Yesterday I was having breakfast at my regular spot in our village when a fellow came and sat next to me. Williams is from Nigeria and he started our conversation the usual way. “Are you from the US?” “Oh, I want to go to the US,” he says. So started a rather lengthy discussion about travel and yes, about America.
I’ve been in Ghana for three months now and although it feels weird to say it, sometimes I think, I might like to go to America too. Life here is hard. Hard in a way that I think most Americans would have trouble understanding. And while here, life is hard, at the same time I’m struck by the generally good natured demeanor of most Ghanaians I encounter. By that I mean, there’s a lot of greeting each other, with lengthy hellos and how are you, how are you doing, but more than that, there are smiles on most peoples’ faces. Overall, people seem to be in a good mood. There’s a “good vibe” as you go around town. Remember, Bimbilla, in northern Ghana, is a small town. The people here went to grammar school together, they grew up together, and everyone knows everyone.
I remember living in Santa Cruz, California for several years in the 1980’s, Santa Cruz is a small town. There, permanent residents, longtime residents, went to school together, grew up together, everyone knows everyone. But there’s a big difference between Santa Cruz and Bimbilla. As transplants to Santa Cruz, my girlfriend and I soon learned about the Santa Cruz hello, it goes like this. You’re walking down the street (the Santa Cruz outdoor mall), you see someone you know, but don’t have time (or maybe you don’t want) to stop and talk, it’s clear that they want you to stop and chat, but, it’s like, hi, great to see you, maybe a handshake, or more probably, a wave, hello, how are you, and, keep walking, don’t stop. That would never happen in Bimbilla.
And therein lies the classic explanation of Ghana time, meaning, why things take so long to get done, why people are often late, not by a few minutes, but by hours, or even days. One of the people I work with is named Mustafa. He’s usually (reliably) so late for appointments that I came up with a new word, Mustafafied. Meaning, that when he does arrive, hours later than he had committed, and you’ve been pacing back and forth, tried calling him on his cell, waiting, waiting, and well, by the time he does arrive, you’ve been Mustafafied. By the way, when we told Mustafa about my new adjective that can be used to describe anyone who is significantly late, he loved it.
Williams and I, who’s English was very good (thank goodness, since my Dagbanli is not) were now deep into a conversation about America. I felt bad in a way, but I also felt it was my duty to disavow Williams of the general fantasy of America. His impression was that everything is easy, that life is easy, that everything is available, not just available, but available for the taking. So in as clear terms as I could muster I tried to explain the difference between what is portrayed in the movies and what sort of life we “normal” people in America live. At first I thought this big burly man was going to cry, but I couldn’t stop. I went on to explain that there are people in America who don’t work very hard and have millions of dollars, but that was just one per cent of the population. That the rest of us, ninety-nine per cent, just go to work every day, try to make enough money to buy food and to cover our daily and weekly expenses. The shocked expression on his face spoke volumes.
Williams asked me if I had ever been to New York, were Obama lives. I said yes, I’ve been to New York and Obama lives in Washington DC. He asked me what New York is like. I tried to explain my last visit to the Big Apple, where I rode my motorcycle down Broadway with taxi cabs inches from my legs, drivers honking and yelling at me apparently for just being there. And I told him how a cup of coffee these days would easily cost ten dollars and a pizza twenty dollars. This really hit home for Williams because he and I were eating breakfast, a rather expensive breakfast. We were each having an exquisite egg sandwich, cooked and prepared in front of us, with a large cup of delightful tea, at a cost of four GHC; that’s about one dollar. I went on to share a rough outline of how much things cost in New York, and while much is available, nothing is free.
And isn’t that the distinction? In America, everything… is available, and that particular foreigner perception is accurate, but none of it is free. When it comes up for discussion, everyone, I mean everyone I meet, wants to go to America. But I’m always, wondering, do you mean to visit, or do you mean to live? For a visit, assuming you will somehow save enough money to get you there, you’ll have a grand time. You want to live there? You may get the shock of your life.
As I sit here now, thinking about America, and my journey there as an immigrant, the economic progress my family made there in the last fifty years, it’s truly inspiring, but it came at a price, and it only came out of hard work. The difference between America and other countries (certainly in Africa) is that in America somehow, someway, there really is opportunity, and that’s what an immigrant dreams of.
