The Buchele Adventure

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

Friday, May 22, 2015

Like Coconut Water for Malaria (A Video)

I remember when Coconut Water became a thing in The States.  Suddenly, you could buy it everywhere, and its benefits were highly touted.  Dubbed nature’s Gatorade, this isotonic drink has natural electrolytes, calcium, magnesium, phosphorus, sodium, and potassium.  It is said to have anti-ageing, anti-carcinogenic properties, as well as dissolve kidney stones, and contains enzymes that help with digestion and metabolism. Maybe that why in Ghana, Coconut Water has always been a thing.  In fact in most cities/towns there is a dedicated coconut seller, with fresh coconuts on a pushcart, ready to hack them open to drink by the side of the road.  The only question is hard or soft.  This refers to the meat inside, after you have consumed its water.  The coconut seller picks a green coconut, whacks it a few times, listening to how the sound resonates, and then selects one based on your preference. 
I prefer soft.  The coconut meat is gel like and easy to slurp down.  But if you’re making coconut crème with a blender, you’ll want hard.  The meat is much thicker. 

Like Coconut Water for Malaria

In Ghana, Coconut Water is the recommended treatment for Malaria (read our account of it).  A glass a day, makes the parasite go away, or something like that.  So while she was recovering, I made Suzanne a glass of it everyday.  If we lived in, or at least close to, a city/town it would be no problem because coconut sellers are quite common, but we live near a village, and our village generally doesn’t have a coconut seller, which is not to say there are no coconuts, just is no one selling them by the roadside. 
Fresh coconuts don’t keep.  When I saw them in the next town over, I bought a whole week’s worth, but by the third day, learned coconuts go bad; they were shriveled, and had gone rancid.  Rancid coconut=not a nice smell.
This video chronicles a typical trip to the village to find coconuts.  At first I thought I would find someone selling them.  I asked around until a man said “I have some” which meant he would tell his son to climb a coconut tree and knock some down.  I only needed two or three but he knocked down more than twenty.  I guess if you’re going to go to the trouble of climbing a tree, you might as well make it worth your while.
Suzanne is all better now.  Through prayer and Coconut Water, she has completely recovered from Malaria.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Video: Visiting Accra’s New Mosque


Accra will soon have a new mosque in the Kanda area of Accra. A friend is visiting, and we thought it would be a fun adventure to see the mosque and try to get in. This is what happened.

Visiting Ghana’s National Mosque

The new mosque is financed by the government of Turkey, and replaces Accra’s old Central Mosque, which was razed in 1986[1]. That old mosque was part of the massive Makola open air market, which five years earlier had been razed [2] by Rawling’s and his AFRC (Armed Forces Revolutionary Council) in 1979.

The Ghana National Mosque, as it is known, will be over 100 ft. high and have a main dome supported by half domes, and half domes supported by quarter domes. Even under construction, one can see it will be a handsome structure.

Construction of a National Mosque has been a priority for most of Ghana’s previous presidents:

  • 1995 - President Rawlings allocates land for new Central Mosque.

  • 2006 - President Kufuor lays foundation stone. The Mosque was then a 4 million dollar project with hopes of being funded through a national effort (rejecting all foreign financial assistance, even an offer from Saudi Arabian of 18 billion old Ghana Cedis, roughly $1.8 million).

  • 2008 - Project was abandoned while Atta Mills was president.

  • 2013 – Construction begins under President Mahama’s Better Ghana Agenda, which seeks to create a harmonious relationship between Christians and Muslims. Funding for the 10 million euro project comes from the Turkish government and The Hudai Foundation (a Turkish philanthropic organization).

The mosque is expected to be open by the time Ramadan starts, June 18, 2015.



[1] “Central Mosque Goes Down At Last”, Daily Graphic, 20/10/1986.


