Thursday, September 24, 2009

Colonel Q: The Saga Continues

Colonel Qaddafi of Libya has been making headlines as Libya re-engages with the Occident, most recently yesterday with a 100 minute tirade presented before the UN. According to The Guardian:

He tore up a copy of the UN charter in front of startled delegates, accused the security council of being an al-Qaida like terrorist body, called for George Bush and Tony Blair to be put on trial for the Iraq war, demanded $7.7tn in compensation for the ravages of colonialism on Africa, and wondered whether swine flu was a biological weapon created in a military laboratory. At one point, he even demanded to know who was behind the killing of JFK. All in all, a pretty ordinary 100 minutes in the life of the colonel.

For those that don't remember my experience meeting the Colonel, it can be found here. I argued that he is more reasonable than he is given credit for, and despite his public bombast, I still think this is very much the case. Qaddafi has an outrageous persona, but that he has held power and popular support in Libya as long as he has speaks to his shrewdness. Qaddafi needs to make headlines through accusation in order to feed the propaganda he constructed around himself. This does not necessarily mean he expects what he has demanded. It merely means he has given himself a stronger negotiating hand. Sure he is re-engaging; however his speech gives him the ability to appear as though he is doing so on his own terms rather than those of the Western powers, an appearance that will play well throughout the greater Middle East and much of North Africa. As always, the Colonel is far shrewder than you think. There is, after all, ample reason that Qaddafi remains a political survivor.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Afghanistan and Obama

Rory Stewart (he who walked across Afghanistan on foot, wrote a book about it, then became governor of an Iraqi province, then wrote a book about that) has an interesting piece in the London Review of Books arguing that the high flung rhetoric used in discussing Afghanistan by the Obama and Brown administrations presupposes both an over simplistic moral view (and sense of mission) of the place.

He notes that the rhetoric regarding Afghanistan is:

...suggestive enough of crude moral imperatives to attract the Daily Mail; and almost too abstract to be defined or refuted. It papers over the weakness of the international community: our lack of knowledge, power and legitimacy.
Most importantly, Stewart makes light of the problems of the economic development vision of Afghanistan, arguing that is is far more likely to begin to resemble one of its neighbors than to develop into the Western Style democracy the rhetoric of the Western countries currently mired in Afghanistan belies.

To wit:
But Iran, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Pakistan present a bewildering variety of states: an Islamist theocracy, a surreal mock-tribal autocracy, a repressive secular dictatorship, a country trembling on the edge of civil war, a military dictatorship cum democracy. And it will be many years before Afghanistan’s economy or its institutions draw level with those of its neighbours.
I think Stewart makes some excellent points across his essay. The greatest problem with the essay is that it fails to address the issue of poppy production; which when taken with the porousness of the Afghan borders continue to dictate Afghanistan's future as a so-called "narco state". This problem strikes me as being open to attenuation by providing a frame-work through which Afghans can grow poppies (easily their most valuable and most easily produced potential cash crop) legally. This taken with international morphine shortages, should, as The Economist and other publications long noted. should serve as a means for producing both a legal venue for poppy production in Afhganistan, and could see the opening of a technology industry were the morphine manufacturing plants to be built in Afghanistan; and operated by Afghans. This is just a thought, but one that appears to continue to elude international drug policymakers and the Western governments that continue to push empty rhetoric in Afghanistan.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Obama in Ghana

Barrack Obama is currently in Ghana, this New York Times editorial argues that Obama's selection of Ghana was as a result of Ghana's exception status, noting:

"From one end of the continent to the other, the sort of peaceful, transparent election that Ghana held last December is still an exception rather than the norm, analysts said. The same is true for the country’s comparatively well-managed economy."

This strikes me as in some ways being a little Africa-phobic in that it paints a lot of the problems with the Western perception of Africa as a whole. There are plenty of perfectly stable African countries or countries, that like Ghana, have recovered from a history of dictatorship.

Liberia for example, would have made for a more obvious choice by the article author's logic in that it has successfully begun to recover from a horrible civil war, has elected Africa's first woman president in Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf (transcending barriers in a way similar to Obama) and Mrs. Johnson-Sirleaf has thus far done much to begin transforming her country.

It strikes me that Liberia's status for some time as an American pseudo-colony, which in principal would have made Liberia an obvious choice, has, as a result of many Americans not wanting to think about the idea of American colonialism and/or imperialism has in some way mitigated it as a choice. While Kenya, and thus East Africa was never a real option do to Obama’s Kenyan heritage, and thus simultaneously not wanting to demonstrate pro-Kenyan bias to the continent and simultaneously not wanting to snub Kenya by visiting one of its neighbors. Similarly the prosperous South and Northern parts of the continents are too dissimilar to what the Occidental world widely perceives as “Afirca” to be options.

All the same, there remain a huge number of stable, safe countries, including Togo, Burkina Faso and others within the region of West Africa that are comparable to Ghana in development and good governance.

I think Ghana was chosen for the visit because, yes it is stable, but equally importantly it is also Anglophone making it more accessible, semi-developed (though not too developed to be perceived as “un-African”) and has relatively minimal corruption (although as I left Ghana, a scandal appeared to be emerging involving President Atta-Mills, alleging that he may have illegally accepted some $3.5 million from Nigeria during the election campaign last year, channeled through the singular John Jerry Rawlings. These allegations have yet to be proven or disproven.) I think it is also Ghana’s widely being perceived as friendly (which in my experience it clearly is) that helped edge it towards selection.

All the same, pleasant trip to Mr. Obama. Ghana is a lovely country and I think decidedly a good candidate for the president's first Africa visit on its own terms, rather than simply because it has been somehow held up as a paean of virtue in a region seen, I would argue unfairly, as utterly dysfunctional by the American media.

Mumford in Kajeitia part 2

An excellent point was made about the failure to provide context for the Mumford in Kejeitia post. My response to this is as follows:
Mumford's argument as to why Roman and Greek cities became great and survived in the first place is two fold:
(1) because they maintained something of an agricultural base and that some infrastructure existed, these cities were not able to be completely annihilated after being sacked by the Visigoths, etc – indeed at one point Mumford notes that as long as some semblance of infrastructure and urban core persist, cities can never be completely erased,
(2) because Greek and Roman cities got where they were through colonial exploitation of their neighbors and other cultures entirely, they were able to build incredibly vertical monuments and buildings. This vertical expansion is key to Mumford’s argument as he notes that pushing people’s aesthetic frame upwards, it distracted them from the squalor at their feet, hence why the over emphasis in Western culture on so-called classical society. Mumford is repeatedly condemnatory of Athens and Rome as engines of over-expansion, exploitation, vice-based culture, etc.
Many modern African, (and American cities too for that matter), have a similar problem in only that over reliance on affordable hydrocarbons has resulted in a similar over-expansion and over-extension of resources and food systems. African cities, indeed, still practice greater localized food production than many American cities giving them a certain advantage. However, like with the Agora in ancient Athens or Rome, the emphasis on commercialism seemingly at any cost, and the persistence of squalor seems to point to a strong “classical” Mediterranean continuity. Perhaps, with my well-documented discussions of Christianity and Islam in West Africa, it can best and most readily be compared to latter, Christianized, Rome - a period which Mumford argues began show marked societal improvements, while Edward Gibbon argues that it was the beginning of the end of the Roman Empire.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Mumford in Kajeitia

West African cities, especially their slum quarters tend to be grim affairs. Kumasi boasts two areas that seem to especially qualify; Kajeitia and Race Course. Race Course is the traditional African mega slum – mud roads, burning garbage and tin sheds packed tightly together without rhyme or reason. Kajeitia on the other hand is a squalid commercial district – resembling Lewis Mumford’s descriptions of the ancient Greek and Roman agoras. Indeed, Mumford makes some interest points in the city in history. In describing sanitation conditions within Greek cities, Mumford notes:

“The Hippocratic emphasis on air, water, soil, and situation did not gain an easy victory; for an ancient tradition of close building, a tolerance of filth and putrefaction, a greedy desire to use every bit of land available worked to transmit without improvement the medical and hygienic misdemeanors of the early builders of cities.” (Lewis Mumford, The City in History, first edition, pg. 142)

This description feels interchangeable with what is on display in Kejeitia, Race Course, or many other parts of Kumasi; (or Accra for that matter), with the addition of the corpses of old polythene bags that cover almost every inch of exposed ground as well. Automobiles whizzing by also introduce a potential for danger beyond traditional Mediterranean societies. Commercialism takes precedence over hygiene and people compartmentalize. Certain tendencies in urban development seem to be omnipresent, and self-reproducing throughout history. To get an idea of how ancient Greek and Roman cities operated, one need merely look to the West African cities of today.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Patronizing Glance

As I write this, the “Warrior Wives Prayer Ministry” of greater Kumasi parades past my window in a sea of gospel music. Angry traffic belches abuse at them through overused car horns. Nobody really notices car horns anymore in Ghana, they are so omnipresent that people have learned to simply tune them out. There is a strong warrior tradition in the Ashanti: hence the title. The symbol of the region, and of the old empire, is the porcupine - which grow to large size here; around 200 pounds; and are decidedly aggressive if trifled with. The police arrive and do their best to placate enraged motorists. This parade had been pre-arranged (unlike the weekly tumult of Jehovah’s Witnesses who take the to the streets every Sunday, creating a literal audible “crack” of dawn), not that there is any evidence of this. Perhaps it is the mere presence of police; who generally only appear to extract bribes and then promptly depart, that would indicate that they exist at all. Indeed, the local preference to take justice into their own hands, even if it is at times misdirected, seems to render the professional police force null and void. They exist as an arm of corruption; while God’s law, in its vulgar Old Testament sense, prevails.

