Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Two Cents on Three Cups of Tea

I never read “Three Cups of Tea” by Greg Mortenson.  I know it was a very popular book for quite some time.  First published in 2006, it has gone on to sell several million copies.  We think.  My impression of “Three Cups of Tea” was that it was a story that sort of paralleled “Seven Years in Tibet”, which is, of course, another book that I have never read.  So right off the bat I have no logical reason to be writing this post.  Whatever; at least I’m being honest.  Unlike some people.

Now not having read either book I get the impression that the two books do have some things in common: both take place in the mountains of Central Asia, both are autobiographical and adventurous in nature, and both highlight the plight of some of the poorer and “underdeveloped” peoples on the Earth.  Both books have a white protagonist living in a foreign, exotic land.  Both have numbers in their titles.  Prime numbers, even. 

However it would appear that there is one big difference between the two books: “Seven Years in Tibet” appears to be an inspiring and thought-provoking true story, and “Three Cups of Tea” appears to be an enjoyable and inspiring work of fiction, but passed off as non-fiction in order to promote a charity whose actions don’t quite measure up to their ideals. 

Once again in the interest of full disclosure I must state that I have not read “Three Cups of Tea”, and quite frankly do not know all that much about Greg Mortenson.  But one thing I have read recently is a little story called “Three Cups of Deceit” by modern day adventurer/writer/muckraker Jon Krakauer, which was featured on “60 Minutes” last week and basically accuses Greg Mortenson of being a cheat and a liar.  It’s been quite the news story in the past week, and I thought I’d add one post containing my two cents regarding the controversy surrounding three cups.  Jon Krakauer’s article is pretty damning stuff, and I find it difficult to defend what Greg Mortenson has done, but I do retain a modicum of sympathy for the man, having been in some similar situations myself in Ghana in the Peace Corps.

Let’s start by examining what Krakauer calls Greg Mortenson’s “Creation Myth”.  Apparently “Three Cups” begins with a very exciting story about how way back in 1993 (the year I went to the Peace Corps, incidentally), when Greg was 36 years old, Greg got lost in the wilds of Pakistan after an unsuccessful climbing attempt of the second tallest mountain in the world, K2.  Greg wandered into a village named Korphe, where he spent an extended period of time recovering from his failed expedition.  After getting to know the poor people of Korphe Greg decided that he would build a school for them to express his gratitude for their hospitality and also to properly honor his recently deceased sister Christa.  Exciting stuff!  And very much in the wheelhouse of classic “dark continent” adventure literature.  You know, Arrogant White Man goes somewhere adventurous to prove his manhood to the world and/or make his fortune.  Defeated White Man fails; gets lost, robbed, hurt, etc.  Ends up in a foreign place, all alone, at the mercy of his hosts, who may be Noble, or may be Nefarious.  But the hosts treat him well and nurse Defenseless White Man back to health.  They’re noble, then.  Grateful White Man decides to change his ways and do something to help out his Poor and Noble hosts.  This, in a nutshell, is Greg’s “Creation Myth”.  It’s a story that we never get sick of and with good reason; Greg’s Creation Myth combines daring-do, desperation, mystery, and redemption.  And adds just a hint of good old Beatific White Man paternal colonialism.

Karkauer does go out of his way to praise Greg’s ability as a storyteller.  But that’s where the problem starts.  This wasn’t supposed to be a story, per se, it was supposed to be fact.  Greg didn’t present this as a story, or an allegory, or a metaphor, but as real events.  Now some of his Creation Myth was factual.  He was in Pakistan.  He did attempt to climb K2.  He did, in fact, build a school in Korphe.  Which, incidentally, is quite a bit more school-building than I ever did in Ghana.  So hats off to Greg there.  But according to Krakauer, none of the rest of the story was true.  Greg didn’t get lost and separated from his climbing companions.  He didn’t end up crawling into Korphe clinging to the very final twist of his mortal coil.  The reality is that Greg, after coming back from K2 with his climbing companions safe and sound, decided to visit a completely different village named Khane.  In reality, Greg promised the Khane villagers that he would build a school for them.  He went back to the States and started raising money with which to build a school in Khane.  Greg eventually received a generous donation from one wealthy benefactor, and went back to Pakistan with what I presume to be honest intent to build a school in Khane.

Now up to this point I really don’t see anything wrong, even if the story is made up.  Greg has a mission to do something good.  He wants to build this school, to do something meaningful for this village.  If that requires him to embellish a story about getting lost and all that in order to entice people to give him money, then, well, so be it.  The donors are paying for the story as much as the school.  Greg may have recognized that people want to participate in an exciting story, not a boring story.  So what if events didn’t transpire quite the way they were presented; the bottom line speaks for itself.  A school got built.  Good things were done. 

But were good things done?  Yes, a school got built.  But according to Krakauer, the school got built in the wrong village.  Greg promised to build a school in Khane, not Korphe.  But at some point the site of the school got changed to Korphe.  And Greg’s story got moved to Korphe as well.  Why did the school site get moved?  Krakauer doesn’t say.  Greg doesn’t say.  It could have been for a perfectly legitimate reason.  Maybe Kahne was in line to get a government school built before Korphe, thus duplicating efforts.  On the other hand, maybe the heads of the village in Korphe made Greg an offer he couldn’t refuse, via the carrot or maybe the stick.  Maybe they promised to build Greg two more schools if Greg just built the first one in Korphe.  Maybe they promised to throw Greg in jail, or worse, if Korphe didn’t get the school instead of Kahne.  Maybe they convinced Greg that Khane was not worthy of a school.  It was a competition for scarce resources, and Korphe won, and one has to feel that Greg got caught in the middle of something he was not prepared to handle.  To me this is a very interesting missing piece.  Here is the real story, the messy stuff, the grey area.  Why did the school site get moved?  If we learn that, maybe we learn a lot about how things get done in Pakistan.  Maybe we learn a lot about Greg.  Maybe we learn more about Greg and/or Pakistan than we would like to know.  It is natural as readers of Greg’s story to want everything to fit neatly into a perfect package.  What Greg is doing is so wonderful, building a school in Pakistan, that we want Greg to be perfectly wonderful as well.  Otherwise we might be a little more hesitant to give him money.  Certainly moving the site of the school without explanation puts Greg in a bad light.  Even moving it with an explanation puts some measure of suspicion on his motivations and character.  But if we never know, then what’s the harm, right?  So Greg moves the story to Korphe and never mentions Khane again.  His benefactor is none the wiser, and neither are the rest of us, until Krakauer comes along several years later.  When the speeches are made and the book is written, there is no mention of Khane; just Korphe.  I don’t know if Khane ever got a school.  If Greg can’t move the school to Khane, he can move the story to Korphe.   If the mountain won't come to Muhammad, Muhammad must go to the mountain, right?

Ok, fine, whatever.  Believe me; worse things have been done in the name of international development.  It seems a little disingenuous, but still, good things were done I suppose.  The donor gets to participate in a wonderful story, a village gets a school, Greg does something meaningful.  I’d say with the exception of the children of Kahne, who have to be feeling like a homely date ditched at the dance for another, prettier girl, everyone is happy.  Khane gets the next school, I promise.

