Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Ghanaians Like American Music Baby

Ghanaians Like American Music Baby

This is of course a bit of a companion piece to the previous post as it also pertains to music.  Incidentally my wife is totally cranking “Cruel Summer” by Bananarama in the other room, I actually think the Ghanaians would like that song.  Good beat.

I digress.  While I was in Ghana I had plenty of opportunities to expose my wonderful hosts to my “American” music.  Note that for the remainder of this post, “American” really will serve as a proxy for any music I listened to or knew about in America.  It didn’t have to technically be from the USA of course.  So some of the music I played for the Ghanaians they liked, some of it they knew even, and some they didn’t care for.  For their part the Ghanaians liked to show off to me the American music that they owned as well. 

We will present this in a sliding scale from least appreciated to most appreciated, so we will start with the artist Ghana just didn’t like:

That’s right, David Bowie.  The anti-Ghanaian.  I had a cassette tape with “ChangesOneBowie” on it, his greatest hits collection.  First of all, Ghanaians like party music.  One could argue that some of Bowie’s later works were more danceable, but Changes was more of a rockers collection.  Fair enough.  And he sang funny, and sang about strange things.  And wore makeup and dressed like a girl.  Although I didn’t have any pictures of Bowie, just the music.  They could tell though, Bowie’s music just sounds cross-dressy.  But I loved Bowie, I thought he was cool, and creative, and fun to listen to.  The Ghanaians, not so much.  Not at all, really.  I mean, what should the average Ghanaian make of Bowie?  His whole persona just makes no sense to them.

We’re going to give Bowie 0 out of 3 Star Beers on the Ghana appreciation scale.

I felt a little subversive every time I played The Specials for my Ghanaian friends.  Like I was pulling one over on them.  The Specials played English ska, which the Ghanaians recognized for its roots in Jamaican ska.  They would always smile and give The Specials their approval.  I remember specifically one time I was riding shotgun with the school lorry driver, playing the Specials for him.  Our school had a nice truck that was donated by Japan I think, and it actually had a kick-butt car stereo, so I really enjoyed going on field trips with the school.  Anyway here we were, driving along, and the driver kept saying "I know this one, this is a good one".  I thought, "no way, it just sounds like something you like", which was nice thing to say anyway because at least he was enjoying the music. I thought I was fooling them because The Specials were a white band playing black music.  Well mostly white, at any rate.  But of course my cassette didn’t come with pictures, so you could project whatever skin color you like upon those English lads.  But ultimately the joke was on me, because what I didn’t know was that most of their songs were merely covers of classic ska songs from Jamaica, songs my Ghanaian friends likely knew from way back in the day.  So the school lorry driver probably did know all of those songs, just the original versions of them!  Oh to be young and know everything.  Yes I’m a jack-ass.  Just wait, it gets worse…

The Specials:  1 out of 3 star lagers.  Though I don't know how the boys from the Specials are going to share only one beer.

It was obvious in retrospect, but I was actually a little surprised at how well known Bob Marley was in Ghana.  I had a copy of “Legend: The Best of Bob Marley” and it got played on heavy rotation in Ghana.  They loved that tape.  They knew a lot of his songs, too.  The irony was that on the other side of my Marley tape was my Bowie tape.  So as “Jamming” was fading out, and the good vibes were flowing all around, the cassette would flip over and the atonal orchestral strains of “Space Oddity” would drain all the joy out of the room like the plug being pulled from the bottom of a beer cooler with no star beers left in it.  Marley was a hero to all the poor people of the world, a musical superstar who had more in common with Ghanaians than any before or since.  Ghanaians identified with Marley and had a genuine affection and love for him, even 10 or so years after his death when I arrived there.  Somehow when Marley is telling a Ghanaian "don't worry about a thing, because every little thing is going to be all right", it really strikes home.  I like hearing those lyrics too, believe me, but they seem more like the words of a prophet when viewed from the perspective of a Ghanaian.  I wouldn't consider Ghana obsessed with reggae, they have their own style of music called "hi-life" (we'll get to that bit of awesome), but I think they feel like Marley is one of their own for certain.  It is not lost on the Ghanaians that a lot of Jamaicans are descended from Ghanaian slaves.  I wouldn't consider Marley to have a distinctive Ghanaian look to him, but the spiritual connection is in place as well.

Marley gets 2 star beers.  Not 3 though!  The 3 beer accolade is reserved for two very special American entertainers:

 And the winner...

Yes this is absolutely correct.  Ghanaians love Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton.  Love them like Germans love Hasselhoff.  Like Joni loves Chachi.  You may think I'm making this up; I can assure you that I am not.  Every time the subject of music came up with Ghanaians, and they wanted to play for me their favorite American Music, it was out with the Gambler!  I don’t get it.  Did Kenny and Dolly tour Ghana at some point?  Did Ghanaian TV play the “Dolly!” series on syndication over and over?  Yes, Dolly Parton had her own TV variety show in 1976.  Just sit back and bask in the awesomeness of that fact for a minute.   Dolly Parton + 1976 + TV Variety Show = Crazy Delicious.

Now I like country music as much as the next guy.  I’m not ashamed to admit that I currently have Lady Antebellum on very (my wife added that) heavy rotation on my car stereo.  Although I’m beginning to suspect that Lady Antebellum has a lot more in common with Bryan Adams than with Hank Williams.  Regardless, a little Dolly and Kenny goes a long long way.  And it was always the same three or four songs:  The Gambler, Lucille, Coat of Many Colors and Jolene.  And of course, Islands in the Stream.  “Islands in the Stream” is a duet between Kenny and Dolly.  I’m not even sure why people kept making music after Kenny and Dolly graced us with that single in 1983.  Written by THE BEE GEES nonetheless ( you can hear the brothers Gibb in the backing vocals, too!)

And I know this might ruffle some feathers, but I can’t help but notice a little similarity between Kenny Rogers' flowing silver hair and manly beard, and a certain picture of a long-haired Savior I saw in the home of every Christian family in Ghana.  I’m not saying the Ghanaians thought Kenny Rogers was the second coming of our Lord per se, but I’m sure the look didn’t hurt his popularity in the Christian southern part of Ghana.  I always meant to ask if Kenny Rogers was just as popular up North in the Muslim part of the country as well.

Kenny and Dolly: 3 star beers, baby.  Now that I’m assuredly going to hell I may as well give them a 6-pack.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

We Like American Music Baby

Many of you know I’m quite the music fan.  So a post on music is long overdue on this blog. 

Back in 1993, even though CDs had by then mostly taken over cassette tapes and record albums as the most popular medium for recorded music for people my age, cheap portable CD players were still in pretty short supply.  Therefore most of us volunteers brought small portable cassette players and a couple dozen cassettes of our favorite music with us to Ghana.  I think Craig V_ had a portable CD player, but I think Craig was the only volunteer I remember who had one.  He may have had one of the first CD players in Ghana.  Which would have kind of sucked in a way, and I’m not just hatin’, because he would have had no one with which to trade music!  I think in retrospect I would have been quite happy if I had brought only a cassette player and a huge bag of cassettes with me to Ghana.  And a good pair of boots.  And a roll of duct tape.  Or maybe a pair of boots made from duct tape.  Regardless, pretty much everything else I needed I probably could have purchased in Ghana.  I probably made about 20 cassette tapes of music I was listening to at the time and brought them with me.  It didn’t seem like enough.  I listened to all of my cassette tapes about 1,000 times each, and got sick of all of them, and then started trading with the other volunteers for their tapes.  That was awesome because I was introduced to a few new bands which I had not heard of before. 

