We awoke this morning at 6am, mostly because all of our Rastafarian friends (who had been sleeping on mats around our tent and inside their courtyard) were awake. Kelly immediately noticed that her small purse, which contained her camera, wallet, and Annabel’s wallet, and which had been in the tent when we went to sleep, was missing. With the help of a half-dozen rastas, the five of us scoured the beach and the tiki bars that were scattered along the beach, but to no avail. We decided to take a break after a half hour or so and got breakfast at Big Milly’s, the small cabana at the end of the beach, and the biggest establishment in Kokrobite. They served surprisingly good omelettes and “Cinnamon Toast”, which was kind of like extra-squishy cinnamon-y French Toast. The meal was quite a relief, seeing as we hadn’t eaten anything since lunchtime the day before (due to traffic, and the lack of dining options around here).
When we returned to our tent to read and relax on the beach, Faisal informed us that he and his friends had found two huge knife-marks in the sides of our tent, which, upon examination, were easily visible. Someone must have cut it in our sleep and stolen Kelly’s purse. Yikes. Serves us right for sleeping in a 5 cedi tent on a random beach in Ghana. Still, we were none too pleased with the startling resolution to the mystery.
For both lunch and dinner, we headed slightly off the beach to an Italian restaurant whose sign read “The Best in Town, Probably in the World”. It turned out to be pretty darn good. It was run by a real-life Italian and his wife, they had actually fresh mozzarella (the first time we’ve seen cheese in months), and I got a hot chocolate that tasted like pure, creamy, melted chocolate, unlike the unsweetened Milo powder I’ve learned to avoid. The owner’s wife, who works as the waitress, gave us fresh water ice cubes without us even asking for them (this was also our first ice cube experience here), and we indulged in all sorts of delicious bruschetta, pizza, Panini, and pastas (there was one baked ziti-esque dish with egg and bolognese sauce that was a huge hit).
After dinner we headed back to Big Milly’s, because it was “Reggae Night,” although the show was considerably less exciting than it had been the day before, and there were fewer tourists around. In true form and exhausted as we always seem to be here, we headed back to our tent and went to bed.
Although we had no valuables in our tent this time, the trail of tears continued and our slumber did not last long. Just after 4am, Connie, who hadn’t been feeling well, began vomiting on the cloth floor of the tent. We took care of her as best we could, and she said she felt better and just wanted to sleep. Unfortunately, the stench in the tent was unbearable, and there was no chance of fitting five people in it again without getting near the vomit. Will resolved to go back to sleep as best he could in the tent, but Annabel, Kelly, and I determined we would not be able to sleep in the close space, hot air, and the smell. And there was nowhere else to sleep, except perhaps directly on the sand, which was quite dirty. So at 4:30am, we headed to the small cabana next to the rastas’ house.
A few tourists and rastas were still awake chatting and nursing various drinks, but we were far too tired to join them. We sat there on a few stools aimlessly until suddenly a portly Swedish man, who evidently owned the large house behind the bar, invited us in for an impromptu drumming lesson. We had no idea why he was still awake, and his speech was bizarrely slow and mellow, but he was very hospitable. We sat down on some couches in his entryway, he instructed three Ghanaian men (who appeared to be friends/employees/professional drummers) to retrieve the “Ewe drum set” for us, and in no time, Ansel was explaining the basic techniques of Ghanaian drumming. We were somewhat delirious with fatigue, but luckily he gave us incredibly simple beats to play in repetition, while he and his Ghanaian friends played much more complicated ones over them. We played for about an hour and a half, and as the sun rose he concluded the lesson, blessing us and hoping that we’d enjoyed “sharing the magic of music” with him. We smiled, and headed to Big Milly’s for some breakfast.
Today we ran early, before school, and enjoyed some nice bucket showers before breakfast. Our running is not particularly serious, and certainly not always consistent, but always a nice diversion and an excellent time to clear our minds. We could tell, however, with the mugginess already setting in at 6am, that today would be quite hot.
In school, we had a number of successes today. I found “Go, Dog, Go!” in the small room of the school which functions as a library. This was great, because the book has excellent illustrations and considerable charm, but vocabulary-wise is much easier than Dr. Seuss. Clifford managed to ace his 13-word spelling test, and we read the book afterward as a reward. To my amazement, he read it aloud in only about 15 minutes with very little help. It was the first book he’s ever been able to read, and was very exciting. Jonathan too, was able to read the book in about a half an hour, unlike the Cat in the Hat, which had taken over a week of tutoring to complete. Additionally, Connie made origami paper cranes with Class Four, which was a huge success, and in my opinion, they are quite beautiful.
During lunch, we worked on a crossword puzzle with Dornuki, and afterwards headed straight to Accra to meet Jimmy (our rasta friend from Faisal’s dance group). Jimmy, Faisal, and Junior had arranged for us to spend Friday and Saturday night at Kokrobite Beach, a small coastal village about a half hour west of Accra, where their troupe was performing on Friday. Unfortunately, our 45 minute cab ride to our destination from the mall quickly became what we fondly (and, I suppose, politically incorrectly) like to refer to as “a trail of tears”.
At first the ride was pleasant, and I happily watched the thin branches of the plains trees dance up and down in the breeze outside the cab window as we waited in traffic. It seemed as though each branch was playing a different part of a large drum set, very delicately and rhythmically, and the sight was quite pleasant in the fading light, particularly because my other companions in the cab, Jimmy (who was recovering from malaria) and Connie, were asleep. We passed through a small city and a boy, about ten years old, in a spiffy gold and brown school uniform was making his way down the dusty, crumbling asphalt of the sidewalk-on rollerblades. I watched curiously as he tried to use the extremely special contraptions (perhaps a recent gift? I wondered) to make his way down the sidewalk, but it was too narrow and the surface too uneven, and he quickly fell behind the other uniformed boy he was walking with, who was on foot. He seemed determined to use the blades, however, and kept them on, basically walking with extremely heavy shoes, and almost tripping every few strides. Nevertheless, he was moving faster than the traffic I was in, so I watched his progress intently. Finally his friend returned to collect him, and he agreed to take off the boots, but looked heartily disappointed. I sighed, and the traffic picked up. As we were leaving town, I saw two buildings the seemed striking, if not slightly amusing. The first was a wooden shack with a picture of a naked male baby on it and a huge sign that read “Jesus Saves Circumsizer: He knows we cut under HYGENIC CONDITION”. The second was a white shack about a block away, that was quite small, and tucked, almost hidden, between two slightly bigger booths. It was all boarded up and deserted, but on the door it read in thick, drippy blue paint, “Gambia Consulate”.
Our trip really only became a trail of tears when we realized that we had been in traffic for over two hours, that it was 7:30pm, Jimmy’s show was to start at 8pm, our cell phone had died so we had no way of reaching the other cab (containing Annabel, Kelly, and Will), and there was no prospect of food in sight. The traffic was literally immobile, and outside it was pitch black. After taking a highly questionable short cut to avoid the traffic that involved earth so deep with potholes that I doubt any car I’ve ever driven could have navigated it without getting a flat, and after disembarking our cab and waiting, at Jimmy’s request, on a street-corner for nearly a half an hour while he tried to borrow a cell phone from a local vendor, we eventually determined to take a different cab towards the beach. The driver got lost a few times, but with the help of a number of local people for navigation, we managed to arrive at Big Milly’s Cabana at 8:30pm, just as the show was starting.
We reconnected with Will, Kelly, and Annabel, and situated ourselves on benches near the beach, under the stars to watch the show. There were a considerable amount of other obrunis there, and the show was fabulous. Jimmy felt too sick to perform, but Faisal and Junior were excellent dancers, wearing beautiful, flowing costumes and performing the traditional African dances with tremendous alacrity and grace. Africana, the name of the troupe, also has a handful of incredibly talented drummers, who provided a beautiful song and rhythm for the dance. Towards the end, an acrobat performed who did all sorts of thrilling tricks involving eating fire, balancing bowls on top of umbrellas resting on his tongue, and lots of cool flips, splits, etc, many performed while holding various flaming objects. It was quite exciting.
After the show, we congratulated the performers and casually inquired as to our previously discussed accomodations for the night. Faisal explained that he’d wanted us to be able to check out the prices, so he hadn’t booked anything in advance. Unfortunately, all the grass-roofed guest huts at Big Milly’s were full. The only option was to rent a tent on the beach from the local Rastafarian group for five cedis. They set it up for us, and gave us a grass mat to make the sand more comfortable under the tent. It was a three-person tent, they explained, but we assured them that all five of us would fit. They instructed us to put all our belongings inside their white, locked gate (about a dozen or so rastas in Kokrobite live in this small white house on the beach, which has a courtyard and a locked fence on all sides) instead of inside the tent with us. We were hesitant to leave everything we owned/all our valuables in their hands, so Kelly kept her purse in the tent, and Annabel and I kept our wallets with us. Our new rasta friends locked the compound gate, we wished Faisal, Jimmy, and Junior goodnight, and the five of us packed into the tiny tent on the beach, and went to sleep.
