Monday, April 30, 2012

Becoming African...

Weather:  The rainy season has arrived!!  I love the rain. During the rain, the temperatures can drop to the mid-70s - downright cold!  Unfortunately, after a few hours it gets pretty steamy as temps climb up again to the mid-80s or 90s.  But a nice change of pace!

The countdown is now on for when we leave Ghana - just about one month left.  As we prepare to leave, after living in West Africa for seven years, Noah and I have been having discussions about if there are parts of us that are now more African than American.  After reflecting on that a bit, I thought I'd share of my own reflections/changes.  Some are obvious, others not so much.  Some people have called me African-American...but I think American-African might be more appropriate:-).

Some of the changes are:
Football - Most of the world understands football to be what Americans call soccer.  Most of the rest of the world is in love with soccer, yet Americans continue to be in love with football.  Some West African friends have told us that American football should be called handball - they don't understand why it is called football.  I have grown to love this sport - the amazing talent in the footwork that you see on the field is akin to a dance of sorts.  The skill, talent, and energy for this sport is immense and impressive.  So I definitely prefer this game of football to American football.  Additionally, just as in the US, watching this sport is a community activity.  The difference here is that since many people gather together to watch/listen to it around shared televisions or radios.  And since most of us have year-round open windows, we hear celebrations all around us when there is a goal.  For example, during one game, there was a penalty kick-off, and our coverage was about two seconds behind the coverage that our neighbors were getting, so just as the person kicked, we knew he had scored!  I will miss the constant access to football. 

Protocol/Formality - They say that the American culture is one of the least formal in the world.  West African culture is definitely more formal.  There are processes and procedures that must be observed when communicating.  While it definitely took time to learn, and I'm sure I still make mistakes, I have grown to appreciate the formality and procedure.  In fact, it is now frustrating to me when working with Americans when protocol is not observed - I have to catch myself to remember that it is not part of the US culture.

Food - spicy and ricey.  I have grown to love my food spicy - all of it (except for sweets of course).  I even put hot pepper on popcorn.  My kids are amazed if I ever say that something tastes hot to me, as I usually eat my food very spicy.  When I go back to the states, I have to find a way to spice it up or it tastes bland.  Maybe I need to start carrying hot sauce in my purse.  Also, I have become very accustomed to having rice every day.  I'm not to the point yet, like Liberians, who say that if you haven't had rice, you haven't eaten that day.  I can go a day without it, but it has become a staple. 

Respect for elders - While respecting elders is important in Liberia, Ghana carries it to a whole new level.  Respect for elders does not mean respect for those who are elderly (or over the age of 65), but respect for anyone who is older for you.  That means, when I arrive at a place and get out of my car with my computer bag or other items, someone younger than me will rush to carry it in for me.  [Several American guests have been alarmed at someone rushing out to take their bags from them - off their shoulder, out of their hands, without any explanation:-).]  At first I thought it was because I was American or a woman, but then I came to realize that it is done for everyone.  I remember arriving at a place where a woman, seven months pregnant, and about ten years younger than me, rushed out to take my bags.  When I told her there was no way I was giving her my bags (she's a friend and colleague so I could be direct), she laughed and told me that she must help her elders!  The down side of this is that if one is a manager of a business and you have employees who are older than you, you cannot correct them.  That is why when you read in a business plan that employees will be 46 years old or younger, for example, it is because the owner is 46 and he or she can't hire someone older than them!

Appreciation for the lack of separation of church and state  - I love the increased tolerance for religion that I have experienced in West Africa.  Meetings will start and end in prayer, regardless of whether it is a government meeting or community meeting.  I don't have to worry about being a Christian or offending anyone when talking about my faith.  I know that is not the case in all parts of West Africa, of course, but for the most part I have experienced this in both Ghana and Liberia.  Our work has been with both Muslims and Christians, and there has been a pretty open dialogue and acceptance of differences.  I know that doesn't make the news very much, but I'm thankful that it has been my experience here. 

Global news - I love that I live in much more of a global world while in West Africa than what I experience it the US.  I have access to BBC all the time here and all of the news is much more comprehensive to what is happening around the world.  One thing that I find so difficult is to listen to the news while in the US - 90% of it seems to be about the US and much of it is focused on celebrities or one particular crime.

Individualism versus Community Minded - By far and away, one of the major differences between North Americans and West Africans is the mindset toward the community.  North Americans tend to be individualistic - my goals, my dreams, my job, my kids, my possessions, my income.  West Africans tend to view things from the community perspective, balancing their own wants and needs in terms of what is best for the immediate family, extended family, church, and community.  I have seen the pros and the cons of both ways - there are things that are both healthy and unhealthy about both ways.  So I've learned to switch between these depending on the setting that I find myself in.

