Penises, Penises Everywhere

I was in a taxi driving by Osu cemetery in Accra when I saw three men fumble with the front of their trousers. They ambled to the cemetery wall and soon, various shades of yellow springs arched from their organs. They did this while chatting and laughing, the dearly departed be damned. That was ten years ago.

Today, while Ghanaians have internet in their homes and houses worthy of HGTV are springing up at the speed of binary fission, men still pull out their penises to urinate anywhere they please. They let go freely by the roadside, whether said road leads to the airport or runs by the president’s residence. They do this comfortably, head turned to the side, observing the goings-on around them. They might pee with glazed eyes or check out their wet maps on the wall. Then they shake, tuck in and go on their merry way, no toilet paper required. They love walls in particular. There is something primal, dog-like the way they stand and aim, leaving a darkened image of a mountain. When you first arrive in Ghana, it’s shocking. It is off-putting. Why demystify the sexual organ?

A man once chose to urinate while leaning on my friend’s car. As I approached to get in, I had to tell him to move before he did. He didn’t pause the flow; he just shifted three feet from me and continued to pee, his head cocked to one side, pure bliss of release on his face. When I asked a male friend why men did this, he said, “It is painful to control. When you have to go, you have to go.” He was very surprised when I pointed out that women suffered the same pain but had to hold it until we could find a bathroom.

I have witnessed men yell at a desperate woman for peeing on the side of the road and exposing her bottom. Whereas the buttocks cover a large surface area and are not as easily hidden by the hand the way a man holds his penis, which of the two scenarios represent greater nakedness? The bottom or the penis? What will men say if everywhere you passed, a woman squatted, letting down a steam of urine?

Of course, women have the peculiar challenge of having to spread their legs open. On long-distance trips far from public restrooms they have no choice but to wander deeper into the woods to wee-wee so as not to expose their derriere. They have to spread wide apart to prevent sputtering their legs. Then, in the absence of toilet paper, they have to resort to bouncing up and down. For these reasons and the sheer awkwardness of the situation, women have nothing to prove by partaking in this behavior, unless they are about to burst a bladder.

This freedom to hoist out one’s penis and handle it isn’t limited to urination. I attended a play and watched two men, playing the roles of camera crew, fiddling with the frontal part of their trousers. Named Scratch One and Two, one obsessively scratched the designated penis area or where the testicles would be. Each time, the audience giggled. Scratch Two tucked his hand into his pants and let it remain there while the other hand fumbled for equipment. All this was perfectly fine, even amusing, even to be celebrated, though I did hear a couple of “this is too much” muttering. Even so, no one would reproach a man for a little public fondling.

The Ghanaian man is totally comfortable with his penis. If he sees a beautiful girl who arouses him, he finds no problem “weighing” his penis, which consists of quick “cuppings.” He can be talking to you and suddenly feel an urge to scratch or weigh. This freedom originates in childhood. A male child may touch himself anytime he pleases. When he starts to experience erections, there’s pride that everything is functioning well. A female child, on the other hand, is considered the repository of virtue and may not be curious. Let a girl’s hand stray near her genitals out of curiosity and her hand is swatted away by parents, or someone puts pepper in her vagina. In villages and even in towns, the practice of smearing pepper or ginger in a girl’s vagina continues. Girls raised this way get the message that sexual pleasure or rights are reserved for men. This leads to future frigidity in marriage, which might promote infidelity. Shouldn’t girls be afforded the same right to get to know their bodies? This attitude translates into unreasonable expectations in adulthood.

When a man’s woman is away on a trip, or the man goes on an extended business trip, he may sleep with another woman. “It’s a physiological need” is a phrase oft repeated. Does the woman not have a physiological need for sex? In fact, a woman peaks sexually around age forty, which is when her husband is likely to be waning. She could cheat too, but isn’t supposed to, though as I write this, I am aware that some women now cheat rampantly. If she is caught, she has to endure public shaming and condemnation, unlike a man. One thing does occur to me though: in a society where a man’s sexual organ and sexuality is glorified, rape is more likely to occur and excused. A girl is likely to allow things done to her that she shouldn’t, because she has learned she doesn’t matter.

If a man becomes aroused, I’m told, it’s very difficult for him to control himself; in fact, it hurts. Well, let it be known that sexual women experience the same “pain.” So why are women in general burdened with moral responsibility and, at the same time, expected to satisfy their men at every turn? I know, I know; someone has to hold society together. So, why shouldn’t both sexes bear the moral responsibility of holding society together? I welcome your thoughts.

