Sunday, January 20, 2013

Encouraging Time

Well, so much for my promise to post more regularly.

Anyhow, I learned something amusing the other day.  Most of us know someone who is perpetually late.  If they're coming to meet us somewhere, will always say they're five minutes away regardless of where they actually are.  Here in Ghana, the loose relationship that many people have with the clock is referred to as African time.  One neighbor who I hang out with regularly operates completely on African time.  Whenever he gives you an ETA, you can expect he'll take three times as long as he says he will.  His nephew and I were joking about this recently and he said that these estimates are an example of "encouraging time."  If you're told that someone will arrive five minutes, it by no means discourages you from waiting.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Election Day draws near

Wow, I really let this blog go for a while.  Sorry about that!  I'll try to post more regularly in the future. 

Ghana’s presidential and parliamentary elections, which both occur every four years, are just two days away.  The excitement has been both palpable and audible; an intermittent, hours-long procession of opposition New Patriotic Party (NPP) supporters marched, rode and drove through my neighborhood today, blowing vuvuzelas, whistles, and trumpets and shouting slogans.  Supporters of the ruling National Democratic Congress (NDC) had a similar march in another part of town.  Both parties were marking the last day of campaigning, which I will explain below.

When voting begins at 7 am this Friday, many voters will have already been waiting in line outside polling places for two hours or more so that they can cast their votes early and then get on with their days.  One neighbor mentioned to me that he always votes around 4 pm, an hour before polls close, because by then there are no lines at most polling places.  The same neighbor told me that the people who get there in the early morning usually wake up that early anyways for work, (in this country, many people’s schedules are dictated by the sun.) 

Elections tend not to be completely free of violence or voter fraud here, but as many Ghanaians are quick to point out, Ghana's elections are more peaceful and transparent than those of most other African countries.  This year, though, people seem genuinely committed to peace.  The collective desire is stronger now, they tell me, than it was in previous elections.  The government has also designed a more sophisticated security apparatus this year.  One neighbor even told me that he recently saw a friend of his, a muscular police commander, jogging with all his toughest officers in the Brong (originally Bono) Ahafo Region.  The man said he couldn't remember the last time he had seen cops run.  The Electoral Commission, the public office responsible for conducting elections, has also introduced a new rule prohibiting loitering and motorbikes within a certain distance of polling places, making it harder to steal ballot boxes and intimidate voters.  Finally, today was designated the last day of campaigning, giving people a couple of days to calm down so that passions are not too inflamed when polls open.

These kinds of reports are very encouraging.  However, for many Ghanaians, the concern is not only who wins and how many voters get hurt but also the way that people conduct themselves.  An array of prominent Ghanaian political actors have in so many words called this election a pivotal point in Ghana's history.  The country has come a long way in recent times, and since the passage of the 1992 Constitution of the Fourth Republic, which established Ghana as a democracy, the nation held five presidential elections and weathered two transitions of power between parties.  None of these was ultimately disrupted by violence.  A few months ago, when the president died and the vice president assumed his position, I didn't hear a single report of violence even though both of these events were unprecedented in Ghana's history. 

The consensus is that if Ghanaians can hold this election without a major incident, they will have solidly arrived in a new era of political stability.  This would hopefully accelerate development by making the nation appear less risky to lenders.  Many public figures have also remarked that the whole world, especially Africa, will be watching Ghana to see what kind of example it sets with this election. 

Some Ghanaians can argue all day about which of the two major parties is better.  Most of the time, they end up talking past each other like so many Americans do. Still, I get the sense from people on both sides of the aisle, (an expression that is not current here,) that in spite of the incessant political bickering, they hope and believe that new ground will be broken in this election.

Last week, the presidential candidates met in Kumasi, the capital of the Ashanti Region and Ghana's second largest city, where they signed a non-binding pledge to strive for electoral peace and transparency and to punish anyone in their ranks that violates the agreement.  The event was held with much fanfare and featured speeches by the Fourth Republic's two living ex-presidents and many of the presidential candidates.  Opposition NPP presidential candidate Nana Akufo-Addo took the occasion to make reference to his opponent’s party’s bad track record on electoral violence.  He was widely criticized for the move, which members of the governing NDC said was a gesture of bad faith.  However, his complaint also highlighted a concern that has since been echoed by members of both parties: it’s good and well to make nice in front of the cameras, but it all really comes down to how people actually behave on Election Day.

Interestingly, both parties have hoards of members and associates who flood the airwaves and party-affiliated newspapers with insults and vitriol directed at political rivals.  Even on the day of the peace declaration, these people continued trading allegations that the other side had been secretly plotting electoral violence. 

Overall, people seem optimistic that this election will be peaceful, but few are completely sure of it.  They are apprehensive because when tensions are high, disorder can spread easily.  Reports of violence against supporters of one party in one place can incite thugs loyal to that party to stir up trouble elsewhere.  And of course this year's contest is no ordinary election, it’s a potential watershed moment in the nation's history. 

