Monday, December 15, 2008

walking tree

There's a tree in Ghana that's colloquially called the "walking tree." This huge tree has roots that stick up out of the ground like legs with small, shallowly-buried toe roots that ever-so slowly move. Over the course of a few years, this tree migrates a few inches or so. It crawls to a new spot as the decades pass.

In many ways I feel like this tree. Having a crazy sense of adventure and craving of travel, and sets me apart from the less movement-inclined trees I've grown up around. In some ways my passion for travel leaves me feeling lonely, un-relatable or guilty for being too restless. But this is how I was made to be, just as the tree refuses to stay stationary.

As my days in Ghana come to a close, I feel like a glass case of emotions. I miss family while also dreading missing my new Ghanaian friends. I can't wait to see my house again, but will be quietly devastated to leave the temporary life that I've built here. But just as God has ordained the walking tree to movement, he's already established the time I will have in any given location before I have to move again.

It will be painful having to rip up my Ghanaian roots and take another step of life. But I'm trying to appreciate the growth that has taken place here. The equatorial sun has detoxified my personality of a few flaws and the environment here has strengthened my bark, I think. Leaving Accra is going to be the same as leaving other places where I've grown and then left pieces of myself behind. It's the same as then, just at a different time. I miss Norton Shores, Grand Rapids, Evart, Barcelona, Lyon, Semes’ché and even Lomé for all that these places have taught me. But any shed tears just help water the ground for further progression. Growth should be celebrated regardless of geography. I'll accept this as my time for a graceful exit in anticipation of where my antsy roots will take me in the future. And all I hope is that I’ve left behind nutrients for others to grow in my wake and continue to be strengthened wherever I move next.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

job 5: 17-18

I started reading Job at the beginning of the semester. I thought in some ways it would be good to read over again and make some application to my current situation. Not that I'm suffering in Ghana, or recently had all my cattle obliterated, but I have been going through some challenges this semester and have asked God a lot of hard questions like Job did. Two verses have stuck out to me all semester, serving as the exact correlation between Job and me that I was looking for:

"Blessed is the man whom God corrects;
so do not despise the discipline of the Almighty.
For he wounds, but he also binds up;
he injures, but his hands also heal.

A waxy and colorful bookmark of crayoned hearts fashioned for me by Anna marks these verses. This further serves as an example of where I've been, where I am and where I'm going. I've been blessed and I'm in challenging situations that are changing me, but I can't stay in this place, physically or mentally.

I'm afraid that when I get home I'll be frequently asked the well-intentioned question: "How was Ghana?!" Well, do you have six hours, or which part would you like to hear? I can tell the good parts, of the bright colors, the sunshine, the adorable children, the genuine hospitality. Or I can tell the frustrating side of lines being irrelevant, culture being overwhelming, church being spiritually unfulfilling or language barriers making even English intelligible. Or, I could tell the sickening tales of being physically sick for five weeks straight, or smelling the odor of black smoke of tires burning roadside mixing with the scent of raw sewage wafting from the gutters. Or how about the disturbing experiences of recognizing how high of a pedestal the United States is placed upon and the seeing the rows of used clothes in the markets which are imported from the West. I could describe the haunting images of bow-legged, redheaded and big-bellied children displaying the telling signs of malnution running after a bus of white college students. Or I could attempt to explain the spine-numbing stillness of haunting former slave dungeons with walls that seem to weep and floors corroding with faint screams. But inevitably, I could end up talking about the graceful power of the blue-green gulf, the sound of cascading waterfalls or the general gloriousness of hiking through tropical forests. But this is how it is, I'm realizing: recognizing the beauty of living juxtaposed with the harsh realities of life.

Any challenges that I’ve faced this semester have been discipline, not punishment from God. The wounding of my self-absorbed pride and the humbling physical maladies I've endured have been necessary for my old self to die and a new part of me to grow. In some ways, I apologize in advance for who I'll be when I get home. I'll be emotional, frustrated, confused and Ghana-sick for a while. But I'm not sorry that I've had the experience to become a better person, or to appreciate the consistencies of those who stayed at home. Thanks to all of you who have held me in your thoughts and prayers over the past few months, not even knowing what I was really going through. My experience really has been incredible in the invaluable lessons I've learned. But to truly do justice to what I've experienced, I'm going to be processing things for quite some time. So please continue to be patient with my continuous cycle of being wounded and bound, injured and healed.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

