Originally Thunder Road by Bruce Springsteen was entitled Wings on Some Wheels, a metaphor for following a dream by traveling to hunt that elusive puppy, hope, down. American culture is full of this notion of pursuing one’s dream through mobility. From everything from the Muppet’s Movie to Easy Rider
, it seems the notion that who we are lays out on the road for us to discover, and our full potential lays ahead on this road of fate, and we only must pull out of here to win. This relationship between hope and mobility has been on my mind a lot lately, as I have been working on behalf of the Village Bicycle Project studying how bicycles that were brought into a very small and very rural community in the Upper East region of Ghana about sixteen months ago have transformed people’s lives.
The ‘wings on some wheels’ stories I’ve been listening to (over 150 interviews) have taken me to the fun to say ‘Bolgatonga’ area of Upper East region of Ghana. I’m in a village outside of Bolgatonga, and my research partner Samson (bald) and I travel each day about an hour Northwest to a village of Kandiga to study how the Village Bicycle Project’s efforts there to empower through bicycles is helping people’s dreams of prosperity be better fulfilled. Wings on some wheels…
Needless to say , Ghana is a very different country from America. Here in the evenings I’ve been recklessly tutoring high school algebra to some local kids, which has more or less brought me into the orbit of curiosity of a few more local kids and confirmed my belief that I should never teach high school algebra. As a study break (which I think is also valuable as a lesson in social understanding) I show them a few pictures of America from my computer and beg for their questions. Life here is so heads-to-tails different that when I explained the concept of a food vending machine it elicited a literal gasp of shock from the kids I was talking to. That is how different of a world we are talking about.*
To get to Kandiga, the community I am doing my research in, Samson has arranged –or more like kinived—a way for us to have a brand-new motorcycle from a man who sells them under the condition that we keep the bubble-wrap on and don’t reconnect the wiring so the odometer works, so this way he can sell it as “new.” That being said, I’ve mentally calculated that we’ve already put over 1,400 km on this “new” motorcycle, and we may have broken off one of the shocks and a pedal at one point, though good thing it came in the packaging that way. What I like most about the motorcycle is that it talks.
Samson thinks the automated woman’s voice is speaking in French, but my guess is it is in Chinese. Any which way, anytime we are idling she just keeps on repeating this jibber-jabber phrase that sounds exactly like she is saying ‘it happens again and again.’ At a stop-“suggestion” (no traffic laws are obeyed here) I’ll hear “it happens again and again” again and again, maybe twenty times.* It’s a weird phrase to hear again and again. It reminds me of lyrics to a David Bowie song in that superficially it sounds like it makes sense, but in reality it’s just a mash-up that’s a semblance of logic. Yet, in the past two weeks this generic philosophy has come to be a fitting narrative. Fifty children surrounding you while you are doing something as fascinating as, say, drinking water? It happens again and again. Eating fufu (blah and sauce) for six straight meals? It happens again and again. Third day straight when no one showed up to be interviewed, and you sat all day in the hot sun? It happens again and again. It happens again and again. It hap…
The location of my research, Kandiga, is a world-apart from relatively bustling Bolgatonga, where I spend my evenings. While Bolgatonga is much like Wa (where I was in the Upper West region), in that it is a medium sized, dusty ol’ town, packed with street vendors and motorcycles, Kandiga is anything but (excepting dusty).
To get to Kandiga you ride down a rural road until you don’t think it can get anymore rural. Then you turn off it onto an even smaller gravel road, and then again to –literally—a footpath that constitutes the only entrance into Kandiga. The town itself is 1,600 people, which might strike you as a relatively big small village, but if you consider that it takes about 45 minutes to drive from one side to another, and the area it encompasses an area just a little smaller than Madison, Wisconsin, it strikes you as pretty freakin’ big.
As of late I have been shaking more hands than a politician up for re-election and throwing out more hand-waves than a beauty queen in a parade. And that seems rather fitting, as those are more or less my two respective roles here in the Upper East region of Ghana: to talk and better understand locals’ lives (with the hope of helping policy), and to be gawked at.
