The Ghana Tree

My journey to Ghana. An account of what I see, learn, feel, and experience. My Story and the Stories I come across.

Sunday, October 31, 2010


As Rita, Nii's oldest niece(13) and I walked around Teshie Friday night everybody told me she is very bright. I spent Friday evening running errands with Rita. First we went to fetch water from a large community tank and as I carried the buckets for her everyone was telling me to put them down and make Rita carry one on her head--they found it very funny that the white man was carrying the water. After this we went into Teshie to buy some CakeCay(sp?) a corn based dough that is dipped into soup. First Rita informed me that I must hold her hand and then she talked me into buying her and her sister fried eggs. She ate hers and then I had to spend the rest of the time making sure she did not eat her sister's.

As we walked along Teshie's main road everything was silhouetted by lights from the large trucks parked on the side of the road waiting to enter the port in Tema the next day. We stopped and talked to all of her friends and her grandmother's but if somebody called out to me that she did not know or like she would simply say "Do not mind them" and we would continue walking with her giving the direction of "We will pass here". When we returned home she attempted to give me a lesson in Tre, the local language. I felt that the effectiveness of the lesson was severely limited because her only feedback was laughter.

This morning Rita also said that she would help me do my laundry; however, this soon turned into me helping her do the laundry and as I washed more and more little girl sized socks her trips to hang the clothes became longer and longer. But I felt it was good practice for the months to come and I think I will implement her three bucket wash system.

I think Rita will miss me and she has already asked me to stay longer and I know that I will miss her and her sister Evelyn (6) as well--in fact I will miss all of my new friends, but I am ready to leave Accra and travel north.

Last night as I stood on a balcony overlooking the oldest part of Accra I took stock of my week in this sprawling third world city. From my vantage point I could see the old Dutch slave castle as well as the entrance to the tunnel that went from the castle to the market, countless colonial era buildings and newer single story stores. And as the sun set I realized that i liked Accra better by night because as the sun set and the heat resided the filth also disappeared into the darkness. While the people of Accra make the city vibrant and interesting in the present it is the permanace of the problems that make Accra in the future depressing.

 The enormity of the issues facing Accra are overwhelming and only a massive influx of money and political will can make a difference. There can be, and are thousands of people like me tackling small issues and doing what we can around the developing world but we simply can not do enough. So when you go to vote please think past your own pocket book and vote for people like Benjamin and Rita--vote for someone who supports social just at home and more importantly abroad. Take a look at your wealth--because yes, the least of you are very wealthy--and ask yourself if you could pay a little bit more in taxes if it meant that Rita could have running water in her house.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Backways and Forward

On Wednesday I once again ventured into the dizzying streets of central Accra. Two TroTro rides and a walk through twisting market streets resulted in a heavy confusion. The first area we walked through was densely packed area of stalls with narrow hallways shaded by cloths hung above. It was reminiscent of an old African or Middle Eastern market except for the merchandise; no exotic spices, crafts, or cloth, just jeans, underwear, and toiletries.

On Thursday, I was given a tour and history lesson of Teshie by Benjamin, who runs the program to get street children into school I mentioned earlier. Teshie is a fishing community located on the ocean and was founded in 1710 by Nigerian immigrants. Teshie has several main streets lined with large colonial buildings but it is mostly comprised of a tangled network of small back alleyways which are kept cool by the shade provided by the tightly packed buildings and the sea breeze that blows through it, known as Old Teshie. The “streets” are lined with the lives of the residence; old women cleaning and selling fish, a young mother washing her child, and groups of children holding hands. The houses are built right upon the bedrock and appear to be slowly tumbling into the ocean along with the cliffs they are built upon. When labyrinth of passageways open up to the ocean you are meet with a scene that can only be described as post-apocalyptic. Some houses are crumbling into the ocean; trash is everywhere and creates a densely packed organism that is moving slowing into the ocean—depositing castoffs into the tide below; and there are dozens of naked children playing in the ocean or picking through the trash with the goats and dogs.

