Saturday, July 23, 2011

The Danger of the Written Word

A week ago today, I embarked on what has turned out to be a very dangerous trip.
Not the wandering amid the streets of Jamestown, but the aftermath of my account of that event.

Instead of our usual cherished Saturday adventures deep in the ‘bend down’ boutiques of Makola, T and I headed to a much advertised arts festival.

The truth is that I have indeed become skeptical of the punctuality and grandiosity of events as advertised - and this comes from being disappointed many times over the past 15 years in Ghana.

The Street Art festival indeed disappointed me as I’d suspected it would. I spent two hours there and I did not give the event a ‘chance’ to get going. I later read some amazing accounts on Graham’s blog and others, and saw some great photos on Nana Kofi Acquah’s Photo blog here.

I was not in the mood that day to revel in the brightness of the eyes of children, to see the hope and beauty they possess inherently. I saw instead the reality of choked gutters and endemic poverty. I ignored the hope that the idea of art and expression brought to the area. I was in a melancholic mood.

But in writing about this, I made some mistakes that have taught me some valuable life lessons.

1. We have a responsibility to write without assumptions. We as bloggers are seen in a way as journalists, and the way we represent an event paints a picture. A picture that might be half drawn. That might not be coloured in for the reader.

2. As a blogger, we must accept that we are viewed, judged and convicted on the words of each post. We are therefore only as good as our last post. I may have written many times about the beauty, the vitality and the amazing spirit of Ghana before, but in one post, my jaded slant created a false impression that it’s very difficult to live with.

3. Readers can feed off the energy of comments. Mass mentality can happen on a website, as quick as can happen in a crowded street where someone shouts ‘thief’! Since writing my account of a less than perfect festival that I witnessed a portion of, in my bad mood, I have been labeled a racist, a bigot, an uninvited, unappreciative monger of poverty writing, and far, far worse.

It is disturbing and hurtful to be at the centre of a witch hunt in a country that I have called home for so long. It is sad to me that one blog post has created a venomous and violent response from the fellow bloggers that I share a creative space with, in Ghana’s online community.

I have learned many things. That I must be careful – I must present more well rounded accounts of events and leave my moods at home. That it is far more uplifting to see the beauty around us than the negative, as it is everywhere and it permeates. It is more of a challenge and more rewarding to pluck out the good and raise it up above the bad.

I have learned that hatred lies so shallow below the surface, and I have seen it’s ugly face in the blog posts and comments hurled at me. I have seen how easy it is for people to judge, to condemn without knowledge. To push someone into a box, a label that doesn’t befit them. (Perhaps I also unwittingly labeled and boxed the community of Jamestown with my account…)

I am resilient though, and I will continue to live my little life, and write from my humble perspective, and if Ghana will not embrace me, I will embrace myself.

The people of Jamestown too are resilient, and will brush off my grumpy critique, as it has been pointed out that I was not the intended audience, and if the children enjoyed the day, that is far more important.

I’d like to close with a quote that all of us should take to heart. It will help in my writing and I hope it will help my scathing critics:

“If each man or woman could understand that every other human life is as full of sorrows, or joys, or base temptations, of heartaches and of remorse as his own . . . how much kinder, how much gentler he would be.”

Monday, July 18, 2011

Chale Wote - festival for the hungry?

For weeks my inbox has been bombarded with event invites, information, flyers and promotional blurbs about an upcoming Street Art festival in Accra. In Jamestown, the poorest, most densely populated ghetto in Accra. Not only was it strange to be getting email correspondence about a festival in Jamestown, but foreign embassies were involved and were even asking for volunteers for the day.

One of the website blurbs states:

The festival is free and open to the public with more than 2,000 patrons expected to attend. CHALE WOTE Street Art Festival is a collaborative effort produced with the help of the Ga Mashie Development Agency, the Foundation for Contemporary Artists, JustGhana, Attukwei Art Foundation, Pidgin Music, DUST Magazine, ACT for Change, The WEB, and Ehalakasa Poetry Slum.