Today we were to go to the Accra Airport to pick up the package my mother had UPS’ed to us, containing more string, or rather embroidery floss, to make friendship bracelets. Class Six has been churning them out, their company in full swing, and lots of the other kids also enjoy making the bracelets after school. As a result, we almost ran out of string, and my mother agreed to send some more as soon as possible. Yesterday, a UPS man came by to tell us that the package was being held at Customs, and that I would have to retrieve it in person and pay for it. So today, after lunch, off we went: Kelly, Connie, Annabel, Rich Donné, the French teacher (for help with navigation and communication), and myself.
When we arrived at Accra airport, the security personnel seemed to ping-pong us from one end to the other, asking me what airline the package had come on, confused when I responded “UPS” and showed them the reclamation slip I’d been given. Eventually one of the officials in charge sent me inside the airport, past baggage claim, and told me to turn left. I found myself at “Lost and Found” and realized I might as well be what my father would call “a lost children”. The officer behind the desk laughed initially, and then realized the confusion. “You need to go to Accra Cargo Village,” he explained, “not here.” I felt silly, despite our instructions. A cargo airport would make a lot more sense than a passenger one.
With the help of Rich Donné, we get a short cab to the “Cargo Village,” and the real fun begins. Three men immediately surround us as we exit the cab, and telling them we need to get to UPS, we follow them through the huge barbed wire gate of an enormous compound. Inside the “Cargo Village” is packed: with people selling watermelon, pineapple, Obama Biscuits, and waterbags, and, most of all, small buildings representing each minor shipping destination/organization in the country. There are a number of airplane hangars also filled with offices, blue-uniformed customs officers, and large packages. There are other men, some moving the huge boxes from place to place and others, like our guide, wearing khakis and white shirts and navigating the crowd, running errands and trying to make the mass of activity more efficient. Our guide leads us into a hangar for “fast packages” and into a tiny office in the back with a UPS sign over the door and a “Do Not Enter” sign on the door. I follow him in with Rich Donné, and the girls wait outside. Inside it is air conditioned, and a middle-aged Ghanaian man in a brown UPS uniform sit behind a desk in the near corner. The rest of the room (it couldn’t have been more than 150 sq. feet total) is filled with packages: every single UPS package sent to Ghana sits at one point in this room, he explains proudly. I wait as he stands up, casually lights a cigarette, and fingers his elegant tortoise-shell glasses, finally placing them delicately on the tip of his nose. He glances at my reclamation slip, and finally says simply, “I need two photocopies of your passport.”
Luckily I had brought it, so my guide led me out of the hangar, through the bustling, crowded walkways and driveways across the compound to a small hut with a large photocopier outside it. I hesitantly handed him my passport, and he handed it to the “photoman” (who, evidently, makes the copies), and then we wove our way back to the UPS office with the photocopies and my passport (the latter of which I secured nervously beneath a double zipper in my purse, afraid of losing it in the bustle and confusion). After signing a slip saying I’d received my package, the UPS man demanded a “duty” of 20 cedis before relinquishing it. I begrudgingly agreed, he (literally) pocketed the money, and produced the package. Outside in the hangar, we waited for about twenty minutes until I gave my guide 5 cedis to go ask a customs officer to search through my package. There are no scanners for this in Accra, so every package sent into the country must be searched by hand, a tedious task. There was a huge package half as tall as I am beside me, apparently filled with white t-shirts, and I watched as two men unfolded, removed, and searched through every single shirt
Finally a Customs Officer arrives to help me, and he calls over another female officer to help and (I imagine) enjoy the spectacle of my obruni package. They begin teasing me immediately, asking if my mommy sent me candy. They sift through the contents leisurely, soon realizing that the colored material is string, rather than candies. I explain that I teach at the school, and that this is thread for the children there to weave bracelets with. They seem slightly impressed. Next, the male officer picks up the huge 1500pg paperback copy of “Gone with the Wind” that my mother thoughtfully included to supplement my rapidly dwindling selection of personal reading books. The female officer reads the title aloud, and the male one replies, “Oh, that’s by Elton John, I know.” I smile awkwardly and try to imagine how my friend Dana, all the way in Pennington, New Jersey, would respond to such a remark (she is the biggest Elton John fan I know).
When they finish, they tell me to wait for ten minutes. When ten minutes of idle, uncertain waiting expires, I head over with my guide and get in line next door to receive a stamp of approval for the transaction from another officer. The officer is preoccupied, and there is a man standing beside him fiddling with the officer’s cell phone and a screw driver. Occasionally the officer looks up from the intent work on the cell phone beside him and stamps a page, carelessly signs the stamp, our line moves forward imperceptibly, and then the officer turns back to his phone. There are also a handful of other customs officials who go straight up to the desk, ignoring the line, to get their documents stamped. This serves to rather slow down the whole process. When I finally arrive at the front, he casually asks for 5 cedis, which I cede reluctantly, and he stuffs them into the drawer beside him. Then he stamps my form and tells me I am free to go. It turns out that I actually need three more stamps before I can leave the compound, but I collect these haphazardly as we make our way out, and Connie, Annabel, Kelly and I promptly catch a cab to the Accra Mall, package, finally, in hand.
At the mall we examine the package, and my mother has been more generous than we can imagine. There is so much string (even extra bags of exclusively yellow and white thread, the two most popular colors), and she has also enclosed a copy of “A Little Princess,” a book of African poetry, and a step-by-step book on how to teach poetry to children (I can hardly imagine something we need more, considering our many less-than-successful attempts). My father has also included a half dozen New York Times crossword puzzles and the latest articles on the Giants from sfgate.com, and we examine all the treasures slowly and with great delight. After relishing our new luxuries, we head into Accra for some celebratory shopping and a girls’ night out (Will decided to stay home and take some of the older boys out to dinner in Tema). We find a fabulous shop called Global Mama’s, an obruni-friendly Ghanaian goods store run by an American ex-pat from Brookings, SD (we bond over the delicious local establishment, Nick’s Hamburgers, that I am lucky enough to have visited a few years ago on a road trip). After purchasing lots of chocolate for DK, a local Ghanaian cookbook (to supplement Emma’s recipes), and some beautiful traditional-print fabrics, we eat dinner and relax. After passing a few hours and dropping a considerable amount of Ghana cedis, we head home, refreshed and happy.
First of all, I apologize for the inconsistencies of the posts in the last week. Internet access has been very hard to come by, and simultaneously there is quite a lot to write about. Here goes: After the scene with Comfort and the other students, David Waters asked for a brief tour of our quarters to check out our living conditions. As we showed him our small house, tiny room with thin wooden bunk beds and the rather messy (from our supplies, Dornuki’s belongings, and our breakfast remnants) combination family room, dining room, and DK’s bedroom, he exclaimed quietly, “Wow, so primitive.” Although I suppose it’s somewhat true, it broke my heart a little bit. Firstly, Mr. Kabutey heard him and was induced to make the comment, “Yes, it is such a great, great sacrifice” (while he sleeps in on the floor of the tiny closet next door with no bed or sheets at all). Furthermore, compared to the conditions that characterize the homes of every single child at Manye, our lodgings are princely.
I told Mr. Kabutey that he should not worry, that our accomodations are more than comfortable and not a sacrifice whatsoever, but it became difficult to convince him that we truly believed that as we continued our tour to the wooden shack outside the school that constitutes the kitchen. When describing it to another American, we naturally - inadvertently - described it based on the missing elements: no sink, oven, drawers/cupboards, inconsistent electricity, etc. We promptly concluded the tour, David inquiring from Mr. K what we do with trash. As far as I know, there are two large piles where it is theoretically put, one in the front schoolyard and one in the back near the outhouses. Yet there are no trash cans (we had to push strongly for about a week to get one in our house, and it often disappears indefinitely, so we often use plastic bags), and quite a bit of litter strewn all about the dusty ground of the area. Mr. Kabutey said that every few months a truck comes by and scoops up a little of the pile (there are no trash bags). David nods, thinking. Although it’s somewhat futile, they have started trying to separate the plastic water bags from the rest of the trash, which is definite progress.
