Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Reduce Reuse Recycle . . .

. . . does not mean that you should send all of your old crap to Africa.

I have frequently sat in the passenger seat of a rickety taxi chugging along behind a van, truck or other rambling vehicle while it belches black, stinky smoke from its tail to my lungs.  While plugging my nose and holding my breath, I thought, "how on earth did that thing ever make it here?"  Over here we have every vehicle that drowned in Katrina, failed Obama's inspection or would never dare to fashion the streets of a cleaner city.  The funny thing - we don't even need vehicles.  Thanks for your offer, but we have enough.

Really, everything makes it to Africa eventually.  Africans proudly don the jerseys of Pittsburgh Steelers, carry their goods in cast off bags from Whole Foods and ride around in the car you smashed up and Carmax paid $500 for parts.  While on a relaxing holiday at my favorite beach joint, I noticed a recycling container labeled as property of Gulfport, FL.

A Newsweek article published in August, 2011 reports that, "on the outskirts of Accra lies the Agbogbloshie slum - one of Ghana's largest electronics-waste dumps.  Amid black smoke and the stench of burning plastic, a mountain of abandoned motherboards, computer monitors, and hard drives litters the landscape.  It is no wonder the locals call it, 'Sodom and Gomorrah'.  Behind this apocalyptic scene is the best of intentions gone awry."  Given the massive amount of electronic products produced each year, and technological advances that people just 'need' to have, the need for disposal alternatives has skyrocketed.  "The result has been unregulated shipping containers, marked 'donations'."  What happens once your electronic donations get here?  Well, given that we don't have a huge need for electronic equipment in rural villages with no electricity or internet, it is dumped into a treasure trove.  It is burned in order to extract copper and other salable metals.  Can you imagine the fumes and debris that pollute soil and water with high concentrations of lead, mercury and other toxic metals?

My message here:  Thanks for looking out for us.  Thanks for thinking about those in need.  But there's a balance.  Sending your unwanted consumerism as donations to those in extreme poverty doesn't take you off the hook for proper disposal of your unwanted goods.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011


My name is Rebecca, and I'm a compulsive hoarder.  Don't worry, I'm not inside the house buried under stacks of newspapers or garage sale bargains, my hoarding is limited to black beans, squishy toilet paper and band aids.  We never know what, when or if we can get our favorite nibbles to eat or shampoos to soften our hair.  The rule of thumb:  If you might ever want it, get it now!  You can frequently see us running through shops to get a trolley at the sight of black beans on the shelf or filling our basket at the market with fresh herbs.  If we even utter the thought of, "I'll get it next time," it absolutely will not be there when we return.  We have a special cabinet bursting with life's essentials like moisturizer, sun screen, mosquito spray and Neosporin.  We have cupboards that host stacks of spices, chocolates, almonds and dried fruits.  Our drawers burst with enough socks to outfit the soccer team.  You never know when you might get a hole.

Some of our favorite hoardings:
Hair conditioner
Corn chips
Black beans
Rotel spicy diced tomatoes
Mosquito spray
Cat litter
Band aids
Dried blueberries
Stroop Waffels
Herbal tea
Maker's Mark

At my school, the little 3-5 year-olds walk around touting that sharing is caring.  Not in my house.  I hoard and I'm not sharing my stash.

Monday, February 14, 2011

A lesson in the real world

At the tail end of a blissful weekend on the beach, my power-lounging mates and I received an urgent call from a friend of ours letting us know that while we were deciding what kind of pancakes we wanted for breakfast, he was hiding in the bush, surrounded by gunfire and inhaling tear gas.  The real truth seems to be garbled, cryptic and disputable, but what we do know is this:

Buduburam, the Liberian refugee camp houses around 18,000 people, most of which are refugees from Liberia, Sierra Leone and other neighboring west African countries.  The camp has been active for nearly two decades.  Yesterday, there was an unofficial changing of leadership in the camp, which is now considered to be a small town.  The citizens called for this change when they felt as if their current leader failed to represent them and support their basic needs.  These people frequently go weeks without water, even though they are just outside the city of Accra, and they just spent 3 weeks without electricity.  Since Ghanaian officials did not approve of their quest for satisfaction of basic needs, and hence a new leader, they entered the camp with force.  They released tear gas and opened fire.  At the onset of this forceful entry, a woman was accidentally shot and killed.  Our dear friend Younis was in plain sight of the woman and captured her image on his phone.  Moments later, a ten-year-old boy was also shot and killed.  There are conflicting reports as to the extent of those killed or injured by bullets.  Some say 3 while others say 5.  I'm afraid we will never have the full story.  Meanwhile, many of the male residents were arrested and fear deportation.

