The Buchele Adventure

This is record of the Buchele Adventure, as reported from West Africa.

Friday, March 27, 2015

I Have a Farm in Africa

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Having a garden or compost pile is one of those things that makes a place feel like home. Since 1982, my first year at The University of Texas, I have almost always had one. It is also Biblical, “plant gardens and eat what they produce,” the prophet Jeremiah writes to the exiles in captivity[1].

So with the refrain from the 1985 Meryl Streep/Robert Redford movie Out of Africa, and the voice of Meryl Streep’s saying “I had a faaaarm in Africa,” I asked permission to open a garden, which I later learned would be a slash and burn of the bush behind our bungalow, but I didn’t learn that until after the deed was done.

I had a farm in Africa at the foot of the Ngong Hills…

Since I have almost always lived on the plains of middle America, I had visions of this garden being terraced, like the ones I saw in exotic Indonesia. Our bungalow on the University campus is at the top of a hill, and right outside our back door the land slopes off steeply. Perfect for a terrace garden.

Terrace farming is not something I have seen much of in Ghana, and when I asked a friend to arrange for a section of the jungle-like grass out back to be cleared, he said “No problem.” Could he also make it a terraced garden? “By all means”.

“By all means,” is something we say here when we need to say something, but don’t know what to say about the futility of what was just said. For example, if someone said “now that the U.S. Senate has changed hands, real governance can begin,” the only appropriate response would be: “By all means.” It means absolutely nothing.

One time I came back from my travels to the effect of slash and burn. The next time, it was cleared and there were garden beds. Garden beds, what happened to my exotic terraces? I thought. The beds were six to eight feet long, about two feet wide, with dirt mounded up. It looked like a graveyard of fresh graves.

I began planting in the fresh graves garden beds, basil, lettuce, tomatoes, lemon grass, cilantro garlic, and pineapple.

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Pineapple – January 2016 it will be ready to pick. 

Dad said the pineapple used to be sold without the spiky tops because the top could be used to propagate another pineapple. I asked around about that here, but nobody seemed to know, even though Berekuso is known for its pineapples. I have not lived in a climate with a long enough growing season to see if it was true (pineapples take 18 months), so as an experiment, I added three pineapples to my farm. Why is obruni growing pineapples when plenty, plenty in the village?

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Then the fun began.

Learning to garden in a new continent is just that. Learning. Learning what the weeds look like. For example, for the first month, basil will look strikingly similar to a common weed known as pig weed. And the second month, I learned that weed will grow spikes or thorns on its stem, making it a lot more painful to, you know, weed. It rightly called thorny pigweed.

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This week is evil. 

But I did not know about the thorns yet, so I let them grow side by side, like in the Bible when the evil one sows tares (weeds) among the wheat, and Jesus says “Let them both grow together until the harvest” because removing the tares might damage the wheat[i]. It’s a parable about the Kingdom of Heaven, and how in the final judgment the good and evil that has been allowed to grow side by side, will be brought to an end.

While me and Jesus might be OK with having a weedy garden, the community wasn’t, and one morning I noticed someone spraying the garden. The next week I noticed how the weeds lost their vigor (read dying), along with my basil and cilantro losing theirs. No more spraying, I asked.

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If I could have drawn a chalk line around the above plants to identify the bodies, I would have.

Isn’t the garden just a metaphor for learning a new culture, I thought to myself smugly each morning as I walked through this garden of mine. You bring your stuff, and locals have theirs, and the two grow along side by side, knowing that Jesus will distinguish between stuff that is part of the Kingdom of Heaven and the stuff that is not, because the difference are not always be readily apparent.

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Sweet corn

This time I did a better job of keeping my graves beds clear of weeds, but weeds grow so fast here. Overnight they can grow 2-3 inches, and miss a day or two, and it looks like you have never weeded. Then they grow thorns, and I’m wondering if I should be weeding with leather gloves. By this point I can really distinguish the two.

