On the road again
After creating our website over the weekend, the second week of our training was a quiet one. Wednesday we had a going away party in the Mass MoCa building, where Geekcorps has its HQ. Mass MoCa, short for Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, is a former milling complex that was recently converted into a museum/cultural/office complex. The site is enormous and covers several acres. No wonder large parts are still empty. Part of the exhibition in the museum shows contemporary art, too large to show in the Guggenheim in New York and by far the most interesting piece of work is the ueberorgan. The, as it is presented, largest organ in the world is indeed a most impressive site. The room in which it is stored, a room almost the size of a football field houses the pipes, tubes and microphones in a very cluttered but massive fashion.
The farewell party was enjoyable. Mainly because Geekcorps had joined forces in the past with Dewars for an ad campaign, large quantities of Dewars whiskey were available. Needless to say, I had a big hangover the next day and to top things off, I also had acquired a cold from somewhere. I was a happy man for not having to leave until three in the afternoon. Although our plane wasn't set to leave until eleven at night.
Since the van, that was supposed to pick us up from North Adams and drive us to JFK, had had an accident the previous day, it turned out our means of transport had been upgraded by the rental company. We were now enlightened with a 20foot long white limousine with driver. a long u-shaped couch, TV, video, whiskey, tanned windows and the interior lined with plastic light emitting tubes made for an interesting trip back. According to the driver: "You can do anything back there accept smoke. And any hard liquor is shared."
JFK was a big disappointment this time around. The airport truly is a disaster and seemingly could only have been built a complete idiot. The small corridors reminded me of the TV series St. Elsewhere, set in some hospital in the US. Cold, empty, ugly and boring passage ways. And, again, voices from hidden speakers warning for all sorts of things.
When checking in, Tomas asked for a chair next to the emergency exit. Since he has a knee that occasionally gives him trouble, the extra legroom makes it possible to stretch his 1.95m body. The result was I also ended up next to the emergency exit, having to share three chairs with Tim. Three of the other geeks had three chairs to themselves, each. My nights rest didn't even come close to what they experienced.
Just before 12pm, the next day, we arrived in Amsterdam. Just after touchdown I immediately turned on my GSM, wanting to call my girlfriend to make sure we would meet before the next flight would take us to Accra. Less then a second after turning it on, my girlfriend already called me. I picked up the phone but was immediately stared down by cabin personnel since it is not allowed until the airplane has come to a complete close to turn on your mobile phone. I had to call back later.
It turned out that not just Vinca, but also my mom had come along to catch a glimpse of me. Still, the reunion was a joyful one, my mum being so kind to leave us two lovebirds alone for the remaining hour of my stay in Amsterdam. A pity, though, that the cold I had picked up in North Adams was now passed on to Vinca. Although I myself, after meeting up with my girl, felt I could take on the world again.
The second part of the trip, from Amsterdam to Accra, was much less spectacular. Although I explicitly had asked for a window seat, I ended up in the middle of the plane, again sharing three seats with Tim, although this time that was a bonus since almost all seats were sold, mostly to Ghanaians going back home. And one very noisy American, voicing his surprise at anything from the breadrolls to the Norwegian Salmon. When Tim, after getting more and more annoyed with the man, asked him to quiet down, he gave Tim a pat on the head and some belittling answer. As I said, a much less spectacular flight.
During the flight a very friendly stewardess helped me in trying to deal with the cold I had. Some aspirin and chamomile did help me a lot and we both agreed that the heat of Accra would probably help me over my cold in no time. When I finally got out of the plane in Accra, it was as if walking into a wall of heat and moisture, similar to what I had earlier experienced in Egypt and Crete some years before. The differences being that, there, it had been summer. Here, it was January.
We were told to expect the most terrible crowd at the airport. Hundreds of people would be going to vie for our attention and try and get to carry our suitcases through customs and into their taxis. Interestingly contrasting with this image was the eventual quietness. From the moment we walked on the tarmac to the time, some 20 minutes later, where we were picked up by Stophe and Ebenezer, responsible for Geekcorps in Ghana, no one harassed us. We did have the hardest time to get Jason's and Jean's huge suitcases from the luggage claim to the taxi area, though. Both bags are big enough to firt a person.
Thirty minutes after meeting up, we were enjoying dinner in 'Home Touch', a Ghanaian restaurant on the way from the airport to Osu, the area in Accra where Geekhalla, the Geekcorps offices and our living quarters, are located. We were cautioned to try one typically Ghanaian dish, fufu, cooked cassava, resembling a very thick version of mashed potatoes, since this is a very heavy dish. And at this time of the day, already around 10pm, it wouldn't be the best thing to eat, so shortly before going to bed. Needless to say, almost everyone tried the fufu. Needless to say, most had a hard time sleeping later on. Some even tried the fufu with 'bushmeat', which means that the actual meat that ends up on your plate can be anything from antelope to elephant. Literally 'from the bush'.