After the obrunis left we began working. After tutoring a few kids, I taught Creative Arts in Class Two. They love when we make things that they can keep, and they love games, so I had decided to do “Cootie Catchers” (also known as “Fortune Tellers” in Texas, according to Kelly). I cut out 28 large squares of pink construction paper, assembled colored pencils, and lots of foam stickers (meticulously counted out so as to not to provoke a fight over the extras). Although we didn’t finish the project in one day (the folding took quite awhile), the kids were tremendously excited and are eager to finish them on Tuesday. I’m a little nervous that (because attendance fluxuates so much) there will be a lot of kids in class on Tuesday that were not here today, and thus will not have cootie catchers to work on. I think I’ll make a few extras just in case. In Class One, Madames Kelly and Annabel made lion masks with the kids out of paper plates taped to popsicle sticks. They spent hours cutting out the eyes and sketching the basics of the lion face and taping on popsicle sticks beforehand, and the masks were an absolute blockbuster, so their efforts were definitely worth it.
After school we head over to the Reverend’s house next door to meet up with Anita and David, who had promised to take us to the dump. The taxi comes on “Ghana Time,” as the locals jokingly call it, i.e. two hours late. As we’re waiting on the deck of the house, chatting in mesh chairs around a glass table with an umbrella, the large, high metal gates (3m high?) open to allow the Reverend’s car to enter. All the kids, who are now out of school, are playing football and galavanting on the field on the other side of the road. Suddenly, through the gates come Clifford, Jerry, Yona, and Derrick. They have changed into torn flipflops and some well-worn, browned t-shirts and shorts (“homeclothes”). They look incredibly timid, but I am impressed and quite surprised that they have the guts to come in and approach the fancy house and intimidating courtyard of a wealthy white man whom they do not know. They wind their way up the dusty driveway, through the plantings and up to the edge of the elevated patio directly behind me. They look down, seemingly afraid of the new obrunis, and a little embarassed at their intrusion. Jerry taps me on the shoulder and quietly asks, “Madame Georgia, we would like a football.” I tell him that unfortunately I don’t have one, but ask them instead if they might like to meet the older white people, who seem charmed by the boys’ earnest faces, humility, and trust in us. Jerry again replies for the group with a tentative, “OK.” They step up onto the patio and David greets them in Twi, asking their names and introducing himself. They softly utter their names one by one, hesitant to make eye contact. David, who had placed a bag of lollipops on the table earlier, gives one to each boy, showing them how the sticks make a whistle sound when blown into. The boys stare in awe, but are too shocked to try them out, smile, or even say thank you. They jump off the patio and begin to leave and I yell/whisper at Jerry, “Say thank you!” The boys immediately jump back up onto the whitewashed stone, and say, quite loudly and in unison, “Thank you sir.” Then they turn on their heels and hightail it out of the gates as fast as they can.
Soon the taxi arrives to take us to the dump. We cram in, and then stop at Kpone Barrier to catch a second one because it’s too crowded with six people. While we wait, we talk about the circumstances of the dump, as well as the greater poverty that is so rampant, in Ghana, as well as Africa as a whole. I suddenly have a strange realization. My grandfather, Joe, was a Commander in the Navy and so my dad moved around almost constantly growing up, living frequently in Third World Countries. When I was little, Daddy used to tell me to be proud of my country, and thank God for all the wonderful aspects of my American lifestyle. He used to say, “Just being born in America, you’ve won the lottery in life. There are millions of people who would give ANYTHING for that. You’re really lucky. Don’t take it for granted.” I used to think that America was pretty swell, but, ya know, whatever. As we were waiting there on the curb in Kpone Barrier, I think I really understood, and honestly felt, for the first time, the truth and import of his words. Which is definitely not to say that being born anywhere else is not equally wonderful, because everywhere undoubtedly, but particularly Ghana, has its special charm, and unique culture, people, and landscape. But it seems to me that quite a lot of the privileges, freedoms, and luxuries – like having a basic education, for instance – that we take for granted where I live are quite absent here. And I guess that does inspire a sort of patriotism, as well as a reciprocal desire to mirror and assist similar progress here, in a place where the people are infinitely warm and the culture is so rich and blossoming.
As we waited at the Barrier, David pointed out to us a small mountain in the distance. Ghana is a very flat country (the highest point is about 1400ft above sea level, I think), but it hadn’t seemed like an impossibly high mountain, so in the past we hadn’t thought much of it. “That,” David said, “is the dump.” We were all aghast, disbelieving, until we looked closer. Thin tendrils of white, noxious methane gas were winding their way upwards from the huge black mass, which stretched to the edges of the horizon, miles and miles long. We could also distinguish smile fires burning in the distance amongst the rubble. This dump holds all the waste for the entire greater Accra region, he explained.
Soon our second cab arrives, and we head over to the dump, which, it turns out, is basically across the street on the other side of the Barrier from Community 25, and certainly no more than a 5-minute drive, 30 minute walk from the school. As we enter the wide drive that leads into the dump, we think the car was on fire at first and examine the rusty, decomposing trunk of the cab. Soon we realize that the smell is coming in through the windows. Ahead of us is invisible, completely white as though thick with a blizzard of snow or a million pounds of crushed chalk. Within seconds, the air becomes unbreathable. The stench is not of trash, but of ash, thick and white. We cannot inhale because the air is too thick and does not taste like air, but like rancid fire, with the consistency of chalk. Coughing and trying to breath through the collars of our shirts, we finally park at the end of the drive and get out, already getting more than we bargained for. But the urge to turn around and leave the absolutely unbearable atmosphere makes it all the more heart-rending. This is home to hundreds of people. People who, David explains, are not so very different from us, except that they were born reaping different seeds than we. Seeds neither of us ever chose to sow.
We go first into the “village,” the small community of ramshackle huts and makeshift tents, stalls, and sties where the people who work in the dump live. The entire ground is covered by piles of garbage, neatly sorted into cans, bottles, plastic water and FanIce bags, torn bits of wicker baskets, worn-out shoes. This is the labor of the community, to scavenge the dump for useful trash, and then sort it into piles outside the actual dump itself. They get paid based on what they find, which on somedays is nothing, but never amounts to more than a few cedis, David explains. Everything is covered in filth, actual trash as well as dirt, and even moreso, EVERYTHING is covered in flies. The piles of cans look black because of the density of flies on them, and we slowly make our way among the houses, greeting the residents warmly, aching particularly as we see small children, with little clothing and no shoes, wandering carelessly from pile to pile of waste. They do not go to school, David explains. Last year, when he and his team first visited here, they raised money to sponsor 27 children from the dump to attend nearby schools. He has returned to find that only one or two of them are ever able to go, due to the difficulties of transportation. Waters Edge Ministries’ latest mission is to sponsor teachers to come to the dump to teach the kids, and then perhaps send the more promising ones out for schooling as they grow up. This task is not an easy one, to say the least, but these kids have the same curious, eager faces as kids everywhere, from Manye Academy to Central Jersey and back here, to the dump, and we can see how desparately they need, and deserve, someone to give them a chance.
We continue walking through the community. All the piles have pigs, goats, starving dogs, and cocks picking at them, a hodgepodge herd of wild animals that is moving unchecked throughout the settlement. We walk through the wooden huts, some residents eyeing us suspiciously, others smiling and waving. Behind one of the huts is a huge pile of human hair, long, black and brown, to be made into extensions to sell to the West. It is covered in flies even more thickly than the other piles. We freeze in horror, and I can’t help but shudder at how the pile, particularly when coupled with the nearby mound of tattered shoes, resembles an exhibit I’ve seen in the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. When we move to take out our cameras, people swarm around us, hissing angrily and telling us to go away. David tries to explain our mission calmly and respectfully to one of the men, saying that we only want to help, not to exploit, and I eventually diffuse the situation by asking all the men, women and children around us to join me in a picture. I put my arm around the woman next to me, and she giggles excitedly as the camera flashes. We soon walk back the way we came through the community, preparing ourselves now to actually enter the dump. As we are leaving, we see a tiny, beautiful girl in a fluffy-skirted pink princess dress and bare feet. Her face and dress are dusty; she is no more than three years old. Smiling faintly, she waves at us and stares. Our hearts feel like bursting, but there is nothing to do but walk on.
