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Monday, August 31, 2009

Slave Coast

We woke up early on Saturday morning and headed west along the southern Ghanaian coast. Accra is plagued with very nasty traffic snarls, and it seemingly takes forever to get out of town (even on an early Saturday morning). Once we get out on the open road we meet typically third-world driving conditions and the accompanying signs that "overspeeding kills" and 3 people died here, or 5, or 9, or 32, or more than 70. I think we see 2 or 3 accidents this weekend, with more leftover wrecks alongside the road.

The first fort we come across is Fort Amsterdam. My guide book tells me that the British built it in 1638, and the Dutch captured it in 1665. Ghana's colonial name was the Gold Coast, and Europeans built about 80 of these structures along the coast, originally just to facilitate extraction of gold from the interior of the continent. Something like 14 of these forts and castles remain, and I would love to visit every single one of them. But we keep on flying by. Maybe I'll get a chance to come back some time, but it is always a hassle to do things like this on public transit and the horrible traffic in Accra assures that a severe case of inertia sets in.

The first stop is Assin Manso, the slave river. This was the final stop before arrival on the coast for slaves captured in the interior of the continent. Here the slaves were bathed and checked for fitness. Those who did not pass muster were buried alive so that they could not return home to tell others about the slave route. Now a memorial marks this spot, with the remains of 2 slaves from the Americas symbolically reburied here, portraits of famous leaders, and murals that tell this history. I would like to linger, but it is raining and and it is time to move on.

Elmina is one of three main European colonial structures along the coast (the others are Cape Coast and Christiansborg Castle in Accra, the current seat of government and one that cannot be visited). The Portuguese built Elmina ("the mine") in 1482 before it passed through Dutch hands on the way to the British four centuries later. Dating to a decade before Columbus' crossing of the Atlantic, it is the oldest and largest European structure in the tropics. As the name implies, originally it was established as a trading post for the gold trade, and only later became part of the slave trade.

On the hill facing Elmina is St. Jago Hill that the Dutch used in 1637 to bomb the castle and force the Portuguese to surrender. The Dutch then built a fort on the hill to avoid a similar fate. The building is still there, but I am not clear what else. I would have liked to have visited. Maybe another time.

In between the fort and castle is a fishing harbor and market. We stopped there on the way back to Accra on Sunday, and the Ghanians with us bought two large coolers full of fish. Watching them bargain for the fish in the market was an interesting ethnographic experience. The market had a broad range of fish, including octopus, squid, crabs, and who knows what else. A man came with a big block of ice and busted it up with a stick to keep the fish cool and fresh. On the way back to Accra we stopped at stands to buy dirt cheap pineapple (6 for 4 cedis, or about $0.50 USD a piece) and a big bag of oranges for 2 cedis. Now I finally can have my freshly squeezed orange juice for breakfast (I really do wish I had brought my juicer along with me).

But back to Saturday and the Cape Coast. In the afternoon, we visited the Cape Coast Castle, the largest and most famous slaving holding site. Unlike Elmina, this castle was built explicitly for the slave trade with dungeons to hold the captives right under the church on the main parade grounds. The contradictions are stunning. The castle has a famous "Door of No Return" through which slaves were boarded onto ships and taken to the Americas. I wanted to take a facebook profile picture framed in this doorway, but completely forgot about it until after we had left. On the ocean side of the doorway a sign now says "Door of Return" through which the mortal remains of two slaves passed before being reburied at Assin Manso.

Cape Coast and Elmina are quite different, but the problem with seeing both back to back is that they begin to blend together in my mind. Both castles bounced around between European powers, but at the height of the slave trade Elmina was a Dutch site and Cape Coast was a British center. They are located only about 14km apart, and on a clear day they are visible from each other. Both are impressive structures with long and brutal histories.

On Sunday we visited the Kakum National Park and its much-publicized canopy walk, a 350 meter long and 40 meter high walkway suspended between seven trees. It is one of about 7 in the world, and the only one in Africa. My guide book calls it an overrated gimmick, and it really is not that much fun for those of us with severe cases of vertigo. The heavy bouncing Dutch guys behind him made me close my eyes and concentrate on crossing rather than enjoying the view. Besides, it was raining and my camera got all wet and the guide did not provide any explanation of any unique features of the canopy that might justify our presence up there. Without that, it becomes little more than an expensive amusement ride.

