Tag Archives: Ghana


Malaria and Social Distance

We had a four day weekend. Friday, October 3, was German Reunification Day (and Hannah’s school celebrates all local and German holidays), and the following Monday was a Muslim holiday, Eid al-Adha. And I got a fever, headache, body ache and some nausea. I feared I had contracted malaria. Fortunately the fever lasted only one day, and my other symptoms were gone after two, so I am not likely to have contracted malaria (yet?). Here is part of why:

“At bedtime my hosts pushed me inside, worried that I, like most whites, was as fragile as an egg and would be bitten by a mosquito and die of malaria.” (Palmer, 2010, pp. Kindle Locations 2038-2039)

This is how, apparently, the US State Department handles us. We were advised to take antimalarial medication, an antibiotic, for our entire stay in Ghana. Our holistic physician in Indiana was not happy with the continuous killing of all the flora in our guts, knowing that a happy gut is one of the keys to good health. The effects of taking malarone long term are not known. We followed the State Department’s advice, got initial prescriptions filled to cover a couple of months, and we were off on our adventure. Then, long before we ran out, I went to the doctor to refill my prescription. We went to the clinic that the US Embassy recommended. It costs 140 Ghana Cedis (about $38.00) to see the physician. He looked into my eyes and said, “I will write a two month supply for you, but, you know, you would do better to not take this, and to treat malaria only if you get it, like everyone else does” (my italics). Who is “everyone else?” There are so many ways that my lifestyle, like that of other North Americans and Western Europeans are not like “everyone else” here in Ghana. This conversation became a signifier for the post and neo-colonial heritage that my physician’s and my relationship represented at this moment. My sense of cultural distance felt vast; this is a challenge. I want to shrink that gap. So, was this the African doctor finding the obruni (Twi for the stranger, not from here) to be ridiculous, to be treated better (or more ridiculously) than the native people, or was this really part of the American habit of taking a pill for everything, regardless the negative consequences? Was it both or maybe something else?

Part of the context is that I am reading Fannon’s Wretched of the Earth (Fanon, 2004 (1961 French original version)) about the resistance to the colonists with a deep psychoanalytic and Marxist frame. That physician I saw was not making much compared to his American counterpart. I am drinking in Fannon’s work and considering how to update the insights into this neocolonial era. Consider the tone of this work:

“The gaze that the colonized subject casts at the colonist’s sector is a look of lust, a look of envy. Dreams of possession. Every type of possession: of sitting at the colonist’s table and sleeping in his bed, preferably with his wife. The colonized man is an envious man. The colonist is aware of this as he catches the furtive glance, and constantly on his guard, realizes bitterly that: “They want to take our place.” And it’s true there is not one colonized subject who at least once a day does not dream of taking the place of the colonist.” (Fanon, 2004 (1961 French original version), pp. Kindle Locations 898-902)

I am also reading Ama Ata Aidoo, an African Feminist whose narrative voice I hear echoing in me about ownership of self and family, to whom we, our thoughts, our longings, our knowledge of right and wrong belong:

“’I was born before your mother and now that she is dead, I’m your mother! Besides, when she was alive I could scold her when she was wrong, and now I say you are a fool. For seven years you have struggled to look after a child. Whether he had cloth or not did not concern any other person. When Kwesi was a child he had no father. When he nearly died of measles, no grandmother looked in. As for aunts, he began getting them when he started going to school. And now you are allowing them to take him away from you. Now that he is grown enough to be counted among the living, a father knows he has got a son.’” (Aidoo, 1969, p. 84)

Am I now among the living in Africa, having become so as I approach sixty years of age? I am reading Alice and Staughton Lynd (Lynd & Lynd, 2009) on Accompanying as a way of social change and Richard Wright’s Native Son (Wright, 1940) about the dispossessed in the USA as well and could add to your burden of learning my reading context, but perhaps you catch my drift: I am working on how does one compassionately engage another culture with integrity? How can I follow the truth as I know it into the truths of Ghanaians and Ghanaian Africa and do so honestly. I learn, I try, I stumble, I learn, and over and over again. I wear a hat to shield my pale flesh from the intensity of the equatorial sun, a hat made by a craftsman from the northern region of Ghana, Bolgatanga, near Burkina Faso. I wear shirts made here, but my sandals are of a sturdy German variety. I drink bottled water for fear of cholera or worse. I drink German coffee and eat croissants in the school mornings. I cannot speak Twi, Ewe, or Ga. I can’t even speak German or French.  I feel my cultural distance, and own it.  I will live into more connection with the more common experience here.

