I once had a bar patron joke that my degrees in anthropology and political science would help me study the politics of dead dinosaurs. Indeed, misconceptions about social science in general and anthropology in particular abound.
Yet, a haunting question still emerges: What has my major prepared me to do in life?
After graduating from UVM in 2011 I was determined to stop working in restaurants and to start climbing the ladder towards my dream career of humanitarian advocacy in Africa.
I quit the restaurant and became a substitute teacher at South Burlington High School. It paid substantially less than the service industry but reinvigorated me to seriously consider my future.
I was surprised when offered a permanent position as a Para-educator, teaching a multitude of subjects to students with developmental and behavioral challenges. I had no experience in education or mental health. Along with tutoring after school I maintained a just-livable income.
I saw teaching as temporary and was still troubled with how I could transition into my career. Reminiscing on my 2010 study abroad in Ghana had my feet itching to travel again. This is how I found myself in the UVM Fellowships office of the wise and wonderful Britten Chase.
Brit directed me towards a Fulbright Scholarship as an English Teaching Assistant. This prestigious grant through the US Department of State seemed a perfect way to develop my experience as a cultural and political foreign ambassador. I applied to teach English in Nepal.
Knowing that a Fulbright grant was far from guaranteed I also applied for an English teaching job in the Republic of Georgia through a private company called Greenheart Travel. I was fairly confident that if Fulbright fell through, Greenheart would accept me.
I was elated to find out that I was one of a dozen finalists for six Fulbright grants to Nepal. However, come spring I was not chosen. Shortly thereafter, and without explanation, I was not accepted to teach in Georgia either. My fiery plans had been smothered. Moreover, I felt as if I failed to live up to the expectations I set for the mentors who tirelessly advocated on my behalf.
Out of work for the summer my mind grabbed wildly for any vine swinging any direction. I liked teaching; maybe I should get a teaching degree online? My father and grandfather both served in the Air Force; maybe I could become an intelligence officer? I applied to be an orderly at Fletcher Allen with a dream of returning to nursing school. I filled out my Peace Corps application for the third time but still did not submit it. I had a new plan every week.
I found myself tending bar again to pay the bills. I also jumped ship from mental health work in public education to community support work with a private organization called the Howard Center. I excelled at and enjoyed working with marginalized groups in the community. I felt the work was more in tune with my career goals and balanced my less altruistic job behind the bar.
I committed to working hard, saving my money, and widening my range of opportunities so that I could reignite my humanitarian desires in the world region I coveted most: Africa.
For most of 2012 I worked 60+ hour weeks, tucked away my cash and planned.
Meanwhile, I decided that I could profit most by continuing my education with a one year Master’s degree in African Studies from the University of Ghana.
The program was affordable, would bring me back to Africa and further develop my analytical and research skills. To help offset airfare and living costs I applied to Fulbright a second time. A funded research project in Ghana could double as my MA thesis.
I was named a finalist for my Fulbright Research Grant in 2013 but alas, I did not receive the funding. Twice a finalist may be construed as twice a failure, but the Fulbright process paid huge dividends in narrowing my focus and fueling my resolve. Another door always opens.
Last August the plane door opened up onto the runway and a surge of humid African air rushed in. My olfactory senses raced with familiarity. I was back in Ghana. Over eight months later I am now winding down my second semester of graduate study!
My program has exceeded my expectations; the cross pollination of ideas between African peers and myself has been invaluable. Particularly advantageous is the theoretical and practical foundation I have gained in social and economic development. My current field research on human rights and mental health in Ghana builds on my demonstrated strengths and passions and will culminate in a thesis I can be proud to present to future employers in the development and rights advocacy sectors. Of course, living and traveling within Ghana has been equally inspiring.
Looking back I realize that anthropology trained me to be an observer, a listener, and curiously watchful of human behavior. I prize cardinal anthropological values such as understanding human diversity and being able to communicate effectively. I am familiar with a wide range of beliefs and values and strive to be culturally flexible in an increasingly multicultural world. I utilize self-reflection, explanatory models and adopt broad perspectives so that I can frame an understanding of the world as it unfolds around me.
I am an anthropologist and every job I have held in the last three years harnessed these skills.
I am told that it is not the destination but the journey that matters most. Without a doubt I am exactly where I belong, but it was my three year journey to get here that prepared me for it.
After living in Ghana I tend to carry less- both in things and in expectations.
