Being female in public

Last week, I met a man I didn’t know in a rural village on the side of the road and walked with him away from the road for 20 minutes through thick brush to get to a more remote village. After attending the farmer’s organization meeting we were going to, he walked me back to the road and waited with me until I got in a shared taxi back to the city. I felt completely safe throughout this experience, which didn’t seem very remarkable until I reflected on the fact that I probably wouldn’t feel safe in a very similar situation in the US.
Ghanaian men are definitely forward. Walking down the street, I get far more catcalls than I would in the US, plus the odd marriage proposal. A lot of this is not gender specific; it’s just because I’m white and visibly foreign. But even the gender-based attention doesn’t feel threatening here the way the same actions might in the US. In one walk, three men might chase after me, professing their love and asking if they can come to the US and marry me. All I have to do is reply with my well-worn lines—“I already have eight Ghanaian husbands, but when I go through them all, I’ll let you know”; “Your farm/taxi/business would need to be much bigger for me to marry you” and “I would love for you to visit me in the US, as long as you can buy the plane ticket”—and I get left alone. Some men are certainly persistent, but no one’s pushy. With the exception of people trying to sell me things in Accra, I’ve never had someone continue to pursue me after I’ve made it clear that I wasn’t interested.
In the US, this isn’t always the case. I’ve been lucky enough to have a life relatively free from sexual harassment. I’ve never been raped, molested or even groped in public. But I’ve had my share of unpleasant experiences with men who were a little too forward. There was the guy on the bus who slid into the seat next to me, asked me for my number and was offended when I said no (I was 14; he was at least 20).There was the construction worker on the house next door to ours who started chatting with me in a friendly way, then quickly began asking if I was home alone (I was, and I was also 15 at the time), telling me how good I looked and staring at me when I came outside to get my laundry off the clothesline. There was the guy in my aikido class who said he wanted to hang out sometime and give me a chance to practice my Spanish, but then insisted I get in his car with him, tried to take me to a hotel room, kissed me before letting me leave and then called me at least five times in the next week, leaving long, rambling messages about how much he loved me. I never talked to him again, and I never went back to aikido class.
On my last trip to Ghana, I was wandering around Osu (a neighborhood in Accra) with my friend when a rather intoxicated man came out of his house and attempted to hug/drape himself over my friend. She ducked, so he landed on me instead. I wasn’t sure what he was trying to do, but I figured it couldn’t be good. I tried to get him off me, which was difficult, until a woman emerged from another house and started yelling at the man, “What do you think you are doing? Are you trying to rape these girls?” The man detached himself and wandered off.
I know my experiences in Ghana are biased, and influenced by my whiteness and foreignness as much as my gender. That said, it’s simultaneously awesome and sad how safe I feel here and how comparatively unsafe I’ve felt at times in the US. I have no doubt that in Ghana, if anyone did try to attack me and I started screaming, people would come and help me. I wish I could say the same for the US, but often people aren’t willing to intervene in something they perceive to be a private problem, even if they’re clearly witnessing abusive behavior.
In contrast to my experience in Osu, I felt completely isolated in each of the American experiences I’ve described above, even though all of them occurred in public places. Even though I read feminist blogs, understand what rape culture is and could deconstruct victim blaming in my sleep, I didn’t want to tell my parents or friends about the guy in my aikido class, for fear that I would be criticized for acting stupidly or leading him on. It took a very good friend listening to me cry for an hour on the phone for me to realize that I had absolutely no obligation to have any further contact with this man.
By the time I have a daughter, I want her to be able to walk down a street—in the US, in Ghana—without being afraid. I want her to feel no obligation to indulge anyone who disrespects her right to be left alone. I want her to understand that being female in public is not a crime. And if someone does try to hurt her, I want everyone who’s there, who can see what’s taking place to form a wall around her, protect her, call the police, scream “NO” and defend her right to be and feel safe.