Which brings me to the nasty issue of patronage. Not to dwell too heavily in the negative; patronage systems abound in Ghana, as they do in most, if not all West African countries. While the patronage system is less pronounced, more compact, and overall, far less pernicious here in Ghana, than in say, Nigeria, but it remains intractable to every day life. Ghanaian society holds that who you know, what they can do for you, and what you can do for them in return matters a great deal when, at times, realizing the daily necessities of life can be at times difficult. While this can obviously at times, be the case in the West, though we don’t like to think of things that way – and people will always try to advance and/or protect their clan; and awareness of this is a necessity in Ghana.

I got to know this quite well as I began to interact regularly with the police. I needed some traffic statistics for a planning project I was working on*; it was a week of near daily treks to the central police station, in which, I spent a lot of time sitting around waiting, paying bribes, and not receiving information that the extent of the patronage system was really hammered home. Karmically, if I may put it that way, there was no reason to help me because I was a Westerner, an outsider, would likely be leaving the country, and patronage is less about leveraging immediate material advantage (although the police are happy to insist upon bribes – and most speeding tickets are resolved in fiery exchanges between drivers and officers, with threats of immediate prison brandished about, eventually to be resolved in a conciliatory handshake in which bills are almost certainly exchanged); but rather about forging long term patronage relationships.

So there I sat, watching Kumasi’s finest rip people off and get ripped off in equal measure. As the police seem to do very little in the way of actual policing, they tend to be regularly patronized by those that have acquired the instruments of “ancient oriental healing”. Thus, Western medicine and what are often very real scams – my favorite was a static electricity machine, with an electrode for reading “palm phenomena” in which through administering static electricity shocks and taking readings (indicated by a sound chip for a greeting card chirping away, what was quite clearly “Jingle Bell Rock”) everything from colon cancer to high blood pressure are diagnosed. While the readings are cheap, the suggested medications in the form of handily available from the “doctor” of palm phoneme, to avoid the diagnosed illnesses, come at far greater prices. The officers note that the medicine works “if you believe in it”, however I was not reassured when the “physician” pointed excitedly to, what appeared to be his kidneys while discussing colon cancer. Perhaps he was instead pointing to the organ that could potentially fail after protracted usage of many of these Chinese drugs and cures, the usage of which are now being viewed as a massive public health problem in West Africa. Indeed, it is the flooding of Africa with cheap (often fake or faulty) Chinese manufactured drugs and herbal remedies (some of which work, some of which don’t, and some of which cause horrible drug interactions with one another) is a problem my bribe dollars have now gone to promote.

And with this, one can see the true extent of patronage. One of the reasons China is making such in-roads in West Africa is that it is dumping many of these low-cost and “alternate” drugs on the West African market, often throwing in great stocks of them as deal sweeteners in International trade agreements. Price fixing of necessary medications on the part of Western pharmaceutical countries, and the belief in traditional medicines (like the Chinese herbs, sometimes work, sometimes don’t and sometimes cause other problems) are not helping the problem. Again, many people believe that as long as you believe in the medicine, it will work; which ties into an earlier post I write about Asante Occultism and all things seeming to be equally likely. It is funny that even when, a patronage system is delivering something that people know can be harmful to them, there remains the sense that, as long as you believe hard enough in it, it will work. In the end, that remains a funny thing about Ghana. People seem to want some reason to believe; and as long as you are willing to play ball, no matter how crazy what you have on offer, as long as future returns are in any way plausible, acceptance into the patronage system will be granted.

As for me, I eventually got something that vaguely resembles the traffic statistics I wanted by agreeing to try to help track down additional breathalyzer machines (which the police constable was shocked to discover were not simply available at the store in the Untied States) and by, of course, paying another bribe. The inspector assures me we are now good friends and I ever need anything, or for that matter anyone, “taken care of ‘small, small’,” as the expression goes, I know where to turn. Clearly, to master the system, I still have some way to go, but perhaps a palm phenomenon kit could sweeten the deal. This is the advice I bellow to the Warrior Wives as the police finally decide to begin clearing the road.

*Of which I may write something on this blog, as you read this, I will most certainly be back in America; however, I have some half formed ideas and “lost episodes” which I may write up over the summer – some even dating back to my time in Niger and for which I have a wider context to talk about them.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Cultural Anthropology Part 2

Being around white people - nay Americans - has produced more jarring a sense of culture shock than anything I have experienced in Ghana. I recently managed to hitch a ride north to Mole (pronounced like the Mexican sauce rather than like the ground dwelling mammal) National Park and Safari with a group of tourists/researchers from Utah, which again brought me into contact with Americans in quantity – again resulting in the aforementioned culture shock. It was not that these denizens of the Mormon promised land (and having once driven through Utah – the only promise I detected was sunburn and canyons); it was just that I found them somehow harder to relate to than most Ghanaians. As an Eastern Canadian in origin, with a strong European heritage still very much alive and well on both sides of my family, I’ve never felt completely at ease with American culture – despite my dual American/Canadian citizenship. (I’ve been known to tell the story of my trip to the Lincoln memorial in Washington, DC as being the one time I’ve felt a strong sense of emotional connection to America only to have it obliterated by none other than a roving band of Americans, but I digress.) Contact with Americans for the limited period of this weekend drove home several points of contrast between the two cultures.

Ghanaians are more than happy to argue with you, to exchange a difference of opinion, but that is usually the end of it. They argue, almost what seems viciously sometimes about very intimate things such as religion, football teams (the unofficial second religion of most Ghanaians), and politics (and politics are the third great national passion – I was once told that to not have an opinion on Ghanaian politics is to not be a true Ghanaian) but then, after these exchanges, no hard feelings. Americans meanwhile will be far more politic, will not broach seemingly contentious issues, but then carry seething, though never spoken of animosity when differences are hinted at. Ghanaians also seem to carry a greater pragmatism about many of their political ideologies – even the staunchest supporters of the current government will elucidate at length about the deficiencies of that government – try getting an American Obama or Bush partisan to do the same. Ghanaians are, through experience, wary of single party rule and strive to see government turnover from election cycle to election cycle. This leads to problems in that it is far more difficult to realize long term planning projects if an administration cannot take credit for them; and with their departure from power likely sealed; anything that cannot be claimed at the end of a cycle is often simply not broached. American “politeness” falls into the realm of the ridiculous. During the long trip North, during a stopover at Muslim village boasting one of the oldest (they claim oldest, but the claim is controversial) mosques I was chastised by the Americans I was with for asking questions about Sufism in West Africa. Apparently these questions were viewed as too obtrusive – never mind that Ghanaians are delighted to talk at length about the various ins and outs of their religion and I was given lengthy and well-considered responses. To Ghanaians, their religion is part of life, and often to be advertised the same way support for football teams is advertised. As a result one is greeted with rear window sized stenciled messages on cars reading things like; “If God says yes, who could say no?” and “Satan is a liar” while most street businesses carry names such as; “Body of Jesus Fast Food” and “Christ the Lord barber and saloon” (sic – and incredibly often the word “saloon” is misused instead of “salon” resulting in hilarious ironies by which frequently anti-alcohol Ghanaians have long conversations about going to the saloon). In the Muslim North of the country, this trend is continued but with Islamic equivalents; so one gets “Allah is Great Dried Goods” (again proving that a lack of punctuation can have hilarious consequences), etc. People are often very happy to have an extended dialogue about the ins and outs of the minute details of their belief system; and one generally spends time trying to extricate themselves from such conversations not worrying about whether or not a Ghanaian will be offended by having the topic of their faith accidentally broached.

There is also more of a sense within American culture of wanting to appear more humble. While a Ghanaian will never let you know that they are poor; and will wear their Sunday best every day of the week (and in many cases washing dress clothing every day of the week to insure to insure that it remains spotless) to prevent anyone from thinking them as in any ways impoverished, American liberal tourists will go out of their way to try to demonstrate to Ghanaians how poor they are in the United States; despite this being obviously not the case to Ghanaians. Much of this seems to be tied to an ill-founded sense of American guilt about developing countries; but I ended up laughing myself sick as a middle class American masters student complained to a Ghanaian dishwasher making less than 20 cents an hour about how much his car insurance and iphone were costing him every month. The dishwasher, for his part, seemed to find the whole thing vaguely surreal, tried to muster some sympathy, and was later disappointed when the same American used his discourse on the monthly cost of his mobile phone as a rationale for not buying said Ghanaian a US $0.60 coca-cola.

