Sunday, December 27, 2009

An Un-White Christmas

Saturday, 19 December 2009, Accra:

 Where have all the obrunis gone? 

I didn’t really notice it at first, but there are hardly ANY of us white folks here in Accra anymore these days.  My guess—and I’m probably right—is that most are traveling away for the holidays.  What could also be contributing to the seemingly fewer number of white faces ‘round these parts are the rapidly increasing number of Africans traveling IN to Accra for Christmas and New Years. 

Whatever the case, Accra is chiefly obruni-less.  

What immediately tipped me off to Accra’s whitelessness was the eeriness of Osu.  Osu is a part of Accra that primarily caters to whites, tourists and better-off Ghanaians.  There’s a gelato-and-espresso place, if that gives you some sort of an idea what I’m talking about, and a rather upscale restaurant that sells pricy yet decent sushi—until, that is, when it’s turns into the hot spot rooftop watering hole for ex-pats who want to get piss-drunk and bitch about things they love about Africa.

The main road that runs through Osu is Oxford Street, and both sides are bunged to the brim with tourist-trap-type vendors and kiosks.  Ghanaian football jerseys, DVDs, African masks, sunglasses, shoes, jewelry, “original” art, pineapples, fruits, vegetables—and number of vendors is out the wazoo.  I’m staying: vendors out the MOFO waZOO!

The vendors, typically male and nauseatingly complimentary about your “beauty” until you walk away, are everywhere on Oxford Street and they are, to be as mild as possible, maddening. 

“Oh, my beautiful friend, come look at my jewelry.” (he grabs my wrist)

“Oh, beautiful lady, I have some beautiful artwork.”  (he grabs my wrist)

“My sistah, my sistah, come, come and take a look.”  (he grabs my wrist and gives it a tug)

This is not to say that all the vendors who clog Oxford Street are disingenuous or rude, but in general, the vendors/money-chasers in Osu are on you like white on rice.  And it’s unfortunate for you if you happen to be just the color of rice they’re most actively pursuing. 

So, when I was walking through Osu earlier today, I was stunned, nay, flabbergasted by the lack of attention I was getting.  NO ONE seemed to notice I was there!  I mean, I may be relatively tan and seem of curious ethnicity, but I’ve got obruni branded on my face, clothing, gait—absolutely everything about me screams obruni.  And yet not one man, one vendor, not one single person hassled me or uninvitingly introduced him or herself into my personal space as I walked down Oxford Street. 

It was a strange phenomenon, to be sure, and I briefly wondered if my malaria meds were doing something extra weird to my mind and vision or if, truly, I was walking in a winter weird, African land.  

Peas in a Pod

Friday, 18 December 2009, Accra:

Something I saw today on the tro-tro ride from work gave me pause.  Many things do, multiple times a day, but there are always some things that, in their own distinctive way, throw a heavier punch to the mind. 

From the window of the tro-tro, I saw a man cross in front of our bus.  I immediately thought him odd. His hair was thickly caked with mud and he was walking with a bizarre, disobedient determination.  As he made his way through the rush hour crowd of people and automobiles, people averted him with their eyes and their bodies.  I watched him swing his broad shoulders through the market to make a path.  When I finally got a glance at his face, I saw it was etched with madness, both emotional and mental, and the whites of his eyes were syrupy-red.  It was then I changed my mind from him being odd, to him being ME.

I came down with a 101-degree fever earlier this week, the first fever I’ve had since I can’t remember when.  It’s rare that I get so sick I admit I have a problem and that I need to see a doctor.  Usually, it’s just “I don’t feel good.”

But this time, I was most definitely sick.  My body was processing something violently foreign.  My head throbbed.  My all of the muscles in back and neck ached.  I was shitting watery waste uncontrollably, unable to keep anything in my system for more than 10 minutes, no matter how bland or simple.  My vision and thoughts were blurry; I couldn’t answer or do or focus on anything.  The worst of it all, though, was the fever, which gave me alternating symptoms of chills and slimy sweats, and made my face so damned hot I wanted to somehow wrap Pure Water cachets on my cheeks and forehead.  Where the hell is a frozen bag of peas when you need one…

Sounds great, doesn’t it.  I cried.  I’ll admit to that.  I felt like such crud that I cried.  I whimpered, even, whenever I changed position on my bed, and I hate the word whimper.  Brings feebleness to mind. But that is in fact what I did—whimper.  It actually hurt to sleep and I moaned every time I moved.  To be sure, this fever was one of my weaker, er, feebler moments. 

