The Buchele Adventure

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

Friday, April 27, 2007

Ghanaian Money Matters

One of the things it has taken me a while to get used to is the almost weekly asking for money. I’m not talking about the daily asking for money from people on the street, I’m talking about the people who work for me.

For example, last week, Stephen, our week-end guard had come to me asking for us to “borrow him some” to pay his children’s school fees, roughly ¢600,000 ($60). One of the hallmarks of Nkrumah, Ghana’s first president, was free education, and sadly, it was one of the first things to go after the coup in 1966. Since then Ghanaians have had to pay school fees for their children’s education, something many can not afford. As an obrunie, being asked to pay a child’s school fees is common. I get asked in one way or another about once a month by people I know, and people I’ve just met. I’m warned to always say no, because saying yes once, could be making a life long commitment to pay them.

So it isn’t that strange that Stephen would ask, I mean he has nothing to lose. Stephen is a funny one because he will ask for a loan at the beginning of the month, and then right after payday, pay it all back, knowing full well that in two weeks, he will be telling me, (insert teeth sucking, clicking sound) “the money is finished,” and ask to “borrow me some small ting.” I even moved the all guard’s dash-date, when I slip them something extra, to their money low water mark of the month, when I know that the money will be finished, and I am expected to help out. But I gather there is something else going on here, that in this culture, it is good to be owed money, because if someone owes me money, then he is my friend. So the way to make friends is to owe money, except that loan is often seen as another word for gift, and it only needs to be repaid when the creditor’s needs become greater than the debtor’s needs.[1]

Stephen is prompt in his repayment, and we have not had to him for ask for it, something our weekday guards don’t get. Apparently in Africa, the burden rests with the lender, not the lendee, and so if we want our loan repaid, we have to ask for it. But not Stephen so his credit is good with us, but ¢600,000 is almost his total monthly salary, and so I wonder how could he ever repay it?

[Native Doctor sign on the way to Ho]
A few days earlier, Emmanuel had come to me because his brother is sick, and he needs money. It seems his brother’s manhood “would not let down,” he said, and Emmanuel’s family believes it was a curse brought on by the ancestors of a certain woman, a certain married woman that his brother had been with. After much investigation, rumor, and gossip, his brother finally confesses to the affair and his family decides it there is a curse upon his manhood, they need take him to a fetish priest. You can think of a fetish priest as a sort of African witch doctor or shaman, who deals in the things that come from the world beyond. After visiting the fetish priest in another village, they are told that unless the fetish priest does not remove this curse, he will be dead in nine days. Cost of treatment: ¢2,000,000 and one sheep. I don’t exactly know what the sheep was for, but the going rate for one is 1.5 million cedis, so the total cost is about $350-400.

The Asantes believe there are three parts to human, an okra, sunsum, and mogya.[2] The okra is the guiding spirit of a person, which loosely translates as the soul, and understood as a small bit of the creator that lives with-in the person. When a person is about to be born they are presented to the creator, who speaks a word (called the kra) into the okra, and it is this word that determine its destiny from birth to death. Only humans have an okra, animals do not, so when you show the height of a sheep, you will do so palm down, but for a person, it is palm side up, because humans have an okra.

The second element is the sunsum, which is the spiritual aspect of a person. The sunsum is inherited from the biological father, and is associated with the personality and moral character of the person. It can loosely translated as spirit. Because the sunsum comes from the father, it becomes the father’s duty to pay school fees, while the mother is expected to train her daughters in domestic and social skills, however if the daughter misbehaves, it is the father’s fault.

The third element is mogya, which means blood, and it comes from the mother. The Asante are a matrilineal society, so the inheritance, status, and royal succession come through the mother’s line, and the mogya is what determines it for a person.

When Emmanual’s brother became sick, his family were convinced that the ancestors of the woman he had had an affair with had cursed his mogya, and only the Fetish Priest could remove this curse.

One thing you need to know about Emmanuel is that he has a strong faith, and is very active in his Seventh Day Adventist Church, so I’m a little surprised by his request. Fetish Priest?! I asked him, “has your brother been to a clinic, or seen a doctor, or to hospital?” No, it would do no good, (or later the answer changes to “his manhood would fall off”) because it was a spiritual problem, and the kind of curse that only a fetish priest could remove.

Well, the amazing part of this story is that while we’re having this conversation, Andrew and Ju Jernigan, were already on their way over to our house by taxi. They were in town that day, picking up a friend at the airport and supposed to be flying back to Kumasi, but the plane did not come in from wherever she was supposed to, so there was no flight that morning, and the next would be that afternoon, possibly, so they had called, would I like to “borrow them my car?”

Now remember, Ju is a medical doctor, who’s clinic I had spent a week at earlier this year.
I had tried to explain to Emmanuel that his brother had an STD, but he wasn’t buying it, at least not from me. He was convinced it was a curse, and so a medical solution would do nothing. But Emmanuel knows Ju and Andrew as the owners of the Patrol, and so he is a little bit awed by them. When they arrive, and we’ve properly greeted one another, I ask Ju if she could just spend a few minutes with Emmanuel. I feel bad asking this because being a doctor must be like being a pastor, you’re always on call, and here she is six hours away from her clinic, and its responsibilities, and being asked for a consult.

[Ju treating a young patient at Lake Bosomtwi]
Ju is an amazing doctor, with such a pure heart for ministry. When you watch her working with a patient, you can see the love of Christ ooze out of her. There is such a peace about her, and seeing her sit with Emmanuel and listen… well ooze, isn’t perhaps the best verb to describe it, but you know right that she is using the tender touch of the hands of Christ, and blessing them.