Driving into Osu is like entering a fortified area of the city. Although the main artery of the area is Cantonments road, Oxford street in local parlance for its non-Ghanaian shops serving the expat crowd, many residential buildings exist here to. Most of these houses are surrounded by a large gate and, more often than not, have a guard patrolling around the clock, just like we have. Next to Geekhalla, there is the American Embassy visa section. Useful for pointing out to people were you live, since no one in Ghana uses streetsigns to give directions but only landmarks. And if you're wandering, there is no such thing as a postal system.
Geekhalla is a reasonably big building. Formally the offices of a defaulted airline, it contains a large living room, a reasonably kitchen and seven rooms. The rooms, although completely empty save for a bed, a desk and a cupboard, are spacious. The mattresses, made from soft pur foam, tend to shape themselves in accordance to your body: if you get up, you can still see what position you were in on the bed for several minutes.
I was lucky to confiscate the only double bed in the house, even though it was put in the smallest room. Jason and Tim were less lucky. Since we were eight, two people had to bunk together. This turned out to be them, ironically the two in the group that got on the least with each other. After a bit over two weeks, two weeks later as planned, Tim got his own apartment in some guesthouse not far from Geekhalla.
No work for now
We all assumed that, after arriving on Friday, we would be allowed to get acquainted with our surroundings during the weekend, after which we were expected to start working on Monday. The first week turned out to be something of a honeymoon. Not only did we have another whole week to get our stuff together, during that week Stophe took us out to a number of places, more often than not buying us lunch and dinner in very nice restaurants indeed. I guess that, based on their experiences with the first group, it wouldn't hurt to pamper us a bit.
On Saturday night we had a show in the Chinese built national theater. KSM, Ghana's most popular standup comedian did a show called 'politically incorrect'. Although part of the entertainment was in Twi, Ghana's primary local language (and the first language after English), the show was really fantastic. He truly was politically incorrect, as proven by the fact that he had had some run-ins with the law when he first performed his show, earlier last year. Now, right after the election and with Jerry Rawlings, the former head of state for twenty years, sitting in the front row of this performance, this particular show had a very interesting twist to it.
During the December elections, Rawlings' chosen successor and presidential candidate for the NDC, the National Democratic Congress, Mr. Atta Mills had only a slightly smaller percentage of the popular vote as compared to the biggest opposition's candidate. However, since all opposition parties joined forces for the second round of voting, necessary because no one candidate received a majority, Mr. John Kufuor, again with a narrow margin, beat AttaMills. Thus marking an end to the twenty year rule of J.J. 'Juvenile Jesus' Rawlings.
In 1979, as a mere flight lieutenant, Rawlings toppled the government, blaming them with bad management, corruption and more. Ghana had gone through turbulent times, since in 1966 Kwame Nukrumah, the first president of the first independent sub-Saharan state was thrown from power during a military coup. Rawlings, son of Ghanaian and Scottish parents, promised to give the power back to people and end corruption, also promising to have democratic elections as soon as possible. Surprising everyone, Rawlings actually did step down after half a year or so, after a democratically elected government assumed power.
Still, the party didn't last long. This newly elected government didn't achieve much better results than the previous ones and, in 1981, Rawlings again took over the government by force, again with the same goals as before but this time taking an interesting twelve years before initiating the next democratic elections. This time in 1992. The elections, Rawlings won with a large majority. Something he repeated four years later, when he constitutionally started his second and last term as president of Ghana. Now, AtaMills was not able to cash in on the success of his predecessor in last year's elections.
Success is, however, a large word for what Rawlings achieved in the last twenty years. He started out as something of a communist idealist but soon understood that, in order to save his country, he had to dance to at least some of the songs of the IMF and the World bank. Something that went with reasonably success in the eighties and the beginning of the nineties. When the century drew to a close, times had changed. Prices for the most important export goods in Ghana; gold, cocoa and oranges had sharply dropped, while many prices had risen, causing a record braking 50% inflation in 1999 alone!
When the NPP, the new party now in power, took over from the NDC this January, it turned out the the previous ruling party had spent much more money on numerous subjects than was previously assumed. Oil prices had been kept low by all means, resulting in a very much feared price hike, set to go in any day now. And, although promises had been made that no witch hunts would be started against the former government, Rawlings, his wife and a number of ministers have already come under some form of suspicion for money laundering, corruption and violence. The circle seemed to come round.
So we were sitting in the national theater. KSM was doing his show, 'Politically incorrect', and Rawlings was sitting in the front row. Much more money being spent by the former government was a very hot issue and KSM, in front of the whole audience, asks Rawlings what he had done with the money. Now, if you have never been in Africa, you can not imagine the way an African audience interacts with the artist on stage. A constant commenting, laughing, clapping, shouting, talking back. When KSM asked his question to Rawlings, the whole theater went dead quiet. This question was something no one expected. On a continent were people are still being hanged for much smaller offenses, this was almost too risky.
Rawlings laughed, gave a witty answer, everyone laughed, the show continued.