Like the three “African Queens” Teshie demonstrates the two parallels of Ghana; beautiful people set against a broken and decaying existence. To meet the African Queens I had to step over an open sewer and past a crumbling building, and just behind the beautiful and vibrant lives of Old Teshie, with tales of mysterious rituals and feuding kings, was an area I could find no hope.

Benjamin, my guide, is a 27 year old Teshie native who spends his free time trying to put underprivileged children in to school. He showed me his family home, a beautiful house with a tree shading its courtyard and the family’s heirlooms hanging on the wall; a stool, staff, drum, horn, and the artifacts used in a family burial. He also showed me the trash strewn beach, and the hundreds of children who do not attend school. The trash is piling up because the old city dump is full and there is simply no place to put it; it is hard to reprimand people for littering when they have no other choice. A company called ZoomLion has bicycle based trash carts but they just dump the trash on the beach. Children are not in school because the parents cannot afford the cost of a uniform and supplies--55 cidis or about $45 a year—or else the parents simply do not care to have their kids attend school. Benjamin and his friends have a long fight ahead of them.

I don’t know if I am properly describing Teshie or Ghana for that matter. I can show you pictures and you can see what I am describing but I fear that you will only see the poverty—see the trash and hungry children—and not experience the kindness and good will that most Ghanaians have; however, I am glad that you cannot experience the apathy that some Ghanaians seem to have—that is why I am focusing on people like Benjamin who have seen a problem in their community and despite the enormity of it they are attempting to tackle it.

This was by far the hardest experience of the trip for me so far. I had the enormity of the problem thrust upon me with incredible force—even if I manage to better the life of one child there will still be thousands upon thousands more in Ghana who I cannot help—it is truly overwhelming. Benjamin figured that only about 50% of children attended school in the community; these children have a struggle to improve their lives that few of us could imagine and they are the privileged. It is impossible for me to see a future for the children that are not in school—hard work and uncertainty the only certainties.

Today, Friday, I once again met up with Benjamin and we went and visited the school that accepts the students he funds. Once again this involved cutting through Old Teshie and walking past families getting ready for the day; my favorite scene being a little brother wet and soapy running away from his older sister who was giving him a bath. At the school I visited the Kindergarten classes and caused quite the commotion with the kids mobbing me for handshakes and high fives. The teacher was quickly able to restore order—I was very impressed—and the class was soon sitting quietly. I said a few words and told the kids to study hard and listen to their teacher, this was then backed up by the teacher who said if they skipped school to go swimming I would find them and take them away. Despite this threat, the kids still seemed to like me. Next they sang a song for me. I then visited the Kindergarten 1 class where I received another song; this one with dance moves.

Then the action really got started. I had forgotten my camera so a friend was called. The news of a picture being taken sent the kids into a frenzy which was soon followed up by a mad dash to put their complete uniforms back on—this resulted in many backwards dresses and miss buttoned shirts which the teachers soon straightened out. When the photographer arrived he undertook an ambitious arrangement with kids sitting and standing on multiple levers—a feat to rival any school picture day in America. Benjamin and I were then inserted into the middle and the picture taken. As I left the school I was once again mobbed by kids who hung onto me until I had come to a complete standstill.

This was exactly what I needed after yesterday. The kids were excited and ready to learn and the teachers were ready to work and really wanted to make a difference. This reminded me of why I am here and that there is a future for Ghana—a future that rests in its children.

 Teshie "dump"
 Main street in Old Teshie
 Teshie Harbor with Lagon River

 Teshie Beach

 Where Old Teshie meets the Atlantic

 Main Shrine
 Street in Old Teshie and Benjamin

Wednesday, October 27, 2010


Yesterday I received a drumming lesson in exchange for a very poor Spanish lesson and US geography and history lesson. I took place with one of Nii’s friends at his woodworking shop overlooking the ocean. My drumming was very poor but it was very enjoyable.  The geography lesson was given using a geography book intended for toddlers. It was a flap book where the states pulled up to revel their names, capital, state bird and state flower.

