Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Prayer Mountain and The Magazine (Week 10)

Abesua Prayer Mountain

View on Abesua Mt.
I have earlier presented bits of the lively and from the point of view of European Protestants commercialized and rather aggressive religious life in Ghana. A deeper look on religion in Ghana was provided by a trip to the Abesua Prayer Mountain, rising from the village of Abesua about an hour north-east from Kumasi. To get there you have to suffer a long and dusty journey that left most of our companionship coughing, wiping our eyes and looking like the results of a horrible spray-tanning accident. It was the first time I’ve cursed the fact that most tro-tros in Kumasi are missing a window or two. In Abasi you will have to pay the offensive fee of 20 cents to get access to the trail leading to the top. Being a Ghanaian mountain, the hike up is actually very nice, done in the shade of dense tropical forest and takes only about an hour.

Village on Abesua Mt.
The Abesua Prayer Mountain is more an escarpment than a mountain which makes it accessible and suitable for human activity. The top of the mountain is actually a flat, rocky plateau that contains several small villages. The inhabited area on the top can be divided into two distinct sacred sites. Both of them offer a good view of the likewise green and flat, low-lying surroundings that challenges the general understanding of this part of the world as being notoriously densely populated.

One of the sites on the top includes a small church surrounded by some supporting services, such as food stalls, bible salesmen and a mini-market, for tourists and pilgrims alike. The second site is more interesting. It can best be described as a camp for pious pilgrims that climb the mountain to pray in peace. Here one can rent a mattress in small, simple cottages. Not other services can be found. The area is dotted by individuals or groups connecting with higher powers in various ways. Members of a group, apparently praying for a recently deceased member, were praying, shouting, crying, rolling on the ground and shaking. Others were of course (us being in the most musical of the worlds regions) singing and dancing. I talked to a man who claimed he had spent already a week alone on the top, fasting and praying and I don’t see a reason not to believe him. According to him, god is definitely closer at the top, especially in the hours before dawn. As we were talking, a lone woman kept on loudly reciting prayers just a few meters from us, as if being in another world.

View on Abesua Mt.
It is curious that the sites at Abesua are not treated as in any way sacred or mystical by the people actually living there. Apparently it is the relative inaccessibility and the need for hiking a distance for strangers that gives the mountain its religious touch.

A blog post such as this will not do justice to the intensity of the atmosphere and the religious life of these people. There is something way more serious, more real and alien in African Christianity, as seen at Abesua. However, at the same time reverends and other preachers are treated as rock-stars in the cities and people keep contesting over me to join the services of their specific church. I have yet not attended a single one and probably won’t. But still, why does it matter in which church I would pray to the same god? Discussions with T-Bone in his T-Mobile (A 30-year old, perfectly kept, navy blue Mercedes-Benz 230CE) revealed that not everyone sees the churches as anything but commercial and hypocritical entities.

The Magazine

North of the city, close to Suame (almost feels like asking the tro-tro to take me home), there's one of the largest business agglomerations I’ve ever seen or heard of. Mr. T, our guide for the day, picked us up at the GOIL (Ghana Oil Company Limited) station at Suame Roundabout in a car with a Polo tag in the rear that definitely was not a Volkswagen Polo (Why on earth would someone want to falsely define their car as one?). Soon, the landscape turned to rust and fumes replacing everything else. So this is The Magazine.

Waste management in The Magazine
The Kumasi Central Market is said to be the largest of its kind in West-Africa. The Magazine is the Central Market of car and metal workshops. This is where the thousands of tro-tros in the city are born and come to die. The size of a decent central European town and hosting thousands and thousands of workshops, this is where anything can be rebuilt or taken apart. We walked for more than an hour in the maze of car-part shops, tool workshops, welding workshops, painting workshops, metal workshops and the like. The small current flowing through the area has to be the most toxic in the world, with paint, oil and other waste flowing amongst millions of plastic bags, cans and barrels. Still a whole family of pigs was happily roaming in the mud. Also inhaling the air feels a bit suicidal with all the fumes of oil, rust, welding gases and gasoline hanging in the air.

