Sunday, July 30, 2017

Ghana 2017 - Day 31. My last day

To mark my last day I took the long promised trip to Achimota Forest Reserve. First, with the ease of long experience, I took the trotro from the Nite Market to Achimota Police Station, turned left at the light, and walked down to the second light to the single entrance to Achimota Forest. Imagine my disappointment when I found out that the EcoPark is open only Monday through Saturday. Why would they close a park on Sundays, which is when families can go for a picnic. But wait. The forester asked me if I was going to the zoo, which was open. Yes, I was going to the zoo. Oh, in that case I could go in, and walk through the park to the zoo, about 25 minutes straight down the road. So the park was open, but not if your intention was to simply be in the park. Strange logic, but it is out of those small contradictions that we get to enjoy the zest of foreign cultures.

So I walked, and walked, and walked. True to my pledge I kept going straight, intent of finding the zoo, until I got to a sign that could be interpreted as “Zoo to the left”, or “Zoo to the right”. I trued to the left, and went deeper and deeper into the “forest” of scrub bushes, thinking that this would be a bad spot for meeting a lion or a warthog. It did allow me to see that the so-called forest reserve does not have any big trees, so in that regard the University Botanical Garden is much more a forest than this “forest reserve”. The poor Forestry Department.

I went back to the right side of the intersection, and a few minutes later came upon the small cabin that hosts the administration of the zoo. I solemnly paid my 20 cedis (Ghanaians pay 10 cedis), and followed the forester guide, together with a couple that had arrived by car a few minutes after me. It is a really tiny zoo, with a couple of monkey cages, two ostriches, two emus from Australia, a camel, two cibet cats, two tortoises, three antelopes, a dozen parrots, and three boas (alas, no mambas). The story is that these animals were relocated here after the zoo in downtown Accra was closed, a few years back, and that the big animals (elephants, lions, zebras, giraffes) were sent temporarily to Komasi Zoo, in southwestern Ghana, while the new zoo is built in the EcoPark. Since there is no evidence that even a shovelful of dirt has been dug, I suspect that the new zoo is never going to pass, and that the EcoPark will remain a name and nothing else. Achimota might have picnic potential for the inhabitants of Accra, but they are going to have to clean some of the brush to open picnic spaces and play structures. Always room to grow here in Ghana.

Being a USAC Visiting Professor was a top notch experience. Not only was I treated as a VIP (a treatment that, alas, I don’t get very often), but adapting my course to a new setting was a great learning experience. My class is an upper division GE, but it isfairly technical, so I have a good deal of experience cajoling my non-science students to learn something from it. But in a study-abroad setting it is very important that the students can see a connection between what they are learning and the dazzling kaleidoscope of a new culture, a new geography, and a different stage of social development. I had done my homework, of course, and knew quite a bit about Ghana’s accomplishments and challenges in the field of water development. I should have been quicker, however, in grasping opportunities for the students to see the issues we had been talking about in the new world surrounding them. Next time I will have to correspond with the local USAC team way in advance, to know what activities they have planned for outings and fieldtrips, and then research the places I will visit with the students to identify potential learning opportunities. In any case, I am now a devote adherent to the notion of study abroad in general, and to the USAC program in particular.

It is time to say goodbye to this charming country, and its likewise charming people. I will miss its colorful clothes, Gospel music, and interesting languages. I will miss, in a fashion, being accepted in the warm community of a trotro and the nasal call of the ticket taker as he tells the world that this particular trotro is heading for Accra-ccra-ccra-ccra. I will not miss mosquitoes, torrential equatorial rains, nor baobabs, for the simple reason that I never got to see one. I will certainly miss eating soup messily with my bare hand, and the half liter bottles of Club beer (or the lady at the Bush Canteen, who by now knows I always order a cold Pepsi from her). And I will miss my friends Abigail, Claudia, Shasha, Ama, Theo, Yunuss, and Edde. Not to worry, I now know the way so am sure that I will come back again someday.

