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Monday, June 26, 2006

TOTAL IMMERSION-- SIX WEEKS IN GHANA


Robert and Robin Axel are two pals from my college days. They're married and have two sons, both in college now. I think the first time I was ever traveled outside of the U.S. was when Robert and I hitchhiked to Mexico during the summer of 1967. That's a whole other story-- for another time-- and today I want to introduce you to Adam, their older son. He's a senior at University of Central Florida, a political science major with a good head on his shoulders. Like his parents, he's an enlightened liberal and, in his own words, "a strong advocate for the tight Elite grip on the U.S. as well as the World to be removed. Power should truly be in the hands of the people and not in an elite minority." What started out as a summer vacation and wild adventure, turned into Adam immersing himself in the society and culture of a country few college students could ever even find on a map. Adam got back a couple days ago. I don't know anyone else who has ever been to Ghana and Adam wrote some notes while he was there and is allowing me to publish them. It's not about the best hotels and restaurants and tourist attractions.

I am in a small village called Kwamoso in the Akuapem Hills Region. The village is extremely rural with no electricity or running water. Compared to middle class America these people are dirt poor but they are Ghana's middle class. They live in houses literally made out of mud with tin roofs. In many the mud walls are coated with a layer of cement but not all. The poor live in houses with straw roofs and the mud walls look like they are crumbling. The people are really nice and friendly. The family I am staying with always has my meals (breakfast, lunch, & dinner) ready for me & won't even let me help clean up.

Two girls from Britain are staying at the same house as I am although I haven't met one yet because she has been traveling. In the area there are about 10 other volunteers and we all meet up at night. This weekend they are all traveling to a beach a few hours away but I have an appointment to meet the Tribal Chief of Kwamoso on Saturday so unfortunately I cannot go. I am glad that there are other volunteers because it is hard to have a conversation with the locals in my village because the ones that do speak English don't speak it particularly well.

There is a school across from the house I am staying in so there are always tons of kids running around. They stare and point at me and call me "obruni" (white man). Many are amazed and run up to touch me to see if I am real. None of the locals speak English unless they are talking to a volunteer. They speak their local language so I never know what is going on. Although most people are really nice they constantly talk about me because I will hear "American" or "obruni" throughout conversations. It is really annoying at times but I should get used to it. The other volunteers say the same thing happens to them all the time.

During the week I get woken up around 6am for breakfast although I am awake much earlier from the roosters and sheep. The family I am staying with wakes up around 4am. I then go to work between 7 and 8 am and make mud bricks and help with the construction of the homes. Habitat for Humanity runs the program. It is hard and messy work and you get covered in mud. The sun here is incredibly hot and if you don't wear sunscreen you can be sunburn in 10 minutes.

I work until around 11am or 12pm because that is when they usually stop for the day because of the extreme heat. On my first day at work the other workers did not understand why I was wearing shoes. One who spoke a little English said that if he had shoes he would never dirty them and wear them   for work. Most people do not have shoes. Earlier today I saw about 20 kids at another school playing soccer bare foot. I find it really sad.

People spend the day outdoors because it is even hotter inside the houses. They cook over fires and wash their clothes by hand in basins. There is an outhouse and a small room with a bucket which is my shower for the next 6 weeks. The outhouse is really disgusting and I was told at night before going to the bathroom to shine the flashlight down the hole to scare the cockroaches as they tend to climb up the top at night. The bugs are really crazy looking and big. I saw a millipede the size of the lizards in Florida and saw a lizard here that was yellow, red, and green. The village has chickens, goats, sheep, turkey (I think it was a turkey), pigs, and cats running around all over the place. The food is really good and the fruit is so fresh. The area I am in is real beautiful and is in the hills and is covered in green.

I am using the Internet at a town that took me about 35 minutes to get to. I had to take a tro tro (small packed van) and 2 line taxis to get here and it cost a little less than a dollar for the whole trip. American money is worth so much here and everything is really cheap. You can get a hotel room for less than $5 US.

Everything is so different here and it makes me feel so lazy. The women carry everything on their heads and I've seen some carrying loads of wood and huge things on their heads. I have no clue how they do that. The strangest thing that happened to me so far was when the man whose house I was staying at was showing me around the property; he went and walked around holding my hand. The people are so friendly that you will see a lot of grown men going around holding each others hands just as friends.

