Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Meander Through Ghana

Recent talk of houses sent me in this direction.

When Peace Corps training got to the stage at which we were asked where in the country we would like to be posted, my unhesitating choice was Kumasi. Kumasi is Ghana's second largest city, about 150 road miles inland. Accra, on the coast, is the political and administrative capital, the city the British colonizers developed because of its convenience to shipping lanes and harbors. Kumasi is the cultural capital of the southern part of the country, the seat of the Ashanti kingdom. At the time of the British arrival, the Ashanti were on their way to conquering most of the land surrounding Kumasi and were working their way to the coast. Without the British intervention that part of what is now Ghana may well have been called Ashantiland today. For all practical purposes, that's what it is, and the term is used loosely, with much the same cultural meaning as northern Illinois' "Chicagoland."

When I visited Kumasi, I felt proud to be there. I saw Africans living in a vibrant, entirely African city and wanted to be a part of that crowd of people; I felt as if I were in the beating heart of an important culture and wanted to learn as much as I could about it. I was a city boy and didn't really relish the thought of an isolated life in the bush (although I'd certainly have gone wherever I was needed and made the best of it). Other people really did prefer more rural placements, thinking "rural" means "authentic," and that's a valid point, if you want an authentic rural life. I wanted an authentic city life. Kumasi was a no-brainer for me.

I got my wish, but, I later found out, not without my request causing some controversy among the training staff. Somehow--I can only imagine on the basis of one 15-minute conversation I'd had with a Ghanaian psychologist during training (in those days shrinks were attached to Peace Corps training groups)--staff got the idea that I was "wild." They thought placing me in a city with all its temptations was risky. So they gave me Kumasi, but they also gave me a housemate. He was a responsible-looking older man who they thought would keep me on the right path. (He turned out to be a pothead who tried to turn me on in my first week with him.) And the topper: to be extra safe they put me at an all-boys school! (Oh, my aching 24-year-old gay hormones! Somehow I survived being in the constant company of hordes of randy male adolescents. The experience produced one of the most profound emotional experiences of my life--not an altogether good one--but I learned volumes about myself and I did survive.)

Nobody I knew in the Peace Corps lived the sort of mud hut existence agency propaganda would lead you to expect. Teachers were well taken care of, with indoor plumbing, kerosene refrigerators where electricity was unreliable, and nice houses, usually on the grounds of their schools. My school, Kumasi High, was in temporary quarters while I was there and had no teacher housing, so I lived some distance away and was bussed to work along with the other teachers. (Here's the handsome Benz bus waiting for me in my driveway.)
I actually lived in two places in Kumasi. For most of my first year, home was here, on the top floor of an apartment building that sat directlyacross the street from the huge grounds of the Asantehene's palace, the seat of power of the hereditary Ashanti kings. I was at the heart of the heart, as it were. (The "grounds" were no great shakes, no manicured lawns with topiary or anything like that. Just a big farm, really, with the palace framed by royal palms at the crest of a hill in the distance. But still, I was there!) The apartment was a beautiful place with four bedrooms, terrazzo floors, the full complement of bath, kitchen, dining area, etc. I shared the place with that old pothead until he left; then I was sent another roommate, a guy named Leon, who was a young pothead! (Pretty much evertybody was a pothead in the 1960s, you may recall, except me. Drug use was grounds for immediate termination of Peace Corps service, and I refused to go near the stuff for that reason.) Leon left, soon enough, too, and I was blissfully on my own.

The school didn't like me living in that apartment--it was too far away and too expensive, and they gave me fair warning that it would not be my permament residence. Finally they did find me another place, a house about a half-mile from school. It was brand new, and owned by a man named Fred Bampo, a soil scientist who worked at the nearby Agricultural Research Center. He had studied in the States, loved Americans, and became a fast friend. Here's Fred, dressed up for Sunday church. The house had a big living room, four bedrooms, a kitchen and a bath. To save money, the school had Fred construct a wall across the middle of the living room, thus creating two "apartments" with two bedrooms each (the kitchen and bath becoming communal), and I ended up sharing that house with a fellow expat teacher, a man from Nigeria, one U. U. Akpaide. He was called "U U" (pronounced "You-you.") UU and I basically stayed out of each others' way and got on fine. He had a houseboy whose name I can't remember, but he became a good friend. UU treated him like a slave, while I treated him like a regular human being, and he was grateful for that. Also, he was from the north of the country, so Twi, the Ashanti language, was foreign to him, as it was to me. He and I communicated exclusively in "baby Twi" (as he called it). I taught him about the concept of countries and maps, showed him a picture of the world, then of Africa, then Ghana, then where he was from and where he was in Kumasi. We had philosophical talks about the meaning of life, I and this uneducated young man from National Geographic Africa. Why was he black? Why was I white? Why was he poor? I still get tears in my eyes thinking back on these priceless exchanges. We listened to American pop tunes together and I translanted the words. Here he is, all dressed up in a fancy fugu I bought for him. That's me, standing behind him. I still have that checkered fugu.
It was in Fred's house that I lived most of my time in Ghana, where I had my happiest and most wrenching moments, and I guess it's there that I will leave us for the time being. There is really no point to this post except to reminisce and show you a little bit of the two most consequential years of my life. My fellow Ghana volunteer Tim Henson made the sharing of these pictures possible by recently cleaning up and then scanning and digitizing my old slides. I owe him a huge debt of gratitude which I know I will never be able to repay properly. If you enjoyed this little journey, it's because of him.

5 comments:

Kat said...

Ralph,
I have heard you tell that story of the wild man and Kumasi and still chuckle. You are about as far as I know from wild and were even back then. We in the upper north, far away from Accra, sowed far more wild oats.

I was always mesmerized by Kumasi. It was such a huge city, and I couldn't believe it had this hotel with a veranda and a bar. I always made it my half way stop, my last taste of the city, before the long ride home.

I have always loved cities but I found a home in Bolga with its market every third day, on and off electricity and not one veranda; however, I did love my stops in the city, in your Kumasi.

Ralph said...

Kat, do you remember if we ever did the curry lunch together at the City Hotel?

Kat said...

Rakph,
Michelle mentioned to me, but I'm not sure. I do remember sitting with you at that hotel and having a drink or two so maybe we did.

Zoey & Me said...

Sounds like you had it made in the shade. But others didn't. My daughter, for example, was stationed in Chivona, Zimbabwe, no running water, zero electricity. She even had to lobby the Chief in the Village to convert an old food warehouse to a modern library for the school. She succeeded but not without bribery and trips to Peace Corps Harrare to get engineers down there and a construction team. She paid to keep one young brilliant girl in school herself because the parents couldn't afford it. But they made the daughter work for her, odd jobs, laundry, sewing, cleaning the hut. Zimbabwe is truly a third world nation under mob rule.

Ralph said...

Z&M, Zim is a tragic mess, but really, your daughter's experience is a lot closer to the "typical" PC experience than ours in Ghana was. Ghana has always been relatively more developed and the PCVs there have lived relatively well. My eyes were really opened when I visited vols in other countries on my job. No matter where PCVs serve, though, they'd never trade their experiences for anything else, I'll guarantee that.