My carefully constructed cynicism told me that the event was a disaster in the making or at best, a non-starter, but I agreed to ‘check it out’ with T, for old times’ sake – to celebrate the curiousity that has helped us to know Ghana so well through the years.

This Saturday was the big day. T and I piled into a rickety taxi, left the relative serenity of Osu, and asked to go to the prison (the main Jamestown fort being both the ‘hub’ of the daily activities, AND the oldest prison in Ghana). He obliged. As he honked and dodged along the bumpy roads, we sat, bright and scrubbed and carefully devoid of jewellery or purses, looking out at the increasing squalor, the tightly choked lanes, the throngs of passers-by, jostling between taxis, tro tros, head loads and knee high festering piles of rubbish. We were in the heart of Jamestown.

He dropped us at a random corner, which seemed just as good as any, and we nodded at the cluster of old men gathered on makeshift benches on the other side of the green swamp gutter. We entered a dirt square, bordered by concrete walls, that housed an unorganised mess of people under canopies, selling fufu and a sad array of ‘local crafts’, along with a brass band in matching yellow t-shirts. There were easily 200 children below the age of 10, stomping around the band, in a rainbow of school uniform colours, following the pied piper of Jamestown, a lanky guy, with red rimmed hipster glasses, a hand painted t-shirt and a wacky expression.

Then the pied piper saw us, motioned to his crew and within seconds they attacked. Hundreds of knee high sets of brown hands and faces, all over our arms and legs, shouting, chanting, laughing, pushing. “Obruni!!!!!!!”

“Oh no!” This was NOT on my agenda. I have no clue why he sent them to us, but just as fast as they’d arrived, he motioned for their retreat and they were off, marching in another direction, leaving us self conscious and confused; the imprint of tiny bare toes on our ankles and feet; in a thick cloud of dust.

We tried to find something interesting to keep us there, but alas, after T taught the seller of the ‘ancient African beads’, that most were in fact, less than 6 months old and from China and India, we wandered out of the square.

We stood forlorn on the street corner, a spectacle of white curiousity, while T consulted her list of activities, printed off from the numerous flyers. There were hopeful events listed there, such as spoken word readings, experimental theater, fashion circus, Brazilian fight dancing, bike and rollerskate stunting party, live music etc. Looking around at the complete lack of signs, vibe and such, and instead at the din of a usual Saturday afternoon in Jamestown, kids bathing naked at the roadside, mothers sweating, pouring the dirty water from the buckets of their lives into the open fetid gutters… I remained skeptical.

Just then, T spotted the sign for a project that the North American Women’s group has been donating funds. It was painted roughly by hand, “Jaynii Streetwise” at the edge of the lighthouse (a colonial legacy at the coast and edge of Jamestown’s grasp). We stood for a minute at the top of the huge stone steps that led downward and out of view. Before us was the beach, a sand the colour of toast, and beyond that the vast ocean, whose waves sounded so peaceful and so at odds with the mayhem of the neighborhood behind us. To our right, knotted masses of fishermen’s nets hung on the broken and decaying walls of what was once a colonial building. Now, the half enclosed crumbled walls were occupied by family upon family. The children ducked and dived between their mothers as the women bent over the weekend laundry buckets. We were essentially within a few feet of the private lives of others, as if looking into an ant colony in primary school science class. No one noticed us though, and we descended the stairs.

We were on the beach. A few concrete rooms at various stages of completion were dotted along to the left. Some were painted, most half built. Nothing at all was happening here. One got the impression that the idea of anything one day occurring here had been abandoned. (I had read online that there was a bar here with the same name two years ago, complete with thatched umbrella shaded tables, but nothing of this is left today).

As we rounded the front of the first building we saw some movement. The door opened and a beautiful woman in a white sleeping dress emerged - turns out she is Jay of Jaynii. Behind her, the dark room produced small faces, one by one peering out at the visitors. I noticed a colouring book and fresh bright crayons on the floor by the door and knew the donations had definitely reached here.

