Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Sabbatical Day 11

Thursday, 15 June 2017

After a morning at Kakum National Park and the arrival of a group of students from Texas at the resort, Gwen offers some insights about slave castles and how captives were treated, and what it's like to be an African American in Africa

On Wednesday afternoon, the Coconut Grove gained a new energy as a dozen or so students from Texas State University and their professor, Dr. Rose Pulliam of TSU's School of Social Work, settled in for a few days. Dr. Pulliam annually brings a class of graduate and undergraduate students to Ghana for field study and consultation with Social Work instructors and students across the country.

Dr. Pulliam and I became acquainted at breakfast on Thursday morning, as we each enjoyed breakfast with coffee and glasses of bissap. Bissap is hibiscus tea made very strong to a consistency not unlike grape juice, then sweetened and chilled. It is popular as a drink, any time of day, but the Coconut Grove served it on occasional mornings in place of a fruit juice, probably because of its high anti-oxidant and vitamin C content.

Dr. Rose Pulliam
photo from her Twitter account -
I was interested to know about her program and the students' experiences, and she seemed interested in an American family that would go on vacation to Ghana. We both reflected on the gladsome history of Ghana - first West African country to declare independence, one of the few African governments to witness decades of successive peaceful transitions of power, the hub of the electrical grid for most of Ghana and virtually all of neighboring Togo. But we were also concerned about the fact that this coastal region was the locus of most of North America's slave-based economics (Angola being the most common location of South America's), and wondered aloud about the long-term effects of colonialism and post-colonialism on Ghana's infrastructure, economy and people. Just as the conversation was getting good, it was time for Dr. Pulliam to board the van for Cape Coast. So, she suggested that she and I might talk with the students, that evening, about our observations and concerns and hear from them. I'm sad to say that the events of the rest of the day and into the evening didn't really allow for that, but I still was able to have a fascinating conversation about the conditions in Ghana with another American person of color, that evening.

This was my family's day to go to Kakum National Park, an area of hundreds of square miles of rain forest that includes a great deal of wildlife and a canopy walk. A canopy walk is a bridge suspended by ropes and cables between tall trees so that visitors may observe from scores of feet above the forest floor the goings on of the creatures below. And it also affords a spectacular view.

R82 just south of the Kakum NP entrance gate
Note that the road is only about two-thirds paved.
This actually made it so that passage straddling dirt and
pavement was preferable to driving only on pavement.
As a result, the roadbed - designed for two lanes -
only accommodated one lane at a time. Oncoming traffic
either had to pull off the road or veer hard to the right.
The drive from the resort to the park is about fifty miles long, but in the daytime (which is to say, without police checkpoints) that journey takes almost two hours. Everything seemed to be going very smoothly, pavement-wise, until we got just north of Cape Coast. On the outskirts of town, it becomes clear that someone had the inspiration to widen the two-lane Route 82, or maybe just to pave it. But for most of the way, there is pavement either on only one side of the road (and much of that crumbling), or else there is no pavement at all and one is subject to gullies and pits. Where full pavement of two lanes resumes, still there are potholes that threaten to swallow your vehicle. I am quite certain we never exceeded thirty miles and hour during the last sixty minutes of our drive. We left the resort at 10AM. We arrived just a little before noon.

Emmanuel explained that the road conditions in Ghana are often determined by the outcomes of elections. When one party is in power, their inclination may be to strengthen transportation infrastructure, but the next party in power will want to direct money to social services or agriculture or the military or the environment. Ghana is run on a shoestring of tax revenues and foreign aid, and therefore - even though all of those interests may be complementary - they end up competing for the same money. The road to Kakum was a vivid illustration of this.

The park was abuzz with the sounds of young people. Just as the youth of France may go on field trips to Versailles, and the youth of east central Missouri to Jefferson Barracks, the youth of Ghana get to go on field trips to this rain forest. There were at least two busloads of high school youngsters, in addition to a young family whom we also had seen at the resort this morning and the family of an American college student just finishing her year of field work in Kumasi. Together, we purchased tickets and were provided lanyards (badges) that authorized us for the Canopy Walk or (in the case of the young family) Nature Walk.

