the wind is in

July 1, 2008

          My fingernails are filthy,

          I’ve got beach tar on my feet

          and I miss my clean white linen

          and my fancy french cologne.


          The wind is in from Africa,

          last night I couldn’t sleep.

          Oh, you know it sure is hard to leave here,

          but it’s really not my home.

                                  -Joni Mitchell

Tonight, I piled into a small taxi filled with big men, struggling to fit my hips on to the already-occupied front seat.  My seat buddy was an artist I know from the Castle, and he turned to me and said, “This is Africa, you know? When you think of Africa, you will remember.”  

“Oh, don’t worry,” I told him. “I will remember Africa.”

It is both impossible and easy to grasp the idea of leaving Ghana in a week.  I am lonely and homesick and ready.  My fan broke yesterday and sleeping is becoming a very sweaty affair.  Clearly a message that it is time to move on. But I feel like I am still putting the pieces together of what I have learned these last months, and I don’t want that feeling to go away.  I am good at adjusting and not afraid of change, but five months is a long time to be away from my other life.  How will I return to it? Will it be like turning on a light switch?  I feel like I have two distinct existences right now: my life in Ghana and my other life.  I am worried that it will be easy and comfortable not to merge them, and I hope I will be able to keep my Ghana life relevant and present in my other life. 

I am trying to come up with a grocery store run-in-length answer to the question “How was Ghana?”  It is not easy. 

How was Ghana?

My experience in Ghana has been wonderful. I was able to see a huge portion of the country and have cultural experiences that most visitors to Ghana never do.  SIT did a tremendous job.  I am grateful to many, many people who opened their homes and their hearts to me.  I am humbled by the generosity of people who materially have little.  I am discouraged by many Ghanaians’ idealization of white people and exhausted from too much flirtation and harassment from men.  It is not easy to be an Obruni (or a woman) in Ghana.  I imagine that it is never easy to be in the minority.  It has been an important learning experience for me to know what it feels like to be in a racial minority.  It is tiring to be so visible all the time.  

Ultimately, I think it is culture that has been most challenging, above and beyond race.  Despite my warm welcomes into people’s homes, I have never felt at home in Ghana.  It is important for growth to move outside of yourself, to be uncomfortable and unsure and raw.  But I have realized that I should not undervalue my own community, shared backgrounds and interests, compatible senses of humor, mutual beliefs.  The support that comes from people who can really know you, who don’t need to exercise cultural relativism to find complete common ground isn’t lame or boring, it’s invaluable.

That said, I will really miss Ghana.  I didn’t realize that until recently.  Some things about being here have been challenging, but I realized yesterday that it really did get easier.  Of course, some things continue to be hard, but I truly am comfortable here.  It is a different kind of comfortable, obviously, and a lonely kind, but it is mine. I know which Ghanaian foods I like and how to get around.  The woman at the corner store knows what I need when I come in, and the local school children have stopped bothering me and just say a pleasant hello when I pass them.  

I will miss the colors and the way that the air looks here.  Something about it is not the same as at home.  The reds are more orange and the greens are denser.  In the bush, the vegetation is more three-dimensional, as if just beyond where you are could be something magical.  I will not miss being constantly called at by strangers, but I will miss the unsolicited affection from children.  I will miss the colorful clothes and glamorous tailored dresses.  I think I will even miss sweating all over people and traveling in tro-tros.  From the tro-tro, you can buy almost anything at any time, provided that you aren’t in the middle of nowhere.  Women (and men) are selling everything from baskets, bowls, and trays that they carry on their heads.  I will miss looking out, taking my pick, and buying puah watah (pure water), hard-boiled eggs, plantain chips, and fan yogo out the window.  A truly convenient cultural institution in a land of inconvenience.

I am thankful for water, for food, for education, love, and family, everything that makes me privileged and lucky.  I believe that I was appreciative before, but now I feel even more grateful.  I will come back to Ghana because I have brothers and sisters here, and because some things about it have been too beautiful to leave behind.  But, for now, I am ready to come home.  In Ghana, there is an old system of symbols called Adinkra, and one of them is Sankofa, symbolized by either a bird looking back over its shoulder or an interconnected heart design.  Sankofa means “return to your roots.”  Sankofa is an important concept, because in order to grow, you cannot always move forward.  You must go backwards, and go home, in order to make the distance count.

