Friday, April 12, 2013

List: What's surprised me most about Ghana

When I was younger, and I wasn't sure what to write but I knew I wanted to write something, I would make lists--to keep my thoughts in order, to generate some brainstorming, to summarize or highlight my ideas.

I have a jumble of ideas and memories from Ghana, so one way to sort them out--and give a preliminary taste of my trip--is to give you a list. A list of the things that most surprised me on my first trip abroad:

*The Handshake. One of my classmates had spent the previous semester in Ghana, so at the beginning of the year we asked her to share some of what she'd learned and done there. She introduced us to the handshake, which starts as an ordinary firm handshake. However, as your hands part, you trail your fingers against the other person's and then 'snap' their fingers with your own.  Now, I cannot snap my own fingers, much less anyone else's--though I'm happy enough to let somebody snap my fingers for me. Still, this seemed like such an unusual sort of greeting for me that I'd assumed it was something for the young, hip generation only. Instead, everyone I met in Ghana--professional speakers, community leaders, schoolchildren, businesswomen, craftspeople in their workshops, operations managers in their offices, mothers with babes in arms--used this handshake. At best I managed with a sheepish smile and an attempt to at least slide my fingers across theirs like I was striking a match. They seemed to forgive this inadequacy of mine with great generosity.

*For the past five years my professor has brought a class to Ghana, and each time in Accra they would find the huge, gorgeous presidential palace unoccupied. One of the first things we learned this year was that the new president has moved in after the recent elections. Opinions on this seem mixed--the building is no longer going to waste, but one of our taxi drivers commented acidly that it was just 'Too big' and gave the impression that he wished it would all just go away. While reading the paper one morning I found an editorial article that discussed the prospects of the palace's future inhabitants being "the first lady or even the first bachelor or first spinster," and found that last rather admirable. The United States hasn't even entertained the thought of electing a spinster (nor for that matter is our record on bachelors particularly rich).

*Another surprise, even a shock, that came near the beginning of our trips was news of the death of Chinua Achebe. I'd just read Things Fall Apart and No Longer at Ease this semester. This discovery, plus my proximity, appear to have finished off a literary giant. My discovery and admiration did the same thing for poor Elizabeth Sladen. In any event, the fact that Achebe died while I was in Africa is one of those things I'll be talking about for the rest of my life. Now that I've returned with a better appreciation of the context, I'm working my way through the African Writers series he edited.

Interestingly, I also had the opportunity to try the kola nut Things Fall Apart mentions so often. It came when we greeted a chief and were welcomed to his village. Kola tastes, for lack of a better term, nutty but with an edge of bitterness. A bit like water chestnut and wood varnish. It's also supposed to contain high amounts of caffeine, although I don't recall feeling a buzz. Yet again, soon after I went out and carried a bucket of water on my head, so maybe I was under the influence of a stimulant (to be fair the bucket was only half full, and I did a very poor job of carrying it).

*Accra. I wasn't quite prepared for Accra. To be fair, I'm not certain anyone could ever be prepared for Accra. The city is huge, and hot, and a hodgepodge of buildings--old, new, under construction and falling apart, rich houses with gardens behind barbed wire topped walls and with sheds at their backs and shantytowns around the corner--and street vendors, pedestrians, motorcyclists, and larger vehicles, and there are few street signs and virtually no numbered addresses. My teacher has been going to Ghana for five years, has built longstanding relationships with people of all walks of life there including guides and policymakers and history buffs, and she has never seen so much as the suggestion of the existence of a map of Accra. But I'd especially like to repeat that "no addresses" thing. We stayed at the Coconut Grove Regency Hotel. On...the street where the Coconut Grove Regency Hotel was. Number Coconut Grove Regency Hotel. It's what we wrote as our address on our immigration forms, and it's what we told taxi drivers when we needed to get somewhere.

And about taxi drivers. Given this lack of clear addresses (navigation is by landmarks according to one Accra native we spoke to), it's very easy for strangers to town to get lost. But everyone's a stranger somewhere. In three out of four taxi rides, the driver had to ask for directions to take us where we were going. I found this experience unnerving, and after one particularly long evening came to the jaded and less than fair conclusion that hiring a taxi in Accra is just hiring another person to become as lost as you are. This isn't to say I was dissatisfied with the taxi experience overall, as one driver in particular was very upfront about the fact that he had no idea where we were going and did his best to keep in sight of the taxi ahead of us, which contained our friends who did know where they were going. Then the car in front of us at a taxi light did a driver switch in the middle of the road, holding us back, and we lost what my friend beside me had referred to as "the most stressful game of Concentration ever". We had no cell phones. This was our first ride ever in a Ghanaian taxi. In the end, we and our driver asked for directions.

