The Buchele Adventure

This is record of the Buchele Adventure, as reported from West Africa.

Friday, September 29, 2006

Loading Shedding and Loving It (or, at least not hating it…) by Suzanne

Sunday evening was our load shedding time, no power from 6pm to 6am. Steve and I left for our marriage enrichment class at 4:45 and when we got home, the house was dark save 3 candles burning at the table, and 3 kids hanging out around the table. They had finished their homework and were reading or drawing. Steve and I came in, got out some food and drink, and we all ended up eating crackers and groundnut paste (peanut butter) around the table – eventually we went through a whole package of crackers. Conversation was jovial, ranging from school and friends, the play Fox just got a part in, world events in the newspaper (our friend Nate had just given us a stack of International Herald Tribunes that he had already read – a real treat!), the fallibility or infallibility of scripture and different perspectives of that, and generally God’s will for our lives. Eventually we realized that it was 9:30 and bedtime, at least for some. So one-by-one we cleared parts of the table, and took candles upstairs to our respective rooms and beds. I went to bed feeling like this load shedding is not so bad, at least for this American family (who, admittedly, still find this all “novel”).

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Week-end trip to Elmina (by Suzanne)

Last weekend we went to Elmina, a 3-4 hour drive from Accra (really only 1 ˝ hours, the other time was spent getting in and out of Accra. Blah). We stayed at a lovely beach resort where we had our own 2 bedroom 1 bath bungalow. We arrived late afternoon Friday and so just swam in the pool and played on the beach a bit before dinner and TV/reading before bed (the hotel had DSTV (DSTV means cable TV) – 4 channels – with which the kids were thrilled). All day Saturday we spent in Elmina, which is a neat little town. (Really, you’d have to see it to appreciate how much I’ve come with my culture shock to call it a neat little town. But really, it was!). It boasts the oldest castle in sub-Saharan Africa, dating from the 1400s, originally built by the Portuguese and later taken over by the Dutch. Originally it was a trade outpost for goods (not slaves) but when the Dutch conquered it (it took 3 tries over 100 years) it became mostly a slave castle. We learned a lot about the horrific conditions in which the slaves were housed before shipment through “the door of no return”. Anna was nervous when he put us in a cell and shut the door at one point. It was an important history lesson for us all, although I think we were all a bit shell-shocked after the tour. Tough stuff. Then we walked up the hill to the other castle in town, on the hill from which the Dutch finally launched their successful attack against the Portuguese. After the Dutch took over they built a castle on the hill, to ensure no one else would do the same to them! Both castles are in terrible disrepair – literally falling apart. I was glad to see that UNESCO was supporting both of them with funds for their restoration, plus they were also collecting money there in addition to the tour fees. The kids thought it was wildly unfair to have much higher entry rates for non-Ghanaians than Ghanaians (10x?) but we explained that they are important sites for all to see, and a foreigner by virtue of being able to even be there would have more money to be able to help support the restoration (which was actively in progress in both castles). They agreed. After the castles we had lunch and then I drove Fox and Grace back to the hotel, where, believe it or not, they spent the afternoon in their room doing homework (the workload is substantial at Lincoln, especially in the higher grades)! Anna and Steve and I did a “walking tour” where we saw the Catholic church on the third hill of the town, the Methodist church, lots of “shrines”, and lots of local color (and smells). Elmina and the next town over have salt ponds where the local salt is produced – we bought some of the local (very coarse grained) salt at the market. It was clear that they don’t see a ton of white people there. We also learned (perhaps) that the kids are taught how to greet foreigners – I say this because most kids who chase after us call to us, “Hello Obruni, how are you today?” Usually the same exact wording each time. During our walk around Elmina we saw a very young child who clearly didn’t know what the sounds he was making meant saying “he-yo obruni how a you tade fine tank you” over and over, as if it was a rote phrase he was being taught. Interesting (and cute!) The kids love it if we will just give them a wave and a smile, or even shake their hand – it seems to make their day. I wonder if this is how movie stars feel walking around – it’s really quite strange to be so popular with people you have never met. As an aside, I have also gotten to know people on my walk to and from work – generally I see many of the same people, at first I was a curiosity, and often we would politely greet each other, but now I have come to be on friendly terms with two general classifications of the people – first, the merchants along the way from whom I have made purchases, and second, the, shall I say, people who tend to have alcohol on their breath no matter what time of day it is (as well as the less than mentally able, I would say). The few of these second types are quite friendly, seem to have a lot of time on their hands, and will often walk with me part of the way as we chat. I politely ignore or decline requests for my address or phone number, or “can I come to your house?”, but will tell them my first name, what I’m doing here, etc. I have learned that it’s not just a random set of people and houses and businesses I walk by every day, it’s a community, with all that that entails.

