Saturday, October 30, 2010

There's only one thing that smells like bacon...

Our cook, Lisa, chose yesterday to be the day that she added bacon to the vast repertoire of tasty foods she cooks for us. It was real American style bacon. The stuff that makes a burger better. Not that lame stuff that Canadians call bacon. Until the moment I saw the bacon on the plate, I didn’t think there were any foods I was craving. Turns out I was wrong.

When combined with the fried plantains and toast with cheese, it might just be the perfect breakfast.

While typing this, I realized that I should have taken the bacon, two pieces of toast, and The Laughing Cow cheese spread and made one of my all-time favorite breakfasts: a bacon, egg and cheese sandwich.

Odd fact: the eggs here have yolks that are a pale yellow, lighter than the standard Post-It Note, rather than the bold Crayola-marker yellow of US eggs. Must be something in what the chickens eat.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Who's teaching the teachers?

During my first full week in Kumasi (Oct. 11-15), Liz taught a “Basic ICT skills workshop” to 45 math, science and ICT teachers (ICT stands for Internet Communication and Technology). The teachers were broken into two 20-25 person groups—still way too many people for a hands-on training on technology. Each training session was supposed to last 2 days, but one group had to return for a third day due to Internet problems (more on that below).  As with any other event in Kumasi, many pictures were taken, some of which I’ve posted here.

The workshop experience from start to finish rather different from any similar situation back home. For starters, in the places in the US that I’ve lived and visited, it is usually possible to find an existing computer room with enough terminals to teach 20-25 teachers in basic computer and Internet skills. However, here in the Kumasi school system, the 15 participating schools are the first group in the entire 1.5-million person city to have dedicated Internet access. To do the training, the teachers had to take all the computers—desktop models, not laptops—to a single computer lab at one school in the system, Opoku Ware. They also had to bring their wireless routers with them, as the routers themselves have SIM chips in them that allow the schools to access the Internet.

Early in the week, we ran into the issue that these SIM chips were set up with an initial amount of 4GB of download for the first time, with the schools needing to buy more credit after that. [Side note: it’s the same way that I’m paying for phone credits—by “topping up” with scratch cards.] This created a major headache regarding installation of software on the computers. In the US, Land of “I paid my $20 this month, I can download anything I want anytime I want”, companies expect users to have unlimited Internet access, so they create “installation” programs that are really just a small program that goes to get the full installation program from the Internet. The companies like it because this set-up ensures that the user installs the most updated program. Unfortunately, when the users pay by the GB, installing Skype on every computer using SkypeSetup.exe burned through the credit of the router for the school we were at. It took some serious Googling to find out that I could download SkypeSetupFull.exe, the full installation program for Skype. Of course, given the limited internet downloading, I wasn’t sure I could get the full 20-MB program at the workshop.

Luckily, I quickly became acquainted with the Vodafone Internet Café, which markets itself as “Africa’s fastest Internet”. (Thanks to our driver, Akmed, for knowing what we wanted when we asked for fast Internet.) When we walked into the café the other day, it was like stepping into another world—the one I left. The clean, slick white desks and sleek monitors starkly contrasted with the fact that everyone uses crumpled 1- and 2-cedi notes to pay their 90 pesewas per 30 minutes of Internet access. It took only 10-15 minutes to download the full Skype 20 MB full program, during which time I also uploaded pictures to my website. The Vodafone café has been a lifeline to the West, as it wasn’t until this past weekend that we got permanent wired broadband at the house.

The site of the training, the Opoku Ware JHS, was identified by Zain, the internet provider, as fluctuating between 2G (EDGE) and 3G (GPRS) networks for their wireless broadband signal. If I had had any say in where we did the training, I would have pushed for one of the schools with a reliable 3G signal, as we had major issues with the 2G/3G flipping throughout the training. Murphy’s law was in full effect, as the most likely time for the Internet to fall into EDGE mode when Liz was trying to show website navigation on my laptop PC, which was hooked up to the projector. In addition to the Internet problems, we also ended with viruses and worms infecting all the PCs there. It’s a bit like taking a sick kid to day care—you can guarantee that everyone else in the room will get whatever he has. Additionally, the PCs were set up with administrator accounts without passwords, which is just asking for those PCs to be hacked.

Have you ever tried to teach someone how to use the Internet without access to the Internet? How about teaching someone about computers, using desktop machines, without reliable electricity? Let me tell you, it’s a challenge, but Liz was able to overcome these problems to teach a great workshop. The first day of the two-day training session was focused on Microsoft Word, which meant that the Internet problems were not an issue. But on Monday, the electricity was still out from the wild storms the night before (the deluge that started after the Ghana-Sudan game). All the PCs were on UPSs, which prevented them from cutting off immediately, but every time the electricity went out, we had to turn them all off. The second day was supposed to be all about the Internet: email, finding reputable information on the Net, and Skype. However, due to the ongoing Internet problems described above, it took multiple tries and the better part of an hour for some people to get their email accounts created. We were having so many troubles with the Internet with the first group that we asked them to come back on Friday to finish up the training.

