“Wed, 03 Sep 2003 I am taking refuge in the internet cafe. Another trip to the market during rush-hour. After a while, the smell of smoked fish and raw meat becomes overpowering, and when a tray full of pig legs passes right beside your head, your stomach starts to become upset with the conditions. Not to mention the 30 second intervals of random people wanting to speak to you. Ehh, Obroni! Where are you from? What is your name? I love you lovely ladies. and on and on. So, here I am again. I am finally becoming accustomed to life here. People carrying incredible loads on their heads no longer startle me, and the bustle and smell of this city is starting to become normal. The multitude of tiny shops called “Jesus Saves Salon” and “Grace of God fashions” are no longer surprising in their numbers. My mornings are very peaceful (aside from the music that begins sometimes at 7am), which is necessary to prepare me for the assault of the day. The word obroni is now a permanent part of my awareness, and my relations with people are never without its accompaniment. It has become a bit discouraging where making friends is concerned. The KNUST campus doesn’t have more than 20 white people in its student body equal to that of UW’s, and the population is mostly male, around 75%. This makes me a white female first and foremost and I have not had more than one conversation that wasn’t completely centered around that fact, implicitly or explicitly.
Next weekend, just two of us are headed to Togo for the largest voodoo festival in W. Africa. Apparently we can only take a bust to the border town in Ghana and then have to walk to the next town. I am very excited about that mini adventure.”
I can’t seem to remember or find a separate entry on this side trip. It is worth talking about. Togo is especially worth thinking about at a time when so many people are discouraged even disgusted with the United States. It is so easy to take it for granted. Getting to Togo was an adventure in itself. I felt safe in Ghana, but had it been almost anywhere else, I think our journey would have been dangerous. There were late nights in empty villages when we didn’t know where to find the next leg of the journey, etc. Crossing the boarder from Ghana to Togo was palpable. The security we felt as two females traveling on our own with absolutely no way to blend in, was gone. We didn’t really speak French, so that made things more difficult. I can’t find anything about this on google right now, but we were told that several students were shot recently in Togo by the government, which was still a dictatorship at the time. A cab driver also told us how to wrap our money in our wallets so the police wouldn’t take it. That was on our trip from the border Into the city. We felt the absence of a stable government, it was like the floor had dropped away. I have never felt less safe in my life. I will never forget the feeling of believing you were truly on your own, with no recourse in a foreign land. Our government is flawed, it fails in efficiency at times, our law enforcement is as well- but on the whole it keeps us safe. We don’t even know how much it does until we set foot on soil where that isn’t true. (This was only my experience by the way. Togo in 2003 may very well have been a fine place for its citizens and other travelers for that matter, I really don’t know.)
Another part of what gave that trip darker tones was the voodoo market. I will post pictures, these are all in film and must be scanned. This is also not a comment on voodoo as I don’t know much about it, but the market had skulls of animals I will never see alive. It was strange and fascinating. We did visit a voodoo priest and he gave us a prayer and some talismans for safe travel. He did something which was supposed to bind us to the talismans. I still have mine, I have been oddly afraid of getting rid of it. Those dolls gave us a scare later on. Man always fears what he does not understand, and dead things as well.
Once we were finished with the market, we were off to the country side to get closer to the festival. We thought everything would be booked up. We had to use guide books for everything, because Internet was not widely available. It was also 2003 and the resources were different, so we relied on the trusty lonely planet, which was sometimes accurate and sometimes not. We couldn’t take a cab directly to the hotel where we were staying. We had to take one to an outpost, at which point we had to wait for a messenger (a boy on a bike) to go to the hotel to get us transportation. Once we got there we were isolated. Very isolated. We had to rely on the same boy on a bike to get us out if we wanted to.
The location itself was beautiful, beachside, and peaceful. The place itself was decidedly creepy. There was once a zoo of sorts on the property, and we inspected it when we arrived. We walked among what we thought were empty cages in a state of decline, until we noticed that they were open. Then we noticed various primates in the area and decided to head for check in. As we were (nervously) walking away from the zoo we heard a galloping behind us and turned in time for one of said primates to run smack into the back of my roommate’s legs. It was terrifying. The animal did not take interest in us beyond that encounter and loped away. Once we reached the check in desk, it was clear we were the only guests and there appeared to be only one person running the hotel. The solitude and the remoteness combined forces to enhance the eeriness that was mounting in our imaginations. Still undeterred, my roommate and I went down to the beach to take in the view. As we sat on the sand, the man who was running the hotel just stood above us, watching us. Perhaps and even probably there are plenty of non threatening explanations for this behavior. It was however, immensely disconcerting to us. Any one of the details on our trip on it’s own would have been a tolerable quirk of traveling in a very foreign land, but they were all coalescing in a very threatening manner.
