Sunday, 19 December 2010

Baby it's cold outside...

As I write this, snuggled under my duvet/doona/eiderdown, the mercury plummeting (the whole "mercury" metaphor being this season's most hackneyed phrase in weather obsessed Britain, as "Arctic" weather systems wreak "havoc" on Christmas shopping and travel plans), as the "big freeze" continues and  forecasters speculate on the "record lows" ahead, it seems opportune to reflect on this chill season and lament the suffering of those stranded, cold and disheartened in airports, on motorways and in train stations, unable to move due to the impact of the ice and the continuous subzero temperatures.

Mr Springgirl is due to travel to the UK from warm and sunny Africa on Tuesday. He may be delayed, like so many. I daresay the Offspring will recover from the disappointment as long as Santa finds a way through next Saturday morning. Thankfully, beans on toast and scrambled eggs would not disappoint my three, in the event that supermarket shelves are cleaned out and we miss out on the typical festive fare this year. Though, having said that, the freezing weather ought to ensure nothing actually rots this week - if left on the back step - so I really had better dash (slip and slide) to the stores tomorrow for some meat and vegies... just in case.

It is difficult when one is really cold to imagine being really hot. This time last year, in west Africa, we were really hot. It seems like no time ago despite the old clichés about so much happening since etc etc.

There we were in the humid scorching sun (not in it, actually), sweat beading on the brow over breakfast, make-up dripping off, red-faced children begging for water, lathering on the mosquito repellent. While I know that it is a bit of a cheat - reusing old material in a blog - I am going to post the reflections I shared this time last year from Ghana when I wrote home.

Goodness knows it is more interesting than snowball fights, "brush your teeth, no story if you take too long" and pesto pasta for dinner (again)...

From Accra - December 2009 - email from Springgirl to her sister

"Today the Off-Spring were given a big bag of glitter, cardboard, glue and decorating stuff and are having a great time making cards and xmas decorations, some of which now adorn the besser brick wall near the front door of the house. So creative to make something more of the lovely besser. They are being helped by Effe's (maid) son, Elvis, who is 11, but seems younger. Elvis is in Heaven with all this stuff to play with. I just checked on them - they have used up all the glue sticking said decorations to house walls and front door, ie a big old mess for me and Effe to clean off. All the years of "don't draw on walls; never stick things on walls" goes out the window when a couple of local kids think it will look nice. After all, it's not like they ever had the chance to do it before; stick stuff on besser - that is (and by "they" I mean the Offspring as well as Elvis and Ama). Now Effe is out there scrubbing the colour out of the white walls. The colour from the paper has bled into the paint leaving rectangular "frames". Hope Mr Springgirl doesn't lose it when he sees it. Five minutes wiping at it and I was a lather of sweat. The youngest Offspring (3) is now telling Elvis and Ama not to "carry him up". Ghanaian kids are very affectionate and demonstrative and they always try to pick up little kids. The youngest Offspring is trying to explain it so patiently: "I am using words to tell you that I do not want anyone to carry me up."

We drove west along the coast to Cape Coast (formerly a massive centre for the slave trade) yesterday. We stopped on the way at a very nice beach for a swim and some lunch. A friend of Mr Offspring has bought into a beach club: pseudo mud huts and lots of palm and coconut trees down to the water. One can camp or stay in the chalets/huts. Some of the new ones look pretty comfy - air con and tv for a start - and new bathrooms, though I saw several cockroaches crawling around outside one. We might go back overnight next week (with insect spray) and use it as a base for more exploring. There is an eco-tourism award winning attraction an hour or two on from there called Kakum which is a forest with a canopy walk. Apparently high up in the trees there are rope and suspension walkways; say 6 storeys up. I would like to see it but the kids may be too small for the adventure just yet. Long way to climb down if they change their minds, though great for the legs after eating one to many fried plantains this week...

