Sunday, November 27, 2005

Sorry, Wrong Number

Ghana has embraced the cell phone like nobody's business. My personal unscientific survey estimates that everyone in the country has at least one. And they all have intricate ring tones set to the highest volume. It's a booming business here- there are cell phone stores all over the place, and here you don't have to 'sign up' for cell service if you don't want to. Ted and I have a regular billed service with Areeba, but Cooper has what most Ghanaians have, which is a phone with a 'sim card'. You simply go to the service provider of your choice, tell them you want to purchase a startup kit and they give you a tiny micro-encoded card that slips into your phone and gives you 'units' of time and a phone number. Your units are good for a set period of time- usually a couple months- and your phone number stays with your phone. When you run low on units, you go back to the service provider (which could be a box on the roadside with a shade umbrella emblazoned with the cell provider's name protecting the sales clerk from the equatorial sun) and purchase more, slip them into your phone and you're topped up. We aren't sure exactly how much time a unit is- something less than a minute, but fifty bucks got Cooper enough units to last all of November, December, and January.

What this does, unfortunately, is create a booming business in cell phone theft. If you want a cell phone, and steal a cell phone, all you need to purchase is a new sim card and voila! you have a working, untraceable phone. It's illegal to talk on them while you drive but if you are using one in a car as a passenger you have to hold it with your left hand to keep it out of reach of a passing pedestrian who could snatch it from your grasp.

Now, walk with me over to the cultural corner and have a seat. Today's culture clash is over phones and phone manners. One of Ghana's main commodities is wrong numbers. We aren't sure if it's careless dialing or incorrect switching, but the outcome is the same- way more wrong numbers than calls from people you know. Add into this the Ghanaian norm for telephone conversations and you have a recipe for frustration. Ghanaians, when calling each other, don't identify themselves. They simply begin speaking and assume you know who it is. This is difficult when you know the person, and of course, impossible if you don't. Now comes the really fun, spiffy part- when you answer a phone in Ghana, and a Ghanaian is on the other end, the conversation inevitably goes like this:

You: Hello?
Caller: Hello?
You: Yes?
Caller: Hello?
You: [sigh]
Caller: Yes, Hello?
You: Who would you like to speak with?
Caller: Hello?
You: HELLO! Who's calling please?
Caller: Yes, [insert one of three local languages here as long as it isn't English]
You: You have the wrong number.
Caller: Wrong number?
You: Yes.
Caller: This is the wrong number?
You: YES!

At this point, the caller either begins speaking to someone on their end or simply hangs up.

Count to fifty, look at phone, hear phone ring. Same caller, same routine, except "You" is not quite as polite or patient this time. Or the possible two more times the same caller will try the same number without the success he craves. We worry for the national mental health, knowing that Einstein defined insanity as repeating the same thing over and over expecting a different result.

A variation on this routine is the Dial and Hang Up Game where you dial a number, let it ring once, then disconnect. If you have your phone on silent or leave it home while you go out, you will be treated to a long menu of missed calls that reads like this:

024 3356 989
5 missed calls

027 34001 22
3 missed calls

024 484 6672
5 missed calls

We have not sorted this game out yet at all.

The final culture clash comes with the timing of these calls. While you will receive them all day long, you have to be ready for them to start before dawn- Ghanaians are not slugabeds and if they are awake, it's an appropriate time to call family, friends, and wrong numbers. To save myself from these early birds (and incidentally from family members who can't do the time zone math) I turn my phone off every night as I get in bed and don't turn it back on until Cooper leaves for school.

Once I have to establish contact with Cooper because he's out of the house, I'm fair game and Phone Olympics begins anew each day. Woohoo! Will I miss these little encounters when I'm gone? Only time will tell. ;-)

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Our Duke

Duke and Cooper

It's been pretty quiet around here. Traffic is getting hectic and increasing daily- apparently the holiday season brings people into the capital from all over the country, not all of whom know where they are going and many of whom are totally inexperienced driving in traffic. Whoops! The drive to Cooper's school has gone from 15 minutes to sometimes 30 minutes because of the increase in (clueless) traffic, and Duke (our driver) is frantic about us driving ourselves until after January.