We finally made it to our little cabana or palapa or shack or whatever you want to call it. It had one bed and mosquito netting and a door with no lock. Delightful. That night, was one of the most frightening nights of my life. What was I afraid of exactly? I didn’t know, and that is what made it so frightening. The wind began to howl sometime in the night and my roommate and I awoke suddenly to loud thud. Being startled out of sleep, neither of us could identify the source until it happened a couple more times, it was coconuts falling onto the roof of our shelter. We decided the next morning to head back to Ghana. I was relieved to find that she was as uneasy (terrified) as I was.
Nothing actually happened to us, at least nothing actually overtly threatening while we were in Togo. It was just one of those instances where our internal alarms were firing, and we took heed. Perhaps we were never in danger, perhaps we would have made it to the festival which would have been strange and wonderful and one of a kind. Perhaps not. I have not fled in fear in very many instances in my life, and have actually taken what might seem like stupid risks in my travels. It is hard to identify whether fear is justified or not, whether it is instinct keeping you safe or an irrational emotion bent on deterring you from adventure. That I have been in other situations which seemed unsafe but where I felt no fear, tells me that I can rely on instinct to some degree. In any event, I am grateful for these experiences, and even more grateful that they are the exception and not the norm in my life. I feel that this is true in a large part because of our great country. (I am not using this ironically or fanatically). We may be in something of a state of decline, but there is a lot about the United States that is still great. This is a another gift these travels gave me, and it inspired in me a desire to participate in advancing the interests of my community (great and small) which has given me so much. We benefit so much from where we are lucky enough to be born, that a great many of the benefits aren’t clear until you experience their absence. Happy holiday season.
Cultivate the habit of being grateful for every good thing that comes to you, and to give thanks continuously. And because all things have contributed to your advancement, you should include all things in your gratitude.
Ralph Waldo Emerson
Thu, 28 Aug 2003 13:32:42 -0500
“I am not sure what day it is or how long many days ago it was since I last wrote. Time moves very differently here and I feel as if it has already been a month since I have been gone. I am pretty sure that each day feels like a week. It is so different here. I am currently sitting in an internet cafe in downtown Kumasi (Adum), it is pretty hot and everyone in here is listening to the Kumasi vs. Accra basketball game on the radio. When a goal is scored, I can hear the entire marketplace cheering. Its quite amazing. I am getting more and more used to this place, I am starting to pick up some Twi and can argue with the cab drivers enough to get my ride to downtown for one and a half dollars. Every time a twi word comes out of one of our mouths, people start laughing and sometimes clapping. It seems that the effort is both appreciated and entertaining. My roomates and I have purchased some raid and have done battle with the insect world that lives with us. A hotplate and a can opener later, we have full blown meals of canned tuna and boiled water for tea! I am almost finished with the 5-day long process of registering for classes. I am doing both drumming and guitar (I have decided finally to buy a guitar because it is such a great opportunity to study with Koonimo), there is philosophical and religious aspects of Ghanain art, and I finally spoke to the resident photographer for KNUST today and have full access to the darkroom (he is also getting me all the necessary supplies, imagine, a university faculty member being more than accomodating!). “. I never actually ended up getting to work In a darkroom, at this point we were still functioning as if we were students in the United States. Though the hospitality we received was un-paralleled, the classes were somewhat pointless (except for the music classes). We were kept apart from the rest of the student body, and our classes met infrequently and irregularly. As I mentioned above, time moves differently over there. People would also fail to show because they were sick with Malaria on a shockingly regular basis. From a formal education standpoint, the trip was something of a failure, however, I learned more in those months than any since (except for perhaps when I studied for the bar exam, and I have forgotten probably 90% of that while these lessons remain vivid!).