Of course now in 2011 I expect all incoming Peace Corps Volunteers probably all have iPods with every song ever recorded on them at their disposal.  Sounds cool at first blush, but I actually pity them for two reasons; one, it’s pretty difficult to trade mp3 files, and two, I think the endless repetition, while annoying at the time, was kind of important in retrospect.  My Peace Corps music collection became special to me, like a good friend.  Of course I ditched all of my cassettes when I left the Peace Corps; I left them all at the book and cassette library in the Peace Corps office the day I flew back to the USA.  I left them not because I didn’t want to hear any of that music again, but because I knew that those few cassette tapes would mean a lot more to the other volunteers in Ghana than they would to me back home.  Besides, I could listen to CDs again when I got back home.  Cassettes, pfffft.

I have a theory that our brains actually use music to help us store memories.  It’s one of the reasons we like music so much.  More than like; we actually need music.  Certainly when I hear music, I am frequently transported to a time in the past when I maybe first heard that song, or a particularly interesting or powerful subsequent event that happened in my life when I heard that song later.  So one can imagine that the singular and powerful experience of the Peace Corps, coupled with the endless repetition of the same 20-odd cassette tapes, have made this particular music a very important touchstone for my memories of this time. 

Some of my Peace Corps music is objectively not very well-regarded or considered “good”, but the bad music is actually more important to me as a result.  I think we all have music like that in our lives, “bad” music that we like anyway.  Mostly we refer to them as “guilty pleasure” albums, but one could just as easily call them “important memory” albums.  In fact I might argue that the worse the album, the more it reminds you of the associated important memory, because you rarely hear that particular music elsewhere.  So, bring on the bad stuff!  And bring on the Peace Corps music selections!

Now I won’t bore you with all of the music I listened to in the Peace Corps but I’ll list a few of the more prominent selections:
Simon & Garfunkel’s Collected Works

First and foremost I must mention Simon & Garfunkel’s Collected Works.  My friend Mike had just purchased this 3-CD box set the Spring of 1993, right before I left for the Peace Corps.  I made a copy of the entire thing onto two cassette tapes barely a month before I went to Ghana.  At the time I think I was only really familiar with the songs from “Simon & Garfunkel’s Greatest Hits”, which I think is typical for kids of my age.  So I don’t think it’s too much of an overstatement to say that I “discovered” Simon & Garfunkel during the Peace Corps.  Some of their music I found a bit pedantic and preachy for the 90s, but I understood it for the context in which it was written.  The “Collected Works” was simply a chronological run-through of all 5 of their studio albums, excepting the soundtrack to “The Graduate”.  Almost immediately upon returning to the States I purchased a copy of the Collected Works (on CD) for my own collection, and I still frequently listen to those albums.  I also found out much later that their final album “Bridge Over Troubled Water” was released pretty much the same time I was born, in 1970, so somehow I feel an even greater connection to that particular album.

So sticking with the theory that a) songs I’d never heard before had a greater chance of being strongly tied to the Peace Corps, and b) the worse the song, the stronger the tie even still, then naturally only the worst Simon & Garfunkel songs are my favorites.  It’s quite the paradox.  And the song that rises to the top, there very crème de la crème of the entire Simon & Garfunkel oeuvre, is “Keep the Customer Satisfied” from Bridge over Troubled Water.  Now Bridge is a fantastic album, but this song is just a strange bird.  I think it’s some sort of response to “The Ballad of John and Yoko” by John Lennon.  It’s not a horrible song per se, I think is suffers mostly from having to follow (in succession) the songs “Bridge over Troubled Water”, “El Condor Pasa (If I Could)”, and “Cecilia”, on the album, all of which are undisputable classics.  And the song starts out as a simple enough church-tent revival style song with good harmonies, but at some point during the song I think the entire Ohio State Football marching band horn section invades and lays a path of total destruction to the track.  But that’s the song, you see.  That’s the one that stuck in my head as being “The” Peace Corps song.  Why?  Don’t know.  Don’t really care.  I love it for it’s awfulness, for it’s out of control horns.

It's the same old story
Everywhere I go, I get slandered, Libeled,
I hear words I never heard In the Bible
And I'm one step ahead of the shoe shine
Two steps away from the county line
Just trying to keep my customers satisfied, Satisfied.

INXS, Welcome to Wherever You Are

Remember what we said about the guilty pleasures?  This definitely has not aged well.  I mean with Simon & Garfunkel I feel like I have to apologize for trashing one of their songs.  INXS is a more inviting target.  But I make no apologies.  You must keep in mind the fact that I went to high school in the 1980s.  INXS was a big part of that experience.  No one knows why, in retrospect, but boy at the time, we sure loved Michael Hutchance and the boys!  Their triumphant concert at Fiddler’s Green in 1988 was the place to be, baby.  Now even 5 years after that in 1993, their star had dimmed considerably, and “Welcome to Wherever You Are”, which came out in 1992, had very little to offer in terms of hits.  This was one of those albums that someone like me would buy out of loyalty to a band I once loved a lot more.  And somehow it made the trip to Ghana with me.  Remember I only picked about 20 cassette tapes to bring with me.  I could have chosen about 4 different INXS albums besides this one, much less any other bands.  But for some reason – likely because I wanted something “new” with me, I chose this.  And I’m glad it did, because somehow this completely forgotten album by a band whose star had dimmed became the guiding disco light to my mundane days teaching school in the hills of Ghana.  Other more popular albums like “Nevermind” by Nirvana or “10” by Pearl Jam (they were huge when I left for Ghana – heck they’re still huge) would have had their memories drowned out by the frequency with which I heard them after returning from the Peace Corps.  Yes that’s right, I was shocked and dismayed that no one was still rocking out to INXS when I got back to the USA in 1994.  Heck no one was “rocking out” to INXS in 1993 when I left for the Peace Corps, either. NirvanaPearJamSoundgardenAliceInChainsStoneTemplePilotsSmashingPumpkins had drowned out the poor little Aussies.  Not that I don’t like the “grunge” thing, I totally do.  Point being, the popular music has a more difficult time reminding me of Ghana because I’ve listened to is so much since I returned from there.

How do you know when it’s time for you to go?
How can you stop when you don’t know how to start?

Fairground Attraction, The First of a Million Kisses

Who?  Unless you’re Nicki, the person from whom I borrowed this cassette (I think), you’ve probably never heard of this particular album.  I know I hadn’t when I traded for it.  I’m not sure what I traded away for this particular album but I’m glad I did.  Apparently "The First of a Million Kisses", released in 1988, was actually a pretty big hit in England.  It sort of falls into the English “roots-rock revival” movement of the 1980s, a sort of reaction to the over-synthesized, over-produced, over-hair-sprayed pop music that dominated much of the decade.  I'm thinking Dave Edmunds and Nick Lowe, and the Crowded House Neil Finn (though a Kiwi).  Reviews of the album tend to use the term “skiffle” a lot, which in my mind means pre-rock music, like very early Elvis Presley for example.  The album incorporates elements of jazz and country and pop, and has nary a synthesizer on it.  Not a small feat for England in 1988, I assure you.  To my knowledge Fairground Attraction only had this one album, at least only one with this particular lead Singer, Eddi Reader.  She had a delightful and articulate voice, and the songs were interesting and engaging, and held up to repeated listening.  Which was good, because as you know my library of cassettes was not large.  So I listened to her over and over and memorized every line of every song of this strange band of which I new nothing.  When I got back to the USA I forgot about this album for 9 years, having, like I said, left the cassette back in Ghana when I returned to the States.  One day for some reason (probably I was thinking about the Peace Corps!) I remembered the lyric below, and decided I just had to hear the album once again.  By then I had actually forgotten the name of the band and everything.  A couple of internet searches brought me to the album, which I purchased on line immediately.  When it came in the mail I opened it right away, put it on the stereo, and listened to the whole thing without moving, just sitting there, remembering everything once again.  The music unlocked memories like a hidden treasure revealed in golden splendor undimmed by time  It could have been any album, really, but it was this one.

