Friday, July 16, 2010

"La di da..."

So the past few days have been fun, and also a little bit unproductive.  We had a story due on Tuesday, and starting this weekend we have about five different things we should be working on, so I think we all just wanted a break for a day or two.  Frankie liked my article on the Arts Centre, which is good because I wasn't sure how I felt about the piece.  But on Tuesday morning we had our class with Audrey, which is always pretty interesting and enjoyable.  She basically lectures the entire time (which is about four hours), but she's really intelligent and engaging, so it's never bad.  This past class she talked about Ghana's political history, and how the media here was affected during each government shift, and how its gotten to where it is now.

After class, Adrian and I decided to go back to Jamestown and Bukom because we hadn't seen James, Henry, and all of the other boxers for a few days, and they kept asking when we were going to come back.  They don't start training until four, and we had some time to kill, so we decided to go down to the beach by the lighthouse for a little while.  There's a section of the beach there, and I forget what it's called, but these two Ghanians decided to clean it up and use it as place for children to come after school to play in a clean and supervised area.  Previous NYU students have gone there to help with programs, so when they found out we're with NYU, they told us we were welcome and we just walked around and talked to the kids.  They were all excited we were there, and of course we then became the main attraction.  I'm reading the book "The Shadow of the Sun" right now, and this Polish journalist travels throughout Africa in the 50s and 60s, when all of the countries are gaining back their independence.  It's a really great book so far, and it's amazing how many of the little details are still so relevant.  There's a part of the book where the author, Kapuscinski, is describing the children, and calls them "aggressively curious."  These are the perfect words to explain how many of the children act when they are excited to see an "obruni"...especially if you have a camera.  The kids pulled on us, asked for us to take their pictures, wanted to take pictures of me with the camera, and basically all just competed for our attention. It was fun, but got a little bit overwhelming, and when we tried to leave that area of the beach, a group of them just continued to walk with us.  The older boy of the group, Emmanuel, was incredibly sweet though, and he really liked Adrian and made him promise to go back to play soccer with him.  For some reason the dogs on that beach were unusually friendly for here, and one of them wouldn't stop following us.  I felt really bad, of course, and if there was any way I could have brought him home, I would have.

After the beach, we then walked to Bukom to meet everyone at the gym.  They were all really happy to see us, and the training was a little different from how it usually is.  Some of the guys sparred one another, and it was fun, but also kind of intense, to watch them finally fighting.  We got some good pictures, and as usual, it was just awesome to hang out with everyone there.  Every time I go, I just keep realizing more and more how sweet Joseph is.  He just seems to have such a paternal instinct, and is so kind to all of the children, and even to me.  At one point when I sat down next to him, he kind of patted my back in this very fatherly way and asked me how I was doing; it was just very touching.  I know I keep repeating this over and over, but I cannot get over how genuinely warm and welcoming they are to us.  Lawrence was wearing a hat, and I told him I really liked it, and he insisted that I have it.  I tried explaining that I just meant I thought it looked good on him, and I wouldn't be able to wear it, but of course he wouldn't take no for an answer.  After training was over, James and Lawrence got a cab for us, and I made plans with Henry to go to the stadium Wednesday morning to watch the boxing and kickboxing practices.  Tuesday night we all just stayed in, watching movies and doing some work.

Wednesday morning I woke up early and met Henry in Jamestown around 8:30.  There was a little confusion about which post office we were supposed to meet at, but we both finally met up, and then walked for a little while towards the stadium.  I finally found out some background information about Henry, and his life hasn't been the easiest.  I found out that he's 24 years old, he's the oldest of 5 children, and they've lost both of their parents.  His siblings are all spread out now, with some of them living with his grandmother and one of his sisters is married, and he lives with cousins.  He said that he goes to where his grandmother lives every month to bring her money for the younger ones.  He had to stop going to school when he was 17, which is when is father died, I think.  Boxing is considered his job, and I'm not really sure how much money he makes or how that works out, but between that and just doing odd jobs here and there for people sometimes, he manages to live off of it.

