20 August 2011

How to Get What You've Got

You never know what you’re going to get in Ghana.  The water flows smoothly through the pipes one day, and the next, you’re bathing with sachet water (you never know what you’re capable of until you try).   That sachet water has Obama’s face printed on it, by the way.  You enthusiastically purchase “Top Star Hollywood Romance Movies,” hungry for Jude Law and Clive Owen, perhaps even a younger version of Hugh Grant, and find out you’ve got a new collection of porn.  Porn sans Jude or Clive or Hugh.  Go ahead and arrange for a couple of students to get new wheelchairs, and two months later watch the funding collapse alongside the Danish economy.  The lettering on the back of that tro-tro over there asks us, as compellingly as possible, "Who Is Free?" Open the Daily Graphic today and discover an editorial citing homosexuality and young girls who wear their skirts too short and blouses too low as symptoms of cultural downfall.   Shake open the newspaper tomorrow and read a discussion on perceptions of domestic violence, offering another (in my view, way way way more appropriate) condemnation.  Later that day, if you wait on the roadside for a taxi, a group of girls in an Isuzu may pull up and offer to take you all the way to your destination, just to be polite.  When you stop by your favorite place for takeaway tonight, chicken and chips courtesy of the Solace Spot, your server might recommend you return on Saturday to take her picture, since she’s getting her hair done that morning. 

Solace Spot, 3rd best chicken and chips in Cape Coast
It’s much too obvious to say that you never know what you’re going to get, in Ghana, or anywhere, at any time.    I’ll just say that as the proverbial outsider looking in, I am bound to notice a certain richness of randomness and dichotomy of experiences.   

Still, I do have a happy routine, a comfortable familiarity with my days.  Every morning, right around 8:30 a.m., Godwin picks me* in the UCC Library van.  Usually, I’m not ready.  If you know me well this does not surprise you at all. By ‘not ready,’ I mean that yes, I’m dressed, but I have so far neglected my makeup and my coffee is either 1) in a semblance of a travel mug I picked in the market, or 2) in a regular mug that I will hang out the van’s window until we’re through the major bumps in the road because I’ve forgotten my semblance of a travel mug at work.  Godwin finds this somewhat amusing, and wonders why I don’t drink my coffee at home before I get in the van.  It’s such a good question, really.  I say good morning, we do the special handshake that we’ve developed, and ask after each other’s health.  Also a regular in the van is one of UCC’s security guards, Godwin’s friend, on his way home from a shift.  We occasionally pick UCC staff along the way, but our primary purpose is to head (hurtle?) through downtown Cape Coast, or Koturakraba, to the newspaper stand.  We are there for the Library’s daily papers. 
*Um, I don’t get picked ‘up’ anymore.  Just picked.  If I’m talking to you on the phone, and I say this by accident, just ignore it, and accept it as part of my adapted vocabulary.  Like ‘enye easy.’  So don’t throw a wobbler.

It’s a lively journey.  On the way, we drive through a police stop for taxi drivers.  Supposedly, the police are stopping these taxis to check for safety equipment, like mandatory fire extinguishers.  Not really, though, in reality.  The police are instead collecting GHC 1 or 2, just depending on the mood, the day, the je ne sais quoi.  They don’t bother with anyone they can’t collect from, like a UCC Library van, not even to maintain the illusion of safety management.  One of the police officers is Godwin’s friend, so Godwin pleasantly blows the horn and waves as we pass.  We laugh and shake our heads at the example of corruption in action.  Godwin asks me if the police do the same type of thing in the United States, and I don’t know what to say.  I tell him that the setup doesn’t generally happen, but that there are plenty of other examples of corruption – they just take different forms.  I also take this opportunity to tell him how to lie his way out of a ticket.  It is an art form, after all, and everyone should appreciate art.

A note on the blowing of car horns.  In Cape Coast, and perhaps Ghana-wide, blowing one’s horn is an integral piece of the driving puzzle.  Generally, the streets are slightly too narrow to accommodate cross traffic; in addition to all the mandated maneuverings, there are simply a lot of people to contend with, mucking up an already crowded picture.  Sidewalks are relatively uncommon, or are already occupied.  If you don’t blow, alerting people to your presence, it’s almost rude.  Basically, it translates to, “Keep walking exactly as you are doing/don’t suddenly stumble and fall in the middle of the road where I will be forced to run you over/move a little more to your left, without falling into the open gutter, preferably, since I’m actually quite a nice person and don’t want anybody to fall in a gutter, they’re really disgusting.” Godwin is GREAT at this.  The day that the van’s horn deteriorated, from warble to wail to weighted silence, was a very bad day for him.  I offered to vocally simulate the horn, or just straight up yell at people out the window, but he didn’t take me up on either option.
CC's main sewer line
With or without horn, we must reach our destination.  So the next segment of this tour takes us through the edges of the fishing community, past the main sewer that drains into the ocean.  The market stalls are backed up against the beach, boats at the people's backs, nets being sewn, clothes hung on lines to dry.  Kids are everywhere.  A few of them have just finishing bathing from the public water lines, so they are rather lightly garbed.  Fisher people are among the most impoverished in Cape Coast, and this is perhaps true of fishing communities in the Central Region as a whole.  Unfortunately, this group is also largely illiterate.  Children assist their families as soon as they are physically able, whether by selling or trading or caring for those younger.  On the whole, none of their responsibilities include attending school.  The 7-year-old who walks up to the van's window, selling sachet water with Obama’s face on it?  A daughter of the fishing community.  Sometimes, these children are trafficked to other parts of the country to help someone else fish or farm, although there are certainly government agencies and NGOs that are working to stop this practice.     
edge of fishing community, cc castle ahead

