Friday, May 13, 2016

Our first day in Africa begins the way pretty much all the others will: the rooster wakes us up. He’s right outside the window; I’ve noticed that African roosters seem to like to head for the nearest bedroom window before giving forth their greeting of the dawn. And they’re hardly ever satisfied with just one announcement.

At just before 6, the house is quiet. Sarah’s up, reading, but nobody else is stirring. I’ve told them they can sleep as long as they want to, so long as they’re ready to go at 1 pm when Pastor Kujo arrives to take us to the bus terminal. Between the dislocation from the familiar, and the time change, they’ll need some rest. And their slow start actually helps, since the Lara Mart, the little grocery store down the block, doesn’t open until 9. So there’s time to catch up on some study and let the devices get charged. My outlet adapters are packed in the checked bags, which are less than convenient right now, but there’s a transformer next to the TV with a US plug, which serves the purpose well.

Ryan and his wife, Joy, have thoughtfully provided a case of water sachets (the locals pronounce them “SATCH etts”)—and better yet, put it in the refrigerator—so we’ll be able to brush our teeth and have something to drink. No ingestion of the tap water here—not if you want to stay well. They have a filtration system set up by the fridge, but since we’re not going to be here long enough to make use of it, the packaged water is convenient.

At 8.30 I head out for the morning tasks. I greet Muhammad, the gatekeeper—he’s Muslim, and has worked at the BMM guest house for more than 15 years, and we remember each other from last year—and then walk north on Abebesem St. for a couple of blocks to Oxford, which is kind of the local main drag here in Osu, the neighborhood of Accra. Ohio State fans can calm down; Osu is not all caps, so it’s a name, not anyone’s initials. There are several ATMs scattered among the countless shops, selling everything from coconuts to metal fabrication services. The first ATM I come to is out of commission, but the second one works fine, and I get my first supply of local cash, 800 cedis. I’ll use this to buy some breakfast for the crew, pay the rent at the guest house, and pay the baggage fees at the bus terminal. On the way back to the house I stop in to Lara Mart and buy some shelf-stable milk—that’s a life saver around here—and some breakfast cereal: a variety pack of those little Kellogg’s boxes, and a standard-size box of Fruit & Fibre for the, um, more mature among us. (Note the British spelling.) Then it’s a block back to the house with the bags, where Muhammed lets me in with a smile and tells me that Ryan wants to see me.

I knock at their door, and Joy answers. The oldest of their 3 sons, Ezra, who’s about 5, has picked up a sliver of glass in his heel. Sarah told them I used to be EMT certified, and they want to know if it’s OK to just pull it out. They tell me it’s a “sliver,” though there’s nothing much I can see. There are obviously no major arteries in the heel, so I tell them it should be OK to just pull it. Joy takes her tweezers—the fancy kind, with handles like scissors—grasps the end of the piece of glass and produces it—about half an inch long and a quarter of an inch wide. Well, that was a big ‘un. But there’s no significant bleeding, no direct pressure required. I tell them to disinfect the thing like crazy and keep an eye on it, and it looks like our first medical crisis in Africa has passed with no fatalities.

We take the opportunity to talk for a while. The Owens are young and energetic, having been in Ghana for just a few years. They graduated from Piedmont International University in NC, and he then got a Master’s at Maranatha in Wisconsin. During his time there he took some classes from an adjunct professor of missions named Kevin Oberlin, who teaches with me at BJU. (Kevin’s been on a leave of absence for the past year, helping a seminary in India upgrade their curriculum. I worked with him there for a week late last summer. We’re looking forward to having him back this fall.) As it happens, later today Ryan has planned to have a Skype conference call with some folks from BMM and Kevin himself. I’m sorry I can’t hang around and say hello.

Upstairs, people are starting to stir. Soon everyone’s up except Bethany and Jojo, eating breakfast and chattering about the experience. They’ve all noticed the Alarm Rooster—it’s hard not to—and they’re showing the effects of a good night’s sleep. Soon Bethany joins us. About 10.30 I decide to wake up Jojo (give him a break—it’s only 6.30 am back home) and he wakes with a start. This kid can sleep anywhere, anytime, and then spring into action. I think I might call him Eutychus.

In a few minutes we’re ready for our first adventure: a little tour and some souvenir shopping. I repeat the morning’s trek with the group, pointing out the local idiosyncrasies along the way—the foot-deep gutters along the streets, sometimes covered and sometimes not (you hardly ever see anyone walking and texting here, for obvious reasons), the constant honking of the car horns (it’s not aggression or anger; they’re just letting you know they’re there so you don’t run into them or vice versa), the variety of shops. We have to try several ATMs before everyone gets cash who wants some, but we get the job done. Then a little farther than this morning, down to the street-side booths, which they call shops (in East Africa, in Swahili, they’d call them dukas), where talented people who make a living at charming strangers and selling them things hawk their souvenirs. As it is in most tourist situations in developing countries, the style is very aggressive: they ask your name, give you theirs, teach you the Ghanaian handshake, push their wares in your face, follow you down the sidewalk. There’s nothing you can say or do to make them stop. Theirs is the best shop, they are the best artist in town, you are their special friend, they’ll give a special price just today. It’s fun to throw American kids into the middle of that and watch them try to cope, just off the plane. These kids do well, a few walking away with a souvenir or two at not unreasonable prices. Yes, you need to dicker. I’ve told them that the rule of thumb is to offer them just less than half of their opening price, and then give a little in the negotiation to end up at just over half. As I said, they do all right.

