Thursday, June 12, 2008

Only in Africa

This will be my last blog from Hohoe. The last week has flown by, and my time at the school has been wonderful. I regret thinking I hadn't made left a mark here; for my last few days they have been baking me cakes, making me my own batik fabrics, giving me beer at lunch, and every minute demanding that I return very soon. Most of my work (research and application) will actually begin when I get home so I know that I will remain in close contact with them. Still, I find myself trying to ingrain even the smell of the school in my mind.
A huge storm hit us in the afternoon on Tuesday. I have seen all kinds of storms but the ones here are breathtaking. In the mornings it is always so sweltering you think the sun has a personal vendetta against you and then, around 2, the whole sky begins to change. The white puffy clouds come in and slowly start to move closer. Then the wind picks up and the air changes - always my favorite part. When I felt the breeze come into the house on Tuesday, I knew that I had to be outside. I walked down the main dirt path and dust kicked up in my face while the bushes on either side of me started to sway in the wind. The lightning and thunder always happen before the actual rain; lightning every 30 seconds and deafening, frightening thunder. It is always a small dark cloud, almost black, that brings the rain. As I was walking aimlessly, children were scurrying past me trying to get to shelter before it poured. And then, drop by drop the rain began to fall. It happens so slowly you can barely contain your excitement, but then it finds its groove and really begins to pour. The drops are so loud but always soft when they hit you. And so I stood in a field in the middle of nowhere for the next 20 minutes and got absolutely drenched. It was amazing. I remember Monique telling me that the sky in Africa feels bigger than it does at home and I couldn't agree more. The other night staring at the stars (all of them twinkle here too!) I felt as if I were either in the world's largest planetarium, or a picture ripped out of the book Le Petit Prince. The sky may be what I miss the most.
Every time you greet a Ghanaian, you shake hands and during the release, you snap your middle finger with the other's middle finger. I love this. They also have annoying habits, like asking me "Are you back?" every time I return to the house. Yes, I'm back, don't be stupid. They are a kind, generous, content people who do work hard, but in their own unique way. I find it frustrating that they do adapt to Western ideas, but always the wrong ones. They don't have working toilets and if they do, you have to throw the toilet paper away in the trash can instead of flushing it. Yet every single one of them has a cell phone. Their trash and irrigation, education, healthcare and political systems are all progressing bit by bit, but most of their time is concentrated on emulating the latest American fads (well, sometimes not the latest - R. Kelly is a big hit here). I can't tell if the best way to assist is to change American priorities at home or to join the African system and help them refocus their priorities. The U.S. has paved the way for so many developing countries but capitalism does hit a harmful tipping point. Developing countries like Ghana that have left corrupt politics behind them, should they strengthen their economies, are positioned to make a huge leap in the sustainability movement. As Ghana continues to grow and to decide what its personality really is, I hope it will leave R. Kelly and tight jeans behind, and think more of the social welfare of its citizens.
I can't really articulate how I feel today. I walked through the buzzing town last night with the overwhelming worry that perhaps, just perhaps, I will never see these sights again. And in a way that makes it all the more beautiful; Hohoe will always be in my mind as a sort of trippy dream, a haven, an escape worlds away that I can never return to. It's a reminder that we can never hold on to a moment; the more we try to, the quicker it passes us by. Living that way ensures that every moment is really enjoyed. No thinking, just living.
Tomorrow I will take the 24 hour journey back to the Island, where the Isle of Wight Festival is taking place, and then Tuesday I'm off to Puerto Rico by way of Madrid. I do believe I will continue writing, as I am sure Puerto Rico will be a whole new adventure.

Monday, June 9, 2008

Last weekend in Ghana

We started our weekend as we usually do; at Boondocks with a Star beer in hand. Three hours and more beers than I can count later, our driver showed up around 4 (I tell you, if I get home and I'm not perpetually late it will be a miracle). We ran over and killed two large goats on the way and no one batted an eye. Lori and I cried a quick tear, but at the same time appreciated the sentiment that seems to pop up every day: Only in Africa.

