Wednesday, February 29, 2012

The Egg Man

Where did Paa Kwame get all these eggs? Watch the video. That's right, a 3:17 video of chickens.  Did you know that chickens sing arias? and harmonize? Come on, you know you want to watch this.
There's nothing like a fresh egg--just dropped from a hen and still warm to the touch--to put you back in touch with your humanity. 

ALEX AKUFFO OFORI IS A high school science teacher by day, an industriuous agropreneur in every other waking moment of his life in Aburi. In the states, we would call him a locavore--someone devoted to producing food on a small scale for local consumption. A growing movement in the US, in Ghana it's a way of life. 

For a country of about 23.5 million people, small farmers like Alex still account for the majority of the country's food production. (Opposite the US: of our 2 million farms, about 20% are family owned; and just the largest 2% -- multinational agricorporations -- produce more than half the food crops consumed in the US. It's also an aging industry; only 6% of US farmers are under the age of 35.--various sources from a quick search on google)

I first met Alex when he was 15 years old. He was one of my students in the general science class I taught during the 2 years I lived in Aburi. Alex was my best student, and a hard worker -- when he wasn't studying he was tending to the family's small herds of goats and sheep, helping his father at their small pineapple farm up the road, or carving beautiful masks out of wood. He went on to earn a master's degree in agricultural science from Ghana's top university, then came back to his village to teach at his former school.

Trading places: back in science class at Adonten with Alex.
Today's take: 59 eggs. And the day's not over yet. Alex takes customers' orders by cell phone.

Now a father of two children -- daughter Ohenewa and a new son,  Kofi -- Alex still has the energy and drive of his teenage self. In between heading up the science department at Adonten (now in a new building up the road with a student body nearing 2,000), Alex runs a small poultry farm out of his family compound.  He keeps between 200-500 chickens in a small coop, mostly layers, and has perfected a feed that makes them abundant producers, up to 75 or 80 eggs a day during laying season. 

When laying season ends (a hen can produce egss for about two years) Alex sells the birds for table (that is, to eat). He plans to expand his operation and move it to an acre of land he's secured near Aburi. 

Fresh eggs, still warm to the touch.
Ready for delivery.  Alex will take these to his in-laws up the road.

Paa Kwame ready for the next collection.

Next up: Ben's Bees 

Monday, February 27, 2012

What the Spider Showed Us

In Damfah, I meet the kente weaver -- part magician, part musician, part arachnid.

DAMFAH IS A SMALL village about 20 minutes down the mountain from Aburi, where I stop with my Ghanaian brothers, Alex and Richard, to visit the Mother Ghana Kente Weaving Centre.  

The hand-woven textile in Ghana known as kente cloth is an art that goes back centuries, originating, it is said, from a spider.

According to legend, two brothers went hunting in the forest when they noticed between the branches of a tree a spider constructing its web. Fascinated by the tiny creature's intricate work, they studied its movements closely over many days, then returned to their village to replicate what they had seen the spider do.

So began a tradition that has endured for more than 300 years, practiced today in much the same way as the early artisans by a whole new generation of kente weavers, ensuring that this rich, uniquely Ghanaian art form isn't lost to the current influx of mass-produced imitations from other lands. 

The centre in Damfah occupies a bare dirt lot under a tin roof that shelters about two-dozen weaving looms. The looms are crudely constructed, of hand-sawed tree limbs tied together with thread sashes to form the frame. The looms face each other in two long rows, the space in-between traversed by tautly stretched strands of threads (the warp), ending in a coiled skein anchored by a rock.


Several weavers are busy at their looms, filling the space with the music of their shuttles (the bobbins that hold the weft threads), a clackety clacking sound like the tinkling of wooden bells. Their hands rapidly move back and forth threading the shuttles horizontally through the vertical warp (a double layer of 144 individual threads, controlled by foot peddles), which they compress (or batten) into place with a wooden beater. 
Shuttles, beater, warp: weaving's mysterious language.

Woven in long strips and then sewn together into  blanket-size swatches, kente cloth is primarily worn as a ceremonial garment for weddings, official functions and traditional festivals. Its bold, geometric patterns hold specific meanings (e.g., long life, fealty to God, strength and purity). Some patterns only royalty can wear (tribal chiefs still hold considerable political and spiritual authority in this relatively young democractic country).

