DionRabouin.com (sort of)

The Ghana Diaries: Day Nineteen

Posted in The Ghana Diaries by dionrabouin on August 21, 2010

Even the pimps are nice here.

We went to Cape Coast for a few days this week. Cape Coast is a town near the ocean where the Dutch, Portuguese and British used to harbor slaves before shipping them off to their next destination. The castle where they harbored most of the slaves is still erect today and you can take tours of it.

After the tour and dinner on our first night, I asked the man who was working as our waiter (he was also the bell hop, the concierge and the front desk attendant, people working in hotels here do a lot of different jobs) where I should go to have a night out on the town and meet some lovely young ladies. He suggested this place called London Bridge. A few hours later, I managed to get a taxi to London Bridge and went to the bar he suggested called Hacienda.

There were only a few people inside, but there was one really cute girl with beautiful skin and what Ice Cube once referred to as “ass for days.” I started up a conversation with her as I do with the women here, said hello, asked her how she was (the Ghanaians say “Owareyou?” like it’s a greeting instead of “how are you?” it’s very strange. And they all always respond with “I’m fine”) told her I liked her style, etc. We started talking about where I was from and Cape Coast and then she left and said she would be back. She told me her name was Portia, which should have been my first clue something was up.

Women my age in Ghana aren’t named Portia. They’re named Bernice or Matilda or Ruth or Margaret or Hagar (I swear to God I met a Hagar, she was sexy too). Everyone here has names from the early 20th century. In Ghana you get your Ghanaian name, which often coincides with the day you were born on (that’s why there are like a billion Kwames and Kwesis around here) and your “Christian” name, which is usually something from the Bible (hence Hagar).

After Portia left, I started talking to this other guy who asked me to give him one cedi to help him out and in exchange he would introduce me to the girls, a “nice one” he promised me. Because I’m an American I get asked for charity a lot, so I didn’t think much of it and told the guy politely that I would not be giving him any money. I walked outside and met another guy who wanted money named Randy. Unlike the previous guy in the bar, Randy had the good sense to ask me to buy him a beer rather than just asking for some money.

Initially I told him he needed to do for self, which he laughed at and seemingly understood, but then he took me to a couple of the other bars and talked to some of the girls there. When we went back to the first bar, I asked the bartender if Randy was an alright guy and she said he was, so I bought him a Guinness. In most places, beer runs you about two or three cedis, so it wasn’t really a big deal. In return for the beer, Randy went outside and promptly sent Portia back in. This should have been my second clue.

After talking to Portia awhile, the bartender brought me back over. She told me that the girls here were very “smart.” Of course, I inquired what she meant by smart. She said they were smart and would take your money if given a chance. She said that even after I paid them, they would try to take my wallet and to rob me in my sleep. Pay them? I asked. Pay them for the sex, she responded matter-of-factly. It still didn’t all hit me.

I asked the bartender how many of the girls here got paid for sex. Some, she said. So, I went back to my conversation with Portia hoping she wasn’t one of them. (If I’m going to pay for sex in a foreign country, it’s going to be somewhere it’s legal and I can see proof of the girl’s STD-freeness.) I asked Portia about what the bartender had told me, and she happily detailed the business of prostitution in Cape Coast.

“It depends on whether you shoot or sleep.”
“Shoot or sleep?”
“Yes, if you shoot, it’s 20 cedis, if you sleep, it’s 50 cedis.”
In case I haven’t mentioned it, the exchange rate is one dollar to 1.45 cedis, so sex goes for around $15 or a little more than $35 if you want the girl to sleep over and do it again.

“If you pay for sleep, do you get it again in the morning?”
“No.”

It was at this point that Portia started using the pronouns ‘we’ and ‘our’ and I realized I needed to make clear that I had no intention of paying her or being one of those losers that pays prostitutes to talk to them. After I cleared that up I went back outside to talk to Randy, because, of course, Portia had left. Even though I had been drinking, I had come to the conclusion, at this point, that Randy was a pimp and that every single one of the girls at the bar was a prostitute – actually, Portia told me that part.

