The Ghana Cassava team, Whit Alexander, and Professor Oduro from KNUST

Winter and Spring, 2013, I took Entrepreneurial Design for Extreme Affordability. In the class, my group focused on cassava processing for subsistence farmers in Ghana, so we went to Ghana over spring break. Now, we talked to a lot of subsistence farmers, professors, students, entrepreneurs, and government folks, and we learned a ton of things, but this post is more about stories.

Ghana is a very religious country (primarily Christian in the southern areas where we were). There were plenty of bumper stickers and signs, including one that said, "If you are not with Jesus, you are on the same side as the worst murderer." I was more surprised, however, when on the very first day off the plane, someone approached me and asked if I was Jesus. Then, someone asked if I was Saint Peter. And there was more! When I asked some Ghanaian people about it later, they were just as weirded out as me. Given that someone in the same area also asked to touch my beard, I attribute it to a unique combination of facial hair and humidity.

Colin Powell
At one point, we went to a big tourist market where everyone was trying to get you to buy their stuff. One person had a gimmick: ask him the capital of any country, and if he doesn't know it, he'll give you a trinket for free. We each asked him a few countries. We asked some trick questions, like countries that had been dissolved. We asked him about some new countries. He knew it all. When I told him that I was from Oregon, he named about as many cities in Oregon as I knew. He was good. And, to make sure that we would remember his name, he called himself Colin Powell.

Chris Brown
There are a few police checkpoints on the roads in Ghana. On our way to a village, we were pulled over, and one of our group members was questioned.

"Why are you here?"
"We're students from Stanford University in the US doing research"
"Where is your letterhead?!"

Then, there was a 15 minute conversation where the police officer talked about Chris Brown, people disrespecting the country, people coming under false pretenses, and how we definitely should have had letterhead if we were legitimate.

At this point, I check my phone to see if I have internet and can pull up the course description (nope) or if I have it cached offline (nope). Another group member and I are whispering in the back to see if we have anything. And then it occurs to me that I have the course syllabus, a very colorful document that has assignment due dates and nothing else of substance, though it does have Extreme Affordability letterhead. I hand it up.

He continues lecturing us, but he has lost his steam. A couple minutes later, we're on our way.

When we got back and told our professor about it, he said, "That might be the most use that anyone has ever got out of the syllabus."

Phone Relay
At one point, we had a call scheduled with a big government agricultural official. We had a village stay planned during that time, so we had to take the call from the remote village. The tech person that I am, I came prepared: I had my unlocked phone along with SIM cards under two cell phone networks, one of which was confirmed to have coverage in that area. We get there, and my phone doesn't have any coverage. Then I hand my SIM card to a Ghanaian that's with us to try in his phone, and it works! So, there's coverage, but my phone isn't seeing it. He offers us his phone for the interview, but there are three of us, and the speakerphone doesn't work well. We find this out after starting the call. So, I quickly transition off of speakerphone to talk, but now my group mates, who are taking notes and want to ask questions, can't hear.

The first thing I tried was parroting -- if I repeated what the official said, then my group members could hear and take notes.

"We're trying to find a use for the drainage from pressing cassava pulp"
"You're trying to figure out how to use the drainage from pressing cassava"
"Yes, it has cyanide in it, so we can't even use it to water the fields"
"Huh, you can't even use it to water the fields because of the cyanide"

It was actually kind of useful because the phone was kind of hard to hear, so we actually benefitted from clarification. Eventually, though, I settled on just whispering to my teammates as he was talking. It was quite challenging to maintain a conversation to my teammates at the same time as I was maintaining a conversation with the official, but I was up to it.

Since we had to wander off into a specific area to get cell phone coverage, of course, all the time, there were goats passing by behind and making noise. One of my group members got a picture of me whispering to a teammate while on the phone with goats walking in a line in the background.

On another trip, at another police checkpoint, our driver, an American living in Ghana, realized that he forgot his drivers license. We get pulled over, the officer asks for his license, and he's completely honest about forgetting it. The officer is nice about it and lets us continue on our way. However, this is the first of three checkpoints between us and our destination -- and we need to get back the next day.

In all subsequent checkpoints, our driver puts a big smile on his face and charms the officers.

"How long have you been in Ghana?"
"4 years in Koforidua!"
"How do you like it?"
"I love it!"

No one even asked him for his license.

We went to Suame Magazine, a major sprawling manufacturing center in Kumasi, Ghana. We saw segments of a huge pipe being loaded onto a truck. Two of them were "secured," though I use the word generously, but the third pipe segment was slightly free floating. Walking by the truck was terrifying. When it drove by us later, I was almost as terrified as when we would pass a car in the two lane roads.

The traffic in the city was also annoying. It happened to be Good Friday, which is a major holiday, and we were driving during rush hour. And they had a roundabout without a light. As a result, most of the traffic at the intersection was negotiated ad hoc, which wasn't quite as fast as I would have liked. It took us about an hour and a half to go a mile.

My Experience in General
People ask about how Ghana was in general. I'm not quite sure how to answer that. My flippant answer is that it's hot and humid (which is no small feature). If pressed, I'll say that they speak enough english that I could get by, that the roads and cars were worse than in the US, and that the internet is faster in Ghana than at my home in Cottage Grove.

To anyone who is looking for something meaningful that they couldn't just find out online, I'll have to defer the question with a passage from "Season of Migration to the North" where the protagonist describes his experiences in Europe to his family:

They were surprised when I told them that Europeans were, with minor differences, exactly like them, marrying and bringing up their children in accordance with principles and traditions, that they had good morals and were in general good people.
"Are there any farmers among them?" Mahjoub asked me.
"Yes, there are some farmers among them. They've got everything -- workers and doctors and farmers and teachers, just like us." I preferred not to say the rest that had come to my mind: that just like us they are born and die, and in the journey from the cradle to the grave they dream dreams some of which come true and some of which are frustrated; that they fear the unknown, search for love and seek contentment in wife and child; that some are strong and some are weak; that some have been given more than they deserve by life, while others have been deprived by it, but that the differences are narrowing and most of the weak are no longer weak.