"Language Lessons" - Ethan Zuckerman
Originally published in "Africa Par Adventure", edited by Peter Ward

In 1993, I was living in a small apartment in the Osu neighbothood of Accra, Ghana, allegedly studying traditional African music. Primarily, I drank an awful lot of beer.

I shared my apartment with an unhappily married couple, Stephanie (a sculptor) and Raul (a photographer), both American expatriates, or, as my friend Francis likes to say, "migrant workers."(Francis runs a bar in Accra called "Nuku," the clientele of which is at least half expatriates. He points out that "expatriate" implies "exiled from one's homeland," while most Northerners in Africa are here voluntarily because they like it and because the work pays well. I agree with his reasoning and have started referring to friends and colleagues overseas as "migrants.") I blame Steph and Raul's unhappiness, in part, for my alcohol consumption, but then again, that Club Beer is good stuff.

Stephanie and I were both leeching off the US government, beneficiaries of the Fulbright program. The Fulbright program is the generous legacy of Senator William Fulbright, who believed the world would be a better place if scholars from the US and other lands traded places occasionally and built long-lasting cultural ties. He was undoubtedly correct, though I suspect his global vision included very little thought on the specifics of what a 20 year-old philosophy major would do, day to day, on an all-expenses paid vacation funded by the US government. When I pay my taxes, I think fondly back to 1993 and wonder which irresponsible twenty-year-olds my contributions are sponsoring this year.

Many Fulbrighters are PhD students, spending a government-funded year overseas completing their research before writing their dissertations. These folks are generally obsessed, driven, focused, busy and rarely much fun. These were not the folks I generally hung out with. Significantly more mellow were the professorial Fulbrighters. Overseas on sabbatical, they'd research books with less intensity than the PhD candidates (likely because they'd already achieved tenure) or teach classes at one of the universities. In 1993, the University of Ghana at Legon was on strike, and many of the professorial Fulbrights were mellow indeed. And then there were the undergrad Fulbrights.

Graduates of liberal arts colleges, unless they are independently wealthy, generally face two choices after finishing their Bachelor's degrees, both onerous. You can go to graduate school - going further into debt and remaining mired in the world of classrooms, exams and papers - or you can go to work - painful for reasons too numerous to detail here.

With a bit of imagination, a third path is available: fellowships. The Rhodes, while handy if you're planning on a later career in politics, sends you to Britain, which has good beer but lousy weather. The Fulbright, on the other hand, is available for a wide variety of nations, and the difficulty of obtaining the grant is directly proportional to the popularity of the destination. In other words, if you're reasonably clever and take care not to pick a destination like France, there's a decent chance to receive an undergraduate Fulbright.

The Fulbright was extremely popular with fellow Philosophy majors at Williams, for the obvious reason that career prospects as working philosophers are extremely slim. My classmate Brian wrote a truly creative Fulbright proposal for Argentina. Following in the steps of literary philosopher Jose Luis Borges, he had obtained an internship at the Buenos Aires newspaper, El Sol, where Borges had published numerous influential essays. Presenting letters from the Editorial board of El Sol inviting him to join the staff, Brian requested the fellowship to pay his internship expenses. What Brian knew, and the Fulbright review board evidently didn't, was that "El Sol" was an entirely ficticious newspaper invented by Borges as an appropriate venue for his musings and that Brian, in the spirit of a Borgesian prank, had invented the internship.

Lacking Brian's postmodern panache, I was forced to seek other options. My philosophical studies were a dead end, grantwise. I had focused on "philosophy of mind" - rooted in Britain, land of good beer and bad weather - and existentialism, rooted in Denmark and France. All of the above are "popular" countries and it was clear to me that they were poor hunting grounds for funding.

So, like a high school student with lousy SATs, I focused on my extracurricular activities. Coming to Williams in 1989, I thought myself an excellent musician and a strong tenor. This notion was quickly dispelled as I auditioned for, and was rejected by, every singing group on campus. (As I've got a high tenor, I applied to all the all-women's singing groups as well, so I was rejected by literally every vocal group on campus.) My stoner roommate Dave concluded that the new African Music and Dance ensemble being formed on campus would be "just like those drum circles at Dead shows, dude." So I became one of the founding members of Kusika, and, over four years, became a reasonably competent percussionist.

