Monday, January 29, 2007

Ga Mantse Goes Home

Saturday was the funeral for the late Ga tribal chief- Ga Mantse, Nii Amugi II, for this region of Ghana (which includes Accra).

Tribal Chiefs in Ghana are still very much a part of everything important that goes on in the country- it would take the rest of my life to start understanding much of what they do and represent for the people of Ghana, but I do know they are hugely misunderstood by governments outside Africa.

They are not allowed to be 'political', meaning they do not participate in the elected Government of Ghana, but they are very important in their localities, given much respect, and are the arbiters of local issues and disputes in the ten regions of Ghana.

If you are lucky enough to meet a Chief, you must be introduced and then basically do whatever you are asked to do which may include shots of an unbelievably potent liquor and participation in a tribal ritual. It's steeped in cultural tradition and easy for an outsider to screw up, but Ghanaians are forgiving. Especially if you are visibly snockered on 150 proof Palm wine.

Anyway, Ga Mantse died almost two years ago, but tribal chiefs are not buried until their succession is settled. This is a phenomenon we have encountered quite a few times since we moved here. Delayed funerals are not uncommon. We have no idea where the deceased hangs out while he waits and there is no polite way to ask.

When Ghanaians die, they 'go home', which reminds us of Mississippi funerals
(and is surely a historical connection between blacks here and in the U.S.) where the family celebrates a 'homegoing' for their loved one.

So Ga Mantse finally got to go home, and the region literally shut down.

Remember, we live in the capital city, and it was still shut tight. The big Lebanese-owned groceries all the way down to the humblest plywood box thread seller were all closed and shuttered. There was almost no traffic on the streets and all funerals except this one were forbidden- even the hospital mortuaries were instructed to retain their bodies until after the funeral.

We didn't want to be disrespectful, but the prospect of an empty Accra was too tempting, so we went out exploring and found a ghost town. The main cemetery outside the Parliament grounds is usually bustling on a Saturday but there wasn't a single living soul in sight. Markets and traffic circles that are usually choked with people were simply empty. No taxis, no tro-tros, no people, no one trying to sell plantain chips and water to us at stop lights. Just a few cars (thankfully some of them containing Africans and not just rude Obronis), and an eerie quiet.

The funeral itself was in Teshie which is on the beach just the other side of La, and we stayed a respectful distance from that area to make sure we didn't commit any gross errors of cultural protocol.

This was one instance of local tradition that, while interesting, is too deeply ingrained in Ghanaian life for us to participate in. We could only wait and wonder and try not to be in the way.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Smokey the Bear Doesn't Live in Ghana

Burning brush (and trash and stumps and everything else that burns...) in Ghana is an unfortunate fact of life. The sky, at any given time is dotted with plumes of smoke, grey, white and black from open fires started for any number of reasons.

It's not like there is a lot of choice. We can afford to pay to have someone pick up our garbage- private
garbage service costs us $9 a month, which to you guys is cheap, but which to a Ghanaian is a ridiculous amount of money to spend when a box of matches is so much cheaper.

So. What's my point?

Well...we have no actual homes adjoining our property- just empty lots.

The north side is a long skinny lot with a house that is 25% finished and has been that way since before we moved in. Here's the satellite photo of our house and the lot next door (the lot in question is the top half of the picture- you can see the house doesn't even have a roof- just a foundation and some walls).

The whole place just sat there, ignored, until last week.

Then someone showed up to burn the brush. When they lit it, it went up like a tinder box and we heard the crackling flames even from inside the house with the A/C on.

By the time we twigged to the fact that our neighbors' yard was on fire, Stephen had already climbed our dry fountain to yell at them over the wall. We don't know what he yelled, but he had the language and cultural edge, so we left him to it with thanks.

All was quiet for a few days, and I was outside reading when I heard the familiar dry crackle of a new fire starting- unfortunately from next door again.

As I started toward that side of the yard, I saw flames popping up over the eight foot wall and watched in dismay as huge burning sheets of black ash came over the wall and started landing everywhere including in the pool and on my roof...

