August 4, 2006
The first rule of blogs is keep it fresh, which I haven't done for a year.
But people are still visiting this blog, so thought I'd update it with a link to my story on Ghana's Fridaywear, which aired on great the PBS show "Foreign Exchange with Fareed Zakaria".
Meanwhile, one of my Ghanaian friends, Helena Cobbinah, has been in Sudan for much of the past year, as part of the African Union's peacekeeping force in Darfur and now in the southern regional capital. I'll post photos of that as soon as I figure that out.
Posted by Cathryn Poff at 1:53 PM
June 22, 2005
West Africa update from California
Working on the post-production elements of my reporting from Ghana has been one huge, never-ending learning curve. With tons of mini-dv tapes and no production equipment of my own, I've had to rely on friends and colleagues to help me every step of the way. They've all been incredibly generous of their resources and time, and they remind me how lucky I am to be in the good graces of so many phenomenal people.
I've learned the basics of editing digital files, both visual and audio, editing digital still photos, and, thanks to my Mac-fanatic colleague Dick Van Wie, I've learned at every juncture why Apples are the ONLY computers worth buying (of course I don't own one!).
Meanwhile, as I'm tangled up in technology here in on the edge of Silicon Valley, I read the news out of West Africa, and it is not good. The peacekeeping in and rebuilding of Liberia is lurching along in fits and starts. One of the many latest developments there is the proposal to transfer power from the transitional government to a 'trusteeship' of so-called 'international experts.' The idea apparently arose because of the high level of corruption in the current transitional government.
I do remember a meeting I had a few months ago in Washington with an international businessman, who said he believed the corruption in Gyude Bryant's transitional government was among the highest in Africa.
Liberia's elections are still scheduled for October, and I'm sure the Liberians in Buduburam, Ghana, are watching events there closely. Many of the Liberian refugees I met in Ghana were at once optimistic for their country and wary of believing it safe for return. Of course, many had returned in 1996 during a period of 'peace', only to flee again and lose more family members when the country imploded in another paroxysm of violence. If I was a refugee, I'd be waiting and assessing the situation before going back, too.
And then there's the disturbing news out of Niger, to the north, of a drought and food shortages. This strikes close to home for me, since I spent more than two years in Niger and consider my village there, Diomoga, as a second family of sorts. Niger was devastated in the late 1980s by a long and severe drought. The drought this year was coupled with a plague of locusts, further decimating the crops that are a struggle in the best years. While drought and food shortages are bad enough, what's worse is that a UN appeal for aid for Niger was reportedly not heeded by a single donor:
I suppose with so many appeals for aid from so many corners of Africa -- and around the globe -- there comes a point of no response. But to know how desperately on-the-edge Nigeriens live in the best of times, it's heartbreaking to think of more hardship piled on top of them.
Some of my fellow returned Peace Corps volunteers (or 'rpcvs') are organizing some money transfers over to our villages in Niger, to help in way we can most directly.
Posted by Cathryn Poff at 10:56 PM
April 19, 2005
Back in the good ol' USA
After an action-packed final week in Ghana, I sadly left my new friends and the fascinating country, and made the 20-hour trip home. Well, not quite home. I'm back in Washington, DC for a couple weeks to finish up my fellowship. At the moment, that pretty much means logging tons of tape.
I arrived here last week, thrilled to see that the bitter cold of February in Washington has been replaced by a city beautifully in springtime bloom, with fruit trees and dogwoods blossoming, and tulips and daffodils lining the streets. On the flip side, I'm in a sticker shock so extreme that my addiction to Starbucks chai tea might finally be broken.
The streets of DC are paved and clean, cars and busses and subways purr along efficiently, and people clad in business suits scurry along the wide, smooth sidwalks. It's comfortable, but I miss the vibrancy and raw life of Ghana. I met such a wonderful group of Ghanaians and foreigners, and I'm missing them already -- from my hosts Madame Cobbinah and Jerry & Catherine, Mahmoud, Jerome, Janet, to my cabana boys, Prince, Nat and Freeborn, my driver, Eric, my cameraman, Rahim, my journalist friends Kwasi, Colleen, Drake, Jaime, Bonnie, and Ato, and finally my many newfound friends in Buduburam, from Cephas to Samson to Miata and Miss Alice and Mr. Bah.