We passed out when we got to Kizzi's, and woke up at 3:30am to make the 3 hour trek to Kakum National Park. Alas, no elephants or monkeys were spotted, but we did enjoy the 'canopy walkway': 7 rope bridges all connected as a path high (so high!) above the rainforest. Not for the faint of heart but absolutely breathtaking. Fred, our guide, was a hoot - he was the black version of Fez from That 70's show, and was adorably disappointed in us when we didn't ask questions on the nature walk (the highlights of which were a large tree and a huge millipede...not much to write home about.) After the rainforest, we drove to the Cape Coast castle. The architecture of the castle is stunning - a large white building with beautiful blue shutters on each window, situated right on the beach overlooking boats and palm trees. It was a little hard to really grasp the horrors that happened there with so many tourists around, but I was able to steal away for a few quiet minutes alone in one of the dungeons. The dungeons are damp and small, completely dark save for a tiny window that allows for one beam of sunlight. Thousands of slaves were held here for days, sometimes weeks, as they awaited shipment through the Middle Passage. It's amazing to think that the slave trade is not only such a huge part of American history, but global history as well, seeing as it was actually the smallest portion of slaves that were sent to the US (most went to the Caribbean). I was amazed when I read the entries in the guestbook, and one African American woman had suggested that they separate white and black people for the tours of the castle. Very powerful stuff.

We stayed at a resort in a town called Elmina Saturday night and I can't tell you how superb it was to take a hot shower. I felt clean for the first time in weeks. After another amazing weekend, I wasn't expecting much at school on Monday morning, but I was pleasantly shocked at how much work they had done for me. The headmaster and secretary provided me with all of the appropriate budgets so I am now one step away from completing my proposals. I appointed a Project Evaluation team (the headmaster, the secretary, the accountant and myself) to assess the progress of the projects should we secure funding, and they are all so excited and, as Jimmy would say, G2G (good to go). And then...very ceremoniously, they walked me over to the new dormitory and pointed to the front door. At the top, written in white, are 8 wonderful letters: "Kim House". They named a dormitory after me!!! Yes, I cried a little and took picture after picture like a Japanese tourist. With only 3 days left here, I'm running around trying to get everything done that I want to, trying not to think about how much I will miss it here. I know though, that this is the first of many trips to Africa for me.

Friday, June 6, 2008

How do you sign 'you're blowing my mind'?

*(This was meant to be posted on Friday but the electricity went off in the town just as I was clicking 'publish'.)
People here are dropping like flies; three volunteers in the other house have malaria, Ashley had to go to the hospital for an IV last night, and on any given day someone's throwing up in the bathroom. I have a grand total of 17 bug bites on my feet alone, so every day that I wake up without malaria I am so thankful! Knock on wood.
I have found inspiration from surprising sources since I last wrote. The first is everyone at home - many of you responded to my last blog with an incredible understanding of the universal trappings of people. The point that most of you made was that this trip is for me, and as much as I want to help, I should offer what I can while continuing to learn from the cultural exchange before me.
So with an open heart and less frustrated mind, I accompanied Lori to the School for the Deaf yesterday to watch their dress rehearsal of a dance performance. I cannot wait to share pictures and video of this experience. We sat around with twenty or so of the kids, ages 5 to 16, who taught us the alphabet in sign language with incredible patience (my man hands were not built to communicate gracefully). This collection of deaf students is the most amazing group of young people I have ever encountered; almost like a tribe, they take care of each other and are so gracious to outside visitors, and watching them speak to each other is absolutely beautiful, with forceful hand gestures and such dramatic face expressions. And just when I thought I couldn't be any more impressed, the drumming began. Five boys (one of which may be the love of my life, in 4 years when it's legal...) began to beat against drums they held between their knees - in perfect rhythm. And then 4 boys and 4 girls ran out and danced effortlessly and expertly. They performed dances that told stories about love; boys offering their belongings to women, women shunning them, men fighting over the same woman, etc. They performed for about 2 hours and not once did they skip a beat. I am tempted to make an analogy here, somehow relating their ability to dance with only a vibration to lead them, to enjoying life's very basic and simple pleasures. If life is a dance, sometimes we don't even need music to lead us. As I reread that, I'm slightly embarrassed, but I'm leaving it there anyway. It's impossible not to be cheesy about such resilient, laidback people.

