The Buchele Adventure

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

Saturday, June 30, 2012

Field Trip! By Suzanne

The second to last week of class, the Applied Cryptography and Computer Security class went on a field trip to Corenett in Accra.  Corenett does ATM software, plus other transaction processing services and software. Three Ashesi alumni, David, Eric, and Victor, currently work there, and other Ashesi grads have worked there in the past.  I was very thankful that they took time out of their busy schedule to host us for the morning, since it was so enlightening and educational!  

We took the Ashesi mini-bus down to Accra, and since it was Friday we hit substantial traffic, and ended up being 40 minutes late.  No worries our hosts said, we were expecting us to be late (everyone knows that traffic is worse on Fridays, even in the morning!).  I have taken US students on field trips many times in the past, and I must say the atmosphere on the Ashesi mini-bus was more like a party compared to a Southwestern van full of students which is much more somber.  The Ashesi students were laughing and conversing loudly for pretty much the 90 minute drive.  It was a festive event!

When we arrived, our hosts greeted us and we went around and introduced ourselves.  Much to my surprise, the Ashesi alums talked about how many classes each had had with me, and how tough a professor I was – but with a warm spirit and kind heart.  I wasn’t expecting Buchele testimonials!  Then we started our tour by looking at the hardware in the server room, and there were plenty of examples of physical security (that is, measures in place that physically secure the door or physically attach the servers to the rack) which I don’t want to detail since I don’t want to undermine their security.  They have one server that will self-destruct under certain circumstances, in a real-life Mission Impossible kind of way!  We also heard about their backups and multiple levels of power backups.  Then we saw how smart cards are created, again with some interesting applications of physical security and “secret splitting”. 

Victor telling us about the cardless ATM withdrawal system
Then on to the control room, where in real-time they monitor all the ATMs that they serve, including watching transactions as they are occuring and seeing which ATMs are online, in use, off line, need money, or are currently being serviced.  We also heard about the cardless ATM withdrawal system that the three Ashesi alums built from the ground up – it allows users to access their mobile money (from carriers such as MTN or Airtel) and withdraw mobile money in the form of cash from an ATM!  A useful system in a country in which it is a cash economy and few people have bank accounts.  They are currently piloting the system at several ATMs across Accra.

Nii explaning the insides of the ATM to us
Lastly, we saw the ATMs they manufacture/assemble, and were even able to see the insides and hear about exactly how they function (again, details omitted for obvious reasons!).  I did an ATM withdrawal later that day at one of the big international banks later that day and noticed that Corenett’s ATMs had much better features, like mirrors so you could see what was going on behind you and a shielded keypad so anyone standing to the side could not see what numbers you are typing. 

Throughout the tour we heard about exactly how they employ cryptographic methods throughout their systems, as well as personnel and physical security, to provide products and services with excellent and airtight security!  It was a fantastic supplement to what we learned in the course!
The class field trip, plus our hosts David, Eric, Victor, and Nii
Afterward we went to one of my favorite spots, Papaye, for lunch.  Eric was able to join us as well, and brought back lunch to David, Victor, and Nii who were busy solving some issue at one of their Nigeria clients and so couldn’t join us.  They have clients all over West and even North and Central Africa, and from what I saw I suspect they will continue to grow and prosper. All in all is was a great learning experience, it was wonderful to see my former students doing so well, and it was encouraging to see such sophisticated work being done in Ghana!  

Monday, June 25, 2012

My Last Day at Ashesi, by Suzanne

I can’t believe today is my last day at Ashesi.  Although I know 5 1/2 weeks ought to feel like a long time, it has flown by, partly because I was working too hard!  I hit the ground running, I taught most M-F morning for 3 hours (we had off for African Unity Day, another day off for “mid-term break”, and the class field trip last Friday – blog post coming about that!) and then spent each afternoon prepping for the next day, and most evenings grading.  Last time I taught this course in the summer I spread it out over 8 weeks and taught ½ days MWF, a much more enjoyable schedule.  Ashesi’s campus is now much more remote (at least an hour into Accra), and I was able to go into Accra most weekends (thanks, Jacksons, for your amazing hospitality!), but during the week I only had two dinners out – one at a restaurant partway into town with Nina, and one at some friends’ house who don’t live too far from campus.  But in general, traveling by taxi in the rural areas at night is not considered wise, and I discovered coming back after 9pm from dinner at my friends’ house that while it took only 30 minutes to get there, it took a full hour to get back due to the police checkpoints.  One more reason why travel can be difficult in Ghana.

Most of the class, as we were assembling for the field trip
I’ve had a great time teaching (the course was better than ever!), had a wonderful batch of 16 students, the Ashesi campus is fantastic (although unfortunately power and internet problems have persisted at the new campus), and the Ashesi faculty and staff are, as always, an amazing group of people that I am honored to be able to work with – on again, off again for now, more permanently in a year or two. So, until next time… thanks for everything and I’ll miss you all!

