27 October 2011

Eating the Elephant

Last year August, a fellow blogger published a post entitled, “ACCRA WILL FLOOD AGAIN NEXT YEAR!” Well, it’s next year, and it’s flooding.  Pictures on the front page of the nation’s newpapers are congested with images of flood victims: houses and cars submerged, a man clinging to a floating tree, the young woman killed by a collapsing wall while she slept. In fact, flooding has been making headlines across the globe.   We’ve looked at the pictures and we’ve watched the clips, shaking our heads as parts of Southeast Asia, Nigeria, Myanmar, and Dominica have been swept away by rivers and rising tides of muddy water.  And that's just October.

What does the World Meteorological Association say?  Floods result from a combination of meteorological and hydrological extremes, but are additionally influenced by human factors.   There are land-use changes (like urbanization and deforestation).  Occupation of the flood plain.  Inefficiency or non-maintenance of infrastructure, and inefficient drainage.  From global climate change to the urban microclimate, precipitation events are enforced by people.  And then there is Accra, just like Dhaka and Ibadan.  A heavily populated city with an inadequate waste management system that is reliant on open concrete drainage channels – which become clogged and overflow with rubbish during flooding.  Shall I break it down for you some more?  People throw rubbish in channels because there is nowhere else to throw it.  People use channels as toilets, because in many areas there is no public sanitation.  Add in the weather this week, and it's just disastrous.  In case you're starting to wonder, this isn't a preview to the end of days.  This is what comes from too much rain and too little infrastructure.  And here comes the cholera.
So did I mention rivers of muddy water before? Let’s amend that. 
Muddy water and rubbish.

With Accra's floods this week, there have been no formal reports of casualties by government agencies - although Ghanaians are reporting slightly higher numbers to local radio stations and newspapers. One person was reportedly electrocuted when he attempted to rescue his refrigerator from flood waters (Government officials do acknowledge that electrocution is a serious concern). A resident of a low-lying area, Adabraka, a “physically challenged” man, also is reported dead.  Kwame Nkrumah circle, the major roundabout in Accra, is underwater. Cars are overturned. And again, last night, it started raining. It didn’t stop until early this morning.

How to fix this situation?  Civil engineers, environmentalists and researchers in Ghana are happy to offer solutions, from the mundane to the innovative.  Mandatory rain gutters on houses and other structures.  Underground piping.  A reliable waste disposal system and a recycling programme.  And, of course, a ban on even thinking about building any more open drainage channels.  I’m going to borrow this African proverb, as cited by E.B. Danquah:“The best way to eat the elephant standing in your path is to cut it up into little pieces."  Right now, in the midst of severe flooding, it’s the elephant in the path - or the road - that we see first.  It's enormous.  The sentiments being passed around the people's table are of anger and frustration and fear.  If you're sitting at the big boy's table, perhaps on that committee that was supposed to have solved Ghana's infrastructure issues, you're probably busy trying to point to another elephant into the room.  It's all about distraction and deflection.      
flooded road in Accra
Recent presidents have promised to solve the flooding problem, including Mills.  So far, no one has seen much in the way of follow-through.  Well, I am thrilled to report that the Accra Metropolitan Assembly announced 23 hours ago that it would be “solving the drainage problem.”  Indeed, “the AMA says it will require 500 million dollars to fix the drainage problem in the metropolis…President Mills promised to support the AMA to raise the necessary resources to fix the drainage situation in Accra. He shared in the plight of those who have lost their property to the floods…"  Then my favorite part: "President Mills said the situation where a few people disregard the law with impunity and build on water ways must stop.”  Pointing at another elephant, I guess.  Shall we say hallelujah for a crisis firmly in hand?  Just like Obama, Mills is now under the umbrella of Election Countdown.  The Days of Political Pressure and Propoganda have come (if they were ever really gone).  Talk about end of days.  We’ll see if he survives the weather. 

I wonder if I should have used my backup title for this posting, though..."Accra Will Flood Again Next Year!"

21 October 2011

Most Troublesome Network, EVER.

MTN, Africa’s biggest telecommunications provider, is the alpha dog of three major companies here in Ghana – the other two, Vodafone and Airtel, follow anxiously at its heels.  (Expresso is in fourth place, but no one is really paying attention.)  A few months ago, these three had a sit-down and decided to simultaneously double their rates.  In Ghana, credits for calls and internet are prepaid, in amounts between 1 and 20 GHC.  Billing isn't an option when no one has a residential address, or a credit rating. So when the price hike came, it seemed like the ground was suddenly littered with little scratch cards.  We were going through them like water. Us poor customers never stood a chance.  Where are those anti-trust laws when you need them?  

