Saturday, November 28, 2009

who do voodoo you do

Da wears dresses. Okay, well, he wears skirts. In the same fashion as almost every woman we have encountered in the past 5 days of traveling, he has simply hemmed the edges and wrapped about 3 yards of bold African print around his waist. Da has a big happy belly and gives me a child’s smile when I tease him about his fancy dress. When men festivalize, one is bound to experience the ‘kente toga’ in abundance. They take 6 yards of heavy, hand woven cloth and drape it across their shoulders in a very particular, regal manner that makes them look like a king and a pile of curtains at the same time. On his feet are chunky sandals covered in gold that make a crinkle noise when he walks.

“Oi, ‘zalle?” Da asks, and we start our walk to the main road. Everyone we pass greets Da in Fan and bid us bonsoir. So, we tail along after our respected host and emerge on the main street. He calls to men on motorbikes and in an instant our moto-chariots await. Off to the ceremony as we zip-zip along a few dirt roads and we get down at what looks any random house, walk a maze and emerge in the heat of the ceremony. The drums are beating and all eyes are on a group of dancers whom we cannot yet see. Da taps a young man standing on the outside of the ring of people and a path through the crowd is created for him. When we get to the opening, I hesitate. I hate hate hate hate any situation that encourages even more attention than my pale skin normally affords me whilst I traipse around Africa, but I press on. Suddenly, people are raising their voices and I freeze where I stand, forgetting every French word I ever learned that might have helped me understand their commands. I don’t know what is going on, but Ian and I are surrounded by the gathered crowd and we have done something very, very wrong. A man comes beside me and pushes on my back while he squats down, indicating I should do the same. He is pointing at my sandals, so I remove them. A very large man dressed in orange, whom dancers are circling in the middle, looks at us with a confused glare. The people sitting near me point me towards the side of the crowd and I walk as low as possible, next to Da. I look back at Ian, his face is blank. We are lost lambs in a big scary voodoo world.

When finally we are settled and doing all the things we are supposed to be doing (what Da should have told us to do before hand, that is), we are front row to the ceremony. Da has left us, saying “When you finish, go home, okay? Bye-bye!” Great, now we just have to sit for fear of committing any more mortal voodoo-sins.

It is a yearly ceremony commemorating the deaths of past Dahomey kings and seems to be well attended. Voodoo is the national religion of Benin and those in the community practice it just like any other religion. I can honestly say that I have respect for those that have retained it against the formidable influence of western evangelism besides that it is just so damned complicated and interesting to me. About 1,000 people are gathered, creating a circle around open dirt, with another smaller crowd inside and to the left. The dancers alternate from performing en mass in the front, and circling around the inner group. Half of the crowd is sitting on the dirt and we all look a little like children as we gaze up at the dancers passing by throbbing to the drums. African drumming generally consists of several drums, bells, and shakers all creating an incredible polyrhythm (instruments play different beats; that is, one playing a 4 count, another plays a 5-7 count, etc.). The women bob their shoulders forward and back to the rhythm while shuffling their feet as they move in a circle, the layers of cloth around their waist creating a dramatic figure. They each wore no less than 20 long strings of beads around their necks and 6 inch wide aluminum wrist-cuffs with small bells that sing with the movements of their bodies. Compared to the men, the women move subtly, as if they have nothing to prove. The men, however, throw their bodies to the music and spray dirt as they kick their fast moving feet past the crowd. They are draped in fabric and bells and all wear large anklets that bounce with their feet. They get very close to the crowd and cause a roar of shouting. I hear the same 2 or 3 phrases shouted over and over again to the dancers as they pass. It is yelled in low tones, like a jeer aimed at an opponent, and comes out like a song in the tonal language of Fan (the meaning of a word can change based on the tone in which it is spoken; high, low, nasal, etc.).

There something about the female dancers that seems different and I can’t quite name it; after they make several passes by us I realize the variation: they are all at least 50. To see these women throb their bodies like all of the youth I’ve seen responding intense African drum language is exhilarating. It reminds me that there is a dancer to greater or lesser extent in every African, and these mamas were good enough to move side by side with young 20-something men. During the ceremony, as dancers broke into group performances, the women went about acknowledging the crowd. Some came around repeatedly to the women that were somehow important enough to have chairs for the ceremony and would lean in close and clap their hands while the seated woman sat up, speaking to the dancer earnestly and rubbing her hands together. Many women walked around with bottled to perfume and would spray it on the chair wielding amongst us, afterwards presenting an open hanky for a few coins.

In the middle of a large collection of people seated on the ground was someone of high importance. He sat much higher than anyone in his immediate area, with a group of young women who would regularly break out into songs that were then followed by songs from a group of older men to their left. At one point in the ceremony I looked over at this honored man and noticed his face lit from below in a strange way with a look of concern across his brow. I continued watching, hoping for any interesting. Instead, his face broke its expression and he looked back up to the ceremony with a smile as he slipped his cell phone back in his shirt pocket; text messaging.

