Saturday, September 16, 2017

Internet Challenges

Our Internet coverage here has been very challenging.  My family came over 2 months before I did and whenever we’d try a video conference call it would freeze up or I could only hear or see them for part of it. It reminded me of those scenes from Star Trek when someone hails the Enterprise while being attacked and relay a poor-quality distress message while cutting in and out and only hearing every couple words. I hate texting more than anyone else on this planet but after 10 minutes of saying “What?... you cut out again…. I can’t see you…Can you hear me?” for the bulk of our conversation, I conceded to just text many times instead.

We live on the outskirts of town and are just outside of the phone poles that could provide DSL coverage. As an alternative, we use a small mobile pocket modem with a sim card and power it with a battery pack when we travel. We had been purchasing data in small amounts at a time and load them on the modem so we could get wireless Internet coverage for a couple days. They actually sell little data cards everywhere here that you can just buy off the street and scratch off the back to reveal a code to get coverage for a while. We eventually went to Vodafone which is the local Internet company and purchased a large bundle of data instead at better rates but even with more data, the coverage is still weak and irregular so it is always hit or miss when we try to use the Internet.

My wife’s work involves consulting, coaching, and conference calls with her clients. If Facebook Messenger, Google hangouts, Zoom, Skype, or some other application does not work due to poor Internet or no signal at all then she has to call them on her phone. Her cell phone bill has been up over $500 each month since the Internet is so unreliable where we live. I also do data entry which requires me to access multiple websites and download documents. I spend most of my time each day waiting for coverage, then when I get a signal, I log on, pull up the needed websites, then start work for a few minutes until it freezes up, kicks me out, or we have a power outage. It’s kind of like playing Whack a Mole with the necessary requirements needed to work always popping up and down but never working at the same time. I was working on my computer for about 5 hours a day before I got here. Lately I’m lucky to get 5 hours a week in even though I spend double that time just trying to get online and attempting to work. As you can imagine this greatly affects my income so it has been pretty frustrating.

We have been requesting that the local Internet company install a few more poles and extend their DSL coverage a couple blocks towards us since we got here, but we are still waiting for a response. They finally sent a person to our home to access the neighborhood last week so hopefully we are making progress. I don’t know how the Roman Empire could spread half way around the world by sending written messages back and forth. Being accustomed to instant fast Internet coverage anywhere I go back home has spoiled me. 

Every so often our coverage is good enough that we can even stream YouTube videos. I almost cried with joy last week when I was able to watch some College Football highlights for several minutes without it freezing up. I am grateful for those rare windows of good Internet coverage. I'm confident we will find some ways to improve our Internet dilemma here soon. Having sporadic Internet access can be frustrating but at least it is better than when I went without any coverage whatsoever from 1968 to 1993.

Saturday, September 9, 2017

Carrying Stuff on Heads

One thing I have seen a lot of in Ghana that I never saw back home is people carrying stuff balanced on their heads. I'm aware there are many parts of the world where this is a common practice and I don't understand how they do it so effectively. 

During my first week here, we went to a busy market to buy some produce. We purchased several heavy bags of food and the merchant we bought it from insisted her teenage daughter carry it back to our van for us. She hoisted the bags up on her head into a large container you could bathe a big dog in and walked as easily as the rest of us. After I realized how heavy it was I took some of the bags out and carried them. I was just as impressed with her strength as I was her ability to balance the load while walking.

Another observation I quickly made was that so many Ghanaians have great posture. I’m not attributing it to their ability to carry stuff on their heads and don’t know if there is any correlation between the two but I have been impressed with how many people I see standing up straight with their head up and shoulders back as compared to people like me who look like Shaggy from Scooby Doo when I attempt to stand up straight.

Both men and women carry stuff on their head. I’ve seen small intricate things like piles of loose peanuts and eggs to medium sized loads of clothes, bread or cleaning supplies, to huge things like crates and lumber carried this way. 

One secret to helping them do so is taking a small cloth and wrapping into a ring shape so it will balance better and not be so hard on the top of their head. They seldom use their hands to balance the load either unless it is a very heavy load like the lady below carrying all the crates.