The amazing thing is that, even with all the problems and challenges, the teachers really appreciated the workshop. Here’s a sampling of the feedback we got from the training:
"The faciliators were friendly. They did very well. Such workshops should be organized regularly for us."
"The workshop was quite successful and worth the time."
"Such courses should be organised frequently to update the knowledge of every Ghanaian teacher."

What I have come to realize is that these teachers are used to the challenge of teaching technology without working technology. They are used to developing novel solutions to the issues of unreliable electricity. The resourcefulness and ingenuity that the Ghanaian teachers exhibit are skills that I would like to gain from my time here. I can only hope that they realize that I’m learning as much from them as they are from me.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

You oughta be in pictures....

I realized today that the photo and video links I've embedded in my blog posts were almost impossible to see.  I've changed the links so that they're now a bright red.

For the folks who've missed those links, I'm listing them all here.  I will continue to add to these galleries and links over my stay here, so it might be worth bookmarking this post.  Enjoy!

The collection of all my Ghana photo galleries:

Some first impressions

Sights in Kumasi

Ghana Black Stars

Travels around Kumasi

Basic ICT Skills Workshop (part of my job here)

St. George's Church

And last, but certainly not least, Ghanaian kids

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Like A Prayer

The comments on this blog have been entirely too few, so to remedy that, I’m going to post on one of the taboo topics for polite company: religion. [Editor’s note: I’m only kidding. I just couldn’t think of a better way to introduce religion.] I don’t expect this to be particularly controversial, but I still thought I’d give fair warning in case religious discussions give you the heebie-jeebies. Still here? Good, let’s get into the discussion.

At the end of my first week here, our manager, Abenaa, invited all of us GSK volunteers (Dorella, Nela, Steffi and me) and Liz (the MCI NYC project manager for my project) to join her at her church that Sunday. She attends St. George’s, a non-denominational Christian church in the center of town. She was particularly interested in us attending on that particular Sunday as it was the end of their Women’s Week Celebration. The theme for the week, “Prepare to Meet Your God”, reminded me of what heroes say when vanquishing their foes (“prepare to meet your maker”), lending a surreal experience to the whole proceedings.

Africa is a harsh continent on which life often seems to hang on by a fragile thread. Even in Ghana, one of the most developed countries, births are not registered until the child has been alive for two weeks—because many children do not make it that long. To me, religion seems more meaningful and more powerful in such an environment. Sitting in the church that morning, I found tears welling up in my eyes as I realized that the churchgoers truly feel that, in the midst of all the chaos and poverty and strife of their world, they are still blessed. I was not alone in being moved by the service, as many of the regular members also had their tissues out. I find that tears are running down my face even now as I type these words.

Having been raised in the Catholic faith, the St. George’s service was nothing like any service I had ever attended. I was completely enthralled for the first two hours of the service. Seriously, the service took over three hours, and it was only in the last hour, when there was an overly long and complicated sermon, that I began to lose interest. Early in the service, the songs were in the local Twi language, which allowed me to get away from analyzing the words (like I tend to do with English-language religious songs) and get carried away by the passion that the churchgoers share with their songs. In addition to the church choir, there was a fantastic singing group called the Still Waters that sang these songs. If you’d like a taste of what the service was like, I’ve posted photos and a video here.

While the church service had elements in common with the Catholic service, like turning to your neighbor to shake hands and wish them well, it was done in a wholly different (and African) way. Everyone left the pews to walk throughout the church and shake hands with as many people as possible. As the only obrunis at the service, we were in high demand for this part of the service. The contrast with Catholicism was also striking in how the collection was handled. Instead of passing around a collection plate, the churchgoers walked to the front of the church while the Still Waters kept singing. As part of the Women’s Week service, there was a new lectern given to the church by the women’s group. The pastor had his camera out to take pictures of the lectern. He seemed to really enjoy the proceedings of the entire service, joining in on the dancing at various points during the service.

One might wonder how children can handle such a long church service. The answer is that they are allowed to be children, to run and play at the sides and back of the church. Given the general ebullient nature of the service, it only seemed right.

Towards the end of the service, the pastor asked for those new to the church to introduce themselves, at which point Abenaa took the opportunity to introduce all of us. Abenaa is such a wonderful public speaker that I am proud for her to be the one to introduce me and to make public my association with GlaxoSmithKline and the Millennium Cities Initiative here in Ghana.

Monday, October 25, 2010

"Have you turned it off and on again?"

Fans of “The IT Crowd”, a hilarious British comedy about a 3-person IT department at a corporation, may recognize the title of this post as being the way that Roy answers the phone. (Thanks, Janssen, for sharing this bit of your culture with me.) In the short time I’ve been here, I have had need to start employing that phrase myself, as I’ve become the local IT guru, both for my GSK colleagues at my house and the teachers in the school system.  My struggles with wireless Internet are a perfect example of why the title of this post is accurate. Every time I try to associate my computer with a new wireless location, my PC seems to want to be shut down first.