The ceremony ended and we got as far away from what was once the ‘stage’ before we replaced our shoes. Fool me once, right? As we walk back towards the road, we are greeted by everyone with pass with a sincere smile. As the only yevoos (white people) there, I sensed a bit of appreciation for having attended their gathering rather than sticking to tour guides and museums like so many others. As Ian and I make our way back to the guest house, stopping to buy baguettes and oranges along the way, we wonder the significance of all the subtle elements of the ceremony we had just witnessed. In fact, we began many sentences with “I wonder why…” during our trip and very few were able to be answered with my survival level French.

When we approach the guest house on the dark sandy ‘street,’ Da is waiting for us outside. “I had to go inside the… the… house because I am, umm…vestiged. You could not go because you…”

“Are not vestiged?” Ian completes his sentence with a laugh and we bid our host good night and head for the dark hall that leads to our simple room. We spent that night staring at water marks on the ceiling and describing what we saw them as in our imaginations. In no time at all we are asleep, safe within a mosquito net cocoon. You can never tell what the next day will bring and a good night rest certainly takes the edge off troublesome occurrences.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Cheers to being a good sport about it.

My head is down and I’m wondering why my shoes fit me differently these days. I hop over a puddle of orange-red water and here a hiss thrown in my direction. It’s the trotro I was just waiting to fill at the station: it filled while I was trying to make other arrangements and they took off to find me on the road. I jog across the road even though there isn’t another car in sight and around to the sliding door.

“Kafra, wae. Kafra, wae.” I smile at the man on the other side of the door when he laughs at my Twi apology. The jagged edge of a fold out seat catches my leg as I climb inside and squeeze my kid-sized hips between mom and one very large African gentleman. I look over at her and she laughs in that nervous (terrified) kind of way.

“What? Why?” I stammer.

“Blakey, I was so scared. I kept telling them to let me out but they said ‘no, no.’ I thought I would just end up nowhere with no one. Oh my god, I was so scared.” She laughs and lays her head on our bags piled in her lap.

“Well, it’s okay now. They just knew they would find me on the road. They were looking out for you; you don’t have to worry about being but in harm’s way here. People look out for people.” She was safe and no one would have jeopardized her safety but I know what it’s like to perceive yourself in danger and unsure of where you are and where you are going; it’s an ugly feeling that goes right to your stomach and back up your spine. I would never wish it on anyone.

I gingerly put my arm around her shoulders and look around the van. The phrase “clapped-out death trap” comes to mind and I laugh to myself. Public transportation vehicles become decreasingly whole as you leave the city. This one is by far the most… eclectic I have seen. My tail bone aches and my head is tired. I have nothing else to do so I calculate our time spent (wasted): up at 5:30, at the station at 6:15, car fills at 8:30, arrive at Nkwatan at 12:30, depart for Kpasa at 2:30. First leg of the journey is completed, two more to go.

I am seriously concerned that we won’t reach Bimbilla as we still have an unknown amount of dirt road and two more villages to change cars. Small villages aren’t usually the most equipped in terms of accommodation and I have someone else to think about. Were in just me, I might easily find a friendly Auntie to open up her home and give me a good meal, but that kind of uncertainty isn’t ideal this time. Rather than worrying about nothing I can control, I busy myself trying to understand a boisterous conversation between a group of Twi speaking men in the car; they are talking football so I begin to day dream while fighting for shoulder space with Mr. Large-Man to my right.

Kpada. We hurry off the car and a man points towards a decrepit mini-station wagon circa 1972, “Damanko,” he says, “you go there.” We rush over to the small group standing around the car and I ask the driver the price. “Twenty-two,” he pauses, “but there is a baggage fee, ten thousand per bag.” It has been a long day and I don’t like this guy already. I make the unfortunate decision to flip out.

“One cedi for a bag?! No, no. That is not fair, you don’t charge any of these people half of their fair to carry their hand bags, do you? No, you wouldn’t. Brother, don’t be unfair to me.” I put him on the defensive and there is no going back. I look to the people standing around, “Does he charge you this?” They only smile sheepishly as I stare them imploringly in the eye. I turn back to my new enemy, “Fine, we will keep them on our laps.”

“I don’t care if you carry them on your heads, if you are taking them in the car you must pay. You bring 2 Ghana cedi for the bags.” He says something cheeky to the crown in Twi that I don’t quite catch and turns back to me as he lights a cigarette, “You’re wasting time, I can fill the seats without you.” I glare at him as best as I can. He got me. “Let’s go,” I say and grab the small backpack from mom as I climb in the make-shift third row of seats. An old Muslim man sits quietly and ignores us for the entirety of our time together. I miss him.

In the three hour drive of this leg of our adventure, we have to get out twice while he takes the car through the most intense ruts I have ever seen, and while memory of the road condition still makes my spine weep, the marriage proposals we received upon arrival in Damako make up for it entirely.

“So, you will marry me, then?” Unfazed, I give him the standard reply, “Yes. Make we go now, yeah?” We share a laugh and then I turn away. I have heard this before and have developed favorite strategies, one of which is to ask if they mind being husband #13, and if not we should wed at ONCE! Not to be outdone, though, our fearless driver soon walks up holding the hand of a tall, handsome black man, “This one is for mummy, he is her size I think.” Mother and daughter share glances and erupt in laughter which makes me light headed. You see, we were sitting directly over an open gas tank for three hours and your brain just doesn’t immediately bounce back from such things. Either way, thank you, driver: once an ass; later, not so bad.

