Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Leaving - June 2006

Most of our friends have left. All conversations start with with, “So, when are you leaving?” We avoid goodbye parties. It’s time to leave Ghana.

The movers come tomorrow. I can only scrape together a few final thoughts before I pack up the computer.

It’s nice to have the World Cup as a distraction from the move. At least for a few more hours today, Ghana is in the World Cup final race. You can feel the energy in the air. Half the cars in the city have Ghana flags on them and everyone on the street is
wearing Ghana World Cup team gear. It’s nice to see this level of support for the country. It’s the most patriotism I have seen exhibited to date in Ghana. Every time Ghana scores a goal in the World Cup, we open the window to our TV room and listen to the roars and the beeps and pans clanging and the cheers throughout the neighborhood.

After Ghana beat the U.S. in a recent game that put them into the final 16, the cheers lasted for a long time. Everyone likes to stick it to the U.S., especially countries that are forced to accept our charity. So I went outside the gate to my house with my son to check out the celebrations. A crowd of about 100 Ghanaian fans ran down our street waving Ghana flags and cheering and yelling. A guy with an American flag saw me, threw the flag down on the ground in front of me and my seventeen-month-old son, and stomped on it. The funny thing was that the crowd wasn’t behind him. He was the only jerk and as soon as he started stomping on the U.S. flag, all the Ghanaian people who hang out in front of my gate (the driver, our guard, their buddies) jumped up, booed and hissed at him and yelled for him to move on.

I think about my son and how freaked out he is going to be when he comes back from his playgroup tomorrow to an empty house. It’s so bizarre to me that life in Ghana is all he knows. My friends say he will be fine and that I am the one that will be out of sorts. I’m the one who couldn’t wait to get out of here and, now that leaving is upon me, I’m thinking of all the things I will miss about Ghana. The Ghanaian people, the sun, the beach, our house and yard, the great friends we made.

Two weeks from now, my son will wake up in a foreign city and not remember a thing about Ghana. But not me. And I have no regrets.

West Africa on the Move - April 2006

So many freaky happenings in West Africa these days.

On my way to work last week, I saw a naked guy walking down the street in front of the police station. He is not the Ghanaian version of the “naked guy” in Berkeley who is making some political statement about not liking clothes made in China or whatever, but a full-blown, crazy, naked guy. He was walking by a group of Ghanaians waiting for the bus, who looked right past him just like most people do to the homeless in America. Apologists for African poverty always talk about how “It takes a village” and how people in Africa (unlike other places?) “Care about families!” At the end of the day people are people. They get used to seeing misery and, after a while, they ignore it.

A few days later, I saw the naked guy in a ditch. He was washing his rag of a clothing item he sometimes wears like a thong in a stream that runs through the ditch on the side of the road. I wondered about the house in the background and whether someone like me was living there and had to explain to his or her family or friends about the naked guy living in a ditch in front of their house.

A few weekends back, my husband called out to me as I was enjoying Armed Forces Network cable during my son’s nap. He yelled in a slightly panicked voice, “Have you eaten?! Come here and tell me what this is!” I entered the bathroom and at the bottom of the toilet bowl was a long, thin (width of a phone cord) black snake-looking thing wiggling around at the bottom of the toilet bowl. We couldn’t see a head or any appendages, and all we could do is stare at it in horror and look at each other and say, “What the hell is that?” After grossing out a considerable amount, my husband asked me, “What are we going to do!?” I said, “Flush it.” Problem solved. I am told it was probably a legless salamander or some other amphibious creature. I don’t even want to think about how it got into our water supply. I avoid that bathroom now.

Armed Forces Network. What a great thing that is. What other country would make sure that its troops (and diplomatic corps) have access to cable that consolidates all the best shows on all U.S. TV channels for our viewing pleasure! It’s like free TIVO. What I like are all the public service announcements and history lessons instead of commercials. Wouldn’t you rather hear about the story of Lincoln being shot or some war hero in Vietnam or the story of Iwo Jima instead of watching commercials? And you get to learn all about the military and the subtleties of military media indoctrination! Just kidding—it is surprisingly not indoctrinational. The best thing about Armed Forces Network is that it, ironically I think, carries both the John Stewart and Stephen Colbert political comedy shows. I stay up for those. It is all that keeps me sane working for the U.S. government. I wonder if these guys know how popular their shows are with the U.S. military and Foreign Service.

The big news these days in West Africa is Charles Taylor (Liberia's evil former leader) and how he is finally where he deserves to be—in the slammer waiting to be judged for war crimes. It is quite an anomaly that a former West African leader and millionaire (not to mention psychopath) was unable to bribe his way out of Nigeria, of all places. And he is in jail! It’s awesome. I can’t imagine the pressure that was brought to bear on Nigeria to make that happen. I was speculating with my French tutor that if he had made it into Cameroon, or worse, into the Central African Republic next door, he would have disappeared like Pol Pot. Some people worry about Charles Taylor being in a jail cell in Sierra Leone and how that will destabilize the region. They want him transferred to The Hague. I say let him rot in Freetown. Unfortunately, instead of suffering like the rest of the Sierra Leonean population who have to live without electricity, running water, and who suffer endemic malaria, I hear he has both TV and air conditioning. I was definitely hoping for more local jail conditions for him, given how much he deserves them. Slobodan Milosevic at his evil best couldn’t hold a candle to this guy. Anyway, when an African former head of state can’t bribe his way out of a jail cell, it gives me hope for West Africa’s future.