Back to our Elmina trip. Sunday we spent the morning on the beach – Steve and Fox and Grace spent hours (literally) in the water jumping waves – I did some but was more cautious – once I got seriously tossed around several times in a row, I took a break – so I was only in a couple of times for maybe 10-15 minutes each. I’m “in shape”, right? I was seriously winded after just 10 minutes of wave jumping – I couldn’t believe Steve could last more than an hour out there. Wow. Anna had an adventure that was somewhat scary – mostly she has not gotten in the water past her knees since the surf is SO STRONG here – but on this beach the undertow more pushed you toward shore than carried you out, so it was better. Also on this beach the sand was coarse and loose up toward shore (so you sank into the sand – no firm footing), then there was a trough that dipped several feet, also of loose sand that was maybe chest/neck deep, then farther out a shelf where the water was again just waist deep (getting deeper gradually as you moved out) but with fine, packed sand so you had a nice firm footing. It was on the “shelf” that we would jump the waves, but it was hard work getting to the shelf, past the trough – the waves were crashing and huge and powerful and working against you, so you had to “fight” to get out to the shelf. Well, Anna observed how much fun they were having jumping waves on the shelf, and saw that it wasn’t so deep out there (and heard about the shelf with firm sand, etc.) so she wanted to try. So, I brought her out – no small feat getting past the shelf, b/c she couldn’t stand in the trough that we had to get past, it was quite some work, with waves crashing on us, but she was a trooper. So, we jumped waves for a few minutes, but it kept shoving us towards shore, and I had to keep dragging her further out between waves. Eventually we ended up at the edge of trough, and as I was pulling her back in she said no, she was ready to go in. Well, I hesitated through a crucial wave and we ended up being tossed by a wave into the trough, with a close series of huge waves behind, and while I could have gotten myself out of it I was helpless with Anna – turns out the current in the trough was a bit of a riptide, carrying us parallel to the shore but also towards shore, but unfortunately into rocks. And, I learned, the trough led right to the rocks, no gradual sand leading up to them, so we were in trouble. Luckily the lifeguard and a Dad on the beach saw we were in trouble and came and got on the rocks (we were just on the edge of the rocks, not fully entangled in them yet) and pulled Anna out, and then I was able to get out. In my telling it may not seem to make sense exactly what the problem was, but imagine 6 foot waves crashing down on you, one after the other, a few seconds apart, while you’re in an area where you can barely stand, for a few seconds between waves, in soft sand, in a strong current with a 65 lb skinny girl who can’t stand at all, and you’ll have the idea. So, it was a valuable lesson for us both, and we got away with only a scary memory and some minor cuts and bruises on our feet.

Unfortunately, I got sick upon our return. At first I thought I was just car sick from the ride back – very bumpy roads for much of it, and then stop and go traffic on the way into Accra for hours. But, I learned later that I was not carsick, it was something I ate. I was up all night Sunday night in the bathroom. Terrible. I’m SO THANKFUL we brought medicines – both over the counter stuff and antibiotics – I don’t think it would have been possible to get any medicines on a Sunday night – the hospital would have been the only option. I was back to normal Wednesday and back to work even on Tuesday. Anna also was sick, commencing about 24 hours after mine, so she was home 2 days from school this week. But, really, it was the first time any of us were seriously ill, and we had the drugs we needed, so not bad at all.

The other big thing that happened on the trip was that I started driving. I had only driven around our neighborhood, not in traffic, up until the trip. But, it was too long for Steve to drive the whole way, so I drove the second half each way – into Elmina on Friday (so Steve got all the Accra traffic) and into Accra on Sunday – I must say I am not a bad Ghanaian driver – assertive but not aggressive, and I learned the limits of the Patrol and can maneuver in traffic leaving millimeters between cars just as well as the next guy. Again, you may not have such an idea of what we mean when we say “traffic”. Imagine the gates to a concert open and there’s no reserved seating and there are thousands of people funneling into one or two doors on the side of the building. THAT is bad traffic in Accra, and what we encountered both leaving Accra on Friday and entering on Sunday – people will make tons of lanes/paths on the left, right, middle, through the dirt on the sides of the road, etc., and then at one point due to a car broken down, or a merchant stand in the way, or tro-tros stopped, or an intersection, or whatever, they can’t get by in the makeshift lanes anymore so they all try to merge back into the one lane. Add a few traffic lights or roundabouts to the mix and jumble it all together. It’s amazing (and very tiring to drive in!).

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Great story by Margaret

Read an amazing story of God's provision by Margaret.

http://margaretb.blogspot.com/2006/09/september-10-thoughts-from-this-week.html

Peace,
Steven

Fear & Gye Nyame



“What does this symbol mean to you?” I ask pointing at the Gye Nyame symbol.
“Accept God,” the artist says.
“But what does it mean to you?” I ask.
“Ahhh,” he pauses and thinks about it.” Gye Nyame (pronounced Gee-Nommie, rhymes with tsunami) is one of the symbols you see frequently around Accra. It is one of a collection of symbols that are used in the design of Adinkra Cloth.

Each of the Adinkra symbols means something and together they can be used to tell a story, but above all the others, I see the Gye Nyame most frequently. I am told this symbol came to prominence during the previous administration of Jerry Rallings after he had survived several coup attempts and boldly stated that no one could remove him from power except God…Gye Nyame.

