One Wild Ride (well actually two)

To live in Accra one has to get used to the local transportation.  True there are Taxi cabs and even Uber but if one commutes, as I do twice a week through Madina Market, then cost wise the public transportation, at about a tenth of the price, is really the only way to go.  As such, I take the local public transit, the trotro, to and from my work on the outskirts of Madina.

Being a small-town girl, and not a big fan of crowds or lack of personal space this has been an adjustment for me.  I have tackled more than a few personal phobias navigating my way to my work this way.   This probably says more about some of my neurosis than I realize.  Last week however my level of comfort with the trotro system was challenged (monumental understatement here).

Let me explain how the trotro system works.  Trotro’s are essentially stripped-down vans which hold between 12-20 people. The seats are sometimes wobbly.  Occasionally there is no rearview mirror and frequently there are wires hanging from the roof. In my experience. they are in varying states of safety and decline but it is how the locals travel so…why not?  I know I have explained before but each trotro has a driver and a mate.  The mate’s job is to attract riders and collect money. There is stiff competition amongst the mates to attract riders to their van and as such selecting a trotro can be a somewhat intense experience. Last week I had quite the wild ride, well actually two, let me explain.

It all started simply enough.  I was traveling back to the university from work through the market. Traveling this way has been a challenge for me because it is an assault on the senses and I am evidently a bit sensory sensitive.  It generally is quite hot, noisy and there is lots of shouting going on. When I cross the street to choose one of at least a dozen trotro vans heading in the direction that I need to go, I am bombarded with mates asking me where I want to go and they are pulling on my arms to get me into their van.  Occasionally there is a kind of tug of war going on to get me to choose their van, with mates tugging at my arms in two different directions. It is not at all uncommon for mates to get into fights if they think someone has unfairly ‘stolen’ one of their customers. Overall, though I travel without incident.

Last week, through a very crowded market and across a six-lane highway, I successfully navigated myself to one of the less intense and quieter trotro’s (thinking this was a safe choice). I was proud of myself for becoming so adept and comfortable with this. I waited in a long line of vans and sat patiently for the vehicle to fill up and head out.  While I was waiting however there was a commotion at the trotro in front of us.  Two mates had gotten into a fight over a customer.  This was pretty common but the next thing I knew there were between 30 and 40 men on the sidewalk, right outside the trotro I was sitting on, in a full-scale riot. I have no idea where they all came from or why they were even there but they were punching and screaming and many had sticks and clubs and whatnot.  They were banging bats against the fence, light poles and our van. Where the men and the weapons materialized from, I haven’t a clue.  The mate from the trotro I was on evidently was caught up in the fray, so the driver proceeded to honk his horn continually to get the mates attention so we could pull away from the fighting, which only added to the chaos. I was terrified!  Then as quickly as it had started, it was over, like smoke in the wind.  Our mate hopped on board and off we went, all a bit rattled but unharmed.

The following Thursday, I had this incident fresh in my mind when choosing a trotro to take back to the university.  Trying to be smarter this time, I chose one that was newer looking and fairly full so that we would not have to wait long to depart.  I thought we would take off soon and without incident.  I thought wrong.  The mate and driver of the trotro I had selected evidently had some sort of rivalry going on with another trotro nearby.  I watched as they interacted with each other and thought they were being a bit aggressive but brushed it off as normal competitiveness.  About a minute after I got on there was shouting and our driver took off like a bat out of hell from the curb.  Before I could process what was happening (shouting and waving at the other van) we were hurdling down the highway, weaving in and out of traffic, in a high-speed race with the other van, while the mate was laughing maniacally, which was even more unsettling than the driving. We were easily going 90 mph and the locals on the van were shouting at the driver in Twi, I assume they were being critical of his driving tactics (again I really need to practice my Twi), while I clung to the seat in front of me for dear life. The race finally ended though and I obviously I made it back, safe and sound, rattled again but okay….and with a story of one wild ride under my belt.

God only knows what adventures await me next week….Now I am going to have ACDC’s Highway to Hell running through my mind all night 😉

Peace,

Theresa

 

 

 

 

Under the Mango Tree

Surrender is a beautiful albeit terrifying thing in life.  I cannot speak for anybody but myself but I have spent the larger part of my adult life living under the delusion/illusion that I have had control over my life.  Over where I lived, how I lived, my marriage my family, even my own body.  The illusion that we have any control over what happens in life is a difficult thing to let go of.  But once I surrendered and realized that I never really had any control in the first place (aside from how I respond) a whole new world opened up to me.  I feel strongly that I spent my first semester here in Ghana learning that lesson.

As such I returned for my final semester of college to the University of Ghana and this beautiful country with as few expectations as possible.  I knew I was here not only to experience the culture of this country but to finish out my degree in Women’s Studies. But that is it. I had no real idea what classes I was going to take (I have finished all of my major requirements). I figured it would all work out. I did not know what experiences I would have, so decided to go with the flow. Or how it all was going to play out. Kind of fly by the seat of my pants mentality.  If any of you know me this is most definitely not how the old Theresa operated by the way.  If you recall though, that girl is finished.

Marianne Williamson once said, “The moment of surrender is not when life is over.  It’s when it begins”. What a beautiful sentiment that is and I feel like it is true in my life. I spent last semester surrendering, and with no preconceived notions of how it would look I find that as this semester is unfolding, a whole new life is beginning for me.

Since I have been back in Ghana I find myself regularly pinching myself to see if what I am really experiencing is actually happening to me. For example, the international program that I am a part of took a trip to Northern Ghana. Part of that trip was the option to go on a Safari. (Is that really an option?!) I was not about to miss this once in a lifetime chance so as a result I found myself not only seeing antelope, monkeys, baboons, warthogs and mongoose and all kinds of wildlife but also standing in the Saharan bush at a watering hole with a herd of bull elephants standing right across from me…… Me! Theresa, who grew up in tiny Camino California, standing closer to crocodiles than I cared to (there was also a park ranger with a very big gun behind me), watching elephants getting a drink and splashing mud on themselves. Hands down the coolest thing I have ever done!