Another bright star emerging in the region is Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. If you don’t know who she is, Google her. It’s another sign of progress for West Africa when leaders who are not delusional get elected President (in this case, in Liberia). She is the first female to be elected President in African history. She is also an economist, a great public speaker (so rare here) and really smart. It's about time a leader like Sirleaf emerged in the region, but unfortunately Liberia is a basket case. I hope she survives the inevitable coup plots and can turn that country in the right direction. You can bet that the U.S. Government will do everything in its power to support Liberia now. Western government workers love it when someone who is not nuts becomes President somewhere in Africa and is actually willing to receive our assistance and listen to our advice. I think Liberia’s problem is going to be prioritizing all the “assistance” she will get from us. Sometimes we love countries to death. Anyway, it’s nice to have another West African country for the U.S. to love besides Ghana.

Ah, Ghana. It has its first mall. Ok, it’s not a real mall; it’s more like a small, two-story strip mall with about fifteen stores. But it is a child-friendly destination with a great, very sunny, outdoor playground for toddlers. My son loves it. There is also an ice cream shop in the mall called Mr. Scoop. When you walk by the glass windows you can see the workers getting ready for you to come in, and when you open the door the ice cream guys say loudly in unison, “Welcome to Mister Scoop!” I love going in and leaving and going in again so I can hear them say it over and over. My husband gets really embarrassed when I do this and forces us to buy something because they took the effort to say, “Welcome to Mr. Scoop” when we entered. The best thing is that the ice cream is soy-based (dairy free) for people with milk allergies. I’m telling you, West Africa is on the move!

In my nanny’s movie review news, she just finished watching the Star Wars series. After she watched Episode IV (the first one made) I asked her what she thought, not knowing what she would think about all that outer-space stuff. Her reply was, “Mommy! Indiana Jones was in it!” She deserves her own movie review show.

Big changes are on the way for my family and me. First, I will quit my government job at the end of this month. And a soon as I get back from my very much-needed vacation, I will begin work on my manifesto against USAID! Just kidding—I think I'd have to wait until my husband quits his job to open up those floodgates. But I have the material. Until then, I’ll live in my censored universe.

Even more life-changing is the fact that the end of our time in Ghana is in sight—we are leaving here for good in less than three months. I can’t say I’m getting nostalgic, but I am starting to think about what it will be like not to live here anymore. And I’m worried about my son and how he will cope with the transition. So leaving will be just a bit emotional for me.

We are off to Argentina. I’m calling it my “quality of life tour.” Time to live in a place with water we can drink, and hospitals we won’t fear going to. I’m sure I won’t have as many freaky stories to write about from there, but I will have more free time. I plan to carry on my tradition of writing home via updates from the Southern Cone. I also plan to have a few more visitors!

Also, I wanted to report that my 15-month-old son, whose speech I was lamenting just a few months ago because it wasn’t developing as fast as I had expected, has started to say a few words. They are unintelligible to most, but I know what he is saying. He says car, bottle, flower, cow, dada, shoes, ball, baby, and bye bye. So all is well on that front.

I can’t sign off without mentioning the super-cool, total eclipse I witnessed a few weeks back in Accra, along with most of the population from Brazil to Mongolia. All of Ghana was outside and looking up at the sun for the few minutes it became totally dark around 9:00 am. I learned the following about this celestial event from another work colleague: “It was earth’s first total solar eclipse since 2003, and that one was a much less dramatic event because of its brief duration and because it occurred in the extreme southern hemisphere where it was not seen by many people. The next total eclipse will occur in the extreme northern hemisphere on August 1, 2008. The United States will not see a total solar eclipse until 2017. There will be sixteen total eclipses over Africa in the 21st century.”

I’ll have to send this email out at some later point when my Internet service is working again. For $100/month it would be nice to have consistent service. But no, crappy DSL service at a terribly high price from a government-owned Internet provider is not a freak occurrence in Ghana. Don’t even get me started on Ghana Telecom and the anti-privatization movement because clearly, government-provided service is cheaper and better than it would be if there was some ^$#*% competition in the telecom sector! Argh! It's just how things are in Ghana these days. But they are going to change.

Entertainment in West Africa - March 2006

I have to begin this update with news on Courage, my cook’s son. He had his eye operation and it went well. He suffered no post-operative infections, and he can now see again from both eyes. He wears a pair of sunglasses now when he walks outside that make him look like Ray Charles. All that worrying for nothing.

I also want to apologize for the last dire update in general. When I don’t think too much about health issues, life here can be more entertaining than scary or depressing. Learning how to find humor in every day life has been an indispensable survival skill.

I was reflecting on this during one of my recent African dance classes. Yes, I am taking African dance. Before you laugh out loud, please know that when I go to the class, I don’t wear tie-dyed clothes, my hair is not yet in dreads and I still wear shoes. I can’t say that for everyone in my class though, one of the reasons I find it so entertaining. In fact, I think I’m one of the few who considers my participation as exercise rather than a cultural experience! I am armed with excuses for why I am involved in something so cliché: 1) the classes are conveniently located; 2) they work nicely with my schedule; 3) they are inexpensive; and 4) African dance is a great cardio workout. But mostly I think I like it because I get so much joy out of making a complete fool out of myself in public. I laugh out loud at least once a class when I stop and realize just what I must look like. I come home and demonstrate my newly learned moves for my husband and double over in laughter. He just shakes his head.

African dance is hard, and there is nothing intuitive about it. It doesn’t help if you are from Africa either; the Ghanaian women in the class are just as bad as the rest of us, and they laugh even more than I do in class. Nothing learned in past dance or exercise classes helps (not aerobics, ballet, step aerobics, yoga, nothing!) African dance mostly requires an amazing amount of stamina, constant bent knees, and lots of jiggling and butt shaking.

