The Buchele Adventure

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

Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Our Trip to Egypt (Aswan & Luxor)


By sleeper train we came from Cairo to
Aswan, the site of the great Soviet Dam that tamed the Nile. There further we got from Cairo, the more it began to look like Ghana, except there were not chickens. Understand that in Ghana, chickens are everywhere, and the sound of roosters crowing is non-stop from 6pm to 11am, but in Egypt, there were none. The morning we left, I saw on CNN that bird flu had been stopped in Egypt, but not after claiming nine lives, but this detail was forgotten by the time we landed in Cairo. “What is Ghana like?” people would ask, and so we would joke, “Not that different from Egypt except, fewer chickens.” Their reply was always a grim, “there are no chickens.” It wasn’t until the last day that we figured out what that meant, Egypt had eliminated all its chickens to stop the Bird Flu.
[Grace & Anna at Philae Temple at night]

At night saw the amazing temple at
Philae, which had been completely disassembled and moved to save it from being flooded by the Nile after the dam was built.

[Anna on Camel, note Nubian Village in background complete with satellite dishes]
[Fox on Camel, note Nile River in background] [Felucca Boat on the Nile]
Like the pyramids in Cairo, these tombs were built to honor the dead, and walking through them and seeing there majesty, two thoughts kept running through my head. The first was wondering what the place looked like when my parents were here. In the last few years, much of these sites have been walled off to better preserve them from the crush of visitors each year, in fact in many of the sites we were not allowed to even bring in cameras. I bet my parents had free and unfettered access, whereas there were limits to what we could see behind Plexiglas. Still it was overwhelming.

In the 700s AD there was a movement in Christendom called
Iconoclasm, who saw at the gains that Islam was making, and looked for a reason. Christians wondered “Was there some reason God had stopped protecting them?” Iconiclasts found their answer in scripture, and interpreded these ancient carvings in stone, or in mosaic, to be idols, and remembered the commandment

“Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or
any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth
beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.” (Exodus 20:4)
And then they looked to the prophetic vision of Ezekiel who wrote: (it is God speaking)
“And I said to them, Cast away the detestable things your eyes feast on, every
one of you, and do not defile yourselves with the idols of Egypt; I am the LORD
your God. But they rebelled against me and would not listen to me; not one of
them cast away the detestable things their eyes feasted on, nor did they forsake
the idols of Egypt. Then I thought I would pour out my wrath upon them and spend
my anger against them in the midst of the land of Egypt. (Eze. 20:7-8)

“Thus says the Lord GOD: I will destroy the idols and put an end to the images
in Memphis;” (Eze 30:13a)

And Christians set themselves to destroying the faces of all the art in Egypt, and when Grace saw this beautiful ancient art ruined, scratched, or chipped out she sometimes just wept.

The second thought I had, as I looked at 7,000 year old stuff, was the realization that it was all pre-Christian, pre-Jewish, pre-Islam, pre-monotheism thought, and all that remains of these civilizations are the tombs built to honor their dead. The homes they lived in were understood to be temporary, like their bodies, but the Temples for their gods, and the tombs for the dead, these were forever. Even flawed as it was, they understood the significance of an afterlife much better than we do.


[3 cruize ships lined up]

Then it was a 3-day cruise ship down the Nile ending up in
Luxor. The cruise ship was nice, we would tour by day, and travel by night, and it was quite an industry. As far as the eye could see forward and back you saw cruise ships up, evenly spaced. Sitting on this wonderful moving hotel, stopping at places to visit, and then getting back on to sail to the next place was easy, but I felt somewhat disconnected from the places we were traveling through, and our emphsis was more on comfort than experiencing Egypt.

Strangely, it made me think of the church and an ad I had once seen.

"When the Church becomes a Cruise Ship...
God mourns....

He designed it to be a Lifeboat."

And as I think back on the churches I've served, I realize that they were at their best when they understood what type of ship they were. So many of the irrelevant(or non-life saving) conflicts in the church, they were about these issues: Cruise Ship or Lifeboat. The Curise Ship Church is only concerned with those already on board, and their comfort and entertainment. It can be somewhat disconnected from the places it sails, or put another way irrelevant.
The Lifeboat Church's only mission is to get people into it and off to safety. I looked at the lifeboats on our cruise ship and they look like they had not been tested in a long, long time (they were painted to the ship-sorry no pictures).
I wonder if a church can both? Remember in the movie Titanic, when the lifeboats were deployed half filled because they didn't want the first class passengers to be uncomfortable? "Is there anybody out there?"

The Nile was everything I hoped it would be, we would pass by tombs, unexplored by tourists, just keeping watch over the river. There were palm trees, and cattle, and boats, and always something to see. It was cold, so we didn’t swim in the ship’s swimming pool, and really it was too cold to hang out much on top. The food was great, and something different each day, the strange things was the canned background music, they played the Titanic theme song (sometime along this trip we watched the movie on Arab TV, so it was cut to be PG).