Best Ghanaian business names

I’m heading home in three days, and there are a bunch of things I’m going to miss about Ghana. Perhaps one of the coolest unique features of Ghana is the incredibly creative names people give their businesses. So here, without further ado, is my unabridged list of the best Ghanaian business names I’ve seen in the last month.
Jesus Never Fails/Joe’s Heaven Open Saving Centre
Everything by God
Remember Your Creator Fashion
Jesus King of Kings Ltd.
Our Lord is a Consuming Fire
I Shall Not Die Motors
Soulmate Center Vocational Training Institute
Hilarious Services Passport Photos & Secretarial Services
Touch Not My Anointing
Victoria’s Secret Sewing Center
In His Own Time Cosmetics
In Him We Move
Thank You Jesus Spare Parts
The Lord is My Shepard Saw Sharpening Centre
Sow in Tears, Reap in Joy Welding & Fitting
Showers of Blessings Ent.
God’s Time is the Best (I’ve seen at least ten of these)
Power in the Blood of Jesus Prayer Ministry
By His Grace Barbering Shop
God’s Will Enterprises: Dealers in Quality Tires and Other Goods
Cheap Store
Shalom God is My Will Beauty Salon
This is By the Grace of My Lord
My Redeemer Lives Cold Store
Financed by Unicorn Happy Investments ( a sign at a rural bank)
Amen Amen Shopping Center
Jesus Promotion Ventures
Jah Bless Computer Services
Yours is Yours Electrical Enterprises
Take Side With Jehovah
Sons of God Enterprises
Porsche Daddy
Mente Twi (meaning “I don’t speak Twi”, which is the lingua franca in much of Ghana)
By His Grace Electronics and Refrigeration Services
Casino Night Club (this was a small wooden shack which presumably served alcohol or food)
Christ is the Answer Fashion Center and Undertaker

Greenwashing at its finest

Oh, Coke. You’re trying so hard.

This billboard is Coke’s attempt to do the right thing and remove some pollution from the air. It’s made of plants, you see, so it will absorb carbon dioxide and other harmful things, giving the citizens of the Philippines cleaner air to breathe.

Here’s the thing, Coke. You don’t save the planet by putting up billboards. On the original GOOD post where I saw this, an astute commenter did some math based on data from Coke’s own website. People buy 1.6 billion bottles and cans of Coke per day. According to this commenter, each bottle has a production footprint of 0.5 lbs CO2, which doesn’t count distribution. Meanwhile, this billboard can absorb 46,800 pounds of carbon dioxide per year, which is less than one day’s worth of Coke’s carbon footprint from production alone. To offset their production footprint, they would need 5.8 million billboards.

I haven’t checked this guy’s math, and I’m not going to because it doesn’t matter. The numbers on the billboard’s own absorption are from Coke, and even if my anonymous commenter is completely overstating the carbon footprint of making a Coke bottle, the underlying point is still completely valid. Sexy green billboards aren’t going to save the world. They’re not going to make a dent. They’re absolutely useless when it comes to actually changing anything.

Which would all be fine, except for the fact that Coke is using this to play up their green street cred. So in case anyone thinks for a moment that Coca-Cola is a company which cares about people or the planet, I’d like to set the record straight. Coke has been repeatedly accused of taking over water supplies in developing countries, particularly India, and pumping them dry, leaving local people with no access to water. In 2001, Coke’s bottler in Colombia was accused of hiring paramilitary death squads to intimidate, torture and kill union leaders and organizers at their plant (these accusations were verified by an independent, US-based research team). Similar accusations have surfaced more recently in Guatemala.

Even without the water rights and death squads, there’s a more mundane problem with Coke. Their product is sold in disposable containers, which are sometimes re-used (glass bottles in many developing countries) or recycled (in developed countries), but often thrown away. Growing the corn needed to make Coke is incredibly environmentally destructive and pesticide-intensive. The life cycle of a Coke beverage, from cradle to grave, releases tons of carbon dioxide and other pollutants, creates a large amount of waste and contributes seriously to poor health, diabetes and obesity. As far as I can tell, the only benefit of the entire company appears to be that it provides jobs to people (no word on how well those jobs pay) and a lot of money to a very select few.

Coke is not a green company, and it never has been. There is no amount of “offsetting” Coke can do that will make up for the environmental damage it’s caused. If Coke is truly concerned about the health of our planet, the best thing they could do would be to go out of business.