Luxury, on this day, had arrived in the form of a cushioned front seat shared by Narrow Hips, part one and two. As we are driven the final stretch, mom asks again if she can take pictures. She asks because I have more than once expressed… annoyance at her photographic tendencies. It is hard for me to be completely comfortable with photographing strangers carrying on in normal order in this Foreigner-Native relationship. It pains me to think that this action would mean to the “native” that I am perplexed and amused by their normalcy, so much so that I want to capture it to show my rich, white friends the oddities of Deepest Africa. Besides, whipping out a $300 camera is contextually inappropriate. “No, please. Just remember it with your mind.” I laugh because while it may sound like a cop out, I am very serious. The sun set that night over the newly green landscape of rainy-season flat land was one of the most staggeringly beautiful images I have retained in my time here. I can still remember the feeling of the cool air that evening, the sound from the diesel engine working hard along the treacherous tundra, and the softened faces of my fellow passengers calmly taking in the scene with us. Sunsets: cross culturally admired since the beginning of time.

Bimbilla. It took 12 hours, about $15, and entirely more bartering than my sleep reserve should have allowed, but we found you, nonetheless. Exhausted we greet you and after a 4 am wake up by the mosque speakers that seemed to be piped right into our small room, we depart under similar conditions to our actual destination: Tamale. The epicenter of The North, as it is casually called by those who don’t reside in its boundaries, awaits us in a matter hours and kilometers and I catch my second consecutive sunset-rise pairing but I’m not one to complain. We buy breakfast from the tops of women’s heads through the window of a minibus and I brood over the guidebook I’ve come to hate. I suppose this is one way to begin another day in sunny West Africa, not for the faint of heart or those prone to being poor sports.

There was also the time mom chased off an attacking baboon with a deck chair, but maybe we can talk about that later...

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

To whom it may concern

A letter to my family from far, far away:

Dear person I love,
This weekend I visited a Liberian refugee camp just outside of Accra, Ghana called Budaburam. I was asked to come by my fellow Californian, Charlie. Charlie is teaching at one of the schools on the camp as well as conducting his research project there. The camp, which was formed by the UN after civil war broke out in Liberia in 1990, has been home to as many as 50,000 refugees. The current estimate is closer to 20,000, however, because many have been ‘repatriated’ as the war is ‘over.’ Charlie is conducting research on why the remaining people have not yet left or do not want to go back to Liberia. The consensus: it is still not safe, no family left, or they left so long ago they don’t know the country anymore. The UN offers individuals $100 and $50 for children to relocate but that is not enough to start from nothing after barely surviving in Ghana for so many years. Charlie needed me to interview the women we randomly choose as it makes the women more comfortable to speak with a woman than a young white man. If I can put it so simply, it was a hard afternoon. Walking through Zone 7 of camp in the heat of the afternoon, looking for our arranged interviewees, hearing their heart wrenching stories, watching them sob as they were asked to give even the small details of their departure from their homes. Old women telling me of their family being raped and murdered, men of position stalked like animals for actions they carried out as statesmen, teachers murdered by failed former students; I heard all of these stories from only ten interviews each lasting roughing twenty minutes. After that long, physically, mentally, and emotionally exhausting day, while Charlie and I arranged sheets for ourselves on the floor of a local school teacher’s modest home, we made our attempts to process the experience; a new one for me but a repeat for Charlie. From this conversation, Charlie asks me how my family feels about my reasons for being so far away from home for so long. I explain that it is hard for me to articulate my intentions as I am not entirely sure what I will get out this experience; therefore, my family is left in the dark. Charlie pressed me to explain myself and this is what I will attempt to share with you as it is very important to me that those I care about might begin to understand my position here.
I have struggled continuously with the idea that maybe it is not the position of some to save all: the job is too great and people are meant to be their own keeper. Every day we are bombarded with saving the whales, the children, the trees, the Africans, the sweat shop workers, the culture, the world; because of this seeming ocean of campaigns, one might think that these issues are being handled and money and man power are being directed appropriately and efficiently. This is, however, not how I am currently able to see it, and have not been able to see it as such for some time now. In America we do a very good job of shooing away that which we desire to deny. Whether it is homelessness, racism, HIV/AIDS, or the negative effects of sky-rocketing consumerism; reality is in the eye of the beholder. As a nation, as a culture, as a planet there has been created a huge space for ignorance and individualism making it seem as though the masses of people at the bottom of the socioeconomic power ladder are much fewer and much less entrenched in their current state than is true. I don’t seek to assign myself the position of the enlightened, as if I am so much more aware than others because I am such a world traveler, and all. I travel for many reasons, not the first of which is an attempt to help anyone but it is through the gift of travel that I was slapped in the face with poverty and social, economic, and emotional oppression. For me, it was the kind of offense that left a mark.
My greatest fear as I write this is that it will be taken as the egotistical ranting of a privileged girl thinking she knows Africa. While I cannot help admitting that I am the former, I will never claim to understand more than a few facets of this place at a time. Really, I am here because I find myself learning and growing ever day, this fact being compounded by the refreshing novelty of daily life. I do understand that I am capable of finding such energy and growth living closer to home in America-California-Bakersfield-Irvine-Where ever, but this place has gotten under my skin and for now I will make the necessary allowances financially and in terms of comfort and contact with loved ones in order to have these career defining adventures while I still have the heart for it.
And now, for me. I am currently over 7,000 miles away from you and I want you to understand why. Before I left, I could not nail down my own reasons for leaving again other I had nothing else on my plate and was eligible for a bit more financial aid. These are poor reasons to give and I hope that I will make it up now. Living for those few months in South Africa nearly two years was a soul-rattling experience. It was like living in the rippling tide of a recent and devastating wake. Apartheid served to make concrete the idea of subjugation, that blacks were biologically, fundamentally, intrinsically lesser than their white oppressors. Seeing the passion cultivated by a lifetime of repression manifesting itself in anger and violence; being hated for my skin color just as narrow-mindedly as I was loved for my nationality. This was part of my experience. The other part was safer and simpler: academic. Under the supervision of the most experienced, active, forward-thinking professors I have yet come across, I was able to see for myself that there existed structures of unchallenged supremacy more universal than the white supremacy of South Africa. This structure exists throughout the world and defines the existence of many. It is established in such a way that just as I did nothing to gain the privileges I have been offered my entire life the Congolese woman starving to feed the mouths of 5 children did nothing to place herself so indefinitely in that position.
Third world countries have been historically raped of resources in exchange for the myth of an unreachable western ideal, and arguably the whole of Africa has been a part of this to an extreme. Shortly before I left in January, a person very close to me asked why I needed to go to Africa, pressing upon me the question of “why can’t they help themselves.” To this, I had no immediate response but I now wish to address the question. To put it ever so simply, it is because of the structure of misuse and underdevelopment by the government’s holding all the strings and carrying the coin purses that Africa is yet able to ‘help itself.’ The answer to this, however, is not to continue pumping billions of dollars of aid money in these countries. To me, this is like throwing ply wood over quick sand and attempting to build a home: without the establishment of a strong base there is no way to sustain your efforts and dependency is created. I have struggled through conversations with several Ghanaians who have commented on the need for first world countries to “help Africa more,” a sentiment fueled by ignorance and the illusion of the rich-western-savior. Everyone has a stake and their own interests to protect whether it is the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, USAID, or the UN. While this “problem” seems largely beyond my reach to combat, I do feel capable and willing to be a part of building Africa’s strength to sustain and develop itself, on its own terms, from within and with its own people. If Africa is forever looking to the outside for answers it will never be its own boss.
Addressing this puzzle starts with youth. The cliché that young people are the ‘window of hope’ is as true in Ghana as it is in any part of the world. From a childhood instilling a sense of empowerment to years of education cultivating critical thinking, the potential for change and evolution is forfeited when these elements are not realized. My ultimate career goal is to one day start my own NGO working with disadvantaged youth. Programs to get them involved in their communities, interacting with their peers in a safe environment, maybe even teaching a few lessons which school systems tend to ignore like creativity, sex education, or Ashtanga yoga =). Living in Ghana, I see have met some of the most polite, engaging, intelligent young people as well as come across a daily barrage of child labor by way of adolescent hawkers in the middle of choked capital city traffic selling water sachets and plantain chips off the top of their head for 8 hours a day. It is this gap that needs to be closed: there is no difference between these two groups except the difference in which Circumstance has glanced upon them. Circumstance is changing, I hope, and I want nothing more than to be a part of that transformation.
I must admit that I don’t really know if this hit the mark I was aiming at but I think it addresses something valuable to me. I would like to gain your insight on what I have written and encourage criticism, advice, or email love. I know I have been rather quiet lately and there is not really a good excuse except sometimes it is just very tiring for me to try to explain this place out of context.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Market Economy