Given my routine association with people who trouble-shoot networks and sling code for a living, I sometimes forget that I have some mad IT skills compared to the world at large. In grad school, I voluntarily learned how to build a PC (thanks, Chris) and maintained the wireless network for any set of roommates I had. Since getting an iPhone, I’ve been even more of a Google addict than before, immediately going to the Net to solve any dilemma that I may have. All this experience is really paying off in my current role as the IT support for the start of the Kumasi-NYC School-to-School project. During the workshop, I had plenty of opportunities to exercise these skills, starting from sorting out wireless card software and installation issues to using CNET to find good anti-virus software to fix the raging viruses and worms. Liz was very appreciative of my help and made sure that the US-based project director knew it.

In my first week here, I realized how dependent I’ve become on one particular technology: the mobile phone. It astonishes me that less than 10 years ago I got my first cell phone, a Sprint the size of my glasses case, and now I feel like I can’t live without a mobile phone. When I first landed in Accra, I had a cell phone with me but it had no SIM card. During the week it took to get a SIM card and get it registered, I felt completely and utterly. Simple tasks, like deciding when we should go into the school for the training course, were made impossible by the lack of a way to communicate with Liz. I’m not an Apple fangirl, but I terribly miss my iPhone and all its capabilities. Having landed in such a foreign place made the absence of my electronic leash even more painful. I was unbelievably happy to have gotten my work phone activated and can’t imagine how I survived that week without it.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

The second half

When we last left our intrepid traveler, she had just scored three free tickets to the Ghana-Sudan game, part of the Preliminary Tournament for the 28th Africa Cup of Nations in 2012. We now return you to the story already in progress.
As I headed over to the main gate to get the tickets from Coach Ebo (see my last post), I passed by the Ghana National Team fan club. They showed up in a neon green bus with matching shirts, all sponsored by Glo, one of the upstart mobile phone providers here. Outside the walls of the stadium, there were people hawking all sorts of Ghana gear, from visors and hats to vuvuzelas, those obnoxious noise-makers from World Cup game. (To my friends with kids: I seriously considered buying them for your children, but I decided that I liked being friends with you.) I thought I would have time to buy souvenirs later, so I only picked up a 5-cedi (~$2.50) photo book of the team throughout the years.

It was past 3 when Liz and Akmed, who were attending the game with me, got to the house. Even though game time was 5 pm, we high-tailed it over to the South White section to our seats. I was a bit concerned about getting there early because Ebo said people show up between 3 and 4 and the entire stadium is General Admission, with the sections being the only thing that changes the ticket price. We were in some of the most expensive seats in the house—8 Cedis (~$5), less than what it costs to buy a beer at any American sporting event. Once we got inside, I finally understood why the lines to buy tickets for the Yellow section had been so long, as it was the only section where you could buy seats that would let you sit at the centerline of the field without being a VIP.

As an American sports fan, I immediately gravitated towards the lower seats in our section, but Akmed set me straight and led us to the highest seats that were still open. I immediately saw the error of my ways, as sitting higher up made it possible 1) to see over the fence that separated us from the VIP section and 2) to see the whole field of play. Akmed was obviously right, as all the sections continued to fill in from the top-down. This bit of local knowledge was lost on the group of four obrunis who walked in and seemed to be thrilled that they got seats in the second or third row.

The Glo-sponsored fan club was set up on the centerline in the Yellow section. Looking around the stadium, I saw other blocks of people in matching shirts that were likely to be fan clubs. One of my favorite groups was in the Green section below the scoreboard and put the most enthusiastic US sports fans to shame. They spent the entire game dancing and singing and had all manner of costumes/outfits, including the requirement of having a fan fully covered in body paint— of course in the Ghana flag colors of red, yellow and green.

Prior to the game, the leaders of Ghana and Sudan came out on the field. As with World Cup, there were adorable soccer children standing in front of the players for the national anthems of the respective countries. (How anyone can stand singing the national anthem with video cameras in their faces is beyond me.) Much like any sporting event the world over, there were people selling things in the stands, but in this case they were independent operators who had hawkers’ licenses that allowed them to be there. Mentos gum was a popular item, as were handkerchiefs (carried by all men to wipe the sweat from their brows) and various local foods, like plantains. Akmed was looking out for us and made the water lady bring back cold bottles of water for us.

From our vantage point in the stands, the game was surprisingly exciting, as we could see plays developing and join in the general excitement of the fans around us. Sports are a universal language—even though most of the fans around us were speaking Twi, it was obvious when they thought that there was a blown call or an exciting play.

For anyone who watched World Cup this summer, you may remember how often it seemed that the players took a dive and lay on the ground writhing until the trainers came out with their magic spray. Sadly this game was not an exception. Late in the game, the Sudan goalie fell on the ball and then didn’t get up. Asmoah Gyan, the star of the Black Stars, obviously felt that the goalie was faking and showed him how he felt by pushing him a couple times. Four of the Sudan players jumped Asmoah and out of this melee, Asmoah ended up with a red card. The game was still 0-0 at this point, which meant that Ghana had to try to survive another 20 minutes or so playing a man down, and their best one at that. Somehow they pulled out the draw.