Greg is likely very happy, and excited, tempered perhaps with just a touch of dark shame, buried deep deep inside.  Flush with pride and courage over his accomplishment, he decides that he is going to build more schools.  One thing leads to another and he forms a charitable organization called the Central Asia Institute (CAI), whose mission is to “promote and provide community-based education and literacy programs, especially for girls, in remote regions of Pakistan and Afghanistan”.  This organization was formed back in 1996.  Three Cups of Tea was not written until 2006.  In the intervening 10 years Greg gets to work, traveling across Pakistan and Afghanistan, raising money back in the States, building schools, and treating the charity like his personal ATM.  All good things.  Wait.  What was the last bit?

Apparently Greg was not keeping up with his expense reports during this time.  Krakauer goes to great lengths to explain that much of the money that the Central Asia Institute was collecting was not properly being accounted for.  And he details how Greg refused to submit expense reports to the charity.  CAI simply had to pick up the tab.  Clearly Greg was a gifted fund raiser and story teller.  But again it seemed as though Greg had trouble knowing when to stop embellishing the truth to make his story more compelling.  Krakauer explains in detail a trip Greg took with “Mr. Kahn” into Waziristan.  In Greg’s telling, he was kidnapped, held at gun point, and nearly executed by fanatical Muslim extremists – you know, Talibans – perhaps for mucking about in their lands, trying to build secular schools to compete with their Muslim schools. 

But the reality appears to be that Greg was never held captive, never threatened, never in danger.  He was treated with civility by his Muslim hosts.  They wanted Greg to help build schools there.  But an endless procession of banquets and cups of tea doesn’t inspire donations, particularly after the Taliban-orchestrated World Trade Center attacks in 2001.  It seems like Greg, consciously or otherwise, tapped into a powerful feeling among Americans after the 911-attacks.  Near as I can tell, Greg’s message was this; I am trying to build secular schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan.  A secular education is a good alternative to a Muslim education for young boys and girls.  Secularly educated children will not grow up to be Taliban terrorists.  Muslim-educated children may become terrorists.  Therefore, by giving money to my charity, you are helping to fight the war against terrorism without firing a shot.

You know what, that line of reasoning may be plausible.  Certainly poverty plays a role in transforming Muslims into Taliban insurgents, and education is a good way to help reduce poverty.  I'm not sure if I agree with the notion that a Muslim education vs. a secular education will produce a higher rate of terrorists, but the argument was palatable to many who were sickened by the 9/11 attacks, but weren’t so sure that invading Afghanistan was going to solve the problem.  Giving money to the CAI was a way to feel good about helping poor Pakistanis and Afghans, but still be a patriot.  I’m certain that CAI would have received some donations even if the story was told truthfully.  But the story is so much more compelling and effective if it is spiced with tales of armed-captivity, near-executions, and suspicious-Taliban chiefs.  Greg tells us that he is literally risking his life to get these schools built for the future of Pakistan and Afghanistan, and therefore for the future of us all.  But he lied, according to Krakauer.  And it worked.  Americans ate it up, we started contributing a lot of money to the CAI for school-building.  And really, if the story needs to be embellished in order to get more charity money, what’s the harm, right?

Two things; One, remember the personal ATM bit?  Well CAI was still having a lot of trouble accounting for all the money that was coming in, and now there was a lot more money coming in.  Krakauer gave $75,000 to the CAI.  President Obama gave $100,000 of his Nobel Peace Prize winnings to CAI.  CAI took in over 14 million dollars in 2008 and again 2009.  And yes, schools got built.  Good things were done.  Not enough good things, though.  According to Krakauer, over 50% of CAI’s budget goes towards administrative expenses.  This includes Greg’s mystery expenses, travel budgets, and fund-raising costs.  CAI claims to spend only 15% on administrative expenses, and 85% on building and staffing schools.  The discrepancy exists because CAI doesn’t count things like book advertising and promotion as fund-raising expenses but as actual charitable work.  That doesn’t hold water with me.  I think most people would expect when CAI says that they are spending 85% of the money on “program expenses”, that means 85% of the money is going directly towards building and staffing schools.  CAI is either really really inefficient at building schools, in which case maybe they should be doing something else, or perhaps Greg doesn't feel like he needs to play by the same rules as a legitimate charity.  This misuse of charitable funds is in my opinion an inexcusable offense.

Two, how did Greg’s Pakistani companions feel about being portrayed as gun-toting Taliban extremists when in reality, at the time Greg met them, they were nothing of the sort?  At worst, Greg reduces these men to an ugly stereotype simply to make the story more compelling and raise more money, and perhaps make himself look more heroic.  In doing so, Greg manages to reinforce America’s worst stereotypes about the Pakistani people, and ironically, America’s worst stereotypes about ourselves.  Intentionally or not, Greg plays to our fears in the same way the government plays to our fears when they tell us Americans that the only way to prevent more terrorist attacks is to start two wars and wiretap everything in sight.  Two totally different approaches to combating terror, but born of similar fears.  In this context contributing money to the CAI becomes another front in the war against terror.  But is that the only way we can convince Americans to part with their hard-earned cash, by scaring them?  I’d like to think we can be motivated by more than just base emotion.  And to be fair, I’m sure the majority of people who contributed to the CAI did so because they were inspired by Greg’s story and by what he was trying to accomplish.  It is sad, really, that Greg felt like he needed to make the story so perfect that he was willing to throw the very people he was trying to help under the bus to provide a compelling narrative.  And look, I know that Waziristan is an insanely dangerous place to visit, particularly today.  I give Greg a lot of credit for going there.  I just wish he hadn't lied about the particulars of his trip, that's all.  It wasn't necessary.

Speaking of that narrative, “Three Cups of Tea”, as we know this book was a huge success.  So much so that Greg has more or less been on a constant book promotion tour since it came out in 2006.  Which brings up another unfortunate issue.  According to Krakauer, none of the royalties from “Three Cups of Tea” actually go to the CAI.  All the royalties go to Greg Mortenson and his co-writer, David Oliver Relin.  That’s not exactly what I expected, but ok, CAI didn’t write to book so not much you can say there.  What is odd, however, is that Greg charges all book promotion travel expenses to CAI.  One could argue that the book promotes the charity, and therefore the charity benefits when the book is promoted.  CAI does probably get a good return on its investment.  I’ll let that one slide.  However Greg also gives out many thousands of copies of “Three Cups of Tea” to schools and speaking audiences.  And the budget for that also comes from CAI.  And Greg requires CAI to purchase these copies through retail channels, not wholesalers.  This does two things that I find distasteful.  One, buying the books via retail means CAI has to pay an inflated price per book.  This is money that could be going to building schools in Pakistan.  There is no return on investment here.  The only reason to do this is to help keep the book on the best seller lists.  Books bought wholesale do not count for best seller numbers.  Books bought via retail channels do count.  This seems in some ways even more distasteful.  Greg could argue that by keeping the book at the top of the best seller lists, that it keeps the visibility of CAI higher than it otherwise would be.  I don’t buy it.  Sounds to me like Greg is just letting his ego run amok in this instance.

