So, I left off right before we went to see the brass casters on Monday. Since we weren't meeting up with them until 11:30, we headed into Kumasi on Monday morning to check out the city for an hour or two. Getting into the city was much easier than we thought it would be: just hop on any old mini bus that is driving by. It is almost like a bus system in the US, without the hinderance of time tables. We got off at one of the city's major markets. Kumasi is basically a bigger, nicer version of Cotonou. The multi-story architecture is older than that in Cotonou, and the city has plenty of tree-lined streets. There are also sprawling highway overpasses and city parks to sit in. We decided that something about the slightly run-down feel of this charming city reminded us of a city in North Africa, although we don't know why we think this since neither of us has ever been to North Africa :)
After walking around for a while, we decided to try Ghana's version of cafeteria food (in Benin it's fried eggs, coffee/hot chocolate, spaghetti, and baguettes). Once again, since Ghana was a British colony, there are no baguettes there, so our omelette sandwich came on a choice of white or WHEAT soft bread. Not only do they fry the egg, but they toast both sides of the sandwich in the frying pan, too. They also make their hot chocolate with sugar and evaporated milk instead of sweetened condensed milk, so it was extra delicious. To finish our time in Kumasi, we went into a food market. They had any vegetable you can imagine, and whole street vendors dedicated to only spices. Both veggies and spices are sorely lacking in Benin. Benin's solution to lack of spice is simply to keep adding tons of blindingly hot peppers. On our way to meet the artisans, my camera ran out of batteries, so what did we do? Stop in to a gas station store and pick some up, naturally, along with some soda and snacks. Happens in Benin all the time...
The artisans, lead by George Kofi, live in a village on the outer limit of Kumasi. Quick history on this: Kumasi was the seat of the once powerful Ashanti kingdom. Since the chiefs needed crafts for themselves and to trade with other kingdoms, there are several villages around Kumasi, each dedicated to making a different craft. Krofrom, the village where we spent our day, is the brass casting village. (There is also a wood working village, a weaving village, etc.) Brass was used by the Ashanti mainly to cast scales to weigh gold dust (the kingdom's currency) and boxes to store the dust in. Brass beads were also used for decoration. In Krofrom, there are about five or six brass casting workshops, each with a few head artisans and lots of apprentices.
George has a large outdoor workshop. It is mainly him that sculpts the desired objects in wax, and the apprentices who perform the rest of the steps. Here is a brief summary of how the process works: objects, be them utilitarian or decorative, are sculpted in heated beeswax. The wax is then dipped in a mixture of clay and charcoal, and left in the sun to dry. This step is repeated several times, until the object is encased in a solid disk of hardened clay. More clay and palm fibers are then packed on. The vase-shaped container is then placed in a VERY hot fire (a fan is constantly blowing on the flames to keep them extra hot) where the wax melts out of the clay, leaving it's negative inside the hardened mold. While the mold is still hot, melted brass (usually metal scraps and knick knacks all melted together) is poured into it. After about 30 minutes, the brass has become completely hardened and the clay mold is broken, revealing the brass object inside. The object is then filed, and finally polished using rotten lemons (seriously. It works!) and a brush made out of old corn cobs and palm branches. And voila, you're left with beautiful brass objects! The day we visited the artists cast a porccupine, a symbol of power and royalty in the Ashanti kingdom, and they gave it to me! It's very cool. They also were making beads and some badges for a group of knights (?) in Nigeria. They had done a lot of extra work for us (they even let us make a few wax molds!), and so they asked for some money from us, which we were happy to give, since the process was so fascinating to see and they had been very hospitable to us. They ended up having to ask for more money, which unfortunately John Mark and I LITERALLY didn't have on us (we were under the impression that we were just going to watch them do a normal day's work), so I hope we didn't leave with any hard feelings. I think it was fine, though. We ended up buying quite a few brass objects from them (napkin rings, bottle openers, candle sticks), so at least we were able to support them that way. At the very end of our visit, the Ghanaian professor we had coordinated with came to meet up with us, and we had a nice dinner with him.