too many cooks in the dormroom

It all started when I went on a homestay a three weekends ago. Grand Rapids has this sister city relationship thing with the Ga District, in the Greater Accra Region. This means that everyone, it seems, from the Ga District (East, West AND South, mind you) wants a chance to be hospitable to us. It's really quite kind of them, and we do appreciate it, but it is also a bit time-consuming. For instance, we just got back from spending the day eating a feast of Ghanaian food, drinking more bottles of water I thought a human could consume and dancing to the music of traditional African drums while enjoying the sea breeze off of the Gulf of Guinea. How did you spend your November 22? But the story of the homestay entails just five of us being hosted by a wonderful lady named Victoria who lives in Tema. She brought us to her house three Saturdays ago, socialized with us and taught us how to make delicious Ghanaian dishes such as bean stew or ground nut soup.

Well, after our delightful time with Victoria, my roommate Esther inquired what I could now cook. See, to Esther, if I can't cook Ghanaian food, I can't do all....ever. It's a little frustrating trying to convince her for three months that I'm not incompetent, I'm just in a different country. When I told her that I learned how to make jollof rice (a spicy white rice cooked in a tomato-based stew), she asked me to prove it. She claimed it was good to practice cooking here so I wouldn't "embarrass myself" at home. Thanks for the support, friend.

So this past Monday, Esther put me to the test. She gave me a shopping list of exotic spices and fresh vegetables buy at the night market. Oh, and Esther really likes meat, so I should get goat meat too. Well, it just so happens that goat meat is the most expensive meat on the market, and since I was already spending much more than I anticipated in this jollof rice endeavor, I stuck with chicken. To make a long story short, here I am, presumably vegetarian, coming back home with two kilos of chopped up chicken in a bag on the hottest day of the universe. Seriously, we're talking a dry 115-120 degrees with equatorial sun. I come back to our room muttering, dehydrated and smelling of chickens, and Esther sets me to work.

Our academic semester is rapidly coming to a close, which has created a little extra stress in my life. It's not that the work load is unbearable, but challenges arise when we're trying to balance final exams and research papers, while still attending classes. This being said, Monday was a little overwhelming for me as I looked ahead to all the work I had to do. On top of this stress, the LAST thing I needed was to cook a dinner that took four hours to prepare. When we spent all day at Victoria's, I apparently didn't perceive how long it actually took to cook all the food. And while seemingly simple, jollof rice takes a long time to prepare. Esther, who also has exams she is studying for, decided mid-cooking that she will rip me out for not paying enough attention to cooking and paying too much attention socializing with Amy (which was actually just venting to Amy about my day and having her help me organize my life and abundant stacks of study guides).

Anyway, the jollof turned out to be delicious, even though it was cooked with disdain on my part. Esther continues to be her....self. But now I know that food tends to be a bit more of a cross-cultural engagement than I can often handle, so I have begun to steer clear of Esther's attitude around dinnertime. Don't get me wrong, Esther really is great, but apparently our discussion at the beginning of the semester of how Ghanaians view food/eating quite differently than North Americans hasn't quite sunk in yet. And regardless of how many culturally stressing situations I've been having lately, I still don't feel ready to leave yet. It's not that I don't miss home or people or want to go home, but I feel as though I'm just now beginning to tap into who I am in Ghana, but I have to leave soon. Not having enough time to truly appreciate this culture is probably the most frustrating thing of all.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

a day in the life...

I don't want to come off as one of those touristy types who think that everyone needs to know every detail of my life. But I feel the need to share my details of yesterday to give those of you reading this a little better understanding of what my life is like here. Sorry if this is long and tedious...

I began my day with breakfast in my room, like I do most every morning. I buy fresh bread at the night market near our hostel and eat it with groundnut paste (peanut butter) for breakfast. My former coffee addiction has been slightly curbed since I've been here, mostly thanks to the instant dirt that upon watering springs to a muddy creation that strangely smells like coffee. I decided to take my changes and accompany my breakfast with this pretend coffee. The rest of my morning was leisurely, since the only class I had was Twi, but not until 10:30.

As Becky and I walked to class in the morning, we passed other international students decked out in red, white and blue and donned with buttons or shirts of their favored candidates. It's been strange to watch the pre-game of the American elections from Ghana, where everyone seems to take a much bigger interest than I fear many Americans within the country would. Becky and I suddenly had a car stop right in front of us, roll down the window and ask us whom we were voting for. He then told us his views, and about how this was the most important day EVER. Well, I don't quite know if I would have gone that far...