Stephen told me not to underestimate the people in The Magazine. They might seem to be mere blue-collar artisans with dirty hands and really resent anything approaching theory, books or academic education, but many of them have made fortunes with their business. This is the only place in the world where I've seen one of those brand new Dodge Vipers driving by.

Waiting to be recycled
The people at The Magazine can be seen to make their fortunes thanks to global production patterns. Raw materials are extracted in Africa, cars and other products are produced and used elsewhere and shipped back to Africa when deemed useless. This could be described as exporting pollution in addition to out-of-date technology, thereby fine tuning the balance between carbon footprints to be just a bit less embarrassing for industrialized countries. In places like The Magazine around Africa these machines get repaired, reused and recycled over and over again. In the middle of an alleyway there's an apartment-size ship cylinder waiting to be melted and transformed to whatever you can imagine.

Monday, August 13, 2012

The Kidnapping and The shooting (Week 10)

The kidnapper struck after sunset. We were riding a tro-tro back home from our workshop at KTI, when the outlaw, probably lured by the sight of a dozen obrunis cramped in to a minibus, decided to make a move. I was sitting on the front seat. Robert had spotted a friend waiting for a car on the stop at Tech junction. Robert leant over me to call the friend, and was crawling past me down from the car as the driver’s door violently flew open, and there was a man in green hanging at the door and by the drivers arm. The petrified driver naturally put the pedal through the medal, leading the would-be assassin to half run, half be dragged along the car for twenty meters or so. Once accelerated, we left the Mate (the tro-tro-conductor), Robert and the Kidnapper standing, shouting, at the tro-tro-station. The driver turned down to the right, towards Campus, passed under the great gate, drove three quarters around the first roundabout and stopped, silent. A small Japanese car did a small turn the wrong way around the roundabout and stopped in front of us, headlights blinding me and our driver. A figure got out a rapidly walked over to us.

This is when I noticed the signs on his uniform. The soldier walked up to the driver and immediately threw a punch at him. Then another one.  After some and some more shouting, the army-guy walked over to my side. Calm as ice as I was, I must have hidden it well since he right away told me to relax and not panic. Then followed a show of military decisiveness: the soldier decided to ride with us, only to hop back down before the driver touched the throttle. Then he ordered everyone to get out until he realized that everyone were foreigners. Whatever the reason of this entire lottery, an officer finally emerged from the small car to break up the discussion and with a few chosen words send the soldier back to the back-seat and us away.

When everyone had calmed down, I got to ask the driver what actually happened. Apparently all the drama was that the soldier had gotten frustrated by us blocking traffic, and came over to speak his mind.  Because he failed to show any warning of wanting to speak before ripping the door open, the first thought in the drivers head was that he has a car full of foreigners and a nutcase hanging by his arm, probably looking for some clandestine financial benefits, so he ran. Overreaction, one could say in hindsight, but also the idiot soldier could have dealt with the situation calmly, for instance knocking on the door instead of resort to violence. Of course it is also understandable that the soldier got so upset, dragged as he was along a moving car for a considerable distance… So thoughtless stopping of traffic and thoughtless reacting (twice, once by both sides) resulted in a short, Hollywood-style car chase, some heartbeats and some dubious evening entertainment.

The next day, our evening meeting (What's wrong in The House, general suggestions and remarks etc.) with chilled beers on the veranda was abruptly called to a halt when Stephen stubbornly decided that the meeting should be moved to inside. Unhappy, everyone moved inside, mumbling about people always breaking things up and making decisions without reason or explanation. Things got more serious tone when Stephen quickly locked the front door and the kitchen door. When told that the meeting could not go on without an explanation, Stephen told us that a gunshot had ringed in the neighborhood and that someone has been taken to the hospital. The planned and normal night at the bar was unanimously cancelled and we stayed inside, drinking what a couple of the guys courageously went to buy and solving riddles. Of course, Kwamo suffered one more blackout with a perfect timing.

