Tuesday, December 20, 2011

A Most Unlikely African Queen

It was during my first visit to Ghana that I was made an honorary Krobo Queen Mother. Even now, four years later, I have trouble at times believing that such a thing could ever have happened to me. I mean, there I was, a 55-year-old white woman of no particular prominence, who had first stepped foot on the African continent only two weeks prior to my queen-making ceremony. Moreover, while I had come to Somanya hoping to be of some use to the people there, I hadn't really had a chance to actually do anything yet--certainly nothing deserving of such a distinction. The ceremony took place on my second Sunday in Somanya, and I had only taught my first class in jewelry-making on Thursday! So why was I being given this great honor?

It has occurred to me since that part of the reason may have been a strategic one on the part of  Manye Mamiyo Banahene, the Queen Mother who gave me the title. After all, having been made a queen (even just an honorary one), how could I not come back and continue the project after this first visit? As a prime motivator, the honor was a compelling one. Perhaps she knew that the conferring of it would bind me all the more forcefully to my original purpose in coming here. Perhaps she even sensed my hunger for the more exotic aspects of this journey. But far from resenting this form of manipulation (if indeed it was manipulation), I admire her cunning and sagacity in devising such a scheme, not to mention the determination to help her people that the strategy demonstrates. When you have as little to work with as this woman does, you have to be incredibly resourceful to get things done. More power to her (or, as they say in Ghana, "More grease to her elbows!"). I only wish I were as ingenious.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. Let me start by giving a little bit of background on the Krobo Queen Mothers. Ghana is a democracy, but the traditional government of the Krobo region is still a vital force, and holds a great deal of influence with the people of the Krobo tribe. There are, or so I have read, upwards of 370 Queen Mothers in this region. They are an integral part of the traditional government, having successfully lobbied for admission into the decision-making bodies of the Manya Krobo Traditional Council and the Regional House of Chiefs after having had their traditional female base of power eroded by European administrators throughout the period of colonization. 

Krobo Queen Mothers are traditionally responsible for the welfare of the women and children in their communities. They have a very personal approach to their work, and are routinely (and warmly) welcomed into the homes of those under their care. Thus they are able to identify and help to solve various sensitive problems that might otherwise remain invisible to them and to their communities. Among many other accomplishments, this amazing group of women has been in great part responsible for breaking the culture of silence surrounding the HIV and AIDS pandemic in the area; for substantially contributing to the reduction of the HIV and AIDS prevalence rate from a staggering 18% clear down to 6%; for successfully promoting the banning of certain aspects of traditional and cultural practices that degrade and endanger females; and for helping to re-ignite awareness of the need for education for everyone in Ghana--including girls and women.  (For more details about the Queen Mothers of Kroboland, visit the Manya Krobo Queen Mothers Association's blog at http://manyakrobo.blogspot.com/.)

In other words, these women are incredible. Moreover, if I understand correctly (and please feel free to let me know if I am in error here or elsewhere in this post), they do not get paid for their work. In fact, I'm told that they finance their efforts from whatever money they are able to raise and/or from their own incomes, which are sometimes at the same subsistence level as those of the people they are serving. I greatly admire these women. They are committed, determined, wonderfully resourceful, and apparently tireless in their efforts to help their communities. As far as I'm concerned, they are true heroines, and I am very honored to be associated with them, even in a purely honorary capacity.. 

But back to my story: Within the first week of arriving in Somanya, Megan (my niece) and I were taken to visit the Queen Mother of our district, Manye (Queen Mother) Mamiyo Banahene. Now, I had read before coming that one of the first things visitors should do upon arrival in a West African town is to visit the Chief or King in order to to get his blessing on whatever agenda or project was being proposed. But we were told by our three young guide/protector/partners that the person we needed to visit was Manye Mamiyo. So one night, at what seemed to me a very late hour for visiting, we set off in the pitch-black darkness that characterizes nighttime in Somanya everywhere except on its few main streets.

The darkness seemed very thick and close around us. It was almost completely impenetrable to my streetlight-trained and aging eyes, with only the occasional reflection of moonlight on a white t-shirt or a brief gleam of starlight on a dark arm or cheekbone to help me maintain some sense of which way I should be walking. I remember that Bernard, ever gallant and sensitive to my needs, eventually dropped back to guide  me, taking my hand whenever we came to a rough spot on our path as we picked our way through the woods and past dozens of crumbling mud-brick houses and broken-down hovels that I, by this time, knew to be the homes of typical Somanya families. The silence was broken only by the sounds we made walking and the occasional deep croak of a bullfrog or the startling squawk of some family's rooster. I reflected, not for the first time, that a more cynical person would be fearing for her own safety walking through these forest paths and lightless back alleys with only the company and protection of these three young male strangers. But I never once felt that kind of fear--my gut was consistently communicating to me that I was safe with these young men; that my niece and I were both safe. In fact, I was honestly more concerned about turning an ankle and becoming a burden on them or, worse, being rendered unable to do what I had come to this place to do.

Eventually we emerged safely onto a street that was marginally brighter, and fairly crowded with buildings on either side, though the street itself was deeply rutted and still treacherous to anyone less nimble-footed than a goat. And then we were approaching a two-story building that, while larger than the typical home in Somanya, was certainly no less dilapidated. Our guides spoke briefly with a woman who was standing on the porch that ran the full width of the house. She then disappeared inside, emerging a few minutes later to motion us up onto the porch and towards a long wooden bench, where we sat and waited  for the entrance of Manye Mamiyo.

A few people came out of the house and gathered around, taking seats nearby. After awhile, a man in traditional dress (which, for males, consists of a length of colorful wax-print fabric wound around the body and up over one shoulder) approached from the street. After ducking into one of the darkened doorways of the house, he returned to set a carved wooden stool against the wall in (as it turned out) anticipation of Manye's entrance. (I was later told that only people of great distinction in Ghana have ceremonial stools, and that the degree of carvings and other ornamentation on those stools are indicative of their rank and influence.)  He then sat down before us on a stool made of plain wood. He introduced himself in English as Adamnor Banahene Samuel, Manye's spokesman and translator. I later learned that he is a well-educated man who had, for many years, been a teacher.

Let me state here that one of the most frustrating things for me when I'm in Ghana, and the thing that most holds me back as I try to learn to negotiate my way through the culture, is that, when people translate, they tend to mention only the parts that they deem it important for me to know. Unfortunately, what they think is important and what I think is important are two vastly different things. But no matter how hard I try, I can't seem to convince anyone (even Bernard) that I want to hear it all--every single word! Instead, a typical scenario has someone talking for three or four minutes without a pause, after which my translator-of-the-day will offer a one- or two-sentence explanation of what has been said. Grrrr!

But Manye's spokesman is the exception to this rule. He always seems to translate line by line. Unfortunately, in his case, while his English is very fluent in terms of both vocabulary and grammar, it is still fairly heavily accented. Add to that that my hearing is very poor and you have a recipe for confusion (mine, not his). Despite his best efforts, I usually feel that I'm missing more than half of what's going on. So, while I am going to try my best to convey the gist of what was said during that first meeting. my renderings of his translations may sometimes be a bit off.