[brewing Sun Tea outside our house]
Meanwhile, Andrew, their friend Bella, and I go into the kitchen, to wait out of earshot, and drink iced tea. Iced tea is a bit of a novelty here, you never see it on the menu, or if it is, the waiter will tell you “it is finished”. But we almost always have some brewed in our fridge, and the smile it brings to people’s faces with they are offered it, is priceless. A taste of home.

After about half an hour, when Ju had prayed with Emmanuel, and convinced him to take his brother to a clinic, or hospital, it is safe to come out. We spend a delightful day running around Accra in our new car, and it is fun to have this unstructured time to talk to my good friend Andrew. I hear about the progress the clinic is making, and how God is arranging its details. After I drop them off at the airport, Emmanuel is waiting, and I explain that I will have to talk with Madame (meaning Suzanne), and in the morning, I can “borrow him some.”

I don’t know what he is going to do, all I know is that we’re not going to finance a trip to the fetish priest. I feel bad for Emmanuel because this is his only brother, and he seems to be the only one in the family that ever has any money (or a job), and Vida and him are trying so hard to save money to buy a container.

[Emmanuel and his Mother in happier times, though you couldn’t tell it from their “smiles”]
It has been their dream from years to buy a container, a sort of large box from which people sell from. Talk to street traders, and their dream is always to buy a container, so they can locate, so they won’t have to carry it all around on their heads, or so they can stock more merchandise. The cost is about 5-6 million cedis, half a year’s salary, and each time they have saved up 2 or 3 million, someone gets sick, or needs school fees, or dies, and whatever they have saved is asked for, given, and never seen again. The last time it was Emmanuel’s mother, when neither her husband, nor his brother, nor really anybody in the village or extended family had the money to take her to the hospital, and she lay literally dying at in her house in constant pain. So, Emmanuel takes a TroTro home with all they have saved, and saves the day.

So I feel bad, knowing that if he does this thing, it will again drain their life savings, and there is, for him, really no option of saying no, or that they don’t have it, which was, if I heard right, Emmanuel’s first response, to which his mother said, “You are a wicked son, not to bring money to save your brother,” except that the word brother comes out more like broder, because there is no “th” in the local languages.

God is so good, as they say here. Emmanuel took a TroTro home over the week-end and was able to convince his family and brother to go to a clinic where the prescription he received was the same as what Dr. Ju had prescribed (giving both creditability). Emmanuel bought and paid for the medicine, and his brother reports that when he takes the medicine he does not “hear” he pain. Today, one week later, he is back to normal. While he was back at the village, Emmanuel also checked his brother into a Christian community called “The Twelve Apostles” but as I learned this morning, he had to deposit ¢400,000 to buy sacrifices, so I’m not sure his brother is receiving the sort of Christian counseling I might have hoped for.

Still God has used this in Emmanuel’s life, revealing a part of his life he has not entirely given over to God. I think about this myself, wondering what parts of my life I have not given over and would entrust to the obrunie equivalent to the fetish priest.

[Vida’s Grandmother]
In a way, I’m glad that we did not have the money to loan Emmanuel, and I think he was relived too, because he had to ask for it. For a few days it looks like their life-savings is safe, but then Vida’s aunt dies, and now all that they have worked so hard for and saved, will be devoted to that cause. It’s a cycle I’ve seen repeated now several times, and each time it breaks my heart.

I want to help, and perhaps the best way I can, is not to, or at least not to help too much. Emmanuel, in one of his stronger moments asked me to never loan him, nor any of the guards more than ¢100,000 at one time. He said this the week before he came asking for ¢800,000, and then sheepishly said, “I know I told you never to loan us ‘dis money, but…”

[These kids in Ayem are not at school]
We could loan Stephen the school fees, we could even give him the money, but then where does it end? I mean Emmanuel has school fees, and so does Daniel, and in the end, I wonder who we are really helping. Welcome to Africa.

[These kids are in school->]
and the difference is
school fees.

[1] Maranz, David, African Friends and Money Matters, p 145-149
[2] Burnett, David, World of the Spirits: A Christian Perspective on Traditional and Folk Religions, p47-50

Monday, April 23, 2007

Fulbright is Renewed! (by Suzanne)

This may come to a surprise to some of you, since you probably didn’t know we had applied for a renewal. But, we did, and it was granted! We will return to the States this summer for about 60 days for some time with friends and family, and to lease our house again (and this time we’ll likely have to really move out of it – right now it is leased to the Pastor who took over at Foundation, Russell and Dianne, who leased it mostly furnished, which was great!). We will return to Ghana in mid-August for another 10-month Fulbright.

We decided to apply for a renewal for several reasons. First, as it turned out, was the family. Last fall, as we all found that we actually liked it here(!), there started the little jokes. When someone would say something about, “when we go back…” then one of us would pipe up, “well, IF we go back…”. After this went on some weeks, I mentioned to Steve that they did say something in the Fulbright Orientation in June about applying to renew, but there was no guarantee and you had to apply by October. The jokes about “if we go back” continued and so in mid-October I enquired with the embassy, hypothetically, about renewing. The application needed to come from Ashesi, and so I mentioned it to Patrick and Nana (Dean of Academics) and they were enthusiastic, and so they drafted a letter to apply for my renewal. At the time, as I look back on it now, it was still “the honeymoon” period. I was teaching and enjoying it, but I still had not figured out, really, the ins and outs of Ashesi. I asked my embassy contact here about the chances of renewal and he was noncommittal. “Washington likes to spread the money around,” he said, “but we will make a good case for you to stay.” That was it – we wouldn’t find out until March, and wouldn’t really here anything or talk about it until then – just a back of the mind, “I wonder…”. The closer and closer March got, the more and more I couldn’t imagine going back to resume life in Salado and Georgetown and Temple, Texas. Not that we won’t – when the renewal is done June 2008 we will do just that. But, as March got closer and closer, and Ashesi’s needs got clearer and clearer to me, I found myself really hoping we would stay. Also, it was clear to me that Steve wasn’t ready to go back. The 7 months so far had been wonderful for him, in many ways he was “the old Steve”, but he didn’t yet know what “the old Steve” was supposed to do with the rest of his life. I also knew that my Mom and sister would be sad, and my department at Southwestern, so it was with real mixed emotions that I found out, some 5 months later, that yes, the renewal was granted. Folks at Ashesi were quite enthusiastically congratulatory, which was been very nice. From the reaction of the PAS (Public Affairs Section of the American Embassy here), I take it that renewals are not that common. Perhaps its just because not many people apply (I must say, the reaction of the other Fulbrighters here, mostly students, tends to be, “you want to stay another year??”) . Yes, I do, But, I do miss my family and friends and colleagues as well.

