Gone to Ghana

Jan and Ed’s experiences in Ghana while business coaches for Stanford SEED in 2013

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We are now back in San Francisco, after an amazing Ghanaian adventure. With emotional good-byes (preferably couched as “see you again…hopefully soon!), we enjoyed a rousing send-off at the Goodbye Celebration at the Stanford SEED Center on Friday night.

Jan’s client, IBK, flew in from Nigeria to honor the event. He brought along these magnificent outfits for us. We felt like Nigerian royalty!

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Ed’s client, Nwamaka, also flew in from Nigeria (to spend Tues – Fri with Ed), so she was on hand to tie Jan’s gele. Who knew that Jan could be so tall!

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During the last six months in Ghana,  I’ve enjoyed reading books by African authors. It's been a fascinating journey through both fiction and non-fiction.

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My initial foray into African literature this year was Ghana Must Go – a recent best seller by a Ghanaian/Nigerian author, Tayie Salasi. It’s a poetically written novel about a dysfunctional family across several generations and continents. I enjoyed this book, even though it took a while to get into it. And, I knew it had an impact on me, when I missed the characters after finishing the book. ...continue reading

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Over Thanksgiving, we took a break to visit rural villages and scenic beaches in Togo and Benin.  What a wonderful chance to see more of the countryside and practice our French (and Ewe!)

We traveled with James, an excellent and highly experienced Ghanaian driver, and Germaine, a Togolese French-speaking guide. The chaotic process of getting through immigration and customs to enter Togo, and later Benin, reflected positively on the fine customer service on typically gets in Miami when coming from Latin America.

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Shortly after we entered Togo we crossed a bridge over an estuary where a branch of the Volta meets the sea. The line where sea meets river was incredibly clear.

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We love our clients! These entrepreneurs are hard working, intelligent, driven, and lots of fun. On a daily basis, they keep us on our toes. The road to transformation may be rocky, but it’s never dull! Typically they have achieved their current scale through bootstrapping. The interest rates are extremely high (30%) and equity capital is quite scarce. Recently, Jan made time to smell and sip the coffee at a coffee-roasting firm in Cote d’Ivoire. Although this company is Kweku’s client, Jan spent a day with them to discuss their packaging needs and future launch into grocery stores.

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The local coffee “barista” had interesting insight into the coffee brands and drinking patterns of the locals.

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The groom-to-be told us, “Once you’ve experienced a Nigerian wedding, you’ll never be the same!”. We gladly report that he was correct.

The wedding of Jumoke and Gbolahan was a two-day extravaganza. On Thursday there was the traditional wedding/engagement ceremony for 600. On Saturday, the celebration continued with a church wedding (aka “the white wedding”) and a reception for over 1,000, complete with gifts for the guests!  We were so lucky to be able to experience this series of events. Apparently, the size and scope of this wedding celebration was not out of the norm for Nigeria, even though in our narrow experience, this was a spectacular sequence of events, as recorded by Ed in this gallery.

Traditional Wedding (or Engagement Ceremony)

The traditional wedding was held at Lagos City Hall. Our invitation said 12:00 pm. So, we rushed to arrive at 11:55 (in a rainstorm) only to find that the main hall was just getting set up. The beefy, armed bouncers looked at us warily. We didn’t look like typical invitees. They asked to see the invitation. We mentioned the groom’s first name, but they stared at us blankly. When we finally entered the room, we encountered a table full of ladies in blue headdresses (called “gele”) and gold gowns.  I showed them the groom’s name on my iPhone, and asked if we were in the right place. They beamed…. “YES,  YOU’RE WELCOME!”  So, we entered and took a seat at a table near them in the back of the room. ...continue reading

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We all know the pitfalls of Nigerian scam artists who prey via email.  But now we know that there are other methods as well. We learned the hard way.

