Tiny moments of progress. Little reminders that you are becoming part of the village. Your name is yelled after you rather than the blanket term of “white man” or “Yevu”. The prices remain stable, the fruit sellers throw an extra banana in your basket. The children ask after your “family” (Alex and Ashley), the postman has stamps ready the minute he sees you coming. People tell you they missed you if they haven’t seen you for 8 hours. Maybe it is just the side effects of living in a small village, maybe it is just being a constant source of curiousity. Call it what you want, but there is great comfort in the familiar.
Sena, the little girl at the roadside market who screamed at the site of me all of last year, has now stopped doing that. Each and everyday I would go to her mother’s stall to buy small items, like water or eggs, and everyday I would smile and try and talk to her. She slowly got used to the idea until finally one day I asked her brother’s name and she told me it was “Victus”. That seemed to give her a great sense of being a “big girl” and she waved bye-bye to me as I left. The next day, she said “Yevu, how?” and was very happy when I told her I was well. Later that afternoon, as she was being scrubbed clean in a bucket behind the stall, she piped up and made it very clear what she wanted from me. “Yevu, (insert child-garbled Ewe)”. Translated it came out to “white man, dash (or tip) me a toffee” So for 200 cedis (about 3 cents) worth of toffee, I bought a new best friend. I doubted whether our friendship would move beyond candy, but it has been weeks since the bribe and she still smiles and calls my name.
One of our major hassles last year was food. We had this woman cooking for us, who made us fear African cooking. We began to see it as a hazardous activity. With floating chicken heads and an endless supply of fish bones, we were just about ready to live on white bread. Fortunately, we have since found out she was a terrible example of a Ghanaian cook. The doctor even asked that she not cook for him anymore.
So this year, We are cooking for ourselves. Most people seemed shocked that I have any clue how to cook. Someone even told me that at home they were sure that all white girls ate was pre-packaged food, or how they put it “plenty hamburgers”. Anyhow, about every five days, I go to the market and buy whatever I need. For the most part because of the lack of tourists, no one at the market really tries to cheat me. Except for when I asked one guy the price on a thread bracelet and he quoted something equivalent to a teachers’ salary for 1½ days!
I have tracked down the vegetable sellers and stock up on the tiniest green peppers, cabbage, carrots and runner beans. I even got beets last week, but I am not sure how to cook them. I also got introduced to ground melon seeds which are awesome in stews. Depending on the week you can also buy gigantic mangos and apples imported from Togo. Pineapples are just starting to come into season, but they are still very expensive. One thing missing this time of the year are plantains and bananas, the weather is too wet. The market is crazy! Stall after stall sells whatever their small farm holding offered up that week. It is loud and crowded. Little girls carry plates on their heads, stacked high with things to sell. Sometime you will see a woman with a basket of chickens balanced on her head. I have no clue how they carry things like that with such ease. Everyone has something to sell. The thing about the informal economy is that you will have 10 women in a row selling the same thing, sometimes you will see one teenage girl with just 5 yams for sale next to a woman with a whole pile. But they still come.
My least favourite section is the meat section. The meat sits out in the open, with so many unidentifiable cuts. Chicken legs, still sporting feathers, sit next to chunks of pork. Smelly, slimy fish juices oozes off the cardboard tables it is stacked on. Women call to me to peer into their giant metal bowls. When I do, they stir the contents, exciting the hundreds of baby crabs within. Step into the butcher shop and you will see massive slabs of beef hanging from the rafters. There is no counter, you just walk in, tell the butcher how much you want and he hacks it off. It is hard to hold your breath, swat flies and deny marriage proposals.
Once you leave the market, you have to cross the crowded, muddy lorry park. All I hear is “Yevu! Yevu!” “Come here sweetie!” “Where to?” As taxis try to coax me into taking a lift. The few words I know in Ewe usually sends them off as I climb into one of the buses. Why pay 2 dollars to get home when the tro-tros cost only 30 cents?
