Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Cooking Lessons

What is it about food that brings people and cultures together?

I’ve been learning how to cook some Ghanaian dishes from Victoria. She’s taught me how to make aji detsi (spicy peanut soup), jample (bean and corn meal paste) and mportomportor (thick yam stew) so far. I sit on a stool in our small kitchen, furiously scribbling directions in my notebook while she effortlessly mixes ingredients by memory. She knows proportions by pours and handfuls, while I try to estimate her measurements into cups and tablespoons. My efforts have earned me the humorous nickname “ameibovi” or “little black person.” She told me that I am not an American girl anymore, but an Awakorme girl. I should have learned from her the first time around, but I never did, I think partly because our relationship was so different three years ago.

My host mother and I have always had a good relationship. There was a significant language barrier though, and our personalities occasionally clashed. We are both incredibly stubborn and I think we mutually frustrated each other from time to time. In retrospect, most of our disagreements were probably just cultural misunderstandings that we didn’t have the language skills to work out. But even though I didn’t have quite the same closeness with Victoria that I’ve always had with Worfa, she took me in as her own from day one and I have always been grateful for that.

This time though, I can see a real difference in our relationship. Victoria’s English has improved significantly in the last few years. She still speaks in a curious, grammar-less pidgin that might be difficult for most people to decode, but we’ve both learned how to phrase things so that the other will understand and we get by just fine. It’s taken time- literally years- but I’ve also learned to see things from her point of view better and have patience when the cultural gap between us rears its obnoxious head. She asks me a lot more questions about America than she used to, trying to understand where I’m coming from. Do we have coconuts in Michigan? What do we eat? Is it cold this time of year? Do people smoke to keep warm? Why do people pierce their belly buttons? It’s a curiosity I never got see when we were struggling to communicate even on a basic level. She disapproves of many practices in the western world, but she always seems to be willing to make an exception on my behalf. She doesn’t like tattoos, but my butterfly is “fine-o.” She doesn’t like piercings, but my nose stud “it fit you.” We’re home alone together a lot more often than we used to be, and we frequently sit down to share a mango or watch a movie together. Sometimes we chat, sometimes we sit quietly. There’s a new camaraderie between us that in itself was worth the return trip. Perhaps it took two years of missing each other for us hard-headed women to realize just how much we mean to each other.

This time when I return home, I will have a part of Victoria to bring with me. I may not be able to mutter in Ewe or imitate her signature cackle, but I can prepare her recipes for my friends and family with the same care and happiness that she has always used to cook them for me.

Monday, August 12, 2013

The Ants Chop Everything

One day, Africa as we know it is going to disappear under one giant anthill. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
In addition to eating holes through my cement bedroom walls and occasionally infesting the sugar for my tea, a lot of them like to snack on humans too. Our friend Evans discovered the hard way that he can’t park his car in grassy areas after he turned it on only to have ants start pouring out of the vents.

Karina and I went to Accra last weekend to submit our first round of paperwork to the Registrar General’s Department. We’re waiting for our certificates- which theoretically should be ready any day now- but otherwise my forward progress for the foundation has slowed, and I think I’ve done just about all I can for the time I have left. It will be up to the other staff to finish the registration process without me.
We decided to use the waiting time to take a little vacation, a reward for the long hours we put in pulling Students of Success together in less than three weeks. Karina and I headed to Green Turtle, an eco-lodge west of Takoradi on the coast and old favorite of mine. I went there with my Julia on our first vacation, and again with Rudy and his Julia right before their wedding. Unfortunately, we only stayed for two nights because I got DEVOURED. We’re still not sure what attacked me since I never caught anything in the act, but our best guess is that it was a combination of ants and sandflies. Ant bites are pretty distinct: small, round and hard, fiercely itchy and typically occur 3-5 at a time in a straight line spaced evenly apart. You can practically map where the ant walked on you. “Three steps *chomp* Three steps *chomp* Three steps *chomp*”
Karina got an unusual amount of mosquito bites, but nothing like what I experienced. My legs were covered with hundreds of bites. The only good news- and that's a relative term- is that I had very few mosquito bites, which are the ones most likely to transmit disease. By the morning of the third day, however, I was in so much pain that we decided to leave early. The manager was apologetic; she said that the sandflies seem to go after some people more than others for whatever reason. I must be their crème de la crème…

