Friday, November 9, 2012

Holland Part 2

All good things must come to an end as they say. And this time in Holland has been one of the best. I didn't expect a whole lot out of this trip since I was mostly set on going home. But I am very happy that I did take some time out here. It turned out to be one of the best and rejuvenating places I've been. Amsterdam was never high on my list of must-sees, but I wanted a small trip, a short time in Europe after the stresses of living in Africa. I had a personal connection here, friends I've had for a long time but don't get to see or talk to often, so it seemed like the perfect time and place to go.

Leon and Lina and I all met when I was in Scotland in 2003. Leon and I were students at Napier University for a term and Lina was there on a work program and living in the hostel Leon was at. Soon after they started dating and have been together ever since. Quite remarkable in many ways least of all the fact that Leon is from Holland and Lina is from Sweden. We've talked sporadically throughout those years and I've seen them 3 or 4 times since. Last year, when I had a long layover in Amsterdam, I asked them if they wanted to meet somewhere in the airport for a few hours of catching up. We got so well—like, where had the years gone?--and I realized how much I missed them so I thought a short COS trip to Amsterdam would be just what the doctor ordered.

Leon and Lina live in Haarlem, a stylishly historical town about fifteen minutes from Amsterdam. I arrived on Friday, so we spent the first couple of days just wandering around the winding streets and shops. Modern shops selling the latest fashions, stores with knick knacks and souvenirs, creative shops with boutique-like merchandise, foreign restaurants, Dutch and Irish pubs, and numerous cafes line the streets on the ground floors of buildings that have been there for centuries. Brick work flows from the buildings to the streets where pedestrians try not to get run over by an endless stream of bicycles. Dogs on leashes, kids in cars and lot of flowers and bread and cheese and wine. On Saturday, vendors selling clothes, seafood, bread, cheese, stroopwaffles, flowers and fruits and veggies erect stalls in the Grote Markt for the weekly market in front of the gigantic Gothic church that dominates the old part of Haarlem. And bad weather deters no one. Weather in the Netherlands in the winter seems really similar to Seattle. There is snow occasionally, but mostly it is just drizzling rain with a biting wind coming off the sea. But that's the worst of it. Occasionally the sun comes out or the clouds stay high up and immobile in the sky and weather is tolerable for walking around. And of course it is the middle of autumn to trees turn colors and lose their leaves, framing the many canals and old buildings with many shades of orange and yellow and green.

On Sunday, Lina had to work on a theatre project so Leon decided he wanted to show me the natural bits of the Netherlands. Haarlem lies between Amsterdam and the sea so we headed west into the national park and towards the beach. Somewhere between a natural park and a city park, many paths meander through miles of wooded land reminding me of a flatter kind of Virginia with trees of orange leaves interspersed with bushes. I kept expecting a black bear to emerge from behind a bush, but I got Highland cows instead. On this weekend day the park was chockabock full of joggers. Groups of runners and solo joggers in track duds were enjoying the cool, sunny weather, but my favorite by far was the little 8 year old blond headed girl jogging alongside her grandfather. After a walk through the park, we headed towards the beach. We never really got there because as we drove through Zandfoort, a small seaside town, we noticed steam coming from beneath the hood of Leon's car. We pulled into a parking place on a side street lined with townhouses. After a peek under the hood, Leon decided he had to call help, the Dutch equivalent of AAA. But because the universe works like that, his cell phone battery died halfway through the conversation. So we went old-school and Leon tried a doorbell and asked to borrow a phone. (Who's had to do THAT in the last fifteen years in the age of cell phones?) And thus we met Connie, a very kind woman in her 60s who had no qualms about inviting two strangers in for tea and coffee while waiting for the fix-it guy, after Leon borrowed her phone to call him of course. So we sat in this kind lady's living room, drank tea, and talked through the mixture of English and Dutch about the safe things kind strangers say about themselves. At one point she even said that she had to out on an errand but we were welcome to say and wait for the repair guy, but he came before we needed to accept that offer.