“My friends and I have befriended a penpal of one of our party and have been getting the inside scene on Kumasi. We visit Alfred and his friends in Abo Abo, the Muslim distric of Kumasi and they show us around the neighborhood. I ended up on one of the street corners one night getting Twi lessons along with my two roommates from half the neighborhood. When our friends returned from their errand, they found the three of us surrounded by a crowd of people drilling us on the days of the week… clapping and correcting. I have never felt so safe and welcome among strangers before. These neighborhoods are incredible.” This night stands out particularly in my memory, it is just something that would never happen in the United States, or many of the other countries I have visited since. Perhaps people have better things to do than teach three foreigners their language, and that is what made it so special. It was seemed genuinely mutually enjoyable. The interaction was so pure and basic, just trying to communicate with other people because we happened to be in the same place at the same time, with some time on our hands. I’ll never forget it, and could probably spend a long time trying to pin point exactly what was so special about it.
“The gap between classes is fairly large and there doesn’t seem to be much of a middle class. Walking around Abo Abo at night is like walking through people’s living rooms. They are all sitting around in and outside of tiny homes pounding foo foo, crowded around radios, boiling water, and chatting. That is another incredible thing about this place. Unless you are in the marketplace or the campus, people seem to be mostly sitting around or sleeping in during the day. People walk slowly here, and after a week of running around campus in this humidity, I have the same pace that seems to have no destination nor desire for one. I won’t even try to think up an explanation for this observation, but I do remember the stark difference between being always on the go, always having something to do and just not. I also try to achieve some balance between these two ways of living. Taking time to simply interact with other humans, or to just sit and think, is important. It is difficult for me as I have relatively recently emerged from the legal world, one that is constantly driven by deadlines and schedules. I learned in Africa that there is a definitely metaphysical difference when your relationship with time changes. We all know to some extent how time is relative, that waiting makes minutes tick by while pleasure makes them speed, however that, however this observation is nothing compared to the possibilities that exist. The word “now” actually means something different in Africa. (I say Africa, and not just Ghana only because I spent a few months in South Africa after leaving Ghana. I can’t actually speak about all of Africa, but I began to suspect that the continent has some very real unifying characteristics and ways of life, the relationship with time being one of them). .
“We are also getting tutored in the local music, hip life and high life. Everyone is incredibly friendly and accomodating. I also only see about 1 other white person (if that) a day besides those in my group…I am starting to stare at them as much as I get stared at now. I immediately start wondering who they are and what they could possibly be doing here, which makes it easier for me to be constantly on parade. Another interesting thing is that no one knows if we are american, british, german or any other white person that speaks english for that matter. I am always asked, sometimes I am dutch, sometimes german, sometimes canadian… when my true origins are discovered there are handshakes and smiles. More often than not chance encounters conclude with email address requests. Everyone is interested, in what, I haven’t quite decided, but I do think that the friendliness is on the whole quite sincere. I have also resolved to err on the side of naivete as opposed to cynicism on this trip in order to avoid tainting my interactions with this place, which has already proven to be more different then I could have ever previously imagined. I am not sure how much I am going to be able to get downtown to use the computers once school starts on monday, and I absolutely refuse to use those awful machines at school… so, I would like to ask for postal address’s. I would love to write letters to anyone who sends me an address (there is so much going on at every moment that it seems impossible that I can’t talk to any of you about it) . I am pretty sure that phone calls are
farther out of the price range then I had previously thought, not to mention that telephones are not overly accessible. I hope all of you beginning classes are enjoying them and that everyone else is having a good time as well. I miss everyone, mostly proper in-door plumbing, but all of you as well. (As,far as I can tell, many a restroom consists solely of rooms with holes in the floor, if that at all.)
PS Thank you to everyone who wrote me back, its great to hear from you. It is good to know that the us still exists (though its existence will never be as absolute as it used to be) and what you are all up to. It is no small thing to read emails from friends and family in this none-too-familiar place…”
At this point, I was getting settled into being a stranger in a strange land. The most lasting thing about that is the knowledge that our reality is not absolute as we believe it to be. Even the time that we move in is not necessarily so. It is freeing to remember that so much of the structure of our reality has to do with where we are from, it also means that a great many of our problems are as well. If I remember to take my day to day world as less of an absolute, then it becomes a little lighter.
While ruminating on living with less it is hard not to think of how very much less much of the world lives with. About ten years ago I spent six months in Africa, mostly Ghana and South Africa. I learned so much in that six months and I really think that experience colored and drove so much of who I have become. It is especially important for me to think about this as we are drawing close to thanksgiving, a time to count blessings. Remembering Africa also helps me keep perspective when considering the importance of or lack of, a garlic press at a time when the Philippines is suffering so terribly. It’s not that I believe in austerity for its own sake or that I must forgo all pleasure because suffering exists, it’s just important to keep it all In context. To that end I am going to start editing and posting what I wrote during my time in Africa as I try to focus on what is important in this one. These were written as group emails to close family and friends. Here is the first.