As we enter the dump itself, the huge mounds of trash and scorched black ash rise up before us like mountains. The mass is at least 4-5 stories high, perhaps higher in some places, and extends as far as the eye can see in all directions. We can distinguish small fires burning on the peaks that spread away above us into the blinding white smoke. There are a couple roads navigating the vast area, and a few garbage trucks cut their way through the white smoke, bringing in fresh new goods. The trucks’ arrival often causes fights, David explains, as he witnessed on his last visit, when the women gathered under the waste as it was being dumped, fighting for the choicest pieces. The thought is painful, particularly after we smile and greet Tina, a talkative, lovely woman wearing a lovely dress of white and blue Ghanaian fabric. She returns to her work, sifting through the ash, and we return to our ungracious gaping. The scene is nauseating, the air unbreathable, and it feels as though everything is on fire. There are small herds of goats and roaming up and down the different peaks, and flies thicker than I’ve ever seen in my life. The ground beneath our feet is a melange of dirt, black ash, and distinguishable trash of every conceivable variety:plaintain peels, cookie wrappers, tin cans, soda bottles, metal scraps, flipflops, a car odometer, etc. There are people nearby digging through it by hand, searching. It makes you feel as though you never want to throw anything away again. We take a few pictures, although none of the people, who have asked us not to photograph them. The stench is suffocating. Above the huge piles of waste and ash, a dazzlingly beautiful sunset has filled the sky. We photograph it, unable to comprehend the infinite contrast between the sky and the earth before us. As I turn to leave, I almost step on a faded red and white Yankees cap, which is covered by a thin layer of dirt, although the logo is still visible. A huge knot rises in my throat and we leave quickly, saying “Thank you and God bless you” to everyone we see as we go out.
At home, we thank David for taking us, and wish him a safe journey home. His parting words are very encouraging, telling us not to get frustrated if we do not always immediately see the results of our efforts here. “Remember, someone sows the seeds, another tends the field, and another reaps the fruit,” he says. “The immense value of your work here may not be fully visible till many years down the road.” I feel dizzy and quite sad, so I cook dinner with Madame Emma to lift my spirits. We make one of our favourite dishes, the delicious Palaver stew (made with bean paste, cocoyam leaves which are like spinach, chicken, vegetables, oil, sugar, and lots of spices). I hope to be able to make it when I go home, despite the fact that the three of the main ingredients are things I’ve never seen before and that Emma only knows the Twi word for. Details.
We read, munch with Dornuki the Cadbury chocolates we’ve bought her, and go to bed early. But because I haven’t done laundry in awhile, I didn’t change my shirt before bedtime. The stench of the ash hangs thickly on my white Oxford shirt, and I lay awake for a long time, breathing in the putrid, horrible scent, and picturing the lovely little girl in the pink dress and the bare feet that I do not know how to help.
At worship this morning, Mr. Kabutey pulled us aside and pointed us in the direction of two obrunis who were heading up the drive to the schoolyard. After introducing themselves, we learned that they were Anita Tarlton and David Waters, a couple in their mid-sixties from South Carolina who come to Ghana every year for about two weeks. Anita started coming in 2001, and has come back ever since, writing a book about her experiences called “Two Watches” (she wears two on her wrist, USA time and Ghana Time). In 2005 she met David, and they were married in 2007. She brought him here for the first time, and David, a recently converted Christian, sensed that the poverty and suffering here might be his true calling from God. They researched water purification systems (something people here are in dire need of) and soon settled on a cheap, efficient, easily installable variety. Together the pair founded Waters Edge Ministries, and they have provided water purification systems to rural villages all through the Volta Region in the East, as well as around Tema, where we are (central-southern Ghana). During one of their trips to Tema, their Ghanaian “adopted son” Reverend Richard James (whose house is in a walled compound next door to Manye, which is how they found us) brought them to the garbage dump nearby (we hadn’t known there was one nearby, but evidently it is the biggest in the country, the receptacle for all the trash from Accra and its suburbs, as well as much of the rest of the country). They were horrified by the sights they beheld there, the living conditions, dehumanizing poverty, and complete absence of education. Reverend James, a young Ghanaian visionary who speaks five languages and preaches all over the world (particularly in Scandinavia), has spent the last five years building churches, each with a school beside it, that welcome everyone, even children who cannot pay at all. Anyways, David and Anita have been working with him to sponsor teachers to come to the dump and teach the young children, and then potentially fund the more promising ones to leave to continue their studies as they get older. David’s philosophy (and part of the title of his book) is that “We reap seeds we did not sow.” We, as Americans, reap the seeds of freedom, liberty, freedom, and safety everyday, and in contrast, these people, particularly the country’s poorest, such as those who live at the dump, reap seeds of anguish, filth, hunger, and disease every day. There is no difference between us, and neither chose the plot he had to till. Thus David believes it is his duty before God to aid those harvesting the poisoned crops, so to speak. He wants to sponsor education for the children of the dump community, he explained, so that they have a chance at something else, so that maybe their children will reap different seeds. Anyways, those are the two missions of Waters Edge (education and water). David and Anita came for two weeks this year with a dozen volunteers from their church, staying in Community 11, Tema, to help out at the dump and install the water devices. Reverend James is building another level onto his already capacious house to accomodate larger groups in the future. The organization’s website is www.weministry.com. They were leaving on a 1am flight to from Accra to Atlanta that night, but nevertheless insisted that they come back for us after school and take us to the dump. “It’s just something you need to see,” said David.
Before leaving, David asked Mr. Kabutey if there were any children from the school in particular poverty who were promising students but whose circumstances were becoming unsustainable. Waters Edge occasionally puts up pictures of such children on their website, accompanied by a short biography, and asks for donors to correspond with the child via letters, get to know them, and sponsor their education. Mr. Kabutey picked five students, mostly older (and thus at greatest risk for compromising their future if not able to prepare for, and pass the imminent high school entrance exams), none of whom I knew. David introduced himself in Twi to each child, asking their names, they were very shy, and remained frozen in place, eyes downcast, but whispered their responses politely. Anita took each child’s picture, and then tried to explain how they would be put up on the net (something none of these children have ever used), and that they would begin to write letters back and forth to people in America who would be generous and help them. David tried to give an example of such a correspondance, saying, “they’ll want to know what you’re like, for instance, do you like fufu and what’s your favourite color?” Unfortunately, these kids, who have a LOT of trouble expressing anything personal, stared blankly at him, looking numb with a fear that probably resulted from being singled out and being confused. They looked helpless and obedient, and even though he was trying to help, we all felt pretty uncomfortable.
Alas, the worst was yet to come. Mr. Kabutey continued by going through, one by one, each child’s hardships, the intimate details of their lives and the specific reasons why they had been chosen. As he laid out each litany of personal suffering, the children’s faces turn to stone, emotionless. We feel horrible, each child reliving the greatest sorrows of their life, sorrows that Mr.Kabutey was deliberately parading before the white people to garner pity, and perhaps money, for the students themselves. It was a good strategy, but it was painful to do in the childrens’ presence. They each tried to look, stern, brave, and indifferent as he spoke, and I think that was the worst part. One of the older girls, Comfort, who is in JHS 2 and taking her exams in April, lost her stepfather (her only guardian) and all her school books, in the recent flood. She has no money and virtually no support, and cannot replace the books, which she needs to prepare for the exams. David asked Mr. Kabutey how much it would cost to replace the books. He vacillated, unsure, said he would have to calculate it. After David pressed him, Mr. Kabutey estimated 70 Ghana cedis (less than $50). David took 60 cedis from his pocket, handed them to Mr. Kabutey, and asked that he buy Comfort new books. The girl’s face lit up for the first time in the whole conversation. Mr. Kabutey praised the Lord, and Comfort, tentatively but happily, gave David a big hug.
Today had a few moments of excitement, the first of which was in the morning. While Kelly was tutoring reading to a first grader, Kelvin, on a bench outside the compound, she saw a huge bull with enormous horns on the nearby soccer field, approaching the school. The women who sell rice from large bowls at Break were outside too, awaiting the bell. When they saw the huge animal, they told Kelly to head inside the compound, and then got up and started heading inside. All of a sudden, the immense bull began charging towards Kelly and Kelvin on the bench. They grabbed their book and sprinted inside, hearts racing, and recounted the story to us. Kelly said it was easily the biggest bull she’d ever seen, and she is from Texas, so that’s saying a lot. The women with the rice soon collected some sizable rocks and began pelting the bull from inside the fence, and eventually it went away without further event. Nevertheless, it was very shaking for Madame Kelly and little Kelvin.
Will gave his lesson on WWII today, and Connie began teaching the sixth grade a song originally by the Animaniacs that lists every country in the world to the tune of the Mexican Hat Dance. It begins, “United States, Canada, Mexico, Panama, Haiti, Jamaica, Peru…” and continues by continent. It’s quite catchy, the kids love it, and it’s a great way to teach geography (we also brought a very large, laminated world map that is quite helpful).