Ah well, more adventures lie ahead, hopefully ... and more West African days, inshallah.
April 10, 2005
It had been a whirlwind week with lots of filming and running around, but all was going well, more or less. And then one day I was boiling hot and just couldn't cool off. I looked around my taxi at my driver and crew and they all looked mildly warm, while I was drenched in sweat and about to collapse.
Since that day, I've been somewhat down for the count and having all sorts of wild feverish dreams that involved chickens walking upside down on the ceiling, the air-conditioner unleashing a tsunami in my bedroom, and gigantic cockroaches invading the house.
A bit frustrating, as I'm trying to wrap up here but had to postpone some things when I just couldn't get out of bed.
Today I'm back on my feet and looking ahead to two last hectic days in Ghana. I fly out on Tuesday evening.
I have so enjoyed being here, seeing a new part of West Africa and meeting some tremendous people. I've also hardly seen any of Ghana beyond Accra and Buduburam and the infernal road between the two, and I'm dying to see more. It'll be tough to board that plane on Tuesday.
I hope to post a couple more items here before I leave, so stay tuned.
April 6, 2005
As some may remember, on the plane to Accra last month, I happened to sit next to Ishmael, a young man who hailed from Buduburam.
The first time I went to Buduburam, I asked Alice Abraham, the director of the Libierian Refugee Welfare Council, if she could help me find Ishmael. He had given me his aunt's name and her neighborhood's zone number. Buduburam is a town of more than 40,000 people, and comprised of permanent cement buildings now, but there are no street names and no addresses.
Alice helped me find my way through the maze of narrow dirt streets and eventually to the house of Jackie, Ishmael's aunt. Ishmael was off in another town that day, but Jackie brought him to meet me the next time I was at Buduburam. I have checked in to say "hi" to quiet young Ishmael often when I've visited the settlement.
It turns out that his parents sent him here not on vacation, but for some discipline. He had apparently been getting into some trouble at home (Philadelphia). As I've learned, many young teenagers who migrate from here to the U.S. have some adjustment problems, and it is common for parents to send them back here for a year or two. Their parents are reportedly worried about their kids getting into trouble in the U.S. For recent immigrants, trouble with any sort of authority is something to be avoided at all costs. I remember happening upon this same phenomenon in American Samoa.
The last I saw Ishmael, he was soon going to be heading to a boarding school around Cape Coast. Boarding school is common here for Ghanaian kids, and I imagine Ishmael's parents are able to swing it and deem it a good option for him at this point.
He seems like a good kid, and I suppose that at 12 and 13 years old, the transition from Buduburam to Philadelphia may have been a bit baffling and rough.
Posted by Cathryn Poff at 1:50 PM
April 5, 2005
San Francisco in Accra
My taxi crawled through the afternoon traffic, windows rolled down all the way, the black and gray clouds of exhaust streaming in. I was hot and sweaty and dying for some sort of very cold refreshment. We were almost home. Then the Fan Milk man appeared and I leapt out of the cab.
Fan Milk is a local creation, and is frozen yogurt or soft ice cream sold in small plastic bags, sort of like well-branded water sachets. Fan Milk is sold mostly by young people on bikes with Fan Milk coolers attached to the handlebars. One Fan Milk packet is 2,500 cedi, or 30 cents.
As I tore into my icy Fan Milk, a parade of hundreds of boisterous young men took over the street. They were dressed in black and red, and they were walking, biking and riding on two huge flat-bed trucks. Nigerian crooner 2 Face's hit "African Queen" blared from speakers on the trucks.
And then I saw the men in dresses. Red dresses. Their hair done up in women's styles, they sashayed down the street waving. Other men had their jeans pulled down far enough to reveal red sequined thongs. I couldn't believe it.
