Monday, November 19, 2007

The law, the government, and the media: Being gay in Ghana today

As the warmer months across West Africa’s Gulf of Guinea draw to a close, Derek soaks up Ghana’s final sunnier days before the rainy season and gears up for the new classes in computer programming he plans to take in the upcoming academic year. For the 21-year old, the summer holidays have been a time for introspection and reflection about the present and future.

“My main goal for the future is to marry and have two kids. Not too many kids, because then they just cry and annoy you,” Derek muses. However, while Derek’s yearning for fatherhood and a happy marriage are common enough—in West Africa and everywhere—in Derek’s case, these possibilities remain elusive and troubling.

He finally voices the question that is bothering him. “And how do you expect me to marry a man and have kids?” he asks. “You have to be crazy to think that. It just can’t be.”

Derek is one of Ghana’s two million gays and lesbians, a cohort that comprises roughly ten percent of the nation’s population. And for the many Ghanaians who identify as queer, Derek’s concerns about bridging the gap between his own sexuality and societal expectations are not at all unfamiliar.

In this country where being gay is one of Ghana’s unspoken taboos, adverse views toward gays and lesbians are not uncommon among the general public, and this widespread homophobia is only solidified by legal statutes that criminalize homosexuality.

British common law, first introduced into Ghana’s legal code while the country was still a colony of the British, is used to arrest and prosecute gays and lesbians even today. While same-sex relations are not explicitly illegal in Ghana, section 104 of the criminal code of 1960 criminalizes “unnatural carnal knowledge.” The clause was last amended in 2003, and for queer Ghanaians, section 104 often holds precedence over the freedoms of association and expression guaranteed by the constitution.

In 2003, the government used the clause to charge and sentence four Ghanaian men for homosexual behavior. The Daily Graphic, Ghana’s state-sponsored newspaper, ran a front-page spread with headshots of the four men, who were eventually found guilty by a district magistrate court of “unnatural carnal knowledge” and sentenced to two-year jail sentences each.

More recently, in September of last year, former Minister of Information Kwamena Bartels cited the same clause in a statement condemning homosexuality.

“The government does not and shall not condone any such activity which violently offends the culture, morality and heritage of the entire people of Ghana,” the statement read.

Bartels’s office issued the statement in response to rumors of an international gay rights conference allegedly scheduled to take place later that month at the Accra International Conference Centre.

However, the gay and lesbian community in Ghana denies that such a conference was ever scheduled to take place. Prince MacDonald, founder or the Gay and Lesbian Association of Ghana (GALAG), said that the government released the statement without verifying the rumors.

“If there was an international conference scheduled, they should have checked to see if somebody had booked the place,” he said.

While the state plays a central role in the criminalization of gays and lesbians, the government’s treatment of the issue is for the most part a reaction to popular views on homosexuality, explained Abraham Akrong, a senior researcher at the Institute of Africa Studies at the University of Ghana and an associate pastor at the Ghana Police Church.

“The government said no, for completely political reasons,” he said. “Because when the government says yes, the thinking is, ‘How can you subject society to what is unnatural, to catastrophe?’ Even if the politicians feel it’s nothing.”

MacDonald said that several national media houses spawned the rumors surrounding the conference and then presented negative coverage of the incident.

“The media pushed the government to make the statement, which just shows you how empty the government is,” he said. “Ghana’s media, most of it is not objective. Even if we paid millions of cedis [the Ghanaian currency], we would still have got the same coverage because of their biased mindset and religious perspectives.”

In the month following both the 2003 arrests and the 2006 statement, a deluge of anti-gay sentiment flooded the country’s national papers and airwaves.

“Most of them were horrible,” MacDonald recalled of the news coverage written and aired in response to the incidents.

The view that homosexuality is a foreign or imported lifestyle is widespread in Ghana, and many Ghanaians perceive same sex relationships as un-African, a phenomenon of the Western world.

“The media would never publish a story about two consenting adults, but then they would publish something about a white person sodomizing a Ghanaian,” McDonald added.

The Daily Graphic ran an editorial the day following the 2003 arrests claiming that “all the reported cases of homosexuality have some foreign interest.” The editorial also underscored the need “to insulate our rich cultural practices from the incursions of the destructive effects of the West.”

