening, huge groves of bamboo, cool breeze, the feeling of adventure in the atmosphere, and of course, most importantly, great company. We were 9: the three YES students, two Belgian students who we had stayed with in Koftown, two German volunteers and two Ghanaians (a host brother and a work colleague of the Germans). Sleeping was surprisingly comfortable just very COLD for the first time in a long while. We were curled up under any cloth we had- most of us had brought something but we were in a cloud before we even went to sleep and the cloud just got thicker each hour. Woke up with the sun and ate the three loaves of bread with chocolate spread that we bought the day before. Lovely day for flying.

(This picture, by the way, is from the air)

Walked over to the runway..... got our names on the list..... and..... waited.

We ran into a school friend, a young woman from the embassy and a university student who we had met at a production of Vagina Monologues some months ago. There were many foreigners, in fact most of the people paying for rides (and all the people giving them) were not local, yet there were numbers of Ghanaian families there too watch... it was rather amusing actually because all the locals were dressed up for the city, pink dresses, spik and span ruffly blouses, heals, I mean the works, contrasted to the obruni, most of whom had the "globe trek" or camping look- sweaty, little dirty, backpacks, tank tops, and Tevas. And Burnt. The whites were red, slowly growing redder as the day and days passed.

So our turn FINALLY came at 4:30pm. I went last. My pilot came over looking tired from a long day of flying, said his name was Billy. Asked if I got sick easily, I said no, Great- you like roller coasters? Of course! And he smiled. So we got all the gear on, a big pack that is the seat, laid out the parachute on the steep hillside and made sure all the thin ropes were straight and strong. He said I had one job- to run hard and fast and keep running until my feet were in the air. After watching almost 200 people do it, I pretty much had the idea, and was only afraid I would trip and fall which would screw up the whole thing and in my worst nightmares would end in us rolling off the cliff all tangled up in the strings and fabric of our wings..... Luckily, I ran and kept running and my feet left the ground and the wind filled the sail and the cliff fell away below me. Suddenly I was a balloon rising, Billy said to lean to the left, the other left, and we swung around above the crowds who had moments before been snapping pictures of us. The misty cliffs, afternoon hazed, side lit... the cool air rushing past, the very sound of the forest- chirping and rustling when we got close enough. Past the overlook I had sat at for hours the night before, above our cabana, above the road and cliffs and people, the smells and heat of the ground. Billy pointed out dangerous looking clouds, birds and the rising smoke which would take us higher. We were 500 feet above the take off zone which was a mountain, so we must have been much more than twice that height above the LZ.

I cannot describe the feeling of being up there. The freedom, and yet the attention required, weight shifting, watching the clouds and feeling the air lifting you or not, the birds, how to control the chute to turn and find the rising drafts. I didn't feel like a bird. No, I was not flying I was being lifted like a balloon, a dandelion seed, a baby in a storks beak. It was incredible to say the least. Billy even let me take the reins for a little while, it is quite easy to steer, just pull down on one handle and let the other one looser and shift weight by crossing one leg over the other. He has been flying for some 11 years, and had been to South Africa and South America... I remembered when I was little and used to see the paragliders at the Santa Barbra beaches, used to wonder what it was like to be in the air like that. I asked if he had flown there, and he said it is some of the most beautiful flying.

We came down after about 30 minutes, landing was surprisingly easy, and then I was looking back up at the mountain. And on the other side of the fence there was a group of children, young and dirty squabbling- pushing, yelling, grabbing.... Billy said they had been fighting over water bottles all day. So do you give the thirsty kids water because they obviously need it or do you save them the struggle when you only have enough for one? And a little girl comes up with the precious Voltic. That is the brand here- their slogan is "Don't say water, say Voltic". I landed with a thud back in Africa, or at least a part of Africa. Most Ghanaians are frustrated at how they are perceived, and although I don't want to go into it now, I would feel better reminding everyone that while poverty is a problem and comes up in moments like that, it is not all there is here.

