Monday, July 28, 2008

shhh, on our left is the elusive African Internet. approach slowly.

I found an internet!

This is the third internet cafe I've found in the last 4 days, but it's the first one that, you know, was connected to the internet.

Let's just jump into it: I really like Ghana. On the one hand, there's not a ton to do, but on the left hand, doing nothing has never been so fun! The main activities are crossing the street, catching a tro-tro, trying to find a market, hunting for a chop bar that has egg sandwiches. Life is so public here, it's a blast. Every morning the curtains open and smiling characters come flooding from stage left and right and center. Kids play with hoops and women carry baskets of fabric on their heads and men weave between tro-tros as the tro-tro mates give their bizarre, nasally calls. (Want to go to circle? Listen for the mate yelling "sec sec sec sec sec." Darkuman? "daku daku daku juuuuunc, daku juuuuunc.") You just walk outside and become part of the production. Every street's a theater.

Of course, a LOT of places I've been have had that "every street a theater" vibe -- poor places with high populations, like Egypt and India and Cambodia -- so why is Ghana holding a special place in my heart? It's the PEOPLE!!

It's a miracle of statistics. The small but omnipresent minority of hustlers and hasslers and cheats in any given country, they can really ruin it for the traveler. (And they probably irk their honest compatriots more than anyone.) In Ghana, though, I have YET TO MEET A GONIFF! It's truly a miracle of statistics. I've not ONCE been asked an ignorant-foreigner amount for a cab fare or a tchotchke souvenir or a chop bar meal! I've not ONCE had a hard sell or an overly-pushy come-to-my-shop! NOT A SINGLE ATTEMPTED COMMISSION at my expense! It's heaven. Ghanaians just have a culture of being wonderful, wonderful people.

How to pass as a Ghanaian:

1 - SMILE.
2 - Greet everyone (salutations are important here).
3 - Laugh at every sentence like it's a really funny joke (this one can be confusing at times).
4 - Confuse foreigners by not distinguishing between pre- and post-redenomination currency: does "twenty" mean 20,000 old cedis, which is TWO new cedis, or is it 20 new cedis?
5 - If an abruni looks remotely lost, drop everything to help them. (In the absence of a gender-neutral third person singular, I'm using the plural. Deal with it, Mom, Lois, and all you other grammar pedants.)
5 - When someone asks directions, never point. Walk them to the destination, no matter how far. One guy walked me over half a mile to a restaurant. One woman walked me over the footbridge and down a block to find the right tro-tro, the whole time casually balancing a basket of water packets on her head. (Thirsty? A would-be-rude-in-America hiss gets a water-toting woman speed-walking, basket on her head, straight for the open tro-tro window. You give her 5 cents, she reaches up and plucks a 500mL sachet of water from her head. You have to bite it open, and about 50mL spills all over your pants.)
6 - Call all white people "abruni." This literally means "white person" in Tchwee. It has no positive or negative connotation; it's just as if they're all named "abruni."
7 - Wear LOTS of colors. African skin looks good with lots of colors on it. Wrap yourself up in a Ghanaian flag (green, red, yellow) and you look like a million bucks.
8 - Be ready to dance at the drop of a beat.
9 - Be totally unable to guess distances. It's like a national disability.
"Hello sister (suppose she's about my age)."
"Hello abruni, how are you?"
"I am well. Do you know which way to Kumasi station?"
"Straight down this road."
"Thanks; do you know how far?"
"You can walk or take a taxi."
"Is it 1 kilometer?"
"Like that."
"5 kilometers?"
"10 kilometers?"
It's a phenomenon every single abruni I've chatted with has found. It's bewildering.
10 - Love your country as much as the Thai love their king. That's a LOT of love.

I know there were two number 5's.

The vibe of friendliness totally extinguishes hesitancy. Walk around alone at night? No problem. Once Sophie and I got lost... well actually that's a little story.

