Friday, December 31, 2010

"So this is Christmas..."

I hope that all my loyal readers are enjoying the holiday season.  The hiatus from posting last week resulted from spending my Christmas holidays in the Volta region of Ghana.  Benee, our house owner, invited us to his father’s house in Kpando, one of the larger towns east of the Volta Lake not too far from Togo.  Playing the role of tour guide, Benee took us on outings every day we were there.  Christmas Eve was the eight-hour drive to arrive in Kpando late in the evening.  Christmas Day he took us to the Wli Waterfalls, an easy 30-minute walk from the town of Liate Wote.  The day after Christmas, we drove two hours down to Akosombo to take a trip on the MV Princess, the pleasure cruise that runs on Lake Volta to Dodi Island.  On our last full day in Kpando, we hiked up Mount Afadjato, the highest peak in Ghana.  The trip home on the 28th had a nice stop at the Volta Hotel for a leisurely lunch overlooking the Akosombo Dam, which provides hydroelectric power for most of Ghana.  Blog posts will come after I’ve had time to process the hundreds of pictures I took on the trip.

You may notice that this overview of my Christmas holidays doesn’t include anything particularly reminiscent of Christmas (other than this picture of one of the girls working at the Kumasi airport).  I did get a couple Christmas cards (thank you to my family) and saw a few sets of Christmas lights, but that’s as far as it goes towards the Christmas holidays as celebrated in the US.    I’ve been thinking about this since a few weeks ago when a friend back home mentioned that hearing the Live Aid Song “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” made her think of me (thanks, Abee).  In this tropical part of the world, “there won’t be snow in Africa this Christmas time” and there won’t be pine trees and reindeer and other typical trappings of the holiday.  But while some of my experiences make me resonate with the line that “the greatest gift they’ll get this year is life”, my experience of Africa is not only of a place where “nothing ever grows, no rain or rivers flow… underneath that burning sun”. 

But saying that the typical media images are representative of “Africa” is the equivalent of spending a week in New York City and deciding that the entire US of A is a fast-paced, high-energy place packed with people and traffic and pigeons and high-rise buildings.  Ghana gets lumped into one big bucket known as “Africa”, a place where Westerners working in the oil industry are kidnapped for ransom (Nigeria), where a recent contested election resulted in violence and bloodshed (Cote d’Ivoire), where the north and south halves of the country are fighting over the south’s right to secede and form a new country (America… no wait, I mean Sudan). 

I do appreciate that this song (as well as the song referenced in the title of this post) might help people stop to consider that there are parts of the world where life is more of a struggle than it is for most people in the US.  In this holiday season, I’m taking the time to remember to be thankful for what I have and to share what I can with others.  Even if there’s no Christmas tree in the living room, I can keep the true spirit of the Christmas season in my heart.  Merry Christmas, happy holidays, and best wishes for the upcoming new year.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Adae Festival

In this holiday season, one of the more festive events I attended was the Adae Festival.  As mentioned in my 14-November post, the last Adae festival of the year was scheduled for November 28th.  In order to get a good seat, we decided to show up at the posted start time of 10 o’clock.  Only the Japanese film crew beat us there.  But even though we were potentially still hours from the actual event starting, the arrival of the various local chiefs with their retinue in tow gave us plenty to watch.  Markus and Steffi also had the opportunity to meet a Ghanaian who spoke fluent German, which is a real asset to the Ghanaian when many of the tourists in Ghana are German. 