Thursday, April 23, 2015

Honoring My “Big” Brother Rod

If you want to blame somebody for the way I am today, blame my siblings, but mostly my brother Rod…
RODNEY LYNN BUCHELE is my big brother, well really, my only brother, and as a 6 year old, my mystical hero. Mystical because he was so much older, and into cool manly things like cars and electronics. I remember Rod working on something at the Clark Street house with a soldering iron. It wasn't one of the small ones they make today, it was big and unwieldy, like the size those police flashlights that take four D-size batteries. It was big, and had a difficult electric cord. Rod had just soldered something and I overheard him say to the friends that were helping him, “this will heat up the whole world” as he stuck it in the ground to cool. They walked away, and after they were gone, ran over there to feel earth getting warmer. Problem was, I couldn’t feel it, so I inched a hand closer and closer, still not feeling anything until I got too close, and burned a terrific burn on my left hand.
Of course Dad was furious, but it wasn’t his fault. For me, who always had difficulty in distinguishing left from right (and still does), I could now easily differentiate left from right by looking at the back of my hands, for the scar.
We moved to the Parkridge house, and his Rod’s room was downstairs in the unfinished part of the house. It was a cool room full of manly older-person stuff: Mad Magazine, Popular Science, and stuff. I loved to hang out there even when he wasn’t around to kick me out.
Rod Buchele
[black and white Rod]
The Story Begins
Rod left for college when the rest of the family moved to Ghana in 1968 and never moved back. After college, Rod moved to Washburn, Wisconsin and that is where our story began. It was the summer of my 5th grade year, and the year before he moved into the bank. I took the Greyhound from Iowa, and Rod met me halfway, took me to 4H camp, and then I spent a few more days after in the exciting town of Washburn.
The next summer, after my 6th grade year, Rod had moved to a former bank building and I was learning to play the guitar.
I would take the bus up, Rod would meet me in Ashland (the “big” town on the other side of the lake) and we would go to Lake Galilee, where the 4H camp was held. Sometimes I drove with him, sometimes I rode in the back of the pick-up. We would go a few days early and get things ready for the campers.
Camp was where I became who I am today. Iowa and I didn’t always get along so well, or maybe I should say Ames. For whatever reason, I never found my place there. Never felt like I belonged. But when I came to Washburn, and went to Lake Galilee, people liked me. Girls liked me, and we spent the next year writing letters to each other. I remember having to ask my sister Sheron, was does SWAK mean?
After 4H camp was over and we went back to Washburn, my schedule was, well… there are basically three things to do in Washburn:
  • Walk down to the docks on Lake Superior and around “downtown”. Downtown was two blocks and 5 bars long (this was Wisconsin after all).
  • Play guitar and sing - it was a perfect place to, as Malcolm Gladwell observed, get my 10,000 hours in practicing guitar. Rod had a song/chord books, it was legal sized, bound at the top with a clip and had 256 pages. I learned every song.
  • Safe Cracking – Rod’s apartment was in a former bank building, and it came with its own vault. The Vault had a typical 6” thick vault door (I was always afraid of getting locked in it). Rod kept is his record collection, clothes and books in the vault (in that order), but those things were either not of interest or off limits. Inside the vault was a smaller safe—about the size of a large microwave--that was locked. Only the universe knows what was inside it, and how many hours I spent trying to find out, wondering what secrets it contained. I listened to the tumblers with my ear on a glass, I sandpapered my fingertips for more sensitivity (not a good combination for guitar players), and kept charts and combinations tried but that safe never gave up its secrets.
So each day I walked down to the docks, played hours of guitar, and worked on cracking the safe. Of course, there was Rod’s famous record collection and some of the finest audio equipment in the upper Midwest, but initially, he wasn’t so keen on me touching it (the record collection). In the later years, I was allowed to play his records, but only play any particular record once per day, which made learning some of the songs in the 256 page songbook, a challenge.
When Nixon Resigned
By the summer of 1974, my third summer there, Nixon resigned. Rod and I were eating dinner and watching the president address the nation:
…To continue to fight through the months ahead for my personal vindication would almost totally absorb the time and attention of both the President and the Congress in a period when our entire focus should be on the great issues of peace abroad and prosperity without inflation at home.
When suddenly Nixon said:
Therefore, I shall resign the Presidency effective at noon tomorrow. Vice President Ford will be sworn in as President at that hour in this office.
And I never heard the rest of what he said because Rod was shouting: “I don’t believe it! The son of a bitch resigned. I don’t believe it!” It’s was the only time I remember Rod swearing, or what we took for swearing in 1972 Iowa:
On special occasions we would have a Rum and Coke, and by rum, I mean a few drops of artificial rum flavoring, in coke over ice. It felt adult and exotic.
And the Pizza. Over in Ashland there was a little pizza place that we used to go to after camp, and sometimes just cuz. Rod will remember the name, and also the name of the dreadful cook at Camp Galilee who had supernatural abilities to extract flavor from food. Where she put it nobody knows, but it certainly wasn’t in the camp food.
After a few weeks of camp food sensory deprivation , this pizza was some of the best food I remember tasting. It was rectangular, and flavor exploded in the mouth (there were green olives). The first time Rod took me there, I ate all but two pieces of small pizza. For those who have not had the pleasure of eating with Rod, to say he is a slow eater, would be like saying congress might be a bit dysfunctional. To say Rod’s speed of eating is glacial, well let me put it this way, if glaciers melted that slow, we wouldn’t be concerned about the rising sea level.
The next time we went for pizza, my own brother divided the pizza with a clear line of demarcation. There was my half, which would be gone in minutes, and his half, which would take hours. Even today when I order a pizza with green olives, I’m transported back to Ashland, and I have an unnatural desire to eat slowly, and divide the pizza in half.
Rodney Buchele
[The Sibs, circa 2007]
Rod Buchele
[and the rest of the family, the summer after our first year in Ghana]
They Can Share the Blame Credit
Of course, there were the in-between years, when I was in college, or my early 20s and not so communicative when Rod and I lost touch. So to Rod can’t take all the credit for how I turned out. He shares that with my sisters. My sister Beth, as the surrogate mother, when my folks were off on some year long adventure, far away and I could call and talk to her almost weekly. She was a good listener, and felt a little--what’s the word-- miffed, when our folks returned, and I called them instead of her. Beth flew to South Africa about five months after the  family pictures were taken, and stayed with me while I was recovering from injuring my shoulder.  I shall always be grateful for her rescue.  And my sister Sheron, who called me Tiger. Sheron encouraged the quirky, creative side of me, and always believed in me. She was fun to visit in Minnesota, when she was working at IBM, or in West Des Moines, working at Meredith Corporation, in Olympia, Washington, when she was in college, or in Loveland, Colorado, where she set up her studio. Her homes were places of healing even when the life she was sharing with others wasn’t. My soul could find its spirit when visited her home. Ask me if I resent Tiger Woods, taking my otherwise good pet name of Sherons and tarnishing it. I noticed after his scandal, she stopped calling me Tigerooo. But this is a blog about my Brother Rod.
One time when our folks were in Australia, and I had run away to be a street musician in San Francisco, Rod visited me on his way back from visiting the folks, just to make sure I was OK. I was.
I think it took us getting married, and then having kids for us to do a better job of staying in touch, and visiting each other. When Suzanne and I announced our wedding plans, Rod got in gear and made what we like to think was the best decision in his life, asking Mary Lou to marry, and they pulled it off a month or so before our wedding. They had been dating for years at that point, and we all loved Mary Lou. When he announced he was getting married, my sister Beth quipped: “Oh, anyone we know?” We were each other’s best men at our weddings.
Rod Buchele
[Rod at our Wedding, circa 1986, with Suzanne’s sister Mary]
One final Rod story:the first time I had onions. For some reason, my mom didn’t cook with onions or garlic. One evening, we went over to Ashland to have hamburgers at a friend of Rod’s and she put grilled onions on my burger. It was something I had never tasted, and I was seriously concerned I would get sick. Now I had a pretty serious allergy to eggs in those days, and since we didn’t have onions around the house, I thought they might make me sick too. They didn’t. The next time I had onions was in college, when a first generation Italian came to my flat in Alston and made an authentic spaghetti sauce with onions and garlic (something else my mom didn’t use), and oh my did my world change.
Rob Buchele
[Rod and Steve chat at Grace’s Wedding]
It is funny that I teach Leadership at Ashesi, because that was Rod’s field.  He got me started reading leadership books, and spent much of his career teaching others how to lead.  We study many different leadership models at Ashesi, and the one I think best fits Rod would be The Servant Leader.    He is a humble, servant first, type of leader.  In fact if you do a Google-image search of Rod, you see only two pictures of him.  I’m hoping this blog triples the number.
In many ways it believe it was my brother Rod opened up my world, gave me a chance to see who I would eventually become, and for that I will always be grateful. Spending my summer in Washburn, saved me from Ames, and that person I was becoming.  Thanks Rod.
This started as a comment on Rod’s CaringBridge site, after his daughter Mary Lynn wanted to hear stories about her dad.   I decided to expand and repost it because the rest of the world needs to know what a great brother I have.  --SWB

