Lake Volta

My friend Madam Amy and I took a trip to Yeji, a fishing community that is one of the destination points for children who are trafficked into child labour. The main road to Yeji runs straight into Lake Volta – and the fishing industry that developed after the Akosombo Dam was constructed and flooded 3,000 square miles of land.

Working at Challenging Heights, I have often come face to face with the “after.” A sullen teenage girl who won’t allow anyone to comb her hair and doesn’t smile for weeks after being brought to the shelter. A re-integrated 10-year-old whose hair-trigger temper is constantly getting him in trouble at school. A too-small, too-calloused seven-year-old boy.

Now, I was hoping to get an understanding of their “before.”

We made arrangements with Uncle Isaiah to leave early Saturday morning to go on the lake. Or, to be perfectly frank, Aba made arrangements – “He is our uncle, soooo, he must to take you people.” Whether Uncle Isaiah had much say in the matter is doubtful, but he was kind and accommodating. Maybe Aba put the fear of, well, herself in him but I think it more likely that he’s just a really nice man.

With a steaming hot polyten of Tom Brown in one hand and an utterly delicious hunk of bread in the other, I boarded Uncle Isaiah’s wooden canoe. Aba, Ama, Amy, and . . . iiiii! I have forgotten his name! Anyway, Uncle Isaiah’s canoe assistant – let’s call him Joseph – completed our motley crew.

If you’ve never had breakfast out of a bag in a wooden canoe on a cloudy Saturday morning while enjoying the company of old and new friends . . . Hey! I’m recommending that one a lot.

Uncle Isaiah stood at the front of the canoe, his black and grey striped sweater and tan trousers blowing in the breeze.

Amy and I took turns bailing water out of the bottom of the canoe with a sawed off jerry can.

Ama sat quietly gazing out at the water.

Joseph operated the outboard motor, cutting it back and lifting it out of the water often so we didn’t accidentally severe the many fishing lines crisscrossing the surface of the lake.

Aba kept up a running commentary of commands, directives, advice, and observations.

The first fisherman we met attended Isaiah and Aba’s church. He and his sons had gone out on the lake at dawn to check their traps: 4-foot long lengths of bamboo. Tied to fishing lines, the bamboo was submerged in water the day before. As each length was pulled up and tipped upright, fish flopped into the bottom of the canoe.

The next canoe used nets to haul in fish. Another used cages.

“Won’t you ask them any question?” demanded Aba. “We thought you people would have something to say so that is why we brought you here.”

Yes, Ma’am!

The fishermen showed us how they baited the cages with ground cassava bits mixed with oil. They answered our questions about how many fish they caught in a day, how many hours they spent on the lake, what they would sell the fish for at Yeji market.

Yes, the boys working with them were their sons.

Yes, they went to school. But on Saturdays, they came to help their fathers.

The answers were always the same.

There were stories that seemed true – like the three boys who told us they were brothers. Their father gave them free use of the canoe/motor/fuel on Saturdays and they were allowed to keep the profits of all the fish they caught and sold.

There were stories that you wanted to believe – the two boys who pointed off into the distance and said their father and other brother were working “over there” and they only came to the lake after school and on weekends.

There were stories you knew couldn’t be true – the fisherman who said his sons went to school, of course. Meanwhile, the three small boys working to painstakingly mend the blue-green net never once looked up, never smiled, never said a word.

Boys who were naked. Boys who wore tank tops and shorts. Boys who wore only small knicker or a dirty t-shirt.

Boys who looked you in the eye and smiled. Boys who were growing into men, unable to speak English. Boys who always, always kept their heads down.

Boys who were small and thin. Boys who were robust and active. Boys who looked exhausted.

Canoes that were rough, unfinished wood. Canoes that had been pitched to prevent leaks. Canoes that were brightly painted with Fantse phrases, pictures, or Bible verses.

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The fishermen were mainly friendly and willing to talk. They applauded our attempts to speak Fantse or Twi. They laughed with Isaiah and respectfully greeted Aba. Basket after basket of freshly caught fish poured into our canoe.