*The sheer amount of advertising took me by surprise. I'm not sure if the quantity of billboards and signage is so much in excess of what you get in some parts of America (Los Angeles stands out for comparison in my memory--certainly rural Ghana has much more advertising than, say, rural Minnesota, which doesn't allow billboards at all). But what there was stood out to be because it was in a different style, and there was also advertising in places I didn't expect, and of things that I didn't expect.. When driving out of towns and villages there was frequently a "Farewell" sign, sometimes sponsored by an instant noodle company or phone service provider or the local congregation. The walls of houses, stores, compounds, and at least one hotel (not one we stayed at, though it might have been interesting) were painted with the colors and logos of IndoMie noodles, Glo Mobile or its competitor MTN, or Club beer, the last in bars especially. Also I think one street block was decorated in honor of a birth control device or prescription, in a gorgeously feminine purple with petal patterns. Offering your wall up for advertising seems an easy and affordable way to get someone to paint it, although I'm not looking forward to the day Americans figure this out. It seems the kind of thing that would get out of hand with us.

We also frequently passed 'advertisements' for funerals, which can be enormous, grand occasions in Ghana. They showed an image of the loved one, gave their name and nickname, age and dates, and the date and location of the event. Some notices were years old, so it was too late to attend, but they continued to provide a memorial to the deceased. I learned of the existence of dozens of people who seemed rather interesting, and it's a pity I won't ever know them or more about them.

*I knew it would be hot, but the heat was the sort you could never quite get used to. It always took you by surprise. "How do you function in 120 degree heat?" we'd asked our professor during orientation. "You don't," she told us. We spent a lot of time sitting or lying down in air conditioning when we could get it, and sitting or lying down fantasizing about air conditioning when we couldn't. We were lucky in that there were occasional cool breezes to revive us, and in light clothing and with plenty of water I was capable of participating in all our activities, including nature hikes, helping to open a village school, playing with the neighbor children, going on safari, and carrying water in a bucket on my head. Yet there were also times I almost fell asleep during speakers' presentations from exhaustion. To make matters stranger, I found out I can't sleep in extreme heat without at least a fan running to keep air moving. If the air isn't moving, I am. I fidgeted all the way through three nights at Mole National Park, where the motel lost power the first night of our arrival and never regained it. Mole is one of the hottest places on Earth. There was a thunderstorm in the middle of our afternoon safari, and we stayed on top of our open-air ride and let the drops fall on us. They were freezing cold, and we were deliriously happy.

Meanwhile, this week in DC it's 80 degrees. Combined with jetlag, I still can't function. That's part of the reason why this post is almost 5 days late.

*Disparities between rich and poor, I understand. They're hardly foreign to the US, and Washington, DC is an especially dramatic example. The side of town my dorm is at has some of the highest incomes in the country. Across the Anacostia, the majority of people live significantly below the poverty line. Yet in Accra you would find that same sort of wealth disparity in two homes side by side--a shack built behind the walls of a villa, the walls topped with broken glass. And the middle class seemed far less visible. They were in TV advertisements, eating at some of the more local restaurants we went to and shopping in the Accra mall, but I'm not sure which houses or apartments were theirs--I saw few that fit my American view of middle class, which my just be a function of my own expectations and/or the places we went to. Yet our guide, who helps plan and host tours throughout the country and has humbling amounts of historical and cultural knowledge (I don't think many Americans know as much about different aspects of their country as he did about Ghana) lives with his wife, a professional woman working in educational policy and in her early thirties, in a single room behind the bar his father owns, and frequently lacks running water and is not linked to the electric grid. As hard as it is to get ahead in the States, I don't expect to be living in a single room in my thirties, and if I am I will not be taking it as gracefully as they did.

*Things were startlingly inexpensive, with the exception of dining and alcohol at the hotels. Those were the sort of prices you can reasonably charge Western tourists. However, we had several memorable experiences with street vendors where what we thought was one cedi (or about 50 cents US) worth of goods turned out to be a fraction of that--we were paying for a bowl of mangoes instead of one, a string of peanuts instead of a single package. Taxi rides were five or fifteen cedits--$2.50-$7.00 US. I purchased a genuine kente-weave tie from a cooperative store for 7 cedis, and a basket that in the US would have been $35 at the cheapest was only 15 cedis. Quality did not suffer on the whole, although service in restaurants was very inconsistent with American expectations. And they were charging us the higher prices!

*I said that among Accra's buildings were many either under construction or falling apart, but to be honest I'm not certain about the falling apart bit. I played a game throughout the countryside--"Going up or coming down?"--trying to decide the state of the cement walls, shining blue glass panes, and metal or tile roofs that were in place but clearly not in use. At first I thought Ghana was full of ruins, but when I asked my professor she told me to guess "Going up" every time, as I'd be right. Construction is booming, but in many cases it's a slow boom. People go to work in the cities or sometimes abroad, and start building a new house back at home. They add on to it little by little as they have money to spare. Sometimes the process takes so long that trees begin sprouting in the rooms, adding to the appearance of ruin. Also, in some of the more urban areas it looked like people got impatient with the process and moved in to the ground floor while rooms higher up were still being constructed.