Randy turned out to be a really nice guy. In addition to taking me around town and introducing me to people, he also offered me one of his girls for free, as a way to welcome me to Cape Coast and say thanks for the beer I bought him. I’m really glad he offered me an ugly one, because it may have been difficult to turn down a free good-looking prostitute. He then showed me some of the places that would be popping when Cape Coast had their festival in a couple weeks. I told him I might attend and he told me to just ask around town for him by name, everyone knew who he was. I don’t doubt for a second that this is true.

After he walked me around some shady parts of town and showed me a couple bars that were closed, but would be open for the festival, we went to meet some of his friends.

“These are some killers I got,” he said and took me to an abandoned shack where four nefarious-looking hoodlums were sitting. He introduced me and said something in whatever language they speak in Cape Coast – every tribe has their own language and whatever tribe is most populous in an area is what language most people speak – to one of the main hoodlums. He asked me to come have a seat next to him on the crate he was sitting on. Randy turned to me and said “No, no, no” and said something else to the guy, which I assume meant, “No, I like this one, don’t kill him.”

Then, the killers all gave me a pound and Randy and I went back to the bar. It was about 2 a.m. at this point and everything was closing up. Randy grabbed one of the taxi drivers he knew and the guy offered to take me back to my hotel for two cedis. Of course, I flatly refused because I had gone down there for 30 pesways (cents) and I wasn’t about to pay two cedis to get home. Fortunately, Randy’s “real sister” – who also works for him, whether they’re actually related by blood I don’t know, but it wouldn’t surprise me – was going in my direction, so he got the driver to take me for free.

When I got back to the hotel, the clerk/waiter/bus boy/cook/concierge was asleep on a towel outside of the dinner pick-up window. He told me earlier in the day that he never leaves and I thought he was exaggerating, but I guess he is literally always there. I woke him up – because he keeps the keys when you leave the hotel, not because I’m a jerk – and asked him politely why he didn’t at least warn me he was sending me to the ho spot. He just sort of laughed and shrugged. I’m still not sure whether he thought it was funny, he didn’t understand what “ho spot” meant or if he really didn’t know it was the ho spot.

I think if this had been any other country I would probably have been robbed and shot (generally what happens when you walk around a strange city at one in the morning with a pimp you’ve just met) but because this is Ghana, the friendly pimp/tour guide gave me a really nice walk around the city and got me a free cab back to my hotel.

That’s the end of the story, now to the part where I go on at length about some larger concept my time here has me thinking about.

For the past couple-few days I’ve been ruminating about how this place is a nation of contradictions or odd juxtapositions. What’s really strange is how nice the people are, but how rude they can be. I’ve talked about the traffic before – it’s horrendous – but one thing that adds to it is the drivers here will just straight up run you over. It’s this philosophy of no excess. I think the thinking is that if people don’t want to get hit they’ll move out of the way. So drivers don’t think twice about yelling at pedestrians in traffic or making a b-line to their desired destination and taking out whoever is in the way. I still haven’t seen anyone get hit, but there’s time yet.

The most interesting thing that happened on my tour of the slave dungeon was this mixed couple from the Netherlands. It was an African man and his Dutch (white) wife and their two mulatto chilluns and they were taking a tour of the slave dungeons where the Dutch harbored, killed, raped and dehumanized Africans before sending them on their way into slavery. I suppose it would have been more stark if the man had been a part of the Netherlands Diaspora rather than an African immigrant, but it was an interesting picture nonetheless.

The thing that kept going through my mind as I went to place after place was that I would’ve been one of the first slaves that got shot. There would be absolutely no way I would’ve made it onto the boat. The guide showed us this room where they kept slaves that got out of line, it had no ventilation and they kept the offending party there until they died of either suffocation or starvation. Again, I would not have made it there. I would have forced them to shoot me.

