Friday, March 30, 2007

Ryan Writing:
March 20th-ish

It should be noted in that famed book of world records that it is the Ghanaians who are the friendliest people on Earth. The tourism board in Thailand will fight that claim; self proclaimed American southern hospitality hasn’t done much over the past few hundred years to defend their title; the Eskimos would have a chance at the record but for the baby seal vote; and it should be noted, too, that the lecherous drunken Ghanaian men don’t do much to perpetuate their country's stereotype; but overall my vote is for these quiet west-Africans whose cultural habits demand excessive greetings, prolific hugging, and will, literally, give you the food they are eating and the shirt off their backs; a place where just being nice isn’t good enough. Not being a nice foreigner, then, should be the ultimate taboo but who would know when the response is always so blastedly friendly?

Cola nuts. Makes you all funny when you eat them.

Like nearly every African nation Ghana’s history is marred by pain, fortune, difficulties, and foreigners…and generally tends to be lost on me almost entirely. But I do know the following: 1) its Independence from British rule dates back 50 years and about two weeks from the time of this writing. 2) its British colonialism originates at a time when white people thought black slavery was a pretty neat idea and therefore decided to send Ghanaians all over the world to do really rotten work, 3) slave exporting began when it was realized that, instead of gold & silver, people were easier and more profitable to mine out of the hills, and 4) I also know that the cocoa bean was, and still is, a really groovy export despite the fact that the chocolate for sale here is shit (not literally, but there is plenty of something like poo for sale. Apparently it’s good for heating food and painting your house with).

We’re pretty much equatorial, here, too. Missed it by a few degrees, but we’re close enough not to have much of a cold-to-hot shift between winter and summer though not close enough to be confused by which way the water is supposed to swirl down the sink. Mostly it’s just hot…and the water always swirls clockwise. There’s rain sometimes as well, but that doesn’t stop it from being hot. Or so I’ve heard. All that my experience can offer is what we are experiencing now: Harmattan. If you, the reader, have any friends who are professional sandblaster dudes then this is a word you may want to pass on to them. They could use it in some early morning jokes like, "So, this guy walks onto a construction site and says, ‘krikey, has someone already started sandblasting in here?’ and the other guy says, ‘oh no, it’s just Harmattan’". They could all get a good laugh because the other workers probably know what it’s like when the southerly winds blow off the Sahara desert bringing with it endless amounts of sandy dust keeping the skies a hazy brown and the nose a mortared cylinder of concrete.

However, I’m told that Harmattan is ending soon and that saddens me, not because I’ll miss the limited visibility and rock-solid snot rockets, but because as the Harmattan departs the rains come. When the rains come it is said that the freaking sweet trails that snake everywhere across the landscape are bogged down in mud. This probably pleases the toads that make a mess of our garden but it ruins the super cool and equally direct pleasure of riding bicycles to town, to someone’s house, or to that-mountain-over-there that makes getting groceries like some sort of psychotic mountain bike cross-county race.

Here in Bolga it is peaceful. Peaceful, at least, in the way that chicken clucking is soothing, neighboring morning (every morning) drumming is calming, and the persistent pleading of the kids here to wash our dishes, sweep our house, and water the garden evokes a desire to sit back and let things happen.

They really do do that, the kids. After school there are no video games to play with or Kool-Aid to get high from. Only the excitement of cleaning Aunty Kirstin and Uncle Ryan’s house. "Are there any more bowls for washing?" "Uncle, can we do the watering?" And they do a good job. And they’ll do about whatever you tell them to do. It boggles the westernized mind but gets the dog washed.

And they really do that, too, the neighbors. I don’t know why, or who, but every morning someone, somewhere off in the distance is bonging around on a bunch of drums. It’s cool. Makes one wake up and look around for tigers or headhunters with bones through their noses.