Ghanaian dietary patterns often differ dramatically from those of North Americans. Foofoo is the national dish of Ghana. It is a combination of plantain and kasava, floating in a sauce made largely of spices, chicken fat and oil. Ghanaians will generally only eat one major meal a day, and that is almost always foofoo. People will tell you that they have not eaten that day if they have not eaten foofoo; causing ironies by which people can be too full on rice, or some other foodstuff to be able to be able to have eaten all day. Foofoo is enormously filling and is probably, a 3500-calorie meal on its own. Contrast this with the North American obsession with small, light meals – an obsession that I share; gastronomical exchange can prove difficult. There is also an American terror that comes into play with so-called “dark meat” (chicken legs, etc) and skins, which Ghanaians (and I) resoundingly reject.

Still, both groups, Ghanaians and Americans seem to have much in common when it comes to the ecclesiastical (and both seem to share a strange factional sense – especially when dealing with Islam), which, as far as I am concerned, the less said about, the better. Both are willing to proselytize, Americans more tacitly, Ghanaians, as noted above, far more overtly.

In the end, and as always, true social understanding proves difficult – and the tendency to make fetish of the other runs rife; still; all in all, I find Ghanaians less of an enigma than I do my own countrymen. And that says something.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Southern Exposure: Or, a Long Weekend in the South of Ghana

Jungle Primeval

Cacun National Park is in the South of Ghana, within an hour from Cape Coast. It boasts some of the oldest, fully preserved rainforest in the world, and a canopy walk on which you can observe the forest from something of a unique angle – after all, how often do you get to see massive trees from above, rather than starting up at them? More importantly, Cancun is partially open to hiking, and one can, go for a walk in one of the few un-colonized (for lack of a better term) stretches of rainforest in West Africa.

It had been a nice coincidence that I had been reading Alan Weisman’s excellent thought experiment “The World Without Us” that week; and had just finished it on the bus ride south. Weisman considers the world both before our ancestors descended from the trees and evolved, and how biological systems will likely patch themselves back together post homo sapiens. To realize that much of the Africa, and perhaps even the world had at one point looked like the rainforest I trekked through in Cacun; and would likely look that way again given roughly one hundred years without the parasitic and often destructive impulses of people stripping the land of its resources, is oddly disquieting. It is not that I am opposed to people or the built environment – my field is urban planning after all – it is just, as one breathes the clean, moist tasting air of a dense rainforest; it is painfully clear that what is still going to be around 10 thousand years from now, and what may not be. The realization that everything in that rainforest is living; and in the case of some of the trees – which are as large as any of the Giant Redwoods you see in the Pacific Northwest of the North America – have been alive for thousands of years is a humbling feeling. That the air tastes different from city air, or even from air in more recently planted forests – that the incredible filtration system of all of those living things which have been at work for millennia remains, in every way, staggering.

Life, in this forest, reaches deep into the soil and expands outwards. It feels permanent – and in a way it is. Though the whole of the ecosystem can be rapidly and easily destroyed through even slight climate variations – in a way, it is the frailty of this plant life that gives its adaptability. If some plant species perish, some will always naturally select for traits that are best suited to those variations. From the upheaval will always come new life. One is forced to come face to face with this in a rainforest. It is us and our edifices that are impermanent and the forest that is the natural order of things. As Weisman argues in his book, the chimpanzees that human beings are descended from, who climbed from similar rainforest tens of millions of years ago in Tanzania were driven by slight climatic variations. Those forests will remain and will sprout anew, and perhaps, with luck, the chimps with them, long after we are dead and gone.

The Ghost of Slavery’s Ships

The town of Cape Coast was at one time the base for the British West African colonization and of the European sponsored and, tragically, African implemented West African slave trade. Cape Coast Castle, a white, almost pre-art deco castle was where those recently taken as slaves were held, in large, crowded holding cells for months at a time, among piles of their own excrement and filth, before being put on ships and sent to The New World, South America, the Caribbean, or elsewhere. It is estimated that some six or seven million people passed through Cape Coast Castle, before being loaded onto ships. They were taken from all over West Africa – some from as far away as Mali or Cameroon. Many died in the squalor of the holding cells of the castle, where they sat in near total darkness, even before they were loaded on ships. The dead were often left to rot with the still living. The Polish journalist of decolonization, Ryszard Kapuschisnksi, in the section of his book on the fall of the Soviet Union, 'Imperium', detailing the holocaust and before that, Stalin's purges in the Ukraine, likened slavery and colonization as being another holocaust visited upon Africa by Western Europe. He has a point.

Cape Coast as a town is quite a bit more laid back than much of the rest of Ghana, though it was once the centre of the Gold Coast Colony (as Ghana was known during the period of British control). Now it is simply a relatively poor coastal community, with most people making their livelihood through the extraction of ever declining Atlantic fish stocks. Heaps of (largely plastic) garbage litter what would otherwise be very pretty beaches, and the coastline is visibly polluted with all manner of waste that has been discharged into the ocean.

Those that have achieved affluence in Cape Coast have done so through the successful mining of white guilt over slavery cottage industry. It is interesting that a robust tourism economy can be built in dwelling, at length, in the depths of human willingness to exploit and abuse their co-mammals. Indeed, the viciousness of the slave trade, and later colonization of West Africa by exploitative European empires, was heinous – and guilt over this is something seized on by the locals of Cape Coast, dramatically inflating prices of everything from taxi fares to souvenirs for visiting white tourists. The ancestors of the slaves then, would seem to be having their revenge, increment by increment then. Except, it is not that simple. African complicity in the slave trade was what made the whole thing possible. While European demand for slaves drove the trade, it was Africans that went out, rounded up their brothers on the continent and brought them to the Europeans to be processed and shipped out. This is a point only briefly and hastily covered by those leading the tour of Cape Coast Castle, and the former Portuguese slave castle of Almina (a Africanized version Al Mina, or 'the mine'), stressing, to them the uniquely European nastiness of slavery, then strongly hinting that a generous tip would go some way to begin 'healing those wounds'.

Slavery though, was also a normal part of many of the African Empires that existed well prior to white colonization. A similar process of imperial conquest, with Assante, the Songhai, the Fanti, and other African empires perpetually at war with one another - and actively enslaving their enemies as parts of the spoils of war, had played itself out for thousands of years in Africa (and in the rest of the world!). Indeed, what elevates the European slave trade is three factors, (1) the scope on which it was practiced, and (2) its systematic implementation of the trade and the technology gap between the oppressed and the oppressors; and (3) the brutalism of exploitation of the colonization that followed.

The experience at Cape Coast is interesting because it is clear, one really does begin to feel bad about the horrible things that ones ancestors had been up to; however you do not always feel bad in the way people from Cape Coast would like you to feel bad. It has been European acknowledgement that the whole process of slavery and colonization were wrong after some bruising defeats to the old post-war European empires, and anti-imperial narratives from the likes of Forrester, Orwell, Paul Scott and countless others that has lead to the pervasive feeling of guilt for practices which were, throughout ancient history, common place. No such consideration seems to be given to the equally large, no less ugly, and far less often talked about Ottoman and North African slave trade run through Morocco, which often saw Europeans enslaved as well as Africans. Perhaps it was the unintended racial egalitarian nature of this slave trade that sees it forgotten, while the European slave trade, the ancestors of its victims alive, and in many places, often disadvantaged by centuries of institutional abuse, in the Americas and Caribbean that elevates the horror of one while almost erasing from memory, the other.

Colonization is an abusive system, it was one that had advantages in places some parts of India (where the English Colonial Service and British built railroads were the ticket to emancipation and social mobility for many low caste Hindus who would otherwise be forced into lives of extreme poverty and menial labor to their Brahman brethren) but it remained at base and abusive system. Slavery was one clear aspect of this abuse, and it is something that, in many parts of the world, we seem to have finally achieved consensus of its grotesqueness; however this does not necessarily exonerate Africans who were involved in giving the sinews of this abuse. Guilt can only be useful to a point, but it is memory and vigilance that such abuses not be allowed again that must be the lasting legacy. Similarly, it is also far too easy for many West Africans to blame all of the ills of their countries on colonialism, (and the artificiality of the borders of many post-Colonial African states and massive resource extraction by European colonialists makes this argument) without trying to improve conditions and often while exploiting their countrymen. The lesson should always be one of the prevention of future transgressions rather than in wallowing upon the spilled blood of the past.

Accra on Sunday

Accra is dead on Sundays. It is funny experience to walk in the streets of a city of three million and encounter no one except for the perpetual onslaught of dejected taxi drivers, desperate for a Sunday fair, who anxiously honk their horns at you as they pass. A coworker of mine, noted that, one of the things he loved about his country was that, as a result of the widespread religiosity of the place, Sunday had a very particular feel. Sunday is sacred in Ghana, people go to church and then spend the day at home with their families. In a way it is nice, it proves that even a days respite can be gained from that most resiliant of beasts: capitalism. Shops are closed in vibrant commercial districts, with only the odd restaurant or bar (often in areas that tend to boast large numbers of foreigners) open. Indeed, I walked the whole four-mile stretch of the central business district without seeing a single open shop. The next morning, the same area was so congested it became completely impassable. On Sunday though, one can begin to feel very alone. All of the signs of recent human activity are still present. Trash litters the streets and due to the open sewers, perennial stink of urine that permeates West African cities are, as always still there but, as the premise of the Weisman book offers, everyone has simply vanished. One can start to entertain ideas of how long it would take the jungle to reclaim Accra were this status quo to persist. Then you start to go a bit crazy.

