new blog, check it out!

June 7, 2010 - Leave a Response

http://cabinetsofwonder.wordpress.com/

forever akwaaba

May 16, 2010 - 2 Responses

“The journey changes you; it should change you. It leaves marks on memory, consciousness, heart, and body. You take something with you. Hopefully, you leave something good behind.” -Anthony Bourdain

Today, I sit outside my loved, worn little room, facing the courtyard. (Have I mentioned how much I’ll miss these clotheslines, and rubbing the dirt out of my own clothes using a few buckets and a bar of soap?) As I listen to the sounds of packing coming from most of the rooms in my hostel, I’m pensive. And in between dusting off my suitcases and saying goodbyes, I’ve remembered I wanted to post a final blog.

What do we take with us when we go, and what do we leave behind? I’m flying home tonight with pockets full of sand, uneven tan lines, and a mosquito net that I can’t bear to part with. Some might say my Bradt guidebook has seen better days, but I suspect the next traveler I pass it on to will find its worn edges and scribbled notes inside endearing. My bookshelves will soon be home to many more books, my walls home to woodcarvings and paintings. I’ve got gifts of glass beads, traditional kente cloth, pottery, more fabric than I know what to do with, and sounds on my voice recorder to remember forever: popcorn popping on a stove in a small village in the Eastern region, which is also the Peace Corps site of a friend of mine; a two-hour conversation between eight great friends on a tiny beach on a tiny piece of the Atlantic coastline — that was the best shooting star I’ve ever seen, what makes you the most uncomfortable?–; the start-up of a motor taxi; the clapping of model UN delegates; the wind right before a huge African downpour.

Tristan was the first of us to leave. On Wednesday, we all shared a last supper (if you saw how much Tristan looks like Jesus – all the Ghanaians think so, too – you’d know just how appropriate that pun is) of fufu, red-red, and fried yams – our favorites. And last night, we took Maggie (“we” being a few members of her extended NC family and a few of her Ghanaian family) to the airport. Yesterday was such a good, bittersweet day of ‘lasts.’ On Mags’ last tro ride, we got hit by another tro (minor damage) AND got a flat tire (separate events). The last song she heard playing from the night market was Shania Twain’s “You’re Still the One,” which we all sang along to on our walk back from dinner eating ice cream. So much crying yesterday. It’s not just that we’re all sad to be leaving this place or these people behind – it’s the fact that no matter what or how much we say about our experience here, words can never explain the things that matter the most, the things we’ll miss the most. It’s a sad and frustrating paradox, and it’s making me realize that sometimes, descriptions of a place are inevitably lackluster when you’re thousands of miles away from it; one needs to go in order to know.

not. leaving.

I spent this morning sitting on cushions with my friend Martin on his balcony in a suburb of Accra called Osu. Martin spent his junior undergrad year in Senegal and South Africa and has since spent half of his adult life living in Africa – so I knew he understood the jumble of emotions that I am today. Looking over neighbors’ rooftops and into the morning sun, we talked about transitioning and leaving Africa to return to the places we came from. What is it that they say about break ups, that it takes half as long as you dated someone to get over them? Maybe this is like that. Maybe by the start of my senior year I’ll have digested these past four incredible months enough to be able to have an answer to the questions I’m anticipating beginning twenty-four hours from now: “How was Ghana?! What’s it like there?!” The thing is, words fail here. I’ve been blogging for months but all of this is still hard to write about, much less talk about. And as I sat on that balcony listening to the sounds of a Sunday morning in this small country tucked in the cozy enclave that is West Africa, I peacefully accepted that it’s okay to not always have the words or the answers.

One thing I know for sure is that I’ve never had such a hard time saying goodbye to a place. I thought I was used to it by now, but nothing compares to this. It’s been one of the hardest goodbyes I’ve ever said – and I’m not even done packing yet.

***

How have I changed in four months? The words solid, rooted come to mind. Please tell me how this is possible, considering “roots” is not a word I find I can typically associate with. But I have learned what I want and what I do not want (admittedly ambiguous, but true nonetheless). I have stood on warm beaches, and, with the help of the moonlight, tried on different futures and careers and ventured down paths that I know exist and are mine to tumble down if I choose to. I have learned just how solid good friendships are, and been reminded of how oblivious such relationships are to miles of ocean separating friend from friend. I’ve rekindled my love affair with reading and have been privy to literary worlds of flight, mourning, cups of tea, hermaphrodites, spirituality, and the life of a nomad or two. I have been brutally let down, and I have witnessed perfect harmony. I have tasted, touched, seen and listened to a culture that will, from now on, always be a part of me. And I’ve experienced more new things in four months than I have in four years, and for that, most of all, I am incredibly grateful.

Best of all? I’ve realized it’s not all about me. I wrote before about how studying abroad is a selfish experience; as students, we travel to foreign countries to receive an education, learn and take lessons, soak in the culture and all the blissful newness. In fact, as I near my 21st birthday, I’ve come to believe that, for my peers and me, this seems like one of the most selfish periods of our lives. At college, for the most part, we only have to take care of ourselves. We’re expected to focus on our futures, invest in ourselves, prepare to be received by “the real world.” There’s probably nothing wrong with such expectations, and maybe this is an example of a ‘good kind’ of selfish – I agree it’s important to take time to become aware of yourself and how you fit into the world around you.

But four months in Ghana will convince anyone that days and lives should revolve around community and the present, not the individual and the future. And as I watch women my age take care of children or spend all day selling things on the street in order to support their aunts and uncles, and as I see loyal village chiefs chatting in community homes about their peoples’ needs, I am reminded that this journey is not only my own. Like drops in an ocean, I am twenty years in a world that is itself, the bigger picture. Ghana has given me many things – and I’ve taken many more – but that humbleness is undoubtedly the most valuable thing I am leaving with.

So: onward. I continue a journey marked by a beginning and end I am blissfully unaware of. And while I know my time in Ghana has forever changed me, I find I remain loyal to the one thing I knew for sure when the plane touched down on this dusty, perfect African ground four months ago: that our journeys to and from the corners of the world always have been, and always will be, home.

my ghanaian backyard.

