Monday, July 16, 2012

Ghana 2012: The big catch up

Last year, it took me a few weeks to catch up on my blog posts from Ghana—I came home on May 11 and finished writing about everything on June 3. This was in part because of our crazy back-to-back vacations to Phoenix, Calgary, and Nauvoo. Fortunately I was graded on the blog posts, since part of the Ghana class requirements was to keep a journal or travelogue about the trip and turn it in by June 3, which I totally did.

This year, the Ghana trip was seemingly busier, with the different TA responsibilities I had. I knew there was no way I’d be able to keep up with posting every day, but I figured that I’d be able to catch up when I got back. We were going to have a baby near the end of July and we only had one vacation planned (to Grover), so I had plenty of time. Loads of time.

Then Benjamin was born on June 3 (kind of ironic timing), and we started the 5 weeks of NICU hell. And my Ghana blog post drafts languished on my desktop. For the whole 5 weeks. Oops.

Now that it’s mid July, I’ve kind of given up. I have no time to give good detailed accounts of all the incredible stuff I did each day during this year’s trip to Ghana. Instead, you get 2–3 paragraphs for each day, with some cool accompanying pictures. And I’ll hold myself to the 3 paragraph limit (a real challenge, considering my academic verbosity).


Monday, April 30

We spent the morning at the Accra local government offices to give our presentation on the Biofill to the main sanitation officers there, who were quite impressed, and who were already aware of Kwaku’s invention.

After a quick lunch at the mall, we picked up the MTC president’s wife and drove out to the SOS Children’s Village in Tema. SOS is an incredible international nonprofit that creates unique orphanages for, um, orphans. Rather than throw a bunch of orphans or needy kids into a big communal home and babysit them until they are 18, SOS creates families for the children. They hire actual mothers who are widows or are done raising kids and assign each mom 5–6 kids, ranging in age from 2–18. The mother raises the kids as if they were her own, and as if they were all actual siblings. It’s an awesome approximation of an actual family. Once the kids turn 18, SOS has systems and programs in place to help the kids go to college, get a degree, and get a job. They’re an incredible organization.

Sam handing out candy to the kids
After the orphanage, we went back to the MTC to drop off the president’s wife and we stuck around to listen to the departing missionaries’ health lecture, where the area doctor showed nasty pictures of tropical diseases and articles about chop bars (street restaurants) that used urine in their soups. Most of the missionaries were native Africans who spent most of the presentation scoffing at the advice. But the two American missionaries looked absolutely terrified. Once we finished there, we headed back to Accra for an FHE with an American expat family, which totally reminded me that we still definitely need to become real expats once I’m done with this upcoming PhD.

Tuesday, May 1

I woke up early and went to do an endowment session at the Accra temple. Unfortunately the session turned into a long nap. At first I fought sleep, since the session was full of Ghanaian members who are legendary in the Church because of their incredible faith. I didn’t want to seem like a lazy ungrateful American during the session. But as soon as an older Ghanaian guy behind me started snoring loudly, I quit trying. :)

After the temple we drove to Koforidua to meet with Whit Alexander, creator of Cranium the board game and founder of Burro, which offers rechargeable battery services in Ghanaian villages (last years’s visit). He has a new book that should come out soon: Bright Lights, No City: An African Adventure on Bad Roads with a Brother and a Very Weird Business Plan (go order/preorder it). In addition to his rechargeable battery business, he’s started offering fancy cell phone chargers that use those batteries, and which have apparently been selling like crazy. People in villages with no electricity often have to go into town to charge their phones—with these cheap AA-battery chargers the don’t have to anymore.

We then finished our long drive north to Kumasi, where we stayed at the just-as-dumpy-as-ever Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology (KNUST) Engineering Guest House.

Wednesday, May 2

Kumasi is famous for having West Africa’s largest open air market—what I described last year as “the most intense market I’ve ever visited.” It has no tourist kitsch (or tourists, for that matter); just thousands and thousands of people buying and selling animals, vegetables, and bizarre other things. In past Ghana trips, the program has done at least one project involving markets (like last year’s research into seasonal vegetable prices), but unfortunately this year, the toilet project had nothing to do with markets.