Finally, the schools.  I keep coming back to “but schools were built, right?”  And yes, schools were built.  Not enough schools, given the amount of money pouring into CAI, and in the wrong towns sometimes, but at least something is getting done.  Again, it’s more than I’ve done.  But it’s also more than I’ve wasted, too.  And although many schools were built (170 schools according to CAI), many of these schools are not being used.  I don’t have hard numbers, but again and again Krakauer points to the fact that many of the schools CAI built currently stand completely unused and in a state of neglect.  Remember my story about wanting to build a basketball court for my school, because it was what I thought my school needed?  I wonder if Greg and CAI are falling into the same trap.  Just because one village needs a school, and can staff it, that doesn’t mean that every village in Pakistan and Afghanistan will be able to use a school.  I’m sure many villages simply do not have enough teachers, or even people who can teach.  If you were to build a new school in a village that could not staff said school with teachers, then I think you can imagine what would happen to the school.  It would probably eventually become a barn or a storage warehouse.  Again, the problems come in twos:  One, Greg didn’t listen to what each village needs.  Not every village needs a school house; some need a well, or a road, or something else.  CAI should either be more selective when choosing sites for schools, or allow them selves to do other things besides just build schools.  Two, when building a school, CAI needs to make sure that there is a plan in place to staff the school and get students to the school.  Just because a school is built doesn’t automatically mean that the school will have teachers.  It doesn’t even mean that the school will have students!  There aren’t enough trained teachers to go around, and the children can’t spend the time at school when they are needed in the fields, for example.   

I saw this first-hand in Ghana.  Heck the reason I was in Ghana in the first place was because Ghana did not have enough high school math and science teachers to fully staff their own schools.  The Peace Corps served me up as a volunteer to fill one of those positions.  In concept it was a noble and wholly correct thing to be doing.  Also my students frequently had to leave school for extended periods of time, mostly to go home and help out at the farm during harvest.  A farm kids education can be spotty and incomplete as a result.  Things that we can do to help keep kids in school go a long way towards getting them a good education.  Better roads, harvesting equipment, irrigation, and communication infrastructure are all things that can be built that are not specifically schools, but indirectly help to keep kids in school for longer periods of time.  By limiting their field of vision to school building only, CAI dooms them selves to be only partially successful.

So what have I learned?  I’m still not interested in actually reading the book, mind you, but that won't stop me from having an opinion on matters.  Let’s enumerate the shortcomings of Greg Mortenson, and see what comes out the other side.  Nefarious or Noble?
  • Lied about getting lost and staying in Kophe:  Embellish a story?  Heck I’d probably do that.  I’m probably doing that now.  Minor infraction. 
  • Built that first school in Kophe, not Khane:  Leaves a bad taste in my mouth.  Major infraction, but minor scope.
  • Shoddy expense reporting:  This is a charity and the money should be treated with respect.  Major infraction.  
  • Reducing Pakistanis to gun-toting terrorists:  It’s offensive to the Pakistanis and to the Americans as well.  But it helped raise money.  Medium infraction. 
  • Only 50% of CAI money goes towards legitimate program expenses:  Come on, only 50% of the money is actually going to Pakistan?  Major infraction.  
  • No book royalties go to CAI:  It belies a lack of commitment to CAI on the part of the authors, but they did write the book so they deserve something.  Minor to medium infraction.  
  • Requiring CAI to foot the bill for book promotional activities, and requiring CAI to purchase books at retail:  This is why only 50% of CAI’s money goes to Pakistan.  Major infraction. 
  • Building schools that never get staffed:  Development aid is an inexact science, and lots of mistakes are made.  One would hope that CAI is learning from their mistakes and getting better.  Minor to medium, actually.  
What dooms Greg Mortenson in my opinion is not that he made up stuff and passed it off as fact.  It's not that he ended up building schools that are not staffed.  Those things I can accept.  What I can not accept is his careless attitude towards the finances of CAI.  This is a charity and all efforts should be made to spend the money wisely.  I hope they get themselves straightened out because I'm sure they are doing good things in Pakistan and Afghanistan.  But they may have to do it without the services of Mr. Mortenson going forward.

And I suppose there are are couple of lessons for me as well.  Make sure I investigate charities before contributing to them.  Also if it seems too perfect, too good to be true, it probably is.  Life is messy, people are not perfect.  I'd much rather have truth than perfection.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

East of Eden

I wake up early, on the floor, under Dean’s dining room table.  It’s hard to sleep when the heat is so intense and the sun is up at 6:00 am every day.  And besides, I’ve got somewhere to go today.  Dean’s house is a mess; Angela is going to be pissed.  Dean, a crazy ex-marine helicopter pilot whose day job is – we think – piloting the President of Ghana, J. J. Rawlings, around the country, and whose night job is alternately entertaining and terrorizing everybody at the embassy club, is back in the States for the holidays.  Angela is trying to look after his house while Dean is gone.  All of us Peace Corps volunteers found out that his house was available and free, so we invaded it like so many army ants.  Last night I was up late playing chess, drinking wine (where did we get wine?), and listening to Billy Bragg with Keith and Tom and Craig, and after we fell asleep we let the candles burn down until the wax melted onto the table.  Yes, Angela is going to be pissed, but Dean won’t be back from The States until next week, plenty of time to clean things up. 

I pack up my backpack silently, step over the still-sleeping forms of slumbering Peace Corps volunteers wrapped up cocoon-like in batik print cotton sheets in the slowly gathering light, and leave Dean’s house without waking anybody else or letting them know where I’m heading.  It’s just that way around here.  People come, people go, there’s no set plan, but ironically meetings and get-togethers are scheduled months in advance, because there’s really no way to RSVP or confirm reservations.  And I’m heading to just such a get-together; I’m going to Tim’s site in Atiavi to meet some friends, a plan made a week ago and unconfirmed since.  I hope he is there when I arrive because there’s no way to confirm, but I don’t really give that possibility a second thought.

It’s a short walk down a nice Accra neighborhood street to the main road.  Dean lives just down the street from the Cuban Embassy, which is sort of cool and kind of creepy all at the same time.  The Lybia, Iran and North Korea embassies are a couple of blocks away.  I feel conspicuously American, and far from home.  I consider that I would have an easier time getting to Havana or Tehran from Accra than from anywhere in the USA.  I also consider I might have a difficult time coming back to Accra from Tehran.  It’s said that the Libyans and the Russians own a lot of the nice hotels in Accra.  I idly wonder if they bug the rooms in those hotels as I reach the main road and stick my right index finger out, straight up into the air at each passing taxi.  Always use the right hand of course. 

There’s a code to picking up the correct taxi.  Finger up means “Accra” or downtown, in lorry sign-language.  Technically I’m in Accra right now, but kind of on the northern outskirts.  “Accra” in this case means the old center of town.  Most of the main destinations have special signs, for example a clockwise motion means “Circle”, which is downtown also, but another part of downtown.  And just to make things more confusing, most of the main intersections in Accra are called Circle-something, like Danquah Circle, Circle 37, etc., but there’s only one “Circle”.  I wonder what the sign is for “I don’t care, just get me out of this city.”  I think I’m suffering from Accra fatigue. 
The reason I have to make the special sign for my desired destination is so that passing taxis know where I want to go before deciding to pull over and pick me up.  And of course the reason it matters is that all regular taxis in Accra, and everywhere in Ghana, and likely everywhere in Africa for that matter, are shared taxis.   So if and when a taxi does come along to pick me up it will already be over-stuffed with other Ghanaians who are already heading to the same place as I.  It’s actually quite efficient.  But crowded.

