Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Greetings from Ghana

I have been in Ghana for 3 months now, and the life here has been wonderful so far. It has not always been easy or comfortable or spent in good health, but fortunately these inconveniences pass quickly and are overwhelmed by the sheer joy of life here that everyone shows every day. The good nature, cheerfulness and hospitality demonstrated by all people in Ghana are astonishing to me. Even more so, considering the difficulties and harshness of life here.

I have managed to travel some while here and that has been great. I’ve been to the Volta River region (my favorite), all along the Atlantic coast, inland to mountain villages and waterfalls and rock formations, and even to Togo. This travel has involved a lot of research and training too. I have been organizing a community-based travel services company in Ghana, and these trips have been intense training for new staff.

But a problem happened along the way……the Western economies crashed, and it suddenly became a poor time to organize a new business venture around expensive discretionary leisure spending. All the Americans in our pipeline canceled almost all at once. We still have at least one confirmed booking per month for 4 of the next 5 months, but the anticipated 4.5% annual growth in Ghanaian tourism for the next decade now seems like a distant dream.

Jessie is out this week traveling with a German who has been living in Nigeria for the past 20 years. I’m jealous because this client is traveling luxury, so they are enjoying great food, ice cubes in cold drinks, nice swimming pools and AIR CONDITIONING! We even had to go out and find a different car to rent for him. He has loads to spend and our 4X4 is not to his standards. A friend is renting us his luxury 4X4 for $60/day, which is a great bargain.

I ran into the German with Jessie and Sasto in the area yesterday. They had brought him to the neighborhood just to walk around and see and meet family. I was walking back to the house with some food I bought at the roadside, so I was finally able to use the line I hear so often myself: “White Man, how are you?” We all laughed and walked back to the house together. They all told me about the great day they had had and all the sights they went to. The German seemed like a very satisfied client.

It was the first time another white has seen how I am living. Jessie said the German was asking a lot about me and how I am living here. I have seen a number of other whites come and go while I have been here. They will be in the area for a few days, staying with a local family, and then they are gone.

My life here at the house is far far different from that luxury life. I have been really blessed by the weather since I have been here. When the stone was presented at the voodoo hajj in Glidji, Togo (see previous blog posting), people said that the color of the stone indicated that it would be cold and rain. Well, the stone got it correct. It has been blessedly cool with light rains to cool things more. The few days that have been cloudless, windless and sunny have been days that force me to seek refuge in some shade somewhere. But even when cool, the tropical humidity is intense and just a short walk is a sweat-drenching activity.

The worst thing is that it seems I am living in the hottest house in Ghana. Where I stay, it is impossible to stay inside the room from 10AM until 4PM during a sunny day. Other houses I have visited, while hot, are not nearly what I experience in my room. I could bake break in my room during the day. The office where I work at the Department of the Controller and Accountant General is blasting with arctic cold air. Some days I actually look forward to going into work.

For me here, ‘work’ involves about 5 hours a week (and 6 additional hours of commute time) giving instruction and management to a team of software developers working to develop the government’s new payroll processing software. For this, I receive $1,800 per month, which gives me a decent life here. Not a great life that would allow me to go party every night and enjoy the fine things here, but I don’t need that. To have a life with maximum comforts like the USA, you really need a USA salary. It is very expensive here if you are living on the top side of the economy.

This job I have could be extended for up to 5 years. I am tempted to forget about my return flight to the USA in January.

Listening to me talk about my job, I don’t want you to think that I am doing nothing. My other jobs are intense and take up a lot of my time. The schools I have been working with have been amazing. While children will be children and act up sometimes, these young boys and girls are always respectful and polite. One of the best things has been having a donated laptop computer with some learning software on it. With only one laptop, I have to severely ration computer time, and the students are attentive and eager to learn. It is just basic instruction without Internet connectivity. Sometimes children even show up at my door in the evening to beg for some time on the laptop.

Internet connectivity is available via a wireless modem through various mobile services. The one I have been using is slow and expensive, so I bought a different service that is supposedly faster. Sadly, when at my house, it did not work at all. I was told by technical support that a tower has fallen and the re-routing has left me in a dead zone. It will be fixed any day now, I am told. That means sometime after I return to the USA. TIA TIA TIA

My favorite activity with the schools is what I call Pencil Day. It is nothing more than taking boxes of pencils to a school and handing each student one or two pencils. You would not believe the excitement and joy that this simple act elicits. You would think I am passing out $100 bills. It seems like the entire school is jumping up and down and screaming.