After Twi class, a few friends and I went to the bush canteen, which is a mini market on the front fringes of campus. For 40 pesewa (about 40 cents), I got a delicious heap of fufu (pounded cassava) in palm nut soup. The Ghanaians around us commended my friend Amy and me for eating with our hands, and they laughed when we clumsily scooped the slippery substance into our mouths. Another 10 pesewa got me a peeled orange, which one holds and sucks all of the sweet juice out of from the top. Ghanaians still laugh at how much slurping noise we make and how much pulp ends up in between our teeth whenever we eat them.

Despite applying for my absentee ballot in AUGUST, it still never came. I waited all of October, plus the grace period of the week we were in northern Ghana. But alas, it's a no-show. So a few of us with similar stories went down to the U.S. Embassy (a.k.a. "Fortress America") to take another stab at our civil duties. After security checks and waiting in numerous lines, I told a lady at a window my sad story and asked what I could do about it. I did end up voting, but since I was told my ballot wouldn't even be sent out until the following morning (and after the results were already in) my vote didn't count. But at least I tried as hard as I could.

My friends and I were invited to an election party at night, hosted by NYU and a hotel down in Accra. We were shuttled down in a charter bus full of hyper white kids in Obama t-shirts. But despite our fears that the whole party would be like that, I was surprised at the diversity. Granted, the crowd still had a clear bias, but there were preppy Ghanaians next to the hippy Americans next to the middle-aged foreign expatriates. We sat outside in front of a large screen projecting CNN, and struggled to watch the TV as a local radio station loudly broadcasted from the lawn. Even though the five to eight hour time lapse made results slow and late for us, the energy was high. We left around 1 am our time, which meant not much had been reported, but we decided to be smart and sleep rather than wait out the night.

The opportunity to experience an election abroad and truly see the impact that the United States has on the world has been incredible. Regardless of feelings of Americans, Ghanaians are ecstatic about Obama as president. And while African-Americans must be feeling pride, local TV stations prove the empowerment that many Africans are feeling at this time. No matter what party or ideological divisions might be dividing some people right now, yesterday and today has made it easy to remember remember the 5th of November.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

chacos on an adventure

Esther thinks I have a foot fetish. This is pretty much because of how excited I was when I got my second, newly-refurbished, pair of Chaco sandals in the mail. It is also because I have a few pictures taken of just my shoes. See, these all-terrain, all-purpose, all-ecofriendly sandals are not just shoes, they are the pages that the stories of my past adventures and excursions are written on. They're old friends who could tell tales of playing games in grass with children or getting lost and going spulunking in caves. If you are an onwer of a pair of Chacos, you understand. The few of us on the trip that own Chacos have tracked our adventures thus far with catchprases like "Chacos at the beach," "Chacos in the rainforest," or "Chacos in the air." But after an adventurous day like today, my Chacos can now tell the epic of "Chacos at a waterfall."

My friend Amy and I love adventure. She has a list of things she's looked up in her guidebook and wants to check out, and we've slowly been helping her check some things off her list. She has been dead-set on finding a waterfall for quite some time, so I tagged along today for map-lead and instinct-driven journey. Esther and our friend Dorcas sent us off with nervous looks and a "Don't get lost!" Perhaps it is because Ghanaians are not natural cartographers, or because they legitimately have no faith in our navagational skills, but I think they were genuinely surprised to see us come back in one piece, and about the same time we told them we would.

We traveled on three tro-tros for a total of about 2 1/2 hours there and about 3 hours on the way back. After our second transfer, we got dropped off on the side of the road about 21 km north of Koforidua. Our visit at the Bodi Falls park apparently needed to begin with a hike. A nice hike sounded delightful. We set off into the grasses which turned into trees which turned into rainforest. By the time we got to the slippery and muddy rocks of our path, I remembered once again that we were in fact just shy north of the equator and that Ghana makes humidity like the sun makes UV rays. We came upon a cave, which was really just a mysteriously dripping rock shelf in the side of a mountain. It was pretty cool, actually, and apparently people used to hide out in there for protection during times of war. There was a picturesque little stream trailing next to us the whole time, but at this point we crossed it and proceded to practically rock climb to get another 80 feet up in the air. The next point of interest was the "umbrella rock," where the Ghanaian tourists decided that we were a better attraction for them to be photographed with. It was a little wierd being by this awesome rock formation which overlooked the mountain foothills, all in the gorgeous sunshine, and having people taking pictures of us. We came upon more of this undesired attention as we proceded to the "three-headed palm tree," or the palm tree with three trunks. At this point we turned Amy's suntan, my projectile sweating and our jelly legs around to trace our hike back out to go see the waterfall.

