Monday, January 31, 2011

The F word

This month, I've had several deep conversations about Feminism (am I predictable? Maybe.) with other volunteers, Ghanaians, Europeans, Canadians, and US Americans. I can hardly relate the many paths of our conversations, but I will say this. In each chat, someone asks me, "So what is Feminism in the US today?" They ask if the movement still exists and what people think of it. This has not been easy to answer, but I've given it my best effort. And basically, what I want to say to all of you feminists, pro-feminists, femi-curious-ists, humanists, pro-equal rights advocates is to get talking and get moving! I've assured everyone that feminism is not dead, but that the word itself is controversial and that members of whatever-you-want-to-call-the-movement are a bit scattered, but passionate. So please, make good on my promise... anyway you can.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Being an Environmentalist in Ghana

This is... challenging. Well, I think it is. There are about a million contradictions that make me feel conflicted, constantly, about my environmental impact while traveling. On a day to day basis, I try to make decisions that reflect my environmental concerns, but speaking frankly, it's so hard to be sustainable as a traveler! With that being said, I'll just tell about some of the contradictions that have plagued my conscience this month.

:-( Little black bags: So on any given day, I'll buy food from street vendors once at the least, and four or five times at the most. There's a huge variety of street food: fresh fruit (pineapples, mangoes, bananas, plantains, papayas, oranges, adismambas), ground nuts, fried foods (like plantain chips and HUGE donut holes), grilled food (kebabs, plantains), or 'chop' which is just a generic word for any prepared 'fast food' you can get at a little stand—rice and beans, jollof (spicy rice), waachi, red red, banku, and so on. The point of this menu is to say that, basically, anything I bought this month, I bought from a street vendor. Supermarkets are few and far between, and wildly inefficient. The only problem with this system is that absolutely everything you buy is placed in one or two little black bags. They're everywhere! And once you look around at the ground, in the gutters, in the sea... they're everywhere! All this in a country where the signage encourages the simple act of throwing trash in the garbage points to a serious issue. So, as I bought items, I sometimes just put them in my bags without a little black bag, but this wasn't always possible if I was buying a sticky pineapple or equally messy item. However, I think that I sometimes went along with the system of the 'Little Black Bag' simply to fit in. Everyone else had their little black bags, and every vendor gives them out like it's their job, so I think I just wanted to feel more Ghanaian. Not a good excuse, I realize.

:-) Free-range meat: I've mentioned this before, but to reiterate, all of the meat is free-range, and let me tell you, I'm no expert in animal psychology but those goats, sheep, and chickens in Cape Coast sure looked happy to munch in the gutters. Also, the fish is fresh AND local—so no problem there! Some of you know that I was a vegetarian prior to finding out I was coming to Ghana, and it's fair to say that I was fine with eating meat while here, but not overly thrilled. It's been a good experience though, and I'm glad that I've gotten to be a part of any dish that get's thrown in front of me.

:-( Coca-Cola: I'm not a Coke-drinker in the states, I'm really not. (Check out for a few of my reasons.) But here, where it's the only way to get caffeine, I've been having it more often. At least in Ghana it's made without high fructose corn syrup! There's no real excuse for drinking it though, and I'm admitting to it now.

:-) Local ingredients: On the bright side, like the fish, all of the ingredients are local—spices, produce, beans, grain, and kasava (Probably a relative of the potato, these are sometimes the size of your calf and sometimes ankle to thigh. Kasava can be prepared in many ways, but it's commonly pounded into a mash that's slightly smoother than grits and cooked into Fufu.) It's just too expensive to import foodstuffs. So if something's out of season, you just can't get it! Like honey or cheese (okay, not that cheese is ever 'in season'). I wouldn't say that I'm desperate for a teaspoon of honey or clump of goat cheese, but I'm definitely missing my favorite food groups. But... honey's not around and cheese is too expensive, so luckily, it's kinda 'outta sight, outta mind.'

:-( Car exhaust/Transportation: Dad, if you could see the vehicles I've been riding in all month, I'd advise you to pop an aspirin in prevention of a heart-attack. Frequently, the cab driver will get out of the car and check a tire, or re-secure the boot (trunk), but the funniest incident was today when our cab driver got out, GRABBED A CROW BAR, popped the hood, and started banging around under there while we waited in the car. Basically, the exhaust and fumes coming out of these cars is anything but clean. And I have to rely on these inefficient vehicles all the time.

:-) Shared Public Transportation: On the other hand, public transportation here is arranged in such a way that you mostly fill a vehicle to capacity before you drive to a destination. For example, I traveled from Cape Coast to Accra in a Fast Car, and the vehicle doesn't leave until every seat is full. Same with the tro-tros that took me from Accra, to Madina, to Krobo, to Cannaan (a neighborhood in Krobo). The tros are filled to, and past, capacity with people headed in the same direction. What this means is that few people in Ghana own their own vehicles. I'm choosing to see this as a +1 for the environmental movement. Just think... they have the system in place and a radical revision of the vehicle efficiency could massively reduce their fuel emissions!

:-( Buying Everything Packaged: Like the 'Little Black Bag' fad, you have to buy most things packaged. Ice cream and water are the best examples. So even though I've been carrying my water bottle all month, I usually have to purchase drinking water in a water sachet and then dump it into my water bottle, which mostly defeats the purpose of bringing your own water bottle.

:-) Taking bucket showers: Water is scarce. No big surprise there, but just to describe it a bit, I've been taking bucket showers for most of the month. There's one larger bucket of water, and a smaller scoop-bucket to dip then dump and this is how you get clean! Needless to say, this experience will alter the way I wash myself stateside.

I hope I've illustrated my point—that I can't figure out how to travel as an Environmentalist. Though I'm almost done with this adventure, tips are welcome! I'd love to hear how others have handled this issue when abroad.

Until next time I remain

A Pallid Shade of GREEN

P.s. This post goes out to my Eco-friendly friends everywhere, and also my amazing ladies at the Wendell Berry House!

One day of Tourism... that's enough for me!

One day while I was in Cape Coast, my traveling buddy, also Liz, and I decided to take on the tourist traps. Cape Coast is considered one of the more touristy places in Ghana, but it's not tourist-y the way I imagined before coming. Yes, there are a few nifty resorts along the coast near to Cape, but it's nothing like tourism in the States. It's touristy in the sense that you'll see a few more white people and there are a few sit-down restaurants and gift vendors, but really, it's no Disneyland.