Yesterday, while riding in the car, I received a call on my Nigerian cell phone with a connection that wasn’t very good.  The speaker was clearly in a panic.  I probed, “Is this Majek?” … (the name of one of my Nigerian clients). The voice said: “Yes. I am in a terrible situation. I’ve been in a car accident and I need to make a payment to the police.  You’re the only one who can help me out.”

“Can you purchase a MTN (Phone) scratch off card for 3,000 Nigerian Naira (NGN)  and send the scratch off number to me?”  (This scratch off number can be turned into untraceable cash though MTN money.)  This sounded like a legitimate request, and I couldn’t really distinguish Majek’s voice over the scratchy mobile phone line, so, I had the driver stop and I purchased 3,000 NGN worth of credit. Ed quickly scratch off to reveal the code and I texted it to the number I had for Majek.  The caller called back and said that his other phone was in his car that had had been locked by the police.  So, he requested that I read the scratch-off numbers over the phone to him.  I obliged. Total so far: 3,000 NGN ($19).  One part of me felt glad that I could help out my client, and was flattered that he would come to me when he was in trouble.

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Then he called back, stating that 3,000 wasn’t enough – he needed 3,000 more, since the police was requesting an additional “fee” to release him.  So, I had the driver stop at a different MTN card seller and purchased more cards.  In five minutes he called back to get the scratch-off numbers.  Once again, I obliged.  Ed waved the cash outside of the car window, purchased the cards, and quickly scratched off the numbers. Total so far: 6,000 NGN ($38).

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Was this enough?  Alas, no.  He called back again to say the police was requesting an additional 3,000 NGN and I was the only one who could help him.  We found another vendor, purchased the cards, scratched off the numbers and read him the numbers. Total so far: 9,000 NGN ($57).

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Iteration Four.  We did it again!  This time the accident victim was going to die if he didn't pay for the hospital. Total so far: 12,000 NGN ($75).

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Then, he called back and requested more funds for more hospital bills for the person in the accident. “I am afraid he might die….”, he said.  Finally fed up, I said “That’s all I can do.  Why don’t you call someone else.  I am going to the hotel. And I won’t be near any scratch off card salespeople.  Bye!”  I left the car and went in to the hotel.

All this time, I never suspected a thing.  Then, the next morning, the phone rang again.  I assumed it was Majek who wanted to make a plan to repay me.  But, no … he had a request for an additional 4,500 NGN  saying “the person will definitely die if you don’t loan me the money. I can’t call anyone else about this.”   I said, “Sorry Majek, I have no way of getting  any cards right now.  Please call someone else. “ After three more calls, he finally stopped calling.

Then, I began to feel a bit stupid.  If the person in the accident hadn’t died yesterday, why was he about to die today?  Was this really Majek?  Had I been duped?

After breakfast, I emailed Majek to ask him whether he had been asking him for money.  Of course, he said “no”, and was appalled that a fellow Nigerian had been scamming me this way.  He wrote, “It’s really unfortunate. How could I have been asking you to send recharge cards to bail me out of police or hospital? It’s very bad. I never knew anything about it. Sorry that's Naija for you”. (He also later confirmed that if he needed money, he could ask other people, and he would never ask me!)

Writing this account makes me sound very gullible and stupid.  But at the time, neither Ed nor I suspected a thing!  The driver didn’t say anything either.  The voice on the phone was very convincing when he was conveying his panic and desperation.  Now thinking back, I should have been more wary …. But now I know!

So, if you ever need money from me, you’ll have to ask in person so I can verify the request!  TIA.

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We spent a delightful weekend in the North of Ghana, touring Mole National Park, the largest wildlife preserve in Ghana, and nearby villages. We traveled with our fellow coach, Bill Scull.

Our morning started very early as we had a 6 am flight to Tamale. At the Accra airport, men and women in long white robes, headscarves and dresses surrounded us. We learned these were pious Muslims, returning from the Hajj in Mecca.  They filled about half of the plane. The Imam prayed thanks to Allah when we landed and throngs from the community who were welcoming them home met the passengers. They were treated like VIPs – even riding in a motorcade to their mosque or village.

