Thursday, June 21, 2012

Ghana, Freedom, and I

          Welcome back to my final ghanabroad blog after a long two-and-a-half month hiatus! There isn’t much to say about why I haven’t written in awhile so I’ll keep it short because this post is already too long when kept in my head (and I tend to be even more long-winded when I finally put it down on the figurative paper). There isn’t much to say about it other than that the urge to write and reflect was no longer there – maybe the “newness” of life in Ghana wore off for a while, maybe me writing my thesis dominated the mental energy, or maybe I was just a little lazy. It was probably some combination of all three; anyway, as Forrest Gump would say, that’s all I have to say about that!
          I’ve been home for less than a week and I’ve gotten a lot of questions about my time in Ghana (often people just ask me how Africa was – next time I’ll respond by asking whether North America was just peachy while I was gone), and while the questions vary somewhat, there’s usually at least one in common: “so is the situation in Africa as bad as we hear it is?” My friends are asking me about poverty; and poverty, then, is what my final blog post is going to be about. However, my confrontation and subsequent reflection about financial hardship in Ghana was the topic of one of my earlier blog posts, so I figure I’ll talk about one of a different: a poverty of freedom.
           Eliya and I boarded a ferry for a short ride from Tangier, Morocco to Algeciras, Spain about a week and a half after leaving Ghana and I couldn’t help but find the quiet time on the ferry suitable for reflection. I mean, here I was in the middle of the a body of water called the strait of Gibraltar historically significant for its geographic connectivity, barely able to make out the distant Atlas mountains as the last remnants of Africa and the forthcoming mammoth - the rock of Gibraltar - marking the entrance to Europe. My thoughts drifted to Emanuel, the local friend I made in the Eastern coastal town of Ada Foah, who told me he hoped to one day make it to Holland so he could explore Europe and provide better for his family. Then I thought of Auntie Jane, an orange merchant in Madina Market, who spoke to me for a while about her business as a fruit vendor, but added as an afterthought that the real reason she was speaking to me was because maybe then I would agree to take her eldest daughter back to the United States with me. It became unavoidable, then, to remember the fact that after I take my leave on that airplane from Accra International, I will – in all good likelihood – be leaving the best friend I made abroad there for good. The ferry I was able to sit and contemplate on in that moment was so easy to take for granted, to think that it was worth only the financial value I assigned to the ticket (no more than three trips to chipotle). I don’t mean to perpetuate the myth of an isolated Africa – without a doubt the African continent has been deeply integrated to the world outside its borders for millennia – but there is no denying that although its perimeter is not insurmountable, for many within, it might as well be the end of their planet and the beginning of another. It almost brought me to tears that my friends would be looking at the rufous expanse of West Africa for the rest of their lives. Its not that the reddish-brown hue of palm nut soup, Northern clay homes, and Ghanaian earth is not beautiful, its just that it is not all that exists. And, of course, after further pondering and pointing the proverbial finger back home, this poverty of freedom was hardly a Ghanaian occurrence - it was just more apparent there because it is a land that is so foreign to me - there are more than enough constrictions back home to keep us busy for awhile, in fact I study those exact limitations as my capstone project for my anthropology degree. This is why I say that I am thinking about a different kind of poverty – this kind of poverty can be caused economically, politically, socially, and even psychologically – a poverty of freedom to explore our human universe with an unyielding curiosity for further understanding about our world enabling us an ability to more freely construct our own identity in relation to it.
          But perhaps this is all just me. Who says that I know better than the eldest teenage son of the local man in Imlil offering me his home as a bedrock for my trek up the High Atlas, who when probed about his ambitions for the future, told us travelers that he was content right where he was? But for goodness sakes, I told you all at the beginning, this blog will not be about Ghana but about ME in Ghana and how that experience has shaped me in my time there. The most important lesson I learned in Ghana was not about Ghana or Africa at all, but about me: the realization that my primary goal in life – rather than a search for a money, or love, or happiness – is a quest for freedom. Freedom of self-expression and self-construction, freedom of thought, freedom of being. Yet wealth can both free us and cage us, love is the much the same, and for me even happiness can imprison us in a jail of our own contentment. I could never be that teenage boy in Imlil, content in my little corner of the earth, because for me cornered is exactly how I will feel.  The only thing that can free is freedom itself, but it doesn’t necessitate the others as its enemies if one can find a way to approach them as allies in solidarity to freedom’s cause. I hope to become financially independent someday soon and remain that way, for worrying about the next paycheck is a preoccupation that seems to me to severely limit my human capacity. On the other hand, living with wealth can create an entirely new life architecture that can lead us in directions we might never before have cared about or valued – at its worst when these streets are cloaked in the shadows of the self-preservation of that wealth. I also hope to some day – gosh, not anytime soon though - find a partner in life that I will be forever falling in love with, seeing it rather than a burden and responsibility to another human being and instead as the highest manifestation of my ability to truly expand, express, and elucidate my being. I also hope to arrive at happiness – less in finding bliss which will often be absent in my drive for freedom likely necessitating considerable struggle, challenge, and frustration – but rather in creating it within myself and those around me regardless of my circumstances, like an endless supply of frozen pineapple juice scooped out of the top of its now decapitated cardboard container on a hot, sunny day in Legon.
           Thank you Ghana for what you have taught me, I hope in my time there these past six months and hopefully one day in the future I will be able to repay you.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

