It was no surprise when calls and texts came flooding into the Peace Corps Ghana office very shortly after it was announced that President Obama would visit the country. Eager volunteers wanted to know when they would get to meet him. The standard response line was “There has been no itinerary given for President Obama’s visit. When we find anything out we will let you know.” We were saddened when we were finally told that Pres. Obama had no plans to meet with PCVs for he would only be here for a day.
Three days before his arrival, however, we all received a text via the PCEBS, Peace Corps Emergency Broadcast System. Ok, so I made up this name. But we do have a communication chain established should something occur that we all needed to be aware of. It is most often dangerous situations but in this case we were informed that all PCVs were invited to Accra for the sending off event for the President and his family. Needless to say the texting became furious; “Are you going” “Wouldn’t miss it for the world!” “What do you think will happen?” “I heard we will be having lunch with him.” And so on. The PC rumor mill manages to spread truths and falsities like wild fire. While we were down at the Obama event I actually even heard that Tammi and I were being transferred to the Upper West Region. Purely rumor, though we do plan to visit at the end of this month.
It just so happened that we were scheduled to be in Accra for mid service medical, or as we fondly call it “Poop in a Cup,” so the Obama visit fit into our schedule perfectly. We likely would have gone one way or another but there would have been doubts as anyone who has visited us can vouch for me when I say that traveling in this country is rarely fun. We were up a 4 am to walk the mile and a half into town to catch the Metro Mass bus that goes just past our house but is always full at that time and will not stop to pick us up.
After a reasonably uneventful trip, save the expected horrible roads and maniac tro-tro drivers, we made it to Accra in time to learn we had only 45 minutes to get to the embassy to pick up our invitations/security passes. I managed to talk a PC driver into taking a group of us over saving us a 30+ minute walk. We arrived thinking that since we were at the American Embassy then we would be on American Time; “When we say 2 pm we mean 2 pm.” I was wrong. We arrived only to stand around in front of the embassy for an hour waiting for something to happen. American Embassy or not we had been reminded that we are still in Ghana. This did give us time to do a little catching up with fellow PCVs many whom we had not seen since December. Everyone received their commemorative tickets suitable for framing and we were hustled onto one of 20 or 30 busses and hauled off to the airport under police escort. We arrived at the airport and the place was swarming with fully outfitted Ghanaian soldiers with automatic weapons (I’m sure these were loaded), Ghanaian police with automatic weapons (maybe or maybe not loaded) and lots of white guys with sunglasses and bulges under their suit jackets. With suit jackets, ties, temps pushing 90° and not a drop of sweat to be seen, these guys were scary cool customers and were more unnerving than the machinegun toting soldiers.
We cued and waited yet again in the equatorial sun (did I mention I did not bring water or a hat) for a good while and were finally allowed in. As we walked toward the gate to the tarmac we were afforded a wonderful view of Air Force One and with a bit of trepidation cameras started clicking. No one was tackled by Secret Service so we figured it was ok. We got up to the gate only to find out we would have to wait a bit longer while the metal detectors, or as one of our Secret Service handlers called them “the magnetometers”, were assembled. Now for the low point; I suddenly realized that I had a pocket knife, which a dear friend had given me, in my left pocket. “Shit! What am I going to do? I’m not giving up the knife. It means a lot to me.” We decided I should just wait and see what was said at the detectors. It was NOT PRETTY. Secret Service are not who they are for their friendly personalities and forgiveness. I was short of thrown out on my ear and said to get rid of it or not to come back. So while the others went on ahead (including my stand-by-your-man wife), I literally ran (expecting to be tackled) back towards the busses where a lot of other PCVs and embassy staff were still waiting in the cool air conditioned comfort of their coaches where I deposited my knife in hopes of seeing it again someday and ran back up toward the gate. Upon my return to the first gate I was immediately informed nicely but assertively that “No one else is permitted in at this time. You have to wait”. So I did.
Scary Secret Service guys
Scary Peace Corps Guy
Finally another group of PCVs & Embassy people started to cue and I also fell into line. At the same time to all of our amazement a group of Ghanaians started to line up, (as is the case in so many developing countries, the act of properly cueing in not something Ghanaians are particularly good at). The handler for our section decided we would go in first and she started to march us toward the gate. The Ghanaians did not like this idea at all and the way I saw it all hell broke loose. It was a scene right out of the evening news typically ending with a body count. I kept involuntarily running through my mind the story about all the soccer fans that had died at the stadium in Cote’ D’Ivoire in a similar situation just a few months before. Being mildly claustrophobic, I spent the next half hour talking myself down and wondering why no one would do anything. It continued to get uglier and uglier so suffice it to say I was WIGGED OUT!! But I finally got through and I swore to myself that next time I have a chance to see the President of the United States on the tarmac of an airport in an African country; I will not carry a pocket knife.