We walked down stone stairs to get to the waterfall(s). There are two falls right next to each other, but in the peak of the rainy season, the streams widen and almost connect into one giant fall. They were absolutely beautiful! I wish I could post the video of Amy and her pseudo-Brittish accent doing a brief National Geographic documentary, or even just a picture, but alas, Ghana's technology most likely won't let it happen. The pool at the bottom of the falls served as quite the oasis for all of the swimming children and adults who stripped down to underwear and jumped in. A rainbow stretched across the bottom of the falls, and served as a colorful semi-halo for the swimmers. And the floating mist in the air overcorrected the humidity, but was a refreshing break at the end of a steamy day.

Today I probably got melanoma and fire ant bites that I don't know about yet, but it was worth it. My skin got a tan, the water in my body got an excape route out, and my shoes got one more story to tell. I'd say that was a Saturday worth spent.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

outside looking in

I wish that every American could travel outside of the country to step back and see how bit it really is. Only now do I realize how big the United States is. It started by the common response of “Obama!” when I answer that I’m from the United States. At first I found it really strange, like, um, America is more than one man or one election. But now I realize that one American election really is that big of a deal. I’m finding politics and economics less prone to eye-rolling or yawning in my life, and seeing both as living, impacting forces that I never saw when inside my country. See, n many ways, Ghana pays attention to the states because Bush first paid attention to Ghana. A massive majority of Ghana’s foreign aid is thanks to the Bush administration, which translates tangibly into jobs, ARVs or electricity. And one American election has the potential to change everything. It has the potential to empower disenfranchised black Africans, or maintain previous foreign policy. As it turns out, it’s a big deal. And Ghanaians pay attention to it. Almost as closely as they watch the Western stocks fluctuate, while biting their stubby nails and wringing their weary hands. If an economic crisis would mean fear for well-to-do Americans, it means absolute terror for those who are developing and depend on Western funds. And again, everyone here is paying attention. It’s not that politics and economics are casually talked about around a water cooler, it’s whispered in the markets, spoken in the universities, and shouted about by Ghanaian presidential candidates. It started to strike me when Esther, who’s studying accounting, asked me about the current U.S. financial situation for a paper she had to write for class. I pondered how absurd it would be at Calvin if the roles were reversed. I guess it all changes when I’m on the outside of the U.S., looking back in.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

less than royal castles

Few words can adequately describe our trip to the Cape Coast and Elmina castles last weekend. The horrors and audacity of the castles’ dungeons and the legacy of the trans-Atlantic slave trade that they represent were juxtaposed against the exquisite beauty of the whitewashed walls and turquoise waves against the vibrant blue sky. Not knowing at whom to direct our anger, choking down our sadness, and resisting vomiting within everything in us, we toured the two former slave-trading castles in silence. Since then, we’ve internally and externally processed some things, but I think it will take a lifetime to figure everything out in my own mind. I have some beautiful pictures, some sobering memories and a different perspective of my Dutch heritage thanks to the experience of the castles. Bright Eyes says that if you can’t compose yourself it’s best to compose a poem, so that’s what I’ve attempted to do…

White and Blue

Weeps she, the sea
Back and forth, again and again.
Elevated above, glistening fortress
As a dove preparing for escape.
Trapped, restless fingers on eroded stone
As voiceless thunder drums the rocks.
Salt in the walls, salt in the sweat, salt in the tears—
She is as much a part of it as anything, the sea
A past of carrying away, a present
Of recession defiance.
She rolls on, as the football glides
Back and forth, again and again.
Rushing, trickling, dripping,
For all this, humans are never spent.