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Ho Adventure, Kente Village and Getting Back, by Suzanne

For our last day in the Volta Region we hired Vincent for a ½ day, to go to a kente village.  Although Steve and I had a great time at Tofi Abuipe when we went in 2006, I decided to go to a different one, partly to go in a different direction since Tofi Abuipe was in the same direction as our travels yesterday.  First, we needed to replenish our cash since although at check in the hotel said they’d take American cash, at check out after some phone calls they said no, they wouldn’t.  The first two ATMs we tried wouldn’t work, so we went to exchange our American at Barclay’s Bank (and got an exchange rate about 15% lower than the going rate in Accra), that took almost an hour.  Then off to Kpetoe Agotime, an Ewe kente village near the Togo border, south east of Ho (yesterday we went north and northeast of Ho).  On the way I saw some homemade signs posted by the roadside that I had also seen yesterday: No Light, No Vote and also No Water: No Vote.  I asked Vincent about it, he said that people are frustrated not having electricity and/or water, and it’s an election year (the election is in December).  By the way, Ghana has instituted fingerprint scanning technology for voter registration, so hopefully there won’t be any fraud this year - not that there was any in the past, of course! ;-)  Since many Ghanaians don’t have birth certificates or IDs, I hear that it was decided as the only way to reliably have one person, one vote.  You may be asking, wait a minute, if there’s no electricity, how can there be fingerprint scanners to either register to vote, or to vote?  The technology comes with battery packs, and has apparently been very successful – robust and also seemingly accurate, since it has apparently noticed people with the same fingerprint registering to vote under different names.  So good for Ghana, a step ahead of the US in this area.  And, of course, I hear that some Ashesi grads helped develop the technology!

Kente is a woven fabric done in strips that is often sewn into cloths, which is very traditional and prized.  Kente is worn by both men and women only for very special circumstances. The Ewe kente differs somewhat from the Ashante kente that is woven in areas west of Lake Volta.  Kente is traditionally woven by men, who often train from a very young age, although one of the places that we tour has a woman weaver as well.  It is often the traditional economy of a village, passed down from generation to generation.  The weavers we see are fast and precise, and weave some beautiful strips and cloths.  Many of them have “names”, that is the name of the pattern.  One of my favorites is 'Together we are Good'.  Different from what I recall in Tofi Abuipe, here each weaver (or group, since 3-10 weavers set up in different locations around the village) displays what they have for sale, and you negotiate to buy directly from the weaver.  A great system.  We first tour the village and see who is weaving today and ask initial prices, and when we’ve finished we go back and negotiate for what we want.  Between Addison and I, we buy something from each group we visit, which is nice. 
One of the outdoor weaving areas we visited

The kente village is not far from Ho, and we have a little more time before our ½ day with Vincent is up, so I have him take us by a batik stand before heading back to the hotel.  Ho is known for its beautiful batiks, and they don’t disappoint.  After a few more purchases, we’re off to pay our hotel bill and head to the tro-tro station for the return trip to Accra.  Vincent drops us at the station (although we could have walked, it’s another hot day) and I ask him about air conditioned transport back to Accra.  He says, yes, of course, instructs us where to go, and we find it easily, there is a queue and one is loading as we arrive but fills about 4 people ahead of us.  And, it doesn’t appear to be air conditioned, looks like the same tro-tro we took up.  We wait and wait and wait in the queue, the queue gets quite long, and I set a time at which I’ll go look around if we don’t depart.  The time comes and goes, so I walk around the yard once again asking for a Ford to Accra, and get only quizzical looks.  But then I hear someone calling “Madina”, a tro-tro is filling for Madina, which is a bit north of Accra and would be closer for us than going all the way into Accra and back out again at rush hour, which is how it would have worked if we had gotten on an Accra tro-tro.  So I go back and get Addison, who had been holding our place in the Accra queue, and we’re off pretty quickly.  Movement is good after 90 minutes of waiting.

This tro-tro seems to be roomier, although the same number of people are in it.  This time I take the jump seat to ensure Addison has head room, and the seats are lower so I can easily see out the window.  It is an overcast day so not quite so hot, which helps also.

On the way back, there are the usual police checkpoints, although during the days they are typically either unmanned or the officers sit by the side of the road in the shade and wave people by.  We pass an active police checkpoint, and the police order everyone off the van (while still waving other tro-tros and cars by).  They separate out Addison and I (the only non-Ghanaians) and ask for our passports.  We didn’t bring them, we say.  After some questioning and hassling we are let go, the rest of the tro-tro is already loaded and waiting for us, and we’re off again.  Always interesting to experience the reverse of the privileged white man phenomenon now and again.

