Wednesday, December 17, 2008

The beginning of the end

Yesterday, I had a realization about Accra. The parts of the city that you see on the surface are loud and chaotic and aggressive and congested and exhausting. But if you plunge in deeper, layer by layer the mask breaks down until at the end you just find real people, just real people living their lives and eating sleeping loving living making music and playing and working and watching TV.

Annemieke and I went to the Arts Center yesterday, which is a fearsome bazaar of tourist trappings – paintings, sculptures, jewelry, cloth, clothes, purses, instruments… As soon as we walked near it a man came up to his to steer us into his stall, and for the five minutes or so, everyone that we passed kept calling after us – “Looking is free!” “Oburoni, come!” “White sister, come and look at my shop!” We kept walking deeper and deeper back into the market, until what had been a roof covered neatly organized conglomerate of aisle upon parallel aisle of goods slowly gave way to an open air, tree-scattered sporadic winding patchwork of stalls.

After stopping to bargain for some miniature brass sculptures and laughing when Annemieke innocently asked the store owner to ‘dash’ us a ‘jiggy jiggy’ (‘dash’ meaning throw one in for free, ‘jiggy jiggy’ referring to the series of mini sculptures he had of couples in every position imaginable), we went further still. The stalls started to thin out and a pathway opened up into the sun. On our right were stalls similar to the ones we’d seen earlier, but on the left was the concrete skeleton of a building. The concrete slabs formed small three-walled cubicles, and you could see that people were actually living in them, making it livable by drapping a curtain across the middle and laying down blankets on the floor. This was starting to feel nothing like the polished and glitzy entrance to the arts center.

We stopped to check out a rasta cottage with hanging plants and a cd collection, and probably the prerequisite weed behind the counter. Moving on, we realized that the market had given way to a village – there were homes, cooking fires, craftsmen working, kids playing… and the backdrop to all of it was the ocean! We had stumbled upon a beautiful seaside village that led right up to the bluff where the sandy beach began. There was a little kid pulling a suitcase along behind him, and nestled inside of it was an even little kid squealing and enjoying the ride! There was a whole line of little kids, each waiting for his or her turn to get pulled around and everyone was so excited about their rough and tumble ride across the dusty and bumpy ground. There was a shack right on the bluff’s edge that someone had carefully decorated with masks and mirror shards and painted over and lined with stones and all kinds of colorful odd decorating flares. It was really cool to see – especially because you could tell it wasn’t made to be seen, at least not by us. Here, so far in and far from the busy city streets and the showy facades, all of the beauty that we stumbled upon was real, was there for the sake of itself and the people who live there.

We were on our way back to the main street when we ran into a man who looked a lot like one of our friends, Arouna (a really talented musician from Burkina Faso). It turns out that this man, Ablo, actually was a really good friend of Arouna’s, and invited us back to his home. It was a little one room shack in a nearby gulley, and on his porch a man named Baba was working on making a xylophone. After chatting in my broken French for a while, Ablo, who plays the kora, and his friends played a few songs for us… while they were playing I looked around to take in exactly where we were – there was a flock of goats nearby, a few little boys running around barefoot, the ocean, the outline of the seaside village, a cooking fire nearby… the music fit the place so perfectly and the whole experience was one of those perfect moments when you feel your heart overflowing and life tingles through your whole body… if you’ve ever felt like this then you’ll know what I mean.

We had journeyed through layer after layer of the city and ended up here, listening to music in front of a friend’s home. It only took a five minute walk to get back to the main street – unbelievable considering how far removed we felt from the chaos that is normally how I think of Accra. But meeting Ablo and his friends felt like finding an anchor, something solid and simple to hold on to amidst the great shifting anonymity of the city.

I will never forget that afternoon.

To Anyone Who Supported Photovoice, to NGOs, to Donors

Thoughts on Photovoice

When someone asks me how the photovoice project went, I automatically say something along the lines of, “Oh, it was great, it worked out really well, the kids were awesome…” etc etc.

And none of it is a lie… but it doesn’t give a good picture of what actually happened or how I feel about it either.

It’s really hard for me to be honest about this. I just got home from dinner with two of my closest friends and it was even hard to admit to them that I have my doubts, reservations, and regrets about this project.

