how do the dead feel
about my visit?
do they stir through the ground,
mirror the tremor of my footstep?
and with what gaze
do they greet the city?
on a neighbored hill
growing so quickly
yet scant removing the memories
held by this generation
so recently marked
by parliamentary bullet holes
and families extinguished
the colored photographs
mark recent remembrance
and forge a fresh beginning
with a vision that’s their own:
for their own rwanda
tomorrow phebe and i set out to visit a number of african cities - to meet professionals working on issues related to urban resource flows (or the urban metabolism of a city). through this, we hope to build a network for better understanding what shape african urbanization, and the resource impacts expected from this rapid urbanization. part of visiting these places is feeling the different vibes and rhythms of each city - so to this end, we will try to encapsulate an experience from each city…
accra - cairo - kigali - nairobi - kinshasa - cape town - lagos - cotonou - lome - abidjan - johannesburg
26 February 2015 -- sustainability, ghana
this is a photoessay / perspective piece written for the institute for environment and sanitation studies at the university of ghana, about our trip to the eastern region. for the pdf version follow this link
.Into the Eastern Region - Ghana’s eastern region is a beautiful area of mountains, forest, scrub and waterfalls. Our band of explorers sets out for a week to discover the environmental tolls that come with meeting the needs of increasing human settlement and a country’s hopes for economic development. Among others, we visit the Cocoa Research Institute of Ghana, the Atiwa Forest Reserve, Newmont’s Akyem Mines, the Kwahu Mountain Ridge, and the Upper Manya Krobo District. These places give insight into issues of sustainable agriculture, biodiversity protection, impacts of mineral extraction, access to clean water and sanitation, and solid waste management.
Chocolate Dreams - As a true chocolate fan, I was excited to visit the Cocoa Research Institute of Ghana (CRIG). We are shown the process of cocoa bean production and the various products which can emerge from the process (cocoa, cocoa soap, butter, wine, gin, vinegar). The above picture is part of the Institute’s nursery, where large numbers of cocoa seeds are replanted and used to test climate, pest or disease resistance, or the effects of shading and soil quality. Ghana lays claim to the world’s highest quality cocoa, which is due to strong enforcement of a six day fermentation of the cocoa beans. The government is the sole purchaser of cocoa and guarantees to purchase all that is produced, making this a reliable trade to be in. However the government sets the price and many of the benefits of a competitive market are lost. However, CRIG maintains that the single buyer policy ensures strict enforcement of the fermentation steps, and therefore the high quality of cocoa. Our guide quips about the low quality of Ivory Coast cocoa that comes with an open market.
I am frustrated that, despite producing the highest quality cocoa, Ghana produces very little of its own chocolate, exporting more than 70 percent of its cocoa beans. The global chocolate market is growing, yet Ghana, with the best cocoa, is not attempting to add value to the product before shipping. Is this yet another extracted resource which benefits foreign economies? A smidgeon of political will and investment in building local talent could maneuver Ghana into being the world’s premier chocolate producer, instead of only cocoa exporter.
Ghana is also the first country where I’ve seen a cocoa lobby. The line, “do your health a favour: consume cocoa everyday” seems a curious approach, as good chocolate is deliciously addictive. Indeed, no one has ever suggested to me that chocolate is healthy. While cocoa itself has plenty of desirable anti-oxidants, their benefits would probably be undermined by the sheer quantity of sugar that they are consumed with. It strikes me that chocolate is quite expensive to produce, and may therefore require a more affluent market. As Ghana’s affluent community grows, perhaps more chocolate varieties will emerge, the lobby will no longer be necessary, and Ghana can enter the global chocolate stage.
Invisible ecotourism – a key aspect of environmental protection is building social values for enjoying nature. Much of my childhood (and current existence) was about enjoying the outdoors: hiking, camping, swimming, adventuring. Of course, this requires some freedom of time, which is usually (but by no means exclusively) available with affluence. Visiting the Arboretum was a treat, because it is a space dedicated to preserving plant species, learning about them, and enjoying them from another perspective. The canopy walk, while similar to that of Kakum Forest Reserve, is unique in that it is not designed for foreign tourism. In fact, I hadn’t heard that there was one in the Eastern Region. It is purely for locals to enjoy, and we are assured that on weekends it has quite a bit of traffic. The walkway takes you up into the branches and leaves, offering a view of the forest diversity which is totally different from the confined view when walking at ground level.