[Grace doing a Titanic]
Ten years ago I was supposed to visit Luxor on the seminar
y trip, but there was some trouble there, when terrorists shot up the place and killed a number of tourists, so instead we went to Syria. There was no hint of trouble this time. Security was tight, in fact you were not even allowed to visit many of the sites without a guide.
Being a guide (or Egyptologist, as they are know) takes a four year degree, and each has some degree of specialization. These people knew there stuff. I would read up on the place before we went there, and try to ask interesting questions to probe the depth of understand and most times, I never hit bottom. They always knew more about what we were seeing than anybody wanted to hear, especially my kids. Still I think they had a great time. This was a “family tour” and so there was a mix of interesting stuff, historical stuff, and down time, to process the information. At one point, I think our tour leader was seeing the signs of Egypt fatigue, and so he booked a basketball court for an hour, and he played basketball with the kids. I learned something that day, watching my kids play, because when they were done, they were recharged, the trip for them was fun again, and all it took was an hour.

[Fox lay-up]

[Anna and coach Akmed]
[Donkey Races]

On our last day we went on a donkey tour through old town, part of the real village of Luxor. It started out a ride and ended up a race, which is really funny when you think about it. Here we are on these small donkeys, trying to coax them to walk faster, riding through this ancient Egyptian village, seeing how people really live. The buildings are not that different from Ghana, or at least the village of La, where Emmanuel our guard lives. The landscape, however, is. There are irrigation canals that cut through the town, paralleling the streets sometimes. This is the Nile, I think, WOW. So we’re racing through old town Luxor, and it is natural to start horsing around, and somehow I fell off my donkey. Beside my pride, I scraped up my left hand, and broke my camera.

The hand wasn’t a big thing, but losing the camera was. I didn’t realize how much I relied on it to give me purpose, and mission and now I wondered what do I do when we see these amazing sites? Look at them, I guess and study them. It is said, guys need something to do, and I felt a little lost without a camera. All in all, the last day was a good day to lose the camera, I mean suppose it had happened on the first (that’s my inner Midwest sensibilities coming out, things could be worse).

Our last day ended by touring the magnificent temple at
Luxor, but I think we were over Egypted at this point and could not appreciate its majesty. It was like we had filled up on bread sticks and salad, and here was main course.

[Mosque built on the then undiscovered Temple ruins. What out for that first step]

Luxor Temple, like so many of the other sites we visited, had at one time been a 6th Century Bizatine Church, and now there was a Mosque built on the site. What made this site interesting was in the 50s they discovered a whole new level that had been covered with sand. So now the back door of he Mosque is about a 50 foot drop off into the restored temple ground floor. Among the other things discovered was a boulevard of sphinx.

Then it was back to Cairo by overnight train, and when we awoke, this is what we saw pulling into Cairo. In many ways it was good to be back to where we started, a welcome transition to home. Maybe we should have gone and seen some more old stuff, but mostly we needed to stock up on things we couldn't get in Ghana, and so Akmed took us downtown and we went shopping, and that was fun, unpredictable, and a good ending.

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Friday, January 26, 2007

Ashesi University College, after the first semester (by Suzanne)

[Ashesi Computer Science Department: Nathan, Aelaf, Gymfi & Suzanne]

I’ve had some queries about Ashesi, and why I haven’t written about it for the blog since before classes started. Some are wondering if I hate it or if something is wrong. No, it is not that at all! I think I am just so immersed in it that it is difficult to encapsulate in a nice, neat little blog entry. But I will try to put down some thoughts, mostly to assure those of you who are worried that something is wrong, and for those who are interested in my experiences as a lecturer at Ashesi University College.

[Suzanne in her office – Aelaf’s desk is to the left]

I continue to really enjoy my experience at Ashesi. It is the major part of my time in Ghana, so a lot of how I see Ghana I am seeing through the lens of Ashesi. For those of you who don’t know or who have forgotten, Ashesi is a new(ish) liberal arts college in Ghana, the first of its kind – it’s kind being small class sizes, an American-styled curriculum (which means that students are assigned homework and papers regularly, which are graded and used as a means of evaluation – as opposed to a single exam at the end of the semester), and in addition to scholarship, there is an emphasis on moral leadership, and citizenship as well. As I mentioned in my first blog entry about Ashesi, it didn’t take too long before I realized how truly radical this is for Ghana. There is a lot about leadership in Ghana that is “broken” – judicial, governmental, corporate, academic - you name it. Corruption at all levels is a real problem here. Often, if you need something or need something done that isn’t immediately forthcoming, produce a ”dash” (bribe or gift) and you are on your way. Patrick Awuah, the founder and President of the University, told me a story – he was in the process of founding Ashesi, but starting as University can be a bit of a Catch-22 situation – you can’t have a University without accreditation, but you can’t get accreditation without a University. So, he and his team put together a “virtual” University, with a curriculum and courses and contracts for lecturers, with the understanding that if they got the provisional accreditation they needed, then they would actually implement what was on paper. They did get the accreditation, but then they needed to enroll students quite quickly to make it all work. Not to worry, they were following the business plan Patrick had developed. He had a multi stage advertising plan to attract students, including print and radio media, television, and billboards, timed perfectly to keep the market saturated and to take advantage of the “free” media (news articles) that they were benefiting from, with the whole campaign culminating in television ads. So, the news media did stories, and then came the newspaper ads and billboards, and then… no television ads. He called, and was told yes, the ad would air, and then, … it didn’t air. This went on for several weeks, until he was told that the ad manager expected a dash to air the ad (the ad was paid for, the dash was above and beyond, payable directly to the guy at the station in charge of the commercials). Patrick reports that he thought hard about it – no ads, potentially no students, no University. The timing was important, they had already lost momentum. Was this a “ditch to die in?” (the Ghanaian term is something like a “hill to take?”). He decided… it was. If he couldn’t even air ads to attract students to his University without paying bribes, he decided there was no hope for Ghana, no point to it at all. So, he didn’t pay the bribe, and after some weeks the station aired the ads anyway, Ashesi did attract their first class of students (which graduated this past May) and the rest is history. BTW, Patrick was just named one of 250 Young Global Leaders by the World Economic Forum in Geneva last week – he actually has an impressive number of awards and recognitions to his name, but this is the most recent.

