Weekend Excursion to Lake Bosumtwe

After a mellow half day of school on Friday and the amazing hike in the rainforest (Owabi Wildlife Sanctuary), I ate a quick lunch and got ready to head to Kumasi to check my email, update my blog and catch up with the Facebook happenings. Rahman came in from Accra and met me after I had spent an easy three hours on the computer making up for lost time. We had dinner at a popular ‘obroni’ spot in Kumasi called Vic Baboos. I found it somewhat surreal that I was eating pizza (it tasted soooo good) and drinking beer on Friday night in Ghana, which is exactly what I would  doing in Chicago on a Friday night.  After dinner Rahman and I cruised around the city looking for a place to grab a drink but Kumasi was pretty dead and after a series of taxi rides, I decided that we should head back home. Mr. Boateng allowed Rahman to stay in a spare room at the school for the night and over dinner we decided that we would head to Lake Bosumtwe on Saturday and stay the evening at a place that he was raving about called Rainbow Garden Village. He know We returned to the school, had a good night of sleep and got up early to start the 40km journey. After walking about 1k to Acropong, the nearest transportation hub, we quickly found a tro tro to take us to the city. Sometimes you can wait quite a whlie for a tro tro (total passengers around 16 people) to fill up but we got lucky that so many people were heading in the direction of the lake. The cost of the shared ride from Akropong to Kumasi was about 80 cents and took about 40 minutes on a combination of paved and unpaved red dirt and gravel roads full of potholes.  You are always guaranteed a bumpy ride in Ghana! When we arrived in Kumasi we found another tro tro relatively quickly to take us to Kuntanesie where we would transfer to another taxi and head to the Rainbow Garden Village Resort. I found it interesting that half of the tro tro was filled with people wearing black cloth in various wrap styles. Rahman told me that they were all going to a funeral and that the funerals always happen on the weekends and are essentially a huge party that takes places right in the main intersection of the village. I actually saw quite a few of them happening as we made our way through the hills and small villages on the way Lake Bosumtwe. Huge parties with hundreds of people all wearing black cloth. We arrived about 1.5 hours later in Kuntanesie (30 K took three times what it would in the US due to traffic and bad roads).  Little did I know we still had another adventure ahead of us as the road up to Lake Bosumtwe and The Rainbow Garden Village was extremely rough. Holy cow. I became pretty car sick along the way but after spending another $8 we arrived safely at the hotel and it was really a neat place, right on the lake with amazing foliage around. Rahman and I played a few sets of table tennis, practiced drumming and within a few hours we had met the other traveler named Rajit, a volunteer from Bombay, India who is working in the northern region of Ghana.  The three of us spent the afternoon chatting, drumming and trying to avoid the torrential downpour of rain that began around 3:00 and did not stop until the middle of the night. At dinner we were joined by a really interesting guy from Slovenia named Matthaias. He had apparently been in Kumasi all day doing business and is staying at the resort while he builds a hotel nearby. He fell in love with the Lake Bosumtwe area after cycling from Burkina Faso through Ghana and stumbling upon the sacred lake by accident. He is building a resort near the German-owned Rainbow Garden Village and in the difficult process of obtaining permits from the village chief who has to approve everything before that is built in the area. For now he is staying at the Rainbow Garden and going back and forth to Kumasi to get building supplies. The most interesting story he told us was that after befriending the village chief by giving him schnapps and explaining that he wanted to build another resort, the chief suggested that instead of paying for lumber, he should fetch lumber from the lake. There are apparently some huge old dead mahogany trees lying at the bottom of the lake. Without fail, Matthais found a tractor, rigged it up and pulled a ridiculously large tree trunk out of the lake. He claims that mahogany is so thick and solid that once they peeled back the bark, the tree was completely dry. This tree alone will build about 75% of his hotel. Me, Rahman, Rajit and Matthais had a lovely evening at the resort drinking beer, sharing traveling stories and talking about music. When we all agreed that Pearl Jam rocked, Matthais was quick to grab the CD and toss it on the hotel bar stereo. So, we listened to Pearl Jam and stayed up late. Fun times. Now I’m back in Kumasi, updating the blog before venturing back to my rural village. My next update should be Friday although I have figured out how to get down to Kumasi and back for about .75 cents so I might come down here more frequently now.