So I, along with almost everybody else, have MTN, because MTN covers most of Ghana.  Ok, let me amend that statement: MTN covers most of Ghana, but only some of the time.  MTN’s real name is Most Troublesome Network, according to every Ghanaian who bothers with it. And oh god, the Troubles.  When I first arrived, everything went smoothly.  You and I talked, and texted, and Skyped.  The phone signal was great, except for in the Volta Region – but hey, I don’t live there. No big deal.  My USB modem was always fast.  Well, fast is relative, so maybe not 3G, maybe 2.5. Maybe 2.  So reasonably fast. 

And then about a month and a half ago, MTN, in its true, basest state, bared itself to me.  Suddenly, my phone signal was ghostly.  The "As low as 1.5 pesewas/minute" was revealed to be on Sundays, from 9-11 a.m. ONLY.  And we were all hemmoraging texts.  I'd receive identical texts, maybe 19 in a row, from a friend.  (It's amazing how quickly text message alerts can become grating.)  Another friend was likewise receiving mine. 19 in a row.  Was someone having a laugh? Was this a conspiracy? And was I getting charged? Absolutely. Then, charmingly, my cute little modem became worthless.  Just a piece of plastic, meaninglessly monopolizing a USB port.  You and I would try to Skype; all we would see of each other was one frozen, pixelated moment before being cruelly disconnected. 
Finally it was time to make a complaint.  If MTN wanted to keep my business, my 40 GHC/month business, they would have to woo and wow me.  However, MTN likes to be tricky with its customers; call customer service and find how often they are “unavailable at this time,” and how often there is simply no answer at all.  Now, imagine my delight to find my ringing rewarded.  And that my conversation will be monitored for quality assurance purposes. Excellent! My representative and I would reach for the highest climbs of customer service together.  Team effort.  And I would reap the rewards.  Then there's that wonderful click, with the sounds of a live human. It has begun.  Our conversation plays out something like this:

Kofie:    Good evening, thank you for calling MTN.  My name is Kofie.  How may I assist you? [His tone is polite, soothing and responsive all at once.  The wooing has begun.]
Kelly:     Hi, good evening.  How are you?
Kofie:    I’m well. How are you?
Kelly:     Great, thanks. Please, let me tell you why I’m calling.  Yesterday at 11 a.m., I called and spoke with a customer service representative about [insert issue]. She said I would get a call within 24 hours. It’s now been 30 [vaguely irritated but controlled by politeness]. So I’m still waiting.  What can you do for me?  
Kofie:    I am so sorry that you have had this experience [convincingly apologetic]. Where are you calling from?
Kelly:     Cape Coast.
Kofie:    Where do you stay in Cape Coast?
Kelly:     Fourth Ridge.
Kofie:    And what is your address?*

*I am instantly suspicious. This man cannot POSSIBLY be from Ghana, if he’s asking for an address. Therefore his name is not Kofie. Our conversation is a lie.  I am saddened.

Kelly:     I don’t have one. I live on Fourth Ridge. In the first block of houses.  After you go up the little hill and before you go up the big hill. By the girl’s school.
Kofie:    Oh, yes. I see.  It looks as if there is some problem with connectivity in that particular area.*

*Suspicions deepening.

Kelly:     Ok, well I also work at the University of Cape Coast.
Kofie:    Let me investigate. [pause] Yes, it looks like there is some disruption in that area as well.  How long has this been a problem?
Kelly:     About a month.
Kofie:    [with shock and dismay] Oh wow!* Well, I will call the office in Cape Coast.  They are probably not aware of the problem.
[Kelly’s face looks doubtful, as in, how in the world is THAT possible]

*Ok, maybe he is Ghanaian after all.

Kelly:     Great. But what will that accomplish exactly?  I used to be able to Skype with my family and friends, and now I can’t even get a signal.  Even when it reports that there is a signal, there’s no signal.
Kofie:    I [with empathy] am so sorry to hear that. That is terrible.  I [assertively] will report that right away, and [assuredly] we’ll get that fixed by morning.  I will personally see to it. 
Kelly:     [Kelly’s face: !!!?????!!!! followed by a pause] Um, wow, thanks, Kofie. 
Kofie:    Please call again if you have any other concerns. 
Kelly:     Oh I will. Thanks so so much. Bye.
Kofie:    Goodbye, and [profoundly] thank you for calling MTN.

