Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Motorcycle Philosophy: Days on Dwarf Island

So, so many things have happened in the past few weeks that I find myself with neither the right words nor the right place to start. There have been so many moments, both big and small, profound and subtle, that I continue to reflect upon as I pass through these tropical days and nights. I am reminded of my time in Peace Corps where such a disposition was my daily routine. During those times, I led a life that, while seemingly infinite and often quiet, was always teaching me something and was always on the verge of erupting, pushing me, challenging me even further. 

It is in such times (the calm as well as the storm) that you find yourself. It is in such times that you dig to your core and uncover who you really are, underneath the bullshit and the facade that society seems to thrust upon us. Such time was this past month. I now know, even more so than before, that I am in the right line of work. It is work that I don’t think most people would choose and it is often work that I don’t think most people understand. And for good measure, it isn’t noble or sophisticated either--in fact it is quite the opposite. But still, it allows me to see things, to do things, to have experiences and more importantly, to share my time and my life with communities that most people could not even imagine.

In a way, it is my dream job--as much as you might consider pooping in a hole next to 5 strangers a dream, but also as much as you might consider fishing in the wild and warm waters of an early African dawn a dream as well. To me, the rewards far outweighs the inconsequential discomforts. If you want a Hilton, be a fucking tourist. If you want a genuine experience, you’ve gotta earn that shit.

The stories in the next couple blogs will not be in any chronological order and some may be redundant, but I have to begin typing somewhere or else my giardiasis-enfeebled mind is going to implode. Hang with me--its late here in Ghana and its hot and my typing fingers are feeling loose, so here we go…

The truck picked me up at 5 am and carried me along as it crawled through the un-ordered side streets that connect the outlying communities surrounding Donkokrom. With one more sleepy passenger in tow, we began the journey along the winding dirt road that leads to the northern banks along the southern branch of Lake Volta. When we arrived, a grey morning lay over the lake as women and children gathered buckets of water in the muddy shallows, crowded between a shore of human and animal tracks and the hollow, dead trees that inhabit the bay.

We proceeded to unload our gear: food for several people for 3 days, fuel for 4 (just in case), solar chargers, personal luggage, and two motorcycles fresh from the local mechanic. As we loaded this equipment onto the back of a 20 foot skiff with the help of the boat’s captain and two shipmates, the dark clouds which had hung promisingly over a rain-starved savannah began surrendering to the rising sun without yielding so much as a drop. As we set off with only one of our two outboard motors operating, we chased the straggling bit of clouds south until they had left the sky completely. There has been such little rain this year.

The boat ride was long. Despite assurances from the crew to take only 3 hours, some mechanical issues and a strong current helped to stretch this leg of our trip into a generous 4 hours. Our breakfast was taken on board--a feast of fried fish, Ga kenkey, and hot pepper--between communal stints of water bailing (if you recall from previous stories, many of the hand-made boats on Lake Volta, whether big or small, are anything but watertight). When we arrived at Dwarf island it was almost mid-day. The farmers working in their rice paddy fields at the edge of the waters seemed curious at our arrival: not many people wander here (a fact that will be re-visited again later) and certainly not any awkward-looking yevus (white people).

Our landing was followed by another hour or two of unloading gear and portaging it up the bare, rocky shore, though low groves of bim and acacia trees, and into the nearest community. It was here, with the family of a local school teacher, that we would make our basecamp to visit other areas along this massive island for the next few days.

Before I continue, perhaps I should briefly explain what exactly it is I am doing here, and who I am here with:

For my fieldwork, I have been working with the help and contacts of the Afram Plains Development Organization (APDO), an amazing NGO that has a stellar reputation across Ghana for working (and working well) in some of the most remote and isolated parts of this country. To explain why they pick such places to operate, Modoc--the organization’s jovial, white-haired and wizened founder/executive director--simply says, “There are people in those places too.” I had been invited on this trip by Modoc in order to accompany a small team while they monitor one of the projects they have been establishing on Dwarf island. The island itself is a chronically under-served and isolated area that is home to somewhere between 47 and 100 communities (the number is still unclear, but at anywhere from 100 to 500 people each, that is a lot of people).