Another context, the Quaker testimonies on simplicity, integrity, community, truth-telling, peacemaking, and equality, squarely challenge another level of my unconscious/becoming conscious privilege with an opportunity for more conscious living. The working of working these disciplines, imperfectly practiced, is never easy at decision points like this. I open myself to conversation with others and to individual and corporate meditative presence about the concern. I can occupy my time in queues (in lines for my American readers) waiting and delving into my center to listen to the Inner Guide, to allow new connections to emerge, to be present with the struggle inside me, reminding myself to hold this all in Light and Love. So, I went to a pharmacy to buy some more antimalarial medication, malarone. My jaw dropped when trying to buy a two month’s supply for both Hannah and me. The cost was 1,500 Ghana Cedis (about $500.00).

After calling my beloved to help me form my opinion of what to do, I bought two weeks’ worth to buy a little time in discerning what to do. I reported my dilemma to the mostly expatriate parents who gather at the Swiss club for good German coffee and pastries after dropping off the children at the German Swiss International School. The Swiss Club is connected to the School in a number of ways, geographically our children can order food through the sparse wall or slide under if a hug is needed from a parent. Some of the parents work for foundations of different German political parties; they offer training to Ghanaian politicians on good governance (of course, my dear anarcho-syndacalist and Marxist friends, this is only their good but misguided intent; and, of course, mine Deutschland freunde, I remind you that we must love Ghanaians and Ghana if we want to help them and it). I like them. Married to one of them is a Turk turned German, a guitar maker who shares many stories of his years in Ghana. He, along with others at the table, were shocked that the US recommends that one take these medications continuously. They echoed the Ghanaian doctor’s advice, adding how easy it is to get tested if one suspects malaria and how easy and inexpensive it is to treat it if the test is positive. Others had warned me about the cerebral type of malaria, a rare event, adding something about how the power of anecdote (the weakest form of valid evidence) affects us all. That did it. Regardless of what Monica might decide for herself and Hannah, I was going off the malarone. (This is a relative sentence, because I would jump into a vat of boiling oil if she my beloved asked—so I give her veto power over me.) I want to be a bit more connected to the experience of my African brothers and sisters. I will live life and deal with malaria when I need to. I will let my gut’s flora rebound and flourish. I, and more importantly, Hannah, will avoid whatever as yet undetermined long term effects of malarone may present. Monica agreed with my decision and now all three of us are malarone free! Please remind me that this was a good idea after one of us gets that special mosquito bite and one of us feels like that fragile egg. Remind me that this was a good idea when I worry whenever each of us three gets a fever.

Works Cited

Aidoo, A. A. (1969). No Sweetness Here; Short Stories by Ama Ata Aidoo (Anchor Books ed.). Garden City, New York, USA: Doubleday & Company, Inc.

Fanon, F. (2004 (1961 French original version)). The Wretched of the Earth (English Translation). (R. Philcox, Trans.) New York, New York: Grove Press.

Lynd, A., & Lynd, S. (2009). Stepping Stones: Memoir of a Life Together. Lanham, Maryland, USA: Lexington Books.

Palmer, K. (2010). Spellbound: Inside West Africa’s Witch Camps (Kindle Edition ed.). Free Press. Wright, R. (1940). Native Son (Restored Text 1993 ed.). (L. o. Congress, Ed.) USA: Harper Perennial Modern Classics.


Social faux pas

Saturday, August 30, 2014
There is so much happening that it cannot ever all be written, not even a tiny fraction. Even the events in the last few days could never fully be recorded. Infinity, and each point within teaming with endless hermeneutic possibilities, swirls around us without end, quantum bits of positive and negative mass/energy/memories appearing, as if ex nihilo, and, moments later, annihilating each other in a flash or transforming into some structure: A sentence appears. If I am to share anything, I am forced to make moving memory objects become still, observe and choose some morsels, filtered and changed as they are, through that odd thing called my mind. Here are today’s choices:
Social faux pas. And learning opportunities. Four of them.