So on Saturday, January 15th, I went into Cape Coast proper in the morning to walk around and get some breakfast. One of the highlights of my day happened early on when I was shopping. I stopped at a seamstress shop/gift shop to look at some bags that caught my eye. They were exactly what I'd been looking for, so I knew I was going to buy one, but then the owner came over. A young woman, no older than thirty named Lily, to helped me look through the bags. As I decided on the bag I wanted and paid, we had a great conversation about how she got her start. It sounds like she took out a small loan from a credit union several years ago, and began her seamstress business then. I mentioned that I was working for Global Mamas and she was familiar with it, so we chatted about different loan options and business as a seamstress. She was so charming and kind, I returned later for gifts.

After meeting Lily, I found something to eat and searched for a quiet place to sit and eat. This is not easy to do, but I eventually found a spot amongst some napping fisherman on the sidesteps of the Cape Coast Castle(!). This is the main tourist attraction in town, yet it's not roped off or protected like any museum/historic site I've ever seen. It was kind of surreal, but absolutely gorgeous to eat there.

I met Liz at eleven at the entrance to the castle and we entered, paid our fees, and waited for the next tour to begin. Our tour group included 28 (!) other white people (they seemed like students), and I kept looking at them like, “Look at all the obruni's!” forgetting that I am an obruni! Anyway, we learned so much about a really important piece of global human history. Cape Coast Castle was originally built in 1654 by the Dutch as a government center and fort; not long after it was built, the English took over. It wasn't entirely clear, but I think the slave trade was pretty much established by that point in time, and Cape Coast Castle happened to be one of the largest export sights of slaves in West Africa. (The first castle and more famous one is actually in Elmina, just a short ways from where I stayed for a week and a half, but unfortunately, I didn't have time to visit it.) On the tour, we saw the governor's headquarters, canons, and other Castle-y oddities, but most striking were the slave cells. What a powerful experience to walk down the treacherously paved path into the dungeons where hundreds of thousands of men and women were imprisoned for weeks/months before leaving through the “Door of No Return.” Our tour guide was wonderful at creating an ambiance that matched the trauma of such a serious history lesson. As sobering as all of it was, I'm so grateful to have walked through the underground passageways that shaped human history across the globe for hundreds of years.

Following the tour, we grabbed some fresh pineapple juice and just wandered around. We ended up on the street closest to the waterfront. I loved watching the fishermen! They fish by taking out large canoes (maybe 20'?) and dragging a long net behind them into an arc shape some hundred or two hundred feet off shore, once they're out six or seven men on shore drag the nets back in. Each canoe is painted, named, and flies a unique flag so the shoreline is gorgeous, and the whole area was a collage of color and chaos that bright, hot Saturday afternoon.

Eventually, we decided to fit in Cape Coast's other main tourist attraction—Kakum National Park. I think it was about 2 pm when we decided to go, but of course, we weren't really sure how to get there. I thought it was a ways out of Cape, but didn't know exactly how far, so we just started making some offers to cab drivers. We started at 3 cedis, but the drivers were insisting on 15... I'll let you guess who was off. After watching us hop in and out of a cab two times, a man on the street told us that it was at least 30 kilometers out of town and that 15 cedis was fair. Well, Liz and I thought that this sounded like too much, so we kept walking through town, trying out fare offers with different drivers. Finally, we found a driver to take us to Kakum, a shared ride, for 6 cedis each! (We realized later that this was a total steal.)

When we got to Kakum, we caught the last 'tour' to the canopy walk. It was a neat experience to hike through a tropical forest in Africa. It was not a rainforest, but I did see a bunch of ants marching across the trail, and a lot of the vines looked like snakes. Kakum's claim to fame is the canopy walk which consists of 7 rope bridges ~50-100 feet above the forest floor (Dad, you woulda freaked!). The whole thing was pretty nifty, but as we walked back from the canopies and ended our hike through Kakum, the same thought kept running through my head, “I was raised in the most beautiful part of the world.” (That part of the world is the northern United States from Lake Superior to the St Croix and Missisippi river valleys in WI and MN.) Still, I felt accomplished after checking off all the tourist attractions of Cape Coast, and have a lot of great memories from that day.

On the way home, we didn't have the same cab-fiasco because we decided to walk along the road until we found a shared car for cheaper than 6 cedis. Luckily, as we came to the highway some Rasta guys showed us the bench where the trotro would stop to pick us up. We had a nice chat and one of them smoked a J while we waited for the tro. The ride back was turbulent as the driver swerved around countless potholes and speed bumps, but the whole 30 km ride only cost 1 cedi 70 pesewas! What a good feeling to save a little cash and travel around like a legit Ghanaian.

That day left me so exhausted, I'm only just writing about it now, but it was certainly worth it. And seriously, if you're ever thinking about visiting Ghana, please talk to me! I have some contacts in-country who would be great tour guides.

My experience of gender in Ghana

In a previous post, I discussed my urge to escape from appearing female because I've been made so aware of it, as well as being aware of being white. Since then, I don't know if I am just walking and moving with more confidence or if I figured out how to swing my hips like a paper Ghanaian, but I've received a few less shout-outs and phone number inquiries. Whatever the change, I feel like I belong' more and more each day.

In Cape Coast, I have a friend (George) with whom I could ask about anything and everything Ghanaian. I learned so much with my incessant questions, and once, I asked him about how Ghanaian men pick up Ghanaian women. There could have been some misunderstanding due to a cultural/language barrier, but I'm pretty sure we understood each other. I asked if men ask women for their numbers all the time—like, will they ask just anyone? Or just someone they find attractive? He said that it doesn't happen all the time, and men really only ask for numbers when they think that someone is “very beautiful” (George's words).

This makes me think that it is indeed my foreignness that was earning me so much attention. (Awesome! Now I can at least throw out the theory that there's an invisible sign on my head that says 'I'm woman, I'm yours.') So let's agree that my foreignness was the source of my 'hotness,' and let me further develop my theory on gender based on another experience.

