dispatches from ghana

ada foah

This past weekend, I went east to Ada Foah. A forty-minute canoe ride from the town, the Volta River meets the ocean in an incredibly beautiful setting. We stayed at Maranatha Beach Camp, which has a less elaborate setup than Hideout and an even more remote feel. It’s one of a several lodges on a finger of land in the estuary.

I seem to have dreadful luck with the weather here; more monsoon-like weather the first day ensured that we and all of our belongings were sopping wet when we arrived at the lodge—luckily when the rain let up we badgered the management into giving us dry sheets to wear toga-style (or hijab-style as the case may be). More lazing about ensued: swimming in the river, taking strolls along the beach to the estuary (one at sunset, one at sunrise), eating.

(We also found some mud.)

There is this dish, endearingly named coconut food, that has the consistency of… polenta perhaps, only softer and moister. It also looks a lot like a giant mound of polenta. At any rate, it tastes nothing like polenta – it has a delicious, subtle coconut flavor and is served with tomato-y sauce. As I’ve just discovered yet again it’s impossible to describe the taste or appearance of Ghanaian food without making it sound completely inedible. And as with most Ghanaian dishes, I have no idea what coconut food or its accompanying sauce is made of exactly. (Sometimes it’s best not to inquire.)



Butre is a small fishing village just west of Busua, a larger town with a great beach overrun by resorts and hotels. By contrast, Butre is relatively unspoiled as a tourist destination. I’ve always felt a bit guilty about traveling every weekend – more specifically, being able to afford to travel every weekend; having the leisure to travel every weekend. Clearly though, I’ve been unable to refrain from indulging. I wonder what the residents of Butre think of the oburoni (white person/foreigner; both a non-derogatory descriptive term and Ghanaians’ most common form of address to us lighter-skinned folk – as in “Oburoni, come to my shop! I have niiiice, nice things!”) who regularly wobble through on their way to Hideout Lodge, a few minutes’ walk down the beach.

I have an strong aversion to describing things I’ve done in excruciatingly detailed, blow-by-blow fashion, so suffice it to say that we spent the weekend lying in hammocks, swimming (read: getting knocked over repeatedly by waves, in my case), eating, thinking about what we were going to eat next, drinking cocktails, thinking of cocktails to invent next. The only two dampers on the weekend were the proliferation of insects – I accumulated something like 60 extremely itchy bug bites – and the monsoon-like weather the first morning. We’d seen a sign for pancakes and coffee (not NesCafe – real coffee! A huge deal here) at a place within walking distance from the lodge, and decided to make a run for it. Of course, we got completely soaked in the process.

One of the best parts of traveling is meeting people, whether Ghanaian or oburoni. (We reserve a particularly strong curiosity for white people: when we spot another oburoni, we have to suppress the urge to accost them and interrogate them about why they’re in Ghana and what exactly they’re doing here.) At Hideout, we met a French guy who went to grad school for international development in Switzerland and has traveled and worked in more African countries than I can name offhand. We met a middle-aged British couple who are literally traveling the world in their decked-out 4×4, complete with tent and refrigerator and coffee maker. They left home six months ago and have gradually made their way down the West African coast: Morocco, Mauritania, Senegal, Gambia, Guinea Bissau, Guinea-Conakry, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Cote d’Ivoire. Guinea-Conakry they hated; Sierra Leone and Liberia they described as beautiful, with easygoing people who are unused to tourists and therefore harass them less.

We also met some guys around our age who are volunteering at a primary school in Butre: a handful of Brits taking a gap year before university; an American from New York who just graduated from a music conservatory, came to Mali to study drumming and has since worked his way down through Burkina to Ghana; and a guy who was born in Ethiopia, grew up in Austria, and says he lays claim to no nationality in particular. Incidentally, a week later I ran into Brian, the American, on a random tro-tro late at night in Labadi, Accra. No small coincidence, given the size of this city.

