Monday, November 27, 2006


Cooper's school decided to give the kids Thanksgiving Day off this year and we seized another opportunity to go see Ghana.

We headed pretty much due north, seeking beads.

Ghanaian beads are so cool. They use old glass to make them, and they come in every color, shape and size you can imagine. There are antique beads that are beyond our budget (and probably beyond Ghana's "Export of Antiquities" laws!), and beads that were made yesterday.

Between Kpong and Semanya is a place called "Cedi's Bead Factory" and they give tours to people who are willing to go out in the boonies and follow a deeply rutted mile long dirt road to their property.

Thankfully the Piece of Crap Company Car was replaced this fall by a new Suzuki with some ground clearance (and double the gas mileage!), so it wasn't the disaster it would have been.

We parked under a tree once we got there and were met by a smiling man who said he would be happy to show us how they made beads and answer all our questions. He took us to a table where the many tools needed to make glass beads were assembled.

The process is beyond me, both intellectually and physically, but the gist of it is that they melt crushed glass in clay molds, or use powdered "white glass" and powdered colors to make beads with patterns on them.

There is also a process of smoothing the beads while still warm and lining the molds with a clay powder to prevent sticking and putting a casava stick in the center of the bead while it melts into shape- all of which were things our guide did effortlessly and which we knew would result in goofy looking beads if we tried any of them.

Then, just in case we weren't feeling humble enough, he made a patterned bead while we watched which involved steady hands, four colors of crushed/powdered glass, the complicated pushing around of the ingredients to make diagonals and curves and other parts of the design. He made it look tremendously easy, much the same as Olympic gymnasts and wood carvers do- but we had the sense to understand we couldn't begin to accomplish what he was doing.

From there we went to the ovens. Little half bee hives of wood fire and heat that are filled with bead molds and fanned to a sizzling temperature for about 45 minutes.

There is no chimney on this thatch roofed building, that's just the thatch smoldering from the intense heat below...

Once the beads are removed from the molds...

...this guy works as a human 'rock tumbler' using the stone and sand to polish the beads and make them smooth and shiny.

From there they go to this lady (she has a small toddler who was happily pottering around her feet the entire time we were there) who patiently strings thousands of beads which are then sold in the shop.

The shop contains two foot looped strands of beads in every size (from grain-of-rice-size to about the size of a ping pong ball) and color- both round and cylindrical, loose beads, bracelets, necklaces, and the larger shaped pieces of glass that are holed and used as pendants (fish, stars, circles).

We just loaded up on our favorite colors and patterns and hopefully made them glad they had given us the lovely free tour. We unstrung them all (don't tell the hardworking bead-stringing lady!) and put them in our handmade wooden bowl...
Here is a selection of the beads we got, both patterned and clear, plus the intricately designed large beads...

It is such a neat place to visit- I'm hoping one of my ex-pat friends will want to go see it too, so I have an excuse to go back.

Later this week, I'll give you the skinny on the trip itself- blessedly free from the angst of our previous travels around Ghana!

Monday, November 20, 2006

Fun With Duke and Jane

I don't know where to begin describing Accra Central to you.

It's basically 'downtown'.

If you can't find it there, you probably don't need it. European doo dads mingle next to piles of shoes, moth balls sit next to a booth selling buttons or hair barrettes. The sidewalks are clogged with vendors and their tables, the 'stores' are mostly ten by ten concrete boxes subdivided from large multi story buildings and stuffed with clothing, fabric, and luggage.

As you make your way through the area your choices are simple- walk in the street and risk being hit by a vehicle or at least having your toes run over by the traffic anarchy that includes reckless taxis and lime green double decker buses, or stay on the sidewalk and try to watch your footing (to avoid the rubble of old pavement, precipitous drops in the pavement that still exists, open ditches, broken pavers, and various goats and chickens) while keeping an eye out for oncoming pedestrians with large, heavy loads of goods on their heads that are often unfortunately at just the right level to take an eye out or at least give you a whacking good head smack.

Accra Central does not have many obronis- we are surely there, in ones or twos, at any given time, but as a diversion, it's not the sort of place that many foreigners end up. Ted and I like it because it's so alive- it's not something you can duplicate and has to be experienced where it was invented. Tons of people, tons of stuff, rabbit warrens of alleys, endless lines of honking cars, trucks and buses, and equatorial heat just to keep it interesting.

Just getting into the area takes patience since the traffic jam starts well before you get there. Sometimes we park for free at Duke's brother's small electrical shop in an area he shares with about ten other merchants and sometimes we park in the municipal lot, which costs us about 70 cents for as long as we want to leave the car.

Last Monday, Duke, Duke's wife Jane, and I went to Accra Central to get fabric for some clothes that Jane is going make for me. We went in and out of a dozen different fabric shops looking at cloth and trying to decide what would work for trousers (I kept saying 'pants' and getting blank looks from poor Jane), what would work for tops and what would make a nice dress...

It was hot as a blast furnace, and the crush of people and radiating heat from the mass of concrete made it 100 times worse. I could sweat in a snow storm (thanks Dad!) so by the third store or so I looked like a drowned rat/obroni and was wiping sweat out of my eyes and shaking it off my soaked hair and dripping arms. Duke and interested strangers (read: every Ghanaian) always think I'm dying when I get this hot, and it takes all my powers of persuasion to convince them that sweating honestly won't kill me, although it's apparently very painful to watch.

So against their better judgment ("What will I tell Boss when we have to say you melted in Accra Central???) we kept shopping for fabrics.

Duke was sure Jane was bullying me to accept her choices, so when she and I agreed on something he kept asking me if I was sure and not to let Jane make me take things I didn't want. He must think I'm a much nicer person than I really am. ;-)

Duke was carrying Erica (their youngest daughter- the older one, Christabelle, was in school), and Jane was carrying an increasing load of folded fabric. Neither of them would let me carry anything- not that Erica would let me hold her. At 18 months, Cooper is the only obroni she trusts.