Monday was the start of the work week so I was going to into Amsterdam and walk around on my own. I took the train in with Lina and got off in the Museumplein, the big square with most of the city's most famous museums. I had planned to go into the Rijksmuseum to see the famous larger-than-life Starry Night while the weather was questionable, then walk to the Centraal station by way of the city center, but by the time I got there the weather turned nice, so I decided to just start walking. There's really nothing interesting here to mention except I quite enjoyed just soaking in a city wandering down whatever street looked interesting, through picturesque neighborhoods, over bridges spanning canals, and bicycles, bicycles, bicycles. I did some shopping, walked through the flower market selling enough tulip bulbs to fill the moon, bought some cheese, found the “High” street where all the cannabis shops were, rested in cafes over a hot cup of tea, enjoyed a white beer in a square full of pigeons, trams, and happy shoppers. Exactly the kind of European atmosphere I'd been looking forward to for months.

I saved the most important museum for Tuesday. As good as the weather was, I knew that if I missed the Anne Frank Huis I would regret it. I had hoped to see it since I found out there was such a place. I first read The Diary of Anne Frank in 8th grade English class during a phase when I was interest in that time of history. Going to the museum was never high on my list of must do's, but I always knew that if I got to Amsterdam, I would have to go there. And it didn't disappoint. It's a very simple and moving museum and I was surprised by its emotional impact. I remember hearing stories of people having near-incapacitating reactions in the Holocaust Museum in DC, which is a graphic testament to the horrors and atrocities of those years. And I never shared such an intense reaction to that place. But walking into the first room of the Anne Frank House with only her portraits displayed on the wall—the famous ones you've seen a million times—I felt the same way I did when I saw Dachau in Germany as a teenager. A sense of awe that this actually happened, right here, not in a book or a movie but right in this very place. A young girl unknowingly wrote what was to become the most celebrated testament of oppression. Tears linger behind the eyes and a catch stays in your throat. She dies hopeless and alone in a concentration camp not knowing the icon she would become.

After that sobering journey through history, I continued my destination-less walk through the city, enjoying some shopping and searching for the best canal and building front picture. The night was spent camped out in front of the TV waiting for CNN to give some election results before we got too tired to stay up. We made it to the closing of the first polls and that was it. We were awake early enough to watch Obama's victory speech, however, and get the whole story which was a better idea than trying to pull and all-nighter. Lina had the day off so we spent my last day in Holland wandering around Haarlem again. We found the small but intriguing Ten Boom Museum that commemorated the heroics of Corrie Ten Boom, the author of The Hiding Place, who hid 6 Jews behind a fake wall in her bedroom and helped hundreds of others go underground during WWII and spent many months in a concentration camp for her troubles. We also went into the church in the square, had a drink in one of the cafes near the church, and took in some more shops. Amsterdam is magnificent, but Haarlem is charmingly Dutch and easily lovable. We capped off my trip with an indulgence in sushi for dinner, a great end to a great trip.

Hello, Holland, where have you been all my life? Part 1

Nearly ten years ago, I fell in love with a country. Scotland seemed to hold everything I found glorious and intriguing in a place. I always more or less attributed my love affair with Scotland to it being my first serious time abroad, first time having friends from other countries, being in college, being at that time, at the threshhold of adulthood when the world is wondrously exciting and an adventure to discover. I thought it was the traveling, the international feeling that I fell in love with, but really, it was Scotland. After that I went to Mexico, to Trinidad, spent two years in West Africa, experienced Namibia, but never again did I enter a place and think I could love it as much as Scotland. Until now. As I sit here in a glass cafe in the top of a tall tower with a magnificent view of one of the greatest cities in the world, I realize that I really fell in love with Europe all those years ago. My 9-year-old self was right all along. From the time I first picked up a James Herriot book, from the first time I hear German for the first German I encountered, from the first pictures of castles and tales of English aristocracy, I have been in love with Europe and its cold climes and harsh languages. Hearing those languages and watching their lifestyles was why anthropology became so appealing, but studying Europe and its cultures were old-school, uncool, and old hat. Asia and Africa was where it was at. That's where people who really wanted an adventure—to really see the world—that's where they went. Europe was where everyone went for vacation, it was expensive and even a little elitist. So I followed suit. I went other places looking for the same feeling. I studied during a short trip to Trinidad, did work in Africa, and though I still want to see many parts of Asia, nothing has captured my heart, my romanticism, my interest, my spirit as much as Europe. And now I have come full circle—found it again with the same people who were there in the first place.