In retrospect, I regret not going on a forest walk, which I would have found much more interesting. We had the time, and could have done so. Walking up to the canopy we crossed a line of soldier ants, and without seeing them stepped--and, worse--stopped right on the line. In retrospect, we wished we would have had a picture of that scene, but I was too busy trying to brush off the biting ants to remember how my camera worked!

(PS, I have lots of photos, but blogger--which is increasingly flaky--is not cooperating in uploading them. I'll try to upload some to facebook as well, but the slow internet connection here is complicating that venture.)

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Left hands

Left hands are considered dirty in Ghana. I've always associated that with the Muslim world, but its presence in Christian Ghana leaves me unsure now where that custom originated or how it made its way here. Perhaps it has deeper Arabic or African roots. Because of that tradition, any human contact is supposed to be with the right hand. I didn't realize until today how prevalent it was, and how commonly I use my left hand (even tho I am right handed) for seemingly normative tasks.

My worries that the cleaning staff would take my towel before my shower were realized this morning. For some reason, they come confiscate my towel and then only replace it several hours later when they return to clean the flat. So, they picked it up while I was at breakfast, and when I returned to shower before heading off to class I had to go to the Guest Centre's office to ask for a towel. They gave me one, and I thoughtlessly reached out with my left hand to take it and the staff person immediately pulled back from me--almost an automatic gut-level reaction as if I had offered someone a dirty glass of water to drink.

I always get pre-class jitters, and today was doubly worse because it was my first time teaching outside of the U.S. and I was not entirely sure what to expect. I almost always start my classes with the same introductory discussion on definitions, geography, dependency theory, etc. I must have done done this dozens of times by now, and it is always one of my favorite class periods. But talk about being out of my comfort zone.

Stella lent me her overhead projector since I thoughtlessly failed to bring maps with me, and it is difficult to find maps here. She told me to bring a power strip, but I forgot and these blasted English outlets give me no end of grief and I had trouble getting both the projector and the computer plugged in at the same time and in a location where we could project anything worth much. Worse, there is only 5 minutes between classes, so I had almost no time to set this up.

Each class apparently has a "class rep." I'm not sure exactly how this works or how this person is selected, but mine scrambled to help hook up the projector, find an eraser (the English have a different word?) and a marker that worked for the white board. Then he gave me a microphone, which ended up causing me problems because when I asked students questions I kept mindlessly handing it to students with my left hand so that the class could hear their answers.

Teaching always leaves me feeling exhausted, and today was triply bad because being out of my comfort zone and although it was cooler (23, I think) it rained and the humidity was through the roof which left me dripping. I left class with all of my typical midwestern sense of inadequacy, self-doubt, and wondering what I could or should have done differently and better.

I walked back to the history department with a couple students who debated whether class next week would be larger or smaller. I joked with the students whether I should teach this "Ghanian" or "U.S." style. I'm not entirely clear what those categories mean, but it seems that the assumption is that a Ghanian class would be easier. But a couple students were asking serious questions about the first essay assignment that is not due until a third of the way through the semester; at Truman that only rarely happens for me with the most overachieving students drawn out of a population of already exceptional talent.

One student thought that the perceived level of work in this class and my more interactive style of teaching would chase a lot of students away, while another assumed that students would tell others that this was an interesting class and that it would pull in more people. In the end it probably will be a wash, with half the class leaving and another group replacing them. The history chair says not to worry about people who leave, but it is hard for me not to take it personally.

A two-hour class, and it pretty much wipes out my entire day.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

University Guest Centre

My office isn't ready yet in the history department, so I've been spending my time in my flat in the University Guest Centre. The centre is apparently for visiting faculty members and the like. It has "bedsitters" (small motel rooms), flats (one-bedroom apartments like the one I have), and bungalows (houses). I feel fortunate to have a flat. The bedsitters sound like they are too small, a bungalow would be way too much space, so the flat is just right.