Posted by Cathryn Poff at 2:25 PM
April 4, 2005
Flashing in Ghana
Some have predicted that as poor countries develop, they will leapfrog over several stages in the technological revolution. And so it is happening here in Ghana.
Cell phones are everywhere and being used in numbers that 'land-line' phones never were. In Accra, it seems everyone has a cell phone. Every taxi driver I've met has a cell phone, as does nearly every professional. And those who don't have their own cell phone often share one cell phone with their friends and family. Phone time is purchased on "snap" cards, which are sold at "snap" booths on every street. The usual card is 75,000 cedi for 256 units. Each unit is worth less than a minute, though I don't know their exact worth. I do know that my units seem to tick away with alarming speed.
The streets are dotted with "space to space" tables, usually a wooden table adorned with a cloth banner and an umbrella overhead. There are also zillions "communication centers", housed in and on everything from wooden tables to sizeable buildings. At these tables and booths and stores, people can pay a fee ("small-small money" in local lingo) to use a cell phone or land-line to make a phone call. The fee depends on the telecom network of the number you're calling. I think the "space to space" refers to calls made only on the Spacefon network, but I'm not sure.
The cell phone culture here confused me initially, but I'm gradually mastering the intricacies.
Posted by Cathryn Poff at 6:16 PM
April 2, 2005
No, it's not like a bikini wax... and it's nothing like a Brazilian wax. Dutch wax is the expensive version of colorful African cloth. If you've been in West Africa, you know "wax" fabric well. It's in every market and adorning many women and men, particularly at special occasions. "Wax" refers to the manufacturing process, not the texture of the fabric.
Yesterday Mr. Van Damme (unfortunately it wasn't Claude) gave me a tour of the Ghana Textile Printing (GTP) factory in Tema, where the Dutch set up business in 1966 to produce wax cloth. They don't let people in often, and definitely not cameras, and as we were walking through the factory filming, he murmured "We rarely do this".
"I know," I replied. "Why now?"
"I don't know!"
We laughed, and I think he figured he was too far in to have second thoughts, so we proceeded with the tour.
We weren't allowed to film certain parts of the fabric waxing and dyeing process, because there are apparently proprietary techniques involved.
I've bought my share of wax fabric in Africa, but until my tour, I didn't have any inkling of how labor-intensive it is to produce it.
March 30, 2005
Nearly anywhere you go in Ghana, you can find someone selling water in small clear plastic bags, called "sachets". The plastic bags are presumably cheaper to produce than bottles, and maybe easier to transport in bulk, and they retail at a fraction of a cent.
Stop at a traffic light at any major intersection in Accra, and hawkers will walk up to your car, with huge bowls perched on top of their heads filled with water sachets. (The throngs of hawkers at these intersections sell nearly everything but the kitchen sink).
Typically I buy bottles of Voltic water, produced somewhere up near Lake Volta. But in a pinch, I'll buy a sachet.
March 29, 2005
I've had a lifelong love affair with snacks. Snacking to me is as vital as breathing oxygen. As my sister and brothers will attest, I panic if I sense there are no snacks within a ten-minute radius of wherever I am.
So it's natural that since I first set foot on African soil so many years ago, I have loved West African snacks.
In Niger, I adored beignets, farine masas, grilled taro root dipped in ground piment, sweet dates, kooli-kooli ground peanut chunks, and Lebanese frozen chocolate bars. In Ghana, I've learned to crave what I initially thought were inferior snacks. Here, plantains are King Snack, and pretty much the only snack. Everywhere you go there are plantains. Fried whole plantains. Grilled plantain halves. Thinly shaved fried plantain slices. Tidy round plantain chips. Baked plantain slivers. Whatever snack is available, it seems to almost always be based on the plantain.
Once in a while, a young boy or girl walks by with a load of fried taro root chips on their head, and I eagerly snap up baggies full of the salty white and purple chips.
I recently found myself waxing poetic with a Togolese chef about the crispy sugar-dipped beignets and piment-laced corn fritters of our neighboring francophone countries... I think I may be overdue for a day-trip to Lome, Togo, for some serious snacking.
