Tuesday, October 26, 2010

So What?

And we come back to that question of authenticity....

There is a proverb in Ghana that says, “one should not believe all stories narrated by a solitary traveler.”  Considering biased, inaccurate travel memoirs such as Henry Morton Stanley’s Through The Dark Continent and many others who have contributed to poor representations of the “cultural other,” I could not agree more.  However, I do think that the one traveler in our proverb has the capacity to narrate several different stories, and I think my experience is an example of how that could be possible.

Clifford Geertz is well known for his idea of “thick description,” the concept that having several layered meanings and interpretation is what gives ethnography a dimensional richness.  There is a concept in film that Professor Benjamin Unguren spoke on at the 2010 BYU Inquiry Conference called the “iterative film.”  By showing a film, and then filming the reactions of the subjects watching a film about themselves, you are essentially able to give your representation more dimension.  Can we not do this in writing by integrating other mediums and viewpoints?  Maybe I am harsh on Stanley, given that his one medium and viewpoint was much more limited than what we currently have access to, but is it not time that we take advantage of these new opportunities to enhance our own experiences and refine our limited portrayals of it?

While we must understand how fragile the nature of experience is (which is evident based on how different my experience could be depending on the avatar and medium I chose), recognizing that we can get a more accurate representation when we combine a few different viewpoints and mediums could be beneficial as we continue to undergo the process of writing creative nonfiction, and travel writing in particular.  Of course we can never have a completely authentic telling of an experience, but by adding more dimension to our representations this approach might get us one step closer.

Conclusion on Mediums

Not only was the avatar, or perspective I chose to see my experience in, important to my project on the authenticity of experience in Ghana, but the mediums I chose to record it in.  The avatar and the medium were equally responsible for the representation I came up with.  After my experience, I think that there are certain avatars that work better with certain mediums.  If you are someone who relates to one more than another, then considering those recommended mediums could be beneficial.

First, for all students or travelers interested in going out into the field I recommend a jotting notebook and a diaryA jotting notebook because our memories are just too fragile, and you can lose important information as well as a viable medium, and a diary because there will always be something you want to express that isn't field note appropriate.  

Ava- The Romantic Anthropologist- This avatar was the student avatar.  Having an academic approach with course contracts, books, etc for this experience was great for me, but I realize that might not be for everyone.  I felt like I got more out of it having had that mindset.  To me, it did not feel forced, and it helped me stay positive when dealing with culture shock and some of the other things that come with integrating into a new community.  If you are someone who relates to her, I found that typed field notes were better than handwritten field notes.  I had a lot more notes when I was using a computer. 

My Physical Body as a Medium

Another important medium that I did not consider as it relates to my experience in Ghana was physically.  What is the difference between going to Ghana and getting Malaria or just traveling to Ghana through books or Google?  Edward Casey in his book Getting Back Into Place makes a really good argument for the importance of the body and it's relationship to place, and where the mind fits into that whole deal.  Others such as Michel Foucault have also made comments on the subject, and for this reason I think it is a viable medium to comment on. 

Hygiene- Bucket showers were frequent, and sometimes if the well was broken or the power was off, having enough water to wash the dishes seemed more important than that shower or laundry.  We could not drink the water unless we were cooking and boiled it first.  All of our water for brushing our teeth and drinking came from little 2 cup sachets.  It was a real pain when we ran out of them.  We would have to walk clear up the hill and carry the bag back on our heads, which I never quite mastered.  The locals who could not afford sachets so readily went to the well frequently.

Hair-  And just for fun, getting your hair done in Ghana is a huge deal.  Sometimes I would really confuse me because women could change their hair so drastically and I would have trouble recognizing people.  Of course I had to see what this was all about.  I got my hair braided twice while I was there.  It took about three hours with four ladies helping me.  It hurt like crazy getting it in, and the picture I included in this post shows them melting the nylon hair together to seal it all up.

Sickness- Getting sick in Ghana tends to be an experience to remember.  Luckily for me I escaped anything serious, but of course there are the occasional days where you could swear you have a parasite.  Changing your diet so drastically and getting used to a new environment takes a tole on your body.  I also had to take antimalarial medicine called Larium that gave me the most crazy, lucid dreams imaginable, not to mention a serious hormone imbalance. 

Emails Home

One medium that I did not consider in how I mediated my experience was through my weekly emails home to friends and family.  Just as blog posts or biweekly reflections required for my coursework, knowing that I had to write these emails forced me to keep a certain audience in mind.  I would try and find experiences to share that they could enjoy or relate to.  Here are some general descriptions of subjects that could be found in my emails home.  These were more than just emails.  This was my social network, the link to my world.

Group Email- This was the mass email, ones that I have included on this blog and posted the day that they were sent.  Here I tried to keep it interesting.  I included things that people could possibly relate to, which can be more difficult than not.  Sharing crazy stories, strange sights, and funny billboards and marriage proposals made up the bulk of it.  Even if I was having an off week or a bad day I could not let it show too much.  I was talking to a support group, and I could not let them know I was struggling, especially when some of them were already convinced that I was going to die of typhoid or in some kind of machete fight.

Parents- I could be honest in this one.  If I was struggling, I could let them know.  If I wanted to talk about this experience in the big picture of my life, then it could be found here.  How I was starting to feel less repulsive to marriage, where I was at in my head, where I want to go to grad school, how this will impact me when I get home, etc.  The kinds of things that only parents want to hear about.  I also emailed them when I needed help with London reservations or about getting extra bug spray.  Thank you parentals!

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Books and Goodreads.com

And I thought I was done.  HA!

Okay, so this is after the "conclusion" post, but it is all part of documenting the process, right?  Well turns out there are a lot more things I need to mention-ways that I mediated my experience, etc. that I want to make note of if we are talking about the authenticity of experience within different mediums and worldviews, or in my case, my avatars

Maybe it is the fate of the English major to mediate life and experience through books.  I read a total of fifteen books for my course contracts in Ghana, to say nothing of all of the research and materials I read when composing my project proposal before entering the field.  The books I read before this summer helped orient me with some of the themes and scenes I was to expect (in the best way that a book can though).  On the other hand, the books I read during my experience helped me make sense of the present and the day to day happenings.  I particularl related to characters like Adela in A Passage to India, and I think that reading this in the field helped me to reevaluate my limited perspective, or at least put into the proper context.  In adition, things were clarified, especially in the books by African writers like Ama Ata Aidoo and Ben Okri.  Points of view that are difficult to access as a white outsider were easier to understand by looking at some of the narrators of these stories, and the themes and cultural practices were great to parallel with my experience in Ghana.  Books I read once I got home also helped me make sense of what I have been through, and I was surprised that everything I read always related to me in that instance.  Heart of Darkness for example, struck home talking about his return to England in a way I never read it before.  

Tuesday, October 12, 2010


This summer I set out to Ghana with an idea.  An experiment.  A crazy out there theory based project that I struggled to describe in one single sentence.  I wanted to know more about the nature of experience and the authenticity of travel documentation.  It was frustrating to see how European explorers like Henry Morton Stanley and Joseph Conrad had contributed to the stereotype of a “dark continent” of Africa based off of their limited interpretations of their experiences.  As a writer myself, I understand the desire to experience and the need to try to express these experiences as a personal kind of truth.  Still, how often do we consider the nature of how we experience a world foreign to ourselves, or the “truthfulness” or consequential effects of these accounts in regards to their cultural authenticity?  Whether these truths are more “truthful” than what really happened, we could find a copious amount of arguments stemming as far back as Aristotle’s Poetics, but truth was not what I was questioning here.  I was more interested in authenticity.   These questions were the fuel of my project proposal.  A lot has happened since I wrote my objectives, but I have been pleased to see that my project was a success.  Our experiences are indeed significantly subjective based on the way we see the world and the mediums we chose to record it in. 

