Monday, June 29, 2009
I am not one to start blogging about celebrity news, and EVERYONE is blogging about Michael Jackson this week, which is precisely why I wasn’t going to... But I just caught sight of the press release on Sky News, held by the controversial, activist yet self serving Reverend Sharpton, and who else but Joe Jackson, Michael’s ‘father’ and it drove me to this post...
We’ve all heard about the tragic abuse that exemplified Michael’s upbringing – he described it himself in the 2003 documentary Living With Michael Jackson. Michael described the beatings and resulting fear he had of his father. He explained that his father refused to let his children call him Daddy, and banned playing. The boys were whipped for missing a step when practising for shows. It wasn’t much of a childhood. When he reached puberty and suffered from acute acne, his father was the first one to criticize. He teased Michael viciously about his wide nose and his developing appearance to the point where Jackson was traumatized for life. (It puts the whole skin and plastic surgery obsession into perspective!).
A less well known documentary called Louis, Martin and Michael, written and produced by the witty British pseudo-journalist Louis Theroux, (who had lost out to Martin Bashir for the 2003 interviews), eventually got the opportunity to interview Joe Jackson. It was almost amusing then. Joe behaved like a second rate mafia boss. Louis was introduced to Joe through a shady cab driver cum magician (who called himself 'Magestik'), who was a ‘close friend’. Joe agreed to an interview late at night in a Vegas hotel room, only if the price was right. They eventually agreed on $5,000, but neither Joe nor his ‘friend’ were happy about the figure for the extortion, so they only granted an hour long interview.
Guess what happened in that interview? Joe Jackson used the opportunity to plug some new acts he was planning to sign to his new record label. He paraded these groups through the hotel room and made them perform. When they were finished, the interview was finished. He did meet Louis again another night for 15 minutes in a hotel room at 2am.
When Louis tells him Michael had been so scared of him as a child he'd regurgitated at the site of him, Joe replies, "He regurgitates all the way to the bank". Nice...
Well tonight took the cake. Michael is dead. After an amazing career and a highly troubled adulthood. A press conference was scheduled, purportedly to discuss the upcoming funeral plans. Joe Jackson came out of their Hollywood home, flanked by the coiffed Sharpton and a yes-man, dressed like ‘Pimp my Dad’ had gotten hold of him just before the appearance, complete with black fedora tipped forward, mirror glasses and some ‘big ass’ chains. This is a man supposedly in mourning, holding a press conference to discuss plans for his uber-famous son’s funeral. And what came out of his mouth? A shameless, pathetic plug for his new record label. Of course he introduced his mafia-esque sidekick as well – his partner in the new label – nothing at all to do with Michael. Joe smiled, laughed, slurred his words. Sometimes his answers to the press's questions were incoherent, at best they were plain ignorant. It was a disaster, a shamble, the most distasteful media stunt I’ve seen.
All of this confirms my speculation that Joe Jackson was the single most influential force in Michael Jackson’s spiralling psychological problems, and complete breakdown as an adult. The only other factor with as much devastating repercussions was the extreme fame. But fame is not by it’s nature, an evil force. Joe Jackson on the other hand, has proven himself an insecure, self centered, brutish, callous coward with only malevolent intentions – having exploited his children as pawns in his pathetic grasps at fame. Luckily his lack of talent or charm ensured that the children achieved the fame, and left him behind. Today, he is a washed up sorry old fool whose transparent lack of concern for his child, exposed him in front of millions.
Poor Michael. With a foundation like that – there was no hope of a well-rounded life. And then there is the case of Michael’s children! I don't even know where to begin with that one...
Thursday, June 25, 2009
The first time G (the Ghanaian ex), walked through our rickety compound house door with the red and white little mini-scooter I was at once excited and terrified.
At the time, being a struggling volunteer, my main source of transport in Ghana had been by tro tro. The world of tro tros is one only understood through experience. They wait in their lorry parks in a chaotic form of organization, each with their final destination , and wait to fill up before moving. This can be anywhere from minutes to hours. In 34 degree Celsius heat, as the rows get jammed fuller and fuller with all sorts of travelers and their wares, children, livestock… Needless to say, I was ecstatic to be presented with an independent form of transportation that would eliminate all the waiting and the cramped conditions, but it would mean taking on the roads of Accra directly, on the tiniest form of motorized transportation known to humankind.