On Thursday the 27th, I spent 5 hours in a salon getting my hair braided with extensions. (By the way, salons are tiny little shops and they're absolutely EVERYWHERE!) So when you see me stateside, I'll have a head full of small twisted braids that reach down to the middle of my back! I've never done anything like this before but it's so affordable here, and I felt totally uninhibited, so I went for it. As a side note, I totally love my braids! I feel GhanaFab (get it? Instead of GhettoFab?) We should totally do this in the states more often.

I should explain another observation I've made while here. Hair is everything. It doesn't matter how hot or dusty or humid it is, immaculate hair do's are the rule, not the exception. Almost all women get their hair done, and this probably explains the prolific number of salons. In fact, as I sat in the salon, a woman who must have been at least 80 came in to get a weave (first they braid your hair into corn rows, and then sew, very tightly, strips of fake hair to the corn row braids). She had almost no hair, but when she left, she looked fabulous with an adorable black bob with streaks of red!

Anyway, as I walked back from the salon I received more attention than ever from Ghanaian women. Women on the streets were saying “mo-WI-uh-fay” (phonetically spelled for the Fante way to say, 'you are beautiful') or “very nice hair” as I walked by. I'd also say that I received fewer stares from men.

So here's my hypothesis to be tested worldwide! The more 'foreign'/'other'/'different' you look, the more attention you receive from the opposite sex*. And the more you practice popular fashion of a particular place, without looking generic, the more you impress people of the same sex*.

This is a pretty broad conjecture about sex, attention, and appearance, but I think that it could apply to just a general theory of attractiveness and gender.

Until next time I remain

a Rookie Anthropologist

*IMPORTANT: My language assumes heterosexuality, but I think that the same idea could apply amongst gay, bi-, trans-, and whatever- sexual people. For this case, I could only make observations about attractiveness between heterosexuals because it is definitely the dominant persuasion and performance here. And actually, I think that it's pretty difficult not to comply with heterosexual norms in Ghana, based on my conversations with friends who live here.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Settling in

Dear readers,
I just wanted to take a moment and let you know that I'm still appreciating your readership and feedback. It's interesting because I'm getting so 'into' everything I'm doing, that it's becoming difficult to step back and reflect. All this feels more like my LIFE than a trip abroad. No worries though... I'll be attentive through this phase of 'fading foreignness,' and I'll take note of what's in between being a visitor and being at home in this place. Look forward to a few posts this week about my visit to the Cape Coast Castle, Kakum National Park, meeting local seamstresses, and learning more about Ghanaian custom and culture from my new friends.
Be well wherever you are, sending you warmth and love,

Fluid places, fluid spaces

My Ghana keeps changing. As I rode out of Accra a week ago, I saw it as it really is—a large city somehow both sprawling and concentrated. It probably took close to an hour to drive out of the outer skirts of the city. And as we drove away, I knew that I was leaving a calm routine filled mostly with work and the familiar faces of just a few people who I grew to love very quickly, but I felt peaceful and strong, and ready to try out another way of life in Ghana.

So we arrived in Cape Coast on Thursday the 13th. By Wisconsin standards, Cape Coast is a city, but the scale here is interesting because people call Accra a city, Cape a town, and anything smaller seems to be a village. That night, I moved in with a well-known family amongst the Global Mamas community. One of my co-workers delivered me to the house, and explained during our cab ride there, how I would travel to and from work. I tried my hardest to pay attention and to understand the names of the many drop-off points I'd need to know through his accent and after a long, exhausting day. By the time we finally arrived at the family's home I was thoroughly lost and confused, and closer to tears than I'd been for the whole month. That night I introduced myself to my host mother (Aba) and father (Wallace), had a good chat with Wallace, and wound down by journaling in the nice bedroom they provided me in their home. I woke up the next day refreshed, but hushed. I was soaking in all the sounds and rhythms of the place. It was a neat to be out there because there was a lot of foliage and trees nearby, and I'd seen very little plant-life in Accra. Their home is quite a ways out of Cape Coast in a neighborhood called Polykamp, and I saw just how far out it is on my commute home the next day. From the office, I took about a 20-minute cab ride (depending of traffic) to the 'station' where I hopped into another car going to 'Poly.' What's great about the taxi system here is that, once you know what you're doing, you share a cab with other people going to the same destination. This means you pay 40, or 90, or whatever number pesewas (think of these as cents), instead of 3 or 4 cedis (think of these as dollars) for a ride by yourself. As a result of trekking back and forth from Poly, I got used to public transport and now it's one of my favorite parts of my experience so far. I stayed with Wallace and his family for about 5 nights, and every evening Wallace and I had a wonderful conversation about politics, media, education, adoption, fair trade, feminism, history... you name it, we covered it! I think we learned quite a bit from each other.

On the 18th though, my Ghana changed again when I moved to the house Global Mamas volunteer house in Elmina (just outside of Cape Coast, and 15 minutes from our office.) A few Global Mamas employees live there, as well as any visiting volunteers, so I moved in with my awesome co-workers. Elmina really is gorgeous, right on the water!And most nights we eat dinner at Ellie's; she's this amazing cook and the kindest woman, and she serves us wonderful home-cooked meals on her patio which is right by our house.

So I've now had three different Ghanaian homes, and I'm writing from Accra right now. In an hour or two I'll head to Prampram, a small seaside community about an hour east of here, and stay there this evening. The purpose of the visit is to see Global Mamas' newest production site so that I can write a little story about it for the website. The more I see of Ghana, the more it morphs and changes. I'm learning that the we experience places is layered, not linear, and also that nobody's Ghana is exactly the same. This seems like a simple lesson, but it's so clearly illustrated to me now. I heard many different things about Ghana before I came, and I think I'm discovering some of those same things for myself, but I'm also discovering new things. My Ghana is my Ghana—and I love it more and more each day.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Make it FAIR

Have you ever checked out the Fair Trade Federation or World Fair Trade Organization?

I hadn't before last week, and I am completely blown away! I'm researching these sites for my assignment to work on the Fair Trade page on the Global Mamas website. I'm 100% inspired by what hundreds of orgs are doing worldwide! What's more, some of the products produced are out-of-this-world cool. I love the do-it-yourself aesthetic, and making my own jewelry/clothes/etc. has always interested me... but there are somethings that I could never manufacture.