There still is a lot of “dashing” that goes on in Ghana, but what Ashesi is working toward is training a new generation of leaders that will value honesty, integrity, and competence over money and influence. It’s a radical idea, even perhaps idealistic to think that it can be done, and that Ashesi may do it. It’s an attempt to change the country from the bottom up, as it were (well, not exactly the bottom – very few Ghanaians make it to college – I just heard the statistic that only 5% of college-aged Ghanaians are enrolled in university - so, more from the educated 20-year-olds on up). Most of the top Ghanaian students go to university in England or the States, and often stay there, not returning to Ghana to live out the lessons they have learned in other countries (the “brain drain”). Why? It’s just too hard, there is too much to do. It seems an impossible task. With Ashesi, the hope is that some of the top students will stay in Ghana, and then transform the country by their “radical” moral leadership.

[Klaus, Ama, Jessica: 2007 CS students]

[Aelaf and me at graduation]

Speaking of students, I have also gotten a lot of queries about the students and classes at Ashesi. In many ways, lecturing at Ashesi is not that different from lecturing at Southwestern, or Austin Community College or The University of Texas. There are classes to be prepped, students to lecture to and interact with, assignments to make up and then grade, office hours to keep, students to encourage into considering graduate school or to scare into shaping up, or just students to help make their way through an assignment. There are some differences, though. Since Ashesi is definitely putting itself out there as different (than The University of Ghana at Legon, for example, in which lectures can be so large that there is not enough space for all the enrolled students, and students are admitted first-come, first-served, and a lecturer has no choice but to talk at the crowd instead of interact with the crowd), there is an emphasis placed on continual interaction with students during the lecture. This isn’t that different than at Southwestern, really, and with the help of a Teaching Seminar I went to in June, I have been working at making my classes even more interactive and active-learning based, which has been successful. I learned also from Aelaf, my co-teacher for Computer Organization in the fall, who is also my office mate and a full-time lecturer at Ashesi. He’s a great fellow, originally from Ethiopia, schooled in India, and we get along quite well I think. Co-teaching with Aelaf was a good experience. I learned from his teaching style, and I hope he learned from mine. Also, because the classrooms just have one small whiteboard, there is also an emphasis on using PowerPoint slides, which is new to me in a lecture setting (and can be counter to active learning), so it has been an interesting exercise for me to learn how to deliver lectures using PowerPoint and yet engage the students continuously, again I would say largely successful. It seems that the students appreciate having the PowerPoint slides to refer back to and review, and it frees them up in class to engage instead of constantly take notes, so I guess I’m a bit of a PowerPoint convert. Currently, all students take the same classes up until their second year, at which point they break into CS, BA, and MIS cohorts. And then these cohorts of students all take essentially the same courses as well. Each class meets for 4 ½ contact hours per week, 3 “lecture” and 1 ½ “discussion/lab/practical” (well, the Comp Organization lab often ran 2 or more hours…). I love having the lab time (look out, Southwestern colleagues, I may come back wanting to make changes)! Last semester I had 2007 students in 2 classes and 2008 students in 1, and this semester I have 2008 students in 1 class and 2009 students in another. This semester I will also help with the Programming I labs, which are 2010 students, and will help conduct admissions interviews, and will oversee a “Creativity Session”. All the classes I am teaching here I have taught before, but in each case using a different book, materials, software, language, etc. So, although none are new preps for me, I am working hard prepping them in this setting, with these constraints. I had a TA last semester for one class and a TA this semester for another, which is nice, although I end up doing most of the grading myself since I want to know how they are doing, the mistakes they are making, etc. But, having a TA is definitely nice. Enrollment at Ashesi has just reached capacity at its current (urban) location with the incoming class of 2010, which admitted 102 students (100 was the target), Overall enrollment is a little over 300 plus NYU and study abroad students, but will reach 400 by 2009. There is currently a 5-year plan to build and move to the 100 acres of land they have purchased just north of town. This would be a proper, residential campus, complete with student and visiting faculty housing, library, and all facilities, at which point enrollment could expand to 1200-1500 students over time, and the number of majors could expand accordingly. For now, since Ashesi is new with limited faculty and facilities (Ashesi rents a smattering of buildings in the expensive area of Accra), they are limited to three majors (Business, Computer Science, and MIS) and the enrollment capacity of 400. It boggles my mind, though, to try and consider all the details that Patrick and his staff are facing in trying to implement the 5-year plan, of which a tiny piece is fundraising. Getting water, sewage facilities, electricity, and even a road into the site are just the first stumbling blocks. I can’t even imagine. My family and I went and toured the site (hiked through the jungle!) at Christmas break with a bunch of the just graduated 2006 students. It will be magnificent!

