when not in ghana

There is so much reflection and thought to write under this title, and the last. I will apologize now for the incohesive and random nature of my thought process and my failure of ability to express in words what you can only understand from experience.

I have been in Africa now for a month and a half – living, studying, and experiencing. Many people like to just leave it at that, but I like to be more specific. I was in the West African country of Ghana. A country with a relatively stable country and economy (some crises right now: electricity and fuel), full of culture and tradition, and even in its immense ‘development,’ Ghana remains with disparities like any other country – even the US. Africa is not a monolithic mass in the southern hemisphere of the world. So many people would rather chalk up the continent into one idea after reading, hearing, or experiencing a small aspect. Intellectuals, non-intellectuals, those who are from Africa, those who haven’t, and so many experts would rather clump the continent together. That just can’t be done. There is nothing about Africa as a whole that can sum up what it is. It is just like how in the US each state has its own special customs or accents or scenery – Africa as a continent is the same, but better. So many people would rather save time and refer to Africa as a monolithic mass. However, as I lived, traveled, and experienced Ghana the falsity of this idea was all too evident. Our MSU study abroad group was based in Accra, the capital city of Ghana and did much of our work at the University of Ghana. We took many field trips: Cape Coast, Volta Region, Kumasi, Villages near Danfa, and more. Every time that we would leave for a trip the Ghanaians that helped us would tell us that we would experience something so different from what we had seen before; something that we could only have seen in our dreams. They could not have prepared us more. Each region that we visited, each city, town, or village that we stayed in was completely different. We witnessed the many ethnic groups of Ghana, their music, traditions, and customs – the Akan of the Accra area, the Ewe of the Eastern Volta Region, the Asante of Ashanti Region. . . If there were so many differences and experiences in one of the smaller African countries, than what does that say for the massive continent itself?

One of the most obvious differences between Ghana and living in the US was the notion of time. In the States it is very hustle, bustle, go, go, go, exuding impatience – but in Ghana things will happen when they do. You can go for a meal order your drink, wait a bit, get your drink and order food, wait sometimes two hours (tops), get your food, and leave in about three hours from your dinner excursion. But its ok, what else were you going to do? Enjoy your food take your time, chat with your tablemates, tell jokes, enjoy the scenery, people watch – everything will happen in good time. I like that notion of time. I liked it so much that I stopped wearing my watch and often had to ask a Ghanaian with a cell phone for the time. I am not a rushed person, well at least not as rushed as most, and I like to take things as they come. Time should not be such a definitive aspect of your life. Time should work for you. One Ghanaian told me, “Here, we are manufacturers of time.” As opposed to we, in the States, who are the slave labourers to time. I return and time is back in my face again, cracking the whip. The ubiquitous tyrant of everyone’s lives will remain to be the arbitration of time.

Hurtling down the road at breakneck speed, I look over at the speedometer – hoping that we don’t nail a pedestrain or hawker – I see that the speedometer has been put out of commission, figures, they don’t want to know how fast they are going themselves. A mass of traffic appears and we, amazingly, stop in time to not die. The traffic lights have decided to work today. The car exhaust and black smoke flow into my front seat window as the hawkers walk by selling apples, ball floats, candy, posters, you name it. They are accompanied by those crippled by polio, beggars, and blind men walking with an aid. This is the taxi ride of Accra, you have not experienced Accra if you do not ride in the front seat of a taxi. Now back in the States I enjoy always smooth roads, no traffic backups (I don’t live in a very big city), and no death-defying driving skills. That is a fun little part of each day that I will miss.

We all take our health for granted. Everyone. In Ghana many of the students got sick, had diarreha, fever, something – back home we are rarely sick, we are rarely decommissioned for a day, we are rarely at odds with the world we live in as far as our health is concerned. I have the luck of owning an adaptable body and did not get sick in any regard. Thankfully whenever I travel nothing affects my internal health. The sun likes to affect my external health – my nose is still red with sunburn. We take our health for granted. Our professor who worked for over two years in the Peace Corps said she was always sick and while in Ghana I noticed this as well. Many people have fever, coughs, malaria, and who knows what. . . but, depending on location and class, they could not self medicate from the cabinet or see a doctor right away. They walk to get clean water, no faucet in the kitchen with clean water. We take our health for granted. I thought about this often when a group of us would go running. We would draw quite a crowd and get some cheers from school children. They must have all thought we were crazy – running miles in the hot sun at a fast pace, did we want to die? Well no, we Americans enjoy exercise, but for the Ghanaians we encountered and many Africans exercise is a way of life not a luxury to feel good. Will we ever stop taking our health for granted?

