The Buchele Adventure

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

Friday, March 27, 2015

I Have a Farm in Africa


Having a garden or compost pile is one of those things that makes a place feel like home. Since 1982, my first year at The University of Texas, I have almost always had one. It is also Biblical, “plant gardens and eat what they produce,” the prophet Jeremiah writes to the exiles in captivity[1].

So with the refrain from the 1985 Meryl Streep/Robert Redford movie Out of Africa, and the voice of Meryl Streep’s saying “I had a faaaarm in Africa,” I asked permission to open a garden, which I later learned would be a slash and burn of the bush behind our bungalow, but I didn’t learn that until after the deed was done.

I had a farm in Africa at the foot of the Ngong Hills…

Since I have almost always lived on the plains of middle America, I had visions of this garden being terraced, like the ones I saw in exotic Indonesia. Our bungalow on the University campus is at the top of a hill, and right outside our back door the land slopes off steeply. Perfect for a terrace garden.

Terrace farming is not something I have seen much of in Ghana, and when I asked a friend to arrange for a section of the jungle-like grass out back to be cleared, he said “No problem.” Could he also make it a terraced garden? “By all means”.

“By all means,” is something we say here when we need to say something, but don’t know what to say about the futility of what was just said. For example, if someone said “now that the U.S. Senate has changed hands, real governance can begin,” the only appropriate response would be: “By all means.” It means absolutely nothing.

One time I came back from my travels to the effect of slash and burn. The next time, it was cleared and there were garden beds. Garden beds, what happened to my exotic terraces? I thought. The beds were six to eight feet long, about two feet wide, with dirt mounded up. It looked like a graveyard of fresh graves.

I began planting in the fresh graves garden beds, basil, lettuce, tomatoes, lemon grass, cilantro garlic, and pineapple.


Pineapple – January 2016 it will be ready to pick. 

Dad said the pineapple used to be sold without the spiky tops because the top could be used to propagate another pineapple. I asked around about that here, but nobody seemed to know, even though Berekuso is known for its pineapples. I have not lived in a climate with a long enough growing season to see if it was true (pineapples take 18 months), so as an experiment, I added three pineapples to my farm. Why is obruni growing pineapples when plenty, plenty in the village?


Then the fun began.

Learning to garden in a new continent is just that. Learning. Learning what the weeds look like. For example, for the first month, basil will look strikingly similar to a common weed known as pig weed. And the second month, I learned that weed will grow spikes or thorns on its stem, making it a lot more painful to, you know, weed. It rightly called thorny pigweed.


This week is evil. 

But I did not know about the thorns yet, so I let them grow side by side, like in the Bible when the evil one sows tares (weeds) among the wheat, and Jesus says “Let them both grow together until the harvest” because removing the tares might damage the wheat[i]. It’s a parable about the Kingdom of Heaven, and how in the final judgment the good and evil that has been allowed to grow side by side, will be brought to an end.

While me and Jesus might be OK with having a weedy garden, the community wasn’t, and one morning I noticed someone spraying the garden. The next week I noticed how the weeds lost their vigor (read dying), along with my basil and cilantro losing theirs. No more spraying, I asked.



If I could have drawn a chalk line around the above plants to identify the bodies, I would have.

Isn’t the garden just a metaphor for learning a new culture, I thought to myself smugly each morning as I walked through this garden of mine. You bring your stuff, and locals have theirs, and the two grow along side by side, knowing that Jesus will distinguish between stuff that is part of the Kingdom of Heaven and the stuff that is not, because the difference are not always be readily apparent.


Sweet corn

This time I did a better job of keeping my graves beds clear of weeds, but weeds grow so fast here. Overnight they can grow 2-3 inches, and miss a day or two, and it looks like you have never weeded. Then they grow thorns, and I’m wondering if I should be weeding with leather gloves. By this point I can really distinguish the two.


Over the dry season, I created my first terraced plot, and put in Thai basil and cilantro.

The soil and climate are ideal for growing, which after years of gardening in Central Texas is new to me. One night I am so proud of the basil bed, and the cilantro is coming along nicely too. Lots of succession planting, so when one bolts, the next is ready. Thai soup and Suzanne’s amazing pesto are my dreams that night, broken by the sound of whack, whack, whack. Someone is in the garden, whacking it with a machete or cutlass, as they call it here.