Ok, super customer service.  Super, except for that last total and complete fabrication.  Americans are fond of complaining about huge customer service departments being outsourced to other countries, with representatives who pretend to be calling from Des Moines.  And here we have Kofie, blessedly assuring me that a major issue with connectivity could be addressed, overnight, with one phone call.  Everyone fibs, evidently, to weave an illusion of comfort, calm and satisfaction tailored to each customer. I just got delusions of grandeur thrown in.  It was flattering to think that I could be responsible for solving the MTN problem in Cape Coast, just by bringing the matter to their attention.  I did briefly consider sending out an email announcement regarding my accomplishment.  But, unfortunately, it’s been over three weeks since my talk with Kofie.  You and I still haven’t Skyped.  Well, not for longer than 3 or 4 seconds.

Maybe I'll try Expresso.

13 October 2011


The sun is getting heavy again.  It indiscriminately throws its weight around, like a reckless boy tossing those bundles of water sachets off the early morning delivery truck.  We are customers whether we want to be or not.  Before noon, the heat is draining; it’s like carrying around the entire truck, boy and sachet bundles included.  And by the time I’m home, the heat still hasn’t eased; it won’t, not until the sun realizes - almost incidentally, about an hour from now - that it’s time to get a move on.   But at least a breeze does reliably find its way here every afternoon, one that stirs coconuts and ruffles the feathers of flame trees as it passes. It curves through the terraced green and red dirt reaches of Fourth Ridge, brushing past girls in blue uniforms and tiny gold earrings walking home from school, until it finds me, reaches down and tangles my hair. 

Regardless of the hair-mussing, the breeze is always liberating. I can sit comfortably on almost-too-hot pebbled steps and watch clouds have moments of profundity.  In a little while, the Muslim call to prayer will drift up from somewhere (maybe behind me and to the right, but you can never tell with ridges), so I know it’s 6 p.m.  Reliably, just like the breeze.  Probably more so.  What happens next to the sky I might elsewhere depict as a brief and emboldened wash of pink across the clouds, one that is gone before you even pay attention; however, that might ascribe an element of hurry or ostentation to the coming of the night.  And this is Ghana.  So, instead, the sun rolls away like an empty truck headed for home.  The boy is asleep in the back.  He’s using the last bundle of sachet water for a pillow. 

Missing that heedless youth already? Don’t worry.  It will all happen again tomorrow.  And in Ghana, probably 90% of the population will awaken well before the sun makes its appearance.  A whole nation of early risers, and they got me as a volunteer…the one who fanatically sets her alarm clock and only wakes before sunrise on accident or pain of death.  But it isn’t just about comparing wake-ups.  Here we explore different concepts of time altogether.  As a product of the United States, I was raised to regard time as linear, without a pause for breath to question. Time passes, independent of what I think, feel, observe or do.  It’s made up of carefully regulated hours and minutes, daily schedules and monthly plans; it’s the arrow; it’s the conveyor belt with boxes to fill with activity, passing through the past, present and future.  With all this measured precision and regulation, the warning bell to strike at the heart of our linear living is found in Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury: "…clocks slay time. He said time is dead as long as it is being clicked off by little wheels; only when the clock stops does time come to life."

I’m not going to swoon romantically and tell you that Ghanaians, by offering the clock some flexibility, have the secret to reviving time – and thereby life.  Ghana’s fabric of cultures has long been knit firmly in place by agriculture, fishing, and other cyclical pursuits involving human interaction with the natural world; time discipline, therefore, never needed an artificial means of dividing and measuring time.  Well, not until recently, in the historical scheme of things.  In short - it’s a different pace, one that reflects a life not bound by a watch.   In reality, most Ghanaians I know do so much during their days that flexibility with time is all they’ve got to be creative with.  Yet, still, there is more of an ease to the passage of time.  Perhaps a quick “good morning” becomes a long conversation. My boss often gets pulled into long discussions with people seeking his advice; I look on, bemused, bored.  His appointments get pushed back, or maybe cancelled, but don't mind him. It’s entirely possible that his appointments were running late, too.