This fall I will be a post-graduate once again.
Studying the politics of dead dinosaurs has never looked so promising.
Chief Russel was poisoned by an angry neighbor. Apparently Russ ate one of the guys hens.
He was an itchy little mutt but he was always happy to see me, which of course, made me happy too.
His owners said that shortly after his death the neighbor who poisoned him suffered a stroke…
Miss ya Russ.
I found out earlier this week that Joe passed away. Apparently they found him early in the morning suffering from a massive nose bleed. There was nothing they could do and he died from the blood loss.
He was a good friend.
I will miss him.
Stretching out on the half empty bus ride from Mole National Park to Tamale is much more pleasant than the floor ride coming in.
Tamale is the fastest growing city in all of West Africa. There is energy in the air, though a piece of me laments seeing traditional mud houses drowning amongst more modern constructions.
The motorbikes that glide by make the flat, wide roads seem a bit excessive; cars are the exception here. It strikes me as odd that I have not seen a single stray dog since we got to Tamale. Hoards of goats walk the streets with certainty. It is as if they own this town.
We decide to stay the day and night and leave back to Accra early the next morning. Half of the group elects to take the STC luxury bus while the other half opts for the less cozy Metro Mass. The difference in price is 17 cedi (roughly $7). It seems like pennies to pay for a giant comfortable seat and AC but for me it is more about my budgeting ethos as a traveler. Each time I sacrifice luxury comfort I gain one more souvenir, several beers, or a dozen market meals.
The Catholic Guest House seems like a resort after days of bus travel and living safari dirty in Mole. We book five double rooms with showers and enjoy omelets and toast for breakfast. There is a TV at the far side of the restaurant playing the Disney Channel. Strange as it is, or maybe because it is so strange, I find it hard to break my attention away from it.
The water trickling out of the shower head hits my skin and turns a dark brown before whirling down the drain. When I feel clean enough it dawns on me that my supposed tan has washed off.
In the guest house courtyard I sit cross legged, a chair supporting my back, as I meditate under the shade of a tree. The hotel guard eventually strolls by and asks me if I am alright. His brow scrunches when he realizes that I did not fall out of my chair but purposively chose to sit on the ground. He smiles as if to console me and continues on.
Fed, clean, and rested we are ready to explore some of the sights of Tamale. At the main road we wait to flag down a taxi. Sam starts to talk about how much he would enjoy riding in the back of a tuk-tuk, a three wheeled motorbike that has a small trailer attached to the rear. They are generally used to transport goods and produce but we resolve to try our luck.
A local in a light blue shirt and a pale fisherman hat is riding in our direction so a few of us point at him up and down. Right as he passes us I see an ear to ear smile spread across his face. He jerks the bike to the right and pulls over, immediately looking back as if to make sure what he saw was real. When I ask him if we can pay 5 cedi for a ride up the road he smiles again and nods.
The metal railings and floor of the trailer are piping hot from the sun but we squeeze in anyway. The bike slowly makes its way down the road, depressed by the ten obruni load it bears. Other motorists and taxis pass by to our left, the passengers smile and wave as they do. The giant market emerges to our right and dozens of people call out laughing at the sight of us. A young guy takes a picture with his phone and I nod at two elderly men sitting in the scant shade to be found. They return knowing and courteous nods.
We hesitate outside the Central Mosque unsure of the norms surrounding outsiders, especially girls, wanting to see inside. Sam and I slip off our sandals and go in while the girls wait. The ground floor is split in two basketball court sized rooms, cool and dimly lit. Just a couple of men sit or lie stretched out on their mats, watching us look around like lost souls. I approach an older man in a white tee-shirt with a picture of the Statue of Liberty on it. I ask him if there is any way we can have a look around the mosque. He asks us how we entered and we say that one of the side entrances was unlocked. He ushers us back to the girls, takes in the situation, and explains that they do not normally give tours. However, he says since we are interested he will show us around. Score.
Our impromptu guide takes us up a few flights of stairs and explains that the mosque is split in half, the women praying on one side, the men on the other. The mosque can easily accommodate a thousand people and there are plans to replace the open air windows with glass. When he asks us if we want to go on the roof we all perk up. What a treat to see Tamale from up high. Afterwards we put together 20 cedi and offer it with thanks for the tour.
