Tag Archives: Ghana

Where Were You When…..?, by Carole Howard

Those of us who were around at the time will always remember where we were when we heard about JFK’s assassination. I was in my dorm room, blissfully unaware of what was going on, until my raucous roommate told me how the universe’s axis had just shifted.  The man who would turn out to be my husband was in a small town in Senegal as a Peace Corps volunteer.  He had to figure out what the kid who spoke only Wolof was trying to tell him.  And it was the same with 9/11.  We were in Paris, in a rented apartment.  TV, yes, but no CNN.  We felt very cut off and extremely American.

I imagine most people don’t feel that way about hearing that Captain Sullenberger landed a plane in the Hudson River. But I do.

My husband and I were in an internet cafe down the block from our apartment in Accra, Ghana. If you’re visualizing a spiffy computer-filled and highly air-conditioned room, stop. There were internet cafes like that in Accra, but not the one in our neighborhood.   This one was very hot and mostly frequented by kids playing video games with very loud rap music as background. Its chief advantage was location.

We went every day after work. On that day, we “opened” the NYTimes and saw the news about Sully. We’re New Yorkers, so it was “our” Hudson River in “our” city in “our” country. OHMYOHMY. We wanted to talk to everyone in the place about it, but being the oldest ones and the only foreigners made conversation difficult. Thank goodness we had each other to share our amazement with.

I just saw the movie Sully, which I liked a lot. Plus I loved my mental trip to “our” internet cafe in Ghana. Without the rap music as background.

How about you?  Is there anything you associate with the particular place you were in when you heard about it?
Our Accra neighborhood

Our Accra neighborhood: This is our end of the street, in the morning, looking down towards “our” internet cafe.

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Carole Howard is the author of Deadly Adagio, a murder mystery set in Senegal, around the corner from Ghana.

 

 

 

 

 

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What’s in the Box?, by Carole Howard

About 15 of us were gathered in a hot and dusty room in Accra, Ghana. Two young Ghanaian women wearing identical purple polo shirts walked in. One of them carried a tattered cardboard box with wooden sculptures. When she put the box down, I could see the sculptures were penises.  Maybe 20 in all, lying and standing, helter skelter.

They were varied as to size and shade of brown, but there was no mistaking what they were. In fact, as sculptures, they were rather beautiful – polished wood in a simple and elegant shape, handsome examples of African not-so-traditional wooden carving. But of course it was hard to separate form and content, and there were a few giggles.

However, this was pretty serious stuff.

The women were sex workers who had been recruited by the organization (“AIDS Prevention Project,” or APP – not the real name) for whom my husband and I were volunteering. APP’s mission was to prevent/treat the spread of AIDS and other sexually-transmitted infections in the community of sex workers. Their primary method was education, particularly about condoms.

The audience consisted of donors to American Jewish World Service, the organization that had sent us as volunteer management consultants to help APP create a five-year Strategic Plan. Since sex workers are a huge vector for the spread of the disease, APP’s work was very important. Ghana was doing well at controlling AIDS, and APP surely played a part in that.

The women introduced themselves. “Sarah,” the more outspoken of the two, had a dark expressive face and a body Rubens would have loved to paint. She was generous with her hand gestures as she spoke. “Maridia” was more reserved, with a quick but hesitant smile. She had long thin legs and a long, thin face with hair-plaits that swung as she moved her head.

For about 15 minutes, they showed us how they educated other sex workers about why and how to use condoms, from package-opening to application to disposal. They were, by turns, all-business – we were allies in the battle against HIV/AIDS – and mischievous, as if we all shared a little joke.

It was a surreal juxtaposition of my former and present lives. This presentation was better than most I’d seen in corporate conference rooms in New York. No PowerPoint, no laser pointers or flip charts.  Just penises. No MBAs, no power suits, no pretension. Just passion and commitment.

As a training consultant, I’d led many seminars on giving presentations, and I wished I could have had a videotape of what I’d just seen as a perfect example of all the qualities I tried to teach: unlimited enthusiasm, clarity of useful information, humor, compassion, engagement with the audience, even effective use of props and body language. I was particularly struck by their ease and its contrast to my own first-ten-minutes-are-hell stage fright when giving presentations.