Around the bend at the Cape Coast Castle, high walls shining dirty white in the morning glare.   A few isolated outcroppings of fisher people are here, sitting on upside-down buckets, folding and fixing giant piles of net, with centuries of history to lean against.  I always want to take a picture, but it’s rude not to ask, and fisher people tend to have traditional religions – and are therefore much less likely to want their pictures taken.  And we’ve stopped, right in front of the Baobab CafĂ©, Shop, and General Tourist Destination.  They have drip coffee and vegetarian chocolate cake, so this is a real hotspot.  I’ve bought all your presents here.  The ones that I haven’t mailed yet.  Don’t worry, I’ll get to it.  Maybe this weekend!  Godwin climbs down and crosses to the news stand, where piles of papers are on display.  We get the Daily Graphic and the Daily Times.  Sometimes, if I’m lucky, we pick the African News or African Business magazines.  Those ones are really good.

view from the post office
We’ve also got to stop at the post office today, because I’ve got a parcel.  Having just learned the difference between a parcel and a package, I’m eager to use the word as much as possible.  I’ve got two boxes of audio books awaiting me, nicely donated and shipped by my mother for our students.  Up the steps to the post office, directed around to a back corner window, only to be informed that the man  (the only man) who distributes the parcels has gone to Swedru.  He won’t be back today.  Go and come (Ko Bra), maybe tomorrow.  As today there is clearly nothing to be done, I'm allowing that mekobra (I’ll go and come).  Back in the van, we find that it has decided not to start.  Godwin does some miraculous tinkering that involves lifting up the passenger seat to mess around (there’s an engine accessible beneath my seat, obviously), and does something else under the hood, and then finally the engine agrees to roll over.  We’re moving again.  I almost want to lean over and blow the horn, just to celebrate. 

Most days, we take the slightly longer route to the University that runs along the coast. Coconut trees angling slightly toward the sea, coarse sand, fishing boats and a pounding blue Atlantic surf.  Again, this is Godwin humouring me, the passenger, perching above a sensitive engine.  But I think he enjoys this part of our drive as well.  He grew up just down the road in Elmina, a town that presses against the ocean like it needs salt to survive.  Which, of course, it does.   Then suddenly we’re taking a left into the University and passing beneath the gates.  From there it’s a long road up a low grade hill, grass cut by machete and widely rooted trees on either side, until we get to the Library.  And then it’s ‘yebehyia echina’ to Godwin and off I go, into work.  That’s ‘see you tomorrow,’  but watch my spelling. 

Can I possibly appreciate all of this?  Can I even process it all?  The random and the routine?  Will I be able to store this away?  Because I guarantee that at some point during this drive to work every morning, I will be struck by … well, a moment… and think, “oh my god, I love my life, and I couldn’t be any happier.”   Now that I’ve got that, can I keep it?   

How many times have I heard that ‘life is a series of moments’ quote?  I think it’s a bit crap, excuse my language (please, if you know me, you appreciate the mildness of that statement).  I’m into the moments, I applaud them, I live by them, I love them.  I've had so many "moments" in Ghana that I could never possibly explain them all, not so that you would catch that rush of delight or awe.  Or, face it, anger or upset.  But I think that binding those moments together is what keeps them and us from getting lost, like wayward lines in a net.  So pull up a bucket.  Gather your mending.  Then lean back against those dirty walls, lean on everything you've learned so far, and do your most graceful work.  Are you getting me, as a Ghanaian might say?  Yes?  Then tie it all together - the 'you' on that bucket, with the moments, the memories, and  the history - and nothing will ever slip away and be gone, not in truth. 

And have a water.  It's starting to get hot again.
The danger here is overthinking these kinds of episodes.  Such as Obama's face and
child labour going hand in hand.  How about, sometimes, shut it, and have a water.