I have to be very careful with what I eat and about getting bitten by mosquitoes. About 2 weeks ago one of the volunteers had malaria and another had typhoid. They are better now and still here. Malaria is no big thing here as so many people get it. They basically give you a shot and you're better in 3 days.

Somehow cell phones work in the village I am in. Although they don't even have electricity I have better cell phone service than I do in Roosevelt (N.J.); I don't get it. I bought a prepaid cell and can receive cell phone calls. Whenever I need to charge my phone I take a tro tro to this guy's house who works for the organization I am volunteering with because he has electricity. I use the cell to keep in touch with the other volunteers. It is really cheap to make local calls and costs practically
nothing.

(Part 2)

I am in Cape Coast for the weekend which is a little over 4 hours from the village I am living in. All of the other volunteers had already traveled to Cape Coast so I decided to go alone. I arrived here yesterday and am feeling a little guilty because I am staying at a hotel that has electricity and a shower with hot water. Today I toured the Cape Coast Castle and the Elmina Castle which were both used during the slave trade. Tomorrow I will visit Kakum National Forrest which is a rain forest that has a canopy walk (rope and wood ladder that you walk across at the top of the trees).

This area is nice although in the center of the city everyone has a hustle for the white man and it gets a little old after a few hours of it. When I stepped out of the taxi at the first castle about 5 people surrounded me asking me for money for their soccer team and to sign a piece of paper pledging my support. I was told beforehand they do this so when you are done with the castle they will say that you had signed pledging money and harass you until you pay. I refused to sign anything but one person asked me for my name and I was surprised to see him writing it down with a marker on his hand. I didn't think much of it until 2 hours later when I am coming out of the castle and there he is running up to me with this big sea shell which read: To my American Friend, Brother Adams Axel, Have a nice time at Elmina Castle. I was impressed by his effort and handed him 30,000 cedis ($3) but he was not happy and wanted more. I got in the taxi as about another 10 people had gathered all asking me for my shirt, shoes, backpack, necklace, etc.. some even started yelling at me.

Anyway everything is going well. I have interviewed 5 people so far for my research (2 tribal Chiefs, 2 exec branch officials, and 1 local). The interviews with the tribal chiefs are pretty intense. First I have to pay them with either money or wine for their time and then do all of these interesting rituals with them. The first Chief I interviewed made me take huge shots of this strong gin or whiskey and then made me pour glasses for his entourage.

I have adapted pretty well to my living conditions and it has become a normal thing to take bucket showers with lizards in the dark. The one thing I have not completely gotten used to, and don't think I will in the next 4 weeks, is the bathroom. The other night there were at least 20 huge cockroaches all over the room climbing out of the toilet. I didn't need to use it but the other volunteer did and had to spend 20 minutes trying to brush them away in the dark.

I am finally being called Adam now instead of Obruni from a bunch of the children I spend the most time with. Everyone loves my camera and when people see it they run over to be in a picture and when I'm taking pictures there are always kids trying to jump into it. I gave the family I am staying with a photo album of pictures from America and they love looking at it and are really interested in the country. Everyone thought (his family's) two little dogs (Baby and Onyx) were monkeys.

I am always asked to bring people back to America with me. They will say something like "please sir bring me to your country". Today my taxi driver was trying to get me to marry one of his sister's friends and bring her back with me. A few people asked me if there are black people in America and almost everyone has the perception that everyone in America is rich and are shocked when I tell them this is not the case. I have only met 2 people who like Bush and everyone else hates the bastard. I have no clue what is going on in America except that someone in Florida was eaten by an alligator and "somewhere in Florida the votes are still being counted"... lol. I think there are newspapers with International coverage but I have not been that interested to find them. I am guessing the usual is taking place: people are dying in Iraq, people are still dying in New Orleans, Big Brother has your phone tapped, Cheney's friends are buying new mansions and islands with blood money, and Bush is at the ranch sitting on his thumb. If this is not the case please correct me but I am pretty confident in my assumption.

(Part 3)

Having a great time. I am in Accra with the other volunteers. Every month there is a party for all of the volunteers all over Ghana and last night it was here. My interviews are going well and I have done 10 so far. Hopefully next week I will meet with a couple of members of parliament. A few days ago I traveled to Boti Falls with a friend and we saw 2 water falls and hiked to a cave and the Umbrella Rock which is a huge rock in the shape of an umbrella. I climbed this rickety ladder to the top of the rock and the view was amazing. It had a similar feeling from when I was at the Grand Canyon. From up there it was like "wow I'm really in Africa," looking over the forest and mountains.

