Sunday, September 6, 2015

Mamishie Rasta

*This was originally written on August 14th, but due to the laziness of the author and his general ineptitude, it is just being posted now. Get on top of your shit, Machado.

In my life, I have very few hard and fast rules, but I do have some. Most borne out of experience and yet others from premonition. People who know me well may know one such rule: if, in your wandering, you ever come across an individual smoking more than one cigarette at a time, run--there is some wild shit afoot. Whenever the invigorating power of a single smoke just won’t cut it, whenever both time and circumstance dictate such a supreme nicotine fix, perhaps you have arrived at a moment that is somewhat unmanageable. Evacuation is likely the best card to play.

And yet, despite my convictions, I instead found myself far less flight-given even as a writhing Ewe man, doused in seawater and his own sweat, stood just in front of me with two 40-centimeter blades drawn across his own abdomen and neck while he drug vigorously on two spliffs the size of cigars.

But before we get here, maybe I should offer some context:

Pops, the bartender, had been serving me plenty of beer over the past few days.

“You look skinny, Mario. You need to eat more. You need to drink more.”

Pops is the kind of doctor I need--a funny, wry, no-dread Rasta serving up drinks and a philosophy that places good ganja and good friends at the center of this quite, tropical universe. But he is right: between the diet I have maintained during fieldwork in some rural communities, the bout(s) of giardia, and the malaria that I would later learned had been swimming in my system for a few weeks (at least), I had indeed lost weight, quite a bit actually.

“I need my medicine, Pops.”

Pops giveth. A liter-bottle of Club beer manifests in front of me. I feel better already. Amen.

“You should go see Mamishie Rasta, she is very powerful.” Pops encourages me, very matter-of-factly.

I am intrigued. “Who is Mamishie Rasta?”

And this is where the tale begins: Mamishie Rasta, before she was Mamishie Rasta, was just a normal village girl who one day wandered too far into the surf and disappeared into the sea. After a fruitless search, her family held a funeral and laid her memory to rest, if not her body, which was lost to the waves. For many years, it was so, and in the silence that should be expected from the dead, there was no further word of the girl from the village. Then one day, out of the waters of the Gulf of Guinea appears a women dressed in a pure-white gown with dreadlocks that reach longingly, like roots from a banyan tree, down past her knees towards the ground.

Mamishie had been reborn. This is the second-coming, my friends.

Her family questioned, her neighbors pried, and after a careful examination, it was discovered that this mythical creature was in fact the reincarnation of their beloved. But Mamishie had returned with a purpose, with something to share. During her years of absence, she had lived in the ocean among the mer-people--a community of half-seahorse, half-humans that bestowed upon her the sacred knowledge of their gods and divine medicine. Mamishie had returned to spread this knowledge among her people.

The story is amazing and as Pops fills me in on the details (which, even as a good Christian, I can tell he completely believes), I find myself in need of no more encouragement. As a rather godless person myself, I find such a story just as plausible as any other religious narrative. Plus, I am skinny as shit and at this point, after the weeks of disease and drink, anything Mamishie might offer would really be incidental. So after a 1 cedi ($0.25) taxi ride, we find ourselves seated in a hot, windowless room in front of a woman who is even more magnificent in person (not necessarily elegant, certainly not refined, but with a distinct aura of the sea) than the stories we’ve heard.

Our consultation begins, somewhat fittingly, with strong drink: alomo bitters and palm wine, a shot a piece. The bitters don’t go down quite like the palm wine, but we can’t be rude. In my book at least, wasting good drink is a capital offense, quite socially inexcusable. So with this refined sense of maturity and respect, I graciously agree to help my friends and polish off a few more helpings. God help us all

After a brief discussion, we are led into another room with a low-hanging corrugated-tin roof. With few words exchanged, we are gestured into some plastic chairs where we are left to watch the spectacle soon to unfold before us. The room itself--more of an extended porch occupying a courtyard tucked within a labyrinth of closely-built mud and brick houses--was flanked by a series of smaller rooms acting as shrines to a pantheon of gods and goddesses. Around the small doorway leading into each structure, mythical portraits and scenes were depicted with the respective names of the gods scrawled in bold, black letters. The two I remember most vividly are Papa Tongo, a drum-playing merman riding a horse and clothed in leopard skins, and Mamiwater, the penultimate goddess who bore a surprising semblance to Mamishie Rasta herself.