[View of Ashesi land (the hill) from the Chief’s residence]
[Near the top of the Ashesi hill]
[Heading down the hill]
[David, one of those hardworking facilities guys, giving Suzanne a hand down the hill]

I have many impressions of the students, but understand it’s a relatively small sample size – last semester I had just 21 students out of almost 300, this semester I have some of the previous, plus about 20 more. Also realize that generalizations are just that – not applicable to all. But, here we go. First off, my Ashesi students are pretty confident and quite competent, and are quite engaged in the classroom. No doubt that they are at least as “sharp” as my Southwestern University students. The curriculum at Ashesi (put together by an impressive committee of professors from Swarthmore, UC Berkeley, U of Washington, etc.) is quite rigorous, so they are well-trained. However, an A here is 80% and above, and you can pass a class (without having to re-take it) with a grade of 40% (!), and below 50% the student has the option of retaking – this probably contributes to the relative lack of homework completion, for example. So, while the curriculum is rigorous, there are issues of students passing the classes without completely mastering the material. The good news for me, since I tend to give pretty tough assignments and exams, is I don’t need to curve, or even feel guilty about how tough it is! My software engineering class in the fall did presentations at mid semester, and they were the best batch of class presentations I have ever seen. Keep in mind that these students have self-selected to be at Ashesi – they are the students who wanted something different for themselves, who didn’t want to be at The University of Ghana and not work all semester and then cram for the final exam, or dash their way out of it. So, I think these are the “go-getters” of the Ghanaian college set. At the same time, since English is not their first language, the batch of papers I got with the presentations was probably the worst batch of papers I have seen. I need to qualify that, though, since many of the papers were very well-organized and thoughtfully communicated and/or argued – for most students, it was the English grammar that was the biggest issue. Well, that, and the face that CS majors worldwide don’t just love to write papers, I think. There is also a lot of “students are students, everywhere” issues. There is some laziness, some “Oh, Dr. Buchele, we are SO overworked!”, and lots of procrastination. Even one instance of academic dishonesty, that was resolved in a similar fashion to how it would have been at Southwestern. But, there is also the joy of discovery, the passion for learning, the goofiness, the camaraderie, the humble appreciation of a professor making time to help a student, that also falls into the “students are students, everywhere” that I so enjoy. It’s wonderful to see this in Ghana, and get this glimpse that maybe the human condition isn’t so different here. And that maybe this batch of students can change the human condition here, as they get into the workforce and into leadership positions in Ghana. That is the vision of Ashesi University College, and one I can see working. I do expect many of these students to become leaders someday. The long term vision goes even further. The long-term vision is for Ashesi to become the “Swarthmore of Africa”, which (in my opinion) is possible. And that maybe Ashesi would be the first of such Universities in Africa. Talk about transforming a continent! How exciting!

[2007 CS students helping themselves to Texas Chili]
[Suzanne talking with the students after dinner in the dining area]
[Suzanne and students in our living room]
The faculty/staff at Ashesi are also an interesting bunch. There are not so many opportunities to see each other and interact – I actually intend to propose a monthly faculty/staff lunch to help facilitate more interaction. I guess it’s also the case that “people are busy, everywhere”. But, we make our own opportunities to chat – eating at the school canteen or going out to lunch, and invitations to each others’ houses for dinner. One group has a regular (several times a year) ethnic food night that Steve and I were invited to, in which everyone researches food dishes of a particular ethnicity and meets at someone’s house and they all cook together and chat. Early in the fall it was Cuban food, which was very fun and very tasty. We did another one at our house near the end of last semester. The theme? American Thanksgiving! Our Ghanaian and Ethiopian (Aelaf) and Guatemalan (Andres) friends really enjoyed learning about the traditional American Thanksgiving foods, and us Americans enjoyed cooking and eating it as well!

[A nicely cooked turkey]
[Janice making apple pie]
[Matt and Nii discussing the subtleties of a recipe, or perhaps the world’s problems]
[The spread of food]
[Nii and Aelaf breaking the wishbone, with Andres’ supervision]
[Patrick and Adzo (Dean of Students) were latecomers due to a Trustees meeting, but we saved them some]
Speaking of food, the canteen at school is wonderful! There are actually two, one at building one and the other at building. My office is in building three, but I teach at the other two buildings. The canteen is in the kitchen of the buildings, which are converted houses, from which food is served, cooked by local women who contract the canteen space from the University. We eat outside on plastic tables and chairs, or in a screened porch with wooden picnic tables. You can get a heaping plate of delicious Ghanaian food for 10,000 cedis (about a dollar). For awhile I cut down on eating at the canteen because I was coming home at dinner time not very hungry, and then Steve had cooked a wonderful dinner that I wasn’t hungry for, and I’d either not eat much and hurt his feelings, or eat much and gain weight. Now, I’ve decided that I just need to eat less at lunch so I have resumed my eating at the canteen, but either ask for a small serving or don’t eat it all, or both. What type of food, you ask? Mostly fried chicken (with apologies to my doctor, I have come to appreciate chicken deep fried in palm oil) and rice with a spicy sauce, or beef or bean stew with fried plantain (gotta love that palm oil), or something called palava sauce which is made out of the leaves of a plant that is similar to spinach, also rich in palm oil. Really tasty, I assure you!

