Thursday, December 8, 2011

In Ghana, Bikes Going 'Green'

It's been surprising to find, over the last year, that Ghana is becoming a center for the manufacture of bamboo bicycles.

Wait, did that just say bamboo bicycles?!

Yup.

You mean real bicycles, that you can actually pedal, out of bamboo?

Absolutely.

That's kind of what went through my head, anyway, when I stumbled across the bamboo idea.

I had no notion you could build a bicycle frame from the plant.  Or that bamboo bikes had been catching on, in the US and Europe at least, with the environmentally-conscious and hipster crowds.  But when I Googled "bikes in Ghana" sometime after moving here, there they were: bamboo bikes.

Wow.

A couple months ago I got serious about reading up on these uber-cool pedaling machines.  Googling for more info, I found out that Craig Calfee - originator of the carbon-fiber bicycle and one of the first people to build a modern bamboo bike - was working with independent bamboo bike builders in Ghana and would be visiting soon.

Wait, no, he's in Ghana now.  Could I possibly meet up with him?

Why yes, after a flurry of phone calls and emails to track him down, I could.  Sweet.

Craig works with local builder Wisdom Toxla to test a frame.

I caught up with him at the bike shop his nonprofit Bamboosero organization runs in Accra.  Craig and Bamboosero support small, independent builders to make high-quality bamboo frames for export from Ghana to the US, where they justly command a price few Ghanaians are able or willing to pay.

Wisdom Toxla is Bamboosero's main bicycle builder in Ghana.  Once a Ghana national road cycling champion, he lives to make things.  As a teenager, he built a wooden bicycle that ended up in the local science museum as a model of home-grown engineering.  Now, he's turned to bamboo.

Since Craig introduced me to Wisdom at the Bamboosero shop, I've gone back to him twice to take advantage of his bike mechanic skills and hear more of his story.

Wisdom truing a wheel in Accra's Bamboosero bike shop.

I've also visited another Bamboosero shop, stopping in the town of Abompe on my recent bike trip from Accra to Kumasi, Ghana's second city and cultural capital.  Local builder Peasah took the time to meet with me on a Saturday afternoon in the hot season, giving me a tour of his bike workshop before pedaling off into the heat on his own bamboo wheels for a delayed meeting with a friend.

Peasah and his bamboo ride.

If you're in Ghana, or want to call up the Calfee Design workshop near Santa Cruz, CA, these 'green' and Made-in-Africa bikes are available for sale.  They're beautiful, with polished bamboo tubes fading into the organic, plant-fiber joints that hold everything together.

And, they perform well.  Reviewers much more technical than I say bamboo frames exhibit damping action as good as or better than carbon fiber, creating a great ride.

Another player in Ghana's bamboo bike scene is Bamboo Bikes Limited.  Financed by Ghanaian businessman Kwame Sarpong and with motivation and help from the Bamboo Bike Project at Columbia University's Earth Institute, this factory is aiming for full-scale production of low-cost bamboo bikes.   They hope their two-wheelers end up in the small towns and rural areas of Ghana and West Africa, providing affordable, locally-made transport empowerment to under-developed communities.

Factory builders ride samples of their work.

Part of my idea for biking to Kumasi was to visit this factory just outside the city.  I found their workers are fully trained and ready to put some bikes together.  After a delay in getting bike components into the country, they are presently swinging into full production mode, hoping to crank out hundreds of bicycles a year.

Beyond the obvious wow-factor of the bamboo bikes themselves, you know what's cool in all of this?  That Ghana, a nation on the supposedly struggling continent of Africa, is becoming known for a very contemporary and environmentally-leading technology.

I applaud.

Friday, December 2, 2011

A Home for Art

I've always dreamed of having a nice house with an open lawn, creating some art, then turning the place into a gallery for my work.

Here in Accra, Parisian-trained expatriate artists Anna Kurtycz and Rudek van der Helm are living that dream. 

And not only that, they're doing one better, using their current show "Neither Black Nor White" to showcase the work of a select few Ghanaian artists as well.

