So, back to Africa!
Here is where I admit that I adjusted to Africa like my dog would adjust to swimming in the ocean. Which is to say, you toss her in and she gets out as fast as she can (or she’d probably drown). It appears with a quick Google images search that there are no other Yorkies that enjoy swimming in the ocean either.
And I feel terribly guilty about it. Not throwing my Yorkie in the ocean, but how I handled my time in Africa. The people were wonderful, and it was amazing to experience something so different from my own life, but it was way outside of my comfort zone. Yes, that’s partially what draws me to foreign lands… a chance to get out of my comfort zone, to stretch myself, to humble myself, to see things rather than to just hear about them… but it’s not easy. I’m like a new pair of toe shoes that needs to be worn in. I’m stiff and shiny and I need to be bent and softened, cut and beaten down a little bit before I am ready for use. Before God can dance in me.
I would love to react to life the way Audrey Hepburn did. She was always thinking of others first, it seemed, and wouldn’t mind her own discomfort. Of course, she grew up during World War II and had a mother drilling into her that “others matter more than you.” I’m sure she handled Africa much better than I did. Though, to be fair, she did request to have an air conditioner shipped to Africa during the filming of The Nun’s Story, and also that ”quarantine laws in the Belgian Congo would be waved for [her terrier] Famous […] and most important of all, that a bidet would be installed and waiting for her… It was probably the only bathroom fixture of its kind in Central Africa at that time.” (I read this ages ago and found this particular reference Here)
The above photos are from the Leo Fuchs gallery.
I, however, did not have a bidet or my Yorkie. So perhaps Miss Hepburn’s trips to Africa were slightly more comfortable than mine. I did my best, but I felt that two weeks was enough to experience major culture shock and not really get acclimated to a new country such as Ghana. I admit that my own discomfort really took over my thoughts at many times. Many, many times. But what drove me crazy about that was knowing that many, many people have traveled to Africa, have lived in Africa, spend their whole lives in Africa… and probably do it without complaint. I mean, I’m just assuming. Maybe I’m being hard on myself. I don’t know. I can adjust to things. It doesn’t mean I like them, but who says you have to like everything? Perhaps I was just not sufficiently mentally prepared for this.
I knew there would be no running water in the village. I knew the internet situation may be sketchy. I was prepared to bend the rules on being vegan or vegetarian. I was not exactly prepared for other things, however.
I haven’t known exactly how to approach all of this in a blog post. To me, it was another world far from my own. To those who live there, it’s life as usual and people seem generally content. I don’t want to gloss over my experience there and only share the positive, fun stories, but I also don’t want to focus only on the negative points. Because it’s a completely different culture that I’m not a part of and won’t completely understand or agree with. To me, it’s shocking to see the living conditions of some people, and I feel the urge to change things. But I don’t know what it’s really like to live there, or if they even want to change. I’m sure there are aspects of my own culture that Ghanaian people would witness and say “that’s terrible!” and they would be right. We all have things we can learn from each other, and ways we can help each other. This could be it’s own topic….
That said, let’s move on. I’m going to just start with some of the things I wasn’t prepared for.
Transportation. I actually did not get a photo of the exterior of the trotros, which are large white vans that can seat over 20 people inside. They go down the road in set routes, with the mate hanging out the front window making signs with his hands to tell people along the road where they’re headed. You hop in and pay about 25¢ for a ride.
From the junction near our town, we would get a taxi (see above). Several of them would line the street, waiting for either enough people to fill it up, or someone willing to pay for all 4 seats. Somehow, most of the time we got a taxi, it was the one above. The inside was terrifying. You could touch the rolled-down window through the inside of the door… because there was no inside of the door. I don’t recall if it was this particular taxi or another one, but I’m pretty sure there was a jug of gas with a hose stuck in it on the floor of the passenger side. Every time we’d pass a sign saying something to the effect of “slow down! 12 people died here” I was pretty sure they were talking about a trotro accident.
The issue here seems to be that cars are imported to Ghana, and a heavy tax is levied on them, making them unaffordable to most people. So they wring every last bit of life out of the cars they have. Even if in the US, they wouldn’t even be allowed on the street. Here, apparently, if it starts and you can still move it… continue on.
