Eat, Sleep, Blow Your Mind: ADE Ghana

The air on the tarmac was intensely hot and humid, made heavier by the sinking sun, but after three weeks I was used to the climate, barely sweating in long pants and a t-shirt. We loaded ourselves into the last shuttle, and as it rumbled slowly towards the airplane, I closed my eyes, savoring the last moments of my first experience of Ghana.

 

I’d never felt like such a foreigner in my life. Our team of eight from Olin and Babson consisted of the only light-skinned people around. For the first time ever I was the extreme racial minority, a humbling, indispensable experience for those who are used to being the majority. Everyone who saw us, on the street, in our hotel, at markets, at work, would stare, smile, and shout in a friendly tone, “Obroni!” the Akan word for foreigner. Ghanaians are extremely friendly and welcoming to foreigners. Many times a day I was asked my name, shaken hands with (bonus surprised smile if you knew the Ghanaian handshake), and jokingly teased by total strangers.

 

We weren’t exactly the only light-skinned people around. Billboards and storefront advertisements were full of white and light-skinned black people. Mannequins showing off Ghanaian clothing and busts wearing straight black wigs looked anything but African. Ben Linder, our trip leader, told me about the skin whitening creams sold at many Ghanaian drug stores. I can’t make any judgments or conclusions here based on these few observations, but I am compelled by them to do some serious thinking and research.

 

But what was I doing in Ghana, anyway? My team and I were working in Kumasi, Ghana, for QueenTech, a social venture that began in (and is still part of) Affordable Design and Entrepreneurship (ADE), a senior capstone and design depth course at Olin. QueenTech collaboratively designs and builds small, low-tech cassava processing machines for women entrepreneurs in Ghana (maybe other places in the future too!). I’ll tell you more about our work shortly, but it will really help to have a few contextual tidbits for you to chew on. Ghana is such a different place and culture than ours that to try and convey even my shallow and incomplete notion of the place in anything more than a list would require a novel, but even incomplete, bulleted context is better than none, so here you go.

 

Money: Ostensibly, $1 ≈ 4GHS (Ghanaian Cedi). However, costs can differ by orders of magnitude depending on where (and who) you are. You can buy the same meal for 40GHS ($10) at a restaurant in the Accra airport or 1GHS (25¢) at a chop bar (“chop” means “to eat” in pidgin English) in a village. As an obroni, you have to be wary of being charged an “obroni price,” a very real and arguably fair (because we are rich) phenomenon.

 

Aesthetics: Everything looks unique, hand-made, and full of vibrant colors and patterns. This was pretty refreshing and eye-opening coming from a place obsessed with matchy-matchy everything. If I thought the Olin campus looked sterile before…

 

Food: It appears to my naive self that the most common hot meals in Ghana consist of a large amount of starch and a small a portion of meat served with a sauce or soup. You eat with your hands, using pieces of the starchy food as a sort of utensil for the sauce. The starch is a form of either plantain, yam, rice, or cassava (a large, white, starchy tuber known as yucca in South America). The meat is either chicken (often slaughtered locally that very day–there are chickens everywhere), fish (bought covered in flies at the market), or goat (also everywhere, and only used for meat–the idea of drinking goats milk to Ghanaians is like drinking pigs milk to us). Hardboiled eggs, the vegetarian substitute for the piece of meat, are boiled for about thirty minutes and have a pale grey yolk. If you are a strict vegetarian, tough luck, as most of the soups and sauces come with small pieces of fish flaked into them no matter what you say or ask for. If you want a snack, there’s fresh fruit, plantain chips, and twenty different kinds of savory and sweet fried dough carried around on top of women’s heads everywhere you look.

 

Religion: I know little of the intricacies of religion in Ghana, but it is of so much importance to Ghanaian culture that it deserves some mentioning. Most Ghanaians are Christian. Many shop names consist of Christian sayings and blessings such as “God’s Glory Bakery” or “Jesus Saves Chainsaws,” and I’ve seen paintings of a bloody Christ overlaid with local food advertisements. Taxis and tro tros (minibuses) often have a blessing painted across the rear windshield. However, a few Ghanaians still practice their ancient traditional religion, Akom. Christianity and Akom practices are sometimes synthesized and coexist in interesting ways. For example, village chiefs, who are their community’s leader, represent the traditional Akom religion, although the community members are usually all Christian.

 

Funerals: Funerals are a big deal in Ghana. Invitations to large funerals are actually advertised on billboards with the age of the person, a portrait, a date, and a Christian blessing. Funerals are often very big, and people wear black and red. Sometimes, for reasons I don’t know, the hosts will hire professional mourners to attend. I remember seeing several funeral processions in Ghana where an ambulance, siren blaring, was used as the hearse.

