Thursday, March 19, 2009

“Don’t Sweat the Petty Stuff” by Tammi; 12 March 2009

It’s almost 9 months to the day that Chris and I arrived in Ghana. I’m sitting on the couch reading by “torch light” (flashlight) and Chris is in the shower room taking a bucket bath. This morning we had both running water and electricity. Tonight we do not and it’s funny how little thought we give to this set of frequent facts. We don’t even break stride. The boxed wine from the fridge is still cool and between pages of Truck A Love Story, I take a moment to squeeze some CheezWhiz (courtesy of dear friend’s care package) on a piece of bread.

Today, life is good. It’s the first time in weeks that the temperature has dropped below 80 degrees. A cool breeze is coming in from the open door and I’m loving it.

For the past several weeks the weather has been miserable. March came in like a lion, but not in the sense that a Midwesterner would conjure. It was in like a panting, sweaty, passed out under the nearest Baobab tree kind of lion. A can’t muster up enough gumption to even look at a wounded antelope, much less chase it kind of lion.

Quote of the quarter-

With the look of epiphany drawn on his face, Chris stares at me and conjectures, “I’ve never seen you sweat as much as you do here”.

“Thanks Einstein. Why the *$#^ do you suppose that is?!” I reply. My husband has moments of brilliance. This was not one of those moments.

I try to keep it as cool as possible in the house. I strategically open and close louvers and curtains, and turn ceiling fans off or on (when the electricity is working). But the last few weeks my attempts have been futile. The other night a few hours after the sun went down and the temperature started to “cool”, I checked the thermometer beside the bed as I attempted to go to sleep. It read 90.4 degrees.

Apparently when we first came here it was the “cool” time of the year. I’d go to bed wearing a t-shirt and cover up with a sheet. Now we strip off our clothes and flop on an open mattress. But trust me, there’s nothing sexy about this. It reminds me of the song lyrics “I’d like to sleep with my baby tonight, but it’s too darn hot”!

Back to Chris’ scientific observation- Maybe you have heard the adage, Women don’t sweat. They glisten. In Africa we glisten our asses off! The slightest effort and I’m dripping…no, make that streaming with sweat. Walk to the store to buy t-roll and sweat pours down my front and back. Write on the blackboard during class lecture and the sweat drips down my leg. Simply sit in a chair and watch the world go by…dare to stand up and the puddle of sweat makes it seem as though I’ve wet myself. And I’m not even what you would call a sweater! Back home I don’t perspire readily. But here the difference between breaking and sweat or not is the difference between survival and ceasing to exist! To put existentially, I exist simply. Which is to say, I simply sweat (my balls off)!

Chris celebrates one of the first cooling rains of the season

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

"Cousin Kelly’s Questions" by Tammi; 05 March 2009

First a side note: Thanks to those of you who sent words of encouragement after my last blog entry. I never expected this to be easy, but it was good to vent a little bit anyway. Not much has changed, but my spirits are more my own again anyway. There are still many times when Chris will catch me in a mood, look sternly at me and say “Attitude”?! Then I respond, “Yes, and there is more where that came from”! But as they say here in Ghana, “We’re managing”.

Recently, I have had some email correspondence with my cousin Kelly. In her last email, she had a few questions. It occurred to me that if
she has these questions, then others probably do as well. So here it is---Cousin Kelly’s Questions, Answered:

What did you guys eat yesterday?

6:15 AM-first breakfast-“Tea and Biscuits”

What this actually means is that we had coffee and cookies. The coffee was real, good, fair trade coffee that was shipped to us from the U.S. by friends and family. (Thank God for friends and family)! The only coffee available within many hours of Donkorkrom is Nescafe instant coffee. It will do in a pinch if you fluff it up with some additives, but there is nothing like the real deal. On the other hand there are several kinds of “biscuits” available here that are quite nice with coffee. Yesterday, we had Vega brand Malt’n’Milk Biscuits which are a product of India. Tomorrow we’ll likely switch it up a bit with Good Luck Crackers made in China. First three ingredients in both are wheat flour, sugar, and palm oil. (Let me take this moment to apologize to my Primary Care Physician back home in Ames; Sorry Dr. Molian, I know that a starchy diet along with palm oil is bad for my cholesterol, but my options here are very limited).

