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. 

Ghana 2017 - Day 24. Back to Accra via Akosombo reservoir

After the tough day we had yesterday the plan was to just loiter by the swimming pool until it was time for lunch and checking out. We did the loitering like real pros, believe me.

On our way back we once again crossed the Adomi Bridge, but then took a sharp right and headed upstream until we got to the village of Akosombo, which to this date remains a company town, under the control of the Volta River Authority. It is beautifully maintained, and even boasts its own luxury hotel (US$ 150 per night), with a restaurant that has a magnificent view of the Akosombo Dam. The dam was the most significant project of the administration of Ghana’s first president, Kwame Nkrumah, who clearly understood that the new country would need energy to develop. The new dam (built between 1961 to 1964) has an installed capacity of 1,000 Megawatts, and when it was inaugurated in 1964 (just a few months before the coup d’etat that unseated President Nkrumah), all of a sudden met all the electric needs of the new nation (80% to aluminum refining and 20% to consumers), with enough to spare to sell to Togo and Benin. Ghana added another 400 MW to its hydroelectric generating capacity in 2013, with the inauguration of the Bui dam, in the upper reaches of the Volta River.

The dam has two sections, both earth embankments. The main section is 115 m high and on its left abutment has the adjustable flow spillway, and on the right a power plant fed by six gigantic penstocks. The second section is just a dam embankment. The Volta Lake impounded behind the dam is the second largest man-made lake in the world, with an area of 8,502 km2, and a volume of approximately 120 million acre-ft (148 km3). Of course the inundation of such a large area required flooding of fertile lands and relocation of several thousands of people, so there is no lack of critics.

In any case, it was a pivotal project in the modern history of Ghana, and I am glad I had a chance to see it, even from a distance.

Ghana 2017 - Day 23. Mount Afadja

Today is planned as an adventure day, so we braced ourselves for a day of hiking and fun. We started with a 2-hour bus ride to the base of Afadjato, or Mount Afadja, which at 885 m (2,904 ft) is the tallest peak in West Africa. It may not seem much, but the mountain resembles a tall mound of banku with very steep sides. The students were chomping at the bit to start climbing, and literally ran up the first slopes. Me, being older and wiser (plus having a tender right knee), took off at a slow pace with the intent of showing that the tortoise ultimately wins the race. I am not sure from what elevation we were starting, so I guessed 100 m (330 ft), and adjusted my pace accordingly. I was not counting, however, that one of our older students was going to be even slower than I was. She is a traditionally built African American woman in her late 30’s, and was huffing and puffing before we even reached the first significant slope. But she wanted to climb this peak, so I hung back with her, teaching her how to set her feet, look for the easiest way, and take judicious break. In exchange she maintained a constant flow of chatter, telling me about her life, her goals, and her future plans to marry this Ghanaian man she met for the first time three weeks ago. She is so quintessential American, so I have a hard time imagining her pounding fufu every morning to feed her family, but to each her own.

Little by little we went up the mountain, and when we were maybe a 100 m from the top met the first of our group, already on his way down. By the time we  made it to the top everybody had already started down, and my charge was ready to collapse and die. So we took maybe 15 minutes on the top, took photographs, and she sent a few snapchat messages to family and friends, proud of the fact that she had conquered the tallest mountain in West Africa.

Then, of course, came the long way down. This gal has no sense of balance, so I had to literally direct her every step, provide a shoulder for her to lean on, and again lend a friendly ear to her never-ending flow of chatter. By the time we were two thirds of the way down we met Kaleb, who was the first scout of the rescue party, and who mercifully had remembered to bring with him extra water. Our arrival to the starting point was received with glee, because by this time it was 2 pm and everybody was starving.

After a delicious lunch we headed for the Wli waterfall, where we were going to swim, walk behind the waterfall, and chill. However, this year there seems to have been a series of very heavy storms in Togo (never heard off before), and the gentle stream that forms the waterfall had turned into a raging torrent. We still walked over to the pool under the waterfall, for about 45 minutes and across a partly flooded series of concrete bridges, only to stare in awe at the immense power of the water, and the drenching cloud of spray formed as the water hurled down over a good 50 meters (this is also the tallest waterfall in West Africa). By the time we got back the sun was setting, and drenched as we were we gratefully sank into the seats of the bus for the two-hour return trip.

It occurs to me that, being the oldest in the group, it is up to me to negotiate the bride price of the gal who intends to marry a Ghanaian. The bride price should be somewhere around 1,000 cedis, so my initial idea of asking for a dozen goats (at 300 cedis each) was untenable. I have now settled on one mortar and pestle so our girl can prepare the family’s fufu early every morning, one pregnant nanny goat so she can prepare the goat soup from the kids that are sure to follow, four laying hens, and 20 bars of Ghanaian chocolate (one for every member of her USAC family). Sounds pretty fair price for a healthy bride, don’t you think?

Ghana 2017 - Day 22. Outing to the Volta Region

I am a couple days behind in my blog on account of a trip we made to the Volta region (Ghana’s easternmost state). We started at an unbelievably late 8 am, because we started by traveling north from Accra, and thus away from the traffic jams. We then turned northeast, flanking the eastern edge of the Akwapim-Togo range, which as the name implies roughly follows the border between Ghana and Togo. It is very pretty country, with extensive mango plantations and a pervasive coastal feeling.

Eventually we reached the estuary of the Volta River, just downstream of the Akosombo Dam. We got down of the bust to cross on foot the Adomi Bridge, a two-hinged steel arch bridge with a deck suspended by cables, which gave us some very pretty views of the Lower Volta River. This is also a great place to taste Ghanaian “tamales” (very much like the tamales de dulce we have in Mexico, wrapped in banana leaves), “boquerones” (tiny fish that are sold deep fried and are normally eaten with the tamales because the poor folk here have not yet discovered the many advantages of tortillas), and brochettes of land snails grilled with small Habanero peppers. They taste pretty good, although a bit chewy.