The little scooter immediately became one of the family, and despite the fact that we already had five people with numerous additional compound children at any given time living in a 10 x 10ft room, the scooter slept inside with us. It fit right between the TV and the coffee table, and on the hot nights, we all lay in various configurations around it's little tires, on our straw floor mats.
At first G was the brave driver and all of us took turns on the back, feeling the exhilarating whizz of the air as the compound and the gawking, shuffling excited children were left behind in the swirling dust. It was fun! The first time we headed out into the main roads was another level of terrifying. We negotiated potholes that were bigger than the scooter, then there were goats and kids, that represented unpredictable moving targets on the sides of the roads where we carved our little path. We splashed through puddles of unidentified opaque liquids, and made it back home safely to the cheers of our little audience.
Then they all pressured me to take a spin alone. In all honesty, driving one of those things is beyond easy, and immediately I was hooked.
It wasn’t surprising then that a few years later I met many people from Tamale to new foreigners, who said I was ‘known’ as the Obruni scooter girl. That was after I had graduated to the larger, upscale model. My blue Suzuki with a custom made black ‘boot/trunk’ welded on the back. To think that I had become the thing of myths - a mysterious pale face woman, a strange foreigner, whizzing through the streets of Accra, my hair flowing in the wind...as deified as the one obruni girl who acted a few episodes of the Sunday musical drama on GTV (she had been a Peace Corps volunteer who had learned to speak Twi fluently)... but I digress.
It didn’t surprise me either though, that despite my limited notoriety on the scooter, it never became an expat trend, in fact in the 12 years I’ve lived in Ghana, I’ve never seen another white girl driving a scooter. In recent years I’ve seen two African women (who I doubt were Ghanaian, since driving scooters in Ghana is not regarded highly, but is quite common in all the surrounding Francophone countries). There are also the mad Ghanaian and Lebanese motorcyclists who use the Tema motorway to pull wheelies on their mammoth beast, with the front tire high in the air. These are of course men –as the motorcycle seems to be an ego extension, exhibiting macho prowess – the louder the better.
For me, the scooter represented ultimate freedom and adventure – it took me to so many places I never would have known or ventured. It was a catalyst to me breaking through my own fears, cultural and gender barriers, and it was always a topic of great interest to Ghanaians and foreigners alike.
I’m sure most thought I was nuts, and indeed I may have been, but I’ll never regret it.
I even took my boys on the scooter, two at a time once we had the bigger one – and this has provided countless stories that we remember with sheepish grins. It was careless, it was dangerous, it was improper – I’m sure had I done this in Canada I’d have been arrested for child neglect or abuse or some variation. But we loved it and I will forever cherish our little adventures on the scooter – just the three of us. I remember one day when I had Q on the front and we were singing at the top of our lungs, cruising down the Ring Road, en route to visit a friend, each of us with our helmets on (I think his was actually a bicycle helmet), and boom! Out of the blue were dive bombed by a bird that had just fallen from the sky. It ricocheted off my son’s helmet and into mine and bounced off, leaving us stunned and bewildered and then consumed with laughter. The things that happened on that scooter!
Even when I was unceremoniously mugged by some thugs in a passing car, the scooter cracking in two and ending up in a gutter with my passenger (a visiting Canadian friend) and I ending up scraping along the gravel….I did not give up the scooter.
When I was faced head on one day in an incredible split second game of chicken with a crazed tro tro driver, I had to succumb, jump off and watch as my scooter hit it’s side and slide off, engine running, into the roadside sellers, while I dropped and rolled off to safety in the other direction.
I still wasn’t deterred.
There came a time though when the scooter was just abandoned. In fact, it had been sent to our trusty mechanic and we just never went to pick it up. It represented the end of an era – there was a break up of the family, of the frivolousness we had all shared, and with it went our beloved scooter.
