Sunday, November 16, 2008

Early Travels in Western Ghana

I've been struggling with where to start to try and convey some small portion of my experiences in Ghana so far. And then it struck me that the best introduction might be some account of my first experiences traveling and exploring in Ghana outside the structured embrace that the Peace Corps provides during the first few weeks of training. I'd also like to talk about that trip (the "vision quest" where trainees independently visit a currently serving volunteer at their site for a few days) because my final placement has ended up being in the same area. On Wednesday I'll be returning to the same region, although a different town within it, to finally get a chance to see where I'll be living and working for the next two years.

We, a small group of trainees and currently serving volunteers, caught a tro-tro at the station in Accra, heading north to Kumasi, the regional capital of the Ashanti region and traditional seat of the Ashanti people. The tros are vans that, crammed full of people, are the backbone of Ghana's public transportation sector. They're hot, painful if you're in the fold-out jump seat over the wheel well, but once they get moving and the breeze starts coming in the windows they're heavenly. They're also cheap, and Peace Corps volunteers live like nearly everyone else in Ghana, hard-up for money and getting the squeeze from rapidly increasing transportation and food prices.

The market was urban Ghana in a nutshell. Lots of people, but relatively easy to find your way because if you ask any Ghanaian for help finding the right car they will go to great lengths to make sure you get there. People talk about this being the friendliest country in Africa, and there is some truth to that. The hawkers walk through the crowds, women wearing beautiful, colorful dresses of the local fabrics and carrying gigantic loads of food, items for sale, or water on their heads. Everywhere you hear the high pitched cry "Aiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiccce pure waaataah" and after a few minutes in the heat I flagged down a girl to buy a 500 mL plastic sachet of filtered water for 5 pesawas, about five cents. Water sachets are a big part of our lives here.

We got everyone onto the tro, and the heat melted away as we started to move. We traveled out of the Greater Accra region (Ghana is divided into ten regions that are the rough equivalent of states in the U.S.) into Ashanti, where some of our group left to continue heading northwards, and then westwards into Brong-Ahofa region. As we moved into Brong-Ahofa the climate and lanscape began to change from the lush, tropical humidity of Southern Ghana. Brong-Ahofa region forms a transitional belt between tropical southern Ghana and the dry, savannah conditions of northern Ghana. This is really two countries, a relatively urban, developing South and a much poorer, struggling North. The difference, at the root, is rainfall. Southern Ghana has two harvests, so small farmers (roughly 60% of Ghana's population) make that much more compared to their northern neighbors. Brong-Ahofa straddles that line.

Brong-Ahofa is beautiful. Everywhere we went there was a triple band of colors: bright blue sky, dark green forest, and red-orange soil. The village we stayed in was filled with big, shady teak and cashew trees, as well as a massive banyon in the center of town where funerals were conducted. The volunteer we were visiting had traveled with us from Accra, as he had been one of our trainers there. He works with a local Habitat for Humanity affiliate in his community. HFH works with the local farmers to improve housing conditions, and Will was working with interested members on income generating projects to help increase their incomes. Will also introduced us to "Ghanaian English," a slow, clipped diction that Peace Corps volunteers learn to speak. You have to learn it because although many people here speak English, they will not understand you if you speak "American" English. It's as much of a barrier as not understanding Twi, the other lingua franca among Ghana's more than SEVENTY spoken languages.

During the time we stayed at Will's site we took a trip to Sampa, his market town, to buy food and supplies for our stay. Sampa is literally on the border with the Ivory Coast, and in addition to the various market stalls there were a lot of soldiers from both Ghana and the United Nations in town as well. We can't travel to the Ivory Coast as Peace Corps volunteers, it blew up a decade or so back and hasn't settled back down yet. While in Sampa I was able to pick up a "two-yard" a piece of Ghanaian fabric that you can carry as a travel blanket, towel, headrest, curtain, sheet, or have made into a shirt. Comparisons to the place of the towel in the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy are apropos.

During the day it's brutally hot here, but in Brong-Ahofa the heat doesn't stay in the air as humidity, so it's okay if you can find shade and it eases away in the evening as the sun goes down. We cooked food in the evenings and listened to iPods on a pair of tinny speakers that Omar, another trainee, had brought with him, and watched the lightning storms outside. Will was staying in a house that Habitat had constructed, and a small, comfortable concrete block house painted yellow that was a good size for him and his dog, Woro, who he had gotten in Ghana a while back. Will was doing a livestock project and a beekeeping project in his community, helping some interested people get started with supplies and training to keep goats (sort of on the Heifer International model of "passing one along") and keep bees, both of which represent modest but real wealth.

Well, I'm running out of Internet time so I'll have to wrap this up. A couple weeks after returning from the trip to Brong-Ahofa I found out that I'll be placed there, in another Habitat community, also working on income generating projects. Despite some concerns, I'm pretty happy about it, and it's a good fit for my interests and background. I'm going on a site visit in a few days, and will have a chance to see my house (yeah, I have a house now, go figure), get a feel from my community what they may be interested in doing, and generally meet and greet. I'll take a few pictures and post them when I get back.


Brian Barker said...

President-elect Obama's education policy is for everyone to learn a foreign language, but which one should it be?

The British learn French, the Australians study Japanese, and the Americans prefer Spanish.

Yet this leaves Mandarin Chinese out of the equation. The time is well overdue for Esperanto to demand consideration.

The great thing about Esperanto is that, as a non-national language, it places all ethnic languages on an equal footing and therefore avoids discrimination against minority languages.

An interesting video can be seen at A glimpse of the language can be seen at

Anonymous said...

What a beautiful description of your adopted home-for-now. It helps us to know what your travels are like. We've talked to you several times but the geography is still challenging for me. Dad and I are at the Panera in Augusta trying out the Internet--so we are at a "cafe" too. We just walked on the UMA fitness trail--it's been dreary, rainy weekend. We'll try to get a letter out tomorrow. Love Mom (and Dad)

Anonymous said...

Hi Sam,

I can see that I'm going to be enjoying all of your postings. I love your writing and can visualize your descriptive accounts of your travels so far. It sounds absolutely amazing! I am reading that the use of electronics doesn't seem to be totally out of the question, and assume that you will have electricity. Is that true? Any chance that you'll eventually acquire a camera so you can send home some pictures of these amazing places? Do you have an address where we can send letter and care packages? Is there anything in particular that you would like to receive...perhaps an American candy bar or something you never thought you'd miss, or would it simply never make it in one piece? Let us know about these things. I've always enjoyed putting together care packages for my friends away, but admit that I've never sent anything quite so far. Cheers! Allison

Anonymous said...

Hi Sam,
Thanks so much for sharing your experiences. You write so beautifully! I haven't read your more recent entries yet - off to do that now.
Love you,
Aunt Debbie