Gipsy- The Postmodern Traveler/Writer Avatar

In order to look at the true nature of experience during my stay in Ghana I decided to look not only at how the medium I recorded in impacted my experience, but also at how the way I saw dictated it.  I divided different aspects of my personality into five avatars to show these differences.  Gipsy was my favorite of my avatars, being something between a postmodern traveler and a writer.  I think like her most of the time, and so it came easy.  Being Gipsy meant that I could be open with my thoughts, liberal in my themes, and creative with my descriptions and comparisons.  As a writer, this avatar could make sense of the experience by reaching into my past. My goal was to have something of a Virginia Woolf style and more stream of conscious.  I think in the field note process it meshed into Ava, but having more of that tone would definitely be something I implement if I were to do this project again.  It allowed me to be more personal and less conscious of some of the taboos you run into with judgment calls in ethnography. 

  1. Culture Shock- Dealing with jarring situations and encountering the cultural other could be fun with Gipsy.  Her writings are more accessible to someone from my paradigm, and so are probably easier to relate to (FN:7:19, FN:8:13). 
  2. Physical Conditions- Being sick was something I pawned off on Gipsy, allowing me to be open and honest that drinking bad water is not fun, and there is little to romanticize like Ava would.  I also fleshed out my Larium dreams (lucid dreams caused by my anti malarial medicine) and talked about some of the other strange side effects that the pills gave me (FN:9:6, FN:18:1, FN:21:1, FN:28:1-5, FN:67:1, FN:78:8).
  3. Honesty- Being Gipsy allowed me to be personal and less conscious of some of the taboos you run into with judgment calls in ethnography.  My classic example for this was a poem I wrote in the field that I ended up feeling really bad about.  There are just some things you cannot explain on a surface level when you are being a romantic anthropologist like Ava, so these two avatars would fight from time to time.  However, as a writer I was able to be more honest about my initial impressions without worrying too much.  This could make it more entertaining to read as well (FN:25:1, FN:29:1-2, FN:36:2, FN:40:1, FN:54:1-2, FN:70:1, FN:71:1, FN:78:4, FN:83:3).

Ava- The Romantic Anthropologist Avatar

As part of my field study project on the authenticity of experience, I looked not only at how different mediums of recording impacted my research, but also on the way I chose to see.  These different lenses I tried on I called avatars, or different parts of my personality that mediated the way I viewed what I was experiencing.  Having Ava, my romantic anthropologist, as an avatar was a life saver.  Being a student, and a clueless twenty something American who knew little about Ghana, this avatar allowed me to be romantic about my adventures and descriptive in my notes as I went along.

As an avatar, Ava was fairly straight forward and was probably the most stable of my avatars.  She underwent the least amount of evolution in the field.  Here are some of the things I learned as I saw through her eyes during my experience.

  1.  Romantic Spin- Like my "good things that happened today" journal, trying to be Ava helped me see my experience in a more romantic light.  By trying to see through that lens I was prone to have a better day, dealt with culture shock better, and handled different situations with more grace than an avatar like Gipsy (FN:7:18, FN:8:13, FN:17:1, FN:21:10, FN:23:1, FN:83:1, FN:84:3)
  2. Productive- I got many more pages of field notes by far with Ava.  I found that being her was best in busy situations or when I was at school.  Whenever I was a student, this was the best choice of avatar to experience that moment, especially when coupled with some good jots (FN:18:17, FN:18:23, FN: 22:1, FN:22:321, FN:23:31, FN:27:1, FN:27:25, FN:62:32, FN:62:37, FN:69:1).
  3. Observations- Since Ava is supposed to be more of anthropologist, I also recorded much more observations.  Some of them might not have seemed important at the time, but the actions of people and the things that they said could potentially have a lot of value looking back someday.  It also helped me be more aware of how to handle social situations (FN:17:3, FN:27:28).

Myra- The Photographer Avatar

In order to look at how limited experience really is, I chose to look not only at how the medium I recorded in impacted my experience, but also at the way I chose to see it in.  I divided different parts of my personality into different avatars to show these different view points and how different my experience was by being different avatars.  My photographer avatar, Myra, has been quite the learning experience.  The medium of digital photography itself offers a lot of questions about the authenticity of experience and brings in a lot of ethical questions.  However, what interests me the most about my Myra experiment was the difference between an “essence” and an “authentic” photograph. 

Somewhere along the lines I realized that my photograph experiment was failing.  I did not feel right about “taking” pictures of people that I did not know with little intention of giving anything back in return.  It made me serious question National Geographic, and more than ever I believe that establishing proper rapport is necessary to get those kinds of images.  Out of my frustration, I developed a new idea.  I would take a picture every hour on the hour and juxtapose that to the “essence” picture, or what I considered the posed National Geographic type of image that would go in a portfolio.  They are not pretty to look at, but it shows a more accurate presentation of my experience.  Granted, it is not purely authentic.  I could have taken a picture on the half hour, or the five-minute mark, and had a completely different experience.  I just think that it is one step closer to authenticity. 

Here is a slideshow of one of my favorite days where I did this every hour on the hour experiment.  To see the more of these photos click here.

Shelley- The "Experiencer" Avatar

In order to look at how fragile and limited our experiences are, I chose to conduct a project that looks at this phenomenon through analyzing the medium I recorded in, as well as the avatar, or aspect of myself I chose as a lens for that day.  Like my native avatar, Akua, my “experiencer” avatar, Shelley, was a little problematic.  Here are some of the reasons why I had to change my attitude when it came to this way of seeing my experience.

  1. Because the essence of Shelley was about being in a moment and letting that dictate the experience, I was not able to plan for it.  I could not plan a whole day because it only came in glimpses.  A moment could not be planned for, even if I was open and receptive to it (FN:11:1-4, FN:26:2-3, FN:39:9, FN:41:2-3, FN:60:5, FN:60:13, FN:87:12, FN:88:5).
  2. This avatar came to be what the others thought of as the “ideal.”  Because I had previously decided that she would not have a voice, and could only be seen from the point of view of the other avatars, this got a little tricky.  It was easier when I could show how my other avatars dropped their guard and tried to be more like Shelley.
  3. There was also a lot of development with Shelley in the field, as with all of my avatars.  While I was still trying to figure out how to be her, I tried a new approach where I was kind of a yes man.  I agreed to do everything as long as it was honor code appropriate and safe.  It did open a few windows of opportunity, some more awkward than others, and I think that my experience was changed because of it (FN:41:23, FN:41:2, FN:58:1).
  4. Because this avatar was not supposed to have a voice, it made field notes an issue.  To not take notes or write seemed almost impossible.  I would think that everything was passing me by, or try to memorize everything to record later.  It did not work.  I did not realize until trying to be Shelley that just experiencing and not making sense of it is a lot harder than we think. 