By the time the lesson ended the sun had set and it was time to close up the shop and we walked through the darkened streets to the house of my drum teacher. The streets in Accra are just a crowded after the sun sets as they are during the day. The street vendors are out and children are playing soccer in the streets. Food sellers light their stands with kerosene lamps and this creates a small and bright halo of light over their table where fish, chicken, and meat pastries are most popular. My new friend’s home was located on the second floor of a colonial building built in the 1700s—colonial buildings located close to the ocean front are the oldest and still some of the biggest in Accra.  Inside were three “African Queens” getting ready to take a bath and good to bed; the youngest being 8 months and the oldest 8 years old, with a shy 4 year old in the middle. I received two “howareyou”s and two high fives. But the youngest was unsure of me, being the first white person to visit her. She looked long and hard at me with two big brown eyes but when I tried to hold her she arched away from me and scrambled to get away; however, upon leaving I was rewarded with a laugh and a wave.

After leaving I returned home in taxi solo, my first venture through Accra on my own. I shared my taxi with three other people and a driver who was either unlucky, partially blind, or else just a very bad driver.  He would serve to miss potholes but still managed to hit what I imagined to be the largest. This was soon solved by a traffic jam that brought us to a stop. The jam was caused by road works which cause a divided highway to go down to just a single lane of traffic each way. Ghanaian traffic jams are slightly more interesting than American ones because you can watch the roadside, and middle of the road, sellers. Popular items were apples, plantain chips, toilet paper, and bread. After we made it through the jam I had my next challenge; finding my way to Nii’s home.

From the main road it is a twisting route through backyards, school yards, and side alleyways, but I felt ready because I had memorized my turns based on the color of houses. However, my skills were not needed because I ran into Nii’s mother, Mama Shelia, and walked home with her.

Pictures and video to come!

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Observers Be Worried

I am in Ghana. The flights went ok, always an empty seat next to me. The baggage issue was not great but it could have been worse.  The first guy I talked to was a crabby old man who was not going to give me help.  I then went to repack and then ended up being helped by a very nice lady who let all of my bags be a few pounds overweight without charging me; however, I did still had to pay $350 extra.

I am at an internet café (just internet no café part) in central Accra. I am helping Nii set up a net book that my Professor sent over. I will try and give you a rundown of what I have been doing since I arrived.

After a 9hr and 50min flight I landed in Accra at 7:30am local time. Flying into Accra this time of year, at the end of the rainy season you are met by an overly green tropical landscape running along the beach. The flight over Accra also gives you your first impressions of the city, a city with its own strange kind of movement. To many people and to many taxies and TroTros give it a busy feeling but it is the buildings that give it its interesting feel; it seems a majority of buildings are either slowly falling down are slowly being built—construction takes so long that nothing ever seems new. It is a very precarious feeling.

I made it through immigration and customs without any problem and was then meet by Nii, who was the tour guide on my last trip in April, and he is serving as my guide/fixer helping me move around Accra and then taking me by bus up to Tamale. He brought along a friend with a car so we did not have to bottom out a taxi with all my stuff. After dropping my stuff off at Nii’s house we drove back into the city to change some money and to purchase a cell phone. Cell phones are huge over here, if you don’t have one, or two, you are a nobody.  After that we returned home by TroTro.

TroTros are old vans that have been turned into large taxis that take riders to the different districts of the city. They are often old, badly damaged, polluting, and decorated with nonsensical bible verses or references. My first TroTro ride was in an old Toyota van with major front end damage and the saying “Observers Be Worried” lettered on the back window. There are usually 10-15 people in a TroTro and they all sit ramrod straight and do not talk. The combination of hard benches, silence, and near death experiences gives the inside of TroTros a very sobering feel, almost like attending a church right before your own funeral.

The house that I am staying in while in Accra is also a Spot, the local term for a bar, called Prince Corner Spot. I spent the afternoon sitting outside it and listening to two old women gossiping over a beer. The house is also located close to a school so I was witness to a parade of school children in checkered blue and white uniforms after school was let out. I was just as much as an attraction to them as they rounded the corner.

This morning I also experienced something I was not expecting to while here; being cold. This morning I took a very chilly shower. Outside under an overcast sky threatening rain in a stiff ocean breeze I dumped a bucket of cold water over me. Certainly a rough wake up for my body when it thought it was 4am.