Tro-tros are like russian roulette. They pack 16 people into the vans and drive at top speed. The drivers are speed daemons, knowing that the more times they run their route the more they will earn. Sometimes someone will recognize me and strike up conversation, other times a baby will get plopped on my lap. The driver’s mate will usually tell me to sit up front, but I try and refuse that. While we wait to load the van, I usually get engaged in conversation through the window. As I show off my few sentences of Ewe, the rest of the passengers will listen and say “cho”, a sort of equivalent sound to our “what!?” Once the bus is loaded, we set off, careening down the road, avoiding potholes, schoolchildren and cyclists. If you are lucky, you can convince the driver to play some Bob Marley, but it doesn’t usually matter because it is hard to hear anything. If there is even an inch of space left in the van, the driver will honk all the way along his route until he spots a passenger to fill the spot. For such a seemingly haphazard system, the tro-tro system works. If one van is full, there is soon one behind. They will carry anything for you, even stacking in metres high on the roof. I have even seen one half full of passengers and half full of oranges.
However, one of the problems with tro-tros is that they get stopped at every road block. That is a favorite thing of the police here. They sit on a bench at the side of the road, with their AK47s (or some sort of big scary gun) over their shoulders and pull over every car possible. They usually check the trunk for smuggled goods but other times they will just bang on the back of the van and send it on its way. I have yet to figure out what the system is. One night Ash and I took a tro-tro from the Togolese border. It being that town’s market day it was almost impossible to get a ride. When we finally did, we got jammed in next to two obese women. Ashley ended up on my lap and I told the Mate that if babies didn’t have to pay for sitting on their mom’s lap, then we should get a discount. My cheekiness saved us 1000 cedis (12 cents), a whole 1/5 of the fare!
Each stop the van made to unload passengers, there seemed to be an extra person who got added in the chaos. The passengers were getting upset, we were overloaded and we were sure to be delayed at the police checks. I asked a woman next to me, who turned out to be a teacher for children with disabilities, if the police would make people get out. She answered confidently that the police wouldn’t bother doing that if the driver paid the bribe. However the driver had another plan in mind. As we would approach a block, he would make like he was letting off passengers, the people would run to the other side of the barrier. Then we would pass the police check and the passengers would climb back in. After a couple of successful passes, we approached one where there was no place to unload passengers inconspicuously, so before we knew it, we had swerved into a service station and the mate jumped out to pretend to fill up the tank. But then the driver drove off, leaving the mate to sneak through the barrier on foot. Besides being the one who collects the fares and helps passengers unload their market goods from the van, the mate is the one who opens the doors for and deals with the police. But guess who was right next to the door in the spot where the mate should have been? Ashley! So without anyone having told us what the heck was going on, Ashley slides the door open to a police offices packing some serious heat. “OBRONI!”, he says in Twi, another language spoken here. Before I could stop myself, I say back “OBEBINI!” in the exact same tone he used. If he was going to call me “white man” then the appropriate answer had to be “black man”. Fortunately, I hadn’t mistaken his humour and I could see his teeth through his smile in the dark of the night. He laughed and switched to Ewe, asking me where I was going and what I was doing. It seemed his surprise at me understanding his languages made him forget to look inside the van. The driver, who I think was holding his breath, was sent on his way. The van inched slowly away from the barrier, the mate hopped back in and the people started laughing.
Police interactions are a bit nerve-racking here. You are never sure whether to laugh or cry. But I guess a good strategy is don’t argue with a man carrying a machine gun. We sometime travel in the hospital car so there is no stopping. But one day we were in the Doc’s car. Driving at top speed down the pothole ridden road one day, we got pulled over by a very angry looking cop brandishing a gun of a different type. He informed us that we were speeding and had dangerously overtaken a tro-tro. Anyhow, the doc jumps out and starts arguing with the cop. They seem to go in circles arguing about why he got stopped when 10 cars before him had done the same thing. Turns out the doc doesn’t have his licence with him, in fact it is about 7 hrs away sitting in his hometown. Finally, the pharmacist gets out of the car, after trying to stay quiet and says to the cop “he is a medical doctor, we are trying to get somewhere fast”. Well that changed everything! Suddenly it was all, doctor this and doctor that, and the cop started smiling. All I could do is laugh. How they got away with it after arguing quite aggressively with the cop is quite the lesson in how the Ghanaian force functions.
Living on the hospital compound makes situations I thought I would never see become my evening entertainment. But sometimes I wish I wasn’t so damn curious. One night after walking into the maternity ward, I went to see one of the orderlies’, C, who was leaning over the warming cot. Usually there is a fresh, slimy infant screaming in the cot, but this time it was a very yellow baby girl.
