Chale Wote Street Art Festival

I’d be terribly remiss if I didn’t mention Chale Wote, the annual street art festival started last year by Accra[dot]Alt, a collective of young and entrepreneurial artists based in Accra who are doing awesome things to promote the arts in Ghana.

The Chale Wote festival is an extravaganza of collaborative art-making, music, and performance held in Jamestown, a historic and relatively poor area of Accra. I love their philosophy that art has an important place in public space and that it should be accessible to everyone.

I went to the festival with my roommate, Rich, and our lovely and talented friend Jojo Abot, who also sang at the festival. (Seriously, so lovely. So talented. Check out her music.)

As promised, there was cool art.

"Women on Bike"

Street art by Zohra Opoku, a Ghanaian/German artist. She was riding around on her bike all day looking awesome.

Street art

And impressive performance art.

BMX performers

BMX performers doing their thing. We met this cool group of guys from Brooklyn who are making a documentary about them.

Also, lots of art activities and workshops for the swarms of children.

Kids getting down.

And great food and drinks. (I had an amazing veggie burger! Not an easy thing to find in Ghana..)

And Rich and I took a tour of the Jamestown Lighthouse, with its spectacular view.

Jamestown lighthouse

Jamestown lighthouse

Jamestown from above

Jamestown from above

Chale Wote from the lighthouse

Chale Wote’s main stage from the lighthouse

Generik Vapeur was the feature act, held at the end of the afternoon. I’ve never seen artists work with performance space and audience participation in the way they did; they used the street, barrels, shipping containers and the onlookers themselves to create performance space and manipulate the response of the audience, doing things like rushing forward with the barrels in front of them like battering rams, forcing the audience to  run alongside, moving the entire performance space down the street at full clip.

Generik Vapeur

Generik Vapeur

This may be a stretch, but some of the imagery they used – like the men carrying the barrels in single file, hunched under the burden, and one man lashing a barrel that had been made to resemble an animal with a chain and shouting orders – reminded me of images of slavery. Jamestown is the location of one of the most significant slave forts from the Gold Coast slave trade, and the arc of the performance itself seemed to suggest some of the contours of the slave trade’s history.

After Generik Vapeur’s climactic finale and a couple of hours of messing with uncooperative electronics (the power went out), Jojo performed three beautiful songs. Here’s one that I recorded, an original called “Heavy On The Inside”:

And I found out that Ghana has a rock band, or so say the members of Feint Medal, which is as far as I could tell sort of a party onstage with a sort of Limp Bizkit sound, plus some rap, some emo and some awesome Ghanaian cultural references.

Feint Medal

Feint Medal, Ghana’s rock band.

This is a good post to mention that there are tons of amazing bloggers here in Ghana, and many of them also featured stories, photos and video about Chale Wote. Check them out if you want to see more:

Eighty Percent

A few weeks ago, my roommate, Rich, invited me to the launch of a new tech business, Saya Mobile. The founders are a team of young Ghanaians who’ve received support from a technology incubator associated with the non-profit Meltwater Entrepreneurial School of Technology, where Rich is a professor.

Saya launch banner

Saya is a mobile phone application that lets you send messages for free to other users of the service. Right now, most people pay per-text with pre-paid credit, and texts can really add up fast. I have a serious texting addiction, unfortunately, and recently a Ghanaian friend of mine commented that I must have a lot of money to waste with all that texting. (Mom and Dad, I promise I do not text while riding my awesome new motorbike.)

Saya launch

So Saya is filling the gap, allowing their users to send messages to one another for free, and earning revenue by sending them advertising messages. Users pay only internet data rates, which are generally much lower than the rate to send an individual text message. Saya also has some other cool services, like Facebook chat and something called “Streetchat,” which lets you connect with other users nearby.

The Saya team – and many of the other budding tech entrepreneurs I’ve talked with at Meltwater – cite a staggering statistic for their choice to develop a mobile phone application: 80%. That is, it’s projected that by the end of 2012, 80% of Africans will own cell phones.

Man on cell phone

Just a wild guess: "where r u?"

This gets development people and business people alike very excited. They talk about the phenomenon of leapfrog technology: people skipping both landlines and personal computers in favor of cheap, portable cell phones that give them access to both communications networks and the internet. Development folks see this technology as a critical tool in battles against poverty, infant/maternal mortality, agriculture, climate change, the common cold, etc. etc. For example, despite relatively high development indicators in other sectors, Ghana has an abysmally high maternal mortality rate. So Grameen Bank has an initiative, in cooperation with the Ghana Health Service, that calls or sends text messages to  expecting mothers about important pre- and post-natal care.

