Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Mobility


I am now a licensed Ghanaian driver. Now all I have to do is learn to drive around here!
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Run off?

Results posted at myjoyonline.com are close! With 228 of 230 constituencies counted, the ruling party NPP has 4,154,339 votes (49.05%) and the NDC has 4,061,434 (47.96%). But the rule is that only when a candidate has won 50% + 1 of the vote will they be declared the winner. If no party gains this majority, there will be a revote 21 days after the first election. It is looking likely that Ghananians will go back to the polls to recast their votes for President three days after Christmas.

The revote is an interesting rule in that it would prevent the kind of disgruntlement that happens in the U.S. where someone who has not won the popular vote takes the White House (and even rules like he has a broad mandate...ahem, 43). But it's a bit of a drag on national energy, enthusiasm, and economy to re-run the election. Most people seem to want to conclude the election neatly so they can relax into their Christmas holidays.

One notable outcome of the election results so far is that the opposition party, NDC, appears to have taken the majority in Parliament. If NPP takes the Presidency, I think this is the first time that Ghana will have different parties in the executive and the legislature. As one of my colleagues pointed out today, this is real progress in terms of democracy and the parties having to learn how to compromise and accommodate each other to get things done.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Ghana Decides 2008

Yesterday was Election Day here in Ghana and it was an interesting thing to observe, even from the distant, uninvolved edges where I stood straining to pick up bits of conversation thrown off in the streets, watching the mood at the polls that I drove by in my Osu neighborhood.


Looking at Ghana’s recent political history, this election – particularly if it remains peaceful – is fairly significant. While the country gained independence from the British in 1957, the period between 1966 and 1992 brought a series of coups and military governments. J.J. Rawlings, who first assumed power through one of these military coups in 1981 restored multi-party politics in the country in 1992, and peacefully stepped down from power after two elective four-year terms in 2000. By all signs the outgoing President – John Agyekum Kufour – will also step down after governing for his two elective terms at the end of this year and whoever wins the outcome of yesterday’s polls will take up residence in the just completed Presidential Palace. Depending on how you count it, this election will be the second (or third) real transition of power and fifth election overall since the country regained elective politics 16 years ago. If Ghana avoids replicating the Kenyan story and the losing party bows out gracefully, this election seemingly does a great deal to institutionalize a tradition of democratic politics in this country.


***

Elections are always on December 7 (aka Iris Day), and this year it fell on both a Sunday and a major Muslim holiday. Despite these potential deterrents, people seemed to get out to vote starting early in the morning. The polling stations that I saw in my neighborhood and on the TV look like the pictures I took, posted here – a cardboard voting “booth,” an ink pad and a plastic ballot box. Voters stamp their thumbprint on the ballot, which is printed with the names, pictures, and party symbols of the candidates – both Presidential and Parliamentary – and deposit it into the box. (While voters are supposed to enjoy privacy, the outdoor affair seemed to make it fairly easy for a watcher to discern someone’s pick, which I imagine could cause some problems in small communities where politics is personal.) The entire occasion is presided over by officials from Ghana’s Election Commission (EC) dressed in blue, and I also heard rumor of quite a few international election observers poking around the country.


The coolest part of the day is when polls close at 5 pm and ballots are counted in the open air at the polling station itself. I went out to see the counting at the poll across from my apartment and there were about 100 people clustered around as one of the EC officials held up and then counted aloud each ballot one by one. I was impressed by this procedure: we talk about transparency in government, but it was neat to witness such a concrete example of it. In all of the polling stations in all the 230 constituencies throughout the country, voters could watch an ostensibly unbiased third-party official count the votes held within the ballot box that had been sitting untampered in the open air all day. It would seem to obviate grounds for major disputes about foul play, at least when it comes to vote tallying itself (vote buying, campaign finance, and intimidation may be another story). In my area, the ruling government – NPP - won the Presidential race by just 1 vote, but the cheers of NDC supporters dominated the crowd when this opposition party took the MP race.


The government has 72 hours to count the vote, and as national numbers are still being aggregated there is not year a clear winner today. Still, the election seemed to have gone off peacefully. People were worried not so much about massive government instability as about small skirmishes in areas where there are preexisting tensions, such as between ethnic groups or politicized youth. Party affiliation runs deep in Ghana, and it seems like it can be a source for major personal affront in some contexts. Many people stayed around the house to avoid any such “confusion.” If no party wins 50% + 1 of the vote, there will be a run-off election in 21 days. While it is partially back to business as usual, the sound of radio news rises through the noise of the neighborhoods today and you can feel where attention is fixed.