We hit Medina right after 5pm and it’s a gridlock – actually, we literally witness many incidences of gridlock, requiring some unfortunate relenting party to have to back up.  We’re not in a big hurry, we just need to be back before too late, so I sit back and enjoy the show.  I try and guess where I think the tro-tro will try and plant itself, sometimes I’m right and sometimes he goes in a completely different finger of the traffic and I think, ‘there’s no way he’ll get through there!’ but of course he does.  Only once does he knock into a stand by the side of the road, but it’s unmanned and a bystander rights it again and helps direct the tro-tro through the sort-of sidewalk.  Amazing.  Wish I’d taken pictures but I don’t think it would have done it justice, anyway.

On the way I texted some friends about places to eat in Medina since I knew traffic would be bad and it would be dinnertime (and once again, we didn’t eat lunch so we’re hungry).  Armed with the name of my top choice, we head out of the tro-tro yard and use the same old system as trying to find the right transport – ask someone which way, walk in that direction for awhile, then ask someone else.  Eventually we figure out that we are walking in the correct direction, but it’s too far, we should take a taxi.  But that’s pretty nonsensical, since we’re walking faster than the taxis are moving due to the traffic.  What to do?  I decide to try asking one more person, to ensure it really is too far to walk, and she says, yes, it is too far to walk, but why don’t you go to Las Palmas?  I say, I don’t know Las Palmas, is it any good and she assures us it’s very nice and only about 2 blocks away, so we go there instead.  The food is kind of cafeteria Ghanaian but hot and we both order something pretty safe (Jollof rice and chicken), although there are probably 40 different dishes, mostly soups and stews, to choose from.  We’re happy to sit in a relatively uncrowded room, eat our food and watch the traffic go by.  We’re at an upstairs window overlooking a part of the market and taxi yard. Eventually traffic does noticeably disapate and we set off to find a taxi home (after a pass through the market for bananas for my breakfast).  The taxi driver doesn’t want to drive us all the way to Berekuso (he perhaps knows of the road conditions) but takes us to the next town south of Berekuso called Kwabenya where we take a shared taxi the rest of the way.  Shared taxis are kind of like taxi-tro-tros, then run a fixed route but only leave when they are full, and charge a fraction of what it would cost to rent a regular taxi.  Addison is amazed at the price, although in the week since I last did a shared taxi the price has almost doubled – probably a result of the worsening road conditions due to continued erosion during the rainy season, and maybe because it’s night (?) but also I usually get a smaller price since my house is about ½ way to Berekuso but this guy charges me full, oh well.  Still considerably cheaper than renting a regular taxi.  Addison tells me the next day that once I got out three more people get in – I ask how that was possible and he shrugs and says they squeezed and sat on laps. 

Getting back to my house I was never so happy to have both electricity and water.  I take one of those really memorable showers, washing off a hard day’s travel, and unfortunately have a bit of work to do before bed, but am happy to have light to do it by.  By the time I go to bed, I am exhausted but thankful for a very adventuresome but safe and enjoyable trip!

Friday, June 22, 2012

Ho Adventure, Day 2: Wli Falls and the Tafe Atome Monkey Sanctuary, by Suzanne

Saturday afternoon after dinner I talked to Bob Coffie’s uncle, who was the hotel’s tour arranger, and who was extremely helpful.  He assured me that seeing Wli Falls and the Tafe Atome Monkey Sanctuary was doable in one day, although the implication was, just barely, and he was right.  It’s hard to tell how long it takes to get places in Ghana because so much of it depends on the condition of the road, but also in congested areas you can’t get anywhere quickly.  So, I arranged for a driver to meet us the next morning, maybe a little earlier than Addison might have preferred, but we had places to go and things to see!
You can see Lake Volta in the distance
It turns out breakfast is included with the room: an egg omlette, dry white toast, 2 small rounds of sausage, canned pork and beans, and either coffee (Nescafe, of course) or tea.  Vincent, our driver, arrived at exactly the appointed time, right after breakfast.  And off we go!  Wli Falls first, since the monkeys are most active in the early morning and late afternoon, but they’re an hour away and it’s not really early morning now, it certainly won’t be in an hour.  Wli Falls is about 2 ½ hours away, and in the taxi we’re able to really appreciate the scenery.  The Volta Region is quite hilly, and although we don’t go too near it, Vincent does stop in order for me to snap a photo of what we can see of Lake Volta; the dam at its base generates a significant portion of Ghana’s electricity. 