The Northern district of the city is called Asylum Down. It is a relatively affluent district that felt something like a Ghost town on a hot Sunday morning. I think the name is wonderful. It reminded me of an episode of “The Old Grey Whistle Test” (a long since deceased BBC music program) with the Smiths on it. In said episode, Morrissey and Johnny Marr hijack a class of English school children as a mechanism for Morrissey to put forward a litany of slightly prissy remarks and weird jokes that don’t really come off. The high part comes during a scene in which one of the children has the gumption to ask Morrissey, “Where are we going?” to which Morrissey quite stiffly replied, “We’re all going mad!” Asylum Down on a Sunday makes you feel that way. It’s emptiness, the apparent sheer lack of human life on the streets (with the exception of the cabbies, who genuinely are mad in Accra and school like sharks on a feeding frenzy at the site of a fair) makes one feel that perhaps, you have completely lost it, and are in an asylum on ones own making. (Deadpans) Eerie that.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Cultural Anthropology Part 1

There is an obvious danger in making gross generalities about a whole culture; even if the cultural behaviors being described are visible within an observed percentage. It is these sorts of crass universal assumptions about foreign cultures that fueled the Orientalist screeds on Arabs, “Orientals”, and Africans that Edward Said so effectively critiqued; arguing that they served to pervert the Western understanding of “the other” by mischaracterizing indigenous belief and then placing it into the context of, or direct juxtaposition with Western beliefs. Even someone like the late, great Ryszard Kapuschinski, (to whom my writing is deeply indebted), was something of an Orientalist – he at times knowingly mis-portrayed African, Asian and Latin American cultures; making gross generalizations and dealing wholesale in exoticism because it made better copy back home. Flaubert, T.E. Lawrence, Charles M. Doughty and others, were similarly afflicted. Why Kapuschinski transcends the Orientalist label is because he always had a very healthy respect for the cultures he was portraying; and his work remains fiercely literary in both tone and content.

That said; sometimes these cultural distinctions, taken in contrast with the West (here mischaracterized as a singular, monolithic entity – possibly eliciting accusations of “Occidentalism”), can be useful; as long as culture is taken on its own terms rather than measured against Western ideas. I take this long to, pardon the expression, clear my throat, because I think the distinction between an Orientalist read on culture – complete with its coded chauvinism; and a less biased read on culture is an important distinction. I also feel that as an outsider looking at a culture for which one may not be equipped with the  salient cultural frame of reference, it is very difficult not to practice some measure of Orientalist thought. I think an awareness of the impulse to reduce foreign cultures to exoticism can also help to mitigate that impulse. I will attempt to tread lightly. What follows is a collection of, largely anecdotal, and loosely linked cultural observations:

Assantes live in a continuum in which all things appear equally likely. Belief in magic and traditional mysticism operates in tandem with a particular fundamentalist type of charismatic Christianity (I say fundamentalist because there is no debate on evolution: it is presumed wrong out of hand because it contradicts the book of Genesis) along with other vestiges of modernity. The ethereal are given the same considerations as the practical. Thus, many Assantes, and Ghanaians as a whole, will tell you that animals descend directly from the heavens. A popular tale; which many people claim to have directly experienced involves heavy rainstorms and fish falling from the heavens. Streams of water, formed in the rainstorms, are apparently what these fish use to navigate to bodies of water – literally swimming along the ground. I have been told this story countless times with people often claiming to have eaten said heavenly fish after discovering them in fields and under trees during rain storms (the lack of food in the fish’s stomach proving that it was produced divinely). I also once heard the story told about deer. This is taken as categorical evidence of God’s existence. Thus, because someone said it, it must be true, ergo it is made to fit into the existing framework of monotheistic belief. Many times, traditional beliefs in magic that cannot be reconciled with Christianity are explained as demonic forces that people are to live with. Thus, a troop of very talented street acrobats, who delighted a crowd with their gracefulness and cleverness were attributed as magical, and people were reluctant to put money into their hat because they were worried they could be helping the devil.

Local mythoa remain of the utmost of importance within the culture; and vary from village to village. A village I recently visited coexists with a large monkey population in an abutting forest. The area has become one of the leading monkey sanctuaries in West Africa – an impressive feat as monkey is a prized bush meat in many parts of the continent and the likelihood of so large a monkey population surviving so close to human settlements is something of a singular occurrence; with most other sanctuaries existing only in deep and remote parts of forest primeval. What has protected these monkeys from a culinary holocaust has been a local taboo against eating monkey based on a local legend. Apparently, some time ago, many of the ancestors of the village disappeared suddenly at around the time the monkeys showed up (as deforestation likely pushed the monkeys into the relatively preserved forested area that the village touches), leading the villagers to believe that their missing relatives had been transformed into monkeys, in a sort of reverse Darwin irony. It certainly puts the Americanism about being a “monkey’s uncle” into a new perspective. The taboo against eating monkeys then stems from a desire to not devour distant familiar relations; and has preserved the monkey population; who are fed a steady diet of (locally cultivated) mangos by the villagers; who with the creation of a national park; have begun to profit thanks to simian centric tourism. It is a strange symbiotic relationship that sprung from a local mythology. As more traditional beliefs are replaced with the ever encroaching and increasingly fundamentalist Christianity that is pervasive in Ghana; one wonders if similar animal sanctuaries can come into existence without state intervention.

The Assante, despite which religious faction they align with, tend to be Protestant in the Weberian sense. The work ethic of the Assante is renowned throughout Ghana. This makes a lot of sense: the Assante had one of the most successful and wealthiest empires in pre-colonial Africa, and largely got there through a fiercely competitive streak; which manifests itself in both a willingness to work, and a tendency towards argument. Thus, even watching a football match is an opportunity for many to boast of the team they support. Emotion is explosive and tightly coiled just below the surface. People get angry quickly, but also recover quickly.

This can play itself out in an ugly way sometimes. Rough justice is popular in Ghana. Thieves, if caught, are regularly lynched by a mob, rather than going to trial. Even in the event of involuntary manslaughter during these lynching; which is quite common; it is rare that any criminal proceedings are put forward. Police are often placed in a position in which they have to protect thieves from angry mobs and, not wanting to face down this instant justice. At times the line between civil society and anarchy can be diaphanous; almost seeming the vestige of an older, more primal society.

There is also a strong sense of propriety within Ghanaian society. Correct packaging of items sold is a must. This means that everything will be given to you in a black plastic bag, regardless of whether you want the bag or not. It is, in many ways, an ecologist’s nightmare. My efforts to forego the bag, for items that are prepackaged and thus not needing to be entombed in a polymer sheaf have been met by a combination of scorn and shock. I was once denied the sale of a bottle of coca cola because the vendor was out of black plastic bags with which to package the thing in. Never mind that I didn’t want, or need the bloody bag anyways. This has much to do with social protocols. To not offer up items in a plastic sack is to do someone a grave insult; and the establishment that fails to produce plastic bags is doomed to be looked upon as cheap by other Ghanaians. At the same time, this does little to mitigate growing mounds of plastic waste that erupt across Ghana.

There is also the tendency towards a sort of passive affirmation in the event that something is impossible. For example, instead of telling you that they cannot make a meeting, etc, a Ghanaian will tell you that they certainly will be there, and then simply not show up. Some people will try to casually let slip other commitments at the same time; often leaving you to piece together that they cannot make it; however not everyone will extend this courtesy; often leaving one to wonder if anyone is going to show up; or at one time. There is a running joke in Ghana that things operate on GMT or Ghana Mean Time; which often means add between 1 and 4 hours; except when people are early. As a result, one must adjust ones schedule for the eventuality that a person may not arrive at all; or may arrive significantly later than predicted.

Friendship with Westerners is interesting to. Strangers will walk up to you, insist that you are now best friends and proceed to try to make plans with you. I learned early on not to give out my phone number because people have no qualms whatsoever about calling you very late at night, or very early in the morning, and then get angry when, bleary eyed, you are unable to remember them as the stranger that accosted you three weeks earlier. People can also come across as pushy - but this is merely cultural. A stranger who walked by me in front of my building once told me to “get off the phone” so she could talk to me, and that it was of the utmost of importance. What she eventually had to say was just that she wanted my phone number. It is frequent for strangers to walk up to you and say “I like you as my friend.” I have never been sure how to respond to this; people generally seem well meaning in doing so; but lest one get sleep at all; one must be cautious.