***

One last thing: I’ve decided I’ve come to really like this whole blogging thing. I enjoy being able to share stories of my experiences and adventures with my friends and family who care to read about them. And it means a lot knowing people I love are out there reading this and commenting/talking to me about their thoughts on what I’m up to! This summer, I am very fortunate to be traveling a lot of places – visiting people, doing an internship, working – and I invite you all to keep up with me over these next few months at http://www.cabinetsofwonder.wordpress.com. I’ll be writing there soon!

thank you.

May 14, 2010 - One Response

To Whom It May Concern:

Five months ago, just before Christmas, one of my roommates and closest friends gave me one of the best gifts I’ve ever received. In our apartment, Rachel, Kayla, Riley and I sat around our living room coffee table, which was surrounded by half-full boxes and suitcases that Rachel and I were attempting to pack as we prepared for our semester abroad in Ghana. Riley handed Rach and I each a stack of letters wrapped in Christmas ribbon. Puzzled, I looked at the girls, then back down at the thick bundle of cards and envelopes of all different sizes and colors in my hands. “There’s one for each week you’re in Ghana, Nat. You too, Rachie,” Riley said. My face lit up, and I lunged to hug and tackle Riley.

I was incredulous. She had been working on this, I later found out, for weeks and weeks. She had gotten in touch with some of the people closest to me, from all over the place, and asked them to write a letter that she then sealed and labeled with a certain week number for me to open all the way over here in Ghana. (And she did the same for Rach.) Ri, knowing how much I’d miss my closest friends while so far away, had given me comforting words to look forward to every single week I was in Africa. A truly creative and one-of-a-kind soul, Ms. Riley Beetner had given me my friends – and my favorite and most supportive professor! – when I’d likely need them most.

So, this post is a thank-you to those of you whose letters I have opened while in Ghana. You know who you are, and I want you to listen up: if I wasn’t able to tell you when I opened yours, or if I haven’t had the chance to wholeheartedly thank you for your letter, please know how much it meant to me. They have made me laugh and made me cry, and I have gone back to every single one of them when I particularly missed its writer. When I have the means to thank you properly (which will be when I see you next, or via snail mail if I may not be able to see you for a long time), I will.

For now, know that each of you has contributed to my wonderful experience in Ghana and have, whether you realize it or not, been there for me when I’ve needed you most. As many of you know, Skype here is barely functional, calls outside Africa only work on the days I get ‘bonus credit,’ and there are some weeks (like this one) where the Internet (and power.. and running water..) is out all over campus. But, thanks to your letters – and old-fashioned, ingenious Riley, of course – I had everything I needed all semester sitting on my bedside table. It took great restraint to resist opening every letter on the plane ride from Stuttgart, or during some of the more tame weeks here. But Ghana has taught me much patience (and Rachel was checking up on me), and so I abided by Riley’s rules. I have one letter remaining – which I’m naturally saving for my midnight flight takeoff.

Friends, family, mentors: letters or no letters, I am incredibly grateful to you. Thank you for being by my side, and for allowing me to carry you with me everywhere I go.

In love and envelopes,

Natalie

ghana, through text messages.

May 12, 2010 - Leave a Response

Tonight, I feel like sharing more text messages. I find that in some ways, they speak more to what Ghana is about and all that we’ve experienced here more than my own words in this blog can.

Communal pasta dinner 7:00 ISH 1 third floor tonight!

Hey if you could pick up a bag of sachets I might forgive you…

That was the best text I’ve woken up to in months. Also the best way bad news has ever been conveyed to me. You’re the best! Go and inspire others today.

HI THIS IS NANA PRESTEA U AND UR FRIENDS CAME TO ME TWO DAYS AGO NANA NTEBOA

Strengthen your faith everyday! Send FAITH to 444 and receive daily messages of HOPE, LOVE, & WISDOM. Sms cost only 10Gp Tigo express yourself!

Africa brings out a smile and spirit in you that I am not sure the United States could ever replicate. Bring home some of that magic, YH! ❤

Je t’aime biere

Yes! Dancing queen playing in ish internet café!

I am very wishing you were here today biffle. The sun is shining and its warm. My Beatles prof just mentioned Kerouac – rodatrip this year? Done and done.

I had fun with you today.

well its arts and crafts day at the autism center and theres paint involved…

you better not bail on fufu…

can I carry you over the threshold of our room?

Put me on a plane and fly me to anywhere.

I love those things and every other corner of us, too.

why is someone always practicing the recorder everywhere I go?

hello, where are you girls? Are you safe are you sound?

hört sich gut an! Also nächsten Dienstag!

stopped for some fried rice from our friend. the happiest, gave me so much extra salad cream. Asked me where my sister was I told him she should be by my side

well the little girl from the laundry room wandered into my room and wont talk but is just watching me study… this is sufficiently awkward and distracting..

fufu party at the night market, six thirty, you’re invited!

Ghana Ghana and more Ghana! Don’t make me leave. Oh, no water in ish. Ghana!!

we’ll just buy a bike and a horn and sell Fan products when we’re not being tro tro mates.

will do, ma’am. And you, my partner in knowing we’ll never be done, you curl up under that net of yours and dream of dust-covered sandals and the eyes of Africa smiling down on you in companionship.

well a half Iranian half Turkish man just told me “even though our country’s politics don’t get along I love you to have a good life” so that’s good.

at least you have a heart full of Africa and one new piercing to call your own.

YOU’RE DONE AYAYAYA! Next final exam = December

I dare you to eat a slug.

dinner red red lady night market to send off Tristan!

thesis research trip to one of ghana’s most affected mining communities

May 12, 2010 - Leave a Response

April 11th

The rain wakes me up. It’s such a foreign sound to me now, hearing rain falling on the ocean. I’m under the covers for the first time in months. I had wanted to get up early to go for one last swim in the ocean before beginning this three-day journey of visiting one of the most affected mining communities in Ghana, where I will be completing the bulk of my thesis research, but the pouring rain has changed my mind.

