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My laptop died late evening on Easter Day. Since then I have felt that my memories and ability to process information have also gone. I had no idea just how important it was for my sanity to be able to write about my experiences. As my computer stopped processing things, so did I. My last week in Ghana was almost unbearable at times, and I’m still not sure how far this was because things took a turn for the worse, and how far it was because I was unable to process the crap, like emotional kidney failure. I should say that a silver thread of hope remained throughout, spun by the friendly spider I call a memory stick, onto which I had backed up my research. Without this I would have lost the entirety of my PhD data, which is a thought too troubling for me to dwell on for long.

Determined to make another attempt to interview an elusive midwife, I focussed my efforts on this in my last week. For a couple of days I was fobbed off, and when she finally emerged, I jumped on a Tro Tro and made what would be my last trip to the villages in Shai Osudoku. After traveling for two hours I arrived at the remote clinic, and was not well received. The midwife had decided she was too busy to see me. Infuriatingly, she was unable to communicate this to me directly on the phone or in person. When I arrived, she merely made vague statements to the effect that she had other things to do, and refused to look me in the eye. When I asked if there was a better time for me to come she didn’t answer at all. This is how I realised that she had never intended to speak to me, despite the edict from the hospital instructing their staff to cooperate.

It was crushing, and was my first experience during fieldwork of someone really not wanting to speak with me. In retrospect, I have actually been very lucky in this regard. I consoled myself with the thought that her reluctance, combined with the other information I have collected about this clinic, probably says more than an interview would have done. Still, I left feeling dejected, and on the way back I was shouted at by several people who used a less-than-polite term for white person. It was as though the villages had now rejected me as well as the city. I did, however, use the opportunity to gain the sort of closure I couldn’t get in Mali, and I stopped by the hospital to thank the staff for their assistance in arranging my clinic visits.

Now all I had to do was wait for the day of my flight home to arrive. The next day brought the rains, and with it a plague of insects. I opened the door of my room, and was confronted with black and buzzing air, as cockroaches, flying ants, damsel flies, and many other creatures I didn’t recognise flailed around in my hair, down my dress, and eventually carpeting the floor as they lay on their backs, legs waving. At this point I felt as though I had gate-crashed a party where I was a figure of hate, and the host was trying inventive means to encourage me to leave. In my mind this party is in the middle of nowhere, where it takes several days for a taxi to arrive. Determined to have one metaphorical glass of champagne before the party security escorted me off the premises, I went to the beach before I left. It was a wonderful opportunity to escape into another world with my book. Yet I was often brought back to reality by visits from local men, one of whom seemed to be proposing an alliance based on the fact that he needed a UK visa, another who made the most inappropriate and worrying sexual comments, and one who simply refused to leave my side.

Despite the fact that my flight wasn’t until 22:50, I stayed in the airport all day on the day of my departure. When the time finally came for me to go through immigration, my path was blocked by two security guards who demanded ‘sweet sweet’ (money) before I could pass. When I reached the passport desk, I was informed that my visa had expired (it hadn’t). After several rounds of me pointing at dates and forms and making my case, I realised that this, again, was about ‘sweet sweet’. By this point, I was out of Ghanaian currency, and the feeling of nauseous panic rising in my chest was indescribably awful. In the end, I offered to pay a ‘fine’ in English currency, and was allowed to pass through, and get on the plane home.

I have said before that it is often the everyday experiences that shape us and determine our lives and deaths. Time may reveal that the irritating, mildly degrading, frustrating, and demoralising experiences of Ghana may have more of an impact on me than any coup. But equally, they may fade into the background, leaving only the fear and excitement of living through political instability, and the memory of a heartbreakingly beautiful silver moon hanging over an empty, white Ghanaian beach. Jeffery Eugenides, whom I read while I was away, says that there are not enough words in the English language to describe the complexity of feelings, and that we should perhaps look to the German linguistic tradition of stringing words together for help. Here are some of the new sentiments that I have discovered: ‘The unexpected sadness which comes on leaving a place one detests’; ‘the sympathy one feels for one’s enemies’; ‘the homesickness which remains after returning home’.

Once again I am extremely grateful to those who have kept up with my adventures and offered me words of encouragement and support. You have kept me connected at times when I would otherwise have been lost. I have no doubt that missanthropologist will return, but for now I am relishing the comforts of home. And heading to a laptop repair shop. Hx

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Murphy strikes again

This is just a quick post on behalf of Harriet to advise that her laptop has died. It looks like the hard drive has failed, so there will probably not be any more Missanthropologist posts from Ghana.

She is due back in the UK this Saturday–April 6th–and intends to upload a wrap-up post soon thereafter.