I remember when we used to walk by the Thames
The lights on the embankment like jewels on chains
I’ll never forget what you said at the start
You said “I’m going to put a chain of lights around your heart”

Saturday, March 26, 2011

The Mysterious Dwarfs

The Mysterious Dwarfs

“Cape Coast Mysterious Dwarfs Ltd.” The bold green letters leaped shrilly off of the lorry.  What an auspicious omen!  I snatched my camera triumphantly and jammed it out of the back window of Wofa’s car, wildly clicking the shutter at the rapidly diminishing lorry.  Looking back on all of it now, those blurry dark pictures were as close as I ever got to an actual Mysterious Dwarf.

For that was the object of this weekend trip to Cape Coast; discovery and contact with an actual mmoatia, a Mysterious Dwarf.  Not a Mysterious Ghanaian, not a Regular Dwarf, but a Mysterious Dwarf, endowed with magical powers, born to raise mischief, an elusive and some might say, nonexistent denizen of lower Ghana.  Cape Coast in particular has embraced the legend of the mmoatia, seeing fit even to name their soccer team after the legendary little men.  And paint “Mysterious Dwarfs” in green letters on lorries in homage to either the team, or the legend, or perhaps both in equal measure.

Angela and I had traveled to Cape Coast to visit Dr. Wofa, a professor at the University of Cape Coast and one of our instructors at Peace Corps training that previous Summer in Koforidua.  We were captivated by the legends of the mmoatia as told to us by Wofa, and for my part not a little skeptical as well. We wanted to dig into the mystery a little bit at any rate.  Wofa gave us an open invitation to join him and meet a Mysterious Dwarf or three, and we eagerly took him up on the offer.

Now near as I could tell, the mmoatia were a legend created to explain less than savory behavior on the part of antagonistic tribes and ne'er-do-well rakes in bygone years.  The mmoatia were small and stealthy, it is said, and only active after dark.  They could travel great distances quickly and without making a sound.  Probably their most distinguishing feature, however, was the fact that their feet were affixed backwards to their legs.  This made tracking them very difficult, because their footsteps would naturally lead their pursuers to where they came from, and not to where they were going.  People attempting to follow Dwarfs would become hopelessly lost in the process.  The mmoatia are said to be about one foot tall, and come in three colors; black, red, and white.  They amuse themselves with petty mischief for the most part, stealing palm wine and food, but are also known most seriously to steal babies and take them into the forest to become new mmoatia.  Because of this they are ultimately feared and viewed with trepidation, particularly among young mothers I would presume.

Mostly the Mysterious Dwarfs keep to themselves deep in the forest, but apparently there are Wizards who can communicate with and even sometimes control them.  And at the time I spotted the lorry we were heading in that circuitous African way into the green hills above Cape Coast to see just such a man, a man who claimed that he had talked to and even met the elusive mmoatia.  A Wizard.  A Witch Doctor.  A Dwarf Guy, if you will.  If all went well – and all portents pointed now dramatically to a successful conclusion – by midnight we could be up to our kneecaps in Mysterious Dwarfs.  I wondered what they were like; did they dance and sing songs?  Did they think tall white people were creatures of fantasy as well?  Quite frankly I was skeptical that we would actually see any sort of Dwarf, Mysterious or otherwise.  But I enjoyed the legend, and I wanted to believe.  But could I believe in their existence?

For it was for me, essentially, an argument of faith.  Can you believe in something that you can not see?  Like God and Jesus?  Trolls and Dragons?  Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy?  Mysterious Dwarfs with backwards feet?  As our car wandered slowly up the wet coast towards the Wizard’s village, I pondered the following idea.  The Dwarfs are mystical, magical creatures.  Since there is no tangible proof of their existence, they require our belief in them to be real.  An existential creation, made flesh by the will of our collective minds.  Put another way, if you can not bring yourself to believe in the Dwarfs, then you certainly stand no chance of seeing any.  But if you can believe, really believe, then, well, why not?

The key to successful Dwarf viewing, I concluded as our car stopped for the second time in front of the Wizard’s house (this time well stocked with akpeteshie, unlike the first time we stopped there), was true faith.  Did I really believe in the Mysterious Dwarfs?  I was not sure if I did or not.  I felt like I was being subject to one of those theoretical discussions we used to have in physics class regarding the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum physics.  As I recall it, the Copenhagen interpretation states that light can be viewed as either a wave or a particle, but not both simultaneously.  If you set up an experiment to prove that light is a wave, then by gosh light will appear as a wave.  But on the other hand if you set up an experiment to view the same light as a particle, then of course the light will appear as a particle, and not a wave.  And light can never be both a wave and a particle simultaneously.  Perhaps neither wave nor particle correctly describes what light really is.  Perhaps the concepts of wave and particle box us in to a particular way of thinking that does not allow use to understand the true nature of light.

What does this have to do with Mysterious Dwarfs, you ask?  The way I see it, the experiment this weekend was to ascertain if Mysterious Dwarfs exist nor not.  And if you go into the experiment trying to prove that Dwarfs exist, then you will be given proof that they do exist.  But however if you go into the same experiment trying to prove that the Dwarfs most certainly do not exist, then by gosh you will be given proof that they do not exist.  Problem was, I wasn’t sure which proof I wanted to make, and there wasn’t much time to make up my mind.  Being a bit of a skeptic and saddled in this instance with a scientific mind, I think I was leaning towards “don’t exist”, but I was captivated by the legends and by the sincerity of their telling, and part of me wanted to believe.  But there wasn’t much time to make up my mind because finally we had arrived once and for all at the Wizard’s house.

Stepping out of the car we were unceremoniously led into the Wizard’s simple home and introduced to him.  The Wizard was a small, old, ruddy man with large expressive eyes and expansive arms.  His hair was turning grey, but still full nonetheless, and he had the fit wiry physique of someone who spends a lot of time outdoors.  In the forest, with the Dwarfs, perhaps.  He led us into the back of his house in to a small dark chamber, and I couldn’t help but notice how small he was.  But he wasn’t a Dwarf.  Not yet.

As we partook in the usual akpeteshie libation ceremony with toasts to our health, and to the health of the Wizard’s family, and the health of the mmoatia, my eyes became accustomed to the dim light and I couldn’t help but notice something that looked an awful lot like dried blood on the far wall of the room.  West Africa is known as the birthplace of Voodoo, or Vodun as it’s known in Ghana, and creepy shrines and dried blood always put me a bit on edge.  But I also knew that we were in the Akan part of Ghana, and Vodun is not practiced by the Akan, just the Ewe on the East side of the Volta River.  Still, Africa, dried blood, shrines, Wizards, you know, it was enough to get my attention.  Maybe there was something here, after all.  I was a little frightened, but a little excited as well.  Other than that the room did not have much to offer in terms of creepy mysticism.  No enticing runes painted on the wall, no silent flickering candles – just a couple of small uncomfortable chairs and a dingy curtain which was pulled across the far corner of the room like a Japanese divider.

Angela, Wofa, and I all took seats, and the Wizard began by trying to sell us some magic rings.  We politely declined.  Next he offered to cast spells of healing and/or destruction for another small fee, which we also politely declined.  In retrospect I really think we should have pooled together and bought something from the enterprising old Wizard.  Eventually after some subtle and diplomatic prodding on our part he got around to our request.

“So, you want to see a Dwarf?”  He commented inquisitive and slow, taking us all in with a suitable air of suspense.  He aimed his large eyes right at mine, binding me uncomfortably with the hollow stare of someone who has seen way too much for his own good, and asked me if I really really wanted to see a Dwarf.  Why do they always know to ask the guy who isn’t sure?  I could only nod my head and manage a hoarse, unconvincing “yes” sound.  I swear he was singling me out, it wasn’t fair.