One of the sad reflections from Ghana is the idea of culture and tradition that is just not seen in the US. Ghanaians have a deep shared history and strong traditions rooted in their respective communities, which share much in common. There is a huge importance of family and the customs that are passed down. Many professions are passed from father to son, mother to daughter and the day to day of family life is passed down through traditions. In each of the villages we visited we were sure to make courtesy calls to all the local chiefs. The local chiefs still hold a great deal of power and we soon understood the protocol for visiting a chief. The importance of connections between people is huge. In some cases this cause corruption and nepotism, but there is an underlying good intention. Your connections with family are extremely important and you never lose that connection no matter what – if you decide to blow of family then you are looked down upon. You keep the family name, you name your children for past relatives, you visit often, and if you have a good paying job, you send support. This unknown emphasis on human connection is amazing. It goes beyond family to the people you meet in life. I couldn’t believe how many people could remember my name from a one time meeting. It must be the greeting ritual that makes it easier to remember. In Ghana you do not just wave and say, “Hi, how are you?” and receive the standard response, “Fine, thanks.” You stop talk, inquire about family, friends, and life. The nature of people in Ghana is just so much more cohesive and happy. I think it is because of the emphasis on people and getting to know them.

One of my favorite parts of Accra is that the grocery store is right at your vehicle window. While you are stuck in the mass of rush hour (sometimes it isn’t even rush hour) traffic, hawkers walk up and down the rows of cars, trucks, lorries, and taxis selling just about anything. Probably the oddest things I saw being sold were: a pair of puppies, toothpaste, a box of chickens, coffee mugs, umbrellas, the list goes on and on – pretty much anything that up might need is right outside your window. Besides the window side store and clubbing scene, I prefer to stay out of the big city. My best experiences on the etire trip were in the small villages of Otinibi and Danfa. The village life is so much more appealing and friendly. The village is a more closely knit community and is extremely welcoming.

Ghana was an amazing experience from all of the great classwork we did and, most of all, from the excursions we took as a group and adventures on our own. Meeting people was my favorite part and learning about their lives was most interesting. I don’t think I could have had a better experience in Ghana, unless maybe I spoke the language, but I am getting there. Ghana is an amazing place, an interesting beacon for the continent, and a force to be reconned with in the future of our global economy. I still have some very specific reflections from Ghana, so be sure to check back to learn about: investing in death, the discovery of oil in Ghana, and the confusion of the rastafaria movement.

Here are some random, artistic, super random pictures left over from Ghana:

Downtown Osu at night, Osu has many western style establishments that are run mostly by Lebanese.

An awesome tree at the Forex by the Center for Art and Culture.

The arc of Ghanaian independence just down the road from the presidential palace.

A fisherman’s association from the view of Cape Coast Castle.

A fisher and his boats taking a rest in the nook of Cape Coast Castle.

The canopy of Kakum National Forest, beautiful!

Don’t look down (from one of the canopy platforms.

Slightly frightening sign in Accra, just before we sped off. . .

This is the village area we stayed in, Shiashie, engulfed by the growing Accra.

The moon between palm trees at our hostel on Don’s 21st birthday.

A nice village scene in the Volta Region near Wli Falls, tallest in West Africa.

HIV/AIDS awareness and education.

Cool coke bottle shot, drink up.

At the University of Ghana.

One of our favorite restaurants to visit, off the beaten path, but well worth a good Ghanaian meal.

Me and Joseph, the most amazing hostel worker ever.

Index of blog post series on Ghana.

when in ghana

This is just a brief note before I leave Ghana from my six week study program. Our group is leaving for the airport in less than an hour and the despicable aspect of time and its restrictions have come to hit me full in the face. While in Ghana you come to forget about the importance of time – nothing is too fast (some would say that everything is too slow), there is no defined tiem to meet or eat or finish, everything is done as it comes and finished in whatever time it takes. This I have come to love and I dread the jump back into the society of extreme time management. I stopped wearing my watch 4 weeks ago and I stop asking for the time. I do things when they present themselves and never do I rush.

I have learned a lot in Ghana, not so much about myself, but more about other people and the way the world works. More importantly I have been able to think about and study how the world should work (obviously my opinion). I have loved my time here, but I do not want anyone to think that it is over. I will be back someday and I stil have much to write about related to Ghana, when I return. One of the most painful things that I have learned in Ghana is that here sunscreen doesn’t work. No matter how many times I apply SPF 50 to my body, especially my nose, I get a nice burn and peel. Sunscreen just has no place in Ghana – I would hate to think what would happen if I just didn’t wear any at all – I might have lost a limb.

At any rate this is goodbye for now from Ghana. I will resume with the regularly scheduled blogging about when I am not in Africa as soon as I get a nice long night’s sleep, some Mexican style food, and a tall glass of cold cow’s milk with a box of cheez-its. America here I come, you’d better be ready. Be sure to check back for some awesome videos of traditional drum and dance and other interesting thoughts on issues. I am sure I will have some interesting reflections on being back in the US after a month and a half in Ghana.