[Fox wearing Gye Nyame]

Dorothy, a returning missionary, defined it differently. She was taking home with her large piece of artwork that featured the Gye Nyame symbol and I asked her what it meant. She has this look like I should know, but then remembers that I had not been here that long (it was our third week in country). She, and I am sure many of the expats., must marvel at how much we don’t know, or at least how many questions I ask. I know the taxi drivers do. Dorothy said Gye Nyame is a little boastful, or arrogant meaning “I fear no one but God.” But then thinks about it a second and adds that we might not fully understand it. I think she is talking about her definition, “I fear no one but God” but as I ask around, it seems that everyone has a different meaning, that is once you get past the easy answer Accept God, or is that Except God? So I have taken to asking people around me, and in the midst wonder what do I fear?

[Blue Building with Gye Nyame]

“Fear is a great motivator.” Some friends are over to our house for dinner, and because there are two professors, a school administrator and an educator around the table, the talk naturally turns toward students. “My students don’t complain to me” Suzanne says. I gather the other professor at the table has some rather persistent students, who try to wear him down by their complaints. The school administrator says “Don’t budge and inch on the work load that you demand.” What is it about mercy that breeds disrespect?

“We had had to let go help three or four times.” Now it is after church and we eating some very good Chinese food at the Palace. There are ten of us around the table and eight dishes, and the center of table moves around like a turn table. You want a different dish? just spin the platter. Paul and Ann talk about household help, something Suzanne and I have been half heartedly looking for. I’ve been be the househusband so far who sweeps, washes dishes, mops and cleans toilets and as the saying goes, “it is hard to get good help.” I don’t even work up to my standards. Paul and Ann have been through several who start well but later lose respect for their employers. “Once they get to know you, they don’t respect you, and you can’t get them to do anything.” They no longer fear you, I guess, fear being the great motivator… We talk about how others expats have kept their distance, or treated their help sternly, without dignity. Both of us have watched friends speak to their help in ways we would have trouble speaking to any person, employee or not.

[Ghana T-Shirt Gye Nyame]

Suzanne says it is a cultural thing, or at least did before we left the states. In one of her readings she learned it was difference between the white and the black cultures. White culture will insist that you ask politely, even when it isn’t really a question, such as, “Would you mind taking out the trash?” My kids will say, “Dad, that’s not really a question is it?” “No, not really,” I say, “Take out the trash.” But in black culture, the passive asking is understood as really a question and what is sometimes regarded as disrespect is really an honest answer: “No thank you, I would rather not.” But I wasn’t really asking if you wanted to do it. Even “I need you to take out the trash” is almost too passive. So can I learn to be direct to say “take out the trash” and still preserve dignity and respect in the relationship?

If that is indeed a difference between the cultures of white and black, then it is a difference to fear because how you treat someone changes who you become. Can I cross this cultural difference and not be changed by it? Maybe that is the reason I see the Gye Nyame symbol around on jewelry, shirts, chairs, painted on buildings and even in the concrete building blocks, it is to serve as a reminder to us all. My son says it means “accept God” and I’ve seen it in print that way. I’ve also seen it as “except God” and that fits better with Dorothy’s definition, “I fear no one but God” but maybe I remember it wrong, could she have said “I fear no one except God.” I wonder if in another language the words accept and except are different enough to not sound alike and how Gye Nyame would be translated.

[Chair Gye Nyame]

This week-end in Elmina, near Cape Coast, I saw a large Gye Nyame in the Catholic Church and I asked several street vendors what that symbol meant to them. Each answered “Except God” to which I asked “What does it mean to you?”

One said “It means that when you have done all you can do and it is still not enough, no one except God can help you.” It is good to remember that Adinkra Cloth was originally death cloth, that is the cloth that was worn at the funeral by the dead. Maybe this symbol stands as a reminder to the living that no one except God, can bring you into the next life.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Daily Life These Days (Suzanne)

September 11 went largely unnoticed here in Ghana, I don’t know if that’s good or bad. Grace and I commented at the dinner table that we had realized partway through the day that it was 9/11 (well, here it would be 11/9). It being the 5th anniversary I’m sure there were some commemorative events in the States.