We were talking about NGOs and corruption and failed projects, and I had been thinking about how hard (next to impossible) it is for people and organizations to admit that they are sometimes wrong, that they tried something and it didn’t work, that they could’ve done things differently. If it’s this hard for me to admit being less than perfect and I’m only accountable to my family, friends, and myself – I understand why NGOs and others who are accountable to international aid organizations and demanding donors aren’t likely to admit their faults. But I wish they would… it would help improve development so much. I know now that it takes so much bravery to do this, and so much faith that people won’t just walk away but will appreciate that by admitting our shortcomings we can improve on them, instead of pretending they’re not there.

For those of you not familiar with this Photo project, here’s a brief summary: Carly (my amazing and beautiful partner in all of this) and I gave cameras to a group of students (we had a class of eight 10 years olds, half boys and half girls). We met with them once a week for an hour at their school, and went over basic photography skills, like angles, being aware of the background, and the rule of thirds. We gave them film almost every week along with an assignment “Photograph your community,” or “Take pictures that work together to tell a story,” etc. Then we developed their film, returned their pictures, and talked about them as a group. After 10 weeks, we had an exhibition of 20 of their favorite photos at their school. The entire school was there, a handful of parents came, and several of our friends from our programs showed up. This 10 week program probably cost us ~ $300.

So here are my mistakes:

1. I didn’t take enough time to understand the context that I was trying to work in. I wish that I had just hung out at the school or in the community with an open mind, and waited until I understood the dynamic and undercurrents of the place I was putting myself in more deeply. As it was, I still don’t completely understand how classes work at the school we partnered with, because our presence changed things and I had no way of measuring how big or disruptive that change was.

2. I didn’t follow through as much as I could have, especially with record keeping. I would have liked to write about how each lesson went, what topics we covered, and how I felt after each meeting with the kids. It also would have been useful to get feedback from the kids and teachers about how the program went as a form of evaluation.

A lot of other factors made this a tough project to work on: the infrastructure of the school we worked in was pretty basic, so we had to trade off distracting noise and sweltering heat; the equipment that we used had some problems, which led to a lot of time lags and destroyed some of the photographs; and a lot of developing problems came up and made our rate of return around 70% (a third of the photos the kids took were ruined and never printed, which was frustrating for everyone.) Also, the level of English spoken by the kids varied and made it difficult to teach lessons. And the general schoolyard culture was more loud and undisciplined than it has been at other schools or in other countries that I’ve worked in.

I often asked myself whether it would’ve been better if I had just come to the school and offered all of my skills as needed – maybe tutored instead, or supervised the little kids during breaks, or (is this my most valuable contribution?) donated money. I think that in general it is much better to immerse oneself in a context and find out what is needed instead of giving what you want to give. But at the same time – I am passionate about photography and I love teaching it. It was hard to set this program up, and if it wasn’t something I really cared about, I wouldn’t have had the drive to do it and the determination to work through the hard days. I would like to think of myself as someone who could be passionate enough about wanting to help in any capacity that it would have been enough to know that I was helping. But then I remember that without photography, I never would have even contacted this school, let alone braved the sweaty commute and sensory overload that is Nima to visit it once a week.

I’ve sometimes thought that if I really want to make a difference I should just sacrifice what I want and focus on serving others and fulfilling their needs. Then I snap out of this twisted martyrdom dream and realize that there is no way that I could sacrifice myself and what makes me happy and be able to sustain it for any significant amount of time. I believe that people both are at their best when they are happy and doing things that they love. So I can’t criticize myself for wanting to work on a photography project, because it’s what makes me happy and is something I’m willing to put my all into.

Here’s another mistake:

3. Since I wasn’t ready to respond to what this school needed, I wish that I had been ready to find a different school or venue that would have been in a better position to need what I had to offer. A school with slightly better infrastructure, with stronger English skills, a school that was already looking for an art program. I would have had to develop standards for selecting such a school, and it would have taken more time to find the right place. But the project would have had that much more potential to succeed. It would’ve been a hard process – kind of like weeding out the small seedlings at the beginning to give the others a better chance of growing strong. If development organizations were more selective about what specific interventions they undertook and what specific criteria had to be met before they began, I’m sure more projects would be successful and limited resources would be used more effectively. Instead, just like me, it seems that a lot of organizations are excited to do anything anywhere without taking the time to understand if it is the best project for the specific context.