Friday, September 26, 2008


So I realize that it's been quite a while since I've filled all you loved ones in on some tangible things that I and my Calvin friends have been expiriencing lately. I'm sorry that some of these things are a bit outdated, but might be a little interesting nonetheless. And, since I have quite a bit to share before my internet connection fails...again...I will be utilizing my famous "bullet point" style to cover more ground. I'll try to go in chronilogical order:

--Our group was invited to the U.S. Embassy in Accra a week ago Tuesday. We called the embassy "fortress America" since the huge barred walls and thick concrete looked more like a prison than a welcoming place of foreign diplomacy. After the extensive security pat-downs and passport inspections, we were escorted into a conference room where we heard a presentation on Ghana-U.S. relations. It was really interesting to hear how proud both sides were of this relationship. As it turns out, Ghana's President Kufor was meeting with President Bush in Washington D.C. the day we were hearing this presentation. We also heard from other speakers about stuff like absentee ballots (which, by the way, i already got worked out before I left, and I should have one mailed to me, for those of you who were concerned if I would fulfil my civic duty this November or not). The speakers also told us about how we shouldn't swim with sharks in the ocean or use lots of illegal substances during our stay in Ghana. They're no fun. We truly appreciated their hospitality and midwestern accents, but overall it was just really surreal to be back in a place with carpet, grass, and automatic hand dryers. It seemed a little artificial and really steril, and overall American.

--The next night, last week Wednesday, we had a "welcome dinner" from the Institute of African Studies (IAS) on campus, where we're studying. Along with the Calvin group, a group of students from Trent University in Canada are at IAS too. So we had an AMAZING catered dinner with our new Trent friends, followed by some entertainment of traditional dancing, drumming, and singing. Then, if all that wasn't enough, we were all individually pulled up onto stage to have an impromptu African dance party under the stars to the sound of cicadas and drums. Awesome.

--At the end of last week, we expirienced our first big round of illnesses. At one point we had one who had just gotten over something, two who were fighting something internally nasty, and one who was nearly on her death bed. A trip to the clinic, Gatorade, and lots of rest seemed to slowly get them all back into shape, but it definantly a wake-up call to how blessed we are to be healthy thus far, and to not have any illnesses be too harsh. Although we're afraid that one of the girls might have had mild malaria, we're quite glad that we're all over that infirmary spell.

--At the beginning of this week, I decided to finally give in to my professor's urges and put up my mosquito net. I did it when my roomate Esther was still at home in Tema for the weekend, so she didn't get to expirience the laughter and frustration that went into stringing the darn thing up. A little packaging tape and twine has gone a long way, and all over my room. But now I feel a bit like a princess sleeping under a wafting white canopy every night; a canopy that keeps tiny bugs, mosquitoes, and huge African crickets hanging just inches above my head on the other side of my mesh curtain. Once Esther got back, she laughed that judging little chortle that she does when I do something dumb. She may still think that I'm an American tourist, but I smile and tell her it's for aesthetic value. She doesn't quite believe me.

--Classes are going quite well, and I'm liking finally being into a rythm of my schedule. I absolutely love my African Politics class. Our professor just casually dropped the other day that he's running for Congress, so we only had one class period this week due to his touring and campaigning schedule. The class is really interesting, and I feel so smart as I get to ask questions with words like "neopatrimonialism" in them. Our Peoples and Culture Class consists of constent guest lecturers, which could probably be something more, or I could just be more appreciative. But it is cool learning more about Ghanaian culture. The drumming and dance classes are hysterical, and every day I come back from dance Esther asks me how much we've disgraced ourselves today. Ha ha. We're slowly improving and slowly getting more rhythm. Maybe by Christmas we won't get laughed at anymore. The bane of all of our existance might be our Twi class. I've never had a professor like this guy before. He DEMANDS respect, but doesn't really do anything that makes us want to give it to him. He's very strict and sucks any fun out of a room the instant he walks in. He also doesn't really teach us that well and jumps around from topic to topic, and then verbally judges us for not keeping up with him. Uh! Not fun. But, I must be learning something since I conducted my first conversation in Twi with the "kebob man" at the night market. Even though it was just an elementary sharing of our names and how we were, it still made me feel pretty cool! Our independent study is in full swing and keeping Becky and I quite busy. I had my first interview with Dr. Patterson this week, which ultimately taught me how much I have yet to learn about the AIDS fight, the intricasies thereof, and NGOs in general. I'm excited to keep doing research, but I feel like I'm still running just to keep up with the brilliant mind of Dr. P.

Well, that's about it for now. Hopefully I can get some photos and videos up in the next little while. Until next time...