Time - I believe that I have managed to hold on to my own sense of time, while becoming much more relaxed about other people's sense of time, at least for Africans.  I no longer arrive early for meetings but usually right when the meeting is about to start.  But I have learned that it is appropriate to not be so focused on time as to pass people without greeting them, to start a meeting without finding out how people are doing, to ask about their families, etc.  This also relates to a warm culture versus a cold culture - it takes more time to be in a warm culture as it is more relational. 

Spirituality - West Africans tend to be much more spiritual than North Americans, seeing the work of spirits in many areas:  sickness, success, failure, death, and many other areas.  North Americans tend to undermine the role of any spirits in these things, looking to science for the answers.  I have come to appreciate this heightened sense of spirituality; growing up we did not spend much time being aware of demonic activity, yet Jesus spends much of his time casting out demons.  While I don't agree with the extent that this reaches (i.e. sickness or death as a result of curses or witches instead of malaria or sanitation issues, activity of deceased ancestors in daily life, etc.), I do appreciate their understanding that "our struggle is not against flesh and blood but... against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms." (Ephesians 6:12)

I think in conclusion, that I remain more American than African.  Probably not a surprise as I spent so much more time in the US than in Africa...not to mention that even while living in West Africa, I tended to still live as an American.  However, my preferences in many areas have changed, and of course, I have changed.

Monday, April 16, 2012

BBC Post - Reading Liberia through colourful billboards

 I read this post from the BBC the other day and thought that I couldn't do better than it in describing some of the conditions in Liberia.  This article was written by John Humphrys of the BBC and can be found directly by going here.  LEAD has an office in Bong County and so we know the roads and these billboards well. This article reminds me of the importance of our work in business development, creating jobs, and poverty alleviation.

Reading Liberia Through Its Colourful Billboards

Five billboards in Bong County, Liberia, 9 April 2012
Since many Liberians do not read newspapers, the government uses billboards to pass on vital information
Like many African countries, Liberia exudes potential but has little to show for it. As BBC Radio 4's Today's programme begins a year-long focus on the challenges facing just one part of the country - Bong County - presenter John Humphrys considers what the region's many distinctive billboards tell us about its ambitions.

It takes a long time to get anywhere in Liberia. There are only a couple of narrow tarmac roads and the further you get from the capital, Monrovia, the more dangerous they become - pot-holes like jagged craters so steep and deep you'd never survive hitting them at speed. You have to do a lot of very violent swerving.

But there's one good thing about travelling by car (there's virtually no public transport) which is that you learn an awful lot about the country: its past, present and what they hope will be its future.

Relatively few people read the newspapers. The rest have huge public billboards at the side of the roads that tell them what the government wants them to know, how it wants them to behave.

Simplistic propaganda it may be, but if these messages do get across, the country will be a better place.  Let me take you on a drive through Bong County, starting in the state capital, Gbarnga, and introduce you to some of the billboards and their messages.

Here, as you leave the town, is my favourite: "Share ideas. Don't miss out. Go to school." What a lovely idea - a government exhorting its people to share ideas.

Civil war scars

But going to school is easier said than done. It's not just the young children who need to learn to read and write and do their sums. A generation of men and women had their young lives stolen from them by the civil war that tore this country apart over a bloody 14 years.

Two young men in school, Bong County, Liberia, 9 April 2012When it ended in 2003 there were vast numbers who had never been to school - sometimes because they'd been forced to flee their homes and their parents had been killed, and sometimes because they themselves had been forced to become fighters.

I talked to one young man in a primary school. He is now 18 but he is in the same class as 11-year-olds. His parents were butchered in the war. Yet he is determined to get an education. He wants to be a doctor.

Here's another billboard: "The police is your friend." Well, that rather depends on who you are.  This billboard is at one of the many checkpoints on the main roads where drivers are routinely stopped. We're close to the border with Guinea, and Liberians worry about what they call aliens and drug dealers coming in. They found someone with some drugs in his car here the other day and beat him to death.

And here's another on the same theme. "Make Liberia gun free. No more guns… but the ballot". Again, it's hard to avoid a slight sense of wishful thinking.

Although people in a rural area like this are incredibly friendly to strangers like us, you sense that violence is never far below the surface. So many of the young men you meet have hard eyes. Did they fight in the civil war? Probably. They had no choice.

Rats in hospital

Health is a big subject for the billboards: "No woman should die while giving life because you know what to do". Many do die in childbirth. Another one for pregnant women: "Every full belly should be checked for HIV". Aids is another big killer.

A toddler in hospital is tended by two women, Bong County, Liberia, 9 April 2012And here's another billboard a little further on: "Germs are the killers of human beings. You cannot see them". Now that's a message that has yet to be learned if the mortality figures are to be believed - and not just in this country.
It's estimated that half the hospital beds in sub-Saharan Africa are filled with people suffering the consequences of bad sanitation. In Liberia, six out of seven people use the bush as their toilet. There is no running water and no sanitation.