I’ve seen some women balancing some seriously heavy stuff I’d probably only have the neck strength to take several steps with. I’m sure some of the loads I’ve witnessed women carry on their heads are at least 50 or 60 pounds. If the Crossfit Games ever incorporate a head carry routine into one of their workouts the African region would dominate.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017


The light switch & fan control in the kitchen
I’m grateful that we have electricity here but it is not always reliable. It may go off at any time for several hours or even multiple times during the day. It’s something that people here are used to. They just shrug and say “Ghana Electric” when the power goes out. We have several solar lamps and pocket chargers that are always ready when the power goes out. 

Luckily nobody in our home is on life support so it's not a big deal, but my only concern is for the electric pump that moves water from the well to our polytank and the fridge/freezer if it is an extended power outage.

Power outages can be frustrating depending on when they happen but what I like even less are the brown out conditions when the power is greatly reduced across the grid so only about half the appliances and light switches in the house work. The lights that do work are at lower power so they are extremely dim and flicker and they remind me of a scene in a horror movie when someone is exploring a poorly lit scary building.

The voltage here is 220/240. We use multiple adapters, power strips in order to use the devices we brought with us but I still could not get our electric hair trimmer to work at this currency without sounding like it is a wood chipper and overheating. Many of the electrical outlets in our home are poorly insulated with several centimeters of space around them or wires sticking out so there is a shock hazard if you are not careful when plugging things in. None of the outlets I’ve seen are grounded either. I frequently get minor shocks all the time from touching some devices when they are plugged in. It’s not that painful but feels like sharp tingling or a pinch when it happens. We have many outlets in the main room but only one outlet in each bedroom so that affects the layout when arranging furniture and appliances in a room.

We have been living here for three months now and we have an old electric meter that has not been checked on for many years since we are on the outskirts of town. Our landlord is afraid that if and when it does get checked that the electric company will bill him for several years of service. I am concerned that he may try and stick some of that to us especially since I recently noticed that the “caretaker” of our property who lives across the street has tapped into our electricity for his house across the street. This is the same guy who starts every conversation with me by saying “I don’t want your money” and then proceeds to tell me why I should give him money. He does nothing for our property but he does scheme how to get money from us.

Anyway I recently started taking a picture of out meter each month in case we have to prove how much power we use should a dispute arise in the future. I hear it has been quite a hot summer back home and one thing I do not miss is receiving my Rocky Mountain power bill for the summer months. Maybe having inconsistent power is not as bad as getting a $600 power bill in August. I really am grateful for our electricity even with the minor inconveniences we experience.

Friday, September 1, 2017

Culture, Bartering, or Racism?

I have met many good people Ghana so far but some things about the culture can be pretty screwed up. I hope not to sound too negative with this post but I'm really fed up today with some recent events. Most of my experiences being discriminated against here have been in the financial arena. When you take a taxi a certain distance most locals pay 2 cedis (the local unit of money.) When I try to take a taxi the same distance, drivers tell me it is 10 to 20 cedis. Why do they charge me 5 to 10 times more? Is it just because of the color of my skin or is it because they know I’m from America and they think I'm rich and clueless? I don’t care which one it is. It still pisses me off.

I have always hated bartering. When I went to Mexico after high school I couldn’t stand having to play negotiating games and put so much effort into buying something simple like a can of soda pop. When we need to make almost any big purchase or repair here, we have to send Brian who is a Ghanain who lives with us to get a fair price, otherwise everything is much more expensive when they see who really needs the service. 

Yesterday I got sick of the horrible dirt roads that we have to carefully maneuver around in our neighborhood so I went out with my boys with our shovels and we worked on fixing them. After about half an hour, the “caretaker” of the home we rent who lives across the street noticed us working and asked if he could help. He has previously offered to help us with things and then comes back later presenting us with an excessive bill for his efforts. When we mentioned this to our landlord he got mad at him since he is already paying him so the other day he offered to help around our yard and assured me he didn’t want money in return so I asked if he had a wheel barrel we could use since we were carrying buckets of dirt half a block away to fill in holes in the road. He came back a few minutes later with one and helped us. After a couple hours of hard labor in the afternoon sun we had finished our street. Just then a man who identified himself as a neighbor who was building a nearby home came by and said he had some extra gravel he would put down over the dirt.

