Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Maslow’s hierarchy, or how am I really doing here in Ghana?

Since a few good friends have asked how I’m doing beyond what’s in the blog, I thought I’d take this opportunity to share the bad and the ugly, in addition to the good, of my stay in Ghana.  Overall, my stay in Ghana has been fantastic.  I’m living with a great group of people in a nice house right next to the sports stadium.  I’m working with teachers who really seem to appreciate my help.  I’m learning a great deal about being more self-sufficient in how I work.

But on the health side, things have been a bit more up and down.  Ghanaian women don’t seem to exercise beyond the massive amount of walking that they do.  The Sports Hotel, which is two blocks away, has a “gym” that consists of a couple exercise bikes and some weight machines, but the girl running the desk said that they no longer allow non-guests to pay to use it.  The only other gym nearby appears to be frequented only by muscle-bound weight-lifting men.  I’ve been to the pool once and hiking a few times, but I haven’t taken any real aerobic exercise since September and it’s starting to get to me.  This may be the longest stretch of time that I’ve gone without serious aerobic exercise in my entire adult life.  But I’m struggling with figuring out how to get exercise.  I’ve been able to walk all over town, but that just isn’t enough for me.  Very few people go running and those that do—almost exclusively men—tend to run at dawn.  Since women in Ghana don’t wear shorts all that often, I’m not sure that I’m willing to go running in public.   When I visited the local university a few Sundays ago, I was hoping to see some students playing soccer or maybe even a group of expat obrunis playing ultimate, but there was no one out on the lone flat field I saw.

Dehydration is an ever-present issue for me.  (This problem is not unique to my stay in Ghana.  Ask any of my fellow club ultimate teammates who’ve had to take care of me at a hot summer tournament.) The hot climate makes it difficult for me to drink enough water to stay hydrated, so I spent quite a bit of time in the first few weeks feeling somewhat dizzy and weak.  The problem with staying well-hydrated is the lack of available public facilities.  Not all the schools have toilets available.  Since public facilities are few and far between, one soon learns where the best ones are.  For example, the Bonjour food court at the Total gas station north of town has both a wide selection of Western food, including pretty decent pizza, and a clean, well-stocked (meaning toilet paper and hand soap) bathroom, making it a great midday stop.

Given the way that travel and new, strange foods affects the average person (including me), I find it strange that there’s no African equivalent of “Montezuma’s revenge” (Mexico) or “Delhi belly” (India).  Maybe there just aren’t enough Westerners visiting West Africa to come up with a name for the condition but it still happens.  During my first week here, I was eating local foods every day at lunch at the workshop, which made my digestive system unhappy.  Since I wasn’t sure if it was the food or an actual illness, I finally gave up and took an anti-biotic about a week into my stay in Kumasi.  Either the anti-biotic worked or I’ve adjusted more to the food because I haven’t had any weeks nearly as bad as that one.

Between food issues and the dehydration, I’ve been pretty tired all the time.  I’m sleeping 8 or 9 hours a night but I don’t always feel rested.  The birds and the sun both get up pretty early around here.  Earplugs and an eyemask can make things better, but sometimes I hesitate to use them during the week since I’ll sleep through the alarm clock!  At least the air conditioning in my bedroom makes the room a comfortable temperature.

Beyond the initial food issues, things have been fantastic on that front.  Lisa is a wonderful cook and is keeping us well-fed.  Between the lack of exercise and the good food, I wouldn’t be surprised if I came back from Africa heavier than I left.  I’m going to need to pay more attention to how much I’m eating at dinnertime.

I hope that no one sees this post as whining.  I’m still incredibly thankful that I have the opportunity to live in Ghana as a part of the amazing Pulse program.  But I would be doing my faithful readers a disservice if I didn’t share (with apologies to Paul Harvey) “the rest of the story”.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Ghanaian Thanksgiving

While I’ve spent Thanksgiving away from family in past years (some years in grad school in Colorado), this is the first time that I’ve spent Thanksgiving on another continent.  As might be expected, American Thanksgiving is not celebrated by the Ghanaians or any of my European colleagues.  But since I’m not living with any Brits (who might still be sore about us Americans making our own country a couple centuries ago), I felt completely comfortable asking Lisa if we could have turkey for dinner—assuming that they have turkeys here in Ghana.  She said that she would get a live turkey but I told it wasn’t necessary.

Lisa didn’t listen.  I wasn’t around to see it, but Lisa brought home a live turkey.  Its legs were tied so it couldn’t run away, but it was most definitely alive, as you can see in the picture of Lisa holding it in the front door of the house.  I was fortunate to also miss the slaughtering of the turkey.  I’m squeamish enough about eating animals that still resemble what they were like when they were alive (Andre probably remembers having to pull the heads off prawns before I would eat them on our European trip after college).  I doubt I could have eaten dinner if I had met the turkey before dinner (for the Douglas Adams fans out there, I guess I wouldn’t dine at The Restaurant at the End of the Universe).

Ghanaian turkey is served with pepe sauce, a spicy mixture of ginger, garlic, tomato and onion.  Fried yams are the typical side dish—in this case, sliced and fried like French fried potatoes.  We had a nice salad to complete the meal.  The finished product is here in this picture, complimented by a South African red wine.   No pumpkin pie for dessert, but the watermelon and pineapple were fresh and tasty.  Since my colleagues are all European, this was their first (and possibly last) Thanksgiving dinner.  They very much seemed to enjoy the meal, even if it’s a holiday that only means something to me.  (A big thanks to Markus for providing the photos for this post.)