My conclusion for this avatar is that she could not be planned for.  If a moment arose where she could have a better experience than my other avatars, then I would switch into her and let the moment consume me.  Otherwise, it was more beneficial to be someone with a voice.

Photo credit to hm on flickr

(More data on Shelley can be found in my field notes FN:18:27, FN:26:5, FN:39:1, FN:39:4-5, FN:60:1-2)

Akua- The Native Avatar

In setting out to conduct my field study project on the authenticity of experience, I decided to look at the different ways my experience showed limitations and biases based on the medium I used to record, as well as the lens, or avatar, I used to see my actual experience.  As I have mentioned before, trying to be Akua, my native avatar, turned out a lot differently than I anticipated.  There are two main reasons why I think this was the case. 

  1. I am not a native.  I cannot see like a native, let alone try to think and act like one.  Maybe if I would have spent a few years or decades among the community I could have pulled this off, but in just a short three months this was not going to happen  It was not like I could just go out and experience a day like a native would.
  2. Language was a problem.  Again, if I would have had more time or language skills I might have been able to figure out how to write a native avatar, but the only luck I had was writing an aesthetic overlay of local phrasing.
I think that the closest to knowing how a native would think would be when I was trying to be Shelley.  Eating with my hands, being in a moment with the family, etc.  I found that these avatars seemed to overlap, except that Shelley was more feasible.  If I were to do this project again I think that I would merge these two avatars.

Photo credit to Heart of Afrika Designs on flickr

(Data can be found in field notes FN:16:1, FN:16:5-7, FN:16:18, FN:18:24, FN:22:24, FN:42:24, FN:58:8)

The Medium of Field Notes

When looking at the limitations of a field study, both the way I saw the experience (in avatars, or different aspects of my personality) as well as the medium I used to record my findings had a significant impact on my project.  Field notes was an extremely important medium I used. They are the delight of all field study students. Field notes are an interesting medium to look at, but with my computer luck I got to experience the joys of doing both written and typed notes. The way that I physically recorded my field notes actually changed a lot of what I documented. I think it is safe to say that “field notes” can be interpreted (and implemented) a lot of different ways. There is not one single answer.

Typed Vs. By Hand Field Notes: Compare and Contrast

Details- By typing up field notes I was able to record a lot more of the details that happened in the day than I did with handwritten notes. The most obvious evidence for this is that my typed field notes were much longer than my handwritten ones.

Corrections- I am the world’s worst speller. Spell check is a good friend of mine. I was also given the freedom to go back and insert ideas that I had forgotten or reorganize my thoughts if something made more sense typed somewhere else. Once I had to do notes by hand I lost that freedom. I could not go back, so I ended up with a lot of writing in the margins and PS’s. In general it was less linear than typed notes.

Easier- Because typing is easier than hand writing, certain activities like interviews were much better to do on a computer. They would have taken me a week to write up if I would have conducted the interviews after my computer crashed. It was easier on my hand, and I noticed that when I was hand writing notes I wrote less in my diary that night.

Digital Photography as a Medium: Benefits and Limitations in Fieldwork

As part of my research, I looked at how my experience was mediated by both the mediums I chose to record my experience as well as the actual way I viewed my time in Ghana.  By dividing parts of my personality into different lenses, which I called avatars, I was able to better see these limitations.  I will talk about Myra, my photographer avatar, and what I discovered with her in terms of an “essence” vs. authentic picture, but I think that since digital photography is so encompassing I want to break it down and look specifically at it as a medium through which I filtered my experience in Ghana.

Walter Benjamin is a great resource for understanding the digital photography as a medium.  It has altered the world of art and assisted in a push towards postmodernism by its lack of relationship with an original.  In his book Illuminations we get a clear feeling from him that photography is a medium that problematizes the notion of an “original” because it is created solely for reproducibility.  He states that “the presence of the original is the prerequisite to the concept of authenticity” and that the translation has no regard or relation to the original, thus having no relationship to it (Benjamin 220).

In the words of Clifford Geertz from The Interpretation of Cultures, all fieldwork is just our personal interpretations.  He bluntly states that “we do not understand the people” because we are not natives, and says that all “anthropological writings are themselves interpretations” and “second to third ones to boot” (15).  This idea that we cannot be native or express a native point of view because of our lack of context is critical for ethnography, travel literature, and any document that attempts to translate a foreign experience outside of the original context.


Rapport- Having a camera was a great way to build rapport in the community, especially among the kids.  Showing them their image on the back with that immediate feedback was priceless.

My Blog as a Medium

Conducting an experimental project like mine on the authenticity of experience made it difficult to represent.  Because photography was such an important component to my research, mediating my experience through a blog made a lot of sense.  Having my final project in a blog format was something new to me, and it has been a bit of a learning experience.  Since digital writing seems to be taking over the realm of the conventional research paper, I also think it is important to learn to do it properly.  Being in Ghana, I ran into difficulties with the medium that I would not have experienced here at home.  Overall I have been exceptionally happy with the new way to explore my research findings and document my experience, but here are some of the benefits and challenges I was able to identify during my stay.

  • It was perfect for representing my different avatars in a meaningful way without getting too confusing
  • It also allowed me to display different mediums, the big one being my photography, that enhanced my reporting
  • With live feedback it made it easy to see how people were responding (or not responding) to what I had been writing.  Having that active audience made the medium a lot more personal, encouraging me to write more.  I was also able to find people with similar interests and benefit from their ideas
  • Can provide links to earlier posts, other blogs, my photography sites, etc
  • Blogging also allows me to share my experience and findings with anyone who might come across my blog, where with a traditional research paper it would likely be for an audience of one (me), and others could not benefit from it
  • By documenting my progress I can show that the journey of my research was just as valuable as the final product
  • It is a more personal medium, allowing me more flexibility in what I can talk about, making it more authentic to my experience.  Since that was the main theme of my project, having a medium that encouraged that was essential

Coursework and Cultural Proofs

Another very important way that I mediated my experience was through ten credits of BYU course contracts.  In order to conduct my research on the authenticity of experience, not only was the avatar, or the lens I used to see my experience, vital, but also the ways I recorded it and how and why I spent my day doing what I was doing.  A larger factor in that was in the classes I was required to take going into the field.  I ended up taking Travel Writing, West African Literature, Cultural Proofs, and a 1 credit IAS course for the Kennedy Center.  At times it was frustrating when my coursework got in the way of say, watching the World Cup, but after looking over my field notes I can now see what a crucial role these contracts played in the experience I had. 

  • Cultural Proofs- a three credit class that had different cultural immersion activities that helped me integrate in the community on a deeper level.  All of the activities I selected have been published on this blog.   Learning names, mapping the village, and singing with the neighbors all helped me establish valuable friendships.  While sometimes these required activities seemed like busy work, they really did help me build rapport in the community.  They were really valuable to my experience
  • Heightened my sensitivity to things that could be overlooked without putting in the effort
  • Was able to relate my experience to the different books that I was reading for my classes
  • It gave me a much more meaningful experience than if I had skipped along as a tourist
  • There were some days when I had to stay home all day to catch up on work instead of experiencing (FN:40:1)
  • Got stressful at times when I started qualifying my data (FN:40:3)
  • Sometimes the formal coursework felt less personal and were not only more difficult to write, but were not as enjoyable to read, also running the risk of being like a book report instead of being personal to my experience
  • Being in Ghana made me realize that there can be a gap between real life and a book (FN:36:12)

    To put the weight of coursework on my particular experience into perspective I wonder how different my project would have been if I would have had different activities for cultural proofs, if I was taking a poetry class instead of travel writing, and if I would have been reading a cultural anthropology book rather than African literature.  Each played a significant part in the way I experienced each and every day.