I guess I understand most people’s reverence for life, but I would honestly rather die than go through that. Same thing goes for being a slave, period. I just couldn’t do it. I would’ve organized a revolt and if no other slaves were down I would’ve just run up in massa’s house with a cotton gin or something.

After my trip to the Elmina dungeon – owned by the Dutch West Indies Co. (remember that name from history class?) – I went back to the hotel for dinner with my father and his wife. That’s when the whole episode started.

TANGENT: Both of my parents are remarried now, so I suppose I have step-parents and am supposed to refer to them as such, but considering neither has really been any sort of parent to me – because they’ve only been around since I was old enough to take care of myself, not because they’re bad people – I have no sense of them being step-parents. It’s weird saying my dad’s wife, but there is a 0.0 percent chance I will ever refer to the woman my father is married to as mom of any sort, so I suppose I don’t really have another choice.

The Ghana Diaries: Day Fifteen

Posted in The Ghana Diaries by dionrabouin on August 17, 2010

I’ve been making a point to eat as much Ghanaian food as possible while here. What’s interesting, and perhaps unique to Africa or may be the case in many different places, is that some of the best African food isn’t found in the fancy restaurants or upscale cafes, it’s found on the streets.

Frighteningly, these street vendors often don’t take proper health precautions and their food can make you very sick, so there is a delicate line one must tread. The food is just one of a million things you find sold on the street here. People sell everything from disposable shaving razors (“Shave! Shave! Shave!”) to pre-paid cellphone cards (“MTN! Tigo! Vodafone!”).

I recently fell in love with waatkye, which somehow is spelled waatkye, but is pronounced watch-a. The Ghanaians spell things very strangely, but I suppose that’s another thought for another day. On second thought…

TANGENT: OK, so I don’t know what it is about Ghanaians and English, but the way some words are spelled here makes no sense. There’s this place near where my dad lives called Haatso, which is pronounced how-cho. Apparently ‘kye’ = che, which I suppose sort of makes sense, but how does haat = how and so = cho? There are a few other examples of this, but it’s not worth trying to remember them for a tangent.

I digress. I fell in love with waatkye recently. It’s this mixture made of red beans and rice that is topped with cabbage, spaghetti noodles (which I’m positive aren’t really spaghetti noodles), meat and this spicy, red pepper meat sauce that is a party in you f-ing mouth. It’s so good! And what’s even better is how cheap it is. If you skip the meat, which is really not much of a concession given that most times it’s not that good and has a tendency to be undercooked, it’s only like $1 for a pull plate of waatkye. It’s like crack. I could eat it all day.

I’m also in love with jollof rice. But I’ve been in love with jollof rice for quite some time now. I realized I loved jollof rice a long time ago and it’s just rare that I can find some stateside that’s any good. It’s everywhere here and it’s delicious. Seeing jollof rice everywhere is like going to Italy and having veal parmigiana vendors walking the street selling slabs for one Euro, it’s just not fair.

There are also these little plantain chips that are like potato chips, except a thousand times better. Why don’t we have these in the US? They would make a killing! I know we can grow plantains in the country, or at least import them cheaply from South America, because my dad bought them from Safeway after we came back from Ghana last time and fried them until we puked yellow. I also know New Yorkers eat them semi-regularly – they call them plantins for some reason. So why on earth do we not have plantain chips at every major supermarket in America? I’m pretty positive creating them takes the same of processing as potato chips, probably less. And they’re so much better.

Maybe it’s the food that makes people so nice here. Although, I’m not sure that it’s really niceness that I notice, it’s more a willingness to help. I had this strange watershed moment about Ghana today when my cab driver pulled over to the side of the road to ask someone for directions. It wasn’t the biggest deal, but can you imagine – suspending for a second your knowledge of GPS and its ubiquity in taxis across America – a cab driver in the US stopping and asking random people on the road for directions. I found it breathtaking. It’s little things like that about this place that make me think some times.

