Back in Ghana!

I had a really nice visit home, and effectively missed Harmattan, though a residue of dust on my clothes and books proves it was here in my absence. It was wonderful to see friends, enjoy the luxuries of good public infrastructure, share Christmas with my family and wander around New York City.

Unfortunately, I was so busy enjoying myself that I forgot to take pictures.

I also got to talk (a lot) about life in Ghana. Two old friends, Vik and Matt, invited me on their radio show, American Reason, where we chatted about wild animals and African feminism, among other things. It was a really fun conversation; you can download it for free in iTunes here (it’s the episode from 1/1/12).

And a wonderful reporter from my hometown newspaper interviewed me and somehow managed to string together a story from the disarray of my commentary.

I also got to spend a few days in Istanbul, which I visited last year on my travels. It’s one of my favorite places in the world, with an amazing blend of modern and seriously ancient.

Istakal Street, Istanbul

Istakal Street

Turkish sweets

And some of the best food I’ve ever had, especially the classics: mezzes, small plates usually eaten as appetizers, and raki, a clear anise liquor that is usually mixed with water, which makes it cloudy.

Raki

I’ve been back in Ghana now for about a week, and I’m glad to be back. It’s warm, for one thing. And though it’s true that I’m missing some of the conveniences of life at home, I hadn’t even realized how much I missed how really amazingly friendly Ghanaians are. I stepped off the plane to a chorus of Welcomes and more help with my luggage than I could possibly need. Even when I’m haggling over prices with a taxi driver, it’s almost always a light, fun conversation.

I moved out of the University of Ghana dorms into a neighborhood in nearby East Legon. I’m sharing a house with an American guy who is here teaching entrepreneurship – more on that later – and it’s so nice to have a room of my own, a kitchen, and reliable internet.

And a place for friends to hang out…

Friends on the couch

We invited friends over for dinner; they took over the couch.

I have a lot of projects and plans to make the most of the last half of my year in Ghana. Lots more interviews, serious traveling, climbing, socializing… and of course trying to keep up with the reading and writing required for graduate school.

Perhaps most exciting: my dear friends McKinze and Sean, who are in their second year of service as Peace Corps volunteers in (the Republic of) Georgia, are coming to visit me in a month! These two are great adventurers; it’ll be fun to show them around.

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Settling In & The Tyranny of Passport Photos

This week has been all about getting acquainted. My small room in a Soviet-era hostel (dorm) is becoming my home, albeit a temporary one. (I was told that we’d be moving to “renovated” rooms in an identical Soviet-era building across a small field this week. When they told me that, I mentally doubled it.)  I’m getting to know the University of Ghana campus. All the places to eat. My department. The other Rotary Scholars. The ropes.

Campus

All the campus buildings are this lovely combination of white walls and red tile roof. They almost all have courtyards to allow the breeze to move through the rooms. There are (very red) dirt footpaths everywhere, and all kinds of gorgeous tropical trees.

There are people - mostly women - selling food around campus. This woman is carrying a tray of bananas (on her head, naturally.) Today I finally learned why the women selling bananas also sell little bags of nuts. They're peanuts. You get the bag of peanuts, tear it open, put a few in your mouth and then take a bite of banana. Voila! Peanut and banana! Possibly the best mid-morning snack I've ever had.

God Is Good Special: Beans and Plantains

Lunch.

Insect - possibly termite - mound

A home for people and a home for insects. I am not screwing with the perspective here. These are giant. And they're everywhere.

"Electronic Workshop" sign

IT resources.

Drums for sale

!!!!!

Night view from my hostel.

It may not be a palace, but I have a pretty view.

Fruit stand

After lunch....

About those ropes. Large institutions invariably have systems and bureaucracies that are apparently inscrutable to outsiders trying to navigate them, but whose members – the insiders – seem to feel are obvious, intuitive, self-evident. And immutable. The University of Ghana is no exception. Let’s take as an example the passport photo. Now I’m no stranger to the passport photo. I don’t use it frequently, but I did apply for a new passport this spring. And I’ve applied for visas now and then.  But here the passport photo reigns supreme. You need one for everything. Want to register? You need a passport photo for that. (Actually, international graduate students need at least three to register: One for the International Programs Office. One for the School of Research and Graduate Studies. And one for your department.)  Trying to audit a course in another department? You need a passport photo for that. Looking to get permission to use the library? You need a passport photo for that.  Signing up for a student organization? Hand over a passport photo.

My passport photos

If only they were a little more flattering...

The passport photo thing is only the amusing tip of a tangled bureaucratic mess of an iceberg. (How’s that for a mixed metaphor!) I spent the first few days of the week worrying about making sure I’d filled out the proper forms and given the proper documents – and photos – to all the proper people. I ran between departments, asking questions, collecting forms, with mounting frustration. Then, thwarted again and again, I finally accepted the inevitable. I may never know, exactly, if I’m registered for classes. Or how to check out a book in the library. Or whether and when the Grad Student Association is meeting. And I will have to give out a million copies of my passport photo.

My department, though, is lovely. Regina, another of the Rotary Ambassadorial Scholars, and I are both in the M.A. program at the Institute of African Studies. There are somewhere between twelve and sixteen students in our class. (I don’t know the exact number because, apparently, the first week is sort of optional.) Except for Regina and I, they’re all Ghanaians, and they’re a smart, interesting group.