Working under the artistic brand of "Studio Kurtycz," Anna and Rudek have shared their display space with local artists Isaac Konney, Kelvin Haizel, and Nii Obodai to run an exhibit from this past Wednesday, November 30 to Saturday, December 3.

I dropped in on the show's opening on Wednesday and absolutely loved what I found: a medley of engaging installations, photographs, video work, paintings, woodcuts, and prints all tucked fondly into well-crafted spaces around a manicured garden, a pool, and a few outbuildings.

Rudek told me they gave particular thought, for this show, to the use of lighting in shaping discrete and welcoming exhibit-spaces for the nighttime open-houses.  Their care and attention paid off: it's a magical night garden of lovingly-created, well-displayed, quality artworks.

A ghostly Rudek installation haunts the pool.


In a screened terrace, photos by Nii Obodai make inspired use of white space and blur to channel the harmony and devotion of a unique Accra-based community of Moslems and Christians.


Vibrant butterfly paintings by Kelvin Haizel float through a pool-side pavilion.


Beautifully-layered photographs of Accra's striking clothing store mannequins show off Anna's artistic city-wanderings.


And ethereal charcoal drawings by Isaac Konney celebrate the beauty-in-the-ordinary that is everywhere in this sweaty, gritty city.


There's even a participatory painting hung on the swingset, with visitors invited to 'paint' a Rudek self-portrait by hitting it with thrown 'eggs' of red dye.


An intriguing body of work.  A cool feast, in this hot season, for the eyes and the mind.

The show is on for two more days.  You can visit, according to the Studio Kurtycz website:

-today, Friday evening, from 6 to 9 pm
-or tomorrow, Saturday evening, from 4 to 8 pm.

Find their studio in Ringway Estate near Ako Adjei interchange, behind the Canadian High Commission and across from the SSNIT guest house.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Pedaling to Kumasi

Kumasi - Ghana's 'second city' and its cultural capital - lies a few hundred kilometers north and west of Accra.  It has a sprawling open-air market, an Indian restaurant sometimes claimed to be the best in West Africa, a railway station that's been unused for quite awhile, and the joking-est tro-tro conductors around.

Crowds in Kumasi's market.

How do I know all this?  Three weeks ago, I rode my bicycle there from Accra.

Which makes me a legend to some.  "You pedaled all the way to Kumasi!  Are you crazy?  I flew there."

To others, I've fallen a bit short.  "Why yes, I remember that Accra-Kumasi stretch from my cross-continental bike tour back in the late nineties…"  (Ok, no one's said that to me yet, but I expect it to happen one day.)

For myself, it's a mixed picture: I sat my butt on that bike seat for three full days, and I made it.  But I took the VIP bus home.


This was the first real bike touring I'd done since riding across the US with my cousin Glen back in 2002.  Sure I did some out-and-back overnights here in Ghana, but this was to be a multi-day outing with some real distance to cover.  I'd have to buckle down.

And I did.  Sort of.

Day 1: 85 kilometers through hills from Accra to Koforidua.  Day 2: 110 kilometers from Koforidua to Nkawkaw, with a stop at the bamboo bike workshop in Abompe (more about that in a later post).  Day 3: 85 kilometers from Nkawkaw to a friend's house on the edge of Kumasi city.  And then another day of 30 or 40 kilometers riding around Kumasi and finally settling at a hotel in its downtown.

In a way, there's not much to report from all those kilometers.  I got on the road each morning for three days straight and pedaled until I thought it wise to stop - for a cold drink, or for lunch, or for the mid-afternoon break when all living and moving things should be shaded from the relentless tropical sun.

(And that sun was merciless.  From 11 am onwards my overriding thought became: how far can I go this time until I have to break for some shade and some cold liquid.)

To me, bike touring is all about being on the bike.  When I'm not on the bike, frankly, I get bored.  One of the most exciting things about traveling with my new rear rack and saddlebags was that I had enough cargo space to carry a book.  Something to keep my mind occupied when I wasn't in motion.

