Bots-Zim-Zam

Through the magic of air miles, I was able to swing a ten-day layover in Southern Africa, on the way back to Ghana, in early February. Ostensibly, this was to get reconnected with the other half of our BDSA team located in Zambia, but it was also an opportunity for a bit of anthropological comparative analysis between African countries. As luck would have it, my good friend, Jude, also happened to be in the area wrapping up a mission with MSF in Swaziland. So, we met up in Jo-burg and set out for a bromantic road trip up through Botswana, Victoria Falls, and Zambia.

This was the first time I’ve been a legitimate tourist in a while: camping at hostels, hassling the local wildlife, taking blurry photos of things, constantly asking people for “direction”, silently judging the other tourists and vigorously mispronouncing local place names. It was all-in-all a mind-blowing experience, but it was also very eye-opening in terms of how tourism works in this part of Africa.

Here are some observations:

Wildlife Viewing

This is what Africa is all about, at least in the essentialized, quick and easy reference we have of it in popular culture. You see amazing mega-fauna in their natural habitats and get all worked up about sunsets and “the circle of life”, Elton John starts singing, end of story. Now, I’m not saying it wasn’t amazing and totally worth the experience, and I would definitely recommend doing it if you have a chance, but there are some issues to consider.

First, humans are not evolutionarily inclined to seek out and follow around animals that might want to kill us, so this whole wildlife viewing idea is something of a super normal stimulus. And, like other super normal stimuli–action movies, high fructose corn syrup, pornography–we tend to need more and more of it to get the same rush. After seeing several dozen elephants every day, the novelty does start to take a hit, and you begin wondering what the next exciting thing will be (“Can I get a damn rhino out here, or what!”).

Second, there’s definitely a gradient in terms of “wildness” of animals. At some of the game parks you can go right up and pet the cheetahs or poke the hippos or whatever you want to do. But, these are no longer really wild animals, and you could have saved yourself thousands of dollars and just gone to the zoo. Even in the Moremi Game Reserve near Maun where I went, there are so many safaris land cruisers paparazzing their every waking moment, I’m surprised the animals haven’t taken to wearing hats and dark sunglasses.

Conspicuous Experiential Consumption

Something I’ve always been a fan of is the value of experiences over material goods. I would even go as far as to say if a lot more people adopted a minimalist, nomadic lifestyle, the net environmental and social impact would be far more positive than a comparable sedentary life. Unfortunately, we also have a system that loves to put a price tag on everything, even experiences. This gives rise to the same sort of one-upmanship and conspicuous consumption as is the case with material consumption. We need to go further, spend more, get more exclusive, and be more unique in order to differentiate ourselves from all the other hapless tourists. This may be a bit cynical, but I’m not sure how else to explain the prevalence of US$3,000/night safari lodges buried deep in the Okavango Delta, accessible only by helicopter. Short of sacrificing a lion every evening in your honor, I’m not sure what they do to justify the price they charge. I paid about $150 to go out into the Moremi Game Reserve with a guide for a night and two days, slept in a tent and still saw pretty much the same animals and took the same blurry photos as everyone else.

Unequal Distribution of Benefits

As far as tertiary, service-sector economic development, tourism is pretty hard to beat. Basically people come to your country to look at stuff and have a good time. All you have to do is make sure they are relatively safe, well fed, and not wandering around getting lost and you can go-to-town disuniting them from their money. Unfortunately, from my experience, this does not appear to be an equal opportunity enterprise. The vast majority of the money derived from these scenic public goods is being fed into private hotels, safari lodges and tourism companies. Relatively little finds its way back to the public in the form of park entrance fees and taxes. For the people who just happen to live nearby these amazing, highly valued public goods, tourism would seem to be a mixed blessing. The dozens of “curios” shops selling the same generic African carvings and knick-knacks, have to resort to ever-more elaborate Jedi-mind-tricks to get you to come into their stores, “I just want to ask you something..”, “I only want to talk..”, and the dudes standing around the entrance gate at Victoria Falls keep trying to pawn off their 100billion Zimbabwean bank notes as souvenirs, unaware of the tragic economic irony.

Australians

My God, are there a lot of Australians out there in the world traveling around! I have no idea how the country functions with half of their population between 18-24 diasporically self-actualizing all over the place. This is not a slight against Aussies, they are just the most noticeable; other privileged classes of North American, European and even Asian youth are doing the same thing. Overall, I think it is great for young people (who are lucky enough to have the opportunity, financing, and high-power passports) to travel and hopefully gain some humility and perspective on the world. It’s a bit disheartening to see, however, the tendency to cocoon in one’s own cultural context even when far from home. Every hostel I’ve ever stayed at seems to default to the same lowest common cultural denominators: Bob Marley for music, hamburgers and fries for food, English language for media, and some kind of weak-ass lager for beer.

