Monday, April 16, 2012

Plastic Bottles

I sat at the glass topped cane table waiting for my food. Savoring the refreshing relief of the ocean breeze, I glanced across the heap of papers in front of me to three empty plastic bottles toppled on their sides. Undoubtedly left on the table by customers now gone, I could not help but feel a slight twinge of annoyance that my server had not seen to them. Soon after, my food arrived, and turning my mind from the bottles, I was once again immersed in my readings on Ghana’s land tenure system. It was at that moment that I felt an unexpected tap on my shoulder and heard the hisses of whispering behind me. Turning around, I found myself facing four young boys staring up at me inquiringly. I greeted them and in Fante—the local language—asked them how they were to which they responded with smiles and laughter, but after their laughter subsided, their looks of inquiry returned. Before I could say anything, a boy who looked to be maybe ten years old gestured toward the table and politely asked if he and his friends could have the three plastic bottles abandoned on the corner of my table to use as water bottles for school. Happily, I handed him the bottles, and immediately, each boy’s face lit up into a smile. As they ran off, I stared unfocused, lost in thought at the place where the bottles had rested.

Since my arrival in Ghana, I have had many similar experiences to the one above, experiences which have catapulted me into pondering humanity and differing perspectives. It is not simply about contentment as individuals, contentment for what we may possess by the sweat of our own brows, the graciousness of a higher being, or simply the absurdism of chance. Much deeper questions of materialistic desires and their relation to economic progress and modernity should be addressed. What is economic growth? Is it beneficial to tie growth and progress to conspicuous and ever increasing consumption? What constitutes well being and sustainable living? Why must it take tens of years, thousands of lives, and a Youtube video for those with material wealth to notice atrocities and instability in regions of the world lacking fossil fuels, rare earth elements, and other scarce natural resources? What are the implications of a world in which the bottom line of an account ledger is the difference between starvation and nourishment?

On a lighter note, I have discovered some wonderfully rich and delicious Ghanaian cuisine! Though it is more of a snack food, hands down, my favorite is kelewele—pronounced kelly-welly. Kelewele is a mixture of cubed, ginger spiced, fried plantains with groundnuts—essentially peanuts—often added. My Ghanaian friend, Jinjiwa, introduced me to kelewele, and I have been in love with it ever since. Another favorite of mine is Waakye, pronounced: Wah-chee. Waakye in its simplest form is a mixture of beans and rice, but it is acceptable to add any or all of the following: pasta noodles, hard boiled eggs, grilled fish, sausage, pepper sauce, and/or a tomato sauce. In a close third, is red red which is a combination of fried plantains and beans which are cooked into a palm oil based stew, giving the dish its red color. The bean stew also includes diced tomatoes and onions, mackerel, and red pepper. A few weeks ago, I had the privilege of learning how to make red red from another friend of mine, Kofi, who is widely regarded as the best cook on his floor in his hall. Needless to say, my cooking skills leave much to be desired, but hopefully by the time I leave, I will have improved.

Though not my favorites, I do enjoy fufu, egg stew on rice, and banku. Fufu, a famous dish in West Africa, is a pounded mixture of cassava and plantain similar to the consistency of bread dough. The fufu is immersed in a large bowl of soup, most commonly light or groundnut soup. Typically, either cooked fish, chicken, beef, or grass-cutter—a large rodent—is also added to the light soup. The dish is eaten with the right hand only by using the first three fingers to cut the fufu and the meat. Both my Ghanaian friends and I found my first attempt at eating fufu an entertaining affair, but repeated attempts have yielded much better results. Unfortunately, I do not know exactly what goes into egg stew besides hard boiled eggs, but it appears to be of a tomato and palm oil base and is relatively spicy. My first taste of egg stew on rice was when I had the pleasure of meeting Jinjiwa’s mother in early April, and she graciously insisted on feeding us before we continued on from Accra to Kumasi, Ghana’s second largest city. Banku is similar in texture to fufu, but instead of cassava and plantains, it is cooked fermented corn dough and cassava dough. Banku is customarily eaten with either fried fish or grilled tilapia and a spicy pepper sauce. Overall, I have found that I enjoy most Ghanaian dishes, and I cannot wait to try my hand at cooking more of them!