For example, take the bags from Escama

Or this recycled sari purse:

And I love these adorable ornaments:

And right in Madison, WI there's a business called Just Coffee. I've enjoyed their brew a time or two, but I never realized that what they're doing has some amazing impacts all over the world.

These organizations all began when someone had a good idea and decided to go about it in a way that honors the dignity of all human beings. That's a very simple concept, but in a world where companies and industries depend on the exploitation of disadvantaged people—Fair Trade becomes a bit more complicated. How do you manufacture responsibly-made products that compare to machine- and chemically-perfected ones? How do you convince consumers that the difference between 'sweat-free' and 'plain cotton-t' is worth the price difference? It seems to me that most advocates of Fair Trade take one of two routes. One consists of scare tactics—heart-breaking photos and documentaries of children in sweat shops and clear-cut forests. These are important facts for all of us to consider, and shocking material has a place in advocacy; however, in my opinion, the scare tactic should comprise less than a third of the promotion of Fair Trade. There are so many positive stories to tell that I think the focus should stay on what Fair Trade does do and why it should continue. Realistically, that's the information that I'm just learning now about Fair Trade.

Before I came to Ghana, when people asked why I was coming here I'd say, “I have an academic internship with a fair trade, non-profit* called Global Mamas. It's a microfinance organization that gives women small loans to start their own businesses, and then Global Mamas markets their handicrafts in the US and online.” I used the descriptor “fair trade” as a tack-on just for Accuracy's sake. I had no idea about the meaning behind those two words. For an organization to have true Fair Trade status with the Fair Trade Federation, it must be investigated and scrutinized and fulfill all of the FTF's nine Fair Trade principles. The World Fair Trade Organization also lists ten principles, (these mostly overlap with FTF's,) and there is a specific fair trade umbrella for Africa (the Cooperation of Fair Trade in Africa), and a Fair Trade org in Ghana must also adhere to certain guidelines (such as a minimum wage, etc.) In short, “Fair Trade” is not just a catchy slogan. Some of the principles include: creating opportunities for the economically disadvantaged or the socially marginalized; providing equal employment opportunities and opportunities for advancement; being transparent and accountable as an organization; building capacity for successful business; practicing environmental sustainability; and supporting empowering and culturally sensitive working conditions.

Here's an exciting story about fair trade. Liz Alig, a young woman from Indiana, left college with a passion for design and an interest in fair trade. It wasn't long before she decided to put the two together and start her own business. She designs high-fashion aesthetic apparel AND... everything is made of recycled clothing. I met Liz one week ago when she arrived in Ghana, and I've been so fortunate to spend time with such a fascinating entrepreneur. She's here for about three weeks to develop business relationships with a few seamstresses who are also a part of Global Mamas; she came to Global Mamas to find producers for her designs because GM is an org with a great reputation in the Fair Trade World. Liz's work is sold mostly at boutiques in the states and I HIGHLY encourage you to check out her designs at

If you want more information about the principles of fair trade, or even the products of fair trade, I seriously encourage you to check out the website for the Fair Trade Federation and for the World Fair Trade Organization. I had a blast searching the lists of what various Fair Trade organizations around the world have to offer. I don't want to be an advocate of rampant consumerism, but I will say this much: If you're going to buy, buy Fair!

*Just to be clear, Global Mamas is not a non-profit. It is an NGO in Ghana and all of the profits go back to the women business owners. Women in Progress (WIP)--the international volunteer organization that coordinates the volunteers and interns who work with Global Mamas—is a non-profit in the U.S. So I'm working with a non-profit and with a retail business!

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

“Get ME to a nunnery!”

As I mentioned in a previous post, I'm receiving a considerable amount of male attention. (Disclaimer: I know this happens to many white women, but since I'm alone I've only observed this attention from the receiving end of it, so it feels more personal than I'm sure it is.) It happens everywhere. Cabs, tros, on the street, in the office—everywhere.

Another disclaimer: I am very friendly and smile-y in Ghana, and I do this intentionally. On my plane from D.C. to Accra, I met the nicest Ghanaian woman named Suzi. She told me about her life and her country, and the conversation came around to race. She explained that the racism in Ghana used to be really bad between white and black people, but she said that it's better now, and that I should just be very polite to everyone because otherwise it would resemble racism and I would insult people. With that nugget of wisdom, I entered Ghana; so from the very beginning I've been as polite and kind as possible. This would seemingly explain some of the excessive flirtatious attempts by Ghanaian men, but I actually think that, given their persistence, it's probably not making that much of a difference.

What's even more fascinating is that the way men hit on me is practically formulaic! The conversations seem to follow one of two scripts.


Ghanaian man (G): Where are you from?

Me: United States of America

G: Do you have a husband? / Do you have a boyfriend?

Me: No.*

G: Can I have your number?

Me: No, I'm sorry, I don't give it out.

G: I think you are very beautiful.

Me: Thank you.

G: I want to call you. Please give me your number?

Me: No, I'm sorry. I'm only going to be here for two more weeks.

… This continues until we part ways, or until he finally gives up. Actually, the men I've talked to are quite respectful and it's possible to tell them no, you just have to repeat yourself many times.

*In the beginning, I lied and said “Yes—I have a boyfriend/husband,” but I found that it didn't make a difference, so I stopped bothering to lie.


G: (looking me up and down)

Me: (riding passively in the cab, or wherever)

G: Where are you from?

Me: America.

G: I want to be your friend.

Me: What is your name?

G: “Robert”

Me: I am Liz. It is nice to meet you.

G: Nice to meet you. I want you be your friend.

Me: Okay! We are friends!

G: Give me your number?

Me: I'm sorry I don't give it out.

G: But I want to be your friend.

Me: We are friends!

G: Where are you staying?

Me: Polykamp, near the Polytechnic.

G: I will come to Poly and see you at your house.

Me: I don't think my Ghanaian father will like that.

… This also continues until I get away, or until I make it clear that he can't have my number.

In a third scenario, I am in a situation where I will be in close proximity to the Ghanaian man for an unpredictable amount of time. In these cases, after making it clear that I do not give out my number, he eventually asks me to take his number and makes me promise to call him on a specific day or event. This happened twice on Saturday—I was out-and-about all day—so I am now supposed to call Kusi... anytime, but especially before I leave for America because he wants to come with me. And I'm supposed to call Kofi next weekend if I am coming into town to party, and my last weekend in Accra because he'll be there that weekend.