Amsterdam, and Holland, surprised me. I figured people liked to go there to do things legally they couldn't anywhere else or otherwise for business. I thought it was a large metropolitan city with lots of modern buildings and neighborhoods, the history long since plowed over, but I couldn't have been more wrong. This is exactly everything I wanted. Walkable streets with neighborhoods full of old brick buildings and cobbled streets. Buildings many stories tall and squished together, bridges over canals, flowers planted along walkways and sold on the corner. Little shops carved into old buildings with people living over them. Places still too small for cars to maneuver. People on bicycles with crates full of wine and flowers and bread, children riding in the seats behind. People walking their dogs through tree-lined grassy parks that are deliberately put in every neighborhood. People who are kind and polite but allow you as much anonymity as you need. It's been incredibly relaxing and interesting to just sit or walk and soak in a city, to sit back and watch the Dutch-ness happen. All of it just feels so right.  

Thursday, November 1, 2012

The Best Day

I wrote this post a couple of weeks ago....

The end is near.  The end has felt near for some weeks, I have spent much of it anxiously waiting through the days, waiting for one day to cross into another.  Most everything I have done in my adult life has a set time limit—college, graduate school, temporary jobs, Peace Corps Service—and by the end of that set time, I am ready to jump into the next thing.  Ready to not linger, but look forward for the next new “adventure”, the new possibilities.  Instead of having “senioritis” at the end of high school or college, I have pushed through it many times by now and am familiar with the feeling of having one foot in the now and one in the future, not being wholly there, but distracted by the excitement of possibilities that arise after the end of the current journey.

I am looking forward to leaving Ghana and going home.  These two years have been amazing, challenging, and given me a sense of accomplishment, but I'm ready to go home and eat turkey, decorate a Christmas tree, talk to my sister and my best friend every day on the phone, have reliable internet and electricity, and not having to share my toilet with cockroaches or my food with ants.  To be honest, other than some key people, there's not really a whole lot I will miss about Ghana.  At least, I say so now, I am interested to see what I will think in six months.  I haven't felt much trepidation about my impending departure date; I guess I've been subconsciously preparing myself to leave for a while.  The readiness to leave is helped along by some doubts and disappointments that nag at me as I sum up emotionally (and bureaucratically) the course of my experience here.  There is a wide gap between what I expected this time to be and what it ended up being.  Becoming adept at a new language, practicing some real professional anthropologist work, excelling amongst my colleagues, are only a few of the goals I wasn't able to accomplish.  I have succeeded in putting on mass educational events, hoping to reach many people with a variety of ideas, events that look good on a list on a resume, but how effective were they, really?  It is easy to look at my pictures, to read summations of the things I have done, and say I am making a difference, but when you're in it, and you see everything, including your shortcomings, things don't look so rosy.  I try to be objective about my experience and balance out the bad with the good, but it's funny that our worthy accomplishments never seem to shine as brightly as the perceived failures in our mind's eye.

But for one glorious day, that all went away, and I found myself at the end of it, in a tro, on the muddy dirt road, the cool evening air on my face as the bushes and the trees whizzed by, thinking that I was ready to leave this country happy and satisfied after all.

