Monthly Archives: December 2011

Where are you Volunteering?

This is a tough question. It’s something I get asked on a daily basis. It comes mostly from Ghanaians, which seems pretty perverse to me. It’s less a question than an assumption. Many Ghanaians have been conditioned by hoards of well-meaning voluntourist westerners to assume that their culture only merits a humanitarian visit. That’s an inferiority complex if I ever saw one.

I’ve met many volunteers here. Almost all of them have either worked in healthcare or education. Some have had a fulfilling time. Many have not.

Thus, I think a more appropriate question is:

Why are you Volunteering?

Don’t get me wrong. There’s nothing inherently wrong with foreign aid. There’s also nothing inherently wrong with volunteering. But many people come to Africa expecting some sort of moral clarity, given their gifts of western knowledge and experience, and end up feeling shorted. Inexperienced volunteers in healthcare and education are often surprised at how little they’re able to offer. Inexperienced volunteers in manual labor often end up surprised at how much they’re undermining local economies by providing free labor.

There are plenty of amazing organizations in Ghana doing innovative, necessary work and approaching problems holistically. However, they’re all run by experienced aid workers.

Though I can only speak intimately of my own experience, In meeting fellow volunteers, I’ve come across a common complaint. They feel like their tenure not so effectively masked a greater problem: their school or hospital needed money and a more effective administration. It didn’t need a poorly trained, inexperienced westerner trying to “make a difference.” In fact, when I volunteered at a school in Anloga, that’s the last thing it needed, because all I did was reinforce the fact that rural Ghanaians apparently cannot effectively teach themselves English. For the record, this is not true.

In my next post, I’ll talk about my experience volunteering at the school.  For now, enjoy these pictures of puppies and a warthog.


Merry Christmas from the Muslim World

Though I’m not finished chronicling my time in Ghana, here’s an update: I’m currently in Bamako, Mali, and aside from a few regaling expats, no one seems particularly aware that it’s Christmas. Ok,. that’s a lie. I’m currently staying with a Cameroonian family. They’re Christians, so I’ve managed to find a somewhat authentic way to celebrate Christmas here. I miss my family though. Still, I can’t help but marvel at the lack of shopping mall Christmas music, which is pretty nice. For the first time in my life, I’ve managed to miss out on the entire holiday season. Muzak renditions of Little Drummer Boy have been replaced by griots, catchy but generic Ghanaian hiplife harmony has been replaced by meandering, melismatic Wassoulou melodies.

In Accra, I’m sure people are celebrating heartily: going to church, dancing, eating inhumanly spicy things with large rodents (believe it or not, it’s delicious). Do I feel like I left Ghana a little too early? Maybe. But I’m alive and happy in Mali, my soundtrack is much more up my alley, and it’s not too hot to sleep at night. And for that, I’m thankful.

In the meantime, here are a few selected photos from my time in Mali. More to come.


Today, as I exited a tro-tro at Kaneshie station, my left leg buckled, I dropped my bag and I fell to the floor. My leg felt so numb that I couldn’t move it. I tried standing up, but instead fell back down. I thought of the cut I’d received on my foot a few days prior and realized I hadn’t dressed it or sterilized it since the initial bandage. In a split second, all of the friendly warmth and open hospitality of Africa turned sinister. Panicked, I recalled the inhospitable Africa: the land of microbes, amoebas, a complex patchwork of disease vectors. I could see myself looking back, pinpointing this exact moment where my trip went south. I envisioned a series of hospital visits, an I.V. of antibiotics affixed to my leg, a doctor shaking his head as he prepares to amputate my gangrenous foot.

Of course, my leg had just fallen asleep.  Tro-tros are cramped, and in my case, I sacrificed circulation for thrift. But that’s what the myth of Africa can do. It turns a small thing into a big thing, a big thing into an even bigger thing.

There’s always been a sort of mystique about this continent. Since day one, European explorers embellished danger, invented adventures, and highlighted cultural oddities. Even contemporary travel writers often still see Africa as a place to be conquered, the last vestige of a chaotic and dangerous world elsewhere too muted by comfort and technology. I’m more content to ignore these things, downplay them almost to a degree of naivete. Still, I have some daily reminders.

Locals often laugh at my intake of malaria prophylaxis, my application of sunscreen and bug spray, my insistence on drinking at least 3 litres of water per day.  They see me as a neurotic, overly cautious westerner, swayed by sensationalized stories of malarial fatality, cursed with skin so vulnerable to the sun’s unforgiving mercy. In the U.S., the mere mention of someone’s race is a risky dance through a minefield, a maneuver so inexorably linked to a complex history of coercion and oppression that without adequate cultural context, it’s almost impossible to decipher. Here, not only is it acceptable, it’s encouraged. These daily routines make it a practical element of my identity, and complement the less subtle catcalls I constantly receive.

