Hair as art

Ghanain women do amazing things with their hair…often. An American colleague warned me last August that  I could not easily use women’s hair styles as a feature for learning my students names. With Southwestern students, my home university, I notice that a woman has blond or brown hair that’s long or short. Then whether she has her hair in a pig tail or down, or wears a cap or not, is less important to me than if she sometimes wears contact lenses and sometimes wears glasses — a killer for trying to remember who is who.

An Ashesi student let me snap pictures of her hair styles over the last 2 months. Here are some of her different looks.

Phoebe in January

Phoebe’s hair short and down on a Saturday

Hair up for career day

Hair up for career day

Career day, the back

Platted and up
Platted and up

platted and up from one sideplatted and up from the back

Here, womens’ hair styles are as much their fashion expression as their choice of clothing might be in the U.S. I celebrate their ability (and patience!) to create such masterpieces.

Colleague in February

Colleague in February

Same colleague in April

Same colleague in April


Kuala cashier

Kuala cashier

Mango seller in Kitase

Mango seller in Kitase

An Ashesi senior Maticulous rows

My hair seems so uneventful. I have two styles, shoulder length and short. Though as I moved from my American highlights (my attempt at masking the onset of grey) to my 50 year old natural salt-and-pepper color, I did go through a several week period of shimmer — the last 1/16th of an inch of highlight casting a glow over my otherwise blackish-white underneath. Several women have asked me if they can touch my hair, several asked if it’s real, and ultimately many more (out of the generosity of the hearts of students who watched my same old American shoulder length style for 6 months finally change into something different) compliment my new, more European, short-short cut. It doesn’t change very quickly, and it’s far from being art!February's obruni short-short


From dust to rain

By 5:45 tonight the sky seemed pitch black. I went outside to look and could see traces of light creating shape to the intensity of cloud, the wind howling ominously. 20 minutes later and we have only a few very large heavy drops hitting the ground, accompanied by the wet smell of pending rain and the loud rustle of palm tree limbs blowing up against each other.

I’ve heard about “rainy season,” but have not seen it yet. I think it’s coming soon.

Harmattan has been the feature season here since January – an intensely dusty time when every day requires cleaning, every evening feet cleaning before bed, and every item of clothing and household good dusty no matter what cleaning happens. You simply don’t wear white during Harmattan. I remove my shoes and see every line of the shoes’ edge in dust as if the shoes themselves were still on my feet. I saw an American colleague at a conference last month; he laughed as I opened my laptop and clouds of dust poof-ed up (I felt like the little images of PigPen in the Charlie Brown cartoons, poof’s of dust surrounding him as he moves frame to frame). I think I had begun to lose awareness that things were dusty; in comparison to everything around me, the laptop seemed to be doing pretty well…until I was seeing it outside of Ghana and through American eyes.

Junction in Harmattan
Junction in Harmattan
Roadside "greenery"

Roadside “greenery”

The book I’m reading this weekend made me smile as I heard the author describe his visit to Ghana – “There would be no rain today; January is the dry season, which is one of the only ways to distinguish seasons in a country where every day of the year is hot and begins and ends around six o’clock. In January, all of West Africa is dry, and the wind known as the Harmattan picks up the Sahara Desert – all 3.5 million square miles of it, as far as I could tell – and blows it south the Gulf of Guinea – a thick, choking haze that stings your eyes and clogs your nose with the same brick-red dust that coats the broad leaves of the banana palms.” (p.11, Max Alexander. Bright Lights, No City). I’ve tried to photograph the dust, especially as a truck goes by, but the best examples of dust appear so opaque as to reflect too much light for the camera to understand what its photographing!

Green growth in the morning

Green growth in the morning

       Dust combined with humidity makes a streaked paste that seems to smear whatever I touch. Berekuso, where I stay 2 hours from Accra, registers a latitude of about 5 degrees north of the equator. For reference, that’s still 20 degrees farther south than the Florida Everglades (and equally humid it seems), and about aligned with Columbia in South America or Sri Lanka, south of India in Asia. I’ve never been to those places, but I have avoided Thailand (farther north) because I perceive it to be intensely humid with large insects. I have a newer appreciation for geckos and large lizards now, which people explain to me don’t bite people and do eat insects. If I could sort out humidity, dusty and rainy seasons, perhaps I’ll visit South East Asia some day.