27066849_10212691367817349_5301934106288718919_n.jpg

After that trip though it was time to get back to school and the business of actually “studying abroad”. I have that in quotes because this entire experience is about so much more than studying for my degree in my major. Anyway, I am really excited because I have found a way to take my passion for fiber arts and make studying and teaching that a big part of my research and degree, both in my service learning class and an Independent Study class that I am designing here with a professor in the Social Work Department.  Both of which seem to be kind morphing into my post college career. Again, in letting go of what I thought I should do (get a marketable degree), what I love seems to be bubbling up right before me.  Cool! And yet another pinch myself experience.

And in the spirit of trying on new things I also am taking a Traditional African Dance class, which, to be honest, I was a bit nervous about but so far am really enjoying it. I join about 90 other students, most of whom are at least half my age and I sweat like crazy and do my best to get my middle-aged body to move in ways it is most definitely unaccustomed to moving.  I joked with my 21-year-old son that I was worried about throwing my back out and how embarrassing it would be.  He replied, “That’s the fun part! I am not so sure about that but I get his sentiment and appreciate it.

One of my most pleasant surprises this semester however, has been the seperewa class that I have begun.  I had no idea what a seperewa even was a few weeks ago. It is a stringed, harp like instrument.  I have never played a musical instrument before and up to this point in my life have been convinced that I do not have a musical bone in my body. I was worried I had bitten off more than I could chew.  My program director here in Ghana assured me that every student that has taken the class had really enjoyed it.  So, I jumped on in.  I met my instructor this week.  His name is Osei Korankye and he is evidently quite famous in the seperewa world.  Here is a link to see him and the seperewa in action should you be curious.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=36EPLeJfHMI

He is a kind and lovely man who teaches classes one-on-one.  The first day we met there was a very loud drumming and dancing class next to his studio so we took our chairs and seperewas out behind the building and sat under the shade of a beautiful giant mango tree.  The morning was still a bit cool (for Ghana during the dry season that is) and the breeze was gently blowing. Professor Korankye proceeded to tell me the history of the seperewa which has been around in the Ashanti kingdom since the 1700’s, and the story of how his grandfather taught him to play.  As he was talking he continued to gently strum on his seperewa and encouraged me to mimic his playing. By the end of the session I was playing scales like I knew what I was doing and I had become thoroughly enchanted with the instrument.  I was quite taken aback at how it unfolded so naturally and organically.  I think it is a testament to his unique teaching style. Who would have thought, certainly not me, that I would find my musical self, sitting under the mango tree?

Life is just full of surprises if you are willing to be open to them. I can’t wait to see what is next 🙂

Peace to you,

Theresa

Sometime you eat the bear, and sometimes the bear eats you

As I gear up for my second and final semester studying in Ghana I am full of mixed emotions.  I am very excited for the classes I will have this semester.  I have my service learning class, where I will be working with an organization to teach them how to use scrap fabric to make baskets and rugs and bags.  The fiber arts teacher in me is thrilled!  I am also taking an independent study class doing research into the community outreach benefits and empowerment that happens when women gather regularly to create.  Again, right up my alley.  And I am going to learn to play the Seprewa, a West African stringed instrument, which is pretty cool too.

While all of that is really exciting I also am feeling the heat wear on me.  Today for example I am particularly MS-y.  My hand is numb and every time I walk outside the glare notably limits my vision and while I knew in the abstract that heat would adversely affect me (Multiple Sclerosis and heat do not make good bedfellows), feeling it makes it harder for me to pretend that this is not really happening to me.  But it is….  Denial is not just a river in Egypt my friends 🙂 I am reminded twice a day as I swallow a medication that costs more per year for my insurance company than most people in the US make annually. Which serves as a reminder that the mere fact that I have insurance is a privilege. When that med hits me though, I get what is called the Tecfidera Flush (my sister thinks that this would be a great stripper name for me, HA!).  My arms, chest and face turn bright red and I itch and burn anywhere from 20 minutes to an hour.  Sounds fun, I know.

I do not often find myself in this space.  I am overall a pretty positive person.  But sometimes you eat the bear and sometimes the bear eats you.  It does not take much for me to snap out of this mood however.  I just look around me and know that it could be so much worse.  I have access to adequate health care.  I have a disease that is manageable, to a degree.  I am being educated in an area that I am passionate about.  I have the privilege and honor to be able to come to Ghana and see the world from a perspective that I wish everyone could, with the full support of my children and husband to boot.  And I am doing work here that will make a difference not just for those who I am reaching out to but to me too.

So, despite the fact that I miss my family and I am a bit uncomfortable (on multiple levels), I am reminded of a quote I recently heard on a TED Talk, I posted this on my Facebook page the other day so forgive me for repeating.  It goes like this, “Discomfort is the price of admission to a meaningful life”.  I concur.

Peace,

T

Don’t Believe Everything You Think

“Miss Theresa, I am so sorry but the chips are finished today”.  This is what the very kind gentleman, Daniel, who runs the mini-restaurant downstairs from my hostel room in Ghana says to me when he has sold out of French fries, which happens to be one of the few things I can eat in Ghana without becoming ill (I have a sensitive stomach so do not blame this entirely on the local cuisine).  When something is finished in Ghana, it means sold out, gone, no more.  Like many of the small Ghanaisms I have heard, I find it charming.  But as I get ready to head back to Ghana after a 5-week visit back home I have had some time to process my experiences thus far and that particular term is significant. I will explain why in a bit.