The following morning it dawned to us that there had been a failed robbery in a house occupied by a rich lone woman close by. As she refused to open the gate, the villains panicked and took a shot at an assistant of hers. He was hit in the leg. Apparently it's one of the guys playing football with us on Saturday mornings, but I never found out which one.

Even though this is something that many in Finland might even expect to happen in Africa, it has to be said that the locals were at least as shocked and confused as the rest of us. Both Stephen and Sammy were quick to state that they have never heard of anything like this in Kwamo. Also the picture I've gotten so far of Kumasi and my home township is not exactly one of anarchy and warfare.

However rare, the incident is serious because it obviously targeted someone known to be well endowed moneywise, and we have a house full of westerners perceived to be fantastically rich living just blocks away. There is clearly some anxiousness in the air and it is not advisable to move around a lot alone until we've reached some more clearness about what's going on. Most natural is though that the criminals will not return to the scene of crime, as they were seen by numerous people.

These two cases, taken place just a day apart are more than surprising to me, having heard of no such things in the city before. On the other hand it is not unbelievable for these things to happen in a city with more than a million inhabitants and we will surely not gain anything by locking ourselves inside. He did target a house last time also.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Oil, Energy, Aid, Education (Week 9)

The death of President (Here even on national TV presented in the rap form: Prez) John Atta Mills is not the only thing causing heated discussions over the future of Ghana. In 2007 sizeable amounts of oil was found of the coast. This has of course sparked a lot of enthusiasm in all layers of society and it is not rare to hear someone assume that oil exports are finally and sustainably going to lift Ghana to the group of middle income countries. I’ve seen the high-end residential area rising in Takoradi myself, without a doubt for people making their money from the oil industry. It seems that especially the ruling class is obsessed with working on oil issues and oil revenues on the expanse of other governmental tasks (Does it sound familiar?). There are however just as much people disillusioned with the oil hype. After all, in very few countries in the world have the benefits from oil exports spread out even nearly across the society as a whole. In Sub-Saharan Africa successful management of the oil industry is so far a mission not accomplished. Not surprisingly, skeptics in Ghana quickly point to the example of Nigeria, where oil production after decades of activity has produced little more than upheaval, conflicts and tremendous profits for MNCs and a few selected local individuals. Ghana is not Nigeria, though, and there are many examples of Ghana doing better than Nigeria or any other West-African country in many aspects.

To get some local views on oil I turned to Boris (name changed), a friend and now an expert source on many issues in the country. He was quick to make it very clear that the general public, the “people”, is yet, after five years, to see (apart from newspapers) any positive effects generated by the black gold. Optimism is generally balanced by rising doubt, not least by a horrible (the general public perception) deal done by the government with Chinese investors (a firm called UNIPEC Asia Company Limited). This deal sees all Ghanaian oil exports for the next 15 years be handled by (in effect sold to) foreigners for the outrageously low price of $3 billion.

Ghana is also unfortunate in that the oil, naturally, has drawn the attention of the US military and energy security policy makers, who see Ghana as a part of the ‘New Gulf’, the oil-wise well endowed stretch of coast all the way from Morocco to Angola. One can only imagine the discontent amongst these policymakers over the deal between Ghana and China presented above!

So while politicians from all parties and ranks are racing to claim credit for discovering oil and fatten their wallets, there is a sober, rising skepticism (as for development work, for that matter) amongst “the people” that are well aware of the blessing/curse- dichotomy related to oil.

Suitably, Joseph Stiglitz happened the other day to touch upon the subject in the Guardian (I recommended that those interested read it!), asking whether natural resources will “be a blessing that brings prosperity and hope, or a political and economic curse, as has been the case in so many countries?” His conclusion is that the countries in question, in this case Ghana, have all the time in the world compared to the MNCs running after the resources. The simple advice is that of patience, unfortunately not shown by Ghana in the deal done with the Chinese.