I thought about all this and how my condition had significantly improved after being put on medication and getting plenty of rest and lots of water when I saw the man with the syrupy-red eyes.  It is common to see physical signs of malnourishment among many people in Africa, so this was not the first time I’d seen anyone with reddened eyes.  It was, however, my first real dose of disparity I’ve had since arriving in Ghana this time around.  It was clear from his sickly eyes that he has known bad health and suffering his entire life and unlike anything I’ve ever known or could imagine. 

In Africa, I have seen people bathing in putrid, blue-gray run-off waters in trash-filled gutters because they have no money or access to clean water.  I have seen pregnant women begging on the streets.  I’ve heard stories from refugees that would make you understand the true meaning of “horror.”  In the United States, I’ve seen homeless, disregarded veterans crunched and sleeping in the tiny, fenced squares of earth protecting trees that line the streets of our nation’s capital.  Being from the South, I’ve seen plenty of poor white trash and disenfranchised blacks.  Want one more example of social imbalance I’ve witnessed: Hurricane Katrina.  Bam. 

My point is that I’m no tenderfoot when it comes to inequality or injustice.  What I am not used to, and what I was not prepared for when I saw the man with the syrupy eyes—and what is absolutely shocking to me, because what I dawned on me at that moment in particular is The Central Pillar upon which I have chosen to build my life—the sameness of everything under the sun of mankind, despite all the disparities and differences. 

That man made me think of so many things.  His scarlet eyes could be mine.  His pain could be my pain.  My health could be his to enjoy.  As human beings, we are all connected because we share the exact same things: joy, pain, embarrassment, excitement, love, anguish, success, greed, humility, hunger, thirst, intelligence, endless etc.  I felt foolish for being so full of self-pity when I was with fever, even though my discomfort was legitimate.  If I know what it feels like to be ill, he knows what it is like to be ill.  It never ceases to shake me to the core when I realize that I have sometimes forgotten the sameness of humanity. 


Sunday, December 20, 2009

A "Thing" of Christmas Tinsel

Thursday, 17 December 2009, Accra:

I feel cheery, brighter than I have been of late.  Somehow festively satisfied.

I put up one “thing” of Christmas d├ęcor at the house today, and despite the garland’s pitiable condition—and most definitely to my utter surprise—my disposition has since been decked with a sense of seasonal, social AND residential accomplishment.  Congratulations, Katie.  You’re getting settled in.  You bought decorative bullshit.  Now all you need to do is buy hangers, a proper thermometer, more Nescafe, move into your own place, put up those curtains you’ve been gabbing about, and start thinking about what you’re gonna do for Valentine’s Day decorations, cause February is gonna be here before you can say “Red Rider BB-Gun” and Ghanaians go BONKERS for Valentine’s Day, my darling sweethearts. 

You really should see this garland I’m talking about, though.  It’s totally pathetic, yet so awesome.  I think I’ll post a picture on facebook.  I love facebook.  The garland that’s strangely changed my mood is a loopy strand of magenta and silver, uh, loops, the length of which fits perfectly over the front door and side windows.  I had to clip then ends with clothes pins to make the thing stay put, but at least there’s a little bit of a dip between each pin and the nail that supports the garland in the middle, which, in my opinion, gives off the “she tried…at least kind of” effect.  

Mangoes and Mosquitoes: an Ode and a Loathe

Wednesday, 16 December 2009, Accra:

Oh, Pablo Neruda, how I wish I were you.  I am in love with the mango the way you were in love with onions, lemons, salt, wine, women, breasts, and—I might be mistaken on this next one, but then again maybe not, cause the guy wrote odes to every damned thing under the moon (which he also wrote of in matchless verse)—nougat.  Oh, Pablo Neruda, how I wish to sing of the mango’s majesty the way you poetically polished the plain potato.

You know, sometimes I wonder if it’s that, indeed, Neruda truly was more gifted at poetry than me, or if instead he just had more time on his hands, and barrels upon barrels upon barrels of good wine….