Some of the people I’ve talked to say they are absolutely convinced that there will be violence and fraud.  At the other end of the spectrum, I have a coworker who, when another colleague raised the issue of reporting on electoral violence, asked us not to talk about it, not to even humor the possibility that violence could break out.  I didn’t ask him why, but I suspect that he reacted that way because he knows that a report of violence, true or false, is likely to spur more violence.  I think he finds the prospect of being a part of that process distressing. 

Work at my media job will begin by 5 or 6 am on Friday, when I’ll be visiting polling places around my neighborhood in search of interviews and human-interest stories.  By 10 am, I'll be working out of the office.  Today they told us that we'll work until the results are declared, which will hopefully happen no more than 48 hours after polls first open.  A friend at the company advised me to bring a change of clothes, but I luckily live five minutes from the office.

NB: While in power, both of the two main parties have presided over rampant systematic corruption and administrative ineptitude.  However, both have also brought development and other kinds of progress, such as the expansion of civil liberties.  The NDC claims to be more socialist leaning and the NPP more capitalist, but this election season, NPP presidential candidate Akufo-Addo ran principally on the promise to make senior high school (i.e. the last two years of high school) free.  In fact, both campaigns have promised free handouts and proposed public-private partnerships to boost the economy and catalyze development.  And unlike the two major political parties in the United States, no social issues divide the NDC and NPP.  More often than not, voting patterns follow ethnic lines. 

Most Ghanaians see a world of difference between the two parties and are shocked when they learn that I can't.  I’ve found that some Ghanaians, especially those fiercely loyal to one party, they think they can determine the slant of almost any news story.  Many of these people would surely believe that I am an NDC supporter because earlier in this post, I shared an unflattering anecdote about Akufo-Addo but did not follow up with a criticism of his opponent, sitting president John Mahama.  I'm sure you can believe me when I tell you all that I have no preference for or affiliation with any Ghanaian political party.  

Friday, October 26, 2012


Nkawkaw from above

Since I got to Ghana, I've been so busy trying to established myself in Accra and get settled into my new job that I hadn't even left the city until very recently.  Finally, last weekend, I went up to Nkawkaw to visit a friend who lives up there and works as the chief engineer at a radio station called Obuoba FM.  We met before over the net when I applied to his station without realizing that it was in the Eastern Region, a 3 or 4 hour drive north of Accra.   When I came to Ghana, he provided me with contact after contact at the radio stations around Accra until I got hired.  He even came down to help me in person once.

I got to Nkawkaw by bus, and as soon as I arrived my friend took me directly to his radio station to show me around and introduce me to his coworkers.  He explained that the transmitter is located on top of a tall local mountain (the Eastern Region is one of Ghana's most mountainous) and that Obuoba consequently has the widest broadcasting radius on Ghana.  The Obuoba signal can be picked up in 7 of Ghana's 10 regions.

The next day, we went up to the top of the mountain where I got to look at the transmitter and the broadcasting tower.  The mountain has also become famous as a launching site for paragliders, who come mostly from abroad during the city's Easter Festival to jump off one of its ledges and float above the city, eventually landing in the soccer stadium.  On top of the mountain, we met a sightseeing couple from the Brong Ahafo region on the mountain who had come in a car, so we joined forces and for most of the morning and part of the afternoon and drove around the mountain towns together.

I found the scenery around Nkawkaw and the neighboring towns incredibly striking, especially in contrast to Accra's urban and often crowded aesthetic.  I've included a couple of my favorite pictures from our trip below.

A side view of the cliff face that overlooks Nkawkaw

Shrouded in the morning mist a little before 9 am, this is the mountain that houses Obuoba's transmitter.  It's also the mountain from which the first two pictures were taken.  I took this shot from the opposite side, in a town called Obomeng.  The concrete blocks in the yard are for sale and will most likely be used to build houses.

The Obuoba FM tower.  This picture was taken too close to the tower's base and doesn't give the viewer a proper sense of the tower's height.

The Obuoba transmitter

Up close

A cluster of telecom and broadcasting towers elsewhere on the mountain

The Butuase Waterfall in the mountains around Nkawkaw

A rock ledge at the falls

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Waste Not Want Not

The waste not want not doctrine is observed closely in Accra: used goods of every kind are available so long as you know where to find them, and most people are very sensitive about wasting food.

For example, it's common for people eating chicken to eat the bones and cartilage.  In the US, the only person I've ever seen eat chicken bones is my grandmother, who grew up during the Depression, and she only eats the marrow.

Many also put their leftovers to good use.  The other day, my neighbor prepared a meal for his uncle and I that consisted of banku (a fermented mixture of ground cassava and corn with a texture somewhere in between tamales and mashed potatoes) with smoked fish and "pepper," a salsa fresca-like sauce made out of chilies, tomatoes, onions, garlic, and ginger, all fresh.  When the three of us had eaten our fill, there was still quite a bit of pepper and some fish bones left at the bottom of the communal bowl.  For dinner that night, the nephew simmered the mixture in oil, transforming it from fresh pepper into tomato stew, another popular local recipe that essentially consists of the same ingredients.