Signing off from Accra, Ghana. . .

Index of blog post series on Ghana.

a mixture of black, white, red

14 June 2007
Our third visit to the Volta Region.
We visited the Akosombo Dam, creator of the largest man-made lake in all the world. This dam was constructed in a brief three years by Italian engineers. The Lake is formed from the Black, White, and Red Volta Rivers coming from Togo, Benin, and Cote d’Ivoire. Volta in the local language means ‘rapids,’ now there is just a giant dam. The dam was built to be used for electricity and to create a source for fishing. The dam was huge and presented a great mark on the landscape of Ghana’s lush forests near the Volta Region. The dam provides all the power for Ghana, but currently there is an energy crisis. We have experienced this crisis with frequent black outs and power outages al across Ghana. We discovered why this is happening by viewing the extremely low water levels for the operation of the dam. Our guide told us that they are waiting for the rainy season to get into full swing to fill the Lake Volta and increase the power.
No pictures were allowed of the operational side of the dam, but here they are. After learning all about the dealings and history of the dam and how it works we walked back across the bridgeway and I noticed that there were less power lines heading to the north of Ghana and a great number headed to the Accra city center and southern Ghana. This seemed to be an all too common theme and yet again more evidence of the disparitites between North and South in Ghana. Kyle noted correctly that this was a great scar of development. The dam stopped up the rivers that now create the Lake Volta which covers one fourth of the country. It harnesses the water for electricity and development. It sits high and heavy on the once beautiful landscape on Ghana and screams of a continued practice of harmful ‘development.’

Seeing Lake Volta for the first time reminded me of an article that our professor showed to us about child labour in the fishing industry on lake Volta. The article was from the New York Times and followed the stories of families that could not eat and sold their children into labour for money with the promise of seeing their child once a year and being sent more money. Those promises rarely hold up and often the children are beaten, overworked, and never return home. The article covered the story of a young boy who worked on Lake Volta, fishing in the potentially dangerous waters with little sleep or rest, and a lot of work. Child labour is not beyond the ‘most developed’ country in Africa. It happens here, in the very eyes of development.

We headed over to the Volta Lake Hotel to have lunch. The hotel was a great Western hub catering to Obrunis (this is the correct spelling) and providing one of the most delicious meals yet. I forgot to take a picture before the meal, but here is the after picture of my ravaged plate. I was quite hungry by this time and the fillet of perch with a cocktail fruit drink and fresh fruit hit the spot.
Our bus driver was very tired this day since the day before the bus needed repair and there was trouble finding the part, he had been up since 5 am that day. He took a little nap.

Index of blog post series on Ghana.

snapshot of health in ghana

We are now a week into our second course of out study abroad program, studying the disparities of the Ghanaian healthcare system. These disparitites range from Ghana to the US, urban to rural, and ever North to South. We have seen and learned about a number of different healthcare situations in Ghana. Since my interest is in access to basic healthcare I have been watching health clinics as we traveled around for the first 4 weeks and I have been trying to understand how the healthcare system worked, now all that I have observed is making more sense.

The Statistics
– one third of the 138 districts have no hospital
– high maternal mortality rate (hemorrage & infection)
– beyond the capital the road system is poor
– 40% of population is covered by the national insurance
– life expectancy is 57 (this has fallen with the emergence of HIV/AIDS)
– healthcare is geographically, financially, and culturally inaccessable

The key problem in Ghana is figuring out where the divide should be joined between traditional and western medicine. What is more interesting is the integration of traditional medicine into the very western Ghanaian health system. I noticed from my pre-healthcare course observations that there is a large number of missionary clinics, government hospitals, pharmacies, and other private health service centers in the Accra area. As we traveled from Cape Coast, Volta Region, and Kumasi I noticed that there was a lesser degree of healthcare services advertised or offered. Why was there such a change from the urban to rural was my first question. Even more so why was there such a disparity between the other regions and the Volta Region of Ewe people?

7 June 2007

Our first visit of the health systems in Ghana was to a health clinic and research center that was solely focused on using traditional medicines and herbs for cures of ailments. It was very interesting to observe the research being conducted and see that they were also running a full health clinic with their findings. The center claimed to have WHO (World Health Organization) funding, but I am not sure if that is true anymore. While there we met some students from the US who were interning at the center for the summer. This is a direct linkage between the traditional and western methods of medicine. This also brings up the issue of intellectual property rights – do the communities that the center learns from benefit from its revenue? Sure the health clinic, but otherwise? This is a reason that the center’s director gave for not partnering with large pharmaceutical companies – to not lose IP rights.