The Coming Ghanaian Revolution

          I was just beginning to become a little depressed here in Ghana – not sure of my purpose here on campus as I have a harder time learning and challenging myself each day as they becoming more monotonous and routine – but I had an experience today that exhilarated me to a point I have not yet felt here. My experience sitting in my economic anthropology class was refreshing beyond belief, hopefully both for me and for my local classmates. I am now going to turn that classroom inside-out, but with the exception of my agency in this vein, this must be understood to be a Ghanaian experience with Ghanaian actors and Ghanaian origin. Allow me to humbly refract the conversation I was a witness to only hours ago. A conversation about the coming Ghanaian Revolution.
          My economic anthropology course began as it always does, with the professor reciting to the class from his lecture notes. Today our discussion centered upon the Dependency Theory that held that “globalization and socio-economic inequalities among different societies are the result of historical exploitation of the poor, underdeveloped societies by the rich, developed societies.” Our professor, Dr. Fritz Biveridge, would routinely waver off onto heated tangents about the state of the Ghanaian people today. Today was no exception. He rejected the Dependency Thesis, he told us, because previously colonized countries that have had extensive contact with the developed, Western world have seen vast economic growth – citing examples like Brazil, Singapore, and India – while some countries that have had little contact with the Western world have remained stagnant, or worse, have taken a deeper nosedive. He explained that Africa is like a hungry man sitting on a gold mine, not noticing the changes needed to be made to make use of it. He exploded: “so my brothers and sisters, we need to do something. I am against the fact that a third of our money comes from the West - are we saying that without Western money we cant grow? How come countries like India and Brazil, also colonized, are today industrialized countries?”
But a student – whom I later learned was named Efriye (hope the spelling isn’t butchered) – could not hold himself back: “but those countries maintain their traditional ways of life to some extent.” This is what Kwame Nkrumah (Ghana’s first president) tried to do, he explained, not submit to either the straight-jacket of pure socialism or of pure capitalism but to synchronize the best of both models to fit Ghana’s culture and tradition. But since then we have gone astray, he contended passionately. First of all, from his 20 years of experience in over 5 churches, he has recognized that “[non-traditional] religion is not clean of blame.” Outcries were heard across the class, the loudest from the professor, but the young man courageously demanded he be heard. He described how men and women that can barely afford a meal will donate to the church – because it supports them in essentially meaningful ways such as marriage and funeral rites – but they refuse to pay taxes to the state. Instead, the money goes to pastors who are rich beyond belief: “but one pastor’s car can establish a company that will employ 20 people!” Even if they paid money to the state, politics are totally broken, he continued. His voice was getting louder, “Ghanaians, whatever their party, will remain loyal to it regardless of circumstance, instead of listening to their leaders’ policies!” All the politicians have to do then is earn and spend more money campaigning and earning allegiance without worrying much about making real change.
The professor, having listened intently, was visibly impressed. “This man has made some very good points, but I don’t think religion is to blame. It’s our attitude.” He talked about how people buy obscene, foreign-made gifts that they cannot afford for Christmas, how companies are not hiring nor training newly graduated students, how people carelessly throw their trash out onto the street, and how the University of Ghana would soon be available only to the rich. “The Minister of Health only visits the hospitals when the doctors and nurses strike.” But nobody speaks up! He then told us a story about his mother who was in a tragic car crash with a large truck that refused to stop and check what was ahead before making a turn. When she was sent to the hospitals, there were no doctors there because they were on vacation for Farmer’s Day, and she passed away soon after. He wanted to sue the doctor for malpractice, but he was assured that “doctors stick together” and that he would be testified against regardless of how just his claim was. “There is nobody in the world that I loved more than my mother! She might as well have been a million people to me!” he screamed, “There is no justice in this country! The whole country is sick! The politicians are sick! The financial institutions are sick!” People behind me yelled things like “we need a country overhaul” and “national re-orientation.” The professor closed: “In the next 3 years I foresee a revolution, not by the military, but by the people – you and I. And when that happens, you will see me in the front!”
In all my time in Ghana, this was the first time I was seeing real anger come to the surface over these issues, but it was obvious that it had been quietly simmering all this time. As I came up to Efriye after class to convey how impressed I was with him, it dawned on me that he seemed not to realize how much of an opportunity he had, in that moment, with the whole class behind him. Did those students merely go home, forget all about what had just happened, and return to business as usual? I hope not.  I hope some brave souls will be feisty, angry, and fearless enough to light a spark under the dormant Ghanaian volcano. I hope that the bitterness – as the professor cautioned – will not explode into bloodshed but rather gain power from a tradition of non-violence. But most of all, I hope that the Ghanaian people will not accept a life without dignity, but rather demand the life they deserve by Ghanaian means and to Ghanaian ends.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Spiritual Musings (continued)

I'm about to head to bed, but I have to share a conversation with you (it's just to pertinent to what I was writing earlier) I just had with Abdul before going to bed. Apparently, he had heard the preacher at 6:30am this morning too and decided that he has had enough with the preaching at obscene times (technically against school rules). He threw some water on his face before storming downstairs and interrupting the preacher: "Do you know that there are people still trying to sleep at this hour?" The preacher retorted, "But Jesus has told us to preach." Abdul couldn't stand it anymore: "You know, Jesus told you to 'do onto others as you would wish done onto you.' How would you feel if I came out here at 5:00 in the morning and began preaching about how everyone who doesn't accept Mohammed will go to hell?! Jesus commands you to preach, but he would never have preached like this!" I couldn't have been prouder of him at that moment, although maybe when he shrugged off his devoutly Christian roommate who frowned when he came back in the room is a close second. There'll be another preacher, and another, but I think the plan now is to get Abdul a megaphone and stand behind him next time it happens.

I love this guy - he's a thinker, he's fierce, and he's not afraid to stand up for what he believes in (even when it goes against the grain). I hope he'll write a blog post on here soon - I want him to introduce himself to all of you and allow you to hear straight from the horse's mouth.