Development research has found many more examples of tangible economic benefits to cell phone access:

In Mali, residents of Timbuktu can call relatives living in the capital city of Bamako—or relatives in France. In Ghana, farmersin Tamale are able to send a text message to learn corn and tomato prices in Accra,over 400 kilometers away. In Niger, day laborers are able to call acquaintances in Benin to find out about job opportunities without making the US$40 trip. In Malawi, those affected by HIV and AIDS can receive text messages daily, reminding them to take their medicines on schedule.

(Aker and Mbiti 2010)

Cellular technology is also filling another gap: the cash economy. (“Cash and carry” is a phrase that finds its way into many a wry joke here; think ambulance service and you get the idea.) Many Africans don’t have bank accounts or credit cards. The transactions they need to make are relatively small. Cell phones allow them to do this electronically through various mobile banking applications. In Ghana, MTN’s Mobile Money is the brand most people are familiar with.

Businesses like Saya Mobile, of course, are taking advantage of the huge amount of money flowing into the cell market by developing mobile applications. And the cell companies themselves are the biggest beneficiaries. In Ghana, cellular companies are probably the most visible advertisers. When my friends Sean and McKinze visited me a couple of weeks ago, Sean commented that he saw green everywhere; green is the color of the newest campaign by Glo, which just launched in Ghana.

When I first arrived everything was yellow: MTN’s color.

MTN banners

MTN banners on the main square in Cape Coast for the big yearly Festival - Fetu Ahaaye

But despite all the money the cell companies are raking in and spending on advertising, many Ghanaians I’ve talked to are very unhappy with their cell phone service. Many people have several sim cards, each from different companies, to use when there are service outages, as well as to take advantage of promotions within the same network. When I first met President Ben of my Rotary club in Tema, for example, he had two cell phones rubber-banded back-to-back.  And I’ve had to temper my texting addiction because my service provider, Airtel, somehow manages to lose my texts in the ether for hours or days at a time. Sometimes I can’t call my friends who have MTN for hours.

May the devil be out of coverage area

"May the devil be out of coverage area"...no problem with service like this. Photo credit: Sean Fredericks

And of course, it’s worth noting that that 80% is a very uneven 80%. Though a 2009 article in the BBC cited a growth rate of 550% in cell phone ownership, cell phone ownership rates vary widely by country and demographics. South Africa and Nigeria, at 84% and 71%, respectively had the highest rates of cell ownership last year, while Ghana came in fourth at 59%, according to a Gallup survey of seventeen African countries. The Central African Republic came in last at 17%. (Every time I cite a statistic, I realize how FAST these numbers as changing.) And of course there are huge differences in ownership rates between urban and rural populations, as well as by gender, age and education level.

Africans are clever folks though; they have ways of getting access to cellular technology even if they can’t afford a phone themselves. I’ve heard about “village phones,” when one or a few people in a community have a cell phone and charge a small fee for other people to use them. (Yet another example of the incredible importance of social networks in Africa, a topic I really must get around to writing about more broadly.)

And just like in the US, cell phones also serve another universal social purpose: marking status. The wealthier Ghanaians wield their Blackberries and iPhones like…like……well, a good metaphor is escaping me at the moment, but you get the idea. I, on the other hand, can’t hold onto a cell phone to save my life – I’m on my third – so I only get the cheapest, most indestructible kind.

I’ve been doing some interviews with the brilliant young entrepreneurs at Meltwater, and hopefully soon I’ll have more to share with you about technology entrepreneurship in Ghana – and a vision of Accra as home to the next Silicon Valley.

A village in the back

Nothing makes you feel like Indiana Jones like riding around in a Land Rover Defender.

The Defender on a hill, looking magnificent. Our new friend Charles surveys the vehicle.

Mel and Joel, my friends from way back in the days of the Accra half-marathon, invited me to spend the weekend with them in Tamale, in the Northern Region of Ghana. Mel, also a Rotary Ambassadorial Scholar, is doing field research on water resources in the region. She needs to take samples from all over the basin, roads or no roads, so they bought the Defender.It is widely admired. It also suits Ghana. It’s an older vehicle without all the fancy electronics of newer cars, so the ingenious Ghanaian mechanics can always manage to find a way to repair it with spare parts when something goes wrong. Which it always does on roads this bad.