I often receive frantic bits of advice from strangers, eager to help me navigate this supposedly dangerous terrain. Nowadays, however, their warnings are decidedly more contemporary, their concerns more metropolitan. I’m warned of upcoming potholes, not to walk near the sidewalk (ie. the street), and not to eat from certain food stalls. They groan sympathetically when I abrade my mosquito bites, and offer me directions even when I don’t ask for them. On at least five occasions, someone has warned me that the corner of a cedi was sitting visibly in my pocket.

The truth is, no matter the century, no matter the context, I’m an interloper in this place. And I always will be.

Why I’m So Glad I Came to Africa for Four Months

Today I sat on the patio. I read, ate a lunch of rice and sauce from a local vendor, and napped. That’s what I did. All day. And I didn’t feel guilty about it. I didn’t feel like I wasted my time. I didn’t feel like I should attend to more pressing things.

The neighborhood wakes up around 5 am and remains consistently lively until after sundown. Children bathe in buckets, women sing songs while washing clothes, young men walk by briskly. By now, many of the residents know me, and I know many of them. I get invited into people’s homes for a drink or a meal on a regular basis. Pretty much everyone walking through stops by the patio for a brief chat. To be fair, our conversations are typically stunted: “Good afternoon, how is your family?” “Have you had a good day?” Still, from my patio perch, I can sit, observe, and interact in a way that you rarely can on a tour. Static, lazy days can be just as culturally insightful.

In this neighborhood as with others, most of all, you notice the noise. There’s noise everywhere. Roosters crow, goats and sheep emit warnings, children yell and cry, adults argue, cell phones ring incessantly. No one seems particularly concerned about the racket, neither solitude nor quiet ever seem particularly virtuous.

Even the most basic homes often come equipped with a decent stereo system. Music is an essential ally for work, play, conversation, boredom, and even sleep. Sometimes neighboring houses will blast different tunes at the same time, competing for airspace by creating a unique polytonal, polyrhythmic sonic collage. This makes no sense to me, but those dancing don’t really seem to mind. Still, going on walks can seem like a constant field demonstration of the Doppler effect.

Suddenly, about 50 feet away, a spontaneous dance party erupts. Some neighborhood kids are dancing to an extremely popular hiplife anthem. Despite its liberal use of autotune, it’s catchy as hell. Intrigued, I go join them. Their laughter at my attempt to dance attracts more neighborhood children, and soon what seems like the entire neighborhood is watching the Obruni try to move his hips. A few older women come join me, laughing hysterically. One in particular starts inching closer. As we start suggestively dancing, I think, “Aren’t there children around? Isn’t this a highly Christian society?” But that’s the wrong way to think. Though it seems hypersexual, it’s not.

By this point, I’ve grown accustomed to seeing small children bump n grind while adults casually look on. Had these parents discovered a teenager’s secret love affair, I would probably hear the punishment from half a mile away. But this? No problem. I’ve been conditioned to view this dance as an unrefined display of drunken sexuality, the only appropriate venue a hot, dimly-lit dungeon of overpriced liquor and sordid mistakes. Here, it’s so much more than that.

To say that it’s more innocent is an oversimplification. It’s just more universal.

And that’s why I’m so glad I did nothing today.

You may have noticed that I’ve developed a particular affinity for pictures of Ghanaian children. Those of you who’ve watched Dodgers baseball in the last 20 years might call it the “Vin Scully Effect.” (V.S.E.). Either way I can’t help it. And I’m sure you can’t either.

What the Hell Did I Just Do?

Why it takes ages to get anywhere in this city. Also, cool mosque.

Today was a tough day. West African bureaucracy got the best of me. I spent about three hours in a bank only to find out that they hadn’t received my debit card yet. Then I had to go all the way to the airport to book a flight, since Air Mali apparently has neither a functioning website nor a telephone number. In between, Accra’s typically congested streets and waits for Tro Tros added about 5 hours to my tally.

After purchasing the flight, I found myself in Osu, a district notable for nightclubs, trendy restaurants and hotels. Frustrated and starving. I strolled into the nearest restaurant, unusual, since I’ve consisted almost entirely on street food so far. It was a nice building: two stories, it had a functioning bathroom, and an actual waitstaff. I don’t know what came over me. My vegetarian cronies will cringe at this one. But really, my most egregious offense was ordering a cheeseburger in Ghana.Why did I do that?

When the waitress placed the offensive collop before me, her expression said it all.  As I ate, I looked around at the Ghanaians in the restaurant. I felt their penetrating, judgmental gaze on my the back of my neck. I knew what they were thinking: “Ha, this honky can’t even go one day without his precious american food.”  I’m not like that I swear!

Even the westerners seemed to express resentment, comfortable in their knowledge that at least they reserve this meal for special occasions. How could I prove my cultural sensitivity, my desire for immersion?

Of course, no one actually cared.

Tomorrow, I’ll return to my standard diet of banku, akbleh, shitoh, and stew. But damn that was good.