[pathway, with steps leading up to Kakum]
Just as we found out about the renewal, we started talking about making our plane reservations to return to the States (either for the summer or for good) and I found myself really looking forward to stepping off the plane, back to “civilization”. And then, the new “load shedding exercise” schedule was announced. Since September 2006, except for holidays (Christmas-New Years and then Ghana’s 50th) all of Ghana has been experiencing scheduled power outages – ranging from 12 hours every 5 days to 12 hours every 3 days. The new schedule is 12 hours every other day – that’s 25% of the time, folks. It alternates day and evening – daytimes are bad for me since I teach around noon everyday and although Ashesi has a generator, there is no air conditioning when the “light is off” so it’s HOT to teach and the students are lifeless (and one of the things I really enjoy about teaching here is the fun classroom environment). Also, my office seems to be one of the hotter rooms on light-off days, so in the afternoons I just wilt. My brain is just too hot to think - I don’t get as much work done and I am (I admit it) cranky. Evenings are bad since sleeping without a fan is, well, HOT. And so we don’t sleep well either.

[We stayed up late one night to watch a lunar eclipse]
We now have a generator, which is GREAT. It is borrowed from some missionary friends, the Mozley’s, who got a bigger one. But, it’s LOUD, and expensive to run (about $18 for a 12 hour period, if we ran it the whole time), and Steve and Grace particularly don’t like to run it all night because of the noise (I think Fox and I prefer having the fans over the noise, and Anna is indifferent). So most light-off nights we compromise and run the generator until about midnight, when Steve asks the guard to turn it off. The first night we had the generator Fox and Grace were particularly happy since they had a bunch of math homework and were complaining that it seemed whenever they had a BUNCH of math homework it was light-out and they had to do it by candlelight. Steve hadn’t told them that we got the generator hooked up (we actually had it for some weeks before we finally got someone out to hook it up for us – turns out it was expensive to hook up, mostly due to the materials – the wiring and switch) so Steve went out and started it and the lights and fan came on to a household of Buchele kids cheering. Unfortunately, it won’t power an AC unit (oh well – we’re very happy with lights and fans), or microwave, or washer. Also unfortunately, perhaps more so, it won’t power our water pump – so if the water is out too – no water. It ALMOST has the power – it will actually run the water pump a few seconds before the breaker is thrown and it shuts off. We have tried going around and turning off EVERYTHING in the house (which is easy, since all the power outlets have switches), to no avail. We’ve had one day so far with no light AND no water – hopefully we won’t have too many of those. Unfortunately it was when Steve’s sister Beth was visiting – her last day, actually. She took a “bucket shower” before we drove her to the airport – I do believe she was not too sad to leave… (although we did have a great trip, and she was a trooper with the heat, especially considering she hails from Wisconsin these days).
[Beth and her new friend Joesph outside his clinic]

[Suzanne & Fox frosting muffins for a class bake sale on a light out night]
And lately, the every-other day light out for 12 hours has escalated, to include unscheduled light outs in-between! As if every-other day wasn’t bad enough, it’s essentially every day, for anywhere from a few hours to 12. It is now officially called “The Energy Crisis”. And things do not look like they will improve anytime soon. The only long-term project commencing soon is to build another dam that will supply about 10% of current needs a drop in the bucket of long-term needs), and will complete in 2011. Nuclear energy is being touted as what the country needs, and the gov’t even says that is another long term plan. Nuclear energy, in a country where you can dash your way around just about any rule or regulation. Yikes. From what I have read, the energy crisis is a two-fold problem of supply and demand – supply is currently low due to low rainfall (and, global warming does not bode will for big improvement in that area), and demand due to the increasing development in the country. Current use is something like 7 billion KiloWatts per year, and due to development (well, or not if there’s no power) they expect demand to push 13 billion KiloWatts by 2020. The only other feasible option I’ve heard of is gas-powered plants, which may become possible after the completion of the trans-west-African gas pipeline, but again, some time out. So, it seems that we’ve just signed up for another year of living in a tropical climate with not much power. What were we thinking??

[The Jernigan Family]
By the way, there are plenty of places around Ghana that haven’t had water in MONTHS and our missionary friends the Jernigan’s haven’t had power, or if they have had it, it has been low voltage, too low to be useful out at Lake Bosentwi in 4 weeks. And then there are the scores of Ghanaians who can’t afford power anyway. So, all in all, we are very fortunate. Really. But, juxtaposed against ASKING to stay and having it be granted, just as I was letting myself think about stepping off that plane in NYC, well…. In addition, my department at Southwestern was not particularly happy with the news, nor was my Mom or sister. And, Steve decided to “give up Foundation” since they needed to know about his appointment there for next year before we actually found out about the renewal, and that also caused a bit of sadness. And then Grace’s latest illness with another hospital trip, followed by me getting the same thing the next day. I can tell you, when you have had food poisoning there is real, instinctive, incentive to get away and stay from the source of the poisoning. So, … it is all bittersweet.