The instructors of African dance always seem to be men, and the students are almost exclusively women. I wondered the other day if any of the instructors could be gay. Being homosexual is pretty socially unacceptable in West Africa. There are no dedicated gay bars I am aware of in Accra (I heard there is a Thursday night place though) and I have only met one openly gay Ghanaian man, and he spends half the year in London.

Speaking of the unacceptability of being gay in West Africa, did anyone hear about the recent situation in Cameroon? A newspaper in Yaounde decided to accuse (or “out”, who knows) about fifty prominent, male businesspeople and politicians for being homosexual. In Cameroon homosexuality is a crime. The “outing” newspaper edition was so popular, it sold out and the paper resorted to photocopying the article. The accused are laying low, hoping the storm will blow over, but the country is seized with “gay fever”. The man on the street I heard interviewed on the BBC was ranting about, “How could we let these people run our country?!?” Then he quoted Sodom and Gomorrah. No wonder people aren’t “out” in West Africa. But now I’m getting depressed again, so let me switch gears.

Having a child here really does help me focus on the bright side of life. As far as my son is concerned, Ghana is the world. He doesn’t know there is more out there than what he sees every day, and he thinks life is pretty great. He has lots of people at home every day to play with him. He goes to play groups three times a week, he goes to the zoo, he goes on walks and he spends the rest of the day playing outside in our yard. He is not depressed, so why should I be? In fact, I’m sort of worried about how he is going to handle an upcoming vacation to Europe. He is not used to crowds of white people, big cities, subways, sidewalks, spending a lot of time in a stroller. It should be an interesting trip. I think I’ll appreciate the nanny much more when I get back!

I often spend time with my son on early weekend mornings outside our gate watching the traffic. He sits on my lap and says, “car”, and points at every vehicle that passes by. It is one of our favorite pastimes. He tops it off with ringing the doorbell 2,000 times. Anyway, one of our traffic-watching mornings, a commercial truck passed us and the driver looked right at us and waved, and he was wearing a pair of clown-sized, funny sunglasses that had lime green rims and purple lenses. I don’t think it was a joke though.

You probably get the idea from my traffic-watching story that there just is not a lot to do here! But it is not so bad—my husband and I manage to get out a few times a week as a couple. Our nanny loves to babysit (“Mommy! I need the money!”) so we take advantage of the opportunity to have an inexpensive, albeit limited, social life. Dinners out and going over to other people’s houses for parties, playmates and the odd poker game is about it. But I really like the fact we don’t have to plan our social life months in advance. It’s one of the nicest things about living overseas.

Anyway, when we do go out, we let our nanny watch videos after our son goes to sleep. She loves our dated video collection from our Bosnia days, and her reviews of the films are hilarious. Her favorite is the Indiana Jones series. When we arrived home the other night, I asked her how she liked the movie (Raiders of the Lost Ark) and she proclaimed, “Oh! Mommy! That man is a brave man! A very brave man!” After we ran out of Indiana Jones movies I had her watch Some Like it Hot. I asked her how she liked that one and she could barely talk when she responded she was laughing so hard. She kept saying, “Oh! Those ladies! They are so funny!” Then I asked her if she recognized the blonde woman in the film (Marilyn Monroe) and she squinted her eyes, shook her head, looked at me strangely and then asked, “You mean, Sugar?”

We recently had the opportunity to go out and see some live music in Accra, which, strangely enough, is not a very common occurrence here. We dragged our homebody friends to a hotel to see Orlando Julius, one of the original “High Life” stars of West Africa. The best description I can give of High Life music is that it is similar to old-school reggae. After our Stevie Wonder concert experience here (waiting four hours for him to show up) my husband and I knew we could arrive at least two hours late to this concert and still be early. And we were right. It was a beautiful night, about 80 degrees outside and a light breeze to keep the mosquitoes at bay. The concert was being held poolside at a hotel near my office. We showed up an hour and a half late and the artists’ new video (shot in Ghana incidentally) was playing over and over, with African dancers dancing along on stage (the best one hailing from New York City by the way). Right before Orlando Julius began his set, a representative of the Nigerian-American business association was introduced by the concert organizer and got up on stage. As it turns out, Orlando Julius is actually from Nigeria, so this “associate” was given the opportunity to tell us all about this fine musician, and the fact that he was able to smuggle ten copies of his soon-to-be internationally released CD into Ghana and, (lucky us) we were going to have the unique opportunity to be part of an auction of the Orlando Julius CDs that evening. He never told us who was going to benefit from the auction (did I mention he was Nigerian?) and then he proceeded to walk around to the foreign-looking members of the audience with a microphone and basically extort money from them in front of the entire crowd by saying things like, “Good evening sir! How much will you pay for this wonderful CD!” It was excruciating, and by far, one of the most outrageous experiences I have had here. You could hear the crickets chirping when he approached our group and asked one of our Embassy colleagues how much he wanted to pay for the CD. The silence was interminable, and then our friend leaned over to my husband and whispered, “THIS is why we don’t go out!”

Health & Children in West Africa - Jan 2006

My husband says that this is one of the most depressing updates I’ve written! I have to apologize at the beginning for that. But living overseas is full of dramatic highs and lows, and I can’t seem to pull myself out of the lows these days.

I came home for lunch yesterday and our cook/housekeeper mentioned that she had a problem that she needed to discuss with me. Her son had been stuck in the eye with a stick while playing with a friend. What had originally been diagnosed by one doctor as an infection was in fact much more serious. Now if he doesn’t receive surgery, he will lose sight in his eye. Her question to me was, could we give her a loan so she could pay the $200 for the surgery? Her son is five years old.