Evans picked us up in Takoradi and we went on a day trip to Nzulezo, a remote village several hours from the city that is also known as the Village-On-Stilts. We paddled by canoe down a canal through beautiful wetlands for about forty minutes before coming out into Lake Amanzuri, a big body of water, black and still, that runs 30 or more feet deep in most places. Hugging one shore was Nzulezo, a cluster of wooden houses and buildings connected by walkways that sits on stilts about four feet above the water. It’s a fascinating place, a tight-knit and isolated community of 450 people in one of the more unlikely places. Our guide motioned to a squared-off section of water next to the school with two bamboo poles at either end, and explained that it’s a soccer field during the dry season. Most of the residents paddle across the lake daily to work on farms or palm wine tapping sites on the opposite shore. Karina supported the local economy by buying a bottle of akpeteshi- distilled palm wine that I think of as Ghanaian moonshine.
We paddled back before it got too dark, and along the boardwalk that led from the canoe launch to the road, we found a bona fide tapas bar of all things. Ghana never fails to surprise me. We stopped there for some dessert and the owner let us use some shot glasses to sample the akpeteshi. I don’t even want to know the proof; it burns for a while after it goes down, but I was surprised that I somewhat liked it. Fresh palm wine is very sweet and akpeteshi retains a little hint of that, which makes it actually drinkable.

The next day Karina and I set off for two days in Cape Coast, which has hands down the best shopping in Ghana. The streets around Cape Coast Castle are lined with rows upon rows of artisan shops boasting handmade goods- everything from drums to dresses to paintings. Needless to say, most of my Christmas shopping is already done.
Cape Coast has become my favorite big city in Ghana. It has a calm, quite atmosphere. Many of the buildings are old and elegant and the streets are wide, perfect for strolling around. There are so many tourists that you get the rare opportunity of exploring a place in Ghana without being singled out every thirty seconds.

I still have faded red marks from the Battle of the Bugs, but the itching and swelling stopped after a couple days, and I was fine by the time Evans picked us up on his way back from Takoradi to Accra. We spent two more days in the capital hanging out with Evans and his brother Selasi and making repeated trips to a Mexican restaurant we discovered. If it’s possible to become a regular in two days, Karina and I qualified.

We also spent an afternoon at Labadi Beach, Accra’s most popular beach hangout for locals and tourists alike. A young teenage boy was hanging out at our table while we played cards, running a surprisingly witty and humorous commentary on everything we did. Our game got interrupted when I stood up and confronted a man around my age who came up and stuck his cell phone in my face to take pictures of me in my bikini without my permission. When I sat back down, the boy’s eyes were huge. “Are you a bouncer in America?” He asked, awestruck. “You don’t look like one-” he glanced at Karina, “Well you do, but you don’t. But you certainly act like one!” Might just be one of the best compliments I’ve ever received!

I’m back in Aflao now to spend my last week with my Gomashie family. I enjoyed our mini vacation, but there’s something powerfully sweet about coming home. (Case in point: Christian just interrupted my typing to deliver me a fresh coconut from the yard. I just dribbled juice on my keyboard- which means more ants- but well worth it.) The way Worfa exclaimed, “I can’t wait to see you!” when I called to say we were on our way. Or the hug Victoria gave me without hesitation when I walked in the door. The shy, conspiratorial grins the boys give me when the adults aren’t looking. Only one resident of the house doesn’t seem happy to see me…

I woke up at 4:20 this morning with searing pain up and down my left leg and arm. I jumped out of bed and shook out my sheet to reveal a medium-sized black ant, a kind I don’t remember seeing before. I killed two more in the thirty seconds it took me to apply medicine to the bites- which were burning and sending shooting pains through my whole limbs, more like a bee sting than any ant bite I’ve ever had. I quickly decided to spend the rest of the night on the couch. Worfa and Victoria were pretty confused to find me there, until I explained. They pulled my mattress out to reveal yet another hole in my wall where the little creeps had started building an ant hill directly underneath my bed. I was sleeping on an entire community of these (insert string of expletives) ants! Victoria sprayed my room and aired out all my bedding, so hopefully that’s the last of it because my leg is still burning periodically. Those little suckers pack quite the punch!

Friday, August 2, 2013

Ready, Set, Go

I’m convinced my fan is possessed.
(Which I wouldn’t ever say to anyone here, even jokingly, because most Ghanaians take possession very seriously.) Half the time I turn it on, it starts buzzing as it struggles to get going. So I’ll turn it off to mess with the cords, but before I can touch anything- voila! It starts running beautifully as soon as I turn it off… And no, I am not confusing on and off.
My fan is just one of countless things in Ghana that works in ways I don’t understand.