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Thursday, April 16, 2015

Living with Malaria

Most days we don’t think about the danger of malaria, and in fact we went off our anti-malarials last year as it had been months since our last mosquito bite. You see, on the Ashesi Hill, mosquitoes are as rare as a quiet night in the village, and the side effects of the anti-malarial agents are sometimes troublesome. Ok for a few weeks, but for the long term, inadvisable. We didn’t think about malaria much until Suzanne came down with it on April Fools. No kidding.

[In the 1960’s Ghana “stamped” out malaria]

Malaria’s name comes from a time when they didn’t understand it’s cause. The Romans thought it came from Rome’s swamps, fumes that caused the illness and named it accordingly, the Italian mal'aria, meaning "bad air". It wasn’t until the 1880s that a French scientist noticed parasites in the blood of a patient suffering from malaria, and made the connection. Twenty-seven years later the Nobel committee awarded Charles Louis Alphonse Laveran its prize for the discovery of malaria’s cause: a parasite carried from an infected mammal to humans in the bite of a mosquito.

If You Think You're Too Small To Make A Difference,

You Haven't Spent A Night With A Mosquito.

-African Proverb

So this week, both of us went back to our anti-malarials, but the truth is, these agents won’t act as a true prophylaxis. They can’t prevent the initial malaria infection after an infected bite, but only kill the parasites after they mature and are released from the liver to make their way to the brain. These so called anti-malarials are more a suppressive therapy, killing them before they kill you.


[We tried one of those home test kits, but it said she didn’t have malaria…twice]

The average life span of a mosquito is 3-4 weeks, so I think the one that infected Suzanne is certainly dead. The thing is, we’re not sure when it bit her, or where she was. Malaria can have a fourteen day incubation period and two of the three weeks before she had been out of the country, and though Ghana is ranked 8th in Africa by number of malaria cases per 100,000, Berekuso has very few mosquitos. It must have been Accra. Between trips, Suzanne had been there for just two days, attending a quality assurance meeting, before going to South Africa for another meeting. The day after she arrived back in Ghana, she began not feeling well. On Palm Sunday we skipped church to go to the clinic. By Maundy Thursday we are back to re-check her. It was malaria.


[Suzanne at the Clinic for Holy Week]

Besides its deadly potential, the really scary thing about malaria is how debilitating it is, and how quickly it comes on. In fact, according to the national newspaper, 10% of Ghana’s GDP goes to malaria related expenses. One minute you’re feeling a bit off, and the next you have the chills, a mind splitting headache and feel lethargic. Suzanne didn’t so much have the chills--it is hard to imagine anyone having the chills in Ghana—but she was extremely tired, otherworldly tired, clammy, and her head was paining her. Thank God her symptoms presented here in Ghana and not South Africa. Our plan had been for me to join her, and we would spend the weekend exploring Cape Town. Those plans fell through, thank God. There is no place like home when you are sick.


[Suzanne today, checking work email from our couch]

Though Suzanne no longer has malaria (the doctor did a blood test several days ago to confirm), she is still extremely tired, and has no energy. It is now more than two weeks in, and she is yet to have two “good days” in a row, meaning feeling relatively lucid most of the day. Our friends tell us that the forwards-backwards recovery is typical of malaria. They say the effects are worse because it is her first time.


Wednesday, April 01, 2015

Steve’s Village Tours

Our home on the Ashesi campus has been one filled with visitors to the campus.   Some came to interview, others to teach, others to observe the remarkable happenings at Ashesi. Our friend Pete came bringing equipment for the new engineering program. Making these new friends and seeing the ones from our past is a mixed blessing.  We love seeing or coming to know new friends, but after they leave, the blues set in, and we find ourselves unusually homesick.  It’s the part they don’t warn you about.
The Bush Path to the Village
Many of our guests experienced “Steve’s Village Tours” the local attraction for those who want to experience a real Ghanaian village. It all starts with a walk down the bush path, and past the house of the local fetish priest. One never knows what will be seen at his residence, which is set well apart from the village. He has invited me to one of his “events,” something I will need to pray over before attending.
[Scare Crow outside the fetish priest’s house]
Next on the tour is the new church and often we meet Pastor Jacob. Pastor Jacob is maybe 25, and is figuring out how to be a new father (his daughter is two months old). His church is one of the new crop of African Indigenous churches that have no historic ties to the western or colonial churches and are a curious blend of the prosperity gospel, Pentecostalism, with elements of traditional religion. I expect Pastor Jacob and I to become good friends someday, but a friendship like this take time to build.
[Tall Sacred Trees]
[the old village cistern]
From there we walk through a sacred grove of tall trees to an ancient cistern where women still draw water. Think of Jacob’s Well, in biblical times, and you get an idea of the kind of gathering spot this once was. Tall trees surround the cistern, and women gather in their shade to talk before head-loading the water away.
[Pete & Friends headload water, everybody has to do their part]