Misconceptions about Westerners abound. Children in a village once checked the latrine after I had used it because they had been told that Westerners defecate money. This was a view held by their elders as well; who had planned a similar ‘investigation’ but were extending the courtesy of waiting until I had departed the vicinity.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Rites of Passage

Since my last post, I have seen the Ghanaian national football team in action for a World Cup qualifier (they beat a very good Benin squad 1-0 as a result of a relatively lucky goal in the first 3 minutes, and managed to barely hold on to that lead through stellar defending as Benin attacked and counter-attacked with intensity), had my pocket picked (before said football match – and knowing I was going to the stadium – I wasn’t carrying anything irreplaceable and lost the equivalent of $20 and a notebook), got sick, got well, got sick again (street food in Africa – sometimes you have no other choice – and sometimes you are better off just not eating at all), went swimming in the largest natural lake in Ghana, and finally, met Muammar al-Gaddafi.

The last of these occurred just last Sunday. I attended a festival to commemorate the ten-year anniversary of Otumfuo Osei Tutu II ascendancy to the golden stool. The golden stool is an important part of Asante (the I now know, correct spelling of “Ashanti”) mythology. After the Asante people were united by Osei Tutu II’s ancestor Osei Tutu I, some 350 years ago, Komfo Anokye (the high priest of the Asante) was said to have called down the stool from the heavens, where it landed in Osei Tutu’s lap – conferring on to him and his lineage the divine right to rule. Despite the stool being, well, a stool, it is made of pure gold and is never allowed to touch the ground. Thus despite it being a seat, the Golden Stool is carried around in a second throne along with the king.

Osei Tutu II has been instrumental in trying to restore traditional culture to the Asante people and across Africa as a whole. It is said that under his predecessor; a sort of complacent, and vaguely plutocratic malaise set in, however under Osei Tutu II, the culture has been reinvigorated and with it, a reaffirmation of democracy. Osei Tutu II has made education his cardinal issue and his stressed education of traditional Asante culture along with Western education for his people. I like Osei Tutu II. As far as monarchs go, he’s one of the good ones. He has put much of his personal wealth into a large education endowment for all Ghanaians, and not simply for his subjects; and has done much to bolster democratic institutions in Ghana, and pan-Africanism abroad. He is also a very big deal – widely considered one of the most important of the traditional kings in Africa. The New African made the 10-year anniversary of his coronation their cover story and published a 20-page interview with him.

Osie Tutu II is always immaculately clad in traditional clothing, and has asserted that African leaders should wear traditional costume when conducting affairs of state at home, rather than Western business suits which he sees as vestiges of colonialism. While I think he takes this argument a little far, I can appreciate the point he is trying to make. In the Asante region, the traditional fabric is called kente. It is a very thick cotton derived cloth that is hand died and woven, strand by strand into complicated patterns. Kente is very thick, and because of how labor intensive to make, it is very expensive. The different patterns woven into a kente garment have different meanings, and thus, the king has certain patterns that are unique to him; and only the royal kente weavers are allowed to produce. What is most amazing about kente is that it reflects heat. Despite being a very heavy fabric, it breathes wonderfully well, and actually helps keep you cool. The accoutrements worn by the king and his court, along with the kente are, of course, gold. Ghana is an enormous gold producer and it is found in abundance in the king’s procession.

The ceremony consisted of Osei Tutu II honoring various African leaders for their commitment to Democracy; including the former president of Botswana, Festus Mogae (a great choice: Mogae really is an outstanding leader - and has a wonderful first name to boot) and Nigeria’s former president Olusegun Obasanjo (not such a good a choice in light of Obasanjo’s capitulation to corruption, his attempted constitutional maneuverings at the end of his reign to erase term limits, and his parties’ very obvious rigging of the election for Mr. Yar’Adua); and Ghana’s own John Jerry Rawlings (a necessary choice, this is Ghana after all – but Rawlings only restored Democracy after 8 years of autocratic rule). This was nice; the focus was less on the king and more on those he opted to honor. Following this, the king did a traditional meet and great – which involves him being paraded around with the golden stool, the traditional tribal chiefs that make up his “court”, several hundred drummers, and half the population of Kumasi. The ceremony was held in the centre of the football stadium, and following the speeches, the crowd was allowed down onto the pitch to try their luck at meeting Osei Tutu II. The visiting dignitaries milled about and shook hands with people, many looking deeply confused as to what they should be doing. Including several others who were surprised to find themselves not awarded. Among these was, Colonel Muammar al-Gaddafi of Libya, who had gone all out for the occasion and had come with a freight air craft of gifts, including some 500 camels, the unloading of which had rendered Kumasi airport impassable for hours earlier in the morning. Gaddafi himself, traveled by land, all the way from Libya, as was his wont.

Colonel Q (as I like to call him, as the spelling of Gaddafi can also be translated Qaddafi, or 35 other ways from Arabic) is shorter in real life than you would think, or his legend would lead one to believe. He is also quieter and calmer, though of course, he remains larger than life. Flanking him was some 50 heavily armed bodyguards, whom he apparently always travels with. These bodyguards were all women – all crushingly beautiful, none under six feet tall, uniformly clad in sun-glasses and leopard print, form fitting fatigues and packing submachine guns. They are, without a doubt, the leggiest paramilitary force on the continent. It is confusing because you are not sure if you shoulf be turned on, or just terrified; which is how I suspect exactly how Gaddafi wants you to feel around him.

The Colonel is not very popular in Ghana, so there were few well-wishers anxious to talk to him, which gave me a good 10-15 minutes to talk to him. Gaddafi is a very nuanced speaker; he speaks more at you than with you, and in these long labyrinthine sentences. He takes special care to make sure that you understand everything that he is saying – and it is clear that as he has mellowed in the last decade, he is interested in winning Westerners over to him. There remains a hint of paranoia that whatever he says will be taken out of context and used against him, yet he seems to not be able to help but to talk; so he has become more careful in what he says. Despite strongly pushing his position, there is a great deal of nuance to his argument, and even when he is spouting vitriol against enemies (real or imagined) he can be, in a peculiar way, persuasive. We spoke in French with a few flourishes of Arabic. He thought the ceremony was very nice, had nothing but nice things to say about Osei Tutu II and Ghana as a whole.

He expounded on Palestinian nationalism, I pointed out that I enjoyed the nuance in the Colonel’s recent NY Times editorial on the subject of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He wondered how it had been taken in the states; I told him people were surprised by it, which brought a smile to his face. We also talked a little about what he thought Libya leadership roll in the African Union should be. He is strongly committed to making things better in Somalia, but sees piracy as part and parcel to the economic ruin that has afflicted the country; and blames, predictably, Western exploitation of Somalia’s resources for its problems. He wanted to stress that Libya was a friend of America, that he liked Mr. Obama – who was a son of Africa. I managed to broach the subject of those Bulgarian AIDS workers – to which he answered that he still viewed them as guilty, while hinting strongly that he probably had made an enormous mistake in holding them; but that his position prevented him from admitting to having made the mistake. This effectively ended the conversation, and the Colonel grinned under his sunglasses, shook my hand and wished the grace of Allah upon me. And then he was gone, surrounded by his brigade of heavily armed beauty queens – another “son of African soil” (to borrow his term) - and one of the world’s great iconoclasts; equal parts reasoned and mad.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Three Vignettes


Kejetia is a part of Kumasi that regularly draws national interest. Often referred to as “Little Lagos” in debates about its legality, Kejetia is part of the city in which laws and regulation have proven to unenforceable. It is effectively a miniature squatter city within Kumasi proper. The police do not go there, and society rearranges in accordance of different rules. To use a trite and perhaps culturally insensitive expression, it is a venue by which the “laws of the jungle” take precedence.

Kejetia presents as a densely packed commercial zone in which people sell everything from coconuts to bootleg DVDs, often in the middle of the street. Pedestrian casualties are remarkably high and traffic is often a nightmare. While the zone only stretches some five blocks, this stretch, by car, can take well over half an hour to traverse. While Kumasi by and large is not as congested as Accra, Kejetia is notorious as a miniature slum-village far worse than anything within Accra. Piles of plastic waste indicate the outliners of Kejetia, miniature urban landfills that Kumasi lacks the resources to move. Regions such as this are growing increasingly common in developing-world cities that have achieved a certain population density.

Stewart Brand, the founder of the Whole Earth Catalog and a business strategist based in Marin County, California, has written extensively on regions on Kejetia. “Squatter cities are vibrant. Each narrow street is one long bustling market.” Brand goes on to calls these regions “aspirational shantytowns” and declares them a potential cure for Third World poverty and an extraordinary profit-making opportunity. “How does all this relate to businesspeople in the developed world?” Brand asks. “One-fourth of humanity trying new things in new cities is a lot of potential customers, collaborators, and competitors.”

Despite this claim of vibrancy; and indeed commerce is brisk throughout Kejetia; it is the human misery and filth of the area that is most striking. One cannot traverse the region without being assailed by both vendors and beggars. Sick and dying people lie on the sidewalks behind stalls and conditions are dangerous. Pickpockets are omnipresent, and the difficulties of passing through the region mean that in the event of frequent accidents, the injured are inaccessible to ambulances. Thinking such as Brand’s fails to account for the human cost of this “economic vibrancy” and as regions such as Kejetia become more common (large swaths of Lagos resemble it) municipalities are hard pressed to either regulate, or more importantly, enforce exiting regulation in these areas.

