Once in a blue moon…

Here’s the Aug 30 2012 “blue moon” in Ghana, where it is simply called a full moon.


Greetings, you are welcome

I enjoy the Ghanaian attentiveness to kind greetings. How often Americans say “Hi-how-are-you” as a practiced statement. What’s worse are the people who have the practiced auto-reply of “fine-thanks-howareyou.” (I used to respond to that reply saying “finethankshowareyou” and would usually receive a pause followed “…um.”)

I am greeted by Ghanains who say, “you are welcome.” That confused me at first. I wanted to reply, “thank you.” But in American rituals, “thank you” comes before “you’re welcome.” Inevitably I ended up feeling turned around.

Then I began to listen more closely and hear “You are Welcome” as if to imply that I was indeed a welcomed guest into this person’s space or place.  I welcome you here; or, you are welcome to the time that I have to share with you.

Now I imagine a new implication of teaching table-manners at home in America. What if “the magic word” (please, or thank you) became “how do you tell her you are particularly fond of her?” (You are welcome).

Try it on someone.

Water, water, yet barely a drop to drink

The Living Word mission team stayed busy Saturday scouting new places for building boreholes (a form of wells that are machine drilled and capped ensuring sanitary water). I was able to sit with their small delegation during a ritual meeting among them, a particular community’s elders, ministers, and political representative. It was a relationship dance, each contingent approaching the other strategically shepherded by intermediaries. What I mean is that who spoke, to whom, in what order, and after which greetings seemed to matter.

On our way through Navrongo, the nearest town center we picked up a local clergywoman whose role has been to introduce our delegation as we go. She and Mary Kay, our coordinator from the Mission Society and the HelpGhanaNow project’s liaison, established a relationship through the church and built on the relationship through Living Word’s previous school and borehole projects.

We arrived at our destination which was nothing distinct to me: a small compound of mud huts, a woman stoking a shallow hot fire with a large round kettle pot cooking on top, and a lean-to made of wood poles (limbs cleared of branches and bark) and palm fronds woven as the roof. We were invited to sit along the wooden bench seats in the shade. Our hosts used modular plastic chairs in the rows perpendicular to the wood benches – they forfeited the shade, presumably as a gesture of honor. Also perpendicular to the wood benches, Mary Kay and Michael, the head St. Louis pastor, sat in two chairs which our hosts had positioned directly opposite their own chairs. Together we comprised three sides of a square.

The local clergywoman opened with greetings of a trained negotiator or neutral facilitator, but she was sitting nearer our hosts than us. She then turned the program over to Mary Kay as if to say, tell us what you want to do for us. Mary Kay offered ritualistic greetings and then introduced our delegation person by person with several sentences of context about each of us. She spoke slowly and distinctly. No translator was needed. Though only one man among our hosts spoke, others visited informally later.

Exchanged information included: the name (including spelling and pronunciation) of the village we were now visiting, names and roles of people present, need the village spokesperson sees (various boreholes), where local people currently draw their water (in this case, they currently draw from hand dug wells we later saw, ones not covered, not clean, and not deep enough to last the dry season’s December or January thru March or April), and the distance women and children must go for the nearest borehole (women and children carry the water in this culture). We learned the nearest clean water was about a mile away – Mary Kay told them we wanted to walk the distance to experience what those who fetch water do. Our hosts were quite startled, but following their disbelief and general laughter, they set out to show us the way.

It was a hot, mid-day walk in equatorial sun. One man told Michael that some of the elders send their regrets that they could not walk with us…today’s weather was apparently too cold and they could not easily move in such (cold) temperatures. (One speculated it was mid to high 90’s when we returned).

The walk, the sights, and the conversation with villagers as we walked to their borehole were profound for all of us. The mud houses were quite spread out, often tucked into the fields and under trees, and had different widths of paths passing towards or by them. We stopped to see the hand dug well and continued on. Eventually, we reached the site, a hand pump with 8 – 12 people filling containers. Two young men had just finished filling two large barrels and were fitting cloth tops to them with rubber straps. The barrels were already in a cart and soon the young men pushed off – one pushing and one pulling their long way towards home.

Young children seemed to fill and carry buckets of one to three gallons on their heads. Women were filling and carrying much larger buckets reported to be 5 to 8 gallons (at 8 pounds per gallon, which means the women carry 40 – 60 pounds at a time on their heads!).