To be honest, when I left last August to begin this adventure I had no idea what I was getting myself into.  I felt like I had my life together but what I did not know or acknowledge was that I was coming apart at the seams.  I looked in the mirror and saw very little that I liked very much, but could not admit it.  I was 49 years old and twenty pounds heavier than I wanted to be (this I did know but was not really doing anything about it).  The main career that I have had as a work-at-home mom was drawing to an end (my youngest is a Junior in High School). My twenty-four-year “happy” marriage was slipping between my fingers like sand but I was in denial.  My father had recently passed away, which shook me more than I had realized.  I knew I felt unhinged a bit, but ignored it.  I was in school full-time studying for my BS in Women’s Studies but really had no idea why, other than I needed to take some steps toward doing something, anything to get myself out of the rut I found myself more and more entrenched into.

When I applied for and was accepted into the California State University International Program (CSU-IP) and it all started coming together I felt like it was serendipity because it had been a dream I have had since High School to study abroad.  I had thought when I got accepted that the universe was telling me that it was my turn to have something go well and my time to focus on me more than everyone else.  I knew that somehow, I would find a path forward by grabbing onto this chance. I just knew that I was part of something much bigger than myself, bigger with a capital B.  I was part of a plan alright but I did not know what it was, not yet.

The month after I was accepted into the program and a mere 8 weeks before I left, I began having problems with my vision.  My hand felt numb all the time and I was having difficulty typing and getting through my final papers for the end of the semester.  Since I had trouble with my vision in the past and this was my primary issue I went to the Ophthalmologist.  She ordered an immediate MRI for the next day.  I was a bit rattled by the urgency.  Three days later on May the 1st 2017 she called me and said that I had multiple lesions on my brain and most likely had Multiple Sclerosis (MS).  The Neurologist confirmed the next day.  For those of you who do not know what MS is, it is a degenerative disease of the central nervous system. It is not terminal but there is no cure and can affect any part of my body that my central nervous system controls (everything).  Attacks can strike at any time and each attack does a little more damage than the last. To say that this news rocked my world would be an understatement.

Still though, I knew that I just had to go to Ghana. I was immediately put on medication to help reduce the number of MS attacks I would have in the future. I was concerned though about traveling for so long and so far away, so I discussed it with my Neurologist.  I asked him, what if something happens while I am there?  He just smiled and said, “Call me”.  Then I asked what should I look for, how will I know if I have another attack?—- I love my Neurologist because he is so Zen, he just smiled at me and said, “Theresa do not look for anything, just go and live your life”—-He had an excellent point. I could spend my life with this disease worrying about every sensation in my body, or I can just live.

I still had this unacknowledged growing internal panic feeling within me but packed my bags anyway, told my family goodbye and got on a plane to Africa.  I was terrified.  I cried from security check in at San Francisco airport, where my husband and two of my sons were waving goodbye, all the way to Ghana.  I wondered what on Earth did I think I was doing?  Why did I feel the absolute need to make this trip?  It made no sense for me to go given all that was going on. But went I did.

When I got there, I was quite overwhelmed.  Culture shock was in full swing and the first 6 weeks was a grueling schedule to complete a culture intensive class. There was little time to think or reflect on anything. Then school began and things began to settle in.  I slowly found a routine.  I had no friends to speak of beyond the casual relationships I had with my fellow CSU-IP classmates but I was not that surprised, because I was most of my classmate’s parent’s age.  Who wants to go to college and hang out with their mother?  As a result, I spent a great deal of time alone.  Alone with the panicky and frantic internal feeling that had traveled all the way to Ghana with me, alone with my thoughts more often than I cared for. Surrounded by 30,000 students here at the university I felt lonely. However, I needed that solitude but still did not know it.

I thought I had a handle on my disease and was coping well with that. I thought I was in Africa to fulfill a life-long dream. What I did not come even close to having a handle on however, was my personal dis-ease. Dis-ease with myself, my marriage, my path forward, with everything in my life. In this foreign and very uncomfortable environment I slowly realized that everything I thought I had going right in my life, wasn’t.

Not long before I left I got a bumper sticker on my car that says, “Don’t Believe Everything You Think” (funny how life sends you messages everywhere should you choose to see them).  Something inside of me knew I needed a major paradigm shift. That saying was more appropriate for me than I had realized at the time. That Bigger than me thing knew that I needed to be in an environment that was completely unfamiliar, I needed to be alone and I needed to get to know the me that I had buried under everybody and everything thing else in my life back home, where it was easy to hide from myself.

So, I journaled, I meditated, I began doing yoga several times a week and slowly I realized something about myself.  The Theresa that I had so carefully crafted, nurtured and worked so hard to maintain was finished.  I was not sure who the real Theresa was but I was never going back to the Theresa that left California months before. This realization spurred in me what I call the Phenomenon phenomenon.  I am talking about the movie with John Travolta made in 1996 (watch it if you haven’t because it is great) where the main character finds himself with his mind racing faster and faster.  He becomes more and more frantic until one day, he looks up and sees the trees gently blowing back and forth in the breeze and a calmness settles over him. He found his pace and his frantic racing mind calms down.  Realizing that the old Theresa was finished had the same effect on me.  It was like watching those trees blow gently in the wind.  Inside, slowly, I found my own pace and as such, my own peace.

I have no idea what the next four months in Ghana will hold for me, or even what the universe has planned for me, but it should be interesting to find out.

Peace to you,

T

Feeling Kind of Groovy

Mhhatma Gahndi once said that, “A nation’s culture resides in the hearts and in the soul of its people”. I think I am beginning to understand that in a whole new and deep way.

I had someone ask me today if I had felt the change in me yet. It seems like an obscure question initially but he had been to Ghana before me and now that I have been here a bit I knew exactly what he meant. Have I felt the change?

I will answer his question but first I must go back to the very first time I went to an open-air market here in Ghana. It was an overwhelming experience to say the least.  I was with a group that was led by one of the student assistants that is part of the program here.  The day we went, it was hot and humid, but Accra is a city fairly close to the equator so that is hardly a surprise. The whole experience is difficult to describe but I will do my best.