March 28, 2005
A seemingly ominous phrase that visitors to Africa soon discover is benign is "the dead man's market." These are the markets selling cast-off clothing from North America and Europe, and they blanket the African continent. It's often startling to be in a little bush village and see someone wearing a T-shirt proclaiming "I Got Lei'd in Maui" or "Kel's Irish Pub Rocks!".
Here in Ghana they call the used-clothing markets "obruni waawu", literally "a foreigner has died." The used western clothing is affordable for the poor, and considered fashionable by the hip. Ghana imports more used clothing than any other African country, running a clothing and fabric trade deficit of nearly forty million dollars a year.
The clothing arrives in huge plastic sacks bound with thick metal bands. It's amazing to watch someone open a bundle, and see the layers and layers of tightly packed clothes burst out. I have no idea how they get so much compressed into one bundle -- it's like they use a giant Ronco vacuum-seal device from the TV infomercials (hello, KRON-4?!).
March 27, 2005
The text message beeped onto my cell phone last night: "Beach tomorrow. Meet at Vasili's Cafe 9am."
And so with that high-tech missive from the Canadians, I found myself spending Easter Sunday in expatriate comfort at White Sands Beach, an hour west of Accra and just off the Cape Coast road.
Breakfast in Accra was chocolate croissants and tea at Vasili's, where even a Catholic priest in his white robe and pink sash stopped by for morning sustenance. Then into the air-conditioned SUV of Mustapha, a young Lebanese friend of my Canadian friends. He plugged his iPod into the car stereo, set it to 'shuffle' and off we went.
March 26, 2005
The Ice Man
Iso Paelay is the thirtysomething host of a popular music entertainment show Thursday nights on Ghana's TV3. Stage-named "Ice Baby" or "Ice Man", Iso interviews local personalities, spins records and generally holds forth with great energy and charisma.
But it's an accident that Iso is here in Ghana at all.
With a Liberian mother and Sierra Leonean father, Iso ("ICE-oh") grew up in Liberia until civil war broke out, then fled to Sierra Leone. When that country dissolved into its own civil war, Iso bounced among refugee camps in the two countries. He eventually made his way to Ghana, where he was able to bootstrap a life.
As I hung out with him the other night, it struck me that he is just one of hundreds of thousands of young West Africans whose lives have been spent in chronic limbo, fleeing from one war only to have to flee another, losing contact with their families and making their way as best they can.
For men like Iso, fleeing war meant not only not being murdered, but not being abducted into one of the militaries and forced into killing. For women who escaped wars so gruesome they defy explanation, the best case scenarios have often been brutal. Rape was all too common. Prostitution and HIV are prevalent, and teenage motherhood is a not-so-bad outcome.
By all standards, Iso is a success here. But he told me he doesn't feel he's accomplished much until he gets a college degree. He had just begun university in Liberia when Charles Taylor's rebels invaded from Cote d'Ivoire in 1989. Iso's career is hot here, but he's hoping to go to Corvallis, Oregon to study at Oregon State University, of all places. Strange to be here talking to an African war refugee and hear he's dreaming about my faraway home state.
There are so many youth of war who are now heading toward middle age with lives derailed, dreams still deferred, and families scattered across thousands of miles, if still alive at all.
March 25, 2005
It is believed that Christianity arrived on the Gold Coast (present day Ghana) with the first Portuguese settlers in the sixteenth century. Christian missionaries began streaming in during colonial times and the flood continues today. The majority of Ghanaians have embraced Christianity -- and how.
Religion is evident everywhere around me. The streets are littered with restaurants, shops and companies named with faith in mind. Some of my recent favorites include "Praise God Cell Phone Repair", "He Is Risen Chop Bar", "Shower of Blessings Boutique", "Faith Chemical Store", "God First Spare Parts", "By God's Power" medicine stand, and "The Finger of God Beauty Salon". When the business name is not a profession of faith, some add postscripts giving full credit to their higher power, as with the "Happy Home Fashion" shop.