He never came back so I walked around the block to where the road is really bad and saw a pile of large rocks, broken tiles, garbage, and dirt that he was referring to. It was not gravel but there were several men working on filling in huge holes in the road in that area. I had my shovel with me so I decided to pitch in and help them fill in the road for about 45 more minutes until I got dizzy in the heat and went home.

My wife took this picture since she was excited to see people fixing the road.
As I arrived home I saw my younger kids picking up garbage off the streets with some little neighbor kids. Nobody uses garbage cans here so the streets are heavily littered. The only place I have seen a garbage can since I arrived is at the mall. We have a small dumpster and pay for a weekly garbage service but no one else even cares. We gave the little kids some ice cream for helping pick up some of the litter. I then went in feeling good that we were able to make improvements to the neighborhood.

So today I got back home from some errands and I was told that the guy who offered "gravel" for the street came by and wanted to collect money from me for the road improvements. I was shocked. It was not gravel and it was not even used on our street. Our local friend Brian told him to go collect money from everyone in the surrounding neighborhood and after they pay we’d consider it knowing it was just a bluff to try and get money from us. Why would someone try to charge me for making improvements to a neighborhood dirt road and for spending my time doing manual labor on a road on the other side of the block? Because I’m an Obroni (white man) and he lives in a culture where you try to overcharge and rip off people for anything. It is so backwards that someone would try to get money from you for volunteering your time to improve their neighborhood.

The irony about this is that if someone is caught stealing at the market, a mob will chase them down and may kill them for their crime before the police can even get there, yet the same culture allows dishonest business dealings and ripping people off. They equate it to being shrewd or having business saavy. I guess it's kind of similar to how some massive white collar crime that in the US can receive lesser punishments than violent petty crime. 

We've had many people try to take advantage of us since we've been here and some have been successful. I know this problem is not unique to Ghana and people take advantage of each other all around the world in a variety of ways, but it's a challenge for me to keep a positive, loving attitude towards people I'm trying to help when I know many of them just see me as a big money target because of the color of my skin.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Ghana Make A Difference

Shortly after arriving in Ghana, my wife informed me that she had put together a trip to take our family along with 8 local teenagers to help out at a Children’s Shelter called Ghana Make a Difference. The youth we went with are locals and have grown up living in a Liberian refugee camp in Southern Ghana. 

Ghana Make A Difference takes care of about 29 kids. The majority of them are young boys between the ages 6 and 13. It is not an orphanage but a temporary child shelter where the government will bring children who have been neglected, abandoned, or experienced all kind of abuse including child labor and human trafficking.

GMAD is a big operation so there are many staff members and their families who also live there. Our group of about 15 volunteers was there for 10 days and we got to stay in a separate building at their facility and they took good care of us even though we were supposed to be the ones serving them.

We were able to spend time playing with the kids, cooking, doing service projects like painting the new staff house they had just built, weeding, and moving building materials for additional structures they are building. 

In the evening, we would spend time with the youth we brought with us. We spoke with them about their future plans and what they wanted to accomplish. We also shared some skills and tools with them that will help them throughout their lives.

While at the shelter I was amazed to see so many happy kids despite their circumstances. The facilities there are much nicer than any other type of shelter or care center here. It was clean, safe, well organized, and a very impressive operation. They teach the kids, feed them three meals a day, let them play soccer and other sports, and take them to church each week. It was a very inspiring experience to see all the good they do there. It was also nice to make new friends with the kids, staff members, and the youth we went with.

Saturday, August 12, 2017


This week’s topic may not be very exciting but it is one many people take for granted. I'd like to share some thoughts about laundry. After 25 years of going through many used washers and dryers, we finally bought a new washer and dryer and they were awesome, but I’m afraid they spoiled me. Here in Ghana we have a small washer but it is not very effective. I’m pretty sure it was made by Mattel or Hasbro and is the washer version of an easy bake oven.