 

Toilets: I used six different kinds of toilets in Ghana! There were US-style toilets, bidets, nice ceramic squatting toilets, squatting pit-toilets, elevated squatting pit-toilets, rooms with a hole in the wall, rooms with a hole in the floor, rooms with a channel along the wall and then a hole in the corner. My personal favorite is the nice ceramic squatting toilets, as squatting is much better for your health, and you don’t touch anything with your naked bum. I really wish we had those in the U.S.

 

Cars: Drivers in Ghana are pros, by a certain definition of pro. When you’re in a taxi or a tro tro, you see a hundred near-accidents around you per minute, and none of them actually happen. It’s like each vehicle is an extension of the driver’s body, and everyone is jostling and pushing against each other to get where they’re trying to go, but no one gets hurt. The only traffic rule that really works is stoplights. Honking is constantly used to communicate your presence and intentions to those around you. You rarely see a new-looking or sparsely occupied vehicle. Ancient, battered tro tros and taxis dominate the streets, most of them full to the brim with people and baggage. Most vehicles are European or Korean, all are diesel, and a Ghanaian acquaintance told me many are rejects from countries with smog control.

 

Pollution: In the cities we visited there was trash everywhere. There is no organized public waste system, so everyone collects their trash into piles and just burns it, any time of day, right there on the street with people all around to breathe it in. There is no smog control for vehicles either, and most vehicles produce very thick, stinky exhaust that is often dark grey or black. I sometimes wore a handkerchief over my mouth and nose while we were driving because the fumes made me nauseous.

 

Alright, back to QueenTech. We had ambitious plans for the trip: beginning the process of incorporating in Ghana, introducing a new machine design along with new tooling to build it, repairing four machines in four villages, building a relationship with Womentum (a non-profit that supports women entrepreneurs), beginning a rental agreement for a new workspace, holding a TIG welding workshop for our fabricators, creating and implementing new fabrication workflows, and a million other tasks of varying size and importance. We had eleven days.

 

Each day I would wake up at 6:45 a.m., throw on dirty work clothes and boots, knock on the doors of those who weren’t up yet (I was the Project Manager for the trip), and head to a breakfast of scrambled eggs and toast with Lipton tea or instant coffee with evaporated milk. Around 7:40 we’d all cram into the tro tro for a hot, bumpy forty-five minute ride to Intermediate Technology Transfer Unit (our partners, headquarters, and fabrication shop). On the first day we arrived at ITTU, there was a lot of smiling and shaking hands. Most of us were meeting the people who build our machines for the first time, and we were all very excited. For Ben Linder and Michael Resnick (our other trip leader), this was a reunion full of big hugs and loud greetings. We got to work immediately, some of us heading into meetings or doing computer work in our workroom, others in the machine shop.

 

We accomplished a lot of things in those eleven days, each day packed with surprises and novel experiences. We would work our butts off from 8:30 to 5, sometimes later, then bump and honk our way back to the guest house for a cold shower, an interesting dinner of not-quite-at-all-what-we-ordered, and two to three more hours of work in a lounge with one light bulb and a ceiling fan that violently threatened to tear itself apart with every revolution. Thoroughly exhausted and satisfied in the way only hard work can bring about, we would all drag ourselves off to bed somewhere between 9 and 10.

 

In ADE, we don’t just travel to work in our little niche and ignore the rest. We travel to have the mind-opening, humbling, incredible experience of living in a culture and place that is not our own. One particularly memorable experience was a tour of Cape Coast Castle. When our work at ITTU was done, we packed up our gear and drove six hours to Cape Coast Castle, one of the many slave castles built and ruled by European occupiers. We learned that during the triangular trade of slaves and raw and manufactured goods between West Africa, the Americas, and Europe, Cape Coast Castle held thousands of slaves for up to six weeks in pitch-black dungeons directly underneath the castle’s Christian church. The slaves remained shackled at all times, and food was thrown in on them from above. Discoloration two feet high on the walls indicated the level of human feces when the dungeons were excavated in 1920. The governor of the castle would select young women slaves to rape, and if they were “lucky” enough to get pregnant and give birth, they were set free. There’s a pitch-black tunnel that led the slaves from the dungeons to the waiting ships, so they never saw the light of their homeland until being loaded onto the ships through “the door of no return.” Sharks learned to follow the ships, as many dead and living slaves were cast overboard to lighten them. A moment of confusion and shock for me was seeing the room connecting the dungeon to the tunnel, where apparently there had been a great rock shrine where Ghanaians came to worship their traditional God of fertility before the castle was built. Here we stood, in what had been an ancient holy site of worship that was destroyed and turned into a channel for dehumanized people to drag themselves through, for the cruel white men with their own church built right on top of it. I could scarcely believe the hypocrisy and irony of it all.