I climbed the dry fountain and started looking for someone to yell at and there was no one around.

Big surprise- throw a match and run before Stephen kicks your ass.

As I climbed down, I saw with horror that one of our beach towels was on fire. I grabbed it and threw it in the pool, then turned around and saw that one of the rattan lounges was smoking. I quickly found out it was smoking because the lounge cushion we had bought for it was also on fire.

I believe, as I grabbed pool water to pour on the chair and cushion I may have uttered some bad words, real loud, in the general direction of our "neighbors" to the north.

Meanwhile, in response to my yells, Ted has gotten the hose hooked up and dragged around the house (the hose hookup is on the south side of the house) and gone back to turn on the water.

I am standing at the north wall holding the hose, ready to go, when he wanders back, shrugs his shoulders and says... "No water."


See, we have a water pump to provide water to the house, but we can't use the tank to pump water outside the house, so if we have no city water, there is no water to the hose.

At this point we are very very glad we live in a stone house with adobe tile roof and very little wood anywhere- Accra has one fire truck and it would take it about 25 minutes to get here if there was NO traffic and you all know what the possibilities of that are...

Plan B (we have developed, in the last 18 months, a truckload of Plans B, C, and D). Ted gets a wash basin and while he stands on the dry fountain, I pass up basins full of pool water which he then dumps on the burning yard next door.

Take that evil neighbors.

Try burning soaking wet ground.

Since it was Sunday, Mark had finally, deservedly, taken some time off. Imagine his horror when he came home and found ash everywhere, holey towels on the line, and big burned gashes in the lounge cushion.

He was LIVID! It was pretty funny actually- certainly the most words he has said to us all at once the whole time we have known him. He went and found someone to yell at and gave them heck. He was so pissed off.

He said it's illegal to burn like that and they should take it out with machetes like he would have, and that the people who belong there swear it wasn't them. Mark's personal theory is they were smoking weed and....POOF!

Mark and Stephen have declared war on the firebugs next door.

Suffice it to say, if they ever finish that house and move into it, I will not be taking over cookies and my phone number.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Harmattan Blues

While we were galavanting on the opposite coast of Africa, the Harmattan descended with a vengeance.

It had started, mildly, before Christmas, but it gently ebbed and flowed and we didn't think much about it.

But around New Year's Eve (a kind of "Welcome Home" gag gift from nature) there was no doubt that we were well and truly deep into the 2007 Harmattan.

It usually shows up in December and blows itself out by March. Last year's was a non-event and don't think we weren't grateful, but apparently we weren't grateful enough, because this year we're gettin' nailed.

Plenty of people will be glad to tell you (and me) that it gets a lot worse (and actually, it does), but it quickly turns into the sort of conversation you can have with anyone from the upper Midwest about the "Blizzard of 19__". You know, when you walked to school barefoot. Uphill both ways.

So let me just say that the Harmattan, any Harmattan, is messy.

This is a picture of a ten o'clock sun out my bedroom window...

By mid afternoon, once the wind had kicked up a little, this was what it looked like...

That's a straight on picture of the SUN, no filter, no nothin'- just the air and sky and what feels like half the Sahara desert.

Aviation all over this chunk of Africa is disrupted because the visibility is so bad. Nigeria has suspended VFR flights into Lagos to avoid the inevitable crashes of the past, and two of the major airlines have had to cancel flights or return to the airport here because the blowing sand was just too dangerous.

The air is so dry it's hard to even describe it, and I spent ten years shriveling up in the Mojave desert. Trust me- that's damp by comparison.

Our back door won't stay closed because the wood has shrunk enough to misalign the latches. We have to use the sliding dead bolt to close it.

We are getting static shocks off metal for the first time EVER in Africa.

The dog's butt hair looks like he was electrocuted.

My skin is in dry flaky overdrive, always a good look for an older woman.

The cars are covered, inside and out, with a fine grit.

My bare tile floors are dusted with a layer of North African sand.