Except that’s not the kind of nonsense I normally find myself thinking about.  Normally, I think about stuff like where to find a can of cat food in a country that doesn’t feed it’s animals “animal food,” and whether or not a cheap can of tuna saturated in oil won’t make the cat-that-came-with-the-house, Mischa, puke all over the place.  Cause I really don’t to have to deal with THAT…and I wonder if her upchuck would attract those tiny, damned ants I keep seeing everywhere. 

So, anyway, I was getting my usual workday lunchtime fruit from the woman across the street yesterday when I saw a peeling I hadn’t ever seen since becoming addicted to this woman’s papaya and pineapple.

This woman and her fruits are insanely popular with the Ghanaians.  She only comes at lunchtime and there’s always a line of customers and I’m always the only obruni there.  I’m not sure why that is, exactly, cause this fruit—ideally paired, by the way, with a small bag of groundnuts—is the best mealtime option around! 

While we’re all waiting in line for her attention, I regularly exchange some small-small chat with the folks in line.  However, since I don’t speak Twe, I usually fall quickly out of the conversation and indolently bide my time watching the free-ranging chickens peck and pluck around our feet for whatever it is chickens in Africa eat.  And a note on that while we’re on it: when they say “free-range” in America, they have NO idea what they’re talking about.  Free-range here means exactly that: roadsides, brush, gutters, street corners.  Really, pardon me for saying so, but chickens rule the roost.  

The new peeling—back to that—intrigued me.  It wasn’t from a papaya, that much I knew.  The color of the fruit within wasn’t pinky-orange.  For as long as I live, I will never forget what color the fruit of a papaya is.  I was in Costa Rica once, and this woman was taking my sisters and me to the beach.  She was here-and-there pointing out some of the sights when she suddenly said, “See that papaya-colored house down there?”  I looked towards where she was pointing and realized I had absolutely no idea where to focus because I had absolutely no idea what color a papaya was.  Not to appear stupid, I said I saw the house and, after she had dropped us of, went straight on a mission to find out what the hell kind of fruity-color loop I had been left out of.   

No, no, this peeling was not papaya. There was a slivering of ripe golden-yellow—shall I say, essence—attached to the green peeling. Yet again, not wanting to appear stupid, I ordered papaya from the woman, knowing full well it was available and that I’d spare myself some embarrassment—my decision itself smacking of stupidity AND cowardice.  I realize that.  Trust me.  But in my defense, yet again, not to be left out of the fruit-loop, as she handed me my papaya, I straightforwardly asked her if she was having any mango. 

Oh, and how she was having mango!

YAYayayayayayay!  I snatched a whole one, bought it along with my papaya and groundnuts, took the beautiful sucker home, nearly completely butchered it because mangoes are superhard to cut into cubes if you’re not skilled (please see prior Blah Log Blog entry “A Trifle About Food, a Crumb About Me” for plenty clarification) and then popped the sweet, dripping messes of pulp one by one into my mouth and realized that, for me, there ain’t nothin’ much in Ghana that compares to the gilded heart of a mango. 

EXCEPT—and I was just reminded of this—smacking the living shit out of a mosquito.  Like, slapping them dead between my bare hands. 

Oh, MAN, I hate mosquitoes and I lovelovelovelove killing them.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

My Thanksgiving in Ghana

Tuesday, 1 dec 2009, Ada and Accra:

So I haven’t gone into any detail about Thanksgiving 2009, but that’s really not my fault at all.  I mean, it was my fault I broke my sunglasses and therefore completely abandoned my initial intent to Blah Log Blog about my Thanksgiving experience in Ada, Ghana, but overall, it’s really not my fault that I’ve been remiss in writing about Thanksgiving. 

I get so tired here, and so quickly, too.  My job can be utterly exhausting and the heat in Accra can be overwhelming.  If you’ve been to Accra, or maybe even Africa in general, perhaps you understand me.  If not, then perhaps you think I’m just being lazy.  But I’m not kidding.  I get tired.  Ask Desmond.  He specifically asked me to please NOT go to sleep at 3:30pm (his time) because I had begun to develop a regular pattern of passing out at 8:30pm (my time), which meant we hadn’t been able to talk for a few days, which has to happen after he’s done with work (5:00pm his time, 10:00pm my time). 