I had traveled the previous day to meet up with Linda and Nathan, the only two volunteers near me, at Linda's house in Jumbo, about an hour's drive from me.  We had plans to hang out and spend the night, then the next morning, catch a car to Nkwanta and find our way to Kyabobo (pronounced Cha-bo-bo) National Park.  The house behind Linda's was in the middle of funeral rites which meant we had to listen to popular Ghanaian hip hop music with the aid of large floor speakers until four in the morning.  Such dance jams are an important part of the celebration part of the funeral process, basically like playing a dance to celebrate someone's life.  The problem is, people like to pay the dj's to play all night, but people usually head home around midnight or one, but for some reason, that doesn't matter.  Needless to say we didn't get much sleep, so hiking the next day was a little sluggish.  Anyway, we caught the not-so-early car and arrived in Nkwanta about 9:30.  Then we had to pay some guys to take us to the park which was easy enough.  The headquarters is only a few kilometers from the town marked by a long wire fence and a big, peach colored gated arch.  Once inside, the road finds the headquarters office and staff areas.  Lots of men are strolling around in what looks like green police uniforms, staff disproportionate to the tourists visits, that's for sure.  The headquarters itself is small, a connection of four or five offices/rooms by a walkway in much better shape than other government buildings I've seen in the country especially in this area.  Since our arrival was a little late in the morning, we decided on one of the shorter hikes, the most popular being the hike up Breast Mountain.  The headquarters is not inside the park, so they dropped us some fifteen minutes up the road at the trail head with our guide, who was guide, ranger, naturalist, and trail crew all in one—and proceeded on what was one of my hardest hikes in a while.  Linda put it in perspective as we were coming down by saying, “you know if this was in an American park, the trail would be weaving up the mountain instead of going straight up”.  That's exactly why it was so hard.  It was little more than a bush trail up a mountain, past some old cassava farms and some very current corn fields.  Once inside the park borders, however, the trail went up a great deal, which of course put me into full tortoise-mode—slow and steady.  After huffing and puffing a good deal and feeling wobbly on my legs, I began to wonder if we'd ever make it to the top.  Eventually we did though and were treated to a great view for miles around.  At Nkwanta the mountains start and continue as one goes south, but everything north is flat as Nevada.  It was different to see this flat, flat land nestled with tin-roofed villages and the Lake Volta in the distance, then --BAM!-- mountains.  We hung out at the top for a while, taking pictures against the pinnacle rock, munching on our plethora of snacks—peanuts, oranges, bread, McVities cookies, waiting for our heart rates to come back down.  They did eventually and we started back down the trail which was almost as much fun as going up and I have the blistered toes to prove it.

Once back in Nkwanta, there were still a few errands to run, since it was Market Day.  Linda needed to go to the bank, and Nathan and I stopped to buy vegetables for dinner later.  Once we collected some coveted carrots and green bell peppers, we followed her to the bank.  Bank on Market Day is a crazy place and it was obvious she'd be waiting a while, so we decided to give it another hour and went to find a spot—a bar.  As we were headed to Hilltop, I heard a familiar voice call out to me and turned around to see Ebenezer with a big grin on his face.  I was happy to see him there since it meant he was signing up for school, something he at one time was worried he wouldn't be able to do.

Ebenezer was one of the junior high school kids I took to Camp GGLOW more than a year ago.  He's a bright and generous kid, his class's Student Prefect, a kid with a bright future, really.  He would stop by my house periodically to chat, to help me with some chore, or whatever.  He applied himself well in school, and genuinely believed that if he worked hard in school, it would get him somewhere.  I knew that if he could get a good start in school, he had the ability to make something of himself.  His mother can barely pay his junior high school fees which are nominal compared to those that would occur in senior high school.  He scored well on his end of junior high state tests, actually the best in his class, but didn't know how he was going to pay for high school, especially with an errant father who sees education as not very important and a stepfather who cares even less.

Some months ago, when I was finishing up our large latrine project, a group from our partnering organization in Ho came to conduct some sanitation and health workshops for various people in various communities.  Vincent Mensah, his university graduated daughter, and couple other staff people, including a PCV, came and stayed about five days.  During their last afternoon, I was in the house making some tortillas and fixing up my hummus-in-a-can, a good import from Lebanon that I can buy in Tamale.  I had planned to share it with Vincent and his crew as a parting gift.  Ebenezer stopped by, interested in my cooking flat bread, and ended up following me down to the guest house with my concoctions.  We all ended up eating the lot and drinking some beer, then as Kwesi invited them to some traditional dancing happening at his house, we all headed there.  To make a long story short, Ebenezer ended hanging out with them that day, helping them buy things at the market, and talking to them quite a bit.  Vincent told him that when he found out his test scores and school placement results, he should call him.  In the end, he ended up offering Ebenezer the possibility of admission in one of the schools in Ho.  After the results came, Ebenezer was placed in Nkwanta's school.  A school in Ho would be of much better quality, but also much more expensive.  Also, time was tight and a transfer now would be impractical, so Ebenezer decided to go ahead to Nkwanta, with the possibility of transferring to a better school in Ho next year if he wants.  After visiting his father, who claimed he had no money for school, he worried about how he was going to pay for it.  I had already determined I was going to give him some, but I wanted to wait to see what his father came up with.  I gave him what I could, but I couldn't pay for all, so I told him to call Vincent who ended up sending him a big chunk of his fees.