The last week I would say we’ve entered our groove. Weeknights are a flurry of people arriving at different times and different places. Fox is either staying after school for a student council meeting or class officer’s meeting (he is 10th grade class president) or going to a friend’s house after school. Grace similarly is staying after school for soccer practice (she is one of two 9th graders that made the varsity soccer team) or going to a friend’s house, although she generally keeps her weekdays at home and goes to friends’ houses on the weekends. Anna comes home most days after school and helps Dad run errands or keep up the household. She sometimes goes horseback riding on Wednesdays (school is out at 1:10pm on Wednesdays) with her friend Alina. Suzanne gets home from work anytime from 3 to 6pm, depending on the day (and if anyone is home or not – if not, she’ll often just stay and work). Steve still works hard just at keeping the household running, and finding the few things we still “need” (need here is quite relative). All this will change in two weeks when Lincoln’s after school program begins – from 3:30-5:30pm every day after school there are all sorts of activities for the kids to participate in: swimming, sewing classes, karate, choir, basketball, soccer, drumming and dancing, yoga, etc, etc. Then most days kids will stay through to 5:30pm, and Steve will get a longer day, but, will have to pick them up during the high traffic times. We’ve just started going back to using taxis occasionally to help with the school transportation – after filling up the Patrol the first time, we decided it probably was not much more money (if any?) to have a taxi drive them, and it saves Steve an hour each trip. Weekends are busy! Grace and Fox go to “Pram-Pram” every Saturday morning, which is an orphanage (in the nearby village of Pram Pram) – the youth of Elim International Church go every Saturday to play with the kids, and one young man is organizing a football (soccer) team for some of the young boys there to enter a local league. Grace especially (Fox also) looks forward to it every week. Afterward they all go out to lunch and then back to the Ike’s house, where they have Bible study at 2pm and youth group 3-5pm. So essentially we don’t see at least Grace and Fox all Saturday. Sunday is church, and we have entered a pattern of going out to lunch afterward and visiting, which doesn’t get us home until 3pm usually. At 5pm on Sunday Steve and I have our Marriage Course, which has been good so far (and demands we have 2 hours a week dedicated “marriage time” – so far we’ve had a great buffet breakfast out, and today a nice French lunch. So, what’s not to like?

I was really not feeling well this weekend, really beginning last week. Mostly just run down, maybe with a low-grade fever. Saturday I woke up with a terrible headache that finally went away after 8 hours of Motrin - Tylenol alternating every 2 hours. I continued to rest through Sunday - I slept hard both Saturday and Sunday afternoons. Some ex-pats tell me that it may have been malaria - when you're on the prophylactic (we take Doxycycline) you can get a mild case, and headache and achy are pretty much the symptoms. I felt much better by Monday, though. (I heard the voice of Dr. Proctor in Temple, saying, “I never had an illness I couldn’t hydrate away” – or something like that. Anyway, I drank A LOT of water – thanks, Barbara!). Unfortunately, I hear malaria isn't the kind of thing you build up immunity to though, too bad.

Saturday night we went to a gathering at the house of one of the Methodist missionaries and had a potluck dinner and watched a movie called "Emmanuel’s Gift", a really great movie/story about a Ghanaian named Emmanuel who was born with a physical defect but has gone on to fight for the rights of the disabled in Ghana. It actually shows quite a lot of footage of the kinds of scenes we see here every day - it was produced in the USA, you might be able to find it at a video rental place (a big one, of course). Also there were several other Methodist missionary families there, and they also invited some guests from the Mercy Ship Anastasis (http://www.mercyships.org), which is currently off the coast of Ghana (until February), and another couple from New Zealand who are here on sabbatical study leave. It was really great meeting and interacting with some of those folks – what adventurous lives they lead! We have come to really appreciate socializing with so many interesting people here – from all over, doing all kinds of things. Wow. We have thoroughly enjoyed our newfound relationships (dare I say friendships?), and it’s nice to not have to live our social lives vicariously through our children anymore (at least, not so much). We have a “Texas Open House” in the works for all of the faculty and staff at Ashesi (still a couple of weeks out – the next two weekends are busy, and we still need to locate a BBQ grill…)

I think I was the only one to have much “culture shock” and I do believe it is largely gone now. Everything seems so normal now. We are really feeling settled, and happy here. So, life is full and joyful for the Bucheles!

Connectiveness

For some reason I can't upload images to blogspot, so I've included links to the pictures at Flickr.

With the exception of cars and trucks, and the occasional food item, by and large you don’t see American goods for sale here, at least goods that were made in the USA. What you see is a truly international market place where things such at toilet paper are as likely to come from Ghana as from China, where pots and pans are as likely to have been made in India as they were in Brazil, rice from Egypt or USA, and packaged food as likely to come from Lebanon as from South Africa. It is an international market place but also quite local.

[Chinese Toilet Paper, repackaged in Accra, and bought at the side of the road.]

At Keneshe Market, which specializes (if you can call it that) in food and fresh produce, I discovered the fresh meat section. Now for maybe a mile around Keneshe in all directions are thousands and thousands of market stalls, but inside the actual market it is much more concentrated and organized. First floor is food, the second floor is kitchen and household items, and the third floor, clothing, Ghanaian cloth, and 100s of seamstresses. In fact the sound of the third floor is the sound of 100s of sewing machines sewing. The third floor is where our bed sheets are being made, and the second floor is where I picked up the cheese grater that I wrote about in an earlier blog. Today’s journey brought me to the fresh meat section.

[Dried Fish.]

