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.

Not dead, just covered in dust

The reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated. I know I
haven’t written in a while, and I apologize for that.

So, what happened in the month of November? Lots of things. For starters, the harmattan started in November — a Tuesday, in fact. Quite literally, we had rain and humidity on a Monday, and woke up on Tuesday morning to cottonmouth, a not-unpleasant chilliness, 3% humidity, and the gray dust of the Sahara in the air. For about thenext 2 months, we’ll have that, and then we’ll be in the dry season.

The harmattan makes for fast drying of clothes — I can dry a bath towel on a clothes line in about an hour — and covers everything in a fine layer of greyish-orange dust. Dusty roads get even dustier, the vegetation dies back, and everyone gets the cattagh.

What is the cattagh, you ask? Well, think back to the last time you swept your garage, attic, basement, or someplace equally dusty. The air filled with dust while you swept, right? And then your mouth and throat got covered in a film of dust and dirt, which you either hacked up or spit out. Make it a bit less intense, and draw it out over 2 months, and you have the cattagh. It’s kind of odd; on the one hand, you’re hacking up loogies all day, but on the other hand, it’s socially acceptable to pause mid-conversation and go “SNKGGGH!
HOOOOOOOOOCK. PTUU!” And the cool weather in the morning can quite enjoyable.

Ghanaians take the harmattan in stride, like they do with just about everything else life chucks in their direction. In fact, they almost seem to relish the challenge. People dress more extravagantly, and the color white features prominently in the wardrobe of anyone who is not traveling. And in the mornings, people actually wear stocking caps and parkas (yes, I declare shenanigans, too) to ward off the cold. It’s almost as if to say “What? That’s the best you can do?”

One thing the harmattan does do well is kill computers. Specifically, the dust and the heat kill the already old, worn-out hard disks. Thus, solid state media like USB sticks and CD-Rs are your friend — no moving parts to get infiltrated by the dust, and wonderfully tolerant of power fluctuations that come with the heat and the dust. I’ve been working on deploying something called thin-client computing in my lab, which basically lets me eliminate all but 1 hard drive, but I’ll write more about that once I’ve ironed out all the kinks.

Well, that’s about all I’ve got for now. Until next time…

A Day In The Life

The universe has a sense of humor.

There are 49 periods in a week on our school’s timetable. I was teaching 10 of them.

God saw this, said “What? NO! That Dobbe kid isn’t working hard enough! Give him the most out of any teacher on the staff!”

And thus, I went from teaching 10 periods a week to teaching 40 periods a week.

Joy of joys.

Luckily, that time table had some problems, and (surprise, surprise) because I was in charge of the timetable software, I cut myself down to 32 periods a week by introducing the concept of study hall. American culture for the win.

I actually don’t mind teaching 32 periods a week. It’s enough to keep me busy, and not so much that I can’t get out and do stuff like eat or brush my teeth. It’s nice.

So, I was going to talk to y’all about my daily routine. Having had one for almost a month now (it’s nice not to travel all the time), I’d like to spend some time going over what exactly it is I do during the day.

 5:30am – Wake up. Get out of bed (run a comb across my head…). No stairs, so that’s it for obscure song references. Make the bed, throw on some trousers, stumble into the kitchen and start boiling water for tea. Let the cat in, feed her something, and turn on the radio. Once the water has boiled, I make tea, scrounge up some breakfast, and read a bit while waiting for the tea to kick in.

 6:15am – Make self presentable: wash face, brush teeth, shave, finish dressing. Listen to the BBC and go over my agenda for the day. Tidy up the house, if time permits and I feel industrious.

~7:00am – Head for school. Morning assembly starts around this time. Required for masters on duty and students, otherwise optional. I will observe if I have nothing pressing to do. Otherwise, I run minor errands, print my lesson notes, and open the computer lab.

 7:30am – The timetable rolls into action. If I’m scheduled for class, I teach. If the students have practicals, they come to the lab. Otherwise, I work on lesson notes/projects, fix hardware problems, run errands, or just sit and talk to people.

~11:30am – Lunch! If it’s a busy day, I go buy kenkey and beans (or send a student to bring it back for me) and eat at school. Otherwise, I go home, warm up some leftovers, tune into the BBC or Voice of Nigeria, and eat. The cat usually insists on covering me in cat hair while I do this.

~12:30pm – Head back to school. Wash, rinse, repeat.