Of course, my super cheap father freaked out that I had taken a taxi and cost him – gasp! – 10 cedis, which I had to explain to him is like seven dollars (I just did the math and it’s actually less than seven dollars) and I was going to pay him back anyway. I was discussing how cheap my dad is with a guy I interviewed today. He was in awe. I should start a twitter account called MyDadisSoCheap and just update it anytime he does something that really gets to the essence of his extreme parsimony. The feed would look something like this (These are experimental and therefore might be more than 140 characters.)

MyDadisSoCheap that he slept on the floor of the house that he’s been building in Africa for 20 years because he didn’t want to pay for a mattress.

MyDadisSoCheap that the floor was made of tile and he slept on it for two years.

MyDadisSoCheap that his rice cooker is broken and rather than spend $20 to buy a new one, he N-rigged it, which short-circuited the electricity.

MyDadisSoCheap he complains when he pays more than 20 cents for a melon. A whole melon!

MyDadisSoCheap that even though he could have hot water in Ghana, he refuses to pay for it.

MyDadisSoCheap there is not a single pillow in his house, despite the fact that this is Africa and pillows couldn’t possibly cost more than $5.

It would go on like that.

One of the things my father’s penchant for stretching pennies turned me onto, though, was canned smoked tuna in vegetable oil. It is delicious. I was forced to eat it everyday when he abandoned me here to go to Cape Coast for two days and left me with no television or hot water (have I mentioned there’s no hot water here?). I thought it would be abysmal, but it’s actually really, really good. I’m adding it to my short list of things to buy at the store when I go home.

Speaking of home, even after giving the woman at Delta my best doe-eyed, sob-story face I couldn’t get my flight changed for a reasonable price. It would’ve cost almost $600 to change my flight to the date I wanted, so instead I’ve got to fly standby and hope for the best. Even that is going to cost me $250, which is probably more than I’m going to make for doing the stories while I’m here. * Sigh * se la vie, I suppose.

I’ve left this day intentionally void of any postulating, proselytizing or philosophizing. I will leave you with one final thought and it’s something Teddy Roosevelt said. I read it in an article by Dan LeBatard of the Miami Herald. LeBatard was using it to talk about the relationship between the sports journalist and the athlete, but I think it really fits as a take on those who talk versus those who do, i.e., the never ending battle between those who go out and try to do something and those who talk about those who tried to do something…in life.

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly; who errs and comes up short again and again; because there is not effort without error and shortcomings; but who does actually strive to do the deed; who knows the great enthusiasm, the great devotion, who spends himself in a worthy cause, who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement and who at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly. So that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.”

P.s. I really wish all these websites would stop including their link with that stupid “Read more http://www.whatever.com.linktothearticle/blah” attached at the bottom. Do they think people are going to forget and attach that to their story? Do they really think people have closed down the page they copied from before pasting the quote and are now unable to find a link to the story? What possible purpose could this stupid device possibly serve besides annoying anyone who bothers to cut and paste something from their website? If there was a list of all the sites that use this retarded mechanism and all the ones that did not, I would not hesitate for a second to never again use the ones that do. Not for a second.

The Ghana Diaries: day Thirteen

Posted in The Ghana Diaries by dionrabouin on August 14, 2010

I think after you’ve been somewhere for two weeks you stop looking at a place like a tourist. I’m beginning to feel less like I’m in a foreign country and more like I’m out at my grandparents suburban inner-city townhouse in Green Valley Ranch.

The problem with where my father lives here is that it’s far from the action. This is why I have always been and will always be a city boy. I don’t understand for the life of me how anyone voluntarily lives in the suburbs. It makes getting into town such a hassle. You have to figure out transportation to and from wherever you’re going, constantly watch the clock to make sure it’s not too late to get back, monitor traffic conditions and generally make a bunch of additional preparations anytime you want to go to the city to do something. And of course, everything worth doing is in the city. What do you get in return?

