31 March 2011

Life and Death in Bolgatanga

Ok, I know I have been a very poor blogger to date, but I promise to do better.  It’s March 13th and I’ve been in Ghana for one month, and in Cape Coast for three weeks. 
Last weekend I went to Bolgatanga, which is a short trip from the northern border with Burkina Faso.  It’s incredibly hot, all the time, so you are constantly sweating.  More expressively, one operates with a lovely sheen of sweat painted on one’s body, like an extra layer of clothing that can’t be removed.  Except with a nice cold shower…but those big black water storage tanks heat up during the day so your nice cold shower becomes a nice hot one.  The water temperature actually peaks at exactly the time one most feels like a dunk in a vat of ice cubes, but so goes Bolga.   Another fun Bolga shower fact: the mosquitos enjoy making their home here. Showering becomes an exercise in hypervigilance, launching preemptive strikes against all that alight on smackable surfaces whenever possible.  An alternative best practice is staying completely under the stream of water at all times, which can be very, very tricky (but anything is possible with proper motivation).
On Saturday, when it was still early enough for the water temperature to be hovering between tepid and vaguely warm, we heard the drums and music of a funeral going on in the community.  We went over with our cameras, wary of being rude but intrigued enough to risk it.  Now, funerals in Ghana are much more lively than weddings, and are typically an all-day event.  The family’s time for crying has passed with the burial of the body, and this is a day for socializing, for celebrating the person’s life and for rejoicing in his or her transition to the afterlife. It is a testament to social responsibility, as family and community is expected to help – by showing up, or by contributing some small amount, and preferably both.  If you don’t help, you might get ignored the next time you try to organize a funeral.  And you know that day will come.
Despite all wariness on our part, people were exceptionally kind and welcoming, and generally enthusiastic about photos.  One gentleman bordered on insistent, but who wouldn't be happy to oblige:

A group of children ran up to me and demanded, “Snap! Snap!” Then hovered around the camera to identify themselves.  Truly, thank god for digital camera screens, because what kid doesn't like seeing his or herself in a picture.
So we, the funeral crashers, listened to the traditional music and drumming and stood fairly transfixed by the dancing.  Below, you see the perhaps the most notable woman - for her skill in dancing and traditional dress (red and black are funeral colors, by the way) - really, she was almost impossible not to look at, and the only woman amongst men.   
please note the curlers. that's my favorite thing about this picture.

In retrospect, the only thing that could possibly have distracted me from the dancing would have been sheep* butchering.  And guess what?  There was sheep butchering.  The meat, including the sausage I saw being made, would be eaten by the funeral guests later as part of the celebration.  It looked like an intense amount of work, but a practically perfected process.

*Yes, I know, looks like a goat. I have asked this question several times, and been told "Daabi, daabi, daabi (No, no, no). It's a sheep." So, sheep. But they taste like goat.

We left the funeral appropriately sweaty and with feet covered in red dirt.  I went home for a hot shower.  And that’s it for a Saturday in Bolga.

12 March 2011

Without a doubt, mo ho ye.

17 Feb 2011
Happy and tired.  From that initial blanket of hot and heavy air when I got off the plane to this point now, lying in a cozy (and VERY well-tucked in) bed, in an air-conditioned room, with wifi, in the Sunlodge Hotel (http://www.sunlodgehotel.com, in case you’re curious), I am pretty simply summed up with those descriptives.  Of course, all the volunteers are living the spoiled life right now.  Those of us who aren’t from developing countries are still comfortable in what my Ugandan co-volunteer refers to as our “air-conditioned skin.”  And he is absolutely right.  We even have hot showers.  

So group demographics: there are about 25 of us all together, ranging in age from mid-20s to mid-50s.  Most come from the UK, but we also have people from Kenya, Uganda, Canada, the Netherlands, Australia, Ireland and the US.  The majority of vols are headed for the less developed northern part of the country, but there’s a solid handful that will be based in Accra.  As training goes, it’s pretty much what you’d expect: health, culture, finances, program goals, and a little language training.  Since I’m the only vol headed for the Central Region, specifically Cape Coast, where Fante is spoken, I get a private tutor while everyone else groups up.  Our instructors come from the University of Winneba, which is about halfway between Accra and Cape Coast – about a two hour drive given the traffic.  My instructor, Phillip, is maybe all of 20 years old and is very serious about his job. He seems caught between surprise and delight and pride each time I remember what I’m supposed to, or pronounce something correctly, or ask a good question.  Highlights: I can ask you where you’re going (eroko hen), how are you (wo ho tse den) and respond (mo ho ye, wo so wo ho tse den) and purchase tomatoes (tomantuse – ha! easy one), eggs (kyerefuwa or add ‘n’ in front to pluralize – and ky=ch sound), onion (don’t ask), garlic (same as onion + kankan), bread (paabaa -tricky), rice (emu), beans (eduwa) and water (nsu). Yup. And I can tell you my name. Me dzin dze Kelly.  Moroko nsu (I’m going for water).

Let me paint you a language lesson: Phillip says the word I’m meant to be repeating and committing to memory.   I stare at his mouth while he says it, as if my eyes could untangle the sound.  I listen without looking, my ear right up front, still stuck.  Aside from providing me with brand-new sounds to produce, I'm learning a tonal language.  The same word said differently means different things. Sound production is precise, and generally ends on a low.  When you think of me, talking emphatically, you may instantly grasp that this is not exactly natural for me.  On multiple occasions while practicing with Phillip I have tried to check my pronunciation with him by repeating the word back to him like a question (ending on a high).  He tells me “No, no, no...like this…” until I realize what I’m doing. I may be “saying it right” in that the vowels and consonants are forming properly (and properly is a relative term), but I am very distinctly “saying it wrong” with my tone - and you can’t have one without the other.  In discussions with my UK vol friend, Jacky, we have decided that a lot of Americans speak in higher ranges and end statements as if they were questions.  We have also decided that this means that a lot of Americans are loud, obnoxious, and ultimately unsure of their opinions. (Just having a laugh!) 

Regardless, Phillip says that he is very pleased with me.  I’m a good student, just check out my flash cards, but I do get flustered when Ghanaians test me with questions with that I’m supposed to know the answer to (Wo ho tse den? Yes, I know…Mo ho ye). It’s still hard for me to hear unless I’m expecting it.  Matters get more confusing when I practice with the staff at the hotel, since people speak different dialects of Twi (pronounced a bit more like chwee, but softer).  I have about three different ways to say “good morning.”However, it really all ends well, because I think one of the best ways of getting to know people so far has been inviting them into my embarrassingly awful language attempts.  Everyone laughs and I learn a little more, and make friends in the process.  

Lastly, regarding food, I’m still in the adjustment phase.  I have definitely found things that I love, like the pepe (pepper).  And all things plantain: freshly fried and salted chips from street vendors, and kelewele, which is little pieces fried and then sweetened/spiced.  And the spicy bean patties, unbelieveably nothing but bean, also fried.  Jollof rice with chicken (like fried rice).  I see the pattern as I write.  I tried banku, which is like a fermenteddough of maize, cassava and/or yam.  You pull off a piece of dough, form it into a little ball and then dip it in its accompaniment, experience it in your mouth, and swallow without chewing.  It went really well the first time, and fell very flat the second.  We’ll leave it at that, I think.
So that’s it for now.  Next posting will be from Cape Coast!