I’m nervous, but so excited, about this trip. I remind myself I am prepared: I have been researching and reading about extractive industries and specifically mining communities in Ghana for seven months. Ever since the Oxfam CHANGE Leader training I was part of in Boston last July, the role that extractive industries play in poor communities around the world has been on my mind and close to my heart.

Lying in bed, I think back to how impassioned I became after first hearing about the negative impacts natural resource extraction often has on impoverished communities. After initially getting bogged down by terms I had never heard before, like ‘extractive industries’ and ‘corporate social responsibility’, I looked at it in the most simplistic way I could and inserted a hypothetical me into the picture: how would I feel if someone came into my backyard, destroyed my home and my land, and took away whatever precious material happened to be within it, along with any possibility I had of supporting myself and my family by cultivating that land like I always had? What would I do? What could I do?

The more I learned about the unjust process of natural resource extraction, and how so often billions of dollars in natural wealth generated from the land of communities such as those in resource-rich Ghana does not translate into healthcare, education, or infrastructure for communities, the more passionate I became. I already knew that people suffer from multiple issues of poverty when they do not have access to basic needs. What I didn’t know was that over sixty percent of the world’s poorest people live in countries rich in natural resources – but they rarely share in the wealth. Alarm bells went off in my head. That makes absolutely no sense, I thought. We hear about so many causes of poverty every day – hunger, diseases, civil conflict – but I had never heard of such a tangible, specific root cause like this. While not all resource extraction is conducted in a harmful fashion, many times it involves quite a direct form of exploitation. And it bothered me on an entire other level that many poor but resource-rich communities were being taken advantage of largely by Western multinational corporations; companies I had heard of before, companies whose stores I saw in malls, whose emblems decorated highways, whose names I saw in newspapers.

If you’ve ever seen the movie Blood Diamond, or are knowledgeable about the nasty business surrounding conflict diamonds in parts of Africa, then it may be easy for you to see the connection to oil and gas mining operations in Africa, too. These are the kind of operations I have been focusing on in Ghana (it was nicknamed the “Gold Coast” for a reason, and oil has recently been discovered). Though multinational extractive companies profit from oil, gas, and mining operations, already poor communities suffer the costs of resource extraction – which often include displacement, polluted water supplies and toxic spills, and loss of livelihoods.

I spent last fall researching how community standards in mining areas in Ghana were affected by extractive industries and learning about many of these negative impacts. I came to Ghana ready to see, first-hand, how my research matched up to what I would observe while traveling to these mining communities. Today, I will start interviewing miners and community members and record their stories. Today, despite the rain, and any other challenges that lie ahead, I am going.

***

I traveled from Busua to Tarkwa and Prestea with Peter (he was still in Ghana visiting us and wanted to be a part of this adventure) and a young Ghanaian man named Michael, who is an acquaintance Dr. Tom Arcaro (one of my professors back at Elon) and who I had been in contact with throughout the semester. His good friend from school was now working as an illegal miner, or galamseyer, in Prestea, and would be acting as my gatekeeper. My nose was stuck to the tro tro’s window as we completed the last leg of the long journey, traveling the extremely bumpy road to the town of Prestea, which is just outside the more major town of Tarkwa (home to the largest gold mine in Ghana). I had never seen so much green lushness in Ghana, followed by so many huge dirt holes, dust, and evidence of mining operations all around. Signs demarcating blast zones (“DANGER: DYNAMITE”) and half-constructed water pumps peppered the sides of the road. I felt like I was in a completely different world.

a mine in Prestea

The hotel we stayed at stood as an anomaly in this poor town; its almost sole clientele are engineers from China and South Africa who visit Prestea on mining business. I could write pages on the details of that first evening and the following day – but I don’t think this is the place for that, so I’ll give an overview of our time in Prestea. (If you want those details, feel free to ask!)

Over the course of two days, I visited two illegal mining sites and one legal/corporate plant in Prestea. I even went INSIDE a mine (with bare feet and a headlamp), and also took photos while Peter went down into an underground one (females were not allowed to go down. “Too dangerous,” the miners told me, which it is – the number of mines that collapse in Ghana, especially those run by galamseyers, is astounding. But there was no stopping Peter!)

before going down

inside a mine

underground miners

Seeing the land around these mines showed me how impossible it is to cultivate it after surface mining has destroyed it. Miners’ work in areas where gold is in abundance feeds the world’s hunger for the precious metal, but so often leaves ruined landscapes in its wake.

I was able to interview a great range of people, including:

– numerous illegal miners, including a man named Albert, who is aware of the dangers in galamseying but feels he has no choice but to engage in it because mining companies won’t hire him and he has to provide for his family

– a community hotel owner named John, who has, for ten years, watched Prestea be exploited and the standards of living of his community members degraded

– the Parliament Chief of Prestea and its surrounding areas, Nana Ntoaboa Pra IV – a delightful and well-educated young man who is a journalist by trade but also serves his role as the esteemed village Chief

– the Administrative Manager of a legal mining company based in Prestea

– Victoria, a mother of a miner, who is happy as a clam in Prestea but is sad and angry that her son barely makes any money

meeting victoria…
…followed by a heated interview

My thesis advisor/mentor Dr. Warner suggested I buy a number of Elon trinkets from our university gift shop before leaving for Ghana, to give to individuals who agreed to participate in my research and be interviewed. Doing so turned out to be invaluable – for many, it came as a very pleasant surprise; I’ll never forget seeing a 50-year-old man named Jackson, who had been illegally mining for ten years, holding up an Elon keychain to show the swarms of kids around him. Some people I interviewed expected something in return for talking with me, and if they asked for money or my number, I gave them a trinket (and a smile) instead.

first round of interviews

As is the custom with doing research or even just visiting many villages in Ghana, my party and I had to meet with the Chief and his Elders soon after arriving in Prestea. It was my first time meeting a chief! We were escorted into his “palace” (a stone compound) and were seated in plastic chairs. We had to stand up to address him and his Elders, and Michael explained in Twi why we were in Prestea and what I was hoping to do there. It’s tradition to present chiefs in Ghana with a bottle of gin when visiting them, which had slipped our mind – so his Elders asked for 10 cedis to buy a bottle, which I hurriedly handed over. Chief Nana then spoke with me for over an hour, and gave me his card and blessing of approval so I could interview his people. That card and the photos we took with him turned out to be very useful later on, when I was trying to interview very skeptical miners who wanted proof that I had seen the Chief and was actually a student researcher permitted to be in Prestea.

