TOGO or Not To Go.

Image
Image

Beautiful city of Lomé

When I decided I was coming to Ghana, I knew that I would want to travel to another country once I got here.

I planned that my fall break would be dedicated to experiencing another country on the continent and since Togo is right next door—why not? As the break approached, my excitement weaned. I had to apply for a visa? And pay? And what about transportation? Travelling in between countries in Africa is not as easy as one would like to think. Since you’re already on the continent, one would assume that airfare would be cheaper or crossing borders might be relatively easy process as compared to travelling from outside the continent. However, this is not 100 percent true.

19th Oct., Martina and I set out with only our weekend bags and a couple hundred Ghana cedis. That’s all we had. We had no clue how we were getting to the country. We had no visa, no place to stay, no hotel reservation, and most importantly, no knowledge of French!

The rain drenched us. For the two months that I have been in Ghana, it has never rained that hard or that long. We thought it was an omen—one we didn’t take heed to.

Onward we went. Took a taxi for 8 GH¢. Got to the the bus station. Paid another 9 GH¢

for the three and a half hour tro-tro ride to the Ghanaian border. It was smooth sailing. We got to the border around 8:30pm and were greeted by cheery Ghanaian officers who assisted us in acquiring a Togolese visa.

Now this is where things got tricky. CFA or West African CFA Franc is the currency used by many French colonized countries in West Africa. In Central Francophone countries, Central African CFA Franc is used.

The visa was about $30 USD, 60 GH¢ or 15,000 CFA. The conversion to CFA became a bit complicated, and even more so because Martina and I were totally unprepared.

However, crossing the border felt like such a liberating experience. We finally reached our destination and immediately saw a difference. We even met a Nigerian friend, who stuck with us the entire trip.

Read the rest of this entry

KUMASI, the “Garden City”

Image

Boy, oh BOY!

We had such a short weekend in Kumasi, but it was so impactful!

After the 5-hour drive from Accra to the capital of the Asante region, we finally arrived at Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology (KNUST) where we stayed. We dropped off our belongings and took a very short tour of the campus, which is structured very much like a traditional campus with an “authentic” college-feel—unlike what I accustomed to at NYU! One of our RA’s, Abigail is an alumna of the University and she took us to art department where many of her colleagues and professors were still making and displaying art. Students were working diligently on their sculpted pieces with brows of concentration and hands of sturdiness.

Image

Student at KNUST and his self-sculpture

Image

Moving on from our small tour, we visited the Almighty God workshop, where Kwame Akoto (the artist behind Almighty God Artworks, also known as Almighty God) greeted us with Bible scriptures and songs of praise. Paintings of Jesus Christ, celestial representations, political messages of safe sex and anti-smoking campaigns dressed the walls of the outdoor art space. Every painting was charged, whether it be politically, religiously or otherwise. Akoto writes messages on each of his works, leaving nothing unstated or to be guessed.

Each of us that participated in the workshop was guided by Akoto’s talent to further develop our projects.

Image

Cherry (colleague at NYU) doing a portrait of me at Almighty God workshop

We visted Manhiya palace the following day, which also serves as a museum. The house that serves as a museum was the home of the previous Asantehene (or King of Asante). Upon his return to the Asante kingdom from exile, the British offered him the house as compensation. The Asantehene would not accept the offering until it was fully paid for and obtained by Asante. Eventually, the home was paid for, and he moved in.

Life-size figures of previous Asantehene and Queen Mothers are placed in separate rooms in house along with old photographs, furniture, cutlery and eatery that remained from the previous king. Each artifact served as a piece of Asante history.

After the time at tour at the palace, we travelled to a village in Kumasi where Adinkra cloth is made. There are certain symbols used in the Asante culture that represent certain ideas, principles or beliefs that are essentially universal. The most popular one is gye nyame which translates to “except God.” It means that the person wearing this fears no one/nothing except God and puts nothing before Him. There are several dozen others, but only about 60 of the symbols are most frequently used.

In the village, the business of Adinkra cloth making is a owned by a man and his family. The brother carves the symbols, and the man makes the dye. Making the dye consists of obtaining a specific tree bark and soaking it in water for hours. After soaking it and breaking it apart, the bark is pounded continuously and then boiled for a total of exactly 11 hours (precision is key here)! Then the boiled concoction is cooled and sifted.