After school, many of the girls asked us if we could paint their nails, so we brought out Kelly’s neon green, neon pink, cherry red, and clear nail polishes and opened the “Obruni Nail Salon” on a bench outside the school. Girls of all ages, as well as a handful of boys, asked us to paint their fingers and toes. It was fun and they loved it, never having experienced such a luxury before. The most popular color, surprisingly, was clear, because about half the kids told us that their fathers would beat them if they saw it, but the clear they could not see. We were hesitant to continue painting their nails at all after such an admission, but they insisted, so we did. Unfortunately, towards the end, a lot of the older kids got out of their after school classes and informed their younger siblings that their fathers would beat them too, if they came home with the polish. Kelly ran inside and got all the nail polish remover wipes that she’d brought, and Kelly, Annabel and I spent the better part of an hour taking the freshly painted polish off of the fingers and toes of a few dozen girls. We felt really bad and didn’t want to get them in trouble, but the girls insisted, Kate and Abigail in particular, that there was no cause for concern because their parents would not notice the nail polish dregs still caked into their cuticles and under their nails, even after our attempts at removal. Plus, it had been fun to get them painted, even if we had to immediately take it off. Instead, the girls began painting our nails. Kate painted my right thumb-nail red, although she painted much of my actual finger red in the process. Then Abigail and an older girl carefully painted my other hand’s nails in alternating neon green and neon pink. Of course, we were out of remover at that point. Not that we would’ve wanted to remove the girls’ handiwork. When I was little, when my grandmother came over she would take out her big trunk-like nail polish case, and together we would paint each of our fingernails a different color. It was quite a treat. And today, similarly, I think my nails look fabulous.
Today we read and relaxed. Because of an accident with my phone in Accra on Saturday, I can no longer use it to post to the blog, so I tried for the first time to connect and operate the 1993 DOS computer at the Kabuteys’ house, as well as the wireless modem that Mr. K purchased. It took me about 15 minutes to turn on the computer, about ten to load the Vodafone Wireless program, and then just as I was investigating it to figure out how to add money onto the account using a phone card I’d bought, the whole computer crashed. It took more than 10 minutes to restart it, and when I loaded the Vodafone program again, the computer, once more, crashed. The third time was the charm and after about two hours and much consternation, I was able to post to the blog.
Now that I’ve got the hang of it, it shouldn’t be so difficult in the future, but for the first hour of the ordeal I was unbelievably frustrated. It was one of the few times here when I felt genuinely angry at the lack of a lot of the basic institutions of functionality that I take for granted at home. I felt bad for having felt that way, and it passed, but it’s impossible to ignore the fact seeping out the edges of that feeling: I am leaving here in three weeks. And every single person that I live with and work with here, will probably never leave, and cannot look forward to the prospect of carpeted floors and pillows and sinks and air conditioning and silverware and toilets and clean sheets and internet access. Which is not to say that I do not love this place, and that they do not love this place, because we both definitely do. The pride and patriotism of the students, teachers, and other Ghanaians we’ve met is remarkable. But I suppose I love it differently then they do, obviously, because it is not my home. And it makes me wonder what fundamental, unadulterated things I would love my home for, if it were stripped of the privileges, physical comforts, and other amenities that I take for granted and that these people, like so many around the globe, live completely sealed off from.
Later in the evening I was discussing the affair of Theresa’s absence with Mr. Kabutey, and expressed to him her frustration at having been punished and singled-out for slapping a boy, when the other teachers cane the students regularly and sometimes viciously (including Mr. Kabutey himself). First he explained that a blow to the head could cause permanent damage, while a whipping on the bottom, legs, hands or arms cannot. But by then he had gotten fairly angry at my American impertinence, and almost yelling, explained, “You know, a few hundred years ago in Britain and America and Europe, you whipped your students too. And then it changed slowly and your people learned to do things differently. We too, are trying to change. But just because Africa is a few hundred years behind where you come from, do not think that we do not want the same things that you want. Do you not think that we dislike the cane even as we use it?” I was speechless, felt horrible, and immediately apologized. Although all he had said earlier in our conversation had not been entirely fair, at this point he had touched on something very profound, and I felt ashamed. Ashamed, I suppose, mostly because I had somehow inspired him to vocalize his own feelings of inferiority towards us, feelings that make us uncomfortable, and that we’ve often felt before in the respect and latitude he gives us, as well as in the breadth and depth he expects of us. It felt like a bizarre juxtaposition of Shylock (“Doth not a Jew bleed?”) and simultaneous affirmation of cultural inferiority, and I felt responsible for having elicited them. Mr. Kabutey smiled, lowered his tone, and continued to speak casually, changing the subject and carrying on with our meeting, but I felt awful.
For the rest of the evening, Annabel, Connie, DK and I made a list on Connie’s laptop of books that Dornuki herself, as well as the rest of the school, could use. From Redwall to Nancy Drew to Harry Potter to Rainbow Fish, we compiled a list of dozens of childhood favourites that we hadn’t thought to bring (or managed to fit) to guide future volunteers. Dornuki suggested Number the Stars, by Lois Lowry, saying she’d read it last year. Skeptical, we asked her if she knew what a Jew was. She said, “Yeah, Jewish,” but no more than that, just an abstract type of people. And as one of the best students in Class Six, the third oldest class here, Dornuki is one of very few who have even heard the word “Jew” before. We asked her if she had ever heard of the Holocaust. She said no. World War II? No. How could you possibly understand Number the Stars then? She shrugs, thinking it’s just another story, like Matilda or Eragon, which has little foundation in reality.
It was then that we realized one of the real weaknesses of an impoverished rural school such as Manye. Because funds are limited, the classes taught and the teachers hired are only those that are absolutely necessary for a basic education and to pass the High School Entrance Exams. There is no history taught whatsoever. Coming from a family of history-junkies as I do, my mind did what I imagine the 1993 DOS I’m currently typing on would do if I tried to, say, install a webcam: in other words, it imploded. But actually, we all were very disturbed, as well as frustrated, by the lack of such basic, crucial global awareness, particularly in someone like Dornuki, who has great prospects for being able to pass the High School exams, and pay the fees to attend. Maybe even go to college. There’s just some stuff, we resolved that you need to know. Even if History is considered luxury riff-raff (it’s a sign of prestige, Mr. K explained to me once, the Manye offers French, because it is not exactly out of necessity). Tomorrow in JHS Comprehension class, Will plans to do a lesson describing and summarizing WWII. It’s a little abstract, but we think they’ll be receptive.
We woke early this morning, and after some refreshing bucket showers, headed to the Accra Mall. As we were leaving school, the kids were arriving for their Saturday classes. Many were wearing sweatshirts because of the cold. It was just over 75 degrees F outside, and we all smiled, thinking of Hanover.
For all its flaws (for instant the detached, and perhaps also elitist attitude of the shopkeepers), Accra Mall is a great place to get food. At least from an obruni perspective. When we arrived around noon (after considerably fewer complications than on our previous visit), the five of us enjoyed a healthy meal of meat pies (from ShopRite), Diet Cokes, bananas, ice cream, and coffee. (There is a small coffee shop at the mall which serves about three drinks, one of which was hot Café Americano, which Will and I enjoyed.)
The purpose of our visit, however, was not to eat, but rather to meet up with a man named Faisal, who a number of previous Manye volunteers had befriended over the years and whose contact information we’d been given. We had talked to Faisal on the phone a few nights before, and he had sounded delighted to meet us. Faisal is the leader of a popular African dance troupe in his neighborhood in Accra, and also owns a store of wood-carvings in the local Arts market. He had agreed to take us to the the market, which is within walking distance (across some highways, but no matter) from the mall. Then he promised to show us his home, dance studio, and neighborhood in the city.
The five of us were waiting outside the entrance to the mall when we saw Faisal approaching. He was a lean, tall Ghanaian of about 25, wearing yellow cotton pants in a traditional Twi dye pattern and a black t-shirt that appeared to say something mildly provocative in Spanish. With him was another member of the dance group, Jimmy, a 23 year old rasta with a sizable amount of hair neatly tucked into a yellow, green, and red woven hat. They greeted us eagerl thrilled to meet the friends of their other American friends, Michelle, Martha, Sidny, and Jenii, as well as their longtime friend from years ago, Tamsin.
