Monday, February 28, 2011

Grand opening event

We’ve been watching with anticipation the building of a new grocery store called Ababio Express just north of the stadium.  It’s situated in a brand-new building full of various small stores next to one of the Ecobank locations, or as written on their shopping bag, “New Amakom, City Style Building, near Baba Yara Sports Stadium”.   [Editor’s note: New Amakom is the road name, but describing something as near the stadium is more helpful to the average Ghanaian.]  Over the past couple months the building has taken on the attributes one would expect of a Western-style grocery store: plate glass windows, long fluorescent lights, shelving and refrigerated cabinets.  Saturday night, Nela needed to make a trip to the ATM at Ecobank, which took us right past the store.  For the first time, there were lights on and people moving about in the store.  The arch of balloons above the door made Nela realize that they must have opened yesterday.  Looking through the window, we saw a young man take a picture of himself with the shelves in the background, which confirmed our thoughts on the newness of the store.  The entrance said closed, but there were people going in through the exit, so we made our way inside.

After walking in the out door, we were quickly greeted by a store associate who asked if we would like to see the store.  This young woman then proceeded to take us on our first-ever guided tour of a grocery store.  We started in the snack and breakfast aisles, followed by the imported cooking oils, such as Italian olive oil.  Nela tried to find some Spanish olive oil but had no luck.  The cheese case had a decent variety of imported cheeses, including a concrete-block-sized brick of mozzarella cheese. 

But the first floor was only the beginning.  She led us into the lower story of the building where there was a very well-stocked wine and alcohol section.  I was impressed by the volume and variety of wines, although my rum-drinking friends at home would be sad to know that Captain Morgan’s Black Jamaica Rum was the only rum I saw.  It’s the largest collection of wines and hard liquor I’ve seen outside of the high-end, Western-friendly Koala supermarket in Accra.  There was also a wide range of personal care products, with familiar brands like Dove making a strong showing.

"Don't forget to drink your Ovaltine"
Upon finishing our tour, we told the young woman that we wanted to look around a bit more.  She graciously said her good-bye and probably went to find someone else to show around.  Nela and Liz and I looked at each other and laughed at the sheer craziness of going on a guided tour through a supermarket.  I thought about asking the woman if I could take her picture, but that seemed a bit too touristy even for me.  The woman obviously lived the Ababio Express mission statement, which includes lines such as “We believe in showing respect to all who walk into our market” and “We guarantee the most exciting shopping experience”.  A guided tour is definitely more exciting than my average grocery shopping experience.

Local brands, like the sugar
On our way back through the upstairs section, I saw a canister of Ovaltine, just like Little Orphan Annie was hawking in “A Christmas Story”.  Unfortunately, they didn’t have any bread, the main thing that Nela needed, but they did have juice boxes of Ribena, one of my favorite juices (made from blackcurrants and typically not available in the US).  They also had proof that this a country that was a former British colony, given that the name for the sugar shown in this picture would probably not sell all that well anyplace that the Americans colonized or visited first.  Even though this was a fancy new supermarket, they still sell eggs by the flat, like they do at all the little shops outside.

Eggs in large quantities
We took our items to the register to check out.  They had a fancy new bar-code scanner and computer system like in the Melcom, the store that is Ghana’s answer to Wal-mart, but since the store was so new, most of the items were not in the system.  Various associates had to run around the store to check on the prices.  Nela had wanted to buy a packet of cookies but they had no price on the shelf where they were.  She decided not to buy the cookies, at which point the check-out girl tried to interest her in the other cookies on the shelf that did have prices on them.  Given the check-out girl’s persistence in trying to convince Nela that she wanted a different pack of cookies, the girl definitely has a career ahead of her in used car sales or a major evangelical megachurch if she is so inclined. 

Opening-day issues also included a lack of correct change.  The two checkout girls had to ask a number of customers to change bills for them, including asking me to give them two 1-cedi bills for a 2-cedi bill.  I also ended up paying 10 pesewas less than I should have since they didn’t have any small coins.  We were warmly bid goodbye and headed on our way home.  Since the store is only a ten-minute walk from home, I’m sure that I will become a regular customer in the two short months I have left in Ghana. 

