Sunday, June 13, 2010

Last Day in Ghana

I write this entry from Ghana’s major airport, located on the outskirts of the capitol city. We’re waiting for our flight back to Amsterdam, where some of us will stay and relax for a few days, but others will continue on to the United States.

We spent the day seeing a few last sights and driving about the city for one last look at the environment here. I made it to Kwame Nkrumah Memorial Park, which was very much worth the visit and made me want to read some of the late Doctor’s work when I return home on Wednesday.

I feel completely recovered from the dehydration, but am burnt out on the country. Being in the touristy part of the city today meant dealing with hawkers swarming the bus and pressuring us into buying various wares and that gets tiring very, very quickly. We’ve seen so many things and had almost no time to process any of it. My brain is very, very wrinkled. Writing here and in my paper journal has really been my only respite, and towards the end of the trip, that just wasn’t enough of an escape anymore. I’m very much looking forward to a few days of low-key exploration around Amsterdam.

The trip has answered many questions for me about my future and the study of international relations in general. However, it’s simultaneously provided so many more to answer. I’m going to spend so much of my free time this summer trying to come up with solutions. What is development? How can I morally justify coming from New York to Africa to tell the locals how things should be done? Is there a workable solution to the intense problem of global income disparity, or is this an inherent feature of global capitalism? What can I do in order to help in a way that’s wanted and needed?

Global health is very much without moral qualms – curing malaria wouldn’t be frowned upon by anyone. Development is different. Development insists there is a right way and a wrong way. How has modern development evolved beyond the White Man’s Burden? Am I justified in my desire to help? Should I care about the philosophical side of development at all, or just start building more libraries or getting militias to disarm? It seems to me that can’t possibly be a bad thing to do by anyone’s standards.

Very many more questions are floating about in my head as I wait for our KLM flight to board. This won’t be my last post here. I’m sure I’ll have some adventures to share in Amsterdam, as well as more reflective pieces like this one. Let me just say thank you to everyone who followed along on my journey as I explored Ghana. It’s been a truly incredible experience, and I hope I was able to bring a bit of it home to all my friends and family.



Sorry for the lack of updates – our last days in Ghana have been hectic and sans Internet.

Thursday was our community service project about an hour north of Accra. Originally, we thought we were painting a computer room, but plans changed and we were helping a mason and bricklayer work on a new library for the students.

When we arrived, the students, a few hundred strong and ranging in age from 5-15, were outside playing or eating snacks. Right when our bus pulled up, the smaller children gathered around and waved. Our jobs included mixing and hauling concrete and moving and lifting brick.

The construction process in Ghana is painstakingly slow – because large loans are mostly inaccessible, building is done one piece at a time whenever funds are available. The library were were working on was missing a few walls and a roof, we were working on the front face of the upper section. The building materials were highly suspect as well. Each time I lifted a brick, a bit of the material would fall off into dust.

The schoolrooms themselves were overcrowded, unbearably hot, and severely lacking in basic equipment. There seemed to be only one bathroom for all the students, and it’s sanitary quality was less than desirable. The kids were all determined to learn, though, so they make the best of what they’ve got. We delivered some notebooks and stationary to the headmaster to give to one of the classes.

As we worked, children would come up and introduce themselves and talk to us. That alone gave me enough energy to keep working despite the heat and how much like death I still felt. I thought about how many times we used to complain about our school district back in high school, and how ridiculous and ungrounded that really was.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010


It’s been two days since my bout with dehydration. I still feel lethargic, sore, and my digestive system isn’t exactly 100%. I do, however, feel a whole lot better every day, and I think if I take the time to rest in some air conditioning and make more of an effort to take solid foods, I’ll be more or less fine by our departure time on Saturday.

We had a lecture on HIV/AIDS this morning, and some of the women’s rights issues involved with the spread of the virus are staggering. Many wives are a sign of social status for men. A wife here has no right to ask her husband to wear protection. Sex workers won’t be paid the full fee if they ask their client to wear a condom. Having the virus is instantly socially stigmatizing for both men and women, but moreso the latter. It’s a very male-dominated society, and that contributes dramatically to the spread of HIV/AIDS.

Our site visit, accordingly, was to an HIV/AIDS clinic in the city. They make a special effort to give screenings, consultations, and treatments at a minimum price to those infected. They see about 30 newly infected patients a month, but their ward was nearly empty – I guess a good sign. The clinic has only one primary doctor and is vastly understocked. They need basic supplies like condoms and printer ink, as well as more expensive items like a vehicle in order to reach those that can’t make the journey to the clinic or to deliver bodies to the morgue and cemetery. I think I’ll try to mobilize the WGSU DJs to raise some money for that purpose next year. I got the e-mail address of the head doctor in order to figure out the best method of donation.

They also had a small shop, which sold different goods all handmade by HIV/AIDS patients. I bought a few gifts here, because I thought it was a great idea. These patients – mostly women – are likely ostracized by their own society and, without continued care (and sometimes even with), would slowly wither away and die. Giving them some purpose to wake up to  each day has to be amazingly therapeutic psychologically, if not physiologically.