Farther to the northeast we reached the city of Ho, capital of the Volta Region, and finally reached our hotel high in a ridge of the Akwapim-Togo range. From the terrace of the hotel we had a beautiful view of the city, and of the delta plain of the Volta River to the south. After a tasty lunch at the hotel we moved farther north to reach the Tafi Monkey Sanctuary, which is home to the Mona and Patas monkey species. These monkeys do not only live in the nearby forest but have also made the Tafi village their home and the people have accepted them as a part of their lifestyle. The little town of Tafi is a very typical African town, but has taken positive steps to become an ecotourism town, with home stays, jungle walks, and of course banana feeding to the monkeys. The idea is to hold a banana in your hand, just as if you were going to eat it, to encourage a monkey to jump on your arm and help itself to small pieces of fruit. Unfortunately some of the monkeys have learned that it is easier to knock down the banana from the hand of a skiddish tourist, so pretty soon there were pieces of fruit flying all over the place.

Baby monkeys are particularly adorable, as they cling for dear life to mama’s belly as she jumps from tree to tree.

Tomorrow promises to be a tough day, so we were happy to retire to our very comfortable rooms at the hotel.

Ghana 2017 - Day 21. Achimota Forest Reserve

My friend Gustav reminded me that not far from the university is the Achimota Forest Reserve, so I spent the best part of the morning trying to get to it. As the crow flies it is really not that far from me, so armed with a large scale map I started walking. The first area I came to was the residential neighborhood called Little Legon, which is where I am going to live when I move to Ghana. The houses looked white and pretty, like old Los Angeles houses dating from the early 1950’s, and were set in a delightful park-like environment, so the walk through was a real treat. Unfortunately there was a fence between be and the Achimota forest, so I spent some time testing faintly marked footpaths, but to no avail. I finally found an old guy, dressed in the green combat fatigues that are worn by university workers, and he told me that the entrance was a long ways and I had to take a trotro. He very kindly offered to walk me to the bust stop, and told me that Little Legon had been built in 1947, by the British, as housing for the university’s administrators and faculty. I must give it to the Brits: they know how to make themselves comfortable in the colonies.

Eventually I flagged down a trotro, and told the ticket-man that I was going to Achimota forest. No problem, his expression said, and after a few minutes stopped the minibus and told me I was there. When I alighted I saw I was at the offices of the Department of Forestry, which I suspected was a bit of an overkill, but I philosophically went in and asked which was the way. Everyone looked to me like I was insane, but being the polite people they are one person handed me to another until deep in the vowels of the ministry a sensible young woman asked me: “You want to . . . walk . . . in the forest?” Yes, I assured her. “But we don’t walk in the forest.”  Finally I learned that there is a zoo in the forest, and that this is the part of the forest that folks visit. So she walked with me to the gate, pointed me to the place I could talk a trotro, and gave me careful directions on how to get there: “Get down at the Police Station traffic light, turn left and walk to the next traffic light, and then turn left again until you see the zoo.” Fair enough, but I was running out of time by then, and as soon as I reached the Police Station traffic light I had to turn around to make it to my class. But I now know the way, so come Monday I will finally see the green boughs of Achimota Forest.

Ghana 2017 - Day 20. Yet another normal class day

Oh boy, it is hot. The morning was cool enough, but when I finally came back home at 5 pm my shirt was soaked. I am very glad to be sitting by the side of my AC.

My morning was interesting. In the third floor of the International House is the Institute for Natural Resources of Africa, which belongs to the United Nations University (UNU). I had never heard of this university, so with the help of our Administrative Assistant, Claudia, I set a meeting with the Director, to find out what UNU is all about. Dr. Elias Ayuk received me like a long-lost brother, and told me that UNU had been established in the 1970’s, as a think tank to advice the United Nations on different development challenges. UNU was endowed by the Japanese government with an initial 100 million dollars, and by now their endowment is closer to 300 million dollars. All their monies come from the interest on the endowment or from grants, and they don’t receive a penny from the United Nations (the idea is that they can be a truly independent consultative body that cannot be financially pressured by UN representatives). They have different working groups in Tokyo, Helsinki, Ghana, and 14 other countries, each with their own specialty. They are not a university in the sense that they don’t have students, although some of the working groups have shared doctoral programs with their host universities. In the Ghana group, the Institute for Natural Resources of Africa, they have four senior researchers, a few post-docs, and in the next three years would like to offer doctorate degrees in Policy for Development of Renewable Resources, Policy for a Green Economy, and Policy for Development of Non-Renewable Resources. I told Dr. Ayuk about my interest in Water Resources in Ethiopia, but I don’t think Ethiopia is really in their radar.

The students got back their midterms, which were OK but a bit disorganized regarding the one essay question. Here is the scenario: “You have been hired as Water Resources Manager for the small Western Colorado municipal service area of Nowhere, USA. The municipality includes a town of 40,000 people (which swells to 100,000 in the winter with sky enthusiasts) and sits amidst a valley that is 50 by 30 miles. The town occupies 3 square miles, but the municipality has set aside and additional 3 square miles to accommodate for future growth (population increases at a rate of 2% every year).”

“The municipality wants to develop the valley with apple orchards, to take advantage of the spring and summer rains, which on average deliver 12 inches of precipitation over those two seasons. Precipitation is larger in the fall and winter, but most of it falls as snow in the surrounding mountains.”

The valley has three tributary rivers, which come together to form the Anywhere River, which flows through the town.”

To try to get across the method I would use to write such an essay I started with writing an outline, then concentrated all the math in an attached spreadsheet, an finally fleshed the essay by developing each of my outline subjects into a full paragraph. I hope they appreciated the effort, which took the first of the four hours of lecture we had today.

In one of the breaks someone mentioned The Hub Restaurant, in campus, as a good but pricey place. It took me a while to find it, but what a find! It is an American style restaurant, where you would pay US$ 8 for a good hamburger with fries, and US$ 6 for a tasty Greek salad. Totally worth the price!

Tomorrow I need to write down my midterm evaluation, so I am going to suggest that USAC adds to the campus map both the Bush Canteen (cheap Ghanaian food) and The Hub Restaurant (a bit pricey but good American-style restaurant). I think this would go a long way to helping the homesick students feel at home.

Ghana 2017 - Day 19. Normal class day

Not much to report. The students turned in their midterm exams, which means I have to grade them today. Grading is my least favorite activity, so I will probably procrastinate until late into the night before I get to it.

Actually, one fun thing I did before class was to take a long walk through the University of Ghana Botanical Gardens. This is a large area on the north side of campus, where all sorts of trees and bushes are growing in great profusion. There was a small army of gardeners armed with machetes engaged in the never-ending task of cutting down the grass. It seems to me that the botanical gardens have seen better times, just to judge by the vintage of the labels that mark very few trees, but they make for a very pleasant walk.