10:30 AM-second breakfast-waakye

Yesterday it was Waakye (sounds like watch-ee), from the school canteen. Waakye is a conglomeration of rice, beans, pasta, tomato paste, gari (dried & ground cassava-the texture of cornmeal), topped with two types of hot sauce and the ubi
quitous red palm oil. Normally we take it topped with an optional hard-boiled egg. (Again-Sorry Dr. Molian). Think Wisconsin hot dish meets Ghanaian village.

School Canteen

Mrs. Wiredu, the Assistant Headmaster’s wife, makes a mean batch of Waakye. She prepares a big 5 gallon vat of it every school day to sell on campus. Chris has a real weakness for Mrs. Wiredu’s waakye and he typically buys it a few times per week. (At the equivalent of 45 cents for an all-you-can-eat meal we can afford for him to do this even on a volunteer salary). Assistant Headmaster, Mr. Wiredu, is a smallish man who seems a bit serious when you first meet him, but is one who quickly shows his, soft, kind, good-natured side. In contrast, Mrs. Wiredu is not small, maintains a stern front, and generally speaking is not someone who I would want to “mess with”! Two days ago, while Mrs. Wiredu was asleep on the bench behind her waakye table, Chris decided to diversify and purchased Red-Red (red beans served with fried ripe plantains) from another food lady instead of getting his usual. It was scandalous!

It was the hot topic when I stopped by the school food vendors on my way home after class. I was purchasing some fruit to bring home for our pantry an
d overheard some chattering between the ladies. My Twi is not good enough to catch it all, but combined with a little power of observation I was able to decipher what the gossip was about. As the ladies chided her about it, even Mrs. Wiredu could not help but to reveal the slightest Mona Lisa smirk in response to the whole situation even as she was thinking “How could he buy red red instead of my waakye?”!

Mrs. Wiredu cracks a smile

2:30 PM-snack-fruit and crackers

After a heavy second breakfast, lunch was pretty much overlooked. I think I snacked on a banana, an orange, and some Soda Milk-Salt Crackers (manufactured in Beijing). It is noteworthy to mention the fruit. There are sever
al varieties of bananas here in Ghana. The ones we had yesterday are small. One would have to eat two or three of these bananas to amount to one of the bananas that we see in the States. But what these little guys lack in size, they make up for in flavor. These jazzy little bananas put their big brother bananas to shame.

The oranges on the other hand leave a bit to be desired. First, the color is not orange. They are more greenish-orangeish-yellow when they are ripe. (Open and orange colored orange, and it is most likely spoiled). The oranges have good flavor though. But like so many other things here in Ghana, they are thick skinned. Even the membranes dividing the inner fruit are thick and fibrous. Ghanaians consume oranges by first using a knife to shave off the outer skin down to the thick pith. Then they slice off the top of the o
range and suck the good stuff out. Removing the skin makes the orange pliable enough to massage the pulp and juice up and out the top as you go. I have not mastered this technique. My attempts result in pulp all over my face and juice dripping down my elbows. So I avoid eating oranges in public. Instead, I bring them home, section them and chew out the edible parts the best I can before hosing myself down afterwards.

6:00 PM-Supper-Corned beef hash and eggs with toast (breakfast for dinner)

Canned corned beef, imported from Argentina, is readily available in our village. It makes for a tasty hash. The emaciated cows we have in Ghana do not have the easiest of lives, and the taste and texture of the beef reflects this sad sto
ry. As a big fan of red meat, I’m here to tell you that Spam is gourmet compared to “fresh” meat in my neck of the woods! From now on, I will eat steak only from happy cows who dreamed of lush green grass and grain while they slept and feasted on it while they were awake.

