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.


13 January 2012

Don't Fence Me In, Part II: Traditions Bent

In my last post, I talked about how children can't help but learn societal roles, norms, and values from play.  Yet all over the world, many children with disabilities will not be included in traditional games like Antoakyere.  A lot won't play tag. Or football. 

In fact, most children with disabilities will not be included in their communities or in society at large.  In Ghana, less than 6% receive a primary education.  So what, then, do these children learn?   I'll let someone else answer. 

Interview with Ziblim, age 24.  Northern Region. Treasurer, UCC Association for Students with Disabilities; Executive Board Member, Ghana National Union of Students with Disabilities
Ziblim is the “younger” twin.  In Ghana, the twin born first is considered the youngest - sent by the older twin to come out first to observe before following. Ziblim’s brother is Al’Hassan.  They are 2 of 6 children by their mother – who is their father’s fourth wife. “I can’t quote exactly the number of people I have in my family…unfortunately, out of this lot, I’ve been the only person who has gone to school.”At four, circumstances still unknown resulted in physical disability.  His grandmother encouraged him. "She put me up. I was literally on the floor – and that way I started moving around."  Now, he is a wheelchair user. 

He describes his attempts to socialize with his peers, and the effect this had upon his family. “My parents found it very difficult to understand me, that whatever my colleagues did I also tried doing that. To the extent that when my colleagues were playing football you would see me there playing with my hand. It would bother them so much…they never liked that.”
There is no disability awareness in his community, Nyankpala, but many people with disabilities.  Ziblim related that in this environment, “People like us suffer, from the family and from the community.  He later adds, “Generally, in the community, the sort of eyes that will be on you…when there’s a gathering you may not even like to go there.  It will force you to isolate yourself from the community. The eyes that will be on you…that alone will make you lose your steps." 

Of course, it's not only stigmatisation that causes suffering.  So much can come from a simple lack of awareness  and misconceptions about disability, ability and possibility.  

“My father made two assertions I can’t forget.
“The first assertion: For a disabled person, all we know for you is to go out there and beg. Get yourself out there that people will see you, have pity for you, and get you something.  But for you to join your colleagues in playing football, who will pity you, and have mercy on you, not to talk of giving you something?
“Later, he saw that education was very important in my life…instead of playing football, all that he expected me to do was to always be on the chair, with my book. That was the second assertion: that I should always be on the chair, with my book.
“That one alone also encouraged me. I know it sounded like as a disabled person, you had nothing to do but to study. But I also saw that learning would really help me. So I really devoted my time… I knew more than my colleagues out there."
Ziblim graduated with high honors from secondary and senior secondary school before coming to university.  He independently sought the funds that would pay his way through senior secondary, and is currently managing his own university tuition.

Via football metaphor, Ziblim tells me what he has learned.

“If you have competition with someone, play on neutral grounds. If you don’t put in more effort, then you’re playing on someone’s home grounds.  
“As people with disabilities, we never have our own ‘home’ to play. We are always playing away – at the home of our opponent. Already that person has the advantage over you.  It is our own personal effort that brings us to neutral grounds.  Effort will neutralize the whole situation. Not from the environment – don’t depend on the environment. Put in your own efforts, and the environment in turn will respond to that.”


Throughout Ghana, there are sacred groves and sacred trees with tremendous religious importance.  In Rhumsiki, Cameroon, there are "trees of words", beneath which different groups gather to discuss issues or settle disagreements. 

Traditions bind us together, and are the roots of our culture and society.  But a tree without roots deep enough to support its surface area becomes unstable. James R. Ure contends that “the same is true if we stubbornly stop growing…thinking that we know it all already and can therefore stop adapting…failing to dig deeper to create stronger roots that widen out into a broad network of stability.”
Every person must participate in order to ensure the stability and strength of a nation.  Children in Ghana are very well-loved, but ignorance of disability-related issues can result in social exclusion.  That's a guarantee of failure.  All of Ghana’s children must be included, educated and fully participate in society.  And may they all be strong.  

Ziblim says this: “How sure am I that I will be able to persevere, go through, pass through all these people and become someone one day? At the end, I will be the best. It’s really funny – I never saw myself as someone with a disability.