Jay seemed not the least bit surprised by our impromptu visit, and while she explained to T what was ‘going on’ with the project, I peered in further. There were new looking caramel coloured leather sofas, two of them, piled with bags and boxes and ladies and children. They just seemed so odd. So out of place in this little salty, stuffy room at the edge of Jamestown, on the beach.

Jay introduced us to her new baby, sleeping peacefully in a small bassinet. Then she took us on a tour. But there was nothing much to see.

“Here is the hostel for the street children” she explained. It was a shell of a building. Nothing in it. No windows. It will be completed by next week. Hmmmmm.

“50 children will stay here. We need to get them out of what they are living in – urgently.” I wondered what she meant by this. Up above us on the the main street, the children lived in small rooms with no windows. They scrambled for food, they barely made it from day to day. What would be different here in this ghostly set of rooms?

“Here are the washrooms and toilets, donated by NAWA. But we haven’t yet finished the toilets.”

“Where is the library?” T asked.

“It is there.” We did not see it.

“Are there books for the library?”

“Yes there are some books.”

We didn’t see those either.

Jay invited us to her upcoming wedding celebrations as well - and though we were flattered, I had to wonder - weddings in Ghana, as elsewhere are expensive affairs. Jay lived in this one tiny room with at least 12 other people - how would she afford such an event. I hoped she was marrying rich...

Back at the top of the steep steps we bumped into an American couple, kitted out with money belts, sunglasses, festival programs in hand. They looked about as silly as us, and they hadn’t found anything more going on than we had.

Eventually we came across a couple more ‘events’ on random side streets – which consisted of western highschool students (who had obviously volunteered), looking flustered and harassed, policing groups of wild local kids, in painting dead car tires, t-shirts and walls. It was chaotic and not very entertaining, but at least the kids seemed to be having fun or some semblance of it.

We found another group of kids and a few artists in a decaying courtyard as well. Some were painting the walls, and three young Jamestown boys with roller skates on were jumping rows of their brave friends on the floor. A smattering of expats wandered between them all, trying to find enough to stick around for. We couldn’t find enough and ended up at Osekan, a beach front bar just out of Jamestown’s reach.

With our feet up, we sipped cokes. I wondered where the French Ambassador was. Did the funders visit their event? Did the do-gooders hope and expect to create a fully organised festival in the midst of a slum where food and water are luxuries?

What is art when you are hungry? What place do we have in pushing concepts onto people. What if they would have appreciated a bag of rice instead of paint on the streets? Tomorrow’s bath water, tipped into the road, will wash it away, and nothing will be left but a sour memory of another failed project in Ghana.


I have removed all photos that I had added to this post, which were not taken at the event, nor did they accurately represent the event. Instead, I tried to borrow some great photos from Ghana blogger Nana Kofi Acquah - who managed to get some great shots. Unfortunately Blogger will not let me upload photos as there seems to be a bug of some sort with this over the past two weeks :( I strongly recommend visiting Nana's site.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