Ghana 2017 - Day 30. A visit with the Presbyterian Annual Retreat

Curiosity led me to wake up early in the morning to walk to the place where the Annual Retreat of the Presbyterian Church of Ghana is taking place. They have put up a giant tent near the stadium, where a good two thousand people can gather. By the time I got there at 8:30 am it was about half full, so I got a good seat, and by 9 am the place was packed. The church has all sorts of high power amplifiers, giant screens, and enough electronic equipment to launch a satellite.

When I first got there two young deacons were rapping at full volume, exchanging throaty shouts that I couldn’t understand. They kept it up for a good few minutes, and the exchange was clearly raising the fervor among the attendants, who joined in the shouting and mumbled under their breath. Then came a chorus, and another young deacon (dressed like the others in jeans, t-shirt and ball cap), and for nearly an hour we sang in rapture beautiful psalms although I could see the fervor was starting to boil, until a dozen of people started having convulsions. This was an expected effect, for the organization included a sufficient number of aides to restrain the thrashing people, who one way or other were dragged to the front. They were the vessel through which the Lord chose to speak to their congregation, and we heard four or five of them speak the message of the Lord in between screams or chilling bouts of laughter.

To ease the mood, the next deacon asked the people to dance to the music, and in short few minutes the tone of the crowd changed from solemn to joyous. A young man and his guitar then came on stage, and accompanied a series of other deacons who engaged in a more harmonious rapping, which with the backdrop of the guitar sounded more like cowboy poetry than rap.

The final music was provided by an ensemble of men, who played percussion instruments and sang, and once again moved the crowd into joyous dancing. By then we had been there for a couple of hours, and I for one started to feel restless. But I wanted to hear the pastor speak, so I held my peace in the best way I knew. We wnte through another round of testimony (which I cynically thought was directed toward opening the purses of the attendants to the collection), and we finally approached the moment of the peroration. The speaker (for I am not sure he was a pastor) was introduced at length by a deacon who stressed that we had to listen very carefully not on account of what we were going to hear, but because the Apostle General had approved the speaker. So now I know the head of the Presbyterian Church is the Apostle General, whoever he might be.

The speaker was a financial advisor, CEO of his own company, who proceeded to give a mixed pitch of the importance of investing in securities, and how the power of compound interest guides us through the Lord’s path, and thus is the way to make the church strong and financially secure. There was a dab of spirituality in his words, but overall I was sorely disappointed that this speech had been the culmination of 3 hours of religious fervor.

After I came back home I started to work in my computer, and was happily getting ready to upload my blogs to the internet when someone knocked at my door. A smiling man expressed some surprise of seeing me very much at ease and at home, and told me they expected for me to have already gone. No, I responded, I won’t be leaving for another couple of days, early in the morning of Monday. “But this room is being given to a new guest”, he informed me. Well, that was some sort of news. So I pledged ignorance, sticking to the fact that I was not scheduled to leave for a couple more days, and he politely asked me to come talk down with the General Manager of Volta Hall.

I had met this lady before, and in a very amiable way we went through the whole puzzle again. So she pulled the letter of reservation she had from USAC, and sure enough it requested the room from June 30 to July 29. “Well, I guess they made a mistake”, I said in my most innocent voice, “I really don’t have any suggestions to make”. The Manager thought for a moment and said “Well, we cannot ask you to leave, so I will have to figure out something else. But they should really have told us.” I remained silent, with downcast demeanor, and quietly slid out the door. It is a pity, but at this stage of the game I have zero interest of moving my stuff to a new place. Lo que será, será!

Saturday, July 29, 2017

Ghana 2017 - Day 29. Sharing the last few hours with our Ghanaian friends

I woke up early, as usual, and having nothing better to do I cleaned my room, put all the excess paper I have fluttering around in the trash, and consolidated all my plastic bags into an enormous ball. You may or may not know that in California we no longer get a plastic bag for our groceries, and that I hate every moment of it. In Ghana, on the other hand, they give you a plastic bag (and sometimes two, one inside the other) for anything you buy. The result is that now I am the proud owner of several dozen plastic bags, for I don’t use them for trash disposal at the same high rate at which I receive them. I know I will look with longing at my happy days in Ghana next time I come out of the supermarket back home, joggling my purchases all the way to the car!

