Sunday, September 26, 2010

Recollections of the Gold Coast

The internet is a terribly distracting place, isn't it? ...particularly when you link yourself to things like Facebook, Twitter, Google Buzz, Google Reader (the wonderfulness of which I'm learning to appreciate), etc. - there are just so many damn things calling out for your attention. Thus, in the midst - or rather, in the stead - of doing class readings the other day, I found myself linked to an online photo album from a fellow Dickinsonian's time spent in Uganda. In no time, my mind had relocated from the Middle East and China (where it should have been, had I stayed focused on my readings) back to Africa. The album not only offered a fantastic display of photos, but also - and perhaps more importantly - brought to mind my own time in Africa. West Africa, to be precise. Ghana.


Though Uganda and Ghana are, in fact, on fairly opposite ends of the continent, clicking through the album instantly transported me back to Tema, Accra, Aburi, Cape Coast, Akosombo, Krobo... I was back in Ghana.


The African sun beating down on barefoot kids playing soccer (correction: football), people working outside, lounging outside, living outside, milling through the streets. I'd never seen so many people along the side of a road in my life. Some older women sat frying and selling kelewele by the flickering light of oil lamps, some offered handicrafts, others hawked anything from side tables to windshield wipers or sold phone credit. Throughout the day, the dirt, pot-holed roadways that passed for streets were peopled with men selling wood carvings or hauling trolleys piled high with coconuts, machete at the ready to hack off the top for a thirsty passerby. Women sold tilapia and banku, bofrot, mangoes and melons, dresses and cloth, balancing trays of eggs or bread atop their heads and a child strapped to their backs... Mother Africa.


Forget the sheer beauty of the country for now, it's the people that come to mind. In a country that proudly notes itself as one of the most stable and democratic of Africa - what's more, claiming title as the first black African country to gain its independence - Ghanaians also hold claim to a reputation for friendliness, and for good reason. Naturally, I stood out in the country. Naturally, I was most commonly referred to as "obroni," or white person, foreigner. Never was it in a rude or negatively discriminatory manner.... somehow, I almost wish it was, at times. Perhaps that would've been a sign of pride in being Ghanaian (beyond supporting the Black Stars in the World Cup), a recognition that I was no better than they merely because I am lighter skinned. Instead, I was - and am - afraid to imagine how easily white visitors in particular could, and surely do, take advantage of the situation. Thus the danger of being too friendly, too trusting, too self-degrading in looking up to others.


But I digress. Upon my return, of course people asked about my trip - asking was, after all, socially obligatory. A girl goes to Africa and you don't ask "How was Africa?" Right. The trouble remains, though, that there is no way to accurately sum up a country, and even if there were, you'd miss out on the little details that truly made the experience what it was. I wouldn't get to tell you about the children following me through the market, let alone the sights, sounds, and smells of the place. And I wouldn't get to tell you about an afternoon spent wandering through the Accra crafts market and chatting with a few of the young craftsmen. David, Solomon, and Anthony... I'm determined to remember them, and their stories. David, who roped me in with a friendly manner and small talk, explaining his carvings and masks, their histories and origins, introducing me to his friends and fellow craftsmen, all men in their mid-20s. Solomon, one of the aforementioned friends, who led the group back past the dirt soccer field, brilliant blue ocean in the background, as he told me his story and wended the way back to his stall of paintings - the son of a village elder in Burkina Faso, come to Accra in search of work. And Anthony, the ridiculously tall and gangly young man who called himself their brother and shocked the Agyares' driver, Atta, by jumping up to greet me the moment I arrived at the market a few days after my first visit.


