Thursday, June 22, 2006

The Black Stars

This past Saturday, Ghana surprised the world, and foremost itself, by beating the second-ranked team, the Czech Republic, 2-0 in the first round of the World Cup. I suppose that Saturday was the day of the underdog, with the Edmonton Oilers also upsetting the dominant Carolina Hurricanes 4-0. However, I suspect that the implications of Ghana’s win are more far-reaching and profound.

After Ghana’s disappointing 2-0 loss to Italy the Monday night before, Ghanaian hopes were not high for a victory on Saturday. Most people I spoke to about the forthcoming Czech showdown would shake their heads slowly and say, “It will be difficult.”

But Ghana’s very spot in the World Cup – its first ever – is a source of pride for many people here. Ghana is among three West African countries (the other two are Togo and Cote D’Ivoire) to make the cut, and among five African nations in total (Angola and Tunisia being the others).
Ghana has found its way to the world’s stage, in this planet’s biggest and arguably most famous sporting tournament. Tiny Ghana is playing on the same fields as the world’s most developed nations – the same fields where the United States, Germany and France are facing off against opponents. To have made it to a select group of 32 teams world-wide is certainly something to make a country’s people smile – especially when the country sometimes feels it can’t hold its own on other international stages.

With a ranking of 138 on the United Nations’ Human Development Index (Canada is 5th), and with a constant bombardment of images of Western world ostentation pouring in through the information channels of an ever interconnected world, it’s not difficult to understand how some people here could have developed an inferiority complex.

I’ve had more than one conversation with people here who have claimed the superiority of the Western nations. One friend, a mechanic, told me that “the white man is never a fool” (as a side note, I’ve made it my mission to personally prove him wrong. It shouldn’t take too much effort). He was referring to the advanced German engines he’d occasionally see in cars – engines he lacked even the proper tools, let alone the mechanical know-how, to fix.

That’s why Ghana’s participation in the World Cup is so meaningful – it’s giving this little African nation the chance to shine on an equal global playing field.

And on Saturday, Ghana’s Black Stars shone with an incredible intensity. With their first goal only 70 seconds into the game, my Tamale neighbourhood erupted into cheers – I was reminded of my dad’s stories about his apartment block exploding in excitement at Paul Henderson’s last-minute goal against the Russians in 1972 – and I was given another taste of Ghanaian pride. This is the same pride and excitement I’d seen at the Independence Day celebrations back on March 6, and it was just as refreshing.The emotions continued to run high as Ghana dominated the game, firmly controlling the ball with superb mid-field playing, and intense rushes at the Czech’s net. Their persistence finally paid off again late in the second half, and Ghana secured its victorious position.

The Tamalean streets detonated with a rush of jubilance after the final whistle. Youths paraded through the dusty streets, with ad-hoc homemade drums, shouts of “Ghana!” and dozens of car and motorbike horns providing the percussion to their movement. Just as it had been impossible not to clench our fists and jump from our seats at each Ghanaian goal or near-goal, it was impossible not to join in the fray. My friends Louis and Robin and I jumped with the kids, danced among them, and shouted “2 nil!” until our voices were hoarse and our ankles aching.

And after the match, history had been revised somewhat. The mood was retroactively optimistic, as though Ghana’s win was a foregone conclusion reached long ago. Ghana’s strength – ever-present but perhaps sometimes called into question – had been revealed clear as day.
“It’s really bringing the country closer,” says my house brother, Samed. When asked if he had faith in his team beforehand, he responds: “For real! I knew we were going to win.”

(Note:I wrote this last night. Today, Ghana beat the United States 2-1, securing their spot in the next round of the World Cup. It’s quite the time to be in Ghana!)

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Sunday, June 11, 2006

Part III - How to get to Accra

(If you haven't read the first two installments, make sure to scroll down and check those out first.)

In our promised land of Abo Toase, as the rain poured down and Robin and I dashed for cover, we were beckoned to the car of some kind men from Accra. They invited us to a restaurant for a warm beer and some fish soup while we waited for the rain to pass. There were three of them – an interior designer, a teacher and a taxi-cab driver (you have my permission to use this as the opening line of a joke) – who were in town for a funeral. They told us that we could easily find a car to the city of Kpandu, so our serendipitous friendship was short-lived, and our stay in Abo Toase was fleeting, as we quickly moved to Kpandu (a city which was listed in my guidebook). Our intent was to immediately move from Kpandu to Accra, to complete our voyage that same day. But Kpandu, as it turned out, wouldn’t allow this.

