Thursday, April 2, 2009

The Game

It’s not difficult to figure out when it’s a game day. Everyone walks around with a crazed look on their face, carrying a handheld radio to their ear or packed into the front of the TroTro craning to hear the radio announcer over the racket of the roughly running engine. When the game is played in Accra, the stadium is flooded by the entire city’s TroTro and taxi traffic, all battling to cut in from of their neighbor. It’s a good time to brush up on insults of the Twi or Ga languages. From motor traffic the stadium becomes equally swamped in foot traffic outside of the entrance gates. The ticket system is a mystery to everyone, but there is a lot of pushing and being shoved into your sweaty neighbor involved. At one point I was actually picked up and moved out of the path of this guy using a bulldozing approach to making it into the game. Everyone seemed to give up on the formal ticket system quickly and we all made it inside through a side door right as the game began. At the sound of the game’s start everyone just turned to the guy next to him, started yelling and sprinted off to fight for a seat.
Togo played Cameroon. The winning goal was scored by Togo within the first five minutes, and as a life-long Togo fan I was in the Togo section caught up in the celebrations. We had only just gotten there but everyone was embracing and jumping. I caught some tears in a few fan’s eyes. Then the drum section of Rastas started up and everyone was dancing. Katja and I received what can only be described as a joint lap dance. There was some improvisational dancing with Togolese flags, which may have been an attempt at baton twirling. A Cameroon fan wandered into our section during the celebration and a fight broke out. Random guys would suddenly jump out of their seats and frantically run into the fight to take a swing for Togo. The crowd-control police were skinny young women so it took a while for everything to settle down. But eventually everyone started dancing to the drums again. A few Togolese women flashed the crowd. No more goals were scored. But, by the end of those 90 minutes the fans had exhausted themselves as much as the players.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009


Dry Weather
The north is spectacularly beautiful with its whitewashed mosques and arid streets. Walking around in midday is comparable to sticking your face into the path of a giant hairdryer, but somehow wearing scarves and long robes still sounds appealing. It must be the dry weather. The dust can give you a little cough, but after waking up sweating in Accra for so long the, chilly mornings in the north are incredibly rejuvenating. Sleeping on the roof in the Muslim village of Larabanga a cloth was almost enough to keep me warm, but Junior our host’s five-year-old son was still clinging to my neck to fight off the chill. At night before we fell asleep, all the men in Larabanga joined together in prayer at a certain point on the street where mats were laid out and prayed before going to sleep. In the morning before sunrise and even before the roosters the three mosques of the one street village all took turns announcing their call to prayer. I lay awake listening to the loudspeaker voices, but Junior and Al Hassan (P2) just rolled over and went back to sleep. I guess the call is just for kicks because no one in the town seemed to be stirring.

The dry weather feels so clean to me. When we would wash our clothes and hang them to dry in P2’s courtyard the sun would almost bake them clean. Bucket showers are always refreshing, but in the dryer climate instead of feeling instantly sticky you stay clean for the day.The smell of cooking fire is sharper in the dry weather. Since P2 doesn’t have a kitchen we brought a charcoal stove to the courtyard (living room/washroom/bedroom/kitchen) and we all helped our Scottish friend Uwen cook his birthday soup. The stove would spark and embers would explode all the way up to the roof, like our own private fireworks.

Roads: Unpaved and Paved
All but the city center of Bobo is made up of wide unpaved avenues and big open lots, sometimes used as a market place, sometimes a football field. As soon as the sun sets the streets are unlit except for a few scattered lights where people are sitting on stools outside their homes and businesses. The open field becomes a strange restaurant where plastic tables and chairs are spaced out throughout the field, but the field is completely dark. People sit together drinking a beer and chatting, but its dark enough that you cannot make out the person’s face sitting across from you. Walking through Bobo’s unlit streets is a hazard for people who don’t know where the big potholes and frequent trash piles are, but we followed the sound of music managed to stumble across a big wedding reception were a crowd was all dancing on the street around a single florescent bulb. Farther down the streets we went to eat our staple of egg sandwich and the guy somehow managed to cook up four delicious omelets on his little coal stove completely in the dark. Usually when sun sets in an unlit town, the community tends to shut down or at least slow. But in Bobo I think there may have been more people out on the dark streets that were out in the hotter hours of the day.