The program APDO is running is called CBE, which stands for Complimentary Basic Education. The gist of the project is such: APDO identifies children in impoverished communities who are not going to school (either because they are busy helping their families to farm or because they have fallen behind and dropped-out). These kids are given a 9-month program, taught by individuals from their own community that are trained by the NGO (it is very hard to convince state-trained teachers to serve in such remote areas), in order to catch them up and re-insert them into the national educational system. The program has been incredibly successful, serving almost 1,000 children each year. At the end of its 4th year, it is to be expanded yet again, this time into other areas of the country. CBE combines community buy-in with realistic developmental goals and is supported by the amazing commitment of the APDO staff. It is grassroots; it is sustainable; it works. 

The next few days are spent on the back of a motorcycle, getting lessons in geopolitics, philosophy, and development ethics from Modoc himself. We spend hours navigating and getting lost in an maze of small footpaths that criss-cross this island in search for communities buried in the endless sea of the Africa bush. Most communities need to be found using GPS coordinates as there are no signs and no maps, only vague instructions gathered from previous visits and the memories of our two other APDO companions, Paulina and Grace. Our efforts lead us through dense vegetation, down irrigation channels and across dried river valleys. More than a few times, as we weave through the shoulder-high grasses of rolling savannah, we are greeted by a sweet smell: the hoppy, crisp aroma of marijuana fields boasting a plenty and a purple-hue that sends shivers down my legs.

“No one comes here,” offers Modoc, “If police come here, they [the farmers] will take care of them and put their bodies in the lake. No one will find them.”

This is a potentially worrisome realization, especially as we find ourselves stumbling though quite a number of these glorious fields, but my apprehension is undue: the work APDO has done here has earned them a great amount of respect and appreciation from the local people. Here on Dwarf island, the state is all but absent in regards to almost all services or support; what hypocrisy it would be for them to show up only to enforce some asinine drug policy. And once again, Modoc explains the situation best--I paraphrase his words below:

“People need to eat. They want a better future for their children. The state has forgotten them, or ignored them, or maybe doesn’t even know they exist. So they do whatever they have to in order to secure food and make a living in a harsh environment--no running water, no electricity, no roads, maybe a few schools and a medical clinic here or there but nobody to staff them. These are not criminals and it would be ignorant and shameful to treat them as such. They are honest, good people who are making the best with the few cards that they have been dealt.”

And he is right. So right. Like many peasant communities all over the world, they are occupying a tricky space between legality and illegality, but an even trickier space between life and death, nutrition and starvation. With the rains dancing always on the horizon but never visiting the soil, these are lean times--a phrase that takes on new meaning when working with people who are living in the midst of food insecurity. People need to eat and weed is a hell of a cash crop thanks to healthy demand from the developing world (let’s not forget that little detail of the story now).

But still, despite hectares of marijuana plants the size of small trees growing happily in the open, it is the people amaze me most: children walking 5 kilometers, twice a day for school only to come home and help with the farm work they missed. Men toiling in a wicked hot sun to tease life from water-less pastures. Women with babies on their backs still carrying water, caring for children suffering from malaria and working in the fields but, seemingly always with a song on their lips.

It is not idyllic or romantic, like some bucolic country life on the back of a postcard or a made for TV movie. It is a hard life. It is unforgiving. It is unimaginably challenging. But just the same, it is a testament to shear human endurance and a capacity for love and perseverance that few people (myself included) from privileged backgrounds can ever, ever begin to fucking imagine.

And so for days, this motorcycle and this forgotten island became my school as well--an educational experience that will always be lacking from the pampered classrooms at the universities (no matter how much money they spend and despite the glamorous financial gifts that rich alumni dump back into the fond memories of their youthful excess). For days, I was blessed with a living, breathing forum in which to engage with and come to appreciate a completely different part of this world. For days, I was allowed so many moments to wonder at how many untold numbers of forgotten little villages populate our world, at how many silent struggles people must endure, and yet, at how many dreams they still manage to conjure and hold close to their hearts. But also, I wondered at the dreams deferred, or forgotten, or never even realized at all.