A month


There are pleasures to living in the tropics. Today is Eid, the Muslim holiday that marks the beginning of the Haj and it’s a national holiday to round out the four day election weekend. I carted my computer to a small hotel/restaurant overlooking the ocean in central Accra to work and write a bit and am enjoying the environment. It’s hot, but as I hear about icy winds from back home, I am content in a tank top, the breeze blowing through the palm trees and into the veranda.

As usual, the days and weeks pile against each other and a month slips by almost without notice. I’ve been keeping busy and it’s a pleasant enough routine. I enjoy work and am busy with it during the week. In the evenings there’s either dinner with the friend or two I have, or the gym and fueling my addiction to Weeds or The Wire with the pirated DVD’s widely available on the street. I’ve also gotten to take a few day or overnight trips out of the city.

I went with an IFPRI visitor Jiun, and Alfred and his daughter to a town about three hours away called Cape Coast on a Saturday a few weeks ago. The two major “tourist” attractions there are a terrifying canopy walk 100 ft into the rainforest of the Kakum National Park and the remnants of the slaving forts left behind by the Dutch and the British, who used this coast as a major point of departure for people forcibly transported from West Africa to Europe and the Americas. It’s a tragic history, and the experience of coming in out of a personally pleasant Saturday to stand in the same physical space in which other human beings suffered enormously is eerie and hard to put words to – similar to when I toured Robben Island, or what I would imagine Auschwitz would be like. That the soil on the floor of some of the cells was the decomposed human waste from the captives who were held in fetid conditions quickly brought the reality of the place home.

For Thanksgiving, my friend Lauren and I did our best to recreate the traditional American meal and cobbled together a guest list to enjoy it. After trekking through the local market, the super market, and the American commissary, we were actually able to get most everything – we had turkey, pumpkin pie, mashed potatoes, yams, mac and cheese, even cranberry jello. While we flirted with the idea of buying a live fowl to slaughter (with the help of Mercy, Lauren’s maid), we quickly thought the better of it and went with the frozen bird we found at Max Mart. We found two bosses, and a few neighbors to give us a reason for cooking the feast. I also got to talk to many of those I am thankful for back home, in the spirit of the day.

Last weekend, Lauren, Eric and I went back to Ada Foah the beautiful beach/estuary at the mouth of the Volta River that I had been to with much event last time I was here (see below). This visit was more chill this time, but just as beautiful. I also realized how much, um, nicer it is travelling with other people. Being in the same place with others that I had once visited alone, you realize the richness that social nuance inscribes on a place. I of course know this, but it’s good to be given occasion to remember it, especially for someone who has a bit of a travel bug. This Saturday I spent the afternoon visiting with Comfort’s family – the wonderful Ghanaian woman who lives with my grandparents in New Jersey and remembered why I love playing with children and why I like but do not love fufu.

More updates coming soon, but in the meantime I posted some pictures here and here.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Settling In

A month here, and I think I’m coming through the far side of that tunnel (vision) that is Settling In. The sun slanting in my window early in the morning becomes familiar, and I can feel the knots in my shoulders untying themselves.

The first job was settling into the job. I have spent my days the last few weeks haggling with roadside craftsmen, contractors, and sellers of fabric and tropical plants; observing how donors and government interact with each other in a country that receives 60 percent of its budget from foreign aid; and learning the financial and management processes of our small office of 8. (More coming soon on what is this Ghana Strategy Support Program (GSSP).) It feels a bit like trying to run while balancing on a pogo ball, but I’ve enjoyed the learning so far. The next challenge is to figure out what exactly it is I want to do or learn while here. The feeling that I can make this job a launching pad for whatever I want it to be remains, and thus the work of figuring out what and how to do.

