old meets new

white maaaaaan

The sunglass vendor slides me an easy smile and holds in his hand three different styles.

I’ll give you a very good price

I shake my head, smile, and move along. No sale today.

Although I could probably use a pair of sunglasses. It’s bright today.

I’m wandering Oxford Street, in Osu. The sun beats down and merchants seek shade, respite. There is a contrast here. Dozens of old style market stalls, all ranges of colors, fabrics, plastic wares, football jerseys. The stalls sit in the foreground, backed by casinos, electronics stores, fast food joints, banks. If you need something, anything, you can wander and probably find it.

Like socks.

Today it’s only a short way and I find exactly what I’m looking for. A mini-pyramid of all socks, all sizes, all patterns. Neatly laid out right there on the street, snuggled up against the endless parade of beeping taxis.

The stripes call me.

how much for one pair

five Ghana, please

I had come with 50 in hand, thinking that this upscale neighborhood would beg higher prices. Bargaining is expected. But I find myself feeling okay with this initial bid and, to be honest, not in the mood to quibble. It’s lower than I expected, and buying on the street is really about finding a win-win. 5 per pair works for me, works for him.

I finger through a variety of matching sets before I find what I need: blue and gray stripes, black and gray stripes, both ankle high.

But then I see the ones that set my heart aflutter. Black Stars. Ghana flag socks, perfect for tonight’s match against Kenya. Perfect for school. Perfect for weddings, parties, anything. They’re certain to wear quickly, but no matter. I’ve found my soul socks.

I hand over our agreed happy medium. He packages five pairs in a single rubber band and offers a black plastic sack.

no bag please, keep Ghana clean

I offer, with a smile.

He smiles back, entreats me to visit again, and waves as I wander off.

Now I’ve got my colors.

Today’s Solutions

The six men, uniform in blue coveralls, get to work.

The sound of their makeshift brooms is the only noise on the playground. It’s a welcome quiet, punctuated by gentle rhythm, sneaking its way in after the boom of the rain.

When rain comes to Accra, it arrives suddenly, barges through without hesitation. A deluge for minutes, even hours, and then it is gone.

Today was one of those longer visits, bringing pooling, erosion, and deposits of sand across the playground.

When the brickwork was laid between the trees next to the court, it seemed like a win. Less sand tracked, more space to walk. But on rainy days, the water loves this new trough. A 5-centimeter deep pool builds, to endure long after the rain is gone.

Today’s solutions are often tomorrow’s problems.

Somebody should clean that up

What a mess

Why can’t we play on the court?

It’s probably a function of space, of location, of where I’m at, but the question is in my head a lot these days: Who does the work?

Today, it’s these six men, uniform in blue coveralls. A fine-tuned machine, they take care of the mess. Sweep, rake, shovel. Rake, shovel, sweep. The puddle is gone, and the playground restored. Just in time for kids and teachers to take it for granted.

It’s a function of privilege; mess on the ground, someone will take care of it; the floor has a spill, someone will take care of it.

Just not me.

At the end of a busy day and week, here I am, feeling tired. I know I worked hard today.

Just not as hard as any of those six men.

coming and going

Au revoir, a demain!

C’est La Semaine de la Francophonie, so our farewell today is, naturellement, en Francais. 19 quick fist bumps, and it’s time to go.

It’s breezy today. The wind funnels down the lane as we join the scores of kids meandering towards pickup. But it’s more than just a simple transfer. This is a time for proper farewells. And greetings.

Peter Senge shares a daily ritual of the Northern Natal in Southern Africa. When you first encounter someone in the morning you say sawu bona, equivalent to ‘I see you’. In reply, one says sikhona, or ‘I am here’. The order of the exchange is critical – until a person is seen by others, they don’t exist.

In Ghana, you are seen.

Greetings here are a hearty and delicious main dish. Warmth, love, and affection on the sides. The smile, dessert.

Put it all together and, on a walk across campus, in the neighborhood, through town, anywhere you pass by people (you always pass by people, btw), you feel energized, and full. Greetings are honored, shared, expected.