We got to the stadium, and there were probably around 40 or so men in the training room having a boxing practice.  Henry introduced me to a bunch of people, and we just sat and watched for a little while with him pointing out different boxers to me and telling me about them.  I met his good friend Reggie, who won some kind of boxing championship in Africa.  Henry and Reggie showed me the actual stadium, where the national teams play football, and then we walked through Independence Square and down to the beach.  After the beach I went with them to an internet cafe, which is where they have to go to check their email and everything since they don't have computers of their own.  After we were done there, Henry wanted to show me where he lives, and we walked through all of these neighborhoods in Bukom, and people seemed surprised we were walking together.  When we got closer to his home, these three people were sitting outside on little stools, sitting around a bowl and eating, and when they saw me the woman yelled, "Friend! Friend! Would you like to come eat with us?" She then got up to offer me her seat.  The people in these neighborhoods struggle to provide enough food and necessities for their families, and yet they still will not hesitate to be as welcoming and hospitable as possible.  I politely declined, and told her I had to follow Henry, who seemed amused at the whole situation.  His home was just up the road, and I met his cousin, and he showed me everything.  I feel weird going into detail, but it just made me feel so unbelievably guilty.  After we hung out for a little bit, I took a cab back home.

Wednesday night we all decided to go to this resort called Labadi Beach, where they have reggae nights certain nights of the week.  It ended up being a lot of fun, and we just sat around on the beach, listened to live music, met people, and watched some of the dancing.

Thursday we had planned to have one of the drivers take us to this place called Bojo Beach that some of the students had unintentionally discovered last week.  It's outside of the city, and over an hour away, but it was completely worth it.  It wasn't a very sunny or warm day, but that ended up being perfect because we were able to just relax on the beach without being disgustingly hot.  I read a little bit and walked down the beach to take some pictures.  The beach is kind of this little island of sand that just sits in between the ocean and this little bay/lake area, and as we walked further down, we found a few little fishing villages.  There were men bringing nets in and preparing to take boats out in the water, kids playing football in the sand, and women just going about their day.  It just seemed like a really calm and beautiful place to live.  We spent most of the day there, came back for dinner, and then I just spent the night in again.

Tonight I'm going with a few other people to the premier party for a Ghanian reality show that we were invited to.  I have no idea what to expect, but it should be a fun experience.

Monday, July 12, 2010

"From Makola to Bukom to Elmina to Cape Coast..."

This past weekend we had a trip planned to Elmina and Cape Coast, and though I was looking forward to it, I think the whole weekend completely exceeded everyone's expectations.  We didn't leave until Saturday morning, so I should probably take a step back and talk about Friday, since that turned out to be a pretty great day also.  Friday morning I had a meeting with Walter Pimpong, head of International Needs Ghana, to talk about where he's going to take me in order to write my piece on the Trokosi women.  Though he didn't stay long to talk, he was incredibly helpful and has a whole itinerary planned for me that is better than I could have even hoped for.  He's going to take me to the office based in Accra, so that I can meet and talk with his staff, then he's going to organize a day trip for me to go to a village shrine so I can actually see the practice and lifestyle in action, and finally, i'm going to spend two days in the Volta Region of Ghana, which is more northern, to experience the vocational schools he's set up for the former Trokosis, and this way I can talk with them and hear about their experiences firsthand.  It's all coming together, so hopefully it just keeps going this way.

After my meeting with Walter, Megan and I decided that we wanted to go to Makola Market to look for fabrics.  James called and asked what my plans were for the day, and when I told him we were going to go shopping at the market, he immediately insisted that he would come with us to make sure no one gave us a hard time.  He met us in Labone, where we live, and the three of us took a cab to Makola, which is the very busy, downtown area of the city, and where a lot of Ghanians do their shopping.  The market is huge, and it's fun to go to because although it's overwhelming, it's a real market where people go to do their everyday shopping, and not a tourist attraction.  James was really great and took us around to a few of the fabric shops, and after a flustering 45 minutes or so of trying to make up our minds, we finally each picked out a fabric and started to make our way towards Bukom, which is only about a half hour walk away from Makola.  It was fun to walk through the city with James because people will randomly call out to him or come shake his hand, usually saying, "Fire, Fire!"  I think he also liked that we were with him, and enjoyed introducing us to people along the way.  Though quite a few people made comments or came up to him in Makola, once we got into Bukom, everyone seemed to know him and to talk to him.  As we were walking, all of the kids would come up to us and hang on us and hold our hands.  There was this one really sweet little boy who wouldn't let go of my hand and just walked with us for a few minutes.  When James saw how much we enjoy interacting with kids, he made a great suggestion to buy a bag of small candies to keep in my bag and give out to them when I'm in Bukom.  So now I'm going to make sure to buy some candy before going back tomorrow.