surface mining

It was incredibly difficult getting many of the signatures, Mining corporations have recently been sending employees into towns like Prestea pretending to be student researchers like myself or people working for NGOs, and they ask for interviews very similar to the ones I was conducting – which requires participants’ signatures and/or thumbprints documenting their agreement to participate in my research – and then use the signatures of illegal miners’ to get them into trouble with either the government or the mining company. I was very glad to have the help of Michael and his friend Godfred to interpret, as many of the miners only knew a little English. But while some interviews were hard to get, others fell into my lap. At lunch, someone nearby overhead me discussing my research. He came over and introduced himself, and asked if I would interview him – turns out this man Phillip was a mining subcontractor and a very successful business man who had a lot to say about the negative impacts of mining and what he thought should be done about it. After the interview, Peter pinned an Elon University pin on his collar, and Phillip and I both couldn’t stop smiling.

smiles in Prestea

***

Throughout my time in Prestea, I tried to be the least biased field researcher I could be. While the reading I had done since last fall inevitably led to me forming opinions of my own regarding the impact natural resource extraction has on poor communities, I did my best to keep an open mind while speaking with everyone I encountered during the trip – and I did. On the long way back to Accra, my mind was swimming with information, images, and so much more – I was, and still am a bit, confused. But I think that’s sort of the point with field research like this, to gather so much info and differing opinions at first, and then breathe for a little bit before diving in and sorting it all out. And thanks to the diverse perspectives I got, I also now have a few different opinions and many more thoughts on the complexity of this huge issue I am studying. I truly value that, and I have all of my interviewees in Prestea and everything they shared to thank for that.

After the trip, I was mentally and physically exhausted – but still as passionate as ever about my research topic. It was incredible to see first-hand how real everything I have been studying is, and to see how throughout Ghana, this issue is such a controversial and relevant one (largely because of the coming oil boom). And I will be the first to say that this kind of undergraduate, hands-on field research is one of the best things I’ve been able to do at/through Elon, and I truly loved every minute of it. (A huge thanks to my College Fellows program and my mentor, Dr. Bud Warner!) Now, though, the real work begins, as I begin transcribing interviews, writing my thesis paper, preparing conference proposals, etc etc etc! 🙂

discussing the first day over a meal of banku in our hotel room

Heading back to Accra was an adventure, to say the least. We took a late tro, expecting to arrive in Accra around 2 a.m. On the way, though, we got in an accident. A wheel on a truck traveling in the other lane and in the opposite direction came OFF, and the driver lost control and swerved into our lane. Our driver immediately swerved to the right to avoid getting hit by the truck, and we hit a pole instead – miraculously, though, it was the one fiberglass pole out of probably fifty other metal light post poles lining the road, and so it flew into the air when we hit it and our driver was able to stop our tro. Everyone was yelling and jumped out of the tro and ran to the truck driver down the road. I decided to stay in our tro alone, which was somehow equally scary. It took me a long time to stop thinking about what would have happened had that truck hit us or if we had hit one of those many metal poles. In the end, though, everyone was fine, and Peter and I were safe and sound in our beds at the university a few hours later.

If you’ve kept reading this far, thank you for reading about my research and an issue I feel so passionate about. I have uploaded many of the photos from this research trip onto a online web album. Feel free to check them out!

(link will be added very soon)

last days

May 9, 2010 - One Response

Last days are always fleeting, and are always the hardest but the best. I’ve always been the girl who loves beginnings; the excitement of untried tastes, the unaccustomed eyes to incredible sights, the spontaneity that characterizes a new relationship. The honeymoon stage, the what could this BE? when you step off a plane in a new country, that first conversation that lasts for hours, the moment when you pick up a pen or a paintbrush or a spatula for the first time and realize that, more than anything, you want to wear it down and use it so much and so hard that the only possible explanation for what happened was that you created masterpieces with it.

So, these last few days are particularly hard for me. The other day, Joanna was talking to me about how in the span of eight months, she will have seen her boyfriend for twenty days. I don’t want to be good at this, she said. I don’t want this to become familiar. I gave her a small, knowing half-smile and thought about how used to this I am, how familiar it is for me to say goodbye to people and places whether I am ready to or not. My goodbyes are typically ones of smiles and “see you later’s” because, in the moments of farewells, I believe in celebrating what’s been experienced rather than lamenting it. So, that’s how I’ll spend this last week. I know it’ll be a good last week because in the past, the shared moments, laughs, and conversations right before the end have been what I remember most. I think there is something wholly innate in a person that jolts us into remembering not to take things for granted when we most need that reminder. And so we often come full circle, and some of the best things about those beloved beginnings are embraced again: the newness of tastes, the sparks of relationships, the reasons we love a place and the giddiness of being wrapped up in everything foreign. I used to fight the feeling of wanting to hold on at the end, but I don’t anymore; I’ll take every bit of enjoyment out of the places and people I have come to love, please and thank you.


***

I am going to so miss the process of hand washing my laundry. I will miss my late-night snack of fried yams, and fresh mango being the first thing I taste in the morning. I will miss taking cold showers (or bucket showers) and trying to, unsuccessfully, scrub the stubborn dirt off my feet – I’ll just try again tomorrow. I’ll miss seeing the faces of my Ghanaian family here that frequent my room, days, and thoughts so often. I will miss running in evenings that are, without fail, warm and full of the sounds of summer. I’ll miss bartering for taxis, the proverbs on every single tro-tro, haggling and being “sssss”ed at. I’ll miss this dorm-style of living, and opening my door and stepping into a courtyard and steadfast sunshine every morning. Constant smiles, spicy everything, class discussions on culture and politics, quirks of the vernacular I have come to so love, the perpetual disregard for time… I’ll easily and all-too-quickly miss it all.