[Suzanne and her Ashesi Kids]

But, when I see all that I can help do over next year at Ashesi, I am excited. Last week the Honour Council steering committee started meeting – we are hoping to draft an Honour Code for Ashesi before classes let out this spring, and perhaps institute it beginning in August. I also helped draft the mandate, policies, membership, etc. for a new Academic committee at Ashesi – analogous to the Academic Affairs Council at Southwestern, for any Southwestern readers. And, I continue to try out new ideas in my head about all kinds of different aspects of Ashesi, and also how I can stay in contact with them after I depart.

[CIEE Students]
I have enjoyed getting to know the CIEE (study abroad) students at Ashesi, and am looking for ways in which I could possibly bring Southwestern students to Ashesi for study abroad and/or service learning-type experiences. I am hoping to feel like I have more closure when we do go back in June 2008 – instead of bouncing around various brainstormed ideas and not being sure what exactly takes hold, if I left for good in June 2007, I think that by staying another year, I can feel that I have followed through some concrete implementations of the ideas (of many) that make sense for Ashesi. Right now it feels that I have just begun to figure out how I can be of real service. Ashesi really is an incredible place with an impressive, and I think achievable, mission, and I am so happy to be a part of it for this slice of its life.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Vehicle Registration, Ghana Style

One of the adventures we got into while my sister Beth was here was buying a car. It all began, around 10am one morning when YeahYeah, stopped by, actually by following my daughters home (and scaring them…why is this strange Lebanese man following us?!), to set up a meeting at 11am to buy the Hundai, but the deal has to be in dollars.

Now, my bank doesn’t deal in dollars, at least not in the amount this car was costing, they only deal in cedis. So we withdrew a bag full of cedis, and then it was off to the Foreign Exchange Bureau, to change them back into dollars. There is something about this thing that feels criminal. Maybe it’s Fox’s black athletic bag filled with cedis, or how conspicuous we felt with this athletic bag, walking down Oxford street and in to the ForEx Bureau; or maybe it was the product of an over-active imagination.

Buying a car takes a large athletic bad filled with cedis; but as we leave the FoxEx Bureau the money (in dollars), all fits in my pocket. I meet YeahYeah’s friend, Estaban, who is a chain smoker, and owner of the car we’re going to buy, and together we go to his house. As I hop in the car, I’m praying this goes well.

Then it was off to DMVL, Department of Motor Vehicle Licensing, where I had been once before to have the Patrol inspected, but this time we go to a different office, by passing reception, the hall monitor, and knocking twice behind door number 5, and entering.

Let me introduce The Cast:
BigMan– the DMV official with the big office, and multiple phones and controls the remote to the AirCon.
Esteban – the Lebanese man I am buying the car from
BigWoman - a low level official who serves BigMan
PictureGluer – guess what he does?

BigMan’s office is an average office, deeply air conditioned, which I really appreciated. Knock twice and entering, BigMan barely looks up. The room is filled with expectant people. He motions to us to take a seat and we wait as the room empties, then fills again with the same people, then empties. Soon we will be some of those moving, but for now we wait.

Then it was our turn. There wasn’t a queue that I could see, he just motioned Estaban over, but he didn’t have the right paperwork. So he called in BigWoman, a typical Ghanaian woman, the kind you could say “I admire your stature,” about, meaning she filled out her dress well, really too well for American standards, but here still the image of perfection. She takes our information and comes back with the created missing form. Esteban dashed her ¢100,000. This was the first of many that day and it seemed that in each step of the process if things slowed down, someone needed a dash to get things going again.

[Inspection Stickers]
BigWoman takes us out to the car, to pay for the inspection, and before leaving BigMan’s office, I see Estaban dash him a wad of bills, roughly ¢300,000 I learn later. Outside BigWoman oversees the headlight alignment “inspection” and another dash slips by, and the car passes. Now we’re back inside in BigMan’s office, waiting for a signature, and then its off to go see PictureGluer.

[Example of PictureGluer’s Work]
The job description of PictureGluer is, by all I can see, to cut passport size pictures to the right size and glue them to various documents. The room has three other desks, and many bookcases, all stacked horizontally 20 to 30 high with aging bound notebooks. I glace at one sitting on an empty desk dating from September 1999. PictureGluer’s desk is covered with papers that look just like mine, and each time he lays my form aside, I fear it getting lost. In fact I do loose sight of it for a few minutes, but then it mystically appears, and that’s when he glues both my picture and Estaban’s, right next to where it said Name and Address for the former and new owners. We slip PictureGluer ¢40,000. Then its back to BigMan, and we wait around, wait while he listens to the football commentary, from yesterday’s Ghana-Togo game. The process has stalled. We wait.

Estaban asks my line of work. He is in the jewelry business, and we talk about a particular well known Lebanese jewelry maker. Yes he knows him. When he learns I’m a pastor, things get interesting. He tells me this amazing near-death story from when he was shot in Lebanon. He speaks in whispers thought there is no one else in the office. Estaban notices that things have stalled and motions for me to dash BigMan something. We’ve talked about it outside, and I have the wad ‘o bills ready to get things going again. We thought we were waiting for something, a form, or signature, but the something turns out to be a dash. So I thank BigMan for helping us, and slip him ¢300,000. He accepts it with his left hand, a big no, no in Ghana.

The Left Hand
Culturally, the left had is the one they use, well instead of toilet paper, and the one you’re not supposed to use for anything relationally. Its use is an insult. We’ve been in Ghana long enough to learn not to wave with it, accepting something in it, or really use it at all. So here I am handing him this bribe with my right hand, and he accepts, with his left. I sit down, feeling offended. Sarah, our Fulbright daughter says that maybe he knew what he was doing was dirty, and so the left hand was the correct hand to receive it. All I know is that by the time I’m back in my seat, the process is moving again.