My point—I apologize.  Sorry for not Blah Log Blogging about Thanksgiving, because, really, it was quite an experience, the most amazing experience of which wasn’t the beautiful beach, the simple lifestyle of living in a reed hut, or the coolness of swimming in the Volta River.  The most amazing part was meeting Larry, a 49-year-old Ghanaian man, who bigheartedly and unquestionably invited me to spend the night with his family at their family compound upon learning of my financial woes. 


Thing was, I’d done two things wrong: not brought enough money, and not been shrewd enough to avoid paying out the ass for things that are supposed to be dirt cheap—like, for instance, a canoe ride from the mainland to the strip of beach on the estuary, where I was staying. Let me tell you, I was pissed when I found out how much I’d paid compared to what I SHOULD have paid.  At any rate, after spending only one night in my reed hut at the estuary beach (where the Volta River and the Atlantic Ocean meet), I wound up with less money than I’d planned and determined that the best plan of action would be to end my Thanksgiving getaway/holiday a day earlier than scheduled, and spend to Friday night at a cheap hotel on the mainland in Ada, or just take a tro-tro straight back to Accra and call it a wrap.

Anyway, so I met Larry at a spot in town, and somehow started rambling about my issues (can you just imagine: me, yapping on to a stranger about personal circumstances?  I mean really…hard to imagine).  Yaddayaddayadda, I wound up sharing multiple Club beers with him at his brother’s place overlooking the handsome, rich blue Volta River, then accepting his invitation to stay the night at his family compound with his three sisters, twin brother, skinny kittens, one goat and some random cousins. 

It was a fabulous turn of events for me.  Most awesome.

His sister, Mathilda, grilled me a fresh, meaty tilapia with rice and pepe, at Larry’s insistence and my hesitant request.  We all ate together in the courtyard, sharing cold beers and listening to Bob Marley, a common interest Larry and I discovered about each other earlier in the afternoon. 

His family gave me a room of my own, with a rotating fan.  They let me use their bucket shower, which was absolutely divine. 

In the morning, his cousin, Bruno, bought me two sticks of fried clams from a lady he saw passing by, which I ate with curiosity and relish.  Clams on a stick, huh?  Never tried that before.  But then again, I’ve never randomly gone to spend the night at a Ghanaian household either.  So, in my mind, I figured what the hell.  Eat the clams.  If I wound up having a runny stomach later in the day while on the tro-tro ride back to Accra, at least I’d have a smile on my face from the generosity and pleasantness of my new friend, Larry, and his family. 

Happy Thanksgiving for sure.  

My Sunglasses Are Finished-O

Monday, 30 nov 2009:

Okay, so I just flipping broke my sunglasses.  Just broke off a whole stem, dangit.  DANGIT!  DANGIT, DANGIT, DANGIT!

I was going to start off this whole Blah Log Blog entry by mentioning that, if I were in the States at this very moment in time, Jeopardy! would be on, and that I would more than likely be watching—undeniably, fortuitously kicking ass in the “How One Breaks Sunglasses” category—with a dirty Ketel One martini in hand and a plate of Manchego cheese and hummus nearby, HOWEVER, as it is now, I’m really reallyreallyreally extraordinarily very much irritated by the fact that I just broke the only sunglasses I’ve ever actually liked since the awesome, funky electric-baby blue ones I had in 10th grade.

The collapse of my sunglasses was entirely not the intended point of this entry, but an indisputable frustration, nonetheless.  

I Got Yer African Plenty

Tuesday, 24 nov 2009, Accra:

Perhaps you saw my facebook photo album showcasing my recent-and-first trip to Cote d’Ivoire?  There was a picture I took at the Cathedral in Abidjan featuring beautiful stained-glass scenes of “African plenty”—elephants, gazelles, lush plants, welcoming fruits, and blahblahblah. 

NOT the “African plenty” I know. 