He knows we will anyway, but he keeps saying-

"You should let me drive you now. Too many people who don't know how to drive well. Too many people. Too much traffic."

He worries about us. :-) Duke was recounting to me a discussion he had with the other drivers, and told them-

"I want to drive for them all the days of my life!"

We get all warm and fuzzy when he says stuff like that. He is the best, and such a safe driver, and he is so concerned that Cooper never have to wait around for him at school- he is always there in plenty of time no matter what Cooper's schedule is. As Duke says-

"I do not want my boy to come out of the school and look around and say, 'Where is my Duke?'"

Like I've never made him hang out waiting for me at school in the U.S.. But when I tell Duke that Cooper can cool his heels without harm, he just laughs like I'm always such a kidder.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Adventures in Fuud

Saturday night we finally went to the Fuud Shack. You might remember it was the place just a couple of blocks from our house that was totally local and had no Obroni business at all, ever, that we could see. But it was so cute and so handy and such a good slice of normal African life that we finally couldn't resist anymore- or more probably we got to the point where looking stoopid wasn't as important as being a part of our neighborhood. Cooper declined to join us (he was grounded off the computer until Saturday and didn't want to squander any minutes he could be playing games online by eating dinner with Mom and Dad).

So just the two of us headed out to the Fuud Shack. Our plan was just to go for a beer and see what happened. We wandered in, sat at a table and ordered two large Star beers (a very good, crisp, local lager and our current favorite). The whole place is outdoors, but protected from the elements by a nice tiled roof. There are a half dozen lamps hanging from the ceiling that are basically just light bulbs inside baskets, none of which are actually over a table, so the post-sunset ambience is strictly dim. The floor is a brick paver type and there are about nine tables, two of which are the high rise type you sit at on bar stools. There is a sound system playing good African reggae and stuff.

As we drank our beers, we noticed a menu board inside the actual shack where a bartender/cashier type guy hangs out that had big print saying CHICKEN and SANDWICHES, but we were unable, in the dim light, to read anymore. We chatted and wondered occasionally if we should be going to the shack window and placing our order, when the man who gave us our table brought a laminated menu sheet. Phew! Next hurdle cleared. Obvious stupidity level not noticeably increased.

The menu had cheeseburgers, club sandwiches (in Ghana club sandwiches are very good, but they include cucumber and boiled egg, so when you come visit us, be prepared), roasted chicken with rice or fries, tilapia or whitefish with spicy gravy (gravy in Ghana is more like a side of salsa). Our guy came over and took our order- roasted chicken and fried rice for Ted and a club sandwich for me. Then he took his order pad to a man off to the side, had a brief consultation, returned to our table to tell me that they had no club sandwiches (this was not a huge surprise- Ghanaian restaurants frequently don't have menu items available). I changed it to chicken and we ordered a couple more tall Stars.

Meanwhile, the Fuud Shack is filling up, slowly. We were WAY early, having come at about 6:00pm which is easily an hour before the earliest Ghanaian diners would have come. After a while, a woman in a white outfit and long white apron came in through the back exit of the dining area with our food, handed it to the waiter and left. Apparently the kitchen is in one of the small buildings outside... Wherever the kitchen is, they turn out the world's most moist, tender, perfectly spiced roasted chicken.

At this point let me tell you, we have found our neighborhood bar/restaurant. The food is delicious, the beer is local, and the atmosphere is unbeatable, (as long as you spray DEET on your legs and feet before coming to defeat the malarial mosquitoes that come out at dusk and bite your ankles...). The location is close enough to walk to, the reception was friendly and welcoming, and the prices are unbeatable. We are so jazzed.

