Monday, January 10, 2011

Grandchildren of God

Ghanaians are an extremely religious people, with the path and principles of Jesus Christ being the way to salvation that a majority in the country has chosen to follow.  Christianity, I imagine, is practiced in every corner of the world, so the fact that it is found in Ghana should come as no surprise.  But the manner in which the religion is observed and expressed here seems quite extraordinary to me, and as such, deserves some special attention.

Offer someone a friendly “Hello, how are you?” anywhere in the city of Kumasi and he or she will almost surely respond with, “By the grace of God, I am fine” or “By the grace of the almighty Jesus Christ, I am fine.”  Whether it is morning or night, Monday or Friday, or a man, woman or child, the response is certain to be the same.  It is not enough to simply offer a short, concise indication of one’s current state of well-being, such as “great”, “good” or “not bad”—it must be made known and absolutely clear that it is only because of God’s immense and everlasting grace that one is feeling so fine.  Thanks for clarifying that.

After such a response, the person will likely add “and you?” to which you, if you are me, will very shortly and concisely say, “great”, “good” or “not bad.”  (If you are Ghanaian, you will likely repeat the words just spoken to you: “By the grace of God, I am fine.”)  “Thank God” will come the last words from the friendly pious person on the street.  This is the standard way that greetings are most commonly exchanged between Ghanaians.

Out of a sense of laziness to which man is so often prone, but in the name of convenience, the standard response to a greeting is often reduced to “By His grace” or even simply to “Grace.”

Imagine this:
Man: Good morning, how are you?
Woman: Grace, and you?
Man: By His grace.
Woman: Thank God.

An exchange like this would not, in itself, be particularly fascinating if not for the extraordinary frequency with which such greetings take place.  One rarely hears an exchange of greetings that does not mention Jesus or God at least a couple times within the few short seconds that the affair lives.

Religion and God are not only heard in the constant exchanges of greetings around the city, but can also be seen virtually everywhere in the names of local businesses.  Just as it is rare to hear a greeting that does not include God, one will also have great difficulty finding a local business of any type whose name is devoid of His name.

As you walk along the street that runs in front of my house, you will pass “It’s not my Strength, it’s God’s Strength” grocery store, which, quite strangely, sits just five feet from “It’s not my Strength, it’s God’s Strength” seamstress shop (the two are owned by different but apparently like-minded people).  Both are on the opposite side of the street from “King Jesus” interior decoration.  Walk a bit further and you will see a small shack selling mobile phone accessories.  The sign at the top read, “Covered by the Blood of Jesus Enterprise.”  At the nearby corner are two more small businesses: “Mary’s Immaculate Conception” copy center and “The Anointed One Touched by Jesus” grocery store.  (I’m not making this stuff up.)  On the next street over is “Dr. Jesus” grocery store, “My Redeemer Lives” catering service and “It is Jesus” electrical contractor.  The effect of such as inescapable onslaught of religion-ridden names can be dizzying.  Finally, at the end of the street, a short breath of fresh air:  “Joe’s" grocery store.  Thank God.

(Side note:  I laughed when I first read the name of a small grocery store near my house: “Good Name is Better than Riches.”  I agree, but apparently nobody told these people that a good name is also better than a bad one.)

As if you didn’t get enough God in the peculiar greetings of everyday individuals or on the signboards that decorate the thousands of businesses in the city, you can help yourself to an additional portion on the taxis and mini-buses that are the heart of the public transportation system.  Stuck to the center of the back windshield or the top of the front windshield of most taxis and mini-buses in the city is a short, sometimes clever phrase made of large, adhesive letters.  And if you are following the point of my writing even slightly, then you have already guessed, quite correctly, that such phrases most often refer to God.  Here are some examples: “Clap for Jesus”, “No Jesus, no life”, “Glory be to God”, “By the grace of God”, “With God all things are possible”, “God understands”, “Pray without ceasing” and the list goes on and on.  (A few slightly-comical, non-religious ones: “Poor boy no friend”, “Fear women” and “No food for lazy man.”)

Start conversing with ordinary Ghanaians anywhere in Kumasi and you will quickly come across some peculiar names that have quite clearly been inspired by faith.  Blessing is a very common name for both boys and girls in Ghana.  I have heard Moses, Theophilus, Glory, Godslove, Godsent, Godsway, Lordia, and my personal favorite, Gifty (as in a gift from God, I presume).  I am sure there are more.

As you can see, religion and Christianity are seen, heard and felt everywhere in Ghanaian society.  Some may describe such wide-ranging expressions of faith as spectacular—a clear indication of the strength of one’s convictions.  I see them as intrusive and inescapable.  They are the signs of a people that appear holier-than-thou but who are, in reality, nothing of the sort.  Allow me to explain.

There exists in Ghana a very strong societal pressure to be pious.  Regardless of the particular faith, most Ghanaians seem to believe that life somehow mandates that one belong to a religion.  And if one doesn’t, there is a big problem.  “It’s not good at all”, “It is really bad” and “Then I can’t trust you” are a few of the responses I have received after telling people that I am not religious.  “But you have to choose one” say most people, referring to religion.  And so a majority of Ghanaians have done just that—Christianity, to be specific, as it is the dominant faith here.

There is also immense pressure to attend church, and not simply on Sundays.  Many Ghanaians visit the holy house of God several times per week, and most churches offer an all-night service from 6pm to 5am where worshippers engage in an exhausting, non-stop session of song and prayer lasting for hours on end.  The public consensus is that those who do not attend church are somehow bad, and surely are not candidates for entrance into the eternal holy land that far too many of us here on this heavenly Earth are far too concerned with.  And so hundreds of churches across the city are packed with hundreds of thousands of worshippers several days per week.

