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Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Last Days in Ghana

We made one last visit to Dacosta and W’s two sons at Burma Camp. Unfortunately W’s wife Grace was at a Good Friday church service so we missed her. There was a sitcom on the TV about rich Ghanaian boys chasing rich Ghanaian girls at a go-kart track with air hockey, and that helped kill the moments of awkward silence. When we spoke it was of Dacosta’s upcoming tour of duty in Cote d’Ivoire. He had just returned from classroom training in Takoradi on the west coast, where they had explained some of the origins of the conflict. According to the Ghanaian Air Force, the problem is rooted in Cote d’Ivoire’s constitution, which guarantees land ownership and other rights based on parentage. This gives access to foreigners who have lineage in Cote d’Ivoire, while some life-long residents whose parents may have been from elsewhere are excluded. This is what Dacosta said the rebel groups are fighting to change, with great resistance from their President. On Monday Dacosta will see us off at the airport, then a few days later he will fly to Cote d’Ivoire for a six-month stint. Hopefully all will go well for him and he will return to marry his fiancée, live happily ever after, maybe even get an education in Canada some day.
On Saturday Conor and I were stoked to represent the paper in a football (soccer) match against the dreaded Inquirer. We arrived at the dirt pitch only to learn that the match had been postponed – apparently we’d missed the memo. Instead we watched an exciting amateur league game, which ended in a 2-2 draw after the red team was assessed a penalty they didn’t agree with and, after much animated gesticulation and hollering, left the field in protest with minutes left to play. We asked the yellow team what the hell had happened. “Miscommunication,” they explained.

“So, you’re stuck with a tie when you could have scored on the penalty and won?”

“Yes,” they laughed. If that had happened at a Canadian amateur hockey game there would have been a brawl.
We spent Easter Sunday at Nana Araba Apt’s beautiful home on the McArthey Hill. She had us, several students, and another professor Abena and Abena’s son Joshua, who is a precocious and intelligent 15. We mostly chatted with them. Abena is an African American woman who grew up in Chicago, moved to New York as a young woman, and that’s where Joshua was born. In 2001 they moved to Ghana so she could teach here; they will return to Chicago and be near her mother in the summer.

For someone hoping to be a parent fairly soon, the relationship between this mother and son was quite inspiring. They were clearly friends, but she made no attempt to be hip with him, she parented him and steered him gently, yet let him speak his capable mind, cheered for him when he said things she approved of, shook her head bemusedly when he made teenaged follies, like referring to the 80s as ‘back in the day.’ Conor stoked the fire saying, “That was BT: Before Thriller.”

Together the five of us laughed a lot, talked sports and movies and music and other pop culture hungers, but also the strangeness of life in Ghana for North Americans, corruption, assumptions, expectations, unwanted attention, and the strain it has on one’s patience, also the good things, the easiness of people, the relaxed way of being, the friendliness – all those human cultural paradoxes.
The only really awkward moment was when we started questioning why anyone would send missionaries to Ghana, only to find out that most of their best friends are missionaries. The answer to our question is apparently that the various strains of Christianity are competing with each other, and sometimes the Muslims, for membership. Abena added, “the countries that need Christ most won’t let the missionaries in.” We changed the subject back to basketball.

When the students left, one of them waved and said, “Bye obruni!” Conor, Miia and I waved back and then realized he was talking to the dog.
We spent Easter Monday as it should be, with family. We met L&S at Ovation, a hot new Nigerian restaurant that gives massages and pedicures while you wait for your food. Miia and Conor each got a massage, L got her nails done. S and I talked Nigerian politics and architecture and ate lots of spicy snail. The Nigerian elections are coming up on April 14 and 22. The incumbents are expected to win but a new President will take the reigns as Obasanjo’s eight years are up – it will be the first time Nigeria replaces one elected government with another, the experiential equivalent of a barmitzfah for a young democracy. S explained a bit of the history of Nigerian politics, with particular reference to Lagos. Lagos was once a city with a plan, and Nigeria a county of just three regions, according to S. When a federal government was first created, it shared profits from resources equally with those regions. When civil war broke out and the feds needed more money to fund it, the deal was changed, temporarily, so that the majority of money from resource sales went to the feds. The war ended, the war was won, the temporary arrangement was never rescinded. Incidentally, the plan for Lagos was scrapped, and the capital, and all the accompanying money and development, was moved to Abuja. But Lagos kept growing, remained the business capital. The growth was just completely unplanned. Was the plan good? “Any plan would be better than no plan,” according to S.