Two years ago in January, her husband went in for a “routine” heart operation at a local hospital. The operation went fine but he died of a post-operative infection. When something goes wrong at the hospital here and you are poor, you are just screwed. No one sues anyone; they just live with the consequences. So our housekeeper is desperately afraid the same thing will happen to her son. She has been crying in the kitchen for the last two days.

All I could tell her is that she shouldn’t worry about the money (of course we will help her pay for the operation). I can’t even imagine if it were happening to my son. But what I can’t do is assuage her fears about the hospital. Any hope I could give her would be insincere and she knows it. What I did tell her is that she has to be strong for her son. He needs to believe that everything is going to be ok. But I’m worried.

One of the zookeepers who used to play with my kid on his weekly visit to the Accra zoo recently died in childbirth, along with her baby. This happened at the hospital that, ironically, the First Lady of the U.S. visited here in Ghana last week, and was showcased as one of the U.S. government’s “success stories” in supporting improved healthcare. But there were complications in labor. A surgeon was called, but he didn’t show up in time, and both mother and baby died. As per the local custom, everyone at the zoo is wearing black.

A friend recently recommended that I write more about what I know—what it is like to have a child here. I guess I’ve been avoiding it since it’s scary to think about and I’m trying (more and more unsuccessfully I fear) to be balanced in my interpretation of life here. But the fact is my husband and I live in constant fear for our son’s health, and it’s not just the normal parental paranoia. For people who have the insurance or can afford it, serious injuries here are dealt with by putting someone on a plane to London or Germany or South Africa—one flight a day. Time-sensitive emergencies have no solution. The last place you want to take your kid here in an emergency is to one of the hospitals.

So we watch our kid like hawks. He can’t drink the bathtub water. He has to wear shoes when he plays outside. He cannot be outside at dusk when the mosquitoes are out. He can’t go near the animal cages at the zoo. And every time he has a fever, he gets a malaria test.

Our Embassy health unit is wonderfully supportive. They take every call from every worried parent, all hours of the day or night without complaint because they know that in Africa, you have to take fevers very seriously. Every one could potentially be malaria, which, if not caught in time, can be fatal. And every bout of diarrhea could be cholera or giardia.

Lucky for us, our one-year-old is overall very happy and healthy and developing wonderfully. But we worry about his speech development. If you spoke to our nanny, you might start to understand why. Her English is not great, and I’m starting to wonder if the misunderstandings we have are not just cultural. Most of the time I have a hard time understanding her. Don’t get me wrong—she is a wonderful and caring person who comes up with great, imaginative games to play with my child. He loves her to death and I know she loves him. But at the end of the day, she will not be the one teaching him to speak English correctly or challenging him intellectually. I’ve told her it’s ok to speak to him in Ewe, her own language. Maybe that is what he is garbling to us at the end of the workday.

Last week our son had stomach problems. By Friday he was lethargic but not dehydrated. Something was wrong, but we couldn’t figure out what. Then I realized our Nanny had been giving him the wrong mixture of formula for the past few days. I almost strangled her. Then I almost fired her. Now I make the bottles myself.

A woman from my office has an autistic kid. She told me today she is leaving Ghana to go back to the U.S. to get her kid the support he needs so he can enter kindergarten soon. This is the second person from my office that has left Ghana over the past year because of a child’s educational needs. Even the $13,000/year private schools here are not sufficiently equipped to provide the support for kids with learning disabilities.

Parents with older children here say it is hard to answer the questions their kids ask them living here. What would I say if my child was old enough to ask me about the lady who begs on the traffic median or the guy I saw on the street with elephantiasis a few weeks back? How would I explain the people touching his hair or why all the neighborhood kids ask him for money? I’m glad my son can’t ask me these questions yet because I don’t have the answers. And I’m starting to wonder after 15 years of development work if I ever will have them.

So I guess it’s hard being a parent here, one more reason why it is so difficult to get people to serve in Africa. I’m living the cliché that things like security, health, schools, and distance from family become so much more important in my life now that I am a parent.

One thing that clearly separates life in West Africa from other more developed places is that there is no neighborhood you can move into to evade misery here. You can’t drive a different way to your office and not see it. There is no wall that can protect you or your family from it. And sometimes, it gets to you.

So I spend my days secretly thankful for how lucky we are, while at the same time live with a constant twinge of guilt because we can leave this place one day. And I will keep my fingers crossed until I’m in a place where the water and mosquitoes and hospitals won’t hurt my baby.

p.s. The operation for Courage, our housekeeper’s son, is March 7, 2006.

Street Justice and Small Boys - December 2005

It was inevitable. You can’t live here for three years and not get into a car accident. I am amazed I lasted as long as I did driving in a country full of people with such varied levels of driving ability and such a wide range of vehicles on the road, in so many different states of repair. Just last week I saw a Ghanaian driving the newest model Porsche behind a horse and wagon. I often find myself frustratingly tailgating the car in front of me, with the car in front going its maximum speed of ten miles per hour. The streets in my neighborhood are full of cars with “Driving School” painted on the side, filled with dangerous, potentially-licensed drivers (mostly women unfortunately) behind the wheel and nervous-looking male instructors intermittently grabbing the wheel at the last minute to avoid one of Accra’s famous ditches lining the roads. I guess I should take comfort in the fact Ghana has driving schools to begin with.

So in my rush home to see my baby after work last Wednesday, I got into a traffic accident. A bicyclist shot out in front of a taxi I was following entering the famous Danquah traffic circle during rush hour. The taxi driver slammed on his brakes but had no brake lights. I slammed on my breaks, but not fast enough. Tires screeched, heads craned, and I ended up crushing the taxi’s back left taillight and cracking a plastic thing under my bumper. So, we had to do the old stop-get-out-of-cars-in-the-middle-of-rush-hour-while-cars-are-honking-furiously thing, and then motion to each other the international sign of “let’s pull over on the side of the road and talk this out.” Then the fun began.

