Thursday, December 16, 2010

It takes a village

Thanks to Hillary, this has become a well-used euphemism.  Here it has true meaning, as it surely does take a village to do anything, especially to satisfy the most basic of needs.  For my own personal meaning, I'm thinking that the Ghanaian episode of my memoir might be titled, It Takes a Village to Raise Madame.   I am taken care of.  I am loved.  Frankly, I am down right spoiled.  I no longer need to waste my time with trivial matters, such as washing dishes, pulling weeds, ironing or pumping gas.  My Ghanaian family has enveloped me, adopted me and made me one of their own.  They make sure that I am happy and safe, and mostly I find this to be somewhere between charming and humorous.  Sometimes I laugh at the fact that Stella, Samuel and the guards think I can't do things for myself.  I mean honestly, it's as if they don't realize that in a former life I painted my own walls, swept my own floors, washed my own clothes and carried my school bag to the car each morning.  Everyone looks out for me and does everything in their power to ensure my care.  Again, mostly I find it a sentiment of genuine care.  

And then there are the days that I just want to stand in the middle of it all and shout, "Leave me alone.  I can do it!"  I am a grown woman, perfectly capable of managing my own affairs.  While sitting on the terrace enjoying a drink and the view with a friend, Kofi made a special trip outside to ask if I had put on my mosquito spray.  Between the dance performance and heading out to boogie, I was told to go take a shower because I was sweating too much.  I can't take out the trash in my bare feet for fear of harassment from Mohammed, "Madame, where are your slippers?"  There is a point at which charm crosses the pestering border.  Maybe it's the same line that all family members tread between love and interference.  

I don't need a village to raise me.  Or do I?  The last time the gardener and I were outside scouting the perfect spot for the ficus tree, I felt the vibration of the shout and the squeeze of my arm as he warned me not to step in the spot where weeds had disguised some weak planks covering the entrance to the septic system.  On the way home from Togo, after the car I was in broke down on a desolate road after dark, it was Samuel who ventured out in the night to borrow a car and come to my rescue.  A few nights ago, he sat out front and waited while I got myself ready to go to a friend's house.  The friend lives the equivalent of 2 or 3 blocks down the road, but the road is dark, dusty and lined with forest.  He refused to let me walk so that no one would "cut my head."  Last night I lost my house key for the second or third time.  Stella hustled up the hill and down the road to hurry home from her evening rounds to let me into my own house.

I have nothing to complain about.  When I think about it, perhaps my family needs to cross the line.  Perhaps they do think that I can't take care of myself, and when it comes to living here, in all honesty, I can't.  I'm thankful that Stella notices when we are out of cat food and offers to make a special trip to pick up a feast for the girls.  Knowing that Samuel will come to check how much drinking water I have left so that he can take the bottles for a refill while he's driving around during the day scratches one more thing off my to-do list.  I have no idea how to work the generator or creatively engineer the spoiled water pump.  The guards do, so I guess it's the least I can do to listen to their lectures of how I just might step on the stinger of an unseen scorpion if I venture outside shoeless.  They are the ones who come running in the middle of the night when the bathroom is flooding to seal the tap and help me bail water.  How can I even think of complaining that they do too much for me?  

When I dig deeper and think about it, I want to live in a place that believes in the power of the village.  I mean, isn't that what all of us hippies reach for as a penultimate goal?  And now I'm here.  Why not just sit back and let it unfold?

Monday, December 13, 2010

Every day is an adventure

Since I've arrived in Ghana, I've come to find that the best experiences happen in taxis.  This is the setting for making new friends, purchasing necessities, traversing uncharted territory, learning Twi and pushing the limits of a small engine.  I practice my best negotiating phrases and flirtatious grins in order to even get a chance at adventure.  "Eh, my friend, how are you?"  "Eh, sist-ah, I'm fine.  How are you too?"  And from there the dance continues until the agreement is reached and the driver says simply, "Sit down."  Heck, I've had marriage proposals on the 10 minute drive home.  I have a few regular drivers:  Samuel (my main man and protector), who refuses to call me anything but My Madame, Joe who calls me Mommy and Kwame who gives a flat Mom, but pairs it with a toothy grin the size of Texas.

This afternoon, with Kwame as my escort, I set off on the ride home.  Other than his repeated mantra of "Eh, the traffic-oh," Kwame doesn't speak a lick of English.  The glass half full version of this scenario is that I'm forced to practice my Twi.  The glass half empty is outlook is that I often end up in strange places and situations while under Kwame's care.  One morning he fell asleep at the wheel, missed the turn to my office, and by the time I could gesturally explain to him that he was in la-la land, we were around the bend, over the river, and through the woods.  In the time it took to turn around and get back on track, his mantra became, "sorry-oh . . . sorry, sorry, sorry . . . sorry-oh . . ."