I was hoping I could find a baobab, but met with little success (I finally asked one of the gardeners and was told that no, they didn’t have a baobab anywhere in the gardens). I did come across a pond, where every tree was home to hundreds of egrets, and for a moment felt I was looking at an abandoned set of The Birds. In that same area, which is likely the most visited by families, there is a canopy walk and a playground, both of whom would be a great delight to Ronaldito.

OK, I better get on with the grading.

Ghana 2017 - Day 18. A day at the city

I had made a list of things I needed to accomplish today, which should take me all over Accra. By now I own the city, so it was quite easy to chart my way using trotros and shortcuts. First, I had the project of going back to the W.E.B. DuBois memorial to buy a book of Ghanaian folk tales. I did find one I liked, and then another, and another, and at the end bought four, which will add considerably to my load but should also give me endless hours of entertainment with Ronaldito.

Then I went to the US Embassy, only to find out that I couldn’t come in carrying a cell phone, and no, I could not simply check it in at the door. Is that a stupid rule, or what? Who in this time and age doesn’t carry a cell phone? Fortunately I was on high standing at the W.E.B. DuBois memorial (after all, I had just spent a small fortune there), so I trudged back there and asked them to hold my electronics for me, which they readily agreed to do. Back to the embassy I went, but again I was barred entrance. A helpful guard took my passport and took it in, and five minutes later he came out to tell me that I should do an appointment through the internet, and in any case they were no longer adding pages to passports and I would have to request a new one. Grrr! I was miffed, planning in my mind a nastygram to send to the Department of State and my congressman. Afterward I checked in the embassy website, and they did indeed had there the no cell phones, and previous appointment requirements. Furthermore, they had a note stating that as of January 1, 2016 the Department of State was discontinuing the practice of adding pages to existing passports. Growl! Defeated by bureaucracy once again L

The next stop was the Ghana Water Resources Commission, where I was going to see if I could buy a 2011 report entitled “A primer for water conservation, flood risk reduction, and irrigation strategy for Northern Ghana”, which I thought would make good reading for my class. After my encounter with American bureaucracy I was jaded about asking for a report to a Ghanaian government entity, and imagined my inquiry would encounter all sorts of red tape. Still, no guts no glory, and I stepped boldly into the foyer. The secretary listened to me with great attention, and then asked for a moment while she found someone to help me. A few seconds later a very nice young woman came to my aid, made a couple of phone calls, and the escorted me to the library, where she searched through stacks of old reports until she found the one I was looking for. She then asked me to follow her to the foyer and wait for a minute. At that very moment a smiling big wig entered dragging an associate in tow, and followed by the biggest policeman I have seen. His entrance caused a flutter of activity, and I thought that my little matter was now going to linger until the big wig had completed his business. Not really, the big wig was asked to take a sit, and my attending angel came a few minutes later carrying an envelope. When I asked if there was a price she dismissed the silly idea and wished me a good day. What a good feeling to be decently treated.

I made a few more stops, and came home loaded with parcels and books. I was hot and thirsty, but nothing that my wonderful AC and small refrigerator could not take care of. I need to be ready to receive and grade midterms tomorrow!

Ghana 2017 - Day 17. A perfect day

I forgot to mention that yesterday, on the way back from the Cape Coast, we saw several people along the road selling small dead antelopes, about the size of a kid goat. You could buy them whole, or if you were skiddish about dressing them, you could buy them roasted in exactly the same way a cabrito is sold in Mexico, opened flat by the use of bamboo sticks, and then roasted and a bit smoked by placing them on a bed of coals. I also saw a man offering a large rodent for the same purpose (long tail, so it looked like a large rat!).

But I digress. Today we are going to the beach, so in good time I started on my way to the International Student Hostel for an 8:30 am meeting. Half way there I was intercepted by Auntie Abigail, who was heading the same way to see the students off on their way to the beach. She was dressed to the hilt, with a beautiful colorful dress and matching headscarf, and had her two sons with them, because after seeing us off they were heading to church. When we got there we met Claudia and Uncle Joe, who were to be our guides for the day. One by one the students trickled out of the hostel and when they were all assembled Auntie Abigail asked the to meet with her for ten minutes this week, to do a midterm assessment. I like this concern by the Resident Director very much.

Once in the bus we took a two and a half bus ride to the coast in the eastern part of the country, in the neighborhood of the port city of Ada, right at the mouth of the Volta River. We stopped at a villa/restaurant, where we embarked in a small motor boat that brought us right to the sand bar at the mouth of the estuary. The tide was coming in and we had the unique opportunity of seeing the tidal bore entering the estuary. We landed on the sand bar, in a beautiful cluster of palm trees, under which stood a couple of thatch-roof palapas and a few beach chairs. The place was idyllic, and for the next couple of hours the students had the chance to play in the ocean on one side of the bar, and in the estuary on the other side. I completed the picture of paradise by nursing a beer sitting on a beach chair under the palm fronds.

Afterward the boat brought us back to the villa, where a delicious buffet was waiting for us. There was white rice, red rice, and friend rice, a delicious salad, fried chicken, fried fish, plantains, and banku with a salsa that could match any salsa made in Mexico. As the oldest member of the group I had to go first (my inclination would have been to go last, but Uncle Joe had by now made it clear that this is the way things are done in Ghana and I was not going to go against tradition). It was a delicious feast, and the students thoroughly enjoyed it. As I mentioned in a previous blog we have all been a bit baffled by the fact that we have to order each piece of lunch or dinner individually, so it was areal treat to be able to select what to put in our plates. The students were delighted.

Our final treat was a two hour period to play in the pool, sunbathe, and just relax listening to a disk jokey who was playing just the right kind of music for our young crowd. The American and Ghanaian students mixed with the natural ease of young people, and everybody had a good time.

I want to recognize the deep understanding that the local USAC team has shown for the visiting students. I think Auntie Abigail, Claudia, and Uncle Joe understood perfectly that this is the time when the students hit rock bottom, and that they needed a boost to get them out of their funk. By organizing a pool party they hit the right note to show them that their visit to Ghana has all the fun that they can expect back home, and that things are looking up. Toward the end of the day one of the students told me that “Ghana sure has a lot to offer. I had no idea what to expect when I signed up to come here, and was ready to seek the silver lining even if things were rough. Now I know that it is easy to love this country.” Bravo to the local USAC team!