Now as you walk around the first floor, you see lots of dried meat: fish, pigs feet and frozen chicken parts, and other things I couldn’t identify, even live chickens. But in a corner of this floor, occupying perhaps 25% of the first floor is the fresh meat market, though I had walked right past the entrance several times. The organization is different in this section. Instead of an open area set up with wooden tables, enclosed stalls or concrete slap, the floor is crowned, with small 5” gutters on either side. The tables are concrete and set back from the wall about two feet, there is no wasted space and only one path through this part of the market. The room is perhaps 60 feet by 100, and glancing around you might think that this was all there was, fresh fish, eels, tilapia, red fish, and even something that looked like cat fish, that was still struggling to breathe. Most of the other fish has been frozen, but still had that shiny fresh look about it. The fish smell is overpowering and everywhere I look people are smiling at me and saying “Hey ‘brunie, come look,” or “How are you ‘brunie?” “Aey Ya,” I say, “How are you?” replying with what I think is “I’m fine,” and then asking the same question back.

This is one of the places that I wish I had an optical camera that would show you what I saw because it is quite unbelievable, and I’m sure I would have trouble getting a camera in there as Ghanaians are quite funny about picture taking. I pass into another section and the smell changes to red meat, cow, goat, sheep, and others. The air is heavy with humidity and smells of blood. There are cow’s heads upside down, with the throat slit, upside down with a white ghost like look. The is color of a blood-less cow. I wonder if the Islamic influence forces them to display the method of slaughter, so that it is clear that the tradition has been followed to completely drain the animal before cutting it up. For some reason it is the teeth that bother me most. They are white, worn down, and stained, and my eye focuses on them first.

I am reminded of a few weeks earlier when Fox and I were in search of a specialized guitar cable and were taken by Eric the cab driver to the musical instrument section of Accra. Here we were walking along the city street with shops that displayed keyboards, large speakers, amps, mixers and “Givson” guitars (a play on the famous Gibson brand). While the cable was being made and we came upon this dead white cow, upside down, legs pointing up, and a crowd mulling around it. We stop to watch. A boy, not any older than my son has a knife and begins hacking at the legs. Soon people are walking by us with leg parts, a hoof, a joint, part of the tail, and man with a huge smile walks by and says “Welcome to Ghana” and disappears into the crowd. Again I wish I had an optic camera that could record these events to share. Fox had his new camera cell phone and so steals a picture, but it doesn’t do it justice. It is amazing.

When the crowd grows past us, we start edging back toward the store with the cable. I’m half tempted to try to get some of the meat just to see if I could, but it is time to check on the cable. The light has been off so they have had to go to another, where the light is on to build the cable and while we are waiting, Fox points down to the open air sewer, the liquid in it is now red. We are downstream from the sidewalk slaughterhouse.

But here in the Keneshe meat market there is no blood, only its smell. Huge slabs of meat rest on sheets of paper waiting to be cut by large smiling men waiting to cut them. I am near to losing it and force a smile, but it is thin. I smile at the butchers laughing with each other, sharing in my discomfort. “’ello ‘brunie, how are you?” They are dressed in dark, blood stained clothing, and know, maybe from the lines on my face, that this is nothing like I have ever seen before. “Welcome to Ghana,” one says to me.

I am overwhelmed by it all, and mostly unable to organize my thoughts coherently other than to relate it facts: I went to Keneshe, did you know there is a fresh meat market there? But no one wants to hear about it, especially at dinner. A week later, I am looking through the glass at the meat counter in the air conditioned food store we frequent. There are ladies behind it with spotless white aprons waiting on me. I think about Keneshe, and it occurs to me that that was such an honest way of buying meat. It doesn’t try to hide its source. Still, I have yet to buy any this way. I ask Emmanuel, our day guard about it: “What do they do with the meat at night?” “They put it away,” he says. “But where?” I ask and he is thinking I am asking another question. “There are inspectors, the meat is very safe, always there are inspectors who examine until it is finished.” I ask more questions until I learn that there is a huge refrigeration unit that the meat goes into at night, and as it comes out is inspected. It is just 9am when I am in the market that day and so I wonder at what time do they start unloading it?

[Medina Market Street (boy on bicycle)]

Tomorrow we are having guests over for an American dinner, Chicken and Dumplings. Inviting people to eat is something that is done in Ghana frequently, though we have yet to get into the full swing of this. Tomorrow will be our first time. Last Saturday we were at our missionary friend’s home, Michael & Clare Mosley, for an “American BBQ.” There were many other missionaries from the greater Accra area there and I think we all appreciated the thick slice of Americana with grilled chicken, brownies, beans, rice, and bottles of Coke. It was amazing, and wonderful, and after dark we watched the film “Emmanuel’s Gift” outside on the wall of their compound using an LCD projector. Just as we were about eat the lights go off, and so there is the constant drone of the generator. Biting into a delicious chicken leg I wonder: did the chicken come from Keneshe? Our missionary friend Nicole Sims asks another question “Do you eat the bones?” She asks the Ghanaians sitting at our table, and they laugh. One of the women, says yes, but her husband won’t. After they were first married she tells about her husband seeing her eat the bones and asking, “Are you an animal that you eat the bones too?” They argue about it and she asks him, “Are you Ghanaian?” It is a custom not shared by all. Nicole asks how to eat the bones, and she says “don’t force it” Later as Nicole is biting into a breast bone, the woman cautions her: “Don’t force it!”
“Am I forcing it?” she asks with bones still in her mouth so it doesn’t come out clearly.
“I see your face” and she is right, it has that tight strained look, like I had walking around the market. A forced smile. I watch Nicole and I wonder if I’ll ever be able to eat the bones, or for that matter buy meat at Keneshe?
Later I wonder if that was part of the disconnectedness I felt in the states. That with the exception of hunters and fishermen, and maybe people who garden, or shop at the farmers markets, we Americans have become quite disconnected from the source of the food. “You are what you eat,” they told us in school, and so what happens when we eat food that is disconnected? Do we too become disconnected? Is that the problem?