The road to finding somewhere semi-permanent to sleep was a bit more rocky but I think I’m buckled in now. The first two weeks I was sleeping at the infamous Airside Hotel, where most IFPRI stays when in Accra and where I had stayed with Nethra the past two visits here. It’s overall a fine hotel with quite attentive staff, but my room was a cramped dark affair with an overriding smell of the camphor they use to keep moths out of the bathroom. I felt like my brain was in hibernation in that little cave, and I just couldn’t think straight to put any new world in motion or try to connect well with my old one. After a weeklong review of what the rental options are around the city and with the help of the quasi-sleazy real estate agents one is forced to use, I found a reasonable place to live that I could move in to on Nov. 1. I quickly signed a contract and arranged the necessary payment for the first four months. Knowing an end was in sight, I set my heart on lasting out the days at Airside until I could move into a place with a little space, light, and a kitchen. That I even had a mefloquine-fueled dream that they refused to let me move into the new place only told me how eager I was to get in there.

Moving morning rolls around, I pack up my bags first thing, eagerly check out of the Hotel and catch a ride over to the new apartment only to be asked somewhat nervously by the manager at the front desk to “have a seat.” Bad sign. She reemerges from the office after talking to her partner on the phone gingerly: “no one told you? We called your real estate agents two days ago to tell them that the current tenant is not moving out and thus your room is not available. We have no room for you.” Ugh, deflation. I spent the morning angrily, frustratingly sweating and debating with a Ghanaian friend, my boss, my real estate agent, the property manager who was at fault and what should be done, before ultimately understanding that there was no chance they would force out the “frail old Lebanese ambassador” previously occupying my room until he was ready to leave. I agreed to let them put me in another apartment nearby for two weeks until a room in my place would open up but we froze their payment until they came through on their half of this deal. The temporary place was kind of attractive in some respects – a quieter, more green part of the neighborhood, a far off view of the sea from the window – but it was also smaller and more shoddily built. This past Thursday the property manager called to tell me my original room had opened up and I am now the proper resident of an apartment building/long-term hotel in Osu, Accra called Upscale Nouveau (rolling the eyes). I’ve posted *pictures* of both places here.

It’s amazing though how much more settled in I felt as soon as I unpacked my bags even in my first place. I could orient myself, and begin to dig in a little bit. In a hotel you don’t have the space or equipment to be yourself, to strew the trappings of some project around your space, or cook mac and cheese in your kitchen, or hunker in with a (pirated Chinese movie) or host visitors. I feel more like I can be Leah in Ghana now.

As for a social life, I’m trying my best. When I was coming to Accra, a few different people connected me (through email mostly) with friends of theirs already here. In my first couple of weeks I met up with many of them, and a few have stuck. There’s Lauren, who Mary Beth worked with at Chemonics and is here managing for them USAID’s major agriculture program. She also has an amazing sense of humor. Frances and Baffour, one American, one Ghanaian both MIT folks who Sarah knew in Philly and B.B. knew from college Yuko, a friend of Lopaka’s from grad school who is working for JICA. Nelly, a former student of Calestous’ managing a Harvard survey. Last week one of Aimee’s friends from D.C. was here for a short-term assignment with USAID and we went to see this amazing South African dance troupe perform. This week my IFPRI colleague and friend Esteban is here from D.C. and taking advantage of my extra bedroom. I’ve also met a few Ghanaians - Eric, a friend through Airside, who I’ve gone out with a couple of times and met some of his friends; and the niece and family of Comfort, the amazing Ghanaian home health aide who has been living with my Mimi the past few months. It has also been nice to reconnect with my Ghanaian co-workers, who I am now much more daily involved with, and the handful of folks that I’ve kept in contact with from my time up North last time. Shashi, my boss, also often has some professional colleagues over for home-cooked Indian food on Sunday evenings, so when he is in town that’s a nice way to end the weekend. All in all, while I can’t recreate the rich friendships and social network I have at home, I also didn’t expected to find that here, at least quickly. But I have seemed to be able to fill up the past four weekends with small excursions around the city and to the nearby beaches with some of these folks, and loneliness hasn’t been too fierce of a presence.

In fact, my life here thus far approximates the comforts of home – I live in a solid, clean apartment that costs about the same as one in Dupont Circle, I can walk to a range of good ethnic restaurants, I can shop in well-provisioned supermarkets, I joined a gym that is as fancy as anything in Adam’s Morgan, and I go out dancing or drinking with folks in as stylish clothes listening to the same American hip hop (though with some good Ghanaian flair thrown in). My days frequently consist of waking up in a comfortable bed, taking a taxi to my office, working the day in front of my computer in correspondence with Washington or running errands for and with my small known circle of co-workers, taking a taxi to a good restaurant for dinner, maybe visiting the gym, and then coming home to look for people on Skype, read a bit, or pop in an episode of The Wire on my dvd before bed. I have mixed feelings about this.

