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Recommended reading

Hey guys! You’re probably all sick of hearing about Adam from ISEP, but he wrote a post on his blog that I think you should read. It’s about the Night Market, where we all go to get food, toilet paper, and phone minutes :) Very informative, and it saves me the trouble of writing about it. I’m not lazy, just busy! Also lazy.

You can find it on his blog here. So there’s no reason not to read it.

It might help to keep this picture of Adam in mind while you read.

Imagine this guy loping/stumbling around a market, buying bananas and rice.

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You try chopping up a coconut with a machete

When I first got here, I was really surprised to see people wielding machetes. Everywhere. They’re just so useful! And here they’re used for two main things: eating coconuts and doing yard work.

People who have the musculature of pro basketball players stand by the side of the road with a cart full of coconuts. The coconuts are large, round, and green.

Artist's rendering

The machete is first used to chop off edges of the coconut’s outer shell to give it a shape that’s stackable and won’t roll away.

Better than the Container Store

The vendor does this by holding the coconut in his palm, chopping off an edge, tossing the coconut in the air to turn it, and then chopping off a different edge- the blade swinging towards his fingers and hand every time. I don’t think I could swing the machete with enough force to get a clean cut, never mind holding the coconut firmly enough so that it doesn’t go flying out if my hands. These guys are skilled.

The machete is next used when someone buys a coconut. The vendor chops off the top edge so that the customer can stand there and drink the milk.

Yum!

Then, the customer gives the coconut back to the vendor. He takes the machete and splits open the coconut so the customer can eat the inside, using the “lid” from before as a spoon.

Yay realism

Delicious!

By the end of the day, the area around the cart is littered with coconut debris.

Here are some live action shots:

Faceless, nameless Obruni enjoying a coconut

Scooping up that coconut

There are also lots of people wielding machetes doing yard work- mostly chopping grass. The fields around my dorm sway with tall grass, and sometimes there will be a team of men out there, swinging machetes to cut the grass. When you walk by, you smell the freshly cut grass just like you would with a lawnmower. There’s a grass-cutting group outside my balcony right now!

That reminds me that most lawn work and construction is done by hand here- anything that you would see done by machine at home. I just walked by two guys using pickaxes to plow the earth, digging up huge chunks of soil in a field. It looked so exhausting. Back breaking. Recently, street lights were installed along the roads on campus. The electrical wires had to be buried all along the roads underground. Did they use machines or automatic equipment? No! For weeks, teams of men worked under the African sun, digging trenches with pickaxes. Unbelievable.

So it’s not unusual to see someone strolling down the street, casually swinging their machete. A mundane part of life that would cause a panic in Duncanville!

I needed existentialist tales and songs from the American Bible by wrathful Elvis in a sphere-shaped lacuna

Living in Ghana is really good for reading books, because there’s lots of free time and usually no internet access. This is great! Now the internet seems really boring to me, and I’d rather read Tales of the South Pacific than goof off on Facebook or other such nonsense!

Our ISEP group at the dorm has established a very fluid, organic community library type thing. Once you give your book to someone else, there’s no telling who will eventually be reading it a few weeks later. Right now, I have a few books floating around out there and a few in my possession. It’s time to pass Velvet Elvis on to the next person!

Here are some books that I’ve read in Ghana.

The cover is inexplicable.

The Lacuna. I recommend this or anything else by Kingsolver, especially The Poisonwood Bible.

Another red and yellow book.

A Case of Need. Michael Crichton’s first book. The protagonist is a little racist, a little sexist, and annoyingly full of himself, but the plot is entertaining. All about abortion before abortion was legal in the US.

More deep sea shenanigans than expected.

Sphere. Also Michael Crichton. I liked his books when I was in middle school, but reading stuff by him now is a little embarrassing. The plot is good though!

You can only escape from here by playing tennis or getting on Oprah.

Miriam’s Song. I’m glad I read this in Ghana. It’s written by the sister of the guy who wrote Kaffir Boy, which I read a few years ago. A true story set in South Africa during apartheid. I feel like I can understand a lot more of it now that I’ve been to Ghana.

My favorite book. Yay for reading it for class!