[Suzanne and Aelaf at Canteen 2]
The facilities at Ashesi are excellent by Ghanaian standards, and definitely fine by American. For example, Steve went into the library at the University of Ghana at Legon last semester and said it was the saddest library experience he had ever had. Nothing past the 1990’s – even the most recent periodicals were from the 1990’s or 1970’s (yes, even the ones in the “Current Periodicals” section), and no computers. At Ashesi the library is small but very well-stocked with recent books and current magazines, periodicals and newspapers – recent by comparison – it’s pretty impossible to get anything that isn’t a month to six weeks old, just due to shipping issues.

[Plate of red-red (beans) and fried plantain]
There are two computer labs, each with 12-25 good computers and a virtual file system for student and faculty file storage. The University itself is an urban campus, consisting of 3 buildings (although each building is actually a cluster of 2-3 buildings) about a 1 ½ blocks apart in a largely residential neighborhood. Each building is a large house that has been converted to classrooms, offices, and compute labs. Each building (and the student dorms as well) has a generator that will kick on when the power goes out (when “the light is out”) which is pretty often, especially with Ghana’s “load shedding” of late (BTW, the load shedding changed and hasn’t yet reverted, which is great – instead of the light being out every 3 days for 12 hours, alternating day and night, they have reorganized so that now the light is out every 5 days, for a 12-hour evening period only. Good, but sleeping can be awfully sticky without a fan). The facilities guys at Ashesi are incredible – very hard-working and constantly on top of things, which you need to be in an “infrastructure challenged” place like Ghana (phone lines are down in building two; the air conditioners stopped working in the building one computer lab; plumbing issues in building three; ceiling fan needs replacement in building three; the transformer just blew in building three; building two seems to have lost its intranet connection; water is out in building one, etc., etc., - a typical week). The internet here is much slower than what we’re used to in the States, when it’s up. It’s up definitely more than half the time, much more even, but when it’s down, you feel it, so it seems like more. And some of you may have received bounced email messages when the email server is down. Its been amazing to me to realize how accustomed I am to having the internet at my fingertips – not just for email, but for information. You just can’t leave things to the last minute here, since you never know if the net will be up or down. It sounds like Ashesi may move back to their VSAT system from Ghana Telecom – they wanted to give Ghana Telecom a try, since they started offering broadband and to help support the company, but the internet outages have been frustrating for everyone, I think. For example, the last three days I finally received outside email after a lapse of about 10 days (so, if you sent me something that bounced, you’re not alone. Just keep re-sending, or send to my Southwestern account which I check weekly or so).

[Building 3, with Eleanora (the Registrar)]

All in all my experience so far at Ashesi has been wonderful. It will be very hard to leave, and even when I do, the school, it’s mission, and the people will remain in my heart for a long time to come. In fact, I’m already planning my next sabbatical – the year after Anna graduates from High School! A good time to return to Ghana, I think. I’m also beginning to brainstorm other projects that might help me to get Southwestern students here. It has been a very broadening experience for me, and I know it would be for students as well.

[Building 3, with Eleanora and David (facilities guy)]

Monday, January 22, 2007

Visiting Egypt (Cairo)

Over Christmas Break, we went to Jordan & Egypt. This was how we spent our time in Cairo.
[What you don't see are the 1000s of people standing on either side of us]

From Jordan we took a large boat across the Red Sea to Egypt. At one point we were perhaps 10 miles from Taba, Egypt near the Israel boarder, but the boat didn’t dock there. Instead it docks halfway down the Sinai Peninsula, where we boarded a small van, and spent the next few hours driving back to Taba, before heading towards Cairo. Crossing the Sinai at night there were checkpoints every 30 minutes, where we had to show our passports, and report to the guards that there are five Americans inside. Seemed a little silly to us, and at one point Suzanne even asked whatever became of that data, for example, did someone check to see that this white van with five Americans in it ever arrive at the next checkpoint?

Egypt felt so much more African than Jordan. Its Africa with an Arab twist. It was beautiful, but chaotic in ways that only Africans can be. We went to the pyramids, us along with oh, 30,000 others. I wasn’t prepared for the crush of people and large buses here in Egypt. Yet they do an amazing job of moving tourists through their sites. I have to laugh at this picture of our family in front of pyramids, what you don’t see is about 5,000 people standing on either side of us when the picture was taken. I’m really not even sure how our guide took this picture. Tourism is Egypt’s number one industry, and they do a very efficient and effective job with it. Here, there is none of the pointless waiting around that we come to understand as a part of daily life in Ghana.

[Steve & Kids Next to the big blocks at the base of the pyramids ]
They pyramids are huge, and it feels a little surreal standing next to them looking up at these shapes we have seen pictures of all our lives. I guess I could have spent a whole day, just looking at them or climbing on the blocks around the base, or admiring the differences between the three big ones, but we were on a package tour, and so only had one hour to explore. What I’ll remember is that even today, Egyptologists do not understand how they were built, all they know is they were not built by aliens.

