January 19, 2007 lia

A Day in the Life

Some people have asked me what exactly I do in Ghana. Sometimes I’m not sure myself. So I thought I’d describe a typical day for me and you can draw your own conclusions.

Get up. I distinguish here between “getting up” and “waking up”, because by the time I get up between 5.30 and 6.30 [“lazy” by Ghanaian standards] I’ve already woken up several times to roosters, drums, singing, dogs, neighbours, goats, and sheep. I turn on the telee and catch as much Aljazeera as I can before CNN comes on at 6.30am – it’s always entertaining to witness the chasm separating how these two news agencies can tell the “same” story. If it’s Friday, I wear one of my Ghanaian skirts. We’re supposed to wear head-to-toe traditional cloth on Fridays, but I think there are some things that white people shouldn’t attempt to pull off.

7.45am. I start walking – very slowly – to work. I always walk slowly in Ghana otherwise I quickly overheat. The slower you walk, the more comfortable you are in temperature and the better you can handle the relentless advances of your environment. I’m much more at ease and friendly when I walk slowly.

The usual smells of open sewers and exhaust fumes are partially masked by the smells of people cooking and brushing their teeth along the streets where the open gutters/sewers are. Unlike my inconsistent return journey, my morning journey to work follows a predictable schedule that the neighbourhood children can easily anticipate, ensuring that they will be in position and ready to start hollering by the time I pass. They never tire of it.

-Good morning. How are you?”

I have to say good morning to virtually everyone I pass on my morning route, otherwise I’ll have to hear about it on my return journey. I stop to pick up some Ghanaian breakfast – usually a deep fried biscuit of cassava with bread, or beans with deep fried plantains – and head to work. Work is from 8-5, though I am usually one of only a handful of people who arrive at 8am, and many people often work well past 5pm.

As I sit in my office eating my Ghanaian breakfast, one-by-one my fellow colleagues will arrive, carefully stopping by every office on my floor to say good morning.

-Obaa yaa. Good morning.
-Good morning. How?
-Fine. How?
-Obaa yaa! I’m coming…[always said while leaving]

Eventually my two bosses arrive with the keys to the office that has coffee. Up to this point, I’ve managed to be very productive – editing development plans, writing proposals, reading reports, drafting ideas, writing reports, finding out from everyone [except my bosses] what meetings and site visits I’ll be participating in for the week. I spend my time at work trying to absorb everything I can – keenly listening to conversations, reading anything I find in the piles around the office, asking questions – then piecing together what I am learning into some sort of improved understanding. I feel like I’m at a rare vantage point – I’m familiar with the conference- and report-style of dialogue used by top-down decision-makers, but get to enjoy direct and un-filtered access to the opinions and experiences of technocrats in a developing country, people who have a totally different understanding of the implementation of these programmes and policies. I capitalise on this rare vantage point as much as I possibly can.

Once everyone arrives at the office, the flirting begins. The office that I share with my planning colleague and our national service person is located in what is considered by African standards as the prime office real estate of the Assembly – the busiest, loudest part of the office with the most traffic [and interruptions]. Once the first un-scheduled power outage of the day begins and I’m paralysed from being able to get any work done, I usually take my coffee and sit in the office adjacent to mine where all the women congregate. Though only one staff member per day is allocated to the radio transmission office in Room 20, you can never find fewer than 3 people there. Sometimes we can spend 3-5 hours a day socialising at the office, an activity considered far more important in the workplace than accomplishing work tasks. When I’m socialising, people comment on how hard working I am, because they can see me. When I’m at my computer working, they assume I haven’t come to work yet or that I snubbed them by not visiting them. Your relationships with others determines how successful you are in your work environment in Ghana.

Once I can no longer stand my hunger, I start walking towards reception to see if anyone else seems to be hungry. If I’ve had a meeting or a site visits, lunch is usually provided and always consists of fried rice with fried chicken. I will never eat fried rice and fried chicken again after I leave Ghana. If I’m going out for lunch, it usually entails 2-3 people sitting around a common bowl eating fufu or banku in goat soup with our hands.

-It’s nice to see you finally eating your share of fufu. You’re looking beautiful.

“Beautiful” can mean only mean two things: you’re getting fat, or you’re at least getting an ass [though I’ve also been told that if you’re thin but have reproductive hips you might also be considered acceptable]. After lunch, I’ve still forgotten to take my malaria pill and am too full to get any work done.

-Obaa yaa. How is it?
-I’m feeling lazy.
-Sometimes it’s like that.
-It’s not easy-oh.

This is when I have my religious debates with Personnel, socialism vs. capitalism debates with Budget, science vs. superstition debates with Engineer, and stout vs. lager debates with Protocol. Sometimes we continue the debate over a fresh coconut down the street.

Evenings. By 5pm, I’m ready to go to the market with Evelyn, go for beer with Engineer or Protocol, or eat yet another meal of ripe plantains with Kathryn.

