2008-09-25 / Front Page

Blogging from Ghana

Two Jamestowners journey to West Africa
By Jeff & Kim McDonough


1:02 p.m., Tuesday, Sept. 23. Accra, Ghana

We are sitting in the lobby of the Labadi Beach Hotel and are killing time until we need to leave for the airport. This is a posh resort. Queen Elizabeth and Tony Blair stayed here

The school building in Aboso that was damaged by a recent storm. Photo by Jeff McDonough
when they visited Ghana. We have found this hotel very European and a world apart from the dusty, smokey, noisy Ghanaian melee just outside its walled compound.
This trip has been a success. We believe we will be able to help the two young boys — Safianu and Rashid — continue with their education. We now understand the obstacles and have a better grasp of Ghanaian society. Ironically, the largest barrier for most individuals > here seems to be self-imposed — a perception that one cannot go forward. Fortunately, both boys see themselves in a larger capacity.
We also believe there is way to help the village of Aboso rebuild its school that was damaged by a storm last year and also make some repairs to those school buildings that are still useable. Perhaps we can facilitate the necessary fund-raising and return to Aboso to help make the school construction project reality. At first we were overwhelmed by the concept, but now see that small steps can have a profound impact. 
Today we have had time to reflect on our trip to Africa. Here are a few observations:
• Ghanaians are a friendly, peaceful people. This is a deeply religious country and the many different brands of beliefs — Methodist, Catholic, Mormon, Baptist, Presbyterian and Muslim — co-exist in apparent harmony. As one Ghanaian youth told us, it is the same God!
• Ghanaians are proud of their democracy and the fact that there will be an election of a new president in December.
• Ghana is a poor country, but is rich in natural resources. If the country remains politically stable we believe there is great opportunity for business investment here. The country’s infrastructure needs improvements. The government also appears focused on improving education and vocational training.
• Life moves at a slower pace in Ghana. We have island time in Jamestown. Here they call it Africa time or Ghana time and it moves at one-third the pace of that at home. The natives believe there's no reason to be in a hurry.
• Many natives only eat one meal at day and it is usually very simple — rice or beans, maybe fufu, which is made from cassava and plantain.
• Graft is rampant in Ghana, but we are told that it is better that it used to be. We observed police taking payments from taxi drivers at checkpoints on the coastal and western side of the country. We were also told that to get a good job in the mines that the natives had to pay off the Ghanaian bosses. We found it important to negotiate a price ahead of time and keep reminding them of the deal. Yet, somehow there would be a new cost added at the end that was not discussed ahead of time. One learns to be wary.
As we have been sitting in the hotel lobby and working on this blog entry we met a man from Florida who is visiting Ghana to seek out investment opportunities. He believes Ghana is like the U.S. in 1935 and that even with the hurdles involved, is an excellent place to invest and develop business.

6:07 p.m. Monday, Sept. 22. Accra, Ghana

We have to returned to Accra, the capital of Ghana. Our adventure here is nearly complete. We will fly to Amsterdam Tuesday evening and then on to Detroit and wing our way to Providence and home.
Upon our arrival in Accra this afternoon we found that the small guest house where we had planned to stay this evening had been closed. Helene, a Swiss national who owns the guest