Ghana 2017 - Day 16. The Cape Coast

3:30 am. The fresh water of the shower felt like a mild form of torture, but today the group is meeting at 5 am for a fieldtrip and I am planning to crash it. The big objective of the day is to go visit the Cape Coast Slave Castle, which implies a trip of about 3 hours. Unfortunately our fearless leader, Uncle Joe, forgot to stress the fact that he wanted us in time, so we had to wait for those that are now in African time and we didn’t take off until 5:20 am.

The trip was rather uneventful, basically because we all fell asleep. We stirred back to life sometime around 9 am, when we left the paved road to drive to the Kakum National Park, where our guide had planned for breakfast and a pleasant surprise. We started walking around 10 am, and after 20 minutes reached the first of a series of rope bridges that gave us access to the canopy of this beautiful equatorial rain forest. The first bridge was wobbly and scary, but the view was absolutely fantastic. Unfortunately we had a group of Spanish tourists insert themselves between our group, and they were pretty obnoxious. Every other word was a malediction, and they were loud and didn’t care that the other people were trying to have a quiet moment to admire this cathedral of nature.

We pushed forward and managed to get to the other four bridges ahead of them. We were then able to slow down and take the time to just feel the glorious experience of flying among the giant trees of the jungle. We were hoping to spot a monkey or a colorful bird, but with the racket behind us every living thing within a radius of several kilometers had decamped.

On the way up to the bridges Kaleb had become fascinated with a stream of small black ants, and was happily taking extreme closeup photos when he felt the bite of an ant up his leg. And then another, and another, and … he had to drop his pants in front of everyone to shake the ants that were now crawling up his leg!  He is our bug, lizard, snake, and rodent guy, so I suspect deep in his heart he enjoyed his close encounter with African wildlife. Later, on the way down, the girls saw a worm that was about a foot long and were all doing yuk faces when Kaleb dropped to his knees, picked the worm up, and proceeded to coo sweet little nothings in his little worm ear. Double yuk!

From there we drove to Elmina, one of the oldest towns in Ghana. “A Mina”, later corrupted to Elmina, was the first Portuguese settlement in the Gold Coast (ca. 1471). The Portuguese built a fort here to protect the town from the depredations of other European nations, but in no time became a slave castle, where the slaves bartered by the local chiefs were kept until it was time to load them in ships for their transport to the Brazilian plantations. We didn’t visit the Elmina Castle, but went close to it for us to take photos. In the way there we ran into the funeral of someone really important (today is Saturday), and the funerary activities had taken over the main road, causing traffic to figure their own detours. The castle is pretty imposing, but anyone coming to the Gold Coast could simply disembark 10 kilometers down the coast and no one would be the wiser.

That is precisely what the Swedes did in 1654, when they established the Cape Coast Castle a few kilometers to the east. The Swedes handed the castle over to the Danes in one of the many ups and downs of the Sweden-Denmark reversals of war, and the Danes eventually lost it to the Dutch, which in turn lost it to the British, who made it one of their main points of slave embarkation in the 1700’s for overseas transport to their American colonies. The English abolished slavery in the British empire in 1833 (with the exceptions "of the Territories in the Possession of the East India Company", Ceylon, and Saint Helena; the exceptions were eliminated in 1843).

We went into the castle, and one of the guides walked us through the slave holding cells. They were pretty grim. There were five male slave cells and three female cells. Imagine a dark, dank enclosure, about 5 by 10 meters, where up to 200 slaves would be held until it was time for embarkation, once every three months. Reportedly the slaves were kept in chains, and wallowed in their own filth up to their knees. It is not clear how they were fed, or why the slave masters would allow slaves to die by the hundreds, when they were valuable merchandise. Was it to break their spirit, as some think, or simply because there were so many that a dead slave would be easily replaced by one recently arrived with one of the inland riding parties? In either case they were treated worst than a sty of pigs.

Cape Coast Castle was an English operation, supervised by the Anglican Church, and the pastor was ex officio the Master Slave Trader. The most famous of them held the post for over 50 years, and is buried right in the main court of the castle.

The current administration of the castle (National Park Service?) has undertaken a rather macabre memorial project, in which hundreds of heads of likely slaves have been carved, molded, and then cast in cement. These heads are now in the dungeons, in the dark, to remind visitors that this is ground hallowed by the misery of tens of thousands of miserables who were transported across the Atlantic, away from homeland and family, to serve the interests of an insatiably greedy class. It was a very chilling reminder.

Michelle and Barack Obama visited the Cape Coast Castle in 2009. Barack Obama is of course of Kenyan descent, but Michelle believes that her ancestors may have come from Ghana, and could have very well passed through the walls of this infamous castle. Both of them came, with respect, to honor the memory of the ancestors of many African Americans. May these ancestors rest in peace.

Ghana 2017 - Day 15. Foiled!

I had the plan of going to Togo for the long weekend, so early in the morning I took the trotro to Madina, and at the station there took the long distance trotro to Aflao, at the Ghana-Togo border. It was a long ride, a little over 4 hours long, but I had the double advantage of been an Obruni and an older man, so I was given the sit in the front, by the window, so I had the chance of seeing the country in between slumbers. A pretty landscape that very much reminded of driving along the coast of Veracruz.

We got to Aflao around 11 am, and were immediately assaulted by a mob of coyotes who were eager on escorting us to Togo. I managed to liberate myself from that mob, and walked the couple of blocks to the border. There, once again, I was subject to a hundred voices assuring me that they were the perfect venue for getting me into Togo. I kept on until I was directed into a formal office, where I had to report I was leaving Ghana. Looked like an inefficient bureaucratic office, but an agent right away took my passport, gave me the exit form, and shepherded me through all the desks to collect stamps and approval nods. He finally called one of the money exchangers, who gave me 50,000 CFA in exchange for 400 GH¢ (I suspect I lost about US$ 25 in the exchange, but I needed Togo currency to pay for my visa).

Then I crossed the street to Togo immigration, where again a helpful agent gave the necessary form to request an on-arrival visa, and quickly went through the formalities. And then he started thumbing the pages of my passport, and with real concern me told me that I didn’t have two free pages in my passport. He patiently explained that the visa took a full page, and that the opposite page is where the arrival and departure seals had to be placed. He called his supervisor, who also so no way out of the bind. They even took my passport to the big boss, but there was really nothing even he could do. “Desole, Monsieur. C’set pa possible.” Rats! I had been foiled because I had not made sure there were enough free pages in my passport.