 

Easter

Ants

Ants

Easter in Ghana wasn’t the spectacle I was expecting, at least not from my vantage point at the university. There were no student preachers this morning, probably because they were all in church. The students are still on campus though, and have been playing their usual mix of Christian pop and thumping R&B. Last night I decided that I didn’t want this to be the first Easter that I haven’t had even a taste of chocolate, so I bought a small bag of chocolates at the predictably high import price on my way home. They melted before I could get them into the fridge, and today have emerged in strange, creased shapes like a miniature pile of shirts in an ironing pile.

There being nothing happening on campus, I looked to the news to see how Ghana is celebrating Easter. The main concern seems to be the Easter festival in Kwahu, which the news solemnly reports has sadly become a den of iniquity. The police have made several arrests for offences ranging from traffic violations (I wasn’t sure there were laws against that here), to theft, assault, drugs and prostitution. Several girls who were interviewed said that they would not go to the Easter festival as it is a place where women go to ‘whore themselves’. Another commentator made the following observation: “For Christ sake [sic], it is the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ we are marking, not some damn immoral festival…”. But a damn immoral festival is exactly what it sounded like to me. I rather found myself wishing I had gone to see it.

As it was, I spent the day trying to read, and being plagued by the ants in my room which are growing in number by the day. Despite my cleaning surfaces liberally with bleach, they have trails everywhere, and march up and down my limbs like the grand old ants of York. I am re-scheduling Easter for when I get back. As an atheist, this poses little problem for me. Hx

Labadi Beach

Drumming Troupe

Drumming Troupe

Labadi Beach

Labadi Beach

It occurred to me today that this is my last weekend here. I am not well, and today my initial instinct was to stay indoors and read. But I am also aware that there are potentially pleasant things to do here in Accra that I have not yet covered, and one of them is a visit to Labadi Beach. It is generally considered the best beach for leisure/swimming in the main part of Accra, and I could get there in under an hour. I packed my towel and a book.

Five cedis (£1.60) bought me access to the beach, its umbrellas, and the rickety old wooden sun-loungers strewn across the sand. I sat under an umbrella with a coke and surveyed the scene. Labadi Beach is like the Ghanaian equivalent of Weston super Mare; it was crowded, shabby, and there were pony rides available. Not so much like Weston, the owners of the ponies squashed the animals’ manure into the sand with their bare feet. There were also plenty of hawkers demanding my attention, selling anything from chairs and fake designer sunglasses, to boiled eggs and pineapples.  A woman near me asked for a boiled egg, and got annoyed when the seller handed it to her with her left hand. ‘I am left’ replied the seller, and it had never occurred to me before to wonder how the Ghanaian left-hand taboo affects left-handers. I asked for pineapple from a lady with a large tray of them balanced on her head. I expected her to give me a ready-prepared sandwich bag of pieces like the ones I had bought in the past, but she set the tray down, produced a rather alarming machete, and began to slice up a whole pineapple for me. The salty sea breeze, the children’s shouts, the stickiness of sun-cream and the grittiness of sand were all very familiar, and if I closed my eyes I could imagine a British Summer (if such a thing still exists).

When I opened them, the scene was somewhat different. First was a hotchpotch troupe of acrobats who gave one of the most bizarre performances I have ever seen. They did impressive backflips, and even more impressive arrangements whereby a man stood with another man on his shoulders who in turn had boy on his shoulders. Yet interspersed with this artistry were strange interludes in which they grabbed one another’s crotches, and then walked away laughing as if with mock disapproval, and then returned. In a similar vein, they also bent down to smell one another’s bottoms, and again wouldn’t complete the acrobatic feat if their counterpart’s bottom was deemed unappealing. It was pretty crude, and made absolutely no sense alongside what was otherwise an elegant performance.

Next was a band of traditional drummers who walked down the beach, stopping to give performances every few metres and then asking for money. They had with them a nose-piper, and a transvestite dancer. It was some time before I realised that the piper was playing the instrument with his nose, and the discovery was somewhat eclipsed by the dancer. He had on a leopard-print skirt, and an orange wig, and wore extremely prominent padding on his chest and bottom. They stood right at my feet and performed for rather too long. When I had paid them and they moved on, it was up the beach to the tables behind me, meaning that I was given the same performance again, this time by my head. It didn’t improve on a second viewing.

It was not quite as relaxing as a day on the beach should have been, but it made me feel better, and had a strange tinge of familiarity about it, of ‘home but not home’, which I greatly appreciated. Hx

The Peacock

Apparently there are peacocks in Ghana. I found this out when I was at the market and saw one perching on the roof of a shack, its tail resplendent and flowing out behind it. The blues and greens of its feathers looked impossibly rich in the sun, and the eyes on its tail glinted as its feathers moved gently in the breeze. I cannot emphasise enough what a shock it was seeing this beautiful creature here, looking refined and peaceful in amongst the dust and rubbish. As far as I know the peacock is native to India. A quick internet search tells me that there is a species of Congolese peacock, but it looks little like the one I saw. I have seen several garden ornaments in the shape of them here, which suggests that they might be relatively common.