Or rather, we wouldn’t allow ourselves to flee this city. We were immediately struck by the beguiling character of Kpandu’s streets. They were lined with well-kept two-storey buildings, and bustling with the kind of life I’d come to expect from most streets in Ghana. However, unlike Tamale, this life continued on into the night, past 10pm. People stayed out, barbecuing corn and steak on the street-side, heading to one of the many drinking spots, or simply enjoying the night’s air. At a random street kiosk, we discovered our new favourite fruit: sweet apple, a spiky, roughly avocado-sized green fruit filled with a white flesh that tastes something like sour apple (perhaps also called custard apple).

Another factor we found refreshing and surprising was the lack of attention that Robin and I drew. We’d become accustomed to cries of “Saliminga!” in Tamale; despite the high number of foreign development workers and volunteers there (we’re not a rare sight), foreigners are still often worthy of vocal comment. In Kpandu, we seemed to be invisible, as though our white skin were transparent – I don’t even know the local word for white person, since it wasn’t uttered. While I generally love the outgoingness and openness of Ghanaian culture, being a frequent focal point of attention while walking down the street can sometimes wear on my nerves (although I accept it – I’m the stranger in this land, and have to follow the social conventions of the land). But Kpandu was a break from this, and we felt free to explore the city’s streets in near anonymity.

The next day I attended mass, conducted entirely in the local language of Ewe, and held in a German-built cathedral from the early 1900s. After mass, I still wasn’t feeling religious enough, so we decided to visit a local cult.

The Blues of Ur was founded by a local man named Mr. Appaw who claims to have witnessed a bright blue light fall from the sky. As I understood it from the guide, this light led Mr. Appaw into virgin forest, where he discovered a message from the Virgin Mary. Indeed, she’d sent him to this planet to spread a holy message, to lead people to heaven by helping them break free of the cycle of reincarnation that traps sinful souls. Since then, he’s has built up an impressive meditation centre in the woods, complete with towering statues of Mary and Jesus, prayer grottoes, and a crucifix that overlooks a beautiful wooded valley: all designed to help Mr. Appaw fulfil his role as the Bearer of the Vessel and Neutral Messages.

As I gazed out over the lush green forest from a precipice upon which a large crucifix stood, I was filled with the beauty of the Volta region of Ghana – the rolling hills and ancient trees and blue sky, without a sign of human intervention anywhere, inspired something akin to a spiritual experience. Perhaps there’s something to Mr. Appaw’s centre and teachings after all? Perhaps they should pass the sign-up sheet?

Alas, tempting as it was to stay and discover the Vessel and Neutral Messages, we needed to leave, needed to move on. We were, after all, travelling – not seeking spiritual fulfilment (although I suppose many people would argue the former leads to the latter), which would certainly come another day when we were feeling less transient. Plus we needed to get to Accra, where we’d be greeting 23 fresh-faced EWB volunteers the next day.

We pulled away from Kpandu in the most beautiful tro-tro I’ve ever seen – working speedometer, uncracked windows, seat-belted driver, 3 people per row in a vehicle designed for 3 people per row – and I was reminded again that my generalizations about anything Ghanaian (be it tro-tros, the food, outgoingness, etc.) are just that: generalizations. They’re intended to help me, in all my limited capacities, navigate this strange and foreign cultural terrain, just as I’d been navigating its physical terrain the past few days. But I need to remember that my observations are not rules – the only rule being that exceptions are bound to appear, and that your heart and mind should be ready for this. I hope that, when I leave Ghana, I’ll have kept this rule paramount in my mind, and that I’ll have spent my time here being amazed at the diversity of experiences (both positive and frustrating, although perhaps the line between the two is blurred?) that are open to those who seek them out.

We were finally driving into our destination, but the only thing I could think of was what lay beyond.


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Saturday, June 03, 2006

Part II: How to get to Accra

(Sorry for the delay in this posting. If you haven't read the first installment yet, make sure to scroll down and read it first!)