Read the Bible and believe it entirely is the pastor’s instruction at church, so most people do exactly that.  I have spoken to many Ghanaians who are shocked at the idea of questioning even a word of the holy book.  It is said that a good Christian must pray and pray often, and so a majority of people do this as well.  Ghanaians often engage in fasting in order to get closer to God, and they spread the good word nearly every chance they get.

Put all of these facts together and you are lead to only one logical conclusion: that most Ghanaians are very strong and secure in their Christian faith.  Model Christians, you might say, if such a thing actually exists.  Some are surely this way, but I believe that many Ghanaians (I am tempted to say most, but I won’t) are not Christians at all, in a true sense of the word, or are bad ones at the very best.  The evidence lies in the details.

Christ-like is what every true Christian must work consciously and tirelessly to be.  A follower of the religion is obligated to study and know the life of Jesus Christ, and then emulate it.  This means striving to be more compassionate, loving, caring, honest and responsible (among many other things) in all areas of one’s life; to dedicate a portion of one’s time to public service and to helping others; to give charity to the disadvantaged and disenfranchised.  Faith is meant to encourage a person to be a better person—to help one cast out negativity and hatred, overcome hardship and embrace love and interconnectedness.  But when I look closely at the way many Ghanaians speak to one another and treat each other, I see insult, jealousy, lies, discrimination and negativity hidden behind an unstable façade of smiles, handshakes and hugs.

Lying is an accepted and extremely common part of Ghanaian culture—so much so that many locals have told me I shouldn’t trust anyone in this country.  I hear people accusing others of lying, from small children to elderly men and women, several times each day.  It is so frequent, in fact, that otherwise-honest people tell me they have resigned themselves to lying simply because everybody else is doing it.  And few people seem to recognize the damaging and destructive nature of an atmosphere where nobody trusts anybody else.

It is a peculiar fact that it’s illegal to insult a person in Ghana, yet insults are what you will hear pouring from people’s mouths far more often than positivity or praise.  People regularly hurl painful insulting language at others for various offenses serious and small; young children not excluded.

A true Christian would, in adhering to the path and life of Jesus, make a conscious effort to refrain from lying, insulting people and engaging in all kinds of other negative and hurtful behavior that I regularly see average Ghanaians involved in.  At the very least, an authentic Christian would attempt to contain such bad behavior, if a complete elimination seemed too extreme.  But most Ghanaians do not seem to even have the thought in their minds that, as Christians, it is their duty to follow the principles of Jesus Christ and the Bible as closely as they can, let alone actually doing it.  It seems many Ghanaians believe that in praying, fasting and singing songs of worship in church every week, they have fulfilled their Christian responsibility and are free to behave in whatever kind of shameful or negative manner they choose.  This is absurd.  I say this because of the alarming frequency with which I see so many people repeatedly acting in such bad ways, and the lack of remorse or regret they show for their actions.  A true Christian would not and does not behave in this way.

I realize that nobody is perfect, and that all of us are susceptible to negative, dishonest and hurtful behavior at times.  But when such behavior repeatedly comes from a group of people who each publicly profess to be nothing less than best friends with God, and who make no attempt to disguise their condemnation of those who do not pray, fast and worship exactly as they do, it is particularly hypocritical and offensive.

The prevalence of such negative behavior acted out so often, and with little or no remorse, leads me to believe that many Ghanaians have not allowed Christianity into their hearts.  They pray, fast, preach and never miss church service on Sundays; they name their children Blessing and Godsway and they own businesses adorned with the name of Jesus, but they are not Christians.  Why?

Someone once said that God does not have grandchildren, meaning that one must not, indeed cannot, believe in God and worship Him through the influence or pressure of another person.  Rather, one must decide to follow a religion because of an honest and personal belief—a feeling in one’s heart—that that particular faith is right for that person.  I believe that many Ghanaians are grandchildren of God.

There is a powerful and unspoken rule in many African societies that says one must accept and never question what comes from the mouth of an elder.  Strict and complete obedience to the words of elders is taught from a very young age, and has a strong but hidden effect on the way that people in society relate to each other.  Children in most societies are taught to obey their parents and elders, but in developed cultures, that obedience often exists alongside skepticism and healthy debate that creates questions and exposes both weaknesses in argument and new, original ways of thinking.  In Ghana, such obedience appears to be blind.

I have illustrated the fact that most Ghanaians are very overt and extreme in the way that they express their religion.  They pray morning and night, enthusiastically dance and sing songs of worship during church service several times per week, they fast to get closer to God and they preach the word of Jesus while condemning those who do not.  But they do all of these things because they have repeatedly been told to do so by their elders; told to pray, preach, fast and never miss church.  They have been told to be Christians, all the while adhering to that powerful, unspoken social rule and never, even for a second, questioning any of it; never looking within themselves to see if they really feel in their hearts that Christianity and all its praying, fasting and preaching is truly right for them.  In doing so, they have failed to accept and embrace the path of Jesus Christ as their own path in their own hearts.  They have become grandchildren of God.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

An unpromising outlook.

