Wednesday, August 25, 2010

I'm back from Ghana!

I am finally over my jet lag and can give a reasonable account of my trip. It was amazing. I am not the best photographer, but it's hard not to get some good pictures in Africa. Lonely Planet calls Ghana Africa for beginners. I'm not so sure about that, but I did feel very safe there and it was nice to be in an anglophone country. Most people learn English in school, so even though Twi and Frafra are their first languages, English is familiar to every one. I went with a group called Beyond Boundaries which partners with a grass roots organization in northern Ghana to work on issues of gender equality. We spent a week with the sister organization and a week being tourists. I'll tell the story in pictures.


This is my group just after getting off the plane in Accra. 11 hours in coach and we still look fabulous. We were met by a group of very helpful guys including Pakwesi who is married to an American and whose main job was to keep us from doing anything stupid.

That's Pakwesi in the plaid pants helping me out at the Cape Coast slave castle.

We drove to Cape Coast the night we arrived in Accra and stayed at a guest house called The Mighty Victory. It is run by a Ghanaian woman who lived in the US for forty years and then went back to run her father's guest house. In Cape Coast we visited and toured the slave castle. it was a strange experience walking where all those Black folks walked. This would have been their last sight of Africa. The tour guide starts every tour by showing a plaque installed by the current Ashanti chiefs apologizing for the role that Africans played in the trade.

Here are some shots of the castle.

These are the cannons that protected the castle.
This is Denise and me in front of the cannonballs. Don't I look like that aunt you had who went all these exotic places and never wore pants? Picture me in a dress on a camel...

It was eerie how beautiful it was there. The views over the Atlantic were beautiful, and there were fishing boats on the shore outside the castle, much as there must have been when it was being used for slave trade. The guide said that there was a chapel where the White people who ran the castle held services. It was located right above one of the dungeons.

The view from the castle

At any rate there were children outside the castle selling some of everything. You can buy anything, and I mean anything on the streets in Ghana. In the cities people walk through traffic carrying things on their heads -- food, clothes, phone cards, dog leashes, toilet paper... it's amazing. They are a very entrepreneurial people. It struck me how true this was when Pamela and I were walking on the street in front of Kwame NKrumah's tomb on our last full day in the country. A woman walked up to us with a baby on her back and began to beg for money. We were shocked since we had literally not seen a single panhandler for the entire trip and Pamela had not seen one on her previous trip. As we were standing there a Ghanaian man came up and began to berate the woman. "You are just asking for money for nothing, do not do this! Someone in a car passing by asked why he was yelling at a woman, and he said "She is just asking for money!" Turning to her he continued "Find something to sell!" For us that said it all.

This is a picture of the kids outside of Cape Coast castle. The girl is selling plantain chips. I am addicted to plantain chips. If you go to Ghana, you will also become addicted. Accept it. You will find yourself hanging out the side window of a tro tro frantically waving down a plantain chip seller trying to get your next fix.

From Cape Coast we began a two day trip to the northern border of the country just across from Burkina Faso. We were headed for Bolgatonga where the Center for Sustainable Development Initiatives (CENSUDI) is headquartered. This is an organization headed by a woman named Franciska Issaka. She is a force of nature who started the organization with her sister. They focus on helping other grass roots organizations make changes in the everyday lives of villagers. Their particular concern is gender equality -- education for girls, getting wives full ownership of land that sort of thing. They are doing wonderful things. We visited some of the organizations they help, made a donation and had a wonderful dinner at Franciska's house where we heard from the young people who work with her.

While up North we visited a women's cooperative that produces rice for resale. The same group also makes baskets. We bought Bolga baskets while there, and talked with Stella who runs the organization. She is an amazing woman. I left promising to help her produce some specialty labels for small runs of the rice. Franciska will take the labels back when she visits at Thanksgiving. Here are some pictures of Stella at work. Yes this is how Ghanaian women dress to go to work! I am humbled.

Me, Stella and the label!
We also met the women of the Kanada women's association (they produce the baskets) and visited Kantia school. These are all organizations that work with CENSUDI. Everyone was wonderful and the Kanada ladies even let me dance with them. I was out danced, but it was fun. Pamela has the pictures, so fortunately no one will see my shame.