When I was in motion there were always little things to notice.  The man riding a bicycle with a plastic chair over his handlebars.  The orange-headed lizard who raced me (and won) up the hill to Aburi.  The laborer in a dirty yellow T-shirt laying down his machete to buy plastic packets of gin to spike his afternoon.  Water so cold vapor poured out the top of my bike bottle as I filled it.  A woman in an outdoor shower calling "Hello!" to me as I rode past, her chocolate shoulders dripping with soapsuds.  The "Only Jesus In Stock" store.  In cocoa-farm country, a whole town smelling like cocoa powder.

And, some more substantial memories.

-The joy of the early morning cool.  It was a struggle for me, a natural night owl, to get up and on the road as early as I should have.  In Ghana, the sun rises every day right around 6, and the wise bike tourer is pedaling by then, getting in the miles before the noon-day sun begins to addle the brain.  I usually managed to have my butt in the saddle by 7.  Which left me about an hour to enjoy any sort of morning coolness left in the air.  And boy, did I learn to savor that hour.

-The joy of a cold packet of Fan Ice soft serve ice cream on a hot day.  'Nuff said.


-Getting spanked by a teenage girl outside Mamfe.  Yes, spanked.  I was zipping downhill from Mamfe town and saw some kids horsing around on the road ahead.  They turned out to be teenage girls, who scattered to the side as I passed.  They yelled and laughed at me, as teenage girls will at sights less strange than a white man in biking gear whizzing through African hills.  And, as I glided past, one of them reached out with a stick and tapped me lightly on the butt.  Admirable aim.

-The marching band of Asankare.  Video below.

video

-Bowls of rice and beans with the chickens.  Restaurant kitchens can be quite slow in Ghana, and so I often turned to the side-of-the-road, under-the-tree, pot-over-charcoal-fire sort of eating establishments to get fuel for my legs.  You stop, the woman dishes out some rice and beans, you're eating.  Done.  These rice-and-bean moments were some of the best of my trip.  The beans were tasty, and I could just sit on the offered wooden bench and watch the street-life around me as hens scratched in the dirt under the plastic table and little yellow chickies ran across my shoes.


-The man who bought me my first Malta.  This was in a road-side bar called the "Hollywood Spot."  Which bore no resemblance at all to Hollywood.  But the man was kind, and called out to me as I sat sweating at a table, waiting for a drink.  "The sun is too hot for you!" he joked to me, but then was suitably impressed when he realized it was a bicycle and not a motorcycle I was riding to Kumasi.  He bought me a Guiness Malta, a sort of non-alcoholic version of Guiness beer.  I don't usually like these dark, malted drinks, but this one tasted sweet and thick and I downed it.


-Craggy hills and peaceful sunset at Nkawkaw.  A line of green hills had been on my right all day after I hit the main Kumasi-Accra road at the Bunso rest-stop junction.  Around Nkawkaw, as the sun set, they became particularly craggy and picturesque.  Maybe I'll get to bike into them one day.


For now, I'll have to just bike into the sunset. 


Tuesday, November 22, 2011

This Should Bring in the Tourists...

A little sticker-gem from the hotel in Kumasi that I stayed in after my bike ride to Ghana's second city.


Check back soon for more about that ride, including my successful search for Ghana's bamboo bike manufacturers.

Friday, November 4, 2011

The Looniest Thing I've Done in Awhile

Last week I rode my bicycle 60 miles over Ghana's uneven roads, braving bug bites and speeding trucks, overflowing streams and tropical heat, to the riverside town of Akosombo.

But that wasn't the crazy thing.  The loony was what happened after.

See, on my way back from Akosombo to Accra, I heard a metallic pop from the vicinity of my rear wheel.  I looked down through the pannier-laden rear rack.  Broken spoke.  Crap.

I wanted to keep pedaling - the hill I'd been looking forward to climbing was just ahead.

"Lots of people in the world ride bikes with wobbly wheels," my brain reasoned.  But some sane advice from a friend convinced me to stop.

I flagged down a tro-tro, one of Ghana's go-everywhere, rattletrap, privately-run, minivan-style buses.  The driver hopped out to lash my bike into the scant rear 'boot' of his rattle-y contraption.