The videographer and his wife followed two young women on their journey and back needing more than 30-40 minutes for the round trip (and telling us they were afraid they would be lost had the young women not returned with them to the borehole for more water; the path taken weaved between and among multiple different unmarked trails).

Collectively we walked back to our starting point.

From there, the same hosts directed our liaisons to another site in need – we didn’t walk all the way to this one! It was near an elementary school without electricity or running water. Apparently, children are often most responsible for getting their family’s water. By locating a borehole near the school, a child’s water duty can be 15 – 40 minutes shorter freeing up time to help gather wood or work in the fields. By the time we arrived, 10-20 villagers were already gathered under the big tree. Presumably, word had spread through text messages and word of mouth that we were coming. 5 or more came on motorcycle, several on bicycle, and many on foot. Though no formal introductions were made, several streams of men, then streams of women, would pass to shake each white visitor’s hand in turn. The same happened again before we left. Overall, the meeting seemed to be as simple and as significant as sharing time together in a same place before dispersing again. 

There is a massive need for clean water in Northern Ghana, no doubt in many other parts of the world too. Filling the need requires collaboration, including relational rituals as much as money and equipment. Collaboration requires mutual appreciation – for each others’ beauty and pride, as well as for each others’ realities. So I invite you to explore this story and any pictures I can eventually post here with a relational heart – no pity, just very different circumstances. The world is made of many different realities, all existing simultaneously.

Note: I invite you to notice today how water effortlessly flows through your daily life.


I’m learning that the infrastructure in Ghana’s North differs significantly from that in the South.

The rural north faces much higher poverty levels, lower literacy rates, and farther distances to travel across tougher roads to reach “modern” comforts – electricity, running water and flush toilets.  Sikote doesn’t have these things. Bolgatanga has some. Tamale has more. And the Central Region where Accra is located has even more.

Today, the St. Louis delegation joined the local minister, Reverend Simone, for another dedication ceremony – “electrification” of a local school. My mind immediately thinks of electricity for the projector I use when I teach, or the climate control of the buildings in which I teach. Here, electricity means that students can still see their teacher when the windows and doors close to keep out rain. It means students can have ceiling fans to move the stifling hot and humid air around the room in the rainy and in the dry seasons. It means the teachers and administrators can begin to imagine having a computer room for children to learn and play.  Now that’s electrification.

In Gratitude for Electricity

The Ghana Project folks raised money to fund the work. Both the Americans and the Ghanains agreed on the cost. The Americans raised the sum in US dollars and the Ghanains electrified the sum’s worth of Ghanaian cedis (the currency exchange would have allowed nearly twice the amount of electrification!). As a result the celebration was extra sweet for the Ghanain administrators who had only thus far wired half the school and now realized that they had actually been allocated funds to complete the entire job!

This morning’s most amazing moments for me came as a result of the dedication ceremony being videotaped. The camera activity attracted some school children who have been in pen-pal type exchanges with American children. Their excitement and playfulness posing for the cameras, singing songs, and reciting their poetry set the stage for a very good afternoon.

Assembling ourselves for the formal portrait

In the afternoon, our band of six returned to Sakote so the videographer, minister, and fundraising chair could shoot footage to tell the Ghana Project’s story back home.

Here are pictures Susan Logsdon (from the St. Louis group) volunteered to share from today.


Bundled up to play in the “cold” weather!

Isaiah (in blue) who stepped forward translating into English on behalf of his older brother villagers (ones who had not had schooling)

School dedication in the north

I’m in far northern Ghana in a town called Bolgatanga. (You can find it on a detailed map by looking north to Tamale, then continuing north past Savelugu, past WaleWale which is north east of Mole National Park, and then continuing north to Bolgatanga where we are staying. From Bolgatanga, one drives an hour further north/northwest on very rutted, packed dirt roads.

Driving to Sakote

Driving to Sakote

The group I’m traveling with is an American church delegation representing people who raised the money to fund the school’s construction dedicated yesterday. It’s all happened (their desire, finding the right partners, raising the money, negotiating permits with the local authorities, and construction) in the last 2 years — a very fast turn around time.

Performers inside the school courtyard

Check out their site, HelpGhanaNow .

The delegation’s primary reason for being on this particular trip is collaboration. They are fostering their relationship with the Ghanains for whom they are funding infrastructure, and they are videotaping the places and stories of the people, the needs, and the accomplishments (all in order to foster collaborative relationships with the rapidly expanding donor base supporting efforts through Help Ghana Now.)