Ashanti Occultism

When people from outside of the Ashanti region of Ghana talk about Ashanti culture they do so with something of a nod and a wink. Ashanti’s are seen as different from the rest. It is a warrior culture that remains deeply steeped in mysticism. Many traditional Ashant practices of old are said to persist in modified, and often clandestinely in unmodified, forms. The more occult, and we would say vulgar, of these traditions have come into conflict with modernity and have had to be altered according to certain perverse logics. A recent example involves the return to Ghana of the severed head of former Ashanti King Badu Bonsu II. ( Said king, was executed in 1830 by the Dutch, the head was preserved in formaldehyde and has been on display in a small Dutch natural history museum. The recent discovery of the presence of this head by Ghanaian government has resulted in public outrage and the return of the head to Ghana for proper burial. This has elicited fears in some circles as to what the result of the heads return will be. Traditionally, heads of state are not buried alone. Human sacrifices are made to give the spirits of the deceased company. The longer a dignitary remains unburied, the more people need to be sacrificed with them. In the case of a 179-year gap between death and proper burial, there is no existing traditional rubric and so certain improvised macabre mathematics come into play.

While the practice of human sacrifice is said to have been discontinued by the Ashanti king and other ranking tribal chieftains; many will tell you, in hushed tones, that these practices still go on, but a conspiracy of silence prevails that prevents national discussion and investigation into these practices. Evidence for these claims is largely anecdotal, but the varying accounts seem to carry certain unifying features. A coworker of mine, whose father was a traditional chief, says that she had to flee her village, as it was feared for her life. This was because Ashanti chiefs traditionally are required to sacrifice their last-born child. This can be paid off in a blood ransom, in which large sums of money can be paid to protect the child, however, this does not mean that a human sacrifice does not still happen, with a poor vagabond often being abducted and sacrificed in their stead. The fear for my co-worker, as the last-born daughter, was that the refusal of her father to adhere to this practice would be met with reprisals by those that would. Only one case infanticide of this type has been reported nationally, several decades ago, but the investigation never materialized, disappearing into the maelstrom of folklore. Newspapers within the Ashanti region report the occasional disappearance, but these disappearances are rarely explained and the government has neither the budget, nor seemingly the will, to investigate.

Notably, many of these practices are said to take place in the evenings and in woods surrounding villages, where police authority remains external. What is most surprising is that many of the traditional tribal leaders are educated people who have traveled the world. I am told that often they take certain traditional drugs many of which may have psychoactive properties. People are then driven into spiritual frenzies in which they are willing to partake in many of these activities that they world otherwise condemn. One can see similar frenzies of spirituality occur at weekly church services here in Ghana, drawing an eerie parallels. Speaking in tongues, etc is not uncommon, and many of the adapted traditional religious practices that are now begin services, such as the cacophonous chanting by 3 or four “reverend ministers” at once (often resembling the “phase music” composed by Steve Reich) generate an otherworldly feeling in the listener. Many Ashanti’s will also speak of various supernatural occurrences experienced in youth, and performed by Ashanti priests and rulers. These include the summoning of animals, making the ceiling disappear, the relocation of starts, and possession. What is culturally striking is that many Ghanaians see these claims as being legitimate, but depending on their current religious allegiances, can see these occurrences as demonic acts that should be combated by the Church. What outrage that exists about these murders, in some circles, has more to do with the idea that these actions are taken to placate demons further deepening the existing outrage that human lives are being taken.

This again casts light on the striking religiosity of Ghanaians as a whole. People here seem hold to a very real sense of the supernatural. Again, it is notable that well educated and intelligent people will tell you that yes, these acts of “black magic” are real rather than simply discounting them as mythology. Many people also believe in wider-conspiracies such as the Illuminati, and will explain certain international policies and events by pointing to these beliefs. There is something then, something that is culturally embedded, that makes these ideas very real to many Ghanains. As far as Ashanti tribal practice, it is difficult then to ascertain how much of is fabricated and how much is legitimate, but what remains consistent is a widespread notion that things are not always as they seem. My visit to the Ashanti kings’ house and museum presented me with some anthropological details of traditional practices but many of these were brief and geared towards tourists. As is often the case, the official version of events varies from the private, and cultures have a tendency to guard certain things. Ashanti, and more widely, Ghanain culture’s particularity is a strong sense of the supernatural existing alongside the worldly and this manifests itself in ways that come to bear in how people view and interact with their world.

Catnapping Through

One of the first things one notices about Africans is that they never seem to sleep. People stay up late into the night, and arise very early in the morning, often seeming immune to fatigue. This mystery, or how and when people in Africa sleep had long puzzled me, until I began to realize that Africans sleep constantly throughout the day, but only for a minute or two at a time. I first noticed this while deeply involved in conversation. I was explaining something, when suddenly; my co-conversationalist seemed to drop off, only to rouse himself moments later. Deeply worried that my words had a soporific quality, I pressed for an explanation. My counterpart was unaware that he had slept at all. This did not reassure, however, as I continued to observe people here in Ghana, I began to see the trend. Sleep during the night may last only two to three hours, but this is compensated for by hundreds of stolen moments over the course of the day, multitudes of miniature catnaps often taken so quickly that they are nearly unnoticeable. The brain is given the opportunity to rest for brief periods, rather than all at once. How this is achieved, I still have no idea. My belief is that it has much to do with long-term cultural and environmental conditioning, and possibly biology. My attempts to replicate the same sleep schedule have only resulted in severe exhaustion. What remains most startling is the speed by which someone can move from consciousness to unconsciousness and back, often without realizing the shift. How this plays out in African psychology is no less elliptical. Perhaps Anatole France, Michael Leiris, and Colleridge would have drawn different conclusions on the nature of the dream world had they been born African.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Palm Tuesday

The spine of the road runs south from Kumasi with vertebrae like towns jutting from it in clumps. Townships are like this across West Africa, small, mobile, clinging to the road for dear life. They have almost entirely sprung up to fill economic niches – there is money to be made servicing weary travelers, though rarely much and the markets are overwhelmingly oversaturated. As cars slow as they pass through roadside villages, throngs of vendors mob vehicles, pushing identical wares. Economies of scale persist. One village sells only bread, mass produced, each loaf identical and priced identically. The next sell only dried banana chips.

I am traveling to Abogu, a cocoa farming village 120 kilometers south of Kumasi, though largely not on the Accra route. Abogu is one of the key villages that made up the old Ashanti kingdom, and thus constituted one of the seats of power for the old empire. These villages were selected strategically, often due to their proximity to important geographic features. In this case, Abogu lies at the foot of a small, though breathtaking, mountain that is thought to have mystical properties. The mountain is named Kidibo, and has been personified by the population. People claim to have met and befriended the mountain itself while wanderings the forest at night. To understand this notion, one must understand the characteristics of the animism that is still practiced in many more remote parts of Ghana. People’s conception of geography is that certain things, mountains, lakes and especially rivers (do to their movement) are living things that possess sentience. It is a sort of pantheism by which everything is endowed with a spirit that is capable of interaction under particular conditions. People respect the mountain, and understand it protects their cacao fields.

Cacao is enormously important to Ghana. A local proverb runs “Cacao is Ghana, Ghana is cacao.” It is the principle cash crop by which the country survives. It was first brought to Ghana in 1879, by a blacksmith turned national hero named Tetteh Quarshie. Quarshie had been living in Fernando Po and returned to Accra with Amelonado cacao pods, which he began cultivating into “black gold.” More colorful – read scatological- local versions of this story see Quarshie being prevented from leaving with cacao pods and so ingesting them in order to sneak them back to Ghana. Another version of this has Quarshie ingesting the pods accidentally, rather than purposefully and being surprised by the cacao plants that sprung up in his courtyard where he used the latrine some time later. This last version does not seem to give Quarshie enough credit, as he proved himself to be a very astute businessman, dominating the cacao industry in Ghana until his death in 1892.

At the moment, villagers only grow cacao. All of the value added processing is done elsewhere, but this may soon be changing. Villagers are well aware that the real money does not lie in actually growing the cocoa beans, but in the milling process that happens once the beans leave their village. The stranglehold of the cities in controlling cacao-processing stems from access to outside exporters. While villages have long demanded a relocation of processing plants, and the government now promises to meet these demands, Accra’s access to the Atlantic makes this difficult to implement. At the same time, cocoa growing has brought money and comfortable subsistence to the villages and increased international demand for cocoa beans over the last hundred years has seen standards of living continually improve in the villages. The status quo, while not an entirely equitable one, is not a terrible one.

Throughout the village one sees great piles of cacao beans sitting on tarps in the sun. Cacao grows in great silver sheaths that are broken open. The seeds or beans are then collected and placed in colanders under great weights and between layers of cloth to drain the water from them. The beans are then left in the sun to dry, before they are loaded into sacks and shipped out. I see two boys climbing a pile of dried beans, sacks in hand, while the proud parents look on. A passenger van pressed into service as bush-taxi and equipped with a loud speaker rumbles past, simultaneously broadcasting fares to Accra and loud gospel music. There is something surreal about the sea of dust and organ music that it leaves in its wake.

