The Whole Pie

From Estero to Africa

Friday, July 31, 2009
By Kathryn Taubert

Hotels in Ho provide a clean towel or two, but bring your own washcloth. The soap may have been used by a previous guest (NOTHING is wasted), and there certainly aren’t any free little shampoos.
If there’s a TV, it will have two, maybe three channels. One will have non-stop commercials and little else, the other music videos, an occasional movie, futbol game or news. Commentators may be dubbed in English, or maybe the voice recording didn’t get synced with the video. Movie subtitles are so small I can’t read them WITH my glasses. Sometimes the “foreign film” is U.S. action with Matt Damon or Donald Sutherland as a lovable, soon-to-be dead, thief.
Electricity is intermittent, and footing as insecure on the streets as anywhere on earth.
Tro-tros take you anywhere in Ho for 35 pesewas (about 20 cents), except for the occasional negotiator who asks you how much more you will give him. (Pass it up. Tro-tros are everywhere, and 35 pesewas is fair.)
Taxis don’t deliver door to door. You go to the Ho “Civic Center,” a cacophonous gathering of taxis, tro-tros and buses blended with goods-toting vendors adjacent to the Market, an outdoor ménage of hundreds of stalls selling goods to everybody, all the time. From the Center, you get a vehicle wherever you wish.
Purified water is found readily, so I’ve not used my purification systems. There’s an art to drinking from the cellophane baggies of water. You bite off one corner and squeeze the contents directly into your mouth. If you don’t bite just so, it squirts out the side the way a lemon zaps your dinner companions instead of your fish.
Ewe is one of about fifty Ghanaian languages, and most nationals speak at least two or three, as well as English. In the towns, Twi and Ga are probably understood most readily, but English is the nation’s official language for consistency and international cooperation. Ewe isn’t easy. It’s a “tonal” language in which inflection changes meaning. I’m getting used to being laughed at. It’s all very good natured, and many times I’ve been thanked because “You are trying.”
It’s the same with dress. I was given a lovely traditional outfit on arrival. When I wear it people often tell me “How nice you look in our dress.” I know they mean it kindly.
Milk, when available at all, is generally soy. I’ve only seen one cow since being here, and she was lying in the back of a pickup truck with a towel over her shoulder, three men tending her. I don’t know if she was injured, but they were headed toward the Market, so I don’t dwell upon her fate too long. Cows are expensive.
Chances Hotel is the only place I’ve been that served butter, and coffee is always instant Sanka. A thermos of hot water and a tin of Nestle-Carnation “tea creamer” (probably soy) is provided, along with sugar. Tea bags, and Milo are ubiquitous alternatives. Milo is a chocolate-flavored “energy-drink” served either hot or cold, with cocoa fifth in content after sugar, skimmed milk powder, vitamins and the usual polysyllabic list of mystery ingredients.
The hotel restaurant had a display of alcoholic beverage bottles, but sold none. Few I’ve met drink at all, much less Remy-Martin or Bacardi Gold. There is one Kloe villager who clearly imbibes a lot of something. He is tolerated at public events, harmless, and no one seems to mind. They’re generally tolerant of differences, folding them into the community as anyone else. There isn’t much they can do for them anyway, and exclusion is, for the Ewe at least, not an option. He is someone’s relative, and they look after their own.
People often seem to understand more English than they do, which you find out after getting something different than requested. They’re quick to rectify, however, and I often find myself wondering if the fault was mine, for speaking too quickly in the face of friendly nods and those beautiful, geographic smiles. We are both trying, as it should be. I am, after all, in their country, and they are trying hard to accommodate me and mine.
Never assume that lack of education means lack of intelligence or drive.
Growing up speaking three languages builds capacity. Living without pen and paper develops memory. Having few tools, no toys and practically no money generates resourcefulness. Collectively, these are some of the brightest people I’ve met in a while.
The kids play hand games (recalling “Pattycake”), and manufacture toys out of what’s around. A pot or pan is too valuable to play with, so kids use small green limes to throw and/or kick against the wall, sort of a cross between handball and futbol. Round seeds the size of quarters are “marbles.”
Bent reeds are turned into futbols. Singing, drumming, dancing, playing chase, running around together the ways kids in the U.S. used to do before computer games. They are interacting with each other all the time: young and old. The teenagers look after the young ones, and the parents shepherd the whole process with firm, but loving hands. These children have absolutely NO manufactured toys whatsoever. And yet, they play. They are inventive, and as importantly, they are interactive. I noted somewhat surprisingly that there are no screaming children here. You hear the occasional crying infant, naturally. But rarely an unhappy child, and then it is brief. Occasionally a parent will lecture a teenager. I don’t need to know Ewe to know that. But I have seen no whining here. How come?
I came here worried about the animals, too. You’ve seen the photos of mangy dogs and scrawny cats. Every domestic animal I’ve seen is fat, healthy, living fenceless and bothering no one. Dogs, as I mentioned, aren’t allowed in Kloe because of the adjacent Wildlife Preserve, but I’ve seen a few in Ho. We have a calico kitten in the compound and she doesn’t have a flea, tick or ear mite on her. She’s well-fed, sociable, and lives easily with baby chicks, guinea hens, goats, lambs, and kids. She has high hopes, however, taking off after some pretty big wild African birds now and then. I haven’t seen a rodent yet, although I know the “grasscutter” is quite large and ends up in stews sometimes.
Going to town for the weekend to escape heat and the roosters may find you with intermittent air conditioning and African tree frogs instead. The tree frogs are much louder than roosters, but their serenades are a nearly steady, hypnotic thunder of African night harmonies. The roosters intermittently shatter the night with their “er er ER…ERRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRR‘s!! generating feedback from every other rooster within half a mile.