You know you are really rural in Africa when the people you are with do not follow soccer. For most parts of Africa I have found talking about soccer –primarily the English Premier League—the best way to kill long stretches of otherwise silence, particularly in cabs. Yet here in Kandiga a thousand and one barriers keep people here from following soccer, ranging from the lack of electricity, access to a TV, ability to afford one, ability to pay for cable, no extra money even for a bar to exist—so, really, it’s an ok factor to judge rural prosperity, all things considered, how overall soccer-crazy most of the continent appears to be.*
As for the latter, being gawked at, I am more or less pretty darn used to it. At one day of conducting the interviews I counted all the people around me under the shade of the tree listening to my fascinating questions about selling millet. All-told, there was 38 people listening in on this hot drama. Apparently I am a good entertainment replacement for the soccer-deprived Kandiga-ites. And in all honesty, I really understand where they are coming from too. There has been a lot of sometimes frustrating moments where I am in a rural village by myself trying to do something just as simple as eat a doughnut by myself that I bought from a street-side vendor, and the entire community will have literally stopped right where they were to watch me until I am on my way again. I honestly don’t think there is a way to imagine what this feels like until you’ve experienced it. While the unexpected spotlight isn’t desired at all, I’ve realized that I’ve come to Ghana for the same reason they’re gawking at me, which is the curiosity of how someone from another culture lives, so who am I to get frustrated? And also, I imagine, I am pretty fascinating to watch eat a doughnut. I’ve got some serious skill.
So, to reverse emphasis from me being gawked over and inspected, let me tell you what I’ve learned from the people I’ve been talking to and gawking at. Or, more appropriately, let me tell you what they’ve said about how the bicycle’s helped them in their own words:
- My son uses the bicycle because he uses it to farm and to go to market, Kandiga Market. …at first [before owning the bicycle] I would carry the shay nuts on my head. Now my shay nuts my son carries on my bicycle. …Why do I not carry it on my bicycle? Because my son can do it for me! …At first I used to carry it, but I wasn’t able to buy plenty. Now my son carries it on both the bicycle and on his head at the same time! Strong man! Sometimes we also use the bicycle to go to farm. I did not learn how to ride, and now I am afraid to learn! But that is not true [laughs], just my son uses it much always [so she does not learn]. The bicycle helps us now to get to farm fast, and help my son carry shay nuts for me, and it makes things easy for us.
- We de decided to buy two bicycles at once in 2006 because of the pressure of the work. For example, in the rainy season you cannot go to both farm and school if you have to walk. If the bicycle you do not have, you cannot do that, but with the bicycle you can go to farm early in the morning before school. The family benefits because if you come back to school you can get water fast for the animals and do your homework too. Before the bicycle things were more slowly. If you go to school you go late. You cannot fetch water for animals, go to farm, go to school, do many thing. The bicycle has helped a lot!
- I use [the bicycle] with my son. I sell shay butter. I also sell patasi, and the place I get them from is Bolga market, Navrungu market, Sirgu market, anyplace I hear they sell some at a good price for me I go and buy it. I sell shay butter at Kandiga market. I sell Patasi at a funeral or anyplace there is a gathering. There is a carrier I bought because I can use it to carry my things. I now sell more patasi and shay butter because of my bicycle and carrier. The way it helps me at first when I go I have to pay car, and now I spend money I was spending on auto to increase my business, so it has helped me and helped my business too. I even bicycle all the way to Bolga Market, and Navrungu market too. …Now I make more profit, especially because I do not take the car now. With the profit I feeding my children everyday, and I give them money. I also use it for school fees. My husband pays the big children lunch money I pay the small ones lunch money. All three of my children are at boarding school in Bolga [unprecedented in interviews, due to the cost of tuition].
And my favorite interview went like this:
Ben: Who uses your bicycle?
Elderly, Smiling Woman: My son uses it to screw!
Ben: ….oh….umm…ugh….. tell me more about your son.