“It is imperative,” the editorial continued, “that we take bold steps to protect our young ones from falling into the debased form of sexual practices that offend the sensibilities of the African and the Ghanaian in particular.”

Yaw Boadu-Ayeboafu, editor of the Daily Graphic, said that Ghana’s legal code and popular views on homosexuality compelled the paper to publish the editorial.

“It’s criminal here to be a gay or to be a lesbian. Whatever is criminal here can’t be presented in a positive manner,” he asserted.

“You can talk about some issues that are controversial, but it’s been very unanimous in terms of the gay issue,” he continued. “No one wanted to assault anyone, but no one can positively portray something criminal. The gay rights issue is a simple issue. It’s a question of illegality.”

“You only need to talk to the average person and see their reaction,” Ayeboafoh added. “You should have seen the letters people wrote in about the piece [on the September 2006 conference]. They were enraged.”

Although public discussion of same sex relationships remains largely nonexistent, when the issue does arise, many Ghanaians express views positioning homosexuality as a lifestyle both alien and disruptive to traditional culture and belief systems.

“I do have some gay friends, but they are all foreign,” asserts Anthony, a vendor who sells jewelry and curios to the tourists who visit Elmina’s beachside resorts. “From the US, Holland. I have one from Switzerland, and I have one from England and we could never agree.”

While Akrong disagrees with the view that homosexuality is foreign to Ghana or West Africa more generally, he acknowledges that the visibility of the gay rights movement is a recent development.

“[Homosexuality] has been here before colonialism, but it’s so suppressed that it’s difficult to own it,” he said. “The reality is that there may be many gays in Ghana, but its prominence is what is foreign. The fact that we discuss it at all is very recent.”

MacDonald calls into the question the very premise used to relegate homosexuality to a sphere of otherness—the distinction between African and foreign.

“The notion that this is not African, that it’s a foreign thing, it’s a big lie. There are so many things that are foreign, like the chairs and the tables we are sitting at now. The shirts and the clothes that we wear now are not African when we first started using them. But we use them now anyway, so that is why we have to ask, ‘What is African and what is not? What makes something foreign and what makes it Ghanaian?’ That needs to be clarified.”

“The issue truly is that most of us in Ghana never met anyone—I never met anyone from the US or the UK—before I knew I liked other men,” MacDonald recalled. “To me this is an insult, to tell me I don’t know what I want as an African. But even when I was in my village, I knew I was gay. I just didn’t have a word for it.”

© 2007 Rhema Hokama

Unequal rights, unequal access: Police brutality and medical discrimination

By day, George trawls online chat rooms and dating sites, brainstorming new ways to contact and perhaps meet up with gay men in Ghana’s capital city of Accra. At night, he frequents the city’s underground gay hangouts, visiting the beaches and nightclubs popular with Ghana’s gay community.

But he isn’t merely looking for a good time. As an HIV/AIDS educator working with the Canadian-funded West Africa AIDS Foundation (WAAF), George is on a mission to reach out to those most vulnerable to the virus: Ghana’s roughly two million gays and lesbians.

With over 80 percent of Ghanaians having regular access to the internet, George has found online networking a discreet means of organizing meeting places for Accra’s gay population, where he distributes condoms and lubricant and talks with men who have sex with men (MSM) about safer sex practices and their medical options.

In a country where anti-gay sentiment is pervasive among the general public and homosexuality is a criminal offense according to the books, many queer Ghanaians find it difficult—or downright dangerous—to access medical services or seek treatment for HIV/AIDS.

“Most gay people in Ghana don’t even like approaching hospitals or even laboratories for testing,” George said of the widespread discrimination against the gay community by medical service organizations.

“Sometimes I educate them just to be like straight, when you go in for the AIDS test. I let them know that they can pretend they are straight and then at least they can go and get the test done.”

The non-discriminatory policies of the WAAF are unique in a country where other larger organizations like the Christian Council of Ghana routinely deny their HIV/AIDS services to gays and lesbians.

Joyce Larko Steiner, senior programmes officer for the Council, designs and implements a range of HIV/AIDS prevention and sex education programs for various target populations. However, the Council does not offer its services to gays and lesbians.