I shall take this moment to describe to you an image that I, Kathryn Gerber, aka Wildly Acclaimed and Fabulous Artist, would create in stained glass if I were to depict my understanding—and appreciation, mind you—of “African plenty”:


  • 5 o’clock traffic in Accra is an involved experience unlike anything in this world.  You automatically (yes, of course, pun intended) get a gold star if you come out of the crush alive (and by the way, that gold Star comes in the form of a Star beer, which means you deserve a Star EVERY DAY).  The only way I can describe the traffic in Accra during morning and night rush hours is this: if traffic in Accra were a daycare, it would be a run-down, understaffed nursery full of ill-tempered, self-righteous crack-babies-hooked-on-diesel, ALL contemptuously demanding attention at the same time.  Everyone in front of you is wanting to turn left, everyone to the right of you wants to stop, everyone behind you is trying to get around—I am telling you, Madame, it is a royal mess.

Anyway, so it’s a Clusterf*ck of the Highest Order, but wouldn’t you know it, there are countless helmet-less nuts on bicycles, all ridin’ around in such traffic, doin’ their thing, seemingly unawares of the dangerous environment around them—or, from a different perspective, the boldest sonsabitches I’ve seen in awhile.  I’m not saying that seeing bicyclists in a developing country surprises me.  It doesn’t surprise me as an independent individual, as a member of a family who loves me, as a hugger of the environment, as a mere mortal, what have you.  No, what I’m straight-up saying is that this surprises me as a bicyclist!  The conditions aren’t even AUTO friendly in Accra!  What are you doing, for the love of Pete, on a bicycle?!

Which brings me to my Scene of African Plenty:  while being shown various apartments and houses by Daniel, a broker, I was also being shown new parts and sights of Accra that I had never seen before—INCLUDING a man on a bicycle in the middle of rush hour, balancing two long, wooden beams/planks on his head.  My guess is that they were wider than 2x4s, and, by that determination, heavier.  I was bluntly stunned.  My jaw dropped. Truly.  It was my first “Wow” moment I’ve had since returning to Africa, and having previously borne witness to a multitude of unbelievable sights.  But this!  The balance!  The necessary focus!  The nerve!  The off-the-charts level of “Africa-ness!”

Memorialize shit like THAT in stained-glass, is what I’m sayin.     

You Think You Have a Loud Neighbor?

Sunday, 22 nov 2009, balcony, Accra:

This weekend in Accra has been fabulous.  As I am writing this—just to give you an idea—I’m sitting on my balcony, still covered in grime from today, but immeasurably enjoying the cool pre-sunset temperature, and very much hoping everyone else in Ghana is doing the same.  I’ll bet you 50 Ghanaian cedi the kids across the way are.  From what I can tell, there are about 10 or 15 energetic young boys running around playing football at an empty school field.  They’d no doubt be playing football even if the weather weren’t as pleasant as it is—but I’ll bet you at the very least the small breeze and relative coolness of the evening isn’t entirely unnoticed by them. 

It’s about 5:12 on a Sunday night.  My balcony faces west, so I have a nice view (if you’d call it that.  Having been brought up in North Florida, on the Gulf of Mexico and in southeast Kansas, I consider myself a mite particular when it comes to “nice” horizons) of the round African sun setting over tin roofs and laundry lines, and into a smudge of pink pollution (note: more on environmental issues at another time).

My neighbor, The Mosque With The Loudspeaker (the loudness being no distinction from any other mosque, by the way; all the mosques have loudspeakers, just providing some background for you, more gentle readers), is also somehow westerly of me, though I can’t be sure of its exact location.  What I can tell you, though, is that

  • I do not speak Arabic, the language that is blasted over the loudspeaker five times a day.  I don’t mind the mosque being so close to my apartment, but it would really, really, really be nice if someone would turn down the volume on that frickin’ loudspeaker when it is time to pray at, oh, you know, DAWN. 
  • I don’t mind the fact that there are Muslims in my neighborhood, and very many in all of Africa combined—much, probably, to the dismay of my more conservative and fearful American friends and family.  In my opinion, God is love and Allah is God, so isn’t it all really the same?
  • Religious differences are not my jam.  Refugee rights—that’s my passion.  End scene.  Again, I don’t care what religion my neighbors are, or that it is part of their tradition to pray five times a day over a loudspeaker.  I do, however, wish that I knew what they were saying.  If I did, perhaps maybe I’d be able to engage somehow in a conversation about particular ideas.
  • Sometimes, especially at, you know, DAWN, I pretend I know what’s being chanted over the loudspeaker, just so at the very least I can ENJOY the interruption, instead of resent it.  I pretend the Arabic from the loudspeaker translates into, “Hello, hello, hello sleeping girl.  I am making you coffeeeeee.  Hello, I am making you coffeeeeeeeeee.  Sleeeeeeeeeeep while I put the pancakes onnnnnnnnn.  Sleeeeeeeeeep while I put honnnnnnnnneyyyyyy on the pancaaaaaaaaakesssssssss and sllllllllllllippers onnnnnnnnnnnnnn your feeeeeeeeeeeeet.”