My Fulbright proposal addressed the relationship between traditional Ghanaian percussion and contemporary Afropop music. It took me about three days in Ghana to discover that: a) the traditional musicians and Afropop musicians didn't speak to each other, never mind acknowledge musical influence on one another and b) all the successful Ghanaian Afropop musicians were living in Germany, where the recording studios were better. Without a research project, and with all possible professorial mentors on strike, I spent my time bumming around the National Theatre of Ghana, taking lessons from master drummers and xylophonists on their lunch breaks, and drinking a lot of beer.

Stephanie had an entirely different and utterly similar undergraduate Fulbright experience. After an undergraduate degree in visual arts, she'd written a proposal that allowed her to study traditional mask-making in northern Nigeria. Evacuated by the US government in response to political violence in Nigeria, Stephanie found herself in Ghana, sans master teacher, but with woodcarving tools and husband. Steph and Raul had discovered another clever truth about the Fulbright - the amount of your award doubled if you traveled with your spouse. (I proposed marriage to several female friends on discovering this and had approximately as much luck as I'd had with joining a campus singing group.)

Despite living thousands of miles from American college towns, we recreated for ourselves the slacker artist lifestyle we'd likely have pursued in the States. Stephanie sat on our porch, desultorily carving surrealist masks. Raul would periodically shoulder fifty pounds of camera bodies, lenses, filters and other gear and wander around Accra shooting pictures of billboards. And I'd sit on the roof of the National Theatre of Ghana and hope one of my teachers would keep an appointment.

Periodically, to remind ourselves that we were alienated artists in Africa instead of in New York, we'd take excursions to other towns, usually trying to visit a market rumored to have a wide selection of antique trade beads or hand-woven kente cloth. These attempts were thwarted by a pair of Ghanaian traits - the modular calendar and the Ghanaian "I don't know."

In the allegedly developed world, we are used to events happening on a day of the week: "My book group meets every Thursday evening." This method of scheduling is not universal. In Ghana, market days are every four days in certain towns, every fifth day in others, every sixth in still others, and so on. Knowing that there was a market in Koforidua this past Thursday isn't useful unless you know how frequently the market occurs, so you know whether to return on Monday, Tuesday or Wednesday.

As no one has printed a table of market days - or a bus schedule for that matter - finding a market is a matter of going to the local lorry park and asking drivers when the next market day in Koforidua will occur. This is when you encounter the Ghanaian word for "I don't know," which is pronounced "Tuesday," or in some cases "Monday" or "yesterday."

It's very impolite not to answer a direct question, so Ghanaians will rarely tell you that they don't know something. This leads to difficult situations. Ask a person for directions and they'll smile, take your arm and start walking you through the streets. Sometimes they know where they're going and will lead you to your destination. In other cases, they're hoping your destination happens to be a few blocks ahead and that they, by the grace of God, will be able to help you.

So, when Jessica invited us to a yam festival in the town of Dzolo-Gbogame, I had visions of the various different ways in which we could be thwarted. "The Yam festival? Oh, that only happens every third year and only on years when the rains are good."

Jessica, on the other hand, inspired a certain amount of confidence. She was also a Fulbrighter, but this was not her first time in Africa. Indeed, she'd spent three years in Zaire as a Peace Corps Volunteer, and I considered her an Old Africa Hand. Furthermore, Jessica had been made aware of the festival by Fortune, the savviest Ghanaian I'd met thus far. Fortune was a market trader who, for years, had traveled on buses from Nigeria to Mali trading fabrics, beads, foodstuffs and any other commodities. I discovered that shopping with Fortune generally reduced my expenses by a factor of two, even after paying for her lunch. If Fortune thought we'd have a good time in Dzolo, I was willing to give it a shot.

Our host for the trip was Ben, a lab technician in a small medical clinic in Accra. Born in Dzolo, he was returning home for the festival and was happy to escort American guests. Consulting with Fortune and her husband, Patrick, we learned that Ben was hoping to become an elder of his village and thought that by bringing "honored guests" with him, he'd have a better shot in the elder election. We all agreed that, whether or not Ben's plan was sound, this would be a unique experience and one we should embrace.