The Guest Centre has a restaurant onsite, and the room includes a simple breakfast of tea or coffee, bread, and eggs (after 4 months, my cholesterol level is probably going to be through the roof). The flat has a small kitchen, and last nite I cooked my first meal (rice and lentils, of course; there is no oven with which to make cornbread). It is really quite a nice place.

The problem is that as a gringo and as I grow older I really treasure my privacy and independence. The flat is on the first floor and on a heavily traveled path facing the restaurant. This means that people are always walking by and can look straight in at me (too bad I didn't get a flat on the backside of the complex!). Worse, the annoying thing is that at 10am every morning the staff come in to clean the room (yes, this is run as if it were a hotel). I hate these invasions of my privacy that make me feel as if I should not be here (where else am I supposed to go?), and as if I can't leave things (like my computer and camera) just laying around as if I were at home. Furthermore, I hate the class implications of having servants make my bed and clean my toilet (I can do that myself!).

Do I complain too much? Jeri says it sounds as if I'm talking about New York! But I really am happy and having a good time here.

Monday, August 17, 2009

First day of classes

Today was supposed to be the first day of classes. My students went to a 7:30 class and waited for about 45 minutes. They said 5 other students showed up but no professor, and finally they left.

This morning I had a meeting with the incoming and outgoing chairs of the history department. They said that no history classes were being taught this week, but that I should plan to start next week. While we were meeting, a staff person came in with the list of teaching slots that the department had been given. While we sat there, we decided to offer my Latin American history class on Tuesdays from 11:30-1:30. The other options were 7:30am on Mon or Tues, or 5:30pm on Fri, neither which would be good for a 400-level history elective. The course is scheduled to be held in Jones Quartey Building (JQB) 19 which, as Stella warned me, is on the other side of campus--about as far away from the University Guest Centre where I am staying as one can get and still be on campus. The history building, on the other hand, is close--at least close by University of Ghana standards, since everything is very spread out. It is only an 8-minute walk away. All of this, of course, can still change as the schedule sorts itself out.

I've thought about buying a bike to get around campus, but everyone cautions against it because of the open gutters and crazy drivers. There are not very many bikes around here, though I've seen at least 2 of my colleagues at the Guest Centre with them. Maybe a bike is not worth it to cross campus for a once a week class.

As in the States, these are 3-hr courses, but here that means 2-hrs of lecture and an hour of tutorial discussion. Apparently that will be scheduled later. It's supposed to be a 13-wk semester, but we're losing this week and the chair said to plan to lose another week, so it will probably be 11 lectures. This is by far the shortest semester schedule I will ever have (Truman is 15 wks; the longest I have taught is Illinois State at 17). The lecture period is followed by a "Revision" week (study break, I assume) and then a 3-wk final exam period, by far the longest exam period I've ever had. I hate final exams.

So, now our week-long orientation is over and I have another week to put together a syllabus for a class that I teach all the time. This will give me plenty of time to finish reading Lucero, write the review, work on Mariategui translations, and move on to other projects. I've also found the BBC now, both on the radio (101.3 in Accra) and on the TV (I didn't see it when I first arrived here). Since I'm stuck in a flat without Internet for streaming WORT (tho I'm trying to figure out if I can get some sort of mobile broadband), I am feeling a bit more connected to the world around me now, esp. since the local papers don't have much of int'l news. I'm feeling more relaxed and sleeping better here than I have in years.

And I have a week now before classes start. It almost seems like I should take advantage of this time to go exploring Ghana. But if I were at home, I'd be doing exactly what I am doing here now--sitting in my house working through a long list of academic tasks I need to complete.

Sunday, August 16, 2009


Don't just take my word for it, you can also read what the students are saying about Ghana:


I'm not, of course, responsible for anything they may write!

Friday, August 14, 2009


Today was the Accra city tour and shopping. We started off at the W.E.B. Du Bois Center which, somewhat ironically, is close to the U.S. embassy. Du Bois came here in 1961 shortly after Ghana won its independence from the British to live out the last of his days and work on an encyclopedia of Africa. I didn't know that Du Bois had spent time in Ghana until I was reading Lonely Planet on the plane (I really didn't know anything about Ghana before arriving here...). Now I wish I had brought along one of his books, maybe The Souls of Black Folk that I have sitting on my shelf back home.