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500 Ghanaians make the Hajj pilgrimage each year. After returning, they are known by new names – either “Alhaja” for men, or “Hajia” for women. This signifies “Been to Mecca” and is a lifelong honorarium!

Moses, our driver and guide for the weekend, met us at the airport. He is a delightful 26-year-old who grew up as the son of a park ranger. So, he is beloved by the community and is a local as they come!

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In the park, we rode on the top of his 35-year-old Nissan Patrol, named “Struggle Continuously”. The car performed very well over the rough roads and rutted paths.

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Ed posed as "King of the World" (but he didn't ride like this when we were moving!)

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Bill found the perch on the roof invaluable for photography.

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We saw lots of animals, including the kob, waterbuck, bushbuck, baboon, and warthog, among others.

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We were expertly guided by Kamale, a wise ranger who identified many species of birds during our rides and safari walks.

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We tried to find an elephant, since we heard there are 400 living in the park, but apparently they were feeling shy. The closest we got to an elephant was a sighting of day-old poop and footprints.

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We also visited several Gonja villages and were amazed how hard the women were working. They were cooking, caring for children, and grinding flour.

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This chief’s wife was drying cassava on the roof of their home, accessed by a narrow ladder.

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The Gonja villages are built with traditional mud architecture. Each family has their own compound and some men have multiple wives.

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The Chief in each village welcomed us and we expressed our appreciation for the chance to visit by offering a small contribution to their village fund.

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We also visited the Larabanga mosque – the oldest mosque in West Africa – dating from 1421.

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On the way back to the airport, we had a flat tire, which was promptly fixed by a “vulcanizer” for $1.00!

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Most of the locals in the Northern Region live on $1 - $1.50 per day. In the UN Millennial report , they would fall into the category “BOP” – Bottom of the Pyramid.

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The people of this area were very gracious and welcoming and we were very glad to experience this slice of Ghanaian life, which is completely different from our urban life in Accra. For more photos, check out Ed's gallery.

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When we mentioned to Clinton, our fellow coach and apartment-mate, that we were hiking to a village on top of a mountain for an overnight stay, he asked, “Oh, are you staying a Guest Lodge up there?  The answer was, “Not exactly”….

Wli Todzi (pronounced “Blee Toadghee” ) is a village on a 3,300 foot mountain.  No road. No cars. No running water or sanitation. No cell phone or Internet. No health care center. And, no Guest Lodge!

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Wli Todzi is a traditional community of family compounds constructed with mud blocks and thatched roofs.  The main access is by a grueling footpath that ascends the mountain (shown above). There are 1,000 residents in the “city limits”--300 men, 200 women, and 500 children.

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We visited this village with our new friend, Jeremy Kirshbaum, an enterprising 23-year-old Californian.  In 2010 he was an exchange student from UC Santa Cruz, studying at the University of Ghana in Accra.   He visited Wli Todzi after meeting Yaw Nutsugah, an Accra-based drumming and dance instructor from this village.

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During Jeremy’s initial visit, Jeremy and Yaw met a local woman, who said, “You visitors…. You see us poor.  You leave us poor.  It makes us feel like zoo animals.”

This comment affected Jeremy and Yaw deeply. They put their heads together and made a plan to make a difference.  Yaw knew that the European Union Development Fund had built a foundation for a Village Health Care Center between 2001 and 2007, but abandoned the project. The community desperately needed this center, because in the last ten months, twelve people had died including seven children.  It was sobering to learn that women in labor often die when they have a medical emergency and need to be transported down the mountain on someone’s back to seek care.

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This experience led Jeremy, Yaw, and other volunteers to found a nonprofit, Rise Up Development Cooperative, to finish building the Health Care Center for the community.  To raise awareness, they started a tourism program to bring visitors to Wli Todzi.

Needless to say, we were much older than the normal college-age tourists who trek up to Wli Todzi for a weekend visit.  It took us four hours to ascend on Saturday and two hours to descend on Sunday. We started Saturday’s hike in a downpour. We got completely drenched, but it didn’t matter because we were sweating so much due to the climb and the exertion. The rain stopped and we continued to climb.