Things I’ve learned in Ghana

I’m headed home from Ghana at the end of this week, so I thought I’d share a few things I’ve learned during my five weeks here:

1. Riding three on the back of a motorcycle is easier than it sounds, but still challenging while wearing a skirt and waving gracefully at the hordes of children yelling Obruni! (white person) at you. Especially if you’re trying not to flash anyone.

2. Ghanaians use the word “nice” where Americans would use the word “good”, which can lead to disconcerting sentences such as “Silence of the Lambs was a very nice movie.”

3. It is possible to train yourself to eat spicy foods. It is also possible to train yourself to be cool with high levels of bacteria. If you’re ever trying to do this, expired raw milk and homemade kombucha (tea fermented with a bacteria/yeast colony) are definitely the way to go, and you should just ignore your parents and friends who are telling you that you’re going to make yourself sick. A few mild stomachaches in the US is totally worth five weeks in Ghana without a serious intestinal meltdown.

4. It’s really, really awesome to live in a country where high-fructose corn syrup is basically nonexistent.

5. Living without water while camping or on Semester in the West is an adventure. Living without water for a day because Seattle has to repair something is easy. Living somewhere where water goes out constantly, unexpectedly, without warning, for weeks at a time eats up tons of would-be productive time that has to be spent installing backup tanks, hauling jugs of water from place to place and basically constructing your own water infrastructure on top of the one the city already has.

6. Naming your business “God’s Time is the Best General Goods” might be a bold, distinguishing move in the US, but in Ghana, there are like three of those on every block. If you want to really stand out, you have to go for something a bit more dramatic, like “Our Lord is a Consuming Fire Enterprises”.

7. Balls of pulverized cassava (fufu) are a somewhat forgettable culinary experience, but balls of fermented maize (banku and kenkey) are actually pretty good. In related news, fermenting anything usually makes it awesome (sourdough, kombucha, yogurt, etc).

8. Wearing seat belts is always a good idea, even if you’re the only person in the entire tro tro doing it and everyone else is giving you strange looks. However, you may find yourself at some point riding in a speeding van with all metal surfaces on the interior, through which you can see the road below you. This van will naturally lack any seat belts. If this happens, you should probably just view it as a cultural experience and try not to panic every time the van swerves sharply to avoid a pothole/goat/woman carrying eggs on her head/chicken/other vehicle/homemade speed bump in the middle of the road.

9. No matter how cool you think bright orange and blue lizards are the first time you see one, you will be completely over them after a month. Especially once you realize that they are adept at crawling under doors and through cracks in your walls, and that they are also fond of pooping on your living room floor.

10. In spite of my many, many problems with the American government, there’s something about going to a former slave fort on the Ghanaian coast and seeing a plaque proclaiming that President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama visited the site in 2009 that made me so grateful to have the current administration running things in Washington.

