“You speak like us”

It’s funny how different words or configurations of such can pinpoint your geography faster than lo-jack on a stolen Honda Civic.  Clothing, hair, eye, or skin color can always be deceiving, but an accent and word choice rarely are. As an undergrad in sociology we defined the ability to transition between cultures and languages as social capital, and similar to other forms of capital, it can be used to your advantage. Nailing an audition or interview, chatting at a cocktail or tailgate party, even ordering a 4×4 animal style, all boil down to one’s ability to speak well and blend in. This is my only hope in Ghana, where my skin, eyes, and hair add nothing to my conspicuousness. And sometimes I do ok, other times, not so hot.

There are certain words and sayings in Ghana that are unique but very helpful, a dictionary of which I’ve been meaning to write for a while now. If you’re going to pick some one up you simply say “I’ll pick you”, cutting out the unnecessary “up” which has always plagued the English language. If you want only a little of something, and really want to get your point across on the matter, add and extra small, or two or three. “Rice and chicken, stew small-small.”  And the piece de résistance of pigeon-British-Ghanaian-English, add “oh” before or after everything. “It ain’t easy, oh”, “Oh, traffic’s bad oh.” But the most useful and oft spoken term, “Oh, sorry.”

This may seem to be a small (small) thing, but it’s unique to Ghana, a well placed “oh” can cover a multitude of social sins; everything from cutting someone off in traffic to eating the last fried plantain. But the other day it was brought to my attention that I’ve officially started to sound Ghanaian. I was in line at a grocery store when I threw an elbow into some guy’s chest. I turned to apologize, “Oh, sorry”, then a polite wave of acknowledgement from the gentlemen I clotheslined. After a few minutes of awkward sideways glances the man politely leaned forward and said, “You sound like us.”

I apologized at first, remembering my Polynesian roommates venting about haoles trying to speak pigeon straight off the plane, but quickly adjusted when he seemed to be pleased. He then explained the difference between the American apology and the Ghanaian one. Apparently, at least according to my new friend, the American way is cold while the Ghanaian “oh” saves the day again, making this version a bit more personal and meaningful. So try it out next time you need to apologize, throw in an “oh” and see what happens! And in true Ghanaian style, this encounter was an omen of the week of compliments to come, some good, some…other.

The next day a man at church said I was very smart after a particularly pontifical comment I made. Then at an art market someone told me they liked my lifestyle because it was “easy.” But in a turn of, well sub-Saharan oddity, a 12-year-old student in a remote village told me I had “diseased pig skin”. This all occurred after a class of students took turns petting my newly bleached arm hair and pointing at my freckles. The brave boy in question pulled at my exposed calf hair and then gave me a hearty smack before uttering perhaps the weirdest comment I’ve ever heard. “Pig skin huh? Pig skin?” I shouted as I chased him around the classroom, pushing chairs and pupils out of my way as they squealed and snorted, a pudgy little snout appearing on my mind’s self portrait. Soon my American couch-potato body gave out and I left the class, still giggling and clapping at the odd Obruni encounter. I’m still uncertain whether I have pig skin or not, and if I do, what disease it has. I guess I’ll never know, oh.

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“Huge Offense!”

To say I am leery of conflict would be an understatement on scale with calling a blue whale just a big fish. I shudder at the thought of confronting people, choosing instead to live the life of a habitual passive aggressive, quietly hashing out one-sided arguments in my mind for grievances big and small. But I’ve found this tendency slowly slipping away the longer I stay in Ghana, where timidity gets you trampled on, sometimes literally.

One of the catalysts behind my callousing towards confrontation is driving. In the land of tro-tros and taxis, moving like a slogan-clad school of tuna, traffic in Ghana is interesting to say the least, stroke-inducing at its worst. But more than the anticipation of an impending impact, the ever-present police force a tough upper lip. Give me your license. Where is your safety triangle? Fire extinguisher? First aid kit? Reflective stickers? Mother’s maiden name? Middle school GPA? Favorite color? The questions and demands would be comical if they weren’t so frustrating and frequent. And they always end with the same thing; “This is a HUGE OFFENSE!” Then the officer joins your car and you drive slowly towards the police station while he builds up the immensity of your false infractions. Luckily for you his merciful character wins out and he offers you an escape. “You don’t want to go to court do you? So what can we do?” This is perhaps the only part that is fun in the most infinitesimal, most perverse, sense of the word. Maybe it’s my shopping addiction, my love of the bargain. Maybe it’s the fun that ensues when a group of Obrunis are together and you compare how much you got off with for your own huge offense. But the bartering for your freedom that occurs on your way to impending doom is somewhat cathartic.

