archival gospel and chicken fingers [August 6, 2014]

The following two entries will be brief as the last couple of days were filled with the always unexpected, yet always present “life events.” Two residents had passed away and another was just admitted to the hospital. Thus, the entire water committee had dispersed to play their customary and familial roles. Rather than let the anxiety of our rapidly deteriorating schedule take hold of me, I decided to take advantage of this time and visit The Cape Coast Regional archives to see if I could dig up any additional information on the history of Cape Coast and the Zongo. In my approach, little had changed since my last visit in January. The cavernous, modern concrete structure streaked with an oily black film from the pollution stood against what was now a now barren cornfield. The documents inside exhibited a similar appearance to that of their larger container. Stained yellow from age and humidity, as I flipped from one brittle page to the next, the paper left a moist chalky residue on my hands. While waiting for the next set of documents (I was only allowed to take out three at a time), I smiled to myself as I recognized the gospel song blaring from the radio – it was “O’er the Mountain,” the same Christian song the girl in the Zongo had so proudly sung to me yesterday.

DSCN7962.JPG

About thirty documents and one photograph later, I sat uncomfortably in a rather bony group-taxi with tatters of fabric hanging from its decrepit seats headed for downtown. Relieved to be walking again, I spent the remainder of the afternoon in town taking note of what had changed since my last visit. Much of the coastline had remained the same in that its main attraction was the castle around which huddled the familiar tourist traps replete with a cacophony of cries such as “Come into my shop and have a look. Looking is free,” There was however, a single drastic change – a new library was now being erected on what used to be a large open space in front of the castle. How funny, I thought to myself. Why would anyone want to obstruct such a perfect view of the main tourist attraction? The tourist’s view however, was only been a peripheral concern and was more about removing one’s view of the fishermen who used to mend their nets in this place to a view of political power as made manifest in the new library.

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a meeting with the municipal assembly

SATURDAY, AUGUST 9, 2014 AT 01:44PM

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I awoke this morning to my heart already pounding. I couldn’t quite figure out why I was so anxious, but I’m sure it had something to do with the importance of the meeting and concern that the stakeholders would want to reschedule, arrive so late that the meeting would be canceled, or forget about it completely.

Glancing at my watch in front of the peach-colored Municipal Assembly building, it was now 9:57. I recalled Hammad’s assuring words from yesterday afternoon when we had talked about the importance of being on time. “Don’t worry,” he had assured me. “We will meet at 10am American time, not African time.” Thirty-five minutes later, my heart finally returned to its normal pace – we had somehow managed to get all of the major stakeholders (the Zongo water committee, two Assembly members, and a representative from Ghana Heritage Conservation Trust) into a single room.

 

The meeting began with the typical formal exchanges followed by my giving an introduction to the project – how it began, what we have accomplished so far, and our goals for the future. Baba added, “Last week Emily and I came here and talked about the question of sanitation in the Zongo.” The Assembly man nodded his head solemnly and replied, “Thank you for all that. I see that the success of this project relies on sustainability. If we provide dust bins and the like, how is the community going to be prepared to accept it and follow through in the long-term?” He went on to explain, “The Assembly, we are well-equipped. We have door-to-door collection, there are some dust-bins available, and there are also private contractors such as Zoom Lion that collect waste for 15 cedis a month.” Leaning in as if to tell us a secret, he went on, “Waste generation in the Zongos is different though. There is a high generation of waste because you have 20-25 people living in a single household. A typical household generates two times the amount of waste of households outside the Zongo. This is not favorable.”

We then began a discussion about whether a large shared dust-bin could be located between the Municipal Assembly and the Zongo. The Assembly man responded (mostly to me), “This might work. You see, here in Africa we are shy of waste. We do not like to be seen with waste.” Though it was agreed upon that this was the very reason the dust-bin should be placed in that location (because the Municipal Assembly would want its image to be preserved), before long, the conversation degenerated into cacophony of voices tinged with politics. It became about who ought to be providing what services and when and who was doing their job and who was not.  One of the water committee representative members exclaimed shaking his head, “When it comes to development, we don’t have to mingle politics.” I was particularly relieved when the member from the Ghana Heritage Conservation Trust chimed in,  “Let me bring in a wider point of view,” he explained patiently. “The sanitation in the Zongo of Cape Coast could be a case study for all Zongos in Ghana. Everyone would benefit. With a cleaner and healthier environment, more people will want to come visit. The tourism will be booming and everyone will benefit.” He went on to say, “I myself am a Zongo boy and so I understand. The Zongo pays taxes and so they should also benefit from development.” Hammad added quietly, “If I can also come in. We need sanitary inspectors to come around…We need the people to be held responsible for their actions.” From here, the meeting’s conversations sharpened to focus on immediate steps for improving the sanitation. Throwing up his hands as if giving in, The Municipal Assembly member stated sheepishly, “It is your right to be served. There are so many problems that we usually choose to close our eyes. But, you have forced us to open them. When we see the problems, we have to help.” By the end of the meeting, the Assembly agreed to provide a regular, scheduled rubbish pick-up for The Zongo two times a week and suggested we meet the Chief Executive to talk about acquiring smaller dust bins for public spaces, executing the sanitation exercise, installing a large dust-bin to be located between the Zongo and Assembly, and other long-term planning issues. As the meeting came to a close, everyone present expressed the “success” of the meeting, but I left highly skeptical of whether these loud promises would be kept. 