Despite everything I’ve just written, a part of me believes that the main goal of this photography project – to provide an opportunity to a group of students who wouldn’t have had it otherwise – was met perfectly by working in the school that we did. I guess I’ll never really know if we made any real difference or not… and if we did, I don’t think it will have been to turn these eight kids into professional photographers.

I think our presence, despite everything, might have meant something. Our willingness to invest in this school, in these kids, in this project that seems so extravagant – maybe on some small level we managed to communicate that they were worth it.

Or maybe we just came in and did what we wanted to do. I think the answer is probably some combination of both.

In either case, I always knew that I would probably get more out of this than any of the kids that we worked with. And looking back on it, I can already say that that’s true. I’ve learned a lot of lessons about development and NGOs and aid – on a tiny 8 student 1 school scale, but the lessons apply across all levels.

So to everyone who supported me with this – through donations or words of encouragement or buying those delicious unbaked oatmeal chocolate chip cookies –
please don’t think your support was wasted. If nothing else, you helped teach me important lessons that I hope to build on and spread.

And for the record, I do think the kids had fun and got to do something they never would have otherwise. Which is maybe all we could’ve hoped for anyway.

I feel like I’ve just broken every rule of the organization-donor contract – the implicit you help me help someone, I help you feel good about yourself promise. But it seems to me that, like with every good relationship, the organization-donor one would be better if we communicated honestly back and forth.

On that note – please let me know what your reactions and thoughts.

With peace,

PS. After writing this, I visited the school one last time. On my way out, one of the boys we worked with, Shaibu, came running after me with a pen. “Madam, Madam! May I please have your phone number?” It costs a lot to make calls to the US and I doubt that he’ll really call, but it made me realize that if nothing else, we made contact with these kids and through this project, formed relationships that otherwise wouldn’t have existed.

My life in 24 hours

It' always such a crazy thought to me that life is going on all around the world, all the time, regardless of where I am.

My two best friends and I have been scattered across the world for the past 5 months -- Christina was in California, Andrew was in China, and I was in Ghana. Other close friends are all over the place too -- Hong Kong, Ecuador, Guatemala, Thailand, India, Chile, across the US...

Andrew, Christina and I did a photo project inspired by the craziness of this. We each took a photograph of what we were doing or where we were on the hour, for 24 hours. The three of us are separated by exactly 8 hours each, so Andrew started at 4 pm in Beijing, Christina at midnight, and I started at 8 am.

This is my 24 hours:

8 am: Just woke up, view from my balcony in Volta Hall.

9 am: Still kickin it in my room, another view.

10 am: Getting breakfast (an egg sandwich and ice coffee) at this outdoor cafe on campus. The woman who works here is amazing.

11 am: Still on campus, on the way to the tro tro station.

12 pm: At Accra Mall -- this is where we get photos printed for the Photo Project. There's also a food court a brand new movie theater where we saw the new 007 movie.

1 pm: In a shared taxi on the way to Adabraka, where I have an interview for my independent study project.

2 pm: In a health official's office -- somewhere behind me is the info that I need!

3 pm: In a tro tro headed back to campus.

4 pm: The view from Accra Mall, where I had to pick up the prints from earlier today for the photo exhibition that we're having tomorrow.

5 pm: Cooking with my Volta girls! Don't be deceived though, this is one of the few times that I cooked all semester. The girls are Priscilla (a first year model who I met through athletics training and go salsa dancing with,) Farida (one of her four roommates,) and Annie (from UCSC, she's staying for a year! We used to run together).

6 pm: Still cooking... I'm peeling a yam that I got as a gift from a friend of a friend. I made the mistake of carrying the yam through Commonwealth (kind of like a huge fraternity) and got so many catcalls! lol...

7 pm: Dinner! Cooking takes so long! How do people do it every day? Annie and I couldn't handle all of the pepper and sniffled through the whole meal.

8 pm: These two women sell food outside of our hall and are awesome. I think I bought juice and paw paw (papaya).

9 pm: One of my two roommies! This is Irene, and her boy Andy. I love these two!

10 pm: My other roomie Rebecca and I chilling out to an episode of Sex and the City in our room.

11 pm: Working on my independent research project (30 + pages, due tomorrow!) about health-based behavior change interventions.

12 am: I miss these two!!! Wonder what they're doing right now...