City taxis and tro-tros (that's 'bush taxis' to my Niger friends) profess their faith on fenders and windows. "Well Done Jesus" is spelled out in adhesive letters on the back window of the taxi in front of me. "It's God!!!!!!" reads the front fender of a tro-tro bound for the coast. "It's a Miracle" proclaims the bumper of a tro-tro heading to Buduburam. (It usually IS a miracle that these tro-tros are moving).
While more than seventy percent of Ghanaians are Christian, according to the 2000 census, somewhere around twenty percent are Muslim. Most Muslims are in the north, but I have happened upon many stores here in the south named in praise of Allah.
Today, Good Friday, is a national holiday and the thousands and thousands of churches in Ghana are filled with worshippers. Even Mahmoud, a Muslim friend here, is heading to the mosque this morning for a special prayer session... Or maybe he just gets to go to the mosque for midday prayers since he has the day off. Unclear to me, as are so many things here.
March 24, 2005
It figures. The day I finally have an air-conditioned ride out to Buduburam, the refugee settlement, is the day the cool weather arrives.
"Cool" is a relative concept, of course. Yesterday morning dawned gray and menacing. A huge thunderstorm hit around nine in the morning, and the rest of the day was spent in the refreshing 80- to 85-degree range.
It was the first time on this trip that I haven't had to use my little sweat towel to wipe the dripping sweat from my face and neck throughout the day. Most Ghanaians carry small towels or big handkerchiefs for just this purpose. They're carried either in your pocket, handbag, or perched on your shoulder. One of my first days here, I bought mine from a street hawker while stuck in pollution-choked traffic near the Kaneshie market. It's a small towel somewhere between washcloth and hand towel size. It's a necessity, and at a price of 2,500 cedi (30 cents), it's one of my best investments so far.
March 22, 2005
Since I started using cybercafes in Ghana two weeks ago, spamming to my Yahoo! email account has increased more than fivefold. Coincidence?
Some Ghanaians warned me that no matter how much care I took, people would be peering over my shoulder at these places and noting down all my information. They blame it on Nigerians and Liberians. (There's a scapegoat for every situation, eh?!).
March 21, 2005
Currency death spiral
Carrying money around in Ghana is a necessity in this cash-based economy, but it's no simple feat.
Ghana's currency, the cedi, ("cee-DEE"),has gone the way of the old Italian lira, with one U.S. dollar worth 9,200 cedi. The depreciation spiral has been decades in the making. In 1983, one U.S. dollar was worth 90 cedi. In 1993, one dollar would net 720 cedi. The breathtaking drop from there to 9,200 cedi in ten years has been tragic for the struggling economy.
As their currency has spiraled downward, Ghanaians have watched their purchasing power plummet. The current price index for Ghanaians is impossibly high. The average Ghanaian wage is somewhere between one and three dollars per day. Think of your daily gross pay, then imagine that that's what a gallon of gas cost you. It's unimaginable.
For Westerners, the cheap cedi means bargain living, even for Americans with the plummeting U.S. dollar. Taxi fares start at about 50-cents for a short hop, with long trips around $3-4. A cold Coke is 60-cents, and a bottle of Ghanaian Star beer is 70-cents.
But purchase any commodity or service at Western prices, like hotels, electronics, or private transportation (i.e. driver), and dealing with cedis becomes challenging.
March 20, 2005
When a Ghanaian law enforcement official is called to task for detaining and beating up a Ghanaian reporter, he may have to blame Canada.
For a country relatively new to democracy and open expression, Ghana has a surprisingly active and diverse media. There are more than a dozen national daily papers, scores of radio stations, and four television stations. But the news reporting can be superficial, and the media seem hesitant to dig under the surface.
Enter the Canadians. Journalists for Human Rights is small nonprofit founded by our neighbors to the north. Its flagship program is here in Accra. Canadian journalists volunteer for a few months, mentoring Ghanaian journalists in reporting on human rights issues and instructing them on their legal rights as reporters.
Because of JHR, every Thursday, page three in Ghana's Chronicle is the "Social Justice" page, and it's filled with stories exploring Ghana's lack of habeas corpus, prostitution, domestic violence and more. Met TV, a national television station, airs an in-depth story on human rights every Saturday. And JoyFM injects human rights reporting into its daily newshours now.