On the one hand, if you are in a place for some time your life necessarily develops a routine, and it is important to have the things that make you feel healthy and stable and productive (e.g. exercise, vegetables, communication technologies, fun). And living in a city gives you access to such niceties. On the other hand, having left home to live abroad for a bit, I have certain expectations of myself to move outside of my comfort zone, to live the differences about this place. But you find that the barriers of class divide people in any corner of the world. If you have the means to live with these comforts, you do so whether you are American or Ghanaian or Indian or whatever, and you end up running in circles with other people who have the same means as you. (Afterall, I lived in a diverse neighborhood in D.C. but interacted largely with people just like me.) I think the effort to be made (anywhere maybe) then is to both be easy on myself, keep expectations reasonable, know that living in Accra is different than staying in the remote rural communities I was working in last time, while also looking for the little ways I can become more involved in with some of the communities of my interest. Look for a volunteer opportunity in the city. Push for trips to rural areas with work. Plan my travel agenda. And enjoy the small daily exchanges on the street. So now that I have created some sense of stability, the next challenge is to seek out the things that shake it up a little. I’ll let you know how it goes.

Barack Barack Oba-a-ma

Missing the election of Barack Obama as the 44th President of the United States of America after embracing two years in Washington, D.C. was an unfortunate quirk of timing. Watching it from Ghana was an interesting second choice.


Since we are five hours ahead of the East Coast over here, the first polls didn’t close until after midnight our time and clear election projections didn’t roll in until early in the morning. Frances and I went to dinner, and then went to sit with Baffour at a beach club to while away some time listening to the sounds of the waves rather than the incessant but as yet unknowing chatter of CNN (holograms?!?). By midnight we found a whole nest of Americans and American sympathizers at a club in town that had set up a huge projector screen in their courtyard. I stuck it out there till 3 am, but then needed to go home to manage both the exhaustion and nervous energy building up. By 4 am, I was sitting in my living room, watching the news roll in on CNN and chatting on Skype – with a bunch of you sitting at 1654, Nez in his lab in Vancouver, Ryan out in San Francisco. All of a sudden it was thirty seconds till the California polls close, and Obama with enough votes to carry the election. Virtually, together, we watched the possibility become a reality that our country had elected this man president. As I jumped and whooped and cried alone in my silent apartment complex in Ghana, those of you in D.C. ran into the streets, to U St, to the White House amid unbelieving, celebrating throngs. When I got to work at 8 am, you were coming home in the middle of your night and for all I couldn’t be there, I could feel the historic energy through the lines.


I think the almost surprising intensity of the release brought on by this night – joy, and relief, and the shy enthusiasm to believe in a government working for a collective good again – was something that most of us shared. The news coverage and editorials in the first days afterwards captured that marveling, happily incredulous moment. But two additional things stood out to me watching it from here. First, that I could be in Ghana, talking with you in D.C., and Canada, and California, all of us watching the same news broadcast with up to the second accuracy of vote counts in fifty states across our huge country is an unbelievable fact of the time we live in. All of those cables that connect us really do make our world a smaller place. And for this reason, Barack Obama was actually a global candidate. That he was elected the first black president of the United States is historically significant for us given our long racial politics, and that he was elected a liberal democrat significant given our recent history. But because millions of people who couldn’t vote for him could still follow his progress so closely in the global media, he captured the attention of the whole world. Here many Ghanaians stayed up all night as I did to watch the returns come in. One of the most frequently heard song on the radio in the last few weeks is called, in fact, Barak Obama (see the video and an interview with the artist, Blakk Rasta). And people here seemed to own a portion of the historic achievement too. As this editorial in the local paper narrates, Obama’s victory over racial prejudice is not only significant to people of African descent in the U.S. but in Africa itself, where the enormous wounds to self-esteem imposed by centuries of colonialism are not buried yet too deeply.


I am happy to have seen this side of the election, standing with everyone else on the outside looking in. I am hopeful about the years to come. Yes we can!