THE REST OF THE TOUR depends on the interests of our guests. For example, a friend from Pakistan, so naturally we visit the mosque and greet the Imam. The mosque was a gift from the people of Kuwait but had fallen into disrepair by the time Ashesi moved here. Some of the Ashesi staff took it on as a community project, kicked out the goats, fenced the yard (to keep the goats out), repainted it, and cleaned it up so now it serves as the center of the Muslim community in our little village. The Imam and I will be friends someday.
Multiculturalism: American and Pakastani friends in front of a Kuwaiti built Mosque in Ghana, West Africa.
[Steve and friend at Mosque]
Other times we visit the Basic School, or the Kente Cloth weavers, have a coke in the local “chop bar,” (chop being the word for small eats), or to an artesian spring, where water pours out from a rock. Were it not for the many conversations a walk takes, the tour would take 20 minutes, but in Ghana, no walk is complete without greeting those along the path, introducing my their new friend, and catching up. Being hurried here is another word for rude, and you will be shamed proper for not greeting.
The National Accreditation Board (NAB), came to visit, as did The World Bank, but those types are not so interested in a village tour. The NAB was here to accredit the new Engineering curriculum which Suzanne was in charge of, and The World Bank, came to iron out some details concerning their Ghana Climate Innovation Center, a grant Suzanne helped write, and Ashesi won (she was in charge of that too). It was rather cruel that they both came the same week our friend Pete brought the equipment, it was already a stressful week, but Suzanne handled it with an amazing amount of grace.
Steve teaches Leadership 1
[Steve teaching at Ashesi]
Besides teaching Leadership to the first years as part of Ashesi’s four year leadership curriculum, Steve has been mentoring a number of male students, and bringing the message at our church in Accra. We feel blessed to be strengthening our ties to this vibrant international church that is the best of Ghanaian culture framed in a more western way to be both accessible and authentic worship.
Our last visitor was the son of a friend of mine from seminary. He had come to Texas from Kenya, and later brought over his family, with kids about the same age as ours. Our families became friends, and gave them two cars. My first church was their supporter and today everyone in the family has some sort of graduate degree.
[Suzanne, David, and Steve – David is Solomon’s son]
Next time you are in Berekuso, you are welcome to go on one of Steve’s Village Tours.

Its Never Boring at Ashesi (by Suzanne)


It’s been an exciting, sometimes overwhelming, never boring year at Ashesi. My initial task was to take over the development of Ashesi’s new engineering program, due to launch in September 2015 with undergraduate majors in computer, electrical and electronic, and mechanical engineering. Thankfully, that is well on its way – we’ve made our first hire, with more interviews and hires to go; the curriculum is finished and approved by various contingencies (final approval from Ghana’s National Accreditation Board is pending); books and an initial round of lab equipment has been ordered; and the new building is almost complete.

Along the way I have done several other things, some big and some small: helping Provost Marcia with all the Provost-y things; taking the lead on several small projects, some of which required funding, which we received from outside sources; and taking the lead on a huge project, the World Bank (InfoDev) funded Ghana Climate Innovation Center, which will be Ashesi’s first institute. Ashesi is the lead on this Center, with a consortium consisting of SNV (Dutch NGO in the climate space), Ernst & Young, and United Nations University for Natural Resources. There is a lot of exciting synergy between this and a lot of things Ashesi is already doing or was planning to do, which makes it all the more worthwhile.

We are looking to hire heads for both of the major projects I have been leading: a Chair for the engineering department and an Executive Director for the Ghana Climate Innovation Center. When both of these projects are in more capable hands, then I will be free to… what, exactly I don’t know. But I do know that life at Ashesi is fast-paced and I won’t be bored.