But we got to the gym around 3, and since training doesn't start until 4, Megan, James and I just sat around and talked with Joseph, the owner of the gym.  There were already three little children there waiting for training to start, and Joseph made each of them come over and give him their names, ages, and then once they shook his hand, he told them they could go sit down.  It was really adorable, and the one boy was only four years old.  Joseph talked a little bit about how he always encourages the boys to come after school because it keeps them from getting into trouble on the streets.  After a little while everyone else started trickling in, but it was kind of nice because it ended up actually being the fewest amount of people I've seen there so far.  It turned out to be an incredibly fun day because Megan and I started to teach some of the boys how to use our cameras and they absolutely loved it.  It was probably one of the most moving experiences I've had here so far.  At first, they were really hesitant about it because they had probably never had the chance to ever use a camera or camcorder before, but after we kept encouraging them, they just kind of took off and had a great time with it.  It's just kind of crazy how big of an impact you can have on people's lives here.  I kept thinking, what if I keep encouraging them to use my cameras when I'm there, and it eventually motivates them to become involved in photography or film later in their lives?  I mean, maybe that is a little far fetched, but if it weren't for us doing that, it's really unlikely that they would ever have any experience with equipment like that.  Even a few of the adults came over and wanted to take a few pictures with the camera.

So the kids were a lot of fun, but then Lawrence started to teach me how to use the punching bag, and I think all of the guys found it pretty amusing.  Henry also does jiu jitsu, and after training, he made me kneel on a mat with him and tried to show me how to pin someone down.  I think that I'm finally going to be able to work out with him on Wednesday morning, as long as a meeting or trip with Walter doesn't come up.  But before we left, Henry, James, and Lawrence asked other people to take their pictures with us, so I'll post them on here.

Saturday morning we had to be ready and on the bus by six in the morning.  It was a three hour drive to Elmina, and since the bus had huge glass windows, when we were driving through towns, children constantly pointed or ran up to it shouting, "Obrunis!"  Maybe this shouldn't still fascinate me as much, and I should be used to it by now, but it really is just still so absurd to experience on such a constant basis.  When we got to Elmina, we had breakfast at the hotel/resort we were staying at, which was actually much nicer than we were expecting.  There was a nice pool, and it was right on an incredibly beautiful beach.  I think when we first got there, all we wanted to do was just lay out and swim all day, but of course Frankie had a whole day planned out for us.  After breakfast we drove to Elmina Castle, which was built by Portugal in 1482 as a trading post, and then later became an important stop during the Atlantic Slave Trade route.  The castle was taken from the Portuguese by the Dutch in 1637, and the slave trade was continued under them until 1814.  In 1871, Britain took control of the castle and it stayed that way until 1957, when the Gold Coast (now Ghana) was given their independence.

The castle tour was probably how one would expect a tour of a building that traded slaves to be.  The building was really old and beautiful, but there was an overall darkness to all of it.  We had a guide that took us through each room and explained what went on where, and what it was like for the slaves.  I don't want to go into detail, but it's always depressing to be reminded of how dehumanizing and disgusting humans can be to other human beings.  The guide told my friend Raja that they've had instances there where black people get upset at white people for being at the castle.  I understand that there's a different kind of attachment and emotion linked to an experience of the past if it's your own race or ethnicity, but I don't think it's wrong to feel upset about it just for the sake of recognizing that other humans suffered.  I just always have such a hard time trying to comprehend how people could possibly treat others so cruelly.  And the sad thing is that it continues to continue.

But even though the tour wasn't the most uplifting experience, it was still really interesting and amazing to see, and the town of Elmina is really beautiful with tons of bright boats everywhere.  Then, after our tour, we drove about an hour away to Kakum National Park to do a canopy walk.  I figured that it would probably be a lot less scary and a lot safer than ziplining, but that was completely not the case.  The bridges were just made of rope, a few pipes, and some wood...all of which seemed questionably old, and often deteriorating.  We weren't attached to anything, and the bridges were incredibly wobbly and unstable.  Even though it sounds like hell, it actually ended up being pretty fun and I think we all enjoyed being scared a little bit.