So I had to go back to Ghana Immigration, to report I was not leaving the country after all. A new round of consultation ensued, to see if there was a way to get me into Togo, but to no avail. The exchange man was once again called in, and he bought back the 50,000 CFA, but I only got 300 GH¢ (so he made another US$ 25 gain on the transaction). Once I got out another coyote assured me that he could get me in through the other port of entry. I was tempted, but at the end decided that pushing it was not worth the risk, and kept going until I found a restaurant where I could drown my sorrows with a cold beer and a tasty plate of fish and chips.

I once again scored a front seat by the window in the trotro to go back to Accra, where I arrived at 6 pm. It was a long day, and all I had to show for it was a sore butt. You just cannot win them all.

Ghana 2017 - Day 14. The bottom of the fifth

We have finished our second of four weeks of instruction, and many of the students are touching bottom on the typical pattern of students abroad. A bit of the stress is due to the fact that this weekend they are having midterms (I gave a take home midterm that should be pretty straightforward, but will still require my three students to block out four hours to get it done.

Our one male student, Klaeb, is handling things very well. He is the friendly sort, so by now has made quite a few friends among the Ghanaian students staying at his dorm. He started by bribing some of the students with an invitation to share a cup of coffee, and by now every time he arrives his many friends holler a welcome just at the sound of his steps.

Some of the girls, on the other hand, are getting homesick and have been sick. They are all pretty gregarious, but misery loves company so they have formed a pretty tight group with not many other connections. I realize this is a broad statement, and I must point out that there are some glorious exceptions. One of our female students had an introduction to a Ghanaian family, and from day two she was happily spending time with them, formed an attachment with the son of the family, and is having a great time visiting schools and attending community events.

Two of our very outgoing African-American students have been struck by intestinal disease, and are now afraid of trying any new food (fortunately they have not lost their good humor). The paranoia has extended to the rest of the clan, so the girls are now tired of just eating rice, and are beginning to dream about steaks, French fries, and Italian pasta. Unfortunately they have strange eating habits, and eat like birds anyway, so I can see that American foods are by now some sort of unattainable Nirvana.

After class I suggested to my students that we could go to the mall and catch a movie. Wonder Woman was showing at 4:30 pm, so we had time to go have lunch before the movie. As it turns out, the girls had already seen it (When? I thought it had just come out this summer?), but they jumped at the chance to go have a hamburger at the mall. So we got there by trotro and made a beeline for the hamburger place (I forget the name, but one of the girls said they had this same chain in New York). The hamburgers looked great, but the price was a bit steep (about US$ 20 including fries and soda). What the heck, you only live once. I had the old traditional fat patty, medium rare, with cheese, lettuce and tomato, with sweet potato fries, and had to refrain myself not to gobble it up. I needed to enjoy this meal. Kaleb had a barbecue hamburger with French fries that he also enjoyed tremendously. But our enjoyment was nothing like that of the girls, who were enraptured by their own hamburgers, fries, and lots and lots of ketchup. I think it was the right medicine for the midterm blues! (but, alas, a couple of them eat only half of their hamburgers and had their plates removed before I could ask them “Are you going to finish that?”).

After lunch we broke apart, the girls to do some shopping and take a taxi back home, and Kaleb and I to enjoy the movie and a bag of popcorn. It was a fun afternoon.

Ghana 2017 - Day 13. Colorful fabrics

Just another day at the office, so for lack of something better to tell I will reflect of the dress styles I see around me.

Ghanaians are very dapper in their daily dress. The girls, in particular, take a lot of pride in their personal appearance and favor bold, solid colors on form-fitting dresses. Bright yellow, hot pink, or flaming red, lets you see them coming half a block away. The young men are more into the casual look, with jeans that are just right and colorful t-shirts. Nerds at the university are impeccably dressed with white collar shirts and neckties.

At the university or in downtown older men are very likely to wear suits, or patterned shirts with colorful African motifs. Older ladies prefer tailored business suites.

The real extravaganza comes when you visit the marketplace, or in small towns, where a good number of the women wear traditional outfits. As far as I can tell it includes an ample skirt with a bold pattern, a blouse that may be of the same pattern or simply coordinate with the skirt, and a good-for-all piece of cloth about three yards long. This convenient piece of fabric is used in many different ways. For example, mothers may use them to strap their babies to their backs, in such a way that the poor kid is tightly held in place so he cannot move and can only loll his head in peaceful slumber. Or maybe the baby will be slung forward for peaceful and private lactation. The fabric can also be used to carry stuff, from a few oranges to a sewing machine, again firmly secured against the back of the owner. If the object is too big to carry on her back, say a TV, our heroine will simply roll the fabric, put it on her head as a cushion, and elegantly balance her new TV on her head all the way home. This versatile piece of clothing can also be used as an umbrella or parasol, a jacket against the wind, or as a stylish hat wrapped around her head.

Speaking of head, having your hair braided into dozens of skinny braids is the rage. Of our four African-American students three had come from the United States with their hair braided (at an average cost of US$ 200 I am told). The fourth girl was smart and had her hair braided here, for the equivalent to US$ 10. She was feeling pretty smug. I think they are all planning to have their hair newly braided (plus all sorts of extra “hair” for volumizing purposes) before going back home.

Ghana 2017 - Day 12. Further gastronomic adventures

I was not going to let crappy internet slow me down, so early in the morning I went to the International House and made the internet buzz. My crazy friend Bob wants to write a paper on “agrogeology”, and has tasked me with discussing, preferably in three pages or less, how hydrogeology relates the agriculture. Given that I teach a whole year sequence about water supply the task appeared impossible. So I figured I would talk about the ideas that roll in my head when I see countries like Morocco or Mexico struggling to provide enough water for agriculture, and then take a warp-drive leap into the cutting edge of technology used for water management in a place like California, where there are very large numbers of users tapping into the same groundwater basin.

