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.

    Thursday, February 10, 2011

    The culture of ME

    Today I had the honor of being a guest speaker in a grade 2 classroom where the kids are learning about the concept of culture, and how it shapes a person's identity.  They are exploring the idea that, as third culture kids, and even those that are not, culture isn't just where you've come from, but perhaps a collection of tidbits gathered along the way.  As I was talking about aspects of my own personal culture, grounded on my collection of beliefs and values, I was asked about some things that have changed for me since adding pieces of Ghanaian culture to my own.  I thought I'd share some here:

    • I take my shoes off before entering someone's living room.
    • I greet everyone with, Good morning, Fine morning; You are welcome; or How is the day?
    • I have extended my family.
    • I still enjoy a family dinner each night, but it includes anyone who might happen to be around.  Everyone is invited to eat.
    • I shake hands with everyone, even if I know them.
    • When in a group, I shake hands from right to left.
    • I say Good evening! instead of Hello.  Along the same lines, I always greet someone and ask of their family before I begin a conversation.
    • I wave only with my right hand.
    • I am culturally sensitive in regards to my dress.
    • All the typical cultural activities, like dancing, drumming, eating and clothing.
    The list seems small, as I know I've adopted other bits of Ghana into my identity.  Perhaps I'll watch the list grow as time goes on.  

    Pounding fufu with Auntie Akua.

    Tuesday, February 8, 2011

    Blending in

    It's no secret that I love Ghana.  I love Ghana and I am in love with Ghanaians.  I am charmed by the ways that we interact with one another, shouting to each other on the street, greeting everyone and any one, and enjoying hearty laughs.  It lightens my sould to have daily exchanges with my brothers and sisters, uncles and aunties from the car window, at the market or in my own home.  My heart is always open to othe laughter and waves of children.  Some of these moments happen because I am Obroni, but most happen because I am Ghanaian.

    But it can also be exhausting.  Sometimes I just want to blend in.  The little moments that happen simply because I stick out in the crowd can be entertaining, but sometimes they wear me out.  There are times when I want get lost in the tunes on my headphones, read a book on the beach or eat my toast on the way to work without interruption.  I don't want to be the victim of a pop-in visit.  No, I don't want you to cut a coconut for me.  No, I don't want to buy your apples.  Yes, I have a tattoo.  No, my skin doesn't feel differently than yours.  Yes, I am white.  Yes, I just sat down to eat dinner and want to do so in minimal clothing.  I just wonder where the the line is drawn between captivating culture and tedious annoyances.  The line of tolerance seems to fluctuate daily.  I know Ghanaians find me to be just as interesting as I find them, but sometimes I'm just too tired to reciprocate and I just want to blend in.

    This poor gal wasn't getting any reading done either.

    I went to the beach in hopes of bonding with a novel.  Instead I bonded with these guys.

    Wednesday, February 2, 2011

    Mr. Golden Sun

    There's a song that says, "...haven't seen the sun in three damn days..."  If you live in West Africa right now, it's been much longer than 3 days.  We are in the thick of Harmattan, the thickest in several years, and it is toying with our health and humor.  It takes hours to pick all the sand out of my eyes each morning; my nose is caked with crust; and the other morning I woke up in the middle of the night to find my lips stuck to the pillow case.  It's dry.  It's dry and dusty.  It's dry and dusty and we haven't seen the sun shine in days.

    Harmattan is a phenomenon that blows through West Africa each year, some time between December and March.  Typically, we get it here in southern Ghana around early January and it lasts only a few weeks.  It is a trade wind that blows from the Sahara to the Gulf of Guinea, and it brings with it fine particles of sand and dust.  On the bright side, it also lowers humidity and can provide delightfully "cool" temperatures.  Those pleasures, however, are mostly offered to our friends in the north who have much more sand and dryness to contend with.

    Each of the last two years, we've noticed a hazy sky and a bit of extra crust around the eyes in the morning, but mostly just enjoyed the cool evening breeze that blows it all in.  THIS year, however, slam!  We got it, but good.  I'm used to sunshine.  I'm used to the blue skies that Crayola crayons are named for.  This little Florida gal just doesn't understand how the sun can hide for this long.  Earlier today I emerged from my office just at the moment that the children were being called in from their recess.  Looking like the setting for a science fiction movie, the kids emerged from a yellow-ish haze, muddling through the thickness.

    Hope is on the hidden horizon, along with softer lips and the dissipating yellow fog.  Until it arrives, I'll keep plenty of moisturizer on hand and refrain from trying to rub the smudges from my glasses.
    The rising sun, as seen through an aperture in the early morning haze.

    The view from our terrace.  Typically, the town below shows through the clear skies.  This is actually a light haze as compared to recent days.

    Monday, January 17, 2011


    The aforementioned "puddle" on the way home . . .

    Although the water level has gone down considerably (it used to be up to the doors) due to the fact that we haven't had any rain in a month and a half, we hear of at least 2 cars and a 4x4 each week getting stuck.