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Friends, Ghanaians, countrymen…

In early December, one of the ladies at the hospitals where Steffi and Dorella worked in Kumasi gave them an invitation that read “Farewell service for Rev. & Mrs. Ansah*”.  The card had pictures of the Reverend and missus on it, with a quote from 2 Timothy 4:7-8 7, the Bible quote that starts with “I have fought the good fight ….”  The event was being held at a Baptist church that was described as being on “Church premises behind the Anomangye Market” in Kumasi.  As strange (and insensitive) as this might sound to my readers back home, we were looking forward to attending our first funeral in Ghana.  Funerals are a big deal here, making it a key cultural event that we wanted to experience.     

On the Saturday in question, Steffi, Markus and I dressed in our finest black clothing and headed out the front gate to find a taxi.  We showed a taxi driver the invitation and he told us he knew were where it was.  After agreeing on 5 cedis for the price, we were off.  The journey to the church took us far from any part of Kumasi we had visited before.  After Markus spotted a sign for the church, the taxi driver asked a local about it and found a rutted dirt road up to a hilltop overlooking Kumasi.  The journey seemed to be much further than the 5-cedi price would imply, but we paid him the agreed amount and climbed out.

Behind the church was an open field.  Three large tents of the sort that are used for outdoor weddings were arrayed along three sides of a rectangle, with the fourth side being taken up by the band to the left and a stage to the right.  As we walked up, the lady that had invited Steffi and Dorella, Mary*, came up to us and gave us a hearty welcome.  She quickly handed us off to a beautiful young woman named Cynthia*, who led us to seats in the front row of one of the tents, a great position for watching the proceedings. The very beautifully done program, announcing that we were at a “send-off service” for the Reverend and his wife, indicated that the time for the event was “10:00 prompt”.  The sign on the tent across from us read “9:00”.  Thus one of the key mysteries of life in Ghana was solved: Ghana Mean Time is one hour behind the clock time. 

Or maybe not.  Even though it was past 10 o’clock, people were still showing up.  Looking at the people coming in, I was a little surprised that very few of them were wearing the traditional African-style black or black-and-red dresses or funeral cloths that we saw people wearing every Saturday at the tro-tro stops.

Markus being the professional photographer, I nominated him to ask about taking pictures.  He decided that Cynthia would be a good person to ask.
“Would it be okay for us to take pictures?” 
“Of course.”
“Okay.  Just let me know if there’s a problem.”
And with that, to our surprise, we were given free rein to take any pictures we wanted.

The festivities started as all events here seem to start: with a prayer—rather fitting in this case since we were at the church.  Then the dancing and singing began.  The choir strutted and shimmied around the square as they sang in honor of the couple.  Markus was off taking pictures of the band.  I became bold enough to leave my seat and stand to the side of the tent to take pictures of the choir as they sang and danced.  Who knew that there would be that much cavorting and merry-making at a funeral?
Any organized event in Ghana tends to have many parts listed in the program.  In this case, there were 20 items, starting with a processional hymn and ending with… I’ll give you three guesses but the first two don’t count.  (Kudos to all those who guessed “a closing prayer”.)

During one of the parts where a pastor was rambling on in Twi about the man we were there to honor, I was staring at the program and decided that the picture of the reverend on it bore a striking resemblance to the man who had been dancing around the square with Mary.  Maybe it was his brother?  Then I looked more closely at the woman on the program.  The hair was different—as it often is on the Ghanaian women, who change their hairstyles drastically every few weeks—but I became convinced that this was the same woman, Mary, who had greeted us at the start.

I thought a bit more about the situation.  No one wearing traditional funeral clothes…a ceremony honoring two people, at least one of whom seemed to be alive and well… the ebullient nature of the event.  Then it dawned on me.

I leaned over to my right and whispered to Steffi.
 “Steffi, I don’t think this is a funeral.  I think this is a retirement ceremony.”
“Yes.  I realized that Mary is on the front of the program.  And that must be her husband.”
We looked at each other and I started laughing quietly.  Eh, Ghana.

We made sure to share our epiphany with Markus, who had also come to much the same conclusion.  After that, I was much okay with taking pictures of anything and everything.  I also felt more comfortable wandering off to look at the views of the city instead of staying glued to the ceremony in a language that I barely understand.

I have yet to attend a ceremony that lasted less than three hours, and this was no exception.  Snack bags had just been handed out around 1:30, which usually means an event is coming to an end.  Steffi needed to get home to get some work done, so around 1:40 when Mary came over, we let her know that we needed to leave.  The wheels were set in motion for the quickest exit I’ve ever seen.  She hurried us over to a building where we were handed two more snack bags and put into a taxi that would take us up to the main road to catch another taxi home.  We were out of there before we even knew what was happening.

