Thursday, September 30, 2010

A Visit To Kpando

It was still a bit early in the morning when I got a call from a volunteer who was about to close out her service. I thought she was calling me on behalf of her bicycle which I said I would take off her hand but she informed me that there was a bit of a problem. It didn't have anything to do with the bike either.

The other volunteer that is replacing her from my litter of Volunteers had gotten a little bit sick on Tuesday, then more of the same on Wednesday, and Thursday wasn't much better. She asked if I was in the town and if I could make a stop out to see him and make sure that everything was kosher. So of course I said yes and then finished my scrambled egg sandwich and tea. The good news was he had already gotten a ride to the clinic that was in his town and I could just meet him there.

After about an hour I was in Kpando (which is pronounced pahn-doe) and looking for my pal on the grounds of the clinic. Sure enough, one kind question to the staff and they pointed me in the right direction. We have a running joke between us: I forgot he was in my group of PCVs once and I always come back to that forgetfulness moment. I joked with him and got a slight chuckle from him so I knew he was going to be better.  He looked a bit tired and I could see one of the reasons why he sought medical attention: earlier that morning he was walking in his room when a spell of low blood pressure put him on the floor and a slight bump could be seen on his head.

The fever was coming down when I got there and he had already taken his precautionary malaria medicine before arriving so he was going to be better but he admitted that he hadn't felt quite that run down and weak in many many years. Eventually the lab results will tell what he had and for all we know it could just be a virus or germ that didn't want to leave kindly but seeing him sweat it out made me glad for visiting. It helps to have someone just next to you when you feel like that.

The staff was going to keep him there and make sure that he was well-rested before letting him leave. In the meantime I came back to the campus and spoke with a dozen or so people on the walk home. I have to head back to the town later to make sure that he gets home in decent shape and can fend for himself. This was not how I wanted to visit their town, but I am glad that I live close enough by to be of service in some way.

And I don't know why it is, but each time I put my towel out on the drying line it rains within the next hour while I am away. It is hard to get that thing dry after it has soaked out there. One of those mild irritations as of late. I am glad that is all I am suffering through.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Making My Place More Home-y

I have been at the bungalow for over a month now and I have yet to really make the place mine. There was a bed there when I arrived, a long table and two chairs for eating, a desk, and then some basic couch and lounge chairs for guests to sit on, but nothing was added by me. I just plopped down and made myself feel comfy with the spartan conditions.

To be honest, I didn't know that I wanted to make any changes. If things work I tend to leave them be and my feeling was that the place was so big that I really didn't have the money to add much to it so why go down that path? Just get some books, throw the bag with my clothes into the closet and enjoy it.

Then I saw how another volunteer had changed his room and I understood the importance of getting things the way you might like them to be. I spoke to a second volunteer and she said that since she is living here for two years she might as well enjoy the space she does have by making it her home. Points that slowly found a fertile part of my brain to grow in, to sprout tiny little shoots and find some sunshine.

With that, I have almost finished painting a closet.

It sounds so weird but then I figured it sounded exactly like me that I had to post on the subject. My money from Peace Corps is still sitting in the bank and I am more than frugal with how I spend my money so I figured a paint job in the bedroom was something that I could afford to do without too much investment; but I hate to waste money. So my plan has been to start very small and see if it is something that I want to do or if it is a job that would be better done by others who I could pay for their troubles.

One bucket of latex paint which was a light but bright color on the color swatch that the shop displayed, one traditional paint brush, and one roller brush later and I was off to the house for an experiment. There is a hallway closet to my bedroom that is maybe six-and-a-half feet tall but somewhat wide and deep where I store my laundry items. I cleared those things out, swept the walls (scrubbing the walls of my bedroom with soapy water won't happen so I figured it wouldn't do in the closet either), and got the brush loaded with extra-thick beige/orange paint. The first thing I noticed was that the color reminded me of my own skin tone which brought back a memory I have of painting a mural in my high school – a giant set of eyes staring at you like Big Brother. The second thing I noticed was that the paint brush was super cheap and bristles were coming out all over the place. The wall resembled a woman's leg after a very dull blade missed many leg hairs. Not what I had in mind. But after 30 minutes one side of the closet was done.