Form behind his stool the Wizard then produced an old gin bottle filled with a nefarious-looking black powder.  “Take some of this,” he casually intoned, “it will protect you.”  Protect me from what, exactly?  Why do I need protection all of a sudden?  I was suddenly very unhappy with this whole arrangement.  The powder looked like crushed charcoal.  I sprinkled a small pile into my left hand, and armed with a chaser of akpeteshie in my right hand, downed that choking dry powder and quickly followed it up with a shot of straight-up African moonshine.  Well, I figured, the akpeteshie should kill anything harmful in the charcoal at least…  Seriously, what the heck did I just get myself into?  Was I about to start hallucinating about Dwarfs?  And that was probably the best-case scenario here.  Various thoughts of foaming at the mouth and dying slowly in a hot dark room far from home filled my brain as the Wizard proceeded to conceal himself behind the thin curtain in the far corner of the room. 

In a clear voice, the Wizard, in English, commanded the Dwarf to appear.  Nothing happened.  I was strangely unexcited by the conjuration in process, being slightly more fixated on the fact that I just, by my own volition mind you, ate magic charcoal.  The Wizard tried again.  Still nothing.  But then, after a suitably dramatic pause, another voice filled the space, ancient, laconic.

“What do you want?”  It was a Dwarf.  The Dwarf curtly demanded, “I am very tired.”

“I have some people here who want to see Dwarfs,” the Wizard faithfully replied.

“Hummmmph,” the Dwarf half-chuckled, half-grunted.  “I see.  Well I, Kra-Dasi-Dasi, can not see anybody today.  Come back Friday.”  So – contact was established, but the Dwarf was busy.

Hummmmph, I thought as well.  We drove all this way to eat charcoal, sit in a hot dark room, and listen to a bad ventriloquist show.  The chance seemed awfully slim that we were listening to an actual Mysterious Dwarf.  I just couldn’t be real, could it?  Or maybe it was that I just couldn’t really believe in it, I countered to myself.  You cynic.  Mr. Enlightenment, Mr. Quantum Physics, Mr. Atomic bomb, you are quite simply incapable in believing in magic.  Face it.  There’s nothing magical in your modern world and you can’t let real magic in anymore.  You have laughed it all away to Hollywood and Disneyland.  You have actually forfeited even the right to see Dwarfs, Trolls, and magic rings.  You are to be pitied, quite frankly.

But right here was my change to try, to cast away all those veneers of cynicism and step for once, for the first time maybe, into another world, an older world than I even thought could exist.  I closed my eyes tightly, and for a moment I tried.  I really tried.  Slowly, small fingers curled around the edge of the curtain, and it opened to reveal not one, but three Mysterious Dwarfs.  First a black Dwarf, with wide smiling eyes.  Then a red Dwarf, with wild hair and large hands.  Finally a white Dwarf, with teeth filed to sharp points and a fierce expression on his ghost-white face.  The white one looked at me, beckoned me towards him.  I prayed that the powder would protect me as I leaned in close.  He could read my mind. He fixed me with his gaze and said, “You are foolish not to believe in magic, obruni.”  Then he opened his mouth to reveal his teeth, filed sharp as the fangs of a snake and gleaming white in the black vastness of his open maw.  Wider and wider his mouth became, until it filled the whole room, until there was nothing left except the blackness inside of the mouth of the Dwarf

With a start I opened my eyes, and there I was again sitting in a small hot dark room, listening to this old man having a conversation with himself, sitting with a sour conceited enlightened smirk on my face.  The magic was not there, and I felt bitter and disappointed that I had been deceived into wanting it even as little as I did, and that I couldn’t really believe in it when the time came.

Perhaps that’s the essence of the downside of my modern Western developed world, I contemplated glumly as we picked our way through the bland dusk towards the semi-order of Cape Coast once again.  We have lost our capacity for true faith.  It has been pushed aside by the space shuttle and the silicon wafer.  All the things that we know have made irrelevant all the things we used to believe, including magic.  And something inside of us that was once wondrous and full of color has been lost for good, and been replaced by something cynical and grey.  Secretly I was still hoping that we might take a wrong turn somewhere just so I could say, mockingly, “those damn Dwarfs.”  But it all seemed mean-spirited and wrong to mock, somehow.  I didn’t feel like I proved that the Dwarfs did or did not exist.  All I proved was that I was tragically incapable of believing in them, and that knowledge made me sad. 

We may have lost our way with magic, but we managed to not get lost on the way back from the Wizard’s village, which was no small feat given the meager navigational skills of the three of us in the car. However we did get into a car accident while crossing a small bridge – a minor collision with a gruff little slab of concrete which was quite obviously the work of trolls, right?  Right?  Right.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

The Needle and the Damage Done

The Needle and the Damage Done


There's a hole in Scotty's arm where all the vaccine goes

I don’t do well with needles.  That’s actually a vast understatement.  I have a very un-macho tendency to literally pass out at the mere sight of needles, particularly if I know they are meant for me.  I would make a terrible rock guitarist, circa 1970.  Now had I known exactly how many times I would be subject to shots and blood tests during my stint in the Peace Corps, I might have reconsidered the whole venture.  By my count I was poked in the arm and posterior no less than 17 times for vaccines, and another 10 or so for blood tests and general sadistic whims of doctors and nurses across two continents.  I’m getting just a little bit light-headed just typing this, that’s how grossed out I am by needles.  So in an attempt to expunge my irrational fears, I’m going to spend today’s post explaining all the wonderful shots I was subjected to, and their purpose.  We will spend a little time talking about disease and maladies for which there were no shots.

Ghana like many tropical countries is host to many diseases and maladies.  This is due partially to the climate, which is friendly to disease carrying pests like mosquitoes, and partially due to the somewhat unhygienic living conditions encountered there, and also partially due to the fact that countries like Ghana can not afford to spend the large amounts of money that are likely required to eradicate many diseases from their land.  I will say that progress is being made on this front, even in Ghana.  Some diseases are nearly wiped out that used to be far more prevalent.  But others are still very much a danger, both for Ghanaians and certainly for us Orbunis.

As many of you know, generally speaking life expectancy is lower in places like Ghana than it is in places like the United States.  Although, as an aside, if the United States keeps up on it’s path of current unhealthy eating habits and poor exercise routines, our lead in this category may shrink.  The primary reason for lower life expectancies in places like Ghana is disease.  And even more sadly, the bulk of the difference is made up of young children, who have not yet developed robust immune systems, succumbing to disease in their youth.  Most Ghanaians, should they survive childhood, have a solid chance of living a decent live span.  But the high infant mortality rates bring down the overall average, not to put to fine a point on it.  Incidentally this is yet another reason women tend to have more children in poor countries.  Again not to sound too detached about this, but if your very survival in old age depends on you having children to take care of you, and you are not completely convinced that your children are going to survive their tender and vulnerable years, then it stands to reason that you might consider having more children than you would otherwise.

Now I, having successfully survived my tender and vulnerable years in the United States, with only emotional damage wrought by living through the embodiment of a John Hughes movie in high school in the 1980s, was at least of sound body if not mind, and ready to withstand and endure the rigors of tropical life.  Or so I thought.  Unfortunately compared to a Ghanaian of similar age I had not grown up in Ghana and my body had not inured and acclimated itself to the various pests that are endemic to that country.  Not to say that Ghanaians are totally immune to endemic diseases once they reach a certain age, for they most certainly are not.  But they do develop some natural defenses.  And the Peace Corps was going to do the same for me, via the needle.