But the material scene slowly and easily fades into the back of my mind. The room was populated by somewhere between 30 and 50 people (such details, as well as a specific chronology of events, remain quite elusive for reasons that will soon become clear). There was a group of shirtless, sweaty men playing a massive array of drums in the far corner while a cluster of women and young children sang rhythmically, occasionally venturing into a dance as the music took them.

This went on for quite some time, perhaps an hour or two or more. In reality, I have no idea how long we sat there watching, the scene was hypnotizing, intoxicating, and as much for the music as for the various fires being lit, joints being passed around, and piles of gunpowder being lit by a small contingency of priestly subjects. The room soon became as thick and heavy as the ocean with a cacophony of sound and smoke and we were all swimming in it--awkward white visitors and community members alike--as the evening began to thrust itself in a different (and unforeseen) direction. At this point, with bellies full of booze and lungs and heads full of earth and smoke, we were all along for the ride.

The drums, the drums, the drums, incessant like a fever and soon reaching to a pitch of madness, began pounding any sense of reason from the atmosphere. Their tempo was conducting the collective departure attained by those possessed souls around me.

I say possessed and I mean possessed.

A few men had arrived on the scene, maybe 3 in total, but it is hard to remember exactly--maybe more, maybe less. These men were quite literally possessed by spirits: spirits that lent great power, spirits that make men strong, spirits that breathe unrepentant life into a world otherwise occupied by well-dressed Sunday-morning churchgoers. Their possession threw them into an intense, almost violent sort of bodily ritual as they stormed around the entire scene from one end of the room to the other. Sometimes they crawled animal-like on all fours. Sometimes they seized rabidly on the floor. Other times, they leaped and stomped the earth in rapture, grabbing any number of various knives and machetes to press against their bodies. Some used blocks of wood to hammer the blades against their abdomens, others simply ran them (with the dull-side against their skin) like saws across their throats.

The spirits make you invincible. The spirits make you strong.

Throughout this process, these men were supplied by the various priests with a chain-supply of hefty spliffs (great hand-rolled cigarettes containing a sweet mixture of tobacco and marijuana) with which to sup their insanity. It was somewhere around this time that I found myself face-to-face with the gentlemen described at the beginning: a twenty-something fisherman whose sinewy body was playing temporary host to one of these various spirits. Swinging, sawing blades in hand and two-spliffs dangling menacingly from his mouth, he only seemed to stop smoking for the brief moments that he howled and yelled and screamed at the heavens. And if I had any lingering doubt as to the authenticity of his possession they were definitely assuaged by the supernatural capacity of the hits he drew from his herbs. They were full and deep and holy and they raced past his throat and lungs and went straight down into his abdomen which lurched forward and sunk backward in fits of hysteria and trembling.

At one point, he placed his large machete on the ground, grabbed my arms and pulled me from my chair. It was unexpected, but I felt wholly unworried, having been cruising at the same altitude as this entire room for some hours now. My only conscious thought in that moment, I remember, was that maybe I could catch a few drags from his spliff, but he had other plans. I was led--not forcefully, but certainly not with any choice to the contrary-- across the room and in front of Mamishie Rasta herself. She was seated unassumingly in the background, having spent the hours monitoring the entire scene and smoking slowly.

My new-friend, in all his possession and intention, pushed me down onto my knees in front of Mamishie. I was then somewhat shoved into a position of reverent prostration at her feet, with occasional respites in which I was expected (and obliged) to place my forehead against Mamishie’s knees. All the while, my friend was likewise placing his forehead against my shoulders and my chest and shaking violently and screaming and just carrying on as if such contact was killing him.