Now I am off to Accra for the night (back to Kizzi's house with Lori, Ashley and Jimmy), and tomorrow we will wake up at 4am to drive to a nearby national park, with the promise that we will see elephants and monkeys. After that, we'll drive to Cape Coast, a coastal town in the central region that houses the largest slave fort in West Africa. There will be much to tell on Monday, I am sure...

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Moving slower than a sick turtle...

First, let me start with a very big YIPPEE for the news of Obama's nomination. One of the volunteers received a text message with the news this morning, and every single person in the house has been celebrating (even the ones from the South!) Tonight, we will party at Boondocks with many of the locals who are also excited that Obama is one step closer to being our president!

On a very different note, yesterday was a very frustrating, unhappy day for me. I finally had a chance to use one of the school's computers to begin typing my grants (so far I've handwritten the 30 or so pages) and I was so motivated that any disturbance was simply irritating. And disturbances were aplenty yesterday. Several locals came by to visit me and I had to turn them away because I was working; a concept I'm beginning to think they don't fully grasp. I tried to explain to several of the teachers what exactly it is that I am doing here, and their response is always "is okay, is okay", and they smile at me like they wish I would just stop to chat with them. I even yelled (politely) at Fred, the Batik teacher, "Don't you care?? Don't you want more money?" He just smiled. That was the first time I've wanted to smack a Ghanaian.

I am worried. I am worried that I won't be able to do anything for this school because I can't rely on anyone here to follow through when I leave. I am worried the Director is never going to give me his budgets, or actually believe that I really can secure funding for him. I am worried that the teachers here are not invested in the Institute. And to feel helpless like this, in a country that needs help in development like I need a boob reduction, is unbearable. I read that Ghana's government expects the country to be a first-world country by 2020. I know that to be absolutely impossible.

Later in the morning yesterday, I noticed Level sitting under an umbrella painting the pictures of the school for me. I asked him how much he wanted for the paintings and he said that all he wanted was my friendship. Level is a very kind, handsome, nicely dressed and well spoken 23 year old and yet, I am saddened every time we speak. He mentions coming to the States often because he knows he would learn so much more there, but we both know he never will. I told him that when I get home I will send him more paintbrushes (he only has one) and better paints, and books on art. The thought, however, that this is all I can do for him is overwhelmingly sad. He came to visit me at the house in the afternoon without notice and I told Vida, one of our housekeepers, to tell him I was sleeping because I knew speaking with him would make me feel worse. And I feel horrible. I am working so hard to secure funding for the Institute but all these people seem to want from me is my address and a promise that they can come visit me when they "get to America". Accepting the status quo and dreaming of an escape to the US seems to get them through the day. I want to grab them by the shoulders and tell them that they must save themselves from the conditions they are in.

I spoke with Lori (who is quickly becoming a close friend) and told her of my concerns; she said it must be hard because my initial impression was that they are all so happy, and reminded me that we can only do so much and that we have to believe that any step we make here, no matter how small, will make some kind of impact. She taught me how to meditate, and she is also bringing me along to a dance celebration at her school (School for the Mentally Challenged) tomorrow to lift my spirits. I think it's only natural that I feel this way. I have been told many times that I would feel overwhelmed by all the things I would not be able to accomplish here.

I have called a meeting for next Monday with a select group of staff members who I have elected to be the Project Evaluation and Monitoring team. I also plan to share the proposals with all of them, and toteach them a few things about grants. I half expect that none of them will show up at the meeting. I also have an appointment with the local District Assembly to access their records and to discuss the feasibility and logistics of acquiring money for the school. Things are chugging along...and of course, I will feel better after dancing tomorrow. I promise the next blog will be more entertaining and inspirational!

Monday, June 2, 2008

You are an African!