Image

Photo of finished dye.

Because the village is so remote, the inhabitants use the remnants of boiled bark to treat certain health problems as well. The bland bark is left until mushrooms sprout and once sprouted; they are boiled. Women suffering with menstrual cramps and diarrhea complications are treated from this bark-mushroom method!

The wooden carvings are then dipped into the black dye, and “printed” onto cloth. Some of the other family members weave Kente—which is another tedious process that involves serious endurance. The weaving is done using a wooden contraption that the weaver sits in and shifts his legs and arms in a religious motion to create the beautiful cloth. It is done in strips, and then the strips are put together to create full-length material.

Image

Abigail (a CRA at NYU)  practicing Kente weaving and one of the weavers. 

Although these people seem happy living in this remote village, many wanted to exchange contact in hopes of gaining an opportunity to come to the U.S. Although this happens often in Ghana, all of us were taken back when a woman offered her child to a colleague in the group. This was a jarring experience for my colleague as the reality of village poverty was right in front of her.

At the end of our weekend, we attended the Akwasidae festival (read about it in the following post). Kumasi was a great experience! I went back this past weekend to visit some friends we met last time.

It’s Asante to You!

Image

Someone ever looked at your name and pronounced it in a way that was so off, you had to think “does this person know how to read?” Well, I guess that’s how the Asante felt when European interaction left them scarred with the Ashanti name instead. 

About four weeks ago, I went to Kumasi— leaving Accra for my second journey through Ghana. Kumasi—capital of the Asante region— is known for several things, including a significant agricultural economy, Kente weaving, loads and loads of foliage and most importantly, Otumfuo Nana Osei Tutu II. Otumfuo Nana Osei Tutu II is the King of Asante and on the Sunday that we visited Kumasi, New York University students paid homage to him at the Akwasidae festival at Manhiya Palace.

The festival serves as time for people to come and not only pay homage and show respect for the King, but also for other Asante chiefs and vistors to congregate. The day before the festival, which happens every 42 days, the King meets with sub-chiefs throughout the kingdom at Manhiya palace. Others who come with grievances and concerns can also make an appointment to see the King. The following day, the King makes a public appearance on the grounds of the palace where men, women and children come dressed in traditional and contemporary attire to pay homage.

Although the King may seem like the main focus, all of the drumming, songs and dance performed are in honor of ancestral spirits. Huge, elaborately decorated umbrellas dance around in the sky. Sounds of traditional horns and praise singing fill the air as visitors from other African nations, the U.S. and Europe greet the King with gifts and smiles.

 

Image

As Asantehene, Osei Tutu II sits dressed in a colorful, Kente cloth covered in solid gold jewelry from head to foot with an amiable look plastered on his face.

 

Image

                                    Photo of Otumfuo Osei Tutu II
                      Photo Credit: Rachel Herron (colleague at NYU)

At times, the festival was a bit hard to follow, as the procession didn’t seem organized and the praise songs were in Twi. However, after the ceremony, we met with one of the Asante sub-chiefs who gave us a bit of insight. 

Every part of the ceremony and the festival is indeed organized and strategically planned. He told us, without a doubt he knows when and where to stand and sit as it correlates with his position within the kingdom as a high-ranking chief. He stressed that Ghana, as a country and Asante, as a major ethnic group, have traditional, yet modern customs, which are intricately mingled. The chief continued on to say that he is fully educated, holding a Ph. D yet he knows, accepts and understands his position as sub-chief to the King. He gladly accepts his obligation of reign and enjoys helping others in his community.

 

Image

                               Photo of us with one of the Asante sub-chiefs

Aside from being chief, he is a professional, as with Osei Tutu II. He too is an advocate for education and has maintained a scholarship for upcoming students who have to academic potential, but not necessarily the monetary means to attend University. He also serves as chancellor of Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology (KNUST). 

The festival and the meeting we had with the sub-chief after ceremony was a truly unique, stimulating experience!

Like that which the Wind Carried Away

Image

To read about it in your high school textbook is one thing. But to actually experience the Trans-Atlantic slave trade through your own senses is another.

