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Friday, February 12, 2010


I am traveling to Panama from February 15 to April 8, 2010 with a group of students as part of an Innovative Academic Initiatives program at Truman State University. I am running this program with a biologist, and we are staying at La Mica Biological Station at El Cope in Cocle province, close to the Omar Torrijos National Park. As a historian, I'm not exactly sure what I'll be doing for close to two months at a biology research station and in a national park. I'm taking the students to Kuna Yala for a couple days, and then going on my own (or maybe with a small group of students) to Volcano Baru National Park in Chiriqui province. If I can get away, I'd like to do a bit more traveling, but mostly it sounds like we'll be stuck pretty close to home. I'm bringing along two books to review as well as drafts of two articles and one book that I can work on if those editors ever get back to me with the required revisions. Otherwise, I have a hard drive full of archival documents that I'll slowly work through, and I'm bringing along a big heavy external hard drive full of my old videos that I've been wanting to edit down into something usable in the classroom.

I'll blog along with the students at Blogger is changing how they let me access this blog, so this might be my last post here. Perhaps I'll try to recreate it at

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Next Stop: Haiti

I'm headed to Haiti on Monday on a solidarity delegation with the Marin Interfaith Task Force on the America. I plan to blog and post other information at Head there for more information.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009


After a marathon 30-hour odyssey made somewhat more painful by airlines that are seemingly incapable of running their planes on time, I am finally back home.

I miss Ghana.

The protective bubble that I enjoyed my last couple days in Ghana quickly comes crashing back in around me. Friday morning I turned in my grades, and gave a little whoop when I realized that I was completely done with all of my responsibilities. For a couple days, I had absolutely nothing I had to do. I could do whatever I wanted, even if it was nothing more than reading a Marge Piercy novel (Small Changes, not her best) or cataloging digital images of archival documents on my computer. I rarely am so relaxed, and wanted to hold on to that precious space forever. Alice in Wonderland (or was it Douglas Adam's Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy?) talks about that miserable moment of Sunday afternoon tea that drags on mercilessly. But, like an endless summer, I wanted to hold on to that moment as long as I could. My body has finally acclimated to 32-degree weather (23 - 27 is typically my acceptable range), and with a cloud cover and a slight breeze it almost felt cool and life was perfect.

Back home, the world comes crashing back in on me. I have four boxes of mail to dig through that has piled up during the last four months, three books to review, and who knows what else awaits me in my office at Truman. Back to my miserable overburdened life. I wish I could go back to that Sunday afternoon space in Ghana.

Reverse culture shock is always the worst stage of cultural adjustment, and continues to become worse because I consciously know it is the worst and so I assume that I am properly adopted to cope with it, but all that this means is that the shock is that much greater. I was mentally prepared to go from 32 to 32 degree weather, but going from 32 to just about 0 degree weather is just a bit more brutal.

This was one of the best, if not the best, semester I have had in my eleven years at Truman. Partly it was due to a light teaching load--only one class, the lightest that I have ever had, and equally light administrative responsibilities, due largely to the decent students on the Missouri in Africa Program. I had great colleagues in the History Department at the University of Ghana (the same is also true at Truman). But it was nice to be removed from university politics, both at Truman and at UG, and to have the mental space and time to work on my own projects.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Ghana vs. Ecuador

One of the underlying themes of my semester in Legon is how Africa compares to Latin America, how Ghana compares to Ecuador. The only academic I know of who has made the jump from Ecuador to Ghana is Carola Lentz; I know of no one who has made the reverse voyage, although Kris Lane tells me he is curious about commonalities in artisanal gold mining. As part of Indigenous America, Ecuador was never a significant destination for the trans-Atlantic slave trade, and so it becomes marginalized in African diasporic studies, even though most people in the States seem to think that Ecuador is in Africa.

Cheryl says that the entire third world looks the same to her, and in a way the cold heartless polluted crime-ridden traffic-clogged concrete urban jungles of Nairobi and Quito are depressingly similar. I wonder what points of comparison are significant, and which are superficial. Perhaps I don't have the objective distance necessary to make a proper assessment. But here is an attempt.