Excerpts from Concluding Unscientific Postscript, Fear and Trembling, The Brothers Karamazov, The Gay Science, Daybreak, Human All Too Human, The Will to Power, Beyond Good and Evil, On the Genealogy of Morals, The Twilight of the Idols, The Wanderer and His Shadow, The Myth of Sisyphus, Existentialism is a Humanism, and Being and Nothingness.  Various authors, for my existentialism class, either shoot me now or listen to me tell you how exciting it all is.

...will have more post impressionist cities.

The Post American World. I felt so educated after reading this! It’s very informative, and I gained some perspective on development and America’s place in the world. About politics in the US, Zakaria says, “For many on the right, illegal immigrants have become an obsession. The party of free enterprise has dedicated itself to a huge buildup of the state and police powers to stop people from working. The Democrats are worried about the wages of employees in the United States, but these fears are now focused on free trade. Though protecting American firms from competition is a sure path to lower productivity, open economic policies are fast losing support within the party.”

Surprise surprise.

The Bible, study version. Really helpful as a reference for discussions/arguments with friends at Sports Clubs. Just flipping to any random page can open up a whole new world!

This book is chock full of trampoline metaphors, so I think that's what's going on here.

Velvet Elvis. Some guy’s thoughts on how mainstream Christianity needs to change. Written for Christians. Some parts are infuriating, but mostly the book made me feel optimistic about religion in America.

I don't get the ending.

The Grapes of Wrath. I’m glad I read this in Ghana. I think that otherwise I would have been able to distance myself from the way the characters lived because I would have thought they exclusively belonged to another time. But now I’ve seen that people today live like that! Another place, not necessarily another time. I really liked it, which is surprising because Melora hated it, but I guess that just goes to show that even the best of us can be wrong!

War, what is it good for? Writing books.

Tales of the South Pacific. Reading this now! The first two lines are awesome. “I wish I could tell you about the South Pacific. The way it actually was.”

Anyone want to recommend a book to read? I have three weeks left.

How living in Ghana made me an atheist (oh the irony!)

“Everyone knows that Africans are some of the most religious people on the planet,” says my Psychology of Religion professor, a Ghanaian. I agree. Religion is a part of daily life here, percolating into our classes, conversations, and activities.

I sit next to someone new in class. After we get past names and how are you, she asks me if I’m a Christian. No, I tell her. She asks, what are you?

I’m filling out a survey for someone’s senior thesis. One of the background questions asks if I practice Christianity, Islam, Traditional African religions, or Atheism. Choose one.   

I walk into a lecture hall five minutes early to find one of my classmates preaching. Everyone says “Amen!” right before the lecturer arrives, and the young preacher to scrambles back to his seat.

My group is getting together to prepare a presentation for class. We start and close the meeting with a prayer thanking God and asking for help with the project.

At home, religion is not present in casual daily conversation. No one assumes that you’re a Christian. Professors don’t ask all the Traditionalists in the class to raise their hands. Here, people want to be able to define my religious identity and understand what I believe. Answers like, “I’m undecided” or “I don’t know yet” don’t really fly, because most people I meet are in very stable places in terms of their relationship with God/the creator and they genuinely want to understand why I don’t know what I believe.

At home, I’ve been in a very privileged position because I’ve never had to decide or declare whether or not I believe in God. Due to that, I hadn’t decided. I thought about spirituality and truth a lot, and I had many conversations with friends about it. But I’ve never felt pressured to make a decision. I’ve never had to think so much about the fact that religion is part of who I am instead of just what I believe, and I’ve never felt so defined by my beliefs or lack thereof.

Because of all this emphasis on knowing what one believes, I’ve developed a sense of urgency for defining my beliefs. This has led to a decision that I am confident about. I’m an atheist. I don’t think that God exists. If someone proves that God exists, then I would believe it. Until then…

Spirituality is still very important to me, in the sense that I’m amazed by the universe. I find it awe-inspiring that elbows, iguanas, oak trees, eyesight, love, and the citric acid cycle are all the products of evolution. That gravity and magnetism and everything that defines us and all the parameters of our lives arose from chance. That I can think. The fact that the world is the way it is, despite the improbability of it all, is so amazing that I can’t comprehend it. I fall on my knees before the vast implausibility of my life.