Ghanaian mass transit

In spite of all the harrowing, death-defying experiences I’ve had on Ghanaian roads, I have to say that Ghana definitely has the US beat on one thing: mass transit.
I’ve often wished that is was easier to get between major US cities. If you’re looking to get to say, Portland from Seattle, you have a few not great options. You can own a car and spend a small fortune on gas. You can borrow a car or use a car-sharing program and spend a small fortune on gas. You can hitchhike and risk getting picked up by creepers and/or Ted Bundy’s reincarnation. You can pay $50 or so and take a train or a Greyhound and get there in 5 hours instead of the 3 it would take to drive. You can pay an obscene amount of money to fly.
All of these options have two things in common. One, they’re very inefficient. The time constraints imposed by buses, trains and other large, publicly subsidized forms of transportation mean that most people who have the means to drive will do so. So we end up with a lot of cars carrying one or two people making these drives every day. Secondly, if you don’t have money, you’re out of luck.
Ghana has developed an awesome, if slightly terrifying way around this problem. Stand by the side of any paved road for five minutes, and at least three vans will drive by blaring horns and shouting at you to figure out if you need a ride. These vans are called “tro-tros”, and they’re extremely efficient solution to the mass transportation problem.
Tro-tros operate out of stations. Every city has at least one: a place with vans and shared taxis packed together like sardines, with women balancing snacks in bowls on their heads weaving in and out trying to sell passengers something for the road. Earlier this week, I took a short trip to Cape Coast, another city about four hours away. All I had to do was show up at the station and within seconds, someone was able to point me towards the van heading to Cape Coast. I paid 12 cedis ($8) for my ticket, got on the van, waited for it to fill up (about half an hour), and we were off. Four hours later, I was in Cape Coast.
In contrast to American mass transit, tro-tros are extremely efficient. First of all, they’re packed full at all times—empty seats are lost profit, so drivers wait until every seat is taken. This minimizes fuel burned per person, making them much more environmentally friendly than your average American SUV carrying two people. Tro-tros also pick people up and drop them off along roads between major cities, making them very convenient regardless of where you’re headed. And while you do have to wait for the tro-tro to fill up at the station, they’re still much more time efficient than Amtrak, Greyhounds or planes, when you factor in the time it takes to get to the station, clear security, buy a ticket in advance and all the rest. Plus, they’re dirt cheap. Obviously, that’s partly a function of the fact that everything in Ghana is cheap compared to the US. But I have a hard time imagining how filling a van full of Seattleites and driving them to Portland could cost more than a train ticket already does.
I know there are a bunch of cultural reasons why Americans wouldn’t be into this model. It requires you to ride shoulder to shoulder with strangers, many of whom are eating fragrant foods or holding babies on their lap. Car-sharing means trusting people you don’t really know, both to drive safely and to not kidnap and kill you. People use long drives to listen to music or chat with friends, both of which are made difficult by the loud gospel music that tro-tro drivers seem to favor.
Americans are definitely willing to share rides when the pool of potential rides is trusted. For example, Whitman has a “rides” listserv, where people can post if they’re driving somewhere nearby (usually Seattle or Portland from Walla Walla) or need a ride. Largely because of this, it’s extremely rare for a car to go from Walla Walla to a major city without a full load of either people or their stuff. But we don’t like extending this model to the wider world. There have definitely been some efforts to change this, and some cities have an emerging carpool-with-strangers culture, but nothing I’ve seen or read about in the US even comes close to Ghana’s tro-tro and shared taxi system.
Just one more thing to add to my hippie utopia wish list…

Today in Ghana, I…

-was ushered in and out of sleep by the flock of chickens that live in our yard and always sound like they’re being murdered
-spent an hour interviewing a farmer named Jonas in his village, and contemplated befriending the village cat before remembering that in Ghana, the Ewe people eat cats (Jonas is Ewe)
-learned that the Ministry of Food and Agriculture has named one of its improved sweet pepper seed varieties toto, which apparently means vagina in Ga (a Ghanaian language, though not one spoken by the majority of Ghanaians)
-drove past By His Grace Electronics and Refrigeration Services on the way to interview farmers, and past Christ is the Answer Fashion Center and Undertaker while coming home
-rolled down my car window and was immediately rewarded by two children in school uniforms yelling Obruni! (white person) so in sync with each other that it felt like they’d been practicing
-realized that my entire Ghanaian vocabulary consists of “Do you speak English?”, “I don’t speak Twi” and “Thank you” in Twi, “vagina” in Ga and not a single word of Ewe, Krobo, Fante, Dakbani or any of the other languages that my Burro coworkers all seem to know at least three of
-(mostly) got over my completely non-exotic cold that I came down with last week