You say hello. It’s what you do.

We parade by the watchful eyes of drivers, parents, and guards. For some, eye contact is avoided and shyness wins the day. For most others, we reciprocate their bright hello, both arms raised and palms out, all smiling eyes and teeth. We often don’t know these folks by name, but that matters little.

We are seen.

And, while greetings are paramount, equally important,

is saying goodbye

Lisa approaches, makes eye contact, and subtly begs my attention.

I’m leaving the country next Tuesday

I furrow my brow and utter my disappointment

So soon? Nooooo!

I had known it was coming, but this feels sudden. She gives me a quick hug and promises to keep in touch. We offer to exchange details.

Comings and goings are the norm here. People make it home, then make it away. It’s not easy for our Ghanaian friends for whom transience is not so simple. Their home is here.

I consider what it will feel like to say a goodbye like this

And quickly resolve to make the most of the hellos

I have left

balance

The light turns red

The man wearing twenty-seven hats and carrying thirteen more in his arms ambles between the bright yellow tro tro and the towering truck beside it. He navigates a path wide as a grocery aisle.

But there are no carts in these aisles

There are, however, motorbikes. They appear suddenly, snaking the aisles, with no notice. A minor occupational hazard.

His eyes scan left, right, left, right, forward. Watching for eye contact and a potential sale. He nimbly sidesteps – first, a helmetless chopper skirting the hallway between cars, second, a bike sporting a pair of snazzy helmeted dressers, resplendent in brightly colored African shirts, neatly tailored with an almost nonexistent collar. Almost.

He strolls, evenly spaced between his coworkers, most balancing wares on their heads, inexplicably. With zero danger of a single item falling. It just doesn’t happen.

On the streets of Accra, a stoplight is a place to shop, right.

Today, at this light, you’re in luck if you need

hats, socks, pillows, sunglasses (perched atop a plywood rack perched atop a sweaty brow), plantain chips, sets of knives, fresh bread, ground nuts, Fan Ice (of course), decals, toilet paper, soccer balls, tasers (the taser guy is our least favorite guy, especially when he reaches into your open window to demonstrate the power and handy usefulness of a handheld taser. Sorry dude, no sale. No, seriously NO SALE), cheap imitation Scrabble knockoffs (who knew that it would be hard to get Scrabble correct?), socks (just not quite right for a purchase, but the right set will come along), maps of Ghana, cheesy paintings (think 70s-style chevy vans), brightly colored African fabrics, booster cables, phone cards*

you can get them here. While stopped at the light.

It’s a pretty long light.

*This is not a comprehensive list.

You need a quick hand and a few Cedis ready. And if you see what you want, a nod, eye contact, window opens, money changes hands, and you’ve got just the perfect thing.

Today is not my day to buy a hat. But I know I’ll see him again.

power through

You’ll be in the middle of it, whatever it might be.

And everything that seems important stops. Lights, fans, A/C. All still, all silent. All off, instantly.

Life in a country with a sometimes irrational power grid demands flexibility. And a good flashlight. But the benefits of a sudden outage help to keep us, like a good wire, grounded.

There is silence.

When everything that makes noise halts, and everything that is lit goes dark, it sheds light on how much we’ve been missing. We catch our breath, we pause.

We hear what isn’t there. And it’s beautiful.

Today I lived a different kind of power outage. Not the grid, myself.

Life near the equator means yucky tummy. It comes and goes, more often than it should, wreaking havoc with regularity, adding urgency to the most important question, how quickly can I get to the loo?

And low. Low. Low. Energy.

But this energy, like a blackout, can be good. It slows me down, alerts me to the things I take for granted. Reminds me I need to power up to make it through the day.

First jolt, a hug from Elephant as he’s on his way to lunch.

Second jolt, a whistle (and one back) across the playground to J as she gracefully makes her way, reminding me what’s most important.

Third jolt, a quick chat with a beloved colleague. She empathizes, she smiles, she wishes me well. It picks me up.