“We as a Council don’t have any program for them,” she said.

“We have mandates, and whatever we do will fall in our mandates. So if we have programs [for gays and lesbians], we are saying they are right. It is against our culture and I don’t see how the Church will accept it. Culturally, it is not right for us,” she added.

The WAAF works to meet the needs of gays and lesbians by offering services other organizations deny them because of their sexual orientation. In the past, the WAAF established a safe space for MSM to meet and talk though the challenges faced by Ghana’s gay community and learn about the services available through NGOs like WAAF, which offers counseling and testing difficult to receive elsewhere. At the program’s height, about thirty to forty MSM attended meetings, George recalls.

However, lack of interest and funding forced WAAF to dismantle the program three years ago. Yet despite the program’s initial flop, George hopes to get a similar program up and running within the next few months, and is currently networking through the internet to raise awareness and interest in the new club. He estimates that eighty percent of Ghana’s gay population uses the internet for networking and hookups, and said that responding to online personal ads is the most effective and anonymous means of connecting with the city’s gay community. Currently George is corresponding with over 200 gay men online and through phone conversations.

But even if George manages to raise interest in the MSM club, lack of funding threatens to stymie this second attempt at bringing together Ghana’s gay men.

“Right now we don’t have any funding from any organization. It’s not legalized here so the Ghana AIDS Commission won’t pay. So we are trying to get funding from outside and maybe we can get transportation costs together,” he said.

Prince MacDonald, president and founder of the Gay and Lesbian Association of Ghana (GALAG), also said that in the past, the state-run Ghana AIDS Commission has responded negatively toward requests by the gay community for services and funding.

“They have never helped. They just make comments that don’t explain what’s really happening,” MacDonald said.

According to the Ghana AIDS Commission, of those people living with HIV/AIDS in Ghana, 80 percent were infected through heterosexual sex, another 15 percent from their HIV-positive mothers through childbirth, and the final five percent from contact with blood or injecting drug use (IDU). But because of the illegality of homosexuality in this country, the Commission does not keep tabs on the percentage of the gay population infected or at risk for HIV/AIDS.

“Oh yes. It fits in. It factors in,” said Eric Pwadura, the Commission’s communications officer, of the infections incurred through homosexual sex, despite the silence of the statistics on the risks for gays and lesbians. “But our culture frowns on it, so we don’t really have these kinds of figures. We don’t have figures on MSM.”

Pwadura said that the Commission does not currently have a program or even a study underway to address the needs of Ghana’s gay population, and attributed this to the national lack of interest queer issues.

“As a commission, we run a national response. We call for proposals, we evaluate these proposals, and we provide funding for them,” he said.

“We coordinate the national response. If we have a proposal [for MSM outreach], we will deal with it. We will be ready. But because the movement is underground, we haven’t had anything, not that I know of so far. If we have to deal with in the future, we will deal with it.”

Director Eddie Donton of the WAAF said that collecting numbers on MSM living with HIV/AIDS is difficult for the additional reason that most gay men themselves do not wish to reveal their sexual orientation or lifestyles.

“They come in for treatment and services and we don’t know their history,” Donton said.

“It’s difficult to discuss the issue openly, which is why we can’t quantify anything for you. Right now we’re not interested in the numbers as much as we are in making sure they are receiving treatment,” he added.

Help from abroad and from home

The national government and local human rights organizations have given scant attention and even outright resisted spearheading HIV/AIDS prevention programs targeting Ghana’s gay and lesbian community, despite the group’s particularly high risk for contacting the virus. MacDonald’s organization, the Gay and Lesbian Association of Ghana, receives most of its funding from organizations abroad.

“Most human rights organizations in Ghana don’t believe gay and lesbian rights is an issue. There is cultural silence on the issue,” he said.

MacDonald also said that several organizations that have offices within Ghana collaborate with GALAG, but nevertheless remain hesitant to associate themselves publicly with gay issues for fear that they will lose their political and financial backing. Lack of finances, coupled with the already hostile environment in which Ghana’s gays and lesbians live and work, make the challenges faced GALAG and advocates like George that much more difficult.