Potatoes are rare in Ghana. What they do have is yams-real yams. I have never seen a real yam in the U.S. What we have in the U.S. are actually sweet potatoes. Yams are huge tubers. One yam is about 10 times the size of a potato, (a long, somewhat skinny potato). There are even multiple varieties of yam. Right now water yams are in season. I don’t understand why water yams come into season during the dry, hot time of year, but apparently that is the case. Most things we do with potatoes back home can be done with a yam in Ghana. Last night we turned part of a yam into hash.

A water yam

Onions are grown here and are available year round. The onions have wonderful flavor. You may cry a river in the process of cutting one up, but they don’t taste as strongly as they jerk tears.

The eggs we ate were from guinea fowl. Up until the end of the year we had been purchasing most of our eggs from the lady at the little poultry farm just beyond the teachers’ village. When we went to buy eggs after the holidays we learned that the eggs were “finished
” and that it would be several weeks before they would have more eggs. When we inquired as to why this was the case, we learned that they had sold all of their laying hens for meat over the holidays. Now it’s March. They still do not have chicken eggs, but we were able to buy a few guinea fowl eggs. That works.

In our village several women bake white bread. Sugar bread and butter bread are the most common. Tea bread, which is a little less sweet, is also often available. But lately we have not been able to find any tea bread, probably because it is our preference. (Whoops there I go with the attitude again). In ord
er to find the exotic and illusive whole wheat variety, one must take a full day to travel over the river and through the woods (literally). So suffice it to say, that while we are thankful for our daily bread, it is most often of the standard white variety.

Normally we buy from the nice bread lady who lives just around the corner from the egg lady. When we went to her house to buy bread this w
eek, we learned that she had traveled over the weekend to attend a funeral (attending funerals is all the rage in Ghana, but that’s a whole separate story). When she returned, she was understandably too tired to bake. So after trekking the rest of the way into town, we were able to buy bread and make toast to go with our hash.

We washed it all down with some Crystal Light (courtesy of a care package).

Our friend Stephen in front of his typical “super market”

About our diet:

Given the levels of saturated fat and starch in the above menu, you might think we are turning into a couple of Goodyear Blimps! Personally, I don’t get it. When Mom and Dad came to visit, they went on and on about how we looked. “You’re so skinny!”, “Don’t yo
u eat?” “Are you sick?” “Do you have worms?” Mom asked. Mom’s comments slowed down shortly after we arrived at a favorite restaurant in Accra and she witnessed me pounding down three entrees in addition to sharing some appetizers and desserts. I guess she decided I was not starving myself.

A student recently backed my mother’s observation when she saw me in a family photo taken last Christmas. Upon recognizing me in the photo she exclaimed, “Madam, you were fat!” (Ahhh, kids say the darndest things). But it’s true, and to say a person is fat is akin to a compliment here in Ghana. So I found her comment really funny.

Before I came to Ghana, I was mindful of and worked hard to maintain a healthy diet. I also exercised regularly. Now I have no exercise regiment and I eat whatever I can get my hands on that sounds appetizing. As most have witnessed, I never have been a slave to fashion. But here is the real kicker- I was fat in a fashionably skinny country and now I’m “skinny” (as Mom put it) in a fashionably fat country. Figures! Oh well. When, or by the time I return to the U.S., I’m certain I’ll be fat again. But this time it will be different. I don’t think I’ll car
e. I have too many visions of cheese curds and red meat dancing in my head! (And maybe Dr. Molian will need my business).

Are there snakes there?

One of the standard issue items that we received while in training was a copy of West African Snakes by G.S. Cansdale. The contents include descriptions of many snakes broken down by their family groupings of python, bac
k-fanged, cobras and mambas, vipers, and harmless snakes. There are in-depth descriptions that include everything from color, diet, scale patterns on the underbelly, mating behavior, and construction of the fangs, to snake bite treatment. The lesson that I took away from this 69 page publication is that if you can observe all of these qualities of a snake, you are most likely way too close!

