Friday, October 2, 2009

Ghana oh Ghana, How You've Changed Me

The disembarking of our voyage into Ghana was a historical moment for the nation. We were the largest group of Americans ever to come to their recently independent nation.

Ghanaians are obsessed with President Obama. There are billboards everywhere with his face next to their own President Mills. Obama recently visited Ghana and the hype is still prevalent. Besides the billboards, there are shirts, dresses, paintings, cloths, and even cookies with his face.

I gained a new perspective on clothing. Where do all of the surplus clothing donations go? They go here, to Ghana. They go to a vendor, a child, a businessman. I had a moment of self-realization when I saw a teenage boy walking towards me holding his little sister’s hand. He was wearing a light blue Lacoste polo. Albeit it was worn and torn and grimy. But here he was in rural Ghana wearing a shirt that was purchased for a meager price. He wore it out of necessity; he probably didn’t even pay heed to the color. But this is a shirt that I would personally shell out $90USD for and this boy did not give a care in the world to the fact that there was a small alligator stitched onto it. I want to try to remember this as I pick out new clothes. What do I really need?

A river stopped by the amount of garbage in it, failing construction, children wandering naked in the streets of a market, a emaciated man selling three fish on a string, a dog picking through discarded fish, public urination, the lack of decently lit or even roads, a roof made of palm leaves thousands of images that one would see in a movie or magazine fill my mind and the only file they can be stored in is Poverty. Having experienced the culture, the people, the traditions, I have a deeper understanding of their way of life. So although these images are those of poverty, I will forever carry with me the stories, the happiness and laughter, the pride, and the hope that this nation holds.  

Ghana: Torgome Village Visit & Trekking

My Torgome Village visit was fantastic. The Torgomes still have traditional leaders. A paramount chief and his elder sat apart from everyone else. The elder functioned as a spokesperson for no one was to speak to the chief directly. Throughout our visit we received African names. My name meant ‘Sunday Believe’ (The day I was born and a peaceful word). I cannot pronounce or spell it in the native tongue. But you can call me ‘Akos’ for short. Molly received the name ‘Friday God Knows’ intimidating! We danced with the people, some of the kids thought I needed intense rhythm therapy and tried in vain to teach me their moves. Our visit was cut short by a sudden downpour.

This downpour caused roads to turn to clay thus instead of driving across the Shai Hills Game Reserve, we trekked. It took about an hour and a half to walk to the base of the plateau through a landscape that I could only describe as Lion King brought to life. We scaled the plateau and a local told us about the legends of the bat cave we stood in. It cleared up and we saw a few baboons on our walk back!

Ghana: Oxford Street and a Run-In with Ghanaian Authorities

On our way home, we stopped on the side of the road and our guide showed us a cocoa plant and let us try a bean. And while our bus was stopped in traffic he let a boy selling chocolate bars come on the bus. Cocoa beans taste nothing like chocolate.

Our last night in Accra and the streets were flooded with American students. I thought it was ironic that we were in the area OSU and took a liking to Oxford Street. Oh how I missed Miami as we piled into a club that sold Absinthe for the same price as draft beer.  Across the street was a seven story club, which will be hosting some MTV show the first week of October, was allowing us in free instead of the usual $30 USD cover charge. The top floor had a wrap around open glass balcony. This place was the only of it’s kind- posh, modern, expensive, tall- we could see the barely lit city with crumbling infrastructure for miles below us.

We took a taxi back. We were warned against this. Molly, Stephen, Brian, and I valiantly tried explaining the concept of a port to our confused driver. ‘Boats! Ships! Tema! Please!’ We sped (at least it felt like speeding, who knows? The speedometer was broken) down the unlit highway, only stopping when commanded to by the police sitting outside their roadside station. Seatbelts? There were none. The driver is a criminal? Not sure, he doesn’t speak English. What were they saying? We don’t know. We flashed our SAS ids; we said ‘boat, ship, Tema, please!’ Molly stuck her Green Sheet (n: piece of paper with lists of important phone numbers, addresses, times, and other information deemed by Dean Bob necessary to have with you at all times in case of emergency) out the window. Magically, after he examined it, he let us go. Thank you almighty Green Sheet for allowing us to escape being detained by Ghanaian authorities.