The great advantage to this for you as a reader is that Susan Logsdon, one of the photographers, has offered these amazing photos below (see her facebook page for more).

Chiefs formally greeting each other as part of the ceremony

More performers from the ceremony who lead dancing and singing and drumming at night

Dignitaries and elders had chairs. Others found places to sit or stood.

Clearing chairs after the ceremonies finished.

Susan and I sought shade in the little Methodist Church building as we waited for the driver to be located. This is the church and the children who became curious about us.

Methodist Church of Sakote

Children curious about the outsiders

Two children of Sakote

Planes, changes and automobiles

I’m incredibly fortunate to continue being hosted by the missionary/teacher family in Accra. Because the university is between sessions and the school is 90 minutes into the hills without easy or direct transportation, the Jacksons have hosted me in the city so I’m not in the rural area alone.

Mary Kay Jacksons is the missionary (and civil engineer); Charlie Jackson is the teacher (math and computer science at Ashesi).  Last week, Mary Kay invited me to join her on a trip to the far north of Ghana with a four person delegation from a St. Louis church which has been raising money to build a school and to fund borehole water well drilling (see their HelpGhanaNow website for great video).

Great timing; great opportunity. (In a relational country, one can’t easily just drop in for sight seeing)  Ashesi doesn’t begin for several more weeks so, with text books now in hand,  I have flexibility to prepare for classes as we go.

I thought it would be a Tuesday to Sunday trip. I find it’s a Tuesday to Tuesday trip, and we’ve only just really gotten under way two days later (today is Thursday). You see, the back bone of this story is the universal phenomena called “lost luggage;” the context for the story is navigating Ghana. The complicating West African variables include organizing systems, infrastructure, traffic patterns, and road hazards that I simply do not (yet?) understand.

The original plan was for the Mission Society (LINK)  van to pick up me and Mary Kay at her house, then we would pick up the four St. Louis travelers about 12:30 at the Accra airport, and then continue on by road to Sakote  (approximately 14-17 hours) arriving by Wednesday night for formal school dedication ceremonies Thursday morning. .

As 12:30 approached 1 pm in Accra on Tuesday, we began to wonder if in fact the travelers were having trouble with luggage (Mary Kay received a text Monday night from the St. Louis group that their bags might not have made the close Atlanta connection). By about 3 or 4 p.m., we have lots of information, no St,. Louis luggage, and a new plan. We would wait until Thursday morning to go north, go north by plane instead of van, send the van ahead so it could greet us at the airport (Tamale, which I keep mispronouncing as the Mexican food tamale, instead of as the Ghanian city Tah-mah-LAY) which is 2 hours from our destination (Sakote).

The van dropped all of us back at Mary Kay’s house and headed north. Making the most of our 36 hour wait period, Mary Kay arranged 2 cars for us to collectively go west to a beach hotel where we could relax as well as visit one of the major slave castles (her house can’t sleep all of us anyway). That sounded easy. Accra traffic is horrendous, many of the roads are bad, and vendors seem to come out of nowhere.

Here’s a description of the route from a book I’m reading, “King Peggy”:

“Though Accra was only sixty miles away from Otuam, you never knew how long the trip would take. This afternoon it took them two hours just to get out of Accra. The road was jammed all the way to the city limits and for a mile or two beyond. They crept alongside beat-up cars with black smoke roaring out of the tailpipes and lopsided public minibuses called tro-tros, stuffed with passengers and crowned with a tottering heap of luggage roped to the roof. There were large dust covered trucks carrying merchandise between Accra and the hinterland, and the official shiny SUV so popular with top government officials and successful business men, always in black or steel grey. Peggy smiled to see the air=conditioned SUVs and stifling tro-tros all equally stuck in the same unmoving line.

Loacal residents made good use of the tie-up to sell idle travelers a startling variety of goods: blankets, bath and dish towels, boxes of Kleenex, rolls of toilet paper, children’s towys and rubber balls, meat pies, phone cards, dog leashes, superglue, pens, apples, fried plantains, and sunglasses on a large square board. They hawked machetes, which were used to open coconuts or cut grass (most people didn’t have lawn mowers), and water, aarge and small bottles, as well as little plastic baggies of water for those who couldn’t afford the luxury of a whole bottle; people bit the corner off and squeezed the water into their mouths. And they sold tiger nuts, which looked like small, dimpled peanuts and for centuries had been eaten by agin men as a sexual stimulant, a kind of African Viagra.