Imagine for a moment that you are sitting on a bench near the street outside of your house and a young girl comes to rest beside you.  You notice a storybook in the girl's left hand, and she says she would like you to help her read.
The young girl opens the book and begins reading the first page, which says, "My name is Robert and I am seven years old" underneath a large, colorful drawing of a small boy's face.  The girl reads the sentence without trouble, commenting that the picture reminds her of a boy she once saw begging for food in the city center as she walked with her mother.  On to the next page.
The second page of the book is filled with a picture of a giant gorilla, frightening at first glance but whose gentle, warm face quickly reassures you that he means no harm.  Above the picture, at the top of the page, are the words, "My name is Buddy.  I am a gorilla."  The girl begins to read.  She finishes the first sentence rapidly and with ease, except for some help pronouncing the name "Buddy", which she says she has never seen before.  As she reaches the word "gorilla" at the end of the second short sentence, the girl's eyes suddenly leave the page of the book and dart up into the sky.  She is in deep thought.  After several silent seconds have passed, she says out loud, and with enthusiasm,

"No, not exactly," you say to her.  "Look at the word and sound out the letters that you see."
Her eyes remain fixed to the heavens.
"Go!" shouts the girl abruptly.
"No, that's not it," you say.  "Look at the word."
At this point, the girl brings her eyes back to page two of the story book, but only in a fleeting glance before returning her gaze skyward.  She is, once again, in profound contemplation.
"Greet!" she blurts out loudly.
"No, try again," you respond.
The girl is clearly lost inside of her mind.  You realize now that her strategy for reading, rather than looking closely at the word and sounding out each letter in order to pronounce it correctly, is to look only at the first letter of the word and then rifle through the filing cabinets of her mind in search of any word she is familiar with that begins with the same letter.  She shouts out each of these words as she comes across them in her mental notebook (of which most of the pages are blank), effectively providing a complete and completely blind guess of the actual word on the page in front of her.  This is absolute madness.  Think about it.
By this time, the girl's mind is becoming tired and confused.  After trying the word "greet" unsuccessfully, her mind pick up on the final t and, somehow forgetting that the initial word (gorilla) begins with a g, she quickly shouts "truck!", but before you have even a second to politely inform her, once again, that she is wrong, the girl tries her luck again, this time with something that incorporates her previous attempt, but which is not even a word.
"Trucklepus!" she says with satisfaction, as though she has finally gotten the word correct and can now happily move on to page three.
"No!" you yell with frustration, amazement and a tint of sadness.  "What is a trucklepus?" you ask sternly.
"I don't know," says the girl calmly and in a tone that clearly reveals disappointment and defeat.
Feeling bad at the girl's sense of dejection, you give her a soft pat on the back and encourage her to continue reading.  You tell her, optimistically, that she will get it one day if she only keeps trying.  But as she gets up and walks away, you cannot help but feel with certainty, after such an odd and unfortunate incident, that the girl will, in fact, never learn to read.
The story above is based on an actual event that happened to me not long ago-- the main ideas in it are all true.  The "young girl", in reality, is not so young.  She is seventeen years old and attends eighth grade at a public, government-run school in Kumasi, here in Ghana.
Working with many students over the past year, I have seen this reading strategy, which is unusual at best and completely ineffective at worst, time and time again.  Nearly all of the students I recognize it in attend public, government-operated schools.  I do not wish to suggest that all of the students attending public schools do not know how to read, but spend some time talking with young boys and girls anywhere in Kumasi, whether they be six or sixteen, and you will quickly see that the public school system here has big, big problems.  Allow me to explain.
Rose is a young girl of thirteen years who lives in the house where I currently stay and attends sixth grade at a public school in the neighborhood.  She has attended public school for the past seven years-- since kindergarten-- and the primary language of instruction during that time has been English.  Her teachers speak English during lectures each day, they write class notes in English on the blackboard, and students are expected to speak English during class discussions.  There are, in fact, penalties for speaking the local language of Twi in the classroom.  Open up any of Rose's school notebooks and you will find page after page of notes neatly written in English.  There is only one problem, and it's big: say only a sentence to her and you will quickly realize that Rose does not understand or speak English at all.  Needless to say, she cannot read.  What about the notebooks full of class notes written in English?  Rose simply copies notes from the blackboard into her notebook, but she does not understand a word of what she has written and cannot read a single sentence of it to you.  I am serious.  How does she pass her classes and continue moving on to the next grade level each year?
In Ghana and in many other areas of the developing world, students learn through rote memorization.  Schools usually do not have material resources-- books or other-- with which to go deeply into any subject, and individual topics often are not connected to larger ideas or theories, or to alternate beliefs.  Students simply memorize facts as though those facts were fixed, and isolated from all other things in the world.  What is a community? will be written on the board, and in order to memorize the response, the students will spend fifteen minutes of their one-hour of class time chanting the answer over and over again in unison, as though they were robots programmed to behave in this way.  A community is a group of people who live together and share common activities, beliefs and space is all that they are taught.  No mention of the many different types of communities in the world, their various purposes, cultural differences in the way the term is defined, or simply the fact that members of a community do not necessarily live together and share the same activities, beliefs and space.  Back to the question of how on Earth Rose is able to pass her classes without even a basic understanding of English.
When a short reading passage and related questions are given on an exam, the questions usually do not require the student to do any kind of analysis of the topic or to connect different ideas and formulate a unique and thoughtful response.  Rather, questions are written in such a way whereas the correct answer can be found, almost word-for-word, within the given text.  So although she understands neither the reading passage nor the questions, Rose is able to look at a question and scan the text for a sentence or group of sentences that contain some of the same words as the question itself, and write those sentences down as her answer.  What she has written probably is not exactly the correct answer, but it may be close enough to award her the points necessary to just barely pass the exam.
Rose's situation, as well as that of the girl who came to me seeking help with reading, may appear extreme, but I talk to children nearly every day who attend public school, and have done so since infancy, and cannot read, write, or speak English correctly or at a level that is anywhere near the proficiency one would expect in a child of their age.  These are stark and sad indications of the quality of the public education that some 80% of Ghanaian children are receiving, and they present a rather bleak, hopeless forecast of the likely prosperity and quality of life for such children in the future.  But what exactly are the problems facing the public education system in Ghana and what can be done to eliminate them?
There are, of course, many factors large and small that play a part in making the public education system as broken and ineffective as it appears to be today.  But perhaps the largest cause is that students simply are not being taught in the classroom.  
A recent BBC report found that students in public schools in Ghana-- a majority of Ghanaian children-- actually receive instruction by their teacher, on average, for an appalling seventy days of the one-hundred-ninety-day academic year.  Barely more than two months of school each year.  Something is terribly wrong. 