Our next stop is at the local chief’s palace. The compound consists of both circular mud huts with straw roofs and modern square buildings with bright silver slanted metal roofs. A man tells us that we cannot enter unless we tell him our purpose. We say we are just interested in seeing what the palace looks like. Apparently that satisfies him and he shakes our hands one by one and leads us to a building in the center of the compound.
The open white tiled room has a two-step platform in the back corner with a leather arm chair resting at the top. Each level represents prestige, the chair being reserved for the chief himself. Three men in traditional cloth are lounging on the first step. A very elderly man sits cross legged on the top level, in front of the chair. Their expressions hardly change when we enter. They agree to pictures.
The outskirts of the Tamale market swarm with hundreds of people. Heaps of bags, shoes, and clothes are sprawled out on the ground. Stalls sell food, hats, belts, beads, fabric, books and more. In the midst of all this activity I see a toddler casually weave through the mass. It may appear chaotic but the layout of and maneuvering through the market makes total sense.
After a long trek to the Zongo district we find ourselves at one of Tamale’s famous local leather making factories. The pelts, usually goat and cow, are soaked in water and ash for a day or two. The chemical reaction makes it easy to scrape off the fur. The hairless skin is soaked one more time before being completely dried out in the sun. A combination of water and millet husks is applied to the skin to give it a distinct reddish brown color. Finally, using the heel of the foot the skin is stretched out before being sold to local artisans.
Looking down at my brown leather Keens I realize for the first time that I walk around in another animal’s skin. Seeing this process makes it a little more real for me.
Back at the Catholic Guest House we relax in the dark of night with beers and good food. The TZ and okro stew in Tamale more than makes up for the lousy food experience in Mole. Sleep comes easy to me tonight as I sprawl out in my very own bed.
The thought of the bus bringing me closer back to the reality of grad school has me alert and reflecting on the five day trip.
Ten other people made this the largest group I have ever traveled with in West Africa. The diversity of personalities surely added to the shenanigans. However, at times it made paying, decision making and negotiating an exhausting process. When it comes to backpacking here three to five people seems to strike a nice balance between fun and rugged.
More than anything, I am always happy to return home safe.
The tiredness usually fades just in time for the next adventure.
It takes me a moment to recognize Jacob outside of his faded green ranger uniform. Now he has a red collared short-sleeve shirt tucked into a pair of jeans. He seems a smaller man.
Still half asleep I sit up on the lounge chair and greet him. He asks me if I will walk with him and discuss something. I am a little confused but I can sense trouble lingering in the air.
After a short stroll to the overlook I take a seat on a bench next to Jacob. He starts by asking me for a major favor because he is in a lot of trouble and without my help he will lose his job.
He confesses that after we paid and tipped him the 220 cedi for the three hour safari he returned to the ranger’s station and claimed that he had only led us on a one hour tour. He turned in 55 cedi to his boss and pocketed the remaining 165 (roughly $66). Another ranger heard about what he did and ratted him out. Now his superiors are investigating the situation.
At once I think back to the two men who sat down at our dinner table tonight. They claimed that they were interested in hearing our group experience at Mole and suggestions for improvements. I was actually excited to see the park taking such initiative. However, I thought it odd that they were so insistent on hearing and recording specific details. Additionally, they took Melissa’s phone number and Sam’s email for future correspondence. I know now that this must have been a cover for the investigation.
Jacob tells me that he stole the money because his family is in dire need. His parents are sick, he has a wife and children, and the park does not compensate him well. He stresses that he needs the money to pay his son’s school fees.
He asks me to cover for him when asked by his superiors and lie that we paid for a one hour tour only.
If the park finds out the truth he will certainly lose his job. Unemployment here is extremely high and he will have no other options to support his family. He concludes by saying that if he is fired he will surely kill himself. There is a profound sadness in his voice and his dead gray eye seems to be somehow gauging my every movement.
I look out into the distance for the perfect response. A deep breath later I am facing Jacob. First I tell him that despite his motivations what he did was wrong and that we trusted him to be honest with the money we gave him. Then I tell him that this is not my decision only, it is the groups and I must discuss it with them first. I assure him that none of us want to see him suffer but that we also do not want to find ourselves in trouble. I also stress that none of us have the capacity to give him any money to help out his situation. I sure up my tone for the final part. I tell him that killing himself will not solve anyone’s problems, especially his family’s. It is not an option and I stand up so as not to continue any discussion concerning it as such.
I tell him I will talk to the group and return to him. He takes my hand and asks for my word to help him. All I can promise him is that we will take this very seriously. He nods and waits.