On top of being hot it was very crowded.  As we wound our way in and out of the crowds and market stalls there was a cacophony of sounds. The blazing sun baked us as we walked through the market. Sellers would grab at our arms and make a kind of kissing/smacking sound to get our attention.  They would shout out ‘Oburoni’ as we passed (which basically is a term for foreigner here) to attract our attention to their particular shop.  African-pop music blared from giant speakers.  There were men preaching into microphones, speaking in tongues and/or Twi, their messages amplified.  People hawking their wares, everything you could imagine, from underwear to appliances and everything in between.  The constant background noise and chatter of people bargaining and speaking in Twi and other dialects surrounded me. The trotro drivers were shouting out their destinations, taxis honking horns. Add to this, bright colors everywhere.  The Ghanaian people as a whole (at least in Accra) prefer much brighter, vibrant and bolder colors than I am generally accustomed to seeing around me.  All along the way there are the different smells, depending on where you are in the market, there is the smell of food from the chop bars cooking, fish being sold, the open gutters, goats and chickens and the smell of sweat and bodies all around. And the bodies are everywhere, it is difficult to pass more than a foot or two without brushing/squeezing by someone.  I was sweating, hot and headachy and not having a good experience. It really was for me a sensory overload.  I did not care for it AT ALL and I could not even conceive of going there alone. I swore I would not go back.

Life is a funny thing however.  Just when I had decided that I had experienced quite enough of the market environment, thank you very much, I found a volunteer opportunity that I was very interested in. In order for me to take this opportunity however, it entailed me traveling through the very same market each week, all by myself.  I tend to be a nervous nelly and in general my pattern has been to stay comfortable. But the work was compelling enough for me to get a little uncomfortable.

Fast forward to last week when I was coming home from my work, through the market, and I was struck, in a fairly profound way, at how much I was enjoying the experience. I had an epiphany…I liked the market.  Here is the thing that got me——-all of the things that contributed to the sensory overload that I had so disliked the first time I came to the market, were the very same things that I enjoyed the most about it.  The atmosphere of the market has its own vibration, personality and a soul of its own.  I just hadn’t really understood that the first time around, I certainly did not appreciate it.

All of this circles back (I love it when life does this) to Africa in the abstract.  I remember the international program director at CSUS telling me why she recommended the year-long program versus the semester long program.  She told me that if you do the shorter program then just when you feel like you have your feet under you, it is time to come home.  It is only in the longer program where you can truly appreciate the culture you are in.  I thought I understood what she meant, after all I am here in Ghana for the entire school year, but I did not really understand.  It was still an abstract….until that moment in the market when it hit me. The moment I found myself walking through the crowds, the sounds, the smells, the experience and finding it so interesting and full of life. I caught a glimpse of its soul, and doing so had made the shift.  I had/have found my groove here so to speak.  The fact that I even said that I was working my way “home” speaks volumes.

While I am looking very forward to a visit home for the holiday break (my hubby, kids, pets and California home), I also look forward to the second semester of Ghana, of really appreciating the culture here, now that I have found my footing….my groove.  I just had to get uncomfortable enough first and then let go in order for me to really understand that.

 

 

 

 

Froot Loops Interrupted

For clarification purposes that will make sense if you read further, I classify all of my leisure reading materials into categories of breakfast cereal.  There are three general categories. First, Grape Nuts books, they are dense, full of heavy and lasting content and generally stick with me. Next are Raisin Bran books, which are fairly filling and satisfying but not nearly as much as the Grape Nuts. Last but not least are Froot Loop books that have very little in the way of substantial..anything..aside from momentary enjoyment and I am generally hungry within an hour of eating them but hey, sometimes a girl just needs a Froot Loop fix. Now that has been explained I move on.

Since I have come to Ghana I have gotten in the habit of sending a note home each morning of whatever happens to be on my mind.  Sometimes it is only a line or two sometimes more but it is one way that I am staying connected to home. This morning’s note was such a typical day for me here in Ghana I decided to share.  Excuse the personal format but it felt weird to change it so here it is—Peace to you all 🙂 .  (Thank you Dale for not minding my sharing our correspondence).

Babe,

So… I was sitting here this morning taking it easy (you know there is going to be a story here when I begin my sentence with So…) because today is Friday and after a hectic week this is the one day I do not have wake up at any particular time.  I had my two cups of rationed dirty chai tea and my yogurt and granola, which they call muesli here. I had been listening to the typical morning noises, the school announcements next door, the children laughing, the market coming to life etc. and I was just working up to a little self-reflection/meditation/yoga mode when a tractor with a bush hog started up just below my window in the patch of grass between the hostel and the night market.  It was very loud and I found myself slightly irritated because I had been looking at the grass earlier, around 6:00 am, while my tea was steeping and noticing how the long grass was so lovely with the breeze blowing across the tips and how I wanted to hold onto this moment for a bit.  Anyway, I knew that the noise was going to be too intrusive and mess up my mojo and that when the tractor was done cutting the grass then all the garbage underneath would be visible again, which got me waxing philosophical about our perceptions and what we choose to focus on, the long beautiful grass gently blowing in the blessed (because it is already hot) breeze or the garbage underneath. By the way as I type this there is a loud cacophony of birds who just started up just outside, so envision (what is the hearing word for envision?) that background noise, but I digress.

Since I knew that there would be no serious and meaningful reflective time happening in the immediate future I decided on reading some mindless drivel of a Froot Loop book because sometimes I just need my brain to go to that hinterland.  As I was finishing my second cup of tea, a real treat because I usually only allow myself one cup, the noise suddenly stopped.  I got up to see if the noise was indeed done for the day and saw such very Ghanaian scene that I was immediately curious.

