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!

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