We made it home by 9 in a trotro with all our limbs and money and sense, just rumbling stomachs. And I will say that I was lucky to have had such a great ride, there were others not so fortunate. They simply did not get any wind to take them anywhere, so they basically coasted to the LZ. So yes, made it home and now are planning our next adventure to go around the southern part of the country because the north is dangerous right now with CSM (an annual disease).

So I end here, many hours later with Paul Simon playing and taking me back to that car ride to Colorado that changed my life. Marie is painting Adinkra symbols on her drum. Adinkra are the traditional symbols that most often adorn cloth but are now used as logos for companies, on fences, just as general decoration. My legs have an awful lot of mosquito bites from sitting out here for so bloody long but ravaging Youtube for my favorite songs and writing to you all is worth it. Yesterday riding home from church we passed a woman selling pig feet in little bundles of three.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Just Life, Just Death

In Rural Ghana...

Escaping Accra, again, this time stuffed in a crowded car between my brother and grandmother. We roll across the dirt, the broken highway, the speed bumps and potholes and into greener mountains, rolling hills, heavy skies and cooler breaths. Out into the village.

It was a different world there. But so comically reflective of Ghaliwood- Africa Magic- that I recognized it somehow. I was on the set with the same old women wrapped in cloth in the cement compounds painted blue and light pink, goats, chickens, naked children weaving through. Saw the men drinking palm wine, which they always do too much of in the films, and got to see the process of "tapping" palm trees, a term thrown about quite often, always to my confusion. The Actually it was a Togolese man who explained it to me, and he only spoke French, so there I was wracking my brain to understand him, and surprisingly I got most of it... The tree is felled and you "coupe, coupe" the branches till it is smooth, then notch a little hole out of which the sweet, thick, whitish wine drips from for about a month, filling plenty liters. When fresh the drink is not so potent, very sweet and lovely- traditionally drunk out of a calabash- very cheap- completely natural. When it sits for a few weeks the alcohol goes up, and if it is distilled, which they also do locally, you get Ghana's Gin and it is pure alcohol used for mixing. There is a local drink which is the pure stuff flavored with roots and herbs and voodoo (kidding) to make a shot to knock you down. (Too bad I didn't get to try that one, hehe.)

Went out to farm expecting of course nice flat rows of tomatoes and cassava... well, we never got
out of the forest. Cocoa, plantains and bananas shade the growing pineapple, cocoyam, and yam, and they out in the sun the cassavas grow with particular long (tall as me) branches crowned by distinct thin leaves.

The cassava is grown by planting this stick, whereas the yam and cocoyam are planted like potatoes, using a sprouting eye. Pineapples are grown by simply chopping off the spiky top and sticking it in soil, and
cocoa trees are grown from seed and nursed in the village before planting in the forest. They all also grow wild. The thing about farming like this, in the trees, is that any passerby can come and harvest your crop... this is beneficial for voodoo masters becasue they get paid to administer charms to protect people's farms- it may seem like a joke to us, but it's completely legit here.

The village life was noticeably hard. We fetched water in the morning for our bath, and tea and household needs, me and the young ones. Fortunately for this village they had a pump just in close to
the houses so we only walked five minutes to get there... but this was a small village. We cooked eggs and tea on a little coal stove and bathed with one bucket. This was the village my whole host family (Dad, uncles, aunts and older cousins) grew up in, this was their place, their home, their childhood. It is pretty incredible to see just how far they have gotten- living in this house, with a pool and three cars in the drive.

So the point of it all was a funeral, but for me that ended up being just the excuse. I saw a dead body for the first time and was at a burial, which was a Christian burial and nothing very "traditional", and went to the party which was just a big gift giving ceremony to the family of deceased... In the middle of it the clouds blew over, dust whipped our faces and funeral dress- all black and red- and the heavens broke sending all the old and young dashing back to their houses. I didn't witness any strange or interesting Ghanaian funeral rites, except for the whole fact of the matter, that hundreds of people, mostly old, had come back to their home for the event. The person who died was an elder, so even those who did not personally know him came, which I think I could say is pretty different from home. So overall the funeral itself was just a bunch of watching from the outskirts as elders greeted elders and gifts were given to the family..... my experience was about being in the town.