Modoc’s philosophy is simple enough: even if these children must follow their parents into a life as peasant farmers, even if the 9-month CBE program is all the education they ever receive, at least it will help them be better farmers, or farmers with a little more knowledge in their heads. At the end of the day, it is these small changes that make a difference anyway. They don’t change the world, mind you--this world is fucked regardless and if you just wanna sit around and wait to make big change you’re only making a tiresome excuse to continue complaining and do nothing about it--but they do create fertile soil from which better things may someday grow.

And as long as there are people in this world willing to put in the effort, the energy, the love and the sacrifice to try and fertilize those grounds, whether poor farmer or development worker or otherwise, there is still a reason to get out of bed in the morning.

There is the old woman who, though she has no children of her own, walks her village daily to make sure the kids go to school so that they might make the community better.

There is the farmer risking his freedom to grow pot so he can make enough money to send his children far away to the closest secondary school.

There is the child, unable to read or write, who works the rice fields with her family all morning, studies all day in a school built from trees and thatch, and who returns to the fields at night to work again--day-in, day-out.

And there is also the community that has come together and built that schoolhouse with what little money and resources they have for their children and for their collective future as well.

These are all real people. These are all real stories. And there are millions more just like it.

So here’s to good people doing good work, not because of hardship but because life happens everyday. Here’s to APDO. Here’s to the peasant farmer.

from the island,

Saturday, July 18, 2015

8 PM: Scotch Whiskey, distilled in India, served in West Africa

I drank a bunch because, hey, there is no one here but me. Only me and my thoughts and a night that stretches to eternity with humid notions of something profound but naught the energy with which to pursue. I want to pass out under a fan, an infinite fan with no electrical shortages or rolling blackouts, but I am in West Africa for the time being and so it is. I will sweat this one out with anti-malarials making a fiend of my dreams and a pint of whiskey with which to lull me into a calm that will at least let me move into the morning.

4:30 is an ungodly hour, but it is the hour of birds.

I won’t wake for Ramadan, but I will wake for the birds. I will always wake for them. They are my fickle companions as I wander to random corners of random nothings in nowhere that anyone would care to think. This is what I hope, at least, but life is hardly as romantic. Drugs in the morning to prevent the disease, food in the afternoon to stay the withering, booze in the evening to keep the sanity. Not a bad life, at least not with the sun this way. Or the clouds springing up to heaven like a still-frame of the atom bomb laid across the horizon with the pink and gold of the sweetest lover in the faintest hours.

Is it so hard to forget death? So hard to ignore the fanatical musings of an unrepentant ideology? Let their bombs fly, but to desire so desperately for life instead. In its stead. They may not fear death. But we do not fear life. Which is stronger? Those willing to suffer and persevere, or those who pursue the shortest path to oblivion. We, who are willing to live with the world on its own terms, have a hand that can always be played. It is stay, stay and be here, stay and be free, stay and accept our own fate. It is not forever, it signifies nothing, but it strums the heartstrings like rock and roll, like Bonnie and Clyde. I’ll take that. 

Friday, July 17, 2015

An old man and a man-made lake

At Mamfikope, the road ends. What follows is a series of winding forest paths that unfold to stunning views across Lake Volta. From here you can see the storms as they mull over the highlands of the Togoland.

Tucked within these humble hills is the community of Mankesu, a village with roots dating back to the 1920’s, surprisingly deep for communities along the coast of a man-made lake that itself was only formed in the 1960’s by the creation of the Akosombo dam. I had the privilege of being hosted by and talking at some length with the one man who has borne witness to almost all of this history--the consolidation of British colonialism, the bid for independence (Ghana’s being the first in all of sub-Saharan Africa), the creation of the dam and the diaspora that followed in its wake. He is a man who has seen the Volta’s waters rise and recede, and has been the chief of these lands as it did so. Like Santiago from The Old Man and the Sea, Kwasi Akwadzrodoh knows his way around the circuitous fingers of Lake Volta like a taxi driver might his way around Manhattan. The only difference being that he bears such memories in the sinew of his shoulders and back.

