Wednesday, November 18, 2009

My First 24 Hours

I would first like to apologize for how long this entry is going to be – I had no idea I would have so much to report in one day – so please feel free to stop reading at anytime. Future entries will undoubtedly be MUCH shorter. I would also like to apologize for the lack of pictures, but I have not yet figured out how or when to take them without seeming patronizing.

My plane arrived on time at 7:30am (1:30am Chicago (my) time) to Accra’s Kotoka International Airport. My two checked bags appear on the carousel within 10 minutes….impressive. They are soaking wet; I think because it was pouring in NYC where I had a two hour layover: I guess it was too much to ask for the bags to be covered. Now all I have to do is wait for a small carry-on which they made me check at the gate due to a phantom lack of overhead compartment space (there was more than plenty to go around) and change some money before I try to find my new coworker/housemate, Dennis, who has arranged to pick me up. I did not end up leaving the airport until 9:30, so you do the math on how long that took.

Now I find my way outside the airport pushing one of those trolleys with my two big bags on top and pray that he is there, since I have no phone (that works in Ghana) yet and a very vague idea of where the apartment is: all attempts to googlemap (that’s right, it’s a verb now) the address Dennis gave me proved futile. As luck would have it, he is still there (a kind-faced man in his 30s with an imposing stature and no hair), flanked by his wife, Patricia (Pat- an attractive, full-bodied woman about my height) and their friend, Desmond (jolly in every sense of the word – short, stout, chubby cheeks, huge smile). Apparently they were about to go check with the airline to see if I had boarded the flight. Regardless of other factors, I had arrived with all of my bags intact and my ride was there: no complaints here. As we head to the car (a very nice VW), we fend off several sketchy men who follow us all the way to the parking lot and then make the money motion to me (sliding index and middle finger against thumb), as if I am supposed to pay them for doing nothing more than unsolicitedly following us for about 100 yards. I’m just glad I am not alone with my big bags.

9:30am – 10:00am
Desmond, who quickly tells me his is an IT guy, and Dennis place my bags into the car. Ghanaians are known to be extremely kind and polite, and I find them no different. I try to pay for the parking, but they won’t let me. After they learn that I am not currently sleepy, even though I have not slept in some time, they ask if I would like to go to church with them, so I jump at the chance to witness a Ghanaian Sunday mass. It turns out that when Dennis is not being a pharmacist during the work week, he doubles as an associate pastor at a Pentecostal church. The church is in a city called Tema about 30 km (18 miles) East of Accra. The road from Accra to Tema is a very nicely paved highway, two lanes on each side. I don’t think anything of it until Desmond asks me if I know who
Kwame Nkrumah is. He is pleased to know that, in fact, I wrote a paper on him and Gamel Abdul Nasser for a college history class. He states that Nkrumah was the greatest African leader in history and that the road epitomizes Nkrumah’s vision: He got a lot of slack for “wasting resources” by making it four lanes instead of two, because at the time it was built, Accra and Tema were a small fraction of the population that they are today. But now, they are big cities, and no one complains about the size of the road. They find out that I also like soccer (football), and when I comment on Ghana’s U-20 team beating Brazil’s to win the World Cup last month, they are very pleased that I can walk the walk. I also learn two words in the local language of Twi (Akwaabah, meaning “welcome” and Medasi, meaning “thank you.” We drop Desmond off at his house for him to change into nicer clothes, and then I ask if I can do the same. We go to Pat’s family house, where I quickly change into a shirt and tie, after fishing them out of my bags in the trunk.

10:00am – 1:00pm
Nothing could have prepared me for the Ghanaian Sunday mass: It is fantastic in every sense of the word. I’ve been to over a hundred Catholic masses, I’ve seen the Baptist ceremonies of singing and dancing and “Amen” and “Hallelujah” from popular culture, and I’ve caught a few of the ridiculous Evangelical ministers on TV in the states, but this blows them all out of the water. I learn that it is a fairly new Church, and they meet in an outdoor but roofed school hall for lack of their own proper building. It starts with reading groups, where Patricia and Desmond split off into 2 of 3 separate groups of about 20 people each to read bible passages and clap and sing, while Dennis goes to the altar to prepare for the service. Dennis gives me a bible, and I sit alone and start to read Genesis. So far, so good.

After about 20 minutes of reading groups, the service is about to start and chairs are brought out to create rows of pews. I take a seat in the fourth row and Desmond motions to me to get up and we carry two chairs behind the very back row. He says it is better for us back there, so that we will not disrupt the service… Band instruments are unveiled beneath a big tarp: guitars, drums, tambourine and keyboard. It begins with songs played and sung so loudly that Black Sabbath would approve. The songs are half in English and half in Twi, so Desmond kindly provides translation. It is getting pretty heated as people start crying, while others clap and yell and raid their arms for 10 minutes at a time. Some members face the walls of the hall as they cry and sing and pray. As opposed to some other sects of Christianity that stress penitence and punishment for sins, the most common theme of this group’s songs is about thanking the Lord for all that he has given them.