The pool is turning a lurid mossy green from the amount of particulate matter it's collecting with which the filter is unable to cope.

And until we returned to Accra to find it in the throes of a full blown Harmattan, we hadn't realized how much of our time here is spent outdoors.

So next time someone tracks snow into your dry, static ridden house...remember- it could be worse!

It could be the Harmattan!

Monday, January 08, 2007

Mauritius, the Dodos, and Us.

Happy New Year!

The island nation of Mauritius lies east of Madagascar in the Indian Ocean off Africa's east coast. If you haven't heard of it before, you are in good company- not many people have, but it's remarkable as the only place that ever harbored the extinct Dodo bird. The wooden carving above was one of my holiday purchases on the island.

If you have seen the movie Ice Age, you might remember the part with the Dodo birds fighting the heroes for watermelons. "There goes our last female!" was yelled by someone in our family every time we saw a new Dodo likeness, which was pretty often. Tee shirts, statues, key chains, magnets, paintings, you name it- never has an extinct animal enjoyed such adulation.

Anyway- that is where I've been lately. :-)

We planned and executed a hedonist's holiday, spending 11 days relaxing and doing our best not to think or do anything difficult. We succeeded admirably.

We flew from Ghana to Dubai in the U.A.E. (United Arab Emirates) where we switched planes for the last leg. Due to lag in flight scheduling, Emirates Airlines provided us with a hotel room in Dubai for 18 hours (and three meals!) and after a nap we went out to explore a little. This was the first visit any of us has made to an Arabic country.

Cooper has certainly been exposed to a lot of different cultures, even in the U.S., but this raised the bar for him substantially. It was an eye opener for him to see, side by side, women in tube tops and hot pants and women in full burkas. He heard his first muezzin call and watched people respond to it, and he spotted his first arrow (on the ceiling of our hotel room) pointing him toward Mecca. He got to see endless examples of the graceful written Arabic language and see signs for 'exotic' destinations hanging over the highway just like any busy street in America.

We enjoyed our brief stay and wallowed in the modern efficiency of the city- what a change!
Hi Jin! We were practically in your backyard, but so jet lagged, we couldn't think straight.)

Once we arrived in Mauritius (a few days before Christmas), we checked into the hotel and our terrific room beachside.

Our room is straight back if you just stay between the trees, on the ground floor. The picture was taken from the beach. We just walked out our patio door, across the grass and parked ourselves on beach chairs, steps from the Indian Ocean.

This is what you see if you stand in the last picture and turn 180 degrees.

It looks like heaven, and it was.

This was our holiday tree...

...shared with the other guests and photographed through the lobby looking across the pool and out toward the ocean.

We didn't learn a darned thing, didn't see anything historically important, and didn't expand our minds an inch during this vacation, but it still felt pretty good.

We spent three hours touring a wildlife reserve on the south end of the island on Quad bikes (the four wheel off-road ones that are so fun and can be so dangerous). The wildlife was boars and deer, neither of which are in short supply in America so we didn't exactly swoon over them, but this was the scenery we drove our ATVs through...

We also visited a glass blowing factory (all their glass is made from recycled material) where we watched them work for quite a while and then bought way too much stuff, including a small glass Dodo. :-)

The island itself is volcanic, and even though it's been a couple hundred plus years since the last eruption (sometime just after the Dodo went extinct), there is a huge volcanic crater in the center of the island. This is what you see standing at the edge of the crater...

...and when you turn around...

 get a terrific view of the island from about 1500 feet in elevation.

We snorkeled a lot, watched dolphins play, collected bleached coral from the beach, and ate WAY too much.

When New Year's Eve came, the hotel thoughtfully provided party hats (which Cooper found very much to his liking) and midnight fireworks on the beach.

Here we are amusing ourselves by snapping pictures of ourselves as we wait for the show to begin in the last minutes of 2006...

And here is the world's worst picture ever of fireworks, but we like it anyway.

It was a great evening and a terrific vacation.