My first shots actually occurred before I even left the States.  All of us Peace Corps volunteers who were going to Ghana in 1993 met in Philadelphia in early July for a week of initial training and shot-taking.  One day we were all herded down to some government office in downtown Philadelphia to receive three shots, all at once:  one for Yellow Fever, one for Measles Mumps and Rubella (MMR), and a final shot for ”IPV”, which is for Polio.  I believe the last two are administered to children in the United States, or at least they were when I was young, but the Yellow Fever vaccine was altogether new and exciting to me and my body.  For you see, the yellow fever vaccine is actually a little tiny bit of yellow fever virus that is injected into your blood stream.  This is a special “attenuated” version of the virus that is very much “live” or real, but somehow supposedly harmless.  Your body recognizes that the virus has invaded, and gets to work producing natural antibodies to neutralize it.  For yellow fever vaccine, apparently your body will continue to produce antibodies for about 10 years after it is introduced to this lively little virus.  That’s how freaked out your body gets when it discovers good ol’ yeller fever parading down its blood vessels and arteries.  So I hesitate to call what they did to me a “vaccine” per se.  It seems like my body did all the heavy lifting here and all they did was give it a little nudge.  Should be called the yellow fever nudge shot.  We will see this strategy employed again.  Some volunteers did have a bit of a reaction to this or one of the other two shots and were fairly ill for a couple of days.  After I swooned from the needles I felt pretty good actually.

But I was very glad to have some protection from yellow fever, since it is a nasty disease and quite endemic to Africa.  And sadly it seems to be getting slightly more prevalent in Africa, and currently causes about 30,000 deaths per year, mostly in Africa.  Yellow Fever was a contributing factor to the failure of the French panama canal project in the 1800s.  Of course this was before the vaccine was invented (in 1937), so the French and Caribbean workers died by the thousands from this disease.  Also not helping matters was the belief at the time that yellow fever was caused by “swamp air”, so very little effort was made to control or eradicate the disease carrying mosquitoes in the area.  We’re smarter now but the disease seems to be making a comeback, which is not good.
But I was safe from that particular disease, provided I didn’t end up staying in Ghana for longer than 10 years.  That would not prove to be an issue.  Once we got to Ghana we were immediately subject to a barrage of needles; 12 shots in a one month period.  I may have the order mixed up, but I think we got off the plane, got our passports stamped, and got a needle stuck in our arms.  This one was for Hepatitis B.  In fact this was one of 3 Hepatitis B shots I was to receive.  The second Hepatitis B shot occurred the very next day.  The Third and final – at least for me, since I left Ghana shortly thereafter – Hepatitis B shot occurred 6 months later.  That one was probably a booster shot.  Additionally I was the proud recipient of two Gamma Globulin shots, which I think may have been related to the Hepatitis B vaccine.  The Gamma Globulin shot deserves special mention here because it was a rather large shot, administered right in the posterior.  Additionally it was a very viscous substance and left a very noticeable lump in my trunk, if you know what I mean, for quite some time, while it slowly dissolved into my bloodstream and administered its special G.G. powers throughout my body.  During that time it was not enjoyable to sit down on anything so prolonged standing or prolonged laying face down on the floor were the most common side-effects of the good old G.G.

I’ll also note that while we received 3 shots for Hepatitis B, we did not receive anything for any of the other versions of hepatitis, which were also roaming around Ghana at will.  I believe two of my fellow volunteers were stricken with another variant of Hepatitis while serving.  One of them had to go back to the States for several weeks for treatment but she came back after she was feeling better.  That is tough.

There were two other shot “series” that we received: Typhoid, and Rabies.  Well rabies we are all familiar with, what with the raccoons and dogs foaming at the mouth and what-not here in the states.  But it must be more of an issue in Ghana because we were getting the rabies vaccine, discussion closed.  Of course in the states we vaccinate our pets against vaccine, but typically not humans.  Over there I guess it was just the opposite.  Does that make us the pets?  And this vaccine works like the yellow fever vaccine.  You are administered just a pinch of fake-rabies and your body get to work building the proper antibodies to destroy it.  Not pseudo-rabies, which is an actual disease endemic to swine, and not rabies at all apparently, but a proper rabies-rabies that has been, as they say, “attenuated”.  I get the concept but it still seems a little creepy to me.

Lest we forget Typhoid Fever, caused by eating food or water that has been improperly handled, shall we say.  For example you might be subject to typhoid fever if you were to drink water out of a stream downstream from where an untreated sewer is located.  I don’t think I need to be any more clear on how one contracts this disease in polite company.  Even though we had to get three shots for this vaccine to work, I’m rather a fan of it because unlike the rabies and yellow fever vaccine, the typhoid vaccine actually cuts right to the chase and puts the antigen right into your body.  Of course therefore it’s not as affective or long-lasting, but I feel like I’m getting some sort of spider man super-power with the typhoid vaccine.

Rounding out the shots finally were a Meningitis A & C shot, and a diphtheria shot.  Meningitis has recently been making a showing in the United States, which deeply disturbs me quite frankly.  I’m pretty sure 18 years after my shot I am no longer immune to meningitis but I really don’t want to get stuck in the arm again. 

Oh I almost forgot one!  Right before I left the Peace Corps I got my first Cholera vaccine shot.  I’m not sure why they felt they needed to wait until I was in Ghana for 8 months before administering one final shot.  Could be my incessant whining and crying convinced them that one more shot too early really would cause me to run back home, so they delayed the cholera shot out of mercy.  Or perhaps the cholera shot was expensive, and they wanted to make sure you were going to stick it out in country before spending good money on you.  If that was the case the joke was on them because I left Ghana only about one week after receiving my cholera shot of pure golden deliciousness.  Or maybe the cholera vaccine had just been invented, and they wanted to test it out on unsuspecting Peace Corps volunteers first.  That theory seems most plausible of all.

But I’m saving the worst for last.  If you’ve stuck with me this far, you deserve some sort of payoff to this somewhat laborious tour through tropical diseases.  Malaria.  There is no vaccine for malaria, and it is, along with AIDS, probably the number one killer in Africa.  So it’s bad stuff.  About one half of the people I know who spent more than a month or two in Ghana got malaria.  And a good chunk of them got very very ill with it.  Malaria like yellow fever is spread by mosquitoes, and like yellow fever we used to think it was spread by bad singing.  Hence the name malaria, you know mal (“bad”) aria (“song”).  Sorry, couldn’t resist.  Bad swamp air, not singing, of course.

But unlike yellow fever we have not yet figured out how to create a proper vaccine for malaria.  And this is bad because malaria like I mentioned kills a lot of people every year.  It’s one of the main reasons why mosquito nets are so useful in Africa.  Of course one can’t go around wearing a mosquito net all day; it gets in the way of things.  So scientists have at least created a few “anti-malarial” drugs that can be taken to help prevent malaria.  The drugs don’t provide perfect protection, and they have some vary common and very disturbing side-effects.

All of us volunteers were administered and told to take regularly the anti-malarial drug known as mefloquine.  This drug has a lot of side-effects.  I’ll list them now:

Common side-effects:

Diarrhea; dizziness; drowsiness; headache; lightheadedness; loss of appetite; muscle aches; nausea; stomach pain or upset; strange dreams; tiredness; trouble sleeping; vomiting.

Severe side-effects:

Severe allergic reactions (rash; hives; itching; difficulty breathing; tightness in the chest; swelling of the mouth, face, lips, or tongue); bizarre behavior; chest pain; fainting; fast, slow, or irregular heartbeat; flu-like symptoms (eg, chills, fever, headache, muscle pain); loss of balance or coordination; memory problems; mental or mood changes (eg, anxiety, confusion, depression, hallucinations, mood changes, paranoia, restlessness); numbness or tingling of the hands or feet; red, swollen or blistered skin; ringing in the ears; seizures; severe or persistent cough; shortness of breath; suicidal thoughts or attempts; symptoms of liver problems (eg, dark urine, pale stools, persistent stomach pain or loss of appetite, persistent tiredness, yellowing of the skin or eyes); tremor; vision changes.