Now there are many more regions, and they don’t much like that all their money keeps going to the feds, who don’t seem to do a lot with it. In the words of one rebel fighter, “We asked the government for a hospital and they said ‘it’s in the pipeline, you’ll get it soon.’ We asked for a school and they said, ‘it’s in the pipeline, be patient.’ We asked for some roads and they said, ‘that too is in the pipeline, don’t worry.’ So, we decided to open the pipeline. But there was no hospital, no school, and no roads in there, so we opened another one, and another one.”

What S wants most for Nigeria, he said, is a plan. Any plan. Socialist, libertarian, social democratic, centralized capitalism, free market, as long as it’s something. But he swears that things will improve, that now that Nigeria has gone democratic, it won’t go back. It has changed in other ways too, like the recent proliferation of the nuclear family over more extended ties, which has altered the face of architecture in ultra-modern, chaotic Lagos, where S does most of his business now, after many years building landmark buildings in Japan and Europe.

The meal itself, I thought, was fantastic. S and L swore to us that Nigerian food has more variety, more vegetables, and more flavours than Ghanaian food, and they were right. Of course it helps if you like meat. Bush meat was on the menu, but not in the kitchen (as is often the case in Ghana regardless of the kind of food), so we had beef, snail, beef, dried fish, and haddock. Yam was a prominent feature, but many different things were done with said yam. One was pounded much like fufu. Another was the skin, dried and pounded, sweet-tasting. Another was mashed in with some other vegetables, like a casserole. Most were spicy. I loved it.

I feel so lucky to have discovered this part of my family half a world away, so talented and interesting, with much in common yet so different. We promised that this would not be goodbye but seeya, that we would see them again in Canada or Nigeria. I hope that proves to be true. We hope also to see their daughters in the UK as we pass through.
Our last weekend in Ghana has been much like the rest of our time here: frustrating and inspiring.

On Saturday Conor and I were again excited by the prospect of playing football with Ghanaians. We waiting around the office for several hours before many others showed up – turned out the game had been delayed to accommodate Bossman’s schedule. We travelled together to the pitch with the new Marketing Manager (the last guy got canned for stealing after his constant sexual harassment of female employees failed to do the job) screaming sporadically along the way – he was really psyched. “Where’s my players!” he bellowed when he first entered the building. Turned out he was our assistant coach.

At the pitch, which was twice the size of the one we’d been to last weekend (giving a frightening advantage to the skill players), we were surprised to find ourselves enmeshed within a circle of unfamiliar faces, all of seem had skill levels slightly below a Zidane or a Ronaldo. “Where are the fat alcoholic journalists?” we wanted to know. On the full team, only about seven players, including foreigners, actually work at the paper. Of those, one started, two didn’t play at all.

Sule, a business writer (the only staffer to start), explained it this way: “We need their help. Because the Inquirer (our opponent) will also use ringers, and the bosses want to win to make a good name for the paper.” And so went our notion of a fun afternoon with co-workers. My frustration boiled over when two of our ringers started blasting balls at my feet and laughing when I couldn’t control them. Whether even a pro could control balls going that speed was not the issue, it was that obroni couldn’t. In the end, our ringers dominated their ringers and won the game 2-1. Conor and I got about 3 minutes playing time at the end when it looked like we couldn’t do too much damage. I played striker and didn’t get a single touch. Conor’s impact on the game was more significant: he saved a goal heading one away from the near post, and promptly fouled a guy in the box (with help from a team-mate), and they scored on the ensuing penalty kick. The other team threatened to boycott the game at one point, but cooler heads prevailed and everyone was in a good mood at the end. Conor and I went around shaking hands with our opponents because that’s what you do when you lack skill.

While all this was going on Miia was occupying herself with a young man who started our hitting but became belligerent when she shut him down, explaining first that her husband was nearby and then adding that he was too small for her. It was then that he pulled out the “you people” offence, whereby he explained how white people were evil and responsible for all of Africa’s problems, and of course that includes Miia. Chief among his complaints was that Ghanaians are treated badly in Britain by whites. “I know,” said Miia, “Those white people are racist. Just like you are racist.” She tried to explain how little he knew about her, how she was not British, for example.

“Well the Dutch do it too.”

“I’m not Dutch.”

“The Germans too.”

“Not German.” This goes on for a while, the European nationality naming. Finally Miia explains to him that she is Finnish, using the Finnish language, which he does not recognize.

“What language is that?”

“Go find out and then you will know something about me at least.” But he doesn’t really care, he knows she is a white woman who doesn’t want his sex, that’s all he needs.

After the game she pointed him out to me and he started chirping at her again, then later at me. I had none of her patience for it, none of her verbal acumen. I just shoved him and told him to get lost, insulted and threatened him. A team-mate, one of the semi-pros, intervened, shooed the guy away, told me not to bother with it, it’s not worth it.