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Over the dry season, I created my first terraced plot, and put in Thai basil and cilantro.

The soil and climate are ideal for growing, which after years of gardening in Central Texas is new to me. One night I am so proud of the basil bed, and the cilantro is coming along nicely too. Lots of succession planting, so when one bolts, the next is ready. Thai soup and Suzanne’s amazing pesto are my dreams that night, broken by the sound of whack, whack, whack. Someone is in the garden, whacking it with a machete or cutlass, as they call it here.

“Oh noooooooo”, I shout running out there like Mr. Bill, half dressed. But I am too late. He’s dead Jim, almost all my basil and cilantro gone, weeded. Basil Bodies and Cilantro carcasses everywhere. The irony of the garden beds looking like fresh graves does not go un-noticed.

I replant, again. And again. And again, starting to feel like Steve McQueen in The Great Escape, getting thrown in solitary after each escape attempt-- KaThump--or in my case replanting attempt. [again this plays out much better in my mind]. I wonder if Meryl Streep had such troubles.

Start at 1:50 to see KaThump…

Steve McQueen in the Great Escape

Finally I asked that only I do the weeding, and if they still want to weed, that I supervise. So this is what it has come to, and I feel awful. Dreams of working hand and hand with the community get pulled from my brain.

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Banana trees and our Bungalow.

Instead, I start spending more time in the garden, weeding almost every day. I get a locally produced rake, made from rebar, and it is perfect. Now when I’m in the garden, students or people from the village will often join me, pull a few of the thorny pig weed, and then move on after the conversation has finished.

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Cocoyam with Ashesi in background.

I guess I am figuring out that gardening is not the solo occupation it was in the states, but more a community effort, like a relationship, that it works best when the maintenance is continual, instead of heroic.

[1] Jer. 29

[i] Matt. 13

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papaya

cassava (old and new)

cassava, both old and new, and my Rocket Stove.

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The student path to the private dorms.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Ghana has a Train

If my brother Rod were to come to Ghana, he would want to ride the trains. Rod is a train guy, and though I used to hop freight trains in my high school years, I’ve never grown to appreciate The Trains like my brother.

That said, I’ve wanted to ride the trains in Ghana ever since I saw one  pulling into “Circle” in Accra Central.

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Source: http://attipoed.blogspot.com/

Trains would be the perfect intersection of adventure, misery, and unexplored territory.

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Source: http://attipoed.blogspot.com/

Before I could ride the train, some reconnaissance was necessary.

Nsawam

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The signboard leaving the Nsawam Station.

The Accra-Nsawam Train Shuttle Service begins in Nsawam, a busy town of almost 50,000. It is market day, so today it is especially busy.

I remember Nsawam from the days the Accra-Kumasi highway used to go it. Orderly colonial hilltop architecture meets modern Africa chaos punctuated by fresh oven-warm bread sold from any number of ladies heads.

Nsawam Train Station

Narrow gage, with steal rail road ties. 

The train is narrow gage and runs from Monday thru Saturday, if the equipment is working. On the Saturday I am there, not expecting to actually ride the rails but more wanting to know how I might, the choice wasn’t mine: “The engine is spoiled;” I learned.  “They have taken it to Accra for repair.”

Accra has this sort of mystical aura in Ghana, as if anything can be done in Accra, and anything that comes from Accra is better than anything available locally.

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The door to the train office, that is not operational today, but neither is it locked.  What I want to know is why didn’t I open the door and look inside?

For example the eggs I buy in the village. “Where are these eggs from?” I ask.

“From Accra,” she says proudly.

“But what of the local ones?” I ask. There are chickens running around everywhere, and I see, in many back yards, laying boxes, and sometimes, children sent out to collect the eggs.

“From Accra is better.”

Nsawam Train Station: attached to the signboard is a clothesline

Train schedule: first class, about one dollar, second class, 70 cents.