Sunday, September 21, 2008

what i no longer take for granted

the non-exhaustive list goes as follows:

--tap water
--“free” internet (or at least not paying up-front)
--fresh air (especially when driving)
--my own car
--baby power
--reliable and consistent electricity
--storage in bathrooms
--toilet paper in public places
--hand soap (antibacterial!)
--sunsets after 6 pm
--plugging things into outlets without converters
--a walk to class being less than 25 minutes
--cool breezes

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

wait, when did i get to africa?

So, it just hit me the other day that I’m actually here. It’s very surreal to be living in a dream. It’s strange seeing the nighttime sky with the moon as I’m used to, but no Big Dipper, feeling sweaty even as my head hits the pillow, and falling asleep to the sound of indigenous languages bouncing off the hallways. It’s like I’ve been planning on this trip for so long that I haven’t even fully let it sink in that I’m actually living in Ghana (albeit temporarily). It’s been over two weeks since that endless day when we boarded our first plane in Detroit, and now I’m really a world away. It’s crazy how much can change in a short amount of time. Now that we’ve found inexpensive places to eat, we better understand the lingo, are getting used to sllllloooooowwww internet connections, and are figuring out how to wash our clothes by hand, our lives in Ghana are beginning to be lived. I’m used to the quick sprint of Interims abroad, where everything is new and fresh and stimulating and awesome and then over. But it’s just starting to settle in my mind that this is more of a long-distance, endurance test. Not a Peace Corps long marathon, but the thought of no non-instant coffee or non-touristy, inexpensive pizza for three more months is a bit daunting at this point.

Our group of 17 Calvin students no longer is just a random assortment of classmates thrown together for a semester. We’re now becoming more of a family, who takes care of each other when someone falls ill and looks out for each other in making sure everyone has a walking buddy on the 25 minute trek to class. Names like “my boyfriend” or “my housemates” are taking a more 3-dimensional shape as everyone’s stories and testimonies and past are slowly becoming blurred with our own. And while it’s great getting to know these former acquaintances so well, the thought that I do have to put up with these peoples’ mannerisms and senses of humor for three months is also getting lodged in my mind.

It’s the strangest feeling to go from homework at Calvin to homework here. When I’m taking my on-campus classes, I might have homework that’s Africa related every once in a while. Now it’s all that I do. Ever. I go from reading about Africa’s colonial legacy or the modern political scene, and then lift my eyes off the page to my roommate’s TV where local news reports are telling the exact same story. And the election discussions aren’t just some foreign and distant topic I might occasionally peruse on the BBC. The outcome directly impacts Esther and my new friends’ lives. The propaganda smothers the backs and sides of the tro-tros I take into Accra. Issues of AIDS maintenance and malaria prevention are as common as the American presidential debate topics of socialized health care or military activity which they replace. I’ve totally traded in my stars and stripes for one star and three stripes. But even though it’s slightly overwhelming at times living, breathing, eating, and sleeping African studies and International Development, I think I’m starting to like this new African lifestyle.

Saturday, September 13, 2008


I'm a little bit racist sometimes. It's a confession I've been intentionally ignorant of for quite some time, because addressing the statement means addressing the underlying issues. I've always thought I wasn't racist, and I'm not, I don't think, by what I say or do. But I am by what I think. It's a subconscious, creepy thing that has subtly made its way into my processing of things. I notice it by the way I feel. Why do I feel sometimes like I'm an offense just my my presence with a certain group of people? Why am I subconsciously surprised that an education at the University of Ghana is of the same caliber to a school in the United States? I think these are issues that are real to me, even if I pretend they're not, because that's just more convenient.

We recently had an encounter with a lady who was a little bit racist sometimes too. On our first day of African drumming (which I found to be incredibly fun and entirely entertaining watching my friends try to keep rhythm), as we were in the middle of a beat with our beaded calabash rattles, a lady passed by and began yelling at us. Well, she was yelling at our Ghanaian instructors for the most part. She yelled that they should not be teaching us, that this drumming was for Africans only, and that we should go back to Europe. Interestingly enough, she spoke with what seemed to be an American accent, and was debatably African-American. Hmm. That puts a spin on things.