So. Life. I saw a woman the other day carrying a load of plastic baskets as tall as she was on her head. It was fatter than her too- the bundle that is.
Three Elements. Labadi Beach, December
I walked to the AFS office the other morning instead of school becasue we were going to the embassy...

Le Matin

On the trotro, small girl, wide eyes on her mama's back, neck craned around to stare me down. No smile. No frown.
I walk down past where the hoards are yet sparse,
walk and buy some
coco a millet porridge, poured in a bag with sugar. 2o peswas. Walk small bit further,

buy a bowfloat- fried corn dough, sweet sour, 30 peswas. I now have a full meal for just about 35 US cents...

Thin World. Volta Region, January
Walking faster in anticipation to the beat of a rumbling stomach... past cripples, hands stretched for coins, coins which I have to spare and do. A man asleep on the cement, disrupting the growing flow of foot traffic, his few 5 and 10 p. pieces scattered about him. I hope he isn't dead. Cross the street- moving with the flow of business men

and women, uniform clad youth like myself, and early sellers. Shake off the 4 year old Sudanese refugee clasping my wrist. This child's skill thus far in life is being able to identify those who might have some coins or loose pockets and latch on to them. They are trained not to cross the street, not to be aggressive, just to implore with dirt rimmed eyes.
Circle Overhead. Accra, January
I pass a man selling gum, lollipops, Mentos, and greet Goodmorning. He replies, Good morning, and have a nice day. Thank you, and you too.
Then he looks at me, as I look back, smiling, his lips- Receive it.

Receive it. Receive it. It came into me, and I did, but what does it mean? Receive the day, receive my blessing, receive each moment, receive the sun rays... like a poem or a riddle it played through my head, walking past my reflection- green with white flowered dress down to my knees, brown sandals, black rubber with hot breakfast inside. Past a small girl's face pressed up against the glass, squished nose, this is the world, past woman in her compound in one long
ntoma piece of cloth, cup in hand, toothbrush scrubbing. Past morning, past frying doughnuts, past steaming rice
and bread and egg and up to the little white and blue AFS.
office to sit and take my meal in the cool of morning, the quiet behind these walls, a different day beginning.

Looking Down. Cape Coast Castle, January
Everything is spinning down, zooming down at top speed, me with my hands off the handle bars, feeling the wind trying to grasp at it to slow. I'm rather uncertain about going back. Obviously it is not a question so much as a feeling... of sadness and disbelief thinking that this will ever end. Walking to buy credit the other night- sunset time, cool air, bats overhead I felt the satisfaction of being home. Deep fulfillment comes, not from always the gogogo, the seeing this and that and leading the super-life of one who is passing through, no, though that can bring some sort of satisfaction. But in that moment, it was the feeling of being home, of living real life, down time, normal old going to buy credit for my phone. And I relished it becasue so often I get caught up in trying to do the most, be the most, say or see or show the most. So often I equate living with thrill, but strolling along that road I felt normalcy suddenly take on a whole new significance.

And finally, though it is not entirely related, here reads a passage from one of my favorite books, The Prophet.
Shrimp. Volta Region, January
"And an old priest said, Speak to us of Religion.
And he said:
Have I spoken this day of aught else?
Is not religion all deeds and all reflection, And that which is neither deed nor reflection, but a wonder and a surprise ever springing in the soul, even while the hands hew the stone or tend the loom?
Who can separate is faith from his actions, or his belief from his occupations?
Who can spread his hours before him, saying "This is for God and this is for myself; This is for my soul, and this other is for my body?"
All your hours are sings that beat through time from self to self.
He who wears his morality but as his best garment were better naked.
The wind and the sun will tea no holes in his skin.
And he who defines his conduct by ethics imprisons his song-bird in a cage. "

There, something to chew that should be thoroughly digested by the time I write again...

Tuesday, January 19, 2010


Then half of the stay was over, and 2009 was over and being 16 was over and therefore three new pages had been opened, blank and ready for me to create my own life with. Time Time Time is taking me breathless through, sweeping me off my feet into and beyond the days and moments and weeks. I wish I could just pause and speak of all the emotions, sights, and beings I have encountered.