This afternoon, after the third or fourth repeat of the traffic mantra, Kwame took a sharp turn left, crossed oncoming traffic and paved his own path.  I wish I could fully explain to you in such a way that you create your own visual of the "motorway."  This two lane road is currently under massive construction.  The two lanes are full of potholes and are caked with a thick crust of dust that rises in a colossal puff as the cars chug through.  Most days I can feel the crunch of sand between my teeth.  Alongside the "road" is what we all hope might someday become the two newest lanes of this disaster area.  These two new lanes, still in the form of sand, are in some places blocked and in others open.  They are not officially open, you see, but they are passable to the occasional driver looking to satiate his need for adventure.  And the trick is that each day they are open and closed in different places, forcing one to outsmart the rocks and think ropes set in place to divert off-roading.  However, for those braver than the rest, there is a small pass that is always open.  One would think that the natural obstacle in its center would be enough to deter anyone and everyone.  What used to be a puddle in the middle of a dirt path continues to grow into what is now a sizable fishing pond.  Not literally because no fish would care to live in its thick, murky quicksand.  Only the officially insane would try this route in anything less than an Army tank.  Except Kwame.  And Kwame drives a compact sized Kia.

Kwame continually pushes the bounds of his luck by attempting this route, each time causing me to hold my breath and pick my feet up from the floorboards of the car for fear that the extra pressure will surely cause our demise.  Most certainly we've managed to float through this Ghanaian mini-swamp each time, the engine drowning and the tires struggling to find something to hold onto.

Last night there was a monsoon.  This morning the entire city was bathed in mud and even the smallest potholes were full of enough water to float a ship.  And here goes Kwame banking a hard left and heading toward the lagoon to dodge the traffic.  And here goes me trying to communicate through gestures that we were sure to sink, or at the very least have to get out of the car and push while waist deep in quicksand.  Oh Kwame . . . he just couldn't get it.  I tried all of the English he might know:  "No."  "Car spoiled."  "Water."  "Are you sure?"  I tried a quick game of charades:  Rain, deep, chug-chug, row row row your boat.  But all I got in return was, "Eh, the traffic-oh."

As we approached the bank of Lake Michigan, Kwame hesitated.  He looked around for another driver to which he might inquire about its depth or seek advice on the power of his Kia.  He looked at me and I know he saw fear.  It was at that point that we heard the honk, honk of an insanely impatient tro-tro driver behind us.  It was sink or swim time, but we were going.  Once again I held my breath and picked up my feet.  This time I leaned as far forward as I could hoping that at least a little bit of body weight could add forward momentum.  The engine revved and we could tell that we were losing power.  I could see the circle of ripples in the mud slowing down, a visual story telling us that we were doomed.  And then . . . it happened . . . a Monday afternoon miracle!  I swear that it was the wake sliding off the bow of the tro tro that pushed us through.  The two feet it sent us was enough for the tires to find something solid and with that we eeked out on the other side.  The engine let us know its distaste for the adventure as it smoked and steamed.  I exhaled a heavy sigh, clapped my hands and let out a cheer, not for Kwame's skilled driving or the rescue waves sent by the tro tro, but for the fact that today would not be the day I had to splish splash in that stinkin' puddle.  The problem is that I don't know if crazy Kwame realizes his luck or if he thinks it was just another day in paradise.  I guess I'll find out on the ride home tomorrow.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Fifteen minutes of fame

If you add it all up, I probably have more than 15 minutes of fame under my belt, just from this past weekend alone.  It all started when the lights came up on stage at the Contemporary African Dance Festival in Togo and the audience gasped.  I panicked for just a short moment thinking something was wrong, possibly the end of my dress stuck in the waist of my tights or a fallen drummer behind me, but then I realized, "Oh yeah, I'm white!"  This was the last performance of the second night of the festival and I was the only white girl to enter from stage left.

My partners, Kofi and Emmanuel, and I had been collaborating for weeks on a piece that depicts the continental struggle for essential resources, from drought to survival.  We proudly took command of the stage to share our work, a perfect marriage of African and contemporary dance, complete with black and white not only in style, but also in color.  We carried the audience on a journey from daily chores at the well, like bathing and washing, through suffering in the dry season and then a joyous thunderstorm and ensuing well-side frolic.  We danced, we sang, we drummed, we carried each other.  By performance end, we were soaked, not only with the sweat of hard work, but also the splashes of water incorporated in the dance.

