Friday, February 15, 2008

Ghana 2007




“The world has stopped for women,” Petronilla, a physician friend from Nigeria, smugly noted to me as we sped away through the streets of Accra in police escorted Mercedes buses. Well, not exactly the world - although this city in Ghana had indeed come to a halt.

We were attending the triennial conference of the Medical Women’s International Association. That memorable night was a social evening with very good snacks (I mention this because I was not always happy about the food) and wonderful entertainment - featuring the dances and music of West Africa. The event was held at GIMPA (Ghana Institute of Management and Public Administration) a good hour away, even with police escort, from the La Palm conference center at the beach. The setting is beautiful in the hills above the city and just past the main university campus. While proportionally few people in the very large city of Accra have cars, there are many vehicles, and they all seem to be on the road at the five o’clock rush hour; thus, the police escort and traffic blockade. Traffic lights are few and drivers noisily hit their horns as they skirt other vehicles and the masses of pedestrians and street merchants, many folk with large loads balanced on their heads. I overheard another attendee of the conference describing the location of her hotel, “near the city center about 100 honks from here!”

This 27th congress of the MWIA was focused on the theme of Women in the world of medicine with particular attention to gender issues, leadership for women and health in a multicultural world. There were difficult issues – HIV/AIDS, Intimate Partner Violence, and Female Genital Mutilation. Issues of health care funding and delivery of services were also challenging topics. Dr. Thomas from Sierra Leone and Dr. Babiker from the Sudan were present at the Congress and it was my privilege to meet and speak with these real life heroes in the effort against FGM.

Conference attendees came from all over the globe with over 30 countries of MWIA’s 42 nation membership present. The largest group of members, one hundred fifty strong, was from Nigeria. I believe that UNESCO sponsored about 6 women physicians from other areas of Africa to attend the conference.

The conference included trips to visit local hospitals. I went with a group to Korle Bu which is a large teaching facility of 1700 beds. The deliveries total about 1000 per month. The HIV positive rate for mothers is 3%. Unfortunately, there is no PCR testing available and infants must be 18 months old before their blood can be drawn to test their HIV status. We noted there are no screens on the open windows in the delivery area we visited. This is worrying with mosquito bites and malaria endemic in this part of the world. Sub-Saharan Africa has a high child mortality rate and malaria accounts for about 9% of those deaths.

I was in Ghana for a little more than 2 weeks. Seven of those days I spent traveling with my friend, Mercedes, a psychiatrist (child psychiatry) from LA and a new friend, Deb, an eye surgeon from Australia; also, her two kids James 15 and Kate 23. Stephen Krogh, our guide, was fabulously informative and anxious to make our trip the best. He had a thoughtful deep rumbling “Hmmm” as he listened. Mr. Idrusu, our driver, was very skilled at his job, this expertise clearly needed in Ghana. He spoke little English but understood it well. Every now and then would interrupt Stephen while Stephen was engaged in one of his informative lectures and in African dialect would offer a confirmation, an elucidation, or occasionally a correction of information. We got to visit Mr. Idrusu’s family in the town of Obuasi in the gold country. The family invited us to come in to the courtyard of their home and take photos of some the men at prayer. The women posed with us while other men prepared a goat for the evening meal. It was a little glimpse into everyday life that was very special.

Our journey ranged as far north as the large metropolis of Kumasi in the Ashanti region. I did persuade my guide to let us visit the Komfo Anokye Hospital where Dr. Ackuayi trained and saw the historic buried sword that I learned about from Dr. Ackuayi. Komfo, the once Chief Fetish Priest and co-founder of the Asante confederacy pushed this Sword in the ground and pronounced it immovable forever and so has it ever since been. Thanks for the info, Seth! That was cool, as was the trip to the Kente village where I stocked up on antique Kente cloth and the wood carver’s village where I bought a “queen mother” wooden Ashanti stool.

I mentioned the food. It was satisfactory at most of our meal spots and sometimes it was quite good. Alas, the convention hotel was not quite up to my standards; but, at the hotel La Badi, where I stayed, the food was superb. My mouth is still watering over the memory of the roast lamb, duchess potatoes, bread pudding and other savory treats. Deb was determined to sample Ghanaian cuisine so I did try local foods thanks to her orders at lunch on tour. Sometimes, it was just a taste on the tines of my fork dipped into her dish like the grasscutter soup with fufu. Grasscutter is a rodent whose meat is prized in West Africa and fufu is a cassava or other root vegetable prepared by boiling and pounding with a mortar and pestle. We did eat a lot of jollof rice which was flavored with a spicy tomato sauce. I tried a spinach dish called palava a few times and peanut soup, neither of which I liked; and fried plantain and fried yams which were fine. I sampled a cornmeal dumpling called banko which had a bitter sour taste, not to my liking but apparently was to someone’s.