“Oh noooooooo”, I shout running out there like Mr. Bill, half dressed. But I am too late. He’s dead Jim, almost all my basil and cilantro gone, weeded. Basil Bodies and Cilantro carcasses everywhere. The irony of the garden beds looking like fresh graves does not go un-noticed.

I replant, again. And again. And again, starting to feel like Steve McQueen in The Great Escape, getting thrown in solitary after each escape attempt-- KaThump--or in my case replanting attempt. [again this plays out much better in my mind]. I wonder if Meryl Streep had such troubles.

Start at 1:50 to see KaThump…

Steve McQueen in the Great Escape

Finally I asked that only I do the weeding, and if they still want to weed, that I supervise. So this is what it has come to, and I feel awful. Dreams of working hand and hand with the community get pulled from my brain.


Banana trees and our Bungalow.

Instead, I start spending more time in the garden, weeding almost every day. I get a locally produced rake, made from rebar, and it is perfect. Now when I’m in the garden, students or people from the village will often join me, pull a few of the thorny pig weed, and then move on after the conversation has finished.


Cocoyam with Ashesi in background.

I guess I am figuring out that gardening is not the solo occupation it was in the states, but more a community effort, like a relationship, that it works best when the maintenance is continual, instead of heroic.

[1] Jer. 29

[i] Matt. 13



cassava (old and new)

cassava, both old and new, and my Rocket Stove.


The student path to the private dorms.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Ghana has a Train

If my brother Rod were to come to Ghana, he would want to ride the trains. Rod is a train guy, and though I used to hop freight trains in my high school years, I’ve never grown to appreciate The Trains like my brother.

That said, I’ve wanted to ride the trains in Ghana ever since I saw one  pulling into “Circle” in Accra Central.



Trains would be the perfect intersection of adventure, misery, and unexplored territory.



Before I could ride the train, some reconnaissance was necessary.



The signboard leaving the Nsawam Station.

The Accra-Nsawam Train Shuttle Service begins in Nsawam, a busy town of almost 50,000. It is market day, so today it is especially busy.

I remember Nsawam from the days the Accra-Kumasi highway used to go it. Orderly colonial hilltop architecture meets modern Africa chaos punctuated by fresh oven-warm bread sold from any number of ladies heads.

Nsawam Train Station

Narrow gage, with steal rail road ties. 

The train is narrow gage and runs from Monday thru Saturday, if the equipment is working. On the Saturday I am there, not expecting to actually ride the rails but more wanting to know how I might, the choice wasn’t mine: “The engine is spoiled;” I learned.  “They have taken it to Accra for repair.”

Accra has this sort of mystical aura in Ghana, as if anything can be done in Accra, and anything that comes from Accra is better than anything available locally.


The door to the train office, that is not operational today, but neither is it locked.  What I want to know is why didn’t I open the door and look inside?

For example the eggs I buy in the village. “Where are these eggs from?” I ask.

“From Accra,” she says proudly.

“But what of the local ones?” I ask. There are chickens running around everywhere, and I see, in many back yards, laying boxes, and sometimes, children sent out to collect the eggs.

“From Accra is better.”

Nsawam Train Station: attached to the signboard is a clothesline

Train schedule: first class, about one dollar, second class, 70 cents.

I am sitting with two guys on the bench who very curious as why to I am here. One is a medical herbalist, and he wants me to follow him to his car, “the car is just there” to let him heal me of “aaaany disease.” Ghana has these all over, today I’ve snapped, as they say, pictures of a few:


Yes, Ghana has a lotto, and Spiritual Man can tell you its numbers next time. 


The Great Nana Ababio – Spiritual Father – for all your spiritual problems.


Apparently The Great Nana Ababio can’t physically protect his “office” he needs broken glass to do that.

“I am OK,” I tell the herbalist. Okay means good, sufficient, not wanting more, and very much unlike the American understanding of okay, which feels like it means less than good, but good enough to get by. Maybe the Ghanaian and American understanding is the same, its just that the Ghanaians –in their honorable since of fatalism--don’t expect anything more, and we Americans feel entitled to more.

