The Buchele Adventure

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

Sunday, September 30, 2007

The Week Everything Changed (by Suzanne)

[click here to read post on Xanga]

Blogger is funny sometimes about not letting you upload pictures if the bandwidth is too slow, Xanga, however doesn't seem to mind. Here is the text of the post sans pictures.

The Week Everything Changed
It is funny how you anticipate life is going to go one way, and then it transitions into something entirely different. Welcome to Ghana—our second year.

Though we didn’t know it at the time, the transition started late last spring, when I started a “research group” with some undergraduates at Ashesi, investigating the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) project, launched out of the MIT Media Lab in 2005. Perhaps you’ve heard of it, it was in the news last week announcing their “Give 1, Get 1” program, in which residents of the U.S. and Canada could buy one laptop for a child in a developing country and get one to keep (otherwise, the laptops are sold only to governments). [Give 1, Get 1]. I won’t go into great detail here, but OLPC’s goal is to provide educational opportunity for children in developing countries by providing internet-connected laptops with educational content, books, games, and tools for developing their intellectual abilities, should they so choose. Current pilot projects in several countries around the world show that children do choose – that children are drawn to the machine, as you might imagine, since in many cases it’s the most exciting thing they have ever seen. [click here for more info] I spent my first 1 ½ weeks back in Ghana in August writing a paper about OLPC for a technology conference in Ghana in December. I sent it to the OLPC representative I had been emailing with, since he was coming to Ghana and I thought especially the Ghana context of the paper might be helpful to him.
[picture of XO, from Wikipedia]
[LHS: Nana]

About the same time, I learned of the illness of Ashesi University’s Dean of Academic Affairs, Dr. Nana Apt. Nana is a wonderful person, scholar, and leader, and I admire her tremendously. She was the co-founder of A College For Ama (CoFA), an NGO that started this summer with a camp that brought 30 girls from very poor districts in Ghana for two weeks of enrichment, especially in health, mathematics, and English. Due to the Fulbright requirement that I be in the States for 60 days this summer, I had to miss all but the last day of the camp, but what I saw was amazing (most of these girls, drawn from schools that have a 0% passing rate from Junior Secondary School (Junior High) to Senior Secondary School (Senior High), had never even seen a toilet before). Back to Nana: I discovered just as CoFA was ending and Ashesi’s semester was beginning, of her illness that would require to her be out of the country for some months, beginning as soon as she could get things tied up. And, she asked, would I help with the responsibilities she would leave behind. Yes, of course I would, I’d be happy to. A week later it was announced that I was Acting Dean of Academic Affairs at Ashesi University (!). Thankfully, they included me in an “apprentice role” for a few weeks while Nana was still in the country. She left last week, so now I’m it! Of course, I have Ashesi’s President Patrick, Dean of Students Adzo, and Acting Registrar and Dean of Admissions Carol to rely on.
[picture of this year’s CoFA]

As if this wasn’t enough, I think God decided it was really time for me to step up to the plate. Matt from OLPC scheduled a week in Ghana two weeks ago, to begin the process of investigating Ghana’s “expression of interest.” An expression of interest can mean anything from they want to hear more about it, to, we’re ready to sign on. Matt decided to include me in the meetings from the start, and I was able to answer the more technical questions (and help with some Ghana-isms) during the week. It started with a dinner meeting hours after he arrived Monday, and went almost non-stop through Friday. Monday evening we met with representatives from the Ministry of Finance and Education to discuss the laptop itself and plans for the week. Tuesday Matt and I were included with a team from the Ministry of Education to tour public schools outside of Accra. You see, Tuesday was “My First Day of School,” a promotion of the first day of public schools in Ghana, but more importantly, the launch of the new educational reform programme in Ghana. We toured three schools and saw so many bright and eager faces. It was thrilling to be part of. At one of the schools we met with the headmistress and teachers and gave them a demonstration of the OLPC laptop. We were with the team that included the Deputy Director General, and the Director of Early Education (Kindergarten through 2nd grades), of the Ghana Education Service.
[Picture of MATT, at First Day]

After “My First Day of School,” we grabbed a quick lunch (which in Ghana is an hour) and headed to a meeting with the Minister of Education for Ghana. Also included was the Minister of State. We also talked about the laptops, gave them a demonstration, and left them with one of the laptops. The next day, Wednesday, we met with the Minister of Finance, who was enthusiastic and happy that we were there to help bring OLPC to Ghana. We had to go to Osu Castle, the head of government, to meet with him since he was in emergency disaster meetings due to the flooding that has hit Northern Ghana. His special assistant, who by the way was a Fulbright Scholar from Ghana to the States some years ago (earning a masters degree in CS in the process), was the one who ran the whole visit for the week. I am extremely impressed with her. Wednesday evening Matt (OLPC representative) came to dinner at our busy house – we were hosting the sons of another family whose parents were both out of town for a few days. The highlight of the evening for me was Fox describing his last years’ MUN (Model United Nations) experience to Matt, who by the way also works for the UN World Food Programme, and laughing and laughing about Fox’s task to represent China in the Human Rights Committee, and all that that entailed. You had to be there. It was also our light out night, so Matt was treated to a real experience of Ghana, eating out on the screened porch, in the dark.

Thursday, exhausted from the already full week and all of us behind on work, we all took a day to catch up on our other responsibilities. It was just days before I needed to take over as “real” Acting Dean, and there was plenty for me to do at Ashesi.