Mamishie looked on. She looked over me. She looked through me. I was in a moment of complete abandon, so incredibly far away from any familiarity that I could draw upon, any memory that might provide me with even a rough blueprint of how to navigate such a place and such moments. It was release on a whole new level and I was burning with something like passion or madness or the reckless singularity that exists at the edge of the cliffs of experience, understanding and knowledge itself.

During a lull in the commotion, or maybe I was just coming in and out of the present, I had a distinct thought--in my head, I heard the soothing voice of a pilot (is this what god sounds like?), and the quiet ding of the fasten-seatbelt light turning off. “We’re gonna be experiencing some turbulence….uhhhhhh, just hang tight…this might be the end. We hope you have enjoyed your flight with us and we hope to see you again soon in the afterlife.”

My last clear memory of the evening is watching my possessed friend, barefoot and glistening with sweat, standing in a bed of hot coals, smoking two spliffs like a fiend and howling into the night air. Through this all, from the beginning of the drums until the soul-rattling climax, the village children wandered in and out, sometimes dancing, sometimes singing, but otherwise treating such a setting as completely normal, even playful.

The drums gradually wound-down and the smoke cleared along with my mind. Sober thoughts rushed to my rescue and my senses became hyper-acute as soon as we stepped into the night and could smell the salt in the air yet again. We walked home slowly, talking little. It was a normally sleepy evening in the villages we passed along the coast with a silence punctuated only by the occasional passing motorcycle or nightjar flying overhead. The whole experience had lasted good 6 hours or so, although in all honesty, in the moment, time seemed quite a foolish notion altogether.

The next day I woke, bright and gleaming as the morning. I was still skinny and I still had malaria (thankfully outpaced by the daily doses of Malerone running through my blood), but I felt like a fucking king. I spent the day on the beach watching the waves without a word.

Whenever I see some manifestation of indigenous beliefs, whether nakedly displayed in its own right or covertly smuggled into the rigid framework of Christian dogma, my thought is almost always: eat shit and die colonialism, eat shit and die religious predation.

Maybe it’s because I am afflicted by a body of intensely rebellious bones, or maybe it’s because I am naïve or immature, but the forces that allow such traditions to survive despite the depraved delusions of a hegemonic modernity never cease to inspire me. As much as the exploitative powers of this world--economic, political and religious--have sought to flatten the map and assimilate diversity into their monochrome vision of a deranged world order, the capacity and endurance of the human spirit remains inextinguishable. Despite the wholescale dissolution that colonialism, the slave trade, and missionary conquest have wrought in many corners of the world, such persistence of traditional beliefs is a fact of life that no amount of violence and oppression can change.

I reflect back on the sterile church services that I endured in my youth and I can’t help but think about the demotion that such a bleached-white interpretations of spirituality offer to god. As if he/she/it were something easily consumed, like a multivitamin or a gentle laxative, during the safe, controlled suburban rituals of Sunday mornings. I place such thoughts against the incalculable insanity and zeal that I experienced during my momentary tutelage under Mamishie Rasta. There is no comparison.

In a small fishing village along the eastern Ghanaian coast close to the border with Togo, Mamishie Rasta has created something incredible--a raucous, animal-sacrificing belief system that celebrates equal parts life and death through the rousing effects of drums and plenty of drink. There is no holy book, there is no tithing, just an abundance of fervor and the liberation induced by uninhibited spiritual transcendence.

But I will stop myself before I pontificate too much upon such things (this is a long fucking blog post as is). Hopefully, this story itself will provide more by ways of explanation and understanding than any of my foolish attempts at faux-academic mumbling.

Suffice to say, I prefer my god with a little flavor. And a little bit of herb doesn't hurt either.

From Ghana,

Saturday, August 8, 2015

"Oh fuck, that guy is dead somewhere...and I am the last one to see him alive"

*All names in this story are pseudonyms due to the nature of the material covered. Enjoy.