I had a good time pleasantly surprising Atta, when I could - the odd obroni girl who had friends in the crafts market, who stuck with him as we wove our way through the Makola market, the most absurdly large and overwhelming beast of a market I've ever seen. The oddity that insisted upon saying hello and "meda ase" (thank you) to the live-in help - or, what's more, learning to say "Please, I can do it myself" in Twi to stop the elderly woman from constantly attempting to clear my dishes or offer me food. Or, apparently the most pleasantly entertaining factors for him, holding my own when bargaining, in my own silly manner, or walking down the street to buy bofrot from a nearby vendor for a whopping 30 cents (pesewas). I was later informed of the apparently endearing peculiarity of this: tourists don't eat things like bofrot, only Ghanaians do - that is, working and lower class Ghanaians. I'd raised myself in this man's opinion without even realizing it.


The fact that I'm still babbling is evidence not only to my verbosity (though it's that, too), but to the many stories involved in getting to know any country or people. There's so much to see, do, experience, talk about, marvel at. On one hand, I wish photos could capture it. On the other hand, I'm glad they don't. It lends a certain value to the stories and the memories, written, discussed, and kept buried away in our thoughts.


The mysterious entrance to what turned out to be the Tema market... a massive and crowded labyrinth awaits you beyond that narrow entryway in the background.
The crafts market in Aburi, of the Eastern Region (also home of the Botanical Gardens): shanty upon shanty of wooden carvings, masks, local instruments, jewelry, and eager salesmen and women, each insisting "It's free to look! Come in, come in!"
The canopy walk of Kakum National Park, in the Central Region: 100% worth the vaguely terrifying trip there and the hike up to the start of the walk. I have no idea how people have time to be afraid in this situation - the sheer beauty of it all is much too distracting to be bothered by things like the ridiculously slim possibility of plunging to the ground.
Beginning the walk from Kakum back to Cape Coast, public transportation being limited to shared taxis and tro tros (aka death vans packed to the brim with people).
Cape Coast, just over four hours east of Accra along the coastline, and home of Cape Coast Castle, a former fortress and slave hold - the unavoidable evidence of the grim truths of the Atlantic slave trade.
Street vendors in Accra certainly made good on the Black Stars' impressive run towards the World Cup semi-finals. A sad twist of fate and a notorious Uruguayan by the name of Louis Suarez (who would be in physical danger if he ever again steps foot on African soil) ended their run in the quarter finals, but no one could say that Ghana did not make Africa proud - and had the whole continent behind her, in the mean time.
The town of Krobo, in the Eastern Region, Shai Hills in the distance.

Below: A mosque near the Agyares' home in Tema, just east of Accra. Though the majority of Ghanaians are Christian (nearly 70%), 16% are Muslim and nearly 9% are "traditional"... keeping in mind, of course, that tribal tradition can - and does - easily run deeper even than religion and remain an integral factor.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Skywatching...

Upon leaving work this evening (or, rather, morning), I wandered down the sidewalk with my gaze, as usual, craned towards the night sky – blame the former Astronomy TA in me. Now’s really the time to do it, too, and I encourage you to join me in checking out Jupiter in the coming days, as it is currently closer to Earth than it’s been since 1951.

I paused at the crosswalk, bookbag behind me, one arm holding my laptop and book, the other loosely hanging from the back of my neck as I stared into the sky, deep in thought. It wasn’t until he honked lightly a few times that I noticed the cab driver then passing had slowed to gauge the situation. Stirred from the reverie, I shook my head to confirm that I would not be needing his services and slowly continued my short walk back to the dorm, eyes still trained on the sky.

But I had to wonder – did I look lost?

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

"There are no right answers..."

This past Sunday evening, I decided to try something new: I went to a yoga class. Yes, yoga. Looking back on it, it may not have been the wisest decision at the time, considering my simultaneous battling of a rather unattractive cold and temporary forgetfulness that yoga is very much obsessed with breathing. Such steady breathing, as it turns out, is slightly tricky with blocked sinuses. In any case, though, I went and enjoyed.

Nearing the end of the class, the instructor veered towards slightly more meditative matters, speaking in the typical calm, soothing voice as we maintained the "corpse pose" (aka laying on the floor).