A young girl with her harvest of berries and nuts. Photo by Jeff McDonough
house, told us on the previous night armed thugs broke into the place. The robbers rounded up the guests and pistol-whipped several. Helene was assaulted and required medical treatment. The thugs made off with cash and electronics and whatever else they could carry. We missed the thugs by about 10 hours.
The crime is devastating. The guest house was a charming respite from the urban sprawl. Helene said it was the first time in 10 years that she has had any problems. She is planning to close the place and “go as far away as possible.” It will be traumatic for employees of the guest house who will have difficulty finding similar jobs.
Other than the guest house incident our travels in Ghana have been without difficulty. We have taken the usual precautions, but have never been concerned for our safety.
We had a great time in Tarkwa on Sunday. We invited Safianu and his brother Rashid to our hotel where there was Internet wireless available. Kim taught to the two boys to use a laptop computer that we had given them. The computer, an older Dell which had been retired from business service, was a high-tech wonder for the two Ghanaians. The boys entertained themselves for quite a long time, surfing the Internet. Later, they pulled out the deck of Uno cards and we spent the afternoon engaged in several animated rounds of cards. We plan to send a few more of the card games to the village school. We’ve learned that Ghanaians like to play games.
It was an emotional parting as the boys left for their home. By Ghanaian rural standards, they are quite fortunate. They live in a very simple, but sound home. Clean water is available in the community, although it must be carried to the home in buckets. However, their living conditions are far from the standards we have in the United States. We are encouraged that, despite the distance, keeping in touch in much easier through the Internet, though the boys must travel about 20 minutes to find Internet access.
After our visit with the boys we met a family from the state of Washington that is spending one year in Tarkwa as missionaries. They are helping establish a Bible study program in the town. We spent a couple of hours sharing our observations of Ghana. The family also wanted to catch up on news from the United States. This was our first encounter with any Americans since leaving Amsterdam. There was something special about sharing coffee and conversation with fellow Americans from the States.

6:45 a.m., Sunday, Sept. 21. Tarkwa, Ghana

We have a lizard that visits our hotel room. We have named him Fred. He appears to come and go at will, maybe through the air conditioner unit. Fred does not bother us; we only wish the hotel workers would clean up the lizard guano on the windowsills.
Yesterday we returned to Aboso. Our young friend Safianu took us on a tour of the village, which is home to about 3,000 people. We saw the fresh vegetables and fruits at the local

A man washes sand in search of gold near the village of Aboso. Photo by Jeff McDonough

market. The locals grow the food in gardens on small plots of land just outside of the village. We are not sure whether they rent the land or whether they own it. Maybe they just use it because it is there. One local told us the country was going to have to deal with the land ownership issue one of these days. Currently, land ownership is convoluted, involving family and tribal claims, and no one is quite sure who has what.
It’s clear that the focus of activities has changed for the weekend. Children, in school during the week, are busy helping with garden and household chores on Saturday. Men relaxed over a spirited game of checkers. Life seems to have become just a bit more relaxed for everyone.
Our tour included a visit to the natives’ gold mining operations. These are not the large mines nearby that are operated by mega-corporations. The natives mine on a small scale, with four or five people doing the work, digging in what remains of the old mines. The Ghanaians grind stone and wash the stone dust with mercury. The mercury binds with the gold to aid in its extraction. One local showed us how it is done. Once the mercury has bonded with the gold, it is poured into a cloth. The mercury seeps through the cloth, leaving the gold behind. This is a toxic way to mine gold that not only poisons the people doing the work, but poisons the land and ground water. It is also hot, back-breaking work to earn just

Children return to the village with fresh vegetables and firewood from family garden plots. Photo by Jeff McDonough

a few dollars. Yet everyone appeared happy.
We visited a local distiller — a moonshiner, as we would say at home. In Ghana they distill spirits from fermented sap tapped from palm trees. A few locals gathered at the distiller’s home to play cards and possibly partake of the product. We didn’t try the spirits, but we did enjoy watching the fast pace of the card game.
Before we left the village, we stopped by Josephine’s home. She is the chairman of the local parent teacher organization. She is also a past member of regional assembly and said she will stand for election again in 2010. She works as a secretary at the university in Tarkwa. Josephine is clearly an individual who knows how to get things done. She is an admirable woman who is an asset to her community.
It is surprising how little wildlife we have seen here given the rural character of this area. There are large crows, which look like they are wearing white vests and are ready for a night on the town. There are many turkey buzzards or vultures. Lizards, large and small, run everywhere. We’ve seen hummingbirds and egrets. There is also a small sparrow-like bird that is orange and yellow.
The Ghanaians have lots of animals. Small goats, sheep and cattle. Chickens are always underfoot. One woman told us she had a parrot, and offered to sell it to us. We have seen dogs and cats, they are all small. Perhaps there is not enough food to feed larger animals.

 

8:56 a.m., Saturday, Sept. 20. Tarkwa, Ghana.