Spiritual Musings

          One topic I’ve hinted at several times already in previous posts, but never got a chance to reflect on thoroughly, is religion in Ghana. There are some things you should know before I begin and that is my relation to religion – I am, and was raised, as a secular Israeli Jew that has no real interest for, understanding of, and draws no pleasure from spirituality. I rest somewhere in the realm between agnosticism and atheism – with absolutely no belief in a singular (apparently male) being called God who created the universe, humanity, and now commands us to live in certain ways that he deems good, just, and true (and a strange combination of distaste and respect for those who do) – but with an understanding that there is no way to necessarily disprove the existence of an intelligent origin of the universe. Who knows – maybe we’re just little creatures in some laboratory somewhere of a much more technologically advanced (and unimaginably gigantic) civilization? Regardless, I find no personal, social, or ethical gain from living observantly and – in fact – find it considerably irrational. Even if we all agree that God exists and has created us and the universe (which seems like an irrational starting point given the non-evidence for the assertion but let’s just give religion the benefit of the doubt), it would be logically irrational to follow God’s commandments because logical rationality is based on premises leading to conclusions within a closed system. If the conclusion “to follow God’s commandments” is a result of the premise “they were decreed by God,” would that not require a commandment by God to follow all of his commandments? But if so, would you not be already following God’s commandments by following that original commandment requiring you to do so… without an axiom that would lead you to that conclusion? Ah, but I’ve digressed. I do find the topic interesting to discuss, however, as I have many a time, primarily with religious/observant Jews (ranging from Eliya to Rabbi Kasher at Hillel to Shabbat dinner conversations with Rabbi Ezzy and Nechama of The Friendship Circle). In essence, the only meaningful understanding of the Bible for me is as a story written and rewritten by humans over the past few millennia and has influenced countless people the world over. The only meaningful understanding of my Jewish identity is as an ethnic cultural tradition that has given me, most valuably, a thriving community and friendships that have defined me foundationally; most likely, I will find it important to pass that heritage down gently to my children for that reason. 
            In Ghana, religion is one of the centers of daily life and my encounters are (until I travel to the Jewish enclave of Shalom Shalom) with religions that are not my own – generally different sects of Christianity if a Ghanaian is from the South and Islam if they’re from the North, and remnants of pre-colonial religious conceptions (such as witchcraft, juju, and “African power”) throughout.  What I heard before coming here – and has definitely proven to be true – is that Ghana is a very conservative religious society (so much so that religious ties usually supersede any others, including ethnicity, so a Muslim marrying a Muslim of a different ethnic group is fine but marrying a Christian of the same ethnic group is not), it is hard to find someone here who is not very religious (by my standards), you will pass by large groups of people chanting prayers and speaking in tongues late at night, and you will get woken up by preachers at odd hours in the morning. Just this morning, I was woken up by a preacher at 6:30am (that’s on a Saturday morning, my friends) - definitely irritated considering how hung over I was – who was screaming angrily on a megaphone about serving Jesus and repeating, over and over, how “the sinners should be killed.” Just peachy! So far, I’ve had some pleasant and not-so-pleasant run-ins with religion. I’ve had several really interesting conversations with my floormate, Alvin, about Christianity and we definitely respectfully challenged each other. He was under the impression that every American studying abroad here lacked much of a moral backbone and was really only interested in partying, doing drugs, and having sex. I assured him that although some of those were interesting, if that was all I wanted I would probably have stuck to Europe or Australia as travel destinations. I pushed back and complicating his contention that “everything that is Good in the world is God and everything that is Bad is Satan” by confusing him with what I believe to be the majority of life: the morally grey and culturally dependant (would you save a dying man in need of a transplant if his only option for survival is you killing a dying man in the next room for the organ?). He was left relatively speechless, and so has everybody else that I have challenged with this so far, when I questioned why he was so enamored by a morality professed by a religion that was brought here on the same ships that were used to traffic millions of Africans from this continent as slaves. I also really enjoyed Larbi’s sermon about humility and achievement at a birthday celebration on our Zoology fieldtrip. On the other hand, I’ve also had many unpleasant experiences ranging from being chastised for not seeing common sense and warned that I will go to hell if I don’t repent for my sins and accept Jesus (“would you rather stand in eternal fire or eternal water?” “ummm, if you stood in fire for eternity, wouldn’t you just end up getting used to it like everything else over time?”) to being what-could-only-be-described-as stalked to try to get me to come to Church. 
            So far, I’ve made two real reflections on how I feel about religion here. First of all, I have generally been received much better impressions by Muslims on campus than by Christians and have befriended them more – probably primarily because they, so far, haven’t at all been interested in making me become religious (all the preachers are Christian), have been understanding and genuinely interested when I say that I don’t believe in God, and - since, as a Jew, I often have more in common with the underdog - Muslims seem to be generally regarded with less respect by some here in the South. One of my best friends here on campus is Abdul, a devout Muslim (I didn’t believe that he prayed 5 times a day so he texted me starting at his first prayer at 5:00am), and we had one conversation last week that was just amazing. We were essentially hollowing ourselves out to each other – why we do what we do, what we’re passionate about, and where that comes from – and we realized that we have essentially arrived at very similar places (seeking to live good lives, helping others, caring about justice and equality and suffering, etc.) from two very different directions. For me, God had no place in my ethics – and in fact – if he did I would just feel like I was shifting responsibility for actions that were my own. For Abdul, none of his worldview – including his ethics – would exist without God and Islam, they are foundationally defined by it. I asked him about all the pretty horrible things done in the name of Islam (recognizing there are enough, if not more, horrible things done by Christianity and Judaism as well) and his reply was simple – one could call oneself a Muslim but misunderstand or manipulate the religion’s teachings, everything that he understood about Islam led him to seek a peaceful, just, equal, humble life bettering his corner of the world to the best of his ability. The second realization I’ve made is that although religion is professed to ensure a moral bulwark for religious communities, my experience so far (which I admit is really limited) suggests that this morality is really only practiced whole-heartedly only by the few leaving the majority of Ghanaians strangely hypocritical at times – it’s not uncommon in the slightest for deeply religious people to cheat on their romantic partners, for example. But hey, that’s no different from anywhere else on the planet, right?
            As a reaction to all of this, I’ve made a decision that might seriously surprise some of you: I have decided to read the English translation of The Bible (and afterwards The Koran) from cover-to-cover. I’ve decided this for several reasons – (1) firstly, I’m genuinely curious how these words on a piece of paper enthrall countless numbers of people and influence so much social action (2) secondly, if I reject religion as meaningful to me then, at least as a form of intellectual honesty, I must engage with it and (3) thirdly, perhaps it would lead me to a better of understanding of my own religion and maybe I’ll actually learn something. So far, I have been reading the Old Testament (or Hebrew Bible or Torah) including all of the Book of Genesis and sections of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. I’m guessing many people back home have, like me, never read The Bible or at least never cover-to-cover so I might be quoting some portions I find interesting in the coming blog posts, starting with this one. Again, read as much or as little as you like. You’ll probably find some of these off-putting, enlightening, and usually highly contradictory… but hey, that’s what the source of all perfection decided to grant us (ok definitely a little snarky there):

“So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” (Genesis 1:27).

“But for Adam no suitable helper was found. So the Lord God caused the man to fall into a deep sleep; and while he was sleeping, he took one of the man’s ribs and closed up the place with flesh. Then the Lord God made a woman from the rib he had taken out of the man, and he brought her to the man. The man said, “This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called ‘woman,’ for she was taken out of man.” (Genesis 2:20-27)

“To the woman he (God) said, ‘I will greatly increase your pains in childbearing; with pain you will give birth to children. Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you.” (Genesis 3:16)

“When God created man, he made him in the likeness of God. He created them male and female and blessed them. And when they were created, he called them ‘man.’” (Genesis 5:1-2)

“They called to Lot, ‘Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us so that we can have sex with them.’ Lot went outside to meet them and shut the door behind him and said, ‘No, my friends. Don’t do this wicked thing. Look, I have two daughters who have never slept with a man. Let me bring them out to you, and you can do what you like with them. But don’t do anything to these men, for they have come under the protection of my roof.’” (Genesis 19:5-8)

“Do not lie with a man as one lies with a woman; that is detestable.” (Leviticus 18:22)

“The men turned away and went toward Sodom, but Abraham remained standing before the Lord. Then Abraham approached him and said: ‘Will you sweep away the righteous with the wicked? What if there are fifty righteous people in the city? Will you really sweep it away and not spare the place for the sake of the fifty righteous people in it? Far be it from you to do such a thing – to kill the righteous with the wicked, treating the righteous and wicker alike. Far be it from you! Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?’ The Lord said, ‘If I find fifty righteous people in the city of Sodom, I will spare the whole place for their sake.’ Then Abraham spoke up again: ‘Now that I have been so bold as to speak to the Lord, though I am nothing but dust and ashes, what if the number of the righteous is five less than fifty? Will you destroy the whole city because of five people?’ ‘If I find forty-five there,’ he (God) said, ‘I will not destroy it.’… He answered, ‘For the sake of ten (righteous), I will not destroy it.’” (Genesis 18:22-32)

“There are regulations for any infectious skin disease, for an itch, for mildew in clothing or in a house, and for a swelling, a rash or a bright spot, to determine when something is clean or unclean.” (Leviticus 14:54-57)

“Abraham traveled through the land as far as the site of the great tree of Moreh at Shechem. At that time the Canaanites were in the land. The Lord appeared to Abraham and said, ‘To your offspring I will give this land.’” (Genesis 12:6-7)

 “Do not oppress an alien; you yourselves know how it feels to be aliens, because you were aliens in Egypt.” (Exodus 23:9)

“When an alien lives with you in your land, do not mistreat him. The alien living with you must be treated as one of your native-born. Love him as yourself for you were aliens in Egypt. I am the Lord your God.” (Leviticus 19:33-34)

 “Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against one of your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord.” (Leviticus 19:18)