I am sitting with two guys on the bench who very curious as why to I am here. One is a medical herbalist, and he wants me to follow him to his car, “the car is just there” to let him heal me of “aaaany disease.” Ghana has these all over, today I’ve snapped, as they say, pictures of a few:

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Yes, Ghana has a lotto, and Spiritual Man can tell you its numbers next time. 

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The Great Nana Ababio – Spiritual Father – for all your spiritual problems.

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Apparently The Great Nana Ababio can’t physically protect his “office” he needs broken glass to do that.

“I am OK,” I tell the herbalist. Okay means good, sufficient, not wanting more, and very much unlike the American understanding of okay, which feels like it means less than good, but good enough to get by. Maybe the Ghanaian and American understanding is the same, its just that the Ghanaians –in their honorable since of fatalism--don’t expect anything more, and we Americans feel entitled to more.

“Really, I am OK.” I can smell the alcohol on his breath and think maybe there is a good reason why doctors don’t treat themselves, this guy has been sampling the goods.

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Trains and Habours Police Office

The other gentleman on the bench and I can talk now that the drunk herbalist has left. “You want to go to Accra, why?” He has a daughter who lives in Baltimore, and works in a bank. He has been to visit her, and ridden the trains in America. “Much better,” he says.

Nsawam Train track switcher

Track switchers.

Nsawam Train Track Switcher

“You should take the lorry,” he advises using the older, colonial term from TroTro. “The lorry will take you much faster.” Then he advises the shared taxi, a taxi that drives a fixed route and a bit more expensive than the TroTro, (a small bus that only leaves when it is full, and by full I mean every seat is taken, every row has one more than it was built to hold, and what one would generously call an aisle, is packed full of standing passengers or livestock). “I want to ride the train,” I keep repeating.

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Go right and you find the station.  Go left and you find someone’s home.

Finally he tries dropping taxi, a taxi, which after the fair is negotiated, operates like one would expect a taxi to operate, unless the driver picks other passengers going that way, and then I’m never sure if I am paying, or subsidizing this ride.

Nsawam Train" People live in the car on the bypass track.

This train car isn’t going anywhere, its somebody’s home.

I say “I want the experience of riding a train in Ghana,” and then he understands, but he confesses he has never taken this train, then what are you doing sitting here in the train station, I want to ask. But I’m not sure I want to know the answer.

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It is then I learn why he has been suggesting so many other ways to go to Accra.  The engine is spoiled, and has been taken to Accra to be repaired.

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Thursday, March 05, 2015

Meet Suzzy Phonecard

We started calling her that because, well, that’s where we bought our “pay-as-you-go” scratch cards that power the pay for cell phone service here. Suzzy Phonecard. Suzzy is a sweet young lady who turned 15 a few weeks ago, but had left school after the fifth grade. Suzanne and I were on a walk in the village when we ran into her, and she took us to greet her grandfather.

Suzi - Village People

We had been buying phone cards from this girl for a month or so before we learned her name was Suzzy. 

Each family has a different ordering of the same elements of a welcome to my ceremony. At Suzzy’s house they found some plastic chairs, sat Suzanne and I down in them, and presented two sachets of water on a platter. “It is our tradition to first serve you water,” Dan says formally. We really were not thirsty, but felt obligated to take them. I’m actually glad it came in the plastic bag. I’ve been with our colleague Mary Kay (aka GhanaWaterLady) who has been offered a glass of water from a questionable source, and watched her pretend to drink it (she totally pulled it off, and later I asked “did you really drink that water?!”)

Now Dan begins his welcoming ceremony. He is maybe my age, or a little bit older and sees himself as Suzzy’s father, though he is actually the father of Suzzy’s mother. Suzzy’s Dad died in 2013 from complications due to diabetes. Dan’s English quite understandable, and I never have to ask him to repeat himself so is easy to follow along with the ceremony, “In Ghana here we do…”. I jump on the narration hand off saying “Perhaps, you are wondering what our mission is?” Of course he knew, but that isn’t how the script goes. I tell the story of how Suzanne and I moved to Ghana about a year ago, and met Suzzy, buying phone cards. I say a lot more than that, after all this has to be a long and elaborate story, centering how impressed we are with Suzzy, her hard work, dedication and entrepreneurial spirit. Suzzy is positively beaming as I talk about her.