Later, KSM twice did a similar stint with Rawlings and his wife. Once, asking his wife what she thought when, in 1979 he took over control of the country, repeating the act two years later. She said she only heard it on the radio when it happened. The second time, she said, she only thought "Oh no, not again…"
During training in North Adams, Geekcorps put forward a rather interesting theory of what the mental state of a typical expat in a typical foreign culture is. Basically, this is represented, over time, by an upwards spiral with ups and downs. In the ups you tend to be very happy with the situation, enjoying your different surroundings. During the downs you want nothing but to go home. Slowly, you become more realistic, your downs get less and your ups slowly disappear into a general state of well being, the whole process taking up to several years. During the process, you also go through four stages: Unconscious incompetence, conscious incompetence, conscious competence, unconscious competence.
What I remember from previous stints abroad, didn't seem to totally fit with what I was told here. Sure, I had some ups and downs, both in Budapest, where I lived for a year, and in Brussels, where I spent two years. However, the ups and downs didn't seem to be that extreme. Maybe I went with the flow enough to not bother. When I did feel down, I could always hop into a cinema, go to a typically expat bar or do something else that would take away my sorrows for the day. Then again, Hungarian or Belgian culture is nowhere near African culture. Only the future would tell how things would develop for me over here.
A ball and a game
On Sunday, Tim, Jason and Tomas got out of bed at 5:30am to get to the stadium in time to buy tickets. The national soccer team of the black star state, Ghana, was going to be up against the lone star state, Liberia, playing in the national football stadium in the center of Accra. Although I was really interested to see that match, I didn't feel like getting out of bed at that ungodly hour. Later ,that turned out to be a wise decision since the ticket booths only opened at 9am.
Early in the afternoon, some two hours before the game was supposed to start, Peter and I also checked out the stadium to see if it was still possible to get tickets. Luckily it was and we ended up sitting front row on the first ring, right in the middle of the field. Not bad at all, although the game was something of a farce. Ghana, on paper, is the stronger team, but they lost an appalling 1-3. Liberia was way to aggressive for comfort and only in the first part of the second half, when the black stars started playing coherently, were they able to score a goal. When, five minutes before the end of the game, the lone star was awarded a penalty, resulting in a score of 1-2, the game was considered over. People started moving out of the stadium, not aware that even a fourth goal of the day was in the pipeline.
Peter and me were sitting in one of the Ghanaian filled areas of the stadium. Imagine our surprise when, minutes before the start of the game, some hundred Liberians came into our section. As a European, very familiar with supporter violence, this seemed like the beginning of the end. Although these Liberians seemed more like African Americans; noisy, irritating, badly dressed, no escalation ensured. Sure, there was some shouting against both sides, but in the end, the hundred or so foreigners all found a spot amongst the Ghanaian supporters.
When the national anthem started playing, Peter and myself literally were dragged on our feet by some people sitting behind us. Earlier, stadium hawkers and helpers, as was stated on their shirts, had already started selling everything from yogurt ice-cream to cream crackers. However because more tickets were sold than people would fit in the stadium, it was impossible for these hawkers to actually go up to most people and exchange cash for
Apparently having experienced this before, a truly practical solution is used. First, the buyer throws his money at the hawker, second, the hawker throws the goods at the buyer. Sometimes across considerable distances, 15 meters or more. Amazing that money or goods never gets lost, or at least didn't while I was watching.
Another interesting procedure is actually getting tickets. You basically have two choices to get a ticket. Either you stand in line for an hour or so, to obtain your ticket at one of the regular booths. Or you give your cash to one of the men hanging around the queue-less booths, who then buy your tickets for you. The latter goes much faster, but is also a bit more expensive since you have to pay the man who gets you your tickets. It is not accepted to get your tickets yourself at these booths.
After the game of soccer, the whole team of geeks was to meet up at the 'Next Door'. A sea side restaurant on the outskirts of Accra. Being more special than you might think, Africans, or at least Ghanaians, don't have anything of a bond with the sea. They mainly use it as a garbage disposal, fishing pond and to attract tourists. The only Ghanaians you will encounter on the beach are fishermen.
Stophe told us the Next Door was 'right after Labadi Beach', a beach resort and hotel. Taking him up on his words, we took a taxi and were dropped off at Labadi Beach, to be welcomed by hordes of women asking if it had been a long time, how business was in London and how the wife and kids were doing. Later, we learned that the Next Door wasn't really
next door, but a couple of kilometers away. We walked the distance.
And after finishing up dinner and dancing at the Next Door, the night went on even longer. Since this was superbowl night, Tim just had to see the game. The New York Giants were playing the Baltimore Ravens and since Tim is something of a New Yorker, this did make some sense. We went over to one of the few sport cafes in Accra, Champs, to experience the Giants being humiliated with a final score of 34-7.
In the end, no one actually was watching the game, but was chatting away with others in the bar. Myself, I won a bottle of wine, betting with this American Peacecorps volunteer Lura, that the movie Armageddon was not called Asteroid.
This was not a bad start of three months in Ghana.