“The Amalekites came and attack the Israelites at Rephidim. Moses said to Joshua, ‘Choose some of our men and go out to fight the Amalekites. Tomorrow I will stand on top of the hill with the staff of God in my hands.’… So Joshua overcame the Amalekite army with the sword. The the Lord said to Moses, ‘Write this on a scroll as something to be rememberd and make sure that Joshua hears it, because I will completely blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven… The Lord will be at war against the Malekites from generation to generation.” (Exodus 17:8-16)

“Anyone who curses his father or mother must be put to death.” (Exodus 21:17)

“While the Israelites were in the desert, a man was found gathering wood on the Sabbath day. Those who found him gathering wood brought him to Moses and Aaron and the whole assembly, and they kept him in custody, because it was not clear what should be done to him. Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘The man must die. The whole assembly must stone him outside the camp.’ So the assembly took him outside the camp and stoned him to death, as the Lord commanded Moses.” (Numbers 15:32-36)

“The Lord said to Moses, ‘Take vengeance on the Midianites for the Israelites. After that, you will be gathered to your people.’ So Moses said to the people, ‘Arm some of your men to go to carry war against the Midianites and to carry out the Lord’s vengeance on them. Send into battle a thousand men from each of the tribes of Israel.’ So twelve thousand men armed for battle, a thousand from each tribe, were supplied from the clans of Israel… [they] killed every man…’Have you allowed all the women to live?’ he (Moses) asked them. ‘They were the ones who followed Balaam’s advice and were the means of turning the Israelites away from the Lord in what happened at Peor, so that a plague struck the Lord’s people. Now kill all the boys. And kill every woman who has slept with a man, but save for yourselves every girl who has never slept with a man.’” (Numbers 31:1-18)

“When the Lord our God brings you into the land you are entering to possess and drives out before you many nations – the Hittites, Girgashites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites, seven nations larger and stronger than you – and when the Lord your God has delivered them over to you and you have defeated them, then you must destroy them totally. Make no treaty with them, and show them no mercy… For you are a people holy to the Lord your God. Lord your God has chosen you out of all peoples on the face of the earth to be his people, his treasured possession.” (Deuteronomy 7:1-6)

“When you march up to attack a city, make its people an offer of peace. If they accept and open their gates, all the people in it shall be subject to forced labor and shall work for you. If they refuse to make peace and engage you in battle, lay siege to that city. When the Lord your God delivers it into your hand, put to the sword all the men in it. As for the women, the children, the livestock and everything else in the city, you mate these as plunder for yourselves... This is how you are to treat all the cities that are a distance from you and do not belong to the nations nearby. However, in the cities of the nations the Lord your God is giving you as inheritance, do not leave alive anything that breathes.” (Deuteronomy 20:10-16)

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Chronicles of Adventure: Part 3

Hello everyone! I’m currently writing on the bus back home from my escapade in Northern Ghana this weekend (actually from Thursday before 5:00am until late Monday night) on a fieldtrip with my Zoology class – Wildlife Management. We had such a memorable time (pictures coming soon on facebook) feeding monkeys bananas and learning that they each receive burial rituals identical to humans at the Boabeng-Fiema Monkey Sanctuary, watching in wonder as my Ghanaian classmates acted more like the stereotypical Japanese tourist group at the Kintampo waterfalls (I’m not sure if they saw anything with their naked eye… seemed like it was all through a digital camera lens), getting down and dirty with nature at Mole National Park – Ghana’s largest and most prestigious wildlife sanctuary, and pretending not to be tourists at the oldest standing building in Ghana – the nearly 600-year-old mud-and-thatch Mosque in Larabanga. It was a bonding experience to spend so much intimate time with the class (including rooming with my new friends Dennis and Myers), a cultural experience trying new foods like Kenkey (fermented cornmeal dough dipped in spicy sauce with fish), Cashew Fruit (I didn’t know the nuts grew under a fruit, did you?), and TZ (a gelatinous cornmeal dough eaten with a local soup)… and a considerably alcoholic experience (there was a lot of waiting around so I can’t count the amount of beers I ingested) which made it even more enjoyable. Most of all though, it was a wildlife-filled experience! Here’s a brief summary of my (wild) animal encounters:

(1)    Seeing five different kinds of monkeys (Olive Baboons & Mona, Green Vervet, Patas, and Black-and-White Collobus Monkeys), some just an arms-length away.
(2)    Trapping and catching all kinds of colorful birds for study using a mistnet we set up ourselves - I want to say none were hurt in the process, but that’s just not true, which made me pretty upset.
(3)    Three kinds of antelope including Kob, Waterbuck, and Bushbuck skipping away just meters from me.
(4)    Reconsidering the plan to jump into a lake for a morning swim after seeing a creeping pair of eyes on the surface that later showed themselves to be one of the many Nile crocodiles in the water.
(5)    And probably most magically, I got probably less than a hundred feet from a herd of giant African Elephants on multiple occasions from thumping around and feasting on vegetation near the informational center to relaxing, wrestling, and spraying water on each other in a giant pool of water. I was definitely mesmerized - it was SO AWESOME!

