Sunday, May 21, 2006

How to get to Accra (in seven easy steps)

If you’re travelling from Tamale (in the Northern Region of Ghana) to Accra (the capital city, which lies on the coast in the south of Ghana) you can certainly take the easy route – hop on a state-run bus and head south for 12 hours. You’ll be treated to lovely scenery at times, frequent rest stops and, if you’re feeling particularly extravagant, air-conditioning. But, as Frost would agree, the most interesting experiences occur when you take the least direct, most uncomfortable, and occasionally most unadvisable routes to your destination. So that’s what fellow EWBer Robin Farnworth and I did two weeks ago in order to wind up at Accra Airport, where we were to welcome with open arms 23 short-term Engineers Without Borders volunteers.

Our journey began in the sweltering heat of the Tamale tro-tro yard, crammed into rows of five people in a minibus (the rows were designed to seat four), and vehemently fighting off the vehicle’s first mate, who was trying to stuff an additional sixth person in to each row. We sat, motionless, for almost an hour, until our bodies were drained of sweat and even our solid body parts began the slow process of evaporation (or sublimation, for you thermodynamic dorks). At one point, the tro-tro driver faced a near bloody coup after asking us passengers to switch vehicles – for the second time. But I’ve learned not to ask too many questions while travelling through Ghana, and that your energies are best directed towards three things:
1) Ignoring the heat
2) Trying to locate small pockets of personal space that might exist somewhere between your compressed skin and that of your fellow passengers
3) Forgetting about number two, and instead concentrating on the warm communal feeling that develops when you and your fellow passengers have anti-personal space

So this I did, and eventually we passengers persevered. Amid cries of “We are not bread, why are you baking us?!” our tro-tro finally started up, and pulled out of the yard. It then promptly pulled into the nearby petrol station, which was an anti-climatic anti-surprise – another part of the Ghanaian travel dance. After fuelling, we were off for real.

This tro-tro stopped in the city of Salaga, formerly a central West African hub for the slave trade in the 19th century. The slave market is now the tro-tro station, and instead of slaves being shipped by Ashanti traders to the south, you now have tourists, itinerant Fulani people, and travelling Ghanaians passing through.

After heading through Salaga we found ourselves careening down a rapidly darkening road towards Kete Krachi, a city on a peninsula in the northern part of Lake Volta. We’d heard a rumour of cargo ships departing from Kete Krachi, ships which follow the lake to its southernmost point at the Akosombo Dam. From there we’d catch a vehicle to Accra, and be able to claim that we’d made it to the capital city via a combination of tro-tro, car and cargo ship.

Our tro-tro driver had obviously driven this route before: he navigated the potholes as though he were playing a video game that he’d already beaten many times. However, upon arriving, at nightfall, in a city with a name sounding akin to the noise a sheep makes (“Boorah!” – we don’t actually know the name as it’s not on our map), we were told the driver would not be continuing on to Kete Krachi, to the fabled land of cargo ships. We were staying in Boorah, in a city that, as far as we could tell, consisted of a single darkened intersection and one kiosk that was selling coca-cola and uncertainty. We were told that there is no guest house, no hotel, in Boorah. We were told, in essence, that there is no hope in Boorah, and that we really shouldn’t have ended up there on an ill-defined mission filled with fanciful dreams of cargo ships and large artificial lakes. It’s at times like this that hopelessness can take over: this must be quelled by the Zen-like belief that, in travel, patience is paramount, and that following the streams of destiny will always lead you to a destination which has been your terminus all along (whether or not you knew it). So long as you believe that the journey is the destination, you can maintain a peaceful state of mind. All the same, I didn’t want to sleep on the streets of Boorah, and knew that my Buddhist travel mantras would give way to despair if I was forced to camp out in a deserted city whose name I could only approximate by channelling the noise of my most detested animal.

Luckily, while talking to the few lone survivors in this seeming wasteland, it came out that we might be able to stay at the local health clinic, which was only a few minutes’ walk away. It was there that we were greeted warmly by a community health nurse, who had no problem finding us beds to sleep in. My Buddhist travel philosophies had been challenged and, like a fine debater, had conquered and come out not just intact but strengthened. I sometimes worry where this laissez-faire attitude could lead me, but then I remember that I’m not allowed to worry, and so I keep moving.

The next morning I was greeted by the sounds of goats (goats are good – they’re spry and intelligent), and the vibrant feeling of a market day. Market days are always a sight to behold, with hundreds (or thousands) of people from surrounding communities converging on a city to sell their produce and other goods. We stepped out of the clinic to see the true city revealed to us in the light of day. We had been wrong – Boorah is not a ghost town. Our night-time assumptions had led us astray (we were truly in the dark), had prevented us from seeing that our little intersection was simply the outskirts of a city that was most certainly full of life, and on this beautiful early morning we were seeing real evidence of the city’s character. Women and men walked in to town, or came in on tro-tros, and began setting up stalls in the market area. Animals were led in on ropes, and carts of yams rolled in. Bushels of groundnuts appeared, and bags of spices were transported in on hundreds of heads. I was reminded again that Ghana is not a land of the hopeless, despite characterizations of Africa from back home.