A slower day was very welcome. We’re supposed to be painting a library tomorrow, but I think if I still don’t feel right in the morning, I may have to regrettably stay inside and get more rest. It’s very upsetting, because this is the closest to actual development work we’ll be doing while in-country, but being in the heat will certainly prolong my recovery time.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010


Sunday was a free day, we mostly stayed at the hotel and recharged.

Monday I woke up and didn’t feel great to begin with. Our site visit was the Obuasi gold mine. For the better part of the ride, I felt like I was going to throw up. Once down 800ft underground, I somehow felt better. We saw gold in its natural, unrefined form, which connected us and supernovae, and got to experience a darkness so complete it felt more extreme than blindness.

I didn’t notice how much water I was losing through sweat, especially on the way back up. A steep climb while wearing 30lbs of gear and a helmet didn’t do good things for my health.

At lunch, I had absolutely no appetite. When my food was put in front of me, I felt again like I was going to throw up, so I retreated to the bathroom just in case. Nothing. On my way out, I felt like I was going to faint, so I sat down on the ground and Mo came over to see what was up. Him and Sonny helped me to the bar, where I laid my head down and nearly passed out once again. They poured water on me and got me some to drink, and I felt much better. I lost feeling in my hands and legs – not just pins and needles, but full feeling and control. Once that subsided, we got back on the bus and I finally threw up.

Back at our Kumasi hotel, I got right into bed and started taking medicines and electrolyte drinks. I was shivering and convulsing a bit, but everyone in the group stayed with me a while to make sure I was alright. I got some decent sleep but had very strange dreams.

It’s now Tuesday afternoon, and I’m on the bus because it isn’t good for me to be out in the heat with the group on today’s site visit. I feel sweaty, light-headed, and pale, but I’m doing much better than I was yesterday. It takes about a full day to day-and-a-half to recover from dehydration, so I should be alright once I wake up tomorrow. I’m looking forward to the promise of a hot shower once we’re back in Accra tonight.

I can now understand why the impoverished locals take obviously dirty and unhealthy water to drink – the risk of parasitic infection or other water-borne illnesses are far from mind when one is in constant danger of feeling like I have for the past day. 

I’m back in Accra now. I had solid food for dinner, and I’m doing some writing and watching a Portugal – Mozambique friendly. I feel about 80% better. That should reach 100% by tomorrow morning as long as I have another Gatorade or two – thanks Mo.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Akwaaba Kumasi

We’ve been in Kumasi two nights now. The Aya Centre gave us the nicer, bigger bus for the 5-hour trip from Accra on Friday, so it a much more comfortable ride then we’re used to. We left around 6:30AM, but I figure I got about 3 hours of extra sleep sprawled out in the back of the bus.

Our first day in Kumasi brought us to a museum dedicated to the history of the Ashanti kings. The Kingdom had ruled territory which included Ghana as well as small parts of neighboring Mali, Burkina, and Togo. They were considered a threat by colonizing powers and subjugated, but the King still holds a great deal of respect. His interests are represented in Parliament, and he serves as a small  but sometimes very effective check on presidential powers, usually representing conservative and traditional values. The museum tour was interesting but brief. The free-range roaming peacocks came less than a foot away from us, much closer than I’ve ever been to one before.

We also had a lecture on Population Geography and sanitation issues. The Ghanaian professor agreed that the country needs a vastly improved infrastructure to deal with the problems of litter and waste removal if it should ever hope to enter the realm of middle-income/semi-periphery nations.

Despite exhaustion, Sonny took us to a club Friday night. I nearly fell asleep on the taxi ride there, but a few Cokes gave me enough steam to make it the night. The sound system was absolutely top-line, which is probably why he likes the place so much – he works on speakers and sound equipment. Drinks were expensive, but the cultural lessons learned that night were beyond well worth the cost. I really felt like an obvious minority for the first time in my life on that dance floor. Clubs aren’t really my scene anyway, so even back home I’d feel pretty awkward at one. Never before have I felt so completely out of place, and it was a brief but enlightening insight into the lives of racial minorities back home. I feel a bit more understanding of how strange it must feel sometimes to be non-white at Geneseo, which is, unfortunately, very, very far from a racially diverse college community.

We got about 3 hours of sleep that night, then woke up on Saturday for market day. We drove to three separate rural villages around Kumasi, each specializing in different wares made and sold. The first was a Kente cloth village, which was originally modeled after a spider’s web and is traditionally made by men. There are varying degrees of complexity and materials, and I had the chance to get into the machine which the weavers use to try for myself. I got the hang of it pretty quickly, but I had absolutely nothing on the workers whose rhythm was absolutely musical in nature. The shopowners insisted we view each of their sections, so I thought it rude to not at least pretend to have some interest in everything. I bought a piece that I thought Erin would like, then avoided the rest of the shopkeepers and hawkers outside to get back on the bus.