I’m pretty sure tonight’s rain does not signal the beginning of rain season though. It took less than an hour to blow over, and nothing washed away. At least the rain has settled the dust for now.

The galvanizer

Berekuso speed limit

Berekuso speed limit

Every village needs one, and almost every major junction has one. I didn’t know the word as a trade 8 months ago; now I amuse students by telling them we don’t have them in America. The galvanizer.

A galvanizer hurrying to inflate the taxi's tires

A galvanizer hurrying to inflate the taxi’s tires

A galvanizer is the person who has an air compressor and jumps to attend to tires on every taxi, car or tro-tro that comes its way. Flat, low and leaking tires are the norm here — at least outside of the city where we live. To be mild about the situation, the roads can be horrible. On the worst section of a commute into Accra, it can take 30 minutes to go less than 5 kilometers because of the dodging and weaving necessary to navigate the erosion shaped and rock cluttered packed dirt road. Every several yards, a taxi driver can point out to me parts of old pavement remaining from the last time the road was covered. Ironically, the township still has speed limit signs noting not to exceed 50 or 70 kilometers per hour. I’ve mentioned before the executive who reported “things on the ground are not as they appear on Google maps.” Perhaps the speed limit is set at the maps level, not actually from on the ground.

Compressed air and tires for sale

Compressed air and tires for sale

I asked about the roadside tire sales. A colleague explained that the U.S. regulates thickness of tire treads necessary for a car to pass inspection, so people cast off “old” tires much more quickly than here. Perhaps we also have different road coverage compounds or different citizenry expectations for road maintenance. And most of the cars here have come from a lifetime in another country, or some tell me off-loaded here when not meeting the quality standards of other countries. That could explain the challenge most car shock-absorbers seem to face (sitting in the back of the Long Bus becomes a bouncy house!).

Whatever the circumstance, buckle up. We laugh on our commute that the worst sections are our “free” chiropractic treatment.

Berekuso road

Berekuso road


Up to the chop shop

Up to the chop shop

Road to Ashesi

Easter without the bunny

Crate of Good Friday eggs

Crate of Good Friday eggs

We got eggs yesterday, Good Friday. Eggs come from the farm and we get them 30 at a time. I looked at the fresh crate and realized that Easter would come in 2 days and I had yet to see or hear reference to the Easter Bunny. That makes sense really. The American tradition of an Easter Bunny  (a rabbit which ostensibly hops through one’s yard Saturday night and hides brightly colored eggs for children to find on Easter Sunday morning) gives Americans a secular way to entertain a religious holiday. We can give and receive chocolate bunnies, dye, hide and hunt for eggs, and have an icon to use for the season in elementary schools. In a nation built on separation of church and state, mass marketing a risen Christ figurine might not sell as quickly as a chocolate bunny. Alternatively, as Americans, we have lost our agricultural heritage and need a magical way to explain what might organically only happen if all the chickens actually flew the coop — eggs all over the yard needing to be gathered up with subsequent congratulations to the children for doing the family chore.

I have not looked up the origin of our the American bunny tradition. But I smile at how pervasive it is. (Several years ago I attempted a breakfast conversation with an 8 year old friend during which I tried to explain the religious significance of Easter. After a pause, he thoughtfully looked up and asked me, “so, where does the bunny come in?” I had no answer.)

I will miss celebrating Sunday with that young friend and his family in Texas this year. They taught me about Mexican Cascarones, confetti filled eggs that we make in advance and then break on the heads of friends and family (…apparently that’s for good luck!). But no doubt Ghanaian  Easter will come with its own flavor.