The songs go on for about an hour, and then it is time for Dennis’ sermon. He takes the stage to discuss (and sometimes scream) giving gifts to the Lord and others, and how that encourages others to give: a very nice topic. With Desmond’s continued translation in my ear, parishioners continue to face the walls as they cry and yell and pray. It becomes clear to me that these Ghanaians are more passionate about Jesus than I have ever been about anything in my life (except maybe the Harry Potter books). At one point, a woman in the back row who had been facing the wall is overcome with emotion and falls to the floor. She continues to sob and yell as she rolls around on the ground for about 5 minutes, while no one gives her a second look. At some point, the international developer in me thinks about how religious groups can be better used to move education, health and other agendas forward. The sermon lasts about an hour, followed by another half hour of songs after that, and then we are done…3 hours total.

1:00pm – 6:00pm
We are finally headed home, which is great, because I am starting to feel exhausted. As we head back on the paved highway, Desmond is quick to discuss politics. He asks me if I like Bush, and after he decided it was ok, he boldly states that Bush might go down as the worst American president in history. We discuss local politics, and he says that in Ghana, there are no legal mechanisms for public funding of elections, and that politicians are innately corrupt, because they have to campaign with private funding (or funds from other nations) in exchange for rewards, contracts, etc. when they take office. We move on to discuss Obama (Ghanaians generally love Obama); America as a giving nation (in relation to the sermon), in terms of foreign aid; and then Desmond says that without America, the world would be taken over by Islamic fundamentalists. Thankfully we are somehow able to avoid that conversation and begin discussing movies. Desmond and Dennis are big movie buffs and we discuss “The Godfather” (Dennis’ favorite movie), Mel Gibson and Arnold Schwarzenegger. When we finally turn off of the main highway, I realize why Desmond made a point about it earlier. In a word, the road-traffic situation elsewhere is terrible. None of the roads on which we now travel have line markings, lanes, signals, or signs of any kind. The drivers make Massachusetts drivers (infamously terms Massholes) seem like they are in drivers education cars. I have already feared for my live 7 times. The roads are anywhere from half-paved to fully dirt, the former having potholes bigger than my checked bags. The dirt roads, whose copper-red hue immediately reminds me of the movie “Blood Diamond” (which was set in the fellow West African nation of Sierra Leone), can best be described as undulating, like speed bumps scattered randomly over the entire terrain and each other. We turn onto the road where we will live, and it is the worst of all. Drivers go no more than 10 miles an hour, as they cautiously navigate the terrain, going wherever it is least bad, and praying for their cars. We find ourselves on the other side of the road as much as our own, as that is where the bumps have take us. The cars coming at us do the same, and it is completely ok to pass each other on the wrong side.

We finally pull into our place, and it is much nicer than I could ever have wanted. I have my own spacious room and bathroom, and even though there is no A/C, the ceiling fan keeps the temperature tolerable. I spend the next hour unpacking and then come out into the common area living room to watch a little of the World Cup qualifier between Ghana and Mali on the nice flat screen TV there (Ghana was the first African nation to qualify already, but Dennis and Desmond yell all the same). Everyone is hungry, and before I know it, food is already made. Pat has made spaghetti for me, and everyone else eats a traditional Ghanaian soup made from oil of palm with goat meat and rice balls. I eat the spaghetti, and after telling them many times that I am perfectly fine eating what they are, I finagle some of the soup. It is delicious, and they are surprised that I like it. It is decided that I will take a nap for a few hours, and then we will go to the Mall to buy some things. I pass out before my head hits the pillow.

6:00pm – 10:00pm
For all of you access to finance people, Accra is very ahead of the curve, and the area where we live is called Spintex Road: a rapidly developing street with all kinds of shops, foreign banks and local kiosk/huts. Before we hit the mall, Dennis stops at a Barclay’s Bank (UK) to use the ATM, but is denied when it is out of cash. He tells me that it is very common for the AM to run out of money on Sunday nights. The Accra mall is very nice and new, sporting many stores, including an Apple store, grocery store and cinema. In fact, I could have seen 2012 if I wanted to, but I would never do that to John Cusack. (It would force me to judge him for a role he took when times are tough in the middle of the global recession, and the movie will undoubtedly be worse than “The Day After Tomorrow” and that is saying something.) We go to the grocery store, and I am amazed at how expensive it is. I paid the equivalent of $30 for groceries I could have easily obtained in DC, Chicago or Boston for less than $20. All of the phone stores are closed because it’s Sunday, so we leave and drop Desmond off at his house in Tema and then head to some pharmacies to see about getting me a bed net. We go to two different places and find one kind where you need to hang it by something from the ceiling and another where you need 4 bed posts. We decide that the prophylaxis pills I am taking combined with my bug spray will be ok for the night and we will check out the room and get a bed net after our reconnaissance. Trip fairly unsuccessful.

We return to the house and Dennis flips on the DVD player to show Terminator 2 about ½ over. On the coffee table are DVD boxes which display anywhere from 30 to 80-in-1 disks (One disk contains 80 movies!). I make it about 20 minutes before I’m doing the sleepy head bob, so I leave Sarah and John Connor for my new bed. Thinking that my first day in Ghana was fairly crazy, and that I had slept about 2 hours in the last 40, I fell asleep more quickly than before.

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