Construction work is also going well and I am enjoying it. From Monday, June 5th to June 9th I will be traveling to the North with a few friends. Our main objective is to get to Mole National Park and spend at least one night there. Right outside the hotel are watering holes and elephants, baboons, and other animals get really close to you. We have a few other stops along the way and I think one includes a huge Mosque made out of sticks.

I have become really close with a few of the kids in the village as well as with a few of the local school teachers. They have given us all nicknames and mine is acoodapanu (not sure of the spelling). They say it means "man sitting under tree drinking palm wine." One of the teachers is really funny. He thinks because I live in America I know 50 Cent and wants me to introduce them.

My friend Hugh and I each put in around $25 and are sponsoring this little girl Efia to go to school. She was adopted 2 months ago and the woman who adopted her barely has enough money to feed her, let alone send her to school. There really is no point in sending kids to the public schools here because they are so bad and the kids learn nothing. The $50 covers half the year and she will start school this Monday. Her new mother and her came up to us and would not stop thanking us. They were so happy it was a great feeling. The last couple of days I have been teaching her a little English. When I get home I will try and organize something to put money together to take care of the rest of the school year as well as sponsoring this kid Isaac who currently attends the public school. He also doesn't have the money to go to the private school and he is so bright he deserves the chance at an education. It is really sad how some of the kids live including Isaac. He, along with 3 other boys, live in this really small empty room with only 2 small pieces of this thin foam to sleep on. Despite the living conditions they are always happy and it is really inspiring.

Luckily I have not gotten sick yet and I hope I don't. The guy who had malaria had a relapse and was back in the hospital for 4 days and on oxygen for a day or so. I have been being really careful. One of the volunteers is leaving this weekend so I think we are all going swimming today at a pool and will probably then head back to the hills afterwards. Tomorrow I am planning on renting mountain bikes and going on a 3 hour trail which I've heard is beautiful. My friend had emailed me last week and informed me that Bush's' approval rating is now down to 29%. Any news like this I highly encourage to be sent to me ASAP.

The other night I was at a bar with a few friends and this guy walks in blurting out all sorts of crazy things. We didn't know if he was drunk or crazy or both. But anyway, it amuses me to have strange conversations with random people once in a while so we begin talking. He tells me that he is the "INFO MAN" and he can share as many "tid bits" of information as I would like. He is stumbling all over and keeps yelling how he is the "Info Man and it is "his pleasure" to speak with me. He buys me a beer and then tells me that he is the Information Minister and although I doubt it, it is somewhat believable because his English is really good. When he tells me this I immediately think of my research and attempt to grill him with questions just in case he is who he says he is. He is way too drunk to obtain any valuable information from-- except that he is the "Info Man" and he loves sharing tid bits of information with me and that he is in control of the information. It was hilarious and the other volunteers could not stop laughing. When he finally stumbled out of the bar he left us with these wise words "make sure to sleep with your ears outside." The owner of the bar informs us after he leaves that he really is the Minister of Information and he normally is very quiet and had just come back from a party. It is really ironic that I bump into this high government official which would have been great for my research but he was too wasted to say anything worthwhile.

(Part 4)

I am on my way to Adu Foah (a beach about 4 hours from Accra) and I stopped at an Internet cafe in Accra before catching a tro tro to the beach. I have been having a great time and have had some interesting experiences since the last time I wrote. Two friends and I rented mountain bikes a few days ago. By mistake we were given an advanced trail instead of the beginners trail which we had requested. We did not realize this until we were flying down steep cliffs, dodging huge holes, and pedaling through sand and tiny paths through corn fields. In summation it was INSANE and probably somewhat dangerous. Much of it felt like complete torture especially the never ending vertical inclines-- although the scenery was amazing and now that it is over I can say I am glad to have experienced it.

The little girl started school on Monday and seems to love it as she is always smiling. I taught a couple days this week and it was definitely an experience. I taught stage 1, 2, and 3 English and math. It is completely frustrating but somewhat rewarding when a student actually understands what you have just spent 2 hours teaching.