1 am: Still up and typing... these are the kittens that hang out in volta and prowl around at night. They're adorable.

2 am: Rocking out to music and chugging a pure water sachet. Not so pure, actually, because a government report came out saying only 5 % of sachet brands have no parasites. lol, great...

3 am: A supportive text from Anita -- thanks babe!

4 am: I was still awake but everything around me was black. This is a picture of my sleeping roommate but you can't tell.

5 am: It's getting lighter and I'm still typing, probably page 28 or so by now. This is a picture of Lucas, the porter who guards our block in Volta.

6 am: It is finished! I spot the sunrise on my way to find a printing office that's open this early. Still haven't slept.

7 am: Delirious from not sleeping but still on a high from finishing that paper, I'm on the phone with Andrew and on my way to the tro tro station.

8 am: This is Nima. We just got here and are starting to set up for the photography exhibition that Carly and I are holding to showcase our students photos at their school.

What a day! This is actually not very typical (I normally sleep, don't really cook, etc) and there's so much that these on the hour photos didn't capture. But still -- my life in 24 hours.

Here're the links to Andrew's photos:

and Christina's: invite=CILuqf0F&feat=email

To Andrew and Christina --- Thanks for going along with this project!
and Mike -- Thanks for the inspiration :)

Friday, November 7, 2008

Election Thoughts

Standing arm in arm with friends and strangers as we listened to Obama’s acceptance speech, I felt like I was watching the first man walk on the moon. I have never been part of something so epic.

I had spent the night outside in the grassy backyard of a hotel in Accra along with 200-300 others, a surprising combination of ex-pats and Ghanaians, fellow students and professionals. It never ceases to surprise me how much people here care about U.S. politics. A lot of it is probably because Obama’s black – but even then, even if he’s just as a symbol, it is incredible to see how much people here care about what goes on in America. We all watched throughout the early hours as state after state was called and the electoral votes kept climbing…

And then the west coast was called, and Obama won! We danced and swung each other around and hugged and jumped up and down and raised our voices to sing along to the Black Rasta “Barack Obama” song.

We couldn’t stop smiling and hugging and dancing, and no one was tired even though it was 5:30 am and we’d been up all night. As our future president took the stage, the sky was starting to lighten behind the big outdoor screen his speech was projected on – a perfect metaphor for the way I felt. A new dawn, a new day, a new leader.

Being able to vote as an American, as a citizen of one of the most influential countries on earth, is a huge responsibility. Before this trip I had no conception of just how influential our country is all around the world, but the decisions we make effect people all over – and they know it and they’re watching to see what we do! So when I think about voting now, it’s not just for myself or my county or my state, but for people all across the globe who will be effected in one way or another.

When I finally climbed the stairs leading up to my room, I heard shouts from across the courtyard as my Volta hall mates woke up and heard the news – “ Obammaaa won!! Obammma won!!”

He did indeed.

Mani Agye paaa – I’m very happy!

Finding out a few hours later that California had voted yes on Prop 8 (eliminating same sex marriage,) made the elections a little bittersweet…. What happened, California? How could we take someone’s rights away like that? I guess it just shows that democracy is always a process and while I’m confident that some day gay marriage will be legal again, it’s frustrating that it’s been set back so far.

Still… it’s been beautiful hearing about everyone else’s election experiences. I talked to my mom right away, and my parents took the next day off to hike and celebrate. My aunt in England jumped up and down when she found out in the morning. Christina was part of the spontaneous co-op street celebration in Berkeley and Andrew watched in a basement in Beijing with fellow ex-pats... it’s beautiful to think about how many people around the world were touched and united by something that happened in my country.

Impressions II: A Little Rough Around the Edges

“You must be a Californian”
“You couldn’t throw that sachet away.”

This conversation was with a Ghanaian-American friend who had just met me and saw me look around in frustration before stuffing my empty water sachet bag into my purse, where I already a collection of bags from previous unsuccessful attempts to find trashcans. He had lived in California for years and laughed, telling me that he couldn’t throw things away either. It made me wonder, how exactly did the message to not litter get so ingrained in me? More than a general concern for the environmental damage and destruction that trash can do, I’m pretty sure I’m motivated by a fear of what other people around me would think if they saw me toss my trash on the ground. At home, I imagine that there would be a collective social disapproval and people would be shocked and critical.

