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