The Kakum National Park, according to our tour guide, is home to forest elephants, a number of species of monkeys, dozens of bird species, and a wide variety of reptiles and amphibians. Most of these, however, only come out at night. So, she offered that we might want to come and camp in the canopy treehouse sometime. Then, we could see and hear how the forest comes alive. We decided to try our luck in the daytime, instead.

The Canopy Walkway has two routes - the short (or "low") route with only three bridges strung between some impressively massive, and tall trees, and the long (or "high") route with seven such bridges. Coco elected to take the low; Gwen and I went for the high. As it turned out, all of the girls and one boy on the field trip, who started on the Walkway Tour about ten minutes after us, would follow Coco. The rest of the boys, quite a rowdy crew and possibly an explanation of the forest animals' decision to remain nocturnal, were behind Gwen and me. This wasn't an issue, really, until we had crossed the third bridge, which was when the boys entered the first one.

Gwen's Journal: "When Dad stepped down on the tall [bridge] it started to sink. That made Mom's mind up: she is going to take the short one. There are seven bridges you have to walk on to get to the end of the top ones. For the short you got to walk on 3. I went with Dad and, believe me, it would roam back and forth each time."

You see, when each bridge receives the weight of the first person to enter it, there is a moment when it settles. There is a loud thump that arises, and it can feel for a moment as though the bridge is entirely giving way. But in fact, the wood plank on which you are about to walk is simply setting itself down comfortably on its base of cable and rope. There won't be another such sound until the last of you steps up onto the next junction, and the plank rattles itself back up until the next person can enter it. This series of thumps and rattles and the natural tendency of the very strong netting on either side of those on the Walkway elicited an excitement among that crew of boys that was memorable for its very noisiness! I didn't understand much of anything they said, since, despite them being Catholic students of a school that insisted upon their use of English in the classroom (I'll explain how I knew this in a moment), on this field trip they were carrying on in their local language. But what I understood was the tendency of schoolboys to tease and jostle each other for the sheer fun of it.

Gwen, however, was not amused by them and practiced to get as far ahead of them as she could, even as she sought refuge behind me as we passed from station to station. Also not amused were the girls and one boy on the field trip whom we met as we cleared our fifth bridge. The sixth bridge on our walk was the second on theirs, and Gwen and I had paused at the junction. The boy had taken the lead and silently stepped clear of one bridge and sullenly onto the next, as if to get away from everyone. Behind him were all the girls, led by one who looked quite simply terrified. Still on the bridge, which had settled quite a bit due to the weight of all the girls on it, she looked up at me with anxious tears and said, "I am very afraid."

"You don't have to be," I said as assuringly as I could. "You're just fine." Gwen punctuated my words with her own, smiling, "There's nothing to worry about." I reached out my hand to her, and she took it and stepped up onto the landing, then continued on. When the next bridge settled under her, she shrieked. "Just keep moving," I said. "Being afraid of it only makes it worse!" Gwen warned. And onward she went.

After the seventh bridge (her third), the girl was so relieved to be on terra firma once more, she began crying, and her classmates all gathered round her to comfort her. Gwen and I stepped off after them. She took off to find Coco, and I walked behind slower. Eventually, I became aware that the girls were following me, as if I was their guide, and to get them on past where I needed to be to meet my family, I paused. The lead girl paused too, and so therefore did the others. I waved them on, telling them that the boy who had been leading them was farther up the path. They went on, each thanking me and bidding me a good day. Meanwhile, the rest of the boys could be heard bouncing and whooping on the bridges behind us.

When we had been traveling to Cape Coast, the day before, I had pointed out to Emmanuel all the schoolchildren in uniforms. "Different colors designate different schools," he said. "Brown skirts or pants and gold shirts indicate that the students attend a public school. Presbyterian schoolchildren wear green or blue, and Catholic school uniforms are white on top and blue on the bottom." All of the young people we were encountering were Catholic and attended schools often staffed by American or British teachers. As I would learn at Akosombo Dam, in a few days, this can impart to the students a distinctly Western - rather than African - inflected accent.