Along the walk to Wli Falls
We arrive and check in at what we would call the Ranger’s Station, where we greet all who are present, say where we’re from, sign the registry, pay the entrance fee and camera fee, and are assigned a guide.  I’m pretty sure the people after us get hassled a bit, my take is they’re being a little too all-business-in-a-hurry, forgoing the necessary and expected hospitable exchanges, and from what little I saw, it once again confirms that is it actually far MORE efficient to just take everything at a slower pace, greet people, ask how they are, etc., then trying to bulldoze through and hurry up.  Maybe they also got that confirmation.
One of the bridges along our walk
We head out to the falls with our guide, it’s a 50min walk that feels more like 20.  He gives us a quiz along the way, asking if we know what such and such a plant or tree is, telling us about his schooling (he’s in a post-secondary school that isn’t exactly a University, studying agriculture and IT), and about the path, the bridges – 9 of them on the way, 8 of which cross over the water coming down from Wli Falls, 1 of which is a river that comes from Togo – although surely the Wli Falls water comes from Togo also, it’s right on the border, but it is quite cold so maybe it’s spring-fed on the Ghana side.

Wili Falls
Wli Falls is the tallest waterfall in Ghana and when we get close you can really feel it.  Even pretty far away you get pretty wet from the spray.  I change into a bathing suit to get closer, and am glad I did or I would have gotten my jean skirt soaked, but the force of the water is so strong we really couldn’t get too close under the waterfall – it felt like Niagara Falls, although as you can see from the picture, the volume of water is miniscule comparatively, it’s the force that is substantial.  We get soaked through with spray and enjoy fighting the force of physics, and then begin heading back – Vincent warned me we couldn’t stay TOO long at the falls if we want to see monkeys.   We have an equally pleasant walk heading back, run into several villagers, including some young lady cousins of our guide, who are heading to the falls just to hang out and really want Addison, the young male American, to join them.  In the village we stop in the nice stalls and buy a few things, and then we’re back in the taxi with Vincent, off to the monkey sanctuary.  We decide not to try and stop and eat on the way, it would take too long and it’s not real clear where we’d eat anyway, so we eat bars we brought and plantain chips.
A village we pass on the way to Wli

Mostly the roads from Ho to Wli Falls are very good – far better than the road to Berekuso, which surprised me since we’re in pretty rural Ghana.  But it is true that the last few kilometers to and from Wli is almost as bad as the Berekuso road.  Tafi Atome is about ½ between Wli and Ho, just off the main road.  A very nice road project leading from the main road to Tafi Atome is nearing completion – very wide and nicely graded road, not paved but it is pressed with small stones firmly enough that Vincent says it won’t erode with the rains.

Mom with baby eating banana, another climbing up!
We arrive at the monkey sanctuary around 3pm.  Again we check in and pay our fee, this time to a young lady who isn’t so caught up in the traditional pleasantries.  She tells us that she’ll be our guide, but that we’ll need bananas to feed the monkeys so we give her some cedis and she sends someone off to buy bananas, and we sit outside in the shade while we wait.  Although cooler than the non-rainy season it’s a hot day.  We see a monkey in a nearby tree and think it’s cool, we have no idea what’s coming!

When our bananas arrive I expect our guide will lead us to some landscaped clearing in the jungle, but no, we go to the nice broad road and stand in it and see the monkeys, on both sides, in the  trees and in the brush on the side of the road.  Upon seeing us, they start to gather.  Or guide gives us the instructions – she breaks the bananas in half, gives a half to one of us, instructs us to hold on tightly, and then does a sort of suck-whistle call, which means, “dinner!”  As soon as the monkeys see the banana in our hands they pounce – maybe just one, maybe three or four or five, in which case one kind of wins and perches on your forearm and peels the banana with their little black hands and eat it.  We have to hold it firmly or they’d just take it from us and run off.  Sometimes they linger on our arm or head or back, so we get the chance to take plenty of photos – I have tons more!
Addison with monkeys, including the big daddy

There’s one large male in the group, he’s too big to climb on us so our guide gives him some bananas when he approaches her on the ground.  There’s also a little monkey with a broken hind leg who can’t jump, so all of us try and get chunks of banana to him/her, but the other monkeys are pretty relentless about not letting him/her get any.  We manage to maybe get ½ banana to him/her, in several small pieces, during out 20 minutes or so of monkey feeding can climbing all over us extravaganza.
Our guide also tells us about the history of the monkey sanctuary, pretty much I read in the guide book and on the wall when we checked in:  the monkeys used to be considered sacred, somehow spiritual brings that protected the village and were never harmed, but with the advent of Christianity into the region, the practice dwindled and the monkeys were no longer protected and sometimes hunted.  A Peace Corps effort in the 1990’s turned the village into an ecotourism spot and the monkeys are once again protected as part of the ecotourism effort. The guidebook says that these are the only population of mona monkeys in Ghana.  Addison marvels at how human they seem, and I can’t get over their feet which are just like their hands, and which they use just like their hands, thumbs and all.
We had fun!
It turns out it’s a good thing we came when we did, because toward the end of the feeding frenzy the monkeys are beginning to lose interest and wander away.  Our guide leads us on a 5 minute walk through part of the jungle, then we loop around back to where we checked in and Vincent.  There’s a station for us to wash our hands and I look down and see how filthy I am from all the monkeys crawling all over me!