“What I just want to put across is the self-determination here…I think I have it in me. I have this self-determination. Because whatever be the case, I accept I must make it.”

PS. For Future Volunteers:

"As a future volunteer who would like to work with human beings, they should help get people to realize their own capabilities...and feel they are included and part of the world.”

12 January 2012

What we just can't miss - playing in Ghana and beyond

Don't Fence Me In: Traditions Bent, Part II. Preface

Georgina and I were recently rummaging around Cameroon for some things to do.  It wasn’t difficult to find a few activities, but it involved a lot of travelling – by train, bus, car, moto, horse and foot.  So we invented some games for the ride.  Here were the most successful at keeping us entertained:

Game #1.      Hold the camera steady and take random (and, at times, sneaky) snaps of interesting scenes. 

Sometimes, they go oh-so-right and
we wind up with amusing pictures.   
from the back of a moto
football game out of a train window

Other times, we get blurry messes.  Then we express our disappointment.

And sometimes Georgina makes comments
that could be profound in another context:
“All I got was the shadow of a tree.” 

Game #2.     Compile “Most Ridiculous Quotes of the Day”.  Please note that mine sound more stupid than ridiculous.  Please note that Georgina sounds cool and wise. 

26 December 2011
K: “I really like trees.”
K: “There’s good things on your side (of the road) too!”

27 December 2011
G: “I’ve been surrounded by hills my entire life.”
K: “Haven’t we all cried like that goat at one time or another?
29 December 2011
G: “I could totally rock pantaloons.”

31 December 2011
K: “What’s the bottom of a bag – it’s all relative.”
K: “In your own village, you never stumble.”*

*Yes...I have invented a proverb. Origin? The roads of Rhumsiki, Cameroun: Georg and I pick our way through the dark while our guide walks confidently over a grumbly path.  I know, wow.

Ok, on with the subject of games.  Gazing out windows, squinting through Harmattan haze or walking the green streets of Yaounde, I naturally saw a lot of kids at play.  Like boys trying desperately to swing on bike tire tubes that they had slung around a tree branch.  And a group of four year olds with big sticks fighting trees and imaginary foes. 

Do we all play the same games?  I would have loved swinging from one of those tubes, although I doubt it went smoothly for those boys (those things never do).  Georgina remarked, as we watched the tree ass-kicking posse, that her little sister used to smack trees with sticks in order to “wake them up” (no, I don't think she still does it).  And I think everyone in the world plays tag.  It’s just plain cost-effective. 

There's a game here called, “Antoakyere”.  It’s a traditional Akan (the largest tribe in Ghana) children’s game, meaning (in as close a translation as possible), “Something is behind you, but you have missed it”.  How do you play? The kids sit in a circle. One carries a cloth or rag and runs around the group singing:

antoakyere o antoakyere o
Group response:
yie yie yie!

antoakyere o antoakyere o
yie yie yie!

obiba bewu o
(translation: somebody's child is about to suffer some fate)
yie yie yie

Rules: No one is allowed to look back. One kid runs around the circle and secretly drops the cloth behind one of the seated children while continuing to sing. Two options: 1) kid realizes the cloth is behind him, picks it and runs to tag the child who dropped the cloth, or 2) kid doesn’t realize the cloth is behind him, and is reached again from the other side of the circle – this kid gets beaten (um, playfully) by all the children until he runs for refuge (pre-selected by child council).  Then play again.  For all you Americans: Does this remind you of Duck Duck Goose, or what?

It's by playing that children learn societal roles, norms, and values.   According to D. A. Akuoko, Antoakyere teaches children to “have endurance, be watchful and a bit skeptical in life as all that glitters is not gold.”  So every verse and every pass around the circle is training ground for relationships to be structured, rules to be followed, successes to be won and failures to be survived.    

Kids don't care.  But the learning bit is something they just can't miss while they're running circles around their friends. In whatever country.  I’m not exactly sure what I gleaned from Duck Duck Goose.  I would have flopped at being watchful playing Antoakyere, since it still seems to come as a surprise that there might be "good things" on both sides of a road (ugh).  At least I made up my own proverb.  "You've done well," says my colleague, when I tell him this story.  Maybe I picked something up, after all.