I had a conversation with a friend on the trip that got me thinking. In the course of talking, we both described ourselves as "passionate about anti-racism," or something to that extent. Now, I'm not judging where she is coming from or her personal validity of that statement, but I began judging my own. In college, I've had numerous conversations about race at large, and I do feel strongly about some actions or words that have happened by me in my personal anti-racism campaign. But what on earth do I really know? Here I get the chance to be a minority, and in the Ghanaian context, in the center of the spotlight. For instance, today when a few friends and I ventured into Accra by ourselves for the first time, we tried all we could to do as the Ghanaians do. We all crammed into the back of a tro-tro and were surrounded by natives. At a red light, the street vendors came out with their plantain chips and toilet paper, and without paying any attention to our fellow riders called out "Hey white people, welcome to Ghana! Buy our chips and give us your money!" I could have died of embarrassment.

Here I get to be called "obruni" only becase of my face value. I get to be called a term of "white person" and have my name erased and my identity reduced to merely the color of my skin. I get to carry all of the stereotypical baggage of white Americans (and apparently Europeans) that every one of us must be filthy rich with even dirtier consumption habits. And I get to be the one to represent the actions of my ancestors and draw up every kind of connotation for historical atrocities that I personally had nothing to do with. Minority is a really ugly word. Minor. Young. Feeble-minded. Insignificant. Inferior.

I don't want to begin to say that I know anything about how to fix global racism. But I do want to say that I've felt it from the other side, albeit briefly. I see my own inadequacies and failures to see clearly. I feel now the way racism is institutionalized. I see now that it's not just one person's fault. I'm not angry at the lady who yelled at us, because honestly us white people don't get to hear reverse racism as much as we probably deserve. Racism is the fault of society, culture, and a history of a few making poor labeling decisions and messing everything up generations down the line.

When my identity is erased--who I am, my name, where I come from--and replaced with a general title, I see the way that I do that to others at home. When my individual complexities are overlooked, I realize how often I've silenced others' intricate voices in order to magnify my own. I am now aware of how much I've concerned myself with advocating anti-racism to a white audience, but have neglected others' perspectives. I seem to have been under the impression that my mission was an in-group thing, and that I don't need members of the out-group to talk about ostracizing . Since I've been here I've heard a few really beautiful metaphors about pianos. Just like a song would not be complete by using only the white or black keys, so in life we need each other for perfect harmony. Now that I'm more clearly seeing, I can be more properly thinking and processing everything hopefully in a more healthy way.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008


I've been slowly learning to rethink things, even if they seem a little backwards to me.

I came into Ghana really wanting to be culturally sensitive and willing to accommodate to whatever I needed to in order to be polite and considerate. But then I met people of the Akan tribe. Our group spent the last few days in Akropong at the Akrofi-Christaller Institute of Theology, Missions and Culture. The institute had a long name and a comfortable feel. It was almost resort like as it provided not only towels for us but soap and toilet paper too! High class, let me tell you. Well, one of our purposes for being there was to learn a little bit about Ghanaian culture, religion, and history. It was really great and informative, especially as we learned about what to do and what not to do in this Eastern Region of the country where Akan tribes reside. One Akan woman explained to us that the smallest things such as greetings, gratuity, raising hands or crossing legs means a ton for their people. And in all of these sensitivities, the first and foremost thing to remember is to never, EVER use your left hand. For anything. Well shoot. My observant and creepy eye made sure to take note that of the 17 other students and four members of my professor's family are right handed. That means I am the only odd one out. So now not only do I have to exchange my "Thank you"s to "Madase"s and worry that I'm crossing my legs too much, I now have to practice being ambidextrous in eating, waving, and taking anything from anyone else.

At first I was like, well I can't do that. But then I began asking myself why not. Just because I've been raised in a society where individuality is key and handedness is no longer forced, why does that make it better than any other cultural norms? Why should only I be above the cultural laws in this society and feel so offended that heaven forbid I have to change my ways? I wondered in a situation such as this, is there one cultural precedent, or are we as a global society forevermore bending and accommodating to each other, without one set way that's proper? So with a big sigh and a little more thought, I uncrossed my legs and moved my fork to the other side of my plate.

Speaking of food, I've also had to rethink some cuisine choices. I became a vegetarian in February for mainly environmental reasons. And my personal choices reflect an American lifestyle which I chose not to be a part of. But I've been quick to realize that Ghana is by no means the United States. So, along with my fork switching, a meat switching has also taken place. The decision has also come as a result of basically no other forms of protein in the country besides the occasional egg and cashew. Another sigh, another lesson learned, another chicken breast eaten.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

This place is a song. But I don't yet understand the lyrics and I can't yet dance along. My eyes ring with the sounds and my ears blur with all of the colors everywhere. Overwhelming.

