Pregnant cats, bike chains, and freedom toasters

I present to you, for your enjoyment, a random selection of scenes from my life, in no particular order whatsoever.

** My cat is pregnant. *Very* pregnant. I estimate her belly contains somewhere between 30 and 40 kittens. It has had the wonderful side effect of mellowing her out; less meowing, less demanding to be let in/out, and more sleeping. I approve. At least until the kittens arrive, that is.

** My students are continually flabbergasted at all the things I can do, like cook, fetch water, use a broom, and talk to them in my (very) rudimentary Twi. I don’t know if it’s the gender roles (very rare to see a man cook or sweep) or the fact that I’m white that causes their surprise. Just today, I surprised two of my female students by lighting a coalpot and cooking up a giant pot of black-eyed peas. They stood, watched, and congratulated me (not kidding — they literally said “You have done well, sir!”) for a full 10 minutes as I stirred the beans and fanned the coals while sitting on my wooden cooking stool. It’s a tough job, but somehow I manage.

** The term is over in approximately a week and a half. I get a brief bit of respite until I have to mark the bazillion exam papers that I will have from all of my classes. The sad thing is that I _just_ finished marking homeworks and class tests last Wednesday. *sigh*

** Marathon training is coming along well. I am steadily working at building my base, and steadily growing hungrier as I do it. I just completed a 23km week; next week is a 24.5km week. And so we go from there. At some point, I will be averaging 50km per week. And that’s before I start the honest-to-God training. *gulp*

** Every time I pay my electric bill, I have to replace a light bulb. An odd coincidence, but I don’t like doing my evening routine in the dark, so I do it. When I went to the provision store to buy a bulb, the owner gave me a “blue” one — one that resembles a black light that is used in bars for mood lighting. I didn’t bother to check, and you can’t return goods in Ghana without a serious fight, so I now have a black-light style light in my main hallway. I feel like I’m 13 again.

** My bike chain broke the other day. I was hauling water, and luckily was returning to the house with my last jerry can before the bearing slipped and the link bent itself at a very odd angle. And of course, when I tried to replace the chain with the spare one I brought from America, my chain breaker (the tool you use for removing/opening the links) promptly broke.

Luckily, Mike Simpson at KSO has a complete set of bike tools, so I’ll just bring my bike there and get the chain fixed; it’s just a question of when. I’d like to have a working bike for hauling water during the break, as well as for marathon cross-training; on the other hand, traveling with a bike sucks. Really sucks.

** I’ve been spending a large amount of my free time trying to assemble a working Freedom Toaster, and then compile my efforts into a distributable package that can be used to create additional Freedom Toasters.

What is a Freedom Toaster, you ask?

A Freedom Toaster is a stand-alone, easy-to-use kiosk that is used to distribute open-source software and freely licensed media (a la Creative Commons). A user goes up to the Toaster, picks out their software/content using a touchscreen or trackball, and inserts a blank CD, and the toaster burns it all to a CD for them.

The original Freedom Toaster was first proposed in South Africa as a way to facilitate the distribution of open-source software in places where broadband internet access (the traditional delivery tool for open-source software) was prohibitively expensive or non-existant. It can be put in places like libraries, internet cafes, public computing labs, and university campuses to allow the public to take full advantage of quality software.

The original project had quite a bit of steam, and several toasters were built from an open code base before the developers founded a company in 2007 to build them (only in South Africa, to my disappointment), and the open code base for building a toaster was left to moulder. Thus, I grabbed the code, set up my own development environment, and set to work updating it so it would install again. If you feel so inclined, you can help me: the code’s at https://code.google.com/p/freedomtoaster/

** Caroline and I do not yet have a definite date set for our wedding, but we’d really like to have it within 6 months of returning to the U.S. We’ll keep y’all posted.

Alright. That’s all I’ve got. Until next time…

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In which we almost see a hippopotamus

It’s been a busy month. I turned 26 (thank you to everyone who sent birthday wishes!), and I feel no different whatsoever. I also got more computers in my computer lab, which involved quite a bit of travel, confabulation, and negotiating. I caught a stomach bug and spent 3 days at home because of it, and I have spent more time in my computer lab and the classroom than I care to admit.

The rainy season has started. In fact, it just rained. The dust is gone, and fetching water has become considerably easier, but with the rains come the mosquitoes, and the humidity has returned, especially at night. Think June in the upper Midwest of the United States: beautiful days, miserable nights. If it weren’t for my fan, I would be pretty much useless due to poor sleep quality.

Marathon training is proceeding on schedule. I am working on building a base, which means getting my body used to the idea of running to nowhere in particular for long periods of time. Once I have a solid base, I start training my body to run to nowhere in particular for ridiculous periods of time.

Alright, it’s time for me to go off and prepare my lesson plans. I leave you with the next installment of Caroline’s and my Christmas adventure.