It doesn’t take long before impatience sets in, and the suspicion that maybe I’ll be here all day, standing in the heat without a hat, waving ever more frantically at each dilapidated  lorry as it rushes on by, the stoic drivers refusing me passage.  Westerners don’t always really care if they are heading in the right direction; we just like to be moving somewhere.  It’s the movement itself that’s important, it makes us feel like we’re accomplishing something.

And I do move eventually, into the cramped environments of a lorry heading to “Accra”.  While I head south I debate my choices: Go to “Accra” straightaway and catch a lorry to the town of Abor right now, and be assured of a seat on the daily bus, or gamble and drop early at Circle 37 (I don’t know the sign for that one!) and grab some American-style breakfast and American company at the embassy club.  Aaah, it’s Africa; who’s in a hurry?  I decide on breakfast, much to the delight of my stomach and the annoyance of my wallet.  I don’t know where my watch is, which doesn’t bother me, or where my lucky traveling batik sheet is, which does concern me slightly more.  I must have left it at Dean’s house.  Never travel without a sheet. For starters, you can’t really trust bed-sheets at the crappy hotels us Peace Corps volunteers can afford to patronize.  Also they have a 101 other uses, from a quick-drying towel to a handy instant sack.  I get the feeling mine might be getting abused by Angela right now in her efforts to clean up Dean’s house.  It’s a fair trade.  Since Circle 37 is on the way to “Accra” I simply wait for an Accra-bound taxi to pick me up, and once in tell the driver to drop me at 37.  Smaller fare, too.

I enjoy breakfast with CNN on the television and more Peace Corps Volunteers looking tired and unshaven.  It is three days after Christmas today and pretty much all of the Peace Corps Volunteers have converged on the capital, lured by the promise of a home-stay on Christmas day with an expatriate family and a home-cooked American-style Christmas dinner, so the capital is just silly with us volunteers right now.  After breakfast I head back out to the main road, poking my white finger at the sky; “Accra”!   

A lorry eventually picks me up and I memorize the buildings on the way to main station:  The Dutch Embassy, The West African Exams Council, The Accra Theatre, Novotel (one of the Russian ones maybe?  Nope; French.  Très boring).  Nice places, all.  Of course interspersed between them are the lottery shacks and taxi stands and street-side hawkers of plastic bags of water, semi-peeled oranges, and cheap plastic watches, all hoping to sell off their inventory.  It makes for an interesting contrast between rich and poor, Western and African, as we plod ever closer to “Accra”.

Walking downtown is crowded, smelly with open sewers and strange foods, a place where you find yourself constantly checking your wallet, trying not to look like you just got to Africa.  None of the streets have names, and even if they did it would be meaningless because there are no reliable maps.  Everybody is selling something, with blankets spread out on the ground, offering a surreal assortment of fairly useless goods for my shopping pleasure.  I bought a small mirror here once, with a wooden frame.  I’d been in Ghana for four months before I bought a mirror.  I learned to shave without the aid of mirror as a result.  I still to this day do not shave with a mirror.  When I bought the mirror I was very proud of myself for talking down the price from 1,000 cidis to 600 cidis (from one dollar to 60 cents, roughly), but later I found out that I still got ripped off.  But at least I tried.

The lorry station here is enormous, with everything from small vans to gigantic inter-country travel busses.  This is a major transit hub and it is crazy.  The busses and lorries are organized by some sort of pattern, but nothing is marked.  I have to ask around for the bus to Abor.  Abor is the closest bus stop to Atiavi, but discover that the bus for Abor has already left.  Great, now what?  I guess I should have skipped breakfast.  But I really had no idea when the daily bus was leaving because there are no time tables.  The once-daily bus to Abor leaves when it becomes full.  But all is not lost.  I can easily catch a bus to the next large town down the road after Abor, called Aflao, and simply “drop early” at Abor.  Sort of like my taxi strategy dropping early at circle 37. 

So I ask around for the next bus to Aflao instead of Abor.  Everybody now assumes that I’m going to Togo, Ghana’s French-speaking neighbor to the East, because Aflao is right on the border with Togo.  So they try to point me in the direction of a huge travel bus that is going all the way to Lomé.  I politely explain that I’m going to Atiavi instead, which makes no sense to them because there is no reason for an obruni to go to a backwater village like Atiavi.  But they politely tell me that I need to catch the lorry to Abor, not Aflao, and then catch a lorry to Atiavi from there.  This, of course, was my original plan.  I wait with some diminishing patience while they check to find out if the Abor bus has left yet.  They don’t want to hear it from me, of course, even though I just told them that the Abor bus has gone.  They regret to tell me that the Abor bus has departed.  Saa.  I explain my idea about dropping early at Abor on the Aflao bus.  The lorry park people think I’m a little nuts but they’re not idiots – they can spot an extra fare – so they agree that it is an excellent idea provided that I pay the fare all the way to Aflao.  Agreed. 

Thirty minutes later I’m out of the city heading East through the dry Ghanaian coastal plain towards Togo.  I’m lucky – I get to sit in the front passenger seat of the bus, and I have legroom and space.  I can even roll the window down, something Ghanaians usually don’t care to do. I’m probably annoying all the other passengers by rolling the window down, but I really enjoy the fresh air and the breeze.  The Ghanaians and I just have different conceptions of heat and its relative comfort.  99 times out of 100 I’m the only one in the bus who is uncomfortably hot.  Now for once, I am the only one who is comfortably cool.  Let’s call this cross-cultural exchange.  I’m sure this will be the last time they let the obruni ride up front in the passenger seat!  And from the seat I have a rare uninterrupted view of the countryside as it unfolds east of Accra, east of Eden even?

But the road itself disturbs me here.  All over Ghana the roads are insufferably curvaceous, following their own form of ancient logic as they do their best to dissuade you from getting from point A to point B.  But not here.  Driving East from Accra is like driving West out of Salt Lake City, except that instead of a big lake on your right-hand side, you look out on the equally salty but much warmer expanse of the Bight of Benin.  The highway itself is straight, beautiful, new.  It’s so new and straight and nice it feels like it can’t possibly be in Ghana.  Who put all these straight roads here?  Africa just doesn’t tolerate anything linear, even from its roads.  But aside from the straight road, I find the landscape itself rather arresting. I retain an expectation that the coast of Ghana is going to be heavily forested, green and drooping, not this dry salty scrub plain.  And most of the coast of West Africa is like that, thick with ancient forest.  But for some reason the coast from Takoradi to Lomé is bone-dry instead.  A geography teacher in Accra explained it to me once, why it was so dry here.  Essentially this part of the coast is a sort of rain-shadow.  Storms and rain showers track along the coast from the West but get bounced at Cape Three Points west of Takoradi and go north towards Kumasi, or south into the Atlantic.

The ground is baked into a ceramic brown, not dusty, just hard heavy dense earth.  Old earth.  Pre-Cambrian ground.  There is vegetation, stout trees with few leaves and wide trunks, like pigmy baobab trees, with leaves like pale green leather.  Many shrubs, and in the occasional depression, palm trees, cling stubbornly to their dominion.  It’s quite hot, and not breezy.  This is the doldrums, for real.  No wind, no rain, nothing.  And that damn straight road.  It’s all very unsettling.

We cross the great river Volta North of Ada, and I begin to get suspicious that every town we pass will begin with the letter “A”.  Must be a Ga thing.  The ride is bland, ultimately, with very little to see, and eventually I pull out my book and read.  I wile away the time with Steinbeck, who seems to be telling me that people are essentially good or evil. I figure it’s high time I figure out which one I am before I get to Atiavi.  At least I’ll know how to act. 