But I’m happy to be returning to Germany, a home of slippers, pretty parks, my puppies, trains, a dining room table, clouds, baths and olive oil. (And the World Cup, come June!) And I admit, I’m already looking forward to Elon’s fall colors, the smell of leaves and woodsy, wintery nights, working at the coffee shop and being really challenged by my classes.

Here are some things I plan on doing during my first few days home:

–    cook a healthy meal for my family
–    watch Into the Wild
–    spend 24 hours straight with my pups
–    lie in the grass in Schlossplatz
–    try to barter at Starbucks
–    ask someone what the capital of Ghana is
–    snuggle under blankets
–    make a real cup of coffee
–    take trains, all day long
–    look up how to make fufu and wish longingly I could make it

fufu! love it.

But first things first. Mom, if you’re reading this, would you be so kind as to have my first homemade meal be one of a huge salad with every vegetable imaginable, käsespätzle, something creamy with mushrooms, and a tall glass of milk? I can’t wait to hand wash those dishes in the sink.

Hiding Out with Green Turtles?

May 8, 2010 - Leave a Response

Oh, what I meant to say is that this post is about two separate trips to Butre and Busua beach (Ghana’s very, very finest of beaches), staying one weekend at Hideout Lodge and the next at the Green Turtle Lodge. Right. A wonderful mess of photographs, journal tidbits, and retelling of moments follows. Nothing’s really in order, but then again, days and nights on breathtaking beaches celebrating the end of classes with good friends isn’t supposed to have much order to it, is it?

breakfast in paradise.

A Night in Butre

Night owns the beach. There is a joyful dog under my chair, Catchphrase and playing cards on the table next to Mags’ propped sandy feet, the ocean is about four skips away and I just had a very pleasant conversation in German with a Ghanaian named Gali. Du bist glücklich, he just said. You are lucky.

lucky, indeed.

Earlier: Lying on the beach with my friends, I’m reminiscing about this this exact moment three years ago – but I’m in Rhodos (Rhodes), Greece, on my senior class trip. On nights like this, there is some magical combination of sand, camaraderie, and stars that settles somewhere deep inside me and asks if it can stay forever. Tristan is teaching me about power plants and explaining how solar panels work. I love learning about things I know almost nothing about, and I love watching people explode with information and passion about a subject that burns at them from the inside. In a conversation behind me, Maggie is talking about how this summer is going to be such a good one for all of us, because we’re in our twenties, because we’re coming off this incredible adventure. With my elbow tucked underneath my head, I lay quietly on the sand wondering if the next five years of my life will be as good as the last five. And I recall lying on the sand in Rhodos surrounded by friends who, like me at the time, would be starting university in just two months. When I tried to imagine what college would be like then, I never imagined Ghana. Three years later, I smile up at the stars and fall asleep under the moon.

***

I celebrated Easter by attempting to surf for the first time. I came away from the experience having determined the following: it is not exactly like snowboarding, it is the most fun thing I’ve ever done in the water (besides diving), the scrapes and bruises on your legs are worth it and, finally, I am going to get so good at it it’s not even funny (just give me five years).

yes, i am falling.

Rachel and I had our hearts set on having surf lessons this weekend, but, for various reasons, we ended up renting beginning boards by the hour and attempting to teach ourselves. After about twenty minutes in the water, though, a few ten-year-old Busua natives – who had quickly spotted us as neophytes – paddled over to teach us. They showed us how to time the waves and how to properly hoist ourselves up on the board. Rach and I were wiped after that first hour, and while it wasn’t anything close to a huge success, attempting to surf was so fun and I easily saw how it’s something I can learn to really enjoy.

***

We played today. I was the five-year-old who wanted to be buried in the sand; the boys turned out to be quite the artists, and I was transformed into a beautiful mermaid with ornate scales and the broadest shoulders imaginable. Why is it that the best part of being buried in the sand is breaking free and sprinting to the ocean?

We also took a canoe ride and hiked. All scenes were straight out of a movie. Including the homemade pancakes that followed, which we ate in a real-life secret garden in the company of a delightful Rastafarian who promised us the “special pancakes” he was making us didn’t have that “special” thing added to them. The honey was to die for, though.

Later that day, a few of us swam out pretty far to a deserted fishing boat. We hoisted ourselves on board, caught our breath, and took turns diving and flipping off the side of the boat. The hoisting was much harder than the diving. I wonder at what age such fun is no longer “allowed.” I hate that word, “allowed”, and my family will tell you I always have. Besides, someone wise once told me to always act my shoe size, and not my age. Which clearly means I should make sure I walk barefoot on an African beach daily with some of my closest friends, convincing them to all squat down so I can, for once, be the tallest one in a group photo.

***

A Night in Busua

I just picked up my book and sand poured out of it. There are sunglasses and beers and a few neglected penne noodles from a dinner of I’ve-missed-you-so-much Italian pasta all over the table. A Ghanaian sitting nearby just spilled half his glass of wine all over his pants, and he and his buddies laugh it off immediately. Peter might be starting World War Three in his intense conversation about the Israeli/Palestinian conflict with Dave, a dude from Dublin who has at least ten piercings and a mohawk, and I’m discussing education systems with a cute 19-year-old from Manchester who is spending his gap year in Ghana. Meanwhile, Will, the owner of the Black Stars Surf Shop (where we have been lounging around and eating at all day), is flipping through Peter’s journal, commenting on the pasted foreign bills and diagrams of male/female brains inside. What a conglomerate we make up tonight, strangers brought together by waves and wanderlust. We sit wondering about each other, asking questions to figure out how one another got here and where we’re going next. We swap stories, we make plans for going out that night. I will never tire of hearing the ocean crash into itself, so consistently, so rhythmically. I don’t think I ever want to grow up; instead, I’ll find a way to spend my whole life spending semesters abroad.

