Friday, December 24, 2010

Almost Merry Almost Christmas

In America, I spend Christmas Eve with my family. We have this funny tradition of having a fast food lunch to commemorate some Christmas Eve mishap I was too young to remember. We read "Twas the Night Before Christmas" and do our Secret Santa gift exchange, and usually go to a late-night Mass.

In Ghana, I spend Christmas Eve in the hospital.

I got a mosquito bite on my ankle that got scraped open when I bumped my leg a couple days ago, and yesterday it began swelling and hurting when I walked.
By this morning it had swelled so much my anklebone had all but disappeared, and I was limping badly. So I went to Hannah, a former volunteer who is back to visit, since she's a nurse. She took one look at it, goes
"This is not very good." "So it's very bad?" "Yeah."
And off we went to the hospital.

It took five tries for the nurse to find a vein in the back of my hand to give me an IV injection of antibiotics. That was my own fault though because I was so freaked out I refused to let them use a larger needle until they'd already stuck me four times without success. IV injections HURT, man, and unfortunately in my desperation to make it less painful, I made the whole ordeal a lot harder than it might have been. Lesson learned...

The good news is that the doctor said it should be better in about three days - just in time for my Cape Coast trip with Andy and Karina :) Infections happen and with antibiotics I'll be back on my feet in no time.
And like Andy said, "Well I'm glad it's not a flesh-eating disease or something like that." Yeah. That makes two of us.

So if I spend Christmas Eve in the hospital, where in the world will I end up for Christmas Day?? Uh oh...
Merry Christmas, everyone!

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Bushbuks And The Door Of No Return

I'm playing a little bit of catch-up here, so sorry things are a bit out of order.
The week of November 27th, Julia and I took off for a week of much-needed vacation after what I like to  refer to as my "Crash and Burn Week." Everything seemed to go wrong that week, both at here home and there home. When it rains, it pours, right? But of course I made it through and got to escape my worries for a week right afterwards, so there's something to be said for the timing at least.

Our first stop was Accra to see Laura off to the airport before heading further west (I still have to do the little "Never Eat Shredded Wheat" rhyme while I point my finger to figure out directions...but at least I can finally do left and right without really thinking about it now, so that's progress) to Kumasi the next morning.

Kumasi is one of the largest cities in Ghana.
We saw the Manyhia Palace Museum, which was pretty fascinating. Kumasi is where the King of the Ashantis lives. Since I live in Ewe territory, I knew barely anything about the Ashantis even though they're by far the largest tribe in Ghana, so it was nice to get another aspect of Ghanaian culture.
We had the opportunity to go to Mass in Twi at the St. Peter Cathedral Basilica before spending the afternoon at the Culture Center. For my Ann Arborite readers, the Culture Center is like the Diag but....cooler. I'll deny saying it, but it's true. It's a huge, quiet, grassy area with lots of nice paved walkways where university students go for study groups and moms take their kids to play away from the busyness of the city. It also happens to have some of the coolest artisan shops in Ghana and I spent a disgusting amount of money on presents.

On Wednesday, December 1st- my 3 month anniversary with Ghana! yay!- we took a 4 am bus to Takoradi. Shockingly it left on time! And by that I mean 4:15. From Takoradi we caught a tro-tro to Axim, a little run-down fishing village that we visited because it was (inexplicably) the setting for a book Julia had read. We ended up staying in this awful little hotel run by the sweetest old guy who we fondly refer to as "little old deaf naked man" because...well, he was short, old, mostly deaf and only wore a mid-thigh-length, mostly transparent wifebeater...

Axim's one tourist draw is Fort Anthony, the second oldest of Ghana's 29 forts and castles. I believe Osu Castle in Accra is the oldest, but I wouldn't swear to it.
Fort Anthony is a dingy, sprawling white fortress overlooking a gorgeous harbor and the lighthouse that sits about half a mile away on an island.
The Portugese built the fort, finishing it in 1515. It passed to the Dutch and then to the British before Ghana gained independence in 1957.