According to Road Safety Services, a few of the major causes of road accidents in Ghana are, in fact:
• Most accidents are caused by broken down vehicles on our roads.
• It appears in Ghana there is a leeway for drivers to drive on worn/second hand tyres.
• The unworthiness of some cars on our roads also invariably leads to road accidents.
• Over-loading of vehicles beyond their expected gross weights is a known cause of accidents.
And according to Irin News:
Road accidents are among the top causes of death in Ghana, with malaria, diarrhoeal and respiratory diseases, according to deputy director of the Ghana Health Service, George Amofa. Road accidents kill more Ghanaians annually than typhoid fever, pregnancy-related complications, malaria in pregnancy, diabetes or rheumatism.
Sanitation. I don’t know why I thought nothing would be different. Sure, in the US and in France you run across the idiots who pee in the street or don’t wash their hands, but I was practically in shock here. Men, women and children used places other than covered toilets to relieve themselves, and don’t seem to see the importance of washing their hands after. I witnessed a small boy at the marketplace casually relieving himself on the ground not far from where food was being sold, and the toilet above was found on a visit to the Department of Social Welfare, with a little sink out in the hallway. Toilets in this part of Ghana seem to be treated the same way as kitchens in Paris – an afterthought.
I got a lot of use out of my organic, lavander-scented hand sanitizer spray on this trip, and cringed inside every time somebody wanted to shake my hand. I loved the children and let them touch me, but I also knew that they probably hadn’t been washing their hands either. I’m not a mysophobe, I swear, but I must have seemed like one. Even with all my precautions, by the end of the trip I suffered mild diarrhea and major stomach pain during my flight home. I’m better now. But so many people are not as lucky.
According to UNICEF:
In Ghana, diarrhea accounts for 25 percent of all deaths in children under five and is among the top three reported causes of morbidity…. Nine million episodes of disease could be prevented each year by washing hands with soap.
Ghana Business News adds with a quote from Mrs. Theodora Adomako-Adjei:
“In Ghana it is even critical because most of us like eating with our hands, because of the type of dishes that we cook. So when it comes to handling food we use our hands a lot. Secondly, surfaces [transfer] to palms a lot of germs. It can be a door knob, even our computers, the ATM cards…people use their hands a lot so there is the need to create awareness. Look at the food that we eat – fufu, kenkey, banku and all those things – we don’t enjoy eating with fork and knife, so we have to eat with our hands – therefore we have to keep the hands very clean.
I’m really glad to see that there are efforts to promote hand-washing. Global Handwashing Day has even been established by GlobalHandwashing.org. It’s just one of those things I never even thought about… I naively assumed most people knew you get sick less often if you keep your hands clean. Even last year I learned my lesson once more. After months of winter illness, I started carrying hand sanitizer and not touching anything on the public transportation. Add to that a morning smoothie, and I have not been sick in over a year (though there was the one time I fell ill from lack of sleep). Sometimes I forget that we are not all aware of these things. Heck, there are still things I could learn.
See all that fruit up there? That was not to be found in Ghana. Apparently I’d missed mango season so really all I had were tiny bananas, avocados, apples…mmmm am I missing something? Oh, some papaya but I really don’t like papaya so I couldn’t finish it. My friend had told me diets were different here, but I thought really… so close to the equator… there wouldn’t be tropical fruit to eat? I’d find something. I was a little wrong. I am realizing my love of fruit is so strong that now I’m researching tropical paradises I can live happily ever after in. Kauai?
In Ghana, I’m rich. Fair enough, I understand. I do earn more than most of the people I met. But the cost of living is much higher in the US and EU. And right now I would not be considered rich in either of those places. lol But in Ghana it was assumed that I am rich, and that prices can be higher for me. I suppose it’s like that anywhere for a foreigner…. the other day I bought a little toy from a man outside of the Pompidou Centre and we got to chatting… he told me that he sells the toy to Arab tourists for 10€ because to them it’s nothing. It’s all relative. I don’t mind so much when I’m buying bananas or some fabric, but when they want to charge you oohhhh like, 500% more to enter a fort and then the equivalent of $100-$200 to take pictures…. I’m wondering exactly how rich they think we are.
