(this post was inspired by my friend/former class mate Ken)
When I look at photographs in my Ghana travel book, they look so intriguing, like women smiling carrying baskets on their heads wearing multicoloured clothing. Representations of women as “culture” is a whole other blog post that maybe I’ll work another time. Another photograph in this book (and I’m sure other travel books) is taken from the second or higher story overlooking the outdoor market. While I was waiting at the Bolga station for my bag to arrive I was standing on a second floor balcony and had a nice vantage point and took a photo.
I stood there as the sun set and clouds moved in and thought about the photo in my travel book. Having navigated my way around the Bolga station several times I thought about the differences between the balcony view and on the ground during a market day when people flock from the surrounding areas to buy, sell, and trade all kinds of things. Looking at the photo I took reflects only minimal realities occurring in this station, in other words the photo is devoid of context. It’s the story behind the photograph that is hidden from sight unless you are wandering around the station. And to add to this, being a foreigner who can’t speak the local language, I’m only seeing the tip of the iceberg while the majority lye underneath the water, so to speak. I’ve received plenty of feedback from people about how they liked my Ghana pictures, and although I appreciate the feedback, I’m thinking about how people can interpret photos in so many different ways. For instance, Duncan, another EWB staff in Malawi is working on a photographic project by taking 2 pictures of his friends, co-workers and fellow community members, the first photo is of them in their work or home clothes that may be dirty at the time (like from farming in the field) or ripped from wear and tear, and the other photo of them in their Sunday best suites and dresses. This side project is interesting to me because it showcases how little of the story a photo can tell you.
But let’s go back to the Bolga station photo. Missing here is the smells, sounds, and intricacies found on the ground. I’ll share some observations with the hope of bringing you there with me. I don’t see myself as much of a creative writer, especially after 4 years of writing academic papers, so we’ll see how this experiment goes:
You step out from the back of the crowded taxi you shared with 5 others and are met with the hot equatorial sun, the smell of exhaust and diesel fuel from the tro-tros and other taxis surrounding you, and the sound of men yelling out the locations where their vehicles are traveling “Navrongo! Navrongo! Navrongo! Accra last one! Accra last one! (meaning one seat left before leaving)”. It takes you a minute to orient yourself because you can’t see very far because tro-tro’s and busses are parked all over the place in an organized manner. Some tro-tros will be parked for up to 4 or 5 days until it is there turn leave, meaning that drivers sleep in their tros at night and essentially live at the station until the other tros that are in line before them leave for their destination. You’ve never been in this station before you have no bearings to gain; instead you begin to wander in whatever direction that seems less hectic. As you walk motorcycles, bicycles, trucks and cars drive by you nearly brushing your shirt as they navigate around women, men, girls and boys walking in every which direction. Some girls and women are selling things that they carry on top of their heads, like water, bananas, different prepared food stuffs, toothpaste, gum, cloth and clothing, eggs, and so on. Like the drivers they are calling out the name of what they are saying, “Ice pure water!” Some are fairly young girls, maybe 10-13, they have a tired look in their eyes, and you think it’s a pity they are not in school, but you’re not really sure. You don’t realize that it’s summer vacation and maybe they are helping their mother out while not in school. Maybe they don’t have a mother and are living with an abusive Auntie; maybe they are from the village and walked 8km leaving very early in the morning to catch the first busses and tro-tros that arrived. You’re fairly certain, in your head, that they would rather be doing something else other than walking around all say in the sun selling items from atop their heads.
As you’re looking and pondering you just about get run over by a younger guy driving too fast on a motorcycle. Then a herd of goats pour in from around the corner and you laugh because it is so foreign, different, and seems so out of place for small ruminants to roam around an urban center such as this. During your laughter you don’t even notice the small boy in tattered clothes herding the animals, but even if you did you would probably make assumptions that may or may not be true because again, you don’t really know. By now you’ve only walked about 20m and the sounds, sights and smells only intensify. You turn the corner and see more people, more vehicles, more animals, more trash on the ground, and more stalls that are selling different things. You here someone hissing, “sssssst, ssssst” and look over your shoulder and see younger guy opening and closing his hand which is directed at you. Since you don’t understand the culture which you are hoping to immerse yourself in, you take offense to the hissing and ignore the person. You don’t know that the hissing is common cultural norm and means no disrespect, if they had known your name they would probably have called it, or if they had yelled “hey!” it would be a public sign of great disrespect. The hand gesture is the same as waving someone over back in your home country. The guy may simply wanted to talk with you and hear about what it is like in your country for he doesn’t have access to world wide information like you do, or maybe he was trying to sell you something for an inflated price because he thinks you have more money than him seeing as you are white and all.
You continue to walk and begin to notice that most people are looking at you, not with contempt or malice but with observant eyes like you have a big tall red hat on your head. This realization makes you feel very uncomfortable, but then you are confronted by an old man begging for money, he can’t speak English but makes a gesture with his hand towards his mouth as if to signify the act of eating. You’re not sure what to do and awkwardly stand there looking at him. On the one hand you know you can spare a dollar or two or at least the change in your pocket, but on the other is your understanding of aid dependency within developing countries that you learned of through books. Specifically, you are concerned about your role as a development worker being viewed as the white man/woman who is rich and will give the “poor Africans” money. You are concerned with everyone around you watching if you will give away money, you are concerned with people’s perceptions of white people although you have no idea what those perceptions might be aside from the generalized knowledge you gained from books. As you’re standing there awkwardly you notice some people looking at you in this situation giggling and speaking in a language you can’t understand, so you walk away feeling guilty that you didn’t give money to an old man who you assumed to be poor needy.