Once at Abor I find I’m in luck – there is a lorry at Abor waiting to fill and go to Atiavi.  I instruct a small boy to save me a place and to come get me at the bar when the lorry is full.  I’m drinking cokes today.  The beer is usually colder but I’m not in the mood to drink beer alone in a bar today.  I end up getting into a heated discussion between two local school teachers and another two border guards about the new proposed school system.  Ghana has decided to move away from the colonial British O-level and A-level school system to something closer to the American system.  We all agree that the old system was better, but I ruffle some feathers when I predict that the new system will take 10 years to stabilize itself.  The teachers agree with me, the border guards do not.  They all give me their addresses and I lie and promise that I’ll write and visit.  I think I’ll be evil, Mr. Steinbeck.  I finish my cola and wait for the small boy, who somehow has problems finding the only white man in town.  More handshakes and empty promises all around and I am off in a taxi on the short trip to Atiavi. 

Twenty minutes later and I’m on my feet again, near a bustling market, next to a dusty ill-used and circular fountain, surrounded by reed mattresses.  Atiavi seems to specialize in the manufacture of these items.  I around ask for the “white man teacher”.  Actually I ask for the “Obruni”, but they don’t speak that language here, so I end up asking for my “white brother”.  That does the trick.  It’s a short walk through sandy streets to Tim’s house.   

Tim, Buffy, Leslie, Chip, and Jon are all there, sitting around, happy to see me.  Tonight there will be drinking and general silliness, but for now it’s just some quiet, lazy, pleasant conversation.  And Jon brought his Jurassic Park soundtrack cassette tape.  I’m glad I came to Atiavi.  I think I’ll be good.

Monday, April 11, 2011



Hey it’s Kiva time!

I’ve been contributing to this organization called Kiva for a couple of years now.  I mentioned Kiva in passing the other week when I was talking about the Whole Planet Foundation, and micro loans, and cheese.  But mostly I talked about the voices in my head, and Muhammad Yunus, and the Grameen Bank, who were the first to recognize and develop micro loans as a viable assistance strategy for development financing.

As it turns out, The Grameen Bank isn’t the only organization that is financing micro loans around the globe.  They were the first, but lots of other organizations have since gotten with the program and have started offering these types of loans, all over the world.  Even here in the United States, surprisingly enough.

About two years ago my friend Bill introduced me to Kiva.  This organization is a sort of micro loan clearinghouse of sorts.  But it is not exactly a charity, at least not to the people like me that fund it.  Kiva almost functions as a micro loan “re-loaner” to smaller organizations that actually distribute the loans.  So Kiva itself is a charitable organization, but people like me who give money to Kiva to finance micro loans are not actually giving our money away.  Confused?  I’ll use an example of a micro loan to demonstrate how it works:

Julia is a 29 year old widow with three children who lives in Kenya and owns a courier business, with one motorcycle.  She wants to expand her business by purchasing another motorcycle.  In order to do that she wants to take out a loan.  Fair enough.  She needs $850 to buy the motorcycle. 

Enter The Kenya Agency for the Development of Enterprise and Technology (KADET).  This organization was founded in 2000 with the express aim of providing financial services to rural Kenya.  Julia applies for a loan from KADET, but KADET needs financial backing for the loan, collateral, and between Julia and KADET there really isn’t enough money and security to make this loan possible.

This is where I step in.  I offer to take the risk on Julia’s behalf.  Essentially I provide the capital for the loan to KADET, and assume the risk if Julia does not pay back the loan.  Assuming Julia does pay back the loan, I get my money back.  I’ve never met Julia, I have no idea if she will pay back the loan, so it is a bit of a leap of faith on my part. 

Of course Julia doesn’t pay me back directly; she pays the money to KADET, who then pays me back.  Now remember that this is a LOAN, not a gift, or a grant.  That means KADET is charging Julia interest on the loan.  About 27% interest in this case, actually.  Remember in the other post I talked about the high interest rates on these loans, compared to what we might be used to in the States.  27% is not that bad for a micro loan, actually.  So Julia takes out a short-term loan for $850, with a 14 month term in her case, and pays it back with interest to KADET. 

When Julia pays KADET, KADET pays me, but KADET keeps the interest.  Wait, what?  Yes that is correct.  I get my capital back but no interest.  This is the sort of “charity” angle to this whole venture.  If I made the loan directly to Julia then I suppose I could collect the interest myself.  But that would be fairly inefficient to say the least.  It might be fun to go to Kenya and loan random people money to purchase motorcycles, but something tells me my skills are better suited doing something else.  So I let KADET do it on my behalf.  My capital is helping KADET to sell more loans than they might otherwise be able to finance.

When Julia/KADET pays me back, I’m free to turn around and finance another loan, or take my money and keep it for myself.  Therefore the money I’m loaning to KADET is not considered a charity deduction.  It’s more like a risky zero-interest savings account or something.  If I really needed the money, I could get it back eventually, assuming the Julia is able to pay it back in the first place.

But wait, I haven’t even mentioned Kiva at all in the last six paragraphs!  Yes that is true.  As mentioned, it is inefficient for me to track down Julia and loan her some money.  It’s far more efficient if I loan some money to KADET and let them go find Julia.  But KADET isn’t the only organization in the world doing this, and it’s actually rather inefficient for me to spend time tracking down organizations such as KADET.  And this is where Kiva enters the picture.  Kiva acts as a sort-of clearing house for many organizations such as KADET.  Over 100 of these organizations, as a matter of fact. 

So there are 4 entities interacting here:  Julia wants the loan, and contacts KADET.  KADET contacts Kiva.  Kiva contacts me.  I give my money to Kiva to give to KADET to give to Julia, who purchases a second motorcycle, and makes more money, and pays back the loan to KADET, who keeps the interest and sends the principal back to Kiva, who notifies me that I can re-loan the money, or take it back completely.  Kiva doesn’t take any of the interest from KADET or any of my principal.  Kiva is a charity so they solicit additional funds from me to help keep them operating.  And that little bit of money is charity, incidentally.

It’s just that simple, ha ha.  Simple, but risky.  You will recall that Julia wanted $850 to buy a motorcycle.  You know what, I don’t have $850 to loan to Julia, and even if I did I certainly don’t feel comfortable loaning her that much money, I don’t even know her.  I’m assuming all the risk here with no monetary incentive to do so.  But what if Julia was able to spread the risk to multiple people?  This again is where Kiva comes in.  Even if I wanted to, I am actually not allowed to fund all $850 of Julia’s loan through Kiva.  I can only contribute $25 of the $850, actually.  So Kiva looks to spread the risk of Julia’s loan amongst 34 backers including myself, each of us chipping in $25 for the motorcycle loan.  If Julia is not able to pay back the loan, then 34 people each lose $25.  

4/21/2011:  I've since found out that I can contribute more than $25 to a loan request; up to $500 actually, so the above statement is not quite correct.  I think I'll continue to contribute $25 per loan though, in order to spread out my risk and feel the excitement of participating in more loans.