    Photo credit to the carpedimenproject on flickr

    Monday, October 11, 2010

    My Diary

    In considering the authenticity of experience, the medium I used to mediate my experience proved to be just as important as the avatar (the aspect of myself I used as a lens for that moment).  They told us in the preparation class before entering the field that every student should have a diary separate from field notes. That causes a few problems if we want to talk about authenticity, but some things even I am not about to have public on this blog.

    So what kinds of things go in a diary, and why not in the field notes? After looking over my different mediums, I have decided that my journal had more of a personal tone to it (FN:7:20). They were more intimate and honest, things that I would not want other people to see (and honestly it would not interest anyone else). In my diary I tried to make sense of my experience in the larger context of my life, related more to my past, and was conscious of some of my personal issues. Because of that nature, it is also more enjoyable for me to read.  Of course, if I was not already recording the day-to-day details in my field notes, I would have recorded more of those types of details here.  Something to think about.

    Another thing I included in my diary, just because I always have, but did not in any other medium was the setting. I always wrote down the time and place I was writing, and it adds a unique flavor.  I think it tends to set a mood.

    One thing that kind of bothered me when I went back through my diary was that there were many entries where I talked about nothing that actually happened that day (FN:39:2). I went on and on about boys, drama at home, feelings, insecurities, etc but only mentioned in casual that I happened to be in Ghana that day. Our minds are probably rarely actually in one place, but I feel like this medium allows for more wandering into the realms of thought and away from reality.

    Early Entry- This particular day was one of the first I had in Ghana.  I was still in Kejetia, and you could say that I was having the moment of "what have I done."  This is not the kind of image you would find in a field journal.  It also talks about a bad experience I had calling a friend back home and Rachel's whole peeing in a ziplock bag incident.  Maybe not academic, but one of the fondest memories I have.

    My "Good Things That Happened Today" Journal

    As part of my experiment in Ghana I looked not only at how different ways of seeing (through different avatars of myself) changed my experience, but also through the mediums I chose record it in.  This may be the weirdest thing you have ever heard of, but hey, this is a blog so I am allowed to be more personal than a conventional research paper.  I have been trying to work on being more optimistic and thinking positively lately, and right before I flew out my Okasan (step mom, Stacey), gave me this book and told me to write down all the good things that happen everyday.  So part of my nightly routine after field notes and my diary writing was in this little book, making it one of the ways I mediated my experience.  Call me crazy, but it was a large part of my experience, a viable medium, and I think it actually worked!

    Cover: It was going to be a surfer, but I guess this was more indicative of the present me, Hawaii being over and all.

    Inside Cover: Message from my parents about the purpose of this journal.

    My Jotting Notebook

    In conducting my project on the authenticity of experience I evaluated the different mediums that used to mediate my experience.  As I have mentioned earlier, not only did the avatar I chose to see in dictate my experience, but also the medium in which I chose to express it. A jotting notebook is something that many writers and ethnographers carry around, but rarely consider as a viable part of their final product. There are a few reasons why I think this medium has been valuable to my research. Handwriting looks and feels more intimate, you have flexibility to doodle, chart, list, freewrite, plan, etc without too much pressure. Because I think this kind of scrapbook mentality does have an interesting value, not only documenting my project's progress, but also as a medium itself, I have selected a few pages from my jots to elaborate on this idea.

    The Cover: This is the book I selected to go into the field. From this picture you can see that it is well used. Pages are ripped out, the corners are bent, and it has a very raw feeling to it. In the corner you can also see where I brainstormed some of my initial impressions of the weather once I got off the plane. Only a few of these ideas made it into my field notes.

    Larium Dream: This is probably my favorite jotting entry. Somewhere along the line I decided to document my crazy dreams from the anti malaria medication I had to take. The first page is fairly legible. I woke up from a nightmare and was conscious enough to get the jist of it. The second dream I had was on the top of the page you see on the right. It was difficult to read, but a few words are distinguishable. The third dream I wrote I was so frustrated that I could not sleep that I did not turn on the flashlight to see what I was writing and wrote right over the top of dream number 2. A little more authentic to a Larium night than my field notes let on.

    The Empire Writes Back- Bill Ashcoft, etc

    The Empire Writes Back: Theory and Practice in Post-Colonial Literatures (New Accents)The Empire Writes Back: Theory and Practice in Post-Colonial Literatures by Bill Ashcroft

    My rating: 4 of 5 stars

    Reading this book was extremely helpful in putting postcolonial literature into perspective.  Considering the content, it was also fairly easy to digest.  Until reading this book I had been frustrated by some of the slang and accents of “english” (the different, but not lesser evolution of the English language in various countries) of postcolonial literature, or discouraged when I was not given a dictionary to make sense of it.  I still have a lot of questions, especially since my personal experience in Ghana, Africa this summer and the lack of literature in the school system, but overall this was the voice of clarity that I was waiting for.

    I really appreciated the history lesson in English literature as a “privileged academic subject,” not that long ago (3).  Until I came to Ghana I never realized just how elitist my major, English, seems to be.  I used to read Victorian novels and covet the leisure of the upper classes, but that is probably me.  It is the useless on an everyday scale.  A book will not help me feed my family or till the farm.  These things that I have dedicated my life to studying are just that.  A privilege.  Something that few others could ever enjoy.  I feel ethnocentric in even being disappointed that the kids don’t read.  Why should they be reading the English classics from the “center?”  This book seems to argue that the “center” is an illusion, yet another concept imposed through colonialism.   

    Walden- Henry David Thoreau

    Walden and Civil DisobedienceWalden and Civil Disobedience by Henry David Thoreau

    My rating: 5 of 5 stars

    This book is saturated with the kind of quotes you would frame on a wall or see in motivational posters found in dentist offices.  The ideal that he talks about is something I have always longed for, and I love the messages he shares (even though there are some problems with the authenticity of his experience—a mile from town, mom doing laundry, etc).

    To live consciously, to “be awake” and thus be alive, not wasting life, and living simply, are all things we could probably heed a little more.  I crave all of these things when I am bogged down with the mundane, monotonous tasks of daily living.  But this was surprising to me in some regard.  It seems to be the anti-travel narrative.  It is about changing the way you think, your state of mind, and as Thoreau beautifully put it, “to crave and paint the very atmosphere” from “which we look.”  This idea that we can “affect the quality of the day,” no matter who we are or where we are, seems to be an argument against the need to go far far away in the pursuit of travel to “live deliberately” (74).  Still, I think it can be fun do to do both, though I recognize the necessity of having that stability of mind no matter where you happen to be.  I think it is hard, especially being back from Ghana, to retain the peace and joy I felt when things did not seem so go-go-go.  When life was not marching to a clock, etc.  I hate it when I look around in a crowd or in a restaurant and everyone seems so down and dejected.  Do most men really “live lives of quiet desperation”(17)?