Thursday’s encounter with the benevolent badge was no different. I guess colors are different in Ghana, or maybe it was a language thing, but the red light I blew through looked an awful lot like green to me. But you’ll be happy to know I purchased my freedom for 48 Ghana Cedis (about $25) and I got to keep my mangoes, which was my first counter to the officer’s bid for 400 Ghana Cedis. I thought two mangoes was a good counter, which if you’ve ever had a one I think you’d agree.

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“Nkawkaw revisited” 

City names in Ghana seem to be thrown together after a drunken rummage through Scrabble tiles; Mawuabammu, Kwadwondromkurum, Kafordzidzi are just a couple of these foreign-sounding lip-contorting locales. But few names in Ghana tickle my verbiage fancy like Nkawkaw (En-Coco), and after my most recent trip there I have a newfound love for more than just the name. And in the coming months three of the most remote villages near this triple score town will get electricity-generating merry-go-rounds and a much brighter future.

Driving through what must have been the set of Avatar, the picturesque vistas and goliath trees are accentuated by busy farmers transporting their labors from farm to market via whatever means available. Bananas by the thousands, corn, mangoes, and other jungle delectables trot down the road, flaunting their sweetness. Villagers stand at the road’s edge, barely out of tires reach, waving hands and wearing grins, shouting “Obruni!” as we pass.

These are the days I love! When I’m trapped in Accra, siting at my desk, going through papers, or waiting in offices, I yearn for the village feel, eager to get back to where I feel I should be while in Ghana. And each time I escape the pothole-riddled asphalt jungle I am rewarded handsomely, usually only figuratively. But today it was of the very edible kind. Isaac and I were in the area hunting for schools where we could install our electricity-generating merry-go-rounds, and with the help of a guide named Mr. Danso, we made our way out to this secluded enclave of rural beauty to find school after school which stand in great need of help. It seemed that down every road there was a tiny termite clay building with no doors or windows, only desks and eyes, soaking up their chalk-drawn lessons for the day. After visiting four such places I was feeling overwhelmed by how deprived this area was, but at the same time recharged by the unadulterated joy of the locals.

When we took a noontime break, Isaac and I walked around to find a snack, boiled corn. Finding a bench, we sat down to eat but were soon whisked indoors where fufu and fish soup had been prepared for us much to my chagrin. Isaac quickly explained that we didn’t eat fufu this early in the day, we preferred it for dinner and while we were very flattered we’d have to decline. So the fufu threat left the table, but the soup and fish sat there starring at us, the soup fumes already burning my eyes. I could see there was no getting out of this one, I had to just grit my teeth and hope there was enough Imodium on hand once I got back home.

After (mostly) finishing my fiery fish concoction, we loaded back in the truck, which was now also loaded down with bananas, pineapples, and avocados, and set out to visit a few more schools before heading back to the hustle and havoc of Accra. All in all we found three schools that we will install systems at this year, one of which will be next month in partnership with the Forever Young Foundation. Floating home through city traffic, and then off to sleep, I could feel my batteries recharged. My tolerance for waiting in offices, siting at my desk, and shuffle papers was increased because I got another look at why I do it.

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“We are (not) fine.”

A sea of orange and brown uniforms, some with little ties, others with skirts, stand to greet us. “You are welcome.” “Good morning” Jen and I retort, “a very fine morning” they reply. “How are you?” we ask. “We are fine. Thank you. And you?” “We are also fine, thank you.” This is the daily routine while visiting classrooms across Ghana, some more structured and rigid than others, but all in the same vein. To this point these rote greetings have been comical and comfortable, predictable in a place where the familiar is yearned for and rarely found. It always seems to typify the determined demeanor of this place, where faith is strong despite of, or maybe because of, the many roadblocks that inhibit progress. But recently this routine personified the hardships and steep climbs many of the students of Ghana face, often unabated and unnoticed.