We walked through the great Museum, where we saw the plunder from King Tut’s tomb, and saw an inscription on one of the historical monoliths that has recently been translated to say “Israel, the desert people have disappeared into the sea.” I remember reading about this discovery, how it proved or at least pointed to the existence of the Biblical story of the Hebrew people, and Moses led them across the Red Sea. Up to the translation of this inscription, there had been no mention of an enslaved people defeating Pharos and escaping into the Red Sea, and so many wondered if it was just a story.

[St. George coptic Church]
Then it was on to the oldest part of Cairo, where we visited several churches, a Synagogue, and a Mosque all built in the area where the Holy Family stayed when Jesus was a baby and they were in exile. This area is known as Coptic Cairo, Coptic being the word for Egyptian Christian. Whereas Christians in the west believe in a duel nature of Christ (fully human, fully divine), Coptic Christians believe that Christ was only fully divine. Their churches are beautiful, and have a mystical feel, and are still in use. When we visited St. George’s (or the Hanging Church, because it is hangs over a the ruins of a Roman fort), it the sanctuary ceiling was covered with balloons from a New Years Eve celebration. While it distracted from the majesty of the place, it was great to see that it is an active congregational life, a living church, and not a museum to the faith of the dead.

[Grace with Covered Head]
Visiting the Mosque, the girls were required to cover their heads before entering, and everybody took off their shoes. As one part of the tour, the guide launched into a presentation about the great mosques of the world, it was part of a speech I had the feeling she had made before. When she got to the Dome of the Rock, the great mosque that stands over the spot (now Jerusalem) that Abraham almost sacrificed his son, she said, “…where Abraham brought Ishmael to be sacrificed.” I couldn’t believe it, I said, “now we Christians, remember that story differently. In our Bible, it was Isaac that Abraham brought to the mountain.” This was new material for her, and so we each told the story several times, just to make sure we understood what the other was saying. I think it was that point that we became real to our guide, and the conversations we had from that point on were much more interesting and interactive.

When you think about it, this different understanding of who Abraham took to the mountain has far reaching implications. Christians (and Jews) understand the land, descendants and blessings promise that God made to Abraham as passed through Isaac, and that is why Israel exists where it does today, but what if it were the other way around? What if this promise was passed through Ishmael? Then who does the Holy Land belong to?

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

A Perfect Day (What's the Draw?)

It didn’t start out perfect, in fact there was nothing about it that remotely seemed perfect, it was just an average day. I did some reading in the morning, wrote a recommendation for our household help who is immigrating to the States this week, went to the obrunie market, and then Suzanne called to invite me to the W.E.B. du Bois Center for a celebration of Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday. We took Henry the taxi to the center, and learned that Dr. King had been in Ghana 50 years ago, when independence was declared from Great Britain. He had watched as the flag of the United Kingdom was lowered, and the Black Star of Ghana was raised. If fact, one of his more famous sermons, Birth of a New Nation, was given a month after his return to the States, heavily influenced by what he had seen here.

Suzanne and I walked home from the Center, when we could have taken a cab. Its not that far, maybe a mile or so, and the only reason we considered a cab was our kids coming home from school, and the Harmatan. )(see Leanne's blog about it). Harmatan is when the wind shifts direction, bringing dust in from the Sahara. It is the dry season in Ghana, and it blew in while we were in Egypt. We noticed it as we climbed off the plane, it was cold (ok cold is a relative term, now it gets into the 70s at night), dry, and a fine layer of dust covers everything. Around us people are coughing or home with mild cases of pneumonia. There is no blue sky, and the sun is just a glowing ball, even midday when it looks like it should be setting. Even so, we walked home, arriving about the time our kids did, but dustier. They are dropped off at the corner and wait for us and together we walk home, talking about their days. Then we began cooking fish-fried rice.

A picture of the Sun I took with my phone right after Church on Sunday.

Fried rice is usually reserved for low quality fish, and seasoned to cover its low quality, but tonight we’re having fish bought from the Tema fish market on Saturday. Tema, about a 20 minute drive east of Accra, is Ghana’s largest fishing port. It is a new town, built on a grid with all the science of the 60s in town development. We went with a former Peace Corps doc (the one who helped us when Grace had malaria), and his wife from Finland. She did all the bargaining, and so we not only got great fish, but at great price. It might be a waste that we are using this highest quality fresh red snapper on fried rice, but we like the way the rice steams the fish, its never tough or overcooked, and oh so tasty, plus we’re cooking for another family, who’s mother is sick, and recovering from major surgery.

Tema Harbor, all the boats are not out fishing because of the Harmatan.

After dinner, the kids clean-up, and start doing their homework. Later Fox asks for my help picking out the chords to a song he wants to play at coffeehouse. Coffeehouse is a sort of talent show the school runs each semester. Last year Fox and Grace formed a band and were the hit of the coffeehouse (at least according to their proud parents). Fox is preparing for the next one by learning some new material. He plays me a song on his iPod, and I slowly pick out the chords and write out a chord chart out so he can play it. We play together for a while and then I go to continue cooking the next batch of dinner for our friends. When I come back, he has learned the song, and wants to try another. It’s a more challenging song because it has a Latin beat, but the chords are simple, and in a few minutes, I’ve got it figured out, but this time he writes out the chord chart. We play and sing, and it is a moment I’ve always hoped for. My love of music is catching.