What is a pity regarding the strive to make the best of the oil in the ocean is the attention, (already scarce) resources, activities and investment kept away from other classical issues, such as infrastructure development, education and health. One such issue is the universal wanting to develop renewable resources, of which one Ghana definitely has no shortage of: the sun. As technology both in the west and in China are rapidly developing and reduced in price, it would make sense for African countries to start substantially planning and working for a future where they would be very much self-sufficient when it comes to energy (There are already examples of villages across West-Africa that have reached this point). After all, oil is finite while sun, in Africa in an especially ironical and even poetical way, is not.

The misuse of oil-driven opportunities by affluent people is easy to see as parallel to the grab-and-hide behavior of many Ghanaian politicians. Insufficient social benefits and safety nets mean that people coming from humble backgrounds will possibly not have their and their families' futures secured by one term in office. Failing to being re-elected can lead to a plunge back into relative poverty instead of good employment opportunities. This explains, if not justifies, the reason why anyone in power will be hurried to make the best of his limited time on the top. Without a doubt, this is exacerbated when it comes to that one not renewable, high-value natural resource.

Politics, in turn, affect the efficiency of aid, a defining aspect of development geography. Whereas international aid obviously never is a sustainable solution and is often very artificial, there are many aspects in Ghanaian politics and society that make sure that aid is not going to reach its goal, irrelevance. A lot of aid money disappears mysteriously in what unfortunately can be described as natural in Africa. Boris (whose father used to work in aid and development for the EEC) pointed out some roads leading north from our neighborhood, Jachie junction, to the Airport Roundabout, for which plans and funding for paving were provided years if not decades ago. A good road here would make driving around the congested city a lot easier. Any sign of paving activities is yet to be seen.

I’ve also talked about the subject with M, a European living in Ghana. She has been living in Ghana for two decades and ran earlier a NGO. She put across a surprising view that a root cause to a lot of problems met by development work in Ghana is that people are even more often than in Europe driven by self-interest. This obviously causes distress to NGOs trying to gain support for projects without having much benefits to offer to the partners. This selfishness frustrated M to the degree that she had to let go of the NGO. Of course we have to keep in mind the other side of the story. What is quickly seen by Europeans as selfishness might simply stem from the general lack of resources and opportunities. Without proper safety nets people will always grasp every possible rope to stay high, a phenomenon above also connected to African politics.

Through M I have been put in touch with T-Bone (This is actually what he introduces himself as!). I went with Sander (one of two relatively new Belgians on the YES Project) to visit his company. A guy in a tank-top and dreadlocks with a machete the size of a young crocodile in his hand opened the looming, black, huge iron gate. Before we knew it the same guy had turned to be T-Bone himself and was rambling on about how vocational education is not taken seriously by anyone (Authorities, parents, students…) in Ghana. Technical and vocational education is, according to him, neglected and theoretical education overemphasized and glorified (Because of western influences?). This has quickly lead to a very real problem. As a lot of important technology in Ghana is either second-hand (in the west deemed useless) or cheap and Chinese, there is a large lack of maintenance in everything and everywhere, due to a lack of skilled hands-on professionals. A very illustrative example of this is that KNUST, which has departments for both industrial and art design has had to outsource the production of nice, brand new handrails in the main auditorium to none else than T-Bones company.

One more story, about a recurring theme in this blog: the security in Ghana. The other night I climbed with Robert and Bookie, a new Nigerian girl in The House, to central Kwamo to meet a new intern. Him being from India, we were looking forward to hearing that iconic Indian accent for a few weeks. When he arrived, it dawned to us that he is not from India but from Sri Lanka. Moreover he has lived all his life in London and speaks a disappointingly perfect Queen's English. Anyway, on the night-time Kwamo roadside we found a truck driver with his assistant blissfully sleeping on the sidewalk next to their tool. Bookie was shocked and explained, in a clear, naive tone of the 18-year-old she is, that in Nigeria the cute couple would swiftly have been chopped to pieces and had their limbs, heads and other parts used for witchcraft.