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.