Kwasi sits in a chair that seems to be the same age as he. It sags to the dirt floor of his mud-brick hut. The roof, oddly enough, is new. A son--one of Kwasi’s fourteen children--works as a galamsey gold miner in Ghana’s western frontier and has sent remittance money home. The rest of their homestead, including several other mud buildings, one of crumbling concrete, and  a few others of wood and thatch, are not quite as bedazzled. They lament the modest accommodations, but I assure them, it is wonderful.

After a diner of fresh sardines, rice and pepper sauce, we watch the stars for a few hours and talk about small, intermittent nothings. I curl up on a reed mat on a dirt floor under a mosquito net next to a few family members for the night. Tomorrow, we are going fishing.

In the morning, Kwasi is not feeling well enough to make the many-hour-long boat ride around the lake to collect the weekly take from the traps and nets he has set. Decades on the lake with the relentless West African sun has taken its toll--Kwasi is losing sight in his eyes, particularly the left. His son, whose name literally translates to “Life is Beautiful” in the local Ewe language, leads the charge instead.

Now, my time with Kwasi and his family was wonderful, and I could focus on the hours we spent catching fish and telling stories of local fishing lore, or the afternoons spent wandering the rocky outcrops and various islands that dot the lake. But what I can’t seem to get out of my head, what has never left my mind, is this simple image of Kwasi himself: quiet and still, sitting in his chair with the children and the chickens and the goats mulling at his feet. His face is forward and up, with his good eye focused on something I cannot see, and his bad eye clouded and disobedient looking elsewhere. He talks little, and we communicate almost not at all (my Ewe is quite rudimentary), but it is comfortable and calm. There is the smell of smoked fish from the kiln fresh from this mornings catch.

You see, in my time traveling, I have had the opportunity of meeting, working and spending time with many people who face unbelievably trying circumstances. Some, understandably, have been beaten down by their situation and are most evidently struggling. Others have assumed a different disposition, and of this, it seems to me, Kwasi is somewhat of an archetype.

There is a pride in knowing one’s land, in this case, in knowing one’s waters. There is a resolute dignity claimed, even if it is simultaneously denied and forgotten by the rest of the world, by those who endure with this depth of human fortitude. For years. For decades. For a lifetime. While we bid for marginally more and marginally better, with the latest model of cell phone or the newest gadget, here is a man who is content enough with what he has been given to still wake up each morning and set out for a few more fish.

“No condition is permenent by the greace of God.” Reads one of the walls of Kwasi’s home. Having never finished schooling, we can perhaps forgive his spelling, but we would be absolute fools to ignore the message. Not that I am a believer, only that I am aware enough to see that the most genuine faith is found in those who have the absolute least--that is a fact.

Kwasi sits in his chair, skinny legs and bulging knees, his limbs like driftwood blackened by the sun. He chews on a sprig of sugar cane and stares past me over the lake and all I can think: the meek shall inherit the earth.

Let’s hope so. Few deserve it more.

From the AP,

Monday, July 13, 2015

An evening on Lake Volta

“Allah akbar”. God is great.

This is the refrain that swoons me in the darkening hours of a tropical night in a land where Muslims and Christians live side-by-side with no nevermind. Far from the diametric dialogue that blazes across TV screens in Western countries where comfortable white families metaphorically clutch their purses, this is just one of the many subtle beauties of Ghana, a country as abundant in peace as it is natural plenty. Ghanaians cannot be outdone in regards to hospitality, nor in their easy going attitude most readily felt in the soothing beats and comfortable melodies of the signature highlife music that visits every radio, every household, every-day, all-day. It is in this corner of the world where I find myself, in every sense of the phrase, and from which I hope to share a few anecdotes.

See, when I travel, it seems there are always two distinct stories that emerge: first, there is the strange-white-man-stumbling-through-a-country-he-barely-understands-but-finds-he-appreciates-very-deeply story. Then there is the story of the people I meet along the way. The prior is always a clusterfuck--funny and revealing, as much about myself as about the world in which I am wandering, full of equal-parts adventure and misadventure while being perhaps slightly voyeuristic and completely absurd (as much a product of the storyteller as the story itself). The latter (I hope), is more human, sobering, and grounding; it is something that draws me, personally, from the lofty heights of youthful wanderlust into the stark realities of life in some unbelievably harsh conditions.

