Gung Ho in Ghana

Trip Start Oct 20, 2005
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Trip End Nov 04, 2006


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Sunday, May 14, 2006

With excitement powering our steps, we boarded the STC bus that would take us out of Burkina to our home for the next two and a half months - Accra, Ghana. After 22 hours and multiple Nigerian-made movies later, we arrived at 6AM in the sprawling metropolis of Ghana's capital city, Accra. It is here that we would temporarily add two people to the estimated 2.2-million people who call Accra their home. Incidentally, the guidebook says Ghana is the same size, land-wise as Oregon. Situated on the Atlantic Ocean and sticky with heat and humidity, Accra is an unattractive city at first glance. But as we get to know the city, we hope to discover its hidden charms.

Promptly after arriving at a hotel and taking a shower, we called Eddie, the director of the organization with which we are volunteering, West African Aids Foundation (WAAF - www.waafweb.org). A staff member picked us up and swept us out of the tourist scene into what would be our lives for the next two months.

Accra is broken up into many different neighborhoods, but best we can tell, there is no distinctive community spirit (like in Portland). Distances are far and the reliance on a car is a must to get around, yet traffic is said to be horrid. We can't imagine how it can surpass India. Here are some initial observations about the city:

1. Despite the massive amounts of concrete, it is quite green.
2. There is a real contrast between neighborhoods: huge, beautiful houses as well as shanties, often hidden off in some neighborhoods.
3. The city is fairly clean - at least in the parts we have visited, yet open sewers that line the streets still beckon the clumsy to fall in.
4. There are few animals to be found in the city - we have only seen a few goats and chickens milling about.
5. There are few motor bikes on the road compared to the rest of W. Africa - although, we are not sure if this makes the road any safer...

One very amusing fact about Ghana is related to the fact that the majority of people are Christian. Quite clearly, people are very proud of their faith. Many Christians chose to express their faith by giving their businesses religious-based names. A few of our favorites so far are: "God Has Done It! Real Estate" - we are not quite sure what he has done, sold heaven to the highest bidder?; "Jesus Hears Us Motors;" "God will provide Dry Goods" (that is if you have the money to pay for the items). We'll send you additional humerous ones in future blogs.

So in our first day, on little sleep from the bus, we were taken to Roman Ridge, the neighborhood where the WAAF office is located.

We spent the next few nights at Eddie (WAAF's director) and his wife Naa Ashiley's (a Dutch-Ghanaian) house and followed them around the city. One day, Eddie took us to the coast outside of Accra. The beaches in Accra are not ones you would want to kick back on and relax for a while, but they are at least outside the city and quite lovely.

Living in a foreign country is very different than traveling there. There is an extra sense of needing to adjust to the culture and way of life with which you are now living. In India, we had Stacie and Mukesh to ease the harsh blow of culture shock. It was with some arrogance that we thought with 6-months of travel under our belts that we would be fine. Um, yeah, well we know when to admit when we are wrong...

Within a few days, Roman Ridge would also become our new home. Kakra, the "volunteer coordinator" helped us find a home in a home-stay around the corner from the office. We have our own room (bigger than a bread box, but not by much, but thankfully with air-condictioned), living room, and bathroom - with hot water, sometimes - and best of all, no commute. We would also be fed three meals a day.

We are being exposed to Ghanaian food. In a departure from previous countries, we haven't had a dish that Justin has asked Jamie to learn how to make - and Jamie is not sure he will. Aside from the wonderful fruits, fufu, banku and kenkey are the staple grains. They are forms of corn or cassava that are either fermented or ground and formed into soft/sticky, hard or tamale dough-like foods. They are served with sauces of varying types and fish, goat or chicken provide the protein. Plantains and yams also make a frequent appearance on the table. Jamie requested that fish heads not be served to her - they have appeared at restaurants and she has learned they are not the tastiest nor meatiest parts of the fish.

Our host "family" is an interesting and fairly friendly bunch. It is a somewhat family like, yet hotel like atmosphere as well. Some of the family members are warm and we have eaten dinner with them once, but often we don't see any of the family for an entire day. It seems that everyone goes in their different directions and doesn't do much as a family unit. Their family dynamics seems more American and this goes against our very pre-conceived idea of African family life. I guess we are already family, because our host mother has already yelled at us for not doing something that we did not know we should do. We explained to her that we come from a different culture and we don't know all the ways Ghanaians work, so she must tell us. We gather from observations that yelling at people is a somewhat acceptable communication style here. Yet, it goes against our own style. It is hard not to take it personally. Our host brother, Nanna Jr., who spent 5 years in New Jersey getting a computer degree, has been helpful in giving us tidbits of information and has helped us buy a cell phone. In our first week, we were asked by the cook/maid, "Mama-Ya" to take her back to the US and employ her in our home to do all the cooking and cleaning. It is hard to explain to a woman with limited English that it is not possible.