Am I flattered? ... Not really. It just feels like a race/gender thing. It's exhausting to be who I am physically. I want to take a break from being white and female. All the attention makes me wonder—do I have a sign on my head that says “Come and get it!” or “I'm woman, I'm yours!” ??? And I find myself longing for a way to cover up all my features, so as not to be noticed. I think to myself, hijab would be ideal; I feel like I understand why some women choose to veil themselves—you could be more free to go about without fending of man after man. Other times I think, “Get me outta here! Get ME to a nunnery!”

Until next time I remain,

SINGLE in Ghana

Monday, January 17, 2011

Things about Ghana that I should at least mention before they seem 'normal'

-The Christian sayings and slogans EVERYWHERE: He lives, My Redeemer Liveth, His Carpenter, He saveth me, Jesus says Vodafone (that's a cell phone company)... and countless others with words like “everlasting,” “Christ,” “Jesus,” “Grace,” et cetera. Many shops will be named with these sayings so you'll have, for example, My Redeemer Liveth Sewing. And most taxis and tro-tros have these sayings on them too. (In fact, Global Mamas sells a hilarious coffee-table book featuring the sign culture in Ghana.)

-Answering to “obruni.” It's an unearned privilege in the US to forget the color of my skin at times. Here, it's a different kind of privilege to be made aware of it constantly; it's a valuable lesson precisely because it could not happen in like this in the US. A few Ghanaian's have asked how I feel to be called “obruni.” I say I just have to accept it; I'm not offended because it's true, I fit the description of a white person. It only bothers me when vendors or cab drivers try to rip me off because they think I'm rich. (I am in many ways, very wealthy comparatively, but I did get a scholarship and pay to come to Africa, and this is not a vacation, it's an unpaid academic internship.)

-Men asking if you are married ALL THE TIME. In fact, the first Ghanaian I talked to in Ghana was an airport employee and as he checked my luggage tags to see that I had taken the correct bags he asked if I was married. Then he told me that he liked me, thought I was beautiful and asked for my number. I told him I didn't have a phone, so he wrote his number on my luggage tag.

-Complete strangers, like my cab driver the other day, Frederick, asking for my phone number.

-Not wearing a seat belt. NO ONE does.

-Drinking water out of a plastic baggie. For 5 pesewas (the equivalent of about 3 US cents) you can buy a 500mL sachet of fresh water. You also eat ice cream out of a plastic sachet in Ghana.

-Ghanaians don't swear. Period.

-The pillows... so... weird.

-The mattresses—they're sort of like firm memory foam that takes several hours to fill in the indent of your hip or elbow. They are quite supportive, but after sleeping on the same mattress for 12 nights in Accra, I just hope that I didn't permanently damage the bed by sleeping in the same location the whole time.

-The dust. It's like a haze or fog, but you consciously know that it's dust. It also coats every horizontal surface: desk, bed, floor, leaves, and even the space in between the keys on my laptop. Granted it's Harmatan, so it won't be like this all year, only for the four weeks I'm here.

-No carpet anywhere.

-No ice cubes. I haven't seen a single one.

-No top sheet on the beds.

-The street dogs are tiny! I didn't see any in Accra, but there are many in Cape Coast. They have pointy, dingo-like ears and there all knee height or below. There's one puppy that hangs around my host family's house and I desperately want to pet it, but don't worry, I won't, he's too skittish.

-Street goats—yes, these exist. And their number probably exceeds the number of street dogs. They're also so adorable.

-Free range animals in general: pigs, sheep, goats, and mostly chickens roam everywhere. On my first day in Cape Coast, someone from the office—George—gave me and another Global Mamas firsty a tour of the town. He talked about everything and explained that the animals roam all day, finding food to eat in the streets, gutters, and on the beaches; they go to their respective homes at sunset (for a feeding, if the family has enough to feed them).

-The sun rises at about 6am and sets at about 6pm. I know this is more daylight than at home (7am-4:30ishpm?), but since the weather is so warm and reminds me of summer in the Midwest when it's light until 9pm; sunset at 6pm kind of throws me off.

Of course there are countless comments to make about differences between Ghana and home, but I consider this a healthy sample.

Until next time I remain,

A Dust-Covered Obruni.

In memory of a dear friend

Dear friends and family,

I've taken a brief recess from my blog, but I'm now ready to share my grief and continue blogging. Last week, two dear friends from Hudson were in a car accident in northern Wisconsin. One friend suffered serious injuries, but she is now (thankfully!) home and healing. My other friend, Anna Rose Shoemaker, suffered traumatic head injuries and was air-lifted to Duluth, but later passed away on Thursday, January 13.

Anna was 21 years old, a junior at UW-Madison, and just days away from departing for a semester abroad. She was my sister's age and our mothers are the best of friends. I've known Anna since we were kids, and my earliest memories include biking around our childhood neighborhood (Anna had a banana-seat bike that I was crazy-jealous of). Over the years there were camping trips, shopping trips, WI Dells trips, as well as the mandatory pre-teen N'Sync music video re-makes, trampoline sessions, and countless arts 'n' crafts. Throughout middle school, Anna made a place for herself as a sharp and involved student. By the time high school rolled around, she was an energetic girl with a flair for organization and creativity.

It's hard not to focus on what we've lost, and what the world is missing without Anna. She was blessed with an extraordinary combination of personal strengths and skills: organization, analytical aptitude, creativity, leadership, loyalty, and faith. She's had a huge effect on the community of Hudson, and I'm simply devastated that we've lost a woman with such potential and such deep devotion to her Creator.

Nothing has been harder for me to accept, than the fact that I cannot tell her all this, and that I can't tell her I love her. Did she know? Did she know how deeply I admired her? Did she know that I imagined huge things for her life? Most of all, did she know I loved her?

In hopes that Spirits hear the Living after they've left the temporal world, and in hopes that you're listening to my heart right now Anna, these words are for you:

I love you. I praise the Lord I have known you. Please know that even though your existence has changed forms, you are continuing to change me, and to change the world. I'll never forget you,


I never expected this to be a part of my experience in Ghana, but it will be a defining part of this month and of my life, I'm sure. As it should be, I'm again reminded of the fragility of life, but I'm also grateful to be in a place that also rigorously reminds me that the sun rises and sets, and the days come and go, gracefully.