We had quite a surprise on Friday. Our driver took us from our hotel in Tarkwa to Aboso about mid-morning. There we were met at the bustling village crossroads by Safianu and his former teacher. They told us we should go directly to the school because everyone was waiting for us. Little did we realize what was ahead.
The school sits on top of a large hill so that the classrooms are cooled by the mid-day breeze. The school has an enrollment of about 1,000 students. Hundreds of children,

The kindergarten class in Aboso. Photo by Kim McDonough

dressed in uniforms of various colors, played in the fields by the schools. Some of the older students were busy clearing a nearby garden area with machetes. Just image 12-year-olds in Jamestown wielding sharp machetes to clear the Lawn Avenue baseball fields of dense weeds more than six feet tall!
The students took immediate notice of our arrival and thronged about us. They jumped up and down and shouted, waving their hands. Many of the children wanted to shake our hands or at least touch us. Throughout the day at the school whenever children were near us they would reach out to touch our white skin.
We were taken to a classroom where a parent-teacher organization meeting was underway. Friday was a special meeting held in honor of our visit.  We were introduced and the teachers told the parents about us. Then we were asked to talk. We told the parents that we believed education is important and that they should encourage their children to stay in school as long as possible. We shared our observation that individuals  in the big cities who had a better standard of living had continued with their schooling, whether it was the vocational technical training or the university.
The parents asked for our help rebuilding one of the school buildings that was damaged by a big storm last year. The building is now just a shell and is not useable. The walls must be reconstructed and its roof rebuilt. The adjacent school buildings are better shape but also need repair. The tin roofs leak. We were told that during the rainy season classes sometimes must be cancelled.
It began to rain heavily while we were at the school so we saw firsthand that the roofs did indeed leak.  The school library consists of a single cabinet with state-issued curricula. The walls of the classrooms are barren with the exception of a chalkboard.  Missing are the colorful visual aids that are common in the Jamestown schools. 
Later in the morning we met with different groups of teachers and gave them the school supplies that we had brought with us. The teachers were clearly delighted by the small boxes of chalk that we provided.  We wished we could have brought more because they need so much.
We spent the remainder of our afternoon as guests of Safianu’s family, sitting on the porch of their home where a nice breeze broke the heat of the day and offered protection from the frequent rain showers.  Safianu’s grandmother had prepared for us a southern Ghanaian dish called fufu, a mush made from cassava and plantain.  Fufu, the mainstay of most local diets, is topped with a simple vegetable soup or with a spicy fish-based sauce.  We were also served a maize mash, common to northern Ghana, that was topped with palm oil soup.  There is a ritual to all meals here.  A basin of water and soap is first brought to the table so

A Ghanaian meal prepared by Safianu's grandmother. Photo by Jeff McDonough

that the diners may wash their hands.  Meals are eaten from a single, shared bowl, using three fingers from the right hand.  No silverware is used.
Safianu’s great-uncle is the Imam for the local Muslim community.  Our afternoon of conversation was interrupted to allow time for the prayers of the day and he was busy with activities at the mosque as this is the observance of Ramadan.  However, he spent some time visiting with us, sharing a prayer and blessing us for our safe travel.
Our visit ended with a typical American activity:  a game of Uno.  We brought a deck of cards with us and taught the game to Safianu and Rashid.  Although the first round was a learning experience, both boys quickly picked up the strategy of the game, laughing as they forced us to pick two or pick four cards.   Rashid was also enamored with some small pre-school toys that we brought for the nursery school.  Clearly, a toy is a rare possession in this village. 
Safianu and his brother Rashid are quiet and polite. At first they appeared shy, but have opened up to us as we have gotten to know each other.
 

 

6:15 p.m., Thursday, Sept. 18. Tarkwa, Ghana.