Sanctioned Deforestation – this is the first time I’ve seen large-scale deforestation of an entire area. It looks just like the WWF and Greenpeace propaganda: a rather horrific dead space. This spot has been legally sanctioned for small-scale mining activities. However, it sits on the border of the Atiwa Forest Reserve, a protected area of about 24000 hectares, and the removal has left no buffer zone between the activity and the reserve boundary. The rangers who try to protect the reserve are concerned that once the mining site has been depleted, the miners will encroach into the reserve borders. This is just one challenge facing the rangers, 12 of whom must patrol this entire area to report on illegal mining, logging or degradation.
Conservation international (CI) has declared Atiwa a significant biodiversity hotspot, worth protecting. While I commend CI for placing importance on entire ecosystems (as opposed to other lobbies which promote flagship species), I wonder how much support is actually given to protect the space. Again, it seems external interests are dictating the benefits of conserving Atiwa, but these efforts will only be successful if this desire is cultivated from within Ghana, or the Eastern Region. In addition, many communities derive their livelihood from the forest, and their welfare is also worth protecting. Need is typically what drives illegal activities, so in this way, uplifting human situations by providing alternative opportunities, becomes entwined in environmental wellbeing.
Methods of Dissuasion – Seth Twum-Ampofo is one of the rangers protecting our visit to illegal mining sites in the forest interior. He has been doing this for 10 years, but due to low staffing, loggers and miners still frequent the reserve. The trouble is that they are much more heavily armed than the rangers and typically enter at night. Signs of mining work is visible along riverbeds and acidic runoff is present.
Entering the reserve, we pass an approved farm, outside of which a farmer has placed maize husks, an egg and a whiskey sachet: a curse to discourage thieving of his crop. That evening Carl and I discuss the changes that have taken place in how people view nature. In the past, great deference was paid to the ‘lesser gods,’ who guarded the water, the forest resources, and the gold. People would request permission from the beings to pull water, gather food and extract gold, taking only what was needed. This seems similar to a past tradition that no fishing can take place on Tuesdays, giving fish a chance to recuperate. With the arrival of colonizers, christianity and science the elements were rendered passive, and natural resources lost the respect and protection of the people. Little thought is now given to the wisdom of traditional systems.
Reaching Water - This photo shows a water intake point which now lies far from the lakeshore in Kotoso. In lieu of the recent complaints about government mismanagement of Ghana’s resources, we must remember that nature is a difficult thing to ‘manage.’ Lake Volta is at its lowest point in about 5 years, requiring the shut down of many turbines of the Akosombo Dam, the primary electricity generator for the country. While it’s true that ‘praying for rain’ may not be a very proactive management strategy, the lack of rain is out of human control and is a solid reminder of how reliant Ghana is on the Volta Lake. While electricity loss is a more noticeable complaint in the cities, in Kotoso township we see that the Volta Lake is also vital for trade, food, water and sanitation. Assemblywoman Elizabeth Agbenyegah (below) talks about the frustration of having a water treatment plant in a town whose inhabitants have minimal access to the treated water. The townsfolk also have no toilets, resulting in unsanitary conditions around town. Discussions with the treatment plant’s manager reveal that this problem is really about finances, and the town needs to set up a way to pay for the water distribution. The assemblywoman agrees that finances are difficult to manage in the town, particularly in acquiring the owed taxes from vendors and consumers at the weekly market, a key market day for many villages on the Volta shore.
A Market Day At Asesewa – I love the thrum of activity in markets and think they are the perfect staging ground for social upliftment and interventions for environmental sustainability. The Upper Manya Krobo district is relatively new, which gives it an opportunity to become a flagship for the ‘New Ghana.’ While this may sound idealistic, it is manageable with political will (which the district assemblypeople seem to have) and decent support from the central government. All the required techniques or technologies do exist; they simply need a strong political commitment to implement. Currently the district relies on a new waste dumpsite (below), which will fill up quickly as there are no land compacting vehicles available. Yet with some effort, the district could establish waste sorting to limit the trash reaching the dump. We suggested that the assembly focus on building waste sorting habits in schools, and use the weekly market as a staging ground for ‘how to sort waste,’ particularly because much waste is generated there. This seems quite a manageable goal and could be within financial means as the district has a well-established taxation method for the market participants, unlike at Kotoso.