    The Famished Road- Ben Okri

    The Famished RoadThe Famished Road by Ben Okri

    My rating: 5 of 5 stars

    This was my first read, and favorite, out of my recent selections from West African authors.  The use of magical realism is very fitting, combining the spiritual beliefs with everyday life, very much like Wole Soyinka and Amos Tutuola have done before.  The cyclical plot structure also intensified the genre.  It felt like a lot was happening but going nowhere fast, reminding me of Yeat’s poem “Things Fall Apart” where “the center cannot hold.”  Yet, having lived in Ghana, Africa while reading this book, I had a different experience with it than I think I would have otherwise.  While there are countless things to talk about, I want to look at the review on the back cover of my copy from Boston Globe, who said, “that Okri should have wrestled such a book from the miseries of Africa life is all the more astonishing.”  That phrase “miseries of Africa life,” is something I want to look at a little closer.

          This was the first book I read in the field.  Dealing with culture shock, language barriers, a new diet, health issues, and the new scene it sometimes made it look like that phrase had a lot of truth to it.  Trying not to be ethnocentric, but the anthropologist in me had troubles romanticizing hungry people and dying children.  How do you reconcile with this coming from a Western paradigm?  It was in the midst of this struggle that I came across the speech of Azaro’s father to call him back from the spirit world.  “We have sorrow here, but we also have celebration.  We know the special joys.  We have sorrow, but it is the sister of love, and the mother of music” (337).  More than ever did I realize that everyone suffers, no matter where you are in the world.  All life is full of suffering.  It is the human condition.  No one is exempt.  In America it is just different.  And last I checked no one has cheated death yet.

    Imitation Practice: Model 10

    Imitation Practice: Model 10

    Passage 10, “Tangier?  It is two days by boat from Marseille, a charming trip that takes you along the coast of Spain, and if you are someone escaping from the police, or merely someone escaping, then by all means come here: hemmed with hills, comforted by the sea, and looking like a white cape draped on the shores of Africa, it is an international city with an excellent climate eight months of the year, roughly March to November.  There are magnificent beaches, really extraordinary stretches of sugar-soft sand and surf; and if you have a mind for that sort of thing, the nightlife, though neither particularly innocent nor especially varies is dark to dawn, which, when you consider that most people nap all afternoon, and that very few dine before ten or eleven, is not too unusual.  Almost everything else in Tangier is unusual, however, and before coming here you should do three things:  be inoculated for typhoid, withdraw your savings from the bank, say goodbye to your friends—heaven knows you may never see them again.  This advice is quite serious, for it is alarming, and the number of travelers who have landed here for brief holiday, then settled down and let the years go by.  Because Tangier is a basin that holds you, a timeless place; the days slide by less noticed than foam in a waterfall; this, I imagine, is the way time passes in a monastery, unobtrusive and on slippered feet; for that matter, these two institutions, a monastery and Tangier, have another common denominator:  self-containment.  The average Arab, for example, thinks Europe and America are the same thing and in the same place, wherever that may be—in any event, he doesn’t care; and frequently Europeans hypnotized by the tinkling of an oud and the swarming drama around them, come to agree.”

    by Truman Capote, “Tangier”


    Ghana?  It is a 45 hour flight from America’s West Coast, a delirious flight that takes you over a few oceans, and if you are someone who can’t sleep on planes, or someone who can’t sleep in general, you can stare out into the blackness and have the satisfaction of knowing you are flying over Mecca:  a dot appears over your complimentary computer, tempting your interest, and the staff dressed up like a circus comes to tap you the minute you drift to sleep, especially when you really need the sleep, to slap some plastic food on your tray.  There are a few good airlines, Emirates I recommend because of the twinkly-tiny stars on the ceiling; and if you are not going to be sleeping anyways, the movie selection, though neither really interesting nor trashy has several attractive options, which, when you compare it to your typical free selections, or even the trivia games, is very generous of the airline.  If it isn’t the airline it is the airports that are the thrill, of course, and before reaching Ghana you can sit in three of them:  Atlanta or JFK if you are lucky because you might see the skyline, Heathrow which is a city in itself, and Dubai—because there is nothing more exciting than seeing the tallest building in the world than looking at it behind Plexiglas.  This journey, though extensive, is not the kind of thing I should be complaining about, because going by a ship is not my thing.  Because Ghana isn’t the sort of place most people go, an out there place; the hours go by less painful than most flights; this, I suspect, is the only way I could have endured it and high school, half awake but mostly not; for that matter; the two places, high school and the voyage to Ghana, are both endurable with a certain something:  anticipation.  The average senior, for example, believes that maturity begins the day after graduation, which is never the case—or any I have heard of, but it doesn’t matter; and when most people hear of Ghana they aren’t quite sure if that is around the corner of Europe or what continent the destination is, and even knowing the truth the travelers pretend it is, because we have to get there somehow. 

    Imitation Practice: Model 9

    Imitation Practice: Model 9

    Passage 9, “Jury duty again.  I’m sitting in the “central jurors’ room” of a courthouse in lower Manhattan, as I do every two years, waiting to be called for a jury, which I almost never am.  It’s an experience that all of us have known, one form or another, as long as we can remember: organized solitude.”

    by William Zinsser, “Jury Duty”


    My hotel.  It is small and dark with “decent accommodations” as advertised in the heart of nowhere, as presumed, seeing that no one goes to Tekheman, except for those who have to.  It turns out that I am no exception, surprise surprise, and so I won’t complain:  It is a room.


    One week left.  I’ve just finished pre packing my “few possessions” and found it all fit, as usual, tucking in the last minute additions, just to be sure I don’t need to buy another suitcase.  It is a ritual I have performed as far as I can remember, one way or another, and it won’t be the last: type A personality.

    Sunday, October 10, 2010

    Glimpse of Myra: To "Take" a Picture

    As I am taking in all of my data and making sense of my different avatars I want to re-post something I wrote on the byu field study blog about the ethics of "taking" a picture.  It was one of the most valuable (and surprising) lessons I learned in the field.

    "Take" A Picture

    Labels: ,
    Up till now I had not given much consideration to the word “take” in “taking a picture.” I’ve done it my entire life. I’ve even created a job for myself out of it, but here in Ghana I am forced to wrestle with what it means.

    After weighing the advice of my mentor and my own better judgment, I still chose to haul my professional D700 across four continents in search of the National Geographic image. I was mortified to discover that my disappointments have come not from water damage, weight issues, or theft, but in my own inability to snap a picture.

    The challenge is not the aperture or the shutter speed. Not my ISO and not my white balance. It is from getting my fancy camera out of my bag and stealing an image of someone I don’t know, or of something that I don’t really understand, with little intention of giving anything back in return. It is hard to justify, and I now understand why it took Stephanie (the Nt. Geo photographer from the prep class) eight months before she could access the community. With minimal language skills I can only imagine how long it would take me to get the image I thought I was setting out to take.

    When I started taking pictures of the goats and the ceiling fan I knew something had to give. So I’ve had a new idea. As part of my project I still need to be a photographer, but I’m mixing it up. I’m taking one picture every hour on the hour. It isn’t pretty. I still cringe with embarrassment when I watch my group members look through my images. I have to remind myself not to edit them in a frantic, abysmal attempt to salvage the composition, but I think it will add an interesting flavor to my project on the authenticity of experience.

    I may not come home with a single picture for my portfolio, but I’m coming back with something better. As Maggie keeps reminding us, “Even if your project plummets, you won’t fail your experience.” So here is my shout out to having some expectations unmet, and some surpassed, and my new-found appreciation for flexibility in the field. I just wish I had more time to go through and read all of the other posts and comment on them, but it might have to wait till we get back.