A crowd quickly formed. The bicyclist (the only one who escaped without damage by the way) was furious! He kept yelling at the taxi driver in the local language. All I could understand was when he would interject “stupid fool!” every forty words or so. I just stood there watching calmly and exchanging many repetitions of “Oh, so sorry” and “Are you ok?” with the taxi driver and the taxi passengers. I called my husband for reinforcement. Luckily, no one was mad at me, even though technically, I was at fault. I had to tread very carefully because if an Obruni (the foreigner) is rude or hurts a local in any way, the crowd can turn on him/her in a second. So as long as they kept yelling at each other, I was in the clear.

Then the bicyclist started getting into it with some of the female taxi passengers. Who knows why? Things got physical but not overly so. Everyone had an opinion of who was at fault. Strangely, no one thought it was me, or if they did they kept it to themselves. The biker was mad at the taxi driver and the taxi driver and his passengers blamed the biker. Over the course of about thirty minutes, three Americans I knew on their way somewhere stopped by to see if I was ok. The crowd wasn’t getting ugly and I assured them it was under control. My husband arrived. He had called the police and they were “on their way.”

More talking, more looking at the cars. After about 45 minutes, one Ghanaian man assumed the role of judge and interpreter for me and my husband and the taxi driver. He told stragglers to keep on walking, controlled the crowd, sent the biker home and helped everyone determine that the damage was minimal, why get the police involved? Even with the police station a few blocks away, they hadn’t arrived. The “judge” suggested we just work with the taxi driver to come up with a solution. He said that involving the police would just take even more time, and since no one was hurt, why not just pay and we can all go home. The crowd agreed. So, my husband had a chat with the taxi driver, paid him double what he said he wanted, very publicly passed him the money, the crowd dispersed, and $25 bucks later, we all drove away.

Of course this whole thing could have been a scam. There have been multiple incidents where car crashes have been staged with Obrunis to extort money out of them, or worse, rob or car-jack them. But hey, if we were scammed, it only cost us $25. That’s worth it just for the story. So now you know what to do in a minor fender-bender in Ghana if it ever happens to you.

In another bizarre incident, my husband acquired a strange rash at the back of his neck along the hairline. After it became the size of a finger and was infected, we went to see a doctor. The doctor took one look at it and said, “That is a bug bite. Do you remember something falling on your head that felt like a leaf from a tree?” Yep. Just another of the dangers of African diplomacy.

On the baby front, our eleven-month old acquired two more teeth. He now has four teeth in total and loves to eat bites of his parents’ food in addition to his own. He also started walking one month ago. One day he took four steps in a row, and he never stopped. When he gets tired, he stumbles like a drunk. He loves to suck on the top of Daddy’s beer bottle. The nannies that chaperone other kids at the playgroup he attends dubbed him “Superman” because of his strength and walking abilities. He is loving life.

What else—I looked at last year’s Christmas update prior to life with baby. I mentioned that things were getting “hot” in Ghana given the Presidential election craziness. Well this year it is even hotter politically. Major government officials here are involved in a corruption scam. The highest-level member of the President’s political party was caught on tape discussing bribes to government officials. Excerpts of the text first appeared in the newspaper and then the tapes were released to the media. Forums are being held on corruption with politicians from the President’s team openly discussing how bribes are really “political contributions” and “not necessarily kickbacks.” My husband commented, “It doesn’t get any better than this if you are a political officer at an Embassy.” Another friend ominously noted, “December is a popular time for coups in Africa.” Let’s hope that is not the case in Ghana. As much as I like to see corrupt regimes go down, I don’t like to be in countries when coups occur.

On a less dire note, every day I walk into my office, the guards at USAID ask me about my “small boy.” Here in Ghana, young people are “small girls” and “small boys,” and Ghanaians love children. In this society where elders rule, someone like me, a woman in her late 30s, is also definitely considered a “small girl.” But the emergence of young, highly educated potential leaders is putting a kink in the whole “small boy” culture, so popular among the old guard. There is a Ghanaian journalist in Accra who was in my husband's class in graduate school in the U.S., and who hosts a very popular local radio show. In his early 40s, he has also been referred to as a “small boy” because, regardless of the level of his education, in Ghana, it’s the elders and the chiefs who are given full respect and should be listened to. On his radio show recently, one of his contributors challenged this tradition saying that Ghana should learn from other nations that have developed economically at an accelerated rate – these countries always respect their elders, but have learned to respect the wisdom acquired by some of the younger generation that has helped them move forward. I was pleasantly surprised to hear that someone was willing to come out publicly and say this, and have since encountered a number of young Ghanaian professionals who completely agree with him.

But change is never easy. The most recent Afro Barometer survey shows just how tired Ghanaians are of paying the price for democratic and economic reforms in Ghana. In spite of free and fair elections, record economic growth, and falling inflation over the last few years:

-Three out of five people surveyed in Ghana think that market reform has worsened the gap between rich and poor in the last few years.
-Over half perceive that there has been a decline in their standards of living.
-66% agree that government economic policies have hurt most people and benefited only a few.
-78% think it is better for all civil servants to keep their jobs even if paying their salaries is costly to the nation.
-41% think that government should bear the main responsibility for the well being of people.
-73% believe it is better to pay school fees to raise educational standards than for children to have access to low quality free education.
-45% went without medical attention over the last year.
-37% went without water over the last year.
-36% went without food.
-73% go without a cash income.