In Everlasting Memory

June 23, 2008

For me, the ocean has always symbolized freedom.  It makes me feel small and big at the same time, connected to far away lands, and alone.  You can see what is coming from far away-a storm or a long-lasting calm.  But the terrifying thing is that at a certain point, you can no longer see it at all–that something unkown exists beyond the farthest visible boundaries of your world.  Exciting, perhaps.  Different though, from moving through a jungle, for example, that feels unending because you can only see what is just around you.  On the beach, you can see the edge of your world, and between it and you a huge, unknowable sea.  I wonder if this could also be the opposite of freedom, a captivity or confirmation that where you are is where you are meant to be. 

The taste of the air in the dungeons at Cape Coast Castle is thick, old and raw at the same time, and has lingering traces of feces and death that stayed there for centuries after the slave trade ended.  Visiting the castle produced a disgusting paralysis in me.  I tried to conjour up images of what it was like, of the dungeons, of branding in the courtyard, of a blast of sunlight stepping out through the Door of No Return.  At the same time, I tried to push these images out, too terrified, too disturbed.  The whitewashed walls of the castle contrast against the deep blue sea, palm trees, and colorful fishing boats.  It is beautiful, in the most classic, paradise way. And then I want to throw up for even contemplating the beauty of such a horrendous building.  

Cape Coast Castle is one of three major “slave castles” in West Africa.  All three are in Ghana.  It is estimated that as many as 20 million Africans were displaced from Africa during the trans-Atlantic slave trade.  It is such a big number that it is hard to think about without holding your breath.  Now, Cape Coast Castle is an ordinary fixture in Cape Coast.  Fishermen sit on the steps mending their nets, and kids use a street-facing wall as a boundary for evening soccer games.  At first I was troubled by it: isn’t this acceptance of the building somehow lessening the impact of its history? Or is it really important that life continues to go on around it, that people move on and do not allow it to dominate their daily existence?

We learn about the slave trade in school and the experience of enslaved people in the United States and even the middle passage, but I never knew about the castles, or that Europeans sold guns to local chiefs to encourage warfare so that warring groups would sell enemy prisoners into slavery.  Why is this left out?

As I stood at the Door of No Return, I was struck by how huge the ocean is and how permanently it separated people from their homes, from their world.  By how much Africa lost to the sea. 

A plaque at the Castle, put in when it was finally opened as historical site in 1992, reads as follows:

In Everlasting Memory 

of the anguish of our ancestors.

May those who died rest in peace.

May those who return find their roots.

May humanity never again perpetrate

such injustice against humanity.

We, the living, vow to uphold this.

June 19, 2008

One writes out of a need to communicate and to commune with others, to denounce that which gives pain and to share that which gives happiness.  One writes against one’s solitude and against the solitude of others.  One assumes that literature transmits knowledge and affects the people whose luck or misfortune one identifies with–the hungry, the sleepless, the rebels, and the wretched of this earth–and the majority of them are illiterate.

…How can those of us who want to work for a literature that helps to make audible the voice of the voiceless function in the context of this reality? Can we make ourselves heard in the midst of a deaf-mute culture?  The small freedom conceeded to writers, is it not at times a proof of our failure?  How far can we go? Whom can we reach?

-Eduardo Galeano, Uruguayan Writer

I had promised to return to Nyinampong before I left Ghana, so this past weekend I headed up to Kumasi, squashed against the tro-tro window by a very large woman sleeping beside/on top of me. My brother Eugene met me in Kumasi in a little SUV painted the colors of President Kufor’s Party, the NPP. Eugene is a very classy guy, so he took me out to lunch (10 am) before leaving Kumasi at a chain restaurant found at many gas stations called Chicken Inn. Chicken Inn is exactly what you would expect it to be, so Eugene took an early morning Guiness and I had a coke, and we both had fried chicken and french fries.