“Hi family and friends,
I have very little time, email here is impossible…things are incredible here- we just got to school two days ago and have been travelling around for the past week. We walked on rope bridges, got laughed at, stared at, touched, and also welcomed by various villiages. I saw the slave castles and that was pretty horrendous, especially after visiting the fish market that is right beneath it….”
I wrote extensively about the slave castles, but these writings were lost In a hard drive debacle. There is a memory that has never left me. We saw the dungeons where there was still a mark on the wall that measured how high the level of blood, excrement and other bodily fluids rose. We walked through the airy and beautiful rooms where the slave traders worked. Saw the canons pointing to see, passed through the previously one way door marked with a skull and crossbones. After taking in one of the relics of some of the worst human behavior in history, we descended into the fishing village that sits in the shadow of the castle. There, we took in some of the persisting effects of the slave trade. It seemed to me that the village could not have changed much since the castle itself was built. We saw the man powered boats returning from sea with their haul, and we walked along the banks of the coastal waterway where booths and stalls were set up. It was still very early in our time in Ghana, and we still unaware of the effect we had, and hadn’t yet developed the sensitivity to how much we had in comparison to those around us. I remember some of our group taking some photos of women who were cleaning fish. I caught a look on one of the unwilling subject’s face, she was posing in a mocking caricature of the activity that was being photographed. She knew what the photographer had in mind, some beautiful national geographic like glimpse into another world, and she knew that the romanticism is all that would be captured of HER reality. It struck me powerfully, the two different lines of human history converging on the grounds where the effects of horrors committed by one group remain still. Where our relative wealth could arguably have come at the expense of those that surrounded us. I don’t want to get into too much guilt, as it is not mine. I did vow to myself to be sensitive, to treat my hosts as people and not subjects of study, and to always remember the capacity for suffering and cruelty that exists in mankind. Finally, though I am not saying that I necessarily have more or that others have less to be grateful for, the people of Ghana for instance, as I cannot speak for others. I do know that my camera would have fed many people. That was the first of many many days where I was acutely aware of what I had to be grateful for in life
“Okay, I just bought more time, 15 minutes for1000 cedis… lets see, we went to one villiage and they made us dance with them, it was quite a work out but more than that it allowed a connection that had not yet been made. I have never felt more like an alien in my entire life, and never has there seemed to be such a massive divide between two groups belonging to the same species. There is much more of a language barrier here than I expected. Everyone speaks english, but at varying levels and our respective accents make understanding very difficult sometimes. The weather has been fabulous driving around the coast was incredible. the savannah is very beautiful as was seeing the rainforest. I saw the later from the canopy which was almost too high up- we had to go on the bridges one by one and I was the first to go, trembling and taking deep breaths along all seven death bridges! The markets are incredible… huge and full of all kinds of fun smells and strange looking fleshy things and people yelling ‘white person’ in twi at you. The kids that live in the settlements on the sides of the roads all run after the bus in big groups pointing and jumping up and down and laughing. One of our company has a green mohawk and it has attracted more attention than I had believed possible.
Our accommodations are less than desireable and have some quite discouraged. A first glance into my new home provided a nice view of old mattresses crawling with bugs, cement floors, and not a small amount of dirt. However, a couple encounters with giant cockroaches later, one cold shower, and falling asleep two nights in a row to the incredible noise in the Guss Hostel, and I am quite at home. We also have a gecko in the bathroom that keeps spiders at bay.
The food, oh the food. I will never eat rice again and i have only been here a week. I have been brave with ordering and have paid for it with meals of crackers and water. Yesterday, the dish i ordered had a smell that turned my stomach, not to mention the fish bones poking out of the ‘stew’ that looked like the contents of some large carniverous stomach. Not all of it is hard for me to eat though, the plantain is good and so are the boiled yams. There is also this really hot chili sauce that is good on steamed rice. I haven’t had coffee all week and can’t wait to figure out how to make tea in our ‘kitchenette’. That is not nearly all, but time is up and I don’t suppose anyone wants to hear every detail… I hope all is well wherever this thing makes it to. I miss you all and will send individual replies as soon as i figure out a better way.”