Wait, did I see “bizarre behavior” in there?

Let me tell you a quick story and then we will wrap this up. 

July 11th, 1993. 

I arrive in Ghana.

July 12th, 1993. 

I start taking mefloquine.  “You might have strange dreams”.  We didn’t hear about any of the other side-effects.

July 15th, 1993. 

We start in-country training in Koforidua, Ghana.  We are staying at a boarding school.  I’m sharing a room with M_ (name obscured), another teacher in training.

July 18th, 1993. 

M_ has a bad reaction to the mefloquine and displays some “bizarre behavior”.  Specifically, and I missed all of this because I was hanging out in the school cafeteria at the time, M_ left the school grounds in only his skivvies, and was found in the main square of Koforidua having a totally psychotic episode, running around and screaming about looking for a flashlight.  In his defense it was dark out at the time but clearly he had a pretty severe breakdown.  And it was due to the mefloquine.  M_ was bundled up and shipped back to the states the very next day; we never got to say goodbye to him or anything.  It was extremely disturbing to all of us, as you can imagine.  It was probably far more disturbing to M_, of course.  I didn’t sleep very well that night, suddenly bereft of my roommate with no explanation as to why he freaked out so badly (we found out about the mefloquine angle later) and legitimately wondering if I would be the next to go.  As a bizarre post-script, we found out much later that he ended up being ok, and wanted to come back even, but was told that he could not after having such a severe reaction to the mefloquine, because we were required to take it.

July 19th, 1993.

I stop taking mefloquine.

July 20th, 1993. 

I don’t get malaria. 

In fact I did not get malaria at all while I was in Ghana.  I was lucky, I was placed at a village that was hilly and somewhat high off the plains, so it was a bit cooler there, and the mosquitoes didn’t like it as much up in Boso.  I didn’t even sleep under a net.  Yes I was playing with fire, but on the other hand I at no time found myself running around Boso in my underwear screaming about flashlights.  Or if I did and just don’t remember it, the good people of Boso had the infinite grace and tact to not tell me about it.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Three Cool Things about Ghanaians

Three Cool Things about Ghanaians

1. Akwaaba Water

Akwaaba means “you are welcome!”  Akwaaba is more than a word, it is a way of life with Ghanaians, who are very friendly and, uh, welcoming hosts.  It is tradition for a Ghanaian to welcome someone into their home with “Akwaaba!”, and a bright smile, and a glass of water.  The glass of water is symbolic of being a gracious host, and should be offered right away to guests.  Ghanaians will feel uncomfortable and unwelcome until the glass of water is offered!  As a guest you are not required to drink the water, it is the offering that is important.  As a host you had better be ready to pour some water when your guests arrive, or run the risk of making them feel awkward in your home.  Ghanaians by and large are a friendly and compassionate lot.  I try to retain a little bit of this to this day; when guests arrive at my house I try to make a friendly first impression by sincerely welcoming them to my home, and offering them something to drink.  Sometimes I drop the ball on this bit of ritual but I’m re- dedicating myself to it.  I probably won’t say “Akwaaba!” to you when you come to my home, but be prepared to drink some iiiiiiiiice watah once you arrive – although probably out of a glass and not a plastic bag.  And truth be told that nasty plastic bag water is only seen at lorry stations.  Homes, even of the most modest variety, do have glasses.

2. The Secret Ghanaian Handshake

Maybe I shouldn’t be divulging this particular cool thing here, since some of you who are reading this have never been to Ghana.  I wonder if this is some sort of cool thing that you’re only supposed to learn once you get to Ghana.  So at the risk of offending Ghanaian sensibilities (something I’m pretty good at) I’m going to describe the official Ghanaian handshake.

Step 1.  Shake hands.  Ghanaians don’t particularly care for the firm manly handshake.  Even a bit of an open-hand slap is acceptable instead of a death-grip approach.  The whole approach has what I would call “natural soul,” brother.  It’s tougher for a white boy to pull this off but you got to know where it’s coming from, at least.  There is no pumping of the arms and no “bro-hug” using your free arms while holding the handshake, like we do here in the States.  The Ghanaian handshake is brief, but it can be repeated over and over during a conversation, it is not just for introductions.  It quite frankly is almost used as a punctuation mark, like a double exclamation point.
Step 2.  Sandwich your middle finger and your thumb between the middle finger and thumb of your handshake partner.  This is the set up for step three.  Grip the fingertips firmly.  Unlike step one, some strength is preferred here.  This position is not held long because it is a transition to the handshake payoff in step 3. But messing up the grip here makes it almost impossible to complete the handshake, so be sure to practice and get it right.

Step 3.  Oh snap!  That’s right, pull your hand away and snap your middle finger and thumb against your partners’.  This is a teamwork thing; both participants must pull away at the same time or else the snap won’t work as well.  As good snap will bring a smile to the face of any Ghanaian.  Not only are you welcome, you are accepted, and you have a little soul.  Doing it wrong will not offend however.  Even making the effort to do the Ghanaian handshake will be appreciated.

A couple of notes about the video; what is that white guy eating?  An apple? Where in the heck did he get an apple in Ghana?  And stop eating the apple while trying to learn the cool Ghanaian handshake.  But the other kid, he's got it.  Nice.  Also the Ghanaian kid is awesome.  Love his high-pitched exclamation at the very end.

Of course we see athletes and cool people here in the states perform elaborate handshake rituals all the time.  One has to consider that this all stems from the Ghanaian handshake, or something similar.  I have not traveled to other countries in Africa but I suspect there are other cool African handshake rituals to master in other countries.  Now of course as Americans we go completely overboard with the whole thing.  This seems typical and appropriate given our proclivity towards bombast.  But it all comes from Ghana and there it is simple and cool and soulful and awesome.

3. Palm Wine in a Calabash / Akpeteshie for my homies

Where do I begin with the delights of Ghanaian Palm Wine?  Palm Wine is a mildly alcoholic beverage made from the sap of the palm tree.  I’m not certain if all varieties of palm tree produce palm wine, but it is harvested in a similar manner as maple syrup.  Except I think that unlike maple syrup, palm sap can be harvested throughout the year.  Raw palm sap is non-alcoholic so the sap is fermented in order to preserve it and make it delicious.  There is a sliding scale of fermentation, from very mildly fermented to moderately fermented.  Mildly fermented palm wine had very little alcohol content.  Moderately fermented palm wine is probably similar to beer or wine in terms of alcohol content.  The taste of the palm wine varies quite a bit from batch to batch, and with the amount of fermentation.  Good batches are celebrated, and bad batches are, uh, tolerated. 

Palm wine has a milky, almost iridescent color to it.  It is served from a calabash, which is a gourd, hollowed out of course and made into a serving bowl.  Palm wine is typically drunk with friends, and if there is only one great big calabash it is passed around from person to person to sip while idling in pleasant conversation.  In my opinion it is symbolic of sharing ones good fortune with your neighbors and friends.  Passing around a great big full calabash of palm wine also requires some measure of dexterity, particularly once one is passing around the fifth or sixth bowl of the afternoon.  Spilling of the palm wine is met with laughter and good-natured derision.