I just found these photos and had to share the days of old - from the Obruni scooter girl.
Tuesday, June 16, 2009
I’ve been up all night. There’s a power outage that’s persisted since the evening before, when the hum of music, laughter and buzz of the naked lightbulbs everywhere were simultaneously silenced, our busy little world falling into darkness. And heat. “Ohhhhhh!” the unanimous disappointed shout comes up from the neighborhood like so many fans at a football match. “Light off, oh!” Candles and paraffin lamps take over and the night takes on a hush. Bedtime comes early.
3am I’m woken from a broken and sweaty slumber, my light cotton nightgown plastered to me – a nocturnal street preacher has chosen our street to tout his doomsday warnings. In Twi. At the top of his voice. At 3am… Am I the only one who finds this an absolute outrage?! I lie silently, noticing the peaceful breathing of my little boys, and Abina our ‘housegirl’, the three of them oblivious to the shouts and to my frustration. The only other beings awake are the eternally confused crowing cocks. They add their annoying squawks to the night preacher’s noise. I suppress the urge to run out there and demand quiet as a personal right. Am I the only one who finds this untolerable!? The answer is yes.
I live in a Ghanaian compound in Osu, the centre of Accra. 56 of us live in the compound. I am the only one who is not Ghanaian. I’ve come with my personal baggage. Apparently I am the only one who hasn’t trained my brain to sleep peacefully through the sounds of the night.
It’s 6am and around me the compound has slowly come to life. The first sounds are the incessant scraping of the brooms. All the girls are given the daily chore of waking before dawn and sweeping the entire compound with hand made reed brooms. This instills discipline and an appreciation for cleanliness I’m told. By now Aunty Josephine is awake as well, singing her church hymms in an unashamedly off key pitch as she starts preparing for a day of selling minerals on the roadside. The sound is strangely comforting. She’ll soon be joined by Aunty Akwele, Sister (‘Sta) Narde and Kofi Mommy. In Ghana all women are given the title of either Aunty or Sister depending on their age or status. When a woman gives birth to her first boy, she is henceforth given the title of ‘his mother’. In the compound I will forever be Kobina Mommy.
By 7am the entire compound is busy like a hive. I lie on my straw mat, grateful for the coolness of the concrete floor underneath, and soak up the pulse of life around me. The children have gathered in the corridor just outside my window, queuing to shower in small groups, each with his or her small bucket of soap, toothbrush, paste and a ‘sponge’ made of brightly coloured plastic mesh. The first time I went to the communal shower without the obligatory sponge, the children found it so funny they laughed at me until some of them fell to the ground in an exhausted little pile of brown bony limbs. I stood mortified and clueless. This has characterized many of my experiences in the compound. There are rules of conduct that one must know, by instinct. Obrunis like me – we just don’t get it.
The children are the best teachers. And at once the most brutal. I love them for this. They taught me on that fateful day that the only way to get clean is to scrub with a sponge. Now I know.
This morning they are debating whether Ronaldo or Ronaldinho is the better football player. It is quite a heated debate and everyone has something to say. Even the littlest ones pipe in, just managing to say the names of the players aloud. My boys are out there in the queue, waiting for the morning shower, under the early morning sun.
I’m up and fumbling around to make a coffee in our kitchen which is essentially a 2 x 2 ft corner of our sitting room, or ‘hall’ as it’s called in Ghana. Through the curtain is the ‘chamber’ where the five of us sleep in various configurations nightly. In all the rooms around me there are families of four to eight in similar or smaller rooms, managing to live out the domestic reality of compound life.
Through the window I peer at the courtyard where all converge. It’s Saturday and all the women are washing. Sitting on low stools they bend forward, hands immersed deep in soapy suds in huge basins. Beside each a mountain of the week’s dirty clothes. The chocolate brown and manila government issue school uniforms prominent in each pile.