“Really, I am OK.” I can smell the alcohol on his breath and think maybe there is a good reason why doctors don’t treat themselves, this guy has been sampling the goods.


Trains and Habours Police Office

The other gentleman on the bench and I can talk now that the drunk herbalist has left. “You want to go to Accra, why?” He has a daughter who lives in Baltimore, and works in a bank. He has been to visit her, and ridden the trains in America. “Much better,” he says.

Nsawam Train track switcher

Track switchers.

Nsawam Train Track Switcher

“You should take the lorry,” he advises using the older, colonial term from TroTro. “The lorry will take you much faster.” Then he advises the shared taxi, a taxi that drives a fixed route and a bit more expensive than the TroTro, (a small bus that only leaves when it is full, and by full I mean every seat is taken, every row has one more than it was built to hold, and what one would generously call an aisle, is packed full of standing passengers or livestock). “I want to ride the train,” I keep repeating.


Go right and you find the station.  Go left and you find someone’s home.

Finally he tries dropping taxi, a taxi, which after the fair is negotiated, operates like one would expect a taxi to operate, unless the driver picks other passengers going that way, and then I’m never sure if I am paying, or subsidizing this ride.

Nsawam Train" People live in the car on the bypass track.

This train car isn’t going anywhere, its somebody’s home.

I say “I want the experience of riding a train in Ghana,” and then he understands, but he confesses he has never taken this train, then what are you doing sitting here in the train station, I want to ask. But I’m not sure I want to know the answer.


It is then I learn why he has been suggesting so many other ways to go to Accra.  The engine is spoiled, and has been taken to Accra to be repaired.



Thursday, March 05, 2015

Meet Suzzy Phonecard

We started calling her that because, well, that’s where we bought our “pay-as-you-go” scratch cards that power the pay for cell phone service here. Suzzy Phonecard. Suzzy is a sweet young lady who turned 15 a few weeks ago, but had left school after the fifth grade. Suzanne and I were on a walk in the village when we ran into her, and she took us to greet her grandfather.

Suzi - Village People

We had been buying phone cards from this girl for a month or so before we learned her name was Suzzy. 

Each family has a different ordering of the same elements of a welcome to my ceremony. At Suzzy’s house they found some plastic chairs, sat Suzanne and I down in them, and presented two sachets of water on a platter. “It is our tradition to first serve you water,” Dan says formally. We really were not thirsty, but felt obligated to take them. I’m actually glad it came in the plastic bag. I’ve been with our colleague Mary Kay (aka GhanaWaterLady) who has been offered a glass of water from a questionable source, and watched her pretend to drink it (she totally pulled it off, and later I asked “did you really drink that water?!”)

Now Dan begins his welcoming ceremony. He is maybe my age, or a little bit older and sees himself as Suzzy’s father, though he is actually the father of Suzzy’s mother. Suzzy’s Dad died in 2013 from complications due to diabetes. Dan’s English quite understandable, and I never have to ask him to repeat himself so is easy to follow along with the ceremony, “In Ghana here we do…”. I jump on the narration hand off saying “Perhaps, you are wondering what our mission is?” Of course he knew, but that isn’t how the script goes. I tell the story of how Suzanne and I moved to Ghana about a year ago, and met Suzzy, buying phone cards. I say a lot more than that, after all this has to be a long and elaborate story, centering how impressed we are with Suzzy, her hard work, dedication and entrepreneurial spirit. Suzzy is positively beaming as I talk about her.


Suzzy’s phonecard stand.  She went to market and left this small boy in charge.  Yikes!


A week later, Airtel came through town, and suddenly the MtN yellow umbrella was gone.

Maybe nine months ago, when I first met Suzzy, she asked for help with her school fees, or at least I think that is what she was asking. Sometimes my ears won’t hear what she is saying (meaning I can’t understand her English). We didn’t know Suzzy that well then, but Nora had told me she was not attending school.

“Please, I want to go to school,” she said one day after I had bought phone cards.