Here are some pics from our weekend getaway:

The dock at the Rainbow Garden Village

Ghana Table Tennis

Fisherman in Lake Bosumtwe

Drum lesson

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What a relief!

Well, as you may have figured out, I made it to the Internet cafe in Kumasi today, Friday afternoon after an intense (in a good way) first week volunteering at ECSO.  I’m staying in a small rural town called Esaase as I mentioned in an earlier post and I realized that I have yet to talk about the town itself.  So many things happen within the school walls and I’m observing so many new things throughout the day that it’s tough to touch on everything! I’ll be brief and mention that the town of Esaase is about one city block long with one intersection, about 20 kiosks that sell random sundries (laundry soap, bath soap, tomato paste, white bread, soda, rice, flour, cell phone calling cards, yams, cassava, plantain, tomatoes, onions, peppers) and a few food stands that sell grilled corn, cured tilapia, and some other unknowns.  The population tops off somewhere in the 100 range and the kids are mostly bussed in from surrounding places. I am so lucky that we get three yummy meals a day cooked for us because I seriously would not know what to do with the random food items that are sold in Esaase.

Yesterday was probably the slowest day of my travels to date. Time moves much slower here in general (they run on Ghana time which is the opposite of Chicago time) and coming from the land of everyone being in a hurry, it is quite a challenge to take myself out of overdrive and appreciate the mellow mood and speed at which things move here.  We were supposed to spend the morning in the Owabi Wildlife Sanctuary (I had failed to realize that a huge wildlife preserve/rainforest was literally a half mile from our school) and Mr. Boateng asked Tabea and I to accompany the students on a field trip to plant trees because people are encroaching on the preserve and cutting down trees.

Mr. Boateng in action

Walking to the preserve

All of the students in grades 4-6 were expected to participate so we gathered in front of the school, walked about a mile to the preserve only to arrive there and hear that the seedlings did not arrive.  Since I mentioned Ghana time, it is worth noting that the process of finding out that there was nothing to plant took about 3 hours. I took some pictures as we waited for the forest rangers to finish chatting with Mr. Boateng…

The children all had large machetes to dig holes with. Tabea and I could not get over the fact that the kids were all walking down the street swinging these around!

After some long winded banter between Mr. Boateng and the rangers, we were told to come back tomorrow…

Walking back to school

We returned to school around 11:00 am and the electricity was off. I had read that at any given point in time, Ghana shuts off electricity to certain villages to conserve energy.  One day without electricity is a quick way to learn just how much we take it for granted and how much we all depend on it to get through our day.  Tabea and I made the best of it and hung out around the school yard, watched the kids as they played and realized that no electricity must also equal no learning because we did not see the students enter their classrooms at all during the day! I hesitated in asking why the students weren’t in school at all during the day and I’m going to assume it was because they were supposed to be in the forest preserve which still would have left two hours of school since they were supposed to be back at noon but everyone seemed to enjoy the time off!

I held another computer class in the evening and this time I went about things a bit differently allowing the girls into the lab first for 30 minutes followed by the boys. This system seemed to work much better than telling all the kids at the same time that the lab was open…

The older boys enjoying time in the lab

Today we made it to the forest preserve! We had a really great hike in and I finally saw some of the flora and fauna of this region up close. I also saw the source of Esaase’s water which was really cool. The students planted about 200 seedlings in the rainforest! Here are some pictures from today!!

The beginning of the water treatment process and source of electricity for the town

Heading into the rainforest

Me and my main man Dennis after an early rain shower

Me, drenched

Planting Trees

Mr. Boateng and teachers

Overall, a lovely day! Rahman should be here at any moment. We are going to spend the evening in Kumasi, have some dinner and he will stay in a spare room at the school tonight. Then, tomorrow we are going to Lake Bosomtwi which is about an hour away for some swimming, paddling and hiking! Until next time…..

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I Could Get Used to This…

Tonight, Tuesday July 6th we had our first evening computer class with the kids who live here at the school. There are about 50 of them who stay at ECSO.

From what I can gather, they range in age from 11-14 or 15 years old. Most of them are “boarders” and their parents pay for them to stay/live here overnight when school is in session. I haven’t figured out when school actually ends and begins but I think it is similar to the year-round schooling model with two to three week breaks every few months. In addition to the boarders, there are about 10 orphans that the Boateng family boards and looks after.  It is truly amazing to see the way things operate here. The children are so independent. They do their chores every morning and evening, cook for themselves, do their own laundry by hand and stay busy without the help of video games and television. They are in a healthy routine, are very well behaved and very respectful of adults (my name is Madamme Kim pronounced Keeem or “Mama Ghana”). They are also very interested in my writing so many of them were gathered around to watch me type as I edited my posts on Microsoft Word from the past few days.