The survey results just prove how hard it must be for African leaders to make the reforms necessary to improve their economies. The African street doesn't have the patience to wait for the benefits of reform. Hell, I'm impatient too. But on the other hand, where has a country improved from where Ghana is to where Ghana needs to be in less than a generation? Even if Ghana's economy grew at double at its current pace, it wouldn't make it to middle-income status for another 25 years or so. We all need to inject a bit of realism into how hard it is going to be and how long it is going to take to markedly change a place like Ghana.

At the same time, this survey also reinforces what I already knew—deep down, we are not that different. Ghanaians want the same things that everyone else wants in this world—good jobs, better education & services, better health care. If you want to read more, check out the website www.afrobarometer.com. And remember to be happy for what you have this holiday season.

Low Expectations - October 2005

I have experiences pretty much every day that make me stop and ask myself what I’m doing here. Today, I had three.

The first was this morning when I commented to our Nanny, “Wow, Elias seems to be relying a lot on his pacifier these days.” She replied, “That’s because when I feed him the bottle, he pulls on my breasts.” Wha?

Then at 10:30am I received a call from our handyman/driver. He is lost in the city, trying to take our son to a playgroup. Can I give him directions? This is after our morning’s clarification session:

Me: Abdul, can you take the nanny and the baby to the playgroup at Pippa’s Gym this morning? He has to be there at 10am.
Abdul: Yes, madam.
Me: Do you know where Pippa’s Gym is?
Abdul: Yes, madam.
Me: Ok, so leave at 9:40am and you will get there in time.
Abdul: Yes, madam.

The kicker was on my way home from work, when I spotted my charity case (the lady on the traffic median with the two kids and a baby strapped to her back). While I waited for the traffic light to change, I grabbed my purse and started rummaging through it to find money to give her. After I found a few bills, I rolled down my window and yelled and honked over the traffic to get her attention. She didn’t hear me. Then I saw her do something that made me catch my breath. She grabbed her toddler and slapped him across the top of his head. Hard. Then she did it again. And again. Before I could stop myself, I was screaming, “No! Why!” She never heard me nor saw me. The light changed and the cars behind me started honking and I put the car in gear. As I drove by I saw the tears streaming down her toddler’s cheeks.

The thing is, five minutes after each of these situations passed, I had almost totally forgotten about them. It was as if they had never happened.

It’s because I think I’ve given up on West Africa. I have fallen under the curse of low expectations for this place. A recent dinner party companion (a Ghanaian who spends half the year in Canada) speculated that one of the reasons Ghana is such a mess is because people who stay and work in Ghana don’t have a clear idea of how well things work in other places, or how things could be different. And the ones who have had this exposure tend to not want to come back to Ghana.

Maybe that is part of it, but another part is due to the fact that when you live here long enough, you realize that if you get upset about every little thing that goes wrong, you will just be mad all the time. So after a few months, you start to let the things slide that used to infuriate you. You don’t even realize it at first. Then before you know it, you let more and more situations slide that are ridiculous. The bar becomes set so low that one day you wake up and don’t expect anything to work at all and you are pleasantly surprised when anything goes right. That is when you know you have the curse.

One of my American girlfriends returned to Ghana after spending most of the summer in the U.S. While she was gone, her phone line stopped working. Upon her return, there was no running water in the house. That night when she was cooking dinner, the gas on her stove ran out. Then the electricity went out. She and her husband just shrugged and went to bed. This is what happens to you when you have been here for four years. Imagine what its like after twenty? Sometimes it takes an outsider to bring things back into perspective.

My new boss arrived Ghana a few weeks ago. He lived in West Africa before and is a pretty optimistic guy, so if he ever had the curse, I think living in America for a while temporarily cured him before he came back to the field. On a recent business trip to Senegal the flight was an hour late. No explanation at the airport, no apologies. The food on the plane was disgusting (I chastised him for not bringing food – he knows better!) and when we arrived in Dakar, there was no one there to pick us up at the airport like we had arranged. When we got to our hotel and tried to check in, he didn’t have a room reservation, and the rate we were quoted was higher than our government perdiem. By breakfast the next morning when he couldn’t get a cup of coffee to save his life he was about to lose it.

Meanwhile, I was thinking, “Awesome hotel! At least we can still get rooms! I’ll pay extra just to have a view of the ocean where I can’t see anyone going to the bathroom!” That night we walked a few blocks on a safe street to the very most Western tip of Africa and ate a really decent French meal on the water. There were no mosquitoes in my room, I had clean sheets and a comfortable bed. For the first time in about nine months, I slept soundly all night long. Other than missing my husband and baby, I was having a fine time.

My husband recently corrected me when I described how nice the Accra Zoo was to a newcomer. “Nice?!?” he exclaimed. I stood corrected. It can only qualify as “nice” after you have been here for a while, and you have fallen under the curse. In fairness to the Accra Zoo, it is a shady, quiet, and never-crowded place. It costs a dollar for foreigners to enter. There is a playground for kids and benches for people to sit on. You can have $1 cold beers right outside the gate on a hot day. You can see all the animals close-up. Zookeepers throw meat to the crocs and hyenas and you can watch them chomp away. The African gray parrots are really cool and some of the monkeys are quite rare.