Something else that has been on my mind lately, especially on this trip, is what has been ailing many academic classes I have generally avoided taking at Berkeley and am now dealing with here in Ghana. I was chatting and getting to know my roommate, and new friend, Myers when the topic of graduate school came up. He said that he’s been really thinking about trying to apply to some American Graduate programs in conservation-related ecology/biology – “but do you think it will be very hard for me over there?” I didn’t quite know how to answer – well, I knew exactly what I was thinking but I wasn’t sure if it was appropriate to say it – but I decided to be brash and say what was on my mind anyway… I hoped he’d understand without taking offense. “Ok, I don’t mean to be too critical here, don’t hate me but you know that presentation due this past week about elephants, carnivores, and other animals?” I began (I was in a group assigned to compile information about how one would recognize an elephant if one saw one – I tried to pretend that meant between different species of elephants – and some elephant ecology),  “well, that seemed like 5th-grade level work to me.” He burst out laughing: “5th grade?! Man, I thought you were about to say ‘freshman year of college’ or something. Really?! Fifth grade?!” He ended up whipping out the “5th grader” line for the rest of the trip, teasing me a little about it each time. I’m hopefully going to talk to him about it more soon, or maybe he’ll read this blog, and when I think about it again… I have to stand by what I said (ok, I can raise the mark to 8th grade if that makes him feel any better). This assignment was embarrassingly shallow, and it is emblematic of a trend I’ve noticed here (probably taken from the UK or US) of valuing learning “the facts” without further processing and valuing questions such as who, what, and where over how and why. This has been something that has made me want to tear my hair out since I began taking Physics classes at Berkeley, eventually switching majors to cure my itch: the yearning for depth.
I just can’t stand the rhetoric emanating from much of the scientific community – which has been modeled in many other “soft” science departments (how preposterous to call them that) like economics, political science, even too often in sociology and anthropology – that we are “shoving off old relics of traditional superstition, even religious teaching,” by teaching you “the facts.” They then continue, since pretty much The Enlightenment, to stumble around claiming they have found those facts (while constantly proving each other wrong)… all the while not realizing that there are NO facts without theory (when you say it’s a fact that you are looking at “the stars” at night remember that scientists used to see those little white dots as holes in a giant black sphere) and being completely blind – even though they claim to be the first to see – to the box (or is it a cage?) they have theoretically constructed for themselves that has been suffocated nearly all creativity, ingenuity, and depth from their students (with a few obvious exceptions). I remember telling my parents that I felt exactly that – feeling like I was being turned into a robot that was trapped in a box, gasping for fresh air. I’d say that I decided to leave Physics behind because of the same thing students are dealing with in Ghana – it is even more normalized here than back home – and they are not able to experience all of the five fundamental things that changed my world 2 years ago: (1) Ken Robinson’s TED Talk on Schooling and Creativity, (2) Lee Smolin’s The Trouble With Physics: The Rise of String Theory, The Fall of a Science, and What Comes Next, (3) Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, (4) a failed internship with the cutting edge Berkeley’s Sadoulet Group doing Cryogenic Dark Matter Search, and (5) an intriguing alternative presented by Laura Nader’s Anthropology course on Controlling Processes. I was interested in studying physics because I was captivated by learning about what was generally invisible to people, taken-for-granted by the masses, but I soon realized that there was so much invisible to physics (and to the scientific world-view more broadly) and hopped over to Anthropology which has revitalized me ever since – my professor last semester in had an amazing quote on our first day of class: "Anthropologists are trouble-makers. While other sciences and social sciences begin by teaching you to understand what the world has given us, anthropologists begin by questioning the given-ness of the world's categories."
 So regardless who you are that is reading this – in Ghana, the United States, or elsewhere – remember to push for deeper thought (or maybe this is just me reminding myself). I can think of three ways, right off the top of my head, to do just that. First, focus on the questions of “how,” “why,” and “what does that mean,” and ask them like a 5-year-old does. You know the annoying 5-year-olds I’m talking about, with their never-ending chain of hows and whys that leave you incredibly frustrated when you run out of answers. But it is exactly when the answers run out that you should get excited – that’s some intellectual gold right there! – and definitely an area to think about and explore further together. My dad used to say that he didn’t need to remember the exact math equations from decades ago because he understood what was underneath them and could recreate them with some pencil and paper whenever he wanted. This is exactly what lectures today need to be composed of – rather than the spewing of information to be copied-and-pasted by the student and regurgitated mindlessly on the exam some time later. Second, focus on the criticisms. Every arena (political, academic, etc.) has its biggest critics, and I have noticed that most often they come from within the arena itself. Find them, learn from them, and engage with them (you can imagine having a debate with them, as long as you keep yourself honest which is hard to do, or arrange a meeting for an actual debate). I have always been proud of the Jewish tradition I hail from for valuing rich debate and disagreement so highly, regardless of the fact that I think the mainstream establishment has generally discarded this. Critique breeds self-awareness and self-awareness is the key for my next suggestion. Lastly, focus on abstracting from the problem at hand, thinking “out of the box,” and you will be able to arrive at some profound paradigm shifts. . “Have you stopped beating your wife recently?” Yes! I mean no! I mean – blargh!  In Japanese, there aren’t just two answers to a yes-or-no question, but rather three: yes, no, and mu. Mu has been translated as “no thing,” essentially requesting that the question be unasked because the scope of the answer exceeds that of the question. Sometimes everything you have learned so far is just trapped in a little theoretical box, and once you have opened it and escaped, you will see that your thought now has so many more degrees-of-freedom. This is the hardest one to do – good luck with it J!
Anyway, now that I have thoroughly cleansed myself of that rant, I can finish off this post with another short anecdote. As we were packing our things to leave the North and return back to campus, I realized that this was my first excursion where nothing went horribly wrong (like not having enough money to get back from Keta a month earlier or getting stuck in the rainforest mud two weeks ago). We loaded our things onto the bus at the disgustingly early time of 5:00am (yes, that means I woke up before 4:30am) and took off shortly after. We had a long way to go and I could tell that the bus driver was antsy to get us home because he was speeding down the road – much faster than on the way here. Allow me to comment on the fact that even though I have said before that the roads in Ghana aren’t the best, the road out of Mole National Park is in the worst condition yet – most times I feel like I’m jiggling around the whole time but this road was more like an included rollercoaster. I fell asleep sometime early in the bus ride, only to be woken up to insanity. We had gone way too fast off of a large bump and everyone was now catching some air – we must have been at least 2 feet out of our seats to be exact since some people hit their heads on the roof of the bus. We landed, sounded like it crashed, and soon realized that the back of the bus was smoking. Guess I spoke to soon about nothing going horribly wrong earlier, eh? Turns out that the cooling system for the engine was upset about that fall and refused to work, leaving us going at low-speed for 10 minutes at a time, with 15-minute breaks for the engine to cool down. Some guy on a motorcycle even hunted us down and tried to sell us back a part that fell off the bus in the crash – he has some guts. After about 6-7 hours of heat, hopscotch, and snacks we ended up getting a mechanic to fix the bus but we had barely moved that whole time. After some thunderstorms and baboon-dung-infested air (someone apparently needed it for a project – was that really necessary?), we got home right before 2:00am which must mean that it was a 20+ hour bus ride that day (longer than the flight here from San Francisco). Check!

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Ghana + Anthro = Good Times!

            I’ve mentioned that I am currently doing anthropological research at the Madina Marketplace (just a 10-minute tro-tro ride north of campus) in past posts, so I wanted to fill you all in on what I’m doing. But first, before getting started on the meat of my blog post, I think I might start off with some quotes from my economic anthropology professor (this might turn into a series, depends on if he keeps being ridiculous). He goes on crazy tangents, likes to energetically talk about Ghanaian and world politics, and is very opinionated to say the least. He had some interesting quotes I wrote down yesterday that I thought you would find… interesting (keep in mind, this is a senior-level academic course – I have no idea how he got onto some of these topics):

(1) “Before I got married, I used to believe that love was the most important thing. It’s not true. Money is very important.”
(2) “What allows me to sleep at night is the knowledge that Good will always triumph over Evil.”
(3) “Everything that is predicted in the bible has come true.”
(4) “Gadgets don’t make you happy – only a woman can bring you happiness… when I was a bachelor, I always thought there was never going to be anything better. Now I realize how great marriage is: my wife cooks for me, my wife makes my bedsheets for me, and I even have someone to talk to.”
(5) “I believe the world will come to an end in the next 50 years.”

