Sunday, June 13, 2010

Zen and the art of shoveling cow poo.

For those of you that don't know, I have been volunteering on organic farms in South Africa for the past 4 months. The farms open their doors to workers in exchange for their food and housing. I found them through the organization It has been an incredible 4 months on 4 different farms and some adventures in between.
One thing that I am unable to forget when anyone asks how I am doing, what I am busy with, and what my days are like is that I am learning every day; lessons through dinner table conversation, hands on experience, trial and error on all manner of things. While my adventures now revolve almost entirely around my daily farm work, the work varies and the expertise of the people I work with has opened a thousand new doors of insight and practical skill development.
My days are never the same, even as the weeks pass on the same farm. For example, on my current farm there is one very large red bull that gets to... enjoy all the female cows. This bull is massive and ugly and daunting with down sloping horns that reach about 2 feet on each side. His name is Konkul. Two days ago I accidentally let the big bull out of his holding area. I thought I needed to pass through it on the little tractor (actually, I didn’t) and he was too close to the gate and got out before I could shut it AND keep 15 feet of space between his horns and my body. I tried to wrangle him with the tractor, but he evaded my traps and slipped in to the next field where there was fresh grass AND a better view of his lady friends. Lucky boy.
My lessons haven’t all been around milking cows or turning compost since my departure from CA almost a year and a half ago. Some of them have been funny, others embarrassing or scary but they are all jewels, treasures I worked hard for and will not soon forget.
Here are a few that you might get an alternate glance at my adventures away from the great U S of A:
Border control officers are the same as bored young boys, entertain them lest they remember they have the power to waste your time and money.
Being barefoot is fun but African germs have a way of making every scratch a septic pain
Not everyone is on the same frequency as you, but your best teachers are the ones you can hardly stand
Slow down, in everything you do.
Never use your left hand when dealing with people influenced by Islam or you might have it smacked
Don’t forget to email your mother when you say you are going to or she might start making expensive long distance phone calls to any possible number she can find to track you
The stress you feel you also have created.
Don't be afraid to eat the street food but sometimes its best to not know what it is eating (Boiled silk worms in S Korea)
Say yes. Stay positive.
When asking directions, ask 3 people and go with the majority (nearly going across town when the post office I sought was around the corner, Accra Ghana)
If you are out at night in a strange city with nothing but your camera, its not a good idea to separate from the group. (New Years Eve in Mali, 2009)
Laugh at it now, it warms you up for laughing at it later.
Don't take it personally.
If the guide book says it is beautiful and great, chances are everyone else is going there for the same reason
On that note, use your guidebook to start a fire.
If you see a job, its yours.
When a 1976 Land Rover makes a sudden loud noise, it will be expensive. (Lesotho, 2010)
Never, ever sit at the back of public transport as such seats have a way of making even pebbles feel like pot holes (Mali, 2009)
Always carry a handkerchief (West Africa, 2009)
Skipping is more fun than walking (Afrika Burns, 2010)
Translating jokes is no way to make people laugh (Burkina Faso, 2009)
The weight of carrying your camera charger for a month will quickly be forgotten when your battery dies in the middle of your trip (Yikpabongo, 2010)
Always travel with playing cards (Ferry out of Timbuktu, Mali 2009)
Open your eyes, novelty is everywhere
Accents are funny, especially yours.
If you say it in a nicer way, people are more likely to do it (Nikolas, 2010)
Don’t leave stuff at one place because you don’t want to carry it and think you will be coming back for it, you won’t and it will frustrate the hell out of you (Lesotho 2010)
Don’t trust a cap unless you tightened it yourself. (spilled bottle of Tabasco in the Rainne’s Landy, 2010)
Share with people the things you love and you’ll never grow tired of them (Legon yoga, 2009)
Don’t plan
Avoid ‘yes’ or ‘no’ questions, especially in regards to transport. The question is, “Where does this bus go?” not “Is this the bus to Tamale?”
Peanut butter+raisins= dinner (Dogon, Mali 2009)
Food eaten with your hands tastes better (Ghana, 2009)
There is profound beauty in our similarities and our differences (every day)
I don't know where I am going but everyday I learn to appreciate where I have been.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

I will always be Obruni

Dear Ghana,

While our time together may have seemed long given that most students only spend about 3 months learning from you, it still hurts to say goodbye. I’ve never been good at this part, letting go of something while it still gives me such happiness, but I am working hard to convince myself that everything has its time and place and currently is the time to exit this place. Maybe you can rely on a little of the patience you taught me so well and wait for my happy return; your prodigal American daughter, always leaving my family just when they start getting used to having me around. There is no doubt that I realized how fortunate I was to travel and live with you, even before my arrival, but everyday I appreciate you more and more. As an outsider to your circle of friends, there were times that were more than awkward, everything from how to “properly” eat fufu with my hand (the original s-p-o-o-n) to how to pee in those just-slanted-concrete enclosures you try to pass off as bathroom facilities without… well, let’s just say “making a mess.” A little humility is easy to come by after a few weeks of hanging out with you. Slow to judge but quick to aid in my exploration of new things, I will always be a work in progress no matter how long we travel together. I don’t want to minimize all that you have taught me, but it seems that after so long and so many lessons learned (especially those learned the hard way), they have just become as much a part of me as everything. Something so simple as the importance of a greeting to the unimportance of worry, they all have worked their way into my system, just like the stomach worms you gave me more times than my parents would enjoy hearing about.

