Monday, April 18, 2011

Driving Miss Michelle

With my time here growing short, I thought I’d devote a post to the nicest man in Ghana, which is saying a lot in a country full of helpful, friendly people.  If you’re a regular reader, by now you should realize that I’m referring to Akmed, my friendly, reliable driver.   Given that I’ve been in the car for a few hours a day three to five days a week since October, I’ve spent significantly more time with him than anyone else in Ghana.  He’s been a driver and tour guide and source of information on Ghanaian life all rolled into one.  Plus I really like not having to drive and being able to take in the sights around me.  I’m not sure that I’m ready to start driving myself again back in the US.

-Timing is everything: Akmed’s primary employer is my manager, but since she has her own car, most of the driving that she needs him to do is to run errands that take only a few hours, with the occasional day of driving for someone from out of town.  Since she’ll be here long after I leave, he rightfully needs to put her first.  But he bends over backwards to try to accommodate both of us.  In a typical example, a couple months ago Akmed called me one evening and asked if he could drop me off at my first school early (7 instead of 8) because “Auntie need to go to airport”.  [From what I understand, Auntie is a term of affection for a venerable woman that is widely used even when people are not actually related.]  Given how helpful he is, I’m happy to leave the house early if it means that he can work for both of us in a given day.  [Besides, I’m not really able to sleep in here in Ghana.  The heat and stresses of living in foreign country, no matter how friendly, combine to exhaust me enough that, without roommates to give me a reason to stay awake, I’m in bed by 9 or 10 each night.  Then, between curtains that are too thin and the rooster that starts crowing at 4:30 or 5 in the morning, it’s a rare morning that I manage to sleep past 6:30.]

-The circle of life: on Saturday I hired Akmed to take me to the craft villages, specifically Bonwire, the Kente cloth village, which Liz, Steffi and I visited on my very first weekend in Ghana.  In the six months I have lived in Kumasi, I had not managed to find any Kente bags to purchase for folks back home, so I wanted to head back to Bonwire for some souvenir shopping (a common pastime for me here).  It was also my last opportunity to go out and appreciate the dust and chaos and energy of the Ghanaian villages. 

Our journey took us past the busy tro-tro stop at the east side of Kumasi near KNUST (Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology, the place we occasionally go swimming) and St. Louis SHS, one of the schools I had the good fortune to work with during my stay here.  We stayed on the Accra road, as it is locally known, until we reached Ejisu, where we turned north to head to Bonwire.

Akmed took me straight to the main weaving center at the edge of town where there was a pack of young men waiting outside for unsuspecting tourists to arrive.  A few of them peeled off and led me into the wooden structure where they do the weaving and sell their wares.  The same young man who had greeted us the last time explained the Kente to me again.  He offered to let me try weaving, but I told him that I had been there before and on this trip I was mainly coming back to make a couple purchases.  Big mistake on my part.  I was swarmed by men trying to sell me their crafts.  What I didn’t really understand last time is that each of the men in the shop has their own area, so they have a vested interest in dragging me to their corner.  Akmed was not with me, which was another huge mistake, as I got overcharged for the bags I bought, at least compared to what I got charged later when we went to the town center to get a couple more.  (The prices are still very reasonable—but it’s the principle that counts.)  I had learned something in my time here: when multiple men kept asking me my name, I let them know that I had already purchased a bookmark with my name on it to keep them from weaving me another one.  The more persistent ones then offered to make bookmarks with my friends’ names.

I finally managed to get out of the shop by telling them I had no more money on me, which wasn’t entirely true but was the only way they would leave me alone.  Walking outside, I found Akmed playing a board game called dame (pronounced dah-may), which is the Ashanti equivalent of draughts or checkers.  Akmed and his opponent sat the beautifully carved wood board on their knees and using square red or white tiles as their pieces.  Akmed appeared to be a dame shark—as we left, I asked him if he had won and he said he won three games.

We got into the car and drove about a half a kilometer to the town center where there were more shops.  Since Akmed walked with me this time, I was charged half as much for the couple of bags that I bought.  Literally half.  I also picked up a couple small purses that I probably for which I probably paid too much.  I was fascinated to watch Akmed’s haggling technique, obviously honed over many years of experience.  Someone would give him an offering price and he would start the bidding at half or even a quarter of that price.  I couldn’t tell what exactly caused him to decide where to start his bidding. 

