Friday, 1 February 2013

Same, Same, But Different

“Accra-Accra-Accraccraccraccracrracrra!” Like a Tibetan monk chanting his daily mantra the tro-tro boys shout their cryptic description of the direction the small busses for about 12-15 people are heading to. It’s either that or one of their hand movements you need to decipher to be able to hop on the right one. It’s always a surprise which route they take, depending on the driver’s opinion of a short-cut, or a detour to avoid the dusty, smelly, and always busy traffic jams of Accra. The route is usually neither faster nor shorter, but oh well... it’s African time!

I like sitting in these daredevil minivans, honking their horn with every move they make. You never know who or what you will get to sit next to. My experience so far has included a gigantic bowl of dried fish, the freshly baked bread from the big (but well hidden!) bakery in my street, cute school kids in matching uniforms, and the colourful dressed mothers with their babies tied on their backs. Big brown eyes, wide open with an expression of horror mixed with astonishment and wonder, sometimes continue to stare at me without blinking throughout the full journey. I can just see these little infants marvel at the sight of such a white person. What is it? It looks like a human, but it is so... different!

Besides the little children tied to the backs of their mother, another common sight is people carrying things on their head. Or, as I should say, people carrying everything on their head. That’s just how it is done; if you need to carry something, it is on your head. Big plates or bowls piled up with matchboxes, eggs, little (or large!) glass boxes containing all kinds of baked snacks, drinks, dried fish, cloth, bread, toilet paper packs, car parts (!), belts, kitchen equipment, shoes, really anything! It is like a one-(wo)man-shop on legs, literally! I am amazed by the weight people manage to carry, always without using their hands. I even saw a woman carrying a whole wooden bench one day! An anthropologist wrote a book on the concept of ‘balance’ in the Ghanaian society, a very anthropological thing to do I must say, but after my first weeks here I can really agree with the statement that balance is an essential part of becoming an adult here, on so many different levels.

Another aspect of Ghanaian society is the right-in-your-face, unavoidable subject of religion. Whether it is the painted remarks on the taxi’s and tro-tro’s, or the shop names: God is involved in everything. My favourites so far include a tro-tro with “Guarded by angels – KEEP OFF” on the back, a taxi with “JESUS IS MINE” (well, good to know fellow!), and a barber shop named ‘Because Of You I Cut My Hair”. Also a tro-tro more than ready for the car-graveyard with ‘Salvation is near!’ on the back definitely made me smile.

Every morning at the handing over of the shifts in the hospital we start with a prayer. For a moment the almost universal arrogance of doctors is diminished to humble words of giving thanks and asking for guidance. It might be a routine for many people here, but I really appreciate this moment that the exclusive, elite medical profession seems to admit its boundaries.

I would love to describe the intense, crowded, sweaty, smelly, noisy, messy insides of the hospital to you all, but I just don’t know where to start yet. It is just so... African :)! To some of you I told the story of a delivery I did during my rotations in Holland of a Caribbean woman who almost strangled her husband during her labour, well, imagine 40 of these very expressive, loud, passionate women in one half-open corridor and you might grasp the sight of the female ward in the hospital I work at. They’re always low on staff, low on space, and low on time. The hospital has over 11000 deliveries a year, eleven thousand! I’m starting to find my way at the Antenatal Clinic (ANC; where most of my research will be done), but I will very surely have plenty of obstacles to climb before I can start doing my interviews. Good news from the Ethics Committee however: with some minor additions to my proposal (like translation of the informed consent form in Twi, which I already expected) I have an approval! Yay!

The last two days I’ve been participating (or maybe I should say observing) a triage training for midwifes by a group of UK/USA midwifes. There is a lot happening at the hospital, simple ideas like colour coded wristband indicating medical urgency can result in a better flow and more efficient care with large impact. It is unbelievable how many people know about but just accept a failing system!

I should really do more regular updates because I just have so much to tell! Last week I met up with some local youth of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (the church I go to in Holland too, which is enormous here!) and I just really realised I don’t have any internal reference (is that even an English expression?) for Ghana. I just don’t know where to place things, people and remarks! It really is a cool opportunity for me to actually get to know local people from all layers of society and my age through the church. But after my first night hanging out with them at the small one-room house (no kitchen, a shared bathroom outside) of one of the girls my age, I just was overwhelmed with impressions. There was so much to observe! So many questions that came to mind when talking to them... It is of course very generalizing to say, but after travelling (and living) in quite some countries in Asia, I could quite easily grasp new and different cultures there, like cultures in Europe are very different but similar too. Here in Ghana however, there are so many similarities that seem to be part of life in lower-middle income countries (the street/cityview, the smells, the approach to life, the tension between old and new, the great contrasts between rich and poor, etc) but the culture is so very very different. Not very surprising, you could say, but I just really liked the realisation I had that this was a different kind of ‘different’ yet again! A kind of ‘different’ I really will have to slowly unravel...

Throughout the coming weeks I will surely tell more about this unravelling of Ghanaian culture, but for now I better stick with an other short list with some additional experiences during the last week. Again, I don’t want to overwhelm you with my endless thoughts and contemplations... Some other experiences I had this week:

-      Having my first weekend away which included wandering through an old slave-trading fort and the harbour town of Cape-Coast
-       Walking on canopy bridges in Kakum National Park, one of Ghana’s last tropical forests (a bit of a tourist trap, but fun anyway)
-       Relaxing big time at a place called ‘The Stumble Inn’ at the coast near Elmina, with the most quiet, beautiful, palm tree-lined beach possible. Including a late night camp fire and a funny game with other travellers (was actually missing my guitar there! Good incentive to get me playing again maybe?)
-       Having fresh mango, pineapple, banana, passion fruit and watermelon in all different combinations for breakfast every day (oh the good life!)
-       Spotting my first of many ‘Obruni Hunters’... the opposite version of sex-tourism in Asia (white middle-aged women with young black guys as apposed to white middle-aged men and Asian women...). I heard there is a new documentary out in the Netherlands now on this topic...
-       Cheering for ‘The Black Stars of Ghana’ (aka the national football team) in the tro-tro on the way back from Cape Coast (radio-football reporting is an art... a difficult art for the over-passionate Ghanaians; listening to the volume and excitement of the reporter it was like the Ghanaians were about to score all the time...)
-       Having regular electricity black-outs due to a current lack of sufficient power in Ghana because of some broken connection coming from Togo or something...
-       Hearing that my mom booked a flight to come visit me halfway through February (how cool is she!)
-       Hanging out (of course with loads of chatting and good food) with my Utrecht roomie Joyce in Accra, which made me call Accra Utrecht by accident several times
-       Learning that my Ghanaian name is Efia, since I am born on a Friday (who knew?)

Good times for sure! Big hug!

Makola Market - Accra

Some faces just ask for a picture :)

Example sheets for the tailors

Karin making new friends

It's all about balance

Dried fish everywhere!

Cape Coast Castle and beach

Streetview at Cape Coast

Cape Coast fishers heading back home

View from the castle

Women slave dungeons at Cape Coast Castle

Drying fish in the sun

Fixing the nets

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