Monday, July 26, 2010

Ghana: The Scent of Asia and Musk of Obama

My first thought when I arrived in Ghana was, "This place smells like Asia." I can't really explain why. Maybe it's the tree-covered sidewalks with open drainage ditches that reminds me of China. Maybe it's all the wonderful street food and the culture of eating out that makes a quick bite on the road a cheap and tasty option. Maybe it's the insane Accra traffic that's resulted in traffic jams unseen to me since Bangladesh (I thought Africans don't own cars?!).

Accra (pop. ~4 million) is the bustling economic and political capital of the country nestled in the armpit of Africa. In the World Bank's latest "Doing Business" report that looks at the ease of doing business, Ghana ranked behind only Kenya, Tunisia, Botswana, South Africa, and Mauritius within Africa. Possibly as evidence, there are six cell phone companies competing here, easily the most I've seen in Africa, and even Asia. Driving around you can see construction sites of towers and office buildings going up that bring me back to India and China. The locals, as the country director of the NGO I'm volunteering with explained, carry a "sense of arrogance". But it's a good arrogance, something you don't see too often in Africa. They don't want pity. I've been trying to collect flags in each country I travel. Mozambique was a pretty hard find, as was Zimbabwe, but you'd have to be legless to not trip over a "Black Star" flag here. They are proud to be Ghanian.

And if Africa is the land of Obamarama, then Ghana is ground zero of this stars and stripes lovefest. Typically, in a tro-tro (the local minibus transport I take around), hanging on the rear view mirror is a Black Star flag and an American flag air freshener. Or, there will be an American flag on the dash with a big Obama face over the background of stripes, exactly like this one. It doesn't stop there, of course - lines of products have been released. I was pretty amazed when I drove past this the other day. The love for Obama stems primarily from his visit to the country just over a year ago, and the President's African roots.

Then there's the friendliness of the people. From my travels there seems to be two things that are almost universally the same across countries (at least poor countries). The first is that when locals are trying to sum up a country, they talk about how the X people are "very social". This isn't really unique to a country. The second thing is that X people are very friendly. I haven't been to a country yet where I didn't think the people were friendly. But here is where Ghana stands out - like in Bangladesh, random Ghanaians have actually sent me messages on CouchSurfing asking me to visit them. This has happened in no other country than Bangladesh for me.

So what am I actually doing here? I'm spending about a month and a half with TechnoServe helping them with a proposal for a project that will potentially work with rural farmers in norther Ghana. While I'm not at liberty to say much more than that, I can say it has been really challenging and extremely interesting to learn about different approaches to agriculture and eradicating rural poverty. And, in the meantime I'm learning about different aspects and approaches of poverty and poverty alleviation unrelated to my work, and of course sampling some of the best that Obama has to offer.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

The Haves and Have Nots of the World Cup

Two nights in the wonderful 5-star Lagos, Nigeria airport terminal and a week in South Africa later, I'm now in Ghana. Horrible visa complications prevented me from ever boarding in Lagos, and I endured a two-day Tom Hanks-like festival during which I was patted down enough times by security for it to be considered a mild form of sexual harassment. By the end of it I knew not only which crackers were the best bang for the buck or where to find free internet, but also how to sculpt my McDonald's-French-fries-greasy hair into different works of art.

To make a long story short, they kicked me back to South Africa, almost unwillingly. At one point there were threats to send me back home. I went immediately toPretoria to get things sorted out, and was able to stay two nights with an Afrikaans couple. The first night there was a braai (like a BBQ) at their neighbor's, an extremely nice native South African
couple who were best friends to my white hosts. This was indicative of the composition of the rest of the guests. Considering that even in the US de facto segregation is alive and well, it was inspiring to see this in a country which has emerged from apartheid less than 20 years ago. Of course, with this diverse group of individuals, I had some extremely stimulating conversations about race, politics, and poverty.