Sophie, a volunteer from Milwaukee, and I wanted to find some shirts and pants and stuff, so we catch a tro-tro to Keneshie Market ("kah-nesh kah-nesh kah-nesh!"). If you're looking for cooked fish, live crabs, huge crawling snails (yum!), the biggest mangoes you've ever seen, bizarrely half-peeled oranges, or FanIce, this is the market for you. But for the life of us we can't find clothes. So, filled with FanIce and mangoes, we decide to head to Circle, which we know has a clothes market. We start making the Circle motion (places have both calls AND hand motions, your choice), and a tro-tro mate pulls Sophie into his van. I barely make it. After maybe 20 minutes, the mate asks us where we want off (to get correct fare, in the 20-40 cent range). Circle, we say. Not in this tro-tro we're not. Well, apparently we got on the wrong tro-tro, so we get off and we're very lost. Sophie searches for a cab while I make the circle hand signal and keep tro-tro watch. A random dude in a car sees my hand signal and waves me in. Sophie, let's go. So this good Samaritan, lord knows where he was planning to go, says he knows a place to get clothes. Awesome! 15 minutes later, and we're there. Thank you nice driver man! You're very welcome, enjoy Ghana! Sophie and I are dumbfounded to see that we're literally across the street from the Keneshie food market. We're still munching on the last pieces of mango we bought from the lady not 20 feet away. And that's how you cross the street in Ghana.

Now Sophie, Carl, and Sam all volunteer at schools. I wanna tag along, just 'cause why not. Carl and Sam, how far's your school? 20 minutes by tro-tro. Sophie, your school? 5 minute's walk*. So I went to school with Sophie.

* - is that possessive or plural? I think I'd say "one minute'S walk away," so it's possessive. That's it, I'm going back and adding an apostrophe.

Sophie could've maybe prepared me a little better than "this way to school." I get there, and am MOBBED by screaming 3-6 year-olds. I mean MOBBED! I am just manhandled. One poor tyke is balling his eyes out, just too terrified for words. Sophie then remembers, "oh yeah, you're probably the second or third white person a lot of them have seen. It took about a week for them to get used to me." They pet my hair, stroke my chin. They think my farmer's tan is up there with Legos and Playdoh for fun stuff, they trace the blue-ish veins on my arm. They're all talking in unison, trying to introduce themselves or name body parts or tell me their ages. Everybody wants to hold my hand, so each grab a few fingers. The best part was when they started dancing around me and chanting "pink and white! pink and white!" It was weird. Sophie got some photos of it.

School itself was a little what you'd expect, except there were more songs and praising Jesus, and the teacher would bust out her drum and they'd dance to the songs. They did some math. The 2-4 year-olds would come over to the 5-6 year-old side of the classroom to sneak a white-man arm-touch. They'd walk up to you in that clompy haven't-totally-figured-out-walking way, and they're just staring in a way only fascinated little kids can, and they'd touch your arm and then quickly retreat. They were adorable.

Kindergarten and 1st grade graduation photos were scheduled for the day I was there, so this guy comes with a camera from like 1975, and I got to pose as the guy handing out diplomas for some of the shots. So in India, on some family's wall, there's a photo of their trip to the Taj Mahal, or the Kailasa Temple or Srinigar, of the family and me. And soon, in a village on the outskirts of Accra, near Darkuman in Ghana, there'll be some kid's graduation photo, with him or her looking as cute as ever, and I'm handing out the "diploma." I like that idea.

Wanted to take some photos of the school, so I pulled out my camera. Woah.

I don't quite get it, because it's not like we were in some tribal village. Accra is the capital of Ghana, with 2 million people, and there are computers and cell phones and cameras and abruni, and we're not all that far from Accra proper. But an abruni, with a digital camera, with an LCD screen? It was like a ghostman with a magic box. The kids just flipped. I have some great videos of me sitting down, and kids just swarming and yelling "and me! and me! and me!" and half the video is just of hands and fingers on the camera, and I'm trying to spin it around because everyone wants to see the LCD screen, so they're all kinda racing out of the frame to get behind the camera. It was a lot of fun.

When I finally said goodbye to the kids, when school was over, they mass-hugged me. I'll be back. They were so cute.

While walking back through the village, a group of seamstresses wanted to say hello. I walked over and they all just started dancing. Can't explain it.

This is getting to be a bit long-winded, and for that I'm sorry. I'm a little excited to find working internet, and slow as it might be, for 60 cents an hour, I can afford the luxury.

In brief, I went from Accra to Cape Coast, where I got to see a pair of fortresses used to store and transport slaves during the Triangular Trade days (fascinating, but a bit too uncomfortable and depressing to "enjoy," so I didn't stay too long). The trip to Kakum National Park was pretty decent, with a crazy Ewok-style canopy walk compensating for the lack of exploration-inviting trails. The little park entrance slash mini-museum was really informative and well done. I appreciate that.