Over the last few days, as my departure has been finalized, the “I’ll miss you” ‘s have become almost unbearable. I don’t like the phrase, to be honest, but have to acknowledge that there are times when it needs to be said. So, allow me to tell you, exactly and acutely, some of the things I will miss about you. I will miss the way you call “Craw, craw, thirt-seven, craw, craw,” from the tro-tros flying down Liberation Ave. I’ll miss eating kenkey with plantains which you think is weird but still like that I like it. I’ll miss when you talk to a stranger with the same openness you would speak to family. I’ll miss your PolyTank-bucket showers and my feet always being dusty. I’ll miss speaking Twi and using the strange Ghanaian accent I have acquired.

My time with you has left a deposit on my soul and for as much as I have felt a part of your community, welcomed and loved, you have also taught me the value of home and recognizing where you came from. It is not for the struggle of finding my comfortable place with you for the past 12 months that I say this, but rather for the recognition that there are also these experiences and adventures to be had closer to the family and friends I left 7,000 miles away. I have looked for excuses to stay but now see that yours cannot currently be my home but, as for the future, it is in god’s hands, as you are so fond of saying. No matter where I am, though; regardless of what comes and goes, I will always be obruni.

New Year Sharades

“Mamatal, I think we are going to head back to the house.”

“Go back?”

“Yes,” I say, in slow, clear English, “my bus leaves early tomorrow and I need to get some sleep. We have had a wonderful evening though, a wonderful New Years.” I look at Melody, we feel awkward separating from our kind host, like it is probably even ruder in Malian culture than in American, but the fact is I have a long journey ahead of me and am beginning to get a cold. Mamatal, our host during our stay in Bamako, the capital of Mali, speaks to his friend in the passenger seat in Tamashek and we continue to drive from Party 1 to Party 2. Suddenly, we pass a taxi, the friend in the passenger seat jumps out and returns to our rear window, “He says it is 2,000 francs.” It is a high price but we get in and away we go.

It only takes us about 5 minutes to realize that we are without a key to the house. “Oh, shit, Melody. We’re going to have to wait outside for hours.” I grumble but it gets worse.

“Blake, we don’t have any money on us for the cab fare!”

“Wait, call Mamatal and see where… dude, you left your phone!”

I expel a series of curses that would curl the pope’s toes and sit stewing in frustration. This will not end well. For the next 20 minutes of the cab ride, we try to anticipate what will happen when our driver realizes he will not be paid. We can tell him to come back tomorrow? We can trade my scarf! Its cashmere! We can run really fast and escape payment!

Well, when we get down at the house, our driver is not in a giving mood for the sake of the New Year. In fact, he is livid and my French cannot adequately apologize beyond repeating “Je suis desolate” over and over again. His only answer to our offered solutions and pleading is to go to the police station and handle the situation. What? Police? NOOO! African police are generally pretty freaking corrupt and obnoxious. My dealings with them have been few and shirt and I’d like very much to keep it that way. Nonetheless, there are not other options and Mr. Taxi Man is insisting.

“Melody,” I turn to her on the drive, “we will laugh at this someday.” At that, we both erupt in some kind of disgusted laughter, at which the driver looks quizzically in the rear view mirror. Never again will I leave the house without an ounce of ‘insurance’ to get myself home. I should know better by now, gees.

At the police station, my limits of French are stretched but I get us by well enough. Melody doesn’t speak in French, and rather sucks when she tries but she does try very hard still and I am usually called upon to fill in the blanks. The chief on duty that night (well, morning at it was already 2:30 am) decides that the best course of action is to pay the driver the fare, keep Melody’s camera, the driver will return us to the house and we will return to make the payment and retrieve the camera. No, Melody will not leave her camera with these men just as I will not leave Melody with these men (whose first question to me, by the way, after the situation was figured out was, “Madam or mademoiselle?” Translation: are you married, baby, because I hear white girls are loose.”) At that, we make the tough resolution to wait at the grimy station with the creepy officers who keep asking me if I’m married and if I like African men.

While we sit outside amongst the benches with several other waiting civilians, a woman in front of us asks one of the officers that was handling our “problem” what happened. He explains in Bambara, she replies, he gets up and walks towards to the office and grabs the camera. I jump up and walk swiftly to him; that camera is not to be moved from my sight, mister. To my surprise, he hands me the camera. “Why? I mean… por quoi?”

In French, standing uncomfortably close he says, “The lady paid for you, go home.” Great, but we still don’t have money for a cab fare or keys to get in to retrieve that money. No worries, her boyfriend is going to give us a lift so we can wait on Mamatal’s doorstep like the little lost lambs that we are. I look at my watch, god save me, I have to catch a bus in 3 hours.

Shit happens when you leave home and you must leave room for the good shit as well as the bad.

This is Africa. The Africa I have loved and am pained to leave after over a year of enjoying it, wallowing in it, being loved every moment of my time in it. It is more than just hospitality, it is a deep sense of interconnectedness and respect that means that you always have someone watching your back, and often you have a multitude. It might seem like a simple thing, being escorted 30 minutes out of a stranger’s way so he could help me find my destination was one of the most remarkable instance of my time in Ghana. The man didn’t ask anything in return for our walk but conversation, not even my number, which many men request only after seeing my Caucasian skin.