Sometimes there was a veritable stream of vendors, one right aft the other, marching between stopped cars, deftly dodging the motorbikes that drove between the lanes. As bad as traffic was, the vendors made it worse. Often, when a ten-minute light finally turned green, drivers were waiting for change from a vendor who kept it in a basket on her head. When, due to violently honking horns, the driver started rolling forward, the vendor running alongside the window, by then the light might have turned red, ande everyone would be forced to idle with windows open, since very few people had air=conditioning, and breathe in the retch-inducing exhaust fumes belching out of a thousand cars. Bored to tears, they might decide to buy something, and then the delay would happen all over again.” (p. 55-56)

Note: I highly recommend the book (King Peggy: An American Secretary, Her Royal Destiny, and the Inspiring Story of How She Changed an African Village, by by Peggieline Barteles and Eleanor Herman). It’s written for Americans about Ghana and the cultural distinctions that Peggy, a Ghanaian-American, experiences as she returns to her home village of Otum. Interestingly, the late president Mills also came from Peggy’s village! We passed the turn off for Otum as we drove to Cape Coast.

We arrived shortly after dark. Getting there, one car was pulled over for inexplicable reasons, and the other hit two sheep wandering the road (the sheep lived to tell about it; the car had significant side damage and a side mirror sheered off).  It’s probably no surprise for you to read that the beach hotel did not have internet.

Beach hotel near Elmina

Gathering for breakfast


Elmina, west of Accra

Market day in Elmina (west of Accra)

In fact, by the time we returned to Accra Wednesday night, half of the St. Louis luggage was still missing too!

Why stop there on logistical challenges? Mary Kay had attempted to fix supper for all of us now back at her house, but the gas went out (and therefore, so did we!). The computer system at the airport had been down on Tuesday, which now was a possible contributing factor to the realization that we were one ticket short (missing a boarding pass for Jim from St. Louis, whose luggage was still among the missing) for the 7 a.m. flight Thursday (which was now less than 8 hours away). (Jim’s wife heard the story when he phoned home last night. She reportedly remains confused why he can’t just duck out to the Ghanaian equivalent of Walmart. He tried to explain what I’m learning, it just doesn’t work that way here!). With or without luggage, the St. Louis group was going to the school-dedication. (Eventually, I got on the flight too, buying a business class ticket and giving it to Jim who could use the extra leg room and could sure use the turn of logistics-fate).

Waking up at 4:45 a.m. to go back to the airport this morning was not a problem at all. That’s the time when the neighborhood rooster starts cockadoodledoo-ing anyway!! (It’s only in the American movies that roosters wait until dawn to crow.)

We’re now speeding along towards the school dedication. Mary Kay says they’ll hold the dedication until we arrive. With or without luggage, the delegation represents those who funded the school project in the first place.

Summer robotics camp

An ARX robot

What’s more fun than robots? Summer camp making robots!

Like many colleges, Ashesi hosted a summer campfor high school kids. This program drew kids nominated by their science teachers from around the country. Thanks to the Mastercard Foundation, even kids who had never before left their village got to participate.

One of 16 proud teams

In only one week, mentored by college students and taught by professors, these students (and everyone at yesterday’s final show down) got a taste of what it might have been like to create the Mars rover. They built pineapple harvesters!

Pineapple ready for harvest

Each team designed and built a robot that runs from a power pack and draws on light sensors (thus the low light room) and color sensors to follow paths, recognize when it encounters a “pineapple”,

Successful “grab”

grab the pineapple, turn around (if less than half way down the path), and return to the “factory” (a colored sheet of paper corresponding to the robot’s color sensor) to deposit the harvest. Then, the robot depended on its  programming to go back into the “field” to harvest more pineapples. To make things even more fun, students were asked to design robots that could distinguish between two forms of agriculture – planting along a windy path the farmer decides, or planting in rectangular field shapes.

Harvesting fields planted in quads

Harvesting along a farmer’s path

The competition today scored each robot based on speed, number of pineapples successfully grabbed, number delivered to the factory (sometimes the pineapple got knocked over or simply bull dozed to the factory!), and deductions for each of up to three times that the team touched either the robot or the pineapple (quite useful for re-orienting a confused robot or resetting a downed pineapple). A sophisticated experience of applied behavioral learning.

Tensely watching your robot perform

Kudos to the teachers and student-mentors. The runs were fabulous!

Oh, to be a kid again.