Our tour guide took us through the whole process the captured slaves underwent- from the small chamber just inside the door where the goods were traded for human beings, to the Door of No Return.
Fort Anthony held 100 slaves for 3 months at a time, the amount of time it took for the slave ships to deliver their cargo and return for more.
Many of the slaves regarded the Americas as a sort of Promised Land. In any case they had to be better than the cramped, dirty cell...right?
Several hundred years ago, the lighthouse island wasn't an island; it sat on the coast. Unknown to the European settlers and the Africans, an underground tunnel ran from the fort to the lighthouse, so slaves could be smuggled out and directly loaded onto the ship. Not a bad system- gave them better control over the slaves, minimized the possibility of interference and allowed them to conduct their business in relative secrecy. Unfortunately the slave traders were a pretty smart lot (with one exception, but we'll get to him shortly).
The Door of No Return is a five-step staircase and a ladder that lead down into the tunnel (which has since collapsed as the water eroded its way closer and closer to the fort). Once all the captives had descended into the tunnel, the ladder was pulled up, leaving a smooth seven-foot wall behind them.
There was no turning back.
Anyone who decided last-minute that the Americas might not be paradise after all had no choice but to continue on towards their miserable fate.
Staring down into the pit through the Door of No Return was like staring into a huge, gaping mouth. Perhaps an old mouth, toothless and powerless with age now...but sinister nonetheless.
I couldn't stop myself from wondering how many people it had consumed before it was finally satisfied.

Our rather intense tour did include a little comice relief though.
In the form of a grave.
In the early 1700's, the fort was in the hands of the Dutch.
The Dutch governor had been waiting months for his wife to arrive from Holland. So when he finally got the news that the ship was sailing into the harbor, he ran onto the staircase outside his quarters with his telescope to watch. The staircase, by the way, didn't have a railing until the British took over the fort.
The governor apparently got so excited at the prospect of seeing his wife that he forgot where he was, or forgot he was looking through a telescope or something - and stepped right off the edge, falling to his death on the stone courtyard below. Oops.
They buried him right where he landed, and Mrs. Governor turned around and went back home.
I probably shouldn't find that just a little bit funny, but it makes a good FML story doesn't it?

After seeing the fort, Julia and I went to swim at a resort beach, where we met Bambi the bushbuk. Bushbuks are a type of small deer, native to Africa and imported to Ghana as pets.

At one point I was petting both Bambi and the managers' dog and I had to laugh to myself. Probably the only time I'll pet a dog and a bushbuk at the same time!

From Axim we went even further west to an amazing place called the Green Turtle Lodge. (I didn't have to do the rhyme this time! I remembered from before.) It's actually pretty close to Coite d'Ivoire, so when we told people we live on the border we had to clarify that we meant the Togo border.
I'm gonna do a little shameless product placement here for Green Turtle:
It was started 7 years ago by this really amazing British couple named Tom and Jo, who are just some of the friendliest, neatest people I've met in Ghana. Green Turtle is an eco-lodge, which the happy little Ann Arborite tree hugger in me loves. It runs on solar power, has self-composting toilets, etc. It also has some of the best food (and cheapest cocktails) of all the lodges, hotels and restuarants I've been to.
The Green Turtle's biggest project is, not surprisingly, green turtle conservation. Guests can take a guided turtle walk in hopes of seeing some of the turtles nesting from a safe distance, and Tom and Jo have hired locals to begin patrolling the beach at night to discourage poachers. However more recently they have also begun a project to fund the Aqidaa school, the village the lodge lies just outside of.
After three days of lounging on the beach at Green Turtle, it was finally time for Julia and I to go back to dusty, ol' Aflao.

And you know what? I was actually happy to go home!
A week earlier I sort of kind of hated Aflao's guts and couldn't wait to get away...
But then...I sort of kind of found myself missing it. Worfa and Victoria, and Keta, and my Meerkats and my friend Charlotte were all so happy to see me and the feeling was very mutual.
Sometimes you can't appreciate something until you have the change to miss it a little bit.