It’s the middle of the afternoon and you’re getting pretty thirsty under the hot sun so you decide to buy some water. You flag down a girl with water on head, and you ask her how much it costs for one bag of water because water comes in little 500ml sealed sachets. She replies “Five tousand”. 5000?!?! Maybe she made a mistake or something but when you ask her to repeat herself you get the same response. But then, as if wanting to put an end to your discomfort and lack of understanding she says “5 pesowas”. You didn’t know there was an old currency before the new Ghana Cedi currency was introduced. It’s now time to quench your thirst and you’ve seen others bite a hole in the sachet and drink from it so that is what you do. Unfortunately as you’re biting off the corner water squirts all over your face and group of kids burst out in laughter! By this point all you can do is laugh at yourself and continue on.
From a few of the shops your ears cannot escape the loud music blaring from the speakers. You enjoy the beats but can’t seem to figure out why the radio DJ keeps interrupting the music to say a few words every 5 seconds. Anyway, you keep walking and are then approached by a man who greets you and asks you where you are from. You’ve heard about how friendly Ghanaians are so you reciprocate and tell him where you are from. He says he wants to be your friend and walks along side you asking you questions. But you’re starting to get a weird feeling in your stomach about this man, he seems a little, well, off. You try saying that you are going here or need to do this, and other polite tactics so he gets the hint that you have to go. However, you aren’t sure exactly what to say as you don’t want to offend him. By now you’ve become fairly uncomfortable and worried. You try going into an store to loose him but when you exit he’s there waiting for you and inquiring about what you bought in a non-threatening way. You keep walking and as does he. Then your phone rings. “Yes! Maybe he’ll leave me alone if I chat on the phone for a while” you think to yourself. It’s another volunteer on the line and your plan works as the man loses interest and walks away as you chat on your cell. Later you learn that the man is “mad”, which is slang for mentally ill. You learn that people wouldn’t stand by and watch if he tried to harm you or steal from you, rather, if he made such a move a group of guys watching would most likely attack him with their fists – from stories you’ve heard about punishment for thieves. At least you have now learned that talking on the phone is way to avoid eye contact and communication with people who may be harassing you or who may be mentally ill.
You’ve left the station while trying to shake the weird guy, and spot an internet café with air conditioning with a sigh of relief. You and enter and ask to browse but are told the network is down. No internet. By this point your spirits are getting pretty low and you just want to relax but can’t because everything is new, different, and foreign and you honestly are not sure what to do next. You decide to walk back to the station wanting to head back to your host community. Instead of wandering around like a lost sheep, this time you ask someone as soon as you enter the station, “I’m trying to get to Navrongo, where can I find a taxi?” The young lady instructs you to follow her and she leads you directly to the taxi you need, speaks something to the driver in a language you don’t understand and points to a taxi telling you to take this one. You thank her and she smiles and leaves. As you approach the guys hanging around all the taxis lined up they ask you were you are going, you reply Navrongo, then one asks you if you want a drop in. “Drop in???” You have no clue that he’s asking you if you want to charter the taxi and be the only passenger and leave immediately instead of a shared taxi where you have to wait until there is enough people to fill the seats. By this point in time, you just say “No, I want to go to Navrongo, not because you know what he’s asking but because you’re tired and losing patience (not a good thing in a place where plenty of things move slow). So you stand by a taxi with a few other people that has a small removable sign on the roof that reads “Navrongo – already going”. Another person arrives and you all climb into the taxi off to Navrongo. The driver gets in and grabs a few wires under the steering wheel to start the car, you automatically feel unsure about the driver because in your country this would indicate a stolen car, but you still don’t understand the harsh punishment thieves receive if they’re caught.
A Bob Marley cassette is playing in the car which thankfully calms your nerves sooths your soul. Your lost in the passing sights of so many new things, the phone company advertisements that you see everywhere, the women carrying things on their heads, the green fields of crops, the small run down shops, the mud huts with and without power lines connected to them, cattle, goats and sheep grazing, children playing soccer and with worn out bicycle tires, groups of men sitting and playing cards, large transport trucks that are stacking with goods probably twice as high as they should, men, women, and even children working in their fields weeding, half built concrete block homes scattered here and there, large mango shading like large umbrellas, baobab trees that look about 10m in diameter at the trunk, dogs scavenging, chickens roaming free scratching up the earth pecking away, pre-adolescent boys sitting on the side of the road selling bowls full of fresh eggs to whomever will pull over, signs with village and town names that you can’t pronounce, and thankfully the fresh air consuming your face as it pours through the half open window. Your mind races around trying to comprehend and understand, asking itself questions but no answers follow, your emotions flutter at difficult sights that you and other westerns call poverty, as well as calm cool sights like the sun setting over green fields. You take a deap breath. You exhale. You just, be.