Past the water tower and Place de la Nation the paved roads start and so does the slow bustle of Bobo. The market is surrounded by rows and rows of motos on every side and it wasn’t clear weather they were there to be sold or people had parked tightly to go to the market. Maybe it was the days we went, but Bobo’s market was nicest I’ve been to. The cloth, the jewelry, the food was all so different from Ghanaian markets. We spent the day with these brothers from Mali who got involved when Andrea was haggling in broken French, but were more tranquil than anyone you meet in the markets here. Baba Mussa wore eye charcoal and brought us around to the cosmetic stands showing us the different makeup for men and for women. We didn’t have much room, or much money for that matter to buy too much from the market. But is was nice to just spend the day in there talking to people and looking around.

When you are driving down the dirt roads that cut through the huge open farms and villages on the outskirts of Banfora it gets tricky to avoid colliding with the donkey-drawn mango carts, even on a moto. The carts are piled high with stacks of green mangoes that roll off when the cart hits the bumps of the dirt road and are scattered all along the way to the waterfall and dome cliffs. We crashed our moto hitting a big mud puddle, and gracefully face planted so that everyone could see we had wiped out, but there were some close calls hitting fallen mangoes as well. The trees along the road are a mixture of scraggly Savannah trees, Baobab and of course mango groves dripping in fruit. On the walk to Banfora’s breathtaking waterfall you walk through a village who’s livelihood is based off of the thick mango grove that thrives next to the waterfall. I’ve never seen such huge mango trees. They completely block out the sunlight above and it would probably take three people joining arms to reach around some of the tree trunks. The ground is scattered in mangoes and the air is thick with the tangy smell of ripening fruit. The village women spend their days in the shade, piling up mangoes and the babies sit with them eating nearby mangoes. None of them spoke French, but we collected mangoes with them and ate them for lunch. Back in town everyone seemed to be making a meal out of mangoes as well. I lost count of how many stands of yellow mangoes were being sold by the market ladies, and when we caught the bus from Banfora to Bobo we were rushed by no less than 30 grinning women with mangoes stacked up on their heads, all calling out for us to buy theirs.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Burkinabe Road Trip

As soon as the lush rainforest of the coast starts to thin out into sparse savannah, the humidity plummets. When we left Accra at 5am it was still dark and we managed to pass most of the bumpiest dustiest roads on the outskirts of Accra before sunrise. We stayed out the night before to ensure that we would sleep for a good deal of the 18-hour ride ahead of us. Turns out it's almost impossible to sleep through those bumps and potholes. Then there was Yao, filming our sleepy grumbling faces, trying to capture the first moments of the trip for his FESPACO documentary. We were not able to use AC for a good deal of the trip (only when stopped in traffic) so it was a good thing that the humidity subsided on our way north. On the way home we weren’t so lucky, with our van breaking down or being pulled over at the hottest points in the day until we eventually got a flat smack in the humidity of Greater Accra. On the way up we drove through Kumasi by ten and ate a full Ghanaian meal even though must of us had just woken up from a nap. It was a much longer stretch to Tamale. The majority of the trip switched between laughing at Danny falling asleep in George the driver’s lap or on Laurine’s chest as she was trying to push him back upright.