The second village specialized in Adinkra, which are Ghanaian symbols that represent different ideas or philosophies. The Aya, for example, is a fern, and symbolizes determination and self-preservation. At this village the hawkers were particularly insistent and difficult to avoid. The ground was literally moving with ants, flies, other insects, and small lizards, which are more or less the Ghanaian equivalent of our squirrels. We were shown how tree bark is mashed up and heated to make the dye for stamping the symbols, and got to do a bit of stamping of our own. I showed some interest in a piece of cloth that was stamped with a pattern of 3 Aya and Barack Obama, but the original price of 10 Cedi was far too high. After walking away and back on the bus, the shopkeeper came to my window and offered to sell it to me for 3 Cedi and a pencil, which I couldn’t refuse. Pencils go a long way here, I haven’t quite figured out why. I wish I bought more before I came, both for barter and giving to small children.

Before the third and final village was lunch, where my Red-Red had some kind of unidentifiable spinal bones, which I assumed were chicken bones for the sake of not vomiting. The bathroom’s plumbing wasn’t working, so relieving myself without vomiting took some willpower.

The third and final village was a bead-making community. Once we arrived, we had to stay on the bus for about ten minutes, which resulted in a great deal of small children surrounding us, waving and smiling. As we walked about the village, they followed us and occasionally sang songs. Some of them were severely malnourished.


The village elders showed us how beads were made from recycled bottles and oven molds. I bargained for a necklace for myself and a few gifts for friends, but was quickly burned out on commerce and dealmaking.

Our last destination yesterday was the Kumasi Central Market, the second largest market in all Africa. It covers about 11 square miles. Eleven! That’s one more than ten! The size and scope of this place was incomprehensible. I have no idea how a local would go in and find any specific item. Certain sections had certain items – fish market, meat market, spice market. My sense of smell was barraged on all ends – peppers, raw meat, brain, pig’s feet, human waste being carried about, body odor. 3 of us nearly got separated from the group, and it would’ve taken the best search party over a week to locate us. After 15 minutes marching through the market avoiding shopkeepers trying to grab your arm and rickshaw-like cargo carriers racing through the tight alleyways, we escaped back to the outer street and climbed on top of the bus for a better view.


That night, we sat outside and enjoyed a few beers and relaxation. I slept amazingly well, but the still pillows and mattresses are taking a toll on my neck. I left a shower till the morning, as our water heater doesn’t work and it’s much easier to wake up after a cold shower rather than go to bed after one.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Arrived in Kumasi

Yesterday was a slow day to relax a bit. We did a bit of peer editing on each other’s assignments, had lunch at Chez Afrique, and had a lecture on the biology of Malaria. We had a lot of free time on our hands, so we took a taxi down to a tailor’s shop on the local main road so the girls could get measured for custom made dresses. They made me a pretty great offer to get a long-sleeve shirt made, so for roughly $20 American, I got myself measured, picked out a fabric, and come Tuesday, I’ll have a rockin’ new party shirt that’ll probably be the best-fitting piece of clothing I own. We took another taxi to Accra Mall to bum around a bit. On the way back, we were swarmed by cabbies which made it tough to bargain for a good rate, but we made it back to the hotel by dinner.

After eating, we called two more cabs to take us to Osu, a neighborhood in Accra with a good nightlife scene. We haggled for a good rate, then Mo and I went in opposite cars to make sure each taxi had at least one dude to two girls for safety’s sake. During the drive, Carrie got proposed to by a street vendor while we were stuck at a red light. Our cabbie told me where I could find the city’s best prostitutes, so I kindly gestured towards Carrie and Alyson and told him that I was pretty much OK, but thanks.

When we got to Osu, it was pretty clear we had no actual destination in mind. We almost got let out at a closed appliance store, but Mo came to the rescue and had his cabbie take us to a bar and pool hall that was actually pretty excellent. Shots were had and friends were made.

The shots that were had pretty much kicked our asses when we had to wake up at 545 for breakfast and our bus to the inland city of Kumasi, where I’m typing this now. Luckily, we had a nice big bus and we slept for most of the five-hour drive. Once here, we ate, had a lecture on Population Geography, and toured a museum for Ashanti Kings.

The lecturer was interested in waste disposal problems, so I got some more insight into the Ghanaian perspective on the issue. There’s a real lack of infrastructure here for refuse. Ghana needs organized collection procedures, treatment, and collection centers. I’ve seen probably about 5 trashbins since I’ve been here. Many Ghanaians don’t want to litter, but they really don’t have a choice. Given the health implications, this needs to be a development priority for the Ghanaian government.

 IMG_0658 These storm drains are meant for rain, but wind up being used for trash and human waste

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Hangin’ Out

After Elmina, we drove inland to Kakum National Park, home of a world-renowned series of rope bridges which lead through the rainforest canopy. This was a hell of a great way to decompress. The view was incredible and awe-inspiring. About halfway along the course, the “rain” part of rainforest made itself known and known hard. It felt great.


We bought dry t-shirts and waited for the rain to subside before heading back to Accra for the night.