Elderly, smiling Woman. He is fifteen years old.
Ben: and ….ugh….how does he use the bicycle?
Elderly, smiling woman: he uses it to screw with his brother!
Ben: With his brother?
Elderly, Smiling Woman: With his brother!
Ben: …………….[really long pause]…and why does he do that?
Elderly, Smiling Woman: Because he also works in construction.
Ben to Samson, the Translator: Does ‘to screw’ in Ghanaian-English mean to do construction?
Samson: Of course, Ben.
As you can infer from most of the interviews above, the bicycles are a tremendous help. I’ve read that In Ghana 38% (by weight) of the commodities carried on 200 rural roads were by head loads. That is an insane amount to carry on one’s head, and this can be done 5 times faster and carry 2.5 times more by bicycle. For women who used the bicycles to go to market I found, without exception, their pay was anywhere from x2 to x6 what they were making before owning this bike. For kids? Before when farming duties necessitated their labor school just ain’t gonna happen, but now they can get up early, take care of the animals and the fields and still make it in time for school. Really, just about everybody I met –and I did close to 200 indepth interviews- was able to clearly identify not only how the bicycle helped them personally, but has also benefited their entire family. Needless to say, bicycles are life-changing here. It is truly inspiring to see development work so well with such an empowering “by your own bootstraps” approach, and if it so moves yah’, I know and promise you a donation to the Village Bicycle Project of $30 (for one bike to one village family) goes a really far way.
Another thing I have really enjoyed from the interviews is asking Samson to translate the people’s names for me. My favorites are the people with the following translated names:
- She Is Not A Human Being
- The Place I put the Dustbin and Rubbish
- The Best Has Passed (bitter first time parents?)
- All Talk
- I am Satisfied with The Guinea Fowl
Frankly, while some of these names are ridiculous from my perspective, I can think of some pretty good people who could benefit from these being their names; Particularly ‘All Talk’ for some politicians. As Socrates said, every silver-lining has a touch of grey. And while I’ve loved seeing how these bicycles have so radically transformed these people’s lives and let them pick themselves up with their own bootstraps, it also frustrates me in knowing that essentially not a single damn dime is being spent by any of the major international donors towards personal mobility development projects.
Another thing I have been enjoying of late are the Harmattans, which to me sounds like an expensive rug. According to my geography dictionary** it’s a “heavily dust-laden and parching [wind] in the interior [of the Sahara, and] it helps to evaporate the high humidity of the Guinea Coast [where Ghana is located], and thus seems a relatively cool and healthy wind in that area, hence its local name there, the Doctor.” Frankly, it feels good to not have an embarrassingly damp shirt before 9:00 am. I’ve found the best way to deal with Dr. Harmatan is to enjoy one of the local watermelons that can be bought just about anywhere. The choicest watermelons go for $1.38 USD, and if one were wiling to slum, a mediocre watermelon could be had for as little as .35 cents USD. But I am a man of taste and uncompromising principal, so I stick with nuthin’ but the finest. It marks a good way to end each night watching the shadows grow long on the Savannah from the porch of our house and seeing how much my seed-spitting skills can improve with each successive watermelon.
Lastly, I wanted to share this picture. It is of a butcher at his stall in Bolgatonga market on market day. I wanted to take a close-up of the meat because it grossed me out how the bloody flesh was just hanging out in the open, free to all the flies in the world. I asked the butcher if it was ok to take a picture because sometimes people here don’t like their picture being taken. He began talking in rapid Fra-Fra and gesticulating like mad. I figured he didn’t want it after so much talking, but when I went to leave he waved at me wildly with his knife and beckoned me back smiling. As I prepared to take a picture he then closed his eyes –to show off his skills—and began slicing and slashing at the meat as fast as he could, scaring the crap out of me that this man was going to lose a hand because he wanted to show off. I quickly took this picture as fast as I could to try to prevent an injury, and didn’t even get my close-up of the nasty meat. Anywhoo, as this has turned out to be the most dangerous photo of my trip I thought it merited sharing.