Both Ecuador and Ghana consider themselves to be the "middle of the world." Ecuador, of course, is named after the equator, and a tourist trap just outside of Quito is appropriately named "mitad del mundo." Cayambe, my primary research site, is located right on that imaginary line, and I've crossed back and forth between the northern and southern hemispheres hundreds of times.

Ghana also considers itself to be at the center of the world, and in a way has a better claim. The country lies just north of the equatorial line (it runs a couple kilometers out to sea in the Gulf of Guinea). More significantly, however, that great imperial division of the prime meridian known as Greenwich that determines time zones around the world runs through Tema, a short distance east of where I sit. That means that Ghana lies closest to both 0 degrees latitude and longitude.

Ecuador is just a bit larger than Ghana, but Ghana has almost twice as many people as Ecuador. Ghana is largely flat and low-lying; Ecuador is mountainous, and in fact as the equator makes its trek around the globe it reaches its highest point on the southern snow capped slopes of the Cayambe volcano. I spend most of my time in Ecuador above the malarial line; I'm almost at sea level in Ghana. The temperature extremes in Ghana are minimal, often just a couple degrees between a nighttime low and a daytime high. Living in Ecuador's thin mountain air means that I've woken up to snow in the morning but by mid-afternoon the direct equatorial sun can burn me to a crisp.

One of my favorite things in both countries is to wake up in the morning and drink the juice of two fresh oranges that I've just squeezed after purchasing them the previous day for about 20 cents. In fact, I'm squeezing my oranges with the same little pink juicer that I purchased in Ecuador. Most people in both countries don't seem to appreciate the incredibly delicious fresh fruits and vegetables, preferring instead a diet of greasy starch and dead animals. Neither country will ever win culinary awards. Fruits seem to mature and then rot much more quickly in Ghana than in Ecuador; I wonder if there is some sort of climatic explanation for that.

I wash my clothes by hand. I'm not supposed to wear shorts, even when it is hot.

In Ecuador I'm a gringo; in Ghana I'm an obruni. Ecuadorians hate Peruvians; Ghanaians hate Nigerians. All of them love soccer. This time of year radio stations in both countries play Jingle Bells, and it is equally culturally out of place in both countries.

Ghanians are bigger, louder, and women carry things on their heads. Drivers in both countries first pick up passengers and then stop to put a couple gallons of gas in the tank, something that would never happen in the U.S. and I don't completely understand here. Are the drivers really living so hand-to-mouth that they first need to charge fares to pay for gas? Or is the vehicle so decrepit that they are never sure how long it will last, and no one wants to pay for gas that you'll never use? Or is it just an issue of thoughtlessness?

One of my pet peeves in Ecuador is being overcharged just for being an outsider. This happens both on an informal level (taxi drivers are the worst in both countries) and with official prices. For example, I'm charged about the same price to see a waterfall in both countries that I would pay to spend a week in Yosemite National Park in California, even though wealthy locals can visit the same site for pennies on my dollar. Ashley says that a difference is that my visit to a park in the States is subsidized by my tax dollars, and that here my high fees is a revenue generator for the government. Yes, that is true, but it still bothers me.

My biggest fears every time I travel to Ecuador are that I will be robbed and killed in a bus accident (with both probably happening at the same time). I would need to look at statistics to back this up, but my sense is that the chance of both happening are probably about the same here in Ghana.

Some of the problems with the infrastructure are very similar. Both countries have power outages, in Ecuador because of drought and silting at the Paute dam, and who knows why in Ghana (I heard because of a fire in an electrical substation). The water supply isn't safe and secure in either country (probably because of breaks in water mains which allows sewage to seep in), which means that I have to boil water to drink. But I'm fortunate, here in Ghana and usually in Ecuador, that where I live has water tanks and backup generators so at most breaks in service become minor disruptions rather than major inconveniences. I've come into Ghana at about the same socio-economic level and academic environment that I enter in Ecuador, which gives me the feeling of a similar experience.

My internet connection in Ghana is slower than it is in Ecuador, much slower. In terms of speed, dropped connections, aborted downloads, and even cost, it is about what I had in Ecuador 15 years ago. (I know some people weary of my whining about my internet problems, but it seems like anyone who understands my borg-like existence should have some sympathy on the issue.)