Friday, however, was the big day. We were on the President’s schedule to meet with him, but it was not clear if it would really happen. So, I went to work and had just about given up hope when I got a call during the faculty meeting. “Can you get here in 20 minutes, we’re on the schedule for 12:30!” Yikes. I ran back to my office for my suit jacket, luckily Ashesi’s driver Peter was about and I told him I needed to get down to the Ministries area, and I was there in 20 minutes (no small feat for a Friday noontime traffic)! Matt and the Ministry of Finance representatives and I went together to Osu Castle where we met up with the Ministers of Education and Finance, in preparation to meet President Kufuor of Ghana!
[Picture of Osu Castle]

There were several levels of waiting rooms. We started in the large one, where there were maybe 20 people waiting. Groups were called out one by one. When it was our turn, we went through the big time security (empty purse, relinquish cell phone, metal wand passed over body) and up to the next waiting room. It was there that we heard the group before us leave the office (equiv of the oval office) and we were ushered in (by the way, the group before us included the new World Bank Country Director for Ghana). Then we entered the office, where His Excellency was standing to greet us. After greetings, we were seated, Matt next to the President and me beside him. The Minister of Finance introduced Matt, who introduced me. Since I was skipping out on the faculty meeting, Patrick told me I had to drop the Ashesi name as much as possible (J) – so when I was introduced as a “Fulbright Scholar” I ever so slightly interrupted and slipped in, “and I’m here at Ashesi University.” Well, His Excellency, knowing of both the Fulbright Program and Ashesi University, raised an eyebrow, turned to me and asked, “So, how long have you been in Ghana?” I replied, “Well, I was here all last year, and my Fulbright was renewed, so I am here again this year.” He continued, “Renewed, eh? You must like it here!” “Yes, I do, very much,” I replied. So, there’s my little interchange with THE PRESIDENT OF GHANA. After that, Matt talked about the laptop and the OLPC program, His Excellency asked some questions which both Matt and the Minister of Finance answered, and then, with full press in the room, His Excellency announced that he planned for every 1st grade student in Ghana to have a laptop. (Wow – did we just hear the President not only endorse the project, but state that he intended to disperse them to every 1st grade student in Ghana?!). After our few minutes of fanfare with the President, we left and the next group was ushered in. In the hall we were pounced on by the press, who wanted more info and took more footage of the laptop. During the commotion the Minister of Education approached me in the hallway of Osu Castle and told me he was once a Fulbright Scholar to the States as well. What an important program! We watched the TV news that night and there was a 30 second or so story about it on the two channels we saw, although apparently I was pictured on the news show I didn’t watch. Several people told me that they saw me on TV in the President’s office. Later that afternoon we went back to offices in the Ministry of Finance to debrief and lay out the next steps. Then Matt flew out, and the rest has been done by email.
[Picture of Kufour]
[Picture of Matt on TV, Suzanne is sitting just off camera]

But, next steps are happening! Ashesi and the Kofi Annan Centre for ICT Excellence here in Accra have received test laptops for us to begin experimenting with and learning. Some of us (I am still looking for funding) will fly to Cambridge, Massachusetts in early November for training on the laptops, and there will be an educational workshop at the Kofi Annan Centre in mid October, with educational specialists from OLPC coming to lead it. Then, the pilot project (50 laptops for a school in Accra) will commence, and by then, hopefully, the country agreement for OLPC in Ghana will be signed, and many thousands (50,000? 100,000?) will be arriving in mid-spring as part of the first phase of the rollout of laptops for Ghana. How exciting, to be a part of this effort!

But, one more thing I need to mention about my visit to the President’s Office. While we were there, the power went out (“the light was out”) several times. So, we were there in the President’s Office maybe 10 minutes, and the light went on and off at least 3 times. If this surprises you, well, of course, this is Ghana, and of course the light goes out all the time. But wait, this was the President’s Office. I was once at one of the fancy hotels in Accra when the light went out, and they had one of those high tech generators that constantly has a flywheel spinning (I think that’s the right terminology) so that when the light goes out, it takes maybe ½ second for the flywheel to engage and the generator to turn on. This is as opposed to the lower tech solution that us “average” rich in Ghana have: 1. Light goes out. 2. Someone notices that the light is out and goes outside to start the generator. 3. Assuming it starts (not always a given), same someone walks over to breaker box and switches it from grid to generator. 4. The light comes on. The low tech solution takes a minute, minimum. And, I’m pretty sure that the President’s Office has the lower tech solution. This actually impressed me. Clearly, he’s a busy enough guy and has the power and money to not be bothered by light outs – not even notice them if he didn’t want to. But, he chooses to deal with the light outs just like us “average” rich folk, which is in turn a taste of what the average regular person has to face – no power means no light, no fan, no refrigerator, no computer (if you owned one), etc. That is pretty impressive, if you ask me.
[picture of Pres from net, or on TV]

Steve says that Suzanne’s busyness from the states has caught up with her, but it is also exciting. The thought that keeps running through Steve’s mind is how easily we could have missed all this, if we had returned to Texas and resumed our lives. It is almost like last year was one of preparation, and now that we are back, its all happening. The strange thing is, we didn’t know any of this would happen until it did. Sometimes you just have to trust.

So, my busyness from the States has definitely caught up with me, big time. Acting Dean of Academic Affairs at Ashesi University College, and OLPC advocate and technical expert in Ghana. Oh, and that teaching thing too. Steve says, “see you in June…”

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Monday, September 24, 2007

Emmanuel's Visit

One of the first things I did when I got back was to call my friend Emmanuel, our old day guard. But his phone was out of service, as was his wife’s Vida. When we left in June, Emmanuel had been sick, and when I went to see him, he was in poor spirits, depressed because he couldn’t find work, depressed because he was sacked from our house, and the security company. He had this listless defeated spirit to him, one I had not seen in him like that before. The last thing he said to me was to send him a text from the states. I can do that, I thought.

So last week, I get a flash from a number I didn’t know. Flash is a Ghanaian thing, where you ring a friend’s cell phone, but hang up before they answer, sending the message,” call me, I’m out of units.” Usually, I don’t call back on mystery flashes, but a day earlier I ran into a friend of Emmanuel’s and asked him to get a message to him, call me, I said. The flash was Emmanuel, he had lost his phone in June, and was in town for a funeral, but would stop by sometime this week. “I’ll flash you,” he said.