After the kids go to bed, I can’t get to sleep, my thoughts keep running over how perfect the day’s ending has been. I had always hoped that my kids would be interested in music, in learning guitar, in singing, but up to this year only Anna had shown much interest. I wonder if this is how my Dad felt when I didn’t go into engineering. I clearly had the aptitude, but it didn’t interest me like it did him, and I see that in my kids, they have the aptitude, but have not shown much interest, at least until these past few months. It is like something has awakened in them, and I am so thankful that I was around to see it and participate. I could have easily missed it.

Later, I’m sitting out on our screened in porch in a very dusty chair while the rest of the house sleeps. I think about how, if I was back in the States, this night would not have happened. I would have either been at a church meeting, on the phone with someone preparing for a meeting at the church, or we would have all been gathered around the TV (ie: watching House), or fighting over who’s turn it was on the internet. Instead, I was playing guitar with my son, and learning his music. I had the emotional energy to invest in our relationship, and tonight I’ll remember it as a perfect day.

A friend has asked the question about Ghana, “what’s the draw?” The implication that the blog descriptions do not make it sound so great, and sometimes downright scary. Suzanne and I’ve been thinking about this all week and I think it has multiple answers. Part of the reason our blog doesn’t make is sound so great (and sometimes downright scary) is a genre issue. Blogs like ours tend to point to the quirkiness of this place, and the interesting incidents we experience. There is so much that is normal, and boring, and everyday, like the lives most of the world lives, and then there are incidents. Sometimes we win, sometimes West Africa wins, and on those days, our friends say WAWA, or West Africa Wins Again, and you get to read about it here.

Another draw is the people, they are involved in real issues, and so our conversations tend toward the larger issues, and the impact we are having on a developing nation, and its people. People here (and I’m talking about the obrunies or ex-pats here) have a passion for what they do. They are also connectors. Its not uncommon, when you meet another obrunie on the street, to exchange phone numbers, or get an invitation to their house for a party…and you’ve just met. There is an assumption of good will, that those who are called to this place, are good, and faithful people, already trustworthy, and our goal is just to figure out how to integrate them into our lives, and get to know them.

Another draw is we can easily afford to have someone shows up at our house most days and mop the floors, clean the kitchen, wash, fold and iron the cloths, dust, changes the bedsheets, towels, clean the bathrooms, even help the kids with their French homework. To say that it is great is an understatement.

Another draw is the fantastic school our kids go to, a school that has challenged them and motivated them to study at night, and spend hours doing it (with almost zero parental nagging). I remember one of the first week-ends we spent at the beach, the big kids had the option of spending the day with us exploring the town, or going back to the hotel to do homework, and they choose the latter. How strange is that, I thought at the time. They have an international set of friends, and see the world for what it is, really large, and really interesting, and that which divides us is so much smaller than that which could unite us.

Perhaps the biggest draw is the effect Ghana has had on our family life. I remember fathers, like Larkin and Perry, excitedly telling me how life overseas changed their families, and drew them closer to each other. I remember looking at how both these families interacted, and hoping someday, mine could be like that. I see it happening, not in big dramatic ways, but in the time to just sit around and play guitar with my son, and it fills me with hope, and I’m glad to not have missed it. So yes, it was a perfect day, the kind you want to put in a memory jar and remember, on this day 15 January, 2007, life was good.

More about Jordan

[large 11th Century Crusaider Castle in backgroud - shortly after this picture was take a snowball fight began]

We left the day after Christmas, the flight was two hours late leaving Accra which technically put it on the 27th, not the 26th. Leaving was the easy part, getting the tickets, another matter. I went to the offices of Egypt Air, and booked the flights, actually, I went there several times, and each time didn’t have the feeling that I had done anything. The office staff whisper, and so I have trouble hearing, then they want a passport, to prove that Anna is a child, and then to pay for the tickets, they want US dollars. So I go to the embassy, but they won’t let me cash checks of that amount, and if you want dollars, you have to fill out the paperwork a day ahead, and then be sure to come in the next day, or he might not bring the cash for two days. It’s the problem with a cash economy, there is no credit, no credit cards accepted, no checks, and so for big ticket items, you need a box of cedis, or US dollars. So I go to a travel agent, maybe they will take credit cards. But no, even though the VISA sign is on the door, they too want cash, and not just any cash, US dollars, and not just any US dollars, they want crisp new ones. I get in an argument with the manager, who says one of the bills is too old for him to take. “I’m sorry,” I say. “These are US dollars that come from our embassy, and they are good. So take it or leave it.” It wasn’t that easy, it took three more trips to the agent, but finally, the day before Christmas, we had tickets to Egypt, but our tour starts in Amman, Jordan. It costs $100 more per ticket to purchase tickets from Cairo to Amman in Accra, so we land in Cairo on the red-eye hoping to buy tickets and get visas for Jordan in the five hours of layover we have. Turns out this was no problem, the problem was the unseasonably cold weather.

After some very good coffee, we got directions to City Star Mall at the coffee shop. Directions were written in Arabic, and looking at them Fox noted, “I just hope it doesn’t say, “Rob and kill the infidels! It doesn’t, and we spent a delightful few hours at the mall buying some warm clothes. The re-acculturation was strange - back to civilization. We have gotten so used to Accra, it seems strange to have all the amenities, like McDonalds, Pizza Hut, Hardies, Levis jeans, a real bookstore, and all of these places took VISA. WOW!