The streets are filled with people, food, cars, and chaos; the air is a mixture of dust, exhaust fumes and garbage. Akwaaba, this is Macola Market. As a white person, the market is often a trying experience. You attract more attention than the average patron and you are also charged much more if you are not careful. Walking through the market area is a constant barrage of “Oburoni!” and “Akosua!,” or whatever other Ghanaian name they decide to give you at that moment and every second is a potential sensory overload to the unaccustomed visitor.
Upon arrival at Macola Market via a 45 GP trotro ride to Tema Station, you are at once within a world pool of minibuses and fast moving people, Ghanaians never move as fast as they do in the markets. One must be constantly aware as this place is like a minefield of potential collision, both human and automobile, and pedestrians and drivers alike are expected to look out for themselves. It is this initial area that can be viewed as a market summary: most things that can be found throughout the market can be found in this collection of meandering rows, each about 200 meters long. If you know your way out, you reach the street and on the ‘market days’ of Wednesday and Saturday, every viable space is filled with some entrepreneurial attempt, and voices from all sides are professing the worth of their products, some with loud speakers. Some sellers have tables, others use handmade display shelves, and still others merely lay their goods out on the ground. It is often difficult to make ones way quickly through the market as walk ways are not arranged to accommodate the effortless passing of slow movers or those heading in the opposite direction. Besides this, one is under pressure from sellers; they grab your arm, shout for your attention and hold out their goods for your close, if unwilling, scrutiny. Walking through the streets of the market it is easy to get lost and easier to find everything you could possibly want than any shopping center in America.
Vendors in African markets are overwhelming female but there are gender stereotypes in terms of who sells which items. For example, DVDs and shoes are overwhelmingly sold by men, while it is a rarity to find a male, whether young or old, selling pure water from the top of his head. In a society where women are often seen as subordinate, with little economic strength, the market is their kingdom. There has been created a community within this sprawling market and each vendor understands their place in it: the new comers, the veterans, the aggressive, those there daily or those there helping a relative. A community is built every few blocks of the market as many of these vendors see each other every day. While there can be tension when similar goods are too closely set, most vendors will direct you to a specific neighbor if they don’t have a particular product and a relationship of mutual consideration is fostered.
One fundamental part of the traditional market culture, as opposed to modern, western market economy, is bargaining. While it may always be composed of the same song and dance between buy and seller, it is paramount in their relationship. “Ghanaians love a good bargainer, it keeps them on their toes.” A sale between two Africans might go something like this:
“How much for the drum, brother?”
“Oh, I’ll give it to you for 50,000 kwacha”
“What? No, no no no. Look at it, it is just a small drum. I could not possibly give more than 20,000.”
“Brother, this is a good drum, I made it myself. It will last you until your grandchildren have grandchildren. The lowest I can do is 42,000.”
“That is too much. Give it to me for 27,000.” He wipes his hands together signifying a closed deal and waits for the next sequence.
“No, I cannot.”
“Okay, I will buy it somewhere else.” The man walks away only to be called back and they settle on 35,000 kwacha for the drum, a fair price and both are satisfied.
The market is also semi-organized in terms of what items or type of items are found in the same vicinity or block. There are sections of cloth vendors, a shaded side street of school supplies next to wood working and furniture, as well as stretches of bags of rice and alleys full of kitchen supplies. While it might seem that these vendors would be in competition with each other, they have their own loyal customers. Especially in the smaller villages, most buyers have some manner of connection to their vendor of choice, usually familial. For example, they will always buy their tomatoes from their sister’s husband’s niece and their rice from the woman that attends their church. In the cities, it is often linked to convenience, but can sometimes be drawn along tribe lines. The Ewe woman would be more likely to buy from another Ewe if it was as readily available.
Markets can also be found to be organized along religious lines. For example, there is a market in the Airport Residential Area of Accra, Ghana that is centered around goods specific to the Muslim community. Whereas in the main market you would find piles of western clothes of t-shirts and denim, at this particular market the clothes in piles are all long sleeve tunics and caftans. There are also many stalls with slippers commonly worn by Muslim men as well as scarves and hijab for women. There is a mosque in the middle of this particular market and outside one finds many very old Muslim men on sitting on a row of mats under umbrellas with tins set out for begging. Begging often occurs in markets in various forms. Around the Accra mall there is a whole outfit of young caramel skinned, bronze haired children from Niger. They speak little English but they do know that touching their finger tips to their mouths displayed their desire for food. One can find these young people all over populated areas, much to the aggressive distain of Ghanaians. While seeking directions from a man at Circle, a small girl came up and tugged my arm, at which point The Man Selling Shoes smacked her forcefully on the head. Everyone wants to eat and, no matter the country, its people don’t appreciate outsiders taking their jobs or their resources. Being a white person often encourages people to approach for money or food: if their intent is to beg, a westerner is a prime target for pity. While shopping for batik clothe with my roommate, we were approached by a particularly uncouth young Ghanaian man. After being refused money he got down on his knees, and when we turned to ignore him he retaliated with a barrage of English curse words. Only after the owner suggested he try someone else did he leave while stringing his barely coherent insults behind him.
Pale skinned while wandering a market is to experience more attention than anywhere else. Vendors are already prone to making cat calls to passersby, but when to stands out relative to everyone else in your midst means you will be singled out with whatever word they give to foreigners. In Ghana the default word is ‘oburoni,’ Twi for ‘one who come from overseas,’ and it is often followed by the command, ‘bra!,’ meaning ‘come!’ Other words and phrases are thrown out but as it is assumed not to be understood, it might as well be for the sake of any Ghanaians in ear shot. Another tactic of vendors, mostly commonly from older women, is to assign said oburoni a Ghanaian name for the sake of calling it out to get their attention. Generally, the name used is Akosua, and when Oburoni corrects the name usage something like this happens:
“Akosua, bra! Akosua, you need onion!”
“Kukua. Sistah, my name is Kukua”
(pause for general laughter in the area) “Kukua! Kukua, ete sen?”
And all of this occurs in the 10 seconds between entering the vendor’s line of sight and walking to far away to shout. Knowing a few phrases in Twi never fails to get a string of laughter from those who hear it. On some level it is frustrating to be laughed at while trying to be polite and ‘do as the Romans do,’ but it comes down to the sheer novelty of hearing a white person speak like an African that reduces Ghanaians to giggles.
The modern idea of the market economy was spawned in places just like Accra’s Makola Market. While the contemporary ‘market’ is increasingly electronic and detached, it was once a very intimate choreography of community, loyalty, and bargaining. African markets are centered on mutual necessity: one needs the money while the other needs the goods; while the market financial system of the western world is often about exploitation by corporations and the slow decline of the small business man. This, of course, can all be understood by looking at the individualistic cultures of the western world, and the significance given to the family and community in Africa.
Unfortunately, I must apologize if any part of this is less than factual. It was taken purely from personal observation and conversations with friends and strangers. Between the information garnered from the porters at Volta Hall, The Lady Who Sold Me Garlic, The Man on the Tro-Tro, and a few others, it is easy to still be confused by the culture of African markets. They are unlike anything western, except maybe a ‘flea market’ and would arguably never work in those societies where the smell of pigs feet in the sun is found to be unappetizing and 3 feet of personal space is almost a requirement. While an afternoon at the market never fails to be a tiring experience, it can also be one very much about learning; learning to haggle, learning to be patient, learning how to weave through a crowd with an armload of bags, or learning when to entertain attention and when to ignore it.