-Sister Obaa Yaa. I saw you this morning but you didn’t greet me. You are not friendly.
-Sister! I’m sorry. I didn’t see you. How are you?

Walking down the street usually involves literally hundreds of calls from virtually every single person who sees me, each of them screaming “OBRUNI! OBRUNI!” [white lady/man] in sharp piercing voices as they run from their homes and line the streets to greet me [though most people in my neighbourhood call me by my name, Obaa Yaa]. I generally reply by mimicking their exact same tone of voice and saying “OBIBINI! OBIBINI!” [black lady/man]. Then everyone laughs and temporarily gets over it that I’m a white lady and we can have an actual conversation for a few minutes about such riveting topics such as “how is back?” [how are you since you’ve gone and come back], “how is it?”, and “where are you going?” only to repeat the same process the following day. Men will occasionally grab my arm and refuse to let go, but I generally get the sense from people that they’re just genuinely curious and want to seize the opportunity to speak to me. I figure it’s about the equivalent of children seeing Volkswagen beetles in Canada and screaming “PUNCH BUGGY, NO RETURN”, except that there is always a return [and a return, and a return, and a return].

-OBIBINI. How are you?
-Fine. Where are you going?

Where are you going??? Let’s see…how many other places does the “Road to Kes Hotel” go? It’s not like street names in Ghana leave much to the imagination. “Where are you going” seems to be the equivalent of how Canadians will talk about the weather. A conversation about the weather would be very short in Ghana. I can only imagine the possibilities:

-How about this invariable heat, eh? I haven’t experienced a fluctuation of more than 8 degrees in my entire life-oh.
-Yes. It got down to 24 degrees last night. I thought I would freeze-oh.
-That Hamatan. It’s not an easy life-oh.

At home, I spend my evenings doing sudoku puzzles, reading, watching soap operas, designing clothes for the fabrics I’ve bought and creatively trying to simplify the designs to give to my non-English-speaking seamstress. Despite the fact that people speak English here, communication – especially over the phone – can be cumbersome at times.

-Evelyn, I went to your house but you weren’t there.
-I’m having lights off. I’m at my sister’s salon.
-I bought some cloths and want your opinion about what I should do with them.
-Where are you now?
-Walking to Kes Hotel.
-Go back-oh.
-Go back to my house and put them in water.
-No, it’s okay. I’ll just bring them to work tomorrow.
-No. Go back to my house, put them in water, and cover them or they’ll run away and die-oh.
-Evelyn. CLOTH.
-Yes. C-R-A-B-S.
-No. Cloth. C-L-O-T-H-S!

I catch some “The Gardiner’s Daughter”, “My Big Fat Valentina”, “Footballer’s Wives” or some “Extravagant Anastasia”, and eventually get some actual work done on my computer once the Latin American, Philippino, and Korean soap operas dry-up on TV. I take this opportunity away from the public eye to do things like eat vegetables, avoid copious amounts of unrefined oils, and use utensils like spoons and chopsticks [I am expected to eat everything with my hands when I’m around Ghanaians, and there would be a riot if they saw me eating with chopsticks]. I spend at least an hour washing my clothes with the limited supply of water remaining after I’ve had my shower and flushed the toilet once. Every five days there is a scheduled power outage from 6pm until 6am, and before I was homeless and staying at a hotel, I only had running water for about 1 hour a week [I read the UN Development Programme’s Human Development Report 2006 and realized that I live just above what they consider as the minimum basic requirement of water per person needed for a comfortable, sanitary life – 5 litres per day].

Go to sleep. Any time between 7pm and 3am, depending on how much I have on my mind [usually not much] or how interesting the latest book I’ve traded with another ex-pat is. I’ve never been much of a sleeper, typically averaging 5-6 hours per night in Canada. But sleeping in Ghana is such a necessary and enjoyable experience. Ando couldn’t believe how much sleep she needed while she was here. Partly because of the general exhaustion one feels when the entire world is conspiring against you [or at least that’s how you feel when in Africa], and partly because of the psychotic dreams one can experience while on anti-malarials. For my first month here, I barely experienced homesickness because my dreams were so vivid that I felt like I was back “home” for 8-9 hours a day.

Conclusions. Sometimes I cannot believe that my neighbours still haven’t tired of the same conversation with me everyday. Sometimes I can’t decide if I’m filling time, or if I’m really filling my life with excitement and challenge. Certainly challenge [have you ever tried to instigate a project within a Ghanaian bureaucracy?]. The routine of daily life here certainly helps distract me from the general sense of instability I experience, never knowing where I’m going to be every 2-8 months. I have to take these rare moments of familiarity – at least in terms of being able to walk home, seeing familiar faces, and having a community of friends and colleagues – breathing the familiar in and letting it consume me enough to carry me through the next period of uncertainty where I build my life all over again.

But what do I do in Ghana? This day-to-day narrative may leave some readers still wondering. In one word or less, the best conclusion I can come up with is that I’m, well, absorbing things. Another great pro-active verb to use on my CV? I think not.