On Friday an hour before the power went off (our night for the load shedding exercise), Emmanuel stops by our house. It has been raining hard for about an hour, he was soaked, but was looking great. Gone was that defeated look, he had the confidence of a successful man, assured of his future. It was great to see him standing straight, head up, proud. It seems that shortly after we left he started shoe trading business in Tackoradi, a port town in the Western Region of Ghana, where his mother’s family is from. A few years ago he and Vida had moved from Tackoradi, to Accra to find work, and a better educational system for their girls. Now he was back, but his family stayed in La.

His business is to sell shoes, fancy shoes from both men and women. He buys them wholesale in Accra, new shoes made in China, from Dubai, or the states, and takes them by TroTro to Tackoradi, and then goes around to the various markets in the area. No kidding, the first thing I noticed about him was his shoes, they are the long, pointy type of dress shoes that Ghanaian men wear.

It is for me interesting to see how our relationship is changing. He sat at our table as equals, something he would have never done as our guard. I offered him a drink, to stay for dinner, but all were declined. When Suzanne came in, from another one of her long days at Ashesi, he was excited to see her, and said, “You are looking FAT!” but he said it the way someone one who say, “You look GREAT!” I say, “Emmanuel, that is the worst thing you could ever say to an American Woman.” We know what he means, and we laugh and go off into the whole cultural thing understand of the situation. I imagine the Ghanaian woman saying, “Honey, does this dress make me look fat?” and the correct answer being, “YES?!”

[Suzanne grading papers on a light-out night. Like the cool headlamp?]

He says that in Ghana, when you tell someone they are looking thin, or even trim, it carries with it the implication that they look sickly, that’s why they have lost weight. But saying someone looks fat, means that they look healthy, and are eating well. Its not that people are actually fat, its just an expression. As he is leaving, I ask for him to take my blessing to his girls and Vida, and say, “May she always be fat,” and he says, “no, no, no!” Oh so its OK to call my wife fat, but not wish it upon yours?

It is great to see him again, and as Suzanne says, important for him for us to see that he is doing well. I asked him about how it was, the transition. Months before he was finally sacked (read about it here), Emmanuel had been moving in that direction, lacking only the courage to actually leave. Now that he is back, we both know it has been for the best.

Its always weird to return to a place where you once worked, to negotiate the relationship changes in the absence of formal set of rules between employee and employer. For us, the line between friend and boss was always blurred. He would take me on adventures, I’d teach him to drive, and together we learned so much about the other’s customs and traditions.

I told Emmanuel about his replacement, who ironically had been sacked from our house earlier that same day. Seems that on Thursday, John had somewhere else to go, and so left his post, all day. I don’t mind the guards leaving to go buy food, or run a quick errand, but on that particular morning, Suzanne and I were heading to the kids school for meeting, and I to a pastor’s conference that was starting up, leaving no one to watch the house.

Understand that we are watched constantly. Everything that we do is monitored. For example last week I was buying units for my cell phone from the Grumpy Bottle Lady (Titles are big here, and this lady earned hers, by “worrying me toooo much” about my bottles, but that is another story). So I’m buying a 17.40 cedi card and paying 18 for it and the Grumpy Bottle Lady lays into me for our week-end guard, Stephen, how his sister has not paid her back. I’m about ready to call her the Grumpy Units Lady, and wasn’t aware that she even knew where we lived since her market stand is a block and a half from our house, and everything is behind the compound walls. But here she knowing where I live, and who guards out house, its not the first time it has happened.

So you can bet that if all leave the house, and the guard isn’t there, someone is going to notice, so I stay behind. After three hours, I call the company and complain about John, and two hours later, along with a few more calls, a new guard arrives, and his supervisor. I explain it might be better if they assigned a new guard since John isn’t the sort of guard you want guarding your house, and the likelihood of him changing is small. He likes to sleep all day, and when he’s working night, so soundly that you have to yell in his ear and shake him just to get him to open the gate. Doesn’t inspire confidence. So John shows up on Friday morning saying apologizing for yesterday, and then asks leave again. After 20 minutes I learn he is going to a place that will take him all day to get to and return, and I wonder if I should ask for his uniform, and guard my own house. He wants me to let him go, which I will not do.

When Eric and I leave to run errands, he is gone, and so this time I stop by the security office and leave a friendly message, “they are worrying me too much,” that if they continue, I’ll sack the company from my house. I feel bad for John, unemployment is high here, and good jobs hard to keep. I’ve explained my expectations to John several times, but he doesn’t change. I know being a guard is the most boring job in the world, sitting all day waiting to open the gate, receive a bill, collect the paper, keep bad guys from breaking in. I know of other obrunies that have had trouble firing their employees, stories of people begging, laying prostrate before them, holding on to their legs weeping, crying, visits from the chief, and getting the whole community involved. I wonder what impact it will have on the other guards, both at my house and the neighborhood. I take each one aside and explain the reasons, and they are OK with I guess.

[Daniel, with the UT cap I gave him - which blogger won't upload]

I learn that they didn’t really like Emmanuel, and most likely were the ones who were reporting him to the office for various imagined or otherwise offences. “He is the one you loved,” Eric says, telling me what the other guards have told him, and it sounding a bit like scripture. They were jealous. Emmanuel wishes they could see him now, but the only employees of his former company he sees are new, so he does not have the chance to tell them he forgives them for the things they did. He already has, but he wants them to know he has, it is important to him.

Which makes me wonder, can you forgive someone without ever telling them you have? Is that an integral part of the process, or is forgiveness enough? I know personally, I’ve forgiven a lot of people, but sometimes the transaction seems incomplete unless I have received the receipt.

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Thursday, September 20, 2007

The Jamestown Fish Market

On Monday when Eric and I went to the harbor at Jamestown to buy some fish. Usually I go to Tema, which is a 20 minute drive down the wonderful Tema motorway which costs a whole .08 cents to drive. Its like an interstate and connects Accra to this huge harbor that was built in the 1960s, and is the port by which most stuff that enters Ghana must pass.