Now its time to go back to see PictureGluer again, and Estaban leaves me to handle this all on my own while he goes out for a smoke. We’ve shifted from Vehicle Transfer to Ghana driver’s license, and this visit to PictureGluer is to attach my picture to the driver’s license application. Seeing me he says, “I’m feeling very tired today, it is late.” I wish I had dashed him more earlier. “Why don’t you come back Monday…” he says. I say “Ah” I say, the sort of surprised way Ghanaians say it when they are joking around. “Won’t you just look at my forms?” I say as I hand him two pictures and the form they need glued to. I wonder if maybe I could do it, I mean after all, how hard is it to trim pictures and glue them to a form. Under the form is another ¢40,000. Suddenly he acts more alert, as he is trimming the picture and gluing it to the form. This time, I have to sign in three places where the carbon paper would normally be, but isn’t. Maybe carbon paper is in his desk somewhere, or covered up by all the 20s he’s received.

PictureGluer takes me to the next office personally, and there I wait, and wait, and wait. We’ve been there since 11am, and its well past three, and I decide I can do this later. We go see BigMan once more, and he signs a bunch of forms, and oddly no money changes hands. I offer to drive Estaban back to his house, in my car, and he accepts. I still have not paid him. I’ve tried maybe three or four times, but he says no, I trust you. Fine, I think, but I’m not sure I trust myself to not lose it, and would just as soon have it in his hands.

I’m thinking we’ll just go in his house, I’ll hand him the money and the deal will be done and I can go help Grace get to the airport for her 10 day snowboarding trip, but no, he gathers bottles together and sends out for cokes. Twenty minutes later cokes and peanuts arrive and we’ve had a nice chat, but I’m ready to leave.

“Can I give you this now?” motioning to the envelope of bills I’ve been trying to give him all day.
“Ok, yes,” he says. He counts it and I’m relieved its all there. By now Grace is already on the way to the airport, and I won’t get to say good-bye, but when she comes back, I know we’ll pick her up in our new car.

I’ve spoken to a few people about what happened that day and mostly the reaction is that the dashing shortened a two week process into several hours. Getting a Ghana driver’s license used to take months, but I hear the process has also been shortened, especially if you let BigMan call you his wife (which I figure wouldn’t work for me).

Anyway, now we’re official. I have a temporary Ghanaian Driver’s License, and the car is in our name. Inside it, you’ll find the official stickers to prove its registered and insured, a small fire extinguisher, and emergency triangle (both potential police income generators if you’re stopped without them). Now all we’re waiting for is a new motor.

For days after the whole ordeal I still feel dirty, like I’d cheated the system, and hurt Ghana. Corruption is a huge problem in Ghana, and we hear from friends that its price is regularly built into the cost of doing business here, which is not unusual in developing countries, only in Ghana it ads some 60-80% to the cost. In the East, by comparison, they say it only adds 20-30%. It’s the first time in my life I’ve out and out bribed someone, and I don’t like how it makes me feel. All the while I thought of Suzanne, how she signed a document saying she would not pay bribes unless her life was in danger, but I didn’t sign such a document. I’m a pastor, and we’re supposed to know better. So I guess I've learned something about myself, and put in the same situation, I'm already excited to see just what it was.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Oh those quirky Ghanaian Ways, Volume I

Everyone is starting to feel better, and we can get back to the quirkiness that we’ve learned to love about Ghana. I know we’ve been talking a lot about Ghana’s Load Shedding Exercise, and so I thought for a change I’d talk about something else, like where the power ends up, in our plugs and outlets.
Ghana has a mostly universal plug system, it could be the most universal thing about the whole country, and that’s what makes it so quirky, because almost none of the appliances come fitted with plugs that naturally fit into their outlets.

[standard outlet, see the nice switch on the side to turn the power off to the plug]

There are primarily two types of power outlets here, and like in the states the less common one is reserved for the heavy load appliances like AirCon units, washer and dryers. But unlike the states the plugs are anything but standard, and even more quirky is that none of them actually fit the outlets, not without defeating the ground, or using an adapter, or as I did a few months ago, completely whacking off the plugs, and replacing them with ones that were made to fit Ghana’s outlets. Call it what you want, I call it quirky.

[Here is a collection of plugs that didn't fit the outlets and got "wacked" off ]

[Here is the plug I replaced them with]

[This is a standard adapter, which works OK, but you do have to giggle it and watch for the spark, which means it connected]

All in all the plugs work pretty well, except the grounds. Things are not well grounded, which often means a little shock from time to time.

The Marriage Proposal
Both Sarah (our Fulbright daughter) and Grace (our actual daughter), and for that matter any single living breathing obrunie female with a pulse will receive “plenty-plenty” marriage proposals from taxi drivers. Though most women get used to it, those first few months can be quite upsetting, with all these Ghanaian men asking for your hand. The interaction usually goes something like this:

Sarah flags down a taxi. She negotiates a price, and then climbs in. The cab takes off and before it is even half way to its destination, the driver confesses his love for her, and says “I will marry you.”

Sarah’s possible replies –
  • You are number 429, when I get back to numbers 1 to 428, I will let you know. We have a friend who actually keeps count of the number of marriage proposals she receives, and uses this line with them.

  • But who will pound your fufu? This is usually answered with either “as for me, I will teach you,” or “I will cook.”

  • Where will you find the money for all the cows? Part of the family marriage negotiation require the groom to supply a number of cattle, though in Accra, cash is also acceptable. This practice is called buying her pride.

    [The Marriage Proposal Machine]
Right before Christmas, when Sarah was leaving our house for the airport, I flagged down a taxi, negotiated the price, and then warned the driver to not to propose to Sarah, saying “I don’t want to hear about you asking this girl to marry you. As for this one, she has already a boyfriend in US, she can not be yours.” Apparently, they laughed and laughed all the way to the airport about her over protective father but he didn’t propose to her either.