I do not mean these pictures to issue judgment on the lifestyles of those recorded. The main point is to illustrate how actions of everyday life take place in the shadow of a corporate presence. I personally prefer the typical ochre plaster used in most villages, but this might also be an outsider’s idealization of ‘simple’ rural life. It seems many of these painted walls are done without the property owner’s permission and there are complaints of diverging aesthetics. The prevalence of these signs is not unique to rural space; in the cities we are also assaulted with brands and poorly-formed messages. Society’s presumption is that more consumption of these brands is beneficial, or contributes toward progress, that ill-defined goal. I am curious how the presence of MTN in bright yellow (or tigo, vodafone, glo, airtel, pepsi, omo, etc) in these villages has contributed to its ‘development,’ and what the negative consequences might have been. With six telecom companies competing for a small population, it wouldn’t be a far stretch to say their interests are more focused on competition than on the people they purportedly serve. The obvious benefit of wireless telecommunication is the leap-frogging of technology, which has allowed much of the developing world to communicate and access information without needing an extensive physical wire network. While this is important, the developed world is still the dominant producer of information on the web, which means that those consuming it in the developing world are subject to external aspirations and expectations. A collective vision is vital to a country’s development, but who is building and sharing Ghana’s vision?
Thank you to the Institute for Environment and Sanitation Studies (IESS) at the University of Ghana, Legon for housing me during my stay in Accra. Thanks to Dr. Ofori and the Institute for including me on this romp through the Eastern Region – it’s been eye opening!
09 February 2015 -- travel, ghana
slow flow in a row of ripples
gives work to our valiant cognomen
as we immerse ourselves
in the moods of this river
though the dam has tamed its wild
it is still the life-giver
and we share our sighs
with the call of the cormorant
and the winds whistle through whetted palms
and the trials of the tilapia
facing load bearing boats
tell of ingenuity sprung
from precarious living
on the banks of the volta river
03 January 2015 -- favorite posts
what happened when i looked up at the stage
to find the world swept from me?
and spinning in slow motion past my reaching forearm
towards the grassy ground
through the groups who surround
thronging pulsing feeling sharing
and my troubles were personified
but they faced no challenge
and the tears were but symbolic reflections
of the care that encompassed the world
08 December 2014 -- food, travel, ghana
have you ever wondered where chocolate bars, chocolate sponge cake, hot chocolate, milo, or that funny bitter brown powder that tastes terribly unlike chocolate but has ‘cocoa’ on the jar
ghana is the world’s second largest producer of cocoa, so i head into the eastern region, a mountainous, cool area, and find ‘the original cocoa plantation:’
eric shows me around the farm his family now cares for
the farm uses mixed cropping, to provide enough shade for the cocoa trees, and some extra income and food for the farmers, in the form of plantains, bananas and cocoyam (the low green leafy plants - which forms the base of ghanaian palaver sauce - delicious!)
the story goes that in the 1870s, tetteh quarshie,
an accra native, smuggled back the first cocoa seeds from fernando po
(now the island of biokio, in equatorial guinea). the seedlings didn’t agree with the accra climate, so he moved into the mountains and planted the first successful cocoa farm in ghana. below is one of the two original trees planted in 1879. with the success of his farm and high demand for cocoa in foreign markets, many farmers took up the crop, though (reputedly) many were unaware of the bean’s final product - (up until the recent advent of chocolate production in ghana).
it all starts with a flower:
which, once fertilized, fruits
the fruit grows and is ready for picking when yellow
the fruit is opened,
and the flesh is removed to ferment anaerobically, sealed in banana leaves. the fruit tastes rather like an acidic, stringy litchi (at least a similar sensation to sucking the flesh off the seed)
after three days, the placenta is removed (a nice reminder that fruit are the plant’s ovaries),
and the remaining flesh/seeds are wrapped to ferment for two further days, mixed, rewrapped, and fermented for two more days. (so we’re at 7 days of fermentation right?)