A day in beautiful Busua – in images.

our room 🙂

the incredible outdoor shower that i cannot wait to have outside my house one day.

occupied..

on a walk.

creating.

real coffee. real beach. real life.

kumasi: bats, dimples, & fabric

May 3, 2010 - 3 Responses

There is just nothing like a tro ride to a new place in this country. Here’s the routine, dear reader. The group agrees to meet at a certain time (say, 7:45 a.m.) to start out for our weekend destination (say, Kumasi). We agree on 7:45 knowing we won’t actually leave until 8:30. We end up leaving at 9:00. (There are egg sandwiches to be bought, Catchphrases to remember, etc etc). We catch multiple shorter tros to one of Accra’s main stations, get shown where the tros heading to Kumasi are, pile into one, and sit and wait until it fills. We wait. And wait. Meanwhile, we stock up on any and all goodies we want for the ride: dough balls, frozen yogurt packs, water, take-away rice, superglue, world maps, razors. (Okay, we don’t usually buy those last few items, but the street vendors run up offering them to us like everything else, so we could if we wanted to). Personally, I like to start every long tro ride with a frozen strawberry FanYogo. Anyway. The tro is now filled up (thanks to Maggie and Rach getting out of the car and attempting to help the driver and “recruit” passengers – “Kumasi? Kumasi? I know you want to join this car and go to Kumasi with us…”) and we speed away. Maggie settles back with some music, I disappear into Freakonomics (for some unbeknownst reason I have become very interested in the social theories of economics – and have now registered myself for two econ classes next fall), and Joanna and Peter begin a heated discussion about male and women roles in the household. In the backseat, Rach remarks: “I’m starting to think like a crossword puzzle.” (She’s making a dent in my NYTimes crossword puzzle book.) Four hours to go. Road trips in Ghana are the most fun.

varun loves us and our books.

***

The touristy and important facts about Kumasi: it’s the second largest city in Ghana and is the modern capital of the Ashanti region. The not-so-touristy but arguably more interesting facts: it is the only place in Ghana where I have seen more than two street signs and a CROSSWALK signaling-machine-thingy (is there a name for those things?), and bats are cooked and sold on the side of the road.

peter actually bargained for this bat. he paid three cedis.

Our first day in Kumasi was, in fact, delightfully touristy. At the Ghanaian Armed Forces Museum, the gang and I enjoyed a long private tour and got to touch a lot of neat, historical things.

a very old and awesome map.

You know, I find one has to be in a certain mindset to visit museums. When I studied abroad in London, I went to bed feeling oddly unnerved if I hadn’t visited at least two museums during the day. Here, museums are few and far between and my friends and I have largely adopted the roles as “travelers” as opposed to “tourists” (I’ve found there is a subtle difference), which makes guided tours and lengthy historical plaque-reading a bit difficult to partake in. But, especially as a proud child of military parents and grandparents, I found this academic field trip quite interesting. Plus, on our way out, I spotted the best truck EVER, and made sure to let the nice driver know exactly why I loved it so much.

***

Onto the Kumasi Zoo, where I saw my first peacock!

The zoo was home to many monkeys, ostriches, even camels and a lion. After seeing many of these animals in the wild when I was in Kenya, I found myself dispirited at the sight of these animals in dirty cages. The lion was inanimate, and the camels cute – but those eyes, those big, woeful eyes! Maybe it was all in my head. But while my friends were being entertained by the monkeys doing tricks in their cages for bananas they’d pass to it through the bars of its cage, I found myself standing off to the side. Peter held out his water bottle to a baboon, and the baboon took it, drank out of it, and handed it back to Peter. It was incredible, yes, but somehow I felt like we were exploiting these monkeys (some of who were visibly sick and had large growths that looked like tumors all over their bodies). I wish they’d have a better reason than as a source of human entertainment to be locked up in those cages. I think it’s one thing to see an Asian tiger in a zoo in America – for many, it may be the only tiger they ever see. But here in Africa, it just doesn’t make sense/seem all that right to me to cage up animals like baboons and camels and even lions when one can, depending on the continental region, see them living free in their natural habitats. Even these guys, I’m sure – though I’ve forgotten what they’re called.

***

Kumasi is the place to go to shop. For inexpensive fabric, that is. Kejetia Market is the largest open-air market in West Africa and also one of the most intimidating and hectic environments I’d ever been in. We arrived at the market at the same time ominous black storm clouds rolling overhead did. After a lot of walking and a lot of being grabbed by male Ghanaian vendors, we found the fabric – beautiful, inexpensive, colorful Ghanaian fabric. The rain began falling and we scrambled to barter with and buy from the Ghanaian women who were scrambling, too, to pack up. Dedicated shoppers we are indeed: we won the race against the weather and were soon running in the rain and through the maze of the (West Africa’s LARGEST outdoor) market holding bags of fabric over our heads. As we hurried through stalls attempting to find our way back to the main street, we were endearingly laughed at by all the Ghanaians who had found shelter and were waiting out the storm. In typical Ghanaian style, we laughed at ourselves, too, and continued our journey, hugging our cell phones and cameras close to our chests and wiping warm rain out of our eyes.

Escaping the rain wasn’t as fun as running through it, but we settled down for dinner at Vic Baboo’s Café. I’ve forgotten what I had for dinner but I know all of our food was delicious, and not just because our trusty Bradt guide promised it would be. As an aside, I’d like to share that one of my favorite things in the world is diverse, eclectic, and wildly unique menus – especially when they butcher word spellings, have completely inconsistent prices, are in more than three languages and have hilarious comments like the following:

Vic Baboo’s Cocktail Bar

Open 11 a.m. – midnight

(unless the bartender is off duty or drunk)

***

The next morning, we all headed back to Accra on the earlier side. Peter and I had dinner that night at the house of my FSO friend, Jenny, along with another FSO couple. Peter and I were (naturally) full of questions about their work and their backgrounds, and a delightful conversation over delicious vegetarian tacos ensued. We heard some great stories and were able to gain an even better insight into the lives and thoughts of some brand new Foreign Service officers.

Over the next few days, the girls and I took Peter to do some of our favorite and typical weekly things in Accra: two-for-one pizza deal at Pizza Inn on Tuesday, Salsa Night at the Golden Tulip hotel on Wednesday, Kissimeh orphanage on Thursday. He loved all of it, and it was fun sharing the little activities in Ghana we’ve come to love with a good friend and Ghana-newbie. We also went to lunch at the French Cultural Center, where four of us sat outside and enjoyed a lazy afternoon eating, talking, and writing. (Because we definitely don’t get enough of any of those things here). 😉

today, i don’t want to leave.