I make up for missing the Thanksgiving holiday by getting a uniquely Ghanaian holiday, Farmers’ Day on December 3rd.  We’ll be taking a trip to the north to Tamale and Mole National Park for the long weekend.  Since it’s the end of the rainy season, I’m not sure how many elephants we’ll see in the park, but I’m sure it will still be interesting.    Saturday night we head to Tamale for a day for our chance to see a bit of the Muslim north.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

An afternoon at Lake Bosomtwe

A few Saturdays ago (October 30), we took a day trip out to Lake Bosomtwe, the largest natural freshwater lake in Ghana.  Leaving Kumasi, once we passed by the edge of town, the country opened up into a verdant, lush landscape of grasses and coconut trees and the bizarre, twisted African trees that remind me of drawings in a Doctor Seuss book.  We passed through a few small towns, slowing to a crawl each time for the speed bumps and the people crossing the street.  Since it was a Saturday, every town was full of women dressed in their best black dresses and men in their suits on their way to the funeral of their aunts or brothers or cousins three times removed.  Many of the buildings are brightly painted with the slogans and names of a random assortment of businesses, from the NC State red of Vodafone and Indo Mie (instant noodles) to the daffodil-yellow of MTN (another cell provider).  Whenever children noticed our car, they shouted “obruni” to share their excitement with their friends.

The lake is in a meteor crater, with walls that jut up to 1800 feet above the surrounds hills.  Akmed’s Nissan sedan creaked and groaned its way up the slope, with first gear needed to keep us moving up the slope.  I had similar trips with my Toyota Corolla during my years in Colorado when I would drive a car full of people to the ski slopes.  Since we are obviously foreigners, we were charged 2 cedi a person to enter the lake area, as compared to the 1 cedi for locals.  After we crested the top and began our descent, the road narrowed to one-and-a bit lanes, but luckily for us there were few other cars on the road.

Upon arriving in Abono and parking the car, we were almost immediately greeted by a man wearing a badge who told us that we needed to visit the information hut.  Another man, looking much less official, also herded us over there.  I was a bit suspicious but was willing to take them at face value.  Inside the hut, the supervisor told us that they started the information hut to help visitors learn about the lake and to keep them from being hassled.  Then they asked us if we would make a donation to a fund to help pay for tree planting to prevent erosion around the lake.  Dorella and Nela each donated a few cedi, which seemed like enough to cover our group.  I chose not to donate at that time because I didn’t appreciate the bait-and-switch of saying we would not be hassled and then hassling us for “a donation from your heart” but not really accepting it when my heart said “zero cedis”.  I really wish I had thought to ask what they do with the money they collect at the entrance.

We set off on our own to do some hiking near the lake.  Our first attempt was a glaring failure, as the path we tried ended in the lake.  We headed back up through Abono and found the turnoff for a dirt road to Lake Point Guesthouse, one of the places recommended in the Bradt Ghana guide as a good place to eat.  The 2.5 km to Lake Point sounded like an ideal distance, so we set off.

Coming from the hustle and bustle of Kumasi, where there’s party music blaring from the local bars every weekend, the relative solitude of the walk was quite refreshing.   We were met by various village children on our walk.  A couple of times they asked for money, which left us in a tough spot.  The first one said “Please, I am an orphan”, but given the number of tourists walking through there, it’s hard to know if she was telling the truth.  It was a much simpler decision for Dorella when she saw a woman whose children needed some water.  Along the walk, we saw interesting bits of life in Ghana, like cocoa beans laid out to dry and the cacao trees where they grow.  (More pictures of the trip can be found at this link.)

Upon arriving at the Lake Point Guesthouse restaurant, we took a seat at a table underneath a thatched roof and enjoyed a refreshing Coke, followed by a leisurely lunch.  During our stay, the weather took a turn for the worse, with the sky threatening rain but never following through.  However, when we walked over to the lake beach, the winds had whipped up the glass-like lake so that waves were lapping at the shore.  Even though the sky was a gunmetal grey, the sound of waves made for a relaxing visit.

Our return trip went much more quickly than the walk there.  Just before returning to the village, I saw a couple of snow-white baby sheep.  They must have been newly born, because any animal that has spent more than a day in the dry, dusty orange-brown soil takes on a rust-colored patina.  Akmed was waiting for us when we got back.  He had spent the afternoon snoozing by the lakeside—not the worst way to make a living.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Meeting of the head teachers

Here in Ghana, I’ve been told that GMT stands for “Ghana Man Time”. This “GMT” runs behind the real clock time by 30 minutes to forever. (For the ultimate players out there, it’s much less predictable than “ultimate time”, which generally is less than an hour from the clock time.)  For example, a meeting or appointment scheduled for 9 am might start at 10, 11, or maybe not at all, because the person(s) might have randomly gone to Accra and didn’t call to say that they wouldn’t be in. On the one hand, it’s frustrating to never know exactly when—or even if—a meeting will occur. On the other hand, when we get caught in traffic and I’m late arriving at a school, everyone seems to understand and accept it.

Today’s post is on the experience of attending a meeting in Ghana, because it’s a wonderful study in some of the major differences between Ghana and the US. On Wednesday, we had our first meeting of the head teachers since the workshop. The meeting was scheduled for 9-11. Knowing that many people follow “GMT”, the head teachers were told that the meeting started at 8:30. By 9 am, only 4 head teachers had arrived—and one of them was head of the school where the meeting was being held. Even when we started the meeting at 10, not all the schools were represented, but they did all show up at the meeting.

The meeting agenda below is typical of the few meetings I’ve attended here so far.

My loyal blog readers will likely notice that, as with other public events, prayers are given to open and close the meeting. In this case, the opening prayer included thanks for the MCI School-to-School Project and how it will help the teachers. The previous minutes came from my supervisor’s notes from the past couple meetings with the head teachers before the ICT workshop. Even though there was no formal documentation of the notes, there was still a formal motion per Robert’s Rules of Order to approve the minutes.

Next I was asked to give feedback on my visits to the schools. Cultural misunderstanding (mostly on my part): based on an email over the weekend, I thought that Abenaa had pulled most of my suggested topics from the agenda. But what she meant is that she would cover a few of the key topics and the rest would be “left for you to handle” in my feedback at the meeting—which I was unaware I would be giving until 9:30 that morning when I saw the agenda.