So it all works.  Julia gets her motorcycle, KADET gets their interest, Kiva gets to do this cool clearinghouse micro loan charity thing, and I get a sense of well-being and even a little whiff of power!  Oh yes, this Kiva thing is a little intoxicating.  When I log onto Kiva I am presented with loan applicants from all over the world.  A quick glance at the web site right now displays applicants from Vietnam, Senegal, Peru, Kyrgyzstan, Armenia, El Salvador, Mongolia, Kenya, Philippines, Bolivia, and on and on.  I can search for loan applicants from Africa only, from women only, from the agriculture sector only, or from African women in the agricultural sector, if I want to get that specific.  I can read a brief biography of the loan, what they want to do with the money.  I get to play world bank!  If I think the project is good, I can give them my $25.  Julia from Kenya wants to by a motorcycle?  Sounds good!  Erick from Peru wants money to grow his metalworking business?  Cool!  Ikromjon from Tajikistan wants money to buy and sell antique chests?  Why not?  Point is, the web site plays to my considerable vanity and lust for power, and lets me think I’m the one controlling the purse-strings of development finance.  It’s all great fun.

But it’s a bit of a fait accompli on the part of Kiva, you see, because in all of these cases I’m actually just back-filling a loan that has already been distributed to the applicant.  That guy in Tajikistan who wants money for his antique chest business?  He already got the money a couple of weeks ago.  He’s not waiting for rich jackasses like me to decide if they are willing to finance his loan.  Kiva has already seen to that, and now Kiva is soliciting us to back-fill the money already loaned out.  So it’s a bit of a farce in that regard.  The money I “give” to Julia for her motorcycle may actually technically go to the next loan.  Kiva keeps up the charade of Julia “paying me back” throughout the coming year, and I suppose if Julia defaults then yes, I don’t get my money back, so I am backing Julia, but it’s not as cut and dry as Kiva would lead you to believe.

But for all of that I still like the concept.  And so do a lot of other people.  Kiva boasts the following statistics on their web site (as of April 11th, 2011):

Total value of all loans made through Kiva:
Number of Kiva Users who have funded a loan (i.e. me): 
Number of countries represented by Kiva Lenders (i.e. my country):
Number of entrepreneurs that have received a loan through Kiva (i.e. Julia):
Number of countries Kiva Field Partners are located in:
Number of loans that have been funded through Kiva:
Percentage of Kiva loans which have been made to women entrepreneurs:
Number of Kiva Field Partners (microfinance institutions Kiva partners with):
Current repayment rate (all partners):
Average loan size
Average number of loans per Kiva Lender:

I love statistics!  I had no idea Kiva had over 500,000 lender-backers such as myself.  Kiva has been around since 2005, and looks like it is growing rapidly.  In the two years since I’ve joined Kiva, I proud to say that I have helped finance19 loans.  8 of the loans have been fully paid back, and 10 more are currently being repaid, and are in various states of repayment.  One final loan was refunded almost as soon as it was distributed; apparently the local lending organization failed an audit by Kiva and was “fired” so to speak from Kiva for not following proper bookkeeping practices. 

The bottom line is that I’ve not lost any money on this venture, and I’ve been able to help fund some cool loans, like to a woman in Bolivia who owns a furniture making business, and to a woman in Ghana (holla!) who wanted to expand her food market business.  Obviously I’m partial to funding Ghanaian loans but I play the field.  I’m also partial to loans to Mali and Senegal, Kenya and Tanzania, and all the African countries of course.  Again, it’s my money, so I can apply my own biases when deciding where it goes. 

I am trying to put enough money into my Kiva account where I can fund a loan once per month without having to contribute any additional funds.  So if I make a $25 each month that means I will need to contribute about $300 of my own money into my account, assuming the loans take about one year to repay.  Some loan terms are longer, and some are shorter.  I'm not quite to that self-perpetuating state yet.  But when I am, when this thing is self-sustaining on a month-to-month basis, then as the loan recipients pay back their loans, every month I have enough to finance another loan and from that point forward I’ll never have to contribute any more of my money (assuming the loans get paid back!) 

I like that concept.  It’s as if I put up some money to start, but then people like Julia in Kenya are just using it for a bit, and then passing it along to say, Ikromjon in Tajikistan.  And when he’s done with it he’ll pass it along to Erick in Peru.  Or Senegal.  Or wherever.  That same $25 I was willing to part with gets passed around all over the world and helps people over and over again.  It’s so crazy it just might work.

And yes, I could just make a charitable donation to the Grameen Bank instead of bothering with all this Kiva stuff.  They do pretty much the same thing.  And I would get a tax break on the money as well.  I'm sure they would figure out who needs micro loans and distribute accordingly on my behalf.  Of course I’d never see the money again, and with Kiva there exists that possibility, but realistically I don’t plan on taking that money back.  Once I see the cool stuff people are doing with my money, buying "Hot Tub Time Machine" on DVD just doesn’t seem quite as pressing of a need.  Julia can use the money for a while, and then Ikromjon and Erick and so on.

And don’t discount the ego factor!  I want to participate in the process.  I want to have a say in where the money goes.  I want to click a button on my computer and save the world.  It’s all terribly vain, and a bit of a farce, really, but it is what it is.  I don’t have to always do the right thing for the right reasons, do I?  Can I sort of stumble into doing the right thing for totally self-indulgent and egotistical reasons?  I think I prefer that sometimes.  Then I can be more self-deprecating about the whole charity thing, and not be seen as such a tiresome do-gooder.  That suits me more.  I think I will buy that DVD.  And fund Julia’s motorcycle loan.  Best of both worlds.

Now if you’ll excuse me I need to loan Julia some money and head on over to Best Buy.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011


Kenke is the big leagues of Ghanaian food.  Fufu ain’t got nothing on kenke.  You think you can handle Ghana?  You want to know for sure?  Then grab a handful of kenke, obruni, and chomp it down.  Currently described as one of the worlds “weirdest foods”, kenke is not complicated, but it is a shock to the senses. 

Kenke is made from one ingredient; corn.  It’s rather like a tamale, for those of you who are familiar with Mexican food, or polenta, for those more accustomed to Italian cuisine.  Like tamales, kenke is typically eaten with a spicy sauce.  And we all like tamales, right?  So how could kenke be so challenging to eat?  The difference is all in the preparation, my friends.  Let me take you on a history of kenke.

Corn was first introduced to Ghana by the Portuguese in the 15th century.  Corn is not indigenous to Ghana.  In fact, corn is not indigenous to Africa or even Europe for that matter; the Portuguese brought it over from South America.  But like pretty much everywhere else on earth, the Ghanaians found that corn was easy to grow, at least in the southern part of the country, and it was fairly nutritious, so the Ghanaians included corn into their diet rather quickly after being introduced to it.

Now as we have seen with the fufu, Ghanaians seem to have a fondness for mashed-up foods.  So the preferred Ghanaian method of preparing corn is to harvest it, grind it up into corn flour, and boil it into a paste or mash before eating it.  I have just basically described tamales, once again.  So what differentiates kenke from tamales, or polenta for that matter?  In a word, fermentation.

Yes the Ghanaians prefer to ferment the corn before mashing it up.  This is of course the first step to creating bourbon as well, but without the added step of distillation.  Fermenting corn is actually quite simple.  Just soak the corn kernels in water for a couple of days in the heat.  I never saw it prepared but I presume the corn kernels were placed in a sealed container and left outside in the heat.  I’m fairly certain that proper fermentation requires the absence of air.  That’s what they keep telling me on the O’Dell brewery tour, at any rate.  Maybe there are different rules for corn fermentation.  Regardless, the longer the fermentation soak, the more fermentation occurs.  In fact the fermentation period actually varies depending on the type of kenke you are trying to produce.  Fante kenke is soaked for only one day.  Banku or Ga kenke is soaked for three days or so.  