With a few days to kill until my flight, I tried to make the best of bad situation and grabbed my vuvuzela and headed to Durban for the Spain/Germany game. The beach-front city was exploding with energy, and I can't honestly say I focused too much on poverty over those two days. The game experience was amazin
g, even if the play wasn't too inspiring. One interesting thing is that vuvuzelas aren't as annoying in person as on TV - there's no constant buzz. Instead, there are single blows and coordinated chants - all jumbled up it just sounds like a buzz on TV.

On my last day I headed back toJourg to catch my flight, and with time to kill I went to Soweto to check on my friends. I had no one's phone number, so I just popped into the Motsoaledi neighborhood. At first it seemed a hero's welcome. Everyone still knew me. Even people I couldn't remember. They asked, "Are you looking for Siphiwe?" But it wasn't that positive. Not much had changed for Siphiwe. World Cup hadn't brought as much tourism to him as planned. He had stopped going to church but said he would soon, now that the Cup was finished. I popped in to see Sandy - the welcome was warm, but I didn't stay for long. While I was there she talked, between taking pinches of snuff, about how the World Cup really hadn't helped her shebeen much at all. Then I went to see to Nessie's bar and, of course,
found Patricia and everyone else. I don't think they ever expected to see me back. Again, I saw that nothing much had changed, except Junior quitting his restaurant job and becoming unemployed because he thought it was too much work for too little pay.

In just a matter of days I saw the best and brightest of South Africa on display for all the foreigners like myself, while just next door in Motsoaledi things are going nowhere fast. What will be the legacy of this World Cup? Will it bring more attention to the plight that the majority of South Africans find themselves in, even whites? Will the government use revenue and goodwill of the world earned from a Cup well-run to improve access to opportunities for people like Siphiwe? Or will it be just another big glamorous sporting event for "haves" like myself? I shudder to think of the likelihood of each.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

The Taking of Summerhill: A Story of Race, Injustice, and Corruption

“’Look, if you’re going to take the farm, and that’s inevitably what’s going to happen, you can have the second farm.’ And they [the Zimbabwean government] said, ‘Well that’s not enough.’ So, they said, ‘We’ll take some of your main farm,’ which was Summerhill.”

In an office in Harare, I listened to Myles Hall explain how the Zimbabwean government had first taken his second farm and then the first piece of the Summerhill farm that I visited a few days later.

This was only the beginning. Eventually they took more. Myles explains this in the clip below his encounter with Kindness Paradza.

The ironic thing is that Kindness' surname, Paradza, means "to break up/destroy". Myles just laughs about the whole situation. From there Myles and his family moved into his parents' home on the last remaining piece of Summerhill. Nomhle Mliswa had been trying to get the last of his farm. During the course of over a month in 2007, Myles' workers stood their ground to security guards and their large dogs - partly out of loyalty and partly because they hadn't been paid for that month - to protect the farm. They guarded in 12-hour shifts at the gate. As the niece of Zanu-PF henchman Didymus Mutasa, Mliswa finally made it happen.

Said Myles, “And while I was in town one day she moved into my house and I never got back in again. That was on the 20th of September, 2007.” But even then his workers didn't leave. Now on the outside of the gate, they stayed to make sure no equipment was stolen.

For close to a month I traveled the country talking to farmers and workers, and this is only a sliver of what I found. I could write an entire separate blog on the stories of injustice and brutality toward (and sometimes killings of) farmers, their workers, and especially farm animals. And it's still going on. Once, when trying to travel to a farm in Chipinge, my host told me we couldn't go because there were fresh attacks. Only later did I see this news report. Farmers and their workers have an amazing memory of how the events unfolded for themselves, and a disturbingly sharp recollection of exact dates, kind of like how you remember exactly what you were doing on 9/11.

But this isn't just about the white farmers, many of whom have seen their entire life savings dry up in the government's inflationary blunders and lost their livelihoods. It's also about the millions of people they employed directly and indirectly. John Mbewe, after losing his job at Myles' farm, came to community farmer Dave Fortecue (a friend of Myles) with no options. "It was July 28th," he recalls. "When I started working with Dave, there was a big problem for me...I was left with only two buckets of maize," and "I use two buckets of maize per month with my family.” Once down to his last month of food, John is now succeeding with Dave's help. But it's not that way for all the former workers. Shaddai Kumiti, who herds what's left of Myles' cattle, explains in the video.

