Saturday – Sunday, Arrival Day
I’ve noticed before that an airplane trip can be reflective of the destination, and this trip was definitely like that. The airplane ride was a warm-up to Ghana – full of Ghanaian nationals and expats returning to with loads of family and baggage. Unfortunately one woman had a medical emergency—I’m not sure what—about an hour and an half out of JFK. They actually did announce over the intercom, “If there is a doctor in the house, please contact the flight crew.” And there were two doctors on the plane, and together with the flight crew they all helped the woman to be more comfortable. It was a little hairy for minute though, with my seatmate and I exchanging glances like, “Oh boy, what is going to happen?”
Arriving to the airport I guess I was surprised – I thought it would be a little more – I don’t know – Well, I’ve never been in an African country. I guess I thought it would be a little more developed, the airport anyway. It’s perfectly serviceable. Just a bit rough around the edges, plain and drab. Coming out of the gate, you are greeted by a huge sign that says something like (I have to paraphrase because you are not allowed to photograph official or governmental structures or buildings),
WELCOME TO GHANA
We welcome all people to Ghana and we hope you enjoy your stay.
Sexual Deviants and pedophiles are not allowed
If you are here for that purpose, for your own good and everyone else’s, we suggest you leave.
Wow – that’s a welcome alright <sarcastic font>. So I’ll say right up front that that is one aspect of Ghana that I don’t love. Other than that (big problem), all the people we’ve met so far have been lovely.
While we were waiting in the baggage claim, five people including myself were paged to be told that our luggage had not come on the plane with us. There are a couple of theories as to why – one person in my group thinks that the plane in New York was already so full of luggage (all the expats and Ghanain nationals returning home) that they just couldn’t or didn’t even try to put ours on. We don’t think it was misdirected—it just never made it on the plane. They told us at the missing luggage counter it would be arriving at 8 PM. We asked, certain in our naiveté, “And you’ll deliver it to our hotel, right?” “Oh, no,” she replied, with such a wonderful tone that I wish I could describe—it implied sorrow and pity and humor that we could POSSIBLY think such a thing. The tone cut off all further inquiry. That was that. Someone would have to return to the airport to retrieve the luggage. Fortunately it wasn’t me.
Then there was a lunch, and a drink, and some fried plantains. A short put-my-feet-up that turned into a nap. Another trip to the breezy, open-air veranda style hotel restaurant and some wifi with my cohort, and a live band, and a bean stew with yes, more fried plantains. And that was Day 1.
Monday – First full day
Monday was a full and interesting day! We started off (after a breakfast buffet, very nice, coffee, toast and jam, cornflakes, thin parsley and onion omelets, yes please) with a presentation by one of our local hosts, Akem, on Ghanaian history and culture. Akem is a fount of knowledge and understanding of his country, and having lived in the U.S. for 22 years, is adept at getting it across to us. I couldn’t convey a quarter of what he presented, except that my simplistic take-away was: Wow, if the rest of Africa is anywhere near as complicated as what we’ve just learned about Ghana, little wonder that the West has messed it up as much as it has. We also met our other local host and guide for our time in Accra, a lovely Ghanaian woman named Ophelia. Ophelia was so impressive in her calm assurance, friendly and open manner, and presented a fascinating mix of modern Ghanaian culture while also maintaining, reviving, and remembering traditional roots. She seemed a real model of the modern African woman to my untrained eye. One thing that struck many of us was the clear sense of identity and history that the Ghanaians we met seemed to have. Of course we’re part of an educational program, so perhaps our hosts are not the norm, but they expressed a clear sense of African history before colonialism, what the colonial experience had brought and/or done to Africa, and the struggle to reclaim and maintain their traditions while balancing modernity. So many lessons for the U.S. here!
We went on to have a fantastic lunch at an Accra restaurant, Buka – like many places, an open-air though covered establishment. Warm and breezy. I got lucky and got to sit near Akem and Ophelia. Although I don’t have the most adventurous palate in the world, I do want to try as many Ghanaian foods as I can. Today I had the grilled whole tilapia, smothered in onions and tomatoes, absolutely amazing. Side of kelewele – small bits of plantain lightly spiced and fried. Came with three dipping condiments, from a little bit spicy to Whoa! Side of groundnut soup – basically a peanut soup with lots of (I think) palm oil. Very different and tasty. Akem and Ophelia ate their meal the traditional way, with their (right) hands. I tried to do so as well. At one point though I got too interested in the conversation and totally missed a fish bone – it felt pretty big lodged in my throat. It was touch and go for a minute, with people saying “Drink, drink, swallow!” or “Pound her on the back!” and “Can you breathe?” It finally went down, though I can still kind of feel it. Don’t do that, is my advice.
Here’s Ophelia with my colleague Amber. And then there’s the yummy if dangerous tilapia.
After that (yes, there’s more!) we went to the U.S. Embassy, where we met up with the Ghanaian teachers who will be hosting us from this Thursday to the next. We had great exchange with them, sharing our experiences with each other, and I think we all realized – We are so much more similar than we are different. Sure, our settings are different, but when it comes down to it, teachers are teachers and that means the same problems: Overworked, underpaid, not enough time, and not enough resources. One real difference, though, is that because the Ghanaian economy is more developing, many people remain in teaching because they really have no other options. I think that’s different for the U.S. – I think we do have more options but people stay in teaching either because they are really dedicated and/or because they are decently compensated.
Then we returned to the hotel, took a walk around the block, but I wasn’t kidding when I said it’s not really a walkable area – no sidewalks, open sewers, random holes you don’t want to fall into, traffic speeding by. This is the block behind the hotel, not the main thoroughfare that wasn’t so great to walk on. This part was kind of cool.
We didn’t have much time anyway, as we had a meeting at 6:30, then dinner, and then a performance. The Saakuma Dance Troupe “is dedicated to introducing audiences to traditional and contemporary African dance and music” and pretty much blew us away with their energy and passion and joy. They danced and sang and drummed for almost two hours! I don’t know how they did it. I took a ton of pictures and video clips, but Youtube is still trying to upload just one little clip, so I don’t know when I can share them all. But here is a picture of the dance troupe — would put some more but the Wi-Fi here is very slow tonight. One thing I have definitely learned — I need to get a better camera!
Ciao for now