The Impact of Ashesi

Our President and Founder Patrick Awuah was recently named one of Fortune Magazine’s 50 greatest leaders – not in Africa, not in higher ed, but in the world. Like, on the same list as Pope Francis, Jeff Bezos, and Bill & Melinda Gates. How can that be? Actually, I don’t know, but what I can assume is that someone realized: what Patrick has done with Ashesi; how counter-cultural Ashesi is to the status quo of higher education in Africa; and the vision that Patrick is realizing through Ashesi graduates.

Patrick recently attended the 1st African Higher Education Summit it Dakar, Senegal in March 2015. Great leaders throughout Africa, and especially from the higher education space came together to discuss, debate, and present their thoughts on higher education in Africa and needed solutions. As I read about the discussions and outcomes, I couldn’t help but see how, over and over again, what Ashesi is already doing is the solution being called for. Some examples:

MIT professor and former chancellor Phillip Cray talked about the need for varied types of Universities in Africa, something that Ashesi runs up against all the time; there is an assumption that if we’re not doing exactly what the government universities are doing, then we’re doing it wrong. Clay said, “We do have to move in the continent from 6% to 8% of young people with college degrees to close to the world average of about 30%. There is a need to move in that direction as quickly as possible… The issue is how you create a system that provides educational opportunity for the full range of educational missions… There is a role for the high end, philosophical, thoughtful basic science education. That is important. There is also a need for the engineer who will take the African lead in unearthing and managing and developing resources. That’s a different need but equally important… There is also a need for the education of people who will express the vision of Africa, the values of Africa, the meaning of African life and what needs to be done.”

Ashesi’s mission is to educate future leaders who are grounded in what Ghana and Africa need, but are free- and critical-thinkers who can develop innovate solutions to the tough problems they face. An educational system in which students memorize but don’t understand does not further the continent. Clay went on to say, “One of the first things we discovered is that there is a large number of young men and women who thought they were being educated but who, it turns out, were not being educated at all. They are walking around in their young adult years worried, and perhaps angry, that what they thought would be the future will not be, based on current activities… The reason their future right now appears limited is not because they did not try, but because we – meaning the large ‘we’ – failed them.”

Clay was speaking on behalf of the MasterCard Foundation, who supports poor but bright Ashesi students will full scholarships, laptops, and enrichment programming. “First, we identified places that really were providing very good education. The foundation is educating more than 10,000 young men and women in secondary and tertiary education institutions in 24 African countries – often institutions that are close to their homes. We believe that the model of education that we’re supporting at these institutions will be the basis for institutions and educational activity going forward.” (Read full article: Africa’s Talent – More Valuable than Gold, Diamonds, Oil )

In another article about the summit, Dr. John Kirkland summarizes more of the “massification” conundrum in Africa. Higher education needs to expand, but we need graduates with the skills needed to solve problems, lead companies, and create jobs. Kirkland writes, “If we want graduates with much prized analytical and critical skills, we need to talk to them during their degrees, ensure that they talk to each other, and critically engage on the work that they produce. Lots of ways were suggested to promote this: mentoring, project work, working in teams, facilitating work placements. Most of these, however, have the common characteristic of being relatively labour intensive to implement.”

Ashesi is growing at a steady pace, but there are those who would like to see it expand both programs and students much more rapidly than we feel that we can and maintain quality. Kirkland has this to say: “Newly created or expanded universities, both public and private, often suffer staggering student-to-staff ratios, a scarcity of adequately qualified staff, and a high reliance on visiting lecturers to teach their students. Clearly, such conditions will not be conducive to achieving the outcomes being sought.” He goes on to say, “Limiting growth to sustainable levels may be unpopular now, but the emergence of huge cohorts of unfulfilled graduates whose aspirations have been shattered represents an even more potent threat to social unrest in future. If the expansion is not carefully planned and comes without the necessary resources and attention to quality, then however unfairly, it will be universities that get blamed when their part of the pyramid collapses.” (Read full article: A Pyramid Without a Higher Education Roof)

Ashesi is one very small cog in the wheel of higher education in Africa, but it is one of the leading ones with respect to quality and outcomes, and an amazing place to be, live, and work.

Friday, March 27, 2015

I Have a Farm in Africa


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.


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?


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.


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.



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.


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.


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.


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.


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



cassava (old and new)

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


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.



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



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



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.


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:


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


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


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.


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.


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.


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.