The Average No

There are times when I get discouraged as a volunteer. I see the infinite need all around me and I can't help but feel that I could be doing so much more. But I get burnt-out or unmotivated or just plain selfish and don't have it in me to give 100% every day. I know expecting that from myself would be completely unrealistic, but that doesn't stop my conscience from nagging at me occasionally.
However I've learned to keep this particular struggle to myself.
It only prompts a phrase I've heard a thousand times in the last 4 months from people back home:

"You're doing so much more than the average person."

I appreciate the sentiment- which is undoubtably supposed to soothe my conscience- but there's just one little problem...
What in the world does that actually mean?
Not to be harsh, but it's a nonsense statement.

Who is the average person and what are they doing? What makes someone average anyway? Can you add together Superman and the lowest criminal, divide by two and somehow come up with a calculable Average Joe?

I don't believe in the average person.

We all have our part to play, and I vehemently disagree with the mindset that my role as a volunteer is somehow elevated above someone else's.

Is your 9 to 5 businessman the average person?

Or is it the middle-class stay at home mom?

Maybe it's kindergarten teachers.

Or a kid who grows up without a fuss, goes to a good college, gets a good job, marries with two kids and a dog and eventually retires.

Yet I know people who fit all of those descriptions and not one of them is someone I could label "average."
Besides, I wouldn't be the person I am - doing what I'm doing and living where I'm living- if it weren't for all those people and the effect of their various roles on my life. And someday, I might be one of them myself. You can't be a volunteer forever after all (...Or can you? Hmm...)
The minute I sit down and convince myself that "Why yes, I have been doing so much more than the average person. I've finally stored up enough credit that I can take it easy", I've begun undermining what I came here to do. I've planted the seed of apathy into my work.
And I'll admit it- I'm biased when it comes to this issue:
I hate apathy more than almost anything else in the world.

But even if you're still sitting there rolling your eyes, there's not much doubt that an apathetic volunteer has no use except as an oxymoron.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Auf Wiedersehen Deutsche Freundin

** Pardon my potentially mispelled/incorrect German. I don't speak it, so I did my best. Freundin apparently means girlfriend, but I can't figure out how to just say friend in female form (the German word for amiga, haha). It's the thought that counts? **

I've known since the day I met Julia that she was going home on December 17th, but now that she's actually gone it seems to have taken me completely by surprise.
Where did the time go??

Having my older brother Andy here with me has definitely distracted me,
but when I think about what happens after he goes home and life returns to normal...
Well, I can't imagine Ghana without Julia.

She wasn't my best friend or my mentor or my roommate or my coworker...she was more like some wonderful combination of all of them...

Andy made a comment to me after meeting both Julia and Karina, saying he was happy to see that I hadn't just found people who I could have fun hanging out with while I was in Ghana; I'd found people who I was genuinely friends with.
'Cause I mean, let's be honest - even if Julia had been annoying or something, I still would've hung out with her all the time because I didn't really have a choice. My pool of potential friends in Aflao was Julia and... Julia.
But even if I'd had other choices, I still would've chosen her. She was probably the perfect friend to have in a situation like this. She's incredibly kind, and has a very similar sense of humor to me. She's friendly and adventurous and laidback, nice almost to a fault (I was definitely the designated jerk of the two of us) and very smart. In other words, she's one of the few people I could happily hang out with every day and one of the fewer people who could happily hang out with me every day.

Julia taught me how to put roots down in Ghana.
Not just how to hail a cab or how much to pay for a coconut, etc - although stuff like that is extremely useful information.
But more importantly she showed me that it was possible to feel at home here.
She taught me to be patient with the men who harrass us on the street and to tell persisent vendors "Next time, next time" to make them go away. She got me to travel on the weekends, something it actually wouldn't have occurred to me to do, at least as often as we did it.
She approached Ghana with a kind of open-minded gratitude that I have been constantly trying to imitate.

I won't get another friend like her while I'm in Ghana.
Other volunteers will come and go, and some of them will be people I'll really connect with and enjoy being around.
But you only get one Julia.
And somehow...I'm ok with that. I only need one Julia.
I'm established here now, and if I end up somewhat on my own between February and May, that thought no longer terrifies me the way it once did.

And if I get the chance, I'll try to be someone else's Julia.

Summer 2012, Julia! It's gonna be SIGNIFICANT!

