Sunday, March 31, 2013

through a glass darkly

I am in Ghana right now.  But this post is not overtly about my trip.  You will probably read that above this post if i get around to writing it any time soon.

It is election  season in Togo. I keep getting text messages on my phone telling me that registering to vote is my civic duty. Legislative elections were slated to be held sometime last year, but the government has been postponing them.  Now, however, there is a country-wide drive to register voters in anticipation of the elections in a couple months.  So, in Nampoch, the canton, not just the village, this looks like a couple of people setting up shop in the primary school with a computer and a generator.  I was surprised by their set-up.  a new Dell computer (well, i'm typing this on a 3-year old netbook, so it looked new to me), a webcam, photo screen, and printer.  The registration equipment came from the Congo.  They fill out each person's biographical information, take her picture, and print out his registration card on the spot.  It takes about 7 a person, with one computer, in a canton with a population of maybe 5 thousand+ people.  the people entering the data didnt know how to touch-type.

Petite got dressed up to go Monday afternoon.  He wore one of his best polo shirts and a pair of khaki pants I'd given him.  I went with him to check out the process.  We got there and I snooped around while he got his card filled out.  It was kind of weird seeing this old woman from my quarter sitting between a webcam and photo screen. It was also neat to see how many women were there registering to vote.  Anyway, there was a line to fill out the registration forms.  Petite jumped that somehow.  Then he came inside.  There was a line of about 8 people waiting to get their cards issued.  He points at me and is like "my friend is in a hurry, I'm going next."  everyone gave him crap for it, but it worked.  We were out of there in about 20 minutes. 

I asked Petite why everyone has to get new voter ID cards--their old ones were issued in 2007.  He shrugged and said he didnt know.

I realized that I have been here for going on 3 years and i still see everything like looking through a dark glass. I see the shape of reality, but not the details

I just finished watching Oliver Stone's documentary "The untold history of the United States" or something like that.  biased obviously but really well done.  thought provoking.  humbling.  it should be required watching.

This documentary shows the US, in part, how the rest of the world sees it.  Us.  I am forever surprised that people are as welcoming of Americans in some parts of the world as they are.  They certainly have reason not to be sometimes.  I've had people come up to me wearing bin Ladin t-shirts, his face superimposed over a picture of the burning twin towers.  Ive had people ask me why the US killed Qaddafi, ect.  These are not a reflection of me as an american but rather of an engrained perception of the United State resulting from its relationship with the post-colonial world since the beginning 20th century.  As a representative of the US abroad, I have nothing to demonstrate any inherent goodness of my country in the face of its own hubris and post-colonial imperialism/domination except for my own smile and actions.  This is a good part of the genius of the Peace Corps.  Here, i am the glass.

One thing I am most looking forward to back in the States is getting a new computer.  I think that there are now smart phones with more processing power than this thing.  They can at least run simultaneous apps.

The biggest adjustment that I have had to make in Ghana, apart from speaking English all the time, is to the number of expats and tourists here.  they make me nervous.  I am used to being unobtrusively prominent and to having my own secret language.

house building

Bliki's wife and her new double improved cook stove.  she didnt want to be photographed looking like this, but I told her she looks good.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

kiss me, I'm irish

Yesterday I ate dog and cat.  Not together, but on the same day.  This must be some kind of milestone.  For those of you engaged in the eternal cats vs dogs debate, cat meat is better.  Just this side of succulent. But dog stews really well and makes a wonderful broth. So it goes.

I just did something I never thought I would do—I biked into kouka after 1100.  During hot season.  To be fair, it is mostly overcast today, which is why movement outside of shade is possible.

I am typing this on my new keyboard.  it is silicon and rolls up into a bundle about the size of my fist.  it is really cool.  and nice to be able to use my own computer again.  

An ongoing mystery for me has, today, been solved.  Kids in villages lacking latrines, like mine, tend to crap just outside the house, or on the refuse piles between houses, or anywhere for that matter.  I have often walked out of my house to see a toddler popping a squat on my neighbor's little refuse hill.  One can judge consistency, it seems, from a distance.  Their older siblings and parents go into the teak groves to do their business.  Anyway, given the number of kids running around, and given the general lack of their leavings, I always wondered were kid poop went.  Today, I found out.  An elementary solution that should really have occurred to me earlier.  I was at someone’s house helping build an improved cook stove when I looked over the wall into the long-lashed eyes of a sow who was happily munching away on a pile of golden kid crap.  Pigs are almost as prevalent as kids. Mystery solved.  I’m never eating pork again.