On Tuesday, when friends and family gather to remember you, I'll be thinking of you too. In my heart, I'll gather up this red Ghanaian dust, and it will always be with me, and always remind me of you, Anna Rose Shoemaker.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Moving on

Tomorrow morning I depart Accra for Cape Coast. This is roughly a four-hour drive along the coast, and I'll travel it with a Global Mamas designer and a visiting workshop presenter. This also means that I'll be meeting my Ghanaian host family tomorrow night. I'm really excited to meet them--they have a great reputation with everyone I've talked to! I also look forward to continuing my current projects while I'm in Cape Coast, as well as helping out there in any way they need me.

I also wanted to say that I'm so appreciative of all you faithful readers! You have no idea how encouraging your comments are. And, if you're not an official follower, I encourage you to become one--simply because I love to know who's stalking me on my African adventure!

Warm wishes to all! You'll be hearing from me in Cape Coast, Ghana.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011


I think everyone wonders about this aspect of travel abroad, right? Well, I'll do my best to write about a few of my most recent adventures of cuisine. A little disclaimer first though, I'm going to have a tough time giving the food properly spelled titles. This is because I've seen nothing spelled out; my experience of the language here has been 100% oral/auditory. (I also have limited internet connection right now, and no time to ask the Google-wizards for food names.) So I hope you don't mind approaching these foods as I have been... curiously and without information.

First, Banku. Banku is fermented corn mash (and usually another kind of grain) packed into a burrito-sized loaf and served with okra stew. You eat it by pinching off a piece of banku and scooping up the stew. The stew has an interesting flavor in itself; it's a bit sour, and then when you eat it with the fermented corn it's really is sour. I still like it, but I do think it will be an acquired taste.

Waachi. I really like this dish. It reminds me of Creole food; basically, it's rice and beans mixed together with a spicy sauce poured over it. Somehow, the beans are different here. For one, they're cooked perfectly—done, but not mashed, and some are a bit burnt and they have this almost-roasted flavor. The other difference? No gas! Not yet anyway. :)

WaaWaa. This literally means “Red Red” because of the color it can have. WaaWaa is a mixture of beans and a meat (chicken or fish) served with fried plantains. When palm oil is used in both the beans and the plantains, both of them look reddish in color, hence, “Red Red.” This first time that I had it though it was made without palm oil, so it didn't really stand up to it's name, but it was super delicious! Palm oil is pretty unhealthy and known to give foreigners a bad time, so I'm glad to have had WaaWaa this way, at least for the first time.

Other foods I've experimented with:

Smoked fish: One day at lunchtime, I was starving and had no idea where to look for whatever kind of food, but I walked by a plexi-glass box on a table, the size of a cooler, with smoked fish (eyes, skin, and all) leaning inside the front of it. I had no idea how I was going to eat this fish, but I stepped up and bought it all the same. When I brought it home I sliced a bit of bread I had left, peeled one of my mini-cucumbers, and pulled out whatever condiments I could find in the fridge, and resolved to make a sandwich. Thanks dad for teaching me how to clean a fish! It's a little different when the fish is smaller than the Sunnies we used to keep, and when it's already cooked, but I was able to get off enough of a filet (in pieces) for a fish sandwich.

Oranges: I've started a few of my mornings with an orange. They weren't particularly dazzling, but it's worth noting that a ripe orange is green here—lime green.

Mystery-meat kebabs: Not really sure of what kind of meat this was... it seemed too tough to be chicken, but whatever it was, it was delicious grilled on a kebab with onions and coated in red seasoning.

Eggs: A classic standby! I bought a few and ate one scrambled with leftover Waachi; the others I ate scrambled with hot sauce.

“Salad:” This gets quotations because it's really quite different than a plate of leafy greens in the States. Up the street from where I'm living in Accra, at the second speed bump to be exact, is where the “Salad Lady' sets up her stand every night at 6pm. Like most food vendors, she has the same plexi-glass box set up at waist level. In it, she sets her prepared bowls of salad ingredients: green lettuce leaves which she cuts into strips when you order a salad, cooked elbow noodles, onions, cucumbers, cut up yams or carrots (not sure which), pieces of fish, canned beans, hard boiled eggs, and salad cream. Now salad cream is really what makes this whole concoction odd. It's like mayo in flavor, but it's more liquid-y, like a french dressing but white. She doesn't put just a spoonful or two in; no, if you don't stop her, she'll put a total of 6-7 spoonfuls of salad cream into your dinner. So I stop her at 4 and it's more than enough. Really, this makes a great dinner with some good sources of protein, but it also has a pretty powerful smell (what with fish and egg!).

Drinks, you ask? All I've really had is beer and papaya juice. Guess which was better... ;)

THE PAPAYA JUICE! One day for lunch I walked a few blocks and turned the corner and paid a little extra for fresh papaya juice. (It was 3 cedis, which would have been about 2 US dollars; that felt kind, of expensive though, so I regarded it as a special treat.)

I've tried Star Beer and Club Beer, both Ghana's own. These are both pretty light lagers, 5.0, and a little skunky. Not too bad though. The first one I drank, I may have stifled a facial reaction, but now I don't really remember what my favorite beers stateside taste like, so... no problem!

That's all for now, I'm sure food will continue to be an interesting aspect of my adventure in Ghana.

Buen provecho my faithful followers!

Friday, January 7, 2011

Friday night in Ghana and I'm... staying in!

Sorry, rather anticlimactic. I don't think tonight is supremely important to my experience as a whole, but what I love about blogging is the immediacy and the potential for mis-representing anything. It's life-like that way. Sure, I can edit my grammatical errors, but this is a cool medium because I might look back at the end of the month and think, "Friday, January 7 was the absolute lowest point of my month! Too bad it's on my blog, cause I've had a great time." That would certainly be a surprise because I'm pretty content right about now.