But that social pressure doesn’t exist here, and I noticed it was absent in Mumbai as well. In fact, I remember carrying around an ice cream wrapper in market and this little kid followed me around trying to teach me that I should just throw it down. He would grab the wrapper and fling it aside and I kept picking it up and scouring the scene for a trashcan or box or bag.

My friend brian had an interesting observation on the topic. He said that maybe the act of throwing things down used to be fine, when food wasn’t packaged and plastics weren’t an issue. When we eat oranges here, (which are sold with the topics cut off so that you don’t peel them at all but squeeze the pulpy juice out until it’s sucked dry) we toss aside the peel and watch as goats fight to nibble up the pieces. So it’s easy to imagine how that action could become ingrained and be transferred to plastic water sachets and wrappers and bags.

“They can laugh because we get served first.” - Me

Rebecca and I were at the university hospital because she thought she might have malaria. There were three or four other people in the waiting room when we got there, but I assumed that they, like me, were just waiting for their friends. Becks got seen pretty quickly and everyone in the room laughed as she fumbled with the door – it seemed kind of unnecessary and even rude at the time. Until we realized that even though one of the guys in the waiting room was seriously sick and having something like an asthma attack and everyone else was sick too and had been waiting to be seen before we got there. It’s not the first time this has happened either – other obruni friends have stories of being seen immediately at hospitals even though there was obviously a lot of people ahead of them. It put their laughter in a different light – a bitter reaction to being treated so obviously unfairly.

“I’ve never felt more aware of having black skin.”
My friend Naa is a fifth year Ghanaian student who I met in my Econ class. She studied abroad in Russia for a year, so it’s been really cool to talk to her about her experiences there and how they parallel mine. It sounds like it was the first time she’s really experienced racism – people telling her to go back to Africa and the like. Which made me think about the assumptions people make about me because of my race – (I’m definitely an oburoni, but I’ve gotten everything from Indian, to Japanese, and from Mexican to African American!). and even though it’s been frustrating to be categorically stereotyped, it’s still a powerful, privileged stereotype. Some people make snide comments or are intentionally rude, but at the end of the day, we both know that my skin color gives me a lot of opportunities and words are just words.

“The state has failed in Africa. The market has failed in America. So which one do you trust? Neither!” Prof KJ

“The cocoa board buys 1 bag of cocoa for 1 GH cedi then gives 1,000 sacks to their friends who can sell them for 50-60 GH cedi. For some people, they get 1,000 sacks/week!” Prof KJ

One of my friends responded to this story by telling us about his job in one of the government’s ministries. He was in charge of something to do with revenue, and found a lot of holes in the system where people were funneling money away for themselves. So he tried to clean it up, and within a month, revenue was up 100%, and kept rising. Some people praised him. Until he got a call in the middle of the night, telling him that if he valued his life, he had better stop. So he did. And now, he admitted, he even takes a little himself, because, everyone else is and that’s how it works.

“I have a small garden in my backyard and I was watering it one day with the treated water that gets pumped to my house. I realized that between the crops in my garden and the people in my village, the cassava drinks better water than my chief!”
Prof KJ

“In my village, there is a rock in the sea, and people see it as the god of the village. Every year they sacrifice a dog there. There are a lot of fish there, but the villagers don’t fish them because they don’t want to anger the god.”
Prof KJ

“every district got TVs, because some big businessman was selling tractors (even if they didn’t’ need them) and then saw that the price that was deducted from the TV could’ve bought them three TVs!”
Prof KJ

As crazy and frustrating as this is, it sounded familiar. The same thing happens in the US, with military suppliers destroying their own products so that they can be paid to replace them at a huge profit… and did you know that Dick Cheney’s Halliburton was involved in the biggest corruption scandal in Nigeria? Which is saying a lot… they paid $180 million in bribes to secure contracts for a $6 billion deal. Halliburton’s 3rd leading executive has testified against himself and the company…

“We buy things small small. They used to break up match boxes and sell them in little bundles so that you could recycles your old matchboxes and just buy the few matches that you needed.” Prof JS

“Costco is a huge store for wealthy people. You can buy your whole year’s supply of anything there. You need to have a card to be able to shop there, so my friends would take me. I could’ve gotten lost in there.”
- Prof JS