[CityStarMall Pictures] -To get an idea of the perspective, I’ve made it B&W all except for Anna and Suzanne who are at the center of where there is color.

Then it was off to Amman, Jordan and when we land it is snowing! When I was there 10 years ago, on a seminary sponsored trip, I remember it snowing in Amman, (and they told us it was the first time in seven years). Our first day we put on all the warm cloths we had, and our guide and driver felt so sorry for us, they gave us their own coats and gloves and scarves.

[Jerash Oval] [Jerash Temple]
In Jordan we saw Jerash and Mt. Nebo, swam in the Dead Sea, and spent a day at Petra. It turns out we were quite blessed, only two days before, Petra had been closed due to snow, and the people who had come to see it were trapped, the roads were closed. The tour called for staying in a Bedouin camp but our guide said that was ridiculous - no one could do that in this weather. So, we switched to a few star hotel, that had internet access.

[Mt.Nebo – see the Moab, where book of Ruth took place]

[Dead Sea – We’re in our bathing suits and wearing coats. You’ve really got to want to swim in the dead sea.]
[Dead Sea - Family float swimming]
[Dead Sea - Fox and Steve getting a “mud treatment”]

On the morning we went into Petra, we turned on CNN to learn (about 30 minutes after) that Saddam had been executed. We had been awake since 4:30am when the Mosque next to the hotel, broadcast a 2 hour call to prayer over the loudspeakers. This was before the second video with sound had been released, so all day long people were trying to make since of what had happened, and who to blame. We claimed we were either from Ghana, or Canada. Not a good time to be an American in the Middle East. This was the first English speaking news we had heard since we left Accra (and there's not much news there either). It was nice to have the news, though, but a strange time to be in Jordan, with Saddam and the Hajj and the big Muslim holiday (the reason for the two hour call to prayer, usually its just 30 minutes long, but just as early). However, the anti-American sentiment was not that noticeable, really; people were kind and hospitable.

As we are preparing to leave Petra, it is discovered that Anna had left her glasses at the restaurant at the far end of Petra, and so I took a donkey back. The donkeys are small animals here, and my feet were only about 8 inches off the ground. We bounce along, it is much faster than walking, but not as fast as a camel. When we get to the restaurant, I ask the manager about the glasses, and he is completely unhelpful. I start searching the trash, and find ours. Funny how you can dig to your level, and find what you tossed out, the apple core, the orange, the juice container. They all contain our signatures, but there are no glasses. The donkey driver sees me and takes pity. He goes and finds the owner, and then they take me to the office. It is far away from the restaurant, inside an old building, in a back room, and I figure I’m either getting set up for a mugging, or going to find Anna’s glasses. Petra is empty now except for its residents. We walk in the cold, dark, unlit room, and the owner opens a drawer there he sees a set of glasses. They are Anna’s! I couldn’t believe it. So I dash the guy, and then its back to the entrance by donkey.

[Petra – tomb where he was born]
As we bounce back, I learn about the Bedouin ways, how his family has always lived in Petra. From time to time the government tries to drive out the Bedouin, but they can’t. This is their home. He points out one of the tombs carved out of sandstone and says “I was born in that cave.” I can’t even see how you would get to it. I learn he has seven children, and he has been married seven years, so I know the age of his children. “Seven is a good number,” he says, “and now I will stop.” His name is Ishmael. He learns I’m a pastor, and so we talk faith. He has so many questions about Christians, and I do my best to explain. I ask about the Hajj, when he will make his pilgrimage, and about the Bedouin governance, like who decides who gets to live in what cave? Though he has never been to school, his English is excellent, learned from the tourists, he says. “Are you learning Chinese?” I ask.

I’ve been surprised by the number of mainland Chinese on this trip. I would say about one third of the other tourists are Chinese. They are a polite bunch, and you can see the excitement on their old faces, how they never thought they would be allowed to leave the country to see the majesty of Petra.

[Petra – Anna on big camel]

Then the donkey driver’s cell phone goes off, singing some sort of song in Arabic. “How funny,” I think. He is living as his family has lived for 1000s of years, being born in a cave, working Petra as it must have been worked in the days of the caravans, and perhaps the biggest change in all these years is the cell phone. It is his brother who lives in Spain, calling to wish him a happy holiday. They chat away, and when he hangs up I ask about working today, on the Muslim Sabbath, and a high holy day for them. He says he has seven children, and Allah doesn’t want them to go hungry, and besides, Petra has been closed much of the week, due to the snow. So I give him what I have, and we promise to meet again in 10 years, when he will introduce me to his grown children and have tea.

People were very friendly and hospitable, and in Jordan, English speaking. Though our State Department has Jordan on a watch list that doesn’t recommend travel to it, we never felt our lives in danger, or threatened. I remember this from 10 years ago, how friendly everyone was. We had been trapped in our hotel all day, and that night we snuck out to go exploring in the snow covered city. We got in a snowball fight with some Jordanian youths, and had tea with the guards, guarding the military barracks (complete with AK-47s). This time, my snowball fight was with the kids overlooking the ruins of an 11th century crusader castle that was too covered with snow to visit.
[WadiRum – 7pil]

Finally we briefly toured Wadi Rum, the desert where Laurence of Arabia was active in the first world war, and then it was back to Egypt by large boat.