Then, back to Ho.  On the drive back I ask Vincent where else we might eat for dinner, since although the hotel food was good last night, it would be nice to venture out a bit more tonight – but alas, it’s Sunday, restaurants are closed on Sundays, so he says the hotel is out best bet.  An hour later we arrive, get cleaned up, and as it turns out this really might be about the only place to eat in Ho, judging by the crowd in the restaurant.  I order tilapia and banku which is outstanding, and great end to a great day.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Ho Adventure, Day 1: Getting There

Last weekend Addison and I went to Ho, in the Volta Region.  The whole trip was a big adventure, without too much going wrong, but with enough unexpected turns to keep us on our toes and remembering that we’re not in Texas anymore! (Even if the scenery looks similar).

Our midterm exam was Friday, and I decided not to try and leave Friday afternoon.  For one, we have already paid for or free lodging at Ashesi, and why pay for a hotel when we’d just be showing up to sleep?  But the real reason is that travel on Fridays in Ghana, especially the Accra metro area, is crazy, and our transport to Ho left out of central Accra, so we’d be trying to leave from Accra mid-afternoon Friday at the earliest, which equals crazy.  That’s what people do if they absolutely have to be somewhere by Saturday morning.  Which we didn’t.

Some scenery on the way to Ho.  Both pictures taken on
\Monday because we couldn't see out of the tro-tro well
enough to take pictures Saturday!
So, Saturday morning we depart.  I arrange with a taxi driver to pick Addison at 8am and then get me and bring us both into central Accra.  Blip #1, Addison and taxi driver have a miscommunication, got that solved.  At 8:45am they pick me and he drops us at the station where I was told by several different people that we could get an air conditioned van (generically called a “Ford” here) to Ho.  The station was seemingly chaotic but really pretty organized and busy.  The way it works to find the right van is you ask someone, they point you in the general direction, you walk that way for awhile, then you ask someone else.  We do this awhile, 20 minutes maybe, going in a complete circle at least once, until we arrive at what we think is the right tro-tro. At that point we were still looking for an air conditioned van, but found a tro-tro loading and figured, well, this works (in CS lingo it’s a ‘first-fit’).  We get on, it takes off pretty immediately, and the mate collects the fares – 50 pesewas each (about 30 cents).  Whoops, wrong tro-tro.  I explain to the lady sitting next to me that we’re wanting to go to Ho in the Volta Region and others hear and soon there’s a chorus of lots of people saying we’re on the wrong tro-tro and the mate gets the driver to stop and we get off – not before he says, ‘you said you wanted to go to Chokra’ (or something like that) and I reply no, I said Ho – to me, Ho doesn’t sound much like Chokra but whatever.  We get out on a busy street and ask people nearby how to catch a tro-tro back to Tema station, where we came from.  They say stand here, which we do for awhile,.  some tro-tros come and go, but none are going to Tema station so eventually we get a taxi back to the station.  And try again!  Same algorithm, but this time I say that we’re looking for a Ford to Ho, in the Volta Region (live and learn!).  We do about two loops through the large yard his time, until we happen on someone who we asked before, and he says, “I pointed you to the right van before!” and I say, “Yes we went there and they pointed us somewhere else” so he drops everything and leads us about 5 min across the whole yard, to where the Ford to Ho is maybe supposed to be, but the people nearby just shake their heads and shrug, and say something in Twi to our guide that I don’t understand, but the meaning is clear – nope, no Ford to Ho.  Hmmm, what to do.  Well, our guide has to get back to his tro-tro, but someone else steps up to lead us to where we can get a tro-tro to Ho.  O.K.  We go out of the Tema station, down a few blocks, into another smaller tro-tro station, where a tro-tro to Ho is loading.  7 Ghana Cedis each (about  $4).  It’s not as bad as I thought it might be, I sit next to a woman with a baby, thinking I am doing Addison a favor by taking the middle seat next to the Mom- baby pair, turns out this means he’s on the jump seat,  and in this tro-tro the seats seem higher than usual, and he’s sitting right where the top curves down, so he can’t hold his head up straight.  And the seats are so high we can’t really see out the window, except to look at the road.  So much for taking in the nice scenery on the 3 ½ hour ride.  By the time I figure all this out we’re an hour in, and it is physically impossible to move more than a few inches  in any direction, so we’re stuck.  Addison insists he’s fine, though, he’s a great, easy-going traveler.  We leave the station about 10:45am, arriving after 2pm in Ho.  I am overheated and thirsty - when no bathroom is available, the best defense is to not drink water, but of course there’s a line between drinking enough that you need to go to the bathroom, and drinking just enough that you don’t get sick from dehydration.  I maybe strayed the line a bit toward dehydration.  I vaguely remember which direction to walk out of the station from my last visit to Ho (maybe 2006 or 2007), confirm I’m right by asking someone the direction to our hotel, and we’re off, stopping for some large bottles of cold water so we can re-hydrate once we get to the hotel.  It’s a hot day and even the 5 min walk from the tro-tro station to the hotel is tough.  But we arrive at the Bob Coffie Hotel (used to be the Freedom Hotel, Steve and I stayed here in 2006 I think) and check in and find they have a pool that looks nice!  So instead of trying to do an outing for the afternoon today, we are both very happy to relax in the pool for a bit – and then a bit turns into an hour, maybe 90 minutes, but I can’t bring myself to get out and at that point it’s too late to see any of the sights we were planning to see anyway.
More scenery on the way to Ho