Jamestown, on the other hand is the old British section of Accra, and today is pretty much a slum. It does have a cool lighthouse that we toured about this time last year. Other than that, I pretty much avoid it, it’s the lowest part of Accra, and all the sewage that flows in the gutters has to go somewhere, and that happens to be Jamestown.

[The Jamestown Lighthouse ]
So maybe buying food from the lowest part of Accra wasn’t the brightest idea, but I like supporting the local community, which happens to be Ga. Our Driver (did I mention that we have a driver now?) well, anyway, Eric is Ga, and I asked him where I could buy fresh fish without having to drive to Tema. You would think that a huge city like this would have a fish market, but it doesn’t. Oh, you can buy “fresh” fish on Oxford Street from boys selling them out of shallow aluminum pans filled with ice, but I worry about it being fresh, or “flesh,” as it is said here because there isn’t the “r” sound in the local languages. So after running some errands with our new house guest Ana, (one of the new crop of Fulbright students) we’re off to buy fish and I’m thinking this is a 45 minute operation tops.

Well 60 minutes later we’re still trapped in traffic, and have not made it past Accra Central…road construction. Ghana seems to have taken a page out of the Texas Department of Transportation work site manual, which is tear up the whole road at once, and then start work. 90 minutes later we pull into the harbor.

[Fish market is on the left down the long road]
Now if it had been me, I would have parked, and walked the last 100 feet, but Ghanaian drivers are not wired that way. They like to park as close to the final destination as possible, even if it takes 10 minutes to do so, weaving through all sorts of working dead heavy wooden boats.

We get out of the car, 2 steps, I’m not kidding, two steps away from the fish “market,” its actually just a wooden stall, with sheets of rusting tin scraps for a roof. The seller pulls out two enormous Grouper Fish out of a box of ice, and says “Flesh, flesh, 100,000,” which in old Ghana cedis was about $10. I’m still at a disadvantage because I wasn’t here during the currency redenomination, and haven’t gotten used to the sort of blend of old and new currency people quote prices in.

One hundred thousand cedis, at least that’s what I thought. So, I’m ready to bargain her down to 60,000, about $6, and I think fine, at Tema, I usually pay $8, and that’s for red snapper, the fish I prefer. I’m liking Jametown so far, and am happy to agree to At 65,000 cedis. Actually, Eric is doing most of the bargaining, and he turns to me at one point and asks if it’s a good price. “Its OK,” I say, which means fine--its fair, so I agree and he says, “As for me, I do not know the price of fish.” First clue.

I didn’t even hear that little part of the brain that puts out those warning signals, you know, the kind we usually ignore, and later wish we hadn’t. So she scales the fish, and smacks them on the table and “WHACK!” off goes its head. They are not using fish knives here, it’s a very sharp machete with a sort of concave blade, from extensive sharpening. The next lady steps in with her own cutlass (as a machete is called here), and in my brain I call the first lady, head-whacker, the one who is working now fish-chopper. When fish-chopper has properly chunked the grouper, because this isn’t the kind of place that could fillet fish, fish-chopper puts the chunks, about the size of an apple, in a black plastic bag (what else), and slap it on the table. I hand her seven new Ghana cedis, and fish-chopper thinks it a tip. Second clue. I don’t get it. Turns out the prices head whacker was quoting was some cryptic form of New Ghana Cedis, and demands 65 cedis, about $63 for a bag of fish chunks that couldn’t be more than 2 pounds.

Together Eric, and fish-whacker go through the whole process, retelling the story of how we got to this point, I get every other words or so, the gathering crowd adds to the story, agreeing, nodding heads, or shaking them. They are seated, watching the drama unfold. When there is disagreement, the whole community gets into it. At first they side with fish-whacker, saying I agreed to that price. Eric is doing a great job arguing my side, but fish-whacker will have nothing to do with it. She wants 65 cedis, and so we stand around offering different options, give us half the fish, lower the price, but never walking. I have about 45 cedis which is still a huge rip off, but considering the way the car has been threaded into the market and well, a mob has formed, I figure driving away isn’t an option.
Then the crowd turns, and starts to argue my point with the woman. Eric is deeply embarrassed, and feels he has let us down—these are his people, the Ga. I feel sorry for Ana, she is just off the plane, and having to see this side of Ghana. So we stand around, Eric trying to push the 45 cedies in fish whacker’s hand, Ana playing with the kid behind us sitting on the fishing boat, the crowd yelling, take it, and a lot more, I’m sure, and me standing there looking her straight in the eye, but she will not meet my eyes. She knows she is cheating me, and the crowd does too. After about 20 minutes of this, it’s a hot day, I’m in the full sun, fish-whacker is in the shade, she takes the money, and after another 10 minutes, hands me the black bag of fish chunks, and off we go. There are no thank yous, no good-byes, or really anything. Everyone loses, and Eric wonders if we should even eat the fish, as it might be cursed, but that night, I use about half of it in a wonderful Indian fish curry, and remember, that’s why I love fresh, or flesh fish.

Its that preference for short term profit over longer term gain that makes me sad for Africa. Here I was wanting to establish a relationship with this woman and that market, to buy fish here in Accra weekly, not having to drive to Tema, or off the road, or frozen from the obrunie markets where it was either packaged from last spring or some other distant part of the world. The market was small, and I had dreams of getting to know the fishermen, maybe even getting a ride in their boat, but it looks like none of that will happen now…because I’ll be going back to Tema.

Jamestown Fishmarket & Harbor. The building on the left is the former Jamestown Fort, now a prison. The fish seller was just above the point of the roof above the four windows.
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Sunday, September 16, 2007

So Now What?!