After fermentation, the corn kernels are ground up, boiled into a mash with water, and then wrapped into little squat burrito shapes using cassava or plantain leaves.  I’m not sure why they don’t use corn husks.  Not hearty enough, perhaps?  Anyway Fante kenke is more pure white in color and smoother in texture, and less, uh, fermenty in flavor.  Banku or Ga kenke is more textured, more colorful, more flavorful, more everything.  It is the ultimate in kenke eating.

I found this really good slide show on flickr describing how kenke is made: (click here)

The corn kernel fermentation does not appear to produce an alcoholic mash.  It does produce a pungent, some might say rotting, flavor.  This flavor, apparently, is preferred by the Ghanaians over the plain old boring corn flavor that tamales bring to the table.  I can tell you without any hesitation that I for one did not prefer the Ghanaian kenke over the Mexican tamale upon my first sampling of this exotic delight.  In point of fact my eyes started to water and I felt a strong urge to flee upon simply smelling the kenke that was presented to me.  Being the good sport I was, I plugged my nose, grabbed a little handful of the kenke, dunked it into pepper sauce that could incidentally also double quite effectively as a silverware polish, and ate what to my mouth was nothing more than rotten food.  It was as horrible as you can imagine.

At least fufu, for all its quirks, is fairly benign in flavor.  Hence the atomic stews typically served with fufu.  The constituent parts of fufu -- cocoyam and cassava -- are really quite bland.  Kenke on the other hand represents a complete mockery, better yet a travesty of flavor.  Corn has a perfectly normal flavor on its own.  Kenke lays waste to that flavor in an apocalyptic fury of fermentation.  Why, God, why?

Actually, it turns out there are some pretty darn good reasons why.  Logical, rational reasons why the Ghanaians choose to ferment corn into kenke.  Humans have been fermenting food for thousands of years.  Wine, for starters, of course, and beer, but many other foods as well.  Yogurt?  Cheese? Sauerkraut?  Soy Sauce?  I could keep going.  You get the point.  We like fermented foods.  It helps first to understand what fermentation does to food, and why we ferment food in general.

Technically food fermentation converts carbohydrates into organic acids.  Besides altering the flavor of the food, fermentation also actually helps to preserve the food.  This is why cheese lasts longer than milk.  As one can imagine, there is not a lot of access to refrigeration in Ghana.  Therefore producing foods that will stay preserved longer has some benefit.

Additionally, food fermentation also produces beneficial proteins and amino acids.  I believe the term in vogue now is “probiotics”.  Fermenting the corn actually produces a healthier, more nutritious food than non-fermented corn.  I’ve not been able to find proof but I have heard the following story more than once:  At some point in the recent past foreign aid workers introduced to the Ghanaians corn seed that was superior to their “native” corn in many ways.  This new corn produced higher yields, was more drought resistant, more pest resistant, had higher nutritional value, and a delicious sweet flavor.  The Ghanaians rejected this new corn, however, because it did not ferment as well as their native corn.  It did not produce proper kenke.

The aid workers did not realize that the Ghanaians were not simply fermenting the corn out of necessity, but also because they enjoyed the flavor, and it was actually more nutritious in many ways to the Western super-genius-corn.  Point being, those crazy Ghanaians might not be so crazy after all.

And the feel-good end of the story, at least for my mouth, is that it didn’t take long for me to learn to really enjoy kenke.  I actually had a tougher time getting used to fufu.  Something about the texture of fufu I never really got used to.  But kenke I quickly learned to enjoy, and I rather miss it.  I probably had kenke two or three times per week for dinner.  Kenke and hot pepper sauce.  I might go bury some corn out in the back yard tomorrow.

I leave you today with “Kenke Party”.  It’s a Ghanaian TV Commercial, I think.  Thanks to Mark for alerting me to this slice of fried gold:

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Fun With Numbers

Speaking of current events, I’d like to hijack my Peace Corps blog a little bit and spend today’s post talking about Ghana’s troubled neighbor to the West, Cote d’Ivoire.

April 11th:

Seems as though Gbagbo has been captured after a several-day standoff.  Although the story is far from over, this even should provide some relief in the short term.

April 7th:

Further updates, well, commentary at least.  The Economist weighs on on the overall situation.

And Al Jazeera gets into more detail about the media's desire to explain the narrative in simple good-guy vs. bad-guy terms, when the reality is not that straightforward.

I should note that Al Jazeera, in an ironic twist (in my opinion), is about the only publication offering any criticism of Ouattara, who is the Muslim presidential claimant.  And they didn't go so far as to wonder if Ouattara may have tried to rig the election in his favor, as I have discussed below, just that post-election atrocities have been propagated by both sides, not just by Gbagbo forces.  Maybe election-rigging is simply assumed by all publications since this is an "African" election and presumed to be less-than-fair as a result, which is a less-than-fair statement to make in general, but in this case is probably true.

Update:  as of April 6th, 2011, Gbagbo's residence appears to be under seige by pro-Ouattara forces.  A resolution to the presidential crisis may be near, but that will not be the end of the story.

Cote d’Ivoire, or the Ivory Coast as it is known in America, is right on the edge of a full-on civil war right now.  I’m not even sure I want to jump in on this story because I probably don’t know all the facts, but then again, perhaps nobody does, so here goes.  Cote d’Ivoire’s current acute troubles began with a presidential election in the Fall of 2010, but they have had a rough go if it for quite some time now.  The recent election had been delayed for about 5 years due to ongoing conflicts and fallout from an earlier civil war, which concluded in 2004 with a practical north-south separation of the country.  When the election finally concluded in December of 2010, the incumbent Laurent Gbagbo (from the South) was defeated by the challenger Alassane Ouattara (from the North).  However Gbagbo did not agree with the results, and declared the election invalid, and declared that he had retained the presidency.  Both challengers took the oath of president, creating a situation that pretty much guarantees a real civil war.

First of all, what’s the deal with both men being able to declare themselves president?  A quick look at the way the elections were conducted may shed some light.  The presidential elections were set up differently than they are in America.  In Cote d’Ivoire if there is no majority winner in the election, then the top two candidates participate in a run-off election.  The first presidential election was back in October of 2010, and the Cote d’Ivorian “Constitutional Council” (CC) declared no single candidate had garnered more than 50% of the vote.  Gbagbo and Ouattara were the top two vote-getters, with Gbagbo receiving more votes than Ouattara, but not enough to win outright in the first round.  According to the CC, Gbagbo received 38% of the vote compared to 32% for Ouattara.

So one might think that Gbagbo was in pretty good shape to win the run-off election in December.  But it was not to be.  As can be imagined, the run-off election was a time of great tension in the country.  Election day came and went, and two different election commissions came up with two very different results.  The Independent Electoral Commission (IEC, or CEI) declared the election free and declaring Ouattara the winner over Gbagbo, beating him by 54% to 46%.  However the Constitutional Council, which had to approce the IEC’s results, discounted many of the votes and declared Gbabgo the winner instead, with 51.45% of the vote. 