I'm exhausted. I got started on my work early this morning, with the express intent of taking a little extra time for dinner, or for myself, tonight; however, that was not to be. I worked on new designs of a necklace and ornaments all day! Again, I'm amazed that I'm doing this right now, but to be completely frank, working on designs is slightly frustrating. I finish one, send out a photo for feedback, and then try again. I made five ornaments today, and one got the go-ahead; we're also on a strict deadline (Saturday) for items that are going to be shipped to New York for the New York gift show. (This is evidently a huge deal, like, it's the biggest gift show all year or something.) I'm not really emotionally invested in this work, so it doesn't bother me too much when designs don't work, but I do know it's important for products to be developed and then sold to support the women of Global Mamas. Anyway, we'll see what happens tomorrow!

Speaking of tomorrow, hopefully I'll have time to at least kick back and watch a movie, or maybe go out for a drink, though probably not the latter. You see, I'm the only volunteer staying in the Accra house right now; my supervisor also lives here, but she's pretty busy with her newly adopted son (not to mention this catalog deadline!) I feel more comfortable walking around the nearby streets everyday, but I just don't know about nighttime. Where could I go? How do I get there? Do they speak English? Is it safe to go alone?

Many people told me, "don't go anywhere alone!" but I've had to revise that to not walking anywhere alone after dark. Also, the public transport system is confounding, to say the least. I haven't asked many questions about it, but in the city there are taxis and tro-tros. Taxis are self-explanatory, but they're more expensive to begin with and are notorious for ripping off obrunis. The tro-tros... imagine a Volkswagon van without glass in the windows and extra seats jammed in it. It sounds like there is a schedule, or at least routes for these crazy vehicles, but it's Greek to me! Actually, funny that should come up, I might understand everything better if it were in Greek. That whole 'everyone-speaks-English' thing is not quite accurate. It could just be the area of Accra I'm living in, but just buying food requires ample pointing (with your right hand only, cause doing anything with your left is offensive!), grinning, nodding, and repeating, "how much?" as many times as possible. All this is to say, I'm in a foreign country!

But I think what I have slowly realized this week is that 'going abroad' has multiple meanings. This trip is basically the opposite of my Interim experience in Greece, January 2009. I traveled with 28 other Oles, a professor, and a Greek tour guide; in Ghana, I'm flying solo. In Greece, every dinner was planned and plated resulting in too much food! So far, I'm fending for myself as far as meals go, and that, unintentionally, is resembling a diet. In Greece, I did very little work for the class (other than full days spent at museums and ancient sites); whereas today, I started working at about 8:30am, took about 45 minutes for lunch and 30 for dinner, and worked til about 10pm. Full circle here, if I didn't go out for drinks and cigarettes when I was in Greece, it was a lost night. Each night this week I've been drinking one Ghanaian beer from the 'Honesty Bar' (drink now, pay later) at the house, just to relax.

Honestly, I don't miss the glamor of my Greek adventure. At the time, that was a great trip for me; it taught me to loosen up. Right now, this is the perfect trip for me--meaningful, challenging.

So while students everywhere are 'tipping back' a few this evening, I'm ready to hit the hay. It would be great to be with the friends I love right now, but I know that there's a reason for me to fly solo this month. I'm content to figure that one out later, so for now...

Good night, dear readers!

Thursday, January 6, 2011

an FYI post...

I'm so sorry, but enjoy those last two pictures I posted because they'll be the only ones I'll be able to put up this month! Unfortunately, my Gateway no longer recognizes my photo card as a legitimate source.
The good news? Well, you'll have to READ (the old fashioned way) in order to find out about my adventures. (Cue evil vampire laugh: Mwahahaha!) And, less condescendingly, I'll post them ALL on my blog AS SOON AS I GET HOME!
Thanks for understanding everyone; I'll still take photos while I'm here!

"Are you at all 'creative?'"

On the first morning of my internship, I was just clearing off some desk space in the large one-room office of Global Mamas in Accra, and firing up my scrappy Gateway lap top when my supervisor asked me, “Are you at all 'creative?'” She asked as if it was a shot in the dark; as if creativity were some rare genetic trait that she definitely doesn't possess. If you know me at all, you can imagine my elation upon hearing her question. I imagine my mom and dad grinning as they read this while they remember the countless hours I've spent in the craft room since I was old enough to cut and glue.

I didn't really hesitate with fabricated modesty—I've finally learned to identify creativity as one of my strengths in interviews and personal statements—I just said, “Yeah, I am.” She responded by pulling out some newly-designed beads and explained that the beads are great, but they need a solid design for a set of jewelry using them. Beading! I couldn't believe my great fortune! Sometime during 6th grade, I picked up beading as my niche hobby. Since then I've vacillated between an avid and an occasional jewelry maker; with all due modesty, I've learned a thing or two about the assembly and craft-person-ship of beaded jewelry.

So in the first three days of my internship, I have spent a great deal of time creating beaded items. It began with that great new set of beads, and they're such a great material I have to describe them. One of Global Mamas' beadmakers recently discovered that she could make these almost-iridescent tube-beads by cutting, coloring, and rolling recycled water bottles. The result are electric teal and indigo blue beads roughly a half an inch in length. My first jewelry designs caught the attention of my immediate supervisor as well as the other three deciding voices (in Minneapolis, Michigan, and Spain), but the designs were pretty plain and conservative and they encouraged me to keep working with the beads. So today (Thursday) I tried again and this is what I came up with—a wrap-around bracelet and some matching earrings. Tomorrow morning I'll get to work on a necklace!

What's even more exciting is that all of these beads (even the glass ones) are hand-made AND RECYCLED. And... what's BEST about this project is that my supervisor said, verbatim, “I am so glad you're working on this. This just means that the women can start earning money a whole year sooner.” Wow, what an amazing feeling I had as I continued stringing beads! I've worked on some other creative projects this week such as re-designing the 'Sister to Sister' ornament, 'Eco' ornament, and developing a new ornament design. The pressure is on this month because all the photos, measurements, and descriptions of merchandise need to go to the catalog to be printed before the end of January. I also had the chance to write creatively. See if these descriptions make you want to buy the products without even seeing them? ;)

This bold jewelry will stand out on your wrist for its rich shade of teal and for the mesmerizing shape of these elliptical beads.

The beads on this ornament tell a story of Sisters Uniting and Transforming to Prosper in a New Day. This hand-crafted item makes a meaningful gift or keepsake.