Since I’ve been back, I have wondered what direction to take this blog. Last year was easy, it was a record of my thoughts from a year of Sabbatical, keeping my part of a promise I had made with my church while I was away. I was grateful to those who kept up with my musings; surprised at what I learned about myself writing them.

The question becomes bigger than just keeping a blog. It about wondering what I should do with my life…again. After high school, and a few years of college I tried my hand at being a musician, but learned it didn’t hold the intellectual stimulation I needed in a career. I remember how starved my mind got when I used to play clubs, waiting for break to get back to my book, food for a starving brain. It was only years later that Russell Hoelscher, my chief musician at the church, explained to me that largely much of what a musician is paid to do is haul equipment and set it up. Oh, so that’s why I wasn’t stimulating. Anyway, one night at the club, someone leaves a PC World magazine, and I read though it, interesting… I could do this. It was about the same time I was soul searching for a major at UT, where I had gone back to finish my education. Dad urged me, “Just pick something and do it,” and that magazine, along with some timely advice from my sister’s husband at the time, pointed me toward Computer Science. After college I worked as a software engineer, writing games at a software start-up, researching Artificial Intelligence at Lockheed, and finally at The University of Texas working in a naval research lab. While each of these jobs had their share of intellectual stimulation, and financial security, very little of it felt creative. Certainly no music, photography, or exploring the greater meaning to life. I was just a tooth in a cog of the great machine. It was during Suzanne’s sixth year of graduate school, when by chance, we enrolled in a nine month Bible Study called Disciple, and by its end we had had our third child, and I was enrolled in Seminary. After seminary we were appointed to a young church, and found that pastoring used my gifts and graces completely. Too completely some would say, but what I know is that inside the church I could write, speak, play music, practice photography and graphic design, and influence people in their lives and how God might want to use them, and do this all for the sake of the Gospel. Until that last year at Foundation Church, I loved that feeling of being used so completely, of giving myself so completely, of having a life so full of meaning and purpose. Maybe its that feeling of being used, that in the end just used me up, and I should have seen the warning signs, earlier. The feeling that if I just worked hard, things would get better, but something changed, maybe it was me, maybe it was the situation, maybe it was God preparing me for the next great thing, whatever it was, and now I find myself in familiar territory, again wondering what should I do with my life?

In fact while in Japan, I happened upon a book by that same title by Po Bronson. Understand that in Sapporo, where Grace is at boarding school, there is a very limited set of English language books, and so to happen upon one like this seems, well, God directed. Branson’s book is a collection of stories about people he has interview who are dealing with the same question about what they should do with their lives.

Branson talks about the Brilliant Masses[1], the great many people of our generation who are talented, resourceful, and creative, but “far too many of who are operating at quarter speed, unsure of their place in the world, contributing far too little to the productive engine of modern civilization.” Those words stung as I read them last night, awake because our guard was passed out, and our house guest was honking and banging on the gate loud enough to wake me, but not that guard.

As I think about it, this corresponds to that last year of ministry. Whatever part of me that was supposed to be guarding against imminent burnout, was passed out. It missed the warning signs, even when those around me were trying to wake me. I thought of that this summer when Fox and I were back in Texas and saw the road signs “Obey Warning Signs,” and I didn’t. I now realize that maybe God was there honking, banging on my gate, shouting “Danger Will Robinson” trying to wake up my heart from whatever slumber it had fallen into, to help me get out and move on.
[Photo of “Obey warning Signs,” thanks to Phil from]

Branson writes, “Being guided by the heart is almost never something an intellectually motivated person chooses to do. Its something that happens to him—usually something painful.”[2] I get that now, but wonder have I now just runaway with the circus of Brilliant Masses operating at quarter speed? For the past six months or so I’ve been asking God that question, “What am I doing here?” or “What am I supposed to be doing?”

So over the summer I signed up with The Mission Society ( to be a missionary intern for the next year. As such I work with the Youth Group at Elim International Family Church, and see the amazing things God is doing in the lives of these kids. We’ve already built one of the best groups of singers I’ve ever worked with, and so now the work turns toward building a good youth worship band. I love the feeling of just being there, and speak into their lives, and it feeds my creative side. At another church, Asbury Dunwell (, I serve on the Board of Elders preach occasionally, and offer pastoral care, but am, rightly so, more on the periphery, which is a fine place to study how this strongly lay led church operates. I’ve never seen a church so strongly lay led where the pastors primary responsibility is word and sacrament, not administration and finance.

I plan to accompany short term mission trips while they are in country, as their Ghana tour guide, pastor and worship leader. So what I do mostly is make the household function well, as a place of peace, love, and good food. I wonder is that enough? Am I doing enough? Some days I think so, especially since Suzanne has been named Acting Dean of Ashesi University, and the work for the One Laptop Per Child project (, has really ramped up, (this week she has had meetings with its United Nations representative, and various ministers from the Government, including the President). Suzanne’s life is full, and its fun to see her excitement. Fox and Anna are doing great, and Grace seems happy in Japan.

So it’s a new season of my life where it isn’t the work outside the home that brings meaning as much as it is the family, the 1-2 hour dinners with everyone telling stories, and joking with each other, of the guests that come and go, spending a week or several months in our guest room, and the rich conversations we have cooking in a hot kitchen, exploring the greater meaning of life, or what brought us to Ghana, or laughing at the latest T.I.A. experience, meaning This Is Africa.

For us to have this life it I know someone must shepherd the household, even if it means joining the brilliant masses. So I see this time as just my part of the equation, and for at least this season of my life, I am doing exactly what I should be.

[1] Branson, Po, What Should I do with my Life?, p 156
[2] Branson, p157
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Saturday, September 15, 2007

Welcome HOME to Ghana?