    Imitation Practice: Model 8

    Imitation Practice: Model 8

    Passage 8, “From all available evidence no black man had ever set foot in this tiny Swiss village before I came.  I was told before arriving that I would probably be a “sight” for the village; I took this to mean that people of my complexion were rarely seen in Switzerland, and also that city people are something of a “sight” outside of the city.  It did not occur to me—possibly because I am an American—that there could be people anywhere who had never seen a Negro.

    by James Baldwin, “Stranger in the Village”


    From everyone’s accounts of Kumasi nothing compares to riding the tro-tro’s.  I was warned before coming that it might be a bit “different” than anything I was used to; I figured this meant that it would be a bit cozier than the UTA public transport system, and that others less bus route savvy would find “different” more jarring.  It did not register—probably because I’m twenty something—that a window frame could ever be considered an extra seat, or that driving with doors is optional. 


    From all I knew French-fries were the only thing worthy of mention about French food.  Chase was telling me the other day something about “refined taste” in small portions; and I figured that people in France must be anorexic or on extreme diets, and also that “refined taste” was only for rich snobs who pretended to like snails.  I did not realize—probably because I was always okay with “freedom-fries”—that this French food culture would be my next big adventure. 

    Imitation Practice: Model 7

    Imitation Practice: Model 7

    Passage 7, “The proust Madeleine phenomenon is now as firmly established in folklore as Newton’s apple or Watt’s steam kettle.  The man ate a tea biscuit, the taste evoked memories, he wrote a book.  This is a capable of expression by the formula TMB, for Taste > Memory >  Book.  Sometime ago, when I began to read a book called The Food in France, by Waverly Root, I had an inverse experience:  BMT, for Book > Memory > Taste.  Happily, the tastes that The Food of France re-created for me-small birds, stewed rabbit, stuffed tripe, Cote Roie, and Tvel—were more robust than that of the Madeleine, which Larousse defines as “a light cake made with sugar, flour, lemon juice, brandy, and eggs.”  In the light of what Proust wrote with so mild a stimulus, it is the world’s loss that he did not have a heartier appetite.  On a dozen Gardiners Island oysters, a bowl of clam chowder, a peck of steamers, some bay scallops, three sautéed soft-shelled crabs, a few ears of fresh-picked corn, a thin sword-fish steak of generous area, a pair of lobsters, and a Long Island duck, he might have written a masterpiece.” 

    by A.J. Liebling, “A Good Appetite”


    My field study has been as surprising as my A in college calculus or the time I discovered that I actually liked olives. I anticipated something, the something turned into nothing, and I came out with a better something. This was the plan MTY, for Me > Teach > You. It didn’t take long to see my mistake, and I soon realized that it is the reverse: YTM, for You > Teach > Me. Luckily, I figured it out before re-attempting my failed focus groups, dropped the fancy words, forgot the Shakespeare, learned their names, asked them questions, and took a seat—which has made all of the difference in my field study, canceling my dreary plans to “teach Wed. and Sat., help with homework, interview ten students, ask ten questions.” It was a good thought for the prep class, but now it is a whole lot better than my first something. A dozen new questions, a few close friends, the risk of looking stupid, reciprocal teasing, sharing an undersized desk, studying for business management tests, eating with my hands, and practicing Facebook chat, has been much more rewarding.

    Imitation Practice: Model 6

    Imitation Practice: Model 6

    Passage 6 “On summer, along about 1904, my father rented a camp on a lake in Maine and took us all there for the month of August.  We all got ringworm from some kittens and had to rub Pond’s Extract on our arms and legs night and morning and my father rolled over in a canoe with all his clothes on; but outside of that the vacation was a success and from then on none of us ever thought there was any place in the world like that lake in Maine.” 

    by E.B. White, “Once More to the Lake”


    I was young, maybe about twelve, when I swore I would never own a mini van.  I was in the seventh grade getting picked up from Fairfield Jr. High School and it rained and I needed a ride so my mother pulled up in the red boat decked out in a clown costume; but rather than sabotage my love for Halloween the only thing that could ever console me was my heightened repulsion towards mini vans. 

    Thursday, October 7, 2010

    Through the Dark Continent- Henry Morton Stanley

    Through the Dark Continent:Volume 1Through the Dark Continent:Volume 1 by Henry Morton Stanley

    My rating: 1 of 5 stars

    I think I would rather get hit by a bus than try to read the second half of this 1000 paged narrative. I had to read it for a class to try to see where the "Dark Continent" stereotype began (the attitude towards Africa since European explorations and commentaries, like this, that Africa is dark, uncivilized, evil, dangerous, etc.) This was probably the most racist book I have ever read.  My earlier comments on this narrative can be found here.

    Hardly anything is redeeming about this book, other than getting a snap shot of how people really did view this continent hundreds of years ago. The countless references to landmarks and descriptions were painfully boring, but the attitudes towards the death of natives is what bothered me the most. If a whiteman died, he would get a few pages and maybe a cute little sketch to mark the chapter. Even a dog would get at least a half of page. Yet, the natives who guided him along that died along the way were barely mentioned.

    A Harvest of Our Dreams- Kofi Anyidoho

    A Harvest of Our Dreams With Elegy for the Revolution by Kofi Anyidoho

    My rating: 2 of 5 stars

    Of all of the books I read for my African Readings class this summer, this was by far the most problematic for me.  I wrote a paper about it here, but in general I was really confused who his intended audience was.

    Anyidoho, like other African writers, writes in some local words and phrases instead of translating them, yet does not include a dictionary.  I would think that this makes the work more "authentic" if it is speaking to the native population and blatantly ignores the West, but when I went to the Ghanaian students and asked for clarification of who "Uncle Demanya" or the various God references were, they were just as clueless as I was.  If the students didn't have that cultural literacy, and if I am clueless, even having spent some time in Ghana, who is the intended audience?

    Heart of Darkness- Joseph Conrad

    Heart of Darkness (Green Integer)Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad

    My rating: 5 of 5 stars

    The first time I read this book I was in high school.  I hated it.  I could not even get through it, let alone understand it.  The second time was in the second half of British Literature class; surprised I found that I really enjoyed it.  That was before I knew what Achebe and others have said (Achebe called Conrad a "bloddy racist), and before I realized there was a lot of truth to that.

    Now here I am.  My third time through.  I have been to Ghana.  I am home now.  Where do I put this book?  How do I wrestle with it?

    I have been on both sides of the debate, but now I am back to the foggy gray middle ground after my experience in Ghana this summer.  One of my best students approached me when I was rereading Heart of Darkness.  I asked him if he had ever read the book.  "No."  I asked him if he had ever heard of the book.  He again replied, "no."  I continued to explain why it could be a problematic text.  I will never forget his response to me.

    Imitation Practice: Model 5

    Imitation Practice: Model 5

    Passage 5, “The best time to run away is September.  When you run away in July the good people are off someplace else.  Their daughters or wives are on guard, and one of them will be blocking the front door, arms folded, yelling at you, “Where do you think you’re going, missy, with that suitcase?  If you think you’re going to throw your clothes around my house you got another thing coming.”  What you have to do is walk right on down the street, keeping your eyes straight ahead, pretending you’re on your way to someplace a lot better.” 