Several of the market women were standing by the now stopped tractor speaking animatedly.  They were talking with their hands using big sweeping arm gestures and all kinds of long drawn out syllables that are so indicative of the Twi language.  They were having a heated discussion with the driver and all kept looking at the ground next to the wheel of the tractor.  I heard one of the women say, “daabi, daabi, daabi, dabbi, dabbi, dabbi, dabbi” in a tone that said she was not buying whatever the tractor driver was saying. By the way saying dabbi repeatedly means no, no, no, no, no and is always said very quickly like you would saying no repeatedly.  I was so enchanted by the moment that I snapped a photo which I have included in this email.  Naturally it does not do justice to how it looks in real life but I thought I would share this with you none the less.  You can see the women all staring down at whatever it is they are discussing. If you look closely you will see the “kitchen prep area” (I use that term loosely) behind the market that I try not to think too much about when I am ordering food from the there.

In the end, the women dispersed and the tractor driver continued his mowing and all I could see under the patch of grass that had previously been the source of such a deep discussion, was a big wet looking marshy dark patch that I am quite certain that I do NOT want to know the source of.

Forty days and counting until I come home for break (41 if you count the 23 hours of travel time) which brings a smile to my heart.

Have a restful and good day 🙂

I love you.

T

morining photo.jpg

A “Hot” Trotro Ride, if you Please

I have been thinking for a while now about the next post I would write in this blog.  I had in mind a very serious and philosophical post about having the experience of being here in Ghana and how this country is such a dichotomy; contradictions everywhere.  I have it half written in my head because I really did have an amazing weekend and wanted to share it……..and then today happened…and I think this experience is so much more interesting.

Monday’s are the day I make the trek into Madina to volunteer at an organization that sells handmade quilts, bags and clothing and uses the profits to help pay school fees, supplies and whatnot for the children of the community who otherwise would be unable to attend school.  Anyway, I have just begun to feel confident about making this journey on my own which marks a bit of an accomplishment for me because I am directionally challenged and as such am actually fairly terrified of traveling in big cities alone (which Accra is).  Especially if I am unsure of exactly where I am headed (which today I was).  But there is nothing like facing a fear/phobia down and conquering it.

A side note here about the public transportation here called trotros.  A trotro is essentially a stripped-down minivan, usually packed with 12-15 people.  Most of the ones I have been on are fairly old and seem a bit mechanically edgy but hey…what the heck, it is how the locals get around, so why not?  Aside from the driver, there is a “mate” who hangs out the side of the van shouting out its destination to attract more riders; for example, if you are headed into downtown Accra he will shout something that sounds a lot like Kra kra kra kra kra!  The mates I have run across speak a little bit of English but not much, so it is good to know the lingo here.

I got on the first trotro this morning without incident and attempted to transfer to a second one headed in the direction I needed to go. I looked at the mate and asked “Arappa Jane?”, (the name of my stop). He nodded yes and said, “bra bra”! Which means come, come!, so I hopped on. It did not take me long to realize that the route we were taking did not look familiar to me. After I was quite certain I was lost I decided that I was not going to panic and to just go with the flow and see where this little adventure was going to take me while I formulated a plan of action. At this point the mate looked at me and asked me something in Twi (I really need to be studying my Twi more here) and I guessed he was asking me where I wanted to get off and told him again, “Arappa Jane”. He stared at me blankly for a moment and he and the driver started having a rapid conversation in Twi in which I strongly suspected that I was the subject of. The mate looked back at me and I could tell by the look on his face that I was not where I was supposed to be, at which point another passenger looked at me over his shoulder and told me I had missed my stop some time ago and that if I continued on, the trotro would  eventually turn around and drop me where I needed to go. It was here that the mate and driver decided that I needed to ride in the front seat, I am assuming because I needed a bit of ‘extra’ help, and off we went (the upswing of all of this is that now I know how to get to Botwe which is where we turned around). I thought this would be an interesting little diddy to tell my hubby in my daily email/text/video chat and that would be it.  But alas my day was not yet done.

After my work was finished for the day I walked the seven or so blocks to the nearest junction and got on another trotro headed to the market where my next junction was located, going the correct direction this time (Horay for small victories!).  We were about half way to where I was supposed to switch trotros when the driver just stopped and the mate looked at me and said “last stop”…okay.  So I got out and proceeded to walk to the next junction.  It was very hot today and I was soon soaked through with sweat but again in the spirit of making the most of it, decided to absorb the sights and sounds and just enjoy the little jaunt through the popular and very crowded market. I also have a bit of thing about crowds so again a good opportunity for some fear conquering here.

The driving here is a bit insane and we were told that cars here do NOT stop for pedestrians so don’t think crosswalks are safe, so by the time I got to the junction and I managed to cross the 4-lane highway without being struck by a vehicle I felt like I had all the fear conquering I could take in one day and was ready to melt into a puddle. Really I just wanted to get back to my room and turn the fan on high and wallow in the breeze.  I hopped on the trotro and we waited (no air conditioning mind you) jam packed into the van. We continued to wait in the hot van like roasting chickens for about 20 minutes for the vehicle blocking us in to move on and then thankfully we were off.

Sitting in the van next to me was an older gentleman, holding his briefcase on his lap. I am guessing he was somewhere in his 70’s.  He looked at me and smiled and asked me where I was headed.  I thought he was sweet and so I told him I was headed to the university. He asked how I liked Ghana and where I was from. He seemed grandfatherly so when he asked my name and told me his I thought at least I can share a bit of kindness with someone on this unbearably hot and oven like vehicle.

At this point he pulled out a small note book and started flipping through the pages and began writing on the first blank page he came to. He ripped out the page and handed it to me and smiled and told me he was giving me his phone number. I have heard other students talk about how some locals really like to exchange numbers and social media info with foreign students so I did not think much of it. I just smiled back, accepted his number so as not to be rude, and thought to myself it was a cultural thing here. However, as we journeyed down the road to the junction where I was to about to depart he asked me if I lived near here. Finally, my spidey senses started to kick in (what took me so long, right?) and I uncomfortably tried to answer without answering while trying in vain to skooch a bit further away.  As we approached my stop he leaned in quite close to me and said in a very conspiratorial manner “When you call me, make sure it is in the evening….” Wink, wink.  I am assuming here that during the day my calling would be awkward for him….good to know.  This brings a whole new meaning to a hot trotro ride. I suppose it is all in the eyes of the beholder.