It is not that I am suggesting that we close the meat counters and return to the open meat markets, or bring our grain to the grist mill to be ground, but I wonder if this disconnectedness is a symptom of a greater problem. In my last few years of ministry the running theme was one of connectiveness, and the catch phrase was “connecting to God, to other believers, and the one God made you to be.” I saw this then and still see it now as the grand purpose of the church. But that catch phrase didn’t connect so well with the people of that church no matter how many times I talked about it. It seemed to me that if we could just do those three things (connect people to God, to other believers, to the one God made them to be) then we would be the Church that God would bless us.

“Connecting to God, to other believers and the one God made you to be” was derived from a definition of sin that Robert “Bob” Tuttle, (professor of Evangelism at Asbury Seminary) gave in a revival at Oak Park United Methodist Church[1] in the spring of 2001. He said that sin was “anything that separated you from God, from those around you or who God made you to be.” Being an expert on sin myself, I would have to agree, and so reversing this definition, I thought it made perfect since to see the purpose of the church as an anti-sin organization, in other words where sin caused you separation from God, the church would help you connect to God; whereas sin caused you separation from those around you, the church would help you connect to other believers; whereas sin caused you to separate from the one God made you to be, the church would help you connect to that person.

I thought that if I could model this for the church, and we did those three things—and only those three things—then we could change the world by living lives fully connected to it. Comfort and convenience were the problems I ran into, and how I preferred them over connectedness. Why call someone up when you could send them an email, or why visit them when you could call on the phone? When life is disconnected, one resists to doing things that better connect us to God, to other believers or even the food on our table. I was pushing a product I didn’t even use.

I wonder if that is the reason our lives in Ghana feel so connected. We have no choice, it isn’t always comfortable or easy, and when the lights go out, or we see a more direction connection to our food than we are used to, we are inconvenienced into realizing the connection. So tonight, as we prepare to be reminded that the Akosombo Dam, on the lower Volta river is still three feet below the minimum level, we will take our turn and lose the lights for 12 hours. Tonight, as my kids sit around the table doing their homework by candlelight, we will feel very connected.

But tomorrow night, when our guests come for Chicken and Dumplings, the light will be on and the chicken, it will come frozen from the store. Actually it comes frozen from Brazil because one of our guests is Muslim, and this chicken has been prepared in accordance to the Islamic traditions. It is how we connect to food that connects us to each other that connects us to the world and the international marketplace. I just wonder, will we eat the bones?

[Islamic Center]
[1] Temple, Texas. Pastor was Andy Andrews at the time.

Friday, September 08, 2006

Thoughts about Food

In this edition Steve remembers matches to the modern taste of Ghana, Suzanne shares her thoughts about food in Ghana, a recipe for a favorite Ghanaian dish, and the story of palm nut stew. There are lots of cool pictures with this post, but blogspot isn't uploading my pictures right now so you can click on the links to see them in flickr.

When I was here before my favorite food-memory was these little packets of roasted peanuts (or groundnuts as they are called here) [ground-nut pacs] . In the fall of ’68 I attended the village school and the highlight of the day was recess where we could go out to the edge of the ‘football’ field and buy a packet of groundnuts for five cents. Preparing to move here I wondered if they were still as common as they were when I was a child, and if they were, would they taste the same? I think it was our third day that I found the courage to buy several little packets, and introduce them to my kids. They did taste just like I remembered them, and amazingly still cost five cents (or 500 cedi).

But the surprise to me was that the bread brought back a memory, one I had forgotten. I am not sure what it is, but the bread tastes so different, at least the bread you buy on the street. It has a sweet, and smooth taste that is unlike anything in the states. I’d forgotten it’s flavor, but on my first taste of it, my mind reacted, “Oh, I remember this!”

This evening we tried to have palm-nut soup. I had bought some palm nuts at the market, mostly because they are so colorful, and I thought I would photograph them. Ghanaians are funny about taking their picture. Mostly they don’t like it, but will comply if you ask nicely. Sometimes they ask for a dash, and I have no problem with that. Anytime you see a close-up of a person other than my family, I’ve had to ask to “snap, snap”. When I got home from shopping, our guard Emmanuel asks what I have bought at the market. He is very interested in the fact that I do much of our shopping at the market and not as many of the other obrunis do at the shopping centers that that cater to foreigners. When he learns that I have palm nuts he insists that his wife Vida come over and help me cook up the palm nut stew. I have several West African cook books that I’ve been working my way through, but for him, he wants to make sure I do this right. So he calls his wife, Vida.