“Locally there isn’t much support. But internationally, I feel we can build more friendships, do more talking and become more visible,” MacDonald added, and said that international community offered the best prospective for enhancing capacities within Ghana’s gay community.

While MacDonald speaks favorably of the possibility of accruing funding and logistical support from abroad, so far international organizations like UNAIDS, the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS, have remained largely silent on the issue.

Lord Dartey, social mobilization adviser for the UNAIDS office in Ghana, explained that the UN is unable to move forward to address the HIV/AIDS threat to the country’s gay population because of the reticence surrounding the topic.

"Now MSM is a little sensitive in this country, so you have to be careful when you discuss the issue," he said. "We have to support the country in whatever they want to do. IDU [injection drug use] and MSM are not being proactively looked at."

However, Dartey said he expected that the Ghana AIDS Commission would integrate programs targeting the country's gay population within the upcoming years, but could not provide a date by which these programs would be launched. He said that the Commission had attempted to study the risks of HIV/AIDS for MSM in the past, but the lack of interest suspended the process. The Commission has tentative plans to seek out researchers for the study a second time.

"[The Commission] advertised the study, but the response was not good. But there are plans to re-advertise, so I expect [MSM] to become a part of the national response," Dartey said.

Although it is unclear whether, when and where activists like MacDonald and George will acquire support in the years to come, segments of Ghana’s gay community have nevertheless been able make progress even without aid from the national government or the UN.

The Centre for Popular Education and Human Rights Ghana (CEPEHRG) is an Accra-based organization that distributes condoms and lubricant, and provides information and counseling for both gay and straight people. CEPEHRG director Mac-Darling Cobbinah said that a recent grant of $30,000 issued by the Astraea Lesbian Foundation for Justice, a New York City-based organization which raises and distributes funds to LGBTQ organizations in the US and elsewhere, has helped his organization build its existing capacities and extend the services it offers for Ghana’s queer community.

“[The grant] is being used to educate young people to accept and tolerate people with differences—honor diversity, as we should say,” Cobbinah said. “It's also strengthened existing [queer support] groups in Ghana. We distribute condoms, lubricant in regions throughout Ghana. [Astraea] paid for the office space and we created a safe space for people to meet and talk about these issues."

“We held discussion to improve these facilities and got people involved in advocacy and new policies to improve services [targeting the gay community]. We got information to people to get access to services. You can go to the service center and demand your rights to be treated," he said.

A portion of the grant money also enabled CEPEHRG to establish a support group for marginalized and lesbian women called Sisters of the Heart, which has helped to increase the visibility of lesbian and bisexual women within Ghana’s queer community.

Although Ghana’s gay community is generally ignored, the needs of lesbian and bisexual women are particularly overlooked. The silence on issues pertaining to lesbian sexual health stems in part from the social pressure on Ghanaian women in general to remain in the home. Lesbian and bisexual women must often deal with the additional stigma attached to a lifestyle many Ghanaians consider unconventional.

Donton, of the West Africa AIDS Foundation, said that most of the sexual minorities who come in for services are MSM, and that very few queer women seek out treatment and counseling.

“The lesbians don’t come out as much as the gays,” he said. “But they are around and I see them sometimes. There’s such a huge stigma to it. If you think about the stigma attached to MSM, you can only imagine the stigma over lesbianism.”

But for peer-educators like George, the stigma both lesbians and gays face is no deterrent from the work he knows must be done. Braving the challenges and risks that come with his job description, he continues to visit Accra’s beaches and gay-friendly meeting spots to network and distribute condoms.

George usually organizes informal meetings through online venues beforehand, and then brings condoms and lubricants to the men when they meet face-to-face. The net provides anonymity for those seeking the services and information George offers, and also weeds out those that are only passing as gay.

“No, you can’t do it that way,” George laughs, explaining why he does not indiscriminately distribute condoms without planning a meeting spot ahead of time. “Or a lot of straights will just come and grab them too.”

There is always the risk of imposters posing as gay men who network within the gay community only to take advantage of the law by blackmailing unsuspecting men who agree to meet up in person. But George says the benefits of his work far outweigh those risks.

And while many of the men George contacts online choose not to meet in person for further support and counseling, fearing backlash from family and friends, there are always a few that do attend the meetings.