Ghana: Befriending Locals in a New Habitat

“We have the know-how in the world to house everyone. We have the resources in the world to house everyone. All that’s missing is the will to do it.” -Millard Fuller, founder of Habitat for Humanity.

The third morning came early with the timely sunrise. Since Ghana is so close to the equator, the sun rises and falls year round at almost exactly six o’clock. At sunrise, I was on a bus headed to Kyebi, a town on the slopes of the Atewa Mountain Range. Our bus stopped three hours later on the side of a dirt road. Looking out my window I saw a green mountain shrouded in low clouds and there appeared to be nothing but thick jungle on the other side. We were lead through the density to a village opening. It was a picturesque reality of poverty. My team and I set to work, continuing the brick laying work that preceded us. These clay bricks had been molded in wooden frames and laid to dry.  We made mortar, by combining concrete sand with water and mixing with a shovel. Alternating the brick pattern for fortitude, we worked quickly to spackle before our mortar dried. Our other job was to fill a ditch with dirt so that it could be walked over. But where’s the dirt? Spencer was handed a large pick and was shown the answer. Create the dirt. So he swung away at the land and I shoveled the dirt five feet to the left to fill the ditch. Manual labor in Ghana is hot, not attractive but blazing… literally. Randomly, our Ghanaian supervisor started a brush fire in the area directly between the house and me. Random fires I found through the many bus rides are actually quite frequent. There is much garbage, but who is going to come to this jungle village and come get it? So here and many other places they just light the garbage on fire- no big deal. Careful where you throw your trash.

We sat in the shade and ate lunch that the village people provided for us. Missy and I laughed at the nonchalant fashion that chickens, baby goats, and children ran around the area. We decided to pass on the chicken dish. After lunch a local boy stopped me asked to see some of the pictures I had on my camera. He laughed when he saw a picture of himself. I wondered if this was the first time he had seen one. He was delighted when I allowed him to play photographer. All of his friends came out and posed for him. He directed them and gave them props. It was fun to watch and even more fun to look through his artwork alongside him.

In the end we had only added a few layers of brick and done odd jobs, but it was a nice to think we contributed to someone’s home. Wow, how my definition of what a home can be has changed.

Ghana: Castles and Dungeons and Lovers, oh my!

I was required for my Diaspora: History of Immigration class to go on the castles and dungeons trip. My thoughts were regrettably negative. I had to sell my ticket to go on a trip to waterfalls and Mona monkeys. My only threads of enthusiasm lie in the locations of the castles. Brianna’s friend, Amelie, suggested Cape Coast to be the best and most beautiful part of Ghana. But we have all been learning about the slave trade and slavery throughout our education. We have learned about the slave trade: its affects on ancient economies, the empirical conquests, the spreading of agriculture and religion. In social studies classes we have learned about slavery: the music, literature, and movements that have grown from their indentured cultures, the brave individuals that changed history, their significance in wars, and the cause and effect of their impact on American culture. I felt well versed in a well-rounded education of each aspect of slavery. Slavery lectures or monkeys and waterfalls? It was a long three-hour bus ride west to the dungeons.