You'll really feel down-to-earth with a necklace of African bauxite stones and hand-made blue glass beads.

In case you get the feeling that my internship is illegitimate or un-academic, (which I don't really expect many of you to think, nonetheless...) I have also been reading the last few annual reports for Global Mamas and a collection of documents from a previous intern who interviewed many women who work within Global Mamas, and wrote about their opinions and experiences with the organization. During my time here, I will also be a part of developing the 2010 Annual Report and potentially compiling the important findings of the previous intern.

Basically, so far, I love my internship! I've been putting in much more than 8 hours of work; honestly, I'm mentally engaged as intensely as I am at Olaf! But it doesn't feel like it! At the end of every day I feel tired and accomplished. The fact is, I know that what I'm doing supports the hard work of so many women who have to be responsible for their families' and their own livelihoods. It also helps to have a supportive supervisor who is encouraging me to do what I do best... to be creative!

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Out and about in Accra

Me blending in, in Ghana=a rather funny joke.

My first night here, I thought I'd put on something unobtrusive and conservative clothing for my adventure up the road. I was not so naive to think that no one would notice me--I'm white and clueless for heaven's sake!--but I thought I might at least appear that I was not totally lost. To a certain extent, I succeeded at this. (Though this may have been because I walked at approximately twice the speed of anyone else who was walking; and I even considered my pace a stroll!)
Not every eye was on me, and only a few people stopped and stared (and most of them seemed to be under 7!) But, it was immediately obvious that my dusky purple button up and brown linen shorts stood out on the dirt road. Everyone was dressed in bright colors! Most of the men just had t-shirts on, but the women looked quite nice in dresses and skirts, both traditional Ghanian and non-traditional. Not only that, but every person's hair was 'done.' I had assumed that dripping with sweat and 90-degree weather (or 32 degrees celsius) gave me implicit permission not to style my hair. My mistake! I felt like a pig with my hair all frizzy and thrown into a low pony. I'm not sure that I'll be able to correct this mistake every time I go out, but I'll certainly think twice about combing my hair.

The road I walked on may have been paved, but it was hard to tell because it was coated in reddish dirt, almost the consistency of dust. This is the dry season in West Africa so dirt blows south, even into Accra which is on the Gulf of Guinea, so absolutely everything is covered in dust. The sewers, which run along the side of many roads, are open or perhaps covered by a slab of cement with holes in it. So, there's a stench. It's rather like the smell of a port-a-potty, but not quite as stifling. This road is lined with tiny shops with various commodities: grocery supplies (I only saw eggs, oil, and soda, but I wasn't really looking), hair cuts and hair styling, cell phones and calling cards, mangoes, some t-shirts, alcohol, and countless other items. I stopped and bought some bananas and probably paid too much for them because I had no pesewas (think of them as cents, and cedis as dollars). But they were so delicious! 100% flavor and none of the waxy texture of bananas in the States.
Behind these shops I caught occasional glimpses of the kind of African city that's probably easy for you to imagine. One- and two-story shacks, brightly colored and probably dirt-floored. Curtains for doorways, chickens running everywhere, kids screaming, cars stalling, and taxis honking as they drive by. It didn't feel impoverished though. It felt like life. I'm sure I'll continue to reflect on what I saw that first night, and what I'll see throughout the month.

After walking further, I was totally famished and finally decided to find dinner. Though there were people everywhere, seemingly selling food, it was not self-explanatory to say the least. At last, I saw a man in an orange t-shirt grilling unidentifiable meat over a makeshift grill that looked like some kind of fencing (with small wires and small holes), over coals, with both ends of the rectangular grill metal covered in newspaper and grilled meat. Omnivores everywhere: please be proud of me, the Former Vegetarian. I walked up to him, pointed to a piece of meat (that was very likely chicken), and indicated that I wanted to buy it. We could barely understand each other, and I stood there forever while he finished cooking a piece of meat that (I thought) was already cooked. It was worth the wait however, and at the end of twenty minutes we had gotten to know each other, meaning we had established that 1) my father also grills, 2) this man was the champion of grilling, and 3) that I could take his picture. I assured him I'd be back, and left with a black plastic bag, lined with newspaper, and hot, hot meat smothered in a red spice mix and a few slices of onion. Before I was home I dug into the bag with my fingers for some bites of meat, and it was absolutely delicious! (My supervisor at Global Mamas and I got talking about meat today, and what I learned is that it's extremely healthy and lean because it's hard to keep animals fat here, and that it's all free range! Take that USA!)

My first independent foray was successful, and I feel brave because of it. Nonetheless, I still feel slightly apprehensive and totally out of my element. But to keep you from having to state the obvious in a comment, I'll say it to myself, "That's what traveling abroad means!"

Until next time, I'll be lining up my next outfit for going out and about in Accra.

Monday, January 3, 2011

I've arrived!

I'm grateful to be here, and I'm giving thanks for smooth travels. I think that I'll write more later about my initial reactions to Accra, Ghana. For now, given my state of exhaustion, I think it would be wise to simply say that I'm happy, healthy and safe. So check out this map of my location, and check in later for a few fun stories.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

En route...

I'm watching the sunset in Cleveland, Ohio. In the last thirty minutes the clouds have changed from tender white, to shock-you pink, and now to a muted slate blue. I'm thinking about the sun and the fact that I'll watch the same one rise and set so many miles away. It's comforting to think of how familiar the sky can be, and water too. I can't wait to walk into the other side of the Atlantic, wet my heels in my favorite element, and feel at home on Earth.

"How long are your flights?" everyone asked me. I kept saying I didn't know, cause I don't really care! I'll just get on each plane, settle in, will away my motion sickness, breathe, then land. (In case you are interested in details, I left Hudson this morning at 10:45, MSP at 2pm, and I will leave Cleveland at 8pm. Then I take about a 90 minute flight to Washington D.C., and at ~10:15 pm tonight I board a United Airlines plane for Accra, Ghana. I'll arrive in Ghana at 1:50pm on Monday, January 3rd, which makes my last flight just over 10 hours long.)

I'm just trying to stay present in each moment, so...

I'm in the middle of my departure date. I've been waiting for this day for a few short months, but here's to the ellipses at the beginning of a month-long sentence.

(Thanks for the free Wi-Fi Cleveland!)