Most of those things I can take with humor, or at least shrug off, however today was a real gem of a day when it came to dealing with the faults in the Ghanaian system.
My afternoon was a three-hour debacle over going to see some land we’re interested in buying. We’re hunting for a permanent location for SISCO, and my friend Charity found a potential place. I was put directly in touch with Kwame- who is basically the realtor- and he suggested we meet between 1:00 and 2:00. I was told the land in Aflao is by the cement factory, so I asked him to call me when he was ready to go and we would meet by the police station, where the cement factory road splits off the main border road.
At 2:30 I got a call from Charity saying they were waiting for us, so Worfa and I booked it to the police station. No Charity, no Kwame. Another phone call. They’re at the District Assembly in Tokor where they work because the land is on the cement factory road in Tokor…which apparently is still officially considered Aflao. (Quick geography lesson: Denu is neighbors with Aflao on one side and Tokor on the other. All three are very close together, but travel time would be something like Ann Arbor-Saline or Marquette-Harvey because of road conditions) We got to Tokor as fast as we could, having already gone nearly ten minutes in the wrong direction to get to the police station…and Kwame had left because we made him wait too long. I was spitting mad by this point. I never did- and never will- figure out why he agreed to call me, didn’t, and then blamed me for being late. Or why he agreed to meet me at the police station in Aflao and then expected me at the District Assembly in Tokor. Perhaps it was an honest mistake, but I am running low in the Assume The Best Department. This type of situation has happened a lot recently, and just once I would love to get the right information the first time so things can proceed at the pace I prefer. (My frustration is just seeping off the screen, isn’t it? It was a rough afternoon, I apologize.)
Kwame finally waltzed in TWO HOURS later, and the 21-year-old college student in me wanted to pop him upside the head. The semi-adult non-profit Founder in me won, thankfully, and all I did was initiated a very firm handshake to show him that I am not some little American girl to be trifled with and he had another thing coming if he expected some groveling apology and the last thing I was going to do was sit meekly by while the men conducted business. Ok, ok- I doubt he read all that into my handshake, but it made me feel a little better to think he did.
Fortunately (for Kwame’s sake, I like to think), everything proceeded smoothly from there, and we’ve decided to pursue this location further.

Here’s the upside though, because being an optimistic blogger makes me a more optimistic human in real life:

Despite all my frustration over the numerous times I’ve had to wait, or gotten mixed signals, or gotten the wrong signal completely…it is truly amazing how quickly this foundation has come together. It’s been two and a half weeks since I first decided to do this, and already I have a Constitution, a complete Board of Directors, an Advisory Council, an Executive Director, and an Auditor.

Not only that, but I have a damn fine group of people in those positions.

Just today our final Board Member volunteered for the position. He has over a decade of experience working with international human rights for Ford, and is about to start doing similar work here in West Africa with a different company. He approached me, but I couldn’t have picked someone better if I’d tried. Not only is he more than qualified, but he should be physically on the continent far more often than I expect to be myself. I didn’t even hope to find that in a fellow American, which is why our Board was entirely Ghanaian except myself up. Pending one more vote of approval, that just changed.
The Head of our Board of Directors, Daniel, is an educator with two Masters degrees, and over thirty years of teaching experience in several countries. His wife Caroline is the Head of the Advisory Council; she has even more teaching experience and is currently the headmistress of a school. Samuel, our Financial Director, is an accountant with the District Assembly and former teacher. Our other Board Member, Tony, is a District Magistrate with a background in education and social work in addition to his decade of experience as a judge. Charlotte and Karina, two of our Advisory Council members, are social educators in Denmark, which is something of a hybrid between a social worker, counselor, special education teacher and super hero. One of the other Advisory Council members is my father Thomas, with his extensive leadership experience in business and the military. Our last Council member is Nichodemus, a young teacher who is currently working towards a degree in Educational Psychology. Worfa is our Executive Director; his qualifications have already spoken for themselves. Of all people, though, I assumed that our auditor would be pretty cut and dry, just someone hired to keep things legally and financially sound. But Emmanuel, the auditor we just hired today, works for the Education Office at the District Assembly and is just as passionate about our mission as the rest of our crew- you could even use the word “excited.”

I honestly don’t know how this happened. I don’t know how I’ve ended up with eleven people who among themselves are experts in law, finance, business, social work, psychology, general and special education, and human rights issues. Several of them have previous experience working with non-profits. Most of them are far more educated than I am. And every single one of them is dedicated to our cause. They all believe in what we are doing.
Believe me when I say I didn’t expect such a strong group of people on my side. They give me this marvelous little hope for the future of this foundation. As if maybe the crazy dreams I’ve dreamed for the last three years might suddenly have rooted into something far more concrete and realistic. It must be, because I leave for Accra tomorrow to start the registration process.