Latin American universities have a reputation for being radical strongholds. A common saying is that those who are not marxists in the university have no heart, and those who remain marxists after graduation have no brain (which perhaps explains why those of us who value our hearts over our brains wish to remain in the university removed from the cold, cruel realities of the outside world). The British created the University of Ghana in 1948 to train a conservative political, social, and economic elite for their colony, and that imprint remains very strong here. The first time I was tear gassed was at a protest against neoliberal economic policies at Quito's Universidad Central; it's unimaginable that I'd ever see a protest at UG, but if I did it would probably be in favor of an upward redistribution of wealth.

I became enamored with Ecuador because of its powerful social movements. Similar to Tim and Cindy's disillusionment with their Peace Corps experience in Guinea-Bissau, I have yet to see any evidence of such movements in Ghana. On the other hand, as in many Indigenous communities in Ecuador, evangelical Christianity has taken Ghana by storm. The result is a growing emphasis on individualism in traditionally communitarian societies.

Ghana is by far the most religious place that I have ever lived, much more so than Quito (which has a reputation for being a conservative Catholic town) or my upbringing in South Dakota. Every nite students gather in small groups in the field across from the Guest Centre for their mini revival services, and early the next morning they are outside the halls with megaphones broadcasting their messages to their classmates, who by all indications are also equally devote (when do they ever sleep?). The noise is deafening. But it goes well beyond that. Many if not most of the stores, for example, have religious names such as Proverbs 10:22 Auto Parts, Clap for Jesus bus company, Glory to God Shoes.

Different points of departure make me wonder how much of what I see is distorted through very different perspectives. I see Ecuador through the lens of a leftist, grassroots social movement, and Ghana through a conservative, elite educational institute.

Because of a strong correlation between class and race in Latin America, socio-economic divisions are often visually printed on physiological differences in Ecuador. Class is largely constructed along racial lines (white = privilege, with Indigenous and African descendants remaining impoverished and excluded). With an insignificant settler population in Ghana, such visible distinctions do not appear to be so clear to me. I sense that there are deep tribal divisions, and divisions between traditional chiefs and pan-African nationalists, that are apparent to Ghanians, but to me as an outsider I never see or notice these.

Both countries have colonial histories, though Ghana's is British and Ecuador's is Spanish. Ghana just commemorated its golden anniversary as an independent country, and Ecuador is celebrating the bicentennial of its first declaration of independence. Although Ecuador's republican history is about four times as long as that of Ghana's, both countries seem to maintain about the same pace of writing new constitutions (about once a decade) and experiencing extra-constitutional changes of government. Both countries currently have allegedly left-leaning governments that seem to be fairly stable.

Both countries have colonial languages as official languages, though most Ecuadorians are much more fluent in theirs (Spanish) than Ghanians are in theirs (English). Vernacular or Indigenous languages survive, though they are much more visible in Ghana than Ecuador. Ghanians are much more multi-lingual, including commonly being conversant in multiple vernacular languages, whereas despite political campaigns to preserve Indigenous languages most Ecuadorians are functionally monolingual in Spanish. Ironically (or perhaps not so, given the study of the politics of colonial languages), Ecuadorians seem to be more interested in learning English than Ghanians. Ironically (or perhaps not so much so because of the struggle to defend marginalized languages), official multilingualism appears to be more important to Ecuador.

In terms of the United Nations Development Program's Human Development Index, Ghana ranks much lower (158, just below Haiti, the lowest country in the Americas) than Ecuador (80, almost the bottom of the list of high human development countries). In terms of the Gini Coefficient, Ghana is somewhat better off (.43, about the same as the U.S. and Venezuela) than Ecuador (.45), but well below that of Denmark and Norway.

From a dependency theory perspective, which of course is my training, Ecuador and Ghana share the common problem of being victimized by an export economy which extracts raw material to the benefit of the industrial core and to the detriment of the periphery. In fact, both Ecuador and Ghana have been major cacao (or cocoa as it is spelled in Ghana--I've never understood the difference between the two words) exporters--Ecuador in the 1920s, and Ghana today. In both countries, poor people inhabit rich lands. The solution to the persistent problem of poverty (or, rather, economic inequality) is a structural alteration that attempts to shift production toward internal industrial development and away from using the proceeds of primary material exports to import finished luxury goods for the elite.

