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.

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