I wasn’t sure what to expect when we returned to Ghana. In some ways, I feel so much less prepared than we were last year, in other ways, I know exactly what to expect. We brought back new underclothes, coffee beans, lots of presents and an inverter-battery charger that Suzanne’s brother Reg (Henry) sent us. This inverter converts 12 volts to 220 volts, and charges 12 volt batteries from 220. Needless to say, I’m excited to get this thing wired up, to connect it to large deep cell batteries to run the fans when the power is off. Reg and I have always been interested in Solar Energy, but, as for me, I could never justify the investment, however now, or at least last spring, I had justification.

This fall, the weather has been wonderfully cool. It is the rainy season, the one that didn’t happened our first year, so the rains come soft, gentle every few days. Accra cools off for a few days. I read in the Daily Graphic that the water level in Akosombo Dam is even above its critical point, something it has not been since February. Even so, we still have a twice weekly light off from 6-9pm. All it means to us is a dinner by candlelight, but it has me thinking, is it worth the expense of setting up the batteries and inverter, if the load shedding schedule is about to end, or is this just wishful thinking. The rain has also caused massive flooding in Northern Ghana, wiping out complete fields and villages that had been suffering a terrible drought.

While we were gone, the currency changed. The cedi was redominated, meaning they chopped off four zeros, so instead of the largest note being a 20,000 (worth about $2), the largest note is a GH 50 (worth about $53, known as half a million in old cedis). Ghanaians like to joke that the New Ghana Cedi (GH) is stronger than the dollar. Though the advertising campaign slogan was “the value is the same” we have seen evidence of inflation, with prices slowly creeping up. The dollar to cedi exchange rate is also inching toward 1:1 (or should I say centimeter-ing , it’s a metric system) . Prices are a curious thing, mostly, people still quote in the old currency, so when buying something this morning, the price was quoted as 10,000 (meaning one new Cedi). People seem comfortable with the conversion in their head, and change is given in a curious mixture of old currency, new currency, and mixed coins. Having coins of some significant value is something new here, previously the largest coin was worth about a five cents, but now they have coins worth 1,5,10,20 and 50 cents causing people to complain about their noise, as they jingle in the pocket.

Our market ladies, friends, Ashesi people, and church friends are excited that we are back. They always make a point of saying “Welcome Home”, looking us deep in the eyes to see how we react. I’m sure we are supposed to go around and greet people officially more than we have, but it’s a part of their culture that we’re still not comfortable with. However, I did go greet the presiding Bishop of the Methodist Church of Ghana.

Another big change is our new embassy, called “The New America Embassy,” which is only a few blocks from our house. This should be more convenient , except that the security of this fortress is crazy-tight. The new embassy is a consolidation of seven different embassy buildings from around Accra, all put into one grand, if intimidating building. It is tight in there, and there is little parking. Where as I used to be able to check in and exchange money and pick up mail in an hour, including travel time to two different locations, these days it takes just that long to get through security, and then wait for a two different building escorts, and I am within walking distance of our house.

[Would have liked to put a pictures of that new fortress but its illegal to take pictures]

Other changes over the summer, include ownership of the largest cell phone service provider. Some years ago it was Ghanaian, but was then bought by a Lebanese company, and over the summer a South African company. Each change involves a name change and so over the past 10 years its been SpaceFon, SNAP, Areeba, and now MTN. While it really doesn’t make a difference to us in terms of service, these changes do underscore the fact that many of Ghana’s most profitable companies are foreign owned. For me, the most impressive thing about this change is its completeness. Understand that Areeba was the best advertized product in Ghana. A completely unscientific guess would be 20000 little stands selling phone cards, billboards, flags, signs were impossible to miss in Ghana, and suddenly, within days, as I understand it, they were all replaced by MTN signs. The magnitude of this changeover is impressive, especially for Ghana. I can’t figure out how they did it.

I don’t know yet how to classify the South Africans, as they are a late entry to the Ghana’s business economy. The Lebanese and Indians (who have been here a while) are easy, they are the traders, the large scale importers of dry goods, and merchandise who run these western all-in-one big box stores. They look at Africa, particularly Ghana and see a land of opportunity, a place to make money and so they invest in it, with expectations of returns. The West also invests, but without those expectation, and I wonder sometimes how much good we are doing here. Asia also invests, but in large scale infrastructure projects, like roads, or the new $600m Hydro-electric dam.

I know my critique of the West’s aid is harsh, that I don’t see its aid because; as they say here “It’s not for me.” But as for the Lebanese, Indians, and now South Africans who are here to make money, it is clear they seek after those who have it, and that would be me and oh about 2000 other obrunies here.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

The Fante Chicken of Nana Apt

Nana served Suzanne and I this dish in the spring of 2007, but it wasn’t until early summer that I could pry the recipe out of her. At the time she said it used to be a popular dish in Accra in the 70s, many of the hotels featured it, but now you never see it. “Why!” she asks. It is served alongside steamed white rice with small dishes of accompaniments; such has chopped hot peppers, green onions, groundnuts (peanuts), and fresh pineapple.

For Sarah's "last supper" at our house, she requested this dish, and when we were back in the states over the summer I made it for my family, at the reunion. Fante Chicken has become, for us, a sort of celebration dinner to share with friends.

(Serves 10 people)

2 lbs chicken pieces (chicken quarters cut up OK)
¼ cup fresh curry powder (Nana might use more)
8 oz coconut cream (or 2 coconuts – see Making Coconut Cream at the end)
3 purple eggplant about the size of a softball
3 large onions
4 green peppers
2 hot peppers
1 head garlic
6-8 Roma tomatoes
Salt & Pepper

1 to 2 pounds rice (depending on how much you like rice)

Accompaniments (to offer along side the main dish)
Chopped green onions (chopped)
Chopped roasted groundnuts (Peanuts )
Chopped fresh pineapple
Chopped hot peppers

Rinse chicken, and add one tablespoon of salt, ¼ cup curry, plus one thinly sliced onion and two green peppers. Stir until chicken is well coated and then set aside.

