Sunday, September 26, 2010

Serenity Is Not Freedom From the Storm...

Another Saturday, another story.
This week Julia and I set off for Xavi, an ecotourism spot famous for its appeal to birdwatchers.
Getting there, as always, is half the...uh, fun.
Julia and I found a tro-tro to Akatsi and were actually lucky enough to get seats in the front, next to the driver. Two hours later we were on the roadside in Akatsi going "Uhh...where is everyone?" There was hardly anyone around and the people we could see weren't greeting us, or even really looking at us. It was pretty disconcerting. Though less disconcerting than the apparent absence of taxis.
We stopped at a repair shop to ask directions from some motorbike drivers and, wouldn't you know we chose the only three people in all of Ghana who actually didn't want to talk to us. Finally some guy helped us get a motorbike. The driver turned out to be really nice and even agreed to stay in Xavi so we would have a ride back. Still, if you ever come to Ghana, I'd suggest skipping Akatsi. What a grumpy town!
Six dusty kilometers later we were in Xavi. We were a little concerned about the time because it was already almost 4 (remember it gets dark at 6) and we had no idea how we were going to find a tro-tro back to Aflao from the ghost town. Then our guide announces it's a 45-minute walk to the river. Not for the first time, Julia and I looked at each other and went, "UHH...." but of course we decided to go anyway. Perhaps against our better judgment, but we had travelled almost three hours and there was no way we were giving up that easily.
As we set off through Xavi Julia tells me, "I'm pretty worried about how we're going to get home."
I shrug. "Nothing bad can happen if two yevus are together. It's a natural law or something. It was the first thing they told me when I arrived in Ghana."
"I think you just made that up."
"I have no idea what you're talking about."
Well anyway, thank goodness for the Ghanaian perception of time. One thing holds unerringly true about the Ghanaians' estimations when it comes to time/distance: It will be wrong. I say this with a smile and a total appreciation for their attitude towards meeting times, appointments..... curfews : )
A Ghanaian who says they're 5 minutes away will arrive in 15 or 20. Yet the supposedly 3-hour drive to Ho has never taken me more than 2. And, in this case, our 45-minute walk to the river took about 20.
Our destination was the Lotor River, which used to be famous for its crocodiles- says the guide as we climb into an unsteady hollowed-out canoe floating all of 5 inches above the waterline. Which is right next to the canoe that has sunk. Oh goody. He added that they were hunted to extinction here long ago, but I was still a little paranoid. We did see two little alligators from a distance, but I figure if I can get away with at least 3 of my hands and feet I don't need to worry.

Our tour of the Lotor River ended up being the most peaceful, relaxing afternoon I've had yet in Ghana.
It was absolutely gorgeous.

The Western world's tendency to romanticize Africa is as prevalent and sadly mistaken as its tendency to condemn it. The reality is Africa is a harsh place of dangerous situations and difficult decisions. It's a vibrant place with a rich culture and beautiful potential. A simplified lifestyle may be "better" than our chaotic lives of modern convenience, but involves significantly more time and labor. The overwhelming poverty brings out humanity's incredible generosity and perseverance, but also its weakness for violence, anger and depression. 
People, countries, continents just can't be put into one neat category over the other, and it's a struggle for me
to maintain a balanced perspective.
Sometimes it's hard for me to hold back my judgment, but more often- as someone who has been dreaming about Africa for as long as I can remember- I have to remind myself not to idealize it.
That said, the one thing I have allowed myself to fall unreservedly head over heels in love with is the land.
The path to the river took us to the top of a ridge where the view was literally breathtaking. Thick green grass and enormous, gnarled trees stretched across the rolling hills as far as the eye could see. The sky was a deep blue with shockingly white clouds. Even the soil is a gorgeous dark red. The river was muddy, deep (8-15 meters) and slow-moving, but full of waterlilies and overhanging vegetation. Brightly-colored birds flitted around us, filling the air with their calls. Dragonflies zoomed from place to place as the late afternoon sunlight slanted through the tops of the trees.

If the Garden of Eden was a literal place, I'm sure it was somewhere in Africa.