The trip from Accra to Dzolo is roughly 100 miles. In the US, we'd have hopped in the car and reached our destination in two hours. Things take a little longer in Ghana. First, we packed the necessities for a trip to the bush - water bottles and filters, iodine tablets, anti-malarial medication, gift bottles of schnapps for our hosts and boots for hiking in the rainforest. Then, after the predictable two-hour delay to rouse Raul and wait for him to sort through, test and pack his camera equipment, we walked to the local tro-tro stop with Ben.

We took the tro-tro - the universal motorized transportation of developing nations: a Volkswagen minibus converted to carry 18 passengers with a maximum of economy and a minimum of safety and comfort - to the downtown bus station, where we boarded a bus to Ho, the capital of the Volta region. Jessica and I squeezed into seats near the front of the bus, arguing all the way whether we were less likely to die in a crash in the front or the back of the bus. Raul, Stephanie and Ben squeezed into seats further back, hedging their bets.

We bought our lunches from young girls carrying hardboiled eggs, meat pies, biscuits and oranges on their heads, transacting business through the bus window as the bus filled with passengers. Like most transportation in Ghana, the bus left not on any particular schedule, but when it was full. Early on in my travels, I'd resorted to buying empty seats in shared taxis to make them leave earlier, but my strict Western sense of time had disappeared months ago, and I placidly stared out the window as the middle seats of the bus were folded down and the fifth and sixth passengers in each row took their seats.

(An apocryphal, popular story amongst the migrants in Ghana: American guy takes a cab to Kotoka Airport in Accra, to check in about two hours before his flight. He gets to the counter and presents his bags and ticket, when the gate agent announces, "Oh, your plane already left." The guy protests, explaining that he's got a ticket and that the flight isn't supposed to leave for two more hours. The ticket agent says, "It was full, so we left" and charges the guy a $100 ticket change fee to fly out later in the week. Live in Ghana for more than a few weeks and you'll conclude that the story is likely true.)

The last guys to get on the bus were the "bus sellers," itinerant merchants who took advantage of the captive audience on board to pitch their products, usually patent medicines or evangelical Christianity. Since the trip to Ho was a long voyage, we had a double-feature, a cough syrup salesman followed by a charismatic preacher. I was enjoying the cadence of his sermon, but missed most of the content, as he was switching languages rapidly, speaking mostly Twi (the language of the Akan people, the most common tribal language in Ghana) and Ga (widely spoken in Accra), throwing in some Ewe (the language spoken in Ho) and some English. He caught my attention when he raised his arms to the roof of the bus and asked the powers on high to "bathe this bus in the blood of Jesus!"

Jessica and I agreed that being in a packed bus racing down a potholed highway in West Africa was not a time when one wanted to think about being bathed in blood, even if it was just a theological metaphor. But I slipped a few hundred cedis to the preacher, figuring that Ghanaian roads were a good place to avoid divine retribution. The preacher and snake oil salesman got off at the northern outskirts of the city, and hopped a tro-tro downtown for their next gig. Climbing north out of Accra, the scenery suddenly turns lush, deep green tangles of vegetation contrasting with rich red earth. Every few hundred meters, the earth would rise into a two-meter cone, a termite mound, looking geometric and alien. I knew from my environmentalist friends that this landscape was sometimes referred to as "a green desert," that the natural rain forest had been cut down and replaced with small cassava, banana and pineapple farms, but my naive eyes had a difficult time distinguishing cultivated and uncultivated land, the natural forest from farmers' fields.

In early afternoon we lurched into Ho, an unremarkable but pleasantly green city and set about finding transportation for the next leg of our trip. While Ben quizzed tro-tro drivers in Twi, the rest of us set out to relieve ourselves, or as Ghanaians say, "to pay our water bills."

Imagine the platonic ideal of "bathroom" - a gleaming, white, porcelain space, smelling faintly of disinfectant. Folded cloth towels, distant classical music, brass fixtures, fine milled soap. Make that a "ten" on your mental scale of bathroom cleanliness. Place the men's room at Port Authority Bus Terminal in New York City at "five." The restrooms at the Ho bus station are a "one." You smell them first, the unmistakable scent of human feces drying in the sun. Then you hear them - the low, Beelzebubian buzz of thousands of well-fed flies. Visually, I found myself thinking of MX missile silos filled with shit: six holes in the ground, surrounded by whitewashed concrete, each capped with an irregular brown dome - the leavings of those who came before me.