After Kakum, we drove back to the hotel, and we all just swam and hung out on the beach until dinner.  After dinner, they made a bonfire for us on the beach, and we just spent the night sitting around the fire, drinking and just having a good time.  It was probably the best night we've had here so far.

On Sunday, we went into the town of Cape Coast for a little bit, went back to the hotel for lunch, and then made our way back to Accra.  We have an article due tomorrow, so last night and today after class most of us have just been getting last minute reporting done for that, and will probably be up all night tonight actually doing it.  After class tomorrow I think I'm going to hang out with Henry for a bit, and then Adrian and I are going to go to the gym for training again.

The guys warming up before training.

Joseph teaching Megan how to roll the wraps.


Joseph, the owner of the gym.

Some of the smaller kids playing before training starts.

One of the boys using Megan's camcorder.


Lawrence and James

Elmina Castle

"The Room of No Return."

Girls selling fruit outside of the castle.

Kakum National Park

The beach at our hotel.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

"Boxing in Bukom"

So I realize I'm going out of order, and still haven't updated about the rest of last week, but I promise it will come...eventually.  I'm just extremely excited about what happened yesterday and today, and don't want to wait to write about it for fear of losing the details.  Another student in the group, Adrian, and I have been wanting to go into Jamestown to photograph some of the boxers.  There's an area of Jamestown, known as Bukom, where many of the Ga people live.  There's a huge boxing subculture in Bukom, and the area is famous for producing exceptionally good boxers.  Bukom's a very poor area, and as our friend James later put it, "You have to fight to stay alive."  Most of the men in the area are fishermen and make very little money.  Later, while watching them train, I realized that they seem to put everything they have into boxing as a means to create a better life for themselves.  Even if they don't fight professionally, boxing seems to offer a strong sense of fulfillment to these men.

But anyway, to kind of back up and go to the beginning again, we had this naive idea that we could just go to Bukom, find a boxing gym, go in, make friends with the boxers, and then that would be that.  Our one driver, Big Sammy, drove us to Bukom, and seemed hesitant to just let us out and walk around.  It's not exactly a touristy area of the city, and most Ghanians who aren't from there probably don't even go there, so I think Sammy wanted to make sure we were ok.  He took us back into this outside boxing ring, and there were only women washing clothes around.  He talked to them in a native language, and then told us that the boxers don't come until later in the day (this was around 1:30).  Then when we walked back to the car, Sammy started talking to some men who were sitting outside, and I guess asking them where he could find some of the boxers.  So one man said he would show us, and we followed him for a few minutes, and we ended up going into this little hut where there were about 7 men just sitting around. It was a little intimidating at first, and we couldn't understand what Sammy was saying to them for the first few minutes, and then one of the men stuck out his hand to shake ours and told us that we were welcome.  It turns out that he is James "Bukom Fire" Armah, the 3rd best boxer in Ghana in the welterweight division.  He told us that he would start his training at 4, and then he showed us his gym so that we would know how to find it when we came back.  So Adrian and I left, and then ended up taking a cab back to Bukom at 3:30.

When we got to the gym, there were a lot of other guys and children setting things up and getting everything ready for the training.  Like when we first met James, it was a little bit intimidating at first, because you could sense the others sizing us up and trying to decide if they minded that we were there or not.  After a little while, though, everyone completely warmed up to us, and we ended up having the most amazing experience.  James, another younger boxer named Henry, and a few of the other guys, all started an intense workout.  The gym is outside, and basically just consists of one ring and two hanging boxing bags, but they definitely don't let that keep them from working incredibly hard.  While the older men were training (the younger boys, some as young as 6 years old) were also going through a different kind of training.  They were being taught how to stand and then later on a few of the boys sparred in the ring.  Even though they were fooling around half the time, you could tell there was a certain maturity to the boys and they seemed to take what they were learning very seriously, and you can tell they look up to people like James and Henry so much.  But I was so impressed at how respectful and mature they were even in the ring.  The one little boy got the area above his eyebrow gashed open, and he was completely nonchalant about it.  