Friday, December 11, 2009


I grow weary of the constant obruni ("white man") catcalls. I understand kids; they will say anything that comes to their minds. But what's up with the seemingly uncontrollable need for adults to blurt out "obruni" whenever I walk by? And I can never understand what exactly they mean by it. Often it seems to be merely a descriptive observation, as if they were telling me that I was wearing a blue shirt and for some reason think I need to be reminded of that fact. At other times, the tone seems to drift through shades of distrust, dislike, disregard, distaste, disgust. Is this a reflection of lingering anti-colonial sentiments, or even shades of class hatred? Obruni is not exactly used the same way as "gringo" is in Latin America (particularly in politicized Bolivia where it acquires pejorative connotations), or "chele" ("white") that in Nicaragua becomes one of just many innocent superficial descriptive nicknames (thin, fat, old, black, chinese, etc.).

We had our going away party last nite. I've posted more pictures on Facebook. Three days left. I have 13 Ghana cedis to my name.

Sunday, December 06, 2009

Kalapka Resource Reserve

A week left in Ghana, and one of the few remaining things I kind of wanted to do before leaving was to check out the area in Volta around Ho. In our lap of Ghana back in October, we visited Hohoe in northern Volta, but the Bradt guide made it sound like the area around Ho in central Volta could be interesting as well.

Steve arranged for a taxi driver he knew to take us to Ho for the day. We were to leave at 6 a.m., but it was quarter to seven by the time we left. The taxi driver claimed that he had "waited large" for us in the car park while we waited for him at the restaurant.

On the way north we passed Krobo Mountain that I had tried to visit last weekend. Now with a vehicle, we decided to drive in to see what we could find of the community reserve project that a peace corps volunteer had set up 10 years ago. We did find the remains of summer huts and toilets, but little functioning traces of a community tourism project. This is I suppose what happens when an enthusiastic and idealistic outsider comes in with large ideas but with little local input or commitment. A person from a nearby house offered to take us up on the mountain for 5 Ghana cedis, and with a bit more time I would have loved to have taken the hike. It was still early in the morning and not yet too hot.

But we continue on to our first destination for the day, the Kalapka Resource Reserve located on the south side of Ho. The driver does not know this area and does not understand our maps, which is maybe just as well because the maps bear only a passing resemblance to the physical landscape around us. We ask for directions, and get conflicting responses. I point out a road that I think is the correct one. The driver takes it and says he will "go small" and confirm that we are on the correct road. He then inexplicably takes a right turn and ends up heading on a very bumpy road in exactly the wrong direction without ever confirming where we are going. At that point I don't question him because, after all, he is the local driver and I am the foreigner. But I'm slowly coming to the realization that most Ghanaians do not know much about their country, and after only one semester I have seen more of it than they will in a lifetime.

After an hour, we stop at a community to confirm that we are on the correct road, but they tell us that this road does definitely not go to Ho but to Adidome. We ask the name of the community, but cannot find it on our map. They do not recognize any of the names on our map. I was sure that a mountain we saw in the distance was Adaklu close to Ho, but they gave us a different name. I could not get our imaginary geography, the map, and our physical surroundings to line up with each other. It all reminded me of a nineteenth-century traveler in Ecuador who asked a community for directions to the next community, but no one had ever been there, had no idea how to get there, and furthermore could not fathom why anyone would try to get there.

So we turn around and head back on a still very bumpy road back in the direction of Kalapka. We finally arrive at noon at the peak of the day's heat instead of 9 a.m. as was our original plan. The guide (again with a gun, as at Mole) thinks it is stupid to go on a hike in the middle of the day when all of the animals and any clear thinking human would be hiding out in the shade with a cool beverage. But after spending all morning in the car I really need to stretch my legs. We go on a leisurely two-hour hike. At a distance we see some monkeys, kob, guinea fowl, squirrels. After having squirrels eating all my pears in Kirksville, I wish the guard would shoot a couple of them. I really like this reserve--it is nicer than Shai Hills that I visited last weekend. It would be nice to visit it early in the morning or late in the afternoon, but that would require staying overnite.

