Welcome to Ghana

Welcome to Ghana

Sunday, December 4, 2016

South Africa Excursion

For the first time in my life, I finally made it to the Southern Hemisphere this past week! (Sorry it’s been awhile since I have posted, between traveling, getting sick twice, and final exams, life has been “hectic” (as the South African’s would say!) We went and stayed with my boyfriend’s amazing cousins in Johannesburg for a week and got to see all the beauty that is South Africa.

After delays and flights being shifted around, we finally made it to Johannesburg, 6 hours behind schedule and started our journey with our first hot shower in over four months! I thought I didn’t miss hot showers because the weather is too hot in Ghana to take them anyway, but I was wrong. It felt amazing to feel throughly clean again. 

Our first day we spent getting haircuts, pedicures, and our eyebrows threaded. To give you an idea of how badly we needed pedicures, our pedicures took longer than our haircuts. (To all the men reading this, pedicures should never take longer than a haircut for a woman with long hair.) When we came home that evening our hosts greeted me by saying, “Angie! I didn’t know you had blonde hair!” A day of rejuvenation was just what we needed! Even now that we have returned to Ghana, our friends have told us we look completely refreshed.

The second day, which happened to be Thanksgiving, we decided to be touristy and do the Big Red Bus tour for Johannesburg. In all my traveling around the world, I have never done a Big Red Bus tour, but I have to admit, it was actually a great experience. The bus took us all over Johannesburg and you could get on or off it at 12 different historical sites around the city. We visited the Apartheid Museum of South Africa, Constitution Hill (a famous prison where people such  as a Nelson Mandela were held), SAP World of Beers, and an array of other famous Johannesburg sights all while learning the history of Joburg. The bus tour had an audio component where we learned an array of miscellaneous “fun facts” about the city, such as about the famous murderer Daisy de Melker, a famous murderer who poisoned two of her husbands (who both happened to be plumbers) and her son with arsenic. She was also kept prisoner as Constitution Hill. In the evening we went to a family dinner and celebrated Thanksgiving with South Africans, where instead of turkey we ate delicious lasagne. 

Friday was my birthday, so to celebrate we went to the Johannesburg Zoo. Everyone kept telling us not to expect to much, but the zoo was amazing! The only disappointing thing was they didn’t have my favorite animal, the okapi, but not very many zoo’s do so it was to be expected. In the evening we went to the Christmas Market put on by one of the local churches. The market was only happening that weekend so it was convenient that we came then.


Saturday our hosts took us bungee jumping, where we were able to jump off the 100m (336 feet) Soweto Towers. That just slightly longer than an American football field! For the afternoon we went to our cousin’s friends birthday party, which was a blast. All the South Africans we encountered were so friendly. During the thank you speech made at the birthday party, the birthday girl even thanked us for coming so far and meeting her that very day. In the evening we all went out to sing Karaoke and the strangest thing happened. Someone stole my prescription glasses. Fortunately I have theft insurance to cover it, but of all the things someone could steal… 

Sunday we went to the Lion and Rhino Park, which is like a mix of a zoo and an African Safari. Rather than walking around and looking at caged animals, you drive around in your car and watch roaming animals. We were even able to go to the predators section where we saw lions, leopards, and wild dogs eat. Yes, for all you Americans reading this, wild dog is an animal here. We even saw some at the zoo. 

We got to machine wash all of the clothes we brought for the first time in four months. I thought I was getting better at hand washing everything, but after seeing how much nicer it all looked after coming out of the machine, I realised I was wrong.

It was a jam packed week that couldn’t have happened without our amazing hosts, Matt and Tina. After a 20+ hour layover in Kenya, we made it back just in time to cram for and take our first final exam! Thanks South Africa, for the wonderful week!

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Tan Lines

I have always loved tan lines. I find farmer’s tans very attractive and why people take off a portion of their bathing suit to get an “even tan” is something I will never understand. Due to the fact that my ancestors largely came from Scotland and England, I am very white and don’t often tan easily. When I do “tan”, unless I have a tan line for proof, people don’t believe me when I tell them that I actually did get darker. Strangers and acquaintances look at me and assume that I simply have always been “that skin tone.”  But them I show them my watch tan line, or my shorts tan, and they look like they’ve seen a ghost. Which honestly, isn’t to far from the truth, the parts of me that never see sun are ghostly white. But it had never occurred to me that Ghanians have never seen tan lines. 