In the news: Ghana today

Corpses have been removed from Tema morgue today, following an invasion of mice that were eating the bodies. It is not clear whether the hospital or family members are transferring the bodies to various other facilities./// Ghana’s President Atta Mills spoke to the nation on Sunday, giving the assurance that government would institute measures to check the menace of homosexuality and lesbianism that were gaining grounds within the country. He said those acts were contrary to the word of God and the norms and values of the Ghanaian society. He spoke in response to the words of Reverend Bosoma, who warned that if preventive measures were not taken, the situation could result in misfortunes and disasters in the country, just as it happened to Sodom and Gomorrah. The Reverend also condemned improper dressing, especially wearing of short skirts and open-chest blouses by females to expose their breasts, saying the practices were due to wrong adaptation of foreign culture./// Two Pastors of the Conquerors Redemption International Church, and a trader were charged with possessing fake currencies after suitcases of fake GHC50 notes were recovered from the church./// The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), announced the organisation of a durbar for the Transport Union to highlight health hazards associated with noise making. This has become necessary due to the intensity of noise making by some drivers at lorry stations and within the metropolis./// The Chief Nankpanduri and Naa Nimoh Naabare, the Chief of Kpemale in the Bunkpurugu-Yunyoo District Assembly in the Northern region, have held a joint press conference denying reports that they are at war because of a parcel of land./// Yaw Kesse, a 30-year-old farmer, was on Thursday sentenced to 16 months imprisonment by a Koforidua Magistrate’s Court for stealing cocoyam. When confronted he admitted to having stole the yams and sold them to a woman./// The Presbyterian Church of Ghana has presented a brand new Renault Duster 4x4 vehicle to the Headmaster of the Suhum Presbyterian Senior High School (SHS) to facilitate his work. At the same presentation, Rev. Dr Mante expressed concern about reports of homosexuals and lesbianism invading educational institutions in the country and urged heads of institutions and teachers to be vigilant and monitor the students and bring all those involved in those practices out. The school remains in need of a school bus./// A 45 year old farmer who doubled as a fetish priest, shot himself dead in the Nanumba-North District after butchering to death his third wife who was pregnant. His first and second wives were injured, but escaped death by fleeing. It was revealed during the investigation that the Police have in their possession a single obsolete Tata pick-up meant for patrolling two widespread districts.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Can Watching TV Be Therapeutic?

We’ve been watching In Treatment. An American TV series shot entirely within the confines of a therapist’s office. (The entire script is adapted from the Israeli show Be Tipul) It’s addictive and engrossing. J has even been glued to it, and he has no suspension of disbelief, meaning he normally hates any fictional drama series.

Throughout my life I’ve had friends in therapy. I felt like it was some sort of club I didn’t really need, had no clue how to join, but had a morbid curiousity about. I wondered whether there could truly be a formula where peoples’ lives could be spoken – like puzzle pieces poured onto a table - and with a therapist’s presence, reflecting the words back upon the wounded one like a mirror, the puzzle would fit together and the person would emerge cured…

In as much as a TV show reflects the reality of our lives, the series illustrates the fact that there is no secret at all. That therapists are not special nor gifted. That they have neuroses of their own, that they can be weak and impulsive and damaged. That they cannot see the patterns they theorize about, when it comes to their own lives. In essence, that they are just one of us. Normal in their imperfections.

This is depressing and elating at once.

At the end of the season 1, the hero, our therapist, decides finally to follow his heart, professing his love for a patient with whom the sexual tension has been palpable throughout the series. He visits her house, enters her bedroom and … has an anxiety attack on the edge of the bed. He begins to sweat uncontrollably and gasp for air. He flees.

I never believed in anxiety attacks when I was younger. I grew up with the impression that most psychological problems were just melodramatic self absorption. This was easy to believe. Easier than facing the possibility that life’s experiences could damage our minds, our hearts, our souls.

One day a few months after my six year old son died inexplicably in my arms, I found myself at the bottom of a pool of air, forgetting how to breath it in, how to stand, how to walk. I was gripped with panic at the thought of walking down the stairs, sipping water, living another moment. In my mind, I knew that something had to give. I would have to pass out or vomit or die.

I had an anxiety attack. I found myself on the side of the road in my car, on the streets of Accra, in a neighborhood I knew well. Lost, out of breath and terrified. I had to call a friend to come and save me.

I knew then that the mind was a delicate organ and I was so scared that mine was tipping into the uncontrollable. Turning against me. I have never been more frightened about my own sanity. I needed a miracle.

I wanted a therapist to soothe my shaking psyche. To talk me through my own mine field of experience. To make me better.

I came to realise that the choice was inside me. The strength to pull up and out of the abyss. Time is a healer, more than a $150 an hour psychotherapist.

Their theories and the incessant talking about memories and feelings are all stabs in the dark to help us, but in the end, futile without us. I have lost the naive belief in external cures. I am much more in awe of the human brain now though, and how it reacts to the blows of reality. I will never venture to judge again...

But my morbid curiousity is not abated. I have realised that watching the therapy dynamic is fascinating in it’s inaccuracy, interplay, and raw emotion. It makes brilliant television.
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