With only a couple minutes left in the game, Akmed looked up at the sky and decided that it would start raining soon. Rain here is not a gentle pattering or a light sprinkle, but a deluge of Biblical proportions—I’m convinced that’s why there are pairs of goats and other livestock wandering freely in town—maybe they're looking for the guy collecting pairs of animals for the boat. Given the camera gear we had with us, we took Akmed’s advice and left our seats to head home. There was s slight hiccup when we got to the locked gates outside the stadium—which made me wonder what would happen in a true emergency—but then we were out the door and into the house just before the downpour started.

Turns out it was a very good thing that I went to this game. According to what I can find online, the Black Stars won’t play another African Cup game until March 2011 in Brazzaville in Congo. But other posts on the web indicate that there may be some friendlies against other countries before then, so I’ll keep my fingers crossed that I get another shot at seeing the Ghana Black Stars.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Are you ready for some football?

For those of you who did not enjoy the addicting rush of watching the underdog countries take on the world leaders in a little thing called World Cup soccer this year, you may want to skip this entire post, as it’s all about seeing the Ghana Black Stars in action. As seen on the map I posted on 16-October, the sports fans among you may have noticed that we are located at the south end (“scoreboard end”) of the Baba Yara Stadium, the largest stadium in Kumasi with a capacity of 40,500 seats. In the two weeks that I’ve been here, I’ve watched soccer (“football” or “futbol”) at the stadium four times: three times I saw the Ghana Black Stars, the national soccer team, and once I got to watch Asante Kotoko, the Kumasi Glo Premier League team. (In case you were wondering, Glo is a local telecoms provider—seems that Africa is following the West in having corporate sponsorship of their sporting teams.)

My first experience seeing the Black Stars was purely by accident—consistent with many of the great experiences I’ve had so far. On my first Thursday night in Kumasi (October 7), Steffi and I walked over to one of the local Internet cafés, which happens to be in the VIP level of Baba Yara Stadium. We noticed that there were soccer players on the lighted field with a few people watching them. I wasn’t sure what team was out there, but in surfing Ghanaweb in the café, I ran across mention of the “local friendly” that night and a game scheduled for this past Sunday as part of the Africa cup. Thus began my week of Ghana Black Stars soccer.

On Saturday afternoon, I tried to find tickets to the game. As with most things here in Ghana, the process is completely foreign to me, pun completely intended. Akmed took us to the Sports Hotel (very near our house and the stadium), but they said to check at the Unity Oil station, who said that they would not have any tickets available until 7 am on Sunday morning. As an American sports fan, I couldn’t believe that tickets would not be available until the day of a game to watch the national team in any sport, let alone the Ghana Black Stars. That night, I decided to head over to the main entrance to the stadium to see if I could get tickets before Sunday. I was fortunate that the Black Stars were practicing for the game the next day, which meant there were plenty of people around.

I wandered up to the VIP level and stood behind some men sitting on bar-stool-height chairs. I started asking questions about the proceedings on the field and it didn’t take long to find out that I was talking to the head coach of the Asante Kotoko team, Coach Ebo Mends. Coach Ebo (shown in this picture with me) had been on the Black Stars in his day and followed that up by playing for and coaching many European league teams. He’s lived with the US, too, and has three boys who are currently in school there.

Watching the practice with Ebo and his friends made the whole experience much more enlightening. He and his friends, including a former goalie for the Black Stars who is the current goalkeepers coach for Kotoko, were able to explain that the guy making silly gestures and pratfalls on the track around the field was like a “comedian” in the US, or their equivalent of a mascot. Later in the practice, a row of cars drove up on the track, obviously carrying someone of some importance. Turns out it was the Ashanti king, who was there to wish the team well in their game on Sunday. I have video of the king’s entrance that I plan to post video once I figure out how to compress the MOV files my pocket camera generates.

As I was watching the practice, I asked Ebo how I could get tickets for the game and he said that if I could hang out a bit longer, someone may come up to provide tickets, as he was waiting on his VIP ticket and might be able to get me one. Unfortunately, when the man came upstairs, he told Ebo that the tickets would not be available until the next day. Ebo offered to drive me home and discuss tickets on the way. Being an American, I was appropriately wary about getting in the car of someone I just met, but given his status (coach of the team) and what the guidebooks have said about Ghanaians being helpful to female travelers, I decided to trust him. When he dropped me off, we exchanged mobile phone numbers so that we could get in touch on Sunday morning about the tickets. (As noted in my post on 16-October, handing out cell phone numbers here is about as common as telling someone your name in the US.)

Around 10 on Sunday morning, I decided to look into getting my own tickets as a back-up plan, in case Coach Ebo’s tickets fell through. I went to Unity Oil, but they said I should go to the stadium. When I went over there, I asked someone at the nearest ticket window about the “best tickets” and they told me to go around the stadium to ask about VIP tickets. I finally was able to figure out that tickets need to be purchased at the side or end of the stadium where the seats are. The two endzone sections (if it were a football stadium) are Red (north end) and Green (south end with the scoreboard, near our house), the sideline seats (including the VIP section) are White and Grey, while the other sideline seats are Yellow. During this stroll, I managed to get in touch with Ebo. Bad news was that he couldn’t get me any VIP seats, but the good news was that he was able to score three free tickets in the White Section (named for the color of the seats, not the people who sit there).