From an objective standpoint it sure does seem like something is fishy.  First of all, why the huge discrepancy in results?  A closer look at the numbers indicates some shenanigans.  Here are the stats:
who's counting:
First Round

Final Round:



Ok, nothing seems clear-cut here.  In both cases, Goagbo and Ouattara received more votes than they did in the first round.  So far, so good.  Some people who voted for losing candidates in the first round must have chosen one or the other final round participants.  Speaking of those voters, we can see that the number of votes cast for “other” candidates in the first round was almost 1,000,000 votes.  So one might expect to see about 1,000,000 extra votes apportioned between the two candidates in the final round. 

But according to the IEC, almost 400,000 total more votes were cast in the final election than in the first round, meaning at least 400,000 more people showed up to vote in the final round, assuming everyone who voted in the first round voted again.  But according to the CC, about 200,000 fewer votes were cast in the final election than were cast in the first election, meaning 200,000 unhappy voters from the first round did not bother to vote in the final round.  So there’s about a 600,000 difference in the number of votes cast between the IEC numbers and the CC numbers.  So what happened?  I expect the CC declared many of the IEC votes as ineligible for some reason or another.  But the CC appears to have invalidated far more votes for Ouattara than for Gbagbo.

If one assumes that no one changed their minds and switched votes from Gbagbo to Ouattara or vice versa, the CC numbers indicate that Ouattara picked up about 60% of the new votes compared to Gbagbo in the run-off, but it wasn’t enough to put him over the top of the incumbent.  A late run for Ouattara, but not enough.  The skeptic in me has to wonder why so many of Ouattara’s votes were discarded, compared to Gbagbo’s.  The ratio of votes rejected by the CC is about 10 to 1 against Ouattara!  However the IEC numbers do look suspicious.  According to the IEC, Ouattara picked up over 74% percent of the new votes compared to Gbagbo in the run-off.  That’s 1,000,000 additional votes Ouattara didn’t get in the first round, about 67% of the total number he got all-told.  And there were a lot of new votes, remember, about 400,000 additional votes cast in the run-off compared to the first round.  If there was this much support for Ouattara, why didn’t these people just vote for him in the first place?  This also seems suspicious.

Now my natural inclination is to mistrust the guy who is currently in power.  He’s in power, he can job the system to ensure that he gets to stay in power.  We’ve seen it over and over, particularly in Africa.  But I have to admit the IEC numbers that favor the challenger don’t stack up either.  The Carter Center does indicate that voter turnout was high during the run-off election but they don’t indicate if it was higher than the first round or not.

And who or what is the IEC anyway?  And the CC for that matter?  We’re not talking about The Carter Center here.  I don’t think either group was a truly independent commission.  Now having said that even in the States we don’t have group from, say, Canada coming in to marshal our elections, but still, you can see where I’m heading with this.  The closest thing I can find to an actual website for the IEC or CEI (the same initials in French) is a web site from the Congo that says something to the effect of “content coming soon”.  So who knows how legitimate that group is.  And I imagine the CC is appointed by the government which has a vested interest in staying in power, so one can imagine the temptation is high to ensure the election results turn out in their favor.  And in places like Cote d’Ivoire, the people who lose elections don’t usually get to go on to a speaking tour and make money selling books and things.  Often times they end up needing to leave the country, or end up under house arrest, or worse.  There is a strong incentive not to lose an election.  And there are many incentives to stay in power.  It can be a very lucrative position to hold.  So given all of those factors, this mess was pretty much a foregone conclusion. 

And speaking of the mess, what has happened in Cote d’Ivoire since this disputed election, you ask?  Well, both men declared themselves president.  The army stuck with Gbagbo, but Ouattara wasted no time in organizing a militia, and the conflict began.  The last numbers I saw indicated that over one million people have fled their homes, many having fled to Ghana I would presume, and nearly 500 people have been killed.  I’m surprised it’s not worse, and it might get a lot worse very soon.

As of April 5th, 2011, as I write this, Gbagbo appears to be all but defeated and may be negotiating for terms of surrender.  I expect he is trying to buy time and find a country to which he can flee and live in exile.  Apparently his wife and children were spotted just the other day at Labadi beach hotel in Ghana, which I’ve been to actually, fueling speculation there that Gbagbo may seek asylum in Ghana.  Relations between Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire have never been spectacular, and I doubt this would improve matters, so I can’t say I endorse this plan on behalf of Ghanaians.

Should he choose not to surrender, the country may have to endure more fighting and conflict.  Both sides have been accused of perpetrating massacres of innocent people, and this is likely to continue the longer the situation remains unresolved.

The situation is irritating, to say the least.  How many innocent people have to die just because two men can not resolve a dispute peacefully?  Even if Gbagbo has a legitimate issue with the election results, and I suspect he may have, willfully sacrificing your fellow countrymen and women to prove you won’t go away quietly is hardly demonstrative of quality leadership.  Unless you fear things could get much worse if you do leave.

I mentioned very early on in this post that Gbagbo is the South candidate and Ouattara is the North candidate.  Cote d’Ivoire is culturally divided into a Muslim North and a Christian South, same as Ghana.  However unlike Ghana there seems to be a very serious rivalry between the South and the North in Cote d’Ivoire.  I really can’t figure out why these two countries, so similar in this regard, seem so different when it comes to mutual acceptance and tolerance.  One theory is that Cote d’Ivoire may be a victim of its own success.  They are, or were, a fairly prosperous country.  Cote d’Ivoire is the largest producer of cocoa in the world, for example.  Nearly all the chocolate in Europe has its origin in Cote d’Ivoire.  Ghana incidentally exports quite a bit of cocoa as well.  Anyway because of this prosperity, Cote d’Ivoire has seen an influx of immigrants from neighboring countries such as Mali, Burkina Faso, and Guinea.  Many of these immigrants are also Muslim, and politicians in the South have been accused of taking hyper-nationalist stances to provoke Southerners into passing measures aimed at keeping the immigrants from achieving citizenship, and keeping the Southern leaders in power.  Influence by fear.  Sounds a little familiar. 

You may be asking why these immigrants don’t also go to Ghana?  Probably because Cote d’Ivoire, Mali, Burkina Faso, and Guinea are all French-speaking countries, and mostly all of them are part of the “CFA Zone” (Former French colonies that use the same currency).  Although Ghana is also relatively prosperous compared to its neighbors, Ghana speaks English, not French, and has a different currency, and therefore is probably not as attractive for this same set of immigrants.

The fact is, since 2004 after the last civil war in Cote d’Ivoire, the country has basically been officially divided into a Muslim North and a Christian South, with UN peacekeeping forces attempting to, you know, keep the peace.  This was all supposed to end after the elections but the actions by both presidential claimants have done nothing but reinforce this division.  Southerners probably think that their worst fears are about to come true, that Ouattara will take power and enact revenge on the Southerners on behalf of his Muslim brothers and sisters.  So even if as all indications suggest Gbagbo had one foot out the door, and is leaving soon, he will be leaving behind a legacy of fear and mistrust.  Ouattara will have to be a wise president to un-do this damage.  Let’s just say my hopes are not high.

And my personal hope for Ghana (let’s bring it all home!) is that they can avoid the pitfalls that Cote d’Ivoire fell in to, and continue to be a country that is, for the most part, free from this sort of bitter division. 

Peace out, Cote d'Ivoirains, here's wishing you all better days ahead from the bottom of my little peace-loving heart.