The boys love the computer lab!

The school day has come to a close on Wednesday, July 7th . Tabea was instructed to help me in the computer lab so for the past few days we were trying to get order in the court. Prior to Madamme Kim being around, the students would run to the computer lab, push and shove until they are through the door and then scramble to squish into seats. it was driving me nuts so now we are teaching them to walk to the computer lab, enter three at a time and sit quietly until everyone has a station. There is one class for each grade level so with only 11 computers and potentially 40+ kids in a class, it can be quite chaotic. I taught the students to respond when I say, “one, two, three, eyes on me”…and in their Twi accent they say, “one, two, eyes on yoooo.” This attention getter seems to work and I also learned one that they use here. The teacher says, “put your finger” and the kids put their finger up to their mouth and respond by saying, “on your lips.” We continue to work on mouse skills with the younger students and today with the third graders, we typed in MS Word. They each took a turn writing “my name is…I live in…My hobbies are…my favourite food is…” they filled in the blanks. We are going to continue working on word processing with third, fourth and fifth and drawing with the first and second graders. Fun times…just like home! Ideally I would like to introduce the Flip video camera to the kids since they do have Windows Movie Maker on the few of the computers. I think it would be super cool if they could put together a video of the school to gain sponsorships and funding.

Dinner last night and lunch today were both awesome. So far I have eaten either rice or fried plantain with some form of tomato broth or stew for just about every meal. Last night our dinner was really tasty. We had cabbage, carrots, green pepper all cooked in a thick, spicy tomato sauce with sweet fried plantain (my favourite). Lunch today was jollof rice which is rice cooked with some form of tomato paste to make it red and then you put another type of spicy tomato based sauce on top for flavor. I will tell you one thing, Ghanains know how to cook with tomatoes and tomato paste! The days are starting to go by faster now that I have a routine. My cell phone is working really well so if any of you are able to buy a phone card for calls to Ghana, you can reach me at 0548695261. I’m not sure if you need a country code or something but I’m sure the card would explain how to dial. I know you can pick up Ghana calling cards downtown Chicago. It is sort of expensive for me to call others so I’m holding back as much as possible. Also, I am easily able to get Facebook on my phone so I have and will continue to update my status. I am hoping to post to the blog at the very least once a week…hopefully more often so keep checking back for updates!

Germany is playing Uruguay tonight so Tabea and I will join Mr. Boateng’s daughter Emilia, her sons Nana and Kwabena and some of the school boys in her home to watch the big game.

Emilia and Kwabena Boateng

Nana (my new best friend) and Kwabena – Mr. Boateng’s grandsons

Tabea and Nana (wrapped in the Germany flag) after the loss

Game night-We sat in Emilia Boateng’s house with many of the boarding school or orphan boys and cheered for Germany (a few were cheering for Spain). The tv reception was great and it was a hoot to see the boys watching soccer…completely mesmorized.

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First day on the job

My first night of sleep in Esaase was nothing more than some tossing and turning. I think that somewhere between 3am and 6am I caught a few hours of shuteye but the dogs barking/fighting outside, coupled with the loud buzz of insects and the emptiness of my room made it difficult to relax and fall asleep.  The only window in my room faces the courtyard of the school and I’m so glad I brought ear plugs because these kids wake up at 4:45 in the morning! I am attributing the sleeplessness to being abroad, in a new environment and I should be fine in a few days once I get into a routine.  I heard a knock at the door around 6:45am and knew it was time to get up. I peeled a sweaty sheet off of my body and headed for the bathroom, turned on the faucet, washed my face, squatted underneath the faucet and scrubbed myself a bit. Voila! Ready for work in 5 minutes flat! As I walked outside, Mr. Boateng greeted me and told Tabea and I to sit in the library to enjoy our breakfast. We received a loaf of white bread and some packets of instant coffee, a jug of hot water and a knife to cut the bread-Somewhat different from my normal routine of organic yogurt, granola, fresh fruit, OJ and Starbucks. Tabea and I chatted a bit and I learned that she was not feeling good. We sat there trying to pin down what she could have eaten differently than me and the only thing we could come up with was the pool water (they have a small swimming pool here) that she was repeatedly dunked in by the children yesterday after she arrived. She thinks that at some point, she ingested the pool (well) water and possibly got a minor parasite. (I’m happy to report that she was feeling better within 24 hours).  After breakfast we went outside and observed the children lining up for school, saying the pledge, singing the national song and then Mr. Boateng introduced us to the 500 children in grades K-6 or stages K-6 as they call the grades here.  I was introduced as “mama Ghana” because I was wearing the Ghana Black Stars soccer jersey.