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Luckily, we met two local boys along the path who had been hired to transport our packs. This most certainly took a weight off our backs (ugh!).

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The trail became quite steep and slippery in parts.  There was even a rebar line to hold on to along the parts that seemed to go straight up.

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We arrived at the village shortly after dark and were greeted by enthusiastic residents.

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After a dinner of fufu and pepper soup, we went to bed early in a small room with a mattress.

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In the morning, the local “queen mother”, Sarah, fed us a hearty breakfast of rice with red sauce.

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We played with the children, who loved mugging for the camera and looking at the shots.

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We learned that Sarah’s family had adopted many of the children when their mothers died in childbirth. Her uncle, Mr. John, worked extra hard in the fields to provide for this enormous household which includes 15 children.

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Each child had his or her own job, which they performed with no complaints.

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Famous and Dixon found time for a game of hide-and-go-seek around the traditional stone vessel where the men had pounded the cassava into fufu with wooden pestles the previous evening.

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Famous also was quite adept at whittling.

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Famous also enjoyed mugging for the camera with his brother Amos. (You can’t make this stuff up!) The village claims no knowledge of their namesake cookie brand.

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Also, in the courtyard, all of the animals coexisted peacefully with the residents.  Two small dogs, numerous chicken and chicks, ducks, and goats roamed the facility in harmony.

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A young girl swept the courtyard on a regular basis, so it was very clean.

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Community members passed around the babies who were cared for with love.

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We attended the Sunday church service at Global Evangelical church.

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The women changed into their beautiful outfits for the services.  The drumming and dancing in the service added to its  spiritual nature, and even though it was in Ewe, the local language, we could follow the general flow.

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After the service, the congregation posed for a photo with the guests.

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On the way down, we were sure that Saturday’s rain had given the plants along the path a growth spurt, so now the path was overgrown and hard to find.

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We made it down and were glad to find our driver, Tony, waiting at the bottom.

Jan was initially concerned that she was spending the entire weekend “without” a comb or brush.  But, this was insignificant when compared to the items that the residents lived “without” – e.g. without health care, sanitation, or roads.  But, the villagers are happy and at peace.  They follow the traditions that have been in place for over 400 years.  Subsistence farming on the plateau produces prolific harvests and an abundance of fresh produce.  The villagers work together to improve their community and together they adopt the children who are orphaned by maternal mortality. The children attend the local school (primary and middle school), and those who can afford it, attend boarding school for high school, either in Accra or Hohoe, the closest city.  (This is called, “studying abroad.”)  A Health Care Center will improve their quality of life dramatically.

We have great respect for the community of young volunteers who are doing grass roots fundraising to build the Health Care Center.  They have raised $19,000 of their $25,000 goal.  Yaw and the locals are building of the Center and are almost ready to install the windows and doors. An additional $25,000 will be needed to receive surplus equipment from the US.

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The cooperation between the US grass roots effort and the local community is working well.  The hope is that once the Center is competed, the district government will staff the facility. Each dollar donated here will truly make a difference. There is no substantial overhead or bureaucracy behind the effort.  We encourage you to take a look at their website and join us in contributing if you can.

When we returned to our apartment (and our plumbing and AC), we felt blessed to have experienced this side of rural Ghana. We’ve been forever touched by Wli Todzi and its residents and look forward to staying in touch with the efforts to build and staff the Health Care Center.  You can view more photos of our weekend in a gallery.

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What a whirlwind!

Our new friend, Jennifer King, daughter of Bob and Dottie (the principal benefactors of SEED) visited Accra this weekend. We had the privilege of spending three packed days with her, the other coaches, and Emmanuel, the local SEED director. Jennifer is a warm, caring person who embraced all aspects of Ghanaian life with open arms and a huge heart.