 

Now I’m home in Berkeley, California, sitting at the kitchen table, typing this article. I admit it’s really lovely to be back. But since coming home I’ve been appalled even more than usual by the luxuries that my friends, my family, and I take for granted I’ve actually been quite ill since returning from Ghana, and although I knew taking a hot bath would help me feel better, it took a couple days to convince myself it was ok to use the water and energy to do so. A friend of mine just bought a dress for a price that could feed some families for a year. How can I feel comfortable with things like that? I can’t.

 

More and more I see my future lies in both comforting the afflicted, and afflicting the comfortable. I want to stress that both are crucial to a just and sustainable world. While efforts to improve the wellbeing of the majority are widely accepted and supported, efforts to say, “Hey, why do all the rich people feel like it’s okay to endlessly consume and plunder this planet we all share?” are largely restricted to vague political discussions and failed mini-revolutions. And by “rich people” I don’t just mean the richest one percent in the US. I mean the richest one percent in the world, which are mostly people like you and me. Olin College’s average starting salary is in the world’s top 0.5 percent, and even the U.S. poverty line makes the richest twenty percent. I ask you to consider your life, look deep within and ask yourself if you are doing everything you can to minimize your own impact and help those with none. I know I’m not, but I’m working at it every day. It’s hard, fun, satisfying, and possible, and it can start as soon as you are willing.

Big Island, Hawaii

For those of you who don’t know me yet, Hi, my name is Ruby. I’ve spent the past 7 months in Hawaii, on the Big Island. This article is about 7 of the most important months of my life, and, whoever you are, whether you’re a student, staff, faculty, alumni, martian, I’m truly honored that you’re reading it, and I hope you find it interesting.

I came to the Big Island in early June. A family friend of mine, Samantha Smith, world’s best chef and Queen of Jank, is running a non-profit in downtown Kailua-Kona called The Edible, and I wanted to be her side-kick. The Edible is a huge, jankily and beautifully remodeled cooper- tire warehouse. It has a stage with a drum-set, an industrial-sized kitchen, local art covering most of the walls, a bar, and a small outdoor area with a garden full of basil and a 2-ton wood- fire oven for making badass pizza. I lived in a loft behind the stage. The Edible has no windows, and at the time all the lights turned on from circuit breakers. At night when I had to pee, the dark reality of climbing down from the rickety ladder and across the maze of tables, chairs, boxes, construction tools, and the occasional cockroach or centipede just so I could piss in a toilet was incomprehensible. I used a chamber-pot.

The Edible is a beautiful place with a beautiful dream, but unfortunately it turned out Samantha and I work horribly together. I ended up mostly being the resident bum, doing dishes and sweeping a lot in an attempt to offset my guilt. The human condition pressed me to do something useful with my time, and after a couple weeks of searching I found a local welding job that didn’t conflict too much with my ethics. I spent 3 months as a welder on a construction crew, building transitional housing units out of shipping containers. 8 hours a day 4 days a week in full-welding gear, in 98 ̊ weather inside or on top of shipping containers. It was the hardest work I’ve ever done, and not just physically. I was the only female on the crew, and the smallest person by about 150 pounds. I had very little in common with any of them, but, finding absurdity and humor in our differences, we found common ground in the universal language of laughter. I scolded them for eating fast-food and drinking out of disposable plastic water bottles, and they teased me for asking them to carry my welder up the ladder.

Welding is not easy as a woman, especially on the Big Island, where the population of women is small and mostly regarded as unskilled. It was difficult to find adequate clothing and boots (I found sturdy pants in the boys section at target, the local boot shop had 50 options for men and none for women). Surprise was the least irritating response I got when telling people I was a welder. One man said “Oh, well, welding isn’t that hard.”

Until I came to the Big Island, I had never experienced significant sexual discrimination, harassment, or inappropriate behavior from men. On the Big Island, it happened a lot. And I’m not talking about strangers telling you you’re beautiful, or cat-calls, or bad pick-up lines (that happened a lot too, but I don’t mind that kind of stuff, and sometimes it’s even fun). Against my consent, I’ve had liquids slowly drizzled into my open mouth at a bar, been squeezed and kissed sloppily on both cheeks by an alcoholic with too much saliva, and been asked by a 50- something-year-old man standing over my bed if he could please sleep with me, he missed his wife, he was lonely, and I was hot. I learned how to say ‘no’, a deceivingly simple word that becomes very hard to say when you’re feeling vulnerable.