Not bad, right? Anyway, let me tell you a little bit about my research so you have a morsel of an idea about what I spend most of my time here doing (and hopefully learn a teensie-bit about Africa and Anthropology in the process). The way I’m going to do that is with splices of my ethnographic fieldnotes and a paper I wrote last week that might get published here shortly, along with other papers by California students. Feel free to read as much, or as little, as you like. First, the fieldnotes:

“Arrived via tro-tro at Madina market… As I step off the tro-tro, my senses are overwhelmed immediately: people everywhere, cars driving by the stop, the smell of trash in the gutters. There is a real life here – it might not all be pretty, often chaotic, but it’s alive.” 12:40pm, 2/14/2012

“Fortunately, on my way trying to find a stairway, I ran into Hannah at the foot of the stairs selling green leaf. She was very friendly, initiating the conversation (I have found that those who initiate are the most open to having prolonged conversations with me about the market)… I tell her I am interested in learning about the market and she seems receptive to the idea, nodding in approval. I ask about how she knows to set up here (it seemed like quite a random location, not particularly attractive as it is was right under the stairs to nowhere). She tells me that she is in the same spot every, single day. ‘But how did you know to set up here to start?’ ‘The Market Queen told me.’ Apparently, she told me that the Market Queen is primarily responsible for ensuring harmony among the sellers by solving conflict and maintaining order. If one misbehaved, the Market Queen could apparently blacklist the seller for 6 months as a form of punishment. When I asked, ‘what happened if one disobeyed that order by the Market Queen?’ Hannah just snickered and said, ‘you do not disobey the Market Queen.’ … It seems obvious, and essential, that I will have to interview a Market Queen for more in-depth information about this aspect of the marketplace. I was wondering why someone would buy Hannah’s green leaf over someone else’s; since she bought it at the market itself, there must be at least one other seller and there are probably many. The culture of entrepreneurship I have been brought up with in the Silicon Valley puts innovation on a pedestal, tweaking and inventing in a way to make you and your product unique. In Madina market, though, products were hardly unique, with many sellers having absolutely identical products with no distinguishable difference in quality (at least to my untrained eye). I asked Hannah about this. She told me that she has ‘her (regular) customers’ that she meets in much the same way she met me, starting a conversation and being friendly. It seems as though products here are not bought because of their unique or innovative nature, but because of the social relations surrounding the seller’s interaction with the customers. Those who one has good social relations with support the seller by buying their product consistently. Would it be a stretch to label the seller’s interaction with me and other would-be friends/customers marketing? Perhaps the important question is: would Hannah call it that? And what understandings would that lead us to?” 9:15am, 2/22/2012

“I… hustled over to the electronics shop, scared that they had already been setting up, only to awkwardly jump out of the way of a man carrying two chickens dangling from each arm, land on another man’s foot, and proceed to be yelled at as I scurried away.” 6:22am, 2/28/2012

Next, the paper. If you thought my writing was a little over-the-top in some of these blog posts, I apologize ahead of time for my writing in this paper… unfortunately, I am a Berkeley student:

“When I mention my interest in trying to explicate lessons from the interplay of business cultures between one of the world’s preeminent hubs of ‘modern’ entrepreneurial activity – California’s Silicon Valley – and one of the world’s historic centers for ‘traditional’ economic exchange – the Ghanaian marketplace – I generally receive either blank stares, or worse, muffled laughter. My intellectual curiosity has generally led me to seek out paths that have been placed out of the contemporary realm of thinkable thought; thus, I choose to regard the balking of my interlocutors as a sign that I have stumbled on an avenue of inquiry with profound opportunity…
(large portions cut out)
… For brevity’s sake, we must fast forward to Ghana’s Independence in 1957 – and as the first African colony to shake free of colonial hold – Darkwah depicts Ghanaians as filled with ‘great expectations for the economic fortunes of the country’ owed to an economy comparable to any other middle income country citing, as an example, Ghana’s 66% larger real GDP per capita over South Korea in 1960 (Darkwah 2002: 40). Unfortunately, the state’s initial success did not last long. Ghana’s average annual GDP growth rate went into the red between 1967 and 1984, inflation rates hovered at an annual 55% with a peak of 123% in 1983, and the state lost its status as the world’s leading cocoa producer in 1979 leaving the state ‘clearly fallen into the ranks of the low-income countries of the world.’ Darkwah introduces two common explanations for these failures: one economic and one cultural.  The economic argument focuses on Ghana’s ill-advised domestic economic policies; Darkwah highlights the ‘fixed exchange rate policy and expansionary fiscal deficits financed by excessive borrowing from the banking system.’ She then goes on to focus on the cultural argument, in line with Chamlee-Wright (1997), that Ghanaian governments from independence until the mid-1980’s were considerably antagonistic and neglectful of the indigenous marketplace – a mistake inherited at least partially from past colonial powers - which considerably harmed prospects for development by turning a blind eye to female Ghanaian traders as a potential economic backbone (Darkwah 41-55).
In attempt to revive its floundering economy, Ghana was forced to adopt a structural adjustment program to appease the conditions for a loan from the World Bank and International Monetary Fund in 1983 and remains the only African country to avoid deviation from the program making it ‘the World Bank’s bright and shining pupil’ (Darkwah 56). The International Financial Institutions (IFI’s) were now in charge and the goal was to liberalize the market – allowing the ‘invisible hand of the market’ to operate freely – employing the archetypal neoliberal cocktail of encouraging foreign direct investment, cuts in state spending and regulation, and the privatization of state industries. Foreign goods flooded the Ghanaian marketplace. Darkwah quotes a relevant statement from an interview conducted by Lynn Brydon in Accra: ‘[before liberalization], plenty money, no goods; now, plenty goods, no money’ (Darkwah 62). Although the IFI’s have attempted to tread in a more collaborative direction since the 1990’s, whether a true partnership with local stakeholders is in place and bearing fruit in terms of the Ghanaian economy is still yet to be seen. If I had to draw conclusions from the minor ethnographic data I have collected thus far at Madina Market so far, it would seem that results still remain at a distance. Informant reports of customer crowds dwindling and growing complaints of empty pockets coincide with a steady economic decline in Ghana since 2008 caused by the simultaneous dual tragedies of a serious food production shortage and dramatic increase in oil prices (Timoney 2011: 62)…
*I have learned since writing this that Ghana apparently had a record economic year this past year, so this is to be re-evaluated*
(large portions cut out)
… In carving away at several theoretical models – assessing, discarding, and combining them by applicability to her context – Robertson constructs a theoretical path that will serve as the foundation for her research; the forthcoming is an initial, admittedly quite incomplete, attempt to do the same. As a student of cultural anthropology, my first clue arrived in the very name of my discipline. Culture is generally understood to exist in the realm of the superorganic – ‘whatever transcends the biological individual’ as Alfred Kroeber put in his monumental Anthropology: Culture Patterns & Processes (Kroeber 1963, 1-6) – but in attempting to operationalize the concept so as to enact it theoretically, anthropologists have gone in a variety of directions. Cultural analyses are foundationally divergent when defined either holistically (Tylor 1871), dynamically (Boas 1940), functionally (Malinowski 1922), structuro-functionally (Radcliffe-Brown 1952), structurally (Levi-Strauss 1958), or cognitively (Goodenough 1957). Due to the limitations of these conceptual frameworks – as anthropology reckoned with a reflexivity attacking strains of positivist, behaviorist, and modernist approaches – some anthropologists sought to understand culture differently via symbolic interpretation (Geertz 1973; Ortner 1984) while others began to steer away from culture as a concept and toward practice (Bourdieu 1977), power (Foucault 1977), self-reflexivity (Marcus and Fischer 1986), simulation (Baudrillard 1994), ethics (Scheper-Hughes 1995), controlling processes (Nader 1997), and much more.
Not shy of eclecticism, perhaps a combination of some of the most applicable of these later theoretical models would prove potent, and therefore, a look at (business) organizational anthropology might be worthwhile. Since both culture and organization are images of order, collating patterns to dissolve the chaos of our social world, they are likely culprits for fusion (Smircich 1983: 341). Throughout the 1960’s and 1970’s quantitative approaches called Organizational Climate Studies reigned supreme, but their effectiveness was brought into question with a boom of business anthropological study in the early 1980’s inspired by the potential – although lacking anthropological rigor – of a book titled Corporate Cultures: The Rites and Rituals of Corporate Life (Deal and Kennedy 1982). Rather than introducing culture as a mere variable that functions to define an organization, anthropologists ‘left behind the view that a culture is something an organization has, in favor of the view that a culture is something an organization is’ (Smircich 347). Leaving grossly oversimplified definitions of ‘weak’ and ‘strong’ culture far behind, we arrive at a prominent theorist of organizational culture – Edgar Schein.
Schein uses the word culture as a domain representing the accumulated shared learning of a social group which – when operationalized as a concept – provides structural stability, depth, breadth, and integration to several other relevant concepts including norms, values, behavior patterns, rituals, traditions, etc. (Schein 1992: 14-17). He depicts the five levels of organizational culture, from shallow to deep, as follows: artifacts and symbols, patterns of behavior, behavioral norms, values, and fundamental assumptions. Schein goes on to define organizational culture formally as ‘a pattern of shared basic assumptions that was learned by a group as it solved its problems of external adaptation and internal integration… [and is] taught to new members as the correct way to perceive, think, and feel in relation to those problems.’ Although Schein’s relationship between leadership and culture, as ‘two sides of the same coin,’ is intriguing, it must be coupled with more gradient, processual, power-sensitive, polyphonic, and contested understandings typical of post-colonial anthropology (Mahadevan 2009). Another synthesis of value is that of practice theory – understanding culture as something an organization is because it is something that an organization does (Jarzabkowski 2004). It would be hardly suggestible that I have in any way become a rigorous scholar of all these theoretical models, but it is my stern belief that dedication to comprehending, enacting, and integrating them to the best of my ability would only lead to more depth and innovation emanating from the intersection of Silicon Valley and Accra…
… In her work on Asante market women, Clark notes that:
Traders who accumulated more and survived serious crises better had a greater tendency to have stronger vertical linkages with individual customers or stronger horizontal ties with colleagues in formal groups or informal sets than others… personalized commercial relations give traders a chance to improve their control and utilization of critical market resources such as credit, information, and transport without putting additional capital at risk (Clark 216).
Preliminary findings from my ethnographic work in Madina elaborate on this fact. For example, I asked Hannah – a small-scale seller of kontomire (green leaf) in the central market – why customers would choose to buy from her rather than the many others selling kontomire when both the quality and price of the product is nearly identical. She replied, as if obvious, that she maintains a collection of ‘regular customers’ that she meets in the same way she met me – by being outwardly friendly and engaging people walking by in conversation. Plattner recognized the same phenomenon across marketplaces: ‘most shoppers have personalized economic relationships with some vendors, who reserve special items for them and minimize the bargaining required to get a fair market price’ (Plattner 174). This was a novel experience for me, hailing from the Silicon Valley where selling a unique product or service is believed to be crucial for success. Here, in the land of low income and lack of insurance, success was safer when nested within social relations because ‘the seller’s desire to stabilize and regularize their incomes and the buyer’s wish to do the same for their value over the long run’ mitigate risk and construct an equilibrium of reciprocity where short-term killings might be turned down for long-term value (Plattner 212). But was this really so different from what was happening back home?
Companies back home – including Ebay, Zappos, and even Microsoft – are seeking to reduce the degree of separation between executives and the ‘average Joe’ by curbing practices such as executive offices and parking places. Google and Facebook are commonly known as innovators of ‘corporate culture:’ demanding flat hierarchies for better exchange of ideas, motivating their employees with passion, joy, and camaraderie rather than just the paycheck, and mysteriously emanating a youthful innovative drive that somehow has not yet run out of fuel. In my time with Quixey (for example), although informal, it seems that they seek to really be on the cusp of this trend and find new ways to combine productivity, passion, and loyalty among the company community. In fact, many of their employees (whether CEO, engineer, or intern) have known each other for years before the company’s inception and it is company policy that every employee must facilitate a session in their Weekly Seminar Series to share their talents or knowledge with the whole office – truly a one-of-a-kind phenomenon. Could we be seeing a reintroduction of personal economic relationships into the theoretically cold, rational, and atomistic capitalist market – perhaps one could even call it bringing Accra to the Silicon Valley? And if so – what opportunities does that create, what are its consequences, and how can we better understand its dynamics so as to steer it in the direction we choose to? These are all questions to continue pondering and I hope this study will bring us closer to more definitive answers – but more importantly – more riveting questions.”