This is probably due to the fact that public school teachers are often unqualified, uncommitted and simply uninterested in showing up for work nearly as often as they are required to.  Growing up in the US, I tended to believe that it is most often the case that one chooses to be a teacher because of a passion for the field and a deep concern for student achievement and success.  My experience working with teachers in West Africa, including Ghana, tells me that individuals rarely choose the teaching profession for these commendable reasons.  I can easily recall several teachers over the past few years who made no attempt to hide their contempt for the stupid, ignorant students in their care and who openly insulted students that were struggling to understand class material, and who clearly needed patience and compassion rather than harassment.   In a country where good work and a reliable salary are very hard to come by, it seems that the guaranteed monthly paycheck that teaching provides becomes the primary motivating factor for many who choose the profession.
I once heard the story of a teacher who came into the classroom, promptly filled the entire blackboard with notes and ordered the students to quietly copy everything into their notebooks.  The teacher, meanwhile, took this opportunity to call customers on his cell phone.  He is a business man who imports household goods to sell on the local market-- a job that he will tell you he does "on the side", but which, in reality, takes up more of his time and attention than his primary job of teaching.  Students soon began raising their hands to ask questions about what the man had written on the board, but he sternly told the pupils there would be no questions and that they should copy the notes quickly and then remain silent until the end of the class period.  No discussion; no interaction; no learning.  Imagine this.
Another likely factor that contributes to the current sad state of the public education system is that the textbooks which are used in class are, in general, very poorly written and offer an extremely simple, sometimes incorrect explanation of the subject.  The reasons for this are quite interesting.
In Ghana, just about anyone who knows how to pick up a pen and scrawl out his or her name can write a textbook, have it mass-produced quite inexpensively in a 9" x 7" 60-70 page soft-cover format, and distribute it to various schools to be used as the primary textbook for instruction in the classroom.  And this is exactly what people are doing.  The authors of these textbooks tend to be university graduates, but many of them hold only a bachelor's degree, and it is too often the case that the degree they earned is not in the same subject as that of the textbook they have written.  Holding an undergraduate degree from a university hardly qualifies a person to author a textbook that will be used to teach students.  Many of the authors of these books boast on the back cover of the book of having passed junior high school and high school with A's and B's, or sometimes with distinction-- facts that do nothing to assure me that the content on the pages of the book is quality, professional and correct.  Dozens of these kinds of textbooks are produced in a variety of subjects and used in schools throughout Ghana.
I was once teaching an English class at the junior high school level using one of these amateur textbooks and I began noticing the occasional grammatical or spelling mistake as I was reading it and preparing my lessons.  Upon closer inspection of the book, I discovered several of these errors-- grammatical mistakes, missing articles, incorrect subject-verb agreement, incomplete sentences, incorrect or missing punctuation, and words spelled incorrectly or used improperly-- on every single one of the sixty-eight pages.
A friend of mine-- a British man teaching alongside his wife at the same school as I-- was casually reading the science textbook he used in his class when he saw a basic scientific experiment presented on the pages before him.  The conclusion of this particular experiment-- the main idea that it was meant to teach-- didn't quite make sense to my friend.  He said it did not seem correct, though he doubted himself because he assumed that such a glaring mistake could not possibly be found in a school textbook.  After briefly researching the topic on the internet, however, he discovered that the experiment presented in his textbook was, in fact, completely wrong.  The conclusion simply was not true.
If the textbooks used in class do not contain quality, correct information, then it seems unlikely that students will receive anything but a poor, incomplete education.  And if teachers do not care enough about their positions to follow proper teaching protocols, answer students' questions and provide adequate academic support, or to even show up to school at all, then Ghana's public education system likely will not make substantial positive progress in the foreseeable future.  I am sorry to say that the outlook, in my view, is not very promising.

The costs of life.