The Kanada ladies.
Kantia School. The children were amazing. They are focused and serious. The school is really just a cinder block building. Each classroom faces out on to a hallway and the fourth wall is open. The headmaster and teachers can walk by and see everyone. The amazing thing was that while we were there the sixth graders were studying for a national science test. They were working on things that I cannot understand now. I know I never saw that stuff until high school. We stood outside the classroom while the teacher reviewed the material. Talking (quietly) to the headmaster and senior teacher. Not a single one of those children lost concentration or looked around. I was awed.

One of my traveling companions, Denise, is also an elementary teacher. This is her teaching some of the younger kids how to play tic tac toe.

Traveling in a developing country had its challenges. Apparently paving roads is optional and we spent hours in bone jarring motion on the trip north. Also, the sanitation infrastructure is really, really bad. Let's just say that when we came back we felt a compulsion to flush toilets just to watch them work. But that's to be expected. There was one incident involving lizards in a bath house that Pamela and I will share forever.

After our week in Bolgatonga we started the drive back. Going both ways we stopped in Techiman and Kumasi and on the way back we stopped at Mole national game preserve where we had close encounters with elephants. Let me tell you it's not like the zoo.

The requisite elephant pictures

Safari guides and Pakwesi. The little guy in the middle had a very large gun. I stayed very close to him. Especially after the guy on the right uttered the following sentence: "You know I was in Kenya and they are so lucky. They have the big five. And since they are on the savannah, their lions are easily seen. Not like our lions who hide in the trees." Yes, I stayed close to the man with the big gun. He was my friend.

We also visited Bonwire which is a village which specializes in kente cloth. Kente is only woven by men. Let's just say that driving into a village where every single vendor is male, they are all more or less related, and they all want to sell you something is a unique experience.

Here are some pictures of the wonderful cloth. I bought a piece of black and white kente which is traditionally worn for mourning. I went there specifically to buy it. Kente is very expensive, and I was determined to buy the mourning cloth and nothing else. Then I saw this.

The picture does not do it justice. It is beautiful. I wanted it, but did not buy it because I needed to have money to get home. Seriously, it is that costly. However if you happen to be in Bonwire and want to make me happy, buy this for me. Seriously.

Kente weaver

Kente heaven

We had a great time, and I will probably go back one more time with Pamela. This time we'll take Ed and stop in London to see the opening ceremonies of the Olympics. Here's hoping that works out.

Well I won't bore anyone with more pictures. I'm glad I went, and I'm glad to be back home.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Bathroom urgency

I am just a few days away from my trip to Ghana. I am now positively humming with excitement. My husband calls it bathroom urgency -- that feeling you get when your goal is in sight. At any rate, I have handled it by sewing furiously. I cut almost all the fabric my friend brought me from her trip to Ghana and made it up into dresses. I am taking at least two of them with me on the trip. One which is very elegant will be for a fancy party on day two. The remaining ones are casual and light. I have a dress form which can be adjusted to fit your exact measurements. I call her Zelda. Zelda looks exactly like me except she's not quite as lumpy. So I make fewer mistakes in choosing patterns and making adjustments. Also I can hem without help. Mostly, though I like to put things on Zelda because she never has water weight gain, her stomach is always sucked in, and she never gets those weird wrinkles in her neck. The clothes look like they do on the mannequins in the store. Then when I put them on I think they still look like that, so it's all good. Here's Zelda in the dress.
Doesn't she look gorgeous?

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Africa Bound

Since my college days I have wanted to visit Ghana. I have had several opportunities to go to Ghana and one to go to Senegal. Both fell through at the last minute. Now I finally am going! I have my visa, I have my group of girlfriends and come the end of July we are Africa bound! The group I'm going with is out of Syracuse, so I will be driving up there with my very patient husband to meet them. VPH will then spend a couple of days surrounded by bossy, talkative Black women. Since he is a very quiet person, this is always a challenging experience. Oh well, afterward he will get two weeks of peace and quiet to recuperate. Meanwhile I get to travel through the country visiting a school, a women's cooperative and lots and lots of fabric vendors. We will go to a party hosted by a UN representative, visit the Elmina slave castle and shop for fabric. We will stay at a national arts school, visit a village that specializes in basket weaving and did I mention we will shop for fabric? I am, as many of my friends know, addicted to textiles. This was the big draw for me. Previously a friend (who is going on this trip a well) went to Ghana and I pressed money and instructions on her. She came back with gorgeous fabric for me which only served to whet my appetite. I recently visited Syracuse and received a bargaining tutorial from an experienced shopper, so I'm all set. I'll be sure to blog about it and post pictures when I get back!