What else…? Funny words! Of the many things Ghanaians probably do brilliantly certainly one of them is screwing with the English language. About everyone speaks English, but everyone also speaks it a little funny. It’s some sort of coded version of English that they use to filter out intruders or perhaps to get back at us for popularizing Celine Dion, Phil Collins, and evangelical Christianity. Those travelers not scruffy enough to have figured out how to buy a mirror probably haven’t yet asked for a Milor in the market, or drank fresh mulk from a cow, have already run out of flim for their cameras, and likely are still in need of odolic oil for all of their hydraulic needs. They may have been already confused when a Ghanaian gestured at their shoulder while complaining of a pain in their hand or mentioned the need of new shoes for their legs. Too bad that this unfortunate traveler has missed the opportunities to think these misunderstandings through while waiting for someone to return after a brief, "I’m coming…" never to be seen again.

Where has all this been leading? That’s right, a journal of our time so far in Ghana! Being here in Africa I would like to be reporting a brain-hemorrhaging amount of excitement, near misses with death, mass chaos, continued cerebral stimuli, dogs and cats sleeping together…but I'm not. Instead life has been unexpectantly... domestic. Even if it is a pile of mud, a lot of our attention is spent making it a nice pile of mud. A mud pile for living in. A house. And a really nice house it is. Having gotten running water, 90% of a self-composting toilet, 70% of a remodeled kitchen, wall fans, a garden, bookshelves, beds, and a really groovy crocodile-mosaiced-outdoor-shower we’re feeling pretty cozy. See, domestic. At least as domestic as one can get while sharing a house with countless well-to-do toads in a country where cats and dogs are dinner for most people and the food we feed our cats and dogs is better than most peoples' dinner. Anyway, journaling...
Before we arrived in Bolgatanga I asked Kirstin what it is she does while she is there, "Well, it takes a lot of effort just living" she says. I didn't believe her. Before that I also never had to make tofu out of dried soybeans if I wanted stir-fry, ride 6-miles on a dirt road or trail to get to the nearest market, wash my clothes with water fetched in buckets balanced on my head (now we have piped running water and cause for celebration- possibly a reason to drum all night), or futily sweep the house daily with a floor made of hardened dirt.

In truth I don't have to do these things nearly as much as I should, or at least as much as I should in a house of sexual equality, instead we rely on the kids of the family or well meaning friends over for a visit to offer a hand in our staying alive. It's rare that I have to pull my weight as the dominant sex by referring to Kirstin as a bad Ghanaian housewife for not having cold drinks & dinner ready as soon as we walk in from a hot and tiring bicycle ride.

Watery poo for the garden.

Besides riding our bikes and indulging ourselves in tasty treats we manage additional fun: occasional rock clambering excursions, killer bunny nights, and local festival begoings.

Festival (No cloths allowed. Bath towels okay; feels like a pool party)

And that's about it.

However, in a week’s time we set off for why we've excused ourselves from the rat-race of our normal lives: to ride our bikes as far west as possible. Hopefully that's to Dakar, Senegal with lots of funky cool stories along the way, yo.

Ah, and here is the worst thing about Ghana: its buses. Ghana had to go the extra mile with this one because here it isn't my usual hatred toward buses - the temperature & coziness discomfort or their usual disposition toward killing its passengers- but because of the music videos. The trouble is, if Christianity is correct and good Christians are the only ones allowed to spend eternity together in a nice place called Heaven, then they will surely be playing some pretty groovy music. Because the Ghanaians seem to like Jesus the most out of everyone, then I expect they'll get to play DJ and that means a never-ending stream of obscenely repetitive Ghanaian gospel music videos well into the twilight of forever. And that's what Heaven will be like; a reward of music to all those who worshiped JC. Hell, then, will play the same music for similar reasons.

I think it must be assumed then, that Ghanaian buses driving late into the night are, for someone like Kirstin or I, Hell.