The Holidays With Family
Christmas did not feel like Christmas, but not only because I was in skirts and sunburned. My host grandmother's 80th birthday was the 26th, and her massive party was held here in my house, so the days before and after were filled with relatives and friends and cooking and cleaning and more cooking and generally preparing. The amount of food we made- well, I should say THEY made, becasue I mostly walked around in awe or chopped onions or fetched water or took care of Lady- was incredible. Coolers and coolers full of rice, watchee (a rice and bean dish from the north which I LOVE) and jallof- huge cauldrons of stew and soup and shito (a spicy sauce for the rice and watchee) and fried chicken and fish. Christmas night I sat out back with my sisters peeling onions at midnight when it began to pour on us- dancing in the rain after scrambling to get the laundry and food under shelter, in the streetlight, washing the day's work away... Then I made christmas cookies with my little brothers... and I have to say they came out alright, though most people found them too sweet... and it was 4 am and my mom and auntie were still frying the chicken and fish out in the yard because the rain had gone as suddenly as it had begun. The next day at the party there must have been a few hundred people in our yard and over the course of the party all the food was eaten,though I'd thought it not possible. I enjoyed feeling like a part of the family when I was helping out and being part of running the party- serving and clearing amidst just dancing and talking and enjoying the outcome of all the hard work.

Ghanaian parties are very big and they all seem to appear the same... loads of food, people sitting and eating in their lovely dresses and some people dancing, a loud sound system pumping the air with live singing in Twi what are probably mostly Christian songs.

For another few days after the party we were cleaning up all the dishes and repacking all the rented cutlery and plates... our yard is mostly recovered though there are still black spots of burnt grass and one of the laundry lines is almost touching the ground... I don't know what destroyed it.

New Year
31st night is big in Ghana. They don't watch a ball drop (and from far away, describing the event it seems so absolutely random!) or clink champagne glasses at midnight... no, every Ghanaian rich or poor, pious or not goes to church on the last day of the year to pray in the new season and release the old. So even if it was not the New Year's Eve I might have been expecting, it certainly was once-in-a-lifetime! I went to Independence Square where there were thousands of people gathered for the International Christian Gospel Church service. The pastor was really quite good and preached about this new year being one of BREAKTHROUGH for all people in all areas of life. The last 15 minutes of '09 we were all praying praying praying- people jumping, shouting, rocking back and forth whispering "jeasus jeasus JEASUS" and then the last second struck and we all broke out cheering and a thousand white handkerchiefs were waving in the midnight before me and a firework went off alighting the arc-de-triumph-look-alike with the black star and FREEDOM AND JUSTICE declared on top. Everyone a dancin and singing in the new year and we got little bottles of oil to anoint ourselves with and we shook the hands of those around and there were tears in my eyes as they swept the crowd again and again in disbelief.

Cape Coast

The young days of 2010 were fairly uneventful- bidding my mom and brothers goodbye again as the headed back to South Africa maybe not to return until I leave. They left a rather enormous rip in my heart and vacuum in the house. I thoroughly miss them all- playing snooker with Jake, bouncing Lady and making faces with her, Marco-Polo in the pool with Baron and Kelvin and, of course, cooking with my African Mama. Once they left though I rallied up my friends and we all went down to Cape Coast- about two hours out of Accra.

The three days whirled past on salty air and 5 am wake up calls- deep dungeons and dark jungle- pineapple juice dripping down our chins and loaves of bread. We four- Adam, Marie, Sofie and myself- got a ride down with my host brother Bush and got a flat tire on the way, in the middle of green mountains and coconut trees. The first day we woke early to see the sun rise on the roof of our hostel.... but of course the Hamatan dust hazed out the horizon all day.
Cape Coast is most famous for the salve castles built by the Portuguese in the 17th century. The castle in Elmina was actually the first sub-Saharan fort built in Africa and became an epicenter of European desire along the coast causing tension among the colonizers. Of course the castles were used to house the whites, most prominently the Governor, and there was much trading of goods through those white walls, however a significant chunk of that trading was the shipping off of slaves to all parts of North and South America.
We were able to go on tours in both of the castles on which we were taken down to the dungeons where the slaves had been kept for months at a time- deep under the castle, dark with barely air holes but at least tall ceilings- told us about how around 200 men would be crammed in as much space as the Governor got for his living quarters, how they were chained to each other as they died and had no place to dispose of their body waste. Of how food and water had been simply tossed on for the fittest to struggle for.