I’ll share the experience of the actual game in another post, as it deserves plenty of space on its own.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

School me once

Many of you, especially my work colleagues, may be wondering what I’m doing here besides collecting stories for this blog. I’ve hesitated to write anything regarding my job yet, primarily because the goals of my work are still a work in progress. But I thought that a good starting point might be my initial visits to two of the schools on my first Thursday in Kumasi (October 7). The links sprinkled throughout this post will take you to the pictures I’ve posted to date.  (You can pick any link and get to the gallery of photos that I've posted, which I've also linked here.)

I visited these schools in the company of Liz Kubis, the project manager from MCI. She has a background teaching mathematics in urban schools in NYC and spent two years in the Peace Corps in South Africa, both of which make her extremely well-suited for managing this project, the goal of which is to create personal connections teachers in Kumasi and NYC to improve their teaching of STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) subjects. (Side note to Dave: if you’re reading this blog, she also worked for Kaplan for a number of years.) She’s here for a very brief two weeks to get this project kicked off by visiting all the schools for a needs assessment, followed by a basic computer skills training course for the teachers. She spent the week of October 4th visiting the schools to gain an understanding of their readiness for this project, both from the viewpoint of their facilities (did they set up a computer lab with the required elements, like fans or A/C, bars on the windows, and a locking door?) and staff (how well-versed are the staff in using the Internet for teaching?). By Thursday, she had only two computer labs left to visit, so I joined her for those visits.

Our first stop, and my first experience with the African schools, was at Bantama Presby, where I met Kobi and Bernard, the two technology teachers, as well as a couple other teachers. Kobi and Bernard have started their own side business producing posters for teaching technology, as shown in this picture (Kobi is shown here with me). I found their computer room to be what I would have expected, with a few older PCs and the two new Dell Optiplex 380s provided by the Kumasi Metropolitan Authority (KMA) for this project. I also met Emelia, the Assistant Director of Education and Girls’ Education Officer from the Ghana Education Service. Leaving the computer lab, I had my camera out to take pictures of the school and the children and experienced the phenomenon of African children and cameras.

Time for a side story: The Ghanaian children don’t seem to know the word “camera-shy”. The moment a camera is whipped out, they start jumping in front of the lens, as shown in this series of pictures in which the number of children in subsequent photos increases in a matter of seconds. On Friday, October 8, when we made a visit to Opoku Ware, the site for the training that was held last week, I made an even bigger mistake and had my camera out when the students had been let out of school. Kids are the same the world over—once school is out of session, they become happy, shrieking lunatics running all over the place. We were mobbed like a scene out of “Night of the Living Dead” but with happy Ghanaian kids instead of zombies. Calls of “Obruni! Obruni!” were accompanied by kids wanting to touch our arms and talk to us. Even after we got into the car, the children were still mobbing us like we were rock stars. Emelia tried to shoo them away as Akmed drove us out of the school yard, but the red dirt road was so rough that the kids kept following us, including this one very persistent little boy. I can tell that happy African children will be a repeating theme in my pictures.

Back to Thursday’s school visits: Akmed (our driver) then drove Emelia, Liz and me to the last set of schools on the list. Their computer room was not quite ready, as it did not have the bars on the windows or the locking door, which meant that the computers had not been taken out of the boxes but were being stored in the headmaster’s office. When we took everything out, we learned that some of the cables needed to connect the PCs and monitors to the UPSs were missing. We planned to remedy those problems at the training course, since all the schools had to take their computers to it.

From Liz’s visits to all the schools, these two examples are representative of the extremes, which gives me a good idea of the starting point for this project. From these short visits, at least one of my worries about my support on this project has been put to rest. While this was listed as an “IT support” project, it seems that my experience with building and maintaining computers and home networks should be extensive enough to make a positive impact on the schools here.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

It's a Small World

Random impressions of Kumasi:
Tonight at dinner, we had an Italian (Dorella), a Spaniard (Nela), a German (Steffi) and two Americans (Liz and me) at dinner sharing Star beers (the Kumasi brewery) and pizza at the Queen’s Gate hotel. On our taxi ride back to the house, the taxi driver had the Billboard Top 10 playing on the radio and the song “Dynamite” by Taio Cruz came up as the number five on the countdown.

The night sky in Kumasi isn’t much darker than back home in the US. The stadium lights near our house really light up the night sky. Here’s a link to Google maps showing approximately where I live.

Not far from our house, there’s a four-lane highway being built, complete with a highway to pass over some of the neighborhoods. Even though it’s still under construction, people are allowed to drive on it—and do, as it’s the main thoroughfare through town. Riding in the back of the car feels a bit like being in a rally car race, with all the cars and taxis and tro-tros (10-passenger vans typically crammed with 15 people) jockeying for position on the dirt on-ramp. The locals are driving sedans and station wagons that sounds like they will rattle apart on the road, which is in atrocious condition due to it being the rainy season.