I would have liked to visit Adaklu mountain on the other side of the reserve, but Steve (who is an engineer) wants to visit the Akosombo dam and I would like to see Lake Volta. So we take off for our next destination, almost running out of gas because for some inexplicable reason (the engine looks and sounds like it is about ready to throw a rod?) the driver did not fill the tank before we left in the morning. Because of all our delays, we arrive too late for a tour but we do look around a bit. Kwame Nkrumah built this dam in the 1960s to help with Ghana's industrial development. The lake behind the dam is allegedly the largely artificial body of water in the world. I keep wondering what happened to all of the people who I assume were displaced by the lake.

By now it's quickly becoming dark and we need to head back to Legon. We've been going all day without eating and it has been hot and my head is throbbing. Again, I've spent all day, something like 10 hours, in the car for a two-hour hike. The hike was great, but it does not seem like a good balance. When we arrive back at the Guest Centre, Steve and the taxi driver proceed to engage in a drawn out argument about the payment on which we had agreed. I hate tangling with taxi drivers; their lack of civility and class consciousness always reminds me of the derogatory comments Marx made about peasants (they are like a sack of potatoes who add nothing to history). It was an expensive day trip, but again we covered a lot more territory much more easily than we could have had we been on public transit. Does that reveal my class position as well?

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Green Turtle Lodge

Green Turtle Lodge is a beach-side eco-resort beyond Cape Coast, about halfway to Cote d'Ivoire. My students spoke highly of the place, and with two weeks before I leave and my responsibilities largely complete I thought I'd pay it a visit. Other travelers say that Ghana is relatively hassle free, but I find it a hassle to get anywhere in this country. Perhaps my reference point is different; almost all of my travels in Africa have not been on a tourist circuit but with Cheryl on pre-arranged transportation. Perhaps I have had it too easy. Because of traffic and transportation hassles, arriving at the lodge becomes an all-day adventure. Someone lifts the disposable plastic water bottle out of the side pocket of my backpack, and all I can think is whether than was really necessary.

The beach has sand that gets into everything, the ocean spray coats my glasses with salt water that I can't seem to get off without scratching the lens, the sun burns my skin, and the rip currents threaten to drown me. A women walks on the beach in front of the lodge, stops, squats, poops, stands up, and keeps on walking. Delightful.

The lodge offers a couple of hikes, but the rest of the tourists seem to want to hang out on the sandy, salty, sunny, rip-tidy, poopy beach, so I go off by myself. A young kid leads me off on an incredibly fast-paced hike along a sun-baked road. As the temperature quickly rises and my body dehydrates, I regret not walking at my own pace rather than trying to keep up with him. We first walk out along the road through a rubber plantation, and then back through a bamboo and palm plantation. Crews seem to be cutting down all of the rubber trees, which leaves even less shade for us.

The kid doesn't seem to know a lot and doesn't offer a lot commentary, but he makes an offhand comment about Ghana's first president Kwame Nkrumah planting these rubber trees as one of his economic development projects. My ears perk up, and I want to know more. Apparently the trees have a fifty-year life spam, which is why they are all coming down now. We stop at a sawmill, and the guy in charge asks me if I have an interest in lumber. Do you mean professionally? He wants to know whether I want to invest in the project. A Malaysian timber company is harvesting the wood for export, and I find the contrast between Nkrumah's autonomous development plans with current governments' engagements with extractive enterprises to be striking. Witnessing this is almost as interesting as sitting back at the Guest Centre reading Nkrumah's I Speak of Freedom, which in a way is what I would be just as interested in doing right now.

On the way back to the lodge we stop at Discove, and of course I want to see Fort Metal Cross. I want to see all of the forts along the coast, but in truth they all begin to blur together for me. Nevertheless, I regret doing the hike because the fort is far more fascinating than the sun-baked road, and definitely more so than the sandy, salty, sunny, rip-tidy, poopy beach. With a bit more planning, I could have hit Fort Batenstein at Butre, Fort Orange at Sekondi, and Fort St. Sebastian at Shama heading back to Cape Coast instead.