1. Tamale

The northern Ghanaian city of Tamale not pronounced like the delightful Mexican food wrapped in corn husks with masa harina and meat and/or vegetables inside. The accent of this city’s name is on the first syllable: TA-ma-le. Tamale, a predominately Muslim city, is the administrative capital of the Northern Region and the third largest settlement in Ghana. It has a population of about 550,000 and is growing rapidly. It was an important crossroads on the caravan route connecting the Sahel (the more desert region to the north) to the coast during the slave trading era, and possibly before that. One moves from the rain forests of the south to the savannah of the north as one moves toward Tamale. I don’t know if we will visit this city, though we hope to travel north between semesters, perhaps to see elephants in the wild.

2. The Woman in the Car

I have had three experiences in the last week of people stopping me on the street, and saying “hello,” smiling and waving like they know me, calling out a name that is not mine. It has become clear that for some Ghanaians having briefly met a white guy with mostly white hair and a beard, well, as minorities (in population numbers, not in status) here, we pretty much all look alike, notwithstanding that some of my cultural doppelgängers are a foot taller than me with a prominent bald spot. There is at least a millennium of cultural baggage that is expressed and reproduced in social relations from the taxis that honk more insistently at white folk who are on average more likely to have fair (and whom the drivers charge more) to an often uncomfortable level of obsequity at stores. One has the privilege to be crass or gracious when one is white here. We are seen to have money, and that is mostly true and certainly relatively true. The security guards the university pays to guard of the Fulbright house, the four-plex in which we live, consider themselves to have a good job. It pays, I am told by a reliable source, the equivalent of twenty-five cents per hour (almost one Ghana Cedi). That is two dollars (about 7.50 Cedis) a day for an eight hour shift. What must be the sense of social distance experienced by the guards when we bring out our empty bottles of wine and beer, these consumables that easily exceed his monthly income?

After getting up at 5:15 am, getting our vitamins and meds lined up, awakening Hannah, getting a bite to eat, Hannah and I climb into the cab at about 6:10 am with our driver, brother Oppong, for a ride to the German Swiss International School that can take anywhere from twenty-five minutes to an hour and a half (which will be more likely the case as all the other primary schools open up in the next two weeks). We were somewhere in the middle of our six days without tap water in the house, so I was feeling considerably less fresh than I am accustomed. After spending time with Hannah in the open play hour before school formally starts, I retreat to the German Swiss club form which I can see Hannah if she is in the playground area, and which separates us by wood lattice under which the children can crawl (and Hannah has done so) to get a parent’s attention. I chat with a group mostly German speaking parents where we have good coffee, apple strudel, and other European delights. When our group breaks up at about 9:00 am, I walk a few kilometers to an “internet café” on the busy and pollution-choked Ring Road to read the latest from the IWW’s annual convention, about various Quaker business or practice issues, peace organizations to which I belong or follow, what is Happening with Cameron, Rhiannon, Quinn, and my other kith and kin.
I give this background to show that the life I lead here is very different from most Ghanaians. And some Ghanaians who have some measure of privilege have pointed this out to me. For example, I went to the doctor to have my Malaria prophylaxis prescription renewed. The doctor would renew it for only two months, telling me that I should go off this antibiotic and be like everyone else here and treat the symptoms if I get it (meaning when I get it). The social dimension of handling the physiological is inextricably attached to meaning and status. Does truly experiencing Africa necessarily mean disrupting my gut’s flora with ten months of daily antibiotics? Does it mean likely getting and treating Malaria? This appears to be a real choice I get to make consciously.

So, a couple of hours later I walk out of the Busy-Internet internet “café,” that is, a café that has nothing to drink or eat, but access to what someone decided to call broadband. (It takes 13 hours to download a movie there on iTunes.) It was a warm sunny day, like most of them, and I felt the blast of heat upon leaving the air conditioning. It was startlingly hot, and as I recoiled from the heat and made my way down the stairs to the drive way, a woman in the passenger side of a large SUV called out to me, calling me a name I do not recognize.

“Hello, no, that is not me,” I answered her as I moved toward the front, passenger side car window from which she spoke. I introduced myself, my name and that I am from Indiana in the USA, a place where it would be starting to get cooler in the evening as we move toward autumn. She said she worked for Ghana TV, a station in Accra, the city in which we were having this conversation. She was Ghanaian, perhaps in her forties with shoulder length straightened hair, with some makeup, and European stylish clothes, her very dark skin glistening from the heat, clearly a woman of relative means in this country. I leaned in to hear her better; I have some hearing loss, and the ambient street noise decreased my ability to hear despite her articulate English. In response to my comment that we are less than two weeks into being in Ghana for our first time and that everyone we have met has been extraordinarily welcoming and generous, she suggests that she should interview me and perhaps my wife for TV. After we exchanged phone numbers, she mentions that others might be looking at us, because a white man talking to a Ghanaian woman often means, well, you know. I apologized both for my cultural lack of understanding on social space (Americans interact in closer social space than Ghanaians that do now know each other) and that I have some hearing loss that leads me to lean into conversations. After many apologies from me I took my leave. It occurred to me as I walked away that her expressed concern was not much different from what happens in the USA, that some of the racialized constructions of relationship are similar in our two different social contexts. And some of the roots are the same, the relational legacies of colonialism and slavery. She has not yet called for that interview.