“Before we hook up, I know a lot of them won’t even show up to the meetings,” George reflects. “But the ones that do, you see from their eyes and the way they dress and act that they’re real. That’s how you tell.”

Gay in Ghana today and tomorrow

Efforts to raise awareness of gay issues in Ghana, spearheaded by organizations like GALAG and CEPEHRG and individuals like George, have propelled the gay rights movement into the limelight in recent years. But despite the attention the media, government, and public interest have channeled toward the issue, and the subsequent successes in health care and education following the coverage of the alleged conference last year, the fight for acceptance of same-sex loving people in Ghana is far from over.

While ultimate success of the movement will depend largely on the willingness of international queer and human rights organizations to offer infrastructural and financial assistance, local efforts will equally determine the future of Ghana’s gay rights movement. The gay community needs a responsive support base within Ghana to act in collaboration with the international queer community, said MacDonald.

“If everyone decides to remain underground and not reach out, and if there are only a few people making noise, when those people get tired, there’ll be no one to sing the songs, no one to dance the dance,” he said. “They’ll be no one left to fight for gay and lesbian rights.”

Abraham Akrong, a senior researcher at the University of Ghana’s Institute of Africa Studies, predicts that the process of secularization will eventually create a niche for gays and lesbians within Ghanaian society.

“This is my own speculation, that the level of secularization will help to give space to homosexuals in society,” Akrong postulates. “Homosexuality will just be seen as another sexuality. But to predict the future for gays and lesbians will be tough, it’s difficult to say right now. Our changes come in bits and pieces.”

“Homosexuality is a human phenomenon. The issue is whether society will give them space to express themselves. And in our case, we are not yet there.”

“It all comes down to education,” observes Derek, a gay man from Teshie in western Accra. “People hate gays because they just don’t have the education to know we’re okay. Or even if they do have education, the knowledge just isn’t there yet. In the future that’s going to change.”

For MacDonald, speaking both as a gay activist and a gay man, his goal for the Ghana’s human rights movement is a simple one: to gain the right for queer Ghanaians to be themselves.

“What I most hope for the future? The freedom to express ourselves, the freedom to associate, and the freedom to do what makes us us, to not have to dance to someone else’s tune rather than our own,” he reflects.

“We just want the freedom to remain who we are.”

© 2007 Rhema Hokama

Sunday, August 26, 2007

NYTimes poll of 10 sub-Saharan countries

Check it out here. Ghana's included.

The areas of concern perceived with most negativity surprise me. Also surprising, the relatively positive views toward the national leaders, government, and media. Interesting.

Friday, August 10, 2007

blahblahblah, praisethelord? hallelujahamen.

Last Sunday I went with Kojo and his family to church. The particular congregation I visited is a pentecostal charismatic church called the Jesus Generation Sancutuary Church in Accra, and my experiences there were... loooong. The Sunday service runs from 8 am to 1 pm. All you fellow English majors out there, you did indeed do the math correctly. Yeah, that's five hours. Luckily for me, we showed up an hour late and left an hour early, so I was only there for a brief total of three hours.

Most of the service was in Twi, and even the scriptural readings were in Twi translation. However, every phrase ended with a Praise the Lord? Literally every two seconds I was guarenteed at least that much English. But what I did pick out was something about marriage and the dangers of modernity and women's rights and the devil as an evil deceiver. Somehow I'm sure all those topics were related. Kojo later told me that a portion of the message was about making up with your parents if you have any disputes with them, and that it was too bad that part was in Twi. Yeah, I guess God didn't care about me enough to zap a translation of that in English on the wall or something. Oh well.

Before I got there, I was expecting a congregation of maybe 50 members. Turns out the place was packed with at least 350 people. I spoke with one of the pastors afterwards who told me that they church is one of Accra's biggest, with three services each week and a total of 1,000 members. There are also branches in other cities in Ghana, and even a sister church in Poland. Or was it Holland?

I thought the service would be a lot more charismatic than it was. Everything was really tame and Western. Sort of like a New Hope, based in Honolulu, for those of you who know the church. There were even ushers in the aisle and greeters at the door. Different gospel choir groups sang and each group had elaborate costumes for each performance. However, the talent level was... not so high. Or maybe the sound system equipment just sucked horribly. The singers were very, um, enthusiastic, though. I'll have to admit that at least.