———-

On the Sunday following Christmas (Feast of the Holy Family) we said our goodbyes at the monastery and set off for Bui National Park. We managed to catch the last tro-tro for Bui out of Wenchi, and spent 3 dusty hours on the road. We finally arrived in Bui Camp, the worker’s village that houses all of the park staff and their families, as well as the main camping area for the park. After a quick discussion with the caretaker of the camping area, we were able to locate the nearest provision store, as well as secure the use of a coalpot (charcoal cooker) so that we could make dinner for ourselves. In the process of making dinner, we managed to impress and fascinate a Dutch woman and her two daughters, whose dinner plans consisted of cookies and whatever drink they could find. We did the dishes, took warm bucket baths, and then retired to our bed for the night.

The next morning, we awoke to discover that we had overslept. We had arranged to share a park guide with the 3 Dutch ladies and set off early so that we could all hopefully see the hippos at Bui and get back in time for lunch; they would then try to leave on the afternoon tro-tro so as to get to Techiman by nightfall. We hurriedly packed a day-pack and set off with the guide for an hourlong walk to the river. When we arrived, we contracted with 5 boats to take us out on the river, where we proceeded to look for hippos.

We saw part of a hippo. Two, actually. The guide and the boatmen spent about an hour an a half tapping on the sides of their boats, trying to get the hippos to come out of the water. Unfortunately, it didn’t work; all we saw were ears and the tips of noses. Eventually, we gave up and headed back to the landing.

That’s when the nickel and diming began. We ended up paying each boat crew GHC10 (we were told it was going to be GHC5 per boat). We then walked back to Bui Camp, where the Dutch ladies proceeded to grab their packs and try to head out, only to discover that they had missed the afternoon tro. After frantic consultation with the caretaker, they decided to try and charter a taxi to Nsawkaw, which Caroline and I decided to join. After all, Bui didn’t really have all that much to offer in the way of hiking or sightseeing. We settled up our bill with the caretaker, who proceeded to add on the park entry fee, the guide fee (per person per hour!), and the camp site fee. All told, caroline and I paid GHC39 to see 4 hippo ears and two noses.

Needless to say, I don’t plan on going back to Bui any time soon.

Anyway, we settled up and then crammed into a Tico (think Geo Metro) with our 3 Dutch companions for an hour and a half long ride to Nsawkaw. 5 people and a driver, plus all of those people’s belongings (more Dutch belongings and less PCV belongings, by the way) makes for a very crowded Tico taxi. After a bumpy, dusty, but surprisingly expedient taxi ride, we arrived in Nsawkaw. Luckily, we were able to catch a tro leaving for Wenchi, and filled the last 5 seats (it’s amazing how quickly you can travel by tro-tro when you can fill close to half of any given 13-seat vehicle). On the way, we discussed our plans with our companions, and they decided that Kumasi was as good as anywhere.

Upon arriving in Wenchi, we met up with a Metro Mass Transit bus that took us to Techiman. We then took another Metro bus to Kumasi.

We got to Kumasi just after nightfall; around 6:30 or so. When we arrived in Kejetia, the ladies looked expectantly to us for the next step. When we announced we were parting ways with them, there was an ever-so-slight note of panic in their voices.
“You aren’t going to the Guestline Lodge?” they asked.
“No, we’re going to the Peace Corps office.”
“Oh… is it far from the Guestline?”
“It’s on the other side of town, actually.”
“Oh… Are there any hotels around there?”

Going anywhere in Africa at night can be tricky; after all, streetlights and headlights are optional. However, Kejetia station at 6:30pm is hardly challenging. Still, we remembered our first days and weeks in country, smiled a knowing smile, and continued our good samaritan routine.

“Not really… Would you like me to help you get a taxi?”
“Would you? That would be very nice!”

We got them on their way, with slightly relieved looks on their faces, and proceeded to find our own way to the office, where showers, fried rice, and the internet were waiting for us.

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Sooo many things.

It’s Sunday evening. Ghana just got into the semi-finals of the Cup of African Nations, I have successfully prepared my lesson plans and exercises for the week, and now, I’ve got nothing left to do but use the Internet. Or study Esperanto.

Yes, I’m learning Esperanto. I want to learn a bunch of languages, and I might as well get the one everyone will laugh at out of the way. There are practical benefits to it; there are studies that suggest studying Esperanto before studying other languages greatly reduces the amount of time and effort needed to learn subsequent languages. AND: there’s an international directory of Esperantists who are willing to open their homes and host other Esperantists who are traveling in their country. Any language with people who are willing to host complete strangers can’t be all that bad. My plans are to get a good grasp of Esperanto, and then move on to French, followed by Spanish.

Next up…

*deep breath*

I’m going to run a marathon this year.

There. I said it.