Since this was the last festival of the year, the obrunis were out in droves, alighting from taxis and tourbuses every few minutes.  While typical obruni tourists like these take pictures of anyone and everyone without asking, Markus likes to get involved with his photo subjects before the photo—or the people who run the event, who can tell him when to take the pictures.  In the latter case was the sound guy, who gave us plenty of insight into the timing of the events and when/where we could take pictures.  An example of Markus’s skills at putting his subjects at ease came with this line of girls in traditional wardrobe and body paint.  He walked over to them, crouched down, and started talking to them about their role in the festival.  I followed his lead.  “Will you be dancing in the festival?”  “Did you get to choose the colors for your outfit?”  “I really like the colors in your headband.”  “Do you mind if I take your picture?”  That last question is what allowed me to take pictures like this one.  Nela allowed her bubbly personality to shine while she chatted with the girls.  Markus continued to make friends throughout the festival, chatting up one of the older men in a very traditional outfit (shown here in the middle of his dance).

 Conversely, the more typical obruni picture-taking was more like this shot, with the crowd of obrunis all taking the same picture.  At my suggestion, Markus took a picture of the obrunis taking pictures of the girls.  The guys from the Volta region who were part of the drumming group found this unbelievably funny.  But I shouldn’t pick on my fellow obrunis too much.  There were points in the festival when the locals were doing the same thing—only they were using pocket cameras and camera phones instead of the digital SLRs many of us were sporting.  I will, however, pick on any obruni who takes the African look a little too far, like this guy did.   My nation is not exactly known for subtlety, so I was convinced that he must be American.  I was both surprised and relieved when Steffi said that they sounded French.  As with the safari guide and cellphone at Mole, the juxtaposition of traditional and modern is best summed up in a picture of a young man in traditional adinkra cloth using his mobile phone.

 Music was a key part of the festival, starting with various singers and drummers who had an inexhaustible supply of energy.  Various local groups continued to show up, including a group with these adorable girls shown here.  The official entrance of all the various chiefs and their subjects finally happened a bit before 1 pm. Men in tribal dress and playing instruments preceded the chiefs, who always have a huge umbrella above them, signifying their role and protecting them from the hot African sun.  The strict hierarchy of importance meant that the number of people accompanying the chiefs seemed to grow with each chief.  Finally, the king himself entered.  The crush of spectators (both obruni and obibini) around him kept me from seeing his entrance, but I was able to use my zoom lens to take pictures of the king upon his throne.

As strange as it may seem, some locals live inside the palace grounds in rooms that look onto the square where the festival takes place.  This woman seemed ready for the festival to be over and for all the spectators to leave.  Unfortunately for her, this festival stretched on for a few hours.  All manner of important people were presented to the king, including an assistant director of THE British Museum and his colleagues.  (No offense to my British colleagues and friends, but this man looks painfully British.  Any minute now, I expect him to start expounding upon the life cycle of the bird of paradise for a BBC nature show.)  When visiting the king, you must bring a gift.  For historical reasons, that gift is almost always alcoholic and is typically schnapps.  The king was also presented with more active gifts—like this goat.

Given that it’s a traditional festival, I was not surprised that it was handled in Twi.  Unfortunately, that means I have no real understanding of much of what happened—but then again, even when things are in English, I’m often still lost with what’s happening around me.  Most of the obrunis got bored and left, or were hurried off by their tour guides to the next stop on the itinerary.  By the time that the festival was ending and the king needed to leave, the sparse attendance meant that everyone got a good view of the king.  Anticipating the end, I had stationed myself to the right of the archway shown here, at the end of the drum line. Just as with the entrance, the king stood in front of these drummers as they played for a few seconds.  He gave them the signal that everything was good and they stopped playing.  I was crouched down at the height of the drums to stay out of the way, which also gave me the vantage point for this picture of the king. 
The Ashanti King Otumfuo Osei Tutu II

Then the king turned and looked directly down at me.  I could have had a phenomenal picture of the king—but instead, I froze like a deer in headlights.  Having been warned that we were not allowed to take pictures of the king and having seen someone get yelled at for taking pictures, I couldn’t bring the camera up to eye level while our gazes were locked.  I wish I had had the forethought to click on the camera from chest level to take a wild stab at the picture.  But then the moment passed and my chance at that picture was gone.  The king and his retinue walked around the square again and left through the archway.  The festival over, we gathered up our things and headed home.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

"It was a dark and stormy night..."