At least today was an interesting day. I remind myself that one day this will all be quite amusing to me. Who am I kidding, it already is.

In Need of a New Motherboard

I had a crisis this week.  I awoke the other morning to my laptop spontaneously beeping.  I was a little surprised because it woke me from a fairly sound sleep but I have been having problems with it since I got to Ghana so I was not entirely taken aback.  Sure enough, I opened my computer and the beep of death continued to blare.  I used all the tricks that I had looked up online the last time this happened but to no avail. I was feeling a bit panicky and after I consulted two different Apple repair establishments I found out the problem—my motherboard is in need of replacement (if that is not an analogy for life as my 50th birthday looms large I do not know what is).  For anyone who is a college student you know how important it is to have access to a computer. Not knowing how difficult it would be for me to replace my laptop I felt I was having a computer crisis. As I type this however I note that the word crisis sounds so dire and urgent. This and a conversation I had with an Uber driver the other day, has gotten me thinking about the language we use and how we use it.

It is not at all uncommon in the US to ask someone how their day went and to hear them respond using words like ‘worst day ever’ or ‘horrible’.  Or to ask, “How did the meeting go today?” to hear the response “It was a catastrophe!” if things did not go as planned. Worst day ever, horrible, catastrophe and yes, crisis are potent phrases and words when you think about it.

Not long before I came to Ghana the director of the CSU International Program spoke to the students who were headed the University of Ghana.  We were warned to watch our language.  He was not referring to profanity though. When hungry, you do not say that you are ‘starving to death’ because most likely there are people very near you who are actually starving.  We were told that as students it would automatically be assumed that we are rich so to be mindful of how we interact in the community.  But that was Africa in the abstract and so it did not really register with me…..entirely.

The reality versus the abstract that continually hits me in the face here in Ghana happened again when I took charge of my ‘crisis’ by getting a new laptop.  I simply used my Uber App (on my iPhone) and got a ride to the mall (GHS 11)—this means 11 Cedis.  I walked into the mall and bought my new laptop, and I hailed an Uber back to the university (GHS 12).  It was on my Uber ride back that I was quickly reminded of the privilege that I had been so thoughtlessly taking for granted.

I sat in the front seat with the driver.  I always ask their names and we end up chatting. Honestly riding and chatting with the Uber drivers has been one of my favorite parts of coming to Ghana.  I have the most interesting conversations and am continually reminded of how kind most Ghanaians are.  Anyway, as I sat in the front seat visiting with Christopher we started to talk about where he learned his English.  He had only attended school through middle school he told me, which is where he learned to speak his limited English.  His native language was Fante and he was from Cape Coast. We spoke of education and that led to talking about employment. I told him that I was in awe of how hard most Ghanaians work to make due here as unemployment is quite high. In the end, he told me that he works from very early in the morning until after midnight each day. And that he only earns GHS 20 per day.  Just so you understand the gravity of this, he works for the equivalent of $4.55 PER DAY. On this meager amount of money, he supports his wife, his three year old daughter (who is full of questions, questions, questions) and his 4 month old twin boys……..I sat with my brand new laptop in my lap and honestly felt shame for the extravagance that was just sitting there in front of us both like the elephant in the room. The price of my laptop would feed his family for months.

My ‘crisis’ was not a crisis at all.  It was an inconvenience and nothing more.  If there is anything that I will take from my experience in Ghana (at least thus far) it will be to have perspective on what it is in life that we have and to be grateful each day. I will remember to not dramatize what is only inconvenient. I think I needed this Ghana paradigm shift.  I have heard others who have been here say that coming here has changed them forever.  I know that if I left here today that would be true for me.  Does that mean I have been successful in replacing my personal ‘motherboard’? I hope so.

Poverty and Hot Pink Toilet Seats

I had a conversation with a fellow study abroad classmate a couple of weeks ago and I cannot quite shake the lingering questions that came from that. She said to me, “What does it mean that I am no longer sick at my stomach when children are banging on the windows of the bus and begging”?—–That is a good question and I have been pondering it since. It brings me back to what the Ghanaian gentleman on the plane over here said (I mentioned it in my last post) about pacing myself because the need here is much greater than any one person can give. “You will get used to it,” he said. But this is the catch here…do I really want to get used to it? By ‘it’ I mean the pervasive poverty that is very evident here. What does it mean if we become desensitized and seeing suffering does not move us as human beings? I do not want to make the image of this country to be about poverty because this country is so much more than that. However I found myself the other day, on the path from the Night Market to my hostel, and there was a woman begging. She sat on the ground along side of the dirt pathway and kept putting her hand to her mouth, indicating she was hungry. I noticed that she only did this when she saw that obviously foreign students walked by. It was after all the path to the International Student Hostel. I had conflicting emotions at the time. Was it cynical of me to notice that she was ‘working’ the foreign students? Should that even matter? Isn’t hunger just hunger? I was disturbed by my thoughts because who am I to judge her motives?

I spoke to the program director here about this because I wanted her perspective as she used to live in the states and now lives in Ghana and I loved her response… she said, “There isn’t poverty in the US”?…of course there is. The thing that is different here is that it is literally everywhere. Not just in isolated places. So am I becoming desensitized to suffering or has the shock of seeing it so prevalent worn off? I am not sure. All I do know is that I cannot give money to everyone who asks. I am but one person. What I can do though is offer up what abilities and skills I have.