Manye eventually came out of the house and took her seat on her stool. I suspect that we had awakened her, for she was garbed much as her spokesman was, in a length of brightly-patterned fabric that had merely been wrapped from behind up under her armpits and around and over her breasts, where she had tucked an end in to keep the cloth in place. Her shoulders had been whitened with some kind of powder or ointment, which I later learned is a kind of remedy for prickly heat. She wore a turban of a different print on her head. It served to accent her amazing face, which was basically unlined, making it hard to tell her age, and which had a crease on one side that looked as if a bullet had once grazed her cheek. I wondered if this might be a scar from some ritual cutting that had been made at sometime in her past. Whatever the case. it merely served to add character to an already-interesting and (I think) very beautiful face.

She did not smile, but regarded us very solemnly for a moment or two before speaking. Then she asked us what our business was in Somanya.

Everyone turned to me. I realized suddenly that, as the elder of the group, I was expected to do the honors. I hadn't anticipated having to make any speeches, and I hesitated for a minute, wishing one of the young men would take on the task. But they just waited, looking at me expectantly. I was to find that semi-formal speech-making is expected in Ghana in pretty much all such circumstances, and I have gradually become more or less used to jumping right in and addressing whatever assemblage I'm facing. But that night, I was a bit intimidated at having to speak so off the cuff. Finally, drawing a deep breath, I explained as simply as possible what our plan for the project was at that point in our thinking. She listened as my words were translated for her, and then nodded. Then she spoke at great length, though I caught very little of her speech from its translation. Finally she stopped and just sat, looking at us.

I thought this might be a good time to present her with the gift I had brought for her--a necklace I had made of crystals and freshwater pearls--so I  asked Bernard if the time was right. He bid me wait by placing a hand on my arm, and then asked her if it was okay for me to approach her. She nodded again, and I brought out the necklace and walked it across to where she was sitting. She examined it closely, and then nodded yet again. Still no smile, so I wasn't sure whether she was pleased with the gift or not.

She spoke then again at some length. I was later told that she had commanded us to come back on Sunday at dawn to receive our African names. We were to bring two bottles of gin--one of high quality, the other ordinary--and seven Ghana cedis (Ghanaian dollars). We were then told that we could depart.

We shook hands all the way around and then started making our way home. I was dying to know what had happened; whether Manye had approved of our project, and whether she had liked her gift, so I asked Bernard how he thought the visit had gone.

In his usual verbose way, Bernard said, "Fine."


I tried again. "Do you think she liked her gift?" I asked him.


I probed a bit further. "A lot or a little? I mean, did she love it? Or was she just somewhat pleased?"

"She liked it."

Right. I tried a different topic. "Do you think she approved of the project?"

"Yes," he told me.

"Okay, what did she say about it?"

"She said it was good."

"Oh, come on, Bernard," I said in frustration. "She talked for several minutes! She must have said more than that!" 

He smiled slightly, but only said, "She said it was good that you come here from America to bring prosperity to the community."

I gave it up, lapsing into silence. Clearly details were not going to be on tonight's menu.

I would later learn that Bernard could be very talkative when he was in the mood, and I would learn to read his moods a little better and, when I could bring myself to do so, wait until he was ready to speak for the details I so craved. But for tonight, it was enough to know that we had the royal stamp of approval. We could go forward with the project, secure in the knowledge (mistakenly, as it turned out) that we had followed the correct protocol.

I was, even then, before I got to know and love this amazing woman, very happy to have received her blessing on our efforts. I did not know at the time that she was very soon to become my mother, and I her daughter. But that is a story for my next post.

To be continued....   

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Whose Taboos to Choose?

One of the most difficult things for Westerners to get used to when visiting Ghana for the first time is being asked for things--and asked often. Not so much by beggars on the streets--in fact, that has happened to me only rarely, at least in the rural areas--but by people you have just been introduced to, by casual acquaintances, and even by people you are getting to know fairly well. This is an uncomfortable experience for most Americans at first, even when we've been told to expect it. Why? Probably because of our own strong cultural taboo against "begging" or "pan-handling," which survives despite our changing consciousness about homelessness and other phenomena that make the practice necessary for so many as a matter of survival, even here in the U.S.

I have certainly experienced some notable exceptions to this disconcerting custom of asking. Bernard, for example, rarely asks me for anything unrelated to making Soul of Somanya a going concern, and my host parents on my first trip to Ghana wouldn't even take money for my share of the groceries when I offered. There have been others as well. But in general, there seems to be no taboo against just asking for what you want from anyone you think might be able to supply it.

I suspect that this custom is even more compelling when it comes to Americans, since the average Ghanaian apparently holds a deep-seated, completely unshakable belief that all Americans are endlessly rich. Nothing I've ever said has ever changed this perception of me in Somanya, as far as I can tell. They simply don't believe me when I say I am not rich.                                                                                             

But then, why should they? While I technically live below the poverty line by U.S. standards, I have nevertheless been able to access enough money (whether my own or someone else's) to fly across the Atlantic--not once but three times so far--to visit Ghana. That fact all by itself speaks volumes about the differences in my situation and that of most West Africans. Such journeys are almost as unavailable to the average Somanya citizen as a trip to the moon would be for me.

And that's not all. Each time I have come, I have brought with me visible evidence of my prosperity, including (but not limited to) a bounty of jewelry-making supplies and hand tools, two laptops, two printers, two cameras, one glass grinder, two rotary tumblers, at least one power drill, a number of cell phones, and a variety of clothing and other gifts. Never mind that all of these things were either donated or financed by donations. I was able to get them.

I have also sent money for four years' worth of rent so far on a house (our place of business in Somanya) that is, by local standards, both larger and much nicer than most. And if this isn't enough to demonstrate my boundless wealth, last year I sent the money to buy that most coveted of all treasures--a car. Again, this was all done by way of donations and/or income from the sale of Soul of Somanya products. All I was able to offer was time and energy. But that's irrelevant. I was able to send the money.

So why would anyone there believe that I'm not rich?

[Just as an aside: I find it ironic that I have the opposite problem here in the U.S., where many friends and SoS supporters have had trouble believing that I don't feel deprived because I don't own my own home (I've honestly never wanted the responsibility), and because I drive a leaky (but dependable) '97 Saturn, and have no television (free at last!), no microwave (what's the big rush about heating up water for tea?), no bed (I sleep, by preference, on my ancient but comfortable couch), and nothing a rational person would ever dream of calling "decor." Instead, I live in a modest one-bedroom apartment that I share with the perfect roommate (my dog Hannah) and a happy (if usually somewhat disorganized) clutter of Soul of Somanya inventory, shipping supplies and paperwork. The fact that this lifestyle suits me right down to the ground is irrelevant to many who know me. From the average American perspective, I am, if not poor, at least very far indeed from being rich, and this despite the fact that I have air-conditioning, an endless supply of electricity and running water (both cold and hot), dependable phone and internet service, plenty of books to read and food to eat and, last but not least, that miracle of modern plumbing, a flush toilet--all things that are rare-to-non-existent in most Ghanaian homes. Obviously wealth and poverty are relative concepts.]

But back to my Ghanaian experience of being asked for everything from tuition money to pretty underwear. Consider this: I spend a fair amount of my time here in the U.S. asking people for money and goods to take or send to West Africa in order to help the people of Somanya to a greater share of the prosperity we enjoy here. So why am I uncomfortable when those very same people ask me for those very same things to benefit the very same people for whom I am soliciting aid? It occurs to me that this practice might even be understood by us as their version of fundraising for people in need--namely themselves.

Be that as it may, my discomfort with their custom of asking so freely has its roots, of course, in the American work ethic, to which I subscribe, and which forms the very foundation of SoS. Soul of Somanya is about giving work, not stuff. The theory is that if one has dependable, living wage employment, one can buy one's own stuff.

