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Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Return to the Village

Our return to Ayirebi village was less eventful and less comfortable than our first trip. We landed first in a bus station insane asylum where the inmates swarmed us like a last meal offering friendship, transportation and merchandise all at a fair price. We headed right over the wall and landed at the next station over, where we were rescued by David and his brother-in-law, a professional getaway driver surrounded by hitman serenity. “I’m so happy you’re here,” David told us. “We’re so bored in the village! And I miss my boy. How’s he doing?” Sim is actually performing much more regularly under the watchful eye of Dacosta, who notes wistfully that corporal punishment is normal in Ghana.

We made a few stops along the way to the village, including a visit to a district assembly executive, who told us about the newest craze: cultural tourism. “The white people we know like to stay in big hotels,” he told us, but he had learned of another breed that apparently enjoys meeting people and learning about the place their in. When he learned that I write for the paper he jumped double-footed into the conversation and tossed a card and a special report my way.

We were put up in the spare house of a local doctor which was visibly clean but smelled of bat urine, where we slept on a comfortable mattress under two full-blast ceiling fans to ensure our full attention at the morning ceremony. The turnout was Friday low but some local politicians and media made the day and quoted our near-impromptu speeches verbatim. The Chief thanked us for single-handedly saving the village and we reiterated that it was but a small donation to a hardy and innovative group of people who had survived thousands of years without us. There was the usual talk of us starting an NGO and our usual efforts to diffuse such misplaced time-bombs. Our speeches were punctuated by spontaneous outbursts of cheers from the crown, especially when Miia said that girls need better access to school – at the moment they make up less than 40% of the senior secondary school.

After the ceremony I wanted to visit the new school feeding program where every primary student gets one square meal from the government; it’s a means to encourage attendance and improve health, and comes complete with de-worming kits and monthly weigh-ins to track growth. We brought along our own entourage in the form of David’s sister and his nephews, who had not forgotten our last visit and spent hours hanging about our windows peeking in at us, and loved holding our hands. The Sister wanted to know if having a pen-pal in Canada would improve her chances of immigrating there.

The teachers raved about the program saying attendance was soaring, and the kids tore through giant bowls of food. I interviewed a couple teachers and the lunch-lady on behalf of the paper while Miia did recognizance work via informal conversations and snapshots of the hungry future of the village. “Make sure you mention my name in the article,” said the Sister, a teacher herself but at a different school.

The only detractor from the program we found was our host, Dr. Bigman, who paid us a visit that evening as his minions ran in to build us a new bed. “I have a mattress that is Canadian-sized,” he told us. “But it needs a frame.” Fortunately the bed-frame was not really ready because the Canadian-sized mattress was filthy and we preferred the Ghana size, which is a double. The good doctor, who used to be leader of the opposition, a splinter group from the former military dictator turned international speech giver Flight Lieutenant Jerry J. Rawlings, explained to us that he is a rich man in terms of assets, even if other Ghanaian doctors who stayed in the west make more money. “I have six children and three houses,” he told us. “My friend in the UK has only one house and one child, a daughter.” Dr. Bigman felt that the school feeding program encourages children to go to school only to have them leave without an education, and that educating farmers is dangerous anyway because next thing you know they don’t want to farm anymore. “What they need is to be told to farm a small piece of land as hard as they can, like in the Soviet Union,” where he himself had been educated. It was the first time I’d ever heard someone use the Soviet Union as a good example of agricultural management.

Our ongoing party was joined by a Mr. Sleezmo, a long-time beat writer from the Daily Graphic, who informed me, several times, that the Daily Graphic is the biggest paper in the country, reaching 200,000 readers (I had heard 50,000 so maybe let’s call it an even hundred). He wanted to know how much our donation was until David intervened saying “don’t worry about the amount.” The writer wanted to know if we’d start an NGO and where in the world we had traveled (and also how to spell the names of those countries).

“Come to us you can write every day,” he told me, refusing my request for a business card. When I ran into him the next day he did make a point of showing my his name as the writer of a piece in the paper and reminded me of the circulation figures; whether he was trying to win me over to the graphic or rub it in that I worked in the minor leagues was unclear. I do wonder what it would be like to write for a state-run and controlled newspaper that focuses on crime stories and has a large circulation.

In time we finally excused ourselves from our gracious host and paid a late-night visit to the Chief, both to pay our respects and interview him for the paper. He obliged on both accounts and also humbly asked us for money to help him publish his book about the chieftancy system. We capped the day with a discussion with David about corruption, culture shock, and the tendency of some people to get a little and ask for more more more.

The next morning we met with the youngest district assembly member in the region and a village elder to hand over the 500,000 cedi (about $60) donation we promised and had a great antidote of a conversation about how education and agriculture are not mutually exclusive. He young DA member had great energy and optimism and told us that he ran for office because he wanted to help his elders bring positive developments to his village.

It was then that we tried fufu, cassava and corn pounded into a gooey pasty doughy kind of stuff that you dip in peanut sauce with fish – it’s as tasty as it sounds. David and Hannah took us out for lunch in the nearby town before we headed back to Accra. It is a delicacy that Ghanaians take very seriously: I read an account of inmates who, denied their fufu, pounded their cassava with their infected feet on a dirty floor to make it for themselves.

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