    By Dawn Powell, “What Are You Doing in My Dreams?”


    The only thing worse than malaria is waiting to find out if you have it.  When you lay dead in your mosquito net your friends are off on some great adventure.  They will come back, and relate you the whole story over the spicy joloff dinner, the one you shouldn’t eat, describing to you, “the high of my day was figuring out my whole project, but how are you feeling?  If you want I can hold your hair when you barf.”  What you have to do is plaster on a smile, swallow the clumpy bug infested rice, reminding yourself that this is all a part of the great experience.

    Imitation Practice: Model 4

    Imitation Practice: Model 4

    Passage 4, “When some years ago I read a piece of Ernest Hemingway called Now I Lay Me, I thought there was nothing further to be said about insomnia.  I see now that that was because I had never had much; it appears that every man’s insomnia is as different from his neighbor’s as are their daytime hopes and aspirations.”

    By F. Scott Fitzgerald, “Sleeping and Waking”


    A few years ago I met a boy who never capitalized “i,” and I thought that there was something to be said about it.  I have since forgotten his name; but the idea has stuck with me when some days I don’t like the bold declaration of being a single being but only one letter.

    Imitation Practice: Model 3

    Imitation Practice: Model 3

    Passage 3, “It happened at Aix-les-Bains, one of the pleasantest places in the world.  I was staying at the Grand-Hotel d’Aix, which opens on the sloping little square with the bronze head of Queen Victoria, commemorating her visits to that old watering-place in Savoie.  The Cassino and the Opera are next door, just across the gardens.  The hotel was build for the travelers of forty years ago, who liked large rooms and large baths, and quiet.  It is not at all small, but very comfortable.  Long ago I sued to hear old Pittsburghers and Philadelphians talk of it.  The newer hotels, set on the steep hills above the town, have the fashionable trade; the noise and jazz and dancing.

    In the dining room I often noticed, at a table not far from mine, an old lady, a Frenchwoman, who usually lunched and dined alone.  She seemed very old indeed, well overy eighty, and somewhat infirm, though not at all withered or shrunken.  She was not stoud, but her body had that rather shapeless heaviness which for some detestable reason often settles upon people in old age.  The thing one especially noticed was her fine head, so well set upon her shoulder and beautiful in shape, recalling some of the portrait busts of Roman ladies.  Her forehead was low and straight, her nose made just the right angle with it, and there was something quite lovely about her temples, something one rarely sees." 

    By Willa Cather, “A Chance Meeting”


    I was in the second grade when Matt died, one of my clearer first memories.  Mom went to answer the phone, which still clung to the wall with a knotted cord in those days, dropping it as she fell to her knees among the rubble of shock and devastation.  Michael and Daniel came running up the stairs, to see what was happening.  Mom was inconsolable which wasn’t unusual on any occasion, but that day was more strange more traumatic, and real.  The news was terrifying, but not close somehow.  Back in the day I was not so doubtful about what happens when we die and what happens when we live.  My brothers, watching between the stair rails of the second story, they do not remember as I; the tragedy and questions and riddles that only the dead can answer.

    That was the first time I met death, stared at dead body, smelt the velvet roses, watched the procession, and discovered my distaste for funeral potatoes.  It was quite unsettling indeed, to watch my aunt, who always had music in her eyes, shriveled up in a chair with a death wish written in her shaking frame.  The thing I will never forget was my black shoes, so polished that I scuffed up the red linoleum as I paced in the hallway, trying to answer those riddles with the limitless supply of peppermint breath mints, a taste that would hardly respond.

    Imitation Practice: Model 2

    Imitation Practice: Model 2

    Passage 2, “The other evening I had to dine out alone, and stopping in on my way at the bookstore, bought a little eighteenth-century edition of Persius, with notes and a translation.  The editor and translator was a man named William Drummond, who had also been a member of Parliament.  The attractive duodecimo was bound in green morocco and stamped in gold, and, inside the cover, had gray marbled paper with green and yellow runnings.  There was a medallion of Aulus Persius Flaccus, with crisp metallic curls on the title-page, and the whole volume, with the edge of its pages gold on all three sides and its well-spaced and small clear type, had the aspect of a little casket in which something precious was kept.  I went to an Italian restaurant and, while I was waiting for the antipasto, I began to read the preface.  In offering to the public,”  it ran, “a new English version of Persius, my object has never been….

    By Edmund Wilson, “A Preface to Perseus”


        The other evening we celebrated Danielle’s birthday, and for the occasion, Akua took the liberty of cooking up a large amount of groundnut soup and banku, and we were all invited.  The soup was a mess of red oil and fish chunks, those were the first things I noticed.  The size of the bowl was next with its cracking ridge, and, the yellow stained plastic, which had a sand paper like texture that made my arm hair stand.  Then I saw the bobbing eyeballs, with their stoic glazed gaze bouncing against the banku blob, and the whole scene, with the floating bones and curdling consistency enveloping my fingers, caused an eruption in my stomach that burbled up into my mouth, with an sour acidic flavor mingled with the familiarity of this mornings breakfast.  I clamped my eyes shut and, biting my lip in a frantic effort to suffocate the gag, forced it back down.  I coughed to cover my disgust, stuck my hand back in, took another mouthful, and swallowed without chewing, scarffed without tasting. 

    Imitation Practice: Model 1

     Practicing different styles of writing this summer has been enjoyable.  These particular excerpts were selected by my mentor, Dr. Burton, in the travel writing packet for my course contract.  Not only has it introduced different variations to my own writing (the dash, which is something I never used previously), but it has helped me look at how form and content really do have an equal voice in what gets said.  I will be providing some of these imitations and my commentary on the short passages to document my process. 

    Imitation Practice: Model 1

    Passage 1, “The cottage had a good trim garden in front of it, and another behind it.  I might not have noticed it at all but for them and their emerald greenness.  Yet itself (I saw when I studied it) was worthy of them.  Sussez is rich in fine Jacobean cottages; and their example, clearly, has not been lost on the builder of this one.  Its proportions had a homely grandeur.  It was long and wide and low.  It as was quite a yard long.  It had three admirable gables.  It had a substantial and shapely chimneystack.  I liked the look that it had of honest solidity all over, noting anywhere scamped in the workmanship of it.  It looked as though it had been build for all time.  But this was not so.  For it was build on sand, and of sand; and the tide was coming in.

    By Max Beerbohm, “Something Defensible”

    Imitation of Form:

        The soup had a healthy layer of oil on top, and a generous helping of fish below it.  It might have gone purposely unnoticed but there were eyeballs and bones poking up through the orange redness.  The banku itself (I noticed upon closer look) was abominable without the soup.  Banku has the constancy of play dough; and the taste, sadly, is not much better.  The very look of it was unsettling.  It was solid but slimy.  Soft but grainy.  It had a flavor of rotten milk.  It had a color like puke.  I hated the way I had to fondle it before shoving it down my throat, taking care not to chew before swallowing.  It looked like my death certificate or a divine revelation that I could never serve a mission.  But thinking did not help.  For I was in this house, and not my house, and Akua would not be satisfied until it was finished. 