Vida and Emmanuel have two girls, 4 & 8 and while he is our day guard, she has a shop at the really large market in central Accra. I have not been to that market, the largest in Ghana, and the thought of it scares me and Emmanuel knows this. On Monday, he tells me, “I will take you.” But today Vida has not been in her shop and so she goes to great trouble to buy the tools needed for tonight’s meal. It is remarkable what these humble but very colorful nuts can become, in the hands of an expert. First we wash them and then put them on to boil for 30 minutes. The water is discarded, and we heat up another pan of water with some hot peppers. Then the pounding begins, the straining, the pounding, the straining, and then we bring it inside to add three onions and Garden Eggs, a uniquely African type of eggplant, but I’ve forgotten the meat and so with disappointment, we postpone our feast for another night.

There is a strange tension in the kitchen with Suzanne and I there. I’ve heard about this from other expats that when they are cooking, say chopping onions, and their help will come over and take over, saying “I do this!” and I feel a bit of it in the room. Suzanne and I cook so comfortably together, and so this tension between Vida and us is awkward, not like a turf war, but like a servant-master roll reversal type of tension. Finally it breaks when Suzanne steps in and says she wants to finish the cooking by learning, and so it is a graceful exit—this is before we’ve discovered I’ve forgotten the meat. Anyway, we’re all smiles, and thankful for the experience. I’m sure they laugh all the way home at their strange American friends.

For those who want to taste Ghanaian cooking, I’ve included a favorite which my family will finish off in one setting. [groundnut stew]

Groundnut Stew
(Chicken Peanut Soup)

8-12 chicken pieces
1 medium onion, chopped
1 t salt
1 t pepper
1 t hot curry powder (cayenne)
1 c smooth natural peanut butter (not jiff or skippy) [groundnut paste]
8 c slightly warm water
2 medium-ripe tomatoes, pealed. We used about a cup of salsa

Season chicken with onions and all dry ingredients. Moisten with a little water and cook over medium heat in a large saucepan for 15 minutes. Stir as needed.

While chicken is cooking, mix peanut butter with warm water in a bowl until smooth (Ghanaians will use their fingers) Add peanut butter mixture to cooked chicken when it is ready. Bring to a boil at once and continue boiling for 30 minutes to an hour. At first the soup will be thin but cooking it for this long softens the meat and thickens the broth.

Grind tomatoes in a blender until smooth, or if a blender is not available, mash in a bowl and then pass pulp through a sieve. Alternatively, a cup of salsa requires no grinding. Add tomatoes to soup. Simmer until chicken becomes tender and oil begins to form in soup. Stir as needed.

Serve hot. We serve it over rice, but in Ghana they will serve it with Fufu, a sticky pounded cassava starch.

From: The Art of West African Cooking, by Dinah Ameley Ayensu 1972


Suzanne here:
First, I must say that the food in Ghana is very good. Second, I must say that it’s a good thing we’re from Texas and used to (what we used to consider) spicy food, or we’d be in big trouble. In general, Ghanaian food is spicy. Very spicy! Only once did we have a dish which was so spicy we really just couldn’t eat it – Steve and I made the mistake of ordering the same dish, so we went away hungry that evening. Even things we wouldn’t think would be spicy is. For example, the other night we went out to Chinese food, and I guess it’s understandable that we thought it would be like the Chinese food we were used to – American Chinese food. But, this was Ghanaian Chinese food. Very good, but boy were our eyes and noses running! Another time I ordered a meatball sandwich, again, thinking of a Subway meatball sub – the description in the menu made it sound like that. But, what appeared, while very good, was SPICY and not at all like a Subway meatball sub! I wonder how long it will take before my American expectations will finally leave and be replaced by Ghanaian expectations. Perhaps never.

[granola] We can buy many imported food things here, unlike even 10 years ago I’m told. There are two supermarkets, Koala and MaxMart, both pretty well stocked with American and other imported foods (English, South African, European, Middle Eastern and Indian are the other big imported foods). The price of imported foods seems to be a complex formula of distance of import, price in native country, weight, and size. A box of cheerios is about $8, a large can of Hunts tomato sauce is $4, 500kg of granola from South Africa is $5 (the same size bag of Ghanaian granola is $1), a small jar of salsa is $4. A small tub of imported ice cream is $8. We’re thankful there is so much available here, although our budget dictates that we be very careful with the willy-nilly purchasing of imported goods. Our kids are very understanding of this, and are doing quite well “going native.” Anna’s having the most trouble with the spicy foods – we try to have at least somewhat bland food at home for dinner every-other day or so. And, while many types of things are available, the selection is very limited – only one type of salsa, for example, and one type of potato chips. For us Americans (and Texans) used to a whole isle of chips, or ¼ isle of salsa, that is a big change. But, really, we are grateful that there are these things available at all, as an occasional treat.