Now palm wine can also be distilled into hard liquor.  The Ghanaians will sometimes refer to this as “gin”, but the more common name for it is akpeteshie.  I like to refer to it as “white man’s grave”.  Akpeteshie is strong.  Frequently it is mixed with roots and herbs to add flavor, I presume, but mostly it tastes like pure evil!  I mention akpeteshie not because I enjoy drinking it, which I really really don’t, but because of one important social custom that the Ghanaians do with akpeteshie that I think is pretty cool.  Typically when guests arrive, if the occasion is special, a bottle of akpeteshie will be brought forth, and all guests will be served a small amount (thank goodness) of Akpeteshie.  The host will raise his glass and toast the occasion, and will always honor the dearly departed of his household by pouring a small amount of akpeteshie on the ground, as if to give their honored ancestors the first sip.
 Then all will drink down the nasty fever-inducing liquor.  To not drink, in this instance, is fairly rude as you can imagine.  Of course we see this action emulated in Urban American culture, sometimes with sincerity, and sometimes with mock-sincerity, and sometimes with utter clueless-ness.  But I’m guessing the tradition started right here in Ghana, if not West Africa as a whole.  And having seen and participated in the ritual myself, done with simplicity and sincerity it is a very cool thing.

This concludes my three, three and a half I suppose, cool things about Ghanains.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Ode to the Lorry Park

I’m on the road between Boso and Kpong, in the region of Frankadua somewhere.  The lorry I was on has run out of petrol, so there is going to be some delay, I suppose.  These lorries are quite an experience.  They’re not much more than an old pickup truck with a shell over the bed, and two benches running lengthwise down the two sides of the bed.  Apparently each bench is supposed to fit six people, but somehow they manage to squeeze 7 or 8 per side – and 6 is uncomfortable enough!  The shell over the bed is usually open at the sides, with wooden slats providing some protection, and natural air conditioning, provided the lorry is moving, which this one is not.  It goes without saying that there are no seatbelts, but wedged in with eleven Ghanaians I doubt we’re going too move too much in an accident.  I make light, but in reality this sort of travel is extremely dangerous and accident prone.  Crashes are common and the results are usually deadly. 

One rides in these lorries facing the people opposite yourself, and there is no “personal space” whatsoever.  Your sweaty nasty arms and legs are in direct contact with your neighbor’s significantly less sweaty arms and legs for the duration of the trip.  I say significantly less sweaty because by and large the Ghanaians are much more used to the heat than I.  Also it is usually the case that there is no room for luggage, so you end up riding with your backpack on your lap, which actually makes for a nice pillow should you feel the need to take a nap.  It is altogether stuffy and claustrophobic.  Periodically on longer trips the lorry will make a random pit stop on the side of the road so passengers can relieve themselves.  Even if you don’t think you need to do so, you’re best advised to go anyway, because as the white guy you have no clue when the next stop is going to be. 

Our stranded lorry was full but now that we’re stopped because of the fuel situation opposite me now are only two people.  The other four are out of the lorry, stretching their legs while the mate (driver) gets petrol (gas).  Now the truck is filling up with passengers again – they must have found petrol.   On to Kpong!

Kpong – it’s about eight in the morning now.  The lorry just barely made it, with many stops and stalls – not one of my better trips to Kpong.  I’ve left the lorry and have transferred to a gigantic bus – well compared to the lorry it’s quite large – waiting for it to fill up and then we’re all off to Accra, the big capital. 

The lorry park in Kpong is pretty small and tame compared to the ones in Accra and Kumasi, but there’s still a fair amount of activity going on.  There are many lorries and vans, all painted right colors and many with strange slogans painted upon them.  I saw some good ones today: “Lagos Boy”, “By All Means”, and “Ringo!”  are particularly good.  “By All Means” is a popular slang term in Ghana, roughly meaning “yes” but really meaning “no”.  Me:  “Will you have fresh bananas tomorrow?”  Market lady:  “By all means!”  I may as well ask for a bag of chee-to’s.  The answer, and the result, will be the same.

Rushing about and between these named autos are women with various edibles for sale resting upon their heads.  They come right up to the side of the lorries and buses, and you can reach out and grab what you want to eat from the tops of their head.  They take your money and give you change all without having to remove their cranium-supported stores.  It’s very impressive.

There are many food items for sale, seemingly all at once.  Bread is for sale here, “tea bread” specifically, which is quite enjoyable.  The ladies at the Kpong lorry park also sell something called “one-one-thousand”, which is a small plastic bag containing tiny shrimp or something.  I’m not sure if I’m supposed to eat it or take it home and pretend they’re a little civilization of mermaids and mermen.  Here also one can get crayfish, since Kpong is on the Volta River, and very near Lake Volta.  Also available are fried dough, kenke, eggs, oranges, and bananas.   
And of course, ice water, a personal favorite of mine.  It comes in very non-reusable little plastic bags, always carried by young girls who cry out at the top of their lungs, “iiiiiice watah!! iiiiiiiiiiiiiiice watah!!”  I think they take a correspondence class on how to do this, they all do it exactly the same way.  And since we’re nearer the capital, a rare treat; young men carrying coolers on their heads, selling an ice cream-like substance called “fan ice”.  Fan ice is pretty much heaven on a stick.  Or in a factory-sealed pouch. 

Now in general us volunteers are strongly advised not to eat too much (or none at all) of this “street chop”.  The iiiiiiice watah in particular is perilous to one’s health.  Although on the other hand we are also told that when choosing between getting dehydrated and potentially getting sick from the water, to go ahead and choose the water.  And besides, I’m already sick right now, that’s why I’m heading down to the capital, so, you know, how much worse can it get? 

The women hawking food all cry out what they’re selling all at once and make themselves generally obtrusive and loud.  The lorry park is crowded with huge robust strong market women in batik dresses, scrawny little business men in grey suits, babies and small children, and chickens darting every direction, looking for scraps of food falling from the enormous bowls of kenke and rice.  Also one can buy sticks for firewood, much smaller sticks for chewing and cleaning one’s teeth, and enormous cocoyams the size of a Sycamore tree root.  And now something a little unusual; a man comes by selling books – books?  Well, 30-page paperback stories, really nothing like Michener here.  This guy actually gets inside of the bus and LOUDLY starts proclaiming the virtues of owning these stories.  As a passenger on the bus I feel like he’s violating my sacred “hawker-free” zone here.  Outside of the bus, fine, get in my face, sell me bags of tiny shrimp and giant yams all you like.  Inside my bus I fell like I deserve a respite from this carnival of capitalism.  So I won’t buy his little books even though I actually really want to; there’s probably some really interesting and bizarre stuff in there.  But I have my code of honor, and he’s broken it, so I refuse to acknowledge him, much less buy anything from him.

Well now the bus has filled, and we will be heading off to Accra soon.  This is a non-stop bus so this is my last chance to buy some street chop for the long ride to the big city. iiiiice?  Maybe next time.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Jurassic Park

Now let me start off by saying I feel just a little bit guilty about this particular post.  It’s easy to kick a man when he’s down, you see, and I feel like I’m doing that to an extent.  The man in question I propose to kick is Mr. Asafo-Adjaye Boateng, creator of what I can only assume is Ghana’s first attempt at the post card, which I am simultaneously delighted and ashamed to present today.  And in a broader sense I’ll be kicking Ghanaians around in general, for being unsophisticated and lacking the natural ability for salesmanship, and just missing the point of it all.  But these little post cards are just so delightful, so wonderfully weird and outrageous that I simply must share them with you all.  Please understand my heart is in the right place.  I think.

Let’s talk about post cards for a bit first.  You know, set the stage.  I imagine post cards have been around about as long as tourism.  I mean really, what’s the point of going somewhere exotic, or beautiful, or exciting, if you can’t gloat about it to your friends back home?  And being able to gloat to them while you are still traveling is vastly preferred to simply regaling them with foggy tales of adventures past while comfortably seated back home.  Enter the post card.  Buy it, scribble on it (“Wish you were here!  NOT!  For who would I gloat to otherwise!”), stamp it, mail it, and have another drink. 

I imagine the first group of tourists to a particular location, say Ghana for example, maybe could not find post cards because, hey, no one told the Ghanaians that they were supposed to have post cards at the ready for these eager first tourists.  And quite frankly the Ghanaians are not the wealthiest of people, and you can’t expect them to have traveled much and sent or received many post cards of their own.  But the Ghanaians were a quick study, and rest assured they would come up with something for the next batch of intrepid tourists.