It is hard to believe that another semester is at an end, and I am excited for what the future holds. I can truly say that these last three and a half months have been more challenging but inexpressibly more fulfilling than I could have anticipated. Though lectures here at UCC end on April 20 and exams finish on May 18, much of my work is just beginning. With the help of a grant from B-W’s Office of Undergraduate Research and Creative Studies, I will remain in Ghana until August to conduct research on refugee-host population relations in the area of the Buduburam Refugee Camp. –April 16, 2012, Cape Coast, Ghana.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Changing Venues

I glanced at my watch: 4:28 P.M.—two minutes until lecture. I took the steps entering the New Lecture Theater two at a time, lengthening my stride as I crossed the naturally lit expanse of its main floor. My eyes fixed upon NLT 2 while my thoughts quelled my incessant internal call for punctuality. However, to my surprise, as I reached the threshold, wooden doors ajar, a chaotic yet empty collection of desks and chairs greeted me. Quickly reaching into my bag, I found my planner, already knowing my search’s futility. My eyes rested on the bracketed timeslot within whose outline, boldfaced and underlined, was NLT 2. In denial of the inevitable, I took a seat at the nearest desk and hoped in vain for other students to fill the hall. Seconds turned into minutes, and yet, I remained alone. Finally, standing up with a slight grin, I left the hall and backtracked to the History Department block. I entered its courtyard and casually approached the department bulletin board, locking my gaze upon the lecture timetable—a hard copy listing of the locations and times of all available courses in each department respectively. In the last two weeks, I had managed to develop a love-hate relationship with this particular timetable. That night I discovered that both the time and location of my elusive 4:30 P.M. lecture had been changed.

Two weeks prior, this incident would have elicited some frustration in me, but since, I had quickly learned—after multiple similar experiences—that lecture locations and times could be expected to change with as much certainty as the continuous crashing of the nearby ocean waves. Luckily, I am fortunate to now have Ghanaian friends in each of my lectures who have taken it upon themselves to ensure that I am kept in the word-of-mouth information loop.

Outside the lecture halls, I have been personally touched by the sincerity and graciousness of each Ghanaian with whom I have interacted. No personal interaction is overlooked, undervalued, or glossed over. A trip to the market is not simply an exercise in consumption, the sole focus to find a good at a reasonable price. Rather, it is about community, about building relationships, and understanding that we are all one. Regardless of whether or not I intend to buy anything or not, there are vendors whom I visit each time I stroll through the market simply to say “hi” and talk about the day’s happenings.

In the last four weeks, in addition to figuring out lecture schedules and meeting many wonderful people, I have managed to transition to living in a significantly different environment. The campus of University of Cape Coast (UCC) is divided into two sides—Science and Old Site. As its name implies, Old Site was the university’s original campus and is where most of the administration buildings are located. Following the palm tree lined drive to the West Gate at Old Site and just across the main road is the Atlantic Ocean, an unbroken expanse of blue all the way to Antarctica. The newer side of campus is Science which is home to department blocks, numerous lecture theaters, and many residence halls. Unlike most of the other U.S. exchange students who live in Kwame Nkrumah Hall, I live in the Graduate Hostel.

A short distance from the Grad Hostel is the Science market and taxi station. The market itself is made up of rows of steel storage units that have been transformed into small stores, forming a maze of narrow walkways beneath roofs of corrugated metal. Though the Science market is hardly as comprehensive as those in town, there are places to by snack food and meals as well as different vendors ranging from Xerox services stores to a mobile phone shop. Just outside of the market is the taxi station with routes to Old Site, Elmina—a town just west of Cape Coast, and to different neighborhoods in Cape Coast, specifically Kotokuraba and King’s Way. With the help of Francis, I learned how to use the system of taxis and navigate my way through the Kotokuraba Market in Cape Coast. It is roughly a ten minute taxi ride to both King’s Way and Kotokuraba and costs one Ghana Cedi and fifty pesewas, or just under $1.00, for a round trip shared taxi. A shared taxi is always filled with at least four occupants besides the driver with each occupant paying a fixed fare depending on the route. Sometimes the wait for three other occupants is lengthy, but most of the time it is minimal.

In the next month, I intend to travel to Kumasi—the capital of the Asante Empire. Overall, my time in Ghana has been unbelievable, and I am eager to add to my ever growing collection of incredible experiences. –February 17, 2012, Cape Coast, Ghana.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

First Impressions: From Kotoka International Airport to the Valco Trust Graduate Hostel

I am happy to say that after hearing about the issues encountered by some of the other international students while traveling from the U.S. to Ghana, my flights and layovers were comparatively uneventful. As planned, I managed to sleep a little on the flight from Chicago to London, and was able to stay awake for the full duration of both my six hour layover in London and my seven hour flight to Accra. By the time I made it through customs, which was laborious yet luckily uneventful, I was exhausted. As I turned the corner into the main hall of the exit, I was met by a chaotic crowd of people holding signs for arriving travelers such as myself. I walked toward the exit passing tens of, if not nearly a hundred, people with a sea of signs, but I had yet to spot a single one bearing my name. Finally, within twenty feet of the outside world, there stood a solemn man with the sign I most dearly sought. With little more than a hello and a one word confirmation that he was indeed from the University of Cape Coast (UCC), I followed him through the double doors into a foggy darkness and to a sky blue pickup truck on whose sides were printed in canary yellow letters "University of Cape Coast." That night I stayed in the UCC Accra office guest house and made the three hour plus trek to Cape Coast by van with Isaac, an employee with UCC's Center for International Education (CIE), the following day.