Today, my second in Accra, I ran some errands with Nii that took us into the central market, this is a labyrinth of over crowded streets where you can see a store dedicated to the sale of doorknobs, a group of Rastafarians buying a truckload of plumbing supplies, and a young pregnant girl carrying 15 gallons of paint on her head. Nii was trying to collect money that was owed him, and like any errand to collect money that is not yours this one seemed overly complicated and slightly shady, so I spent my time watching the paint store. People would come in and by paint and then several girls would load the paint up on their heads, either in 5 gallon buckets or shrink-wrapped packs of 5, 1 gallon pails and disappear into the market. This girls are mostly from the north and live a very hard life in the city as the work to send money back home.

After Nii failed to get his money we went and ate lunch at a friend’s sewing shop. This was also connected to a small bar where boxing fans were watching De La Hoya win a world championship match. A young boy, who looked like a future world champion was sent out to get lunch. He left upset and practicing his punches, probably punching an invisible white guy who made him miss the match.  He returned with 3 parcels wrapped first in a plastic bag, then in newspaper, and finally in banana leaves. Inside were a lump of spicy rice, and a large chunk of fish; bones, skin and all. I hate fish but since arriving I have ate exclusively fish and rice. The fish is smoked whole and ate off the bone, and is actually not that bad.

I will try to update you again before I head north. We will be taking the bus next Monday and this week I might take a trip to the hilly eastern region of the country, Nii also has a friend who is getting married this weekend and I have been invited to join.

Sorry I haven’t taken any pictures yet.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

October 24th, 2010

Alright, tomorrow morning I am flying out of MSP at 10:30 and I will then have a brief layover in New York before departing on a direct flight to Accra, Ghana which will arrive at 7:30am(local time--Ghana is in the same time zone as London) monday october 25th.

I am all packed and am currently sitting at more than 150lbs in 3 checked bags plus two carry on bags. All of this is currently costing me an extra $350. My plan is to arrive early at the airport and hope I get a nice check in lady who doesn't charge me anything and maybe lets me add more stuff--I still have about 50lbs of supplies waiting to be packed. So, I will be doing some last minute repacking in the airport.

All of this leads me to the thank yous. First off I need to thank Professor Heckel from American University who helped me get this project of the ground and has helped with all aspects of the trip. Justin Sheldon at Bike World who was a endless source of references and help. Steve Lambert who helped me hone my mechanics skills and was a bottemless source of donations due to his love of pies. Adam Argetsinger at Shimano. Chris Brown from First Medical Inc. Diane Petterson at Mercy North in Ankeny. Bill Armas of Park Tool. Sam Offenberg at Adventure Medical Kits. Kyle at Kyle's Bikes. Gordon at Bike Country. All of these people donated supplies to the trip. I also need to thank everyone that donated money and set out their empties. My cousin Elliot Forst who raised $200 by asking for donations at his birthday party instead of gifts for himself--he is great! Also I need to give a big thanks to my parents--a thank you that cannot be expressed here.

So, I will give an update as soon as I can. I will be spending a few days in Accra before heading North by bus to the city of Tamale and then out to the villages I will be working in.

Thank you for all of your support.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Traveling Companion

This is something I wrote following my trip to Ghana last April, it is focused around a friend I had on the trip but maybe this blog will serve in place of a real traveling companion.  

Every traveler needs a companion. Maybe not on all trips but if it is a real trip, a journey both in place and mind, then a traveling companion is needed. Despite what happens before or after the trip this person leaves their own impact on both the traveler and the trip. They know what you are thinking and you know what they are thinking, and if you don’t know one can learn if from a look, a smile or a furrowed brow. While two little friends sitting underneath the tree or two fiends sharing what they have can connect you to a country it is often harder to connect yourself to your own thoughts. It is the traveling companion’s role to connect you to your experiences—others can bring you closer to what you are seeing but the companion can bring you closer to yourself.