Reunited! aka Almost Turned Away aka Brother Brother Brother, Five Weeks

My brother came to visit me!

Virtually all of Aflao has been waiting to meet him for the past month and a half because I couldn't stop talking about it. About half a dozen people have commented that they've never seen someone so excited by the thought ot seeing a sibling. Clearly that was half a dozen people who have never moved out of the country and been visited by a family member...

Last Monday I waited outside the terminal for more than 30 minutes anxiously waiting for him to come out.
When he finally did, I don't think I've ever been that happy to anyone before.

It's amazing the difference it makes to have him here.
How can I describe what it's like...for the first time in 4 months I have someone who understands all my cultural references and knows all the people I talk about and can understand me even if I speak "quickly" (aka normal speed. I didn't realize how slowly I'd gotten used to speaking until he got here) or use slang. We have similar senses of humor. We talk about future plans and childhood memories and rag on each other, of course.
Somehow it's comforting to know that some things never change. He'll still be my big brother no matter what country we're in.
Several times we've been sitting around outside my house with everyone, and it's hit me: He's really here. I'm still in Ghana, with all my crazy aunties chattering in Ewe and the palm trees rustling overhead... but here's Andy in the middle of all of it with me. That's so weird, but at the same time perfectly natural.
He's been fitting in wonderfully. My family likes him more than me I think, and he can already wash his clothes and snap a handshake better than I can. My Ewe is still better but who knows if that will still be the case at the end of his five weeks! I'm proud to say my brother is a Ghana natural :)

Our first week together has passed in a blur. We've spent most of the time in Aflao just hanging out with my family and introducing him to all the people/places of my everyday life. We went to Ho one day to visit this crazy rasta artist, and visited (revisited, on my part) the Tafi Atome Monkey Sanctuary.
I have a feeling the next couple weeks are going to fly even faster.
Our plan is go (back) to Wli Waterfalls, celebrate Christmas in Aflao with my family and take off on the 26th with Karina to see Cape Coast until we fly to Egypt for a two-week tour on the 30th.
That's right- I'm spending New Year's Eve in Cairo with my brother.

If I'm dreaming, don't you dare pinch me for another four weeks...

No Place Like Home

When Julia and I were on vacation at the Green Turtle Lodge, we had the chance to go into the nearby town of Busua to hear some live reggae music at a hotel owned by a Canadian expat.

This guy managed to be the most abrasive, rude man I've met here...which is really saying something considering Ghanaians are infamously blunt. After calling me naive and insulting my work within the first five minutes of meeting me, he told me that he was originally from Canada but after forty years here he thinks of Ghana as home. I lightly answered, "Ah, maybe someday I hope!" Instead of taking it as the positive, complimentary comment towards Ghana it was intended to be, he snapped that I wasn't allowed to even consider thinking that until I'd lived here at least several years.

I rode in the back of the pick-up as we headed back home several hours later.
It was an exhilarating experience in more ways than one.
First off, trying to balance on the edge of a pickup bed while rattling over one of Ghana's signature washed-out, pothole-y roads is an adventure in itself - one I was a little convinced I might not entirely survive.
Yet I couldn't ignore my surroundings even as I hung on for dear life.
The African bush is an astoundingly beautiful place at night. Above the roar of the wind I could hear the frogs and crickets trilling their deafening symphony- a sound that will always remind me poignantly of laying awake at home on summer nights with my window open, listening to the spring peepers sing in our neighborhood pond. My gaze rose above the blurred silhouettes of the tall grass and gnarled trees to the sky, where I could see Orion, my favorite constellation, straight ahead. Orion and I have a bit of a love affair going on. I named the first song I ever wrote after him. And when I learned that Ghana was north of the equator, my first thought was one of relief: "Oh thank God, I'll still be able to see Orion!"  
I've struggled at times to find my place here, and it's made me think a lot about what home means to me.
I've begun referring to things as "at home" (in Ghana) and "back home" (in Ann Arbor)...but still the distinction is blurring. Sometimes I feel like someone with a dual citizenship. I am standing with a foot in each world, neither fully part of nor fully separated from either place. While that initially caused me a lot of confusion and loneliness, I have gradually learned how to better bridge the gap and draw those two halves of my life closer together. 