If just a pencil generates such emotion and gratitude, then imagine how I felt on the days that I award essay writers with prizes of $120 paid to their school for their tuition and supplies. Sometimes it is difficult not to let tears come to my face when I see the impact that this award will have on a life. The students also sometimes have a hard time controlling tears, but people here are taught to never cry, so while I have seen some misty eyes, I have yet to see a tear falling. When I meet the parents, I also see the immense gratitude for this substantial burden being eased for a short time.

I have to travel to Winneba next week for one of the award winning students. During the school break, her mother died, and she has moved to live with her aunt. Since I give the award money directly to the school where the student is enrolled, I need to travel to the village of the aunt to find this school. Keep Helen Tekpor in your thoughts as she deals with this difficult period in her life.

My other job, trying to build a travel services business, has been the most time consuming. It is a lot of time on the computer, answering queries, building our web site, writing all the documents and spreadsheets, preparing tour proposals. It is also a lot of time in meetings, both with hotel owners as well as staff development. In Africa, the culture here is that it is a huge insult to require a precise accounting of funds. Supposedly it is because if you ask for the precise accounting of funds, you are accusing a person of dishonesty. … Hmmmm... Well, the dishonesty that is everywhere in the system is exactly why a precise accounting is needed from my staff.

Eventually, after numerous attempts to explain why, one of the guys named Sasto came to understand the importance of the expense report as a tool that allows us to better plan for the future.

Looking at the future seems to be a terribly difficult concept for people to grasp here. But when Sasto got it, he was able to explain to the others from his own mouth, and they all quickly came into line. All it takes is to convince one person, and then the others will follow.

Fate and God rule your life. That is what people think here. People have difficulty planning because they see it as an insult to God’s plan that He has already made for you. How can you attempt to change what is your fate, which apparently is believed by many to be set in concrete. I have heard stories of taxi drivers, when heading for imminent crash, will remove their hands from the steering wheel and their feet from the brake, and cry out to God for His mercy in what His plan has coming in the next instant. I heard this story from the passenger, who was able to grab the steering and quickly run the car into a ditch.

It is a very different place, Africa. If not for the weather and the expense, it would be an easy decision to remain here. Sadly, Accra is now ranked as the most expensive city to live in all of Africa. The discovery of oil has super-charged the economy and widened the gap between rich and poor. When I first visited 3 years ago, the largest currency denomination was equivalent to $2 and there were no coins in circulation. Now the largest denomination is equivalent to $50 and the poor live only on newly re-introduced coins. History shows that oil discovery is terribly destabilizing to a country, especially when the wealth is not distributed widely.

I live in a poor place, and getting paid $1,800 makes me really rich. That is 2,000 Ghana cedis. When I cash my paycheck at the bank, I usually get all 20 cedi notes, which are like having no money at all in my area because no one can change a 20. I will flash my 20 to show I have money, the vendor cannot break it, so I take what I want to buy on credit. Eventually my balance gets to the point that I have to walk to a gas station or a popular bar to cash a 20 and pay my debts. When the debt is paid, if there are any small coins or currency remaining, that is quickly taken for food or water when I return to the house. Today I do not have the 0.40 that I need to take the bus to work and cannot get a 20 changed, so I have to miss work because of this. This is Africa, and that is a perfectly acceptable reason for missing work, even at a government ministry. So no problem. I get to write email while still collecting a salary.

Tomorrow is another day of stress for me. I must return to my bank to again inquire as to the delay in receiving the documents I need to apply for my residency permit. I cannot believe what a fantastic hassle this has been.

I have to decide how much I am really going to take back and how much I will leave to run the business when I return to the USA. With the economy as it is, I am not as confident as when I departed about being able to find a well-paying position upon my return.

If I return.........


Blogger FOR SHO THE REAL TEE! said...

Hey Steve,

Just saw you posting and dying to read it.... on my way home for work... by now I am sure you heard the lastest News! We have our first African American President, Obama! We all pray for a change, hope has arrived! Gary...

P.S. Hi Jessie!

3:07 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

We normally find that African women are suffering from silence, being physically abused in silence and dying in silence. Some young and beautiful African woman is being insulted as well as slapped on face in public.

11:58 AM  

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