In Ghana, “atheism” isn’t a dirty word like it is at home. I can tell people I’m an atheist and they won’t be disgusted or mistrustful of me. They may try to convert me and they will likely try to start a discussion about why I believe what I do, but they are not judgmental or outraged. Atheism is accepted here. Not that I feel victimized at home- it’s just that the negative connotation that exists at home doesn’t exist here.

I like to think that I’m equally tolerant because I don’t respond to the passionately Christian Ghanaians I meet with (admittedly uninformed) questions like, “Why don’t you see Christianity as a symbol of your own, recent colonial oppression?”

So at this point in my life I’m an atheist. I can’t say that won’t change, and I hope you don’t hate me for it.

Now, all I need is some sort of written guide that will help me shape my beliefs and behaviors! Preferably written by an expert, or even a prophet, of atheism… oh wait. I guess I’ll just read Richard Dawkins.

From http://foo.ca/wp/2008/04/15/i-call-it-intelligent-falling/ (views expressed do not necessarily reflect my own)

In Ghanaian theater, there’s no such thing as a rhetorical question

Dr. Livingstone, I presume?

Adam, Kate, Scott, and I are sitting in the second row of plastic chairs, swatting mosquitoes and downing handfuls of sugary popcorn. We aren’t as vociferous as the other members of the audience, but we are laughing a lot and taking notes. At the University of Ghana, plays seem as much about audience participation as they are about memorized lines. Throughout the entire production of a play, the audience responds vocally and shouts advice to characters. Rhetorical questions are answered.

The play is called “Through a film, darkly,” and my friend, Caitlin, is playing a British woman who married a Ghanaian and moved to Ghana. Her name is Janet. The first act is funny and informative. It addresses issues like how foreigners have difficulty integrating into the host culture (Ghanaians in London and Londoners in Ghana) and how some Ghanaians react to globalization that is increasingly changing their world.

In one scene a family of Ghanaians is listening to jazz music when their neighbor, who is a white man, knocks on their door to tell them to turn it down. The mother is worried that they were disturbing their neighbor, but the father laughs and said, “I don’t know why I should worry my head about some white man with no sense of humor.”

This frank discussion about who is Ghanaian and who is white is not politically correct in American culture, but Ghanaians are very conscious of people’s origins. It is very important what region you are from in Ghana and what local language you learned first.

Then the Ghanaian character who is married to Janet laments, “Most people think I’m lost to Africa because I’ve married a white girl and I like the white man’s poetry.” I think dialogue like this is very interesting because it shows an African’s response to American/European culture and how people here live with a sense of pride for their own culture.

Janet depicts white people in Ghana in humorous ways. She has a cat whose health she worries about and she mispronounces Ghanaian names, much to the delight of the audience. Most people in the audience just laugh at Janet, but one person shouts “Go back to your country!.” This really surprised me because I haven’t heard anti-Obruni sentiment like that before. Most of the time, people here are exceptionally friendly and welcoming.

One Ghanaian character is especially confrontational towards Janet. He asks, “Why can’t you leave us alone? I suppose you are also writing a book about Africa.” His wife scolds him, but Janet happily and apologetically replies, “No, he’s right, I am writing a book about Africa.” The idea I’m getting here is that Africans resent the fact that outsiders are so interested in studying their culture. So I wonder how to strike a balance between curiosity about someone’s culture and the desire to study someone’s culture so much that it becomes intellectual othering.

This idea pops up again later in the play when a Ghanaian tells the story about what happened to him when he went to college in London. He befriended and fell in love with a white girl there, but then he was betrayed by her. He exclaims passionately, “Do you think it’s fair that she used me as a specimen for her thesis in anthropology?”

By this point, we were all laughing helplessly. The Ghanaian’s friends reassure him that he would have “tired of her cold love” anyways. I don’t think my love is cold!

Anyways, by the second act the play switches from meaningful commentary on culture clash to Ghanaian-style soap opera. The more emotional moments were accompanied by flute music. Here’s some dialogue:

“I was a virgin when I met you!”

“I have known the woman you have spent and I have loved her!”