And as I sat there listening to the frogs and looking at Orion, two things that have a lot of significance to me, an extraordinary sense of rightness washed over me- the simply incredible feeling of knowing that somehow, against all odds, I am at the right place at the right time.
No offense, Mr. Expat Sir, but you've got it all wrong: there's no time limit on feeling at home.

I've struggled since the day I got here with the knowledge that eventually, the adventure has to end and I will have to go back home to Michigan. With that has come the intense fear that I won't have a place there anymore. Long-term volunteers in foreign countries often experience something called "reverse culture shock," the struggle to reacclimate to their home culture and find a way to reconcile who they are post-volunteering with who they were and the life they lead pre-volunteering. That can be unbelievably difficult; it's no secret that an experience like this changes you.

But if there's one thing I've learned from my first 4 months in Ghana, it's to reject fear.

So I've begun fighting against my dread of going home.
After all, coming to Ghana entailed a lot of sacrifice and has challenged me in every way imagineable, yet I still view my experience here in an extremely positive light because I want to enjoy and benefit from my precious time in Africa. So why shouldn't I approach returning to America with the same open-minded positivity?
If I expect to go home and feel isolated and miserable, I will.
However if I expect to go home and live a more enriched life as a result of my year in Ghana, I will be able to work through the loneliness and Ghana-sickness (There is a word in Danish for reverse homesickness, missing a place you've left after you return home. Why don't English speakers have a word  for that!?) and focus on the positive aspects of going home.

For me, May 23rd means both leaving home and coming home.

Looks Like I'm On My Own

Let me just say upfront that I'm not very good at being PC.  But for the sake of diplomacy, maturity and internet responsibility (once it's out there, it's out there), I'm going to try my best.

After months of discussions with my parents, my host family and the two men who run VARAS, I made the decision to leave the organization and stay in Ghana independently. I will continue living with my family, working at the same school and will fly back home at the end of May just as planned. The only difference is that I will be the one arranging my food, schedule, etc. instead of using a middle man.

I left VARAS because of a lack of clarity and financial responsibility on their part, and it was not a mutual decision.

So, folks, it looks like I'm on my own.

...Except not really.

As a young adult fresh out of high school, on her own for the first time and in a VERY foreign country, I can tell you that there is no greater blessing than a good host family.
"Good" doesn't even begin to do to justice to Worfa and Victoria though...
Worfa and Victoria aren't my parents- no one could imitate that role in my life- but they are without a doubt my family. I trust them, and that is the anchor I have relied on more times than I can count. In Ghana, finding people I can trust has been challenging at times. But Worfa and Victoria have always provided a shelter for me to come home to no matter how bad the storms have gotten outside our front gate. I trust them to take care of me, to be honest with me, to help me learn how to function in Ghanaian society- and they've never let me down in any of those respects. Worfa teaches me songs in Ewe and gives me advice when I have trouble at work. Victoria is always willing to play a cutthroat game of Ludo and loves to cook my favorite foods for me.
As the relationship between the VARAS coordinators and myself became more and more turbulent, it was Worfa and Victoria's loving, unwavering support that has made it possible for me to stand up for myself and get away from an increasingly negative situation.

I am more grateful to them than they could possibly ever know.

In the words of one of my best friends:
At times I may be by myself in Ghana,
but I'm never alone.

PS: For those of you who had the PO Box 218 address in Ho, please do not use that one anymore! If you would like to send me any letters (I love mail. Not that I'm dropping hints or anything. I'm just saying that mail is more valuable than gold and there's nothing better on a bad day.) please wait until I've gotten my new address from Worfa. :)

Saturday, December 18, 2010


Whatever the opposite of an SOS is, that's what this is.

As fun as it is to watch my big tough guy friends turn into mother hens- everybody can stop worrying about me! I am safe, healthy and happy!