Our tour was eye opening. What I did not realize was that the castles were the dungeons. We toured the infamous Cape Coast Castle built by the Swedes in 1653 and Elmina Castle built by the Portuguese in 1482. Each held the governors and military men of the western empires. The bottom level was the holding pen for the slaves. Our guide told us horrific stories of the conditions of the dungeons. He led us through the door of no return where Africans would take their last glimpse of their homeland as they boarded the ship that would take them somewhere in the new world. From the governor’s terrace we stared down at an open plaza. Here all female slaves were to stand on dismay for the governor to choose a bedmate. If they refused they were chained to the ground and kept under the hot sun with no food or water for all to see and learn to obey. We were taken into a room that had no sunlight and one hole of ventilation. Above it was a skull and crossbones. This is where certain slaves were taken and kept until they died a horrible death because they were given no provisions. We were told that sharks would follow the slave ships because they learned that fresh meat was always available when someone died, misbehaved, or was found pregnant due to the dungeon rapes. Ironically in the middle of one of the dungeon courtyards was a church. I found it unbelievable that a community lived within the moat protected castle walls and paid no heed to the humans kept like animals around them. Also, as Katie and I sat on a cannon and looked at the blue water, the tranquil waves, and the ease of the local fishermen coming and going in their handmade boats, it made me sad that such a beautiful place was scarred by it’s history.


The cape coast market place was the busiest market I have ever seen. A professor speculated that there were probably hundreds of thousands of people buy and selling and fishing and working in this area. This fishing village provides for much of Southern Ghana so people from all over come here to buy for their community. (This gave me a weird feeling as I remembered the fish being sold at that first market- how far did they travel unrefrigerated? How old were those fish? ) The area was striking. There was so much color: the fishing boats symbolically decorated with different patterns and colors, the flag waving marking different vending areas, and the fabrics worn by everyone there. I desperately wanted to get out and explore. Alas, as the bus continued, I was confined to my imagination wandering down the docks, beaches, talking to different locals, taking it all in.

Meena Gets Anotha Lova  

        Although tired and anticipating an early alarm the next morning, we went out. The phrases “C’mon we are only in ____ once” and “When will we ever get the chance to do ____ in ______ again?” are always in the back of my mind urging me to take advantage of every opportunity and I never regret it. At the Venus CafĂ© a hoard of SAS students gathered and intermingled with locals. Meena and I sat at a table that looked like a lacquered tree stump and chatted about our day’s experiences. We were approached by two (of course, friendly) Ghanaians. One noticed my new bracelet and told Meena she should have one. Great, more vendors. He put one of his bracelets on Meena, she refused, but he told her it was a gift. This is Meena’s second gift from a foreign boy. We chatted with them about our plans to head down to the beach for reggae night. We allowed them to buy us Stars. When they became too friendly we made up a story and left. They followed us! We assured them we’d see them at the beach but headed back to the ship. Two free stars and a bracelet for Meena. Success.

Ghana: It's A Small World After All

        We all stood ceremoniously on the decks and watched the ship come into our Ghanaian dock. The first image I had of Ghana was a symbolic image of the culture of the country that I would soon come to understand better. We were porting in Tema, the city closest to the point zero degrees longitude and zero degrees latitude. Tema is an industrial town, its port is mainly used to import infrastructure. Casablanca was also an industrial port- however it was much more organized. From our high view we could see the chaotic activity happening within the port. Everyone on the strip below us waved enthusiastically. Well, everyone besides the unusual amount of guards all carrying automatic rifles. The friendliness of the locals would soon be a staple memory of everyone’s Ghanaian experience.

      I had nothing planned for our first day in Ghana, no plans always means there is adventure to come. A group of San Diego guys and I ventured into Accra to meet up with Charlie's friend who was studying abroad at the University of Legon. We met her outside of Frankie’s a restaurant where we ate something that we called an African Burrito and had the local brew, Star. As we walked away, vendors shouted my name. I had introduced myself to one vendor and now it seemed the whole community knew that the girl in the neon shirt was Kate and she had already bought a bracelet.

        The six of us crammed into a ‘trotro, a van outfitted to hold maybe twelve people that often carried up to twenty five. How this works: the ‘mate’ hangs his head out the window when coming up to a stop and repeatedly calls out the trotro’s destination.  You negotiate a price (usually 30 pents for a 10min drive- this is about 20 cents USD). Then you cram yourself wherever you can and hope you can figure out when to get off. This alone is probably a reason that SAS warned us not to use this form of transportation, if we had not been with someone that was used to this, there is no way we would have gotten on the right trotro, gotten a decent price, or been able to understand the mate calling off destinations. On one of these trotro rides out of the city, I played the ‘do you know..’ game with Kaylie who goes to Santa Clara. Lo and behold, she is one of Emily’s housemates next semester! It is a small world after all.

