Character Building in the Sub-Sahara
This job, you just never know… six months ago I wasn’t contemplating even coming to Ghana and now here I am hanging out with Rita Marley, wife of the late Bob Marley, contemplating horticultural potential and sussing out how we can develop her estate into a sporting space for the local kids in the community.
Andrea Peter, my colleague who also worked for Olympic Aid, and two local Ivoirians we met in a town called Grand Bassam, having some authentic Ivorian coffee at a local coffee bar.
Six months ago, I embarked on a sports internship here in Ghana, with an organization to develop coaching and sports development within rural African communities. Right before Christmas 2001, I flew to Ghana and a few weeks later I was kicking footballs with Roger Milla, running sprints alongside Marion Jones and temporarily hanging out with other high profile Olympic caliber athletes such as Dorothy Hamil, Princess Haya and Johann Olav Koss. We organized a massive Sport and Immunisation Festival to mobilize rural children for a five-in-one vaccination, with simultaneous sporting events being led in the presence of professional athletes. Not too shabby for a new continent, and an instant intro to a new home and job!
Needless to say, the whole event, and in fact, the course of my life since then, have been pretty damn exciting. From that point forward, I moved on to get acquainted with Ghana, the pulse of the people, the culture and other intricacies of this tropical wonder, five degrees north of the equator.
Some highlights include spending my first Christmas in Africa…and living through it to tell! This time round, no final shopping frenzy and jolly Christmas chaos but instead, white knuckles in sweaty, terrifying cab rides in 40 degree Celsius listening to Frosty in the back seat! Taxi’s aside, Christmas was somewhat more subdued than usual – the only gift offering I had was an attractive little Python from a couple of 10 year old kids. Though they claimed it was not poisonous, I politely declined.
Our Christmas dinner was the usual delicacy of rice and fish stew, followed by me hunched over the bowl, clenching my gut, and spending the next three days completely incapacitated by severe illness. Contrary to my first assumption, it was not food poisoning, but in fact, much more serious, like malaria. The instant onset of 104 degree fever, violent chills, and later, vomiting and other unstoppable bodily functions became all inclusive. Hello Africa! It was my official welcome and all this of course appeared as part of my little Christmas package; I was getting myself intimately and officially acquainted with some of the more evil ‘microbes’ lingering around these parts. I checked into the hospital and after about six shots and umpteen pills, I was released the next day to hobble home and nurse myself back into the standing position.
I came home to no running water after two days of bedridden, sweaty fever, and an electricity outage…at this point I had to hope there was some positive coming out of the holiday package; either I should have accepted the Python from the kids, or Jobe was testing my patience levels, or I was potentially, and more likely embarking on a new phase of this character building mission. The latter, I have since found out, has been an ongoing mission that is part of a larger scheme in my Sub-Saharan adventures.
As far as post-festival and post-holiday life, daily tasks here are anything but mundane compared to a 7-11 trip at home. A simple walk down the street requires avoiding handfuls of hecklers, particularly children, who chant as many “obruni” “obruni” cries as possible within earshot. As a visible foreigner, we get scads of people hollering at us, a convenient levy tax on everything we buy, and in particular, us lucky females get handfuls of handsome marriage proposals ranging across the board from underage, pre-pubescent boys, to fully grown, maturely married men.
Once accustomed to this, Accra is a very easy city to make a transition into from the western world. There is considerable wealth visibly circulating throughout the city in the form of Beamers, cell phones, and palatial mansions complete with security guards and ten foot walls; unlike a lot of developing nations, in Accra, most major amenities, though expensive, are still obtainable.
One virtue I have been carefully honing since my arrival in Africa, is that of patience; living here requires fields of it and since there are no strict rules or guidelines of how things function, as a foreigner you are left to infer 95 percent of the rules. Unless you have a local lending you a hand, few people volunteer information and it is difficult to understand the intricacies of the system with any consistency or logic.
Having said this, I have also learned that if you don’t pack your sense of humour along with your patience, (oceans of it, that is!) you won’t survive! There is no real clock here, everyone operates in GMT time (known affectionately as Ghana Man Time, or Ghana Maybe Time) – things get done when they get done and there is little necessity for urgency. There are water shortages every other day and power outages regularly because the government won’t meet the cost demands, the phone lines work randomly and sometimes the gas stations run out of gas. If you learn the tricks of the trade, like finding the crafty boy down the street who bottled gas in advance and is now selling it for double the price and half the quantity, you can make ends meet where it counts!
Being my first African experience, it took me a little while to adjust to certain facets of life, such as the heat. I lose about three pounds of liquid a day through my sweat, and regain it all by 1 pm, after my two meals of oil and whatever starch side it is served with! You see the Ghanaian diet is in fact quite heavy, and I have both reluctantly and cautiously adjusted to it.
My initial take on the food was sheer disbelief at the amount of oil and heaviness of it. The big favorite being Fufu – served as two doughey, pounded cassava, vitamineless balls that slither down your throat lubed with oil type A, B or C. It is served in a bowl of oily tomato onion broth with chunks of mystery meat that you can find at your leisure – cow intestine, lips and hide – you never really know, which is why I usually opt for the fish – or no meat at all – despite the wide eyed stares of disbelief as it the most expensive, and best part of the dish. Having said all that- there are a few tamer dishes with either rice, fermented cassava known as kenke, or delicious stews with coco yam leaves, that I now adore and look forward to on a regular basis (cow hide excluded). The vendor side street dining is one of the best perks of living here, food is always at your fingertips, day or night and with a bit of scavenging, you can find some local dishes to suit your palate.
Sunday morning tea with a handful of local children in a place called Cape Coast
In more recent times, work is keeping me occupied. As I mentioned we have various projects working with former Olympians, local school children, communities and leagues in and around Accra. I spend my weeks organizing sport and games for kids and my weekends either ripping it up in the city, or deciding where to travel. Ghana life leaves heaps of time for play and leisure. In fact, between white-knuckle sweaty cab rides, and hoofing soccer balls in the sub-Saharan heat with a herd of kids, I can’t say I haven’t enjoyed every minute of the adventure! Come June, my internship ends and I will be skipping along to Europe for a few months for some potential organic farming experiences or whatever work comes my way. From there, I am looking to the South Pacific to head down to the land of the kiwi.