In the United States, we live each day in a culture of consumption.  Messages coming from all directions tell us that if we are to be happy, popular, successful, valuable, we must buy and consume more and more things.  And we have done exactly that.  But because the numbers of things we desire and are told that we need in our lives are virtually endless, and our incomes are not, many of us-- perhaps most of us, I fear-- have found ourselves drowning and dying in debt.  This debt creates in us a great deal of stress and anxiety that negatively affects our health, happiness and the quality of the relationships we have with those around us.  Life does not have to be this way.
One of the things I love most about living in Africa is the simplicity of life here and the extremely low cost of living.  Comparing the cost of living in the United States with that of Ghana can be tricky, because along with a large difference in prices also exists great disparity in the quality and variety of goods and services available.  The comparison is interesting, nonetheless.  Allow me to explain.
Food and beverages likely constitute one of the largest areas of expenditure in our lives, so let me begin there.  If you are a bachelor in a large city in Ghana, like I am, you may not have family members who cook for you.  Because it is almost exclusively the females that prepare food in most African societies, your status as a single adult male means you are left with little choice than to buy your meals from women who sell food in small shacks along the streets and in back alleyways in the downtown area of the city.
These shacks are called Chop Bars and usually serve the following items: rice, fried or boiled plantains, fried chicken and fish, beans, spaghetti, boiled or fried yams, salad, and local dishes called banku, kenkey and fufuo, each of which is made from cooked corn, plantains, or cassava (or a combination of the three) that is pounded into a thick dough (imagine raw bread dough-- the appearance and consistency is the same) and eaten with either puréed red peppers, okra stew or soup made with peanut butter.  Other street vendors sell fried eggs and bread, porridge made from corn or millet, and coffee and tea in the mornings and late at night.  I eat breakfast, lunch and dinner from these chop bars every day.
Street food can also be purchased in a different way: it is common throughout the day to see women roaming the streets of the neighborhood in the scorching heat of the sun with a huge, heavy cauldron of cooked food balanced carefully on their heads and a bell to call out to customer ringing repeatedly in their left hand.
For breakfast, two fried eggs inside a large piece of bread costs around $0.55 and a large bowl of corn or millet porridge, or oatmeal, with milk and sugar is the same price.  A large mug of hot coffee or tea is $0.70.
For lunch and dinner, a large bowl of white rice with cabbage or tomato stew on top-- enough to constitute a meal-- costs about $0.50 at a chop bar or from a woman on the street.  A piece of fried chicken or fish is between $0.20 and $0.50 and a bowl of spaghetti noodles with tomato sauce and beans and salad on the side-- again, enough to call a meal-- costs about $0.60.
Awaakye is a dish that comes from the northern, predominantly Muslim region of Ghana and is made of brown beans and brown rice mixed together with your choice of spaghetti noodles, salad, fish, beef, or avocado on the side.  It is topped with a special kind of sauce and is usually eaten in the morning for breakfast (I eat it every morning-- it is delicious!).  A large, filling bowl will set you back around $0.60.
Various food items purchased on the street are also quite inexpensive.  A single large orange costs $0.07 and a banana is about $0.04.  A large pineapple or mango will cost around $0.50 and a large, juicy apple is $0.70.  A small bag of fried, sweet plantain chips is $0.14 and a small, homemade shortbread cookie is $0.07.  A glass bottle of Coca Cola, Sprite or Fanta is $0.40.
In total, my food and beverage expenses for one month are about $60.
Other than food, rent and transportation costs probably eat up a sizable portion of your income.  To rent a 15' x 15' single room in a house, with a shared bathroom, in Kumasi, a city of more than 2 million people, costs $7 per month, with an additional $4 for electricity and $3 for water per month.  A 15' x 15' bedroom with an additional 10' x 15' room attached, and a shared bathroom, is about $10 per month, with the added electricity and water costs just mentioned.  A private apartment with two large bedrooms, a full kitchen and bathroom, a large veranda and a small storage room costs around $100 per month-- expensive by local standards!
In regards to transportation, a majority of Ghanaians do not own a personal vehicle, so most people use public transportation, of which there are two main types: a taxi, either shared or private, and a 15-passenger mini-bus called a "tro-tro."  Tro-tros  A tro-tro from my house to the city center, which is probably only about 5 miles away, costs $0.14 and a taxi, shared with three other people, is $0.24 for the same trip.  A tro-tro trip about 16 across town costs $0.45.  The cost of a private, hired taxi varies because it is always subject to negotiation.  If you are a hard bargainer, you can drive the price down quite low.  The 5-mile trip from my house to the city center that costs $0.24 in a shared taxi is about $1.40 in a private, hired taxi.
In terms of long-distance travel, going from Kumasi to Accra, the capital, is a trip of 150 miles and about 5 hours, and costs $4 in a tro-tro.  The same trip in a large, air-conditioned coach bus is about $10.
Assuming I use a taxi or tro-tro every day, my monthly transportation costs are about $12.
When it comes to health care, costs clearly vary greatly depending on the seriousness of the illness and the extent of the services rendered.  In the United States, health care costs are generally extremely high-- far too much so, as most of those who do not have health insurance are prohibited from seeking basic health services because they cannot afford it.  My limited experience with health care in Ghana has given me an insight into the general cost of services.
In late 2009, I was admitted to the largest and best public hospital in Kumasi extremely dehydrated and with severe abdominal pain that had not ceased for the previous 16 hours.  It was later determined that I had kidney stones.  While at the hospital, I received a general physical examination from a doctor and underwent an ultra-sound scan of my abdomen.  I received an injection of pain medication and eight bags of saline solution administered intravenously throughout the one night that I spent in the hospital.  The following morning, I was given a 10-day supply of pain medication and was discharged.  The area of the hospital where I spent the night was newly-constructed and modern, with the look and feel of any reputable hospital in the United States.  The total cost of services, including medication and an overnight stay in the hospital, was $60.  Unbelievable.
Private hospitals are, of course, more expensive, but they still do not compare, in cost, to any hospital in the U.S.  A friend of mine underwent emergency surgery at a private hospital to remove one of her fallopian tubes.  The total cost of the surgery, 8 days in the hospital and medication was around $900.  Amazing, right?
I should note that public hospitals here are subsidized by the government so that average Ghanaians, whose incomes are very low, are able to access their services.
I must also say that although modern hospitals that use modern medical equipment do exist here, the quality of health care in Ghana, and throughout the developing world, is quite low and the range of service very limited in comparison to the United States or any other developed nation.  With this in mind, one would expect health care costs in Ghana to be lower than in the U.S.  But the extreme degree to which they are lower is a surprise to me.
Medicines purchased at a pharmacy are quite inexpensive, but the way in which they are bought and sold here deserves a bit of an explanation.
First, although doctors at hospitals do write prescriptions for the medications that their patients require, those same medicines can be purchased at any drug store in the country without a prescription.  So prescriptions are largely irrelevant, and are not needed in order to purchase any type of medication.  (Example: I have asthma.  To get an inhaler in the U.S., I must first visit a doctor and convince him that my need for an inhaler is genuine, at which point he will write a prescription.  The doctor's fee is probably at least $50 and the inhaler itself is another $20 to $30 at the pharmacy.  Expensive.  Here in Ghana, I walk into any pharmacy and purchase an inhaler of the same quality as the one in the U.S. for $7.  No questions asked; no prescription; no doctor's fees).
Second, medication here is sold in small quantities that are exactly what the customer needs at the time.  Complain of a headache and the pharmacy will give you a strip of 10 tablets of Paracetemol for $0.07 or a strip of 10 400mg Ibuprofen capsules for $0.21.  Want to buy a powerful prescription antibiotic but only need half of the dose/quantity contained in the package?  The pharmacy will open the box (breaking the safety seal) and use scissors to cut the strip of pills in half.  The remaining half will be sold to a different customer at another time--- without a prescription, of course.
A one-month supply of multi-vitamins is $0.42, Cod liver oil, a daily supplement, is $1.66 per month and garlic capsules, also a daily supplement, are $3.80 for one month.  Doxycycline, a common antibiotic that is taken daily as a malaria prophylaxis, is $2 for a one-month supply.  I once met an American man here who had paid more than $100 for a one-month supply of Doxycycline in the U.S.  Ridiculous.
Most of the medications sold here are generic brands that are manufactured at a very low cost in India.  Others are made right here in Ghana.  But the chemical composition, and thus the quality, of any generic medication, is identical to that of the popular brand name that you know well.  Am I wrong?  The problem, I believe, is that in the United States, many pharmacies do not stock these ultra-inexpensive medications coming out of India, probably because the profit margin on them is low and because the pharmaceutical companies know that Americans, in general, are able to purchase more expensive, name-brand drugs, so that is primarily what is offered on the market.  It could also be that the Indian large-scale producers of these inexpensive medications have it in their business plan to focus primarily on the developing world, perhaps as a kind of social responsibility to supply the world's poorest with medicine they desperately need and at a cost that they are able to bear.  I'm not exactly sure.
Clothes.  Most of us love to go shopping for new clothes, and we probably spend a lot of money in the process.  In Ghana, a lot of new clothes come from China and are of a very low quality.  The second-hand clothes market here is huge, however, and it is there that one finds quality, fashionable items for next-to-nothing.