    Somehow I earned the title of Ghana's favorite auntie.  Many folks who know me also know that after 3:30 kids aren't necessarily my favorite.  I love everything about them, their giggles, their strange questions and crazy ideas during the school day, but after that I value peace, quiet and clean hands.  Living in Ghana has put an abrupt end to my solitude and opened my heart and home in ways I never thought I was capable of.

    Last Sunday, Samuel called and said, "Please, we are coming."  How naive of me, but I thought "we" was simply his wife, children and him.  Instead, I came down the stairs, rounded the corner and found
    9 cuties lined up on the edge of the couch, sitting tall and stiff like the Von Trapp children.  When I asked them to introduce themselves,
    they followed suit by standing up down the line, stating their first and last name, followed by their age.  What is one to do with 9 little ones, ages spanning from 3-16 on a lazy Sunday afternoon?  Run to the kitchen, find cake and chips, feed them and then bust out the drums.  In line with the usual festivities at Auntie's house, we drummed and boogied into the evening, laughing all the way.  At some point we figured the more the merrier and got the neighbor and her kids in on the action as well.  11 drummers drumming.  And of course, at the end of it all, the entire lot piled into the Kia tired and full-bellied, with one last nugget of chocolate in their hands to savor another time.

    Kofi's daughter Rachel was to celebrate her birthday on Tuesday.  What better way to celebrate it, than American style at Auntie's house?  Well sort of.  Armed with Glynn's chocolate cake (that had to be served already cut into clumps due to a minor trauma in the kitchen) and a decorative candle placed on the side (praise me for my improvisational skills), we gathered 'round and sang Happy Birthday to a joyful little 6-year-old and allowed her enough chocolate to satiate her coco-filled dreams.

    Wait, I'm seeing a pattern.  Maybe it's the good chocolate at Auntie's house that brings them in droves.

    I spent the majority of Saturday hopping around town with a 17-year-old in tow and in search of the perfect dormitory snacks.  Priscilla is headed off to her second semester at secondary school and was in need of provisions.  As we filled her bags with a four month's supply of corn flakes, powdered milk and TP, we decided to spice things up a bit.  One step inside the US Commissary and her eyes popped out of her head at the sight of things she never dreamed she could eat.  A quick introduction to the world of Tootsie Pops, Doritos and Cherry Coke led to a full trolley and her road to the most envied girl in school.

    Whatever it is that makes them come my way is irrelevant.  The point is that the door will always be open.  Suddenly that uninterrupted evening or weekend quiet time just doesn't matter much.  It's the squeals of delight, the light in the eyes and the little love notes left on my fridge that make it all mean something.  Whether they call in advance or I find myself the victim of a pop-over visit, I find myself secretly loving my new role as Auntie.

    Thursday, January 6, 2011

    Dancing into the New Year

    Before zipping off to the US for the holidays, what better way to end my 2010 in Ghana than to dance out?  My plane didn't leave until after 11:00 p.m., so I figured that final Friday should be spent with the people I adore most.  We danced, drummed, sang and cooled off with frosty beverages.

    When I dreamed of living in Africa, part of the fantasy was spending each evening with rhythm.  I envisioned the pounding of drums and feet while the sun set.  I knew this to be part of the African culture and tradition and wanted it to be mine.  Now it's a part of me, and nothing lifts my spirits higher.

    On that balmy Friday evening, we ended the year and kicked off the holidays with the blessings of one another.  Sweaty and high on life I took off for the airport and left many of my friends in the house behind me and still beating.  It was perfect in so many ways.  I guess I should also add that halfway through my US holiday trip, I felt homesick.  There I was in the land of Starbucks, smooth roads and instant gratification, and I longed to bargain for my cup of tea, buy a snack at the stoplight or bounce on a pothole.  The malls and restaurants just seemed so sterile and impersonal.  Where were the handshakes (we Ghanaians have a special handshake with one another), shouts at the neighbors as I pulled out of the driveway and someone to say "you are welcome" when I came home?  Not one single person called me "white lady."  Perhaps it was the incredible send-off and the lasting joy that came from the soiree that made the first world pale in comparison.  After all, experiences like that one leave an impression.

    Now I am back in Ghana and in my home.  One of the greatest compliments I've received came from the immigration officer, my first point of contact.  When I approached his booth, I said to him, "Eh, Boss.  Good afternoon.  How is the day?"  His reply, "I think you must live here."  The following day Samuel showed up on our doorstep.  His initial greeting was to Glynn, a long and warm hug shared between the two of them.  And to me:  "Hey, Chale!"  On my first day back to work, the traffic on the main road was backed up further than usual, so Samuel took the "fast way" by barreling over the bumps and humps of the dusty shoulder, weaving around bushes and muffin sellers.  As we passed the stalls selling random biscuits and phone credits, the yard of spoiled buses, cars and machinery, and the broken down dump truck with rocks behind it's wheels to hold it in place, I thought to myself, "Wow!  THIS is where I live!"  I gave up a smooth ride but never have a dull moment.

    2010 ended with me dancing out of Ghana, and 2011 began with a warm welcome home.  My plan for 2011?  Keep the beat, lift the spirit and enjoy the small things.  Cheers!