My plan is to run the Twin Cities Marathon in October, or an equivalent one depending on what travel plans Caroline and I have after our COS (Close of Service). I’ve been thinking about running one for a long time, and now I expect all of you to hold me to it.

Speaking of COS: I’ve started to mentally prepare myself for the whole idea of coming back to America. The truth is, America scares me a bit. Grocery stores, freeways where the traffic laws are enforced, a 10:30 appointment starting at 10:30; there’s a lot of things I’m no longer very familiar with. Then again, there are a lot of things that I am very much looking forward to: cheese, fast Internet access, cheese, libraries, cheese, bookstores, cheese.

At the same time, I’m really going to miss Ghana. I love going out and having banku and groundnut soup after my Saturday morning run. I love the look of understanding that dawns on my students’ faces. I enjoy dickering for cloth and furniture in the market; the way that the kokoo and koose lady always dashes me an extra koose; the way that a tro-tro that takes two hours to fill can leave the station in 10 seconds flat.

I feel more wonderfully alive and aware of myself here than I’ve ever felt before. Despite the setbacks and the delays that come with every day life here, I feel like I’ve accomplished something meaningful. I’m beginning to feel like I’ve found something that is more important that I am, and while coming back to the U.S. for a while is probably in order, I don’t think I’m done working in the developing world.

Anyway, I promised a breakdown of my Christmas vacation. I’ve decided to do this in installments so as to get the maximum blogification value out of it. If it worked for Charles Dickens, maybe it can work for me. Today, we’re talking about Kristo Buase.


Caroline and I, along with our friends Jennifer and Vicki, decided to spend Christmas this year at Kristo Buase Monastery. Kristo Buase is a Benedictine monastery that was founded in the late 1980s at the request of the Archbishop of Sunyani. The community was founded by the Prinknash, Pluscarden, and Ramsgate Abbeys in Scotland, though eventually it is hoped that it will become an entirely Ghanaian community.

Caroline and I arrived at Kristo Buase on Christmas Eve; Vicki and Jennifer went early so as to avoid the crazy Christmas travel and to confirm that, in fact, we had a reservation to sleep there. The monastery is located just north of Techiman, outside of the village of Tanoboase. It is surrounded by over 80 acres of cashew trees, undeveloped forest, and some of the most beautiful rock formations I’ve seen in Ghana. Caroline and I dropped at the entrance to the monastery grounds and had a delightful 20 minute walk to the monastery cloister itself. We were greeted by Brother Gabriel, who showed us to our rooms – all guests sleep one to a room. The rooms were very spartan – a desk with a chair, a bed, a small closet, and a shower area with a sink – but very well kept.

One of the things that strikes you about the monastery is how well things are kept in order. There is no chipped plaster, no flaking paint, no crumbling bricks; everything is kept up very well. That’s not something I’ve see very often in Ghana, because many people either don’t have the money or don’t care enough to repair their houses. The gardens and orchards surrounding the cloister are well-tended, and full of wonderful, delicious things like star fruit, oranges, papaya, lemons, avocado, and grapefruit. It was very wonderful to see everything taken care of in such a considered, deliberate fashion.

The monestary does a lot of work with cashews, including working with local farmers to do education on how to best maintain their cashew plantations. The brothers also make several tasty jams and chutneys that they sell in a small shop just off the cloister. We ended up buying several jars of jam from Brother Patrick (the chief jam-maker), which is not only cheaper than the stuff for sale in grocery stores, but much better tasting. Cashew apple and star fruit jam… mmmm.

The brothers were all very warm and inviting, and we not only enjoyed celebrating mass with them on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, but also enjoyed playing a number of games of Scrabble and shared several wonderful meals with them. Caroline and I spent a great deal of our time talking to the prior, Father Giles, who is originally from Scotland; he has a great deal of interest in technology, and I promised to send him several CDs of software and public-domain books. When not relaxing or spending time with our friends, we went and climbed in the gorgeous rock formations that surround the monastery. I have several wonderful pictures of the climbing, and was sore for several days afterward.


Next time: the Tale of the 39-Cedi Hippo Snouts — or Hungry, Hungry Park Service.

Now, it’s Esperanto time. Ĝis revido!

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When in doubt, plant things you can eat.

Happy New Year, everybody! I’m back at home after a nice, relaxing, and expensive vacation. I’m spending the day working on a bit of housekeeping and organizing, so you can expect a more complete write-up of my holiday travels soon. For now, I’m going to talk about something that is frozen solid for most of you: your lawn.

That’s right, I’m going to talk about lawns.

Lawns suck.

I mean, seriously. It requires large quantities of water and fertilizer to keep a lawn in good condition, it takes up a lot of time and effort, you can’t eat it, and it takes up arable land that could be used for things that you can eat. Unless you’re going to do something fun with that green grass, like play football or Frisbee on it, why not put in a garden?