I was a little annoyed Suzzy had asked so quickly, it’s a gripe I have with Ghanaians. May will ask for monetary assistance moments after meeting you (when the odds of you feeling like helping are almost zero, but likes to say no?!). If they would just wait a while, let us get to know you and your situation, then I’m sure we would be happy to help, but asked so quickly, we feel forced too. Meet an Obruni, ask for help. At least Suzzy had waited a few months, and since Nora, had shared with me her worries about the phone-card business keeping her from getting an education, I knew to be expecting the ask.

Suzi - Village People

Suzzy also helps me in the garden, planting coco yam, cassava and plantain. 

I told Suzanne, and we had prayed about it, and I told Dan the same in my rendition of our mission, added it felt like God was wanting us to help Suzzy with her education. Would he be OK with that? Would he give us his blessing? Next to Dan is sits Dinah, Suzzy’s mother. She isn’t feeling well, and her attention drifts in and out of the conversation, like when the light flickers, about to go off. After a while, she excuses herself, and Suzzy lets her chair sit empty, a child among the adults would not be welcome.


She came out to help Beautiful Berekuso clean-up day.

I suspect, like many other young women in the village, eight years ago her family decided they needed her to carry water, cook, or help around the house, and so she was dropped out of school, even through school is compulsory, and paid for by the government.

I had talked to Margaret, the Basic School HeadMistress. Margaret is an amazing administrator of the Basic School (primary through junior high). When she was appointed two years ago, graduation to high school was maybe one or two students, and last year, 31 passed the high school entrance exam. We have several on-going projects and I think work well together. Though I suspected she would say yes, she says “Yes,” with more confidence than I feel for Suzzy. “She would be invited. Do you think she will be able to do the work?” I tell her the same story I Dan would later hear, and she asks me to bring her by for an interview.

Suzzy studying after school

Suzzy hard at work studying after school in her container.

It has been a month and Suzzy is still in school, but no longer runs a phone card business. Suzanne and I struggle to find another vendor, especially one we like so much. She is a very brave girl to be returning to 5th grade, and I’m sure towers above her classmates.

When Suzzy turned 15, we (meaning Suzanne) gave her a birthday card from the US, and it had some birthday cash, and said we wanted to take her for pizza. “Have you ever had pizza?” Suzanne asked.

“Oh yes.” Suzzy’s English is improving.

We picked her at sunset in the Rhino, and drove the Kwabenya, two towns over where our friends the Jacksons had said there was a new pizza joint that used real cheese. But it was light off, or Doom-So as it is being called, meaning light off, light on. Tonight it was light off. The pizza joint couldn’t make pizza, or burgers. They could make chicken shawarma, French fries, fried rice, and grilled chicken.

“I thought we were going to Peter O’Quay to eat” she said. Peter is our friend and Ashesi driver. Suzzy had heard us say pizza, and thought Peter. It was a menu she wasn’t ready for. Funny, because we had passed Peter driving going the other direction and she hadn’t said a word.

She orders fried rice and chicken (the Ghanaian go-to dish of choice). When we travel its our joke, “and how will you have your chicken and rice tonight?” I wondered, would she know how to eat with a fork (she did).

She eats about half of the fried rice, and a few bites of chicken, and then stops.

Suzanne and I have been able to only eat one of the shawarma and are happy to wait for Suzzy to finish but seeing us stop eating, she is now suddenly finished too, and saves the rest for her mother and grandmother.

Chicken Shawarma

Chicken Shawarma – yum!

We add our other shawarma, and an enormous plate of French fries, and she will have enough starch that even Dan, and perhaps her two brothers will get to sample this strange Obruni food.

On the drive back I wonder, not sure where this relationship with Suzzy is going. She clearly has a lot of courage to build this fragile relationship with us (and go back to school). Along the way we pick up a third year Ashesi student, and the contrast couldn’t be more different. We easily chat with Esi about all sorts of things, and Suzzy sitting next to Esi adds nothing, watching her, as if through a window, peering into this conversation, but without ears that hear (understand) what is being spoken. Is this our hope for Suzzy? Is this where its all going? Is this even what we hope for?

I don’t know. I just know we feel led to help her get an education, and maybe she will do the rest.

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