I took great care to go around the corners and making sure I didn't splatter paint as I don't want to do that in my bedroom or any other room I paint. It dried much lighter than I had expected it to be and that was still all right. The color was bright and it lightened up the closet nicely. The next day I painted the other three walls and the door jam and a second coat on the first wall I had painted the day before.

What strikes me as silly is that I walk by that closet and feel a pretty decent sense of pride. I actually stop and admire the space. It is a closet and no one will ever see it, but it is my handiwork and my choice to paint the walls and that is what I believe makes me enjoy it. So after the second coat goes up, I will prepare my bedroom by sweeping those walls (the spiders will not be amused by this one bit) and getting the furniture away from the areas where I will paint first. If all goes well I will have some before and after pictures to show here of what a little effort and pride can achieve.

Who knows, maybe I will do more to make my house a home. Re-tile the living room maybe. Maybe not.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Goats Are 90% Connective Tissue

[Belated post]

The title says it all. Today was focused on a trip to town to find something that I could cook for myself provided I had some of the essential ingredients. I stopped by the store which I mentioned in an earlier post, the body-less goat post. The owner was not there but he had left instructions for his father to make sure that I bought some goat meat from him. I knew that I was going to need some protein in the meal for the evening, so I agreed that I would get a few slices of the front leg portion that was on the chopping block.

Before leaving though I was informed that I ought to visit another butcher shop just down the dirt road to see more cuts of meat. Why not. I like meat. So I walked with the man to the shop of flies and body parts and perused for a few minutes. My guide made a point to distinguish which was the cow section which was his specialty. I kind of noticed which section belonged to the cows by all the cow pieces spread across the table. Including, you guessed it right on the money, a cow's head ready to be bought. The mouth was facing the wrong way, but you could definitely see the resemblance to a bovine structure.

Off again to the bungalow for a bungalow-cooked meal of my very own. I made an approximation to what is considered a Ghanaian stew without the flavoring or taste of a Ghanaian stew and added in the goat hunks. Nice and brown on the outside, seems to be cooked on the inside... excellent. The rice was ready and I figured I would be in for a treat with my three little morsels sitting atop the pile of actually decent rice.

First bite: nothing came off the bone. Second bite: my fingers slipped and I had to fetch the bugger off the plate again. Third bite: brute force applied to my fingers grasping two ends and a severe gnashing of incisors gives me the first quarter teaspoon of meat.

And on it went. For three hunks of meat I didn't get much in the way of food. It would seem that goat probably needs some slow cooking, simmering for hours may be ideal, and then you ought to be cooking the hind quarters or some other meaty part, not the front legs. I have learned my lesson. Next time beef, which for some reason is one cedi cheaper per pound than my goat meat. Who knew?

Monday, September 20, 2010

Time For Drawing

[Belated post]

I haven't had this much time for drawing in years, maybe since college when I had to complete many assignments the night before they were due.

This one came from an article about Stephen Hawking's new book on the web site. I liked the lighting and the features of him for some reason and I grabbed the photo and said that it would be a drawing project some time. That time came and I finished it tonight. Not too bad, and this one went marginally darker with a 4B pencil instead of a silly H lead. Even still, it could have gone darker. Maybe I have a fear of pencil smudge in the sketchpad if I go too dark. Thanks for looking in on my time-passing techniques.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

They Won't Get Rid Of Me Yet

[Belated post]

A few days ago I mentioned that all my good intentions in the computer lab here on campus were turning up with a rather lemony smell. Three machines that I had fixed came back to life in a hideous near-monochrome palette that could only mean I had done something wrong. After sweating that a bit and taking a break from helping cause more headaches I learned from my counterpart that there was a CD floating around the lab somewhere which might fix the problem. Sure enough, my job was saved when the drivers for the ancient on-board video cards worked to bring back millions of colors on the screen instead of the 16 that I was staring at.

That meant we were back to having good times in the lab.

As of late I have been trying to add another operating system to the computers. This may get more geeky then you are comfortable so be sure to skip ahead to the end where I say things worked out. Ubuntu is a freely distributed OS (operating system) based on the Linux standard. You grab the installation files from a web site with the latest stable version of the OS and go copy those to a CD. From there you visit all the machines and repeat a seven step process to install Ubuntu.