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Suzzy’s phonecard stand.  She went to market and left this small boy in charge.  Yikes!

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A week later, Airtel came through town, and suddenly the MtN yellow umbrella was gone.

Maybe nine months ago, when I first met Suzzy, she asked for help with her school fees, or at least I think that is what she was asking. Sometimes my ears won’t hear what she is saying (meaning I can’t understand her English). We didn’t know Suzzy that well then, but Nora had told me she was not attending school.

“Please, I want to go to school,” she said one day after I had bought phone cards.

I was a little annoyed Suzzy had asked so quickly, it’s a gripe I have with Ghanaians. May will ask for monetary assistance moments after meeting you (when the odds of you feeling like helping are almost zero, but likes to say no?!). If they would just wait a while, let us get to know you and your situation, then I’m sure we would be happy to help, but asked so quickly, we feel forced too. Meet an Obruni, ask for help. At least Suzzy had waited a few months, and since Nora, had shared with me her worries about the phone-card business keeping her from getting an education, I knew to be expecting the ask.

Suzi - Village People

Suzzy also helps me in the garden, planting coco yam, cassava and plantain. 

I told Suzanne, and we had prayed about it, and I told Dan the same in my rendition of our mission, added it felt like God was wanting us to help Suzzy with her education. Would he be OK with that? Would he give us his blessing? Next to Dan is sits Dinah, Suzzy’s mother. She isn’t feeling well, and her attention drifts in and out of the conversation, like when the light flickers, about to go off. After a while, she excuses herself, and Suzzy lets her chair sit empty, a child among the adults would not be welcome.

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She came out to help Beautiful Berekuso clean-up day.

I suspect, like many other young women in the village, eight years ago her family decided they needed her to carry water, cook, or help around the house, and so she was dropped out of school, even through school is compulsory, and paid for by the government.

I had talked to Margaret, the Basic School HeadMistress. Margaret is an amazing administrator of the Basic School (primary through junior high). When she was appointed two years ago, graduation to high school was maybe one or two students, and last year, 31 passed the high school entrance exam. We have several on-going projects and I think work well together. Though I suspected she would say yes, she says “Yes,” with more confidence than I feel for Suzzy. “She would be invited. Do you think she will be able to do the work?” I tell her the same story I Dan would later hear, and she asks me to bring her by for an interview.

Suzzy studying after school

Suzzy hard at work studying after school in her container.

It has been a month and Suzzy is still in school, but no longer runs a phone card business. Suzanne and I struggle to find another vendor, especially one we like so much. She is a very brave girl to be returning to 5th grade, and I’m sure towers above her classmates.

When Suzzy turned 15, we (meaning Suzanne) gave her a birthday card from the US, and it had some birthday cash, and said we wanted to take her for pizza. “Have you ever had pizza?” Suzanne asked.

“Oh yes.” Suzzy’s English is improving.

We picked her at sunset in the Rhino, and drove the Kwabenya, two towns over where our friends the Jacksons had said there was a new pizza joint that used real cheese. But it was light off, or Doom-So as it is being called, meaning light off, light on. Tonight it was light off. The pizza joint couldn’t make pizza, or burgers. They could make chicken shawarma, French fries, fried rice, and grilled chicken.

“I thought we were going to Peter O’Quay to eat” she said. Peter is our friend and Ashesi driver. Suzzy had heard us say pizza, and thought Peter. It was a menu she wasn’t ready for. Funny, because we had passed Peter driving going the other direction and she hadn’t said a word.

She orders fried rice and chicken (the Ghanaian go-to dish of choice). When we travel its our joke, “and how will you have your chicken and rice tonight?” I wondered, would she know how to eat with a fork (she did).