Accra: capital city, modern city, one of the most modern in Africa at least. I am here for a few days staying at a hostel in Asylum Down. I have done this hostel bumming deal for long enough to know that, as far as hostel traffic is concerned, you always meet some interesting people: ex-pats of all stripes, NGO workers and the like (my people), but also some grade-A fucking characters. This time, it happens to be some grade-A characters who dabble in Ghanaian gold speculation--not the friendliest of professions and not always boasting the most reputable of individuals.

Now, in Ghana gold mining is huge, but it tends to be a very, very shady business with a lot of bad people and lot of exploitation. Still, some people do it right, although the sense I have always gotten talking to these guys is that they are not in the majority. There is just so much money flowing in this sector of the economy that it's hard to keep the industry clean (but the government certainly doesn't go out of its way to make this happen--i.e. classic bureaucratic corruption and kick-backs). So whenever I meet mining people I always have my guard up. It's nothing personal, just better safe than sorry.

At this hostel, I am staying in a shared-room with roommates that include a few French backpackers, an Italian volunteer, some American study-abroad-ers (so idealistic, so naive--it would almost be cute if they weren't so fucking loud) and a middle-aged man with a unique accent that I can't quite place who tells me he is from the states. As the others come and go, my middle-aged friend, lets call him "Doctor Django", hangs around. We begin some small conversations and alas, it turns out he is in the gold buying business in Ghana (red flag). But he seems nice enough, asks me what type of anti-malarial meds I am taking, implores me to take them on schedule:

"Malaria is no joke, my friend."

"Ok, Django. Thank you, Django."

In general, he seems like a solid dude. He spends some time complaining about the buying market, telling me in not-quite-racist-but-definitely-not-comfortable language about how 95% of the sellers he meets in Ghana are scammers, looking to be wined and dined and then never providing any product at the end. He is frustrated. He has been here some time and he wants to go home. But he also wants to make some fucking money. Gold is a buyer's market in Ghana; it is also a market for the thieves.

Over the course of the next few days, I hear him on several phone calls with sellers. The discussions are fascinating (especially to someone who is not of the business world) as they effortlessly flow from cordial and friendly, to threatening and aggressive, and back again. Doctor Django was being awfully candid, even as I was sitting in the same room. He seemed quite comfortable discussing his business in front of me. After hearing a few of these exchanges, I started getting a bit suspicious and began to transcribe some of his more colorful moments (cause fuck it, I was curious, that's why). Below is a brief excerpt from one of these to give you the gist (mind you, this is only the half--Doctor Django's half--of the conversation that I could hear):
Do you want to sell on contract?
No. Well then forget about Dubai.
My other buyer is Indian. I also have a Swiss buyer.
Do I ask you where you get your product?
Well then, where is your product? Where is your fucking product?
Where is it now? Where does it come from? Who's is it?
Do I ask you these things?
No. Cause I don’t care.
You give me the product and I will give you the money, that’s it.
Stop talking. Stop talking like a baby, start talking like a business man.
But no monkey business.
You guys are always talking, talking, talking; you don’t need to talk so much.
I will call my buyer when you have the product.
I don’t see the product as of yet.
So tell me, where is your product? Who’s product is this?
When you tell me, I will call my buyer.
Don't get upset.
This is just like when you asked me, “Where is your buyer? Where is the money? What kind of money is it?”
Fucking crazy.
So Dr. D proceeded to have a few conversations to this affect in the open, on and off, all day. It was good entertainment, but I thought little more of it.