Jamie, Bonnie, Colleen and Drake are the intrepid Canadians currently working in Ghanaian newsrooms. They typically work behind the scenes, giving the bylines and credits to the journalists they are mentoring, but they also do their own freelance reporting to supplement their small stipends.
Ato Dadzie is JHR's country director. When he was detained by police and beaten up two weeks ago, his story was featured on the Chronicle's "Social Justice" page.
Seeing the results of their work is inspiring. It strikes me that what JHR is doing is a brilliant way to foster good, investigative journalism in countries with new media freedom.
Posted by Cathryn Poff at 4:33 PM
March 18, 2005
Americans tend to get irritated when gas prices go up. Imagine if they doubled overnight.
That's what happened in Ghana just three weeks before I arrived. The government announced they were abolishing the subsidies that kept gas prices at about 15,000 cedi (the local currency), or $1.50, per gallon. Gas now costs around 30,000 cedi ($3) for a gallon, and the effects of the price hike are being felt in every corner of the country.
The protests began last week. Dubbed "Wahala" by the organizers (that's Hausa for "suffering" or "hardship"), the first demonstration resulted in a few arrests, lots of press coverage, and passionate debate among Ghanaians.
The second "Wahala" protest was yesterday morning, in the midst of an impressive police presence. It wasn't a huge demonstration, but hundreds marched, danced and sang, and even former Ghanaian president Jerry John Rawlings was there. The protesters say the steep gas prices aren't the result of abolished subsidies, but rather the consequence of outrageous new government taxes. The high gas prices, they say, will cripple the country.
What effect "Wahala" will have on gas price policy is unclear, but what's impressive is the amount of media coverage and public debate the demonstrations have caused.
Meanwhile, on my own little practical level, as a foreigner, figuring out taxi prices in African cities is usually a challenge. The taxis often don't have meters and taxi drivers perceive foreigners as walking ATM machines. Figuring out fares here in Accra in the wake of the gas price hike is confounding. Two weeks into my trip and I'm just getting a handle on what constitutes a fair price for any given taxi ride.
March 16, 2005
An island of calm
Needa Jehu-Hoya is in no danger of working herself out of a job anytime soon. She works for the United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR) in Ghana.
This country of 20 million people is a relative newcomer to democracy and stability, with its national constitution and open elections dating back to just 1992. It's a poor country, with a GDP of just $320 per capita. Ghana is on the World Bank's list of "Heavily Indebted Poor Countries," and as such is in line for some relief of its staggering external debt, which currently hovers somewhere between $4-$7 billion. With a crushing unemployment rate, young and old alike scramble for months and even years to secure jobs here.
Yet Ghana has been the safe haven for hundreds of thousands of refugees from neighboring countries over the years. Call it the curse of being one of the most peaceful countries in the region.
March 15, 2005
Pronounced "foo-foo", it's the staple of many West African diets. Necessary comfort food for West Africans. Something to get used to for westerners traveling in this region.
Made from pounded cassava, white yam, corn, or any other starchy vegetable, fufu is served as a gelatinous mound swimming in sauce. You dip your fingers in (right hand only!), squeeze off a blob, swish it around in the sauce and eat.
The sauces are often very spicy and are usually dotted with hunks of chicken, fish, goat meat or bushmeat.
Here in Accra, many seem to prefer banku ("bank-oo") to fufu. Banku is similar to fufu, but made from ground corn that is somehow fermented and then cooked. It's served the same way as fufu, but they tell me it's lighter.
In cities like Accra and Kumasi, and even in small villages, bowls of fufu and banku are sold by vendors on almost every street corner and in local restaurants. A big bowl of fufu in a decent restaurant sells for 15,000 cedis, or $1.50. I'm sure it's much less in the street.
The thing about fufu is it seems to expand in your stomach after consumption. Couple it with a carbonated soft drink or beer, and it seems to swell exponentially in the belly.