Today is Tuesday in Abogu, meaning that it is market day. Market day means everyone is in town, even if they do not need to go to market. The village itself meanwhile swarms with foreigners hawking all manner of wares. The pungent smell of dried and salted fish and a particular pungent root that is ground up and used as, and I am told conflicting stories, a medicine or an aphrodisiac fills the air. The smell of markets, across West Africa is unmistakable and remarkably similar from country to country. Market day is heavily embedded within village culture and is seen as something of a Sabbath day – and numerous superstitions outline evils that will befall cocoa farmers if they tend to their fields on said Sabbath. These superstitions seem almost overtly egalitarian, designed to prevent one cacao producer from gaining a leg up on his competitors, however the long handed down anecdotes, often of legendary status are known and often retold to assure adherence to this convention. Market day is important to village life in ways beyond simply the spiritual or commercial. Vendors bring not just goods but also news of the world outside the village. Issues of the day are discussed and anecdotes exchanged, often over palm wine.

Palm wine is an incredible substance. It is made from the sap of oil palms. Trees are tapped, the milky sap collected and fermented. Fermentation is very rapid; one might even say that it, in line with Ghanaian ecclesiastical sense, operates at a “Jesus-like” conversion pace. It usually takes less than a day before one has transformed a gallon of palm sap, into a gallon of palm wine. The strength, gaseousness and flavor of palm wine are dependent on how long one lets it sit. The freshest of palm wine has a negligible alcoholic content and is incredibly sweet. More mature palm wine can pack a punch, is quite bubbly, and has a distinct yeasty taste. The closest comparison I can come up with is a Belgian Lambique. Palm wine is served at “room temperature” (which here is generally outdoors, and quite warm) in Kalibashes, which are hollowed out gourds. One Kalibash was enough to make me feel groggy. More so than many other versions of alcohol, palm wine alters your perception of time, making everything feel as though it is moving in slow motion. The purity is not terribly high of the stuff, and the alcohol content tends to somewhat of a surprise, so one must be careful not to drink too much in a sitting lest one rue the following morning. For those that like to live dangerously, palm wine can also be distilled to create local liquors that hit well over 120 proof. This stuff is ingested only by the most dedicated of local drunks and can cause blindness, insanity and a multitude of other complications. Villagers tend to drink heavily in the country, in contrast with their tea-totaling urban counterparts. With the reverse of this true in Niger, where Islam was far more strictly interpreted in rural communities, I was somewhat intrigued by the juxtaposition of the two. With entertainment options limited in the country, palm wine and the converted living rooms where it is enjoyed are one of the few escapes from the monotony of agriculture.

As in much of the developing world, people live in close proximity to their animals. This means that, in country homes, living rooms and court yards tend to be congested with young goats, parades of chickens, goats, and the like. This is true in certain urban areas as well. Chickens tend to be omnipresent in urban gardens, and a trip to the Ashanti Kings home, (now more of a museum) in Kumasi saw the yard filled with peacocks. Peacocks apparently used to be quite common to Ghana, although the European craze for feathers during the 19th century nearly drove them to extinction. A veritable peacock holocaust if you will. Now they survive only as regal emblems – one of the arbiters of high social class. This seems somehow fitting. Peacocks are incredibly lazy birds and their plumage leaves them with limited mobility. They stand in stark contrast to the fast moving chickens and other fowl of the countryside, which seem to get their kicks by darting in front of oncoming motor vehicles and quite literally playing “chicken”.

The state of public health in the villages remains lacking. My traveling companion, a doctor at the hospital I work at, had come to visit his uncle, who through some peculiar family history is somehow over a decade younger than him. The uncle had contracted malaria and a prescription was dashed off to the nearest pharmacy. The drugs sent back were not those requested and could, I was told, could have caused further complications had they been taken. We traveled the short distance to the pharmacy to straighten things out, only to be greeted by a sign reading: “E.K. (and here I give initials to protect the guilty party): Amaning (sic) Liced Chemist.” The comedy of this was not lost on my compatriot. Thoughts of some magically endowed, though perpetually scratching pharmacist filled my mind before the reality, a very young, chemist appeared. The man put up a fight, but then eventually treated his mistake as being a very normal occurrence. This does not reassure. The pharmacist seemed more concerned with selling drugs than with patient health, a notion reinforced by the wide array of local “organic” cures present on his shelves (which the medical community in Ghana has been fighting to prevent from being sold, as many tend to be destructive to patient health). This scenario, I was told, is replayed ad nausea across much of rural Ghana. As far as village health has come in Ghana over the past few decades, and the state is growing more rigorous in how it licenses pharmacists, there is still some ways to go.

As the sun reached its crescendo across the afternoon sky, my travel companion and myself took our leave of the village. The ride was a slow going one, made all the slower by the dragging effects of the palm wine. As the coolness cast by the mountain fell further and further away, we were left with but the heat of the road and the attacks by desperate vendors as we fought traffic back into Kumasi.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Urban (and Exurban) Rhythm

Urban congestion in Kumasi is shocking. Though it is far worse in Accra, the traffic problems facing Kumasi – and this is a city whose entire metro area, extending out some 300 squared kilometers, rests at around 2.5 million – are staggering. Pedestrians are seriously imperiled in many places due to a lack of sidewalks, or sidewalks completely taken over by street vendors. Gritty and apparently fearless, the vendors in question risk life and limb, often darting into traffic to try to sell everything from dried fruit, roast bat meat (seriously, see below) to mobile phone credits to passing motorists. Traffic is unpredictable, moving from a brisk clip to an immobile lurch often in the blink of an eye. While traffic control devices are observed in places, order in general is beginning to break down as the city expands. Long-time observers will tell you that Kumasi is beginning to morph into a slightly smaller version of Accra – a city choked by insufficient lanes, too many motorists and a breakdown in law and order on the roads. Indeed, Accra has so heavily regressed that a strip of destroyed plastic posts marks a stretch leading into the city from the North. I am told that these posts used to work to divide lanes until someone hit one of them one day, and it was realized that they were not concrete at all, but rather just hard plastic. From then on, cars just drove through and over them, as was most convenient.

Roads themselves can often be a problem. Series of potholes mire routes, often leading to cars driving very quickly towards each other on the same side of the street in some perverse game of chicken; often narrowly missing each other. The skeletal burnt out chassis of past wrecks intermittently dot major traffic arteries like the remains of long extinct dinosaurs. These however, fail to serve as forewarning to drivers who have grown inured to these macabre landmarks. Though Kumasi boasts one of the countries few railheads, which gives it theoretical rapid freight access to Accra (and with it goods shipped along the Atlantic), due to poor maintenance of rail lines, and numerous delays (often causing goods shipped by rail, a mere 300km journey to take as long as week), trucks darting along the patchwork of roads that link Kumasi to Accra remains the predominant means of goods transit, with overweight trucks often snapping axels while traversing potholes and finding themselves stranded.

Kumasi is the capital of the Ashanti Region and the second-largest city in Ghana. The population of the inner city is just over 1.17 million people, but urban sprawl outwards has made it indistinguishable from its equally unplanned surrounding villages, resulting in the above mentioned metropolitan area population figure. Kumasi is an anchor of the Ashanti region, immediately in the hart of Ghana and thus the prosperity of these surrounding towns is tied to the economic and cultural health of Kumasi, which have flown into the city. In this sense, ongoing suburban expansion of Kumasi will reduce urban poverty by attacking the problem of rural to urban migration at its root by paradoxically eliminating the surrounding rural stretches that remain, or by pushing them farther from the urban core. This in turn can cause a whole new set of problems for the city. As these formerly rural and small town people gain affluence and achieve middle class, the plight of the car-based commuter is sure to plunge further into a phantasmagoria of traffic nightmare. The surrealism of inner city driving cannot be expressed in words. It must be experienced.

King Osei Tutu I of Asante founded Kumasi in the late 17th Century, on the advice of his senior priest: Komfo Anokye. (Anokye was also a formidable general and many, many cultural sites and public institutions, including the teaching hospital in Kumasi are named for him.) Situated at the crossroads of the Trans-Saharan trade routes, the town rapidly grew from a small imperially administered outpost to a trade town. It eventually became the capital of the Ashanti Empire as well as the cultural seat of the Kingdom. It boasts the first national cultural center (which I live across a major traffic artery from – a rare stretch of urban green space, dotted by the occasional museum, art gallery or library. It also boasts a rather nice, outdoor bar, which on Sundays at midday is unvaryingly populated by savage old drunks who make angry passes at the bar girls before collapsing upon themselves and being thrown out – and it is this type of alcohol abuse which leads many Africans not to drink at all. It is the hard-core alcoholics who make for the only point of reference.)

Kumasi had earned the accolade as the “Garden City” of West Africa due to the (relative) abundance of fauna and flora interspersing physical urban developments. The cultural center is dotted by a large number of these fauna trees which, without fail are filled with bats – which apparently have become something of a local culinary delicacy; granted though it is not one seems to have much found much of a taste in the circles in which I travel. These bats, beginning around 3 every afternoon take to flight in great swarms; blackening the air above the trees with their numbers, and sailing over merchants who sell their less fortunate brethren roasted on sticks in front of said trees. How they manage to get the bats out of these trees (as the bats perch very high up) remains a mystery to me.