And so with the next few blog posts, during which I hope to share some of the experiences I have had thus far during my fieldwork in an isolated part of Ghana, I will endeavor to tell both stories, however separately. First, the adventure. Then some portraits--some portraits of people to whom I know my words can hardly do justice, but to who’s telling I will set my pen regardless, for theirs are stories worth telling. Mine but a footnote.

But without further ado: Adventure!

It was Friday evening and it hadn’t rained in more than a few days, an uncommon state of affairs in the tropical forests during the wet season. I was ready for something, anything to rupture the monotony after a few full days of interviews in the community of Mamfikope. It was during these interviews that I had heard tell of an island, not too far offshore in the ominous and eerie Lake Volta (a lake populated by an endless grove of ghost trees--remnants of a forest that once was, before the waters rose, changing both human and natural ecology in the same simple stroke). On the island, I was told, the incredible producers of Mamfikope teased from the sandy soils an agricultural bounty of groundnuts and potatoes that made them the legendary agrarian masters known throughout the Volta region. I was enticed, and the boats were, as always, waiting patiently on the calm shores.

As we approached the muddy edges of Lake Volta, with the island situated just above the northern horizon, it was clear that my guide was hesitant. While the day had been sunny enough (an understatement for West Africa), dark clouds were gathering in the east. He explained to me, usually, if clouds come from the east it will not rain, unless there are strong winds across the lake. Almost as if by divine command, a strong, cool breeze was ushered and the placid waters of the Volta were whipped into a frenzy.

“It will rain.” He said.

“Ok.” I replied.

“Do you still want to go?” He asked.

“Do you?”

Smiles exchanged and with our few fellow sailors in agreement, we pushed the notoriously leaky wooden skiff into the warm waters and began paddling. Other than the sacred boats on Lake Bosomtwe (approximately 100 kilometers to the west and certainly not in the purviews of the Afram Plains) which are crafted from a single massive tree, the fishing boats in Ghana seem to be in need of repair from their very inception. To create a truly watertight vessel, the fishermen on Lake Volta use knives and nails to drive plastic bags or tree sap into the cracks that spring leaks. Needless to say, the continuous tail-chasing this invokes means that there are three positions in each boat: a front paddler, a rear paddler/captain, and a central bailer who constantly employs a plastic bucket to dump water overboard, ideally faster than it invades the boat.

The boat ride out and the impending storm.

About mid-way between the island and home, the winds changed from strong to somewhat unmanageable. And cold. In all my time in Ghana, thus far, I cannot recall ever having experienced such a sensation. But this wind, blowing down from the mountains of Togoland to the east and with the bullets of rain it lashed at us, was truly cold. We continued.

When the boat finally slid expectantly onto the opposite shore, I realized that I had perhaps put us in a rather precarious situation. All four of us were completely soaked through by the time we made landfall. The wind became relentless--the only comparison I can think were the gusts that once made a rag-doll of my traveling companion (Kayla Angstadt) and I in the Chilean Patagonia. Still, we wandered the shores, marveling at what I can honestly say were endless groves of groundnuts, maize, potatoes and beans, all of which seemed to leap into the sky from the wealth of the fluvial deposits that composed the island.

On an unnamed island in Lake Volta.

Still, all this considered, there was the return journey.

As we boarded our vessel and began our surge into the surf, against the currents, it became quickly apparent that this was going to be more a matter of luck than either strength or skill. My glasses, which I could not keep on my face in the strong winds, were tucked into my shirt while my fellow companions and I began paddling madly against the storm. Navigating the labyrinth of trees that stood like dark sentinels blocking our path, we eventually found home, albeit significantly further up the coast than we had hoped. I leapt into the shallows and heaved the boat ashore along with my fellow adventurers: the aptly name Freeheart, the intrepid Daina, and the surprisingly presidential Kennedy. I looked at them, three people who, just a few days ago, were strangers, but were now my friends.

The chaotic boat ride back.

“Mario! Are you feeling ok?” Demanded Freeheart who, in keeping custom with incomparable Ghanaian hospitality, was perpetually concerned with my personal comfort.