Nevertheless, because Aaron and I thought that having a market experience was such an awesome part of the trip, we divided the group into three teams and had a scavenger hunt. The group that could find the most things in this list and make it back to the bus on time won. Here’s what we had the students find:
  • Live snails
  • Smoked grasscutters
  • Toilet plunger
  • Fabric
  • Salt
  • Animal feet
  • Giant pewter pot
  • Smoked fish
  • Ground cassava
  • Cocoa
  • Sugar cane
  • Okra
  • Onions from the Ivory Coast
  • Microwave
  • Cow head
  • Mosque
My team was (fortunately) stacked with both me and Aaron (and Megan and Christina), so we never got lost in the market. Another team was led by Chris, Executive Director of Empower Playgrounds, and they were also successful. The third team, led by Dr. Facer, ended up getting hopelessly lost and were almost an hour late getting back to the bus. My team found the most items, including the mosque (there are apparently 4 of them inside the market—the market is that big). I asked every Muslim-looking person I could find where I could find a masjid, and eventually one lady sent her 9-year-old daughter (named Miriam) to take us to the closest mosque. She was a fantastic guide and refused to take our tip money once we got there. Fun times :)

After the insanity of the market, we headed back to the hotel to shower off the stench and relax for the rest of the day.

Thursday, May 3

We woke up early and visited with Uniloo, a unique social venture that offers rentable chemical composting toilets to the urban poor without plumbing. We went on a pick-up run with a couple of their employees, who exchanged full stinky toilets with clean ones. The toilets are essentially buckets with toilet seats on top, but they work well.

We then began the long drive down to paradise—Cape Coast, my absolute favorite area of Ghana. Unfortunately the best hotel ever, Coconut Grove (with its incredible beach bungalows), was fully booked, so we instead went to the Elmina beach resort, which wasn’t nearly as nice. It didn’t even have a useable beach. Blargh. It was nice enough, though, and was a great home base for our (long) time in Cape Coast.

Friday, May 4

We left Cape Coast somewhat early and drove out to Takoradi to meet with a couple more sanitation organizations. Unfortunately we had the wrong address (as if addresses mean anything in Ghana anyway), so we spent almost an hour driving around Takoradi and Sekondi with different guides trying to help us find the organizations’ offices. Somehow we made it and had a good visit with a couple organizations that provide toilets for the burgeoning oil industry.

After those visits, we drove back into Takoradi for a massive lunch at a church member’s restaurant (owned by the Mensah family; Elder Mensah is in the 3rd Quorum of the Seventy). Last year I was terrified of this meal because I had heard that Sister Mensah forcibly loads up your plate with all sorts of crazy Ghanaian food (she kind of does) and expects you to eat it all (she kind of does). Like last year, I somehow slipped past her in the buffet line and got away with Jollof rice and some spaghetti. Phew.

After lunch we drove back to Cape Coast/Elmina and relaxed at the hotel until dinner, which we had at Coconut Grove (since they had fancy banana splits in pineapples… and kid’s menu macaroni and cheese… and an actual beach). Fantastic, wonderful food. Way better than crazy banku and fufu :)

Saturday, May 5

Today was our final touristy day of the trip, and it was jam-packed with a visit to the Cape Coast slave castle, Kakum national park, and a local crocodile restaurant. Not much was different from last year’s incredible touristy day (so read that post for details :) ), with one exception, which I’ll tell you all about after these pictures: :)

Door of No Return—final exit for slaves heading to the Americas
Incredible contrast between the green of the jungle and the grey of the storm
I walked across that. A bunch of times.
Posted rule at a pool near the crocodile restaurant. Good pool rule (and life rule in general). 
On our way back to Cape Coast, we stopped at a monkey sanctuary off the road, owned by a crazy eccentric Dutch couple who call themselves the Doolittles. The place was incredible because of (1) the animals and (2) the Doolittles themselves, who were an absolute riot. They moved to Ghana a few years ago to open a sanctuary for random bush and jungle animals. They sleep with baby monkeys and bush deer in their bed and raise super poisonous black and green mambas in their backyard. It was totally worth the extra 1.5 hours to stop and visit.