3. No Chairs in the Internet Café

I am old. You will read this in this and the fourth section here. “I am old” means something different in Accra than in the USA. Being old means being deserving of respect. My nearly white hair means that I am treated differently than a young person. Add to that that the average life expectancy in Ghana is 63, a mere five years older than my current age. In the USA we talk of 50 being the new 30, and that has merit with our life expectancy pushing 80. Instead of five years, I can reasonably expect to be around here for thirty or more. It would not make so much sense here to adopt a child at 53 years old, but in the USA I can reasonably expect to kick a soccer ball with Hannah when I am 70 and she is 18.

Hannah gets out of school at 12:30 pm each day, and I check what her blood sugar levels were for the day taken by the teachers, and I determine how much insulin to give her in a shot after lunch. Wednesdays we opted to have her stay for the after school session till 4:30 pm with an extracurricular activity of expressive dance. So, after I give the needed insulin, I head back to the Busy Internet Café for some more connection. I walk the three kilometers or so past the major water way were many relieve themselves, past shops for those with cash and past the street vendors for those with pesos (the equivalent of cents for the Ghanaian Cedi). The gasoline and diesel here is not unleaded. They use lead to increase mileage despite the damage to the young brains here. I breathe in the fumes as I sweat down the road, honking taxis trying to deliver the white man from the sweat of the walk and some of his Cedis.

The woman at that takes my order appears to have a physical deformity, some spinal problem. She is kind and recognizes me from prior days—she tell me my account name there: “Brad2.” I smile and affirm her. I pay for two hours of internet access, a full eight Cedis, the equivalent of about $2.50, and I walk to the wireless room where I will set up either my computer or my iPad. The room is full and there are no chairs available for me. I set my computer down by a plug, turn it on, connect the electric cord, and decide where to sit on the floor. I move a waste can over a few feet and sit down against the wall, cross-legged, computer on my lap, a familiar positon for me. I hear a roar of people running toward me. From some thirty feet away the woman who took my money and three others from the front desk are impossibly yet instantly in front of me insisting that I take a chair of a young man who is moving out of the seat and also insisting I take the chair. I am stunned, accept the offer, thanking them, slowly trying to absorb what just happened. Here I am old and must not sit on the floor when a younger person sits in a chair. They honor me in way that is both sweet and discomfortingly unfamiliar to me. I have as of yet no idea what I should have done in this situation. I have some asking around to do.

4. Carrying water in Front of Others

In the first two weeks of our stay in Ghana, we were without running tap water for six days. After a few days one of the Fulbright House Fellows, our dear neighbor, Beth, let Monica know that we could draw on a water source across the street. The streets here are pretty quiet, it being before school starts, in part because of the faculty strike. So, as you may already have read, I carried water, like a Ghanaian woman, on my head, not well, but I did it. The second time I did this with at least eight gallons, probably more, likely seventy or more pounds, someone shouted me down. A Ghanaian woman walking with two college age daughters told me, did not ask, told me that her daughter would carry my water. One of the daughters came forward, took my small barrel of water, did not carry it on her well braided hair, but to the side of her. I had to obey, the woman’s command was not one with which to quarrel. I am carried back to my maternal grandmother’s kitchen where, as a four year old I began to learn to cook the German-American fare of her prodigious production of soups, stews, breads, pies, cookies, cakes, and on and on, Grandma Glock’s word was unquestionable law. It was immediate and irresistible, and so was the word of my immediate benefactor’s mother. I obeyed. The young woman seems pleased that she did not have to go far. It was clear that I should not offer her money for this deference, though I wondered for a moment what the proper thanks I should offer. I am old and it is odd for this American where age is battled in advertisements that crowd the eye every few hundred yard, new to Ghana, to be honored for being so. I think I might like it if I can get used to it. We shall see.