My feedback took longer than it would in a similar GSK meeting—and not because I had more to say. As an American and a fast-talking one at that, I have to focus on speaking very slowly and clearly, which I find to be extremely difficult to do due to the stereotype of Americans speaking slowly and loudly to people who don’t speak English in the vain hopes that they’ll suddenly understand. But if I don’t focus on my speech patterns, I get blank looks and completely lose my audience.

My feedback began with the observation that even though the ongoing issues with the Internet were hampering efforts, many of the schools are doing some amazing work. One ICT teacher had already set up training for the other 30 teachers at his JHS and primary schools, while another school was bringing all their teachers into the computer lab once a week to learn ICT. Most of the teachers who attended the workshop remembered how to send an email and how to use Microsoft Word, two skills that will be crucial to their upcoming partnerships with NYC teachers.

After my report, Abenaa asked the schools to report on their activities. The two examples I gave during my feedback were only the “tip of the iceberg”—er, “ears and eyes of the hippo”.* I was blown away by how much they’re doing with the few PCs that they have. At every school, the ICT teachers are using the new PCs for a range of activities, from ICT training for their colleagues to getting their students and colleagues onto email to giving the students online assignments to complete.

At the end of the school feedback, Abenaa clarified some key figures, like the number of teachers at each school with email. Given the huge uptake on email at the schools, Abenaa requested that each head teacher compile a list of all their teachers and their email addresses, if they have them, and send it to her and me as an attachment—to show that they have email addresses and that they can use email and attachments. Eugene indicated that all future meeting invites will be sent by email rather than him phoning each person. I was both excited and terrified of his pronouncement—excited that we are forcing them to use ICT, terrified that none of them would show up at the next meeting because they didn’t see the email invitation. Luckily, later in the meeting we set the date and time of the next meeting in late January, meaning this new policy will be fully implemented in February.

It was requested that people always reply to every email, even if it’s just to say that the email was received. This statement had my head swimming with visions of a deluge of email from the 45 program teachers and 15 head teachers every time I needed to give them a small piece of information by email. But in this environment, when many of the people I work with here check their email less than once a week, there probably needs to be a mechanism to know that an email has been read and understood.

The big issue of the day, and the one that all the head teachers wanted solved, was the ongoing issues with the Zain Internet credits. As noted in my last post, all the schools have run out of their 30-day initial credit on the Zain routers and were waiting on the MCI program to explain how to recharge the routers. Since the discounted plans are not yet in place, Abenaa told the schools to purchase the credits at the going rate to ensure that the project can keep progressing. Zain told her that the schools needed to be careful about how much download the automatic updating of Windows uses—which concerns me, as I am not at all comfortable with the idea of putting Windows machines on the Net without enabling automatic Windows and anti-virus software updates. I will be very interested to see what Zain tells us when they finally send someone to do the training that was promised in the MOU.

After further topics, the last major item was the head teacher training in December. I was apprehensive that the head teachers would not want to come to an ICT workshop from December 20-23, since it’s immediately before the Christmas holidays, but Abenaa did not give them any other choices. She indicated that it was the week I was free and asked everyone if they could make it then. Only one head teacher could not, so the date was set. I had also requested (prior to the meeting) that we find a school with enough PCs so that we don’t have to set up and take down the PCs at the workshop. Abenaa asked the head teachers which school had 14 PCs available. Since Martyrs was the only one, the workshop will be there—which is great, since it’s the school I had suggested.

While some issues were decided by mandate from the Steering Committee, other decisions here are extremely democratic.** The time for the workshop each day is one of those decisions. After much discussion, including the point that traffic will be worse in the afternoons since it’s almost Christmas, we agreed on 9 am – 2 pm each day with a short (< 15 min) morning break and lunch from 11:30-12:15. I’m happy that we’ll be at Martyrs because their computer lab is air-conditioned, meaning that we should be able to work until 2 pm without difficulty. Since this timing means only 4 hours of lessons a day, I understand why the teachers at the other workshop thought that the training needed to be 5 days long. In the US, a similar training would be scheduled for two days from 8-5 each day because the people involved would feel they were too busy to give up an entire week.

Before wrapping up the meeting, we stumbled into talking about appropriate use of the PCs. Given the limited download at each school, the head teachers are very concerned that the teachers do not use the school resources “for browsing the Internet”. I’m torn on this one. I understand the need to ensure appropriate use, but I also know that some of the most useful things I learn are from “just browsing”. A typical Google search starts from a question that needs to be answered, like the best time to take a safari in East Africa, and ends 30 minutes later with me having learned about the life cycle of the African toad. I was much more in agreement with the statement that “nobody should be doing Facebook in the school”, as I was very irritated to see it up on many PCs while Liz was trying to teach the workshop. But we all know that unless Facebook is blocked on the PCs, there will be teachers—and especially students—using it.

The meeting ended as it began—with a prayer. A fitting end to a meeting for a culture in which God appears to be foremost in people’s minds and in their hearts.

*Per my Pulse training in May, “tip of the iceberg” is not a phrase that would typically be used in Africa for some rather obvious reasons—no icebergs near the equator. (I saw someone carrying a shopping bag with a polar bear on it and wondered what the child carrying it thought of the white bear.) The Pulse trainer told a story about a visit to West Africa where she was teaching a local village about the numerous social cues that can remain hidden when cultures meet. She used the example of an iceberg to describe something where only a very small part of the subject is visible to all (above the surface of the water). But the concept of an “iceberg” was completely foreign to them, leading her to ask, “What’s something where you only see a very small part above the water and know that there’s much more below the surface?” A wizened old man stood up and answered, “Hippo.”