Around noon, we arrived in Nyinampong to a pretty chaotic house filled with men trying to install a satellite dish. This, in and of itself, was quite something–Nyinampong has only had electricity for a few years, and most residents are really poor. Apparently Eugene’s family is not. So, around fifteen men are going back and forth from the courtyard to the living room, watching a monitor of the satellite’s signal strength on the TV and hollering what I presume were their individual ideas of how to fix things.  This is a fairly typical method of problem-solving in Ghanaian culture.  After an hour, the satellite was up, and my father, Nana Dwomoh, officially greeted me with a ceremonial Fanta, which I forced myself to drink. (There is a lot of forcing of food and drink in situations like these, since to refuse would be disgustingly ungrateful.) I sat in the living room alone, drinking my Fanta, and was offered more chicken, which I did my very best to make a dent in.

After greeting a few people I knew, I went to relax with Eugene and his friends under a big tree. For several hours, they sat, drank akpeteshie infused with herbs (local gin that is unbelievably potent), and spoke to each other in Twi. I took a token drink of akpeteshie and then sat, spoke occasionally, and mostly just watched my fingernails grow. The fingernail-watching was interspersed with photo shoots, where Eugene’s friends would request to “snap” with me, with the correct impression that I would later mail them copies of the photos.

Finally, just before heading home, we did a formal presentation of some school supplies my family had sent as a donation to the village, snapping pictures of me shaking hands with all the village elders. They were very grateful and made a point to note that they hoped this connection could lead to more gifts in the future. I can’t blame them, I suppose. They believe that we have more than they do, that we have something to give, and comparatively, we definitely do. It feels a bit to me like “If you give a mouse a cookie,” but it is unproductive, ungrateful, and probably cruel of me to feel that way about it.

The Dwomoh family gave me a woodcarving as a thank you gift, which was very generous of them, and I said my goodbyes to Nyinampong.  As we drove off into a monsoon in Eugene’s NPP mobile, the Dwomohs and extended family and neighbors packed into the small living room to explore the satellite TV. Unlucky neighbors and small children huddled around the windows, and they all began to discover the popular American past time of channel surfing.  Apparently they now have access to 109 channels.

This is from an email my Aunt Sue sent me after my May 21 entry. I have decided to publish it because I think it provides the complement of a new perspective to that entry and because it provided an important new perspective to me at a point when I really needed one.

Living close to the earth is “simpler” only because it does not require the forms of technology, with its accompanying interdependence and energy demands, that you and I have become accustomed to. As you and I know, that life style is not simple at all, requires considerable intelligence that is rarely found in books, and can be brutally hard. It is not for the old, weak, or faint of heart, and while it can be sustained by individual effort, it is tolerable at best only within a community, where burdens and benefits can at least be shared. In that context, I think otherwise rational people look for the external comfort that their “God” will “provide” as a means to give themselves hope that opportunities and better fortune will present themselves to lighten the load, and not as a superstitious literalism. This is best exemplified by the following joke, which you may have heard:

* The weather forecasters called for torrential rains and flooding, and soon the water was up to the front steps of the man’s house. When the rescuers approached in their canoe, the man refused their aid, saying “God will provide”; they left. Soon the water level had risen to the second story windows. Again, the rescuers approached, this time in a bigger boat, but the man again refused to leave, saying “God will provide”; they left. Finally, the rising water forced the man to the roof of his house.   This time, rescuers in a helicopter shouted to him to come aboard. The man again refused to leave, saying “God will provide”; the rescuers left and the man drowned.

*When the man arrived at heaven’s gates, he asked God, “Lord, I believed in you; why didn’t you provide for me?” God replied: “Well, first I sent you a canoe; then I sent you a big boat …”.

Yesterday, David told me that he thought God had sent me to him to help Sankofa. Of course, I came here of my own free will, but the unlikely meetings of people that lead to good things can’t easily be explained. I suppose for some, God does provide.