Mel and Joel in Luxury Bar

Mel and Joel sitting in Luxury Bar, where we waited for the power to come back on.

Tamale is the capital of the Northern Region, a huge sprawling area far to the north of Accra. The region is dry and dusty (it’s technically in the Sahel, the ecological zone bordering the Sahara), and sparsely populated. It’s also the most undeveloped region of Ghana, so it has attracted a lot of aid: Many of the international NGOs in Ghana do the majority of their work there, earning Tamale the name the NGO capital of Ghana.

Mel and Joel live in a small house with awesome local neighbors.

Mel and Joel's neighbor kids

Some neighbors dropping by for a visit. Joel was teaching some of the kids how to play chess earlier in the day.

The day after I arrived, Mel took me out – in the Defender, of course – to one of her collection sites, where the White Volta River meets the Bolgatanga River. After about 30 minutes of smooth driving on the highway, we turned off onto a dirt road and bounced our way to the river…where we found some folks making use of the local ferry service for their motorbike.

Motorbike on a boat

Motorcycle ferry. Motorcycles and bicycles are ubiquitous here, and Tamale has wide shoulders and bicycle lanes - making it the most bike-friendly city in Ghana, according to Wikipedia. Good old Wikipedia.

There was a surprising amount of action at the river, so after taking some samples – with the assistance of some of the folks hanging around – we decided to sit back, relax, have a mango and observe the proceedings.

Mel sampling with some help

Mel titrating while our motorbike friends supervise.

Cattle at the White Volta

Having a drink

Women bringing washing to the river while the men load up for the ferry

Women bringing laundry to the river to wash while the men load up the next ferry boat.

A lot of the people we saw were crossing the river on the way to the market in Savelugu, a town about 24 km from Tamale with a population around maybe 3,000 according to some sketchy internet statistics.

Men bringing goats up from the ferry

Men herding goats....they were destined for the market at Savelugu.

There were two men herding goats, a not-very-efficient undertaking, since the goats, tethered together, each had their own agendas. Soon the men started carrying the goats instead.

As they walked back and forth with armloads of goats, another man struggled with huge sacks loaded with sand. To sell for road construction projects, Mel guessed. He was loading the bags in the back of a seriously old truck. He’d devised a really ingenious way of stacking the bags and using a tire as a spring so he could get them to the right height to carry. We offered to help, but he turned us down. No job for ladies, in his estimation. He did, however, enlist the men with the goats for the last two bags, as well as a push start.

Truck

Sand truck. I felt bad taking the man's picture while he actually had the bags of sand on his back; it just didn't seem right to photograph someone working so hard. He was the personification of persistence.

An old man with a basket strapped to his back scrambled up the bank while all this was going on. When I pointed and asked what was inside the basket, he sat down next to us to let me see. Guinea hens rustled inside the wicker. He started talking to us in Dagbani, the most common local language in the Northern Region, spoken by the Dagombe people. Mel and I, unfortunately, have about four words of Dagbani between us. Another man who’d made use of the ferry for his motorbike came over to help. He introduced himself as Charles. The old man, he explained, thought we might like to buy some guinea hens. We declined, but we wanted to offer the old man a ride to market. After some miscommunication, and at least one marriage proposal from the old man, I think we got our message more or less across. It was agreed that the old man would meet us at the top of the bank, but that we would not be marrying him when we reached Savelugu, as delighted as we were by the offer.

Charles followed us back to the Defender, asking us questions about ourselves and about the car. When he saw it, he seemed very impressed, as you can see from the photo at the top of the post.

Ten minutes later, the old man had yet to appear. A goat escaped and we helped catch it, though in the process I accidentally almost provoked a bull into charging me. (Luckily, he was tethered to a tree and I was just out of reach.) We tracked Charles down, where he was still laughing about the escaped goat fiasco, to ask him about the old man. Just at that moment, the old man appeared with a bicycle, and Charles informed us that we would be giving a ride to some of his “colleagues.” The old man seemed content with his bicycle, so we went, a bit suspiciously, with Charles, about 200 meters up the road. A bunch of people from the village nearby were gathered under a shelter. Charles spoke to them, and suddenly everyone was racing for the Defender.

In the end, ten adults, a few children and some babies strapped to their mothers’ backs piled in the back of the Defender. Several of them also had containers with things to sell at the market.