She eats about half of the fried rice, and a few bites of chicken, and then stops.

Suzanne and I have been able to only eat one of the shawarma and are happy to wait for Suzzy to finish but seeing us stop eating, she is now suddenly finished too, and saves the rest for her mother and grandmother.

Chicken Shawarma

Chicken Shawarma – yum!

We add our other shawarma, and an enormous plate of French fries, and she will have enough starch that even Dan, and perhaps her two brothers will get to sample this strange Obruni food.

On the drive back I wonder, not sure where this relationship with Suzzy is going. She clearly has a lot of courage to build this fragile relationship with us (and go back to school). Along the way we pick up a third year Ashesi student, and the contrast couldn’t be more different. We easily chat with Esi about all sorts of things, and Suzzy sitting next to Esi adds nothing, watching her, as if through a window, peering into this conversation, but without ears that hear (understand) what is being spoken. Is this our hope for Suzzy? Is this where its all going? Is this even what we hope for?

I don’t know. I just know we feel led to help her get an education, and maybe she will do the rest.

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Saturday, February 28, 2015

Furniture Shopping–Ghana Style–part One (by Suzanne)

As part of leading the engineering programme effort, making decisions about furniture and lab equipment has partly fallen to me. As many of you may be aware, ordering engineering lab equipment has been stressing me lately. With US orders placed and larger, European equipment being out to bid with local distributors, our Operations Manager and I went furniture shopping in Accra last Friday.

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[Design Lab – under construction]

Much of the furniture for the new engineering building is being built by local craftsmen; I have been involved in the specification of that furniture as well. And have been impressed. Almost all of the furniture for the existing classrooms and labs were built locally and much of it has held up well.

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[locally built classroom chairs (or academic torture devices)

However, the wooden classroom chairs are rather heavy (and I find them uncomfortable for more than 30 minutes or so) and the tables are also wooden, heavy, and either fixed to the floor or too heavy to move easily. For the smaller classrooms and design lab in the engineering building, we wanted lighter furniture that was more easily configurable than the massive wooden ones we have. The carpenter (or, more rightly, furniture maker we are using) said, no problem and showed up two weeks later with a prototype metal-framed engineering lab station (very nice, we made one or two modifications but it was largely exactly what we wanted), the next week a design lab and classroom table (again, very nice, we made a few changes but it was largely perfect) and then a lab stool. When we first started talking lab stools, the furniture maker wasn’t sure he could do what we wanted, and others voiced the opinion that we should just buy proper lab stools – they can be found, imported from China or other places. But our president said no, no, no, we want to make everything local that we can, it is part of our mission to support quality local enterprises. (And by the way, the next week it was all over the news that the Government of Ghana decided to get all new furniture for their Parliament and they ordered imported furniture from China).

The furniture maker sounded doubtful about the lab stools, but one of the engineering faculty said, “go check out the Holiday Inn, at their outdoor bar they have metal framed stools that would be a good model for what we want.” And no kidding, the next week he showed up with a lightweight, metal framed, prototype stool!

[locally built lab IMG_1503stools]

It had some problems: was a bit unsteady and it was too narrow - fine for me, but it wouldn’t do for some of our more “traditionally built” students (as No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency Mme Romotwse would say). But it was light, comfortable, the back was just the right angle and just the right curvature, etc. So he’ll come back, probably this Tuesday with another prototype for us to try.

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[Multipurpose Space in new Engineering building]

The larger multipurpose space will sometimes be a classroom with a total of about 20 tables and 80 chairs, and sometimes be set up for a large lecture with no tables and 260 chairs. So, for that space we really want foldable and/or stackable chairs and foldable tables. Hence the furniture shopping.