*So while there certainly wasn't much decay architecturally, the landscape did look ruinous in places for another reason: very little trash collection, almost no trash cans, and a lot, a lot of plastic and consumer waste, not to mention sewage (the sewers were for the most part open, and located where in the US you would have sidewalks. We learned to step around and over them). We saw a canal flowing through Accra was literally choked with black plastic bags and waste. All of it flowing out to the ocean. Even rural villages had areas of ground covered in refuse. It was unparalleled for me and disturbing. Nobody else seemed to notice, although areas meant to attract tourists and investment were usually better maintained.

*In general I do not enjoy the presence of children. They make me nervous. They are human beings, but they do not yet think or behave like the human beings I am most used to, and also they are fragile and I'm afraid I might break them if I hold their hands too tightly or try to pick them up only to prove incapable or, most fatally of all, try to communicate to them in words of too many syllables. Barring that, as a group they haven't learned social mores like 'be quiet in public,' 'don't be cruel to animals,' and 'don't take things that don't belong to you,' making them adorable miniature agents of chaos.

However, I really loved the kids I met in Ghana. They were more mature, quieter, more responsible, and more well-behaved. They were friendly, but they didn't seek attention in loud or disruptive ways. As my class was led through a village I might suddenly feel a little hand slip into mine, and look down to see a surprisingly grave face turned up to me. They were very happy to wave and be waved at when our bus drove past them (it made me feel a bit like a celebrity to see faces light up when I waved back, and I was glad to add some excitement to their days because, while many of them should have been in school, they were instead at work looking after livestock or their younger siblings or fetching and carrying water or firewood. It's an odd feeling to be enthusiastically saluted by a child who is obviously taking a break from heavy manual labor). Also, our professor, who specializes in early childhood development and education, ensured we were all equipped with bubbles so that we had something to do should we suddenly encounter a child and be in need of an icebreaker.

*Whatever my anxieties about children might be, I at least recognize them to be blown out of proportion. Monkeys, however...I was both more afraid and less afraid of primates that I should have been. I'm afraid of children because they resemble human beings I know best but are more difficult to communicate with. Monkeys even more so, plus they can bite you. The day before we visited the Tafe Atome monkey sanctuary horrible visions danced in my brain of a rabies-infected bite sending me home prematurely. I didn't want to miss the rest of my trip to Ghana, or did I like the thought of rabies or rabies shots. My professor didn't help with the warning that a monkey might jump on my back, although "They're less likely to do it if you aren't holding a banana" and she approved of the veneer of stoicism I promised to keep up.
It turns out the Tafe Atome monkeys were tiny, silky-furred, and interested in humans only as a vehicle for delivering bananas (which aren't supposed to be monkey food, but it's what the people running the sanctuary decided to feed them, so). I didn't hold bananas until the very end, when after watching everyone else beckon cute little harmless woodland creatures near them I decided my veneer of stoicism wasn't necessary after all. Two monkeys each grabbed half of my banana and ran off without a ghost of a whisper of physical contact. Much less rabies.

I've come around so far in regards to tiny primates that I befriended the little monkey kept in a cage at our beach resort in Cape Coast. It should not have been in that cage--he or she was far too intelligent to be left alone and without any source of amusement. I'd offer the monkey snacks from the corn cobs left, I think, for the purpose of feeding the parrots next to him. He seemed to enjoy the momentary amusement and would always chirp (like birdsong) when I walked by.

On the other hand, my class was mugged and then besieged in our motel rooms at Mole by a band of baboons. Primates are terrifying.

*On that note, the number of things that I did and which happened to me that I cannot tell my mother about is truly alarming. From visiting two 'slums' in Accra (I'm hesitant honestly to call it a slum, because while it was certainly very impoverished I don't want to imply anything unsavory about the people living there, who were hardworking, friendly, and were hanging out their Sunday wash to dry as we came through), to designating a pair of sneakers my 'walking-through-sewers-and-compost' shoes, to being besieged by baboons, to managing without running water for several days in a few of our motels and hostels. My mother, bless her, is a neatnick. I'm not, at least not anymore. You just come to stop worrying about it. I can objectively say the filthiest I have ever been in my life was the Kintopo Rest Stop, after 3 days in Mole with no air conditioning and little running water, after a 4 hour bus drive. It only really hit me when I used the offered water bowls and soap at the canteen to wash my hands. And then I bought myself some chocolate Fan Ice.