The mother, Nana, in her mid 50's is a "Queen Mother." This means that she is a female chief in a village about one-hour outside of Accra. The father is a chief of a village in the Ashanti region. The Ashanti region is where Kente cloth is made and when one thinks of African clothing, the colorful green, red, yellows and blues of this cloth might come to mind. We have learned that many chiefs do not live in their villages, but have good jobs and frequently return home for funerals, meetings and conflict resolution. Our "dad" is head of one of the agricultural departments for the Ghanaian coco board. Ghana is the world's 2nd largest producer of coco in the world, behind Côte D' Ivoire. Yet like so many countries that produce wonderful items (like coffee in Kenya), it is hard to find a decent piece of dark chocolate here; although our "dad" is feeding Jamie's chocolate habit. We also learned from him that village chiefs are plied with schnapps by visitors who come to pay homage (why that liqueur, we are not sure). We have been introduced most of family members by their relationship to each other: we have Nana-Mama, Nana-Papa, and Nana-Jr.

The "mass-transit" system here comes in two forms: mini-vans called "tro tros" or shared taxis. Vehicles here look to be in better shape than elsewhere in W. Africa, much to our relief - they seem to use duct tape here instead of the string and silly putty. That said, we did get in a tro tro, a passenger van, that lost its own side sliding-door (twice!) as we were driving down the highway! [The "conductor" held it up until the tro tro could pull over.] Taking these forms of transport requires that you know where you are going in the city and that you use the appropriate hand signals. Giving the driver the bird will not get you a ride. If you want to get to "Nkrumah circle," you have to pretend you are mixing cake batter with your index finger. If you want to go to "'37" you have to point in the diagonal direction. If you go to central Accra, you point to heaven. Luckily, they don't pack them full until arms and legs are sticking out of the windows at odd angles - like we have experienced elsewhere. We are still getting to know the system and the regular stops they make along their fixed routes. One nice surprise is that tro tros and buses charge foreigners regular prices, not inflated "white guy" prices, as we expected. Walking to places here is not an option since distances are so spread out. We're trying to start a regular exercise routine again; our family was incredulous by the fact that we walked 3 miles to another neighborhood!

Getting money in the local currency, the cedi, is another great example of a cultural experience. First of all, what does a bank robber bring with him when he robs a bank? - He needs something in which to put his money, right? That is what you do here when you go to the bank to get cedis. Bill denominations start at 1,000 cedis and only go up 20,000 cedis. There are about 10,000 cedis to one US dollar. So, for you math whizzes, the largest bill is only worth $2, then there is a bill for $1, with the most common bill being 0.50 cents. The most you can take out of the ATM is $80. As you would expect, this is what happens when extreme inflation hits the country, as has been the case with Ghana. Now, the problem has stabilized.

You can imagine the arm full of cash you get when you want to convert a large sum of US dollars into cedis (see picture). We needed to take a bag with us to the bank and now we have an entire drawer that's purpose is to hold all of our 5,000 cedei bills they gave us (each worth 50 cents). If you thought Justin's pockets bulged out at home, you should see them now! He's going to have hip dysplasia in a matter of weeks. Not only does it take up space, paying for something that is over $5 takes a bit of time: by the time you count out the bills and then the seller counts them to double check you could have accomplished five other things. But since we're in Africa, there's no rush...

So, we are slowly adjusting to life in Ghana. They claim that life exists on GMT (Greenwich Mean Time), except they call it "Ghana 'Mon Time." If someone tells you they are going to do something, don't expect it to happen for at least three days to a week - if it even happens at all. Having said that, Ghanaians are exceptionally polite, friendly, and gregarious. They definitely seem to enjoy life and that, in itself, is infectious.

This blurb from the volunteer handbook perfectly sums up our experience so far (please don't insert into any of your employee manuals!):

You will have to get used to the fact that everything takes a lot more time. No matter what your agenda, expect that you will have to wait. Don't let it frustrate you, it doesn't help. Relax and lean back. Although in the beginning you think that nothing is moving and that you are going nowhere, you will find that this is not true. Although not many stick to their appointments, in the end, much is achieved.

For us, this requires a complete shift in our approach to life. We don't think we will live here long enough to really adopt this way of thought, though. So, as our second week in Ghana comes to a close, we are learning to rely on our reserve of patience and learning to not get any hopes up - without losing our optimistic outlook - as they may get dashed.

We will dedicate a blog entry to the work we are doing here and what it is like to work in Ghana as well as information about the West African Aids Foundation.
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