It was already late afternoon when I was able to settle down in my room and begin to unpack. Before moving into my room, we stopped by the CIE which oversees all of UCC's international students and exchange programs. There, I met some of the other international students from the U.S. studying at UCC for the semester, and I met Auntie Stella--the Senior Assistant Registrar of the CIE. In Ghana the usage of "auntie" is a sign of respect for women, and Auntie Stella has helped all of us from the U.S. get acclimated. After meeting everyone at CIE, I was able to start unpacking and feel more at home in my room. I live on the third floor of the Valco Trust Graduate Hostel on the Science side of campus (I promise to explain this in my next post) with my Ghanaian roommate, Francis. Our room's floor, walls, and ceiling are cement but we have four large, curtain covered windows--two on the outer wall overlooking the courtyard below and two on the inner wall adjacent to the hallway.

Our windows are always open and I love that the sounds and smells of the world beyond our cement walls freely enter and exit, connecting us to the surrounding community. It is not uncommon to hear the sound of a rooster call as he signals the dawn to the world around him, the rhythmic sweeping of a resident cleaning his or her balcony, or the distant beeps of a taxi racing down the road. Nor, the smell of the morning breeze imbued with the freshness of the not so distant ocean waves, the faint but metallic and rough scent of vehicle exhaust, or the pungent hint of human body odor barely discernible in the humid, sunny afternoon. It is all wholly different to me, but even now, I am beginning to recognize the immense beauty and tranquility embodied in how each has its own story to tell, its own role to play in the past, present and future of Ghanaian culture. I hardly pretend to understand and probably never will, but what is more important is the realization that from even the most unlikely of sources or the most seemingly irrelevant of details, lessons can and will be learned. :-)
View from my balcony
Ocean view near UCC

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Atovaquone and Proguanil Hydrochloride

Hello! Here I am sitting outside of my gate at the Gerald R. Ford International Airport in Grand Rapids, MI waiting until boarding begins for my flight to Chicago. Fittingly, the flight at the gate directly across the terminal from me is to Cleveland...sorry Cleveland, going to have to side with Cape Coast this time. Anyways, enough with the pleasantry plane talk.

First a brief explanation of the blog title. In 1957, Ghana was the first sub-Saharan African colony to achieve independence from its colonial power--U.K.--and has since established itself as a beacon of peace and democracy in an otherwise turbulent region. The national motto is "Freedom and Justice," and it is inscribed on Independence Arch in the Independence Square in Accra, Ghana commemorating the state's independence from the U.K. My use of the motto is strictly to express my interest and respect for the state of Ghana and its honorable history. I hope to learn more about its origins,  and its meaning to the country's people :) 

It is day two of many to come, taking anti-malarial pills, and thankfully, I am free of side effects. However, getting my hands on a six month supply was a process, but considering the alternative, well worth the effort. When I first picked up my prescription back in December I was only able to get 90 pills (1 pill/day) only covering me for about half of my anticipated time in Ghana. After I spoke with an insurance company representative, I learned that in order to get the other half of my prescription, I needed to get a letter from my Mom's employer assuring Priority Health that I would still be on the insurance in July 2012. Well, thank you, Mom! After some paperwork and organizational miscommunication, etc., I am adequately supplied with Atovaquone and Proguanil Hydrochloride (that name alone is enough to explain why I did not pursue hard sciences).

It is t-minus 50 minutes until I get in the air headed to Chicago O'Hare, but before I go, the following is a brief and general description of how I hope to spend my time in Ghana.

While in Ghana I plan to take four classes and conduct research through an independent study. Two of my classes are focused on political issues in Africa, and I am also enrolled in an international trade and finance economics class. Additionally, I intend to continue my French language studies in the classroom and to some extent, through my research in the community. I will be taking a French literature course focusing on post-colonial writers like Frantz Fanon and Leopold Senghor. Though its colonial heritage is British, Ghana has been heavily influenced by the historical French presence in West Africa, specifically its neighbor to the west, Cote d'Ivoire. In addition to my classroom studies, I intend to conduct research on the strains that are put on both local and national governments in their efforts to accommodate political refugees. Since the November 2010 presidential election in Cote d'Ivoire after which Laurent Gbagbo refused to cede power to democratically elected Alassane Ouattara, close to 20,000 refugees have flooded into Ghana to avoid the ensuing violence. Likely, my research will involve interviewing some of these refugees as well as local government workers, and it would be exciting to attempt parts in French.

More to come from Ghana.