I can't figure out how long I've been here. I know it's only been a few days, but they have felt as a month long each, and despite being four hours away and hundreds of miles south from where I'm used to, I cannot fully orient myself to anywhere. After two days of traveling with the Germany based Luthuansa airline, numerous uncomfortable airline pillows and countless cups of coffee, we were plopped in Accra on Wednesday evening. The sun goes to bed around 7 pm here, and the cool lingering nights also confuse me greatly when juxtaposed with the brutal 99 degree and 100% humidity days. I'm only beginning to grasp my bearings with all of the numerous campus tours and bumpy tro-tro rides to and from the markets and Accra.

Our campus is about the size of MSU's campus and sits in Legon, just north of the city of Accra. It is at least a 20 minute walk to anywhere from our international student's hostel (ISH 1). We began our Twi lessons yesterday with awkward utterances and giggles. I don't know if any of us, including our American professor, can remember anything. Obruni means white person. I've become well-acquainted with that one--from under-the-breath whispers from Ghanaian students to little kids in the markets who try to convince us that yes, we do in fact need ground cassava or pirated DVDs.

I am shocked to find that Ghana is just as I anticipated it would be. The black exhaust wafting in the air, the over-friendly natives who want my money, the smell of sewage and animals lingering everywhere, and the trash replacing flowers and landscaping on the sides of roads. It reminds me so much of Guatemala that at some times I don't know whether I'm living in reality or in a vivid memory. Yet despite the ecological disasters on every street, Ghana is truly beautiful. It just is beautiful in a different way from what I've seen before. Dark, dark skin, bright, bright eyes, and red, red dirt. I feel like all of the world's artists, musicians and poets would exhaust themselves trying to capture the energy and life of West Africa. It nearly overwhelms my feeble mind.

My roomate Esther is very nice, although she probably judges me every time I give her a blank stare and ask her to repeat herself for the third time as I try to decipher if she truly is speaking English to me or not. Apparently the words "circle" and "sucker" have no audible distinction in the Ghanaian accent. Um, yeah, I learned the hard way that you can't say to a tro-tro mate "sir, please take me to the Accra Sucker." Esther is very neat and tidy and re-makes my bed for me if I don't make it well enough and leave too many wrinkles to drive her nuts in the morning. She is also Miss Social in our hostel. I'm sure this has everything to do with her congenial personality and has NOTHING to do with the fact that our room is one of few in the hostel which houses a TV and a fridge.

Whenever I have a cross-cultural expirience, I'm like an opening bud which has just been shocked by lightening. I close my mouth and open my ears and eyes to sponge-like absorb all that's around me. Then I must take a few days to process it all, and then slowly begin to re-open fully. I'm now finally seeing the electricity leave me, so hopefully I can have myself back in a few days. But it will probably take another few days for my computer to recognize the slow internet connection, so that should give me time to come up with a few more things to say.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

new beginnings

I don't really like blogs. It seems so new-fangled and high-tech for me. I would much rather stick my heels into my past of long-distance letter writing and hour long landline phone conversations. But I know that communication is passing me by and if I don't hurry and jump on the speeding bandwagon, I'll miss it altogether. So please, gentle reader (the two of you that there are), be patient with my slow updates and even slower content.

But I do like changes.....if they mean a change for the better. And seeing as I'll be half a world away from my friends and loved ones for a bit, this blogging change might be a good idea after all. See, I'm studying in Ghana from Sept. 2-Dec. 18, 2008. This means that while west Michigan houses most of my family and friends, I will be finding a temporary home in West Africa with few ways of sharing my new expiriences with those who hold my past. So here is my chance to show anyone who cares to read/look what I'm learning.

Schoolwise I'll be learning about African politics, the culture of Ghana and West Africa, African drumming and dance, and the Twi language (pronounced "ch-wee"). [Editor's Note: yes, they do speak English in Ghana, but Twi is one of four or five other languages spoken which come from the the prodominant tribes.] I'll also be conducting an independent study on how the Ghanaian church is involved in politics (especially in regards to child and maternal AIDS and malaria). But lifewise I hope to learn more about culture in general, more of my need for flexibility, more of what beauty is defined as, and more ways that I can laugh at myself in a foreign country.

I'm off in a week, so hang on, 'cause this might be a bumpy ride...