At the same time, someone with no frame of reference would probably be shocked. It is, after all, a “third-world” zoo. One chimp named Jimmy was orphaned when his mom was killed for bush meat in Liberia. He was taken to a nightclub and chained up next to it for a while until he was rescued and brought to the Accra Zoo. So, many of the animals are probably similarly traumatized. The cages are small and they escape from time to time. One of the last times we visited, one of the baboons had escaped (at least it wasn’t the lion). And it’s hard to stomach some of the unsupervised kids and adults who don’t read (or care to heed) the many signs saying clearly not to touch or upset the animals. Two weeks ago I saw a kid put his hands into the male lion’s cage. He’s lucky he didn’t get it bitten off. And last week I saw an adult taunting one of the female lions while his friends cheered him on. I had to fight to keep myself from yelling at them. At least there is justice in the world though—when the bad zoo guests annoy the chimps, they start throwing their poo at everyone.

Many of you read these updates and think that our living here is some sort of sacrifice. It’s not. It’s a choice we made. And actually it is not a sacrifice at all when you compare it to other places we could be sent to for the type of work we do. There are many other places that can eat you up and spit you out damaged, like I imagine living in Sudan, Haiti, Iraq, Pakistan or Afghanistan would do to me. I’m sure these places have all the same strange situations, cultural quirks, frustrations and generous and kind people as can be found in Ghana, but they are far more dangerous places to live and work. And far more hopeless than where I write from. When I feel like I do these days I have to remind myself that we chose to be here. We are healthy, have good jobs, and we live extremely well. We have to count our blessings.

I have no conclusions, no happy final thoughts. All I can share is the text of a sign I saw in a bathroom stall at my office that made me laugh. It also helped me remember how much I like Ghanaians and why it can be fun to live outside the U.S.:

“Ladies—kindly make sure you leave no PP remnants after using this decent place. Also make sure that the thick tissues dropped in here are totally flushed, if this means waiting to flush a second time. It is a bit embarrassing to come in here only to see things that were not meant for others to see. Thank you for helping make this place look like the name given it—ladies.”

Do Something About Africa - August 2005

On a rainy morning recently on my way to work, I witnessed a Ghanaian police car screech on its breaks and slam into a smaller sedan that was waiting to make a left hand turn onto my street. It was a loud and scary crash. A split second after it happened, the police officer jumped out of his car, and raced towards the other car. At that moment, I thought to myself (more testament to how much I have changed now that I have a child) “Wow, that car in front of him could have been me, and I could have had the baby with me!” Then I chastised myself for being so cynical and thought, “Wow, there are good cops out there! Look at this guy—he really cares about that other driver.” And then, the police officer revealed his true colors. He wasn’t running to check out the driver of the other car, he was running to his front fender to check on the damage. I laughed out loud. Then I drove away.

Later I reflected on how my reaction (and lack of action) is a perfect example of how the international community (myself included) often treats Africa. Situations here can be so absurd that you feel compelled to throw your hands in the air and walk away. Or throw some money at the problem and walk away, hoping for the best. I know it’s a cop-out. It’s much harder to try to do the right thing. It will take longer, be much more painful, but it is the right thing to do.

But “doing something,” also means you have to recognize the enormity of problems here, and be prepared to stay for as long as it takes. Also, and this will come as no surprise to most of you, not all solutions proposed are good ones! They are almost always short-term, defined by political realities. But the problems here are deep and complex, so the solutions will have to be too, and it will take a long time for Africa to reap the benefits. Good intentions are all over Africa. But in spite of billions of dollars spent, poverty remains endemic and successful projects and good leadership are still the exception, not the rule.

Why? My theory is that most of it comes down to politics. On the African side, their leaders are like ours. They care most about staying around for the next election. Few (if any) African leaders are re-elected by doing “the right things”, at least economically, for their countries and economies (like eliminating economy-sinking government subsidies, privatizing inefficient government-run businesses, opening up the business environment for private investment, helping set the conditions so small businesses can flourish). You get ahead politically here by protecting your friends who elected you to power, by keeping the powerful rich and happy, keeping the armed forces from taking you out in a coup, and by helping people vote for you, fraudulently or not.

On the American side, although the rap on Africa is that “no one cares”, my experience in the U.S. government is that this couldn’t be farther from the truth. There is almost too much caring and emotion, and too little objective, long-term strategy when it comes to our government and its relationship to Africa. There is enormous pressure on the U.S. government from inside our own country to be “doing something” for Africa. Groups like the Congressional Black Caucus, the religious community, the Africa centric non-governmental organizations, the international development community, and most recently Hollywood, all put relentless pressure on the U.S. government related to Africa, with good reason. But this forcing of the government’s hand results in money allocated to Africa quickly, often without a lot of thoughtful strategy or well-thought out African input behind it. This pressure, and budgetary pressures from within the U.S. government also means that the money, once allocated, has to be spent quickly. So many projects and activities designed to help ease Africa’s pain are quickly drawn up, quickly implemented, and quickly forgotten, except for the fact that not much changes for Africa. Congress is always quick to remind us of that. Then we stand around and blame each other for not doing enough for Africa. I admit that pressure and more money is definitely part of the solution for Africa’s woes, but they are far from the only solutions.

If you asked me five years ago what one thing could Africa do to turn the tide on their continent’s fortunes and the way that the international community relates to them, I don’t think I would have said that Africa should embrace the World Trade Organization (WTO). But lucky for Africa, most countries are members of this body, and they are seeing that membership has its privileges. They (with their buddies from India and Brazil) are really pushing the U.S. and Europe around in the WTO, having an influence on the rules of global trade, hopefully for their long-term benefit. Among government employees working on African trade issues, I’m glad to say I’m not alone in thinking that one of Africa’s best bets for a better future is to not let up on the developed economies in the WTO. Africa needs to keep forcing the U.S., Europe and Japan to “walk the walk”, instead of just “talk the talk” on our commitment to helping Africa participate in the global trading system.