As far as “basic” water harvesting schemes, I cast my mind back to a trip I made more than 15 years ago to the Valley of Tehuacán, in Mexico, where the domesticators of corn built the El Purrón Dam (coordinates 18.176844, -97.117449 in Google Earth). The dam  was completed by the Middle to Late Formative (ca. 650 - 150 B.C.), and was built using an ancient system of caissons, where separate “cells” formed by walls of stacked stones were filled in with soil. El Purrón Dam measured 400 meters long, 100 meters wide, and nearly 25 meters high. Workers transported by hand some 2.64 million cubic meters of earth to build it! Just as impressive are the hundreds of kilometers of canals and aqueducts (locally called tecoatls) that conveyed water from the dam and nearby springs to more than 330 square kilometers of cropland. All this happened over 2,500 years ago!

The other approach I observed in Morocco 3 or 4 years ago, through the use of qanats or puquios. The invention of this method is credited to Iranian farmers, but it soon spread through the Islamic world, including Morocco and Al Andaluz in southern Spain, and from there it was brought by the Spanish explorers into Latin America, where some still remain in use (e.g., Aguascalientes in Mexico). A qanat is a long gallery that extends from the upper portions of alluvial fans, where the water table typically has a steep slope, down to the distal portion of the alluvial fan and even down to the floor of the adjacent plains. The first step in building a qanat is for Farmer A to sink a hole in the upper portion of the alluvial fan until groundwater is found. A second hole is then excavated by Farmer B, about 20 m down the slope from the well of Farmer A, to the same depth as that of the water bearing hole. Once the final depth is reached Farmer B excavates a nearly horizontal tunnel to join one well to the other until eventually the same groundwater is reached and water flows into the channel. Now two farmers have wells with water in them. Farmer C then repeats the operation, about 20 m downgradient of Farmer B’s well. One by one downslope farmers “connect” into the ever growing underground “pipeline” until eventually 50 to 100 farmers have local access to water.

Interestingly, the technique of the qanat was independently discovered by the Nazca civilization (ca. 100 BC to 800 AD) of the Atacama Desert, in Peru and Chile. The Atacama Desert is one of the driest places on Earth. Yet, the Nazca people managed to farm that land for hundreds of years by using puquios, in all aspects similar to qanats. A good example can be observed in Google Earth by entering the coordinates
-14.810739, -74.892700.

I felt particularly proud of being able to find these places through Google Earth, because I was going at it based on very faint memories of places I visited many years go. Travels do teach you a few useful things J

Full of myself I decided to tackle the more mundane task of finding a good place to have lunch before my class started at 1 pm. Theophilus, one of our fabulous Ghanaian students suggested I could try the Bush Cantine, just outside of the perimeter of the university (“turn left, then again left, then right, then left and go out of the university through the little door, and finally turn right until you see the entrance.”). Unbelievably the instructions made perfect sense once I started walking, and in no time whatsoever I found myself in a small market with a wide food court. Many of the stalls had pictures of the food they sold, and I selected one that offered beans with plantains. The dish, I learned, is called red-red, and starts with a generous serving of beans to which is added a handful of dry fufu, a scoop of some tasty red sauce, avocado pieces, and a good serving of fried plantains. It was delicious! In the days to come I plan to go from stall to stall, taking whatever they want to serve me, and in this way sample the best of Ghanaian cuisine.

After lunch I wandered through the market stalls, looking at knick knacks, until I came to the stall of a seamstress. On a whim I went in and asked if she could do me a shirt with colorful African fabric. No problem. So she took my measurements, had me choose the fabric, and in a week I should be able to disguise myself as a sage African professor. All this for the equivalent to US$ 15! If I like the shirt I plan to order one or two more.

Class was OK, but two of my three students mentioned that there was a lot of math in this class. More like arithmetic, really, but I have to remember that oh so many college students are math phobic, and see little value in trying to estimate quantities and rates. Where did we go wrong?

I think I will have an enormous, juicy, delicious mango for supper.

Ghana 2017 - Day 11. A slightly more productive day

I am still having problems connecting to the internet, which to me has become an addiction. Therefore I packed my things and headed for the International House to use their computers. I had a bunch of things I wanted to check or research, so I did a lot of file swapping between computers (but of course I forgot a couple of things that I discovered only afterwards). While I was there I had the company of the four Ghanaian students that work for USAC and serve as buddies for the foreign students. They are really attentive so I managed to get a cup of coffee and all sorts of free advice on how to best access the internet. But they are young adults with contrasting personalities and easily get into arguments, which they conduct in a rapid-fire mixture of Tui and English. I think they are bored, so I have decided that my present to them is going to be some sort of trivia game that they can use to vent their competitive spirits.

Around 11 am I decided that I had the responsibility of being a tourist, so I headed for the trotro stop and headed for downtown. I was intent on visiting the National Museum of Ghana, which for some reason had not been included in our intro tour. I navigated unerringly through trotro and streets to the site of the museum, but was disappointed when the man in front informed me that the museum was closed for renovation (from the look of it they have been in “renovation” for years). Nearby I found the Museum of Science and Technology, which had precious little about science or technology, but was currently occupied by a modern art exhibit. That is OK, I can do modern art. Alas, it was a bit disappointing. Many of the exhibits seemed to be random collections of junk collected at the Lavender Hills dump. Some of the paintings were amazingly good, however, so the visit was not a complete disappointment.

I am beginning to crack the mysteries of Ghanaian food. First of all, the paste that I have had served with my thick or light soup is called fufu (before I had thought that was the name for what is otherwise called light soup; no wonder that cooks looked at me with the same puzzled look that we would give to someone who asked for tortillas for lunch). Fufu is done out of casaba, yams, plantains or any other type of tuber that can be pounded into meal, and then is reconstituted as either a soft or dense dough. What kind of fufu you get has something to do with the innate sense of universal balance of the cook. A dense fufu is the best accompaniment for a light soup, whereas a soft fufu should accompany a heavier soup. Speaking of soup, Ghanaians love soup, and a meal would not be complete if it does not include soup (normally after the main dish). My Mom and my daughter would be perfect Ghanaians! As I mentioned before, soup can be light, like a broth, or heavy like a stew, but in all cases should include some meat chosen from the basic four: goat, beef, chicken, or fish. It should also have onion and pepper. An easy way to turn a light soup into a heavy soup is to add okra to the former, but you can also do it by adding cut yams or tomatoes to the pot.

I came back home around 3 pm and got busy working on my paper, and only stopped when I saw night had fallen. Tomorrow will be a better day because I have class and at least will have a chance to talk with my students.