We did enjoy the dancing and drums entertainment at a Gala evening where we were also treated to good Ghana chocolate, a very nice fashion show, and fine contemporary dance music. This resulted in a lively Conga line of the entire audience; I got that evidence on tape. We all dressed up for the gala. I celebrated in a Ghanaian costume with my silk scarf fashioned into a headdress. It was a meager effort compared to the fantastic headdresses the West African women sported; that sight was more splendid than a flock of peacocks!

My wildlife exposure was limited to mainly goat herds, a little cattle (there is no dairy industry in Ghana – we had French butter), the wonderful baboons at the Shai Hills Reserve, and crocodiles and weaver birds at the Hans Cottage Botel restaurant, and yes, a couple of peacocks. Some of my Canadian friends did travel to savannah lands in Mole in north Ghana and reported it a grueling trip on bad roads; though, they found the elephants in their natural habitat wonderful! The trip I took was difficult enough, especially with no luggage for 6 days nor any Wal-Mart or Nordstrom’s! I’m glad the organizers excluded that trip to Mole from my itinerary. I’ll have to save the elephants for my next visit to Africa. I’m actually feeling quite pleased with myself for how I managed to stay fresh, clean and pleasant for so long without my “stuff” - since I’ve long been known to consider a Hyatt Regency as “roughing it”. Thank God, even in Ghana, most four star hotels have hair dyers! These are indispensable when trying to dry sink-washed clothes in a humid climate overnight.

There were elephants in the Kokum National forest that I visited, but we were told they are only obvious to night tours. Apparently, and it certainly seems believable from my brief experience, the forest there is so dense during the day an elephant could be 6 inches from the path and one would not see it. We visited during the day and had quite an adventure as we took the canopy walk: 12 inches wide, 365 meters long and 40 meters up. I did peer down and take a few photos at the crows’ nests where each of the approximately 50 meter bridges that formed the long circular path attached to the forest trees. However, for me there was no enjoying the sites on my journey around the park. I did little more than walk with focus on the path ahead on that narrow swaying structure and gulped a little at every point that the mesh on the sides even dipped one inch lower than my shoulder height. My friend, Mercedes, declared it quite an experience, a good 5 bridges too long!

The tour of striking Elmina castle was a highlight, though with a very sad and heart wrenching history. Our guide, Atu, is a local scholar who is doing research on the records of the slave trade. He has a wealth of information and insight on this tragic story. Other similarly involved forts are nearby or in Accra and make up part of the picturesque coast of Ghana. In this Cape Coast Area there are many fishing villages; the bright colored fishing boats pulled up in late afternoon on the palm shadowed beaches are a gorgeous site!

I learned so much about the wonderful customs and culture, not just from the tour and organized events, but also from a terrific and funny play “The Marriage of Anansewa” that Deb discovered at the National Theatre. Deb, Mercedes and I met a local physician in the lobby of the hotel, who, learning of our interest in the play, gave us water (the first thing one does by Ghana custom), packed us into her “salon” car. (Physicians are given a new vehicle off the showroom floor as an incentive to reverse the “brain drain”. Most folk in Ghana drive European used cars referred to as “home use” vehicles.) Susu took us to the theatre, parked right in front of the entrance, and then escorted her “very important guests” to ideal seats in the center front area. Susu also filled us in on some key points of the play that we might have missed. What a great experience!

Ghana has great beauty, an incredible history - both fascinating and tragic, a rich culture, and is endowed with great resources - unfortunately exploited. There is third world poverty but the people of Ghana are open, frank, they quite lived up to their reputation as the friendliest folk on earth. There is a sense of hope, not despair, in that country.

My journey to the “center of the earth” (the equator and the Greenwich meridian meet in Accra) was a splendid and “world-stopping” one. I’d recommend the adventure to anyone!

1 comment:

Jeni said...

WOW! Sounds like a fantastic trip! Enjoyed reading your blog. I have to say that bridge looks crazy scary!! I don't do heights! :) And I have to tell you...after working with physicians for the last 15 years, and seeing how busy they are, I'm impressed you even have time for a hobby such as scrapbooking! Good for you for taking time for yourself & something that you love!

Jeni Fiskateer # 2794