the seeds/beans are then left to dry in the sun for two weeks, killing the germ within
and leaving a finished product: the cocoa bean
two before and afters:
soon i’ll track down a chocolate factory and follow the chocolate-making journey…
arrival in new places is always bumpy – cite the classic arrival trauma of the taximan, your first friend until he tries to overcharge you. change is all about expectations management and too often we find ourselves disappointed or frustrated by something about which we have no need to be. i was ready for accra – simply in that i had no clue what to expect. so on to the hostel evandy: with previous experience of cold bucket showers, electricity load-shedding, and overwhelming heat, such things were not surprising and i accept them as a new challenge for these 7 months.
morning comes and most of the building heads to mass – dressed in an abundance of colours to make any deity proud. today i meet Samuel: a biomedical engineering student who drums in his church band. he shows me to campus and points out the best food places and hang outs, and shares some language tips. we follow basic introductory conversation until he notices my tattoo and asks why i have one, trying to suppress a disapproving tone. a few sentences later and he’s gently accusing me of not being very religious. i admit that i am not, to which comes the familiar prying into how “not-religious” i am. i thought i had neatly avoided this conversation by telling him earlier that i was jewish – my quasi religious cultural affiliation which tends to set religious people at ease (“at least he believes in something”). needless to say, sam soon finds out how not-religious i am and my, perhaps clichéd, comment that “i see god everywhere; it’s just not the god you believe in” doesn’t slow his momentum: and moments later, to my raucous laughter, he’s declared that he’s going to save me!
so day one in ghana and i’ve met my saviour.
the concept of race doesn’t take much notice here – besides the kids happily shouting “oburni” (white-man), race seems to remain an unimportant curiosity, and i am happily removed from the tired racial epithets of south africa. my title of foreigner seems more in use, though this brings the weighty assumptions of wealth and the begging and overcharging that come with. yet its obvious that my skin is different and i easily stand out amongst ghanaians. A new friend linda remarks simply that she likes my skin – i tell her that i like hers, and she laughs when i suggest we swap. it’s nice to laugh about these arbitrary features – something which we have to tread carefully around in SA. i fear that the post-apartheid legacy of projected racial identity and the squeamishness with which we discuss it will make any resolution difficult. it’s been wonderful to be instantly welcomed as a fellow african in Ghana, when i must sometimes defend my african-ness at home.
this week has been all about setting up my space at the university of Ghana. trying hard not to get frustrated, i visit 8 different departments, spread neatly around campus, simply to register (talk about a decentralized system!) after quite a few hiccups i seem to be set up. we’ll find out this afternoon. still i admit that after all this walking/loping/trudging/running, i am quite well acquainted with the university (which perhaps was their goal all along).
what struck me quickly from my backpacking experience, is the way the foreign students are almost unfriendly in contrast to our ghanaian hosts. most go around with a purposefully distant look and a practiced attempt to ignore each other. it’s quite a nice demonstration of our hopes to immerse ourselves and meet locals, yet sometimes offers a somewhat lonely aura, as I think many would like to share their experiences here with fellow exchanges. remarkable to see this strong resistance to the natural urge to connect with fellow travelers...
And now a poem on food poisoning ( do I go too far?):
on wednesday i got hit
hit hard in the stomach
and i was doing so well!
i’d dived into the fufu (smashed plantain and cassava)
eating plenty of fruit (gotta have the banana)
i’d found love in the waichi (rice, beans, plantain and spice)
but i found my nemesis in the orange fried rice
my insides came out
so i tried to refill
and sent banana-ed water
all over the floor
so to bed for a day
took a pill and ok
i can stand the next morning
though a new fear is dawning:
a fear of fried rice!
i don’t want this pain twice!
now i gaze in the mirror
hear my lungs expanding
push ribs nice and wide
change the shape of my chest
watch myself breath
see i’m alive
thursday’s lecture on city growth and cholera in accra was well timed
on saturday i venture into accra central for the first time – i take a tro-tro (minibus) to central and get lost in a market. anything you could need or want is available on the street, in a stall or on someone’s head. i go to Jamestown, the original portuguese, then dutch, the british colony (familiar pattern?). perched on a cliff overlooking the fishing village, the red and white lighthouse is a nice landmark for the area. another group of kids come by to demand attention and one casually informs me “you are a girl” – he seemed to have asserted this due to my tattoo – but shrug and move on. i’m guided through the fishing village by emanuel, a teacher at the local school. we see ship-building, fish preparing, drying or smoking and the great boats sent out to sea. a fisherman greets me and, laughing, calls me “my wife.” to my bewildered expression, he explains that i walk like a woman. twice in a day! i’ll have to look into this...