The back of the defender, stuffed full of people

The man sticking his head forward told me that he was always very serious in photos. He couldn't stop grinning while he said this, so I took a picture and showed him. Now be serious! I told him. I got off this shot during the millisecond before he started grinning again. He approved of this version.

We slammed the doors (a necessary precaution to keep them from flying open), and started off. I asked for a head count, snapped a few pictures and turned on some azonto music. When we got to the market, they asked us how much, we told them not to worry, and they all shouted their thanks and exploded out again.

People walk a long, long way to market, Mel told me as we continued to Tamale, passing more people on bicycles, motorbikes and on foot, and she gives rides pretty often.

It goes without saying that life here is very different than in Accra, the huge and congested capitol city. It’s more pastoral, of course; most people eke out a living in agriculture. And though the infrastructure in Accra may be flawed, it’s much less reliable in the North, where it exists at all. Most communities rely on boreholes and well water, which sometimes run dry, especially in this season. The North and South are culturally very different as well: the Dagombe and other ethnic groups are mostly Muslim and most speak little or no Twi, the dominant language in the South. There are beautiful mosques and the call to prayer blares out over PA systems (when the power is on) at 4 a.m. Islam has been in this region for a long time; I’m studying its history in Africa in one of my classes this semester, so it was interesting to be in a majority Muslim community in West Africa for the first time.

Small mosque in Tamale

Small mosque in Tamale

Amadhiyya Mosque in Tamale

Ahmadiyya Mosque in Tamale

Another highlight was a table tennis tournament which included a performance by a traditional Dagombe music and dance performance group. One of my colleagues is a Dagombe drummer of some status, so I’m excited to talk to him about it.

Dagombe performance group

Dagombe performance group

Also, though we didn’t buy the old man’s guinea hens, I did have grilled guinea hen in the end – it’s something of a specialty in Tamale – and it turns out they are pretty delicious.

Cobbling together transportation in Accra, or how I learned to relax and hitch a ride

Ghana is good place for people whose modus operandi is something akin to “go with the flow.” (It is, of course, also good for people who are the exact opposite; they get a lesson in the fact that they cannot control everything. But obviously for these folks it’s a more lengthy and painful process.)

Let’s take, as an example, transit. The act of moving your physical self in space from one place to another. In the U.S., most people do this by getting in their cars and driving. Or if they live in a big, dense and well-planned city, by hopping in a bus or on a subway. In Ghana, this is not so straightforward.

The National Theatre in traffic

How do I get from here to the National Theatre?

Learning how to get around Accra was a big hurdle when I first arrived. It’s a big, sprawling city, and the University of Ghana campus in Legon is a good twelve kilometers from the center. Traffic is terrible – truly horrendous, warranting its own post – and if, like 97% of the population of Ghana, you don’t own a car, getting around is twice as challenging.

Essentially, you have four options, aside from walking (impossible for long distances in the heat and without shade) or biking (which is great but very dangerous outside of local neighborhoods; Accra drivers are totally unconcerned about bikers and bike lanes are virtually unheard of). (1) Taxi; (2) Trotro; (3) Shared taxi; (4) Hitching. (There are actually some public buses, but these are so rare that I think they should go on the endangered species list.)

Taxis.
Taxis in Accra are great. There are zillions of them. Unlike New York City with its crazy licensing schemes and set rates, the taxi industry is unregulated, which keeps prices fairly low. (Though lately the drivers have been citing the hike in petrol prices as an excuse to tack on an additional 20% or more to fares. My roommate says he sometimes calculates the ACTUAL increased expenditure the driver will have to make on this particular trip and shows him this figure – usually no more than 20 or 30 cents. I’m not sure how well this works.)

The back of a taxi that says "No hurry in life."

Not in this traffic.

Of course, the quality of the taxies themselves varies widely. Sometimes you get in a beautiful brand new cab with air conditioning and a great stereo system blasting azonto music. But most of the time it’s clear that the car you’re in has seen better days, stalling several times in a ten minute ride or choking out exhaust or just vibrating in a slightly terrifying fashion.