A Love So Deep

Since I came to Ghana, I have been overwhelmed by the kindness of friends, new and old. The tennis partner who helps me with my game, who tells me I can do it. The players who gather at the end of the day to sit beneath the summer huts, share drinks, food and tell jokes. The dear sisters who invite me to plays, concerts and parties, who share their time generously. But few days ago, something happened that stirred up such memories of deep love that I can’t even…

It was after tennis. I had left the players to join the gym group because they had invited me to partake in their kenkey, fish and pepper party. We sat around tables, some fifteen men and women, eating, drinking, laughing. Then a girl I hadn’t seen in years came to join us. The only seat available was the one next to me, so she sat down. I saw her look at me, and her hand got busy. She broke a piece of kenkey with her hand, made it really soft, took some fish and just held it to my mouth. I had forgotten how friends could feed each other. By that act, she had embraced me. Such deep affection, such abandonment.

Though I didn’t want any more food, I ate from her hand again and again, accepting her love. I could imagine Europeans and Americans shocked, not knowing what to think. Are they lesbians? Lovers? Nothing of the sort. It’s that freedom to show affection in the most natural way, without inhibitions. I had forgotten. Lately in Ghana, we see western values creeping in. Some are good, but some, well…I hope Ghana continues to maintain this freedom of expression. I want to love and be loved deeply, freely. I just love Ghana.

“Sing a Song of Temma Harbour…”

Mary Hopkin sang “Temma Harbour” in 1970. I can still hear its beautiful chorus my father used to play, beginning at 0.38 seconds. Coconut trees still line the beach. The smell of fish still wafts from the sea, even if clearing your goods makes you forget that for a moment…

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No, my son, Tolu, doesn’t work at the harbor. This is a requirement for entering. You must wear flashers in daylight, whether you are a worker or not. And you have to buy them, for 8 Ghana cedis each. We got them for 7 each, much to the indignation of the sellers. “Why did you have to bargain? Everyone pays 8 cedis!” My hired driver knew better to bring his own. While it is irritating, it creates business for people.  My agent’s assistant wore hers, beaming. By day’s end, that smile had wilted to misery.

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The worker who opened the container (see below) asked us to put money in his “collection” bucket. We declined. He did his job, anyway. See? Progress! Unfortunately, at every turn, people slipped ten cedi notes into the hands of clipboard wielding officials.

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Car being freed from the container. It is always a good idea to make sure they put a platform to drive out the car. They get overwhelmed and try to cut corners, damaging tires. IMG_3410

This part was puzzling. After the cars got out, the 40 ft container was only a quarter full, yet they pulled out all the boxes. Here I am, three hours later, waiting for inspectors to come verify my shipment, the brown boxes. The other stuff belongs to other people. Twelve years ago, when I shipped, the inspection took place inside the container. Dumping everyone’s boxes outside creates chaos and congestion. Hopefully they will go back to inspecting in the container unless there isn’t enough room. I worried about rain, but the good weather held.

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The inspection crew consisted of three sets of officials: Customs, National Security and BNI (Ghana’s equivalent of the FBI) Really? At each turn, I opened boxes and allowed full access, without paying a bribe. However, I discovered that getting the inspectors to do their job on time required slipping cedi notes into their palms. Agents have no choice, unless they want their client to spend more than one day at the harbor and put up with full-throat venting. I have a dream that this bullying practice of having to pay a wage earner to do his/her job will end. I have a dream.

I have a dream that it won’t take five hours after inspectors finish for the documents to be readied and printed so that one can leave the harbor before ten p.m., when one arrives at 8:40 a.m.

I have a dream that leaving the harbor won’t require going through four more check points within a space of fifty yards, where clipboard-wielding officials make a good show of frowning and taking notes while cedi notes slip under the clipboard. I have a dream that agents won’t pass this cost onto their clients, marked “sundry expenses” in the invoice.

I have a dream that the proposed changes coming to the ports will become a reality.

I believe my dreams will come true, so I’ll sing a song to Temma harbour, won’t climb a coconut tree but eat lots of it plus grilled fish on the beach.

Shipping Your Stuff to Ghana, What to know

Back in 2005, when I shipped a container, it involved me showing up at the harbor with the agent, navigating various fees and finally opening the container. Much to the dismay of inspectors, I didn’t even have a car in it. What was I thinking wasting all that money and space, just to make sure I could ship a bunk bed, a baby grand, and my precious books? If you have space in your container, invite others to share space and cost!

When I shipped a car a year later, apparently bunched with other cars on ship’s deck and exposed to the elements, it was a much cheaper affair. The car arrived intact and was ultimately delivered to my house by my fabulous agent. (kiss, kiss, agent!)

The shippers don’t always tell you the following, so beware: when you arrive at airport customs in Accra, ask to fill out a PUBD form, Passenger Unaccompanied Baggage Declaration. Just because you’re flying while your container rocks on the sea is no reason not to fill the form at the airport. I forgot this time around. If I had gone back to the airport, within, say a matter of two weeks or so, it would have been okay. But I found out about the form after a month. It was a nightmare I’d rather you didn’t experience. Not only will you pay a penalty, you’ll be subjected to the most painful bureaucracy, traveling back and forth between a customs office outside the airport known as Aviance, and airport customs, then immigration, then back to Aviance, pay the penalty and finally get to fill out the blasted PUBD, all yellow and delicate like onion skin.