A bundle of “what if’s” teased me. What if Maridia and Sarah had grown up in an apartment in the Bronx, as I had, with a well-stocked kitchen, a bathroom with fluffy towels, a playground outside? What if their childhood concerns had been more about resenting their parents for making them clean up their rooms, or hoping their clothing was like the popular kids’, and less about whether they’d be eating a meal any time soon?

Surely, they’d have opted to be teachers, lawyers, secretaries, nurses, doctors, homemakers, writers, civil servants, investment analysts, artists, athletes, scientists, or one of the other “You can be anything you want” possibilities. Conversely, what if I’d been born in Sarah or Maridia’s place, with the paucity of opportunities they had? Would I have turned to sex work out of desperation?

And what if I weren’t retired? Would I go back to stylish conference rooms in buildings with stale air to teach communication skills to highly-paid people who’d use them to market cosmetics, investment instruments, or other toys of the developed world?

From the moment Sarah and Maridia walked in with their box until the moment they left, they did their jobs with confidence and good humor. They never showed any signs of resentment or regret. They joked around. In a word, they had dignity. Funny the way things turn out.

Have you ever met someone you expected to be a certain way, and then had your expectations confounded?

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Carole Howard is the author of Deadly Adagio, published by Second Wind Publishing.  She is working on a travel memoir, working title Tales of a Silver-Haired Volunteer, from which this is an excerpt.

 

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Happy Any-Holiday, Wherever You Are, by Carole Howard

Count me among the many Americans who think Thanksgiving is the best holiday.  My reasons are all the usual suspects: food, family, tradition, gratitude, and no presents.  (Frankly, I could live without the televised football game seduction after the meal, but I reluctantly acknowledge it’s part of the tradition.)

Being globe-trotters, though (see Trekking, Traipsing, and Writing), we’ve frequently been overseas during holidays.  There’s something bitter-sweet about celebrating from afar. On the one hand, I long for the nurturing feeling of home. On the other hand, my memories of those distant celebrations are among my most vivid and sweet.

Like the time, in 1974, when we made Thanksgiving dinner for as many of Senegal’s Peace Corps Volunteers as could make their way to our place in Dakar, the capital.  Now there’s a group of people who are hungry, and not just for food.  Mostly young, mostly out in the bush, sometimes homesick, the draw of a traditional American meal with other Americans was all but irresistible to them.

thanksgiving in senegalMany of the Peace Corps staff, both Africans and Americans, came, too; we loved introducing the Senegalese to our annual feast and explaining its significance.

We crammed a hundred potatoes, sweet and white, into our oven.  The bakery down the street agreed to roast our four turkeys (nice big fat ones, ordered from the Embassy Commissary) in their giant ovens.  Cranberry sauce also came from the Commissary.  The biggest challenge was treating enough lettuce (in permanganate, to kill any lurking amoebas) to make salad for 60-70 people.  Brownies, brownies, brownies — you can hardly imagine how many brownies we went through!

We might not have had all the trimmings, and the weather might have been tropical, but it was definitely Thanksgiving in all its food, fellowship, and gratitude respects.  Little did I know, almost forty years later I’d get to use the scene in Chapter Four of Deadly Adagio.

We were once living in Lomé, the capital of Togo (a bite-sized West African country about the size of West Virginia, just east of Ghana), on New Year’s Eve.  We partied on the beach and, just before midnight, took our champagne into the water, laughing and singing.  We knew the exact moment the new year arrived because, to our surprise and joy, all the ships in the nearby harbor blasted their powerful horns.  It’s not every year you get to welcome the new year while drinking champagne in the Bight of Benin, fireworks in the distance, with ten ships’ cacophony keeping the beat.

In 1998, when our daughter was teaching atIMG_2479 the American School in Casablanca, we decided to meet in Senegal and travel together.  As it worked out, we were in Niokolo-Kobo, the game park, on the first night of Hanukkah.  Of course, I knew ahead of time we’d be somewhere in Senegal at that time, so came prepared with little candles.  No menorah, but melted wax on a notebook did the trick.  It’s a very sweet memory – for me, anyway. No one else in the family remembers it, but I have proof.

And then there was President Obama’s first inauguration.  While not a recurring holiday in the sense of Thanksgiving or New Year’s Eve, it was a very important day for me, and it occurred while we were in Ghana. At first, I was dejected not to be home for the inauguration, even more so when I learned there was no public ceremony or broadcast at the Embassy. But we found we could go to the W.E.B. Du Bois Center where the CNN coverage would be shown on a giant screen. I look back upon that singular moment as a very special one, surrounded by hundreds of other Americans and Ghanaians on a historic and joyful day.