We’re both hungry since we haven’t eaten lunch, and knowing that food can take awhile to come once we order, and seeing as there are tables and waiters around the pool, we swim to the side, call a waiter over and ask if we can order, he says we can.  We both order pizza, and swim some more.  After about 20 minutes the waiter comes back and says they don’t have the ingredients for Addison’s pizza, he says fine, he’ll have the same as mine. Another 20 minutes, he comes back and says, well, they don’t have the ingredients for any pizza, could we please order something else.  So we look through the menu and order something else.  You guessed it, 20 minutes later he comes back saying they don’t have those things either!  Ha.  Thankfully we’re still pretty happy in the pool so we take it pretty well, ask him what they do have, and order from what he suggests.  30 minutes late the telltale plate and forks come out, so we get out of the pool and sit at a table in time for our food to arrive – and although beef with mushrooms wasn’t what I ordinarily would have ordered, it’s good!

At this point it’s 5:30pm and we’ve already had dinner, so we hang in our rooms a bit and then decide to head out – not much to do but eat (and we’ve done that) or go to a bar, so a bar it is.  There’s one close to our hotel showing one of the Europe 2012 soccer games and we’re in time for the second half.  Germany vs. Portugal.  We enjoy the crowd, mostly cheering for Portugal since Germany was the team that beat Ghana in the World Cup 2 years ago (one man was rooting for Germany since they have a Ghanaian on their team, Boateng). Then back to the hotel to rest up for our big day tomorrow: Day 2, Wli Falls and the monkey sanctuary.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Coming Out (as a Missionary), by Suzanne

I’ve been in the closet for almost six weeks now.  Word is getting out, and apparently there will be an article about us in the Austin American Statesman soon, so… are you sitting down?  That’s right, I’m a missionary.  So is Steve, of course he’s the more rightful of the two of us to really be called a “missionary”, but the way our sending organization works (as in most, I think), for a married couple it doesn’t really work for one to be a missionary and the other not.  If you’re going to adopt the whole not making (much) money, living a tough(er) life, living as a visible Christian, being the hands and feet of Christ, etc., it doesn’t work so well if one is and one isn’t. Like in the rest of our lives, we’re a team, so we’re a team in this, too.  We were consecrated by The Mission Society on May 8 as “career missionaries” to serve in Ghana, and we are currently classified as “pre-deployment”. All of this means we are currently raising support so that we can move to Ghana for the long-term – initially a 5-year term, although we expect to be there even longer, probably until retirement.  (

Clearly I’m not as comfortable with the title “missionary” as maybe I should be.  Perhaps it’s because I know people who are doing what they feel like they are called to do, are not making much money doing it, and are strong Christians, but they’re not (all) missionaries or pastors.  This is true.  So for us, the difference is, we need the support of our friends, loved ones, and church to help us make this happen.   Financial support, yes, but also, and just as importantly, prayer and other more non-tangible forms of support (although some might argue that prayer is tangible, and come to think of it, I agree).   If it was easy, we wouldn’t need God so much, and the communities God has placed us in – we could just do it ourselves.

It is, in fact, perhaps funny that I seem to be having the most trouble with the name, because of the two of us, I am probably the more sure that this is absolutely what we’re supposed to be doing.  People ask me, why? and while I can talk about the importance of education (in fact, I view education as a human rights issue), and using my gifts in an area of the world where they are really needed, and that it just feels right, but really what I would like to do is let people peek into my heart and see that there’s really no other plan for me.  This is it.  To the depths of my soul I know this to be true.  I am getting more and more comfortable talking about how God has led me to this place, how I am not so comfortable evangelizing but am more than happy to share my own journey, and my own stories.  And I am feeling downright comfortable with the idea of being the hands and feet of Christ in a location which doesn’t have so many people with the gifts I have, where I can do some real and lasting good, where I can do my part to bring God’s kingdom here on earth, here and now, and not worry about the job title or the benefits or what I’ll get out of it. I like that a lot.

One of the things I really like about The Mission Society is that they also are not so enamored of the term “missionary” either.  It has some historic, negative consequences, and for some good reasons.  They suggest the term “cross-cultural witness”, which I definitely do like better, but using that term it is less recognizable what exactly we’re planning to do and what kind of support we are asking for. But, then, that’s where we get to talk to people and explain what we’ll be doing and what kinds of support we will need, should those we talk to feel called to participate with us in God’s plan for the little piece of His puzzle that we are called to be part of.