Washing clothes by hand isn't so bad since you can do a small load much faster than with a machine. I've done my own laundry since I was a teenager so I don’t have a problem with it. The challenge I’m having here is with drying the clothes after. We hang our laundry out to dry but it can take a while with the humidity and rain. What bothers me the most is what happens to clothes when you hang them out to dry over time... STRETCHING!

I experienced this many years ago when I was traveling around Europe for over a month and would wash my clothes each night in a hotel and then lay them out to dry. After several weeks, my clothes were stretched like crazy. My shirt collar was sagging half way down my chest and would easily slide over one shoulder if I wanted to go for that look. My poor shirts knew how it feels at Café Rio for a cute ball of dough to transform into a large tortilla. I'm not sure where that analogy came from, maybe because I'd love a Café Rio pork salad right now.

Anyway, on that trip I ended up finding a laundromat in France and paid about $25 to do a load of laundry and use a real dryer and it was totally worth it. I recently realized that I love my synthetic, dry wicking shirts and can’t stand cotton anymore since it takes forever to dry and stretches out so bad. Our towels and clothes get clean but they are often hard and crunchy when they finally dry.

Our laundry situation fits into a theme I keep seeing which is that everything takes so much more effort and time to do here.  The next time you throw a load of laundry into the washer and dryer, remember how blessed you are to have a quick and easy way to have clean, soft, clothes that actually retain their original shape. 

Monday, August 7, 2017

Transportation: Orchestrated Chaos

I have been to many different countries over the years and experienced various cultures but the biggest culture shock for me upon arriving in Ghana was the traffic. The best way to describe it is "every man for himself", yet at the same time it is incredibly efficient considering what is happening. During the first day I grimaced and flinched in anticipation of multiple near accidents I witnessed, but by the second day I was just amused, and in awe with their driving.

In the United States drivers are much more cautious, careful, and orderly, yet ironically we seem to freak out when there is an accident or go ballistic with road rage when someone cuts us off or wrongs us on the road. In Africa anything goes on the roads and everyone is pretty cool with it. While driving through the city it is normal to be cut off or run red lights (a mere suggestion) as long as you can see your surroundings and the other cars around you.

Another thing that surprised me was the fact that many of the busy freeway speed roads have speed bumps on them every few minutes so if you are not paying attention you and your suspension will be in for a rude awakening. There are also a ton of police check points that slow traffic down along the way. Between the speed bumps, police stops, tolls, and single lane traffic full of potholes, it can take quite a while to travel on the road. I was wondering what side of the road they drive on before I got here. I now know the answer is both sides.

Merging here is insane, yet a work of art. Scooters, pedestrians, cars, taxis, and trucks all come within inches of each other. As people try to pass each other and avoid pot holes it looks like a giant game of chicken. The big vehicles have an advantage since they win in the event of a collision, but the smaller vehicles are quicker and maneuver easier so they can get away with more. Despite the utter chaos traffic is surprisingly efficient.

The video below is footage from a busy intersection in Ethiopia, so it's not from here but it pretty much gives you an idea what the driving is like here.

The car horn is used as often as blinkers and a honk of the horn can mean a variety of things like warning a larger truck you are trying to pass them in their blind spot, notifying someone you are coming around a blind turn, saying hi to someone you know, or to tell a pedestrian to move over since they walk on the edge of the road and are mere inches from passing vehicles.

We have a 15 passenger van we recently bought here since we have a large family and have service groups come over regularly so we need the seats but I am not looking forward to driving the beast in this free for all. We have hired several different drivers for long trips or to congested areas in town but my wife has been driving to church and other local errands on her own for a couple months now.

Despite the crazy traffic, my biggest concern is the dirt road conditions. The city roads are mostly paved but we live on the outskirts of town so about 10 minutes of driving to our place is on unpaved red dirt roads that can wash out over time with the rains. Due to road damage, some of the turns have to be done slowly and resemble four wheeling in Moab. My kids have actually gone out with shovels on a couple occasions around our neighborhood to improve the road conditions.

Anyway driving here is crazy but I'm also impressed with how well they do it under the circumstances. Hopefully when I return home I won't adopt the local driving habits here or I will end up losing my license within a week.