Meeting an array of people of different nationalities – we shared a taxi on the way back with a genial Swazilander – spawned a conversation on our way back about the number of countries from whom we’ve encountered people since coming to Ghana. I counted around 23; Shane, who’s been traveling since last July, has racked up an impressive 50-odd countries. Swaziland has got to be the most obscure, though…

tema orphanage

Last Wednesday was St. Patrick’s Day, and I spent the evening bar-hopping with friends – we ended up at Ryan’s, an Irish pub in Osu; I hadn’t seen that many white people in one place since leaving California and it was a little unnerving. But before that, I visited an orphanage for former child slaves in Tema, near Accra. It’s part of an organization called Touch a Life Foundation (http://www.touchalifekids.org/ghana-overview), which rescues child slaves in Ghana, Vietnam and Cambodia.

In Ghana, many of the orphans they rescue used to work on fishing boats in the Volta region assisting fishermen with various tasks. We’re told that children are used essentially because they’re cheap, convenient labor – they don’t have any dependents or any needs, really, apart from a place to sleep, and won’t complain. Fishermen buy the children from their parents; the people who run Touch a Life track kids down and bargain with the fishermen to let them take the children to the orphanage. In some instances, simply paying the fishermen to let the children go doesn’t work, because the parents may sell them back into slavery. Technically, many of the children at the orphanages aren’t orphans.

Some friends in my program volunteer at the orphanage once or twice a week, and I wisely decided to skip my afternoon class to go with them last week. (I may never attend that class again…) The kids were amazing – incredibly happy, healthy and full of energy. There are about 25 of them, mostly boys. We whiled away the afternoon coloring, playing football, and chauffeuring kids around on our shoulders.

My roommate Therese brought her camera, which the kids quickly commandeered. It was fascinating to see what they considered photo-worthy subjects. There were several dozen pictures of kids solemnly holding their schoolwork, and tons of pictures of them playing football. Other popular subjects included each other, hedges, grass, cars, their own feet. All of these photos were taken by kids who live at the orphanage.

letter home

Above, our breakfast stand proprietor in Bolga – affectionately known to his customers as “rasta man”; and Bolga at dawn. The following is a letter I wrote for the spring newsletter of Delta Phi Epsilon, a foreign affairs fraternity at Berkeley.

Dearest DPhiE-ers,

At a coffee-and-egg-sandwich stand in Bolgatanga, near Ghana’s border with Burkina Faso, I had the best breakfast I’ve had in recent memory. I have been studying at the University of Ghana and decided on a whim to join a bus tour of rural Ghana — a six-day field trip organized through the university’s social work department. Halfway through the tour, in a remote corner of the country sixteen hours from Accra, my friend Britt and I decided to skip out early and return to campus by ourselves. Before sunrise we hailed a cab to the bus station and spent the hours before our bus left luxuriating in our newfound freedom and in the gloriousness of eating toasted egg sandwiches in Bolga at 7am.

As far as towns go in the rural north, Bolga is one of the largest with a population of 70,000. Nonetheless, I saw it as a sleepy, friendly town, with large populations of both Christians and Muslims. The locals exemplified the relaxed Ghanaian charm I’d heard so much about — people in the south, by contrast, can be overbearing or persistent to the point of being irritating. In general I prefer the north of Ghana to the south: Bolga’s calm, wide streets, its prevalence of motorbikes and bicycles rather than tro-tros and buses, the feeling of being on the frontier where the tropics give way to desert, the feeling of infinite space all appeal to me.

The south, however, is where I’ve been staying: the University of Ghana is located in Legon, a suburb of the capital, Accra. It’s difficult to sum up what being here is like. I could talk at great length about the people I’ve met (a kind-hearted, talented, wildly diverse bunch), the classes I’m taking (unexceptional), the weather (unbearable, mostly), the food (delicious but short on variety), the music (amazing). By virtue of being terribly conspicuous anywhere I go, I’ve found that certain things have become facts of life, such as being greeted with shouts of “Japan!” “Ni hao!” or “Heeeey, China lady!!” while walking down the street.