Half of the group is already asleep in the room so I gather up those awake and recount the situation. Initially there is a general consensus that we should just cover for him. Sam does not want the guilt of someone killing themselves on his conscience. Chris asks whether or not lying would put us in legal trouble. Poppy seems frustrated and voices that she thinks we should turn him in, but she will not go against the group.
I have a different perspective. Jacob just expressed that he is entertaining the thought of killing himself. To me this suggests that he is mentally unstable at the moment. When people lose their ability to think rationally they are prone to commit acts of violence they might otherwise not. For me the real question is how we prioritize the safety of our group in this situation.
After some more discussion we all agree that the best option is to tell Jacob that we will cover for him, whether or not we will actually end up doing so.
Jacob is clearly anxious and struts over to our group as we make our final decision. I walk away a few yards with him and explain to him that we are prepared to cover for him if asked. I reiterate that we are still not happy with what he has done and expect no more contact with him afterwards. He asks me for my word that I will cover for him. I give him my word that I will lie if asked. I tell him to go get some sleep. He thanks me, praises God that there is hope, and walks off into the darkness.
I tell the group that we need to get to our room and be careful until our bus departure at 3am.
We all expect Melissa’s phone to ring the next day but it never happens. Jacob is on my mind for the next week and my imagination tries in vain to construct what could have happened.
Almost a week later Melissa gets a call and a text- from Jacob. He asks to speak to me.
I decide to call him back. He tells me that his superiors will be calling soon and wants to know if I will keep my word. I tell him that we have not changed our plan and that he absolutely needs to stop contacting this phone. Somberly he thanks me again and hangs up.
A few days later Melissa receives some calls from who she figures can only be Jacob’s superiors. She tells them that she does not want to speak to them and hangs up. At the same time Sam receives an email inquiring about the situation and asking for us to assist in finding out if Jacob is guilty. Sam writes that he does not want to have any involvement with the investigation.
After the refusals Melissa gets one more text from Jacob, “PS I need to speak with Matt”.
Aside from the mobile number and my name Jacob is nearly 20 hours away from where we live and has no other information about us. I no longer feel like we are in danger.
However, I did give Jacob my word concerning what I would do. I believe in second chances.
After careful consideration I have decided not to endorse what Jacob chose to do. I gave him my word that I would cover for him if I was questioned by his superiors. Ultimately, I will not put myself in the position where I have to.
I imagine that this situation can happen anywhere in the world where desperate conditions may tempt people to make desperate decisions. As a traveler, guest, and representative of the USA I am content with placing my safety first and foremost.
I have to accept that Jacob’s fate may remain unknown.
When the African safari morning sun gets up so do you.
We take the nets down and roll up our mats. I MacGyver my mat and camel pack to my camera bag and eagerly look out into the bush. Jacob urges me that the others need to hurry up.
In a single file line we march out into the bush behind Jacob. We maintain a northern trajectory with the sun always ahead of us. Twenty four feet make plenty of noise so I try my hardest to reduce my own. I avoid dry leaves and twigs and place my foot toe to heel. I focus on all the sounds around me, hoping that I can hear an animal before I see it.
Jacob veers to the right, stops, and looks down. For a moment I figure that he is lost. Then I notice the two remaining ribs jutting out of a spinal column on the ground. The lions dined well on this antelope.
The next time Jacob stops I recognize right away what he sees in the sand. We are hot on the elephant’s trail.
Now and then an antelope or waterbuck will see us and gallop into the wood. They are much too fast to capture on film. Several vultures circles above and I wonder if a fresh kill is nearby. Or are they waiting on us…?
We are going on our second hour and despite Jacobs contact via cellphone with other rangers we have yet to find out where the elephants are. He encourages us to head back to the lodge and eat and try our luck seeing them this afternoon. It’s unfortunate, but as Jurassic Park taught me: animals don’t operate on park schedules. It’s the essence of chaos theory.
As we approach the hill up to the lodge we see some other groups and rangers walking towards a watering hole. There are seven elephants bathing in the water!
Dozens of spectators surrounding the pond make for a lot of noise but the elephants are no less magnificent. Two juveniles go back and forth standing on top of each other, pushing the other one out of sight underwater momentarily before resurfacing. The adults blow water out from their trunks and stand motionless save for their flapping ears. Every now and then a crocodile head will surface in the water, then dip down and vanish. Jacob tells us to watch our footing on the small cliff or we will become croc chop. I could spend all day watching these creatures.