After some introductions and small talk, we left the mall and began to cross the half-dozen winding highways that surrounded it, heading in the direction of the Accra Arts Market. On one of the highways, a large tractor trailer was pulled over onto the side of the road, and its driver was kneeling in front of it on a prayer mat, praying. The man was obviously Muslim, who are very much in the minority here, so when I saw Faisal go over and mutter something to the man, I was a little concerned, assuming it had been some sort of hostile comment. Seeing my facial expression, Jimmy laughed and said, “Faisal is himself a Muslim. He was correcting the man to the right direction towards Mecca.” I turned to look back, and sure enough, the man had turned his prayer rug about 45 degrees and was praying in a different direction. Faisal and Jimmy laughed at our confusion.
When we arrived at the Arts Market, it was not quite what we expected. It is not a bustling thoroughfare, nor is it actually in Accra. It is a small area of about a two dozen shops built next to one another in the brush, down a hill from one of the highways, about a kilometer from the mall. There were a handful of other obrunis there, but for the most part, the place was deserted, except for us, and many of the shop owners. We first went into Faisal’s shop, where he proudly showed us an enormous assortment of finely carved and decorated wooden masks. Some were round but most were rectangular, as small as a foot long to about five feet long, the taller ones standing up on their own. The wood was died various shades of deep brown and red, and many of them had bits of metal intricately woven into the faces for decoration. Each mask had a different symbol, of peace, love, etc, all of the ancient Ashanti Empire that had once ruled over all of Ghana. Other shops had lovely beads, bags, fabrics, and pots. Jimmy showed us his store too, which he had just opened and which contained many beautiful traditional African paintings on thick canvas.
After buying some masks, paintings, and beads, Annabel, Kelly and I went outside the market to wait. There we found a small monkey tied by its waist to a tree. Faisal informed us that it was his monkey, and bought some crackers for us to feed it. However, when Annabel went to feed it a cracker, the otherwise docile monkey lunged, clamping down its teeth and nails on her wrist. Horrified at the bite, we immediately called our personal medical help line, i.e. Will’s parents. After much discussion, consultation, and deliberation, we determined that the risk of Annabel getting rabies was negligent, and that she did not need to be taken to the hospital. A woman from one of the tents nearby brought over a bottle of yellow liquid and poured it onto Annabel’s cut (which had hardly punctured the skin), and told us it was “kerosene, to stop the bleeding.” We thanked her, but determined to avoid being soaked in kerosene in the future. Finally we left, a little shaken but all in one piece, and caught a tro-tro towards Accra.
We got off the tro-tro in the village of Mamodi, a small, poor neighborhood in Accra. Accra does not really have a downtown, but rather is spread out into a variety of small communities, many of which are comprised of tightly packed huts and shanties of the residential community, and then also contain one or two streets with small booth-like shops. As soon as we disembarked from the tro-tro in Mamodi, we could tell that the atmosphere was a little different. For starters, all the young girls wore brilliantly colored cloths over their hair, not frivolously, as many Ghanaian girls do exclusively for fashion, but deliberately, with the actual intention of covering their hair. Also, when Faisal got out of the van, he was immediately greeted by a few waves and smiles from across the street. We heard someone yelling his name. “My sister,” he said, shrugging his shoulders and smiling. Mamodi was Faisal’s home turf, and after a few minutes of weaving into its winding alleys, he pushed open the blue metal gate of a small compound, and welcomed us to his home. The compound was a flurry of activity. It contained about fifteen women of all ages, the tenants, he told us. One was casually peeling, cutting, and pounding cassava into a large wooden bowl with a huge wooden stick, and invited us to try our hand at pounding. She peeled small pieces of the raw cassava for each of us, and then showed us how to lift the stick above our heads, smash it down into the vegetable, spinning the wood as we pounded it to create a fine paste for the dough. Faisal then led us into a small room inside, where there was a torn, Styrofoam mattress in one corner and a small desk covered in papers and waterbags in the other. A few strings suspended various garmets from the ceiling. The room was easily less than 100 sq. feet. Faisal proudly explained how he had lived there his whole life with his parents and two siblings. We were shocked. Faisal then explained that he wanted to take us on a tour of the neighborhood before bringing us to a local place for dinner in an hour, around 5pm. Before we left, I asked to use the washroom, which was a small enclosure of four concrete walls behind the house. The ground was slanted downhill, with a thin concrete gutter cut through it and leading out of the compound. I wondered were the waste went.Unfortunately, I found out sooner than I anticipated. Immediately upon leaving the compound, we began weaving into the alleys that are the streets of the slums. Faisal’s compound was far nicer than the surrounding area, which was tightly packed with shacks and small concrete huts. The paths between the walls were no more than 2-3 ft wide, about 8 inches of which, down the center, was an open sewer of concrete, cut about six inches deep in the ground. We saw concrete funnels, like the one I’d used at Faisal’s compound, jutting out from the walls beside us, their contents emptying into the small sewer system that wove its way through every path we turned on. The place was a maze, but luckily Faisal new it well, navigating the narrow alleys by walking with one foot on each side of the sewers. Often, there would be young children playing football in the small space, so Faisal would yell “Stay ball,” until they stopped, picked up the ball, and pressed themselves against the wall on one side of the sewer so that we could pass on the other. The sewer itself was about an inch deep with the milky colored detergent water from washing, and the ground and both sides was littered with all sorts of things, from empty water bags and FanIce packets to torn rubber flipflops to cracked, dry coconut shells and strands of recording tape that looked like they had been pulled out of a cassette. The earth one both sides of the sewer channel was a thick layer of dust, and sometimes scattered bits of broken concrete. The alleys were also filled with animals, mostly goats and sheep, presumably owned by people in the various houses we were passing, and Faisal clicked his tongue as we passed so that they would not touch us in the narrow space. A handful of young men passed us in the opposite direction as we went, and each greeted Faisal warmly. He seemed to be a very prominent individual in his neighborhood, and was very proud to be showing us his home. A train of women also passed us, carrying enormous overflowing bowls of grain on their heads. We all plastered ourselves to one side of the space so that they could pass without endangering their loads and without walking the sewer channel itself. Faisal told us how he had contracted malaria three days before, and had come from the hospital just before meeting us, glad that he’d been able to start the medication before our meeting.
Eventually, the alleys opened into a huge clearing. We gathered that we’d come to the edge of the residential neighborhood. The clearing was as big as a football field, and the earth was inches deep with loose brown dust. In the center was a tent and a band playing music that was amplified across the large space by siable speakers. Arranged in an arc around the band were about a hundred people and even more plastic folding chairs, some covered by cloth awnings. All were dressed in beautiful gold, brown and black robes, with intricate and vivid patterns woven into the fabrics. Jimmy explained to us that it was a funeral. The elders were sitting under one awning, watching the band, and the younger people were eating crackers and soda on the other side. A few were dancing, kicking up dust in the open area in front of the band. It seemed like a lovely celebration, and we watched the band for about ten minutes before heading up the hill on the opposite side of the clearing, where the Accra Center for the Arts was located. “This, Faisal explained, is where we have our dance studio.” He told us that rehearsals are Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, and we hope to come back soon to watch them dance.
We turned and headed away from the center, to another large open space, this one of deeper red dust, where a few dozen young boys were playing football. None of them had shirts on, and we noticed, not for the first time, how many of the people here have belly-buttons that extend between 1-3 inches in a cone shape from their stomach. It is a mark of poverty, Nurse Emma had explained, because it is expensive to pay for a doctor who is skilled enough to cut the umbilical cord short without risking injury to the child. And, she said, it is just sloppy, because a stomach is rarely seen, and thus not viewed as important. We crossed the street and headed back into the tightly packed streets of Mamodi. We stayed at first on one of the commercial roads, however, which although narrow, was paved and open. We could tell it was the Muslim quarter of the city, because four minarets cropped up around us behind the store-booths, and we saw more a few blocks away. Annabel bought some paper at a booth/shop filled with pens, notebooks, and other school supplies. Many of the stores had blessings written on their frames in Arabic script.
We turned a corner and all of a sudden were in an enormous crowd of people. In the center of the street was a circle of plastic chair occupied by somewhat older, matronly looking women, all of them wore dresses of the brightest, richest ruby red color I have ever seen in my life, with patterns and trim snaking over the fabric in an equally brilliant shade of gold. The women’s heads were wrapped expertly with scarves of matching red and gold fabric, and the whole assembly looked absolute breathtaking. But that was just the beginning. All around the women the street was completely packed with children and young people, all wearing robes and dresses and headscarves in the brightest purples, blues, and greens I’ve ever beheld. There was also Ghanaian music blasting from two ENORMOUS speakers on the side of the road, much louder that at even the most deafening dance parties I’ve attended. About ten feet down the road, another group of women were tending to a huge pot (about two feet across in diameter) that looked like a witch’s cauldron. It was sitting in a large fire pit, and was brimming with some sort of bright red, boiling tomato stew. The women had a thick wooden staff with which they were stirring it, and the aroma was spicy, rich, and delicious. We watched in awe as the group cooked and sung and danced and stirred and sat in the circle. A wedding, Faisal told us. You guys are likely to stumble upon all the sacraments at this rate, he laughed.