Although my encounter with the peacock didn’t last long, it has a special significance for me. As some of you know, the town in which I grew up in England is famous for its peacocks, which were imported by a landowner many years ago and now roam the town freely. As a child I was transfixed by them, delighted when one made its way into the school playground. Finding one of their tail feathers brought real joy. Now they are a symbol of the place where I grew up. And so, whilst for most people seeing a peacock in Africa would be a taste of the exotic, for me it was a taste of home.

Paradise Gained, Paradise Lost

Cape Coast Castle

Cape Coast Castle

A Surprising Landmark in Cape Coast!

A Surprising Landmark in Cape Coast!

Moonlit beach

Moonlit beach

Yesterday I bought a ticket at a rickety window at the station, and got on a very large coach bound for Cape Coast. I have already written of my new found fear of travelling, and taking this massive vehicle, driven for four hours round hairpin bends by someone who doesn’t legally have to have taken a driving test, didn’t do anything to help me. Still, I tried to keep my mind occupied by watching the landscape as it passed by the window. Unfortunately, driving through the Ghanaian countryside serves as a constant reminder of mortality. The road was lined with enormous cemeteries, very noticeable because of the huge amount of money that people spend on elaborate headstones here. Still more striking was the number of coffin makers occupied in their craft and selling their wares by the roadside. This was all pretty sinister, but there was definitely an element of humour to it that I appreciated. Ghanaian coffins have to be seen to be believed. They come in any colour and shape you can think of. On the way I saw an airplane shaped coffin, as well as a large, bright pink fish.

When I arrived in Cape Coast I quickly realised that, although it was along the same coast line as Accra, it couldn’t be more different. It was quite beautiful, and seemed completely unchanged from how it must have been in colonial times. I saw white houses with bright shutters, grand churches, and traditional carved wooden fishing boats. Before having lunch with my friend, I visited Cape Coast Castle, which was once the main seat of the Gold Coast slave trade. It is a stunning, bright white fort right on the sea, and at first glance it was difficult to imagine its ghastly history. That changed as I toured the ‘female dungeon’, the ‘male dungeon’ and the ‘condemned cell’. These chambers were more like caves than rooms, with sloping, dirt and rubble paths going down into the cells. I was told that the dungeons would have held one thousand slaves each, but it is hard to imagine half that number of people fitting in there.

There were shallow stone trenches in the floor for waste, and sickening marks on the wall which demonstrated how useless this engineering feature was given the numbers of people in the dungeons. The cells had almost no light, and standing in there the smell that seemed to be oozing from the walls made me feel sick. The condemned cell turned out not to be a holding cell, but the means of execution itself. Condemned slaves would be transferred to this cell, and left to die of thirst. The castle had a built in church which was constructed directly over the dungeon with a grate fitted in the floor, meaning that the sounds from the dungeon would have been clearly audible during the church services. Wooden doors opened out right onto the sea, where slave ships would have come in to collect their cargo. The door was known as the door of no return, and apparently the other side of the door is now known as the door of return, a change which marked the official end of the slave trade.  There was a plaque in the courtyard laid by Barack and Michelle Obama in 2009, so it must have been one of the first trips they took after his election.

My friend was staying in a beach front resort, which consisted of large decorated huts with grass roofs, and a bar right on the beach. It was strange to go from the castle to this paradise, which was only two minutes’ walk away. Stranger still, a bust of Queen Victoria’s disapproving face looked down at me as I entered the resort. We had a decent lunch by the beach, and then went to explore the area around the castle. What once must have been a hellish mire of human cargo and terrible sounds was now extremely peaceful, with fishermen gathering their nets into their traditional carved boats, each with a bright flag flying from a thin mast at the end, in the afternoon sun. The streets were lined with wicker baskets of fresh fish and crabs, and in the evening, the resort bar served me a huge plate of sumptuous fresh lobster for £7. We ate by the beach, and watched the moon rise over the palm trees, making the waves glint as they folded over into the shore.

I had realised when I arrived that I would have no chance of getting back that day, unless I wanted to take three Tro Tros at night. Luckily, the dorm hut was relatively empty, so I was able to buy one of the bunk beds for the night, and stay with my friend. The resort showers were piped into wooden huts with no ceilings, meaning that a shower in the evening was taken by moonlight, and shaded by palm trees. The dorm was basic to say the least; the bunks were roughly constructed and tiny, but they had pillows and mosquito nets. It was sublime to know that I would be able to rest before making the hellish journey home. And it was a good thing that I did. I dragged myself up at quarter to six, knowing that I needed to get back to Accra in time for a meeting I had at the university. The bus station was pandemonium, and it was not at all clear whether I would be able to get on a bus eventually or not. There were many Tro Tros available but most people seemed to want to hold out for the bus – sadly not because of the safety issues, but because the bus is £1 cheaper.