** Ghanaian culture does a reasonable job of balancing top-down mandates with group decisions. In this situation (as with the earlier workshop), Abenaa told the participants the dates for the workshop but allowed them to suggest and agree on the times for each day. I find that people are much less likely to complain if they feel that they have some input into the decisions that impact them. While “empowerment” has only recently become a buzzword here in Ghana and is more likely to apply to women only, this lesson about empowering people to make decisions appropriate to their level is one that would likely improve the operations of all organizations.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Lack of access to the "series of tubes"

Airtel Ghana, the company formerly known as Zain Internet here in Ghana,* sells the majority of their mobile Internet plans as a maximum download for a 30-day period, e.g, 30 cedis for 1GB in a 30-day period or 60 cedis for 4 GB in a 30-day period. When the Zain technician installed the Zain SIM cards in the Ericsson W25 wireless routers in the schools, they were given an initial credit of 4GB for the 30-day period. Those installations proceeded from October 8th through the 15th. Anyone with the ability to do simple math realizes that we’ve now exceeded that 30-day window. In addition to the school’s Zain Internet plans, I purchased my USB modem on October 16. The importance of this information should soon become clear.

This week was supposed to be my chance to start helping the teachers use some of the Internet lesson plans that Liz has found for teaching math, science and ICT. On Monday, I arrived at Bantama Presby to find out that they’ve been out of credit since last week and have not purchased any more. Zain originally promised in the MOU (memorandum of understanding, a fancy term for a non-binding agreement) to “establish a fixed rate, with uncapped usage, for the selected schools”. It seems that the authors of the MOU were not technically adept, because when the technical folks revisited the MOU, they said that this will be pretty much impossible. Instead, we expect that the schools will get their fixed amount of download for a reduced rate still TBD. At the moment, the webpage that pops up for them to recharge their balances looks the same as my personal pricing structure, which means that this discounted structure is not yet in place.

I was well aware of the issues with Bantama Presby likely being out of Internet credits. My grand plan was to use my Vodafone USB modem to get to the Internet for teaching the lessons. It took three tries to find a computer that would allow the modem software to be installed properly. Murphy’s law was in full effect on Monday, because only a few minutes after getting the modem up and running, it stopped working, likely because the 30 days for the Vodafone plan started on Saturday morning, October 17.

I was also planning to use my Zain USB modem while the teacher used the Vodafone one, but it wasn’t until I plugged it into my PC at Bantama that I remembered that I had purchased and registered it on October 16th, meaning that I, too, had used up my 30-day plan credit. The range of plan choices includes a 90-day plan for 12GB of data for 150 cedis. Since that plan both saves money (10 cedi a month) and gives me uninterrupted service for 3 months, I knew I would be headed to the Zain office that afternoon to get the credits. I only wish that I had realized this before arriving at the school.

Getting 150 cedis to pay for the credits involved an extra trip home. As an obruni here in Ghana, the guidebooks recommend that I don’t carry around more cash than I will need for a day and that I leave the ATM card at home except when I plan to use it. Typically, I stop by the ATM once a week and pull out a few hundred cedis to cover me for a week or more. The day’s errands expanded to include having Akmed run me back home for money before returning to the Zain office for me to wait in line and pay for my Internet service. I am so glad to have a reliable, affordable driver like Akmed. His presence is helping me keep my sanity in the craziness of Africa.

Just to add to the fun and excitement, the power was spiking about every 20 minutes since I arrived at the school. It’s not strong enough to knock the computers off but just enough to cause the lights to flicker.

These thoughts remind me of an article I read the other day in the Daily Graphic (Ghana’s number one newspaper) about how important ICT will be to the country’s economy in the coming years. With my US-based experience of having reliable power delivery, I find it hard to understand how ICT can be considered a crucial piece of the economy if the country’s infrastructure is not upgraded to support the work. How can call centers for tech support to major multi-national corporations be set up in Ghana if the Internet connections fail multiple times a day? How can multimedia developers work on international marketing campaigns if they’re on mobile broadband plans that charge for every MB downloaded? How can ICT be a key part of the emerging market economy is power is out weekly on an unpredictable basis? But given how friendly and enterprising many Ghanaians are and how affordable their wages are as compared to the world economy, how can this country not become a more important player on the world ICT stage? Bharti Airtel seems to agree, given this article from less than a month ago.

*Earlier this year, Bharti Airtel completed their acquisition of Zains’ African operations. Zain is a Middle-Eastern corporation, while Bhana Airtel is based in India. Their corporate PR says that they’re very adept at building reliable, affordable networks in emerging markets and have a focus on corporate responsibility in these places. I’ll be very interested to see if/how this change in ownership affects the pricing structure and support that the schools are getting from Zain/Airtel.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Eid-ul-Ahda, or Festival of the Sacrifice

An unexpected holiday—unexpected for me, anyways—occurred yesterday in Ghana: Eid-ul-Adha, or Festival of the Sacrifice. It’s the largest festival day in Islam and is celebrated on the 10th day of the 12th lunar month of the Islamic calendar, which means it shifts from year to year on the conventional calendar, much like Easter. The sacrifice in question is the one that Abraham was willing to make of his son until God told him to use a ram instead, a familiar story to most Christians. The date for the Ghana bank holiday doesn’t seem to have been fixed for the 16th until Friday of last week. I found out about it Monday morning when Akmed, my Muslim driver, said that he couldn’t drive me on Tuesday and no schools would be open “because of holiday”.

We live very close to a Muslim school and could see people gathering in the school field for the festival day prayers. Steffi’s husband, Markus, is a professional photographer and was very interested in seeing the ceremony. Since the power was off at the house and my laptop battery was running low, I decided to join him. I also asked Lisa, our caterer (cook), to go with us and help us ask—in Twi—if we were allowed to be there and to take pictures. I let Markus know that they would probably expect him to wear full-length pants. I chose to wear a skirt and covered my hair with a bandanna.