Somehow, though, I feel that to expand on any of these with the limited space I have would be to do a great disservice to Ghana: no single element can really encapsulate my experiences except at certain points in time. Ghana is full of contrasts—here the pace of life is slow and unhurried. I got a taste of life outside of the university bubble when I spent several gloriously relaxing days at a friend’s house in Labadi, a neighborhood of Accra, with an assortment of Ghanaian, Nigerian and American friends; we whiled away the days doing nothing in particular and the nights listening to music, drinking and talking on the beach until 4am. At the same time Ghana has extraordinary vitality; it bursts at the seams with people and activity. Crowds of pedestrians, hawkers, goats, cars, and buses all mingle on the streets. Music is always playing somewhere— usually reggae, hip hop, hiplife (a blend of hip hop and West African highlife), old school R&B, or even country.

I find that I am constantly challenged here, in ways both large and small. I somehow ended up as keyboardist for an Afrobeat band, and have been struggling rather pathetically to master the tricky polyrhythms of traditional Ghanaian music. More crucially, I have learned to revise the way I think about life in other parts of the world. I came to Ghana largely because as someone who studies development, I wanted to experience a developing country. And pervasive poverty is certainly visible here— for instance in the temporary, makeshift nature of settlements all across Accra and in the barren, remote quality of villages in the parched north. But at the core, all surface distractions aside, this place is made up of people living their lives, just as they do anywhere else in the world. When you chat up a local over breakfast at a roadside stand in Bolgatanga, you define him by your conversation with him, and not by any notions of his lifestyle or level of poverty.

I have long been fascinated by Africa, and coming here has driven home more than ever the necessity of speaking of it in terms of nations and ethnic groups and individuals and experiences, rather than in terms of a monolithic continent and its afflictions: in the words of the Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski, Africa is nothing more than a geographic appellation.

I miss you all dearly and wish you could be here with me. All the best –

sodom and gomorrah

The sheer density of a place like Agbogbloshie is breathtaking. It is the largest slum in Accra, in the center of the city. Frequently we think of slums as amassing on the periphery, ringing the outskirts of town. Agbogbloshie is in the middle, as if Accra were pressing in on it from all sides and gradually compacting it into a impenetrable maze.

Women—and it is mostly women that we saw— scrub laundry, stir enormous steaming pots, braid each other’s hair, sit on stoops and chat; children scamper about. You don’t walk around so much as maneuver: you duck under hanging laundry and sidestep people balancing huge loads on their head, all the while treading with great care on the slippery, uneven ground. Agbogbloshie is packed closely with low, tin-roofed, concrete-and-wood houses whose doors are nearly always open. Peering into a room, you see an improbable number of adults and children inside in the semi-dark.

Everywhere in Ghana the streets are lined with open sewers, and you need to practice constant vigilance to keep from falling in. In Agbogbloshie, the streets are more like narrow alleys, so avoiding the (here, particularly disgusting) sewers is especially treacherous. Last night there was a huge rainstorm, and we had to navigate around vast puddles. During the rainy season, which starts later in the spring, parts of Agbogbloshie become completely flooded.

On a regular basis, one hears more about Nima, supposedly the largest slum in Accra. I’m told that by comparison, Nima is a slum for rich people. Many residents own properties elsewhere in Accra and live in Nima for the community and for religious reasons. Residents of Agbogbloshie, like those of Nima, are largely Muslim. They migrated here initially from northern Ghana but in recent years they’ve started to come from all over the country. Based on observation alone, it amazes me that people would come here to take advantage of better economic opportunity. After all, Agbogbloshie is extremely impoverished – but then, subsistence farming is no longer viable in the rural north.

Locals call the slum Sodom and Gomorrah for reasons that became clear as we left. We drove across a bridge that spanned a wide, murky river clogged with trash: Agbogbloshie’s dumping ground. It was a stunning sight. The Accra Metropolitan Assembly, the local governing body, is embarking on an initiative to relocate the entire slum – some 55,000 residents – to the outskirts of the city, to mitigate the environmental cost of sustaining the settlement. What the precise resettlement package will be is up in the air.

The market at Agbogbloshie is the food basket of Accra, a fact which complicates the AMA’s plans to evict all residents. The rich cart in all sorts of food from Ghana’s interior, which slum dwellers buy on credit and re-sell. It is here that vendors, caterers, and owners of eateries buy produce to sell at a premium elsewhere in Accra.