Lotor River Tour


"Serenity is not freedom from the storm, but peace amid the storm." ~ Anonymous

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Where The Somewhat Wild Things Are

Julia and I embarked on our first weekend adventure today!

Adventure abounds when you set two eighteen-year-old girls loose on Ghana by themselves... : )

Our destination was the Tafi Atome Monkey Sanctuary.

The sanctuary protects the Mona Monkeys, who are considered sacred in that region. The people there believe that when the monkeys migrated to the Tafi Atome area, they brought the gods with them. 
Tafi Atome is a tiny, tiny village 5 km from Logba Alekpeti, a slightly larger village somewhere roughly halfway between the major cities of Ho and Hohoe. Our day got off to an interesting start when we arrived at the Aflao tro-tro station just in time for pouring rain to turn the entire city into a giant mud puddle. (The tro-tro's, by the way, are the rickety vans that will take you anywhere in Ghana for a handful of cedis if you're willing to cram into them with 15 to 20 other people.) We snacked for a while until the rain let up enough for us to find a tro-tro headed to Ho. The street food here is lethal- it's ridiculously cheap and ridiculously delicious. We munched all day and realized later that our "splurging" had only resulted in spending the equivalent of about $3 apiece. After arriving at Ho, we found a second tro-tro going to Hohoe and got off at Logba Alekpeti, where we hired a cab to take us to Tafi Atome. Funny how that five hour process can be summed up in one sentence...Travelling in Ghana- and probably pretty much any developing country- is all about waiting. Wait for a tro-tro to come, wait for the tro-tro to fill, wait for the driver to decide he's ready to start, wait for the person next to you to finish buying pineapple through the window... 

A very helpful woman on the tro-tro had advised us to buy bananas to lure in the monkeys. Which Julia and I, being the Westerners we are, assumed meant we would throw the bananas on the ground and wait for the monkeys to come so we could see them relatively close up......

Ha ha ha, as if anything in Ghana is that reserved... 

I think I have a new definition of "close up."

Our guide led us into the woods and started making loud kissing sounds, and within moments dozens of monkeys started appearing out of seemingly no where. He showed us how to firmly hold a banana and offer it to the monkeys. To our surprise, they came right up to us and ate it out of our hands, peeling it and breaking off pieces to shove into their mouths with their tiny, humanlike fingers.

Hand-feeding monkeys in Africa is definitely one of the coolest things I've ever done!


Of course this begs the question: weren't you scared the monkeys were going to bite you? Of course it was a bit nervewracking at times - please note my expression in the photo when two of them simultaneously leaped onto my arm and started fighting over the banana! But although they're definitely wild, they're very used to humans, so it wasn't scary. They were very grabby (imagine offering two dozen toddlers a handful of M&M's...), but they snatched it with their fingers, not their teeth. Well...except one. You have to hold onto the banana very tightly and just inch your hand down little by little as they eat it so they don't take the whole thing at once. However one monkey decided I wasn't moving along fast enough and shoved his entire face into my hand!
Julia and I had a blast! Ten bananas were definitely not enough!

The excitement wasn't over when the bananas were gone though.
Almost as soon as the last peel hit the ground, we heard a strange croaking sound echoing through the forest. The guide explained that the chief monkey was using his command voice to call the others back to him. And sure enough, the minion monkeys all but disappeared.

We got very lucky though, because the chief came out of his hiding place deep in the trees and made an appearance for us! He was significantly bigger than the others, and much more dignified.

In the end, our time with the monkeys was much too short, but definitely worth the effort to get there!
For all the difficult aspects of my decision to come live here for a year, I think the pros outweigh the cons at the end of the day.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

A Boy Named Courage

I brought my violin to the orphanage for the first time yesterday, which turned out to be the most remarkable experience I have ever had in my ten years as a musician- all because of a 15-year-old boy named Courage.

Me teaching a boy violin
After I played a couple songs, a lot of the kids wanted to try playing for themselves. They boisterously jostled to be next in line to shove it under their chin and awkwardly screech the strings.
That is, until Courage stepped forward and asked me to teach him a scale. Using simplified English and as few musical terms as possible, I showed him the fingering pattern for a basic G Major Scale. (Thankfully, this is the violin I initially learned on, so it still has the markings for where your fingers go, which makes it much easier to teach with.)