We finished eating and asked for the bill (you always have to ask- Ghanaians are used to Europeans who will occupy a table for hours and are usually taken by surprise by Americans who eat, then want to leave the restaurant....). When the bill came, we studied it for while and realized that the chicken (a thigh/leg combo) with side (rice or fries) each cost us ¢30,000 (about $2.30) and those freakin' big Star beers (they come in almost quart sized bottles) were less than a dollar apiece. Total bill for three large stars and two chicken dinners with cole slaw and side dish- ¢85,000 ($9.40). I'm just sayin'- when you go native, you get a real bargain. Those same Star beers, ordered in our hotel, would be almost two bucks apiece, which until Saturday we thought was a bargain! We overtipped, which meant leaving approximately $1.50 for our waiter, and left him beaming and wishing us a speedy return. No problem there- we intend to make it our second home.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Adventures in English, Part I

Since we are constantly in the process of trying to understand, trying to be understood, and trying to learn at least a little Twi (not to mention Ga and a few other tribal languages spoken here), language will be a subject I'll return to often. Here's my first stab at the ever-evolving linguistic quirks we've got goin' on...

English is the official 'business' language of Ghana. Official does not necessarily mean correct, or even usual- just that most everyone here can speak and understand it. In some form. Ghanaians speak the British english they learned from colonial days, which makes not only our American accents hard to grasp, but our American words. "Cookies?" "Trunk?" "Gas?"

We are occasionally incomprehensible, even when we speak s-l-o-w-l-y.

Or LOUDLY. :-)

Then there is Ghanaian english, much of which we love. Finish means done or broken, as in "The pizza is finish." (We have no more pizza), or "The clocks are all finish." (None of them work anymore). Groundnuts are peanuts, groundnut paste is peanut butter and groundnut soup is way better than peanut soup- we aren't sure of the connection yet. I'll get back to you on that one.

The taxis and tro-tros have words on their back windows that usually spell out some sort of religious idea, e.g. Faith in the Lord, or Inshah Allahu. Sometimes they are missing letters, so you have to figure out the meaning of "Eternity is fou d in the Lo d". Sometimes the message is misspelled like "Remmeber the Lord", "Except the Lord" and our personal favorite: "Who Kwons?".

When you drive, especially on the motorway, there are billboards reminding you of many things, but two biggies are "Overspeeding kills!" and "Wrongful overtaking kills." All over town are the ubiquitous condom ads- "If it's not on, it's not in." or "It's better on top- always keep it on!"

There are lots of handpainted signs advertising services or real estate. One near our house offers a home for rent with 'swiming pole'. Nearby is a guy who does "Expect Gardening".

We stopped one day at a roadside vendor because I liked some baskets he had piled up. When I went to look at them, I realized they were very sturdy and nicely made, but had no bottom. I took one to the man who made them and asked if he could put a bottom in it. He nodded his head, took the basket, put his hand where the bottom would go and said, "Yes, yes, yes, I put plowood on the down."



You probably got that way faster than I did. He had to repeat it twice in response to the blank and/or puzzled look on my face until I finally twigged. So now I own a very nice bread basket with plowood on the down.

Sunday, November 06, 2005

Going to Find Africa...Part Two: There's No Place Like Home

All day we have been driving through Ghanaian countryside, through villages that don't see too many foreigners, and getting a reception that would make anyone feel like they landed in the middle of a meeting of their fan club. The familiar calls of "Obroni!" are joined with enthusiastic hand waving and 100 watt smiles. We feel like we are the Snowflake Queen and her Court in the annual parade as we all wave back and smile in return. We have never been so popular in our lives and enjoy every happy shout while Duke giggles and mimics "Obroni!" in a high voice.

Now it's three in the afternoon. We have had lunch and some cold Ghanaian beer ('cause Duke's driving) and we are headed home to Accra. We have to get back before dark. We look at the map- we can take the large, paved road that we took north, which will actually be about 120 miles and cover terrain we have already seen. Or we can take a different, unpaved road that leads directly from Ho to the Coast and then joins the motorway and heads across the bottom of Ghana straight to Accra- about 80 miles. Hmmm. We live on an unpaved road. We drive unpaved roads all the time, all over Accra. Unpaved roads don't scare us, and we like roads that go direct from where we are to where we want to be. So we all vote for the new unpaved route out of Ho, headed directly to the coast.