I also packed, which is a silly thing to do because I still have three days before departure. I did find, however, that I have too much stuff, and that it is going to take a miracle of packing to be able to fit everything inside. Where has all this stuff come from? I know I acquired four beautiful shirts and several books, but surely I had lots of empty space when I got here. I will have to compress everything as tight as I can if I am going to be able to close the zipper in my travel backpack, and will probably overload my regular backpack, all the time pining for the 5 kilo carved rhinoceros that I saw at the Handcrafts Market the other day.

At 11:30 am I headed for the International Student Hostel, to meet Kaleb and our five Ghanaian student assistants. Kaleb and I have planned a trip to the mall to share lunch with our friends, and to go see the movie Dunkirk. We had invited all the other USAC students as well, but nobody took our bait, so it was just the seven of us that walked to the trotro stop and headed for Accra Mall. Once there I suggested going for pizza, and we stormed the local Pizza Hut (which claimed to be the largest in Africa but was indeed not much larger than the take away outlets back home). When asked what we should get, everyone at unison asked for meat, so we ordered the meat deluxe, double pepperoni, and spicy chicken pizzas, plus a spicy vegetarian just in case any one amongst us had seditious vegetarian tendencies. In contrast to our young people, however, young Ghanaians are decidedly carnivorous, so Kaleb and I were the only takers for the vegetarian pizza.

Our five friends include two young women, Charlotte (aka Shasha) and Ewurama (aka Ama), who couldn’t be more different from each other. Shasha is sweet and a bit shy, but always wears a smile. In contrast, Ama is always ready to give the boys a piece of her mind, is the spokewoman of the group (and is the one I can depend on to get a cup of coffee at the USAC office). Of the three boys Yunuss is the easy going one; he is in charge of taking the photos and is one of my main informants. Theophilus (aka Theo) is a pretty cool guy as well, but he comes across as being the serious one; if you ask him a question he will probably answer “Let me think about it” and after a few minutes comes back with the requested information. Edward (aka Edde) is our computer whiz. I know that their involvement with the project helped the foreign students enormously, as they were the guides to eating places, laundry, email access, theater outings, and so many of the student activities. But they were also angels to me, as a professor, making sure I knew what was going on, where the class was going to meet, having the digital projector ready on every occasion, and in general being available to do any odd chore, which they always performed in a cheerful and prompt fashion. I very much enjoyed spending the afternoon with them.

I am on purpose not telling you anything about the movie Dunkirk. It was a really good movie, so I will not spoil it by telling you what it is about.

Our Resident Director, Auntie Abigail, organized one last event for us this evening: Dinner at Afrikik, one of the hot spots for night entertainment in Accra. She was going to pick me up at the front of Volta Hall, so I made sure I was at the curb, waiting, a few minutes before the appointed time. This gave me the opportunity to sea the flood of young women that were coming out of Volta Hall, lining up in a long queue to await for the next bus, which would then take them to the temporary church they have erected by the stadium. Yes, they are all from different Presbyterian churches across the country, here at University of Ghana for their annual retreat (I think I will go to church tomorrow to see what that is all about). They are a very nice group of young women, many of which greeted me with a “Good evening” as they streamed past me.

Afrikik was a lively place, with a life band, and we had a delicious buffet waiting for us. There was something for everyone, and I managed to try mostly new dishes (e.g., cow leg stew, palava sauce, refried beans, corn tamal) and a few of the ones I had at the beginning of my stay (e.g., okra stew). After the meal the younger generation was getting ready to go dancing and stay up until the wee hours of the morning, but Ama, Kaleb, Edde, and me took the opportunity to say goodbye and go home with Auntie Abigail. A fine ending to a fine day.