Me in my Black Stars jersey pre-departure at O’Hare

After introductions, I learned that first and third graders would be coming to the computer lab and I was to teach them for the day.

The computer room… bearing an uncanny resemblance to the lab at Avoca West 😉

I found out that the schedule allows for one hour of computers per grade level twice a week but that it is up to me to decide how long they should stay each day. I had no problem keeping them for the hour because they were excited to learn. I also had no idea what the students had learned up to this point but after just two hours of seeing those two grade levels, I have a much better idea of where to go from here…well, sort of. Computer class was a series of troubleshooting power issues (I have since made the power more stable by moving some machines around and adding some new power converters) and the students practiced maneuvering the mouse with the Microsoft Paint program.  I had the 3rd graders brainstorm different solids, liquids and gasses and I am hoping that within a few weeks they can use the mouse then draw an example of one of these. We didn’t get farther than moving the mouse around, changing the color palette and drawing/filling in circles and squares. In first grade we just worked on our mouse skills. Most of the students were able to make some sort of color appear on the screen and we struggled a bit with the whole hand eye coordination thing but that is always tough at first.

Tabea and I had a relaxing lunch and took our time eating white rice topped with a tomato stew. We spent the rest of the afternoon lounging around the school, observing the teachers and trying to survive the humidity.

Things do move slower here due to the heat and humidity. It can be a real kick in the butt to have no relief during the day but at night things really cool down and it’s completely tolerable, especially since they have ceiling fans around the school.

One thing I forgot to mention is that although English is considered the primary language here, children first learn to speak Twi, the native language before they learn English. Once they get to second or third grade their English begins to develop but everyone is raised speaking Twi so their accent is thick and there is definitely a noticeable communication barrier between me and the younger students as well as many of the adults but we are learning! Overall, I am definitely adjusting to rural life better than I thought I would. The Boateng family is amazingly generous and friendly, I feel completely safe and the students are so adorable and eager to learn. I am able to hop on the Internet for about 5 minutes but Internet Explorer times out before my blog will load so a day so I plan to write my posts on MS Word and post when I can!

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4th of July in Ghana

I woke up on the 4th of July at the Paloma, had another lovely breakfast at my hotel and chatted again with two men who are business partners…one from Portland, Oregon and the other from Princeton, New Jersey.  After breakfast Rahman met me at the hotel and together, we went to the bus station. I decided to forgo the U.S. Embassy 4th of July party after speaking with the proprietor of ECSO, Mr. Kwabena Boateng who suggested that I leave Accra as early as possible to get acquainted with Esaase, meet his family and some of the school children before school started again on Monday. Apparently the students just had a few weeks off so they were returning…talk about good timing. Bye bye Accra/big city life!

Rahman and I took a taxi to the bus station and had to decide if we wanted to take a Greyhound like bus or a 14 passenger Ford conversion van. I soon found out that the conversion van is the way to go because the larger busses will just sit there until they are full…sometimes for a few hours and sometimes the entire day if there are not enough people going to Kumasi (which is rare but happens). Ours had three more people to full after Rahman and I entered, the bus had air conditioning and upbeat reggae-esque Ghanain gospel music playing the entire ride.  The road to Kumasi (the largest city near my school where people work but don’t necessarily live unless you can afford the big city life) is completely under construction…they are in the midst of a huge project and turning one of the main highways in Ghana (previously one lane) into a two lane highway. The road is currently red dirt with gigantic potholes and windy runoff divits due to the rain. It was pretty intense driving and I did pray for my life at times. When I had to go pee really bad from all of the bouncing, there was no stopping. One thing I will say about Ghana…bathrooms are somewhat difficult to find. I will spare the details of the peeing experience when we finally did stop but let’s just say concrete slabs do not exactly absorb urination and I couldn’t figure out how the whole concrete/hole in the wall thing works for women…I’m sure that will come with time. The only thought going through my head was, “uh oh, I definitely did not bring enough baby wipes or toilet paper with me and I can’t imagine what this experience would be like if it was that time of the month”.  Luckily, I won’t have to deal with “that” until the end of my trip, when I should be a pro at all of this.