But who am I, after all, to say it's wrong to want a few things to come more easily than that? It's not as if the people of Somanya don't work hard. They do. They have to in order to survive. Is it their fault that the paid work (if any) that is available to most of them doesn't produce enough income for even those things that we, as Americans, take for granted as being absolutely fundamental to our very existence, not to mention our happiness?

So the people of Somanya ask, hoping they will receive a little something extra to enhance their bare-bones lifestyle. But SoS can only offer them work, pleasant work, satisfying work, at a living wage and in a safe and healthy environment. And even this we can offer only to a few.

It somehow doesn't seem like enough, at least not to us. But ask one of our artisans, who now has money for nutritious food and vaccinations and proper schooling for her children, and I suspect you'll get a very different answer..

And anyway, I learned early on to keep my eye on the small picture when in Ghana, because if you look too often at the big one, you are quickly overwhelmed, and then you're no good to anyone. SoS can't eradicate poverty in Ghana. We can't even eradicate it in Somanya.

But we might, if we are fortunate enough to find an abundance of generous hands and hearts over here, be able to open up a few options for a handful of people over there, whether it be for more schooling, better medical care, improved nutrition for a few children, or just a little easing of the scarcity in a few lives.

No, it's not enough. But you do what you can...and then work to get better at it so you can do a little more, and then a little bit more, tomorrow...and the next day...and the next.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

A Short Supply of Trust

Within a few days of arriving in Ghana on my first trip, Megan and I, along with my three young partners in the project, met with the beadmakers who were to be my students. I had assumed that the classes had already been scheduled and organized, so I was a bit surprised when I met with the first group of artisans that there was some doubt about whether anyone was going to take the classes at all. Early in that meeting, I started picking up on unexpected--and, at the time, very puzzling--undercurrents of anger and distrust that made me distinctly uneasy. But this uneasiness turned to incredulity when, as soon as the initial introductions had been finished, the group's spokesman asked me, "What are you going to give us besides classes?" The second group, with whom we met a few days later, was even more forthright. "Who," they asked me, "is going to pay us to take these classes?"

I was, understandably from a Western perspective, more than a little bit taken aback. I had been told repeatedly via email that the entire group of fifty beadmakers was eager for my arrival; that they kept asking, "When is she coming? When is she coming?" I had just spent six months raising enough money to cover the trip expenses, spending endless hours thinking through the logistics of what would be necessary to teach fifty people a variety of classes for five weeks, ordering and organizing all the necessary tools and supplies, and trying to fit everything I needed to take with me into six suitcases--all of this while struggling to keep working and paying my own bills. I was happy as could be doing it, and I hadn't thought that I was after gratitude, but I have to admit that, after all of my months of preparations, and given that the classes were to be free, I found myself thinking that something more along the lines of a simple thank you would have been more appropriate.

Appropriate? I've always hated that word. And anyway, who was I to judge what was considered appropriate in Krobo culture? But it's so hard not to react first from your own cultural brainwashing. 

Years later, I would learn that the beadmakers actually were actually being made to pay for the classes (more about that in a future post). But even without knowing this, I fairly quickly came to see how my presence there might be perceived by them as a mixed blessing. Because, whether the classes were free or not, I was asking them to take some eleven or twelve days off of work--this in a place where, if you don't work today, your children very likely won't eat tonight. And I was asking them to take this risk while offering no assurance that their investment would ever pay off. How, for example, were they to market the products they were about to learn to make? Very few people in Ghana have money to spend on luxury items, and none of these artisans had the capital, the language skills, the technological skills, the knowledge of Western business practices, or the contacts to get those products out of the country and into the global marketplace. Yes, I had promised that I would try to help with that. But who was I? I had already told them that I had no training or experience in marketing. And even if I had, what reason did they have to trust me? What reason did they have to trust that I would even try to carry through on my promise, much less succeed?

Ultimately, we worked with the first group to establish a class schedule that allowed them to work one half day and then one full day, one half day and then one full day. This, they seemed to feel, would lessen the impact on their budgets sufficiently to make their attendance possible. We offered to do the same for the second group as well but, ultimately, they were not able to get past their distrust of my motives (or rather, as it eventually turned out, of our motives) far enough to feel able to take the classes at all. When the dust finally settled, only fourteen of the original fifty beadmakers ended up taking the classes I had come to teach.

Here's what happened with the second group. When we went to meet with them, we found ourselves, much to our surprise, facing a seated but restless and angry mob. Their spokesman was so furious that he was actually spitting as he talked. And, although he was speaking English, his startling vehemence, combined with the local accent (to which I had not as yet become attuned) made it impossible for me to follow what he was saying. Eventually, one thing did come clear; namely that the group had been shown a copy of the newspaper article my local paper had published about my trip and my reasons for making it. I had sent a copy to one of my project partners some months back.

If I weren't an important person, these beadmakers now told me, my picture would not have been in a newspaper. It was clear to them that I was the head of some large charity organization, and that I must therefore be in possession of money intended for them. Since I wasn't handing that money over, I was obviously planning to keep it for myself, or to share it only with my niece and my three partners.

Megan later told me that she was so scared during that meeting that she almost threw up right there. But I guess I was having some kind of out-of-body experience or something, because, for some reason, I found myself sitting back and observing the situation with pure fascination, almost as if I were watching a really interesting movie rather than being present and the potential object of mob-mentality wrath. Eventually, with a calmness that is entirely uncharacteristic of me in moments of great stress, I explained to them that I was just a regular person like them, and that in the U.S., most newspapers had sections where they printed pictures and articles about everyday people who were doing things that might be interesting to other people in their communities. This led to some lively discussion in their language that went on for some time. But in the end, they seemed to accept my explanation. Then there was yet another very heated discussion, also in Krobo, which resulted in me being asked by one of my project partners to tell the group where I was staying and what I was sleeping on. 

Megan and I looked at each other: What was I sleeping on? What was that about?

It was not until 2-1/2 years later that I would finally learn the answer to that question. In fact, subsequent visits to Somanya have illuminated a great many of the more puzzling aspects of that first trip. But those are stories for future posts. For now, let me just quote from an email I wrote home a few days after I had finally taught my first few classes out under the trees:

"If I live to be a thousand years old, nothing is ever, ever likely to be as magical and fulfilling as this trip has already been. The classes are going extremely well--the level of creativity and talent among the students is astounding. You show them something they've never even seen examples of until right then and the next thing you know they are inventing whole new designs and even innovating technically. It has also been a lesson in, "It takes a village to teach a class." Everyone helps, from Megan and my partners in the project to the students helping each other. It's wonderful to see."

Despite the rocky beginning, my first teaching experiences in rural Ghana truly were nothing short of amazing. I had been teaching beading in the U.S. for quite a few years, yet I was, at first, unable to account for the absolutely fearless approach to learning and the extraordinary level of talent and creativity among these particular artisans. I ended up deciding that they must be so used to having to be courageous and innovative and resourceful just to survive that being so with regard to a piece of wire or a strand of waxed linen was simply no big deal to them. But of course, like everything else in these blog posts, that's only my take on it. Who really knows? I don't pretend to. All I can do is observe and speculate...and admire. 

Note: The lack of pictures in this post is due to my not having the explicit permission of some or all of the people depicted in them.  