Could I have passed any one of on the streets of Yeji and said, “There – that one is a slave master”? Probably not. They didn’t look like cruel men. Some were work worn and sun weathered, yes. But they didn’t look “evil.” And yet, it’s almost certain that some of them were the causes of those “afters” I keep meeting through Challenging Heights.

“Are you the only one who can fish in this spot?” Amy asked one of the fishermen.

Yes, for now. But if the fish are not coming, and he decides to move to a different area of the lake, another man can come.

“Does anyone ever come and take fish from someone else’s traps?”

No, they cannot do! If they do that thing and they are caught, they will have to go before the chief. This, it seemed, was a code of ethics few – if any – fishermen would willingly breach.

Only one fisherman that day appeared to be intent on avoiding us. As our canoe turned towards his, he began paddling rapidly away from us. I don’t remember what he said to us when we caught up with him. But I do remember the small, naked boy who silently crouched on the side of the boat.

It seems wrong to say I had a wonderful time at a place that is the site of so much suffering, but I did. I feel guilty just typing that.

In spite of my knowledge of the dark side of the area, I can honestly say I fell in love with the place.

The entire morning was a case study for the sometimes tricky nature of abolition.

Is a child whose mother sent him to work for her brother a slave – or simply “helping out the family”? Is it so bad that he is learning a trade – gaining skills that can support him in the future? It can seem so clear from a distance.

A good friend is constantly reminding me, “We Africans – the more you look, the less you see.” Sometimes it feels that way – the closer I get, the murkier the issue – murkier even than the clay colored waters of Lake Volta.

But I will always believe that if you look hard enough and long enough you can find the truth. Does the child have the opportunity to go to school? Is he well fed? Does he feel safe enough to lift up his head and look you in the eye?

The reality will be there, as sharply delineated as a brightly painted canoe cutting across the waters.

Another Day . . .

Another Dollar. Or so the saying goes in US. But here in Ghana, we like to shake things up a bit. A more accurate proverb would be, “Another day, another marriage proposal.”

Walking home from Rabbi Sam Junction, I was stopped by Ema (my phone credit guy) and a trio of his buddies. After exchanging the usual greetings with Ema, one of his friends grabbed my attention.

“Obruni, what is your name?” I introduced myself to Kwame, an adorable older man with a lazy eye and ears that stuck straight out from the sides of his head.

“Oh, fine! I want to marry you.” Then he spit – unnecessarily close to my feet, in my humble opinion – took my hand and kissed the back of it, and then raised his hand for me to kiss.

As for me, I did not do.

But I did thank him for the proposal with a (mostly) straight face before making good on my escape.

In Ghana, there’s no such thing as “too old.”

Aba-isms

On our weekend trip to Yeji, my friend Madam Amy and I met a fabulous Ghanaian lady who shares my day name – Aba (Thursday borns are the best!). Her family owns Ebenezer Hotel, where we lodged, and we quickly became “sistas.” All weekend long, she kept us in stitches with her outlandish remarks and take-charge attitude.

I can’t describe her any better than to say this: She’s the kind of Ghanaian woman who probably inspired the local Baptist church to take Judges 5:24 – 27 as their Mother’s Day 2015 text (true story).

So, without further ado, here’s a list of my favorite Aba-isms!

On Flatulence: Some is like schweee, some is pa-pa-pa-pa, some is shuuuuu, and some is boom. My flash is boom. It has vibration. If a small, small baby is sleeping nearby and I come to flash – hey! She will wake up and even be crying!

On Cross-Cultural Experiences: You can send me to U.S. I will go with you people. But not unless they are having Ghana food – the kenkey, the banku, the fufu.

Me: They are not having. It is very painful.

Eh!? Then why should I go there? If I have to eat the American food, I will become slim and it will not be good.

On Uncontrollable Excrement: Are you running? Have you come to ease yourself?

On The Ideal Footballer: My brother Prince is a very good goalkeeper. Have you seen how fat he is? Do you think any player who is coming to strike will get the ball past him? None shall enter the goal.

On Getting Your Full Eight-to-Ten: Aren’t you people sleeping?