A new development (new to me, anyway) is the need for a tax identification number, for which you get to be a guest of the Registrar General’s building, a veritable zoo of buzzing, circling petitioners and overworked administrators. Might take a day or two of your time. Might I suggest you keep your Ghanaian passport updated if you have Ghanaian or dual citizenship? Gone are the days when officials bestowed benign smiles on you, saying, “Yes, you have an American passport but we know you’re a Ghanaian. We understand that sort of thing. Your name is Ghanaian, you speak Ghanaian and act Ghanaian. Welcome home, akwaaba!” These days, your Ghanaian-ness is not a given. After all, there are non-nationals who cheat the system and buy passports, so the government isn’t yielding.

If your passport has expired, arguing that you yourself have not expired won’t fly. It won’t earn you a national ID card nor a Ghanaian tax identification number that will save you from paying taxes on your old tv or craigslist couch you insisted on shipping. You will pay taxes on your fingernails, if possible. So, update your Ghanaian documents, okay? Now, it makes no difference if you’re shipping a car. Foreigners and Ghanaians pay the same taxes. Rather exorbitant. (Try to get your quotes or estimates before the following Tuesday, because every Tuesday, the rates change. Rates are pegged to the dollar, and curiously enough, they never go down. Pay quickly!)

Before I forget, insist on the ship giving you an original Bill of Lading so you can claim your belongings. Although Ghanaians tolerate e-tickets when it comes to airplanes, e-documents are still viewed with suspicion. Pay no mind to Mr./Ms. American shipper who blithely emails you an electronic copy from his or her iPhone. You’ll endure calls and admonishing from your Ghanaian agent who will urge you to call your shipper for a DHL delivery, or send a telex authorizing release from the ship upon indemnity of blah blah blah that will leave you weeping into your pillow. Especially when the USA shipper doesn’t understand what the fuss is and won’t even take your calls or respond to emails. Of course, all this is avoidable if you ship door to door. More expensive but probably worth the avoidance of a migraine and desperate phone calls to America, listening to someone say press 1 for this and 2 for that while your cedis or dollars tick away to the annoying music in the background.

Shipping door-to-door provides a hassle-free experience. You just send a container or boxes through a company/agent, and prepay duties, charges, etc. That way all you have to do is show up at the warehouse to pick up your belongings. Some will even deliver to your house. Now, isn’t that lovely! And when you do get your car and you’re cruising past the tro-tro minivans, you’ll admit it’s worth it!

House Hunting in Ghana, is this whining?

I wanted to buy a house, not build. And I wanted it right away. I had this quixotic notion that I’d tour the many houses I’d heard about, and pick one. All within two weeks. Ha ha. The day after my arrival, a mortgage employee moonlighting as a realtor picked me up. Thus began three weeks of house tours that drained me of hope until my eyes rolled over.

To homeowners, the concept of showing a house at its best is absurd. I saw a home at Manet Gardens that was dark, moldy and blistering with moisture, from the foundation up to about a foot high. The owner assured me it was no big deal. He would scrape off the blisters, slather it with some kind of black sealant to get rid of the moisture, and paint the whole house. Everything will be fresh, he said, just trust me. Now, why would I? Why would I rely solely on the words of a complete stranger?

House after house turned out the same. One house at East Legon hills was so fetid I stumbled back outside, gasping for air. No amount of cajoling could get me back in.  The house hadn’t been opened in years, the owner said. It was black and damp. Why not tell the buyer upfront about the condition to expect? Why whip up desire with pictures taken years before, or doctored, luring buyers to waste precious time? Meanwhile the moonlighter kept saying it wasn’t so bad. Implication: a customer shouldn’t expect the best. Thou shall not whine!

When you do find a house you like (and there are many gorgeous homes), chances are you can’t afford it. Prices are listed in dollars. For a country where public health doctors earn about $1000 a month, how can one afford a $250,000 home? What’s mind boggling is that you’re expected to have that amount and more sitting nicely in your bank account. Even more amazing is that people do have that kind of money. As explained to me, most houses aren’t built for the Ghanaian. They are built for the expat who has muchos dollars, or the foreign Ghanaian who can take out a substantial home equity loan, or the rich Ghanaian. Faced with these kinds of difficulties, people have turned to estate developers.