Driving into Ouaga was mesmerizing, with all the ladies riding bicycles and motos, decked out in full dresses and head scarves. Some would even carry a heavy load of strawberries on their head. I think the amazingly aired desert weather had me captivated as well as we were entering the city. Everyone emanated a vibe of coolness, despite the heat (which I actually think is much less draining the Accra’s humidity; the Ghanaians I was with strongly disagreed). It might also be the French language and the head scarves that the Burkinabes and Malians wear that created this vibe, but Burkina felt way more laid back than the friendly intensity of Ghana. Burkina also has a really nice smell to it. The smells of Accra are kind of comforting at this point, but I’ll be honest, it doesn’t smell great here. The humidity traps whatever smells are present, so there is always the smell of burning trash and stove fires (which smells strangely good) and the markets always have a very strong odor of smoked fish and stagnant water (which just smells strange). Burkina smells cleaner, like spicy dust. At least during FESPACA there is much less trash and sitting water in the markets so they smell like baguettes and material. Food in Ouaga was more expensive and the spaghetti was less spicy, but I would go back there just to get another spicy avocado sandwich and a bag of strawberries from the biking strawberry vendors. I also really wish we had Zamcom (rice/millet/ginger drink?). They sell it cold with ice-cubes out of a big pot by the sandwich stands, and its so much more refreshing than the hot millet porridge sold in Ghana. (Anyone in Ghana: try refrigerating the millet, its actually pretty tasty).

The music in Burkina is kind of dry and raspy- a lot like many peoples voices. The dust dries you out and the friends I went out with could put some Parisians to shame with the amount they smoked. There isn’t quite the same need to dance that you feel in Ghana. I danced when we went out with friends, and Yao definitely represented Ghana with his moves, but we stopped by a few concerts where everyone was just standing listening to the music. Coming from Ghana it felt almost eerie.

After watching so many African films, making our own documentaries and knowing a few of the filmmakers personally, the atmosphere of the festival was so exciting. A lot of the films were only in French, but with some translation help I didn’t have any trouble following along. Some of my favorites of the festival were in French. There was a short documentary (like were making!) on child Tro Tro drivers in Algeria that I though was fantastic. I really liked this one fictional film about murders of Albinos in Mali and of course Rasta’s Paradise, which is our professor Parine Jaddo’s documentary was awesome. It explored Rastafarian culture in Ethiopia (Zion) where they have a big Rasta community and Rasta schools and Rasta families. Parine made a great film and just generally is incredibly cool.
Well, soon I am embarking on Burkina Road trip round two. Considering the distance I think that speaks for itself.

Sunday, February 22, 2009


Ghana has a certain quality to it that is very endearing. I hadn’t been able to put my finger on exactly what that quality was, but after this weekend I think I have figured it out. Ghana has adopted a lot of culture from the outside world. They speak English, worship the bible, and even celebrate Valentine’s Day now. But Ghana has far from lost its uniqueness. Every tradition adopted has a Ghanaian spin added to it. It becomes a huge, loud, colorful and often over the top version of its original self.
Valentines Day didn’t exist here until 4 or 5 years ago. But now that it has made it to here there’s no turning back. While most of the US was probably trying to forget its existence, Ghana has been talking about chocolate day for weeks. On the 14th everything got decorated in gaudy pink and white ribbons. There were big parties on the beach. The markets were overflowing with Kingsbite chocolate and the jewelry sellers had an all time high in sales.
Democracy has made it to Ghana, and let me tell you, Ghana has the rawest Democracy I have ever witnessed. Over the weekend Anika and I ended up with our host Auntie at the Tema Teachers Credit Union Annual Meeting. After a credit talk, which can be more accurately described as a credit sermon (and I quote “May the Lord Jesus grant us credit for all”), the group had to vote on a few issues. Looking at the program I thought the points looked pretty mundane. They wanted to change their name to the Teachers Credit Union Network. But voting in Ghana is far from mundane. People were standing up and shouting, pleading for revotes, and the chairman almost had to resign because was accused of swaying the group’s opinion. All fore a name change. No wonder it took so long for John Atta Mills to be elected.
Obama is a big deal in the US. But Obama support in the US still doesn’t have quite the fervor of Obama support in Ghana. There is Obama cloth that seamstresses sew into dresses and suits. The radio plays a whole slew of Obama inspired songs. Anytime an Obruni reveals that they are American everyone shouts OBAMA! He is a son of Africa here.
And of course, religion is amplified here. Every shop has some religious inspired name like “Blood of Jesus Hair Salon.” I probably should have been clued into the intensity of religion when I walked into my host family’s house and there was Gospel music blaring, big posters of Jesus surrounded by wooly lambs, Pastor Chris the South African Televangelist and little scriptures filling in any empty wall space. This morning we got up to go to church and I was really hoping it would be a Gospel Church so I could do some singing. But we pulled up to what looked like a huge warehouse and I realized I had some Mega-church worshipping ahead of me. The sound system was not very clear so I could barely understand what the pastor was saying, and I got really sleepy in the heat, but I couldn’t dose off because there were ushers dressed in all white watching the crowd. They would wack anyone on the head who was slouching too much or not paying attention. One man fell asleep and the pastor called him out and he was removed from the service. The music was provably the best I have ever heard at a church service, very passionate Gospel. Then they said something and our host Maame was beside herself with excitement. That’s when I realized that we were in a Born Again Church and Anika and I were about to be saved. Now, I’ve never been saved before (and I’m not sure how necessary it is since I already belong to another church). But, from what I gathered, Ghanaians do not take religion or saving lightly. Well we survived and made our host Mom giddy with happiness. I think we are spending Easter either them, but I don’t really want to go back to church, even though next time we don’t have to get up in front of the whole congregation. Thank you Lord Almighty that is over. Ghana is still endearing in its enthusiasm though.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Odd Jobs