01 August 2011

Multiplication at the Accra Mall

A couple of weekends ago, I went to the movies at the Accra Mall with a friend.  Now, the Accra Mall is, in itself, complete sensory overload – just the way of any large shopping mall in any large city.  There is a steady stream of middle and upper-class Ghanaians and Expats, glitzing along, waiting to be hooked.  Flashy mannequins.  Too many mobile phone options.  Christmas trees and gigantic ornaments boldly declaring themselves for the ‘Christmas in July’ sale.  Kids on trains, coming and going around an endless track while harried parents and nannies try to finish their chicken and chips.  Imported beauty supply and hair care products.  300Gh pair of Birkenstocks.  Ok, now please multiply the overload factor for all of those who have become accustomed to a slightly different lifestyle since arriving in Ghana.  What number you multiply by can be determined by answering the following questions:

1.       Do you have any money? If no, proceed to Question 2.

2.       Do you in any way, at all, miss home? If yes, go to Question 3.

3.       Does this place in any way, at all, remind you of home? If yes, proceed to Question 4.

4.       Are you starting to, in any way, at all, feel greedy? Yes? Question 5.

5.       Are you sure you don’t have any money? After all, the Programme Office pays you up front for the quarter.  Maybe if you just budget really, really well for the next, like, 1-2 (3-4?) weeks, you can go to the movies and eat a disgusting amount of junk food.  If this has occurred to you, go on to Question 6.

6.       Did you notice that you were almost out of shampoo?  And you realize that all you can ever find at kiosks is the “dandruff-free” variety?  And it’s almost impossible to find any face wash in Cape Coast.  You’d be almost irresponsible NOT to look in that store with the Imported Beauty Supplies and Hair Care Products.  Look, they’ve got a bottle of shampoo that’s almost the size of a small child.  Buying in bulk!  You used to go to Costco all the time!  So, you can just budget really, really well for the next, like, 3-4 (4-6) weeks.  Next question.

7.       Ok, seriously.  You need to think very carefully about the current state of your footwear.  No, you don’t want to rock the Birkenstocks, but there has to be a reasonably priced pair of shoes in this mall.  Maybe if you just budget really, really well for the next, like...go to Question 8.

8.       Christmas in July only comes once a year.  You’re going to pass that up?  I thought you had more shopping savvy.  It’s just that your mobile phone keeps getting banged up, since you drop it all the time (you’ve always been a little klutzy). Look how cute those cases are!  No, I recognize you’re not into bedazzling, but really, it’s just practical.  And not even that expensive. So if you budget, just a bit in addition, a little bit more, really, really well for…

9.       Stop it right now.  Are you physically/emotionally incapable of leaving?  No?  Go to the movies.

So I have multiplied my Accra Mall sensory overload by 9, and rounded up to 10.  I think that’s fair.  I’m sitting in the dark theatre, in these fabulous rocking chair seats like they have in my favorite movie theatre at home.  My friend and I are equipped with a ridiculous amount of junk food, because it pays to be prepared, right?  I have more junk food than she does, I’m going to own up to that right now.  The M&Ms taste funny, which is a shame.  A little fishy, actually, and I mean that literally.  The advertisements begin.  A new comedy series is starting this summer, or maybe it already has.  Looks kind of like an improv thing, of which I wholeheartedly approve.  Supporting unscripted humour should be everyone’s lot.  In any case. 
Now comes the big electronics store ad.  The husband and father (we know this because he tells us so) likes to come home from work, safe in the knowledge that his appliances are working well for his family.  That’s admirable!  So let’s see the goods.  Flat screens, refrigerators, stereos, microwaves.  At this point, it’s all just an ad.  Then… washing machine and dryer. I actually gasp.  Audibly, so that my friend turns to look at me.  I didn’t mean to, it’s just that they looked so beautiful, all silvery metallic cleaning perfection.  Oohhhhhh, I have changed, haven’t I.  This is what happens when you wash by hand for 6 months, but sadly winding up with clothes that never quite seem clean.  And sheets! Oh god, washing the sheets.  And towels!  Perhaps worse.  Definitively, I can say that I would relinquish all movies, shampoo, face wash, shoes, phone cases, junk food (debatable, actually) and anything else I can think of just to have nice clean lovely fresh plumped laundry.  That I didn’t have to do myself, by hand.   

The movie was funny (“Horrible Bosses”).  It was all-American, that’s for sure.  Lots of swearing and excellent deadpan.  Walking out of the theatre and back through the mall, I did miss home.  But I missed home in Cape Coast, as well.  My feet, walking down the road past Pedu Junction toward Fourth Ridge, don’t feel like strangers anymore.  I enjoy that.  Definitively, I can say that I would relinquish all rights to a washing machine and dryer, movies, shampoo, face wash, shoes, phone cases, junk food (still debatable, I found Snickers in a store the other day, and it wasn’t at all fishy), just to have what I’ve got right here.  Well, I already did.  But if I had to again, I would, again.  You see my point, I think. 

But let’s be real.  At the Mall, I also bought the child-sized bottle of shampoo and face wash (surprisingly inexpensive…).  I’m just going to budget really, really well, for like