A friend of Ashesi was visiting all fall, and I knew her area was design (plus she has great taste), so I asked her to go furniture shopping with our Operations Manager in November-December. They went for a whole day and came back with copious notes and many photos, but the short of it was they didn’t find anything that was perfect for our needs: relatively inexpensive, no chrome (it rusts), comfortable, sturdy/would last, stackable/foldable, feet that wouldn’t fall off with use, feet that wouldn’t loudly scrape the tile floor (with a room full of 260 chairs, loud scraping of chairs could get overwhelming – it already is in our classrooms of 75). We were prepared to go ahead and order the best of what they had already scouted out, but we ran things by our architects and they found some other furniture dealers/stored we hadn’t been to, that many of their customers who may also have discerning taste use. So with this list, we set out.

Now, there are many challenges to shopping in Accra, the first of which is finding the store. There are no street names, or as Steve rightly points out there are now street names, but no one uses them. So on the list, instead of the address, a location such as, “near the old HOT-FM station in Adabraka” is listed. Note that this takes not only current knowledge of the city of 3 million, but also historic knowledge, as HOT-FM hasn’t been there for many years. But this is perfectly normal and reasonable as a location in Ghana. Plus we had at least one phone number for each business. Not always a name (there were several named “Office Furniture Company (?)”). So our plan, again perfectly reasonable here: drive to the approximate location, and start looking for a shop that sells office furniture; if we don’t see one on the first drive by, call and ask for directions. Which is a great idea if they answered their phones.

Shop number one we may have found – it wasn’t named what the suggested name on our list said, but it was near the landmark listed and it sold office furniture. None of the phone numbers we called answered after many tries, so we’re not 100% sure. We looked quickly, they had mostly “executive” (desk) chairs and desks, no decent quality foldable or stackable chairs and no foldable tables, so we didn’t stay long.

to be continued…

Furniture Shopping – Ghana Style Part 2

In our last blog post, Suzanne and Casper begin scouting out furniture for the new engineering building at Ashesi. Shop number one was (maybe) located but didn’t have what we needed.

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Shop number two was listed as in a certain shopping center. It was closer in to central Accra. We found it, a large colonial-era complex with shops around a large indoor walk space and huge steps up to the second floor; think Gone with the Wind but substitute grimness and uneven, concrete steps. The shop was upstairs. We walked in and found a helpful salesperson and a large, varied selection of office and other furniture. Almost immediately I spotted it: the holy grail I pined for but thought I would never find in Ghana, a high-quality rolling chair whose seat folds up so you can roll a whole bunch together compactly when you need to put them away. I sat in one like it at Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering at two different workshops over the last two years, and I was enamored. I had spec'd theirs, made in America and priced at $600 each (ouch). This one was made in Canada, she couldn’t give us a price just then but would email us a quote and options available (e.g. fabrics, arms or not).

The Olin-esque chair

I was feeling pretty happy with myself for having spotted that one, but knowing it may well be out of our price range we kept looking. We found a few other stackable options, but none perfect: one with chrome legs (rust an issue), one kind of flimsy-looking although it seemed sturdy (I think that one was from Italy, but looked a lot like the molded plastic chairs we had in public elementary and high school in the US), one we thought would scape noisily across the floor. But some possibilities, both were confortable. We thanked the saleswoman and went on our way, feeling somewhat successful.

Two other chairs

Shop number three was difficult to find. The location was in the same neighborhood, a bit of backtracking to where shop number one was (or should have been) but near the cathedral. We used our algorithm, got to the cathedral and past it, no shop. So our driver Peter called, they picked the phone (yay!) and gave another landmark, and said if we got to such-and-such other landmark, call again. We did, and called again, and apparently we went well past it (why they gave us a landmark well past it in sort of the wrong direction is, well, curious). Peter called again, got yet another direction and landmark, we drove that way, still no sign of it. Frustrated, Peter handed the phone to me to try again – maybe the obruni will have more luck. We did, she seemed much more interested in navigating us there with me on the phone, and 4 minutes later we pulled up to the shop on a quiet side-side-side street and right next to a Presbyterian Church. We NEVER would have found it without the step-by-step navigation, and why she didn’t mention the Presbyterian Church in the first two tries is also curious, it’s almost as if the receptionist was being purposefully difficult, not a winning marketing strategy if you ask me.