Add that to a 100-plus degree day of sun, and it's a recipe for this "obruni" (foreigner) to spend the afternoon or evening horizontally inert.
March 14, 2005
The Ashanti were once the rulers of a vast swath of present-day Ghana, their culture rich in tradition and ritual and their wealth coming from the gold snaking through their land.
This weekend I ventured up to Kumasi, the heart of the former Ashanti kingdom. Or perhaps not former, as there is still an Ashanti monarchy. King Otumfuo Osei Tutu II ascended the throne in 1999, when the former king passed away and the Queen Mother, his aunt, Nana Afia Kobi Jeiwaa Ampem II, chose him as king. Royal lineage is matrilineal among the Ashanti, a detail that appeals to me.
The adventure began Saturday morning, when I took the 7:30am bus, which left at 9:30am. Ghanaians had forewarned me that the buses never leave on time, so I was prepared. At 9:30, everyone queued up and quietly boarded, with minor scuffles breaking out over seating. Then the driver got on and the hullaballoo began. Half the bus started yelling at him in rapid-fire Twi, the local language. He shouted back "sorry! sorry!". The exchange went on. I asked Prince, the Ghanaian man traveling with me, what it was all about.
"They're mad because the bus is late," he said.
"But it's always late, isn't it?" I asked.
"So they're not surprised are they?" I couldn't figure it out.
"No. But every Ghanaian has to voice their opinion," Prince explained. "And then we go."
Sure enough, the argument petered out, the driver took his seat and off we went. The passengers mostly slept or watched the Nigerian romance movies playing at full-volume on the video screen in front of the bus. In the end, the four- to five-hour trip took nine.
March 11, 2005
Only haiku will do
(celebrating Steers Drive-Thru on Oxford Street)
cheeseburger and fries
oh what lovely comfort food
no fufu today
March 10, 2005
A rough shoot
It's a piece of advice I've heard television photographers and military personnel receive before they attend long ceremonies where they'll be standing around for long stretches of time. But I didn't remember it until too late.
"Don't lock your knees!"
Yesterday afternoon I went to film the graduation of Accra's police recruits. It was a favor of sorts and gave me a chance to really fool around with my camera in the bright sun here.
The ceremony started at 2pm, outdoors on a huge parade ground. I was joined out on the tarmac by a gaggle of Ghanaian newsmen (no women). As I ran around and sideways and backwards while filming, I wondered how our KRON photographers do it with their huge cameras.
Since my camera is hand-held, one of my (countless) challenges is keeping it steady while shooting. When they started handing out the diplomas, I planted myself in front of the dais and, I guess I locked my knees in an attempt to further steady myself and the camera. The ceremony went on and on and on and on.
It was also a thousand degrees hot with crushing humidity and a blazing sun beating down on us. I was drenched in sweat.
Suddenly, a roar rushed through my ears and the world started spinning. My only thought was to get out of there as soon as possible. I shoved aside the other photographers, and staggered/ran through the ceremony to the back of the stands.
March 9, 2005
West Africa Wins Again
American and European expats who have lived in West Africa can occasionally be heard to utter in complete frustration "West Africa Wins Again!". Or "Wawa"! It's a sort of Murphy's Law writ large for the endless, and often bureaucratic, obstacles that can impede every step forward.
I uttered the phrase this week as I spent hours and hours entangled in the bureaucracy of the Ministry of Information.
When I arrived here, I dutifully went to the Minstry with a file of papers that the Ghanaian Embassy in the US had given me (the papers included about $100 worth of passport photos they made me give them). With the papers, they said, I would get my press accreditation.
I had the misfortune of dealing with the "Media Liaison" of the Minstry. He is a rotund man prone to impromptu outbursts filled with insults about journalists. I first encountered him sitting in a dusty office sparsely furnished with worn 1970s office furniture. A big, rusty fan on the wall provided the only movement in the dark room. This man said he'd need time to add his signature to my media pass, and asked me to come back in two hours. I gave him four and a half.