Friday, March 13, 2009

If your vagina could talk...

The stage is set up like a jazz lounge, as the cardboard and glitter words reiterate on the back drop, the small tables are surrounded by six young women dressed in fitted and low cut, feet donning stiletto heels bounce atop crossed legs; thirty minutes late but right on African time, the production begins with a murmur of nervous giggles.
“In Ewe, they call it ‘kulo.’”
“In Ga, they call it ‘tuntun.’”
“In England, they call it ‘fanny,’” she pauses dramatically as she turns around, showing the crowd her full figure, “even though in America that means your booty.”
I saw an advertisement for the open audition weeks ago and was instantly curious: Vagina Monologues being performed in the most conservative country I have even visited was not an event to be missed. My mind reeled at the thought of how this play, controversial by its own American standards, would be accepted in such a patriarchal, predominantly Christian, traditional country. Would they be supportive, engaged, offended, confused, or intrigued? Would Ghanaian women want to talk about their vaginas on stage, in front of the whole world, and would their peers pay to hear them rant and rave in western feminist fashion? For the weeks between the audition advert and the production announcement I entertained these ideas, hypothesizing and analyzing, until less than a week before the production date my apprehension found an outlet with the help of Edna.


During the bus ride to campus from our hall’s anniversary party the last week of January, Edna and I occupied ourselves with small talk until my interest in working with high school students came up. “Oh, that’s nice,” she said, “I have a program you might be interested in.” No sooner had she uttered the words, “HIV prevention workshop” and I was ready to talk business. With career goals pointing more and more towards sex education, this was exactly what I had hoped to participate in while living in Ghana. We discussed the goals of the program, I shared my previous experience working within the field, and we parted ways enthusiastic about working together in the coming weeks. The day drew near and I felt familiar nervousness. High school students want to learn this stuff, I told myself; just remember objectivity, empowerment, and cultural relativity and the rest will flow at its own comfortable pace. The first two I was more than prepared to deal with; the latter, however, presented the real problem, I would come to find out.
I was unprepared for the degree to which this small group of willing high school students was in the dark about the basics of sex and sexuality. In many countries, mine own included, students are being let down in a very intimate way. Claiming myth as fact, selling church ideology as empowerment, and a strategy of scare tactics involving gruesome films and photographs where how I ‘learned’ about sex and, unfortunately, the group of students sitting before me that first Friday afternoon were even more starved for information. After introducing ourselves and trying to loosen the students up, we opened the floor for questions. In what seemed like an instant, the students were paying attention. While not all raised their hand, they all listened to the questions being posed and locked their eyes on the front of the room as we addressed them. One student, a gregarious first year female named Mena, raised her hand and with confidence I could have never shown under similar conditions, asked, “What, exactly, I mean, what is masturbation?” Okay, I thought, this is good. I took a breath, collecting my words before they began to spill. Edna, however, took the reins.
“Masturbation is bad. Studies show that if you do it you can become addicted and later in life your sexual relationships will not be satisfying.”
Houston, we have just lost cabin pressure.


The young women on the stage were met with a mixture of acceptance and indifference. The crowd was overwhelming white and female as, unfortunately, were the actresses. Of the seven young women, 4 were American and they were all given the more powerful, high energy monologues. The first night, the monologues remained just as Eve had spoken them, mentioning US cities, decrying the comfort of tampons (which do not really exist to African women), and chanting ‘cunt.’ Later nights, however, subtle changes brought the monologues closer to home. While there were cat calls, the few men in the audience generally played along, even if some seemed to be ignoring the stage in what appeared to be complete discomfort. There were rumors after the first night that the show was to be canceled, “too vulgar” they said. While I would not have been surprised had this occurred, luckily, it did not. The show continued in the same manner as the high school workshop: while the message was important, it was not as easily passed as I might have hoped.
As a global community, we still struggle with the idea of gender equality. Whether it be professional, emotional, or sexual, there are few cultures that do no profess a difference (if not deficiency) between the sexes. Fuel to this problem is the way in which many young people are learning about sex and sexuality. Young girls are taught about their bodies as the sexually acted upon or as the carriers of babies and boys know even less. While it might be easy to point fingers at this institution or that government, there is no such effortless solution and I cannot bring myself to say that it is about personal choice or open-mindedness because I am seeing more and more that choice and any manner of mindedness are not often in the cards.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Do as the Romans do