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New Engineering Building gathering space

Shop number three’s building was a nice, modern, dedicated office furniture shop, not nearly as crammed as the last shop but also with a plentiful, varied selection. We were again met with a very helpful saleswoman as we entered, we told her what we were looking for and she took us around to the 5 or so possible chairs on two floors. One of the first ones we saw we really liked, but once again, chrome legs. Oh, I think that one has an option of (hard, rubberized) plastic legs, says helpful saleslady, but it has a mesh back and no arms. No arms is actually fine for the classroom setup, she shows me the photo in the book and I see the price, too, in our price range! Hooray! Do you happen to have any in stock, I ask. She heads off to check, and is back in less than a minute saying they have 140 in their warehouse, which is exactly the number I want. Wow. We ask her if we can have a sample, and to reserve the 140 for us, and it’s arranged: she’ll send us an invoice via email, she’ll have one sent from the warehouse and Peter can pick it up Monday, and she’ll hold the rest for us for a few days to decide. We leave feeling very successful.

They have this one with rubberized plastic legs           (we ordered some)

No one yet has had any folding tables, so we go to the big office supply and furniture store in town, a 4 story dedicated building that is everyone’s first and often only stop shopping for such things. Ashesi has purchased from them before, but the chrome has rusted and we haven’t been completely happy with other features either, hence our branching out for these new purchases. But I figure they’ll have a good supply of folding tables, which we’ve had zero luck with so far, so in we go.

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Ashesi’s new Design Lab

The first floor is all office supplies (paper, pens, etc.) so we go up a floor. Not what we need on that floor, we go up another floor. This looks more like what we need, a large variety of stackable and other chairs, and lots of tables. We see some foldable tables, most with chrome legs, some dented and/or with parts missing or broken. Come to think of it, looking around, about every 3rd piece of furniture is, well, damaged. Lopsided, missing feet, dented, missing arms, broken parts. The place does not scream quality, to put it mildly. We don’t see the dimension of table we’re looking for, at least not in a foldable one, but their selection is so huge I figure they can order just about anything. We head over to the only salesperson on the floor, a woman sitting at a desk at the top of the stairs. She is looking pretty bored. We go up to her, greet her, and tell her we’re looking for foldable tables. She motions to where we were. We explain we didn’t see what we needed. She rather unhappily gets up and walks us over to the three tables we already saw. We explain that we want a table like this one, without chrome legs, but in a dimension more like this one. She looks doubtful. I ask if they have other sizes. She shrugs and heads back to the desk. We follow her, more hopeful than she is, apparently. She sits at the desk, types at the computer for 20 seconds, looks up and says, “they don’t have dimensions.” I try and clarify what she means. She responds: “There are no dimensions for the tables.” Again, I try and clarify, not sure how a store that clearly sells hundreds of different tables could possibly not have descriptions and dimensions in their computer system, but that apparently is what she’s telling me. I actually don’t believe it, I think she is just tired of dealing with us - it’s much easier to sit looking bored than actually do something. So Casper and I look at each other, shrug, and decide to head out. I am not very motivated to look at chairs there, as the selection is huge (it would take a long time to do a thorough job); representatives from Ashesi were there in November-December and had done a thorough job documenting that they had, and they hadn’t found the perfect thing; the salesperson clearly doesn’t want to help us; and with so much evidence of low-quality around, plus our own experiences with some of their products, I just don’t feel like putting in any more effort here.

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Ashesi’s new Science Lab

In the car I vent a bit about the poor customer service and seeming poor quality of products there, and both Peter and Casper become very animated: “oh, they don’t care, they have all the government contracts, they could sell to no one else and they’d still make money!”