It was another long car ride today. We drove west along the coast to Sekondi-Takordi and then turned north and inland to Tarkwa. The trip took about three hours. We were exhausted by the time we reached our destination. People here drive way too fast. Our driver floored

Kim and villagers in Aboso. Photo by Jeff McDonough

the accelerator at every opportunity, sometimes racing along at 140 kilometers per hour on a lane that resembled Conanicus Avenue, only wet and curvy. When something got in our way, like a stopped vehicle, the driver stomped on the brakes at the last minute, honking and waving. Then we continued the cycle again. There was Rastafarian music blasting from the radio, and we had to keep reminding our driver to turn down the volume.
Wrecked automobiles and trucks sit broken alongside the roads. The grim accident reminders do not seem to bring about much caution from the motorists. The rule is “pedal to the metal” and honk your horn. It is up to the pedestrians to get out of the way.
Once we checked into our hotel at Tarkwa (an improvement over the previous lodging), we hired a new driver and traveled north another 30 minutes to the village of Aboso.
There we met the reason for our trip to Africa: a young man named Safiandu Sandah, who has been a pen pal with our daughter Kelsey for several years.
Our arrival in Aboso was cause for celebration. Safiandu’s family and his community welcomed us with wide smiles and open arms. Safiandu’s great uncle put on his finest

Girls carry platters of bananas on their heads. Photo by Jeff McDonough

clothing and sat on a ceremonial mat so that we could sit on the only two chairs in his home. Safiandu’s grandmother was also dressed in her best and greeted us with a warm hug.
It was mid-afternoon and the village quickly turned out to meet us. Safiandu’s brother came home from the Catholic middle school. One of Safiandu’s former teachers, Samson Forson, arrived on a moped with a fellow teacher.
We were soon taken on a tour of the village. As we walked the dirt streets we were introduced to villagers and other teachers from the school. Many curious young children flocked to our side. Our white faces certainly attracted attention.
Aboso is a poor village. The poverty is heart-wrenching. The only local source of jobs was a glass factory that closed 35 years ago. There are gold and manganese mines nearby in Tarkwa. A few of the villagers have found jobs there, however most of the work appears to be of a technical nature so general employment prospects remain limited. In the village there are many huts with walls of mud, but most have at least a tin roof.
However bleak the local economy seems, the residents of Aboso appeared healthy and happy.
We walked up a big hill to see the school. Classes were done for the day when we arrived. We found that a large part of the school is unusable due to storm damage. The tin roof blew off and a wall collapsed. There is no money to repair to school. Now the children have their lessons outdoors, which the teachers say is a problem in the rainy season.
Tomorrow we will return to see the school in session.

 

5:22 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 17. Cape Coast, Ghana
Today has been good. We visited Kakum National Park, a wildlife sanctuary that is about a 40-minute drive inland from the coast. We finally got far enough away from civilization to see a few monkeys, lizards and tropical birds. We also noticed that the farther inland one travels in Ghana, the poorer the villages become.
Civilization here means the landscape is barren because all of the trees have been cut down. As you drive inland, the forest transitions from scraggly to robust and you see how this country must have once been.
Kakum has one of the four rain forest canopy walkways in the world. The Kakum National Park is an absolute jewel. The park is comprised of second growth rain forest and was

Kim tries the rainforest canopy walkway at Kakum National Park. Photo by Jeff McDonough

established to preserve the forest lands and wildlife. Ghana’s leaders also hope to that eco-tourism will increase. Ghana stopped logging the forest in 1989. It was surprising how quickly the rain forest has recovered, although many species of plants have yet to fully return. The walkway is built of netting, ropes, boards and wire cables and takes one through the top of the rain forest, which is called the canopy and is habitat for a variety of wildlife. One could only hope the walkway builders tied good knots, as it was a 300 foot drop to the ground below. We saw two species of monkeys, one of which is endangered.
Unfortunately, we did not see any of the forest elephants. We were told that there are are about 300 in the preserve, but are difficult to find because they avoid humans. You can be standing next to one and not know that the elephant is there until it walks away.
We have completed our third full day in Ghana and we have just about recovered from the initial culture shock. Yesterday, we both suffered a few anxious moments when we questioned the wisdom of visiting Ghana. Then we realized that the return home would take some 36 hours of travel. Our journey here certainly makes one understand Dorothy Gale in the “Wizard of Oz” when she exclaims, “there is no place like home.” However, as we have begun to appreciate the culture, we are enjoying our experience and are thankful to have been able to come here.
The evening prayers are about to begin at the mosque across the street from our hotel. Last night the evening prayers, broadcast from the mosque, were competing with the singing and

