Thursday, September 25, 2008

Lizards, Spiders and Jollof Rice, oh my!

So I successfully moved to West Legon, near the University of Ghana, 10 days ago. The place I am renting is a small, furnished house with a generous kitchen, 2 bedrooms (one is ominously and permanently locked) and an empty living room. It's a very nice place, and the neighbors are generally very friendly and helpful, and look out for me. But I've had my share of mishaps: when I'm not smashing monster spiders, chasing lizards, and battling invasive ants (now I really understand Garcia Marquez in 100 years of Solitude when he talks about the Buendia's eternal struggle with the ants), I'm enjoying occasional power outages, no running water (which happens about every 3 days), a power strip where one of the outlets blew up creating a small flame at 5am (luckily it extinguished by itself), and certain neighbors engaging in Jerry Springer style wars of words for extended periods of time. All that being said, I feel fortunate to have my own space, even if I get a bit lonely now and then, that's relatively close to the University. I've been cooking simple meals, and as an added bonus I have satellite TV with about 10 channels, including ESPN, CNN, and BBC (all European versions however, so lots of "real" football and world news).

Musically, things are starting to get going. I'm working with a great teacher on drumming, and even though it's not terribly cheap it's been productive and fun. He's going to take me to various music societies who perform traditional music/dance, so I'll be the token "obruni" trying to step in on drums. I'm also teaching (with the chair of music) a six-week course at the University on orchestration with the greatest student/teacher ratio ever - 2:2. And at first it was 2:1 - we picked up a straggler. I've taught one class and it was great fun - I realized how much I missed teaching, and the class size makes it very laid back and stress free. Other avenues of exploration include getting a keyboard to jam with, and working with a Dance Institute up north, both of which should get going in the next couple of weeks or so.

I also got to see a group called "Hewale Sounds" perform at a posh bar, with mostly whites in attendance (which made me a bit sad, since most Africans don't have the expendable income to hang out at this sort of place). They were pretty awesome, and featured 4 recorder players, 2 balafone players (aka xylophones), a keyboard player (who often used general MIDI percussion, to my great amusement), and some drummers (including a dude on "box-drum"). It's been really inspiring to be around so much great music and dance at the University and elsewhere...I've even heard a pianist practicing the familiar Rachmaninoff G-minor prelude!

The day-to-day stuff is coming along. I'm getting settled in, becoming familiar with the tro-tros and markets, and coming to terms with extremely unreliable internet (but the good news is the internet cafe I'm in plays nonstop Britney Spears, it's just finished "Slave 4 U" and now on to "Stronger", thank god for American pop music). I've had time to catch up on some reading, and to my surprise learned that Ghanaians barely read fiction at all (only self-help and religious books). While out walking I'm often greeted by strangers, and many times I've met people who desperately want to get to the US by any means (and can't get a job here, not for lack of trying), asking for help and advice. This also makes me a bit sad, and I feel fortunate to have a place like the US to return to (even in the wake of our $$$ crisis). So even though you might see taxes go up, and inflation, and all sorts of scary economic developments, be glad for hot showers, reliable transportation and hamburgers/fries (I am REALLY craving this, you can't even understand). Farewell, and peace.

Saturday, September 13, 2008


Hello friends and family, hope all is well! I arrived safely in Ghana 9 days ago and traveled to Winneba, a town on the coast about an hour from Accra. I am staying at a house owned by relatives of my friend Kwesi. They have been wonderful hosts, cooking all my meals, doing laundry, and taking me all around.

So far my experience has been like a vacation, but it’s been a great vacation. Ghanaians are generally very friendly and helpful. Winneba is a charming town, and I’ve explored most of it, including swimming on a secluded beach, playing checkers with the locals (they call it draughts), and going to a church service which was well over 2 hours long! As far as I can tell, I’m the other white person here, and am constantly greeted by young children shouting “Obruni! Obruni! Obruni! Obruni! How are you?” (Obruni means white man). But the children have been a lot of fun. I brought my frisbee (to spread ultimate frisbee to Africa) and a huge crowd of children played, they loved it. We also put up a basketball hoop and I taught some people the basics of basketball. It was strange being the best player in the land (especially being white) being watched by a crowd of about 15 children, plus the hoop was 9 feet high so I could throw it down!

The house I am staying at has 7 people: Ida (a radio DJ), Mensa (just finished high school) and their mother (retired), and 3 people renting rooms (2 of them are teachers). The food has been a pleasant surprise: most dishes I really like, including the legendary fufu (cassava/plaintains ground up with pestle/mortar into a gooey dough, served in a vegetable soup broth), jellof rice (rice with spices/vegetables), waichi (rice/beans), and lots of fish, chicken and bread. There is a TV and DVD player (I’ve watched 3 African movies; my advice, steer clear!!), no computer and the kitchen is very small but functional.

Traveling has been an experience; it is generally more unreliable and cramped but comes with plenty of character. There are a million taxis everywhere, but it is cheaper to travel (in Accra and larger cities) by a chartered bus or a tro-tro, a converted van that seats around 20 people. The amount of people that are packed into these vehicles is insane, and the traffic (especially in Accra) can be an absolute nightmare. Often you have to wait 10-15 minutes until they are completely full. Drivers aggressively cut off others in narrow confines, constantly honk the horn warning people and other vehicles (I’ve heard more than a 1000 horn honks), and shout out the destination to recruit even more riders. You might receive a 30 minute sales pitch or hear the gospel preached on a tro-tro ride (with a joke or two about the white passenger)! The good news is that you can usually find a tro-tro or taxi quickly in most locations.

One memorable trip was to Cape Coast, about two hours away. There was a major festival that featured a huge parade (with costumes, drumming and a generally festive, frenzied atmosphere), attended by the president of Ghana. Unfortunately, my camera was stolen (so I have no pictures posted yet!) and we were in a car accident leaving town. We had to wait 5 hours at a repair shop only to learn they couldn’t fix it, so we ended up taking two taxis and a tro-tro back to Winneba.

The one key ingredient missing from my trip is music. But I am moving to Legon on Monday, where the University of Ghana lies. Once I arrive I’ll start drumming/dancing lessons, collaboration with the Noyam Dance Institute, and teaching at the University. I don’t know how quickly any of these will take shape but once I am in Legon I’ll be surrounded by musicians, which is just the way I like it.

Please keep in touch…I miss all of you already so much. I don’t know how often I’ll be able to access the internet but I’ll do my best…my aim is to post about every 10-14 days. Have a fantastic week.

All the best,