Among other things, I am a fiber artist. I know how to sew, knit, crochet, make baskets, and various other skills. So beginning on Monday I will be devoting some of my free time to working at a facility called Madamfo Pa. They make, quilts, bags, clothing and whatnot to sell. The proceeds are used to pay the school fees and expenses for children who could not attend school otherwise. The woman that I interviewed with was very kind and excited to not only teach me what she knew but also for me to show her how to use her fabric scraps to make rugs and baskets. I look forward to the creative exchange.

Because I do not want to focus on only the difficulties here I would like to tell you about a few of the things I have noticed the last few weeks that amuse/endear me to Ghana.

-Since I have introduced myself to the man who runs the cafeteria downstairs (his name is Daniel) he always makes a point to say hello to me and use my name. I have been practicing my Twi with him. People are so kind here.

-It is not at all unusual for butterflies to be fluttering around my classroom in the middle of a lecture. There is no air conditioning in the classrooms so the windows are often left open to catch the breeze. How lovely.

-I told the girl who cleans the hostel where I live how much I enjoy listening to her sing while she works and now she makes a point to sing when she knows I am in and always greets me when I pass by. Again, people are so kind here.

-I mentioned this in a Facebook post but I saw a billboard the other day for a facility that advertises the ability to get cleaner and firmer vagina, for a more fulfilling marriage (I don’t even want to go into all the of the feminist alarm bells going off here). The model on the billboard had some kind of gold band around her thigh. I have no idea what a cleaner and firmer vagina entails but I wasn’t about to ask my driver to slow down so I could take a picture. It probably would have embarrassed him as much as me

-There is such thing as hot pink toilet seats. One of the best bathrooms on campus has them. (I find it very amusing that I know where the “good” bathrooms are).

Being here is truly an extraordinary and life changing experience.

Until next time..

Peace to you my friends,

T

 

 

Africa in the Abstract

Hello All,  I recently was assigned an essay in the Cultural intensive class that I have been taking part in for the last four weeks here in Ghana.  I was given some subject areas and other than that was free to write whatever I wanted.  My wonderful first reader on much of my work (my hubby) recommended I post this as a blog entry as it is a pretty good description of my experiences here thus far.

Hope you enjoy it!

Peace to you my friends,

T

Africa in the Abstract

“I am having a surreal experience”, I think.  My head is against the window of the bus that carries my fellow study-abroad students and me to the Kakum Rainforest and to Cape Coast in Ghana.  I am overcome with exhaustion after 24 hours of travel followed by three nights with only a few hours of sleep. Have I only been in Ghana for a few days?  It feels much longer.  African pop music plays in the background, drifting down from the radio speakers.  The scenery of the countryside that flies by us is something that I have only seen in movies.  This feels like a movie.  Like the opening scene of some action film with the camera behind me showing the view I am seeing and you just know that the revolution or bomb or ambush is going to happen at any moment.  I literally pinch myself because I cannot believe that I am here, that this is me doing this. The scenery that I have been watching through the bus windows shocks me.

I am shocked by the miles of poverty that I see fly by the windows of the bus and this reaction surprises me.  I see entire villages that are made of homes in various states of dilapidation.  Houses made of scraps of wood and mud, no windows and dirt floors.  I admire the ingenuity of the people making homes with what is available to them.  When the bus stops we are inundated by people hawking their goods.  They tap the windows and look at us with eyes that are begging us to open the window and buy whatever it is that they are selling, the smoked fish, the chewing gum, the shoes, the packets of dried plantain. For sale is anything at all that a motorist passing by is willing to pay a few Cedi for.  As the bus pulls away some desperately chase us imploring us to quickly make a purchase.  Many of the women have the double burden of carrying not only their product on their heads but also their babies on their backs.  I wonder how many hours a day do they spend on the hot cement, dodging cars and selling their wares?  I am in awe of how hard they must work for what must be a few Cedi a day.  I feel quite deeply that there is a disconnect here with what I had thought Ghana was going to be like and the reality of what I am seeing.

The disconnect surprises me because I had had spent the last semester of my studies in the United States doing research papers for all of my classes on one aspect of Ghana or another.  I thought that I knew what to expect.  This is why when a few days after the trip to the rainforest and Cape Coast, when I am attending a lecture, what one of the professors says strikes me so deeply.  I can’t even remember which speaker it was because the day we attended the roundtable discussion where I think he has spoken, I was quite ill.  I had the wherewithal however to scratch what he had said in my journal. He said that for most people in North America and Europe, Africa is only an abstract.

Looking back now on when this all started for me, I understand exactly what that speaker meant by viewing Africa as an abstract.  When I applied to the study abroad program and researched the schools that would best work for a major in Women’s Studies, I was given three choices.  The first was Ontario, Canada.  I have been to Ontario and I knew that I was not what I was looking for in a study abroad experience.. I thought that it would be like going to school in Ohio.  The second choice offered me was South Africa at the Nelson Mandela University.  That program was much more attractive to me, but the choice that really got my attention was the University of Ghana. I began to research my options in earnest. I wanted to know what the countries were like and how an older student would fare participating in each particular California State University International Program (CSUIP).  I ultimately chose Ghana because if I was going to a foreign country to study abroad then I wanted a culture as unlike my own as possible.  When I told the CSUIP director at my school this, she had a knowing smile on her face and informed me then I definitely chose the right program in selecting Ghana.

I had wanted to both prepare myself for the culture of Ghana and gain knowledge of the history of the country so I worked with the head of the Women’s Studies Department and honed my research for my classes on a few areas of interest that would fulfill the requirements of my Women’s Studies major. One area was foreign aid, and how the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) have held up Ghana as a shining example of the successful implementation of Structural Adjustment Programs that were implemented. This is despite their very high levels of poverty. I wanted to know by what measure were the World Bank and IMF considering their financial programs a success and how did those in Ghana feel about it?  Knowing that as a general rule, poverty more adversely affects women this area applied to my major.