I’ve been occupying the waning days of my Peace Corps service in village by waging a one-person campaign for improved cook stoves.  The traditional Togolese cooking method is to set a pot on 3 rocks with a fire underneath.  Not only is this horribly inefficient in terms of heat wastage but kids and animals can fall into the fire.  So, we encourage people to build improved cook stoves.  We mix up a bunch of clay, sand, and straw and build a wall around the traditional 3-rock design enclosing it and cut slots in the sides for chimneys.  This traps heat and thus reduces wood usage by at least a third.  Kids cannot fall into it, unless they are highly unlucky and highly talented.  Finally, improved cook stoves look pretty.  Women love them.  We build them a little shelf next to the stove so they can put stuff on it.  When I teach people how to build them I usually do one myself, then I make the people watching me do the others.  That way women learn how to do it and are confident enough to do it themselves.  Men tend to look at improved cook stoves as an income generating activity.

A friend of mine was walking home Sunday night and stepped on a snake. It bit him. Not that it did it much could cause my friend clobbered it.  I guess it wasnt a really dangerous snake cause he went to a traditional healer instead of to the hospital.  Petite said he’s back home now, recovering.  A Fulani in Kpolobal, a village just north of me didnt have the same luck.  He died the other day from a snake bite.  Kodjo told me that someone nearby killed a big viper last week. “We ate it.  It was good.”  Karma.

I am at the point where I will start trading my unborn children for 7 uninterrupted hours of sleep.

I was wandering around the marche Sunday (st. Patricks day) when I heard someone yelling my name.  This is usual on marche days as I am much more visible to my friends than they are to me.  This one was one of my zed friends; he waved me over to say hi.  When I got up to him I did a double take.  He was wearing a “Kiss me I’m Irish” Labette Blue tshirt.  I had to ask him if he had any clue what it meant.  He had no idea and was somewhat bemused at my enthusiasm over his shirt.  We went to a nearby tchouk stand where I explained to him what his shirt meant over a calabash.  Everyone thought it was pretty funny.  

Its kind of amazing the shirts/jerseys you can find here.  If I had a dollar for every time I saw a Dwight Howard Magic jersey or a Lebron James Cavaliers jersey or a Randy Moss Patriots jersey I’d be rich. 

I was biking into Kouka sunday and listening to music as I am wont to do.  Arriving in town, I decided to see what the rest of the world was saying.  I pull Metallica out of my ear in the middle of a little kid shrieking "yovo yovo anasara bonbon!"

Thursday, March 14, 2013

mountain views

I call your attention, dear reader, to the February 2013 issue of National Geographic.  Specifically to two articles.  One is titled “The Healing Power of Venom” the other, “Africa’s Passion for Soccer.”  I especially like the Editor’s Note on page 4 where he compares black mambas to rattlesnakes: “I grew up with rattlesnakes, but a mamba makes a rattlesnake seem like an earthworm by comparison.” 
The real interest in “The Healing Power of Venom” is, for me, the pictures.  Check them out.  Most of the snakes, or their near relatives, the article mentions, with the exception of sea snakes, are found here.  

National Geographic demonstrates its American roots in the title of the article “Africa’s Passion for Soccer.”  Most of the authors refer to it as football.  It is a short piece about the popularity of football in Africa.  Its centerpiece is a montage of homemade footballs.  I like the article because it mentions Togo, many of the places mentioned I have been to or are near me, and it accurately, if somewhat patronizingly, depicts football in Africa.  This article could have been written about the scene any day of the week outside my window.  

Track pads do not handle dripping sweat very well  

 This morning d and I hiked up the triangle mountain across from Binaparba.  A cellular company is building an antenna array about halfway up the mountain.  So they have laid a nice road up to the site.  It was a nice walk.  We got up to the plateau as the sun was rising over mt Bassar (Bina is on the west side of it).  We could see Binaparba, tucked up against the bulk of the mountain, along with its sister villages.  Teak forests look like gray-green squares.  Yam fields like something out of a sci-fi movie landscape.  It has rained here a couple of times in the past 2 weeks, so the mountains and the landscape have a new green tinge to them.  We could see the mountains of Kabou, still only half visible in the morning mist.  Off to the west we saw the mountains around Bangali, Dimori, and Bapure.  