After watching the wedding festivities for a few minutes, we descended some dusty steps down from the road that led us back into the slum. We walked through the narrow alleys for a few moments, and all of a sudden were taken completely by surprise as we emerged onto an open, wooden bridge. The bridge was fairly large, about five feet wide and perhaps thirty feet long. It crossed from one side of the shantytown to the other, traversing a fairly large river. Of sewage. The banks on each side of the gulf rose about twenty feet in the air, made mostly out of dust pebbles and litter. It looked as though a great river had carved out a winding path through the neighborhood, except that the river itself was really just the receptacle for all the small, concrete sewage tributary gutters that wind through the city’s alleys. The shacks and tents and shanties seemed to be almost spilling over from both sides of the escarpment, clinging to the dusty edges of the tall bank. Below the bridge, the thin layer of liquid barely moved, and was filled with trash and litter of all kinds. A few dirty goats walked along the bank. Two young boys, one on each side of the water, amused themselves by throwing a football across it to one another. The ground was scattered with lots of trash, but notable a great array of glass bottles, and I noticed that the boys weren’t wearing shoes. As we came onto the bridge we all froze, in complete disbelief of the extent of the poverty and filth before us. The river wound back and forth, extending as far as the eye could see in both directions from the bridge. The shacks dangled from the tips of the high, dusty banks on both sides for as far as the river went, as though the other shanties were pushing them off the small cliffs, so crowded was the space. We could not help but quickly snap a few photos, so staggered were we at the view. A few older men hissed at us from the nearby houses, but Faisal clicked his tongue at them and we gingerly crossed the bridge to the opposite bank.
After navigating another very confusing network of alleys, Faisal and Jimmy stopped at a small hut, one wall made of concrete and the others open, a wooden stake in each corner and a canvas above for a roof. It was the “local restaurant” he’d promised. There was a woman stirring a large black pot of something, and the air was thick with the white smoke from the fire, trapped beneath the canvas roof and the walls of the buildings beside it. We sat down on a wooden bench behind the woman, closing our eyes and smarting somewhat from the thick, stinging smoke. We were all tearing quite a bit, and Will, Kelly and Connie each tried going outside of the tent briefly to minimize the pain in their eyes. Unfortunately, because of the close proximity of all the buildings, the smoke lay heavily outside as in, and there was little relief. Eventually Jimmy and Faisal brought us two large bowls of Tuo, which is very similar to Banku. One of the bowls held about a dozen balls of tender, steaming dough (pounded fine from corn and cassava meal), and the other bowl held the spicy soup. It was an oily tomato broth with heavy spices, garlic, pepper, and large chunks of fatty goat meat. Just as with banku, one is meant to rip a piece of the dough (marble-sized to golf-ball sized) with one’s fingers, swirl it gently between thumb and forefinger, dip it generously in the hot soup and then eat it slowly, without chewing, mashing the dough gently with the tongue before swallowing. Eating banku and tuo is thus a bit of an art. I have no idea how one is supposed to eat the bits of goat meat, although presumably just with one’s hands. We, however, committed the ultimate obruni move and asked for spoons, so that we could eat the soup more easily (at least we didn’t ask for individual bowls). With the spoons we scooped the dough and slurped the tremendously spicy soup and demolished the lamb chunks in collaboration with our fingers and teeth. By the end we were all sweating quite a lot, and our hands were thickly coated in the red oil. We did our best to clean off with a small water pail that Jimmy found for us, paid the woman and left the hut. We wound back through the alleys to Faisal’s compound, grabbed the heavy masks and paintings that we’d bought earlier, and Faisal led us out of residential Mamodi to the street, where we could find a cab.
We were home within an hour, and quite relieved to be so after such an emotionally and physically taxing day. We were, unsurprisingly, still hungry, and Dornuki, Kelly and I popped over to the local catering place/small restaurant, “Geotess’es” (we pronounce it “Gee-oh-teez” as someone once, perhaps mistakenly, instructed us). Geotess’es is about a six-minute walk from the school, and although the only dishes they technically offer are fried rice w/chicken, and banku, they are delighted to make us above-average (by Ghanaian standards) French fries w/ fried chicken periodically, provided, of course, that we throw some Ghana Cedis their way, which, naturally, we are delighted to do. Anyways, after some fries, Alvaro pear/pineapple sodas, and some vanilla FanIce and digestive biscuit ice cream sandwiches, we felt much better, and eventually went to sleep.
Today was a flurry of activity, beginning with Madames Kelly and Annabel making crowns in the KG class. The class is enormous, with 42 four and five year-olds crammed into one room, and thus somewhat unwieldy. Nevertheless, crowns were a huge hit, and all the tiny kids paraded them around for everyone to see during First Break. The paper of Selassie’s crown was wrapped around his head twice to fit the small size, but unsurprisingly, it looked fabulous.
In Class Four Creative Arts I tried, still determined to make some headway with poetry, to teach a lesson about ‘Odes’. I figured that an ode is a fairly structured form of poetry with obvious focus and still room for creativity. After explaining the concept to the class, I asked for suggestions for a group topic. At Nelson’s suggestion, we collaboratively wrote a fairly disjointed “Ode to a tree,” the highlight of which were the lines, “trees produce fruit/or sometimes medicine comes from the roots.” Anyway, armed with a box of Crayola 500, I gave each kid an exotic colored crayon. We had everything ranging from “big dip o’ruby” to “tickle me pink” and “jazzberry jam” (one girl, reasonably, complained about getting “tumbleweed,” a nasty grey-brown). After explaining what a robin was (for Robin’s egg blue) and what rubies were, and wisteria, and what “mauvelous” meant, I asked the kids to try to write an ode to their crayon, either to the color or to the object itself. Everyone did some version of describing their crayon as “short” and copying the poem from the board, and about half the poems ended in “Thank you Madame” and the other half in “I love you” or “I love my crayon”. It was a bit frustrating, although the assignment was evidently not my best idea ever, because the funny names (that I thought would be a blast to write about) meant very little to the kids. My favourite line was from Godsway’s poem, saying “I love my crayon because it smells/like hot diesel.”
After class we met for lunch, and the five of us conferred about how to get Madame Theresa back. It is our most pressing issue, because she is far and away the most competent and respected teacher at the school, and has been absent since Monday. One of the other teachers, Eric, told us that she was not actually absent because of an ulcer, but rather because she had gotten in trouble for something questionable and had been unfairly treated by Mr. Kabutey. We resolved that Annabel, Kelly and I would visit her during “Games” (a great excuse to escape the mayhem!) and thought it would be best to bring a gift. Theresa is an avid reader, and speaks better English than any of the teachers. I know in the past she’s asked to borrow some of the books I’ve given Dornuki to read, so I figured a book would be a particularly nice gift. I apologize in advance to my mother for this, but the only somewhat appropriate book that also was a hard-cover and looked somewhat new was the book my mother had given me just before I left, called “Mandela’s Way.” It is an overview of modern South African history written by Nelson Mandela’s biographer, and focuses around his personality traits and leadership style while giving a thorough summary of his life. It’s structured around the theme “what it takes to be a great leader,” and that seemed appropriate for Theresa. Anyways, I got out my Leatherman pocket knife and, recalling my attempts to master the exacto-knife in high school Fine Arts, sliced out the page near the front on which my mother had written a warm inscription (don’t worry Mummie, I saved the page). Then I used the Martha Stewart craft glue I’d brought for Creative Arts to glue the edge of the binding back in, and Kelly dried it on the fan. Annabel wrote a new inscription on the front page, praising Theresa’s abilities and thanking her for everything she’d done for us. We all signed it.