Approaching the castle, you really don’t know what to expect. The week before you dreamed about horrific images of mal-nourished people being beaten mercilessly and treated like human waste. Last night you tried to emotionally prepare yourself for the torment. And today comes. You stand in front of the castle. All of those dreams, lectures and last minute preparations are washed away by beach waves of nerves and anxiety.

Or at least that’s how I felt…

Re-visiting Cape Coast and the Elmina slave castle felt like a new experience. I knew exactly what I was going to expect, but it was as though my memory had failed me because I missed out some crucial details like the putrid vomit smell mixed with stifling mold that covered the walls of the female dungeon quarters. However, that gut wrenching odor couldn’t be compared to real-life conditions some hundreds of years ago. Imagine a hot, stuffy room overflowing with 150 or more women crouching to preserve space. Their own menstruation, feces, vomit among other fluids surrounding them. Since there were no separate quarters for children, young boys would be kept in the male dungeons and the young girls would be kept with their female elders. A girl under 10 years old in those conditions is nearly unfathomable, outside of the fact that this was once–and in some places in the world, today–a reality.

The room had very little ventilation, and one of the openings in the main female dungeon led to the magazine, where ammunition was kept. Gun powder fumes and other explosive gases would seep into the female dungeon quarters, suffocating the already dying and the sick.

Image

Taken by me in 2011

In front of the main female dungeon was an opening where, after the Governor chose his woman for the evening, she was made to wash up in front of her counterparts and white, male captains. After being washed and given a small portion of food for sustenance, she was led up a flight of stairs that took her straight to the Governor’s bedroom. There he had his way with her, either for the night or for longer. Still, this abuse was not enough. She would then be violated and raped in sequence by his subordinates, all before she returned to the miserable and foul quarters to rejoin her peers.

Image

Photo of the stairwell leading to the Governor’s room. (taken in 2011, my first visit to Elmina)

After the tour of the female quarters, we were taken around the rest of the castle. Towards the end of the tour, we visited a dungeon were slaves were taken to be punished. There, “unruly” slaves would be kept until they died. At times, the living and the dead would be chained together, and although the captains knew one died, they did nothing. The mental and emotional torment had to have been tremendous. The living slave had to sit, idly awaiting his own death.

We were also taken to the door/dungeon of no return, where slaves were gathered before they were shipped across the Atlantic. Standing in that room, many of my colleagues shed tears of disbelief and anguish. Around us, there were wreaths that were placed by past vistors– commemorating the loss of their ancestors to this trade of human cargo.

Image

The final exit for the slaves. (taken in March 2011)

Today this castle stands as proof to much of history’s nightmares and dark secrets. Much of African Diaspora as we know it today, started with selling and trading–with Elmina as one of those sites. Many people would like to hush the whispers that are heard through these castle walls, claiming that we’re in a post-racial society. But how could we ever be? Many of us still wear the brand that made us to be sold and traded in the first place. My skin color could never change. Neither can the shape of my nose, lips, nor the coils in my hair–at least not without external modifications.  Furthermore, because we’re in the 21st century oppression changes shape accordingly–so please don’t think because you aren’t being sold and made to be a slave, that you aren’t just that: a slave. Our ancestors that left those Atlantic shores are like the chaff which the wind carried away…

Tro Tro Chronicles

Image

Back again for my infrequent updates of my travels while studying abroad in Accra, Ghana.

To say that I am enjoying myself is not only an understatement, but also an insult. I am taking in every experience possible, without hesitation or question. And in doing so, I’ve managed to be safe and have a ridiculous amount of fun! For certain, if I was in NY, I would be stressed, swamped in work and more than likely, bored out of my mind.

Here, however, it’s the absolute opposite.

I’ve immersed myself into the maze of public transportation, and like other developing countries some Ghanaians use a form of informal transportation via the tro tro service‘– and I use the word service very loosely. Because to be very honest, for some Ghanaians customer satisfaction is not the number one priority in providing services. So when getting on board a tro tro be sure to ask clarifying questions like, “where is this going?” And provided that you know where you are going, you can declare in an uncertain voice “Osu?

Sounds obvious right? But it is so easy to not only get lost in a place where you are totally unfamiliar, but also in a place where–like many cities– people are simply trying to get through their day, get to where they’re going and to make a dollar. So far, I haven’t gotten lost, but I know a couple of other students who have.