The question seems obvious: "If the bathroom was that gross, why didn't you wait until you got to the village?" This question reveals ignorance of a basic fact of my life in Ghana - perpetual gastric distress. The first couple of times I had serious diarrhea in Accra, I was foolish enough to go to a clinic. I'd bring a stool sample, answer a series of questions, and be diagnosed with "white man's stomach," a vague condition that wasn't quite dysentery, but sure did keep me near the bathrooms. (The upside of this condition was that I lost forty pounds in nine months, a remarkable feat given my rate of beer consumption, which would have made a rugby player blush.) Two months into my stay, I invented the expatriate cocktail - a shot of Pepto-Bismol over boiled-water ice cubes.

Immodium? Don't make me laugh. I ran through my stash three weeks into my stay.

Necessity being the mother of invention, I did a complex center of gravity calculation, tightened the straps on my backpack, and perched birdlike above the Stygian hole. Silently I prayed to the patron saint of restrooms, whoever he or she may be, that my knees would hold out and that my encounter with the Ho bathroom would not be a close encounter. And indeed, I was delivered from the Ho restroom and found myself at the "Drop In Clinic," the bus station bar next door, where I celebrated with a beer the fact that I had not, in fact, dropped in.

I rejoined our group, which was anchoring the back seat of a northbound tro-tro. This one filled up quickly, and by the time we were underway, we were several passengers over the rated capacity of our van. This surprised me, as I'd never realized that tro-tros had a rated capacity - I always assumed that the "mate" kept loading in passengers until only the driver was capable of drawing a breath. But as we neared the first police roadblock on the outskirts of town, three athletic young men jumped out of the van and began running along side it. As we slowed for inspection, the men ran on ahead, and we caught up with them a few hundred yards up the road. We passed through the checkpoint with a legal number of passengers, let the runners back in, and sped to the next barrier. We repeated this four or five times in the span of ten miles, reducing our overall average speed to that of a fast jog.

I was annoyed that the driver was slowing everyone's trip in order to make a few more cedis, but Ben pointed out that the driver's intentions were probably more charitable. Very few vans traveled the potholed route, and there was a decent chance that our fleet-footed friends would have otherwise been stranded in Ho. Raul helpfully pointed out that, had I been seated in the front row of seats, I too might have been jogging my way through the Volta region. So I shut up and counted termite mounds.

We arrived in Dzolo in the cool of early evening. A few concrete buildings with tin roofs and several cane and mud structures with thatch roofs surrounded a petite Spanish-styled church, whitewash contrasting with rusted metal roof. As we walked down the road to Ben's family house, we passed the three-stall market, and I thought about life in a town where a cold soda would represent a minor miracle. Jessica noticed that the road was lined with neither power nor telephone wires, and Ben confirmed that electric power in the village came only from diesel-powered generators. The elementary school had one, so the children could study for a few hours by electric light after working in the fields. Ben's family house also had one.

We unpacked and were ready to sit down to an evening meal of yam when Ben announced that we were to be presented to the village elders. As we took turns smearing off road dirt with a trickle of warm tapwater, I wondered what our encounter with the elders would entail. A few weeks earlier, I'd traveled to a Durbar in the Ashanti region, a gathering of regional chiefs replete with gold, kente cloth and lots of pomp and circumstance. Paramount chiefs were carried through town in sedan chairs, and those doing business with the chiefs spoke only through their linguists, graying men carrying golden staffs to convey their status. Was I ready to confront royalty in my dirt-stained khakis and Tevas? Was our two-dollar schnapps an adequate gift? Did it matter that we didn't speak Ewe?

Unsurprisingly, an audience with the elders of Dzolo was a low-key affair. Ben led us back through town, now lit by kerosene lamps propped in windows, to a palm-thatch lean-to. We sat on a low bench facing a row of middle-aged Ghanaian men, dressed not in traditional kente, but in middle-American leisurewear. Ben, in acid-washed jeans and a tank top, introduced the four Americans individually, presenting our occupations and our missions in Ghana. As the elders, loosening up, began to smile and nod, Ben formally requested permission for the four of us to stay in the village and to attend the next day's yam festival. Sensing an opening, I reached for the bottle of schnapps I'd been carrying and presented it to the eldest of the elders, thanking him and the village as a whole for their hospitality.