The next morning, he invited us to meet with the dean of international programs at KNUST, the technical university we had coordinated with when I was a student at Michigan. We reviewed photos of the exhibit on the brass casters that I helped to develop and install at Michigan, and discussed plans to show the exhibit at KNUST. It was so odd and so comfortable walking around this very typical college campus: students walking to class listeing to their ipod, students working in the library or coffee shop on their laptops, dorms and lecture halls. Once again, there really is nothing like this in Benin. There is only one major University here, and it has not evolved to KNUST's point yet. We had a quick breakfast with him, and then we were on our way to Cape Coast.
The drive to Cape Coast was pretty awful (Ghana has some of the worst roads I've seen as of yet), but getting to the town was beautiful. Cape Coast is on a bit of a bluff overlooking the ocean, so you can see why the British chose it as their colonial capital. We were able to get a room at a cute boutique hotel right on the ocean, where our room was just a little hut on the beach. They had a nice restaurant where we ate that night. The only aggrivating thing about this place was the intensity and pushiness of the people there, since they are so used to clueless white tourists. I can't tell you how many times we were approached and asked for money, and how outrageous the prices we were given were. Most of the people there have embraced this laid back, rasta culture, which is cool until everyone does it and it just gets really cliche.
In the morning we toured Cape Coast Castle, the slave and trading fort there. It has been well-preserved, and our brief tour of the slave dungeons and cells was very chilling. President Obama visited the castle last year, and there was a plaque commemorating his visit. In the afternoon, we took and air conditioned mini bus to Kokrobite, a small village on the ocean that happens to have a few nice resorts. Our hotel was called Big Milly's Backyard, and we once again stayed in a little hut with a private outdoor shower and toilet. The resort was filled with white people, and it was interesting to see the ways in which John Mark and I felt similar and yet different from them. For instance, we refused to pay for the rather expensive hotel breakfasts, so we ventured into the town and got street food for breakfast, obviously surprising the locals a bit. On the other hand, we enjoyed sipping cocktails on the beach and eating nice dinners as much as anyone else there. We spent all day Thursday swimming in the ocean (warm waters, just like Benin, though the riptide wasn't quite as strong as here in Benin, so that was nice), and reading under this second-story gazeebo they had overlooking the ocean.
One thing that struck us both was the borderline escort industry that went on there: plenty of young, handsome, and buff African men approaching any single-looking woman and offering to take her "to the beach" at night. More surprising than their offers was how many women seemed responsive to this.
Anyway, we had a long day of travel back to Benin yesterday. We first had to go into Accra, then find a car to the Togo border. We decided to opt for air conditioning, which turned out to be a bad choice since "air conditioning" meant a tiny stream of mildly cool air barely making the van any cooler. At least in non-AC vehicles, the windows are all open so there is constantly a breeze in your face. The ride went well until the last 40km, where the road turned so bad that 40km took us an hour and a half. Crossing the Ghana-Togo border was almsot comical: we went through exit customs on the Ghana side in a nice, air conditioned building filled with polite customs officers and fancy equipment. We literally walked over the border and into a tin shack, where the Togolese officers made us wait 20 minutes while they filled out someone else's forms when all we needed was a quick stamp in our passports. We saw someone bribing a custom's officer, and then as we emerged from customs, we were immediately being shouted at, "Yovo! Donne-moi de l'argent!" ("White person! Give me money!") When we ignored them or said something back, we were informed not to forget that "we're in Africa now", whatever that means. The beach where we waited for our taxi was absolutely filthy and the people were extremely pushy and rude. From my brief exposure to Togo, I have not been impressed and can see why people say Benin is quite a bit further along development-wise. We had to wait almost two hours for our taxi to fill up, so we didn't arrive to Cotonou until 8:30, well after dark. We made it back fine though, and the trip was amazing!
Now it really feels like I'm on the home stretch. People in my year start leaving Benin in less than 4 months! (Reminder: I won't know my return date until the end of May, though it's looking good that it will be sometime in August.) School is wrapping up and Camp GLOW is kicking into high gear, so I'm going to be quite busy for the next two or three months. I'll head back to Lobogo today or tomorrow, and will hopefully be there until the 22nd or 23rd, when we have our next GLOW meeting. On my next post I will put up pictures from Ghana!