The biggest issue that seems to be worrying people back home is the men here. But I have never once felt genuinely afraid or threatened by the overly flirtacious behavior of many Ghanaian men. In all honestly, I'm 100x more likely to get hurt in a vehicular accident than to get attacked by someone. (And I minimize that risk by not travelling at night and not taking motos very often now that I've seen at least 3 crash right in front of me.) Besides, I've developed very strong self-defense reactions to being grabbed by the arm or elbow when the more persistent men want my attention a little too much. I actually smacked my friend once when he did that because I didn't realize who he was at first, heehee.

I know there's a lot of concern about malaria as well. Thankfully that's the only somewhat serious disease I'm at any realistic risk of contracting. What most people don't know is that with treatment, and especially when you've already been taking preventative measures, malaria is rarely worse than the flu. Malaria is (I believe) the #1 killer in Ghana, but that is a bit of a misleading statistic. It poses the biggest threat to the sick and the very young/old- not a healthy young adult like me- and kills because most people fail to seek treatment in time, if at all. One of the volunteers got it, got meds, was sick in bed for 3 days, and then felt just fine. It's nothing to panic about! I got tested 3 weeks ago and I'm malaria-free so far anyway!

Aside from that, Ghana is politically stable, there are no big, scary animals in Aflao and no natural disasters scheduled. I drink plenty of water, use sunscreen when forced, eat 3 meals a day, sleep way too much and rarely feel homesick.

As the rastafari would say-

No worries in life. 'S all cool, man.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Good Things Come In Three's

I spent most of Monday hanging out in Esther's office.
I'm pretty sure I've mentioned her- she's a social worker from Accra who moved into Good Shepherd a month after I got there and we've become good friends. She's an amazing woman and as been my biggest moral support/ally at school.
We were talking about how Esther wants twins and somehow it turned into this big joke about how she's going to mail me one, but we got stuck because I said I wanted a girl and she wants twin boys.
Tuesday morning, Esther calls me up to her office and goes, "Well, problem solved."

Three babies showed up at the orphanage overnight- two boys and a little girl.

They're not related and they were all found at different times, but Esther's only response when I asked how they all happened to come to us at the same time then was, "Social welfare knows I'm a strong woman."
No arguments there.

The newly-dubbed Mawuto (meaning "God's own") is the oldest at around 9 months. He's starting to teeth and can sit up and roll over by himself. He's the smiliest little guy who makes these ridiculously adorable faces with his turtlelike, toothless mouth. He spends most of his time babbling away to himself.

Prince is younger by maybe a month or two. He's slightly underweight and his skin is peeling all over, as if he got a bad sunburn. Between his physical condition and his excessive fussiness, he's the hardest to deal with, but he's become my little buddy.

Princess is the youngest at 5 or 6 months, and she's an absolute angel. She never cries. She just looks around with her huge, sweet brown eyes and will happily wait for you to feed or change her as long as you need. You can hear her across the room slurping on her fingers, but otherwise she barely makes a sound.

I love babies, and I've had so much fun with them the last couple days.
But, of course, infants are the last thing you want to see at an orphanage. Kids of any age are really the last things I want to see at an orphanage, but there's something particularly heartbreaking about staring into these little faces and knowing neither they nor us will ever know their exact birthdays or their original names or who their parents were, much less why they abandoned them.
The injustice of it makes me so helplessly angry.

As I said, Prince is by far the fussiest of the three. Esther is exhausted from caring for three babies and her thirty other children literally around the clock, and, understandably, she is beyond frustrated with him. We can't figure out what's wrong with him - he seems to want to cry simply for the sake of crying.

So Prince and I have spent a lot of time together to give her a much-needed respite.

In the rare times when I can calm him enough to lay quietly in my lap, he stares up into my face for as long as he can keep him eyes open. Finally, every time without fail, before he will give in and let himself fall asleep, he reaches out for my hand and hugs my arm to his chest, latching himself on to me with both of his frail little arms. Even in sleep, his grip doesn't fully relax.
It's as if he's afraid I'll be gone when he wakes up.
Certainly enough people have already walked in and out of his short life.

Just keep hanging on, kid.

Monday, December 6, 2010

I Put A Spell On You

I was walking down the road to the beach the other day, when a man on a motorbike crashed into a goat not 10 feet in front of me.