I will never, ever, ever understand people who move to the suburbs. Maybe when I get old and I just want to stay in my house and go to the market around the corner to buy pineapple and melon every couple days, I’ll get it. Maybe that’s who the suburbs are for – people with nothing to do and nowhere to go. The fact that my dad lives in the suburbs may be more difficult to deal with than the fact that I’m living in an African nation. Although, being in Africa has affected my lifestyle as well.

Living here the past couple weeks has really changed my habits. In the mornings I’m always looking for fresh fruit to eat. When there’s no fruit I get annoyed. I drank what my dad calls hot chocolate tonight, but it’s not the hot chocolate I drank in the US, it’s actual cocoa powder mixed with pure sugar in hot water. It’s different. Everything is like that now. What I think of as breakfast has completely changed. What I think of as a meal in general, or a leisure activity has completely changed. The way I think about transportation has changed. I’m still not like my father, though.

What’s strange about my dad is that even though he lives in this very far away land he still lives almost exactly the same way he did in Denver, except sans the American creature comforts. I always knew my dad was cheap, but he’s cheap here in Africa where the cost of living is significantly lower than it was in Denver.

He doesn’t seem to care that there’s no hot water, he literally slept on the floor – which is made of tile, by the way, and is insufferable to sleep on, trust me, I know – for two years, his daily dinner consists of tuna, rice and water every night, he still takes tro tros everywhere he goes despite the fact that taxis are quite cheap here. He’s even got tenants staying in the chalets behind the house that ostensibly pay his property tax, so I think his monthly expenditures are something like $100 a month and he’s getting a pension, which I’m positive is significantly more than that. It’s like frugality is so ingrained in his blood that even when he goes somewhere he could live the good life or at least the better life, he’s still cheap.

I’m cheap, but I’m not that cheap. If I were living here I would definitely shell out the 100 cedis for a mattress the first day I got here. It’s odd that people say we’re so much alike. On a visceral level we are very similar. I have a lot of my dad’s mannerisms and I even talk like him sometimes. I think he’s picked up some of my habits too. It’s also strange how since I’ve been down here I’ve reverted a lot to the person I was growing up. I never noticed that when I would go visit my mom, but that may be because I never really stay that long with her.

I guess it makes sense because the people who say it don’t really know me much beyond a surface, superficial level.

I went with my dad to the University of Ghana, Legon yesterday. What was most surprising was how much like any other university it was. It’s like college never changes. No matter where you are, it’s all the same thing. Nothing changes but the faces and the technology. It’s crazy to make that statement at 24, but I feel so far removed from college at this point in my life that I think I can objectively make comments about college from a distance.

I saw students getting ripped off on book prices, saw freshmen checking into their dorms, doing typical freshmen things, etc., etc. Of course, there are all the little things that are different that international students will have to get accustomed to – the food, the accents, the trash disposal – but when it comes down to it, everything is the same as it always is at every college in every town, everywhere. I wonder who will have a more difficult time adjusting, the freshmen or the international students.

On the home front, work is going well. I’ve already got interviews set up with a few people for my radio piece and I sent in pictures for my website article (I can’t say where they’ll be appearing until they appear, so stay tuned), so that’s going well. It’ll be interesting to see how much of my next two weeks is devoted to work and how much is devoted to play. It’s been about 90/10 play to work so far.

The Ghana Diaries: Day Eleven

Posted in The Ghana Diaries by dionrabouin on August 13, 2010

The traffic here is ridiculous. In Ghana they have these transportation vehicles they call tro tros – they’re basically just big vans that seat 12-15 people and operate like a bus, even though they also have buses here, and are really cheap to ride in – and coming home in one yesterday took literally two hours to get about four miles. It’s insane. They’ve supposedly got some highways in development, but it remains to be seen whether or not they’ll actually get developed.