Courage teaching his newfound skill
Courage, like most Ghanaians, didn't know what a violin was before he saw mine. Everyone thinks it's some type of guitar. He had never even seen one, much less held or played one. But within ten minutes, he could play a correct 2-octave G Major scale (which, for you non-violinists, involves using all four strings). Even more astounding was that after playing it through about a dozen times, he turned around and began teaching it to the other older boys gathered around with no input from me. I stepped back and watched him explain this completely new skill without help and without error.
After the novelty of the scale wore off, I slowly played "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star" ONCE, making sure Courage could watch my fingers. Without hesitation, he took the violin and played it back to me slowly but correctly.

My jaw literally dropped. I have never seen someone with so much raw, natural talent for music.

Perhaps without having seen Courage in action, it doesn't seem as remarkable as it truly was. But this kid went from having no idea a violin existed, to playing a song on it from memory within 20 minutes. Most people couldn't do that even though they've been exposed to violins their whole life.

He played even better than that, but I think the camera made him nervous.
Anyway, I'm hoping he'll give me lessons in another couple weeks.

It Takes A Village

Yesterday I seriously considered switching host families.

Not because of the family itself. The couple I live with, Worfa and Victoria, are amazing!

* Just a side not about Worfa's name: The -or stands for a letter in the Ewe alphabet that looks like a backwards c and make simply an "au" sound. Also the W is basically silent, so his name is pronounced "Ofa." *

They've been very welcoming and kind, and have done everything possible to make me feel comfortable. My motivation for wanting to switch was purely about location. My house is on the very edge of Aflao. I have to walk 40 minutes to and from the orphanage 4 times a day- once there in the morning, home for lunch, back from lunch, back home in the evening- or pay for a taxi. This is within my abilities of course, but not very practical. Especially when there was a potential opening at a house literally next door to the orphanage- which incidentally would also situate me much closer to central Aflao, the beach, and the other volunteers.

I talked it over with Julia when we met at the beach yesterday evening, and I fully intended to speak with Sylvester, my program coordinator, about it today. It was pouring when we left to go home. Naturally the only taxi I could catch was a motorbike, so of course I was soaked by the time I'd reached the other side of town. I was also wearing my glasses, which got wet and fogged up. I stumbled home blindly and walked inside. Before I could even wipe my glasses to see clearly, I heard a chorus of "Yevu!" "Katherine!" "Woezor!" "How are you?" "Welcome!" and something attached itself to my knees.

When I cleared my glasses, I realized that all our neighbors had gathered to watch Worfa and Victoria's TV. People come over all the time to watch it in any weather- it's quite the social asset!- but especially when it rains and they can't sit outside. About a half dozen women and their large assortment of children, most of whom are already familiar to me, were huddled in the living room, trying to hear the movie over the noise of the rain pounding on the metal roof. Lucky, our neighbor's one-year-old daughter, had immediately toddled over and grabbed my legs by way of greeting.

Something about that moment struck me. I had the profound realization:
I'm home.

There's not a single doubt in my mind now that I can't switch houses. My fate was sealed when the women finally left and they all called goodbye to me and shook my hand. I'm part of their community now. I've been adopted by a half dozen foster mothers. The neighborhood kids follow me and grab my hands when I walk, and I know their names. In truth, I should've known I was where I'd stay when Sylvester and I were going to leave for the festival this past weekend and Victoria said both jokingly and sincerely,

"Stay here! Where could you possibly be going? You're aready home!"

Rain coming in off the Atlantic

Don't Leave Home Without It

At the risk of sounding melodramatic, the first week here was about the worst of my life.

Homesickness is like a vampire. Not the Stephanie Meyer kind that sparkles in the sunlight and makes you fall desperately in love. It's more like the Bram Stoker kind comes out at night and will suck you dry if you don't have the right kind of garlic. During the days, I barely think about home. But almost literally the minute the sun sets, a longing for the comfort of the familiar overwhelms me. Anyone who has experienced real loneliness can tell you it's the heaviest feeling. Perhaps not the worst, but the heaviest. That's the only way I know how to describe it. It sits on your chest and suffocates you.