Meanwhile at The Edible we were holding open mic/jam sessions every Sunday in the hopes of cultivating a house band. For the most part these sessions attracted mediocre guitarists looking for a place to butcher covers, but a few interesting people came too. I befriended a grizzled saxophone-playing intellectual hippie farmer named John Biloon, and through him I met a lot of other farmers and farm workers who lived south of Kailua-Kona. When my welding job ended, I said goodbye to The Edible, bought a $1200 blue van named Venus the Voyager (yeah, I just found out Venus isn’t blue) and moved to an off-the-grid shack in the jungle near John Biloon’s farm. There I picked coffee, harvested micro-greens, lulo, jack-friut, roulinia, soursop, bananas, and pineapples, and happily lived out the rest of my days in Hawaii sans electricity, potable water, and guilt. The End.

But wait, what about lessons? Aren’t there supposed to be lessons from LOAs? Go learn your own lessons, human. No matter where you go and what you do there will always be lessons. Don’t fall prey to the common belief that the best lessons to be learned are found in schools and jobs. You absolutely do not need to have an engineering internship every summer while you’re at Olin, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. There’s a whole universe of skills, insights, mistakes, adventures, and discoveries to be made outside the tiny world of engineering, and I highly encourage you to fuck the risks and try it out. And I’m not alone in this encouragement: there are a multitude of Olin students, alumni, and professors who’ve travelled, worked outside their field, or moved away from engineering entirely. Not because they failed, or because of unfortunate situations, but by thoughtful choice.

As for myself, I bought a one-way ticket to the land of rainbows and rain with not much of a plan but to see what would happen. A lot happened and I’ve changed a lot. I care much less about engineering and technology. I value independence more and socializing less. I’ve developed a fondness for head-lamps and candles. Equality lies in appreciating difference, not seeking similarity. Plants are way cooler than they used to be, and plastic is still the ultimate enemy. No, maybe money is. Whatever. I’m done writing this article. If you have any questions, wanna talk about technology, art, music, relationship anarchy, welding, anything else, or simply wanna meet me, my door’s always open and I care much more about talking to you than doing my school assignments.

GrOW’s Current Initiatives

greenSpaceGreen Space is for anyone who wants to contribute to or learn about green initiatives at Olin and the world.

Solar Updates

GrOW has been working with SunBug Solar, Boston Solar Company, and Borrego Solar to come up with a few options for a solar carport system in parking lot A. Boston Solar already has a rough proposal which can be viewed in the public GrOW folder under the name “Olin Proposal 1/10/14.” Boston Solar’s current design would only provide about 9% of Olin’s annual electrical consumption, but that’s not a very trivial number when you consider the $1,689,797 total savings and 10,019,154 lbs reduced greenhouse gas emissions over 20 years. We’ve been talking to them lately about improving the design and increasing the system output, so more updates on that next month! SunBug and Borrego aren’t as far in the process of making proposals. Both companies are still exchanging info with us, and are probably still a bit skeptical of GrOW’s sincerity in making the project happen. But let it be known that we are very sincere, and we intend for this to happen.

Continue reading

GrOW’s Current Initiatives

Solar at Olin update!

Progress is happening, people! We’re doing lots of research and weird solar-math, meeting with facilities, and making a list of companies to look into. Additionally, an interactive website for Solar at Olin will be up and running by December, and we’re hoping to do another screen printing party soon (big thanks to everyone who came to the last one, I hope you’re enjoying the shirts!).

Continue reading

GrOW’s Current Initiatives

By Gabrielle Ewall, David Pudlo, Ruby Spring

GrOW is reinvigorating itself this year. We’ve got some big ideas and projects that we’re going to push for, so we’re keeping you, the student body, informed as to what’s going on and how you can get involved. Below are updates on our current initiatives, if you have any questions, contact David Pudlo.

The Olin Secret Garden
Over the summer, a few students created the Olin Secret Garden in the middle of Parcel B! We’re experimenting, trying to learn what we can grow here in MA, and seeing what it takes to build a garden from the ground up. We’ve already had some successful harvest, basil, kale, and corn. Make sure to stop by and check it out, it’s near the trebuchet (and feel free to grab a bit of basil or kale!). In the future, we’re looking into wintering structures and a rainwater collection system, as well as (of course) more yummy plants! Go to
olinsecretgarden.blogspot.com to follow our progress.

Continue reading