Taxi rides, though, add up. A trip from Legon to Osu, a popular neighborhood with lots of restaurants and bars, costs about 8 cedis (around 5 dollars). Do that a few times a day, and you could be eating a pretty fine dinner (or paying for less expensive dinners for a week). Plus, us obrunis have to fight hard to get the right price.  First you have to learn the appropriate prices, then insist that you should not be given the obruni price. This can involve a lot of discussions, arm-waving, walking away in a huff, drivers driving away in a huff, etc. And then prices go up for any reason a driver can think of: traffic (legitimate, if there IS bad traffic), it’s late (there’s never traffic when it’s late, so this one always elicits a storm of criticism on my part), they won’t be able to get a fare back from where they’re taking you (not my problem), etc.

All of which makes trotros, which cost ten times less, a lot more attractive, especially if you do a lot of running around.

Trotros.
Generally rickety and always crowded, these are large vans, a size which in the U.S. would hold perhaps 15 passengers, but here in Ghana are designed for almost 25.  A ride on a trotro is super cheap, like a maximum of 75 cents a trip, and closer to 10 cents for short trips. The rates are set by the government, but they’re privately owned and run.

A trotro rolling along

Trotros run on preset routes. There are no guides or maps published delineating trotro routes You just have to learn them. They operate on a sort of hub and spoke system. There are large and small transit hubs – such as “37”, referring to 37 Military Hospital, where a smallish station serves as a hub for the northern part of Accra. Typically the trotros run from one hub to another. When a trotro pulls up, the “mate” – a guy who sits in the back, operates the sliding door, collects money and solicits passengers – indicates with gestures and calls which hub they are going to. This seems straightforward, but until you learn the signals and calls, it’s totally mystifying. For example, when the mate points his finger down and moves it in a circle, he is going to “Circle,” which short for Kwame Nkrumah Circle, a really giant hub. He may also call “Cir, cir, cir!”

Once you know the route, call and gesture for your desired stop, you jump on!

A view from inside a trotro. The guy in front was preaching.

If, that is, you can find a trotro that is (a) going where you want to go, (b) when you want to go there and (c) has enough room for you in it. This is one of the problems with taking trotros, which, on the surface, seem like the best option for someone on a budget who doesn’t mind rubbing shoulders with strangers in the middle of a virtual sardine can in the heat of subtropical Africa.  At peak hours, it can be hard to get a trotro, and after a certain time, usually around 7 or 8 in the evening, many fewer of them are on the road.  Which means you can stand at a stop with 20 other people who want the one spot left in the next trotro that stops. You can stand and watch trotros go whizzing by for hours, and your fellow would-be passengers throwing some serious elbows to get on the few that stop. I don’t usually fight for a spot, but now and then, I do get into the fray. (I’ve heard a lot about people getting pickpocketed while fighting for trotro space, but so far I’ve been spared. Knock on wood.) Usually, though, when prospects look this dire, I give up and take a taxi.

Back of a trotro that says "Think twice"

Trotros are so expressive. I have a habit of taking pictures of them.

For a fun, hilarious discussion of trotros, check out this post. I could go on about trotros forever, so I’m going to stop there for now. (Fair warning to friends back home: if we’re ever out for a drink and you get me started on this subject, I apologize in advance for the loss of a perfectly good evening to trotro lore.)

Shared taxi.
Shared taxi is my preferred method of transportation. Basically, shared taxis supplement trotros. They are usually twice as expensive, around a cedi or two (75 cents to a dollar fifty), but MUCH cheaper than taxis. They’re just regular taxis, but the drivers go between various hubs.  A driver pulls up at a stop, calls out his destination, and waits until his car fills up. You can get out anywhere along the way.

Shared taxis are awesome: because they’re more expensive than trotros, there’s slightly less demand for them. And they don’t stop nearly as often as a trotro on the same route, which means that as long as you’re not stuck in traffic, your travel time is much shorter. And you’re sharing space with only four other people, instead of 20.

There are shared taxi stands at most of the hubs (like 37), and if you’re lucky one will pull up at a regular bus stop. But unfortunately, a shared taxi at a random stop along a main route is as rare as a dinosaur tooth. If I find one going even approximately where I want to go, I jump in and consider myself very lucky.

Hitching.
Ok, so I know some people are going to be immediately freaked out by this. And it’s true that hitchhiking, especially in the States, has a bad rap. (They don’t talk about it much, but I’m pretty sure my parents did their fair share of hitching in their youth, so I’m hoping they don’t worry too much about this…)

But consider this: Trotros come idiosyncratically. There is no timetable and reliably open seat. And if you happen to be off a trotro route, or out later than 7 in the evening, you’re sort of screwed for public transit. The best you can do is cobble something together if you don’t want to pay full fare for a taxi.