At the end of the second act, the soap-opera-instigating characters died in a car crash, leaving the stage open for more discussion about culture. One of the final lines was “It takes faith and courage for an African to keep his soul outside of Africa” because of the “little looks” and “thoughtless little remarks” made by natives of England and America.

I loved the play. The acting was really good and the writing was so interesting. Hopefully there will be time to go to more theater productions before leaving Ghana!

Quote of the day, from the Ghanaian married to Janet: You will piss your pants if you think we are still living in Livingstone’s Africa!

Countdown until I go home: 0 lectures, 1 month, 11 exams

Five marriage proposals before dinner time? Not bad for a Saturday.

Along the beach in Togo

My second weekend trip to Togo was saturated with motorcycle rides, illegal leopard skins, disastrous French, and jazz night at the hotel. I barely had enough time between exciting events to drink water and check on the evolution of my sunburns. We were on the move, Alex and I!

The moment we stepped into Togo, I was struck by a sense of the absurd, mostly because dozens of motorcycle taxi wranglers swarmed around us, shouting in French and touching our arms. We don’t speak French, so I barreled through the crowd yelling “we’ll walk, we’ll walk.” Since we weren’t going to understand anybody anyways, I thought it would be better to mime things to a single driver rather than a crowd. We walked a few blocks away from the border where there weren’t as many people vying for our business.

Our goal was to get our Togo visas extended without paying a 35 cedi fee, a feat our friends had accomplished a week before. We caught motorcycle taxis to the visa office. This was accomplished by me saying “por le visas” over and over and Alex showing them her passport and gesticulating emphatically at her visa. Yay!

The feeling of the absurd only increased when we got to the visa office and the drivers refused to give us our change. Price collusion! The drivers could not be persuaded to honor their end of the deal. Maybe if a man had been traveling with us we could have convinced them.

Anyways, the series of ridiculous events continued to snowball as we approached the office. After our signature blend of Spanish-French ineptitude and wild gestures didn’t work, Alex pulled out a French dictionary. I stood around laughing while she discovered that the French word for “extension” is “extension” with a French accent. That helped. We were directed to a window labeled “Service Visas”. The officer in the window looked at us dubiously the whole time we explained what we wanted, but luckily he spoke enough English to tell us that such a thing is impossible. Visa extensions don’t exist. We argued with him for a little while and considered bribery, but eventually we just decided to leave so we could get a hotel room for the night.

A few exhilarating motorcycle taxi rides later, we sat around the hotel and listened to a jazz band singing In the Jungle in French and eating burgers. Niiiiice.

The hotel was really interesting, especially since the shower in our room (our own personal shower!) was above floor level. Luckily for you, describing the plumbing and drainage incidents we experienced is beyond the scope of this blog.

Flowers outside our window, not infested with mango flies.

The next day we woke up to a beautiful Togoaise morning and decided to spend the rest of our time in Togo shopping. This is actually really fun because the market is full of surprises, so you never know what will happen to you.

We wanted to check out the grand market and the fetish market. Alex went to the grand market last time she was in Togo, so she knew that it was a pretty long taxi ride away from the border. We hopped on two motorcycle taxis who gave us a surprisingly good price, and we were very surprised when they stopped just a few minutes later at a market. We thought that we had miscommunicated, so we tried again with more gestures to explain we were going to the GRAND market. They seemed skeptical but amiably started up again, only to drive us around in circles to give the impression they were taking us far away, before stopping just a few blocks away from where we had just been. At this point I received my first two marriage proposals of the day, one from each taxi driver. I declined with the excuse “I don’t even know you.”

Pick a color and follow it for awhile. That pretty much maps out our taxi ride to the market.

After we paid them and I accidentally gave my guy about 20% more than we had agreed due to my lack of familiarity with the currency, we decided that Alex’s taxi driver must have done exactly the same thing last time she was here, and that the grand market is actually really close to the beach. Oh well! Now we know, but we did nothing to advance the reputation of foreigners in Togo while we figured that out.

Then we walked around the market for about twenty minutes before we noticed that someone was following us. She was around sixty years old, and she had a radiant smile and no English. We had no French, but still we smiled a lot and chatted with her. Eventually she led us down an alleyway, and we figured out that she wanted us to go to her house and have breakfast. She was saying the word “manger” a lot, which means “to eat”, and we had thought she was saying “marché” for market. Anyways, we declined her invitation and went back to the market while she continued to her house.