We entered the school grounds and could see the people praying in the field. We were unsure if we could take pictures, but we had seen someone else with a camera and went to find him and ask. We had Lisa help us ask him and another photographer about it and it seemed that it was okay for us to take pictures. We headed to the field just as the ceremony was breaking up, so we missed getting any pictures of the people praying. But we did get plenty of good shots of the people in their finest clothing visiting with their friends and loved ones. The two photographers offered to introduce us to the heads of the local community, including the imam. One of the two photographers—let’s call him George for simplicity—attached himself to us (for selfish reasons, as I now understand) and took our pictures with all sorts of important people. Having been through the experiences of people wanting loads of pictures with the blonde obruni, I was not at all surprised by this. We were introduced to a local homeopathic doctor and the head of the Ashanti Region Ahmadiyya Muslim Mission and Mualvi, Ashanti Regional Missionary, who invited us to their mission for refreshments after the ceremony.

Maulvi had assigned one of the schoolboys to us to lead us over to the mission after everyone left the schoolyard, but instead, the homeopathic doctor took Lisa, George, and Markus and me in his clinic’s van over to the mission. We met the doctor’s mother and sister during the trip over to the mission. A few minutes after arriving at the mission, the imam also showed up to let us into the visitor’s receiving room. Walking up the stairs, I said to Markus, “Welcome to Kumasi”. Since I’ve gotten here, I’ve been fortunate enough to experience this sort of warm welcome from many people, from the (now former) coach of the Asante Kotoko to the many head teachers and subject teachers at the schools I visit to random taxi drivers.

We had a very pleasant visit with the regional head and Maulvi, where Maulvi showed us video of the visit from the head of the Ahmadiyya mission in Germany—strangely enough to me, a very stereotypically white German man. (Steffi and Markus are German. Maulvi misunderstood and thought I was also German—hence the significant interest in showing us the German visitor.) The regional head told us all about the Ahmadiyya sect, which is very well-described on the official Ahmadiyya website. He and Maulvi both emphasized that this sect of Islam is extremely peace-loving, does not believe in the jihad being practiced against the West by other sects, and is very well-respected by the European community.

Towards the end of our visit, the first photographer we had met—we’ll call him Godwin—came into the room. We then experienced an extreme cultural misunderstanding. Godwin began explaining that George was a professional photographer and that we owed him some money for helping us out that day, as it kept him from taking pictures of the people at the service and selling them the photos. He then said (as I understood later) that the 20 pictures George took were worth 2 cedis each and we therefore owed him 40 cedi.

At the time, though, I hadn’t understood where the figure of 40 cedis came from and couldn’t figure out why I was supposed to pay him 40 cedis for 20 minutes of his time when that’s how much I pay Akmed for an entire day of driving. Godwin chose that moment to ask if we understood and I said, “No, I don’t understand at all” and looked to Maulvi and the regional head for some explanation and guidance. Our hosts took it upon themselves to sort this misunderstanding out for us. The regional head asked George if he had agreed a price with us before he took all those pictures, which of course he had not. After a bit more discussion, Maulvi took the two photographers out of the room. They were not to be seen by us again. I get the impression that he did end up giving them some money.

It turns out that the situation was even more confused than I first realized. Maulvi had seen Godwin at their events before and had bought pictures from him, but they did not know George. They thought that George was with us and that Lisa was with George. I thought George was taking pictures of us for the mission and that they were paying him. I don’t even know what Markus thought. The regional head and Maulvi were very apologetic and said that they did not wish for us to get the wrong idea of Ghanaians. It was clear that the regional head completely understood—and could recognize a decent camera when we saw one—when he said that he didn’t see why George would have thought we were hiring him to take pictures when we obviously had much nicer cameras than George.

Talking to Markus later, I realized that we had both independently come to the same conclusion: it wasn’t the concept of paying George that was the issue, it was the price. I think that his help in introducing us to the imam was worth something and had come to the sum of 5 cedis—about the time that Godwin was mentioning 40 cedis. Had Godwin and George suggested 5 cedis or maybe even 10 cedis, that whole conversation would have gone differently.

As we left the mission, Maulvi asked us if wished to see the mosque on our way home. We eagerly accepted the offer and a very nice young man took us on a tour. I was very interested in seeing the inside of the mosque. As I would have expected, the men’s and women’s ablution rooms and prayer sections are completely separate. What I did not realize is that men pray on the first floor where the imam is, while the women are up on the second floor. We then went up to the third floor meeting room—and followed it up with a trip up one of the two mosque towers.

Standing on the mosque tower, with a rickety railing as the only thing between me and death—or at least significant dismemberment—was a nerve-wracking and breathtaking experience. I got some of the shots of Kumasi that I’ve been dying for since I got here, pictures that allow the viewer to get a sense of how the tiny shacks and colorful buildings and nice houses are all mixed up together in a neighborhood. We were high enough up to be on level with the top of the stadium and to see the top of the Golden Tulip hotel rising above the trees. After the hair-raising experience of climbing the tower, we finished our tour with a view of the mission schools, kindly thanked our tour hosts, and walked home. They had invited us back to see the prayer sessions any Friday we wish. Markus might take them up on it this Friday, but I will be visiting one of the schools that day.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Tourist trips: Manhyia Palace and the National Culture Centre

Yesterday we spent a leisurely day touring some of key tourist stops of Kumasi. We headed off around lunchtime after spending all morning watching reruns of “Friends” from the season when Monica and Chandler got married. (I think that may the only Western TV I’ve watched since I’ve landed in Ghana.) Our first stop was the Manhyia Palace, home of the Ashanti King, also referred to as the Asantehene. For whatever reason, it’s one of the many cultural stops that does not allow photography on the grounds.

We arrived at the Museum, paid our 7 cedis (tourist pricing—locals pay 2 cedis), and were added to a tour already in progress. In Ghana, the majority of tourist and cultural sites require a guide to see them. At many of the sites, the guidebooks say that the guides don’t do much to earn their pay, but this guide was very knowledgeable and friendly. The group we joined had a German couple, 3 Indians, and one possible local who appeared to be there with the Indians. I found the inside of the museum to be an utterly fascinating look into the lives of the Ashanti kings. Among the many cultural artifacts were a 1965 Sanyo TV given to the 14th Ashanti king, Osei Tutu Agyeman Prempeh II, by Sanyo; a 60-year-old refrigerator that still works; multiple thrones and stools; and ceremonial swords and guns.