From there we went to the Mampong district outside of Accra to view the structure of the health systems and network of regional health services. We first visited the regional administration offices and talked with the head nurses. They gave us a very well run and organizaed outlook on healthcare in Ghana. At the offices there was also a counseling and testing clinic for HIV/AIDS and a peer educator class taking place. Here we learned that USAID (United States Agency for International Development) provided food rations for new mothers and mothers with malnourished children. I asked if this was true at all regional districts. The answer was yes, but I wonder if all the regions are as well established as Mampong. We then went to visit the regional hospital. It was a large, modern building, not very dissimilar from what you would find in America or Europe. But, there were obvious differences in the developed nature of the hospital. It was a nice hospital, but not one that I would want to stay in. We were given a tour of the entire premises and had a near-death experience in the elevator. Twenty plus people in an old hospital elevator in Ghana makes for exciting times. The elevator descended with the help of our weight and gravity – there was a loud bang as we hit the safety catch – there were still three floors to fall. The head nurse was not very keen on what to do next, but eventually we all climbed out from the gap left between the two floors to the wondering faces of what seemed like the entire hospital staff. Its the stairs from now on.
There seems to be a very good system of healthcare in the relatively developed areas of Ghana, but as for the villages I cannot say. It seems that we have visited mostly well put together centers and clinics. This made me think of the situation in Uganda, where it is the private and mission clinics that have all the supplies and the government run centers have absolutely nothing – very different.

At the Mampong regional administrative offices we learned that in many villages where there is no clinic or government hospital there is a nurse that lives in the community and is charged with the health of that community. However, I cannot speak to the degree of training or equipment that these community nurses have. This speaks to the obvious disparity between the urban and rural environments. There is not as much access to healthcare in the rural areas and so I wonder how much access there is in much of the rural North of Ghana? How many people do not have access?

11-13 June 2007
Some of the issues brought up in our classroom lectures about the health systems in Ghana relate to money. Not everything is covered and so some people cannot pay for access to services. There is bribery in medicine, we have not experienced this, but I do not doubt it. The basic insurance policy in Ghana costs about 72,000 cedis a year, this may not seem like a lot to ‘developed’ countries, but to a Ghanaian this could mean a great deal. In its health development, Ghana is still working on eradicating polio and guinea worm – even in metropolitian areas. Sanitation is a big problem. “The world is my toilet,” has become a joking phrase among the males in our group. If you are a male you can urinate just about anywhere, except where it says, “do not urinate here!” However, you still see people urinate by those signs. Sewage drains have stangant water and often do not drain anywhere. Trash is not collected and is often burned by the roadside. This reminded of Uganda where trash is just thrown out the window. In Kampala you cannot get away from the smell of burning trash, and there are not even drainage ditches.

Another issue brought up was that of ‘assembly line medicine.’ In Ghana there is such a high number of out patients (40% due to malaria) that the health workers often diagnos based on perception, not based on evidence. The issue of traditional and modern medicine is also a hotly contested topic. The health worker crisis in Africa seems to have been circumvented slightly in Ghana. Ghana has included traditional birth attendants in their health system and has just set up a new council for traditonal medical healers to have their say. The most fatal health issue in Ghana now is maternal motrality. Why? Good question, Ghana is ery developed in its understanding of health practices and so it makes no sense whatsoever that a mother should die due to complications of childbirth.

We next traveled to Ashesi University, a private, liberal arts university in Ghana (the most liberal in all of Africa, supposedly). Here we met a Fulbright fellow and a former fellow who is a profesor at Eastern Michigan University. Here we talked about the ‘brain drain’ and new ideas for Ghana’s health system. Currently a physician is in charge of managing the health center, but this means that often the physician has no idea how to manage and makes the staff unhappy and then does not practice medicine because he or she is too busy managing the center. The professor from EMU was working on publishing a study to help change this and introduce education for health managers. The incentives for staying in the country to work are minimal, but inticing. If you work in the Ministry of Health (MOH), then you can be sponsored to increase education and degree. The professor also talked of how Africa, “gets under your skin, you keep coming back.” It really made sense to me and I really don’t want to leave.

13 June 2007

Today we visited the Korle Bu hospital, the best government hospital in all of Ghana. We were not able to tour the main clinic becuase we arrived late, but we did get a quick tour of the Department of Child Health. It was a very nice center, as you can tell from the pictures. This was again an amazing compund that constituted a village in itself. It was obvious that this center must receive a large amount of the government funding for health. There were a number of different center, housing for doctors and nurses, a bank, pharmacy, and a teaching hospital for the University of Ghana. Hopefully we can return later and get a tour of the main clinic to see how things are run there.

The recommended health center for the MSU program students, if they are to fall ill on the trip is Nyaho Clinic. It is a private center tucked away in a random area of Accra. We have had a few students go there, but I have not seen for myself the interior. I have heard it is very nice and Ghanaians in the health profession know it as a nice and expensive clinic.