Woah, you made it to the end of the post - I’m impressed! For that, you get an ecstatic *high five* and a healthy dose of fan ice (if you can come over here to collect your prize)!

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

The Traveler's Bible

          If you’ve been reading my blog posts, you might have already noticed how religious the vast majority of Ghanaians are (dominantly Christian in the South and Muslim in the North). In case you’re still a little unsure, let me put it this way – one can be kept awake at midnight by crowds chanting in tongues on the field outside, one can be woken up at 6:00am by the variety of preachers lined up in front of nearly every dormitory yelling at the top of their lungs (no wonder their voices are so raspy) about Jesus, and one can be hunted down at any point in the day by that one-guy-you-mistakenly-struck-up-a-conversation-with-in-front-of-their-church-and-now-won’t-leave-you-alone-about-joining-him (mine is named Kenneth). I hope to write a blog post about my encounter with religion here soon, but today I am interested in an entirely different kind of bible… The Traveler’s Bible.
          There are rumors of a Traveler’s Bible, an ephemeral tome sacred to the lone traveler, for it contains only the wisest advice of the most experienced travelers who have walked in their footsteps before. Maybe this relic exists, maybe it’s just folklore, but I’m hoping to start a collection of my own little kernels of knowledge that I’ve gained so far that will work their way - here and there - into my blog. Maybe one day, if you stumble upon it, you’ll find them in the Traveler’s Bible…

         … until then, we begin with a story of this past weekend’s adventure. Seven of us woke up before dawn on Saturday morning (can you even call it morning when the sun isn’t up yet?) to get a head start on our travels for the weekend. Our Destination: the West coast of Ghana and the prized gem of any “crunchy” nature buff - Ankasa Protected Area. Ankasa is regarded as having the greatest biodiversity of any reserve in Ghana – with up to 870 vascular plant species so far on record, more than 600 species of butterfly, and all ten of the forest primates found in Ghana playing somewhere in the evergreen rainforest (including chimpanzee!). We weren’t fazed by the park’s monstrosity, however, and were ready for some serious hiking and sightseeing! The trip there is the longest I’ve been on so far: about an hour down to central Accra, four hours to Takoradi (the Western public transport hub and the site of newfound oil on Ghana’s coast), and another 2-3 hours to Ankasa whose Western edge almost grazes the border with Cote D’Ivoire. We hired a tro-tro from Takoradi, on which I was able to finish Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (amazing book and definitely needs a re-read right away to think more about it), which raced down the road, dangerously passing slower cars as Ghanaian drivers always do, to our destination. It seemed as though the driver knew where he was going, not least because there wasn’t anywhere to stray off to (one major road leading in and out of the park), so we let him take the lead since we weren’t quite sure what our plans were, where to stay, or much about the park other than the few paragraphs written in our guidebook.