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Epilogue to the Epilogue

Well, once again things have worked out, as they always do. The great Bead Dilemma of 2011 has been dealt with, and we're still here. Not only did I find a donor (and active, long-time supporter)  who graciously agreed to cover the anticipated cost of the new shipment, but the new shipment itself--the larger one, mind you--ended up costing less than half of what the smaller one did! I can't think about that too much or I'll get into self-recriminations along with multiple hearty sessions of self-flagellation--possibly even self-bludgeoning. Instead, I'm concentrating very hard on the fact that, from where we are right now, this is very good news. Another challenge dealt with, and with an unforgettable learning experience into the bargain. I'm choosing to view our current stars as lucky. Spilt milk and all that--why go there? Our noses are still above water (how many more metaphors can I incorporate into this paragraph?); our artisans will be paid on time; and we won't have to break faith with Jasperdean, who has done so much for us (probably even more than I realized until this moment).

And besides, I'm not sure what we could have done differently. WE NEEDED THOSE BEADS! It's done. We learn and move on.

The Great Bead Deluge of 2011

Well, as it turned out, I didn't have to go to Atlanta to pick up our two boxes of beads. In fact, it ended up not being an option. Security issues at Customs in the Atlanta airport would have made it far too complicated for the uninitiated, or maybe even impossible. So instead, SoS got to pay an extra $129.00 to get everything trucked from Atlanta to Mobile. And this despite all my efforts to prevent unanticipated charges.


But at this point I no longer really cared. I JUST WANTED THOSE BEADS! It was after business hours on Tuesday afternoon, and I was due to leave on Thursday morning for a weekend show in Chattanooga. I'd been shaking in my sandals at the thought of trying to make it work with so few beads to sell (and those just the picked-over remains of the ones I'd taken the last time I'd done a show there). Now our new beads might be stuck in Atlanta for the next decade or two!

But after another timing hitch or two that resulted in yet another day's delay, I got the good news. The boxes were in Mobile. I would be able to stop by Quick Delivery and pick them up on my way out of town, just before getting on I-65 to head north. It was a good thing I hadn't gotten an early start.

A very nice man loaded them into my trusty little 1997 Saturn for me, and I was off.

I barely made it around the corner before I was swerving over onto the shoulder of the road, turning off the motor, and scrounging in my purse for my nail scissors. I needed to see those beads. I needed to know that what was in those boxes was fresh bead-blood; new, heretofore unseen designs that would make our customers thrill with delight. Because I had done something I had never done before. In order to have the money to pay for this increasingly-expensive shipment when it finally arrived, I had pre-sold quite a few of the beads, offering virtual coupons for $20.00 that could be redeemed, along with first pick privileges, for $30.00 worth of merchandise once the new goods arrived. We'd gotten a wonderfully supportive response, and I desperately wanted to have a varied and superb range of choices to offer these customers who had trusted us enough to buy the beads sight-unseen.

 So what if what was in those boxes wasn't all that fresh and new? What if the new beads ended up disappointing these trusting buyers, most of whom numbered among our most frequent and loyal customers? What had I been thinking to take such a risk with their faith in my promises, and ultimately with SoS's credibility? I should have done something else to get the money. I didn't know what, but something. Anything rather than risk letting so many good customers down!

In my own defense, I knew that we had spent an unprecedented amount on the new beads. And I knew that Bernard is very good at remembering what beads we've offered in the past. But I also knew that he had mixed beads from the remains of our old stock in with the new designs he and the artisans had shopped for. And he'd been unable to enlighten me as to the ratio of the new to the old. His response to my query about how many new beads I would find in these particular boxes had been, very typically, "Some." (We always have trouble when talking quantities.) So what if these two boxes (out of the four he'd packed) were mostly full of beads that had been available on our website for almost a year? What would I tell our coupon-holders?

I attacked the tape on the first box, jabbing and slicing with the little scissors until the seals were broken. I took a deep breath, opened the top, and exhaled slowly. And then I went limp as all the accumulated stress of the last few days went streaming out of my body. I grabbed the door of the car for support.

They were BEAUTIFUL! At a glance, they looked very, very good. I opened the second box. Ooooh! Aaaahh! They were gorgeous! Not only new painted designs, but new shapes and sizes--everything I had dared to hope for. And lots and lots of different kinds.

 What a relief! It had taken two months to get them here, but they were fabulous. I was a happy Manye (Queen Mother--have I mentioned that I'm a Queen Mother? But that's a subject for another post.).


Would you like to hear something funny? I find this hysterical, but maybe that's only because I got slightly hysterical when I heard the news. After all the time and effort and stress and delays that went into getting those first two boxes over here, the remaining boxes arrived less than two weeks later--some six weeks ahead of schedule. Ahead of schedule? Nothing in Africa ever happens ahead of schedule, or even on time! What the...?

 I still don't know what happened. I had been told that Jasperdean's shipment was to leave Accra on September 1st by ship, and that sea shipments usually take maybe four or five weeks to make the crossing. Then there would be the usual week or so it always took to truck everything from New York to Bamboula, Ltd. in Pennsylvania, and then on by UPS to us in Mobile. So I'd been thinking probably mid-October. Two boxes piggybacked on one of Jasperdean's larger shipments, and a sea shipment at that. Much cheaper! Probably not very expensive at all, plus we had plenty of time to get the money together. I'd been much more concerned that the two new boxes would be delayed and wouldn't arrive in time for the holiday season. But no-ooo! They arrived on August 29th! And the two boxes I had been told to expect had somehow turned into five! The only other time we'd had a comparable amount of inventory come over at one time (in "The Great Shipping Crisis of 2009"), the charges had been over $1,700.00! And here I'd just finished scrambling to get the $500.00 or so we needed to make the final ends meet on the first two boxes. Where in the middle of this pre-holiday-shopping-season retail-limbo was I going to find the money to pay for this new and even bigger shipment?

Welcome to my world. And welcome (I guess) to the world of any artist-type learning to do business with other artist types in any third-world country. I don't know, maybe there are some who have managed to get their businesses functioning according to a more predictable routine. If so, I bow to them. I wonder how long it took them. And I wonder how much my inexperience with--okay, let's face it, my complete ignorance of--the most basic approaches to doing business anywhere has had to do with it all.

Nah! I'm convinced that if there's a rule that always holds true in starting up a little non-profit like ours, it's this: Nothing, and I mean nothing, will ever go as planned. Plan on it. Expect it. Learn to flow with it. Learn to laugh about it. Embrace it as part of the adventure. Because as Bernard (who is wise beyond his years) once said to me during a particularly trying time in our start-up phase, "These are the things that will make good stories later."

I don't know about that, but I do know this: It keeps things interesting! And somehow, things always, always work out in the end. I love my job. I'm a lucky Manye.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Beads In the Wind

Okay, so I was being optimistic in my last post when I said that our shipment would be in the air within a couple of days. It's been more like a couple of weeks, and that's only counting the most recent delay. I won't go into the earlier ones. Suffice it to say that, for all Bernard's efforts, our shipper there is a bit hard to get hold of and, when one does, he frequently doesn't have time to discuss things, but says he will email the information. But then a week or more passes and...no email. If Bernard talks to one of the employees to try to get information, what he is told is often in error. (We actually missed a shipment that way in January when the deadline we were given over the phone was after the date of the shipment's actual departure.) This is life as usual in Africa, and I should be used to it by now. But I tend to forget when I haven't been there in awhile.