Last winter, I learned that there are places in the world where the local news does not even bother with a weather forecast, since the weather never changes. My sister is living on Guam, where it’s always a high of 85 and a chance of rain—70% chance in the rainy season, 20% chance in the dry season. Ghana is another one of those places—last week’s weather forecast was for a high of 29 Celsius, a low of 22 Celsius, and thunderstorms every afternoon.

When taking money out of an ATM in Ghana, you get an assortment of bills, including some very small denominations. I took out 150 cedis the other day and ended up with 5 20-cedi notes, 3 10-cedi notes, 2 5-cedi notes, and 5 2-cedi notes. Having these small bills is a good thing, as often storekeepers do not have correct change. Shopping can be done from the car window. Yesterday I got more money for my cell phone minutes by buying a 10-cedi Zain card from a street vendor.

Ghanaians ask for and give out cell phone numbers to people they just met. Today when I was getting my Vodafone mobile broadband key activated, one of the girls said she was my friend and wanted my cell number. I told her I didn’t know it (which is true) and asked her to write hers down instead. Yesterday I got a call from the coach of the Kotoko soccer team, who I met last week. He was just checking in to see how I was doing. Unfortunately, being an American with our societal distrust of strangers, I have trouble accepting that all of these people want nothing more than to see how I’m doing.

Where to find the obrunis (‘white people”): Ghana Black Stars soccer game; Vic Baboo’s café in the center of town; the Vodafone internet café with “Africa’s fastest Internet”.

Being an obruni has its privileges. Yesterday I stopped by Zain for a mobile broadband key (here in Ghana, you need multiple options for Internet and phone if you want to have reliable contacts), but they were closing up shop for the day. When I went back today, the guy from yesterday recognized my pale skin and blonde hair and got me in and out of the store in record time.

Time is a different concept here in Ghana. Ghanaians have a strong sense of family, which extends as far as third and fourth cousins and great uncles and all manner of extended relatives. Due to the myriad family obligations, many of them are late to meetings and school and anything with a start time. But since everyone has the same obligations, it’s accepted practice. I find the lack of time awareness to be one of the more difficult struggles.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

To market, to market, to see a fat pig....

During my first two weeks here, I’m working with Liz, the project manager for the Kumasi-NYC School-to-School project that I’m supporting. Abenaa, my in-country manager, contracted a driver, Akmed, to drive Liz (and, by extension, me) around during the time she’s here. On Thursday, Liz and I visiting the last three schools that she had not seen yet this week. (More about the project I’m doing here in another post.) Since we were done for the day and Liz only has two weeks here, I asked if Akmed could take us to the Kejetia Market, one of the major attractions in Kumasi. Little did I know what we were in for.
Driving towards the market, the roads got even more crowded with cars and people than in the rest of Kumasi, if such a thing is possible. A couple blocks from the outskirts of the market, Akmed parked and took a ticket from someone who would watch the car. Thus ensued an interesting cultural difference when Akmed told us we could leave our stuff in the locked car and we tried to explain to him that in the US it would be asking for someone to break in and steal it (as I learned from experience at Brier Creek shopping center a couple years ago). Liz and I followed our Western sensibilities and carried our stuff with us.
Akmed took off like a man on a mission, which he was—the mission to show us the market, all of it, in a short time. There is really no way to describe the utter mass chaos and confusion into which we plunged. Thousands or perhaps tens of thousands of stalls and sellers were crammed together into a vibrant, noisy mass of humanity. The market appeared to be the one place in Kumasi where people moved as if they had somewhere to be and a time to get there. Taken as a whole, it’s possible to recognize the different regions of the market: jewelry, clothing (new and then used), fruits and vegetables, luggage, empty bottles, fish, and meat, among many, many others.
In the empty plastic bottles section, bottles of all sorts and sizes were sold. Some of the uses were evident in another part of the market, where we saw women filling plastic bottles with flavored oils, such as cooking oil in which chilies were soaking. Plastic bottles are also carried around by the drivers, who keep a bit of water in them to clean their cars when they’re waiting for their passengers (as Akmed does).
The fish and meat sections overloaded the senses, primarily olfactory but also visual. Both the meat and fish sections (there was more than one fish section) were a combination of common items and the more obscure. Among the many varieties of small smoked fishes, the oddest “fish” were the 6” long snails, which were obviously fresh as many of the snails were still moving.
As for the meat section, most of the butchering was done underneath an awning or inside the building to which the awning was attached. I was expecting things like the whole cows heads that were for sale, but I was a bit flummoxed by the rats that were splayed out as if prepared for a cats’ pig pickin’. (Editor’s note: if you’re not from the US South, you might not understand this last sentence. Ask your favorite Southerner to explain it.) There were piles of entrails and various other bits for sale, all of which were baking in the midday heat. Then we plunged inside the butchering building. The floor of the building was slick with the liquids that spill from the butchered animals. The smell overpowered me, making me a bit nauseous. (It was only a few years ago that I learned to tear apart a chicken for cooking without feeling sick to my stomach). Liz stopped to ask about something for sale at about this time, but I somehow made it out without losing my lunch.
After this, I was very grateful to be passing through the less visceral sections, like the jewelry and grains. We had not taken any pictures in the market for fear of being impolite, but on our journey back, we asked Akmed if he thought it would be okay to take pictures. He indicated that as long as we asked the people first and stopped if they said no, then we should feel free to do so. Kicking ourselves for not asking earlier, we were fortunate enough to pass back by the meat section and get a few pics. During this pass-through, we heard someone hawking “grass-cutter”, a large rodent-like animal formally known as a savanna cane-rat. Perhaps we saw grass-cutters, not actual rats, on the first pass through. Either way, it was a rather odd sight to see.
Since the market is too chaotic and involved to see in a single trip of less than an hour, I plan to go back again on a more leisurely photo excursion. I might even be brave enough enter into the process of bargaining that it takes to buy something.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Making my way in Kumasi