Indicators of Progress

A big motivator for coming out this way was to gain some perspective on how Ghana fits into the overall picture of Africa. As a lower-middle-income country, it is supposed to be in the middle of the pack in terms of development, but it was fascinating to see how these macro level categorizations manifest in everyday life. What stood out for me were things like malls per capita in Lusaka, the cleanliness and existence of sidewalks in Botswana, and the number of kids with braces in Jo-burg. Other details like the prevalence of American fast-food chains, helicopters, Nigerian culture, and ethnic diversity were also the most notable differences to Ghana. In general, from my short stay, it seems like the Southern African countries are quite a ways further along in terms of being “nice places to live”. Botswana in particular is remarkably well-to-do as the Norway of Africa with its diamond cache. Still, I have to say, Ghana takes the cake in terms of cultural panache, friendliness and general joie de vivre.

I’ve managed to say almost nothing about where I went or what I did, but hopefully you’ve gained something from reading. Despite the crass commercialization and packaged, checklist tourism, this part of the world is truly primal, humbling, and definitely worth visiting. Please, don’t take anything I’ve said too seriously, I am only one highly-unique perspective. Not to get preachy, but being a tourist, I have (re)learned is rarely straightforward or easy. If you decide to visit, I would encourage a lot of reflection and research before, during, and after to get the most out of the experience and to contribute the most back.

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Chopping Guinea Fowl: Step By Step from Cooing to Chewing

The old blog hasn’t been seeing much action as of late. As a way of getting back on track and hopefully sharing something indicative of what’s been happening, here’s a step by step guide to preparing my all-time favorite Ghanaian dish, guinea fowl with okra stew and banku.

Late Friday night, I went down to the Tamale bus station to pick up my friend Nis. She hails from the Upper East Region and has a line on guinea fowls from Navrongo, which is apparently the place to find these chubby, speckled relatives of pheasants. She had been threatening to bring some over, but it was still a bit of shock when she dropped a live bird in my hands and said, “Here, cook this.” A live animal staring you in the face is a powerful incentive for meal planning, so, as one does, we dangled the thing off the handlebars of my moto and headed home to cook up some ideas.

The next morning, we engaged the services of Nis’s friend, Queen, who went to school for cooking and worked in several hotels before trading the heat of the kitchen for the A/C of the insurance office. She still wants to get back into cooking and eventually open her own restaurant, so was she down for showing me the ropes. We went into town and entered the Tamale central market—a place I’ve been struggling to comprehend let alone to describe for some time. After a lot of greetings, himming and hawing, hard bargaining and various subtle jedi-mind-tricks I could not perceive to get the market ladies to lower their prices, we came away with the following:

  • 1kg of pre-sliced okra
  • Tomatoes
  • Tomato paste
  • Onions
  • Garlic
  • Garden Eggs (Eggplant)
  • Salted Fish
  • Shrimp bouillon
  • Cassava “Dough” (not fermented)
  • Corn “Dough” (fermented)
  • ½ litre of Palm oil

We got back to the house to check up on the critter, who, while cooing gently, could not help but betray an air of trepidation and doleful pessimism regarding its present situation. Earnest meal preparation kicked off around 2:00pm by boiling the okra and the garden eggs together to get that gooey, snot-like goop which makes okra stew so unique.

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The next step was to dress the fowl. Now, like most people, I don’t go out of my way to kill my own food, but I still think it is a valuable experience everyone should try at least once. Strangling the life out of some other animal for a few brief moments of enjoyment while you are eating it and enough sustenance to keep you alive for a few days is a visceral, unsettling, and humbling act. Growing up on a sheep farm, I’ve been exposed to this side of meat production from an early age and have had the benefit of some experience slaughtering chickens. I’ll spare the details, but after some time we eventually ended up with a half decent looking dressed fowl.

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 We then sliced and diced half the onions, tomatoes, peppers, and the garlic and stewed the pieces of fowl to infuse some flavour. After about 10-15 minutes of stewing, we proceeded to deep fry the pieces in a shit ton of palm oil. I was slightly dismayed by this step as it seemed to negate any health benefits of the lean guinea fowl meat, but Queen assured me it was healthy and would taste better this way. In the future, I might bypass this step simply due to the time involved.

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 After the fry up, we combined the remaining stew stock with the rest of the onions, tomatoes, peppers and garlic. We then added in some salted fish and shrimp bouillon cubes which are, for some reason, ubiquitous in Ghanaian cooking, as well as the okra and garden egg mixture from earlier. Lastly, we added the fried fowl pieces back in and let the whole pot simmer away on the back burner while we prepared the banku.