It was afternoon, almost 1 o'clock, when we got back to the Reception area and Emmanuel. The park had a "Rainforest Cafe" and a few vendors selling snacks. We decided that we would have a late lunch back at the resort, but to tide us over I bought some popcorn at one of the stands. The woman had popped it in a cast iron cooker over charcoal, and it was some of the best popcorn I've ever eaten, I have to confess.

It was about 3PM when we arrived at the Coconut Grove, so we turned lunch into dinner and opted for a light, savory snack at about 8 o'clock. The college students returned, shortly after we did, and a few donned swimsuits and walked in the waves while about eight or ten of them followed the lead of one young woman who had gone horseback riding on Wednesday after Gwen's dismount. She rode a spirited filly up front with the wrangler while the rest sat nervously in their saddles and did their best just to keep things under control. After sunset, around 7PM, they all gathered for a buffet. Gwen, Coco, and I claimed another cabana for ourselves and enjoyed grilled calamari, Ghanaian beer, and Fanta (Gwen's beverage of choice since discovering that it was served absolutely EVERYWHERE!).

Coco asked whether Dr. Pulliam had invited me yet to come and talk with the students. I said, no, but that I figured they needed a chance to unwind and defuse after a day spent in slave castles. Gwen asked what I would have talked about. I told her that the professor and I had spoken briefly in the morning about how Ghana was both more and less than we had imagined it would be. "More and less?" Gwen asked. "Yes," I said, "I've been having a hard time seeing how people live here..." "The bad roads and the shacks and all the trash!" said Coco. "So, the way they live seems like less to me, and the stuff they have to deal with is so much more than we have to. Also," I continued, "my heart tells me that they probably have to live this way because we have it so good where we live."

Gwen thought about this and said, "Yeah, it doesn't seem fair. The schoolkids all have to wear the same clothes. And all the girls' hair is short. And the roads really are terrible, and there's trash even on the beach. You had to clear a big piece of wood with nails in it that drifted up on the beach so that someone wouldn't step on it."

Coco told her that Ghana was a great country, because so many of its people came to America and built our economy and a lot of our buildings without being paid. "You mean, slaves?" Gwen said. Yes, said Coco, and furthermore so many able-bodied people, strong people were taken away from here that - although it strengthened us in America - it crippled this country and its neighbors for a long time because they got taken.

"Slavery was horrible," Gwen responded. "How could people make others live the way they did in those slave castles?! Mom, you didn't hear some of the stuff that guy said they did to the women and girls there. I couldn't believe it. It was disgusting. And they'd put people in cells by themselves and leave them to die, if they tried to escape or rebel. I think I would have died if it had been me, because I couldn't stand it." She continued, "I hadn't expected it would be this sad here. I mean, the people are all really nice, and the national park was good..."

Gwen took a breath. "What did you think of Kofi calling you, 'My African sister!' when he greeted you, yesterday?" Coco asked.

"That... was a little weird," Gwen said, "but then everything about that place was a little weird."

"No," Coco said, "I mean, how does it feel to have brown skin in a place where everybody else is the same color as you?"

"I don't know," she said. "It doesn't feel like I'm the same. Do you feel different?"

"I certainly do," Coco answered.

"Yeah," I said, "so do I. I'm not saying it's like being black in America, but me being a white guy with a gray beard here certainly seems to be setting expectations about me among people here. If I don't remind myself that I'm white, it doesn't take long before something somebody else says or does reminds me!"

"Like what?" Gwen asked.

"Like usually they think I ought to spend some money."

"That reminds me. I've been thinking about what you ought to get me for my birthday..."

After dinner, the students adjourned to the beach where staff had set up a bonfire for them. And they talked and talked and laughed and sang, long after my family turned in for the night. The sound of the waves overwhelmed their voices, though, and the three of us slept very well.

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