There were two collections. One at the beginning of the service and one toward the end. Rather than passing a basket through the pews, however, everyone marches up in rows to the front and deposits their cedis. Talk about pressure! Every single person got up and went to the front, but I noticed that most of the people didn't actually drop anything into the collection basket. They make fists and walk up and pretend to put something in. But nevertheless, I'm sure the church manages to make enough anyway, judging from the several Mercedes-Benz parked in the VIP stalls just outside the main doors.

The service facilities were anything but ritzy, though. Everything took place in a makeshift warehouse. The services are divided into different groups, one for little kids, one for youths under the age of 17, and finally the adult service. Overall, I'm glad I went. But I don't think I would do it again if I had the choice, unless I somehow acquire the desire to halt time completely. It was the longest Sunday of my life.

Check out some church photos and other random shots here.

Thursday, August 9, 2007

Accra: the final days

Since I've returned from Togo, I've done nothing really worthy of a blog entry. I did go gay clubbing alone for the third time, which didn't actually lead to any clubbing. I did, however, hit the jackpot this time and I was able to hook up with a bunch of interesting gay guys and ended up hanging out with them the next day. I only wish I had met them earlier because I don't have time to actually go clubbing this weekend.

Although I haven't done anything specific, I've definitely been learning volumes about myself these past few days. The first five weeks of this trip I spent exploring the world around me, researching and reporting Ghana. The last week, I've been looking inward, reading myself. I will sorely miss this place when I leave, and the people I've met. Strangely, Ghana has been more of a home to me during the six weeks I've been here than Hawaii and Chicago have been during the past two decades of my life. I really can't grasp the forever quality about my leaving, because what's the probability of me ever returning to this beautiful country?

This week I've gone to the National Museum in Adabraka and went back to the cultural center today. Meh. Touristy. I think I would have liked those kinds of outings earlier in my stay, but after doing the things I've done those popular obruni destinations just feel so dry and unreal.

Well, I don't have much to say that's blog-worthy, although I do have a LOT to ramble on about if your're either Jennifer or Rhemashel's journal. I just wanted to let you know that I'm still alive, although I might drop dead any second now from poisoning or whatnot. I woke up today with a huge cyst-like pus blob over my eyebrow piercing and I don't have the resources to clean and lance it. Oh well. I actually get really worried when I think about it, but as Eriiiico said awhile back, This is Africa. Germs won't be there if you believe hard enough.

This Saturday I'm going to spend my last day in Ghana at an annual Ga festival called Homowo. I have no idea what it's for, but it involves sprinkling this thing called kpeplele. I don't know what kpeplele is, I had a hard enough time getting the spelling of it. But I'll find out this weekend, and I'll blog on it when I arrive in NYC.

Ciao for now and wish my eyebrow lots of luck.

Sunday, August 5, 2007

Lomé, Togo

Check out my photos from Lomé here. And photos of the fetish market here.

Hi. I'm back from Togo earlier than I expected. Rollo, Sarah C, and Sarah L decided to head north to Burkina Faso the day after we arrived so I came back to Accra. Although I only spent a little over 24 hours in Lomé, my stay in Togo was INTENSE.

The bus ride to Lomé from Accra was three hours long, and crossing the border was fairly easy. No bribery, no interrogation, just a visa processing fee of 30 Ghana cedis (like $US 35). Stepping across the border is like entering into an entirely different universe. It's hard to pinpoint the exact characteristics that make Togo so different from Ghana, but upon first arriving in Lomé the differences are immediately apparent. Lomé is rougher, dirtier than Ghana. In Accra, I feel safer than I do in Chicago's South Side. But in Lomé, I walked around like how I do in Chicago, expecting to get robbed or shot any second.

Perhaps the motorbikes contribute to Togo's crazy, dangerous-like aura, and there are very few taxis around Lomé. People either drive their own motorbikes -- called motos by the Togolese -- or pay someone with a bike to take them to their destination. Riding on the back of a moto is the coolest thing on the planet, and probably one of my favorite things about Togo. I sort of wish we had them in Accra, because riding a moto is significantly cheaper than taking a cab.