I had mentioned that another volunteer and I went to visit a volunteer teaching in Mampong. This was the very same volunteer who has spear-headed the mission of getting students familiar with Ubuntu so that they have a stable, free, and current OS to learn on. Right now most machines in the country will be running Windows XP which is considerably dated and extremely prone to incurring viruses, trojans, and malware of every stripe and variety. It will be nice to have the more secure Ubuntu running right next to the XP installation and allow us to possibly fix the bad things that happen to the Windows partition. I have not played with the OS before so today I had a bit of time to dabble with it.

The next step will be to get the machines linked up to the net so that we can grab free software for it. That is typically harder to come by with the Windows world. I have to thank my fellow volunteer Scott for helping me get through a few hiccups during a first try or two at getting things right. If you are still running Windows and would like to try it I would say go for it and see what stability and a nice interface look like. Or buy a Mac, but that is just my bias speaking.

So in conclusion: things worked out. I didn't destroy computers like I thought I did, and I hope to open up a few doors to students when they get into the lab next month.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

I Wasn't Expecting That

[Belated Post]

Yesterday I had the chance to walk into town for a spell which had been something I was neglecting a bit as of late. For almost the whole weekend and Monday I had avoided going out much and that means that I don't talk and greet people often which in turn curtails my language abilities. A walk was in order, so I went.

I make many stops along the way with the people that I have met so far. Some I see every time I go out, others I bump into occasionally and am lucky if I remember their names or faces. One man in particular is Dunko (my approximation of his name) who operates many different types of businesses. I had not seen him in quite some time as he was either at the mosque praying or doing an errand related to his many endeavors.

So yesterday I managed to see him and we exchanged the pleasantries of greetings. I met his sister who just so happens to work across from his little shop. She sits on a bench next to a table of shoes. I sat there and made conversation for a good fifteen minutes before even thinking of getting up. I need to realize that whatever I am going to do isn't so important as talking and getting the hang of language and people right now. Just the same, she was from Accra which meant that she was a Ga speaker, not an Ewe speaker. I gather I will pick up a few phrases from her along the way as I go and come from town. It was a pleasure meeting her.

Back to Dunko though. I was taking my leave from Bernice and wanted to say goodbye to him in his tiny little square shop. He has told me that he trades in scrap metal, an assortment of goods that comes in from cargo ships that he buys for cheap, and other odds and ends that come his way, but his little shop is where he sells meat. I walk up and seem him brandishing his machete and making good solid thwacks on the chopping block of some sort of foot-like appendage. Ah, it is a hoof as I can see when I get closer. Upon  entering though, I see spread out over the rest of his table the other parts of the animal.

Including a severed head looking back at me. For some reason which seemed eerie and comical at the same time, the head of a goat just sitting there out in the open without the requisite body attached struck me as unusual. My recollection is me chuckling and saying hi to the head. I am fairly certain that no part of an animal ever goes to waste here, so I will not be the least surprised when someone says to me in the future, “Oh, I love goat heads for [fill-in-the-blank],” since that is just the way things are here.

But you never really expect to see a goat's head in someone's little stand. I mentally kicked my brain for not having the camera with me. You live and learn.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

More Art

This latest drawing took a bit of time. I have many photographs saved on the netbook for purposes of staving off homesickness, but one of the reasons I brought them was for something to draw on slow days. Many trips to art museums and parks should keep me busy in addition to drawing things that are around me here in Ghana, but for late at night when nothing around me is inspiring (like an old shoe), then out comes the computer and down goes the pencil.

For this piece I chose a statue that I shot while at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. a few months back. After visiting my brother and mother in North Carolina I drove back and made a stop in D.C. to sight-see. A pretty good five hours spent there if I do say so myself. For the statue though, I do not have a name or an artist who did the beautiful job. I have made it a point usually to take a picture of the placard that states such information but for this one I did not take one (or it did not copy over prior to me coming here).