Miia and I headed from the game to visit our friends Edward the Vet and his Russian wife Elena, who applied to immigrate to Canada three years ago and are still waiting. They have renewed hope because friends of theirs were just accepted after a five year wait. We explain to them our frustrations with Ghana, and I talk about how I don’t like what I’m becoming, this impatient shover of people. I used to be so slow to anger, and I still abhor violence, yet almost my very first recourse was shoving. They were more than understanding. “Racism is everywhere,” Edward says. “Can you believe some Ghanaians think that all white people are racist?” Think of the paradox of that.

But they reminded us why we love Ghana too, because, like everywhere I guess, the vast majority of people are kind and loving, they want to connect with other humans, to learn rather than make assumptions and presume to have knowledge. Elena cooked us a fantastic Russian meal that made us miss our last excursion some, and they showed us their many puppies (they breed and sell them), and we played some with their daughter Ilona, who is at a rambunctious age, and it was a great afternoon.

Afterward we visited Cynthia and Little John where we used to live, and had a surprisingly nice afternoon. We again extended our invitation that if they send Little John to school in Canada he can live with us for free, and they said they would keep it in mind in another decade or so. Cynthia seems in a much better mood without her husband around, the whole house seems lighter actually, and they were very sweet to us and we were very grateful.

Alas, tranquility is fleeting. At the notorious Circle Miia was sexually assaulted for the fourth time in five months, this time right before my eyes in the strangest and most unexpected fashion. We stopped amidst the night-time madness because Miia wanted to replace her broken sandals. As soon as she stopped a man came up behind her and kissed her neck, I was flabbergasted and literally couldn’t not believe my eyes. Surely that could not have just happened. I came closer and stared in the man’s eyes to see what the hell was going on with him. He just stared back in what seemed to be a challenge, but maybe it was just the blankness of a junkie or a madman. “What the hell did you just do?” I demanded. It was only then that Miia, assuming the slobber on her neck had come from me, turned around and realized what was amiss.

“Did you just kiss me?!” she shouted incredulously; realizing as she did so that indeed that’s what had happened, she followed her question with, you guessed it, a shove, a mighty shove that sent him flying back. I followed Miia’s shove with my own, and bore down on him, expecting him to flee. He just glared at me, again in a challenge or vacant oblivion. I was so mad I spit on him. He jumped back a bit, surprised at least, then came back toward me.

I stared him down and finally said in kind of a low growl that betrayed all the anger I felt, “Keep walking.” And there’s the answer to my recent question: Given the opportunity to really tear into someone who maybe even deserved it, I let it go by, I guess because deep down I know there is nothing to be gained from it, and so much can be lost, not least of which is myself. The lady selling the sandals wanted to know why I didn’t beat him. Even Kwaku, gentle man of peace and sweet man of God, when we told him, asked if I had beat him. “No, but I spit on him,” I answered.
”Oh, good.”

We closed an overstimulous day at our favourite neighbourhood eating spot drinking rum.

Sunday was less hyperactive; we treated our housemates to dinner at a famous chop called La something in Achimoto, a nice area. The place was very popular and quite cheap, and Conor and I both had grasscutter meat. Grasscutter is a large bush rodent, quite populous and popular. It was a bit gamey, kind of goat-like, but not bad at all. We’re eating as much local wares as possible while we can, today is our last chance for fufu. Mary, our 19-year-old housemate and cousin of Kwaku, who we helped connect with a program that will allow her to return to school, which she has been unable to afford, left us the sweetest and kindest note I think I’ve ever ready, sitting on the desk in our room. Both Kwaku and Mary have been so good to us, and seem so tickled just to have us around, just to get the opportunity to get to know us, it’s humbling and affirming at the same time. They are the bedrock of our time in Ghana, and we are so lucky that we got to live with them for this time. They showed us how to make fufu, how to fetch water and carry it on the head, how much things cost, how things work, and basically had our backs whenever we needed them.

We also paid a visit to our tailor, who was sad to lose such good customers – he is a master tailor and made Miia a few dresses, me a gorgeous bright traditional kente shirt, and his workmanship is really exceptional, but he’s also just another very kind, very humble Ghanaian. It’s not been an easy experience here, but people like this, real people who can engage us as equals, without villainizing us or putting us on a pedestal, who treat us human, they have made the experience memorable, educational, wonderful, beautiful, and the same time.

We will miss Ghana, but it will be okay because we will be alive, human, and home.


1 comment:

African Woman said...

Thanks Alot for the great post

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