There is a particular street in the downtown area where you will find huge piles of clothes on the ground lining the sidewalks for hundreds of feet-- all second-hand, imported from Europe and the United States, and all super cheap.  Long- and short-sleeved button-up shirts are separated into piles based on quality and price.  The lowest price is $0.70 per shirt-- all are free of stains and imperfections, but these tend to be older and less-fashionable than some of the more expensive shirts.  The next price is $1.40, and it is in these piles that one can find some killer shirts.  I once found two genuine Ralph Lauren long-sleeved polo shirts, each $1.40 and in perfect condition.  Most of the shirts come from Europe, and some are even custom-made from tailors in Italy, France and the United Kingdom.
Second-hand jeans, also from Europe and the U.S., are around $3 per pair.  A friend of mine once found a pair of Seven jeans for $5 (if you don't know, Seven jeans retail for something really ridiculous like $140 per pair).
Finally, let's talk about houses.  If you are ever interested in building your own home in Ghana and staying for awhile, you can be sure it won't break the bank.  A 3,500 to 4,000 square-foot (big!), two-story house with six or seven bedrooms and a few bathrooms, complete with a brick wall encircling the house and yard to provide privacy and security, can be constructed from scratch for around $60,000.  Seriously.

Sunday, October 17, 2010


Hey people,

Just a quick update to let you know what I have been up to recently. I just finished two months teaching 1st grade at an international school in Kumasi. It was quite a challenge but a lot of fun, and I'll miss the kids dearly.

I have posted some photos of my kids under the Ghana: 2010 link in the right sidebar. Check them out! I will add a couple short videos of my kids in the classroom very soon. Enjoy.


Monday, July 12, 2010

A peculiar encounter.

As I sat on an old, rickety wooden bench at a road-side food stand, waiting for the woman inside to finish frying the egg which would become the sole contents of a less-than-impressive sandwich that I was about to chew up and swallow, an acquaintance from the neighborhood came to rest beside me. We happen to meet in this very place quite often, as neither of us has at home the fortune of an obedient, well-behaved wife that can cook and, of course, clean—the desire of most African men I have met.

“Good evening,” I said to the man. “How are you?”

“By His grace,” came the reply, as a fiery grin illuminated his face, showing clearly the large chip which, quite unfortunately, had made one of his two front teeth a jagged and unhappy half of what it once was. I understood the man’s words perfectly, as he had spoken them in response to every greeting I had ever sent his way. But to you, they may seem a bit strange. Let me briefly explain.

The people of Ghana are generally very religious, with the majority practicing a loud, intense, and intrusive kind of Christianity which is seen, heard and felt in all areas of both public and private life. Most people respond to greetings, regardless of the type or the time of day that they are offered, with, “By the grace of God, I am fine” or “By the grace of the Almighty Jesus Christ, I’m doing very well,” to which the initial greeter responds, “Thank God.” Walk down the street at any time of day and you will hear these exchanges, almost exactly as I have just presented them, taking place all around you. It is quite fascinating. Due to a kind of laziness to which most men are susceptible, the standard response to a greeting has been cut down to, simply, “By His grace”—the very words that this man spoke to me that night while sitting at the side of the road. Now, back to the story.

This particular night happened to be a rather cold one, with the clear, star-filled sky above made slightly imperfect by sporadic, swift-moving blemishes of thin, wispy gray clouds, and the wind a constant, unwanted companion.

“It is cold tonight,” said the man.