My friend Amy and I are both 30-years-old, but when we heard Aba’s voice come booming through the window our late night chat ceased. Immediately. “I feel like I just got in trouble with my mom,” whispered Amy. “Me too!” I said, also sotto voce. We laid there unsuccessfully trying to muffle our laughter and I think both of us half-expected her to come bursting through the door at any minute. If she had, I don’t think we would have resented it in the least. Aba is the kind of person who makes you believe she is fully justified in any action she decides to take.

On Malaria Prevention: Auntie Sarah, what are you doing outside. I thought you would be indoors by now.

Me, stammering: Oh, um, I just though, um I would sit outside small. Because it’s beautiful – the stars! Yes, the stars are sooo nice tonight.

Okay, so you people don’t fear African mosquito.

Again, felt like I’d been caught out by my mom for sitting outside after dark without a mosquito net or spray. Sorry, okay?

On Health and Hygiene: Have you bathed?

“Yes!” Amy and I chimed in unison. Truth be told, we had bathed last night. Just not first thing in the morning before church. But do you think we were going to tell Aba that? No way, Jose! We’re not stupid ;-)

On Asking Nicely: Won’t you tell him to give you fish?

On Pre-Marital Sex: Have you seen this girl? She likes doing the thing. As for me, my own is closed. No man has entered.

Aba-Kakra, I love you pa paa paaaa!

Hoo-Ha!

ginger

MA: Sister Sarah, have you heard what AS is saying?

Me: No, what did she say?

MA: She is saying she wants to take some of the ginger and grind it to put it in her buh-tocks.

Me, wide-eyed: Eh-woah! Why?

MA, to AS: Why?

AS: I want to become very strong!

MA: Eh! You see, she will be sweating paa! It will be very painful.

Me: Oh my gosh! That sounds . . . I don’t know.

MA: The buh-tocks – the a-noos – will be going hoo-ha! Hoo-ha! Hoo-ha!

Me, cracking up: Hoo-ha!

MA: Yes! Some are even come to put it in their vagina.

Me, no longer laughing: Iiiii! Oh, why?

MA: When they are come to give birth – after the birth there can be sore inside. So they just grind it up and put it in the vagina to kill the sore. Sometimes we even put it inside the a-noos of the small children.

Me: Eh-woah!

Passports, Printers, Pastors, and Proposals – Oh my!

Life is always full of interesting moments in this here Winneba.

Take my efforts to obtain passport photos for the Division II players’ ICT class registration.

The first printer wasn’t able to print passport size from my pen drive so he drew me a map on a scrap of paper to his friend’s shop. Apparently, I don’t read maps very well, because I never did find the yellow building he was describing.

I did, however, stumble across a converted shipping container – the home of Miracle Multimedia: Publishing the Gospel of Christ Across the Nations. In addition to printing Tithe Cards, Calendars, Stickers, Handbills and the like, they assured me they could print passport size photos.

This, as it turned out, was a bit of an exaggeration. They didn’t actually have photo paper or a photo printer and sizing the pictures down was taking the combined efforts of 3 staff (with the sympathetic support of 2 spectators). (I think maybe we needed a miracle.)

When a test sheet spit out microscopic images, I reacted in an appropriately Ghanaian manner – “Eh-woah!”

The whole crew burst out laughing.

“The way you just pronounce the ‘eh-woah!’” explained the boss, “is very nice!”

“Hey, obruni! Esi?” A woman walking past the container stopped short when she saw me, a huge smile lighting up her face.

“Oh, wo fre me Aba. Ete sane?” I responded.

“Eh-woah! Nyame adom. Wo fre me Efia.” We looked at each other for several seconds, smiling, then she showed me the nephew at her back and said he was happy to see me. Personally, I thought the small boy looked seriously underwhelmed by my presence, but hey, who am I to argue?

Efia turned and shouted across the street in Fantse. Roughly translated: “Hey, Abena! There’s an obruni in the store! Come and see!”

To me she said, “I am having a nephew who wants to speak to you. She is coming.”

Abena came on the run, was introduced, felt shy and refused to greet – let alone speak – and got the heck out of Dodge. Undaunted, EFia scanned the street, trying to locate more relatives who might enjoy a grown-up version of Show-and-Tell. Sadly, none were in sight and she reluctantly continued on her way.