Notice the dress...
During my wait in the mob scene, I had received a few texts from Tammi and other friends wanting to know if the waterboarding was finished and had I broken under the pressure. I responded with similar snide remarks and wondered if anyone was intercepting these cellular exchanges and if I might be getting myself into a whole mess of new trouble. I know; paranoid. Once I had rejoined my original group I told them the whole horrible story and that was that. We were here to see Obama and Air Force One was being moved into place on the tarmac as a back drop for his speech. WAY COOL!! (Bear with me for there are going to be a number of WAY COOL moments from here on).
There we were, all in festive moods, all dressed up in our best Ghana fashions, some in commemorative Barack Obama cloth, including Tammi. We waited, and we waited. We took pictures of the big ass plane, we took pictures of the commandos on the roof tops, we took more pictures of the secret service guys and we took pictures of each other posing in front of the “big ass plane”. Then the helicopters came. Three or four of them swept the landing strip in preparation of Obama’s arrival. Then Marine One (the helicopter you often see sitting on the White House lawn) arrived with Barack and his family. (How cool would it be to be a kid and get to fly around in a helicopter, let alone Marine One)? Then the Obamas were all swiftly swept away… but to where? We later learned that they had gone back to the hotel to shower before their departure and wondered aloud, “Don’t they have a freakin’ shower on the big ass plane?” Finally the moment we had been waiting for was about to arrive and I was thinkin’ “Damn, this camera sucks for taking pictures in the dark”. And it was getting darker.
The presidential limousine arrived and a traditional drum and dance troop was there to greet them as President Obama climbed out with Michelle on his arm (an imposing and beautiful woman by the way). Barack shared the grand stand with Ghana’s President John Atta Mills and it was pretty obvious that Mills was humbled by the experience. When they climbed the steps to the podiums the crowd was going nuts, lots of pictures were being taken, and it was an amazing moment for me when I realized that we are really here in Africa seeing the first African American president standing side by side with an African President for the first time ever. This was far beyond a way cool moment.
President Mills spoke for a few moments and we couldn’t understand a thing he was saying because we were standing so close to the stage that we were in front of the PA speakers (only about 30 feet away). But when we heard the crowd behind us erupt into applause we followed suit. It was then President Obama’s turn and again we could hardly hear anything he said but we did hear the words “Peace Corps” which caused the front rows of all 160+ Peace Corps volunteers to erupt into hysterics. Then we calmed down just long enough to allow him to say those words again and off we went again.
When the speeches were finished the moment that most people were hoping for had come; handshakes with the crowd. Being so dang tall, I was resigned to the back row and wasn’t about to push my way to the front of the crowd to touch him (or get tackled by secret service). Tammi also decided not to push (there are some cultural norms we have chosen not to adopt). But I actually really enjoyed getting to see fellow PCVs shake hands with our President or First Lady and hear how excited they were afterwards.
Now the end, and highlight for me, was near; Barack with Michelle on his arm walked up the steps of Air Force One and in a photogenic moment turned around and waved goodbye- a way cool moment! The door shut and that was it. Except we did get to see the big ass plane take off (even though I didn’t get a picture of it cause as I mentioned before our camera sucks at taking pictures in the dark).
Bye bye Oh...
Recap of the best parts: Being here in Africa for this truly historic moment, knowing that Peace Corps is on the President’s mind, sharing the moment with a group of people whom I love and have profound respect for (even though every one of us is out of our minds). You have to be a little crazy to do what we are doing here but in my humble opinion Peace Corps is the greatest model for development anyone has ever conceived. I know I would not trade any of these experiences for the world, especially this one.
BTW - We learned later that the limos, Marine One & all the other helicopters and other forms of transport were hauled over on giant transport planes ahead of time. The day after the big event, we saw the cargo planes fly over and let me tell you those are really big ass planes!
Oh I almost forgot; the ubiquitous navy blue podium from which you always see the president giving his speeches was also sent. The presidential seal was placed on the front of it just prior to arrival of the President himself (which also received great applause)…Another WAY COOL moment.
Oh and one last thing; after a lot of running up down rows of buses, you will all be relieved to know that I did finally retrieve my knife. All's well that ends well…