April 25, 2010 - 3 Responses

I have come to love the familiarity of the unpredictability and often unreliability that is Ghana. The unanticipated moments of kindness, the inexplicable spirit and optimism that permeates through Ghana’s jungles and markets, schools and farms. No, I do not have any idea what time I will be able to meet you because I do not know when the rain will let up, when a tro-tro will drive past with an open seat, or what the traffic in Accra is like. I can’t promise I can text message you when I’m close because I may or may not have network coverage. But I can tell you that when I get to you, we will have a wonderful time and we will eat, drink, and be merry for so much longer than anyone from the fast-paced, schedule-stricken Western world would typically be able to stand. But, as a Westerner, maybe I’ll surprise you. For I no longer wear a watch that begs to be glanced at eighty times a day and I have no other commitments today or people to meet tonight. I know that if I don’t catch the last tro back to Legon tonight, someone will help me find a taxi, or you will likely be characteristically kind enough to offer me a comfortable mat on your floor. I have learned more patience than you might expect from someone from my culture, and I promise, I won’t offend you by hurrying to get to you. I’ll see you soon.

***

I do not know a single person who has studied or traveled abroad and come home complaining of the fast-paced lifestyle and constant “being on the run” mentality of the country they were in. No, those of us spending months in Argentina or Ghana or Italy or a myriad of other countries all come to embrace cultures where there is rarely a sense of haste or rushing, where meals are enjoyed with the people we enjoy the most, where the term “back-to-back” doesn’t apply. The veracity of those sentiments astounds me – Americans, especially, are always trading hurrying for languidness when we travel to various corners of the world. In Ghana, it is considered ‘embarrassing’ to walk and eat at the same time. In Italy, a meal under three hours isn’t really a meal at all. Yes, an unreliable transportation system is annoying – get over it. Yes, peers and professors being late all the time is frustrating – get used to it. I had to let go of preconceived notions and expectations based on what I was used to pretty quickly upon arriving here. And I’ve found that was absolutely the best thing I could do; constantly comparing and contrasting or getting worked up because “this is not what I’m used to” is a recipe for a miserable experience abroad, no matter the country, no matter the culture’s customs. Letting go is not only liberating, but also allows for adaptability to flourish. And then, a good time is had by all.

My friends back at Elon are busy with end-of-semester meetings, classes, activities, and exams. I know the feelings of stress and anxiety they’re experiencing all too well – and though I, too, am wrapping up a semester of classes and activities, I couldn’t be on a more different page. And so I am nervous to return home to a culture where it will be expected of me to cram, to be perpetually on the go, to always use my time in the most efficient way possible. I’m nervous because I fear I will fall back into old habits, habits where I measure my day by my level of productivity or by how well I multi-tasked. More than anything, I want to be able to slow down when necessary and press forward when actually needed. Work hard but breathe often. Succeed in great strides, but not at the cost of sanity (or health). Remain focused and driven but never stop loving or listening. Can I leave Ghana and find and maintain such a balance? I will most certainly try.

***

How do we know when we’ve fallen in love with a place? The same way you know about falling in love with anything or anyone else, I guess – you don’t realize it until after it’s happened. Just like one tends to love different people for different reasons, so I have come to love countries. I love Italy for its smell of rosemary, taste of pecorino cheese, for the feel of Brunello di Montalcino going down my throat; for its relationship with mealtimes, perfect al dente pasta and the fact that Tuscany allows me to return again and again despite my inability to absorb what I’ve learned in my cooking classes there. I love Honduras for the music and dancing that lasts for hours, for the thirty-four orphan boys who stole my heart there, for games played under its starry night sky. I love Kenya for its billboards and lushness and Ireland for its funny old ladies and warm pubs. I love Germany and the U.S. because they are both home. And somewhere between January 14th and today, I’ve fallen in love with Ghana.

It had me at the ubiquitous camaraderie, I think, the convivial atmosphere of the markets and demeanor of the people. (And the Ghanaians know they’re loved for it, which I get such a kick out of). And then I fell for local football games at dusk, playing with kids from the orphanage in the ocean, and fufu. After the honeymoon stage, it got better. When I started using my teeth as a tool and learned how to properly bargain for taxis, Ghana smiled. I smiled back when the chief of the mining town of Prestea called me and asked to meet me in Accra next week. I hiked, sweat, ran, swam, and rode through the country. I learned my way around Accra and its surrounding areas, and, after much trial-and-error, I more or less conquered the tro-tro system. Ghana convinced me that you don’t always need toilet paper and that drinking water out of plastic bags can be quite satisfying. We’ve settled down together, Ghana and I, and even though four months is not long enough to learn Twi or travel to all my favorite places twice, it is long enough to have family visit, form deep friendships, and recognize that bits and pieces of this country, like so many other places I’ve traveled to, have pleasantly weaseled their way into my increasingly broadening definition of what I call home.

 

 

proverbs are the palm oil with which words are eaten.

April 14, 2010 - One Response

Some more random things that I love about this place:

You can engage anyone in the street, whether to talk about what they’re selling, where they’re going, the weather (oh, so you think it will be hot and sunny for the next six months? me too), what the taxi you want to take into town should really cost…anything!

Even though Ghanaians are pretty much late for everything (a widely-known and accepted fact), I’m not frustrated by that anymore. Why? Because once you learn to expect to wait anywhere from 20 to 90 minutes for someone to show up for a meeting – once those expectations are managed – it just doesn’t get to you anymore.

Things that are said in my lit class continue to blow my mind. The other day, for example, we were discussing Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’ubervilles, and got to talking about progression in society. A Ghanaian student said, “There is something wrong with us Africans. When we accept something new, we think we have to abandon the old, the past.” I am still thinking about that statement. Later, Maggie and I (as two of the only American girls in the class) were asked what we look for in a potential boyfriend in college, and if money and wealth is a factor like it is here. It was hard answering that question on the spot, of course, but what was more hard was saying as delicately as possible that no, money is not a factor for us when it comes to deciding to be in a relationship with someone or (I’d like to think) when marrying someone. I learn so much from my classes here, and so much of it comes in discussion and conversation about differences in cultures and values – and the fact that many of those open and genuine conversations come out of books by Thomas Hardy or deliberations on the concept of import substitution is just plain wonderful. Also, I read the title of this blog post in a book by a Nigerian author. Beautiful.