Regrets

June 5, 2008

On principle, I don’t believe in regrets. Learning from mistakes, definitely, but full-fledged regret tends to be self-destructive. As I sat in a lawn chair last night having my hair yanked by three hairdressers while neighbors gawked at me, I realized that what I had thought would be a pretty harmless cultural experience was becoming a definite regret with every passing minute and accumulating mosquito bite.

In Ghana, most women go to salons quite regularly, at least once a month, and get their hair done in weaves or braids or other semi-permanent hairdos. Going to the salon and getting my hair braided would be a cultural experience, I thought, since it is a pretty big part of women’s lives in modern Ghana. And, I thought, I don’t have anything else to do with an afternoon, so why not, right?

Wrong.

After the first hour, when I realized that the pain was increasing instead of decreasing, I began to consider throwing myself overboard. Unfortunately, that expression was too literal for the situation, with a wide open sewage gutter awaiting my desperate self right next to the salon. I decided that the pain of the hair braiding was a better choice than the sewer, so I stayed on. At this point, I must remind you that I have very short hair, which after a terrible haircut in Accra is looking quite like a boy haircut of the seventh grade back in the day (Andy, I am sure you and your friends are far more stylish, I mean no offense). So, they grabbed little pieces and pulled (quite hard) and attached a foot of fake blond hair.

They told me at the salon that it would stop hurting after three days, so I am hopeful. I don’t think that curly, blond braids made out of plastic are a good look for me, but I am giving them a chance, or the people who spent four hours working on them will have their feelings hurt. And, after all that pain, I want to at least try to enjoy them. It is sort of hysterical, having this much fake blond hair attached to my head.

While I was silently crying at the salon (which hurt because it hurt when I scrunched up my face like that), I decided to think of my hair-braiding as a cultural experiment.
Driving Question: Is “beauty is pain” a universal cultural value?
Hypothesis: Yes.
Findings: Ghanaian women will undergo extreme pain to make their hair look nice; or, I am a wimp.

(and I thought plucking my eyebrows was painful?!)

Dear friends and family,

As you may know, I have been in Ghana for the last four months with a program called the School for International Training.  My time in Ghana has been wonderful and very challenging.  I have felt continually humbled by the generosity of the Ghanaians I have met and have been welcomed as a daughter and sister by families in the big cities and in rural villages.  I have learned a lot about people and culture, sharing, taking, and giving.  I decided to spend an extra six weeks in Ghana volunteering; I felt that after all I had learned here, all that I had taken, I wanted to give something back before leaving.

I have been working with a children’s home and school called Sankofa Mbofra Fie in Eguafo, a village near Cape Coast.  Sankofa was founded in 2006 by David Kwesi Acquah, a young man who grew up on the streets and resolved to help others like him once he was on his feet.  At 28, David has no income and continues to move forward with his project however he can.  The children’s home at Sankofa currently houses five boys, but many more are seeking support.  The school has almost 350 students ranging in level from pre-school/nursery to Primary Class 3.  The school is run from an old church building and three temporary bamboo classrooms.  David and the teachers at the school are unbelievably dedicated to helping these children.  They are paid far less than a living wage; I truly do not know how they survive.

Yesterday, David and I began doing some needs assessment for the home and I realized that it would be unfair of me not to fundraise for him.  I have struggled with issues of money during my time in Ghana and have resented the common perception that all white people are walking ATM machines.  Many people here believe that all white people are wealthy, and being in Ghana as a student, it is a constant struggle to convince people that I am living within a student’s budget.  That said, even as students, we all have so much more, in terms of financial resources, than most people in Ghana.  Wage-earning jobs are very few and most people make their money from selling things on on the streets.  The cost of living is low here, and a dollar goes very far.

This email is a plea for money for Sankofa Mbofra Fie. With just $1500, they could almost completely outfit the children’s home, and with an additional $1000, they could outfit a kitchen and dining area. Currently, the five boys living in the home are sleeping in empty rooms with broken screens (particularly problematic due to malaria) and no beds.  David hopes to be able to accomodate up to fifty children once he has the money he needs to feed them, so Sankofa is planning the home accordingly.  I have included a breakdown of costs at the end of this email so you can see exactly what your donation would be used for.