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Ghanaian “Glee”

A particular highlight was the choir competition at the SOS High School in Tema  (25 km from Accra).  The energy, talent and spirit of these 320 students radiated through the auditorium and ignited the audience with awe.  SOS is a boarding school that educates students from sixteen African countries.  Half are orphans (on scholarship) and half are paying students. It’s a boarding school where all the kids live in dorms (called hostels) and study together.  All students are treated exactly the same, and their track record is incredible.  Over 70% of graduates go to college in the UK or US.  Several of our Ghanaian friends (and Stanford grads) are alums.

On Saturday night, the competition between the hostels was intense!  As a student-run event, no music faculty or teachers had been involved in the rehearsals or the direction.  Instead, each hostel chose their repertoire, designed their own costumes, and conducted their selected arrangements.  The girls in the hostels even sported matching hair-dos.

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A panel of impartial judges sat at a table in the front (just like American Idol or X Factor.)

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At the beginning of the evening, each group sang the same cannon, “A Joyful Mozart”, in the compulsory round. Then, the fun began.

The yellow team prepared a spirited entry piece and swooshed down the aisles between the audience to thrilling drumbeats and A Cappella 4-part harmony.

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The red team sang a beautiful traditional song and sported glow-in-the-dark wrist bands.

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The green team belted out “Elijah Rock” (which ironically, Jan’s High School choir also sang, oh so many years ago.  This version was more authentic!  And, Jan’s choir was led by the music teacher.)

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The blue team’s student conductor was charming and led the choir with vigor.

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For each number, proud parents captured the moments on their smart phones or iPads.

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Even though the red team (Vikings) ended up with the most points for the evening, we can truly say that there were no “losers” here.

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But, since Emmanuel’s kids were in the Viking house, he was excited when the results were announced!

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Looking at this school as an example, the future of Africa is bright!

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Speaking of “bright”, we also met with several brilliant entrepreneurs who are part of the SEED program.

Visiting Some of the “Best and Brightest”  

We started our Friday chatting with a charismatic business founder who enthralled us with his tales of how he and his team overcame many challenges to be on a rocket-ship growth path in the mobile market.

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At the vegetable company, the entrepreneur was delighted to receive the Business Plan that was a collaboration between Ed, the Africa Fast Track team and the entrepreneur. She exudes enthusiasm for building a strong nation by building the capacity to make healthy nutritious fruits and vegetables to every Ghanaian.

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And this husband and wife team showed us that  “integrity, honesty and trust” can be solid building blocks for a thriving business in creation of new subdivisions for middle-income families.

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We met with Patrick Awuah, the founder of Ashesi University, and the Marcia Grant, the Provost (who we wrote about in this previous post.)  Ashesi is forging a new path for university liberal arts curriculum. They’ve even instituted the first Honor Code in Ghana, so currently, all exams are unproctored. Originally, the idea of an Honor Code was very controversial with the Ghanaian Accreditation Board, and required a hearing. During the hearing, an Ashehi parent spoke up, saying that the code exemplifies the lyrics of the Ghanaian National Anthem, which state, “Make us cherish fearless honesty”.  This comment tipped the board in Ashesi’s favor, and the Honor Code was approved. Ashesi is also leading the way on advocating the value of a liberal arts education to the accreditation board.

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Accra Ridge Church

We attended a lively church service on Sunday morning, where we were personally greeted by the congregation.  A local gospel group, Joyful Way Inc, sang an inspirational series of tunes.  The entire church was dancing and rocking to the music.

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Jamestown: A Study in Contrasts

To round out Jennifer’s Ghanaian experience, we spent Saturday morning in Jamestown, a traditional village on the coast of Accra.  Here, fishing is the way of life, and unfortunately, many children do not attend school.  Bill, one of the coaches who is an excellent photographer, has visited Jamestown frequently to photograph many of the residents.  He returns each week with prints, which delight the residents, and serve as a goodwill bridge for future visits.

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In Jamestown, volunteers have set up a school for the orphans of the community, called Jamestown Noyaa Association Academy.  During our visit, the children recited their pledge, saying “I promise to make something of myself”.