"This is the time to take account of how you're feeling, note any muscle soreness or kinks... don't judge it, just note it." Thankfully, I had no kinks to even consider judging. "...This is also a good time to make a resolution for yourself. Maybe it's just getting to bed an hour earlier, or eating healthier.... There are no right answers."

Wait. Wait wait. "There are no right answers"? My mind immediately leapt from attempting not to smirk at the idea of "judging" a muscle cramp to pondering over the apparent Freudian slip, totally skipping the whole "meditative" phase. Namely, most would say there are no wrong answers. No right answers? What an interesting thought... she certainly hadn't reversed it intentionally, but what intrigue. No right answers... take what comes and deal with it, but don't necessarily expect to find a correct answer, a solid resolution.

The slip also temporarily transported me back to Ghana, where, in a death-ride of a trip from Accra to Cape Coast, I saw painted on a wall "Count your blessing." Note: blessing, not blessings. Unintentional, but somehow painfully true as I looked around at the state of the country and the level of poverty of the majority of its citizens - you may not have much going for you, they said, but appreciate what little you do have.

Both instances were unintentional, I'm sure, and it is very possible that, as per the usual, I relegated more thought to each than would be the norm... but they're intriguing ideas nonetheless.

For better or for worse, my moment of yogi-style philosophy was interrupted as the instructor topped off her list of possible resolutions with holding the door for people, as it can be in some ways spiritually helpful for you, the door holder... and, well, I just lost any inspiration towards the serious. While I fully support courteously holding the door for others, suggesting in a slow, soothing tone that it will increase my spiritual health was just too much, particularly with the kink-judging still in mind.

It is a good thing, however, that I opted out of resolving to go to bed an hour earlier - clearly it is far too late for that. Time to hit the hay, at this ungodly hour. Namaste.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Undesireables

As I sat at lunch with a friend today, he bemoaned the large amounts of work I do compared to the seemingly small amount of the resulting (minimal) salary I spend. Why not go out and get a new pair of jeans or shoes, perhaps a dress? This is not a new debate for us, but in the course of my typical reasoning and response – namely, I neither need nor want new shoes, and all of it will necessarily be put towards paying for school loans– a new vein cropped up.

Five children in one household, I noted; you do the math. Somehow, being that mine is a mixed family, this morphed into a conversation about child support laws, when this person left that person, when this person married this person, and my general combination and balancing of school and work since the age of 16 (largely explaining my now freakish sleeping pattern).

This was one of my best friends on campus, known for three years, and even lived with for two months of this past summer – yet this was all news to him, and covered only the tiniest bit. This could partially be because it doesn’t come up on an everyday basis, and partially because it just isn’t fun or easy to even summarize a story that includes remarriages, full-blooded siblings (1), half siblings (1), and step siblings (4), when and how this happened, guesses as to why that happened, etc etc (one friend, upon hearing a summary in full, concluded that it sounded very much like a soap opera… a complicated one). Thus it goes left unsaid, not being necessary on a day-to-day basis.

After our relatively brief conversation about school loans and child support (such happy topics, no?), my friend , temporarily out of questions, paused, slowly shook his head, and commented along the lines of: “You know, sometimes I get so wrapped up in my own problems, that I forget that other people have much larger things to deal with. I mean, what is being short on cash to buy phone credit compared to…” We both fell silent for a minute, deep in our own thoughts.

This point, in my opinion, was the most crucial one to come of that conversation: we all have our problems, but sometimes it’s easy to forget that we aren’t the only one with challenges to deal with or complicated back stories. I suppose that’s yet another reason the topic didn’t come up in the three years we’ve known each other – why burden a friend with unnecessary worries? My email drafts folder could certainly testify to my restrained verbosity in that case, as I rattle off lengthy emails then relegate them to “Drafts,” never to be sent… a virtual “Island of Misfit Toys,” stuck in limbo as an undesireable.