This story encapsulates much of my experience in Ghana.  In a nutshell, I show up some place expecting one thing to happen only to find out that my expectations are completely wrong.  The silver lining is that most of the time, it’s the as positive as this experience: showing up to mourn at a funeral quickly becomes celebrating someone’s retirement.

*Names changed to protect the obibinis (since obruni means “white man” I’m sure you can figure this one out)

Saturday, February 19, 2011

“Out of the mouth of babes…”

…and teenagers.  One of my (many) side projects here in Ghana is supporting a new partnership for a set of four senior high schools, two in Kumasi and two in Washington, DC, schools.  This partnership is intended to culminate in two videoconferences, one in March and one in May, on the general topic of migration.  MCI and the United Nations Association for the National Capital Area (UNA NCA), which runs the Model UN conferences in DC, are working together on this project.  [Editor’s note: what a blast from the past.  Back during my high school years, I participated in Model UN multiple times.  My favorite year had to be the one that we were France—not because I like the French in particular but because you make an awful lot of friends at a Model UN confernce as a permanent member of the Security Council.]

The topic of migration is of interest both to MCI, in terms of migration within a country from the villages to the major cities, and to the UNA NCA, in terms of migration between countries.  My primary role in this project has been to get the two Kumasi schools up to speed on the project and to help surmount the numerous technical challenges, from unreliable Internet access to a lack of experience with using Skype.  We are fortunate that Skype just released the ability to do group video calls and are crossing our fingers that it will let us have a 4-way discussion with all the schools involved. 

Upon visiting one of the schools, the teacher on the project asked me to talk to the five girls who are working on the project.  This teacher is not biased against boys—this senior high school happens to be an all-girls school.  I had no idea what to say to them and, quite frankly, was a bit scared about talking to a group of Ghanaian teenagers.  But he mainly wanted me to answer any questions they might have had about the program, so I was willing to give it a go.

Sitting to one side of the computer lab, the five girls and I started discussing the program.  I explained that I was in Ghana for six months as a volunteer to MCI from GlaxoSmithKline, my company, which is paying for my stay here.  They relentlessly grilled me with tough questions, like “What is the focus and end goal of this project?”  I felt a bit helpless, given that I still didn’t fully know why they were in this program.  In reviewing some email threads, I ran across the verbiage that it is intended to help “students and teachers focus on issues of global concern”.  I don’t think that that explanation fully satisfied them, and we wandered to other, more personal topics of discussion.

They were very interested in finding out what I thought of Africa before I came to Ghana.  In formulating my response, I felt a bit embarrassed because I wasn’t sure how they would take it. In my pre-reading for this assignment, I’ve developed a healthy guilt about how we in the developed world have treated the African continent primarily as a source of natural resources and now tend to assuage that guilt by dumping boatloads of money on them.  “I had the opportunity to visit South Africa a few years ago and I saw the kilometers of shantytowns outside Cape Town…”
“And you wanted to come help us?”
“ Well, yes.”
 But I went on to explain that even before I arrived here, I had begun to learn how different Ghana is from much of Africa through conversations with my Ghanaian co-worker.  I told them stories about how proud the Ghanaian diaspora is of their country, from the Ghanaian man flying back here through the RDU airport who was thrilled to hear LJ tell him I was living here to the Ghanaian cab driver in New Zealand whose face lit up like Christmas when he heard me talking about his country to my sister.

I think they were somewhat satisfied with my views of Africa, but they expressed their displeasure about the views of other foreigners, an issue I can understand from personal experience.  When I started telling people I was moving here, I can’t even begin to count the number of people who asked questions like “Is it safe there?” or “Is that one of the countries with all the wars?”  I explained to the girls that many people in the US think African countries much like US states, instead of recognizing the much larger differences between these disparate countries.  These views get very little help in changing, in large part due to media’s unceasing focus on Disaster TV to gather ratings.

One of the girls told me what someone in the US told her that they think about Africa. 
“They think we live in trees!”
I was completely stunned by this statement but I recovered my wits quickly enough to try to use it as a teaching moment. 
“That’s it!  That’s the goal of this program.  By participating in this partnership, at least two more schools in the US will have students who will know that you don’t live in trees.”

That would have been the end of the story and the end of this post had it not been for another conversation that I had today.  One of the JHS schools is actively involved in partnerships with the UK, in which some British students have had the opportunity to come to Ghana to learn about life here.  In telling a story about one British youth who had visited, this head teacher said, “He thought we lived in trees.”