About three hours later thanks to our speedy bus driver (the ride is typically 4 hours), I arrived at the bus station in Kumasi where. Within 15 minutes, I was greeted by Mr. Boateng and his brother in law in a car that had once been the vehicle of someone in New Jersey (I know this because of the city sticker from 1990 that was still in tact on the windshield)! We had another drive to Esaase and I guess I didn’t consider the fact that 12 km here is equivalent to a good 45 minutes on rural, mostly unpaved roads here in Ghana. Passing through various villages along the way, we continued travel farther and farther past giant palm trees, bananna trees, cocoyam trees, plantain trees and fields of maize. It is much more humid here in the Kumasi area with a lot more tropical foliage and rolling hills than Accra.  We continued along the winding roads through narrow street passages and eventually arrived at the school Esaase Christian School & Orphanage!

I’m not sure what I had dreamt up in my head but I’m pretty confident that my arrival, corresponding tour of the facility and presentation of my room is nothing like I envisioned. All the same, Mr. Boateng did not delay in presenting me a “Ghana room!” Rahman sensing my tension and surprise, put his arm around me to let me know that my room was really nice and that is important for me to see how people live so I can learn and have greater respect because “Ghanians do not live like Americans…so why would I come here if I did not want to experience the lifestyle?” His comment really put things into perspective for me and immediately, I took a deep breath and agreed… Yes, this is why I’m here, to experience life in Ghana! And, how very different it is compared to my life back home!

As I look around my room, and see a multi-colored combination concrete/dirt floor, bright blue walls, mosquito net cascading down from the ceiling on all four sides of the small bed, a piece of cloth strung across the window with a piece of electrical chord and my adjacent bathroom with a dusty concrete floor, toilet and bathtub (no shower but a nice flowing faucet with cool water) it’s hard to believe that a mere 10 hours ago, I was living the dream.

(My bedroom..I have since put the bamboo sticks into the top of the net so it spreads out at the top and I also tucked the mosquito netting into the bed frame)

My bathroom (no shower but a nice faucet that I can squat under)

Maybe I did not properly mentally prepare for this but then again, I’m not sure it is possible to really know what you’re getting yourself into when you seek a  volunteer position in Africa. Different forms of shock are inevitable. I won’t go into detail out of respect for the amazing people of these small villages and the minimalist, hard working way in which they live. I mentioned yesterday that being here once before helped me navigate the city culture in Ghana, but my previous experience here doesn’t hold a candle to what I am experiencing now…this is the real deal and after three days, I am actually really happy!

After touring the school this evening and placing my bags in my room, I met the other volunteer, a girl from Germany named Tabea who had also arrived today. We chatted for a bit then went to dinner at Mr. Boateng’s house. I met one of the children that Mr. Boateng has adopoted named Betsey and then we met Lucy, Mr. Boateng’s wife.

Betsey

She eagerly presented us white a piping hot rice dish topped with a zesty Ghanain tomato sauce and a hard boiled egg for dinner with some filtered water. Tabea and I immediately noticed the school logo on the bags of water that we were given. Bottled water is very expensive here so one way of storing filtered water is in plastic baggies. You bite off a corner and suck out the water which did not take long to get used to.  One of many amazing things about this school is the fact that they have their own water filtration system. Mr. Boateng was very excited to show us the water filter and the cleanliness of the water we will be drinking.  Apparently one of the volunteers donated it and the large filtration devices comes from China. This thing is very cool and massive. The water comes up from the well about 50 feet below the ground, travels through four filters before arriving at the final charcoal filter then gets sucked up into the tank that squirts portions of the water into plastic, sealed baggies…sort of like ziplock sized bags. So, this is how we will drink water…out of a baggie, no bottles. The whole filtration thing looks a small brewery but brews clean water instead of beer. I keep forgetting to bring my camera to their house, so I’ll have to post some pics of the water system and where we eat dinner in another post.

After dinner we walked back to the school and met some of the students. The group of girls wasted no time in convincing us to accompany them to Esaase (the town) for an evening snack.