The roads are mostly paved in Lomé, unlike those in Accra, so riding motos makes more sense in Togo than it would in Ghana. In general, Lomé's roadways and the layout of the city are really well put together relative to what I've seen in Accra. Togolese architecture is very colonial French, and there were quite a few spiffy-looking buildings and skyscrapers, like nothing in Accra. Even Osu, Accra's most touristy and expensive district, is pretty haphazardly laid out with a jumbo of random office spaces and store fronts compared to Lomé's center city.

Day 1 in Lomé.

The first afternoon, we ran into a Togolese dude named Nass who took us to dinner at an outdoor streetside eatery. The Ghanaians call these food establishments chop bars, and you can get really cheap traditional meals for under a dollar. We drank Togolese beer and had rice with a tomato sauce. After wandering around the city a little, Nass took us to a bar tucked away in a hidden side street. Turns out, the place was a hub for prostitutes, and we all had a chance to dance with a few of the hookers.

"Do you looooooove me," Justinia asked me, rubbing my waist.
"Uhhhhh what? Yes, I do love you," I replied.
"But do you like me."
"I do like you."

I also danced with a group of boys who looked somewhere between nine and twelve. They were the best dance partners I had during my whole stay in West Africa so far.

The dancing was abruptly interrupted, however, when a group of teenagers ran through the alley, closely followed by three Togolese police officers thrashing their whips to part the crowd. The Togolese people didn't mind for more than thirty seconds and quickly resumed their dancing, and several explained that those kinds of incidents happen all the time because the Togolese police were so corrupt and underpaid.

The dancing continued, and there were no mroe interruptions save for the occassional moto that passed through that side street.

Crazy hos and dancing children and police raids and Togolese gin shots... That random alley was seriously amazing.

After that we went home and watched crazy French movies on the hotel TV set. It was only 10:30 pm, but we were beat.

Day 2 in Lomé.

During the morning of our second day in Lomé, Rollo, Nass, and I went to the Grand Marché, Lomé's central market. It wasn't really anything remarkable either in terms of the layout or the products that were being sold. Nothing really authentic or Togolese, only a bunch of fake Louis Vuitton and Prada and stuff like that. Another difference between Togo and Ghana: in Togo, the vendors don't run up to you and rub their wares in your face. The whole market experience was much calmer, and I'm not sure whether that has to do with Togo's longer history of contact with Westerners or whether Togo just doesn't have set methods for dealing with tourists simly because there are so few of them.

On our way to the Grand Marché, we got involved in an incident with the police. Rollo snapped a photo of a building, which turned out to be some kind of government facility. The soldier on duty started raving in French and refused to explain anything in English. We knew he was upset about the photo, but we didn't know what to do about it after the fact. A whole bunch of civilians standing around subsequently got involved in the shouting match en francais, and claimed to be cops. Sure. They all just wanted to milk the situation and get some CFAs (the Togolese currency, pronounced see-fuhs) out of it. Creepily, one of the plain clothes "cops" followed us for at least a mile after we finally got away from that site. He eventually went away, though. It's weird how all those bystanders made the situation worse for us. In Ghana, every passerby would have attempted to defend the unsuspecting obruni (yovo in Togo's Ewe dialect), but the Togolese are so different.

In the afternoon, we met up with the Sarahs at the Marché de Feticheurs, Lomé's notorious voodoo fetish market. Basically the weirdest, creepiest, most illegal thing I've ever seen. The place consisted of tables with rows and rows of assorted animal skulls, some even with the screaming faces of the animal still in tact. Monkey heads, crocodile heads, horse heads, dog heads, hyena heads, leopard heads, horse tails, dried bats and dried chamelions, and bird parts of all sorts. There was even a whole elephant foot used to cure elephantitus. The people running the fetish market are originally from Benin, a West African country situated on Togo's right border (Togo is immediately right of Ghana). Benin, as our guide explained, has the largest voodoo following in all of Africa.