The dry season begins in early December, where “dry” in this case refers to the minimal rain, rather than any lessening of the humidity, or at least that has been our experience so far.  During our usual evening activities of sitting on the veranda typing on our laptops while waiting for Lisa to cook dinner, lightning was flashing in the distance.  I was reminded of the heat lightning that occurs in the summertime in North Carolina, where the humidity becomes so oppressive that rain would be a blessing but never happens.  But while we were eating dinner, Lisa remarked that it would rain tonight.  With the gift that Akmed has exhibited for weather prediction, I tend to take the locals at their word when it comes to Ghanaian weather patterns. 

A light drizzle started during dinner.  I put down my fork and ran out to the back walk to take my laundry off the clothes line, leaving it heaped in a pile on the china cabinet.  I also grabbed my laptop off the table on the veranda and left it on the coffee table in the living room.  I’m very lucky I did that.

Not too much later, the skies opened up like someone had turned on a fire hose full blast.  Sheets of rain came crashing down on us.  Lightning flashed, followed by an earth-shaking thunderclap only a split second later.  We were standing on the veranda with Handel’s “Messiah” blasting through the speakers connected to Markus’ iPod.  Halfway through a “Hallelujah”, the power cut out.  Had I been directing a movie, I couldn’t have timed it better.  We all flooded inside the living.

Then the water came flooding after us under the living room door as we ran to close all the windows in the house.  Ellie began mopping up the water as Lisa got down on her knees and only half-jokingly started praying for our souls.  I used the time to hang up my clothing on the makeshift clothesline strung up across my room.

It’s hard for me to believe that almost exactly a year has passed since the day that LJ, Becky and I were in her apartment watching the rain come pouring down outside her apartment window in Guam.  That time, we were supposed to go play a round of golf the next day, but the remnants of a tropical storm botched up those plans.  This year, I’m in the midst of teaching a 4-day workshop on basic ICT (Information and Communication Technology) for the head teachers of the fifteen junior high schools in the MCI program.  With our ongoing struggles with the Ghana electric company even when there’s no rain, I was not feeling very confident about having power at the school tomorrow. 

And then the lights came back on at our house, less than an hour after they went off.  I think I’ll consider it a Christmas miracle—and hope the miracle last through tomorrow for our last day of the workshop.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Mole National Park Part 2: Safaris and cellphones

Morning came way too early the next day.  We gathered up our camera gear and headed out the door towards the Information Center to meet up for our Safari Walk.  Our wildlife sightings began before we left the motel complex when we saw the warthogs that hang out near the rooms and go through the trash.

The obrunis came out in droves that morning.  There were definitely more of us than expected, as the guy running the show had to keep calling up more of the safari guides.  A couple girls were added to our group of five and we were off on our bush walk.

As we were heading over to start our walk, Nela asked our guide his name, to which he responded with a deadpan, “Guide”.  He looked at her and said, “And you are Tourist”.  Markus chimed in with, “And I am Visitor.”  DK then led us to a particular spot in the dirt road and started his spiel in which we were allowed to learn his name.  Turns out that DK does the same spiel at the same spot in the road every morning—as we learned when we got a re-run of it on our walk the next morning.

Our walk began with more warthogs and a herd of kob, one of the more common antelope species found in the park.  DK led us down from the cliff on which the motel is perched and past the salt lick where elephants can occasionally be found.  We continued our journey across the savanna, running across a bushbuck and a troop of baboons.  During our rambles, our paths led past a fresh “present” from an elephant’s meal (more specifically, the remains of it, if you catch my drift) that was fresh enough that the elephant must have been through there in the past couple hours.  Thus began our elephant hunt in earnest.
Adult male kob in the early morning light

DK was able to find the broken brambles and branches that showed an elephant had passed that way.  He even pointed out elephant footprints in the dust on the trails and road, dust that was so fine and easily disturbed that the footprints had to have been made that day.  The elephant trail led us to the area of the aardvark burrows.  Unfortunately, aardvarks are a nocturnal species, so we did not see them out and about.  But we did see a trail of soldier ants flooding across the dirt track like a stream.  We also learned about the antlions, a neat little bug that builds the entrance to its lair out of loose sand to trap ants, and even saw one in action (poor little ant never had a chance).