We walked about a half mile as lightning and thunder began to rumble in the sky. It became dark quicker than I expected, and when we reached our destination after winding through various houses in the dark. The girls ordered their Sunday evening food and we returned back to the school as the rain began to fall. This rain turned into a torrential downpour and we all decided to call it a night. I’ve honestly never seen rain quite like this before. I made my bed, made sure my mosquito net was securely fastened to the beam above my head (which I realized later, it wasn’t) dunked my sweaty, greasy hair under the faucet and washed my face. A new day awaits tomorrow as the kids will be returning to school. Mr. Boateng is looking forward to taking the students out into the forest preserve near the school to plant 800 trees. Apparently people are encroaching on the land and cutting down old growth trees in the preserve so he and the school children have taken it upon themselves to replenish the trees this first week back to school.

The school driveway, the front of my residence and Mr. Boateng’s car

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Speaking too soon…

Day 2 (continued)

Did I brag that it wasn’t humid in my last post?! I spoke entirely too soon! Jokes on me!

Based on the events of yesterday, I have a lot to write. Obviously, this blog is a personal way to document my experience and I do not expect you to read every last detail, unless of course it interests you. I’ll start by mentioning that for some reason, the days just seem to last longer here. Not that the sun is out any longer, because it gets dark early around 7:00pm and then the mosquitoes begin to emerge (I just took a break to re-apply deet). Maybe it’s the simple fact that I feel like I’m on vacation right now, soaking in old sights that haven’t changed at all in eight years, as well as the smells and sounds of an environment that is not nearly as shocking the second time around.  I remember being in college and the initial mind warp of the landfill that is the National Cultural Centre (Arts Centre) where my friend Rahman works, the loud and aggressive tone in which Ghanains speak (even though they mean nothing but love to one another), the street hawkers balancing goods on their heads, the young children wandering alone in their underwear and stained t-shirts, the incessant honking of car horns, black exhaust pouring out of tail pipes and the headaches that ensue as a result, the open sewer systems and the oppressive heat/humidity. Yes, this is Ghana! And, I came back to relive it all over again!

Rahman near the Arts Centre

I’m going to write yesterday (Friday) off as ‘training day’ in Accra because it isn’t until you travel outside of Osu (the “fancy” part of town where I am staying) that the city starts to reveal itself. Yesterday I spoke of sheer bliss; the excitement that comes with a successful arrival in a completely foreign place, things just working out and the overwhelming sense of national pride for the Black Stars that people flaunted everywhere in anticipation of the BIG GAME. Is it possible to have a denial day in Ghana? Certainly. But, I hope that is not the reason why people travel here. Based on many interactions with obronis (white people) over the past few days, I am learning that Europeans, Americans, Canadians and Australians are here for one of two reasons – to give back by volunteering (I’ve already met upwards of 20 volunteers in my two days here), or from what I am gathering, to start new businesses here, not necessarily for the sake of boosting the Ghanain economy as much as being able to hire cheap labor.  At the same time, I did speak of the man who I met on the plane yesterday who was simply vacationing here so I guess it is possible for someone to spend $1700 on a flight just to hang out. In any event, a World Cup loss yesterday meant back to reality for all Ghanain’s today and life resumed as normal, without a championship soccer team, and the aftermath of what to do with the excessive inventory of jerseys, flags, horns, hats, and soccer balls. I envision coming back 10 years from now and still seeing an overabundance of these souvenirs because there just aren’t enough people or tourists to buy.

Despite the aforementioned, Rahman and I had another wonderful day in Accra, accomplished everything we set out for and as I sit here unwinding under the stars in the Paloma hotel tiki lounge, it’s just another Saturday night in Accra, with people pouring into our hotel sports bar and others just relaxing while sipping a Star beer after a steamy day in equatorial Africa.

Tiki bar at The Paloma Hotel

I have a feeling this will change as I forgo the hustle and bustle of city life and enter the rural work world tomorrow. I am happy to report that I spoke on the phone with Mr. Boateng, the head master of the school I will be arriving at on Sunday. He is incredibly nice and I received clear instructions on what to do upon arrival in Kumasi so I’m feeling good about things related to my volunteer position.

After I left the hotel this morning, and after some debate about what to do with the day, Rahman gave into my pressure to visit the Arts Centre. It would be the same as someone begging you to take them to your place of work on your day off.  Not exactly your top choice of things to do. Plus, I think he might have been embarrassed because the Arts Centre is in even more disrepair that it was back in 2002.