“jaundiced?” I asked,
“expired.”, C answered.
Apparently her mother had brought her in that evening and she had died of unknown causes. . C was usually quite stern with the patients, but her softer side wrapped the baby up, lay her hand on her and recited in Ewe. She was praying over her. With the hum of the hospital in the background, she wrapped her up and went to wash her hands. In the adjoining room, a woman moaned from the pain of contractions.
Later that night, after eating what seemed like half a watermelon, I walked to the standpipe to wash my hands. On my way, I heard a woman in labour. I didn’t think anything of it. But walking back to the house from the standpipe, I heard the wail of a newborn. Seems there was once again a slimy newborn to fill the warming cot.
It was my eighth week here and I have seen millions of things, lived a thousand emotions and witnessed what seems like a hundred births. I was a self-created insomniac, for the fear of missing something exciting while I slept. I can sleep forever when I get home, but I am in Ghana for three months. As I stood watching the doctor manually extract a lodged placenta the other night, I wondered what it would take for the health sector here to improve. Things seem painful at home or in textbooks, but here it was even worse without the painkillers or anaesthetic. “African women are tougher”, they say. But, the real reason is there is no money to numb her pain. Money or will… I am not sure. Sometimes I think it is mindset, like if they wanted the wards to be cleaner they would clean them. But when you realize an orderly makes about a dollar a day and is expected to perform some quite complex medical procedure, it is easy to see how things like dusting go by the wayside.
The blame game is really easy to play, but it doesn’t solve anything. I sometimes sit and wonder why in three years the library hasn’t been completed. There are smart, able-bodied people in this village, but they couldn’t seem to ally themselves and construct something that could improve their children’s education. But questioning the reasons why is a waste of my energy and usually drives me to a loaf of white bread, so I am trying to avoid it (both bread and questioning). Anyway, things are going well, so I will focus on that. Like the laws of the free-market, the invisible hand has somehow mobilized the committee to find the funds to finance the plastering. We had planned to travel to Cape Coast last weekend, so almost as a test we filled our part of the bargain by supplying the cement. We left on their promise to commence the work and returned to see freshly plastered walls. They even arranged to have the sand delivered after I failed to contact the supplier before I left. The coordinator also arranged with the district education board to review our report to see if he could find some money for furniture. I wish they would praise their own initiative and rejoice in their own hard work, but it seems Jesus gets that honour. When I was asked to close a meeting with a prayer the other day, they laughed when I said I didn’t know how. I made my best effort and said “May the library be completed swiftly, safely and successfully with the helping hands and heart of the community” (not bad for a prayer on the fly if I do say so myself) but they tacked on in the name of Jesus Christ, our father, the holy ghost etc etc etc. Apparently that is an integral part of a prayer…haha
That seems about all I have to say. Thank whoever you thank for no malaria in Canada, it sucks let me tell you. Thank that same character for clean drinking water from the tap, no parasites in the vegetables and reliable healthcare. While you are at it, say thanks for living in a country where children can grow up to be all they want to be. That is not to say that Ghana doesn’t have things that they can be grateful for which we lack in Canada. They can say thanks for a family dynamic that we have for the most part lost at home. For taking in your cousins, nieces, brothers when their parents are unable to care for them. They have the genuine kindness of strangers who greet one another as they pass in the street. The beautiful sunshine which shines most days of the year. The forgiving nature of the people, who seem to hold no grudges, whether it be about something small like being late for a meeting or a more serious offence. They can buy baskets of bananas for pennies, fresh plucked from the trees. Mangos drop from the skies while children run free, playing all day and collapsing exhausted under a tree for an afternoon nap. Washing in a bucket, as exhausting as it is, is a excuse to sit on the porch and watch the world go by, greeting everyone who passes and spying on the neighbors. Babies are a communal responsibility, if someone is struggling to carry one, with a nod and extended arms, she is passed to the next closest woman, no matter if she is known to the mother or not. As charming and magical as that sounds, the same goes for disciplining though, a misbehaving child is likely to get a swat from any adult who witness the misdemeanour.
If university life took all my time to think this past year, than this summer is more than making up for it. I contemplate like it is my job. To have time to absorb all this new information and reflect on it is such a luxury.
Keep in contact; even if I am not frequent with my updates, the comments and emails are much appreciated. With Love, Julia