on a jetty in the bay, Emanuel points out the sea tunnel through which slaves were transported from james fort to waiting ships. tons of similar castles and forts exist along this coast, the last port for african slaves, stolen and sold to the new world. to add to my sombre tone, Emanuel (excitedly) draws me to a group of people watching a fisherman butcher a sea turtle. it struck me as the most unfortunately visceral sight and feeling, especially given my family’s recent pilgrimage to see turtles nesting on the kwazulu natal coast. a complete mindflip from reverence and protection to opportunity and delicacy. there wasn’t anything malicious about the capture and preparation of the turtle, and i’m sure it must taste wonderful (or at least unique). still i felt sharp pain inside and was reminded how distant the first world’s priorities of environmental protection are from this village. take that “WWF’s flagship endangered species list.” more holistic approaches to social and environmental sustainability are needed!
certainly the last place i expected to have a philosophical discussion about environmentalism, values, politics, religion, drugs, homeliness, conscience and purpose was a little shack on the beach (wait that sounds the perfect place!). finding my way across the coast, i was beaconed to join a group of (seemingly homeless) men sitting on a log bench under a tarp. and far from the touts and salespeople who had been my sole beaconers today, i met such well educated and open-minded people, one citing Herodotus, for goodness sake. A true lesson against hasty judgements. our meandering discussion eventually got back to god and my “not-disbelief” in him. we concluded with a curious agreement around the unknowable forces and energies which drive us and a mission to seize the wonder in the everyday. at which point i run into the waves of the gulf of guinea for the first time.
to make my day, on the trudge to find a university-bound tro-tro, i run into the man who’s been doing “humans of accra!!!” – someone i’d be eager to go roaming the city with: humansofaccra.tumblr.com
the low rumbling bang reaches my apartment and bounces back off the mountains.
one hour left
this seems to be my ritual for submitting assignments.
i never thought i’d be using the cape town noon-gun as my alarm clock... quite useful really.
another quick proofread - my eyes are so crossed that i’m probably missing all my errors, but what can you do?
it occurs to me that i’ve found outlets for reflection in places other than this blog - combined with the cultivated illusion of busyness which allows us to make excuses - i’ve been lazy about posting.
on the verge of another world adventure, i’m attempting to regain some momentum. so three new things:
--i’ve added a page to post my academic writing (for those interested); these are mostly assignments, so not perfect pieces. here.
--i’m rekindling my photo-a-day plan - hopefully will have time and energy to keep it fresh and intersting
--this blog, heading west, remains apt, as i’m still on that trajectory, though this travel will take me back to the first world, a rather different prospect after thailand, india, nepal, and south africa. this will be two and a half years after leaving the US and i’m curious to see how it will feel
that is all (for now)
09 June 2014 -- current affairs
i can’t put into words my frustration at how hugely
significant events can retreat from the way in which we conduct our daily lives. there’s also a trepidation with how to bring sensitive issues back into dialogue. in a module on facilitation we had a visit from a survivor of the marikana massacre (august 16 2012), in which 34 miners were shot dead by the police (not to mention more deaths and injuries around this time). this is an action reminiscent of apartheid; what does that say about our current government? the day after the massacre our president took a podium to say that “Today is not an occasion for blame, finger-pointing or recrimination. Today challenges us to restore calm and to share the pain of the affected families and communities.”
how dare he?! blame is required to address the problems! to patch up the holes in our desired democracy. forgiveness comes when apologies are offered!! where were the resignations?! where was the outrage?! instead we have a complacent government, an argumentative police-commissioner, a quiet corporation, vying unions, disconnected citizenry, and dead citizens... it’s not simply the wanton death. its the killing without remorse.
i deeply recommend you to track down the documentary “miner’s shot down,” for further insight.
a poem written in reaction to the doc:
follow a path through the garden
lined with thorns and with flowers
the thorns’ role as repellant
balance flowers as attracters
when to stray from the path
puts a bullet in your heart
what choice do you make?