Cow hides drying at the Arts Centre for drum heads

But, when I mentioned wanting to play the drums, he agreed with the decision and told me that he would call the master drummer of Accra to teach me a drum lesson at the Arts Centre. We cruised around the Centre for a bit while he made a few phone calls. Within the hour, as the sun reached its peak and gave way to heat and humidity, Bongo Man arrived.

“Bongo”

“Bongo” as he is known to most people in Accra is an accomplished master drummer who studied at the Kokrobitey Institute of Music and Dance (apparently he was performing there when we went to see a show in 2002). We grabbed a few djembes and a palongo drum and headed down to the beach for the lesson. Erase any mental images of waves crashing, swaying palm trees and coconuts, the smell of salt water and white sand, then replace it with mountains of trash, the smell of raw sewage, plastic bags blowing in the wind, goats eating the trash, and the fact that it was high noon and nearing 90 degrees. Had I not spent a significant amount of time here in 2002, I might have passed out or turned right back around based on the sights and smells of the Arts Centre, but I knew what I was getting myself into and found it easy to stay focused on the fact that I was about to learn some new djembe beats from a master drummer (the title of “master” is not thrown around here) named “Bongo Man.”

We perused around and Bongo spoke with the owner of the “spot” (a spot is similar to a refreshment hut) near the beach so we scored a nice spot under the shade of a banana leaf tree and the lesson began…..overall, an amazing experience and worth the $35 dollars for a 1.5 hour private lesson.

We sat under this tree

The view from where I sat for my lesson

me and Bongo

After the drum lesson, we walked back to Rahman’s shop and said our goodbyes. I met a few other volunteers who were out shopping (although sadly they were few and far between at a place that is teeming with incredible art and culture) and learned that they were volunteering here in Accra at an elementary school. Off to the Accra Mall which Rahman was very excited about. He likes to show off the nice establishments in Accra. We took a taxi and $4 and 30 minutes of direct inhalation of exhaust later, we were across town and a far cry from our previous destination. I got out of the taxi and a wave of nausea hit me. Worried that this would turn into something worse, I began gulping water and took a much needed bathroom break. We walked past the Nike store, Apple store and a number of modern clothing stores before stopping for lunch in the outdoor food court at Frankie’s.

After eating I began feeling better but knew that the heat and exhaust had gotten the best of me. Rahman was more than willing to chill out while I decompressed and in a mere hour, I was back to my old self. We took a taxi back to the hotel, watched some soccer and eventually had dinner. Over dinner I listened to his story, which I had hear snippets of in 2002 but had never really opened up my ears and heart long enough to really absorb.

Here is his story: Rahman has 14 brothers and sisters. His mother (then about 20 years old was forced to marry his father (who was literally 70 years old when Rahman was born). Rahman’s eldest sister is in her 70’s now if you can grapple with that. His mother had Rahman and three other children before fleeing for Nigeria with her youngest three. Rahman’s mother allowed him to decide between Nigeria and Ghana. Because he was happy and successful in primary school, and going to an expensive private school paid for by his relatively wealthy father, Rahman made the decision to stay in Ghana. His father passed away two years later and at the age of 12, Rahman was left on his own to fend for himself. Since he was the 10th child, he received no money from his father’s death and could not afford school. He had done so well in the past that his head master agreed to support him though school and he graduated from high school with high honors on a scholarship. Due to the fact that he had no support of money of any kind, he could not afford college. He’s 32 now and since high school, has worked as an independent artist despite being incredibly intelligent, soft spoken, motivated and great with computers. No money equals no opportunity here. He is part of the greater rat race of people with high school degrees and absolutely no money to further their education. He is waiting patiently for his big break and although I have paid for a few of his college classes, he still needs to take  a few more at $600 a pop to get his IT certificate and potentially land a career. When he tells me this story, he does not seem to be looking for sympathy and he certainly is not begging for money. He has a positive outlook and more than anything, wants to earn enough to one day get his mother and siblings back to Ghana from Nigeria.  His mother and siblings are eagerly waiting for him to earn $1200 so he can secure an apartment for the five of them for one year. Then, he says, they can all get on their feet and start a new life together as a family. Unfortunately, these are merely hopes and dreams. Heavy stuff.