My experience in Ghana so far has been a study in contrasts. It’s surreal that a few nights ago we were throwing back shots of rum at an Irish pub in Osu, or that yesterday we lolled about on the most idyllic tropical beach I’d ever seen and gorged ourselves afterward at a swanky Chinese restaurant. Accra is a sprawling city pieced together of widely varying neighborhoods and districts, and the landscape changes rapidly. Driving back to Legon from Agbogbloshie, we pass through Jamestown, the Ga-speaking neighborhood on the coast. Here, the main industry is fishing. Seconds later we are driving through the city centre, passing the pristine, dignified Supreme Court and mirrored office buildings.

I came to Agbogbloshie because I’m doing an independent research project on an as-yet-undetermined topic relating to urban poverty. Apart from the resettlement process, there are many elements of slum life in Accra that interest me: the nature of rural-to-urban migration; housing and the implications of land titling reform; the informal economic sector; provision of public services; how to make sense of these settlements from an urban planning perspective. I’m told that on the subject of resettlement, there has been much advocacy and little research, which means that I could actually be somewhat useful. I’ve been a bit paralyzed though, by the fact that I have yet to fully hash out my methodology… my guess is that, as with everything else in Ghana, I’ll eventually start to get a feel for things.

I’m still trying to figure out my life: the past few weeks I’ve been visiting schools and orphanages, putting off committing to anything, playing with the idea of looking for an internship, panicking a little bit about whether I actually have the gumption and presence of mind to carry out a research project of this scale. I think it’s time to buckle down and commit to something. On the other hand, I should perhaps try to relinquish the Berkeley-induced mindset that I should always be doing something productive with my time….

readin’, writin’, and ‘rithmetic

On a whim, on the last day to register for courses, I reworked my entire schedule as part of my ongoing effort to introduce more spontaneity into my life.

Conflict in Africa (political science)
Strategies of Development in Africa (political science)
Cities in Economic Development and Problems of Urban Management (geography)
Independent study project (on slum development and management)
Traditional African dance
Asante Twi


Buduburam is a Liberian refugee camp located near Kaneshie in Ghana’s Central Region, three tro-tro rides from Legon. It houses some 7,000 people who fled Liberia’s civil war— thousands more live in other camps in Nigeria, Guinea, and other countries. The war formally ended in 2002, but the refugees here seem to lack the money or the means to return to Liberia. Most desperately want to go home, but some want to stay.

At the camp I briefly met Nathaniel, who is 17 and is one of those who wouldn’t mind staying at the camp: after all, he came here in 2000 and Ghana is nearly all he knows. He is an avid football fan who expects Ghana to win today’s Nations Cup match against Angola – not knowing anything about football, I took him at his word.  He lost his father during the war and has lived at the camp with his mother and siblings for ten years.

Buduburam more resembles a typical Ghanaian town than the dusty, barren campsite I had admittedly pictured. It has schools, a number of small shops, and houses that look no less permanent than any others I’ve seen in Ghana. It doesn’t surprise me that someone like Nathaniel, who has spent most of his life here, would not mind staying.

But most do seem to want to leave. Though the camp functions in many ways as a self-sustaining community, albeit one run by the UN, residents pay for many services and are subject to camp rules. One woman, Anne, has been at the camp since 2003 and has been unable to find a job. She has also been refused permission to plant her own garden — something that holds great meaning for her.

We toured the camp with the gracious guidance of the Hope Foundation, which works within the camp to ensure that kids get a proper education and to promote economic empowerment of women (through skills such as sewing). Part of the purpose we went today was to get a feel for things and to find out whether we’d be useful. In the past, international students have volunteered at Buduburam in various capacities. Our hosts told us that they could certainly use our help, and that our ideas are more than welcome. I’d like to help, but worry that I would have no idea what to do and would just blunder around.

On the same note, I need to put more thought into what I want to spend my spare time doing while I’m here. The capacity in which I’d like to work – doing substantive research and writing, saving the world, etc.—  is probably different from the capacity in which I’d be most useful here. In addition, finding an internship at which I’ll get to do challenging and interesting work will be difficult and time-consuming, and I’d like to get started as soon as possible. Really, my only relevant skill is my (theoretical) ability to tutor kids. This week I’m visiting an orphanage in Osu, a district of Accra; I may start putting in a bit of time there each week.