"No-no," I said, horrified that my bike might travel in such appalling conditions.  "I want to buy one seat!"

"Ok, one seat!" the tro-tro conductor said.  

And so, for my bike's safe and comfortable transport, I paid the equivalent of three fares to Accra - for it stretched itself perfectly across the front bench seat, just behind the driver, taking up the same space as three people.


And bike and rider were both safely home within two hours.

So, that was kind of crazy, treating my bike like three people.  But loonier far was what I did next.

I wanted that rear wheel fixed, and the only person I knew to turn to in Accra was Wisdom Toxla.  He's a local bike builder who I had met just the previous week doing an interview with Craig Calfee.  Craig is a US-based bike designer who built one of the first modern bamboo bikes, and I caught up with him in Accra where he was helping Wisdom and other local builders make and market bikes fashioned from Ghanaian bamboo.

So I called up Wisdom, and he said I should come right over to his shop.  Trouble was, that meant getting way across town to the market-neighborhood of Kaneshie, and I knew traffic would be bad.  I didn't want to sit in a taxi for an hour.

Then I realized, hey, I'm already in biking gear.  I've already got sunblock on.  I'll just ride over there.

But wait, you say, how could I ride my bicycle if its missing a rear wheel?  Well, I have a second bike, see, a 'beater bike' for running errands and such.  So, I popped that broken-spoke rear wheel off my mountain bike, got onto my beater bike, and took off.

And now, finally, here comes the loony.

For the uninitiated - and sometimes even for the initiated - simply riding a bike through Accra traffic is crazy enough.

Tro-tros are always pulling over in front of you as they pick or drop passengers at the roadside.  There's long lines of traffic stopped at lights, which means shooting between lanes of cars to advance.  There's side-of-the-road and middle-of-the-road street-goods sellers to dodge as they go car-door to car-door working the same long lines of traffic at the lights.  There's smoke-belching, dubiously-maintained trucks carrying huge containers from the Tema port with drivers who care not a whit about a peon on a bike.  And, in the general melee of Accra traffic-time, spaces between vehicles are sometimes so tight that not even a bicycle can get through.

Caught between tro-tro and motorcycle, this is how the traffic gets,
sometimes, in Ghana.

Now here I was, dealing with all this - plus I had a bike tire dangling off my left-side handlebar!

I had started out simply carrying the tire in my left hand and riding with my right hand.  But a bike wheel, I discovered, is much heavier than I thought.  So I soon hung the wheel from my handlebar, gaining also the advantage of steering with two hands instead of just one.

As luck would have it, I soon ran into some of the worst traffic Accra has to offer.  There had been flooding, just the day before, at the central Nkrumah Circle roundabout, and cross-town traffic was at a standstill for kilometers at a stretch.

So I launched my determined self down the long lines of cars and trucks, pedaling now between the lanes, now on the street-side shoulder.  I had to put my bike-bell to good use warning those street-sellers to get out of my way.  Several times I dragged my bike up on a sidewalk or median to get past a particularly snarled section of traffic.  All the while that bike wheel dangling off my handlebar.

Completely loony.

I don't know how many times that dangling wheel nearly hit a car's rear lights or side-panel as it swung back and forth from the handlebar with each cutting-through-traffic swerve.  But I loved the thrill of the charge, of going faster than all those four-wheeled beasts irredeemably stuck in the worst Accra-jam I've seen.

And, miraculously, within twenty minutes of my arrival at his shop, Wisdom had the spoke replaced and that rear wheel was good as new.

Wisdom truing my rear wheel on one of his bamboo bike frames.

Time to charge home.  Back into traffic.  Rear wheel dangling from that handlebar once more.

Edging my swervy, dangly way back through the snarl of cars and trucks and pedestrians at Circle, I spotted a guy selling some small foam blocks.  I remembered that I needed a couple for my Halloween outfit.  I stopped at the roadside and hissed at him.

He came over, dodging traffic.  I asked how much.  "Fifty pesewas for one," he said.

"Twenty," I said.

I leaned my bike over to let a motorcycle squeeze between us and a crammed-full tro-tro.