I waited for some time with no sign of any movement on the bus front, and in the end went for a Tro Tro which looked more modern and sturdy than the others that had passed. Apart from the hair-raising trip from Cape Coast to Accra, the journey was made worse by the fact that I had to take two more Tro Tros in order to get back to the university. On one of the rides I was knocked into some sharp metal and injured (not too badly), and was glad that I had gone for my tetanus booster. It is worth noting that when this happened, the passengers who witnessed it laughed. On another ride, the driver started moving as we were still alighting from the vehicle, and shouted at us to hurry. This is officially not a friendly city.

I couldn’t be more glad that I made the trip, no matter how horrendous the journeys there and back. I have a sad feeling that most of my days not spent in the village clinics will fade away in to one horrible memory of noise and abuse, but my trip to Cape Coast will stay with me forever. Hx

Ignorance and Fear

The sand path to Ayernya had a child's bare footprints which I followed all the way to the village

The sand path to Ayernya had a child’s bare footprints which I followed all the way to the village

Marriage Arch from a recent wedding in Ayernya

Marriage Arch from a recent wedding in Ayernya

I was woken at six this morning by another preacher. He was extraordinarily loud – the kind of person who can project their voice such that it sounds exactly like they are using a megaphone. His message was slightly more benign that those who have gone before; according to him, salvation is for everyone, which makes a change from the usual fire and brimstone. His sermon was followed by one of the students on my corridor blasting out schmaltzy Christian pop music. At this point I gave up, and decided to get to Ayernya early. As I packed my things, I began to feel a pit of dread expand in my stomach. I had felt this to a lesser extent the day before, but now it escalated until it roared in my ears. I have lost my nerve.

Despite the many problems I have had here, I have never had any issues getting on with things. I have used Tro Tros almost every day, sometimes spending several hours at a time on them during difficult and bumpy journeys. I have been yelled at and grabbed by men, and felt annoyance rather than real fear. Until now I have taken it all in my stride. But for no particular reason I am wobbling, and calculating the risks of car accidents, muggings and abductions. This is not a good way to think. Today on my Tro Tro journey I yelled at the driver to slow down when he went over a speed bump so fast it felt like we were going to topple. I have never had an outburst like that before, and to my relief, the passengers ignored me. For the first time, I am starting to see the benefits of the Ghanaian approach – not worrying about anything at all, because whatever happens, it is God’s will. All I have is hope, and a book to distract me.

It was a good thing that I left early, as when I arrived the nurse informed me that she had just been informed that inspectors from the hospital were coming in later on. It is apparent that the community health staff have little or no involvement in the management of the system, and are given very short notice for meetings. I had gone there to follow up on a hunch I had about this nurse’s attitude towards her constituents. Today was a good day to do that; after some gentle chat about why the number of clinic visitors are so low and why so many woman give birth at home, she told me that the people in her village are ignorant, and very set in their ways. ‘Difficult’ was a word she used often to describe their characters. She seemed very defeated.

They believe in the use of traditional medicine, and will not listen to her regarding ante-natal visits and clinic deliveries. They pretend not to be in, tell her they don’t want to see her, or tell her they have lost their booklets which record the maternal healthcare they have received, and their child’s weight and immunisations. On further questioning about how she handles home visits, another crucial detail emerged. She does not speak the same language as the villagers. I have been trying to establish why this village is so different to others which are very nearby, and I found my answer. The people in this village migrated from the Volta region, bringing their traditions and language with them. They speak Ewe, which the nurse has not even begun to learn in the time that she has been there. She tells me trying to learn it would be too complicated. She generally calls a village person who speaks English, and asks them to translate for her whenever she sees a patient.

I saw this in action today when a woman came in with her sick baby. The nurse sent for a villager to translate, and when she spoke, seemed to address neither the mother nor the translator. She spoke in a way that suggested to me that she didn’t believe for a second that the mother would do as instructed, and felt that her being there was a waste of time. She also told me that there once was a midwife in the area, but she left because she was ‘sitting idle’ – no-one would come to her.

Although I spent a couple of hours travelling in a deep grip of fear for one twenty-seven minute interview, it was useful. I must try to get over this fear by the morning, as I am having a day trip which I hope will be good for me. My university friend with whom I had dinner a few weeks ago is down in the town of Cape Coast which is three hours along the coast from Accra, so I am going there (by the much safer coach!) to meet with her and do some sightseeing.  Hx