In Gbarnga you can see a big water tower but it hasn't worked for years because it was badly damaged in the war. Most people either have to pump water by hand from wells and bore-holes if they live in villages in the bush, or they get it from creeks and rivers and streams. And they are horribly contaminated by fecal matter. Almost as many people here die from diarrhea as they do from the biggest killer, malaria.

The health service is in a wretched state. The county of Bong has a population of 350,000 people and only four doctors and four ambulances, and there is only one general hospital. It's gloomy and rather smelly and has virtually no equipment. There are no defibrillators or ventilators.

In the waiting area there is a mammogram machine. It's been there a year and has never been used. No-one knows how to use it. It's still in its wrapping. It was a gift from a misguided charity.

As I walked into an operating theatre a large rat scuttled across the floor in front of me. The doctor who was showing me around did not flinch. Yes, he said, we have a problem with rats.

Shopping by lantern

Man leans on car door next to river, Gbarnga, Liberia, 9 April 2012
Beneath a bridge, young men try to earn a living by washing cars.
As we leave Gbarnga we approach a bridge over the river. A big gang of boys and young men are working beneath this bridge. They're here all day, several of them trying to get you to leave the road and drive down to the river bank so that their colleagues can wash your car in the river. They charge very little and they earn about a pound a day. It's better than nothing.

The truth is, it's very hard to see how the mass of people make a living in this country. Unemployment is hard to estimate. I was told by many people that it's probably more than 90%. Looking at the number of young men wandering the streets with nothing to do, that's not hard to believe.  I've never seen so many little ramshackle stores and tiny shops all selling pretty much the same stuff for a few pence.

Some of them will stay open as we drive into the night - mostly using lanterns or torches because there is no national grid, no mains electricity. Some of the bars and restaurants have their own generators so, as you look out of the car's windows, you see little patches of light here and there in the villages and the bush.

But even as you drive closer to the capital you get the sense of a country that in some ways slipped back into the dark ages. Civil war does that.

Yet it's also a country that is now clearly - visibly - capable of diagnosing its problems. It knows what needs to be done and it is using the messages on the billboards to proclaim its intentions and exhort its people to move on.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Food, Glorious Food

In sorting through pictures recently, I realized that we had written a blog on Liberian food dishes while in Liberia but have not yet written a blog on Ghanaian food dishes.  So it is time to reveal the delightful cuisine of Ghana.  Prepare your taste buds for an exciting journey.

Many Ghanaian meals involve a food that is pounded in a large wooden mortar, with a pestle.  Early evenings are frequently filled with the sound of pounding as food is prepared.  Most food is also quite spicy, served with a sauce called Shito (pronounced Shee-toe), which can be made a variety of ways but typically has the following in its base:  tomatoes, garlic, onion, ginger, pepper, herring and shrimp.  Be careful - it can be very hot!
Banku (on the left) and Tilapia
First on the list is Banku and Tilapia.  Banku is femented corn/cassava dough mixed proportionally and cooked in hot water into a smooth whitish consistent paste.  It is often served with soup, stew or a pepper sauce with fish (often Tilapia).  If you were to eat this in a restaurant, it would be served as is shown in the picture.  You are given a bowl of water and soap to wash your right hand; you then eat the food with your fingers with your right hand only.  The fish is served whole, with head and tail intact. 

A second favorite is Kenkey, which is a fermented maize meal traditionally prepared by boiling balls of mixed portions of fermented cooked maize meal and raw maize dough wrapped in cornhusks.  The picture shows a table of Kenkey, which can be found and purchased on the side of the road. It is often served in a similar manner to Banku.

Fufu and pepper soup.
Fufu is a conventional West African dish made by boiling starchy foods such as cassava, yam, or plantain, then pounding them into a glutinous mass.  In Liberia, fufu was mostly fermented cassava, but in Ghana it is not fermented and can be a variety of the above mentioned items.

Red Red
Red Red is a baked bean stew and is Noah's favorite. Though we eat it with rice, it is typically served with boiled plantain.

Waakye (pronounced wat-chee) is another popular dish, made of rice and beans, and cooked with a spicy sauce of prawn and tomato.  

Kelewele is my favorite.  Because it is fried in oil, I have to restrict myself to eating it just once a week but it is soooo good.  It is prepared from ripe plantain well seasoned with ginger, chilli, cloves and fried in hot oil to give it a great mouth-watering flavor.

Just in case your stomach is now rumbling and it's not time for lunch yet, let me distract you.  While in the process of sorting through pictures, I also was sorting through videos in preparation for Noah's graduation slide show and video.  I ran across the cutest video of Noah, at about eleven months, falling asleep while he eats.  Not Ghanaian food, but cute none-the-less.