Saturday, February 11, 2012

Where the River Meets the Sea

The city: High rise condos and new roads -- off-ramp on the
George W. Bush motorway, in Accra.

The village: Road to Nsawam, in Aburi.

Taking a call in Aburi.

Aburi is a small village in the mountains about 45 minutes from Accra, Ghana's capital city, where I am having breakfast at the patio restaurant in my hotel. Seated next to me is a trio of young, smartly dressed Ghanaian men, two of whom fiddle with their iPhones as the third flips open the case on his iPad and uploads a homemade video, which he invites me to watch.

My 2-year-old Blackberry Curve withers in shame.

On his screen, women in traditional long skirts and headwraps dance around a preacher in a black suit talking into a microphone.  "Come to church, Auntie!" the young man says to me. "We're already there!" I say.

The digital revolution has swept Ghana. At least a dozen cell phone towers are clustered in the center of Aburi town, looming over the old colonial architecture, churches and wooden kiosks of the small traders that line the narrow roads. 
More cell phone towers on the road north of town, signposts of the flood of foreign investment in Ghana's infrastructure: MTN (based in South Africa), Vodaphone (UK), glo (Nigeria), Tigo (Luxembourg), Airtel (India).

The collision of old and new: for all the techno-gadgets, the construction boom, the newly paved highways clogged with traffic, the shiny petrol stations and mini-marts, modernity has adverse side effects--pollution, overcrowding, climate change--while failing to solve humanity's age-old ills.

The lowly mosquito still outsmarts us. One-celled organisms--malaria, typhoid fever, yellow fever, meningitis, hepatitis--still bring us to our knees. Prepping for a trip to Africa requires a bionic fortification of vaccines and prophylactics that trick the body into a false sense of invincibility. As new medications stay one step ahead of the mosquito's immunity to them, their side effects become ever more extreme: weird, wild dreams, unbearable skin rashes, depressive episodes, hallucinations. Kind of like malaria itself.

After several sleepless nights, scratching away at a malarone-induced rash spreading from my neck to my knees, I was tempted to stop the pills and take my chances. But that night, watching the BBC on the tv in my hotel room, the lead story was a new study finding that 1.2 million people worldwide die every year from malaria--twice as many as had been previously thought, and a large percentage otherwise healthy adults.

We all have cell phones, and a mosquito bite can still kill us. I keep taking the pills.

Billboard for cell phone carrier MTN, near Accra.

glo, another cell phone carrier; in Aburi.

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