I turned my attention back to the Miracle staff, and the conversation soon headed towards its inevitable conclusion:

“Are you married?” – Emmanuel.

“No.” – me.

“Are you having a man? Do you want to get married?” – E.

“I’m not sure.” – me.

“So when will you marry?” – E.

“I don’t know.” – me.

“Hey! Then can I submit my letter of application?” – E.

“For . . . ?” – me.

“Marrying you! Eh-huh! Are you a Christian?”

“Yes.”

“Eh? Then where do you fellowship?”

“Here I go to different-different churches each week with my friends. But in U.S. I attend my father’s church. He is a pastor.”

“Oh! Then I will even find it easy to marry you! I am also a pastor! So you will accept my application?”

“Well, I will consider it. I’ll add it to the list. I think you will be on third page.”

“The third page!? Then they are plenty. How many Africans?”

“Oh, they are all Africans.”

“No white men?”

“No, no white men.”

“You are having separate page for white men?”

“No, no white men are among. All are African.”

“Eh. I think you have to move my name to the first page. In fact, I should be the first person.”

I told him I’d think about it, and he gave me a mini book he had written: Be a Soul Winner.*

“When you are going back to U.S., inform me so I can give you more to take and distribute.”

The entire conversation was an unmitigated delight to the Miracle staff and spectators. Each statement that Emmanuel or myself made was punctuated by hearty laughter, sympathetic noises, or good-natured commentary. They were sad to see me go and were quite genuine in their invitation to come back any time I needed more printing. Make that “needed printing.” No “more” about it! We never did succeed in printing passport photos, even though I spent nearly an hour at Miracle.

But who cares? In Ghana, time is never money. Time is: new friends, big smiles, lots of laughter, a free book – and marriage proposals!

*About the Author: Emmanuel A is an anointed minister of the Glorious Gospel of our lord Jesus Christ with diverse healings, signs and wonders in his meetings. He is the founder of EA Ministries. He is such a blessing and a great gift to the body of Christ and the world at large. He believes “A Soul is a Soul and will forever remain precious to the Lord”.

Only a Ghanaian could write such an auto-biography and be completely serious and completely humble at the same time!

Why me, O Lord, why me? Or, Where’s the Raid when you need it?

raid

Turned on the shower room light to see seven – yes SEVEN – cockroaches: 1 infant, 1 child, 1 teenager, and 4 adults, two of which were chill-axing on a piece of soap (which has since been discarded for obvious reasons).

Child and teen have been smashed with a bucket and washed down the drain.  Did not freak out (much) when teen ran across my heel prior to his/her death.  Thank God for Germ-X.

1 adult was liberally sprinkled with powdered bleach, smashed with aforementioned bucket, and then picked up with a triple layer of plastic bags and tossed in the trash.  #cantfindtheRaid

Am hoping that the powdered bleach water I washed into the crevices will eventually kill the rest and that they will go the way of the granddaddy cockroach that is lying on his back in the wash room next door, antennae gently waving in the breeze.  (Yes, he should be disposed of.  No, I have no intention of moving him, dead as he is.  They reach a certain size and I just – can’t.)

On the bright side (there always is one, even when it comes to cockroaches), my battle with the little monsters got the blood flowing pa paa pa.  This is the best I’ve felt in the 3 days I’ve been dealing with an unidentifiable illness.

But please-ah, I beg!  Do you have any advice for environmentally/people friendly ways to poison roaches – or deter them from entering in the first place?

Tom Sawyer – Ghana Style. Or, How to Sweep a Building without Breaking a Sweat.

While waiting for our driver to pick up the Winneba United U12 and U14 footballers for an afternoon match,  I decided to get in some much needed house cleaning.

Playing football in Ghana during the rainy season is not the most pristine of pastimes, and our dressing room/storage room/washroom building was feeling the effects.

I grabbed a American broom from the office and headed outside but before I could set foot in the Winneba United building, Enoch came racing up.  “Madam Sarah!  Let me do!”

I maintained a tight hold on the broom and unlocked the dressing room door, scooping up a Ghana broom along the way.