At this point, DK made a phone call to one of the other guides to try to find the elephants.  Watching him use a mobile phone in the middle of Ghana’s wildlife sanctuary provided a perfect melding of the images of old Africa (safari) and new Africa (cellphones).  Unfortunately, all our tramping around and the many phone calls between the guides did not yield any elephant sightings.  We finished our four-hour tramp through the forests and savanna by climbing back up to the 250-m high escarpment on which the motel sits.  Our last wildlife sighting of the walk was the baboon sitting in a tree overlooking the cliff.  Our four-hour safari walk may not have resulted in elephant sightings, but it was still unbelievably beautiful and pleasant to tramp through the park on foot, seemingly a million miles from the chaos and noise of Kumasi.

After the walk, we went back to the Information Centre to pay our 3-cedis per hour per person for our walk.  All that hard work made us very hungry so we were thrilled to have our hearty breakfast of eggs and toast and tea up at the motel, with the view overlooking the motel pool on the cliff and the watering holes down below.

During our meal, the two girls who had been in our group were at a neighboring table eating breakfast when a monkey ran up to their table, grabbed a piece of toast off one of their plates and ran off.  It happened so quickly that no one had any time to react.  The people at the patio tables down by the pool were also terrorized by the monkey—and I mean terrorized, for when they tried to shoo him off by shoving a chair at him like a lion tamer would, the monkey got angry and bared his teeth at the couple.  I was rather happy that we had finished our food before this monkey showed up. 

After a short rest, we met up with DK and the six of us piled into the Patrol with Owusu for a car safari.  One of the major advantages to the car safari over the walking safari is the ability to journey much further into the park.  Only in a few spots did we encounter the vast scorched plains that would be found everywhere within a couple months as the dry season returns.  At one point, Markus had Owusu stop the car for a photo op, which gave us the chance to stretch our legs and walk across the burnt lands.  The tall, thick grasses tended to obscure all animals except those that decided to cross the road in front of us or fly over us, such as the commonly seen bushbuck and less-often-seen western hartebeest.  Another rare sighting was some sort of duiker of a species that DK was not used to seeing in the park.  During our two-hour drive, we had some spectacular views and fascinating sights but they did not include elephants.  Even though DK had pointed out that the elephants were not trained and would not come on command, he still seemed to feel a bit bad that we had not seen any.  
Twilight view from the motel restaurant
 After the two safaris that day, it was nice to take a break in our airy room overlooking the forest.  During this rest period, we were fortunate enough that Dorella saw other guests ordering their dinner and asked about it.  Since the Mole Motel restaurant is so busy, one has to order dinner in the middle of the afternoon for it to be prepared later that evening.  I imagine if we had walked up that night without reserving our dinner, we would have ended up with rice and chicken again—assuming that they could find the time to prepare it.  Late in the afternoon, I wandered back over to the restaurant and pool area to watch the sun set over the watering holes.  During the dry season, the watering holes are the refuge of last resort for many of the animals, including the elephants, but at this time of year, the watering holes are mostly a place to see a wide variety of birds.  Watching the sun set, I got some pointers from Markus on how to take some pretty neat pictures, including this one that I took well after twilight. (Many thanks to Lane for the loan of the tripod that made pictures like this possible.)

We scheduled another walk with DK for 6 the next morning.  Would we finally see an elephant—or ten—at Mole National Park, the best place in Ghana to see them?  Stay tuned for the next installment of this ongoing saga.