So far most of the health systems we have seen are very well established and well run and seem to be in great condition. We have not seen the failings of the Ghanaian health systems and the picture for now seems very rosy. I have seen the many mission, private, and government hospitals and clinics in the fairly ‘developed’ regions of Ghana. What I have not seen is the lack of healthcare like I saw so vividly in Uganda. The EMU professor at Ashesi University told us stories of his experiences with health in Ghana. He told stories of overrun rural clinics, a family’s inability to pay for lifesaving medication, the long distances traveled wo receive attention when it is too late, the sheer numbers of people who just do not have access to basic healthcare. This is where I feel we should be, this is where it would make sense to me, this is where we can make a difference. We will now be leaving for the village of Otibini near Danfa to do a community health assessment. I think here is where we will get to feel the village life and true health crisis.

Index of blog post series on Ghana.

the chinese influence

The Chinese influence in Africa is a topic that I have been researching for a few years now. I have conducted most of my research by way of news sites and journals in the States and with the help of the internet, but now I have the opportunity to see firsthand the impact of the Chinese influence in an African country. This entry will follow my experiences and insights on how China is involved in Ghana.

The first thing that someone traveling in Ghana will notice is that there are so many Chinese restaurants. They are just about everywhere. Chinese food is almost as prevalent as Ghanaian food. Sadly, the Chinese food is not at all what you would find in America or for that matter China. The menus are often 15 pages long and with only minimally Chinese named dishes. Nevertheless, Chinese restaurants are everywhere. Also in the service industry there are a number Chinese themed hotels that host a number of Chinese tourists and business people. On our walks down East Legon we see them buying bread and other food stuffs at the market.

As some of you may know, China is currently one of the highest (maybe the number one) foreign aid provider. This is often called ‘rogue’ aid because it is not administered through an aid institution without any restrictions on aid usage. This aid is evident in Ghana with a number of projects sponsored by the Chinese government. One day on a tour of Accra, near the Kwame Nkrumah moselium a police escorted motorcade shot through the traffic with a handful of Chinese officials. The wonders of Chinese aid is prominently displayed in the construction of the National Theatre, it was completely funded by the Chinese government. I wonder if there is any linkage between Kwame Nkrumah’s administration and the remaining Chinese connection. During his rule Nkrumah often hosted Chinese officials and received help from China.

The people, the aid, the food, the history is all here. There is a deep worry, that I often agree with, China is seeking to gain natural resources from African countries. They make a number of aid packages for ‘development’ and sign bilateral trade agreements, but what does it all mean? Is China’s motive in Ghana to reach a growing market economy? Is it to cash in on the mineral wealth of Ghana? It cannot be just to build a National Theatre and assist the Ghanaian government with ‘development.’ I really wonder what the specific trade-off for China is.

China is not the only big aider that I have noticed while in Ghana. Iran is sponsoring a number of projects and many of the government ambulances are donated by the Republic of Iran. I will touch more on this in ‘A Snapshot of Health in Ghana.’

Index of blog post series on Ghana.

definition of development

7 October 2008 Update:
Read a more comprehensive analysis of the definition of development in a more recent post here:
definition of development (revisited): beauty in the palm of your hand.


After lecture, and another drum lesson from master drummer Chris, on Monday I gathered a group of people interested in visiting the Peace Corps offices. Six of us worked to get taxis outside of the University with a certain degree of difficulty – probably because no driver knew where it was located. It seems that our group is very good at choosing destinations of which no one has heard. All we knew was that the office was located at 26 W. Cantonments Road – nothing more.

After a great deal of roundabout driving, a couple stops for directions, and some backwards driving (as in driving backwards) we found the offices located on Switchback Road near the house of the Ambassador of Cote D’Ivoire. It turns out with all our driving that we arrived right at closing time for the day with no appointment – I guess that helps. There happened to be a few volunteers at the check-in guard house and thankfully just as we were about to be turned away one of the volunteers claimed that he had gone to school with one of us and he just wanted to show us around.

Alex showed us around the compound and answered any and all questions we had about the Peace Corps. He also shared with us his experience. He is near completing his second year and is located in a very remote farming village in the north of the country. Originally from Nebraska, he was selected for the agriculture and natural resources area. His village is on the cliffs of the north where a ten year war has just ended between neighboring clans. He has started a cashew cooperative with 13 area villages, teaches at a secondary school, works in a hospital, started an HIV/AIDS club, and is attempting to work towards reconciliation between the former warring clans. The Ghana country coordinator had at first called Alex’s assignment ‘hell,’ but he is really enjoying himself and is working very hard to make the most difference that he can. After hours of talking we accompanied Alex to dinner, since we had made him late for a previous dinner engagement – it was ok he said, “they were just high schoolers.” It was really great talking to Alex and hearing his experiences and it really solidifies my plans to join the Peace Corps after college.