With developers, pre-construction prices are better. As it might take a year to two for your house to be completed, you get to spread your payments. It’s still not easy for the average worker. Even these developers are building houses worth $100,000 or more, unless you’re prepared for four hours of a daily commute to far flung neighborhoods. Fortunately, there are a couple of mortgage companies like Ghana Home Loans and Home Finance Corporation that offer 20-year mortgages. For a mere 10-13 %.  Now, before you go into cardiac arrest, note that although American mortgage rates can be as low as three percent, you also pay higher taxes and insurance, never mind end-of-year tax deductions. In Ghana, your monthly mortgage isn’t going to be as astronomical as you think. However, to qualify for the loan, you must have the credit history of a saint and earn above average income. What’s more, mortgage companies typically lend $50,000 to $75,000. As a result, young professionals are forced to rent.

Renting invites the same headache as buying. You go cheap and you have to live beyond the suburbs, or get something unlivable in the city. For a nice place in a nice neighborhood, say a two-bedroom, be prepared to shell out anything from $400 a month to $2000, depending on your budget. Worse still, you’re required to pay one to three years rent in advance, depending on the owner. This is of course against the law. You are only required to pay three months advance. However, it’s a lonely road fighting for your rights when renters regularly shell out the outrageous amounts. Still, I’d encourage you to follow the law.

The good news is that the price of rentals has gone down, so landlords are grudgingly taking in less advance. You can actually find a two-bedroom flat or chalet in East Legon from $500 a month. Chances are it won’t be modern and glitzy like apartments in Clifton homes. These fancy buildings are sprouting everywhere, featuring Lilliputian dwellings for the price of arms and legs. Most are thinly built, not sound-proofed and inhabited by people who fear smiling might diminish them. The buildings feature swimming pools and gymnasia, with monthly maintenance fees from $300-$500. Clearly not for the light of pocket. But they have 24-hour security, constant water and emergency generators. I do have to say though that the dumsor has greatly improved. Power outages are becoming rare.

If you do find what you love, try not to show enthusiasm. Whether you’re buying or renting, the minute you wiggle with excitement, or verbalize it, the price goes up. Either the agent got the price wrong in the first place because he/she got the listing through another agent, or it’s a deliberate ploy to reel you in and make the most out of you. Sometimes your agent originates the price hike; sometimes it’s the owner. Don’t be fooled by the compassionate smiles. Greed is rampant. Then there are the owners that will sooner have a house stand empty for years than reduce their inflated prices. At one home, when my realtor pointed out to the owner that he was losing money, the owner said, “No I’m not. Do I feed or clothe the house?” But he does feed the house. He has to paint it, get someone to stay there, etc. If it’s an apartment, he has to keep paying maintenance fees, and yet apartments remain empty because their owners would rather pay maintenance fees than reduce the rent. The concept of rent sale seems an affront to both property and owner, therefore the homes stand in uninhabited defiance.

In conclusion, if you’re planning on moving back to Ghana, fly down and check out the scene. Study the market for a bit, and decide what’s best for you. But unless you have a pile of dollars, don’t expect to do it in a couple of weeks, or even a couple of months. It’s still worth it to come back home. When you’re sitting at a poolside concert, nibbling on kelewele, that spicy fried plantain, tossing groundnuts into your mouth and toasting your friends, nothing seems to be such a big deal. That’s the Ghanaian guide to happiness.

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Back to the Homeland, Ghana

You are home, baby!

The assault on your senses. The oven-hot heat. The dampness. The sickly-sweet smell of flowers, of something deeply tropical. That’s what hits you when you step off the plane. Then you enter the air-conditioned lounge and you think, ah yes!

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Sign inside Arrival Hall

 

No hassle at immigration, if you have your papers in order. No intimidation at customs. Of course, there’s bound to be that sly official who gives you the longing look, eyeing your bulging suitcases in hopes of catching you with commercial goods. That way he/she can extract a “gift” from you while smiling with benevolence. If you stand your ground, the smile wilts to a sigh. Shoulders drooping, they let you go.

When you step outside, no men converge on you to grab your suitcases in their determination to earn tips; progress! You get into a taxi with joy, and then you notice the bluish smoke and oil smell from the exhaust of vehicles and you wonder, how is everyone not dead from lung cancer? Perhaps it’s the casual attitude, the belief that life is in God’s hands, the belief that nothing is a big deal. Whatever the case, you might be tempted to fear breathing this fetid air for the rest of your life. Don’t run away. Be a part of the solution. Because here’s the thing, your blackness is not an offence. No one grabs her purse tighter due to the vicinity of your blackness. No one flees from a shopping aisle because you’ve entered the same space. In fact, you’ll get tired of the madaming and sirring. Besides, where in America can you go to a clubhouse and strangers buy you fried yam, fish, drinks, and offer to drive you home?

That’s what it feels like to return to Ghana, this pampering, this belonging. Sure, it’s the honeymoon phase, but who cares? Just spray your legs and arms with the insecticide you must always carry with you. Stretch out your legs, sip on your passion-mango juice, savor the spicy kyinkyinga (grilled grass-fed beef), and laugh at jokes. You are home, baby!

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