Fourth jolt: a shared laugh with Ms M. We have a routine. I see her across the playground or pop into her room. WIthout a word, she points and follows with a deep, grand, heartfelt laugh, straight from her belly. I respond, without hesitation, in kind.

Final jolt: these nine -year olds with whom I spend my day.

I share with them.

I’m not at my best

They respond.

it’s okay, we can help

And so, I’m here, not fully illuminated. But not blacked out.

And so grateful for the folks who power me up.

Supply and Demand

Everything. Is. Dependent. On. The <pause>. Supply. Of Dollars. In. Relation. To. The Cedi.

The shrill, halting voice of the African economist filters in and out of my consciousness as I stare blankly at the vehicles, stacked row upon row, seemingly to the horizon. I consider changing the station.

Since it’s Thursday, traffic shouldn’t be an issue

I had thought to myself

Meaningless beeps staccato to a crescendo. I ponder my next move. The lumbering beast beside me inches forward, 16 wheels in unison. When he moves, people listen. Stay out of the way of the big guy.

Do I take this lane? Does this merge into those seven, now eight, now ten vehicles on my right? Are they just exiting? Should I signal? Is life simply meaningless?

I descend into nihilism as three merchants, goods perfectly balanced on their heads, overtake me at a leisurely pace. On foot.

We move, slowly.

There are two lanes of merging traffic here, just prior to two lanes of exiting traffic. Everyone is going to the same places, at the same time. Heading east, on the expressway. Heading off, to the Mall. Or heading north, towards East Legon. Too many cars, not enough lanes.

It’s a problem of supply and demand.

And yet, despite the outnumbered lanes. It works.

With patience, skill, a sense for flow.

And patience (did I mention patience).

If you see space on the road, you have the right to fill it.

The overarching principle: keep things moving, however that might happen. Lanes are suggestions. When space exists, it is filled.

Honking is prevalent, but road rage near nonexistent. Travel throughout the country and you will be hard pressed to see an outraged driver. Courtesy rules the day, a sense that we’re all in this together.

Somehow, eventually, supply and demand merge and yield, reaching equilibrium.

Isaac Knows

The welcome breeze sneaks into my shirt.

Today, this week, this month, have been equatorial-style, shirt-drippingly hot.

Of course, it’s not the heat, it’s the humidity.

But it’s also the heat.

With dusk comes breeze and welcome relief.

Our taxi is cozy but full of light and energy. The four of us peek out the window as we pass Pig Farm. Sheet metal walls, hastily erected, signal some sort of new construction. We wonder what it will be.

We look out. And up.

Evening sky, all grey, purple, and blue.

The bats are back.

They swirl. And we wonder.

That’s amazing!There are so many!

Tonight, we have an expert in the car. Mr. Isaac knows about the bats. So we of course ask him

Why do they

Where are they

When do they

He divulges.

Geography matters most in this tale. And royalty. The tale of the King of the Bats.

Many years and generations of bats ago, the King became ill. His tribe wasn’t sure what to do to help him, but as a last resort took him to 37 Hospital. There, he was nursed back to health. He slowly gained strength, he grew a fondness for the trees surrounding the campus. As he returned to full health, the tribe of bats was so grateful they came to call 37 their home.

To this day, it is home to the clan. Under the daytime sky, you can see thousands of bats, nestled, snug, sleepy.

Until dusk, that is, when they stir, unfold, chirp. A cacophony of batsounds, readying to make their way tens of kilometers north, to Atiwa. They migrate nightly and dance their return, filling bellies for the long day’s nap.

And subsequent dreaming, probably of bugs.

beat

The whir of the treadmill is rhythmic, sedative. Andres runs, a steady pace, beads of sweat pool.

But now, we need a beat.

It’s my turn to run.

I leave him. Crack the door, bright sunlight confronts me. I step, hop, move. With purpose.

Through a swaying mass of swim caps, arms windmilling, stretches accompanied by Bon Jovi blasting across the pool. Troy’s voice interrupts, but only for a moment.