After touring the fort we head back to Akwidaa through Agona, which is rather like going from Columbia to Jeff City through Kirksville because that is the only way the transportation runs. Akwidaa has a ruined fort, apparently knocked down by local inhabitants who did not appreciate its role in the slave trade. Seeing a ruined fort provides an interesting contrast to the nicely preserved or reconstructed white-washed forts that dot the coast.

The next day before taking off on another long trip back to Accra I stop at Axim to see Fort St. Anthony. I'm never sure whether to believe the stories the guides tell me, including that this fort has a tunnel out to the lighthouse out in the bay so that the Europeans could extract the slaves without the awareness of the people on the coast. I think about also trying to make it to Princetown to visit Gross-Friedrichsburg, but it is 15 kilometers off the main road on a dirt track without much transportation and it just seems like too much hassle. But when I return home I read that it was one of a few German forts on the coast, and I regret not making the effort. Farther out is Fort Apollonia at Beyin, but it would probably take another day to get there and back.

With this trip, I have now visited all of Ghana's ten regions. My Bradt guidebook has a map on the inside front cover that lists the main tourist highlights, and I have visited almost all of them. Instead of the Busua Beach Resort, I stayed instead at the Green Turtle Lodge a couple kilometers farther up the coast. So, does that count? If so, the only one I am missing then is the Nzulezo stilt village by Fort Apollonia at Beyin close to the Cote d'Ivoire border. I think about heading there just to finish off the list, but I would arrive there on a Thursday and according to my guidebook it is closed on Thursday--and it does not look like an interesting enough site to be worth taking yet another day. With a bit more and better information, I could have organized this trip differently in order to hit all of these sites.

Nevertheless, the full moon rising over the beach was, in truth, gorgeous. And swinging in a hammock on the beach reading a book was very relaxing. Now if only I could figure out how to do that with these long tro-tro rides from Accra and back.

In case anyone is interested, here are pictures from our thanksgiving day dinner:

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Shai Hills

With all of my teaching responsibilities finished, I decided I should explore a bit more of Ghana. Emily says that one of her favorite places to visit is Shai Hills, a day trip out of Accra. So, I decide to check it out. I get up early and a couple hours and a couple tro-tro rides later, I arrive. A guide takes me on a two-hour hike, mostly along a road until we get to a cave where people used to hide from slave raiders.

I would say that Shai Hills is ... well, ok. It's probably not as nice as Ten Thousand Hills State Park outside of Kirksville, or Indians Hills outside of Madison, two of my favorite "local" places to hike. In fact, except for the absence of onions, the place reminded me a bit of Sebaco where the flat plains outside of Managua begin to climb into the beautiful Matagalpa/Jinotega mountains. The Accra plain stretching out to Shai is similarly, well, ugly, but unlike Nicaragua the Shai Hills do not continue to climb upwards.

It's only 11am, my hike is over, I'm in a good mood, and so I decide to continue exploring. Fifteen minutes up the road is the Krobo Mountain Community Reserve. The person in charge at Shai Hills says that he has never been there. My guide says that it is similar to what we just did at Shai Hills, only he says that it involves climbing a mountain, and he gives me that look of doubt that this old man could make it. Nevertheless, I decide to check it out. I probably should have turned around and gone back home.

First, I miss the sign for Krobo Mountain (well, actually I see it, but don't recognize the old beat up sign that says "Klowem," whatever that means as such). So, I end up at Acuse Junction (which, ironically, is the same place where we turned around on our aborted first day of our lap of Ghana; I had thought of trying to talk Cheryl into staying at the Shai Hills Resort just across from the preserve too, instead of heading all the way back into Legon). I need to walk several kilometers back to the entrance along a hot, busy highway. Two people offer to help, but I'm never sure what "help" means. Sometimes it is genuine and friendly; other times it is just an opening to rip off a poor lost obruni.

Well, now it's noon, the sun is hot, and I'm walking all alone on an isolated road with no clear notion of where I'm going or what I'm going to find. I hear a rustle in the bushes beside the road. Back at the entrance on the main road opposite the dilapidated sign for the reserve a new sign says "Krobo heritage project site; KEEP OFF by order of traditional authority." The guide book talks about a murdered body that a reader found at the reception area, and here I am all alone. And I'm running out of water. I decide to call it a day and return home.