Back up at the lodge I collect 20 cedi from each member of our group for the three hour tour. That means we are dashing (tipping) Jacob 55 cedi for his help. Considering all he put up with I figure that this is a nice gesture. He takes the cash from me with a nod.
Poppy, Maria, and I decide to take a cheaper breakfast up at the ranger’s station and split off from the rest of the group. We are eating at a small plastic table while one woman grinds ginger, the other cleans out a bowl, a baby lies sleeping on a blanket, and two young girls in dresses laugh and play.
Eventually an off duty ranger sits down by us. One of the women yells at the youngest girl for something and the ranger stands up and yells at the girl too. He grabs her by the wrist and gives her a smack across her legs. The girl’s mouth drops open, her eyes swell, and she begins to wail. Maria stands up from the table and walks briskly off out of the compound. The ranger watches her leave with a half puzzled half innocent look on his face.
Maria is from Sweden, the first country in the world to make it illegal to hit a child in any form. After some talks with her I have come to agree that the practice of an adult hitting a child should not be tolerated. It espouses that aggression from a bigger, stronger adult is an appropriate way to respond to the wrongdoing of a smaller, weaker child. Adults cannot do the same to adults.
When I was a primary school teacher here I was told that African children are more rowdy and thus need to be beaten regularly (usually with sticks). Part of me thinks this ideology may be a vestige of a colonial past, but another part sees patriarchal society in action. Here is an adult male ranger, assumingly not related to this women or her girl child at all, grabbing the child and beating her into submission for her mother. What does this really illustrate?
The group decides to go on a jeep safari after breakfast but Chris and I stay behind to relax. I stretch and meditate out on the overlook, float in the pool, and write.
I return to the ranger’s station to get some waakye (rice and beans) for lunch. As I wait for the food I play mancala with one of the women. The folding two sided wooden board has six slots on each side. The point of most mancala games is to move the small green seeds from one hole to the next and depending on the rules, capture as many as possible.
The woman balances the board across her lap, using her right hand to scoop up the seeds and play and the left arm to hold her infant to her breast as it feeds. By the time I realize the rules of this particular game she has already taken quite a lead on me. Every time she captures seeds she laughingly says, “I catch you obruni”.
Watching the sun set feels like saying good bye to this wonderful wilderness.
The plan is for all of us to squeeze into a two bed room tonight, wake up around 3am and catch the bus that leaves the park back to Tamale. Before I know it I am sleepily stretched out on a pool lounge chair staring up at the stars.
That is when I hear a familiar Ghanaian voice ask Sam if I am around…
Diarrhea is the only thing on my mind as I walk through the visitor compound into Mole National Park.
It is January 2010 I am suffering through the early stages of traveller’s diarrhea. My irritable bowel and the bumpy road into Mole is not fun but something much more dire awaits me in the park. On the first night my friends and I decide to eat cheap noodles with spicy meat sauce at the ranger’s station. I may have gotten away with this choice had a tipsy ranger not pushed me to take a shot of akpeteshi (palm tree moonshine).The liquor burns a line straight down my insides and I instantly bolt in the direction of the only toilet I know of. Halfway through a field it is too late. I abandon my non-biodegradable penguin boxers and phone my friend Ahmar to bring me some toilet paper. Little do I know it will take me years to rebuild my pride.
The flashback ends once I am on the ledge looking out over thousands of square kilometers of protected wild African safari. A herd of elephants are just finishing up a bath in the closest watering hole. I take a deep breath, free my mind, and soak in life.
We post up at a long banquet table on the covered patio and look to fill our stomachs. Over omelets and toast we discuss sleeping arrangements for the night, how to spend the afternoon, and assess our individual money situations. We all agree to sleep in a tree fort structure in the safari itself. We book a jeep ride out to the fort for 730 and are told to be on time. Tomorrow morning we will wake up early and walk through the safari on foot.
The hope is that Josh, Shay, Marissa, and Lindsay, our friends who took an alternate route to Mole, will make it here today and join us.
We spend the day recharging and enjoying the pool.
Warthogs and a troop of baboons confidently stroll around the hotel grounds. Both are dangerous but they tend to keep their distance from guests. Every now and then a lone ranger baboon circles around the pool area and grabs a drink or food off of a table. A staff member then runs after them with a wooden slingshot in hand and a grimace of excitement across their face.