Kete Krachi is a city half-submerged – literally – by history. In the 1960s part of it was inundated after the building of the Akosombo Dam, leading to the creation of one of the world’s largest artificial lakes: the Volta. Some Kete Krachi residents who were unfortunate to be living in the low-lying parts of the city had to relocate, and began building what is now called the New City, which is now the northern part of Kete Krachi. But many of the residents simply left, and the city’s population dropped. It’s an eerie sight to see a grassy area abruptly end at the water’s edge, with no beach transition – it smacks of human intervention in the natural world, and is a permanent reminder of what once was. This sight is further compounded by the graveyard of half-submerged trees that project from the water, grey, withered and gnarled.

But our goal was to take advantage of Lake Volta, to float south down it, so Robin and I began wandering along the shoreline, searching for signs of a boat that could transport us. We were directed to a nearby home, and told to ask for The Captain – who was not difficult to find. He was a large and boisterous man, and announced that his motorboat would be leaving at 4am sharp the next morning, carrying passengers and cargo to a city called “Abo Toase.” I had to write this out phonetically in my guidebook, because the name wasn’t already in my guidebook. Indeed, the book was useless at this stage, which is liberating in a sense. And really, in macro travel (i.e., travel between cities), all you need is a vague direction and a healthy amount of time. We knew that Abo Toase was southward, and we knew it was on the appropriate side of the lake. This is all we needed to know. We told The Captain we’d be there.

So we found ourselves, at 4am the next morning, standing on the shoreline, scanning for a ship that would carry us away from Kete Krachi. Straining out eyes against the darkness, we finally spotted a wooden vessel, maybe 20 metres long and three metres wide at its centre, into which cattle were being loaded.

Their method of cattle loading was interesting (at best) and inhumane (by my standards, more accurately). The cows were led to the side of the boat, where poles were braced against the ship, and used to leverage the cows up and over the side, where they were unceremoniously dumped to the bottom. This happened six times, and was followed by the dumping of several sheep and goats. Finally, the humans began piling in: roughly 40 of us at this early hour.
The boat began its slow trek to the south, and promptly stopped 10 minutes in at another port to load more passengers, livestock, and agricultural goods. I experienced a flashback to the first tro-tro ride of our trip – stopping and going was the theme. Indeed, this would be the trend for the duration of the boat trip – following the coast, and stopping every so often at makeshift “boat stops.” The proximity of the coast was reassuring – a quick swim away – given that the boat was becoming more and more loaded down with people and animals and inanimate objects; and with every cow, the water level appeared to be rising just a bit, as the sun’s rays pressed down with increasing strength from above.

It became apparent that our destination, Abo Toase, was having a market day. The people boarding the boat were transporting their goods to market. It was a fascinating sight to see people taking advantage of what seemed to me like a strange and overloaded mode of transportation -- something that I would use only out of interest -- in order to conduct their daily lives. But as I sat wedged between a basket of yams and a bag of rice, feeling the hot breath of 10 cows on the back of my neck, and desperately covering any exposed skin from the sky’s UV light, I realized that such experiences are an integral part of travel: they drive home the point that while the normal aspects of life here may sometimes seem quite unusual (and conversely, your way of life could seem quite bizarre to others), we’re all still trying to accomplish roughly the same goals in life. In this case, these people were making their livelihoods by moving the goods they’d worked so hard to produce to a place where they would be saleable. Definitely not a foreign concept to most people in the world – it’s just the little details that differ, the mechanics of the process.

The boat continued its slow and steady voyage. It was guided around the graveyard of trees by a first mate who stood at the front of the boat and, through a complex series of hand gestures, directed the captain (at the stern) who controlled the boat by its outboard motor. This system worked well enough (we stayed afloat), although a few scrapes were incurred.

Eleven hours later, heated by the sun’s rays and by our passengers’ body heat (tro-tro levels of human super-compression had developed), we finally approached the final shoreline. The sun above was slowly becoming obscured by black clouds rolling in from the south, and in the distance the sky was painted with murky dark brushstrokes. This was the backdrop for the remaining trees that were desperately forcing themselves out of the water, beyond which were rolling hills of green forest. In the forest, small bush fires emitted plumes of smoke like signals guiding us to our next destination.

Just as we pulled into port, the dark clouds reached us, and the sky began to fall; water from above meeting water from below as we desperately scrambled from the boat. This scramble involved walking precariously along the edge of the boat and jumping as close to shore as possible, trying illogically to avoid the water under our feet as we grudgingly accepted the sky’s water. It really didn’t matter. We were soaked, and had arrived to our new and previously unknown destination freshly baptized and ready to start our travels anew.

To be continued!

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