The traffic made me think about Kwame Nkrumah. He was the first President of Ghana as an independent nation and the one who led the country to independence. He’s currently my facebook picture. The Nkrumah legacy here is strange because while he’s an icon of the country – there’s an Nkrumah mausoleum, the Nkrumah highway, an Nkrumah museum and he’s on literally all of the new money (Ghana changed its currency in 2007 to celebrate the 50th anniversary of independence and now everything operates more like the dollar or the Euro. It used to be about 6,000 Ghana cedis equaled one American dollar, now the exchange is about 1.40 cedis to $1, except that it’s 10,000 of the old cedis to one new one, so essentially the exchange rate is now 14,000 cedis to one dollar. What’s strange is now things are more expensive than when I visited here and the exchange rate was lower. That was a really long tangent, I would’ve made it a footnote if I could footnote on blogs) – Nkrumah’s a recent enough politician that people have a negative opinion of him.

My father’s friend Kwame Sam, who’s in the All African Peoples Revolutionary Party, the party Nkrumah started, was telling me that many of the politicians and academics in the country are trying to vilify and demonize Nkrumah. I couldn’t quite get my head around the concept because I can’t imagine someone trying to demonize or discredit George Washington or Paul Revere. Imagine hearing someone talk about how George Washington screwed everything up by not imposing higher tariffs or how Abraham Lincoln ruined everything by not properly building that damn continental railroad. It’s strange.

I suppose it makes sense in the context that Nkrumah was overthrown in 1966. Apparently, (this is all according to my dad, who knows his shit but isn’t exactly objective) the CIA was backing the opposition party to overthrow Nkrumah and when he went to China or Vietnam to aid the Vietnamese, there was a coup. He wasn’t even allowed to come back into the country and ever since then the people in the opposition party, which still exists under its original name and party ideology (for lack of a better word), have criticized everything that he did. What’s insane about that is that Nkrumah did so much. In addition to the whole getting the country its independence thing, he built the dam that still powers something like half the country and was planning on building another to power the rest of the country, built the highway that still runs through the country, built three universities that still exist, built most of the roads and infrastructure throughout the country, planned and built the largest man-made river in the world, created the Organization of African Unity that still exists today and planned an atomic power plant that would have been the most advanced in the world. Those are just the highlights.

My dad always talked about Kwame Nkrumah when I was growing up. I think that was a big reason he chose to move to Ghana after he retired. I was so full on Malcolm and Huey that I never really bothered to read about Nkrumah and I really wish I had now. I’m definitely going to start reading up on him once I get home. Like most figures who dared to suggest that socialist wasn’t really that bad, his legacy is shrouded in debate. Some people say he was the greatest thing to ever happen to Africa, while others say he destroyed the nation’s economy. Even our taxi driver last night had a completely uninduced opinion on him.

The whole Nkrumah thing got me thinking about J. Edgar Hoover and the CIA in the ‘60s and where we’d be as a people if Malcolm, Nkrumah and the Black Panthers hadn’t been taken out. I think today black folks need Malcolm X more than ever. Even in his old age, I think he would be the loudest critic of Obama and a lot of his policies and there’s no one around with the cojones to do that now. Conversely, it also made me wonder what the Cold War would’ve been like if George W. Bush had been in office then or if Obama had been in office. How much do leaders really shape what happens in a time of crisis? And how much is where black people are now, economically and socially speaking, a result of the people in power and how much of it is a result of us?

That’s one question that’s been heavily on my mind since I’ve been here because it seems like wherever we are, black people are on the bottom. You can look at any country around the world with a black population and they’re on the bottom of things. Even the countries that are almost entirely black are poor. Certainly there’s the slave trade, globalization, institutional racism, European hegemony, colonialism, neo-colonialism, the subconscious indoctrination of white power and a host of other systematic methods of oppression that have been used for centuries to “keep the black man down,” but seeing England and Antigua and Ghana and reading about Brazil, Iraq, Haiti and other countries, I have to ask, is it us?