The tour ended with a phoney voodoo ceremony. The guide introduced us to the son of some bogus chief, who took us into a back room and did some chants and explained the six fetishes to us: the traveler's fetish AKA the telephone fetish (because you whisper into the $24 piece of wood and tell it to keep you safe before embarking on your travels...), the fetish of good memory which consisted of an ebony seed, the love festish aka the tell-me-yes fetish, the grigri charm which wards off bad spirits, the family fetish, and the home fetish. There was also a twig called kpedo that was supposed to be the voodoo equivalent of Viagra.

At the end of the ceremony, the guide told us that all of the fetishes were for sale. Rollo asked about the price, but we were told that they do not sell anything. Only the cowries will tell. Bull. Shit. I didn't buy anything, and they insisted that I would have bad luck because of it. And maybe they were right, because right after I refused to buy their trinkets for exorbitant prices, the roll of toilet paper I always carry with me in West Africa somehow got out of my bag and completely unrolled itself and I had to go around the market gathering it back up. Hmmmmm... maybe voodoo isn't so much bullshit after all.

That evening, Rollo and the Sarahs took a bus up to Burkina Faso. I didn't have enough money so I decided to go back to Accra. Crossing the border wasn't a hassle at all, but the ride back from Lome to Accra was exhausting. It took me 7 hours to get back into the city, and every twenty minutes we had to stop for either a police or customs check point. Literally, there were about 20 or so stops during the entire trip. I'm not sure whether it was like that because it was after dark when I traveling back, or whether it's just a lot harder going from Togo into Ghana than it is vice versa.

Overall, I'm really glad I went to Togo, even if it was only for a day. But I'm glad to be back in Accra.

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

roadtrip to Togo

The NYU journalism program officially ended this past Sunday, but I've been sneaking back in the dorms for the occasional hot shower and the wireless internet access. Today I had my last run around Osu/Labone for who knows how many days, showered, and ate a salad. Yeah, I'm spoiled, but I figured I'd pamper myself a little before I head to Ghana's eastern border tomorrow with several people from the journalism program who decided to stay longer. We're planning on crossing the border and heading into Lomé, Togo's capital city with a population of roughly 700,000. For comparison, the population of Accra is just short of two million. I know practically nothing about Togo, but I'll blog more about it if stumble across a wireless access point within the next few days. We plan to get there via tro tro, about a three hour trip from Accra, and deal with the visa paperwork and bribery once we get to the border.

We left the NYU dorms Monday evening, and headed over to the Rising Phoenix at Akuma Village, a crazy and wonderful beachfront hotel owned by a rastafarian named Papa Jah. Located along the coast of James Town, overlooking the rocky cliffs and ocean, the place is great for meeting backpackers, and we've run into Colombians, Parisians, Canadians, and Dutch travelers during the two days we've been there. The view is fabulous in the evenings, and early in the morning the coast is dotted with traditional fishing vessels, slivers of brown and gray suspended between those panes of blue sea and blue sky.

I'm probably going to go back to Papa Jah's place after I get back from Togo, although the lack of running water and electricity is sort of a bummer. Plus it's expensive, for me. $15 a day, and I'm poor as hell. The place is like a rasta community, and everyone there wears dreadlocks and and invites us to join them on their ganga-induced meditation trips. The Rising Phoenix is also right next door to the cultural center, which I've been to once before during the first week of my stay in Ghana, but I was so tired and disoriented I didn't really pay attention to the art and the shops. I plan to go back again sometime, though, to buy Trinity a better hat because the old one is just a cheap boring imported one.

Last night I went down the street from the Rising Phoenix to the Osekan Resort, a restaurant overlooking the ocean. I've been there once before, and I think it's one of my favorite places here in Accra. The menu is pretty limited for vegetarians, but totally authentic and traditional. I went out for dinner with a Ghanaian friend and I even got to help fan the talapia we ordered while it was on the grill. I opted for the bankum, a traditional paste made from maize, usually eaten with soups or sauces. The accompanying tomato-pepper sauce was HOT. It was like a salsa, and the woman prepared it right before us using a motar and pestle. Dad would have gobbled it up! Once again, no untensils, so we used our fingers.

I feel as if I haven't done anything since I last posted except worry about what I'll be doing within the next few days and fret about whether I should go to traveling around Ghana or stay in Accra. I guesss I still haven't decided fully yet. Stay tuned.