"Fifty," he said.

"Oh!  That is the obruni price," I said.  You're treating me like a no-nothing white man.

"No, no…" he started, slightly aggrieved.  Then he caught the twinkle in my eye.  He laughed.

A bus stopped on my left, its door right next to me.  Passengers had to dodge my bicycle immediately upon stepping down.  The bus driver didn't move.  The passengers didn't seem to mind.  I held my ground.  I bought two of the foam blocks.

Then I saw a ten year old kid peddling Fan Ice, a Ghana-made soft ice cream product sold in a small plastic pouch.  I hissed at him, or her, I wasn't sure which.

"One Fan Ice," I said.  He didn't say a thing, just dug in her pocket for the change he knew I would want then took the box of ice cream pouches off her head to hand me one.

I threw the foam blocks and the Fan Ice into my bike's front basket and took off again.

Through Circle, the traffic cleared.  It was time to eat my Fan Ice.

Now, you gotta understand, I'd been craving a Fan Ice since 10 in the morning, when I had been working up a sweat on my way back to Accra, before that spoke broke.  It was now four in the afternoon, and a lot of craziness had happened since that 10 am desire.

And so, with my left hand both steering and holding onto the bike wheel as it dangled from the handlebar, and with my right hand clutching the Fan Ice pouch, I glided over and around the potholes of Accra in soft-ice-cream-fueled bliss, insanely happy.

Sometimes, ice cream deferred is the best ice cream there is.  Even if it comes with a dripping topping of loony.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

"I love you, my darling!"

I was on my way from Accra to Aksomobo on my mountain bike last week, some 60 miles by (mostly) paved road.

I had ridden safely through the congested 'suburb' of dusty Medina and pedaled my way across the gently rolling flats that followed, and was almost at the climb into the low hills north of Accra city.


Pulling past a tollbooth tucked in at the base of the climb, I looked briefly into the small knot of road-side sellers - hawking bread, or cell phone cards, or plantain chips - that alway gathers there.

I made eye contact with a teenage girl.  Her head was shaved, like most school-age girls around, and she wore a red T-shirt.  She looked back at my white, bike-helmeted self and laughed.

"I love you, my darling!" she spontaneously called out.

This is what I love about my long rides here: the love that Ghana shows to me.  The loveliest offerings - like the woman calling to me at the tollbooth - being the random encounters with people and things that simply tickle my randomosity-loving side.

Later, up in those hills, I heard a shout.  I looked up to see a young man hoeing a field on the side of a green hill.


"You are my brother," he yelled out.  I waved.

Then: "Take me to Europe," he cried.  He held up his hands.  "I am ready!"

He had no luggage other than his hoe, and I'm guessing no passport either.  But I don't doubt that, if I had said yes, he would indeed have been completely ready.

Not long after that, I happened upon a very yellow building, Victory International School.  But better even than the irony of a school in hill-country Ghana being called 'international' was the Disney-style decor hung on the yellow walls.


Evidently, Snow White goes to school in Ghana.

Then there was the taxi driver overhauling his engine by the side of the road.  His orange-hipped chariot parked on the shoulder, hood open.  Engine in ten pieces strewn on the pavement in front of the car, all the pistons out.  No repair shop needed.

The electric blue sky was a treat, too, more random love in a tropical country that most often thrives on a humid haze.


Another 'treat' was this freakish painting on the outer wall of a medicine man's compound.


I didn't stick around to see if the medicine man might give me some love or throw me a curse.

The next morning, pedaling back toward Accra from Akosombo, the random-ness started again with an 8 foot tall by 8 foot wide stack of speakers set out in a dirt courtyard, pumping hip-life music into the 9 am air, no party in sight.

Not long after, I passed a small roadside stall of shoes for sale.  The shoe-seller was polishing and putting out his wares for the morning.  He gave me a big, exaggerated wink as I pedaled past.  Just showin' the love.

Then a tro-tro (local minibus) showed me some love, too - in its own way.  It ran me off the road.