Why are we the one group of people, across the board and across the ocean, who just can’t seem to get our shit together? Obviously, it seems strange to ask this at a time when a black man is running the most powerful nation in the world, but if you look at the rest of the black people in said nation where are they? During the last decade white people increased their wealth by something like 300 percent (I don’t feel like looking up the actual number, the Internet is pay by the minute over here) and black people increased theirs by 12. Twelve?! That’s pathetic.

I know we’ve got a black president and there are a million good, reasonable, legitimate and generally true explanations and reasons for us as a people to be behind, but at the end of the day, when it’s all said and done and we’ve legitimately been given every opportunity to succeed, will we?

Nkrumah was ousted and overthrown by his own people. Malcolm X was shot by his own people. Tupac Shakur (and don’t even get me started on Pac; I could write 5,000 words about why he belongs in this conversation) was gunned down (more than likely) by his own people. Yes, there were high-level US government connections assumed (and understood) with all three, but in the end it was a black man or black men that executed the orders. I say that to say, are we as a people so wholly concerned with our own self interest that we are incapable of fighting off the outside forces that will always be present to keep us from realizing our potential? So far the answer seems to be yes.

Also, Ghanaian food is really good and tilapia is so plentiful out here you can get it for like two cedis. They have this strange paste called benku or fufu depending on what it’s made with that they mix with everything. And the bread is typically made from sugar or flour, it’s almost impossible to find wheat or grain around here. The cooking usually incorporates a lot of spices.

I’m not sure I’ve mentioned the women yet, but they are amazing. Well, not all of them. Finding a beautiful woman in Ghana is like panning for gold. You have to wade through a lot of rubble to find what you want, but when you find what you want, you really, really find what you want.

All the girls have hips and…um…back out here. Like, all of them. They’re also built differently in general. Ghanaian women seem to gain their weight in the front instead of on the sides, so from behind they all look good. Women who look like Melissa Ford or Ki Toy aren’t average out here, but they’re not uncommon. I’ve gone months without seeing women with bodies like the ones I see regularly now. It’s really quite an experience.

I just wanted to include that so my diary wasn’t all me philosophizing about black nationalism or lack thereof.

The Ghana Diaries: Day Nine

Posted in The Ghana Diaries by dionrabouin on August 11, 2010

I have to remember that Ghana is a country and not a city. I think so many times we, as Americans, are quick to label or categorize an entire country based on our experience in one city or one place. Ghana, like any other country, is immensely diverse and the way things are in Accra is unlike the way things are in other parts of the country.

I found out the part of Accra I’m staying in is called West Legon. One of my dad’s contractors, an American expatriate from LA, interestingly enough, said that West Legon is like the Baldwin Hills of Accra. (If you’re not from LA you don’t know what that means, but that’s OK.) That would be a lot more comforting if we had hot water and such, but that’s neither here nor there. I went with one of my father’s friends to this city called Ada this weekend. We left on Friday and came back today. There was no Internet access there, which is why I haven’t updated since day one.

In Ada they were having the parade of chiefs. It’s a very traditional ceremony where chiefs from the local villages are honored in a ceremony that lasts most of the day. Each clan presents its village to onlookers, there are various cannons being fired, politicians from around the country put in face time, there’s traditional dancing and at the end of the whole thing the chiefs are carried around the fairgrounds on thrones by their villagers in very pomp and circumstantial fashion. This, in and of itself, wasn’t all that interesting. What was interesting was what was going on outside the festival. It reminded me a lot of the Black Arts Festival that we used to have in Denver. It’s mostly kids standing around socializing. After the festival ended, it was a Spring Break party, African style, for the next four days.