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Banku is my favourite of the Ghanaian starch ball trifecta which also includes fufu and tuo zaafi (“Tee-Zed”). This lumpy mix of fermented corn flour and cassava dough has a mildly sour flavour similar to sourdough bread. To prepare it, we mixed the corn and cassava doughs together roughly 2 to 1 with plenty of water and got it simmering on the stovetop. As the mixture began to heat up, it became thicker and thicker, and stickier and sticker eventually resembling some sort of industrial strength building material. Keeping it from burning on the bottom of the pan and stirring it vigorously to prevent clumping was no small feat. After what seemed like a half hour of stirring, Queen finally said it looked done. She then proceeded to form fist-sized balls of the mix by rolling it around in a small bowl with a little water. The more modern method is to spoon the finished banku into small plastic bags, which can be more easily refrigerated and reheated.

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At this stage, nearly 4hrs later, we were finally finished. Interest in photography and documentation had dropped off markedly by this point, so I don’t have any photos, but we did finally did get our “chop” on. The end result, while not mind blowing, was still deeply satisfying having the virtue of being hand-built from the raw materials with much toil and caloric expenditure. Would I make this again? Maybe, if I enough people to feed. Will I appreciate eating it a lot more the next time I order it a restaurant? Definitely!

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Special shout outs to Nis for providing the fowl and the incentive to get cooking and to Queen for being a great teacher. Hopefully, I’ll have some time to do this again with some other of my top fav dishes, stay tuned.

Ghana Bucket List

Here’s what I’d like to have done before I leave Ghana:

[x] Mole National Park – See some Animals! – Done. Read about it here

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[  ] Paga/Burkina Faso Border – Sit on a crocodile!

[  ] Moto Trip – Destination not important really, but maybe the Gambaga Escarpment

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[  ] Bolgatanga – Upper East Region capital

[  ] Bui National Park/Cote d’Ivoire Border – Hippos!

[  ] Boabeng-Fiema Monkey Sanctuary – “Where monkeys live happily with human beings”

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[  ] Take ferry along Lake Volta – The largest “man-made” lake in the world, apparently it’s possible to take a boat from the North to the South over the course of a few days.

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[  ] Mt. Afadjato/Togo Border – The highest peak in Ghana at 885m

[  ] Kumasi – The capital of the Ashanti Kingdom and home to some other EWBers

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[ X ] Lake Bosomtwi – Meteorite impact crater lake near Kumasi – Done! Read about it here.

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[  ] Kakum National Park – Do the nature canopy walk

[  ] Nzulezo – Village built on sticks on a lake

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[  ] Elmina/Cape Coast – Visit the slave holding fortresses along the coast

[  ] Busua/Takoradi – Surfing!

[  ] Wli Falls – Highest water fall in West Africa (maybe)

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[  ] Out of country trip to Burkina/Mali/Togo/C d’I/the Sahara – Travel outside the country at least once

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Wish you could all come along with me, but hopefully reading about it is at least something. Any other suggestions or must-see things that I’ve missed please let me know. I’ll update this post as I check things off.

Mole National Park: Wild Animals & Party Animals

Ghana is often referred to as the gateway to Africa as far as tourism is concerned. I had not realized it before I arrived, but there is a little of everything here: the beaches and jungles of the bottom third are those commonly associated with West Africa; the Muslim areas of the top third are heavily influenced by North Africa; and the open savannah regions in the mid third are reminiscent of East or Southern Africa. Mole (Mo-lay) National Park is found in this latter region and is Ghana’s biggest wildlife sanctuary and, more or less, the tourist destination for animal viewing. The park is close to 5000 sq. km and has (according to the 2010 Brandt’s guide) about 800 elephants, 1,000 buffalo, and more than 90 other large mammal species including hippos, warthogs, antelopes and primates.

I was able to join a group headed to the park for the weekend and was pleasantly surprised by how much we saw during the 2 days (plus a travel day). I’m not entirely sure of all the species names, but the big one is obviously the elephants which we got to within 15m or so of. The rest of the critters were either too far to get a good look at (monkeys, waterbuck, kob, hornbill) or a little too close for comfort (free ranging warthogs and baboons that know how to open hotel room doors).

The only real place to stay within the park boundaries is the Mole Motel. Despite some pricey food and a few too many wayward college age students who seemed to have confused Ghana for Spring Break, Ft. Lauderdale, it is an ideal place to hang out with a pair of binoculars and take in the sights. The hotel overlooks a major watering hole and we were lucky enough to have several elephants come by for a few hours each morning and do their thing (mostly just stand still and flap their ears). The park office near the hotel offers fairly cheap jeep and walking safaris, but it’s mostly just a case of good luck to be able to see anything. Stomping around with 20-30 other foreign and Ghanaian tourists with cellphones a-ringing, mindless, high-volume conversations a-blathering, and cameras a-clicking, should be enough to scare or annoy away most of the animals for a huge radius, so I’m glad we saw what we did.

Despite these small annoyances and the travel on public transportation, that while not particularly dangerous, could be accurately described as Kafkaesque for its psychological intrigue, this was a great trip and definitely a big item crossed off of my Ghana bucket list.

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