When I took exception to this, yelling at the young 'conductor' as I pedaled beside, he simply stuck his head out the window of the minivan's sliding side door and said to me mildly, "Don't fight, my man."  Ah, Ghana.

Soon I was treated to a tro-tro 'school bus' full of blue-suited schoolkids yelling "Obruni, obruni" at me.  "White man, white man."

video

And then, in a shop-wall mural depicting an idyllic country-pond scene, a painting of a rabbit riding a goose.


Later, the randomness continued as, pushing my sunglasses up on my nose, they simply disintegrated off my face, falling to the pavement in several pieces.

Apparently, they didn't love me.

Maybe my touch was simply more powerful than I knew.  Or maybe I had indeed picked up a touch of a curse when I stopped to photograph that medicine man's paintings.  Here's another one.


We'll hope the Ghana love wins out over the Ghana jinx.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Embracing the Grit of the Ordinary

From kebab skewers of cedi coins on the grill, to a miniature cityscape formed from cast-off electronics, to an asymmetrical and abstract portrait of a football star, the current Foundation for Contemporary Art exhibit showing at the Alliance Francaise is an exciting look at emerging postmodern trends in the Ghanaian artistic psyche.

The group show features work from over 30 artists and is chock full of exactly the kind of art that I get excited about.  There's video, installations, found-object work, street-scene-based painting, and loads of three-dimensional and mixed media pieces.

The exhibit - "Wobole Kutu Wokpe: Cultures in Confluence" - is so big, in fact, that it needs two venues.  It's running concurrently at the Alliance and the Goethe Institut through October 29, 2011.

I attended the opening ceremony at the Alliance on Wednesday (Oct 12) and was very glad I went.  Otherwise, I would have missed the welcoming performance piece that, reminiscent of the Biblical last supper, linked me with other attendees in a communion of pita bread and pounded yam with palm oil - a perfect culture-blending moment to set off the culture-questioning exhibit.


Here are some of my favorite works from the show.

Circuit boards from discarded computers and other electronics designed into an architectural-model cityscape.  Fascinating and brilliant.

Nana Afari
"Untitled"
Installation

A sort of post-impressionist style painting of a street-side phone card seller.  I talked with the artist for awhile, and he explained that the panel to the right represents the thought-space of the woman.  She is "reflecting" on how, not long ago, she would have been selling vegetables at her stand, not cell phone cards.  The repeated emblem in the panel was designed by the artist in the spirit of Ghana's rich symbol-tradition.

Andrews Yao Torsu
"Reflection"
Acrylic on canvas

Cedi coins skewered up and 'grilling' on a makeshift grill made from a car wheel - a typical street scene in Ghana.  Only, of course, it's usually meat and not coins on the skewer.  A lovely, wry culture-comment of an installation.

B. K. Quaye [Sir Black]
"Untitled"
Installation

Abstract portrait of Black Stars football standout Asamoah Gyan.  So much more engaging than the more lifelike but oh so run-of-the-mill portraits of Gyan usually seen roadside in Ghana.

S. Tete Katchan
"Asamoah Gyan"
Acrylic on canvas

And finally, video art!  By artist Ama Adinkra, who I had already met through the Woman on Bike workshop at the Goethe Institut.  Her piece juxtaposed fluid dancer sequences with close-up portraits, exposing the power of the video camera to capture both external motion and strong traces of internal expression.

Ama Adinkra
"Reflect"
Video Performance
The exhibition, according to the FCA's event postcard, "Represents a step towards an investigation of the complexities of contemporary Ghanaian society…  Who is the Ghanaian?  What does national identity mean to him/her?  What are the issues that engage the Ghanaian's attention?"

For myself, I was simply glad to have found a group of local artists consciously working to embrace contemporary ideas that extend art beyond the two-dimensional canvas and beyond traditional ideas of portraiture or landscape into the sometimes-uneven but always exciting world of the found object, the culture-questioning installation or video piece, the streetscape-driven painting.

The works in this exhibit manage to escape both the predictability of Ghana's established art scene and the mundanity of the local craft industry.  Embracing the grit of the ordinary, these artists have produced extraordinary work.