’n how do you start?
in the fog that surrounds us
we don’t recognize kin
skin colour don’t matter
just the blood that’s within
but now the blood is without
on the ground all around
it’s almost as plentiful
as the indifference. (which abounds)
now my feet have got’ lost
’spite my oft-trod path
in this fog of uncertainty
I’m unable to mask
a growing unease
for my place in this mess
and I won’t. stay. silent!
where is the outrage?!!
where is the remorse?!!
no, it’s hidden in shadow
or with something worse
for no, we may see
from the others’ view
that thorns are protectors
and the flowers deceptors
it’s starting with some turbulence as i determine my finances and schedule for the year, but full of the promise of exciting journeys, strong connections and a more solid base in cape town. starting the year hours after seeing turtles laying eggs in kwaZulu Natal (their investment in the future), spending a day amongst rhinos, impala and giraffes, with a night of roasting marshmallows next to hyena laughter.
and some shock that january has already passed!
my masters is underway - african cities beware - i plan to know much more about you when i’m through
though i imagine that gaining that knowledge will be much like this:
though a rewarding journey despite some tumbles?
and hopefully granting something useful when it’s complete:
i sag against my work’s wall upon hearing.
shock, relief, despair, happiness, hope
hope for the country to forge a new image
a moment granted to let go of the previous one
and all its attachments
the warmth of his smile and his being
all the hopes we held, poured into this person, our hero
flawed and human, yet so obviously not
a symbol holding such different dreams, with such poise
i met him once, in a box, at the ballet,
thinking about it, don’t think i even looked in his eyes, shy as i was
though felt the strength
behind his soft voice and in his firm hands,
as they wrote, to inspire another
who hadn’t yet grasped the import of this man
simply led by others’ awe
to present my masters concept, i decided to start with this poem:
the vibe, the pulse, the energy so clear
it is the city we crave, the ease we hold dear
and under the surface, the machine is a-moving
for a city’s a juggernaut set in motion
with growth as its aim, it sucks the land dry:
less resource, more people, skyscrapers built high
with this vision as law,
africa seeks to repeat,
the networked umbilicals,
europe’s great feat
to service its masses: 62 percent slums
it first needs to establish
africa’s beat on its drums
appropriate, effective, unique
for my masters next year,
i embrace the confusion.
i admit to not knowing,
so may break the delusion
of easy and simplicity awaiting my year.
i hope it’s a challenge
else i won’t excel here
so what, you ask, may my problem be?
well how ‘bout how
an african cities typology?
my master’s will attempt to create a framework for assessing how different cities in africa process recourses - specifically as a predictive tool which can use simple, available data (lacking in africa). this is part of a larger movement to address sustainability through our cities; we are already an urban species (over 50% urban in 2008), and the next 3 billion people expected on earth by 2050 are expected to be in cities, mostly african and asian ones. most cities in africa have minimal regulated infrastructures and rely on vast informal systems. subsaharan cities face strained efforts to provide basic services to their population, with an average of 62% in slums. as there are limited existing infrastructures, there is a great opportunity to introduce appropriate and effective infrastructures which do not fall victim to the copy and paste solution. to more effectively offer infrastructure implementation in largely informal systems, it is necessary to have a greater knowledge of how these cities process resources.
so my year involves forming this typology: categorizing african cities into resource profiles. the next step will be to build a framework for each profile, and i’ll be starting with stellenbosch (a small town with plenty of data, and potentially used as an example of the many satellite cities expected in the second urbanization wave), and hopefully in accra, ghana next year…
friday was a day of almost perfect closure to the last year of work. we started this program unsure of what to expect, though filled with the thrills of other people’s hearsay. strangers became comfortable with each other and supported a plethora of personal journeys. the ebb and flow of modules and the following pressure of assignments was the theme of the year, alongside growing responsibilities and personal missions which found their place in our growing, changing, enlarging world reference map of sustainability.
and this week we presented our concepts, to critique and conviction, before seeing what we would look like in a year (as the current masters presented: confident reporters of a life-altering journey).
a circular event which just captured this transition: in the beginning mark swilling was a rumor and an influence, before solidifying into the sturdy coordinator, loosening into the human professor, then supportive mentor: investing in his next generation of academics, and closing a year by cooking us boerie and chops on a braai. i spent the afternoon in a giddy warmth, sitting with jack and mari on the grass, just absorbing the sunlight and all it promised for our next steps.