We are told the marriage proposal is a complement, an offer of friendship, and not to be taken literally, but as the hope of an open-ended relationship that does not exclude the possibility of a deeper relationship developing.[1] Yeah, right.

Steve and his Many Wives
Along those same lines, it seems I have collected several wives. At the end of the street is my vegetable seller whom I visit most every day. In fact if they see me riding by and I don’t greet them, she and the fabric seller in the next stall will be offended, and won’t speak to me for a whole day. So I have to always stop and we exchange greetings. Anyway, it wasn’t long after I started buying almost all of our vegetables from her that the fabric seller started calling her my wife. Now it is a part of our daily routine, and yesterday I’m buying fried plantain for lunch, and trying to coax the recipe out of the old lady when who walks up behind me shouting “My Husband, Where have you been?”

“Ah,” I say, “I am just here, and who is watching our store?
“Dat udder lady,” the second wife says, “da one you know.”
Now the plantain seller jumps in “So you call this man out to me, just so I know he is your husband,” except that she holds out the word “your” very long, and if to bring emphasis to it.
On and on the exchange goes, and when she has continued on her journey, I get back to coaxing out the recipe for this particular fried plantain recipe called Kellie Willie.
Wife number two is Muslim, and so I hardly ever see her with her head uncovered. Sometimes when we’re driving by, I’ll see her in the fabric seller’s booth with the fabrics drawn, and a mat on the ground praying toward Mecca.
[The Second Wife…My Vegetable Seller]

Little does she know, but I have a third wife. She is a bagger at the obrunie market where I buy meat and household items. She always likes to take my bags out to the car, or in many cases just outside the door to my bike, laughing the saddle bag baskets on back. Last week I was there getting a chicken when a complete stranger comes up to me and say, “Your wife, she has not come today, so I will carry your bags.” Actually, they don’t say bags, they say rubbers (a plastic bag is called a rubber), but in the context of this paragraph, I figure it best to use bag. Seems the schedule has changed and my third wife only works afternoons, so I don’t see her as much, or as they say, “I have come to meet her absence,” so I send her my greeting.

OK, maybe this has nothing to do with Ghana, but the bananas here are wonderful, especially the green ones. Now you would expect that the bananas on the left would be the tasty ones, after all these yellow ones are called foreign (or obrunie) bananas, even though they are grown locally. And you would think that the ones of the right, the green ones, would taste starchy. WRONG. The foreign (yellow) bananas are the starchy, tasteless ones and the green ones, called local bananas, turn out to be the sweet ones. In fact they never turn yellow, but go from green to spotty brown and black within days. You can tell the clientele by the type of bananas they sell along the road side, yellow ones, its an obrunie crowd, green ones, is for locals.

[1] A North American’s Guide to Ghanaian English, 1995, Fr. Joh P. Kirby, p87

Thursday, April 12, 2007

The Post Easter Blues

(or there will be weeks like this)

When I was a pastor, I always tried to give staff the week off after Easter. They had worked hard all Lent, and besides there was that post-Easter Blues, where everything that could go wrong often did. I’d wondered if living in a country that by and large escapes the liturgical seasons would still lead me to experience the post-Easter blues. In a word: YES.

It began on Tuesday, which really felt like Monday to most of Ghana, since Easter Monday is a national holiday and Ghanaians flock to the beaches. So on Tuesday everyone was tired, and cranky, including my kids who had been off the week before, and now were out of bed at 6am and off to school at 7:30 for the first time in 10 days (Easter break).

Anna had been complaining of an ear ache that felt to her more like fire-ant bites, and when Suzanne looked in that ear with our handy ear scope, she saw something unusual and thought bug, but an afternoon trip to the Ear Nose and Throat doctor revealed it to be only an outer ear infection. So no digging in the ear pulling out this wiggling thing like from one of the Star Trek movies.

That evening, Grace begins feeling awful, the “she ate something” thing, so we started her on antibiotics and send her to bed. Next morning she is no better so we continue her meds and keep her home, and about 10am she gets up to answer nature’s call, and collapses. Dad wasn’t quick enough to catch her from smashing her head into the door frame. So it was another trip to another doctor, this time to the hospital where she had been a patient last Thanksgiving with Malaria.
Along the way Grace asks, “Dad, where are we going?”
“To the hospital,” I say.
“Really,” she says, “who’s sick?” OK, so she was really out of it at that point, delirious with fever, feeling the shivers, freezing. I actually turned the heat on in the car, and it was already 90. Two hours later we learn the cause, Food Poisoning, though we’re not sure of the source. Thankfully they tanked her up on IV fluids and shots of fever reducer and more powerful antibiotic, and sent us home. She was not looking forward to another hospital admission.

Fox has been under the weather too, which is unusual for him as he’s usually our most healthy one, but he is battling the same cold that Suzanne and I caught from Anna about three weeks ago. This was our first round of the African Common Cold, known here as the flu. Yuck.
Then today (Thursday) Suzanne woke up feeling very sick, like she "ate something" and we realize that maybe these are not isolated events, but connected to something we're still eating, a problem most likely caused by frequent light outs and prolonged periods of defrosting the fridge cause by them.

There is something about being so sick so far from home that clarifies the situation here. Though we have received excellent emergency health care here, we are still a long way from critical care. Around our Thanksgiving trip, I was trying the power of positive imaging with Grace when she was feeling so awful from malaria, asking, “if you could be anywhere in the world right now, where would you be?” I’m thinking she will say a beach, or a moss lined creek somewhere in the mountains, somewhere peaceful, but she says: “In a really good American hospital.”