Bernard finally did reach him, though, and arranged a time to come in and repack the boxes so that the two we could afford to ship by air would hold the items we need most--namely beads. The other two, which we could manage without for awhile, could follow more economically a month or so later by sea in one of Jasperdean's larger shipments.

So we were quoted a price--$320 for freight and $150 for the shipping agent's fee, and that wasn't counting the fees I would have to pay on this side of the ocean once the shipment landed, which would be somewhere in the neighborhood of $345. Ouch! But we were getting low on options. We needed those beads! So I gave the go-ahead, and everything seemed fine. But then we got a call from the shipper saying that the boxes would have to go through New York to New Orleans and then to Mobile, and that it would cost another $98.

Well, that made no sense to me at all. The shipment would be coming over on a passenger flight, and I happen to know that there is a passenger flight directly from Accra to Atlanta, since I've flown on it myself. And since there are any number of flights from Atlanta to Mobile every day, why should our boxes have to go way farther north to New York and then back south and well west of us to New Orleans before finally coming back east to Mobile? And that was if they reached Mobile on their own at all--it sounded as if I might even have to go to New Orleans to pick them up!

So I called one of our shipping-broker angels here in the U.S. (Sandra) to make sure I wasn't wrong about this and, no, I was right. There was no reason for our shipment to take the scenic route to Mobile. She even gave me the flight number of the direct flight from Accra to Atlanta to give to our shipper over there.

Girded with this new information, Bernard tackled the shipper again. But all he got was your basic, "No. This is the way it has to be." More discussion did not seem to be an option.

Bernard, ready to cry uncle on this round and just look for another shipper for next time, duly reported back to me. But by this time my feisty terrier side was starting to emerge. I had my teeth sunk into the end of that $98 rope, and I wasn't ready to let go. $98 may not seem like a lot of money here, but once you've seen for yourself how far it goes in West Africa, it seems like a small fortune. I just couldn't see throwing it away unnecessarily.

So I called our other broker angel (Leigh) to see what more I could learn that might convince our shipper to see the light. She suggested that maybe he didn't have an agent he'd worked with in Atlanta, and then gave me the run-down on what to tell him about why he wouldn't need one; on how Delta uses a company called Forward Air to handle the forwarding of the boxes to Mobile by truck, and on how the boxes could actually clear Customs here, since Mobile is, after all, an international port--it just doesn't have an international airport.

So this time I called the shipper in Accra myself. After only a few minutes of talking, he agreed that shipping through Atlanta was a much better idea. He was very nice, very cooperative. I'll probably never know whether his inability to hear this same information from Bernard had to do with Bernard's youth (he turned 29 last Friday), or whether his willingness to hear it from me had to do with my being a blefono (white woman) from a Western culture, and therefore the one presumably in control of some bottomless  well of money. Or there could very well be some other, perfectly sensible (though, to me, inscrutable) reason for his behavior. Whatever. He now agreed that he should ship the boxes through Atlanta and directly on to Mobile.

The bad news was that he would not agree to a reduction in price, which made me really itchy until I remembered that flying to Accra through New York costs about the same as flying to Accra through Atlanta. So this might be just another case of how, in my experience, business so often seems to be conducted in Ghana, to the dismay and distrust of Westerners (at least until they get used to it). In short, the first price quoted doesn't always tell the whole tale. It frequently does not include various aspects of the service being offered. Or sometimes it hasn't been thoroughly researched before being stated, so later information that comes to light makes an (upward) adjustment necessary. Or maybe I've just been taken a number of times and am in denial. I don't know. I may never know.

Here's a typical example:  On my first trip to Somanya, I wanted to commission a local artist to make us some Soul of Somanya t-shirts. He quoted me a price per shirt that seemed extremely reasonable, so I said yes, go ahead. We shook on it. But then he told me that he would need money to buy the paints that were necessary to get the effect I was so taken with.

Oh. I had assumed that the paints were included in the price he had quoted. But it was still a great price, so I said fine. It's a deal. But then he mentioned that he would need tro-tro (mini-bus) fare into Accra to get the paints. Hmmm. This was definitely starting to feel like a "how-far-can-I-push-the-blefono" kind of scenario. But the price was still less than I had originally expected to pay, and I am all about upholding fair trade values and not exploiting the people of developing countries by underpaying them for their talents and goods. So I said fine. Okay. But then he advised me that the t-shirt blanks would cost another two Ghana cedis apiece.

At this point I was (belatedly?) beginning to wonder what, exactly, had been included in the original price he had quoted. And I was definitely starting to feel taken advantage of. So I pulled back and started to to shrug off the whole deal, at which point he offered to throw in the labor for free because he really wanted to establish an account with an American contact.

Now Megan and I spent a great deal of our time on that first trip trying to figure out which behaviors on the part of certain people we spent time with were culturally based and which could be accurately characterized as exploitative (of us). Ultimately, we embraced Bernard as our standard to judge by. While some people were assuming we would pay all their expenses as we went about the business of our project there, but then somehow always had money to go out drinking in the evenings and even to treat their friends to drinks, Bernard would typically refuse our offers of free dinners out or snacks when on the road, instead using what money he had to pay his own way and/or to buy little things for our comfort--handkerchiefs (for mopping up perspiration), hand fans (to prevent same), purified water, etc.

Adopting him as our standard for Ghanaian customs was a choice that I have since realized was quite possibly skewed too far in the other direction, since he did not have a typical upbringing and is probably substantially more Western in his thinking than most rural Ghanaians. But at the time, it was a comfort to know that there was someone whose values we could depend on when we were not in a position to consult our host or hostess.

Anyway, I ended up commissioning the t-shirts, and also giving the artist a brief crash course in doing business with Westerners (talk abut the blind leading the blind!), explaining to him how most Western business people would not take kindly to his add-on approach to costing, but would expect the initial price he quoted to include everything. But a part of my brain kept whispering, and keeps whispering today, "When in Rome, when in Rome, when in Rome...." I suspect that if I lived in Ghana long enough, I would stop expecting that first price to include everything. If I didn't expect it to be any different--if I just learned to come to the table expecting the price to jump around as various considerations arose--then presumably I wouldn't experience it as an attempt to exploit my blefono naivete. I would just accept it as the way business is done there and learn to take it in stride. Or maybe I would learn that I was being taken on a regular basis and had just  been in denial. I don't know. I'll probably never know.

But back to The Great Shipping Dilemma of 2011. In talking to our shipper on the phone that day, I stressed several times what both Leigh and Sandra had told me--that the boxes must be clearly marked as being destined for, and paid for, all the way through to Mobile. Otherwise our beads could very well vanish into the bowels of U.S. Customs in Atlanta, possibly forever.

No problem. Everything was set. Within a couple of days, Bernard had deposited the extra $98 in the shipper's account and we were good to go. Within a couple of days after that, I was advised via email that the boxes had cleared all the red tape on that side of the Atlantic and had been delivered to the airport to await the next flight that had space in the hold for cargo. And our shipper wrote me a very nice note stating that he would be working on finding ways to make the next attempt less expensive; that the first time was always the hardest, but that we would all get better at it.

Great. We were all in this together. We were all learning something. This was good. I was happy.

Two days later (yesterday), I got an email letting me know that the shipment was on the ground in Atlanta. He attached the air waybill and packing list and everything that Leigh would need to process the shipment once it arrived in Mobile. I was delighted. Apparently our boxes had made it onto the first or second flight out of Accra. Excellent. My worst fear had been that they would sit in the Accra airport for weeks, and that we would run out of beads to sell in the meantime. But no, things were finally going our way.