Off we go...the road's okay, but not great, and we can't do more than about 60 kph. No problem. We got Duke and water and peanuts in a jar. Duke stops every ten or twenty kilometers to ask directions and make sure we are on the right road - there are some people, but no signposts. The road gets a little more rutted, the traffic (such as it was) gets thinner, time marches on.
Then we are on a one lane dirt track through ten foot high grasses. No people, no nothin. This is the view out the windshield...

We catch up to a car that slows to make a turn onto a grass track leading west. We honk them and they wait for us to catch up so Duke can ask if we are headed for the coast. Their reply?

"Ooooohhhhh..,you are lost!" Amid much friendly laughter from their backseat.

Immediately everyone in their car starts talking at once, telling us where the turn was back about 15 kilometers that would have headed us for the coast. Right now we are headed for Togo, the next country to the East. Whoops!

So we turn around and head back to the missed turnoff, and proceed down a different dirt road. We see few people and even less traffic- just the occasional tro-tro full of people and what Duke says must be contraband or they wouldn't be on this road. We don't enquire about the nature of the contraband- we are too busy watching the sun out our windows as it sinks slowly toward the ground...
We had originally planned to stop at an Ostrich farm on the coast once we got there, but as the road stretches before us and the daylight starts to fade we would gladly settle for stopping at home in one piece, as soon as possible please.

Duke isn't any more anxious than we are to be caught on the roads outside the city after dark and he is doing a bang up job of streaking down this dirt road dodging potholes and livestock, going just as fast as he can without breaking an axle or bottoming out too hard or too often. The road just keeps going and going and going...I keep sniffing the air out the window as we go hoping to catch any scent of ocean or tidal flats or dead fish or anything nautical at all, but all I can smell is grass and dust.

There is so much beautiful scenery as we go- small stone covered mountains, lush vegetation- even a giant lizard (about three feet nose to tail) that ran across the road in front of us at one point. As the sun starts to crash into the grass and trees, we finally come out on the paved road that runs along the ocean to Accra. Unfortunately, we are still an hour from the city, and we have maybe ten minutes of daylight left. Duke puts the pedal to the metal, and we all hope for the best.
As the light fades, we all notice that the oncoming traffic does not have its headlights on. When they are close enough that we couldn't possibly avoid them in an accident, they all flash their headlights to let us know they are there. Confusion reigns. We have read about rural drivers in Ghana leaving their headlights off "to save electricity", but had classed it with other stories too stupid to believe. So we barrel on down the road, with our headlights on, watching helplessly as car after car (and tro tro after tro tro) passes us flashing their lights, but refusing to leave them on.

Then we are treated to the sight of a very recent head on crash between a car and tro tro that left both vehicles smashed and abandoned at the side of the road- just in case we didn't believe the stories we had heard of the terrors of night time driving in rural Ghana. Eeek.

Finally we get on the motorway, which is still thirty minutes or so from Accra, and it's long since pitch black dark (and streetlights outside the city on any road are only an Obroni dream) but at least it is a four lane divided highway, and I start to breathe a little bit.

Ted says, "Not so fast. The stories of goofy driving on the motorway at night are almost as common as everywhere else." And to punctuate his caution, we are all given minor strokes by the sight of a huge tractor dead ahead- no lights, no reflectors, no nothing, driving down the motorway in the dark, going about 20 mph. Gaaaah!

Well, you know how it ends. Here we are safe at home, no permanent damage, remembering our day exploring Ghana.

The next day I was out with Duke running errands and he said, "I hope you were happy with my driving..." and I assured him that we couldn't have done it without him (very true) and that his combination of speed and caution were exactly what was needed. He told me when he got home he wasn't even tired and was ready to do more driving! I told him politely he was nuts.

Meanwhile, we can't wait to do it again.

Saturday, November 05, 2005

Going to Find Africa...Part One

Thursday was a school holiday, so we all jumped in the car with Duke (our driver) and left Accra for the great unknown countryside of Ghana. We decided on the Volta region, partly because it isn't very popular with tourists (unaccountably in our opinion) and partly because there was a pottery place we wanted to go to there.