I would estimate about six or seven hours at a minimum went into this one and much like the last one that I put up here on the web log, the shading is light. I either need to stop starting the drawing with H's, or press a heck of a lot harder. But this is what I have to show for my weekend and a bit of time late last night when I didn't get to sleep right away. Enjoy.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Fixing Computers By Breaking Them

Ugh, one of those days. It is Saturday here but for something to do and maybe for a few minutes of internet time I decided to visit the ICT lab on campus. Maybe do some good and rescue a few computers while checking out what is going in the world. That was the idea at the start. I did not mean to create more work for myself by being helpful, but...

That is precisely what I did. With the Windows XP installation disc in hand I went from computer to computer trying to figure out which machine had a virus and which one did not. After getting my list together over the past few days I had the notion of wiping out the old operating system and putting XP back on, maybe with Ubuntu as well when I get that install disc, and seeing what a nice fresh install looks like on the machines here. Unfortunately that has not happened yet.

Some machines did take nicely to the tend-love-and-care approach but others have suffered greatly for the attention. I now have three machines that boot up only to about 16 colors and a screen resolution of 600 x 400 or thereabouts. It looks terrible and there may be a lot more hassle before I get them running again. Apparently for certain models in the lab a reinstall of XP is causing it to lose a lot of drivers for somewhat important things. The Display adapter, the Network card, and USB support. That is all... just the things that I need to fix the problem that I helped create.

That was not what I wanted to do. And on top of that the internet when down while I was researching fixes. Some days it does not pay to get out of bed.

On the plus side, I did start a drawing this morning of a statue that I photographed in D.C. earlier this year which is proceeding along nicely. When I finish the drawing I will post it here and a few other places.

Back to nursing sick computers.

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Wli Falls and Basketball

[Belated Post]

What a day. First I should say that it was nice seeing some friendly faces of volunteers the past few days. Two times I was able to visit with PCVs from other parts as they passed through my town. As I said, it is great to have my home in a hub of sorts for the Volta volunteers. Two days, four great people, and lots of stories to trade around about our experiences to date. I loved it and I am grateful that we had the opportunity to meet.

Now, for today. I had a youngster show me to the falls close by. About 13km away are the Wli Agumutsa waterfalls, maybe about 30 or forty minutes by tro-tro ride. The road is a bit rough in spots, but for the time and the money, it was worth it to see some nature. It is a yevu haven of course and I managed to see a few that I think were from Germany paying the falls a visit, but they were leaving and we were going in so I had the place practically all to myself. The weather was fine and the sites were great to see. This land really does have the jungle feel to it when you go off the beaten path. Though we did very much stay on the beaten path to get to the falls.

I have not real eye for distance, but I bet it doubled the height of the falls that I saw earlier at Boti. And this one had some water behind it as well. The mist racing away from the bottom was enough to cool us down measurably, and it gave the lens on the cameras a fit after five seconds, but I still managed to get a few shots. The trip out and back costs a cedi, and the view of the falls is six plus tip for your tour guide (which you cannot avoid having). There was another climb that I passed on which would have lead us to the upper falls. That was three more cedis to see, and I being out of shape thought better of the journey uphill and will leave that for when visitors want to come and sight-see. Those falls are reportedly better, but then again, those who say it want the three cedis in a bad way I bet.

After returning I had the good timing to go out about 200 yards from my front door and plop myself on the basketball court for a pickup game or two. Put it this way though – I am terrible at basketball. I can't dribble if someone is covering me, and my shooting percentage is around 12% inside the free-throw line. I am not making this part up though, I am probably the fourth or fifth best player on the court every time. Some guys are faster than me. Some guys take more shots than I do. But when the average shooting percentage is even worse than mine, well I look pretty good.

My guess is that there isn't much coaching for basketball here, plenty though for football. Lots of people here want me to play football. They are not going to be getting what they want anytime soon. Just the same, I can't run for extended periods because my knees get to aching, and the pick up games, when spaced far enough apart, give me reason to sweat and get the heart rate up. So today was a good day. I only need to work on my layup a bit more and I will be ready to shoot 14% soon.

Monday, September 06, 2010

A Slow Week

[Belated Post]

There was not much that happened over the past week here in Hohoe. No get togethers of other volunteers, no time spent at the lab since Sunday afternoon, and not too much time spent roaming the area during the day time. Instead it was mostly spent with a few younger people who have found the bungalow a meet-up spot. As I mentioned before, my neighbor has a daughter who is 13 and has a keen interest in teaching me the finer points of every Ghanaian dish that I have eaten so far. Banku, fufu, plantains, okro soup, light soup, and a stew that went on top of rice which was awesome. So each day she has stopped by to ask, “What are you making?” When I answer just noodles and some tomato sauce, she shakes her head and changes the menu.