I personally have seen just a few snakes – all dead. Chris says he saw a big cobra in the back yard. Luckily it was searching for an escape route. A few weeks ago on campus, some students hacked the head off of a big snake which was about the diameter for Chris’s forearm. This poor creature had been flushed from its home by the brush fires that were lapping against the walls of our school buildings. Other snakes probably took shelter underground. This snake ended up as a meal for two families.

So, yes, there are definitely snakes about. But they seem to prefer avoiding people. And that’s just fine by me.

How far do you have to walk to use the internet?

Use of the internet is a sore subject with me right now so I’ll try to be brief with my answer.

There is an internet café which is a sweltering 25 minute trek into town on a good day. The computers are crappy and the service is painfully slow, especially for the price that they charge.

Cell phones, however, are prevalent in Ghana. As a result, internet service is available through some cellular service providers-“so
mehow”. For a few glorious months, Chris and I were splurging for what we thought was an exorbitant luxury - internet access via my GPRS capable cell phone for 40 cedis/month (about $35). This means that we had internet access from our own home or anywhere we traveled with my cell phone and laptop in Ghana. Then one day it stopped without notice. After many arduous calls and frustrating broken English conversations I found that we can still get internet access by pre-paying at a rate of 3.005 pesua per kilobyte uploaded and downloaded. Translation – Stinking Expensive! Until (if/when) we can get something different in place (which believe me is not going to be easy to do in a developing country) we will not be doing any “surfing”, opening or forwarding those fun little emails with photo attachments, or doing anything else on line that we once took for granted.

This makes me frumpy! (I’m sure that part of the attitude that may have been detectable in my last blog entry can at least be partially attributed to this).

When you go into the "village/city" are there armed men walking around like I've heard about in other places?

I do have to admit that initially the sight of automatic weapons was a bit unnerving. We often see local police officers with automatic weapons slung over their shoulders. Most times, though, you don’t see them with any weapon at all. Not even a night stick. It’s probably not in their budget. But you do see the guns often enough that you get used to it. You also get used to seeing everyone from grandmas to small children carrying machetes. It’s not unusual to see shot guns strapped to bicycles like you would see rifles in the rack of a pickup truck on a frosty Wisconsin morning. Here machetes and shot guns are typical farming tools. It’s akin to seeing farmer Smith in striped overalls with a screwdriver in his pocket.

Tammi handing out candy canes to armed officers guarding ballot boxes before the last election

Do your parents send packages or mail to you or is it impossible to receive things like that there? If so, how long does it usually take to get to you?

The postal service seems fairly reliable for things like standard letters and cards. In fact, Mom reported sending out a few Valentines, and we apparently received ours before Uncle Bill got his! Regular mail is delivered to us via the school where we teach. It practically comes to our doorstep! Anything bigger than your standard letter, however, is a bit trickier and more expensive.

Some friends and family have sent care packages, (bless their hearts). I think that priority mail reaches the post office in Accra in about 2-3 weeks time. We have a perfect track record so far in that all packages sent have been received (and very few bribes have been paid). Due to customs crap, however, we have to travel at least one full day to retrieve packages. It’s not an easy routine so we combine it with other travel tasks and typically are able to pick things up about every 6 weeks or so. (As you can deduce, sending anything a bit perishable is out of the question).

There is actually a FedEx office in Donkorkrom! It cracks me up and makes me think of Tom Hanks in the movie Castaway. One might have to take out a second mortgage to ship something here FedEx but it has been done. Somehow it gets through the customs process without us having to be there in person and comes right to the house strapped to the back of a “motto” (motor bike). It’s a beautiful thing!

It's great to hear about your adventure! (Better yours than mine)

It’s great to hear from you to, Kelly. Not only do I think that others share your questions, but some likely share your sentiment as well :)