When I showed my Ghanaian friend my tan lines on my feet from my sandals, he thought I had painted myself different colors just to play a joke on him.

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Performances Galore

I picked up learning the xylophone on a total whim. I needed another class to be a full time student and the friend I am traveling with suggested I try a music class because the schedules were flexible. I walked over to the department and didn’t know which instrument to learn. After a riveting round of ennie-meany-miny-mo, I settled on the xylophone. It was totally arbitrary. Little did I know that it would be one of my favourite parts about Ghana.  

Over the past few months, I’ve learned several different xylophone songs. I have been going around performing duets with the same friend who convinced me to learn an instrument in the first place. Below are some clips from our most recent performance. 

During the most upbeat song of our set a Ghanaian Chief (who happened to be at the venue) came stuck cedis (Ghana currency) to our foreheads, as he was so pleased that two foreigners came all the way to Ghana and were interacting in such a big part of Ghanaian culture. I was thrilled that him coming onto the stage didn’t distract me enough to completely stop playing the song!

We performed at the Abajo Art and Culture Cafe in Accra. Abajo means “Come out and dance” which is exactly what the crowd did.

You can be certain that whenever I cease to be an expat and find a home to settle down in, I will have my very own Ghanaian xylophone. 

P.S. Please excuse the random British spellings of miscellaneous (favorite vs favourite etc.) words in this post, as well as any others. For one reason or another my laptop no longer accepts American spellings of words, and I have decided to let it have it's way. 

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

You Know You’re In Ghana When…

What should have been a fun filled week of Rotary International Health Days and visiting the Ghana Maritime Academy for a three day field trip with my nautical science class instead resulted in me sleeping for 17 hours every day as I tried to get over an infection. That all being said, I’m healthy again, and in honour of being in Ghana for 2.5 months, I have constructed a “You Know You’re in Ghana When..” list. Should you ever come to Ghana, you’ll experience this list for yourself!

You Know You’re in Ghana When…

  • you get excited when you do not need to bring your own toilet paper to the bathroom
  • you are named after the day you were born (I’m Yaa, for Thursday).

  • you refer to everyone as if they are related to you.
    • similar aged people are “brother (name)” and “sister (name)”
    • people old enough to be your parents are “uncle (name)” and “auntie (name)”
    • elders are “grandparent (name)”
  • the bugs are HUGE.

  • many shops are named after something biblical.
    • “Blood of Jesus Barber Shop”
    • “Moses Prostate Cancer Center”
  • reliable internet is somewhat challenging to find.
  • the currency being used is the Cedi. 

  • you start to believe your name is “Obrouni” (foreigner).
  • you know what a “squatter” is. 
  • the pineapple juice is delicious.
  • you frequently experience dumsar (power outages or “on and off”).
  • the locals say its cold when it is below 80 degrees Fahrenheit.
  • you take the TroTro instead of a bus. 

  • you know the hand signs for TroTros.
  • you’re constantly meeting people named Kofi and Kwame.
  • you cannot escape marriage proposals.
  • your diet consists of rice, chicken, and more rice.
  • funerals are fun and people bring strangers to them to celebrate the deceased moving on.
  • you find yourself hissing at waiters and not getting slapped for doing so.
  • you frequently see advertisements pertaining to HIV/AIDS and ebola.

  • it’s okay to tell your friends to “flash” you.
  • taxi drivers get insulted when you put a seat belt on (if there are even seat belts in the car) because you are in insulting their driving skills.
  • you bargain for anything and everything.
  • there are no hooks to hang your handbag in the bathroom.
  • people get upset with you for paying for or eating with your left hand.
  • you buy food from the top of people’s heads rather than a super market.

  • your professors don’t come to class because it is raining.
  • coffins are wooden and made into any imaginable shape. 

  • people urinate on the “do not urinate” signs.

  • people are surprised you do not personally know President Obama.
  • homosexuality is considered a sin; however, it is normal for men or women to walk around holding hands 
  • xylophones and seprewas are used in traditional songs.

  • Ghanaian friends who can hardly afford their own school fees will refuse to allow you to spend a single pesewa (“cent”) while visiting them.
  • not having exact change ruins your day because exact change is almost always necessary.
  • everything you eat is red.

  • it’s rare to meet a local who knows how to swim.
  • you know pictures simply can’t do Ghana justice.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Bargaining Tips

If you want to learn to bargain like a Pro, come to Ghana!