The sun begins its descent and we place orders for dinner in advance. I am super excited for the opportunity to indulge in the great foods found up north. Tuo Zaafi (TZ for short) is made from pounded and boiled maize- a lighter and less sour form of banku. I order it with “Larabanga style” okro stew and guinea fowl (which is hands down tastier than chicken).
As the clock approaches 7 we are more and more anxious about our yet to arrive friends. Through haphazard texts and calls it seems as if they will arrive just in time for us to take the jeep out to the tree fort. It is going to be a close call.
Dinner comes out about an hour later than we were told it would. The meal is a major disappointment and the soup itself a struggle to hold down. The only redeeming factor is the delicious guinea fowl.
We finish by 730 and rush to pack our things, buy some alcohol for the night, and get over to the rangers station for our scheduled ride. We are running late and our friends have been moments away from arriving for the last half hour. I have a feeling the rangers are not going to be pleased.
The rangers are not pleased at all.
By now the ranger station is enveloped with darkness. Several rangers in their green military style outfits and solid black boots are hanging around some benches under a baobab tree. The oldest looking ranger is pacing back and forth. His posture stiffens as we approach.
The first words out of his mouth are that we are too late to go.
Sam and I try to explain that dinner came out late but the ranger’s points are much more valid- we are not all present, we have not paid, and we are not packed for our safari tour in the morning.
I ask myself what Liam Neeson would do in this situation.
I let the older ranger know that I am taking charge of the group and make it clear that this is the hotel’s fault for feeding us so late. I tell him to make sure that we have 11 mats and enough mosquito nets so as to keep him busy doing something. Meanwhile, I get Sam to prioritize finding out where the others are. I am simultaneously collecting money and making change while also bantering with the rangers about the situation.
A spirited ranger with one defunct clouded milky gray eye seems adamant about charging us more money because of the hassle. The jeep was originally 30 cedi but is now running us 60. I decide to start interjecting some jokes the Ghanaian way into the bargaining process. He seems to take well to my Ghanaian mannerisms, expressions and quips about akpeteshi. I get the driver to agree to 40.
As we all frantically repack our bags so as to carry the minimal amount in the safari tomorrow our four lost friends finally arrive. I jump on them for their share of money and explain to them that they don’t have a second to rest. This jeep is leaving now.
When I present the older ranger with all of the money, and a little extra, he only looks slightly less unpleased. I shake his hand and apologize for everyone, hoping that he can see in my eyes that this situation could have been worse. He nods and backs away.
Our bags are tossed into the boot of the jeep and we start to climb up to fill the nine seats attached to the roof. The one eyed ranger points to his wrist and says to look how late we are leaving. I grab his hand, look at his bare wrist, and ask him how he reads this watch. He starts laughing and jumps into the jeep. The engine roars to life and the headlamps light a path up into the bush.
We are nothing but smiles and laughs as we venture into the dark safari. Sam pops a beer and the girls throw their arms in the air and sing. I strap a lamp to my forehead to try and look out into the bush but the darkness swallows my light after several yards. I am still a little high from taking the lead on the crisis with the rangers. I imagine that Liam would be proud.
The jeep circles the tree holding up the fort and disappears into the black beyond; the driver has a little extra in his pocket for the trouble. We are left in the wild with the one eyed ranger.
The creaky wooden structure consists of two levels, with the open roofed top level meant for sleeping. Beer, wine, and Smirnoff ice are cracked open while mats are laid down and mosquito nets strung up. Sam hooks up small travel speakers to his phone and the raspy vocals of Springsteen’s “Thunder Road” fills the night. It feels like I just downed a pint of life.
As the night winds down and our spirits succumb to fatigue the ranger calls me over. His name is Jacob. It is hard for me not to look into his dead eye- it’s like a small expanding gray galaxy.
He asks me to explain a few things to the group. 1) We need to begin the tour at 630am. 2) The rate is 5 cedi per hour per person. 3) Anything else we want to dash him would be appreciated. I call the groups attention and relay the information. I seem to have taken on this role long term.
The one inch mat between my back and the wood plank floor is all I need. Others are snoring in minutes, but I lay awake listening to the world around me. The silence is interrupted by a short shrill and snarl in the distance. There is a stir from the corner where Jacob sleeps and his voice quietly says, “Hello. If you are awake you just heard the hyena. They are out tonight.” I smile.