Ceremonial stools play a key part in the history of the Ashanti. The Asante Nation began when a powerful chief of the Kumase state united the chiefs of the Asante states and had them swear allegiance to the nation and the Golden Stool, which he told them contained the soul of the Asante nation (check out the Manhyia palace website for the whole story). In addition to these historical pieces, there were extremely lifelike representations of the last three kings and their queen mothers—lifelike enough that I expected them to get up. The Ashtanti people are a matrilineal society, with kings chosen by the queen mother. One of the most celebrated queen mothers was Queen Mother Yaa Asantewaa, who led the kingd
om in a war against the colonizing British in 1900. For that act, she and the king were exiled to the Seychelles, where she later died. If you want to learn more about the kingdom, there’s a good, concise write-up on the history of the Ashanti Kingdom on Wikipedia (the go-to source for almost any information these days). After the tour, we saw a 12-minute documentary on the Ashanti kingdom. Then we were herded into the gift shop full of overpriced souvenirs, which we declined to purchase.

Every six weeks, there is an Adae Festival at the palace to celebrate the ongoing allegiance of the Asante nation to the king. The exact Sunday for the festival is based on the Akan calendar, with a 42-day “month” and nine months in a year. The next one is November 28th and supposedly photography is allowed on festival days, which is backed up by blog posts from someone who attended the March 21st festival this year and another who attended in August last year. Maybe I can get some pictures of the palace then. Until then, I’ll have to be content with some pictures of the outside of the palace, like the one here of a porcupine, known in Twi as kotoko. [Editor’s note: For those of you following this blog regularly, you might recognize Asante Kotoko as the local soccer team, discussed in my post about the Kumasi versus Accra game. The motto of the Asante Kotoko is “Kum apem a, apem beba” or “[you] kill a thousand, another thousand will come.” Another blogger gives a possible back-story for the motto in this post.] The majority of the other symbols on the palace are Adinkra, used to represent various ideas or thoughts. To learn what the various symbols mean, you can check out try this link with the surprisingly obvious name.

We ended up getting a less-than-knowledgeable cab driver to take us over to the National Cultural Center.—Side story: I am reasonably well-known for my lack of direction and utter reliance on my Garmin GPS back in the US. Kumasi is not particularly well set up for GPS or maps, given the lack of streetnames, and many of the cab drivers are surprisingly lacking in knowledge about key stops in the city. Therefore, I’ve had to take an active interest in the geography of Kumasi. Between Dorella and I, we were able to recognize key landmarks, like the Mother and Child Hospital (from her work) and the Kumasi Zoo (which I saw on the way to Bantama Presby school) that allowed us to help guide the cab driver to the right place.—Dorella and Steffi had been there a few weeks earlier and had really enjoyed it. Given the hot day (as they all are), we started the visit with a cold drink at the center’s bar—that serves beer and liquor, which seemed a little odd for a cultural stop.

One of the key atractions of the Cultural Center is the workshops and studios of Ghanaians practicing traditional crafts, from woodworking to painting to weaving. We saw men carving traditional African drums from tree trunks and another man showed us cloth weaving on traditional looms. The prices for the finished products are very reasonable and there’s much less hassle than in the typical tourist stops around Kumasi. While I didn’t buy anything today, I found many ways that I will contribute to the local economy before I return to the States.

In our wanderings around the grounds of the center, we saw a wedding that had just ended. Nela and I joined the crowd of photographers with our digital Canons. Unlike Marfo, who is still using film, these wedding photographers were using digital cameras. One of the guys wielding a Nikon equivalent of a Canon Digital Rebel complimented me the on the very professional 7D I was carrying. Dorella and Nela even managed to get into a picture with the bride and groom.

In case anyone notices Steffi’s absence from this post, she was in Accra until tonight. Her husband, Marcus, flew in on Thursday to spend two months here in Ghana with her. Steffi and I switched rooms to give the two of them the master suite in the house. But I can’t complain. I ended up in a room with more closet space that’s right across from the shared bathroom.

Friday, November 12, 2010

"I believe the children are our future..."

During the past couple weeks, I’ve visited all fifteen schools to check back in with the teachers after the workshop. I wanted to find out what information they’ve retained from the workshop and see if there are any outstanding issues—technical, logistical, or otherwise—that are preventing them from practicing and using the skills they learned. Thursday, October 28th, was supposed to be a day like any other, with a visit to Akosa JHS (Junior High School) in the morning and South Suntreso in the afternoon. But when I got to Akosa, I found out that they were having a dedication ceremony for their new kindergarten, which the head master of the junior high invited me to attend. The official title on the program was the “Akosa M/A Primary and KG Commission of Maame Abena Tabuah M/A KG”. Kindergarten (or KG) here in Ghana covers two grade levels, with kids starting at 4 years old. Two DJs from the local radio station were emceeing the event. Chris Rock’s younger brother —or his doppelganger—was the DJ out in front of the crowd, while the other guy manned the sound system.

As with any public event I’ve seen here in Ghana, there was a great deal of singing and dancing and preaching in a mix of Twi and English. The singing and dancing came from various groups of kids, some as young as the kindergarteners (KGs) for whom the school was built, on up through junior and senior high school. There was a set of three young boys who seemed to be channeling early 80s’ Michael Jackson in their dance moves. Many parts of the ceremony were like the school plays that parents are forced to attend on behalf of their children. Six KGs gave their presentation on the meaning of the word Akosa: A for Ability, K for Knowledge, O for Obedience, S for Submission, and A for Attitude. A bit different from what words might be used in the US. I found it both heart-warming and hilarious to watch the “Poetry” bit, in which more of the KGs recited short poems in the way only a 5-year-old can—in a complete monotone as loud as they could say it. Since I’m sure I can’t do justice to any of this in words, I’ve posted a few short video clips here.