About half an hour later, we were very surprised to turn around and see her right behind us again! She followed us around the market for about an hour while we tried to shake her off by going in and out of buildings, weaving around traffic, and stopping unexpectedly. I was about to suggest splitting up to confuse her when Alex tried figuring out what she wanted. Eventually Alex deduced that she wanted us to go to church with her. A flattering offer, but I am a heathen who wanted to spend time buying things and Alex was not interested either. So again we happily declined the invite and she went on her way. We were getting better at miming.

The market had lots of good French food like pastries and baguettes with avocado, but the coolest thing was the DVD stands. Every market here has someone selling DVDs that are obviously pirated, with 4-5 movies on each one. Anyways, this time I saw one DVD starting Osama bin Laden. It looked like a drama. Also, there was a DVD about the arrest of Laurent Gbagbo, ex-president of Ivory Coast. I was really surprised because he had just been arrested four days ago!

The market also had this little boy, dodging traffic to help push a cart.

We ran into some Ghanaians who tried to convince us to buy their souvenir items and also to marry them and then had lunch at a Lebanese restaurant called El Sultan. The shawarmas there are delicious! We also chatted with the owner of the restaurant a little while. He’s Lebanese, but he’s lived his whole life in Guinea and now Togo. He said that he feels like an African, but he doesn’t think that he will ever be accepted as one. We also found out from him that motorcycle taxis are called semijohns and that the fetish market is overrated. We still wanted to check it out though, so we asked for his advice on prices for semijohns to get there and then headed back outside.

Alex's lunch, scrumptious!

We hopped on a pair of semijohns and zoomed along the beach and then into the interior of the city. I spent the entire fifteen minute ride giving the driver directions on how to get to the fetish market and rebutting his arguments about why we needed to marry each other. I actually really enjoyed it. Normally it’s kind of annoying and even threatening to be propositioned all the time, but there was something about this guy that seemed harmless and fun. Every time I gave him an excuse, he would laugh or grin and come up with another reason to get married, like “Your eyes are very nice” or “I need an English teacher”. It was a really fun time, and when we got to the fetish market I was sad to see him go because I knew the next semijohn driver probably wouldn’t be as entertaining.

I should probably explain the fetish market now. It’s not fetish in the sense that most Westerners think, it’s more of a market that sells supplies for voodoo. It’s small, about the area of three basketball courts. Basically, they sell dried animal parts and little charm dolls. We kept getting invited to go into the back room of some of the stands, which I was reluctant to do but Alex finally persuaded me to check it out. Cages of dead and dying rats? Check. Alters made out of bones? Check. Poached leopard and cheetah pellets? Tragic, but check.

Unbelievable?

The most interesting part was when this boy called us over. He was holding a canvas bag, and he grinned at us as he pulled out a bright green chameleon.

Not for sale.

We didn’t buy anything, but it was really interesting.

It was time to head back home to Accra, so we took motorcycle taxis back to the border (no marriage proposal!). At the border, the Togo guard acted like we had to give him our phone numbers to get across the border. Luckily I remembered from last time that there’s actually some paperwork to fill out and no phone number is required, so we just told him “No, no, we just have to fill out the paper and then we can cross.” He finally pulled the paperwork out of his desk and gave it to us. I was thinking, aren’t you an official of the Togo government? How is lying to tourists part of your job description? Anyways, we got to the Ghana side and the guards there needed to look at our passports again. The uniformed, armed guard who took my passport said, “Ah, I like your sweater.” He looked at my hand and remarked that I wasn’t married yet. “You will marry me. I want to marry white.” I couldn’t believe he was spending his time at work doing this, and it felt very strange because he obviously had all the power in the situation. Also his definition of sweater is different from mine. Anyways, all I could do is tell him to get in line behind all my other fiances. During this whole time people who look Ghanaian or Togoaise were crossing the border freely.

Coming back to Accra felt like coming home, but I really love the atmosphere of Togo. I hope I get a chance to go back again before I leave Africa at the end of May. And if you like turning down requests for marriage from motorcycle-driving, French-speaking foreign men, you should come with me :)