And how the women, crammed in the same conditions only saw the light of day when brought out to be looked over by the Governor when he desired them... and only washed if they were the one chosen to climb to his chambers.

By the way, this is me and Adam climbing the poles that had been used for training the soldiers. The next day my arms complained royally, asking me why I had decided to climb up it...twice.

Katkum National Park
From Cape Coast, Katkum is only a 40 minute taxi drive and we spent a lovely day on the beach and shopping before heading out to the jungle.
Arriving around 5pm to an empty park, the park rangers led us up to the sleeping platforms we had read about in the Lonely Planet guide book. About a ten minute hike through the deep forest around and over roots- it was like the floor was alive with snakes frozen on top of one another.

Somehow there were showers up there in the middle of the "campsite"- open showers with just stone walls and after such a long day we readily stripped down and cleaned off there in under the canopy in the coming dusk- rapidly coming dusk... Adam, being the last one to bathe, came back in the dark. I remember Sofie's darling voice calling to him, Adam? Yea- . . . Adam? Adam? (more high pitched now) ADAM??? Wut? OH, thank you. oh, what for? Oh, just being you, and being there, and answering and being alive.

Our accommodation, which was I think 36 Ghana Cedis, was an elevated platform about the size of a king bed with wooden railings around it, a few steps up, a mattress, a low mosquito net and a tin high roof that would not have helped against rain, and only blocked out the stars... few though they were through the thick canopy. So the four of us crawled under the mosquito net, ate some fried rice we had bought by flashlight beams, and tried not to think about how utterly alone we were. The night was uneventful, fortunately, but the whole place reminded me way too much of a Thai horror movie I'd seen and so I was pretty creeped out and as Anna could attest to, a bit jumpy.

Around 5 the next morning we aroused, still in darkness, got dressed, packed up, at a little bread we'd bought out of the taxi window on the way there, and went down to the lodge. Getting to the canopy walk by 6 or 6:30, the whole place was ours, and even our guide had to go to leave us to open up the exit, as we were the first tour of the day. Considering that the previous day we had talked to some Californians who were not all that impressed by Katkum- having been on a tour of 40 and therefore pretty much ushered through the series of rope bridges, I considered us very wise to have stayed overnight and gone so early. The canopy walk is incredible. Suspended between the tops of very tall trees, above the mesh of green vines and branches but below even greater limbs- in the mist of the morning, in the cool of the day, the sun eventually rising, out above the distant treetopped hills.

A monkey scooting up the long smooth stretch of trunk to the awaiting fruit above- followed by another, and another, and another- funny fuzzy little creatures in their own domain just doing their morning thing. Then they jumped from one tree to a shorter one and scooted down that one's trunk. Apparently there are many kinds of monkeys in the park as well as some forest elephants, however they are very shy and we were counted as lucky to have seen anything "wild" at all.
Imagine the perfection of that moment- sun rising, monkeys climbing, four little humans on top of the world- and for those of you who know me well, that is exactly where I like to be- the fresh air, the long day ahead, the pure white satisfaction of having gotten myself there.... with a ton of support and guidance and reassuring and trust and wisdom from so many many people. So here is a little shout out to everyone who helped me- teachers, relatives, friends, AFS, YES, Bra Bush and of course, most importantly my beloved parents. Thank you for giving me this, for letting me go, for teaching your fledgling to fly- and look where I have perched. I wouldn't let you down if you could see me now, here in the treetops, here in the world, in the beauty and the sorrow of reality- out here, where I belong.

The Ride Home

...don't remember much...