And of course in 2011 the post card has largely been replaced by some sort of combination of the digital camera, the internet, and facebook, (aka the iPhone); but even 5 or 10 years ago post cards were still an important part of traveling.  And the farther and more exotic the locale, the greater the desire on the part of the traveler to send post cards, and the greater measure of joy, envy, and admiration on the part of the receiver to view an idealized and colorful vision of said far-flung exotic locale.

So one can imagine the heightened excitement on the part of me and my fellow Peace Corps volunteers to find wonderful and fantastic post cards upon arrival in Ghana to send back to our jealous friends and fretting family members back home.  But we found something so fantastic, so absurd and wonderful, that it both destroyed the entire concept of post cards, and yet beautifully illustrated how something that seems obvious and simple to us can get so Lost in Translation.  So without further rambling I present the “Please Visit Ghana” Postcard Number 7.

Yes, this is an actual postcard I purchased in Ghana.

God bless them for trying.  Where shall I begin?  First of all, I will give Mr. Boateng credit for choosing a tropical beach backdrop for this particular scene.  I’ll even give him the benefit of the doubt that this particular beach scene may even been from Ghana.  Something wicked in the back of my mind tells me otherwise, though.  The water looks too aquamarine, the sand too white, the surf too tranquil.  But it’s close, and that actually counts for something as you’ll see in a later post.  Although I’ve never been myself, I’m assuming this is a copy of a post card from the Caribbean somewhere.  Let’s choose the Cayman Islands.
 Here is a picture from the Cayman Islands.  Just sayin’

But of course that is the least strange part of the post card.  One can’t help but notice that several items have been overlaid on the beach scene, in order to provide a truly wondrous panorama detailing several aspects of Ghanaian tourism.  The plane, certainly, a nice Ghana Airways DC-10 I believe, indicates several justifiably positive things about Ghana; one can fly there, which is convenient, and Ghana is wealthy enough to afford a state airline, which is a source of national pride and certainly indicates some level of modernity and implied comfort to the potential traveler.  The fact that this is just a drawing of a plane superimposed on a beach scene that is probably not even in Ghana can be overlooked.
In fact if this were an actual photograph, ignoring for a moment the rather arresting dinosaurs in the foreground (oh yes, we will get to them momentarily), I imagine the low elevation and steep left-hand turn of the plane probably indicate that it is in fact about to execute a cataclysmic nose-dive into the surf at post card stage right.  Perhaps the pilot is aiming for the dinosaur.  Point being we should be grateful that this is a staged scene, and in no way indicative of typical goings-on at the beach in Ghana.  And I should know, having spent New Year’s Eve at Busua beach in 1993.  I don’t recall any planes crashing into dinosaurs that weekend.  But I wasn’t the last person awake, either, so, you know, anything is possible.
Now forgetting the airplane, and the beach scene, it is likely that your eyes were first drawn to the two lovely miniature Tyrannosaurus Rex eyeing you with beady-eyed malice and guarding either the throne, or the approach to the beach, or the rowboat.  Now once again, I must put forth a disclaimer stating that I did not travel the entire length and breadth of Ghana during my short stay there, but I can tell you with utmost confidence that I did not see, nor hear of anyone else seeing any dinosaurs while I was there.  One time a baboon crossed the road in front of our bus en route from Accra to my town, Boso, which must have been a fairly rare occurrence judging by the excitement its galloping crossing generated in the entirety of the van, but no actual dinosaurs were to be found. 

Now us sophisticated travelers have an implicit understanding that a postcard is supposed to show the recipient something that you as the traveler may have actually seen.  I can tell you that not only did we not see any dinosaurs in Ghana, not even miniature Tyrannosaurus Rex, but that Ghanaians to a man steadfastly will tell you that dinosaurs actually never existed.  Ever.  Anywhere.  All a hoax.  Ghanaians are by and large a religious lot; they will tell you in no uncertain terms that dinosaurs are a myth, perpetrated by atheist archeologists for the express purpose of driving church membership down and encouraging people to become pagan sinners.  So this is equivalent to someone in the United States putting, I don’t know, a satanic space alien on a post card, but without the irony.  Wait, can satanic space aliens be ironic?  can they be anything but ironic?  I digress. Point being, it is downright absurd and totally nonsensical for a Ghanaian to put dinosaurs on a post card.  Simply wonderful, really.

One more point about the dinosaurs.  When we were in the Peace Corps the movie Jurassic Park had just been released.   I mean, just released.  Jurassic Park came out in the theaters on June 11th, 1993, and I left for the Peace Corps not four weeks after that.  This movie was huge when it came out and we had all seen it.  Fellow Volunteer Jon H_ even had the wherewithal to bring a copy of the Jurassic Park soundtrack with him to Ghana (or perhaps it was mailed to him by his assuredly-movie-soundtrack-loving family at some point), and we enjoyed countless hours under the spell of its sweeping dramatic symphonies.
And as you know, Jurassic Park took place in some tropical paradise, which Ghana came close to approximating in some places.  And this was certainly the only tropical place I’d ever visited up to that point in my life, so, you know, why not?  Perhaps those Ghanaians were protesting just a little too vociferously.  Maybe they were hiding some terrible secret back there in the recesses of the tropical forest.  Or maybe they just thought a little T.Rex would be cool and edgy.  Well done, in either case.

Finally we get to the superimposed throne on the beach.  This is clearly some sort of Ashanti royal person’s throne.  I see the kente patterns, the royal red and gold.  It’s likely that this, finally, is an actual picture of something you could actually see in Ghana.  Likely not on the beach, but still, now we’re getting somewhere.  Personally I’d like to learn more about this throne.  Happily for my mocking post, the back of the postcard attempts to explain everything.  Please read with me the description on the back of the post card here:
It doesn’t explain anything about the throne but the description starts out rather well.  Ghana is indeed a land of beaches, or at a minimum a land with beaches.  And the postcard has a beach on it.  So nicely done there.  They start to lose me around the part of the River Volta entering the Atlantic Ocean like a swimming pool.  I never actually visited this particular beach in Ghana but I can fairly safely assume that the effluent of the Volta River into the Atlantic Ocean is probably one of the least attractive parts of the coastline, with the exception of course of the sadly much polluted coastlines contained by the big cities.  Fellow Volunteer Tim D_ lived fairly close to where the Volta entered the Atlantic, in the village of Atiavi on a big marshy flood plain, and I affectionately referred to his site as the Mosquito Coast.  Personally I was fortunate enough to live in the hills where there were fewer bugs.  I’m fairly certain Tim’s house was made of bugs.  Honestly I have no idea how he survived two years in Ghana with any blood left.  I wouldn’t have survived a week down there.  Now truth be told, Tim’s site was on the East side of the river, and there is a rather nice tourist town on the West side of the river called Ada, so the post card is probably referring to Ada and not Tim’s village Atiavi.

As for the magic stool, by this point I’m willing to believe just about anything.  I just wonder how it works.  Does one sit on the stool to evoke its magic powers?  Perhaps it is some sort of Excalibur sort of contraption.  When the right person comes along and sits on the stool, then of course the sea creatures will come and welcome the tourists to Ghana.  It all sounds rather nice.  Sign me up.

Now I must deduct points from the post card description for failing to explain the dinosaurs or the royal Ashanti throne, but I admit that for the most part the back of the post card does Ghana some justice and makes we want to visit.  As for the front?  Why yes.  The front makes me want to visit Ghana too.  Stay weird, Ghana.

And stay tuned for part two of this post as I have yet to present the even more astonishing “Please Visit Ghana” Postcard Number 10.  In due time, faithful readers.  (6/1/2011 here it is!)