It’s true that this professor is a little old fashioned and given to exaggeration. But still, it was so interesting to hear this perspective. To me, Costco is a place that you shop if you’re low- to middle-class and trying to save money by buying in bulk. Rich people would never shop at Costco. But apparently, having the ability to invest in a whole year’s supply of anything implies that you have enough extra money to be able to make that investment. In contrast, poorer people who have to live more day to day cannot reap the benefits of wholesale prices because they have to buy things in single serving sizes. Both here and in Mumbai, there are a lot of small packaged products, like shampoo and coffee and 10 cent sacks of flour and butter. When Rebecca and I went to buy a wheel of laughing cow cheese (8 wedges of cheese, each costing 20 cents) at one of the shops on campus, they didn’t know how much to charge us – apparently no one here buys cheese by the wheel! It’s crazy how you need to have a certain amount of money to be able to save money. Even in America, things like banking and groceries are more expensive in poor areas. …

“Market women have good logic. Charge the rich a lot and give discounts to the poor. In the US, they charge you all the same, rich and poor.”
Prof JS

I would have always thought that I was a big supporter of Robin Hood – but when you’re on the other side of the redistribution it suddenly doesn’t feel that heroic or noble anymore. But this attitude has helped me be less frustrated by ‘oburoni prices.’

“They incorrectly charged me a $50 fine and I’m still waiting to be reimbursed. You can take it all because I know that you are suffering under this sub-prime thing.”
Prof JS

This reminds me of a scene from an incredible play about Nigeria – the white playwright talks about being approached by a man asking for money while he was sitting down with a nigerian associate. The playwright said “No, I don’t’ have any money to give you.” Then the beggar turned to the Nigerian who gave him some money. The beggar turned to the white playwright, gave him the change, and said, “Here you go, now you have money.”

The dynamics of who has the power to give and who receives are so interesting… I’m coming to believe less and less in money aid. What does it do to a national psyche to always receive hand outs from “First World” countries, and grow up knowing that you are poor and “Third World”?

“I was staying in L.A. in an apartment the university arranged for me. There was a contraception above the door with a hole in it, and remember being angry that they had installed a camera to watch me. I stood on a chair and taped a piece of paper over it so that they wouldn’t be able to see me anymore. Then, one day, a friend came to visit. Shocked, he asked “Kwesi, why did you do this? If there’s a fire, this smoke detector won’t work!”

It’s nice to know that cultural misunderstanding go both ways – I’ve definitely grown a lot more humble after living in somewhere not familiar to me. But as hilarious as this story is – it’s kind of crazy that this professor thought someone would videotape him in his own apartment – and even crazier that he didn’t get more outraged about it if that’s what he really thought was going on.

The US embassy felt like home. It felt efficient and fast and clean and organized and I knew exactly how to behave and what to expect. I walked past benches full on Ghanaians, who I guessed were applying for visas. This whole experience has made me realize how deeply American I am. I used to want to live and work abroad, but I’m thinking more and more that I will be happier and more effective if I stay in the US. One of my friends here put it well:

There are so many people who don’t have the opportunity to put on a suit and gain access to powerful positions in America. But you do. Are you just going to throw that opportunity away?

I still admire all of the people who do work ‘on the ground’ – (what would Prof. Hart say about that language? Doesn’t everyone work ‘on the ground,’ and why are some places considered local while others are constructed as global?) but I think that’s it’s not for me.

Just that realization alone would have made this whole trip worthwhile.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Letter to Aniket


It’s hard to imagine that you’re at school and doing the ivy league thing while we’re roughing it in the back of tro tros and eating egg sandwiches and paw paw and, of course, still drinking those good old Stars.

I can’t believe that it’s been almost two months since you left -- we still comment when we pass your old hotel room or that smoothie place, and keep mentally jotting down election-related news and conversations for you. Speaking of, here’s a summary:

Basically, no one knows what will happen still, but everyone’s personal predictions are pretty interesting. Here are some of the extremes:
- We celebrated Eid ul-Fitr, the end of Ramadan, in Nima, a mainly Muslim urban slum community in Accra. After the main procession of chiefs and dancers passed, a throng of NDC supporters filled the street, decked out in red and green and white and sporting their umbrella-like logos.