It is amazing how much things can change for a day. Yesterday I had an internship with the World Health Organization. Today: not. Yesterday I was doing independent research on the HIV prevention in Ghana. Today: not. Yesterday I was stressed about my computer not working. Today: not. Yesterday my hair was brown, today it is auburn and purple. Yesterday I was the one of the lead roles in a play on campus. Today, I am arranging my trip to the FESPACO film festival in Burkina Faso, departing the day the play opens. Allow me to explain.
My once coveted internship, originally postponed, I am not forced to dismiss. My boss is currently on health leave and even when she does return in 6 weeks, I discovered her job is all business and no outreach. It works out, I knew I couldn't handle a desk job and that is what I would have been given.
With this new development, my research project was disrupted as WHO was going to be my main source of information and resources. So, no HIV research. What then? Well, that brings me to FESPACO. But first, the play. I auditioned for a play on a whim and got one of the lead roles. It is called Blood Wedding and would have been a joy to participate in had I not serendipitously come across an advert for the FESPACO festival. It is a pan African film festival held biannually in Burkina Faso and I was first introduced to it by a friend and while I was unable to find much information about my abilities to attend online, I forgot about it until I saw a faded print out on an office door in the dance department. It turns out, the enthusiasm I had for the play was far far far outweighed by the extent to which this festival is a once in a lifetime opportunity for me. Burkina, here I come.
As far as the research goes, I am trying to make the best of missing one week of school and will be researching and first-hand-investigating the festivals role in the country's history and present... or something like that.
As far as the hair, I got it braided: When in Rome.

Monday, January 26, 2009

A quick note of introduction

I have attached the February travel journal I wrote for Wellness Times, but wanted to include more details for concerned friends and family. I apologize for waiting so long to write, although, it is only just now 3 weeks. It feels like I’ve been here 2 months.
The first week and a half was spent on “Orientation.” I was annoyed to see before I left that I was shelling out $1300 for what I thought would be lame and largely unnecessary. I must now eat those words as it was an epic beginning to the trip. Unlike South Africa, Ghana EAP allowed us time as new students to acclimate with the other students in the group, forming bonds and friendships, traveling, attending a few lectures about Ghana, its history, culture, taboos, music, and languages; and generally getting comfortable with our first outlets of foreigner frustration. Rather than being thrown in an expected to survive, our hands were held and we were guided through it. This, of course, was annoying after a few days but endearing, nonetheless.
The second day we drove around Accra in a big, tourist bus. I was mortified but tried to be a good sport. The first week was stressful if for no other reason than the heat: 90 degrees, 100% humidity. It isn’t so uncomfortable now. In fact, I would liken it to San Diego in the summer.
After a bit of finagling and moving around, I have finally landed in Volta Residence Hall where the motto is “Ladies With Vision and Style.” They live up to it like their residency depends on it. There are only 10 international students in Volta, all from EAP, and that is what makes this place better than International Student Hostel, where the other 10 EAP students are. It is mostly obrunis (white people), far from campus, and not able to compete in sports unless the person affiliates with another hall. Hall sports here are key and I was greeted with much enthusiasm when I told the girls I used to long jump. After that, my participation was no longer a question. Molly is my roommate and we get along brilliantly. Her hair is very very short and super curly so she gets a lot of Africans touching it and saying it is almost like theirs.
The woman on campus are so beautiful, I’m really not sure how the men are able to put up with it. They all wear tailored dresses made from striking African fabrics of bright colors and bold design. I’ll have one made eventually but wont have the curves these ladies fill them with, unfortunately. The people are incredibly kind as it is a big part of their cultural ideology to be welcoming to outsiders. Everywhere we go, especially outside of campus, we are greeted with “Akwaaba” (welcome!), “Ete sen?” (how are you?) and “Obruni! Please come!” in which case, they want us to buy their things and mostly just chat. I’ll leave you with this small bits for now, as you have a bit to read. I’ll be blogging more often so please check that once a week or so ( eventually there will be pictures.