Traveling alone can have its advantages; the solitude and the selfish collection of memories, but it is often better to share them. This was especially true on this trip because it presented so many dramatic experiences that it would have been easy to become overloaded and disconnected. The ability to talk and to share made the experiences more real. If they had all stayed in my head then they could have remained there and become simply memories, things that mean a lot to me and no one else. Now that there is another person attached to them they can remain ever clearer in both of our thoughts. And the secrets of this trip are shared by two and not one; extending the possibility of them impacting even more lives if and when they are reveled.  
So please leave comments and ask questions and I will try my best to respond to them. This is a blog to share information and knowledge with you.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

The Way of the World

One week from now I will be on my way to Ghana. The time since my first trip has flown by; it is hard to believe that it has been six months. Those six months have not been easy but they seem small in comparison to the first 22 years of my life. This trip is beginning to feel like the culmination of all 22 years of work—it feels as if this moment has been a long time coming. Commitments and self doubt have delayed the start to this journey.

Four years ago during my senior year of high school I had a decision to make—go to college or simply start travelling around the world and see what becomes of my life. Ultimately I decided to go to school with the promise to myself that after I graduated I would start travelling but with a better understanding of the world and the ability to help the people I would meet. Instead of turning my back on my responsibilities to the world I decided to get an education and then use that education to help others. I had imagined that I would travel around the world and experience cultures, working when I needed to and moving on when I wanted to—a trip in the fashion of Nicolas Bouvier and his “slow travel.” But I realized that this 
would be a waste of both my time and the time of others. I saw that I needed to take the opportunities given to me, being born in America and the chance to get an outstanding education, and then use it to give others every opportunity available to them. This is what I am setting out to do.

Now, a week before my departure I feel that this trip will be much more rewarding, I have a direction and the knowledge to keep me focused, had I left four years ago I know I would have in the least given up or possibly even done damage to myself or others along the way. And as I pack my bags, both physical and mental, I know that I have the tools and supplies to make this trip a success.

Spend the years of learning squandering
courage for the years of wandering
through a world politely turning
from the loutishness of learning. --Samuel Beckett

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Distractions 2

The tourist stood in the courtyard of her hotel and curiously watched the small gathering that was taking place at the gate. The hotel workers had gathered around the gate and were buying something from a man that had arrived on a bicycle. She approached the group and saw that the man was selling something out of an old cooking oil container. She asked one of the waiters what he was selling and he responded; “Wild honey.”

The man selling the honey was known as Honey and to the hotel staff there was little to separate him from the street, the dust or the other peddlers that came to the gate. Daniel was an older gentleman but it would have been impossible to know his real age; for he did not know it himself. There was little that Daniel did know; he had lived a simple life. He took note of important events in his world but then let them blow away and settle someplace else; he was alive for independence but he did not notice much change afterward. His life revolved around the selling of honey and it always had.

When he was a small boy Daniel’s village was far away from the big city and was surrounded by large forests; now the city was much closer and the trees much farther away. In the forest were bee hives and the very young Daniel soon discovered that he loved the honey that was hidden away inside and his mother and friends could always find him by the hives and he always had a pot of honey with him—that is how he became to be known as Honey.

Throughout his life he was always known as Honey and throughout his life he visited the bee hives and collected the honey, eating it and selling it when he needed the money.

Now with his wife dead and his children moved away Daniel once again dedicates his life to the bee hives. With the forest disappearing he has to ride his bicycle farther and farther into the bush but he still collects the honey with the skill and delicate touch he had as a young man. He then travels into the city to sell his honey door to door—pouring it from his cooking oil container into an old 7Up bottle to measure it out and then into empty water bottles.

It had been a good day for Daniel. The day had started early when he rode to bee hive and collected the honey by starting a small and smoky fire under the hive. He then rode into the city and sold his honey. This hotel was on the way out of town and was his final stop and the workers nearly bought him out, leaving him just enough to satisfy his own needs.

He then saw the tourist who by this time had moved into the group and was asking about the honey. Daniel 
decided to offer her a taste. He motioned for her to hold out her hand and he poured a puddle of honey onto the back of her hand and instructed her to lick it off. As she did so he could tell that she too had fallen in love with the honey. He then went through the ritual of pouring the honey from one container into another until it ended up in her hands.

Daniel peddled back through the city’s dusty streets to his home and the tourist continued with her day but the remainder of the trip was sweetened with Honey even after her bottle ran out.