Last night was no exception. Although we paid for the luxury of an AC bus, the driver did not see fit to use it much at all. True hell was realized for the three of us when a two part Nigerian film entitled "executive billionaires" was played at top volume. The bus, with no windows and no AC was stuffy, nauseating and sweaty. And we thought the night would never end. Halfway through the night

Kirstin Writing:

Wednesday, March 07, 2007
Wednesday morning, 7:10am. I am sitting under the thatched roof of my veranda in my most excellent mud mansion. Enjoying a fresh cup of coffee (thanks, mom) prepared in a fancy schmancy stove top coffee maker, (thanks again, mom) and thinking that I should write a few lines in the journal before I forget stuff that has happened since we got up to the north..

Life in the Upper East Region passes both quickly and slowly, at the same time. Yesterday, 50th birthday of Ghana found us in our regional district, Tongo, which is about four miles down the road from our compound. 6th March, as Ghana’s independence day is? called, is a celebration mainly to showcase the militant marching skills of children and teens, as well as a bell and whistle show for big men and other important people. The golden jubilee also saw a charming and impressive traditional dance performed by deaf-?school graduating seniors. A "good" party in Ghana almost always consists of shoddy awnings, plastic chairs and a bad sound system. Yesterday was no exception. We did have fun though, and chowed down on yummy bean cakes? steamed and deep-fried ?in shea butter and doused with hot pepper powder. We bought a watermelon and some bread, hopped on our bikes and flew home on a downhill tailwind. The best thing to do on a hot, dry African afternoon is to take a cool bucket bath with peppermint Dr. Bronner’s (thanks, mom) and take a nap under the fancy new wall mounted fan. Life here can be sweet.

Backtracking, last entry left you hanging at the Mali embassy, wondering if we would get our Mali visas and get out of Accra. We did, and we did. After a freezing cold (air conditioned) bus ride that stretched on for hours, we slept in Kumasi: an infinitely more pleasant and enjoyable city than Accra. The streets are cleaner, quieter and hillier. The commerce areas are bustling with action and you can buy just about anything you can possibly think of including the stuff you definitely don’t want to be thinking of. You can walk everywhere, and it boasts one of the largest open air markets in West Africa. You could spend days just looking at fabric. We spent hours, and walked away with 2 yards each…the all purpose towels (regular towels tend to get stinky here, but a 2 yard wrap does the trick nicely, and you can wear it around the house sarong style. Kumasi is also the heart of the Ashanti region, and my old Peace Corps stomping grounds. Ryan and I walked around the city, ate fresh yogurt, fruit, juice, and generally grazed off the tops of people’s heads. At 7pm, we boarded another air conditioned bus and headed up north.

At about 6:30am, we dropped at Winkogo junction, called the family, and started walking towards the house. Aubrey (an old friend, family member and our general "go-to" guy) met us along the way with the car and picked us to the yard. (Forgive me if my English sounds strange, I’m melting back into my Ghanaian self, happily). Many happy hugs and handshakes later, plus an excited tour of the houses and general reunion with dogs and things, we started settling into life here. The kitchen definitely needed some work; although Linda did well by making sure we had gas in the stove. Clothes were dirty, dishes too.

Why is toothpaste always sold from a wheelbarow?

A pleasant surprise was Biko, American brother to a friend of Linda and mine who lives in Accra. He’s been staying here for the past couple months, learning culture and language, and most importantly for us, building a self composting toilet for my house! Biko grew up on "The Farm", a hippy commune in Tennessee, famous for being one of the most successful communities of its kind in America. Established in the ‘60s, I imagine some of our older readers may even have heard of the place. Anyhow, Biko is endowed with ideas and masonry skills, and he has fashioned a fantastic place for us to free ourselves. Construction should be done soon, and I can’t wait to christen the thing! He’s been good company; we’ll be sorry to see him go. His plan is to leave tomorrow, cycling to Bobo Dioulasso in Burkina Faso to study the art of the Griot for 3 months, and then on to Bamako to hopefully work with none other than African superstar Salif Keita on a hospital project that focuses on Albino patients.
Last night we hosted an impromptu dinner party for Dan, Howa and Linda. (Dan and Howa are the Ghanaian couple we live with, Linda is our American friend who calls this yard home. Her house is incredible, more on that later.) On the menu was Tobani, a steamed bean cake dipped in fresh spicy tomato sauce (peppe) and a delicious salad complete with dried cranberries, sun dried tomatoes, fancy cheese from London and real lettuce. Good conversation, a few beers, these are the little things that make life nice.