I went to a conference a few months ago in the U.S. on promoting private investment in Africa that my office supported. I’m breastfeeding so I had to bring my baby with me and was exhausted after the 24-hour trip. I’ve been feeling pretty down on West Africa lately. It’s scary to have a baby here with all the health concerns. We have been in Ghana for two years and many of our friends are leaving this summer. My job is stressful and I feel guilty about not being at home with my kid. And I don’t think I have ever had a job that I’ve worked harder at, and felt like I’ve accomplished so little for poor people. So the last thing I wanted to do was go to the conference’s opening gala celebrating Africa.

But I’m really glad I went. Just the sight of about 1,000 women and men dressed spectacularly in African fabrics in fashionable designs representing their countries, and hearing Spanish, Portuguese, French, English, Bambara, Twi, Wollof, and about a dozen other African languages being spoken simultaneously, along with the awesome African music playing in the background (and a big glass of wine) was enough to lift my spirits. It took those sights and sounds to force me to acknowledge that Latin America and Europe definitely have their advantages, but there are few parts of the world that are as vibrant, colorful, diverse, musical, mysterious, challenging and frustrating as Africa.

The rest of the conference was full of highs and lows. A number of African heads of state, business leaders and high-level politicians spoke and impressed the heck out of me. A few of these men (no women of course) gave me hope for the continent (people from Botswana, Madagascar and South Africa). But the speeches from most African representatives just continued to keep me down, because it was the same, weak and uninspiring, double-message coming out of Africa. Don’t pity us, but give us money. Don’t tell us what to do, but give us technical assistance. Don’t feel sorry for us, but if you don’t help us, we will implode. One President of an African country actually said that once the private sector invests in Africa, they have a responsibility to stay forever.

All this made me think that Africa needs to stand up for itself and get a better message. And better messengers. At the conference I saw first hand why many in the U.S. government are so jazzed about the President of Madagascar. This is a man who speaks confidently about his country and his vision for its future. He uses facts and data and speaks from a position of power. He embodies hope, and most importantly, gives investors confidence—the whole point of the conference. It’s what conferences like this one should do more of, rather than give the “old guard” the podium to send the same old, tired message that doesn’t inspire anyone, least of all the private sector.

Sitting in the audience listening to the speeches, I couldn’t help comparing the African negotiating position with that coming from some community advocates I used to encounter in the U.S. that represent disinvested inner-city America when they talked to the private sector. The message was essentially the same. Too much emotion, too few facts. “You have to help us. It’s your responsibility to help us.” Well, guilt may work with some politicians, and it can move countries to give more aid to Africa, but it doesn’t work very well on the private sector. And all my work in West Africa has convinced me that it is going to be mostly private investment and Africans themselves—and not government aid—that is going to improve Africa’s fortunes.

Getting more investment in Africa is not rocket science. You don’t go to the private sector with a tin cup in one hand, and a set of conditions in the other. It just doesn’t work like that. But African governments love to set conditions around foreign assistance, and many well-intentioned and guilt-ridden governments fall for this tactic. In Africa the lines between business and government is so often blurred, maybe governments think the same strategy will work with the private sector?

The leftist-leaning African magazines publish articles about how Africa needs aid that does not force it to be in a degrading or unfair position. But none of the writers report on how the best way to avoid that would be to get off aid. I think my husband is right on this point—Africa’s goal should not be to get the West to give them aid with better conditions, but no aid at all. You don’t want our charity with strings attached? Reject it. You want the IMF and the World Bank out of your business? Give them no reason to be there at all. It’s a long-term goal, but a great one for Africa. And too few leaders are focused on this long-term goal, and too many are consumed with getting their hands on more foreign aid. But I’m depressing myself again. Time to move on.

What else is up in our ‘hood? Crime is up. An American family in Accra we know was robbed while they (and their two children) were sleeping a week ago. And our nanny was telling me that a band of robbers is preying on people walking at night on our street to where the public transportation is. As if it doesn’t suck enough already to take “tro tros” (rickety buses) here, now you get jacked on your way to catch one. Of course, the Nanny knows just who is responsible for the problem. The Nigerians. And those people from Togo. “They just hang around with nothing to do and no jobs and they prey on all the hard working people.” Sounds strangely familiar.

Our nanny had another zinger the other day that I have to share. I was talking to her about going to the zoo and making sure she keeps the baby away from the monkeys, because they can reach through the bars and scratch the baby. Then I stopped and asked her if she knew that monkeys in Africa is where AIDS came from. She was surprised to hear it. Then I explained how AIDS started in the African rainforest, and how it was passed to man through monkeys. She said excitedly, “Because they had SEX with the monkeys!” “Err”, I said, “Not exactly…it was through people eating bush meat.” She replied, “Ahhhh…those Ashanti boys. They love bush meat.” (she is from a different ethnic group). All life started in Africa. Why not prejudice too?

One last absurdity I have to relate. Remember the lady I wrote about in my prior updates who begs on the side of the road with her two small boys that I am a sucker for and give big money to? I didn’t realize she was pregnant. She had the baby and now she begs on the side of the street with her two boys and a newborn baby strapped to her back. As if my heart needed to break more. Now in addition to money, I give her baby clothes. I was telling this story to my husband as we were cooking some pasta and he was picking the bugs off the top of the boiling water that were floating to the surface. He interjected in a matter-of fact way, “You give money to ladies with babies, I give to cripples.” Then we stopped, looked at each other and laughed. Not because it was funny, but because it was so tragic. Those of you who have lived in poor countries know that you sometimes just have to laugh it off, or you will just cry. Then we threw out the pasta and started to boil a fresh pot of water.