I’ll take tree frogs if I have a choice of moonlight sonatas.
To do this, age doesn’t matter, but you must be reasonably fit and willing to endure the lack of conveniences. You walk long distances in stifling humidity, bring only the most comfortable clothing and shoes. Better yet, buy a pair of thongs when you get here, since everyone else wears them or sandals that neither bind, pinch nor elevate your feet. You will end up even fitter, and thinner, than when you arrived. I’ve lost probably 10 pounds and feel great.
Pack your suitcase, then remove half and leave it home. Ghanaians, in the Upper Volta region anyway, dress simply but tastefully off work, and sensibly on. Buy some of their beautiful cotton cloth or tie-dye in the Market and wrap it loosely and artfully around you, or have someone make you traditional clothing, as Ruby is doing for me.
Negotiate fairly with vendors. Better yet, make friends with your Ghanaian counterparts and let them do it for you. They’re much better at it than you’ll ever be.
Most of all, make friends. Smile, try, laugh, listen, learn, observe, tip even though tipping is done only in a few places. These people work hard for the little they get. Tro-tro drivers generally don’t get tipped, but “chop house” wait staff do, and gratefully.
Learn a few words like “Good morning,” “How Are you?” “Thank you” and “How is your family?” and never make the mistake of engaging directly in business without FIRST a greeting and expression of interest in family welfare. Greetings are endemic and you’re rude to ignore them. Ghanaians are noted for hospitality, so reciprocate. Even if your efforts are comical, they’ll appreciate your trying.
Ghanaian time isn’t the same as GMT, and sometimes you will be thwarted in your efforts to do what you want when YOU want. Deal with it. It’s not your right to impose your will upon people in their own country.
In time, they will change a lot. It seems that younger people are marrying later, having fewer children, adopting contemporary names, struggling harder to get educations, realizing that merely surviving is not enough. They are acquiring cell phones and the occasional iPOD and rare motorcycle. More brand-name shirts and logos are appearing here and there.
My young friends in Kloe aspire to be Marketing PhD’s, R.N.s, Architects, and Building Contractors. They’ve got the brains and drive. All they need is the money and a chance to finish school. Ghana pays for education through junior high. Villagers do not pay school taxes, but are expected to pay for supplies, materials, uniforms. Even with that subsidy, it’s unaffordable for most, and high school is totally paid for by the student’s family. High school facilities are limited, so only kids who are both bright and have money can attend. The rest labor on farms on roadside markets all their lives.
Bright kids without money end up there too. Presently there are 70 kids in Kloe identified as “brilliant” by educators who cannot go to school for lack of money. Ghana is doing its part to help. But with per capita income at $690 per year, families couldn’t pay school taxes even if they were asked to do so. There simply is not enough money. The developing of the Jubilee Oil Fields off shore will, however, hopefully help this economy. Small rural projects like ours will help the locals now. They can‘t wait. As I’ve written before, their children are on the cusp of the New Tomorrow. But their need is now.
The hardest thing future leaders of this country will have to do is reconcile life in the fast lane with the blessings of indigenous cultures. I’m not sure sometimes just how big a favor we’re doing by encouraging them to “do business” our way.
I hope there is some way that these wonderful people can manage the “happy medium” at which so many of us in the West and elsewhere have failed. Moving into this brave new world while keeping that which is fundamental to who they are will be the most difficult task of all.
I hope I’ll be around long enough to see that outcome. With my genes, I may very well live another 40 years. If I do, I’m keeping an eye on Ghana, as a fulcrum for the PanAfrica that founder Kwame Nkrumah imagined. But for now, all I can do is record my thoughts and hopes for people who welcomed me in ways I’ll never forget. I expected to learn a lot from the Ewe. I never expected to fall in love with them too.
I’m now sitting in a hotel in the capital city of Accra, having arrived yesterday afternoon. It’s surreal here, with all the modern conveniences one would expect of a capital city hotel. I luxuriated in running water and thirsty towels. I had my first real cup of coffee in five weeks this morning at breakfast, with tablecloths and china cups. A young Ghanaian waiter commented on my typically Ghanaian attire, shortly thereafter bringing me a beautiful set of beads. He refused any compensation, saying how he appreciated my wish to dress as they do, and it was merely a gift. This is typical of the Ghanaian people.
Yesterday on the grueling “tro-tro” trip from Ho, three and a half hours of sitting with my knees under my chin, a kind young teacher sitting behind me rode the entire way to the terminal with me, took my bags and loaded them into a taxi, negotiating the fare down by half, and extracted promises from the driver to deliver me safely to the hotel.
Pushing the lock button down on my door, he bade me farewell, and said, “thank you for coming to my country.”
I’m leaving Ghana Monday, and this is my final blog before departure. I can‘t believe it‘s been almost five weeks since arrival. In some ways, I‘ve been here forever. In others, a day. These people have captivated me, and forever linked themselves to my heart. I shall miss them dearly.
How will I feel when I stroll thru the Port of Miami Tuesday night, easily entering a country so many are desperate to achieve?
It will be good to be home. As much as I’ve come to love and appreciate these people and their developing country, this experience has reinforced for me what we already know. I am a citizen of the greatest country in the world. And I’ve never felt it more than I do now.

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