And what is happening with this land now? Not much. Many of the farmers who took over, with their political or big business jobs, live in Harare. Farmers and their workers derisively call them "cell phone farmers". Shaddai and Clever Kudenga talk about what's been going on at Nomhle Mliswa's farm and Paradza's farm. (note: when they talk about Nomsa, they're referring to Nomhle)

It's a sad state government officials have driven Zimbabwe into. What was labeled on paper as taking back the land for the common black natives has instead turned out to be an all-you-can-grab land buffet for government officials and their kin. With new policies and corruption happening all the time, no one can really plan for the future. And when you can't plan, it's hard, or maybe more accurately - silly - to invest, which is the main way to get a country to grow. With the incredible brain drain happening (I recently sat on a flight next to an Egyptian ear and throat doctor, who is now the only one in all of southern Zimbabwe), it's tempting to think that if things don't turn around soon it could be all but over for Zim. But, as one farmer explained to me, "It's never too late."

Monday, July 5, 2010

Mountains and Oceans after a Year’s Travel

I recently gave up a chance to hike Kilimanjaro. I have the money and I was only a bus ride away. Tight timing and friends in Ghana were the deciding factors, but I could have still probably worked it out. What I’ve come to accept – as if to steal a hackneyed adage from “Into the Wild” – is that happiness is only real when shared. For me, enjoyment comes best when an experience is shared with someone. Kilimanjaro will wait.

But, traveling alone does have one huge benefit – it allows you to learn for yourself. For me, it has allowed me to – as I explained before – better understand myself and, as na├»ve as this sounds, the meaning of this whole life thing. I don’t claim to completely understand either, but I know I’m closer than when I started.

I suppose that it’s somewhat odd that I’m talking about life on the one-year anniversary of launching off first class to Bangladesh, since my project is on poverty and development. Take a look at my proposal and you’ll find nothing about fluffy things like self-realization or the meaning of life. That’s not to say I’m not fulfilling my goals set forth in my proposal – I’ve done amazing things and have learned more about development and the challenges to overcoming poverty than I imagined. But I think when the wonderful people at Vanderbilt set up this fellowship, they probably had an idea that there would be this added benefit.

During the past year I’ve experienced extraordinary highs (none drug-related, just to be clear) – an early run through the crisp mist of rural China; meeting some of the leaders in social business arena; sleeping in one of the oldest slums in South Africa; getting one final rickshaw ride from Anis; poking around Zimbabwe to get information about the brutality toward farmers and their workers, without getting the government’s wrath myself.

And I’ve experienced extreme lows – lonely, depressing nights in the hotel room; occasional feelings that I’m not achieving my objectives; getting robbed $2,000 shortly before tripping and injuring myself on a run (stupid potholes Zimbabwe government never fixes…); two plus days in the non-air conditioned Lagos, Nigeria airport where by the end of it, my hair was so greasy I could sculpt it; wondering if without deadlines, I really have lost all my discipline.

One of the most depressing things has also been one of the most important – something I can’t get out of my head. Everywhere I go I see people going through the motions: 9-5 job working for someone, make enough money to pay the bills, have a few kids, relax on the weekend, repeat ad nauseum for years, then retire and die, usually pretty close to where they were born. Nothing very extraordinary, so it seems. I see it in every country I go to. Two things come out of this for me. First, I’m not trying to be condescending. Extraordinary, I think, is a self-defined word in the sense that I'm talking about it. Rather, I’m concerned that a life which falls below my personal expectations could happen to me. An average life scares me, and it seems like it can happen so easily.

The second thing is that logically, there seems like there has to be something more than this routine the majority of us are boxed into. I’ve spent a lot of time with Christian farmers, and so you know how their perspective goes (our time here on earth is a testing ground). I hope and plan to spend some substantial time thinking, talking, and reading about this issue.

As I move into the second year of my fellowship – no, I don’t know when I’m coming home – I already have things I want to explore upon my return, many new friends to reunite with in the States and abroad, and plenty more experiences on deck for the rest of Africa and South America.