We headed north and east out of Accra, and first thing we got waved over by a police checkpoint. These aren't too uncommon, and we were still in Accra, on a road we drive every day, but apparently pickings were slim since it was a holiday. A fat policeman in a standard dark blue uniform with a standard neon green vest leaned his corrupt self into Ted's passenger side window and, rubbing his fingers together, suggested a small "something for the boys" which translates as, "You are a rich white man, I'm able to stop your car and ask for money, so I will." Duke did an end run around the guy and gave him ¢10,000 (about a buck) - we paid him back later, but it was important to Duke that the guy not get money from us, so we let him pay. To be fair, that is the first time in five months we have been shaken down by the cops here. This pumpkin headed guy was an exception rather than the rule. We passed through another half dozen checkpoints that day, and not a single one made us even stop longer than it took to see that we were just sightseers having a holiday.

It's strange and wonderful riding through the Ghanaian countryside. The houses quickly gave way to mud huts with thatched roofs. They were very sturdy houses though- well built and neatly kept up. We both tried snapping pictures but there were always people very near the houses and we didn't want to be rude, so we never managed to get a shot. As we passed one of the village groups of huts, we saw a woman taking a shower in her thatched bathing hut. It was round and about four or five feet through the middle. The thatch covered her from her ankles to her shoulders and she was standing inside, unconcerned about people and cars passing by about 10 feet away, pouring water over her head and soaping up. I REALLY wanted a picture of that hut, and frankly, to take a shower in it, but neither could have happened without some serious rudeness, so no dice.

Occasionally as we drove along, I'd be watching out the car window and think, "this looks like Wisconsin" or "that could be California hills" and then some cool thing would pop up (a woman carrying a mountain of firewood on her head, or a herd of cattle making their way slowly up the road towards us) and I'd remember that I truly wasn't in Wisconsin or California.

One of the first stops we made was the bridge (see the picture at the top of this page) over the southern end of Lake Volta that is shown on a two thousand cedi bill- like the Lincoln Memorial it was cool to be someplace that you've seen a lot on your money.

From there we headed to Kpandu (Pan-doo) to find the Pottery Women. They make all kinds of pottery from fetishes to bowls to platters, and only women make it. They make all their stuff by hand, smoothing the exterior of each item with stones. They let it air-dry, then the pieces are open fired and rolled in sawdust which makes them a black color. So we get to Kpandu and whiz past the sign for the "Pottery Shed" but I see enough of it to think maybe that's it. Two hundred feet later when we run out of town, u-turn and head back for the little sign. We turn up a grass/dirt road and follow it to the top of a hill where we find some closed and empty buildings with some thatched shade roofs in the courtyards.

We sit for a minute, lamenting that they are probably closed for the holiday after we drove 150 miles to find them, and Duke spots a guy walking nearby. He whistles him over and asks him about the Pottery Women, when suddenly, a Pottery Woman in the flesh pops up out of nowhere and says, in a different dialect than Twi (the Ashanti language that Duke and most of Accra speaks), that she will take us. Thankfully, our Duke understood her (we suspect he understands all women, no matter what their native language). She starts walking, and we follow in the car.
The road disappears and becomes grass only. Then she walks down a trail that disappears into the trees and is little more than a gully for rainwater. A nervous titter runs through the car as we slowly follow this woman (who is on foot) in our stupid car, down, down, down into the forest. Suddenly, after about 100 yards, we pop out into a clearing with a large building dead ahead, and a bunch of women with small children around.