I’m white. And that’s weird. lol. There is no walking around unnoticed. Even in my nice new dress.
I love that dress. The niece of a friend of my friend made it for me from fabric I’d bought at the market. Other than that dress I wore for Manon and couldn’t keep (it was a costume), and my “Belle” Halloween costume when I was about 12, I think this is the only time someone has ever made a dress specifically fit for me. I usually buy second-hand. But anyway, yeah, there’s just no blending in. You’re white, and you’re rich. Get used to it.
Now we’re moving into the cool unexpected things… I mean starting with that dress. I’ve even worn it out in Paris, and I’ll wear it out in L.A.
Water… baggies. What do you call this? This is pretty cool.
OK, I’m going to say it, still a little unsanitary because you have to bite it to open it, but if it’s fresh from the bulk package, it’s cool. What I think is great about it is the reduction in plastic waste. Sure, you still see a ton of them littering the ground, but it’s probably better than a lot of water bottles littering the ground, right? And think of what you can do with these things.
Trashybags.org is even doing what I had been thinking about as I stared at all the bags along the streets and outside of the villages – collecting the bags and upcycling them.
Sorry to go back to the negative zone, but this does bring up the issue of trash collection in Ghana. I found an article focusing on waste management in Accra here, if you care to read it. In the village I was at, there was no trash collection, and in my meanderings around the community center I stumbled upon a trash heap (on which someone was, er, squatting, to top it off….). Walking along the beach, I would see buried trash beginning to peak out after a high tide. I didn’t take a photo but I found one online to illustrate:
Anywaaaaay. Since I knew where all my bags would end up, I decided to take most of them home with me. I’m using one of the bags as a soap holder, and the rest are awaiting inspiration.
I’ve been learning about natural cures (specifically in the tropics but some apply anywhere, you can learn more at anamed.net) and one powerful plant seems to be Moringa. It grows in Ghana! In fact there was a tree right behind the community center. Sadly, the pods were very dried up and the seeds didn’t look so good, but we did find some in Cape Coast!
I was taught how to make a certain veggie and fish stew that I found tasty, and it’s been my easy go-to meal to make since I’ve gotten back to Paris. I’ve had to adjust because of differences in the availability of ingredients (those whole cooked fish, not sure where to find them here. Short grain rice? Seems different in France…) but I like to have this new African dish in my recipe book.
Seriously. I’m going to start hacking down palm trees when I get to L.A.
I don’t think I actually ate any, but I’m including it here because it’s funny.
I believe this was the first time I’d ever eaten a fish that still looked like a fish. And I’d do it again. So un-vegan of me….
Well, this blog post has taken hours, and I should start packing up my things for another move this evening.
In closing…. I’ll say of course there is more to say about Ghana… good and bad. It was my first time in Africa, my first time in a really, truly completely different culture…. I was almost going to say “I hope in some ways it’s changed me for the better,” but then thought how self-centered that seems to me… what I really wish is that somehow I could have gone and returned having made someone else’s life better. But perhaps it’s just given me things to think about, and a better idea of what I can be a part of in the future to make someone’s life better. Some sort of reconnaissance mission, in a way. There must be a better phrase for that. But I think with first-hand experience it helps one to understand the world better than you can simply by Googling things (duh). And some day the pieces of the puzzle that you’ve gathered simply by being open and curious will come together and help you fulfill your purpose.
I’d like to leave you with one of Audrey Hepburn’s favourite poems (and one of mine, too) by Sam Levenson…
For attractive lips, speak words of kindness.
For lovely eyes, seek out the good in people.
For a slim figure, share your food with the hungry.
For beautiful hair, let a child run his/her fingers through it once a day.
For poise, walk with the knowledge that you never walk alone.
People, even more than things, have to be restored, renewed, revived, reclaimed, and redeemed; never throw out anyone.
Remember, if you ever need a helping hand, you will find one at the end of each of your arms.
As you grow older, you will discover that you have two hands; one for helping yourself, and the other for helping others.