Incredible view of the Kakum jungle from their hilltop

Sunday, May 6

Last year, we had to sit through a couple sweltering hours of general conference when we went to church in Accra, while we actually had real church in Cape Coast. This year everything was reversed. We had actual church in Accra, while in Cape Coast we had to sit (sleep) through a barely audible session of conference. The church building’s cultural hall has no sound system, so they put a wireless mic near the tiny speaker on the projector, which barely worked. Oh well. It’s incredible to think that this is how most Ghanaian saints get to hear/watch general conference, while I get to sit on my couch at home. I fight sleep in both places :)

After church, we drove over to the New Life orphanage, where we spent a few hours last year. Like last year, the kids at the orphanage all ran out to greet us and adopted each one of us. I walked around the place hand-in-hand with a 9-year-old kid who was totally in heaven.

New Life orphanage in Cape Coast
That evening, after resting at the hotel, we split up into two groups to go have dinner with to Ghanian church member families. Last year I spent the evening with Anthony and Doe Kaku, a couple with an incredible story (go read it again). This year I visited with William and Charlotte Acquah, who live at the top of one of the highest hills in Cape Coast (and consequently have an incredible view). Sister Acquah was one of the super original members of the Church—her parents let Billy Johnson stay at their home back in the 60s (way before the Church had any sort of legal presence in the country). Brother Acquah joined the Church in the late 70s and has been a pillar since then. He even spent a few days in jail in the late 80s when the Ghanaian government put an official legal freeze on all Church activities. All their kids are returned missionaries and he regularly works in the Accra temple. They’re soft-spoken and stalwart and some of my Ghanaian heroes.

View from the Acquah's house

Monday–Tuesday, May 7–8

We (sadly) left Cape Coast early in the morning and drove back to Accra to finish up the project and prepare to go home. The next two days in Accra were kind of a blur (like last year), only this time around, I was far less stressed—I wasn’t trying to lead and finish a project. This time I got to sit and watch the other students stress out about everything while I worked on reconciling trip finances (a surprisingly difficult task) and watched random Premier League soccer games on the big screen TV. And we discovered a Syrian restaurant down the street from the Alma House with incredible hummus, falafel, and shawerma. So much better than Ghanaian food. Just sayin’.

In between hanging out at our home-away-from-home—the Alma House—we visited a couple different organization, including the West Africa AIDS Foundation and USAID. And on Monday evening we got to see a performance of the Dromo drum and dance ensemble.

Wednesday, May 9

Last day in Ghana! We left the Alma House earlyish to head over to Dzorwulu to Kwaku’s shop to give the final presentation. The students did an awesome job and Kwaku was quite impressed (a far different reaction than what we got from the PEF missionaries last year). He’s very well positioned to make a huge impact in Ghana’s sanitation sector and all the organizations we met with were quite interested in working with Biofill in the future. Here’s hoping Kwaku can market his awesome invention well and make a huge contribution to Ghana’s sanitation crisis.

Once we finished with the presentation, we made one last visit to an organization—West Africa AIDS Foundation (and possibly the embassy too… I can’t remember the exact details, and my actual itinerary is already packed to go to North Carolina. Ah, the pitfalls of procrastinating this so long…), before making a final stop to an art market for souvenirs. We then headed back to the Alma House to pack up and get ready to go. Last year my flight left at 8 AM, so we had a full final day in Accra. This year, though, my flight left in the evening, so we had to leave for the airport right after dinner.

The drive to the airport was surreal. Traffic was horrible and a massive thunderstorm brewed overhead. This trip to Ghana was fantastic, but I realized on the bus that it’s likely my last jaunt to West Africa for a long time. Once I start my PhD program and focus all my research effort into the Middle East again (woot!), that’s where I’ll be. And while I much prefer Middle Eastern food, history, and politics to Ghana, you can’t find a happier, more spiritual people anywhere else in the world. Ghanaians are incredible.

Our awesome Ghana 2012 group (with Fred, our driver)


  1. Fred, who got malaria and kept on driving the bus like it was nothing but the common cold.

  2. I wish I was half as cool as half of you. :)

  3. I heard part of an interview with Whit Alexander on NPR today, and really liked the sound of his project. I think I might have to check out his book!