Walking back to the main road I realize just how soon I had turned around; I maybe could have ventured a bit farther. Oh well. A tro-tro stops right away to pick me up, only I don't recognize it as such because it is almost empty and the mate is not yelling a destination. I've never seen either of those before. So, thinking it might be a private vehicle and I'll be grossly overcharged I ask the price, which is the normal price, only the few people in the vehicle are fighting about their fares.

This tro-tro is going to Tema, not Accra, but the driver says he will drop me off at the roundabout to pick up another vehicle to Accra. When we get to the roundabout he indicates that I should say in the tro-tro, and when we get to the lorry station he asks where I'm going. Now he realizes that he should have dropped me off back at the roundabout as he originally suggested for the quick and short trip up the motorway back to Legon. So, instead, now I get to see Tema (which looks like more of the same) and I get to enjoy a couple more tro-tro rides along slow, bumpy, dusty, back roads. Three hours later I'm finally back in Legon, hot, tired, sunburned, heat exhausted, and with a very wet lap because when I took water out of the bladder in my camelbak I forgot to close it back up tight and my precious few drops had drained out all over me.

So, was it worth it? True, I did need the exercise. And it was nice to get off of campus. But I'm trying to escape my commute, and I ended up spending 6 hrs in tro-tros for a 2-hr hike. Shai Hills is calm and relaxing, and if I were living in Accra it would be a nice break from the hustle and bustle of the city. But the Guest Centre is also quiet and relaxing, and I only need the calming hike after the nerve rattling tro-tro rides out there. After a worse trip back to Legon, I definitely could use another calming hike through a nature preserve.

Friday, November 27, 2009

All my grades are packed...

Well, not quite. One of my poor "special admission" students didn't realize that the final was not in our regular classroom (it was in the Great Hall, together with a computer science final), and now I have to wait instructions for how to enter grades online.

I've always thought that no one ever learns much in writing a final exam, but a lot can be learned in preparing for an exam. And it looks like my students took the exam seriously, and learned a lot. In retrospect, only giving them the question "Why is Latin America poor" may have been too vague, and additional prompts helped shape, structure, and direct their ideas.

One of the students leaving the Great Hall thanked me for a good final exam. I've never been thanked before for an exam, and I wonder exactly what he meant--that it was a fair exam, that he learned a lot in preparing for it? Or, I wonder, the if the exam becomes such a large part of the class that thanking a prof for the exam is, in essence, a way of thanking me for the class, that the exam and the class become one and the same thing?

But otherwise my semester comes crashing quickly to an anti-climatic end. I'm beginning to clean the food out of my kitchen. Except for a couple short encyclopedia entries, I've finished everything on my to do list (oh, and I'm still waiting for The Ecuador Reader to arrive from HAHR). All that I have left to do is to read through thousands of digital images of archival documents on my hard drive, and that would be so much easier on my eyes if only I had my 24" monitor (sorry, I have no idea what that might be in cm). Between straining my eyes on the small laptop monitor and heat migraines from temps that now regularly hit 33 every day and seemingly mango allergies, my body hurts and I'm getting ready to go.

Sunday, November 22, 2009


Yesterday I went with two of my history colleagues to Kipi (aka Kyebi) for a durbar of chiefs and people of the Royal Akyem Kingdom in honour of the Okyenhene, Osagyefuo Amoatia Ofori Panin on the occasion of his 10th anniversary on the Ofori Panin Stool. We attended because another of our colleagues, Professor Robert Addo-Fenning, received Okyeman's highest award Okyeman Kanea in recognition of his distinguished achievements in public service and academic contributions to the Royal Akyem Kingdom.

Ok, did that all make sense? I'm not sure of the significance of what I witnessed, but it was the richest ethnographic experience that I have had here in Ghana. At some point someone who studies the Ashanti kingdoms probably will trip across this post and feel the same sort of jealousy I would feel of someone who by virtue of being at the right time at the right place showed up at Transito Amaguana's funeral in Cayambe without really understanding who she was or the deep symbolism of what was portrayed there.

Kipi is almost halfway to Kumasi, and we left Legon soon after daybreak for the several hour trip. We traveled through some of the nicest scenery I've seen in Ghana, along an escarpment that my guidebook says is a 700m uplift with a particular rich biological diversity.