    Wednesday, October 6, 2010

    Nervous Conditions- Tsitsi Dangarembga

    Nervous ConditionsNervous Conditions by Tsitsi Dangarembga

    My rating: 4 of 5 stars

    Reading this book in Ghana was a unique experience.  It was amazing to me how the issues seemed to line up with my personal experience that week.  Frightening really.  I guess I knew that others did not have the same privileges that I did as a woman living in the United States, but it was weird to see that by reading this book and looking at Nyasha, that I had a better perspective on what it means to be a woman at home.  Actually, women are not equal.  Don't believe me?  Tell that to my best friend who got dumped because she wanted a PHD and to keep her own last name.  We are much better off than say, the narrator of this book, but being a woman has implications.  Perhaps they are just expressed differently, like eating disorders and image obsession.  I think this books says a lot about the challenges of being a woman no matter who you are or where you were brought up.

    A Harvest of Our Dreams in Perspective: The Place for Literature in the Ghana School System

    This past summer I had the opportunity to conduct research at a secondary school in the Ashanti region of Ghana.  It was here I first encountered A Harvest of Our Dreams, a collection of early poetry by the Ghanaian poet Kofi Anyidoho.  One of the students, who I will call Ama, was reading a pristine library copy of the volume and came to me trying to make sense of the poem, “A Harvest of Our Dreams.”  Unfortunately I could not give her all of the assistance she sought because I too did not understand the cultural references to “Ootsa of the sea” or “Uncle Demanya” mentioned in the poem (Anyidoho 7).  With no glossary, no accessible Google for miles, and an education system swimming in colonial influence, what chance did Ama, or any student in Ghana, have to understand Anyidoho’s poem?  After careful consideration of Anyidoho and his messages I have discovered that the reasons why A Harvest of Our Dreams fails to be understood among the local community is because of an education system uninterested in preserving cultural identity and indifferent to literature.  By using textual evidence from A Harvest of Our Dreams, secondary sources, and my own person experience I will show how this particular brand of illiteracy is caused by the loss of traditional values in the adopted British school system, the estrangement from the local language, and the emphasis on the practicality of speaking English.

    A Passage to India- E.M. Forster

    A Passage to India (Penguin Classics)A Passage to India by E.M. Forster

    My rating: 5 of 5 stars

    One of the best books I have ever read. I would give it a six star rating if I could. Forster is an amazing author and brings up some interesting tensions between England and her former empire in a way I had not previously been exposed to. Can't rave enough about this one.

    This idea of an echo is fascinating to me. This inability to establish meaning until the event has past seems to be a main theme throughout the novel, and that can be seen especially through Aziz and his perspective on the friendship he had with Mrs. Moore, the English woman. The thought that "most of life is so dull that there is nothing to be said about it, and the books and talk that would describe it as interesting are obliged to exaggerate, in the hope of justifying their own existence" is profound (125).It seems depressing really, but there is something to this, especially in terms of the authenticity of travel writing.

    No Sweetness Here and Other Stories- Ama Ata Aidoo

    No Sweetness Here and Other StoriesNo Sweetness Here and Other Stories by Ama Ata Aidoo

    My rating: 5 of 5 stars

    Aidoo does a great job of showing some of the current issues that are at the heart of modernization in Ghana today.  These short stories have quite the range of perspectives to give a broad picture of what it looks like to be Ghanaian, whether you are living in a small village in the north or are living the city life of Accra.  It also looks as the views of both men and women, elders and children, and this unique blend gives a very universal flavor to her themes and messages.

    In "Everything Counts" there is a line that says "one did not really go to school to learn about Africa" (2).  I had the opportunity to do research at a secondary school in Ghana and found that this was more true than not.  The library shelves were full of donated copies of English Romantic Poets, European explorations of Africa, and outdated United States history textbooks.  Although I think they are incorporating more African literature into the curriculum, there is definitely a shortage of literature appreciation in the Ghanaian community until reaching the university level (which is not an option for the vast majority of the population).  I cannot help but think there is a lot of truth to what Aidoo is saying here.

    The Palm-Wine Drunkard and My Life in the Bush of Ghosts- Amos Tutuola

    The Palm-Wine Drinkard and My Life in the Bush of GhostsThe Palm-Wine Drinkard and My Life in the Bush of Ghosts by Amos Tutuola

    My rating: 4 of 5 stars

    These two stories were a great find! Savoring something like a fairytale by Brothers Grimm and a didactic morality play, but not at the same time. This form and tone seemed entirely unique, and reading the forwarded biography I second the claim that it is "perhaps fortunate that his schooling ended too early to force his story-telling into a foreign style" (10). Written in the 50's, this book was one of the first acknowledged stories to come out of West Africa.

    Story telling is an art that, in my experience, seems to have been abandoned in the current Western African school systems aimed at a Western education. These tales seem to have that flavor of that oral tradition, said to be incomparable in a Western context.

    I believe the most entertaining of the stories was "My Life in the Bush of Ghosts." The magical realism seems very fitting to the subject, a combination of spiritual beliefs and day to day life of a traditional African. Fears of "the Bush" and the adventures our narrator goes through take us into the mind of a brilliant imagination, allowing us a taste of some of the rich nature of traditional stories.

    Arrow of God- Chinua Achebe

    Arrow of GodArrow of God by Chinua Achebe

    My rating: 4 of 5 stars

    An interesting final book of a series of Achebe's tragedies, said in Achebe's introduction the book he is "most likely to be caught sitting down to read again."  Arrow of God is saturated in traditional themes and tensions from colonial influence and has some great proverbs!  My favorite proverb was that "a man who asks questions does not lose his way" (204).  There seems to be a lot of truth in that.  I think that many of the themes in this book can be tied up in the proverbs, which is part of a rich cultural heritage.

    At first I struggled to understand the basic plot, but after keeping a list of the character names and vocab that kept popping up I was able to sort it out.  I highly recommend doing that if you are having a difficult time.  It is worth the extra bit of effort.

    Collected Plays 1- Wole Soyinka

    Collected Plays:  Volume 1 (Includes a Dance of the Forests/the Swamp Dwellers/the Strong Breed/the Road/the Bacchae of Euripides)Collected Plays:  Volume 1 by Wole Soyinka

    My rating: 2 of 5 stars

    One of the first things I noticed about "A Dance in the Forest" is that it is not not very nationalistic, even though it was performed for the celebration of Nigerian independence in October 1960.  If anything it seems like a warning to move forward rather than get stuck in a past mindset.

    There are also some pretty serious critiques of some of the changes due to modernization.  Rola comments that "this whole family business sickens me," to which Obaneja responds, "it never used to be a problem" (9).  From my experience in Ghana this summer I noticed that there is a serious tension between the traditional family (extended family, cousins, uncles, etc) and the nuclear family that has been introduced.  Disputes over land and inheritance and the whole view of family life have been in flux due to Western influences.

    Friday, October 1, 2010


    Sometimes I wake up surprised that I am in this room.  The chipped blue walls I painted in high school.  A bed so enormous I can turn sideways and my feet will not dangle when I can’t sleep.  The box in the top of my closet with pictures of once living realities and fading memories.  A mirror on the dresser to remind me that I forgot to plaster on my makeup.  Carpet—warn fuzzy carpet, AC and a computer with unlimited Facebook access in the corner.  But there is something new.  Something that changed.


    You know, I can still hear their voices.  The blaring radio with the blown speakers wakes me up.  Then come the children’s laughter echoing as they run up the hill to school singing the wrong words to Celin Deon.  I should run, but not after that Larium dream, and my mosquito net fell in on me again.