This discussion with Alex really made me think about ‘development’ as the word was thrown around a lot that night. Alex has said that he really likes the Peace Corps model because it deals with integration. A volunteer is placed in a village or area and works with the people to improve their situation. This as opposed to some large organization or institution just giving out money to big plans they believe will work. But, what is the definition of development? Who gets to determine what development is? Who is allowed to call one developed or developing or underdeveloped? Is development all based on a desire or push to become Western? Yes, I think in the very recent past it was and really still is to a degree, but for me development holds a different definition. Development for me mirrors positive progress in people’s lives. Development should be based on getting and giving people their basic needs (rights) for survival and life. Even in this regard the almighty ‘West’ needs development.

Read a more comprehensive analysis of the definition of development in a more recent post here:
definition of development (revisited): beauty in the palm of your hand.

Index of blog post series on Ghana.

image of america, the blinding lights

In many of the Africa-related courses that I have taken, the very first assignment is very often called ‘Image of Africa.’ This is a way for students to explore what they know or don’t know about Africa and what preconceived ideas they have about Africa. This is a great assignment that helps many students to change their ideas to a more clear and accurate image of the continent. However, what this assignment does not take into account is the ‘image of America.’ The assignment does not address the potential vice versa of the issue of an ‘image of Africa.’ What I have experienced in Ghana so far leads me to believe that perceptions and false images is a two lane highway.

So far I have met some great people in Ghana. They are very interested in talking about issues, watching soccer, and making sure that we are taken care of in Ghana. However, I have also met a great number of people who are not as concerned and are more interested in getting our American dollars. There is an interesting perception that if you are American then you must have a lot of money. Sure, yes we do as compared to the common Ghanaian, but we do not have money on trees at home. This false perception is evidenced through the numerous interactions that I have had with Ghanaians in my three weeks here.

There was the conversation with Richard and Joseph, who work at the hostel, about America. Richard could not believe that there is poverty in America and that certain stories he had been told, by a man who visited America, were extremely false (you are not shoot for turning the wrong way). There was a love of President Bush. He is a man for his actions in Iraq and they love him as a brother, even though the US government has nothing to do with Ghana. Later while playing soccer I met a coach who was very nice. The conversation turned to where I was from. As soon as he found out that I was from America he mentioned that maybe I would be interested in supporting his soccer program. The false perception of America was even more strongly enforced when I met a man, getting ready to bathe, on the streets of Osu as we searched for a jazz club. He was very nice and helpful, asked where I was from, and asked since I was American – if I was rich. I said that I am far from rich, I am a student. He replied with, “Yes, but you are American.”

All these experiences remind me of reading one of our course books, Our Sister Killjoy. The story is of a Ghanaian student who has to opportunity to travel to Europe. She had all these preconceived notions of Europe and ‘white’ people. They are slowly broken down over her stay in Germany and she comes to realize that many people have no knowledge of Africa. In the world perceptions can be very dangerous, as she learns, and these false perceptions can be created by anyone.

This false ‘image of America’ is a very interesting issue for me being here in Ghana. The greater question that comes to my mind is, ‘Where did this perception come from?’ Where does this blinding light of America come from. I think I have discovered the answer and it all comes from the media. The media is life. Here in Ghana, American pop culture has penetrated, as in most corners of the globe, the major media scene. American music is played everywhere and spin-offs of American TV shows dominate the airwaves. In the TV shows and the music videos the wealth and opulence of America is expounded. How is anyone to gain a different image of America if all that is shown is wealth and commercialism? The VOA radio show is advertised heavily and VOA runs the TV Africa channel. Foreign films are often shown and American talkshows are aired everyday.

The media rules all, here they have helped to create a false image of America. We encounter this image daily. Sadly the results of this false image can lead many people into cynicism and a jaded view can be developed. That is where I will cry foul because it is of no fault to the people who has been enamored with the ‘Image of America.’ Blame the media, blame your media, and blame yourself. We all create perceptions, many times false. No one is beyond making a false judgement on anything that they do not know much about. So many Americans make terribly false judgements about Africa. As I noted before these perceptions can go both ways and today making a world of perceptions can be very dangerous. I like to think that I do not create perceptions and I do not have expectations about places, but there is no way that I did not create some idea in my head about where I was going. Keeping an open mind and watching with open eyes is the only way that we can defeat perception and learn of reality.

Index of blog post series on Ghana.

the nature of africa: rhythm and socialism

The nature of Africa is all about rhythm. Rhythm pervades everything. There is a great love of music that is almost unseen anywhere else. From the very birth of a child there is rhythm in that tiny life. The child enters the world with built in rhythm: crying, kicking, blinking. This child is then exposed to the natural rhythms of the world: frogs croaking, dogs barking, crickets chirping. We all move about our days in rhythm, we talk, chew, sneeze, laugh, go to the bathroom, speak, and walk in rhythm. A child develops this sense of rhythm in Africa as it swings wrapped on its mother’s back – she fetches water, walks, and dances and the child learns rhythm. Rhythm is present even on a less basic level. In many parts of Africa the ritual of greeting someone is very rhythmic – asking the health of the greeter, his family, and his work. This is all done in an almost sing-song rhythm.