Ghana 2017 - Day 10. Sunday at home

Nothing to report. I worked on a paper until I got stuck for lack of information. Naturally I turned to Google for help, only to find out that I cannot connect to the internet. Rats!

I decided to take a break and go to the mall to shop for a couple of thank you presents for my gracious hosts here. I have no idea what would be a good present for Auntie Abigail and Claudia, and didn’t get a lot of great ideas after wandering through the mall. Maybe a board game?

I thought about catching a movie while I was at the mall, but Wonder Woman was not starting until 5 pm and I was not ready to wait for four hours. Maybe tomorrow.

Back in my room I found I still cannot connect to the internet. Curses! Fortunately I have a TV, so at least I can entertain myself with sports, music videos, or the news (guess what I chose). One of the news items referred to the cacao industry, which is facing a tough year ahead. First, the price per ton has fallen from US$ 3,500 to as low as US$ 2,000. The government is offering a subsidized price to the farmers of US$ 2,900, which should help, but is not quite what the farmers were expecting. Did you know that 75% of the cacao in the world is farmed in Africa, but the continent receives only 2% of the earnings? Most of the money is made by the chocolatiers. Clearly what Ghana needs to do is to process the cocoa beans themselves. In fact, there is one Ghanaian brand of chocolate; I have bought a couple of bars and it is not bad at all. I hope they eventually get to export the finished product. I also learned that cacao is a vine, and that in plantations the vines are kept off the ground by supporting them with poles. The cacao pod grows directly attached to the vine, like if it were a wart. I further learned that the farmers are asking for pesticides to fight some sort of caterpillar that likes to chew on the pods.

Ghana is very proud of its cocoa industry, and they consider it a good way to bring money into the country. As far as they are concerned this type of cash-crop is a good thing.

Ghana 2017 - Day 9. A cushy tour of Accra

The care of our gracious hosts knows no limits, so today we are scheduled to go for a guided tour of Accra, for which I am late because I was trying to catch up with yesterday’s blog. I left my house with barely a cup of coffee, and thought that perhaps I could find some quick bite to eat at the Night Market. The students had the same idea, and they had found a place that would prepare an omelet sandwich for only 1.50 cedis (something like US$ 0.35), so all of us crowded around and ended having breakfast together.

Uncle Joe will once again be our guide, but this time we had a smaller bus, better suited for navigating the streets of Accra (but I think it needs to go to the mechanic, because it jerks something awful in first gear). We started the tour by driving through the part of town where many of the embassies are located; just like in Addis it is a very nice neighborhood where I would be very comfortable living. At the edge of this neighborhood there is a large mosque, which very much reminded me of Hagia Sophia in Istambul.

Afterward we drove through the area where the military has its headquarters, barracks, officers’ housing, and military airport. It is a very large area of the city they have reserved for themselves! The country has very good relations with its neighbors, but they are ready to spring into action if a group like Boko Haram were to attempt an incursion into Ghanaian territory. 

Next we went to visit the house where W.E.B. Du Bois. For those of you who may be unfamiliar with him, Du Bois was an American sociologist, poet, and Pan-Africanist whose writings were pivotal to the Civil Rights movement in the United States, and to the independence of Ghana and other African nations. Du Bois was one of the co-founders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1909. Du Bois was a prolific author. His collection of essays, The Souls of Black Folk, was a seminal work in African-American literature. Haunted by American authorities for its communist ideology, Du Bois came to Accra at the invitation of President Kwame Nkrumah in 1960, became a Ghanaian citizen, and undertook the monumental task of editing the Encyclopedia Africana, to preserve the richness of African culture, until his death in 1963, at the age of 95. To our student Erica, who is majoring in African Studies, this visit was a dream come true.

We also visited the memorial to Kwame Nkrumah, first president of Ghana. I have described this memorial in day 2 of this blog, so I will limit myself to say that the curator believes that President Nkrumah was deposed by the military/police coup at the instigation of the CIA, because of his own communist sympathies. For the people of the country, however, he remains a beloved and visionary figure.

To balance the good with the not so great our tour took us through Lavender Hill, the tongue-in-cheek name given by the locals to the city dump. It is big, smelly, smokey, and distressingly close to the west edge of downtown. At some time it must have been in the outskirts, but now the city has grown around it, and for all practical purposes it is downtown. Like it happens in many old dumps, there are people that live on top of the refuse, in shacks made out of recovered materials, who eek out a living by recycling whatever they can. I am not sure why the city government has not closed the dump and installed a sanitary landfill elsewhere.

Our final hurrah was a visit to the handcrafts market, where the students got a chance to practice their haggling skills. I saw a pretty puzzle map of Africa for Ronnie, but am not sure I want to carry additional stuff with me and ended not buying it. I know I will regret it at a later time. I also met a very interesting guy, whose sales pitch started by asking where you were from. “Mexico”, I said. Then he started rattling the names of cities in Mexico to an extent that really amazed me. Then he claimed he knew the capital of every country in the world. “Really? OK, what about Argentina?” “Buenos Aires”, “Canada?” (I was sure he was going to say Toronto). “Ottawa”. Wow! “Sri Lanka?” “Colombo”. Hmm . . . ah, but I have a good one for him, “Madagascar?” “Antananarivo”. OK, I can see when I am beaten and had to give it to him my greatest respect as a master of geography!

Ghana 2017 - Day 8. A day at the beach

We are staying at the Axim Beach Resort, a delightful cluster of bungalows sitting on a small bluff overlooking the Atlantic. I woke early and donned my swimming shorts, and thus scantily attired went down to meet four of our early-riser students down at the beach. To the right of us the waves were breaking loudly against a rocky outcrop of metasedimentary rocks, whereas to the left a mile of sandy beach got lost into the horizon. I started wandering, crossed a couple of streams, and eventually came to the mouth of a river that in my imagination would have been most alluring to Fernão Gomes and his crew, who in 1469-1472 explored reached modern Ghana and settled in A Mina (the mine), later renamed Elmina. They had finally reached a country with an abundance of gold, hence the historical name of "Gold Coast" that Elmina would eventually receive.

The hotel grounds themselves are very beautiful, and imagine my surprise when I saw in them several walking trees, of the type I had only seen in the Amazonian jungle. This peculiar tree does not have a trunk that extends into the ground. Instead they are supported by a tepee-like scaffolding of roots that rise maybe a meter out of the ground before meeting the uplifted trunk. When the tree gets overshadowed by another tree, the roots on one side rot and break, whereas the ones on the other side grow longer, effectively allowing the tree to shimmy sideways to look for more sun.