It was a simple matter of the goat and the guy swerving in the same direction at the same time, and somehow he managed to tip his bike and trap the goat in between the front wheel and the body.
Fortunately, the goat- a big, black specimen appropriately enough- wriggled out from under the bike and ran away without so much as a limp, and the man and his moto seemed to be fine. However, it took less than a minute for one of the onlookers to start screaming,  "The goat's a witch!"

Adjusting to African superstition has gone hand in hand with adjusting to African religion. Even the most devout Christians believe in juju and are wary of it, although they believe they are completely safe from it as long as they call on the name of Jesus and have a strong prayer life.
My host mother, for example, is a dedicated Christian, but when one of my friends wanted to visit me from Keta, she told me in no uncertain terms that he could not come to our house and I should tell him not to call me anymore, because there's no guarantee that he wouldn't try to put some juju spells on me. Of course I think the real threat in her eyes was that he was a black man and a stranger because she didn't start saying any of that until she had determined that he was male and not a yevu...
But still- from an African perspective, an active and often dangerous spirit world is not a myth but a reality.
I have not met a Ghanaian yet who has not had at least one personal experience with ghosts or spells or possession- and usually they've had multiple experiences with all three.

It's easy to scoff at. And certainly I approach the issue with no small amount of skepticism.
When I visited the voodoo market in Lome, for instance, I got to experience juju up close and personal...but all I saw was a bunch of fascinating rituals and some very adept conmen.
And yet...being here makes me wonder if perhaps there are invisible forces, both good and evil, that interact with our tangible world. It's a belief so basic to African culture that it's difficult to be part of this place and reject the idea completely.
I should explain that better though, because, as a Christian, I have already believed my whole life in a "spiritual world", if you will. But Western religion tends to portray a somewhat watered down version of that world. I know many Christians who even shy away from the idea of there being a Devil, and no one who would openly talk about being tempted by a demon. Even if that's what they really meant, they're not likely to say it in those terms because to us, that sounds a little bit nutty.
Can't even tell you how many times I've heard phrases like that here though.
Perhaps the further a country develops, the more antiquated the idea of God becomes as we ourselves rise to that status, so the Western world has learned to ignore that intangible reality. Then again, perhaps this type of raw superstition simply appeals to Africans because it aligns with their traditional beliefs - it certainly wouldn't be the first time Christianity has cross-bred with native religions, in any case.
I don't have an answer myself, I guess I'm mostly just musing.

I was there when Esther, my friend the social worker at Good Shepherd, gathered the other children together to speak to them after Nyamekye's funeral.
I expected her to finally give them the details about why and how she died.
And I suppose, from Esther's perspective, she did.
She told them how Nyamekye had been having dreams every night about witches coming to take her spirit away and offering her rice and fruits and blood to eat. According to what Nyamekye told Esther just a few hours before she died, that previous night she had accepted the food and blood from the witches, who stole her heart after she had eaten. An angel came and fought them, but wasn't able to get her heart back.
Chilling, isn't it?
But no less scary than the fact that not a word was said about Nyamekye's sickle cell anemia, or about how
taking her to the hospital several days earlier may easily have saved her life. That was all secondary to the fact that from that moment, Nyamekye had been spiritually dead, and therefore physical death couldn't be long in coming too.

I consider myself very open-minded about juju and the role of a spirit world, but I can't accept witchcraft as a replacement for what was obviously medical negligence on the orphanage's part. However that's a bitter tangent I'll avoid going into further.

When bad things happen, such as Nyamekye's death, the first response many Ghanaians will give you is "It was God's will; it was supposed to happen that way." In other words- get over it and don't question the Big Man.
But I can't help wondering if that response comes out of deep faith and a genuine belief in the truth of their words...or if it is more of a knee-jerk coping mechanism.
Misfortune is a little bit easier to swallow when you can blame the goat witch.

Eau...Eau...Etsi Lasiwa?