One thread at a time, a beautiful pattern emerges. The process is intricate and complex, more easily described with one word: magic.

Watch my video of a kente weaver at work.

We sit down on the porch of the small bungalow where the centre's founder and manager, Emmanuel Agblevor Kotoka, lives and works. Emmanuel is from the Volta Region, to the east, one of two major centers in Ghana for hand-crafted textiles. The other is the Ashante region to the north, where the spider story originates. 

Richard and Alex with Emmanuel Kotoka, manager of the Mother Ghana Kente Weaving Centre.

Emmanuel, who speaks Twi and Ewe, but not English (Alex and Richard translate) tells me he's been a weaver since the age of 12. He apprenticed with his grandfather, a master weaver in their Ewe village, for 7 years, perfecting his  technique and learning kente's hundreds of different patterns and their meanings. He stayed in the family business for 10 years, then decided to set up his own shop to serve a bigger market, and 8 years ago moved to Damfah. The village is a perfect location -- not far from Accra, the capital city -- and, being the only kente weaver in town, there's not much competition. 

Jacob Atsu, one of the weavers at Mother Ghana Kente Weaving Centre, with manager Emmanuel Kotoka, displaying a finished cloth. This one is about 5 x 6 ft. and was offered to me for 300 cedis (about $180). The centre typically produces made-to-order cloth for customers around the region.
Emmanuel employs about 30 weavers, all young men like Jacob Atsu, 23, who started his apprenticeship 4 years ago. An experienced weaver can set up his loom in about 6 hours, and weave several yards a day. A full-size cloth takes two to three weeks to weave and assemble.

"Is weaving an occupation for women?" I ask, noting their absence at his facility. 

Oh yes, he assures me; not so much in the Ashante region, but in the Volta, there are women weavers, too. 

Just then, a tiny blonde spider shimmies down an invisible thread from the ceiling of the porch and dangles near my seat. Emmanuel gently waves his hand in the air and catches the spider's line, then hoists it up and over the railing to safety. The spider disappears in the dirt. 

"The spider is our totem," he explains. "He showed us how to weave. That is why we never kill them."

Sample strips from Mother Ghana Kente Weaving Centre

Friday, February 24, 2012

A Baby is Born. Justin Who?

The mountain village of Aburi, where I lived and taught school in the 1980s. The character of the town hasn't changed much, though change has come: now most houses are equipped with water tanks, new-home construction is thriving,  and cell phone towers compete with the baobabs. Aburi is also home to a thriving arts center, hosting a community of woodcarvers and a music recording studio built by Rita Marley. 

Back in Aburi, a baby is born. Friday, Feburary 3, about 3 pm (GMT). Traditional name: Kofi, the day name given to males born on Friday. Son of Bernice and Alex, brother of Ohenewa, 12th grandchild of Godfried and Connie. 

Babe in arms. With father Alex and sister Ohenewa.

With Kofi and his mother Bernice and nana, at the maternity ward in Mampong.

A few days before Bernice gives birth (the sonograms have confirmed it's a boy), I am sharing a meal with her 7-year-old daughter Ohenewa, whose father Alex was my student when I was teaching school in Aburi (Alex is now a science teacher and heads the science department at the same school).

Chowing down with Ohenewa on grandma Connie's signature dish: omo tuo and groundnut soup, with chicken from the family coop.
I first met Ohenewa (meaning "queen" in Twi, the primary language spoken in Aburi) when she was 3, and just starting pre-school and learning English.  On this visit, she seems all grown up, reading fluently from story books to her younger cousins and adopting me as her sidekick. We visit her uncle Jonas's pig farm, go shopping with her other uncle, Richard, at the new ShopRite supermarket in Accra, buy masks at the woodcarvers' village. She likes wearing my hat and wrapping my scarf around it, and taking my camera to snap her own photos. Her handling of the camera is impressive; I had recently bought it at B&H in New York and am still trying to figure out how to operate it. Ohenewa masters the basics in about two minutes. Turns out she's a budding photographer. 

