Sunday, August 30, 2009

Back from Summer Break and Ghana

I have been quiet all summer, not because I have not been writing, but because I have been teaching so much that my writing has become particularly cryptic, and comprehensible only to me. Now that fall has come, the teaching is still with me, but there is something oppressive, for me, about teaching a full course load in the summer. I will never, ever again teach more than one course in the summer; I do not care who asks me to do it.

Ghana. I chaired a session at the 5th Biennial Conference for the Association of the Study of the Worldwide Diaspora (ASWAD) in Accra, Ghana, this summer. Twelve days before I departed, I herniated two discs in my cervical spine and was highly recommended to have "spinal surgery" immediately. My philosophy about surgery is that if there is minimal function in the injured body part, I will avoid any invasive procedures. Thus far, this philosophy has kept me relatively healthy, alive, mobile, and free of pain. But the pain from having two herniated cervical discs was nearly unbearable. Yet I went to Ghana anyway with topical lotions from my massage therapists, heat pads from the drugstore, and lots of prayers from friends, family, and neighbors.

The roads in Ghana, chock full of potholes, did not help my spine at all; however, I distracted myself with examining the hawkers: some old; but, most were young, school aged children. Making eye contact with a hawker guaranteed your obligation to buy, well at least for a Westerner like me who had not developed the thick skin and quick tongue that was needed to "shoo" away the hawkers. "Roll up the window," the van driver warned me as we stopped at a red light near Nkrumah Circle and the hawkers immediately descend on us, pressing their hands through the windows with plastic sacks of "purified water," certified by the government of Ghana, fried plantain chips, and other delicacies that I could not properly investigate with my eyes because this signaled my tacit agreement to purchase the goods. Changing U.S. dollars on the black market, courtesy of the conference van driver who guaranteed that finding an exchange bureau would be impossible, seemed to be the best way to get Ghanaian cedis; further, the banks would not change my money unless I had an account. Needless to say, my experience was that the van driver was correct because I could never find an exchange bureau despite being directed to one in the Osu district and the prospect of giving my money to the hotel front desk clerk so that she could bring me cedis the next morning went against my U.S. cultural mode of money exchange and capitalism. Besides, the hotel clerk, too, would go to the black market to exchange my money, but quoted me an exchange rate that was insulting, to say the least.

A herd of cattle in the middle of the city, chickens pecking underfoot and in the rain gutters, and goats bleating challenged my perception of what is proper in a city landscape. The acrid, choking smell of burning rubbish each night filled the nostrils until, after the second night in Accra, I looked forward to stepping outside the hotel and sucking in the night air for the smell reminded me of fall in the midwest when we would burn the leaves at the curb after having raked the lawns.

I heard the Moslem "Call to Prayer" at 4:30 a.m. Not cow or bull horns being blown, just a chant rising like the incoming tide and the blossoming morning sky. At first, I mistakenly thought the sonorous singing came from the women, men, and children setting up their makeshift markets along the roads (all of Accra seems to be one endless market), but a British couple standing outside the hotel waiting for a taxi informed me that a mosque was a few blocks away, and I was hearing the call to prayer.

My visit was punctuated not by the presentations at the conference, but by two day trips I took with other participants at the conference: one to the slave dungeons at Elmina and Cape Coast and the other to the Village of Aburi. The commercialization of these two dungeons, which are Unesco sites; my own connection to the transatlantic slave trade as one whose family survived this inhumane trafficking in humans; and the dire poverty around both sites all coalesced not only to leave me in a state of pain and confusion but also cognizant enough to thank my ancestors for having the tenacity to survive, for without their survival there would have been no ME.

The conference participants were warmly received by the chief and his court in the Village of Aburi. We were properly entertained and fed, and I was very appreciative of the hospitality the chief and his court extended to us. But my eyes and heart kept looking at the villagers, the commoners, who surrounded us and were disallowed from participating in any of the events. Yet, as soon as the events ended, the villagers descended on us, and I found myself attempting to negotiate the various requests for U.S. dollars, to purchase goods, or for my e-mail address or telephone number because the person really wanted to come to the States. How to discern who is genuine when so many appear to be in need?

I received five marriage proposals and one indecent proposal from a man from Burkina Faso. One 22 year old Ghanaian, in particular, confessed to me that it was "love at first sight." I was not flattered, and mildly suggested that he would be better off asking me for sponsorship for his education particularly since I had a 19 year old son in the States. Imagine this 22 year old attempting to be a stepfather to my 19 year old son. What a hoot! This young Ghanaian did not know the kind of trouble he was asking for :)

Home. I hailed a taxi at Reagan National Airport with the help of a Ghanaian. "I just returned from your country, Ghana," I told the porter. He laughed and asked, "How do you know I am from Ghana?" "Your tribal mark," I responded. We talked about my experience as I waited for the taxi. My taxi driver was a middle-aged gentleman from Pakistan. I told him about my experience of hearing the morning call for prayer for the first time. He agreed that it is a pleasant sound to hear at dawn break. Then I said to him, "this is a very rich country, isn't it?" "Yes, it is," he said, as he expertly guided the four door, Ford sedan south on I-395 on smooth asphalt that made me feel luxurious for one of the few times in my life.


Judy said...

How interesting to read about your adventure!
I hope your back is better. I found that a chiropractor helped a lot with my back problems.
I saw a special on tv about the slave trade in relation to Bristol RI, where my step kids live.Descendants of a very prominant man in Bristol were visiting Ghana trying to make some kind of sense of the unthinkable.

Rochelle Spencer said...

5 marriage proposals????? Several of my girlfriends are going to want to move to Ghana (LOL)!! I'm glad you got back okay--with your spine problems, were you worried about being so far from home? In any event, this was an interesting, exciting read!

Cynthia said...

Hey Shelly,

I am happy you went to Africa - yet, another connection to your life as you journey through life. As far as your back is concerned, you have the right and the power to request that the masters of this universe heal you. Prayer changes all things.


James Baugh said...

This sounds like an amazing end to your crazy summer, Prof. If it is any consolation, I had a fantastic summer semester in your women's literature class and now rank you among the best professors I've had.

Good luck with the fall semester.

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