Screen Shot 2013-10-28 at 5.41.29 PMScreen Shot 2013-10-28 at 5.46.36 PMWe’re equal-opportunity celebrants, though, observing the holidays of the region we’re in, too.  Like the Muslim Feast of Sacrifice (Eid-al-Adha), commemorating Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son, when families buy a goat and spend a month fattening it up so they can…… well, you know.

Hanging on to traditional holiday celebrations, whether national, ethnic, or universal, re-links us to our culture, to our families and friends in absentia, and to our country.  We feel whole.

What do you do when you’re away from your home and family during a holiday?

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Carole Howard is the author of Deadly Adagio, recently published by Second Wind Publishing.

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Art is Art by Carole Howard

During our two months in Accra, Ghana in 2009, I started looking forward to our Saturday excursions to the beach, and to Bob’s sculptures, around Wednesday or Thursday.

He always set up shop in the same place, and he was always there by the time we arrived.  Short, stocky, with an easy smile on his round face and intense concentration while he worked with an eclectic bunch of tools, he usually had sand scattered all over his shorts and tee shirt.

A sample of his work:  A seated African elder in a flowing robe holding a cylindrical drum under his arm.  A couple stretched out lazily on the beach, she with her hand cradling his head, he with one hand coyly flirting with her bikini bottom.  An elephant with elaborately wrinkled skin crouching on his forelegs.

All – the fabric folds, the elephant wrinkles, the bikini – made from sand.

You could call them “sand sculptures” if you want, but that evokes images of kids’ sand castles, made with pail and shovel and maybe some shells stuck in the top.  Wrong image.

Just call them sculptures.  Representational, sensuous and beautiful. Sand and water, rudimentary tools, talent and creativity in abundance.  I’d never seen anything like them, and still haven’t.

We started going to the beach on weekends as a way to escape the heat, which was oppressive and crushing. I almost took it personally, the way it pressed me down and kept me from going forward easily and breathing freely, like a hand on my chest.  It was exhausting. We’d been to West Africa many times, even two other countries in the steamy part under the Western hump, so we expected heat and humidity.  But this was worse.  Or maybe it was just because we’d gotten older.  Either way, it was brutal, almost more than we could take.

At first, we felt a bit sheepish:  we didn’t think of ourselves as the kind of travelers who went to the beach every weekend.  No, we were more adventurous than that.  We traveled, we visited villages, we learned about the culture.  (Snobbery comes in many forms!)  But not this time:  We worked as volunteers, Monday to Friday, 9-to-5.  We were H-O-T.  We weren’t as young as we used to be.  We went to La Beach, “La” being the name of the neighborhood, not the definite article, as in French.

On the way, the first treat was passing the shops of whimsically carved and decorated coffins – a Ghanaian tradition since the 1950s.  Think Pepsi bottles, race cars, fish, cell phones, all carved and brightly painted, all coffins.  Every week we’d spot different ones.  They were as amazing as Bob’s sculptures, but we only saw them from the taxi.

Once there, we settled in under the awning outside the restaurant.  The restaurant guys knew us and greeted us as we arrived, starting us off with my husband’s ice-cold beer and my ice-cold Coke, hold the ice cubes. We ate, we lazed, we people-watched.

There were Africans and Westerners, young and old.  There were even Arabic women in black headscarves and veils, seemingly oblivious to the heat. Passing by the restaurant was an unending parade:  Vendors sold jewelry, trinkets, fabric.  Musicians with unusual homemade instruments put on a show.  Child acrobats with exaggerated smiles jumped, ran, tumbled, and made human pyramids.  Horse-back riders sold rides, meandering pedicurists sold the possibility of pretty feet.

We enjoyed whatever breeze we could catch. We swam in the narrow channel where swimming was permitted: it had a very long and gradual run-out to water that was thigh-high.  It wasn’t cold, but cool water filled the bill.  Aaaahhh.

We might not have been visiting villages, but seeing Bob was like going to a museum, a living sculpture museum.   Art is where you find it, and we found it at La Beach in Accra, Ghana.

Have you found art in unexpected places?

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Carole Howard is the author of Deadly Adagio, recently published by Second Wind Publishing.

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