On one hand, sure, festering is no good. One person once went so far as to decide that he thought, if written, it should be sent- no drafts folder limbo- though I’m quite sure I could change his mind if his inbox were to be inundated with the aforementioned undesireables. Of course such undesireables should get out every once in a while, see the light of day to avoid a particularly putrid stench of rot emanating from their place of limbo, but, as with everything, in moderation. A thin line at times, perhaps, but a line nonetheless.

As saddening as it is to hear – or tell – some stories or reports, it is also sobering, a necessary feature of both grounding us in reality and reminding us to appreciate everything else. Maybe, just maybe, things aren’t that terrible, aren’t as bad as we think they are at the moment. Perhaps, rather than spending time bemoaning our own issues, that time would be better spent appreciating that which is going right and/or helping someone else alleviate their troubles. If nothing else, I’ve found at least one benefit of listening to hours upon hours of even the silliest venting: it makes it easier to forget your own issues when you get caught up attempting to solve someone else’s. …Is that wrong? Should I not admit to thinking that way at times? haha…


The sobering topic, I suppose, fits with the tone of the day, the ninth anniversary of the World Trade Center attacks. While it may be heart-wrenching to remember some things from our past – be it personal or group, familial or national – it is, nonetheless, an important piece of life, if only to appreciate all else that is good.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

A thing long expected...

As I delved into class readings this afternoon, I came across a discussion of the sects of Islam, pausing as I read that Shi’a doctrine holds that the twelfth Imam (religious leader) will “at some point before the Day of Judgment, return as the Mahdi, the expected one, and will fill the earth with justice.”

There you have it, I couldn’t help thinking with a smirk. We’re all waiting.

My thoughts had conjured up this idea of their own accord, originally in reference to religion: Christians, Jews, Muslims; all waiting. The schizophrenic in me backtracked, however, when it heard that last phrase. Right, it said. We’re all waiting.

This is not a new thought for me by any stretch of the imagination, though this time, peculiarly, it had not originated out of impatience or frustration.

Waiting for someone or something to come or go, waiting for our own turn to come or go. Waiting to talk to someone or to hear from someone; to prove ourselves or for another to prove themselves. To confront something new, to wrap up, or to make amends. To grow up, or for others to grow up. For traffic, for pedestrians, for the line to move, for the next election. For appointments, for favors, for friends, for family, for food, for a coffee break, for Friday. For an opportunity, for that window opened once the door’s been closed. For plans or promises to be met or completed, for hopes and wishes to manifest themselves. We stand in the black of night, staring into the sky with our eyes peeled for that meteor shower that’s been forecasted. If we could just see one shooting star – just one. That will be enough.

In the mean time, though... what, bide our time and twiddle thumbs, distract ourselves for the sake of occupation?

Elie Wiesel’s The Gates of the Forest (if I recall correctly…) at one point describes two men, a young man and an older, more learned man, standing in a clearing of the woods, fervently willing themselves to be the spark that brings about change. It may come to nothing, but trying and failing, to them, is better than wasting time forever waiting.

There are so many different kinds of waiting, so many facets, that it seems impossible to summarize it so simply: we’re all waiting for something. Sometimes we can – and should – take action rather than sit passively and wait it out; other times, it’s best to be patient; in still other instances, perhaps it isn’t worth the wait. It’s all a matter of deciding which of those cases it is, though, isn’t it?

Sitting on a front patio in Tema, Ghana, this summer, and not yet accustomed to the typical Ghanaian dismissal of timeliness, I’d decided just that: waiting is inevitable, but I can decide when to wait and what is worth the wait.

Often enough, I guess, it doesn’t seem like waiting… we can live in and for the present, for better and/or for worse. Still, every once in a while, that feeling crops up, that waiting, that anticipation. Impatience, hope, fear, stoic fortitude…. It can come under any circumstances and in any form, but there it is.

Should I wrap up this nonsensical babbling with the over-the-top but expected “What are you waiting for?” …. No, no, that’s just too trite, too easy.

Hmm… ah, the clock in the library is still broken. They should get on that; it’s throwing me off.