In my typical style of study, I did a great deal of research.  I easily read and referenced at least thirty different peer reviewed papers on the subject. I found online Ghanaian newspapers and read those exhaustively.  I read, multiple times, the entire seventeen page speech that the newly elected president Nana Akufo-Addo gave to the parliament of Ghana regarding the State of the Nation in February 2017.  I researched my subject thoroughly and wrote my papers. Having done all of this I felt confident that I had a more than average knowledge of the country and when I heard that I had been accepted into the program and that I actually was going to Ghana, I was excited for what I viewed a this once in a lifetime opportunity.  I felt prepared but still (though I did not know it) Africa was only an abstract for me.

I have been in Ghana for just over a month now and the last four weeks of the Ghana Society and Culture intensive class have been quite the whirlwind experience. It has been a lot to absorb. Yes I have done a great deal of research and reading about Ghana.  Reading and research is one thing, however being here has taught me that reality is an entirely different experience.  I have been guilty of viewing Ghana and the problems that I researched as an abstract. That is why the words that professor spoke so resonated with me. This leads me to wonder how much of the research I have read viewed Africa as only an abstract?

What led me to question the research I had used was reading the monograph given to me during the first full day here in Ghana written by Dr. Dan-Bright S. Dzorgbo titled Foreign Aid and Ghana: Power Dynamics of Partnership in Development.  Dr. Dzorgbo is a sociology professor at the University of Ghana. Certainly there are a multitude of papers and articles written criticizing the IMF and World Bank for their Structural Adjustment Programs and questioning their motives but I realized that none of the papers I had read were written by someone who was actually from Ghana. The only exception would be the address to parliament given by the president of Ghana and even then he was not critical of the IMF or World Bank.

Interestingly Dr. Dzorgbo uses the philosophical framework of the post-structuralism sociologist, Michel Foucault to analyze the power structure involved in foreign aid to Africa, in particular the IMF and World Bank.  Dzorgbo states, “The persistent underdevelopment of certain nations serves an important goal; it provides the contrasting context for legitimizing and justifying the Western path of development”. In other words it benefits the aid institutions in the West to keep Africa in need of aid because it furthers their financial interests and justifies the means in which they do it.  Dzorgbo is not shy regarding his criticisms of Western lending institutions and their stranglehold on the discourse of how development should look, particularly in formerly colonized countries like Ghana.  Dzorgbo goes on to state, “The industrialized societies have devised a more insidious form of control, in this case through the aid establishment and changing development discourse, to replace colonialism and the naked display of imperial power in their quest to secure foreign resources”. Said another way colonialism has not been eradicated in Ghana rather it has been repackaged in a much more palatable and subtle way in the form of the conditionality of foreign aid.

There is danger in this repackaging however.  This danger is that a large part of the Western world views Africa as an abstract, which makes it easier for a very small group of lenders, like those who control the IMF and the World Bank, to continue to extricate resources from developing countries like those in Africa at the expense of the people who inhabit those countries with little or no repercussions.  All the while presenting themselves as benevolent benefactors whose only interest is to spread democracy and to aid those poor unfortunate souls in, what is presented as underdeveloped and inferior societies.  Not surprisingly the reality is much different.

President Nana Akufo-Addo gives evidence to the true reality in his State of the Nation address he gave in February 2017.  One of the more shocking statistics that the president cites is when he states, “Ghana’s total revenue is consumed by three main budgetary lines: wages and salaries, interest payments and amortization and statutory payments. These three items alone account for 99.6% of government revenue. This means that anything else that government has to do outside of these lines will have to be financed by borrowing or aid”. Things like health care, road maintenance, education and all other social services.  This gives lending agencies like the IMF and World Bank tremendous power over the governing of Ghana.

What I have seen first hand now is how this power has been abused and most certainly does not serve the best interests of the vast majority of Ghanaians.  One only has to drive through Accra and see the conditions of the infrastructure to witness it. Or experience the intermittent power outages that occur here, which disrupts not only the lives of people but also the functioning of businesses.  Or look at the extremely high unemployment rates. Which brings me to a conversation I had on the plane ride from London to Accra.  I was sitting next to a very nice Ghanaian gentleman who had sought and found work in London but also resided part time in Ghana, where his family and fiancé reside.  When he found out how long I was going to be in his home country he paused and looked at me very seriously then he gave me some advice.  He told me to pace myself.  I was unsure of what he was talking about and asked for clarification.  He said that many people would ask me for help but the need was much greater than I would be able to give.  He told me that I would get used to the overwhelming need and would have to turn a blind eye to it.  Yes poverty is a part of Ghana but it is also so much more.

The Ghana that I am still learning about and that I look forward to getting to know even better is the beauty of this country and culture.  I think of the small village I saw where the children were giggling and laughing as they took turns pumping the water from the well.  I think of the beauty of the weaving and the pride taken in the artistry of weavers.  I think of the centrality of family here that has all but disappeared in the United States.  I think of all the kind people who have gone out of their way to help me when I asked, or even when I did not ask. I think of the girl I see who cleans the halls of the hostel where I live and how she sings while she works when she thinks no one is around.  I think of the liveliness and laughter I hear every evening from the Night Market that is just yards away from the window to my room.  These are all the things that make Africa and especially Ghana much more than an abstract

 

 

Works Cited

Dzorgbo, D. S. (2012). Foreign aid and Ghana: power dynamics of partnership in development. Accra: Institute for Democratic Governance.

State of the Nation Address – Home – Ghana Business News. (2017, February 21). Retrieved September 8, 2017, from https://www.bing.com/cr?IG=7269349457E44CD9BEF24B39662814C8&CID=26384C25C95C6F840C6646DDC85A6EFD&rd=1&h=Y9iJT_N2TQjL3H1ZOtR01v7UpZP5EIoHQCS1wa7KVMI&v=1&r=https%3a%2f%2fwww.ghanabusinessnews.com%2fwp-content%2fuploads%2f2017%2f02%2fState-of-the-Nation-Address_2017.pdf&p=DevEx,5065.1