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Tales From the Trenches

We're into day 7 of the big snow. Our mayor whom I refer to as Opie has finally figured out how to deal with snow. Opie was president of city council when our real mayor passed away. No one really cares who's mayor of Pittsburgh except when something goes wrong. Opie is this young dumb guy that they made president of city council when they couldn't agree on a real person to do it. So Opie was just standing there and the mayor thing fell on him. The sad part is that the citizens of the burgh recently reelected him because -- let's say it together -- nobody cares who is mayor of Pittsburgh.

But I digress. Anyway, Opie finally got all the roads cleared but my suburban school district is still suffering with downed power lines and broken water mains. So I have no school tomorrow. A full week off is great, but we will pay for it next week when all the little ones come back wound up like tops. It will be like the first week of school all over again. It's a good thing they're cute. My beloved and I went out today to run errands, mail bills and go to the gym. We were scheduled to drive to DC to see my daughter at college this weekend. Beloved was revved to go because he will drive in anything, but I chickened out so we called and moved our hotel reservations. HRH was disappointed but bounced back when we said we will reschedule for two weeks from now. So for now it's more books, more food and maybe a nice dinner for Valentine's day. Life is good.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Snow days

I have been snowed in since last Friday evening. I left school around 2:00 and made my way home after stopping for a few supplies. I got in just ahead of the storm. Pittsburgh is a northern city but apparently our city fathers are in denial about that. We are never fully prepared for snow and a blizzard of this magnitude pretty much shuts us down. The suburban school district where I teach but do not live suffered major power outages and water main breaks which have yet to be repaired as the snow continues to come down.

My husband dug us out and we had a couple of opportunities to go out between snows to get essentials: books, food, books. The beautiful northern magnolia in our front yard lost several large branches and was responsible for the loss of cable service. I mourn the tree more than the television. I hope an arborist can save it. Meanwhile I am discovering something disturbing about myself. I do not want to leave my house. I am enjoying just puttering around fixing things, cleaning, cooking huge pots of soup, baking bread, inviting the next door neighbors over for waffles. It's fine with me if I only get out twice in 5 days. This is scary. I always thought of myself as more social than this. My husband is the perfect companion as he is quiet and likes to read even more than I do. He eats what I cook, helps me work on things, and thinks my company is just fine. We got out one day to go to the gym and a movie, and then yesterday I bought an exercise DVD to keep myself going. I spent yesterday afternoon at the book store spending my birthday money which had been burning a hole in my pocket. I already had a stack of books from the library and from paperback swap. I could last at least another week. Food is not a problem as I have stores of ingredients and shelves of cookbooks.

I'm not sure what this says about me, but I have decided to enjoy my solitude and wait for the thaw.

Saturday, January 02, 2010

Driving Lessons

We were in Tennessee for a while over Christmas and when we came back I had to return the rental car. Since our 19 year-old daughter is now driving she followed me in her father's car while I drove the rental. I had studiously avoided driving with Chloe since she got her license last year. Her father and her uncle kept telling me what a good driver she is, but having witnessed one too many toddler (and teenaged) melt downs on her part, I just didn't have the confidence I might have.

Well, I was driving along and periodically glancing in the rear view mirror. She was following at a safe distance and a reasonable speed. She had her hair piled in a messy bun on top of her head and her new very cool glasses on. She looked like the responsible college student she is. When we left the rental place I got in the passenger side and watched as she navigated the roadway. She drives like a grown up. It's amazing. She stopped for a bagel and asked very politely if I'd like anything. I waited in the car and thought about this change. Chloe had a rough and characteristically dramatic adjustment to college. But in the past few weeks she's had one of those miraculous maturity leaps which have become her trademark. I'm getting a glimpse, now, of the kind of adult she will be. She is always going to be flamboyant and probably headstrong. I'm sure she'll be high maintenance in relationships. But she's also extremely generous, funny, loyal and kind. Her first semester of college went fairly well. Her grades aren't terrible, but there's room for improvement. She was upset but not unduly so about that. Chloe has always had a remarkably positive outlook and a good sense of self esteem. Those are two of the things I've always loved the best about her.

So I guess I'll be riding in the car with her on a regular basis now. And when I'm too old and senile to drive myself anymore I can sit back and let her have the wheel.