Ghana is a religious country. 85% of the population is Christian, about 15% Muslim. The percentage shifts between the greater Accra area where about 95% of the population is probably Christian, and the North where a much higher percentage of the population is Muslim. The nation observes both traditions’ holy days. Therefore, we are currently observing a Good Friday through Easter Monday sequence of holidays. (A Ghanian friend joked, “we love holidays in Ghana…even if Easter Monday wasn’t a holiday, we’d make up something different.”) Even though Ashesi is a secular university, the institution closes for these national holidays.

Djembe drumming at church

Djembe drumming at church

The Presbyterian Church of Ghana at Comet has welcomed me into their congregation this year. It’s in the Comet township where I’ve been living, 5 kilometers south of Berekuso, the even smaller township (a village at the end of the bus route) past which Ashesi built its university compound. My church meets under a tent in the dirt field in front of the township police station. There is often a djembe drummer, always a praise worship singer or four with tambourines, and a very committed – if not very small—assembly of congregants. I like the celebration these people put into an average Sunday (and I sing along improvisationally even though I don’t speak or understand Twi). No doubt, tomorrow will be a veritable festival!

Waiting to sing on Palm Sunday

Waiting to sing on Palm Sunday

Palm Sunday celebration

Palm Sunday celebration

Decorating the fronds

Decorating the fronds

Church lasts for several hours. People step out as they need to — some for a walk, others for a phone call. We can hear the children practicing songs and recitatively reading bible stories under the shed-cover at the edge of the dirt lot.  I’ll post photographs here from Palm Sunday service last week during which we walked through the surrounding neighborhoods singing and waving palm fronds.

At the university, a student organized Christian group meets in the “multi-purpose room” singing and worshiping together Sunday late mornings to early afternoons. Their gatherings so fill the space that students spill out onto the grounds outside the room (my office is directly above them so I see and hear all of this on days that I’m hedonistic enough to be at school on a Sunday…I should probably stay home out of respect if nothing else on those Sundays that I’m not at my own church).

...and the saints go marching on

…and the saints go marching on

And so in this beautiful country that doesn’t have bunnies, Easter will be celebrated with singing and dancing and prayer and feasts.

I wonder what the nation’s Muslims do.

Independence Day

Today is Ghana’s Independence Day. I appreciate national independence, constitutionality, rule of law, citizenship, respect for others, and the deep commitments required of so many in order to establish and sustain the things I appreciate Today more than on July 4, 2012 when I had begun this blog-space but not yet begun this collaborative learning journey.

To my Ghanain friends, colleagues and acquaintances, congratulations on all that you believe can be made possible! Hats off to you on this Independence Day for your  tenacity in taking up the difficult job of standing up for what you believe in.

To my American friends, colleagues and acquaintances, please pause and appreciate our constitution and then renew your awareness of what it symbolizes as well as what it says. If there’s something you believe ought to be different, follow the Ghanian example — involve yourself and act in the service of what you most want to be.


My intellectual challenge amid physical comforts

I write tonight from Doha, Qatar. (Check the map — Qatar is in the Middle East, on the east side of Saudi Arabia. It’s about 7 hour flight time and 3 hours time difference from my current home of West African Ghana). I am participating in a conference that the liberal arts department within Texas A&M at Qatar convened.  LiberalArtsTexasAMConf0213Their topic is a multidisciplinary approach to “Ethical Engagement with Globalization, Citizenship, and Multiculturalism;” my topic is liberal arts education as a way to reach that kind of ethical engagement.

This is a confusing place to be, physically and intellectually, especially now that Aljazeera news reminds me this is Super Bowl Sunday in the U.S. The cultural, socio-economic and ideological differences I am experiencing this year continue to astound me.

In early January, I attended an Academy of Management conference in South Africa where I delighted in Johannesburg’s amazing physical infrastructure. Within several days, I learned more and more about the very broken post-Apartheid cultural infrastructure. It left me appreciating the very coherent and peace-oriented Ghanain cultural infrastructure, even though the physical infrastructure there is terribly broken – water, electricity, roads all completely underdeveloped. Here in Doha, the physical infrastructure is exquisite, sidewalks and palm trees perfectly aligned, streets as clean as when first built, and cars new, sparkling white, and moving easily through the city, at least on our route.