“Here,” I said, “which one do you want?”  Enoch chose the American broom and began awkwardly sweeping.  In that brief moment of distraction, Christian swooped in and removed the Ghana broom from my hand.  He grinned up at me and began energetically raising great clouds of dust and dirt.

Obviously, I was no longer needed here, so I unlocked the storage room and began organizing.

“Madam Sarah!” Enoch’s head popped through the doorway.  “We should do this room, too!?”

Retreating before a second storm cloud of dust and dirt, I unlocked the washroom and did a quick check of the plumbing.

“Madam Sar – Eh-woah!  Toilet!”  The flurry of Fantse words that followed drew a crowd of small boys who eagerly began inspecting the three toilets – all the while commanding each other to “Ah!  Leave there!  Is it for you?  Get out!”

Somehow, they ushered each other out (while simultaneously eyeballing every last detail of this fascinating environment) and I pulled the door partly closed.

“Do not lock it okay?” I said.  “I am going to sweep here but first I need to check on the driver.”

Obviously, I did not put enough emphasis on the I because by the time I returned they had swept the washroom, dug up a mop somewhere, and were now in the throes of a watery battle with grime (a quarter of which was created by their own little footprints).

There was pleeeenty shouting and directing and bossing going on.  To hear their own selves tell it, this was a novice crew of cleaners (at best) and whoever was in possession of the mop at any given point in time was desperately in need of a few pointers.  Or better yet, a demonstration.

I retreated a third time and settled in the entry way to enjoy the breeze and a chat with Coach Dominic.

Why fight it?  There were no more doors for me to unlock, but even if there had been, I’m certain any task I attempted would have been snatched from my hands.

Tom Sawyer, you’ve got nothing on me!

A 17th List. Of Things I Love. About the Species Known as the Ghanaian Male.

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  1. They will look up at you and say, “Obruni! You look like beautiful!”
  2. When you end up in the same taxi together, they will pay for your fare, even though you are going to different places.
  3. They will give you a ride to the bank and then back to your house when you need your passport to cash the check. And then back to the bank. And they’ll wait with you until your name is finally called. And they’ll even share their groundnuts with you. And then take you home again. And never once complain.
  4. They will say, “Hey, Sarah! I like this dress-oh!” when you wear one of your Ghana dresses for the first time.
  5. They will interrupt their afternoon run on the beach to help you gather seashells.
  6. When you show up at a goodbye party in a long white dress they will say, “Hey! You look like bride! Like you just came from the altar. Where is the groom?” and pretend to start looking for him.
  7. As you are walking to work they will say, “Sarah! Come! I want you to be happy so stop and listen to the Ghana music small.” Then they will have their friend turn up the speakers so you can hear the “old Ghana music” and begin singing to you.
  8. They will tell you, “Today your dressing is very cute. Wear this one and you will get a nice husband.”
  9. When they see you coming they will begin shouting your Fantse name “Aba! Aba!” and they will come running to play “Got your nose/ear/cheek” with you.
  10. When they are sitting/standing behind you they will start fixing your hair. Or your bra straps. Whichever is in worse shape at the moment.
  11. They will say, “Sarah is beautiful-oh! Sarah is beautiful.”
  12. They will brush the rain drops out of your hair.
  13. They will ask their friend if he has “noticed how beautiful Sarah is looking today?” And when you will say, “Oh! Thank you but my hair is a mess!” they will say, “Eh-heh! That is why you are looking so cute. Your hair has scattered.”
  14. They will spread their handkerchief on a cinder block so you’ll have a clean place to sit at the football match.
  15. When you rise from your seat and start to push in your chair, they will say “Madam Sarah, no.” and push it in for you.
  16. They (13 footballers) will rise from their seats and greet you in unison when you enter the room.
  17. They will stand over a gutter urinating and cheerfully calling “Obruni!”
  18. They will tell you how to catch python (grab it in the middle so when it whips back at you it will break its spinal cord), antelope (drugged hard boiled eggs), and bush rat (live traps).
  19. When the road gets too bumpy for you to rest your head against the seat back in front of you, they will say, “Madam Sarah, here – use my back,” and lean forward so you can rest on their back.
  20. When you get a bad headache at the football match, they will sit with you until you feel better, even though they can’t see the game as well from your vantage point.
  21. When you start to carry the ice chest to the bus, they come running to take it from you.
  22. They will say, “Hey! I am even praying that we should celebrate Sarah’s wedding by this time next year!” and when you say, “Oh, I don’t know about that” (and make a face) they will demand to know, “Do you want to be a Roman Catholic nun?”
  23. They will jog past you wearing a black felt hat and a blue “Breastfeed within the first 30 minutes of childbirth to protect the health of mother and child” t-shirt.
  24. When you go to buy sugar bread, they will choose a loaf hot from the oven: “A hot bread – for my sister! Do you like it?”