I set my alarm clock for 8:30 so I would be up in time to call Leigh and make sure that she, too, had received the good news. She hadn't, but she had received the email I had forwarded to her "just in case." Close enough. She instructed  me on how to fill out the Customs Power of Attorney she needed from me and then said she'd let me know when she knew what was happening.

Twenty minutes later my phone rang. It was Leigh.

"There's good news and bad news," she told me. "The shipment is in Atlanta. But it doesn't say anywhere on the airbill it should have been forwarded on to Mobile, so it's stuck there." She went on to defend our African shipper, saying that the form is very confusing since the place where one is supposed to type in the final destination of the boxes says "Final Airtport of Destination," and he knew that Mobile's airport was not an international one, and therefore could not clear the boxes through Customs. It was a logical mistake. She also informed me that there was a Customs agent in Atlanta they sometimes used in situations like this. She would get hold of him and have him get the boxes cleared and trucked down here, but I would have to pay the extra freight.

Great. How much was it going to be?

She wasn't that far along yet. She'd let me know as soon as she had more information. I thanked her and hung up.

The next phone call was from my niece, Annah (a different niece). She had a really good idea. Since I would be driving to Chattanooga later this week anyway, why not offer to just pick the boxes up on the way? Well, a few hours out of the way.

So I called Leigh back. If the trucking was going to cost an arm and a leg, could I just drive up there and get it?

Well, maybe. But since the boxes hadn't cleared Customs yet, and depending on the placement of the Customs offices at the airport, there might be problems with getting me through security. She'd let me know.

So here I sit, wondering what new situation we may find ourselves facing by tomorrow, and trying to decide whether to be angry (no, not really) or frustrated (well, yes, a little) or mostly just highly entertained (yup, that's the one). Because I'll say one thing about this job I've pledged my heart to: It's never, ever boring. Nor does it show any signs of becoming so any time soon. And as someone who has a very low tolerance for boredom, that makes it a very good fit for me in many ways.

There is so much I don't understand about West Africa; so much I don't know and probably never will. But I have learned this much in these last few years about myself and Ghana and how the two of us do together, and this makes me feel competent to advise you this far: If you're someone who requires high levels of certainty and efficiency and organization to feel comfortable and right with the world, then West Africa is probably not going to be your favorite place on the globe, nor is doing business there likely to be your dream job. But if you kind of like being kept off-kilter; if you enjoy the suspense of never knowing what's going to happen next or what kinds of challenges are going to arise out of thin air several times a day; if you love surprises and don't mind being constantly jerked out of your comfort zone and having your perspective challenged on an hourly basis--well then, Ghana might be just the right place for you. It is for me. It keeps me on my toes. It forces me to engage, to dig deep for strength and tolerance, to wrench apart the confines of a viewpoint that otherwise tends to keep narrowing and narrowing and narrowing.

Ghana keeps me vital. I wouldn't trade it for the rest of the whole wide world.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

The Great Shipping Dilemma of 2008...and 2009...and 20010...and 2011....

I'm taking a break from chronicling SoS's history to write about what's top-most on my mind right now: i.e. trans-Atlantic shipping. Shipping has been our very own, much-unbeloved bugbear since it first dawned on me (after losing four out of the first four things I tried to send to Ghana by regular post) that there might be just a tiny smidgen of corruption among the bureaucrats in the Ghanaian postal service. It was either accept that possibility or try to convince myself of a level of inefficiency that was beyond my ability to imagine, having experienced first-hand the intelligence and resourcefulness of the average Ghanaian.

So, heaving a sigh laden with disappointment at the nature of human creatures whose lives, psyches and moral underpinnings, admittedly, I can't even begin to see into, I started looking for alternatives. The shipping forwarders I contacted on this side of the ocean tended to lose interest very quickly once they understood that I was talking about a fifteen-pound box here and a twenty-pound box there. Not worth their time. Their advice was unanimous: "FedEx it."

So the next time I had scraped together enough money to buy fifteen pounds or so of combined stringing wire, sterling wire, crimp beads, etc. that I needed to send across the Atlantic to Bernard and the SoS artisans, I lugged it all down to Kinko's, spent twenty minutes stuffing it into one of their FedEx-sanctioned boxes, and then popped out my shiny new Soul of Somanya, Inc. debit card, hoping the charges wouldn't be too much over the $150.00 or so that I had allotted for this expense.

$416.37 later, I took my depressed self to the nearest Starbuck's for a mega-hit of restorative caffeine. Four-hundred-and-sixteen-dollars-and-thirty-seven-cents! That was only a little less than the value of the box's contents! There had to be a better way.

I spent large chunks of the next four months or so on the phone with every missionary, businessman, tourist, and student I could get a lead on, hoping to set up a network of couriers that could all help each other by carrying things back and forth whenever they came and went. But no dice. To my surprise (given our post-9/11 consciousness), I encountered no suspicions that I might have nefarious motives. The central issue seemed to be that all of those travelers were already carrying everything they could manage to muscle on and off their planes in furtherance of their own specific purposes. And when I thought of my own memorable wrestling matches with multiple suitcases upon landing in Accra, jet-lagged, sleep-deprived, and grumpily aware of the wonders of air-conditioning due to its absence in the airport, I could hardly blame them.

So, with much gnashing of teeth and straining of budgets (not to mention the repetitive importuning of certain amazing friends who, I'm relieved to say, still seem to love me despite all my fears that they would come to believe I only loved them for their money-lending capacities), SoS took FedEx to its bosom and yielded to what seemed to be the inevitable, at least in terms of outbound packages.

As for inbound shipments, the news was better. When I was in Ghana the first time, I'd had the opportunity to speak with a Peace Corps worker who was helping a wonderful organization called the Global Mamas, located in Odumasse, which butts right up against Somanya. She told me about an African art and craft importer in Pennsylvania, Jasperdean Kobes, owner of Bamboula, Ltd. Also formerly a Peace Corps worker, Jasperdean was all too aware of the problems small Ghanaian producers have getting their goods to the U.S. Better yet, she had been known to allow some of them to piggyback their little shipments on her larger ones, thereby raising the poundage of the shipments and lowering the price per pound for everyone involved. So I called her, and I didn't even have to ask--she offered. She has been a huge help to us. In general, we can ship 50 pounds or so of beads and jewelry inbound with her for about what we pay for 15 pounds of supplies outbound via FedEx. Still pretty challenging at times, but a huge improvement.

The even better news is that, no matter what method we use to import beads and jewelry,  we don't have to pay duty on it, either when leaving Ghana or arriving in the U.S. If I understand correctly, handicrafts from West Africa fall under an exception designed as a trade incentive, but don't quote me on that. Whatever the reason, we're grateful.

Still, timing has sometimes been a problem. Jasperdean's schedule doesn't always synchronize with our needs and resources. There have been times when we were experiencing a lean period right when we would have been needing to buy beads to fill up boxes to ship with her goods, so we had to take a pass. Then we'd find ourselves running out of essentials before her next shipment was ready to depart from Ghana. More than once, I've had to put Bernard in untenable positions, forcing him to seek credit (an extremely rare commodity in rural Ghana) with beadmakers and/or bead sellers in order to meet shipment deadlines. And more than once we have been unable to pay off those bead bills as quickly as we (and, I'm sure, they) would have liked, which I'm sure has contributed to the stress in his life. It's a tribute to his apparently unshakable patience with me that he has never once complained.