Finally, when even Duke and Jane were showing signs of being hot and all three of us were near collapse from dodging and weaving our way through the throngs, we bought the last of the fabric and headed back to the car for the slog home.

I got two pieces of kente cloth (the fabric made here by the Ashanti from whom the Twi language also comes) one colorful and one black and white. If she had her way, Jane would dress me head to toe in kente cloth and I would look like Carmen Miranda most of the time. It's beautiful cloth but very busy, usually containing four or more(!) colors in the pattern.

When I chose the black and white I asked her if it would be wrong to wear the trousers she made from it on a day when I wasn't going to an 'event' (code for funeral, or as Duke calls it "Market Day for Dead People"). She was non-committal, so I may be a walking faux pas when I get my new black and white kente pants and wear them out to dinner. This is the kente cloth:

And this is all the fabric we bought.

Since Jane has a hard time telling me what she thinks her excellent sewing skills are worth, I'm not sure exactly what my final bill will be for the clothing she is making me, but trust me- it will be a fraction of the cost of the same (or inferior) items in the U.S. Two pairs of pants, four or five tops, and a dress for something under $100 (labor and fabric), which I am spending completely without guilt since I haven't been exactly been burning up the malls with my credit cards for the last year and a half. ;-)

Monday, November 13, 2006

Remember Gas Lines?

Shades of 1978. This morning the residents of Accra collectively (for a country with substandard communications technology word travels very fast here) became aware of a fuel shortage (don't say 'gas' or even 'gasoline'- you will be met by blank looks and puzzled expressions. You put FUEL in your car- or maybe diesel, but never 'gas'.)

When I logged into IM with Ted this morning he told me about it and in the almost 30 years since the oil embargo I've apparently lost a tremendous number of brain cells and/or suffered a lot of brain atrophy.

My flawed reasoning was... "I have to get groceries later, I'll just go to the Total station next to MaxMart then." Three hours later, I drag my butt out the door and head down the block in my little white Opel, which incidentally is running in the red part of "empty" on my gas gauge...

When I turn onto Jungle Road I'm faced with a scene from the past- a gas station filled with cars and a line that has spilled onto the street. I dutifully pull up behind a silver Honda, about 30 cars back from the single working gas pump. Then I realize that the silver Honda belongs to a friend, so I beep at them and once Dennis (her driver) sees it's me and not some crazy taxi honking for him to get out of the way, Anna runs back to my car to pass the time and reminisce about the embargo.

Then a green SUV pulls in next to us- like somehow the line doesn't matter for him.

And a taxi pulls into line behind the green SUV.

Anna starts yelling 'NO!' at them and demanding that they wait in line like everyone else.

They are amused by her.

Then the taxi driver decides to avoid the crazy Obroni woman by backing out and cutting into line on the other side of me.

By this time, there are two legitimate lines being served on alternate sides by the one remaining fuel pump.
And the car behind me is Duke. Ha!

Everyone in town is looking for fuel and word has gotten out that there is still fuel at the Total station in East Legon, and by pure luck our Duke has pulled in behind me to fill up the company car.

Now I'm safely cocooned between Dennis and Duke, slowly making progress toward the pump.

Occasionally Anna pops out of my car to insist that the green SUV never be allowed to cut in front of us (the driver keeps explaining that he needs gas...we honestly can't figure out what his train of thought is regarding the rest of us, but at least Anna's antics are entertaining the locals.) or to tell the taxi driver that he cheated and will be punished for line jumping someday.

After about 50 minutes (as the line behind us gets steadily longer), Duke makes it to the pump on the left side, Dennis on the right. They pull up to their respective sides of the pump where a heated discussion has begun among various Africans and Total employees about whether they should be allowed to fill jerry cans with fuel without waiting in line (some people are sending their drivers with cans just to get their cars running so they can wait in a fuel line...).

When it's my turn to fill up, Duke has already run the big car next door to the MaxMart parking lot and come back to oversee my fueling.

After a few minutes he takes my car keys from me, gives me the company car keys, tells me to go to MaxMart and he will catch me up, but if he doesn't, just take the company car home and he will meet me there.

I give him a blank look (remember I have brain atrophy) and he leans in and says, "I do not want you here. It's getting ugly."

That's my Duke. The combatants are not mad at me, they are mad at each other, and a smiling Obroni woman is rarely in danger in broad daylight in a crowd, but I've learned to trust Duke so I did as he asked and left him to fill my little car with fuel.

A few minutes later he joined me in the grocery store, both cars fueled, with plenty of time left to get to school to pick up Cooper.

Who will undoubtedly, upon hearing that there is a gasoline shortage, volunteer to stay home from school as a conservation measure.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Persistence Pays...

It's official! I'm official!

After a year and a half and three renewals of my temporary Ghanaian Driver's License, today they issued my permanent one. Hooray!

And Duke and I only had to sit in the DMV for an hour and a half, watching the little window, waiting for the lady who showed up every 20 minutes or so with a handful of papers to call out my name.

I had figured the delay in getting my permanent license was Obroni-related. That they figured I was just here on vacation or something and didn't want to put themselves out for a casual visitor, but we talked to a Ghanaian man there today who has been waiting more than two years for his, and some others who have waited almost as long as me, and we left before we saw if they got their licenses or just another renewal, so...

Apparently it has more to do with bureaucracy than anything as organized as resident alien redlining. :-)

The bestest part is that Ted applied for his before me- a couple of months before me.
And still doesn't have his. I told him next time he goes in (December) to tell them he is with me. Apparently I have pull.