On Monday afternoon, as Nathan and I were collecting our things in market, Ebenezer was completing his admission errands for school, which consisted mainly of paying the fees.  He was very excited and looked as though a big weight had been lifted because between the funds Vincent and I gave him he was able to pay everything with no lingering worries, enabling him to start school with the rest of his colleagues.  Even though he normally possesses a happy disposition, it was definitely different that day.  To celebrate, I invited him and the buddy he was with to come to the spot with Nathan and I so I could buy them a Coke.  As we sat with our drinks, he happily showed me all the papers and receipts from the day, his placement papers, and told me about the trials of the day.  Soon though, Ebenezer and his friend had to go to do some final things at the school before they could return home the next day.  As they were leaving, I turned to Nathan and said, “I think that was my two years right there.  I think that just made everything worth it.”

Soon after, we collected Linda and boarded a bus back to Jumbo for another evening at her house.  We had all thoroughly enjoyed our day, experiencing one of those rare coincidences in this place where things just happen to work out exceptionally well.  We had a good, strenuous hike, I had finally gone to a place I've been wanting to visit for two years, and seeing Ebenezer there as he was preparing for school was just icing on the cake.  Such contentedness contributed to a most serene tro ride at the end of the best day.

The Library Saga (the short bit)

Finally, the project I have been working on for a year (and more) comes to an end.  Not that this was actually a long project, it just had long periods of waiting.

Books are not essentially plentiful in Africa.  We, in America, have a rather long history of literacy, and even the educated of Europeans have loved books for generations.  Africa, at least Ghana, is new to the world of reading its club of book lovers.  For centuries, the people educated enough to enjoy books have left Ghana for more education and life abroad.  The populations that have remained have not been literate populations.  It is only within the last twenty years or so that the people on a wide scale have been learning to read, and that they have been needing those skills.  School enrollment has increased a lot since independence, so more and more people are able to read, but the quality of that skill is still very poor.  There are many factors contributing to this, but one of the main ones is that books are not plentiful.  Publishing companies and book distributors and importers exist in Accra, and book stores are around, but their quality is usually poor because they have to be made cheaply.  And their wares rarely get to the village.

Furnishing a school library was one of the earliest projects the (school) community requested for.  After some months of bouncing ideas around, researching possibilities, and weighing the seriousness of the idea, we decided that the best plan was to work on the neglected space that had been built for that purpose many years ago.  At first, I didn't really want to put it in this particular space because it was attached to one of the schools.  I thought more students and teachers would access it if it were in a more central location.  However, after trying various places, the space in the junior high school was the best for money and means.

The room already had two large, empty bookshelves and a shelf tables along the outer wall.  The rest of it was being used as storage and bats had infested the ceiling.  Normally, the already cramped school would have used this room as a quieter place to study or for overflow during exams, but the bats were so bad that the smell was unbearable after too long.  We used the Peace Corps' fundraising program to get enough funds to refurbish the neglected library space in the school.  Thanks to friends and family at home, and especially Liz Gartley in Massachusettes and her network of generous folks, we raised met our goal rather quickly and got to work on the room.  We hired workmen to replace most of the wooden shutters and window frames, replace rotten ceiling tiles and rotten wooden beams in the roof and around the overhang, fix and stabilize the two front doors, give the room a new coat of paint as well as the book shelves, and fix leaks in the roof.  We installed wiring for light bulbs and affixed two ceiling fans for air circulation during the humid months to prevent book mold as well as provide comfort.

During this time, The Interact Club of New Bern High School in New Bern, NC and especially Dierdre Kiernan and my parents were were hard to collect a thousand books that would be sent directly to this new library.  I had hooked up with an organization called the African Library Project (ALP) that connects libraries in various parts of Africa to schools or organization in America.  These schools in America organize book drives with the goal of collecting 1,000 books which go directly to a needed library in Africa.  ALP helps by getting the books from one place to the other.  Once the books were sorted, counted and packaged in North Carolina and sent to ALP's warehouse in New Orleans, they were put in a container and on a ship to Accra to arrive three months later.

Then we waited

and waited
and waited some more

then waited again.