Speaking of trees, I have been on the lookout for baobab trees, which grow incredibly fat and support but a small canopy well above the other trees. I have seen a couple of giants that in my imagination could be young baobabs, but I am still unsure.

After our delightful interlude at the beach we got back on the bus for the 6 hours ride back to the university. We were not looking forward to the long ride, but I entertained myself by looking in detail at the towns we passed by. For example, at regular intervals I saw small carpenter shops displaying coffins for sale, beautifully adorned with mirrors, brass fittings, or windows.  It is also interesting that each town has a tiny mosque (not more than one room with a minarete that is barely 3 or 4 meters tall). Ghanaians are largely Protestant Christians (80%), with minorities of Catholics, Muslims, and Traditionalists. The revival spirit is strong, so many businesses prominently display quotes from the Scriptures, and there seems to be revival and healing meetings happening all over the place and at all possible dates. Business names that made me smile included the Be Humble to the Lord barbershop, which in the sign included three men bowed in prayer with perfectly trimmed heads, or the In Him is Lite general goods store.

Most businesses have mundane names such as Tina’s Hair Salon, but now and then you come up with a jewel such as the Pearls of Wisdom academy, the Been There hardware store, or my personal favorite The Last Stop clinic. I wonder, is it the Last Stop because you are sure to be healed, or because from here you will be certain to go to a better life?

I have become an expert at shopping from the window of the bus. At any point where the bus has to slow down, such as at a busy intersection or a toll bridge, swarms of women cluster at the sides of the bus, offering goodies from huge pails balanced on their heads (have I already mentioned that women here have a superb sense of equilibrium and poise, and like carrying heavy burdens precariously balanced on top of their heads?). The trick is to have 1, 2, or 3 cedis in your hand, and on conducting the transaction in the bare few seconds before the bus speeds up. So far I have bought fried plantains, grilled shrimp, and sugar cane, but I was too slow to get a grilled squid L

There are all sorts of fruit being sold on the sides of the road, including big mountains of oranges, coconuts, mangos, and watermelons. An old man tending to the sale of his watermelons advertised his wares by sitting stoically in his stool, balancing a watermelon on top of his head. Speaking of old men, in this society we get all types of perks, such as being the first to be offered food, and having the right to pick the best morsels. Nice!

We finally made it back to the university, tired from the long bus ride, but very thankful to Auntie for having arranged such a treat for us. I have already said that the whole nation seems to be imbued with revival Christian fervor, and the university students are no exception. To judge from the signs all around campus religious clubs seem to be the most popular type of organization. Taking further consideration that today is Friday, I should not have been surprised by the number of students chanting in religious rapture, but when I came to a group that was speaking in tongues and wriggling on the floor, I thought it was time to cross the street and hurry back home.

Ghana 2017 - Day 7. Our trip to the western Region

I woke up in the dark and stumbled to the bathroom to take a cold shower (we are in the equatorial regions, so warm showers are considered a waste of energy), and by 4:30 am I was walking across campus to the International Student Hostel, where we were meeting at 5 am for our outing to the Western Region. I got there with 5 minutes to spare and only one of the guys was there ready to go. The other three boys got there within the next 10 minutes, but the girls took their sweet time and we only left at 5:30 am. The trip was to take 6 to 7 hours, which seemed too much given that Ghana is such a skinny country.

I was really looking forward to the drive, for I have been limited to the sheltered university campus or to a narrow strip down the middle of Accra. The goal was to follow the coast to the west until we reached the southwest corner of the country, where the estuary of the Aworoso River has formed the famous Amanzuri Wetlands, one of Ghana’s most beautiful nature preserves.

The road was good, and we did good time to the general area, but once we got into the estuary the roads became narrower and less straight. On the way there we saw, at the distance, the remains of forts built by the different European visitors, and luscious wetland forests. In between there were plantations of oranges (but oranges here are green, not orange), bananas, papayas, coconut palms, and oil palms. There were of course small towns here and there, which reminded me the small towns you see across the Pacific coastal plain of Mexico, even down to the prominent red color of the coastal soils (a signal of intense chemical weathering).

By the time we got to the beginning of the estuary we were sore and tired of bus travel, so we jumped at the opportunity of taking a boat trip into the estuary, with the goal of reaching the Black River (so called because the water looks dark because of the high content of organic matter) and the village of Nzulezo. The village is built on stilts along a margin of the river, and the 500 people who live there spend their lives suspended over the flood water of the river (I was strongly reminded of the villages on both banks of the Amazon, who share the same type of existence hovering over the water). In Nzulezo there is a main “street”, about 2 m wide, where thicker planks have been placed so people can come and go from one cluster of houses to the other. The clusters have maybe four houses each, and are reached by narrower “alleys” where the kids have a little room to play.

The vice-Chief welcomed us to the village, and in a few words narrated their history. Their legend tells that they were a group from Mali that had to leave their land because of conflict. Their totem, a small snail, guided them south until eventually, 600 years ago, they reached the shores of the Black River, where the snail finally stopped to indicate that this is where they had to settle.

At the end of the village is the school, where about 150 kids receive primary instruction. Some of our students had brought gifts of paper, pencils, and crayons for the school, and were warmly received by hordes of smiling kids. I took the time to wander down Main Street and say hello to the little kids that had not gone to school, buy a small bag of deep fried small fish, and admire some of the handcrafts people were working on.

Highly satisfied with our visit we made it back to the bus, and were shocked to find out that the day was gone, and that it was now time to go to our resort by the beach. Our fairy godmother, Auntie Abigail, had gone ahead to secure the rooms and order dinner, but when we tried to reach the place, down a few kilometers of a miserable muddy road, the bus driver finally declared himself incapable of driving the bus any further. So we turned around to try another route, but to no avail. Apparently a tree had fallen across the road and the hotel was now cut off from all communication. A few phone calls later our guide found another hotel, and by 9 pm we were finally there, tired and hungry. Fortunately the restaurant was still open, so after another hour we all sat to a very welcome meal. Auntie Abigail, in the meantime, had walked out of the first hotel, taken a trotro, and finally rejoined her little chickens late at night. All is well that ends well, and we have been promised a few hours in the morning to enjoy our glorious surroundings.