quiet

Accra is a city of sound

Singing, always beautiful. Lively conversations. Shouting, always good natured. Calls to prayer carry the wind. Taxis beep, into forever. Music wins.

Tropical, so the birds have their say. They fill the void both early in the morning and at dusk, reminding us it’s time to get moving. And time to settle down. Even bats proclaim, I am here.

Even at 3am

Things are still, until one dog picks up a scent, wakes from slumber, decides it’s time for the alarm to sound. One starts, a chorus follows, a cacophony of dogsong, to light up the neighborhood and wake up the kids.

Plus, the toads. (what must be) Hundreds of toads, serenading one another a rolling, rhythmic rrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr rrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr rrrrrrrrrrrrrrr, wrapping, rapping, and overlapping.

.

And so.

Today was a special day, bookended with that rare commodity.

The morning sun brilliant. It’s not hot, not yet. Elephant and I wait. We’re early, and our friend is late. So that gives us gifts. Of time, of together.

Of silence.

I resist the urge to start my day. Laptop stays in bag and phone stays in pocket. It’s just me, and him, and quiet.

Elephant observes, eyes dancing and lively. He’s eternally curious about the world. He stalks an ant, ponders its route, marvels at its steady pace. I marvel at his.

It’s a breath, a moment, together, before the day, before the million things that will happen.

And so then, of course, a million things happen. You can imagine.

After the million things

I return home. It’s dusk. Football complete. A sweaty mess. The rest of the family off to drum. The door closes gently with a thud behind me, I step into the dark room, and hear

nothing

heroic

The yellow kickball sits, tantalizingly close to the Four Square court, yet just out of reach. It teases the 9-year olds as they try to somehow coax it down. The red corrugated roof flashes heat, each indentation creating a perfect track for just such a ball, and, perfectly spaced places for it to get stuck.

The roof provides shade for lunchgoers and a cool venue for study. It also happens to be the perfect spot for a wayward four square ball to land. And then sit. And stay.

I hear a ruckus and shade my eyes as I step into the sun. A group of kids crowding, watching G do something rash. He does that, sometimes.

He’s on a chair, on top of a table, banging on the slotted roof. Which might not be a problem normally, except the chair has four skinny legs, precariously balanced atop the blue, slotted table.

And as a teacher, the automatic question comes to mind

what could go wrong?

Years into this gig, the question has become second nature. I envision a sprint across the playground to alert the nurse, the uncomfortable waiting for the paramedics, the dramatic phone call to parents. The tears.

Sometimes this job turns you into a hero.

I tell him to get down.

But my heroics don’t stop there. I wander into my room, grab my hockey stick. It’s not used much here. It feels foreign, weighted, unwieldy today.

I gotta get a regular game going

Today is not for hockey. It’s for four square. And for the kids. And being a hero, I do heroic things.

I sneak under the canopy and begin wiggling the metal. It responds with a satisfying choooooom, chooom. A crowd gathers.

And with gentle coaxing the ball begins to move. The kids are transfixed, providing a detailed play by play and guidance.

to the left! over! keep going! to the right! it’s rolling!

As I tap, they get louder, The ball is coming.

And, finally, a roar of triumph and the ball is back on the playground.

You did it!

They high five and rush off to get the game restarted.

And today, for a brief moment, to these kids,

I’m a hero.

dive bombers

ksssssssssht ksssssssht ksssssssht kssssssssht

ksssssssssht ksssssssht ksssssssht kssssssssht

The sprinklers are melodic and consistent, beating a rhythm and keeping time as the afternoon sun passes overhead. We’re at the field, launching bottle rockets. And we have company.

4.41 seconds

I shout to Rhino after the launch and subsequent grounding of his San Pellegrino bottle, decked out with red fin stabilizers, ballasted by four coins.

The black laces suspending the stopwatch chafe my neck as it swings, a metronome keeping time with the sprinklers. Watering the field, as it turns out, wakes up some old friends.

The mosquitoes are stirring.

Growing up on the prairies, mosquitoes were annoying, big, plentiful, relentless. But loud. And slow. We could see them coming, and we could smack ’em when we needed to.

We did a lot of smacking.

But mosquitoes in Canada are just annoying, not life-threatening. Not a vector for disease.

West African mosquitoes are cunning, sneaky. Silent darts, they dive bomb to take their gram of flesh. You never know they’re around until you feel the itch, the telltale bump. You see one bite, more follow.

I look up from rocket data and scratch my ankle without thinking.

Why didn’t we pack our bug spray

Malaria is part of life here. If you’re Ghanaian, you deal with it, you’ve probably had it. It’s treatable, not necessarily life threatening – depending on your circumstances. When you’re feeling achy, feverish, unwell, you test for it. You get treated.

But if you’re not used to it, if you haven’t grown up with it, it kicks your butt six ways from Sunday.