Later that day, I met a few other ex-pats at the bar, one a fun-loving Belgian NGO worker named William, the other a Malaysian named Singh who works in the gold mining industry as well (selling heavy machinery to miners) but who is much more discrete about his industry ties. They were both calidad gente, as the Paraguayans would say, so we sat and drank and shared crazy traveling stories for a while. Eventually, I relate the story of my hard-talking roommate to them and this begins a heated discussion (fueled by lots of beer and cheap cigarettes) about gold mining. Singh tells some truly insane stories about his experiences being held-up with a pistol in his face after having his car blocked by felled trees or rocks or just more people with guns. So basically, Singh wraps up these personal tales with this word of caution: if, as a gold buyer/seller you talk so openly (like Doctor Django has been doing) you are going to be killed. Period. In Nigeria, Singh assures me, this guy would already be long gone. But in Ghana, the industry is a little more forgiving, but only a little.

Later that evening, Dr. D informs me that he is heading out to meet a seller (I don't know why, but he very quickly seemed to confide greatly in me...which was worrisome) and leaves the hostel with his luggage still sitting in the room on the bed next to mine. Fast forward. After a long night with Singh and William at the bars in Osu along Oxford street--the trendy scene of ex-patriots and Ghanaian hipsters--and after far too much to drink, I finally get back to my room around mid-night.

No Doctor Django.

I wake up the next morning and still, no Django.

I didn't think much of it and went about my day--everyone has a crazy night sometimes, Dr. D being no exception. Hell, I was even on the cusp of one myself had my better, inebriated judgement not been my saving grace (also, thank you to William and Singh, those women were definitely too much for me to handle, in retrospect). Django will show up eventually.

I have a coffee in the morning, go to the library at Lagon University to dig around some archives for a few hours. Then I wander along the coast in the afternoon and have late lunch looking out over the Gulf of Guinea. It is only later that day while mulling it over on my way back to the hostel that I have a flash of worry: oh fuck, that guy is dead somewhere deep in the bush and I am the last one to see him alive. I am one of a few, maybe the only person in this entire country that knows anything about this guy. Immediately, in my mind, this becomes both an incredible responsibility and a terrible burden (does that sound selfish?--but seriously, who wants to spend their last week in Ghana at a police station being interviewed by questionably-corrupt officers instead of on a beach somewhere). Oh well, I think, if its coming, its coming and there is nothing to do about it. So I get back to the hostel and wait, either for the call to the front desk, the police cruiser at the front door, or by some miracle, for Doctor Django himself

Around mid-afternoon a taxi pulls up and, low and behold, out steps Doc D. I was seated outside having a beer and he waved to me, walked up and sat down. He did not look good, like not fucking good at all. His hair was disheveled and he was very pale, his hands were shaking and he seemed way out of it. You know when you see someone and, even if you can't point to any single aspect, you can tell from their face and their eyes that they have just been through hell. That is the look I got from the good doctor and I immediately felt this surge of empathy. These feelings were vying for dominance against the anxiety of possibly being wrapped-up in something terrible (although the beer was helping to calm the nerves a bit). I have made it an explicit point to never end up in a prison in a developing country--let's call it one of my few modest aspirations in life--and I intend to keep it that way. Still, this guy was in the shit, for sure.

"How the hell are you, doc?" I ask, half curious, half not wanting to know a fucking thing.

"Not good," he offers readily. Yeah, no shit. But this guys needs a friend, I can tell, so I sit and listen.

What I expect is a tale of some dark and shady gold deal gone awry but what emerges in the next few minutes is an entirely different, although nonetheless, incredible story. Doctor Django begins to tell me of the previous night in which, as he was on his way to meet his prospective seller, he found himself having a heart attack in the middle of a less-than-reputable part of the city. He calls his friend (in reality, a previous client and only recent acquaintance) who over the course of the next 18 hours drives him to 3 different hospitals and 2 different clinics trying to find the necessary care and treatment all while with Django basically dying in the passenger seat next to him.

"I tried to call you," he says to me, to my surprise. "I tried to call the hostel to get a hold of you but they couldn't find you."

'Fuck, really?' I think. 'What the fuck was I going to do?' I feel for the guy, sure, but my money is getting thin, I have no car here in Ghana and I am not sure what kind of help I could have offered otherwise. Still, I am flattered at the consideration although secretly glad that I didn't have to spend the evening watching this man gasping and sweating to death.