November 22, 2010

I realized this weekend that I speak significantly more Ewe than French.
I love my life! :)

I've lived within walking distance of Togo for almost 3 months now, and I decided it was finally time to see Ghana's Canada. (The comparison is almost perfect: the English-speaking country's French-speaking neighbor that they are on good terms with but still make fun of.)
Togo is the country directly to our Eastern border. They were a French colony up until 1960 when they gained their independence.
The separation between Ghana and Togo is a classic example of the effect of European colonialism in Africa...and I really feel like I should be writing a college paper right now... The Ewe territory lies partly in Togo and partly in Ghana. Similarly the Togolaise capital, Lome, and Aflao, where I live, used to be the same city until the artificial border was imposed to differentiate the colonies. It's all too easy to condemn the Europeans for how they manipulated Africa, but the present day results aren't entirely bad. For instance, because they share the same language, ancestry and root culture, there is a very strong bond between Togo and Ghana. But unfortunately, what started as a separation in name only has yielded some very real and tangible present-day differences.
It's hard to imagine Lome and Alfao as one fluid city now. Aflao is essentially a sprawling ghetto: the largely unpaved road is full of potholes that put even Michigan's to shame and the air is visibly thick with dust. The buildings are low, badly maintained and surrounded by numerous dumps. It's an inner city outer city?
In contrast, Lome is sleek and least on the outset. A smooth paved highway, complete with traffic lights and sidewalks, winds through the shiny highrise buildings. Many of the numerous hotels, cafes and restaurants could pass for Western establishments.
But turn off the main road onto any of the sidestreets, and the glitzy veneer wears thin. Poverty will be waiting to take you on a tour of the real Lome.

My first trip to Togo was on Friday with Laura and Paul, a Ghanaian guy my brother's age who I have recently become friends with. The first two hours were stressful as we went through the agonizing process of changing our money, buying our Visas and debating about whether or not to charter a car.
My least favorite part of Togo is the money.
The exchange rate between cedis (Ghana money) and US dollars is 1.44, and I've gotten pretty good at estimating how much I'm spending. Plus I know how much things should cost in Ghana now, so I know when someone is ripping me off.
Togo money is called cephas and 10,000 cephas is 30 cedis. Ok, I could get the hang of the cepha-cedi conversion (knock off 3 zeros and multiply by 3)...but that didn't give me an accurate idea of what anything should cost because prices in Togo are more expensive. Very frustrating.

Our first stop was Holy Child International School, where my host father works. It was really nice to see where he spends his days and meet his class, etc. Then we went to a voodoo market, the art market and then to the beach for a little while.
It was a nice introduction to Togo, but Laura and I felt a little restricted.

So, against the advice of every Ghanaian we know, we returned to Togo on Sunday with Karina and without a Ghanaian guide. Although Ghana and Togo have a good relationship, Ghanaians are still convinced that, unlike Ghana, Togo is extremely dangerous for unaccompanied yevus.
However, our trip on Sunday was extremely relaxing and fun. Shockingly, no one tried to mug us in broad daylight so Togo didn't really live up to its reputation after all.

From the border, the three of us decided to walk towards some church spires we saw in the distance. We walked for close to an hour with the city to our left and the beach on our right, just enjoying the sights and rhythms of Lome. The cathedral was gorgeous, very European which surprised us.

Our next stop was a return to the voodoo market!
Full of skins, heads and bones from every African animal imagineable, the voodoo market is pretty high on the morbid list. However, for me, it was a valuable experience in traditional African beliefs. We were introduced to the gods and they explained many of the basic juju charms and amulets. It was fascinating, and one of my favorite experiences so far.

We went to a lunch at a cafe that was so Western I could pretend I was in Ann Arbor if I didn't look out the window.
Afterwards, as we walked back towards Ghana (I still get a kick out of the fact that I can walk to another country) we saw horses on the beach! For a couple cephas, I got to ride around once with Laura and then once solo so I could trot. Riding horses along the beach...Now if only I was wearing a flowy white dress, my life would be a perfect B movie.

I thoroughly enjoyed my brief adventure to Lome- and hey, now the number of African countries I've been to has doubled! Yet for all it's glamour...I was strangely relieved to get back to Aflao's dust and potholes. Togo may have milkshakes and traffic lights, but Ghana is home.