Any amount that you can give, even five dollars, would be greatly appreciated.  As David has told me, even little drops eventually can make an ocean.  I am doing my best to ensure that my help and any donations I receive are used in the most sustainable way possible through communicating with David about his current wants and needs for Sankofa.

If you would like to make a donation, please email me (sarfrank@gmail.com) and I will let you know how to send a check to my mother.  My mom is coming to Ghana at the end of June, so she can bring any donations she receives with her then to give to Sankofa.

My fundraising goal is $2500, which is a fairly small amount by American standards but could make a tremendous difference to Sankofa Mbofra Fie.  Please pass this along to anyone you think might be interested in supporting this organization.

Sankofa means “return to your roots,” or move forward only while looking back where you came from.  You, my friends and family, are my roots, and I thank you for that.

Much love, Sarah

Sankofa Children’s Home Needs:
1. Bunk Beds to accomodate 5 current children (and trunks for personal belongings, sheets, pillows) = $150
2.  Re-paint interior  = about $75
3. New screens for 13 windows = $30
4. New shutters for 7 broken windows = $50
5. 3 screen doors = $45
6. 3 door handles w/ locks = $25
7. 3 short fluorescent light bulbs and other energy-saver bulbs = $30
8. Structural maintenance = about $200
9. 22 more bunk beds = $1100

Other Home Projects:
1. Building a roof over the courtyard to create a shaded dining area
2. Outfitting kitchen: small deep-freezer, refridgerator, stove, cupboards/shelves, pots, pans, dishes, etc.
3. Picnic tables in courtyard for eating/homework

My semester officially ended a week ago, and now I am back in Cape Coast doing some volunteer work with two organizations: African Footprint (www.africanfootprint.dk), a dance/drumming group with some inspiring community outreach projects and no resources, and Sankofa Mbofra Fie, an orphanage and school serving 300 students with few resources and no funding.  Needless to say, I am meeting some really wonderful people.  I am doing my best to stay busy, patient, and motivated.  I am trying to find ways to help that are sustainable because oh, man, there are so many ways to help that are not.  Everyone needs money, everyone always needs money, and that is especially true in Africa.  But just making a donation doesn’t solve the long term problems.  So, here we are.  The people I am working with have made some monumental things out of very little and I am in increasing awe of them with each day.  

Last Saturday, I joined the members of African Footprint and some Danish volunteers to build a pre-school in a village about forty five minutes from Cape Coast.  We piled into a tro-tro and bounced through the sand to a place that was the most devastatingly picturesque image of Africa I have seen yet.  Skinny palm trees laden with coconuts lean towards the sun and perfect waves splash up on the beach (notably free of trash and feces).  The houses are made from palm leaves woven together and have straw roofs.  It is hard to imagine that they can withstand the monsoon-esq rains we have been having daily.  We carried bricks from the manufacturing site, a small pond nearby, and carried sand in buckets on our head from the beach to the worksite.  When we got tired, some guys climbed the trees and brought down coconuts, which a local man cut open for us with his machete.  When we had used up all the bricks, everyone stripped down to their underwear and ran into the ocean.  This will be the first school built in the small village of Pebi.

After four months in Ghana, I am feeling more comfortable and less restless.  I could stay here for a while, with some of the comforts from home, but I could never live here.  I will be sad to leave in six weeks, of course, but I will be ready to go home.  This is all a little like camping.  It is worth making yourself uncomfortable for a time, to some people, but most of us have no intention of moving to the woods.  Not to draw some dumb, too-simple, western-centric comparison between Ghana The Developing Country and the primitive woods.  Of course, the mosquitos are a factor, but the discomfort is more a metaphor for a lack of things that feel comfortable.  Culture is such an enormous thing.  It’s simple things, like not understanding the humor in melodramatic TV shows, or in a joke someone tells in English to a big group of Ghanaians. It’s struggling to communicate with people for whom English is never their first language.  Their command of it is so impressive, considering that they usually only speak it when necessary, but it is often still hard to communicate.  I miss talking about books, and I miss plays, and I even miss the Oberlin Theater Department.  I don’t believe that “God will provide” and I am baffled by the day to day behavior that is so often based on this belief.  I don’t think that life is simpler here.  It is not simple to have unreliable electricity and water, and while it might make us nostalgic for “simpler days,” doing laundry by hand (particularly in a climate where you get dirty and sweaty every day), frankly, blows. 