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The weekend shows that there is not just one story in Africa.  Instead, there are many different slices of life that are rich, colorful, and inspiring.  As we posted in a previous entry:  TIA … This is Africa.

 

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Market abundance. Native craftsmanship. Lush scenery.  All were evident during our weekend in Kumasi, Ghana’s second largest city. It’s only a 35-minute flight from Accra, but apparently the bus takes six hours (!) partly due to a 50 km stretch of unpaved road. So we opted for the flight.

We almost didn’t get into Kumasi, as the airport arrival door was to be ‘kept closed always’. Fortunately, a gate attendant arrived once he saw the crowd accumulating on the tarmac.

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While there, we toured the Kumasi Market – the largest street market in West Africa.  With over 11,000 vendors, it was a labyrinth of sights and smells.  Ed found the market to be a “target rich” environment for photography and captured some evocative images which can be seen in the Market Gallery.  At Kumasi market, you can purchase anything you can imagine-- from cow feet to traditional medicines to snails to handmade shoes to machete knives.

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An interesting section of the market is the “bend down boutique” where used fashionable shoes from the West are washed and recycled.

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Comfort, our local guide, helped us navigate the stalls and sections as there were stairways between the nooks and crannies of rows of stalls.  Since she’s been guiding tourists through the market for over 10 years, she’s quite popular with the merchants. Initially we were a bit worried about getting lost; however, Comfort assured us that she had never lost a tourist.

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We climbed the central tower and took in these amazing views.

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From the tower, the “tro-tros” which are the most popular form of public transportation in Ghana looked like tiny insects.

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Ed likes to capture images of buildings with weathered materials and interesting patterns.

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The market tailors were busy sewing school uniforms for the children – orange for Public School, blue for Presbyterian, yellow for Anglican and green for Catholic!

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Jan even talked herself into buying a Nigerian party dress from market women who were selling their wares from a bag in the aisle between the stalls, instead of a shop. This allowed them to avoid paying the daily stall toll. Who knows when she’ll ever wear this? Wearing it for Halloween in Ghana seems a little tacky … but perhaps it will work as a costume or party dress for special occasions in the US!

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On Saturday, Chris, the host at the delightful Four Villages Inn drove us to several surrounding villages to explore local Ashanti crafts and traditions.  At Ntonso, we learned about the “Adinkra” symbols of the Ashanti people.

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We especially liked the symbol for “transformation” and bought the stamp and had a banner made.  We plan to give to SEED because the mission of SEED is transformation of small and medium business to alleviate poverty.

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At the Andanwomase village, we learned how Kente cloth is made.  85% of the men in the village know this traditional craft and work on the looms.

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We were garbed in Kente fashion –all ready to go to a traditional celebration.  (When we posted a similar picture on Facebook, one friend remarked that Ed “looks cute in a dress!”) More photos of our journey can be seen in Ed's gallery, Kumasi Villages.

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Kumasi is lush and green.  We enjoyed visiting lake Bosumtwi and couldn’t resist ordering the “Beef Goulash” for lunch at a local lakeside restaurant.  (The host is an Austrian who was formerly married to a Ghanaian.

On Sunday, we visited Beatrice, a lady we had met in Cape Coast a few months ago. When Ed took her picture on our tour there, she requested a copy and we promised to get one to her.  Since she doesn’t do email she wanted prints! She was quite surprised when we called her and brought the pictures to her home where she greeted us and introduced us to her husband. She was most gracious and even called Jan on Monday morning to thank her for the photos and to make sure we had a comfortable return to Accra.

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After our meeting with Beatrice, we had Chinese food at a local restaurant and were surprised that they used Playboy glasses!

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So, it was a lovely weekend – Chris from the Four Villages Inn provided personal attention and we enjoyed delicious food ranging from Austrian to Chinese, to Lebanese to Indian. We’d highly recommend a visit to Kumasi to anyone touring Ghana.