The U.S. State Department website tells me crime rates are quite low here, the country safe from the opportunistic crime I am so cautious of in Ghana. But then it tells me that people at the middle class and below most often have to surrender their passports to their employers or sponsors until such time as terms of their labor agreements are fulfilled. Texas A&M sponsored my visit, and the visit of the other 30 or 50 academics here for the conference, and so they procured all of our transit visas; we have each retained our own passports.

The conference conversations provoke my thinking – the cultural anthropologist teaching in Saudia Arabia and studying transnationalism, the education PhD working as a curricular consultant to enhance Muslim women’s access to education…in Canada, the Indian philosopher preaching holistic well being among the least of us as a collective path to integrity global citizenship. Tomorrow I’ll offer insight about comparative models of liberal arts as an American educational model for fostering critical analysis and inquiry-based thinking, even though I’m not entirely sure which countries have the level of cultural tolerance required for young people to critically inquire into multiple constructs of a “good society.”

I’m clearly not in any place to criticize one culture or another. I’m an American. We have this strange game of football where feet don’t actually touch the ball but people sock each other on a line each time the ball is hiked. The American football season culminates on Super Bowl Sunday where advertisements cost six figures for 30 second spots. Testosterone so rages on Super Bowl Sunday that domestic violence apparently peaks on that night each year. What does that say about our culture? Then again, there might be a difference to the systemic violence against women I hear about in other parts of the world, even if I can’t quite articulate it.

The World Cup will be held in Qatar in 2022. Given the amazing attention Johannesburg has received by hosting the Africa Cup of Nations soccer/football tournament this month, no doubt Doha will also get great press. But it’s hard for me to watch the Aljazeera sports report when their advertisements are for upcoming specials about surviving in Hillsboro in Johannesburg, allegations of Afghan prison torture, and a compilation of films taken by regular people of abuses they see happening in the Middle East and Africa the name of calling for peace. That’s when I feel so confused about the luxuries I have tonight – a very comfortable hotel room, the Jacuzzi tub at the mezzanine level, internet access, abundant choices of food, and a community of delightful students who I’ll return to in Berekuso after leaving Doha tomorrow night. Mulitculturalism and global existence does indeed provoke me to ask my own questions about ethical conduct and citizenship.

Yeah, this conference is definitely an intellectual challenge for me, even though it’s physically very comfortable.

p.s. The Ashesi Dean has told me several times, “why do you have to make everything so complicated? Just keep it simple…you must be horrible to live with, just keep it simple…”  Hmmm, maybe this is what she’s talking about…but she does live with me, at least on weeknights at the guest house…occupational hazard perhaps? Just as well that the Super Bowl isn’t likely to be covered here. Even though the reception is awesome, I think I’m better off just getting some sleep!


I began drafting a blog story about my “gratitude journal” over the Christmas holidays, but I never edited or posted it. Then, I learned from American friends with whom I shared a post-Christmas vacation that my journal is “old news” in the U.S. Apparently, Oprah covered this concept while I’ve been away…maybe I started about the same time Oprah did, I don’t know. Though I risk being mundane, I’ll share my story anyway. Not a single one of the three people I traveled with is actually “doing” a gratitude journal, so perhaps Oprah isn’t enough alone to inspire social experiments. I invite you to read this story, reflect on your own experience and then consider starting your own secret “gratitude” journal. The abundance I’ve begun to experience amazes me.

I visited Accra in March 2012 to check out the degree to which I might choose to come here full-time for a year. I was enjoying lunch with an emerging friend who received a text as we waited for our bill. The email prompted Mary Kay to go to someone’s blog post, a person telling her own story about things she appreciated. The blogger recommended keeping an “Appreciation” or “Gratitude Notebook.” She advised numbering entries and writing big and little things you notice and appreciate, from 1 to 1,000. Mary Kay, the emerging friendship with whom became my own gratitude # 3, noted with a smile how intriguing the invitation sounded.  I quickly jumped in suggesting we could reach 1,000 by Christmas easily – if something seemed amazing or felt fulfilling in any given moment, write it down.