Anyway the beach was pretty clean for Ghana, where shortage of bins and cultural insensitivities means that the beach is often polluted with rubbish and the assorted debris of village life; can lids - with serrated and jagged edges, of course - faecal matter, string, assorted fruit skins, cigarettes, papers, plastic bags. The beach club have built a breezy timber restaurant on stilts under which the waves lapping at high tide. The food was ok, all local and fresh, but the views and the breeze were really worth paying for. The sand of the beach is brownish, so the water is pretty murky, but is is covered in lovely little spiral shells which the Offspring collected by the handful before lunch. I suggested we send some to you. The club has more or less banned the locals from coming inside its perimeter so the club's beach was empty apart from us and a handful of holiday makers staying there. The drama was outside - by the nearby village. We wandered up the beach to watch the village people pulling in their catch of fish in massive nets cast out past the breakers. There were more than 50 people of all ages, singing and pulling up the catch which took a good half an hour. The Offspring were captivated. In the end, there was a pretty good haul - but all small fish -15 cms or less.  The big international trawlers take the big fish - out  on the horizon. But the daily catch would feed the village - and beach club - nicely. And they are all well fed - not fat (although some of the women are definitely plump, perhaps due to too much palm nut oil in the cooking) - but there is no shortage of food here. A little girl of about three picked up shells to add to my handful while we watched the fish dying in the nets. A teenager asked me my age - 27 - and told me my "babies" were "handsome".

We loved the beach and our time there so much that we returned after visiting Great Grandma in Cape Coast, for another swim. The water was warm - perhaps 25 degrees, but still refreshing. There was good but gentle surf. We watched the sun set over some hills along the coastline. It is strange to see the sun settling at that angle, but as the coast runs east to west, virtually along the Equator, there is no sun over the water to witness. However, due to the haze and the salt air it was a huge orange disc slowly sinking, while we splashed in the waves one last time; stealing the last safe moments before the mozzies descended at nightfall. 

While driving to the beach we made a list of all the natural resources of Ghana; for the children's benefit mainly (being keen on educating them about the place), but between cocoa, pineapples, rice, yam, fish, goat, cows, chicken, paw paw, citrus fruits, corn, wheat, sugar, coffee, oil, gold and natural gas, not to mention sand for cement (besser!) and rocks for gravel, there is really no reason for anyone to be hungry or poor, and yet they are very poor. It is both humbling and depressing to see how life is still as it was 100 or more years ago for many. No sanitation or running water. They have tvs and phones and Nike shoes but the Government cannot seem to lay roads or run pipes. It is really harsh. The first president - Nkruma - a visionary and nation builder -built the dam that provides most of the electric power, on the Volta River, built roads and universities, got the gold mining tribes organised into companies etc, but while his legacy lives on, much of the infrastructure remains as it was when first established in the 60s. The signs and building at the Dam feel like something out of a 1960's James Bond film. I don't know where the tax and export money is spent. Also there are many people who do very little. A lot of sitting around in the village, waiting for the catch or the next meal or game of football. They are not miserable, by any stretch, but the thing that one sees, coming from the west, is that there is not a sense of initiative or energy. A few small boys could clean up rubbish, even just put a bin out! The men could dig sewers or repair the roads. But why would you bother? It functions ok, after all. They have food, family, faith. Admittedly the road to the beach club is pretty good - I suspect that the owner pays local youths to regravel it every few weeks - but organising work teams to do this on a massive scale seems to be a bridge too far. The wheels of bureacracy turn slowly. The well to do and the returning expats love talking things over. Every conversation involves strategies for change. And with all that besser and cement they could really clean things up. 