When I returned, my file was undisturbed on his desk. He informed me that I needed to provide him a list of every person I would talk to in Ghana during my stay... and he wanted phone numbers. He also informed me, with a somewhat smug smile, that he was going to have to "charge a fee," though he wasn't ready to say how much that would be.
He instructed me to come back to the office today, and ordered me not to "do any journalism" until I had my accreditation papers.
My driver this week is a police sergeant and seemed to take all of this very seriously, so for once I decided I should obey the law.
I went back to the crumbling Ministry building today armed with just one name and phone number, and wrote it on the handwritten "form" his assistant provided. Mercifully, the man was not in the office, and his assistant looked at my paper, shrugged her shoulders, and handed me my media pass. No mention of the fee. I'm not sure the pass is actually valid, but it satisfied my driver, so I think I'm just this side of legal now.
March 8, 2005
419'ing not allowed
The rooster's crowing woke me up while the moon was still high in the pre-dawn sky today. Accra is a bustling city complete with epic traffic jams and internet cafes on every other corner, but chickens and goats still roam free in the most unlikely urban spaces.
I'm back at Cybercity in the Dansoman 'hood of Accra. They have posted signs today announcing that "419" activity is no longer allowed. "419" (or "Nigerian" or, in the U.S., "Advance Fee Fraud") schemes are those spam emails we all receive from alleged relatives of various deposed African and Middle Eastern presidents. They tell us they have millions and millions of dollars in a bank account, but they can only access the money if we wire them thousands of dollars.
The scheme has been around since the 1920s (obviously in paper format then), as Snopes.com explains, and has morphed with the times. The spread of the Internet to third-world countries has this flip side -- fraud is up and a lot of it reportedly originates in African cybercafes.
It's not clear to me how effective these paper signs will be in stopping the "419" activities here at Cybercity, but one of the staff does seem to be constantly walking around checking everyone's computer screens, so maybe that's the tactic.
When I ask the computer guys about it, they just give me their lovely Ghanaian smiles and sweetly say "It's all okay."
(These scams violate section 419 of Nigeria's penal code, hence the name.)
March 7, 2005
I cannot get away from Ricky Martin
The fans are cranked up on high, Ricky Martin's "La Vida Loca" is booming from a huge cassette player and I'm lined up with Ghanaians at a row of computers in the Cybercity internet center.
Freeborn, the son of my Ghanaian host, chats on his cell phone nearby as I check email.
I was last in Accra about 10 years ago, and while many of the sights are unchanged -- hawkers at wooden tables selling Chinese-made plasticware, women in bright African dresses and flip-flops, beat-up Opel taxis careening down the streets -- the technology has taken a great leap and Accra is rocking.
Accra is also very hot, about 100-degrees and muggy. Freeborn's cousin, Prince, has advised me to just stand in front of the fan all day today and maybe tomorrow as I acclimate. (tempting)
Today is a national holiday, in observance of yesterday's Independence Day. I missed the parades and festivities yesterday (arrived late at night), but am hoping to get down to the beach where bands are playing and people are lounging. Maybe I'll just lounge with them.
I was surprised yesterday when I boarded my London-Accra flight to find that my seat-mate, Ishmael, is a former refugee from Buduburam, the camp in Ghana where I plan to shoot a story or two. Ishmael, a Liberian teenager, moved from the camp to Philadelphia three years ago. He was on his second plane trip ever, going back to Buduburam to visit his aunts and cousins. Hopefully I'll find him when I go to the camp later this week.
March 4, 2005
Well, it's finally time to ship out. Tomorrow night I fly to London, then on to Accra, Ghana's capital.
At the moment, I'm in Washington, DC, in the final throes of preparing for the journey. Those who know me know how much I love packing (not!). My big challenge today is getting all my camera gear in order -- a lot of gadgetry for someone who likes to travel light.
I'll arrive in Accra on Sunday night, the night of Ghana's Independence Day . Hopefully there'll still be some celebrating going on so I can catch a glimpse of the big holiday.
I'm planning to hit the cybercafes of West Africa throughout my travels and update this blog, so stay tuned...
Meanwhile, here's a link to info on my fellowship program.