This has lead me to exploring a bit of the market close by so now I can move right along to pick up some of the basic ingredients that I will be needing every two or three days. I did have a slight problem when I went to the market last Saturday without much money. I thought the banks were open here on Saturdays but that was not the case, so my last cedi was spent on yams and one cassava. A mental note has been made to get an ATM card from the bank soon.

So cooking has been dominant here, learning the ins and outs of adding this to that and turning the heat up to scorching to cook things. Given that banku was so hard to make and most of the other dishes are hard as well, I may not be making this food often.

Most of the friends of the girl now know me and will stop by to see if she is around. This means that I more or less have a living room full of 13 and 14 year-old adolescents. When I was in the U.S. I typically did not entertain teenagers and I am using the same tactic here. Eventually my theory is that the will stop coming since there is nothing to do here. That will be fine with me. Adults are more my cup of tea.

Speaking of tea, I need to go get some mula out of the bank and buy some more tea for my morning breakfast. I ran out today. It has been several months since I have had honest-to-goodness coffee (instant coffee does not count, nor will it ever come close) and this tea business is the best I can do now. My electric tea kettle works real quick and the sugar and powdered milk kick start my mornings now. Back with more later.

Thursday, September 02, 2010

Making Banku The Hard Way

[Belated Post]
I may have mentioned a while back that some of the staple foods here are fufu, banku, and rice ball. Well tonight was my first foray into the world of truly Ghanaian dishes. I have asked the kitchen on campus to suspend meals for a while (how long is anyone's guess) so that I may try my hand in the kitchen. I was going to try something small for my first meal, but I arrived home late yesterday and just ate the lunch that the school was sending me off with (therefore becoming my dinner). That meant I could skip making a meal for one extra day.

I didn't try fufu first though I really do enjoy that meal. Instead my next door neighbor's daughter offered to instruct me on the ways of banku and okro soup. I detect that she figured to go easy on me with the very first meal, don't get him in over his head on the first try out. At least that was what I was assuming to be the case.

From home-stay I had seen banku made practically every day by my mother there. She served it to customers in the stand out in front of their house. She made a ton of it and now in retrospect I can't imagine having the muscles to make this in that quantity every day. It is a different experience.

With no knowledge in my possession, I was at the beck and call of Ann Marie, the neighbor. This is a thirteen year-old who knows what she is doing. She made the entire meal by heart and helped me in assembling all the ingredients and requisite materials. Bless her little heart.

The first thing to get a hold on are the brand new ingredients. You will need some of the familiar items: onions, tomatoes, peppers, and some spices like cumin and salt. After that you are into the new territory. Okro is a green vegetable that is shaped like a jalapeno but doesn't have the spice of one. Almost prickly on the skin, you slice that up good and small. It is slimy (their word for it) and that is a big part of the soup you will be eating. When dipping into it you get long strands of this viscous slime trailing back to the bowl from which it came. It makes for easy chopping though since it sticks to itself quite nicely. Amma is the spelling approximation which I came up with to describe the other plant that we used for the soup. Pluck off the leaves of what looks like a basil plant (without the flavor) and chuck that into a pot to cook with the okro.

The other thing you will be required to bring to the table, the banku, starts off as balls of dough, equal portions of cassava and corn dough. Mix those together, after sieving the cassava for pulp and sticks, in water and get a slurry ready. Put a pot on top of burning hot charcoals and start your stirring. Don't stop stirring for about a half hour. Once the concoction gels you will notice that stirring stops and you switch to more of a man-handling of the gooey substance. The best that I can describe it is extra thick, extra sticky mashed potatoes. My instructor could do it with her eyes closed and not only that, she could also be asleep and she still would have driven the banku perfectly. Me? Nah, not even close. I just made the motions of what I thought she was doing and smiled for the camera.