 3:10pm – School closes for the day. If there’s staff class or Open Lab scheduled, I stay and take care of that. Otherwise, I go home, exercise, do chores, go into the market, or visit people. If it’s been an especially mentally taxing day (read: Oh, by the way, we need you to spend 4 hours programming the timetable software. And the power keeps going out. Have fun!) I do nice, mindless chores, such as dishes, sweeping the floor, etc.

~6:00pm – The sun is down, so I start cooking dinner. More house chores to the dulcet tones of the BBC. If it’s lights out, I light candles and kerosene lamps.

 6:30pm – Dinner is served. Cat eats hers, then comes and bugs me while I eat mine, eventually falling asleep and/or bathing in my lap. I usually read *and* listen to the radio while eating. (Attention Deficit Disorder: Hey, this book is really interesting, and so is that story on the radio. By the way, that car needs a new muffler and your fly is unzipped. Where am I?)

 7:30pm – Bath time. Listen to the news, brush teeth, floss, do stuff.

 8:00pm – Read, write, plan, review the day, play the harmonica, watch a movie, or something along those lines. I really try to empty my head during this time, which helps me sleep better. I’ve also been trying to meditate more often, which helps with the ADD and the sleeping.

 10:00pm – Cat goes out, and I go to bed.

That’s the basic gist of it, anyway. On Saturdays and Sundays, replace “school” with “whatever I feel like doing” and/or various and sundry chores like laundry and dusting. There’s also a nice long bike ride in there somewhere as well.

Sunday mornings are my church service, which consists of me getting up and going for a nice 10km walk. I can hear all of the local churches from my house, which is impressive because the closest one is 1/2 a mile away. That kind of hearing damage doesn’t interest me, and I can’t really understand it that well because it’s in Twi. So, I go play Unitarian for awhile. God’s just as much out there as he is in any building.

Anyway, that’s a day in my life. Until next time, stay classy.

Back in the Village

Frisbee’s in heat. I thought she liked to yowl and meow before; man, I had no idea. Next time, I get a boy cat. Like Caroline’s cat, Lovelace. Yes, I know the name is not a boy name. She named him before she was able to correctly identify his gender. I refer to him as “the boy named Sue”.

Anyway, things are rolling along here in Ghana. I returned, went to the PEPFAR IST, and then headed home to a house full of cobwebs and musty smell, as well as an internet connection that needed to be turned back on after not paying the bill for a month. Still, it’s good to be back. I’ve only got 11 months left, and I intend to enjoy it.

There’s a lot about this life that I enjoy. Yeah, it’s a pain doing laundry by hand, and travel is annoying, but all things considered, I am happy. My clothes get clean, my food is tasty, and my electric bill is about $10 a month. Teaching can be a bit stressful, but that’s true of any job; and I still end up with a ton of time to read, write, and tinker with stuff. And after being completely overwhelmed by the snack food selection at Target, I’ve come to appreciate buying whatever brand of biscuit the shopkeeper bought that week.

About the only gripe I have is internet access. I could live in a shack in the middle of nowhere so long as I had a garden, a root cellar, a bicycle, a solar panel, and a connection to the internet. I get most of my news via shortwave radio; the rest comes from the internet. The software updates and anti-virus definitions for my school come from my internet connection (though they’ll have one by the beginning of October or whenever I next get to Sunyani) and if I had a faster (and more reliable) Internet connection, I’d probably get more of my entertainment that way, too. Not that I don’t mind reading; I’ve read more good (and bad, and downright mediocre*) books here than I’ve been able to read in a long time, but it’s also nice to be able to listen to a new album or watch a movie a little sooner than 6 months after it’s released.

School has started again as of last week, which means that my students started showing up as of this week and we have a timetable as of today. It seems inefficient and wasteful, but consider that it’s hard to have motivated students when you don’t have motivated teachers, and it’s difficult to have motivated teachers when your paycheck is a pittance and arrives anywhere from 2 days to 3 months late.  Still, I’m excited to teach this term; I’ve got a dedicated lab (which means NO! MORE! PRACTICALS! AFTER. SCHOOL!) and a good solid stack of lesson plans from which to work. The ICT fee has also finally been added to the student bill, so we should be able to get something a little bit better than the dregs of technology to work with. As much as I’ve enjoyed the challenge of making Pentium Pros work in a modern computing environment, I think it’s time to move on to more maintainable and responsive hardware.

Alright, that’s about all I’ve got this week. Next week: what I do all day.

* I’m looking at you, Clive Cussler. Oh, and Mr. Clancy: whoever’s writing the Op-Center series of books these days is pretty much phoning it in.