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 I'm sorry that some of these things are a bit outdated, but might be a little interesting nonetheless.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.