As we were leaving James and Henry asked for our phone numbers, and one thing we've learned about Ghanians is that if you give them your number, they will call...repeatedly.  It's been a little bit annoying for some of the other students in the group who didn't realize this at first and casually gave their numbers to acquaintances who asked for them.  I really liked Henry and James, so I didn't mind them having my number.  As we were in the cab back, Henry called me and asked if I wanted to go with him to work out this morning, but I told him I had another story to work on and would let him know in the morning.  Then James called to make sure we got back ok, which was very sweet of him.  We made plans with them to go back to Bukom today during their training again. 

We have a tourism story due on Tuesday, which is actually a little bit stupid, considering that Accra isn't a very touristy place, and also just because of the fact that there's SO much to write about and learn here, that the idea of having to do something "touristy" just seems a little bit disappointing.  But anyway, I decided to do the Arts Centre for my piece, which is this small craft market that is made up of a bunch of little shops, and is a good place for foreigners to come and buy African crafts and artifacts.  My friend David ended up coming with me, and the trip was pretty successful and we ended up speaking to the chairman of the whole Centre and interviewing him, which was good.

But anyway, after I was done at the Arts Centre, Adrian and I went back to Bukom around 2:30 in the afternoon.  James doesn't live in Bukom anymore, so it takes him a little while to get to the gym, and we sat outside and waited for him.  I feel like in Bukom, more than anywhere else here yet, people stare and are amazed at us being there the most.  It's actually really amazing to experience being such a minority for once in my life.  But James came, and it was still a little bit early, so we just sat outside and talked with him for a little bit, and came to learn a little bit about his personal life.  It turns out that James is 34, and his wife died 8 years ago, leaving him with two children.  He was telling us that he really wants us to come to his home, meet his parents, children, brothers and sisters, etc.  He is just so genuine with wanting us to experience his culture, and he even taught us a little bit of Ga, and wants us to keep learning it.  When people truly befriend you here, you feel as though you're their friend for life, and they will go out of their way to help you.  James seems to be especially like this, and for whatever reason, he's taken a really strong liking to me and Adrian, and I feel really fortunate that we've met him.

So people started slowly getting to the gym, and a few men (who I hadn't seen there before) came for a little bit with a baby girl, who was probably one 1 or so.  Her name was Isabella, and we were the first white people she'd ever seen in her life...and she was petrified of us.  Anytime her father put her near us, she would get this terrified expression on her face and try to get her body as far away from us as possible.  It was a little bit of an overwhelming and upsetting situation, but it really makes sense for a child who has never seen a white person to just become so instinctively shocked and scared, I guess.  But they ended up leaving, and then the rest of the crew mingled in, and everyone started getting ready and setting everything up again.  Of course my camera battery died within the first ten minutes, but we hung out for a little bit, and I think we're going to see them again tomorrow.  Henry asked me to come work out with tomorrow at 7 in the morning, but I have an interview at 11, so I'm disappointed I won't be able to go again.

But now that I've written a novel about the past two days, I should probably stop and put up a few pictures.  

James "Bukom Fire" Armah


Monday, July 5, 2010


"Akwaaba" means "Welcome" in twi, the most widely spoken native language in Ghana, and it's an appropriate word to begin this blog with, because we experienced such an amazing welcome into the country.  After we landed, a bus came to pick us up and take us to our housing compound, and then the day was full of all the usual minor technicalities of getting situated and settled in.  For dinner, we met our professor and director of the program, Frankie, at an outside restaurant, Tante Marie.  A big screen was set up, and the Ghana vs. USA game was on, which we had been looking forward to all day.  All of us girls (there's nine girls, and four boys in the group) wanted Ghana to win because of how exciting it would be for us in Accra (which is pretty selfish, and very girlish of us, I suppose), while the boys remained loyal and cheered for the US.  Fortunately for the girls, Ghana did win, which led us to experience a kind of surreal first night in the country.  Immediately, we heard people running through the streets, cheering and blowing vuvuzelas.  We decided to go out to the main roads to see all the excitement, and ended up following this group of older teenagers to this area where everyone was celebrating.  There were a lot of little outside bars set up, music was playing, and a lot of people were dancing.  It was amazing to see how genuinely happy for their country everyone was, and I think they were really amused at the fact that we were out celebrating with them.  I've been trying to take a lot of videos in order to upload here, and have videos from the night, but our connection isn't the best, and it takes hours for videos to upload.  Maybe I'll eventually figure out how to get them on here, but until then, I guess photographs will have to suffice, though I unfortunately don't have any from that evening.