© 2016 George Gold
Goats, everywhere goats. Here in the northern Ghana town of Bimbilla, there are goats, I mean to say they are everywhere. Drive down the main street of Bimbilla, and if you don’t see at least twenty goats along the way, you had one too many last night and didn’t notice. There are goats on the pathways, there are goats in the market place, there are goats wandering around munching on this and that and yes, leaving a defecating trail all along the way. When I was in the Bimbilla hospital for a bug bite that got infected, a goat walked right through the main corridor.
And, goats don’t like me. They often stare at me, clearly with some sort of disdain. I keep telling them that I’m a vegetarian, but nary a smile. A few weeks ago I was walking down my normal path to town and I came across a goat, and he was gonna charge me. Full on, head down snorting at me he was. I remembered my wildlife training of last year (what was the name of that documentary?) and so I reared up and made like I was gonna charge him, haha he turned and ran.
A few days ago I was with the HSC team in Kukuo village to interview a woman accused of being a witch. My job? Photographer. As we approached her hut, a goat, ok a really big goat came barreling out of the fenced area around her hut, jumped the fence, almost took the head off my pal Warren Tidwell, and then headed straight at me. I tried to run backwards, but as I saw this blur of a huge white and black goat heading, ne flying, straight for me, I fell and ended up flat on my back, feet up in the air; but my trusty Nikon camera? Still in my right hand held up high and safe. Somehow that wily goat changed direction in mid-air (really!) and I ended up without a scratch. Several people gathered around thinking I was half dead and I grabbed at the arms held out to me just as I hear the refrain of, “oh sorry, so sorry, oh sorry” which is the Ghanaian way of saying, “hey are you all right and sorry you fell flat on your back and we told you to watch out for those goats….”
Today, I was out picking up some food here in Bimbilla and on the way home, on Warren Tidwell’s brand new moto, and after more than 30 years of motorcycling, I crashed into a goat. Help, I need a goat whisperer!
© 2016 George Gold
Live from Ghana! I was walking through town today, and for some reason I had more than the usual silliminga (white man) called out to me; seemed like it was nonstop. And well, after a couple of months, I thought maybe it would die down, clearly it’s not. So to be clear, it’s usually the kids. So, patience, right? But today, like every few minutes… and yes I wave, and I always try to engage with a smile.
So I had lunch with a friend of mine and after talking about his art project, I explained to him how we Americans are very informal, and we would love it if the kids would just ask our name, and we could go from there. So he says, because I’m gray (my hair) they would never ask first, it would be disrespectful. But If ask them their name first, (in Dagbanli of course) they will ask mine. Hmm… I’ll have to test this carefully.
When I got back to my house, I asked my five roomies, all much younger than me, whether they had encountered what my friend said. They all said no. But we will all be testing this new paradigm and my friend’s admonition.
So they won’t ask my name, but “give me some money” which the kids say to me all the time, this is not disrespectful? The contradictions of Africa.
© 2016 George Gold
Sometimes I feel like a motherless child – Richie Havens
The other day there was an occasion where in an official capacity I was asked my age and when I gave it, my young co-worker standing right next to me burst out laughing.
© 2016 George Gold
When I was in pre-departure training with Humanist Service Corps program director Conor Robinson said, “one of the goals of your deployment should be to stay healthy.” A wise and experienced man. While his words echoed in my thoughts this morning, I realized that the bug bite I got a few days ago was not getting better notwithstanding the herculean efforts of my teammates and, it was badly infected. Let me be clear, regardless of the country I am in, I will do almost anything to not see a doctor, let alone visit a hospital. But, here in Bimbilla, northern Ghana, there are limited options. At around 8 am this morning one of my program coordinators, Cleo Blacke, put me on the back of her moto (motorcycle) and took me to the hospital.
After pulling some strings at reception, she somehow got me to the front of the first line I had to wait in and I insisted she leave me and go ahead with her day. And wait I did, along with lots of other people. Then they called my name. Oy everyone turns to look, what is a George Gold? But of course in a millisecond they all knew immediately, must be that silli.minga (white man) dude.
But no matter, it was just an, “are you here, and what’s your ailment.” More waiting. Oh, wait just a minute, was that a goat I just saw walk down the long dark hallway of the waiting room right past me? Have mercy, if you told me about it I wouldn’t have believed you, but I saw it with my own eyes. Goats wander the streets all over Bimbilla, so in a way it was not a surprise, but this is a hospital. Sheesh, left my camera at the house. Cell phone? Wasn’t quick enough.