Institute for African Studies

My department's beautiful new building

Particularly interesting is Nana, a career broadcast journalist who is also a Queenmother, which an important role in Ghana tribal life. (That’s about the extent of my knowledge about Queenmothers so far; I’ll report back when I learn more.) She wants to research the role of these women in using their power to create social change. More about her later.

Regina and Nana

Regina and Nana

Already people’s personalities and roles are emerging, and yesterday we got into a great – and heated – discussion with one of our professors about school fees. While I was staging a personal rebellion against passport photos, some Ghanaian students have been protesting hikes in tuition and fees at the University of Ghana.  Maybe there are more important things in life than passport photos…

Fufu, Banku or Kenkey?

I have my preferences, personally. It’s been a week, and I’ve sampled a few of the local dishes. Perhaps the most well-known is fufu (FOO-foo). Fufu is ubiquitous in West Africa; it’s a staple starch that’s often eaten with stew. It’s made with boiled cassava and plantains that are pounded. And pounded. And pounded. And pounded. Until they form a cohesive, gelatinous mass. I got to witness this process, at the home of a friend of Theo’s, Barbara.

Two folks pounding fufu

Pounding fufu is a delicate dance. He lifts up the stick while she turns the ball of fufu in the bowl. She moves her hand away, he slams down the business end of the stick. This all happens amazingly fast.

The fufu team posing for a picture

They're a great team.

When it’s judged sufficiently smooth and sticky, the fufu is formed into neat little balls that, traditionally, are plunked right into the stew.

A bowl of stew with fufu in the middle and meat right on top

Here it is, in a traditional bowl and everything.

You break off a small piece of the fufu ball with the fingertips of your right hand (only eating with your right hand is very important in traditional homes) and make a hole in it with your thumb. You now have a fufu spoon! Scoop up the broth, break off a bit of meat, and enjoy.

A group of us eating fufu and stew

That soup was spicy! The food was all cooked outdoors in a wonderful outdoor kitchen. Outdoor kitchens keep it from getting too hot inside the house, of course, and they're also a really nice place for the family to hang out while the meal is being prepared.

Barbara was really nice about the fact that I couldn’t make it through that huge bowl. Theo kept telling me sternly that it was very rude not to eat all or nearly all of the food given to you in a traditional home. It was only my third day! I could barely eat toast yet. Soon I’m sure I’ll be plowing through fufu like there’s no tomorrow.

We’d originally stopped by Barbara’s house to pick up some plantains leftover from the funeral. (It was Barbara’s mother-in-law who passed away last week.) Barbara’s daughter thought it would be funny if she took fashion shots of me carrying plantains on my head. Carrying things on your head – lots of them – is a way of life here.

Me with plantains on my head.

All in good fun, I'm sure...

On to KENKEY… After my fufu adventure, I think Theo was a bit wary about giving me a whole plate of wonderful food to ruin. So the next day she ordered some fish and kenkey (KEHN-kay) and let me try it. Though I found fufu difficult, kenkey was a breeze. It’s made with ground corn meal.  It’s pounded, but not for as long as fufu, so it has a grainer texture, similar to maza, which is used in Mexican cooking, and which I’ve have plenty of the in the States.

And finally, BANKU…. Last night, I got to try banku (BAHN-koo). I was nervous about banku, because like fufu, it’s pounded until it can be formed into a sticky ball. But like kenkey, it is apparently made with corn meal, and typically also plantains. The corn meal is allowed to ferment a bit, which gives it a mildly sour flavor.  Banku is usually served with soup, stew or pepper sauce and fish. We – Regina and I – had it with fish. Really really good fish.

Banku and fish

The little balls wrapped in plastic are banku. You can see the fish at the top, served whole with a generous portion of spicy pepper sauce.

Regina is one of the other Americans here on the Rotary Ambassadorial scholarship. She’s friends with a professor in the College of Public Health, who brought us to this awesome “joint” for dinner.

Regina at the fish joint

This is Regina. The fish joint was on a fairly busy road just outside campus.

So now I’ve tried all three staple starches: fufu, banku and kenkey. Banku and kenkey are definitely my favorites, but fufu is unavoidable here, so I’m sure I’ll acquire a palate for it. Eventually.

One of the other culinary highlights from my week was grilled corn. I moved to campus in Legon on Thursday, and have been exploring the food options available…

Grilled corn

Grilled corn from a stand on campus. It isn't boiled, so it has a hard/chewy texture.

And then there are plantains. Fried plantains. They are so, so, SO delicious. And one variation, kelewele (KELLY-welly), is particularly dangerous. Kelewele is a spicy, deep-fried version of fried plantains. Rotarian President Ben gave me a tour of Tema the night before I moved to Legon, and we finished off the evening with a visit to local kelewele shop.

A woman preparing kelewele

The kelewele is frying in the pot in the right corner, while the lady who runs the shop is packing up orders that have been allowed to cool slightly.

Kelewele

Spicy, hot, fried plantains. Mmmmm....

Later, more on beans, fruit, jollof rice, plantain chips, milo, and the sweetest pineapple on the planet….and hopefully I’ll soon get to try the fabled groundnut stew.