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Archive for September, 2010

So how is it like being back in Ghana, many have asked me?

On the way to my house, there’s a mansion that shares a wall with a shack.

On the way to my house, there’s a street lined with trees. They form a kind of canopy, and I usually stick my head out of the car window, like pets do, breathing the refreshing air as the wind blows through my non-existent hair.

It’s been two months and I’m not ready to return to America yet. Some friends told me I wouldn’t last three weeks. But two months in and the possibility of staying here forever seems tantalizingly real. Two months in, and it may just be the honeymoon phase.

My friends said I wouldn’t last because honeymoons usually last a couple weeks. But yesterday, I met a girl who is planning an 8-month honeymoon. I told her we have a lot in common.

So I got blackberry service the other day; fast, standard and for two-thirds of the cost in America. That was a watershed moment for me, knowing that having blackberry service takes all the world’s sorrows away. I also saw Inception at the cinema not long after its release. The cinema is at the mall and they have nice shops, and the only things I can afford there are groceries. Soon, though, I’ll dust off my squash racket, join the Polo club and learn how to ride a horse.

But last night, I took the trotro (local bus) and when we hit three, skinny rumble strips the front door popped open. I would have fallen out if the engine could power the car more than 25 miles per hour. A pickup truck in front of us was overloaded with cattle, and enthusiastically blew exhaust fumes, thicker than bonfire smoke, in my face.

Six Harvard grad students also came to do groundbreaking malaria research — because that’s what Harvard students do. Four quit after a month. Jimmy said the internet was too slow so he couldn’t play World of Warcraft. The food was too starchy, Kelly couldn’t find a good salad and the little animals they had come to study didn’t like them very much.

On the way to my house, there’s a mansion that shares a wall with a shack.

On the way to my house, I stick my head out of the car window, breathing the refreshing air and waiting for the honeymoon to end. I have a feeling it will go on for a while, for so long that it becomes no longer a honeymoon, but a daily reality, even when the exhaust fumes happily blow in my face.


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Finding Your Way

“Pass left” (while he points right), “then go aaaaaaaahhh and you will see a kiosk painted with Ghana flag. Pass that road and go small and you’ll see a guy selling coconut and then pass right” (while pointing straight). “Take the junction and ask for the fat lady who sells rice and beans. Oh, don’t worry it’s not far koraaaa (at all).” I didn’t find the coconut seller; he must have moved, so I missed the right turn — or did the guy directing me mean to go straight? Welcome to Ghana.
Finding a restaurant, or anything else, in America is a factor of Google. Not so in Ghana. Here, you quickly realize the indispensability of your fellow man and that your surroundings are as much a guide as MapQuest. Street signs in Ghana are usually on main thoroughfares at intersections or roundabouts, and they point you in general directions (or in Francophone countries in West Africa, autres directions). But these are general directions and you’ll rarely find specific streets that are named.
So wherever you want to go, you have to ask for directions.And that presents an entirely new challenge: how Ghanaians give directions. Many people will point in the direction opposite to where they are telling you to go. For instance, they’ll signal with their hands to make a right when they are actually telling you to turn left, leaving you in a dilemma, pondering the relevance of the adage that actions speak louder than words.
But it’s not all challenging, and the colorful ways Ghanaians give directions makes asking a Ghanaian for directions one of the things to do before you die. People will spare no detail as they aid you in finding your way. ‘Go to the big, fat lady who sells jollof (or pilaf)” or “the one-leg guy with the big head and ask for Auntie Munni’s joint,” are directions people will give without the slightest remorse. This will never happen in America.
Ghana opens your eyes and you begin to you realize how much life in developed countries is taken for granted. We take delivery service for granted, and never ask how it is possible that a pizza guy you’ve never met can find your house and bring you chicken wings in 30 minutes. You may never ask how it is possible to have a credit rating system, or never thought about how Google works. If your house is on fire in my hometown, the police will just have to follow smoke and by the time they find your house, you might be dead.
These modern day amenities cannot exist without addresses (not just post office boxes), and you cannot have addresses without easily identifiable street names.In our part of the world, you see the bowels of development, the dirty work required to make a modern life possible, and you hope the people responsible for development get it.