Woooooooooaaaahhhh we’re halfway the-ere

next up, 14 y/o girls freestyle

So much energy, all bustling and frantic as I pass. Dolphins are here, Lions too. All poised and ready to dive. I nod hello to familiar faces but signal there’s no time to chat.

A swarm of six and seven year olds dashes back and forth, kicking and chasing balls. Their coaches entreat, encourage, cajole. Elephant is there. And in between drills he sits on his ball.

don’t sit on the ball

I want to yell. But there’s no time.

We need a beat.

The tennis instructor has secured a makeshift net. Three students aligned, waiting their turn for volleys. A ball drifts off the court and into the big toy. All pavlovian impulses kick in and like a puppy I’m ready to chase.

But my purpose holds. Stay on target.

We need a beat.

I beeline into my room, grab the bluetooth speaker, a snug fit in my hand. I marvel.

And remember the four-foot speakers in my brother’s room as a boy. The delicious smell of vinyl as Supertramp told us they could see us in the morning when we went to school. I’d lay there for hours, enveloped in sound, hidden away in melody and amazement. As Earth Wind and Fire, all horn and sync and beauty, asked whether we remember.

We do.

I’m back in the race. Speaker in hand, my return trip is quick. I pass the meet, a swirl of humanity, and avoid all eye contact because I’m almost there.

The whir of the treadmill is rhythmic, sedative. Andres runs, a steady pace, beads of sweat pool.

And now we have a beat.

aqi

I step out of the room and approach the three steps to the playground when I am assaulted.

We’d been here for a couple years before we started to pay attention to air quality. In fact, we had been working on the assumption that the air here is fine.

Of course, the Harmattan is its own beast. Thousands of tons of Sahara sands airborne, bringing haze, density, grounding flights and hampering visibility. The layered dust visits daily. We clean it away, but it persists. It says hello again, and again, and again.

But the Harmattan is seasonal. It comes, stays, then goes.

Unfortunately, the type of assault that arrived this morning visits year-round.

Burning is habit here. Yard waste, food scraps, trash. Burning makes it all go away. It’s easy, effective, cheap.

But nothing is without cost.

Levels of particulate matter are high. Not China high, but they are up there. Literally.

When a big burn takes place the daily parade of ‘not-quite emissions-checked’ vehicles is augmented by suffocating black smoke. It’s the cost of doing business. The cost of development. The cost of we’re not quite sure how to manage all our waste.

And so, when I step out of my classroom I am assaulted. My eyes water and squint, nose wrinkles. For a moment the smell evokes roasted campfires, calling out for marshmallows. But there’s more to this. An extra layer, something that doesn’t quite sit right.

I seek refuge under the mango tree.

And take a breath.

legends

I did not come here to sing

I did not come here to sing

But he does sing, anyway. Unexpectedly. The band leader called him out, and up.

We are in the company of greatness! Please, Mr. Ambolley, please come and join us on stage.

Lounging in the back, chatting with friends under the stars. He’s sitting quietly, not wanting the extra attention. Perhaps just a jaunt to hear some HighLife, an evening out, without fanfare.

But when you’re a living legend, you don’t always get to take a night off.

I’m going to take it in a different direction tonight

Stage, fronting trumpets, drums, bass, is a familiar spot for him. You can tell. A majesty, he moves with the beat. Because it’s part of him.

Football may be life in West Africa, but music is heart and soul. Wander any neighborhood, in any town, and you cannot escape it. A reggaeton beat fuels your step. Hip Life giving you bounce. Gospel down the way. And always, drums. Volume turned to eleven. We all dance. We all sing.

Ambolley, forefather of HighLife, humors us, treats us to a song. And his voice, all deep and sugar. Ad lib, improvisation, all soul, all magic.

Some in the audience know him well. Others, first time. But everyone, in a matter of moments, knows. We’re in the presence of greatness. Of legend.

He did not come here to sing.

But as the beat washes us, we’re sure glad he did.