[for everyone else, here's a summary of Ghanaian politics right now. The presidential elections are being held on December 7th, and there are two main parties competing for power. The first is the NPP, New Patriotic Party. They're the incumbent party and were the first democratially elected party to peacefully gain power in 2000. Since then, there's only been one other democratic election, in 2004, so this year is pretty historic. The other party, the NDC, or National Democratic Congress, began as a military party under the leadership of J. Rawlings. They were the party in control before the NPP was voted in. ]

Then one of the Parliamentary candidates and Vice Presidential candidate Alhaji Aliu Mahama drove by, waving at the impassioned crowds. It was the first time I’ve felt the power of a crowd like this… more than just being a political rally, this group of people were unified by another common identity – their religion. Maybe because of the stories I’ve heard about religion and politics from Mumbai, or for whatever other reason, I felt that there was a lot of latent power in this group because they were united by more than just politics. Or, politics had become about and a part of a larger identity. Which, I guess, can be true everywhere. It was just so tangible in this moment.
- Over dinner that night with my friend, we slipped into a conversation about the election. He said “if the NDC doesn’t win, then the NPP will have used tricks and there will be a civil war.” We asked him more about it, but he was adamant that the NPP couldn’t win legitimately (the registrar of voters is NPP, he claimed). He was equally confident in the succession of events, repeating that if the NPP won, there would be civil war. Just one perspective, but I do respect this man a lot, so it was interesting to hear this position from him.
- Another night, becks and I got a taxi ride home and had the back and forth Obama-McCain, Akufo-Addo Mills conversation. He said he was definitely for the NPP, and when we asked why, his answer was also suprising. “Because the NDC killed my family. I will never vote for them and they will never be good. They killed my uncle.”
- Last night, the boy our roommate has been talking to was chatting politics, and his opinion is that neither government is good, so he’s trying to make his vote strategic. He’s considering voting for the CPP (Convention People’s Party) and when I asked him why, wasn’t that like voting against the NPP (which he really doesn’t want) he responded “Yes, maybe. But I want to contribute to building up the CPP for future elections.”
- We have a friend who was coordinating a walk for peaceful elections event, and who helped make “Survive Elections 08” shirts. What a different frame of reference – in the US our shirts are about how ‘cool’ it is to vote, and here at least a few people are worried about making it through them as a peaceful country.
- On the radio today, I heard an announcement about the voter registration verification program that is going to help in the first week of October at all police stations. The announcer said that it was set up in an effort to correct the voter registration inaccuracies from August’s registration, and encouraged everyone to confirm that their name and photo were there correctly. Also, he warned that all minors and illegible voters could use this a grace period to cross their names off and avoid facing fines and punishment later. Finally, he instructed all families to remove their dead relatives from the registry.

Anyway, let us know if you have any specific on the ground questions about how things are going.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

To all my family, friends, and anyone interested

I am beginning a photography project in Ghana!

There are so many reasons why photographs can be important: sometimes they can communicate stories, even across language and cultural barriers; sometimes they can be used to express daily realities, both hard and beautiful; sometimes they are valuable simply because they provide a record of a loved one that otherwise would not exist.

This is the idea:

Give students from an impoverished area access to cameras and basic photography skills, and challenge them to see and create and record their life and experiences. Take the time to get to know these students, to hear their stories and learn about there passions and dreams and what’s important to them. Create a venue for them to share their images and stories with people in their community, and people around the world.

Often, the images that we see in America that supposedly represent ‘Africa’ are either exotic or shocking. So it’s important for us to see images that come from one specific community in one specific city in one specific region in one specific country in Africa – images that have been taken by the very kids who are so often photographed themselves.

As much as the students that we work with stand to gain in terms of fun, experience and expression, we have to learn from them in terms of opening our eyes and breaking down our stereotypes.

These are the numbers:
2 teachers
4 cameras
8 students
10 weeks
5 rolls of film each
3 exhibitions (Ghana, California and North Carolina)
350 dollars to make it happen

The past few days have been busy with set up and planning work – I’ve visited the school I’m going to work in, met some of the kids, researched all the costs, baked cookies and sold them door to door on campus, and met up with a fellow student who’s just as excited as I am about this project.

We start on October 8th. But we need to raise at least $200 more.
If you’re interested and want to help, here’s what you can do:

1.Make a donation to our project through PayPal to
2.Mail a check to my family in California, who will credit my account (email me at for my address)
3.Keep checking this blog for more updates on the project.
4.Tell people!

Thanks for reading this,

with peace,