At performance end, our francophone audience rewarded us with calls of "Bravo!"  They too had shared in our joy, our anguish and even our singing of native songs.  For me, more than the hugs, the reward came in the euphoric feeling of being lost in the dance for 25 minutes.  I took residence in each moment, each jump, turn and lift.  I reveled in the opportunity to express true emotion and tell a story with my body.  Many times in the performing arts we say that we have a gift to share with the audience.  I would argue the contrary, as it was me who received a gift that night, the chance to experience my own vitality and life force.  Having that gift compounded by the presence of an African audience made it all the more jubilant.

When adding together the minutes on stage and the revelry afterwards, not to mention the participation as the only white girl boogying in an African dance workshop earlier that day, I know I can be credited with at least 30 minutes of fame.  I gave the Africans something to talk about, but if I'm only a legend in my own mind I'm grateful for that as well.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Who wore their patient pants today?

Living here either grants you patience . . . or takes it away.  Let's use a popular example:  You need money.  It is par for the course that when you need money, the first ATM you visit will either be "finished" or "spoiled."  This is a roulette game, and it seems that no matter which way you roll the dice or spin the wheel, your prize is a 30 minute trip around town in a hot taxi, on a dusty road and through traffic, holding onto your card and approaching each machine as if you are walking up to the well after the first rain of the season.  Often, to add insult to injury, the machine will tell you to extract your cash when it offers nothing for the taking, the winner of this hand being anyone but you.  We know that in Ghana you cannot wait until you are in dire straights to fetch anything, let alone a few dollars to buy dinner when you're hungry.  It takes patience, this hunt to earn your own money.

This afternoon I fell into the trap.  I put off a visit to the ATM knowing that it was going to require more energy than I had on reserve this week, but I arrived at the point where I must have money.  With only 2 cedis in my pocket, I needed to eat dinner, pay for a taxi (the very one that I was taking on this scavenger hunt) and buy a ticket to the school play.  I set off on my journey expecting the usual, but got something worse.  The ATM ate my card!  I pleaded with the machine.  I gave it puppy dog eyes.  I pushed its buttons in offer of a gentle reminder.  I pounded on it in an attempt to intimidate.  Nothing.  I got nothing in return. The man who "watches" the machine said, "Oh, it will come.  Just wait for some few seconds."  I could wait until seconds turned to minutes or hours, but that card wasn't going to see the light of day.

I know this story will seem anti-climactic to you my friends, but to me, like watching the Titanic sink, I know the ending.  My next 36 hours will be filled with teeth grinding tension as I have conversations with blank stares and make my rounds inside the bank.  Anything is better than the bank.  I will make several trips, most of them ending with no results.  It's going to be a wild ride.  I hope my patient pants are clean.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010


I am nearly 2 and a half years into living my dream of taking part in West African culture.  I've seen a lot, experienced a lot, done a lot.  So many times I find myself wishing I could share my experience with others in a meaningful way.  I wish my friends and family could experience along with me the joy, the humor, the rigor and everything else that comes my way each and every day as I traverse the rough road to work, haggle with market mammies or laugh and shake hands with my brothers and sisters.  Every morning I am cheerfully greeted as I walk out my front door and see the guard who is just ending his twelve hour shift for the 6th day in a row.  I jump into the Kia with my favorite Ghanaian pal who selflessly carries my load, reminds me to put on my seat belt and struggles to dodge the potholes so I don't spill my tea.  Throughout my work day I am surrounded by smiles and kisses of a multi-cultural, open-minded, self-motivated student body and cast of caring teachers.  At the end of a hard day, I am sure to pass a tro tro full of drummers, ride behind a truck bursting with water sachets that provide a napping pad for its navigator or buy a loaf of bread through the car window.  I field the stares, calls and giggles of little children who wish they could touch me to see if my skin feels different and squeal with delight at a simple wave.  In order to eat dinner I negotiate the price of tomatoes and when I arrive home I am always greeted with a welcome from one of the charming people to whom I pay a modest salary.  At days end, I wind down by playing music or dancing with friends, and even on the most rigorous of days, I fall into sleep with a smile.  Living here can be challenging, but those challenges are nearly always over ridden by the humor, passion, and loving kindness of the people by which I am surrounded.  I am thankful that they have accepted me as their Obroni, their sister, mother, auntie, boss and friend.

This is the beginning of my blog, my offer to you to share in my world.  Akwaaba, welcome, and enjoy!