One of the cool things about Ghana is the way the government is going about the issue of food security. About 10 years ago, they started a program called “Operation Feed Thyself” in which they encouraged everyone — not just poor villagers — starting small personal farms. The program was very successful; it’s difficult to find people who *don’t* have a farm, and there seldom outbreaks of famine or wide-spread malnutrition. Recently, the government decided to expand the food security push into the area of urban agriculture: specifically, the use of arable land that would otherwise be planted in grass or left to grow weeds.

Very rarely do you see a large patch of land near a house, office, or school that is used as lawn space; more often than not, people will plant maize or cocoa yams (which require very little supervision) or put in a more conventional urban garden with tomatoes, eggplants, peppers, and plantain trees. It may not seem like much, but a 10 foot by 5 foot patch of tomato plants puts out a lot of tomatoes. The same is true of maize, and doubly so for plantain trees. And especially in urban areas, where not everybody has access to enough land for a traditional farm, it makes sense to use the boundaries, medians, and otherwise open, wasted patches of land for something useful.

These little urban agriculture experiments not only help to feed people and reduce the amount of money spent on food, but they help communities take ownership of the land around them, and beautify an area where there would otherwise be nothing. And it’s just plain cool! Can you imagine how awesome it is as a kid to grow up in a city and get to play hide-and-seek among the rows of corn next to your apartment building? To taste real tomatoes — not crappy, unripe, flavorless supermarket tomatoes, but real tomatoes — that you picked yourself, right off your balcony? To plant a tree as a kid and watch it grow as you grow up?

It fascinates me that such a simple idea — plant vegetables instead of grass — can have such a big impact. And it’s an example of something the developed world can learn from the developing world: when in doubt, plant things that you can eat.

Alright, time to go do other things. Until next time…

Requiem for a Chop Stall

There is a neighborhood in central Accra called Osu. It’s very popular among expatriates due to a proliferation of Western-style stores — one can get hamburgers, pizza, sushi, Levi’s jean, and home appliances — and high-level businesses. Most of the major mobile phone networks have their headquarters there, and several banks operate major branches in Osu. A lot of hawkers also try to sell cheap, Chinese-made “Ghanaian” arts and crafts. It’s half Obruni-town, half tourist trap, and mostly annoying.

However, near the Koala supermarket on the outer edge of Osu, there used to be a corridor of ad-hoc chop stalls. Instead of going into the “authentic” African restaurant to pay GHC10 for a plate of food and GHC2 for a beer, you could go to the chop stalls to get much better food for about a tenth of that, with infinitely more flavor and a much more interesting experience.

The place used to be like this: you walked into a space no wider than a garage door, and immediately you were surrounded by a thousand vibrant colors of vendors selling handmade batik and tie-dyed cloth. Walk 10 feet, and there are at least 4 people selling fresh-cut pineapple, mangos, bananas, and oranges. Walk another 10 feet, and you’re now surrounded by a million different wonderful, tasty smells, and about as many different types of local food. Delicious banku with groundnut soup and chicken; fufu with light soup and goat meat; jollof rice with fried chicken and salad (think coleslaw); all of it cheap, and all of it delicious. And to top it off, every primary school child in Osu ran and played while their mothers and fathers sold you food and drink. The place was clean, well-kept, and relatively safe, because the people who were there were willing to make it their own.

I say “used to” because as of last Monday, the Accra Metropolitan Authority cleared out that corridor and destroyed 90% of the chop stalls. Not only can you no longer buy really good banku, but now there are a large number of unemployed street vendors who formerly had a steady income with which to support their families. Needless to say, I liked this corridor. I liked it not only because I could get really good jollof rice and fried chicken for GHC2 (nearly impossible on a PCV salary in Accra), but also because it represented for me the way development happens in Ghana and other developing countries. I mean this: If there is no good chop, you get some boards and sheet metal, set up your coal pot, and start cooking. Over time,you get neighbors, and what was formerly a dark, empty, dangerous alley becomes a clean, open, inviting, lively place.

So much of development work is about building infrastructure — roads, utilities, buildings, services — and often, we consider the informal structure that springs up in place of formal, official structures to be a type of malignancy. If it wasn’t officially sanctioned, it must be cleared out in the name of progress. I think that’s the wrong way to go about development. Instead of eradicating the existing infrastructure because it doesn’t meed certain requirements, why not find a way to make it meet the requirements? If the chop sellers are illegally connected to the electrical grid, why not offer them an amnesty period to get connected legally (and safely)? Instead of demolishing and setting back the development of a neighborhood, why not find a way to work with what’s already there?

In any case, I’m back to wandering around Accra in search of good jollof. If anybody knows where Baby Girl Fried Rice and Jollof Special has gone to, please let me know.