On the plane to Kumasi on Wednesday, a very nice Dutch employee from Phillips said that he didn’t like Kumasi because it seemed less like a city than a huge, sprawling village.  Kumasi is composed of ten sub-metros that have merged together into a sprawling, vibrant mass of humanity.  Coming from the RTP area, which has no central city but many suburbs, I feel rather at home in Kumasi, at least from the city layout viewpoint.

However, in my short time here, I can see why Westerners are advised against driving in Kumasi.  On the way to the Kumasi Metropolitan Authority today, we drove through an intersection that functions as a 4-way stop but without the bother of having actual stop signs.  The drivers on the main road knew to let through some of the drivers from the side road on an intermittent basis.  Strangely enough, even with all the crazy driving, there is no road rage, maybe because very few people are concerned about being on time for most things.

Back in the US, I struggle to find my way in a place I’ve lived in for years.  Ask anyone who’s gotten a phone call from me when I’ve been lost—GPS may have saved my marriage and many friendships.  In addition to the driving, navigation in Kumasi is best left to the professionals, like our driver, Akmed.  While Kumasi’s streets show up on Google maps, there are still plenty of streets with no names.  Luckily Akmed is a champion at navigating the twists and turns of this sprawling city.  In the two days I’ve been riding with him, he has used every side street and back road he can to get us where we need to go in the shortest time possible.  He also appears to understand our Western insistence on being on time, as he consistently shows up early to pick us up. 

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Accra to Kumasi

Our house is supposed to have broadband internet access, but there have been some delays from the owner of the house changing providers. There are a million things I want to say about my trip to Ghana so far, but since I’m typing this in an internet café, much of it will wait for another day. Oddly enough, the Internet café is in the sports stadium, which is only five minutes from our house, and it turns out that the Black Stars are in the middle of playing “a friendly match against a local division one side” (as noted on Ghanaweb). I’ll have to go watch some of it when I’m done here. 

I met Dorella, a fellow volunteer, in the hotel restaurant for breakfast yesterday morning. Just knowing one other person in Ghana changed the entire feeling of my trip. On my first day, I was feeling rather alone and overwhelmed and was starting to wonder why exactly I had decided that moving to such a foreign country was a good idea. Piece of advice: a Western-style business hotel is not the best introduction to a country like Ghana that is known for being friendly, as the cool, detached atmosphere of the hotel gave me a false impression. But with Dorella by my side, any travel issues and problems became much more manageable. From my short time in Accra and what folks here in Kumasi have said, Accra is much like any other western city, with the benefits (a mall) and problems (less friendliness) that come with it.

We got to the airport plenty early enough for our flight to Kumasi. Intercity air transport in Ghana is much more like the trains in Europe. There’s a fixed price and the planes run at the same time every day, although sometimes later flights get cancelled due to thunderstorms. I don’t think they don’t fly at all after dark, so the latest possible flight is 4:30 pm.
We had reservations but had not yet paid, so I ponied up a $100 bill for my $91 flight and got a really great exchange rate for my change in Cedis, giving me some small Ghana bills. CityLink limits each passenger to 20 kg in checked luggage and one bag for on the plane. But they only charge $1/kg over the limit, meaning that for only $54, I got my two huge suitcases and my roll-aboard and backpack here to Kumasi.
The flight to Kumasi was low enough for LJ to skydive from the plane—only 12,000 feet max. The beverage service was juiceboxes and water. Watching a nicely-dressed man in a business suit drink out of a juicebox straw is a sight to see. In the last few minutes of the short flight, the daily afternoon thunderstorms caused enough turbulence that I lost my juicebox into one of the nice little bags provided for just such an occasion.
At the airport, we expected Benee (our house owner) to be waiting for us, but he was not. Luckily Dorella had his cell phone, so after waiting for about 20 minutes, I used the phone in the CityLink office to call him. Benee brought two taxies for us and all our bags. We arrived at the house and met our third compatriot, Steffi, who had been in Ghana since Monday.
We will leave the beginning of my time in Kumasi, including my first experiences at the schools, for another day. Pictures will also be posted when I have time to sort through them and a faster Internet connection over which to post them.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Safe and sound in Accra