As that is solidifying, you must also be aware where your meat and spices are, as well as the okro and amma. When they are both good to go, dump one into the other and heat it up to a rolling boil. Taste that pot and see if it needs more salt (which I don't add) and move back to the banku.

I can't rightly say when the banku was done, but Ann Marie proclaimed it ready and dished it out into several plastic bags. They keep well in the refrigerator when you make too much. I had that problem in spades tonight as there were six balls of it, and managed only to eat one. The okro soup was good in all its stringy-ness. I could not convince anyone to join me to eat which was disappointing. I had many visitors stop by, but none would seem to trust me an American's version of banku. Not even Ann Marie.

I thanked her profusely and said “va midu nu” (come, let us eat) but she deferred. She said that banku and okro soup was not her favorite. I think I am set for food for the next four days, provided I don't get sick of the same thing that many nights in a row. The work involved though, everything that people eat here it seems requires phenomenal effort and just a bit more sweat than I am used to when cooking. Albeit I typically made myself spaghetti and sauce from a jar when I was in the states. Here you have to work for it.

It did taste pretty good though after all was said and done. That may have a lot to do with my own hands helping the dish along. More experiments to come.

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Attack Of The Critters

[Belated Post]

To date my worst experience is a 2-D spider just a bit too close to my head as I entered a room with the lights off, but last night the wild things were out. It started at lunch when the three ants I saw at breakfast became dozens of ants at lunchtime. Make that dozens of ants in my lunch. Since I was not around to immediately devour the food, the ants made their way up a plate and into most of my fish and red sauce. I brushed away most of the ants and picked off the segments of fish that didn't appear to be touched. After the meal was over I took the can of Oro insecticide and gave the ants a bath. I also washed the table and the dishes to keep the little ones from returning to find anything.

Later in the evening I had visitors of the human variety and we had to duck the large moths flying around the living room. They aren't bad, but they are big and the thought of getting whacked in the temple by its moth-i-ness was an issue. They eventually got handled by the whirring ceiling fan blades and took a long nap on the floor. Only to be hauled off by hungry ants. These ants are different then my lunch ants which are tiny. The moth-eaters are the big black ones that you would rather not see when you are almost finished laying out your spread on the picnic blanket in summer.

After a few guests had left and one was being escorted through the kitchen to the back door I noticed something flutter past the doorway just inside the kitchen. I was not expecting the bat to be stuck in there and I have not a clue how it got in. I have heard what sounds to be a family of bats nesting above the hung ceiling though, so this one must have scurried down the wrong hole. My friend who was leaving is 12 years old, and he was eager to help me out with the bat problem. He ran into the kitchen and started taking swipes and swings at the flying mammal while I waited down the hallway, stressing that he should be just a touch careful about a rabid bat. Whether that was a concern or not I don't know, the boy knocked the thing down and planted his foot on top of it. Poor little bugger never had a chance. I almost felt bad for the bat, but I have no idea how one catches a flying bat without giving it a bad day.

Out went the carcass and off went the boy into the night. I went back inside and listened to the squeaks above my head. I wondered if they had done a headcount and figured they were a sister or brother down.

Off to bed I went to read the final pages of the current novel. Out of the corner of my eye I saw that something was moving over the bedsheets. Another giant black ant with some dead insect locked in its pincers. I was getting tired of this. I swiped him off but felt more sympathy after the bat killing in the kitchen, so after the ant landed and lost his meal, I carefully pushed that back in his path for him to find and carry off. There, I had done my good deed.

Later still, and with me on the bed reading, a much more 3-D spider went speeding past my eyes on the floor. This one was decently big. I had had enough of the bugs, bats, and arachnids. The flip-flop came out and I made sure to deliver the fastest death I could to it. WHOP! Its legs curled up and the house was down one spider. Finally, some peace and quiet. That was true until I got up to go turn the lights off and I saw a wee bit of motion by what I thought was the dead spider. A pang of guilt came by as I thought I had not given it the death blow and here it has been struggling to survive and oh the humanity and all that. A closer look: It was another dang ant trying to haul the dead spider away. I was so tired of this that I crushed them both but good and took it to the trash in the kitchen. Fortunately there were no bats flying around or I would have had a conniption of the worst sort.

I still like the bungalow, but I need to get acclimated to the housemates I suppose.