Thursday, September 29, 2011

Thick as a brick

It's funny how we adjust to our surroundings-- that what might be amazing or incredible for someone else is just normal to us if we experience it everyday.


I asked a local friend if she ever looked up and noticed how many stars there are in the sky. She said she did, but I didn't get the sense she found it as remarkable as I did. I can see the milky way almost every night that isn't a full moon here. I haven't been many places where this is possible.

Yet, even I am getting numb to this wonder. I used to be in awe every time I looked up at night but sometimes I simply forget to these days. It's only when I go to a bigger city and come back here that I remember I should.


My colleague Anna and I decided the other day to take a shortcut between two stops we had to make at work. It involved getting off the main road and using a derelict airfield to get straight to the village roads, and cutting out a large part of the main road that went out of our way. Basically, it was a very sound plan. I'd done it before, too, during the dry season.

We took the turn off the main road and got on a little dirt path. As we rode on, the path got narrower and narrower, we slipped and slid through a few swampy patches in it, and finally the path disappeared completely and we were riding through ankle high grass that completely obscured the ground.

Still, I was sure the airfield was only a little ways on, and we pushed on through the grass that got higher and it was knee high.

"Have you ever gone swimming in the sea, Anna?"

"No" (I didn't ask Anna if she could, but lots of Ghanaians can't swim, they actually think it quite remarkable if you can)

"This really reminds me of it. Kind of scary, you know? If you can imagine, you look down and you can't really see what's--wwooOOOOAOAAAHH!!"

...and without warning, the earth falls away beneath all the grass. We're airborne for a second, and the next, we find ourselves in a shallow stream. It was perfect, genius timing. It almost made me believe in God, because if I was God, I'd be doing stuff like that all the time to people.

We got our feet soaked pulling the bike out (it was completely bogged in). It was actually very fortunate there were two of us there because neither of us would have been able to do it on our own.

We carried on, skirting around the stream, and moved to higher ground, making guesses and theories about where the airfield was. As we went on, we found ourselves in grass that was waist high, which is actually a beautiful sight to see, just the handlebars of the bike above what looks like a sea of green and gold wheat swaying in the afternoon sun. Blue sky, big fluffy white clouds, deep red earth, it was really quite a sight to behold. It's a real shame I don't have any pictures.

Then, the grass got shoulder high and really thick, and we were bashing through it, as it dragged our feet off the bike and got in our faces and pulled at our clothes and backpacks. When we weren't in the thick stuff, we were slipping and sliding and bogging our way through the mushy mud around some rice fields.

Finally, we broke out of all that nonsense and found ourselves on a small dirt path that led to a larger dirt road that led directly up to the airfield. We realised that if we turned off the road just a few hundred metres later than we actually had, we would have saved an hour being lost and our feet would still be dry.

Well, I had fun anyway. You have to appreciate this kind of stuff. Even when God sneezes* on you, I suppose it's an honour.

*I decided this was the least offensive (to readers) bodily function I could use, although I'm sure you realise I was thinking of using a much funnier one.


The other day, I was moving a two-wheeled tractor and trailer from Navrongo (town) to Navio (village), a sweaty, bumpy tiring two++ hour ordeal under the hot Sahel sun.

A machine such as this-- 

in this picture, Thomas, one of our friends, is learning to operate it so that he can run a business transporting stuff around the area, and we can collect data about his workings for a feasibility study for these machines in this area.
These things are harder than they look. A really rough clutch, clunky steering and absence of any kind of suspension join forces with the most unpredictable but otherwise unresponsive throttle on the planet to make this a real bucking bronco.

Tractor-trailer vehicles are really crazy in reverse, and require a whole new different kind of intuition. They're still difficult, even after you've learned it. I have a lot of respect for truck drivers now.

As I passed through a police barrier between Navrongo and Navio, we waved hi and smiled at each other, and I don't think they noticed that I didn't have plates, and perhaps it was not completely obvious that I would not have a license for agricultural equipment. I think it was my good fortune that I passed through just as the officer on duty was tucking into a bowl of banku and soup.

Somewhere along the way, I passed an army of little school children on their way home. Of course they started yelling and smiling and saying "Hello! Hello! Hello! Hello!" like they always do (and then "How are you? How are you? How are you? How are you?" after that), and then before I knew it, ten of them had jumped into the back of the trailer and hitched a ride. Three more were hanging off the back and letting me pull them along on their bikes, while another throng cycled alongside us.

I really should have pulled out my camera and took some pictures. I guess it's a lesson I'll never stop learning.


This post didn't have as many pictures as I'd like to have in it's one of the world's coolest ladder! It belongs to my friend Francis.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Strange fruit

1. A song performed most famously by Billie Holiday. A strangely morbid blues standard condemning the lynching of African Americans, and other racism. It has a huge history of references and covers. In 1999, Time called it the song of the century. It's also been #1 on the list of "songs of the South" and on of the "top 20 political songs"

2. Literally uncommon fruits.

In Ghana, I've had the opportunity to partake of a variety of different fruits I'd never tasted before.

We in the west most commonly eat the nut (seed) of the cashew. However, little known to most of us, the cashew tree also produces a large fruit (biologically not a true fruit -- the true fruit contains the cashew nut) along with each cashew nut. Here's what it looks like (the cashew nut is the little bean shaped thing hanging below the large cashew "apple")

The fruit is very sweet and juicy, with a rich and complex taste. I like it a lot.

The next I tasted was the fruit of the baobab tree. Baobabs are the famously long-lived and iconically strangely shaped trees of Africa. Their fruit is large, and covered in a short, soft fur, almost velvet-like. The shell is brittle, and cracks open to reveal rows and rows of seeds surrounded by a dry, powdery fibre.

This fibre is edible, and tastes sweet but is otherwise uninteresting. I hear people mix it with milk to make a drink.

The most recent one I've got to eat is the fruit of the shea tree. The most well known product of the shea tree is the refined oil obtained from the seed of its fruit. Refining shea butter is a very common practice throughout the dry Sahel region of West Africa, where shea is from. The oil is edible, although we in the west are most well acquainted with its smoothness and moisturising properties (we rub it on ourselves, it's also in a lot of cosmetic products).

The shea fruit (pictured here with its nut) is kind of an intense experience. Imagine an avocado with a thin, edible skin, and that is sweet and (tastes) twice as fatty as the average avocado, and then shrink it down to the size of an apricot. That's a shea fruit. Pretty wild.


That's all the strange fruit we have time for today, and all I've eaten in Africa so far (though cashews are actually native to Brazil). I did eat a ton of wild blueberries in Maine when I was visiting my little sister, but that's another story for another time.