The no car challenge

Today is the halfway mark of my time in Ghana. It seems like I just got here, but it’s also been forever since I left home. As weird as that all feels, it’s especially strange knowing that I’m only going to be home for four and a half weeks—less time than I’ve spent travelling, in short
I have so much I want to do during the month I’m home. I’ve been thinking about how to maximize the time I have and get more out of it, and I decided I’m finally going to take the plunge. For the month at home, I’m going to take the no car challenge: no driving within the Seattle city limits. I’m going to get around the city walking, biking and taking the bus.
I’ve thought about doing a lighter version of this for the past two summers, but it hasn’t really worked. There are a number of factors which have limited my driving: rising gas prices, sharing a car with my brother, a busy work schedule, the increasing difficulty of finding parking in Seattle and the fact that my house is pretty well served by buses. But I always flake on plans to become more self-sufficient. My laziness takes over, or I want to go shopping with friends, or I just can’t bring myself to bike anywhere knowing that highest point on the highest hill in Seattle is a few feet from our property line.
I thought about it again this summer for the brief period I was home, when I emerged from my Whitman bubble long enough to notice that gas has gotten absurdly expensive. And I had the classic environmentalist quandary: as much as I want to celebrate rising gas prices, as much as I know they’re necessary and still not high enough, I was cringing at the thought of paying so much to drive around the city. And I realized that the only way out of that quandary is to just say no. I don’t need a car in Seattle. There are plenty of other ways to get around.
The main advantage of driving is that it’s “efficient”. This is definitely true in important ways—if you want to get somewhere quickly, driving is your best bet. But I think driving within Seattle also leads me to make choices that aren’t in my best interest. With a car at my disposal, it’s easy to decide to head to Value Village with my friends on a whim. Without cars, I’ll think twice about spending an hour on the bus to go shopping for clothes I really don’t need with money I don’t really have. Cars might take less time, but you can read or knit on a bus if you’re stuck in traffic. In a car, you just have to sit there and be pissed off. If you have access to a car, it’s easy to run to the store right before dinner for the ingredient you forgot. If you have to walk a mile to get there, you’re more likely to try to come up with something creative using the stuff you already have at home. Plus, if I actually end up biking and walking places frequently (which I suspect will happen once I get sick of paying bus fare), I’ll get in much better shape and probably survive my farm labor better.
There’s another huge benefit I see to not driving everywhere: it has a spillover effect on the people you interact with. I read something a while ago about a guy who decided he was going to walk everywhere he went. The article talked about the impact this had on his personal relationships. It wasn’t possible for him to visit friends for a few hours or just the day—often, if they lived more than a few miles away, a visit meant he had to spend the night. As a result, he felt he was able to cultivate more meaningful relationships with people.
I’ve seen something similar during winters in Seattle. The city of Seattle is completely incapable of dealing with snow. We don’t have snowplows, we take forever to de-ice the city, and no one knows how to drive on frozen surfaces. About every two or three years, Seattle has a massive snowstorm which completely shuts down the city. Usually, order is restored within a few days, but sometimes, it’s chaotic for a week. In this environment, buses run late on shortened routes and most people don’t drive. But school is also cancelled, or it’s winter break, so everyone wants to hang out with friends. In high school, this frequently translated to gatherings at centrally located houses. I would walk miles in the snow to go over to friends’ houses and drifted around between groups of people. In snow conditions, everyone becomes more hospitable. People stick together, sleepover invitations are extended and everyone looks out for neighbors and friends. No one worries too much about schedules or being on time.  Life is a bit more relaxed, and it moves more slowly.
I’m hoping that by driving less, I’ll be able to cultivate a little bit of that spirit in my life. Freshman year of high school, I rode the bus every day, and I always looked forward to my time on the Metro. It gave me a chance to decompress, listen to music, meet interesting people or get a bit of reading done before I got home. It wasn’t time that I ever viewed as wasted, and it was a nice break from the rest of my day, when six thousand things were going on.
I’ll report on this experiment as it develops. Here are the Official Rules I’ll be using (though these may be amended as needed).
1. No driving or riding in a car within the Seattle city limits during the time I’m home.
2. Driving outside the city (eg. to go to Issaquah to see family, to visit friends in Walla Walla, hiking, etc.) is ok, but every possible attempt should be made to minimize this driving. This will include trying to limit the number of these trips, carpooling/coordinating with other people and looking into alternative transit options (eg. bussing to Issaquah).
3. No weaseling. This means no getting rides from people when it’s out of their way, no making friends come to my house instead of me going to them, etc.
4. No being obnoxiously self-righteous about how I’m saving the planet, because I’m totally not. This is an experiment being undertaken for completely selfish reasons.
Exceptions to the above:
a) If I’m scheduled to work at another store (not my normal store, which is easy walking distance from my house) and get off work at 10pm or later, driving is ok for safety/logistical reasons.
b) If I’m going in a car with someone to somewhere they’d be going anyway and they won’t be persuaded to go another way (eg. going out to dinner with the whole family).
c) If I have to transport a large enough quantity of material that moving it via bike or bus would be logistically impossible (groceries do not count here).
d) If there’s a medical emergency, designated driver situation or something important like that.