So, that’s it, I’m a missionary.  Or will be, when we finally move to Ghana.  Well, I’m here now teaching for 7 weeks, so am I one now?  I don’t know.  But, the job title doesn’t matter as long as I know that I’m walking along the right path and moving in the direction I’m supposed to be, somewhat fearfully, absolutely, sometimes flailing in what seems to be the wilderness, but with God, not against Him, so this is good. 

Friday, June 15, 2012

How Non-Ghanaian of Me! (by Suzanne)

Today I am not feeling well.  A combination of getting too run-down, hard traveling over the weekend (and I didn’t sleep so well at the hotel), and then maybe eating something that didn’t quite agree with me (but not full-blown food poisoning, thank goodness) and maybe also a touch of a cold as well.  All of this can happen in Texas or Ghana or wherever.  What is cultural is how one deals with not feeling well.

In the US we are trained to grin and bear it, take two Tylenol and come to work anyway, all the while letting people know that we are sick but at work anyway, because we’re true professionals who don’t let anything but hospitalization or having a majorly contagious disease stand in our way of work.

In Ghana, not so much.  If you’re sick, you stay home.  Period.  My guess is it’s because life is hard enough here, we don’t need sick people walking around spreading their germs in an already tough environment.  But whatever the reason, when I say I am not feeling well today, the response is a quizzical ‘so why are you here? Go home!’  I guess I’m here because I’m American and it just seems wrong to lie in bed when I have responsibilities, like teaching.  Plus we have a field trip tomorrow and I needed to send a final confirmation email and such.  And I had a meeting.  But, in truth, there would be no lasting damage if I stayed home today, and I probably would have gotten well sooner.  So, while coming in today was definitely non-Ghanaian, I think I like the Ghanaian way better.  And in fact, I am going home soon to rest.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

The Wilderness & Wet Feet (by Steve)

Two messages I’ve heard over the past week have intrigued me in how these two connect to each other, and especially to our situation.   The first was a teaching at Annual Conference, by Dr. Gil Rendle, a consultant for the Texas Methodist Foundation.   Dr. Rendle spoke of there being three stages of change, and used the Exodus story to illustrate these three stages:
Stage 1: Letting Go – Not only letting go, but to stop doing what wasn’t working before, and celebrate what was, but understand (and welcome) that God is doing something new.  There will be grief, and working through this grief process will prepare us for what is next.
Stage 2: Wandering in the Wilderness – He quoted Lord of the Rings “Not all who wander are lost” and said this stage starts after we have begun to let go and is the time of transition between what was and what will be.   It is preparing us for what is next.  Though we might not have known where the change was leading as we entered the wilderness, this process will ready us for it.
Stage 3: Starting New – The New can begin once we have freed ourselves from the power that what was had over us --and-- we have spent sufficient time in the Wilderness to really want whatever will be next.  "The trouble is," Dr Rendle said, "most people and institutions want to skip to stage three, without spending time in the Wilderness, and when it comes, they are not ready for it. You can't yearn for Egypt and enter Canaan. 

The next message was at Celebration Church was given by Priscilla Shiver out of the Dallas area.  Her text was Joshua 3, on the banks of the Jordan River, as they ready themselves to enter into Canaan. The message was about Joshua's leadership of the God's people into Canaan, but for our situation, it meant something completely different.  

Her three points were about leaving the Wilderness were: 
Act Immediately – if God said it, God will equip it.  God has already been at working before you showed up, preparing the situation for what is next.  It does not matter who you are if God is with you, you will succeed.  In an earlier story she quoted Luke 5:11
Act fearlessly in the face of insurmountable odds.  Over 300 times the Bible has some variation of the phrase “fear not”. But when you delay, and look deeply at the root cause of why you have delayed action, is that because you are afraid?  The longer you wait, the more you will see the reality of how bad things could be if God is not with you.  This is not of God but the evil one.  Act now like you believe what God is going to act because the Promised Land can be lost if we fail to make that first step.  She went into a great description of the Jordan River of that time, how the snow-melt was coming and the river was at its height of the season, and until Joshua stepped in the water, he had no evidence that God would stop the flow of water. 
Acknowledge God’s Presence before making a move.  “I’m giving you permission to get your feet wet!” even when you have no evidence that God is going to do what God said He is going to do.  God can see past what you can think and so give God the glory before you take your first step.  Joshua told the people "When you see the ark of the covenant of the Lord your God, are to move out from your positions and follow it.  Then you will know which way to go, since you have never been this way before."  When you see God move, acknowledge God, then get your feet wet.  