“Yes, it’s wonderful,” I replied. Tilting my head up towards the magnificent, black void above us, I added, “I would even love to see it rain, though it won’t happen tonight. The sky is clear.”

“But it can still rain!” said the man quickly and with a sense of surety in his voice.

As I sat there for the next few seconds, thinking back to my early years of elementary education when I learned all about the weather, including things like thunder, lightning, clouds, evaporation and rain, I thought to myself: no it can’t. I suddenly became curious at what motivated this man to make such a claim, which, in my mind, seemed quite absurd.

“We know that it rains when there are clouds in the sky, but that is only science,” he said. “It’s just a guy’s prediction. Someone predicted it and said it’s true. In the Bible, God says that any time a rainbow appears, it means it is about to rain. This is always true because it is one of God’s promises, but God didn’t say that clouds have to be in the sky in order for the rain to fall. That is just science, but it’s not one of God’s promises. So it can happen. It can even rain right now.”

Looking back up to the sky above, which, by this point, was completely! clear, I searched for some kind of divine intervention to help me make sense of the unbelievable words just spoken to me (intervention, I must note, from a God much different than the one who told this man that rainbows unfailingly signal the coming of rain). I found nothing, and at that moment, the only thought in my mind, quite ironically, was Ohhh Jesus! I simply replied, “Oh, ok. Interesting,” and left it at that.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

On love, in alarm.

As a small child, I did not know you at all. You were surely present in the connections and life-long commitments of men and women much older than me at the time, but my curious and ever-active young mind, which was busy discovering exciting and endless little wonders of a very big world, did not recognize you. You were yet another stranger in a world full of unknowns.

During later, teenage times, I had seen enough of you in others to unveil a hidden desire to locate you and invite you to reside safely and happily inside of me. And so I set out in search of you within others, eager to have them share a precious piece of you with me. But nobody that I came close to actually knew you in the authentic and powerful way in which I believed you existed, in your truest form, and so you remained a stranger to me in a world a little bit less unknown.

With a few more years of wisdom and the beginning of a new phase of freedom and responsibility, as I left the convenience and comfort of dependable, loving parents in search of higher knowledge and opportunity, came a slight depreciation of my belief that I would ever find you in your fullest and most delightful form. Most of those around me at the time appeared to have discovered you long ago and were busy losing themselves in you with more partners than it seems sensible or safe to do. But I believed then, as I do now, that the expression of you in the physical form, although certainly enjoyable, is only one small piece of your complex puzzle, and provides a kind of satisfaction that is ultimately unsustainable—it is a part of you to which I have never felt that one should pay the most attention. By this time in my life, we should have already danced together to the beat of at least a few different sweet but short-lived songs. But the reality is that throughout the years, I had made a habit of watching you move with others while my back remained firmly against the wall—always eager for you to guide me by the hand out onto the floor, and at the same time slightly ashamed that I had not yet learned to dance. And so we remained strangers in a world that, by this point, I had realized I would never fully understand.

Today, I still do not know you. It is not this alone which concerns me so much, but the fact that I have not seen you within others in a very long time. My experiences in Africa lead me to believe that in this part of the world, you are seriously and almost universally misunderstood. Here, your existence is inescapably linked to intercourse, as if the two of you are one and the same. And if it is not physical favors that signal your presence, then it is surely the exchange of money and goods, as though you reside within such cheap, material things. The postponement of sex or the absence of excess income is a clear indication, in the minds of most here, that you are nowhere to be found—in fact, that you cannot possibly exist under such conditions—and the abundance of both means that you have, at long last, arrived. But such a simple interpretation of you discounts the possibility that you may, in truth, be much more powerful, fulfilling, and longer-lasting than that, and it prevents those who view you in such a light from ever discovering you in your truest and most authentic form.

I reject this understanding of you. To me, it appears juvenile and unsound. It is distressing. But if most of those around me accept it, without question, then I cannot help but wonder, once again, if I will ever find you in your fullest and most delightful form—one in which nobody here seems to want to imagine you may flourish.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Dear Mother Africa

Dear Mother Africa,

I am writing to you today with a heart that is at once hurting and happy, and a mind that is still at least a little bit unsure. For the past three years, our lives and hearts have been entangled as we shared in happiness, joy, sadness, frustration, loneliness, laughter, learning and love. We committed ourselves long ago to a life lived as one, and the time we have spent together has truly been a blessing. But after much questioning and careful contemplation, I have decided that the time for change has come. I am leaving you.

The standard line at a time like this is, "It's not you, it's me-- I am just not ready for a relationship right now. I need some time to be alone." But in this case, the truth is that it's both of us. Right now, I don't have the knowledge or experience that I need to help you and your extended family in a way that is sustainable, far-reaching, and real. And despite the wonderful experiences we have shared and the knowledge you have allowed me to gain, you are far too different than me in far too many ways for me to carry on living as your partner, lover and friend. I am sorry.

For those who know very little about you, the mentioning of your name evokes images of death, disease, poverty and powerlessness. But the privileged who have come to know you well, as I have, easily recognize that behind the sickness and worn clothing lies a woman that is incredibly kind and generous, and whose loving, lighthearted and undying spirit, visible in the harshest of environments and most trying of times, shines brighter than that of anyone I have ever met. Of the many things you have taught me, by far the most powerful and important is how to stay hopeful in conditions that are clearly desperate, remain resilient in the face of adversity that appears unbeatable, to laugh even when the hardships that invade every day of your life make you want to cry, and to have faith that life will one day be better. It will get better, I promise. Be patient.

Thank you, Mother Africa, for accepting me with your arms open wide, and for continually treating me with a level of kindness, generosity, and respect that now brings tears to my eyes. I will miss you dearly, but will return one day to see you again. Take care. Goodbye.