Standing a designated bus stop (or simply by the street side) with traffic whizzing by, vendors and peddlers bustling up and down the sidewalk and in between cars– suddenly a 13 seater van pulls up. Some passengers hop out, others stare on, eyeballing the oncoming passenger. The mate, or the guy who serves as the driver’s assistant in collecting fares, among other things, shouts Osu! Osu! Osu! Osu! aggressively pointing at the van. Before you know it, another van pulls up, over flowing with people–elbows and black faces jutting out of cloudy, sliding windows. The other mate persists over the voice of his rival, Osu! Osu! Osu! Osu! pointing even more insistently than his counterpart. Now you’re left with the choice, but you have one concern: you aren’t sure if the place you’re going to is on the way to Osu. What do you do? You can ask, but the mates are in such a hurry to gather new passengers to replace the old ones in the midst of everyone shuffling to get on.

You can imagine how you can easily get swept in and end up at the wrong destination–not to mention if the mate dupes you. He can easily not give you back change because he knows not only are you an obruni by your accent, but you more than likely don’t know where the hell you’re going. Nonetheless the fare will more than likely be less than 1 cedi, which is roughly about $.50 USD. At times, you’ll even pay as little as 30 pesewas –about $.15 USD.

Image

Photo of typical tro tro in Ghana (photo credit: ghanaweb.com)

In all of this, I must say I have a love-hate relationship with the tro tro system. Sometimes they can even break down, or the interior may be so rusted and tattered, you have to be careful where you step or sit. But once you do find that tattered seat in which you’re comfortable, riding a tro tro is a fun experience. You can meet friends; you may even see some of same people on their daily route. Eyeing traffic and seeing women carry a basket full of plantain chips on her head are all scenes and interactions that can easily be overlooked when riding in a chauffeured, air-conditioned car service. There is more of a distance created between us and them when sitting in an avis rental versus a Twi inscribed tro tro among average, everyday Ghanaians.

To me, it’s crucial to any abroad adventure that you take part in the activities and mundane experiences of the locals. So live a little, sweat a little.

Image

image credit: info-ghana.com

The Guilt?

Image

Castro and his son, Onyx

Caveat:

Just because you’re black doesn’t mean you are automatically welcomed, invited, or accepted into an environment of other blacks.

Just because you are of a specific nationality/ethnicity doesn’t mean you have to be proud of your nation’s history, present or future.

This is the reality of our world.

Read the rest of this entry

Black Star

Image

A day at Labodi beach

It’s only been a week, but actually it feels much longer since I’ve landed here in Accra.

I’ve done so much: Reggie Rockstone, often referred to the Ghanaian ‘GrandPaPa’ or the Godfather of HipLife, hosted myself and  the other 16 members of the group at his club, Rockstone’s Office. The experience was short-lived yet fun; however, we returned the following night for dancing, drinks and HipLife music. HipLife is a culture driven by rap music which fuses Twi, one of the languages spoken in Ghana, and English

Since I’ve been here once before, the culture shock is not as grandiose as the other group members, but some things still caught me off guard… 

Photo of a Painting taken at Artist Alliance Gallery

Above is a photo representation of the market, which I found at the Artist Alliance Gallery here in Accra is totally accurate. As part of the market hustle, vendors are overtly aggressive, grabbing, pulling, shouting and tugging at potential buyers as a way to get them interested in their goods. The vendors would hiss or blatantly assert ‘you do not want to buy from me!’ trying to guilt unwilling consumers into making a purchase. Didn’t work for me though! Nonetheless the market was a great experience, seeing the different cloths, foods and other good that are for sale.

Another trick I learned was bargaining. A vendor would double the price of an item, in part because they wanted to gain more profit for their goods, but mostly because you are an obruni– which can be roughly translated as foreigner.

A shot taken at the market

Forward Ever, Backward Never

During my week of orientation with the staff and the other students, we also visited Dr. Kwame Nkrumah’s mausoleum, as he was the first Ghanaian president. According to the guide, the grounds on which the mausoleum was built was once only reserved for whites who played polo. After several decades, when Ghana gained its independence in March 1957, Dr. Nkrumah reclaimed the land in the name of Pan-Africanism and independence.