We celebrated Jason’s 23rd birthday the other day by sharing scoops of that really good ice cream downtown at Frankie’s, a Lebanese-owned restaurant/creamery. Our Rasta friends came too; check out this eclectic crowd.

I saw a woman (she may have been a student) outside of class the other day who had the car of her hood up, was putting water inside her engine (not sure where the water actually goes in a car – ah), and was wearing high heels. High heels! That. Is. Awesome. Would I see that in the States? Have you? Okay, maybe, but it just made me sit there and grin. What a lady. What a culture.

I like that I’ve been able to meet and hang out with people who aren’t necessarily associated with the University of Ghana. I’ve been to two Embassy parties since I’ve been here, and have met extremely interesting individuals from all around the world. The Embassy community in Ghana is a small one, I’ve found, and it reminds me of the military community in Stuttgart. Sometimes, it’s nice to have that sort of small crowd with similar worldly connections when you’re living in a foreign country. The more I learn about the Embassy world here, the more I continue to think about if a career in that sort of service is one for me. Check back in five years. For now, I’ll keep telling anyone who asks that my dream job is to do what Jennifer Connelly does in the movie Blood Diamond. Love her, love the work she did in that film.

So this isn’t necessarily something I loved, but it was an event that turned out all right and I feel as though I should share: a while back, I got some sort of bug bite that, over a period of two or three days, festered into a bad boil and spread over and around my wrist. It hurt a lot and looked pretty bad, so on the fourth night I went to the hospital. It turned out to be what’s known as “Cellulitis.” According to Wikipedia, it is unrelated (except etymologically) to cellulite. But I almost laughed out loud when the Ghanaian doctor told me what the thing on my wrist was called – then I got a few shots and was back to being grim. Anyway, I took to wearing a loose cloth over it for the next few days while the antibiotics kicked in. (It was not pretty to look at, and I noticed more than a few of my classmates staring over the days.) But, I was lucky to have a really good first (hopefully last!) hospital experience here. Many of my friends who have had to go to the hospital for one reason or another have waited for hours and hours, had to go back multiple times, and have spent days getting better or getting something taken care of. Anyway, I’m all healed now, and don’t have much scarring – and what is there vaguely resembles the shape of the continent of Africa, so that’s okay with me.

Okay, sit down for this. Let me tell you about prices. A generous portion of spicy rice with a hard-boiled egg, some salad, and tomato sauce = 50 (U.S.) cents. A bar of the creamiest ice cream you’ve ever tasted is 20 cents. A tro-tro ride into town? 60 cents. A sack of individual water sachets that will last you a week? Less than a dollar.

awesome.

One of the most rewarding things I’ve done at the University of Ghana is become involved with the United Nations Student Association here, through which I participated in Ghana’s first ever International Model United Nations Conference. I’ve blogged about it a bit before, but I wanted to show some more photos. I was the only non-African female, and one of two obronis, which was remarkable and fascinating. I met so many great and passionate young people –  which will always be one of my favorite things about Model UN. Resolutions were passed, debates were fruitful, and everyone learned something. That weekend was one of the most exhausting, challenging, and rewarding I’ve had here, and I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

visiting the Liberian Embassy

in committee

***

One of the most valuable things about being in Ghana is that I have continued to write about anything and everything. It’s not unusual for me to go to pick up my phone, to call or text a friend or someone I miss, but pick up my pen instead. It’s often hard at Elon to allow myself or push myself to read or write for the sheer pleasure of doing so – instead of for, say, a lit class or creative writing assignment. Along with so many other things, Ghana has given me the time and inspiration to do just that, and I am so fortunate to continue to be molded as a student of writing and follow that passion in an environment like this. I think that, in life, we make room for the people and things that are important to us, whether we think we have time for them or not. When I’m back at Elon, writing will remain a top priority. And if I am going to continue exploring the writing world like I feel so wonderfully compelled to, I’ll make sure a pen and Moleskine are always within reach.

Sometimes, writing comes with recognition – a very humbling thing. I’m still trying to wrap my head around the concept of validation when it comes to writing and sharing it with others, but at any rate, I received an email a few weeks ago telling me that I have had two poems accepted for publication in the 2010 issue of The Colonnades, Elon’s Art & Literary Journal. Also, a photo that I took in Kenya was selected to be the image on the journal’s cover! It’s quite an honor to be published. Maggie will also have a poem in the issue, and it was so great receiving that news together while all the way over here in Ghana. We’ll miss the unveiling of the magazine later this month, but I’m sure we’ll get our hands on a few copies somehow. Here is one of my poems that will be in the issue:

Creating

The people who make me feel most alive do not live here.
They live in adobe huts deep in Yemen,
in tree houses in Oregon, and on the coast
of the Coral Sea. In the arts and letters of all ages
and all walks of life, there is a man who drones melodies,
holding his wrinkled hands and mouth around
a gourd; a woman who finger-paints with purple sand
and the insides of tomatoes.

When I hear spoken word poetry on the streets of Tegucigalpa,
recited by orphaned teenage boys high on glue—cracked vessels
of truths whose rhythms resound in the city’s dust and darkness—
my heart skips. Or when I see a Pakistani grandmother
crushing henna leaves and carefully mixing the dark pasty dye
in preparation for a honorary feast. . .
Mundane, ugly, beloved— it is how, not what, these luminaries
create that stir deep and quiet beginnings within me,

and my heart beats a beat for the troubadours, the dream weavers,
for the papier-mâché masters and blistered dancers of jazz,
as they achieve an artist’s greatest success:
revealing life in what was never before thought of.
Whispering to the remnants of artistry inside each of us,

creators never stop living alive. I pay tribute to those
who unknowingly remind me that what I have to offer—
hands that always smell of clay, a flair for color
and a little bit of gumption—
is enough to tell stories.