The most interesting part of Ghanaian culture to me thus far is the miscegenation of old, traditional culture and the prevailing hip-hop, generation-y culture of today’s youth. I use the word miscegenation because it’s more like a marriage than just a combination. Some of them still wear dashikis and other old school garb, but most wear a combination of the designer threads that you’d see on any group of young black men in the US and random imported shirts that look like (and actually are) Goodwill rejects. If you took their clothes and put them on American kids their age, it’s unlikely you’d be able to tell the difference. What’s interesting about it, though, is how seamlessly it mixes with the traditional culture. No one seems to find it strange that they’re buying goat meat from a woman with a tray of skewers on her head while listening to the “Lollipop” remix by Lil Wayne.

There’s also the miscegenation of American culture with African life.

I noticed on my first day that everything is very utilitarian. There are very few frills and almost no nod to aesthetics in the buildings, but that seems to also extend to the entire culture. Men routinely pee on the side of the road or anywhere they can find, and nobody thinks anything of it. No one worries about Port-o-Potties at outdoor events because people just go find a bush or some grass and “pay the water bill,” as my friend Kwame so elegantly put it. This all happens at the same time that they’re playing American music, wearing American clothes, drinking like Americans and generally doing their best America impression.

I don’t think it’s a lack of money either. It’s just that these high-society rules – that you have to go to a bathroom so no one can see you, for instance – have no place in their society. If something doesn’t have a vital purpose, why bother? As a tangent, I want to go back and reemphasize that Ghana is not one place, it’s many different places. If you want hot water and oven-cooked meals and all the comforts of home, they’re available and they’re not that expensive or hard to find. Like anywhere else, Ghana has rich folks, middle class folks and poor folks. If you hang out with the rich or middle class folks you can expect a day-to-day experience like you’re used to back home. But most people in the country live this no-frills, back-to-basics lifestyle, whether they’re rich or poor.

The festival in Ada made me think of why I can’t stand “Seinfeld” and “Curb Your Enthusiasm” and shows of that ilk. It’s because those shows are entirely predicated on the concept of white privilege. I like to call them Pricoms. White privilege also has within itself the rich or “economically comfortable” privilege, so it’s not entirely about being white. The punchline of every episode is that there are all these rules in polite, white society that one can’t broach and “Seinfeld,” in particular, was all about the troubles in navigating those rules.

For instance, the most recent episode of “Seinfeld” I watched was the one where Kramer is dating the “low talker” and because Jerry can’t hear her request, he agrees to wear the pirate shirt on television. So, of course, Jerry has to wear the pirate shirt on television and we all have a laugh at him trying to squirm out of it and eventually failing. This is essentially the premise of every episode and I never understood why Jerry didn’t either 1) Explain to the woman that he couldn’t hear what she’d said and didn’t want to wear the shirt or 2) Just not wear the shirt. If everyone weren’t so afraid to say something impolite, there would be no show.

This, to me, is the essence of the Ghanaians – at least to my understanding thus far. A show like “Seinfeld” would never catch on here because they have none of those polite, white cultural norms. When someone wants your attention they hiss at you. When someone bumps into you on the street they don’t say “excuse me” to let you know it was unintentional – it’s just understood that it was an accident. Drivers honk at each other and at pedestrians in the street at will, but it’s not because they’re angry, it’s to let other drivers and pedestrians know where they are. Anyone without a basic introduction to the place who came from polite, white society would probably think the people here were terribly rude, but it goes back to a culture of satisfying basic needs and not needing to develop a system of high-society etiquette.

Another interesting part of Ghanaian life is the male-female interaction. In the US it seems like girls are always subconsciously afraid of being raped or abducted or chopped up and thrown in a river. The women here aren’t worried about that sort of thing, so they don’t take the precautions that American women take. The men are much more aggressive here and the women don’t really seem to mind. American women seem to always need to keep men at a distance until they get to know them. There’s this inherent fear and reservation among American women, that seems to cross all ethnic lines.