Ghana 2017 - Day 28. Final exams are done and graded. I am free!

Today was the last day of classes, so I gave my final exams and promptly stashed them in my backpack, to ignore them as long as possible. The students were going out for a celebratory lunch at The Hub, and I joined them to partake in their delight at being done. There was much talk about making a last trip to Accra on Saturday to buy presents to bring back home (a strange custom that I am glad I shed off many years ago).

Then I had to go back to my apartment, to face the inevitable grading blues, and in no time whatsoever it was time to go out again, to attend the final performance of the students who had enrolled in African Dance. There were about 9 of them, but they were joined by Auntie Abigail (to make an even number), and the two instructors. The performance was great! Everyone performed with energy and gusto, at the rhythm of a loud drummer band of four musicians. African dancing can be, at the same time, graceful, fluid, and athletic, so everyone got a good deal of cardio exercise.

Back to the grading, but before that I went to the balcony to study the milling crowd that was moving through campus, many of them headed for Volta Hall and carrying suitcases. Could it be that the students were coming back, full two weeks before the Fall semester starts. On closer inspection, and looking at how young some of the participants were, I concluded that this must be the High School Summer Program, perhaps augmented by the youth summer camps of several churches. It is great to see the university coming alive with small clusters of smiling students. It may not be the full force of the regular 46,000 students (which must certainly be a sight to behold), but clearly the place is coming out of its summer slumber.

I could not procrastinate any longer, so I sat down to finish my grading, make comments on the term papers, calculate the final grades, and e-mail them to both the students and the Resident Director. Now I am free!

Ghana 2017 - Day 27. A new delicacy (likely teeming with bacteria)

In class today the discussion drifted toward sanitation, and the stark contrasts that exist between different countries, and even within a country. Take Ghana, for example, where toilettes a hand wash basins are of good quality in Accra, but are practically inexistent in some rural communities. Because of the lack of adequate amounts of piped water, hand washing is done with raw water, bathing happens only occasionally, and restrooms are of the pit toilette type or of the great outdoors type. I think mothers in all cultures know, at a gut level, that infectious disease is specter that threatens their children, and that they use cultural adaptations to deal with it. In Ghana this has evolved into almost maniacal scrubbing when you wash your hands before a meal, and on their fondness for soup that can be kept boiling for hours on end to kill all those nasty bacteria.

Speaking of soup, today I treated myself to a huge bowl of fufu with ground nut soup and big floating chunks of goat meat, goat skin (looks just like pork skin), and smoked fish. Ground nut is the African name for the humble cacahuate or peanut, and as I took my first slurp (eating soup with your bare hand and a scoop of fufu is the accepted way of doing this, which leads to joyful slurping sounds emanating from every table around you), I had but to wonder if ground nut allergies were as prevalent here as they are in the USA. I ate, and ate, out of the giant bowl until I felt I was going to burst, and on my way home I drifted into a food-induced coma.

When I got to my humble apartment I had absolutely no desire to grade papers (funny how that is), so I used the time to finish the book I started reading a few days ago: Good Germs, Bad Germs by Jessica Sachs. The author describes, at length, the mind-boggling abundance of different bacteria in our bodies (more bacteria than number of cells!), how most of them peacefully co-exist with us, how some of them go bad and cause disease, how we have fought them with antibiotics, and how they have evolved into antibiotic-resistant superbugs. Now, I have always touted sanitation as the hallmark of a good life (and still do regarding common intestinal ailments), but am more than ever convinced that living a sterile life is not only impossible, but is likely to be deleterious in the long run. Nature is wise when it gives our kids the instinct to play in the dirt, suck their thumb, or rub snotty noses with their little buddies, for unless they collect a good variety of good bugs, they are more than likely to fall prey to the hordes of bud guys roaming our bodies.

Maybe tomorrow I will have some okra soup at the Bush Canteen.

Ghana 2017 - Day 26. Three more days of classes to go!