See, the way a lot of African health-care systems work is different than the US: they will not give you medicine unless you pay for it first. So Dr. D, through the fog of his own impending doom, finds himself laid up in a hospital finally, scrambling through his limited funds to see if he can afford the to pay for the medicine the doctors are holding in front of him: blood thinner to help with the heart and antibiotics to help with the vicious lung infection he finds he has been carrying around with him for some weeks (which also likely contributed to the heart attack). So close and yet, so far. What a strange ethos for a medical practice: tell your dying patient what is happening to his body, tell him all of the worst case scenarios that may befall him should he not get the appropriate medications/treatment, inform him that both are available at the hospital, but deny him any care, even life-saving care, unless he fork over some hefty bills first. Fuck man, what a trip.

Now, don't get me wrong, I don't really know the kind of person Dr. D is, but he seems alright to me. Then again, I am not his business partner, just a friend. But I do know a bit about gold mining in Ghana, and from the conversations I have overheard, it wouldn't surprise me if he was involved in some shit. Maybe he is into something, maybe not. Maybe it's legal, maybe it's fucked. I can't know and I don't want to. But when you see someone in a situation, like having their heart fail in a developing country without the support (either personal or financial) that they need to see themselves though, that sort of judgment is perhaps suspended and empathy overrides apprehension.

Long story short, Doctor Django eventually made it work, but not without some arm-pulling and a hospital-escort back to the hostel to get more money while he was still technically having a heart-attack (they would not let him leave on his own, lest he skip out on his bill--its like dine-and-ditch just with your life on the line). But as he is still in pretty bad shape, he may need some looking after, so he and I are now friends. He's got my number and contact info (giving this to a potentially-illegal gold dealer may or may not have been the most prudent decision in my travels) and I have volunteered to be on call should anything else happen to him while both of us are still in the country. He is recovering slowly here at the hostel, although as he told me:

"I am stuck here until I get better, I might as well try and get some work done." (i.e. some more high-octane, blood-pressure raising exchanges with gold buyers and sellers). Jesus dude, serious? Yeah, alright.

So lesson learned: life is precious. Whether you are a good person, a bad person, or somewhere in between, no one wants to go the way of an imploding heart on the street somewhere far from home. Even the toughest, roughest of them all still face a potentially-untimely death with fear and uncertainty. Mortality: the great equalizer. But at such a precipice, with which I have had my own fleeting personal encounters, what we all want is a friend, a hand to hold, a familiar face.

I travel a lot and I have for some time now. Its great when you feel strong, healthy, independent, alert, prepared, and ready. But when you find yourself in the shit, all you want is home. And when home is far away, a friend will do.

So here I am drinking a coffee on a warm African morning across the table from my new friend, not asking too many questions, but happy with this unspoken place at which we have arrived. Here I find myself wishing that all wanderers, whether moral crusaders or opportunity seekers, will find their friends when they need it most--including Doctor Django, including myself.

From Accra,

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

A Murky Business

“It’s a murky business.”--the cryptic remarks of a white, middle-aged gold speculator from Phoenix as he details his latest (legal?) business dealings in Ghana. And while his industry and mine could not be more different, I feel like maybe he is speaking for both of us in some way.

I'll explain what I mean, it just might take me a while to get there...

Arriving in a developing country with a wad of crisp US dollars is an easy way to feel big in one’s britches. The stacks of local currency yielded by this foreign sum means that everyone walks into the heat and humidity with fat pockets and feeling like a high roller. But for those of us to whom such a sensation is not the normal state of affairs, this effect inevitably proves fleeting and deceptive.

Having learned my lesson several times before, I doubled the amount of cash I changed upon arrival before heading into a part of the country that I had been told was, for all intents and purposes, functionally cash-less (although I would later learn that there is in fact one working ATM in the Afram Plains where I had been working). Better safe than sorry. So I set off into the bush with my collection of neat bank envelopes, each spilling out with one colorful denomination or another.