While the Ashanti people are known for commerce, their favored pastime remains indisputably funeral attendance. While funerals are popular across Ghana, it is in the Ashanti region that funerals take special precedence in social life. While Ghanaians tend to be rather tight with their purse strings, a funeral turns everyone into a spendthrift. People go absolutely funeral mad. Prime time television boasts an hour-long program that features nothing but semi-identical funeral listings. People take out full-page ads in the newspapers, with particularly wealthy families even purchasing enormous roadside billboards announcing funerals. With the hullabaloo surrounding funerals, it is often almost a month before the deceased are actually put into the ground. Time must be given for any relatives living overseas (and special prestige is given to those funerals that can boast the greatest number of ex-pat relatives showing up) and to plan the party, catering, and drink service. Funerals here are not the dour affairs of the west, but rather are like Irish wakes to a factor of ten. They feature singing, dancing, and drunken merriment for which no expense is spared. They dwarf weddings in their scope. People make whole weekends of running the funeral circuit and employers do not hesitate to give employees the afternoon off to attend a funeral, despite the fact that many do every week.

This fixation on funerals seems counter-intuitive but in a way it almost feels healthier. Why not celebrate the life of a departed loved one rather than simply mourning the loss, though the element of keeping up with the Jones’, or in this case the now late Annan’s or, if you will, ex-Tokaradi’s does have a certain garishness about it. Commerce patterns reflect the prestige placed funerals. A vendor near my flat flogs deluxe coffins by the side of the road – these tend to look like a combination of a very chic refrigerator and 50s Cadillac, complete with ostentatious angelically themed hood ornaments.


The predominant national passion, when not ecclesiastical (see my previous post) or post-mortem is, of course, football. Ghana is the football powerhouse of West Africa, and people take a deep pride in knowing that the countries top players, including the sublime Michael Essien, play for top European clubs. People are not only avid followers of the local leagues as well as European leagues. (As far as local leagues go, you are either a Kumasi Asante Kotoko supporter or; a supporter of the wonderfully named, Accra Hearts of Oak; determined of course by geographical proximity to said club.) The favorite European clubs, of course, are those like Chelsea that boast a large number of African players (including the aforementioned Essien) or, those that are repeatedly successful; resulting in near omni-present support for Manchester United. Strangely, one of the most loved players in Ghana is the Liverpool employed, Finnish centre back, Sami Hyypia. He is something of a sex symbol to a certain subset of Ghanian women, but his popularity as a player among Ghanaian men remains somewhat inexplicable. The national team perform remarkably well internationally - especially for a country of Ghana's size and economic means, and are favorites to advance past the group stage in the forthcoming 2010 South Africa hosted world cup (an event incredibly heavily advertised across Ghana). The recent defeat in the final of the inaugural African Confederations Cup by the DR Congo has resulted in a national depression across Ghana, the end of the game appropriately coinciding with the onset of a massive thunderstorm. Ever resilient though, many people are already pointing to next years Africa Cup of Nations as a vehicle for both revenge and to re-embolden the national character. The success of the countries president is in some ways weighed by football results, and President John Atta-Mills appeared visibly distraught when briefly pictured on television upon Ghana going down 1-nill at the beginning of the second half. He was not shown when the game ended after the final result had been marked at 2-nill and Ghana’s defense had all but given up the ghost. Indeed, the controversial Atta-Mills may have detected the grim harbinger of knives being sharpened back in Accra with the final whistle.


As for me, I am enjoying my work here. I have been attached to the Research and Development unit at Komfo Anokye Teaching Hospital (and there is Mr. Anokye name) and predominantly work on public health outreach (as it relates to urban planning) and research methodology. The work is interesting and my co-workers excellent, but I find myself working regular 12-hour days - such is the norm among professionals in West Africa. This position should also see me doing some travel across Africa as part of an anti-malarial availability project (the irony is not lost on me, having suffered from malaria while on anti-malarials) all of which I will of course document. I will continue as regular posting then, as can be managed.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Ghana: The Juxtaposition

With this post, I restore service to this blog after a multi-month lay off. The less said of my somewhat acrimonious departure from Peace Corps, and bout of malaria to boot, the better. Through providence of some form I now find myself in Kumasi, central Ghana, working as part of a Research and Development unit at a teaching Hospital. I’m also wearing a second hat, as I will be pursuing my research project in Urban Planning in West Africa – more on which is assuredly to come.

What first stands about Ghana is its habitability. Certainly, it’s hot - Africa is hot – but its not the same sort of oppressive knock you on your ass and drag you all around the block heat that Niger visits upon its denizens. Ghana has the advantages of relative government transparency, stability, a viable coast on the Atlantic, excellent agricultural land and a mixed export economy. Ghana is lush, almost central African in its climate and greenery (with the exception of the stretch of Sahel that runs through the very North of the country). Ghana is considerably developed, and a long-standing bastion of stability in the region. The first country in Africa to gain independence from its European colonizers, Ghana has seen fifty years of relative "popular", though not necessarily democratic rule. Nkrumah's regime proved to be initially popular - he was a dictator who was always said to have "made much of elections".

 Most Ghanaians will tell you that his greatest sin was sticking around just a little too long after his natural expiration date. The same can also be said of the country’s two other nominal dictators: Akuffo and the still popular Jerry John Rawlings. Many Ghanians feel that partisan politics have done more damage to the country than the various militarily backed regimes have, resulting in mass support for many of the coups d'etats -. This has been so much the case that even after running the country through the military between 1981 and 1991, Rawlings was able to stand and be "re-elected" by a wide margin once Democracy was restored in 1992. A recent contested election has now seen the peaceful passage of power towards the opposition party, headed by the politically awkward John Evans Atta Mills, ending decades of PNDC dominance of Gold Coast political discourse. Many still have yet to make up their minds on Mills.

While Accra on the coast is choked with people – and is seeing a massive migration based population boom (which makes it an ideal candidate for my study), Kumasi, where I live, is far more pleasant. While streets are crowded and traffic can remain a nightmare, one does have the same feeling of congestion - a somewhat phlegm laden collapse of the windpipe that one feels in Accra on the streets of Kumasi. Kumasi gives its denizens some room to breathe, and this is crucial. It is located at the heart of the old Ashanti Empire, and many tribal customs dating back thousands of years are still at play, though the context for many of them has been shifted.

The bus ride from Accra to Kumasi was as pleasant as African mass transit gets (despite a multi-hour delay caused by a wheel well breakdown and the need to wait for a second bus.) Ghana, or all places boasts some absolutely beautiful rest stops – ones that would make even the Western world envious. I initially believed the stop to have been a heat-induced hallucination, until a Canadian missionary I made friends with on the ride reminded me, “welcome to heaven in West Africa.” He seems to have got it about right. Though Ghana is still a very poor country there is a genuine feeling of progress that seems to continually reinvigorate things. People are very friendly and incredibly hard working. There is a real protestant work ethic at work here. Which bring me to…

One of the more striking things about culture in Ghana is its religiosity. This is a country that is wantonly Evangelical. Gospel music pours from stereo systems and cellular phones. Most cars on the road boast large, emblematic placards praising Jesus. Most meetings begin with prayer and woe falls upon he who does not attend Sunday service. Services, deemed charismatic services - take on an almost Afro-American black gospel feel (though they are still very African) and are filled to brim with music, singing and dancing, and fiery sermons. A recent service I attended (again, those familiar with my now well-documented religious “predilections” take note, one really hasn’t a choice whether one wants to attend church or not if one is to integrate into the community) saw a visiting minister from England by way of Nigeria (if you can follow the logic – and there is a lot of very predictable baggage with Nigerians) expound on the virtues of wealth. The gentleman pointed out that the almighty indeed wants us to be wealthy and enumerated his own wealth, and making light of his Mercedes SUV that he apparently terrorizes his newly adopted London suburb with, between being hauled before the authorities for what came across as domestic violence (this was let slip through a failed analogy involving a “friend’s” dealings with the London Police Force - as related to personal completeness through God’s love through some discreet logic that I cannot even attempt to begin to comprehend, let alone master).

Certain biblical passages dealing with the vacancy rate in heaven for rich men and camels passing through the eyes of needles crossed my mind, and I was relieved to discover that the irony of the proceedings did not appear to have been lost on the other parishioners. How many rich men mounted on camels can dance on the head of a pin; and does this number supersede that of the number of angels to do the same? Which of them will pay more for the privilege? Such are the theological calculations of the plutocrat, but I digress. This parish was a small pleasant one, and apparently things get far more “energetic” at some of the mega churches, so for this I am thankful. The live band was also brilliant, working some traditional African poly-rhythmic renditions of what could otherwise of have been bland post modern (and surprisingly very ‘white’ sounding) gospel and perpetually injecting what can best be described as lightning into the proceedings. If going to church means listening to the band play every week, in the words of Moses Herzog as he discussed the possibility that he was losing his mind, “then that’s alright with me.”