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Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Scholarships from Abroad - part two

In part one, 18 students from the village are selected to receive a scholarship to high school.

The Plan

was for Lynn to transfer funds via Western Union and have EcoBank issue checks to the schools in the name of the students and have the headmistress distribute those checks.

What Actually Happened

EcoBank – the Pan African Bank is our bank. We have a challenging relationship. Expediency and efficiency are verbs unknown to them. I wrote about our first adventure (when we tried to open a bank account efficiently) and my last involved writing withdraw slip by hand, copying a “sample” they provided on blank paper (EcoBank does not print withdraw slips, and then charges $2 to with withdraw money). And of course there is the fun game we play with their ATMs we call like to call ATM roulette – but today I’m the wheel instead of the ball, just hoping the ball of funds will land on my number and tuition checks can be issued.

I have an amazing mother-in-law who, when she was wanting something from a large institution, would make an appointment and then plop herself down in the office of the person who had the power to grant her request with a good book, empty bladder and no intention of leaving.  It always worked.  Today, I’m channeling Nelda as I walk into Ecobank with an empty bladder, a fully charged Kindle, and a firm resolve to do battle with their bureaucracy.

I guess it could have been worse had I not won the heart of sweet Bernice who helped me with the paperwork.

In Ghana there is always paperwork, and even if much of the information is the same, one has to fill out every stinking form. By hand. Bernice really wanted to just transfer the money into the accounts of the different high schools, but we didn’t have their account numbers.

I think…Maybe if these high schools had answered their phones (or provided working numbers). Maybe if they had responded to my emails. But none did, so the only other option was for me to personally drive to each school to get those account numbers… and that is not going to happen today. So checks it is…

Bernice hands me a 2 inch stack of check forms, and a quick calculation has it taking 4-6 hours to complete, a task I am not excited about as it has me finishing about bank closing time. So I ask Bernice to help, and she balks.

Now I wasn’t raised Catholic, and I didn’t have a Jewish Mother, but as a pastor I do know something about the guilt those two faiths are famous for. I really feel bad for heaping guilt on her, but what alternative did I have?

“If I don't finish today, I say, there are going to be eighteen disappointed students who will not be going to SHS and its going to be on your conscience, because Bernice, I'm doing everything I can to help them”

God Bless You Bernice!

Three hours later Bernice and I have the forms are filled out.  Now about the money…

It wasn’t all EcoBank’s fault, Western Union played a supporting role by choosing not to make funds available, just to take Lynn’s money, issue codes, and do nothing because it was Africa. Seriously, what did they think was going to happen when they sat on the money until Lynn called, and they had a personal interview?

So I had hours to read, pray, and nap.

That should be the title of my autobiography. Read, Pray and Nap. 

Western Union’s motto is “Moving Money for Better,” and fourteen hours after they said the money was available, they finally moved that money to EcoBank, and the check writing process begins. 

Its 3pm and the bank closes in an hour. 

That night I was teaching a course on prayer, and the topic was Dealing with Disappointment. I figured even with the hours of prayer (and naps) today would provide plenty of illustrative material on dealing with disappointment, especially now that the bank has closed, and no checks have been issued.

This isn’t the first my afterhours experience with EcoBank. It seems their policy is whoever is in the bank when the doors close will be helped. I stood, or rather sat my ground even when the formerly bored security guard came over tried to shame me into leaving. Really, I’ve been here six hours, and you’re shaming me?

With the doors are locked, a party atmosphere breaks out, and suddenly the room develops compassion, “Oh! You are still here?” “You have been here all day! Its too much-ooooo”

Ninety minutes post closing time, Bernice, my sweet angel, shows up with the checks. She is proud, I am relieved, and ready for some food and a bathroom. Time per check: about 30 minutes.

Adams hands Student Checks to Auntie Margaret

[Handing Checks to Headmistress Margaret ]

A few days later My Guys hand the checks to the school headmistress, Margaret, who later will distribute the checks to the students to take to their schools.