"You're going to be careful with that camera, right?" On the road to Accra. Photo by Ohenewa.

Street scene on a rainy afternoon in Accra, through a car window. Photo by Ohenewa.

Mini-mall drive-by, Accra. Photo by Ohenewa.

Art shot. Photo by Ohenewa

Connie, Ohenewa's grandmother, has prepared our lunch -- omo tuo (rice balls) with groundnut soup. As we quietly eat lunch together, I initiate some girl talk. What does she really think about this new brother of hers on the way?

She flashes her big brown eyes at me, shrugs, and takes another bite.

I try again. "Ohenewa, I have a very important question to ask you.

"If you were the one who decides what name to give your baby brother, what name would you choose?"

Ohenewa thinks a moment, then shyly smiles.

"Justin Bieber," she says.

I drop my spoon. "How do you know Justin Bieber?"

"I have seen him singing on the tv," she says.

But of course.

"Do you think he's handsome?" I ask. 

Ohenewa shakes her head. "He is 16 years old," she says. Handsome is clearly a word for grown-ups.

I try again. "Do you think he's cute?"

"Yes," she agrees, "he is cute."

Later, I recount our conversation to her parents. They laugh, but are clearly bewildered. 

"Who is this Justin Bieber?" Alex asks. 

"He is a young pop star," I explain, "who is loved by little girls all over the world." I tell him about my 12-year-old niece and her friends, all "brides of Bieber" who have added his surname to theirs on Facebook. I remember my third-grade self, having fierce debates with my friends about who was cuter: Paul (Beatles) or Davy (Monkees). Some things never change, I realize, no matter when or where you are.

"He's from Canada, not the U.S.," I quickly add, hoping they don't hold America solely to blame.

"Hmph," says Alex, clearly unimpressed. Justin is a nice enough name, he agrees. But "Bieber"? 

Not happening.

With Ohenewa and cousin Nana in Aburi, 2007.

With Ohenewa and cousin Nana in Aburi, 2012.


Tuesday, February 21, 2012

What Girls Want

Sophia. Patience. Gifty. Beatrice. Grace. Forgive.  They are among about two dozen girls who gather each afternoon during the week in a makeshift classroom in Pokuase, where they spend the next two hours learning about computers. 
The class is a program of WomensTrust, whose mission in part is to empower impoverished girls in Ghana through educational scholarships to help them stay in school, and extracurricular classes  like health education and computer training. The computer class was first offered in 2009, through a generous donation that allowed WomensTrust to purchase 20 PC laptops and hire a local instructor. Since then more than 100 girls have received computer training--girls who otherwise would have no exposure to what we take for granted as a staple of modern life. Most public schools in Ghana can't afford computer labs, and though cell phones and ipads seem ubiquitous, these gadgets are still out of reach for many families, especially those in rural villages like Pokuase.
One recent afternoon I drop by the office of WomensTrust just as the computer class, which is conducted in an adjoining room,  is getting underway. The girls, ranging in age from 9 to 16, come straight from school, still dressed in their uniforms that identify their grade and where they attend -- green dresses with yellow sashes or brown jumpers with yellow shirts for the grade schoolers, yellow shifts with blue or white trim for the junior high and high schoolers. They wear their hair closely cropped; school dress codes are strict and prohibit the elaborate plaited styles that are so popular here. 

The girls sit quietly. A few have open books perched in their laps;  others jot notes in notebooks. Their teacher, Dominic Osei, and a few of the girls make several trips carrying in the laptops from the storeroom, and set them up on in two rows on the long table. The girls take turns sitting in front of the screens, hands poised over the keyboard as Dominic guides them through the basics: turning on the computer, creating a password, logging in. 

Dominic Osei, instructor of WomensTrust's computer training class for girls.
The girls are rapt and completely engaged--the kind of students every teacher hopes for. But there are other challenges. Power outages occur on a daily basis; sometimes there is no electricity for hours at a time, and computer batteries have a short lifespan. There are more girls than there are computers; and the waiting list for the class is long, since it's open to all girls who receive a scholarship from WomensTrust, more than 700 to date. And the computers themselves are more than 3 years old now--senior citizen status in computer-time. 