This was evidently the right thing to do. Reaching behind his bench, one of the elders produced a two-gallon jerry can and a set of calabashes, dried gourds used as bowls or cups. He splashed a small amount of milky liquid into the calabash, said a blessing in Ewe and poured it on the ground: libation, an offering to the ancestors. Then he poured a pint or so of liquid into each of four calabashes and handed them to each of us. As I wrinkled my nose at the sour-smelling fluid, Jessica leaned over and whispered, "Palm wine. The alcohol should be strong enough to kill off most of the germs."

I thought briefly about dropping a few iodine tablets into the palm wine before knocking it back, and then concluded that I needed to address the more immediate problem: the fly noisily drowning in my calabash. In a fit of cross-cultural inspiration, I took the calabash in two hands and, emulating my host, poured a small amount of liquid on the ground, freeing the fly and generating a hearty round of laughter. And, unfortunately, another half-pint or so was poured into my cup "as compensation."

The palm wine tasted better than it looked - like a slightly sour, flat beer, almost like a Lambic - and as I tackled my calabash, Ben explained that palm wine was a strictly rural delicacy. The palm sap - sometimes removed by tapping, more often by felling, the palm tree - fermented naturally and a day or two out of the tree was delicious. A day more and it spoiled.

Interpreting our politeness as thirst, our hosts produced a bottle filled with a clear fluid and a number of water glasses. One of the elders poured me several ounces of the fluid, while another protested, "Oh, my friend, you do not know his capacity." Poking me in my belly (I am a large person by American standards, and Ghanaian men are significantly smaller than American men), my host assured us that my capacity was vast, and topped off my glass.

My memory becomes a little fuzzy here.

Stephanie asked what we were drinking, and Ben explained that the beverage was "local gin": Akpeteshie. Distilled from sugarcane or palm wine, Akpeteshie has the taste of tequila and the impact of absinthe. My friend Patrick had introduced me to it, mixed with sugar and lime, while we played chess. Three glasses and I'd find myself staring at the board for minutes at a time, trying to make the pieces stop moving so I could decide which one to pick up.

Halfway through this glass, my hosts had invited me to study Ewe drumming in Dzolo. Three quarters of the way through, I seem to have joined one of the elders in a drum duet, played with our hands on the bench. Sometime later, I was being led away by Stephanie and Raul, and found myself on the front steps of Ben's house, wondering at the number of stars in a sky unspoiled by light pollution.

It took a few hours and several boiled yams before I was fully functional. As we choked down the starchy tubers, Jessica revealed that our trip was a bit more complicated than she'd originally explained. Later that evening, she was slated to become the Queen Mother of Dzolo Gbogame. While this was evidently supposed to be a surprise to all of us, our friends Patrick and Fortune had wisely decided that Jessica be warned what was ahead.

Evidently, the women of the town would appear at our house around midnight, lift Jessica out of her bed and onto their shoulders, and parade her around town, singing her praises, which is exactly what happened a few hours later. I'd fallen asleep after methodically killing the flies, mosquitoes, cockroaches and spiders that resided in my borrowed bedroom. I woke to the sound of distant rain, which as I woke resolved itself into the sound of dozens of gourd rattles. I threw on a t-shirt and grabbed my camera in time to see Jessica, in a pink t-shirt, lofted onto the shoulders of a dozen ululating women. And as suddenly as they came, they left, and we went back to sleep.

I know now that the phenomenon of "development chiefs" is fairly common throughout West Africa. Villages invite foreigners to a ceremony where they are named to positions of power in the village. They are expected to donate and raise money for the village. At the time, though, no one had explained this to any of the four of us. We learned that Dzolo had chosen Jessica over Stephanie because they had an easier time pronouncing her name - a village a few miles up the road was called "Jesikan." I still don't know why men were ineligible for development chieftancy in Dzolo - I think they were afraid Raul and I would drink all their palm wine.