That same day, these two also introduced me to a local drink called chibuku or shake-shake.  Chibuku is the lightly alcoholic juice (around 3.5% by volume, they tell me) that brewers squeeze out of malt that they have already used to brew beer.  The chibuku that we bought was produced by the brewers of Club, the most widely-sold beer in Ghana.  The drink is slightly carbonated (that's why the closed carton looks inflated in the first picture,) mildly sweet and full of a fine sediment that mixes with the liquid when you shake the carton or swirl your glass, hence the name.  I found it pleasant and refreshing enough, especially with food (although most Ghanaians won't drink anything until 30 minutes after eating) but I'd be surprised to see it become popular in the states.  It costs about $.75 a liter whereas Club usually costs between $1.50 and $1.75 for a 22 ounce bottle.  If shake-shake really is 3.5% alcohol by volume, then a carton of it has about 7.5% more alcohol than a large bottle of Club.

And that's what struck me most about chibuku: it's so clearly a product of the ingenuity that Ghanaians apply in building their consumer habits around the hard scrabble realities of life in the global South.  It's tasty, relatively cheap (albeit not compared to certain locally produced hard liquors), and most importantly, made from readily available resources.

To my neighbors and other Ghanaians, of course, the drink is more a treat than a sign of relative poverty.  The nephew, a devout Christian, recently told me that while many Ghanaians recognize that their diets are defined by their purchasing power, they give thanks for all their meals, bountiful and meager, and are not bothered by the lack of variety in the food they eat.  The message seemed to be that pleasure is fleeting but life is precious.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Lights Off

Lights Off is Ghanaian English for a blackout.  It's a term that I learned after only a short time here.  Right now, we're in the middle of a weeks-long series of power outages because the West African Gas Pipeline, which carries fuel from Nigeria to other West African states, was damaged by a boat (a pirate boat, I heard,) that crashed into it while fleeing the Togolese navy.  Although Ghana recently discovered oil off its southwest coast and relies on certain other sources of power like hydroelectric dams, this pipeline supplies most of the energy destined for public consumption.  Official estimates on the repair time so far have ranged from early October to late November and may very well continue to change as time goes on. [Update: officials now estimate that this round of blackouts may very well continue through the end of 2012.]

During the energy shortage, blackouts have occurred at least every few days.  At first, they were more or less regular, coming once every three nights, and fortunately for me, these nighttime blackouts last only four hours in my neighborhood.  Elsewhere, power normally goes down from 6 pm to 6 am.  Recently, the blackouts have begun coming more often, with my neighborhood seeing an additional 12 or 13 hour daytime outage every three days or so.  It took a few days for the ECG (Electric Company of Ghana, a public agency) to acknowledge this increase, and since then blackouts have become even more frequent. 

Tonight I'm optimistic that I'll be able to cook my dinner with the aid of an electric element because the lights went off last night and blackouts tend not to occur on consecutive days or consecutive nights. 

A lot of people sleep early when they go off around 6 pm because many Ghanaians routinely rise with or before the sun.  I usually stay up so that I get an extra hour or two to iron clothes, check emails, and so on.

Here are a couple of long exposure pictures that I took after sundown during last night's blackout.  You can see the grid line beyond which the lights stayed on, and there are some headlights, flashlights, and generator powered bulbs in the foreground.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Mocking the Serious

A couple of weeks ago, my neighbor was telling me that Ghanaians often joke about things that happen during the somber pre-burial rites typical of funerals, a ceremony that marks the time when the people closest to the deceased say their final goodbyes.  He told me about a boy's funeral he had gone to some time back.  When it was the father's turn to speak, the man couldn't contain his grief so he stuffed his already saturated handkerchief into his mouth to stifle his sobs.  An appropriate time later, when the father and a group of his friends were relaxing together, one of the friends teased him about the handkerchief and everybody laughed about it. 

More recently, my boss was very upset about a mistake that had been made in my department, and while he was reprimanding us he kept repeating the words "shame on you."  When he stepped out, it took only a couple of minutes for one of my coworkers to start parodying the mantra.  A day or two later, a couple of my coworkers even teased the boss about it and shamed him back in front of the rest of the department.  I was surprised to see that he took it in good humor. 

These kinds of one liners and offhand insults do not summon the full seriousness of the original event.  Instead, by making humor out of a painful or uncomfortable moment, people put distance between that moment and the present.  As best I can tell, the mockery signals that the group has moved on or is at least capable of doing so.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

The Illegal Lottery

Sometimes it seems like there's no end to the ways that Ghanaians express their lack of faith in the state.  One of my favorites is the illegal lottery, which I like to think of as an underground lottery. 

These lotteries are bankrolled by a boss who never gets directly involved with the business on the ground.  He employs agents who roam neighborhoods and collect numbers and wagers from customers.  Underground lottos pay out according to the numbers selected by the official lottery, and customers with winning tickets redeem them with the agents for cash.

Of course, there is always the risk that if you buy a winning ticket, the agent will dodge you and you won't get paid, so people who play these lotteries stick with agents that they have known for a long time.  On the other hand, winnings are available immediately, not after a long wait, and agents don't deduct taxes.