The park entrance was 2 cedi (almost exactly one-to-one with the US dollar), and I only had a ten. For some reason, in lots of countries, the ATMs dole out inconveniently large bills. Egypt was the worst: it's 100 pound notes (~$20) were accepted almost nowhere. It's like walking around the States with 500-notes; you're technically rich but you can't buy anything! Anyway, the guy didn't have change for a ten, so he just said I could pick up the change on my way out. Now, I wouldn't trust that anywhere else in the world, but in Ghana? Lo and behold, he had 8 cedis in a rubber band waiting for me on return. Honesty is just part of their culture. It's wonderful.

Now I'm writing from Kumasi, where I came on a bit of a lark. I have no idea what I'm doing here: just kinda exploring and meeting Ghanaians, which seems to be the thing to do. Tomorrow I'll pro'lly head back to Accra, go back to school, say hi to Colin Powell, and have some good times around Crystal Hostel's green table again. That sounds perfect. (Not as perfect as a hot shower, a clean bed, and a banana milkshake, but I bet I'm not home two weeks before I start wishing I were traveling again. The table's always greener...)

Sorry, by the way, that I have yet to find an open, working post office in Ghana. I admit I haven't really been looking, but, yeah, sorry. Tuzin Yowis, I actually have a postcard to you that still has an Egyptian stamp on it. Okay, that's it. Today I'm finding a post office. I have a mission.

Prediction: lots of folks stop to help me, a few kids yell "hello abruni!" from across the street, I end up getting a FanIce, everyone's happy to give directions, nobody knows how far. Chances of actually mailing stuff: 60%.

Goodbye, rare internet! Goodbye, small connection to home. I don't know when we'll meet again.

As a sort of post script:

I'm happy to see internet here, but I'm only half-joking. The net goes down all the time. It's really a luxury. You know that 3 days ago, Accra ran out of water? Yeah, all of Accra, 2 million people and the capital of Ghana!, it just ran out of water for about 12 hours. And I'm not talking hot- and cold-running purified potable 1st-world water. I mean just plain water.

I know America isn't perfect -- I really do -- but I really think it does a LOT of things right. And without hesitation, the more you travel, the more things, small and large, you appreciate about your home. This is so cheesy, but I just have to announce it: I really, really, really love America. It's my very favorite-ist country in the whole wide world.


Anonymous said...

You've made me love Ghana!

jdcooper said...

Pink and white! Pink and white!

Accra ran out of water? So much for the miracle of economics. Wow.

love ya

Jeanne said...

makes so much sense now...our field hockey teammate from ghana, kenny, is the nicest guy ever. in fact, he won the spirit award at our last indoor tourney.

i had a very similar experience of little kids running to me and wanting to pet my hair. it was on the southside when i went into an elementary school while i was doing americorps. apparently, they had never touched asian hair. :)

daddy said...

1- i'm happy that you're so happy

2-internet is 60cents/hr !!
remember me telling you that when mommy and i went to her law meeting in st. thomas, the internet at the hotel was $1/min

(we wouldn't use it)

Jake Cooper said...

Joshua, what do you mean "so much for the miracle of economics?" Was the field ever touted as a panacea for all resource problems? I actually didn't get an artsy postcard that I otherwise would've bought because the message on the bottom was "poverty is not economics," which is not just a silly statement, it's ungenerous and kinda rude.

Jeanne, that's crazy, I didn't know that! They really ran up to you and wanted to pet your hair? (Then again, so do we; you have awesome hair.)

Dad: Yup, 60 cents an hour. But if I could pay $5 an hour and have USA-speed internet, I'd do it in a second. Some things here are dirt cheap, like local food, but it's funny what's expensive. Koala supermarket is like abruni central, where they import all sorts of things that an expat might splurge on after a month of fufu and jollof rice and red red. There, you can buy a box of Kellog's Corn Flakes for... [drum roll]... $12! Good luck finding milk for it.

Love you all,

jdcooper said...


I was referring to Freakonomics' two opening examples regarding the power of economics/the invisible hand (I think it was Freakonomics): the way we don't value pencils, and the way a city stays hydrated and fed.