[Pita Bread] Today we went out to lunch after church with some folks and I got some great food tips – first, where we can get cilantro and other fresh herbs and good fresh vegetables at a stand not too far from our house (thanks, Laurie! – a missionary from Alberta, Canada). Second, how to make tortilla chips – which are not available in stores here – though, we did learn that the commissary has them. We don’t have commissary privileges, but a friend of Grace’s (and, we’ve become friends with the Dad) does, and he took Grace the other day – she bought 3 bags of Tostitos at $4 each. We haven’t opened them yet, but… back to the homemade tortilla chips: take pita bread (which IS readily available) split it open, brush it with oil and sprinkle with salt and possibly other spices as well, and toast in the oven (our first oven use!), let them cool and then break them into pieces. They’re great – a lot like baked tortilla chips. You might even try it in The States for a low-fat alternative or when you have leftover pita. We’re enjoying some right now with some Steve’s homemade salsa (wouldn’t you know, it’s SPICY…) We’re glad to get these tips from other ex-pats – we’ll continue to keep our ears open.

To see more pictures of palm nut stew adventure [click here]

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

What I've learned from Load Shedding

Grace studies by candlelight It rained last night, something we had expected it to do a lot more since we arrived during the “rainy season”. But it has been drier than usual, and this is a problem. You see Ghana generates most of its power on the Akosombo Dam, on the lower Volta river. At the top of the Daily Graphic, the newspaper of Ghana, it lists the maximum water level at 278 ft, and the minimum: 240 ft. The problem is the Current Level: 236 ft, or 4 feet low. Below the headline reads “Conserve electricity & save the Akosombo Dam.” Akosombo Dam

The solution, for the time being is something called “Load Shredding” where for period of time, “the light it off”. There is even a schedule for it printed in the paper and we are in block A. Every four days we lose power from the hours of 6am to 6pm or the reverse. It makes pretty interesting meal planning, for example on Friday, when we were scheduled to lose the light at 6pm, so at 5pm I pulled everything out of the Fridge that we could eat and we had “tad” dinner, a tad of this, a tad of that, and when we were done, nothing went back in.

In Ghana, one has the feeling that electricity is very precious, in the design or retrofit of the houses, conservation is planned. For example, there are no such thing as central air conditioning. Each room may have a unit controlled by a remote control. It is rare to see incandescent light bulbs here. Sure you see them for sale, but rarely in use. Compact fluorescents, or 20” florescent bulbs are the norm. Each power outlet has a switch on it, and the small water heaters also.

Solar water pre-heater
You wake up in the morning, turn it on, and when you are done, turn it off. The small units are fed by a solar water pre-heater, and combined with that and their size, they heat up quickly. Not surprisingly, the kitchen does not have an air conditioning. Kitchens generate heat, and so why waste power cooling it?


Even the appliances think differently: When the fridge door is opened, the compressor clicks off. A few days ago I came home and found the fridge door ajar, and thought of what a waste of energy, but I was wrong. Because the door was not closed, the compressor did not run, only the cool air was lost.

Still, we lose power every four days and as the rainy season ends, and the hope for a continual power source dries up, our thoughts turn toward a generator. In the larger homes of the more affluent areas of Accra, when the light is off, you can hear them chugging away. There are other options, what amounts to a whole house UPS (or Uninterruptible Power System) that will provide power to the fridge, lights and a few AC units for 6-8 hours, and recharge when the light is on.

These things and many others have helped me understand my folks better. Late in life they built a house in Cabo San Lucos, Mexico, where they had hopes to winter, and maybe live out their lives, much to the chagrin of their children. Though they did not ultimately live in that house for a variety of legal reasons, they continued to winter in Cabo, and we visited them once. I didn’t understand the attraction then, and am only beginning to now understand why people so dear to me would choose to live in such a far off and difficult place. Like here, the power would go off, it was hot, the drivers a little crazy, and food comes from the marketplace almost daily.

Life was hard for them, especially when compared to the states. But it was real, and I think that is what I am learning here, that a real life, is much preferred over a comfortable one. I wonder is sometimes if I have sacrificed a life with meaning for one of convenience. There is something about the inconvenience of life here, be it from the lights going off, or the lack of conveniences (that I thought were necessities) that has made me realize what these things are. Caleb Stegall in a CT review of David Goetz's book Death by Suburb writes: that the “ethos of suburbia is catering to ‘the overindulged self’ in an ‘environment of security, efficiency, and opportunities,’ all of which create a faux spirituality among Christians who live there. According to Goetz, their faith is really little more than busy avoidance of reality. The false image of the ‘good life’ offered by the suburbs creates what Goetz calls a ‘bloated, tiny soul.’” These words hit me especially hard because I know all this, and still lack the resolve to stand up the life of the privileged self, the life of instant gratification, the endless search for ease and comfort.

I wonder if that is what my folks loved about Cabo, how alive they seemed there, and I am sorry I couldn’t see that then. I only saw how inconvenient or hard it seemed, when it really wasn’t. It was just real, and maybe that is what has been missing from my life, only I didn’t know it because it was filled up with so much comfort. Yet even as I write these words I feel guilty because relatively speaking, our lives are filled with comfort, and I wonder what more I have still yet to learn.