It’s now Sunday morning and I’m waiting for Rahman to get to the hotel so we can head out to Kumasi where I will be volunteering. Bye to Accra for now! I have a feeling that wi-fi Internet access will not be as readily available but I will do my best to update as soon as possible.

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Did I Ever Leave?

Day 1

The flight to Ghana on United was most definitely the easiest, most comfortable international flight I’ve ever been on. We left O’Hare right on time and arrived in DC an hour and a half later. I connected to my Accra flight within the hour and because the flight is new as of 10 days ago, I had an entire row in Economy Plus to myself. I also have to give a shout out to my neighbor Mark for the Economy Plus seats. Thanks Mark!

I sat at the D.C. airport, made a few last minute phone calls and observed a healthy mixture of US college students, Ghanains, and volunteers boarded the plane. I quickly made made friends with the white man sitting across from me, from the bay area. He told me that he was simply vacationing in Ghana for two weeks and had rented a house. He asked me a few questions about my travels and we both agreed that Ghana is an exciting place to vacation. After chatting a bit longer, I learned that this was his third time visiting Accra for vacation..see, there are other people who enjoy this place as much as I do!

We departed DC at 10:40 pm, I took a sleepy pill and I was stretched out and sleeping by midnight. When I woke, we were about 1.5 hours from Accra. In other words, I got a great night of sleep and due to the time the flight left and got into Accra, I am feeling zero jet lag today! The anticipation began to build as the announcements of arrival came more frequently and we learned that Accra was slightly overcast and the high was 80 degrees. Not bad. We touched down, departed the plane and I instantly felt that equatorial humidity that I had prepared myself for, although the Atlantic Ocean breezes made things completely tolerable.

I went through customs with no problem and was greeted with a big smile and hug by my friend Rahman, who was on time and had actually gotten there early, at noon…my flight arrived at 12:50. He told me that his friend would be picking us up and taking us to the Paloma Hotel. Without fail, his friend pulled up along with a white girl named Ashley (obroni) from Toronto (apparently they were married last weekend…no more details were shared) and the four of us had a fun drive to the Paloma Hotel chatting about volunteer jobs around Accra. Ironically enough, she is teaching computers (ICT) in an orphange right now. Together, they were trying to convince me to stay in Accra to volunteer.

When I arrived at the Paloma Hotel, check in was a breeze, my room is fantastic and after showering, I met Rahman down at the hotel bar. We cruised to Osu, the nicer neighborhood in Accra, ate a yummy lunch of chicken and rice at a restaurant called Papaye, drank Guiness and watched the Netherlands beat Brazil.

We walked a bit after lunch and eventually made our way to the cell phone store where I picked up a Samsung touch screen phone for about $140 USD.  It cost me another dollar to buy a SIM card and the memory card from my Droid phone fit so that saved some cash. There are no cell phone plans here. You simply buy a phone, a SIM card and for 2 cedi  (about 1.40 USD) and a scratch off card with a code that you type into your phone keypad which initializes your talking minutes. Texting is very cheap and uses next to no minutes. Apparently telephone wi-fi is free in Ghana. I still haven’t figured out how this is possible but it seems to work so far and I haven’t been docked any minutes yet.

(I’m just now realizing that the guy on the right is wearing tighty whities…yikes!)

At this point, game time was a mere 45 minutes away so we hopped a cab and went back to the hotel. The Paloma Hotel is fantastic and has a great tiki bar with flat screen TVs. We scored two amazing seats in front of the TV. I was surrounded by Ghanains and Obronis (white tourists) and we cheered for a few hours, drank 22 oz. Star beers and until the shootout that cost Ghana the game, spirits were incredibly high.

Rahman went home after the game and I spent another hour chatting with some young guys from Switzerland who were here to volunteer starting on Monday. Overall, I couldnt have asked for a better first day in Ghana!!!

Day 2

This morning at breakfast I chatted with a guy from Portland, Oregon and a guy from New Jersey while drinking coffee, eating toast/jam and an omelette outside under the palm trees with Bob Marley playing in the background.  They invited me to the U.S. Embassy tomorrow for the 4th of July party and I’m going to try to squeeze that in before leaving for Kumasi! Rahman is on his way over now and we are going to hit the Accra Mall and do some drumming at the Arts Centre! The weather is gorgeous…sunny, breezy and about 80 degrees. Much less humid today.

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