Hold your arm still please, sorry, this might hurt. Sorry, sorry

I recall the self-assured, quiet nurse who rechecked vitals, inserted the IV, and helped me sit up, bones creaking louder than bedsprings.

Severe Malaria came upon me quickly. It was brutal, unmerciful. Admitted to the local clinic for two nights of IV drugs and space to recover. Shakes, aches, unstoppable fatigue, a spiking temperature, cold sweats. Eating, usually a source of comfort, was temporarily forgotten.

As I lay shaking on the bed I wondered.

is this what dying feels like

you’re not dying, you just can’t think of anything fun to do

Ferris Bueller’s voice replied. Strange things happen when you’re on malaria meds. I laughed to myself, a pathetic chuckle flowering into yet more shakes.

But that was the worst day. Slowly, steadily, over a period of weeks, I recovered. To dance, to eat, and to write.

With a newfound respect for dive bombers.

stars

Tonight it’s just me and Rhino

We’ve had tension lately. A couple missteps and disagreements, for me, and him. He, soon to be a teenager and all. And me, getting older, being Papa and all. So we needed this tonight.

Just me, him

And 35,000 friends.

My friends! Ete sen?

E ye

Wo din de sen?

I stare blankly, the limits of my spoken Twi painfully evident.

Your name! What is your name?

I respond in kind. He welcomes us with a smile

I am Prince

Nice to meet you Mr. Prince!

A squeeze of hands and a snap as he directs us to our seats.

Enjoy the game – go Black Stars!

The paint worn and showing its age, the corridors poorly lit. But the seats are comfortable, the evening breeze welcome, the sight lines perfect.

And tonight, the stadium is booming.

Raucous and full of joy, a deejay pumping local beats through two arrays of monster speakers, six per set. They echo for miles. The players are warming up, keepers peppering one another with perky, driven balls.

It’s been a challenging time for Ghanaian football. Scandals have plagued the Black Stars as well as the referees. The national association has been silent for months in response to corruption.

But in Ghana, to forgive is divine. And football is life. So of course, in this AFCON qualifier, the fans have returned. They are falling back in love.

Rhino puts his hand on my chest. He wants to feel the beat.

We take our seats, all matching Black Star socks and no choice but to love one another. Tonight, this match, this mood, this is something we share, without restraint.

Pregame fanfare, the anthems are sung, the whistle blows.

Game on.

It delivers on all fronts. Ghana is the stronger team on this night, holding possession, tackling with fervor, pushing the play. We know a few players – the brothers Ayew, Wanyama the Kenyan from his Spurs appearances.

But Christian Atsu stands alone.

He’s a darting, menacing waterbug. A dynamo with magical skill and pace. He terrifies the Kenyan defender tasked with containing him this night; he is, quite simply, a different class. He brings the crowd to its feet again and again with his silky touch and flashes of pace. All that’s lacking is a goal.

We’re scoreless at halftime. A quiet settles over the stands as seemingly everyone deserts to the concourse. Rhino weaves the masses to stretch his legs and idly leans against the metal rails above the stairs. Six boys wander over to chat with the Obroni boy in the Black Stars jersey. They’re curious. They ask him about football, he responds with an easy, comfortable manner, introducing himself to the crew, smiling and chatting like an old pro. And I marvel at the human being he is becoming. And the human being he is.

The second half brings more magic. This time, Atsu’s attacking our end. The chances come, but no finish. The crowd is antsy, craving the relief that only comes when the ball touches twine.

In the 82nd minute, we all get what we’ve been waiting for. A low shot finds netting.

And 35,000 souls explode.

The Wave first made its appearance in 1981. Since then, it’s been around the block and done to death. Its time is done. It’s boring and played out.

Or so I thought.

Until my son and I were swept up in a Wave with 35,000 boisterous Ghanaians in the moments immediately following a goal.

We are united. Dancing, singing. It is all celebration. No beer is served here. None is needed.

The Stars steer the match home, punctuating the final moments of the match with confident possession and assured manner. Perhaps, this is the match signaling to the world a resurgence.

We ride the wave of ecstatic bodies down to the gates. It’s dark, loud, cars and people everywhere. A cacophony of honks, shouts from tro tro operators.

Everyone is peeing.

Traffic is as expected.

On our way out, Rhino is playfully accosted.

Ayy! Black Star! Do you play for Ghana?

Not yet.

Not yet! Not yet!

A playful slap on his back and we are sent on our way. We walk, quickly. Snaking along with the happy throng. Things take time when you and your 35,000 friends are trying to get home.

We finally manage to secure a ride, and exhale as we continue to share all the highs of the evening. We peek our heads out the window, and soak in the light from the night’s stars.

Rhino nestles his head gently against my chest. No words are spoken. None are needed.

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.