Anyway, so that’s the mosque across the street.  

Le Bathroom Humor

Saturday, 21 nov 2009, Accra:

Wanna know what I find absolutely, perfectly fitting? 

Tracy has a proper toilet in her apartment.  You know the kind: white, porcelain, silver flush handle on the side, water, actual flushing capability…

Anyway, so with this proper toilet comes a proper facility for toilet paper.  Again, you know the kind of feature I’m talking about:  two white porcelain arms jutting out from the wall, set just-so apart, with holes in each to compliantly secure a shit-ticket roll and just to the left of the throne (if, upon which, you happen to be s(h)itting).  

There also happens to be a shelf atop this particular bun-fodder receptacle, and it also just so happens that my red, plastic-bound Webster’s French Beginners Dictionary fits absolutely and perfectly on said shelf.  It’s as if my French dictionary was made exclusively for this spot.  In the bathroom.  Near the toilet. 

I’m sorry…I’m really sorry.  Really. 

But…it just makes me smile every time (EVERY TIME!) I see it, my red French dictionary—such an above-board contrast, hehehe.  Honestly, I’ve never once flipped through it whilst using the bathroom, but I loooooook at it every single time (EVERY SINGLE TIME!) I’m there.  And every single time, I smile.  

A Trifle About Food, a Crumb About Me.

Friday, 20 nov 2009, Accra:

Today, surprisingly, is the first day since my arrival in Africa I’ve wanted to spend time writing something about anything—about the people I’ve met, the things that I’ve done, the food that I’ve eaten, or the food I don’t know how to cook. 

At various points in my life, I’ve either publicly proclaimed or silently avowed to learn how to cook; how to treat spices like the fine epicurean accessories they truly are.  I have triumphantly failed, however, every single damned time, to learn anything about cooking, save how to improve my delegation skills in the kitchen.

For example:  give Jacob a fish and it will be zesty, delightful, remarkable and downright scrumptious.  Desmond, despite having grown up on grilled cheese sandwiches and leftover swigs of beer from cans of Coors, knows what quinoa is and how to make a mean taco (examples unrelated).  He is also an inexorable seasoner—diner AND dinner beware.  That man will shake on black pepper till his hand hurts, until you’re unable to distinguish between green and red peppers, onions and potatoes.  I delegate thusly: if you’d like a bite from his plate, take one before he goes nuts with the pepper.  

Further example (I’m having fun with this, in case you can’t tell):  It is an utter waste of time to give Amber a recipe.  Just give her an idea.  Anneliese, though small enough in stature to brush off as a fussy eater, is in fact a huge fan of hamburgers.  And Mom, well, she can pull together absolutely any sort of dish; you just have to convince her to try and, on occasion, purchase the proper serving piece.   

You get my point.

Upon meeting Tracy, moving into her spare bedroom and spending the following two days with her, I was pleased to learn that she’s a wiz in the kitchen.  YAY for me, cause like I said, I’m about as clueless and lazy as they come.  If it were up to me, I’d eat white rice and pineapple for breakfast because I don’t know how to make French toast—which is exactly what I did one of my first mornings in Accra. 

Unfortunately, the time Tracy and I’ve spent together thus far has been two days.  I left for Cote d’Ivoire the Sunday after the Friday I arrived in Accra, and when I returned, she was in the middle of a trip to Sierra Leone.  The one and only meal we shared before our departures was—are you ready for this—rice and lentils.  However, she’s promised to teach me how to do all sorts of things in the kitchen, with a shared bottle of cheap red wine as a necessary part of our lesson plan.  YAY again for me!  Learning is AWESOME!