With the steady influx of Western time, money and everything else, some have noted an incremental shift away from collectivism and toward individualism - and with mixed feelings about unwanted elements of Western culture, or unwanted alterations to the family system.  A story was recently related to me, like a fable: The elderly woman in a local community has two children, one in the U.S. and the other in Accra – both with very successful careers.  But this woman - this mother, or sister, or aunt, or cousin - is alone, in the Ghanaian sense of the word.  No one serves her a meal, talking with her about the day; no grandchildren run through the house to the yard; there is no one to allow her to take her rest.  So why isn't the solution as simple as children returning home to care for their aging mother, as some might suggest?  In a collectivist society, like Ghana, the emphasis is on cooperative tasks, small in-groups and out-groups, and focusing on what people have in common.  Conversely, a society based in individualism, like the U.S., is marked by competitive tasks, public situations, and exploring what makes the individual unique.  As explained by Iulia O. Basu, such cultural differences mean that people in different cultures have fundamentally different construals of the self and others. Is the only solution to this shift, then, to accept society’s inevitable change - and its children moving away?  Then we must also accept that as they do, that people's understanding of their roles will change as well. So is it possible to hold close, right now, to what was and what will be?

Now, I grew up learning that both the tangible and intangible – money, toothaches, scented resumes, and t.v. shows about FBI agents – were written on a spectral list of items that “come and go.”  And yes, perhaps worst of all, people come and go as well.  So us Americans, we think we’ve faced it head-on: we can’t hold onto anything, or anyone, indefinitely.  We can know the truth of this, even in the languages we use to communicate such concepts to each other.  There are over 6000 living languages in the world, and they are dying at an alarming rate.  In Ghana, there are 46 different dialects, only nine of which are written down.  But in all of these dialects, the phrase “go and come,” is used to express direction, intent, or promise, from one person to another.  The guard at my house demonstrates this to me every morning as I walk through the gate.  “You go and come,” he says, reassuringly, as if I needed reassuring, and then he shuts the gate behind me.  (I haven’t even touched upon the Ghanaian, “I’m coming".*)  Stories and sentences like these are often circular, using repetition to arrive back at the same beginning point.  And then there's the symbol of the Sankofa, meaning “return to your roots,” which celebrates a person learning from life and then returning to where he or she came from – presumably to continue to grow stronger again, together.  These stories, sentences and symbols reflect cultural beliefs and values.  Our ‘coming and going’, ‘going and coming’ expressions communicate our assertions about the continuity of relationships within the circumference of time.  Maybe to let people “come and go” reflects, linguistically, an individualistic approach that relies upon a willingness to be drawn apart.   Maybe to “go and come,” reflects the underlying belief that we will eventually be drawn back together. 

Am I overanalyzing?  Absolutely.  But then there are rooted truths waiting to be returned to. I don’t know what Ghana will look like in 20 years, or in 50.  I do know that the most effective change occurs with all stakeholders working together, collectively; so I can't sit back and advocate a full-fledged push toward a new indivdualist state.  Not without remembering what has made this group of people, this country, so strong in the first place.  Strong enough to survive war, and slavery, colonialism and now globalisation.  Strong enough to be the first African country to declare its independence.  Strong enough to change, to shift, and to remember these roots.  Sankofa.  Sometimes, for all of us, it feels like forward movement is imperceptible; sometimes, though, the speed and the jolts takes us by surprise, like a truck hitting a pothole in the road.  It’s jarring, and those bundles may get shaken loose.  But don’t worry.  The sun will still set at the end of the day and rise again tomorrow.  And we can avoid that pothole next time.   Better yet, it will get patched.  But that might take a while. 

Sankofa (one representation)

*Now, some of my personal experiences regarding time have been amusing.  Some frustrating.  It’s been an adjustment.  Let’s use the Ghanaian, “I’m coming,” as an example.  It’s quite multipurpose.

1.       When exiting a room, announce “I’m coming,” instead of, “I’ll be right back.” The length of time that you take to return is negotiable.  

2.       Think of any situation in which an American would say, “Hang on,” and substitute.  As in, your coworker says to you,“Good afternoon, Kelly, are you heading home? I'd like you to give a training first thing tomorrow morning. I just emailed you.  Why don’t we meet.” Your response, which is perhaps a little dry: “I’m coming.” 

3.      You're a taxi driver who an obroni has phoned for a lift, and you’re running at least 45 minutes late.  The obroni calls you to say, “Hi, sorry, but where are you?” You answer smoothly, “I’m coming.”  (Alternatively, you can say, “I’ll be there in 2 minutes.”)