In a sauce pan, chop and combine 2 onions, 2 green peppers, 2 hot peppers, 3 purple eggplants, 6-8 Roma tomatoes and about 1 inch of water. Cook until all the vegetables are soft. Set aside to cool. Note: I often do this in the morning so that it has all day to cool.

Cook rice in a ratio of 2:1, meaning 2 parts water to 1 part rice.

Make coconut milk, if necessary (see recipe at end)

In a large heavy fry pan, preheat, then add equal parts of high quality oil and unsalted butter to make an 1/8 inch depth. Add chicken-curry mixture and cook over medium heat. Stir occasionally until the skin tightens up or curry begins to brown. Then drain the oil and set aside, chicken should be mostly cooked at this point, but still tough.

Take the now cooled soft vegetables and pulverize them in a blender until smooth. Then push this mixture through a sieve pour over the cooked chicken in the fry pan. The liquid should about cover the chicken.

Return to the fire, to finish cooking the chicken until tender.

Taste and correct spicing, adding salt, pepper, or curry powder, up until 10 minutes before serving.

To make a thicker, grander and more flavorful sauce, remove 1 cup of liquid and mix in 2 tablespoons unsalted groundnut paste (or natural peanut butter). Mix until smooth and then return to chicken and stir in. Cook at least 10 minutes after adding.

Right before serving, turn fire off, add coconut milk and stir in well. Cover and do not cook as it only takes a few minutes of cooking to lose the wonderful flavor of the fresh coconut. Let rest one minute before serving. I usually wait until everyone is seated before adding the coconut milk, and bringing it to the table; letting it rest while we pray.

Serve with plenty of steamed rice, and let each add their own accompaniments as to their likings.

Making fresh Coconut Cream
Often the packaged coconut milk is not available here in Accra, so I make my own. Drain two coconuts into a sauce pan and break open shells. Scoop out the meat, chop into chunks and add to coconut juice. Cook together for about five minutes over high heat and then set aside. When cool, use blender to pulverize. Then strain mixture and set aside for later.

If there is extra coconut milk, the most amazing smoothie can be made by adding ice, mango, and coconut milk. Its thick and oh so tasty! Coconut milk freezes well, but does not keep in the fridge for more than a few days.

Friday, September 07, 2007

Reality Break – It is finished!

I’m really not sure how to blog about the past 60 days, of being back in the states, in Connecticut (twice) with my wonderful in-laws Nelda & Charlie, or back in Texas and seeing friends, former church members, pastors, and former pastors, or Colorado where I had a great time seeing my father and siblings and their children. What I like is the term Reality-Break, which is what it felt like the whole time we were back in the states.

OK so I have not posted in a few months, and while I was gone, Blogger's picture upload got broke, so I might be switching to Xanga (check out for this story (with Pictures!)

[blueberry pancakes at Nelda’s]

Somewhere I read “The one who travels does not return the same person,” and I guess that not only applies to us as a family that returned to the States differently, but also those of us who returned to Ghana, and Grace who is now in Japan, and will also never be the same. As I look back on those 60 days, the remarkable thing was that for family and good friends, the changed in the one who returned differently, didn’t seem to matter.

Thoughts from Texas, July 1: These past three weeks we’ve been packing and moving, getting our house ready for its new tenants, and perhaps owners, which is just painful now matter how you work it. We have too much stuff. Plus it has been raining a lot here, 55 inches so far this year, and about half of that since we’ve been back, including 11 of them in one night, which caused massive flooding. It is an apt metaphor for abundance we see here in the states, where there is no light off, and unlike Ghana, isn’t 90% hydroelectric and the midst of a drought. Ghana could use this rain, Ghana could use a lot of the things we take for granted her, like infrastructure maintenance. Suzanne remarked that the rural country road to her mother’s house washed out in no less than five different places, and it was repaired in two days. Amazing, these rural roads in which less than maybe 30 people travel a day, and the highway department has them fixed so quickly, and few realize how remarkable that is.

It has been strange and wonderful to be back, to see the church, friends, and former parishioners. So much has changed, I’ve changed, they have changed, the church has changed, the country has changed. Its hard to know where to begin, or how much to share.
What I do notice is how much more significant the events seem to us here, things like the latest Harry Potter film, Lady Bird Johnson death, the last Harry Potter book, the release of the iPhone, and as a consequence how busy our lives have become here. In terms of tangible evidence, I am carrying around a lot more keys. One of the things I noticed when we left last year is how quickly my key ring emptied, in Ghana I needed two keys, one for the house, one for my bicycle, but within a week of being back, I was carrying a full set, and each has a weight outside its few ounces.

[My state-side key ring]

Thoughts from the Road, July 15: Now we’re on “vacation” from being unemployed and being homeless so we borrowed Nelda’s car to drive up to Colorado for a Buchele family reunion. We’ve always been good driving family, though being in a car for 18 hours was long even though the roads were spectacular, plus we had hours of uninterrupted drive time to play our favorite game “Yellow Car”

[Kids awake]

[Kids asleep]

Yellow Car started as a youth mission trip game, invented by Paul Gravley, and for some reason it stuck with our family.

Yellow Car, the Rules
When you see a yellow car, truck, boat, motorcycle, or bicycle you call yellow car, truck, bike… Exceptions: Penski trucks don’t count, nor does yellow construction equipment, or yellow school buses. Getting out of the car, causes you to lose all your points, and points are non transferable.
Bonus points: Yellow Hummers: 5 points, Yellow bug (old): 3 points; Yellow bug (new): 2 points; yellow mini-cooper: 2 points. Convertible with the top down, double points.

To get the bonus points, the vehicle must be correctly identified before someone else corrects you. For example, seeing a yellow Volkswagen bug, and yelling out “yellow car,” gets you one point until you or someone else calls out “Yellow Bug”.

I guess the fun part for me is the bickering over what is a valid point, was that truck yellow enough? was it even yellow, does it still count if no one else sees it?