But we didn’t have much time to stay and explore. We were off that morning, with the same driver as the night before (who had decided the time was now right to complete the voyage), to Kete Krachi.


Monday, May 15, 2006

Quick update

Just wanted to let everyone know that I’m still alive, and riding a massive sugar high – my dear family sent me a 1.1kg bag of Jelly Bellies (delivered by Sarah) so I’ve been gorging on that – after a hearty meal of T.Z., of course.

The Junior Fellows (short term EWB volunteers who are here for 4 months) have arrived in Ghana, and they’re quite the enthusiastic and energetic bunch. They demanded we throw them into the market the night they arrived in Accra, and we were more than willing to oblige. It’s nice to have some fresh faces in Ghana, especially since Tom has just left to chase Kurtz (he’s going on a Niger River Voyage in order to raise awareness about the efforts that people living in rural African communities are putting in daily to improve their lives).

In my next post, which should be quite soon (and will hopefully make up for this short one), I’ll describe in detail how Robin and I travelled from Tamale down to Accra – a trip that normally takes around 12-15 hours by bus, but for us took roughly four days, and involved 6 cows. I have included a teaser picture.

Work right now is going quite well. I’ve been going out to rural communities to assess the status of their wells. I basically need to check if the wells are dry (there’s quite a bit of variability in the water table level, so during the dry season many of these wells end up bone dry), ensure the construction of the wells is sound (e.g. no cracking in the cement), take the GPS coordinates, and – most importantly – interview members of the community to determine their level of satisfaction with the well, and what could be done to improve their situation. Making sure that the voice of the beneficiary is heard loud and clear back at the regional office is one of the best things I can do on this project. After all, at the end of the day, they’re the ones using the well: they’re the reason this project exists, and their needs come first.
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Wednesday, May 03, 2006

A restaurant at night

I’m in the city of Gushiegu, about an hour and a half north-east of Tamale – depending, of course, on the rains, which can render the roads near impassable, transforming them into a sloppy stew of red dirt and grey gravel that can spell disaster for rural communities throughout the north.

I’m sitting in a restaurant here, jotting down notes in my daily planner, trying my best to capture the experience of what should be the most mundane of activities – like eating. But it’s not mundane, and it never is, and that’s part of the magic of travel.

The restaurant is small and open-air. It consists of a white plastic table surrounded by dining room chairs, another table with picnic coolers filled with drinks and day-old food, and four young women who are making the feature dinner. They’re gathered around a single large pestle, and each strike of their mortars pounds boiled yams into a submissive starchy paste – the staple food of fufu. The pounding is perfectly timed, each blow striking an empty spot in the pestle. As a result of this coordination, they inevitably form a beat; or maybe it’s more accurate to say that they form an inevitable beat, given the omnipresence of music in Ghanaian culture – there’s always music, and when there isn’t, there really is: it’s there, hidden in the daily activities, drifting down the streets, permeating the air. As if to further back up my train of thought, the sounds of evening prayers begin to float into the restaurant, mingle with the pounding, merge with it, and a new song is born.

One of the women, without interrupting her pounding, starts speaking loudly to her companions. Her words emerge in time to the beat. I’m unsure if she’s complaining or singing – but I think the answer is somewhere in between. She is, in effect, reinventing hip-hop (or is it that hip-hop is predated by the music of fufu pounding?).

Another woman calls out to me, “Saliminga! How much?” I hesitate, then throw out a random number. A steaming plate of fufu – 4,000 Ghanaian cedis worth, to be accurate – quickly appears before me, and I tuck in. Fufu, itself, is a starchy non-entity – it’s simply the tasteless vehicle for the accompanying soup’s flavour. In this case the soup is my favourite, peanut, and my fingers scoop with gusto. Slurping is not just allowed, but encouraged – required, in fact, to keep the soup from running down your wrists.

My colleague from work arrives from prayers, and sets his own bowl of fufu on the table. His meal contains an additional component: entrails. “What are those?” I ask him. He responds, “intestines.” I ask what animal these used to belong to. “Oh, cow,” he says, then pauses in contemplation, reconsidering his answer. “Or goat. Or maybe sheep.” I secretly hope they’re sheep, but refrain from asking the woman to top up my plate with them.

I finish my meal, wash my hands in a large bowl on the table, stand, pay the woman, and walk out of the restaurant, all the while trying to perform these actions according to the ambient beat. But I know I don’t get it. It can’t be consciously performed with, least of all by an outsider. That’s fine, though. As much as I want to learn and integrate, I’m still an outsider. That certainly won’t lessen my appreciation of the organic music of Ghana. I walk down the street, and open my ears for the next song.