My name is Gabriel

I am 18 years old I am in primary 6

I live alone here

My parents left me 3 years ago

Behind the bright eyes and contagious smile of this 6th grader lies a very difficult life. “On weekends I go to the quarry and crack stone, cut sticks for charcoal, work in people’s farms…I send the money to my family to add to what they make…my siblings are hurting for books.” It’s a story too often heard and too hard to listen to. How can this young man hide his afflictions behind that smile? As I’m recording his story I wonder how often anyone asks him about his life, his aspirations, struggles, thoughts, dreams. I’m happy to hear about the teacher who watches out for him, providing him with the parental care so crucial to childhood and yet so absent here. But that just doesn’t seem like enough.

These are the days that are hard to take in Ghana. It’s not the frequent power outages, the days without running water, or the oppressive heat that make this place so draining. It’s the stories of people who refuse to despair despite their countless reasons. It’s the perspective that comes with lightning speed and thunderous force after realizing just how easy my life really is. These are the experiences that zap you of emotion and energy, all while inspiring you to work that much harder to do something about the hardships you see. I am not fine with how things are in Ghana, and I am not fine sitting around doing nothing about it. 

Help children like Gabriel be more than just fine.

Donate to Empower Playgrounds Inc. 

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“It was the worst of times…”

I rolled over to look at my screaming phone, wiping away the fatigue of a long drive on a bumpy road. “Who’s calling me at 10:45?” I picked up the phone and heard a click of rejection, “guess I’ll never know.” Seeing the silver lining of my rude awakening, I seized the opportunity for a bathroom break. I tossed back the sheet and rolled my aching legs out of their cozy cocoon, quickly splashing into an inch of chilly water on my cool tile floor. Stumbling through the dark I soon discovered the culprit, a leaking toilet tank, and set about for a solution. A short trip downstairs to the reception desk revealed that I was alone in my plight. Crap. Back upstairs. Do I sacrifice the precious hotel towels? Do I wake up my fellow hotel patron below to see if they’re drowning in toilet water? Do I just go back to bed and pretend I was unaware of my now floating bed? One more trip downstairs, rattling doors to get the attention of the night guard and a mop, and 30 minutes of bailing out my respite from the road before returning to the relief of my bed. All in all, this night was a fair representation of the dawn it preceded; sort of an omen of things to come.

Let me put this disclaimer out there from the onset; I love Ghana, unconditionally and completely, as if it were my own offspring. But every once in a while I get a day that makes me question my unquestionable love for a place that makes you earn your grays. Thursday was one of those days of days, a stint of time when all was not well. Roads winded in directions other than those specified on the map. Potholes popped up unpredictably and far too frequently. Rain poured down as if it were a preventative strike against the fiery apocalypse, and the mud ran red like a B-rated horror flick. What was supposed to be a short drive from Cape Coast to Tarkwa turned into a diesel death-march and another night in a cheap roadside hotel.

The next day, however, was much better. Perhaps it’s because of the coma-like sleep I got that night, perhaps it was because of the ever-positive attitude of Jen, EPI intern extraordinaire. But I believe the real catalyst for the flight of my sour attitude was the long drive along the coast while returning to Accra. It reminded me of just how beautiful Ghana is, even with its apocalyptic rainstorms and Pinto-sized potholes. And once home, I reflected on the real reason I’m here. There is fun to be had, that’s for sure, but I’m here to work.

That work isn’t always fun,

but it’s always worth it!

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“There’s more to be seen than can ever be seen (still).”

There have been many revelatory experiences this time around in Ghana. Maybe it’s because I now have to drive and I feel closer to my maker as a result. Maybe it’s because I have to be more independent as Isaac and I split up and out across the country. Maybe it’s because I’m in an ever-shifting place where the only constant is faith and change. Either way, learning that I don’t know everything there is to know about Ghana.