Wisdom (Class Six) and Dornuki then led us to her house. We bought Alvaro and candy on the way to give to her kids, who she has also pulled out of school. After knocking on the door, Theresa’s son Jeff welcomed us in. Although small, the house had a full kitchen with a sink and an oven. We were also amazed to see a toilet and, when we walked into the main room, a large set of speakers and an enormous flat-screen TV. Other than that, there were a few leather chairs and a sofa. The floor was a bit dirty, but shiny and tiled. Suffice it to say, in one of Ghana’s poorest communities, it was by far the nicest house we’ve seen. We sat down with Theresa, and after some formalities she began to explain what had actually happened. Apparently, on Monday morning, Mr. Kabutey awoke from a revelation that one of the teachers was going to get into trouble. At morning assembly, he asked all the students to pray for that teacher. Moments later, an angry parent called the school. The man demanded to speak to Madame Theresa, saying he was a powerful fetish priest. She told us that although that was very old-fashioned and she didn’t believe it, it was very intimidating. He accused her of slapping his son and causing him great pain and evil. A very docile, reserved boy, she had never come into contact with him at school, didn’t have him in any of her classes, and didn’t even know his name (Theresa is also the ONLY teacher at Manye who does not believe in, and frequently practice, corporal punishment). The priest threatened to bring all his sorcerers and all their fetishes to the school to punish her and her children. She was frustrated that Mr. Kabutey did not defend her, and shocked and afraid, she did not return to school. She was particularly bothered because another teacher told her later that she’d had a dream the same night that Theresa’s daughter would be kidnapped by one of her schoolgirl friends, who would then turn into a deadly snake. Although she told us she didn’t believe in the voodoo magic, she hadn’t wanted to risk taking on the threat and she found the coincidence of the dreams hard to ignore. She seemed to believe that the boy whose father had called was being possessed by dark forces into accusing her of violence. We talked to her for awhile, reassuring her not only that it was blatantly untrue, but that everyone at the school needs, loves, and respects her, and eagerly awaits her return. After long conversation, she agreed to seriously consider our request, and we agreed to speak on her behalf with Mr. Kabutey over the weekend. She thanked us for the gifts, and we left. We couldn’t help but remark at how the two most capable, together, responsable, and perceptive people we’ve met here are Madame Emma and Madame Theresa.
After school, the five of us decided to spend the evening in Accra, and managed to get a tro-tro that agreed to take us all the way there. Unfortunately, it is about 30km from Community 25 to Accra, and so the local drivers and almost completely unfamiliar with the area. Once we reached the city, we pulled over and asked some soldiers for directions (we were looking for an ex-pat friendly “American-style” sports bar and restaurant called “Honeysuckle.” After the enlisting the help of a few different people and the surprisingly effective (though limited) mapping and directional functions on my IPhone GPS, we arrived, nearly three hours after leaving school. Although we are “tropicalized,” the A/C that hit us when we entered felt greatly refreshing. After consuming Diet Coke (with ice cubes!!!), real French Fries, burgers, onion rings, mac n’ cheese, and omelette, and a delicious Caprese salad, we were content. At the request of the Indian proprietor, I briefly dj-ed using my IPhone and the bar’s sound system to blast American music, and we left soon after, happily refreshed.
Today began smoothly, with Philip cruising through Charlotte’s Web, and Clifford acing his spelling test. I found “A Little Princess” and gave it to Rose, excited that she would get to read my childhood favourite. Unfortunately, things got a little out of control after that. Mr. Kabutey sat Will down in his office, extremely concerned, and told him that the WPE credit card had not been working for two weeks. He had been out of money for one week, and was unable to pay the teachers. Furthermore, he was out of money to buy us food. He asked Will to give him 250 Ghana cedis to cover the cost, but he declined (we didn’t feel comfortable doing that). We tried our best to contact support in America to either fix the account or wire money, and the five of us put our heads together to try to think up an alternate solution. Meanwhile, Mr. Kabutey, who freaking out about the lack of funds, left for the bank, to try inserting his card again, hoping it might work. When we realized he had left without us, we called him, urging him to come back and let us go with him so that we could help orchestrate the wire transfer. Unfortunately, he didn’t return until 3:15pm, about two hours after we initially called him. Banks in Ghana close at 3pm, so it was too late to return to Tema. We were trying to reason with him over the best course of action to take to get the money, when all of a sudden a huge FanIce (bagged ice cream) truck lumbered down the muddy, potholey road beside the school. All of a sudden dozens of kids jumped for joy, and Mr. Kabutey ran over and jumped into the truck to discuss his purchase with the driver. We were left standing, confused as to whether he would let us go into Tema to try the credit card, confused as to why he had left mid-conversation, why he had boarded the FanIce truck, and confused as to why they were buying FanIce for all the students if they were completely out of money.
After school, some of the Class Two b Boys (Jerry, Prince, Samuel Ansah, Samuel Sagoe, and Derrick) played a game where they fought over marrying me, and who would get to be my first, second, third, and fourth husband. It was very entertaining to watch them each try earnestly to convince me that they were 29 years old, rather than eight.
Later, I asked Dornuki (President of Class Six’s friendship bracelet company “Busy Bee Bracelets Inc.” or B3, for short) whether I could commission some bracelets for my sister, mother, and friends with personalized color combinations and designs. The bracelets the kids are making are unbelieveable, and the prices they charge (anywhere from $1-6/bracelet, depending on the complexity of the design) are incredibly reasonable, if not under-priced, considering the enormous amount of time it takes to make them. Anyways, we spent nearly an hour pouring over all the patterns and scrutinizing all the possible color combinations. The kids tend to pick wonderful color palates of a unique African aesthetic, which makes the bracelets unusual and distinctive compared to the slumber-party products you might see more commonly in America. Their taste, however, tends to be for very dark combinations. Working with DK, we came up with four bracelet combinations that incorporated the African-flavoured color palate that was simultaneously light enough to suit my preferences. I commissioned four bracelets, the total coming to $11. “You may pay when they are completed,” quoth President Dornuki dramatically. Personally, I can’t wait. I’ll try to post a picture of some of the amazing handiwork to the blog, and I would be delighted to commision bracelets on behalf of anyone who is, regrettably, not with us in Ghana at the moment, at the headquarters of B3 Inc., and thus unable to place the order personally. The plan, by the way, is to use the profits that the company makes to help fund the students’ high school tuition three years down the road.
The rest of the evening was fairly low-key, until just before we went to bed. I went to use the latrine outside, but forgot to bring the key, and so I didn’t use it. As I was heading back (the latrines are about 50 yards from the house in the direction opposite the school) I smelled smoke and burning. At first I thought it was coming from a bonfire at the construction site behind the school, because I saw smoke coming from that direction. But as I walked past the latrine, I saw a bright light coming from the inside. Which was curious, because there’s no electricity. Upon closer look, I saw through the cracks of the door that the whole back wall of the center latrine (there are three, one for the family, one for guests, and one for us, all attached and all made of wood) was ablaze. My initial thought was that someone was burning our toilet paper (a fairly normal occurence that happens about once a week; they don’t use TP here, but they burn ours so that it doesn’t build up), but through the crack it looked more like the outhouse itself, rather than the toilet paper, was on fire. I ran around behind to double check, and sure enough, the fire had burnt a large hole in the back wall of the outhouse. The wind was blowing the flames into the bushes behind the latrine, and the fire from the center one had started to burn into the wall of ours. The wind was picking up, blowing the fire in the direction of the small wooden enclosure of Madame Emma’s kitchen, which sits about 50 yards away (in a triangle with the latrines and the house) and directly beside the school). Unsure what to do, I ran to get Madame Emma from the kitchen and informed her, “I think the latrine is on fire.” She stared in disbelief for a brief moment, and then handed me a huge mixing bowl full of water she’d been using to clean dishes. She grabbed another bowl, poured some water into it from the water barrel in the kitchen (there are no sinks here) and we both ran out to the latrine. She unlocked the door of the middle stall, and we saw that the flames had blackened almost the whole back wall. They appeared to be coming out of the floorboards and were eating away at the whole structure. No toilet paper was in sight, and it didn’t appear to have been the source of the fire. We doused it with water as best we could, and ran back and forth two more times to fill up our bowls and douse the fire from behind, where it had started burning into the undergrowth. When it was finally put out, Madame Emma matter-of-factly said, “I’m glad you saw that because otherwise the whole thing would’ve burned down by the morning.”. I couldn’t help thinking that her kitchen, our house, and the wooden school building itself might’ve caught fire too. I asked Madame Emma what she thought might have started the blaze. She shrugged, “Maybe the man who burns the toilet paper?”. But it seemed very odd to me, because no one but us and the family is around at that hour (it was 9pm), all the other volunteers had been reading since dinner in the house, DK was asleep in the house, Emma had been working in the kitchen, and Mr. Kabutey had been on the other side of the compound in his office. Furthermore, when I unlocked our latrine afterwards, the box full of the week’s toilet paper was still overflowing, so the burning of the TP, our only logical explanation, was manifestly not the cause of the fire. It was pretty disconcerting, but I went back to the house, told the others and explained that everything was fine. Somewhat shaken, I went to bed.