We drove back to town towards the wood carving villages for which I don’t have a name.  When I got out of the car, I let the carvers know immediately that I was just looking and might be back if I decided to buy anything.  Amazingly enough, they respected my wishes and didn’t try the hard sell tactics.  Some of the carvings were stunning but their sheer size makes it impossible for me to get them home.

That’s when we ran into car trouble.  Akmed’s car had been stalling out occasionally over the last couple weeks, but it always able to restart.  Unfortunately, this time it didn’t.  He thought it was overheating, but we let it sit for quite some time without being able to start it.  He caught a tro-tro to bring back a mechanic, who decided that it was a problem with the fuel line and was able to repair it well enough to get us home.  During this whole time, Akmed was very apologetic about the car troubles.  I tried to get him to understand that even back home, our cars break down and we have to wait to have them fixed.  But he’s so conscientious that he doesn’t want me to have to wait.

-Would you like fries with that? Akmed is great at developing relationships with people.  There’s a particular little “take-away” spot not terribly far from here that he asks to stop at anytime we’re near it.  By “take-away” spot, in this case I mean a few vats of bubbling stew full of animals and animal parts that I just can’t bring myself to eat, served alongside fufu or tapioca or another starch.  Whenever we pull up, he’s always put at the head of the queue and we’re out again in only a couple minutes.  We stopped there yesterday, which gave me the chance to ask him why he’s always served quickly.  He said that they know that he’s always driving people so they understand that he needs to get his food and go. 

During the couple minutes we were waiting, I saw an adorable little kid in a walker, something that you don’t see very often—the walker, not the kid.  I got out to look at her and met a few other little kids.  With hand gestures and a bit of translation from Akmed, the lady running the spot offered me her child to take with me back to America.  I politely declined the offer, mainly because my suitcase is already too full.  [Just kidding.  There’s still room in the suitcase but I’d never get a passport in time.]  That’s the second time I’ve been offered a child to take home, the first time being when Nela and I visited Steffi in Accra in January.

Akmed is a key player in my version of take-away, plantains and groundnuts.  As I mentioned in an earlier post, he’s very good about making sure that the food is fully cooked when he buys it for me.

-Lost in translation: One of the more entertaining and enjoyable parts about working with Akmed is that I feel very comfortable asking him very strange questions about Ghana and he seems fine with asking me anything on his mind about America.  A few weeks back, we had a very interesting conversation about whether there were white people in America who had never seen a black person.  I had to think a bit on that one.  I told him that there may be white people who had never seen a black person in person, say a young kid in the middle of nowhere in Montana or Idaho, but they probably had seen them on TV.  Our no-holds-barred conversations cover all sorts of topics, from Ghanaian and American politics to customs in our respective countries. 

-Charity begins at home: on one of our typical days driving to visit the schools, we ended up on the main Accra road on our way to the Metro Education Office.  The median of this multi-lane road is chock-full of various vendors and beggars, probably due to the ideal combination of high traffic volume and long light cycles at the Amakom roundabout (which used to be a traffic circle but is now a traffic light).  A girl about eight or nine years old, with caramel-colored skin and two pigtails poking out from the sides of her head, came up to Akmed’s window to ask for money.  He engaged her in conversation and found out that she’s a refugee from Niger.  (Speaking of our conversations, this led me to ask him if they were refugees due to war or money.  It was the latter.)  Her mother was begging at a different intersection in Kumasi.  He wanted to know why she wasn’t in school but she didn’t have a good answer for it.  Akmed handed her a coin before the light changed.  That’s not the first time that I had seen him hand money to a beggar—he’s often given coins to the handicapped beggars at the intersection—but something about his gentle conversation with this little girl struck me as the embodiment of his friendly, helpful attitude. 

-The gift that keeps on giving: For all he’s done over these six months, I wanted to get him something nice.  Today we went and picked out one of the flowing burlap shirts that the Muslim men wear here in Ghana.  He was so very happy about the shirt.  He said, “Shirt should last ten, fifteen years.  Every time I wear it I think of you.”  The smile on his face was completely worth it.  In case it wasn’t clear from all this rambling, I’m really going to miss working with Akmed.

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