The other night I told ghost stories to the kids and think I scared the crap out of them. I had to keep telling them afterwards that it was just a story and there is no axe murderer wandering the village slaughtering goats and killing little boys at 3 am every night. That probably wasn't such a great idea. We took them into town yesterday for minerals (soda) which is thrilling for them because they never leave the village and their families don't have the money to buy minerals... as well as the fact that there is no electricity to keep anything cold in the village.

One of my house mates, Izzy had a couple of terrifying experiences that I think are worth sharing. She was in the loo (damn Brits call the bathroom the loo) and in the middle of her business a cockroach violated her. Without getting too graphic, the cockroach climbed up the toilet while she was on it and crawled around her private area. Another night she was in the loo a snake with a white head popped its head under the door but luckily did not crawl all the way in. The next day she asked about the snake and everyone kept saying "there are no snakes, no snakes, no snakes." I think it is considered a bad omen to talk about snakes. But anyway she finally found a few people who told her there are poisonous snakes with white heads. They claim that the first bite paralyzes you and then the snake eats you. I don't know how believable this story is but I don't really want to meet this man-eating snake to find out.

Two other volunteers have malaria but, on the bright side, the guy who was hospitalized is now better and feeling good. I had made an appointment to interview an assembly member and was told to meet him the next morning. The Reverend I am staying with told me he would wake me up in the morning. I am thinking 6, 7, maybe 8 am. At 3:50 AM! he is at my door "Adams get ready to leave." I couldn't believe it; I thought it was a bad joke. So at half past 4 AM! I am catching a tro tro in the dark to go ten minutes down the street. Anyway the interview went well except for one awkward moment when I was asked to buy him a motor scooter. I have done 13 interviews so far-- 2 local gov, 2 exec branch, 2 chiefs, 6 citizens, and 1 farm owner. I have made arrangements to meet a big shot business man at his mansion when I get back from traveling and have finally got in contact with a Parliament Rep who is hopefully setting up meetings with 2 parliament members as well. I then need a few citizens from the city and I think I will be good to go. I met a police chief last night and took his contact info but am not sure if I will interview him or not. I don't know how well he will receive questions on corruption when the police are the most corrupt of all.

On Sunday I will be leaving the beach with 3 volunteers and heading off for Northern Ghana and will be traveling until next Friday. The village I am living in is starting to feel like home and I will def miss it. If Cheney has a heart attack or Bush develops malaria email me at once.

(To be continued)


UPDATE 2009: Less Than Total Immersion

Today's NY Times recommends Ghana as the place to experience the joyous African experience-- although maybe not Accra. They recommend Cape Coast, although the primary Cape Coast experience doesn't sound exactly joyful... unless you're Jesse Helms or Jim DeMint.
As I left the market behind, the traffic and crowds died off, and the closer I came to the castle, the more somber the mood felt. Ahead of me, visitors clustered close together and slowed their steps almost to a shuffle. Even the young men who had gathered at the castle gate to solicit donations for fictitious youth soccer teams spoke in hushed tones. I realized that I had just walked the same path through town that the captives took, force-marched and traded to the British for guns, liquor and other goods, and then funneled into ships.

After his visit to Cape Coast Castle last month, President Obama said that he was reminded of the Buchenwald concentration camp. It’s an analogy many have made; I have been to Auschwitz and Buchenwald, and I, too, felt the similarity. As I walked through the arched gate into the long corridor leading to the castle courtyard, I was confronting the physical evidence of tangible evil.

The castle, an imposing stone fortress of ramps, stairs, parapets and holding pens, is a Unesco World Heritage Site and draws not only a steady stream of tour groups but also many visitors, including large numbers of African-Americans, traveling on their own. The castle boggles the mind with the businesslike efficiency of its neatly laid out spaces: the dark caverns of the men’s and women’s dungeons located deep within; the bright, airy residence halls on the upper floors for the administrators and paid workers; the high ramparts lined with enough cannons to repel an armada. Kidnapped Africans were held for months at a time in the most hellish conditions. Many died in dungeons so crowded that they could not lie down.

Those who survived left through the Door of No Return-- a small wooden door built into a stone archway that led to waiting ships. I paused there, overcome by emotion. It was difficult, almost terrifying, to step through this door despite the fact that no slave has been forced through it for two centuries.

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