I suppose to say so is naive and insensitive. I daresay to impose western mores is just another form of tyranny. Yet, even in the towns there is still a lack of basic amenity. Great Grandma has no toilet. The Offspring used her chamber pot, but as they kept threatening to need to do more than ideally accommodated therin, one's visit is never very long. I have never really asked whether Mr Offspring or his siblings could perhaps have a bathroom installed in the old colonial house for her. I daresay it is moot if there is no actual pipeline infrastructure to attach it to beyond the front door. Another quandry is the use of straw switch brooms. Even here at the family house in Accra, Effe uses a little brush thing to sweep up. It is effective enough, especially with all the dust that accumulates in the dry season, but one has to bend down double. I waltz in from the developed world expecting to use a chux and a broom; all of which are sold up the road at a roadside stall (open 24 hours by candlelight), but the old ways seems to prevail, nevertheless. Sadly the Offspring used the wrong end of the broom to sweep up spilt glitter - or at least move it around some more - such that most of the straw is now lying around the courtyard...

Reading the history of the place is very interesting. Independence from Britain came in 1957 and yet they really just left a mess behind, in material terms. I think cultuarlly and spiritually the place is very intact and highly functioning, a heady blend of timeless Ghanaian traditions and legacies from colonial times mixed together with modern globalisation. Also like in India the local language and commitment to education, is rich and prized. But is is clear that trade was the key - gold and cocoa and slaves made the Dutch, French, Portuguese and British very wealthy. Indeed, Ghanaian soldiers sent to the East Indies by the Dutch settlers brought back Indonesian craft and batik - a common print now on local cloth. A rich and harsh history.

Mr Offspring has gone to the cemetery to attend a memorial for his cousin's mum - they are unveiling the tombstone for close family. On Saturday we will attend a church service and reception at the house for all who knew her - ad in the paper announced it. In Ghana, like much of the developing world, funerals and memorials are a huge to-do. Friday and Saturday are funeral days and anyone who has known you will come. In the villages everyone wears balck and white apart from members of the chief's family. The cheiftancy is noted by the wearing of some sort of red. It is quite spectacular to behold the cloth and the people all walking through the streets dressed up. The men wear toga style cloths over one shoulder. Coffin making is a huge industry, and recession proof. They make very elaborate designs - like sharks, boats and animals - carved into the wood - all local of course. Funerals are very social. A man from up the road died two weeks ago and we could barely pass the house due to the cars clogging the street for the week up to the funeral. I suppose if it keeps the bereaved from thinking too much for a while it is a blessing, but it seemed a little much to expect the widow and kids to be sitting up receiving visitors day and night up to the funeral. But that is how it is done and they expect and are used to it.

Today we will drop in on a few friends to say merry xmas and leave some little gifts for the kids. It is so humid that one just wants to jump in a pool most of the day so I will take swimmers in the hope we can do so at some point. Mind you Ghanaian ladies tend not to swim - messes up the hair. 

I will have to stop for some coffee somewhere as well. Thinking it would be economical and good for the country for me to buy local I bought some ground coffee for the plunger last week at the nearby Lebanese supermarket which is basically a rip off. Anything imported is marked up astronomically. Special K costs $10 for a 350gm box. Pampers (small pack) are $36 - thank Heavens the Offspring are past that stage. The coffee I bought is called "Daniel" and was only $7 as opposed to $24 charged for something recognisable from Italy (expired use by date). But "Daniel" had either gone off for being on the shelf too long or it is just gross, as it tasted like dirt mixed with tanin, flavoured with cordite and dried in a tannery - or as I imagine that would taste. Needless to say I went and bought the american brand next time we were at the store. It's the little things that get you down...

Hark, a year on. My Nespresso coffee maker will whir reliably for me tomorrow morning as I look upon sparkling, white, snowy garden outside my window. The Offspring will shiver delightedly in their parkas and wellington boots as we crunch through the snow to the communal garden igloo. Will they remember the glitter, the fishing nets and the chamber pot of Christmas 2009? I hope so.

So while we have so much and are surrounded by so many who even in the midst of freezing conditions and austerity, will be warm and well-fed next Saturday, it is timely as the year draws to an end, to think of those with very little. While our pipes may threaten to freeze, they will still take the dirty water away and bring fresh to us, reliably, and every day we will fill not only our tummies, but our hearts and minds with riches and plenty.

But it's cold outside for many.

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