There aren’t exactly jobs coming out of the woodwork here. This adds up to a lot of poverty and a lot of people with too much free time. But for those who do manage to keep working they have a long list of odd jobs. I love to hear about where people are from (or where their family’s ancestral village is) and to hear about the path people have taken to end up in Accra. Small Sami, who drives a van for NYU used to be a solider in the Ghanaian Army. After that he was a Rasta Tro Tro Driver. Then about a year or two ago he cut off his dreads and got a job with Avis. Richard the night security guard hunted in his home-village. Apparently he has killed a good amount of warthogs in his days, but they’re very dangerous so he usually stuck to grass cutters. Grass cutters look a lot like giant rats. Once they are smoked you can make them into soup and eat it with fufu (our friend Forson is going to show us how to cook it). So Richard hunted grass cutter and sold it at a roadside stand. After that he worked as a seamstress (tailor?), and then moved in with friends down the street from us and got a job working the night shift as a guard. Debbi, who lives with us and works in NYU’s office, also has a family bread making business. Krista the program coordinator apparently has a West African jewelry business. Our friend Forson is currently "working" as a security guard across the street, but will hopefully be moving to Amsterdam (or somewhere like that) soon to be an au pair. He should probably work on his riddles (Tolis) first because they don't make any sense. I’m always amazed at where people come from and how they’ve gotten here.

Monday, February 9, 2009

The Divide

On the upper levels of St. George’s castle you have the best views of Elmina from the grand balconies and airy whitewashed rooms of the Dutch officials. The inlayed wood floors and huge glass windows, centuries old are more luxurious than most modern Ghanaian households. From the governor’s master bedroom a balcony looks down into an inner courtyard. Any time the governor felt the need, he would have the female “residents” form the lower levels lined up in the courtyard. Fro there he could comfortable pick who he would use, without coming to close to the stench of the women who were not allowed to bathe or to move away from the dead bodies, of mostly young girls, who had been overcome by the sub-Saharan heat. While the glass windows of the upper rooms seemed opulent and unnecessary, the total lack of windows or ventilation in the slave dungeons below is unthinkable. All this time later the dungeons still smell like dank death, although they say it has faded a lot.
In a country that is so communal and supportive, this divide seems completely out of place. Bet even today, a shadow of that divide still exists. The luxury resorts that pamper to a majority Dutch and European travelers have an eerie resemblance to the Dutch officers’ quarters in Elmina Slave Castle. At least Ghana is profiting somewhat from their tourism, but why does that divide still exist at all. There are plenty of explanations. You can read about it in books or have it explained in lectures. But when you are actually face to face with the extreme wealth next to the extreme poverty, all those explanations loose their weight.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009


sorry- i accidentally posted to your blog instead of mine...oops, sounds like you're having fun though :)