A glimpse of the elusive Metro Mass Transit bus

A glimpse of the rare and elusive Metro Mass Transit bus

For example, the other day on the way back from a reading, I took a trotro to 37, which was packed and had no trotros going my way. But I found a shared taxi (what luck!) going past Legon. I took that to the intersection of a road going up into East Legon where trotros going my way always pass by. I took the trotro halfway to the East Legon hub, then got out and walked for about 15 minutes.

Then a guy in a car stopped and said, Hey obruni, where are you going? and offered to drop me off. I jumped in. Turns out he’s a detective who works at the police station just 100 meters from where I live. He told me his name is George, asked where I’m from, told me he’d been in the NYPD and lived in Brooklyn before coming home to Ghana. He gave me his number and told me to call if I needed any help from the police.

This happens a lot. I think I’ve gotten short rides three times in the last week and a half, twice alone, once when I was with my roommate. There are lots of reasons why this does not worry me:

  1. Ghanaians are just so nice and helpful. It may sound strange, but I feel safer here in Accra than most cities in the U.S.
  2. Most Ghanaians are just interested in foreigners. Almost everyone knows someone who lives outside of the country and they like to talk about their own or their friends’ and families’ experiences abroad. They generally like Americans and America.
  3. Most Ghanaians don’t have cars and can’t afford them. So it’s not at all unusual to see people waiting and waiting at bus stops. While I may get preferentially offered rides as a foreigner, I also see Ghanaians stopping to help out other Ghanaians, especially at stops that don’t get a lot of trotro traffic in the evenings. It’s sort of a public service; there’s a culture of hitching and picking up hitchers. That means that it’s not just crazies or weirdos participating in this culture. It’s your average, everyday Ghanaian.

I’ve hitched with a detective, a businessman who was incredibly nice and invited me to his family’s house but I lost his card in the laundry, a 20-something kid in the insurance industry who was borrowing his father’s Benz, two Nigerian students, grounds laborers from the University of Ghana, and a preacher, among others. These have always been positive experiences, and I never felt in danger. Most of the time they’d go out of their way to help me get where I was going.

The first time I hitchhiked, I was with Mel, one of the other Rotary scholars. We were with her husband, Joel, trying to catch a ride along a crowded beach road on a Sunday after running a half-marathon. They started trying to wave down everything from trotros to taxis. Finally, a guy in a nice car – maybe a Benz; you’d be surprised by the number of Benzes on the road here – stopped to pick us up. We talked about America and his work at a government office downtown. He took us all the way to the restaurant we wanted to go to in Osu, probably 20 minutes out of his way. Joel got his number and we all agreed to keep in touch.

The restaurant was closed and the three of us ended up in separate trotros going home. But that’s how it goes in Ghana sometimes. You have to go with the flow.

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.

Rough Cuts: Anansi and Ancestral Wisdom

This will be the first installment in a series of very rough audio clips from interviews I’ve done with people here in Ghana. I’ve been privileged to have a number of fascinating conversations with wonderful people here, and I’m working on cleaning them up just a bit to share with you.

Rough Cut Number 1: Anansi and Ancestral Wisdom

Most have you have probably heard of Anansi the Spider, the trickster character in children’s tales.

Anansi actually comes from the Akan people, the name for several related ethnic groups in Ghana, including the Ashantis. He is an important part of the Akan people’s heritage of folktales. These stories were passed on from generation to generation, often dramatized in traditional oral storytelling practices.

Oral storytelling at Auntie Esi's house

In August, one of my professors – Auntie Esi – invited us to her house to see some traditional storytellers interacting with Ghanaian children.

Later, I spoke with one of the girls who attended the event, Richlove, and her father, Clement.

Richlove and Clement

Clement and Richlove were a wonderful pair. He is a pastor in a Pentecostal Church near Kwame Nkrumah Circle in Accra, and had some amazing insights. He told me about the long walk to the fields in his rural village as a child, his grandmother telling stories along the way.

Now his life is more focused on the Bible, prayer and his congregation. But Richlove’s participation in Auntie Esi’s events has made him think deeply about the importance of their ancestral roots, and he’s even begun incorporating traditional stories in his sermons.

The events have also changed Richlove’s sense of life and connectedness with her family. Plus, she says, they’re fun.