It is 8pm here and the town of Hohoe is alive. Taxis are running up and down the main street, on which petty traders are still selling their goods, and several fires on the side of the road are cooking corn or egg or grasscutter (a large rodent). On the 25 minute walk to the internet cafe, I ran into several of my new friends: Snakeman, one of my 'suitors'; Level and Carobene, the 23 year old art and engineer students (respectively) - I met them on the street one day and Level is now doing 4 paintings of my school for me to take home; the headmaster of my school; and Rambo, the guy who drove me from the airport. They all call out my name or hiss at me to get my attention (hissing is not rude here) and it is such a warm feeling to be a part of this community, and to be 'home' after a very eventful, incredibly bizarre weekend.
On Friday afternoon, Lori, Jimmy, Ashley and I walked to Boondocks (our local bar) to have a beer and to wait for our driver. The ride was about 3 hours to Accra, with both good elements (air conditioning!) and bad (a CD of sermons and gospel music replayed 4 times). We arrived at Kizzi's house (Lori's nanny's cousin) in a suburb of Accra called Roman Hill around 8pm, after which his wife cooked us an amazing meal while we watched Ice Age with her little kids. Being in a house with a TV, and being served apple juice, and taking a shower with no dirt on the ground felt like such luxuries! Kizzi woke us up at 3:30am to start the 2 hour drive to the tiny village of Kwamu Obo, where the funeral service took place.
Funerals are always held on Saturday here - on Friday evening the body is taken to the spot, the burial and ceremonies take place on Saturday, and everyone makes donations and attends church on Sunday. The day was hot and sticky, and we all wore black with red cloth tied in our hair and around our wrists. The coffin was placed in the middle of a courtyard and for most of the morning, we sat and watched as prayers and goodbyes were said to the dead body (her name was Comfort, and she passed away at 60 from cancer). There was a disco ball on the coffin, and next to the coffin was the kind of speaker system that you would expect at a football game. Take note now; I will absolutely expect a disco ball to be perched upon my coffin. While some mourners sobbed and wailed, others would dance and laugh just feet away. An odd combination, but beautiful to watch.
After lunch, hundreds of us followed the coffin down the street to the burial site, and watched the coffin lowered into the ground. In the afternoon, we returned to the center of town for the donation ceremony: each family makes a donation which is announced on the microphone, and the donors then dance with the chief grievers of the deceased. While all of this was going on (hours and hours!), the four of us whities were welcomed so warmly by everyone. Lori got to put some woman's baby on her back for awhile, I was video'd by the funeral photographer for a good ten minutes and chatted with the local kids, and some guy let Jimmy wear his traditional robes for the service (Jimmy, a 6'3" white Alabaman, looked like Jesus all day in his robes and untanned skin because the villagers followed him everywhere and he stood about 6 inches taller than all of them). At the end of the donation ceremony, our names were called so we got up and danced with the family. While we were dancing, some woman said to me "You are an African! I can tell you love Ghana. You won't want to leave. Stay with us!"
Saturday night, we went to the local bar and then met up with the whole village in the courtyard for a big dance party. We must have danced for four hours at least. I have to say that Saturday night was, without a doubt, the most amazing night of my life. There were hundreds of us dancing - never stopping, never thinking, never feeling anything but the music. I danced with one 5 year old boy for most of the time and he blew my mind - he would have kicked Justin Timberlake's ass in a heartbeat. I feel like perhaps the woman was right; I am an African. It is impossible not to feel happy here when you are surrounded by people with such love in their hearts.
Sunday was an adventure in itself (met monkeys, immigration officers and a man from Wisconsin) but there just isn't time to go into it all! Arriving back at the house was overwhelming after such a perfect weekend. Lori, Jimmy, Ashley and I get along perfectly as a group - we are all confident enough to either be by ourselves or to experience this trip together, and it's such a pleasure to get to know people who lead such different lives from me. But the house does feel like a frat/sorority house and there is never any peace between the hookups and drama. Lori and Ashley were especially bummed upon our return, so we took some time for ourselves to remind us why we are here, and that what goes on in the house does not have to get in the way of enjoying our adventure.
Now that I am settled here, I have had a chance to ruminate on life in Ghana. There is so much of their culture that I am envious of; they break out into song several times during the day, they are so relaxed and happy, they are hospitable and generous with the little that they have to offer. I do feel like I could stay here forever. But then there are times that I am disheartened by the life here. They know so little of the outside world (hence the reason they treat us like celebrities), and they have no options in their lives. At first I marveled at their ability to sit for hours and do nothing, but I have since seen a sadness, or boredom, in their eyes. I returned to work today and I am so energized by this opportunity I have found for myself. I hope that as I continue to get to know the locals, I will see that I have been wrong about their sadness.
You know those days when something amazing happens to you; an eye-opening conversation with a stranger, an introspective moment, a joke shared with a friend? Every single day is like that here.