Lunch time with the Togobo's

Once again I am sandwiched in the back of a taxi as we bump and shift over a red dirt road on the out skirts of Accra. Today was a bad day to forget my handkerchief as the air is a constant assault of thick dust from passing cars and heavy smoke from burning rubbish. Even though it often makes me feel like a finicky, hand sanitizer-using, bottled water-drinking, restaurant eating, shopping mall obruni*, I kick myself for not having something to filter my breathing air. I try to time my breathing between the dust of passing cars while our Ewe driver skillfully maneuvers amidst sink-sized pot holes like his compact Asian import is instead a stout Range Rover. Bless, sitting in the front seat, requests the radio be turned up. The driver chatters, gesturing from time to time at the radio, and there begins a ping pong of discussion completely indiscernible to my ears but entertaining in its tone and inflection. The DJs are interviewing some of the appointed officers to the recently inaugurated president; Akorfa rolls her eyes and looks out the window: politics are for the home.
We pass young children walking along the side of the road amid palm trees and bamboo covered by a thick layer of rust colored dirt. They carry 10 foot long bundles of wood, water, and small items to sell all balanced on aluminum disks atop their shaved heads. Their poise is impeccable; why tire your arms and disrupt your center of gravity when given a few years of practice one is able to carry very large loads while keeping their hands free. I have often seen women running with such loads in the middle of traffic for the sake of selling a 30P bag of fried plantains. It is small moments such as those that illuminate the Ghanaian reality for the staggeringly large lowest class.
The short cut we have taken on our drive, arguably deemed so only for its distance, takes us through several different villages for a very slow moving thirty minutes. Still full of banku and okra soup and with fingers stained orange from palm oil after another lesson of eating sans cutlery, the meal prepared for Molly and I from scratch took 4 hours but the sibling’s plans for us was yet to culminate. “The tourist center” is our final destination, any further information must have seemed unnecessary.
Molly and I were picked up at 10:30 by an enthusiastic Akorfa and Bless, after I was invited to a home made Ghanaian meal at their home a few days earlier. “We will first take you to the market, buy all of the provisions and then we will cook you a proper meal,” she smiled broadly as we acquainted ourselves over banku and fufu at the campus food stand center. They smiled as I awkwardly ate away at my ball of fermented corn and ground nut soup; banku is an acquired taste but scores a solid 9 in its novelty. Between pauses in the conversation, I watch the women pounding cassava into a flavor-lacking concoction of dough-ish consistency called fufu. The women work in pairs, one rhythmically pounding a large four foot long pistil while a woman sits, turning and adjusting the cassava (or corn, for banku) and adding more at intervals. The result is then meant to sit for 3 days to ferment and rise before it is submerged in various soups and eaten with greedy hands. When I first met them eating on campus, only my finger tips were orange while nearly their entire hands were involved in the feeding process. Later, at their home, while struggling over the gooey consistency of the okra soup, we were told to take the soup in our hand with the banku-like dough called akbley, wave it over the bowl until it seemed to stop its dripping, turn up your fingers and aim for your mouth; and I thought chopsticks were difficult.
While we sat under the shade of their coconut trees, cooking over charcoal in the mid-day breeze, we were visited by the local school children and friends, many of whom became photographers for the many pictures for which we were asked to pose. The siblings, Bless and Akorfa, share a 7X7 room taken up mostly by a bed and television, though electricity is almost rare, accompanied by a stack of mostly American DVDs. Since their village is on the far outskirts of the city, their home sits on a roomy 50’x50’ plot of land comprised of their small dwelling, several coconut trees and cassava plants, and a half erected building on the opposite side. Buildings of similar condition are found all over Ghana. Large extended families save up enough money to begin construction and work until the money runs out, going back to their respective homes and save until they can continue building again. This means there are skeleton houses everywhere, standing grey and uncomfortable, concrete walls left half built throughout the often several storied structures, succumbing more and more to an ever-encroaching forest. “Times are small now,” Bless explains sheepishly when I ask about his skeleton-house, “Soon, though.”
While their condition is far more precarious than I would have imagined for a well dressed social worker and house painter, our drive to a reconstructed Danish plantation, the “tourist center,” brings us closer to those with even less. As we drive, Akorfa looks out the window at the dwellings of mud and stick along side those of rusted tin and plywood. I wonder which is considered the better home as she turns to us and laughs saying that these people were “primitive.” I think she must be so unaware of herself but then cede that perception is relative and change the subject. I ask her to teach me more phrases in Ewe and she brightens as I begin to parrot words and laugh at the ineptitude of my tongue.
I sometimes wonder if traveling to countries so markedly different than one’s own is a sort of masochism: the room for embarrassing yourself is huge and unavoidable. On campus people may smile when we momentarily lose ourselves and stretch out the forbiden left hand only to pull it back and blush, but in the market place doing that to the wrong person may illicit a grimace. You could easily form bad habits living on campus; they are accustomed to “us” and don’t react to our various faux pas, but on the “outside” most obibinis* know little more about American culture than blond hair and hip hop. I’d like to keep it as such, however. Ghanaians still respect each other and themselves in a way westerners are rarely capable. Greeting people is important and often the key to their assistance. Time is not money at this point in Ghana’s history and if you cannot inquire about my day, I may not be able to get the information you seek. For this reason alone, I find myself enamored with Ghana and its people, no where else have I been more welcomed and comfortable, if only in terms of new friendships and safety. Having just scratched the surface of my time here, charley, there is still big time left to go, if I might quote a bit of Ghanaian slang, and things have only begun to settle.

Obruni: the Twi word for foreigner, often shouted at a non-African for no other reason than the opportunities of use are few.
Ewe: one of the larger ethnic groups within Ghana. Their language is called Ewe, unlike the largest group, Akan, which has several dialects, the most prominent being Twi.
Obibini: the Twi word for an African, the cheeky response to an obnoxious “Obruni!”