The preaching came from Pastor James Boakye (pronounced “Bo-ah-chee”), who was there to encourage people to donate money to the new KG. He start off talking about “1 million Ghana cedis” and I was stunned to see anyone putting in money in those terms. As he kept going, I realized that he was using the old monetary units, rather than the New Ghana Cedi. [Side note: In 2007, Ghana lopped four zeros off the end of the Cedi to come up with the New Cedi. Many people still talk in the old units, which gave me a fright one day when I thought I would be paying 35 Cedi/yard to pay for linen to get a traditional dress made.] When the preacher got to “100,000 Cedi”, I asked the gentlemen next to me if the 2 5-Cedi notes I showed him was the appropriate amount. When he said it was, I got up out of my seat and joined the few people in the center of the crowd to donate my money. The gentlemen next to me ended up coming up at the same time.

Towards the end of the ceremony, the ribbon was cut and we were allowed to tour the new building. There was still more dancing to happen and the food hadn’t even been served, but I was late to visit my next school. Unfortunately, when I got there, the power was out and didn’t come back during the hour that I spent waiting for it. I’m afraid that I may have learned the wrong lesson for today—in the future, I may decide not to bail out on a fun event just because of another appointment.  Celebrations are such an important part of life that I should stay for the fun, as I’m sure that's what most of the local people would have done. When in Rome, right?

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

"There's a lot that I'd never do..."

I jumped out of a perfectly good airplane.*

Most of my loyal readers know that jumping out of perfectly good airplanes is how my husband spends his weekends—and some weekdays, and vacations, and pretty much any free time he can get. My views of skydiving have been stuck somewhere between confusion (“why would anyone do it?”) and terror (“that’s crazy!”). But a few years ago, somewhere in the back of my head, I had lodged the thought that skydiving was probably on my bucket list.** As much as I love the folks at LJ’s dropzone, I knew that any skydive I did would likely be both my first and my last, so I wanted to save it for a special place. And the thought of seeing Dubai from 10,000 feet seemed pretty special to me.

I knew LJ was bringing his rig to Dubai so that he could get in a few skydives. On Friday, he said something about maybe getting me up there in a plane, to which I responded that it was a possibility. After I did my jump, he told me that he was utterly shocked that I sounded half-serious and decided not to say anything else about it, lest he say anything that might make me change my mind.

After a leisurely lunch of Lebanese fast food, LJ gathered up his skydiving gear and we caught a cab to the drop zone Saturday afternoon. He filled out his paperwork and got himself set up on load 7 of the day on their Twin Otter. Sitting there in the packing area building (the big, empty building where skydivers hang out between jumps and repack their parachutes), waiting for his jump, I decided that I did want to go skydiving in Dubai. I filled out the paperwork and was asked for my 1700 Dirham in cash. Since we didn’t have that much money on us, I caught a cab to an HSBC ATM to draw out the money.

As has happened in Ghana, I ran into a problem with the daily/individual transaction limit at a foreign ATM. My first request for 2500 Dirham was flat rejected with “Unknown error code”. I followed that aborted attempt with a successful withdrawal of 1000 Dirham and another rejection of 1000 Dirham. Luckily this ATM was in the lobby of the bank, which was open, but I was still a bit freaked out with trying to draw out reasonably large sums of money with people in the lobby. My next withdrawal of 1000 Dirham from another account was successful, after which I ran back to the waiting cab. When it was all said and done, the wave of panic that washed over me sitting in the cab after the ATM troubles was the most fear and anxiety I felt about the skydive at any point that day.

I walked back into the packing building and handed Jennifer my 1700 Dirham. That’s when LJ realized that I was serious about jumping. He went off and did his skydive while I sat talking to a British couple who were both doing their first jumps. As with many people I meet, they couldn’t believe that LJ and I had been together so long without me making a single skydive.

The lady at Manifest (the desk that sets up all the jumps) punched my ticket and set me up on load 10 of the day, meaning I still had some time to go. I met my tandem instructor, Ellis, and my cameraman, Timmy. Ellis was cool enough to agree to let LJ jump with us. I’m sure the 2000 jumps that LJ has couldn’t have hurt.

Manifest called for our load and we hopped on the truck to go out to the waiting plane. The engines on the plane were running, washing us with waves of hot air as we loaded into the plane. Since we were doing the most complicated jump (tandem, cameraman, and LJ) we were near the back of the plane by the door. We put our seatbelts on for takeoff and the plane taxied down the runway. A few hundred feet up, Ellis said I could unbuckle the seatbelt. That’s when Timmy opened the door to let in some air—and I scrabbled for a handhold that wasn’t there. I take back my earlier comment about my fear—I may have been as freaked out at that moment as I was when leaving the ATM. After a couple thousand feet, Timmy closed the door again.

The plane climbed to altitude with some amazing views of The Palm, the manmade islands in the shape of a palm tree on the Dubai coastline. Timmy cracked some jokes to keep the mood light. Each tandem pair started to get ready for the jump, which involves sitting on the tandem instructor’s lap while he hooks you to his rig. Timmy opened the door again. My first reaction, upon seeing that the ground still seemed awfully close, was to look at LJ and shout, “You’re full of sh**! That’s still really…. I mean….” I stammered. [Editor’s note: I said the four-letter word. There’s video that proves it.] LJ said that we still had a few thousand feet to go—we were only at 10,000 feet—but Ellis told him that we didn’t and that we should start to get ready. Normally, the tandems go to 13,000 feet, but the dropzone was trying to squeeze in a couple more loads that day, so they cut the freefall short by about 15-20 seconds for each pair.