My first lesson is that I’ve unnecessarily pigeonholed myself as an avid Coke* drinker, missing out on so many wonderful liquid refreshments I’ve recently discovered. Now this may come as a shock to some of you, but I, Chris Owen, am substantially cutting my Coke intake. It was a rare occasion when I would go a day without at least 2 cans of my artificially sweetened salvation syrup. But upon arriving back here in Ghana, and getting my first “Chris, you’ve gotten fat oh”, I decided something needed to change. And now that the twitches have subsided I’ve found my new addiction, Blue Skies pineapple and ginger juice. It is amazing on a hot day and for the afternoon slump when a little kick is required to finish out the day. The remarkable think about this juicy concoction is that it’s made local, sold almost everywhere, and only lasts for 4 days before going sour. Think Naked Juice, but in the jungle, with a monkey on your shoulder. It’s not for everyone, but hey, neither am I, so we’re a great fit. My second liquid discovery happened to be less appealing, much less tasteful, but still 100% Ghana.

To say that advertising in Ghana is still in its infancy is a gross understatement at best. And in much the same way a toddler stumbles around in search of equilibrium, it seems that most of the companies in Ghana are still searching for that sweet spot between informative and provocative messaging. Although after a few passes by this billboard I needed a drink to rinse the vomit taste out of my mouth. But it’s not just the water advertisements that induce nausea; my recent trip to Shai Hills Nature Reserve still has my stomach up in my throat and my knees shaking.

I promise I’m getting work done, really I am, but trips like this make it seem as though I’m doing a live version of the Jungle Book. Shai Hills Nature Reserve is only 50km from Accra, but a world away from the hustle and bustle of Ghana’s capital city. The ancient fortress of the Krobo people, these rock formations in the middle of the coastal plain are striking to say the least; and if the hike up doesn’t kill you the view from the top is equally so. Sprawling out to the west are the hills by Aburi, to the east the Volta River, and to the south a great expanse of farm lands all squared off as if they were a massive green checkerboard. Truly a once in a lifetime event, probably due to all those Cokes I still have floating around in me.(break)

 

* Coke= Southern reference to anything carbonated. In this case it refers to Coke, Diet Coke, Coke Light, Coke Zero, Pepsi, Diet Pepsi, and Pennzoil 5W30.

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“Party’s Over”

Banana splits, beachfront hotel rooms, feeding monkeys, waterfalls, and bumpy bus rides; so long yellow brick road. That’s right, the MPA party is over, now the work begins. But that’s ok; my work is mostly play anyway!

What I’ll miss about the MPA students being here was not the fun stuff we did or all I learned about my classmates; it was showing the Ghana I love to a new pair of eyes. Luckily that’s something I get to do fairly frequently while working too. And the first chance I got was the day after the students left, and it was with a new friend Sue who I met at JFK in February. We were both waiting to board flight 26 to Accra, we started talking about what the other was doing in Ghana, exchanged cards and went to our separate isle seats to wait out the 11-hour puddle jump. This is kind of a frequent occurrence when I fly to Ghana, maybe it’s my inner four-year-old, but I am always intrigued by what people are going to Ghana for. In Sue’s case it was a holiday with some friends. Fast-forward to April, a few phone calls and emails later, and Sue is back in Ghana looking at one of EPI’s electricity-generating merry-go-rounds for a school she fell in love with while here last. So to begin the working part of this Ghana trip, we took Sue and a friend out to Attabui to see the school and play around.

Our next trip was out to Abomosu to visit the installations we did in February with World Joy and Viridian. This project was somewhat different than our usual installations, and the first time we have worked with something other than a school, but so far it has been a big success! These four projects were made possible by Viridian, a green energy company based in the US, who rewards their top employees each year with a humanitarian trip to another continent in a program they named 7 Continents in 7 Years. Thanks to their generosity, and the local know-how of World Joy, 400 students now have access to light for nighttime studies and reading, locals are able to check out a book as well as a lantern from the library, and life-saving medicines are kept refrigerated and accessible to those in need. Did I mention how much I love my job yet?

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