This rhythm is transferred from the natural happenings of the world into the lives of the people through drumming and dance. Drums are a key part of life in Africa. Many communities still use drums for their traditional purpose of calling a community together and sending messages. The tradition of drum and dance is never lost in Africa, that is an aspect that I think will never be lost from the cultures. We have experienced a great deal of this drum and dance tradition as part of our escapades around Ghana and in our course on the art, music, and culture of Ghana. As soon as we arrived in Ghana the rhythm of drums surrounded us. I met the rastas on the second day and began learning from them right from the get go drumming in the market. In Cape Coast we had the performance by the traditional drum and dance group and interacted in the performance with our mostly unrhythmic attempts to dance. More recently we have been coordinating drum and music lessons with our professor and professional music teachers. We had a lesson from the University of Ghana,who is a master drummer, for one of our lectures. We used the traditional Ghanaian drums for this session, they hurt the hands a bit more.

We have also been receiving lessons from Kwasi, who has traveled extensively in the US performing and teaching drumming. He taught and did his dissertation at the University of Michigan. We took the bus to his home which was far from the center of Accra because there is a noise ban. The noise ban was in place from the government so as not to upset the gods before the harvest. Kwasi is an older, stylish and spunky man. He has a nice short afro, dark aviators, creased khakis, and an awesome tie. We start each session with creating random musical rhythms out of words that pop into Kwasi’s head and we often dance around his compound singing and stomping our feet to a rhythm. When we finally got to the drumming we were almost too tired from the dancing workout, you wonder why Africans are so fit – take up some type of African dance. Kwasi was amazing to learn from and was extremely excited to be involved with teaching students music again. He group is supposed to perform for us before we leave. we only have two more days of our course on art, music, and culture.

Along with rhythm consuming life in Africa, there is a certain natural socialism that seems to work quite well. The idea of socialism was attempted across the continent, but it failed – why – because the elites in power were too interested in keeping that power. In much of Africa, specifically in Ghana, people live in secluded hamlets (communes). These hamlets are often isolated, but they remain connected with one another through traditional festivals. In these housing groups there is an idea of communal labor. If your neighbor’s fence has a hole in it the community comes together to work and fix it. This concern for everyone in the community builds the connectivity and social care. This is also evidenced in the ritual greeting and concern for the well being of a fellow community member. Within the hamlet everyone learns how to do every job, everyone knows how to do everything – so everyone helps with everything. There is also a communal yard, court, open space for market, dance, festival, and meeting. I think that this natural socialism helps to build and grow the rhythm of the community.

Professor Dzokoto, lecturing us on the music of Ghana, told us that if you are not part of the community you will not know the rhythm of the community. If you are a stranger to the community you will not know the rhythm of the community. Rhythm pervades all. Kwasi told us that from a young age he began drumming, first on people’s heads. I like to think that I understand that rhythm. As far back as I can remember and as I am told, I was drumming on everything. From my leg, to my desk, to the church pew, to the dinner table – I loved rhythm, rhythm pervades all.

News from Africa:
If you may have missed the news President Bush has placed sanctions on Sudan over Darfur. This marks a great point in his botched presidency. Placing sanctions on companies that operate in Sudan or with Sudan will create a stronger push for a change and hopefully a peace in the Darfur region.

Today the government of Niger dissolved. Yes dissolved, their parliament voted no confidence in the Executive branch because of troubles and corruption in regards to money usage. What this means for Niger I cannot say, but this will definitely be something to keep watch.

Index of blog post series on Ghana.

two voltas, one ghana, three africas

The past two Thursdays we have traveled to the Volta region – one trip to witness tradition, the other to indulge in tourism. Both were early morning trips to the furthest eastern region of Ghana. The region is the major Ewe region of Ghana, it was decided by the British to slice Ewe-land in two after the defeat of the Germans in World War I. The major ethnic group and the remainder of Ewe-land is in Togo. The British were greedy. The route we took was a toll road, no speed bumps or potholes (relatively smooth ride) straight across from Accra into Togo. I couldn’t sleep and our guide accompanying us told us before we left that in the Volta Region we would see things that we may have only dreamed about. Everyone tells us that whenever we travel we will see something so different. This really say something for the small country of Ghana, that just traveling to a different corner of the country can be such a unique experience – this says something more for Africa, since Ghana is one of its smaller countries.