As Easter break began, we received news of a car full of junior and seniors from the kids’ school coming back from the beach when their driver lost control of the vehicle, resulting in several of them being airlifted to London. One is still in a coma. This serves as a reminder that Ghana is a bad place to be when you need critical care, especially in the outlying areas. In the States they talk about the 90 minute critical care window, where in a car crash, you have 90 minutes before things get really critical. In a city where to get police response you usually have to go pick them up at the station, an ambulance is almost unheard of. I have visions of people having to flag down a taxi or trotro, begging with them (and most likely bargaining) to get a ride to the nearest hospital. It could be hours away, with no emergency care along the way.

News also reached us of the death of Dick Ranes, and our hearts are broken for Deanna and her family. Add this to the list of things that make us feel very far away. I remember talking to Dick because he was the one that always answered the phone. This was when Deanna was my Lay Leader, and sometimes I needed to run something by her. Dick would pick-up, and we’d talk about five minutes, maybe about woodworking, I don’t know, and then he’d say, “So did you want to talk to ole what’s her name?” He was a good Catholic boy, whom Deanna said would never leave the church, meaning join the church and become a United Methodist. At first he came to Foundation biannually, when Deanna was preaching (though I’m sure he had heard the sermon many times) then quarterly, and then monthly, and over the last year or so of my pastorate there, most Sundays. Sometimes he would come alone, and it was one of those Sundays when he spoke to me about joining the church. I think it was in the months leading up to Mother’s Day, but he didn’t want Deanna to know, it would be his surprise. It was. There we were at the end of the service, I think, and Deanna was wearing the beautiful corsage that Dick always remembered to get her for Mother’s Day, and I said to him, “So are we going to do this thing?” or something profound like that. “You bet,” he said, and I invited them forward and really flubbed the whole joining thing, saying this was Dick’s gift to Deanna, and she saved the day by telling me, “I never wanted Dick to join a church because I wanted him to, I wanted him to join because he wanted to.”

I don’t know the events that lead up to Dick taking his own life, I wish, like I’m sure so many others do, that we could have been there for him. I remember visiting him in the hospital in my early years at Foundation, when he would be “running a quart low,” as he would say. I guess it was his blood pressure; all I knew is that he said he needed to be topped off. Dick always had the good manners to check in when I already had someone from the church in the hospital so I could combine the trips!

I would have liked to see him one more time, or hear him say, “Do you want to talk to ole what’s her name?” or see some of the amazing trains he built in that workshop, but I know it won’t happen. I know that even being so far away, my task is clear.

Accept what happened.
Forgive Dick.
And to leave it to God and Dick as to why he did it.
And pray for those left behind.

I guess of the four, praying will come the most easily, and for now, it is enough. God Speed Dick Ranes, I am glad to have known you, and wish I could have known you better, but knowing Deanna so well, I feel I know you, because she loved you so. God Speed.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007


Lately I’ve been feeling homesick. It may be the combination of many things, my sister Beth’s 10 day visit, us finally buying a car, or the news of staying another year finally sinking in, the wear and tear this latest version of the load shedding exercise is having on us. But there was something about this week, especially this today, that the homesickness finally hit. I’d wondered when it would hit, and even sometimes, if.

I’ve read about missionaries fighting periods of homesickness, sometimes sparked by a mission team from home, or events happening beyond their influence, and over the months, I’ve watched for the same in my family. When one or more started showing the signs, I’d be sure to add the comfort foods from home for a few meals, buying the more expensive imported food, hoping to stave off, at least for a while, the loneliness, and usually it worked…but this time it was different, it was me.

So we went to Ryan’s Irish Pub for some great Western food, and later to Champs, a local sports bar modeled after what people here think an American Sports bars must be like, sort of like Olive Garden is modeled after what people think an Italian Restaurant must be like. It was fun to go to those places, to be transported at least for an hour or more to things familiar, where the food arrived in a reasonable amount of time, was easily identifiable, the AirCon was cold, and the power didn’t go out. But then we went back to our house and, the light was out.

New Load Shedding Schedule
Ghana is on a new load shedding program where every other day we lose power for 12 hours, alternating between all day and all night. So, in case that hasn’t sunk in, that’s 12 hours every other day: 25% of the time. Usually, the day isn’t such a big deal except last week, when Beth was visiting, we went on a trip to Kakum, the canopy walk in a rainforest.

[Here are pictures from the canopy walk at Kakum]

These are just the kind of knots that hold the whole thing together! Our guide told us the ropes are replaced every six months.

We used our friend’s, the Ikes, car to drive to Kakum, and long the way we tried to stop and buy petrol (gasoline). Since we haven’t had a car, and this load shedding during the day is relativity new, the thought that gas stations could be open but still not be able to pump gas (because the pumps are electric) had never occurred to us. So here we are, needing gas, and station after station can’t sell us any because of the “light-off”. Our friends tell us that Load Shedding is usual, it hasn’t been this bad since 1994, but for us this is all we know of Ghana. It started the month after we arrived.

Then we get back to our house, and the next day it is light off, except that the automatic pump cutoff isn’t working and so in addition to not having power, there is no water, because there is not power enough to pump the water up to the tank, and the tank is empty. We have water, but it won’t flow into the house. We have a generator, but it isn’t powerful enough to power the pump. We are so much better off than most, but the reality is, it still it is still hard living, but not the hardest. We have friends who have been without water since October (meaning the only water they have is the water they have paid to be trucked out to there house), so things are not that bad, I mean after all we still have water to take bucket showers, and washing cloths can wait for another day, but this week it was almost too much. And, we wonder, “Just why did we ask to stay another year?”

This is our third major load shedding schedule, and the most invasive. Back in September it was every five days, then every three days alternating between day and night. In the weeks leading up to 50th celebration, the papers has been full of the hopeful promise that the load shedding exercise would end soon and forever. But there was little excitement for it, and at the time I wondered why. In fact Load Shedding did end (mostly) for 15 days around the 50th, but then the reality caught up with the press, and we went back to the old schedule, and now this new one.