Want to make a difference you can witness with your own eyes? Make a donation to WomensTrust to support its computer training program for girls in Pokuase.

Wilma Longdon, WomensTrust Executive Director, with a student.

Wills and Kate look on approvingly.
Laptop 101: Wilma Longdon and students in Pokuase.
Girls just want to have fun...with computers.

Type in password...hit return...logged in.

These girls rock!

Sunday, February 19, 2012

In Pokuase

Lorry stop on the main highway at Pokuase. Mini busses are packed with the afternoon rush of students, office workers, laborers and traders.

With Solomon Fiagah, loan administrator for WomensTrust and my guide and friend in Pokuase, on the road into town.

Pokuase lies off an exhaust-choked four-lane highway, a main artery for trucks and public transport carrying cargo and people from Ghana's capital city, Accra, to points north and east. The village is a bustling network of dusty, unpaved roads lined by open gutters and small shops and homes, a colorful amalgam of tin-roofed wooden shacks and compact shipping containers alongside modern, plaster-walled buildings. 

Main Street in Pokuase.

Consumerism ingratiates itself in the everyday of traditional agrarian life. Goats roam freely in front of an open display of computer monitors sold from a kiosk. Fast food restaurants serve chinese chicken and rice, competing with the traditional chop bars where women stir steaming cauldrons of palm oil stew and banku over open wood fires. Other street sellers offer quick snacks like roasted plantain, akara, a savory doughnut made of bean flour, and (my favorite) kenkey, a steamed dumpling made of fermented corn, served with hot pepper sauce and dried fish.

Computer store in Pokuase.

Most of Pokuase's 20,000 residents still get their water from a hand pump, though many more people now get it delivered by truck. 

Water delivery to an office building in Pokuase.

Clean water is an ongoing concern in Ghana. "More than 36% of the rural population does not have access to improved drinking water sources, and 89% lack adequate sanitation," according to a recent report by the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health; "13% of the children under 5 deaths in Ghana are attributable to diarrheal disease." The Safe Water Network, a non-profit funded largely by the Pepsico Foundation and Newman's Own Foundation, has constructed a small water treatment facility in Pokuase that provides safe drinking water for about 7,000 residents, according to its website. 
Safe Water Network treatment facility, in Pokuase.

But lots of people still can't afford the luxury of water deliveries, and rely on communal wells that operate by hand pump. Poor sanitation, run-off of pesticides from farming, and indiscriminate dumping of toxic waste imperil ground water sources. One morning during my visit a local resident reported that the water he pumped from his neighborhood reeked of petrol and was unusuable.

A residential neighborhood in Pokuase.
Thankfully, bottled drinking water is available most everywhere. Unfortunately, Ghana, like the rest of the world, is drowning in plastic refuse--no vista left unmarred by the litter of discarded water bottles and 'sachets' (single-serving pouches of drinking water) and plastic grocery sacks (my personal contributions to the plastic trash heap guiltily included) . Ghanaians are well known for their "DIY culture" -- master repurposers with the ability to transform something old into something new; yet recycling plastic is still not widely practiced. The environmental movement is only now catching on, spurred in part by small NGOs and social enterprises like Trashy Bags, located in Accra, which recycles plastic bags into totes, purses and other accessories.

Just a few of the innovative projects I learned about while in Pokuase with WomensTrust.

WomensTrust's offices are located in a local government building next door to the Safe Water Network facility in Pokuase. Volunteer Jody Nozetz (that's her out front), a volunteer from Canada, is helping to conduct field interviews of loan clients to document the impact of WomensTrust's programs on the local community.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Consumer Culture

Barber shop, in a village near Accra.
Coconut sellers at the Shell station, on the road to Accra. The mini mart sells snacks, soft drinks and bottled water. Still, it's hard to compete with fresh coconut water.
Shoe sellers in Accra.
Computer monitors for sale, in Pokuase.
The main route through Osu, a bustling commercial avenue in Accra, with banks, minimalls, restaurants, and a KFC drive-thru.
Small businesses and minarets, in Accra.
"Luxury Decor has a New Home," in Accra.