On Sunday, the 27th, the former mayor of Accra, Nat Nuno-Amartefio, came to speak to us about the history behind the city and then take us on a quick bus tour around.  He took us to Jamestown, an area of Accra that is incredibly poor and comprised of mostly shanty towns.  We walked through this old, dilapidated building on the waterfront that used to be used to house captured slaves before shipping them off to sea.  The area was full of tons of children, who just seem to run all of the over place.  They love white people, and finding us to be a sort of spectacle, come up to hold our hands, talk to us, and a little girl even spanked my butt (which we've come to experience is common for women to sometimes to do to us girls).  Walking around the city, we often hear people refer to us as "obrunis," which means "foreigner," or more specifically, "white person."  I know it sounds so absurd, coming from a country where that would be considered completely politically incorrect, but they mean it in an endearing sense, and most Ghanians are happy we're here, and even go out of their way to welcome us to their country.  

"Uncle" Nat with other students from the group looking at the sea from the former slave building.

The view from the building.

Paintings on a dilapidated wall.  The bottom one seems the oldest, and looks like slaves chained together.

A group of children waving at us.

Even though this is even one of the more stable looking ones, these houses are an example of the homes in the neighborhood.

On Monday, June 28th, we had our orientation with the directors, and other people who work for NYU's Ghana campus.  The orientation was followed by two lectures, the first one regarding the history of Ghana, and the second about religion.  Our first lecturer, Dr. Akosua Perbi, was incredibly intelligent and engaging, and I found out that she's good friends with Walter Pimpong, the man I'm going to be working with regarding the Trokosi women.  Our second lecturer, Mr. Dan Appiah Adjei, seemed to be a little less professional.  The basis of his lecture was incredibly true: culture and religion are not mutually exclusive entities in Ghana.  The culture is completely immersed in the Ghanians deep regard for religious identity and faith, regardless of which religion they identify with.  The three prevalent religions in Ghana include the "traditional" African religion (which, for lack of a better word, can be seen as a kind of Pagan-type religion), and then Christianity (due to Britain's colonization of the country from 1874 to 1957), and lastly, Muslim.  Mr. Dan was an avid Christian, and while there's nothing wrong with that at all, he couldn't seem to speak about religion in the country without a completely biased perspective.  To put it a little more simply, he also seemed just a little borderline crazy, and told us to read his play, "Tears of Lucifer," of which the cover consists of a skeleton burning in hell.  Very pleasant.

But anyway, after our lectures, we went to visit TV Africa, one of the television stations in Ghana.  They broadcast everything: news programs, health shows, sports shows, even motivational and reality programs.  The station's mission seems to revolve around consistently portraying traditional African values, with people on the shows only wearing traditional African clothing and speaking in the native language.  Here are a few pictures: 

On Tuesday, the 29th, we had another two lectures, "Arts and Entertainment in Ghana" with Mr. Nana Benyin Dadson (a writer for the Daily Graphic, where we later visited that day), and "Politics in Ghana" with Professor Gyimah Boadi, who seemed to harbor a little more skepticism towards the Ghanian government.  After lunch, we went to visit the Daily Graphic, a state run newspaper, and the paper with the largest circulation in Ghana.  My roommate, Megan, and I briefly got separated from our group, and ended up making friends with a few of the very friendly, and flirtatious, workers.  But even though the men here can be incredibly flirtatious (and often just blatantly propose to you), most of them are just genuinely friendly and do it in a very non-threatening way.  The guys at the Daily Graphic were just very lively and funny to talk with, as the pictures probably show.  Another really great thing about Ghanians is that a lot of them not only don't mind having their pictures taken, but sometimes people, and a lot of times the children, will ask you to take their picture. 

Inside the printing room.

And so it begins...

Megan getting out her video camera to record the guys.

I know I didn't cover the rest of the week yet, but this is turning into the never-ending blog post, and I've probably become  incredibly boring, so I'll come back later today to update.  Also, I realize how much easier this would be to do on a consistent basis, so now I'll (hopefully) write either every, or every other, day.