Ryan is settling in nicely as well. We’ve ridden bikes into town, gone to market, stocked up on foodstuffs, and are steadily picking away at fixing up the house. He’s been collecting cow manure with the wheel barrow and bringing it back to the garden that is part of our house, preparing to plant some of the seeds we brought over. We’ve got herbs, veggies and some pretty flowers to grow, and hopefully they’ll be blooming and fruiting by the time the kids get here. Hopefully the house will be kicking ass by the time the kids get here; that is the goal.

For those of you who know people here, everyone sends their greetings back to "Ma Katy", "Pa George" and Jack. Mommy Edwina is down in Accra helping her daughter with her newborn, Bella now lives with family members in town. Kwabena, Suguru and Sunday are all in the yard, as well as a couple of new guys. Dan and Howa are well, and everyone thinks Ryan is great, according to Dan, I "found a real brother" for myself. I think I scored, too!

Well, I can’t spend all day on the computer, there’s things to wash and do, and small boy Zibrim is wanting to play. Until next time…

Ryan Writing:

April 5th
What happens at a Papa Festival is nuts.

Kirstin’s former Peace Corp village, Kumawu, hosts this annual festival of masculine bravery confused, as it ususaly is, by an adrenaline-testaterone cocktail of shear idiocy. Beacuase it hasn’t happened in six years we made the long trip down there kowing that it aught to be a good one. So we went. And here are the results:


The day starts with the usual big-important-man parade and ceremonies. And that drags on for a looooooooong time. The stereotypical large umbrellas/fanning of the wealthy person is commmon throughout the day and accentiuated by their twirling and the spinning. I say that this may impress a group of traveling jelly fish but otherwise the massive umbrellas just just block better views and poke people in the eyes for an added laugh. It doesn’t seem uncommon either to bring along your very own dancing midget. They are well trained and needn’t even be on leashes!

The day is also full of funky Ju-Ju magic rituals performed in public and in private by anybody with a dead chicken in their possession, anyone with the predisposition to keep their eyes tightly rolled back in their heads, or anyone else capable of relaxing in a trance-like stupor (being drunk qualifies).

The whole day leads up to about twenty minutes of frenzy which is the Papa Festival, which is this: A bull is slaughtered in the public square, brave (read bug-eyed whack-job) men run up to the animal hacking off a piece of carcass as big as they choose, the person then runs for nearest open building seaking calm and victory. This last bit is made troublesome by an angry mob of audience armed with canes and bloodlust beating the fellow all the way home.

That’s it really. The festival is over when the bull has disappeared. I’m not even sure that a clear winner is ever decided or a maiden available to the victor.

We purposefully skipped the slaughtering of the cow and never penetrated the seathing mass of action that surrounded the hacking up of the cow but we were on the ground armed with cameras as canes and body parts flew through the air. Back from our bike trip I hope videos will be posted here. They're pretty crazy.

That was a little over a week ago. Our plan to follow was to get back home to Bolgatanga as quickly as possible and get ready to close up the hose and leave on our bike ride April 2nd. However, there had been a hang-up: sickness. The three of (Kirstin, myself, and the other American woman, Linda, that lives here on the property) were laid out flat by something very angry in our intestines. I was wriggling about at about 2% energry for two solid days; it is only today, five days later, that Kirstin and Linda are feeling well again. The plan is to leave on our Bicycle ride tomorrow (the 6th).

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