With a little luck, we were able to meet Younis by the roadside, as he crept out of the village to meet us and bring him safely to Accra.  At the time that we met up with him, all citizens were ordered to stay inside their homes or face arrest.  Since it was the men who were threatened with arrest and looting is a known issue, Younis made the decision to get into the car along with a friend and leave the rest of his family behind.  Eventually, later in the day, he made the decision to have his wife pack all of their belongings (which fit into two backpacks) and hire a car into the city.  As anyone can imagine, this family of four is shaken and suffering from tear gas induced headaches.

I'm just not sure that I've ever seen or felt such heaviness, sullenness or pure fear.  Before picking up Younis from the roadside, we approached the entrance of the camp.  Standing there was a group of people banded together, looking on and unsure of their fate.  These are people that can find the light in most any situation, but on this particular day they could barely utter a word or peel their eyes from the scene in front of them.  At that time, their friends and family were being loaded onto a truck by men in riot gear and driven away.  Many of them will suffer from retraumatization.  These are people who have already experienced war.  They've run from bullets, left dead or suffering family members behind and made a life in a new, presumably safe environment.  Yesterday returned them to their pain.  I could see it in their eyes.

As people who live a relatively safe and comfortable life, we have no idea what real terror is.  We have no idea what it is like to live under conditions where you are forced to forgo basic needs in exchange for safety.  We know these problems exist, but we think they are for others.  Yesterday I had a lesson in just how terrifying life can be so close to home.

A tasty treat

The first thing that passes my mind when I think of peanut butter is crunchy cookies, a salty balance for jam or the stuff that fills the center of gooey chocolates.  Here in Ghana it becomes a staple for dinner.  For something new, try Groundnut Soup (groundnuts are what we call peanuts).

  • Ingredients:

  • salt and pepper, to taste

  • large onions, finely chopped

  • large very ripe tomatoes or 13 ounces canned tomatoes

  • 6 1/2 ounces creamy peanut butter

  • 3 1/2 pints boiling water

  • red chile, to taste

  • 4 -8 mushrooms (optional)

  • Directions:

  • 1. Blanch the tomatoes in boiling water, peel off the skin and blend the flesh to a smooth juice. If using canned tomatoes, blend.

  • 2. Put the peanut butter into a big bowl, add 3/4 pt. of the boiling water and use a wooden spoon or a blender to blend the peanut butter and water carefully together to form a creamy, smooth sauce.

  • 3. Mix together the tomatoes, peanut butter mixture, red chilies and mushrooms.

  • 4. Continue to simmer, stirring only occasionally to prevent the food sticking to the bottom of the pan. This is now the basic soup.

  • 5. Pour the rest of the boiling water into the soup and simmer slowly on medium heat for 20 mins or so.

  • Serve over rice.  Enjoy!

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    To the Bat Cave

    The world is marvelous, isn't it?  Each evening we relax on our terrace, letting the breeze take away the day's stress, and watch as hundreds (thousands, maybe?) of bats make their daily trek.  It's not that we particularly love bats, but it is incredible to see them move in their pack all at once.  This nightly phenomenon has become one of the favorite parts of our day.  The sky is littered with them and each night our jaws drop and we explode with, "Whoa!  Look at them!"

    During the daylight ours, our bats hang in trees clumped together at one particular intersection in town.  They are said to be sacred, and as all things in Ghana, the history behind their roosting place is rich in tradition and story.  Legend tells that they followed one particular chief from the village to the hospital adjacent to the place they now consider home.  These bats are still there today, waiting for the chief, even though it has been years since he died there.  They stay in the middle of the city waiting for the chief by day, fly to the forest for food in the evening, and return each morning to wait once again.

    I wonder what the scientific explanation might be for them, especially since they seem to disappear or thin out at certain times of the year, but for now, I'll stay wrapped up in the folk lore and ask them as they pass if there's any news on The Chief.