 

We spent the remainder of the afternoon meeting with each of the recipients for this year’s rainwater collection system to explain why they had been selected, what their responsibilities entail, and to inform them about both the soap-making + business development workshops next week.

 

It was late when I returned to the guesthouse that night and we had “lights out” (a black out). I sat in the darkness under a flashlight-lit dinner eating my curried vegetables and rice. Just as I began pondering what I would accomplish that evening without electricity, I heard a buzzing sound and the fluorescent tube above my head flickered on. The woman sitting across from me clapped her hands with delight, “Ahaaaa! It is has come back! You know,” she divulged with a grin, “I like light. I would even like light in my coffin. Other people down there would ask why and I would say wouldn’t you like light too? If you like light, you can connect.” 

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the power of the map and other reflections

FRIDAY, AUGUST 8, 2014 AT 05:43AM

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Gingerly, I took a seat on a rickety wood bench in front of the brightly painted blue and yellow madrasa in the Zongo and eagerly awaited Baba. He had called me yesterday with the exciting news that he had discovered a map of the Zongo community – according to him, it had “bounced” from the Zongo to the Municipal Assembly and then “bounced back” to the Zongo. Pulling up a chair next to me now, Baba explained that the Municipal Assembly must have used the map when they tried to sell the Zongo to the Japanese in 2012. He pulled out a weathered piece of paper protecting the map within. As he opened it, and my eyes focused on its contents and I couldn’t help but gasp. My throat felt clogged with a mixture of feelings – dismay and guilt– but at the same time I shouldn’t have expected anything else. The map was ironically my own. Working with the Zongo residents in 2007, we had developed it together as a way for them to feel ownership of their settlement and to aid me in the production of my thesis. Unfortunately, once wielded by the Municipal assembly, the powers of the map were used against the very community I was trying to help. This is just one example of many throughout the years where I have stopped in my tracks and asked myself to what extent my presence is truly benefiting the community. In what ways are their livelihoods threatened and/or enriched by the initiatives I have developed in the Zongo? So far, I don’t have a good answer and just try to listen as carefully as I can to the needs of the community. Though I bring my own skill sets to the table and provide a framework for orchestration, that at the ends of the day, The Zongo Water Project has to satisfy resident needs and inspire their imagination for the future of their community. The less focused the project could be on me, the better.

Perhaps because of the way the day began - with the re-emergence of a map I had created years ago and its ripple effects on the community – that today I became acutely aware of how my long-term engagement combined with a product (whether it be a children’s book, rainwater collection system, or documentary) affects the way the community operates and the way they see themselves. For example, I’ve communicated with residents that I’m keeping an online journal and they are aware that every phase of the project has resulted in a booklet documenting the process complete with photographs and text. More so than the previous phases, I’ve noticed a change in how a select few of the residents respond to my taking their photograph and even to some extent how they answer questions. It is almost as if they see themselves as part of the product and see the project more as a collection of images of a changing physical environment rather than the physical environment itself. This is certainly very concerning and tells me that perhaps the residents need to be more involved in the project’s photography and contributing to the online journal – perhaps with added voices and perspectives this could fragment and complicate what is now becoming too homogeneous of a representation. A “community-based initiative” therefore, needs to include not only collective actions and diverse voices, but also collective representations of those actions and diverse voices.

Though I’m sure I’ll revisit these reflections, I want to touch briefly on the other activities of the day. Working with the soap-maker, we negotiated an appropriate budget and program for the making of liquid soap. It would be a two-day workshop to be held in the community center (aka: Chief Wangara’s Palace) under its new rainwater collection system. To follow the making of the soap, the water committee is also organizing a business development workshop to teach residents how to begin and sustain a soap-making business.

 

Later that afternoon, I worked with Awal to measure the existing conditions of the Community Center that included not only the building itself, but also the distances to surrounding buildings and drainage systems. The roofing was in such poor condition, that the entire wood paneled ceiling was mouldy and dipped to such an extent that it looked like it could fall in on us at any moment (detail above).  Later that evening, I briefed Hammad on the day’s activities and we discussed the itinerary for tomorrow. First, we would meet with the stakeholders at the Municipal Assembly about sanitation. He responded fervently, “It is wonderful to have Ghana Heritage Conservation Trust and the Assembly to support us. We need their support for the sustainability of the project. I pray that this project will continue and that we have an office within which to do our work.” We then discussed that second on tomorrow’s agenda would be having conversations with this year’s rainwater collection recipients. “Yes,” he confirmed, “Tomorrow, we will go ‘round to all of the houses. We’ll see if they can support with the extra roofing sheets and also the labor. They need to do their part.”