At a Peace Corps function, I touched base with my friend Richard who I hadn't seen in a while.  After we discovered we were both doing library projects, he offered a wonderful gift.  His books had all come from the World Bank, which sends thousands of books to establish large community libraries.  He had many left over including lots of middle school to high school textbooks.  Most books collected from the book drive were children's books and young adult novels, materials to improve their reading, but not their studying.  Soon after, I traveled to Richard's site and spent some time sifting through and compiling books for science and math, English, composition, French, and lots of language arts.  We stowed them at a nearby friendly institution and my District Chief Executive (a local politician responsible for development projects) picked them up with his own car a couple weeks later.

Then we waited some more.

True to form, the ship came to Accra later than expected.  Then a partnering organization in Ho, the regional capital for the Volta, came to pick up all books for the Volta region.  But they didn't move them for a couple of weeks.  Then we waited four more weeks for the DCE to find time in his campaign schedule to pick up the books from there.

By the time the books came, I didn't have a lot of time to enjoy them with the kids because the time for my service was up.  It was time for me to go home.  But it was a blast to discover the contents of the boxes with the kids.

First the books, which were packed in boxes, had to be taken from my house to the library.  Students are always great help at carrying things.  They can just plant the boxes on their heads and walk easily for long distances.  Others used bicycles to transport them.  Some of the boxes were weak, so it was just easier to stack the textbooks on their heads rather than using the box.  What a quaint African tableau—a pack of school children in matching uniforms carrying almost brand-new brightly colored books atop their elegantly sculpted heads, dresses and arms swaying.  Once at the renewed and waiting library room, we unloaded all of the books from the boxes and prepared them for stamping.  I had obtained a stamp from Accra that said “Damanko School Library” and now all the books had to be thus tattooed.  Once the stampers were in place, we had to sort the books into some kind of order.  Dewey Decimal System seemed quite unnecessary, so I tried to set it up more like a book store—alphabetical by author and organized by subject.  I taped small pieces of paper, each with a letter, around the room so we sort the books by author's last name.  Now I had to teach the students how to find the author on any given book and make sure they used the surname.  Since none of the students know how to alphabetize anything, I only involved them in this first step.  After about two hours, we were getting to the end of the 13 boxes of books, most had been stamped and most had been put into the right piles.  By this time most of the kids had seen most of the books, so I took those that were interested and got them started writing letters of appreciation while I went back with a few of the older students and organized some more.  We separated the children's books from the more advanced ones and I put the young adult books on the shelf by author.  By the time I got to the children's books, I knew it wouldn't make much difference, so I just put them on the shelves to be perused at will.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Scenes of a Small Sliver of African Life

One of my common pastimes, especially on days where I haven't done much, is to take one of the plastic chairs from my house and sit under one of the shelters in the market place and watch this small part of the world go by. My house sits against the meandering border of the town's main market space. On market days one can hardly move without tripping over a person, a child, a goat, or some wares for sale, but on non-market days, though still bustling with the activity of daily commerce and community life, much of the space is empty. The purpose of the two small log and thatch shelters by my house is to shade the live poultry section of the market, but most days they shade nothing but goat poop. The space also serves as the lorry station so a few cars dot the larger space and at the far end, the women set out their stools and bowls of fish for sale as shoppers and sellers gather for the daily evening market. I sit out under those poultry shelters in the afternoon and watch some scenes that have become familiar, ones I will surely miss when I leave here...

The toothless old man with his walking stick and hoe hung over his shoulder who always looks like he is coming from a day of farming.

The green mosque shouts messages over its loudspeaker to the shoppers and sellers below and the faithful all over town in these early days of Ramadan.

Packs of school children in bright and smartly pressed uniforms of yellow and blue or green or orange going home carrying their stack of text- and notebooks on their heads.

Women and girls sit behind their individual tables blocking the sun with their makeshift awnings while selling bread, bananas, coconuts, and kenkey with fried fish.

The boy with cerebral palsy who always smiles and seems to be friends with everybody and enjoys walking around town despite his disability.

Children in hand-me-down clothes with bowls of greens or large plates of smoked fish on their heads walking to market to sell their goods for their mothers.

Goats, their babies, chickens and their babies, dogs and sheep wandering around looking for scraps.

Women who walk to market carrying the entire contents of their mobile business on their heads, babies tied to their backs with cloth, and illustrating their avid conversations with gestures from their free hands.

Children wearing nothing but tattered underwear riding iron bicycles with over sized frames.

Men tossing yams to each other in an assembly line from the storehouse to a truck that will transport this bit of farm work to more comfortable people living in Accra.