The stars are stretched out across the black canvas above me. I can’t help but think of the scene in the Lion King.
The kings of the past watch over us.
Larabanga is an ancient village that sits at the entrance of Mole National Park. It was a major stop at the height of the trans-Saharan trade and today it is most famous for the white washed, adobe Sahelian mosque reputed to date back to 1421. It is the oldest mosque in Ghana.
There are gangs of children, teenage boys, and young men waiting for us when we step off the bus. A guy about my age with a dark blue turban singles me out and introduces himself as Yussif. He is well spoken and affable and welcomes me multiple times to Larabanga. He offers to show us all around the village and to the mosque. He also offers to organize us rides into the park.
Poppy hands me her book and I finger down to a passage about scams in Larabanga. Everyone is looking to milk the tourists here, mostly by guilt inspired by sorrowful tales about local football teams for impoverished kids. I tell Yussif he can show us to the mosque but we are not paying him any fee for his help. He agrees.
After a short walk through the just waking village we round a corner and come upon an open area where the Larabanga mosque lay. It is just how I remember it from 2010 but new and semi-constructed buildings have encroached on the area around it since. We pay a mandatory 5 cedi visitor charge and within moments find ourselves surrounded by dozens of excited children.
As a local tells our group about the history of the mosque I venture off to take some photos. The kids, mostly small boys, try to hang on to my hand as I walk. Some of them ask me for pens, others for treats. I shake a finger at them and they go try their luck on my comrades instead. Others pose for pictures, like this Larabanga bike gang or this trio of boys comprising a catchy little percussion group.
Yussif and his friends lead us to a smaller mosque so that we can see what the inside looks like. Afterwards we gather around and he explains that any money we want to contribute will go to the community. He produces a thick black book with messages of past donations and testimonies. I cannot help but be skeptical about it all. I only offer up 1 cedi and decline to sign the book.
We still have 6km to go to get to the visitor lodge in Mole National Park. It will not be a fun walk in the dry northern heat with packs on our backs. As always, the question is how much will we pay to get there?
Yussif eventually finds a taxi driver and motorcycle to transport us into the park. However, it is expected that we pay 10 cedi per person. The price is preposterous, considering that 10 cedi total will get a taxi just about anywhere in the capital city. Five people in a taxi at 50 cedi for a 6km journey is big money. Yet, Yussif claims that it is usually 15 per person and this is a special price for us. After some grumbling and moaning we realize that we have little choice. Sam and I elect to ride on the back of motorbikes instead of cramming into a taxi. If I am paying big money I want the wind on my face.
I grab the driver’s waste and he jerks the bike around. Once we are on the main stretch I watch as the needle on the broken speedometer wavers lazily back and forth at 10km/hr. The bike is steadily increasing speed and I can barely see the dips and potholes on the road before they are right on us. I pray that the driver knows this road too well to mess up. Then I notice his hands are casually resting on the center of the steering column; neither hand is on a handle. We traverse 6km in under ten minutes.
Despite having finally reached our destination we all feel a bit cheated when we finally enter Mole. Larabanga was the icing on the cake this trip for being deceived or overcharged. A part of me agrees that it sucks but another part of me accepts the traveller’s challenge to possess the knowledge and know-how to get around safe and at the lowest cost. It is not the first time I will overpay, and it is not the last.
Upon reflection I realize that my visit to Larabanga as a tourist in 2010 was much different than 2014. When I say that in 2010 I was a greenboy I do not mean it as a point of pride in some competence at living in Ghana now. Rather, back then I was observing Africa with more innocent eyes and different perceptions than I do now.
The clearest way I see this is in my own photographs.
In 2010 I photographed everything that amazed me, usually showcasing major differences between Africa and the USA. This meant that every cute but naked or raggedy clothed kid and general scene of poverty made for most picturesque opportunities. I was capturing the Africa I expected to see and disseminating those expectations to others back home.
During these past several months I have begun to refocus my gaze on Africa as a place of remarkable beauty and similarity. The bottom line is that the similarities around me always outnumber the differences.
On a basic level we all love our children, to laugh, share food, and we wake each day knowing that sleep awaits us again at the other end. Our histories, relationships to the land, and faith in how the universe conspires all contribute to one shared humanity.
Even if I don’t like feeling like a tourist I will always be a stranger in a strange land here.
It is still not going to stop me from feeling at home anywhere in this world.