Friday, November 13, 2009

An Image of Unlikeliness.

Exuding a quiet confidence, she contentedly moves about the Earth comfortably wedged in an on-going state of wonder. How could she not? The endless complexities of nature and of humankind, revealed to her through the simple, seemingly-insignificant interactions of each passing day, often leave her astonished, immensely appreciative, giggling. She is curious and ever-questioning; skeptical.

Unwaveringly optimistic, she views the world around her as a place where, contrary to widely-held belief, people are generally peaceful and loving toward one another, and where fear is most often unfounded. She believes undoubtedly that humans are good by nature and she views our shared desires—for peace, love, dignity, purpose, respect—as opportunities for the creation of dialogue, friendship, and understanding. She sees the incredible diversity in human thought, belief, and being as one of life’s greatest yet under-appreciated gifts; the diversity of non-human life simply astounding.

She is tireless in her efforts to offer hope to the many who hold none, awaken inspiration in the hearts of the ignored, and to give love to those who receive far less of it than they rightly deserve. Suffering and injustice, she believes, must be fought against, in manner large and small, by each and every one of us, as their victims, regardless of color, caste, or location, are our brothers and sisters of humanity, to whom we are inescapably linked. And so she gives herself—fully and without charge—to the causes that so often call her to responsibility.

Her heart, whose massive size is matched only by the extent to which it is blind, contains a very special place reserved solely for children, within whom she sees an intense, undying sense of curiosity that is both familiar to her and incredibly refreshing. And it is in the company of kids that her most-admirable qualities become unmistakably clear: she is gentle and patient, understanding and warm. What a wonderful mother she is sure to be.

A profound joy for learning and discovery, cultivated slowly during childhood years, sent her on an on-going personal quest for knowledge that is not likely to expire until the day that she does. She views the seemingly-endless capacity and power of the human brain as one of the greatest wonders of the world, and admires enormously those who set out to test its limits. From years of quietly observing the events and realities of the vast world around her has evolved one of her most firmly held beliefs: that the opportunity for personal enrichment, economic improvement, and expanded influence in an ever-accelerating world lies squarely in education. She believes that a sharp, intelligent mind is one of the most valuable assets one can possess.

Finally, she believes in love. Though fiercely independent—both in thought and in action—she recognizes easily the sense of fullness and deep delight that an honest and complete commitment to love another human being can provide, and she longs for the opportunity to surrender a small piece of her independence in order to have that feeling rest safely inside of her.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

I like this video.... a lot. I hope you do too.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Hey people,

Just a quick update to let you all know that I'm alive and doing well. The community sanitation project that I had been working on since May, 2008 has finally come to an end, which means that my last two months in Mali will be spent watching CSI and swimming/fishing in the Senegal River-- good times!

Exactly two months from tomorrow, I will be jumping on a bus and leaving Mali for Ghana, where I'll be volunteering at a local NGO in the city of Kumasi, doing HIV education and working with some local orphanages. I'm pretty stoked! I'll be there for awhile- possibly a couple years or more.

I just uploaded a dozen or so new photos under the title "2009" in the right sidebar. Check 'em out.

Also took a few short videos of some kids in Bafoulabe. Click below.


Oh, happy 4th of July:)


Friday, May 15, 2009

Hey people,

I thought I would check-in while I'm around an internet connection. All is hot and well here. I spent the last three days in Bamako planning my departure from Mali at a Close-of-Service Conference with the 50+ other volunteers in my group. It's difficult to believe, but my time in Mali will soon be over-- September 25 is scheduled to be my final day as a Peace Corps Volunteer. I love many of the people I have lived and worked with during the past two years, and leaving them will be unbelievably difficult.

As of now, I am still planning on moving to Ghana directly from Mali, but am still trying to figure out exactly what I will be doing when I get there. I'll keep you posted.

I just uploaded about 30 new photos to the "2009" album-- find it under the photos heading in the right sidebar.

I hope all is well.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Hey people,

I just returned from vacation in Togo and Benin a couple weeks ago. Photos are under the title "Vacation II" in the right sidebar. Enjoy.

Life here in Mali is pretty alright. Hot season is definitely upon us-- it stays about 104 degrees inside my house during the day and down to about 93 degrees at night. The outside daytime temperature is crazy-hot and the nighttime low is about 80 degrees (which feels chilly enough to have to cover myself with a sheet-- I'm going to die when I return to the U.S.!).

I am expecting to be leaving Mali around September or October of this year (only six months or so from now!) and plan to move to the coast of Ghana, where I am hoping to find some type of development work.

I hope life is swell. Take good care.


Monday, March 2, 2009


Hey people,

Just a quick note to let you all know that I'm alive and doing well. I'm in Bamako at the moment, getting ready to head out on vacation to Benin, Togo, and Burkina Faso. I'll be gone for about two weeks-- should be a blast.

Life is hot but good. Mango season is about to start, which will make things even tastier.

I just uploaded 50 or so new photos under the album "2009" on the right sidebar. Check it out-- they're pretty good!

Take care.


Tuesday, November 25, 2008


Hey people,

Not a whole lot of exciting things happening in my corner of the world. The rainy season is officially over and the the cold season has begun, which is wonderful. It has been getting down to a low of around 60 degrees in the middle of the night, which feels cold! after being in the Mali heat for so long. It is still around 95 or so during most days, and doesn't get much cooler than about 84 degrees inside my house.

My phone number has changed, for anyone who is thinking of giving me a ring. Check it out on the sidebar on the right side of the screen.

I am in the process of uploading new photos-- check the "Vacation" and "2009" albums for a little bit of visual pleasure.

That's all. I hope life is treating you all well.

Take care.