I also like the fact there is no penalty for miscalls, for example there is a gold truck in the distance that looks yellow, you call it, but as it gets closer, someone else calls it on you…and then you get to argue about it, to practice your arguing skills. For someone like me, who doesn’t’ like conflict, this is huge. The other thing this game does, and it is something less tangible, is that it functions as a reconnector. The term comes out of some research about what predicts a lasting marriage, and one of the factors turns out to be reconnectors, or how a couple, when they have become disconnected, reconnect. For example, husband and wife are in an heated argument. Emotions have run high, and feelings are about to get hurt. Suddenly, the wife smiles then puts her hands on her hips, scrunches up her face, and sticks out her tongue—in a perfect imitation of their 4 year old, The husband picks up on it, and does the same. Then both smile. They have reconnected.

In this case, the wife initiated the reconnect, mimicking their 4 year-old, sending her husband the message that everything is OK, I still love you, even when we’re arguing. And, the husband accepts the reconnect. What experts noticed is the number, and ways that couples reconnect is a good predictor on the long-term potential of the marriage or happy family I would add.
So maybe we’re 14 hours in the car now, having a disagreement about, say about the best route. The fun and excitement wore off long ago, patience is thin, words get said, and everyone is upset. A cold silence fills the car. Nobody likes feeling this way, but at the same time, don’t know how to get out of it, but until someone says—in a quiet voice—yellow car. “Where?!” Let the games begin.

So we played a lot of yellow car this summer. Maybe because we seemed to be driving everywhere, maybe because we wanted to stay connected to each other.

It was great to see my sisters, brother (and his kids) and my Dad. I think all in all we are as a family (and as people) doing much better than we were a few years ago. I like the trajectory. While we were there, Sheron took us on a nature hike, and I took pictures of flowers.

[wildflowers in Colorado]

Grace goes to Japan
About mid August, Suzanne, Fox, and Anna returned to Ghana for school, and Grace and I left a few days later for Japan where she will be attending school this next year.

I’m now in the land of the Rising Sun. Somehow I wonder how we ever got to this point. I wonder if this is what my folks felt, when I was 18 and they left me in Hawaii on their way to Australia, a single event which set up a cascade of them leading to this point. Is this that sort of beginning? Will Grace be able to point to this day and say, that’s when it all started?
Not that it was easy, 30 hours of travel east, through four different airports, a fast train, and one bewildered, but persistent Taxi driver who found our guest house at 11:30pm, local time. We are tired to the core. But of course this is just the sort of thing that business people do every day, so who am I to complain, except that it is happening to us, and we choose this, or rather my daughter Grace did.

Still I’ve got to hand it to her, she pulled it together and we found an international Church ( to worship at the next morning. I must have learned this from my folks who seemed to have the overseas integrating into a new town method down. Step one, find an English Speaking church. In this case it’s was a Japanese speaking church, but with simultaneous translation into English via a headset. I’ve seen this sort of thing in Accra at our Elim Church, but was the first time I had experienced the other side of the headset, as it were. After a few minutes the brain adjusts and can believe it understands the language, that is until the translator bumps the mike, or laughs at a joke, and then you remember, this is being translated for me.

[Sapporo International Church picture]

This church services lunch after services, which I gather is a fund-raiser for the different groups in the church, in this case, the youth planning a mission trip to Korea. So we stayed and met students from Nigeria, Kenya, Ethiopia, and of course a smattering of English speakers from all over the world. We met up with a missionary there from Ireland, Laura-Jane and her husband Ho, who are both delightful people, who love the Japanese, and the Lord and want to help connect them.

Laura-Jane is just the sort of person I was praying for, someone to be a big sister to Grace, someone outside of the school to check up on her. This city of Sapporo is a beautiful city, voted the most so a few years ago in Japan, but it is not an English speaking city, unlike Tokyo. So you end up gesturing a lot (not pointing as that is considered rude), and asking friends like Laura-Jane to take Grace to the store, to buy shampoo and conditioner.

[picture of dorm Mom, Marla & Grace]

[click here to see more Pictures of School & Dorm]

Her new school, Hokkaido International School ( seems like a wonderful school, with a family atmosphere. She lives in the dorm next door, and the dorm parents Marla & Troy Gibbs are exceptional dorm parents. The kids are nice, sheltered, and international, and it is a good mix for Grace.

It is hard to imagine three countries more different from another than Ghana, Japan and America. Each share in the 2 out of 3 rule, for example Ghana and America are both predominately Christian nations, as well as English speaking, but Japan isn’t..2 out of 3. Culturally, having someone say “no” in Ghana and Japan is difficult. For example I was looking for a particular computer part, and asking at the store, the person keeps sending us to different parts of the store, repeatedly. I wonder if she hopes will give up and not return, or get lost, but because he is the English speaker in the store, we return. She directs us to a new place, we return empty handed, and after about 3 or 4 rounds, I ask one more time, and add, “Its ok to say you don’t have it.” She looks down, her face is sad, “We do not have it.” Only later did I understand this cased the sales person to lose face. Similar to here, where a Ghanaian would say “somehow,” or “perhaps,” or “by all means,” but never no, directly. Japan and Ghana also share the lack of street addresses. Whereas in the states we would say house number and street in a particular city, in Japan they describe the location by quadrants, and what it is near. The idea is to get close enough to ask someone, just like in Ghana. Now combine the cultural tendency to not say no, and the lack of a determinate addressing scheme, asking for directions turns out to be a big challenge, getting unlost and even bigger one.

Ghana is, of course, African, but Japan, like the states feels western, and that means technology, services, order, efficiency, though I am told the western feeling in Japan is a thin veneer. Still after a few days, Grace and I both felt very comfortable in Sapporo, though isolated. I could imagine that as the days shorten, and the weather turns toward its bitter winter, one could feel very alone, in your thick parka, and gloves in the cold and dark.

If you want to write Grace, I know she would appreciate a note, she is on facebook, or at