I didn't anticipate how deeply I would feel the loss of western culture. I realized I would miss various aspects of it, like 24-hour grocery stores and fluffy pop songs...oh wait, Justin Bieber is on the radio here too, nevermind that one. Turns out that so far it's not the things I miss, but the common bond and culture those things help to create. I miss having people around who laugh at my jokes, or who get my pop culture references. Having someone I can sit down with at the end of the day and say "Hey, this is what I experienced today..." who won't A) misunderstand half of what I'm saying and B) not get why something like fufu is so weird to me in the first place. When I was in Guatemala for a service trip last year, I didn't realize how important it was to be able to sit down with my other group members every night and rehash the day's events. It wasn't until I got here that I recognized what a crucial role those talks had in terms of allowing me to process and resolve difficult situations. There is a fine line between immersing yourself in a culture, and losing yourself to it. I seem to have faceplanted over that line, or something equally ungraceful.

And then salvation came in the form of an 18-year-old German girl named Julia.

I was at the orphanage, and caught sight of another yevu across the compound. Naturally I went running over and introduced myself. She was German also, and told me she was leaving the next day but there was another girl staying until December who was really upset at the prospect of being left alone in Aflao. I eagerly agreed to go meet this other girl (Julia), and off we went. I spent the whole afternoon with them and a third German guy. It was my first contact with other Westerners since I got to Ghana. I can hardly describe how good it felt to speak ENGLISH for several hours, without the other people lapsing into Ewe.

What might have been another day of misery turned into an exciting day of "firsts":

My first ride on a motorcycle taxi!
My first fresh coconut.
My first Star beer, their national brand.
The first time I went out after dark.
My first time on the beach here in Aflao.
My first Pompom soda.
The first time I felt even somewhat comfortable here.

The other Germans left the next morning, but Julia and I met in the evening again and spent several more hours talking. She's been here for two months, so she's gotten the hang of life as a yevu in Aflao. She's already helping teach me taxi routes, basic prices, more useful Ewe phrases. Maybe even more crucial to my mental and emotional health, she's given me a social life! I may be a volunteer, but I'm still a teenager! I desperately needed someone I could go to the beach with, travel with on the weekends and whatnot.

Back off homesickness- Julia's my new garlic!


Kente Cloth

Almost as soon as I got to Aflao, I left again. I arrived at my host family home Wednesday evening, and Thursday evening Sylvester and I traveled back the way we'd just come to attend a festival in a town called Kpetoe. The festival is called Agbamevorza, which means "Cloth festival". It celebrates Kente cloth, which represents the center of the Agotime region's culture and economy. It's a beautiful hand-woven cloth that gets exported all over Ghana, and probably farther.

The first day of the festival introduced me to REAL African culture.

You know the stereotypical perception of African culture? Half-naked people dancing wildly to pounding drum music, chanting and performing strange rituals?

  That was exactly what it was like.

It was most primitive, wild scene I have ever witnessed, and I don't mean that to be demeaning in any way. That's simply the only way to describe the celebration.
The main procession consisted of the chiefs, preceeded by women carrying their elaborately carved stools on their heads. A special woman carried a basket full of symbolic objects on her head. She was in a sort of trance, probably induced by the drugs she took to dull the pain of carrying that much weight for so long. She stumbled around the central field in random directions, her eyes mostly closed, mumbling incoherently. She was followed by a group of about five other women who constantly fanned her and chanted. The rest of the crowd, dressed in red and black, formed a ring around the field. They danced, chanted, pounded drums and fired rifles into the air.
The ceremonies were narrated almost entirely in Ewe, so I didn't really understand what was going on. One particularly interesting moment required no explanation though: A man took center stage, dancing wildly with a live chicken held by its neck in his teeth. He swung his head forcefully until the momentum of his movements beheaded the chicken. He then proceeded to eat the raw, feathered head and gave the body to another man to drink the blood.

I apologize for the graphic explanation, but real African culture is rarely PC. And the thing was, this whole ritual with the chicken didn't even phase me. In retrospect it was a bit disconcerting, but in context it almost seemed normal. It was just another part of the noise and chaos I'd been surrounded by for hours.