After breakfast - yams - several of the rattle women arrived at Ben's house with kente, beads and gold earrings. As we were draped in rich, heavy cloths, Ben explained our roles. Stephanie was to be Jessica's linguist - she would speak for the Queen Mother and interpret her regal thoughts for general consumption. This seemed to ignore some obvious difficulties - Stephanie didn't speak Ewe, and Jessica, an outspoken lawyer, was unlikely to let anyone speak for her, under any circumstances, ever. Then again, I was a lousy choice for court musician, as my studies of Ghanaian music had centered on xylophone music from the North, not drum music of the East.

Raul, at least, was well chosen as court photographer. Raul quickly realized that this was his opportunity to be an observer, rather than a participant, in the ceremony. Shrugging off his kente, he explained that to photograph the ceremonies, he would need to be very mobile, and therefore should keep wearing his t-shirt and shorts. He then disappeared to the perimeter and did incomprehensible things with filters and lens tissue.

As an American college student, I had encountered my fair share of rituals staged for public consumption, the culturally relevant pieces carefully explained for the audience. This was not one of those rituals. Told to walk, we walked. Told to sit, we sat. Odd things happened all around us, and we groped for the occasional words in English that punctuated the staccato of Ewe. We whispered to one another, trying to determine protocol, only to be pulled apart by attendants who fanned us, danced, snapped photos and sang. I have never dreamed of being famous, but I suspect that it must feel something like this - all eyes are on you, continually, and you can't quite figure out why. Wrapped in a toga of heavy color-flecked black kente, trying to walk without dropping the precious cloth in the dust, I saw little of the procession that led us into the town square. We were seated on benches under a makeshift tin roof, surrounded by attendants, and hushed into silence as we asked questions. Eventually we reached a state of regal dignity and silence, which basically masked incomprehension, anticipation and boredom. Putting aside the color, smell and sound, the overwhelming otherness of being the featured attraction in a village festival thousands of miles from home, the whole gathering resembled nothing so much as a Memorial Day celebration in small-town America. Children from the village marched in formation and sang. The church choir sang hymns. Long speeches in Ewe praised the success of farms and local businesses', the achievements of local sons and daughters who had made good in Ho, Kumasi, or far-off Accra. Hoes were awarded to the yam farmer who'd grown the most yams, the best yams, and the largest yam - a 50 pound monster that looked more like a small child than a vegetable.

Three hours into the ceremony, we had our moment in the spotlight.

Jessica's Fulbright had been granted for research on Ghana's role in international drug smuggling. Her research had convinced her that the reason Ghanaians were so often arrested at JFK airport with balloons of heroin in their intestines was that the US held smugglers in America rather than extraditing them. This allowed families to finesse questions about why Kwame had disappeared for his five-year sentence: "Oh, he's in America at university," turning a family humiliation into a source of pride.

Jessica, while lobbying the Ghanaian and American governments to research extradition of drug smugglers, realized that most of the people arrested became mules out of ignorance and economic necessity. So she spent much of her time in Ghana giving speeches, explaining the legal and health dangers of smuggling. Never one to pass up an opportunity, Jessica decided that our newfound celebrity status was a chance to spread the message to the people of Dzolo.

So that's how I ended up playing a drug baron, to an audience of rapt Ghanaians, convincing Stephanie that if she'd just swallow these balloons, I'd give her a plane ticket to America, a visa and five hundred dollars. Jessica explained, "He may tell you that you are swallowing gold nuggets, but you are swallowing heroin, and if the balloon bursts in your stomach, you will die." Ben provided simultaneous translation, so our laugh lines got a polite chuckle when we delivered them and boisterous applause fifteen seconds later.

The festival reached its climax soon after, as the Elders began a fundraising campaign to electrify the village. An almost unimaginable amount of money - $5000 - needed to be raised, and the Elders took turns challenging townspeople to give what they could. As local businessmen presented gifts of thousands of cedis - twenty, fifty, seventy dollars - the Elders announced each amount donated and sang the praises of the individual's generosity.

There was much I didn't understand in Dzolo, but I understood immediately that, as honored guests, we needed to make a donation to our friends in Dzolo. One problem - none of us carried much cash in Ghana. The largest widely available note was the 500 cedi bill, worth approximately 70 US cents - carrying $20 required a roll of bills worthy of a 70's pimp. Did any of us have any cash? How much were we each willing to contribute? What amount was appropriate?