27 May 2007
As we left the Accra area we passed many huge, mansion style, western homes built far from the city’s busy, crowded and slightly imposing character. These palatial (check that out mom) homes seemed to present a city of their own set above the rest. Further out was the land of big trucks and truck stops. Rows upon rows upon rows of trucks; tanker, flatbed, carrier, produce, waiting for cargo filled a long stretch of road. Even further from the city everything turned to green. Oh so green, we passed a lush landscape dotted with trees and two-person high mounds of red dirt – this was the kingdom of the termites. The mountains in the distance were highlighted by the rainclouds overhead. After crossing the man-made River Volta we were finally in the Volta Region. Here we were treated to a very different ride – massive potholes. The bus zigzagged the roadway to avoid the potholes and crevasses – it felt as if we were in a Star Wars asteroid field. It seems that the government does not have much to do with the region.

We first went to visit the local chief of the village of Klikor, which is one of the important settlements of the Ewe people. The chief has ruled over a kingdom that is over 400 years old. The chief commented on this related to development. He noted that they were much older than the US, but that they were less than one-tenth as developed. He orated a great history of his people, village, and how they eventually settled in Klikor. It was almost like living the reality of so many books that I have read. He also gave us a history of Ford and what he did for the US. He mentioned that everyone here (Klikor) had benefitted from the Ford Foundation, how I am not sure. But he did make a great point that President Ford was not one of the wealthiest men, but he left a great deal to charity and his foundation. The chief went on to tell us what to tell our friends back home, but instead jumped into a lecture on the US and Iraq. This is about the fourth such lecture that I have experienced on this trip. He made an important note that even the ‘smallest mistake of the US’ has an impact around the world. One of the students later commented on how “Africa-esk” that experience was – this is Africa!

We then traveled to another part of the village to experience traditional African religious practices. We were to see a ritual possession ceremony. Before the ceremony we were treated to the most simple, but delicious meal that I have had yet -the best tuna that I have ever eaten. We changed into the proper dress – a wrapped cloth. We were welcomed with drum and song and given kola nut and whiter clay as a sign of welcome along with a small, narrow, triple shot coconut cup of dry gin which tantalized the throat and assisted with the dancing later.

The possession had already begun and the high priestess already conveying messages from the sea-god. I have complete respect for the traditions of the village, but throughout the ceremony I could not help but think that this was a performance. I think Kyle put it best during our discussion of the ceremony, “It is like a choir performance, we may never understand what is happening, but it is still a performance.” The performers exchanged knowing looks and laughs and my thoughts were solidified. I mean no disrespect, and I really think that our experience would have been different had we been embedded in a village and taken part in the ceremony firsthand.

The rains had come as we ate and continued throughout the day. We left and our bus navigated the narrow ‘roads’ of the village where bikes and motorcycles dominate the streets. The typical houses were mud and thatch, the wealthy had cinder block houses. We returned home in the growing rainstorm.

31 May 2007
Memorial day spent in Ghana, I hope the water is not too cold for putting the dock in. This is the first time that I have really thought of home. It is plenty warm here to put a dock in any day.

This was another early morning headed back to the Volta Region to see the waterfalls. We took a much different route than before since the falls are about 6 hours drive from Accra: three hours to Volta and then three hours more in Volta. This time as we crossed the Volta River, we stopped at a riverfront hotel. This hotel was very nice, a prime place to spot an Obrooni. There were none, but there were monkeys and exotic birds in cages. There were speedboats and jet skis to be rented and a very nice pool to swim in. We had entered the second Volta. We crossed the river this time by way of a nice large bridge. and the roads showed that the government had not neglected this tourist favorable side of Volta. We arrived at the falls and met our guide. He took us on the 40 minute walk to the falls and showed us some of the local trees and wildlife as we went. He told us that behind the mountain pictured was Togo, so close.

We journeyed through the beautiful wilderness and finally heard the sound of the falls and saw its wonder. The falls were amazing, the tallest in all of West Africa. The fruit bats covered the mountain side and screeched and sprang to life as the group screamed and swam in the falls below. It was incredible to see. I wish that I had not forgotten my swim trunks. Next time.

These experiences brought to life my thoughts that there are two Voltas in Ghana. We saw them both and I guess if you can bring the government tourist money then you will have paved roads, nice hotels, and the access to basic infrastructure like electricity. This also makes me think of George Packer’s chapter in The Village of Waiting titled ‘Three Africas.’ I think it is very interesting that what he explains in the pages of his book, I have seen in my limited African experience. I saw the ‘village’ Africa while traveling rural Uganda, the ‘tourist’ Africa in the Queen Elizabeth National Park of Uganda and the waterfalls of Volta, and the new, growing, struggling Africa in the booming city of Accra, Ghana. Full of new technology, development, and thriving with entrepreneurs. These three Africas can be seen on any travel to Africa, but most of the time these three very different Africas are only seen one at a time. Does that mean that I have seen the true and complete Africa? I think not, I have only traveled to three countries in Africa – there is so much more to see!

Index of blog post series on Ghana.