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Back to the house, where we eat some more cereal—the meal situation on the bus is hard to predict—and get packed up for the trip to the bus terminal. We’ve decided to leave the footlockers, and any contents for TZ and Cape Town, here in the guest house for the 3 weeks we’re in Wa; that will lighten our load quite a bit as well as lowering the volume (spacewise, not soundwise). So we get everything arranged just about the time Pastor Kujo shows up with the pickup truck and a taxi. Luggage in the pickup bed, 3 kids in the rear seat of the cab, 4 of us in the taxi.

A block down the road I realize I’ve left my backpack in the house. Drat. I hate it when I’m the idiot. We turn around, and at the house I quickly tell the Owens to call Pastor Kujo to tell him what happened. In the end it makes no difference, but I still hate to be stupid.

The bus terminal is a new one, built under the huge new Kwame Nkrumah highway interchange, which is still under construction. (Nkrumah is like the George Washington of Ghana; his communist leanings are well documented, but Ghana loves him.) Last year, the day before we arrived back in Accra from Wa, there was a huge gas explosion here, which leveled several buildings and killed something like 200 people; it was in all the papers when we came into town. They’ve built this bus terminal on the site. The buses seem newer, larger, and more comfortable than the ones we used last year—this is a different bus company, called VIP—and the terminal property is much larger. Timothy has sent Pastor Kujo money for tickets from the funds I’ve advanced him, but I pay the luggage fees, which depend on the number and size of the bags and thus are determined on departure. The packers quote 250 cedis, which Pastor Kujo negotiates down to 200. Just 50 bucks for 18 bags. That’s reasonable—way better than the airlines.


About 2.40 we board the bus, which is scheduled to leave at 3. It’s large and spacious, with 2 seats on the left of the aisle and 1 on the right. We’re in a cluster toward the front. Pastor Kujo’s son Jeremiah, who lives in Wa and has attended a block class of mine in previous years, is seated a few rows back. The seats recline much more than airline seats do, and there’s a little piece that holds up your calves. The bus is air conditioned. We’ll be fine.

01 Accra 050

So we settle in. And we wait. And wait. My hunch, based on previous experience, is that they’re waiting until the bus is full before departing. I can’t prove that’s the reason, but that’s what they do. At 4 we ease out of the parking lot into the dense construction traffic and head north. It’s stop and go, stall and crawl, for a couple of hours, but that’s normal here. Eventually the traffic loosens up a bit and we can get up to 40 or 50 mph in places. But there are speed bumps—rough ones—in all the villages and towns, so we’re constantly varying speed.

Since this is a different bus line from the ones we’ve used before, I’m uncertain about the stopping schedule. In the past it’s been a 4-hour run to Kumasi and then 8 hours nonstop to Wa, and the bladder situation can get a little challenging. Oh, and no opportunity to buy any food through any of that.

This time it’s refreshingly different. We stop just 3 hours in, at a brand-new rest stop, with modern, western toilets—we’ll save our first squatty-potty experience for later—and a food vendor. I pay 50 pesos (half a cedi, or about 12 cents) for each of us to use the rest room, and buy a nice meal (to go, of course) of a roasted chicken thigh/leg quarter on a bed of vegetable fried rice for about 3 bucks each. With utensils and a napkin. I’m glad we had this opportunity; my backup plan was a couple of packages of cookies, which would have led to a relatively underfed night.

Around 9, I’m thinking about settling in for some sleep. There’s a woman and her 2-year-old daughter sitting across the aisle from me and Jonathan, and the baby starts crying. Soon Lora, Jonathan, and Bethany, who are sitting closest to her, start to entertain her, and she takes a real shine to them. Her mother seems grateful for the break, and soon the little girl is sitting in Bethany’s lap, making faces at Jonathan over the back of his seat.

These kids are all right.

Or have I said that before?

We stop again around 10, at a Shell station, for fuel (petrol, they call it). It has a little convenience shop, and the little girl goes into the store with us while her mother stays on the bus. Evidently our folks have earned her trust. The kids want cold soda. Well, ok, but I don’t know if we’re gonna stop again, and you’re gonna have to be responsible for your own bladders. OK, we want soda! So we all get some, even me, because they have bottled club soda, and that’s my beverage of choice, so what’s a guy supposed to do? The clerk asks for 18 cedis, but I hear 80, which sounds a little steep, but I start to pull out 4 20s. She corrects me, looking at me oddly, and tells me to be more careful in the future. Good advice, sister.

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Dan Olinger

Chair, Division of Bible in the BJU School of Religion.

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