Lesson 1 - Always Take Primary Responsibility Over Your Own Safety: rather than assuming the driver knew where to go and putting our future in only his hands, we should have communicated with him better and figured out that he had never actually been to Ankasa before. It turns out that tro-tro’s aren’t allowed past the main gate and we would have saved ourselves a lot of grief if we had asked for directions in the villages before the park and figured that out.

          The road was quickly becoming more and more treacherous, going from pavement to gravel to just dirt eventually. We passed what seemed to be the main gate and a little cabin with a sign saying “Akwaaba” (welcome), slowed down, honked, and drove on when it seemed like nobody was there to greet us. Soon enough, we came upon some giant mud-filled puddles, but for some reason Francis (the driver) was confident enough in his (as-close-to-broken-down-but-still-running-van-called-a) tro-tro and driving abiliy to maneuver around them. I remember him going through a particularly deep pool of brown mud and water, almost losing traction, but making it across – all of us erupted with applause as he gave us a little smirk to show how pleased he was with his driving skills. Unfortunately, we celebrated too soon.
          We didn’t make it past the next big puddle. I couldn’t open my door, so I hopped out of the window as the first to witness the insanity of what just happened (some others took pictures so look out for them on facebook). The tro-tro was sitting in a giant mud puddle, with most of the right wheels literally under the mud, terribly stuck with wheels spraying gunk all over the place as the driver slammed the gas… only to sink deeper into the sludge. We were there for about an hour, covered from head-to-toe in mud by the end of it, hopelessly trying anything to free the car – we ripped large branches off the nearby trees to put under the tires for traction and we all pushed together as Francis gunned the gas back and forth. We eventually gave up, excited to call this the beginning of our adventure, and started hiking up the dirt road to try and find some help.

Lesson 2 – Especially In Times of Trouble, Attitude Can Make Or Break You: at one point later in the night, when things got a little worse, my adventurous attitude settled into a considerably frustrated, hungry spat. I knew that I would only do the group harm by complaining, so I got quiet (which was also noticed) and just tried to take some alone time to get my attitude back in order before getting back with the group. We would later share stories about our lowest points on the trip, usually when we were having some bad thoughts and were getting scared for what could happen, and its at these times that attitudes make or break you. A bad egg can ruin the trip for everyone and a good egg can raise everyone's spirits and get you out of trouble!

          We were probably hiking with all of our gear for 4-5km when we saw a little wooden bridge leading somewhere on the side of the road… civilization?! Nope – just an abandoned campsite that seemed like it used to be some sort of children’s camp but now was just broken down and collecting cobwebs. Some of us thought about turning back since it was going to get dark soon, but Eliya noticed that our guidebook said that there should be a second campsite just another kilometer down the road. We decided to go for it and the gamble paid off – we ran into human beings! It was just our luck that we ran into what must have been the nicest fellow travelers on this side of the planet, Tom and Jodi, who (after hearing about our accident) didn’t even catch our names before coming up with a plan with us to try and free our car tonight.
We made off quickly - with just enough sun out to grab some (mostly broken) shovels, buckets, and a pickaxe – and headed back down the trail as the darkness encircled us. All of us, including a somewhat frantic Francis, got in the back of Tom and Jodi’s pickup truck, which was much more powerful than the tro-tro and made it through the mud, just as the volume of the rainforest came to its peak: frogs croaking, insects chirping, the rhythmic squawking of an annoyed bird, and the occasional deep bellow that must have been a howler monkey. We drove back to the site of the tro-tro and spend the next (very sweaty) hour or two trying inventive ways to free the beast. We didn’t quite have enough tools to spread around but we did our best: bucketing the muddy water from the puddle to the vegetation, removing the now-hardened clay-like mud gripping the car’s differential, and trying to dig a levee so the water would flow away from the tro-tro. Exhausted, and without too much to show for our efforts, we made two valiant attempts to try to push the tro-tro out with Francis at the helm smashing the gas. At one point, I thought we were going to make it – Tom called the rescue an example of “African Magic” since it exemplified what a little ingenuity and a few somewhat functional tools can whip up – but the mud held out as the forest had its way with us and we had to call it a night. We didn’t have much to eat and were running low on water, with many of us (including me against Eliya’s better judgment) making the silly assumption that there would be some provided here (otherwise, how do the rangers or staff eat?), but Tom and Jodi generously shared some of their food with us so we wouldn’t be left with our measly handful of hard-boiled eggs, popcorn, and crackers.

Lesson 3 – Like a Boy Scout, “Be Prepared (for the Worst)”: I always remember my dad saying this to me as we got ready for our trips. Devin chuckled at my stuffed backpack - telling me that he only takes some spare clothes, a toothbrush, and some money when he travels - but I think I got the last laugh. I definitely learned my lesson on my last trip to Keta when I ran out of money and couldn’t make my way home. This time, I kept 30 cedi in a hidden pocket in my backpack as emergency money and packed some essentials that really came in handy!.The most useful were my camelbak, a long pair of khakis to keep out insects, and my amazing, waterproof (and mud-proof) hiking boots that kept my feet dry and clean. I remember some of us - on the other hand - had nothing but open-toed shoes, shorts, and almost no water with them!

          We ended up singing songs, reading stories, and chatting until what seemed like the wee hours of the morning (but was actually probably no later than midnight) and all seven of us passed out lying on the mega-bed we created in one of the cabin rooms. We woke up at 6:00am, with the sky just beginning to transition from a deep black to a lighter grey, drank some water (we had no more food for breakfast) and made our way on a morning hike. There was a trail leading out of the camp and to the bamboo cathedral (pictures are up on facebook), which was just breathtaking. Gigantic collections of bamboo stalks lined the vegetation as the trail led to a shallow creek that we washed our faces in. We spent the next two hours exploring the tiny trails in the area: fighting off insects, hearing monkeys everywhere, and really hoping to run into a clearing with some elephants at a watering hole. Unfortunately, the closest we got to an elephant is through its excrement, but we were excited about that anyway! We made our way back to the camp just in time to see a victorious Francis, who snuck away before we had even awoken, roaring into camp with some wildlife management staff on a giant tractor – they freed his tro-tro! After some rest and relaxation, Tom and Jodi agreed to load us into their pick-up truck again and drove us out of the park and a considerable distance closer to our next beachy destination (in the town of Busua). They really saved our day.

Lesson 4 – What Comes Around Goes Around: When we stopped by some small food-stands after leaving the park (we LOADED up on water and wolfed down some snacks), I offered to buy Tom’s drink as a little gesture of thankfulness for all he and Jodi did for us this weekend. He kindly turned me down, smiling, and said something to the tune of: “are you kidding? Do you know what others have done for us when we got into trouble in the past? What comes around goes around, right?”