Aunty Maude has set her two girls the task of washing today, as she prepares for baking. Aunty Maude is a nurse at the government hospital, but supplements her income by baking bread and pies. She sells these to others in the compound and neighborhood at large throughout the day, as we all smell the warmth of yeast and sugar in the ovens and are loured in… she also provides cakes for weddings, funerals, birthdays and any other occasion. Aunty Maude also makes the best banku and fish in Ghana. She knows I like it and makes it for me as a treat often. Aunty Maude has been has been my mentor, my guide, my sister, my friend and my mother figure in the complex world of adjusting to compound life. She is a testament to human kindness and selflessness. When I gave birth to my son in the nearby hospital, she sensed by nervousness and stood by me through everything. She helped me bathe my little boy and sat awake many nights with me when he was ill. She has a knack of taking control of situations with a sense of calm akin to Zen.
I will forever admire her. Once when I had severe malaria, I told Aunty Maude in a hallucinatory haze that I would surely die. I’d never felt as sick in my life. She just changed my sheets, gave me my medicine and smiled that peaceful grin. I knew then I’d make it.
Some Saturdays after pay day Aunty Maude goes to the market and comes back with a feast of ingredients. Then she sets up in the open pit kitchen on her small stool and sets to work cooking soup in a massive cauldron for everyone. The children scramble to help her with her bags when she arrives back from market. They are as excited as western children on Christmas morning, their eyes aglow. They push and shove and manage to get the bags to the kitchen. They help unpack, and at once find what they’ve been looking for. The game today will be snail races. The large slimy snails are set out on a chalk drawn line on the concrete floor. The children then cheer on their snail toward the finish line. Most snails do not even head in the right direction, but that’s hardly the point. They laugh and joke and poke fun – they even name the creatures. However Ghanaian children do not have frivolous sentiment for the animals they play with. When tonight’s soup is ready, they are fully aware that their snail did not escape the pot. It is the same for the rabbits and the goats that come home over Christmas.
At 9am I emerge for the day. The children are dressed and fed and are engrossed in a game of oware or ampe or football, each sucking a small mango.
When I walk out the compound gates and hit the streets I am an obruni. A visitor. I may head to the craft market or go to a coffee shop with friends, but by evening I will be back here, in the compound that has absorbed me into it’s fold. That has so many stories to tell and so many lessons to teach me. I’ll be home. In my Ghana.
This article was published in "Obruni Where Are You Going?" a Mirror Productions publication, by Light For Children Ghana
Wednesday, June 3, 2009
So – you’d think the 200km drive would be reduced from the 5 hour journey it used to be (during the good old pothole days…)
BUT NO! Alas, this is Ghana and nothing can be straightforward. Now since the road was smooth and clear, the trotro drivers decided to take it a step too far and drive like ABSOLUTE lunatics, and consequently there have been something like 60 massive fatal accidents on that road since mid last year. All along the way you are reminded by Toyota sponsored bright red signposts that warn, “Overspeeding kills!” and then list the number of people who died at that particular spot in a tragic accident. One of the signs listed 70 people! Others were 12, 5, 32... and there were many! And you just know that didn’t include the numerous others who were carried away (in taxis) and died at hospitals later due to neglect, inability to pay etc.etc…
So now, as a reaction to this carnage, they have put up 50km limits on half of the highway, and numerous speed traps to ensure you don’t go a kilometer over 50… but mostly the speed traps ensure a steady income for those lucky officers… not to mention the fact that the ‘highway’ was rebuilt right in the same place, running directly through every village along the way, with random goats and unaccompanied three year old kids wandering across….
Also, since the new government has taken hold, the police are hungry and hence there are about 20 police roadblocks between Accra and Takoradi… which are annoying and depending on how hungry the guys are, can be quite expensive too!
Then there are the infamous rumble strips… everywhere along the road you are subjected to butt jiggling, kidney shuffling road bumps – put in to replace the potholes I presume…. All with an aim of slowing everyone down.
The brave start overtaking at every corner keeping me with white knuckles in the passenger seat and gasps aplenty... it seems some people just cannot judge distance or danger! All the while, the road provides enough emissions to choke a nation... cars here pass roadworthy through a cheap 'dash' (read bribe)....
So coughing and cringing and stopping and whinging... it eventually took us 4.5 hours both ways…
Overall the journey is a ridiculous experience of Ghana at it’s worst.