I couldn’t believe that I had heard that twice in one week.  Never in my wildest thoughts had I entertained the notion that Africans live in trees and I told him that.  I suffered from my own misconceptions in thinking that many more people live in tiny shacks than actually do, which somehow that seems less ridiculous to me.  But perhaps it’s no less troublesome to an African to hear, as it still demonstrates a lack of knowledge on my part. 

So there you have it.  Today’s lesson is that Africans don’t live in trees.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Trouble in paradise

Today my idyllic view of friendly Ghana took a bit of a beating.  This morning, I arrived at one of the schools to find that they had no power, a not unexpected occurrence here (and not the reason for the shattering of my illusions).  The ICT teacher told me that he heard on the radio that the power would be off in his area of Kumasi from 9-5 today for repairs to the power infrastructure.  This conscientious teacher had tried to call me this morning, but my phone was acting up and I didn’t receive his call.  At first, I had the same irritation as in December, when power at the site for the head teachers’ training was cut off on short notice.  But I found out later that this power outage had been announced as early as Sunday, which eased my irritation.  It’s not the Ghana power company’s fault that I don’t listen to the right local radio station, whichever one that is.

I waited at this school until 11 to see if the repairs might end early, but the lights never came on, so I rescheduled for Friday.  Akmed and I headed across town to my next school for the day.  I had the forethought to call the ICT teacher there and confirm that the power was on, so I was ready for a productive teaching session.  Unfortunately, electricity would end up being the least of my issues there.

I arrived at the school to find a huge meeting going on in the computer lab.  The ICT teacher met me outside the room with the head teacher and told me that the brand-new, flat-panel monitors that they had been given for the program had been stolen.  I felt like I had been punched in the gut.  Everything that I thought I knew about Ghana felt like it had been turned upside down.  I was in shock, but probably not as much shock as they had been when they discovered the theft.  Since their computer room was almost ready and none of the remaining work required moving of furniture, I asked them to put their computers together for us to use them, which is when they discovered the theft.  These computers had been stored in boxes in the head teacher’s office since the last time we used them in December, meaning that the monitors could have been stolen anytime in the last two months.

As soon as the theft was discovered, the school notified the sub-metro schools officer and the police.  The ICT teacher had not told me over the phone because she felt it would be easier to break the news in person, a gesture that I greatly appreciated.  They also handed the formal letter they had prepared to notify us of the theft.  The Ghanaian gift for brevity in writing made the letter even sadder—only five sentences were needed to share this tragic news.

What truly saddens me is that this school had spent so much of their limited resources on preparing this room for the computers.  This school had been struggling to get their computer lab ready for almost a year now and only had to make a couple small additions (like ceiling fans) for the room to be complete.  I was ready to rejoice with them upon the upcoming completion of the room, but instead I am sharing the pain of their loss.  Given that the schools in Ghana are limited in their resources, I can’t believe that someone would steal from them.  While previously I intellectually understood the need for securing the doors and windows with bars, this incident was a cold reminder of why the schools were required to do that to receive the computers.

Even as I write this, I hesitate to post this for fear it will just feed the misperceptions of Africa in general and Ghana in particular in other parts of the world.  But I am still sharing it because I want to make it clear how unexpected this event was.  In the time I have been here, I can’t think of a single instance that made me think a crime like this would occur here.  I have walked alone at night in my neighborhood without fear of being mugged.  Thanks to the presence of our caretaker, I often don’t bother to lock the door to my room or the house when I leave.  Akmed will leave items in plain sight in a locked car with no fear of them being stolen—while back home, my car window was smashed in a parking lot to steal my stuff.  Crime happens everywhere in the world, but I really thought that it wouldn’t happen here.

I was stunned that, even with this meeting underway about the theft, the ICT teacher seemed ready for me to try to teach them something today.  Maybe they could have soldiered on through this situation, but I couldn’t.  I told them that I thought they needed to take some time to continue to sort things out and that I would return on Friday.  They were already trying to figure out a way to go on, with the head teacher offering to bring in an old monitor to connect to one of the computers.  (It’s highly unlikely that they will be able to replace those new monitors with anything even half as nice.)  I had to leave at that point before I broke down in tears.  My eyes are leaking even now as I type this.  I am humbled by the fortitude these teachers are showing in the face of such problems and am honored to be working with them.