Anyway, right now we are, for the first time, doing an air shipment on our own directly from Tema to Mobile. It was crucial, lest we run out of goods to sell. But dumb luck stood me in good stead this time when, after several unsatisfactory attempts to find a more or less local Customs broker/freight forwarder who would be willing to handle such a small quantity of goods, and who would be willing to answer the many pesky questions that have been plaguing me for three years, I stumbled on two earthly angels, Sandra Lockwood and Leigh Daves of W.R. Zanes & Co. (which actually has a presence right here in Mobile!). For the second time in our history (the first was Jasperdean), my questions about shipping were treated as reasonable, and the modest size of our intended shipment (just two 50-pound boxes) didn't bring on a sudden shutting down of interest and eagerness to help. Twenty minutes later, I knew what--and whom--we would be dealing with, how much all the various fees would be (with no nasty, last-minute surprises waiting in the wings), why each fee was being levied, and exactly what I would need to do once the shipment had landed on U.S. soil.

So Bernard will be going to our shipper in Tema tomorrow, who will shepherd our boxes through the red tape on that side of the ocean. And then, with luck, those boxes will be airborne within a couple of days.

Of course, that may not happen. Air freight coming from Ghana takes second place to travelers' luggage, so if the hold gets filled up with suitcases, our boxes wait until the next flight out. And this scenario could recur any number of times before space on some flight or other opens up for them. I'm not sure, but I think that this is the reason we've had shipments arrive some five or six weeks later than expected in the past. Precious little happens quickly in Africa. But then, being on "Africa time" is one of the things I love about being in Africa. It's all a matter of adjusting one's expectations. And why are we in such a hurry about everything anyway? What doesn't get done today will get done tomorrow...or next week...or next month....

I can't wait to go back.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Living the Life…Sort Of


I had been told before coming to West Africa that Ghana has no middle class; that its people are either ostentatiously rich or living at a bare subsistence level. But Megan and I became aware very quickly that our host family was more comfortably situated than most Somanyans. For example, they had a wall surrounding their “compound;” a wall that was topped by jagged shards of glass. We reasoned, correctly as it turned out, that one would hardly bother to protect one’s home from thieves unless it contained things worth stealing. In addition, the compound held not one but two houses, both of them well-built and in reasonably good condition. This, by itself, put them a few levels above the average citizen. Eventually we would learn that both the mother and the father owned popular shops in town.

Don’t get me wrong—these people were not living a life of luxury. They had no dishwasher or laundry facilities or vacuum cleaner or air-conditioner. They had no computers or iPhones or microwave ovens. They didn’t even have a car. The main house had running water only once or twice a week for an hour or two at a time, though this, I gathered, was not due to their inability to pay for it, but to the town’s rationing of water from the local reservoir.

The parents did, I think, have a television, and I believe they had a small refrigerator as well. Food was varied and plentiful, though I’m pretty sure some of this bounty was available mostly for our benefit. In fact, after we left our table one evening, I happened to look back to see the three nieces racing each other for the few fried plantains we’d left on our plates. After that, we began leaving choice tidbits for them on purpose.

But if feeding us was a burden—and surely it must have been—we were never allowed to feel it. I imagine that the mention of such a subject within our hearing was forbidden by their rules of hospitality, just as it would be by ours. But when I went to the mother one day holding out an offering of cash to offset the extra expense we were causing, it became clear that our customs on some points of hospitality were very different indeed. She threw her hands up, palms towards me, in a warding-off gesture, physically backing away from me and saying, “No! No! No!” with a look of absolute horror on her face. It was obvious that my gesture, which would have been positively expected in a similar situation in the U.S., was downright offensive here. However, she quickly forgave me, graciously making allowances for my ignorance, and it was afterwards decided that I could bring occasional gifts of food, perhaps a fresh fish, or some uncommon little treat—just not money. So I made it my business to discover their likes and dislikes and, learning that the father had a sweet tooth, I began presenting them with jams and preserves that I could buy at the little local import store.

Megan and I, along with Bernard and one of the sons of the house, occupied the secondary building in the compound. While it, too, had faucets and even (miracle of miracles) a flush toilet, it received no running water at all. We bathed from a bucket of cold water every day for the five weeks we were there, an experience that I actually came to enjoy…eventually. It took some work, but I gradually taught myself to experience this morning ritual as refreshing. Who wants a hot shower in near-100-degree temperatures anyway?

The flush toilet, on the other hand, was immediately appreciated by us as the rare luxury it was, despite the fact that someone had to draw water from the well and lug it around the building and into the bathroom to pour it into the tank before that useful appliance could actually be flushed. Not me, since no one allowed me to lift a finger to do anything even remotely resembling work the entire time I was there, except for teaching. I learned later that this courtesy was only partly because I was a guest in the house, and partly because I was “so old.” (I was fifty-five at the time.) Age, it seems, commands great respect in Ghana, where every well-brought-up child is taught to wait on and obey his or her elders—even an elder sibling. This last led to our witnessing the youngest of the three nieces being soundly switched by the mother for having sassed her older sister. When Megan and I couldn’t quite suppress our dismay, the oldest son, noticing our expressions, hastened to justify it as an important and necessary life lesson.

The three young girls of the household were very curious about us. Too shy to try to talk to us at first, they would come to our window when we were in our room and look in, trying, I think, to see what our underwear was like. They were aided in this by the fact that the curtain was only about four-fifths as wide as the window itself, so that there was always a gap at one side or the other. (Privacy is not a high priority in rural Ghana.) The mother, and also the young men (who were always scrupulously careful to keep their eyes from straying in the direction of our room), repeatedly shooed them away, but they would come back whenever they thought no one was looking. We learned to laugh and accept their interest as a friendly one. Later, they began coming to us on our porch once their evening chores were done, practicing their bits of English and asking us to find them rich American husbands and to bring them pretty underwear and cell phones the next time we came.

This, in a nutshell, was our domestic situation for the five weeks we were in Somanya. I’d like to be able to say that we lived as most of the people there lived, but I know this isn’t true. Between our host family’s endless generosity and our own limited but adequate resources, we wanted for nothing important. But even if we had lived as most Ghanaian families live, with hard choices to be made on a daily basis between basics that we, as Americans, consider absolutely necessities, we could never have experienced life as the people there do. After all, we would be leaving soon. And we had options that the average Ghanaian, with little education and less financial capital, does not. As a white, middle-class American, I will never be able to fully understand how it feels to have lived life at a subsistence level from birth, or to continue living it with no reasonable hope of any significant change.

Still, I am so grateful for having had the chance to experience from the inside at least a little of what life is like in a Ghanaian family. It was an amazing gift. I will always treasure the memories and the friendships we formed there. And I will always be sad that later events complicated those friendships and made me uncertain of my welcome in that family. But I was to find that, for all its appearance of simplicity, life in rural Ghana can be a complex and baffling thing, one that is, and probably always will be, indecipherable to an outsider such as myself.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Our Host Household

On my first trip to Ghana—that was in November of 2007—my niece Megan and I had the rare privilege of living with a Somanya family. It was the family of the young man who had originally issued the invitation for me to come there and teach, and his relatives were absolutely wonderful to us—friendly, welcoming, hospitable, and generous to a fault. Out of respect for them, I am going to withhold family pictures and names, and also be a bit vague about the young man himself. Suffice it to say that he and I had ethical differences, and that we eventually went our separate ways. This has in no way diminished the love and gratitude I feel for his family.