12 hours of flying put me a world and a half away.  I’m typing this from the eLounge business center in one of the upscale business hotels in the city, the African Regent Hotel, located near the airport.  The smell of the rooms and the furniture near the pool reminds me of the Japanese-run hotel we stayed at in Palau: a mix of mothballs and humidity, now tinged with the insecticide spray that someone from the hotel sprayed in the room to prevent mosquitos.  (Given that the windows are sealed and the room is air-conditioned, I’m a bit surprised that they still need to spray.)  Checking into the hotel gave me my first opportunity to learn patience, as the official check-in time is 3 pm, an hour and a half after I arrived at the hotel.  I was lucky that they only needed to keep me waiting in the lobby for 15 minutes or so, after which they were able to get me into my room.  I realized when the porter brought my bags in that I have no small bills in US or Ghanaian money.  Getting some of my cash broken down is a key task for tomorrow.

Getting through the Accra immigration and customs process was surprisingly straightforward.  The one hiccup I encountered was because I had not filled out my address in Ghana on the immigration form.  At that point, I realized I don’t have my address written down anywhere but only in emails on both my work and personal email accounts.  Luckily I had my visa letter with Abenaa’s address on it, which I used instead.  (I’m taking the chance that Ghanaian immigration officials aren’t surfing the web to track me down.)  At the customs line, the agent that I saw waved me through the line without checking anything in my luggage.  My guess is that they’re more interested in returning Ghanaians and what they bring back, like the 32” LCD TV I saw someone carrying.  The airport itself was much smaller than I would have expected for a country of 22+ million people.  Of all the airports I’ve been through, it most reminded me of the Guam airport, only smaller.  There was the equatorial airport trait of not having a jet-bridge, since the weather never gets cold (although they can get some massive thunderstorms), along with the massive posters for all sorts of things (like Toyotas) plastered on the walls.

Caroline (NC State student who had done study  abroad in Accra—see my post on “Preview of coming attractions on 20 Sep for more background) had mentioned that it was possible to do her shopping from the seat of a tro-tro, one of the minibuses crammed full of people.  In the short trip from the airport in the hotel shuttle, I saw numerous people walking between the lanes of traffic at stoplights to hawking their wares, anything from tourist trinkets to toilet paper, to the occupants of the vehicles.  I was most impressed by the guy using a folding paper fan to fan the passengers and ask for money for his efforts.  It’s not all that different from the guys who wash windshields for cash in NYC.  I also found it fascinating to see how many people were walking along with bundles of all sorts balanced on their heads.  From what I could tell, they use a small, bundled towel as a buffer between their heads and the load they’re carrying.

While I would have liked to see some of Accra, my hotel is situated for easy access to the airport rather than downtown.  Given my long day of travel (22+ hours from home to the hotel), I wasn’t ready to navigate the various types of public transport, from taxi to tro-tro.  Instead, I spent the afternoon taking a late lunch and reading by the pool.  Once I check some email and post this, I’ll head out to the patio for a poolside dinner and probably an early bedtime.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Leaving on a jet plane, Part Deux

RDU airport, 4 o’clock
And so the journey begins.  The check-in line at RDU was practically nonexistent, as I would expect for 3 pm on a Monday afternoon.  The nice and clueful gate agent recognized my business class upgrade from LJ, which meant that I got my 60-lb and 68-lb bags checked for free.  My backpack and small roll-aboard went through security without incident, although one of the security guys did ask about the string hanging from the laptop.  Once I popped out the stylus for this Tablet PC (which is connected to the PC by way of the string), he seemed satisfied.

Since I won’t be using my personal cell phone on this trip, I left it at home with an extended away message on the voicemail.  Sitting here in the airport without a cell phone or internet access (I’m waiting to Dulles to see how much it costs there), I feel cut off from the US already.  I’m amazed at how much I’ve come to rely on the instant gratification of cell phones.  Without a new work cell phone number, which I’ll get with the purchase of a SIM card in Ghana, I had to default to the “old-fashioned” method of setting a time and place to meet my colleague, Dorella, in Accra.  Well, maybe not completely old-fashioned method, as setting up the meeting spot was done through email.

Update from Dulles around 8 pm:
My “free” business class upgrade got me Red Carpet Club access and, more importantly, free WiFi to post this.  (I put “free” in quotes because the amount of time that my wonderful husband, LJ, spent on planes to get the upgrade means he would not consider it to be free!) 

Over the last week or so, I’ve been filling some of my food cravings before I head off to cuisines unknown. There was the pork BBQ and Bo’s sweet tea at my going-away party last Saturday, and a burger and fries from Cloos’ last night.  Indian food has made a strong appearance, in both the North and South Indian varieties.  Dinner tonight was a yummy turkey melt with an Octoberfest beer at Gordon Biersch here in Dulles.  Now it’s time to fire up a good book on the Kindle, sit back, and wait to board my overnight flight.