How do you converse when everyone in the town square is watching you? You'd whisper... but we were separated by numerous bodies and voices were drowned out by cheering. Stephanie had the idea first, yelling, "Francais?" Jessica shook her head - "Non." We were five miles from the Togolese border, and most of the villagers spoke better French than English. "Deutsche?" she offered in response. "Lo siento, no comprendo," I offered - my German is limited to a number of nouns that describe existential angst, while my Spanish is ugly, but more flexible.

So, en espanol, we negotiated a joint gift of $100, to be given by Jessica, in the form of a bill Stephanie was carrying. The amount seems embarrassingly small now, but felt like a lot at the time, as it represented more than a month's rent for my Accra apartment. And, as with the schnapps, it appeared that we had done the right thing. The bill was lifted into the air by one of the elders and was delicately passed around through the crowd, so that everyone had the opportunity to touch the bill.

The bill had an iconic force beyond its value. Several of the local businesspeople had given larger sums - stacks of cedis in plastic bags - but the bill captured the imagination of the crowd. I remembered that taxicabs in Accra often had stickers on their rear windshields depicting $100 bills, often with the slogan, "God will Provide." We'd turned symbol into reality, and were rewarded with smiles and cheers.

The rest of my stay in Dzolo was wonderful - a celebratory meal of yam, chicken and akpeteshie; walks in the rainforest; palm wine served directly from the tree; services in a tiny community church. I returned later for a long weekend, and was received kindly, though not with the celebrity I forfeited when I handed my loaned kente back to its rightful owner.

Dzolo's choice of Jessica was a deeply wise one. She returned some months later to teach English, for a month, at the local school. Now an officer with the Food and Agricultural Organization of the UN, she travels around the world and returns to Dzolo at least once a year to visit with friends, mediate disputes, and raise funds. There is now electricity in the village, and a kindergarden named in her honor.

My most lasting legacy from the trip was the discovery of private language. Perpetually frustrated when Ghanaians would shift into Twi, cutting me out of the conversation, I began conversing in Spanish with American friends when I wanted to keep discussions confidential. This habit caused me to receive my next language lesson in Ghana.

Ghanaians, despite intense poverty, don't beg for money. Pride, dignity and self-respect make such behavior unthinkable for able-bodied Ghanaians. People with visible disabilities will ask for money, and I give, realizing that there's a thin social safety net to support people who cannot work for a living. Children will occasionally ask for a "dash," but they're usually joking, looking for a chance to start a conversation, and would usually rather get your address and have you as a pen pal than get a few coins from you.

That said, as a white person, you will often be surrounded by beggars in the streets of Accra. The beggars are children from Arab nations to the north - their skin and hair is visibly different from Ghanaians, and they are treated with extreme contempt by most Ghanaians I know. I asked my friend Bernard why Ghanaians were happy to give to the disabled and so hostile towards these refugee children. He pointed out that, carefully watching a team of child beggars, was an apparently able-bodied man resting under a nearby tree. Bernard explained, "The children aren't begging for themselves - they beg for their parents, to support the family. But that man is whole! He can work! Why doesn't he support his children instead of making them support him!"

I'd like to say that I carefully evaluated Bernard's logic and decided to stop supporting Sudanese child beggars. I didn't. Instead, I simply got sick of feeling like a walking dollar bill, shaking children off my arms when I walked through certain parts of town.

Once, on a very hot, very long day, when I was in a very bad mood, I decided to try a new technique. I'd just gotten into a taxi and three child beggars crawled halfway through the window, hands outstretched. Instead of ignoring them, I protested in Spanish: "What do you want? I don't understand what you want! Leave me alone."

As the cab pulled away from the intersection and the children scattered, the taxi driver looked at me over his shoulder and, in flawless Cuban Spanish, began to explain the Sudanese civil war and the resulting refugee situation. He went on to express his concern that I would have a difficult time navigating Accra without speaking English. Bright red, I admitted my deception - which amused him - and wondered how he'd learned to speak Spanish so beautifully.

Ghana, he explained, did a skillful job of navigating Cold War geopolitics. When NATO countries were funding African nations, Ghanaians were good capitalists; when Warsaw pact nations had the money, Ghanaians were working towards a socialist revolution. As a result, many Ghanaians had been educated in Moscow in the 1950s and spoke Russian. Ghanaians educated in the 1970s and early 1980s, like my cabbie, ofte