“Yes, Freeheart. I am fantastic! How are you?” I responded.

“God is great!” He replied.

Now, I don’t personally believe in much of a god, at least not what anyone anywhere would readily identify as “god”. But I do have very strong beliefs. I believe in people. I believe in the inextinguishable endurance of the human spirit. I believe that beyond the superficial words and books we use to describe and understand a maddening and chaotic world, there is a central truth at which we all arrive, sooner or later, in both our darkest and brightest of times. This was perhaps both: a moment, like a few others that I can recall, where I honestly felt I had pushed my luck too far and yet, a moment in which I found something completely unexpected. In the face of something profound, something far greater than any of us could control, I had found myself in the same boat (literally) with three other people who owed me nothing, and yet, were bound to me by a common purpose. It was a moment, and perhaps it was only that, but it happened, and of that much I am certain.

I don’t mean to overstate my own importance or worse, superimpose a sense of significance that actually never existed. Still, I feel like such moments, when shared, are known. There is no lying in it, no deceit. Just a smile and a handshake that expresses more than words ever could.

It was the next day that I was informed by Mauko, the chief and community elder of Mamfikope, that he wished to offer me some land overlooking Lake Volta and an honorary Chieftaincy title if I should choose to stay and live with them. As I type this, I realize how fucking insane this must sound. It certainly feels like some absurd white-boy fantasy. How completely self-righteous and ridiculous of me. But it just sort of happened. I guess that is what I am trying to say--by pushing yourself beyond the comforts and complacency that define our society (the ends to which many societies strive), doors you never knew existed can be opened. Do I have any right, any claim to such an offer? Absolutely not, I can think of few people less worthy of such generosity. But still, that moment happened, and for that, I am infinitely grateful, and infinitely humbled.

I slept like a rock the night following our adventure on the lake to the pat-pat-patter of rain on thatch-grass roofing. There may be no sweeter sound in all of life.

I have yet to respond to Mauko about his offer.

From the AP,

Saturday, July 4, 2015

Back in the field, finally.

There is a nightjar cooing softly in the forest, a somber tune from such a somber bird. That is the thing about nightjars--being nocturnal and notoriously shy, they are rarely seen but often only heard. It is as if they live in dreams only and in our faith that things hidden by the night are not forever dark.

Quiet tropical evenings like this usually lead me, after a beer and a cigar, into a state of deep introspection. Sometimes it seems as if the beads of sweat on my forehead bring to the surface both questions and memories from deep within me. This time spent alone with a few chemicals surging through my veins has the power of philosophy and it imbues me, in my inebriated, asphyxiated mind at least, with the sensorial and deductive abilities of the gods--for these moments at least. In the end, each evening so spent inevitably ends in a fitful, humid sleep under a fan wondering at the passing hours. I don’t know why I find such trials so liberating, or why I seek out this masochistic solitude with such suicidal zeal. I fancy myself a tiny Sisyphus, perhaps. Or maybe I am just running from the world. But what I really think is that all of this has more to do (as so many things in life seem to) with the words of Bukowski: find what you love and let it kill you.

Find what you love.

Let it kill you.

Or to rephrase some other words, also by the infamous Buke: make death tremble to take you.

I am here at a guest house in the middle of a nowhere town in the middle of nowhere in Ghana. There is a small courtyard outside my window with bananas and papayas growing, as well as a fledgling mango tree with fruit just on the cusp of ripe perfection. My favorite thing about mango trees is that, when they are ready, the air becomes heavy like the ocean with their seductive aroma. I could live on their smell alone. The birds, understandably enticed by these same forces, dodge and dive past me on their various errands and the lizards sprint up the walls.

I am waiting. Waiting for my field work to begin in earnest. I may have a schedule I feel compelled to keep, but that is of little concern to the world. As of Monday, I will begin the slow process of getting to know a few rural communities, talking to the farmers and the fishermen, asking questions that to them, seem silly and self-evident, but nonetheless fascinate me to no end. Until then, I have a few rain-soaked, cloud-covered days to read and write and to take long dives into the philosophical, metaphysical musings that the heat and humidity tease from my mind.

Glad to be back in the field.