The mosque across the street from our hotel. Evening prayers compete with the singing at the Methodist church. Photo by Kim McDonough

organ music coming from the Methodist Zion church adjacent to the hotel. At the same time you could hear Madonna blasted from a sound system in the street market below. We could also hear the strains of what sounded like an Irish lullaby. It was quite a cacophony.
Ironically, as we are here, the president of Ghana is in the United States, appealing to President Bush for assistance in reducing malaria and other diseases here. From a first-hand perspective, the need is great. Open sewers, designed to carry water during the rainy season, are ripe with raw sewage and serve as a breeding ground for mosquitoes. There is no infrastructure for trash removal. As a result, trash is strewn alongside the roads and waterways or the trash is burned in small and large heaps, exacerbating asthma and other breathing problems for the population. Outdated electronics are stripped for components, the plastic and waste discarded in any convenient location. Worse yet, the plastic is burned away from the wire creating toxic waste that pollutes the land and the air. We wonder if the recycling efforts of industrial countries, including the U.S., are simply resulting in a transfer of trash that is turning Africa into a landfill.
The hotel where we are staying in Cape Coast is adequate and clean. It is built high on a hill with a commanding view of the city and the ocean beyond. That’s good, as there is a cooling breeze when you sit outside at the restaurant (there is no inside seating).
The staff is friendly and helpful. There was an initial concern of bed bugs, which has thankfully proven unfounded. One must fill a bucket with water to flush the toilet and the hot water barely dribbles from the shower. The air conditioner works well, so we are comfortable at night.
Tomorrow we head to Tarkwa. The young man whom we came to Ghana to meet lives in a village nearby. We will keep you posted.

 

9:02 p.m, Tuesday, Sept. 16. Cape Coast, Ghana.
Our driver arrived at the guesthouse shortly after 6 a.m. today. He said we needed to get an early start because traffic would be heavy. Even at that early hour, we found traffic was stop and go as we made our way to the outskirts of Accra.
Education is important to Ghanaians. All students wear uniforms to school. The clothing

Four-year-old cousins in Cape Coast. Photo by Kim McDonough

colors are different for the various schools. The boys wear shorts and button down shirts. The girls wear jumpers. The students often carry backpacks, just like the kids at home. They all appeared neat and clean and eager to be on their way.
The trip from Accra to Cape Coast took about three hours, interrupted only by the occasional police checkpoints. Our driver said the police were asking him for money. He said he told them he had none. He said the police always stop the taxi drivers.
The urban sprawl of Accra gradually gave way to a rural countryside that somewhat resembles the interior of Florida. Just add a few big hills and mud homes with thatch roofs.
We’ve yet to see a clear day here. Today was cloudy, hot and humid with an ever present choking smoke from burning trash and vehicle exhaust. One longs for a breath of fresh air. There were rain sprinkles this morning.
Cape Coast is a small city noted for the major role that it played in the slave trade. We visited Cape Coast Castle, a fort that was originally built by the Dutch and taken over by

A view of a Cape Coast court yard. Photo by Kim McDonough

the British. We were shown the holding cells where the slaves were housed from the 1600s to the early 1800s. The slaves were then loaded onto sailing ships bound for Europe and the Americas. The first Angelican church in Africa was built directly above those slave cells. Ironically, the coat of arms as you enter the building where the British soldiers lived says “Freedom and Justice.”
Cape Coast appears to be a typical crowded Ghana city. The streets are bustling with shops, street vendors, people and traffic. People keep the areas around their homes and businesses clean. They sweep all the litter into the deep gutters and the open sewers which run alongside the streets. At times the stench is overwhelming.
We’ve noticed that there are many buildings under construction, but no one is working on them. We were told that people build when they have money. When the money is gone, construction stops. Then the cycle begins anew. Fortunately, Ghanaians are eternally optimistic and a slight delay of months or even years doesn’t seem to bother anybody.
The highlight of our day was a visit to a local shop known as Global Mamas. Housed in the Catholic Charities, the Global Mamas is a collective of women who teach and produce beautiful batik cloth. They make clothing and accessories, such as beaded jewelry and handbags. The organization has increased the annual income of its members from $200 to about $430 per year. That amount is equivalent to the average annual income in Ghana.
Tomorrow we visit Kakum National Park, a wildlife refuge that is nearby.

 

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