Load Shedding was supposed to end because the energy contracts that had been providing energy to the surrounding countries has been sold to Nigeria. Load Shedding was supposed to end because there were new power plants coming on line that would supply the difference needed, Load Shedding was supposed to end because ValCo (the big Aluminum manufacturing plant) had reduced its power demands. But then Load Shedding didn’t end and instead, got worse. I must admit, I took it hard, not so much because of light out as much as broken hope. The government had said it would end, and we had been mislead. I was learning what perhaps most Africans already know, and maybe that is why it is so hard to be hopeful here.

Beth’s Visit
We had a wonderful visit from my senior sister Beth who returned after being here 37 years ago, when she was 19 and did her first year of university here. It was an interesting dialog for us, discovering what she remembered, taking her back to places that were so important to us then. She vocalized what I had felt along, that much of Ghana feels familiar, but it is all different somehow. Having someone from home brought back memories and feelings I was not used to thinking about - maybe that is why I felt homesick. But we also realized while she was here it had been seven years since our mother unexpectedly died, and Beth so much reminds me of her.

[Beth at Volta Hall, the dorm she stayed in while attending The University of Ghana in 1968]

Buying a car.
Perhaps it was finally getting that which separates us from the lowest level of the American Bubble: a car. After doing without one for the past eight months, except in half of those we were borrowing some friend’s car while they were out of country. But since we couldn’t always rely on our friends to leave the country at our convenience, we bought a car.

[Our new car, which Fox dubbed "Smoky the Car"]

It’s a 1998 Hundai diesel, called a Galloper II (I’m pretty sure this model was never imported into the U.S.!). Maybe this is how it goes when you think that if you only had this one thing, life would be better, and if you have the misfortune to actually get that thing, you realize, well, life isn’t really all that different with that thing than it was without. That thing was the generator, and now a car, and now that we have both, we should be happy, and mostly we are, its just this week was harder than most.

Maybe its getting harder because, as news filtered through our communities that we’re not coming back for another year, we could almost feel the collective, sigh, and people giving up on us. Maybe it’s the nice emails I’ve been receiving from folks who just wanted to say good-bye, and how my ministry had touched their lives, but it all feels so final. Maybe its all these things, that and the start of rainy season.

[Stormy Clouds on the way back from Cape Coast]

Before Beth’s visit it has rained a total of three days in last nine months we had been here. But we think Beth brought the rain because since her visit it has rained seven times and they were long, hard and hopeful rains. Hopefully raining above the dam, and filling Lake Volta, and that means light.

So it is a different feeling that fills or lives lately, one of hanging on, and wondering what God will do with all this. Tonight I'm wondering if it was a bit presumptuous for us to say that staying here another year was our choice, but part of God's plan, and maybe this week has just been a gentle reminder.

Monday, April 09, 2007

Happy Easter from Ghana

[Here we are on "Palm" Sunday, standing next to the palms]

This has been a most different Holy Week for us, I mean with the exception of Tuesday, Anna and I went to the beach at least once every day. Ghanaians are funny about Tuesdays, and won’t go swimming or even fishing as it would make their water god angry. When they do go in the ocean, its just the first 20 feet or so, and usually just the teenagers (being the fearless ones). They will go in mixed groups of 10 or more, and where there are couples, you’ll see the boy hold the girl up above as they the waves crash into her, sometimes turning her around so he takes the brunt of the waves. They fear the ocean and so swimming in it is considered reckless. There is the legend of the mammy waters, these creatures of the ocean that pull young children out into the deep to claim them. You can understand why, this ocean has fierce undertow, so strong it can feel like someone is grabbing at your ankles to sucking you out into the deep.

Ghana could have some of the most beautiful beaches in the world, but they don’t. Few Ghanaians see the ocean as a resource for tourism. It is almost like the ocean happens to be there, but they don’t know what to do with them (at least by Western standards). Sure they go fishing, dump their trash in it, and Ghana even has an oil platform off shore, but the country doesn’t connect itself to the ocean.
[fishing boat]

In the seaport towns near where Suzanne grew up, most of the buildings face the ocean, almost like they were built to worship it. Towns have a coastal feel, and everything in them points you toward to ocean. But here you will see complete towns built with their backs to this beautiful ocean, almost like they were trying to ignore it. In Accra and perhaps Cape Coast (the former capital), the few buildings that do face the ocean were built to serve the obrunies, and they still don’t have it quite right.

[coastal view]
Being so far removed from the liturgical calendar, Easter just sneaked up on us this year. Over and over I heard people say they couldn’t believe it was Easter. There wasn’t the long procession of Lent, the somber hymns, or the reflective silence to prepare us. I wonder if maybe it isn’t like this for most people, but I noticed it this year because I’m not part of the drama, I’m just with the rest of the people watching it. So this Easter reaches us with a grand ambivalence. I’m not excited by it, nor exhausted by the grueling holy week schedule with the extra services, and then six hours of liturgy on Easter morning. I used to joke that that service ought to begin with a starter’s pistol because it was for us, the Super Bowl, the biggest Sunday of the year.

But here there is none of that, it is a regular Sunday, which is to say that it is special in its own way. Our church won’t count the number of people, and there will be only one service of worship, and it will be packed, like it is every Sunday. Officially worship starts at 10:15 with a 15 minute prayer service with the room mostly empty. By the time we hear Amen, every seat is taken, and so are the five or six rows of plastic chairs outside in back, which are in full sun. The joke is what do you call a TroTro when every seat is taken? Half full. Same could be said for worship.

After Easter we go to our missionary friends the Kellys for Easter Lunch, conversation and an Easter Egg Hunt. Though our kids are getting too old for this, they still enjoy it, and it is fun to hide the eggs and see their excitement at finding them. At 6:15 their light goes out and their neighborhood, like our, fills with the sound of generators. Happy Easter from Ghana!