Two older men who have probably known each other for decades holding hands as they walk through the market, a sign of close friendship my millions of African men.

Large buses lumbering along on a road gouged by rain and runoff.

Children running over rocks barefoot behind a large rolling hoop they keep balanced by expertly guiding it with a stick—a favorite childhood pastime.

A Zambraniba Muslim man trying to sell from the stack of cloth strapped to the back of his bicycle.

The only working tractor in this town coming back from a full day's work wondering who will be next on his long waiting list.

Gershon running an errand for his father and stops to greet me every time.

A small girl bent over with a hand broom sweeping the garbage away from the area her mother will set up her rice table for the evening.

The lady I buy fried yams from teaching her young son to ride a small pink bicycle.

Young girls wearing the latest village fashion in Western clothes, women in colorful and busy Ghanaian dresses with equally catchy head wraps and fine scarves, men in the ever popular soccer jerseys or traditional smocks and modern business trousers or long Muslim robes.

A heavy stream of people on motorcycles and bicycles passing through the market from the road to the houses beyond.

This is just everyday life lived in everyday tasks. There is nothing extraordinary or extra special about what happens here on a daily basis. The thing about Ghana that makes it different from most any other African country which many tourists visit is that anyone who comes here can see exactly how life is lived by millions of African people everyday, unadorned. In other places on this continent where great wildlife scenes or “current traditional African cultures” of the Masai or the Himba are cultivated by tourism companies and sought after by millions of visitors, in Ghana there is no real tourism industry so any visitor or traveler can see how life is being lived in a current African way as a nation, through each individual, struggles to find its place between the modern and the traditional. This is what Ghana shows to the world, not tribes of people that haven't changed in a hundred years, great herds of wildebeest or elephants crossing great plains, or majestic mountains and thunderous rivers and mysterious jungles, just people living their lives everyday, trying to find new ways of making a better life or following the ways their ancestors accomplished a task. It's the forward march of a modern, transitioning African life.

How to Make Your Very Own African Drum

First, one must identify the appropriate species of tree, with the proper size trunk.  Then with your cutlasses and, perhaps if you're lucky, an ax or two, you must chop it down and cut a large chunk of trunk.  Then you and about 8 of your little brothers (and maybe sisters) have to roll it a couple of miles through the bush back to the house.

Once at the house, the long process of carving begins.  Everyone is invited to come, take the pole with the metal chisel wedged at the end of it, and take the middle of it out piece, by achingly small piece.  Have a competition with your neighbors to see who can do it the longest.

If your muscles get tired, you can lay it on the ground and exhaust a different set of muscles.

When the hollowing out is complete, run and get the specialist carver.  He has a chisel on a smaller pole and can round out the rough-shod trunk and make it look like a cylinder.

By tap-tap-tapping around the edge, he softens the corners, smooths out the wood, and begins to give the wood a drum-like shape.

When the carving is finished, rub dirty oil into the wood to protect and stain it.  It also gives the instrument a nice, antique, and well-loved feel.  Now the final touches are just around the corner!  Run to nearest beef butcher, or wait until the cow sacrifice at a relative's funeral, and get the perfect cowhide to cover the ends.  Oil and stretch the rope as tight as you can, and you will have your own, extremely heavy, African drum.

Plant a forked pole from which your drum can hang and beat on it to your heart's content.  Guaranteed to draw your neighbors and relatives for all the Kinachung-ing and traditional dancing you can stand!

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

T minus 4 months

It's hard to believe that many of my “groupmates” are already home. I'm staying a little later than most, but it still feels so close and so far away at the same time. The first year went fast, the second year has been slower. I guess you can see that I'm excited to go home. It's senioritis all over again. Nevertheless, there are things being crossed off the list, and things poised to be crossed off soon. I have some self-supported girls that I have to set up with small businesses, so they have a means to care for themselves. I have library books to retrieve from two different places as well as the library system to set up and get underway. The organization that helped with our latrine project this year is coming to do some large scale health education with the beneficiaries. Operation Smile comes to Accra at the end of the month and I want to be among the volunteer troops, plus we're sending one child from Damanko to get his cleft lip fixed. And there's still some traveling to do, a handful of places in Ghana I still want to see.  I can feel the winding down happening.