        We went to a market that was a distance away from the city. The market was busy at 1500 when most locals were going about buying their dinner. Outside the market square there was a dance off to some American music. Once inside it was as if I had stepped into a national geographic documentary. There were storefronts everywhere in no apparent pattern. Kaylie told me that these storefronts were also their homes. That the bench the woman sat on and sold crabs was also her bed. There was a stench of the sea creatures being sold: every sort of fish, dried eel, live crabs, large snails, and pretty much anything from the sea that one could ascertain was also being sold. This was the case for many of the businesses and vendors; there was no limitation of the definition of a good. Some clothing stores sold new African cloth; some sold Salvation Army underwear and shirts. Some children sold beads; others were calling off prices for their rat hanging from a string. We bought pineapple for one cedi (about 80cents) this pineapple was by no exaggeration the most scrumptious piece of fruit I have ever tasted. It seemingly melted in my mouth and emitted sweet flavors, no hint of sourness.

        We split up at one point and had the hardest time reconvening. We powered through the market looking for our lost friends. The locals called us ‘brouneys’ (white people). We looked pretty ridiculous walking around in circles trying to find our way out. I was struck by the reaction of the children to our presence. One boy cried and his mother explained he had never seen our kind. Other kids came up and touched us or wanted a hug. As we traveled around the country we were often looked at in awe. In the United States, we know of different cultures and people because of media, school, and books. This is not the case in Ghana.

      We safely made it back to Accra. Here I met up with another group of SAS students, we went exploring for a place to eat. The group stopped in front of a fast-food type location selling pizza and burgers. I was in the mood for some local food, three of us went exploring. Andy had befriended a local vendor, Albert. We asked him to lead the way to a chop bar. We followed him without question down unlit roads and past huts. Once again, I found myself in a part of town where I would normally lock my windows. Albert took us to a chop bar where Anthony Bourdain ate on his travel channel show, how exciting! Except, to our dismay it was very Westernized and expensive. We decided upon a Chinese restaurant (there were several of these in the area for some reason). Albert joined us for dinner. Through our conversation I learned a lot about his generation in this country. Albert worked selling bracelets on the street in Accra. However, he lived about four hours away. He had graduated high school and loved American rap music. We asked him if he would come to America to study. He said he would love to study at Lincoln University because it is home to W.E.B. Dubois, an American civil rights activist who eventually was naturalized as a Ghanaian citizen in the 1960s. I was impressed.

Andy and Albert

Ghana: Disclaimer

It is hard for me to sit down and write a thoughtful, detailed, insightful excerpt about Ghana. I spent a cumulative of nearly twenty-four hours on bus rides. I am gung-ho about not bringing an iPod off the ship, rather I am partial to the thought that every moment should be taken in with all five senses in order to fully understand a culture. I did bring my journal on the bus, but after the second day I realized that there was not a single road in Ghana that was a smooth ride (i.e. potholes were tended to by throwing stones in them)- any attempt at writing was useless. Therefore these hours were spent inside my own thoughts. Bus rides are a great way to observe a country. A snapshot of a hoard of boys playing soccer in a dirt field is enough to spiral me into thought for a half hour. The panoramic scene of a fish market with hundreds of people selling, thousands buying, and a cluster of men heading back out into the ocean for another net full is a movie that I can replay in my mind for a four hour bus ride home. Thus, my thoughts have been born, processed, analyzed, reprocessed, and written eloquently into a mental blog in my head. Doing things twice bores me. Anyone that knows me knows that I cannot for the life of me tell a story twice. If my bus rides hadn’t been so long and if Ghana wasn’t so interesting, I would’ve written already and these blog pages would be brimming with original thoughts and ideas. The following is my attempt to do the wonderful country of Ghana and her amazing people and raw culture justice.