We get out and are welcomed to the pottery shed, where they open a set of large doors at one end and wave us into a room filled with every kind of pottery item your heart could desire- bowls, plates, candle holders, masks, animal fetishes, bottles, cups, you name it- they make it. The three of us just wandered around slack jawed picking things up and setting them back down, brains seizing up from all the choices.
In the end, Ted and I decided on a turtle, an elephant, a large serving bowl, a mask, two small dishes and a tiny fist sized pitcher/pot with a lid. Cooper chose a pig, and really gross man/goat head with spiral horns that only a thirteen year old boy or witch doctor could appreciate. We got it all for ¢200,000 cedi (about $21). We don't know if we were supposed to negotiate the price, but we didn't even try- 200K seemed more than fair, even if it was only their opening gambit. We are the planet's worst bargainers. ;-)

Once we gave them the items we wanted, they went to work wrapping them in newspaper for us and I wandered over to make friends with a squealing baby who was sitting on the floor. Duke asked her mother if we could mess with the baby, and she said yes, so Duke picked her up and we took turns making her laugh. She was so cute- not a tooth in her head yet and she could apparently tell that Duke had a baby of his own at home because after a few minutes she put her head on his chest and her hand on his face and zoned out. Meanwhile, I had been brought their visitor book to sign, and filled that out while Ted paid for our pottery.

After that we were off again. We didn't have time to head for the waterfalls we thought we might like to see- it was necessary to get back to Accra by dark, which is six o'clock around here. The one thing you don't want is to be caught outside the city after dark- the roads are far too dangerous and the accounts of nasty accidents are an almost weekly occurrence even on the divided motorway that runs near our house coming from the Togo border.
So we headed south again, on a different road, going to a fairly large town called Ho in search of lunch. Missed a couple of turns and ended up not getting to Ho until 2pm, but we stopped for a nice lunch in an open air restaurant just outside town. The rest of our day was just as much fun, but only in retrospect, tune in later this week for Part Two: There's No Place Like Home. :-)

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Let Me Demonstrate

The custom here, whenever you buy an item that "goes", is that the shop keeper or employee will demonstrate that it actually works for you before you leave the store. This counts for everything from a battery operated travel alarm to a microwave oven.

It also means that your purchase will never be a "zip in, zip out" sort of affair. We had to buy quite a few things that "go" to set up house, and for each one, we got to hang out in the main part of the store and wait while a power strip, or battery, or whatever was located and then watch while they demonstrated all the speeds of the fan, all the features of the VCR, all the attachments of the little canister vacuum, the alarm, the speakers, the light bulb in the lamp, whatever.

It's a nice bonus, I guess, to know that your purchase will work when you get it home, and it protects the merchant from people returning and claiming it was broken when they bought it (you must give your approval with an emphatic and positive response once the item is demonstrated satisfactorily).

I bought two box fans a couple of weeks ago, and stood on the sales floor of an insanely busy department store called Melcom while a very nice sales woman patiently opened both boxes, plugged the fans in, one at a time, demonstrated three speeds, demonstrated the swivel movement, decided that one of the boxes was unsuitable (crushed, already opened, who knows?), sent it back to the warehouse, demonstrated the third fan, and waited for me to agree that they were certainly swell fans. After 40 minutes (four of which I spent actually choosing the fans), I was on my way home.

Last weekend, in the same store, we bought a small battery operated clock to set on the desk in the office. The guy got it out of the box, put in a battery, set it, let us see the sweep hand moving, set the alarm, waited for it to go off, removed the battery, replaced it in the box, and sold it to us for ¢10,500 (about $1.60). In America, his time alone would have been worth more than we paid for the clock.

The one time we didn't get a demo (the man showed it but didn't plug it in) was the one time we had to return an item. We had bought a small canister vacuum to do the area rugs. Once we got home, we realized that we had the body of one vac and the hose and attachments of another. They were not interchangeable. When we got back to the store, the poor man who had gotten the vacuum for us was upbraided loudly and often by at least three other people in the store, in Twi, so we couldn't understand what they said, but we got the general idea. Then they plugged in our vac, attached everything it had and proceeded to clean a little piece of carpet they had for just such occasions, first with the brush, then the crevice tool, then the smaller crevice tool, then the big cleaning head, then the upholstery tool, then on MAX, then on bare floor, then with the "turbo window" (a little vent that decreases the amount of suck for high pile carpets) opened and closed. Four employees, 50 minutes, and many apologies later, we were on our way!