Anyway after considerable waiting, in areas with no lights or at the most one small bulb to light up a huge room, (maybe I counted three functioning light bulbs during my entire stay today) not one of the ceiling fans were functional in the Ghana standard of 85-90 degree 90% humidity inside / outside weather.
I joined a few animated discussions with my fellow patients, there were new mothers breast feeding, old people moaning, kids crying, and then after about three hours, they finally called my name. And, I actually felt interrupted, my Internet signal was the best I had found in the last week.
So I am led behind a kind of partition, with a kind of a wooden table / gurney, and we cut the bandage off my leg. Then this kind of a doctor, but probably a physician’s assistant told me to lie down. Since the bug bite is on the back of my leg, I’m lying on my stomach. If I told you this hospital and this exam area was not very clean, I was looking at the floor, I would be a world class diplomat.
Anyway, this fellow kind of smiles and says, “infected eh?” Then without any warning, he starts digging away at my open wound. Well, folks, how about I tell you that there was no local anesthetic applied and what he was doing was not very pleasant, ok, another understatement. Yes, it is true I may have uttered a few words that my Ghanaian hosts seemed vaguely familiar with and I heard a chuckle or two, but then I shut up. I thought, I don’t want to be the talk of the town (and I will be) and that I would be discussed in the same sentence as that silli.minga who couldn’t take a little digging and scratching. Anyway, he generally cleans out my wound and although I won’t be able to look at it until tomorrow when I change the dressing, it felt like he did a good job, my leg felt better right away.
When he’s done he actually smiled. I was quite pleased that this fellow was wearing gloves, but then he calls in another fellow who was not wearing gloves and he is tasked with applying my bandage! Hmmm, that’s right I didn’t protest, I just let him go ahead. Hopefully my leg won’t fall off, I guess we’ll know in a few days.
Wait there’s more. I had already been through the front office where I paid in cash for services to be rendered. But as I get up, the “surgeon” says to me, “20 cedis” … about $5. Now remember, I’m a Ghanaian now, 20 cedis is a lot of money. I said “for what?” And he says, “that’s the fee.” Slowly I take out my money and pay him 20 cedis, and he puts the money in the pocket on his smock. He calls a student nurse type person to escort me to the pharmacy to pick up the prescriptions I need for the next several days.
I had already noticed that there were signs all over the hospital that said, “Get a Receipt if you pay in Cash.” After my student left me at the pharmacy line, I turned around and walked right back to the surgery area and told this fellow I wanted a receipt for the 20 cedis I gave him. He looks at me and starts this dissertation how usually it’s 50 cedis and then you can come back to be checked up for free.
Anyway, after some staring at each other, and quiet “discussion” I said I need a receipt. He says ok, steps away, comes back, talks with student nurse, takes the 20 cedi note out of his pocket, gives it to the student nurse, and makes out an invoice for 30 cedis! He waves me off and says that I can come back tomorrow for a “free” dressing change.
So what happened here? From what my Ghanaian friends tell me, this happens all the time here in Ghana. He was going to pocket the 20 cedis, which at least six people saw him do, and that would have been the end of it. But instead he had to give up the 20 cedis, so he decides to punish me for asking him to be honest by charging me an extra 10 cedis! He created an invoice for 30 cedis, which took another 10 minutes, and sends me and the student nurse back to the cashier to pay.
The cashier was sitting in a dark booth, no lights of any kind, not a computer in sight and I gave her 30 cedis, and while breast feeding her baby, and without skipping a beat, she entered the information into a log book by hand, then used another book to write out a receipt, tore it off and handed it to me. I head over to the pharmacy for my drugs. Total cost for about four hours of waiting and some minor surgery, some scripts, 83 cedis, or about $21. Just another day in Ghana.
© 2016 George Gold
What is white privilege in Ghana?
While it’s one of the phrases of the day, throughout my life I never thought that white privilege applied to me. Dad finished the 8th grade, and Mom after years of slaving away at sales jobs at Sears and other retailers, went to college after all the kids graduated, her dream come true. We were a working class family. While not hungry we were always broke. Is this a formula for white privilege? Does working hard for everything you ever achieved or accomplished equal white privilege? My father wanted to be an electrician but in his country of birth, Austria, Jews weren’t allowed to be electricians. This never felt like white privilege to me. Is it? But the path traveled even with hard work, had obstacles that were overcome because of the rules of our society that others were denied; yes, that’s white privilege.