Saturday morning I biked into Kouka on a quest for some antibiotics.  I dropped my lit picot on my toe Wed morning.  Basically ripped the skin off of the corner of it.  By Saturday, it hurt bad enough that I knew it was infected. Antibiotics, especially amoxicillin, are readily available here.  Women sell them with other drugs in the marches all the time.  I do not, however, really trust antibiotic packets that have probably been sitting out in the sun for the past month.  So I went to the pharmacy.  The pharmacist had voyaged to Kara.  Next I went to the hospital, first stopping to say hi to the director.  The hospital pharmacy was out.  Then I went to the catholic monastery (nunnery?).  It was only the second time I’d been back there.  The magnolia trees were blossoming.  It was verdant and quiet.  I wandered around until someone, the gardener I think, asked me what I wanted.  A woman came out, unlocked their pharmacy, and I got drugs.  My toe feels much better now.  

I have read that one function of memory is selective amnesia.  Rather, our brains tend to block out, or selectively edit, memories of bad/hard/stressful times. I find this especially true here.  I remember hot seasons past for example.  I remember dripping sweat, drugging myself to sleep, etc.  But the prickle of heat rash, the dehydration headaches, the strong desire to be any place but the pressure cooker that is my house, all seems new but familiar.  Once it happens, I remember it happening, but I realize that I have forgotten how it actually feels.  Since this is my third hot season I felt well equipped to handle it.  And I am.  Intellectually.  I forgot, however, about the creeping insanity that nibbles the edges of your consciousness as hot season progresses.  I forgot about how the chronic lack of sleep erodes my temper and my patience.  I forgot how the inability to escape, short of going to Kara and a/c, the stifling, pervasive, gagging heat corrupts my self-control, warps my temperament, and turns my brain into a swirling crock of steaming shit.  

It poured yesterday afternoon.  A big thunderstorm came over the mountain and it rained for about 2 hours.  Then, last night, d’s neighbor told me that lightening killed his “grand frere”.  what do you say?  besides the standard "du courage"

How do you know when a bush taxi is full?  Its never full.  You can always cram in more people. 

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

. . . . and smell the roses

it rained!

D and I went to Kara last week to run errands.  And to spent a night in A/C (my self-prescribed treatment for heat rash).  It stormed that night.  Wonderful.

Until the next afternoon when we were getting a car back to Kabou and it stormed again just as we were leaving. Legit storming. Of course the car did not have functioning windshield wipers.  The driver hung his head out the window.  D had a mild panic attack.  Before that, I could never figure out how so many head on collisions apparently happen here.

We made it through the storm just fine, then, about 10k outside of Kabou, the driver's side brake pads fell off and went bouncing down the road.  So it goes.

I got tired of sleeping in a stew of my own sweat and body heat so i drug my lit picot outside last night to sleep on.  its much better than sleeping on a mat, which is what I did before.  I laid under 100 thousand stars and read "Wizard of EarthSea" by LeGuin. It was a transcendental experience.

Since its (mostly) dry season, I can take the back way to Kouka.  It is amazing how much 2 good rains can do for the countryside.  All of the trees look greener.  The bushes are filling out.  Weeds are growing along the road.

I was biking in the middle of nowhere this morning and kept thinking that I smelled lilacs.  So I walked a little ways into the bush to see what it was.  I'm terrified of snakes in the bush, but this lilac smell that kept drifting over the road was bugging me. I found 3 different flowers within like 20 feet of each other.  Something I've never seen before.

Kodjo had a hernia operation in Bassar last week.  It cost him 60 mille, 30 of which I gave him.  but he's had a hernia since i've been here, so i figured he needed the operation more than i needed the money.  We stopped in to visit him on our way back to Bina.  He was on a gurney in this shack behind the surgery building with like 5 other patients and various family members.  He proudly showed off the evidence of his operation, along with other things that I didnt really want to see.  The fact that he can have successful surgery here without all of the other stuff (like sterile sheets and A/C) that we seem to require in the states is interesting to me.

Last week I helped Petite make bricks.  He tore down the two round buildings in my compound to make room for a 3 room building so there is room to store his corn and for the kids to sleep.  Ntifoni and I got out to the brick site first.  It is basically a hole by the pump.  they dig up subsoil, wet it down, and make bricks out of the mud.  We each made 40 bricks.  he got done first but my mold was bigger.  I was starving when I was finished.  but, since it was marche day, a guy came by selling stewed dog off of the back of his bike, so I ate a bunch of that.  then drank tchakpa that my host mom made.  then slept the rest of the day.