Fast forward almost a month and a half: I am at a small hostel on a beach, far away from a lot of things, and I find myself stitching together smaller and smaller bills in order to cover a bar tab that has, in the past few days, exceeded both reason and possibly even memory.

How many of those did I have?


Good for me.

After the 50 and 20 and 10 GH cedi notes are finished, I find myself erecting piles of 5 and 1 GH cedi notes, which begins to worry me some. The bartender looks skeptical but unsurprised--I get the distinct feeling that this is not uncommon. I finish the count and am just clear with some taxi fare left over. There’s even a bit extra to buy a drink in celebration of my modest financial accomplishments.

“One Mario Special, please.”

“You’re ridiculous,” the bartender obliges.

They’ve named a drink after me, which is about as much of a compliment or an honor as I should hope to expect. It is a cocktail of home-brewed akpeteshie (palm wine) flavored with fried bananas (also local), a little bit of rum (or a lot) and some sprite (and I mean Global-South-cane-sugar-no-corn-syrup-added type Sprite, not the poor, subsidized American excuse). For the past few days, I had been sipping these concoctions slowly while watching banks of fog and storms chop the waters along a narrow coastline of mangroves and palms. To my immediate west, there was a thankless lighthouse hailing ships on a lonely peninsula. So I drank a few extras and stayed on the beach a bit longer each night to keep it company.

I’m pretty proud of that.

But my current situation does not involve so much pride, but instead, something of the opposite: pure pragmatism. I’ve still got a week and a half more, a few cities, and a few more beaches to cover before I head back to the states. I better start making friends.

Leaving Ghana, like the few other memorable times I have limped back across the border towards home, will be an inglorious event. Sometimes traveling, and especially traveling where you cross-cut several different socio-economic strata in short periods of time, can be as physically trying as it is mind-fucking. Getting back home, normalizing your brain and your body, and working through the absurdity of transcending such spaces with such ease, can be like shaking off a bad hangover. You are left with memories that, once removed from their material surrounding, feel entirely unreal and inexplicable; you would doubt they actually happened if you didn’t know better and while the moments themselves may remain clear, connecting the dots proves a different task altogether.

But maybe that is part of the reason for doing this--to get so far outside your head and so far out of your normal reality so as to enter a sort of altered state of consciousness. Sounds dramatic, I know, but maybe part of the motivation (for me at least) to get out, get out, get out and travel often and leave home behind is that I crave the novelty like a clean, clear-headed high. The perspective gained is illuminating. The things experienced become tales, like Ahab and the white leviathan, to be told and re-told as much for the thrill of reliving such things as for the entertainment of others.

This is a pure exercise in privilege, I readily admit. I can’t say if I do any good through any of this or if I make a difference, though I do try my absolute hardest and it tears me up sometimes. But I do feel myself becoming a better person through it. That’s a poor excuse, but it might be what is left after all is said and done--everything else is up for debate, this is the only thing I feel certain about.

I wish the answer were more straightforward. I wish that I could say definitively, like some college student after few weeks “living” in Kenya and building schools that “I made a difference”, but the world is just such a complicated fucking place. Such an assertion would be naïve at best, self-congratulatory and ignorant at worst. So often have people with the best of intentions done the greatest of harm (cue PSA on the history of development and aid intervention in the Global South). Maybe I am just the latest iteration of good intentions gone awry. Maybe I should just stay the fuck at home.

It is only the fools who walk around with self-righteous convictions. I may not be a good person, but at least I have enough perspective to doubt myself (but perhaps not enough to stop doubting myself before it becomes counter-productive). At least I hope I am a little less of a fool than I used to be.

So while arriving in a developing country may be an easy way to buoy your financial ego, leaving that country with loose pockets, an empty bottle of anti-malarials, and a general sense of sobering confusion feels much more like humility.

But I much prefer humility anyway. At least that shit has got some staying power.

It is a murky fucking business, but I love it desperately.


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,

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.