Procession of Chiefs' stools

The second day of the festival was for publicity, so it was much more refined. We sat in chairs in a different field and listened to a number of chiefs and government officials give speeches. It was televised, so they spoke English. I tuned most of it out anyway though... The first lady of Ghana gave a speech. Kind of cool that I've seen her in person.

Overall the festival threw me headfirst into the vibrancy that IS Africa. From the bold colors and patterns in the clothing to the spicy food to the infectious rhythms of the drums, Africa pulses with life. Ghana is bursting with the energy that has always drawn me to this huge, diverse continent.

In the words of Shakira: Esto es Africa!

Wednesday, September 1, 2010


That means welcome in Ewe (Ae-way), the native dialect spoken in the town where I live. I'm starting to pick up the basics: please (medekoko), thank you (akpe), good evening (fie), etc. The people here speak it all the time, so I'll either learn it fast or spend 8 out of 9 months in a state of confusion.
Last night, Sylvester got me a hotel room in Ho and we went through all my debriefing stuff, then he left around 10. And as I closed the door I had the revelation that I'd never spent the night in a hotel alone, and now I was doing it for the first time on my first night in Africa...
My new home is in Aflao, several hours away from Ho right on the coast.
Ghana is an amazing place so far. It reminds me a lot of Guatemala, actually. (The Tigo advertisements plastered everywhere should amuse my International Samaritan buddies). The buildings are low and many are brightly colored with corrugated metal roofs. Some of the third-world/African stereotypes hold: There's raw sewage running through the deep, open gutters in the streets and I've seen many people publically adding to that. Dogs, chickens, goats and black pigs roam the streets, although they do have owners to go home to at night. Women in brightly colored clothing walk along with enormous bundles balanced effortlessly on their heads. And we've driven through plenty of small villages with your stereotypical mud huts and straw roofs.
Driving has been by the far the most interesting experience so far...and incidentally the thing I've done the most of. There's no such thing as lanes, speed limits are as fast as you can go without going off the road, no road signs, and forget seatbelts- cars are lucky to have both rearview mirrors and a gas cap. And horns are used to signify passing, turning, greetings, warnings to pedestrians, annoyance, stopping....the existance of life. Also, I will never complain about Michigan's potholes ever again! I went to see a "bottomless pit" in a cave once, but it must've just been a Ghanaian pothole that got misplaced because they're virtually the same thing.
I've ignored other third-world stereotypes though. I've eaten everything offered to me, even if it came from the street vendors- wouldn't my travel clinic nurse just love that. She'd probably be wondering why I haven't dropped dead yet. I don't have much to worry about from pickpockets, at least in the day time. And there are definitely waaaay more mosquitos in my US backyard than there seem to be here. Maybe it's the season? But I've only seen maybe two or three so far. (Don't worry, Mom, I'm still taking my doxy and using the mosquito net anyway.)
My house has cement walls and floors with a corrugated metal roof. There's a fence of woven palm branches around the courtyard. I live at the very end of a long dirt path off the main road, about a 30 minute walk from the orphanage. I will leave at 7 every morning, walk to the orphanage, teach in the mornings when school is in session, leave at 11:30 to walk back home for lunch at noon, return at 1 or 2 and stay until 5:30 when I am home for the night. My route takes me down the main road, so I pass by all the businesses in Aflao and can really get a feeling for the town, which is a lot bigger than you might expect. There is a well in our courtyard and a couple towering coconut trees. The ground is rust-colored sand, very desert-y. Lizards run around like squirrels; I keep thinking they're mice! I have electricity and (obviously) internet access in my house, but no running water. An outhouse and a screened off area for bucket showers are my bathroom facilities instead. My room is probably bigger than most of my friends' dorm rooms, especially because it only has a bed and a small table in it- and considering my only roommates are some cockroaches and crickets. I'm sure the lack of plumbing and furniture will annoy me at times, but I really am glad I get a more authentic African experience.
Well, it's 11:30 here and I need to be up a little before 6, so I will write more later! Hope that gave you at least a snapshot of what my life is going to be like here though.  : )