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another water committee meeting - envisioning and planning

WEDNESDAY, AUGUST 6, 2014 AT 02:03PM

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I spent the following day, still filled with funeral activities, in a similar way – first at the archives and then into town where I would at last meet with the water committee. Already deep into a conversation in Hausa when I arrived, I glanced around the tailoring shop where we were all seated on smooth, wooden benches. The walls were a vivid blue and upon them were pasted advertisements of men wearing gowns with the text, “Men’s Desire” at the top. Awoken from my gaze at the poster, Hammad exclaimed, “Emily, let’s begin. I can see you are lost. You don’t understand what we are saying.” Having switched over to English, the committee proceeded to explain to me that they had begun the process of selecting this year’s ten beneficiaries. When I asked them to elaborate, Murtala said, “ You see, we are looking at a number of factors: those who are in need, those who participate, and those who have spent the time to fill the application. In addition, we have divided the Zongo into four zones.” He cut through the air with his hands and explained, “You see we have the zone close to the central mosque, the one close to Mallam Hammad’s, the one close to the road here, and finally the one on the other side of the road. It is important that every zone benefits from the project.” These discussions continued and surprising, yet promising comments surfaced such as the importance of The Chief Zongo attending the closing ceremony. “After all, we are doing this work for the community and he is the head – he ought to be there, one of them shouted. Another exclaimed, “Yes, and we must keep good records. It is very important. How else are we going to remember what we did the previous year?!” This observation was especially promising to me and could be added to a pile of other similar remarks made by the committee and residents this year. Rather than seeing the project as a “one time wonder” as they called it, they seemed to be solemnly committed to an envisioning of, and planning for, the Zongo’s future. (I’m hoping over the next couple of weeks that voices from those of the committee and other residents will be included in this journal.)

 

Finally after attending to agenda items such as the soap-making, logos for the rainwater collection containers, and Thursday’s sanitation meeting, I set off for the guesthouse. Later that night I received a phone call from Awal checking in about the day’s progress. Towards the end of our conversation, he asked me mischieviously, “Did you have chicken fingers for dinner tonight?”

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archival gospel and chicken fingers

WEDNESDAY, AUGUST 6, 2014 AT 01:57PM

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The following two entries will be brief as the last couple of days were filled with the always unexpected, yet always present “life events.” Two residents had passed away and another was just admitted to the hospital. Thus, the entire water committee had dispersed to play their customary and familial roles. Rather than let the anxiety of our rapidly deteriorating schedule take hold of me, I decided to take advantage of this time and visit The Cape Coast Regional archives to see if I could dig up any additional information on the history of Cape Coast and the Zongo. In my approach, little had changed since my last visit in January. The cavernous, modern concrete structure streaked with an oily black film from the pollution stood against what was now a now barren cornfield. The documents inside exhibited a similar appearance to that of their larger container. Stained yellow from age and humidity, as I flipped from one brittle page to the next, the paper left a moist chalky residue on my hands. While waiting for the next set of documents (I was only allowed to take out three at a time), I smiled to myself as I recognized the gospel song blaring from the radio – it was “O’er the Mountain,” the same Christian song the girl in the Zongo had so proudly sung to me yesterday.

 

About thirty documents and one photograph later, I sat uncomfortably in a rather bony group-taxi with tatters of fabric hanging from its decrepit seats headed for downtown. Relieved to be walking again, I spent the remainder of the afternoon in town taking note of what had changed since my last visit. Much of the coastline had remained the same in that its main attraction was the castle around which huddled the familiar tourist traps replete with a cacophony of cries such as “Come into my shop and have a look. Looking is free,” There was however, a single drastic change – a new library was now being erected on what used to be a large open space in front of the castle. How funny, I thought to myself. Why would anyone want to obstruct such a perfect view of the main tourist attraction? The tourist’s view however, was only been a peripheral concern and was more about removing one’s view of the fishermen who used to mend their nets in this place to a view of political power as made manifest in the new library.

I ended the day by spending a couple of hours in the Zongo visiting with residents and planning the next steps of the Zongo Water Project with Awal. Once our tasks were complete, our conversation diverted to food – American food. “Why do you Americans always eat such junky foods?” he asked with a smirk. I replied, “Well, our foods tend to be much more processed and I guess we like sugar – and cheese!” I added, “I guess we also like to eat too fast – you know, we eat foods on-the-go like hamburgers, hot dogs, and even chicken fingers.” Awal scrunched up his face in disgust and responded credulously pointing to his own hand, “Chicken fingers?! You eat the fingers of a chicken? Americans are strange.” Clearly, he didn’t believe me and had just wanted to give me a hard time.