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On the Way Out

Six years ago I was young. I had graduated from high school, among the youngest of my class. It wasn’t my fault, or more appropriately, it wasn’t necessarily to my credit. It was circumstance, that of a driven father who thought two and half years was a great age to start kindergarten. Five years ago, I left Ghana to go to college in America. It was not my fault, nor was it entirely to my credit. It was circumstance, that of a visionary brother who had carved a path that seemed obvious to follow.

Frankly, I never thought much about why I wanted to go to America, so when I was asked “why do you want to go to Macalester College,” I had no idea.  That probably explains why I did not get into Macalester. By the end of college application season, ten American Universities had asked me the same question. Only one believed the answers I told, and even that one had significant doubts. I was waist-listed and eventually admitted at St. Lawrence University. St. Lawrence soon realized they made a great bet – to the loss of Macalester and her friends – and I, too, realized, not long after, why I wanted to go to America.

I went to America because I wanted to grow up. Not that America is the place where only mature people live, but I wanted to live on my own, to experience life without the safety net of my father’s house, the nurturing bosom of my sister or the proof of sanity having many friends provides. I wanted to “step out of my comfort zone,” to use one of the many clichés that adorned my college application essays. America was my choice because there was already a path – and Europe, except for tourism, is lame.

In that regard, America fulfilled its promise. But there’s more to life than the fulfillment of a promise, and in this regard, my inspiration for riding the flood out of Africa is inextricably linked to my inclination, ultimately my decision, to join the stream back.

Because I did not go to America for its “greener pastures,” returning home to graze was relatively easier, and perhaps inevitable. Because the source of my happiness was not clean streets instead of dusty shantytowns, the subway instead of scrap metal buses (aka trotros), and  an efficient electrical grid instead of perpetual blackouts, I found it easier to come back. I knew nearly 18 years of happiness and I was cynical that 5 years away would make me incapable of rediscovering it. And even so the true profit of exile is the return home.

ix years ago I was young. I had graduated from high school, among the youngest of my class. It wasn’t my fault, or more appropriately, it wasn’t necessarily to my credit. It was circumstance, that of a driven father who thought two and half years was a great age to start kindergarten. Five years ago, I left Ghana to go to college in America. It was not my fault, nor was it entirely to my credit. It was circumstance, that of a visionary brother who had carved a path that seemed obvious to follow.


Place du Souvenir, Dakar-Senegal

Frankly, I never thought much about why I wanted to go to America, so when I was asked “why do you want to go to Macalester College,” I had no idea.  That probably explains why I did not get into Macalester. By the end of college application season, ten American Universities had asked me the same question. Only one believed the answers I told, and even that one had significant doubts. I was waist-listed and eventually admitted at St. Lawrence University. St. Lawrence soon realized they made a great bet – to the loss of Macalester and her friends – and I, too, realized, not long after, why I wanted to go to America.


I went to America because I wanted to grow up. Not that America is the place where only mature people live, but I wanted to live on my own, to experience life without the safety net of my father’s house, the nurturing bosom of my sister or the proof of sanity having many friends provides. I wanted to “step out of my comfort zone,” to use one of the many clichés that adorned my college application essays. America was my choice because there was already a path – and Europe, except for tourism, is lame.

In that regard, America fulfilled its promise. But there’s more to life than the fulfillment of a promise, and in this regard, my inspiration for riding the flood out of Africa is inextricably linked to my inclination, ultimately my decision, to join the stream back.

Because I did not go to America for its “greener pastures,” returning home to graze was relatively easier, and perhaps inevitable. Because the source of my happiness was not clean streets instead of dusty shantytowns, the subway instead of scrap metal buses (aka trotros), and  an efficient electrical grid instead of perpetual blackouts, I found it easier to come back. I knew nearly 18 years of happiness and I was cynical that 5 years away would make me incapable of rediscovering it. And even so the true profit of exile is the return home.

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