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.

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