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!”