07 March 2012

A Year in the Life of a Penguin

As an obroni, there are few questions that I am politely - but invariably - asked, commonly by taxi drivers or other passing new acquaintences.

-How long you have been here in Ghana?
followed by:
--How do you find the people of Ghana?  
-Are you enjoying Ghana?

How long? When I tell people that it’s been over a year, it often earns the remark, “Oh, so you’re Ghanaian now.”  I suppose my status as Ghanaian is as official as it will ever be: I finally have a taste for banku, a real interest in football, an arguable position on national politics and a tendency say “please” almost constantly.  Sure, I understand some things; but does that mean I'm tidily assimilated?  As I've more or less said before, you can jump right onto someone else's cultural iceberg, or build a bridge and walk across; maybe you can set up a nice igloo and find some other penguins to chill with. But that won't make it yours.  My theory?  Might as well make yourself useful! Go catch some fish.  Yet you're still a visitor, and there are some things you won't be able do without making a bit of a mess.

Recently, one of my friends said, “I love being in Ghana, but I can’t explain why.”  Yes, she was exaggerating – I think almost everyone can write up a list of things to appreciate – populated by the people we care for, or the view from the porch in the evening, or that favorite spot with cold beer and unbeatable yam balls. 

So what's so elusive? Perhaps its just that while living here has its own set of frustrations, barriers to progress and even tragedies, we wouldn't trade it in.  Our 'why' is frought with dichotomy, and very much our own.       

On to the next question: How do I find the people of Ghana? This is my standard response: "I have found everyone to be very kind."  It's true that many Ghanaians will go out of their way to make you welcome or assist you.  It's practically a trademark.  Ghana is even referred to as "Africa for Beginners" - or more specifically, "Introduction to Africa for Whites From Developed Countries." Some of my Ghanaian friends find this hilarious, and others are pleased.   However, my real response, the one that usually stays neatly tucked inside my head, is this: "I find Ghanaians to be people - strong and flawed, honest and hypocritical, caring and corrupt, just like anywhere else - packaged with a set of values that emerge from a strong spiritual life and a belief in honouring and loving others.  How did you want me to find them?"

And finally: Am I enjoying Ghana? That becomes a question of my experiences, doesn't it. To break it down a bit, I've made a month-by-month highlights reel.  Actually it's more of a "let me tell you what I've learned about myself, in Ghana, and then let me go ahead and give you advice that you haven't actually asked me for." Hey, it's my blog. 

  • When it comes to the inexpert lighting of coal in a coal pot, don’t hold back on the kerosene. And five year olds are better at this than I am. 

  • Be careful about where you swim, because beaches can be toilets, too.  
  • Nestle has a firm grip around the trophy for world domination.
  • I am wretched at wringing out clothes. Five year olds are probably better at this, too. In fact, the self-sufficiency of five year olds in Ghana is remarkable in comparison to five year olds in the U.S. In the U.S., we don't expect children to handle machetes and chop open coconuts. We also don't have them watch over their younger siblings. Here, children do these tasks with self-assurance and without injuring themselves or others. They even do it with aplomb. Makes you wonder if U.S. expectations of children are a little low.

  • It can actually get so hot that you can’t sleep.
  • I hate canned mackerel. 
  • Only wear skirts on long bus trips because peeing in the woods is much more difficult in capris.

  • Traveling over a holiday is a very bad idea, no matter what country you live in - just imagine Thanksgiving in Penn Station, except without any tickets. 
  • It’s possible to give up goat meat after a single encounter with a kid headed for the slaughter. 
  • It’s also possible for every meal to taste vaguely like mackerel, without any explanation beyond an overactive imagination.

  • It’s easy to mess up a relationship by spending too much time in the past; it is, in fact, the kiss of death.
  • When you feel awful there is always chocolate cake and good conversation (but I already knew that).
  • There's nothing quite as empowering as being in a room of people who are all committed to bringing about much-needed change.

  • The difference between one birthday and another can astound you.
  •  I have no fear of heights or little dark caves.  Or heavily sedated and recently fed crocodiles.

  • On occasion, I lack moral fortitude (think I knew that one too).

  • Didn’t learn a thing.  Moral fortitude still a bit in question.

  • Being effective at work means push, push, push push push. Paa paa paa.

  • What you think is a single, measurable event can be perceived two entirely different ways, so proceed with caution. 
  • Don't proceed with too much caution, or nothing will ever get resolved. 
  • Never underestimate the delight of a secret handshake, and all the other things you miss when a good friend goes away. 


  • Turkey slaughtering is a tricky business. 
  • Another thing to never underestimate: ovens.
  • Elephants are AWESOME.
  • Christmas songs begin playing in November in Ghana, too.  

  • Horseback riding on an improperly secured saddle is a bad idea.
  • I am capable of taking down petty thieves and other offending individuals when pissed off.
  • Gorillas and giraffes are AWESOME.
  • Getting a flat tire in the middle of nowhere can be amusing, but only the first two times.
  • Travelling with someone who makes you laugh is a great idea.  
  • An encounter with good bread and the rapture that ensues only truly pinnacles after nearly a year of inferior selection.  

  • Really, there's only so much pushing you can do.

  • Engaging in the hostage taking of wristwatches and mobile phones can be an effective method of ensuring prompt computer maintenance.
  • You know you have lived in Ghana for a year when you have absolutely no reaction to a sudden "lights off”.  You are allowed a dramatic reaction to lights off if it happens during a football match.  On the other hand, the return of power to your fan and lights and laptop never ceases to be pleasing - but it's a wary pleasure.   
  • The best way for me to live my life is to regret nothing.
  • And who doesn't enjoy a good quote? I sure do.

In sum:

The crab sorceror of Rhumsiki, Cameroon, relayed this fortune to me on behalf of the crab: “You will stay in Ghana for a little while, and then go to the next place, but then you will have a great journey in Africa, find work in Africa and live in Africa. You will have a tranquil, happy and healthy life with no problems. The crab is happy for you!"

Great plan. Yet life resists planning - even when it's based on the unshakable predictions of a crab. So how do we live, whichever iceberg we happen to be on? Gilda Radner put it this way: "Some stories don't have a clear beginning, middle and end. Life is about not knowing, having to change, taking the moment and making the best of it without knowing what's going to happen next. Delicious ambiguity..." Again - how do we live? Floating in delicious ambiguity. So yes, I'm enjoying Ghana. But I can't explain why.
And here's some more unsolicited advice. Since this is my blog. Visiting penguins, tred a little carefully. Just make sure that in your careful stepping about, you don’t miss your crocodiles, your secret handshakes, your love, or the first and hundredth time you hear, “The Little Drummer Boy”. Likewise, don't miss your mistakes, your heartbreak, your blown tires, or accidentally peeing on yourself in the woods (well, that one you can skip - hopefully I've taught you at least one valuable lesson). Nope, don’t miss anything. Enjoy.