Thursday we went to Koforidua, the capital of the Eastern Region to visit the Thursday Bead Market. The drive there looked like my home county back in California (Sonoma County) minus the vineyards. There were beautiful green pastures for miles. Life in Accra does not allow for much access to greenery. Most of the areas where there would be grass, people walk on too frequently so there are a lot of dirt patches instead. 

We went to the Bead Market on a field trip for my Twi class. Twi is the most common local language spoken here in Ghana, and we went to the market to try our chances with bargaining. Usually supermarkets and malls have fixed prices for merchandise in Ghana, but everything else can be bargained for, from the taxi rides to the people selling toilet paper and live animals on the streets in between the traffic lights. In order to bargaining, it is best to know the local language. Twi comes in handy for two main reasons. First, because I am white, people assume I am a rich foreigner. Telling them in the local dialect that I am a poor student helps because they realise that my ability to speak Twi likely means that I am in fact living in Ghana (rather than a tourist trying to get a deal). Secondly, Twi is helpful because not everyone (especially not all merchants) speaks English, so in order to bargain it helps tremendously to communicate in Twi.  

To bargain in Ghana, there are a couple things to keep in mind:
1.    Just like everywhere, the seller is always trying to make a profit. If you look or sound foreign, be prepared to spend longer getting the price down because it started much higher than it might for  a local person. When setting the starting price, merchants hope that foreigners don’t know the value of a fair price, so they often set the price exceedingly high, hoping that even if you bargain it down, they will still get a large return on the profit. This happened to me my first week in Ghana (all study abroad students have to have at least one memory of getting cheated in a sale, right!? ). The merchant was selling beautiful elephant oil paintings. He started the price at 60 Ghana cedis (approximately $14). Earlier we learned to try and cut the initial starting price in half. After some bargaining I got it down to 40 cedis ($10) and I was very proud of myself. I had bargained and gotten a deal! Or so I thought. A friend of mine got on the bus with the same painting… that she only paid 10 Ghana cedis for. Now every time I look at the painting, it makes me grateful that I have improved my bargaining skills.

2.   It’s not rude to tell people “ Mepaakyew mepe se wo sisi me!” or “Please, you’re cheating me!” Other common expressions include “Te so” (Reduce the price) and “To so” (or give me a dash, meaning now that we have agreed to a set price for a set number of items, be sure to throw in a little something extra for free). A little bit a Twi goes a long way! 

3.   Remember, you always have the power to walk away. Just because you started bargaining does not mean you have to purchase the item. And the best part is, often walking away will force the seller to give you the price you wanted.

Using these tips I spent 37 Ghana cedis for the whole day (just over $9). If I had simply paid the original prices stated by the merchants, I would have paid over 100 Ghana cedis for the day! 

I’m proud to say that I have learned a lot from my past bargaining mistakes and that I now know how to scope out a good deal here. Though I am worried about when I go back to flea markets in California… I don’t think people would appreciate me trying to cut the prices in half or me telling them that they’re cheating me! 

Sunday, October 2, 2016

The Volta Region

Ghana has so much to offer. This past weekend we had the opportunity to venture to the Volta Region, one of Ghana’s ten regions. Most known for Mount Afadja (the highest mountain in all of Ghana), the Volta region is full of mountains, waterfalls, and greenery. We visited the largest waterfall in West Africa, Wli Waterfall, as well as a Monkey Sanctuary… but more on that later!

The drive to the waterfall consisted of the normal singing of Ghanaian songs, and at one point due to the rain we got temporarily stuck in the mud. We all felt bad for our bus and van drivers, Uncle Daniel and Uncle Soloman, because they had to get out on the mud road during the pouring rain to try and push the vehicles out of the gloppy mud. At this point it was pouring rain and there was a roaring thunder and lightening storm. On the bright side though, we got to see some beautiful lightening! You know those calendar photos where there is a gorgeous mountain in the background and somehow the photographer got lucky enough to shoot the photo at the EXACT right moment to get the most beautiful photo of lightening that you have ever seen? Photos such as this one:

That’s what it looked like. It was beautiful. Using the “lightening distance” method (i.e. counting the seconds between the lightening and thunder) we determined we were 1/5 of a mile away from several strikes of lightening… which was scary because we were planning to go hike up the largest waterfall in West Africa. The program coordinators reassured us that everything would be okay, and they were right! 