A Trip Along the Beaten Path

I’ve managed to mostly shy away from the tourist trail. Ok, that sounds arrogant. It’s been mostly an accident. My couchsurf host just happens to live in the outskirts of Accra, far from the city’s central district where expats and wealthy Ghanaians frequent hotels and trendy restaurants. I also just happened to spend a week in a not particularly remote village without any major attractions: unique in its un-uniqueness. Before this last weekend, I hadn’t spoken with a single non-African since I arrived. I don’t believe this somehow validates my experience, but it’s certainly been something I’ve appreciated. It’s also been a matter of luck, not savvy.

That’s why my trip to Mole National Park was such a strange change of pace. I spent more money in three days than I had in three weeks. I gawked at Europeans lounging by the pool about as much as I did elephants. The Ghanaians working at the hotel were tourist-wary, and practically every conversation I had with them was monetary. I would have regretted not visiting Ghana’s most popular national park, but I’m glad that I didn’t stay there for very long.

That said, before I come off sounding like a total complainy asshole, at least I got to see this:

Standing in the footprints of giants:

I also saw antelope!  I got to sleep in the forest in a tree house! My guide carried a machete and a rifle! I ate with warthogs!

The park is quite large. Tourists can only access a very small portion of it and need a ranger guide to venture beyond the hotel. The hotel is the only lodging available for miles. In two days, I went on three forest walks and one jeep tour. Jurassic Park jokes abounded. I saw countless antelope, some interesting trees, and chased some elephants through the forest. They were shy (like the toddler, they’re allegedly not big fans of white folk), so I only got a picture of one’s backside, the rest obscured by trees. Still, that chase was easily the most exciting part of the trip. For a second, I felt like an adventurer. Then I remembered that I was an hour’s walk from a pool and restaurant.

There’s a town about 6 km away from the park entrance. I rode on the back of a moto to get there. My driver, Ahmed, let me steer for the last mile or so. It was pretty awesome. The town, Larabanga, contains the oldest mosque in Ghana as well as the requisite cutest children in the world. Here are both:

The town, a part of the much poorer northern region of Ghana, makes a good portion of its income from tourism, cooperative production of shea butter, and donations from visitors  to Mole. The mosque is its most popular attraction. The Saudi man responsible for the mosque’s creation in the mid-15th century is buried about 10 feet from the imam’s entrance. Legend has it that after his burial, a giant baobab tree sprouted from his grave. Every year, on his birthday, locals gather leaves from the tree and make stew. It’s a quaint tradition.

In Tamale, the nearest major city to Mole, preparing to take a grueling 13 hour bus ride back to Accra, I stumbled into a chop bar. Here’s an audio clip I recorded:

You can tell; it’s loud, crowded, a stereo clips as it blasts high life. A few kids are dancing while workers laze around leisurely. It’s at once foreign and comfortably familiar. Imagine: it’s the tropics. The place smells like smoked, slightly rotting fish, chile, and oil. It’s hot, muggy, the air is dense with smoke from frying plantains. This might not sound like comfort, but believe me, it is. It’s good to be back.

And then finally, for some reason, for those with diminished expectations:

Ok, one more thing. I’d like to provide more photos on this blog, but as it turns out, I spend about 80% of my time waiting for photos to upload. The neighborhood internet cafe just doesn’t cut it. If you’d like to see some more Ghana photos, you can check out this public facebook photo album

How to Eat a Mango in Three Steps

  • STEP 1

  • STEP 2

  • STEP 3

If you think you’ve had a mango and you’ve never been to Africa, you’re wrong.

This, Too, Is Africa

A few days ago my computer shorted out. That explains the lag in between my second and third post. Some sort of electricity issue caused it to stop functioning.  It didn’t charge, the screen was blank, the power button did nothing except conjure a single yellow light that taunted me. Every time I touched the headphone jack, I received a shock, as if to pour salt on my wounds. I thought, “there’s no way I’m going to find adequate repair or parts in West Africa, and a new laptop is prohibitively expensive here.” I was about ready to kiss this blog and my main source of information goodbye.

As I discovered, Accra has a computer repair shop practically every three blocks. I asked around and found one that came recommended. Within 20 minutes, I had an adjusted motherboard, a new adapter, and a fully-functioning laptop. Lord, my repairman, was educated at a Ghanaian institute of technology and has been working freelance ever since. His collection of new and used motherboards, hard drives, processors and laptops is impressive.

The self-anointed Mr Lord "Bill Gates" Dzidenyio.

Those that see Africa as a vacuum isolated from western technology are misinformed. It’s a continent, infrastructure varies. In Ghana, even rural farmers often have cell phones. Networks are often more extensive here than they are in the U.S. Edem, my couchsurf host, lives in a community without running water that experiences regular electricity outages, yet still manages to check his email constantly. Many people here have smart phones.

A few days ago, Edem was complaining about his internet service provider. He uses a mobile network, allowing him to access the web anywhere as long as he plugs in a USB device. In an isolated part of the Volta region, he couldn’t get service. I told him that he’d be able to check his email in about an hour when we got to a better area, then teasingly consoled him by saying, “you know what we call that? A first world problem.” He laughed, having never heard that expression before. He then retorted, “I guess it’s a third world problem now.” I can’t say I disagree.