I am bored a little more often than I would like and have developed a disgusting addiction to a Chinese knock-off DVD of Desperate Housewives Season Two, but I am still glad to be here.  Really wonderful things usually happen right after the most trying ones, and Ghana continues to redeem itself and become more complicated in my eyes.  My latest companion is the nine-year-old girl who lives downstairs, and I adore her.  We walk to the corner store and buy candies and practice subtraction facts.

When I was doing my research, the director of African Footprint, Kweku Addison, told me about his artistic vision of bridging gaps between people.  I think it is a fairly comprehensive summary of what I have learned in the last four months, and when I am feeling a little helpless or tired, it reminds me that the cultural differences I observe are not as insurmountable as they may feel: “I am because you are because we are.  When I see you, then I see myself, because I exist because you exist.”

Obruni, how are you?

April 25, 2008

Sometimes, I am so happy to be in Ghana.  I feel connected to the people around me and enjoy making conversation with strangers.  I crave jollof rice and sometimes forget that I am sweating.  I am charmed by my surroundings and enjoy the company of the goats everywhere.  Sometimes, I enjoy being woken up by roosters crowing or Gospel/Hip Life blasting from someone’s radio at 7 am, or before.

And sometimes, I feel lost and invisible.  Of course, I am never invisible.  I cannot walk down the street without dozens of calls from children and adults alike of “Obruni, how are you?”  Sometimes I can cheerfully say, “I am fine! How are you?” And other times, I want to have a temper tantrum.  I am officially tired of being asked for my phone number by men I do not know.  I am more officially tired of being told by men, only somewhat jokingly, that I will marry them.  There is a disturbing obsession with marrying a “white lady” in Ghana.  When I lie and tell them I am already married (many of us wear rings for the express purpose of proving to aggressive suitors that we are, indeed, married), they still want my phone number and ask to “take me as a friend.”  It is nice, in many ways, to be welcomed and wanted as a friend, but it becomes trying when new friends call at all hours of the day and night, just to say hello.  (By all hours, I mean absolutely all hours.)  But these new friends, for the most part, have little interest in me except having a white lady for a friend.  It makes me feel invisible even while my invisibility powers are at their lowest.

Sometimes, I think I am used to the heat, and to ntomtoms (mosquitos), and to the other things that plague us Obruni travelers (read: diarrhea).  And sometimes, I feel so worn out by them, that I stop wherever I am and silently cry “Why, Ghana, why?!”  And then, eventually, I pull myself together, and resolve yet again to overcome the elements, to continue to smile at strangers, to accept my Obruni woes.  And at times like these, wonderful things usually happen, like someone helping me when I am lost without asking for my phone number or anything in return, or having a great conversation with a taxi driver while stuck in an hour of Accra traffic (about, of all things, Hillary and Barack). 

I have spent the last three weeks living in Cape Coast studying dance and drumming for the Independent Study Project component of the program.  I am taking dance and drumming lessons from Antoinette Kudoto, Ghana’s only female master drummer, and her daughter, Sena, and rehearsing with their group at a restaurant by the beach most afternoons.  I am also living with them and learning how to cook Ghanaian food.  Sometimes I share American delights with them, like French Toast, and we rearrange our evenings to watch Venezuelan telenovelas that are the most delightfully terrible television I have ever seen.  I am doing research on dance-dramas, storytelling dance pieces, and have interviewed many performing artists in Cape Coast about their work.  Dance is fascinating in Ghana, because the whole culture is infused with it and the people really cherish it.  It is not tangental to life, like the performing arts are for many people in the US, it is every day, everywhere-a way to connect, communicate, and share experiences.  It is used to preserve, reclaim, and celebrate all aspects of Ghanaian culture; it is a keeper of stories.