After the 45 minute hike to the bottom of the waterfall, despite it pouring rain, most everyone went swimming.

I decided to test my rain jacket (it works!) by wearing it around the waterfall. I’d say it was a successful decision because while everyone was freezing cold on the 4.5 hour bus ride to the hotel, I was a lovely temperature. The bus ride to the hotel was only supposed to be 2.5 hours, but due to Ghana’s lack of street names and limited Google Maps access, we made a wrong turn that took us in the wrong direction for almost an hour. When we finally got to the hotel is was very foggy, which is a type of weather I had yet to experience in Ghana. For the first time since coming here, I was cold (relatively) while I was outside. It was very refreshing. 

The next day we ventured to the capital of the Volta Region, a city called Ho. In Ho we got to feed the wild Mono monkeys who live in the Tafi Atome Monkey Sanctuary. Initially I did not have any interest in feeding the monkeys. I have never particularly liked monkeys and I wasn’t to fond of the idea of them surrounding me; however, it turned out to be magical. Upon arriving, the sanctuary staff told us that we would not be playing with the monkeys, but rather the monkeys would be playing with us. The Mona monkeys, commonly found throughout West Africa, live in families, with the elder of the group be called the “Grandpa.” He is often the biggest monkey and makes decisions for the group. There are many superstitions revolving around the monkeys, such as how if two monkeys jump on you at the same time you will give birth to twins, if there are three you will have triplets (and so on). Twins run in my family, but fortunately for me the monkeys say I won’t be having any. It is also said that humans can never see a dead monkey, and that monkeys will barry each other upon their deaths.

The monkeys are very smart. If a banana was already peeled when it was presented to a monkey, they would not eat it for fear of it being poisoned. If a banana fell in the dirt, they would use their noses to rub off the dirt and the proceed to eat. And if you just stood there holding out your banana, they would jump on you without any notice, steal your banana, and run away. 

Once the monkeys landed, they wrapped their tails around our necks for support. The lucky ones in our group got to watch the monkey eat the banana as it sat on them rather than have it just steal their banana. 

After playing with the monkeys and doing some shopping, it was time to venture back to Greater Accra. But unfortunately it was not that simple. After driving for an hour or two, the air conditioning in the bus started to malfunction, and the windows refused to open. So there you had it, 20 University of California and California State University students sitting in an oven during the hottest part of the day in West Africa. It was almost a blessing a few moments later when the bus broke down because it allowed everyone to get off of the bus. Although it was blistering hot outside, it was nothing like being crammed in a bus with no AC and closed windows. We were stranded on the side of the road in a small village somewhere in the Volta region for just over two hours. The villagers were very friendly and accommodating. They helped repair the clutch on the bus and walked us to various hidden shops where we were able to buy lunch. 

The weekend was very eventful to say the least. Auntie Rose (the UCEAP Program Coordinator) was kind enough to have hot pizza waiting for us after the long journey home. Wli Waterfall and the Mono Monkeys were just two things Ghana had to offer that I never dreamed I could experience. 

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Xylophones Are Awesome.

The xylophone has hands down become my favorite instrument since coming to Ghana (sorry saxophones, you'll always have a special place in my heart!). You can listen to the first song I learned right here! It's called "Kontomblabo" (although to be honest I have no idea how to spell it!).

All xylophone songs have a story behind them and the story behind "Kontomblabo" is the discovery of the xylophone. Legend has it that there was a hunter who heard a wonderful song. He followed the sound and saw a dwarf playing an instrument he had never seen. The dwarf was playing "Kontomblabo." The hunter asked the dwarf to give him the xylophone, but when the dwarf refused the hunter killed him and stole the xylophone and thus the xylophone found its way into the hands of the people of northern Ghana!

The other version of the story is that it got traded for something several centuries ago and that it originally is from Cote d'Ivoire. Many Ghanaians, however, choose to believe the legend instead. No matter how it came into existence in Ghana, I think xylophones are awesome! Although commonly regarded as a "children's toy" in the U.S.A., xylophones are a very important part of Ghanaian traditional music. They most commonly have a pentatonic scale (five distinct notes) and often range from the 14-22 keys. Also, they are struck with beaters (as opposed to "sticks" which is what I had previously called them).

If you ever stumble upon the opportunity to learn to play the xylophone from a Ghanaian, TAKE THEM UP ON IT! Xylophones are awesome!