LJ climbed out on the side of the plane, Timmy jumped, Ellis gave the signal for LJ to jump, and then we followed. That part happened so fast that I had no chance to be scared. Both Timmy and LJ got video of the freefall part of the jump. Timmy also got still photos of the freefall and the landing. I’ll post more of them later.

During the time under canopy, I was amazed at how quiet it was. I was also amazed at how queasy my stomach was. Ellis let me steer the canopy a bit, but I was much happier with him steering, even if I felt a bit nauseous. We floated gently down to the dropzone, where we made a really good tandem landing—my knees up and out of the way until Ellis told me to stand up. Considering how weak my legs felt, standing up may have been the most difficult part of the whole experience.

Most people, upon landing from their first skydive, cheer like their team has won the World Cup or March Madness. I, on the hand, seemed almost catatonic. The combination of my slightly queasy stomach and my amazement that I actually went skydiving kept me from appearing more outwardly joyous. LJ told me later that Timmy asked if I was okay. Even now, the whole experience seems rather surreal. But I’m really glad that I did it someplace as stunningly beautiful from the air as Dubai.

*Any skydiver reading this blog will have a knee-jerk reaction that results in saying, “There’s no such thing as a perfectly good airplane.” For the purpose of this story, a “perfectly good airplane” is “an airplane that is going to land safely”.

**Especially for any non-American readers out there or anyone who ignore popular movies, a bucket list is a list of things you need to do before you die, or “kick the bucket”, a euphemism for dying.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

"I've always relied on the kindness of strangers..."

Today I leave for a long weekend in Dubai to meet up with my wonderful husband, LJ, who is headed there for work. My flight to Dubai doesn’t leave until 6:45 pm tonight, but given the notoriously unreliable service of the local airlines, I booked the 8 am CityLink flight to Accra, which left me with the 1:30pm flight or a 5-hour bus ride as back-up plans.

CityLink flies small airplanes but the one I was on this morning was smaller than either of their normal planes. This plane had only 14 passenger seats on it, 7 on each side, with very little storage space at the feet and no overhead bins. On a normal flight, my 40-L backpack stuffed to the gills barely fits under the seat and most definitely did not fit here, so I just shoved it under my feet without any fuss from the two-man crew. Food and drink service—bottled water, a juice box and a muffin—was pre-dispensed onto the seats in plastic bags, oddly enough with a picture of Snoopy on them. The safety briefing consisted of the Australian South African co-pilot poking his head out of the cockpit to tell us it would be a 40-minute flight and to point out the exits.

As a Westerner, I left the house at 6 am to head to the airport for my supposedly 6:30 check-in time.  Our caretaker, Kofi, was kind enough to walk me to the main street, carrying my suitcase on his head in the African way.  In the taxi to the airport, I saw Kumasi awaking from slumber all around me. The sun was a few inches above the horizon, casting an orange glow over the early morning mix of fog and haze. Children in school uniforms were walking along the streets. Ladies at their roadside stands were starting up their fires to prepare roasted plantains and groundnuts (peanuts). Life in Kumasi is much more aligned to the natural rhythms of daylight than in the US.

My 15-minute cab ride encompassed some of the more common stereotypes of interactions between an obruni in Ghana and a Ghanaian. My taxi driver, Yaw (pronounced “Yow”), informed me in his broken English that we were “best friends” and wanted my mobile number so I could call him when I got back from Dubai. I convinced him that I didn’t have my mobile phone on me (not true) and didn’t know my number (true). Instead he wrote his number down for me. Then he proceeded to tell me about attending his Presbyterian church every Sunday and how he lives by God’s word.

Yaw got me to the Kumasi airport this morning at 6:25 am. [Side note: When I say the word “airport”, I’m referring to something closer to the larger airstrips that Mark frequents. (Editor’s note: Mark is a college friend in Raleigh who owns his own plane.) I’m reasonably certain this is the smallest airport where I’ve landed on a commercial flight. The airstrip off Cairns in Australia was smaller, but that flight was chartered by Mike Ball Dive Expeditions.] When I walked into the airport, the lights in the 30-seat waiting room were still off. I was not the first passenger, though—that honor was reserved for two older obruni gentlemen who had arrived at 6. At 6:30, the lights came on and the airport came alive. In the restroom—one of the clean, well-stocked facilities in Kumasi, something important to remember in Kumasi—I saw some of the airline staff changing into their work clothes. Considering I was in there trying to clean the dirt off my pink shirt from the seatbelt in the cab, I understood why they would change into their gleaming white uniforms at work.

Waiting for the plane to arrive, I ended up talking to the two gentlemen, Doug and Ted, as well as a third obruni gentlemen of similar age. All three of them work in the mining business, with Doug and Ted hailing from the UK and the third gentlemen, whose name I didn’t’ get, coming from Australia. I had a very nice chat with him about my time in Newcastle, Australia, and some of the places I had been in Oz. He is spending a year in Ghana working for a gold mining company about an hour north of Kumasi.

I found out that Doug and Ted were on the same flight as me to Dubai, with Ted then headed to London and Doug to South Africa. After arriving in the terminal in Accra, I asked them for suggestions of what to do all day. They offered to drop me off at the Golden Tulip Hotel to pass the time while they visited the offices of various mining companies (PW Group was their first stop). It turns out that even before I asked, they were planning to offer me a ride to the hotel and back to the airport so that I wouldn’t have to spend the day in the Accra airport. Considering my best idea to that point was getting a dropping taxi to the Accra Mall, I took them up on the offer. I wasn’t sure what to do with my luggage, so they offered to keep it locked in the fancy 4WD vehicle of Samuel, their driver for the day.

Safely lodged here in the lobby of the Golden Tulip, I had my first latte in a month and am enjoying the relatively quiet and cool surroundings of this obviously Western-friendly hotel. Doug mentioned that he occasionally pops into the pool area to catch a quick shower before getting on a plane. Considering that we’re going of day 3 of no running water at the house in Kumasi, I may check that out later today.