A 16th List. Of Things I Love about the Species known as the Ghanaian Male.

  1. When you buy green pepper from them at Market, they will hold them up and say, “See! The pepper is even beautiful like you!”
  2. Even in the midst of making concrete blocks in the hot sun, they will be beating out a rhythm on their wheelbarrow for everyone to sing to.
  3. They say things like, “Hey! On that day, my joy will even be full!”
  4. When they haven’t seen you for three whole days they will say, “Oh, Madam Sarah, nowadays your presence is not well distributed at all!”
  5. They pronounce the silent consonants in words like “whistle,” “plumber,” and “listen.”
  6. They will sit on the front porch of their bright pink house playing the flute.
  7. When they find out that you were both born on the same day of the week (Thursday) they will be so happy that you’ll feel as good as if you told them they’d won the Ghanaian lottery.
  8. You will walk past them with a mouth full of Jago and Bread. And at the exact moment you prepare to take another bite they will say, “Obruni! Are you eating?”
  9. When you are walking they will say, “Madam Sarah, allow me to help you,” and take your laptop and carry it. Then their friend will say, “Madam, allow me to carry you,” and take your bag. And they will carry all the way up the hill while teaching you a bunch of new Fantse and Effutu words.
  10. They (complete stranger) will buy you coco and sugar bread from Inkebi’s for your dinner. And then they will give you their number so you can call them anytime you are needing taxi.
  11. When the coach announces a match next week Sunday, they (12) will look up at you and say, “I will score one goal for you.”
  12. After the football match, they (18) will look down at you and say, “Madam, did you see the goal I scored for you?”
  13. They will buy a pair of slippers (i.e. flip-flops) for you. Then they will sew beads on the straps and around the sole (pricking themselves multiple times in the process). They will even sew your first and middle name in beads on the straps. And when they are finished, they will deliver to your house. But they will not allow you to pay – even small-small – because “you are my friend.”
  14. On the walk back from the field after football practice, they will ask you the following questions: “Why don’t the European women breastfeed?” and “The Bible says we must not worship idols. But when we say the Ghana pledge and stand in front of the flag, is it like we are worshiping it?”
  15. When their team scores a goal, a whole band of them will march around the perimeter of the field chanting, drumming, dancing, and banging on a cow bell with all their might.
  16. When their friend tries to take their portable DVD player away they will say, “Hey! You don’t have to be touching the this thing with these Ebola hands!”
  17. Typical football match behavior: If they’re not playing, they’re drumming. If they’re not drumming, they’re singing. If they’re not singing, they’re dancing. If they’re not dancing, they’re turning cartwheels. If they’re not cartwheeling, they’re fetching the stray balls. If they’re not fetching, they’re advising those on the field (loudly). If they’re not . . .
  18. When they learn that their friend is hungry and not having money for food, they will bring him a coconut.
  19. Their winks. “The cuteness? You can’t handle the cuteness!”
  20. After playing a full match of football, they will take it upon themselves to become the sideline commentator for the next match, complete with interviews of the watching obrunis (“Obruni says the game is nice!” and “Madam Sarah says the goal is exciting!”).
  21. They’ll walk around Sankor with 1 pink, 1 green, and 1 blue clothespin clipped to their chin. Just because.
  22. They’ll walk down the road to Penkye wearing a deflated football as a hat. Again, just because!