We arrive just as the paramount chief of the Ashanti arrives and mounts his throne (why isn't he sitting on a stool?). All of his slaves are scrambling around serving him, and then sit at his feet. We witness what Kofi calls the "parade of umbrellas" with each sub chief with his own slaves carrying a huge umbrella to shade him from the hot equatorial sun. In an apparent system that completely escapes me, the different sub chiefs gather together with dancers and drumming groups around a large plaza that extends out in front of the chief's palace. One slave with a huge fan cools the royal assemblage. A palace guard with an old rifle comes up behind me and yanks the hat off my head. I am not showing appropriate deference in the presence of the chief.

Soon Ghana's president Mills also arrives and walks up through the crowd to greet the chief. He then retires to the opposite side of the plaza where he sits together with his ministers and the foreign diplomatic corps. It provides an interesting division of political and hereditary power. Mills' opponent in the 2008 presidential election from the conservative incumbent NPP party is from Kipi and part of the royal family. Mills is Fante, and dressed in a blue gown rather than the traditional kente cloth that the chiefs wear. He does not have much political support here in Ashanti territory, but it was a wise political move for him to attend this ceremony. It makes me wonder what the ideological divisions in Ghana are, and how many political divisions trace back to struggles between groups for control of government resources.

The ceremony is an interesting mix of tradition and modernity, of extreme wealth in the midst of an impoverished country. The chiefs are dressed in colorful traditional kente cloth, but it is finely woven and they are burdened down with gold adornments (we are in Ghana's primary gold producing area). Young women with beauty queen-type ribbons indicating that they are ushers are all made up with modern makeup and hairdos. Ascension to the throne is matrilineal, and often involves a struggle between eligible male heirs of the recently deceased chief's sister (did I get that right?). The current chief apparently returned from a lucrative career as an insurance executive in the United States to assume this post. We buy a glossy, full color commemorative program that shows the chief playing golf and posing with dignitaries from around the world. In his message to the assembly, he talks about using traditional structures to advance corporate interests, particularly in large-scale mining. Similar to Rafael Correa in Ecuador, he condemns small-scale "illegal" mining as leading to environmental degradation. The celebration even has a website,

When we arrive, our colleague Professor Robert Addo-Fenning who is to receive the award is in a TV van giving what we assume to be a short interview on the historical background on this event. When he does not emerge, we return to the van and discover that they have set him up with a monitor and he is providing color commentary for the live TV coverage of the event. When it is time for his award, the prof first stands in front of the chief while a citation is read, and then proceeds to the other side of the plaza to greet the president. It happens so quickly I'm not able to position myself appropriately to snap a good picture. Together with the bright equatorial sun and dark shadows under the umbrellas and my hesitancy to use a fill-in flash that would only draw attention to my awkward obruni presence at the event, I fail to get any really good photos.

I used to be completely enamored with these types of pageantry and "traditional" cultural expressions. But then I read Michaels' The Trouble with Diversity and became very critical of what I come to see as expressions of false consciousness and the reproduction of class divisions and systems of exclusion. The chief thanks "the old and the young, the rich and the poor, the educated and uneducated, the rural and the urbane," as if class differences were the same as age or regional divisions. Society is divided into the royal ruling class and the subservient slave population, and even though some from the slave class become highly educated they still play the role of a slave because they enjoy being in close proximity to power. The struggle between traditional ruling structures, colonial overlays, and the emergence of pan-African nationalist political projects underlie these events.

On the way back to Legon, we stop for lunch and then fill up the car with fresh fruit, snails, and mushrooms. I buy pineapples, papaya, oranges, bananas, and mangos (they're coming back into season!). I'm going back north to a cold brutal winter in only three short weeks, and contemplate moving to an entirely fresh fruit diet for my remaining time here. My left eye is almost swollen shut, and a friend reminds me that mangos are related to poison ivy and that I might be having a reaction to it. Do I want to see or eat mango? No he comido mango desde domingo, gimme mango man!

A running joke for the day is an alleged quote:

"Thank you for your hostility.
You have fed me, and I am fed up.
When you come to Uganda, I will retaliate."
--Idi Amin to the Queen of England.

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