#1 the mustard-vinaigrette salad dressing

#2 the light streaming in through the window

#6 the ability to be in Accra in the first place!

I started my list on a napkin and continued until I got home to the U.S. where I had a small spiral notebook in which to really count and write. The first few weeks, everything I paused to appreciate seemed to feed other things I could notice. Appreciating the light in yesterday’s window helped me to notice today’s light and ask myself if I enjoyed it too.  And, I decided on the very first day that I didn’t want any rules about what “counted,” so if I appreciated another salad dressing tomorrow, I could write that down just as legitimately as the original dressing. The “same” joy I got from laughing with Sam, Ben or Alana one day was actually unique compared to the joy I felt the next day; each experience built upon my previous joys with them and with others rather than feeling “the same.”

Noticing and noting felt exciting; it turned daily routine into an inquiry – what could I find and appreciate? It was a game.

I lost the spiral notebook several months later. Maybe I reached 200, maybe 175, but I started back at 150 with a new spiral just to be sure I wasn’t cheating myself.

161. Lots of quarters to give the man who was begging

163. Computer died before I got to Ghana

172. My new laptop that other people can configure to look like my old one!

191. Chocolate

One day, when I must have felt especially sad or mad, I found myself writing down “oxygen” as something I appreciated. Implication? One gets creative when necessary in this kind of process! Even when I’m miserable with the humidity, I can appreciate that the fan stayed on for several hours before the power going out. Or when the gecko comes through the crack between the window and the screen, I can still appreciate the vast space between that wall and my bed!  My only rule is that I genuinely appreciate whatever moment or feeling or experience or recollection that I’m noticing in the instant I’m noticing it.

215. This morning’s breeze and birds

244. Cool breeze through yesterday and all night

278. This morning’s cool breeze

281. Cool morning breeze and the stillness, non-motor, sounds of the rural-ness of Berekuso

291. The dry breeze blowing through this room

336. This morning’s rooster sleeping in until later than usual so that now at near 7 a.m. I can hear him in the morning’s dry, cool breeze and appreciate his role in nature

The more I notice, the more senses I awaken to noticing.

279. Exquisite cup of Ethiopian coffee

422. Fresh smell of pineapples!

435. Sound of fierce rain on the roof

444. Smell of clean clothes

479. Cool morning air on my skin as I wake

481. Songs of the roosters

487. Being ‘Auntie Mary’

488. Theory and language to help me make sense of my experiences

491. Cold sweet soy milk on ripe banana and granola

521. Hot shower with good water pressure and clean, quality tile under feet

566. The sound of wind under the wings of a bird

And I appreciate people in service-roles, ordinary items, and responses of others and myself even more deeply.

524. A life guard on duty freeing me to enjoy the warm ocean

555. Purity of a tin roof shed as I’m caught in pouring rain…

556. The school girl who joined me there – we smile at each other

593. Red beads – 20 strands of them!

606. Jeannie’s voice in my mind, cheering me on to exercise

622. Moments I perceive students to be respectful of me by way of wanting my feedback or my opinion – Mercey, Angelina, Henrietta, others whose names I do not really know

629. Chocolate dripping from my bite of pastry!

640. Systems and routines that help me feel centered

670. Moments of connection

I only reached the early 700’s by Christmas, including that morning:

720. The loving care with which Esi prepares fruit

721. Symmetry of giving Mary Kay a gratitude notebook tonight since I started this one last March!

738. Smile and joy in writing this blog on appreciation

Consider starting. Perhaps you will list 1,000 before next Christmas. Or maybe you will simply reclaim things you already know you cherish –

743. Magnum double chocolate ice cream bars!!

745. Arrival of friends I haven’t seen in months


It’s working for me.