The household consisted of a mother and father, two grown sons and three teenaged nieces. The mother was raising the nieces for her brother, teaching them the skills they would be expected to know when they themselves became wives and mothers. Arkuh Bernard Tettey (at right), who would later become such an important part of my life, was a nephew and cousin of the family, and was also living with them at that time.

In addition to these eight humans (ten including us), the buildings inside our compound housed some twelve goats, two cats, six roosters, numerous chickens and two dogs, all of whom held down important jobs. In fact, nearly all animals in Ghana have jobs—very few families there can afford to feed an animal that is not earning its keep. Typically, such useless creatures end up in the dinner pot, whether they be bovine, canine, or even feline. (Many Ghanaians eschew these last two; but there is a traditional belief among some that those who eat a cat’s head and then go to a foreign country will not die until returning back home to Ghana.)

Ghana’s more fortunate goats supply milk and wool—at least, I’m assuming they do. I never actually saw either being harvested. The less fortunate ones become tasty ingredients in the various stews that are the mainstay of the Ghanaian diet. The goats in our compound were also the last line of defense against garbage, of which, consequently, there was almost none. In fact, the garbage can for the entire family plus the two of us was a bucket about the size of the waste-basket I had in my bedroom as a child. Even more impressive was the fact that it only needed to be taken out once every few days. Precious little gets wasted in West Africa. Things get used and reused until they are useless, and then they are turned into something else. This high ecological standard plunged me into a state of shame that still sends me into a heightened frenzy of reusing and recycling each time I return home.

But getting back to the goats, we mostly saw them when they were let loose to practice their skills as garbage disposal units. Later in the evening we would hear them being herded back into their shed by the girls, who uttered little grunts that sounded like, “Ungkh! Ungkh!” to keep them moving along.

The cats, on the other hand, roamed freely at all hours. This freedom was a professional necessity, since they were both pursuing successful careers in pest control. They must have been well-trained, too, because I never saw so much as a mouse-dropping the whole time I was there. Both cats were also moonlighting as waste management technicians by snapping up the bones and other tidbits of food that we humans flicked onto the ground as we ate under the open skies.

The chickens, I imagine, offered up their feathers at some point, though I never actually witnessed the process. But they were most notable for the success of their egg factory, the products of which Megan and I were the grateful beneficiaries most mornings, since the mother of the house was tireless in her efforts to find things we liked to eat, and had discovered early on that we both liked scrambled eggs. The chickens sometimes turned up in the various stews we were served as well.

I wish I could say that the same was true for the roosters, who didn’t seem to serve any useful purpose at all. They didn’t even function as efficient alarm clocks, erupting instead with their indescribably loud and obnoxious crowing at random times throughout the night. This cacophony inevitably inspired the dogs to begin howling, which created a combined chorus that sounded disturbingly like young children screaming in terror and enraged rhinoceri bellowing in excruciating pain. It took some getting used to.

We never actually met the dogs, since their job description dictated that they snarl and snap at any non-family member who had the audacity to enter their compound. It mattered not a bit that we were invited guests—we were told that they would attack us if they got the chance. Consequently, they were only allowed to patrol and stand sentry outside their pen late at night, when we were safely tucked away in our room. If we ventured into the courtyard, they were likely to assume that we were nefarious strangers who had somehow breached the compound wall.

To be continued....

Thursday, July 7, 2011

How It All Began

It's hard to pinpoint the beginning of something that never would have happened at all if so many other things hadn't occurred earlier to lay the groundwork for it. For example, my sister Carol and I taught ourselves to crochet when I was twelve. If we hadn't, I never would have begun publishing crochet designs some twenty-five years later. And if I'd never done that, I might never have thought to start publishing my jewelry designs ten years after that. Consequently, the issue of Bead & Button Magazine that somehow found its way into the little town of Somanya in the Krobo region of Ghana wouldn't have had one of my designs in it, and the email inviting me to come and teach jewelry-making to a group of Krobo beadmakers would never have been extended.

So maybe it all started when I was twelve...or even younger. (That's me on the right.)

But I'm not going to take you through every little butterfly's wing-flap that may or may not have started the train of events that eventually landed me and my 22-year-old niece in a rattletrap Ghanaian taxi, at the mercy of the group of young male strangers who had met us at the airport, queasy from our anti-
malarial meds, dazed with jet-lag, sweating like piglets, and (in my case at least) utterly devastated by the non-stop bombardment of nightmare images coming through our windshield like some streaming, sense-surround video depicting a level of poverty I never in a thousand years could have believed possible without seeing it for myself.

Yes, I'd viewed my share of disturbing photographs before coming. But let me tell you something very clearly right now: PICTURES DON'T GET IT. Pictures give you little isolated glimpses of a broken-down building here, a muddy hovel there; of one distended belly on one single, unfortunate child. What they don't give you is the panoramic view. It's not like here in the States, where poverty exists mostly in pockets, in distant rural areas or in certain urban neighborhoods that are sandwiched between thicker slices of affluent, or at least comfortably-off, communities. In West Africa, with the exception of a few pockets of ostentatious wealth where rolls of barbed wire top the walls surrounding every home, the poverty is everywhere, with no relief in sight. For first-time visitors, it can feel like an unbroken flow of images specifically designed to break your heart into tiny, unrecoverable pieces. I was swamped with a depth of pity that I was afraid would drown me and render me unable to do what I had come to do.

But these first reflections were quickly followed by a sense of shame. How could I be worried about how I was feeling when I only had to look at the poverty? These people had to live it! How self-absorbed could I possibly be? But the bottom line is this: If you have a heart, seeing for the first time how the people of West Africa live is going to make it ache for them.

The good news is that these early sensations and impressions tend to pass very quickly. Even on that first day, I was aware that, mixed in with the shabbiness and grime and tattered (though wonderfully colorful) clothing was a cheerful bustle and a vivacity of spirit that seemed entirely at odds with the
setting--a setting I would have sworn could produce nothing but abject misery. But the really big revelation came on my fourth day in Somanya when I was walking down that same main street that had so horrified me when we first drove into town, and I realized that a part of my brain was thinking, "This is the most charming place I've ever been."

WHAT? As the thought arose, I did a physical double-take, looking carefully around me. Had something changed? No, it was the same little pot-holed street, lined on both sides with open sewers and the drab, tumbledown shacks that serve as shops.

Well then, what?

The answer, of course, was that my perspective had shifted. And the answer to the question of why this had happened wasn't long in coming. Having spent those few days around the people of Somanya, and having experienced the cheerfulness--even joyfulness--with which they approach life, my view of the town had done a thorough one-eighty. Gone was my assumption of widespread misery, and with it the pity I had felt for 
these people. And gone was my dismay at the town's slapped-together dreariness. Now I saw Somanya as glowing brightly in the sunshine, admirable in its prac-ticality, endearing in its simplicity, and vivid with colorfully-garbed people who formed an ever-shifting kaleidoscope's view as they made their

way to market. The town had become a lively place for me, a place of friendliness and good cheer; a place where each day is lived fully, with great enjoyment, and at a pace that allows for an appreciation of life's many small pleasures.

In that moment, I was aware that I had received a great gift: My impaired vision had been healed, almost overnight. Later, I would make adjustments here and there to my new perspective on life in Kroboland. But for now, there was one thing I knew with great certainty. I had come home.

The View from Krobo Mountain