Arriving in Accra, Ghana, just a few weeks ago as a member of the Humanist Service Corps, several of us in one car headed to the bus station to go to Tamale in the north. There was a huge traffic jam, people, cars, motorcycles all jammed up under a highway overpass construction zone, all of us apparently trying to get to the same place. This fellow on the street sees us and decides to take charge of the situation. He starts running around in the traffic, hitting cars with a long wooden staff yelling at everyone to move out of the way; cars, motorcycles, pedestrians. After a time consuming process of moving just a few blocks we get to a point where it’s time to get out and walk. He’s still with us, kind of sheep herding and encouraging us along. Clearly he’s looking for that ever present assumption that he’ll get a “tip” for his efforts. It’s hot, really hot, maybe 90 degrees, humidity about 90%.
After dragging our bags through the dirt, we finally arrive at the bus station. Our shepherd is still with us, carrying on with a kind of cacophony of lecturing and cheer leading to well, everyone. When we settle in to wait for our bus, he comes up to me to shake hands and I suppose to see if he can get his tip. As we shake hands, he rubs the skin on my arm and says in English, “your skin good, my skin bad.”
In these first few minutes of Ghana I had already heard the call of silli.minga (white man) a few times, but to hear this fellow say my skin was better than his, was not expected. I made an attempt to disavow him of the merit of the obvious disparity of our skin color but he wouldn’t hear of it. When I told him that if I bleed my blood is red and if he bleeds his blood is red, he was quite bemused by this apparently previously unconsidered idea, but was he right?
I had been in Ghana all of two hours, and found myself in emotional turmoil. I knew I would be the only white face in the crowd (boy was I ever!) but to get this perspective so soon upon arrival was shocking. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not implying that this fellow’s ideas are shared by everyone in Ghana, but his comment has stuck with me for weeks now. So what happens when I go into town in Tamale or here in Bimbilla in northern Ghana? Perhaps due to the weather… but some days there are dozens of calls, silli.minga, silli.minga, more often than not by the kids, the adults a little more subdued, they just stare.
The kids usually want to touch me, touch my arm, hold my hand, sometimes they want to pull the hair on my arms, just a tremendous curiosity. Often the first time they are seeing something they have just heard or read about. Almost invariably they giggle with excitement, egging each other on to get closer, to touch, and to talk. Any apprehension is easily disarmed with a smile and then a hand shake, a high five, holding their little hands is all it takes to make a friend.
The adults are more difficult to gauge. They hardly ever call out silli.minga, but their eyes say it anyway. Again, a smile disarms and a greeting of despa (good morning) or antere (good afternoon) adds to the disarming tool kit.
Sometimes when I stop at a food stand for a bite to eat, I am often forced to accept an offered chair, even if I absolutely don’t want to sit down; refusing is out of the question. Is this respect because I’m older? On one occasion when I protest, and the offer was proffered by someone who’s English was quite good (since my Dagbanli is not so good) he said that he was respecting my age. How come that feels as weird as if it was because I was white? Here in Ghana, age is honored. Having survived to senior status is respected in a way that feels different than it does in America.
But no matter, clearly trying to measure this against the idea that when I look in the mirror I don’t know that guy looking back. Well ok, lately I do recognize him; I just don’t like what I see. Where’s that handsome young guy with the big black beard who used to look back at me? So is my discomfort about being white in a black country, or is it about being old with a young man’s heart. Or is it just being honored in a way that I’ve never experienced before?
Yesterday I was walking in our village marketplace when some kids started to approach me, shouting silli.minga, then one girl maybe 7 years old, broke from the pack, and started running toward me with outstretched arms, OMG… she was going to give me a running hug, and she did, and it was the best hug ever; who cares why.
© 2016 George Gold
This week I toured several schools here in Tamale, Ghana. The kids are the best. They didn’t yet know my Dagomba name, Tiyumba, so they call me silli.minga = white man.
Hey silli.minga, shave off your mustache. Why I asked? Answer: If you don’t you won’t be able to blow your nose.
Tiyumba meaning: to bring love, lover of all.
Read more about Humanist Service Corps here