We then went to the Kwame Nkrumah Mausoleum. Nkrumah was Ghana's independence leader and president until he was overthrown in a military coup in 1966. They had a small but nice museum with some of his possessions, books, and pictures with Fidel, Mao, and other world leaders.

We then continued on to a tourist market. I thought about buying a shirt, but I don't have a good enough sense of what are good prices or what is good quality to buy stuff. Maybe I'll just wait for Cheryl to arrive before purchasing anything.

We then spent the afternoon in a mall, and you know how malls and me get along...

I brought along my big camera today, but I don't know if I took any shots worth anything. But it may be a moot point anyway, because I can't get my photos to upload to my blog. That is maybe just as well. After seeing Gwen's photos from our trip to Oaxaca a couple years ago I promised never to bother anyone with my pictures again anyway.

PS--Since I can't upload photos to blogger, I'll just put them on Facebook for now.

Thursday, August 13, 2009


We arrived to Ghana Monday nite, or at least the humans did. British Air for some reason decided that 3 of us did not need our bags. So, we show up in Accra and the baggage office had a printout showing that our luggage was still at Heathrow. If they knew they had our bags, why did they not just put them on the plane? The mysteries of BA, my least favorite airline. At least they didn't trap us in Nairobi for an extra 24 hrs this time. But last nite we finally went back to the airport to pick up the bags.

Last nite Stella brought over a big bag of goodies that previous faculty directors have left behind. It was like christmas. Usually my furnished apartments in Quito are, well, furnished, but the kitchen in this one has a fridge but nothing else. At least with this bag now I have pots, pans, dishes, silverware, and a hot pad. With my suitcase that had been left at Heathrow, I am now feeling more complete.

We have one more student who is supposed to arrive today, so I guess with her things will be complete .

We've spent a couple days in orientation, and I'm not clear if I'm supposed to hang w/ the students or if I can go off & do my own thing (which at this point would involve hanging out on my deck and reading Lucero's Voice of Struggles, the final book I have to review before I can come to Ghana). There are a lot of empty spaces, which leaves me feeling more exhausted than if we were super busy. And it doesn't leave me time to run off to an Internet to catch up on my email, blog, and facebook, or space to pull out Lucero and start reading.

I have a cell phone now, for the first time in my life. The first time it rang I was in the Internet cafe and I was trying to figure out where that noise was coming from my computer. Then the next time I didn't hear it at all. I'm not used to listening for its ring. And then it goes off in a meeting, which is annoying. But I think I'm supposed to leave it on so students can call me in an emergency. So, only call me in an emergency. 0542686030. I don't think I'm ever going to get used to those little things.

I'm supposed to start teaching on Monday, or at least one of my students said that my Latin American history class is listed in the history office. But I don't know when or where I am to teach it, and I'm still not clear what my syllabus should look like. Apparently it is common here for there to be one final exam that is the grade for the entire semester.

Tomorrow we are supposed to go on a city tour to Accra. Tomorrow is Friday, at least here in Ghana. I'm not sure about the rest of the world. We're 5 hrs east of Kansas time, and I never do time zone calculations very well (for example, I calculated my malaria dose backwards). My clocks tell me what time it is in Legon, but who knows if it is today, tomorrow, or yesterday there. And with a lack of good Internet connections, I might write something and then not be able to send it out for more than a day anyways.

Friday, August 07, 2009

Next Stop: Ghana

My summer is over, and I'm leaving for Ghana tomorrow. I've managed to finish most of my summer tasks (let's see, I think I've reviewed 3 book manuscripts, wrote 2 book reviews, sent off 3 articles and 2 book chapters, and translated most of my share of the Mariategui anthology). What I have left to do is one more book review and 2 more of the Mariategui essays (and two long ones on land and race at that which have already been translated into English, but hey), and I guess I'll finish those in Ghana.

This fall I will be the faculty co-director for the Missouri in Africa Program. My understanding is that I will teach one class (Latin American history) at the University of Ghana, and meet weekly with the four students from Missouri who are traveling on this program. I hope it will be an easy fall. I really need a break.

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