Ms Shiver then ended with the thought – if you act now, you might just become the one you have been waiting for, that sometimes all it takes is someone to start—and she used the example of Roger Bannister who was the first to break the barrier of the 4 minute mile.  The year after some 30 others did also.  It just took one to show it could be done, and then the people can follow.  So her point was that if you go ahead and act like you believe God is with you, “You just might be the one that you have been waiting for.”

So one message is focused on the Wilderness, the other on how to leave the Wilderness, and both fit our current situation so well.  Clearly, Suzanne and I are in the second stage of Change, the Wilderness, or confusion of the in-between  times, where we are letting go of the institutions that have directed the American Life we have lived.  As we understand what preparing for what our new lives will become,  I find my prayer life changing, and I’m having to pray differently, toward that part of “God can see past what you can think,” and so my prayers don’t feel on target yet, but as I pray though their wilderness I feel some movement on this journey.  Movement feels good, after all, God can't steer a parked car, and so if I want God to guide our lives, there has to be movement in them.  Wet feet. 

Tuesday, June 05, 2012

It’s the Rainy Season Alright! by Suzanne

The rainy season started just about when we arrived – a little early, and with pretty consistent rain – raining about every other or 3rd day, sometimes very hard.  You may have heard about the plane that crashed in Ghana on Saturday – it was during one of those very heavy rains, probably a contributing factor although nothing official has come out about it yet.  I was in Accra returning back to the guesthouse I was staying at right about when the plane crashed, although I didn’t know about it until church the next day.  It was one of those rains that even though I had an umbrella and we were just running from the restaurant to the car, we got soaked. Thankfully I was wearing flip flops – especially since when it rains hard the gutters overflow so Lord knows what you’re stepping in (up to the tops of your feet) to get to the car.  I definitely had a soapy shower when I got in, especially from the knees down!

Termites on our kitchen floor
The funny thing about Ghana and the rain – I say it’s a funny thing but it’s totally normal here – is that when it rains, especially if it rains hard, the power goes out.  Not just sometimes, pretty much every time.  I was talking to Nana my housemate about it this evening, when we were sitting in the dark because it was raining.  She said it’s been that way in Ghana since she was a kid.  She’s lived in the U.S. and also in The Netherlands so she knows that rain doesn’t have to mean no electricity, but in Ghana it just does.  I guess there’s something fundamental about the electric grid here that just doesn’t hold up to the rain.
Dead termites the next morning on the porch
The other thing I learned this trip was how termites swarm after a rain.  This was something I would have been just as happy not experiencing, but in truth it was actually more interesting than freaky (I will admit I was a little freaked at first).  So here’s what happened last Wednesday – it had rained during the day (and yes the light went off, but it was back on at that point), and Nana and I were having a nice dinner and chat in the evening.  It sounded like rain again, although there weren’t the other telltale signs of rain like wind, so I got up to look outside and I saw it: swarms of insects in our kitchen.  I exclaimed and showed Nana and she said, “quick, turn out the light and close the door (to the kitchen)”, so I did.  She calming explained that it was flying ants (termites, actually) and they often swarm like that after a rain.  They are attracted to light.  I was a little concerned (o.k., freaked) that I would need to be heading into the kitchen to do dishes before too long.  When I mentioned this to Nana she said not to worry, they’d be dead soon enough.  Huh?  Turns out the termites essentially flap their wings off, then they become big crawling ants for awhile, then they die.  Seemed like the end of their circle of life just took an hour or two.  So we went to a room full of a cloud of flying termites to a floor littered with crawling ants and their separate wings, to just dead bugs and wings.  I thought it was bad enough inside, but the next morning as I left to catch my ride I saw what awaited me on the porch – boy, am I glad I wasn’t OUTSIDE when that was happening!
Ashesi is just to the right of the middle of the photo,
on the second hill

So, as we were leaving Ashesi this late afternoon there were heavy clouds, clearly laden with rain, to the North.  I was thankful that I’d be home before the rain hit, I knew my colleagues who were going all the way into Accra wouldn’t be so lucky, and driving in Accra traffic is bad enough, it’s just awful in the rain.  When I got home and was opening my bedroom windows to let in the late afternoon breezes after the hot day (today was actually sunny and hot), I saw the clouds pictured lapping at the Ashesi campus on the hill.  Sure enough, after I was home maybe 45 minutes, the winds really picked up, then the rain started, medium rain then very heavy, then… the power went out.  I was grading and using my headlamp anyway (the overhead light in my room isn’t the best for reading – or maybe it’s my getting-old-eyes) so it didn’t really phase me.  By the way, I LOVE MY HEADLAMP!  With a good headlamp (and plenty of batteries), who needs light anyway?  (well, o.k., the water pump and water heater and electric kettle and refrigerator  are definitely nice to have…)
It rained hard again this morning - hard to
capture on camera
I opened the screen to take this photo - maybe
you can see how hard the wind is blowing in
the trees