Today, Tuesday, was a regular class day, with two more to go. I had reserved the best for last, and today the lecture was about drought and how to manage it, which I happen to think is a pretty cool subject. Part of it is that there are so many interesting side subjects, such as the record of droughts in California over the last 1,000 years, or the question of whether droughts are linked to climate change or are simply the result of precipitation being a random process. And how do you manage a random process?

I normally follow with the ways available to society for the mitigation of drought impacts, which is a rather long discussion that branches into engineering, preparedness, and society’s perception. Given that groundwater use is one of the main tools we have to make up for dwindling surface water supplies, I then end talking about sustainable management of water resources (can you sustainable manage a random process?).

Alas, my enthusiasm was slow to seep into some of the students, who by now are just fixedly focused in reaching the finish line. Let’s see if they do better tomorrow, when we will talk about strategic planning, integrated regional water management, and the tools available to the water manager. 

Ghana 2017 - Day 25. We are having a party!

Today is Monday of our last week, so Auntie Abigail has invited us to a party at her sister’s home. Ghanaians like to grill, so I imagined the party would be an informal affair, in the garden, and that we would be grilling and eating in waves as the food got cooked. When Abigail first mentioned the party, a few days ago, I had sent her a text message offering to get sirloin stakes and she had answered that would be fine. Some of the students had mentioned that they missed a nice stake, and I thought this would be a nice way to offer them a treat. Accordingly I woke up early, took the trotro to the supermarket in Accra Mall, chose 16 juicy stakes at the meat counter, and bought a nice lemon-pepper seasoning pack. We were supposed to meet at the USAC office at 11 am, and I made it with time to spare at 10:30 am, just as Claudia was getting ready to go to the house to organize things. It seemed the easiest thing to do to ask her to take the rather large package with her.

I was supposed to go with Abigail, who didn’t seem to be in that much of a hurry. Finally, at 11:30 she was ready to go, and we had a nice conversation all the way to her sister’s house, which was some distance away. The day was cloudy and with a few sprinkles, and I hoped this would not detract from the festivities. I was surprised when we got there and didn’t see any of the students, but then again this is Africa and maybe they were fashionably late. At the house I met a Fulbright professor from Ohio, and we had a nice chat sitting in the veranda as the clock inexorably ticked past noon. Hmm . . . I didn’t see any of the preparations that even an informal party needs. Finally the students came in, at about 12:30, and we all moved to another veranda, overlooking the pretty but rather soggy lawn. I was distracted by the conversation, and neglected to offer my services as grill master (perhaps I unconsciously had figured out that this was not going to be an informal party as I had thought).

Alas, it was not. Suddenly, out of the kitchen came a small caravan of people carrying large platters heaped with food. Some of it looked familiar: two types of rice, two platters of salad, a salver heaped with grilled chicken, and another with a tall pile of what I thought were the steaks, plantains, potatoes, cubes of some dark stuff (perhaps yams?), a delicious green salsa, fufu and banku. In short, a feast that must have taken hours to prepare. With much delight we lined up to heap food in our plates, and it was then that I discovered that what I thought were the steaks was really a big pile of tilapia fish. So where were the steaks? At this point Claudia approached me and, pointing to the pile of black cubes, told me that I should have some of them since that was the meat I had brought. Then everything became clear: The cook had no idea what to do with the steaks, so she had cut them in morsels, and had then proceeded to grilled them to death, until they were more pieces of jerky than the intended medium rare steaks that are such a part of American culture. L Hey, you learn something new everyday. Besides, the little lumps of charred meat went very well with the green salsa!

The party was great, as all parties that include lots of young people normally are, and we finished it in grand style when a birthday cake was produced, and we proceeded to sing Happy Birthday in three language to the youngest member of the group, who was celebrating her 21st birthday away from home. She was a very happy girl!

As we were getting ready to go, Abigail and Claudia called me apart and gave me, as a gift, a beautiful and colorful shirt of the type so favored by Ghanaian men. I will treasure it for many years to come, and when I wear it will certainly think on all the wonderful people I have met in this friendly country.